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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 Art & Craft of Stewart Francis Easton

Meditation Upon Utopia
Floating Boy
Burning
Antlered Boy

His Piety Knows no Bounds

The Glass Bead Game

He Longed for Weightlessness

Choppy

Drown

Accordion Boy

The Next Verse


THE ARTIST 


Stewart Francis Easton is a visual storyteller based in London who works in thread, ink, paint and digital media. Easton received an MA in Illustration and Animation. He has had a number of solo shows both in the UK and USA as well as being involved in numerous group shows in the UK and USA. 

Breaking the traditional boundaries of craft, Stewart Francis Easton’s work fuses together hand embroidery, sonic art and design-based illustration. He has been removing the ‘storyline’ of a visual narrative by creating geometric/graphic forms in stitch.  

This reassembling of his work ethic in a conscious measured layout enables the viewer to be free of their preconceptions of story. Some of his artworks are part of private collections in the UK and internationally. 

www.stewarteaston

@stewarteaston


THE TEARS OF THE GARDENER

by Robert Collings


The LaGrange Conservatory in Philadelphia is the most prestigious music school in the world for aspiring concert pianists, a fact that is well-known to professional insiders.  Juilliard may be more familiar to the public, but a mention of a diploma from LaGrange in the proper circles will always produce a reverent silence before another word is spoken.

A few years ago, one of the first-year students at LaGrange was murdered, and the case got a lot of attention in the local media.  The murdered boy was named Randall Taneda, and he was only 18 years old at the time of his death.  He had been shot point-blank in the stomach in his dorm.  The story also made the national news, but it was one of those open and shut murder cases that do not seem to have legs in the national consciousness, and the story quickly faded away.  The killer was a man named Alfredo Juan.   He initially denied involvement in the crime, but soon made a full confession to police.  He was found guilty and sentenced to death.  He had spent close to ten years on death row as his case worked its way through a myriad of appeal levels and various procedural delays.   Then, without apparent reason, Alfredo Juan demanded that his appeals be stopped and that he be executed as soon as possible.  Despite this, the legal process seemed to grind on, and the case gained some renewed notoriety in the local press over the new angle of a condemned killer insisting to be put to death by lethal injection.  As a reporter for the Philadelphia Sun, I became interested in the last phase of Alfredo Juan’s legal battles, particularly the reason behind his execution-by-choice.  I had never intended to be present at the actual execution, and I could never imagine being invited to witness such a grisly spectacle in any event.

I had made several requests to interview Alfredo Juan on death row, but all my requests had been denied.  Then, when his appeals had finally been exhausted and on the eve of his execution, someone from North Bend Maximum Security called me and told me that Alfredo Juan wanted to speak with me before he died.  I was told that I only had ten minutes with the condemned man and if I wanted a story then I should hustle down the Interstate to North Bend State Prison as quickly as I could.  The execution was set for midnight and it was now close to 7:30 pm.  I dropped everything and ran for my car. 

Before I tell you about my conversation with the condemned killer, some background detail might be in order.

All happy families may be alike, but there is no such thing as a happy family without problems.  Still, the Taneda family seemed about as problem-free as any family could be.  They were a third-generation Japanese American family and they had done well for themselves.   They lived in a suburb of Chicago called Oak Park, an affluent area just west of the city.   Randall Taneda’s father was a former concert pianist who taught music theory at Chicago University.  His mother was also a pianist, although she never made it to the concert stage.  She taught piano to advanced students who were still in high school, and she specialized in preparing the senior students for the grueling examinations they had to endure before they could go on to any post-secondary training.  

The Tanedas had two daughters who also played piano, both younger than Randall, but Randall was the crown jewel of the family.  Hailed as a prodigy by the time he could talk, he was giving concerts at local venues at age five and when he entered Grade One, he had already been written up in several trade magazines as an up-and-coming pianist to watch.  Up to the moment he left home to travel to Philadelphia, life for Randall Taneda seemed bereft of any drama at all.   He had no friends and no social life.  Other than the laurels he received for playing the piano, his only achievement in life appeared to be passing his driver’s test on his first try.  There were no funny stories about him, no goofball behavior.  All he did was play the piano from morning to night.  His extraordinary talent had put him on an upward trajectory through the music world, and Randall seemed content to ride the wave all alone, solemn and detached, finding fulfillment in the ability to dazzle anyone who ever came into his orbit.  Most aspiring youngsters who get accepted into the LaGrange Conservatory will charge out the front door and shout the joyous news to the rest of the world.  But Randall Taneda’s life on the concert stage seemed to be preordained, and acceptance into LaGrange was more like a formality than any grand achievement.   

Shortly after Alfredo Juan’s death-wish pronouncement that triggered my interest in the case, I made a visit to the Taneda home in Oak Park.  Mrs. Taneda was friendly and helpful.  She was quick to point out that Oak Park was the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, and from the open doorway she pointed in the direction of the original Hemingway house.  Her husband was not there, and the older daughter had married and was no longer living at home.  The youngest daughter, Kate, was still at home and she was a senior at a local college.  She was not at school that day, and she gave me a pleasant hello along with her mother.  After that, she stayed in the background for the rest of my visit and I got the impression that she did not wish to be involved in any more publicity surrounding her brother’s murder.  I understood this, and I kept my own distance.

The first thing Mrs. Taneda wanted to do after I entered the house was show me Randall’s old bedroom.  I was surprised at the sight of the room when she opened the door.  Her son was just out of high school when he was killed, but this was the room of a child.  Mrs. Taneda insisted that the room was exactly as Randall had left it, and I did not seek further details.  The room was sparsely furnished with a small bed and desk and a kid-sized chest of drawers against the far wall.  There was a large oval rug on the floor with Disney-type caricatures of dancing musical notes.  Each note had its own happy, singing face, and all were frozen in the sort of over-the-top merriment that can only exist in the minds of children.  Mrs. Taneda had obviously preserved this room as a shrine to her son.  There were trophies and other celebratory memorabilia arranged in rows on every available surface, and all the walls were crammed with framed photographs of Randall at various stages in his charmed life as a musical prodigy.   The walls of the bedroom reminded me of those trendy sports bars where you can’t see the walls for the photographs.  I doubted that Mrs. Taneda had ever been in such a place and I had the good sense not to say anything.  There were framed newspaper clippings, too, all arranged in chronological order as one moved clockwise around the room, all of them a testament to the genius of Randall Taneda.  I was particularly struck by a huge, ornately framed photograph of Randall as a three-year-old that hung over the headboard of the bed.  It depicted a shining, scrub-faced child, perfectly coiffed and impeccably dressed in a dark suit and tie, sitting at a baby grand piano with his hands extended and his tiny fingers on the keys, chin up and eyes sparkling, flashing all those baby teeth in a huge smile for the camera.   If this room was truly the way Randall Taneda had left it, I could not help wondering how a teenaged boy could ever tolerate sleeping under such a picture of himself, in a kid-bed beside a kid-desk.  Just like my ruminations about the photos in the sports bars, I did not think these observations were appropriately solemn and I wisely kept my mouth shut.

I noticed that Mrs. Taneda kept the rug vacuumed with the loop pile all pointing in the same direction, and I tried my best to avoid stepping upon the dancing figures.

Aside from the time-warp of his bedroom, the only hint of anything out of the ordinary with Randall Taneda was something his mother volunteered to me towards the end of my visit.   This was a quirk the parents noticed when Randall was around six years old.   Mrs. Taneda told me that he suddenly developed a behavioral phobia when it came to the piano skills of other kids his age.  She said there was no lead-up to this, and it just appeared overnight.  Randall would either run from the room when another kid was at the piano, or he would press his hands tightly over his ears and close his eyes when forced to stay in his seat.  Ordinarily a talkative, articulate child, he had refused to explain why he was doing this or what might be wrong.  He refused to say a word about it.  His parents took him to a child psychologist, whereupon they both noticed an immediate change in Randall’s behavior.  Within two or three weeks, he no longer showed the slightest reluctance to listen to another kid play.  He continued to handle all the pressure like a true professional, and he never fell out of step again with any hint of quirky behavior.  His parents looked upon this episode as a temporary neurosis only, a blip in the radar, and Randall himself never once brought up the subject.  Mrs. Taneda insisted that Randall was “over the moon” with happiness when he pulled out of the driveway in his little car to begin the long drive to Philadelphia.  She never saw her son alive again.

My visit to the Taneda home did not last long, and I was surprised when Kate Taneda appeared and volunteered in her quiet voice to walk me to my car.   I thanked Mrs. Taneda at the door, and Kate led me down the walkway to the street.  When we were safely out of earshot of the house, this shy girl stopped walking and turned to me.

“Did my mother tell you my father was busy at his work?” she asked.  

“Yes, at the University,” I replied.

“My father doesn’t come home when he doesn’t have to,” she said.  “He avoids coming home.”

I knew what she meant.  “Your brother’s death has been hard on the family.  That won’t be going away, unfortunately.”

I could see Kate appreciated my candor.  She looked back at the house.  “You know how mothers keep a baby book when their children are born?  My mother never kept a baby book for me or my sister.  But she kept one on Randy from the day he was born until the day he left for LaGrange.  She goes into that room all the time and closes the door and reads from the book.  She reads out loud, like she’s reading it to Randy.  I can hear her.”

This gave me a bit of a chill, and I decided to be candid with Kate once again.  “Your sister got out, and you should, too,” I said.

Kate nodded.  “Did she tell you the story about Randy and how he went through a phase where he wouldn’t listen to another kid play the piano?”

“Yes, she did.”

“That happened before I was born,” she said.  “But I knew my brother.   He was a genius at a lot more than the piano.  I knew he would always tell our parents exactly what they wanted to hear.”

Kate then wished me a good day and she walked away without saying anything more.  I watched her go, and I hoped for her sake that she would soon escape from the house as her sister had done. 

If ever there was a study in contrasts, I would put the life of Alfredo Juan up against the life of Randall Taneda every time.  Randall Taneda’s life had been chronicled with obsessive care almost to the time of his death, whereas Alfredo Juan never even knew his real name or the date of his birth.   He told people he was born in Puerto Rico and came to the U.S. when he was still a toddler.  He did not know who his parents were, and he appears to have been shuffled around between various households in the greater Philadelphia area up to the time he was in his early teens, when he struck out on his own.  At a young age, he was alternatively called “Alfredo” and “Juan”, but he had never understood the connection between the two names.  He told the psychiatrist at his murder trial that he thought he had “12 brothers and sisters” but he was unable to provide further details.  He was mostly illiterate, and his exact schooling was unknown.  He described his entire education in a single memory where he saw himself sitting in a classroom and looking at “a big blackboard with white letters.” 

Until the criminal justice system started a rap sheet on Alfredo Juan, there had been no formal record that he had ever existed.  At the time he had his first juvenile run-in with the law for some petty theft, he had been using the name “Alfredo Juan” for most of his life and the name stuck as part of his criminal record, along with his fingerprints.  Although he had a rap sheet a mile long by the time of the Randall Taneda murder, it was mostly for things like house burglaries and purse-snatching and shoplifting, all piddling offences when it comes to the horrors of crime in the big city.  None of these offences had any violent component to them in terms of bodily harm to anyone, and none ever involved a weapon.  This was the likely reason Alfredo Juan had never done any hard time in state prison, and his multiple jail terms were only counted in weeks or, on rare occasions, one or two months.   He did drugs but never trafficked in them, so his rap sheet was remarkably free from any drug convictions as well.   Nobody knew Alfredo Juan, and nobody even saw him.

When the fingerprints on the murder weapon were traced to Alfredo Juan, his current address was unknown.   The police made inquiries at his last known address on his rap sheet, but they were told by the occupant that he did not know anyone by that name, although he said there was a guy who matched Alfredo Juan’s description who used to show up there with “crack pipes”.  The crack pipe man had not been there in over a year and the guy didn’t know where he was.   When Alfredo Juan was finally tracked down and arrested for the Taneda murder, he had been living on the streets and eating out of garbage dumpsters.  The police report showed that he had exactly 87 cents in his pockets.  Aside from the clothes on his back, these coins represented the grand total of Alfredo Juan’s worldly possessions.

Alfredo Juan initially told the police that he had never been anywhere near the murder scene and had never heard of the “orange” conservatory.  When he was shown the crime scene photographs of the murdered boy lying on the floor of his dorm with a gun beside him, he said he had never owned such a gun and did not even know how to shoot one.  When told that his fingerprints were found on the gun, he paused and said, “Well, maybe I was there but that don’t prove nothing.”   The police were patient with Alfredo Juan and eventually he gave them a full confession.

Like a lot of murder stories, Alfredo Juan told a story that was heartbreaking in terms of the fates that were aligned against Randall Taneda on the last day of his life.  Alfredo Juan said he had heard on the streets a few weeks before the killing that there was a music school on the outskirts of the city where “rich kids brought their money.”  The rumor was, these kids all came from various parts of the country and they all had large sums of cash on them when they arrived.  If you were able to rob one of these kids just as they arrived at the school, you could make a big score.  The rich students apparently lived in a “box building” until they paid enough money so they could move into the “big castle”, and this was the reason they brought so much cash with them.

Alfredo Juan said that he was not exactly sure about the directions, but he eventually managed to make his way across the city and up to the LaGrange Conservatory.   He knew he had found the right place because “it looked like a castle”.  He had been given a handgun by someone named “Carl” and he had agreed to split the money with “Carl” when he returned.  The police were never able to locate “Carl”, although the weapon itself, a 38 revolver, was eventually traced to a gun shop in Detroit that had sold the gun new a few years earlier.  The gun had gone through multiple hands since then and it was impossible to trace it back to “Carl” or anyone else.  

Alfredo Juan said that he walked through the main gate of the LaGrange Conservatory and went over to the “box building beside the castle”.  There were a few people around, but no one paid any attention to him.  When he reached the box building, he was surprised to be able to open the main door.  Once inside the hallway, he was surprised again to find that the first door he tried to open was also unlocked, and the room was empty.  This was the room that had been assigned to Randall Taneda.  He said he could hear a lot of “piano stuff” coming from the other rooms and he thought that maybe a “piano kid” might be moving into the empty room that he had so easily stumbled upon.  He told police he waited around just inside the door and listened for the footsteps of the “piano kid” so he could steal his money and split the booty with “Carl” when he got back to the city streets.  He said he was holding the gun because he wanted to “scare the rich piano kid”.  He repeated several times to police that he never wanted to shoot anyone because such an act would be “an offence against God”.

Alfredo Juan said he listened for approaching footsteps for a few minutes, but the sounds of the pianos made it hard for him to hear anything, so he decided to lean forward and put his ear to the door.  At that moment, Randall Taneda stumbled into the room with his box of clothing.  He had pushed against the door and was propelled forward when it suddenly opened.   Alfredo Juan said, “the boy run into me with the box”.   Randall Taneda immediately dropped the box, so they were now standing face-to-face with nothing between them.  In the same moment, Alfredo Juan pushed the gun into Randall Taneda’s stomach.  There was a brief struggle, and he pulled the trigger.

Alfredo Juan remembered how the boy just crumpled to the floor and he knew right away he was dead.  He said he panicked and ran out of the room.  He left the “box building” and ran across the grounds to the street, and then ran down the sidewalk as fast as he could to get away.  No one saw him, and no one followed him.  When he had exhausted himself, he stopped running to catch his breath.  It was then he realized he did not have the gun with him.   He wasn’t sure how he had lost the gun because he didn’t remember many details after Randall Taneda suddenly appeared in the room with his “big box of shirts”.  The police found the clothing scattered on the floor and the empty box had been tossed to one side, as if someone had rifled through the box looking for something.  Oddly, Alfredo Juan denied doing this.  He insisted the “piano kid” dropped the box as soon as he came into the room and it had stayed upright with the clothing in it the whole time.  Even when shown the police photographs of the scattered clothing and the empty box, Alfredo Juan remained steadfast.  He had never touched the box or anything inside the box.

Much like Randall Taneda’s acceptance into the LaGrange Conservatory, the criminal trial of Alfredo Juan was little more than a formality.   His lawyers tried to have his confession thrown out, but the police had done their homework and there was nothing the defense could do about it.  As soon as Alfredo Juan was arrested and brought into the interrogation room, he was read his Miranda rights.  When he said that he had understood those rights and did not wish to have a lawyer present, his interrogation began.  All of this was captured on camera, right down to the grand finale showing the chief homicide detective slowly reading out a 12-page written statement with Alfredo Juan nodding away and putting his mark on the bottom of every page.   The recording had even captured a muttered comment from one of the detectives off-camera as Alfredo Juan carefully signed the last page with an illegible signature that he said he used “only on important documents.”  The cop had remarked, “Poor bastard doesn’t know how important this one is.”   The criminal trial took three days, and the jury returned a guilty verdict in under an hour. 

The sentencing phase of Alfredo Juan’s criminal trial took a little longer, but the outcome was never in doubt any more than the original verdict.   This was an election year, and the DA wanted to send a strong message to the public that he was tough on crime and he was not going to tolerate any innocent kid being gunned down in the prime of his life by some scumbag vagrant.   The defense called a psychiatrist to the stand who had attempted to piece together Alfredo Juan’s fractured life history.  Among other things, the psychiatrist said that Alfredo Juan had been sexually abused throughout his childhood and was now left with a “tenuous hold on reality.”  None of it mattered.  The prosecution asked for the death penalty and the jury agreed. 

Alfredo Juan was then sent to North Bend State Prison, and this was where I was sitting with him over ten years later in a cramped interview room just off the death row cell block.   The guard had reminded me about the strict time limit, and he left the room without any further warnings.  Alfredo Juan and I were left sitting across from each other at a small table, and I was surprised at the lack of security.  There were no other guards and the two of us were alone in the room.  Alfredo Juan was not handcuffed or shackled, and he could have easily reached across the table in order to tear my throat out if that had been his disposition.  I had never broken the ice with an interview subject by having them lunge for my throat, but then I had never spoken to anyone with only three hours to live, either.   By the clock on the wall, it was three hours exactly.

Alfredo Juan had muttered a greeting to me, and then he just stared down at the table.  I was surprised at how short he was, and how passive he looked.  I had fully expected to meet someone with a chrome bolt running through his tongue and a body crawling with gang symbols and other sinister looking artwork, but this man had no tattoos and no piercings.  He did not even possess the sort of sneer one often sees on a dog-tough street punk.   He just looked lost and alone, like someone’s half-brother who shows up once a year for dinner and doesn’t have a clue what to say to the other family members.  I could see that his head had been freshly shaved, and there was a shadowy outline on his skull that showed he had hair if he had wanted to die with any.  He wasn’t being electrocuted, but perhaps this sort of tidy-up was still part of the execution protocol.  I didn’t know, and I didn’t ask. 

Although I had rehearsed my questions for him over and over during the drive to the prison, my mind had now turned idiot-blank and we just stared at each other.  Without thinking, I blurted out, “Did they give you a last meal?”

It occurred to me that I had just said the most insensitive and stupid thing one could possibly say to a condemned man on the eve of his execution.   I expected Alfredo Juan to hurl himself towards me in a murderous rage exactly as I had feared, but instead he just shook his head and kept looking down.

“The only good meals I ever had were in jail,” he said quietly.  “I never asked what they were, I just ate ‘em.  They say you’re supposed to ask for something special for your last meal.  I didn’t know what to ask for that was special, so I said I wasn’t hungry.  I didn’t want them laughing at me.”

There was true sadness in this, but I was not there as a social worker.  I tried again.  “I’ve written about your case, I guess you know that.”

“Someone read the newspaper stuff out to me,” he said.

“I’ve tried to arrange an interview before, I’ve always thought – “

“I didn’t kill that boy,” Alfredo Juan suddenly interrupted.

I did not want to hear this man’s protestations of innocence. “Mr. Juan – “I began.

“Call me Spike,” he interrupted again.  “That’s what the guards call me here, ‘cause they say I look like a spike that’s been nailed in something, like the body of Christ.”

Unlike Alfredo Juan, I did not warm to the comparison.  I said, “I don’t wish to call you by that name.  It is – not appropriate in the circumstances.  Why don’t you tell me why you asked me to come here?  I have tried and tried to set up an interview before, you always said no.  I’m here now, I’ll listen to you.”

“I didn’t kill that boy,” he said again.  “I was just telling the police what they wanted to hear.  I was hungry.”

“Mr. Juan – “

“Spike.”

“Please, I’ve told you I do not wish to call you by that name.  I am not calling you by that name, I refuse to do it.   Now I want to get something straight with you.  You can tell me anything you want, just do not tell me you didn’t do this crime.  I know your case, I know everything about it.”

Alfredo Juan was not impressed.  “There was a guy on the Row,” he went on.  “He told me about the Japanese.  He said they don’t kill themselves with a gun to the head, ‘cause then they can’t have an open coffin at the funeral.”

“What, you’re telling me that Randall Taneda killed himself?”

Alfredo Juan was still staring down at the table.  “Makes sense to me,” he said.

“Your fingerprints just happened to be on that gun, is that what you’re saying?”

“No, I was there.”

“You were there in his room and you surprised him, and you killed him.  We all know this.”

“You don’t know anything.  I was gonna rob him and then I just ran out.”

“You accidentally dropped the gun on your way out, is that what happened?”

“Makes sense to me.”

“You took the time to rifle through his box of clothing, didn’t you?  You were looking for money.  Was he standing back watching you do this?”

“I didn’t touch that box.”

“Who touched the box then?  Another student?”

“No, he did.”

“Who are you talking about?”

“That kid.”

“The piano kid?  Randall Taneda?”

“He must have scattered the stuff around to make it look like a robbery.”

I was determined to reason with him despite the valuable time that was being wasted.  “Mr. Juan – “I began.

“Spike.”

I was now feeling more at ease with Alfredo Juan, and I had forgotten that I was speaking to a man who now had less than three hours to live, by about six minutes. 

“Stop it,” I said firmly.  “Stop saying that.  We are not using nicknames like buddies on the street.  You want me to believe you surprised Randall Taneda in his room with that gun, then you dropped the gun, then you ran out, and then Randall Taneda himself scattered that clothing on the floor and shot himself in the stomach to make his suicide look like a robbery gone bad?  Is this what you want me to write tomorrow?  Your new fantasy story after ten years of telling the true story?”

Alfredo Juan shrugged.  “Maybe he didn’t want his mother to be ashamed.”

I was scolding him now and I knew my time was quickly running out. “You don’t know a thing about the boy you killed,” I said.  “You don’t know him; you don’t know his mother.  You have no guilt over what you did.”

Alfredo Juan was unmoved.  “You didn’t see the look in his eyes,” he said quietly.

“What look?”

“I looked into the eyes of that boy and God whispered to me.”

“Tell me what you saw in his eyes.”

“Sadness.  He was crying.  A person like you doesn’t know the look of true sadness, but I saw it.”

I tried to humor him.  “Okay.  You dropped the gun and ran away, and the boy killed himself.  Why didn’t you tell all this to the police?”

“I was hungry, I told you.”

“You must have talked to your own lawyers.  Were you hungry then, too?”

“I told them about the promise from God but all they did was look at me funny.  So, I didn’t say nothing.   Some promises, people just don’t understand.”

“So tell me then, what did God whisper to you?”

“God promised me that I would lose my soul unless I dropped the gun and ran.”

“That’s a warning, not a promise.”

“You don’t know true sadness, and you don’t know what it means when God whispers to you.”

“Maybe not, but I know a warning when I hear one.”

Alfredo Juan was adamant.  He said, “A warning is just a caution.  A whispered promise from God is a sure thing.”

I now had about a minute left, and I knew the guard was not going to negotiate.  “If you’re innocent like you say, then tell me why you insist upon being executed.  Will you at least give me that much to write about tomorrow?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Is this why you brought me here?  To tell me things I won’t understand?”

“Well, I’d like a favor.”

I anticipated what was coming and I was going to draw the line.  “I will not write about your innocence and lie to people.  I am not going to do that.”

Alfredo Juan then threw me the hook that I will never forget.  He said, “They told me I can have somebody watch the execution.  I thought you might want to stick around and be out there when they do it.  I don’t know many people.”

I could not fathom this request and I did not know what to say.  Mercifully, the guard appeared, and I knew this crazy interview was over.   I rose from the chair and Alfredo Juan looked directly at me for the first time.  He said, “I told you I don’t know many people.  Would you think about it?”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, as the guard led me out of the room.  “I’ll give it some thought, that’s all I can tell you.”

“You wanna know why I’m doing all this?” Alfredo Juan asked me.

I was now halfway out the door, and I gently resisted the guard.  “Yes, tell me.”

“I don’t know, so you tell me,” he said.  There was a pause and then he added, “It’s only in a person’s last words.”

With that enigmatic response, another guard closed the door upon Alfredo Juan and my last memory of the meeting is watching him stare down at that table, a hopeless life about to end. 

Shortly after midnight, Alfredo Juan was given a lethal dose into his arm and he was pronounced dead about ten minutes later.  I did not attend his execution and I was feeling guilty for telling him that I would “think about it” when I had no intention of attending.   I did not want to watch anyone being put to death, and I felt no obligation towards Alfredo Juan.   My only face-to-face dealing with him was that ten-minute death row conversation, and I assumed that someone would show up and represent him, or mourn him, or whatever designation is given to those lucky souls who witness an execution at the behest of the condemned man.   When I talked to one of the reporters the next morning who was there, he told me that no one had attended for Alfredo Juan: no friends, no family, no one.  I was the only one he had asked, and I was not there either.  

The reporter I spoke to was from another newspaper and he seemed unaffected by it all.  “It was nothing, really,” he said.  “The guy was behind a curtain lying there on this gurney, all strapped down.  They put him to sleep and that’s it.”

“Still, you witnessed the death of someone,” I observed.

“My grandfather used to be the warden up at North Bend when I was a kid,” he said.  “They used to hang them, and he’d give me all the gruesome details.  This wasn’t like that at all.”

I thought about my discussion with Alfredo Juan in the prison, and his strange comment about a person’s last words.  “Did Alfredo Juan have any last words?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah.  Before they strapped him down, he looked out at all of us.  He said, ‘I apologize to God, but my life isn’t worth living.’  Those were his exact words.  He didn’t say anything more, and he was dead a few minutes later.”

“I guess you could call that a confession of guilt,” I said.  “He told me last night that he was innocent.”

“My grandfather used to tell me that every goddam one of them said they were innocent,” the reporter said.  Then he gave me a big smile.  “I got a kick out of Grandpa swearing to me just like I was an adult.  Different world back then.”

I thought about this.  I finally said, “All I know is, I’m sorry to God, too, and I wasn’t on that gurney.”

The LaGrange Conservatory was located north of the city in an area called Ambleside Park.  This was a multi-acre property that was protected from the street by a high boxwood hedge.  The hedge was manicured to such laser-perfection that you could have cut paper on one of the edges.  Only the roof of the school was visible from the street, but as you entered the property through the main gate you could see the venerable old building through a long row of walnut trees that surrounded the driveway.  To my untrained eye, the place looked more like a private hospital from the Gilded Age than an academy of learning, the sort of place where one would expect to find railroad tycoons and assorted robber barons convalescing in quiet luxury.  This was early May, and the grounds rivaled any English country estate in full bloom.  As I pulled off the driveway to the parking lot, I noticed several gardeners scattered throughout the property, all of them wearing identical blue-gray coveralls with the name “LaGrange” on the back.  They all worked like bees, hovering quietly over the flowers and the shrubs with a determined purpose, each one of them secure in the knowledge that they were every bit as vital to the LaGrange Conservatory as all those prodigies tucked behind the ivy covered, red brick walls.  

As soon as I got out of my car, I heard a cacophony of piano sounds coming from the smaller, box-shaped buildings to the left of the main building.  There were two of these buildings, both identical, one behind the other, and both constructed with the same red brick.  They even had ivy growing up around the windows and the doorways, just like the grand old mansion beside them.  By their architecture they were obviously built long after the main house, and they had to be the “box building” student residences that Alfredo Juan had described to the police.  The music coming out of those buildings amazed me.  It was impossible that every student would be playing the same composition, yet the piano-sounds reminded me of one of those Claude Debussy “tone poems” where a batch of diverse, random-sounding notes come together into an inexplicable and mysterious whole.

The residence closest to the parking lot was the building where Randall Taneda was killed.  His room was just inside the main door on the first floor, the first one on the left.  Alfredo Juan lay in wait for him in the vacant room, watching the parking lot and biding his time until the doomed occupant showed up.  Randall Taneda would have carried his possessions a short distance from the lot, entered through the main door, and in a few moments his life would be over.  I took a few steps forward until I was standing on the grass.  I was now closer to the building and closer to the piano sounds coming from the brick walls.   Alfredo Juan had been executed only a few hours before, and the music seemed like an uplifting tribute to young Randall and a funeral dirge for his killer, both at the same time. 

I was lost in these thoughts when I heard a voice: “No classes today.  The kids are all playing.”

I turned my head and saw one of the gardeners standing beside me.  He was an older guy.  He was listening to the piano-sounds and nodding in silent approval.  “Today they’re celebrating the birth of Tchaikovsky.  No classes, so what do these geniuses do?  They get a respite from practice, so they go off and practice all day.”

“I guess you have to practice your whole life to get accepted here,” I said.  “Probably all they know.”

“There’s a lot of dead composers out there,” the gardener said.  “Pretty soon, every day will be a holiday for the birth of someone.”

“Might not make much difference,” I said, half-joking.  “They all sound pretty good already.”

“Wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference,” the gardener agreed.   “The classes don’t mean a whole lot.  The kids who come here can play rings around their instructors.  They just want to get that hunk of paper and then hit the world stage.  Nothing else matters to ‘em.”

I looked at the box building and thought about how Randall Taneda would have been banging away on his piano on every holiday and day off and every other chance he got.  “I write for the newspaper,” I said.  “I’ve done a few pieces on the boy who was murdered here a few years ago.”

The gardener had heard all about the case.  “That was a long time ago,” he said.

I nodded.  “They executed the killer this morning.  I thought I should come out here to observe the occasion.  Not sure why, it just seemed like the right thing to do.”

“Closure?” the gardener asked.

I was surprised at this insight.  “Yes, I suppose you could say that.”

“I hate that guy like everyone else,” the gardener said.  “Still, I don’t believe in capital punishment.  Too final.”

I pointed to the building.  “Randall Taneda’s room was over there, right inside the door.  As soon as he came into his room, bang.  They think there was some sort of struggle over the gun, but it was all over for him.”

“Well, I guess you’d know about the case,” the gardener said.

I thought about the hundreds of trial transcript pages I had read.  “There’s one part of it I just don’t get,” I said.  “It’s silly, really.”

“Oh?”

I said, “The killer, this Alfredo Juan, he insisted that Taneda came down the hallway from the opposite end of the building with his box of clothing.  He insisted he was listening for footsteps, and not looking out the window at the parking lot.   Obviously, Taneda would have come from the lot with his box of stuff because his room was just inside the door.  The killer would not be listening for any footsteps.  All he would have to do was peep through the blinds and look out the window at the lot.  And that’s exactly what he did.  It’s a little detail, and there’s nothing about it in the court transcripts or the arguments of the lawyers.  Didn’t matter anyway.   It bugs me, because Alfredo Juan had no reason at all to lie about such a trivial detail and then spice up his story with another lie about footsteps.”

“Well, the guy was right,” the gardener said.  “The kid had to walk all the way down the hall from the other end.”

“Why is that?” I asked, surprised.

The gardener nodded towards my car.  “There was no parking lot here then.  The student lot was behind the building.  They built the second dorm about five years ago where the old parking lot was.  They decided to build a bigger lot out front and you’re parked in it.”

Like a lot of answers to trivial questions, I was surprised at how obvious this answer was.   “I guess Alfredo Juan was telling the truth about the footsteps,” I said.  “He just lied about everything else.”

“The kid would have parked his car in the back lot and then carried his box down to his room,” the gardener said.  “That’s what I did, anyway.  Otherwise, you’d have to walk all the way around the building.”

I thought I had misunderstood him.  “What do you mean?  You had a room here?”

“My room was right across the hall from the one where the kid was killed,” he said.  “That was a couple of years before, and I was long gone by the time it all happened.”

I was still not getting it.  “You mean you were a student at this place?” I asked.

The gardener smiled and bounced the trimming shears in his hand.  “Hard for you to believe what can happen to a failed prodigy?”

I was ashamed now, and I stammered out an apology: “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.”

The gardener flashed a smile.  “Don’t worry about it, I get that all the time,” he said.  “My whole life I was told how great I was.  My piano teachers all told me this.  My parents told me every day.  When I got accepted into LaGrange my family held the biggest party you have ever seen.   My first day here, I walked from the parking lot down the long hallway just like that poor kid must have done.  All the dorm rooms have pianos in them, and all the new students were playing away like crazy.  I wasn’t ten steps into that hallway when it struck me that these kids were all prodigies just like I was.  They were all geniuses who’d been stroked their whole lives, just like I had been stroked.  I realized there was nothing special about me at all.  I was a star in my own little world, but I was just an average guy at LaGrange.  And there was something else…”

The gardener paused and looked over the grounds, admiring all the beauty and all the perfection.  “I would cry a thousand tears over this, but it didn’t matter.  I heard those pianos, and I knew those kids were better than I was, better than I ever would be.  The average person might not have noticed any difference in the playing.  But I’d heard enough to know.  I knew in that moment that I was never going to make it.”

I thought about Randall Taneda as a child and how he would cover his ears when he was forced to listen to another child play.  “Maybe you were being too hard on yourself,” I volunteered.

The gardener shook his head.  “Nope.  Once you think you can’t cut it, you’re toast.”

I was staring at the gardener now, waiting for him to say something uplifting about the redeeming power of wisdom and how in the end everything works out for the best.  Instead, all he did was hold up his pruning shears and say, “But I stayed close to the music.”

The gardener may have said something more, but I was not listening to his voice any longer or thinking about his tears.   I was thinking about Alfredo Juan, and how frightful it must be to know in your heart of hearts that your life is no longer worth living.   I was also thinking about Randall Taneda, the boy with such great expectations, walking down that long hallway towards the room at the far end where Alfredo Juan was waiting for him. 

Both would be listening to the voices of the pianos behind the walls; the dissonant sounds coming together in cryptic harmony, the whispered promises of things to come.



BIO

Robert Collings is a retired lawyer living and writing in Pitt Meadows, B.C. “The Tears of the Gardener” marks his first appearance in Writing Disorder.  Robert’s short memoir, “The Spaghetti Party – A Memoir of my Father”, is published online in the Euonia Review (eunoiareview.wordpress.com).  “The Man Who Threw the Punch” is published online in Scars Publications (scars.tv). “Boardwalk and the Upper Crust” has recently been published online in Mobius magazine (mobiusmagazine.com).  “The Man Who Threw the Punch” is forthcoming in Conceit magazine in April 2021, and in cc&d magazine in May 2021.These and other short stories are contained in Robert’s collection called “Life in the First Person”.  He’s also written a satirical novella called “One Dog’s Life”, along with two screenplays now doing the rounds of the agents and producers in Hollywood. Robert has not won many awards in his lifetime, although he’s proud of a “Participation Certificate” he received for coming dead last in the 50-yard dash in the third grade.


Sonnet

by Mark DuCharme


Who dreams about my arms in damaged youth?
Who knows the finite ways to make love breathe?
Who flaunts me with mournful saints?
Who prolongs absence in the eyes of past listeners?
Whose tongues know love’s brutality?
What liars are rampant as drowsy parishioners?
Who feeds upon the dust?
Who wanders bent with children’s dreams?
Who devours but cannot rust?
Who is mild with waking screams?
Who showers but can’t think on Sundays?
Toward whom do all misshapen women thrust?
Who is a varied eavesdropper, & who a skillful lunchroom attendant?
Who courses through all broken calm, then flees with bottled rain?


Policed Lines


Somewhere, I am
Someone else

Free when the ink dries

Impossible in summer rains

+

The trouble with
Leaving
Troubles the fact—

A dish in a laundry basket—

The tune went astray

+

If I’d known you before
I was inside myself
Then we could think about tomorrow

& The birds that held you
In the textures of shimmers

You who would squander
The gleam in lost
Children’s eyes—

Those who smoke
Inconsolably
Just outside the rain


After Bergman


The camera loses patience
It’s alright, what you scribble
But don’t soon come again
In a casket too stylized for whispers

If only you’d held out your hand
Or not quibbled with the maidservants
About a death you’d soon long for
As seasons draw past

Bearing monuments that cluster
With a kind of fine agony—
Could you phrase that question in another
Language? Or is it time now for you to

Return to that great city, where angels & clouds
Weep— & the moment
Of reckoning rushes
Ever immanent, ever at hand?



To Him Who Hadn’t
Got That Message

The markings of history
Are all fed back to us
Even in times of decay

Light is a perfect symbol
Of light

If you go away now
Everyone will understand
Until a little bit later

When the glamour of birth
Is through with you

Go easy
On the rains that fail
Dumbfounded lost city eyes

Wear grief
Like an entertainment
Instead of a disguise

Until you are almost
Alone & free

Of those who think of
Breath as mirth

There will come a time

When your cough
In death
Sustains



BIO

Mark DuCharme is the author of We, the Monstrous: Script for an Unrealizable Film, Counter Fluencies 1-20, The Unfinished: Books I-VI, Answer, The Sensory Cabinet and other works. His poetry has appeared widely in such venues as BlazeVOX, Caliban Online, Colorado Review, Eratio, First Intensity, Indefinite Space, New American Writing, Noon, Otoliths, Shiny, Talisman, Unlikely Stories, Word/for Word, and Poetics for the More-Than-Human World: An Anthology of Poetry and Commentary. A recipient of the Neodata Endowment in Literature and the Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative American Poetry, he lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Boxes

by Alison Bullock


It all started because of an uncooperative carburetor.  Either it wasn’t firing or it was firing too often, one of the two, and so Etta’s husband Albert told her to bring their old Dodge Dart down to Iron Joe’s garage.  Iron Joe’s was on the far side of town, but Albert knew the owner and insisted the guy would give them a fair shake. Normally, he’d have been skeptical about letting his wife handle an errand so mechanical in nature, but it was tax season and he just couldn’t do it himself.   Though it was in a run-down, unfamiliar part of town, Etta reluctantly agreed to take the car over. 

She took the car sputtering and backfiring all the way down Central, and following her meticulous notes, turned left on Depot and right on Willard.  She passed a dilapidated newsstand, (the kind that sells magazines of questionable taste), and prayed that the engine would hold out.  By the time she rolled into Iron Joe’s parking lot, the car was coughing up plumes of black smoke.  She could just picture Albert’s reaction if he’d known. “Why the hell didn’t you have it towed there if things got that bad?” he’d say, making her feel incompetent and silly.  Etta had never been good at deciphering when something had crossed a line to being “that bad.”

The mechanic on duty was kind.  He didn’t mention the billowing smoke at all.  Just told her that it’d be a few hours, and asked her if she planned on staying. 

“Well, yes,” Etta said.  It hadn’t occurred to her to make alternative arrangements.  She asked the way to the waiting room, which turned out to be a single folding chair near the register, sandwiched tightly between the cigarette machine and gum.  Etta found the arrangement to be perfectly suitable, as long as she kept her elbows tucked in tight.

For the first hour she kept herself busy by looking through her accordion-style coupon case. She tsked when she saw that her 25-center on Hamburger Helper had just expired. At ShopRite, where they tripled your coupons, she could have gotten some practically for free.   Ahh well, she thought.  Another opportunity lost

She moved on to organize her wallet, smoothing a wad of crumpled bills on her lap.  George Washington stared up at her.  Something about him seemed familiar.  It was only after close inspection that Etta realized how much he resembled an old boyfriend she’d had back when she was a teenager.  Of course their hairstyles were nothing alike, but their mouths were nearly identical. The thought of Robby Wilding made Etta sigh.   Robby was the smartest boy in her English class—sensitive and kind. A boy who’d been so enamored with Etta, that when she was around him, she felt like an altogether different sort of a person. One night on the phone, he confessed to having had a crush on Etta the very first day he laid eyes on her.  He’d seen her from afar, but had known instantly. “What was I doing?”Etta asked, breathlessly. “Who was I with?” Robby couldn’t provide that level of detail.  He did remember sneaking over to her house that very night and carving his initials onto a painted, antique milk can in her front yard.  “That very first night?” she’d asked, nearly frantic with glee. She’d always considered herself somewhat plain, certainly not the type who normally drew that kind of attention. The very prospect thrilled her.  She’d hurried to hang up the phone, and raced outside to find the milk can.  There it sat in a sprawling patch of Black-eyed Susans.  Searching everywhere, Etta finally found his hastily scrawled RW near the base.  She traced the prickly lines with her fingers.  Etched in paint, and filled with teenage angst, it had been her first and only love letter. 

As it turned out, she and Robby only dated for a few months before his family moved away to Montana. The can, however, still remained in Etta’s possession even to this day.  She planted her geraniums in it every summer.  At first it had seemed disloyal to keep it, back in the days when she and Albert were first married, but now she was glad that she had.  The can reminded her that she’d once been desirable, if only to a seventeen-year-old boy, who surely hadn’t known any better.  A boy, Etta shuddered to think, who would be turning sixty any day now.

Sixty.  Etta couldn’t believe it.  She sighed and looked down into her lap.  The bills she’d been holding had fallen into disarray.  She hurried to shuffle them together, making sure to arrange them by descending denomination before slipping them back into the billfold of her wallet.  She checked her watch.  Her wait was not even half over.  Exhaling loudly, she rose from her chair, and purchased a package of peanut butter crackers.

“I think I’ll go for a walk,” she told the cashier, who only stared back blankly at her.  She seemed to evoke that response a lot from people—something that could be described as mild indifference.

A quick right out of the parking lot led her to a string of tired looking shops with faded awnings. The first one had a sign that read Posner’s Engraver’s.  Etta stood nibbling on her crackers while she contemplated the phrasing.  Something didn’t seem quite right.  The two possessives seemed to pose a grammatical problem.  The mistake did not bode well for management.  Next, she passed a store called Trinkets and Treasures.  It was a strange little hodgepodge of a place.  A sterling silver tea service sat on a shelf alongside a shiny purple bowling ball.  Etta thought of going in, maybe browsing a little; she did have a weakness for bric-a-brac, but in the end she decided against it.  Dusting already took up most of her Thursdays, she reasoned, and moved on. She was nearing the end of the block and about to turn back when she saw a sign posted on the door of a seemingly vacant storefront. 

Invitation to Life Seminar – Free- All Are Welcome

Etta’s interest was piqued.  She liked the idea of a seminar; the word itself thrilled her, sounding as important as a caucus or a summit. Suddenly Etta imagined herself as less of a disgruntled housewife, and more of a diplomat.  And wasn’t that just what she needed too?  An invitation to get started on her life, instead of just simply waiting around for something to happen? Imagine Albert’s reaction, she thought, when he asked her about her day over dinner that night.He’d be expecting some boring story about a 2 for 1 sale over at Shoprite, when she’d let it slip about the fascinating seminar she’d attended, and watch his jaw drop.  The very image of Albert’s stunned expression was so pleasing that it made Etta stop and rest one hand on the door knob.  But what if it’s some kind of trap?  she worried, picturing herself being bound and gagged by a group of religious zealots.  Oh, but a seminar, she countered, and in a moment of unprecedented bravery, she went in.

A series of cardboard arrows led Etta down a narrow stairway and around several corners until she finally reached a basement clearing.  For a long moment, she hung back, silently observing.  The drop ceiling had several tiles missing, and along the far side of the wall were stacks of unused, dusty chairs.  A portly, red-haired woman stood at the front of the room next to a faded green chalkboard.  The woman, who was clearly the teacher, was dressed in a floral caftan, the kind of garment sold at discount stores for larger women. Her wide feet spilled out over the edges of her embroidered velvet slippers, and her hands, which she gestured with frequently, were covered with yellow chalk dust.  Occasionally, the teacher bent down to glance at her written materials, which she kept stacked atop an old wooden crate.  The informal set up came as a disappointment to Etta, who had been hoping that her invitation to life might include a podium.

Though the room was nothing fancy, the teacher seemed to hold the undivided attention of her pupils, who sat in a single row of chairs with wrap-around desks.  There were three students all together: a grey haired man with a cane resting against one knee, a young woman with a baby in one of those portable car seats at her feet, and an enormously tall man, whose legs were so long, that he needed to keep them extended out in front of him, in order to keep his knees from hitting the desktop. As the instructor turned to write something on the board, she looked over to see Etta waiting in the wings.

“Excellent!  Another student,” she trilled, motioning for Etta to take a seat next to the young mother, right in the center of the front row. 

Etta paused.  Center seat of the front row seemed like an awfully big commitment, but yet leaving now, after she had already been spotted would be even more unthinkable.  Etta silently slipped into her chair while the class made a series of brief introductions. The young mother’s name was Jennifer, and she gave Etta a small smile while absentmindedly shaking a rattle in her baby’s direction, the tall man’s name was William, he had a distinguished air about him, and the old man’s name was Barney. 

“I’m going to ask you a question,” the teacher, who had introduced herself as Miss Marjorie, said.  She was handing out squares of paper and pre-sharpened golf pencils.

“You’ll have five seconds to record your answers, and I give you my solemn word that your answers will remain completely anonymous.”  Miss Marjorie emphasized this point by putting one hand up in a scout’s honor position before using the other to turn an imaginary key before her tightly sealed lips. 

“Write the first thing that comes to mind. Ready?”

Etta grabbed her pencil and watched it quivering as it hovered over the page.

“If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?” Miss Marjorie prompted.  “GO!”

Etta’s pencil started moving spontaneously, as though it had a mind of its own.  Milliseconds later, she was flipping the paper over.  On the underside, in large looping letters, she had written the word MARRIAGE.   The answer had surprised even Etta herself.  It wasn’t as though the union were a blatant failure; she and Albert weren’t bickerers and he’d certainly never laid a hand on her.  Until now, she might have described the relationship as mildly disappointing.

“TIME!” Miss Marjorie screeched, and she scurried to collect the slips in a paper sack.  Etta wasn’t certain she felt comfortable turning her innermost thoughts over to a complete stranger.   “Come on now,” Miss Marjorie goaded, clearly picking up on her reticence. “Privacy killed the cat.”

Etta was fairly sure that it was curiosity that had led to the cat’s demise, but maybe her instructor was making a point.  Maybe an inordinate need for privacy could be equally toxic given the right circumstances.  In fact maybe Miss Marjorie, in her Walmart housecoat and Payless slippers, had gotten to the very root of Etta’s problem. Maybe she was too self-contained.  Etta glanced sideways at Jennifer, the young mother next to her, who virtually popped her paper into the bag, seemingly without a second thought.  How nice to be so implicitly trusting of the world.  Etta imagined Jennifer living a joyous and carefree life, listing her full name in the phonebook, and picking up random hitchhikers on a passing whim.  Tentatively, Etta added her own carefully folded square to the paper sack.

Miss Marjorie read the slips to herself.  “Well, that’s never happened before,” she mumbled. Etta and a few of the others cocked their heads in question. “You all wrote down the same thing,” she explained bluntly.  So much for Miss Marjorie’s pledge of anonymity.

Etta felt the blood rush to her head.  Miss Marjorie said not to worry, that this only meant that she could tailor the class to meet their needs very specifically.  Apparently the lecture hadn’t been planned beforehand.  Etta considered this cause for suspicion and was glad when William, the tall man, inquired what Miss Marjorie’s qualifications were to offer marriage advice.

“I am a seasoned actress William,” she answered.  “I deal in the human condition, which means that I understand people… their frailties…what makes them tick.” After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence Miss Marjorie lifted a finger and added,   “Once a man with a loaded gun broke into my home with the full intention of murdering me. Instead I made him a scrambled egg and convinced him to turn himself in to the police.” After another dramatic pause she said, “I know how to connect with people. I can teach you how to connect with your spouse again.”

Miss Marjorie turned away from them then, as though the matter were closed for discussion, and for the next hour she offered some of the most unorthodox advice Etta had ever heard.  Their first lesson was on how to laugh at their spouse’s jokes.  Laughing at a person’s jokes, her teacher said, was a form of generosity.  It created goodwill.

“Now listen carefully, because there’s a right way to do this.”  Miss Marjorie bent down and contorted her face as though suppressing a laugh.  “You see, you haven’t been getting along, right?  So it’s natural that your laugh will not come bellowing forth.  Instead, your laugh will escape from you, as if by accident.”  Miss Marjorie demonstrated.  “This kind of unintended laugh will be very satisfying to your partner.”

Etta raised her hand.  “Isn’t this all a little deceitful?  I mean shouldn’t we be working on being honest with each other, instead of play acting?”

Miss Marjorie gave her a dull stare.  “Sometimes, benevolence is more important than honesty.” 

Etta was shocked to learn that Miss Marjorie intended for each of them to get up in front of the class and demonstrate their laughs.  They were to stand up in pairs.  One of them was to simply utter the phrase, “Duck, Duck, Goose,” to which their partner was instructed to “unleash” their laughter.  Jennifer, the young mother, was paired with Barney, the older gentleman, and mercifully, they were asked to go first.  Jennifer’s was a giddy, self-conscious laugh that Etta didn’t find at all convincing.  Barney’s performance was even worse.  Too pronounced, Etta decided. Too obvious.

When it was her turn to stand in front with William, she wanted to bolt from the room, but couldn’t summon her legs to move.  Reluctantly she stood up, her palms sweating and her knees shaking wildly.  “Duck, Duck, Goose,” she fairly whispered.  William looked her right in the eyes.  A slow smile crept across his face and he let go a low, rumbling laugh so convincing that Etta began to wonder if there had been something really unique about her Duck, Duck Goose delivery after all.  The thought filled her with satisfaction, and without even planning it, she found herself blushing, turning her head away, and giggling shyly in response.

“THAT’S IT!”  Miss Marjorie bellowed, pointing her finger in Etta’s direction. “ERTHA HAS GOT IT DOWN PERFECTLY!”

After such a bold endorsement, Etta didn’t have the heart to tell Miss Marjorie that she’d gotten her name wrong.  If she needed to go by Ertha for the remainder of the class, so be it.

Towards the end of the lecture, Miss Marjorie retreated to the back of the room, where she pried open the brass lock of a nearby trunk. Reaching inside, she produced four dusty boxes and set them on the table, informing her students that there were “novelty items” inside.

“Don’t open them up until you get home,” she said.  “It will spoil the mystique.”

The contents of the boxes varied, although she guaranteed that each would provide fodder for their spouse’s jokes.  The students were to simply set their new acquisitions on their kitchen tables and wait for a response.  Their homework assignment for the week was to perfect their reactions to the jokes, the way they had practiced in class.

Homework? Etta hadn’t realized that the class was ongoing.

“How much?”  Barney, the old man, said, pointing at the box. 

“Twenty dollars,” Miss Marjorie said, “I’m selling them to you practically at cost.”  None of the students moved.

Twenty dollars seemed like a lot for a novelty item, especially one that she wasn’t going to be permitted to see first, but after all, the seminar had been free.

Etta eyed the boxes with curiosity.  The last time she had made a blind purchase like this was as a child, at the Greenville Town Fair from an enormous woman called “Mrs. Pockets.”  Mrs. Pockets wore a tent-like gown, not unlike Miss Marjorie’s, except that hers was covered in multi-colored pouches.  For a nickel, you could choose any pocket you liked, and the prize within it was yours.   Etta remembered how thrilled she had been with her set of wax lips, but equally exciting was the mystery of it all.  Mystery was definitely something that was lacking in her life these days.

“I’ll take one,” she said, rising up from her chair.

“Ooh, she’s a brave one,” William crooned, and the rest of the class nodded approvingly.  For the second time that day, Etta felt herself blush.

She left the seminar with her prize safely tucked under one arm.  She had been noncommittal (though secretly pleased) when Miss Marjorie asked if she could expect her “star pupil” the following Wednesday.  Apparently, the class was to run for five weeks.  Etta was well aware that Miss Marjorie could be some sort of huckster, and yet, a part of her yearned to go back.   She had experienced such a range of emotions in the one hour, from fear, to elation, to curiosity.  Etta wasn’t accustomed to having so many different feelings piggybacked together like that.  Somehow, she felt stretched

Back at the garage, the mechanic was just finishing up with the car.  He warned her about an unrelated problem with the back axle, and recommended that she make an appointment to get it taken care of as soon as possible.

“I’ll tell my husband,” she promised, and hurried out to her car.  She couldn’t wait to get home and open her box.

Once in her kitchen, Etta cast off her coat and immediately began tearing at the cardboard packaging.  Inside she found a tightly wrapped ball of tissue paper.  Hastily, she peeled off layer after layer, until she finally came to what she was looking for.

It was some sort of strange-looking doll, with unkempt, fluorescent-pink hair and an unfortunate nose.  Motion Activated Troll Doll, the package said.  Apparently, if you clapped or waved your hand in front of it, the doll would dance and sing.  Etta was irritated to find that she couldn’t test this immediately.   For twenty dollars, she would have expected the batteries to be included.  Judging from the troll’s costume (it was wearing a grass skirt and holding a ukulele) Etta guessed that it would probably be performing something Hawaiian.  Nervously, she went to retrieve two AA’s from the hall closet.  Suddenly it seemed as though the entire fate of her marriage rested in the hands of a five- inch plastic figurine.  She inserted the batteries and listened tentatively while the troll serenaded her with I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.  Was it funny?  Etta couldn’t tell. 

Albert arrived home late from work that night.  Etta busied herself in the kitchen, her laugh at the ready.  When Albert tossed his keys onto the table as usual, the troll burst into song, but Albert was already halfway out the door, leafing through a stack of bills as he sauntered away.

“Goddamnit!” he muttered, “The phone company’s overcharged us again.”

As let down as Etta felt, she still doggedly pursued a reaction.  She wedged the troll between the salt and pepper at dinner, and tried stationing it next to Albert’s toothbrush at night.  The problem, as Etta saw it, was in how consistently preoccupied Albert was.  She’d never noticed how extreme the situation had become.  At any given moment, he seemed to be reading a paper, reviewing the bills, or watching television.

After three days without any reaction, Etta was ready to give up, when something happened that she wasn’t expecting.  It was Saturday, which was Etta’s laundry day.  She had collected Albert’s pile of socks and underwear, and was lifting the lid of the washing machine, when a familiar noise jumped out at her.  There at the base of the well was the gyrating troll.  How in the world?  Etta wondered, and then she realized how, and smiled.  And to think he never even gave the slightest indication of noticing the thing.

Finding the troll reminded her of an earlier time, when she and Albert were first dating.  They’d played a silly game that involved surprising the other with a rubber cockroach. How the game started, Etta couldn’t recall now, but it had gone much the same way, with one of them hiding the bug and waiting for the other to find it unexpectedly.  Albert had been better at the game, as he showed a great deal more restraint.  Sometimes he waited months before springing the cockroach on her, and this really led to a much bigger surprise.

One Christmas, at least six months after the last insect sighting, Albert presented her with a small, carefully wrapped package.  Inside was the cockroach, which of course made Etta scream and laugh, but underneath it was an engagement ring.  Come to think of it, the very presentation had been part of the reason she’d said yes.  She’d had fun with Albert.  Etta shut the lid of the washing machine, not knowing what surprised her more, the fact that she and Albert used to have fun, or the fact that she’d forgotten.  Well I’ll be, she thought, and silently crept downstairs to the garage where she set the troll on top of the lawnmower.

Spurred on by success, Etta decided to return to the seminar the following Wednesday.  Albert wanted the back axle repaired anyway, and what with Iron Joe’s opening on Wednesday, it only made sense to take it then.   An excited Etta dropped off the car, nearly skipping all the way to class.   Miss Marjorie greeted her in a new, magenta caftan, but with the same velvet slippers as before.  She enveloped Etta in a warm embrace, and whispered in her ear.

“So glad you could come Ertha,” she crooned, “we need your energy here.”

Etta never corrected her teacher.  The truth was she liked the idea of assuming a new identity once a week, and what’s more, this new version of her name, with the r in the middle, gave it a sort of growl that she was partial to.  Before the start of class William stuck out his hand to re-introduce himself.   “I’m terrible with names,” he confessed.

Etta embraced the moment.  “I’m Ertha,” she said, and then there was no going back.

Once they were all seated, out came a new batch of papers and pencils.  Etta worried that they’d be expected to reveal more secrets today, but thankfully she was wrong.

“Tell me three things that your spouse does well,” their teacher commanded. 

Etta thought hard and wrote down “yard work, bill paying, and crossword puzzles.”

Their assignment for the week, Miss Marjorie said, was to pick one of these talents to brag about to an outside party.  It was crucial, she explained, that their spouses should overhear them doing this.  They should arrange to be on the phone in mid-brag when their partner entered the room.  Barney and some of the others became so befuddled trying to decide who their contact person should be, that Miss Marjorie finally said it would be alright to just fake the phone call.  Etta pictured herself expounding on Albert’s qualities to a dial tone and cringed.  She raised her hand.

“We could always call each other,” she suggested.  Miss Marjorie thought this was an excellent idea, and had them exchange telephone numbers on the spot.

At the end of class their teacher pulled out a new set of mystery boxes.   The price this time was thirty dollars.  Once again Etta plunked down her payment, and considered it money well spent. The boxes turned out to contain some sort of headgear, which they were to attach to their phones.  Etta never learned why these were needed, but by then she had begun to trust Miss Marjorie’s instincts.

Once Etta had the gadgetry fully assembled, the phone seemed to ring non-stop.  The first call came from Jennifer. “Well you know how handy Bob is,” she said, before Etta even had a chance to say hello. “That man can fix anything.”  

A few minutes afterwards, William called to tell about his wife’s green thumb.  During dinner, the phone rang again.

“My Shirley is the best damn cook this side of the Mississippi!”  Barney barked in her ear.

Albert, who was busy cutting his rump roast while reading the newspaper, looked up.  He eyed Ettas’s headgear, (which she had worn to the table so as not to miss any important calls).

 “You got a family reunion coming up?” he asked.  Etta understood the question immediately.  Once a year, while planning her family’s reunion, she received a similar flurry of phone calls, usually from various cousins calling to make arrangements.

“These are classmates from that life seminar I told you about,” Etta said.  (She had described the seminar in the briefest of terms, never revealing the emphasis on marriage counseling).  

“Oh,” Albert said.  He raised one perplexed eyebrow, a man on the verge of asking a question. Then he thought better of it and turned back to the sports page. 

After dinner, Etta cleared the dishes and prepared to make her own call.  Albert was in the adjoining den and was definitely within earshot.  She dialed Jennifer’s number and went through the required pleasantries, but then she got down to business.

 “I’d be absolutely useless if the yard was up to me,” she said, quite out of the blue.  

“ ‘Course Albert does all of that.”  Etta walked a few steps closer towards the den. “He lays down that grub killer and even pokes those holes in the lawn, what do they call that?  Percolating the soil?” 

“Aerating!” Albert yelled in from the den. 

Etta smiled.  “Oh that’s right aerating.  See what I mean?” she said loudly.  “He’s practically an expert.”

Later, when Etta was at the sink scrubbing the roast pan, Albert came into the kitchen and leaned over her to get a glass out of the cupboard.  He stretched one hand upwards and rested his other on the small of her back.  It was the tiniest of gestures, and it was probably strictly for the purpose of keeping his balance, but still it made Etta wonder.

The phone calls continued throughout the week, with the compliments slowly growing more meaningful over time.  Jennifer confessed that her husband was better with the baby than she was, and Barney told about how his wife had once hocked her wedding ring to help him settle a gambling debt.  Sometimes, when they called, Albert would answer the phone.

 “It’s for you Ertha,” he’d say, clearly pleased with his little joke.  She’d had no choice but to tell Albert about the name mix-up, and he seemed to find the situation entertaining. 

All in all, it had been a successful week.  The troll had turned up once more; (she’d found it in the crock pot when attempting to make the Sunday stew, only to place it directly back into Albert’s shaving kit), and for several nights in a row Albert had come to the table without his newspaper. While the progress may have seemed small to some, Etta considered it progress just the same. She counted the days until her next class.

On the third Wednesday, Miss Marjorie taught them to meditate.  “What does meditation have to do with marriage?” Jennifer wanted to know.  Miss Marjorie said that to make an adequate half of a relationship, a person must be whole on their own.  According to Miss Marjorie, meditation would help them to achieve this state of totality.  They sat cross-legged on the floor, where everyone (with the exception of Barney) was able to find their “sitz bones.”  Miss Marjorie lit scented candles and instructed them to “go to the place where they were accepted.”  Jennifer shared later that she had gone to her sister’s house, and William said he went to his mother’s kitchen.  Etta was embarrassed to reveal her own choice.   After much deliberation she had decided to stay right there in Miss Marjorie’s basement.

She left class that day with a forty dollar mystery box; a box that turned out to contain enough candles for her to “build her own sanctuary.”  She set up shop in her sewing room, putting candles on every available surface, and placing a towel on the floor in the center of the room.  Every morning she sat on it, breathed deeply, and practiced the chants Miss Marjorie had taught her.

“What no headgear today?” Albert asked her once, while passing by.

“Headgear is not permitted in the sanctuary,” Etta told him gravely. 

Albert chuckled all the way to the kitchen.  Three days later when she came to do her meditation, she found the troll occupying her spot on the towel.

The following week they were assigned the task of mimicking their spouse’s mannerisms and favorite expressions.  Imitation, it seemed, was another form of flattery.  Miss Marjorie called it “mirroring” and said it explained why couples with a strong emotional connection began to look alike. 

Physically, Etta and Albert were practically opposites. Etta had straw-colored hair and a complexion so fair, she’d once been nicknamed “Beyond the Pale.” Albert, on the other hand, had hair that was almost black, and tanned so easily that an aunt of Etta’s had once referred to him as “that nice Egyptian fellow.” The prospect of the two of them ever looking alike seemed preposterous, and Etta voiced her concerns. 

Miss Marjorie sniffed. “The emotional connection is what we’re focusing on, dear.” She pulled an artist’s pallet and a glass of water, seemingly out of thin air and flicked a glob of yellow, and then blue paint into the clear liquid. “Our spirits emit auras with distinctive shades,” she said. “A scientific fact that I’m sure you’re all aware of.”

Barney nodded, somberly.

“The colors of two people’s auras can blend together, with a little coaxing. It’s a process I like to call empathic blending.” She swirled the contents of the glass, and held it up high.

Etta hadn’t ever heard of such things as auras, and suspected that Barney hadn’t either, but she was mesmerized by the tornado of yellow and blue, dancing around each other, intertwining, until they finally formed the most beautiful, verdant green.

Back at home, Etta tried her best on the assignment, but honestly wasn’t sure how successful mimicking Albert had been. She spent the better part of the week slamming cupboard doors and muttering obscenities.  Albert seemed more perplexed than flattered by the behavior, and Etta wasn’t sure if there’d been the slightest bit of aura blending.  Regardless of this minor setback, Etta remained upbeat.  It hadn’t been a total loss.  Their boxes had contained lovely hand held mirrors.  Besides, that was the week that she started getting together with some of her fellow students outside of class.

On Friday, Barney called and asked if she could give him a lift to visit his sister in a nearby nursing home.  Etta knew that Barney didn’t drive anymore (a senior van picked him up from class each week), and so she said she’d be happy to take him over. It turned out to be a lovely afternoon; they had a nice chat on the drive over, and Etta had even gone in to visit the sister, who was the spitting image of Barney, but with longer hair.

The next day Jennifer called to see if Etta would like to join her and the baby for a walk.  They went to the park, where they took the stroller up and down the paved pathways, chasing every squirrel that the little girl pointed to.

“Do you have kids?” Jennifer asked, as they walked along. Etta and Albert had been desperate for children, but after several unsuccessful pregnancies, (the last one life-threatening), Albert begged her to stop trying.

“We have a cat,” Etta answered. A memory rushed forward—Albert holding a cardboard box with a kitten inside, his eyes searching Etta’s, checking to see if he’d done the right thing.

“Meow!” said the baby, who had clearly been listening. They all laughed.

Etta hated to see the afternoon come to an end.   “See you Wednesday!” Jennifer called out her car window, as she was driving away.  Yes, Etta thought happily.  See you Wednesday.

Her weeks had taken on a certain structure that she found reassuring. It was only later, that she realized with regret, that the seminar would soon be coming to a close.  Miss Marjorie had said five weeks, which meant that they only had one last session together.  William called beforehand, and suggested that they all go out for lunch afterwards, as a sort of graduation celebration.  Etta thought it was an excellent idea.  Grandma’s Country Kitchen was just down the road, and Barney had recommended their tuna melts.

Their final lecture dealt with outside threats.  “When a country goes to war,” Miss Marjorie explained, “the citizens within generally stop bickering and become unified.”  She felt that these same dynamics could occur within a marriage.  If they could somehow arrange to be threatened or hurt by an outside party, she assured them that their spouse would quickly come to their defense. Barney reminded her that spikes in patriotism were often short lived.

“I’m well aware of that Barney,” she said, and she gave him a stern look.  “Remember, what we’re trying to do here is to build positive momentum within your relationships.  Ultimately you people will be responsible for keeping the ball rolling.”  Miss Marjorie said that outside threats could go a long way towards rebuilding intimacy, even inducing protectiveness and physical contact.

“Albert hasn’t given me a real hug in years,” Etta said wistfully.

While Barney remained skeptical, Jennifer became quite enthused by the idea of an outside threat, and suggested that they phone each other pretending to be bill collectors or obscene callers.  William wondered if a fender bender might be in order.  Miss Marjorie said that the right idea would come, and took out their two hundred dollar mystery boxes.

“Two hundred dollars!” Barney protested.

“The Grand finale,” Miss Marjorie assured them.

Some had to run to the bank across the street for the cash, but none of them even considered skipping that last purchase. They collected their final boxes at the door, each student hugging Miss Marjorie goodbye on the way out.  Over at Grandma’s Country Kitchen they all ordered tuna melts with four cups of steaming black coffee.  It was Barney who suggested that they open their boxes together.

“What, here?” Etta asked.  The opening of her mystery box had become somewhat of a sacred ritual.

“Why not?” Barney answered.

Etta felt silly explaining, though she thought she noticed that the others were somewhat tentative as well.

“I’ll start,” Barney offered, and nobody protested.  He pried the box open, and began unraveling the mass of tissue paper within.  Slowly he removed layer after layer, the suspense growing steadily all the while.

“Good things come in small packages,” William said excitedly, when the tissued mass had shrunk to the size of an egg. 

When Barney unraveled the final section, there was a brief moment of stunned silence.

“There’s nothing there,” Etta said stupidly, before rummaging through his discarded papers.

“Did it fall to the floor?” William asked, trying to be helpful.  Everybody bent down to look under the table, but all they found were their own feet.

“Check yours,” Barney said urgently, and they did.

“Empty,” they took turns saying, one after the other.

Etta couldn’t believe it.  “So she strung us along, to get what, an extra eight hundred dollars out of us?”

“I never trusted her,” Barney muttered.

“No wonder she wouldn’t join us for lunch afterwards,” William said. “I should’ve known she was making excuses. A clay cleanse? What does that even mean? People don’t eatclay, do they?” Nobody answered the question—the four of them suddenly feeling ill-equipped when it came to predicting the limits of human behavior.

“Maybe we should run back and see if we can catch her,” Jennifer offered, but nobody got up.  They knew she wouldn’t be there, just as they knew they’d never be able to track her down.  Barney astutely pointed out that after all that time they’d never even learned her last name.

Etta drove home feeling ridiculous and naïve.  Who would follow a set of cardboard signs into a basement anyway?  A bunch of desperate souls ripe for the taking, she decided.  Miss Marjorie had practically hand picked them. It was hard to believe that she had felt so adventurous and filled-up only hours before.  One empty box later and she was fully deflated. 

As soon as Etta got home she sank into a kitchen chair with her coat still on.  So it was all a big hoax, she thought. The sobs erupted unexpectedly and Etta quickly buried her face in her hands.  She never heard Albert enter the room.

“What’s wrong?” he asked worriedly.  “Is your mother OK?”

Choking out her answer, Etta told him about Miss Marjorie being a con artist and her box being empty.

Albert didn’t ask what box, or why it was important. He had always been a man of few words, and today Etta was glad of it.  Instead he did the unexpected.  He took his wife into his arms and held her, for what seemed like a very long time.


BIO

Alison Bullock‘s short fiction has appeared in Halfway Down the Stairs, Anti-Heroin Chic, Every Day Fiction, Boston Literary Magazine, Mississippi Crow, and the Momaya Annual Review. She was a finalist for one of Glimmertrain’s short fiction contests. She lives in Massachusetts. 

© Anne Jones Photography

Hear You Knocking

by Nicholas Karavatos


how far out I lie I speak
from between my lines

a barrier to myself
displaying a division

concealing a presence spoken into
a coffee before dawn a donut shop

another body not mine where you left me an
embodied concentrate of encamped identities

a reading list of current titles
that like I have been shelved.

you stole my body
                               even if I gave it
even if I’d given it
                               you stole my body

a line of blood in sand
a man between asleep

the permeable body is the first and last line in space every
body a frontier every body a horizon a line around a globe.

you made me a silhouette
I speak from the outline

my penetrable mind is dark to itself
is a shadow that deflates my oily hair.


Extraction Economies


That rattle in the mandarin is the bounce of fused
sectionalism under my skin. Almond oil milks my

nutteries. Artisanal meads and scented barley waters are
customary refreshments. A tribe without a flame is not a
                                           tribe.

All about me cannot last long. Gone from the picture, a played-out
character I can’t get out of. Sabotage is subtle. Inaction is conflict.

My nails grow quickly and are strong. I claw at my clothing.
Improperly wiped lenses issue attitudes on sight. These times

are smudges and smears on Time as honeybees make medicine in
Yemen and baskets of honeycombs sit high in Ethiopian trees. Bees’

honey and culinary oils are American skullduggery. My unionist oath
of outer citizenship accounts for my exclusive tastes for inner secession.

I shield my eyewear from the summertime
flash-bang. My caramelized onion head is

split like a ripe melon on a beach. Visions
of the future of the galaxy as a fruit salad.


Scent of Celery


Because
the women
said so. Because
the men said so.

Pointedly, he’s a besider; he’s a pathetic prospect of
a hashtag campaign in his bursted languages. He has

yet
   to.

Become no one. Done what. Too late another. Days too late. Never had an
office job or maybe did. Which one of him would be a liberated one of them?

He could’ve contended to become a fiber in the fabric
if he’d perspired through the static fantasy to its end.

Egregiously erogenous, the nonviolent hilarity of
an apocalypse could be fun if getting pantsed by

the Almighty were not violent harassment.

Venturing into holiday homecomings remind him he is the prey
and not the boast of a younger man’s ambitions. He could not

become The Cause so is half remembered on each return home.
As his accumulating subtractions space out, he wishes he could

laugh off the pieces. So, over breakfast
he chuckles a fruit frost as flakey as his

oblong orbits. He is lost to hers.
No tender for mutual cultivation

he mulches his onerous bends of space. Despite shapeliness
to their eccentricities, a figure of speech is not his last word.



BIO

NICHOLAS KARAVATOS is an assistant professor of poetics at the Arab American University of Palestine near Jenin in the West Bank. He was a U.S. Ambassador’s Distinguished Scholar to Ethiopia in 2018 at Bahir Dar University, and from 2006 through 2017, an assistant professor of creative writing at The American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. At the Modern College of Business and Science in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman from 2001 through 2006, he was a senior lecturer in humanities. His first year as an expat worker was on the faculty of the Fujairah Technical School in the UAE from 2000 to 2001. Nicholas Karavatos is a graduate of Humboldt State University in Arcata and New College of California in San Francisco.

The three poems published here are from his manuscript, Colony Collapse. Two poems from this manuscript and an interview with the author are at the Cathexis Northwest Press website. Of his full-length poetry book No Asylum (Amendment Nine, 2009), David Meltzer writes: “Nicholas Karavatos is a poet of great range and clarity. This book is an amazing collectanea of smart sharp political poetry in tandem with astute and tender love lyrics. All of it voiced with an impressive singularity.”

Kerplunk

By Jennifer Makowsky


Today when I see our weekly list of clients and their pictures, I get excited about a man named Heinrich Garby because he looks like my father.  I run down to the morgue to find Mr. Defazio. He’s puttering around, pulling up his pants over his big belly and looking around like he often does when he doesn’t know what else to do with himself. It’s like he’s lost. It’s a sunny Saturday morning, but it could be midnight down here with the florescent lighting and lack of windows. I hold up the list with the guy’s picture, trying to fight the smile forming on my mouth. Adrenalin is zipping around inside me, but I try to ignore it and look serious.

“Mr. Defazio, I would like to do the make up for this man,” I say in my most sincere voice, standing up straight.

Mr. Defazio stops puttering and comes forward, squinting at the photograph. Then he looks at me with a scrunched forehead. “What, do you have something against this guy? You seem awfully excited, Elizabeth.”

He can always read me. I’m sure the look of excitement is all over my face despite trying to look grave. I’ve always had a hard time suppressing my facial expressions.

“No, it’s just,” I pause and then spit it out. “He looks like my father.”

The perplexed look doesn’t leave Mr. Defazio’s face, so I elaborate. “I know it sounds weird, but my dad disappeared ten years ago.”

“Disappeared? You told me he passed away.”

“I just said that because I didn’t want to talk about it. But it’s like he’s dead because he just vanished one day. Poof!” I throw the fingers of both hands out. “Like a magician waved a wand.”

The look Mr. Defazio gives me is one I am expecting. It isn’t one of sympathy. It teeters on disdain. He acts hard and embittered and hates tears and emotion. He says it’s because he’s from Jersey, but I know it’s really because he masks his emotions with other emotions that are easier for him to express. When his wife Mora was living, she had been a crier. Everything made her burst into tears. This made Mr. Defazio mad. I often wonder why he went into the funeral business when he hates tears so much. Sometimes he excuses himself from speaking with the clients of a funeral we are handling and goes down into the morgue and kicks the bottom drawers. There are dent marks from his shoes lining the bottom of one drawer in particular. It’s gotten worse since Mora died.

“Vanished?”

 “Well it felt that way.” I say. “He sent a letter a year later. He took off with some woman he’d been having an affair with. Last I heard, he was in California.”

Mr. Dafazio raises his eyes to the ceiling. “Always with the dramatics,” he says, putting his palms up in exasperation and then slapping them down on his thighs. “I thought you meant he went missing for real. Like the police were involved.”

I shrug. “Doing this guy’s makeup might give me some closure.”

He lets out a grunt and shakes his head, rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s not an easy case, Elizabeth. You might be better off letting me do it. Pretty grim, if you ask me.”

“What happened to him?”

“The guy worked for a local nursery. He was moving a Saguaro for the city over on the East Side when it fell on him. The thing weighed close to 3,000 pounds. And you can imagine the way it left him with all those spines in it. Not a pretty sight, Elizabeth.”

I remember seeing a story on the local news about it. Man Crushed by Cactus or something.

Occasionally Mr. Defazio lets me do the make up for the “tough“ cases although he does most of them himself. These are the victims of car accidents and gunshots with open wounds and lacerations that need layers of special makeup and powders. I’ve never seen someone crushed by a cactus.

I make a steeple with my hands as if I’m praying. “It could really help me.”

He sighs. “Fine. But you’re going to need tweezers and a lot of patience.”

He turns and shuffles toward the stairs to leave, but stops and puts his hands on his hips and looks at the floor, his back to me. “You’re a damn good desairologist. The best. Besides me, of course.”

A desairologist is the technical name for what I do. I never use it though. It sounds too formal like I’m a scientist or doctor. When someone asks me what I do for a living, I tell them I give dead people their color back before they bow out of the world for good. Before I did this, I was a hair stylist. One day after my then-client, Louisa, dropped dead of a stroke, her husband walked into the salon where I worked and asked if I’d do Louisa’s hair one last time, and her make-up. Luckily, I’ve always been good with cosmetics. I guess having once been a goth paid off.  All those years of using white pancake makeup and layering eye shadow weren’t for nothing. I now know how to blend and spread foundation like paint into a canvas. It isn’t lost on me that my skill at making people look alive comes from trying to make myself look dead years ago. Anyway, I made Louisa look almost better than she looked in life. After that, I signed up for mortuary school and never looked back. Since then I’ve been hanging out in the back of the 90-year-old building downtown six—sometimes seven—days a week, tinting blue lips pink and putting the last curls into women’s hair. When I’m not doing aesthetic work, I’m assisting Mr. Defazio with a bunch of other stuff—ordering caskets, memory cards, and flowers.  In a way, I’ve become his partner since Mora died.

Monday morning, after Mr. Garby’s family gives the okay, Mr. Defazio embalms Mr. Garby’s body and then finds me in the front office.

“He’s all yours, Elizabeth. Good luck with all that.” He shakes his head and makes a dismissive gesture with his hand as if he’s tossed out a dirty Kleenex.  I nod resolutely, standing up and wiping the palms of my hands on my jeans. I am excited to give Mr. Garby his last coat of shine, but a little nervous as I take Mr. Garby’s photograph from the desk and head downstairs to the morgue.

Mr. Garby is waiting for me on the metal table, dressed in a pair of Levis and a blue and black cowboy shirt. The outfit is fitting, so to speak, because my father wore Levis religiously and had a couple cowboy shirts in his wardrobe. Mr. Garby doesn’t look bad for being killed by a 3,000-pound Saguaro. As I step closer to him, I see his face is rosy from the embalming, but is perforated with dozens of thick cactus spines. His blondish gray hair has been combed out by Mr. Defazio, but there are still spines twisted through it and little clumps of dirt.

Before I get to his face, I cut Mr. Garby’s nails. It’s a myth that your hair and nails keep growing after you die. Your skin retracts, so they appear longer. But Mr. Garby’s are a little long to start with and there’s dirt beneath some of them. With his hand in mine, I start to talk to him. This is not unusual. I talk to the dead when I’m working on them.

“Hi, it’ me, Elizabeth,” I say, looking at the embroidery in his shirt—red flowers stitched into navy fabric. My father had one with a similar pattern but the flowers were green. I take a breath and just launch in, mid-story. ”I no longer have roommates. I bought a house,” I switch hands and begin cutting the nails of Mr. Garby’s other hand. My heart has sped up and feels like a throbbing fist in my throat. “And no, I’m not married. I haven’t met the one.“ I pause and click my tongue. “Remember how you were always telling me to dump Mike Tinnerson because you thought I was too good for him? Well I did it. Finally.”

I begin to scoop the dirt out of Mr. Garby’s nails with the end of the nail scissors and think of Mike Tinnerson who I dated when I was nineteen and going to cosmetology school. He was the last guy I dated before my father cut town. When I was with Mike, he would call me fat and openly check out other women. But when I wasn’t with him, he would whine when I stayed home to study instead of hang out with him in his father’s basement watching The Price is Right and getting stoned. My father used to call him “The Tin Man.”  When are you going to dump that rusty Tin Man? he used to say with an exasperated huff. You’re far too good for him, Beth.

After my father left, I fell into a depression and pulled the plug on that relationship. In a way, my father leaving opened up my world. I began cutting assholes out of my life right and left. Like an asshole-swiping ninja. It wasn’t lost on me that my father was acting like an asshole himself.

“Anyway, mom really lost it after you left. She must have used half her settlement from the divorce to get plastic surgery. I can’t say I blame her. Men can just go off and find a younger woman if they want. Any woman, really. Women her age are limited as to what they have left to pick from. Unless they look young.” I stop as a shot of panic ripples through my chest.  For a moment I hear my mother telling me to get out there and find someone before all the good ones are gone. I shake the thought almost as quickly as it crosses my mind and continue. “Anyway, she had a facelift and breast implants put in.”

I take the tweezers and begin plucking the large Saguaro spines out of Mr. Garby’s face, but there are smaller ones that require the magnifying loupe glasses we use when we need to see every last detail of something. “It’s been years since we heard anything from you. Did you ever marry what’s-her-name? Actually I know her name because I did some cyber stalking. I know Erica’s a makeup artist. Like me,” I pause and let out a tight laugh. “Well not like me. She works on living people in Hollywood or some shallow bullshit like that.”

I feel my throat tighten with anger and stop. At the same time, the door at the top of the morgue stairs opens, followed by the sound of Mr. DeFazio’s heels banging down the stairs. I pause with the tweezers in my hand. I know that angry descent. He walks by me without looking, around to the other side of the wall where most of the morgue drawers are. In a few seconds I can almost hear him kicking the bottom drawers before it actually happens.

When he settles down, I yell over the wall, “I take it your last client was a crier?”

The shuffle of Mr. Defazio’s shoes gets louder as he rounds the wall with an exasperated look like he’s just run a marathon. There are beads of sweat dripping down his forehead that he’s dabbing with a white handkerchief.

“What is it with people and all the emotion, all the drama?”

I laugh and say in a sarcastic tone. “You’re never dramatic, are you?”

“Well I’m not emotional!” he yells, giving the closest bottom drawer a swift kick.

“Not at all,” I say.

He groans and puts his hands on his hips, looks at Mr. Garby, and shakes his head wearily. “I don’t understand it, Elizabeth. This guy’s just moving a cactus on the East Side, doing his job, and then goes kerplunk, killed by a cactus of all things. I was just talking to a woman upstairs whose husband went kerplunk—just like that—working on the job. Mora went kerplunk doing her job—God rest her soul. Who’s next? Are you gonna find me down here one day kerplunked?” He walks towards the stairs again, looking up at the door, shaking his head. “I don’t know how God sleeps at night.”

After he leaves, I turn back to my father, I mean Mr. Garby, and get close to his forehead where there are still several larger Saguaro spines that need plucking. “His wife, Mora,” I say, “was upstairs with a local florist placing an order when she suffered a massive heart attack and died instantly at the front desk. I wasn’t there, thank god, but Mr. Defazio has mentioned her going kerplunk upstairs almost weekly for the past few weeks. I think because the anniversary of her death is tomorrow. If Mr. Defazio ever keels over on the job it will because all that rage will take hold of him and give him a coronary.” I sigh a long sigh that feels like it’s been sitting inside me all stuffed up for years. “I was angry for a while. Angry at you, which made me angry at a lot of things. But I’ve been feeling better lately. Maybe because I started seeing a good therapist. And I’ve been venting—telling all the other dead people down here about how pissed I am at you.”

The door at the top of the stairs opens again and the sound of footsteps clomping down the stairs makes me stop in mid-pluck and look up. Mr. Defazio is standing at the bottom of the stairs looking at me like he has something he wants to say. But he remains quiet, rubbing his belly like a pregnant woman.

“Back so soon? Did you forget something?”

He looks beyond me for a moment and then snaps to. “Yeah, yeah, I think I forgot my phone down here. I can’t find it.”

He putters around.

“I haven’t seen it,” I call over my shoulder.

I shrug as if I’m telling Mr. Garby What the heck is up with him? Mr. Defazio rarely forgets anything. As he’s walking around, half-poking around the drawers, he begins to whistle. That’s something he does a lot. He whistles the theme to The Andy Griffith Show and Colombo, the theme to The X Files, the love theme to The Godfather, which was his and Mora’s song.  Right now, that’s what he’s whistling as he’s pacing back and forth, not really looking for anything anymore.

“I wonder what God does this,” he finally says. “That woman up there was pretty broken up. Her husband was operating a forklift and had a heart attack. Only forty years old. What kind of God, Elizabeth? What kind of God?”

I put the tweezers down. “You got me, Mr. Defazio. What kind of God lets a lot of the shit happen that happens in the world?”

I’ve never seen him like this. He’s rubbing the back of his neck and looking at the floor. Normally, he would have come down and kicked the bottom row of drawers while shouting some cuss words in Italian before going upstairs again.

“Have you ever thought of therapy?” I ask.

“Thought of it?” He wrinkles his heavy, dark brow. “Like how?”

“I mean thought of going to therapy? It might help you sort some things out. It’s helped me a lot.”

“Come on, Elizabeth. I’m not crazy.”

“I know you’re not crazy. I’m not crazy either.”

He walks over to the table where I’m standing above Mr. Garby. “Well, you’re down here talking to this man like he’s your father.” 

“Ha ha ha,” I say in a deadpan tone. “Try it. The dead are great listeners and you don’t have to pay them. It might help.”

He looks down at Mr. Garby for a beat longer than he normally would. He holds his hand out and gestures to the tweezers in my hand. “Give me those.”

I hand over the tweezers. He swiftly plucks the cactus spines out of Mr. Garby’s face. Each spine leaves behind a little gray circle as he plucks it. “You’re taking too long, Elizabeth. How long can a man be so humiliated?”

“He’s dead.”

“I know that. I’m just sayin’,” He pauses and doesn’t finish his sentence like he doesn’t know where he’s going with it. Then he looks down at Mr. Garby. “Anyway, this guy whose wife I was just talking to upstairs had a daughter. Maybe five years old. Cute little thing. Now she’ll grow up without a father. And you,” he says addressing Mr. Garby now. “wherever you are. . . “ He raises his eyes to the ceiling, “heaven, the afterlife, wherever,” he turns his eyes back to Mr. Garby, “You’re without your kids. Without your wife. Totally alone.”

I get the feeling he’s really talking about himself. He’s unloading in a way I’ve never seen, like he’s a different person.

“Mora and I never had kids,” he says as he continues to pluck the spines out of Mr. Garby—behind his right ear now. “I told her I didn’t want any.” He pulls with more effort than is necessary. “It’s bizarre. I come from a big Italian family. You’d think I’d want a big family myself, right?”

He pauses, looking down at Mr. Garby. Is he waiting for him to answer?

“Why didn’t you want kids?” I ask, hoping not to break the spell.

“I lost two brothers when I was ten years old,” he says, still looking down at Mr. Garby. “They were babies. Twins. Had some kind of genetic thing.” His bald patch catches the overhead light, which is so bright it could burn a hole in the floor if we left it on too long. “I never really knew them.” He exhales then straightens up and continues, not looking at me. “I saw what it did to my mother. She was never the same after that. I think that had something to do with my decision to deny Mora kids. Now I’m paying for it.”

“In what way?”

He hands me the tweezers. “I’m alone,” he says, still not looking at me. “I’m totally alone, Elizabeth.”

I swallow hard. It’s like seeing one of your parents cry. I want to ask him if he’d rather kick a drawer or something.

I take a shallow breath. “So not true,” I say, turning to pluck the spines behind Mr. Garby’s left ear where a cluster of what looks like dead grass is caught in the back of his hair. I snatch it out. “You have your brother in Newark.”

“Yeah, 3,000 miles away.  And he’s got his own problems. His wife has a pill problem and his daughter’s flunking out of school.”

I sighed. “Wow, that sucks.”

“Yeah.”

There’s a beat of silence before I say, “You have me.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know I’ve got you,” he says waving my words away like they’re bees buzzing around his head.

I almost smile as he says it. It’s the reaction I was expecting. His vulnerable lets-talk-about-it attitude was odd, even if it was nice to see his human side. It was making me feel like we had switched bodies since I‘m the one always spouting about feelings and trying to draw his out, much to his annoyance. Now I’m almost regretting ever doing that.

“But you got your own life,” he says, looking down with his hands on his hips.

“You know my life is pretty low-key, right?” I roll the clump of dead grass between my thumb and middle finger. I’m always talking about how my job is my life and I practically live here. “I promise that I won’t let you go kerplunk down here alone. Cuz I’m always here. And not just here here,” I point to the ground to indicate the building. “I mean I’m here if you need me—that kind of here.”

He gives a long exhale and straightens the collar on Mr. Garby’s cowboy shirt then buttons the top button where the top of the scar from his embalming surgery is visible. “Honestly, let the man have some decency, Elizabeth.”

He begins to back away, then stops and looks up at the ceiling again. “Your father was a numbskull to leave, Elizabeth. I hope you know that.”

I sigh. “Yeah, I know.”

He’s heading back upstairs when I call out. “Thanks, Mr. Defazio. Just remember you’re not alone, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

He sounds like himself again. I can’t help grinning. I can only see him on the stairs from the knees down. I’m wondering why he’s just standing there when he says, “Call me Frank, Elizabeth.”

Then he continues back up the stairs, whistling the love theme to The Godfather.



BIO

Jennifer Makowsky is a writer from the Northeast who moved out west to attend the University of Arizona and earn her MFA in Creative Writing. Her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Gargoyle, The Portland Review2 Bridges ReviewMatador ReviewHeavy Feather ReviewBlue Earth Review, and others. She lives in Tucson where she teaches English to adults.  


Hit That Ridge Again But This Time Hit It Full Speed

By Riley Winchester


In the summer of 2003 I flipped a go-kart on its head in an attempt to impress my dad. I didn’t intend on flipping the go-kart, because my dad didn’t have some weird fascination with upside-down quadracycles, but in my attempt to impress him that’s ultimately what happened. What I was doing was following a simple order he had given.

Before the flip, I had been putzing around in the go-kart all afternoon with my younger sister Kylan in the passenger seat. We drove back and forth and around in laps in a brown barren field across the street from our house. I imagine we looked so tiny and slow in our cherry red 110cc go-kart, traversing the dry vast field like a Ford Focus driving through a Mad Max movie.

Across the street from us, my dad stood in our driveway and watched while he ate from a bag of cheddar cheese curds. At the time, I thought he was the biggest and toughest person in the world. He stood six-feet-tall; he wasn’t heavy but he was by no means thin—he had a small swell for a stomach, a flat chest, muscular biceps, and broomsticks for legs. 

I grew bored of driving the same routes and Kylan was too scared to drive, so I turned the go-kart back toward my house and started home. I was ready to take a break from driving and do my usual summertime activities, like reading lowbrow juvenile literature or paralyzing my mind with Nickelodeon.  

On the way back I hit a small bump in the ground that I hadn’t ever hit before. I was going slow enough that the go-kart only did an underwhelming little jump, bouncing maybe half an inch off the ground. I didn’t think much of it and kept driving toward my dad.

The closer I drove toward him, the more I noticed how excited my dad looked. His eyes had ballooned bright and his cheese curd chewing had been enlivened into cheese curd chomping. I stopped the go-kart about ten feet away from him and he ran up to the driver’s side and squatted down to talk to me.

“Did you feel that?” he said with a wide smile and raised eyebrows.

“Feel what?”

“That jump!”

“Uh,” I thought for a second, “yeah, I did.”

The smell of cheddar cheese emanated from his mouth and pervaded the air between us. My eyes squinted as I looked at him, attempting to block out the sun. Kylan sat silently in the passenger seat, not yet old enough or familiar enough with my dad to know what was about to come out of his mouth. But I knew, and I could already feel the nerves building up and the knot in my stomach cinch tighter and hotter.

Then he said it.

“Hit that ridge again but this time hit it full speed.”

———

Nobody asked for the go-kart but one day my dad came home with it and surprised us all—my mom, two sisters, and me. He had somehow jammed it into the bed of his pickup truck, and when he returned home he fashioned a homemade ramp to drive the go-kart down out of the bed. But since it was a kid’s go-kart, he couldn’t fit behind the wheel to drive it. So my first time behind the wheel of a go-kart I had to drive in reverse down a steep decline on thin planks of wood that had been rotting in the back of our barn for at least two full presidential terms.

I think it took me forty-five minutes to drive down the five-foot-long ramp because my foot was anchored on the brake and only let off it for millisecond-long intervals.

It was around the time of both mine and Kylan’s birthdays, so my dad justified the go-kart purchase by saying it was a shared birthday present for us. That summer I was hoping for either some new Yu-Gi-Oh! Cards or the latest releases in the Captain Underpants series—Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 1: The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets, and its sequel Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers. And I doubt Kylan had a go-kart on her birthday wish list. Nevertheless it’s what we were stuck with that year.

This wasn’t the first instance of my dad coming home with a new toy—as he called them—nor was it the last. At least a couple times a year he would come home with a quad or a UTV or a golf cart or some other small engine vehicle either packed into the bed of his truck or hauled in a trailer.

The funny thing was my dad always claimed the toys weren’t for him, even though we all knew they were. If he came home with a youth go-kart that he couldn’t fit in and drive, we knew his reason for buying it was so he would have something new to tinker on in the barn, a new engine to tear apart and figure out, a new project to consume his evenings and weekends.

My dad was a worker, blue-collar as they come, and he believed in the virtues of work, work, work, and then, when all the work is done, find some more work or make some more work. This was something I never understood. I didn’t like work, not one bit. It made me tired and sweaty, so why would I ever seek out more of it?

I thought my dad had some rare, still undiscovered mental illness—or at least some shades of masochism—because of his psychotic predilection for work. To me it was an unhealthy obsession with labor and an equally unhealthy aversion to leisure. We couldn’t have been more different in our philosophies.

My dad never sat still or slowed down. When I would help him finish a project in the barn, I thought I now had the freedom to sit and relax inside, read a book, study for tomorrow’s spelling test, level up my team in Pokémon Ruby on my Game Boy Advance. I would turn and start walking toward the house, then my fantasy would be interrupted by something like, “Grab me a 9/16 socket and a flashlight. And get under here and hold the light for me. It’s darker than rabbit shit—I can’t see a damn thing under here.”

His go-go lifestyle never allowed him to sleep in either, not so long as there was work to be done. And there was always work to be done. If I ever slept past 7:30 a.m. on weekends, my dad would Kramer-burst into my room, turn the light on, peel my eyelids open, and say, “Get up, don’t sleep your day away.” It was 7:30—the moon still hung hazily in the sky, the grass was blanketed with morning dew—and my day was already in danger of being slept away. When I would grumble and plead to sleep in for another hour, he would say, “Tough shit. When I was your age I was waking up at four in the morning to go milk cow tits.”

He wasn’t a man to ever slow down and stop and smell the roses, simply because he was too busy digging up an area for a new rose garden somewhere else. I didn’t understand. I liked slowing down and smelling all the pretty roses.

———

I swallowed down the gigantic nervous lump in my throat and said, “OK.” The word smacked of cowardice as soon as it left my mouth. I didn’t want to hit that ridge again, and I sure as hell didn’t want to hit it full speed. But I knew this was a rare opportunity for me, an opportunity to show my dad that I wasn’t weak or scared, and prove to myself that maybe we weren’t as different as I thought we were.

I turned the go-kart around and drove back toward the field, toward the ridge I was supposed to hit full speed, and away from the safety of my house. I sat at the end of the driveway, neurotically scanning back and forth across the street, checking for cars that I knew weren’t there. We were way out in the boondocks, no cars or any signs of civilization were within a country mile. And I knew that, but I needed to bide my time as long as I could before my imminent ridge-hitting death.

The go-kart trundled through the field. I stared at the ridge as I drove past it. I stared at it like an abandoned baby zebra stares at a clan of hyenas during a hungry summer in The Serengeti. Once I had driven what I thought was far enough past the ridge, I turned the go-kart around so I could hit the ridge while driving toward my dad. I figured if I was going to die trying to impress him, he ought to see it.

I looked at Kylan in the passenger seat—quiet, innocent, blissfully unaware—and wondered if I would be posthumously charged with murder after I inevitably killed us both.

The go-kart and I were still. My arms were rigid, hands glued to the wheel, right foot scared of the gas pedal. Sweat percolated through the papery hairs on the back of my neck. I licked my lips. They were dry, like the field I was about to barrel through at full speed against my will. The go-kart engine hummed, soft and unassuming. I took a couple deep breaths. I looked across the street toward my dad but all I saw was a fuzzy outline. The field ahead of me was speckled with heat mirages, looking like I was about to drive through a dozen little puddles.

Something possessed me—I don’t know if it was a murderous demon or a surge of dumb courage—and I hit the gas.

The engine screamed and I felt the stuffy air wash over my face as I charged toward the ridge. My foot pinned the gas pedal to the metal frame below it. It felt like I had broken the sound barrier in that brown barren field. I was going too fast and my mind was too scrambled to see where the ridge was. I started to panic, but my panicking was interrupted.

I hit the ridge.

And this time I hit it full speed.

The go-kart did a weak one hundred eighty degree flip, slammed back into the arid, compacted dirt, and kept moving forward on its head, sliding through the dirt and leaving a trail of red paint chips and indents in the earth.

When I finally came to, and when I finally found the courage to open my eyes, I looked straight ahead, out at the tree line off in the distance. It looked different now, like the trees were coming out of the sky instead of the earth. Kylan cried and screamed, castigating me for being stupid enough to flip the go-kart. Physically we were both unharmed—the roll cage, seatbelts, and helmets ensured that. But we were handling the mental trauma differently. Me, in shock and silence. Kylan, in tears and screaming.

I heard a familiar voice over Kylan’s screams.

“God damn! You really hit that, huh boy!”

My dad squatted down and looked at Kylan and me, still dangling upside down.

“I didn’t expect you to flip the damn thing,” he said.

He manhandled the go-kart back upright onto its four wheels and pulled Kylan out of the passenger seat.

“I’m gonna walk Ky back, OK?” he said. “You drive it back and pull it into the barn, bud.”

I tried to tell him I was too scared to drive it back but I couldn’t get the words out. It felt like concrete had been poured down my throat. It was then I realized I was nothing like my dad. He could flip a go-kart and get right back on it. I didn’t want to flip go-karts, let alone even drive go-karts. I wanted comfort and stillness and safety. I wanted to be anywhere but behind the wheel of that stupid go-kart in that stupid field.

———

Years went by and things remained the same. My dad continued his busy lifestyle, and I continued to do, and be, the opposite of him. He spent his time playing around with motors and listening to classic rock on the old radio in the barn. I spent my time playing online video games and listening to prepubescent boys call me slurs and say how they all had defiled my mom.  

Then in November of 2013 my dad was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer.

Life hadn’t just thrown a couple speed bumps his way, it had laid out miles of spike strips ahead of him.

Still, he continued, to the best of his ability, to live the same life as he had before. He underwent a total colectomy in March of 2014, and his colon and the cancer were removed. He was fitted with a colostomy bag, which was now, without a colon, his only method of releasing excrement. He joked that he now saved so much time without having to stop what he was doing to use the bathroom, and he could be even more productive than before. Life, he thought, had regained a sense of normalcy.

But the normalcy was short-lived.

Seven months after the total colectomy, the cancer came back, and this time it refused to be defeated. The cancer perniciously took hold of his body and destroyed it from the inside out. It spread to his lymph nodes, his peritoneum, his lungs, tumors invaded his back and lumped along the crease of his spine.

By December of 2015, the cancer had completely seized his body and there was no hope of recovery, not even a miracle could save him. There is nothing else in this world that weakens and destroys someone like cancer, not even the most destructive war or brutal fight. Nothing else can strip someone of their essence, of their self—these always remain, even after the worst defeat. But cancer will. It will take these elements of someone’s being and shatter and trample them into the dust for everyone to see.

My dad was admitted into hospice care where he was put into a medically induced coma. His body was plastered with Fentanyl patches, his veins ran heavy with Dilaudid and Oxycodone and Alprazolam and Methylphenidate and other pharmaceuticals to alleviate his physical pain and shut off his mind.

I spent five days in a sofa chair by his bedside. I had never seen him sit so still, never in the eighteen years I had spent with him. He had never looked so small. His body had shriveled; bones now outlined the parts of his arms that were before inhabited by muscle. His face was sallow and pruned to the jagged corners of his jawline. The biggest and toughest person in the world had been beaten, abused, and destroyed into a frail little fragment of what he once was. For the first time in my life I was bigger than him, and I hated it.

The man I saw in the bed, I thought, wasn’t the same man I had known, the man who raised me. The man who was always on the move, never living a passive life, the man who told me to hit that ridge again but this time hit it full speed—because he wanted me to live fast and take chances like he did—was no longer there.

He died Sunday, December 6, 2015, at 2:25 p.m.

Sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t the metastatic cancer that killed my dad but the stillness. For five days he lay in that hospice bed, motionless, unable to get up and move and live how he always had. I imagine the back of his mind was filled with little anxieties the entire time he was in hospice—the oil change my car needed, the water softener that needed to be refilled with salt, the shaky stair banister that he planned on replacing. It must have driven him crazy.

After he died, my mom, sisters, and I individually spent some time in the hospice room with my dad. Although his body had been essentially dead since he arrived at hospice, and I had spent five days with him like that, it was strange to see him now eternally still. I sat in the sofa chair by his bedside and stared at him. I wanted to say something but I couldn’t. There wasn’t anything blocking my ability to speak—my throat was clear and my voice box was smooth and ready. I didn’t say anything because I thought nothing needed to be said between us. Everything that needed to be said had already been said, and it was now the time for silence.

As I stared at my dad longer, I created this image in my head of him opening his eyes, turning toward me, smiling, and saying, “Get up, we gotta go home and snow blow the driveway!” Or, “Come on, we gotta run to the hardware store right quick!”

Part of me thought it would actually happen. I convinced myself enough of it that I inched my right index finger toward my dad and poked him on the shoulder to check if he was actually dead or just faking it.

He wasn’t faking it.

I laughed when I thought of how ridiculous I must have looked, how ridiculous I was for even having a thought like that. I like to think my dad, wherever he was, laughed too.

———

Had my dad been born in the Neolithic Period, he would have taken the newly developed scrapers, blades, and axes and cultivated a thousand acres of land overnight by himself.

Had my dad been born in Antiquity, he would have given Plato a wet willie and said, “Shut up with all that science talk and gimme that hammer over there.”

Had my dad been born in the Age of Discovery, he would have circumnavigated the world three times over before Magellan had even left port.

Instead, he was born on a summery day in April in 1966, and he was my dad.

At times I thought the only thing we had in common, and the only modicum of proof that I was his son, was how much we looked alike—we’re basically twins born thirty-one years apart. We thought differently, we acted differently, we lived differently. He liked to work; I liked to think. He was fearless and outgoing; I was demure and reserved. He lived fast and didn’t think about consequences; I preferred to take things slow.

My dad once said that people have a lot more in common than they realize, but it’s just that differences stick out a lot more and that’s what we notice. I had never given that much thought until after he died—I had always discredited it as another one of his hackneyed little aphorisms he liked to throw around sometimes to seem intellectual. The differences between my dad and me stood out much more when he was alive. But now with time apart—physically and emotionally—I’ve become privy to all that we shared in common. 

We had the same sense of humor and laughed at the same jokes—whenever he heard a new joke somewhere, he couldn’t wait to share it with me. We never took ourselves too seriously, no matter how serious of a situation we were in. We both liked mindless action movies with no plots. We both liked Detroit sports, and we even went to some Tigers, Lions, and Pistons games together. We both liked to eat our French toast smothered in ketchup.

They’re little things, but they’re little things that mean a lot to me.

And I know they meant a lot to him.

The day I flipped a go-kart on its head I thought I would never in a million lifetimes understand my dad. I thought I could never understand someone so different than me, someone maniacal enough to convince a six-year-old kid to attempt suicide by go-kart. It was a confluence of confusion and terror. I wasn’t even sure if my dad was human. But, as it turned out, I just didn’t yet understand the simplicity of his life philosophy.

My dad wasn’t content with putzing around in a go-kart in the brown barren field across the street. That wasn’t enough for him. He believed that, sometimes, you just gotta hit that ridge again but this time hit it full speed.

 

 

BIO

Riley Winchester’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ligeia Magazine, Miracle Monocle, Sheepshead Review, Ellipsis Zine, Beyond Words, Pure Slush’s “Growing Up” Anthology, and other publications. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

Catch and Release

by Hana Jabr

To Jeff Metcalf

Last night I was a fish
in some river
I’ve never known.
The water tasted of moss

                                                          and the earthy mineral of smooth pebbles.
I glided and sliced
my way to the almost shore
where you stood in waders
water to your knees
waiting with your family.
A line of them
laughing
pretending you weren’t gone.

                                                         Would you catch me this time?
                                                         Raise me into the air                                      
                                                         mark me as a trophy?
                                                         Suddenly too many to count, we gulped the river and impatiently
                                             waited our turn
                                                                          trusting you saw us all                                                                                            our fins and gills                                                                                                                                      every last scale.

The sun dunked into the horizon
a biscuit breaking
the surface of a
lukewarm cup of tea.
All around me the river
tucked itself in for the night

and you disappeared into some
                                                                         murky forever.


Assessing the Damage


Exterior signs of earthquake damage include:
Continuous cracks horizontal cracks vertical cracks diagonal cracks foundational cracks stair
                  step cracks
Walk stairs carefully to check for a change in stability.
There’s a crack in the sidewalk
that wasn’t there before.
Inspect carefully
ceiling joints and floor registers. Are they loose, shifting, leaning, settling?
The crack in the ceiling still stretches when the house yawns
before or after a deafening stillness.
I can’t remember which.
But it’s centered.
Check if the windows and doors open with more than normal resistance.
What is normal resistance?
Be on the lookout for cracked or missing glass signs of water damage unusual debris shifting
                  gaps along cabinets.
Remember the tenderness of wind before?
Feel for drafts along the walls
inspect vertical mid-span rafter supports. Are they leaning, are they twisting?
Remember pictures clinging to walls?

Does the paint stare vacuous expressionless as if daring you to pack and leave
the shell of this home
                  behind?


No Relation

To Amy Cooper

The birds took flight when he bounded over
and the wind in the trees will bear witness.
Do you feel threatened now?
You think distance is just space that saves us
from restraint?
You are wound tightly around fear’s finger.
Your voice shivers behind a mask that hardly hides
hate as you bind him, winding the leash
until he cries
“I can’t breathe.”
He’s winded but your wounded pride fuels you
to hold him down, bound to the watchful ground
with non-deadly force.
Do you still feel threatened now?



BIO

Hana Jabr writes and teaches in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her chapbook Translation won the 2012 Salt Lake Community College Press chapbook competition and was published in an edition of 250 copies. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in The Start Literary Journal, Mapping SLC, and Thimble Literary Magazine. Hana is currently earning her MA in literature from Weber State University. When she isn’t working, Hana enjoys riding her horse, reading tarot cards, and drinking copious amounts of coffee.

The Punk of Spring or The Rite of Punk 

By Ed Peaco


According to Amazon, the score of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring cost $14.93 in paperback. This discovery delighted guitarist Franko Tucker, a self-branded prog-punk musician who was hipped to Stravinsky by Hermes Agee, a young Franko fan and fellow guitarist, though classically trained. From their friendship, they decided to make a punk version of The Rite of Spring for Franko’s band, Franko and the Futile. Franko had just turned 30 and wondering what he’d accomplished in life, and he realized he needed Hermy’s conservatory expertise to pull it off.

Franko, a tattooed stick figure of a man whose main nutrition came from bar food or what could be eaten quickly from a can, was squabbling with The Futile over whether to work up The Rite of Spring or play covers of songs people liked and knew. The Futile (prematurely balding drummer Merk Moskwa with his fedora, and Fletcher Harrington on bass with a heavy keychain slung over his hip) weren’t getting how cool The Rite of Spring could be. Franko settled the matter when Hermy, back from Berklee for the summer, insisted on Stravinsky and insisted to be there to avoid total collapse.

Hermy, currently wearing a man bun and a vintage sport jacket with elbow patches, had enlisted two players from his former high-school group, the Teen Strings, to make the effort sound more or less like Stravinsky. He demonstrated on his tablet with a music keyboard.

While Hermy was a necessity, Franko sometimes found him arrogant, an egghead type, irksome. However, he worked well with The Futile. They came around when Hermy told them their roles would be mostly the same — Fletch’s fuzz-bass throb, Merk’s double-bass kick-drum machine-gun approach. Better for The Futile, Hermy wrote a couple of raucous punk pieces for them — “Punk Prelude” and “Pots and Pans” — despite his mother’s preference that he stay on a strictly classical path.

Franko sported a colorful sleeve of tattoos on one arm, a scene of slithering creatures emerging from jungle greenery. He had a good fan base, at least in the sprawling city of Bristol Springs, Missouri. But some of his old friends from high school were the kind of folks he’d now normally avoid, as they were excelling in their careers and starting families.

He made an exception for Olivia Ellis, who he remembered from concert band.

One day, in Walmart, he was wearing his LeBron James number 23 jersey and shorts. He thought he spotted her in Produce, but he could have been wrong. He remembered Olivia as a gangly girl with long, shiny dark hair, strong minded, prickly, with few friends. He recalled she was married to a guy named Bob. But 12 years later, she looked filled-out, curvy. Her hair was short now, with a long shock that fell over her right eye. He had to say hello.

“Wow, you’ve put on a whole lot of ink since I saw you last — maybe since school?” she said.

“It’s on my fingering arm, to keep peoples’ eyes on me,” he said. “I’m making enough cash with my music these days: casinos, private parties, exhibition halls.” Thankfully, he wouldn’t have to talk about meeting quotas in call centers or busting down boxes at loading docks.

“Cool,” Olivia said. She talked about her work in real estate. “Did you know I’m working on a new development on the Central Square? Didn’t you say you lived there, on the west side of the square?”

“Yes, I heard something about that.” He had received numerous booklets and updates in the mail about the project, and consistently ignored them.

“The plans are for mixed use. You might end up where you are, but nicer — elevator, no more stairs.”

“How’s Bob?”

“Who, Shithead? His real name can’t be used,” she said with a clenched fist.

“I get the gist.”

“No, you don’t,” she said with piercing, dark eyes. “There’s more. I got a great attorney and the house.” Then Olivia launched into a story of being screwed at the real estate office where she worked. “I coddled a bunch of investors over a month or more,” she said. “I wiped their asses! Then the boss took me off the project. I don’t care anymore.”

They made plans for lunch after he returned from a two-week mini-tour of Russellville, St. Joseph, Ottumwa, Marshalltown, Kirksville and La Crosse.

MONDAY

After the overnight haul from La Crosse, the first thing Franko did was hit Aunt Millie’s for a pancake breakfast. Then he went to his fourth-floor walkup, but he found that fencing, blockades and huge wrecking machines were in place.

He bawled like a cow as he remembered he forgot about the demolition. He fell to his knees and bawled again, loud enough to be heard on the other side of the square. Franko had meant to look at the information before he left for the mini-tour, but as usual, he blew it off.

Now he was panicking, sweating in his armpits and crotch. He thought about Olivia Ellis. He couldn’t find her phone number at first, then he found it in his contacts.

Thankfully, she picked up. He tried to speak to her, but he was slobbering: “Help. I fucked up! Really fucked! Forgot. What to do, help me, help me. Help!”

“What’s going on?” she asked, trying to extract what Franko’s trouble was. He hadn’t removed his belongings from his studio apartment. “Stay where you are. I’ll meet you there. Franko, just breathe.”

When she arrived downtown, people were standing around, watching the setup for tear-down activities.

“All of this probably happened a day or two after the band headed out on the tour,” he said.

“Did you really leave all your shit in the building and go away for two weeks?”

“’Fraid so, but I did have some stuff with me.”

She swept into action, grabbed some city official in a suit, tie and orange plastic hard hat. He said they had a lost-and-found in the Public Works building, just a few blocks off the square. The plastic-hard-hat fellow told Franko to go there immediately.

“Could I take a quick look in my place before everything falls apart?” Franko asked.

The hard-hat’s reply: “No.”

At Public Works, Franko was grateful to find some of his belongings: boxed-up documents, a plastic tub including random things like dishes and a few books, a skateboard, spare guitar and keyboard, but not his laptop. He felt foolish but pleased to be with Olivia. He asked about his ancient MacBook laptop, but it was not among his effects.

Franko thanked the official and stood awkwardly, then skulked away. He returned to the square, where the crowd had expanded. Olivia drove home in her 370Z two-seater. She promised to return shortly with her spacious Chrysler 300 she kept for tooling around with clients. Well-to-do people in the crowd were cheering, and a few activists flew black flags indicating contempt over the destruction of longstanding structures.

Franko felt like flying a black flag, too, but he spent time avoiding people he recognized. After a time of sinking hope, Olivia returned. They filled the back seat and the trunk with Franko’s diminished chattel. He asked about the two upscale rides. “They’re used. You know, impression is everything in the real estate game,” she said.

—   —   —

Franko’s items actually amounted to a fairly substantial heap. They unloaded his crap into a spare room at the back part of her house, where Olivia made a place for Franko to work and sleep until he could find a place of his own.

“Have you checked with your insurance people?” Olivia asked.

“Who?” he asked, “No,” not wanting to admit he thought renter’s insurance was a big waste.

“You might get a check for some of your losses.”

Franko said, “My laptop is all I really want. It has all my music — all the tracks for The Rite of Spring. I had to break down and redo what Stravinsky did. I thought I was being brilliant by leaving the laptop behind so it wouldn’t be lost on the tour.”

“Have you heard of a memory stick, or even better: the Cloud?” He sat on an ottoman and hung his head between his knees. “I have a Mac. It’s got GarageBand. Use mine,” she said.

“Will I bother you staying here?”

“No, nice to have you here instead of Shithead.”

After dinner, Hermy came over to Olivia’s place to work on The Rite of Spring with Franko. Hermy plugged in and messed around with some intricate chord changes for a few minutes and immediately blew Franko’s mind.

“You have more talent in one broken fingernail than all the gray matter in my little tiny cranium,” Franko said.

“Have you actually looked at what Igor did?”

“Yes, that’s why I’m freaking out. I’m inputting chunks of The Rite of Spring in ways that will make sense for a six-piece. Franko and The Futile is just a simple garage band. What did I get myself into? Can we loop some of this?”

“No, folks will think it’s canned, and they’ll be right. We’ll just have to do the best we can.”

“One bar of 3/4, next one bar of 5/4, to a bar of 7/4, and, for a breather, three bars of 6/4, and back to 5/4. That’s why I’m getting ready for these screwy rhythms. And that’s why Merk and Fletch need something they can handle. Igor has made it really hard.”

Franko cued the second “episode” of The Rite of Spring on Spotify, then he gyrated and lurched from the abrupt directions of the piece. “We need a different title: The Punk of Spring or The Rite of Punk. Or both!

By now it was midnight, and Olivia was sleeping. Franko and Hermy decided to take a walk around the block. It was a mild evening. Halfway around, Franko was bathed in a sweet scent of something. He advanced toward the scent; he didn’t really know where it came from — flowering shrubs? He stepped onto the springy grass, seeking a more intense aroma.

“Hey, you better stay off people’s lawns. They don’t like that,” Hermy said.

At that moment, Franko detonated a ringing alarm, along with several flashes from the front-door area. A clumsily moving figure dashed out with a huge flashlight. The alarm stopped. The scowling man’s unruly hair became gauzy in the back-lit spotlight.

Franko, remaining stone-cadaverous still, saw that the approaching figure was wearing pajamas and a bathrobe. The garment slunk at an angle, with one side drooping. Then a big dog, growling and barking, appeared beside the man.

“Good morning, gentlemen. I’m Pleetus Ambercrombie,” he said, glaring at Franko. “And who, the fuck, are you?”

Then another fellow emerged from a home across the street and moved toward the others.

Pleetus looked over at the emerging neighbor. “Take it easy, Gibby,” Pleetus said. “I got Adolf here. He’s got a good bark that makes folks take notice.”

“But you might want to straighten up your britches,” Gibby told Pleetus. “These guys don’t look like much of a threat to me.”

Franko attempted to engage Pleetus, but the scruffy homeowner put his hand up like a traffic cop giving the stop signal.

“No trespassing,” Pleetus said.

Franko noticed that Pleetus had a chin beard about eight inches long, decorated with short stacks of beads.

Glaring at Franko, Pleetus thrust his hand into the pocket in the drooping side of his pajama bottoms and said, “Don’t approach me.”

Franko backed up. “Sorry, I just wanted to smell the shrubs. We’re just out for a walk. I’m staying around the corner.”

Pleetus busted out in an eruption of chuckling. “You’re a shrub smeller, ay?”

The big dog closed in on Franko, who tried to move away. It was making a muttering sound and did a half-circle to get behind Franko. Adolf was busy: nuzzling, growling and nipping. Then Franko felt something. “Hey, that dog bit me! Call him off!”

Pleetus said, “Adolf won’t hurt you. Nothing to worry about.” Gibby looked on, eyes darting from Pleetus to the two interlopers. “Go back to your house, Gibby,” Pleetus said. Then he focused on Franko and patted the drooping pocket of his pajamas. Pleetus called the dog, and it reluctantly returned to his master.

Franko pulled out his phone shakily and made a call. Luckily, Olivia picked up.

“Who’s yer callin’?” Pleetus asked.

“Our friend Olivia. She lives around the block,” Franko said.

“Oh, L’il’ Olive Oyl,” Pleetus said. “Just keep in mind, I got access.”

“To what?” Franko asked.

“I got access to use a firearm. Don’t approach me. Just think about what ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ means to you in your situation.” Pleetus patted his bulky pajama pocket, causing the bottoms to droop to his knees before he could hoist them up.

Franko had a little nervous titter over that, and Hermy whispered to him to shut up.

A vehicle arrived and parked two houses down the street. Olivia emerged. “Hey, I’m looking at you. Yes, you, Pleetus, the Barney Fife bum-fuck of the block,” she said. “You know the police have blown you off.”

“No trespassing,” Pleetus said.

“You are a pathetic old man. Just go back to bed with your dog,” Olivia said, as Adolf resumed barking.

Olivia corralled Franko and Hermy and brought them away from the fray. As they packed themselves into the 370Z, she explained that people have door-bell cameras for security. “I wish I’d told you all of this before I fell asleep,” she said. “Pleetus’s system is on a really sensitive trigger, and the lens is really powerful. He’s known as a local nut job.”

TUESDAY

Franko stayed up that night, recreating the score on Olivia’s Mac. While taking a break, he found old-west memes on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the neighborhood website, portraying Olivia, Hermy and Franko as bandits. He recognized the photos all doctored up. Damn, the geezer had pretty good social-media skills, Franko thought.

When he woke up, Olivia was out. He hoped she wouldn’t see the pictures yet. Each mugshot was cast as an old-time sepia frame. Wording at the top of the image was One Way or Another, probably because Pleetus had enough social-media savvy not to use Dead or Alive.

Later in the morning, the two other perpetrator/victims of Pleetus’s digital onslaught found out. Hermy phoned Franko to whine about his mother’s nagging him for staying out late.

Olivia texted to Franko, “messed up last night. shudda stayed away”

Franko: “gonna blow over”

Olivia: “pleetus can be toxic”

Merk and Fletcher found out, too, and they thought the photos were fantastic. The only thing they didn’t like was that they weren’t included.

—   —   —

That evening at rehearsal, Hermy focused on the business of The Futile not being able to deal with five, seven, and such. “Not judging, just sayin’.”

Franko nodded toward The Futile and said, “Listen up.”

Hermy introduced Brianna and Bethany, twins from the Teen Strings, and handed out some sheets. “They’re known as The B’s.”

“Who’s who?” Merk asked.

“It’s easy to tell them apart,” Hermy said. “Bri plays the violin and has one side of her head shaved. Beth plays cello and has really long hair.” Then he launched into some notes. “The B’s will play the main dance melodies — ”

“ — if you can call them melodies with those brutal changing time signatures,” Bri said. “I had to add 13 new time sigs into my software. I haven’t feared time so dreadfully.”

“I wrote a short piece in four that will sound Rite of Spring-ish, or call it something else. It’s something you guys can riff on when we need it. Everything will be integrated,” Hermy said.

“Hold up,” Beth said. “This is the coolest — the really bitchin’est stuff — we’ll play until college. Hey, Bri, are you saying we should water down this stuff just for convenience?”

Bri swiveled toward her sister: “It’s a score for a ballet. How can dancers step to all this tangled rhythm? Some of that pounding at the end could just as well be in three or four.”

“Igor didn’t want to make it easy, but we can if we want to,” Hermy said. “Franko and The Futile will play over the B’s in 4/4 or just go orgasmic.”

“Or like a three-year-old?” Fletcher asked.

“Same for me?” Merk asked. “Noise ahoy! That’s ‘Pots and Pans,’ right?”

“Let’s carve out a chunk of the score so each player gets a solo. Do whatever we can,” Beth said. “There’s a lot of momentous shit for all of us.”

“I’ll point when we want explosives,” Hermy said. “Then I’ll give the throat-cut sign to back off. Don’t worry, Bri, the strings will be amped up just like everything else.”

“Hey, Hermy,” Beth said. “If it’s OK with you, let the B’s name thing go by the wayside? This will be our first professional gig.”

“So, how do you want to be called?” Hermy asked.

“By our names.”

FRIDAY: THE SHOW

Franko had two T-shirts for gigs, the prog choice, showing Frank Zappa’s album, “Hot Rats”; or the punk selection with a smiling skeleton holding a cocktail with “Holiday in Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys. Zappa was the choice for his prog show of all prog shows.

The B’s showed up at the Error Code Bar, each wearing a Teen Strings hoodie.

Before set-up, Franko wanted to give a pep talk, but he couldn’t get anyone’s attention. Instead, he just chatted with Merk and Fletcher, while the B’s whispered between themselves about Hermy.

Merk interrupted the B’s, seeking another review of who’s who. Then Hermy went over some rough places and how he’ll cue them. The two string players tuned up, then they switched instruments and tuned again.

The B’s had a good laugh while others were confused, not getting the twins’ humor.

It was hit time, but few people were in the place yet. Two tables were occupied by girlfriends and the father of the B’s. Hoping to lure sidewalk traffic, Franko kept the front door open and continued to call for numerous unnecessary sound checks. After a while, the musicians got bored with the sound checks and dispersed.

Bri played magic tricks to pass the time. Beth fidgeted through all the sound checks and chewed gum to bother her sister. They decided to lose the hoodies; they’d be too hot on stage.

The open door brought in a few people. However, the tactic lured a police officer in as well. In a professional tone, the officer told Mike, the proprietor, that the loud music coming out of the open door was disturbing the patrons of the restaurant next door who were dining al fresco.

Mike told Franko, “Never prop the front door open ever again, and never do anything that would cause a cop to enter the building.”

Then eight young women barged in and told Franko, who was sitting on a bar stool, that they were on a bachelorette scavenger hunt. They assumed Franko was the owner. After a little banter with the women, he sent them to Mike. They had a large list, including something soft and something hard — “Could be from the same guy,” said the ring leader. After this quip, massive merriment burst out among the squad. Mike poured complimentary shots of cheap vodka all around and handed out beer coasters as business cards. Franko wished he were the owner and could have poured free shots for eight women.

The scavengers left after a disorderly chat with Mike, and in a short time, the room was beginning to fill up. The band assembled again. Olivia arrived and hopped onto the stage and collared Franko. “Hey, remember, if you make anything from your show, it goes to mortgage and food.”

Once Franko sent Olivia off the stage and the musicians assembled, they made a last and genuine sound check. He greeted the crowd, which was big for Franko and The Futile. They began to play The Punk of Spring or The Rite of Punk, with a two-part overture, “Pots and Pans” melting into the “Prelude to The Punk of Spring,” both by the trio of The Futile. Then the strings and Hermy executed some Stravinsky time fracturing.

Twenty minutes or so into the performance, in Episode Four, “Spring Rounds,” Franko thought he was seeing something around the front door. As people were moving toward the stage, he could make out an elderly bearded fellow wearing a black full-dress tailcoat tux and a stovetop hat. He was speaking into a bullhorn and scurrying table to table. During a quiet passage, the bullhorn overtook the music.

Franko thought it was some kind of fire alarm or tornado thing. He couldn’t hear the music. The bullhorn sounded like puking in his head. Then he could hear, and he heard words:

“Stop! You must stop!”

“You’re destroying America!”

“Degenerate music! Europe syrup!”

The crowd booed the intruder, but Franko still didn’t know what was up. He turned to the band and called for more “Pots and Pans.” Then he jumped off the stage, where he could more clearly hear the spew of the bullhorn.

“Degenerate intellectuals!”

“Horseface cosmopolitan!”

“A total botch-job sleaze!”

Franko realized that the asshole with the bullhorn was none other than Pleetus and his intricate chin beard. Adolph the dog was by his side.

Franko found a security guy. “Where were you?” Franko asked. “He needs to leave!”

“I thought it was part of the show. Sorry, boss.”

“The dog goes too,” Franko said.

“Dog? I thought it was one of them comfort critters. We’ll get it, chief.”

Bereft of his bullhorn, Pleetus could still bellow. On his trip toward the sidewalk, he had one more chant: “No trespassing!”

Franko hopped back on stage for the end of “Pots and Pans.” The crowd cheered.

The string players launched into the last episode of “Part 1, The Adoration of the Earth,” which sounded like a different kind of chaos. A ferocious, extended roar came from the audience. The plan was to have an intermission, but they played through instead.

After the show, Franko said, “It seemed to go really well until Pleetus got in the way. Even when he pulled out the bullhorn, it was OK. Did you see him getting the boot?”

“We couldn’t see it,” Hermy said. “I think the audience thought he was part of the show!”

Olivia came up to compliment the band. Franko said he couldn’t find her until he came down to deal with the mess that Pleetus was making.

“I was sitting with the B’s father, and we were comforting Adolf. He was whimpering under the table because the music was so loud, poor thing,” Olivia said.

“Anyway, ‘Pots and Pans’ was fun, the ‘Prelude’ sounded like a real tune, I mean something better than the stuff I write. And the actual Igor parts blew my mind,” Franko said.

“For me, the douche with the bullhorn was the height of my evening,” Merk said.

“Hell no!” Hermy said. “The B’s were killin’ it.”

“Joke!” Merk said. “You B’s were great!”

Beth was about to say something, but Bri hushed her sister. “Don’t get worked up about people calling us B’s. Come on, just be cool. We got our names in the flier.” Bri approached Hermy, cuffed him on the upper arm and congratulated him on his solo: “The shit!”

Beth did a curtsy before Fletcher and said, “The first distorted electric-bass solo on a piece by Igor Stravinsky. Well done!”

“It wasn’t distorted, it was fuzzed. I like the ZVex fuzz pedal,” Fletcher said. 

“Well, oh, anyway, Igor should be here.”

Merk caught Fletcher and asked him, “Hey, about what Franko calls us, ‘The Futile.’ We aren’t futile anymore. How about ‘Franko and the Funktones’?”

“No, we must own our futility!” Fletcher shouted.

“Well, I’m not going on tour being called futile,” Merk said.

NEXT MONDAY

Franko never read the paper except when somebody tells him he’s in it. This time, Merk was the one to tell him. The fussy performing arts freelancer really slammed The Punk of Spring or The Rite of Punk. They got a good laugh.

Desecration of a hallowed imperative of the canon, not to be smeared with excrement by barbarians. “Pots and Pans”? Disgusting!

Hermy wrote in a text: “kinda like Pleetus, different POV”

Fletch weighed in: “excrement, cool!”

Normally, Franko ignored phone calls from people he didn’t know. A few minutes later, he listened to the voicemail. It was Jane Zhah, the music director of the Bristol Springs Symphony. He thought, another nasty review? I’m up for it! Franko immediately called back.

Zhah said she was in the Error Code Bar for The Punk of Spring or the Rite of Punk. After Franko’s sputtering, Zhah told Franko the symphony is always looking for innovative music from local and regional composers whose work could be arranged for the whole orchestra.

“We have a ‘Best of Bristol Springs’ evening every season. This process would require a great deal of work for you and your ensemble, me, and our concertmaster. I hadn’t made up my mind about next season,” she said, “but after last Friday night, I’m all in for The Punk of Spring or the Rite of Punk. How about you?”

—   —   —

Olivia, at her cubical, called Franko, still energized by his conversation with Jane Zhah. Olivia asked him to come downtown for lunch. “Pleetus is parked next to the office. He has a huge banner on the side of his pickup with our faces like those Instagrams. Everybody in the office can see it.” She sounded a little jittery.

When Franko showed up at the restaurant, he found her, elbows on the table, head in her hands. “Everybody in the office was looking out the big windows, snickering, shooting weird glances at me. I just want to unload a lot of crap from certain people making my life miserable.”

After a few minutes, she stood up and led the way out, emphasizing her need for a drink. “What’s this, a liquid lunch?” Franko asked. When they sat down at a nearby bar, Franko saw that Olivia was trying not to cry, and he decided not to hug her or touch her hand.

They cozied into a booth, and she ordered a double of Maker’s Mark. She was furious, tearing up a cocktail napkin into little balls.

“My boss fired me with a text. It said he couldn’t have bad publicity, ‘people like you here.’ Can you believe it?”

“You’ll be OK. You always wanted to be your own boss.” Franko was doing his level best not to look happy or say anything about the symphony thing.

“I would have laughed except for the humiliation, but instead I almost lost it,” she said.

He asked for a club soda with lime, and the server asked Olivia if she wanted another. Franko was surprised that she was already ready for another.

“One thing, maybe a strange thing to say: Wish my picture on the banner wasn’t so bad,” she said.

“It’s OK.”

“No, it really sucks!” She laughed.

After a third and a fourth and maybe more, Franko suggested they leave. He was concerned about what she might do next.

She said, “Well, what the fuck, screw them all!”

Later, back at the house, she calmed down. He insisted that she drink some water and eat something. Her mood soured even more.

“Mr. Franko Tucker, what did you do this fine day?” she said with a sneer.

“I ran into some friction with The Futile. They were disappointed that they didn’t get their pictures up on the banner. But I like mine.”

“You like it, do ya? I’m the only one who’s getting crapped on for this. All because of you!”

“How’s that?”

“Think about it,” she said, throwing Franko’s favorite coffee mug across the room, making a gash in the wall and scattering pieces on the floor. “I got fired, terminated, dumped — do you understand any one of those?”

“OK, OK, OK. My bad.” He moved toward her in hopes that he could prevent her from destroying something else.

Sitting on the carpet, she pulled her knees up to her chin. She said, “One good thing: You’ve been in the house for a whole week and you haven’t screamed and threatened me yet. That’s 1,000 percent better than Shithead.”

“I know it was all my fault. What can I do for you?”

“When I get some clients, you can clean homes before I put them on the market,” she said. “And sorry I smashed that mug. Oh, and Public Works found your laptop.”

SIX WEEKS LATER

Franko got busy that Thursday morning when he heard Olivia pounding stakes for a real-estate sign: Open House: Sunday 2-4. He started in the master bathroom where he expected the worst scum. It was his first cleaning job. The tub looked OK, basic white, but with every squirt of chlorine-based cleaner and each swipe of the non-abrasive scour pad, the tub got more gleaming than before. One problem about this project was that the vicious fumes irritated his eyes and throat. It wasn’t all that bad, but his fingers, palms and wrists were on fire. He wondered how his new side job would affect his guitar work.

At least he could listen to The Rite of Spring on Spotify blaring from his phone.

Franko was still working on the tub as his stomach suggested lunchtime. Thankfully, Olivia arrived just then with sandwiches. His hands had turned a rosy brilliancy.

“No gloves, no knee pads, no safety glasses?” she said. “I told you to go to Harbor Freight and get some gear. I even gave you cash to do that!”

“I didn’t think I needed gear, but I guess so.”

“Yeah, your hands are melting!”

“Not really.”

She scrounged through her bag. “Here, it’s shea butter. Spread some on and work it in.”

“Nice,” he said, but he didn’t like the smell of women’s stuff on him.

They went to the store and Olivia outfitted Franko with a pair of PVC-coated rubber gloves and construction-grade knee pads with foam padding.

“You’re treating me like a kid,” he said.

“No, I’m treating you like an adult, which you do not do for yourself,” she said. “Do you still have those five twenties?” Olivia selected the gear and placed it on the checkout counter, and Franko delivered the cash.

Back at the house, she gave Franko a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew for the afternoon. Hermy dropped in to see the place and to see what Franko was doing. Olivia gave Hermy a tour that wrapped up in the master bathroom.

“Franko’s working hard, and so am I,” she said. “I got my LLC from the state and the crap from the IRS. I sold the 370Z. Boo-hoo! But I needed quick cash.”

Hermy announced to Olivia that they were doing The Punk of Spring project again in the fall and next year with the symphony.

“Yeah, that’s all I hear from Franko,” she said.

Franko had little to say. For the first time, he had a chance to simply enjoy her presence. Her shampoo or cologne reminded him of the scent of the shrubs on Pleetus’s lawn. The association made him feel good and bad at the same time. He understood this mess had been the best thing that ever happened and the worst, tied up in a series of unlikely events.

She said she’d be visiting a few people who might want to list their homes with her. She told Franko his job was to finish cleaning the house by the end of the next afternoon, in time for the open house.

After Olivia left, Hermy sat down. They jawed about music and women, and Hermy complained about his mom.

“True, but you’re suffering from whiny-baby syndrome,” Franko said. “And you’ll be going back to school soon.”

“And isn’t it bliss without any crap from Pleetus since the show — nothing!” Hermy said.

While Franko finished the bathroom, Hermy remarked on Olivia’s beauty and her excellent lawn signs that made her look even better. “She looks like Kylie Jenner.”

“Really?” Franko said: “No, she’s older and she’s an actual person.” Then he wandered into daydreaming. He took pride in not doing something stupid, such as making a move on her. He felt like he was somehow being a grown-up, and it felt weird.

When Olivia returned, she was at first annoyed to see Hermy still there, but she eased up when she saw that Franko had made progress. “So, you really do have some useful skills — beyond the guitar,” she said.

“That wasn’t very nice, but I can live with that,” Franko said. “What about Hermy: Shouldn’t he be held accountable, too? He was there at the beginning of the whole Pleetus episode.”

“You, Hermy: You’re just an accessory,” she said. Then she turned her attention back to Franko with a guarded frown. “You’re the guy doing community service.”


BIO

Ed Peaco wrote numerous short stories in the ’80s, ’90s and early aughts. Then he took a different path as a writer for the regional newspaper where he lives, focusing on local music. This story fuses his interests in short fiction and music. He continues to write short fiction where he lives in Springfield, Missouri.
A few notes —
• Another story by Peaco is scheduled to be published in 2021: “Additional Guests” in The MacGuffin.
• “Systematic Desensitization”: Alabama Literary Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1991; and Santa Fe Writers Project fiction contest, 2002, posting among the best 65 entries
• “The Precarious Limb”: River Oak Review, Winter 2000-Spring ’01; and a reading of the piece, June 2002, Evanston (Ill.) Public Library
• Book reviews for the Antioch Review, 1996-2004




Memoirs of a Lady Cab Driver

By Katy Wright


Prelude: Whether Permitting

I never planned on driving a cab.

I was a school bus driver, and proud of it. But I needed to make some summertime money until school started back up in September.

Both my brothers were cab drivers, and they both talked me into trying it. It had no real time commitment. As an independent contractor the cab company didn’t care who came and went. They just rented expensive yellow cars on the daily.

Trying out a new career would only cost me the price of getting a taxicab driver permit and a map book or two. What did I have to lose?

I had just finished my last run of the year as a school bus driver. My uniform shirt had served as an autograph collection device. One of the junior high school kids drew a fouled anchor on my sleeve, and wrote under it, “See you next year, you old sea hag!” and other nicer sentiments were all over various parts of my shirt. Nothing risqué, nothing written on any suggestive body parts. But it did look… silly.

I went to pick up my taxicab permit at the Santa Ana Police Department. If I recall correctly, I submitted my paperwork already, and returned later with my passport style photos and to get my fingerprints taken. It was Friday the 12th of June in 1981.

Time Twister by Katy Wright

So there I sat in the lobby of the SAPD. I was asked to take a seat, and told that an officer would be with me shortly. Then an officer did show up. He approached me in the lobby, asking me my name. Confirming my middle name, my date of birth, and my driver’s license number, he then put down his clipboard. He said to me, “I have to tell you that you have an outstanding…”

I knew he was going to compliment me on my perfect driving record. While I was honest enough with myself to know that I would probably never win the “Driver of the Month” award at Orange Unified School District, I knew I was probably an outstanding example of a safe driver. By cab company standards, anyway.

“…warrant for your arrest. Please walk this way.” He led the way to the guts of the building.

My reverie was shattered. I followed him, thunderstruck. There must have been some mistake that would sort itself out soon.

“If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the talcum powder.”

The officer looked puzzled.

“Old joke. Sorry. Not the right time for a joke.”

“What’s the joke?”

“Guy goes into a drugstore and asks the pharmacist where to find the talcum powder. The pharmacist says, ‘Sure, walk this way.’ The guy answers ‘If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the talcum powder.”

The cop politely chuckled. I bet he knew the joke, but was trying to put me at ease, or determine my demeanor. I don’t know.

The officer asked me if I remembered signing a ticket while driving a non-registered vehicle. Damn. The light dawned immediately.

I was pulled over while driving my dad’s pick up truck. He had procrastinated about getting it registered into his name. He had received it in exchange for sheet metal work he had done. It was an old work truck. I had signed the ticket and gave my dad all the paperwork. He said he would take care of it. I had even asked him about my ticket just a few months prior to being arrested.  

“Don’t worry about it. I’m taking care of it all.” I believed him. I forgot all about it. It then led to a warrant for failing to appear.

The officer had me place my belongings into a locker, and then he led me down the hall to a holding cell to await the next step, which was to be processed into the Orange County Jail. The holding cell itself was dreary. I seem to recall it was a dull yellow color. The bench in the cell had a large brown stain. I wouldn’t sit. I just stood near the bars, not touching anything. Holding my arms in front of me, by each elbow, hugging myself. Before much time passed, I suppose, another officer collected me to take me to jail. It just felt like forever.

“Sorry you had to wait, it’s shift change.” He handcuffed me with what seemed like a ziptie. Then he collected my things from the locker, and put me and my stuff in the patrol car. When we reached the sally port, he announced us in on the two way box at the gate.

“One cooperative female.”

It hit my imagination how, under different circumstances, having a handsome young cop call me a cooperative female would have definitely been foreplay.

There was what looked like a loading dock, with an open air bank of public phones. I was able to make a phone call. I called home but nobody answered. They allowed me to make another call. I asked my neighbor, Pat, to make sure somebody picked up my son Patrick from the day care center. And of course, pretty please, contact my brother Mike so that somebody can figure out how to get me out of jail.

I was then led into the building, and underwent processing. My belongings were stowed away. My identity was confirmed, pending additional processing that would happen when it was convenient for the system.

I was led, autographed work shirt and all, into a large holding tank with about 10 women. And a big stainless steel toilet on one side of the room. Wide open to the elements, as it were. One lady had to use it while we were all waiting for the next step, and everyone tried not to look. Dignity is often either acknowledged or disregarded depending on the group of people you’re with, ever notice that?

There were brief conversations around the room. Not exactly introductions, more like, “What are you in for?” One lady, dressed kind of like Peg Bundy (but not as brassy) embezzled from an employer. One lady was in for writing hot checks. I think one was in for burglary, I was never sure. There was one biker mama whose crime was never mentioned. And there were about a half a dozen prostitutes. The biker chick was after them like a Eugene O’Neill character, badgering them about giving up their hard earned money to pimps. They raged back, defending their bastard bosses to the bitter end.

Someone kept staring at my shirt.

The district did not issue an actual uniform. There wasn’t an actual dress code. But a lot of us voluntarily bought nice looking long sleeve button down shirts and sewed on the official Orange Unified School District Transportation patch. The circular patch was mostly orange, gave the name of the district in a circle around the outside perimeter, and had either a wheel or a bus logo. I don’t recall the graphics. But it was really neat looking, on a par with the kind of patch motorcycle cops wear, the kind with a wheel on it.

While staring at my shirt, and reading the “sea hag” quote below the district patch, the burglar asked me what my crime was.

“Failure to appear.”

She stared me in the face as if to question my intelligence.

“I got a ticket for driving my dad’s unregistered pickup truck, then I forgot about the ticket because –“

Just at that moment, an officer came to the bars and told me that I would be going upstairs for fingerprints. I was glad. I felt like they were all about to move away from me on the Group W Bench anyway.

Details blurred once I left the holding cell. The sheriff’s deputy was helpful, telling me what to expect next. It seemed like everybody knew I didn’t belong there. Not everyone who gets incarcerated is entrusted with the lives and souls of up to 79 kindergartners at a time in Southern California traffic… as my shirt proclaimed like a billboard. Hold the fat jokes, okay? If not white privilege, maybe it was school bus driver privilege? Maybe it was not unusual. But I appreciated the courtesy.

“In an hour or two, we will be processing everybody from the holding tank into the regular population. You will be given jumpsuits and dinner. But in the interim, you will just be shuffling here and there. And waiting.”

We went into an elevator and then a maze of corridors as she told me what was happening next.

“This next step is your mug shots. Then we will take your fingerprints. Ah. Here we are. Walk this way.”

I bit my tongue so I wouldn’t repeat the talcum powder joke.

I was positioned. I was given the obligatory black sign with the little plastic letters that went into the felt grooves. My name, never thought I’d see it like this. My bad. I was positioned and repositioned as the shots were taken.

“Well, Katy! I never thought I’d see you in here.” Chuckling arose from a voice that I couldn’t place.

Then Kristi Howison stepped from behind the camera.

We had taken a speech class together at Santa Ana College a few years back. Her talks were about her efforts to join the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (no trade secrets were revealed, just generic clues on how to get a decent government job). She also gave a self-protection lecture aimed at women.

“Oh my God, Kristi! I never expected you to see me here either! What are the odds?”

I went on to explain my embarrassment at having done something so stupid. She told me not to worry, it probably wouldn’t ruin my life. Then we laughed about my shirt. Some of the autographs on it were Hallmark quality cute. Then of course there was the old sea hag jab, which I assured her was good natured.

“Your brother is downstairs, trying to get you released. He was already admonished for yelling at the desk clerk. He was getting close to being arrested, himself. Kept going on about you not belonging in here.”

“Whew. I was wondering if he got my message.”

We exchanged more pleasantries while she took my prints. I’ve had prints taken for the bus job, so I knew the drill. Still got my fingers all blackened. We wished each other all the best.

‘You’ll notice I’m not wearing high heels, I am teachable.” We chuckled, that was my biggest takeaway from her shtick about street safety for unaware women. Heels are not safe in a crisis, too hard to run away.

Back to the holding cell. More awkward stares at my shirt. More ragging on the hookers from the Harley-attired chick. She was a true feminist. She wasn’t judgmental about their profession, just giving away a percentage of their take to their manipulative managers.

I was called away, my release was arranged. We collected my purse and stuff, then I was led through a door to a lobby where my brother Mike and our family friend Steve “The Greek” Chronopoulos were waiting for me. They were both amused by my shirt, by the looks on their faces. But we didn’t talk about that.

On the ride home, much information was covered. Steve drove, bless him, because neither of us was operating on all cylinders. Mike was still red in the face from his emotions. He said that when he told our brother Noel, he had a fit about it.

“‘You’ve got to get her out of there! She doesn’t belong there! She won’t know how to act!’,”  Mike quoted Noel as saying. Noel would have come along, but he had a long drive home after a long day, if memory serves.

“And by the way, what was all that about picking Patrick up at day care? Don’t you remember he stayed home with Nita because he had a cold and you kept him home?”

All I could do was shrug. I thought they’d all rag on me, but any anger and frustration was saved for Stan. If he would have not blown me off about the paperwork on the truck, I would have seen that I screwed the pooch on the overdue traffic ticket.

I suddenly realized how catastrophic it would have been had I been involved in any kind of fender bender with a school bus full of kidlets. Because even when an accident is not your fault, you still have to provide all relevant info. In an idiots way of thinking, you could say I got lucky.

“I guess this means we won’t be taking my training day tomorrow, huh Stavros?” I asked Steve. He was scheduled to take me out for my first-and-only day of training the next day. Newbies got one day of riding along with a veteran driver, and to get that one day, they had to show their Santa Ana taxicab operator’s permit. I still didn’t have it yet. Something interrupted me … oh yeah. I remember. I got arrested.

The legal ramifications were minimal. I had to pay a hundred dollar fine to the courts. I had to show that I had registered my dad’s truck. The judge told me not to worry. He said that most people get arrested at least once in their lives. He predicted that I would learn from this one mistake and never let it happen again. The school district made me fill out reports, but it didn’t jeopardize my “real” day job of bus driving next year.

Monday I got the taxicab permit. Tuesday, Steve The Greek took me out and gave me the best cab driver training that the company allowed. 

But that’s another story.


BIO

Katy Wright is a retired Jill of trades, and avoids recidivism after rehabilitating herself. She can be found on Facebook as Katy Wright Arts and Letters.

.

WALKING OUT

by R.T. Castleberry


Clouded spring,
I slip on twice-worn jeans,
high top Chucks, ironic uniform shirt.
Mingled musk of hibachi barbecue,
wheat beer, Marlboro lights
press balcony and stairs.
Leveling whine of a service dog,
twist of a Piaggio scooter
disturb the courtyard.
Stepping to the sidewalk,
a rushing whistle warns as
downtown rail lights a lane of
oak limb overhang,
painted chains and guard posts.
Open hours, no work for the week,
I take the liquor store sip.
Walking to the car, I weave
across root crack sidewalk,
stretch a weary, shaking hand
to drop spare coins into a beggar’s palm.
Blood shadow darkness carves
a high-rise Southern horizon.
Tension seals the day.


THE SEASON WE KNEW SICKNESS


In the spring, we reap a smaller harvest,
roast pigs on empty playing fields.
We read from the plague Bible,
clean gutters with firebomb and bone.

The ring hangs loose on the lover’s hand,
ribbon twisted tight on a supplicant wrist.
Winter scars seal on sunlit skin.
The plague summons is absent cause or penalty.

The chase continues in rain, a gritted fog.
Mastiffs scatter suspects across the hills.
No harm, little charm in the plague roses.
They grow gruesome along forest battle trails.

We cross the headwaters of the plague river,
drink as anointed, drained of spite.
Take the bridge. Take a ferry.
We’ll scrape the caves of lamentations.


AS SHE TALKS ME OUT OF FALLING IN LOVE


A drink at The Zero mixes strong.
Shots spill the rim,
cocktails served brimful and burning.
Scent of lime slice, mint sweetly crushed
hovers in the smoke.
Matador and picador swing through,
each precise in his fiesta control.
Coastal painters pull them
to sketch pad, to laptop easel.
Poets sip confessional absinthe,
snipe at journal critique.

At the window tables,
the café blooms like winter lilies.
Tea and tangerines accent each seating.
Lake winds caress the elms.
The random raging wife snares
a carafe of vino tinto, settles
sipping beside the tugboat quay.
Tremulous over lover’s lyrics,
a strolling soprano warns, “Goodbye, I’ve lost.”

Garnet ring gracing clenched fist
my third adultery instructs, “Don’t marry.
Adopt a string of dogs,
the kids and cognac mothers that come with.”
She gifts me her greyhound—tethered,
dozing at the ballroom door.
Living privilege to its conclusion,
she repudiates crowns of iris, rose, camellia;
denies family pressure, ominous marriage.
Despite all balcony lies,
the horoscope years that lay between us,
if she were to ask, I’d embrace
her children fighting on the river,
her children dicing in the desert.


MAYBE YOU’LL STAY LONGER THAN THE HOUR


On mountain rail towards the bay,
I saw deer racing a fire.
Leaping a creek,
they scale a stone path upwards,
dodge through a blue oak border.
I spend a lot of time in Mexico.
I take a hard line and the train when I travel.
An ex-wife, an ex-kid live there January to June.
Leveraged in another time zone,
she lives on sand. She takes a tan all year.
The girl runs the waves, resists no temptation,
raids wallets as damage entitlement.

Spring’s mistress arrives in March,
greets each evening in
hostess silks of Persian rose,
jonquil, malachite.
A month gone, we screw till noon,
brunch over dark rum mimosas.
Late dinner is Black Jack and Coke,
hash the daughter value shops
from the village smuggler.
Beach winds etch the picture window,
waves ever wilder against the breakers.

I read a lot. Things you need,
whether contrary or contradiction:
kindness if possible, otherwise the boot.
The ex writes lyrics she shares to the air,
randomness of rant, specifying nothing.
We gloss the wreckage of marriage memories.
We share a pipe some sunsets, afternoons
walk a musk of sun-warm bodies,
microbrews taken outdoors.

“You express more. I don’t like it,” the girl says.“
As you ask attention,” I tell her, “you get it–
sneer, advice and all.”
Setting sun is a splash on the boardwalk.
She looks away. I walk away,
long neck bottle loose in my hand.
A personal life calls for me.
I’ll sign some checks before
leaving later in the week.


STOLE MY COAT BLUES


Hands on hips,
I stretch legs to scrape
gutter mud from new ropers.
Feeder and offramp back my house.
The sea-sound rush cascades the backyard.
A wheelchair vet nests at the front
blocking the turn lane,
begging in danger for change.
Storm clouds settle to the south,
thunder’s roll an anxiety I accept.
The clock runs out like
train cars down a bayou track,
brother’s sneak through window and wallet.
Nothing remains past
scraps of spite, a cursing conversation.
I finish a cigarette, step to the patio,
flip it arcing, sparking into the grass.



BIO

A Pushcart Prize nominee, R.T. Castleberry is an internationally published poet and critic. He was a co-founder of the Flying Dutchman Writers Troupe, co-editor/publisher of the poetry magazine Curbside Review, an assistant editor for Lily Poetry Review and Ardent. His work has appeared in The Alembic, Blue Collar Review, Misfit, Roanoke Review, Pacific Review, White Wall Review, Silk Road and Trajectory. Internationally, he’s had poetry published in Canada, Great Britain, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, Portugal, the Philippines and Antarctica. He lives and writes in Houston, Texas.


Small Acts of Rebellion

by Jenny Falloon


I saw Ann the other day. I was walking down Granville Street, and I could smell the sea, that wild pungent smell that always grabs me. It was raining lightly, the air damp as only Vancouver can be. I was on the side of the street where Hudson´s Bay Department Store still stands, amazingly, all six floors of it, and where I once stole a cheap hairbrush. Not because I didn’t have the money to pay for it, but because the salesgirls were yakking away, I was late and on my lunch hour, and I got tired of waiting. So I walked off with the brush. There is no excuse.

But back to Ann. She was sitting in the window of one of the few cafes still open. I knew immediately that it was her, although it was all a long time ago. She still wore her hair piled up on her head, although there was less of it, and the black had softened into grey.

I was of a mind to go in and say Hello, but my raincoat was wet, and I had my umbrella and my bag and Christmas packages. And I would have had to put my mask on. She was with a younger man. A son? We never knew what happened to her afterwards, although Sandy heard she’d taken the Greyhound Bus to Fort Lauderdale, where she had an aunt.

And what would I say? Would she even remember me? There seemed little point. But I stood there unseen, not ready to let her go. She had made a dent in my life.

They looked out of the window in my direction. A son, for sure. The same rectangular face and firm jaw, the pale skin, an elegance almost. She looked older, of course, a little ragged. I wondered if she still got those little flushed pink discs on her cheeks when she was agitated.

Mr. Biernes had hired Ann for her typing. Even by law office standards, where speeds of 90 or 100 wpm were common, she was amazing. Her long fingers, the nails painted a glossy blood red, would fly over the keys in a blaze of speed and accuracy. I used to picture her alone at night in her apartment – she lived in a lovely old building down on Beach Street that was torn down years ago and replaced with condominiums –  touching up her nails as she watched the news in her pajamas.

The Law Offices of Arthur L. Biernes occupied a small suite on the 5th floor of an old building on Hastings, across from Pacific Plaza.Mr. Biernes must have been in his early 40’s. Confident and hardworking, he would arrive most days by 8, his face made ruddy in winter by the sharp morning air, wearing one of his “sincere suits,” as he called them, brown or grey and not terribly well cut, a silk tie, chosen by his wife, I’m sure, and polished Oxfords.

“He always looks so smart,” I whispered to Sandy, that first week.

“Doesn´t he?” She smiled knowingly, inserting a blank Subpoena into her machine. “We like to think that his wife shines his shoes every day for him. ´Come here, Arthur. We can´t let you out with your shoes looking like that.´” We all laughed.

“Come here, Monica,” Sandy said one day from the window. “I want you to see  something.” It was lunchtime, and we were alone. Efficient and easygoing, she was a pretty girl with thick blonde hair and eyes such a startling blue that I used to wonder if she wore shaded contact lenses. She was engaged to be married in spring.

I walked dutifully across to the window and looked down at the street, busy with people and traffic. I was wondering what I was there to see when I saw Ann amidst the crowd, her red coat bright among all the black and grey, walking briskly across the street toward Pacific Plaza.

“She´s going to Mr. Biernes´s club,” Sandy said. ¨They will sit on one of the big soft couches in the Lounge, have a quick martini. Then they will go the small hotel down the block.¨

I was aghast. My mouth probably fell open. As I say, it was a long time ago.

“Does Mrs. Biernes know?”

“Good heavens, no! She thinks he’s at his club. And he is most days, but once in a while he spends time with Ann.” She gave me a knowing smile.

“But how can you be sure? Maybe they’re just having lunch.”

“Oh, Monica. They´re not ´just having lunch,´ as you put it. Those hotels – or motels, whatever they are – don´t do lunch. They rent rooms.” She stopped. “And if they were, having lunch, why don´t they just say ´We´re going to have lunch. See you later.’ I don´t think we would fall off our seats in shock. Instead of which, he leaves at his usual time and she leaves ten or fifteen minutes later and sneaks over to meet him. And we´re all supposed to be fooled.” She went back to her desk. “Look at her face when she comes in, her cheeks. They´re always flushed after she´s been with him. Like a clown.”

“But how can you be so sure?”

“I followed them once.”

“You followed them?”

“Yes, I followed them. It wasn’t difficult. We’re not a detective agency, but we do have that capacity.” She lingered on the last word. “In a way, that’s part of Personal Injury, knowing what people are up to. Sometimes you have to spy on them.”

“Do you know when it started?”

“Probably around the end of summer, when we got the Higgins case. Mrs. Biernes was in Alberta for three weeks.”

Clara Louise Higgins, Guardian Ad Litem for Thomas Lee Higgins, a minor, vs. Colonial Cabinets, an Ontario corporation, etal, was a wrongful death suit. Tommy Lee Higgins had died at three years old, in his bedroom, when he pulled open the top drawer of a five-drawer dresser made of particle board by Colonial Cabinets. The dresser fell forward on top of him, crushing him to death instantly. We had been retained by his mother, Clara Louise Higgins, a large noisy widow who had six children, all under 17, leading Ann to observe, “Well, at least she´s still got five of them. One less mouth to feed.”

“What an awful thing to say!” Sandy was aghast.

It was my first job. I liked working in a law office. I liked the routines, the deadlines, the eccentric clients, even the archaic terminology. Typing the first sentence of a Complaint for Damages – ‘Comes now (John Doe) and alleges’ – I liked the waya trumpeter in a floppy blue beret would pop into my head, a clarion call to justice. I liked the way Latin popped up all over the place.

I liked standing at the window late on a winter afternoon, as the sky darkened, watching tankers glide sedately into the harbor, watching people hurry home through wet streets, or to meet up with someone for a drink, somewhere warm and dry. I’d picture drivers cocooned in their cars at the crosswalk, windshield wipers sliding back and forth, lighting a cigarette, changing the station, fiddling with the heater.

I even liked the mass of documents Ann and I produced every day, the complaints, petitions, motions, the long sets of interrogatories – ‘discovery,’ it’s called – and taking them in their envelopes to the Burrard Street Post Office on my way home.

It was on such an errand that I ran into Mrs. Biernes a few weeks later. I had to file a Motion at the courthouse and decided to combine that with my lunch hour. I was standing at the lipstick counter in Hudson´s Bay comparing Max Factor´s Pink Brandy with Lancome´s Le Pink Drama when a voice said, “Hello, Monica! Fancy seeing you here.” Her serene, heart-shaped face, beneath exquisitely trimmed blonde hair, looked up at me. (I get my height from my father.) “How is Arthur treating you?”

“Very well,” I smiled carefully. “He’s a pleasure to work for.” I almost said ´your husband.’ “How are you?”

“I´m fine.” She pointed at one of the little smudges on my hand. “I’d go with that one. Better with your skin color and your brown hair. In fact, I’m on my way to see him at the Club. I don’t like it much, frankly, all those men sitting around in their leather chairs. But I´m rarely in town, so I thought I would surprise him for lunch. What do youthink?” She smiled at me coyly, as though they were newlyweds.

Since that day at the window, I had tried to separate Mr. Biernes into two men, the one who employed me – “Nice work on those Interrogatories, Monica!” – and the other. Ann was a different matter. She had to be taken as a whole. I was careful never again to stand at the window with Sandy at lunchtime waiting for the red coat to appear on the crosswalk below. There were things I could not get my mind around. After a while I stopped trying. It would come.

“I think it’s great idea!” I said. “He will be delighted.”

It was after 2.30 by the time I got back. The door to Mr. Biernes´s office was closed. Sandy was alone.

Everything had been cleared from Ann’s desk. The photo of her Aunt in Florida, the round glass ashtray, the packages of Marlboro Lites, the Nivea Cream, tins of peppermints, the Penguin version of Anna Karenina. All that was left was the typewriter, the telephone, a battered Merriam-Webster dictionary, a stapler, and a big ugly green blotter.

“What happened?”

“She’s gone.”

Gone?”

“Yes, Monica. She’s gone.”

The word hung amid the wooden desks and the swivel chairs and the filing cabinets. The only sound was the metallic purr of Sandy´s machine.

The files she’d been working on had been placed on my desk, next to the Tommy Higgins file, bulging with depositions, medical records, autopsy reports, furniture catalogs, and marked in block capitals on the outside WRONGFUL DEATH.

“All it needs is a skull and bones,” Ann had said as she put it there that morning.

Sandy turned her machine off and looked at me.

“Mrs. Biernes came into the office. Which she hardly ever does. So I was surprised, and I was all ready to chat. She said Hello to me but not a word to Ann. She went straight into his office. She didn´t even knock! Oh, well, she´s his wife.”

“She was in there I don´t know, ten minutes, maybe a little more, It was all very quiet. Ann just went on typing away, a mile a minute. Not a word. Then the door opens, and she comes out. She says Goodbye to me and leaves. Ann was still typing.”

“Then he buzzed Ann, and she went in, all very calm, and I heard voices, I heard them talking. I was at the copy machine when she came out. I heard her going through her desk, opening and shutting drawers, getting her stuff.”

“I didn´t know what to do, Monica.  I felt terrible, almost sick. What could I say?”

There was sorrow in those blue eyes. And something else. Things happen, I was starting to understand, and all you can do is watch and hang on.

“Finally, she had all her stuff, she had her coat on and her gloves. She never goes anywhere without her gloves this time of year. ´I’m going,´ she says, standing at my desk. ‘I’m sure you’ve figured that out. You may even have figured out why.’ And she gave me such a strange look, you know that blank look she sometimes has, as if there are things she knows that you couldn’t possibly understand. She said, ´I hope everything goes well for you. And Richard. With the wedding. Tell Monica that I’ve enjoyed working with her. She’ll make a good legal secretary.’”

Mr. Biernes didn’t replace Ann, even with a temp. Maybe he thought there was too little time, with the trial impending. Maybe he didn’t want another woman sitting there with a baleful gaze, blowing smoke rings, hair piled dangerously on her head. Maybe he thought he would give me a chance.

If he did, I took it. I worked hard. I put in long days. Ann’s words would ring in my ears. “Don´t forget the Proof of Service, Monica, to all parties. But especially to Jacob B. Herlihy, Esquire, a former alcoholic, as we all know, but a good lawyer just the same.”

Some nights I was there till 7 or 8. I would drag the plastic cover over Ann´s – now my Selectric and put it to sleep for the night. I’d stop on the way home at a Chinese take-out place on Robson, long gone, and get a carton of Chop Suey or Ginger Beef, and eat it on the couch while I listened to the news, across from the Murphy bed.

As Joan Didion said – her city was New York – “Was anyone ever so young?”

One day Mr. Biernes opened his door.

“Monica, have you got the Shiller Subpoena?”

“No, Mr. Biernes. It should be in the file along with the others. They were all issued the same day.”

“Well, it isn’t. I’ve looked.”

“Let me check,” I said, suddenly queasy, following him calmly into his office. “I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.”

Not to sound too Hollywood, but Robert Schiller was our star witness. A retired product engineer, he had done a study two years ago on dressers and the tendency of Colonial Cabinets dressers to lack structural stability and to fall forward when an upper drawer was pulled open – by a lad of three, say – causing injury or death. The study had concluded that Colonial Cabinets had been aware their dressers were defective and continued to manufacture and sell them anyway.

Ann had tracked him down in Charleston, South Carolina, and interviewed him on the phone. His name, address, phone number, qualifications, as well as her typed summary of the interview and a copy of the report, had been paper clipped to the Subpoena.  

All of it was gone, the Subpoena, the paperwork, the summary, the report. Everything. It was as if Peter Schiller no longer existed.

Sandy tried to get hold of Ann by phone. Twice she went to her apartment on Beach Street, the second time banging on the door and peering in through a window. The place looked empty. Mr. Biernes talked with a private investigator friend.

It was not, as they say, the end of the world. We had other witnesses, although none as strong as Mr. Schiller. We had a strong case. Juries are sympathetic to little boys when dressers fall on them and kill them, and to their mothers, no matter how many children they have.

But Mr. Biernes faltered. The zest seemed to go out of him. I think he couldn’t quite believe Ann had done this, had chosen this particular act of revenge. He would sit at his grand oak desk in his office and stare out of the window for long periods of time. He began to forget the names of clients. He missed appointments, court appearances. The robust “Good morning, Ladies” started to sound forlorn, all the more so now there were just two of us ladies to hear it. His brush with disaster had come too close.

Jake Herlihy, who represented Colonial Cabinets and was a member of the same Club, probably sensed this. So he offered to settle. When Mr. Biernes emerged from his office one day after numerous long phone calls and told us the sum they were haggling over, that Tommy’s brief life had been deemed worth, we looked at each other in dismay.

Clara Louise didn’t like it either and left the offices in tears and fury, along with the youngest three of her remaining children, who had spent the time sprawled in front of the small television in the 5th floor Law Library watching Happy Days.

As they all shepherded themselves noisily out of the office, the smell of defeat in the air, I pictured Ann, pale and impassive, glancing up from her machine for just a fraction of a second. “Take it, Clara. It´s the best you will get. And you´ve still got the other five.”

I stayed another year with Mr. Biernes, and he held on. Then I went to California, and I lived there a long time. But I came back. I missed the smell of the harbor, the tugboats puttering through English Bay at dusk, the damp. People ask me why I left California. Because it’s dull, I tell them.

Now, of course, we have the Women’s Movement, Feminism. Everything is different. Women have more power than before, more freedom, more choices.

A name caught my eye the other day in the Legal Gazette. Andrea Biernes is a Municipal Court Judge in New Westminster. There was a photo of her in her new courtroom, smiling confidently, gavel in hand. She may well be the granddaughter of Mr. and Mrs. Biernes. It is not a common name around here and like medicine, law often runs in families. Either way, I am sure Andrea is a fair and competent and hardworking judge. Certainly, she will have more power than I ever had – or Ann with her flying fingers and her Marlboro Lights, or Sandy with her watchful eye.

All the same, I hope she keeps a close eye on her husband. Those small acts of rebellion can surprise you. I know. I’ve seen them.



BIO

Jenny Falloon studied English Literature at UC Berkeley and years ago, wrote articles for Bay Area sailing magazines. She has lived in Canada, the United States, England and Spain. Since retirement, she has won prizes for her stories in the U3A Javea and Xabia Book Circle. This is her first published story. She writes brief political satires, fast fiction, and short stories.



Boomerang

by Ian McGaughey


It’s funny when it happens, when you’re on a long stretch of road and you pass the same car four or five times. Terry had been drinking a lot of coffee and found himself stopping often at rest areas and pull-offs. He’d sometimes see the older blue Ford pickup go on past as he made his way to the SaniCan, only to catch up with it later. Each time he passed, Terry would look over to try and catch the driver’s eye, an older, gray-faced man holding the wheel at 10 and two, but grayface never took his eyes off the road in front of him. He never moved.

Terry was making the two-hour trip from Tok to Delta Junction on a stretch of the Alaska Highway that roughly followed the path of the Tanana River, snaking its way through the snow-covered Alaska Range. He’d planned on making the trip a few weeks earlier, but the weather had been unusually mild for October, and he and his crew stayed in Tok to take in as much construction cash as they could before the long winter. Now into December, he couldn’t put it off any more.

He’d done this drive dozens of times, and never stopped marveling at the incredible beauty surrounding him, the high-reaching cliffs, crystal blue lakes and miles of black spruce. There’d been times when he’d have to wait for a herd of buffalo to amble across the road. Sometimes they would just stop in the middle, planted like big brown furry barriers oblivious to his need to get going, looking a him like a visitor from another dimension. Other times he wouldn’t see a single animal, and he’d clip along the vein cracked highway, fast under the pearl blue sky.

Terry liked these trips to Delta Junction. He wasn’t much of an outdoorsman, and his lifelong tendency toward tunnel vision kept him focused on the close and immediate. Hitting the road forced him to open his eyes and expand his view. He’d often ride in silence, forgoing music or talk radio in favor of taking in the expansive beauty around him.

And he would think, letting his mind wander, and remember.

“It’s time,” his father would say every Sunday morning without variation, sticking his large head into Terry’s bedroom, “let’s go.” Terry would roll over with the pillow on his head, trying to stay in dreamland just a little longer, dreading the weekly pilgrimage to the Tok Bible Chapel.

It was when his father died that he started going to church again as an adult, at first to comfort his mother, but later to comfort himself. His father’s death had been a shock, dropping dead in the lumber mill of a heart attack at 49. Terry’s mother followed less than two years later, but by her own hand. Her intense life-long depression raged after her husband’s death, and the accompanying financial woes led her to mix the grim cocktail of twenty-plus Valium and a quart of Yukon Jack.

Now, five years later, Terry was grateful his parents hadn’t been alive to witness the drama of his last couple years. The divorce, his ex getting custody of Meghan, his DUI—the result of his increased partying with the guys after (and sometimes during) work. His younger brother had done well in financial services in Seattle, and urged his brother to get out of Tok and come south. But Terry liked it where he was, he liked his friends, the guys on the crew, he liked the small-town simple life, he had just turned 30 and he wasn’t going anywhere.

But today he was going to Delta Junction, and he relished in the freedom and contentment only a road trip can bring. He shook off the thoughts of his parents and the troubles of the past few years and stared out the windshield. The sky was darkening and the temperature dropping. There was talk of more snow and cold weather coming, but it didn’t sound bad, and he figured he’d probably beat it anyway.

Besides, it had been months since he’d seen his daughter. He’d made so many false promises of a visit that he could hear his ex-wife was telling her, “See Meghan? Haven’t I told you not to get your hopes up about your father?” Terry loved his daughter, of course, but he hated seeing his ex and having to succumb to her rigid rules (remember, she doesn’t get any soda or sugar) and disapproving comments (you know, you’re getting a beer belly). Worse than that was her boyfriend, Alan the bodybuilder, who spoke little but wore a hostile, threatening look. Terry couldn’t believe this jerk was raising his daughter.

“So, you grow up around here?” Terry asked him one day, trying to make conversation.

“Nope.”

He turned on his headlights. The glare of the piled up snow on the roadsides contrasted with the dull black blur of the pavement. He was making good time and would be in Delta Junction by 5:30 or so.

There was a chill and he reached down to turn the heat up a bit more. The temperature was already minus 15. There was a movement outside.

He saw it as soon as he lifted his eyes from the dash. Oh no. The moose was big and running in a diagonal across the road toward him. No!

Instinct took over. He swung the wheel hard to the right. He saw the matted hair and black eyes. His truck screamed onto the shoulder. He missed the moose by a foot, but plowed into the high snowbank and lost control, getting airborne for a moment over the slight incline, landing with a hard crunch underneath and stopping some 100 feet off the road, half buried in a snowy depression.

He swore.

His entire windshield was cracked. His hands still held tight to the wheel. He caught his breath and felt pain in his wrists, but was otherwise fine. The fine-grained snow was up over the hood, blowing in mists around his truck. The engine still chugged away, impervious to the situation. He knew there was no way of getting the truck unstuck on his own, but tried anyway, gunning the gas and twisting the wheel.

Something about the lack of motion made him feel colder. He grabbed his heavy jacket off the passenger seat, jabbed his right arm into the sleeve and maneuvered it over his shoulders. He pulled on his ski cap and gloves, leaned hard on the door to push away the deep, light snow and stepped out into the cold.

Through the wind he heard a distant vehicle approaching. The snow was over his waist, making walking a challenge. The sound got closer and he pushed harder, making his way up the incline toward the road. It was the blue Ford. He started waving his arms. “Hey … hey!” He was still some 30 feet off the side of the road but could see the man’s outline in the cab of the truck. The ghostly, gray-faced man stared straight ahead. “Hey!!!” The man never looked, and disappeared into the darkening night.

Terry looked back at his half-covered vehicle. The white exterior of the protruding cab blended in evenly with the snow. He traced the path it made back to the road and saw the moose, standing on a knoll looking directly at him. “Hey, look what you made me do!” The moose stood motionless, offering no reaction. Terry worked his way back toward his truck, turning once to give the moose the finger..

He cleared snow from the tailpipe and got back in the warm cab. Cool blue lights of the instrument panel reported an outside temperature of minus 19. He shivered as he turned the heat up to max, noticing that he managed to get snow inside his left boot. He opened the window slightly to listen for oncoming traffic. Nothing. He checked his phone in case by miracle there was a signal, even though he knew it was at least another half hour of driving until it would crackle to life. Again, nothing.

And then something. A growing sound from the highway. He blasted his door open and retraced his steps up through the snow toward the road. It was an SUV coming from the opposite direction, a deep roar increasing in pitch as it drew nearer. This time Terry reached the shoulder, waving his arms high over his head. The vehicle slowed and the driver pulled across the road to Terry, rolling down his window. “You all right, buddy?”

“Yeah, just got forced off the road by a moose. I’m stuck down the hill.”

The driver looked behind Terry. He was in his early 20s with thumping, bassy rap music coming form the car. “Oh yeah. Wow.”

“Can you call me some help when you get to Tok?”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll probably have a signal if 30 or 40 minutes.” He looked at Terry. “You gonna be all right out here? It’s cold as hell.”

Terry agreed, assured him he’d be fine and thanked the man as he drove off. He turned to look for the moose. It was gone.

Back in the truck, the heat wrapped around his body as he thawed the deep chill from his short time outside. A couple other vehicles went by, neither seeming to notice him. No worries, he thought. That guy will be in cell range in about 20 minutes.

He looked at his fuel gauge. Wait—hadn’t it been around half a tank when he left? Why was it down to a quarter? Maybe he wasn’t remembering right, he thought. He wondered what his wife would think, now that he’s going to easily be a couple hours late. “Just typical, Terry,” he heard her saying. “Typical.”

It was funny and tragic to him how far apart they had grown. He had once been enthralled with her every move, every word she said, every gesture. Now he was filled with dread at the thought of seeing her for five minutes. He asked her once, “What happened to us?” expecting to provoke a sentimental response. Instead she berated him, “What happened to us? You fucked other girls while we were married, that’s what happened to us!”

It was true, of course. He slept with Monica twice, the girl in the construction office, as well as a stripper at a buddy’s bachelor party in Anchorage. She’d found out about Monica (they always find out, he’d been warned, especially in a small town like this), and in a moment of total honesty while pleading for forgiveness, he added the stripper to his confession.

“But that was it. It was stupid. I was drunk. It didn’t mean anything.”

His marriage to Diane had been far from ideal, though its beginning sparked many happy moments. The small wedding reception at the seafood restaurant in Seward, their parents and close friends drawn together by their shared joy. Their first apartment, sleeping on the floor that first night, too tired to unload the U-Haul, holding each other for warmth. The night Meghan was born, looking at each other with disbelief at the beautiful life they’d created.

Yet there had been cracks in the foundation along the way. Her extreme jealousy, his excessive drinking, the arguments about all kinds of things, stupid little things that always became so huge. Still, they’d usually make up with passionate sex, making him wonder if their fighting wasn’t a kind of foreplay.

As good as their sex was, it also represented one of their greatest tragedies. Sometime after Meghan was born, he began shutting his eyes tight, fantasizing that he was with the two college girls in the apartment down the hall.

A tractor trailer roared by on the road above him. The thermometer reported 25 below. It had been an hour since that guy had driven off. Should only be about another 20 to 30 minutes or so until helped arrived. The night had become dark, with no moon and thick clouds covering the sky. The wind was steady.

What the hell? His heart pounded. Why is the gas tank nearly empty? He couldn’t believe it. There must be a leak. Damn it! He thought he saw the gauge move. This is not good.

He started to brace himself for the push outside to investigate, but stopped. What would I do out there? If it’s leaking, it’s leaking. I’ll freeze trying to dig under the car to find it. He opened up the glove compartment, pulled out a mini flashlight and turned it on to see the dim glow from weak, old batteries.

He looked behind him in the cab to gather blankets just in case. He pushed aside yesterday’s newspaper, some cans, an old shirt. Where are they?

The realization that he removed his emergency blankets two weeks ago while helping a friend move hit him hard. You’ve gotta be kidding me! He pounded the wheel with his fist.

The gas gauge slipped to the wrong side of E.

60 miles away, his daughter was dancing, or maybe she was coloring, or maybe watching TV. Meghan had just turned six and this visit was going to be his belated celebration with her. He’d planned to take her to Fairbanks for the day, getting ice cream and going to a movie. He marveled at how much she changed each time he saw her, at times making him feel like a stranger.

Still, Meghan was always so excited when he pulled up. She’d be running down the steps before he even got out of his car, like she’d been watching from the window. It broke his heart to think that she’ll give up waiting tonight, that Diane was likely trash-talking him again, and he was helpless to do anything about it.

The engine sputtered. “Come on. Come on!” He shook the wheel as the comforting purr knocked to a stop. With it, the warmth pushing out of the vents was replaced by stillness. The temperature in the cab immediately began to drop. Terry zippered his coat up past his chin and pulled his cap down past his ears. “I’ll be fine. They’ll be here any minute now.”

But he was starting to think maybe something was wrong. It had been nearly two hours since the young man had driven off, promising to send help. A truck should have arrived at least half an hour ago. The road above had been eerily quiet, and now with his engine gone he could hear the wind race through the valley. He felt a deep chill seep through his truck.

Sometimes he thought he heard something coming up the road, but it was the deep cry of the wind. Terry was cold. The insulation in his old jacket wasn’t what it used to be. The sweatshirt he had underneath was thin. His jeans had gotten wet from his earlier excursions and were still damp. An occasional shiver gripped his body. He rocked back and forth to stay warm. Come on, any minute now. Come on.

He heard it. It was a big truck, maybe a wrecker. He forced himself into the cold, shutting the door behind him to preserve the little warmth still left in the cab. Yes, thank God! He started up the hill, but something caught his left foot and sent him sprawling face-first into the snow. The flashlight slipped out of his glove and deep into the powder. Bright headlights appeared, filling the black spruce with a twisting luminescence. He pulled himself up. “Hey!” The truck was going too fast, he thought. He resumed his climb. Hey!

The oil tanker never saw him, disappearing around a distant curve, its roar replaced by the unforgiving wind.

I’ve got to make myself to stay out here close to the road, he thought. He was maybe only 30 feet from his truck. Under the snow, the blue glow of his dying flashlight beckoned like a fire. He stumbled over and stared. The light made a perfect circle. In the darkness, it reminded him of photos of earth from space, a blue orb perched in pure blackness.

The wind blasted his face. He placed the flashlight into a pocket and worked his way up the hill, chin tucked into his chest. He had to be ready to flag down the next vehicle. The cold seemed to come from deep within him, radiating out from his core. He shivered hard, uncontrollably. He held himself in a tight embrace. His teeth were chattering with such violence he was sure they would break.

Come on. Please.

It had been an hour since the engine has sputtered to a stop. He figured the temperature was minus 30. He tried the old tricks, imagining a tropical beach and a brilliant, hot sun, or pretending to drink hot soup from a thermos, the wet heat falling into his body. Nothing helped. He could barely stand due to the convulsions, growing stronger and more frequent. He was weak and exhausted. He sat down to rest.

He was 15 feet from the edge of the road, down the slight incline but still able to see the barren stretch in either direction. He forced himself into a ball, trying to conserve any heat he still had. The wind pounded him. No matter how small he tried to make himself, it found him and tore into him with unrelenting power.

Minutes passed. He had to get out of this wind. He couldn’t believe how hard he was shaking. He looked back to the truck, the outline of the cab barely visible in the dark. Before the thought fully formed in his mind, he was in motion, half rolling and half crawling, making his way back toward the shelter of the truck.

When he got the the door he noticed he’d somehow lost a glove, the bloated white form of his hand grossly swollen, barely able to grab the handle. It took all the strength he had to push himself into the cab. He pulled the door hard and shut out the wind, laying across the seat, arms pulled tight against his chest.

Fire. Fire! He would build a fire. Why didn’t he think of this before? He’d pile the newspapers on the seat and start a small fire. He reached for the glove compartment, fumbling with the mechanism, trying to compel his fingers to cooperate to push open the release. The compartment door popped open and he reached in, pulling everything onto the seat, desperately looking for matches. Maps, aspirin, Band-aids, vehicle service manuals, oil change receipts. No matches.

He fumbled through the mess again. Come on. Come on! He slammed his bare hand onto the seat. It was then that he felt the weight of despair crash over him. He lay on the seat, muttering “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it.”

A pale blue envelope on the seat caught his eye, one side torn where it had been opened. He turned on the flashlight to read the return address. It was from his daughter, addressed to Daddy Nichols. He pulled out the card with the words “Thank You” in silver swirly lettering across the top. Inside the card was a photo. Meghan was standing in a bright, green field holding the red plastic boomerang he had given her for her birthday the previous June, showing it to the camera, beaming with excitement.

There was no preprinted message inside the card, just Meghan’s blocky handwriting. I cant wait to play boomerang with you Daddy. Love, Meghan.

The flashlight was all but dead. He let it fall to the floor. As it hit he began to feel a raw surge of heat. He got warmer. Uncomfortably warm. He unzipped his jacket to get relief. Not enough. He took it off and pushed it behind him. He ripped off his cap, pulled off his remaining glove. He felt like someone had lit a fire in his chest, like he was burning.

He pushed out into the wind and fell onto the snow for relief. Just then, a blinding light hit him squarely. The sound of a large vehicle rose above the gale. He crawled toward it through the snow, still sweltering in intense inner heat. The vehicle roared closer, its beam getting brighter. The engine slowed and it pulled over directly in front of him on the shoulder. It was a heavy duty tow truck, bright and white with lights dancing in orange and blue.

Terry pulled closer, snow clasped tightly in both hands. The doors opened. He saw the figure emerging from the passenger side first. It was a woman, a woman in a simple white dress, radiant in the barrage of light. A man came around the front of the truck toward him in simple overalls, the glow of a cigar lighting his face.

Though it had been years, in an instant he had recognized the pair. Mom and Dad. “Let’s go,” his father said. “It’s time.”



BIO

Ian McGaughey was born in Virginia and grew up in upstate New York. He’s held elected office, lived in Alaska and currently works in government administration in Arizona. He plays the electric bass, and once considered dropping out of high school to join an Elvis impersonator’s backing band.



Tinroad

by Natasha Sharma


a cuckoo sounds, papa
slats between the light
in our tropical room bronze high
’90s fashion pressed
vermillion ink on my fingers a
tingle we’ve entered your childhood
roam rivers seeking seas
on boundaries permanently erased

our high hopes searching
your home half abandoned this century
ago who is left bodies only
innocent we try too hard

it’s lost now concrete
has made the silent vow
strips of green red streamers aloft
the trees outside construction
lingers a thrush pushes out
your now broken lost house
feel your body doing what’s left


middletown swimming


these days, we’ve chosen to be swept under some
imaginary depths of chlorine,
to have the concrete bowl be our bones
my sister and I lay in the empty pool, recall:
her violin my flute store, its strip mall
bankrupt, all the heroes with their golden teeth
and us not guessing, to play later,
notes out as dust motes in this bottom bowl

a wealthy family’s chemicals laden the air,
a leftover blonde’s lock, their painted nail
I’m choking without thinking
I imagine the splashes above me,
the bubbles rising from sinking bodies,
all ghosts of summers shadow over us

police come to hear our skin screeching
against this desperate bowl’s purpleized
mosaic, then, midwestern evening autosphere
lures bronze skies warning vehemently, to run zoom
out past vintage bicycles, broken jockey statues
and grandma’s windcatcher collection bids us chiming goodbyes


succulence


between my legs he tickles me with the calligraphy of a brush
meant for other women in his novel of us that’s not really us
aspiring to something meant for real Indian women, I paint
curry onto my nails wielding them above bubbling pots,
below, a paisley rest on my ankle bruises elephant skin
above it my legs are something for wolf-men to suckle at
it’s waxy between my breasts it’s sticky in his mouth
it’s my grandmother’s recipe


Indiana Desi


Mama has left us for her head, inside it
her purple molten plants bleed untended,
unintended we fled with the broken U-Haul

history will not hope for us
we’re the wrong color brown, saris
torn and bright, discriminate patterns

the cattle have taken our side

our bodies allowed only in the large spaces,
herdable, I hear my stomach bellow
it seems a visitor to this broken space

my people stare out blankly
cowboy laundry hanging beside black pens
cotton hued against my shaking

I forget our color out here, picket fence
imprisoned in our own country
how many chains till we feed together again?


split/marriage: a buoyant miscegenation


black hair-dye splat, bleached skin cream dot
eye me from a rose-colored carpet
miscegenation
a child’s bathroom floor

creeping in my oatmeal bath
brown-itchy bottom buoyant
mommy, when will I be done?
till your skin shrinks/till I can see your bones bleach

six-years-old,
I pretend mermaid
cooking in the oven
iridescent fish turning
pink-red-white

my fingers pinched prunes
her purple knuckles pound
dough sticky roti slabs
sizzle gold spitting oil

now Papa’s eye will turn doorways
her knuckles will snap like chickpeas
while I’m left-behind fishy flakes
a maid rotting in forgotten waters



BIO

Natasha Sharma is a tutor for early and elementary age students in Ohio. Her poems represent growing up in the American Midwest as a first-generation South Asian and touch on mental health issues, trauma, and dreaminess. She holds a Master’s degree in English from Miami University of Ohio and her work can be found in “The Hartskill Review”, “As/Us”, “Better than Starbucks,” and “Fleas on the Dog.”



Schooled

By Donna D. Vitucci



Sister Antoinette

In sixth grade the music came to us. Sister Antoinette brought her mouth organ to our classroom. That’s what the boys called it, no matter its official name. The instrument was a piano-like keyboard the nun blew into, while playing the keys. Never saw one before, and haven’t seen one since. To us, she was old but I bet no older than I am now. Hard to gauge a nun’s age when her hair was covered with the wimple and her body hid inside a shapeless dark habit. The old-lady black lace-up shoes and the round rimless glasses she wore didn’t help. Most nuns were sexless and old, in our experience. Sister Antoinette taught all three sixth grade classes music. She brough it to us in Room 206 on Tuesdays after lunch.  She changed classrooms, we stayed where we were, all day in that one seat, arranged alphabetically by last name so I sat near the front, with a prime view of Sister’s spit when it leaked out the end of the instrument after fifteen minutes of off and on blowing.

Our school had finally purchased music books. Prior to that year, music instruction had been church hymns and mass hymns and hymns for sacraments we were preparing to receive: First Confession, First Communion, Confirmation, and the school-wide yearly May Crowning. The new books had words and music, the staff and the cleff, whatever those were. Words, to me, mattered, as they do today. What we learned: As Those Caissons Go Rolling Along; Roll On, Columbia, Roll On; This Land is Your Land; I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair; Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal—The American Songbook.

Sister Antoinette may have been hard of hearing, not swift for a music teacher, but Catholic elementary schools invested more in religion than the arts. Her slight deafness, or pretended deafness, allowed the boys to make fun of her, her mouth organ, the songs, and the spit. She was the butt of their jokes, and they piled on while my anger increased like rain in a barrel.

Here, in the person of Sister Antoinette, good was tackled and taken down. Bad would not always be punished. Disrespect slithered along and the boys’ mocking accrued as the music classes added up. I ached for Sister Antoinette, what she acted blind to, or was blind to. That she let bad run riot disgusted me. She was either blind and deaf, or a coward. They were just puny sixth grade boys, who held our lives in their hands, in their words, in the ways they cut us down or spared us. Us being the girls.

At the end of music class one day, Sister left our room for hers. I rushed to Mr. Miller, our usual teacher, who’d returned to assume his class.

“I need to tell Sister something,” I said.

He waved me on. “Well, hurry up.”

I dashed next door, to a classroom like the one I’d just left, full of trapped, mopey sixth graders.

The nun’s bleary eyes took me in their focus.

“Sister,” I said. “I’m not like those others. I’m sorry they won’t listen, won’t behave. But I’m not like them.”

She nodded, she probably thought I was nuts. Or a suck-up. And I guess I was.

Because it was a lie, and not even my best lie. With no spick of rain or salt. The lie lacked the fork. The lie lacked spice. Bold-faced, it was the lie trying to get across the border, the one where an adult would take note of a child, where the spotlight shone down through the young one like a knife pinning her to the earth. The lie was in the child’s mouth, there right now, glinting on her molars, x-ray-ing the wisdom teeth still inside her gums. Nothing else in the world was so shiny as her standing before the woman, and making the child, herself, into a spare truth. She was a tattle tale. She was her own livid dream.

May Crowning arrived, an evening of whole-school procession, class by class, grades one through eight, around the school and church grounds, praying and singing to the Virgin Mary statue in the parking lot, amid her circular bed of flowers. Children were instructed to bring a flower from home, then the flowers were collected in each class and one representative brought the room’s bouquet to the Virgin, stepping out from the rest of the children.

Mr. Miller couldn’t attend, so he sent his wife to organize our class. Mrs. Miller didn’t know us, she was ignorant of who merited the bouquet. She deferred to Sister Antoinette’s choosing.

Thus I earned the great honor with great treachery. I wanted the privilege and I also didn’t want it, a chance to grandstand, to draw my classmates’ attention. I processed with Room 206’s bunch of flowers, for all to see, and who was watching anyway, except God? My skin burned with my-only suspicion Sister had chosen me due to music class piety. I had always been a head-down don’t-make-waves girl, complete your work, do it well, make your parents proud. Up to then, every “A,” every holy card, every gold star I earned, I earned, but I snagged the May Crowning honor by tattling. What’s worse, I bore it alone–punishment of sin, demerit and demotion, demolition of a child’s small will.

Look at me, at an age older than then-Sister Antoinette, still flush with this sick memory. Priests and nuns, with their voodoo, they really needled us good.

Folz

Boys were smart but girls were smarter, until junior high when boys wised up, quit their high-jinks, or they managed high-jinks and high math like salt and pepper, one in each hand. Where girls suddenly found the allure in dumbing down, noted how not-so-smart girls, even slutty girls, caught the boys’ eyes. We noted and absorbed as if by breathing, that knowing wasn’t all there was to knowledge.  We were twelve.

Then the rumored math teacher walked in. Newly-minted, he set to teaching us seventh grade algebra. Mr. Folzenlogen, only the second male teacher the school had ever hired in those heady experimental days of 1970. Even nuns had to nod to the changing times. They let their crow ranks be infiltrated. And we were ready for pants.

Mr. Folzenlogen charmed us from the start. Blue-eyed, almost twinkly blue-eyed if you must know, he had a few freckles across his nose, just the right amount. Black-rimmed glasses were his one cast-back, in this wire-rim time, to his own school days. He had a kind voice, a manner wrought with good cheer, with making math fun, and for the boys, sure for them, utter jokiness, for he knew he had to win them over first, and he did, with a maneuver he displayed on his first day.

Math was for figuring, and figuring was chalk on a blackboard, and chalk was Mr. Folzenlogen’s lasso. My uncle had a wart on the underside of his forearm, about an inch up from the elbow. Look for yourself and you might see a slight dimple on your own arm there. In this spot on Mr. Folzenlogen’s “almost-elbow” he set the stub of chalk he’d chose to write with and then in one motion snapped his arm, let the chalk drop and caught it in his hand. His signature move. First, we were tickled by it, then we took it for granted. It was his nervous tic, his trademark. He roped us in; we were caught.

During out-of-school time, the boys worked at mimicking the move, then perfecting it, doing it swifter and cleaner than Mr. Folzenlogen, if they could, as they bragged they could. What boy doesn’t want to best his brother, his father, his teacher, his boss? Because here was the time when the boys we grew up with—those boys we’d sat alongside in classrooms since first grade, who we’d tottered behind at school skating parties when they rolled past us faster and ten times more recklessly, who we’d passed notes for while trying to earn their favor—these boys were coming into their own knowledge that they were bound to outpace the fastest skaters, the nuns’ crabbiest lectures, the most charming math teacher.

If life was a race—and at that time junior high encompassed all of any life importance to us—then Mr. Folzenlogen drew our starting line with his chalk.

Facts in Five

In a ranch house, in a house of achieving, lived a family of smarts. To you he was a just a boy. A smart boy, but still a boy. Boys didn’t much take notice of you, except that you were smart, too. Not smartest, but among the smart.  Also among a group of boys and girls, all smart, in a certain geographic radius within the same Catholic grade school, in the top reading and math groups. All on the accelerated tracks of ninth grade.

It was a wretched time, especially for smart boys and girls. Yes was on the stereo. A cinnamon cake baked in the oven, its welcome aroma in place of the parents who were gone, or at least unseen. Danny was your host for Facts in Five.

Invited were Sue, John, Tim, Danny, Karen, you.

Sue. A girl among brothers, lived just over a short hill, a distance your mother permitted you walk when you were six, if you carefully crossed the street. Sue’s backyard had a tall slide like those at playgrounds, and a sandbox, a fence where the large yard went larger. There were sleepovers at her house. The morning after one slumber party, all were carrying cups of hot chocolate down the stairs to the finished basement. You slipped on the carpeted steps, splashed hot chocolate all over.

Karen. Came to the crowd later, later being fourth grade; the rest started as one group from the first grade gate. She played the flute, she had a beagle named Penny who you adored and petted every time you visited. She enjoyed a free rein that made you green-eyed; she attended Seals & Croft and Yes and Alice Cooper concerts on school nights. As her Biology lab partner, you heard of these escapades, what your mother would never allow.

John. A brainiac in a family of brainiacs. He wore glasses, for many years black-rimmed plastic, but in 1972 they were gold wire rims. You invited him, as your “guest,” to Straight A ticket baseball games once or twice. Double dates, parents still driving, dropping off and retrieving, no romance, no matter how much you wished. The baseball was forget-able.

Danny. His brothers and his baby sister were all freckled. Some few, some many, Danny many. Blond haired, a little bit of a tic in the slight way he often adjusted his head on his neck. A math whiz. A prodigy. You didn’t know the select classifications they have for behaviors and personalities. Your junior high classrooms had acoustic tile ceilings. And Danny counted the length and breadth of dots on one tile, and then counted the tiles and multiplied, or whatever math to determine the number of dots in your classroom ceiling, an astronomical number that didn’t stick with you. Just Danny being Danny.

Tim. Another genius, or maybe he memorized facts and trivia really well, maybe he had everyone snowed. In fifth grade he gave you a gold and crystal ring from the gumball machine, so for a brief time you considered him a boyfriend. He taught you how to roller skate one Saturday afternoon in Price Hill, that roller rink long ago demolished. He took the errant path during the ascendance of grass, those heady high school years, where he got lost in the weeds.

You were all smart, and backward in boy-girl relations. To develop a sexual self, to flirt, to tease, to be honest—where are the books for that? All had sat in the same accelerated classes in Catholic school until age fourteen, then split for sex-segregated high schools, and Danny helped mend the rupture with his Facts in Five.

You stumped each other with questions, five facts, a pre-Trivial Pursuit trivia game. The boys played air guitar. Rod Stewart was Maggie May-ing. Later, you were on the Roundabout.

“In and around the lake
Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there”

Cinnamon cake that Danny baked—a boy that baked!–and the time it took to devour it.  Boys wolfed it down, girls licked fingertips and then pressed fingertips into crumbs, brought crumbs to tongues, tongues being the point. A keep-away game devolved from tossing a ping pong ball, to tickling, wrestling, touching.

No boy dove for the ping pong in your belly or armpits. Karen and Sue whirly-dervish- kicked, the shag carpet electrified their hair. They had tears in their eyes, happy tears, fever tears. Never had they been more clear-eyed.  You barely contained your want to suffer a rug burn, a pinch, to tear up from over-tickle. Shrieks– the good kind–crabbed and died in your throat. In your diary you would call the afternoon half-hearted, hard-hearted, a catalogue of rust.

You slumped in Danny’s living room, on the floor because everyone was on the floor, the rug a comfort that equalized heights. It was hotter on the floor since you were closer to the core of the earth. The boys’ top lips, where they would later grow moustaches, dimpled with perspiration. They were in every game to win. And you? You didn’t know one fact, much less five.

There was little color to these memories except…

The pale pink of the fetal pig Karen and you flayed and labeled.

The iron rail you gripped amid skaters shouting and wheeling, and Tim encouraging yes, yes, yes alongside you the whole rink’s circumference, the din-filled cavern where you bloomed.

The blond table where Danny rap-rap-rapped his knuckles. He dumped Facts in Five from its box, and your crowd took the kitchen. Your elbows dug into cake crumbs, as you leaned in with magnificent feigned ardor.

Pokeberry Interlude

See these poison berries? An elemental player in our summers, in our games, in our imaginary world of princesses and queens. A girl imprisoned, a boy must rescue her. She was carried away in a wagon into the woods. The wicked queen brewed up the poison berries which grew plentiful in every damp corner of the woods, alongside the long hill that was our backyard. The gullies especially favored the pokeberries. In the sandbox, with the muffin tin, we “made” muffins topped with pokeberries.  We never thought of eating them. Pokeberries were props, they stained our fingers, they made the birds crap purple.

Israelite Village

My Israelite village could not be transported by bus to school. Our classrooms and busses were overcrowded. The bus drivers insisted we sit three to a seat. Small skinny children could pack in like sardines, but we carried school bags and lunch boxes and we wore bulky winter coats, girls clad in uniform skirts and white anklets. Our little bowling pin legs chapped and went numb at the bus stops, so some girls in the coldest of weeks wore leggings but had to shed and store them in their lockers.

Three to a seat provided no room for my Israelite village anchored to a very large rectangle of poster board.  It would be smashed in transit.

“Your daddy will have to drive you to school,” Mommy said.

My daddy was an up-and-at-‘em guy. As usher at Sunday 8 o’clock Mass, he arrived at the locked church and had to wait for the priest to let him in. Weekdays at work he was first to arrive, and started coffee brewing for his colleagues. He left home in the dark and he came home in the dark, especially during winter. And he dropped me off at the school in the dark—except for the parking lot spotlight and green glowing emergency exit lights– before anyone but Mr. Burke the janitor stirred.

My fourth grade class was in the new annex, off the basement cafeteria, an area that had housed the Undercroft until the summer’s renovation.  The rooms down there had windows at the top of the wall where we could observe feet walking by– three fourth grade classrooms and a one-room library. Before that we had Bookmobile visits.

Outside my classroom I slid my back down the wall, tenting my legs and warming them under my uniform skirt. My Israelite village I placed carefully flat on the floor. I straightened the  pipe cleaner men and women. I pressed down on the edges of the short cardboard tube that formed the village well. Alongside my project I poised my school bag and my lunchbox, handles straight up and ready to be grabbed once someone came and brought me light.

Groundhog

I was a child who could not bear the spotlight, nor the teacher’s disappointment, my classmates’ rubber necks, the soul-deficient shotgun-shouldered lack. I completed extra credit like a demon. I was already in Sunday night bed when horror struck me. I jackknifed to sitting beside my snoring sister, my heart a mallet beating the bars of my wispy chest cage. I forgot to write a school report due first thing Monday morning!

Daddy lounged on the living room couch watching television, but my mother stood ironing in the kitchen where the glow of the wall lamp my sister made in Girl Scouts turned everything, including Mommy, soft and golden. Soft-gold-Mommy, in her untucked button front shirt and pedal pushers, penny loafers yawning over her insteps. She never slouched at the ironing board; she shoved into the press of the iron, every item flattened, hot perfect percale. Her hands adeptly wielded the sprinkle bottle and the Procter Silex. Solution, heart salve, comfort – Mommy!

“What are you doing up?”

“I have a report to write for tomorrow.” I was unlatching my school bag and fumbling inside for pencil and lined paper.

“Just now you remembered?” Her tone doubtful, or Sunday night-weary.

“I said I forgot.” I sat, the scalloped shaped wood of the kitchen chair cool through my nightgown.

I chewed the eraser, my mind blank, my heart skipping madly along with the elapsing minutes. Time and fear held hands, embedded in Al Schottelkotte’s report from the living room TV. Whenever I heard the 11 o’clock news pipping through the walls, I panicked. Why couldn’t I fall asleep? I was a child insomniac who chewed orange baby aspirin to help me relax and hoodwink sleep into my lair. Panacea, placebo, no words on paper. It was late and I wouldn’t be back to bed for a while. I had no story, no report.

“I can’t think of anything!” Goody-two shoes anguish.

I cried, I chewed baby aspirin, my teeth marks mucked up the pencil that was cramping my hand. My life lacked story, spark, lift, surprise. I had nothing to shape or build a report around.

Mommy said, “Why don’t you tell about Mary and the groundhog?”

Downstairs neighbor Mary Clements, bottom tenant matching we top-floor renters, she’d been about to drop trash into one of her outside metal garbage cans when she was…think of a good apt word—ambushed? surprised? scared out of her wits?—Mommy challenged me to describe it like it happened to me even though I never witnessed the animal popper. The story was my mother’s heresay, and she passed it to me like an heirloom.

“Go on, use it. Make up the rest.”

You might as well accuse me of knitting the fabric surrounding Mary, her groundhog and his shiny barreled hideout. I fashioned my report, and thus a fiction writer was born. Thank you, Mommy. When I sleep, because of you I dream.

Rosary

A verbal prayer formula, a mantra, its rhythm and pronouncement, bears power.  This, the Sisters would have us believe. Prayers have less sense and information inside them and are more like the Essence of God. Such words repeated, or even better, chanted, create a sound temple, a sealed sacred place, a zone of contact with the divine. Spoken prayer surrounds and envelops us in holiness.

Prayer then is the trance, the ecstasy, an insensible mantra that facilitates rapture—like the trance brought on by praying the Rosary. When I was a little girl I prayed, especially when I couldn’t sleep, Hail Mary after Hail Mary, decade after decade, rote and repletion that ran together in my head like a stream or a train, failing eventually into nonsensical babble, the words eliding, skipping, no thought, no real thought, in the praying. But while babbling, inside the babbling, my mind closed off other things and spiraled me into something both smaller and larger than prayer beads and prayers. The Rosary, as mantra, brought my smallness closer to the bigness. As a child, this ecstasy slayed me. I believed utterly, not a whiff of doubt in God as my Savior, in Jesus my rescue. I’m not much able to get inside that prized babble anymore; too much noise, too much right brain-halt, I’ve lost the naivete and trust. But I’ve got a Rosary stashed somewhere, I know.

Voting on Arrow

Without speaking the words, we somehow knew since the time of President Kennedy that we were Democrats. Mommy and Daddy weren’t political, and it was the rare family discussion that touched on government. We knew that Tricky Dick was mocked and pitied, Bobby Kennedy revered, and Ronald Reagan dissed for being movie-star-folksy. What crested the waves of our supper table talk: Daddy’s commission check, what could be froze from the garden, the knocking noise in the car, quiz me on my vocabulary words, and sign this permission slip. I will say this– and it was not shocking, it was no ripple in the norm, it just was–my parents voted every November.

They did it quietly, without discussion, almost ploddingly. Once they took me with them to vote, this in the days when polling places had sometimes been assembled in the basements of neighbors. It’s true we lived in a rural area. They took me with them to Arrow, a street off Boomer Road, about a mile from our house. I was small because I remember standing among their kneecaps in the tiny lighted booth areas. From over my shoulder in that rearview far-off, I can see me wanting to more than stand alongside them in their civic duty.  I wanted to vote, to pull the lever or color in the box (I excelled at coloring!). The Arrow basement appears green-hued in my memory, grassy and with hope. The green lighting in each of the individual voter stations told me “go,” be positive. You there, it’s a privilege.

Kreimer’s Interlude

A gaggle of girls sat on Kreimer’s front slope, that small dip to the Stop sign plugged into their yard, or rather into the ten feet of public property at the intersection of Boomer and Race. The four way Stop slowed plenty of hot rods for our inspection, the drivers and riders offered up, or so we expected, for our perusal. All of us under fourteen, a couple only ten or eleven years old. Tanned summer girls, aimless. Barefoot, short-ed, middy-shirt-ed or haltered, with nothing much to halter. Not smoking yet, but we might as well have held cigarettes. We posed and screamed and shouted to boys as they slowed or screeched to their stop. Race Road had the hills they liked to hop. Hot-rodders passed by, windows all open and they smiled, hooting at us. Or convertibles, maybe on their way down to the Par 3 Golf Course, the driving range, the snack bar, but heavens, no liquor. We tried buying cigarettes there. That didn’t fly. The boys, teenagers, not very often men, but yes, sometimes young men, even old men (in our minds they were old) they slit their eyes at us, estimating, split-second rejected us. But nothing wrong with a little jive at the Stop sign, dusk coming on fast, the clover and onion grass perfuming our butts, the sweat pearling at our hairlines and pasting long hair and ponytails on our necks. We would slouch home to watch innocuous summer re-runs, the riders and the drivers meant for darker, dirtier ruin. We had no truck with that. We tossed it all off like sweat, sweat that blackened the already black road, the newly set tar, just another summer job that brought workers to our street and men into our lives. Men and their whistles, which we craved without understanding.

Christmas Coats

Aftershave, perfume, leather, cold gusts trapped in molecules of wool and fur collars, mothball smell, heady in the spartan bedroom where the coats were piled on Grandpa’s bed. The cranked heat and the laughter, your grandma’s cackle and the booming baritones of your uncles, the warm light downstairs, curled around your feet in their patent leather shoes, your good shoes. Christmas seeped through the floor boxes for cold air return. You called them radiators, but they were really the opposite. Radiators were free-standing metal monoliths you must not touch lest you burned. They were seething pieces of furniture.

Christmas coats were shed in the spartan bedroom shared by Grandpa and Uncle Joe, your bachelor uncle, the good timer adored by every niece and nephew. Handsome, happy-go-lucky, in service to his mother and father. Only later, many years later, would you consider him chained to this tan room, with tan bedspreads on the twin beds, tan furniture, real wood, but not Grandma’s rich and dark dresser set across the hall. The blonder wood was spare mid-century modern, though you didn’t know that style-name yet. Two beds and a chest of drawers. Atop the chest presided a familiar Virgin Mary statue. Your own chest of drawers at home had one. Mary was blessed and beautiful, hands folded as she stood forever looking down on you, praying for you, because you needed those prayers.

Grandma’s room across the hall was a womb of dark wallpaper, coral pink bedspread and draperies, the dark polished wood of her dresser, which was stocked with glorious perfume bottles, just as your mommy’s dresser. Here Chantilly and Lily of the Valley. Mama’s had Tigress and Ambush. Your mommy was no sexy thing but she bought with the times. Her party dresses would be your dress-ups one day. Till then, you stroked her satiny skirt when you sat on her lap. She drew you close, you little imp, protecting you from what?—the cold? the booming uncles with their sloppy kisses?. Your family was somehow outsiders in this Catholic bosom, though you were as Catholic as children come. Mommy was the outlier, the Protestant who attended no church, and who ushered you girls out the door with Daddy to eight o’clock Christmas Mass so she could enjoy a bath.

Aldona

Our 1960’s American neighborhood, more rural than suburb, with roads hilly and twisty, no sidewalks, had backyards that declined into woods, ravines, and pastures of cows, sheep, horses. Our neighbor to one side had ponies. Our neighbors’ family names: Sanders, Donahue, Taylor, Griffith, Mueller, O’Donnell—Germans and Irish. We celebrated Sunday Mass one mile up the road at St. Ignatius Church, our parish for church and school. Our—everyone’s–parish. We spoke English, except the Binder’s old German grandmother. That grandmother didn’t count. You only met her, and smelled her, when she opened the door to you peddling Girl Scout cookies.

One across-the-street family had emigrated from Lithuania–a country you’d never heard of. The boy and girl were called Algist and Aldona, with last name Liauba. Their language crunched consonants; the one word I recognized from Mrs. Liauba was her daughter’s name—Aldona. I felt between us a special link, since with my name Donna, we were called nearly the same. Likeness begun and ended. Aldona, blond and fair-eyed, paled beside my dark brown hair and eyes. My hair was curly, hers straight. We were both skinny. She was older, and a loner, you hardly ever saw her.

We didn’t know the word immigrant. Friends at school and on our street were the same in my eyes, our families had been Cincinnatians for at least two generations. Even most of the grandparents spoke English, owned farms or houses, were established Americans.  What to think of the Liaubas? Their house smelled like no other house, with their particular cooking. Their language abrupted the scenery. The parents didn’t pal around with neighbors, and the children kept to themselves. Maybe three times at most Aldona invited me to play in her finished basement. It was linoleum-floored, with impossible light for a basement and airy because of block glass windows set high up in the walls, sparsely furnished. Today I would know to call the décor modern. Liaubas were miles ahead of us in style.

The Tall Book

It was a tall book, one that fit only into the double deep desk drawer, bottom right.  This book of fairytales had a cover shaped like a tall tree trunk. Depicted around its roots and the ground where it anchored were mushroom, chipmunk, ant, acorn. Halfway up, a hole where a squirrel peeked out and a woodpecker at work on a knot. The branches at the top of the book sprouted off the edge. I carried this book like a log in my armpit.

Each page featured a complete story. There were known stories like the Billy Goats Gruff and The Woodsman, but one story I’d never read or heard before became my favorite: The Pot That Would Not Stop Boiling. A gruesome-looking young girl (horrible drawings on purpose?) was given a magic pot and brought it home to her poor mother, poor home, poor village. All she need say was: “Boil, little pot, boil,” and soon it filled magically with piping hot porridge that satisfied her and her mother. “Stop little pot, stop,” were the words that made the pot cease cooking. But satisfaction was rare, fleeting, if not downright absent, and in that absence rooted greed.

One day when the girl was away, the mother wanted to show off to the villagers and got that pot’s magic going. But when the time came for quitting, she couldn’t remember the command. Porridge overflowed the pot, then the kitchen, and onto the streets of the village, sweeping all the people down a huge river of porridge, until the flood rushed past the girl, who’d been visiting a neighbor village. She rushed against the porridge current, all the way up the long tall page to her home where she yelled, “Stop, little pot, stop!” Mother suitably humbled, village destroyed, villagers mollified and ugly girl back “on top.” What was porridge anyway? This story stuck with me, all its elements, down to the white apron the little girl wore, her knobby elbows poking where she had pushed up her sleeves, her hair thin and fastened in a sensible bun, her ears big, even her lips gross in their largeness. The repelling illustrations dizzied. For the first time ever, words came in second.

Santa brought me this book one Christmas. It has long been torn, tossed, lost.  If anyone knows it, please please tell me its name or how I can find it.

Rock Of Ages

David Cassidy’s was my first rock concert, the summer between seventh and eighth grade. My then-friend Sharon and I raged with adolescent silly over him, the kind of innocent yearning I doubt exists anymore. Adoring boy-man idols used to be a rite of passage.

I papered one bedroom wall with glossy covers and inserts of David Cassidy from Tiger Beat and Sixteen. I swooned over The Partridge Family TV show and The Partridge Family albums. I knew all their lyrics. David Cassidy’s favorite artist, reported by the teen mags, was BB King. Who, I thought?

David Cassidy announced a summer tour, and I begged, pleaded, whined: “Daddy, please please please, if he comes to Cincinnati, promise me I can go.”

Daddy resisted and then caved, the way he said okay to nearly everything we wanted, a funny and unenforceable response since he was never the final arbiter.

A Friday evening in June would be the breathless event, a night in which I could barely stay in my shoes. I felt sure I’d levitate. But before that, a wedding invitation arrived for the very same Friday, at the very same time. My oldest cousin was getting married. Out of the question, our refusal to attend, or further, my dragging a parent from that wedding so as to drive me to a David Cassidy concert. My dad would not miss his nephew’s wedding. We’d already bought the concert tickets. In my family, if we’d paid good money for something, what had been bought would not be forfeited.

In the back of church, Mommy lingered with me while the bride walked the aisle and met my cousin at the altar. We slipped out before the vows, picked up Sharon, and then drove on to Cincinnati Gardens, where I’d only before been to see the Shrine Circus via free tickets from our landlord. Once we passed through the admission, from the opposite side of the turnstile, Mommy said: “I’ll be right here to pick you up when this is over.”

An opening act played too long, and David Cassidy took the stage later than promised, wearing a white-fringed Elvis-like jumpsuit. With the concert behind schedule, I wondered if Mommy would return and drag us out before the end. I wanted my “money’s worth.”

Driving from the Gardens to Cincinnati’s west side, and traversing the highway, fighting traffic, not to mention parking hassle or cost, meant she never went back to St. Theresa’s Church, or on to the wedding reception. She stood outside Cincinnati Gardens or sat in the car or remained planted at the turnstile where I’d turned my back on her. Waiting for four hours, in place, is what I would have done for my own children. I was just twelve or thirteen then, barricading against her moment by moment. One long, cruel I Think I Love You story, hardly about David Cassidy and all about my mommy.


BIO

Donna D. Vitucci has been writing forever, and publishing since 1990. Her latest novel, ALL SOULS, is offered by Magic Masterminds Press, as are her previous 3 — AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE, SALT OF PATRIOTS & IN EUPHORIA. Her work explores the ache and mistake of secrets among family, lovers and friends. She writes whatever in her head sounds good, and then she chops and squishes and compresses until it pleases her. Cadence has a lot to do with it. She lives in North Carolina, where she enjoys her cherished grandsons and burgeoning gardens. Her work appears most recently in Red Coyote and The Sextant Review; forthcoming at MemoryHouse Magazine, SinFronteras, and Gargoyle. Read beginnings from her novels and selected stories at: www.magicmasterminds.com/donnavitucci

They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To

by Wendy Maxon


Luna always knew Principal Leavitt would phone her one day to discuss Trevor. She figured if she prepared for it, she’d be able to tolerate the shame, keep it at a slow burn to avoid a searing jolt. When she’d attended Fairview High School decades ago, she’d been vigilant about preparedness; she grew used to the side eyes and sneers of her classmates. But today, when she steered her dented Ford Escape into the parking lot of her alma mater and slid into the only space that hid the clump of birdshit on the passenger door, discomfort seeped so low into her belly she feared she wouldn’t survive.

They had made it to May 12. Trevor surviving eight months without being reprimanded was practically a record. Luna was no stranger to administrators’ offices, cramped back rooms that few parents got to see. But something about the Fairview lobby drained her; its claustrophobically tall bookshelves were flanked by photos of grinning scholar-athletes, and in every picture, the kids’ white teeth shone brighter than the sun. Luna tried not to stare at the photos, terrified she might see herself in her soccer uniform, an image snapped twenty years ago when she could grin at a camera without a care in the world. The disconnect between then and now made her ache.

Trevor had a radiant smile too, not that anyone saw it anymore. It resembled Luna’s, as did his crooked nose and tiny ears. But his picture would never hang on that wall.

While Principal Leavitt guided Luna down the admin hall to his office, beams of light shot through the high-arched windows and spilled onto the hardwood floor. He unlocked his door and welcomed her inside, steering her toward his enormous cherrywood desk. Stacks of paper obscured the top, along with a Fairview yearbook from last June. The thick, brightly-colored tome sported a photo of Fairview’s CIF championship tennis team on its front cover. Their star player, a skinny boy whose brown hair flopped over his terrycloth headband, clutched his racket in one hand and a silver-plated loving cup in the other. Luna’s own MVP trophy, now collecting dust in the corner of the closet, had been at least two inches taller. She hated how quickly she noticed the difference.

“Thank you for coming,” Leavitt said.

She looked up. “Yes.”

“Would you like some water?”

“No.” Water was what you offered small children when they cried, and she had to be a rock today.

Leavitt sat her in a leather chair meant to be comfortable; its chemical smell grated on Luna. “I’m sorry to tell you this.” He extended his hand, and she wasn’t sure whether his gesture or the lack of dirt under his nails put her off more. “Trevor hit another child.”

She felt small on her chair, her legs dangling like a gyroscope. “Oh, no. I’m so sorry. Which child?” She wondered if Leavitt would specify. When Trevor was two and pulled this shit in the “Fishies” room at daycare, they never named names. He hit a friend, they always told her.

“Francois Frello. Another student reported that Trevor hit Francois in the jaw.”

“Is the boy—boy? Is he okay?”

“He will be, but the nurses had to send him to a local hospital for stitches.” Luna wondered how Leavitt’s gaze managed to be both pitying and punishing at the same time. “You understand the liability issue here.”

Liability. Whose fault was Trevor but hers? Luna had noticed signs of trouble when he was still in diapers, the way he’d smile when he twirled her hair until her scalp stung, or how he held that colorful plastic shovel 24/7, refusing to lie down in his crib without it, and having no trouble bashing it onto whichever party pooper adult tried to pull it away. She always felt for her son, or so she told herself. They were all so tired. So tired. She used to sigh whenever she rubbed the red welts along her arm, trying to imagine what a one-year-old who hadn’t slept in weeks must feel like, lying helpless without adults in the room, having gone long past the milestone for crawling. Why couldn’t she teach him to sleep?

“Let me guess,” she said. “He can’t stay at Fairview.”

“I’m afraid not. We’re tasked with ensuring the safety of our community, and we simply can’t have someone endangering our students or fac—”

She leaned forward. “There are only two more weeks before school’s out. If you let him stay through May, we could use the summer to find another school. The credits for this year would count. Please.”

“Of course it will still count, Ms. Felles. Trevor might have some make-up work to do, but it will be easy. His transcript will read that he completed ninth grade at whatever school he attends next.”

He might have some make-up work to do, easy. “It won’t be easy for him.”

Principal Leavitt looked at her like he cared more than she did. “We’re sorry, but our hands are tied. There are other considerations.” He slid a low drawer open, and her chest tightened. He held up a long, white paper in one hand and offered Luna a small pink post-it with the other. “Would you like to take notes?” he asked.

She shook her head. Why bother? The comparisons between her son and herself came fast and furious these days.

  • GPA 1.9. 3.7.
  • Six detentions for frequent tardiness. Class Treasurer two years.
  • Two one-day suspensions for cutting class. Best smile.
  • Two suspensions for aggressive behavior. Co-Pres, Community Service Club.
  • One writeup for violent behavior, several student complaints. Required counseling, never attended. Subsequent detentions for tardiness, missed commitments. Most likely to succeed.

She and Devon had tried for a child several times before having Trevor. The first embryo slipped away from them, a burst of bright red on the bathroom floor at a Chevron gas station where they’d stopped on their way to Dr. Bill’s office to hear the heartbeat. They never figured out what went wrong with the second embryo. On the day of her D&C, just before Luna slipped under anesthesia, she mumbled to the surgeon that the baby’s body must be full of holes. After that, all she wanted was a child to repair the hole in her own.

Principal Leavitt pulled another sheet of paper from his doomsday drawer. “Here’s a copy of his transcript. His grades aren’t up to par with what is expected of a Fairview student. His teachers concur. One referred to him as ‘at best, a spirited child.’”

Luna couldn’t deny there was something about Trevor’s spirit. It had powered his fragile, fighting body through a pregnancy so high-risk she’d nearly bled out six times. Even with the complications and their consistently thinning wallets, she had created someone who refused to cave.

“Do you have children, Mr. Leavitt?” she asked. “You and your wife must know how awful they feel when they’re rejected. Sometimes the only way we keep kids afloat is to not turn our backs on them.”

A look of disdain crossed his face before settling into something softer. “I’m not married, Ms. Felles. We try not to make assumptions here.”

She shouldn’t have said that. Why couldn’t she stay quiet?

Leavitt leaned toward her. “There are always things adults can do to help. We offer several clubs and organizations here, which we look to as signs of talent and potential. But Trevor hasn’t joined any.”

“He tried, but…” But what? But he always came home in a bad mood. Grumbling about how he couldn’t understand the directions, and how that bastard Jackie laughed and elbowed him and called him slow. And that all the directions were stupid, and had she seen his Nintendo Switch? Was it charged?

Sometimes—who was she kidding, it was all the time—the two of them would sit on the couch, exhausted after a day of managing each task. She’d smooth the curls along his hairline, exact replicas of her own, and Trevor would reach for her hand and squeeze it. His fingers looked like hers, too but longer, softer, without the cracks and raw spots. He’d rest his palm on hers for several minutes before retracting it and grabbing his game console. Sometimes the gesture worried her, since other fourteen-year-olds didn’t cling to their parents. Maybe his brain was so far behind he’d never be able to catch up. But her heart still swelled every time they sat like that, staring in the same direction.

Luna wondered what Leavitt meant by wasted potential. Did it mean Trevor dreaming up all these stories, but forgetting to charge the electronic tablet so he could write them down? Twelve o’clock, Trevor. Don’t forget to charge your tablet at twelve o’clock or you won’t be able to do your homework. But the trash truck had come yesterday, and he’d been so overwhelmed by the noise that he just forgot. “It’s not going to do that every day, is it?” he had asked with his hands clamped on his ears.

Did it mean not using a pen because his motor control issues destined him to drop it and get frustrated? Deciding he didn’t want to write anymore because there was another sound outside and could that mean somebody was coming to take him away? 

Or did potential mean hoping that someday he’d be famous for making movies? Given Trevor’s illegible handwriting, Luna had to transcribe his two-hour spec script for Timeslipping Martians Save The World. They worked late into the evening on a blustery night last fall; Luna let him stay up until one am because his joy overflowed, and the spindly, multicolored flowchart that she traced for him grew into not one, but three subplots. The first day Trevor showed up to movie club with his script in hand, brimming with excitement, he didn’t know what Mr. Gremble meant by “Write down your action plan,” and didn’t think to ask. He quit that club after the second meeting, because he couldn’t remember even half of Mr. Gremble’s list of confusing definitions. It was okay. Mr. Gremble was too busy chuckling at subplot #2.

All these failures didn’t indicate potential, she wanted to cry out. They were failures. And as Trevor’s mother, she must have failed, too. Wasn’t creating a self-sufficient adult the most important part of motherhood? Wasn’t that the whole point?

She’d never say it out loud, not to Devon or her friends or anyone else, but Luna was scared. She read the news. She knew the kind of violent deeds frustrated boys did when nobody helped them do anything else. Was that his potential?

An acidic smell, maybe from the sheer amount of glass cleaner required to shine all those windows, made Luna draw up in her chair. She snatched the pink post-it and rubbed it between her index finger and thumb. “What did Francois say to Trevor before he hit him?”

“Whatever it was, it doesn’t matter.”

He was right, she knew. 

“We all tried to reach Trevor,” Leavitt said. “Every time I passed him in the hall, I advised him on how to get ahead. ‘Buck up,’ I’d say. I even called a special meeting to tell him what he was doing wrong and how to fix it. Did he tell you we were supposed to meet last Thursday at noon?”

“He tried to make it, but he just, forgot.” Twelve o’clock, Trevor. Don’t forget what you need to do at twelve o’clock. He had been so sorry, holding his ears.

Leavitt scoffed. “You have to try pretty hard to forget a meeting with the head of the school. Why didn’t he follow up and tell us? Why didn’t you?”

Her fingers rubbed the paper so fast she thought a flame might spark.

“Wasted efforts,” Leavitt said. “The amount of trouble your son has caused … it isn’t worth it to our school.”

Heat crept across her face and neck, down her ramrod-straight spine. She knew “it” meant “he.” He would never be worth it to them. But he was to her. No matter how awful Trevor was, how many times he pulled or threw or scratched or kicked, she would fight to have the soul inside him be seen.

Something came over Luna. Her fist flew out, cracked clean through two rows of veneers that must have cost Leavitt a fortune. His face caved around her hand, jowls ballooning over her knuckles. Blood streamed. A burst of Leavitt’s spittle hit the photo of the tennis team on the cover of the yearbook, landing just above the eyebrow of the magnificent, beaming boy. Spatters of blood fell in vicious stripes across the boy’s Bosworth racket.

Leavitt gaped at her. “Why, you loser bitch—”

She picked up the yearbook and smashed it so hard against the back of his head that something split. The sound snapped her back to reality. She yanked her hand away and froze. When the yearbook fell to the desk, the tennis boy on the cover landed face down.

Leavitt yowled. He grabbed his jaw and the back of his head, trying to contain the blood. “Sheryl!” he shouted across the room. “Get campus security on the phone. This woman just assaulted me.” He sneered at Luna. “You’re done,” he said through the curtain of blood that hung from his nose to his chin. “You and your son will never set foot in any school in this district again.”

She almost laughed. No, she imagined they wouldn’t.

“Did you hear me, Sheryl?” Leavitt screamed again at the door. “Call the police on Trevor’s mother!”

Sheryl shrieked when she saw Leavitt, then punched three digits into her cellphone. Luna looked at her plaintively, still in shock over what she’d done. Had she channeled Trevor? Maybe this was a small thing and the two of them could laugh it off, like they were recreating a scene from Timeslipping Martians Save the World. Neither of them would save the world now. Would they take her away? And if so, who would take care of her son?

She pulled out her own phone and dialed. “I love you,” she shouted to Trevor. “I love you more than anything.”

She couldn’t hear herself over the approaching sirens.



BIO

Wendy Maxon is a teacher in California who has published stories in Jersey Devil PressTales From The Moonlit Path, and City. River. Tree. In June 2020 she received her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert. She appreciates satire and cultural subversion and loves to design wacky school field trips.



DELUGE

by John Tustin


It’s beautiful
The sound the water makes
When it funnels out
From the gutters
And into the mud

The rain continues
Unabated
And I sit inside
Dry and warm

Drowning nonetheless
In the deluge
Of my own mind

It makes a noise
That does not
Sound nearly
As beautiful
As the music
The rain
Makes

Splattering the windows
Outside my warren
And unable to touch
The skin
I’m in


GETTING OLD


I wake up too early in the morning
With one less morning remaining
And every stroke of the wind that washes my face
Represents one wish gone unfulfilled.


THERE WAS A MOMENT


There was a moment…
We were in a bar.
You were drunker than me,
As usual when we were both drinking
Even though I would drink more than you…
We were kissing, sitting right by the front door,
We were kissing and I touched you, you
Touched me.
There was a moment
When you told me you had to pee
So I stood up as you stood up
And we were side by side.
I was just a little dizzy,
Perspiring a bit
As you put your hand on the small of my back
And kissed me softly, closing your eyes.
Then you went to the bathroom.
Now your hand is long gone from the small of my back,
Your small kisses lost forever.
There was a moment, though.
Tonight, this moment,
I live it.


UNDRESS


I would live another day to just come home
To you in various states of undress
Just as I would die tonight
To see photographs of you
In various states of undress
Were I to find them
Beneath another man’s
Usurping
Eyelids.


BIO

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in almost 300 disparate literary journals, online and in print – including Rhino, Bryant Literary Review and Chiron Review – since he began to write again a dozen years ago. http://fritzware.com/johntustinpoetry/ contains links to his published poetry online.

Larceny

by Sandra Yauch Benedetto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BIO

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








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