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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.

Singing Under Veils

If You Know

Intuited

Mother’s House

The Fever

Plague of Senses

Entremet

Second Palette

Autumn Spirit

Dream Film

Here But When

BIO

As a fallen limb, bent spoon, snow melting over stone.
Inward life veering toward largely empty landscapes. Collector.
History, miniatures, shapes dug from the earth, animals, awkward postures, hair, 
long necks, textures, scents, window views.
Something out of time, flattened, studied, uncertain and uncomfortable.
Small, ineffectual mirror.

Amy Earles

Links:

pushedunder.com

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

Sleight of Hand

by Sarah Terez Rosenblum



            I’m making tacos when the tour bus shows up. “Didn’t you buy avocados?” I call.

            I can see them through the narrow kitchen windows. Little kids, noses glass-flattened, some dad type taking pictures, and bored teens scrolling their phones.

            “Did you say something?” Meg wears a grey cardigan over cotton pajamas. Reading glasses on a silver cord around her neck. In the doorway, she’s shrouded in nighttime distance. She looks nothing like my mother. Nothing like the women I know.

            “Avocados?”

            “None were ripe. It’s November.” Meg’s from Anaheim; she knows when things are in season. I grew up in Idaho, so if it isn’t potatoes, I’m out.

            On the bus, a gaggle of old folks knit and listen. The tour guide’s name is embroidered on his button-down. He still uses one of those mics with the curly cord.

            “Last week, I ran into Gus at the drug store. I was picking up Mitchell’s prescription and he blew right past.”

            “Like when I saw Katie Couric at Panera.” Meg settles at the kitchen table with her wine glass. “I kept waiting for her to know who I was.”

            Door County’s growing; we’re not all on a first name basis. But I live in the house Gus shows up each week to describe.

            “We’ve got carrots.” Behind me, Meg rustles through what’s left of Sunday’s paper.

            “You want me to make guacamole with carrots?”

            I line up three soft tomatoes for chopping. I bought them for the Meg’s cheese sandwiches, but they sat for two weeks in the drawer. After business trips, sometimes, I check the refrigerator to see what’s shifted. When I’m gone, Meg eats only olives and crackers. Sometimes, she forgets to eat at all.

            In my family, wasting food is sinful. “Who needs a son?” My mom said when she toasted Meg at our wedding, but if she finds expired milk when she visits, she practically sits shiva. (“Look at this. Your grandmother is spinning in her grave.”)

            “Are they still out there?” Beside me now, Meg nods to where the bus sits, idling.

            “It’s five fifteen, they’re right on time.”

            “Maybe this year the snow will come early.” She rests her head on my shoulder.

            “I don’t know. I sort of like them.”

            “It’s like when you got your tooth filed.” She means how for weeks after, I complained I didn’t know what to do with my tongue.

            “Shit. Can you?” I nod at my phone, buzzing on the window ledge.

            “Hmm?” Meg tips the last of the wine from the bottle. Her lip prints like frost on the rim of her glass.

            “Mitchell’s calling.” I wipe my hands on a dishtowel, and Meg and the bus people watch me answer the phone.

*

            When our son was eleven his teacher sent an email.

            “Mitchell seems disturbed by our unit on Global Warming. Shall I set him up in the library till we’re done?”

            We talked it through, the three of us. Our home, we said, is a democracy. Easy to say when you’re the parents. Mitchell pointed that out early; that he had only the illusion of control. Right, I told him. A democracy. No one thought that was funny but me.

            In this case, Mitchell’s vote went for the library. “I’m not a kid anymore. I can’t keep crying in front of them.”

            I spun his desk chair and straddled it. “Crying just means you’re smarter.”

            “Tyler never cries, and when we did testing, he was 90th percentile.”

            “How do you know?” Meg asked.

            “He told everyone.”

            “That’s inappropriate.” In Mitchell’s doorway, Meg leaned her head against the wall.

            “Why?”

            “Grades and money are private.”

            Mitchell glanced between us. “But Mom tells everyone how much we paid for the car.”

            “Okay, let’s not get distracted,” I said. “Mitchell, your kind of smart means you understand the real world ramifications.”

            “You mean food security and the polar ice caps?”

            “Exactly. This isn’t just science, it’s real.”

            “Mom doesn’t mean science isn’t real.” Meg tugged her blue cardigan around her. I’m always offering to turn up the thermostat. But Meg says putting on a sweater is free.

            “Right.” I said. “I mean it’s okay to have emotions about what he’s learning.”

            “But he can’t let himself be run by them.”

            “You can acknowledge your feelings without them running you. Self-awareness is different than being out of control.”

            “Guys.” Mitchell waved his hands like a plane was landing. “I can learn in the library. I’ll take my textbook.”

            Meg folded her arms. “Now it sounds like you’re just trying to get out of class.”

            “If I cry there, no one will see me.”

            “People will forget about that,” Meg said.

            “No one in my school ever forgets anything.”

            “It just seems that way, honey.”

            “When I was your age,” I said, “I got hysterical when Mrs. Snow showed a documentary about Haiti.”

            “Because of the poverty?” On his bed, Mitchell fiddled with his shoelaces.

            “Because of the zombie witch doctors. My teacher had to shut it off in the middle and explain that part wasn’t real.”

            “Did they laugh at you?”

            “Totally. But the next week Beth Meeks threw up in the coatroom.”

            “We’ll bring in a ringer, then.” Meg dusted her hands. “Problem solved.”

            Mitchell hunched forward, poking the tip of his shoelace through the metal eyelet. “But when I cry, Anya keeps Snapchatting me, and also global warming isn’t not real.”

*

            By the time I’m through security, Meg’s wish for snow is granted. The rinkydink plane still lifts and lands, somehow, but after that I’m stranded at O’Hare.

            “Your turn.” The man in slim tweed pants looks like Stanley Tucci, and I spend our first drink assuming he’s gay.

            “I didn’t know there would be something as formal as turns. I thought we were just chatting.”

            Meg’s word. Jews don’t chat, we debate or we process; depends on which tribe we’re from.

            “At work, we use a talking stick,” Tucci says. “God bless the millennials. They all think they have the right to be heard.”

            We’re in this cliche of an airport lounge, drinking martinis. By our second, I know he’s meeting his wife in Berkeley. Their elder daughter has something academic requiring their presence; a debate, or a meeting, or a prize. As he talks, the details slip by. To me, martinis taste like medicine. When I fly, my drug of choice is Cinnabon, but what with the phone call, and the thunder snow, and all the texts Delta keeps sending about de-icing, I figure I might need a more traditional source of calm.

            “C’mon. What’s your story?” Tucci sheds his orange sweater-vest.

            “You won’t like it.”

            “That’s why fiction’s better than life. You don’t have to like it for it to be good.”

            “Didn’t you say you’re in software?”

            “Fiction was my first love, before my wife even. But writing code’s not all that different. You fall in love with your lines, even when they’re not working. We’ve got just as many darlings to kill.”

            He says he doesn’t code much anymore, not since he sold and runs his company. Big macher, is what my mother would say. Tucci’s the kind of guy she probably wishes I’d married. But I’m not his type either; when he shows me his wife’s picture, she’s blond.

            “Once the girls are grown, I’ll get around to fiction.” Tucci’s still talking. “I wanted to write novels when I was a kid.”

            “Meg and I used to talk about that. Everything we’d do once our son was in college-”

            “At the graduation parties there was this rumbling. All the parents asking each other, what will you do now that you can?” Tucci crosses one long leg over the other. “Like when you’re a kid and some grownup’s always drilling you. We all had same answers, just delayed.”

            “Right. But now that he’s a freshman, it just seems like he’s in a high school that’s farther away.”

            “That’s how Cristina feels,” Tucci says. “But we can’t helicopter them. It’s enough our oldest’s still on our insurance and our phone plan-”

            “We get Mitchell’s anxiety meds and ship them.” I watch the snow. “There’s just so much to be worried about.”

             “What did we have, the Cuban Missile Crisis?”

            “Barely, I was, what, two?”

            “Now they’ve got Parkland.” Tucci sets down his empty glass. “My youngest was ten, and she was convinced her school was next. Even Hayden was upset by it, and she’s goddamn hard to ruffle. She’s my Berkeley girl. Cristina wanted us to tell her sister it wouldn’t happen at her school.”

            “Meg’s the same.” I sip and feel my face twisting. What about this sensation is fun?

            “I’m a numbers guy so I agreed it was unlikely, but I’m not going to lie to my kid.”

             “Exactly. But with global warming Meg wanted him to white-knuckle it, just ignore the feelings it brought up for him. With North Korea, she wanted to tell him there was no chance.”                       

“Both are ways of lying.” Tucci signals for another drink.

            “Personally, I blame Santa Claus. That’s what Meg grew up with, meanwhile, each year I get a lecture about how starting with Pharaoh, the whole world’s out for my blood.”

            “L’chiam.” Tucci touches his glass to mine. “Let’s get you another.”

            “I’ve hardly…”

            “You’ll catch up.” Tucci points to the window. Outside, the snow gusts, horizontal. The bartender’s already begun to mix.

            “So how did you end up handling Parkland?” I ask.

            “I sat down with my girls and I said you’re right, it’s a possibility, but the odds are low. Hayden’s pre-law now, so of course she argued. ‘We’re right to be anxious.’ Me, I majored in philosophy. I said, ‘Do you want to be right or do you want to be free?’” 

            “You sure you’re Jewish?”

            “Maybe Cristina’s rubbed off on me.”

            I accept my fresh martini from the bartender.

            “Give me a wave if you need anything.” She smiles between the two of us. “It’s mostly vermouth,” she says low.

            “What did you tell Michael, about the shootings?” Tucci’s four drinks in, so I don’t correct him. I’ve learned the conversations you have with a drunk person don’t matter, because really you’re having them alone.

            “We’ve tried to teach him anxiety is like a phone ringing.” I eat my olive, which Meg says is just a garnish. “You can keep the conversation short and even-handed, but first you have to answer the call.”

*

            I phone Meg from the Marriott the next morning. “My room has a coffee pot,” I say.

             The joke’s from the first night we spent together. We were in our late thirties when we got married, and we both needed some convincing. As my mom said, “If I met your father now, I don’t know how I’d commit to him. Everything would seem like a red flag.”

            All through my twenties, I’d done the typical lesbian overlap, each relationship averaging 3.5 years. One day,  I was hauling my shit from the apartment I’d shared with my girlfriend to the one where my next one lived. On the way there, I remembered it was Sweetest Day. So I stopped at the first place I saw. Inside Jewel-Osco, it hit me. I had no idea how to grocery shop. With one girlfriend, I did what she called a ‘big shopping’ every Saturday, with another I haunted farmers markets, and with my last one, I’d grabbed TV dinners on the fly. All that flashed before my eyes like some kind of grocery near death experience. I had to squat down near the canned beans so I could breath. Once I got out of there, I put all my shit in storage. I crashed with a friend till I found a place of my own.

            I met Meg a year or two later at one of my seminars. I’d founded Women Up to help women in the workforce. The idea was to provide tools to shift the culture; we shouldn’t have to act like men to succeed. Sounds obvious now, but I’d started it just out of college; back when secretaries padded their shoulders like football players, and Reagan’s paternalistic capitalism ruled the day. We’d spent years getting by on grants and donations. I fell asleep most nights wondering how I’d pay rent. Anyway, Meg says the meeting was in Middleton, but I distinctly remember the UW-Madison campus. They’d given us a sunny conference room with a broken coffee maker and a view of the lake. Either way, we wound up fucking. Meg had complained about the lack of coffee. “My room has a coffee pot,” I’d said.

            After that we really had no blueprint. By then Meg’s first marriage was mostly tradition: summer barbecues at their Door County House, her husband’s five p.m. scotch and soda, and on Christmas, wrapping paper fed into the fire. Still, she was comfortable, sunk into her habits, and I finally knew how I liked to buy groceries, and neither one of us was ready to change.

            “Have you seen him yet?” Meg says now, when she answers.

            “It’s five in the morning. I didn’t even expect to get you.”

            “You think I could sleep?”

            In eighteen years with Meg, I’ve seen her sleep through: a 6.5 earthquake, The Chicago Air and Water Show, and the last four hours of my labor.Once at a hotel in Schaumburg, I woke her when the fire alarm didn’t, and made her race down ten flights of stairs.

            “I’m meeting him for breakfast.”

            “At his dorm?”

            “I told him to take an Uber to meet me. He’s not feeling super comfortable on campus. Everyone’s asking why he withdrew from the brass trio and the lit magazine, and of course he’s not allowed to explain.”

            “Do we know anything more about this girl?

            “I told, you I haven’t seen him yet.” I picture Meg propped on pillows. More likely she’s spent the night curled on the window seat in the den.

            “I thought maybe you’d talked with the university.”

            “That’s not something they disclose.”

            Through the line, I hear Meg breathing. I could pick her exhales out of a crowd.

            “How’s it there?”

            “Snowing. Right now the afternoon flights are still running.”

            “You really can’t get Peter to cover?”

            “This is the Parsons,” Meg says. “They’ve been with me since Mags was a pup.”

            “Your work ethic is laudable, but-”

            “They’re terrified. We won’t know how bad the cancer is until she’s on the table. And if we need to put her down, I should be there. You know all this.”

            “And you know why we can’t meet on campus.”

            “Excuse me, I’m exhausted. I forgot.”

            When we hang up, I slid back the hotel curtain. Outside, the lush greens and milky fog shock me. No matter I’ve flown across the country: after two relentless days I expect to see snow.

*

            When Mitchell was nine we hid his candy. It was Meg’s idea; he’d been complaining kids at school called him fat. I wanted to start by explaining refined sugar, and how to read nutrition labels. Give him the tools to consider, not restrict. But Meg felt a parent was only as good as her boundaries. (“Yours could use some work, as we both know.”) If we can’t agree on everything, we try to trade off victories. I’d just won our last debate, so we weren’t giving Mitchell Tylenol PM for his insomnia. Then we got the call he’d pushed Hope Clark.

            “This is pretty out of character,” the principle said when I arrived, literally panting. “I’m hoping now you’re both here he’ll explain.”

            “I cabbed right from the airport.” I’d been leading Women Up’s first seminar in Redmond. We were retooling as our market expanded. One of my exes had provided an in.

            “I was at the baggage claim when—what do I do with-”

            “You can leave that with the office gals if you want.” Dr Cobb held open the door to his office.

            “Mom.”

            “Mitchell, what happened?” I dragged my suitcase into the inner office.

            “He says it’s his business.” Meg gestured for me to take her chair.

            “Do I have to say it?” Mitchell pointed at the principle.

            “Dr. Cobb needs information so we can all decide what to do.”

            “Can’t he just punish me?”

            “Hope’s okay, isn’t she?” I asked Dr Cobb.

            “Mrs. Haverford says he hardly touched Hope. Which doesn’t make it acceptable, of course.”

            “Mrs Haverford?” I said.

            “One of our lunch ladies.”

            “This happened in the cafeteria?” I asked.

            “Mitch, come on.” Meg had backed up to lean in the doorway. “Mom’s exhausted, and I have a procedure at three.”

            “Don’t rush him,” I said.

            “I’ve been here half an hour already. I don’t even know where I parked the car.”

            “There’s visitor parking behind the kindergarten.” Dr. Cobb perched on the edge of his desk.

            “Okay,” I said. “but truth takes time, we’ve talked about this.”

            “In the real world, no one’s going to sit around waiting.”

            “Mitchell might not even be fully clear on what he did.”

            “Hope stole from the coat drive.” Mitchell held out his hands like a traffic cop.

            “That’s why you hit her?”

            “I saw her. She took the pink leather jacket from the bag.”

            “A better option would be to tell your teacher.” I watched him.

            “I was going to.” Mitchell scrapped his shoe against his chair leg. “but she said if I did, she’d tell you.”

            “Tell us what?”

            “Can I please just be punished?”

            “Here, do you want to whisper?” When I set my hand on Mitchell’s back it was damp.

            “Okay.” I said after he finished.

            “Obviously you need to let us in on this.” Meg stuffed her hands in her pockets.

            “Can I please not be here when you do?”

            We watched him shuffle into the outer office. One of the secretaries handed him a Dum-dum from a bowl.

            “Apparently Mitchell’s been buying chocolate milk instead of regular.” I watched Dr Cobb glance between us. “He’s supposed to limit his sugar intake. I guess Hope threatened to tell us if he told on her about the coat.”

            “How did Hope know about his diet?”

            “Oh, the kids know everything about each other,” Dr Cobb said.

            Back home, I opened the refrigerator. “Jesus Christ, it smells like death.”

            “I think it’s the tuna casserole.” Mitchell looked up from his stack of library books.

            I slide aside the lid. “You guys didn’t have this for dinner Monday?”

            “I think we had cereal.”

            I tipped the mess of noodles and fish into the trash. “Can you take this out, Mitchell? And for once, don’t drag it. We’ve got that new sod.”

            Upstairs in our bedroom, I moved aside the clutter of Meg’s glasses. They collect on the bureau when I’m gone. Once Mitchell walked in on us arguing about them, and Meg said we were just disagreeing on how to describe them. (“Mom thinks they’re half-empty and I say half-full.”) I set my suitcase on the bureau and unzipped it. Dark jeans and a blowdryer. Beneath that, a par of red-soled heels.

            “What are those?” Mitchell said from my doorway.

            “I must have grabbed the wrong suitcase from the carousel.”

            “Carousel?”

            “Not like with horses. You’ve seen them, the bags go around.”

            “Hey, what do you call it when you take the wrong suitcase?”

            “Mitchell.”

            “A case of mistaken identity!”

            “Hilarious. Go share your comedic stylings with the garbage, please.”

            I wasn’t lying. The shoes didn’t belong to some chick I was fucking. Loyalty is under-appreciated  Maybe Meg would have wanted me more if I was.

            Outside, the bus’s engine turned over. Somehow, Mitchell was outside already, dragging the bulging Hefty bag across the lawn. I turned back to my suitcase, still trying to square my expectations with what I saw.

*

            The best thing about my job is hotel showers. Today, I wash my hair twice and leave all the towels on the floor. In the lobby, Mitchell’s already waiting. I thought he’d look different than he did at Thanksgiving; mustachioed and pock-marked. But he’s got the same thin blond hair that makes people think Meg gave birth to him. The same pale skin that goes pink when he eats wheat.

            “Hey, honey.” I hug him. “You hungry? They have a buffet.”

            In the restaurant, Mitchell loads his plate with ham and bacon and waffles and bagels. We order orange juice and coffee.

            “He’s already decided he hates us.” I point at the sullen waiter as he leaves. Usually Mitchell and I dream up whole inner worlds for the servers—Meg thinks it’s ridiculous—but this time Mitchell won’t play.

            “Where’s mama?” Eyes on his plate, shoulders slumped.

            “The weather’s bad there, but she still might make it.”

            “Did some important dog get sick?”

            “You know how she is.”

            “The thing is at four.” Mitchell rips open a stack of sugar packets.

            “What do you want to do in the meantime?” I spread cream cheese on a sorry excuse for a bagel. ‘If it’s not boiled it’s just bread,’ my mom would say.

            “Are you just going to act like it’s a normal visit?”

            “I figured we’d get to it. But we still have to eat, am I right? Thank you.” I add cream to the coffee the server drops. “I don’t know why he’s so brusque. It’s not like it’s busy.”

            “You sound like grandma.”

            “Hey, there’s a knife right there on the table.” I mime stabbing myself. “You could have used that instead.”

            “Mom.” Mitchell shovels in bacon. Around us, a few scattered business types are glued to their phones.

            “I’m not trying to make light of this. I called a lawyer I know in the city.”

            “How do you know a lawyer here?”

            “She’s someone from my twenties.”

            “The school said I don’t need one.” Mitchell adds two more sugar packets to his cup.

            “I don’t know if we should believe that.”

            “Why not?”

            Mitchell’s a young seventeen, certainly, but the innocence of his question curdles the cream in my guts.

            “They said it has to be handled on campus,” he says.

            “Right. Something to do with Title Nine. But Mitchell, what’s happened so far—the what did you call them? Interim restrictions? You can’t visit any other dorms, you can only go to the one dining hall. It’s affecting your whole college experience, and no one’s even proved what she said is true.”

            “What did the lawyer say?” Mitchell gulps most of his orange juice.

            Tabby didn’t say much I should tell Mitchell. Not how The Department of Education can cut all federal funding if they don’t think a school’s response is sufficiently aggressive, and not how she still misses the way I held her wrists above her head.

            “She stressed the importance of getting help early.” I refold my napkin. “Why didn’t you say anything over Thanksgiving?”

            “I thought I could handle it.”

            “The thing is, it’s not like the court system. You’re not presumed innocent. It’s your word against the other student’s, and they only have to believe her a little more.”

*

            Mitchell’s sleep issues started early. Everyone says night terrors are harder on the parents; your child flailing and growling, eyes rolled back into his head. By two years old, he’d grown out of them. In his next phase he refused to sleep alone. One night, Meg and I were both curled around him like parenthesis, all of us jammed in his bed.

            “Honey, can you explain exactly what scares you?” I asked.

            “It’s past midnight.” Meg touched his back.

            “He doesn’t know how to tell time.”

            “Yes, I do.” Mitchell pressed his face into his pillow.

            “Mom and Mama have work in the morning, Mitch.”

            The first time I heard Meg call Mitchell that, I felt like one of us three was a stranger, but I couldn’t tell you who. Meg’s the nickname type—her whole family is. It’s because they name their kids after living relatives, and then they’re stuck trying to differentiate. It’s how grown men end up with names like Junior and Tad. But Mitchell’s M is for my father, Moishe. Maybe it’s assimilation; we get to honor the deceased’s memory without having to saddle our kid with some old Jew’s name.

            “What?” Now, Meg leaned toward Mitchell. “Babe, talk louder.”

            “He said he doesn’t want to be by himself when he dies.”

            “How does he know about death?” Meg propped herself on one elbow.

            “Mitchell,” I said, “sleep is different. Sleep is just a break from thinking.”

            He was crying and clutching his stuffed llama. “It’s not a break for me.”

            In my memory, he was barely four when he said that; always advanced for his age. Babies don’t develop depth perception until the sixth month, but by five months he was pointing at the bus through the kitchen window. When he could toddle, he’d make a beeline. When he could talk, he’d ask “What dat?”

            “Go bu!” He repeated after I told him. I thought my answers were age appropriate. When he was six: “Ghosts are made up stories about people who aren’t alive anymore,” when he was eight, “Ghosts are ideas about our souls.” Meanwhile, Meg stuck to her story: “Mitch, the bus comes here to visit us.” She thinks a parent’s job is to filter, not explain.

            When he was ten, Mitchell started checking books out of the library. Most kids would have gone on the internet. Maybe it’s because our donor was an archeologist—Mitchell preferred words he could hold in his hands.

            “Ghosts come from something called animism.” Mitchell sat at the kitchen table. “It’s ancient and—what does ‘attribute’ mean?”

            “What’s the rest of the sentence?” I layered a flat pan with lasagna noodles.

            “Animism attributes souls to everything in nature.”

            Meg leaned in the doorway. “In that context, ‘grants’ or ‘assumes.’”

            “What’s ‘context’ again?” Mitchell asked.

            “The words around it.”

            “How can a word’s meaning change because of that?”

            “Words are flexible,” Meg said. “It’s like how Mom gets called sir a lot when we’re with strangers. Context affects how you’re understood.”

            After Mitchell got through our tiny library’s ghost section, he moved on to astral projection. Then came cults and UFO’s. I don’t think his research affected his sleep habits. By his teens it was mainly insomnia. He refused warm milk and melatonin. One summer, he set up  a tent on our lawn.

            “You think it’s safe for him?” I asked Meg.

            “Babe, it’s Door County.” On the couch, she sipped wine like liquid sunlight. We’d been to Stone’s Throw Winery earlier that day.

            “What happens when it’s winter?” I lifted my arm so Meg could nestle against me.

            “He’ll have some other new sleep problem by then.”

            “I just seems counterintuitive. Why would he sleep better outside?”

            “I slept great when my parents took me camping,” Meg said. “And at summer camp, my favorite was the overnight.”

            “You went to sleep-away camp, the whole thing was an overnight.”

            “Once per summer, the counselors would take us camping in the woods.”

            “I don’t even like sleeping with the windows open. What’s that Woody Allen line? ‘I’m two with nature?’”

            At least that’s one way Mitchell and I aren’t the same.

            “I called her my little shut-in,” my mom told Meg at our wedding. “Every weekend, in her bedroom with the shades drawn.”

            “Even in the summer?”

            I knew Meg had spent her Saturdays horseback-riding, on Sundays she had church and flute lessons. In her white pantsuit beside me, she looked appalled.

            “She’s exaggerating.” What I liked best about summer were the sealed up windows, the air conditioner’s low, constant drone.

            “Your sister was much more social,” my mother said.

            “Fuck lot of good that did me.” My sister scraped raspberry filling from a fat cube of cake.

            “What about the Goldstein’s son?” My mother suggested.

            “Mom, he’s been with his wife since grad school.”

            “Well, I’m not sure how this became my fault.”

            “No one’s saying that.”

            My sister thinks all the good Jewish men are taken. Married to shiksas with kettle corn hair. Today of all days, I couldn’t contradict her. I held Meg’s hand and kept my mouth shut.

            “You wore a night gown?” Meg asked, when mom had gone off to hug Aunt Rachel.

            “My mom just called me agoraphobic and that’s the part that upsets you?”

            Meg sipped champagne and leaned against me.“It’s a little like finding out your husband’s a transvestite.”

            “Are you eating that?” My sister reached for Meg’s cake.

            “You haven’t finished yours.”

            “She only likes the filling,” I said. “If it helps, I don’t feel like I’m someone who wore nightgowns.”

            My sister licked the tines of her fork.“But who you feel like isn’t always who you are.”

*

            Meg doesn’t make it by four, but neither does the Dean of students. At three-thirty, we’re on benches outside the conference room, waiting. The building is graceful, a sort of rotunda. More benches curve away out of sight. At three-forty five Mitchell’s phone rings. I watch him. Hair slicked back, he’s changed into Dockers we bought him. The Marriott’s built above a mall.

            “Okay. Okay. Right.” His listening expression is the same as always. No matter whether he’s attending to Blues Clues or Call of Duty or CNN.

            “It’s postponed.” Mitchell slides his phone in his pocket.

            “Till when?”

            “Same time tomorrow.”

            “Did they give a reason?”

            Mitchell stands. “The dean ate some bad shrimp is what the guy said.”

            “I guess the good news is Mama will make it. The airport should have its shit together by tonight.”

            “What do we do now?”

            “Are you hungry?” I shoulder my messenger bag. “What do you feel like?”

            “Mexican?”

            “Let’s research what’s around.”

            “Well, hello.”

            I look up from my Google search to see Tucci. Today his tight sweater’s bright blue.

            “What a coincidence.” I turn to Mitchell to introduce him, but Mitchell’s skittered backwards, colliding with a plant.

            “You okay?” I follow his gaze to the girl a few feet behind Tucci. Brown hair, green windbreaker. My mom would call her zaftig if she felt kind.

            “What’s wrong?” When I turn back to Tucci his face has gone pale.

            “I’m not supposed to talk to her.” Mitchell grabs the plant to stop it from falling.

            “Are you kidding me?” Tucci glances between me and Mitchell.

            “Come on.” A blond woman tugs at Tucci’s sweater. “Seriously. This isn’t the time or place.”

            “You little piece of shit.” Tucci advances. Clenched fists and bald, gleaming head.

            “Back off.” I step between him and Mitchell. Impotent, Mitchell still clutches the plant.

            “Dad.” The brown haired girl whispers.

            Tucci exhales. “Okay, baby.”

            The blond woman takes Tucci’s arm.

            I watch the group retreating. “She’s Stanley Tucci’s daughter?”

            Mitchell releases the plant, finally. “Her last name is Kerplowski,” he says.

*

            Meg swore her Door County house wasn’t haunted.

            “Unless you mean by shitty memories.”

            I set the box of kitchen stuff among the city of cardboard. I’d just done a seminar in Los Angeles— Women UP was finally gaining national traction— and now the boxes reminded me of Skid-row. “But you really want to live here?”

            “I’ll make new ones with you.”

            In my memory, she took my hand and led me upstairs to the bare mattress. Meg says we did it there on the floor. Later, we unpacked dish ware.

            “How long does the guide’s spiel last?” I glanced through the window. While we were upstairs, the bus had pulled away.

            Meg blinked at me. Her legs were bare beneath a worn Yale sweatshirt, her hair snarled up near the crown.

            “Spiel means patter or little lecture. What happened here that got the house added?” I pictured blood dripping from the high beamed ceilings, chopped up bodies in the crawlspace beneath the stairs.

            “It’s just a fun thing for the tourists.” Meg wandered to the table.

            “There must be some specific reason.”

            “It might be a burial ground, or else someone’s uncle hung himself?” Meg used the corkscrew on my pocket knife. “I always get this one and that barn down the road confused.”

            I thought poltergeists might show up when Mitchell turned thirteen, or something. Like a paranormal bar mitzvah, which my mom’s still mad we didn’t have. But all that ever happened was explicable. A hornet’s nest in the attic. Creaky floorboards when no one was walking. A thunderstorm that brought down an old oak.

            His senior year of high school, Mitchell’s English teacher emailed us. “It’s my belief that your son plagiarized his final paper.”

            “I haven’t told the principle,” Mr Boyles said when I arrived.

            “Why not?” I squeezed into the desk he gestured at.

            “I’d like to think the three of us can handle this.”

            “You me and Mitchell?” Sometimes teachers forget he has two parents. It’s not homophobia exactly, more like some brand of denial.

            “You me and your wife.” Mr Bowles strode to the front of the room.

            “I’d like to see what my son has to say.”

            “Kids will say anything when they think they’re in trouble.” Puffed up and pigeon like, he took a perch on his desk.

            “We teach Mitchell to stand up for himself.” From my angle, the teacher’s crotch was eye-level.

            “When I confronted him, he implied I didn’t know my own subject matter. Respect for authority is paramount.”

            “Self-respect’s right up there, too.”

            “I’m here.” Meg shut the door behind her. She settled her sunglasses on top of her head. “What’s the punishment?”

            “Hang on a second.” I turned to Mr. Boyles. “What makes you think he didn’t write it?”

            “It’s simply too good for someone his age.”

            “You’re punishing him for being a good writer?”

            “I’ve taught kids for two decades.” His lip twitched, an accidental sneer.

            “Did he copy from the internet or something?”

            “I’ve developed a sixth sense for these things.”

            “What exactly activated your Spidey sense?” I shifted, trying to get comfortable. Attached desks are made for people without ribs.

            “For one thing, this word, ‘preternatural.’” He tapped a sheaf of papers. “When I asked him, he couldn’t define it.”

            “That’s it?” I glanced at Meg.

            “That’s the least of it.” He adjusted his cuffs. “Have you read Heart of Darkness?

            “I have.” Meg said.

           “In class, I taught that Kurtz’s unchecked greed was the source of his descent into madness.” Mr Boyle watched us. “But your son attributed it to more complex psychological factors.”

            “So you’re punishing him for coming up with something on his own.”

            “When I asked him to take me through how he’s reached his conclusions, he said he couldn’t remember. Here’s all I could get out of him.” Mr Boyle read from one of his papers. “He said, and I quote ‘Something about madness and ownership? And, Kurtz is really alienated? So like, how you try to control things so you feel less alone?’” Mr Boyle’s voice lilted at each sentence’s end.

            “This is all just one side of the story.” I extracted myself from the desk.

            “I’m his teacher?” This time, the lilt seemed accidental.

            “I’m his mother. We’re going home.”

            “Why’d you read the book early?” I asked Mitchell later. I was washing dishes and he was drying.

            “I get anxiety.” Mitchell ran a dishtowel around the mouth of a mug. “I worry I won’t finish. So it helps to work ahead.”

            “Mr Boyle said they like students to stick to the syllabus.” Meg still wore her sunglasses. She looked poised to leave.

            “If he turns his work in on time,” I said, “then who cares?”

            “He’s not a special case. People can’t go through life expecting everyone to make exceptions.”

            “Can they expect to have a chance to explain?”

            “Guys.” Mitchell raised his hands like a suspect. “Mr Boyles did his dissertation on it. Probably I should just have been more respectful.”

            “I’m exhausted.” Meg turned. “I’m going upstairs.”

            “Where’d you get all that stuff about alienation?” I asked Mitchell.

            “I related to Kurtz, kinda. Not really the part where he thought he could do what he wanted. That’s like, colonialism or whatever. But I don’t think the problem was greed, really. I think he was too isolated. He got swept up in his version of reality. He just spent too much time in his head.” Mitchell folded his dishtowel. “If you write a dissertation, doesn’t that mean you become a professor?”

            “I guess so.” I turned off the faucet and squeezed out the sponge.

            “Then how’d he end up teaching high school?”

            “I’m sure he’s asking himself the same thing.”

*

            The next day, when Meg arrives at the Marriott, Mitchell runs to her. Like when he was four and we left him with my family. Just for a weekend, so we could have some time to reconnect.

            “You made it.” I take Meg’s bag.

            “Finally. If this is December, I can’t imagine the rest of the winter.”

            “Is that dog okay?” Mitchell asks.

            “The cancer hadn’t metastasized.” Meg kisses his temple and releases him. “We got the bad spot on her lung.”

            “So you saved her?” Mitchell presses the button for the elevator.

            “I performed the surgery.” Meg’s the worst with compliments. When I first told her I loved her she said, “Okay.”

            “You have enough time for a shower.” I say. “Have you eaten?”

            “Does the room have an ironing board?” Inside the elevator, Meg sags against the wall.

            “The meeting’s at two. I think so.”

            “Mom, we’re on eight.”

            “Shit. I was saying two, so I pressed it.” When the doors open on our floor, I squeeze Meg’s hand.

            “I forgot my toothbrush.”

            “Mitchell, can you run downstairs and see if they sell them? Here.” I pat my pants for my wallet.

            Mitchell turns for the elevator. “I’ve got cash.”

            “We used to have to lift him up to press the elevator buttons,” Meg says.

             In the room, I set Meg’s bag on the bed. “Remember my trip to Redmond, and how I wound up with someone else’s suitcase?”

            “That wasn’t Redmond, that was Los Angeles.” In front of the window, Meg stretches. Her arched back and the slope of her neck.

            “Come here for a second.”

            “Are you nuts?” Meg twists away.

            “Apparently.” I’m left holding her cardigan.

            “Your text was confusing. Why was the postponement good?”

            “For one thing, he gets to have both his parents here.” I toss Meg’s cardigan on the bed.

            “You said something about a lawyer?”

            “Tabby. She’ll meet us there. Yesterday she was tied up in court.”

            “How did you find out her name, exactly?” Meg unzips her bag.

            “I’ve known Tabby since-”

            “The girl.”

            “She’s allowed to come to the meeting and represent herself.”

            “I thought her identity was protected.”

            “Not from the board. And not from Mitchell, obviously.”

            “What did she look like?”

            “Why does that matter?”

            Meg fishes through her suitcase.

            “Like my sister, a little. Younger, of course.”

            “Did she seem…off in any way?” Meg sets a pair of khakis and a grey sweater on the desk.

            “It all happened so fast, I don’t know. Mitchell acted really scared of her. We went for dinner after that, and I got it out of him that they’d hung out, which I think means they dated.” I unfold the ironing board.

            “Did he break up with her? Was she upset?”

            “It’s nothing so formal with kids now. They ‘hook up,’ apparently. There was something about it on NPR. It seems like she’s the one who ended things. The allegations happened after. And I guess he tried messaging her on Facebook, but he wasn’t supposed to, he says he didn’t know that was part of the no contact order.”

            “Shouldn’t that have been made clear to him?” Meg presses her finger to the iron.

            “It seems kind of obvious. No contact is no contact, right?”

            “But he couldn’t do anything to her in writing, so he may not have understood, and now there’s this whole other set of—what did they call them?”

            “Interim restrictions. You’re tired, I can do that.”
            “This thing just seems stacked against him.” Meg’s bicep flexes as she irons.
            “I know. She’s really protected.”

            “Well. That’s what we get, I guess.”

            “What does that mean?” I scoop up a pair of Meg’s underwear that’s slipped from her bag.

            “That’s your whole raison d’être, right? Offering women protection, so they have a voice?”

            She means Women UP. Over time, it’s evolved into something more slick and corporate-friendly. We’ve got fewer seminars directed at women’s groups. Mostly we teach HR departments how to create an environment safe for everyone. I figure more people benefit, even if the message is leavened. Ideally, that’s how movements function; the counter culture fighting so hard for mainstream acceptance, then the mainstream changing as a result.

            “The work we do is important.”

            “I’m not saying it isn’t.” Meg folds the ironing board.

            “What are you saying then?”

            “Can you put my underwear back in my bag?”

            After the meeting, I take Tabby aside to thank her.

            “My pleasure. I’m just sorry you’re going through this.” On the steps of the administrative building, Tabby touches my arm. “He seems like a nice kid.”

            “He is. He’s really sensitive. His whole life, I worried we’d fuck up and traumatize him. With kids, it’s never the thing you expect.”

            “I think it’s like that for everyone.” The wind tugs blond hair from her bun.

            “We’ll get him back into talk therapy. His psychiatrist is really just there for his anti-anxiety meds. Do you think that will count against him? Make him look troubled?”

            “Honestly, most of what he does now is meaningless. As long as he doesn’t try to contact her…”

            Tabby looks so official with her slim briefcase. Last time I saw her she was shitfaced at Stargaze. We’d gone out drinking to celebrate my move the next day.

            “…the board is still judging what allegedly happened before.”

            “How the fuck did we get here?”

            Right away, Tabby gets it. “You ghosted me, and I got into UCLA.”

            “What’s ghosting?”

            “Oh, wow. Bless your old, married soul.” Tabby touches my arm again. “They’re your type, both of them.” She means Meg and Mitchell. From the back they’re both whispy-blond and fine-boned, waiting for an Uber at the curb.

            “People think she carried him.”

            “She didn’t?”

            “She tried.” I glance at Meg. “Should we be doing something more active than waiting?”

            “It’s good he offered them access to his Facebook messenger-”

            “They didn’t even want it.”

            “-but in the meantime, your best focus is to start thinking about next steps.”

            “You mean prepare him for the formal hearing?” I fold my arms against the wind.

            “We may not want to let it get that far.”

            “I don’t understand. How would we stop it?”

            “If they decide to expel him-”

            “Can they just do that?”

            “If they think it’s in their best interests.” Tabby shrugs. “Anyway, he’ll have a mark on his transcript.”

            “What does that mean, exactly?”

            “As I understand it, every school he applies to will see he’s guilty of sexual assault.”

            “No one’s proven that.”

            “Do you want to risk his future?”

            “What are you advising?”

            “I’m a tax attorney,” Tabby says, “but just be strategic. This girl can derail his future without ever calling the police.”

            At the curb, I join Meg and Mitchell.

            “That was nice of her, after everything.” Meg shivers.

            “I guess I’m just that charming.”

            “That’s the Uber.” Mitchell looks up from his phone.

            When the it pulls up, I slid into the front seat. “The Marriott. Wait, you know that. I always forget.”

            “S’all good.” The guy behind the wheel has ropy forearms. He’s somewhere between my age and Mitchell’s. At this point, people in their twenties all look like they’re twelve.

            In the backseat, Mitchell says to Meg, “aren’t you going to ask if I did it?”

            “I hadn’t planned on it.” Meg looks away when I try to catch her eye.        

*

            Mitchell was always big on experiments. He had one where he stood an egg on its end to see if it was rotten, and one about speed and acceleration, where he dropped a different egg from the roof of the house.

            No eggs were harmed in his bus experiment.

            “What’s the verdict?” I asked when I picked him up at the library. The Ghost Tour ends with a trip through its basement. That’s where they keep the microfiche, or at least they used to. On moonless nights they say the founder still walks the cold floors.

            Mitchell leaned his forehead against the passenger-side window.

            “Did you see me hopping up and down and waving?”

            Mitchell dug in his backpack.

            “Did you see Mama doing cartwheels?”

            “She always said the bus came to see us.” He pulled a pack of gum from his bag.

            “She didn’t want you scared until you were old enough.”

            “But I still thought we were part of it.”

            “What do you mean?” I turned down the volume on All Things Considered.

            “I couldn’t see anything.” Mitchell mashed two sticks of gum into his mouth.

            “Are our windows that dirty?” I held out my hand.

            “It was the angle. The bus people don’t even know we’re inside.” He handed me the package. The gum was damp—whoever knew what was going on in that kid’s backpack—still, I popped a piece in my mouth.

            “Did you see any ghosts at least?”

            Mitchell shook his head.

            “Well, now we can run relays in our underpants.”

            Mitchell stared through the windshield.

            “No? How about we all pretend to be monkeys? What would you do if no one could see?”

            Mitchell shrugged and chewed harder. I checked out his profile. I guessed that was how my nose looked from the side.

*

            “Will you shut up if I let you fuck me? Just shut the fuck up,” Meg said. She was drunk, and she didn’t want anything to do with me.

            “But it’s our honeymoon.”

            “It’s a hotel in fucking Schaumburg.” Meg tugged at the bedspread.

            “So let’s make it feel special. Wait, they don’t wash those.” I slipped the spread from beneath her dead weight.

            When we first got married, we agreed not to splurge on a vacation. We both had cars and bedroom sets and dish ware. Meg’s divorce had granted us the Door County house, plus we needed all our savings for IVF. After I had Mitchell, I got super busy pivoting Women Up’s focus, and Meg was building new her practice. Now that Mitchell was four, we’d finally taken some time away.

            “Fucking Schaumburg,” Meg repeats things when she’s extra drunk.

            “So let’s fuck.”

            “Ha-ha-ha-ha hilarious.”

            I touched her bare shoulder. “I want to feel close to you.”

            After nine years of marriage, we were mired in our habits. Bedtime by nine-fifty-seven, Mitchell clutching his llama between us. Meg’s reading glasses and her Ipad. My stack of presentation notes. So much of marriage is parallel play.

            “Fucking Schaumburg. This hotel doesn’t even have a pool.”

            “I’m sorry, I’m not Tad Jeffrey Junior. I can’t afford five nights in the Bahamas. I’m sorry I didn’t graduate from Yale.”

            Meg rolled to her stomach, her linen shift rising. I helped it along a little, exposing the tops of her thighs.

            “What? You’re talking into the pillow.”

            “I said you might as well be Tad if you’re not taking no for an answer. If you don’t care at all how I feel.”

            “You’re my wife.” I never got tired of saying it. Despite Meg’s cold shoulder, I warmed.

            “Stop.”

            “I care how you feel, absolutely. That’s the whole point, I want to make you feel good.”

            Meg shook her head into the pillow, but she lifted her hips at my touch.

            “Meg, come on. Turn over.”

            Meg’s skin beneath her linen shift felt humid. Her exhales were pungent with wine.

            “I want to sleep.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

            “Meg.” I ran a finger under the elastic of her panties. Blue lace. Thin from years of wear.

            “Leave me alone.”

            It’s inevitable; you can’t both want each other equally forever. But sex is a need like any other. That’s what’s hard about relationships. If you’re hungry, you just open the refrigerator. But I’d been down this road with all my girlfriends. The one who stops wanting sex is the one who wins.

            I eased her dress up around her hips. “I’m not like Tad is.” Her underwear was easy to tear.

            I was still awake hours later when someone pulled the fire alarm. I got Meg to her feet and down eight flights of stairs.

*

            The carolers aren’t like the Ghost Tour. They don’t keep a strict schedule. It’s almost seven when they arrive. In the kitchen, I’m stirring batter for cookies. My secret is fresh ginger. Last week I made latkes, only because my mother was visiting. Meg can’t stand how afterward the scent of oil haunts the house.

            First thing mom asked was why Mitchell was home so early. Berkley runs on a trimester, was what we’d agreed to say.

            “I told you,” I whispered to Meg in the kitchen, later.

            “Relax. Your mom doesn’t know how to google.”

            “How will we explain when he starts Whitewater next semester?”

            Meg rubbed her temples. “I always forget how many questions your family asks.”

            “What’s so wrong with asking questions?”

            “Case in point.” Meg handed me a paper towel to pat the latkes dry.

            “Would it kill you to answer?” I gripped the spatula.

            “People need privacy.”

            “What about intimacy?”

            “The pan’s smoking.” Meg hugged herself.

            “What they need is to know each other.” I turned down the heat.

            “You know me. I’m right here.”

            “I know more about all those girls I shacked up with in the nineties.”

            Saying it made me feel like some kind of asshole. Who uses the phrase ‘shacked up?’ ‘Maybe you should go find one of them,’ was how Meg would have replied once, and I’d’ve said, ‘you’re who I want though,’ and we’d have fought until we built enough steam to fuck.

            In the pan, the oil snapped and splattered.

            “And you’re not with any of them.” Meg gestured for me to step out of range.

            “So?”

            My mom pushed open the door to the kitchen. “Whew, it’s smoky.”

            Meg passed me my ‘King of the Grill’ apron. “So, you got what you wanted with me.”

            “Your sister texted.” My mom settled at the table.

            “Meg, can you hit the fan above the stove?”

            “She says she’s sorry she couldn’t make it.”

            “Yeah, what happened?” I turned down the heat under the pan.

            “She’s got some work commitment. She forgot Chanukah was early.”

            “Why do Jewish holidays keep moving?” Mitchell asked from the doorway.

            My mom shrugged. “They’re like us, they migrate. Maybe someone’s always kicking them out of their homes.”

            Now, I check the timer on the oven. Still a while for the cookies. Most kids like bland foods, but when Mitchell was little, he’d come running to lick the bowl.

            Last night, I found him in the kitchen, Sunday’s New York Times wrinkled in front of him, water boiling on the stove.

            “It’s for cocoa,” he said. “You want some?”

            “I think we have marshmallows somewhere, but they might be as old as you.” I turned to search the cupboards. “This is like that scene in A Wrinkle in Time. Remember that day we stayed in reading it? You weren’t sick or anything, but I had a sore throat when we were done.”

            “How do you do that?”

            I heard Mitchell turn a page in the paper.

            “Read for hours? Wait till you’re a parent. Comes with the territory. They hand out the power at the hospital. They inject it along with the fertility drugs. How to read till your vocal cords fray.”

            “I mean, how do you even get there? How did you guys both agree on each other at the same time?”

            “Me and Mama?”

            “You and Meg.”

            “I guess some of it was timing. And you have to want to be with someone enough to get over all the downsides.”

            “What downsides?”

            I opened another cupboard. “Like, Meg’s allergic to flowers and I’d love to fill the house with them. Or I used to be obnoxiously jealous.”

            “Why?”

            “Probably because I was a cheater. Or maybe because she’d been straight.” I stood on my toes to feel for the marshmallows.

            “I was going to go with Hayden to San Fransisco for Christmas.”

            This was the first Mitchell had said about it.

             “Then her texts back got shorter.”

            Meg and I had agreed not to push.

            “I wanted to be sure, so I graphed them. The length and the quantity were different since we started. When I said that, she asked if I had Aspergers.”

            I teetered on my tiptoes. On the stove, the kettle began to hiss.

            “I wish I had fucking Aspergers. I’d be too obsessed with like, exotic bug types to care. After that she stopped mentioning Christmas. She blocked my texts and her roommate kept telling me she was out.”

            By then, I’d patted my way to the marshmallows, but I didn’t take them down, or turn.

            “How could just texting and calling and meeting her out places make her feel like I was a rapist? We barely even had sex, just the one time I asked about her text patterns. She said she was just busy with school stuff. She said she was sorry she told me I had Aspergers. Then she got quiet in the middle, but she never told me to stop.”

            When I finally turned, the kitchen was empty. I don’t know how long I’d stood there, just facing the cupboard, while the kettle screeched like a banshee on the stove.

            Unlike the bus people, the carolers coordinate their outfits. They wear vibrant red cloaks and green hats. All the kids are apple-cheeked and invested. The old folks lean into each other. Like most weeks, today Gus is there with his flute. In the kitchen, the scent of ginger seems nearly physical. Vaporous, like an orange fog. When I crack the window, I catch the last of the figgy pudding song. ‘Piggy pudding,’ Mitchell used to say. For a while there, we worried he might have a speech impediment, but then instead he got that wheat allergy. It’s all misdirection. Raising kids is like slight of hand.

            The oven buzzes.

            “Mitchell,” I call toward the stairs, “come ruin your appetite.”

            It’s only luck, the cookies are ready. Sometimes our neighbors bring the carolers eggnog, but we’re not always home when they arrive.

            Outside now, the snow falls more thickly, but there’s Mitchell, in just a white T-shirt. Spindly arms, poky spine. He crosses the yard, dragging the garbage bag. Behind him, its weight indents the snow.

             “I just don’t understand what happened,” he’d said last night while my back was turned. “The harder I tried the farther she went.”

            Now he lingers, watching the carolers. “Fall on your knees,” Gus takes the flute from his lips to sing.

            When Meg opens the garage door, it seems to release Mitchell. He dumps the bag in the trash bin. Meg says something, and together they step into the indent. They follow the accidental trail back to the house. Thanks to Mitchell’s experiment, I know they can’t see me. Still I half lift my hand, and I wave.



BIO

Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s work has appeared in literary magazines such as Diagram, Brevity, Third Coast, Underground VoicesCarve and The Boiler. She has written for sites including Salon, The Chicago Sun Times, The Satirist, and Pop Matters. She was shortlisted for Zoetrope All Story’s 2016 Short Fiction Contest, receiving an honorable mention. Most recently, Sarah was a runner-up for Prairie Schooner’s annual summer Creative Nonfiction Contest and her work was published in their Summer 2020 issue. Pushcart Prize nominated, Sarah holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a Creative Coach, and teaches creative writing at The University of Chicago Writer’s Studio. Her novel, Herself When She’s Missing, was called “poetic and heartrending” by Booklist.

Whose There

by Maria Marrocchino


My mind races with nonsense parables and rhymes.
I haven’t got the time to hang it up
clear it.
I’m tripping but there’s no acid to speak of.
I miss the innocence I once knew.
Eyes that look through windows of ripe cherries not yet bruised.
I want to get all the goodness from the ocean, the sky, but
instead I keep listening to widowed thoughts
telling me I’m vapid or wrinkled or wasting my time.
Me and the lonely moon are singing each other’s
high crimes again tonight.
I’ve wasted yet another love, trying hard to make him mine or perfect or something.
But I keep failing and so I get into a cold bed with just my fantasies
and I’m so fucking bored.
What happened?
Did I let all those needled scavengers rape me dry of my humility?
You see I love myself too much and really I am nothing at all.
I walk around like I don’t have a care but truly I am scared. 
I tried to call my mother and tell her she better not waste her tears on me anymore
but I was too late.
She’s shriveled.
Just like an Edvard Munch painting
I want to scream like that.
No you have a nice day, mine is already filled with too much honesty.
Trying to sort through all these filthy lines
and everyone keeps calling me to ask me how I am
and I tell them I’m so great, super, I just need to be saved.
And they hang up on me.
I guess I better work on saving myself.


This Is A Long Poem


This is a long poem
It will be passed over
But the flow of my hand
And my chestnut thoughts
Overwhelm me so I go and go
Letting blue ink stream wonderfully
I sit and the gush of everything
Comes like a full orgasm
It surely is not a great group of words
Maybe only average at best
It surely will not get printed
Maybe even tossed.
This is a long poem
Not even fit to read really
Seldom should anyone care about the outcome
But I’m up all night
For this pedestrian poem
I lose sleep
Many minutes of loss
But long poems are worth it
Phone keeps ringing
The baby is crying
My soul begs me to give up
But I go on and on.
This is a long poem
The throbbing of my hand
The crinkling of my fingers
It’s working
It’s haunting
It’s mature
Short poems are dull
To be a true love of this verse
It must be sweeping
And the opposite of puny
It’s giving me clarity
It has a barrel of hope.
This is a long poem
It stirs such uncertainty
But I feel a sense of humanity
With every crooked prose I still go
Not everyone can do this you know
A cryptic passage to let you know I’m alive
And I wonder when it will stop
Do you think now?
Why are you still reading this?
Have I made a mockery of this art we call “ode”.



BIO

Maria Marrocchino is a writer and producer living in Manhattan. She has lived in Manhattan for over 15 years and has been writing since the age of 13. Her poetry has appeared in Clockwise Cat, Broad, Belleville Park Pages, SNR Review, Main Street Rag and PDXX Collection. Her stories have appeared in The Sun for “Readers Write” and her travel stories can be found in Independent Traveler. Maria is a features writer for Dazed & Confused, Platinum, Nylon and City magazines. She has also published a book of poetry, Winged Victory: Transcending Breast Cancer.


Her website is krop.com/mmarrocchino.

Her blog is https://singlenycmom.com/



Whatever Happened to Mr. Saguaro?

by Carolyn Weisbecker



            Kneeling before the crumbling wall like a repentant sinner rested a row of dusty mason jars filled with flowers. The pink carnations had long dried out, their brown skeletons clutched together in its glass burial tombs. Seeing the wall, Darren dismounted his bike and hoisted it over the curb because of the bears. Yes, bears. Not the kind of bear where one would escape but the kind one would, instead, embrace. Perched beside the mason jars, the bears’ sodden tummies bulged while laden heads lowered in defeat. One bear wore a plaid vest of yellow, red, and black with a matching bowtie. The second bear clutched a pink satin heart. An aura of misery and melancholy grasped Darren’s chest as he stared at the bizarre scene laid out before him.

            The feeling hung over him like a stormy sky that whispered of abandonment, of death, a hole that only grew deeper and wider as the minutes passed. He wondered about it all. Had his dad mentioned something about this from his daily peruse of the Tucson Times? A child riding his skateboard or bike before the screech of brakes and inevitable whack that led to this roadside memorial? He winced. The thought of a life snatched away bothered him. But then, everything bothered him.

            As the unpleasant feeling persisted, he turned away to hug the Santa Catalinas, a towering mountain range north of Tucson, Arizona. Darren decided that if he had to spend the summer with his dad, he would find comfort in the mountain views, desert landscape of cactus and bush, and the quiet of the star-scattered nights at Mount Lemmon Sky Center; Tucson—so unlike his home in Chicago—surprised him daily by its authenticity. The city’s lack of pretentiousness beckoned Darren to wander music, book, and thrift stores; clerks of all ages greeted him with smiles and gave him the freedom to shop without idle chatter or worse, a barrage of suggestions regarding an imminent purchase. Darren’s thoughts scattered, and as the minutes gained speed, a series of beeps rose from his smartwatch. He ran one rough hand through his damp hair. “Shit.” He was late. Again. Grabbing his bike, he pedaled, careful to avoid giving anyone a reason to add another memorial to the existing one.

            Fighting the wind, Darren forced his legs to pump harder through the hilly streets. But the bike was old with splotches of rust and a chain thirsty for a few squeezes of oil, so it needed extra prodding. Despite the work required to pedal, he liked the bike’s faded red paint and the shiny new tires, although he wasn’t exactly sure Mrs. Norris, the thrift store lady who seemed one step away from a nursing home, was entirely truthful about the bike’s true condition. He could tell by her small eyes that darted from the bike to the ceiling and back; not once could he recall her gaze reaching for his in a gesture of humanity. No enthusiasm. No encouragement. And least of all—that which he really craved—engagement. But the fact remained that thanks to Tucson being a college town, with the University of Arizona just a few blocks away, decent used bikes were a tough find. So, after a bit of stilted haggling, pregnant sighs from Mrs. Norris, and a trip to the ATM, Darren handed over his last twenty bucks to the old woman who neither thanked him or offered a receipt. Not even a goodbye.He hated that he cared.   

            The bike resisted him, so he pedaled with a ferocious heart until the Old Tucson Book Store loomed into sight. There was a reason for the word, old, hethought as his tires went bump-bump-bump over the gravel surface that led around to the back. The one-story building, like many along the weathered street, whimpered for a drink of fresh paint, indicated by its cracks, peeling stucco, and remnants of graffiti the store owner ignored. Still, the building wasn’t all bad. Probably its best feature was the bright orange door that beckoned customers to enter; but once inside, the gray walls and uneven floor—oh, and the remnants of marijuana smoke and microwave popcorn—made even the most curious customer leave.   

            After leaning his bike against the garage wall, Darren entered the building’s rear door on soft feet. The shop sighed when he stumbled, mimicking its long-time owner, Mr. Saguaro—Darren never knew his real name—who usually only muttered whenever Darren arrived while his eyes made love to the artwork hung on three of the four walls. All Saguaros. The east wall highlighted Saguaros stoically keeping watch over its underlings—small cacti, unkempt shrubs, and a smattering of Joshua trees. The west wall proudly boasted Saguaros that held the mountains upright—the thick cacti arms opened wide to catch a tumbling rock like a mother who catches a tumbling toddler. But the ones that deserved special attention made their home to the north.

            The north, known as the celebrity wall, where Mr. Saguaro—called Mr. Sag, for short—hung select Saguaro artwork—the ones that got headlines or held the title of biggest, largest, oldest, like the Saguaro deemed the Grand One from Tonto National Forest that towered at 46 feet; next rested a print of Old Granddaddy from Tucson’s Saguaro National Park with fifty-two arms and the title of “oldest known cactus in the world.”

            And then there was the one that mocked the rest because, well, according to Mr. Sag, it deserved the honor. The one and only oil painting with a gold wooden frame. The one and only oil painting he had actually purchased from an art studio and not a discount store. The one and only oil painting where Mr. Sag had mounted a picture light he found in a dumpster to show the world—or at least his customers—that number one, he was an art connoisseur, and number two, he was—but without the financial support—a patron of the arts.  

            The one and only oil painting was the crested Saguaro. Its fan-like tips resembled giant waving hands, and Mr. Sag referred to it, with bated breath, as his one and only favorite.

            “It’s a crested Saguaro. Very rare,” Mr. Sag would say to whoever glanced in the painting’s direction.

            With the Saguaro shrine behind him, Darren’s shoulders relaxed as he approached the main store area. I’m in luck, he thought. Mr. Sag must’ve gone out for a coffee.Humming at the pleasant thought and the realization he truly alone, Darren strolled over to a pile of books that needed sorting. Then, his humming faltered. Then stopped. Darren gulped as Mr. Sag’s weathered body stood up from the chipped wooden chair he kept in the corner. Today, the old man wore a tie-dyed purple and yellow tee shirt along with his standard worn jeans. A silver Cuban link bracelet slid down his bony wrist as he lifted a palmful of popcorn to his lips. Darren waited while Mr. Sag finished chewing, but before he could utter, “I’m sorry I’m late,” Mr. Sag lifted a tattooed arm.

            “You’re late again, so you’re fired, boy. Now get out of here, and don’t come back!”

            Darren sniffled, not from emotion, but from a cloud dust. Being Tucson, and being an old building, and being the windows were old and not fitted properly, dust did a slow dance around anyone who stood long enough to notice. He coughed to buy time; he knew he needed this job. Wanted this job. Because as shitty as the pay and his treatment by old Mr. Sag, Darren had nowhere else to go. Nothing to do until his mom picked him up in August to return home and then maybe he’d be back to spend a holiday. That’s what happened when his parents got divorced; his dad moved across the country for a fresh start, and summers and occasional holidays were the only times Darren got to see his dad. He accepted it.

            Not a sound was heard except for the heavy tick-tock of the huge black clock that hung above the cash register. Mr. Sag’s dark eyes never left Darren’s as he continued shoving popcorn into his greedy mouth. Finally, Mr. Sag cocked his silver head. “Are you deaf, boy? I told you to get out. I’m sick of you being late. I’m running a business here. This is my livelihood. My life. This ain’t no hobby for me like it is to you.”

            Darren watched his heart plummet to the floor and collide with a colony of dust balls. He blinked. “But Mr. Sag, I still need to dust the floor and all the shelves. Then I was going to set up that computer and printer you bought to get you into this century.” Darren’s eyes rested on the small table by the counter where an ancient drip coffee maker rested. “And then there’s that!

            Mr. Sag’s eyes flickered with curiosity as he followed Darren’s gaze. “You mean the coffeemaker? What about it, boy?”

            Darren nodded. “There’s something you need to know, Mr. Sag. You might want to sit down for this.”

            The room waited while Mr. Sag remained rooted to his spot, arms folded, his lips curved downward. Darren coughed again and scrambled for an idea to prolong his imminent departure.

            “Well, it’s like this,” he said. “You claim you’re running a business, that this is your life, but it’s not true.”

            Licking his lips, Mr. Sag gazed down at his now empty popcorn bag, and Darren knew the old man wondered if he should pop another bag. “What you talking about? Besides, why you still here? I told you to git.”

            Darren’s legs melted into the floor. “You’re not running a successful because you’re not giving people what they want.” He marched over to the coffeemaker stand. “People want coffee—good coffee—when they browse for books, and this old machine can’t make it. I’m guessing the inner parts are worn out.” He opened the coffee machine lid and let it drop with a thud. “Wasn’t it used when you bought it?”

            Mr. Sag scratched his head. “You know I buy all my appliances and what-nots second hand. Otherwise, I’d be out of money in no time, and the misses wouldn’t like that!”

            Darren nodded. “I understand, but it doesn’t make decent coffee.” A line appeared between his brows. “You know, if the coffee was good, people would drink it. And while they’re drinking it, they’d be looking at the books and maybe even buying some.” His eyes flew around the room, and although his glance was fast, Darren noted everything. The creaky ceiling fan that shuddered every five minutes. The mismatched bookcases—some without shelves—painted in various shades of blue, yellow, and green. But most disturbing of all, Darren felt the shop’s fear; its sadness oozed from up from the tired floors, and tears dripped from the walls by the humidifying unit. Even the coffeemaker let out a big sigh whenever Darren turned it on.

            Mr. Sag glowered at him. “What do you know about coffee? You’re just a punk. What are you, fifteen?”

            Darren jutted his chin. “No sir. I’m seventeen. I start my senior year in the fall, and I know plenty about that deep complex nectar we fondly refer to as coffee.” His words sounded hollow, even to him, mostly because he’d never drank coffee. He preferred pop.

            Mr. Sag scratched the sliver of belly that peeked out from under his shirt. “No one else gives free coffee away but me. You would think that incentive would flood the place with customers. You’re trying to make me keep you here, but that’s not going to happen. Now, for the last time, get out of here before I toss you out myself.”

            Whatever courage Darren had slithered away, and he headed to the door. But the hand of courage wouldn’t hear of it, and instead, whipped him around. “You’re wrong, Mr. Sag!”

            Mr. Sag’s forehead puckered. “What ya mean, boy?”

            A slow smile eased onto Darren’s pudgy face. “What I mean is that you’ve got competition, which might explain why it’s a ghost town here.”

            Mr. Sag yawned. “Competition? You talking that internet thing?”

            “Forget online shopping. I’m talking about the new book store just a few blocks over. I stopped by the other day and saw all kinds of customers drinking coffee and buying things. It was a real community thing, people laughing and talking. Said they loved the book selection and how nice and clean everything looked. Overheard some of them saying they loved the coffee and would be back.”

            Mr. Sag lifted an eyebrow.

            Darren continued. “It smelled real good, too, not like that nasty stuff that comes out of your machine. It’s too bad you fired me because I had a big surprise for you.” He shook his brown head. “Your loss.”

            Mr. Sag couldn’t help himself. After all, he loved surprises, especially since he never got any. He rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Maybe I’ll let you stay. Depends on what the surprise is. I’ve got high expectations, you know.”

            Darren’s mouth lifted into a smile. “You see, my dad manages a business supply store in Oro Valley. I told him about the sad state of your coffee machine. He said he’d get you a top-of-the-line coffee maker for a fraction of the cost. You know, as a courtesy because I work here.”

            “Top of the line?” Mr. Sag repeated.

            Darren nodded. “That heavenly coffee aroma from your new machine will pluck people right from the street, and before you know it, this place will explode with business. Think how happy that will make Mrs. Sag.” Darren grinned. “What do you say, Mr. Sag? Can I stay?”

            He narrowed his eyes. “Fraction of the cost?”

            “Yes, sir. My dad will give a cheap price. And, I’ve got some other ideas, too, that will bring in more customers than you can handle.”

            As Darren talked, Mr. Sag thought while his eyes took in the dank smelly couch, chipped side tables, and stained area rug. He wasn’t stupid. He knew his shop needed a boost, something exciting that would draw customers through its faded orange door. He needed to offer more than books. Like Darren said, he needed to offer a sense of community. Coffee could do that. His mind filled with the image of a shiny new coffeemaker dripping like a song while his customers lined up for a cup, books tucked under their arms and thoughts of what to buy next.

            I’ll move the machine up toward the front so everyone can see it before they check out. The idea pleased him, and before he could catch himself, his lips eased into a smile. “Sure, boy. You can stay.” For now, he thought.

            It only took mere seconds for Mr. Sag’s smile to dissolve into a dark pool that dripped to the ground and formed a puddle around his feet. No one possessed the power for his transformation except one person—his misses. For at that very moment, the much-younger, much bigger, and much smarter Mrs. Sag stormed through the door, not caring that the slam led Mr. Sag to groan.

            “My god, woman. What did I tell you about that?” His eyes rotated from one wall to the next, making sure his treasured Saguaro paintings remained intact.

            She followed his eyes then turned her attention to inspecting her nails. “Screw your paintings. I’ve been stuck all week with that girl, and now it’s your turn.”

            Darren caught his breath at the sight of her hot pink mini-skirt and plunging black silk blouse. Turquois earrings stretched from each ear. Her matching pink lips gleamed like fresh paint. As he stared, she read his thoughts by pulling a tube of lipstick from her Louis Vuitton bag. “What girl?” Darren asked, but what he really wanted to know was this: what in the world did a hot-looking woman like her see in old Mr. Sag? Was he a millionaire or something?

            The Sags grunted the name, “Rainbow!” in unison then glared at one another.

            Mr. Sag coughed. “Rainbow is my step-granddaughter from my second marriage.”

            Mrs. Sag rolled her painted eyes. “Second marriage baggage should remain in the second marriage, not rolled into the third.”

            Mr. Sag opened his mouth, but the sound of a shriek sliced through the air. Darren led the way as the three rushed out the back door. “What the heck you screaming about, Rainbow?” Mr. Sag asked.

            “I just wanted to see how far my voice would go.” The girl before him fluttered her eyelashes at Darren. “Who are you? You’re cute.”

            He thought the girl must be about ten or so.

            She twirled a single dark braid that hung past her shoulders. “I’m hungry, glorious Grandma. When’s that pizza kid going to come?”

            Mrs. Sag sighed. “I told you to call me Grandma Gloria, not glorious Grandma. Why don’t you play out here with Darren, and I’ll let you know when it’s here.”

            Darren straightened to his full five-foot, four-inch height. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’m no babysitter. Besides,” he glanced at Mr. Sag, who remained planted by the door. “The boss here has work for me.”

            Rainbow stuck out her lip, folded her arms, and pouted. “But I want him to play with me! Now!”

            “Darren.” Mr. Sag’s voice held a warning. “As my newly appointed assistant manager, I want you to play with my sweet little Rainbow, so starting now, she’s your responsibility.”

            Darren gulped. “Assistant Manager? But who’s the manager?”

            “Me, dummy.” Mr. Sag smiled at Rainbow. “I’m the owner, manager, head honcho … I’m everything. Congratulations, you just moved up from chore boy to my assistant. So, get to work boy, and play with this child.”

            Darren’s eyes flew to Rainbow, who tapped her foot while she waited. Once the Sag’s backsides disappeared through the door, he turned to his new responsibility. “Okay, kid. What do you want to do?” His brown eyes swallowed the dismal scene around him. “How about I find you a broom, and you can sweep while I pick up this trash that’s blown about? Your grandpa would like that.”

            She shook her head. “Nope. I want you to find me a kitten to play with. A sweet, cute, tiny kitten who will sleep on my bed and dance around the house with me.”

            Darren rolled his eyes. “I don’t have one.”

            Rainbow sighed and tapped her lip with one pink-painted fingernail. “Well, then. I want to play pet rescue. I’ll be a poor, abandoned puppy dog you found by the garage here, and you have to get me to trust you by being nice to me.”

            He bit down on the word ‘that’s stupid’ before they oozed from his mouth. “That’s no fun.”

            She blinked—long and slow—a wisp of a girl who suggested fragility but in truth, possessed determination, grit, and unfortunately, resourcefulness. “You either play like I said or else…” She met Darren’s eyes before throwing herself to the ground. “Ow! That hurt!” As quickly as she fell, she jumped up and brushed off the pebbles from her knee. “I’ll tell my grandpa and my glorious grandma you pushed me down!”

            Anything Darren might have said at that moment disappeared as a small, rusted car roared up the drive and stopped at their feet. A tall, gangly kid of about Darren’s age emerged holding a white slim box.

            “Pizza!” Rainbow shrieked and ran in circles.

            The pizza kid yawned. “You’re brilliant.”   

            Rainbow stopped and held out her hands. “Give me!”  

            Wiping his forehead with the palm of one hand, the boy muttered, “That’ll be $18, plus my tip. I’m sure you’ll be generous.”

            Rainbow’s hand flew to her pocket. She pulled a wad of bills from her shorts and counted out loud. “Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty.” A sly smile eased onto her small face. “How much did you say?”

            Tired and hungry, Darren snapped. “Just give him a twenty.”

            She wrinkled her nose and shoved the bills back in her pocket. “I’ll give you a good tip if you play with me first because Darren is boring. And stupid.”

            The boy moaned and looked at Darren. “What’s this oddball talking about?”

            Darren shrugged.

            “Look,” Rainbow said. “I’m a poor, abandoned puppy dog someone dumped by the garage here, and you need to rescue me. Then I’ll give you a twenty-dollar tip.”

            The pizza kid straightened. “Twenty-dollar tip, huh?”

            She nodded and looked around the littered yard. “Darren, fill up that hubcap with water, and bring it into the garage. That’s where poor abandoned puppies like to hide. And, you, pizza kid, I want one slice now and a ride around the garage.”

            A flash of doubt crossed the boy’s face. He tossed the pizza box onto the hood of his car and lit a cigarette. After taking a long drag, he nodded at Rainbow but spoke to Darren. “Is she for real?”

             Darren strode over to the hubcap and picked it up. “I’m afraid so.”

            The garage stood silently a few feet away, just a shell with missing slates and no door. The pizza kid peered inside, and seeing nothing but boxes and a pile of old clothing, he threw down his cigarette butt and stomped on it with one black boot. “Okay, fine.”

            Rainbow raised an eyebrow. “Pizza?”

            The boy yanked a slice from the box. “I’ll give you three minutes.”

             Rainbow clapped her hands and grabbed the pizza. Shoving half the slice into her mouth, she mumbled. “Let’s go!”  

            While Darren rinsed and filled the hubcap, he wondered if he should alert Mr. Sag to all of this but decided it wasn’t worth bothering him.

            The pizza kid turned around and kneeled to one knee. “Okay, oddball. Climb onto my back. Your ride awaits.”

            As soon as they entered the garage, the kid—with Rainbow squealing on his back—jogged around the building’s perimeter three times then dumped her onto the ground. She whined in response until he shoved the hubcap toward her and ordered her to drink.

            “You’re a puppy, right?”

            She nodded.

            “Then lap the water like a puppy.”

            She did.

            As the pizza kid sped away—his twenty folded into his shirt pocket—he cranked up his music, and the sound of rap floated away with graveling flying from his tires. Darren nudged Rainbow’s shoulder. “Come on, the game’s over. I’m going inside. I’ve got work to do.”

            She sprang up. “Where’s my pizza?”

            He turned and glanced at the trashcan by the rear door. “Sorry. I didn’t know you wanted more.”

            Rainbow stiffened. “You ate the whole pizza?”

            “I was hungry. Besides, the pizza kid gave you a slice. Remember?”

            “You think one slice is enough? You’re a moron!” She pulled a long chain out from under her shirt, and seeing Darren’s eyes widen, she held up the chain’s gold skull and kissed it. “That ride didn’t last three minutes. I don’t like people who cross me.” She shoved the skull back under her shirt. “I’m telling my grandpa you ate my pizza.” With one last sniff, she marched into the store and slammed the door in Darren’s face. “Grandpa! Glorious Grandma! Darren ate all my pizza!”

            Seeing nothing else he could do, Darren turned on his heels and fled. 

            Darren arrived at the shop early the next morning. In his left hand he held a cup of coffee from Mr. Sag’s favorite shop, and in the right, a small white bag that held a fresh blueberry muffin—Mr. Sag’s favorite. When he reached the back door, he shoved the bag under his left arm and turned the knob, but nothing happened. A heavy feeling filled his stomach. He wondered if he should go home because obviously Mr. Sag was still upset about him devouring all of Rainbow’s pizza. Deciding to try the handle once more, he tilted the coffee and yelped as the lid popped off and scalding liquid exploded, splattering his white shoes and socks.

            “Shit!” He shoved the lid back on. Anger simmered in his brain and traveled down to his legs. If Mr. Sag hadn’t locked him out, this would never have happened. He jogged to the front entrance. The door knob turned easily in his hand. He blinked. Except for the lamp behind the counter, darkness invaded the shop. He flipped on the overhead lights. “Mr. Sag?” No answer but the buzz of the black clock. His shoes made a swooshing noise he never before noticed, but he welcomed it for it gave the quiet room a bit of life. Stepping behind the counter, he set the half-empty coffee cup and muffin down then froze.  “Whoa!”

            Quarter size droplets of blood dotted the desk behind the counter. One, two, three, four deep red circles. A knife rested nearby, and when he squinted, he saw a streak of red smeared down its shiny blade. His eyes lowered to the floor where more drops congregated. What the hell happened? he thought. His eyes flew to the clock. Eight thirty. The shop opened at nine. Where was Mr. Sag? And why was the front door unlocked? Whispers rose from the shelves that bulged with books; the characters ached to tell him what happened but couldn’t. Panic danced around him, and he backed away until a hand grabbed his shoulder.

            Darren cried out and yanked free. Whoever killed Mr. Sag had returned.

            “Darren, calm down! What’s wrong with you?” Mrs. Sag stood before him wearing tight blue jeans and a lacy red blouse. Diamonds sparkled at her throat. Her long fingers rested on her ample hips as she waited for Darren’s reply.

            Blinking several times, he fought back the urge to run from the shop. And from her. But he couldn’t. She blocked the narrow space between him and the door.

            Gulping, he found the words he needed to say. “Someone killed Mr. Sag!”

            She smiled. “Don’t be silly.”

            He pointed to the desk. He pointed to the blood. He pointed to the knife that looked even bigger than it had before. “Look!”

            Her eyes—with too much mascara and eyeliner—loomed like black holes. She turned to the desk and studied it with great interest. “Whatever happened to Mr. Sag?”  

            Darren squeezed past her. “I don’t know. I came in early today, and the front door was open. I went to turn off that lamp, and that’s when I saw the blood.” Darren’s mind raced with ideas. He wondered if she killed him and then came back to clean up the mess. Did her bronze face mock Mr. Sag as she plunged the knife into his heart? After he collapsed, she would’ve dragged his body out the front to shove into her new Cadillac Escalade—ironically, a gift from Mr. Sag because he said she needed a larger vehicle to haul things. Like dead bodies, Darren thought.

            Mrs. Sag brushed past him. “I stopped by to look for his cell phone. Rainbow was playing with it yesterday.” She straightened her fingers and gazed down at her nails—long and painted red, like blood. “That girl is crazy. Did you know she ran into a car last month on her skateboard?” She nodded at his blank look. “You know the intersection of Speedway and Country Club? Dumb girl skated off the sidewalk right into the street. Thankfully, all she got was a few bruises, but by the look of all the teddy bears and flowers people left, you’d think she got killed.” She drew in a breath. “I hate those roadside memorials. So depressing.”

            Darren swallowed. “I’m glad she’s okay, but what about Mr. Sag? The blood? Where is he?”

            She glanced at her watch. “The old man probably cut himself doing something foolish and went home to clean up.” Her eyes flickered. “You like working here?”

            His eyebrows drew together. “Well, now that you bring it up, yeah. I like it here.” The question moved him; maybe because no one ever asked—not his mom or dad or even Mr. Sag—and spurred by her interest, he found himself explaining how his parents divorced and his dad moved to Tucson, leaving Darren and his mom behind in Chicago. “My parents decided I’d spend summers here with my dad. And, it’s been okay, I guess. I’m just glad Mr. Sag lets me work here. Otherwise …” He left it at that.

            She listened while fingering her gold hoop earring, and when Darren finished, she tilted her head. “I like you, Darren, and I’m glad my husband made you manager. You deserve it.”

            “Assistant manager.”

            “What? No! You are the manager. And, I’ll tell Mr. Sag that when I see him.” She fanned her face with one hand. “I’m making the decisions now.”  

            He straightened. “Wow. Okay. Thank you.”

            “Tell you what. It’s about opening time, so why don’t I clean up this mess, and you take care of business. After all, you’re the manager.”

            “But what about Mr. Sag?” He gulped and glanced at the knife.

            She gave a huff. “Don’t worry about him. I’m sure he’s fine. Now, get to work while I clean up.”

            Darren watched as she strutted to the back for a cannister of sanitizing wipes before flipping over the door sign to read ‘open.’ While Mrs. Sag scrubbed away the blood, Darren dragged out the vacuum from the closet and pushed the heavy relic across the room in search of an outlet. Matted gray fur—courtesy of the stray cat Mr. Sag allowed inside under the pretense of catching mice—clung to the carpet along with the dirt clods that caught a ride on someone’s shoes.

            Tufts of dust spewed from the vacuum’s cannister. Grunting, Darren pushed the cleaner across the floor and hoped the effort would pay off by giving him bigger guns. Crackling and groaning, the cleaner wasn’t used to so much work, so it began to ignore the dirt and dust until Darren kicked it as a reminder of who was boss. That accomplished, he returned to the now-cleaned desk where a pile of new books waited to be catalogued and priced. No blood. Not even a trace, and in fact, the desk, with its orange laminate surface, never looked so good. Or clean. Still, Darren wondered about the blood. And, Mr. Sag.

            “Maybe you should call him. Mr. Sag, that is, to see if he’s okay,” Darren said. “Something’s not right. He left the door unlocked. And then there’s the knife. I’m kind of worried.”

            At the mention of the knife, she held it up and admired it under the overhead light but then shoved it into her bag. “Oh, I would, but …” She patted her pocket and grinned, showing bright white teeth. “I got his phone right here, so that won’t help. Besides, I’m sure he’s fine. I mean, why wouldn’t he be?”

            Darren shuffled from one foot to the next. “I’ll be here until three today, but I can stay longer if you need me. But I’m sure Mr. Sag will be back by then.” His eyes locked with hers. “Right?” Silence prodded him to repeat himself. “Right, Mrs. Sag?”

            Laughing, she slung her bag over her shoulder. “You’re a sweet kid, Darren. Why don’t you plan to work the full day? And since you’re not in school this summer, how about you work full-time? I mean, I’m not exactly sure when Mr. Sag will be back.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “I think it’s about time he took a vacation.” She nodded. “Yes, that’s it. A long, relaxing vacation somewhere with palm trees and a pool. When I see him, I’ll talk him into taking a vacation.” She straightened the large silver and turquoise cross that had tangled with her diamond necklace. “While he’s gone, I’d like you to think up some ways to make this place better. We haven’t had a profit for too long, and you are the manager now. I believe you’ve got what it takes to make this old place a success. After all, you’re young and strong and smart.” Her mouth resisted a smile. “Unlike that jackass I married.”

            She killed him, he thought. Or, did she? She seems pretty nice.

            After Mrs. Sag left, Darren wandered the shop with purposeful steps. He winced at the dust coated windows that filtered the light and made him think of allergies and altered senses. Reverting his vision to the four stucco walls, his eyes clutched the monuments of painted and printed Saguaros, the rows of shelves stuffed with books hopelessly abandoned and dismissed due to either too-high prices or unpopular content, the beaten-down sofas and wing-back chairs with electrical taped arms and wobbly legs, and last, the old mean coffeemaker that on any given day, vomited streams of tar and black steam. Would Mrs. Sag agree to replace it?

            A flood of doubt washed over him as he thought about his abilities and how she expected him to turn things around. She’s wrong, he thought as he emptied the coffee’s filter basket into the trash. I don’t have what it takes. His thoughts bullied and mocked him until he saw no other option but to leave. She’ll get someone else to help her, he thought. But then he heard the slam of the door. Whirling around, he saw him. And smiled.  

            “Hey, man. I know you!” When Darren caught the high pitch of his voice, he forced it lower. “You delivered pizza here yesterday.” Seeing another kid lifted Darren’s mood. Desire for company and curiosity overwhelmed him, so he took a few deep breaths—hoping the kid didn’t notice—and said, “You here to buy a book?”

            Consternation dug into the pizza kid’s face; his eyes protruded like he just spotted a tarantula on Darren’s shoulder. “Book?” He erupted into laughter. “You’re funny.” Sweeping his hand from side to side, he said, “Who buys these relics you call books?”

            Darren stiffened. “Why are you here?”

            The pizza kid pulled a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket. “I can’t find my skull. Have you seen it?” He lit a cigarette, took a drag, and eyed Darren as he waited.

            “Is this a joke? By the way, we don’t allow smoking.”

            Before the pizza kid could reply, he saw a tiny gray mouse scamper across the floor behind Darren. He grinned. “You need to get a cat, bro. But, no joke, Einstein. I was wearing a chain with a gold skull yesterday when I brought the pizza. Now I can’t find it.” He glanced around the room. “Is there someone with some authority I could talk to? Because you don’t seem too swift.”

            An image of Rainbow holding up the skull to kiss it flashed across Darren’s mind. He clamped his lips shut and wondered what to do.

            “Well?” The pizza kid tapped his foot. “Are you deaf or just stupid?”

            Darren felt his lips twitch, and he struggled to push back a smile. “Hardly. I’m the manager. Why don’t you and your stinking cigarette go outside and look around there, Einstein? Maybe it fell off out back by the garage while you were playing with my boss’s granddaughter.”

            The pizza kid stubbed out his cigarette on Mr. Sag’s laminate desk. “I already did that. Maybe that little girl found it. Is she around here? Maybe sniffing glue behind the desk or licking stamps for fun?”

            “Nah, she’s not around today. Even if she was …” The two boys locked eyes.

            The pizza kid dropped his gaze. “Look, I’m sorry I’m being an ass. My grandpa gave me that skull years ago, and it’s special to me.” He took a step and held out his hand. “You seem pretty cool. I’m Liam.”

            Darren gripped Liam’s hand as hard as he could. “I’m Darren. I’ll ask Rainbow—that’s the little girl—about your skull.” He shrugged. “She might be able to help. You could stop back later next week if you want.”

            Liam’s shoulders relaxed. “I will. By the way, where’s that crazy old man who’s usually in here?”

            “That would be my boss, Mr. Sag, but that’s not his real name.” He couldn’t stop talking. “He loves Saguaros, so that’s why he’s called Mr. Saguaro, or Mr. Sag, for short.” His stomach churned at the thought of the blood knife and blood drops across the floor. “Mrs. Sag, his wife, said I could take care of things until he returns.” Remembering Mrs. Sag’s words, he added, “I think he’s on vacation.”

            Liam sauntered over to one of the shelves and peered at the row of books. He gave Darren a pointed look. “You know, I’ve stopped in here a few times after school to look around, but …” Yanking a book from the shelf, he handed it to Darren. “When was this printed? The 1920s? By the way, that old guy wasn’t too nice, especially when I asked him who buys these books? They’re old and outdated, man. Way overpriced. You say you’re the manager? If that’s true, you’d better start managing things, or this place will crash and burn—if it hasn’t already.”

            Darren nodded. He felt an unfamiliar pang in his chest that became stronger as his excitement grew.

            Mrs. Sag said she needs me, he thought. If I try, I can make this place successful.

            “Did you hear me?” Liam frowned. “I said this place will crash and burn if you don’t do something soon. And that would suck because it’s pretty cool. Like, retro cool. All it needs is some love and labor.”

            Finally, working here felt right. “I’ve got some ideas that will make this place awesome. In fact, Mrs. Sag said I could do whatever I want to improve things.”

            Liam looked down at his scuffed black boots. “You know, no one would guess by looking at me that I love books. I was a 4.0 student until … well, I did a little juvie time, but that’s over.” He paused. “I’m not delivering pizzas anymore either, so maybe I could help.”

            Darren rubbed his chin. “You’re not going to rob me, are you?”

            Liam laughed. “Of what?” He fished his cigarette out of his pocket. “I’ll be back in the morning, but until then, take my advice—get a cat. And not one of the fluffy little kitties from the pound or a tom. Get a female cat. They’re badass.”

            The next morning, a reluctant sun struggled to stream through the windows of the Old Tucson Book Store. Darren arrived shortly after with a mop and bucket clutched in each hand. He attacked the front window first, the one that stretched across two sofas and a chair, and scrubbed inside and out until his sponge matched the black liquid he knew as water. Three bucket refills later, he looked up from his work to see Liam standing over him, an orange tabby cat nesting in his arms.

            “Hey, kid. I brought you a cat. She hangs around the pizza parlor parking lot, and I’ve seen her carry off a rat or two, so I know she’s a hunter. Anyway, I knew if I didn’t take her, my ex-asshole-manager would probably poison her.”

            Darren tossed his sponge down and stood. “So? What am I supposed to do with it? I’m not running a shelter, and frankly, she doesn’t look like much.”

            Liam gently set the cat down, and immediately, her nose and tail twitched. “Look, don’t let her cuteness factor fool you. She’s a killer. She’ll get rid of the mice you’ve got roaming around. No one wants to see mice when they shop. Do they?”

            As the weeks unfolded, Liam helped Darren revamp the shop. Each of the long, rectangular windows of the small bookstore sparkled. Whatever carpet and wood once covered the floors was ripped out and gone, replaced by red terracotta tile installed by two guys from Tio’s Tile down the street. The boys had emptied all the shelves of books. They repainted the bookshelves yellow then sorted, catalogued, repriced, and tossed the current inventory, and with Mrs. Sag’s permission, purchased a slew of new books from the wholesaler Mr. Sag once used. Liam even invited a local historical author to give a presentation and to sign his latest book. 

            “It’s definitely an improvement. Still …” Liam paced the room; his sharp eyes took in the stained and tired couches and chairs from every angle. “Let’s talk to Mrs. Sag about new furniture. Like I said weeks ago, we don’t want customers to leave. We want customers to sit, look at books, buy some, and stay.

            Darren agreed. The darkness that hung over him at the beginning of summer had—little by little—disappeared. He knew why. He found his place—in Tucson, Arizona, on a block of crumbling buildings with blue, yellow, green, and red graffiti that bounced off the stucco walls into the eyes of everyone who passed; he loved the delectable aromas of spicy chorizo sausages, chili peppers, simmering salsas, marinating pork carnitas, and tangy barbeque that drifted from nearby cafes, and the friendly, cheerful neighbors who brought the boys food and cleaning supplies ever since Darren replaced the open sign with one that read: closed until September 1st for fix up.

            Things got done. The store reopened with lots of new things but missing one old—Mr. Saguaro.

            Three couches—one in red, blue, and green—sat in the middle of the store between the open aisle bookshelves and check-out counter. Between each couch sat a white tiled rectangular table, and a matching table hosted the new, state-of-the-art Bunn coffeemaker that Darren’s dad sold Mrs. Sag at cost. Mrs. Sag arrived late one afternoon while Liam and Darren worked on setting up a new computer and accounting system. Her wide-set eyes popped as she gazed around the room. She folded her arms and smiled.

             “I see you’ve spent Mr. Sag’s money—I mean, my money well.” She pranced around the shop and nodded; her red-framed sunglasses slid down her forehead and bumped her nose, so she yanked them off and shoved them into her bosom. “All I can say, boys, is without the life insurance I got recently from …” She shuddered and paused. “From mi tia—she made the sign of the cross and whispered, “God rest her soul”—none of this would be possible. I’m sure Mr. Sag would be pleased. But more important, I’m pleased. And that’s all that really matters.”

            Four days before the grand reopening, Darren tried again to find out what happened to Mr. Sag.

            Frowning at the question, Mrs. Sag said, “Forget Mr. Sag. I’m your boss now. Poor Mr. Sag decided to pursue other things. But I’m sure his curiosity will entice him to stop by one day. Now wipe that frown from your face, and get back to work.”

            Darren cleared his throat. “What about the blood and knife? Was he injured, or … ?” He raised his eyebrows and waited.

            She scowled. “Didn’t I already tell you what happened?”

            He shook his head.

            “Well, the old fool used that butcher knife to cut himself an apple. The knife slid, and he cut his finger to the bone.”

            Liam and Darren gave one another a furtive look.

            “Well, of course he rushed home for a bandage. I found him whimpering and bleeding all over my kitchen when I got home later, but don’t worry.” Her eyes sparkled. “I took care of him. Now can we move on already? Before we open, I want you boys to get rid of all those damn Saguaro paintings. Throw them in the dumpster or whatever. Then second, repaint everything a golden yellow—the shade of a Harvest moon.”

            Instead of throwing the paintings out, the boys quickly packed the Saguaro artwork into boxes and stacked them in the renovated garage. Sweat rolled off Liam’s face while Darren’s face glistened from fear.

            “You know, Liam.” Darren’s voice lowered as he glanced around. “I think she did it. I think she killed old Mr. Sag. And, I think we should tell someone.”  

            Mrs. Sag demoted Darren to assistant manager while giving Liam the manager job. Darren understood. Liam had graduated from high school last May, and for the time being, had no plans for to go college.

            “I never liked school. I lied when I said I was a 4.0 student,” Liam confessed. “It’s a miracle I made it as far as I did.” He swept his long, bony arms in a dramatic gesture. “Besides, this is the only education I’ve ever wanted.” The boys rested on the new picnic table out back, a gift from Mrs. Sag so Liam could have a place to smoke while Darren chugged his can of coke.

            Liam took a final drag of his cigarette then crushed the lit end against the side of the table. “Have you talked to your parents anymore about letting you stay?”

            Darren drained his coke; his eyes never left Liam’s face. Wiping his hand across his mouth, he sighed. “It wasn’t easy. Mom had all kinds of reasons why I should go back to Chicago—you know, finish school, be with my friends, continue my violin lessons. Blah, blah, blah.” He looked off in the distance. “That shows how little she knows me. I hate my old high school, I have no friends, and I suck at playing the violin.” A warm breeze stumbled past and wrapped its arms around Darren in a hug. “Anyway, yeah. I’m staying. I’ll be going to the same high school you just left. Besides, Mrs. Sag needs me here.” He nudged his friend. “And, you do, too, since I’m your assistant manager.” Feeling a bit awkward, he scrambled off the table, tossed his can in the trash, and reached into his pocket. “Here, dude.” And with that, he tossed the chain with the gold skull in Liam’s direction.

            Darren didn’t want to lie, but he also didn’t want to be honest about the skull, specifically, Rainbow’s part in it. When he confronted her several days earlier, she pursed her lips and clammed up; that is, until Darren opened his backpack to show her the sleeping cat Liam had brought him. Rainbow threw her hands up and squealed; before Darren could stop her, she lifted the cat from the bag and nuzzled it under her chin.

            “I love her! What’s her name?”

            Darren rolled his eyes. “Mouser?”

            “No. I’ll call her Angel because she’s my little angel cat.”

            Darren watched for a moment, then he held out his hand. She didn’t hesitate. Rainbow pulled the chain and skull up over her head and dropped it into his palm.  

            Once a month on a Saturday, the shop hosted a group of young guys who played mariachi music. The shop bustled with book and music lovers alike who tapped their feet, swayed their hips, and hummed. Liam rushed around the room to answer questions, find books, and offer suggestions, while Darren worked the counter. As the afternoon slowed down to a crawl, Darren took a deep breath and sat at the stool behind the register. He pulled out his cell phone to check for messages when Liam rushed over to him.

            “Hey, man, I need your help with this guy.” Liam pointed to the back. “He’s hogging the coffee machine, and people are getting pissed. I’d help, but I’m working with a customer.”

            Darren’s shoulders slumped. “I just saw Mrs. Sag come in. Can’t she handle it?”

            Liam shook his head. “She said to get you.”

            Darren marched over to the coffee machine and glared at the man’s back. He tapped his shoulder. “Excuse me, sir? Is there something I can help you with?”

            The man laughed, a deep and throaty sound that vibrated his body. He turned. “Well, well, boy. It’s about time you came over to say hello.” He grinned at Darren’s blank look. “What’s the matter? I wasn’t dead, dummy. I was getting detoxed. Damn booze.” Glancing around the busy room, his eyes darted until they rested on his wife, absorbed in replying her lipstick. “Now don’t go around telling anybody. The missus wants to keep it quiet.”  

            Darren grinned. “Glad you’re back, Mr. Sag.”

            Mr. Sag smirked. “Nice job, kid. Except for one thing—what the hell did you do with my Saguaros?”


BIO

Carolyn Weisbecker earned her Master of Arts in English & Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. Her fiction has appeared in the Penmen Review, the Binnacle, Mark Literary Review, and Adelaide Books included her short story, “Bo and Arrow,” in their 2019 Children’s Literature and Illustration Anthology.

The Arraghey Wander by Seven

by Ruth Heilgeist


Ar·rag·hey (Manx (v.) move, change, change course, digress, shift, remove, trim, dislodge, adjourn, (n.) motion, digression, maneuver, removal, mutation, adjournment, dislodgement,  displacement).

My terrified run across a freshly plowed field, the earth exploding around me, is a frequent memory. Then I wonder why my father would shoot at my nine-year-old self.           

Being plowed is one term for drunkenness. Besides describing tilled soil, the word is also used to describe a ponderous, plodding way of walking.

Drunkenness is a condition that can foster a tendency to walk carefully and slowly. I have been drunk a few times in my life. Brandy and I are no longer speaking.

My first foster family was my favorite. When I faked an illness, giving social services grounds to take me from my mother, I demanded a new family. And got the Brady Bunch, replete with three girls and three boys.

A favorite animal of mine is Doona. Under five pounds with no tail, Doona is a black cat who tends to remain elusive when I want to pick her up. But when she relents to be hugged, it feels like a reward.

Doona means dark maiden in the language of Manx, the native language on the Isle of Man, and is where the tailless Manx cat originated. A friend found Doona in her Virginia driveway, a tiny kitten a long way from her ancestral island.

The language of animals, and especially cats, has the same tonal value of human language. They speak of anxiety, want, anger and contentedness. My cats understand that books make me deaf, so one of them always jumps onto whatever I am reading.

Cats have always been a family member. I once had twenty-seven rescue cats residing on my farm. One day, I heard screeching above my head and saw a kitten clutched in the talons of a bald eagle. Poor baby. Mama couldn’t save you from that.

The member of my blue eyed, white stallion is often on display as he dances around his mares in the pasture. Even when the mares are not in estrus, Mykael feels obligated to remind them of his manhood. But, when he comes too close, they reward him with a kick to the chest. Like a player waiting for his turn off the bench, he waits.

White is supposed to be the color of sheep, but my Katahdin ewes are brown, black and tan. All four were to be lawn mowers to save me from the tyranny of grass. But, instead of munching grass, the girls decided the asparagus, Japanese plum and forsythia bushes were better eating. So they were fired from their day job and are doing the real work of mothering.

Color is a motivating factor in my life. Right down to my farm gates (hunter green), driveway gates (a subtle light gray) and my animals. Charcoal gray, Burmese white and black with green eyes are the cats. Blue merle and black tricolor are the dogs. And dun, dark bay, golden bay, chestnut, paint, palomino, and perlino white are the horses. But the ducks: all buff.

My central theme for farming is subsistence. But planting, watering, hoeing and weeding is arduously repetitive. No wonder farmers always kept a crop of children on hand to do the chores. I farm because I am a closet prepper and have memories of food insecurity. I should be thinner.

Subsistence living is akin to a prisoner lifestyle as the need to grow food imprisons me on my farm. A diverse crop is key to ensure enough vegetables for the year survive if weather or insects destroy some varieties. It’s a lot of work to live without grocery stores. No wonder fast food is popular. Less work.

A prisoner by choice, my vegetables and animals are my inmates. All look to me for care. Every morning I am a minor celebrity when I appear on the front porch, all animal eyes on me, waiting. Will I pick up the buckets first or load the hay cart or fill water tanks? I change it up just to keep them guessing.

The animals are my family, more honest than most humans and accepting of multiple hugs. Some let me sit next to them to meditate. Bugs, bees and wasps buzz around us as we zone out, listening to our breathing.

Honest reflection at times makes me desire less responsibility, to answer the urge to thru hike to see. Just see. This need for movement motivated my long-distance bike rides, marathon running and competing in endurance races of 50 miles or so on horseback.

Desire for a life of meaning awakens me every morning, along with my latest “why” question that needs an answer. My father, now eighty-nine, says he is waiting to die, when he can remember. Long after the incident, I asked him why he shot at me, my sisters and Mom when we ran from his rage all those years ago.

“I was trying to get you to stop.”

“Dad, people run away from gunfire.” He remained silent until I asked, “What does a deer do when you shoot at it?”

“Run.”

“And people?”

“I think it is going to rain today.”



BIO

Ruth Heilgeist is an MFA student at Lindenwood University and a volunteer tutor for an adult literacy program. Ruth writes about her life past and present. An avid opportunity-maker, Ruth’s experience ranges from paper girl, modeling, belly dancing, waitressing, actor, portrait artist, horse breeder/trainer, fraud investigator, endurance rider, marathon runner, voice over artist, mortgage underwriter, farmer, illustrator, bartender, equine sports massage therapist, cartoonist, writer and a receptionist for The School for Private Detectives. Ruth lives on her farm with seven horses who think she’s the bomb (but only when she feeds them), three cats who complain when she’s late and two Aussies training her to get up early. In the near future, Ruth hopes to survive tandem skydiving.

Binding the Generations

By Kim Zach


Because I am not the master,
I have the skin of a slave
who has spent her life

under the lash.
Each whip crack scatters
fragments of my ancestors.

Inside my body, I mourn.
Sorrow conjures up
my bartered children,

an armful of babies, gone.
Only whispers left
of their sweet breath

At night, yellow tears
flare like flames. Grief spills
out the cabin door, flows

through the woods, fills
the ocean and keeps afloat
ships bearing the multitude—

my blood brothers,
my sacred sisters. Snatched
from a far continent,

bound to planks, they roll
in sickness and squalor—
Africans rocking the deep.

Emerging from the belly
of darkness, they shade eyes
against forgotten sun. Broken

feet, circled in iron, stumble
onto the sandy shore.
I meet them there

and prepare to weep forever.


Hazelwood House for Unwed Mothers, 1963


The girl disappeared
overnight, escaped
from her second-floor room,
picking the lock like a young Houdini.

One slender arm circling
her burgeoning belly, she
slipped through the darkness,
down the stairs.

Maybe he waited for her, perched
on the hood of his blue Chevy,
collar turned against the swirling
snow, cigarette glowing
against his beautiful smile.

Maybe she ran to the corner
where his father’s Buick paralleled
the curb. Did he reach across
the seat, twist the handle, and say,
“Baby, baby, you made it!”?

Maybe they hurried to the alley
where his battered Ford truck idled,
her trembling hand clasped in his.
He gunned the motor, and by morning,
they had crossed the state line.

The other girls believed in maybe,
clinging to the possibility,
until the day finally came
when each forged her own escape,
belly deflated, arms empty.



BIO

Kim Zach is a writer whose work has appeared in U.S. 1 Worksheets, Genesis, Clementine Poetry Journal, Clementine Unbound, Adanna Literary Journal, and Bone Bouquet. Her poem ‘Weeding My Garden’ was nominated for a Pushcart prize. She is a lifelong resident of the Midwest where she taught high school English and creative writing for 40 years. She currently works as a book coach, giving other writers the support and guidance they need to complete their projects, whether fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. You can read more about her at kimberlyzach.com.

Devoir

by Marcia Bradley

 

They parked the rental car near the yard where dogs no longer barked. Beyond was an expanse of prairie that backed up to nothing. It was the nothingness Loretta remembered. Bunkhouse to the right. The rabbit hutches, empty, the chicken wire door on one askew. Loretta’s stare darted to the rusty nail that jutted from a barren raised vegetable bed. Her father’s presence never absent, his eyes upon her every move, even now.

“Well, a last look,” Loretta said to her husband. She took strong steps in her Western boots—part of the uniform she still adhered to back east in the city. Her dark red hair breezed over the shoulders of her corduroy blazer; she played with a loose button in one pocket. A bitter day had welcomed them. Earth-encrusted snow lingered. Not spring yet on the prairie. Probably for the best. Warmth wouldn’t help. Loretta headed to the backdoor of the house. Pushed it open.

“So, this is it?” Clarke asked. He scanned the perimeter, checking for what he wasn’t sure, at watch none the less.

Loretta’s shoulders twitched. It was hard to be here. The ranch’s silence as uncomfortable as a playlist of wolf howls and fox moans. Empty, yet there was a stench she recognized.

“Yes,” she said. “This is it. William and Mama’s house.”

 
 

Loretta walked a few feet into the kitchen. Mama’s domain. She glanced at the double-gauge standing guard by the door. It belonged to her father, William. She wouldn’t touch it. Never again. His oilskin slicker hung idle on a nearby hook. His black western hat sneered at her from the shelf above.  

“You don’t spread democracy with the barrel of a gun,” Loretta grumbled and hurried past the sink towards the pot belly stove. The elderly scent of onions and bacon was burnt into the walls of the musty room. She wished she’d brought Lysol except it didn’t matter. They weren’t staying.

“That a quote?” Clarke asked from a few feet behind.

“Yes. A great woman. Blunt. White House press corps. It sure sucks.”

“What sucks?”

“Being smart. People want their women nice.”

“Yep, got it.” Clarke shook his head, said no more. She’d let him come with, after discussions about how her being alone was fraught. With what? They weren’t certain.

Loretta ran a finger along the edge of the oak kitchen table, her burgundy nails foreign in these parts. She might well have been in a furniture store where it was preordained that nothing would be chosen. Clarke sat on the edge of a bench at the table, took off his blue Mets cap, and scratched at his forehead. Loretta knew her lawyer husband was trying his best to appear calm, but he was uncomfortable; she was sure he felt same as when a client called him to a home where something unpardonable had happened.

“Sorry,” she offered. “This place. So very—” She didn’t want him to see the past locked within her eyes. She couldn’t help it. She felt William in the room, the man who scoffed venom at her, his huge self ready to take the kitchen’s center stage and make another irrational demand. She crossed her arms same as when young, nervous and scared. 

“Don’t be sorry,” Clarke said. The anxiety in this house resided ceiling to the warped linoleum floor. She owed no apologies.

“Right.” At the foot of the stairs that led to her childhood bedroom, Loretta stopped, slapped her hands on her Levi’s, and swung around on her boot heels. The sight of the kitchen mottled her skin with itches and childhood memories. The framed certificate from the state hung on the wall next to the picture of Jesus preaching the beatitudes. William in his I’m-in-charge chair at the far end of the table. William’s hand on the green ledger the day he told her he’d kept a log. How he’d flipped from page to page. His finger trailing down the columns doing his calculating, a mental math of his own peculiar divination.

“Yep, got a record of what you owe us. Every single dime we spent,” he’d announced when she was seventeen begging for eighteen’s arrival.

She heard him plain as yesterday.

“You’ve got a debt to settle. Lots of days’ work owed. Interest due, too.”

“What?” her voice had taken on a teen’s incredulous tone, her throat gagged, no words ready for that sort of attack. It wasn’t a surprise that William would chain her to the ranch, mentor her to meanness as he’d done with his dogs. To have kept a log—an insidious sin.

Loretta remembered Mama in her chair by the pot belly stove. The stained pink-green-red apron tight around her middle—how her chest heaved—her brow dotted with perspiration after kitchen work. Mama’s tired feet, the flesh of her legs thick and layered upon layer until she had no ankles at all. 

“You didn’t think you’d be goin’ anywhere did you, daughter?” The slick undertow of Mama’s voice drifted to her. “You be needed here. By my side.”

Loretta again felt the cringe in her heart, how her breath had gasped away, oxygen stolen from her that morning when William told her she’d be in charge of the residents, that he’d mapped out her future.

“Need help?” Clarke asked from the table. Loretta knew he was afraid for her, fearful that perhaps it had been a bad idea to make this journey back to the house of her childhood.

“Don’t worry. I’ve got this,” she said.

Loretta stared to her right, to the front room with the red horsehair couch and chair where William had wooed the parents of bad girls who were in fact good, wonderful, freedom loving young women, girls who’d done nothing except be teens who yearned for fun, kissed boys, maybe drank a beer or uttered some weak blasphemy. Young women whose parents William enticed with lectures about sinnery and learning right behavior.

“No contact with the outside world for 60 days,” he’d tell them.

“What?” It was usually mothers who were shocked by this.

“That’s fine. We understand.” The fathers too quick to agree.

William taunted the residents. They grew as pale as the translucent sadness in their souls. He made them tie their hair back claiming unbanded hair led to a loose and reckless life. Ordered them to wear long denim skirts and blue Stop Foolish Sinnery t-shirts. Sent them to the roadside stand to sell fluffy pure bunnies to passersby for Easter dinners. In later years, Loretta learned he’d ordered select young residents to kneel before him and ‘do what sinners do.’

Every girl was a sinner to William.

“Stay here. I’ve got to get something.” Loretta said with her hand on the banister. She couldn’t reveal more, her childhood room not to be shared.

“You sure I shouldn’t go with? In case?”

“I’m sure.”

Loretta headed upstairs to the room with the door that Mama had often locked with a key. The bedroom where Mama plodded inside wearing worn old man slippers bought discount at the Walmart in town. She’d wiped Loretta’s wounds with a ragged cloth wet only with water. Not clean, questionable tenderness.

Loretta twisted the knob. She opened the door.

 

 
The room was unchanged. Her lonesome twin bed. A few white blouses on hangers in the closet. Loretta touched the dresser and pulled out the top drawer. Inside, her forbidden-to-wear brown Rolling Stones t-shirt folded on top a Stop Foolish Sinnery version from William’s private label.

“Well, that should go up in flames,” she said and reached beneath both. Found the relic she’d left behind—a very dried out bag of Twizzlers she’d snuck into the house that final summer. The licorice her proof she’d once been a teenager with a teen’s yearnings, not every moment a dread.

She took a couple steps to the ladderback chair painted with bluebells, some yellow, that had been the grandmother’s she’d never known. She stopped before the makeshift desk she’d built with nails and plywood and two-by-fours. There was joy to recall in this room where she used to read and write and stare at far-off mountains and the skies above. She leaned close to the window in hopes of sighting a pronghorn antelope galloping across the land. Wished for a flight of Peregrine falcons overhead. Almost knocked on the glass to let the prairie, her prairie, know she’d returned.

“I’m here,” she said.

A cloud surfed by—far aloft in the big blue sky.

“I’m going to save you.” She waved to the quiet world outside. “Or at least give you a chance.” She meant the chance she’d not had.

Loretta reached beneath the desk. Her fingers felt left. Further to the right she found the manila envelope taped to the underside. Her treasures hidden still. Her fingers tingled—a chill of relief pulsed when she held it to her chest.

She sat on her bed. Dust flew. The scratchy army blanket smelled of tired mothballs. The butterscotch-colored envelope which had meant everything to her awaited. She flipped it over. Her hand caressed the flap—her fingers touched the golden clasp. Such a secret pleasure it had once been to open it, to know the contents belonged to her, that the bits of paper, the notes within, were hers alone.

“Mine,” she said and dropped onto her side, knees bent to her chest. Loretta rested her head on the near-flat childhood pillow. Let her hair fall in front of her eyes. With the envelope tight in her grasp, her breaths came quick, could be asthma, or rapid cycling, anxieties she knew too well, her arms hugged tighter, her eyes checked corners of the room. When she was a young girl, she’d listened for the slow pound of William’s feet on the stairs, scared he’d lock her in the hall closet. Would he take the light bulb again? Leave her with the bucket, the mop that smelled of Pine Sol, in the dark overnight?

“One, two, three,” she counted the way she’d learned in therapy or was it meditation. “Are you safe?” she asked herself. “Yes.” “Is there danger?” She knew there wasn’t. Clarke was downstairs. She’d found what she came for.

The light outside genuflected. Daytime preparing for evening. She felt okay. A sort of almost happiness. Not delight. Not revenge. The finality of her plan was soon to come. List-counting repeated itself. Things not to forget. A couple items she needed from the kitchen. She was almost finished. Loretta perched on the edge of the bed and unclasped the flap on the back of the manila envelope with care. Poured the contents onto the army blanket. Ripped pieces of paper settled around her. Names of books she would read again. Quotes she’d collected from authors and from Ms. Lott, the teacher who saved her. She found sketches, too, by her best friend, Elsie—of falcons, of mountains in the distance, and of teen Loretta sitting on a tree stump with a book in her hand.

 
 

She carried the ladderback chair downstairs. Quiet fortitude despite how William and Mama’s sad house exhausted her.

“That comin’ with us?” Clarke asked eager to assist in any small way.

“I’d like to take it home.”

“It’s nice.” Clarke set it by the door. His Mets cap alone on the table. Such an odd sight in this house on the prairie.

“Thank you.” Her gratitude covered much more.

“No need.” He touched her hand on way to grab his hat. “I’ll put the chair in the car. Get everything ready.”

Each bit of paper had been returned to the manila envelope. She slipped it into her old satchel with accordion folds that expanded when opened—the leather case she bought from the thrift store on 72nd Street years ago.

“Here, try these,” the white-haired storekeeper had offered her two small gold keys tied together with string and said, “It’s been waiting for you.”

The leather satchel that locked traveled everywhere with her. In it was the file the local lawyer had sent. No will, no money to speak of. She’d received the original bill of sale and the deed to this house. The letter after the government closed The Home for Wayward Girls. Mama’s death certificate. William’s. Loretta slid her manila envelope in beside the others.

She walked towards the counter. Pulled at the handle of a drawer. It was stuck, the old wood having swollen and dried and grown comfortably closed. She opened the cabinet above and saw stacked plain bowls, cups, small milk glasses. The percolator with its weathered cord stuck in a corner. William had hit her with it, slammed it into her wrist, the burn marks another remnant from her youth. Loretta shut the cabinet door.

The drawer gave way the second time she tugged at it. Inside was a black Bic pen beside a blue one. Near three rubber bands. Behind, she found what she wanted. The ledger. The accounting log in which William had itemized what she’d cost them: baby food, toddler clothes, meals, so many meals, soap, a puffy jacket, a used backpack.

Loretta took quiet steps to the pot belly stove. Mama’s place. To the old chair where Mama rested her feet and instructed residents to “get that pot clean or else.” Mama’s tired pink-green-red checked apron slumped from a nail in the wall.

She hesitated. Her hand lifted to the scarf that covered the scar on her neck. She reached towards the apron. It felt wrong; intrusive. Like she was a child opening a mother’s purse. A space she wasn’t allowed to explore. Her hand slipped deep into the apron’s pockets. The rest of the buttons were there. Her mother had rescued them. She’d gathered them, stored them in her pocket. Had Mama saved those for her? Mama had parroted William always except here were the buttons. Loretta’s buttons. Maybe that was the best Mama could do.

She took a final glance towards the stairs, to the bedroom in which her neck hadn’t been given the chance to truly heal, through the kitchen where her father had ripped her white cotton blouse, where those buttons flew, where he’d flung her into a chair to sit near naked in her Sears catalogue bra. She was as unsure then as now of what grave sin she had committed.

But Mama had rescued those buttons.

 

Loretta stored her satchel on the backseat of the silver car. Left the ledger on the hood. Clarke pulled on work gloves, relieved to have something to do. He opened the trunk. Inside were six gas cans he’d filled at the Flying J near town.

“Don’t worry. I’ve got this,” he told her.

“I’ll do it, too. I need to,” she said. Loretta picked up a container.

“You sure?” Clarke asked in line behind the red canisters.

“Yep. Got to.”

“Okay. And then we are outta here.” He followed her lead. They trudged left then right pouring gas along the foundation of wood buildings so decrepit they might appreciate the cremation. They headed towards the office at the rear of the bunkhouse where residents used to cower and cry until forced to bend to William’s demands.

Loretta reached into her left pocket for the box of Diamond wood matches from the Family Market where they had stopped for supplies, bottles of water, and to-go coffees on the way to the ranch. Inside her right pocket, her fingers played with the small white buttons she’d rescued from her mother’s pink-green-red apron. Uncertainties reminisced sadly in her head. Mama might as well be standing in the kitchen doorway. A well-worn dish towel thrown over her shoulder, the incongruities of her mothering a garden of prickly thistles.

“Hey, you,” Clarke called from the path. Loretta remembered residents in wraparound denim skirts that fell below their knees, sweaters tied tight, cold hands shoved under their armpits for warmth. She saw herself sneaking to the bunkhouse in the dark, the girls huddled cross-legged on the floor around her, the trust when they listened to her warnings about wolves beyond the prairie, the joy when she stood with them at night and each chose their own star in the somber sky.   

She heard a series of clunks.

Clarke tossed the last gas cans into a vegetable bed.

“The task at hand,” Loretta said but didn’t move.

The darkness had not quite fully descended. Clarke wouldn’t hurry her.

“I can—”  

“I’m doin’ this part,” Loretta told him. She turned her eyes to his, gave him her tender smile tinged with her ingrained understanding that a person can only be happy if they’ve known pain.

“You okay?” he asked because it was important to him.

“I think so.” Being okay came in stages for her. At any given moment Loretta felt assured. The next as if the whites of William’s eyes leered near hers, a tree limb in his hand ready to slam into her body.

“You don’t have to be.”

“I know. Thanks for reminding me. Except,” she stared into the distance, towards the highest mountaintop barely visible, such a beckoning spirit in the almost night sky, “this is important.”

“Yes, it is.”

“My devoir. You know?”

Their eyes roamed west to east, surveyed the dilapidated remains of the ranch that had never thrived.

“Something that must be acted upon. I know.”

“No choice,” she said. “Gotta be done.”

Loretta grabbed the ledger and walked closer to the house. Her hair a precious mess from the earlier breeze. Dirt stuck to her heels. The prairie quiet.

“Best time for a fire,” she announced.

She inhaled deep. Felt both weak and as strong as the mythological warrior she’d envied as a teen who’d said that women have a single choice—to conquer or die. The voice of William returned. The mean large man who ripped open her white blouse and accused “you some kind of whore?” his wet breath spewing onto her face. At this moment, on the land where she’d been born, tears creeked down her face and trickled into the pretty bronze and gold scarf that covered the rarely exposed, never properly healed scar that zigzagged across her neck.

“It’s over,” she told the big sky above. “I’m done here. You don’t own me.”

Loretta pulled out a match. Yet didn’t move. Saw Mama at the kitchen door.

If only William hadn’t signaled mean Bull. William’s lead dog, the Rottweiler whose growl was a crescendo of fierceness. Bull had leapt at Loretta, his teeth ready to dig into her skin. She had not meant to shoot. Did not want to hear the far too simple-frightening-horrible pop a rifle makes, the sound so quick it is impossible to gauge the maiming nor anticipate the shrewd killingness contained within one bullet.

“Pop!” Followed by a small “whoosh.”

“Pop!” Which did no justice to the ammunition’s ability to do harm.

“Pop,” and “whoosh!”

Over before begun.

She saw Mama’s face. Her sagging eyes wider than ever. Blood streamed onto the porch stairs. Mama grabbed the railing. More blood. A stagger.

“Run, Loretta,” littlest resident Crystal yelled.

“Go Loretta girl, go,” her best friend Elsie screamed.

But Loretta didn’t run. She lowered the rifle. Set it on the ground. Watched her mother. Blood gushed from her thigh. Mama teetered before she fell. The towel slumped off her shoulder. Mama waved her arm same as batting away a gnat. Her eyes caught Loretta’s and her mouth muttered, “Go.”

Many years past since that word had stumbled from her mother’s mouth. Not quite audible however easy enough for a daughter to understand. Her mother muttered or did she yell, “Go.”

“Don’t try it,” William shouted. Him always the presence that overpowered. The man who thought he owned her. “I’ll get you girl, you know I will.”

Loretta caught his words, a hard bash to her chest, his cold eyes as powerful as the rifle.

“Go Loretta girl, go,” Elsie screamed from within his grasp. He’d tightened his grip on her friend. Elsie leaned far forward as a bound girl was able.

Loretta’s gaze remained on Mama who had muttered, “Go.”

She ran.

 

Loretta lit the Diamond match. Held it in the air. A small golden flame in the almost night of day. She threw it at William and Mama’s house. Fire leapt and soared. She lit another and tossed it into a vegetable bed, the one with the nail, where she’d stomped her boot on the wood, so sure-footed she’d not heard William’s approach that awful night so long ago. Into the fire went the ledger he’d kept. Next, she ripped off the scarf that hid the scar he’d caused. Flung it into the wood bed and watched the fire coil its edges until the scarf shriveled and was gone.

“Loretta—” Clarke called to her.

She needed another minute. She had to see the house, the bunny hutches, and the vegetable beds burn. And finally, the bunkhouse. The prison where girls were sent to live. Where their families left them to learn how very sinnerly they were.

“They were not,” she called out. “They were not sinners. Not them. Not me. Not any of us.”

Flames jostled begging her eyes’ attention.

“I know.” Loretta paused to watch the fire shudder and drift. The hint of her mother’s love her inheritance. “I know this is the real beginning.”

The horizon line was no longer beyond her reach. Soon, the instant would come when the setting sun bid goodnight to earth.

“Look!” She pointed to the darkening sky.

Clarke stood next to her.

“It’s Venus. The evening star.” Loretta began to whistle, something he had never before heard her do.

“I see it,” he said.

“That one’s mine,” she announced. The treaty of her past, present, and future at last ratified.

“Of course.”

“They’re coming.” Loretta heard the sirens of the fire brigade approaching. She scanned the nearby road.

“It was set. They’ll handle it,” Clarke told her.

“And—” Loretta said, sweating, knowing she’d found some semblance of relief.

“And what?”

Loretta lodged her eyes on the beyond, the nothingness.

“A new prairie will grow.”

 

BIO

Marcia Bradley, MFA, Sarah Lawrence College, 2017, writes fiction and creative nonfiction. In 2019, she received a Bronx Council on the Arts/BRIO award for fiction for her story Englewood set on the South Side of Chicago near where she grew up. The story explores how mothers survive violence in their lives. Marcia began writing about Englewood thanks to the mentorship of Professor E. Frankel while studying literature at Antioch University in Los Angles. This became her thesis in graduate studies at Sarah Lawrence where the celebrated and generous author Joan Silber was her adviser. A piece from her current novel-in-progress, Wayward, was chosen to be performed by the FAU Theatre Lab.

She has been published in Drunk Monkeys Literature + Film, Electica, Two Hawks Quarterly Magazine, in Hippocampus Magazine, received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train, and her memoir essay about her brother was published in The Capital Gazette. Marcia has attended writing conferences and retreats including Community of Writers, Writers in Paradise at Eckerd College, and a residency at Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Marcia teaches the art of writing novels and memoirs as a member of the faculty of The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. She also teaches in a creative writing program for New York area high school students sponsored by Sarah Lawrence College, the Yonkers School District, and the Greater New York Chapter of the Fulbright Association. Marcia has two incredible daughters and lives in the Bronx. She is completing her novel about women, social justice, and the right to seek freedom no matter the cost.

Marcia is available for book and manuscript developmental editing, private teaching, seminars, and talks about the craft of good writing.



If self-destruction is an art

by Mikayla Schutte


this world has been
suffocating to me, i’ve
tried to carve my way out, my
flesh, my proof, my artist hands
have outlived their use, and i’m
left with a half-painted
canvas, a commission never
paid for in full, abandoned in
favor of another
ill-fated muse, i don’t know

who decides who will keep
their genius and lose
their life, or who will forfeit
their hands, the way that i
did mine, trade them
in for a few extra years, cautious
voices and paper-white walls offer
safe-keeping, a jar to
keep my hands in until the
bleeding has stopped, when i
can stitch them back on
without my fingers
curling with the urge to
leave half-moons in my
palm, sometimes i forget

what it was like to
paint, but when i reattached
my hands, my arms became
hallways, my legs an
open gallery, covered in
dusty sheets, only ripped
away in my own room, when
skin and glass stare back at
each other, and i am
reminded of the art i left, the
talent i lacked, the passion poured
into a bottle and locked in the
medicine cabinet, leaving me to
contemplate the inspiration that
leaked from under the door, only
opening it up and emptying it
into the sink after years of
insistence,
I don’t want to be an artist.


The Sculptor

i.
waves crashing against cliffs
unfinished stone
and a shifting, mercurial sculptor

chipping away

with dreams of
Marble Garden Statues
crowned with 
                  praises 
and bathed in 
                  sunshine
a stone Aphrodite
soft and smooth and smiling at nothing at all

ii.
the chalky bitterness of a diet pill shoved down my throat
chip

the sobs and heaves that dripped sorrowfully into the toilet
chip

the curl of your lips
at the rumbling of my hollow stomach
chip
chip
chip

iii.
                                        you didn’t know
that brittle rock could break
and desperate hands dig graves,        
                  not gardens
so you can drown in your 
ocean of intentions
or you can look up at what you have wrought:

a withered stone angel
staring down at an empty plot


Bury me in the backyard


the sun draws shapes in the grass, burning
the blades the shadows don’t reach, and i 
find myself scorched among them, the trees 
above me look oddly like veins, tans and browns
weaving through blue, i have the urge to
cut them down, or at least to trim the
limbs that pierce the edges of my 
vision, but i think that urge is
human—not poetic—because
when i close my eyes and open 
them again, i see the trees as a
poet, and i reach my arms towards the
sun, my fingers becoming branches, my
veins bleeding into the sky, i have the
urge to pluck one of my ribs from my 
side and plant it beside me, so by the
time the dirt sucks the breath from my
lungs, i’ll have joined them, my
fingers intertwined with theirs, my limbs
obscuring the view of the next lonely
soul to lay down in the grass and
look up at the sky




BIO

Mikayla Schutte is a Cincinnati-based poet. She is an undergraduate student at Northern Kentucky University, studying Creative Writing. She was named a topical winner for Live Poet’s Society’s High School Poetry Contest in 2019 and her work has appeared in National Poetry Quarterly and Hole in the Head Review.



TOM TURKEY

by Justin Meckes



Nov. 21

          Martin Reinhold was stoking the flames inside his brick fireplace when he heard a knock at the front door. The dark-haired, middle-aged man listened briefly, waiting to see if anyone else was going to answer it. When he heard nothing but the crackle and pop of the flames before him, he sighed and put the iron poker back on the stand.

            Martin was greeted by his mother, who was holding her arms out, exclaiming, “Oh, Martin!”

            “Hi, Mom.”

            Grandma Reinhold was an older woman with hair dyed so black that it ceased to reflect light. She was wearing a velveteen tracksuit—this one was fuchsia with white piping—and a jacket with a faux fur lining. Her husband was a spry gentleman with a full head of salt and pepper hair that his son was destined to inherit.

            The older man removed his beige Member’s Only jacket, saying, “Did you know the house next door is for sale, son?”

            “I did,” answered Martin as he took the coat. “Scott got a new job.”

            “Where?”

            “Florida.”

            Martin began wheeling his parent’s luggage into the foyer.

            “We should move to Florida, Henry,” said Grandma Reinhold. She had already entered the living room but turned to gauge her husband’s response.

            Grandpa Reinhold had learned to tune out his spouse’s nonsensical whims long ago, but this time there was a legitimate reason. He was sniffing the air like a canine, pausing, then sniffing at it again, saying, “Is something burning?”

            Martin narrowed his eyes. “Burning?”

            “Are you cooking something?” asked Grandma Reinhold as she fluffed the hair on the back of her head, which the headrest of a Buick Regal had flattened during a nine-hour drive.

            “No,” answered Martin just before smoke began rising from the living room’s oriental rug. Eking out a small yelp, Martin darted toward the fireplace only to find a small blaze. Taking what was readily available—specifically, his father’s Member’s Only jacket—the middle-aged man attempted to beat the fire back by flogging it with the coat.

            Grandpa Reinhold yelled, “Hey, that’s my jacket!”

            Martin didn’t respond because he’d succeeded in only fanning the flames into a full-on conflagration. When Martin’s wife Cheryl came down the stairs to learn what the commotion was about, she exclaimed, “Oh my God!”

            Grandma Reinhold waved and said, “Hi, dear.”

            Cheryl ignored her mother-in-law and hurried to the kitchen as the smoke detector started blaring.

            As Martin was working doggedly to smother the flames, the rug and part of his arm were splashed with water. He turned to see Cheryl standing behind him with an empty mop bucket. The short, dark-haired woman was wearing workout gear and a sweatshirt. She used one hand to tuck her hair behind an ear before saying, “What the hell is going on down here?”

            While Martin got to his feet, Grandpa Reinhold bent down and took ahold of his coat. “Would you just look at this? Ruined. Absolutely ruined.”

            “What happened?” Cheryl continued.

            “I don’t know,” said Martin.

            Cheryl rolled her eyes as she moved away, saying, “I liked that rug.”

            Calling after her, Martin’s mother said, “It was nice, wasn’t it?” Then she glanced into the fireplace and commented to Martin, saying, “The fire’s nice too. Did you build it for us?”

            Martin ignored her and looked down at his wet sleeve. “I’m gonna go change my shirt.”

            “She splashed you pretty good, didn’t she?” said Grandpa Reinhold, chortling as his son made his way to the stairs.

            Grandma Reinhold muttered, “Well, he was in the way.”

            After Martin walked past his daughter’s room, he stopped, took a step back, and knocked. “Your grandparents are here, Sarah.” The teenager was still upset at her father because he hadn’t let her go out; instead, he’d forced her to be present when his parent’s arrived.

            So, there was no response.

            Martin crossed the hall and knocked on another door. “Will? Your grandparents are here.”

            “All right!”

            The eight-year-old threw open his door and blew past his father.

            Martin watched his son hurry downstairs, shouting, “Grandma! Grandpa!”

            Smiling to himself, Martin continued making his way to the master bedroom. He unbuttoned his damp flannel shirt while looking for another one to put on. He chose a short-sleeve Oxford and a sweater that paired just as well with his khakis. Martin’s casual attire was about as stylish as the gray suits that had become so much a part of his routine at the accounting firm where he spent fifty hours per week, crunching numbers and poring over tax documents.

            He was already dreading Monday morning, but, at least, this was a holiday week.

            After changing, Martin made his way back downstairs, where he stood alongside his frowning father, who was surveying the damage to the rug.

            Turning to his dad, he said, “So, how was the trip?”

            “Traffic was hell,” answered Grandpa Reinhold as he began moving toward the kitchen. “And my tuchus is killing me.”

            Sitting at the bar, Will started to giggle, having heard his grandfather say tuchus.

            Martin noted that Cheryl had already poured his mother a glass of wine as he said, “Sarah should be downstairs any minute.” Stepping back toward the living room, he cried out, “Sarah! Your grandparents would like to see you!”

            A few minutes later, he and everyone else heard a door open and then slammed shut. A young woman with a brown ponytail and jeans that were too tight—at least, in her father’s estimation—hurried down the steps before rounding the corner to find everyone waiting. She put on a smile when she entered the room, then said, “Hi, Grandma! Grandpa!”

            She hugged them both.

            After that, she turned to her father and said, “Can I go out, now?”

Nov. 22

            Cheryl was usually in a bad mood when his parents were in town, so Martin left for the office early. And whereas he wasn’t sure why his wife and his parents didn’t get along, he felt it was their problem. The grumpy middle-aged man was searching through the local radio stations as he drove. When he came upon one playing a Christmas tune, he stopped. Isn’t it a little early for Christmas songs? Martin shook his head as he slowed in front of a stoplight. Christmas seemed to be starting earlier and earlier each year, and it was beyond him as to why.

            Furrowing his brow, Martin considered the fact that Christmas had even begun to encroach on Halloween. The middle-aged man sighed, thinking that the older his children became, the more and more Dec. 25th had started to feel like any other day. At least with Thanksgiving, he could gorge on food and not catch flack for it. At the dinner table, recently, Cheryl had begun asking if he hadn’t had enough or even tried reminding him that he was trying to lose weight. God, he hated that. Martin had what he thought was an appropriate amount of love handles and tummy for a man his age—no matter what she or anyone else had to say about it. And maybe, just maybe, he would exercise more if he was rewarded with a bit of coitus from time to time. Did you ever think of that, honey? And yes, he meant it that formally. It wasn’t sex anymore—not with Cheryl. It had become something… well, mechanical—when it happened at all.

             Sitting at a red light, Martin mouthed the words, “Aren’t you trying to lose a little weight?”

            After rolling his eyes, he looked over at the car beside him: A big woman and an older man with a bristly gray mustache were staring back at him, so he pretended he was on the phone and kept talking to himself until the light turned green, and he put his foot to the floor.

#

            Once inside his building, Martin nodded at a ponderous security guard before making his way to the elevator, and then up to his floor. If he were the first to arrive at the offices of Gruber & McClane, he’d have a chance to make the coffee in the break room, which was his preference since it often tasted like little more than dishwater when one of his coworkers prepared it. Unfortunately, this morning, when Martin turned the corner into the kitchenette, he found Jim spooning grounds into a filter. Jim was a stout, older man with a bald spot, a fondness for bowties—today’s, was a very dapper red and navy stripe—and not the slightest clue how to make a decent cup of coffee.

            Martin sunk briefly before noticing that someone had hung a cartoon turkey on the refrigerator. Entering the break room with his briefcase in hand, he said, “At least we’re on the right holiday around here.”

            Startled, Jim turned swiftly. “Oh, hey, Martin.”       

            Martin pointed at the fridge. “I heard Christmas music on the radio on the way in. Can you believe that?”

            Jim glanced over at the clipart turkey as Martin reached for a mug, saying, “Let me ask you something: When was the last time you got anything you actually wanted for Christmas?”

            Chuckling, Chuck said, “That might be too big of a question for this early in the morning. What I actually wanted? Geez… Do any of us know what we actually want? I mean, I haven’t even had my first cup of coffee yet.” Reaching for the pot, Jim poured some dishwater into a mug he’d already filled halfway with creamer.

            Seeing just how weak the so-called coffee was, Martin decided to put his cup back in the cabinet before taking a seat at a nearby table. “I didn’t mean it philosophically, Jim. I meant what have you gotten that you really wanted—as in another dive trip instead of a 6-pack of crew length socks.”

           “Well,” said Jim as he sipped dishwater from a mug. “Patty and I buy all of our own Christmas gifts.”

           Martin appeared incredulous. “How’d you finagle that?”

            Jim pulled out a chair and took a seat, saying, “We’ve been doing it for years. I buy what I want. She buys what she wants. Then we wrap ‘em up for one another.”

            “That’s genius.”

            “I know.”

            “You didn’t come up with it, did you?”

            “Technically, Patty did. And I think she was like you—tired of getting socks.”

            “You gave your wife socks for Christmas?”

            Jim shrugged. “They were made of alpaca wool.”

            Martin crossed his legs as another coworker walked into the kitchenette. She was a petite, blonde-haired woman with a bob haircut, wearing a dark pantsuit.

            “Good morning, gentleman.”

            Martin nodded as Jim continued, saying, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving, Maggie?”

            Maggie sighed. “Oh, well, apparently, I’m one of those idiots who travels the day before Thanksgiving.”

            “Wow,” said Martin.

            “I know. I know, but it’s for my parents, and I’m saving my days off.”

            “For what?” asked Jim as he sipped his coffee.

            “I don’t know. I’m thinking of going somewhere this summer.”

            Martin furrowed his brow. “Where?”

            “Iceland? Greenland? Some land,” said Maggie as she poured coffee into her mug.

            “Well, aren’t you the adventurous one,” said Jim.

            “I didn’t say I’d booked the ticket yet,” said Maggie. Then she turned and said, “Oh, look! Somebody hung a turkey on the fridge. Isn’t that nice?”

            “It’ll look a whole lot better on my plate come Thursday,” quipped Jim.

            After taking a sip of her coffee, Maggie made a face. “Ugh. Who the hell made this swill?”

            Martin pointed at Jim.

#

            As Martin approached the front door, he noticed a realtor walking out of his neighbor’s house alongside a young couple. A little girl of three or four was holding her mother’s hand. The scene made Martin feel a little nostalgic. Sarah had been about that age when he and Cheryl had bought their home, and it—well, it seemed like yesterday. Now, she was all grown up and applying to college, early admission, with a good chance of getting into some top-notch schools, which was going to cost him an absolute fortune. Watching the child being loaded into a silver minivan, Martin recalled that at one time, he’d been Sarah’s favorite person in the world and that Cheryl had been jealous. He’d, ultimately, been able to assure his wife that Sarah loved them equally, which was true even if he was the definitive favorite.

            Martin walked inside the house only to be welcomed by his wife’s shouting. She and their son were having it out upstairs. Meanwhile, his parents were sitting quietly in the living room. His mother was reading a magazine as his father watched ESPN.

            Still in the foyer, Martin cried out, “Hey! What’s going on up there?”

            Cheryl came downstairs a moment later, saying, “I’m sick and tired of telling him to clean that room.”

            Martin shook his head and put his hands on his wife’s shoulders, saying, “I keep telling you to let it go. When he moves out, we can demolish the entire second floor and then renovate it like on one of those shows you like.”

            “Haha,” said Cheryl. “But this is not a joke.” Then over her shoulder, as she walked away, she added, “And you’re late.”

            “I got caught up on the Duncan account,” Martin explained as he followed her, waving at his parents along the way.

            Grandpa Reinhold nodded as he stared at the screen while his wife continued flipping through the pages of her magazine before taking another sip of wine.

            In the kitchen, Cheryl started to work on dinner. “I don’t know why you can’t take the week off.”

            “You didn’t,” said Martin as he began removing his suit jacket.

            “I’m taking Wednesday.”

            “That’s not the whole week.”

            As she pulled a pot out of a cabinet, Cheryl shook her head. “Let’s not do this right now, okay?”

            Martin leaned on the counter. “Okay, but I think it’s a good sign that I have to work late. I’m getting more responsibility. I told you about that account, didn’t I?”

            Rifling through a cabinet, Cheryl said, “You did.”   

            “So, I’m thinking they might make me partner.”

            “Which is what you said last year, and look at what happened.”

            Loosening his tie, Martin sighed and said, “I know, but this is different. I can feel it.”

            Cheryl stopped filling the pot. “You don’t feel a promotion. You ask for one, Martin. Or a raise, for that matter. You could use one of those too.”

            Martin nodded. “I’ll get my bonus this year. And it should be pretty hefty.”

            “We’ll see.”

            “Hey, what’s the matter?”

            “Nothing.”

            “Nothing?”

            She glanced toward the living room, lowered her voice, and said, “I’ve been home half an hour, and your mother is already driving me out of my mind.”

            “What’d she do?”

            Cheryl mouthed her next statement. “Keep your voice down.”

            Whispering, Martin said, “Okay. What’d she do?”

            “She suggested we make Thanksgiving dinner, but I’ve already reserved a meal from Whole Foods.”

            Martin looked over his shoulder. “Mom wants to cook?”

            Continuing to fill her pot with water, Cheryl said, “She wants all of us to pitch in, but, honestly, do you really want your Mom cooking anything?”

            Martin shrugged. “Maybe if we’re having something with wine as an ingredient.”

            Cheryl gave her husband a look.

            Martin moved toward the doorway to the living room. From there, he could see that his mother was reading a cooking magazine.

            “Oh no.”

            “What?” asked Cheryl with her voice still lowered.

            “She’s going through a phase.”

            “A phase?”

            “Yes,” said Martin, stepping closer. “You know, she gets hooked on things. She must be on cooking right now.”

            “She said she has a pumpkin pie recipe.”

            Martin shook his head. “No. Under no circumstances can she make the pumpkin pie. That’s my favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner.”

            “Then you talk to her.”

            Martin closed his eyes briefly before starting toward the next room. Standing over his mother, he said, “So, Mom, I see you’re reading a cooking magazine. Have you been getting into cooking lately?”

            “Has she ever,” said Grandpa Reinhold as he straightened in his chair and looked away from the television. “She made a chicken last week that was the juiciest thing I’ve ever tasted.”

            “Really?” said Martin.

            “Oh, it was beginner’s luck,” said Grandma Reinhold as she gazed up at her son.

            Martin noticed that his wife was leaning against the door jam behind him. Then, turning back toward his mother, he also saw that his father was shaking his head and giving the thumbs down while his wife wasn’t looking.

            “Well,” he said, “that sounds great, but why don’t we leave the Thanksgiving dinner to professionals this year.”

            “Oh, come on, Martin,” said Grandma Reinhold. “How hard can it be?”

            “Yeah,” said Grandpa Reinhold. “I’d just love a homemade Thanksgiving dinner. And if the turkey turns out dry, so what? Turkeys are always dry as hell, anyway.”

            “Well, it’s a lot of work,” said Martin. “And we reserved a pre-made meal from Whole Foods.”  

            “Hosh-posh,” said Grandpa Reinhold. “Let’s make it a family thing. I’ll whip up some of my famous mashed potatoes.”

            “You’ll make your mashed potatoes?” asked Martin. “With the parsnips?”

            “Of course,” said Grandpa Reinhold.

            Martin looked back at Cheryl. Shrugging, he said, “Well, it sounds like it could be fun.”

            Cheryl returned to the kitchen, sighing out of exasperation as she went. Martin followed her.

            “Honey,” he said, “it’s what they want to do. I mean, let’s face it. They don’t have that many Thanksgivings left.”

            Cheryl stirred the rice on the stove. “Martin, your father just doesn’t want to be the bad guy. And, apparently, neither do you, which means I’ll be doing all of the cooking.”

            “I’ll help,” offered Martin.

            “Your cooking’s worse than your mother’s.”

            Martin leaned against the kitchen counter. “Well, what do you want me to do? They were probably expecting a homemade meal because that’s what Helen did last year—at her place.”

            “I don’t care what your sister did. We have a meal reserved.”

            “How about this?” he said. “I’ll cook. I’ll run the show, and you won’t have to worry about a thing.”

            Cheryl turned toward him. “You can’t cook.”

            Martin stepped toward his wife and took hold of both shoulders again before saying, “That’s what the Internet’s for. I’ll learn how to cook a turkey. As for everything else, I think I can handle a can of cranberries, some green beans, and toasting a few rolls, don’t you?”

            Cheryl sighed, then said, “Just don’t burn the house down… like you almost did last night.”

            As Martin stepped away, he said, “Don’t worry, that was a one-time thing.”

Nov. 23

            “So, let me get this straight,” said Jim, chuckling to himself. “You’re cooking Thanksgiving dinner?”

            “Yeah,” said Martin as he sipped his coffee.

            Maggie stood in the break room, pouring hers. “You’re in for a real treat, my friend.”

            “Come on,” said Martin. “How hard can it be?”

            “How many people?” asked Jim.

            “Nine.”

            “Nine!” exclaimed Jim before shaking his head.

            “It’s not that big of a deal. I’m sure my sister will help. She cooked last year.” Facing two unconvinced coworkers, he continued, “Okay. I might be in a little over my head. But what do you know about cooking, anyway, Jim?”

            “I happen to know my way around the kitchen, Martin.”

            “Ooh, big talk,” said Maggie as she sipped her coffee.

            Jim shot her a look. “I’ll have you know I have a set of chef-quality knives at home.”

            “I’m surprised you haven’t cut a finger off,” continued Maggie, taunting him.

            “I almost did when I first got ‘em.” Jim pointed at the scar on his forefinger before adding, “All the best chefs have scars.”

            Maggie rolled her eyes, then looked at Martin and said, “We’re just giving you a hard time. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

            “Speak for yourself,” said Jim. “I think it’s going to be a shitshow.”

            “The important thing is that the family is together,” said Martin.

            Jim and Maggie both laughed before Maggie left the room. Jim followed, saying, “Gobble, gobble!”

#

            Life was carrying on as usual in the Reinhold house that evening. Martin’s daughter was out with her boyfriend, who had now been invited to Thanksgiving dinner, which made 10. (But Martin didn’t think this would cause too much of a problem. Cooking for ten couldn’t be much different than nine.) Will was upstairs playing video games, and Cheryl was starting dinner. The only thing remotely out of the ordinary was his parents. They’d become fixtures in the living room—his mother boozing it up and his father watching SportsCenter.

            It certainly seemed like the holidays.

            After taking a seat on the couch, Martin turned to his mother and said, “So, how was your day, Mom?”  

            “Same as any other day.”

            “We went for a walk around the neighborhood,” added Grandpa Reinhold. Then, without taking his eye off the television, he said, “How was work?”

            Martin said, “Same as any other day, I guess.”

            Grandma Reinhold humphed.

            Then Martin asked, “What time are Helen and Bill getting here tomorrow?”

            “They’re flight comes in at 3,” answered Grandpa Reinhold, “but they probably won’t be here ’til about 4.”

            “And you’ll still be at work?” Grandma Reinhold asked.

            Nodding, Martin said, “I’ll be at work, but I’ll get home as fast as I can.”

            Grandpa Reinhold shook his head as he watched a replay on SportsCenter. “Can you believe that catch?”

            Ignoring his father, Martin turned to his mother and continued, saying, “I have Thursday and Friday off.”

            “I’m surprised you’re not working Friday,” said Grandpa Reinhold, whose eyes remained glued to the screen. “I would if I could. This place is gonna be a looney bin.”        

            Martin was smiling as he entered the kitchen. “Can I help with anything, dear?”

            Cheryl looked up at him. “It’s almost finished.”

            Martin nodded. “We should order out tomorrow night when Helen and Bill get in. What do you think?”

            “Sure.”

            Martin tried to embrace his wife, but she sidestepped him and went to the fridge, where she took out a can of Parmesan cheese.

            “Spaghetti again, huh?” said Martin as he shoved his hands in his pockets.

            Cheryl, who was still wearing the navy dress pants and cream-colored blouse she’d worn to show a house earlier that afternoon, closed the refrigerator door, saying, “It’s Will’s favorite.”

#

            Later that evening, Martin cuddled up next to his wife. After nuzzling her ear, he kissed her on the cheek.

            “What are you doing?”

            “What do you think I’m doing?”

            Cheryl groaned. “I’m tired, Martin. And your parents are here.”

            “They’re downstairs. And it’s not like we’re gonna get that loud.”

            “No,” she said flatly, “we’re not.”

            “Hey, what’s the matter?” asked Martin as he sat up on his elbow.

            “Do we have to talk about this right now?” asked Cheryl as she rolled over to face him.

            “Why not? We hardly ever talk.”

            Cheryl sighed in the dark. “I’m just not in the mood.”

            “I could put on some music.”

            “That’s not—I have a headache,” said Cheryl before rolling back over.

            Martin bit his lip, then decided to climb out of bed and maunder downstairs. After rummaging around in the freezer, he found a box of ice cream sandwiches. Sitting in a dark living room, wearing his boxers and an undershirt, Martin took a bite of his ice cream.

            A few moments later, he heard someone coming down the steps. Peering through the darkness, he said, “Will?”

            The boy screamed as Martin reached for a lamp and turned it on.

            Will looked at his father  and said, “You scared me.”

           Grandpa Reinhold entered the living room a moment later, tying his robe. His wife was behind him with an eyeshade on top of her head. Martin’s father said, “What the hell’s going on out here?”

            “I scared Will,” Martin explained.

            “What are you doing down here, Dad?”

            Martin took another bite before saying, “Eating ice cream.”

            As Grandma Reinhold turned around and started back toward the bedroom, Grandpa Reinhold said, “Ooh. I could go for a midnight snack.”

            “Me too,” said Will.

            By the time Grandpa Reinhold returned to the living room, Sarah was coming down the steps in an oversized t-shirt and shorts. “What are you guys doing down here?”

            “We’re having ice cream,” said Grandpa Reinhold cheerfully.

            From the foot of the steps, she said, “Is there any left?”

            “I got ya’,” said Grandpa Reinhold as he spun back around, heading toward the kitchen.

            When his father returned, Martin said, “Let’s just try to keep it down. Your mother has a headache.”

Nov. 24

            There weren’t many people in the office on Wednesday, so Martin could work without distractions. He was so efficient that by the time 3:30 p.m. rolled around, he’d started to think he could make it home in time to welcome his sister and her family. After shutting his computer down and packing his things, Martin began making his way out of the sparsely populated office building. He was near the front desk when he ran into Mr. Gruber—a firm namesake and a shifty miser with a penchant for country clubs and luxury sedans.

            “Mr. Gruber,” said Martin, who attempted to hide the fact that he was leaving by not so subtly shifting his briefcase behind his back.

            “Finegold. How are you?” said Mr. Gruber in his raspy, croaking voice.

            As the older man appraised Martin, he said, “It’s actually Reinhold, sir.”   

            Mr. Gruber narrowed his beady little eyes, saying, “Yes, of course. Isn’t that what I said?”

            “I think you said, ‘Finegold,’ sir.”

            “Oh yes,” said Mr. Gruber, who began picking at a piece of lint on his pinstriped suit. “I must’ve gotten you confused with our associate Martin Finegold.”

            “You must have,” said Martin, grimacing as he looked toward the parking lot. He was just so close to freedom.

            “So, are you planning a big Thanksgiving this year? What did you say your name was again?”

            “Martin.”

            Mr. Gruber made a face, “Well then, Martin, are you planning a big Thanksgiving?”

            “Oh, yes, sir.”

            “Humph,” said Mr. Gruber, nodding. “Then let me ask you something else: Do you like turkey?”

            “Not particularly, sir.”

            The older man nodded again. “I don’t know many who do, but we eat it every year, don’t we? What does that say about us?”

            Martin shrugged. “That we enjoy traditions?”

            “No, it says we’re as foolish as the stupid, timid birds we devour. Tell me, can a tom turkey learn or plan for the future? Can he?”

            “If he could, he might plan an escape sometime before Thanksgiving,” said Martin.

            Mr. Gruber looked at Martin and laughed. “Very good. Yes, he would make a break for it, wouldn’t he?”

            Martin nodded.

            “But he can’t!” exclaimed Mr. Gruber suddenly, which caused Martin to stiffen. “He can only be led to slaughter.”

            Martin swallowed.

            “And so it will be,” said Mr. Gruber, menacingly.

            “Are you having turkey for Thanksgiving this year, Mr. Gruber?”

            “Yes, I am. I believe my wife is having our meal catered from Whole Foods.”

            “Is that right?”

            “Well, you have a nice Thanksgiving, Finegold.”

            “Thank you, sir,” said Martin before he exited the building through the double doors.

#

            Martin pulled into the driveway just after 4 p.m., but his sister and her family had yet to arrive. Grandpa Reinhold informed him that their flight had been delayed. So, Helen, a plump woman with red hair, her rail-thin husband Bill, and their young daughter didn’t arrive until a little after 8 p.m. that evening.

            After taking just a few steps into the house, Martin’s sister dropped her suitcase and cried out, “Oh my God! We finally made it!” Looking to Martin, she added, “Why does everyone travel the day before Thanksgiving?”

            Bill was a balding man with gold-rimmed glasses in a navy mock turtleneck. He said, “Do you have anything to drink, Martin? Preferably something stiff.”

            “Sure, Bill. I’ll make us both a drink.”

            Martin escorted his family into the living room and then went to get his sister a glass of wine. He planned to join Bill with a tumbler of bourbon for himself. Grandpa Reinhold was cuddled up on the couch next to his granddaughter, Jessica. With the young girl beaming as she looked up to him, he said, “So, how was the flight for you, dear?”

            “Long,” answered the red-headed six-year-old.

            “So I hear.”

            Helen leaned over and hugged her father next. “Hey, Dad. Where’s Mom?”

            “She’s freshening up.”

            Grandpa Reinhold stood and shook Bill’s hand as Cheryl emerged from the kitchen. She hugged Helen, saying, “You three must be starving. We took the liberty of ordering some Indian food. We’ve eaten, but there’s plenty left.”

            “That sounds perfect,” said Helen, “except that Indian food upsets Bill’s stomach.”

            “Guilty,” cried Bill as he held up a hand.

            “Oh no,” said Cheryl.

            “I’d make a terrible Indian,” joked Bill as he entered the kitchen, sipping his bourbon.

            “What do you mean?” asked Cheryl as she went into the pantry.

            “Because I can’t eat Indian food.”

            “Oh,” said Cheryl. “Well, I’m sure we can find something else in here.”

            Martin knocked his bourbon before saying, “I guess it’s a good thing the Indians at Thanksgiving weren’t India Indians.”

            “Columbus thought they were,” said Bill haughtily. “But speaking of sensitivities, I’ve also developed a slight allergy to wheat.”

            “It might be gluten,” added Helen as she busied herself with the food.

            As he began pouring himself a second drink, Martin said, “We’re going to be having cornbread for Thanksgiving dinner. Will you be able to eat that?”

            “I should,” said Bill. “But if we could have the stuffing on the side, that would be great.”

            “Sure,” said Martin, who began calculating how much more complicated a food allergy would make his meal prep. “No problem.”

Nov. 25

            Thanksgiving morning, Martin was up before six o’clock, making a game plan for the day. The first thing on his list was cubing bread for the stuffing. After that, he started chopping vegetables for salads and sides. He was moving right along to the cranberry sauce when Cheryl entered the kitchen, took a look around, and said, “Wow. It looks like you’re really on top of things in here.” Then she narrowed her eyes and said, “Is that my apron?”

            Martin glanced down at the flower-patterned apron around his waist. “Is that okay?”

            “You know, it doesn’t look that bad on you. A little small, but other than that…”

            Martin ignored the comment and continued working, saying, “The turkey’s thawed, right?”

            “I think it’s had enough time,” answered Cheryl. “We bought it on Monday.”

            “That’s three days,” said Martin. “It should be fine.”

            Cheryl leaned on the counter next. “Do you want any help?”

            “Honestly,” said Martin, looking up from the cutting board. “Mom’s going to be in here soon making pie. And Dad’s going to be making his mashed potatoes. So, I think we’ll already have one or two too many cooks in the kitchen—especially for one this size.” Martin glanced over his shoulder at a space that was no more than 10’x10’ in size.

            “Okay,” said Cheryl. “Well, you know where to find me.”

            “Thanks, but I won’t need help,” said Martin confidently. “It’s cooking, not rocket science.”

            Before Cheryl left the room, she said, “Considering the fact that you’re neither a chef nor a rocket scientist, I’m not exactly sure how to take that.”

            Martin smirked as his mother appeared, wearing a purple muumuu. She went straight for the refrigerator, saying, “Everyone stand back!
Grandmama’s making pies.” The older woman stopped with the door open, adding, almost to herself, “But first things first, I need a little wine with my cooking.”

            “It’s eight o’clock in the morning,” said Martin as he began opening a second can of cranberry sauce.

            “I’m sure that doesn’t stop Martha Stewart,” said Grandma Reinhold. “Especially on a holiday.”

            Martin shook his head as his mother poured herself a glass of Chardonnay and stole his can opener so she could get to work on the cans of pumpkin filling.

            Next on Martin’s list was the stuffing.

            He worked alongside his mother in the kitchen, reading the recipe off of a tablet. There were several tabs open at once with various recipes as he’d also set to work on his green bean and sweet potato casseroles. Martin placed the sweet potatoes in the microwave, then put the turkey in the oven. After that, he looked around briefly and wiped his hands on his wife’s apron, thinking to himself that things were going remarkably well.

            Grandpa Reinhold entered the room a little while later, saying, “Is there room for a little potato peeling?”

            Martin pointed to the sink. “That area is all yours. And I’ve already started peeling.”

            “Oh wow. Thanks, son.”

            Meanwhile, Martin was at work on a butternut squash soup. The corn shucking was to come after that.

While he was working, Helen snuck into the kitchen, saying, “How’s it going?”

            “Good,” said Martin, nodding.

            “Well, do you think there’s any room for me in here? I wanted to surprise Bill with some gluten-free stuffing.”

            “Oh,” said Martin. “I don’t think we—“

            “Great,” said Helen, interrupting him. “I brought everything I need.”

            Just after Helen entered the kitchen holding a few grocery bags, Sarah rushed in, jumping up and down and saying, “Dad! Dad, I need to talk to you like, right now.”

            Cheryl stepped into the room behind her daughter, leaning against the door jam with her arms crossed.

            Martin looked up from the corn he was shucking and said, “I’m a little busy right now, Sarah.” As he moved to trash a husk, he bumped into his father.

            “Watch it!” said Grandpa Reinhold. “I’m wielding a large knife here.”

            He held up the eight-inch blade.

            “Sorry about that.”

            “Dad,” whined Sarah.

            The young woman tucked her hair behind her ears and stepped closer.

            Martin leaned on the counter. “Okay, what is it?”

            “Jake invited me to spend Christmas in Vail with his family. Can I go? Please!”

            Martin took a moment to absorb the content of the question, then shook his head. “No, absolutely not.”

            “Why not?”

            “For one,” he said as he glanced at Cheryl, “we don’t know Jake’s parents.”

            “Dad, I’m 18 years old. This isn’t a spend the night party.”

            “She has a point there,” said Helen.

            Martin snapped at his sister. “You stay out of this.” Then he returned to Sarah, saying, “I wasn’t finished. Secondly, I want you here with us. It’s Christmas.”

            “Then can I go for New Year’s?”

            “How long are they staying there?”

            “Two weeks.”

            “No,” said Martin, “you should be here for New Year’s too. Right, Cheryl?”

            Cheryl said, “I said I thought it was okay if she wanted to join them after Christmas.”

            Martin narrowed his eyes and began shaking his head as he looked down at a carrot he was cutting. “Well, I don’t think—”      

            Grandpa Reinhold was sniffing the air again. “Do I smell smoke?”

            Martin spun on his heels.

            “The pies!” cried Grandpa Reinhold as he opened an oven door, and a plume of thick gray smoke billowed out.

            Grandma Reinhold was the last one to appear in the kitchen. When everyone looked at her, she took a sip of wine and said, “I guess they’re done.”

#

            Dinner was served at three o’clock in the afternoon. A cornucopia of turkey, bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, rich, creamy gravy, green bean casserole, corn, toasted dinner rolls, and cranberry sauce adorned a table covered in a linen tablecloth. Martin had planned to have dinner at two, but he counted it a success that everything had come together at approximately the same time. When he and Helen finished bringing the last of the food to the table, he took off his apron and yelled, “All right, everybody! Let’s eat!”

            Once the Reinholds, Helen’s family, and Jake were seated, Martin said, “Why don’t we start dinner by going around the table and saying what we’re thankful for? But let’s keep it short and sweet. I wouldn’t want any of this delicious food to get cold. Okay?” Everyone nodded or murmured in agreement as they gazed upon the glorious feast before them.

            “I’ll start,” said Martin. “I’m thankful for this wonderful meal that I have prepared for us on this wonderful Thanksgiving Day. Who knows? Maybe we’ve started a new tradition of me doing the cooking.”

            He raised his wine glass.

            “I helped, you know?” said Grandpa Reinhold.

            “Well,” said Martin as he winked at his son, who was sitting beside him. “You made some potatoes. It takes serious skill to roast a turkey.”

            Will was next. “I’m thankful for pumpkin pie!”

            When Grandma Reinhold heard this, she downed almost an entire glass of Chardonnay.

            Martin’s daughter went next. She looked at her boyfriend and said, “I’ll be thankful when my father changes his mind and lets me go skiing this Christmas.”

            Jake—a young man with dirty blonde hair parted on the side—followed this statement by saying, simply, “Um, thanks for inviting me. Everything looks great.”

            The Reinholds continued to go around the table this way until they came to Helen, who was the last to give her sentiment. She said, “I’m just thankful to be here with all of you, my wonderful family. You’ve been such a blessing in my life, and I can’t express how much I love you all. And on this Thanksgiving, I just hope that we all realize how much we have and how fortunate we are to have it. I mean, that’s what Thanksgiving is really about, isn’t it?”

            Everyone nodded as Martin stood to carve the turkey. Looking down at his sister, he muttered, “Did you rehearse that or something?”

            “I was speaking from the heart, Martin.”

            “Either that or those depression pills are finally kicking in,” said Grandma Reinhold before rolling her eyes.

            “Mother!” said Helen.

            “What? You don’t want everyone to know you’re taking happy pills?”

            “Mother, please!”

            Bill spoke up next. “That’s private medical information, Mom.”

            Grandma Reinhold smirked. “I just thought everyone should know she has a reason for being so thankful.”

            Still standing by the turkey, Martin said, “Well, we should all be so thankful. Anti-depressants or not.”

            Helen bristled, saying, “I have a seasonal mood disorder.”

            Grandpa Reinhold leaned forward. “A gray day can get anyone down.”

            “It’s a little more serious than that, Dad,” barked Helen.

            “Well, you can’t have it both ways, dear,” said Grandpa Reinhold before he started passing the green bean casserole.

            Will uncovered the rolls and cried out, “Hey, these are burned!”

            Martin put some dark meat on a plate, saying, “Scrape it off. A little char isn’t going to hurt you.”

            Will made a face but still took one of the rolls.

            Meanwhile, Cheryl took a bite of the green bean casserole and said, “Is this… cinnamon?”

            “Cinnamon?” asked Grandma Reinhold. “In the green bean casserole?”

            Stopping mid-cut on the turkey breast, Martin said, “What’s the problem?”

            Cheryl scanned the table. “Where’s the sweet potato casserole?”

            “It’s… Well, I think it’s—“

            Grandpa Reinhold passed the cranberry sauce, saying, “I saw some sweet potatoes in the microwave when I was reheating the mashed potatoes.”

            Bill offered his daughter a gluten-free dinner roll, saying, “Mom made plenty of mine if you’d prefer to have one of these.”

            Cheryl spoke across the table, saying, “You put the ingredients for the sweet potato casserole in the green bean casserole?” Moving a bean to the side, she said, “Is this a marshmallow?”

            Martin said, “I could have sworn—“

            Bill took a bite of stuffing as Helen said, “Bill! That’s not the gluten-free stuffing!”

            “Oh. Oh no,” said Bill before spitting a mouthful into his napkin.

            Meanwhile, Grandpa Reinhold was sipping a can of beer and clearing his throat, saying, “The turkey’s a little dry, isn’t it?”

            Looking toward Martin, Cheryl said, “Did you baste the turkey?”

            “Yes!” said Martin. “Of course I basted it.”

            “Not enough,” said Helen as she forced down another bite.

            “Really dry,” said Grandpa Reinhold as he coughed. “And this is the dark meat?”

            “I told him he needed to baste it,” Helen continued, leaning forward to make her comment clear to Cheryl, who was sitting at the other end of the table.

            “Henry!” cried Grandma Reinhold as she slapped her husband on the back.

            “Oh my God,” screamed Sarah. “Grandpa’s choking!”

            She stood to move around the table, but Martin was already on the way. After pulling his father out of his seat, he began performing the Heimlich. One thrust into the stomach, then another, and another until Grandpa Reinhold finally rocketed a wad of half-chewed turkey across the room.

            Sitting his father back down, Martin said, “Dad, are you okay?”

            “I’m fine. I’m fine, but I definitely thought I was a goner there for a second.” He made the statement reaching for his ribs.

            “Are you all right, Grandpa?” asked Jessica.

            “Yeah, I think so, dear.”

            As everyone returned to their seats, Martin turned and looked at his family. His daughter was texting; her plate pushed away. Her boyfriend was eating his meal but grimacing with each bite. Despite nearing a drunken stupor, Grandma Reinhold was pouring herself another glass of wine, opting for a liquid Thanksgiving. Helen had barely touched her plate, and like her father, it was starting to look like she had no intention of eating anything else.  

            It was no different for Martin’s wife.

            The accountant-turned-failed-chef had no choice but to suspect it was because they all felt like his son, who was making his cousin laugh by gagging and pointing at his green bean casserole. The only one who appeared to be enjoying his food at all was Bill. But most of what he was eating had been prepared by his wife. After biting into a turkey leg, Bill turned to Martin and said, “I don’t think the turkey’s that bad, Martin. Especially if you wash it down with a little water.”

            Thinking of all the hours he’d spent on this meal, how ungrateful his family was being, and the fact that he hadn’t slept with his wife in more than six months, the middle-aged man exploded.

            He stood once more, saying, “You know what!”

            Martin picked up the 15 lb. bird at the head of the table before continuing, “I spent all day preparing Thanksgiving dinner for you people, and not one of you is eating it. Not a single one of you has even thought to thank me!” Moving toward the front door, he added, “So, why don’t I just make sure you don’t have to suffer through another bite.” When Martin reached the front door and realized he couldn’t open it with a platter in his hands, so he said, “Will, could you come open the door?”

            Cheryl turned toward her husband. “Martin.”

            Will was hesistant until his father repeated himself.

            “Don’t do it!” cried Cheryl.

            As Cheryl stormed out of the dining room, Martin launched the dry turkey out into the yard from the front stoop. When he turned back around, he was seething.

            “Be thankful for that!”          

            “I know I am,” said Grandpa Reinhold. “Another bite of that bird might have killed me.”

#

            A few hours later, most of the adults were sitting in the living room while the young children watched TV in the basement. Everyone was full of Chinese takeout and discussing the predictions inside their fortune cookies. While Martin’s travails in the kitchen had gone widely unappreciated, he realized he might have overreacted and was counting himself lucky no one else had choked on the overcooked turkey.

            Meanwhile, his wife was sitting on the opposite side of the living room, shunning him. Bill had developed a slight rash and a little bit of cramping from the ingestion of the gluten-filled stuffing, but, fortunately, it had not been enough to spark an emergency. Sarah had gone to visit with her boyfriend’s family, and Grandpa Reinhold was suffering no ill effects from his incident other than a few sore ribs. It was starting to seem like the day was not a complete loss until Will and Jessica came upstairs, asking if they could go outside.

            The children were in the front yard for no more than a few minutes before they hurried back in. Will rushed through the door, saying, “Dad! Dad!”

            Martin put his wine glass down. “What? What is it?”

            “There’s a dead squirrel beside the turkey.”

            “It looks like it was eating it!” Jessica exclaimed.

            Martin glanced at his father, who put his beer down and shook his head before saying, “Somebody call a doctor. It looks like Bill’s cramping isn’t from gluten, after all.”


BIO

Justin Meckes lives and writes in Durham, NC. He has published stories in journals and magazines such as Map Literary, The Broadkill Review, and Idle Ink. You can learn more at justinmeckes.com.

How to Break and Mend Your Mother’s Heart

by JoAnne E. Lehman



What you will start with: You’ll be supplied with one mother, 36 years old when you are born. She will have many fine qualities and, of course, some baggage.

Your mother grew up on a farm, during the Great Depression, in a religious family, one of seven children with a stern father and a mother who was chronically ill. Your mother was kept out of school the year she was 13, but not told why. She resented her mother that year. Partway through the year, though, her baby sister Fran was born. Fran’s arrival was a surprise to all the children, because Brethren in Christ parents in 1933 did not speak of such things as pregnancy. Your mother adored baby Fran and took care of her. When their mother died less than a decade later, your mother, now married, took Fran into her home. Your mother felt guilty for the rest of her life for having resented her mother and the lost year of school. “There will never be tension between me and my daughter,” she vowed.

At your birth: Be your mother’s long-expected daughter, her girl-gift from God after four boys. Be her great joy. Be an easy baby, in tune to her rhythms as she is to yours. Be a peaceful toddler, such a contrast to her rambunctious sons. Be the child she can take anywhere, to any meeting, and put in a corner with crayons and paper. Don’t let her leave you in the church nursery, though; sit right next to her on the hard pew, perfectly quiet, through the whole Sunday service, including your father’s sermon. Draw neat little pictures and letters on scrap paper, using the tiny pencils provided in the pew racks for filling out offering envelopes and “Pray for me” cards. You will never deface a hymnbook or a Bible. After church, while your mother meets and greets church people as the pastor’s wife, hold tight to the hem of her gray wool skirt so you can’t possibly lose her. Keep your eyes down to avoid fawning parishioners who think you are cute. Be quiet as a mouse. To get your mother’s attention, just give the hem a little tug and she’ll bend down to see what you need.

As you grow: Be your mother’s creative outlet. Be the child she can finally sew for, a girl who wears dresses. Even let her dress you in pink, though it will not be your favorite color later. Learn to cook with her; browse Woman’s Day magazine at her side; learn early how to make the family’s special oatmeal cookies. Be her little helper, a child who likes to dust furniture. Be the daughter she can count on; feel bad when she has migraines and give her get-well cards you make yourself.  Be the one who reads your mother’s moods better than anyone, better than your brothers or your father, and hugs her when she’s sad. Be her companion. Be that girl for many years.

When you are nine: When you go away to Bible camp for the first time, hide your feelings, because the camp handbook says, “No homesickness allowed! Playpens available for crybabies.” Be afraid of the consequences of breaking any rules — there are so many — at this strict place where children get fined real money for talking during rest hour, being late to chapel, or wearing play clothes when dress-up is required, which is almost all the time. Be grateful for the seven dresses your mother sewed and packed for you, a different one for each day at camp, and try not to resent it when your counselor, a young missionary wife without much sense, tells another girl (without asking) to borrow one of your dresses because you have so many, and the girl takes one you haven’t worn yet. Try not to be upset when someone steals your spending money, and be forgiving when the money is suddenly replaced, appearing on your freshly made bunk while you are down the hall cleaning the bathroom with PineSol as your cabin chore. Turn your homesickness into a stomachache by the last day of camp, and cry just a tiny bit when you visit the camp nurse, who gives you aspirin you can’t swallow unless it’s crushed up into tiny bits, because all you’ve ever had is chewable baby aspirin. Be so glad to see your mother when she and your father come to pick you up. She is an angel, beautiful and comforting and smelling of Lily of the Valley cologne. Give her the present you bought her at the camp store: a ring, fake silver, with a Bible verse engraved, because you know she never, ever had a ring before, not even for her wedding, and you want to grant her deepest wishes.

When you are twelve: Start going to a new camp run by strong, confident, athletic women in their twenties and thirties. No one brings dresses to this place. Your mother, now 49, is unsure of herself, fears deep water, and wears frumpy clothes. Fall in love with the bold young female energy of the camp counselors. Paddle a canoe on Lake Bunganut; get stung by yellowjackets; sing your heart out at campfires; cry when you leave. Tell your mother flatly, “I didn’t want to come home.” Fail to realize how that stings. Disappear into your room for hours, writing your new friends; watch for their letters and dream of being back in the Maine woods with them next year. Be furious when your mother snoops, when she reads your letter to a counselor you have a crush on; know from your mother’s face that you cannot say so. Let it smolder while you hide your letters more carefully. Pretend it doesn’t bother you. Pretend you aren’t embarrassed and afraid about having these crushes. You’ll have no context for envisioning a future life with a girl. You won’t even know the word lesbian yet.

When you are fourteen: When the Jesus Revolution comes to your youth group, have a spiritual crisis. Get fired up for God; also vow to be kinder to your mother. You can still rebel, but in a complicated way your parents won’t forbid: wandering the streets with hippies and staying out late—but witnessing, not drinking; praying, not doing drugs. Let out the hems of your jeans so they fray; innocently sew pink buttons down the fly, horrifying your mother. Buy men’s work boots at the Army Surplus store; avoid wearing dresses. Praise God with your hands in the air, in big hugging circles of singing, swaying Jesus Freaks, accompanied by candlelight and guitar.

Some of your freakiness will fade in time, but not your vow to be a better daughter. Hit upon a way to survive: be pleasant and agreeable, but never tell your mother about your deepest feelings, your doubts and worries, and least of all your yearning for attention and affection from women who are not her. Keep this vow for the next two decades. Also move away, farther and farther, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Seattle. Live your life; go to therapy. Write sweet letters and remember Mother’s Day. Send delightful homemade Christmas presents but live too far away to visit on holidays.

When you are thirty-five: Mail your parents an audiotape you record on two rainy Sunday afternoons in your tiny Seattle apartment, drinking tea. You know they’ll be able to listen to it because you recently gave them a cassette player as a gift, hoping they would record memories for their grandchildren (something they’ll never get around to). On the tape, tell them first that you are no longer an evangelical Christian, and then that you are a lesbian. Ask them not to argue the Bible with you. Be more honest than since you were twelve. Also tell them you are moving to Wisconsin to be with the woman you love. Be terrified when the tape is in the mail. Wait a month for their response, which, when it comes, is in two separate letters on identical stationery that say almost the same thing and, ironically, arrive via overnight mail.

“We love you so much and we always will. You know our beliefs; we cannot approve. Our hearts are so heavy. But we love you so much.” They will not quote the Bible or argue; you asked them not to. But you will know what they now fear: that you are lost and bound for hell; that they will lose you forever. Still, you will be relieved to have been honest. You will be glad not to keep this secret from them anymore.

You will have careful, tentative phone conversations with your mother now; she will not speak directly about your revelation, but she will tell you she loves you, every time, her voice breaking. You will talk about less frightening things, like your new pet guinea pig, for whom your mother sends presents, and small details about your upcoming move. After you move, she’ll call less often, sounding afraid if your partner answers the phone. “Hello, may I please speak with JoAnne?”

Find out from your oldest brother that your mother confided in him, and he defended you: “Don’t say you’ll keep praying for JoAnne; say you’ll keep loving her.”  He’ll tell you what your mother said: “Oh, of course we will! I think I love her more than ever — if that’s possible.” Don’t find out for many years that she also confided in your cousin Doug: “This woman JoAnne is with; I think she has influenced her.”  Don’t find out for many more years — until your parents have dementia and have forgotten so much — that in those early months they acquired some conservative literature about the misguided path you chose. (When you do find this literature years later, in the bottom of an unused drawer in your mother’s dresser, spirit it out to the dumpster and never mention it.)

After you buy a house with your beloved, invite your parents to visit. See them relax, especially your mother. Your partner is a midwife, she delivers babies on Amish farms, she is making a quilt — cozy, familiar things your mother can relate to. Your partner can also drive a nail, wield a power drill, and cook hearty food — things that impress your father. “Well, Martha, you pass!” he’ll blurt out at dinner, and you’ll know he doesn’t realize all he is saying. They can’t help but love her, no matter what they believe. “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” your mother will say when they leave. They’ll send Martha presents every Christmas, although at first those gifts will be separate from the ones they send you.

Then give them a harder test when you invite them to your Quaker wedding, which is planned for Valentine’s Day. Again they will take weeks to reply. Finally your mother will call in tears. “We can’t come,” she’ll choke out. “You know our beliefs. But you know we love you, and we love Martha too.” You’ll be angry: “That’s hard to believe right now,” you’ll say. But you will write again: “If you come,” you’ll assure your mother, “no one will assume you approve. They’ll just assume you love us.” Also say, “I wish you could be there with me when I get married. I wish you could see my wedding dress.”

Then, just one week before the ceremony, your mother will call again. “We’re coming,” she’ll say. “We got flights. We won’t come early, and we’ll stay at a different hotel. And we don’t want to be in group photos the grandchildren might see someday, that might make them think we were okay with this.”

You won’t be able to eat on the morning of your wedding. You’ll be terrified to see your parents, and you’ll wonder what they’ll do. But to your surprise, they will ask to wear the same lapel flowers as other close family and friends. Your mother will sit in the Quaker silence before you speak your vows, trembling and quiet. You will catch her eye and say silently, “I love you,” and she will mouth it back. She and your father will behave perfectly at your reception, shy but friendly, eating cake, watching and listening. For years afterward, notice that your mother doesn’t refer to your wedding as such, but as “that time we were there, that February.” And when you write to your Aunt Fran — her baby sister — you’ll find out your mother hasn’t told the relatives you are married. You’ll also learn that Aunt Fran doesn’t approve of your lifestyle either.

When you are fifty: Watch your mother losing memories but never her yearning to be close to you. See her trust and confide in you. Travel many miles, many times, over many years, to care for her with tenderness. See her confusion about the passage of time. “Did you go to my one-room school too?” she’ll ask, and also, “Are you old enough to remember when the Twin Towers fell?” Take her to doctor’s appointments and be her advocate; do not discount her complaints of pain. Measure out Tylenol, and Vicodin, and keep careful track. Help her in the bathroom. Hear her mention “your wedding.”

Be amazed when your mother, in her mental fog, wonders whether another of her sisters — a spinster missionary — had a female partner. “Who was Anita with?” she’ll ask you. “Was she with Martha?” Hide your surprise. Say nonchalantly, “No, Martha is with me.” “Oh, that’s right,” your mother will say. She’ll ask again and again why you can’t move in with her. “Martha, too!” she’ll insist. “We can make room.”

See your mother mistake you for her baby sister. Feel her turn to you as if you are her mother. Assure her you won’t leave while she’s at daycare. Put stuffed animals and dolls in her arms. Recognize she is human and vulnerable; understand how many decades it has been since she had any power over you. Wish you could give her more power over herself; wish you could grant her deepest wishes. Have no resentment, no regret. Know that your own heart is on the mend.



BIO

JoAnne E. Lehman edits a gender studies review journal at the University of Wisconsin. She has an MFA from Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing. Her creative nonfiction has also been published in The Cresset, and she is a book reviewer for Good River Review.



A Miraculous Takeover

by Austin McLellan

A Miraculous Takeover

pink slip laid off reorganized downsized fired booted axed
dismissed canned thrown out let go terminated given notice walking papers

All these words occupied the minds of the little group gathered in the Conference Room that day at Miraculous Technology. They were the Executive Team, and the words felt like ping pong balls in their heads. Still, amid this noise, the only voice the Team actually heard was the simple command of their CEO, Henry Kimball, who sat at the head of the gleaming walnut conference table that morning:

“Maryanne Nelson has got to go.”  

Kimball said it without emotion, without feeling, without even looking at any one of the four people seated before him. Then he got up and walked back into his private office and slammed the door.

The Executive Team looked at one another. They blinked. They looked down at the floor. Jim Spencer, the VP-Operations, coughed dryly. Kathy Welch, the CFO, sipped at an empty cup of coffee. Robbie Mack, who was in charge of business development, ran his fingers through his hair, then checked to see if any of the gel he applied that morning had stuck to his fingers. And Cynthia ‘Cindy’ Morris, the VP-Human Resources grabbed one of the chocolate donuts Kimball had brought in for the meeting. They looked at each other again. Then they looked away.

They all knew Maryanne Nelson, a senior staffer in Marketing. They all knew what the CEO wanted. The only question was who was going to do it. No one wanted to do it. No one wanted to say it.

“Sounds like an HR thing to me,” Jim Spencer observed, eyeing Cindy Morris. Spencer had come to Miraculous Tech from the steel industry. He liked to think, as he often said, that he was ‘all business’.

“HR, huh?” Cindy retorted. “It’s not my decision.” She popped a donut in her mouth. The VP-HR was younger than the rest of them, and pretty too, which they resented as they suspected she was Kimball’s favorite. Also, unlike the others, she had an advanced degree, an MBA from an institution that existed only in cyberspace. Yes, Cindy Morris had discharged employees before, but it had always been for obvious infractions like stealing or gross absenteeism; in other words, for cause, so it was fairly painless. But this was different. Maryanne Nelson had done nothing wrong.

“We need a reason, or something, to make it look right,” complained Robbie Mack, picking at his nails. Mack’s career to this point had involved selling cars, furniture, pharmaceuticals, and swimming pools. He had never done anything except sales, nor had he ever been in management. But he closed a few strong deals for Miraculous last year, and Kimball named him VP-Business Development. Now in a leadership role, Mack simply yelled at the people who reported to him. He looked over at Kathy Welch, the CFO. “How about the financials, Kathy? Maybe we—”

“What about them?” she interjected. Kathy Welch didn’t care for Mack. She didn’t think sales warranted a spot on the Executive Team; in fact she thought the entire team superfluous. She believed everything Mr. Kimball required was nicely maintained in the spreadsheets she managed. What else did a CEO need? He certainly didn’t need these people, she thought.   

Mack asked her, “Maybe you can get the financials to show some kind of . . . justification?”

“It’s not there,” Welch insisted. “There’s nothing in the financials. You want me to make something up?”

Jim Spencer cleared his throat. “Well, we’ve certainly done that before.” The VP-Operations liked to think he was The Leader when Kimball was away, though the entire team were equals on the Miraculous org chart. Spencer was in fact older than the others, but no one paid him much attention.

“That’s the way Hank wanted it done!” Kathy Welch exclaimed. This silenced them. She was the only one who called Mr. Kimball by his nickname. They went back a long ways.

But the entire Team certainly understood why Maryanne Nelsonhad to go: because Henry Kimball said so. Since the last management retreat, he had been preaching something about ‘Good to Great’ or ‘Great to Good’ or ‘Average to Better to Fabulous,’ or ‘Worse to Better,’ or whatever. No one quite understood it.

But they knew Maryanne in Marketing had to go. The only good part was, she was at home sick today with a stuffy head. The Executive Team could hatch their little plot in secret. They sat together glumly. Their coffees grew cold.

“We must do something,” Cindy Morris said, frustrated.

“Robbie? How about you?” Spencer asked. “Marketing is part of biz development, right?”

“Could be, but it ain’t,” Mack countered. “Besides, Maryanne has been here a lot longer than me. It would be weird.” Mack considered how to give such bad news, running his fingers through his hair again as if he might find the right words there. (He didn’t.) Maryanne Nelson had, in fact, been at Miraculous Technology longer than most anyone except the boss himself.

“Well, we need to get this done soon,” Spencer said, eyeing Kimball’s door. Through the conference room windows, they all stared outside at the green, manicured lawn of their corporate campus. No, they didn’t know who would fire Maryanne. They hated that Kimball wouldn’t do it himself. Spencer said, “You know, Mr. Kimball wants us to . . .”

“We heard him Jim,” Kathy Welch snapped. They all rose awkwardly and left the room. Nobody worked late that day. The weather was nice. They went home to their families, their golf, their drinks, their dinners, their TV – but they didn’t sleep well.

The next day each member of the Executive Team tried to stay busy or look busy. They avoided Maryanne Nelson, who returned to the office that day, feeling better. Spencer occupied himself with paperwork, and thought about running his own company where he would really be in charge. He had always liked the sound of ‘management coaching,’ and felt he would be good at it. Cindy Morris reviewed the new Miraculous Tech drug policy, then spent the rest of the morning shopping at Nordstrom.com. Kathy Welch totted up the quarterly revenue, and then made appointments to get her hair and nails done, even her toenails. Robbie Mack scheduled a sales call for later that day, and spent the rest of the morning flirting with the young women who staffed the Call Center.

Mr. Kimball finally showed up about eleven. He strolled from office to office, glaring at his department heads. Spencer announced, “The new production line is firing on all cylinders!” Kathy Welch exclaimed, “We’re gonna make target!” Mack cried “I’m meeting today with that big account!” And Cindy Morris reported dutifully that the new drug policy looked “bullet proof.”

The CEO returned them all a stony silence. He eyed them hard, with a smirk thrown in. They all either looked at their feet or stared at him like zombies. When Kimball saw Maryanne Nelson in the hall later that morning, he chirped “Good morning Maryanne. ‘Glad to have you back.” Then he retreated into his suite adjoining the Conference Room.

A few hours later, Jim Spencer crept out into the hallway. He saw Maryanne Nelson and bid her a good morning. “Head feeling better?” he asked brightly, then walked past her toward Kathy Welch’s office. Her door was open, he stepped inside. The CFO knew Spencer thought himself #2 in the company, after Kimball, but no one including Kimball had ever said that. Spencer’s imagination on this point did however lead him to conclude that responsibility for terminating Maryanne was mostly his. Welch asked him,

“Jimmy? You got a plan together?”

Spencer opened his mouth but no words came out. She frowned and said, “Hank was here a minute ago, asking about Maryanne.” Spencer never called Mr. Kimball Hank. He stumbled back into the hallway, a bit dazed. He took a moment to gather himself, catching a drink at the water fountain. At that moment, Robbie Mack popped out of the Call Center, the sound of giggles following him into the hallway.

“Well, well . . . what’s up with sales?” Spencer asked, with false enthusiasm. He thought Mack beneath him, since he didn’t consider sales a professional activity. Operations, his people, performed the real work. They manufactured things. Mack only took commissions.

“It’s business development,” Mack corrected.

“Development, sales, marketing, whatever. It’s all one thing, right?” Spencer straightened the large knot in his tie. He was the only man who wore a tie at Miraculous. He leaned toward Mack’s ear.

“Look Robbie. You’ve worked with Maryanne, spent time with her. Maybe you can think of something, anything she did wrong. Whatever it is, I’ll back you on it. Maybe that e-commerce thing?”

Mack remembered the e-comm project. It was a big flop. But both he and Maryanne were involved on that. If they blamed it on her, Mack would look bad too.

“That was Kimball’s decision,” Mack said.

Spencer leered at him. “Uh-huh.” The men eyed each other. “Well Christ, we’ve got to do something,” he growled. “Maryanne is in your department Mack, more or less. Dream something up!” Then he turned and stomped down the carpeted hallway.

Mack shrugged his shoulders, then re-entered the Call Center to the sound of giggling. Spencer got back to his office, feeling worse than when he left a few minutes before. He checked his email Inbox. There sat a message from Kimball. When the CEO was upset, he just filled in the email Subject line; this was all the Recipient needed to know. Spencer saw it. Subject: “Well Jim?”

He winced.

The day dragged on. The air conditioning roared but the office grew warm that July afternoon. Maryanne Nelson went about her duties, unaware of the plot unfolding around her, but she wondered why no one had stopped by to chat. She worked on the website revisions. She was presenting to the Executive Team at two o’clock.

About one thirty, Kimball emerged from his suite, looking mad, waving a paper in his hand. He marched into Cindy Morris’s office.

“Have you seen this?!” he demanded. He threw the paper on her desk.

“Uh…yes…certainly…no…maybe …what?” the young woman stammered, as she clicked away from Nordstrom.com, missing a 10% off sale which expired that moment.

“Well, you signed it,” Kimball declared. Cindy picked up the paper, a Vacation Approval Form, submitted by Maryanne Nelson.

“Uh, well, Sir, yes I did. That was a week ago and I didn’t know then about Maryanne . . . that we planned to let her  . . . uh . . .”

“Oh just fix it,” Kimball bellowed.

“OK, sir. Definitely. Right away.” Kimball frowned and glided away on the plush carpet. Distraught, Cindy picked up the phone and dialed Kathy Welch who was already in a bad mood.

“You’re approving vacation for people who are leaving??!!” the CFO hissed into the phone.

Cindy Morris whimpered, “I didn’t know about Maryanne when I signed it.” She gave a little sob. “And now Kimball wants me to fix it.” Welch was silent. She knew Morris was stuck. They were all stuck. Morris said, “Maybe you can come up with something? How about…there’s no room in the budget, right? Right? Something like that, huh . . ?”

“Let me think!” Welch answered, and hung up. She had spent many years rising to the CFO position at Miraculous, many long nights sitting with Kimball straightening up the books. She wanted to help her colleague in HR, but she had little sympathy. She was jealous of Cindy Morris, who’d made the Executive Team in two years. And Cindy was young and attractive and stayed in great shape because she was single and had time to work out at the gym, or the Club as she liked to say. Kathy Welch wanted help too, but she didn’t trust anyone. She thought about her older sister Amy, who was employed at a big corporation that offered a mentoring program. That’s what I need, Welch thought, a mentor. But who, she wondered. Kimball? She stared out the window again where a solitary man with a blower cleared dead leaves from the sidewalk.

At two p.m. the members of the Executive Team dragged themselves into the Conference Room. Maryanne Nelson sat there with a projector. Jim Spencer had taken the head of the table. Cindy Morris folded herself against the wall with a laptop, trying to hide. Kathy Welch brought an armful of spreadsheets to keep busy. Robbie Mack came in late with a strong coffee and slumped into a chair and yawned.

“Where’s Mr. Kimball?” someone asked. They all fidgeted. They knew Kimball might show up, he might not. His office door was closed and no one dared knock, so Maryanne started her presentation. Spencer pretended to be listening, and asked a few questions about ‘hits’. Kathy Welch scribbled notes on a spreadsheet. Robbie Mack couldn’t understand why Miraculous was relying so much on social media. Cindy Morris nabbed a pair of shoes at zappos.com.

At the end of the presentation, Maryanne beamed. The site updates looked fresh and professional. Traffic was up, hits were up. Everyone thanked her, and she thanked them. Then she apologized — she had to run to another meeting. The Team smiled. In a second she was gone.

The little projector fan continued to whirr for a very long minute after Maryanne’s exit. Then it stopped. Then it was quiet. Spencer drummed his fingers on the table. Kathy Welch looked up from her numbers. Mack rubbed his eyes. Cindy Morris closed her laptop. It was all in slow motion, as if an hour passed in the warm room.

“OK, I’ll do it.” Spencer whispered hoarsely. No one answered. They didn’t want Spencer doing it, but they didn’t want to volunteer either. He said it again, louder “I’ll do it.”

Mack asked, “What are you going to say to her, Jim?” He had no answer. Cindy Morris spoke up. “Does HR have to be there?”

Spencer explained, “I’ll just tell Maryanne we’ve decided to move in a new direction.”

“What direction?” Kathy Welch said.

“Well, we gotta do something!” Spencer shouted, folding his arms across his chest. He was frustrated, but even more he wished he hadn’t raised his voice. It was unprofessional, not leader-like. He wondered what a good management coach would do.

“What about her vacation?” Cindy Morris complained. “I said she could take a vacation!” Kathy Welch shot her a glance cold as ice, tired of her whining. She looked at Spencer.

“Look Jim. Just mention something about the budget,” the CFO explained. “Tell her it’s not a discharge. Miraculous is simply eliminating a position in her department. Costs, you know?”

“That’s a lie,” Mack blurted. He looked over at Cindy Morris for support. She smiled weakly.   

Spencer mused. “Position eliminated, huh? Hhmm . . . I like the sound of that, position eliminated. Right. Yes! A re-org. So it’s about the position. It’s not about her. Not really.”

“I think it is about her,” Mack countered. “She’s the one losing . . .”

“Well maybe you should tell her, Mack,” Spencer barked. They looked over at Kimball’s door. It was still closed. He was in there, they knew. “I’ll send her an Email.”

“No. You’ve got to talk to her,” Cindy Morris said, stiffening. “That’s the only way.”

“OK, so I’ll call her tonight.”

“No no no!” Kathy Welch insisted. “If you can’t speak to her in person, face to face, then don’t do it.” Spencer drummed his fingers on the polished walnut table. He straightened the large knot in his tie and said,

“Alright. Whatever. So I’ll meet with Maryanne tomorrow. Who’s going to help me?”

There was no answer. Then . . Henry Kimball’s door opened. Not quickly, not slowly, but measured, grim almost, like the ponderous jaws of a terrible crustacean at the bottom of the dark sea. The CEO stuck his head out. He didn’t acknowledge any of them. He just stared into the room. Only the faintest smile appeared on his face, then vanished. Then he withdrew. His door shut.

The next day was Friday. This was lucky for Spencer since he had heard Friday was the best day to terminate an employee; because if any drama broke out, the weekend gave everyone a chance to cool off. But still he didn’t know when, or how, or why he was going to fire Maryanne, or even what to say. ‘Position eliminated’ felt right yesterday, but now it seemed dry and officious. Spencer considered alternatives: budget problems, a new direction, good to great, great to better, downsizing, rightsizing, a pivot. Nothing made sense. The VP-Operations drank six cups of coffee that morning.

Kathy Welch buried herself in work. It was month-end, and she had to complete the financials. This gave her an excuse. She slammed her office door and locked it. Kimball himself knocked but she wouldn’t answer. She turned off her phone and logged off email, trying to disappear.  

Robbie Mack talked it over with Cindy Morris, who was an eager listener. She thought Mack’s work in sales was exciting. She knew he often visited customers in Chicago and it made her envious. He came into her office and flung himself into a nearby chair.

“This Maryanne thing. It sucks,” he told her.

“I hate it,” she said.

Mack added, “Why can’t Kimball do it? It’s freaking bullshit.” Cindy Morris laughed lightly at his vulgarity. Mack noticed, and offered more. They went back and forth in this manner and arrived at nothing.

By lunchtime the Executive Team was exhausted. Spencer was sick to his stomach from too much coffee. Kathy Welch had become lightheaded staring at numbers. Robbie Mack was so disgusted he left the office, went to the golf driving range and hit a bucket of balls. Cindy Morris felt good. She had found another bargain online. But she grew nauseous when she sent Maryanne Nelson an email, inviting her to a meeting at 3 in the Conference Room. Jim Spencer had told her to do it. He said he would handle things. In her email, Morris left the Subject: line empty even though she knew what the meeting was about. Her heart tripped when Maryanne quickly accepted the invite.

At ten to three, the Executive Team assembled in the Conference Room. They were wound up tight as a steel spring. They blamed Kimball and mistrusted each other at the same time. Panic gripped them. They could barely speak. For Spencer, it had become clear to him now . . . with the crisis at hand . . . that he couldn’t go through with it. Kathy Welch also knew he couldn’t do it. Mack thought Spencer might really fire Maryanne, but hated him for it. Cindy Morris was just glad she didn’t have to do it. Spencer gazed absently out the window at the lawn care guys and wondered if he could get a crew together and do that for a living.

The Team looked at one another in sweaty silence and stared at Kimball’s door, which seemed to mock them. He’s in there, they knew. Maybe he’ll reconsider, they hoped. Maybe this can wait till next year, they fantasized. Perhaps Maryanne could be re-assigned to another role? That’s it . . . they would talk Kimball out of it.

Jim Spencer finally rose (it took a while) and approached Kimball’s lair. He walked in a measured pace, like a man on his way to the gallows. At the CEO’s door he raised his hand to knock . . . and . . . and there it froze, in mid-air, suspended, paralyzed, like a statue. A forever passed. Then another one. Finally, at long last, Spencer’s hand fell . . . but not on Kimball’s door. It fell to his side, a flabby lifeless thing.

Next, Robbie Mack rose, almost. He was mad, but he couldn’t quite get his feet under him. Cindy Morris tugged on his sleeve, her face a confused mixture of anxiety and affection. The man fell back into his chair, the woman gripping his arm. He couldn’t do it either.

At last Kathy Welch stood. They all looked at her. The CFO had known Kimball the longest. She approached his door and prepared to knock, but thought better of it, calling out his name … “Mr. Kimball. Mr. Kimball. Henry. Hank!”

But Kimball’s door remained quiet as a tomb. In two minutes, it would be 3 pm.

“Maryanne will be here soon!” someone gasped.

“We can’t do it!” somebody moaned.

Suddenly, a sound … a distinct something… emanated from behind Kimball’s door. It may have been laughter. No one could be sure. Then silence, again.  

“Alright,” Spencer spoke up, with all the confidence of a man who had given up. He tore a sheet of paper from his legal pad: “If we can’t say it to her, goddamn it, maybe we can just write it down. But we’ve all got to do it. Together. So this will look like a joint decision of the Executive Team, and irrevocable.”

“That sucks.” Mack burst out.

“Just do it!” Kathy Welch snarled. She tore a sheet from her pad. The others found scraps of paper.

“Maryanne’s coming!” Cindy cried. They all scribbled something, and tossed their messages onto the table. Then, the Executive Team departed quickly.

Maryanne Nelson arrived a minute later. The Conference Room was quiet and very still save for the afternoon sunlight pouring in through the big windows, illuminating the dust motes floating in the air. Maryanne checked her watch. ‘Give them a few minutes, she thought, and of course Mr. Kimball was always late.

Then she noticed the four sheets of paper on the big table. They were face down, but she could make out writing on the other side. She looked at Kimball’s door. All quiet. She checked the hallway — no sign of anyone else. She was curious. She reached for one sheet of paper, turned it over, and slowly read it.

“Dear Mr. Kimball, it is with sincere regret that I must resign my position at Miraculous Technology, effective immediately. I have been very stressed and I cannot fulfill my responsibilities. Also, I am starting my own coaching company. Sincerely, James Spencer, VP-Operations.”

Maryanne gasped. She had known Jim Spencer for a while and respected him. That’s too bad, she thought, but I’m sure he had his reasons. She put the message back on the table. Kimball’s door remained closed, the hallway silent. She reached for another.

“Dear Mr. Kimball, it is with deep regret that I must quit Miraculous Technology, effective immediately. I have been unable to concentrate on my work due to internal conflicts that I cannot resolve. I am also hoping to spend more time with my family. Robbie Mack, VP-Business Development.”

Another one! Maryanne Nelson’s knees grew weak. What was going on? She had enjoyed working with Mack on the e-commerce project. And now he was going. It made her sad. She looked around again . . . all quiet still. She reached for another note.

“Dear Mr. Kimball, I’m so sorry but I must give up the HR leadership position, effective immediately. I apologize for signing the Vacation Approval Form for Ms. Nelson. It was a mistake that has upset me to no end, to the point where I can’t work anymore! Besides, I am thinking of going into retail. Respectfully, Cynthia Morris, VP-Human Resources.”

Maryanne felt a hollow place in her gut. She felt terrible her time-off request had upset Cindy Morris, caused such trouble. Maybe this was her fault?

Still no sound came from Kimball’s office, nothing from the hallway. Only silence. There was one last paper. Maryanne picked it up.

“Dear Mr. Kimball, it is with sincere regret that I must resign the CFO position at Miraculous Technology, effective immediately. I have spent too many years submerged in numbers, and I need a break. A long break. I am thinking of buying a condo in Miami Beach. Yours truly, Kathy Welch, Chief Financial Officer.”

Maryanne Nelson fell into a chair. She felt faint. Everyone was going; in fact they were already gone. What was going on? There was almost no one left. She choked up a few tears and felt very alone.

Henry Kimball, CEO, opened the door of his office and stepped briskly into the Conference Room. Maryanne rose to greet him, but he waved her off. The CEO took his big chair at the head of the table and made a somber face. “I guess maybe you’ve heard by now,” he said. Maryanne thought of Jim and Kathy and Robbie and tried to speak, but couldn’t.

“I’m afraid it’s done. ‘All over,” Kimball said. “We’ve sold Miraculous Technology.”

Maryanne’s eyes, already moist, now grew large as dinner plates. “Yes,” Kimball said, “the Fabulous Computer Corporation finally made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.” He chuckled at his choice of words. “It’s a total buyout, a takeover. Shareholder values, you know! We’ll be merging with Fabulous Corp right away.” He then took a confidential tone and said, “Actually Maryanne, this could be a pretty good deal for staff-level folks. The new company will be a bigger operation, with more products and more opportunities for employees.” Maryanne looked at the resignation letters on the table.

“But for top management?” Kimball shook his head. “I’m afraid there’s quite a bit of overlap with Fabulous. Duplicated roles, you know? The Fabulous Corp managers will be running things around here. And our Executive Team—?” Kimball regarded the notes on the table. Maryanne sank deeper into her chair, if that was possible. “They won’t be needed,” the CEO said somberly.

They sat together in silence for a few long minutes. They had both been at Miraculous for years. Eventually acceptance crept in. Kimball gathered up the notes his Team had left on the table. He slid them into a folder, but he didn’t read them. ‘Almost like he didn’t need to.

“I suspected this day was coming,” he said.

Maryanne knew it was the end. “Is there anything I can do, Mr. Kimball?”

“No thanks, Maryanne. You’ve been a great help already.” He patted his folder containing the resignations. “Now I’m sure we’ll have a smooth transition with the Fabulous leadership.”

Maryanne Nelson nodded in agreement.

“I tell you what . . . ,” Kimball added. “Why don’t you take a few days off, enjoy a nice vacation? On the house, as it were. ‘For all you’ve done for Miraculous.”

Maryanne brightened at this. Then Kimball smiled as he rose and disappeared into his suite.  



BIO

Austin McLellan lives and writes in Memphis, TN. His first novel was published in 2016: Twenty Grand, A Love Story (Harvard Square). His stories, essays, and journalism have appeared in a variety of creative and commercial media. See Akashicbooks.com, Bangalore Review, Stepaway Magazine, In Recovery Magazine, Monarch Review, BroadwayWorld Review, Patient Health Journal, the Memphis and Nashville Business Journals, and StoryBoard Memphis.  

In a previous life, Austin taught English and writing at universities in Asia, Europe, and the United States. He has also operated an art gallery, sold books, developed software, and acted in local Memphis theater. When not writing, Austin works as a healthcare technology consultant. He has BA, Philosophy from Rhodes College; MA, Literature from the University of Memphis. 

www.austinmclellan.com

WRONG HANDED

by Travis Stephens


“Left handed people are more numerous among criminals
and sinister left-sided people among lunatics.”
—Dr. Cesare Lambrosco


My left hand is in rebellion,
my pinkie curling
as if to die
as if to say I’m done
find another fool
to hold onto things you
can’t pay for.
Ignore the ring finger.
A few years ago it did this,
the bands of tendon fierce and
hard across my palm.
So they injected an inhibitor,
a sort of meat tenderizer
approved by the fucking drug
houses in the land of CoPay.
Hurt like hell.
Then the smiling technician
lay my hand on her table to
straighten it out.
There, she said, as fire
licked my hand, my arm,
any hope of good manners.
(Men should not sound like that.)
That wasn’t so bad, was it?

I wish I played a banjo,
claw hammer loud,
so I had a reason for a hand
like this one.
Or was in possession of
the nuclear football;
never let it go, sir.
Instead I am dealt
a weak hand, full of poor genetics.
Only promise I can keep
is take my hand, love.
I can’t ever let you go.


BIO

Travis Stephens is a tugboat captain who resides with his family in California. A graduate of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, recent credits include: 2River, Sheila-Na-Gig, From the Depths, Miletus, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, K’in Literary Journal, and In Parentheses.

Hashbrowns and Termites

by Jamie Good



It’s snowing and there is no power, which means there is no water. We have an electric pump in our well. But, thank God, it is snowing, so we will never, ever run out of water as long as the snow comes. The worst is when there is no power in the summer and I think for a moment we will have to collect water from the small stream on either side of the ditch on our road, and boil it to drink out of like dogs.

Three of my useless neighbors are over. I could write a book. I could title it “Tania and the Three Useless Neighbors” and read it to my children. The only neighbor that I like, a retired artist that my daughter calls “Uncle Jack”, is upstairs playing polly pockets with her. This is more for him than it is for my daughter. Him and I are having a competition to see who can hate Scott and Beth, the other two neighbors, more.

Scott has offered to make us hashbrowns. I can make my own hashbrowns, but I am pregnant and Scott wants to feel like he helped. They invited themselves over. His wife, Beth, came over first, with canned gravy. Canned. I asked her if the gravy was vegetarian and she faltered for a moment. “I suppose it’s not,” she said, doing the embarrassed laugh that drives me up the fucking wall. I didn’t hide my annoyance. She knows I’m a vegetarian. She doesn’t register my expression, either oblivious or choosing to ignore it.

“Scott’s going to make a hash!” she says, clapping. Scott leaves our ranch sliding door open when he is out on the deck fussing with the grill. Fussing is the correct term; I don’t think this man has ever successfully used a grill in his life. I keep shutting the sliding door shut; I keep telling him he’s letting out all the warm air and there’s no way to reheat my house when the power is out, and his wife said “Oh, you need a generator like we have!” and I tell her that’s fine but right now I have no generator so her husband needs to keep the door shut and she laughs. I get up and shut the door myself.

Scott comes back inside. “Just a few minutes longer!” he says, beaming. His wife looks up at him, beams harder. I think to myself that hash should only take a few minutes to begin with. He didn’t even use fresh potatoes–they came pre-shredded and frozen in a bag. I can’t stop thinking about how these adults are like children, overgrown. I wish I could drink wine. I think maybe one glass won’t hurt the fetus–how much of it will really even go to the fetus anyway–but then what if it is a really selfish fetus? What if the fetus drinks all of the wine and I get none of it and I’ve compromised the baby’s health for nothing? I have no idea if the fetus is selfish or gracious, so I don’t drink the wine.

Last Thanksgiving, Beth made raisin salmon patties. Raisin. It was disgusting. She stared at me with her giant, too-wide face while I dragged out cutting the salmon patty for as long as possible. It was my turn to be the child. The raisins were the size of grapes, no, bigger, the size of baseballs. They were so large I felt like I had to unhinge my jaw the way a snake does with a rodent, just to get some of the disgusting, half-deflated raisin into my mouth, soaked with salmon juice. I wanted to kill myself. The dog wouldn’t even eat it. I can only imagine what these hash browns will taste like. I wish my husband was at home instead of his business trip. The burden of entertaining these idiots would fall on him, the more courteous one between us. Why did she even bring gravy? Scott should have cooked veggie sausages or something to go with it. Or a grilled sandwich. We will look entirely ridiculous sitting around our table in the dark, candles lit, eating hash browns. I could have made myself veggie sausage and vegetable kebabs.

I do not bother to make conversation with these people. I am too pregnant. Not really, but when you are pregnant you can use it for any excuse you want. Beth tries to make small talk. I look at my belly, patting the fetus, asking it telepathically if it is a selfish or gracious fetus. It doesn’t answer. Is this because the fetus is aloof? Shy? There’s really no way of telling with fetuses. They like to be mysterious.

Scott returns from outside, holding a serving plate given to me as a wedding present. It will be a fucking nightmare to wash. They smell the same way a hot car does. He leaves the ranch sliding door open, and I bark at him. Not really. I wish I had. Instead I get up and shut the door loud enough for their attention to be drawn to it. Scott looks embarrassed, but otherwise the two of them say nothing. Why does his face look like that? Then I see it. He’s melted the black plastic spatula over the hashbrowns, like tar poured over gravel. Why aren’t they acknowledging it? He cuts into the hashbrowns, serving himself first. The serving knife struggles with the melted plastic, wobbling a bit. Scott is determined. Beth is served next. I haven’t seated myself at the table. I cannot. I’m waiting for them to acknowledge that Scott melted a plastic spatula all over the hashbrowns. They say nothing.

“Scott,” I say, slowly, speaking to him like he is a child. “I can’t eat this.”

Scott and Beth exchange wide-eyed glances.

“Just eat around the crunchy parts!” Beth says, smiling too much. She is confused as to why I still haven’t sat down. She’s set the table for us like we’re entertaining royalty. I could actually kill her. I think, for a moment, I might, but I’d have to kill Scott too, and I am too pregnant to kill two people. Who is going to clean all of these dishes? We have no power. I go upstairs to get Jack, who my daughter has made wear a tiara and monarch butterfly wings. In return, I see Jack has painted both of their fingernails a bright fuschia.

“Don’t I look stunning, darling?” he asks me when I walk in. He always calls me darling.

“Jack, I’m going to kill these people.”

“Hmm.” Jack sips his gin and tonic, eyebrows raised. His miniature dachshund, Fritzel, sniffs my pant legs.

“Help me.”

“I’m busy,” Jack answers, intently studying two pairs of plastic high-heeled slippers Jamie is holding up.

“Jack!”

“The green ones suit your eyes better, sweetheart.” He doesn’t look back up at me. I leave, Jack and my daughter laughing hysterically at something Jack’s whispered.

Downstairs, I find the ranch sliding door open. Scott’s muddy snow-slush shoe prints cover the surrounding carpets. They’ve finished eating, managing to get as many dishes dirty as possible. I know Jack will offer to help with the dishes, but really he’ll sit across the kitchen counter and drink wine and smoke and gossip and whatever else he can do to avoid dishes.  If he wasn’t elderly and ill, I might be more annoyed, but Jack is charismatic enough to get away with anything.

The house is fucking freezing. I send Scott out into the backyard to get the firewood covered by tarp. He returns in less than a minute, without the firewood. More mud is tracked into my carpet. The ranch door is left open.

“There’s termites,” he says before I can say anything.

I explain to him that the fireplace has doors that shut, much like my sliding ranch door. None of the termites can get out and damage the wood.

“I don’t want them to burn,” he says.

“The termites?” I ask in disbelief.

He nods.

“The house is freezing. I’m pregnant and I have a small child,” I speak to him slowly again.

He doesn’t move.

“I don’t care about the termites.”

Scott looks at me, horrified. I look at him, wondering if I could scream loud enough for my husband to come home, loud enough to induce labor so I can drink sooner, loud enough for these people to get out of my home, loud enough to kill him without it being my fault.



BIO

Jamie Good is a queer English undergrad at Western Washington University, where she works as the nonfiction editor for Jeopardy Magazine. Her work has been previously featured in small literary magazines such as “Sincerely Magazine.” 
https://www.sincerelymagazine.com/volumenineserendipity



New Mexico or Arizona

by Ethan Klein



How it had come up at dinner that day, I can’t remember now, but I do remember that it was around my seventeenth birthday when my mother laughed about my father being too busy at the firm to even find the time to cheat on her. My father grinned at her claim like he was embarrassed by the conversation or that infidelity was so totally beyond him, a fiction, something he was completely incapable of. Though, I had seen his smile another way, that maybe he found my mother’s words unfortunately true and was embarrassed that he lacked a quality he knew some of his friends and colleagues possessed, a quality that suggested a certain courage he could never muster.

But then, a few months later, I went to the door to meet my father returning from work with the dinner guest and found him standing with a woman I didn’t recognize. She wasn’t someone my mother knew or worked with either. My mother didn’t socialize with many people because she worked from home and didn’t like going out, and so the only people she saw with any frequency were my father and myself.

“This is Darcie,” my father said, introducing the woman, and I remembered the dinner with my mother’s laugh and my father’s deflated look. Now, my father spoke eagerly like he’d been waiting a long time to introduce this woman, like she was his answer to his wife’s derision.

She was in her late forties, like my parents, and wore these beaded earrings and a turquoise bracelet, jewelry like my mother sometimes wore. When Darcie shook my hand, she had a certain easiness in her face that echoed my parents’ post-retreat glow when they returned from the deserts of New Mexico or Arizona. However, where this energy subsided in my parents, it seemed more permanent in Darcie, more part of who she was, like problems didn’t exist for her or that she was just good at hiding them.

My father closed the door on the autumn air. It was early evening but already dark and cold enough to smell and taste the approach of a long winter. They put their coats on the couch and removed their shoes at the door even though the only other place where I saw this ritual performed was in homes newer and larger than our small two-bedroom, the home my parents bought at the beginning of their marriage. We lived in a neighborhood close enough to the airport where we could see planes taking off and landing, but far enough away where the noise was never too loud. Still, my mother wanted to move to the suburbs north of the city where it was generally quieter. She would remind me, however, that my father was cheap, and that he refused to move us to a better home even when they could afford it on his salary alone.

“Are you a friend of the family’s?” I asked Darcie, feeling it was more appropriate than ‘who are you?’

She and my father looked at one another and smiled as if they’d come to a silent agreement on the best answer.

“Yes,” she said.

“A new friend,” my father added. He removed his glasses and wiped them with the sleeve of his sweater. When he returned the glasses to his face he looked to the kitchen where my mother had her back to us as she chopped vegetables for a salad.

“Has there been any work for her today?” my father asked of my mother.

“I don’t know,” I said, because I usually didn’t know exactly how much time she spent at her little desk in the living room before I arrived home from school. But also, because he liked to—according to my mother—keep a running tally on her usefulness to the family. I didn’t want to play favorites. Work had been infrequent for my mother since I was born. She had her own business editing print materials for different clients, most of them from around the region. This was how my parents met, the business my father had worked for being one of her clients. And while my father moved on to a better job shortly after I was born, my mother had to reduce her clientele to have time to raise me until I was old enough to go to school. Unfortunately, she was never able to get her business back to the way it was. Now, she spent most of her time at home watching public television or reading books on New Age religion. I think if she wasn’t married, she would have gone to live in a commune or ashram or something similar to one of these things. The self-actualization retreats in New Mexico or Arizona (depending on venue availability) were her way, I think, of getting as close as possible to that life without making it seem all about her—that the message of the retreats would benefit them and their marriage. Maybe her need to convince him of their usefulness was one reason why the retreats never actually worked for them even after five years and thousands of dollars spent.

“Mmm,” was all my father managed, sounding disappointed by my response. He laughed to himself and shook his head and then went with Darcie into the kitchen. I followed.

My mother removed her apron from over her dress and met my father and Darcie by the kitchen table. She hugged Darcie with emphasis like she was a member of the family we were just getting to meet for the first time. “It’s so good you’re finally here.”

“Art, can you get the wine from the garage?” my father asked me, and I knew then this was a special occasion and that this person named Darcie was somehow fundamental to it. But I didn’t know why she mattered, and more, why my parents had neglected to tell me.

I went into the garage for the wine because my parents didn’t keep any alcohol in the house. Out of sight out of mind was probably their logic, although who this was directed towards wasn’t clear. I never knew my parents to be big drinkers and I’d never really acted out or been disciplined. Maybe this was a result of the alcohol being slightly less on-hand for all of us, and ironically why I lacked a fear of retribution from stealing their only bottle in the first place.

A few months ago, they had left to catch an evening flight to one of their marriage-saving getaways—Arizona that time. I had a couple glasses of the wine and when the drunk heaviness came on, I went outside and brought the bottle with me. I walked the dark streets of our quiet subdivision, passing windows that radiated warm lamplight or the sharp glow of a television screen. Inside each home I could make out families huddling comfortably together on couches, people standing solitary in their kitchens for reasons unknown to me, or couples sauntering off to bed. Above me, when I’d catch a plane blinking red and rising through the sky, I wondered if my parents were on it and if they could somehow make me out below them as I intentionally tried to drink myself to amnesia because I’d seen people do it in movies when they struggled with their feelings. I knew my parents would return from their trip rejuvenated until my father began to obsess about work and my mother felt stuck in her unfulfilled life with him, leaving me to wonder, as I often did, if I had ever factored into either of their lives.

When I opened the fridge, I found the replacement bottle of unopened white wine. I’d purchased it at a liquor store known for selling to underagers if they carried themselves in the right way. Standing just shy of six feet and dressing in well-fitting hand-me-downs (including some from my father), I was able to act with natural purpose in the unfamiliar store. It also didn’t hurt that the clerk was expedient about the transaction and wanted me gone so he could get back to whatever was on the small television behind the counter. I brought this unopened bottle now into the kitchen. My father stood by the sink while my mother spoke with Darcie by the table. He opened the bottle with a corkscrew and poured three glasses.

“Do you want one?” he said, gesturing with the bottle. “There’s no harm in having a little bit.”

“Sure.”

“Good.” He smiled like it brought him relief to know I was joining him although I didn’t know why. He poured me a glass. “Things will be different now,” he said, but I think he said this more to himself than to me.

I followed him over to Darcie and my mother. He handed them their glasses of wine and then he began to drink. Seeing this, I did the same.

“Gabe,” my mother said, like she’d caught him doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing.

My father quickly brought the glass away from his mouth. I did too.

“What is it?”

“Well, aren’t we going to make a toast?” she said, as if it should have been obvious.

His words were straight and low. “You don’t toast for this.”

And my mother looked at him with a tight face, embarrassed and sad all at once, and I turned away from my mother because it hurt to see her upset. I thought if I looked away, she would go back to being alright. My father would apologize for talking without thinking because that’s what he usually apologized for whenever he made my mother upset with him over something he had said. But this time he didn’t apologize. Instead, he took another drink from his glass, pretending he hadn’t said anything wrong.

Darcie addressed my parents. “Gabe, Marta, you both have been waiting a long time for this.” Her words were measured and matter of fact. A reasonable voice. “Am I right about this?”

“Yes, a long time,” my mother said.

“Too long maybe,” my father said. “Maybe this just isn’t for us.”

“No,” Darcie said, answering like it absolutely couldn’t be any other way. “Let’s just sit and eat and enjoy,” she said, this last word echoing and hanging in the air as an incantation. “We’ll start there, don’t you think that’d be best for everyone?” She looked to me then for only a moment, like she wanted me to know I wasn’t forgotten about, that I was as much a part of what was going to happen as my parents were. It unsettled me and I didn’t want whatever it was that was going on between the three of them to occur.

At the table, my mother peeled back the tin foil from the lasagna, which was next to a large bowl of pre-dressed salad. The lasagna was plated and the four of us began to eat underneath the solo light of the kitchen.

Darcie leaned over to where my mother sat, off to her right. “It’s very good, Marta,” she said, quietly, but loud enough for my father and me to hear so we knew to speak up too.

“It’s always good,” my father said, and he looked across the table at me, fishing a compliment for my mother.

I couldn’t think of anything original or meaningful. “Yeah, it’s really good,” I managed, and continued eating while trying not to draw attention to myself. Through most of the meal my parents and Darcie spoke between bites. It became apparent she was going to be helping them with their marriage, fix whatever it was the retreats had been unable to do for them. I suspected it involved her having a certain permanency in our family, and I didn’t like the thought of this. I would have preferred my parents going back to not knowing how to deal with one another if it meant a third party didn’t have to be involved.

“Can you pass the salad, Art?” Darcie said. I did this without looking at her. When she filled her plate she asked, “how’s school going?” as if she knew me and genuinely cared about my wellbeing. I pretended like I hadn’t heard her.

“Art, don’t be rude,” my mother said.

“If he doesn’t want to talk to me…” Darcie started.

“No. He’s going to have to accept this,” my mother said, looking to my father for rare support.

“Please, Art,” my father sighed. “It’s difficult for us too.”

But I felt this change in our lives wouldn’t be difficult for him based on my mother’s complaints. He spent most of his time at work and when he wasn’t at work, he’d pretend to find work around the house because he wasn’t good with tools like other fathers were. This would lead him to wander, going in and out of rooms trying to find purpose—something to do, only to forget why he had entered the room in the first place. And here is where my mother would make it clear to me that he did this to purposely avoid us, that he had exhibited this kind of behavior towards her before I was born. It never crossed my mind until years later that maybe all my parents needed was to be more open about their own needs and less subversive towards each other. But honesty, I would come to understand, often feels harmful in the moment, cutting, and therefore, unfortunately, often avoided. And although I couldn’t identify this at the time while they were together, I could still identify they were failing each other in a more final way than they were letting on.

“You can tell me it’s a divorce,” I said.

My father paused and I could see in his face that he was worried about a truth spilling over. “That’s not what this is.” He looked to my mother for reassurance.

My mother took a moment, an almost unrecognizable moment like there was a part of her that doubted now what it was. “Right, no, that’s not what this is. Divorce is final and we don’t want anything final because you can’t go back on something like that.”

“Right,” my father said and then went on, which exposed his discomfort more. “It’s messy and final and nobody wins in the end. Just one big mess.”

He was convincing himself of this and I hoped by the time I was his age I wouldn’t need to do this in front of my own children. If I had children. I was not sure if I wanted them or if they would end up as afterthoughts. Would I only be there for them when it was absolutely necessary? Would I consider that as good parenting, as caring like they did?

I remembered then the time when, at eight years old, I had left the house while my mother had fallen asleep to the television. She must have woken up soon after I wandered off on that cold spring day because I remember I wasn’t gone too long, that I had made it only three or four blocks before I heard her call my name from down the street.

I think about what would’ve happened if she hadn’t woken up as soon as she did. I would likely have been returned to my home by a well-meaning couple, but sometimes I wonder if the same couple might have taken me home with them. Maybe they couldn’t conceive, and I would somehow be the ticket to their happiness? Other times, I imagined reaching a nearby park and a family of wolves taking my small shivering body to their secret den to bring me up as one of their own, wolves like those I’d heard who raised orphans in cold faraway countries. But no wolves lived in this city. Just skittish coyotes, animals that would have left me to my fate on that gray day. Would my parents have been happier people if I had disappeared from their lives? Not happier right away, but maybe one or two years later they would accept how the loss did not feel so bad, that it was liberating in fact.

“Then what is it that’s happening?” I said. “What’s so difficult?”

“A smooth transition,” Darcie said, addressing me now with that all-knowing easiness to her words as my parents nodded in agreement.

“We need help,” my mother said. “Like the retreats, except…” she searched for a word.

“More personalized,” my father offered.

“Yes, that,” my mother said.

They were pretending to explain everything while explaining nothing.

“Personalized how?” I pressed.

“It’s complicated,” my father said. “Like…”

“Like you couldn’t go to a library and find a book about it,” my mother said, saving him now.

“Then explain it to me,” I said.

My parents collectively sighed and looked to Darcie as if I was being overly difficult, and that they needed to turn me over to her. And this felt wrong to me, how they were the ones who were supposed to be more-or-less in charge of the family. I had always felt I could at least rely on my parents’ ownership of the family, even if it was by no means strong or even healthy. Now, they appeared to be completely giving this up.

Without many choices to exit, I noticed most of my wine was still in my glass, and I hoped this would help dissociate me from the current reality, buy me a little relief. Darcie began to speak, but she cut herself off when I poured the whole glass down my throat. Except it went down the wrong way. An itchy heat radiated from my neck and face, and I coughed trying to clear my windpipe.

“Do you need some water?” Darcie said, beginning to stand. “I can get him some—.”

“He’ll be fine,” my father said.

“Just the wrong tube,” my mother added.

Darcie sat, and they waited until I stopped coughing.

“All better?” my father said.

“Yeah, just the wrong tube,” I coughed between words, pointing to my throat.

“Where did you pick that up?” my mother said.

I cleared the last cough. “Pick what up?”

“The drinking.”

“What do you mean?”

“What are you getting at, Marta?” my father also asked her.

My mother gestured to my glass. “He was drinking so fast, like an alcoholic or something.”

“Mom, please.”

“No, don’t start that,” she said. “This isn’t the time for ‘Mom pleases or ‘I don’t knows.’” And she said this like they were excuses regularly coming from my mouth. My mother laughed and refilled her empty wine glass with what was left in the bottle. “No, you don’t do something like that unless you’ve done it before.”

I didn’t like where this was going, how my mother was turning the attention from their poor marriage, and Darcie’s control of our lives, to this stupid thing with the wine. At the same time, my mother and father seemed more engaged with me now. They were disappointed, like parents who actually cared about the well-being of their child. Even though it came in the form of frustration, it was their genuine attention I subconsciously craved.

“What’s with the wine then, Art?” my mother said.

“I wanted it,” I said.

“Wanted what?” my mother said, drawing it out of me.

“The wine.”

Then my father’s turn, “So, you and some buddies then—.”

“No, just me.”

“Just you?” my mother said, sounding both concerned and mystified.

“It was a stupid thing, I know, I know.”

“It wasn’t stupid.” It was Darcie now and not my mother who said this. And my parents suddenly had these stony looks on their faces, like they had stepped back from the conversation and it was now just Darcie and me. The light seemed dimmer in the house, or was it that everything had turned stagnant—the light and the air and time itself? My skin felt tighter as if I’d outgrown it, and I couldn’t breathe right. “You knew what you were doing and so it wasn’t stupid. It was thought-out.”

“Right, you’re right,” I said, barely able to get the words out and nodding my head with my eyes in my lap, thinking that would settle things and stop her talking.

“Your parents and I are just looking out for your best interests. You can understand that, can’t you?”

I couldn’t understand it, because I was confident they had no interest in my future, no concern about what it held for me. I’d be graduating high school next year and was convinced I’d be off to do my own thing after that. But I didn’t know what I’d be moving on to. I only worked part-time at a grocery store on the weekends, and I would need to find other work to afford living on my own. I thought I might also attend a technical school, but I couldn’t expect much help from my parents, nor did I want it.

I kept my mouth shut about all this though—leaving I mean—because while I didn’t believe my parents would stop me, I felt Darcie had the ability to compromise my plans in some way. Like she could convince my parents to keep me here in this home out by the airport until, before I knew it, I was inheriting the house and looking after my father and mother as their bodies slowly stopped functioning. It would be a gradual deterioration I could even project myself into at seventeen, when my entire life was supposed to be ahead of me. But I couldn’t envision Darcie aging; she was independent of it somehow, as though the forces of the everyday didn’t apply to her.

“No, I can’t understand it because I don’t think it’s true,” I said. My parents still appeared detached and cordoned off from the present, stuck somewhere outside of it. “What are you going to do? I mean what’s your plan for them?” Darcie closed her mouth with this pensive straight look, which didn’t give me much confidence she even knew. “I need to know they’ll be alright,” I continued. And maybe I shouldn’t have cared how they ended up, but it didn’t feel right to offer them up to her as they had done with me.

“Well, I can’t promise that. This is self-actualization therapy. Anything can happen.”

“So, you’re from Arizona or New Mexico, then?”

She smiled and nodded. “Yes, Arizona.”

Her attitude was more identifiable now, its connection to the comfortable dry heat of the Southwest, that ideal of a person my parents aspired to be.

“They always came back better, but it never lasted long,” I said.

“Well, that’s why I’m here now, and we’re going to make it work.”

“But I don’t think it will work for them.”

“They’re determined.” Her answer sounded canned, like she had given this simple solution to a complex issue before.

“If they were determined they would have figured themselves out already.”

“These things take time. You’re still young and you can’t fully understand it.”

There it was, that pejorative. I laughed to myself and a warmth stirred at the base of my neck. “Do you even understand relationships?” I asked.

“Most of the time I do. But I’m human like everyone else. I miss certain things.”

I was doubtful of that part, her being human and flawed. I pointed to the two of us. “Then what about this exchange? How come they can’t hear us?” I said, looking to them.

“We’ve been drinking. That can change things.”

“I don’t think it can. I don’t think that’s how it works.”

She closed her eyes, nodded to herself, then opened them. “And I don’t think you can know how any of it works until you’re in their position,” she said, gesturing to them.

“I won’t be.” My words were pointed and raised now.

She grinned. “You can tell yourself that.”

“It’s getting late, Gabe.” It was my mother’s voice. She and my father had returned to the foreground, and unstilled the dust and light around the table. My mother stood up and addressed my father. “I have to take care of a few things, but how about you grab the rest of that ice cream out of the freezer?” She then went to the back of the house and into their bedroom.

“Help me clear the table, Art,” my father said.

Reluctantly, I joined him in stacking dishes and collecting utensils and bringing them to the sink. Darcie tried to help as well.

“No,” my father said, stopping her. “You’re still a guest for tonight.” His attention then wandered for a moment to the back of the house.

“What’s she doing?” I said.

“Let’s see what flavors we have,” my father said, ignoring me. He opened the freezer and removed a white container from a local ice cream shop. He examined the lid and the small smudged script. “Butter pecan.” He pronounced pecan with flat vowels like he was rhyming it with toucan. “You know that’s my favorite, Darcie.”

“I didn’t,” she said.

“Well, now you know.” He grinned then like it would be a joke between them. He set the ice cream in the center of the table along with three bowls, three accompanying spoons and an ice cream scoop.

“Isn’t Mom going to have some?” I said.

“I don’t think she’ll be in the mood, Art,” my father said. He sat down and began scooping the ice cream into the bowls.

“Why not, Dad?”

He screwed up his mouth and shook his head, either because he thought it wouldn’t make sense or any sort of difference if he told me. He returned to serving and spoke as if I wasn’t there or couldn’t hear him. It seemed he was trying to move past the changes that were coming for us all, and I was mad at him for this. I wanted to hurt him, but I didn’t know how. My vision narrowed and blurred.

“Dad!”

My father jerked in his chair. The scoop clanged on the wood tabletop. I became dizzy and breathed hot through my nose. When my vision straightened, I could see the ice cream already melting its way towards the edge of the table.

“What are you talking about?” I asked again, but he wouldn’t look at me or Darcie. Instead, his attention was in his lap, hiding as I had done only minutes before. It was as if the reality of what was occurring was too painful to witness, that if he turned his eyes away it would disappear for him. I asked myself if people really grew up or if they more or less stayed the same while their responsibilities increased, while they came to occupy people’s hearts and time and more parts of the world around them.

Darcie reached out her hand to my father, but he pulled away. “Don’t….” She left him to hang there and my mother came into the room.

She had a rolling suitcase in one hand and a small duffle over her shoulder. She must have packed them in privacy over the course of the week, adding to them as she remembered a certain shirt or pair of pants she couldn’t be without for longer than a few days. My stomach tightened, becoming uneasy at the thought of staying here with just my father and Darcie.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Butterfingers,” my father said, forcefully grinning and wiggling the digits of his right hand. He looked like he was about to cry.

She gave him a small smile, trying to tell him, I assumed, that it would be alright. “Don’t worry, Gabe. This’ll all work out and I’ll be back before you know it.”

My father appeared defeated by their circumstances, but he still lifted his head to answer her, like it was an obligation he reluctantly accepted. “Right, of course.”

“There are some other things I’ll need brought over for these first few weeks.”

 “Just call, Marta.”

It was clear now that Darcie was here as a sort-of replacement, but to what extent and for how long I had no idea.

“And Art needs to be the one to bring them remember,” my mother said.

“Yes, of course.” My father nodded. “He can take a taxi to you.”

There was an order to what was occurring, guidelines they needed to follow to improve their own lives, but clearly not mine. I had wanted to disprove this for a long time, however, to ask them after they returned home from one of their retreats if I mattered to them. I had hoped their newly elevated moods would produce a desirable answer. But now, seeing my mother and her bags and my father and his hopelessness, it was apparent the answer was no longer of any use to me. It was the first night of their separation, although they didn’t know this yet, still believing their relationship worth saving.



BIO

Ethan Klein was born and raised in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he earned his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. He’s trying to do this writing thing while still giving meaningful time to family and a complicated 15-year relationship with long-distance running. Currently, he lives with his wife in Eugene, Oregon, where they share a home with their dog and two cats who are always vying for their attention.



MY QUADRATIC EQUATIONS

by Milton P. Ehrlich


Are a vast algebra of joy.
They make splendid curves
like eye-popping parabolas
and give off a paradisal heat.
They have tropical ingenuity
and the special knowledge
for landing on all the planets.
Plusses and minuses ends wars.
With mathematical projections
we destroy all of our weapons—
speak to each other calmly
after singing heart-felt songs,
and embrace all of our enemies
soon to become our new friends.


SILENT MUSIC


Humming is like weaving a gold
and silver thread across the door
of the mind—it’s a fine meditation.
Hum like fisherman and carpenters.
It keeps them company on the job.
Women who love to dance hum while
performing the drudgery of housework.
Humming allows your body to do
whatever it has to do effortlessly.
Hum like a composer listening to a tune
no one else can hear. Hum until the lights
in this dark world begin to glow again


FACES OF GOD


Sometimes he loves you
with flowers and sunshine,
sometimes he hates you
with famine and tsunami—
but when he hates you,
it’s because he loves you
blinded by stars in his eyes.
If you keep your nose clean,
and follow the Golden Rule,
you might keep God smiling
more often than scowling.
His sunlight in our cheeks feels
like he’s nourishing some starved
part of ourselves.


MY VALENTINE OF DELIGHT


She sings and sways to mesmerize us all—
walking in beauty in harmony with all beings,
always chasing rainbows for an aura of bliss.
The crank and thrust of mere words cannot
explain my enduring passion and intense wild love
for her svelte body, brilliant mind, and creative soul.
I am drowning in my unfathomable adoration of her
and will continue to cherish this woman until the day
I’ll be blowing kisses towards her as they lower me
down into the ground below.


BIO

Milton P. Ehrlich Ph.D. is an 89-year-old psychologist and a veteran of the Korean War. He has published poems in Poetry Review, The Antigonish Review, London Grip, Arc Poetry Magazine, Descant Literary Magazine, Wisconsin Review, Red Wheelbarrow, and the New York Times.

On the Ground, Looking Up

by Tori Bissonette



The air was thick and sticky against Yoon’s skin as he walked along the edge of the road. There was a drizzle, but the drops were only visible in the halos of street lamps in the velvety darkness. From his right, the sleigh-bell crescendo of peepers accompanied his journey. How did they make so much noise? Spring peepers were ugly little things but their chirps were high and demanding. It was melodic or maddening depending on one’s mood, but Yoon knew it meant spring was around the corner, even if the frost was only a few weeks past, so he couldn’t bring himself to begrudge the tinkling noise.

He let out a shout just because he could. No heads turned and no lips frowned. The nighttime took whatever he gave without second thought, pulling at the threads of his presence until there were no remnants left to say he was here at all. He sighed and liked the way it was absorbed by the woods on either side of him.

His squelching shoes took him to the middle of the road and he balanced on the yellow line. The rain wasn’t falling heavily enough to accumulate on the ground, but the road did glint under the street lights. Yoon could probably stick his tongue out and lap the humidity up if he wanted to.

Instead he balanced along the middle line with his arms out wide, pausing only to let out an occasional curse at the top of his lungs. Just because he could. He wasn’t worried about lurkers or stranger danger or any of that nonsense his sister always warned him about. The trick was to always be up to no good yourself, then the good people left you alone and the shady ones just nodded and went on their way.

He let a few more creative curses color the humid air around him before trying a handstand, which he instantly regretted as bits of water-logged asphalt stuck to his palms.

“Gross,” he mumbled, wiping them on his jeans. His sister, Tara, would complain when she did the wash, but her complaints had yet to stop him so far.

The echoes of Tara’s voice from earlier in the evening still flitted through his ears, but he shoved back her wounded indignation and broken wishes. He could see through her gentle placations. Scholarships and applications—those things took time. She’d been running around behind their backs, smiling in their faces all the way.

He wondered briefly if his mother had noticed his absence or if she was too deep in the bottle to remember him walking out. Would Tara still be there when he got back home? She’d be asleep if she was, it had to be at least two or three in the morning and he was a good two miles past the edge of town. Good students were in bed at this time of night. The houses here were sparse and there were great dips of darkness between each street light, but the moon was bright and the peepers loud, so it seemed as good a place as any to be wandering in the early hours of an April Tuesday.

Something plopped onto his canvas shoe and Yoon glanced down to find a peeper seated on the top of his foot. The frog was only about an inch or two long with tiger markings in light and dark brown. It was an unassuming thing and it looked out of place on the black material of his shoe. It looked not unlike a small dog turd, Yoon observed with a frown. Not cool.

“Okay, asshole, ride’s over.” He jerked his foot slightly, trying to dislodge the thing without launching it half a mile down the road. No luck. “Seriously. Come on.” He bent down, ready to flick the frog off if need be.

It let out a small chirp, halting Yoon’s fingers. It was distinct from the distant cries from the marshy woods behind him. Without the chorus of lonely bachelor brethren, it sounded less like a whistling melody and more like a lost chick. The frog’s throat expanded as it let out another chirp, seemingly content with its new perch and eager for a mate to join it on the other shoe.

“Sucks to be alone, don’t it?” he asked. He settled his arms on his crouched knees and watched the frog let out a few more peeps, fascinated by the way the thin throat skin inflated to nearly the size of the frog’s body.

A noise cut through the still night. Something small, but approaching quickly. Yoon twisted, making sure to keep his foot still. Atop the gentle slope of the road he could make out a bike frame glinting in the streetlight.

The rider, dressed in all black, kept his head down and his pace fast. Was he even watching at all? Yoon sat up a little straighter, but realized he couldn’t bolt, not without sending his buddy flying. This guy was headed right for him, gathering speed down the hill.

“Hey,” he tried to call out, but only a weak noise stirred in his throat. All that screaming had come back to haunt him. The muscles along his calves and thighs went tense as his heart started to beat out a warning in his chest. Holy crap, that bike was moving fast. He wondered if he could scoop the frog up and move out of the way all in one go. Probably not without getting a face full of asphalt. The bike was hardly a stone’s throw away, but the rider’s head was still ducked. Fear tightened across his ribs, nearly tipping Yoon over. Clearing his throat, he called out again, “H-Hey!”

The stranger’s head jerked up, exposing dyed blonde bangs and a pair of oversized headphones clamped over his ears. The whites of his eyes flashed in the streetlight as they went wide.

“What the hell?”

Yoon threw a hand up to protect his face, but the biker swerved. In his surprise, he overcompensated, tipping the bike and sending himself rolling across the asphalt.

“Holy crap, kid, what the hell?” Yoon lowered his arm and took in the byproduct of his near miss. The bike lay on its side a few feet away, front wheel spinning dejectedly. The stranger was seated on his ass, headphones clenched in one hand, mouth hanging open. “Seriously, what the actual hell?”

“Why weren’t you looking where you were going?” Yoon snapped.

“Why’re you in the middle of the street?” The newcomer shoved himself to his feet and stomped towards Yoon. He was short and slim, but his gruff voice and heavy steps told Yoon he was no stranger to throwing his weight around anyway.

“Hey, stop!” Yoon demanded, watching the way the frog shifted uneasily on his shoe, probably sensing the vibrations of the man walking closer. “You’ll scare him,” he scolded, looking up into the hooded face. What an asshole this guy was. Couldn’t he mind his own business?

“A frog?” the man asked, voice thick with disbelief even as he heeded Yoon’s request. “You’re crouched in the middle of Route 17 risking death and dismemberment for a frog? You really are as dumb as you look.” The stranger let out a low whistle as he shook his head. Yoon scowled up at him. With a yawn, the man stretched his hands above his head before dropping to sit on the damp pavement.

“What are you doing?” Yoon repeated, almost forgetting to keep still in his confusion. A quick glance confirmed the peeper was still settled on his shoe. It was sort of flattering in a weird way. His baggy clothes and tired eyes may drive away the rest of his classmates, but he was the number one choice of a Route 17 peeper.

“Sitting. Someone’s got to be here to tell the police why you died when they find your mangled body.”

“Are you for real?” This close he could see the stranger wasn’t that much older than him, probably only eighteen or nineteen. Same age as his sister. Sleepy eyes gazed out from under the edge of his bleached fringe.

“Ain’t got much else to do. My ma’s got a date over and, trust me, that’s something no one wants to be around to see. Besides, there’s peepers that need protecting, apparently.” Stifling another yawn, he continued. “So what’s your name, kid?”

Yoon scowled. “I’m fifteen. I’m not a kid. And the name’s Yoon.” He directed his gaze down to his frog buddy. Would he leap away if Yoon poked him? Was his skin dry or wet? All his life he’d lived around here and he’d never touched one before.

“Yoon? The hell kind of name is that?”

Yoon bristled. He didn’t have many things left to remember his dad by. He certainly wouldn’t stand for some stranger mocking the name his dad had chosen specially for him. “It’s Australian. My dad—”

“Never mind, I already don’t care. Nice to meet you, kid. I’m Sandie.” He scratched at some dried mud on his shoe as he introduced himself.

“Your name is Sandie and you made fun of my name?”

“It’s short for Sanderson,” Sandie said and Yoon envied the way he brushed it off with a shrug. No defensive fire in his throat and no concern in his mind for others’ opinions.  “So, kid. What’re you doing out so late anyway? Isn’t it past your bedtime?”

Yoon let his gaze dip to the pavement again. It had felt like the best thing to do at the time. Something bold and brash. Something to make his mother and sister stop yelling for one moment. His sister had looked to him for support, for someone to fight in her corner, but Yoon had wanted to make it clear that their mom wasn’t the only person Tara was leaving in the dust in her search for greener pastures.

But it was hard not to feel dumb now, sitting in the middle of the soggy road, trying to keep a frog on his shoe. Did he think he was going to shock them into getting along? His sister had made it clear: her plans were set. Her duty to her family only extended so far. She was leaving in the fall with or without their blessing.

“Crap, car’s coming.”

As they both rose, Yoon sent one last frown at the frog before nudging him off with the toe of his other shoe. He hopped away easily, unbothered by their parting.

The car went by quickly, spraying them with a fine mist of road water. It cut off Yoon’s view of the frog and he couldn’t locate the small thing in the dark grass afterwards.

“Hey, kid.” Sandie poked Yoon’s bicep with a wet stick. “You run away from home or something?”

His frog friend was gone and so was his reason for staying. It was a dumb plan anyway. His mother and sister wouldn’t be holding each other and weeping as they waited for his return. His mother was probably asleep on the couch, exhausted by the demands of yelling at her only daughter. And Tara was probably up in her room, highlighting her textbooks and filling out her college applications, jumping at any chance that passed her way to get away from her family.

“Or something, I guess,” Yoon replied. “Just had to get out for a bit.” In the wake of the passing car, the road seemed empty and quiet, like that one moment of disruption had altered the evening irreparably. Yoon was overtaken with longing for his bed, even if the sheets were the same blue planet ones he’d had since he was ten. If only there wasn’t a household of frigid silence between him and his room.

Sandie grabbed his bike, flicking a wet leaf off the seat as he went. “You got someone you can call for a ride?”

Yoon cringed. Tonight was turning out to be full of even more bad decisions than he’d realized. “I forgot my phone. I sort of left in a hurry.” It’d hardly felt important fifteen minutes ago when he was whooping and hollering and jumping all over the place. But now, he just felt stupid. Instead of asserting himself, he’d only asserted his own childishness. No wonder Tara never took him seriously.

“It’s a miracle you’ve lived to fifteen.” Sandie gestured Yoon over as he mounted the bike. “Get on, I’ll give you a ride back to town.”

Yoon hesitated. He didn’t know this kid at all. Sandie could be a murderer. Or worse, one of those black market kidney thieves. Yoon’s hand floated to his abdomen as if to keep his organs in place.

Sandie exhaled through his nose noisily. He cooked his head and shot Yoon a crooked smile. “Look, kid, I get it. Shit gets bad at home sometimes. My old man used to yell all the time before he fucked off to who knows where. And good riddance, really. But my ma would skin me if I left some poor defenseless kid out here to die. I’m trying to be a proper gentleman, alright? Just like my ma raised me. So get on before you get flattened.”

Yoon’s mom had raised him to be suspicious of any charitable gestures. There’s always a catch. But Tara had taught him to be courteous with strangers and between her and his mother, Tara was miles ahead in life. With a hum of appreciation and a small nod, he accepted.

With his feet on either side of the rear wheel hub, Yoon climbed on behind Sandie, holding tight to the other’s shoulders for balance. The thought of arriving home and creeping through the darkness made something tight build in his throat. Walking out was so easy. Walking back was so hard. No wonder his sister was trying to turn her back on them as fast as she could.

“My sister,” he began, surprised to find the words passing his lips. “She’s trying to get into college.”

Even with only a few inches between them, Yoon wasn’t sure if Sandie could hear him over the sound of the tires on wet pavement and the air rushing past their ears. Sandie took the wet corners faster than Yoon would have and the air, comfortable only ten minutes ago, nipped at Yoon’s exposed arms. He wondered if frogs could feel cold like humans could. He hoped his frog buddy made it back to his frog friends. Sandie’s hood slipped all the way off, exposing his head of faux blond hair, complete with dark roots. It looked alive and wild as it twitched and waved in the breeze. Yoon was tempted to touch it and see if it was soft.

“Good for her,” Sandie called back, nearly startling Yoon into releasing his grip. Sandie didn’t complain as Yoon clenched onto his shoulders a little tighter.

He thought of the ugly pinch of his mom’s narrowed eyes as Tara laid out her college ambitions. It may be good for her, but it wasn’t good for them.

“She’s abandoning us,” he said, putting his mouth closer to Sandie’s ear to make sure there was no mishearing. When Tara had first graduated from high school two years ago, she’d seemed content to be the breadwinner for the household. Lord knew their mother wouldn’t do it. She couldn’t hold down a job for the life of her. Tara was everything their mother wasn’t.

Apparently she was also keen on getting the hell out of dodge.

Sandie tipped his head as they cut through the dark night and spoke over his shoulder, “You mean she’s abandoning you.”

It wasn’t that Yoon would have to get a job. It wasn’t even that the burden of cooking and cleaning would fall on his shoulders. It was about being alone when their mother was out at the bar spending the spare cash they didn’t have. It was about having no one to whisper to late at night. All that would be left was Yoon and his mother’s nicotine smiles and her empty wallet.

Tara could leave, but Yoon couldn’t. For some reason, he’d always expected her to wait for him. But here she was, running away without a care in the world for him. So much for the sibling bond.

“She’s being selfish,” he grumbled, dropping his gaze to the fabric at the back of Sandie’s jacket. The rain had stopped completely as they neared the edge of the main drag, with the first shops taking shape as they pulled out of the darkness. There were more street lamps here, but still no people. It wasn’t the sort of place to have hooligans and vandals out at all hours. Just two kids on a bike.

“Oh I see,” Sandie said, his low voice cutting through the still air without remorse. “She’s too stupid for school so why bother going?”

Yoon nearly tumbled off the bike and Sandie was forced to drop his feet to the ground or risk his second crash of the night. Yoon yanked himself off and pulled himself to his full height alongside Sandie. “My sister isn’t dumb, you asshole.” His breathing was loud, an almost animalistic echo filling his ears. Who the hell did this guy think he was?

Sandie was hardly intimidated. With his hood down, his full face was on display and a smirk twitched on the edges of his lips. His pale skin looked almost otherworldly in the lamp light and the shadows playing off the bags under his eyes gave him a haggard appearance. It wasn’t a long day that was painted on his face, but rather a long life. A permanent state of exhaustion hung on his frame even as he held a cocky tilt to his head.

Yoon paused. He thought about Sandie leaving so his mom could have a nice date. He thought about a shadowy dad figure, disappearing one day without a second glance. Really, Sandie was placing just as much trust in Yoon as Yoon was in him. For all Sandie knew, Yoon could be the organ-harvesting delinquent out to find a mark. But he’d still offered a ride.

 Sandie said nothing, observing Yoon with an even gaze. It was something Tara did too, watching and waiting, knowing Yoon would eventually fill the silence. Yoon sighed, trying to ease the tightness in his chest. Anger was so much easier to carry than this. No amount of petulance would begin to fill the aching chasm that formed in his chest when he thought of losing the company of his misery.

“She’s good at school,” he finally mumbled, scuffing the wet pavement with his shoe.

She was. Maybe balancing checkbooks and cooking dinners on a tight dime weren’t the “college-ready skills” that he saw in pamphlets around the high school, but he knew Tara would do well because she held herself to standards higher than anyone could set for her.

The evening had started so normally, but Tara had blurted out her plans in a fit of frustration. She was going to college. She laid it all out with words that were foreign in Yoon’s ears but familiar on Tara’s tongue. Scholarships. Work study. Housing plans. She’d arranged it all already. This was no spur of the moment decision and the realization that Yoon had been playing the fool the whole time stung the most. “How could you abandon your family?” their mother had asked and there was no surprise or disappointment on Tara’s face. It was resignation at best that flattened out her usually expressive features and kept the prim pinch on her lips.

Yoon knew there was pain somewhere in there. A flicker of hope that her aggressive self-sufficiency might be recognized or applauded. A good brother would have offered support when her eyes flicked across the table to land on him. A good brother might have suggested a rational discussion when their mother’s eyes followed suit, burying him under their collective gazes.

Instead, he’d gone for the door. Nearly three hours later, he was almost back, standing just two blocks away on the side of Pearl Street with a relative stranger, bemoaning his own loneliness and whining about his sister’s ambitions.

“My mom says she’s abandoning us. My mom’s really bad at holding down jobs and keeping up the house and all that.”

“So you agree with your mom?”

“No,” he said, surprised at how fast the word came to his lips. His mother was someone he never wanted to be lumped in with.

“Sure sounds like you do.” That was probably what Tara thought too, as she went to bed alone while Yoon ran wild in the streets. It was what made going back so hard, that heavy weight in his stomach and the sticky drag of his feet. No emotion weighed more than shame.

Sandie’s hand landed on his shoulder but Yoon couldn’t meet his gaze. “I think you’re being too hard on your sister. It’s a shit hand, for sure, but you gotta make it through the rest of high school.”

Sandie fished around in his sweatshirt pocket and produced a pen with a brutally chewed cap. He started scribbling something on the back of Yoon’s hand as he spoke. “In the meantime, go home. Try to keep your shit together for a few more years and text me if you get stuck by anymore frogs in the road.” He tapped the phone number written on the back of Yoon’s hand before moving back to his bike.

As expected, the lights were off and the house silent when Yoon pushed open the front door. He could just make out his mother’s form on the couch, a mostly empty bottle of liquor on the coffee table in front of her. No worries about accidentally waking her then.

The door to his bedroom yawned open at the end of the hall, but his feet stopped one door earlier. His fist hovered over the door, reticent to slice through the tentative silence. Silence didn’t necessarily mean peace, he reminded himself as he traced over the poorly written numbers on the back of his hand.

Tara didn’t answer his quiet knock, but he pressed the door open anyway. The moonlight filtering in through the blinds glinted over her wet eyes. She offered no objections to his presence, which he took as an invitation to continue. With the ease of experience he dodged the hip-slashing edge of her desk and the pile of textbooks stacked at the foot of her bed.

Her sheets were old like his, only pale pink with yellow daisies, and they were pilled and worn thin. He moved next to her, shoulders just barely touching. Laid out like sardines, they stared at the blank expanses of her ceiling.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“I know,” she said. The faint rise and fall of their chests was the only movement in the early hours of the morning and Yoon wished he could capture this moment forever. Soon she’d be gone and this silence of mutual understanding and comradery would be gone as well.

Tara sighed and her fingers tangled themselves in Yoon’s, unknowingly touching the phone number there. “I’m not trying to leave you behind. But I have to do this for myself.”

“I know,” he echoed. He wanted to tell her how much she was hurting him. He wanted to tell her how scared he was to be here alone. But he’d had his tantrum, he whined his grievances. Enough of that. He wanted to be the sort of person who stopped for lonely frogs and the sort of person who kept strangers company in the middle of the night. Maybe tomorrow he’d send Sandie a text. Maybe they could become friends. Maybe Yoon could repay him for his kindness.

For now though, he held tight to his sister’s hand.



BIO

Tori Bissonette (she/her) is a Vermont-transplant currently living in Philadelphia. She studies creative writing and English as a graduate student at Arcaida University. Her writing primarily deals with human connection and the human condition through a realist lens. Presently she’s the Submissions Manager and Nonfiction Editor for Marathon Literary Review, Arcadia’s MFA-run literary magazine. When she’s not writing, she can be found hiking or cooking. This is her first publication.

Sportin’ Life

by Graeme Hunter



When I say that I’m a Rangers fan, I don’t mean the New York Rangers of the National Hockey League.  Nor do I mean the Texas Rangers of Major League Baseball or Queen’s Park Rangers of the English Football League.  No, I am a fan of Rangers Football Club of the Scottish Premier League.

My father was a Rangers man, and his father before him.  Like me, they had no choice in the matter.  Rangers were the Protestant team in Glasgow, just as Celtic were the Catholic team, and my grandfather, father and I were all brought up in that most Protestant of Protestant denominations, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  We got to choose whether we would practice that religion: I became an atheist in my teens; Dad lost his faith much later in life.  We also got to choose whether or not we participated in such ancillary activities as joining the Orange Lodge, becoming Freemasons and commemorating King Billy’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne.  But whatever our choices, at the end of the day we were still Proddies.  And in Glasgow, “Proddy” meant “Rangers supporter”.

Celtic Football Club was somewhat more ecumenical than Rangers.  In my days as an active Rangers supporter – I’m talking about the 1970s – Celtic had several Protestant players.  But in 1972 Rangers F.C. celebrated its centenary having never fielded a Catholic.  How did the club manage to maintain its religious purity?  For native-born players, a simple enquiry about the candidate’s schooling would suffice.  Scotland has both non-denominational and Catholic schools, with the latter easily identifiable by having names such as ‘Lourdes’, ‘Holyrood’, ‘Notre Dame’ and ‘St. Joseph’s’.  In the case of foreign-born players, weeding out the Catholics was a bit trickier.  So Rangers erred on the safe side by restricting its scouting efforts to reliably Protestant Scandinavia.            

I started going to Ibrox Park, where Rangers played, when I was about twelve years old.  At that time my family lived in Greenfield, in the East End of Glasgow; Ibrox is across the city, on the South Side.  So my friend Kenny Cairns and I took the Blue Train into the City Centre and travelled by subway to Copland Road station, in the shadow of the stadium.  A bit later, we also started attending away games.  From The Drum, a Rangers pub in nearby Shettleston (every pub in Glasgow was either a Rangers pub or a Celtic pub), a chartered bus took us to Falkirk or Dundee or Edinburgh, with a couple of stops along the way so that supporters of drinking age could relieve themselves of the beer they’d drunk before we left.  

As I said, my father was a Rangers man, and after retiring he worked as a steward at Ibrox.  But the only game I remember going to with him was the most infamous match in the history of the club.  On January 2, 1971, Rangers played Celtic at Ibrox Park.  When the visiting team scored the first goal of the game in the ninetieth minute, my dad, brother John and I left the stadium.  We thereby missing Rangers’ tying goal in injury time.  We also missed getting trampled to death, the fate that befell 66 supporters – men, boys and one young woman – on the very same stairway we had descended a few minutes earlier.  Until 1989, when 96 people died at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, the Ibrox Disaster represented the largest loss of life at a British football ground.

This near-death experience didn’t stop me from going to Rangers games.  When I was working on a Ph.D. at the University of Glasgow and living in the West End of the city, I went to Ibrox with my friend Ken Brown and his dad.  We’d take the Govan Ferry across the River Clyde and walk to the stadium from there.  After the game, we’d have a couple of pints at The Overflow.  A Rangers pub, of course.

Those Saturday afternoon trips to Ibrox Park ended when I completed my Ph.D. and moved to California for a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University.  My supervisor was Merton Bernfield, but I worked most closely with his research associate, Shib Banerjee.  Before I found my own apartment, I occupied the spare bedroom of Shib’s house in Menlo Park.  He’d recently split up with his wife, and was too gregarious to live on his own.  On January 20th, 1980, Shib and I went to a student pub on El Camino Real, just outside the university gates.  There I watched my first National Football League game: Super Bowl XIV, in which Pittsburgh Steelers defeated Los Angeles Rams. 

San Francisco’s N.F.L. team, the 49ers, played at Candlestick Park, about a half hour drive from Palo Alto.  But I didn’t go to any of their games, or those of the Oakland Raiders, whose stadium was just across the Bay.  The only live football I saw during my fellowship involved Stanford Cardinals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  Football wasn’t a big deal at Stanford; the Board of Trustees valued Nobel Prizes more highly than Heisman Trophies.  But the Big Game against the University of California at Berkeley (another brainy school) was always fiercely contested. 

The first Cardinals’ game I saw was against San Jose State University.  On the first play from scrimmage, the San Jose quarterback dropped back to pass and was promptly flattened by about four Stanford defensive linesmen, who then high-fived and back-slapped each other with hands the size of dinner plates.  “Hey, we just beat up a guy half our size!  Good on us!”

The only other home game I remember from the Cardinals’ 1980 season was against the University of Southern California.  And all I recall about that game was the half-time show.  First, the U.S.C. Trojans Marching Band came onto the field in their plumed helmets, scarlet cloaks and plastic Bronze Age armor, playing their fight song while executing precision manoeuvers.  When the Trojans left the field, out swarmed the groovy Stanford Band, its members casually dressed and wandering at random across the playing surface.  It was Bach versus jazz.    

The Cardinals ended the season with a mediocre 6-5 record.  And, more importantly, they lost the Big Game.  But that 1980 team did have three players who went on to have distinguished careers in the National Football League: wide receiver Ken Margerum, running back Darrin Nelson and, most notably, quarterback John Elway.

I planned on spending three years at Stanford, and then, having completed a B.T.A. (Been To America), find a real job at a university in the U.K.  But my research project was a bust, Mert went on sabbatical to the East Coast and my fellowship renewal was turned down.  By December of 1980, I’d Been To America for a mere eleven months and my time at Stanford was already over.  I found another postdoctoral fellowship, at the University of Toronto, but that wouldn’t start until February.  In the meantime, I went back to Glasgow.

I had to fly via New York, so I stopped off there for a couple of days and visited an old university classmate, John Logan, who was doing a postdoc at Stony Brook.  He took me to my first in-person N.F.L. game, the New York Jets against the New Orleans Saints.  Unfortunately those were two of the worst teams in the league, and my California winter coat wasn’t a match for a snowy day at Shea Stadium.        

Back in Scotland, my dad picked me up at the airport (Prestwick, in those days).

“Good to see you, son!” he said.  “How long can you stay this time?”

“Two months,” I replied.

“Two months!”

In the meantime I signed on the dole and paid rent to my parents.  My mum, at least, was glad to have me around.  (I think.)

The U. of T. fellowship was for two years, so I was back on track to spend three years in North America.  But, as my national bard observed, the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.  I’d hardly set foot in Canada when I fell in love with a young woman who, for reasons that will hopefully become clear, I’ll refer to by a nom de plume.  “Ruth” had been/still was/never had been (take your pick) married to “John”, who played linebacker with the N.F.L.’s Houston Oilers/played linebacker but not with the Oilers/didn’t play linebacker/didn’t exist (again, your choice).  If I’d been more interested in the N.F.L. in those days, I’d probably have suspected a lot earlier that there was no “John”, at least in the form that “Ruth” presented “him”.  But in fact I was only interested enough to have a favorite player: number 72 of the Dallas Cowboys, Ed “Too Tall” Jones.  (The quotation marks in this case referring to the fact that “Too Tall” was Ed Jones’ nickname, not to cast doubt about him being called that, or to dispute the fact that the 6’ 9” Mr. Jones was, in fact, tall).

By the time my on-again, off-again relationship with “Ruth” finally ended, I’d missed my target date for repatriation.  Still planning on returning to the U.K., I applied (unsuccessfully) for positions at University College London and the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen.  But then I fell in love again, with Francine (real name), and decided to make my career in Canada instead.    

An English couple I knew in Toronto made the opposite decision, returning to Britain on the grounds that the beer in Canada was too cold and you couldn’t get a decent pork pie.  But before leaving, they took me to the University of Toronto’s Varsity Field for a soccer game between Toronto Blizzard and Chicago Sting.  This was the second leg of a home-and-away final to decide the 1984 champion of the North American Soccer League.  The Sting had won 2-1 in Chicago; now they won 3-2 in Toronto.  The N.A.S.L. went bust before another season could start, and thus the Varsity Field game was the last one ever played in that league.    

Francine and I attended a couple of Toronto Argonauts’ games, but the Canadian Football League was not for me: too big a field, too many players, too much pre-snap activity.  It wasn’t Francine’s cup of tea, either, but then she wasn’t a sports fan.  Nonetheless, we did go to quite a lot of baseball games.  In those days the Blue Jays still played at open-air Exhibition Stadium, so Francine could at least work on her tan.  I got quite heavily into baseball, to the point of reading box scores in The Globe and Mail every morning.  I think I liked the fact that baseball, like chess, has almost endless permutations.  If there’s one man out and a runner on first base in the fifth inning of a 2-2 game, with a 3-1 count on a right-handed power hitter and a left-handed line-drive hitter on deck, should a left-handed pitcher: (a) intentionally walk the batter, putting the go-ahead run on base; (b) try to pop the batter up with an inside fastball; or (c) throw a change-up in the hope of getting a ground-ball double-play?  How does the calculation change if the runner is a good base-stealer, or if the wind is blowing out, or if the centre-fielder is nursing a leg injury?  When, after many years of watching baseball, I finally knew the answers to questions like those, I lost all interest in the game.

In 1988 I was offered, and accepted, a faculty position at the University of Alberta.  Francine and I got married and moved to Edmonton.  We’d been dating for four years, and now wanted to start a family as soon as possible.  But first we had a decision to make: what, if any, religious indoctrination would our (hypothetical) children receive?  Francine was a practicing Catholic; I am, as noted above, a born-again atheist.  So I offered her a deal.  She could have our (hypothetical) children baptized and confirmed, first-communioned and first-confessioned; she could take them to Catholic churches on Saturday or Sunday, and send them to Catholic schools on all the other days of the week.  In return, all I asked was that I be allowed to bring them up as Rangers supporters.  It was a good deal, and she accepted it.  

But she had a question: “What are we going to say if the children ask why you don’t come to church with us?” 

“I’ll tell them I have a different religion,” I replied.  “N.F.L. football.” 

Despite shivering through a game between the woeful New York Jets and the even more woeful New Orleans Saints, I had become a fan of the National Football League.  I could claim it was because of my unrequited man-crush on Too-Tall Jones.  I could claim it was because the former Stanford Cardinal John Elway, subsequently of the Denver Broncos, won two Super Bowls (XXXII and XXXIII, if anyone’s counting in Roman numerals).  But really it was because football is the only sport in which men with beer guts get to be “athletes”. 

What I don’t like about N.F.L. football – hate, actually – is all the commercials.  The game has umpteen unavoidable stoppages: half-time, the end of the first and third quarters, six timeouts and four challenges, injury timeouts and video reviews.  So there’s no excuse for inserting additional commercial breaks between (say) a kick returner fielding the ball and the offence running out onto the field.  But the television companies do “step away” on such occasions.  As a result, an N.F.L. telecast consists of 60 minutes (or less) of actual football and two hours of commercials for “best-in-class” pickup trucks, fast-food restaurants, investment advisors and upcoming TV shows.  (In Canada, at least we’re spared the political attack ads.)    

Fortunately I came up with a cunning way of watching football while preserving my sanity.  I program the game to record, then start watching the recording about an hour after kickoff.  This means I can fast-forward through all the commercial breaks and the inane, testosterone-fueled half-time panel, and still arrive at the end of the game at the same time as the chumps who watched it live.

But every February there’s an N.F.L. game that I do watch live.  It’s the one that decides which team will be world champion of a sport played only in the United States.  The Super Bowl has truck commercials that I haven’t seen before; a pregame show with heart-warming stories of good deeds performed by N.F.L. players when they’re not beating up their domestic partners in a fit of roid-rage; a flypast by U.S. Air Force killing machines; grown men learning how to toss a coin; the solemn moment when the stadium announcer says: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, please rise, remove your MAGA hats and honor America by singing the national anthem”; a country “artist” warbling: “O’er the land of the free-EEEEE!  And the home of the bra-a-a-a-a-ave”; and a half-time show featuring superannuated pop stars and frenzied choreography.  (Why not invite the U.S.C. Trojans Marching Band instead?  The N.F.L. wouldn’t have to worry about “wardrobe malfunctions” with those clean-cut young people.)

Long story short, the University of Alberta didn’t work out for me.  Edmonton didn’t work out for Francine, who described herself as a “hot-blooded Italian” and wasn’t a fan of cold weather.  So after three Prairie winters, we and our Catholic-baptized daughter moved to London, where I had found a new job at the University of Western Ontario. 

By then, soccer hadn’t been part of my life for a long time, but I started to watch the occasional game from Italy’s Serie A on the Telelatino channel.  As a result, I soon learned Italian terms like “fuorigioco” (offside), “tiro in porta” (shot on goal) and “cartellino rosso” (red card).  Sometime in the mid-1990s, English Premier League games became available on The Sports Network, which, like TLN, was part of our cable package.  I got into the habit of doing my ironing on Saturday mornings, with one eye on the shirt, one eye on the game.  

In Scotland, soccer had gone into a long decline from the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s, when Rangers won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, another Glasgow club won the European Cup, and the national team held its own against England.  In 2012, Rangers Football Club suffered the ignominy of going bankrupt, and the even greater ignominy of being cast into the outer darkness of Scottish football.  Now the former Cup-Winners’ Cup winners weren’t playing Celtic – they were lining up against the part-timers of Elgin City and Annan Athletic in the Scottish Third (actually fourth) Division. 

But three successive promotions got Rangers back up to the Premier League.  And today, midway through the 2020-21 season, my team is cantering to its first top-division championship in a decade.  Rangers even qualified for the knock-out stage of the Europa League.  (Which, back in my Ibrox-going days, was called the Fair Cities’ Cup.  Rangers played in this competition not because Glasgow was a fair city, but because it was a city with a fair.)

When my children were young, I didn’t get back to Scotland much.  But on one visit I showed my Uncle Gibby photographs of Francine and the kids.  Gibby was the husband of my (paternal) Aunt Agnes, and very much an Orangeman (possibly also a Mason).  One of the photographs I showed him was of my middle child standing in a schoolyard.  Behind her was a sign saying ‘St. Marguerite d’Youville Catholic School’. 

“What’s this, then?” Gibby said.  “You’re sending your kids to Catholic school?”

Fortunately I was able to extricate myself from an awkward situation.  “Yes, Uncle Gibby.  But they’re all Rangers supporters.”



BIO

Graeme Hunter is a gentleman writer living in London, Canada.  His essays have been published in Queen’s Quarterly, Riddle Fence and Talking Soup.  See www.graemehunter.ca.



Concerto de Aranjuez Transcribed for the Ukulele

by Paul Garson



   “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life it’s that both the game of chess and the piano are percussion instruments,” said my Bisabuelo Domingo de Navarra as he tuned the ukulele he had brought back from Hawaii before I was born, in fact before my grandmother was born. I remember he told me that it still had a sticker on its back, one that said, ‘Welcome to Pearl Harbor.”

    “I thought the piano was classified as a stringed instrument,” I said while wondering how at 94 he could still wrest a tune from the antique ukulele, almost a toy at that.

   “Yes, in the classical sense but when you’re playing Rachmaninoff with the necessary jackhammer hands pounding out the notes, the piano becomes a percussion instrument like a kettle drum. And as far as chess, you never saw Bobby Fisher banging out his variation of the Sicilian Opening. Ten megatons at least.”

    “But chess is a game of finesse,” I said hoping I could egg him on to a game, my regional tournament just a week away.

   “Finesse, schimesse,” laughed my Bisabuelo, then held the ukulele next to his good ear, strumming the four strings until satisfied with what he heard. “Okay, let’s give her a good twanging.” He began to play Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez.

   “How is that you can play that piece with only four strings when it requires at least six if not the eight of a full-sized guitar?”

   “Easy peasy. Just make each of the four strings sound like two.” And he played on for five more minutes. Until his fingernails started bleeding or what was left of his fingernails. He stopped and dipped them in the bowl of ice water he kept ready, then said, “Did you know that Rodrigo who wrote this did not play the guitar himself?”

   “How is that possible?” I said watching the water in the bowl turn red.

   “He heard the music in his head…like the chess moves you see in your head.”

   “When did he write that music?”

   “1939, just about the time the Nazis tore into Poland.”

   “Why did he call it Concerto de Aranjuez?”

   “There was a famous place in Spain, a very beautiful estate, just south of Madrid. So beautiful that only members of the Royal Court of King Phillip II were allowed to dwell there. This was the time of the Conquistadors and Spain’s expeditions to Mexico and South America. A lot of gold was brought back so the King could afford to spend some money making the place even fancier.”

   “Were you ever there?”
   “Yes, during the Civil War in 1936. I was only nine.”

   “Which side were you on?”

   “The side of music,” said his Great Grandfather. “But then one day I played the wrong tune on the small guitar my father had given me.” With that he held up his hands, the splintered nails still bleeding. “They thought they would keep me from ever playing again, but they were wrong. I learned to play through the pain. Just like you and your chess.”

   “But my fingers don’t bleed when I play chess. There is no pain at all. Anywhere.” Then I laughed and said, “Unless I lose.”

    My Great Grandfather put down the ukulele and brought a guitar case out from under his bed and opened it. He held it up close so I can see it its outline. “I have something new to show you.”

     “Is that a Gibson, a Fender, a Martin? I don’t recognize the shape.”

     “No, though they made excellent guitars. This happens to be a Stradivarius.”

     I had to laugh. “Are your trying to trick me. I can tell the shape of a violin from a guitar.”

    “Yes, you can. But it truly is a Stradivarius guitar, one of a small handful. The Stradivari family made about a thousand instruments, some 960 violins, but they also made a few violas, cellos and guitars with the same passion and unique quality of construction.”

   “I wish I could touch it.”

   “I wish you could, too. Do you know what secret makes the Stradivarius violin’s sound so unique?”

    “I understand it was the wood.”

     “True, the wood was a most important part. There was another ingredient that went into the best Stradivarius violins. And also this guitar.”

      I laughed again. “Did they soak the wood in a special pasta sauce?”

      “Close, but no cigar,” said my Bisabuelo. “You guessed the right color. You saw it in my bowl of ice water.”

      “Blood? Are you saying blood was used?”

      “That’s why they say the Stradivarius cries like no other violin…ask Paganini or better yet Ithzak Perlman since he’s still with us.”

       “I will ask Mr. Perlman since I understand he also plays chess.”

        “I get the feeling you are challenging me to a game?”

        “Well, I have the tournament next week and there are a lot of older players, some almost as old as you.”

      “Is that possible?”

       “Well, maybe not. But I’m only 12 and there are old guys in their 30s and even 40s I will have to play. I heard some weren’t too happy about playing me. Because of the gizmo. They say my voice sounds too scary.”

       “Well, if they want to hear scary, let me come along and play my ukulele with my toes.”

         I laughed and said. “So…will you play, just one game?”

         “Okay, but you know I have trouble remembering all those Be5‘s and Nf3’s.  I can’t play in my fuzzy old head like you do.”

        “Don’t worry about the notations. Just use your real board and tell me what piece you moved and where.”

       “Okay, I can do that. Is your gizmo ready?”

        “Is the green light on?”

        “Yes.”

         “You can go first.”

        “Please don’t beat me in three moves again. Remember I’m just an old man who plays the ukulele.”

         “Sorry, I can’t promise to show any mercy.”

         “I understand, completely.”


BIO

Paul Garson is an American writer and photographer who lives and writes in Los Angeles in a small apartment with an old rug and a loyal cat. He has written nonfiction articles—many with his own photography—for over 70 US and international publications as well as written a dozen nonfiction books. He has high hopes of being a space tourist or at least getting to Iceland before it turns into Hawaii.

The Moon Doesn’t Speak and The Stars Are Dead [1]

By Jordyn Taylor


The moon doesn’t speak to me like it used to,
Stars silent specks of solitude in the sky,
Rather than wondrous beings that guide me
Home. I used to wish on shooting stars,
Until I realized I was too late because the stars
Were dead. A million years ago I’d be granted my
Wish but now I’m wishing on dead souls. Flashes
Of glitter turn to dust. Ashes. What are you leaving
Behind? A galaxy. Why do you fall? To get away
From the living, to a new beginning. On Earth the moon
Doesn’t speak to you, covered instead by the commotion
Of life, replaced by the rays of the sun. Bright.
But sometimes voices sneak through. And other times hidden,
And wonders become dust. I know a few of the dead.


a loss of laughter


and when we lost your laugh, the rain
poured as if the sun had passed too.

gray clouds, impending doom. I’m lost without
your love, mourning the loss of you.
don’t cry for the pain, cry only
for the memories, they say,

but who’s to say I don’t cry for both?
a box of ashes stained with

tears, no funeral for the living.
six feet under lies the grief within me

instead of you. shovel soot instead of dirt.
a laugh as light as yours deserves to be

engulfed by the sun, not shoved down below the
surface. shed your colors down on me again. please,

when we meet again, kiss both cheeks
in celebration of life, love, light,

up the room, scream from the heavens,
echo off the balcony and through the gates.

are you watching? guardian angel? do angels
really make rainbows? make mine a double.

and when we think of you, sunlight shines through
the window and everything is silent. I hear laughter

ringing in my ears, a constant sound, never forget,
no. nobody forgets what sunlight looks like,

even after it’s disappeared for a while, and
soon we’ll meet again in the rays of you.




[1] (Inspired by, and including, the line: “and wonders become dust. I know a few of the dead” from American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes)

BIO

Jordyn Taylor (she/her) is an emerging writer from Bangor, Pennsylvania. She graduated from Susquehanna University with degrees in Creative Writing and Publishing and Editing, and a Professional and Civic Writing minor. She is a lover of thrillers, poetry slams, her three dogs, and anything out of the ordinary.


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

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

Pauline Butcher Bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pauline and Frank Zappa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who edits or sees your work first?

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

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

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

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

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

The GTOs at the log cabin

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t have any.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

Not a question for me to answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pauline, 1971

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any advice for anyone wishing to write a memoir?

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

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

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

What music do you listen to today?

BBC Radio 3. Classical

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

Yes, but I’ve already over-run it.

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

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

What is your favorite Zappa album?

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

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

No.

Pauline’s book has been translated into several languages.

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

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

Thank you for taking part in this interview.

http://paulinebutcher.com/


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