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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.

Groves of Arashiyama

Machos Tacos

Mecanica Idrio

Blue and White

Kamogawa Odori

Nuevos y Usados

Nakano

Dislocation

Shimokitazawa


Liz Brizzi Bio

A native of France, born of Italian parents, Liz grew up in Los Angeles. 

Inspired by the world and her travels, her keen eye captures the forlorn areas of our cities which she in turn transforms into scenes that whisk viewers away to an altogether different place, one filled with wonder and discovery.

She manipulates her original photography onto acrylic painted wood panels, then layers each piece with washes of color resulting in strikingly original works of art. Her mixed media paintings aim to cast a light on the lost and forgotten segments of the cities in which we live. 

Liz graduated in 2002 from Otis Art Institute with a BFA in Illustration and now works as a graphic artist from her studio in Los Angeles.

https://www.lizbrizzi.com/

The Other Daughter

by Lourdes Dolores Follins


On the Monday after Thanksgiving I was back at work after the long weekend. As a Black, queer, female psychotherapist who mostly works with queer people of color, many of my clients have feelings about seeing—or not seeing—their families for the holidays. I had five sessions scheduled that day and as expected, most clients needed to debrief. Thanksgiving with my sweet, self-centered, and well-intentioned in-laws was as trying as usual, but my wife and I always use the holiday as a bonding moment.

Even though I was well-rested on Monday, by mid-afternoon, I was halfway through what was turning out to be an emotionally draining day. Eager for a distraction, I checked my email and noticed this cryptic message:

From: Yida G.
To: Lourdes D Follins
Subject: Re Leon Follins

Hello my name is Yida G., Im a very close friend of your fathers. Please contact me as soon as possibel regarding your father. My number is +13869519216 . 
Best regards
Yida G.

Initially, I did not know what to make of the email and was confused. The formal grammar and typos led me to think it was a scam; especially since I hadn’t seen or heard from my biological father in twenty-five years. The last time I saw him was when I was twenty-three years old. Before that, I hadn’t seen him since I was five years old, when my parents’ divorce was finalized.

Suspicious New Yorker that I am, I Googled this Yida G. I found out that she and I were the same age, she was married to a man with a British surname, and she had a criminal record. With a raised eyebrow, I sent the following cool response:

Subject: Re Leon Follins

Hello,
Thank you for reaching out to me. I am in meetings for most of the day every day this week and will not be able to call you until the weekend. Please email whatever you need to share with me about my father.
Wishing you well,
Lourdes D. Follins

I figured if she really knew my father and if something was really wrong, she’d get back to me. Thirty minutes later, I received a more straightforward email from someone else:

From: Joseph K.
To: Lourdes D Follins
Subject: Death of Your Father

Hi Lourdes,

I live in Orlando, Florida. I am a friend of Leon Follins, your father. He told me that in the event of his death, you should be contacted as his only living child.  Please call my cell phone on 407-421-7040.  

Thank you.

Dead? How is that possible? He’s only…sixty-eight, I mused, calculating my father’s age. And why tell me?  Puzzled, I looked up this Joseph K. While I was searching for information about him, he sent me an identical email, this time through my business website. So, I called him.

“I’m sorry to tell you that your father died this morning,” Joseph said. He sounded as if he was telling me that it was going to rain tomorrow.   

I felt a mixture of curiosity and numbness. “Do you know how he died?” I asked matter-of-factly. I always want to know how people die—whether it’s due to natural or unnatural causes. It helps me understand how to respond to people’s grief.

“Oh, I think he died of a heart attack,” Joseph offered. I tried to place his accent; it reminded me of the Nigerians I’ve met.

“So, he hadn’t been ill or sick, then?” I probed. I was curious to know how he died, especially since his medical history effects my medical history.

“No, no…I don’t think so. But if you contact Sister Yida G., she can give you more information. They were very close.”

I felt a twinge of discomfort at that phrase—“very close.” I wasn’t sure if she was a mistress or something else, but I knew that I had to respond to her email. The term “sister,” however, made me wonder about the nature of their relationship. After thanking Joseph for reaching out to me, I called Yida a few hours later. I had a couple more clients to see before the end of my day and needed to maintain my focus. I didn’t have time to think or feel; it was business as usual.

“Oh, hi!” Yida gushed as if we were long-lost friends when she answered my call. “I knew your father for the last few years and we became close.” There was that word again: “close.”

“Oh?” I swallowed my pride and unease and prepared to ask as many questions about my father’s death as possible.

“Yes! I met him and Claudette—she was his wife—at the Kingdom Hall and he helped my boys learn the Bible.” I vaguely recalled that my father became a Witness when he met Claudette, but we never discussed religion when we were in each other’s lives.

“Really?” I had been pacing in front of the picture window in my office while we spoke and caught a glimpse of my incredulous, scowling face staring back at me. Since he was absent for most of my life, I was both moved and hurt by the idea of my father helping someone else’s children.

“Yessss! He was a great influence on them and helped me get my husband to become a Witness,” she said excitedly. “Witness” is the word Jehovah’s Witnesses use to refer to themselves.

“So how did he die?” I was trying to be patient, but I was in-between clients and needed the call to be quick.

“You know, it’s odd… he died of a heart attack, but if he had called 911 earlier, I think he’d still be here,” Yida said.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, he called me a little after midnight, but I was asleep. When he couldn’t reach me, he then called about three or four other Witnesses to tell them that he wasn’t feeling well. I guess at some point, he just lost consciousness and wasn’t behaving rationally….”

“Hmmm. I guess not.” The fact that my father was dead and that I was officially an orphan at age forty-nine had just sunk in. I was at a loss for words and didn’t know how to feel. My mother died suddenly four years ago, and although she raised me with my stepfather, he was not legally my father. I’d never harbored any fantasies of reconnecting with my father and I was surprised that someone thought to contact me about his death. In fact, I rarely thought about him.

“The Witnesses wanted me to tell you that if there is anything that you need, just let us know.”

I’m wary of Jehovah’s Witnesses because in New York City pairs of modestly dressed twenty- and thirty-something Witnesses conduct door-to-door ministry with some regularity. They knock and ask to speak with you about “The Word of God.” Most people peer at them through a peephole and refuse to answer; however, people who are unfamiliar with the Witnesses are kindly but determinedly bombarded with offers to hear the “Good News” or to read a few colorful pamphlets when they open their door.

For those of us who are accustomed to living in a largely secular city, having proselytizing strangers knock on your door can feel like an assault or an invasion of your limited space and time. Older Witnesses are less assertive; they smile blandly while sitting next to fairly ornate stands filled with The Watchtower and Awake! Magazines. They distribute pamphlets with titles like, “What Can the Bible Teach Us?” and “How To Remain in God’s Love” in subway stations. Because of this, I am not inclined to ask the Witnesses for assistance. Also, I worried how they would treat me once Brother Joseph told them that I am queer. On my business website, I am explicit about being queer. I didn’t know how else to respond, so I just said, “Thank you.”

“So, when are you coming down to Orlando?”

“Um…I need to see, but if it’s possible I’ll be on a plane tomorrow. I’ll confirm with you later this evening, if that’s alright with you.” Even though I would have to close my practice for the next three days, something told me that this is what had to be done. Something told me that I needed to go to Orlando and be my father’s daughter, tending to his affairs, just like I did for my mother. All I felt was a sense of urgency, a sense that time was of the essence—just like I did when my mother died.

“Sure! It’s great that you can get down here so quickly. That’s great!” Yida sounded nervous, or maybe I was projecting. I was uneasy and uncomfortable. I wanted to know what their “closeness” looked like, but I had a sinking feeling that I would learn more than I wanted to know.   

Before we hung up, Yida said that my father had wanted to leave everything to me, his only child. This struck me as odd. I’d accidentally reconnected with him when I began tracing my ancestry at age twenty-two. At the time, I was living in Staten Island, New York and my father was living in Brooklyn, New York. Soon after we reconnected, I moved into the same coop building that he lived in. Most times we were together, my father was as quiet as his wife Claudette was vibrant and inquisitive. In the brief year that we passed through each other’s lives, Claudette was the one who took an interest in me. My father looked on with mild curiosity mixed with boredom while Claudette and I chatted.

The last time my father and I spoke, he called me a liar. I was about to graduate from a master’s program and had told him that I wasn’t going to attend the ceremony. I hated the program and commencement meant nothing to me.

“Well, if you change your mind, I’d love to attend,” my father said.

“Really?” I didn’t understand his enthusiasm, but I figured he wanted to make up for lost time since he’d missed other graduations and nearly everything in my life.

“Yes!”

I shrugged and said, “Okay. I doubt I’ll change my mind, though.” Days later, a few of my friends from the program cornered me. “You gotta go, Lourdes! It’s our graduation from this program. We survived it!!”

“Yeah, but we’ll be sitting in the middle of Washington Square Park listening to boring, old, irrelevant White men droning on about how ‘Today is the first day of the rest of your life’ and blah, blah, blah. I don’t wanna sit in the hot sun and listen to that for two, three hours! Plus, our names won’t get called, so there’s not going to be any focus on us. Why would I want to be a part of that?!?” I argued.

But my friends persisted and convinced me to change my mind. By that point, I only had a day or two to submit my request for guest tickets. I requested the maximum that we were allotted, three: one for my mother, one for my stepfather, and one for my sister. I put it out of my mind until the day of the event, three weeks later. I didn’t see my father again until a few days after commencement.

“How was your weekend?” he asked with a smile.

“Oh, it was okay. Commencement was as dull and dry as I expected…and the rest of the weekend was fine.”

My father’s jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed as I spoke. “You went to your commencement?”

“Yeah.” I was confused by his facial expression.

“You said you weren’t going,” he replied.

“Oh, yeah!” I remembered our conversation from four weeks prior. “After we spoke, my friends convinced me to go. They said it would be one last time for us to hang out,” I shrugged.

“Did your mother go?”

“Of course.” I didn’t understand where this was going.

“So, you lied,” he responded curtly.

“What?”

“If you didn’t want me to go, why didn’t you just say so? You didn’t have to lie.”

“But I didn’t lie. When we spoke, I wasn’t planning on going. After we spoke, my friends begged me to go. When I ordered the tickets, I didn’t remember that you and I spoke about it—until now.”

“You didn’t want me and your mother to be in the same space.” What? I thought. I was baffled. This was the furthest thing from my mind. Then I remembered that he believed that my mother still resented him after all those years. My mother had sole custody and since visitation with my father stopped when I was five, I think he assumed that I felt some sort of allegiance towards her. I did, but not enough to avoid bringing them together to celebrate my commencement.

 “Um…no, I forgot.

“You didn’t have to lie. You could’ve just said that you didn’t want me there.” My father’s lower lip poked out as he sulked. I had never seen him like this, and it felt as if there was nothing I could say to convince him that it was an oversight on my part. I was also angry because generally speaking, I don’t lie. I don’t purposefully tell mistruths, nor do I purposefully withhold relevant information from others. I feel uncomfortable lying. I worry about not remembering what I’ve said to whom. So, to be called a liar was insulting—especially from a man who barely knew me. After that, I never spoke to him again and it was the last time I’d seen him alive.

To learn my father left me everything was surprising because I remembered how hurt and offended I was the last time we spoke. The idea that my father would leave me anything besides some Watchtower pamphlets and a Bible stunned me. However, what helped me to push these feelings aside were my belief that my father owed me something after not providing for me when I was a child, a genuine sense of curiosity about his life, and my belief that as his adult child, it was my cultural duty as a Black woman to tend to his affairs. After briefly chatting with my wife and mulling the idea over, once I got home that evening I decided to fly to Orlando the next morning.

***

When I arrived in Orlando on Tuesday, Yida picked me up at the airport. I had seen a picture of her online, but I forgot to send her a picture of me. I was worried that we’d miss one another, but when she pulled up in her charcoal gray 2017 Ford Mustang, she behaved as if we were bosom buddies. She leapt out of the car, beaming, her dark brown ringlets wildly framing her face. She reminded me of the brown-skinned Afro-Cubans in my Yoruba-Lukumi religious community back home. At six feet, Yida dwarfed me as she enveloped me in a big hug. She giggled a bit and it seemed as if she were stopping herself from clapping her hands with glee. Instead, she clasped them together and squeezed. I was dumbstruck by this excitement from someone I’d never met.

“Hi! Oh my gosh, you look just like your father!” All my life, I had been told how much I resemble my mother, so Yida’s comment surprised me.

“How was your flight? This is my youngest son, Ian,” she chirped as she relieved me of my suitcase. Ian unfolded his nearly six-foot self out of the back seat and smiled shyly. I held onto my backpack because it held my laptop and other valuables.

“Hi there…! It was uneventful,” I fibbed. I was so nervous about the trip that I barely slept. I developed a pounding headache on the plane and was dehydrated because of the stress. To make matters worse, the young and very in-love Latinx couple seated next to me chattered the entire flight. I was drained.

“Hi, I’m Lourdes.” I extended my hand to the sheepish and lanky sixteen-year-old Ian. He weakly but politely shook my hand. I couldn’t tell if he was nervous, didn’t want to be there, or both. After two minutes together, I gathered that Ian was a neutralizing force to his mother’s frenetic energy—which is exactly what I needed. I told myself I would circle back to him later. I needed to focus on Yida so I could figure out her relationship with my father. Although I was eager to begin sorting through my father’s things, something told me to follow Yida’s lead.

As soon as I settled into the front seat, Yida reminded me that my father’s body was still at the hospital morgue. “Brother Michael was with him when he was taken to the hospital by the ambulance, but they need a family member to release his body.”

My mother died at home, so her body was taken to the morgue by the Medical Examiner’s office, then picked up by the funeral home that my stepfather selected. At first, I didn’t understand why my father’s body needed to be moved. “Okay…?”

“I mean, Brother Michael is listed as his ‘brother’ on his Medical Directive Card, but he’s not ‘family,’ you know? We need you to decide whether you want to go get his body released or see if they will let Brother Michael do it.” Yida was referring to the signed Advance Medical Directive Card that Jehovah’s Witnesses carry in their wallets. The card instructs medical providers not to perform blood transfusions on Witnesses and lists at least three or four people as countersigners. The Witnesses interpret several Biblical verses from the Old and New Testament as God’s command to avoid allowing blood into their bodies.

Ahhh! I’m considered family even though we have not been in touch for decades. Our blood relationship overrides relationships with the people who actually knew my father…. I realized. Scenes from old episodes of CSI Las Vegas when people were asked to identify their family members’ corpses flashed across my mind and I felt a bit queasy. I imagined seeing my father lying on a cold metal slab, with a plastic sheet covering most of his body as he lie in repose. What if I don’t recognize him? I wondered nervously. It had been twenty-five years since I’d seen him. My mental picture of him was so hazy that I wasn’t sure that I would know if it was my father or some other Black man.

“Okay…. sure!” I shrugged. “Let’s contact Brother… Michael, you said?”

“Yes, Brother Michael Jackson,” Yida confirmed with a nod.

“Seriously? His name is Michael Jackson?” I turned and looked at Yida, thinking she was joking.

“Yep, that’s his name!” Nodding, she added, ”He gets that a lot…!”

Brother Michael Jackson agreed to meet us at the Orlando Regional Medical Center so I could claim my father’s body. It was on me to call a local funeral home once the morgue agreed to release his body to them. When we met Brother Michael Jackson at the hospital’s Information Desk, the Patient Services Representative told us that hospital policy had changed; family members were no longer allowed to see the deceased in the morgue. Family members could only call to tell the morgue where they wanted the body sent. So I called the morgue.

“Morgue! Jensen speaking,” a woman gruffly answered.

“Hi, I am calling to see if my father, Leon Follins’s body is still there.” Although it felt odd referring to him as my father, I coated my voice with enough honey so as to make this go more smoothly.

“What’s your name?”

“Lourdes Follins. I’m his daughter and his only living relative,” I added. I fibbed this last part, since I wasn’t sure if his older sister, my Aunt Anita was still alive. The two of them were never close.

“Follins, you said?”

“Yes….” I was losing my patience. This felt like it was taking too long and I was weary.

“Yep! He’s here. What do you want us to do with him?” Gruff Lady asked.

 “I have asked the Buena Vista Funeral Home to come pick up his body. Could you please make sure that he is released to them?”

“Sure. Just have them call us first so we can prepare the body.”

“Okay! Will do. Thanks for your help!” I cooed as I turned back towards the Witnesses.

Yida looked at me and tried to read my face. “Everything okay?”

“Sure! I just need to call the funeral home and tell them that the Morgue will release my father to them.”

“Oh, okay. So, we’ll wait ‘til you finish to tell you about the plans for the memorial.”

I was taken aback since yesterday Yida told me that the Witnesses wouldn’t be able to pull together a memorial for my father while I was in town. That was perfectly fine with me because I knew that I would have enough to do and did not want to have to contend with anything else. Turning away from them again, I called the funeral home to pick up my father’s body and arranged to complete the requisite paperwork the next morning.

When I turned back to my father’s friends, they were talking about the last time they had each seen my father and how shocked they were by his sudden death. Brother Michael Jackson told me about the possible memorial.  

“If we can make it happen before you leave, it would be great if you could join us,” he said with a smile. “Your father was loved by so many people and it would mean a lot to them if they could meet you,” he added. I did not understand this and wondered if they would they still embrace me once they found out I’m queer.  

“Sure,” I nodded, secretly hoping they wouldn’t be able to pull together a memorial so soon.

“Great!” Yida exclaimed.

After we parted ways with Brother Michael Jackson, Yida and Ian regaled me with stories about their lives as we drove towards downtown Orlando. I asked Ian about himself and was pleased that he opened up so much with each question. It was like watching a peony in bloom—the broad petals initially closed tightly like a fist and slowly but surely unfolding, stretching open in layers. Within an hour, Ian was smiling, chuckling, and initiating conversation with me from the backseat. Chatting with Ian provided some respite from Yida’s bubbliness. I found it odd that she was so chatty and effusive. I expected her to show her grief more given how “close” she and my father were.

Yida asked if I was hungry and what I felt like eating. I gestured to the Vietnamese restaurant we had just driven by.

“Vietnamese? Hunh! I don’t think I’ve ever had Vietnamese food,” Yida said, while making a haphazard U-turn. Looking in the rearview mirror, she asked, “Have you ever had Vietnamese food, Ian?”

“No, Mom. Never,” he responded while typing away on his cellphone.

“If you like Chinese food, you’ll like this. It’s like Chinese food with a richer flavor and a bit more spice,” I offered. As a connoisseur of East Asian food, I knew this wasn’t entirely true, but I didn’t think they would know the difference.

Like twins, Yida and Ian shrugged their shoulders in sync and Yida said, “Really?? I had no idea! Sure, why not?”

Over hot bowls of pho, Yida told me how she had met my father and his wife, Claudette at Kingdom Hall eight years ago. They became close when my father took an interest in her three sons. At the time, she was a Witness mother with three teenage boys, but her husband was not a Witness yet. With my father’s help, Yida’s husband converted and her sons learned the Bible. In between slurps of broth, Ian chimed in with memories of my father. I smiled as I saw him experiment by adding varying amounts of spicy red sriracha sauce and aromatic bunches of fresh green basil and crunchy white mung bean sprouts in his large bowl of beef pho.

Between the two of them, they created an image of my father as a wise, grounded, and focused older man guiding and supporting a young family as they deepened their faith. This was a man I had never known. I knew him as someone who disappeared a few years after he joined the Navy, a man who later wrote my mother letters begging her to let him see me when I was five years old. I was curious to learn more about this man, this version of my father.

“So, my father and Claudette were like grandparents to you?” I asked Ian.

Yida looked over at him. “Well, since my father isn’t in my life, yeah, I guess you could say that Leon was like a grandfather to them,” she said as if she’d realized it for the first time. I felt sorry for and empathized with her; my stepfather was a great dad, but I was always aware that he wasn’t my father. Ian nodded in agreement as he struggled to slurp up noodles using the tiny, ivory-colored melamine soup spoon that was designed to only hold broth. He sniffed from time to time; the red chili peppers in the sriracha sauce working their magic on his nose.

Soon after this conversation, I mentioned that I was tired, so we left the restaurant. Yida offered to drop me off. “So, where are you staying? Are you staying at your father’s house or at a hotel?”

“It hadn’t dawned on me that I could stay at my father’s house.”

“Oh! You know, I just kinda assumed that you’d stay there, but I don’t know why I didn’t ask you before,” Yida said ruefully.

“It’s okay. I’m fine with staying at the hotel tonight. I’ll stay at my father’s house for the rest of my time here.”

“Okay. Don’t let me forget to give you the papers that we found at your father’s house. They have all the information you need, but the Brothers and Sisters wanted me to let you know that if you need anything, all you have to do is ask.”

“Please let the Witnesses know that I appreciate the offer and will reach out if I need help,” I replied, even though I had no intention of calling on any of them.

“Of course!” she replied. As we continued on to my hotel, Yida casually mentioned that she and my father spoke almost daily after Claudette died. A stone lodged in my throat. What could they have to talk about every day? Yida mentioned that he was fit and in relatively good health, so he didn’t need to be looked after. Were they lovers? I wondered. As curious as I was, I was afraid to ask in case it was true. I didn’t want to think that my father had a romantic or sexual relationship with a woman old enough to be his daughter.

When we arrived at the hotel, Yida rummaged in her purse and handed me a large, tattered manila envelope that was bursting at the seams.

“This is the folder that I told you about on the phone. It’s got all the telephone numbers and other contact information you’ll need, as well as a piece of paper on which your father wrote out his wishes. He told me that he wanted to leave you everything. ‘Since I didn’t take care of her in life, maybe I can take care of her when I’m gone,’ he said. That was one thing that he kept telling me over and over in the past couple of years.”

Really?” I asked. First, I was astonished, then I was moved by my father’s sentiment. It showed me that he knew that he hadn’t done right by me. My shoulders and upper back ached from the day. It was then that I realized that I had not breathed deeply since I landed. Exhaling, I accepted the envelope and smiled weakly.

“Thank you for everything, Yida. I really appreciate your kindness and generosity. Ian, thanks for making the day a bit easier for me.” Adults tend not to acknowledge teens’ efforts to make them comfortable, so I thought that was the least I could do for him. Ian nodded humbly.

 “You’re very welcome! I’m not working tomorrow—I took a few days off from my job—so I can come pick you up tomorrow in the morning to take you to the funeral home and then your dad’s house,” Yida said.

“If it won’t be out of your way, Yida, that would be great.”

She waved away my concern. “I have an errand to run early in the morning, but it’s no problem to come get you afterwards. Just text me in the morning and let me know when you’re ready, okay?”

“Sure! That’d be great,” I said, sighing to myself with relief. With one last sigh, I bade them goodnight and headed inside.

After checking in, I trudged to my room and dumped my things on the bed. Although  exhausted, I was curious about the contents of the envelope that Yida handed me. I gently began pulling things out of it, almost ripping the envelope in the process.

“Shyte!” I winced and decided to take things out one-by-one. The first piece of paper was a handwritten document that my father created on June 25, 2018. It read: “In the event of my death, my daughter, Lourdes Dolores Follins, SSN# 134-50-9999, is my sole beneficiary.” What followed were my last known address, my date of birth, and the name of the person my father had designated as the executor of his estate and secondary beneficiaries in the event that I predeceased him. Yida and a man named Anthony W., from my father’s Kingdom Hall, were the secondary beneficiaries. Other things stuffed into the envelope were two black address books, a piece of paper that listed four institutions that needed to be contacted upon his death along with telephone numbers for them: the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, MetLife, and Stonebridge Insurance, and three copies of an unsigned will.

The rest of the documents in the envelope were of no use to me. While it was frustrating that most of the items in the envelope were not going to be helpful, I appreciated the Witnesses’ efforts to make things easier for me when I was to begin the task of managing my father’s estate. My left eye began to twitch, the way it does when it’s past my bedtime. Gingerly, I returned everything to the envelope, put it on the desk, undressed, and crawled into bed. Thoroughly depleted, I fell asleep within minutes.

***

Buena Vista Funeral Home was an ordinary, ranch-style house along the side of a highway. It was so nondescript that if it weren’t for the sign outside the building, we would have missed it. As we entered the building, a stylish, blonde, forty-something White woman who wore a jacket and looked as if she were heading out greeted us.

“Hi! Can I help you?” she asked in a slow, Florida drawl, as if she were chewing Laffy Taffy.

“Yes, I have an 11:00 am appointment with Brittany the Funeral Director,” I answered.

The woman escorted us to a cozy office with a window that faced the highway. As soon as we sat down, I understood why she had been wearing a jacket—the room was cold. My stepfather had been the Chief of Maintenance of a health clinic when I was a child, so I can tell whether a room was insulated or not. This room was not. As if on cue, Yida and I shivered in tandem as we looked around. Similar to the funeral home I used to cremate my mother, this room had a variety of urns in different materials, shapes, colors and sizes, necklaces for cremains, advertisements for other ways to display your loved ones’ cremains, and folded flag displays on clear glass shelves that lined two of the four walls in the room.

 “This is so unnatural!” Yida’s slightly pointed nose wrinkled up in disgust, as she shivered.

I’ve been called an abomination by passersby and told that my sexuality is “unnatural”, so I have a visceral response to the word. Also, at that moment, I felt protective of the death care industry. “I guess they want to give you as many options as possible to help you keep your loved ones near,” I shrugged.

“But it’s not supposed to happen,” Yida replied, shaking her head.

I sensed that we were not talking about the same thing. “What do you mean, ‘It’s not supposed to happen’?”

“Death! It’s unnatural…we’re not supposed to die,” she asserted.

Trying not to give her the side-eye, I gently pressed, “What do you mean?” I’m a licensed mental health professional and my mother worked as a psychiatric nurse with chronically mentally ill people for most of my life. I know a thing or two about delusions and how to recognize them.

“We’re not supposed to die… The Bible says, John 3:16, ‘He who believes in me will not perish, but will have eternal life.’ Because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, we get sick and die. And Romans 5:12: ‘Through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because they had all sinned.’ But we’re not supposed to die. We’re not supposed to get sick. We’re supposed to live forever!”

“Oh…okay…” I said, slowly nodding my head as if I understood her. I knew better than to challenge her, so I sat quietly and waited for Brittany. Yida continued to look around the room with disdain, while I suddenly became aware of the traffic outside. I watched cars changing lanes and occasionally heard the revving of engines.

“Hi, I’m Brittany!” A dumpy, natural blonde in her mid-twenties entered the room and offered her hand to Yida and me. She reminded me of the Pillsbury Doughboy, only with long hair. She too, sounded as if she had been eating Laffy Taffy. I shook her hand out of gratitude for the distraction.  

“Hi, I’m Lourdes Follins and this is my… Yida… my father Leon Follins’…friend.” I wasn’t quite sure how to refer to her: Mistress? Fellow congregant? So I settled on “friend.”

Once the pleasantries were over, Brittany asked us a series of questions that each of us answered individually because we each had access to different sets of information about my father. There were a few questions that neither of us could answer, like the highest level of education my father achieved. The only response we had for that question was a shrug.

“Was your father a veteran?” Brittany asked off-handedly.

“A veteran? No!” I scoffed. “I mean, he was in the Navy, but he went AWOL…Why?”

“Oh, if he was a veteran, you would get a flag to put next to his cremains.”

Frowning, I replied, “Oh. No, he wasn’t a veteran.” No one in my life would ever call me patriotic. Some of my ancestors were enslaved and victims of domestic terrorism in the United States. The idea of having an American flag in my house repulsed me.

After I initialed and signed all the paperwork, I paid the $787.00 to have my father cremated. Yida drove me to my father’s condo in a planned community called NorthLake at Lake Nona. We had come so that I could begin to settle his affairs. As soon as we crossed the condo’s threshold, Yida turned and handed me the house keys, which were attached to my father’s car key fob. Like the real estate agent that she once was, Yida showed me around the compact, two-story, four-bedroom condo with a two-car garage as if it was on the market.

Walking around the house of a dead man—a man I barely knew but who co-created me—was overwhelming. What struck me as odd was the lack of decoration. The only rooms that had anything hung on the walls were the living room, the dining area, and the kitchen. In the living room, a 12-inch gold-tone oval mirror hung behind the front door and two framed posters from the mid-1990s that advertised cultural events at the World Trade Center. In the dining area, a faded, framed poster of a music jam between male musicians hung behind the dining table, while in the kitchen there was a round, silver-tone wall clock hung over the sink. Besides these things, nothing in the house emitted an essence of its former inhabitant. No framed pictures, no pots of potpourri, no tchotchkes, no Post-Its with sweet little forget-me-nots written on them. Nothing of sentimental value was in the house. It looked like the glorified storage unit of a minimalist.         

After we toured the house, I laid my cellphone, my father’s keys, my wallet, and the manila envelope on a ledge that divided the dining room from the kitchen. Yida’s eyes widened when she noticed what I’d done.

“Oh my gosh! Your father used to do the same thing: line up his things side by side, in order like that.” She covered her mouth with her hand as if she was holding back something.

Taken aback by the coincidence, I stuttered, “O-oh! Really? I’ve always done this. I like things to be tidy and in order.” I had no idea we had this in common.

“So did your father!“ Tears filled Yida’s eyes and she looked away. “I thought it was something he got from being in the Navy,” she continued as she swallowed slowly.

Yida chattered on about the house, where things were located, and how my father had been looking forward to attending the 2019 Jehovah’s Witness Convention in Copenhagen. At some point, she took a breath, checked her watch, and realized that she had to run.

“Please don’t hesitate to call or text me if you need anything, or need help finding things. As I told you earlier, I used to come by to clean for your father after Claudette died two years ago, so I know where most things are located. Okay?”

I wondered if “clean for your father” was a euphemism for something else. “Thanks so much for everything, Yida! If I need anything, I will definitely reach out to you.”

Once Yida left and I found myself alone, I let out a deep sigh of relief. I momentarily shut my eyes. Feeling the cool wooden door against my shoulder blades, I paused and thought about what to do first. I brought my bags to what would be my bedroom for the next few days and got to work in my father’s office.

While meticulously going through my father’s papers on Thursday morning, I found his DD-214, the Report of Separation from Active Duty issued by the U. S. Navy. I recalled a moment when I was fourteen years old, coming across copies of letters my mother wrote to the Navy searching for my father, because he had stopped writing and stopped sending us money. At the time she wrote the letters, my mother was twenty-five years old and struggling to provide for both us with those monthly allotment checks and a nursing job. For the past thirty-five years, I told the story of how my father joined when I was three years old and then subsequently went AWOL—from the Navy, my mother, and me. That was the story I created for myself and the story that I knew to be true. But as I scanned the form, I noticed the word “Honorable” typed in the “Discharge Type” box, and circled, as if for emphasis. Bewildered, I almost dropped the paper as if it were on fire. I discovered that my father had received a National Defense Service Medal, a Vietnam Service Medal, and a Combat Action Ribbon (1 Star). I stopped reading and heard myself speak aloud, indignant.

“You left us?” As my words hung in the air, I knew that that wasn’t the entire truth.

“You left us?” All this time, I comforted myself with the story that my father had abandoned not only my mother and me but also the United States Navy. That was more palatable—it seemed badass, even. A part of me liked the idea of being the Child of a Badass, the Child of Someone Who Rejected The U.S. Navy. But the DD-214 changed everything.

“You wanted to provide for me in death?!?” Gripping the wooden dining room chair, I shouted angrily, “I don’t need you now! I needed you then!!!”

Up until this point, I had been standing over the dining table with my father’s records divided into tidy piles, moving between the table and his large shredder, sorting as I went. Finally, I slumped over the chair and began to weep.

“I needed you then!” I imagined three-year-old me crying, reaching out for my father as he prepared to leave for boot camp and shuddered.

“Why did you leave us? Why weren’t we enough for you???” I wailed, tears streaming down my face with snot chasing them. As the sun poked through the Levolor blinds, my sobs ricocheted off the walls. I hadn’t expected to cry. But I needed to be here, in his house. I needed to see who he had become without my mother and me in his life. There was, it seemed, no way to be here without letting it all out. And so, I wept until there were no more tears left in me. With each Navy document I lifted out of my father’s file cabinet that day, the narrative I’d created at age fourteen changed. My image of my father became kaleidoscopic: constantly changing, more multidimensional, and increasingly nuanced.

Yida texted me asking if it was alright to come by to clean. Despite my protests about how I did not need her to do so, she insisted. As soon as she entered the house, she stopped in her tracks when she noticed my shoes and sneakers lined up by the front door.

“Oh my gosh! At first, I thought these were your father’s shoes, but when I took a second look, I realized they were yours. He used to line up his shoes like that too,” Yida noted with a tear in her eye. Not knowing how to respond, I smiled ruefully and shrugged. With that exchange, we both got to work. As I made my way through my father’s file cabinet, Yida quietly made her way around the house. About thirty minutes later, I heard a strange sound come from upstairs where Yida was. At first, I could not make out the sound, but then I recognized it: sobbing and the sound of air being sucked in when one is struggling to breathe. It was the sound of someone who had suppressed her tears, the sound of someone who hadn’t been able to mourn fully…openly. Yida eventually came downstairs with tears in her eyes, apologizing.

“Are you…okay?” I took a few halting steps towards her. Ordinarily, when I see a stranger cry, I reach out to them to see if they are okay. Yet, this was someone I barely knew, but with whom I was inextricably linked. I did not know whether to comfort her or let her be. I worried that reaching out would lead to another long, drawn-out conversation, and I was aware of how little time I had before I returned home. I had also been dreading the moment when Yida noticed my wedding ring and asked about a husband. My wedding ring belonged to my wife’s maternal grandmother and has a unique Art Deco design that catches most people’s eye. Ever since landing, I had been holding my breath, as I expected her and the other Witnesses to stop being kind and helpful to me once they learned that I was married to a woman.

“I’m so sorry! I shouldn’t do this to you…You’re the one who lost her father,” Yida said as she wiped at her face.

I gestured for her to sit down. “You don’t need to apologize! You lost a very dear… friend just a few days ago and you’re in his house. It makes sense that you’re crying.” We sat side-by-side on the large antique red leather couch my father told Yida he especially wanted me to have. I awkwardly reached out to hold the tall, sobbing woman who was crying so hard she was shaking. She leaned into the crook of my arm. “It’s okay…it’s really okay….” I murmured.

“I just spoke with him! We had a conversation the day before he died and he was telling me about how he was preparing for Convention. I shouldn’t be doing this!” Yida pulled away, wiping her face with a paper towel. “You have so much to do and are going through your own process.” She looked at me as if she expected me to agree with her. She exhaled deeply. “I just can’t believe he’s gone!” Shaking her head, Yida stood up and let me know that she was done cleaning the house and would be heading out soon.

“Oh! The memorial is tomorrow and the Brothers and Sisters were wondering if you would be able to come…. It would mean so much to them if you could be there,” she added.

Inwardly, I panicked because I hadn’t packed an outfit for it.

“How do most Witness women dress for Kingdom Hall?” I asked.

“Oh, very modest…what you wore the other day is fine,” she assured me. I’d worn a multicolored cotton Nigerian tunic with skinny jeans and blue suede sneakers. As a child, I attended church weekly so I knew that that was not appropriate church wear. I had to go buy something. Plus, I had noticed at least ten snazzy suits in my father’s closet and twice that many equally fine neckties; as his daughter, I had to ‘represent’ and look nice.

“Okay… of course I will be there! I owe it to him to show up as his family. It would be tacky if I came all the way down here and didn’t show up for the memorial,” I said with a half-hearted smile.

“Oh good! I’ll tell the Brothers. Do you want me to come pick you up?”

“Yes, please.” Concerned that her kindness would eventually run out, I made a point of showing my gratitude.

Friday evening, when Yida came by, I noticed that she was wearing makeup and a dress. I immediately felt underdressed and plain. Earlier in the day, I’d run out and bought a long black skirt and a pair of black leather booties at a chichi boutique in Downtown Orlando. I had however, brought none of my makeup with me. I nervously ran my hands down the side of my multicolored tunic.

“Hi! You ready?” Yida asked as she stood in the doorway. She seemed reluctant to enter the house. I wondered if someone had told her about me.

“Yes! Just let me get my coat. It’s supposed to get a bit nippy tonight.” I said.

  On the way to the Kingdom Hall, Yida and I chatted. At one point, I cautiously asked, “What was my father like?” I had been searching for clues about his life this whole week and I felt silly asking outright what I thought I should have always known.

“Oh! He was a good man, a kind man. He had his moments when he could be stubborn, but he was a good man!” Yida shared. “And he spoke about you all the time!” she added.

“Really?” My father and I hadn’t spoken since 1993. He never responded to the letter I wrote him in 2014, telling him that my mother died.

“Oh yes! All-the-time!” Yida exclaimed. She looked at me as if to say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ but her facial expression quickly changed when our eyes met. The confusion and hurt I felt must have been all over my face. “One time, I asked him why he didn’t reach out to you and he said, ‘Oh, she’s mad at me.’”

I shook my head. “Seriously?”

“Oh yes! He said, ‘My daughter’s strong…and she’ll never forgive me.’ And I said, ‘Well, Leon, how do you know that if you don’t reach out to her, if you don’t try?’ But he wouldn’t listen. That’s one thing about your father—he was stubborn when he wanted to be! He was a good man, but boy, could he be stubborn!!” With that, Yida chuckled and shook her head.

Even though I wanted to jump out of her car and run far, far away, I made myself keep looking at her. I wanted to go away and cry in peace. The stress of being afraid of the Witnesses’ rejection, of being sleep-deprived (I was working late into the wee hours of the night and waking up early to get things done), and having to be ‘on’ for everyone else had worn me out. I felt connected to Yida in age, but I was afraid her religious beliefs would prevent us from getting to know each other better. However, I wanted to learn more about my father and his relationships with other people.

Learning more about him would allow me to learn more about myself, especially the pieces that don’t reflect my mother’s influence. I listened intently as she described his work as a “Pioneer,” the Witnesses who sit or stand quietly in public spaces and patiently wait to catch the attention of someone interested in hearing the Word of God. They spend seventy hours a month preaching and evangelizing. Since my father and Claudette were retired, they often did it together, but not always. In addition to a few photographs of him pioneering with Claudette, I also found a cluster of photographs of my father pioneering with young Black women. In these photographs, my father wearing either a suit and a hat or dress slacks, a dress shirt with a tie, and a tan bomber jacket over the shirt. He was always beaming and looked comfortable, content, and at ease.

When we arrived at my father’s Kingdom Hall, Yida introduced me to a large, multiracial, and intergenerational group of people by saying, “This is Leon’s daughter!” It was odd hearing that given how distant we were and even odder seeing people’s faces light up with joy as they eagerly shook my hand. I felt as if I had stepped back in time: All the men and boys wore suits and ties or dress slacks with button-up dress shirts, while the women and girls wore skirts or dresses and flats or heels. Everyone I met—young and old—had something to share with me.

“Your father was so loved!”

“Your father was a dear friend!”

“Your father was a joy and an inspiration to me.”

“Your father had a great sense of humor and was such a practical joker!”

“The first time I pioneered, your father made me feel so comfortable!”

It was as if they knew that I was searching for clues, for information about who he was.

Although it was a memorial, the room felt charged with joy and a few drops of grief woven in to temper it. Unlike Black Christian funerals I’ve attended, no one was crying or aggrieved, no one even held a handkerchief in their hand in case a stray tear escaped from their eye. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought it was a regular church service—which felt weird to me. I spoke with an elderly Black couple who had been looking forward to attending the Copenhagen convention with my father. Soon, everyone took their seats. A short, muscular, sharply dressed Filipino man with a military-style flattop named Brother Zeke began by leading the group in a prayer. The pleats on his slacks were so sharp they would have cut bread. He read from the obituary in the program handout. I was listed as his only child and when he read my name aloud, he gestured to me in the front row so that Witnesses could come speak with me later.

“If we turn to John 5:28-29, we know that the dead are in the grave, awaiting resurrection. Brother Leon is not suffering nor is he in any pain, my friends. He is merely asleep, awaiting for the time to be summoned to God. Remember, God wants us to see Brother Leon again, to hear his jokes and his laughter, to see his smile as he spread the good news about Jehovah. We can take great comfort in knowing that because of his work as a Pioneer and our work as Witnesses for Jehovah, we will see Brother Leon again!” Murmurs spread around the room. “Amen!” someone added. As Brother Zeke spoke, the two tweens seated to my left were bent over their smartphones. Thinking they were playing a game or texting one another, I smiled and looked a bit closer; they were looking at the same website. On my right, Yida pulled out a large iPad. She tapped a purple icon and an electronic version of the Bible opened. I leaned over out of sheer curiosity. Yida mistook my interest as a desire to read the Bible with her and moved the iPad so that I could see it better. When I glanced back at the tweens, I saw that they too were following along on the same app.

“I’ve never seen the Bible in electronic form!” I whispered to Yida. I kept my voice low since we were seated directly in front of Brother Zeke.

“Yeah, this is great! It makes it so much easier to carry the Bible and follow along,” she added. For the remainder of the memorial, we sat with our heads tilted towards one another and bent over the iPad, our lips moving in unison, and standing up and down in sync when it came time to sing the lyrics of the sole, closing hymn that were projected onto the walls so that all present could follow along if necessary. Anyone who sat behind us and didn’t know better would have thought we were sisters. I was grateful for this kind gesture to include me, the Heathen Within Their Midst, in the service. It felt good to temporarily belong. Before I could thank Yida, the memorial was over and I was immediately facing two fast-forming, long lines of Witnesses—one to my left, the other to my right—eagerly waiting to speak to me. Yida disappeared and I was left alone to play the role of The Good Daughter of Brother Leon Follins. One of the few things my mother told me about my father was that he was very charming; with ease, I tapped into that part of him within me.

Just as I did at my mother’s memorial, I greeted and thanked everyone. I smiled earnestly, listened intently, and held their hands as they spoke with me. I gave unlimited time and attention to anyone who wanted to tell me how sorry they were for my loss, tell me a ‘funny’ story that epitomized their relationship with my father, and ogle me while remarking how much I look like him. What was most striking to me was that everyone told me they were comforted by the fact that they were going to see my father again at Resurrection, the time when Jehovah revives the dead and reunites them with their loved ones. One regal, Black Jamaican woman in her late 60s said to me:

“I’ll tell your father that you were here at his memorial—that you showed up for him. But I suspect that you’ll become a Witness…just you wait!” She chuckled at my bemused expression, while her husband looked on with a smile. He seemed accustomed to her grandstanding.

“Oh, really?” Her audacity amazed me. I toyed with the idea of bantering with her, asking how she knew that I would become a Witness, but I remembered that I was here to represent, not argue. I was here to learn about my father, not get into religious or philosophical debates about life, death, or life after death. I bit my tongue—hard—and simply smiled back at her.

Over the next twenty minutes, I continued greeting and thanking a colorful parade of Witnesses of all ages—people of South Asian, African, East Asian, Latin American, European descent and multiracial people—for coming to the memorial and showing up for my father. During this time, no one asked how I was faring or feeling, which made me feel like a prop, a stand-in for all that my father represented to them. My thoughts and feelings about my father and his death were irrelevant. No one wanted to hear anything else from me.

Yida whispered in my ear, “The Sisters are preparing the repass in a community center nearby. Are you ready to go?”

Relieved to be done with my Vanna White duties, I looked around the room and nodded. “Sure!” As the two of us headed out of the room, many of the Witnesses present asked if they would see us at the repass. When I assured them that I would, their faces lit up like teeny-boppers.

As we walked to the parking lot, Yida said, “They’re all just so grateful that you’re here! All this time, we thought that Claudette was the only family Leon had; people are overjoyed to know that he had a daughter.” I still didn’t understand why they would be overjoyed by this, but I was too tired to find a diplomatic way to ask. Climbing into Yida’s car, I leaned back and let the seat cradle me. This was the first time I’d been still all day and I was determined to enjoy it for as long as I could. That was when the wave of exhaustion overtook me.  

As we headed to the repass, I had a niggling feeling, a sense that I needed to give Yida something even though she was the one who had had more time with my father. I felt like I needed to acknowledge her role in my father’s life and by now, after all of our conversations, I believed I knew who she was to him—even if it had never been acknowledged. I paused, listening to the rhythm of the tires on the road.

“You were my father’s other daughter,” I said tenderly. “You were there for him in ways that he needed before and after Claudette died. I appreciate that.”

Yida’s eyes filled with tears as she looked at me. “Thank you…Thank you for saying that! It means a lot to me to hear that from you,” Yida replied.

“You were. You cleaned for him, called and checked on him, met with him to make sure he was okay, and nagged him when necessary—these are the things a daughter does.”

“Thank you,” Yida sniffed. Shaking her head, her curls bounced as she quickly wiped at her tears and drove on. “Thank you so much!” She cleared her throat and with a look of determination, leaned forward as if willing the car to go faster.


BIO

Lourdes Dolores Follins has been published in Rigorous, Watermelanin, Medium, and elsewhere. She also edited an award-winning book, Black LGBT Health in the US: The Intersections of Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. When Lourdes isn’t writing, she’s a psychotherapist with QTIPOC and kinky people. Check her out at www.lourdesdfollins.com

The Marginalia Game

by Adam Anders


The books lay in chaotic heaps across the floor, and the cracked glass of the grandfather clock threatened to join them. The house-sitting job was definitely not supposed to end this way. He wasn’t even supposed to be in the library.

The glass-paneled door was closed when he arrived and so he hadn’t noticed the book at first. When he did see it – conspicuous in its tragic position – the potential displeasure of the professor made him shriek inside. He could not allow for that. Not after that infamous lecture. Embarrassing himself in front of the Distinguished Chair in Literature with that obtuse comment. And that after he had failed to submit the marked undergraduate essays on time. Recovery from this was immediately necessary, lest he become just another errant, freshly minted PhD. His verbal prostration at the Professor’s office led to this.

“I tell you what you could do for me,” the Distinguished Chair had said, leaning back in his office chair and narrowing his eyes, “I’m off to an extended conference in Japan next week, and I usually have my son house-sit. He informed me this morning that an obligation will preclude him from being there the entire time. Would you take his place for 24 hours?”

Naturally, he agreed. If he impressed, perhaps his blunder in the lecture would be forgotten. A glowing recommendation from this professor was critical to a tenure-track position for himself, once out of grad school, of course. Failing the professor would, at best, mean relegation to a limited term contract and at worst, ignominy and a lack of any opportunity coupled with a poor network of connections. The book on the floor in this prestigious home library needed to be put back.

Standing at the library door, he had hesitated. The assignment was straightforward: watch the house, leave it as found. And the library was described as ‘strictly off limits.’

So, he eyed the book, lying there on the carpet spine-up, almost crying out like a wounded soldier on unfamiliar ground, reaching out to him. He stood. What would the professor say?

Specks of dust floated in the sunlight, down towards the floor. Light crossed the wingback chair, but the book lay just out of the sun’s reach.

“Get up!” He whispered in desperation at the book.

“Don’t leave me here, man!” he imagined the soldier-book calling back. “It hurts!”

“Dammit,” he breathed. He leaned forward, placing his palm on the brass door handle. And it gave way.

His heart pinballed in his ribcage. ‘Off-limits’ rung in his head. Flashbacks of his parents’ venerable home office abounded before him. He shut his eyes, shook his head and glanced around once again. Because the library door was unlocked no one would know if he stepped in just to put the book back where it belonged. His body lurched forward and stopped. The grandfather clock in the corner of the library loomed. An hour remained before the professor’s son was to arrive and take over from him. What if his son knew about the book and was tasked with putting the book back? Perhaps the book was meant to be there.

“Gotta get outta here man, we’re surrounded. Take me back to my shelf-base,” the book moaned in his mind.

“What were you doing here?” he said, crouching next to the book, trying to make himself as small as possible in the wilderness of that library.

He glanced around. The stately library delineated the discarded book as out of place. It was unnatural. In a professor’s home it had to be… purposeful. It had to have reason, logic, motive…it had to be, a test. Yes. Of course. Much like the professor’s fabled lectures. Always testing the limits of his auditor’s intellectual capacities. He and his fellow graduate students lived for those lectures; between them was stark existence, a kind of intellectual stupor, unfed, famished, dying for a fix of the professor’s wisdom. Female graduate students would glide about the entrance to the lecture hall, gloomy and sullen, with dark circles under their eyes – the standard insignia of the thirst for knowledge. Male graduates in their vicinity were languid, likewise sporting blood-shot eyes, but notebooks open, pens at the ready to note every detail of the appearance of the prof each day, his blazer, the color-coordination of the pocket square and his shirt or tie, the unique lapel pin or tie clip, the apparent naturalness of his perfect hairstyle and whether it was in any way different from the previous day; all this in hopes of coming closer to understanding the secret to such greatness.

“This is silly,” he shook his head. The Distinguished Chair was just a title. He was still a man. A man who apparently dropped books on the floor.

No, it was obvious. He was meant to see this, break the rules, for the good of the sacred wisdom enshrined in that book, symbolic of the elite nature of their vocation. This was his opportunity for apotheosis. Test or not, books did not belong discarded haphazardly on the floor. There was nothing wrong with what he was about to do.

The floor groaned underfoot. The smell of old books and leather gave him goosebumps.

“You’ll alert the enemy!” The book scolded him.

He looked at it. Moral Letters by Seneca.

Ancient philosophy? he thought. Excitement tingled up his spine. Suddenly he was in ancient Rome, Seneca beside him in a suitably attractive toga, though his own was of finer material.

He picked up the book, as if taking Seneca by the arm.

The edges of the cover were worn; the spine had creases in it. Worn, loved, understood, accepted. Yes, this professor understood books in the same… he nearly stopped breathing.

Thin black lines raced under the text. Scribbled notes filled the margins. Exclamation marks dotted the spaces between the notes.

The private notes of a tenured professor. His inhalation was almost an audible gasp. The inner musings of a great mind. They were the intellectual secrets of a renowned teacher. All the things imagined, whispered, heard on the grapevine, suddenly became very real. The idea that one could learn from him, directly– that from this moment one would experience the joys his wisdom, feast one’s eyes on his divine thought, then speak to him and suffer delicious dialectic at his hands – at every encounter! – was one that had been inconceivable, not considered even in his wildest dreams. These marginalia were gold, manifest in scribbles.

He drew a deep breath to stem his nerves and shaking hands.

No. It wasn’t right. It would be invasive of him. As invasive as suggesting that personal traumas – including the professor’s – biases all intellectual work.

He glanced at Seneca in his mind. In those deep brown eyes lay the guidance. Forethought. He had lacked it at the lecture, he would not lack it now.

He closed the book carefully, running his hand over the cover as if to apologize for the intrusion. It needed to be where it belonged, amongst the other books. But then, where exactly in the library would he place it? Where had it been?

“What say you, old friend?” he asked Seneca, who had been stoically waiting for him to begin the conversation.

The book opened easily, which was unsurprising, stoics were, of course, inclined to engage the curious. He flipped through the pages – an instinctive reaction to the splendor in his hand, but also a learned reaction to solving a dilemma. Ink always contained life’s answers. The pages came to a natural opening somewhere near the middle. There, on the left-hand side, three lines had been underscored:

When philosophy is wielded with arrogance and stubbornly, it is the cause for the ruin of many. Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others.

“Seneca, my fellow citizen, I couldn’t have said it better,” he said.

Then another citizen engaged them.

Next to the underlined words, in the left margin, a note read: scrape off layers; keep the peels; thus, γνῶθι σεαυτόν.

He put his hand to his chest. It could only be a kindred spirit who would write intriguing marginalia on interesting passages.

He stared at it. What did it mean? And how in the name of The Bard was this going to help him find its place on the shelf?

He read the words several times. The foreign letters…he recognized them. Yes, his maddening roommate had a Spartan warrior on his desk with letters that alphabet inscribed underneath.

“Spartan warriors…Seneca, I believe our apostilist friend here is speaking to us in Greek. Naturally, you know Greek. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve yet to master the intricacies—” he trailed off; the mystery had overcome him; Seneca wasn’t listening anyway.

Did literary experts learn Greek? Perhaps it was a necessary part of knowing the ancient classics?

He glanced around the library. No books on Greek.

Looking at the note in the margin again, he ran his finger over the letters. The touch of the pen had been light, rushed even. This citizen was hasty, one of those cynic philosophers perhaps, those that lived naked in empty wine barrels and ate scraps of food with dogs. What purpose did this hurried bit of insight serve? The Greek words might hold the answer. Another page in the book could hold a clue. He flipped the pages carefully.

An exclamation mark caught his eye. Seneca spoke:

“Instead of adapting ourselves to present circumstances, we send out thoughts too far ahead.”

He scoffed at the statement, “My dear fellow, that happens to be where I disagree with the Stoics. How is one ever to achieve tenure in the face of the miniscule odds? Adaptation to the circumstances was certainly not—”

The third citizen interrupted with a sharp line shooting from the last underlined word to a note in the space at the bottom of the page:

Ha! Joyce would agree!

Joyce? As in James Joyce? Did Joyce know Greek? He looked up towards the surrounding shelves. There must have been a hundred books on the two walls that were shelved.

“Would James Joyce agree?” he asked the empty library. “In A Portrait of the Artist the theme of being in one’s head rather than in the world, is there…”

“Where?” asked Seneca.

“Joyce,” he shook his head, “never mind, it’s the point you were making that matters.”

“Our thoughts being too far ahead?”

“Precisely. The artist, his thoughts far ahead of his time, sees the ills of convention, and rebels against them.”

Seneca raised an eyebrow.

He let out a frustrated breath through his nose, raising his hands in a rushed apology. “I must be going, citizen. Salve.”

He closed Moral Letters and scanned the library for The Portrait of the Artist. The book was special to him. In it, the eponymous artist not only rebels against the conventions of his childhood but then self-imposes exile. As a boy, he did the same. The world and the bullies in it were distant and defenseless against stacks of books. His father had always said that wars began and ended with words. He supposed this was why his father said little to him beyond that. And it was why the local public library was his daily exile – it was his arsenal, at once his armor and his sword – a way to avoid the bullies and understand the fatherly insights not immediately evident to his boyish brain. But he was still always home for dinner. He wouldn’t have been entitled to eat otherwise.

“Yes, Joyce must agree.” It was an acute observation about Joyce. But where would Joyce be amongst the broad scope of these volumes?

The library suddenly seemed to grow around him. A cold sweat threatened to break out down his back. He approached the bookshelf and found a loose space between two books. After re-shelving Moral Letters, he lingered at the shelf, straightened his waistcoat, and turned to look for Joyce.

Framed photos on the desk caught his eye. Their silver linings reflected the sunlight. He took a step towards the desk to view the content so hopefully mounted, but he then stopped. He imagined the things he might see, and the thought of them was terrifying. For he knew what such marble heroes turned into once they stepped down from their podia into the real world. He knew because he saw them in the street, in crowded buses, in the refectory or grocery stores, and walking across campus exposed to the elements. They looked quite different then, and far more inauspicious: stocky, pasty, with tiny timorous eyes, almost filthy, stinking of sweat or burned red by the cold, dressed in shapeless tweed jackets and caps, coarse, aggressive, fallible. The photos, the marginalia, they had to be left, altogether too terrifying to behold in the light.

The floors creaked with his slow steps as he crossed the library and then the house to the kitchen. He leaned on the counter. The window at the counter overlooked the front lawn. He stared through it.

“Where am I? What am I doing here? How did I let myself get into this?” He wailed silently. All the while, inevitably, the smell of old books seemed to swell and catalyze his heart. He couldn’t decide what to do. What would the professor do?

The light outside drew his attention. A young maple grew in the middle of the lawn. Two small birds came to sit on the flexible branches. A growing tree. That’s what Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist was essentially about; youth, growth. He watched the birds. Love birds. There was love in Joyce, too.

“Youth, and growth,” he whispered. He took a deep breath and then held it. A connection between Joyce and the marginalia manifest itself in his mind’s eye. The young are dreamers. So, they tend to be ‘in their heads,’ that’s where Joyce agrees. Consequently, they also tend not to adapt to circumstances, just as Seneca suggested; as such, they rebel.

“Hm,” he grunted, “I wonder how many apostils are con…nected,” he drew out the last word as a further realization struck him. What if this opportunity to house-sit could be more than just watching the stately home? What if this was a game?

“Don’t be crazy, the professor is a serious person,” he scolded himself in a whisper.

Yes. But, the book on the floor…perhaps that was too haphazard to be unintentional? Perhaps this was a game. Yes, in this professorial library, where privacy and unregulated access was a privilege, here, in the very heart of academia, modern sages could be forged!

He guffawed in a sudden burst. “Oh, come on.” He scolded himself, but only half-heartedly.

A squint of light reflecting off the library door caught the corner of his eye. Curiosity harkened, it reached out, pulling at some invisible robe tied round his waist and breathing a flame of vitality into his heart.

He grinned. I might as well, I already entered the forbidden enclosure, let’s just see where these marginalia take me. He shrugged off his cares and pranced towards the library.

The titles and authors raced past as he scanned the shelves. No real order to anything, it seemed. Could he find Joyce if he searched for him? A better question would be, could an answer to this Greek riddle lie in that book?

“Joyce, Joyce, Joyce,” he whispered, craning his neck to the top shelves. The edge of the bookcase was nearing; the chime of the glass-faced grandfather clock standing next to it made him start. The professor’s son would arrive soon to replace him. The game clock began with a tick of the minute hand. Curiosity had a time limit. A good thing, too, because they said that too much tended to kill cats. He wasn’t a cat, nor did he have one, but he was nimble. Nimble enough to cross into the dominion of the prohibited and solve its mysteries. The arrival of the professor’s son would see him evicted from his search, relegated to the doldrums of campus life without engaging the professor in this game of scholarly chess, in this mystery of marginalia, leaving him cold, empty, just another apparition wandering the campus in search of truth. No, he wouldn’t settle for that. Game on.

Retreating to the winged chair, he sat carefully and stared at the shelves across the small square-shaped room. Would he really have to comb over every spine to find it? He shifted in his seat. He would not fail. He could not fail. He had failed with the professor before: he had failed to submit work on time. He had failed to listen carefully in lecture. This time he’d succeed.

He narrowed eyes at the titles. Many were familiar. That raised his spirits. But there had to be a better way of searching for books here, this was a renowned scholar’s library, there had to be some logic, some reason, something to it.

“Alright brain,” he said, “how do you like to organize knowledge?” The books were not organized by author, nor by title, so no alphabetical order here.

Order. Organization. The words echoed in his head. He surveyed the shelves again. Rows. Neat. The shelves were compartments of a kind. Compartments. Compartmentalization…a psychological defense mechanism linked to rationalization.

“Rationalization. Now that’s something a professor would think of.”

Rationalization was a way of explaining controversial feelings. Feelings would have to be organized by…

“Categories,” he whispered, and looked at the titles more closely.

The groupings were broad, general categories amongst particular shelves almost emerged, and then escaped his grasp like ethereal wisps of letters. It was more than category. Broader. He retraced his logic. Feelings. Feelings would be too restricted by category.

“Theme.” He smiled.

Love would be Joyce’s theme, for him at least.

And there they were. Left hand shelving, chest height. Books that could be thematically organized by the term ‘love.’

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce, almost jumped from the shelf.

He exhaled sharply through his nose and shook his head. The dust jacket was gone; he ran his fingers over the gold inlay on the letters and opened the book carefully, his heart pounding.

The first pages were clean, no marginalia to be found. But he would not be abandoned to a tragic fate.

“I know Joyce must agree, but what am I to find here?”

Stephen Dedalus, the hero in Joyce’s novel, jumped out and spoke to him, his words underlined on page 191:

“You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave.” He stopped. There was more, but the apostilist appeared again, distracting him.

On the inside margin, a note read: fear now overcome, love can grow.

What did it mean? There was insight in it, surely. If he could only see it. Six words; a secret hidden within. Understanding it would give him the key to this puzzle, bringing him one step closer to victory.

He read the note again. Fear…love…is this what was meant by Joyce would agree?

“Seneca’s reference to not being present could be equated with anxiety, or fear,” he thought aloud.

“Old Seneca may have said that,” Stephen Dedalus’ Irish inflection seemed to interject. “But it was Aristotle, I think—”

Aristotle? He slumped. This was getting complex. He sighed. What could it achieve? This mystery. Dedalus stared at him, mouth agape, halfway through his words. Expectant. Ready. Ready to refuse the fetters of fortune. Just like him. Yes. This was complex, but not too complex, no, not for him. He straightened and further abided Dedalus’ words.

“…who said the same attribute cannot at the same time and in the same connection belong to and not belong to the same subject.”

“Right,” he responded. “If you’re present, you can’t fear, and if you don’t fear…” He looked to Daedalus for a clue. “Stephen, you don’t fear being alone because you don’t need your lover. You’re alright on your own.” He flipped through the pages, stopping at a square-bracketed sentence that Dedalus spoke:

“The first step in the direction of truth is to understand the frame and scope of the intellect itself, to comprehend the act of intellection.”

“Of course,” he whispered. Academics were artists as well, artists of scholarship and intellect. “We’re alright on our own,” he said, filling out his chest.

An academic’s work was their passion, their love, others were simply a distraction. This was what the professor must have wanted him to understand.

He smiled. “Now, what were you saying Stephen?”

“I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too.”

Right. Mistakes are part of the game. Upwards and onwards. He swallowed hard. That didn’t really make sense.

He stared at Stephen’s words for some time. The piercing clang of the grandfather clock made him jump and Stephen Dedalus disappeared. It was quarter past. A reminder of his time in the library quickly ending. His eyes flicked back to the underlined quote from the protagonist. Above the word eternity something in tiny blue ink resembled a word. Screwing up his face, he brought the book as close to his nose as he could without it going blurry.

“Hung?” he said aloud. “Eternity…hung…hung for eternity? No…”

 “Hoaq No. Not that either,” he added furrowing his brow, looking up in frustration. How to read this? The light-stand next to the chair. It had a drawer. This was the kind of library that would have a magnifying glass, and the drawer is where it’d be.

Tugging gently on the brass handle, the drawer barely gave way. Something slid inside. He gave another tug. The handle loosened.

“Shit,” he whispered.

Then he saw it. In the drawer, open just enough to see inside, a piece of glass with a brass rim flickered. A magnifying glass.

“I knew it. Great minds, professor, think alike,” he said in a sing-song voice with a shimmy.

He gave the handle another soft tug. It slipped out just slightly, but the drawer moved with it. The space it left was just enough to get a finger in. The drawer slid with effort, but the magnifying glass was his.

“Hogg?” he read the word aloud. Eternity and Hogg… So many damn authors with that name, but which was related to eternity?

He was up scanning the shelves before he completed the thought. None of the thick volumes had Hogg on them.

“That would be too easy, wouldn’t it?” He put his hands on his narrow hips. “Okay, think theme.”

Eternity could be about love, but he checked that collection first. No glory. Eternity was associated with timelessness. Time?

“I could use more time, that’s for sure.”

He turned to the shelves near the grandfather clock. None of the titles could have been clearly associated with time.

“I don’t know, the afterlife?” he thought aloud, considering other possible associations.

He searched.

No books grouped by religious or spiritual themes.

“Think like a tenured professor,” he whispered.

He collapsed into the winged chair and crossed one leg over the other. Think like a professor. He began to stroke his chin, which soon turned into an imitation of smoking a pipe. He imagined himself sitting across from the preeminent academic.

“How might we categorize eternity, old chap?” he said in a poor version of a mid-Atlantic accent (but the paucity of the accent was no matter).

He impersonated the professor’s reply: “This isn’t about categorization, dear fellow, but about theme. Thematically, the afterlife is—”

“About the human view of life, and its truth,” he cut the professor off with quick perspicacity.

“Indeed,” the professor would reply.

“Indeed,” he’d agree, and he took a puff of his non-existent pipe.

“Indeed!” he exclaimed in his own voice, jumping out of the chair.

Truth. Books on the highest shelf. The theme practically sang from their titles. There, in the middle, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. He hesitated. Chills wafted over his skin.

This was the book that firmly set him on the academic path.

The philosophical mystery had chilled his teenage bones when he had read it more than a decade ago. Its case of demonic friendship had conclusively stopped his daydreams of befriending the idealized characters in the novels he loved. Its criticism of unquestioned beliefs stoked his skepticism. Its antagonist, Gil-Martin – or the devil – haunted the dark corners of his boyhood room for several nights afterwards.

The hands on the clock moved, making a sound like the ‘tsk’ of an impatient adversary.

“Time, time, time, running out of time,” he said, speaking over a rising chill. The mystery of the marginalia was somewhere here. Perhaps hidden in the evil in the book. A perfect juxtaposition for love. Yes, genius. Evil genius. It suited the professor. It suited him. He was close now. Close to understanding the Greek apostil. The taste of victory in a game of academic acumen was within his reach! He paused. Academic acumen didn’t sound like something that tasted good, if it had a taste at all. He chuckled and pulled Hogg’s work off the shelf. The small book was heavy in his hands.

Opening the book to a random page, his stomach dropped. Marginalia riddled its pages. It would be an impossible task to comb through all of them for a clue to how eternity was connected to the apostils in Joyce. He closed the book and beheld its cover. Justified Sinner.

“What does this have to do with love?”

“Nothing,” a voice whispered.

He whipped his head around. He was alone. Goosebumps ran across his skin.

He leafed through the pages again. Too many damn markings and notes.

“What moved you to such gratuitous analysis, professor?”

“What moved you to such a gratuitous question?”

He started. “Who was that?” He scanned the room. No one. He poked his head out of the library. An empty hall. “Hello?” Echo. He drew a breath and forced a short sigh.

He looked back at the book.

“A note or two, a clue laid here and there, that’s all I need.”

“You’ll never find what you’re looking for,” a voice growled.

“Yes, I will,” he said without looking up, his breathing quickening.

“Tsk, tsk, isn’t doubt the basis of all true intelligence?”

The book shifted in his trembling hands.

“You’re not real, Gil-Martin,” he said.

“Ahhh,” the whisper was more like a deep breath. “Then why reply? And why not open the book?”

He whipped opened the book from the back, almost tearing its pages. He wouldn’t be intimidated by a character, an idea, words.

Words.

He stopped. Of course, opening the book from the back. A standard practice amongst scholars – for it was there that acknowledgments, or more importantly, the indices, bibliographies, and endnotes were collected. But that was true only for scholarly works. Hogg’s book was, instead, literary, and yet, in such literary texts, good editions had extra blank pages at the back, for the inquisitive to take notes. The inquisitive, such as academics like himself, and the professor, obviously.

At the top of one of the first blank page, a note read: External labels are nothing. Position is nothing. It is the lie (see page 293).

There was nothing else on that page, and so he quickly flicked to page 293.

On the page in front of him, the devil came to life in two double-underlined sentences, hovering behind him, those red lips, wet, by his ear.

“We are all subjected to two distinct natures in the same person. I myself have suffered grievously in that way,” his voice was slow, like curling smoke.

“What do you have to do with the professor’s secret?” He whispered. He furrowed his brow as his eyes leapt straight to the marginalia next to the text, but he stopped. The devil’s voice was now in his head.

“Do you really want to know the answer to that? What if there’s nothing special in these marginalia? What if the secrets you seek reveal who the professor really is? Weak, like the rest of us. Nothing, like the rest of us. A simple dullard. Like you.”

“No!” His eyes shot to the marginalia desperately wanting to prove Gil-Martin wrong.

He read quickly:

Two natures: the lie and the truth. The truth is the individual divested of externalities/labels. The lie is ego. A line stretched from there to a longer note in the space at the bottom of the page, but before reading it, he reflected on the present apostil. It disturbed him. He was almost unwilling to admit the connection he saw between the notion of ego and his present understanding of the mystery.

“But-” it almost came out as a whimper- “how can you say that having the title of professor is ego? And if we are divested of the externalities of our profession, what possible truth remains? Without our titles of position, our books, our notions, our knowledge, we’re…”

His heart was beating faster now. Thoughts raced in his head. Somewhere in the darkened recesses of his soul, Gil-Martin chuckled.

Was his whole existence egoistic? Was he self-loving? Or was he simply vain? If so, could he overcome his flaws? He squeezed the edge of the book, gripped to his core.

He often sought praise. Naturally, he was diligent, even meticulous, though he had been accused of perfectionism at times. He liked hearing about how neat he was, how well-dressed; he went out of his way to please others – this house-sitting endeavor being one example. Was he then, afflicted by these vanities?

No, surely, he was not egoistic, simply ambitious, hard working with an eye for detail and a shrewd understanding of how things worked in his field. And what did this all have to do with what he had read in previous marginalia? His breaths were short.

He read on, seeking solace in the note at the bottom of the page.

As in Joyce, recognition of the ego is the beginning of overcoming it. As a form of self-acceptance, recognition is the beginning of self-growth.

He stopped before the end of the note.

“As in Joyce? What?” He sprung to the shelves and pulled out A Portrait of the Artist and re-read the note.

“Sweet beard of The Bard,” he whispered, seeing his mistake in interpretation of the previous note. “It’s not that the artist is fine on his own.” It was just the opposite. His hand began to shake.  The meaning of the notes became uncomfortably clear. Joyce’s eponymous artist was not afraid to face the worst because those fears have been laid out and he accepted them.

“Recognition of the ego,” he murmured, repeating the words of the note. “Self-acceptance.” Self-acceptance, without labels and externalities. The text and accompanying marginalia from Seneca made sense now in this paradigm as well. Seneca mentioned scraping off faults – the note emphasized this peeling or removal of self. The second Seneca line referred to sending thoughts ahead…

“Just like I’m doing with this house-sitting.” He barely got the words out.

The apostil for the second Seneca line referred to Joyce’s agreement. He now saw it. Joyce’s agreement meant we often focus on who we might be, instead of who we are.

Who we are… And who might that be?

The voice in his head then replied to his question. What do you mean who? Someone extraordinary. Natural, real.

After a moment, he snorted. There is no such person. Everything is pretense and masquerade.

Everything?

The house was silent, but for the ticking of the grandfather clock. Consciousness seemed to slip away from him with every tick of the pendulum. He wasn’t sure whether he was awake or asleep, for the realization that his striving to correct his mistakes with the professor, to improve the professor’s impression of him, that this behavior was the precise object of criticism of the prof’s most private insights and intellectual reflections, it all made reality seem so otherworldly and unbelievable that he felt he might have dreamt the library and everything in it.

He slumped into the chair and throwing his head back shaking himself awake, he could no longer doubt that this had all been real. This insight, this privileged passage into the mind of a genius had hardly made him wildly cheerful as one might expect. Quite the opposite. For perhaps the first time in his life, surrounded by brilliant discernment both academic and literary, he felt dreadful, and altogether aghast.

A melancholic apathy arose in him. This is what is must have been like for the tragic figures of literature. This was his moment of slings and arrows. No, his moment in the graveyard, overshadowed by the greats that came before him, he, destined to be but dust over the dead. Yes. Destined for dust. But instead of Yorick’s skull in his hand, he had this book. This damnable, cursed book.

He gave the marginalia a cursory glance. The final bit of the note at the bottom of page 293 in Hogg read: Self-acceptance is ‘a place of greater safety’ (thanks, Ms. Mantel).

A place of greater safety. That’s what he needed, not least to figure out how aspects of his character might have been detrimental to his understanding of the marginalia, and whether everything he thought himself to be and was proud of, was in fact being condemned by the professor in this intellectual game resembling a hall of mirrors of the mind.

In any case, he knew the next book in the apostilic sequence. A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s meticulously researched fictional opus on The French Revolution, had just won The Sunday Express Book of the Year. Putting Hogg back on the shelf, he noticed Mantel’s novel nearby. Of course, it held the same theme in this library as Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

“Yes, what was The French Revolution about if not conflicting personal truths? How appropriate, professor.”

He debated about whether to bother with it. The mystery of the marginalia had only served to ridicule him. This game turned out to be more like a rebuke, an admonishment of his attempts to be seen as a great PhD student, helpful, unfailing, reliable.

“So, curiosity does kill the cat,” he said.

His shoulders slumped. The clock indicated that the professor’s son would be there to replace him within thirty minutes. Thirty more minutes, every one full of the promise of agony.

He shuffled towards the door.

Mistake…the word rang in his head as he approached the threshold of the glass-paneled doors. A mistake – his life, his goals, an eternity of mistakes. He stopped.

“Mistake, eternity…a lifelong mistake!” He perked up. The underscored section in Joyce came back to him. Mistakes were part of the game.

He had made a mistake, his goals were perhaps mistaken, but perhaps that was part of the realization the professor wanted for him. Of course! Spinning back towards the library, he had to know more.

He grabbed Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety from the shelf.

The novel was thick, over 800 glorious pages, and he had read it. The book was rife with marginalia. Looking to the clock again, he had no choice but to peruse these notes at random. Somehow, they had to bring clarity to the former questions. By the beard of The Bard, they had to.

He opened the first pages of the book. Underlined text with a marginal note was there on the left page:

He feared, in his secret heart, that one day in company the baby would sit up and speak; that it would engage his eyes, appraise him, and say, ‘You prick.”

He chuckled, once at the text, and then again at the note. The marginalia read: Don’t we all fear this? A sudden realization gave him pause. The observation was penetrating. He, too, had that fear. If he thought of ‘the baby’ in the passage as the undergraduates he taught or the people close to him that were unfamiliar with his field, well, then yes, they might well call him a prick. People could hate him for his confidence, perceived as arrogance, for his academic success, perceived as ruthlessness; and their perceptions had some truth in them. He clenched his jaw and flipped the pages.

There. A longer note beside this text:

For the establishment of liberty and the safety of the nation, one day of anarchy will do more than ten years of National Assemblies.

“What does government have to do with this mystery?” he wondered as his eyes moved to the note, ‘ain’t that the truth? same goes for the self…wonder if Mill would agree.’ The same goes for the self?

One day of anarchy…he looked at the door he left open to the library, then to the loose brass handle on the desk drawer, and the grandfather clock ticking away his house-sitting time. The books on the shelves arranged and placed almost haphazardly, particularly the ones he had used. Was he to understand, then, that liberty and safety were on their way for him? He looked at the note again. Mill, Mill…. who the hell was Mill? Scanning the bookshelves, he let out a frustrated sigh. The authors’ names on the spines were small. Couldn’t there be another hint? Which Mill and what theme would this fall under?

He ran his finger across the volumes.

Where is it? Mill. What a ridiculous name. Are you an author or a machine?

Craning his neck, he stubbed his toe on the bottom of bookshelf

“Damn it!”

He leaned over and reached out to the books for support. Some gave way on to the floor. Losing his footing, he slipped, slamming into the bookshelf. Another book fell on his head. He grunted in pain.

A Place of Greater Safety had fallen from his hands and he’d lost his place. He screamed as he burst to his feet.

Placing an open palm on the spine of three books at once, he pulled. They fell with a shuddered thud onto the hardwood. His eyes went wide at the disorder. The utter disarray. The beautiful disarray.

“There’s your anarchy!” He shouted at the walls in frustration, responding to the line he had last read. He pulled at more spines. Unruly thuds echoed throughout the house.

After a few shelves sat empty, he paused, panting, to admire the chaos he’d wrought. Books lay scattered in all directions and positions. Open with the spines up, their covers bare to the world of the library; other books were open with the spines down revealing pages of print marginalia. Some books had slid across the floor, still closed, others lay stacked on one another. One had its dust cover ripped. He picked it up. The book was something on neuroscience. The Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel.

“Quite,” he remarked. He shook his head and brushing it and placing back at a random spot on the shelf, he paused. He’d have to clean this up.

He slumped back down, leaning against the shelf. Another book or two went down with the coarseness with which he took his seat on the floor, legs extended.

“Fuck it. Fuck it all to hell.”

He closed his eyes, listening to the grandfather clock announce the ever-nearing steps of the professor’s son.

He reflected on the marginalia; on the test of character he’d been through. What was there in all this that could have interested the professor? Was it meant to prove the prof’s revulsion at his academic ability, his potential, or perhaps simply his personality?

Sunlight caught his face, and he squinted. He hadn’t finished the game. Why should he? The prof had made a point, and he understood. He was unworthy. The offer to house-sit was prompted by disproval, by condemnation, by profound irritation and disgust. The professor was after all the Distinguished Chair and a legend, and as such was unlikely to feel much pity, let alone approval, for an introverted grad student.

But then, did he really know this for certain? He hadn’t finished the game, after all.

The book he needed to continue this game, or test, or wicked jest, was the one by Mill. It was somewhere here, and it had a theme like all the others. Maybe I could deduce the theme from the previous note? he thought. ‘The self’ was the standout phrase. The text mentioned liberty, safety.

“Almost like the Declaration of Independence. All we need is the pursuit—” he stopped and stood. That was what the apostil referencing the anarchy of the self, was about. “Happiness.”

And there, on a right-hand shelf near the grandfather clock, books that might have had that theme. “Or the pursuit thereof…,” he said as he laid eyes on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

The combination of ‘liberty’ and ‘Mill’ from the previous apostil could only be this. Excitement rose in his gut. John Stuart Mill was a political philosopher he could get behind. Mill’s idea of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and the related danger of conformity had always laid the basis for his individualism. The professor did not disappoint. “Excellent taste,” he murmured approvingly. Evidently it was a good thing he hadn’t given up on his investigation.

He flicked through the pages. The marginalia were almost nonextant. A few circled page numbers, no underlines, no notes. “Dammit!” he grunted and tossed the book onto the pile. It landed open. He raised an eyebrow and picked it up.

A strong crease in the spine at this spot caused it to open where it did. Had he perused the book more carefully, rather than fluttering through the pages with his thumb, he saw that the volume would have easily opened here.

A passage had a square bracket around it on the inside – he would have missed it just flipping through. John Stuart Mill emerged with a pronounced dignity and a remarkably shiny bald head and spoke to him.

“Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”

“Thanks, John, real helpful. Yep.” He imagined giving the philosopher a sardonic clap on the shoulder. Mill continued, undaunted, unperturbed, upper lip as stiff as a Victorian Brit could make one.

“The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.”

His eyes locked on Mill. A frustrated sigh escaped his nose.

“It’s the journey, as they say…” he said to the philosopher looking around the chaos he had wrought in the library. It was a grim scene. The tomes of wisdom with their insightful marginalia strewn across the Persian rug and hardwood floor as if he were one of Bradbury’s Firemen, amassing fuel for the fires of Fahrenheit 451. He snorted. How absurd. That he might burn books? Disillusioned though he was with this situation, he was no Guy Montag, the book’s protagonist. No, this situation was far more ludicrous, laughable, a mockery, a farce of what a graduate student performing the simple task of house-sitting was meant to be. It was grotesque, no, no adjective could do justice to this mess.

Where am I? What am I doing here? Why did I get myself into this? He wailed soundlessly.

In response to this ghastly spectacle, Mill seemed to motion towards the apostils on the page.

Above the square bracket, written lengthwise in the crease of the page, a note read: \ happiness, like love, is being; it cannot be a goal. Rilke knows.

He stared out into the sunlight beyond the window. It was true, wasn’t it? Seeking happiness meant engaging in everything except the feeling of happiness itself.

He sat there bewildered. He closed his eyes against the sunlight and fell into a daydream.

He was at a tailor. Elevated on a podium in front of three mirrors, he could see the suit being made to measure. His vision was close, zoomed into the details. Chalk marked the end of his shoulders, perfectly. The sleeve reached just to the base of his thumb – the right length to reveal a shirt cuff. It was double-breasted, formal but versatile, stitching brought it in around his waist for a snug silhouette. A smooth swipe of the chalk marked with perfect proficiency the end of his pant leg – the middle of the Achilles, to show off a stylish pair of uniquely colored socks.

Sunlight flashed in the tailor’s mirror. Bookshelves loomed before him. They were his own, but shorter, squat. He approached the shelves. His name glittered in gold on all the spines. It was his yet unwritten bibliography. He reached out. The gold began to flake. The walls moved in; cracking accented the sound of twisting of wood. He desperately began hoarding the books into his arms. Then there was smoke. All the books, including the ones he was holding, began to burn.

He screamed, startling himself out of the daydream.

Sweat rolled in rivulets from his once precisely groomed hair, which was losing its shape from the heat coming off his scalp.

“You… bastard,” he said aloud. To the professor primarily – for causing his world to come crashing down, but he just as well could have said it to himself.

He glanced down at the note again. ‘Rilke knows,’ the last words read.

“Just what I need, poetry to tear the gap into a widening void,” he said with a rising lump in his throat and closed the book. He glanced around the library. The books lay scattered haphazardly, ironically reflecting his own emotional state. He couldn’t leave them that way. Game or not, a library was a place worthy of respect. He squatted and began collecting the volumes.

When nearly all the books were back on the shelves, he slid a thin volume in a narrow gap between two thick books. The title caught his weary eye. Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Marie Rilke. He hesitated. So, not poetry, but advice? He thought back to the last note. He glanced at the clock: his replacement would arrive any moment. He shrugged. Why not? he thought. Flipping through the thoroughly annotated pages. A long passage in the first third of the book, underlined and annotated, stood out:

But that is where young people so often and so grievously go wrong: that they (whose nature it is to have no patience) scatter themselves at each other when love comes over them, scatter themselves abroad, just as they are in all their untidiness, disorder and confusion…: But what is to be done then?

“Good question,” he said. An arrow stretched from the last word to a note in the right margin: So each one loses himself for the other’s sake.

He shook his head. “I get it already,” he said as his eyes flicked to the note at the bottom: \ self-love is key; those that don’t see the need for it fall prey to the societal mores – Robinson says this.’ He grunted.

“Nice try,” he said. What was the point of following this apostil? What had he achieved by doing so thus far? Scholarly restitution? A guarantee at tenure? Fucking…divine omnipotence? No, just the bitter taste of truth, the torments of self-reflection, and a healthy dose of hopelessness. The path to redemption and knowledge had been a road of doom.

“My time’s up anyway,” he said.

Or rather, perhaps, his time had never really begun. The time he had had in life was spent ‘losing himself for the other’s sake’ as the apostil put it. Libraries had occupied the entire space of his life since he could read. They supposedly armored him with books and knowledge. The mystery of the marginalia had taught him one thing: his armor was overwrought, rusted, and at worst entirely unimposing to the type of person it was meant to impress. And therein lay the issue. So said the marginalia. Had he born the armor for himself, it may have had an impressive shine – a shine he could himself be proud of, at the very least. He was beginning to suspect that this was his parents saw too, from the beginning.

He put the book back on the shelf and replaced the remaining few. He took a step back and scanned the room. The magnifying glass still lay on the chair.

“Almost forgot you,” he said, walking over to it.

In his emotionally fatigued state, he pulled at the desk drawer without care for its fragility. His hand whipped backwards as the brass handle came flying off. Glass cracked on the clock as it smashed into the face.

“No! No no no no no no no,” he muttered, rushing over to inspect the damage. The shattered glass crept across the clockface in a spider’s web of a pattern. He raised his finger to a crack. “Ah!” he hissed after touching it. A ruby pearl formed on his fingertip. He put it in his mouth and shuffled back to the chair, placing the book on the light-stand. He looked back at the grandfather clock, then his finger. Another pearl was forming where he had sucked off the blood. He’d have to do something about the clockface. And his finger.

He rushed to the kitchen, tore a strip of paper towel from the roll next to the sink and wrapped his finger tightly.

The lock on the front door clicked.

He looked at clock, and his body went slack.

“If that damn game wasn’t the end of me, this will be.”

The front door creaked open.

He walked to the front door and nearly did a double-take.

A young man with a green mohawk and worn leather jacket nodded at him. “Hey,” he said, removing his jacket and throwing it on the coat stand.

“Chester? Right?”

“Call me Chess,” the man replied, walking over. He held up his hand nearly vertical for an informal handshake.

“You’re the professor’s son?”

“Yeah man, hey—what happened to your hand?”

“Oh,” he said and the blood-soaked paper towel around his finger behind his back. He gave a nervous chuckle, “Um, you’d better come in.”

They stood in the library staring at the crack glass face of the grandfather clock. After explaining the incident, silence fell between them. He glanced at Chess. Was he smirking?

“What is it?” he asked.

Chess’ reaction was almost like subtly shaking himself from a faraway thought. “Oh, my dad won’t mind if you tell him you’ll replace it.”

“Yes, as I said, that’s the plan.” He watched him. Chess had the look of someone who knew more than he let on. “So, you’re sure he won’t kill me? I mean, the library was off-limits.”

Chess laughed. “Yeah eh? Man, it’s fine.” He put a tattooed hand on his shoulder. The letters L-O-V-E stood out below his knuckles.

He stared at Chess, confused. “What’s so funny?”

Chess shook his head. “He doesn’t mind the unexpected. Spontaneity is a fascinating part of human behavior. It can lead to growth. A professor of literature can appreciate that.”

“So why was it off-limits?”

He chuckled. “Ask him yourself, he’ll be over in a second.”

“What?”

“Yeah, just drove him back from the airport, he’s just at the neighbors’ dropping something off he brought back from Japan.

His heart went into his throat, but before he could speak, a familiar voice called from the entrance.

“Helloo!”

“Dad, you should probably stop tormenting your favorite students with the book on the floor.”

The professor laughed. “Oh, yeah?”

Chess pointed out the grandfather clock and explained.

He watched in horror as the father and son duo smiled and chuckled in comfort. The professor turned to him.

“Well?”

“Sir?”

“Where’d the library take you?”

He swallowed hard.

“Here,” the professor motioned to the couch and chairs in the living room, “have a seat, tell me, I’m curious,” he smiled again.

“I’m sorry, I know it was off limits.”

Chess scoffed, then turned and looked him in the eye. “It’s not really off-limits.”

“What?” he asked.

“Chester’s right. With Seneca’s Moral Letters, lying on the floor like that, who could resist putting it back?” the professor stated.

“So, it was a test?” he asked.

The professor laughed. “No, more of a game.”

Chester rolled his eyes. “He does this to every grad student he likes.”

He drew a deep breath, somewhat calmed by the atmosphere, but still tense from the perplexity.

“So, where did it take you?” the professor asked again.

“Well, I don’t think I solved the mystery.”

“What mystery?” the prof said, smiling.

“The mystery of the margin—” he stopped himself mid-word, realizing how silly it sounded. “The Greek apostil. I wasn’t able to determine its meaning.”

“The Greek apostil?” the professor asked.

“Probably something from Plato,” Chess suggested. The professor nodded in understanding.

He raised an eyebrow at the professor’s son.

“It’s just I annotate whatever I read when I’m here.”

He suddenly felt as if he were in a shadowy wood, speaking to a specter in the dark.

“You wrote the apostils?”

“The marginalia, yeah some of its mine, some of its dad’s, but yeah.” Chess smirked sideways and then slapped him on the back before turning and heading to towards the kitchen. “You want a beer?” he called over his shoulder.

“No, I-” he stuttered. This was getting to be too much for one day. The emotional devastation of his self-realizations – or lack thereof really – were black hole enough, but this…this tattooed, green mohawk-sporting, carefree, anomaly-of-a-man, was not only the professor’s son, but the insightful, shrewd, learned and astute apostilist? This had to be an alternate universe. He turned to the professor and gathered his courage. “I thought there was a message, an idea you’d connected through the literature, professor.” He tried to make it sound like his adventure had had noble intentions, but the words came out weakly.

“Sure, it was my idea to leave the book on the floor and tempt you. The rest, that is, what you connected, and how, that was you. And that’s what I’m interested in.”

He jumped as Chess put a hand on his shoulder, having returned from the kitchen without notice.

“Your mind,” Chess said.

“My…my mind?”

“Yeah, how you connect the dots,” Chess replied, taking a swig from a bottle.

“How you connect ideas.” The prof clarified. “That’s the treasure of the academic world, isn’t it?”

He turned away, reddening in embarrassment. He looked at the professor’s son. Chess was scholarly, despite appearances, possibly despite expectations. And yet it seemed natural that his notes condemned academia. Chess wasn’t what others might have expected him to be, and yet he was still able to connect with others easily, seemingly also with his father through the marginalia.

“Well?” the professor pushed again. His title now somehow seemed most fitting for the piece of furniture on which he sat.

Valor slowly returned to him. He had something to bring to the table, despite the doubts of the day. The perilous hunt had, it seemed, been fruitful.

“It was about self-love, the connection I made…but,” he looked up at the both of them.

Perhaps the mystery was not quite unraveled. There was one last thing remaining.

“You wouldn’t happen to know an author by the name of Robinson, would you?” he asked Chess.

Chess wiped his bearded face with the back of his hand as he sat down. “Robinson?”

“Yeah, a friend recommended something by them, but I forgot the title. I was looking for it earlier.” He thought maybe that would be enough to assuage any suspicions about the placement of the books – he hadn’t been too meticulous in replacing them from the floor.

“Oh!” The professor exclaimed. “Well, I have a book by Marilynne Robinson called When I was a Child I Read Books.”

“Yes, didn’t we all,” he murmured at the floor.

“Yep,” Chess took a swig from the bottle, “All the time, man.”

“Would you like to see it? Is that part of the connection you made?” the professor asked.

“‘Nothing of significance occurs in isolation.’ That’s Robinson,” Chess said.

The look on the professor’s face was serious now, but welcoming. There was a wisdom to it, to the glint in his eyes, the subtle curl of his lips.

He sighed. “Sorry, professor, it doesn’t really fit my self-love hypothesis.”

“Well, actually,” the professor said in a gentle tone, “in ancient Greece, kings and generals used to visit the oracle at the temple of Apollo in Delphi for prophecies. They came to know their fate, before battles, before political marriages and other strategies.” His voice was calm; the words rolled out in a melody that had him captivated. “Above the doorway to the temple, inscribed in the stone were the words ‘gnothi seauton’.”

“The Greek phrase,” he whispered, remembering the first note.

Chess gave a small nod. “‘Know yourself,’ is what it means.” He paused as it sunk in. “But you can’t know yourself in a void,” he concluded.

“Even with self-love,” he murmured.

The professor smiled. “Especially with self-love.”

#

The books in the university library were empty. Bereft of marginalia, they were all rookies. Easy pickings. His first would have to be special. The feel of dusty spines beneath his fingertips was the bugle call, the gauntlet thrown, the bid to combat.

A small, thin, almost unnoticeable book stopped him deep between the stacks on the fifth floor. This was the keystone.

Light-blue lettering against its green cover read Self-Knowledge. Yep. This was it.

He found a comfortable chair and skimmed the pages. At the end of a middle chapter, the final sentences before the blank space caught his eye.

…forgive them for not always managing to be reliable correspondents of their inner lives.

He looked up and scanned the corner of the library furtively. No one was looking. Taking a pen from his pocket he scribbled in the margin: forgive yourself, too! And with a smirk, he placed it on the floor, spine up, open, and ready for written conversation.

Game On.


BIO

Adam Anders is a Canadian writer and teacher, living in Warsaw, Poland. Once upon a time, he worked as a scholar of the Roman Army, having earned a PhD in Ancient History. Now, he teaches History, English Literature, and Creative Writing at a private high school. 

He is also an ALM candidate in Creative Writing & Literature at Harvard University’s Extension School. In his summers he sails the seas, and in winter, he skis. 

My Red Horse Moves

by Ashley Inguanta


like a fire in the wind.
My hipbone presses to highway,
And I see her, my horse, running
like she’s got everything to lose.

Here, the desert is a pale
wish, as fragile as my horse’s shins, thin
and temporary and unsure of how long
it will last. I fell from a great place
in order to get here: a rooftop
covered in percussion, a stretch
of ragged silver and bone
in the dusk. I orchestrated tremendous
beats–shin to hoof to desert floor.
Our racket lasted for centuries.

It was no different from the way hands
clap or the way a lover may place her
lips to another’s neck. Hunger is hunger
is hunger. Rhythm is nothing but a meeting
and release. We open one door and close
the other. My red horse bolts, a fire
in the wind. Her hoofs beat sky,
then sand. I fall from a place not unlike grace,
but more like perfect joining. My hipbone
presses to highway. A truck drives by,

and I swear, there is a mirror tacked
to its door, and I see myself, and I am
screaming, and then I am laughing
with empty hands. The truck moves
into horizon, becomes a star. Instead of myself,
I see my red horse. We fell from a great place
in order to get here: a rooftop

protecting a home of glory. Not heaven,
but a lady’s house. She played records
and kissed the forever grey sky. She was
the first opening, the first feeling
without word. And no,
her house was no different than
a harvest of stones, hands trying
to make a place. Hunger is hunger
is hunger. We open one door
and close the other. My hipbone

presses to highway, and my red horse
is there, right there, and it happens
so quickly, her body touching the
pavement, like mine.

She stares at me. She’s got everything
to lose. When the land shakes, her shins
become paper. Now, she is a story
that the lady keeps with her, that I pen
one more time, my hipbone becoming
highway now.

I remember walking on a marsh bank


in the pouring rain

A friend walked with me

I was new to the everglades
then, not knowing the given name
of any bird or grass,

but I understood the language
of that rain, holding my body
underneath storm-clouds,

cooling me, cooling us all,

bringing relief


BIO

Ashley Inguanta is a writer, art photographer, installation artist, and holistic educator. In her newest work, The Island, The Mountain, & The Nightblooming Field, she gives readers a chapbook of poetry that thrives in its simplicity. You can take your copy home through ashleyinguanta.net

Photo by Tina Russell

Amen Sure Thing

by Mindela Ruby


I forgot to request an exemption for jury duty this week.

Some enthusiasts feel cut off at the knees when they don’t get empaneled on a trial. I’m not among them. Nor do I align with my lawyer friend who texted me disqualifying answers to the Prospective Juror questions—“Provided you have the gall,” he wrote, “to make racist comments in court.” No way.

Jury service in some cases can be time well spent. My spouse once got elected foreman in an armed robbery case. He has told the story in my earshot a dozen times to entertain our friends. The lead witness, the plaintiff, testified that the defendant walked into his liquor store one night at 8:45, wearing a yellow sweatshirt and red bandana. The defendant rushed the counter, wielding a knife, and robbed the store owner of $73 in cash. Witness Two, the defendant’s brother, got up and swore that at 8:58 the same night, his brother, who was sweating and twitchy and wearing a yellow sweatshirt and red bandana, flung himself into his apartment. He threw $73 in cash on the table and then a big knife while exclaiming, “I just held up the liquor store around the corner.” The defense attorney attempted to spin the case as a sham, an example of “sibling rivalry.” The jury, led by a sterling foreman, unanimously reached a guilty verdict.

One of my graduate school professors was a juror on a complicated murder charge. Afterward, she took a year’s hiatus from university teaching to write a book about the proceedings’ profound philosophical implications. So, you see, a day in court may offer soul-searching litigation or humorous crime testimony. What squelches my keenness for the enterprise is the 8 AM arrival. Being forced to rise at an appalling hour messes with the delicate circadian balance that allows an insomniac like me to sleep at night. These days I’m already wrung-out beyond toleration. Therefore, on the off-chance of wrangling an excusal at this advanced date, I log onto the AgileJury website.

Today’s juror instructions are posted on a landing page with a red banner at the top. LOCATION CHANGE, it announces. Instead of the Oakland courthouse, the reporting place has switched to Dublin. Getting way out there demands a one-hour train commute followed by a bus ride of several blocks. In my car, a ninety-minute rush hour creep would be likely. This Thursday could require the same dastardly 4:30 AM wake-up.

On the Excusal page, I input my badge number and type my medical excuse:

Brain tumor

To the right of the “reason” space is a file upload field for documentation. The only information in my possession that confirms I have a meningioma is an email from my primary care physician that summarizes the MRI result. I Copy, Paste, and Save the evidence from my medical provider’s email, then navigate back to the judicial page to click-load the new file.

A message box pops up: “Upload unsuccessful.”

The second effort—new document, upload—proves equally futile. Code embedded in the HMO’s email program must be corrupting or blocking data sharing.

Dang glitch. How much better it is to staple a well-composed hardship letter to the tear-off section of the summons, like we did in the old days. But epistolary communication, especially if it involves any nuance, takes time to process. No one has the time to read letters anymore. I file the digital appeal without my corroborating attachment.

Nursing a mug of tea,I recall the few occasions when I slogged to court at the appointed hour, pussyfooted through security protocol, sat tight in greige staging areas, twiddled thumbs, stared askance at weirdos, only to be informed, hours later, that my juror pool was dismissed. Other years, I called the jury line for reporting instructions the night before and heard the recording declaring my duty “fulfilled for twelve months.” It’s not like I’ve routinely shirked my obligation as a citizen.

If my digital request for a discharge isn’t processed in a timely way, in two days I could be tasked to trek to the hinterlands of my sprawling county at the crack of dawn for in-person jury assembly. Or, the court could reassign me a new report date, one that’s less convenient than this early August week. What if I’m a juror no-show? Will I be fined?

Panicking at my desk, I snatch the postcard summons. On the backside a line at the bottom reads “For assistance by phone.” I call the number. A mechanized voice cites a one-minute wait. What a fairy tale. Government agencies never answer phones that quick. But in less than a minute, before I’ve conjured a plea to utter, a live woman is on the line asking how she can help.

What a feel—not waiting on hold in bureaucratic purgatory.

“Yes, hi, um, I completed an online request for a medical excuse,” I explain, “but an upload fail message popped up. Twice.”

“What is your badge number?” she efficiently asks.

I tell her.

“What is your medical excuse?”

“Brain tumor.”

A not surprising pause greets me. For weeks I’ve described my hidden olive-sized growth with friends and have been met with pregnant pauses. Many adults don’t like hearing about frightful maladies. Like small children, they shut down emotionally. But with news of my cranial abnormality circulating, I’ve decided to tell everyone rather than having to keep track of who knows and who doesn’t.

“Oh, Lord,” the phone-clerk sighs. “Are you comfortable with me asking whether your tumor—is benign?”

Her forthrightness catches me off-guard. But why not answer? I appreciate the curiosity. “The doctors think so, because the growth is calcified. No guarantees, obviously.”

“When did you find out about it?”

I love her perfect questions. “May 29. I’d had a headache for a month and went to my doctor thinking it was a sinus infection. I’m still accommodating myself to the scan results,” I overshare.

“I hear that. Please don’t think this is prying. I’m interested because I know something of what you’re going through. My son had a brain tumor when he was twenty-one. He’s thirty-two now.”

I think of my own son with a pang. “My younger boy is thirty-two also. I’m so sorry.”

“He’s fine now, thanks to God. That misfortune with his brain came out of the blue. Julius, that’s my son’s name, dropped down in broad daylight, bam. He had one of those, uh, it was a…” She pauses, the word on the tip of her tongue.

“Seizure?” Obsessive research has rendered me an amateur brain tumor expert, with terminology at the ready.

“Mm-hmm. The worst kind. That can kill a person.”

“A grand mal seizure?”

“Correct, and woo, it was terrifying. I didn’t have a clue what was happening.”

“Of course,” I say.

The seizure possibility petrifies me, the irrefutable indication that my brain is compromised by a  spreading intruder I can’t see. A friend of a friend confided to me about her first grand mal episode. She woke up in a hospital to learn she had to have brain surgery to remove a meningioma the size of a lemon.

“Did your son have any symptoms before his seizure?” I ask the clerk.

“No, Ma’am. No warning signs.” She spills the whole of her son’s story. 911 call. Ambulance. Her ragged nerves. The happy turn: his operation went as well as could be expected.

“I tell you,” she goes on, “God watched over my child. Without Him, who knows what might have happened? It was God guiding the hand of my son’s surgeon. That doctor did a wonderful job. Julius has had no lasting problem with his brain.”

“Fantastic,” I say. My acquaintance had her lemon-sized growth surgically excised without a hitch as well. Two years later, though, she developed permanent epilepsy. “Your son had the best possible outcome.”

“That’s right, and, um…Mindela?” The court clerk has checked my juror record to get my name, incorrectly stressing the second syllable instead of the first, but pronunciation’s of no consequence in this moment.

“Yes?”

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but I would like to know if you by any chance lead a Christian life?”

When asked this question under other circumstances, usually by Jehovah’s Witnesses at my front door, I disclose my atheism. Sometimes I act flip about it. Conversation with avid followers of religions unsettles me. Steering clear of holy topics seems best.

Yet this telephone call requires more finesse than my habitual no interest rejoinder. This woman has the power to make me take a train and a bus to Dublin the day after tomorrow.

More to the point, she has shared with me one of the most important stories of her life. We are bonding over tumors. She has reached out through the phone wire.

“Not much, sorry” I say.

“That’s all right. It’s not uncommon. But let me tell you. In my job, I talk to a lot of sick people. They call in seeking a jury excuse. You would not believe the afflictions I hear about. I tell all of them, Put your faith in God to get better.”

“Where was your son’s surgery?” I ask, to lead the conversation away from preachiness.

“Redwood City. They have a fine facility over there.”

“At Kaiser?”

“Yes.”

“That’s the hospital where I’d have surgery if and when I need it. Right now, the doctors on my team are calling this a watch and wait situation. They’re brushing aside my headaches and dizziness.” I gulp and add, “The neurologist prescribed another MRI in a year to measure for tumor growth. All I can do is hold tight ‘til then. Unless, of course, I have a seizure.”

“You stay positive, Mindela.”

“I’m trying.” Brain tumor statistics are in my favor. Ninety percent of the sort I have hang out trouble-free inside heads, invisible except via a scan. Still, a year is a long time. Ten percent is not zero.

“Let God help you. He will be there for you.”

Who’d have ever expected an administrative call to end up here? Not me. But she intentionally started shepherding me to Christianity, and, considering my lack of faith, it’s crazy how grateful her solicitude makes me. By contrast, my HMO seems to have deducted from some terrible cost benefit analysis that patients need only to be told Don’t worry. We are shunted into a risk pool of subscribers who must wait and see, with skimpy consolation.

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to say a prayer for you. Will you let me do that? It will bring you ease.”

“I don’t mind,” I say.

“Dear God,” she starts, assuming a beseeching timbre. “I ask you to take care of this woman in need. She is hurting. She is scared. She feels alone. Show her she isn’t alone. God, I ask you to reach down and touch the tumor in her head. Make that tumor stop growing. It’s in your power to block this thing from hurting Mindela.” I hear her rapid breath.

Actually, it’s me who’s gasping. Because, I discover, I’m weeping. Unbelievable. This call is touching a nerve. I don’t want the court worker to hear me lose control.

“Mindela, I want you to pray for ministration. Oh, and by the way, in case I didn’t say this before, your jury service is excused. You don’t need to report. But you should make time every day to remember that God is the healer who watches over us. What you can do for strength is believe. Tell me you can do that.”

I produce not so much of a yes as a choke. We are two women united in hardship. She must detect how moved I am. It’s not just joy at getting out of jury duty.

“That’s good,” she says. “I know from my son’s experience that the mightiness of God is all we need. My son is alive. He’s finding his way, figuring his life out, but the important point is he’s healthy. Health is the greatest gift, a blessing directly from God. Think about the comfort He furnishes. If the Lord is with us, we have no fear. That’s the truth.” She inhales deeply.

“Amen,” I say, hearing in her pause a conclusion. We have glorified God for over seven minutes on this call.

“Amen sure thing,” she says. “God is good. He protects us from whatever threatens to tear us down. Many things wait to harm us. Find your way to God, you’ll be alright.”

The call concluding, I’m aghast to be succumbing to shudders. My body feels like crumbling stone. I have been brave and stolid about this tumor business most of the time. This telephone encounter is wreaking barriers. It feels simultaneously right and wrong. “Of all the people to take my call,” I say, “it was you.”

“That’s God, too,” says this human who understands the weakness bodies are prey to. Who knows my anxiety, knows my hope.

“I want you to call me back later,” she says, “and let me know how you’re doing. Promise to do that? This is more than a job for me. I’m here for a reason. I’ll want to know God is guarding your brain, like he did for my child.”

From the box on my desk I extract a tissue and blot tears. I don’t dare blow my nose and sound maudlin. Much as I appreciate her generous sentiments, I don’t envision calling back with updates and professions of new-found faith. My doubt is too ingrained.

I might need a medical excuse next year, however. “Do I call this same number to reach you?” I say. What condition, I wonder, will my brain be in next year?

“This same number. Ask for Kirby. I’m always here.”

“Thank you for being so compassionate. I should let you get back to work, though. Other callers might need your help.”

“When I’m doing God’s work, the court is secondary. But all right then. Take care of yourself. And trust God. I have seen him do wonders and lift up those who ask him to.”

“I will think of this call for a long time, Kirby,” I say. “Bye-bye, now.”

“God bless.”

Even disconnected, phone put down, listening to crows cawing outside, I cannot stanch the tears. Am I crying for the stranger’s act of kindness? Because my children don’t know how to let me be scared? Because something’s missing in my life?

Cranial tumors that grow fast hijack brains. My MRI noted the “slight mass effect” already impinging on my cortex. My healthcare providers see no cause for angst in that. They say the bulging pressure in my forehead, ice pick stabs behind my eyes, tingles down my scalp, spears of current shooting through my skull are phenomena to ignore, variants of migraine headaches. But no migraine website corroborates this analysis or explains what feels like disarray in the invisible strategic center of my being.

I pick up the Jury Summons postcard and safekeep it in my desk drawer. Lacking a higher power as my rock, I am forced to face my brain’s fate without a hallelujah. When I say amen, the word is a pleasantry, not a ratification of God’s will. My lot is the peril of atheism. I used to think of my stance on faith as an enormous strength, but that certainty has all of a sudden started fading.

Leftover sobs break from my chest. For me, for now, no spiritual solace lies ahead. Cold silence is more like it. To have to weather. To have to bear. I almost wish it weren’t so.


BIO

Mindela Ruby has published a novel, Mosh It Up, and prose and poetry in Coachella Review, Rivet: the Journal of Writing That Risks, Marathon Literary Review and other magazines as well as the anthology Unmasked. Her work has been Pushcart Prize and Sundress Best-of-the-Net nominated. She completed a doctorate at University of California and teaches at a community college and Lifelong Learning program. She’s a member of the California Arts Council and reader at the Baltic Writing Residency.

Happiness

by Diana Ha


When I was just myself, not latched onto and not
stalking my own breath, I was not aware of how
much I could unfold and conform the male race
to my recesses, and what little I gave to hunger –
six pounds to a hundred sixty of it – would meet
with simple ferocious love. I became food,
grass, playground, air, altar,
my men forgive me when life is joy and joy is skin & sweat
bloodhounds circling the promises of woman. The way
my son set upon his drumstick last night, he deboned it,
Genghis Khan on mission, worked
the cartilage between molars waiting for the jaw
lines of a young man, eyes closed to conserve energy, wrapping
his senses around the pleasure in his mouth,

I wish life were so accessible for me.

I studied his tender oval chin, turning
the poetry of it, his rapturous aggression. My husband, my boy swoop
into the moment’s ascendency while I take longer,
look out from the seconds that make up the minute.
My body has to practice and permit.
Happiness doesn’t come
bearing me up so readily; I wait and wait
at the threshold and it lingers on the other side. My men
eat, chase, swelter, sleep, their day’s laughter
lucent in the night
sky of my contemplations
like angels.


Stillborn


They met where the moon caught the sun’s
path, and in hope’s half-light, in his makeshift
tent, he now waits for twilight sun,

He – a soldier in love’s jungle; she – in the courtyard
of her days, terracotta, quotidian ceremonies, garden
stones at the feet of the persimmon tree.

Some dreams had a lifetime – brain, breath, and
rolled for room in the womb, but the day
comes, and air and joy are not hospitable
to them.


My Breasts


He was astonishing and fresh
out of my body, magical
out of the nothingness
that had been the world without him, just
six pounds ten ounces of will
and appetite,

I was awed – and quite gratified – when
some two months into the feeding he,
with his tongue, examined me against
the false teat of the bottle, and adjudged my breasts
more desirable. He sucked and turned
his cheek to press it upon my pillow, milk sticky
between us and suctioning his face slowly
into my skin before drying
on him like a watermark.

But my boy still loves my nipples and the round
rest of them. They form one vanishing
point into which all his mind pulls;
today, he laughed as his badminton
racquet slivered air, declaring:
staring at them will bring
me good luck.

I reached and missed the birdie.
See, Mommy? It worked!
Ten years old, he is funny, he is sick.

He runs between sea and sand, the song
and form of mermaids that await him
out deep, and the earthen floor where in younger
days he had sunk, milk-sopped and a little drunk
on his mother’s sweat. I watch the tide
sweep in, reaching to carry the M o M M y
inscribed in moist sand
out to sea.


Meeting


But what has not been said of this, of
our voices meeting, our reflections hearing
each other in the river air
conducting
the nerves of our cerebellum alive
like wire, of this spiritual telepathy
like bared bodies agreeing,
of art.


BIO

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Diana Ha publishes in a variety of genres. Her articles, narratives, and poetry feature in magazines and anthologies, among them The Banner, New York’s Emerging WritersCalifornia’s Best Emerging Poets, and with honorable mention in the Steve Kowit International Poetry Contest, The San Diego Poetry Annual. She teaches composition at California Baptist University and teaches writing at education conferences. Diana discusses culture, writing, and achievement with over 16,000 followers on her blog at holisticwayfarer.com. She details her professional development services at writexpressions.art.


6The Sins of Father Rickman

by Catherine J. Link


         Father Rickman was the oldest surviving member of his family. His parents both died in their early seventies and were buried in the historic St. James cemetery in East Galway, Ireland, where he was born and raised. He had outlived his siblings, and only a few cousins were still in the world, most much younger than he. 

         He didn’t care that today was his birthday. He was never one to celebrate much of anything, except the birth of Christ. That was the only day that had special meaning for him.  The day the Great Redeemer was born. He was a man in need of redemption, more than most, and so he had not lived his life to the fullest. Not by accident, but by design.

         He heard a noise and looked up from the pew where he habitually sat, his head bent in contemplation. He saw the approach of Bishop Lyle Morgan. He was younger than Father Rickman in earthly years, but he appeared older. In spite of his smile, his eyes were sad—a testament to the sorrows of the world. Today he wore a gray suit, civilian clothing.    

           “Father Rickman,” he said in a near whisper. “Would you like to visit for a while?” 

             He gave the bishop a bold up and down glance, then a disapproving grimace.      

            “Special occasion, Lyle?”

            The bishop chuckled at him. “Still a judgmental sonofabitch, Shawn?”

            “Think what you like.”

            “I just popped in on my niece’s wedding. She married into a Jewish family, so I decided to appear as Uncle Lyle, instead of stodgy old Bishop Morgan, not that anyone saw me.”

            “I didn’t ask,” Father Rickman said. 

            “Just making conversation, Shawn. Happy birthday.”

            “Only you would remember.”        

            “That’s because I’m the only friend you have,” the Bishop said. “And because I am an eternal friend, I’m making myself available to you now, as I always have. Tell me, Shawn. What’s been bothering you all these years?”

           “Besides you?”

           The Bishop laughed and nodded.

            Father Rickman’s first inclination, once again, was to decline the Bishop’s offer. But time was growing short, and he would be leaving this world soon. He looked up at the tormented body of his savior hanging from a gilded cross, and it came to him that he had to earn the redemption he so desperately craved.  

           “It’s an ugly story.”

           “Of course it is,” the Bishop said with a chortle. “Men are not born moral creatures, Shawn. We come to it by degrees. Our parents do their best to teach us, but we ignore most of what they say. Later, we learn by suffering consequences demanded by society. Then those of us who raise children learn it again as we teach our progeny. This is where the church has made some bad choices. We call ourselves fathers but we lack the practical experience of teaching decency to offspring. So how can we successfully instill decency in the strangers who make up our congregations?”

          “Interesting theory, Lyle. You always had a unique way of interpreting things.”

          “I followed a code of right and wrong that was my own, I admit.  From what I’ve observed of the new pope, he does the same.”

          “Does that excuse the common law wife you had for over forty years, the children you fathered by her?”

          “I don’t think of them as sins, Shawn. Instead, I feel guilty about pursuing the priesthood.  There were hardships thrust upon my family because of it, and I often begged both them and God to forgive my unrelenting ambition for power, the sin that set me on a quest to the Vatican.  It was just that God denied me the Holy See. Not because of my wife and children, but because of my self-absorption. Had I not put my ambition first, I could have been a better husband, father, and human being. Regret torments me, and I am being punished.”

          “Perhaps I, too, will be punished. We can spend purgatory together, deciding which of us was the bigger fool. I’m going to dinner. Join me if you can and maybe, after some wine, I will share my most unforgivable transgression.”

          The restaurant was quiet, the benefit of going out to eat on a Tuesday night. Father Rickman sat in a booth in the back, for privacy, and ordered steak.

        “The portions are large enough for two. I always take leftovers home.”

         “Perhaps you should eat more. You look pale, Shawn. And thin.”

         “I’ll eat a few extra bites, so you can stop worrying. Will that make you happy, Lyle?”

         “Ecstatic. So tell me about the abominations of Father Rickman.”

         “You don’t think me capable?”

           “We are all capable, and I am sure you have committed some error of judgement that you torture yourself over.”

            “Mine was not an error, but a choice, not unlike yours. I too have had a woman in my life. We met almost thirty years ago. She and her husband, and a preteen son. They would come to church regularly. Attend the bingo games, donate generously to the church and charities, and the boy sang in the youth choir.”

             The Bishop sat quietly, nodding.   

             “One day—her name was Nancy—she came to me and told me that she’d seen a ghost,” Father Rickman said. “She was working at the Bridgeport Convalescent Home, during the night shift, and she saw an elderly man walking the hallway. She called to him to see what he needed, but he did not answer. She went down the hallway, to the room he had entered, but the room was empty. She was baffled by the experience. She told her coworkers about the elderly gentleman.  As old people too often look alike, a few names were bandied about. Time passed and the incident lost its significance.”

                 “So no ghost?” the Bishop said. He looked disappointed.  

                “No, there was a ghost. The old man appeared again. He walked the hall, looking at every door as though searching for a room number. Nancy called to him and tried to follow as he disappeared down a corridor. She lost him in the maze of hallways. There were several such sightings, and Nancy became frightened. She had become convinced she was seeing a ghost. I listened, intrigued, but disapproving.”

              “And stubborn in your disbelief, no doubt,” the Bishop said.    

             “Yes. There are no such things as ghosts, I told her, except for the Holy Ghost, which is a spirit, part of the Holy Trinity. A coeternal consubstantial piece of God. For her to believe in the supernatural was to betray the teachings of the church, and Jesus Christ. ‘Do you think I’m crazy, Father?’ she asked me. I still had enough discretion at that age to tell her she was merely confused. There was a rational explanation, I assured her, and in time it would reveal itself.”

            The waiter came to pour the wine. Father Rickman was silent, until the man left.

            “I did not see her again for weeks. Her husband brought their son to mass, but she did not come. I asked after her, and the husband said her work schedule had changed. She was working Sundays now. I suggested she come to one of the nightly masses. Then, one Wednesday evening, she came to see me. The mysterious man had appeared again, she told me. He had come out of room A16 and wandered down the hallway. She ran after him and when she got close, she reached to tap his shoulder and her hand passed through his body. He stopped, turned and spoke to her. ‘You can see me, so I belong to you now,’ he said to her, then he disappeared.”

            “How odd,” the Bishop said. “Must be some outdated notion.”    

            “Perhaps, but the apparition was true to his word, according to Nancy. She was seeing him whenever she worked. He would follow her when there was no one else present to witness the haunting. He would accompany her on nightly rounds, from room to room. He would not enter but wait politely at the door. ‘Am I crazy?’ she asked again. I told her she needed medical or possibly psychological intervention and encouraged her to get a checkup. I assured her that there were no ghosts, and that to believe in them was akin to abandoning the church for a cult. I reminded her that nowhere in our Catechism was there a mention of ghosts.”

             “I have often thought that was an oversight on the part of the church,” the Bishop said.

            “Nancy wept, disappointed, and left me. I did not see her again for two years. When she returned, she looked exhausted. Unkempt, haggard, and nearly hysterical, she begged for my help. She told me that not only did she still see the old man, but he had brought companions.  She was now being escorted on her rounds by as many as five ghosts. The old man’s wife, their daughter and two sons, all three adults.”

            “You don’t mean it,” the Bishop said with a laugh. “How extraordinary.”

            “Nancy was able to converse with the old gentleman, but the rest of the ghosts did not speak. They would weep, make objects move, even let out with blood-curdling howls. Other members of the convalescent home staff could hear the weeping and the howling, and witnessed objects being dropped or thrown. Since it was always in Nancy’s vicinity, they thought that she was responsible. They had come to think of her as unhinged.”

            The food was being served, and the Bishop was so excited by the story that he knocked over a saltshaker. The waiter was startled and apologized, thinking he had been responsible. When the man walked away, the Bishop blurted out,

           “How dreadful for the poor woman. What happened next?”             

            “I asked her if she had gone to the doctor for a check-up. She said she had and it came to the doctor’s attention that she had suffered a minor stroke. At first she was glad, hopeful that the stroke had caused her ghost sightings, as well as other problems she was having within her family. It seems she had developed a revulsion to her husband of twenty years, and she no longer had a motherly feeling for their son.”

           “Peculiar,” the Bishop said.

          “I thought so. I counseled her on marriage and motherly responsibilities. Those were subjects I felt competent to discuss, but then she brought up the subject of ghosts again, and I became irate and advised her to go to a psychiatrist. She did not back down, however. She insisted that the ghosts were real, and that the old man had told her that all five of the ghosts belonged to her now. They were her responsibility.”

          “That is ludicrous. What does that even mean?”

           “Angrily, I badgered her,” Father Rickman said. “How can they be your responsibility? She had no idea, and I pounced on that. Of course it makes no sense, because it’s not real. You must turn loose of this delusion, or you will do yourself irreparable harm. She became upset and ran out of the church without another word. I did not see her again for an even longer time. Perhaps three years or more. She had changed considerably the next time I saw her. She looked wonderful. Healthier, nicely dressed and her demeanor was calm.”

           “Surprising,” the Bishop said.  

           “Yes, it was. She looked so well that I was hopeful she had freed herself from the ghostly delusions, but I could not have been more wrong. She had left her husband, she told me. She came to realize that she was a lesbian, and she had taken a female lover. Someone she had found true compatibility with. Her son had been angry and rejected her for a while, but he finally came around.” 

         “And the ghosts were gone?” the Bishop said.

         “No, and she was still being told that they were her responsibility.”

         “Shocking,” the Bishop said.

         “There were ten now. Three children about six to eight years old, and one young woman, perhaps twenty. And, of course, her own dead husband. He killed himself when she left him for a woman.”

          “That was unexpected,” the Bishop said, getting a bit loud. Father Rickman gave him a stern look to silence him. “Sorry.”  

         “I was furious with her. Your husband committed suicide, and you tell me about it as though it’s an afterthought. The man you were married to for twenty plus years, and you seem to have no feelings for him at all. What kind of woman are you?”

         “A fair question.”

        “I thought so. Her answer was unusual, of course. She explained that since her stroke she was not as emotional as she once was. She said she was happier now, even with the ghosts following her wherever she went.”  

        “I thought it was just a workplace manifestation.”

        “That was before. She had changed jobs and they not only changed with her, but they were now in her home. In the car when she drove. In the grocery when she was shopping. The worst time was when she got her hair done. The beauty parlor was so small that when the ghosts would howl or throw things, it was impossible for people not to notice. She began telling everyone she had Tourette’s Syndrome.” 

         “Seriously? Tourette’s? How creative. I would never have thought of it.”

          “I knew she was a smart one, and I suddenly realized that she was playing me for a fool. Telling me this ridiculous story about being haunted, all a pack of lies designed to amuse herself at my expense. I wondered if maybe she had recorded some of our past sessions. My pride was wounded, you see. My self-image was vulnerable. For the first time ever, I doubted my judgement and I was worried about my reputation in the parish.   

        “If there were all these ghosts around her, why didn’t you see them?” 

        “I asked her that, and she asked me if I wanted to see them. I didn’t want to, of course. But that shouldn’t have mattered. If they were there, I would have seen them.”

          “So what did she say to that?”   

         “Nothing. Suddenly, a howl reverberated around the church. A mournful cry that sent chills down my spine. I had been looking at her face and she had not opened her mouth, nor did it seem to be coming from her direction. It was coming from somewhere near the altar. Then, suddenly, lit candles were flying through the air and smashing against a granite wall. Moans of lamentation came from up in the choir loft. She smiled, then quoted a bible verse. John 4:48. ‘Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.’”

           “She was a clever woman.”

           “Yes, she was and it frightened me. You’re the devil, I shouted. You are the evil one, taken possession of this confused woman, using her for your own purposes. Leave this church, Satan, I shouted, holding my crucifix up like a shield. Now advancing on her, thinking of myself as one of God’s soldiers, forcing her through the front doors, I cursed her. I quoted scripture at her and thinking I should douse her with holy water, as they do in the movies. I cupped my hands in the font and splashed her.”

          “Did you really?” the Bishop said, and burst out in laughter, then, seeing the expression on Father Rickman’s face, he stopped. “Sorry.”

          “She was also amused by my frantic patty fingers in the font. Laughing at my pitiful efforts to banish her from the church. I must have looked like a moron. ‘I’m not the devil, Father Rickman,’ she said, unable to stop laughing at me. ‘I can’t help being haunted. I don’t want to be, but I am trying to live with it and not go mad. The ghosts are wanting something from me, but I don’t know what it is. I need your help.’”

         “Her laughter faded to an amused grin as she waited for me to say something, but I could not speak. I had fallen under some kind of strange spell. While standing in full sunlight, she shook the holy water from her hair and golden curls fell into place like a halo around her head. Still smiling, her mouth was sensuous. Her eyes were green. I had never noticed that before, but I could not miss it now. They sparkled like gems. For the first time, I truly saw her and what a vision of loveliness she was.”

         “Uh oh, that’s not good.”  

        “I regained my composure and asked her to leave. Then she asked me a pivotal question.  Do you want me to come back? Why I did not say no, I will forever wonder. She descended the front steps, looking back at me just one time, as she walked away. But the look was a turning point in my life. I will swear on the holy image of Christ, that when I went back inside the church I heard both weeping and laughter, yet the church was empty.”

          “Oh, dear. She left you a ghost.”

          “Nancy came to church regularly on Sundays. She would come to the rail for communion, and I would pass her over, but not before taking a look down the front of her blouse. She would speak to me, but I shunned her. She came for confession, and I refused to hear it. Yet, my eyes sought her out and feasted on her. This went on for a year. I shunned her and she punished me by giving me no peace. Every time I saw her she looked more attractive, and I could not help but be tempted. She had flawless skin, soft feminine curves, she dressed smartly and looked to be the epitome of good health for a woman her age. Of any age, truthfully.”

       “I can see where this is going.”

       “She brought her lesbian lover to mass a few times, and the woman was equally attractive, I must admit. Together they made a remarkable impression on me. Excruciatingly remarkable, I’m afraid. My imagination went into overdrive, and I wondered what they looked like together, en flagrante. Various scenarios tormented me day and night. My nerves were shattered. Many times I heard howls and lamentation, followed by sensuous moaning coming from the vestry. Startled, often embarrassed, I occasionally spilt from the chalice during communion, staining the clothing of our most prominent members of the congregation.”

        “That’s terrible.”

         “Even worse, on several such occasions, I yelled expletives loud enough to be heard in the pews nearest the altar. I even took the Lord’s name in vain in the presence of Monsignor Halliday. He came later to counsel me on anger management and decorum. Embarrassed by my faux pas, I told him I was suffering from Tourette’s syndrome. Thereafter, whenever we crossed paths, I performed various twitches of the face to maintain the lie.”

          The Bishop burst out laughing again, then apologized. “In tragedy there is often an element of humor.”

          “It did not feel humorous to me. Soon after, I approached Nancy and her friend to ask them not to come back to mass. That was what I had intended to say in a noncompromising manner, even threatening them with excommunication if I had to. But they had an aura about them, a savage innocence. They were beautiful, healthy animals, and there was an intense chemistry surrounding the three of us as we stood near the confessionals. It frightened me, yet I reveled in it. Perhaps it was the romantic light streaming in through the stained-glass windows that melted the ice surrounding my heart, because I could not say what I needed to say.”

         “Good. It is never right to ask a parishioner to abandon the church.”  

         “Instead, I clumsily asked Nancy if she needed confessing. She said yes. Then I turned to her companion and asked her the same. The companion smiled at me, then let out a shriek reminiscent of the dolphins at Sea World. That horrible sound filled the church.  Her face turned so red, it was nearly purple.  Her hair suddenly seemed to be standing straight up, as a flame dances on the wick of a candle. She opened her mouth to shriek again and I wanted to run, but my feet seemed glued to the floor.”  

       “What was she? Some kind of ghoul?”

        “I asked Nancy what she was, but she said she didn’t know. She assured me the woman was quite tame. And that she didn’t make that noise all the time, just when she got overexcited.  She said it was unfortunate that I had spoken to her. She had taken a liking to me and she wanted to be mine.”

       “Yours? You must have been frantic.”

        “I was so scared I was nearly soiling myself. I told Nancy that I’d thought the woman was her lesbian lover. She said she had realized, after a while, that she was not a lesbian after all. As for Maude, she had a crush on me and wanted to go with me, and there was no way to stop her.”

         “Maude? That strange creature was named Maude?”

         “Yes, and Nancy told me Maude had been born and raised in Wales. When she talked, which was rarely, she had a brogue. It seems she was frustrated that she’s been unable to move on. She didn’t enjoy being a ghost. Nancy asked me to help Maude with that.”

         “How?”

        “I wasn’t sure. Nancy suggested hearing her confession, giving her absolution, the same things I would do if she was still alive. I expressed my doubts, telling her again that I know nothing about ghosts. She reminded me that I would have one as my lifelong companion if I didn’t do something about it.”

          “Frightening.”

          “That spurred me to action. I decided to try giving her absolution. It may not work, but what harm could come of it? I refused to do it in the church, however. That would soil my conscience, and it would give Nancy more ammunition if this all turned out to be an elaborate hoax. She invited me to her apartment, saying ‘Please, Father Rickman. Don’t make me beg.’  I was an emotional wreck. Part of me wanted to see her beg. I pictured her on her knees, begging, and knew I could deny her nothing. But at the same time, admitting that ghosts exist was mentally disabling for me, and I swear by all that is holy, I was experiencing PTSD.”

          “Post-traumatic stress disorder?” 

          “Yes. But still, my physical attraction to Nancy was stronger than ever. I did indeed want to go to her apartment and breathe air infused with her pheromones. Her allure broke through my resistance, overcame my fear of entrapment and exposure as a sex-starved deviate.”

         “I don’t think PTSD was your problem, Shawn,” the Bishop said. “I’m not judging you. Please know that, but you had other things on your mind, in my opinion.”

            “Even after all these years, I can’t be objective about it. Maybe you’re right. She gave me her address and told me to come at 9:00 pm. I asked why so late and she said that getting rid of a ghost might be more appropriate after the sun had set and the moon was high. I was out of my depth. I would have gone along with anything she suggested. I arrived at 9:00 pm on the hour. It had been a long day. Time seemed to have stood still during most of it. I’d spent time with two of my parishioners who had personal matters to discuss. Compared to what I was dealing with, their problems seemed petty and self-imposed. I did not give them the best of myself that day.”

         “Hmmm,” the Bishop said. “You should have taken time away from the church to search your heart.”  

         “You know how stubborn I was as a young man,” Shawn said, taking a gulp of wine. “I showered, changed into fresh clothing, and time stood still. Someone had sabotaged the clocks in my quarters, I was sure of it. Unable to wait any longer, I left early, hoping to speed up time by picking up a bottle of wine and flowers. Then I realized my mistake. How do I explain behaving as though I was on a date? Mother told me never go to someone’s home empty handed, I could say. It was the truth. Lame but plausible.”

            “You have very fine manners,” the Bishop said. “I have always admired your etiquette.”  

           “Thank you. Banging on her door, all that twaddle went through my mind lickety-split and I was again banging on the door a few seconds later. And again, and again. What do you think of my good manners now? Nancy scowled at me when she opened the door at last and scolded me for making such a racket. My God, no one ever looked more beautiful than she did, with her show of temper. I imagined her slapping my face, and it was magnificent. Under that yellow bug light, her complexion jaundiced and her hair bleached like straw, she was a dream. If she hadn’t asked me in, I would have committed violence. I know it.”

            “I don’t believe that. You’re being too hard on yourself.”

            “I did not hand her the flowers and wine. Instead, I took on an aloofness to cover my embarrassment, hiding pent up passions behind a ridiculous façade. I put the wine and the flowers on her kitchen counter and began jabbering like a fool.”

             Father Rickman did an impersonation of himself. “Only if we need them, understand? I thought we might, but I’m not sure we will. Know what I mean? Better to have them than not have them, as I always say.”

         “Bravo. You sound just like Humphry Bogart in that old movie. The one with the statue of a black bird.”

       “Exactly. I seemed unable to stop babbling like some Dashiell Hammett character. I was even talking though my nose with a slight lisp. ‘We have no idea what might happen, see?  We might need a peace offering, if things go south. This could get dangerous,’ I said, shooting my cuffs.”

         The Bishop bellowed with hardy laughter, and Father Rickman chuckled, remembering his own foolishness.    

        “Nancy watched the spectacle, grinning, recognizing me for the fool she had made of me. Knowing this, I still couldn’t stop myself. She told me she was glad I came, trying to make me feel less embarrassed, I think. She said she had been afraid that I might change my mind. And again, I went on with my one man show. ‘That’s not the kind of man I am. Understand? Once I decide to do a thing, I get it done.’  I was still channeling Sam Spade. Once in the persona, it was hard to shake off. ‘So where’s the dame?’”

            “Dame? You meant Maude?” the Bishop asked. “She should have come with you. Isn’t that right?”

              “Very astute, Lyle,” Father Rickman said to him. “I hadn’t thought of that at the time. Nancy reminded me that Maude was my ghost. We figured that she must have been hiding, perhaps a bit embarrassed. Then she appeared out of nowhere and sat down on the sofa, hiding a grin behind one hand. I nodded to her and she let out another dolphin call.”    

              “She was saying hello,” the Bishop said with a smile.  

              “’Hello, Maude,’ I said, with an unenthusiastic wave of my fingers. Meanwhile, Nancy was arranging a place at the kitchen table where the three of us would be comfortable. ‘Should I open the wine and put out some crackers for communion?’ she asked me. I nodded, wondering why the hell I had not thought of communion as a way to explain the wine. I was grateful to be done with the Sam Spade impression. It was exhausting.” 

              “I can sympathize. I feel the same way about charades. Ridiculous game.”  

              “Nancy put the flowers in water and placed them on the table, saying they could dress up our little chapel. I think that was the moment I fell in love with her. She buried her nose in the bouquet and there was a satisfied little smile on her lips. I flushed with humiliation, like a fifteen-year-old boy, then I asked Maude to join us in the kitchen. Nancy and I sat at opposite ends of the table, and Maude in the middle. ‘Can you talk?’ I asked her. She let out a string of screeches.”

                “The dolphin noises?”

               “That, or a language spoken on an alien planet. ‘How am I supposed to work with this?’ I said, frustrated. Nancy said she could translate. ‘She mutters sometimes, unable to get the words out, and then there’s the Welch brogue,’ Nancy told me. She said they had developed a mental bond, and that I would develop one with her over time if she stayed.”

              “And so, we started. Doing all the right things, saying the appropriate entreaties. The time came for her to confess and she let out with a yammer that was so bizarre, I had to pinch my own buttock to make sure I wasn’t having a nightmare. Nancy was able to translate her story. Unfortunately, it was overtly pornographic, and hearing smut falling from Nancy’s moist lips was having an effect on my demeanor. I took a gulp of the sacramental wine straight from the bottle. Startled, both women looked at me with doe eyes, their lips slightly parted, each holding their breath, waiting for my next move. The thin fabrics they wore perfectly molded their breasts, accenting the shapes, exaggerating every quiver of anticipation. I needed another pull on the wine bottle.”

                 “Oh my,” the Bishop said, loosening his collar and wiping his red face with a monogrammed handkerchief.

            “When her sins had all been told, Maude wept with relief, and I very nearly did as well.  I had her say a prayer, as best she could. Lord Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It was yammered out in an odd rhythm that made me think of a naked savage beating a tom-tom.             

Ld Jesses nod good, mery o’me, zinner.  Would you believe me, Lyle? That corruption of prayer got stuck in my head for weeks. I would find myself tapping my toe and reciting the sounds as she had said them, with that same savage rhythm. Sometimes it still comes back to haunt me. Telling it to you now will cost me some hours of distress, reciting it in time to the ticking of my father’s antique mantel clock, or the spin cycle of the washing machine, the timer I use to make three minute eggs. That piece of verse is not done with me yet.”

            “I’m sorry you told it to me,” the Bishop said. “I’m beginning to hear it in my head. Oh, dear.” 

            “Sorry about that. Well, I went through the rest of the litany with the two ladies, then we had communion. When I told Maude she was cleansed of all sin and was now worthy to move on in her voyage toward salvation, she slowly faded away to nothingness.”

             “Marvelous,” the Bishop said, with a reverent joy in his eyes.    

             “You’d think so, but I was disappointed. I admit that until that moment, I still didn’t believe she was a ghost. In all candor, I had envisioned a three way with the two ladies.  I did not know how I was going to justify my lascivious suggestion, but I was working on a rational excuse. Perhaps framing the sexual encounter as a sacrament, a beneficial cleansing of lust that would leave us free from carnal cravings forever after. Ridiculous, I admit, but remember that I was in the throes of PTSD and was willing to do whatever it took to bring about my own recovery. No matter the sacrifice.”

            It took a while for the Bishop to stop laughing at Father Rickman, so he took the opportunity to eat and drink some wine as the laughter died down. He was thoroughly annoyed.  

            “Are you quite finished?” Father Rickman asked him.

             “Sorry, Shawn, but it was funny.”

            “That being said, when Nancy, the loveliest woman I had ever seen, took a suggestive posture and gave me a come hither smile, I leapt across the table like a lion on a wildebeest, knocking what was left of the wine onto the floor, along with the dish of soda crackers and the vase full of water and blooms from the floral department of the local grocery.”

            The Bishop was silent with a shocked look on his face.

           “Yes, we stumbled onto each other like inexperienced teens, casting off clothing in all directions and leaping into each other’s arms by the time we reached the bed. It was the most poignant sexual experience I had ever suffered. I both hated Nancy and worshiped her. She’d turned me into an animal. She stripped God from my heart and mind and stood in his great stead. It was a magnificent night, but when the sun came up in the morning, Nancy was not in the apartment. I thought perhaps she was ashamed and did not want to see me again. I hoped that was not the case. I was completely in love with her, so much that I decided to leave the priesthood if she asked me to.”

        “Of everything I’ve heard so far, that is the most shocking. That you would consider leaving the church,” the Bishop said. “You have always exhibited a piety that was almost arrogant in its intensity. There were times when you did not seem human.”

      “And yet, I am among the most frail in my dedication to the church.”

      “What happened next?”

       “I gathered my clothing from the bedroom floor, the hallway rug, the living room hardwood, and the kitchen linoleum, putting each piece on in reverse order from which I shed them.  Now looking around, I found no definitive trace of her, which was disturbing. The wine was still staining the floor. The crackers were scattered, and the blooms still vibrant in a pool of water and shattered pottery. I cleaned the mess, then I scrutinized the apartment further. It was not much bigger than my own quarters provided by the parish. There were pictures on the walls. None of them had Nancy in them. There was mail on one end table.  Her name was not on it.  This is not her apartment, I realized. Whose then?”

           This part of the story tore at Father Rickman’s heart. He had to rest before he continued, and the Bishop waited, his eyes filled with pity.

          “I opened the door to leave, and a stranger was standing there with a key in her hand.  She took one look at me and screamed. ‘Please don’t be frightened,’ I said. ‘I’m Father Rickman.’ She stared at me, ready to bolt, but then she noticed my clothing, the collar. She did not run, but she cautiously stayed outside.”       

           “It must have been embarrassing,” the Bishop said.

            “I asked her if this was her apartment. She said it was, and she wondered how I got in. I explained that I was let in by a woman named Nancy. She told me that she had lived in the apartment for the past two years, and the woman who had the apartment before her was named Nancy, but she was dead. She had committed suicide, in that very place.”

              “Suicide. How terrible,” the Bishop said. “And you obviously knew her during that time, when she was so troubled.”

              “I must have looked stricken. The woman’s tone changed to one of sympathy. She came through the door and invited me to stay and have a cup of coffee. I told her no thanks and got out of there as quickly as I could. But then, before I got very far, I went back and banged on her door. I just had to ask. How did Nancy take her life? She told me that Nancy shot herself. Under the chin with an automatic. She’d read about it in the newspaper and became excited at the prospect of an empty apartment in the neighborhood. Her sister lived three blocks away.”

              Then Father Rickman chuckled. “I asked her if she believed in ghosts. She knew what I was getting at. She said that if I was asking if Nancy haunted the apartment, that she had no indication of it. The only noises that bothered her were the neighbor’s dogs. She said the damn things made the strangest sounds. She compared it to living next to a zoo. And they howled in the middle of the night sometimes. She said she’d complained, but it did no good.”

                Father Rickman sat silently now, sipping wine, waiting for Bishop Morgan to comment.        

                 “What you’re telling me is that you had sex with a ghost. Is that the upshot of it?”

                 “Well, yes, Lyle. You don’t have to make it sound so pedestrian.” 

                  “No, of course not,” he said, struggling for the right words. “It is a singular experience, Shawn. And tragic, to have found that special someone at a time in life when she was not…alive. But you accused yourself of having committed an abomination. I would hardly call it that. You are much too hard on yourself. One such encounter with a ghost might be called a minor infraction, especially since you didn’t realize, and considering the PTSD.”

        “Well, perhaps,” Father Rickman said, admitting he had a flair for the dramatic, and exaggeration. “I went back to my life, and the week dragged on, one joyless day after another until Sunday. I was hungover most of the time, wondering if all the craziness was just that. Was I crazy? Oh, how I wanted to be crazy. Nancy could be alive, and she would come to mass, with Maude beside her. Perhaps I had not killed her with my cold disregard and mockery. But when she did not come, I was faced with the truth, and I became a broken man. There were so many things left unsaid between us, and I did not know how to reach her. How does a mortal call on a ghost? A Ouija board, perhaps? I feared demonic possession so often associated with that game, especially since I’d become a believer in the supernatural, so that was out. The only safe thing I could think to do was visit her grave.”

             The Bishop, in his sympathy, wiped tears from his eyes and blew into his handkerchief.    

            “I found where she was buried and again, taking a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of wine with me, I went to her. Placing the flowers against the headstone under her name, I poured out my heart, hoping she could hear me. Telling her I loved her, and how sorry I was for not believing her. Then I drank the wine, and like a loyal dog standing guard, I slept six feet above my mistress. Nancy came to me in a dream.”

             “Did she really?”

            “Go home, Shawn, before you catch your death,” she said. “It’s going to rain.”

             “Was that all she said?”

           “At that time, and it meant the world to me. I awoke to a downpour that soaked my clothes and chilled me to the bone. I very nearly did catch my death. That was autumn of 1989, many years before you and I met.” 

            “I can’t remember a thing about 1989. My memory is failing me,” the Bishop said, with a confused expression on his face.

            “Nancy was clairvoyant, you see, Lyle. She didn’t realize it when she was alive but in death, through trial and error, she learned of her gift and how to use it. And I have been helping her ever since, as I should have been helping all along.  I suffer terrible guilt over how badly I treated her. Perhaps, if I had been understanding, she would not have killed herself.”

           “You and I met later, in 2010. Is that right?”  the Bishop said.

          “Listen Lyle. This is important. She tells me things about people, and I check on them to see if they’re alright. I pass messages back and forth between the living and the dead. As we did for Maude, I hear confessions and give absolution so a spirit will feel ready to move on. We’ve helped many such souls over the years. I’m glad you came to see me, Lyle. Nancy has given me a message for you.”

         “For me.” The Bishop said. “From my Anna?”

         “That’s right, from your wife. She sends her love and she wants you to know that she always understood your dedication to the church, and she never held it against you. She said you made her very happy. You can stop haunting now and move on. Anna promises that when it’s her time, she will come and find you.”

          Bishop Morgan let out a sob. A single tear fell from his face and disappeared before it hit the tabletop, and he was gone. The ghostly outline of his crumpled handkerchief lingered, then it too evaporated.

           Father Rickman finished his birthday dinner, eating a few extra bites, as he promised his friend he would do. He finished one more glass of wine.   

          “I’m so tired, my love,” he said.  How much longer must I walk this lonely Earth?”

           He could hear Nancy’s voice, a soft whisper in his ear that caused it to tickle.   

         “It won’t be much longer now, Shawn. And remember, dearest, you never walk alone.”


 BIO

Retired and living in Hamilton County, Texas, Catherine Link is a painter who occasionally teaches private students. She has won awards in local shows for her artwork and had one of her pieces included in the December 2013 issue of the Rotarian Magazine.   

She loves to write short stories, which is like a form of meditation for her, calming her nerves and taking her away from everyday life for a while.

Catherine has had short stories published in Dragon Poet Review, Corner Bar Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Toasted Cheese, and Bewildering Stories.

She is married to Robert Link, also an artist and burgeoning writer. They have two grown sons. Douglas, who lives in Waco and enjoys painting, and Daniel, who lives in Northern California and is a successful fiction writer. 

The Woman Left Behind is Still Behind Him

by Shea McCollum


Celine almost couldn’t find the factory on her first day because of the awning. She had followed the directions left to her by her husband and taken the hillside road down into the valley. But instead of a factory, all she could see from above was an endless stretch of farmland. She was about to turn back to see if she had missed some fork in the road when she noticed the way that some of the distant barns seemed to ripple in the breeze. She continued making her way down the road until she found herself underneath a giant painted awning in whose shadow the factory lay hidden. There she joined the crowd of women that had gathered outside, waiting for the foreman to call out their names.

“Cigarette?” a lanky woman offered Celine her carton. She accepted gratefully and they smoked together in silence. Celine kept sneaking glances over at her between exhales. Almost all of the ladies gathered there, Celine included, looked nearly identical with their red lipstick and newly purchased trousers. They had all clearly seen the same poster in town with the bolded caption The Woman Left Behind is Still Behind Him. But this woman beside her was bare-faced, maybe a good ten years older than the rest of the crowd, with boots so broken in it looked as if she had been born with them. She didn’t seem nearly as nervous as Celine felt, or else she was better at hiding it.

“I wonder if they’ll give us an advance today,” Celine said to break the silence.

“I wouldn’t count on it. The foreman only pays on Fridays,” the woman replied without looking at her. “And don’t plan on making what your husband did. You’ll probably get about half.”

Celine glanced over at the woman about to ask a question when she answered it for her. “I worked here during the last war.”

“So, you know what it’s like inside?”

The veteran woman nodded.

“Is it difficult?” Celine asked. “The work, I mean. Were you able to get by okay?”

For a moment, the veteran woman’s lips twitched into the ghost of a smile, but she kept a straight face. “If you can learn to use an electric mixer, you can learn to use a drill press.”

The only other job Celine had ever had was on her grandfather’s farm. At the age of five, she and all her other young cousins were hired to sit in the dirt and pick all the grapes that grew near the bottom of the vine. They got five cents for every basket they managed to fill up. When she outgrew that, her parents put her in school, and after school, she had married her husband Richard. She’d spent almost every day since taking care of him and their house and eventually their two boys. The idea of working had never even crossed her mind.

Except once, a few years earlier, at a dinner party she and Richard had hosted for some of their friends. They were discussing how at the textile factory one town over, they had started to hire more and more married women whose kids were old enough to take care of themselves. Celine had only half been paying attention to the conversation until one of Richard’s friends turned to her and asked, “Celine, when the boys are in school, do you think you’ll ever get a job like Richard?”

Celine’s immediate reaction was to laugh. The image she got in her head of donning a matching set of jeans to her husband, of hauling heavy objects around (as she imagined much of factory work was consumed with), of returning home covered in sweat and grime only to have to cook dinner just seemed ridiculous to her.

But Richard cut in before she could answer. “No, the day Celine gets a job will the day all of hell freezes over.”

As it turned out, all it really took was the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor.

Celine had never seen an airplane in person before. She had only seen grainy images of them in the newspaper or flying very distantly overhead. She had certainly never seen a half-finished plane, like the one that sat in the center of the factory floor. It reminded her a bit of a whale skeleton she had seen many years before hung up on the ceiling of a museum. There was something about seeing that unfinished beast that felt a bit like glancing behind the curtain. Seeing all the little bits of machinery usually hidden under the hard shell exterior was a bit like being given insight into how the magic trick that is flying works.

 But to Celine’s dismay, the foreman led her and the other new recruits past the plane to a station for riveting. The foreman showed them how to do it, making sure to always keep their hands behind the tool so they wouldn’t accidentally drill themselves.

“Here’s a stack of sheets to get you all started,” he said. “Bolts are in a box over there. Before you get low, someone with a cart should be by to drop some more off. If you finish before they do, come and let me know.”

He was curt but not unfriendly. It was obvious that having to direct women in the factory made him a bit uncomfortable. But he was grateful for their presence nonetheless and made it known in the little ways he could. Later that week, when Celine recruited one of her neighbors to come work in the factory, she’d found an extra bonus in her paycheck and a little note thanking her for her service to her country.

Celine found pretty quickly that the veteran woman, whose name she’d learned was Margaret, was right. The work wasn’t difficult. Actually, it was a lot like housework, rhythmic and a bit boring but not altogether impossible to master. She entertained herself throughout the day making friends with the women working beside her or listening to the radio. The foreman had it playing constantly at a low level throughout the factory, giving updates on the war effort. Celine never understood why until one day in the middle of a reporting on the previous week’s victories and losses when the factory spontaneously burst into raucous cheers.

“What’s going on?” Celine had managed to get Margaret’s attention over the chaos.

“The plane that they’re talking about, the one that took down the Germans,” she said breathlessly. “It’s one of ours.”

That was the first time that Celine understood what it was they were really doing there. It was easy to forget while mindlessly drilling plates together all day where the planes were going when they left the factory. That the bolts that she secured could be the same ones holding her husband’s life together from 20,000 feet off the ground. And from that moment on, no matter how tedious the work got, it always felt like it had an air of sacredness to it.

The only time the radios were ever turned off was when the foreman got on the loudspeaker to announce that there was a plane flying overhead. Everyone would stop what they were doing and wait in silence for the buzzing outside to stop. Of course, there had been only a few bombings on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor and almost all by water, but the foreman would take no chances.

Every day the workers were given an hour break for lunch. Some of the women who lived nearby would run home to make food for their children before coming back, sweaty and more exhausted than when they had left. But those like Celine who lived farther off stayed and gathered under the awning together to eat out of their tin lunchboxes. Sometimes, Celine would invite some of the ladies over to her house in the evenings after the children had gone to bed and they would all drink scotch and talk into the late hours of the night as their husbands used to do.

She had even managed to convince Margaret to come by on occasion. Outside of the factory, she was somewhat less brusque, especially when they managed to get a drink or two in her. When Margaret was feeling particularly social, she would regale them with stories of the different jobs she had worked over the years. She made them howl with laughter at her telling of the time she worked as a switchboard operator and mixed up the lines between a divorced couple and a pair of newlyweds or about the one day she spent as a department store clerk before she got fired for refusing to wear pantyhose.

“But my favorite job by far,” she would always end her stories. “Has been working in this factory. It’s the only thing they let me do that matters.”

When Celine wrote Richard her weekly letter updating him on life at home, she sometimes mentioned these stories or gave updates about how their sons were doing in school, but she would rarely mention her work in the factory, even though she was doing exceedingly well. It was as if her years of sewing little buttons onto children’s sweaters or polishing delicate china had actually been training for the precision work required in the factory.

When she started finishing her riveting work faster than the women with the wheelbarrows could supply her with new materials, she went and told the foreman, who gave her increasingly more difficult jobs. Winding delicate copper wire into intricate patterns, dealing with tiny screws half the length of her pinkie nail, gluing and peeling fabric on the wing only to glue it back again.

Celine grew comfortable working alongside the remaining men at the factory. So much so that sometimes she would forget her place. One day as she was working beside one of the new recruits, a young man who couldn’t have been more than a few years older than her eldest son, she noticed that he was holding his hand in front of the drill.

She tapped him on the shoulder. “You’re actually gonna want to hold it like this,” she said showing him with her own drill. “That way you won’t accidentally get your hand.”

He looked at her for a moment with a blank face before glancing back over at the other men at the station. They were all looking up from their work at him waiting to see what would happen.

“I think I know what I’m doing,” he eventually said in a flat voice, turning his back to her.

After that, she was careful about how she talked with the men. She made sure to give all of her instructions in the form of questions to let them feel like they were the ones teaching her. Instead of “This is how you hold a drill” she would ask, “Am I doing this right?”

Eventually, Celine had advanced enough that she had worked on every step of the process that it took to make a plane and was pretty sure she could assemble one from scratch all by herself. That’s when the foreman placed her and Margaret in charge of training and looking after the new employees that were still trickling in every week. Being able to look at the bigger picture of things like this, Celine had begun to brainstorm ideas for a plane of her own. She showed them to Margaret, who helped her work out the technical details that turned her ideas into actual designs. Celine kept these sketches in a notebook, knowing that after the war, the factory would go back to making commercial planes, at which point she might gain the courage to pitch the foreman some of her ideas.

And then one morning, just as everyone was getting settled at their stations, one girl shouted above the chatter, “Turn up the radio!”

Someone did just in time for them to hear the announcer say, “President Truman has just informed us that the war in the European theatre has ended with the unconditional surrender of the German army.”

And as soon as he said this, the uproar in the factory was uncontrollable. People stopped what they were doing to hug each other, to laugh, to cry. It was so wild that for the first time since Celine had been at the factory, the foreman called for an early lunch. All the workers flooded the streets and joined the people of town already there celebrating. They drank wine and talked about what they would do now that there would be no more scrimping, no more saving up pennies or donating scrap metal. They speculated how long it would be before their husbands would return and what they would say to them when they did.

And at the end of their lunch hour, still flushed with excitement, still buzzing with conversation, they made their way back to the factory where Celine spotted Margaret hurrying in the opposite direction, a stack of papers tucked under one arm.

“Is everything alright?” Celine stopped her as she passed.

“You delude yourself into thinking things can change, but they never do,” Margaret said and brushed past her.

Celine looked down at the road at her for a moment before following the other women back inside the factory. There she found the foreman standing on the factory floor, waiting for them.

“I want to thank you all for your time here,” he said. “But as the men are expected to return home soon, your help is no longer necessary.”

Celine watched him in a daze as he began to call up all the women individually to collect their final paycheck. 

“Mrs. Rodgers,” he shouted and Celine floated to the front of the room. The foreman flashed her a wide smile as he shook her hand. But still, he couldn’t meet her eye when he said, “Thank you for your service.”


BIO

Shea McCollum holds a BA in Creative Writing from Pepperdine University. Her work has previously appeared in The Kudzu Review and Canyon Voices Magazine. She intends on pursuing her MFA in Fiction next fall.

Excerpt

by Steven M. Smith


Her shoulder-length hair gift wrapped
in a floral towel and the way she leaned
forward, her bath water breasts pressed
to her thigh, her leg up on the edge
of the tub and that arousing sound
of the razor scratching across the soapy
stubble on her shin while her left hand
cupped the hollow behind her knee.


Concern


They
often tell each other
they’re often concerned about
something that doesn’t concern
them such as the Sunday
afternoon they sat straight up
in the wicker chairs on their
open front porch using their
smartphones to film the elderly
woman who lives across the street
as a darkening sky brought
a threatening gust of wind
that raised and flapped her floral
cotton house dress up above
her waist as she struggled
with a mop handle near
the top rung of her rickety
16-foot ladder to dislodge a wasp
nest the size of a bugle’s bell
buzzing with a call to arms under
the second story eave of her
raised ranch in a neighborhood
where some are often concerned
about something that doesn’t concern
them.


Names Will


But names will never
hurt us, so the saying goes.
So does that mean you can bash
the door in on our private
space with a battering
ram of name-calling?  Whack
us up aside the temple
with a rat-a-tat-tat of hate
words?  Go ahead and box
our ears with malice?  Your words
might make us wobble and well
up a bit.  Your words might even
feel like you swung a few sticks
and heaved a few stones.

But please think how lonely
and grueling and miserable
to relentlessly lug and shove
and drag from day to day
so little love all over this little
space . . . and to amass all
that unpredictable volatility
in the armory of your mouth.


November 1


Another October midnight is now
just a sigh and a shrug.  Halloween
left trash cans choking on candy wrappers.
Evil dentists counting on cavities.
Costumes shoved back into burial bins.
Cemeteries are nursing the annual hangovers
of the dead.  The burned-out jack-o’-lanterns
with their mushy flesh and brittle brain stems
know the trick is up.  Today they will treat
their maker in the compost pile.

But somewhere on a rutty path
of an urban legend and leafless trees
the ghost of a horse is still rearing
in the startled dawn, still stamping
and snorting.  Its restless horseman
still has a shadow for a head—no flaming
pumpkin to burn his way through the fog.
Only that same solitary candle continues
to flicker in the gaping hole in his chest
where his heart used to be.


Look What She Found


Look what she found
on a hook behind her late
husband’s garage workbench—
a fortification that he occupied
after his tours of duty
to minimize casualties
and endure the ongoing war:
She found his missing
dog tags folded in a farewell
note buried in a blank envelope
draped with a forever flag stamp.  She seldom
talks about the garage morning
he yanked the ring—a grenade pin—
from his finger and tossed it
into the recycling bin
as he stacked his moving boxes
like sandbags on the concrete floor
during that final battle—
before the inevitable retreat—
that would end the war.


BIO

Steven M. Smith’s poems have appeared in publications such as Rattle, Poem, Old Red Kimono, Plainsongs, Poetrybay, Ibbetson Street Press, Studio One, The River, Cabildo Quarterly, Better Than Starbucks, Hole in the Head Review, and Mudfish. He has poetry forthcoming in The Worcester Review. He is the Writing Center director at the State University of New York at Oswego. He lives in North Syracuse, New York.

Savior

by Katy Van Sant

Rebecca sat in a folding chair from Big 5 on the banks of the Russian River, an hour north of San Francisco. She heard her phone ding and retrieved it from the drink holder in the armrest. Wow. She hadn’t thought about that night in over twenty years. She gazed out through the green water and splashing frolickers.  

Rebecca remembered Julia that night wading into the bay. She had taken off everything except her underwear and walked alone across the soft sand into the dark waters. Beautiful in the moonlight. Julia didn’t say anything before she walked into the bay. No let’s go for a swim, or who’s going in with me.

Julia’s favorite nephew who she had helped raise had been shot and killed only two months earlier. Rebecca had been observing her throughout the night as they celebrated another coworker’s birthday and she could see how she struggled to contain the pain that she was steeping in. The more she drank, the less she was able to hold it in. When a racist woman accused them of going after her boyfriend, Stay away from my man and go back to where you came from, Julia had cried, “No!” in a low, desperate voice as she stood up to go at the woman. It sounded like a plea to herself, trying to stop herself, but it also said not again, no more, why are you doing this to me? Rebecca and the others verbally backed her up, while they held her back physically. Then the woman said she had called the police and Rebecca’s group stumbled down to that little cove before they arrived.

Rebecca had taken off her clothes and gone in after Julia. Body hot and rosy white from the whiskey and adrenaline, she didn’t even feel the cold. As she entered the water she recalled how she’d learned to drag a body while swimming, hooking one arm under the armpit and around the shoulder. Would she be able to do it? She gave Julia her space, but she stayed ready.

Rebecca stared at the phone trying to think of how to reply and wondering what exactly Julia was trying to say. Not all had my back like you. Does that mean she really was going to try to drown herself in the bay? Because that’s what Rebecca had thought when she saw her walk in. She could still to this day see the image that came to her. Julia’s firm brown body drifting in the deep, surrounded by seahorses and sparkling coral, her long dark hair intertwined with streams of seaweed.

As she recalled that night, it dawned on Rebecca that that was when it had started with her step-son Alex. It was not long after that night, probably the Spring of the next year, that Rebecca saved Alex’s life for the first time.  She was doing the dishes and he was behind her, playing on the kitchen floor. Rebecca’s boyfriend Andres, later to become husband, had left her alone with his son Alex for the first time. It was an emergency. Alex’s mother was in the hospital and Andres had taken his older son to visit her. Alex, 3-years-old at the time, hadn’t been told why his father was gone, but she could tell that he sensed something was different. There was a very slight shift in his behavior. Kids don’t need to know the details. Not like adults, or at least, Rebecca, a self-admitted busybody, who had to know everything and everyone’s business.

That evening, as she picked up a spaghetti encrusted plate, an alertness came over her, transformed her. It was a sensation that filled her in the presence of danger. Rebecca turned around and Alex was looking at her, mouth opened. He made no sound, but his eyes said it all. Those damned marbles. His little windpipe had a marble lodged in it blocking it entirely. Rebecca could see it in her mind’s eye. She didn’t move fast or slow. Deliberately. It was like she was watching herself from above as she calmly walked over to him, got down on her knees, turned him around, slipped her arms around his torso, made a fist with her right hand and cupped it with her left. Silently count to three and quickly push in and upward. Pop! The marble shot out of his mouth, rolled across the hardwood floor and disappeared under the table.

Neither of them said anything for three seconds. Stunned. Rebecca started to come back into herself.

“Are you okay?” Alex only smiled. “That marble was in your windpipe, blocking your throat so you couldn’t breathe.” He kept smiling, which was something she was used to by now. Alex had a speech and language disorder and often didn’t know what to say, or how to say it, or what was being asked of him. At three, he only had a few words. As he got older the sentences that would come out of his mouth were often incomprehensible, even to Andres and Rebecca. One of his coping mechanisms was simply to smile. It could be infuriating, but at this moment, relief at seeing that familiar smile rushed over Rebecca as she started to comprehend that he could have died, had she not been close-by and known what to do. She turned away, faced the sink again, so he wouldn’t see her cry. But she knew he knew. Alex may have had difficulty with words, but from a very young age, his powers of perception when it came to feelings and moods were another matter. If she was getting upset, maybe during a conversation with his dad, Alex would catch it before Rebecca herself even realized how her mood was shifting and Alex would interrupt and, once he learned to talk, he would try to steer the conversation in a different direction. He often amazed her.

After that Rebecca saved Alex’ life a total of thirteen times. It just kept happening. And each time it happened Rebecca always felt like he was the one saving her life. He was giving her something, offering her something, pushing her in some direction, but she couldn’t figure out where. As he got older, the life-saving became a joint effort. They were saving his life, doing it together. Or were they saving her life? There was the time they were swimming together in the Pacific Ocean in Baja. Suddenly the sand was no longer beneath her feet and Rebecca could feel the two of them being pulled out. Alex was only seven years old. Again, Rebecca was out of her body, felt another force take over. Was it him? Was it Alex himself?

“We have to swim as hard as we can towards the shore. Don’t stop. Use your arms and legs.” He said nothing and did exactly as she’d commanded. She swam behind him, giving him little pushes. When they made it to the beach they sat side by side, panting.

There was the time they were in the ocean in Rebecca’s brother’s inflatable canoe on a weekend they’d been camping on the Mendocino Coast. The waves were pounding and tossing the canoe closer and closer to the rocks. Again, they paddled together, strong and determined, sweating under the cold ocean spray until they reached safety. Each time she felt a deepening gratitude that she didn’t understand. Each time a well of mystery, of teaching, of life, of majesty opened wider and wider. She was swimming in it, searching for the meaning

There was the time he was running full-speed into a busy street and she scooped him up and they both fell over on the edge of the street as a car sped by. But most of the life-saving had involved water and breath. Drowning or suffocating. Rebecca connected it to his difficulty with speech, an attack on the passageway that made verbalization possible. To Rebecca language was life. She was not an animal person and could not connect with pets because they couldn’t speak. She needed to know, through words, what people thought and felt and she needed to express herself in that same way. What did it all these life-saving experiences mean? Why couldn’t someone just explain it to her? Why couldn’t she google it and read a few articles and easily understand what was happening?

As he grew into a young man his ability to converse, to express himself and to comprehend verbal meaning improved, but it never surpassed his other senses, not even close. After many struggling years of schooling full of frustrations and bittersweet triumphs, of self-educating and clumsy advocating for Alex, he was now in a good place, at peace with his life and his abilities. Working as a veterinarian’s assistant his skills not only with the animals, but with their owners were appreciated. Using very few words, he had a way of calming scared or nervous pet-owners. He lived at home with his father and Rebecca.

Rebecca sat in her beach chair staring out at the green waters of the Russian River. The beach was packed with city folk, awkward on the hot rocks and cold water, enjoying a summer weekend day away from foggy San Francisco. Alex and Lili were among them. Practicing the steps of an awkward, time-honored dance of new love. The text from Lili’s mom had come in fifteen minutes ago and Rebecca relived that night several times as she sipped her beer. What was Julia trying to tell her? Not all had my back like you. When nothing had happened that night, when she didn’t end up having to save Julia – talk her down or swim back to shore tugging her body behind her – she had assumed Julia never had any intention of drowning herself. She chalked it up to a crazy drunken night. But now, twenty years later, she wondered. Did I save her life? Is that what she’s saying? The emotion that came up was pride at the thought of saving Julia’s life. Pride was uncomfortable, inappropriate. Shame. Rebecca felt shame at her pride, but at the same time an unstoppable desire to know. She wanted to know she’d saved Julia’s life. She wanted everything to fit together like a tidy puzzle where she came out the hero. She saved Julia that night in order to ensure that Lili would come into this world. Then she saved Alex over and over again so that in the end Lili and Alex would find each other. That’s what Rebecca wanted confirmation on. Wanting that felt bad, but so good. How to respond to the text in order to get the confirmation she craved.

Rebecca hit send and immediately hid the phone in the bottom of her snack basket, stood up from her beach chair in her slowed-down, middle-aged fashion, nothing like the young woman who’d bounded into the bay after her friend that long-ago night, and walked down to the water’s edge to cool off. She stood with her feet submerged and searched for her son and her friend’s daughter. For an instant she seized up. Was he drowning again? But then she spotted the two of them in the water together, chest high, bobbing slightly, in an embrace. She could feel the excitement of their fresh love. Loss washed over her, followed by a lonely liberation. He didn’t need her anymore. She slowly waded into the cool green water.

When she returned to her chair, she fished her phone out from the snack bag.


BIO

Katy Van Sant is an emerging writer and translator who has won prizes from Glimmer Train and The Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. She has been published in Months to Years Literary Journal and Strangers’ Guide Magazine. She has written two novels and is currently working on a book exploring the circumstances surrounding the murder of her grandfather. She lives with her partner and children in San Francisco, California. Find out more about Katy at Twitter or Facebook.

Sitting

by F.X. James


The day is crisp as an opened beer. Trees conjugate
with a sultry breeze. A silver plane comes in for a landing,
the bodies inside, overly complex and heavy with issues.
Not much is simple for our kind, though perhaps some
of it, a little of it, should be. Harley-Davidsons rumble by.
Denim clad dreams of teenage boys perch like raptors on the
backseats. Their admirable mores have almost faded. Life is
cruel that way. There is no wine here, only beer, and the cool
empty hours curling naked at my feet. But I cannot leave this
moment, the ideal air, the clouds thickening with life, recalcitrant
shadows undulating against city streets. Fruit flies hover with hope,
though I’ve not had fruit here for days. A slender woman carrying
a yoke of hard years, pushes a small child in a plastic wagon.
What will he recall of her in twenty years or more? A green car
runs a red light. Bellicose sirens swell. The air is cheap. The beer
is cheap. The minutes continue to unfurl themselves. Young
people stand on the corner, laughing beyond mirth, their hands
skating over unpracticed flesh. So many roles to be performed,
as trucks add oily darkness to the day, and a topless car pulls to the
curb, the clowns inside trapped within the painted vacuity of
tweets and YouTube fails. Nothing there is more than a shrill laugh,
an insecure desire to be momentarily liked. Sitting as this day rolls
on, shadows and sun, green trees, monolithic clouds, and the
ephemeral desires we hold, comprehensibly null.


fixing


The daylight lies clear and cool. Wind ruffles the feathers of
old trees. The land is flat and unequivocally unremarkable. The
denizens here act like it means something more. They carry pride
like a dog carries its collar. What would you do if you were new
here? The response is always the same: the falls, downtown,
a park or two, gutted bars, meat to be cooked outside, God,
in all his glorious indifference. Many here are fixing to make a
change, but nothing really happens. The river runs like it does.
Geese shit everywhere. Tattoo parlors fail like pacified boxers.
Books fall to the wayside. It’s all about the hunt, pale beer,
whomever laughs loudest, and what will happen when this no
longer happens. “We got it pretty good here,” a drunk dullard
exclaims, swinging his molded mug of thin beer. But he has been
nowhere yet, not even to a neighboring state. His girlfriend is blank
and overweight, and at nineteen, already much too pregnant.
Suddenly the daylight seems too harsh. Dreams lose their tenacity.
Ten years from now, it’ll be a small grey house with a dry yard, two
kids and a dead cat. It’ll be ballgames with flies, impassive love
on Wednesday nights, overtime on Saturdays, in-laws who break
the slow momentum. It’ll be this and a shallow brown river, pigs
pouring in by their thousands for slaughter.


inward


At work the fools remain fully foolish. The lesser
one bleats of the inhumanity of it all. The weirdo
coats himself in the oily sheen of butcher/killer.
The third descends into unlit catacombs, touching
here and there a favored clutch of bygone bones.
When the air’s not moving, tempers rise like winter
waves. No one’s mother goes unscorned. When there
is no dust, there is still sweat. Without sweat, only
more boredom, more rage, more dry screws twisting
in the drums of troubled minds. Dumb men can be
so damn cruel when they’re empty. The hallways lie
thick with dirt and squalid heat. Restrooms reek of
dry piss. Flies live and die in lucid worlds overhead.
Machines stay fickle as online love. Nothing dispels
the ten hour day’s inextricable waste, and every word
not needed, or unheard, falls to the unwashed floor,
where it quickly dies under borrowed boots.


keening


She pushes them on in a scoop of wheeled plastic.
They can’t be more than two or three, maybe less,
maybe more, who cares. Not her. Their faces blossom
bright with snot. Their small hands wriggle twenty
pink and tacky worms. Tiny naked feet are angered
by the cool empty air. A dog captures their sullen eyes.
Then a fire truck, with its blood red skin, large hands
waving from inside. She pushes them on. They are
keening loud, and the park is near. Turkey vultures
dip the ragged tips of their midnight sails. An hour
here, then home again. Nothing gained beyond
enduring. Their cries continue, though the streets
are childless, the skies thick with heavy clouds.


BIO

F. X. James is the pseudonym of an oddball British expat hiding out in Minnesota. When not dissolving in another savage summer or fattening up for the next brutal winter, he’s writing poems and stories on the backs of unpaid utility bills. His words have appeared in The Sierra Nevada Review, Prairie Winds, The Adirondack Review, Mystery Tribune, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Courtship of the Winds, and many other publications.

Death Rattle

by Kristen Roedel

 
“What do we do?”

I pried my eyes from the word jumble before me. I’d been jotting down the beginnings of words and crossing them out, one after the other. SINNEDCOAS. SIN. CANDIES. SON. DEACON. DIES. SEDAN. ASCENDS.

Strangled chirping pierced the dead-quiet from the peach tree, whose lushly-leafed branches scraped against the siding and tapped on the windowpanes. The young sun beat in onto the fanned-out stack of brightly-colored bills, which clamored for attention like flyers on a telephone pole. Flecks of orange jittered in Annabel’s weary, marbled beryl eyes as she dragged a well-gnawed fingertip along the yo-yoing balance column in the checkbook from a few thousand to a number that read the same from both sides.

Pink was most urgent and typically largest. Pay off one, and we’d be set for a while. But that same money could be used to knock out a blue and a yellow—sometimes two. But the credit card companies weren’t as kind.

“How much after the house?”

She shook her head, laying out three pinks atop the pile like tarot cards. When I reached to brush a dark curl from her cheek, she leaned away. “We can’t afford this—”

“I don’t care what it costs,” I murmured.

She picked up the bottle of Sertraline sitting before her and rattled its sparse contents. She popped the cap and stared down its barrel. Then she took the other—Clomid—and downed two. Her almond-shaped nails began plucking at the skin between her trembling fingers. Her lips parted, but they pressed back together in a pensive line when she met my eyes. In all the years we’d been together, she cried bitterly, swore profusely, laughed recklessly, spoke articulately, and argued indignantly, but her eloquence had slowly bottlenecked in the last year. Thoughts died in her mouth as her lips tried and failed to form the words, though I saw them churning in her chest, like acid eroding her throat and tongue. Tears assaulted the bills she was hunched over.

The sun shifted, bouncing off the sunflower-shaped mirror in the hall and stabbing a blinding pain into the back of my skull.

“I get up, I go to work, I teach other people’s kids—” she rasped. “I care for them, love them—” Scorn flared and melted into sadness as she goggled over my shoulder.

“Bel—” I’d downed my last gulp of coffee minutes ago, yet it threatened to spew as if I’d barely swallowed.

“What if it’s too late?”

“We still have time.”

“But I need a break.”

Shamefaced, I watched her rake her hands back through her disobedient curls. The color drained from her face and pooled in her neck and chest.

“Okay,” I croaked.

After a protracted silence, she excused herself. She materialized shortly after to kiss the crown of my head and rain tears down into my hair before slipping out the front door.

* * *

“We got a live one!” Diego grunted, wheeling a tented gurney. He was a man of average stature and agile frame with a thick crop of dark hair, a round jaw, and a youthful face. “Christ, this guy redefines ‘dead weight.’”

The basement of Morgan & Sons was no more than a white-walled frigid cell equipped with an arsenal of steel instruments and bottled chemicals arranged atop shoddy, piss-colored cabinets. The fluorescents didn’t do the place any favors, especially not the dead. From the homey, though dated, upstairs, you’d never know such a cold, clinical place existed just below.

“Is that the bird guy?” My numbing gloved hands steadied over the blue-faced, thirty-something-year-old female before me.

“Yup.” He seemingly shrank when he suited up and secured his mask, concealing all but his big, dark eyes. “Nestor O’Daire, bird trainer extraordinaire. Heart attack.”

“The hell kind of name is Nestor?”

He shrugged, yanking the sheet from the body like a magician revealing the feat behind his velvety cloak. O’Daire was still relatively pink, and his keg-like gut protruded both upward and outward.

“EMTs said he had like a dozen birds on him. Neighbors complained about the smell.” Diego plucked what appeared to be flaky fried chicken skin from O’Daire’s dark, crusted-over mustache and flicked it into the trashcan at his feet. Stuffing his hand into the manila envelope sitting on the tray beside him, he extracted a gold chain from which two oblong medals hung.

“Who do we got?”

“St. Gall and . . .” He squinted. “St. Bernard of Arce?”

I hooked up my cadaver to drain about an hour ago, but she still looked like she was holding her breath under cold blue bathwater.

“Is that the two o’clock?”

“Yup.” I rolled my eyes when Diego began humming Neil Diamond’s “Desirée.”

“Life’s hard, and then you die.”

“Looks like she expedited the hard part,” I murmured, eyeballing the purple abrasions cinching her throat as I wedged cotton bridges beneath each eyelid. A quick referential glance to the photos her husband provided confirmed her eyes had always been a ghostly shade of blue. I hesitated to squeeze the thin line of adhesive that would close them for the last time. Although several rudimentary tasks remained on the horizon, the bruises kept drawing my attention.

“I can’t imagine being that unhappy,” Diego mumbled through his mask. He waited for me to secure mine before beginning to bathe the corpulent body as though it were some bigshot’s bird shit-spattered ’66 Shelby.

I held the curved needle of the injector gun beneath the right hinge of her jaw, brushing my other hand through her matted curls to hold her skull in place. Her lips parted slightly.

“I’ll be joining her if I don’t get a raise soon. I forgot how expensive babies are.”

“I thought you’d’a known that by now,” I huffed out.

“I must block it out after each kid, ‘cause Vanessa keeps poppin’ ‘em out.”

“Yeah, and you’ve got nothing to do with that.”

Diego’s crow’s feet rippled and dissipated.

I squeezed the trigger, coaxing a scratching, tinny cacophony from the skull in my palm, and gingerly plucked the suture that emerged from the roof of her mouth. After a second piercing scrape, I knotted the strings between her lips and massaged them closed. I lifted the photo from the cold metal tray—big eyes and long lashes, relaxed brow, a pinched bridge that gave way to the rounded tip of her nose, a soft dipping chin, smile lines echoing some long-forgotten joy.

A high-pitched squeak reverberated in the vicinity.

“On second thought, maybe it was St. Bonaventure,” Diego mused.

* * *

I hustled all afternoon so I could get home before Anna. Returning to the kitchen table, I sat in her spot to watch the entryway. A grumbling school bus flew past our house, and I heard the subsequent chattering of homebound children. Her keys would typically jangle in the door shortly after. But they didn’t. The hours droned on, punctuated by the round-faced cherry grandfather clock that had sat in my grandparents’ and parents’ houses for over six decades.

Knowing no other way to pass the time, I approached its towering presence in the foyer. Its pearl faceplate was inlaid with gold Roman numerals and marked by scrolled wrought-iron hands. It lacked a moon dial and many of the embellishments of more expensive clocks, but its round-topped overlay, long framing columns, beveled glass, and scalloped toe molding made for a distinguished aura. Its engraved long golden weights hung like tree ornaments, and its intricately-chiseled pendulum bore the moon phases. When the sun swung across the sky and shone through the front windows, the numbers glistened and the pendulum beamed, projecting an oscillating golden orb along the staircase.

I peered into the access panel at its crawling network of gears and chains. Its insides smelled distinctly of my parents’ house—knotty pine, nutmeg, and my father’s pungent aftershave. I imagined it would one day smell like our home, too—freshly-cut flowers, cinnamon, and Anna’s musky floral perfume.

Soon I was sitting in the dark, twisting my wedding band on my clammy finger and fighting the urge to doze at the table. My stomach growled as I paced the kitchen and circumnavigated the first floor, routinely peering outside. I stopped to check the calendar on the counter—no conferences or faculty meetings. She wasn’t teaching at the local college, either. When the clock struck eight, I tried her cell, which rang several times before sending me to voicemail.

“Hey, it’s me. Just wondering where you are. I love you.”

I’d tricked myself into thinking I heard her keys in the door so many times that when it actually opened, I didn’t look up, fixated on my spinning wedding band instead. She stood over me, and I shivered when she combed her slender icy fingers through my hair and trailed them down my neck and shoulders. I knew she was waiting for me to say something, but drinking in her intoxicating aroma, I groveled. Before I could utter a single word, she was already running the shower upstairs. I forced myself to stand and scale the stairs, though my head felt like a boulder and my pockets as though they were loaded with bricks. The hallway was dark. I tried the switch, but the bulb must have burned out—or we’d neglected to pay the electric bill. I followed the sliver of light emitting from beneath the door. I hadn’t expected the thick fog that engulfed me when I pushed it open. The shower hissed, and the pipes creaked more woefully than usual.

“Anna?” I coughed, squinting against the heavy air. My eyes stung as if the steam were smoke, and I stumbled through the thinning fog only to encounter a denser patch above our bed.

Floating through the haze toward the bathroom, the running water grew deafening, and my head began to pound. But it wasn’t just the shower—the tub and sink faucets poured, too, grumbling against the porcelain with such fervor that they started to overflow. I lunged for the tap when the bath gurgled and fizzed. A mangled raspberry mass rose to the surface, squirming and flopping like a fish plucked from a lake, though gangrenous like a slab of carrion whose syrupy, blackened excretions colonized the tub. It wobbled and pulsated, squeezing against itself until it imploded, exorcising white and green maggots from its blistering core.

“Neil?”

I spun around and stalked back into the room. A splintering of two-by-fours, a metallic jangle, and electrical crackling rattled me. The fog over our bed dissipated, revealing a thick, braided rope that had yanked the ceiling fan from the drywall under the weight of a pale pendulum with bulging, weepy greens, tangled tresses, contorted lips, and indigo bruises that blossomed in her neck and snaked down her arms and chest.

Anna lay flat on the cold metal slab that sat in place of our bed, and—to my horror—my hand reached for the scalpel. But her flesh wasn’t hard or blue, nor was her blood gummy. It gave easily—willingly—dripping rubies.

A piercing infantile cry rang out.

“What are you doing?” she rasped, her quivering hand failing to slow the slicing blade in mine. “I told you I needed a break.” Her torso split like a melon under pressure, spilling writhing pink guts that cradled an infant who howled into Anna’s womb as I attempted to extract and examine its slippery body—a boy.

“What are you doing?” Her nails dug into my forearm.

“I’m trying—”

But I kept losing my grip, and he kept slithering back inside, wailing with increasing alarm. His little, slimy outspread fingers groped for the folds of her perforated womb.

“Neil—stop! What are you doing?”

“He’s almost here—just hang in there—”

I gripped his small, slimy arms and finally rent him free, and wiping his shrieking, squirming form clean, I laid him on her chest.

“I need a break, I need a break,” she sobbed, her breasts beginning to express blood.

Anna clutched my shoulders when I jerked awake. I wiped my maw on the back of my hand and craned my neck to look at her. Dry, bemused eyes met mine. Her neck and chest blossomed like scattered poppies in a field. Something lingered on her features, though I struggled to decipher amusement from terror. I flexed my jaw, eyeing the puddle of drool I left behind.

“You’re home late.”

“Stopped by Dad’s.” I watched her throat quiver as she swallowed, passing her fingers through my hair.

My gaze softened, but the pang in my chest didn’t. “Have you eaten?”

She shook her head.

“Let’s go out.”

My heart pounded when she pursed her lips and squeezed my shoulders.

“Okay.”

Though we’d made a habit of choosing each other’s outfits on “date” nights, I felt like I was snooping through her belongings. I laid out her mother’s gold necklace, a pair of strappy heels, and her favorite emerald scoop-necked dress. I pondered the contents of the bed until I heard her in the hallway. Like a child searching for a last-minute hiding spot, I second-guessed myself and nearly missed the edge of the mattress as she walked in. I was surprised to see her still dressed, even pulling her cardigan more snuggly around her torso. Sizing up my selection, she hummed her approval and headed for the closet. She thumbed through my clothes for some time before I moved my lips to speak.

“No funeral clothes tonight,” she interjected. She pushed a black button-down and a pair of pants into my arms before heading into the bathroom with her outfit in tow, the door clicking closed behind her.

Acutely aware of her every movement, I stared into her vanity. I scrutinized my thin nose, which had been too severe in my lanky youth. My blue eyes were gray against my suit. My forehead was apparently growing now that my father’s hairline had begun manifesting on my scalp—at least it held its medium-brown color. I massaged my cheeks, tugging the skin taut with my cheekbones to watch the blood drain under pressure. My face had always been thin, but I looked especially gaunt. Had I been on my own table, I would’ve airbrushed some life back into my face. I felt stubble beginning to scrape to the surface when I rubbed my narrow chin. Dread pooled in my chest cavity as I waited, and I stood there for a while before I remembered I hadn’t yet changed.

I was neatening the knot of my tie when the bathroom door pushed open.

“Honey, could you . . . ?”

Her heels clicked across the hardwood floor, and she turned to eclipse me in the vanity. She swept her hair up and out of the way, the darker strands commingling with the lighter ones. She’d worn this dress a dozen times, but I still struggled to catch my breath. In spite of the forlorn frown that had occupied her features the last couple of years, her plump, heart-shaped lips pulled upward against her glowing skin. Her sweet bulbous nose twitched against her pinched cheeks, and her soft brow gathered, seemingly processing some set of suffocating worries. She clenched the slackened material against her chest, leaving the rest to flank her sides and expose the valley between her shoulders and the small of her back. As if waiting for permission, I pinched the base of the zipper until her inviting eyes met mine in the mirror. Her florid cheeks burned brighter the higher the zipper crawled along her spine. Such a favor once entailed its immediate retraction, twisted sheets, and second showers, but now she averted her eyes.

Her reflection frowned, and she turned to tug my tie loose and toss it onto the bed. “Lighten up,” she murmured, undoing a couple of buttons and straightening my collar before allowing the ghost of a simper to creep onto her lips.

Much of the drive to the restaurant was silent.

“How’s the weather for Saturday?”

“Heavy rain. It’ll be a good weekend to watch movies and catch up on sleep.” I glanced over, hoping to sneak in a smile. She looked the other way.

 “I can’t. I’m dropping my car at the mechanic, I have an appointment with Dr. Aditi, and I wanted to talk to the bank about that loan.”

“I thought the appointment wasn’t for another few weeks.” My eyes stung.

“They had an opening. Wanted to tell her in person.”

“Let me take you.”

“In the hearse?”

I couldn’t tell if she was kidding. “I’ll call out.”

“Neil—”

“I’ll ask D for a ride. Take my car.”

“Hasn’t he been having a hard time being punctual since the baby? The last thing we need is for Harry—”

“He’ll deal.” I gathered my lip between my teeth. “I wanted to go with you.” I looked over again as we crawled to a stop. She tempted her hands to bleed.

“You can’t miss more work,” she said, gnawing on her thumb.

“Let’s just forget that crook.”

“You think he’s screwing us?”

“We’ve paid for at least a full year of college for one of his kids. He’s just replacing all the parts I’ve already replaced and killing us on the labor when he knows there’s nothing he can do.”

I’d thrown the car into park when I noticed her brimming eyes fixed just outside our car. Having scored a relatively close spot to the restaurant, I’d also secured us front-row seats to the show unfolding on the sidewalk. A red-faced balding man held open the door. First darted out a teetering child. Then a double stroller carrying identical wailing toddlers emerged, pushed by a radiant and heftily pregnant woman. But her luminescence dimmed as she hollered after the child who barreled toward the parking lot, and then at her husband, who’d been slow to chase him. As the man dove between our car and the next, she parked her stroller in front of us to pop pacifiers into the babies’ mouths and coo half-heartedly at them. Like a PSA for birth control, he returned with the kicking and screaming child bent over his shoulder and yelled something nasty about being “done” as he buckled the flailing boy into the back of the car parked beside us and slammed the door.

Anna dropped her purse at her feet and sank back into her seat.

* * *

My blaring cell phone woke me. Parched and sweating out of a deep sleep, I groggily fumbled for it, doing a double-take when I spied Anna’s shadowy silhouette partially swathed in our crimson sheets. Her arms were tossed over her head, lips slightly parted, and her unkempt tresses fanned themselves out on the pillow. I stumbled out of bed and into the hall to answer it. Harry. I had a body to pick up.

My mind remained in the other room as I scrubbed yesterday from my skin, fighting off the bilious nausea induced by a long-empty gut. Though I was careful not to make much noise dressing in the dark, I hoped she’d stir, even for a moment, so I could kiss her goodbye. I tiptoed to her side, eclipsing her in the moonlight, and reached to brush a tress from her eyes. But I stopped myself, not wanting to wake her from what appeared to be a long-overdue restful slumber.

Having left home long before dawn could melt winter’s final frost, which killed the tulips along our front walk, I spent the day hopping from one refrigerated cell to the next. I didn’t see the sun until I emerged from the embalming chamber later that afternoon. The wooly air from the car vents scratched my lungs and stabbed my thawing limbs, eventually reawakening the part of my brain that continually projected Anna’s dejected stare. I’d willed it away, knowing I couldn’t do anything about it until lunch. But when the Umbertos came in to discuss the body I’d retrieved that morning, and neither Harry nor Diego could cover for me, I was forced to put her off again. When I finally escaped, she’d already gone back to teaching and couldn’t take my call. Now, the apparition sprung forth with such urgency that I floored it the rest of the way, intent on beating her home with a bouquet of whatever managed to survive the night.

Checking the clock on the dash, I gunned it up the driveway, hurdled through the front door, and wove my way in and out of each room, calling out to her. Wondering if she’d already made her way upstairs, I arranged the flowers into the elegant Lenox vase we’d received as a wedding gift—ivory and adorned with daisies in relief—and brought them with me to scope out the rest of the house. I couldn’t find her, but I did find a notecard standing on her vanity.

I love you. — A

My fist constricted around the neck of the vase until it cracked in my palm, cleaving into large, bloody wedges that clobbered the fallen tulips in their wake.


BIO

Kristen Roedel is an American literature PhD student at Stony Brook University and creative writing professor at St. Joseph’s College. She maintains her sanity by doing more reading and writing in her off-time. She awaits the day when her students will be able to highlight her work and scribble “SHOW, DON’T TELL” in the margins. She lives on Long Island with her fiancée.

www.KristenRoedel.com

Wonderful Vacation

by J L Higgs


As I drove away from the Amtrak station, I called out,  “Have a wonderful vacation.”  Loaded down with suitcases, backpacks, and our two kids, my wife looked anything but amused.   After dropping off the car at my employer’s, I’d return to the station. Highway down, a quick subway ride back, 45 minutes round trip. 

The sun was shining brightly in a clear blue sky when I hit the four-lane highway. A perfect start to our vacation. Then, rounding a curve in the roadway, I suddenly encountered a wall of red tail lights.  

After traffic had been at a standstill for 15 minutes, people began getting out of their cars.  That’s when I learned there’d been a multi-car accident up ahead and decided to call my wife.  I opened the center console, reached for my cell phone, and … no phone. As we’d left home that morning I’d shoved it in my backpack.  F#!%!

At least 20 minutes passed before the emergency vehicles arrived and began wending their way through the backup. My window to drop off the car and return to the Amtrak station was definitely shrinking. I looked at the people in the car next to me. Would they be willing to babysit my car for a week?  What if I offered to give them the car for free? 

Forced to merge into a single lane, traffic finally began trickling past the accident and I made it to my employers. Now all that remained was checking in with security and returning via the subway.

“What?  There’s no mention of my prearrangement? I…”

“Sure, color, make, model, year, plate number … no problem.” 

What’s with the piece of cardboard and the black magic marker? 

“Oh, hang this on my rearview mirror?  Gotcha.” 

Christ, you mean I could have just scribbled a bunch of numbers on a piece of cardboard and hung it on my mirror? 

OK, parking handled, next, the subway.  Up the steps, through the…  what the?  The door’s locked!  Entrance closed on weekends?  Use other entrance?  F#!%! That’s at the other end of the building.  Crap, the signal lights on the inbound side of the track are red.  It’s my train!  

Down the steps, I sprinted and through the station’s parking lot like my hair was on fire.  At the far end of the building, I took the steps two at a time, burst through the entrance door, and charged on to the platform.  The train’s doors were closing, so I jumped.    

When I got back to the Amtrak station, I searched its lobby for my family.  They were waiting for me near the ticket windows. 

“Very funny,” said my wife as I approached them.  “I called your phone.  And it rang.  Right here in your backpack.”

I then told her about the accident, but her expression remained pure skepticism.  Fortunately, a train station employee passing by overheard my story and confirmed it.   Thank God for that guy!     

#         

Onboard the train, the kids plastered their faces against the windows, determined not to miss a thing on their first long-distance train trip.  That night, my son and I spent a relatively quiet night in coach despite the distant sound of the train’s horn.  But unaccustomed to sleeping sitting upright, we only took brief naps.

The following morning, we went to retrieve my wife and daughter from the sleeper we’d booked for them.  When they opened the door to their teeny room, they both looked disheveled and discombobulated.  My wife told us that shortly after bedding down for the night, the train’s rollicking motion had bounced our daughter out of the fold-down bunk above the main bed.  Thus, they’d attempted to sleep together, my wife’s knees folded sharply, and her feet on the sleeper toilet’s lid.  But sleeping had been impossible.  Theirs was the first car after the locomotive.  For the entire night, they’d been kept awake by the train’s horn blowing at every railroad crossing.

#

We all arrived at the resort hotel sleep-deprived and settled on a quick dinner, then bed.  At some point during the night I thought I heard my wife say, “Someone’s at the door,”

Rolling out of bed, I made my way to the door with the grace of a zombie, opened it, and there stood a young woman.

“We forgot to give you your welcome basket when you checked in,” she said, flashing a smile brighter than the wall lantern outside our door.     

Barely able to nod, I accepted the belated gift.

“Have a wonderful vacation,” she said, her 1000-watt smile still blazing as I closed the door.

Basket in hand, I staggered back across the pitch black room and placed it on a dresser.  

“Who was it?’ whispered my wife.

“Welcome wagon,” I replied, collapsing back into bed.                        

#

After breakfast the next morning, we headed back to the room to retrieve our backpacks, snacks and water bottles to begin our day.  I inserted my key card into the door lock and…  Nothing.  I reinserted it.  Nada.  Convinced the fault lay in my ineptitude, my wife took the key card from me and inserted it.  No click or green admittance light.  We were locked out. 

I volunteered to go to the resort’s check-in desk for help and as I departed my son said, “Well, at least it’s not raining.”

I’d only made it about a quarter of the way when the skies suddenly opened up.  Caught in a downpour, I abandoned my quest and ran back to rejoin my family.  Drenched, clothes clinging to my skin, I stood there as we huddled together, trying to decide what to do.  That’s when my wife spotted a housekeeper.  We explained our predicament to her and she led us to the maid’s supply closet and placed a call from its phone.           

Minutes later a maintenance worker arrived.  After observing our futile attempt to unlock the door, he removed the lock’s outer casing, replaced a pair of double-A batteries and told us to “give it a try.”  Sure enough, problem solved.  As he left, he wished us a “wonderful vacation.”             

#

The next day the sky was overcast, so we took the resort’s shuttle bus to its arcade.  Though the kids could have stayed there forever, my wife and I reached our arcade games limitwithin a few hours.

Strolling back to the shuttle bus stop under darkening skies, my wife doled out the ponchos she’d packed.  Thanks to her foresight, we were well protected when the rain began and forced us to run the remaining distance to the shuttle stop’s shelter building. 

From the shelter, we watched as the roadway flooded in a matter of minutes.  Then,  as the storm gathered strength, thunder and lightning began. 

“Unbelievable,” I said as a man with three children joined us in the shelter.

“Yeah,” he replied, above the sound of rain hammering the shelter’s roof while lightning flashed all around us.  “We were at Safari when yesterday’s storm came through.  One of the giraffe’s got struck by lightning.  Killed on the spot.”

Great, I thought.  Anyone for blackened, smoked giraffe?

Tears appeared in the eyes of his little girl and my daughter, the animal lover’s lower lip was quivering. The boys? His two and mine frowned and shrugged as if to say, what can you do? 

Right then a thunderclap exploded directly overhead, causing us all to jump.  A lightning bolt immediately followed.  As my wife tightened her grip on my forearm and gestured upward with her head and eyes I looked up.  The shelter’s roof was made of tin.   Perfect.                       

#

When the shuttle bus arrived we all scrambled aboard.  Having dodged the threat of getting fried a la giraffe, we were happy to be safe and relatively dry. 

“How many stops until we’re back?” asked my son.

“Ours is the third one,” answered my wife as the bus pulled up to the first one. 

The people waiting in the parking lot’s shelter building quickly boarded and took seats.  Then the shuttle headed toward the lot’s exit.  After we’d gone about 30 feet we stopped.

“Look at all the people,” said my daughter. 

Looking out the shuttle’s window, I saw a horde of people heading towards us. As they reached the parking lot, many were getting in their cars, starting them up, and pulling out, clogging the exit lane.  Because of the storm, the resort had just closed its water park.     

#

Creeping along, it took an hour for us to finally exit the parking lot and continue on to the next stop.  There, everything went off without incident.  We then resumed our trip until we stopped for a red traffic light.  Shortly after stopping, the light turned green and the shuttle driver pressed down on the bus’ accelerator.  The shuttle then shuddered and died.  

“Uh-oh,” said my son. 

Well, at least we’re not in the intersection,” I said, seeing the look of exasperation on my wife’s face.

Finally, on the driver’s fourth attempt, the bus came back to life.

“Should we cross our fingers?” asked my daughter.

“Toes probably wouldn’t hurt as well,” responded my wife.               

#

The following morning, with no trains or shuttles on the day’s agenda, we went to pick up the car I’d rented for the rest of our vacation.  I walked right up to the young woman at the reservation counter, gave her my name, and she promptly typed it into her computer. 

“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s nothing under that name for today.”

Armed with preparedness that would put a boy scout to shame, I whipped out my confirmation email and handed it to her.

“Here it is,” she said after typing in the confirmation number.  “That reservation is for a week from today.”

Was I on Candid Camera? Or Punk’d?  We needed a car now, not next week when we’d be back home.

Despite the mix-up, the young woman assured me she’d be able to provide us with a car.  After making a phone call, she handed me a set of car keys, smiled, and spoke those inimitable words …  you know, “Have a wonderful vacation.”              

#

The days that immediately followed were uneventful.  We swam, enjoyed the amusements and entertainments the resort offered, and watched their nightly fireworks display.

As the end of our vacation approached, the kids lobbied to go to the resort’s newest attraction. Inside its theater-style building, we strapped ourselves into a model car attached to mechanical arms covered with thick black hoses arrayed like octopus tentacles.  The theater lights dimmed leaving us in darkness, a film began playing and the cars took flight twisting, turning, and tipping in the air.

About 5 minutes later, a loud pop sounded, the film abruptly stopped and the theater lights snapped on.  At that point, one of the ride’s attendants told us there’d been a malfunction but that the ride would restart momentarily.  10 minutes passed and then another attendant confessed the restart attempts had been unsuccessful and they had requested help.

Undaunted by the mishap and with us as a captive audience suspended high above the ground, the ride’s attendants then came up with an ingenious idea – playing a trivia game.  With unparalleled excitement, they began taking turns shouting out questions about television shows.  Correct answers received cheers and applause as they jumped up and down with an enthusiasm that would leave competitive cheerleaders envious.  It was beyond riveting!  A ride and a game. Talk about getting more for your money!

After 20 minutes of thrilling trivia, a loud hiss like that from an air hose filled the room and the cars slowly descended.  With the cars back on the floor, the attendants told us the ride would restart shortly. 

“No way,” said my wife and I looking at each other. “We’re getting the hell out of here.” 

Joining the stampede to the exits, we passed a group of smiling resort employees.  They … oh hell, you know what they said.       

#

On the morning of our departure, the kids were sad our vacation was ending.  Me?  I told my wife that if one more person told me to have a wonderful f#$*ing vacation; I was going to punch them. 

Suitcases in hand, we arrived at the train station and gave our tickets to the man on duty.  He eyed our bags and frowned. 

“They ain’t gonna fit,” he said.

“Excuse me,” I replied.

“The bags.  They ain’t gonna fit.”

“How can they not fit?,” I asked.  “We brought them here on the train.”  To my wife, I whispered, “What’s he think?  We tweaked our noses and they just magically appeared here?”

“I’m telling you.  They ain’t gonna fit.  Y’all try ‘em in that there thing,” he said, pointing.  “If they can’t fit in there, they ain’t gonna fit.”

With his hawkish eyes on me, I placed each bag in “that there thing” one at a time.  Sure enough, every bag fit, though mine was a bit snug.

“They all fit,” I said, smiling.  Asshole.  Too bad HE didn’t wish us a wonderful vacation.    

#

Now, being experienced long-distance train travelers, we knew what to expect – light dozing overnight.  But fortunately, this train’s teeny sleeper was a sensible distance from the locomotive.

Things went smoothly that first day, so after lunch the next day we remained in the dining car playing UNO.  With only a few travel hours remaining, the train pulled into a station.  Passengers boarded and exited, and then we continued on our way.  Minutes later, the train began slowing down until it came to a halt. The conductor announced that we’d lost power.  A few minutes after that we were once again underway.  But then, just when we appeared to almost be up to full speed, the train again slowed until it stopped. 

O Over the public address system, the conductor announced that the engine was stone cold dead. Abandoning UNO, we went directly to War, playing card after card slapping against the dining room tabletop. Broken down, we remained idle until another train reached us and could push us the rest of the way.  

Back at the station where our vacation adventure had begun, we retrieved our bags and boarded the subway to go pick up our car.

Above the clatter and squeals of the train wheels scraping along the rails my daughter said to me, “Dad?”

“Yes, hon,” I replied.

“Where are we going on vacation next year?”          


BIO

J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has had over 50 publications and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Magazines publishing his work include Contrary Magazine, The Writing Disorder, Dime Show Review, Remington Review, The River, and Fiction on the Web. He resides outside of Boston.

That Heartbreaking Blues and Other Complications: An Interview with Philip Cioffari

by Bill Wolak & Philip Cioffari

Philip Cioffari’s meticulously crafted stories and novels explode like street racing muscle cars burning rubber at the starting line in search of dangerous fun, holy nostalgia, impossible love, and the exchange of dreams across the back roads of America. Cioffari casts an attentive eye on whatever appears through the wind-shield, but mainly what resonates throughout his work is the uncanny, the off-beat, and the incongruous. He is the author of the novels: If Anyone Asks, Say I Died From the Heartbreaking Blues; The Bronx Kill; Dark Road, Dead End; Jesusville; Catholic Boys; and the short story collection, A History of Things Lost Or Broken, which won the Tartt Fiction Prize, and the D. H. Lawrence award for fiction. His short stories have been published widely in commercial and literary magazines and anthologies, including North American Review, Playboy, Michigan Quarterly Review, Northwest Review, Florida Fiction, and Southern Humanities Review. He is a playwright member of the Actors Studio in New York City. He has written and directed for Off and Off-Off Broadway. His Indie feature film, which he wrote and directed, Love in the Age of Dion, has won numerous awards, including Best Feature Film at the Long Island Int’l Film Expo, and Best Director at the NY Independent Film & Video Festival. He is a Professor of English, and director of the Performing and Literary Arts Honors Program, at William Paterson University.

Bill Wolak: Your latest novel is entitled If Anyone Asks, Say I Died From the Heartbreaking Blues. Tell me a little about the blues in the title and how it relates to the rest of the book.

Philip Cioffari: The “blues” in the title refers both to the tradition of blues music, which is to say the expression of sadness, sorrow, and longing rendered via music and voice into a beautifully crafted, aesthetically pleasing form; and also the personal blues all of us, in one way another, feel at various points in our lives. In my book, specifically, it is the blues of adolescence that accompanies the search for self, love, and the sense of belonging to a world we don’t yet understand. The actual title comes from an African-American folktale about two mythical figures, Betty and Dupree, and the love that pulls them apart.

BW: In this novel, music is evoked on just about every page, beginning with that enticing jukebox on the cover. Why did you highlight music throughout the text?

PC: Music, in this case the popular music of the 1950s and 60s, is an integral part of the characters’ lives. In a way, it is the soundtrack of their lives, spinning out from radios, jukeboxes, record players. And since my novel is basically a love story, music becomes inextricably involved with the search for love. This was the time that Rock n’ Roll (Rhythm n’ Blues) was new. For the first time, teenagers had a music that was exclusively their own. A music full of throbbing energy and passion, a parallel to the energy and longing bubbling up inside of them. Every song was a celebration. I hope that the use of music in the book helps capture some of that youthful passion and longing.

BW: The entire novel takes place in a single day. Is there a reason why you compressed the action into such a brief amount of time?

PC: I like to use a compressed time period for my novels. I find it raises the tension and urgency of the story. After all, in real life the clock is always ticking, time is running out—which, of course, adds urgency and poignancy to each moment we live. It intensifies the “drama” of our lives. So, too, in fiction: the dramatic element is heightened. I also like the idea of going deep moment by moment—that is, exploring each step of my characters’ journeys, including the silences, the moments when nothing seems to be happening, but something is happening, always. At the risk of sounding too esoteric, I like to convey the moments between moments. I like to pay attention to those small, almost unnoticeable feelings and half-thoughts. This is easier to do when the scope of the novel is shortened.

BW: You’ve been writing short stories, novels, and plays since the 1970s.  Do you tend to base your fictional characters on people you have known or have heard about, or are they more what one might term imaginative constructions–composites of several people?

PC: I don’t have one person in mind as the basis for a character. They seem to evolve out of my imagination, and, yes, I suppose if I were to break them down they’d most often turn out to be composites of people I’ve known. I don’t usually do that, though. I prefer to experience them as imagined beings.

BW: One of your characters is described as “the unofficial investigator of the mysteries of the universe.”  Is this what you set out to explore in your fiction, to examine aspects of the universe that remain mysterious?

PC: The mysteries within ourselves and within the world at large are a primary fascination of mine. I’m intrigued by the investigative process, the search for truth of one kind or another. The more elusive the truth the more compelling to me.

BW: In the short story “Turns” from  A History of Things Lost Or Broken, the female dance instructor says, “. . . the turn transports us gracefully from one state of being to another.”  Do you tend to concentrate on the sometimes banal and sometimes unexpected “turns” or choices characters make in your short stories?

PC: Moving from one state, one feeling or one condition to another is an imposition life places upon us. We’re continually in motion. We must learn to make those moves and the more gracefully we can make them, the better.

BW: As in your novel The Bronx Kill, the most typical Cioffarian landscape is set in the Bronx, in the neighborhoods where you grew up.  Why do you think you return so often to the streets, the els, the backalleys, the projects, and the mud-flats of your youth when you write?

PC: I don’t really know. What I do know is those landscapes haunt my imagination. They’re alive for me in a burning way. I never seem to tire of them. In my latest novel, for example, the dance clubs of the Bronx in 1960 had particular qualities that reinforced the cultural norms, that in some ways predetermined the social interaction between boys and girls, the difficulties and awkwardness that kept them apart. I tried to capture those environments in order to provide a context for my characters’ actions.

BW: Parts of Catholic Boys take place in a a bomb shelter that resembles a Borgesian labyrinth.  Is that bomb shelter sprawling underneath a vast apartment complex something you actually experienced as a child?

PC: There was one similar to it in the housing project where I lived. It was a fall-out shelter with long, barren hallways—what we, as kids, named “The Hundred Halls.” There were an endless number of carriage rooms and basement rooms that were dark and shadowy and mysterious. For the novel I embellished the design somewhat.

BW: On the other hand, both of your novels Jesusville and Dark Road, Dead End take place outside of New York. How did you go about researching the settings for these two novels? Or did the stories develop out of the settings?

PC: A strong sense of place is something I strive for in all my writing. In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s what gets my stories off the ground. I can’t really write without having a firm physical and emotional grasp of the setting. That’s why I always write about places I’ve been to, where I’ve had the opportunity to feel what it’s like being there: the quality of light, for instance, as it changes throughout the day; the colors; the sounds; what the air smells like when you inhale. I also believe that where something happens affects the way a character behaves. In fact, often it seems my stories develop from a sense of place. In the case of Jesusville, I came across an article about a defunct religious theme park somewhere in Connecticut. I was fascinated by the photos and the descriptions of Biblical scenes that had fallen prey to decomposition and neglect. About the same time, I came upon another article about a retreat for troubled priests hidden away in the New Mexico desert. Quite suddenly a landscape formed in my mind that contained both places. Soon after, the characters began to take shape, one by one. I had to find a reason why they would all end up there, and once they arrived, how they would be affected by the stark beauty and isolation. From my visits to New Mexico, I had come away with a distinct sense of its spiritual qualities, something I rarely experienced elsewhere. I wanted to find a way to infuse my story with that spirituality, hence my characters’ search for a rare hallucinogenic plant that would allow them to see God.  Dark Road, Dead End grew out of my many visits to the southern tip of the Everglades. I found that area to be captivating. I liked the end-of-the-road feel of the place. The towns and settlements literally dead-ended against swamp. There was no escape. Once there, you had to find a way to survive, or die. Life was lived on the edge, a raw one at that. The physical world of marsh and water and forest intrudes upon every aspect of existence. I talked to whomever of the townsfolk who would talk to me. I wanted to hear about their lives, the way they saw the world, and because the history of that area had been so dominated by smuggling of one sort or another, it became a natural setting for my environmental concerns—in this case, the smuggling of illegal exotic animal species into the United States. 

BW: How and when did you first conceive of Love in the Age of Dion, the work that propelled you from fiction to theater and finally to film?

PC: It began as a title for a short story: “Love in the Age of Dion.” A spin-off perhaps from the Garcia Marquez title, Love in the Time of Cholera, though I can’t be sure, of course.  Ideas generate from so many sources. In any case, there it was: a title in search of a story. For several years it rattled around in my head, yielding nothing more. I was a professor at a state university in New Jersey, teaching creative writing, publishing stories in commercial and literary magazines. This was 1998. That fall, the story came to me: Frankie, a man whose second marriage has just fallen apart, returns after twenty years to his old neighborhood in the Bronx, in search of his first love, hoping to re-capture what he thinks of as the best days of his life. The neighborhood he knew has changed, but his old hangout, a working man’s bar where he drank his first beer, has survived: same bartender, same songs on the jukebox, memories for the taking. He spends the evening there with Eddie, his best buddy from the old days–who never left the neighborhood–and a woman who happens to be in the bar that particular evening.

BW: After you had the basic plot and a setting, what was happening in your writing at that particular time to change the trajectory of the piece?

PC: During this time I was studying playwriting at HB, an acting studio in Greenwich Village. I’d begun the class as an exercise, a way to develop my ear for dialogue. An editor at Doubleday had read a novel of mine and made the observation that I told the story mostly through narrative, using dialogue sparsely. Till then I’d never thought much about it. Narrative came naturally to me, so I’d indulged myself. But her comment made me realize I was insecure about writing dialogue; unconsciously, I’d been avoiding it.

BW:  So studying playwriting became a strategy to hone the dialogues in your fiction?

PC: Yes, but I debated the issue a while. Why was dialogue so important? Jim Harrison, after all, had written Legends of the Fall without a single line of dialogue. On the other hand, so many best sellers relied heavily upon it, and one couldn’t deny it greatly enlivened the pace and feel of a scene, to say nothing of its use as a tool for revealing character.  Writing plays seemed a likely way to get over my unease.

BW: Did you ever publish the short story “Love in the Age of Dion?”

PC: For some reason, I never sent the story out. Instead, over that winter break, I wrote it as a one-act play. Shortly thereafter, it was produced at the American Theatre of Actors in New York City and, though I was reasonably satisfied with the outcome, I thought it ended abruptly. My lead character, Frankie, storms out of the bar once he learns his old buddy has no intention of taking the trip down memory lane with him. I wondered what would happen if Frankie didn’t walk out, if he stayed to confront the past as Eddie remembered it, unglamorized, thick with pain.

BW: What was your connection to the American Theatre of Actors?

PC: With the American Theatre of Actors, I simply submitted three one-act plays. I had heard they were open to producing plays from new playwrights. They called and offered to do two of them–one of them was the one-act version of “Love in the Age of Dion.”

BW: How did you modify the original ending of the one-act version?

PC:  By writing a second act. Basically, I made Frankie hang around and deal with the situation. That, in turn, led him to a place he would never have reached if he’d simply run off. The final result was a full-length version that had four characters, one setting.  Ideal, from a producing point of view.

BW: Where was the original two-act version of the play first produced?

PC: It was first produced at the Belmont Italian American Playhouse, an equity theatre in the Bronx, where it played weekends—Thursday through Sunday—from October, 1999 until June, 2000, an almost nine-month run.

BW: Before they produced your play, did you have any involvement with the Belmont Italian American Playhouse?

PC: My only prior involvement with the Belmont Playhouse was that I’d been attending their plays for a number of years. I was impressed with the quality of their work–the actors were superior, as was the director Dante Albertie. For a small theatre they managed to get many favorable reviews from the NY Times, the NY Daily News, and the NY Post. I knew they would do a good job with my play and that I would be honored to be produced there.

BW: Why do you think the Belmont Italian American Playhouse was so enthusiastic about producing your play?

PC: In many ways it was a perfect play for them. It was set in that neighborhood, it made reference to Dion, the local hero, it had the urban flavor and sensibility that they liked. I thought, if they don’t like it, I’m in big trouble.

BW: After its run at the Belmont Italian American Playhouse, did you have any possibilities to move the play to an Off-Broadway theater?

PC: At that point, several producers took interest, with plans to move it to Off-Broadway the next year, but 9/11 intervened and, in the wake of that disaster, the plans were scrapped. However, I was fortunate enough to have an enthusiastic and devoted cast who helped me stage a backer’s audition at the Chelsea Playhouse in Manhattan. Again, there was interest. Drea De Matteo did a staged reading of it before she was lured off to L.A. to star in the sequel to the TV series, “Friends.” Ed Asner liked it enough to offer to do a staged reading of it–as the bartender–the next time he was in New York. There were murmurings again from producers, and again nothing came of it.

BW: Is this about the time that you made the transition into directing?

PC: The play lay fallow for several years. During that time I’d been gaining experience as a director. I’d been taking classes in directing and, as luck would have it, a position as director opened at my university; I began directing in our black box theatre. I favored contemporary comedies, especially the work of Christopher Durang, whose plays were so different in tone and mood from the kind of plays I was writing. From directing students, I went to directing Off-Off Broadway where I was both writing and directing. There’s a school of thought in theatre circles that says playwrights should not direct their own work, but I longed to do both. I didn’t want to be angry at someone else for “ruining” my work, or for misunderstanding my intentions. If the production turned out badly, I wanted no one to blame but myself. 

BW:  At that point in your career, you had been writing and publishing fiction for a long time.  What prompted you to begin the daunting task of transforming the play into a film?

PC: At this time my fiction was at a standstill. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block so much as writer’s plateau; I couldn’t reach higher ground. It was the fall of 2004 by then, and as the end of the year approached, I grew quite despondent. New Year’s Eve I was hiking with my friend Bill, a TV producer, when he suggested I make a movie. “You’ve got the script,” he said. “You’ve got some great actors, and I can hook you up with a Director of Photography.” As a bonus, he offered to serve as producer. He’d made this same suggestion several times over the years, but I’d always found the prospect overwhelming. I didn’t think I could pull it off. There was so much I didn’t know. I’d never been to film school, never made a short, never even been on a shoot. It seemed too much of an effort, too great a chance for failure.

BW: So what intrigued you that New Year’s afternoon about Bill’s proposal?

PC: Maybe it was the cold, grey bleakness of the day, or the prospect of the long winter months ahead without any writing ideas on the horizon. Or maybe it was simply the rut I was in. Time to try something new. The next day I began writing the screenplay. In addition to the four characters in the play, I added Carmel, a friend of the sole female character. She was mentioned in the play but never appeared. For the film version I knew I needed some comic relief, as well as someone who could offer an objective view of the conflicts between the main characters. Carmel was the answer. I also had to “open up” the play. I wanted to get the characters out of the bar so I added outdoor scenes: on the street, in a playground, at the beach. In the play the events of the past are simply narrated, but in the film they could be dramatized fully and more effectively as flashbacks. And I forced myself to rely more heavily on visual images to replace some of the dialogue.

BW: One of your most courageous acts in the making of the film has to be that you invested your own savings in the project.  Could you explain how you managed to finance the film?  

PC:  I knew the only way I was going to have complete control over the creative content was if I financed it myself. So I exhausted my savings account. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds. We kept expenses to a minimum. Most people worked for nothing or for deferred compensation–so if the movie gets distribution, I’ll owe them. Those who were paid worked for reduced wages because they liked or had some interest in the script, or needed experience.

BW:  What was the first, crucial step that got this project off the ground?

PC:  In the months before the shoot, there was a never-ending list of things that had to be done.  The first of them was scouting locations. In early February I began looking for a bar. Finding one, one that looked “right,” was crucial, since two-thirds of the script was set there. Without one, there could be no movie. The script is set in the Bronx, so I began there. Always a fan of authenticity, a Bronx bar for a Bronx movie seemed to me the right way to go. But this would be no easy task. Because the story is set in two time periods—1966 and 1992—I needed a place that hadn’t changed much over time. I also wanted one with character, with a lot of dark wood, old-fashioned mirrors, ceiling fans, an old jukebox, maybe even sawdust on the floors. And I needed one with a dance floor, and one large enough to accommodate my cast and crew—about twenty people—and all our equipment.  Over a period of four months I must have looked at more than a hundred bars. I began at the Bronx/Yonkers line and worked my way down upper Broadway. I went to City Island, Arthur Avenue, Pelham Bay, Morris Park. Most of the bars I looked at had at least one disqualifying attribute: it was too small, or lacked character, or had been modernized. With those I liked, money was the problem. Given my budget, no one was willing to close down for the two weeks I needed. They’d been spoiled by shows like “Law & Order” which came in for a day or two and paid thousands of dollars. A few places offered to let me shoot during their off-hours, between 4 and 8 a.m., an impossible situation for my actors, who had day jobs.

BW: How did you end up selecting the bar?

PC: Time was running out. I wanted to begin shooting in early June, and it was already  May.  At that point I had only one possibility. The Shannon. A dive bar under the El in Pelham Bay. The owner, a short-tempered 84 year old Irishman, was willing to close down for ten days so he could attend an Irish music festival in the Catskills. The price, $4,500, was something I was willing to pay, but the place had problems. For one thing it was small, tiny, and for another thing, we’d have to deal with the noise of the #6 train rumbling by every ten minutes or so. But worst of all, every inch of wall space and every shelf behind the bar was filled with Irish memorabilia—leprechauns, photos of the River Shannon, four-leaf clovers, you name it. My story was set in an Italian neighborhood. Which meant we’d have to spend at least a day dismantling the place and substituting Italian-American artifacts, and at least another day restoring the original décor, hoping the curmudgeonly owner wouldn’t notice upon his return.  So with less than two weeks before our shoot date, I intensified my search. I looked in Brooklyn, Jersey, even Manhattan, which I knew would be prohibitive cost-wise—all to no avail. In a last-ditch effort I went back to the Bronx, to a section near Mosholu Parkway where I hadn’t yet looked. I checked every bar along Bainbridge Avenue and was about to give up. There was one bar left, Gorman’s, on the corner of 204th and Webster.  I was so discouraged by that time I was resigning myself to dealing with the leprechauns.  But I pushed myself on. The place was, if not perfect, the best I’d seen. Old mirrors with dark wood trim and blue, fluted lights, an old-fashioned black and white tiled floor, ceiling fans. A throwback to an earlier time, a genuine relic. And luck was on my side. The bar was closed for the summer, he informed me. He kept it open September to May for the exclusive use of Fordham University students. Within minutes we reached an agreement. Three thousand dollars for three weeks of shooting. He was happy for the unanticipated income; I had a place to shoot my movie. And not a moment too soon—a scant ten days before we were to begin shooting.

BW: What was the next step after you had nailed down the bar?

PC: During the four months of my pub quest I was doing a hundred other things as well, not the least of which was putting together my cast and crew. My guiding principle was to find the most natural, ordinary-people types—the guy or girl you’d find sitting next to you at an outer borough bar. As with writing, I believe authenticity is the ultimate goal. For my two male leads, I decided to use the actors who starred in the play—Jerry Ferris and Tod Engle. Though not well  known, they were excellent at their craft, and they played well together. For my female lead I went to Christina Romanello, an actress I’d seen in a play a few years back. One of my habits was to keep on file the headshots and resumes of actors I’d seen perform, and whose talent I admired.  For the role of Carol, the long-lost first love, who would appear only in flashback, I wanted a certain look. I couldn’t describe that look, but knew I would know it when I saw it. I placed an ad in Backstage, the newspaper for aspiring actors, and received more than four hundred responses.  Sorting through the head shots of these women, one more beautiful than the next, I came upon the photo of Marta Milans. I knew immediately she was the one I was looking for.  Her audition bore that out. She was so moving in the portrayal of a woman with a broken heart, able to bring herself to tears in such a deeply felt and believable way, that she left those of us watching her speechless. For the supporting female role, my comic relief addition, I placed an ad on Mandy. com, an Indie filmmaker’s website. The woman I finally chose, Bridget Trama, unsure of the role at first, eventually came to exceed my expectations with her performance. And last but not least I found my bartender through a referral. Jack Ryland was the most experienced of my actors, a veteran of Broadway. Though hesitant at first—he wasn’t keen on making the trip from Manhattan to the Bronx—he finally signed on. And again, not a moment too soon: three days before we began shooting.

BW: What was your rehearsal schedule like?           

PC: We had time only for five or six rehearsals. We worked on rendering the material in a truthful way, and we did some basic blocking—most of which had to be re-done when we were on set.

BW:  Where did you find the rest of the film’s crew?                               

PC: During the rehearsal process, Victor and I were also busy putting together a crew. He was able to bring in hard-working and dedicated film students to fill the roles of gaffer, grip, and script supervisor. Again, I used Mandy.com to find a Sound person, an Assistant Director, and an Art Director. I trusted my instincts—did they have experience? Could I work with them? Count on them? Would they accept the wage I could offer? My brother-in-law doubled as line producer and production manager, and my sister volunteered to make sure we had enough to eat and drink on set.

BW:  How long did it take to shoot the film?                                                

PC: We shot the movie in seventeen days in June. I was free for the summer, but most of the cast had day jobs, so we filmed nights and weekends. The first ten days we spent in the bar, beginning about 6 p.m. The first few hours were consumed with setting the lights and getting the actors made up; shooting began about nine o’clock. Each day I re-wrote the scenes for that night’s shoot, mostly cutting dialogue. I had to keep reminding myself of the sparse language of film. 

BW: Were there any unexpected problems during the filming?

PC:  For each night of the shoot, Murphy’s Law applied: what can go wrong, will go wrong. For one thing, we hadn’t counted on the loudness of the buses that bullied their way down the avenue every fifteen minutes or so, or the salsa music that blasted from the open windows across the street. Nor did we anticipate the thumping noises that emanated from the apartment above the bar—the superintendent’s children having their innocent fun running or jumping or bouncing balls or beating their dolls to death against the floorboards. So many sounds we pay little attention to in ordinary life, but when you’re filming and need absolute quiet the smallest sounds assume the proportions of an explosion. Naturally, I pleaded with the super to control his children. As for the buses and salsa, we simply had to work around them.                                                                 

BW:  Your nights of filming in the bar sound exasperating.  How did the outdoor scenes go?

PC: The outdoor shoots were more enjoyable, though I’d been dreading having to deal with so many more forces out of our control. After so many nights in the bar, it was a relief to get out into the bright sunshine. And the problems we encountered were largely of my own making. The Mayor’s Office of Film Development never returned my calls, and I was too busy to chase after them. Hence, no permits. When we shot in the subway, we kept changing trains every ten minutes, whenever we suspected the conductor was on to us. This was three days before the London subway bombings, after which security became so tight on NYC transit lines we would surely have been arrested, our camera confiscated, and we would have been subject to heavy fines.                                                                      

BW: So all the outdoor shoots went well?

PC:  No, we weren’t as fortunate on our playground shoot. We began early Sunday morning, thinking we could get in and out before anyone noticed. There was only one five-minute scene we needed to shoot. Things went well for most of the morning. We had maybe twenty or thirty seconds of script to shoot when the Parks Department showed up in the person of a brawny, no-nonsense woman who told us to pack up immediately and clear out, or else be subject to arrest.  We packed up immediately and cleared out. But we had to finish the scene. While the cast cooled off in our rented air-conditioned van, Victor and I drove frantically around the Bronx in search of another playground that would match the one we were forced to leave. We found one some twenty blocks south, in a poor neighborhood where dealers were plying their trade and junkies were shooting up near the swings. Within minutes we’d attracted a crowd of several hundred who lined up along the fence to watch. The part of the scene we were shooting involved a fight between a white man and a black man. The tension building in the crowd was palpable; a few of the actors were getting nervous, but I insisted we stick it out. We finished the scene and moved on. Our last day of shooting—and our biggest challenge—took place at the beach. It was a scorching hot day and we had several emotionally intense scenes to film. When we had scouted the location, the place was quiet, ideal for filming, but not so on the day of the  shoot. The beach, it turned out, was on a direct flight path to La Guardia airport a few miles across Long Island Sound. Jets came roaring over us every sixty seconds. We had to constantly stop the actors—sometimes in mid-sentence—and hold until the plane passed over, then begin shooting again. What amazes me to this day is how flawless the actors were, able to stop and start without losing focus, without dropping a line,  without losing the emotion of the moment.

BW: How would you compare the process of writing fiction to the process of filmmaking?          

PC: There’s a tremendous difference in the way you fix mistakes. Movie problems are also much more varied. If you make a mistake in fiction, if you don’t like the way a sentence turns out, you simply erase it and do it again. If you make a mistake filming, it costs a considerable amount of time–hence, money–to re-shoot, so you’re continually under pressure to get it right as quickly as possible. In fiction, your sole concern is with words and making them serve your creative imagination. In film, your creative impulses are held hostage by so many annoying and frustrating technical and practical concerns. Case in point: many scenes in the script were set at night. Well, night lighting was too prohibitive in cost and time, so those scenes had to be converted to daytime. In fiction, you want rain, you put in rain. In low-budget Indie film making, forget about it. Who had time to wait for a rainy day, or the equipment to get it lit properly?  And always, every minute of every shoot, the curse of Murphy’s Law is hanging over your head. Yet I consider it one of my personal triumphs that I learned to make whatever adjustments were necessary, that I learned to convert obstacles into advantages, that we always found a way.

BW: How would you describe the kind of pressure you were under while you were shooting?

PC: For those seventeen days I lived in a zombie haze. Part of that was physical exhaustion. I wasn’t sleeping much, nor sleeping well. I had no appetite. After our night shoots which wrapped up between one and two a.m., I would drive the cast into Manhattan, making my last drop-off at close to four in the morning. Then I drove back to my apartment in Jersey. When I fell asleep, my dreams were anxiety-ridden—about camera angles and dialogue changes, and lighting and sound problems for which I could find no solution.  And part of that zombie haze came from mental and emotional overload. Too many details, large and small, to remember, but all of them necessary—from making certain the actors were staying truthful on camera to wondering if the dinner would arrive on time; and though my small crew was the most devoted and helpful a director could hope for, I was the one, finally, responsible for getting the movie made, for making sure it was the best movie we were capable of. I don’t want this to sound like a complaint. I wanted to be in control, that’s why I wanted to both write and direct. And the control freak part of my personality reveled in this.

BW: Do you have any regrets about what happened during the shooting of the film?

PC: I can’t say I had as much fun on the set as I might have liked; I was too busy for that, but I have to say when we finished shooting on that last day, the sense of peace and accomplishment was like nothing I’d ever experienced.                                                                              

BW: Of course, shooting the film is only half the battle.  What was your experience of mixing the film like?

PC: The technical process of taking what we’d shot and turning it into a movie began soon after we finished shooting. A film is made on the cutting room floor, the cliché goes. I remember what Jack Haigis, my editor, said the night I dropped off the twenty-two hours of videotape we’d shot. ‘The first thing we have to do is see if we even have a movie here.” What he meant, of course, was whether the collection of individual scenes was       sufficient to make a complete and integrated piece, with a beginning, middle and end.          

BW: How did you find your film editor?

PC: Jack was one of the more than two hundred and fifty editors who responded to my ad on Mandy: Indie filmmaker seeks experienced editor. Low pay. Sorting through the resumes, I recognized his name immediately. He’d edited two of my favorite urban dramas: Straight Out of Brooklyn, and Graves End. When I sent him the script and he agreed to take me on, I was overjoyed. By day he worked at a full-fledged editing studio in Manhattan, and by night he worked out of his apartment in Westchester. Each morning I’d go through the raw footage, select my preferred takes, and bring them to him in the evening. We worked this way for several months. I got to see the film take shape in bits and pieces until finally one night he declared, “We have a movie,”  and we went out for pizza and beer to celebrate.

BW: What remained after you had mixed a rough cut of the film?

PC: Jack added the music.

BW: Was the film ready for viewing at this point?

PC: Yes, so I arranged to screen it at my university before a small audience of colleagues and students. What had appeared to be minor imperfections on a TV-sized monitor loomed large and egregious on the big screen. There were radical, jarring discrepancies in lighting and color from scene to scene. Some scenes were under-lit, some over-lit. The light in the bar was too bright, more appropriate for a luncheonette than what was supposed to be a gritty beer and shot night spot.  In short, it looked awful. I was thoroughly embarrassed, overwhelmingly depressed. It seemed that eight months of effort had ended in failure.     

BW: What did you do?

PC: I brought it back to my editor. “Not to worry,” Jack said. “That’s what post-production labs are for.”Several months and several thousand dollars later the film finally looked presentable. The lab was able to make the lighting and color look natural and consistent. They were even able to add shadow to the bar scenes to give them a moodier and more appropriate feel. At last I had a ninety-minute version of the film that I could watch without cringing, a version which didn’t distract from the skillful work of the actors and the story I wanted to tell.

BW: What is your goal for the film now?     

PC: The ultimate goal of this process is, of course, to find distribution, preferably theatrical or TV distribution first, then distribution in the home DVD market. The route to this, if you’re not well-connected in the film industry, is via film festivals. The process is roughly akin to publishing in literary magazines before a big house decides to take you on.

BW: Have you entered it in any film festivals?

PC: I chose not to submit to the top-tier festivals like Sundance and Tribeca, which receive three to four thousand entries per year and where one is competing against movies with big stars and multi-million dollar budgets. I opted for the smaller festivals, the truly independent festivals which receive a mere one to two thousand entries, most without big name actors.  I was fortunate that in the first festival I entered, the Long Island International Film Expo, my film won the Best Feature Film award. What a thrill to sit in a dark theatre and watch an audience of strangers react to your work.  Love in the Age of Dion went onto win a Best Actor award and a nomination for Best Director at the Hoboken International Film Festival, a nomination for Best Film at the Staten Island Film Festival, a Best Director Award from the NY Independent Film & Video Festival, and was an official selection at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, and the New Filmmakers New York series at Anthology Film Archives.

BW: One of your early experiences in the film industry was as a movie reviewer for Penthouse Magazine.  How did you come by that job and what did it involve?

PC: Penthouse had bought several of my short stories and basically liked my writing. They knew of my interest in movies and asked if I’d like to review films for them. Of course, I accepted. Being a movie reviewer seemed like a dream job. In reality, I became quickly disenchanted. For one thing, going to the movies became a job and an obligation rather than something freely chosen for pleasure. I had to see whatever was out at the time, usually two or three movies a week, many of them mainstream Hollywood movies which held no interest for me. My tastes ran to more obscure independent or European movies that often were not well known enough for the magazine to want to print a review. But I will say I liked being able to attend advance screenings which were held in plush screening rooms in Manhattan. They made sure we reviewers had popcorn and soda, whatever we needed to help us enjoy the experience.

BW:  Over the years, which filmmakers would you say have exerted the most influence on you?

PC: I’ve always been drawn to the gritty, urban realism 50s dramas like Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” or the Hecht-Lancaster productions of “The Bachelor Party,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” and “A Hatful of Rain.” I loved the American New Wave films of the 60s and 70s, especially Bob Rafaelson’s movies, “Five Easy Pieces,” and “King of Marvin Gardens.” And, of course, I’m a great admirer of the Italian and French New Wave, especially the work of Da Sica, Visconti, Antonioni, Fellini, and Truffaut, to name a few.

BW: Do you have a favorite film?

PC: Hard to pick a single film, but certainly in the top tier I’d put “The Deer Hunter,” “The Bicycle Thief,” and the aforementioned 50s film, “The Bachelor Party.”

 BW: Over the years, you have maintained a regimented writing discipline.  Could you describe your daily writing routine?

PC: I write usually 3-6 hours in the morning, seven days a week.

BW: Which short story writers, novelists, playwrights, and poets do you think have had the greatest influence on your writing?

PC: Certainly Graham Greene, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Paddy Chayefsky, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. And newer writers like Kem Nunn and Newton Thornburg and David Rabe.

BW: Who were your most inspiring teachers?

PC: Certainly Anatole Broyard (fiction) and Claude Underwood (Acting) at the New School. M. L. Rosenthal (Poetry) at NYU, and William Packard (Playwriting) at HB Studio.

Philip Cioffari’s Website:
www.philipcioffari.com

Works by Philip Cioffari available on Amazon.com:
If Anyone Asks, Say I Died From the Heartbreaking Blues
The Bronx Kill
Dark Road, Dead End
Jesusville
Catholic Boys
A History of Things Lost Or Broken


Bill Wolak is a poet, collage artist, and photographer who lives in New Jersey and has just published his eighteenth book of poetry entitled All the Wind’s Unfinished Kisses with Ekstasis Editions. He has published interviews with the following poets, writers, and artists: Anita Nair (India), John Digby (United Kingdom), Dileep Jhaveri (India), Gueorgui Konstantinov (Bulgaria), Naoshi Koriyama (Japan), Sultan Catto (United States), Ilmar Lehtpere (Estonia), Jeton Kelmendi (Kosovo),  Yesim Agaoglu (Turkey), Mahmood Karimi Hakak (United States), Srinivas Reddy (United States), Chryssa Nikolakis (Greece), Philip Cioffari (United States), Yongshin Cho (Korea), Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis) (Canada), Jami Proctor Xu (United States), Stanley H. Barkan (United States), Annelisa Addolorato (Italy), and William Heyen (United States).

TRANSLUCENT

by Tim Suermondt


A word I like,
shine dripping from every letter.

Pugnacious is another,
though displaying it with gentleness

is not a contradiction and is superior.

How I’m looking forward
to standing on the deck of a frigate,

sailing to a metropolis I’ve always loved.


ANOTHER WRITER


He’s smooth and beautiful,
An angel of words.
He always puts both feet forward,
Both of them being his best.

He chronicles the human heart
From past, to present and future,
Always seemingly at the right place
At the write time. Such ease

And wisdom pouring like honey
Over his myriad readers,
Who never fail to always follow
Wherever he takes them: a golden

Highrise, a blue mountain top,
A street too lonely to ever forget.
He’s smooth and beautiful,
You’d never doubt he had wings too.


PERHAPS

for Agnes Varda

The night, dark as the Soviet, is here.
A cat gets lost right outside the apartment.

The world teeters on its axis—is this
when it finally falls off into oblivion?

An umbrella on a chair by the entrance
of a garage, vacations firmly put to bed.

A boy and girl looking outside the window
of a Place St. Michel high-rise, dreaming—

of red hearts painted on the street below,
the future brittle, but heroes fighting hard.


THE WORLD AND I STRIKE A TRUCE


While I’m reading—and it’s kept its word
and the truce has held,
not that our arrangement is foolproof—
the world will still sting hard
and I will continue to disappoint it
and myself from time to time.
But we relish the respite together
and self-pity doesn’t stand a chance between
us—a little lamplight, the city coiled
all around behaving itself admirably, the cold
outside pressed against my windows,
waiting and watching me turn every page.



BIO

Tim Suermondt is the author of five full-length collections of poems; the latest is Josephine Baker Swimming Pool from MadHat Press, 2019. He has published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Stand Magazine, december magazine, On the Seawall, Poet Lore and Plume, among many others. He lives in Cambridge (MA) with his wife, the poet Pui Ying Wong.

Cabbage Night

by T.B. Grennan


            The signs started popping up a few days after the compromise. Hard white cardboard twenty inches by twelve, supported by thin metal legs and bearing the words TAKE BACK VERMONT in plain, pine green letters. At first, there were only a handful, and though I asked around, nobody seemed quite sure what the slogan meant. Even the people who put them up wouldn’t say; if you pushed, they’d frown and look at their feet and mumble something about morality or big government.

            That summer, right around the time that the first civil unions were performed, the Vermont Republican party chose a woman named Ruth Dwyer as its candidate for governor. She accepted the nomination with a TAKE BACK VERMONT button pinned to her blazer, vowing that she’d find a way to turn back the clock, state supreme court be damned.

            And just like that, she was six points behind the incumbent. Six points and closing.

            The slogan started showing up on t-shirts and bumper stickers, on posters and cheaply-made baseball caps. Driving east on Route 15, you could see it written in three-foot-high letters beneath a mural of Governor Dean being lynched by a mob of torch-bearing voters that someone had painted on the side of a barn.

           By fall, every homophobe in my town had a sign on their lawn.

* * *

            Our anniversary fell on the last Monday in October and, to celebrate, we decided to go on our very first double date.

            That fall, Hannah and I were both seniors and had conspired to share an end-of-school free period, even though it meant gym class first period (me) and physics with the famously lecherous Mr. Phillips (Hannah). And every afternoon, we would race down the unpaved length of Plains Road in Hannah’s car, hands clasped, faces hot. Passing sign after sign after sign and trying to ignore them, what they stood for. All that hate and rage and fear. Looking past them, to the joys of Hannah’s second-story bedroom, her wailing boxspring.

            And when Hannah gasped and shivered and climbed off my face, that was it. I could let go. Surrender. Knees bent to my chest. Wrists bound with one of her father’s neckties. Hannah’s fingers traced circles on my hips, her cheek sliding along the inside of my thigh. I wiggled back against her, begging in a husky whisper. Her hands spreading me wider, her tongue slipping somewhere new. And then, just then, as I trembled right on the very edge, I heard it: the cruel bleat of Hannah’s private line.

            She took the call. “Oh, hey, Cullen,” Hannah said, plopping down on the edge of her mattress. “What? No, I’m not busy.” She gave me a salacious wink, then stepped out into the hall to talk, the phone cord shut piano-wire tight in the door. I lay there, staring at the damp oval she’d left on the sheet. Telling myself that she’d be right back, that she wouldn’t leave me like this. Not on our special day.

            Hannah had been trying to find her best friend Cullen a boyfriend since middle school. When I started hanging out with Paul, a thin, nervous junior in my third-period photo class, she had insisted on setting the boys up, certain that they would hit it off. I wasn’t so sure. “Oh, what do you know, Sonia?” Hannah teased. “You thought you were straight—for years!” Hannah had realized she was gay at the age of eight, when she’d found herself entranced by Tanya Mousekewitz in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. I was a lesbian out of loneliness and political solidarity, though I hadn’t quite realized it yet.

            When the bedroom door finally squeaked open, I was on my hands and knees, searching for my underwear in a pile of textbooks and glossy college brochures. “Hurry up, slowpoke,” Hannah said, leaning down to kiss the corner of my mouth, then stepping down the hall toward the bathroom. “We’re picking up the boys in ten minutes.”

            “So,” I asked, coating my hands with persimmon-scented bar soap, “what’s the plan for tonight?”

            Hannah stopped brushing her tongue and shot me a self-satisfied look. “Oh, you’ll see,” she said, trying to act coquettish with a mouthful of toothpaste.

* * *

            Outside, it was just beginning to get dark. Hannah’s VW was parked haphazardly by an old stone wall, a reminder of the afternoon’s haste. And as we approached, Hannah tossed me the keys. “Do you mind?” she asked, then climbed into the passenger seat without waiting for an answer.

            Cullen was waiting on the high school’s front lawn, sitting quietly under a dying sapling. Dressed in a brown crushed-velvet jacket, his signature bowler pulled down over his eyes. Paul was standing on his screened-in porch when the three of us pulled in. He waved awkwardly, hair still wet from the shower. And as I slowly backed down Paul’s long, curving driveway, dodging potholes and bold squirrels and his little brother’s action figures, Hannah began laying out the evening ahead.

             We would take a drive. Halloween was tomorrow, the election a week after that. None of us were old enough to vote, but we could still do our part. Tonight was Cabbage Night. Our classmates would be out in force, crushing pumpkins with baseball bats and pulling down mailboxes. They would obscure our actions. We’d cruise around town with our windows down, grabbing every sign we saw. Maybe we couldn’t get them all. But we could get enough.

            “And then what?” Paul asked, pulling his seatbelt tighter. “What do we do with all those signs?”

            “Then,” Cullen said with a grin, lifting a chrome canister of lighter fluid from his jacket pocket, “we have ourselves a little Dwyer fire.”

* * *

            The first time I met Cullen, I thought—somehow—that he was Hannah’s boyfriend. We were waiting on his freezing doorstep when he suddenly burst forth. And all I could do was stare, overcome. His purple faux-fur bathrobe. His cat’s-eye reading glasses. (“The doctor says I only need them for watching soap operas.”) His highball glass of chocolate milk.

            He led us inside, a host’s arm around my shoulders, calling me “Sara” and “Sandra” and “Sally” with a smile that made it hard to tell if he was joking. From an armchair, I watched the two of them reenact the minute-long promo for the series premiere of Dawson’s Creek; Cullen did all the girls’ parts in a note-true falsetto, while Hannah growled her way enthusiastically through the boys.

            I was jealous. Of their closeness, of their thoughtless, two-person ease. Well, I thought diplomatically, as they cuddled in front of the TV, that’s love. And was startled the next day when Hannah hooted at my mention of her boyfriend. Not that Cullen wasn’t my rival. He was. But it wasn’t much of a contest. I tried to count my blessings, to tell myself it wasn’t so bad being someone’s second-best friend.

            And then a miracle happened. Cullen greeted us one Dawson’s Tuesday in a red-and-cream private school uniform that clung to him like paint. “You are aware,” Hannah asked sharply as Cullen happily walked us through the brochure, all those classes and quadrangles and somber little chapels, “that this isn’t an all-boys school, right?” Cullen shook his head and insisted that it was, refusing to see the girl in the background of the cover photo no matter how many times Hannah pointed.

            The two of them drifted apart. Hannah complained that he never called, that all he talked about was his stupid new school and stupid new friends. A year later, he was back, having either failed scripture (his story) or been caught blowing the choirmaster (which was what everybody else said). But by then, I’d taken his place. Maybe I didn’t have his sharp charm, his history with Hannah, but I’d slowly realized I had something else, something he just couldn’t compete with.

            A second X-chromosome.

* * *

            I piloted the VW down Packard, aware we’d started too early, that there were still too many cars on the road. Grownups commuting home from the hospital, from downtown and IBM. Teenagers trickling back from friends’ houses and secluded fields. I turned down a side road, knowing we needed somewhere dark and quiet.

            In the passenger seat, Cullen was showing off. Rubbing his hands together. Bragging about his unparalleled gift for roadside theft, honed, he said, by years of pre-Halloween mischief.

            “Your parents must be so proud,” Paul said.

            “You’re skeptical. I understand,” Cullen told him, as a breeze blew pine needles across the windshield. “Well, I’ll show you. Driver!” he shouted, one arm extended. “To your right!”

            And there it was: a lone sign, poised on the edge of a darkened lawn. I slowed the car, veering gently toward the grass. Cullen sighed at this condescension, then reached suddenly out the open window, sweeping the sign out of the dirt and into his arms in a single fluid motion.

            Hannah clapped excitedly. Then glanced over at Paul, her eyes suggesting that really he should be clapping, too. Paul frowned and mustered a few seconds of half-hearted applause. Gazing ahead, I had a sudden flash of the anniversary I would be having if I were dating a boy—the cloth-napkin dinner two towns over, the fumbling words of affection, the necklace his sister helped him pick out at Claire’s. The forceful kiss and lingering hug, his heart thumping against my ear.

            “You are gay, aren’t you?” Cullen asked Paul suddenly, sounding hurt. “This isn’t one of those situations where Sonia found out you were a great fan of bodybuilding or modern opera and just assumed, is it?”

            Paul shook his head and quietly affirmed that, yes, he was gay.

            Cullen smiled. “Wonderful! I don’t know if you’re aware, but I happen to be gay myself.”

            I giggled softly.

            Cullen was the closest thing Mount Mansfield had to an openly gay student; he’d never come out officially, but the Burlington Free Press had run a photograph of his top-hat-and-rhinestone-codpiece ensemble at last year’s Pride Parade that had effectively settled the issue. Paul, on the other hand, had only recently mustered the courage to confide in me about his sexuality over a bulky black photo enlarger—and I had every reason to think this was his first time out with another boy.

            Up ahead—draped in store-bought cobwebs, nuzzled next to a pink flamingo with drawn-on fangs—was another sign, this one on Paul’s side of the car. I caught his eyes in the rearview; he nodded. The car slid across the far lane. Paul swallowed hard and went for it, his whole upper body disappearing out the window, arms swinging wildly.

            He got it on the next pass.

            We drove on, the streets ahead growing empty. Cullen gave instruction on the finer points of sign-grabbing (“It’s like paddling a canoe—pull and lift, pull and lift. Easy!”) while Paul frowned and nodded. Next to him, Hannah worked frantically, grabbing all the signs Cullen was too preoccupied to notice. By the time we rounded the hairpin curve at the center of Pinehurst and returned to Packard, the pile on the backseat had begun to flow onto the floor.

            We were pulling into Jericho East when Cullen suggested that we split up. He and Hannah would case the yards near Route 15 while Paul and I drove around the development’s far edge. We’d meet at the veterinary hospital in fifteen minutes. I asked if he was sure, if he wouldn’t rather pair up with Paul. And Cullen said in a stage whisper that he was counting on me to talk him up.

            “Oh,” I said. “Got it.”

            As Cullen preened in the headlights and stretched his calves, Hannah leaned through my open window and stroked my hair. “Are you doing all right?” she asked. I was sticking to the crotch of my underwear and when Paul left to shift the pile of signs from backseat to trunk, I said as much. “You’re welcome,” she said flirtatiously, then kissed me quick.

            “Have you two been dating long?” Paul asked as Cullen and Hannah dropped out of sight behind us.

            “I guess so,” I said, still seething.

            Paul nodded. Tried again: “So, Hannah seems nice.”

            “Well,” I told him, as we sped over cracked pavement, “she can be.”

            We rode on in silence. Paul leaned his head out the passenger window and as I watched the wind blow the ash-blond bangs from his forehead, I wondered what he really thought of Cullen. When things eventually fell apart between the two boys, I wasn’t surprised—but right then, I caught myself wishing that the match would stick, if only so Paul wouldn’t make it kiss-less to seventeen.

            “Does your mom know?” Paul asked as Route 15 rose in the distance.

            I nodded. “Our apartment’s too small to keep secrets.”

            “And she’s okay with it?”

            I pictured the bible my mother had pressed on Hannah after catching the two of us kissing, and then the matching bracelets she’d bought for our six-month anniversary. “More or less.”

            We idled for a while by the veterinary hospital before impatience got the best of me and I shifted back into gear. Hannah and Cullen were running side by side a few hundred yards back, happy as kids. He plucked signs from the nearby lawns, piling them in Hannah’s arms until the stack grew so high that she couldn’t see, until she was laughing and cursing and swerving like the drunkest driver.

* * *

            The two of them had grown up together, part of a clique of rich, selfish children you’d always see clogging the hallways at school. Showing off Tamagotchis and Gameboys, talking about vacations to Aspen and Hilton Head. Snickering at lower-caste classmates as they walked miserably by. I saw Hannah and Cullen all the time back then, but they never stood out; there were a dozen other kids just like them.

            Then puberty came and everything changed. Hannah arrived at school one morning in a boy’s v-neck and cargo pants, flowing blonde locks chopped to spikes, and watched her friends scatter. Cullen returned from basketball practice with a black eye and declared that he was done with team sports, that there was something far nobler in the stride of the solitary runner.

            Sophomore year, I was Hannah’s lab partner. She was smart and sly and exceedingly lazy, so I ended up doing all the actual work, which was nothing new for me. The strange thing was how much Hannah seemed to appreciate it. Thank-yous became hugs in the hallway, became deep, quiet conversations about her life, about mine. When we were together, I felt alternately dazed and annoyed by her gale-force personality, by the way she teased and mentored me. I’d never had a friend like her. But then I’d never really had a friend.

* * *

            We were leaving Jericho East, signs stowed away in the trunk, when Hannah gasped and swore and squeezed my arm. I glanced up, startled, and watched in the rearview mirror as a police car slid out of a nearby driveway, its headlights dim. I’d never been pulled over before and just the thought of it—the blinding glare of the police flashlight, my hands sifting desperately through Hannah’s disastrous glove compartment—sent a terrified shiver down my back.

            “What should I do?” I whispered.

            “How should I know?” Hannah whispered back. “Slow down?”

            The cruiser followed us out of Jericho East, down Packard, and onto Route 15. Lights still low, always at least two full car-lengths behind. I drove a mile under the speed limit the whole way, foot trembling on the gas. We were turning onto Cilley Hill Road when Paul cleared his throat: “I have a thought.”

            “Really?” Hannah said, skeptical.

            “Really?” Cullen said, intrigued.

            Paul pointed out a darkened driveway up ahead. “Turn in there.” Then, off my nervous look: “Trust me. This is going to work.”

            I nodded. Put on my blinker. Slowly turned the wheel. Then rolled to a stop at the back of the gravel drive, next to a sailboat draped in a vinyl sheet. The police car slowed but didn’t stop, and a moment later it had passed us and continued on out of sight.

            Cullen clapped Paul on the shoulder. “Quick thinking!”

            Their eyes met. Paul took a long, slow breath. Cullen just stared, like he was waiting for something. A motion. A signal. Hannah looked over, confused, and asked if they were both all right. Embarrassed, Cullen pulled his hand back and said, “Fine, fine,” blaming everything on static electricity. Paul just nodded, his mouth tight.

            I’d seen that exact expression once before, in a picture of me taken at my first—and only—high school party. The photo was snapped just moments before I expelled a tar-black stomachful of Midori and half-digested Oreos behind the coat tree in the Bryants’ mudroom, my features marked by that classically adolescent mixture of queasiness and elation.

* * *

            The signs were thick on Cilley Hill. We rolled on, passing four-bedroom mock-farmhouses and pastures that housed cows or sheep or alpacas. I drove in diagonals, swooping gently from one side of the road to the other, allowing Hannah and Cullen to pick the yards clean.

            Then I turned onto Hanley Lane. The two roads were almost parallel, but where Cilley Hill carved through farmland, Hanley Lane ran deep into the woods. The street was a wreck—it was clear that we weren’t the night’s first teenage carload. Decapitated mailboxes. Pumpkins stuffed with trash. A raised ranch garlanded with toilet paper. A walkway stripped of its stones.

            Something was going on with Cullen. He was gazing shyly at Paul, his expression borderline thoughtful—though every time I caught his eye, he’d pretend to be fixing his part or adjusting the placement of his bowler. Paul, on the other hand, just stared out the window, oblivious.

            “This street is so tiny,” Hannah said, squinting into the dark.

            “It used to be a logging road,” I told her, unsure the moment after I said it whether that was true.

* * *

            We entered Griswold at a crawl, stuck behind a puttering station wagon with a TAKE BACK VERMONT sticker on its back window. The development and its procession of 1960s bungalows surrounded the whole eastern edge of the elementary school, connected here and there via unofficial footpaths cut by two generations of children. And as we rounded the road’s first big curve, I glanced through a gap in the towering oaks to the school’s quiet playground and empty parking lot, to the cluster of one-blueprint, Reagan-era homes lying just beyond.

            To Sunnyview, Griswold’s fraternal twin.

            When I was little, I’d envied the kids in these developments, so close to the monkey bars and to each other. The apartment building where I lived with my mother had no other children, just retired couples and divorced men slinking into middle age. I begged and begged my mother to move closer to school, too young to understand why we lived in three small rooms when other families had whole houses.

* * *

            “It’s too quiet,” Hannah said as we drove past the darkened high school, her nose pressed against the glass. “Isn’t it really quiet tonight?”

            “Well,” Paul offered, “Jericho’s usually pretty quiet.”

            Hannah scrunched her nose. “I meant,” she clarified archly, “that it’s quiet for Cabbage Night. Didn’t someone set a treehouse on fire last year?”

            Cullen said that it was still early, that he and his brothers had always waited until midnight to begin their reign of terror. Which led Hannah to pick an exhausting fight about whether Cabbage Night was still technically Cabbage Night after 11:59 p.m.; at one point, she attempted to coin the name “Cabbage Morning,” to Cullen’s hooting disdain.

            While they argued, I felt a gentle tap on the shoulder. I turned my head toward Paul, trying to look as apologetic as I felt. “Up there,” he said, pointing ahead, to where a sign blazed white in our high-beams.

            The car slid left, crossing double lines. Cullen and Hannah looked up, startled, as Paul reached out the window, his hand dipping low, the sign seeming to rise into his fingers. He fell back into his seat, breathing hard, the white cardboard pulled against his chest. “You know,” he said, thoughtfully, “it really is kind of like paddling a canoe.”

            Cullen beamed. “Right?”

            And then Hannah turned her head, blinked twice, and ruined everything. “Throw it back,” she said. Paul looked at her, confused, then down at the sign. It was the right size, the right shape. But the words were all wrong: ELECT BUSH/CHENEY. “Come on,” Hannah hissed, impatient. “Ditch it. That’s somebody else’s problem.” Paul sighed. Then, looking a little sad, he slid the sign back through the open window and let go, watching as it blew out of sight behind us.

            “So,” I said when the silence finally got to be too much, “where to?” Clark’s Truck Center rose slowly on our left—its rows and rows of vehicles, its endless lawn, its massive digital sign blinking CLARKS TRK CNTR and 61°F and 8:51PM. Hannah looked at me, considering. Then pointed left. Toward Mountain High Pizza Pie. Jericho’s finest restaurant. Jericho’s only restaurant.

            Oh, I thought, touched. She remembered.

* * *

            It was a year ago, right here in the parking lot. A year ago exactly.

            Just a kiss, a moment’s boldness on the way out of the car, one hand on the door handle, the other trapped suddenly beneath hers. I’d never thought about girls before, not like that. Not until Hannah confessed how she was and what she liked. But it wasn’t so hard to imagine once I put my mind to it. I’d seen people kissing. You could do that, I thought. And it was true—I could. I did.

            But Hannah hadn’t been content with a peck, a few panting moments, a hand slid into my dingy bra. She called me her girlfriend. Girlfriend. Me. I wondered what people at school would think—but then, it wasn’t like they’d ever thought anything nice. So I said it back and a kiss became a week, became a month, became a frantic moon-lit encounter in her car’s backseat. Became a year, which was decades in high-school time. Eons.

            I got used to it. Her arm around my waist when no one could see, the wet kisses behind my ear. And, sure, it was boys I pictured when my mind wandered, when I had the shower nozzle angled just so, but what did that mean, anyway? It was habit, just habit. I was happy. We were happy. And I was naive enough then to think that was all that mattered.

* * *

            Inside Mountain High, they called our number. Hannah shot up, grumbling under her breath about the wait time as she raced toward the counter. I was staring after her—already picturing my first slice, the red-yellow grease dripping down my fingers—when I caught sight of Tom Bloom, all-state lacrosse and my eight-day sixth-grade boyfriend. He was hidden away by the ovens, wearing a red apron and tight jeans, his forehead dappled with sweat you could almost taste.

            He didn’t return my wave.

            Hannah turned away from the counter, carrying our pizza, and crashed right into a well-dressed man with a little girl wrapped around his leg. His name was Trevor Bissell; he was running for the Vermont State Senate as a Republican. I recognized his thin, hard face from pamphlets I’d seen in my mother’s trash. His daughter wore a bright green dress and looked to be about four.

            The pizza tray slammed into Hannah’s shoulder and struck Bissell square in the chest. She grunted in pain and fell backward; Bissell toppled sideways, his eyes wide, his arms swinging desperately in all directions. And in the instant before he reached out and caught himself on the counter, only his daughter’s presence kept me from hoping he would fall.

            The pizza somehow survived intact. Hannah and Bissell exchanged quick, heated apologies and went their separate ways. Back at our table, Paul and Cullen dug in while I dabbed at a spot of sauce on Hannah’s forehead with a balled-up napkin.

            Over by the counter, Bissell’s daughter—fully recovered from her big scare—started begging her father for bacon pizza and a chocolate creemee with rainbow sprinkles. Bissell teased his daughter, telling her that all sprinkles tasted the same. She violently shook her head. It was charming; I found myself a little charmed. But as Bissell lifted his daughter into his arms, I had a sudden flash of the signs we’d left in the back of Hannah’s car, a mass of damning evidence obscured only by Cullen’s tossed-aside coat.

            The newspaper headlines came with ease. Gay Vandals Indicted and AG Promises to ‘Make Example’ of Teens and, finally, Sonia Butler, 17, Knifed in Juvie.

            As I squirmed in my chair, imagining my mother’s tearful eulogy, Cullen turned to Paul and asked, “Say, are you having a good time?”

            Paul frowned and set down his slice on a grease-saturated paper plate. “You know what?” he said, finally. “I think I am.”

            I looked over at Hannah, expecting to see a triumphant grin. Instead, she nodded slowly in Bissell’s direction, her eyes bright with mischief. Then, before I could speak or shake my head or even frown, Hannah reached over and cupped my chin with her hands, her fingertips pressing gently against my throat. And as she leaned in to kiss me, I wondered if she could feel my pulse jump.

            That August, I’d worked myself into a frenzy over whether to come out at school. Wanting to be proud and strong, but terrified of the backlash, the whispering, of suspicious eyes in the girls’ locker room. Hannah had talked me down, reminding me we’d be gone in months, saying that it just wasn’t worth it. But now, if Tom happened to glance up, we’d be out.

            That was Hannah. Theft, not petitions. Spite, not activism.

            Hannah pressed her mouth hard against mine, overpowering me with a wet, one-sided kiss. Paul blushed and looked down. Cullen checked his watch. Tom slid another pizza into the oven. And over by the counter, Bissell reached down to cover his daughter’s eyes.

            We left quickly.

* * *

            On Hannah’s orders, we made our way toward Foothill.

Cabbage Night had rocked the neighborhood the previous year, with nearly every house losing something valuable: a $200 mailbox, a custom-cut picture window, an imported Belgian garden gnome. I expected to find Foothill in tatters—vandals, in my experience, delight in smashing expensive things—but everything there seemed strangely whole. I was in the middle of saying as much when the first egg hit Hannah’s car.

            It struck the windshield on the passenger side; if not for the glass, it would have landed square in Cullen’s lap. Hannah jumped at the impact, at the sound the shell made as it blew apart. I slammed on the brakes and even though we were only going fifteen miles per hour, the car fishtailed.

            Then the rain of projectiles began. Eggs struck the hood and roof. Wads of soaking toilet paper slammed one after another against the side of the car. My instinct was to flatten the gas pedal and race away, but our tormentors were too close and I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t hit someone.

            Paul and Hannah fumbled with their locks as I pressed my elbow against the horn and frantically rolled up my window. As the footfalls grew louder and the crowd closed in, I felt a brief, sickening flash of fear—was this a hate crime? (Then sense returned and I realized how very straight we must look, just two boy-girl couples out for a drive.)

            All around us, there were shouts and squawks and mocking laughter. Something struck the back window. Someone smacked the roof of the car with a large stick. Paul curled up in a ball, his seatbelt’s shoulder strap running diagonally across his back. It was only as the crowd began to shake the car that I noticed Cullen’s door was unlocked. “I want to see how this plays out,” he told me. (Even now, I’m not sure if he was joking.)

            “Ideas?” Hannah shouted as the car rocked up and down. “Anyone?”

* * *

            Today Hannah is happily married and lives down in Pittsfield. Our high school squabbles are mostly forgotten, and every year my boyfriend Eric and I go down to Massachusetts for Labor Day Weekend. Sometimes, late in the evening, the four of us will sit out on Hannah and Molly’s front porch with a six-pack and talk about Cabbage Night.

            “Thank God for those fucking cops,” Hannah always says, laughing, and the two of us are off, describing the battle-ready police unit stationed on Foothill, our nervous escape back to Route 15, the way Paul trembled in the rearview mirror. From there, Hannah always skips ahead, milking laughs out of the epic fight the two of us had while hosing off her car. And every time, I sit there, nursing my beer and thinking about everything she’s leaving out.

            When I remember that night, I picture myself stewing in the driver’s seat as Hannah and Cullen unload the signs onto the lawn of Clark’s Truck Center. Hannah leans against my window as the boys soak the pile with lighter fluid. Cullen sparks a match. Paul wraps a hand around the other boy’s neck and gives him a rough, lingering kiss. The match drops from Cullen’s fingers. The fire ignites.


BIO

T.B. Grennan was born in Vermont, lives in Brooklyn, and once read the entirety of Shirley Hazzard’s, The Transit of Venus, while stuck on a delayed plane. His writing has appeared in The Indiana Review, The Seventh Wave, TIMBER, and “Spaces We Have Known,” an anthology of LGBT+ fiction.

Great Spirits

by Arun A.K.

1953 – Utori, a fictional town somewhere in Northern India 

Just like any other working day, the second Monday of August had been no different for Arvind Shukla. Seated in his office cabin, he was typing the significant events of the day on his Royal Quiet Deluxe typewriter. Ever since he set up his small publishing house in the town of Utori, he never had to venture out to find news. A few phone calls and the stories to be published on the following day would be fed to him. Arvind’s daily publication ‘Sacch Vijayi’ (Truth Wins) was the sole source of news for the inhabitants of Utori and all latest developments of the town used to find their way in his stories. Whatever good that happened in Utori was reflected in his dailies and surprisingly there would be no trace of negative news; be it-crime or corruption. Reading Arvind’s dailies gave the impression that Utori was no less than a Utopia!

But, the reality was different. Utori was a living hell. The once bustling and lively town had been turned into a silent graveyard where people moved around like corpses. Fear could be felt in every street corner and an air of gloom seemed to engulf the town at all times. For many years, Utori had been under the terrorizing reigns of Gajraj Singh – a politician-don who ruled supreme with an iron fist. Singh’s goons used to wreak havoc in the town on a whim and ‘hafta vasooli’ (extortion) had become an accepted norm which no one dared to challenge. Any occasional dissenting voice was silenced mercilessly in public, reminding every one of the grave consequences of rebellion. The police and judiciary were in Singh’s pockets and so was Arvind. All the notorious shenanigans of Gajraj Singh had to be overlooked by ‘Sacch Vijayi’. 

Extortion was more of an arm-twisting tactic for Singh than a money minting tool. For usurping wealth, he had partnered with Balwant Thakur – an industrialist who was also the business tycoon of Utori. With the help of Singh’s muscle men, Thakur had seized control over most of the major businesses in the region: construction, roads, transport, liquor stores, hotels, gambling dens, brothels, etc. Needless to say, the entire political funding for Singh was taken care of by Thakur. Together, they ruled over Utori, both financially and autocratically. Due to their monopoly, they dictated the prices of products and services in the marketplace and the inhabitants of Utori had no option but to pay exorbitant prices for procuring even essential commodities. Only those in powerful and influential positions along with the gang-members of Singh-Thakur enjoyed certain perks and privileges. The common man of Utter was ill-fated to endure suffering.

As most businesses were controlled by Thakur, most citizens had no other recourse but to work for him. They were overworked and underpaid. With sky-high prices for everything and lower wages, the citizens were bleeding money and most of them were forced to mortgage their assets to Thakur and his associates. Eventually, the majority of the population became bonded laborers for Thakur and Singh. Utori had turned into a dystopian society with no citizen having any free will. And, Arvind’s ‘Sacch Vijayi’ functioned more like an advertorial for Thakur and Singh, rather than an unbiased publication. Only stories, bragging about the development brought in by Thakur’s businesses and pseudo-political/social services made by Singh used to feature in ‘Sacch Vijayi’.

One of the stories being typed on the second Monday of August by Arvind was about the latest pub soon to be launched by Balwant Thakur called ‘Great Spirits’. It would be located in the plush hotel ‘Golden Pride’ run by Thakur which was flocked by his and Singh’s close associates. Top police officials and judges were regular sights at the hotel’s casinos. ‘Golden Pride’ was an exclusive den open only to the coterie of Singh and Thakur. Details about the pub had been shared with Arvind by Thakur’s secretary over the phone, earlier in the day. It was going to be the premium most pub in Utori selling the finest quality alcohol, customized by a middle-aged professional named Manish Kumar. A couple of weeks back, in a meeting with Balwant Thakur, Manish Kumar had impressed him with his sound knowledge and expertise in liquor blending. Thakur quickly bought into Kumar’s idea of starting a pub offering customized blended alcohol.

Friday was slated to be the launch day of ‘Great Spirits’. On the previous night, Manish Kumar invited Balwant Thakur and Gajraj Singh over to his hotel room in ‘Golden Pride’. Thakur had arranged for Kumar’s stay at his hotel for the time he would be in Utori. The three of them discussed the itinerary of the launch event and how the business operations of ‘Great Spirits’ would be rolled out. Meanwhile, Kumar even wanted the two men to taste the customized whiskeys he had specially curated for both of them, separately. He offered Singh one variety and Thakur the other one. As for himself, Kumar was a teetotaler and never consumed alcohol. All three of them joked and laughed over the irony of the situation. The drinking session went on till late night before Thakur and Singh went crashing into their respective rooms at the hotel.

Friday evening had arrived. The launch event of ‘Great Spirits’ was going to commence in the largest hall of ‘Golden Pride’. Everyone close to Thakur and Singh was present there. The hall was packed with the most notorious and corrupt men of Utori. Arvind also had been invited to cover the event. After all, the next day’s ‘Sacch Vijayi’ edition would have to be filled with pompous details of the event. Both Thakur and Singh were welcomed onto the stage with thunderous applause by everyone. They were seated on the stage facing everyone. After a brief introduction about ‘Great Spirits’ by the compere, Thakur was invited over to the dais to share his thoughts. What followed thereafter was a shocker for everyone present in the hall. Out of the blue, Thakur started talking about the teachings of Gautam Buddha and seeking a higher purpose in life rather than being consumed by material greed. He admitted that all his life he had been running after money but the time had come now for a transformation. Like Buddha, Thakur pledged to renounce all attachments and distribute everything he had to the citizens of Utori. He acknowledged that they had suffered for too long and it was high time that their pain and miseries came to an end. All his businesses and properties would be distributed among his employees and workers, before leaving Utori forever on a pilgrimage to seek salvation. The entire hall was left stunned.

It was Singh’s turn now to speak on the dais. For years, he had been the most terrorizing figure in Utori and everyone was expecting him to lash out at Thakur for his flabbergasting volte-face. To everyone’s surprise, he began his speech by lauding Balwant Thakur on his recent transformation and congratulating him on choosing the righteous path. Then, Singh started advocating the ideals and principles of Mahatma Gandhi. It was hilarious to see the most violent and ruthless man of Utori preaching peace, dharma and non-violence as the way of life. Singh promised that law and order would be restored in Utori and going forward he would be indulging in philanthropic pursuits. Many in the audience were left in splits as they thought that this was some sort of a wicked joke pulled by Singh and Thakur. Some of them started joking that Singh and Thakur had been possessed by the great spirits of Gandhi and Buddha, respectively. 

Arvind was perplexed by this bizarre transformation that he had witnessed in the two ‘baahubalis’  (dons) of Utori. Even, he wasn’t sure if this was real or a prank. Things would become clear the next day on August 15. As part of India’s Independence Day celebrations, all employees of Balwant Thakur’s business ventures were called to their workplaces. Town-halls were announced at all workplaces and it was declared that the ownership of Thakur’s ventures would be distributed among employees and workers based on their grades and hierarchies. Work timings would be reduced to 8 hours from the previously grueling 12 hours and all the properties mortgaged by citizens would also be returned to them. Finally, after so many years of torment, the citizens of Utori had gained freedom from the clutches of bonded labour and slavery. Now, that control had been handed over to the citizens of Utori, the monopolistic regime was immediately replaced with a democratic and free market. The competition was open, resulting in prices of commodities and services decreasing drastically and with an increase in purchasing power, the people of Utori started prospering. The goons of ‘ahinsavaadi’ (non-violent) Gajraj Singh disappeared from the fore and no citizen faced harassment from the thugs, anymore. Extortion and other crimes vanished from the face of Utori. The town was now lively and vibrant without any trace of fear among its citizens. As for Arvind, just like before, even now his dailies covered all the positive developments of Utori and there would be no mention of any negative news in his publication. The only difference now was that the news in ‘Sacch Vijayi’ was completely in sync with the town’s reality. The truth was winning in Utori.

However, Arvind was yet to come to grips with what was happening in the town. He often wondered, what might have caused this sudden transformation in Balwant Thakur and Gajraj Singh. One fine afternoon, he received a call from the secretary of Balwant Thakur to inform him that Thakur had left Utori, on his spiritual journey. Just when he hung up the phone, it struck him that Thakur’s secretary had mentioned on the second Monday of August about a certain Manish Kumar being responsible for the idea of ‘Great Spirits’. But, who was this Manish Kumar and where was he, wondered Arvind. Nobody had seen him during the launch event of ‘Great Spirits’. 

Arvind immediately rushed to the ‘Golden Pride’ hotel where the ‘Great Spirits’ launch had taken place. The hotel was now owned by the citizens’ corporation body and the pub ‘Great Spirits’ had been permanently shut down after the dramatic launch event. All the liquor stores owned by Thakur and Singh had been shut down in Utori as the teachings of Buddha and Gandhi condemned the consumption of alcohol. Even, the gambling dens had been completely disbanded, and ‘Golden Pride’ was now a family centric hotel. On enquiring about Manish Kumar, the staff at the reception told Arvind that Kumar had been put up in the hotel for a week before the launch event but had checked out on the day of the launch. Nobody seemed to know about his whereabouts. One of the waiters recollected that on the night before the launch, Thakur and Singh were drinking in Kumar’s room till late night. Now that Thakur was no longer available in town, Arvind knew that the mystery about Manish Kumar could only be solved by meeting Gajraj Singh.

Arvind got into his vehicle and made his way to Singh’s residence. The imposing persona of Singh had been replaced by a soft demeanor who was now living a Gandhian way of life. He was now a genuine public-serving politician and had become completely involved in philanthropic deeds. Singh welcomed Arvind inside and offered him tea. After exchanging a few pleasantries, Arvind came straight to the point and enquired with Singh about Manish Kumar. Singh revealed that during the party at Kumar’s hotel suite, Kumar had offered Thakur and him some customized alcohol that had been blended with some unique spirits. Kumar had mentioned to them that he had learnt the art of blending spirits, before Independence from a British friend. On being asked about his current location, Singh seemed to have no clue. But, Singh recollected Manish Kumar telling him that he had visited Utori in the past, long back in 1948. “I believe he had come to visit his cousin for a few days,” said Singh. On hearing this, Arvind became completely numb and still. His head started spinning on realizing what was going on and it felt as if the ceiling had come crashing down on him. The past flashed right in front of his eyes.

Manish Kumar had come to Utori five years back on January 25, 1948, to meet his cousin who used to work in one of the factories of Balwant Thakur. In the coming few days, Kumar witnessed the plight of the town’s citizens and the excruciating working conditions, which enraged him tremendously. He would argue with his cousin that one must not bend down before the goons of Singh and Thakur. Even if one citizen refused to be subservient or pay ‘hafta’ to them, it could start a revolution. “Change can be brought about only through resistance,” said an idealistic Manish Kumar to his cousin. However, his practical and timid cousin requested him to be rational and not do anything risky in his absence. Kumar being a free-spirited person had never conformed or bowed down before anyone in his entire life. A staunch Gandhian, he lived by the ideals of the Father of the Nation. Not heeding his cousin’s advice, Kumar ventured out in public fearlessly while his cousin was at work. He was sipping tea in a nearby tea shop when he saw the dreaded goons of Gajraj Singh bulldoze their way into each store and bully everyone. When they entered the tea shop, the owner quietly kept a packet of money on the table as a customary practice. Just when the goons were leaving the shop with the packet, Manish Kumar exclaimed to the owner that he should not get intimidated by these thugs and must stop giving ‘hafta’ to them. On hearing this, the goons turned back and aggressively barged at Kumar. They told him to apologize and threatened him with dire consequences if he didn’t comply. But he refused to apologize even once. After the final defiance, he was dragged out in public and the goons started mercilessly assaulting him. A huge crowd gathered immediately and they witnessed in silence the barbarism unleashed by the goons. Kumar put up a brave fight against the gang of five thugs but they were too strong for him. Not a single soul came to his rescue and the cops were nowhere to be seen as usual. The goons kept on hitting him with rods and kicking him endlessly. After about half an hour of thrashing, Kumar’s body gave up and he lay motionless on the road drenched in blood. As was the custom, nobody uttered a word and everyone left in silence. The body was later taken away by the garbage cleaners. 

As expected, the ‘Sacch Vijayi’ edition of the following day had no mention of Manish Kumar’s death. No crime had been committed despite Arvind having been part of the spineless crowd that had gathered to witness the savagery. Incidentally, his entire paper was filled with news related to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

Flashes of that gory day of January 30, 1948, came to an end before Arvind’s eyes. It seemed as if Arvind’s present was also coming to an end. By now, he had become breathless. A worried Gajraj Singh called out his wife and helping aides. They all rushed to the living room where Arvind was sweating profusely and gasping for breath. Singh’s wife tried to make Arvind drink a glass of water, but in vain. A shivering Arvind collapsed on the floor and lay motionless. 

Perhaps, he had suffered a mental shock or heart attack…


BIO

Arun A.K. is a communications professional working in Mumbai, India. He admits to being guilty of showing more love to cinema and food than to writing. Most of the time, he ends up losing his frequent fights with sugar cravings. Twitter Handle: @arunusual

inside the Forbidden City

by James Thurgood

 
         this Ming nightmare:  hordes
tromping imperial courtyards,
                             barbarians mugging
                   for posterity
                      from royal balconies

we squeeze, shove shoulders
                                              to metal rails
                  stretch, strain, crane
        raise cameras to faces, over heads
              for shadowed glimpses
of satin cushions long-faded under
   kowtowing courtiers and concubines
      – pushy crowds with earned entry
               to sheds of crumbling treasure
hope for a shimmer of silk
clack of fan
                    in regal hand
– we press the bars and gawk
           like peasants brought to witness
the jailed Last First Wife
         – who warned her Emperor
   the Japanese despise your Ching Dynasty
                                     demand towels, water
                             clean linen
             of ghost servants,
       her own body risen against her
                 for starving it of opium

                                                   back home
                 we will tell our neighbours
                    but bending to work
     wish, some of us
                           guards had
                                        barred the gates


letter from Donghai




  wake up, Father, till I tell you
             how you’d like it, this pier
     where beat-up wooden boats herd five-six deep
black and blue hulls splintered, faded
     red flag jolly aloft each main-mast
          decks grey with ground sea-grime
                white with tromped and broken shells
burly boys toting tubs abrim
       with rubber tentacles and finned legs
             shell and scale all iridescence
                    all purples, yellows, silvers, pinks
                 murk-greens – bristles, claws
       horns and webs – feelers, fangs
– where sun-browned girls in scarves
     squat back of sea-snail vats
          and starfish trays
wind-burned women kerchiefed
               grin at a lau-wei out-of-water
leathern fishermen bare-headed, all rubber boots
     all haggle and bark
       as tip-toeing townsfolk
                                skirt slime puddles
               start from horny vans –
     here fishwives by scores
                         secret in workcoats, gloves
             and peaked bonnets battened down with scarves
                   sort nets like other Fates
             untangling lives –
  briny breeze, seafolk
       wheeling-dealing, lusty youth
     plain work – just like the wharf in Arichat
                                               circa 1928

          then the market-proper:
               rows of stalls bright-caparisoned
  – each fresh live sea-beast of the pier
      dried, hung, drawn and quartered
             piled where those are pearls
that were eyes, are necklaces,
                            shells wind-chimes

      we could sit by Moon Bay, Father
in Bohai’s breeze
          savor some sea-dish
      watch livings earned – you foretelling
            gain or loss, might suggest
half in fun and all in earnest
                                     my next thousand-li step

                               I write, Father
     since you are so distant
          and I can’t wait to tell you
                                                    if only you’d wake
                     from that dreamless sleep

Notes: 1) lau-wei: foreigner (literally, ‘Mister Foreigner’); 2) Arichat: in Cape Breton; 3) Bohai: sea or gulf adjoining Yellow Sea; 4) li: measure of distance; figurative equivalent of a mile


er-hu player

 
              after the restaurant
     – upstairs room
                 a good twelve dishes,
toasts enough to health and long life
                   to reduce the chance of either –
          three couples arm in arm, we hear yearning
     through new concrete apartment blocks
               strains of er-hu
                                       – find on a bench
   an old man, smiling wife
                                 folded wheelchair

          may we listen
                this fresh evening

            he turns on a radio

       too shy I’m told
                 hasn’t played for so long
                                – he offers the instrument
                          to the lao-wei musician
                                                     in the old fiddlers’ way:
          do you know enough to appreciate
                but not to out-do

     bu, bu; sie-sie I decline

                  radio again

           soon on warmer nights
musicians gather
     come back he tells us

          but I’ll be gone
will only picture them summer evenings
     five or six old men
          another er-hu, a wooden flute
    lute, zither, gourd-pipe
               ancient music

     setting off, we hear once more,
          are followed by
his fading tones

     looking back, I make out
the wife turned to watch us
                    her face a waning moon


exotic travel


          the shower:
open corner
      in a small cell

       I turn the tap overhead
and chest-height valve
     – nothing from shower-head
 – turn more, a cold spray
                         around valve
     which with more turns
          targets bare flesh
as shower-head looks on, dry-eyed

                                         another turn –
                 valve shoots to palm
fire-hose torrent blasts chest,
             rebounds all directions

the valve – surprise –
      does not screw back –
   but a firm hand behind
              holds back the flood

                    what now

 extend right leg –
          Monkey Fist toes grab underwear –
     crook leg to Hissing Snake
          retrieve underwear with free hand
                    pass foot through hole

lower foot to floor
    holding valve in place,
             underwear half up

insert left leg in left-hole

with hula swivel
      hoist underwear to waist

assume Floating Crane –
          stretch left leg to door handle,
Monkey Fist toes turn handle

door is locked

gently kick

call hey ni-hao hey!
    kick till Elder Brother appears
               wavering through frosted glass

sliver by sliver door unlocked opens

             head peeks round
                                         – upstage
     a chorus of Chinese women
             tragic and comic

 Elder Brother shuts water
               – scuttle to bedroom

                              from the kitchen
                     women laughing


leaving Longkou


  
                      remember at Penglai
                                                    the fortress
              that warning-sign:  say no
                         to feudal superstitions

                    sea-fog sneaks
                              on dragon feet
               paved street
                                   under lights
                          where I stroll
           my last evening  –
                             from a clutch of teenaged ghosts
            a girl’s jade voice:
                   welcome to Longkou

yelling, clapping, pebble-tossing
                                              to the window
     – Elder Brother, drink in hand, looks
             and turns back inward

             the road to Yantai:

       old man in blue
            pushing a bicycle up a dirt hill
  pestered by six white goats

             among roadside vendors
     a farmer, arms outstretched
         hawks five-feet of writhing snake

                         lonely highway –
                                  on the median
                    a shrub in flames



BIO

James Thurgood was born in Nova Scotia, grew up in Windsor, Ontario, and now lives in Calgary, Alberta. He has been a general labourer, musician, and teacher – not necessarily in that order. His poems have appeared in various journals, anthologies, and in a collection (Icemen/Stoneghosts, Penumbra Press).

The Snow Queen

by Jennifer R. Lorene


The girl sat on the curb outside of her home and sent her thoughts to the ravens resting on the telephone wire. The ravens circled above her. One crowed and sat beside the girl. This raven had one foggy blind eye and one of sparkling gold light that he used to peer into the back of the girl’s mind and send her images and words of all the goings-on of the city. He showed her the image of a white spider woman whose legs were like saws. The same white spider who stole her brother when they were babies.

“Why did she do this to us?” the girl asked.

“It’s what evil does,” the raven said. “It’s time to face her.”

The girl walked down to the beach alone and she stumbled over the jagged rocks, cigarette butts, and broken beer bottles.

Inside the cave by the ocean was the spider and she was bigger than the girl had thought and as white as snow. The spider’s frontmost limbs crossed over her belly creating an X.

“You’re afraid,” the spider said. “Good.”

Before the girl could even move, the spider was on her, weaving a web so tightly that all the girl could do was freeze. She lay as still as she could while the spider wrapped her like a baby in a blanket of webbing before carrying her off into a nearby cave.

The girl couldn’t move and felt cold. She longed for the advice of the Raven. One camping lantern on the cave floor by the wall was lit. The spider placed her on the ground, and rubbed her front legs together like two knives.

The girl gazed into the swirling red and black underbelly of the spider. A crowd of open mouthed faces, no one able to hear them scream. Then she saw a face she recognized. A boy with the same freckled nose and gold hair as she. It was her brother.

The spider raised one of her legs, aimed right at the girl’s head, and right before the spider went to stab her, the girl heard a muted yell from her brother to move to the right. The spider stabbed the cave’s dirt floor and her leg was stuck. The spider screeched. The girl dodged another attack. Both of the spider’s front legs got stuck in the dirt. The girl rubbed the threads against one of the spider’s legs and cut herself free.

Her brother’s hand reached out and she grabbed it and pulled. Out he came from the spider; this broke her body in two. The siblings watched the spider wiggle and writhe on its back.

“Who are you?” the spider asked.

“I am love,” the girl said.

The spider melted, turned into smoke, and then disappeared with a hiss.

The cave became full of the people who had escaped the spider’s body. They had also once lived in the girl’s city. The girl pointed towards the exit; a doorway of sunlight.


BIO

Born and raised in San Pedro, California, with a four year stay in Vegas, Jennifer R. Lorene’s writing is informed by place. Her style has been described as dirty fabulism. Her work has appeared in the anthology Last Call, Chinaski! published by Lummox Press and twice in the Santa Monica Review. For more information visit: https://linktr.ee/writershearth20 

California Fugue

by Teresa Yang


C is for ceasefire, as in “Cease, fire!” As if, like telling the universe to stop expanding, we could command the many California wildfires to stop burning.

Taken another way, ceasefire might be a brokered truce between Mother Nature and man, our encroaching development like a stray hair irritating her eyes, one that she decides to brush away or scissor off entirely. A ceasefire, though, does not resolve conflicts; it’s a mere time-out for both sides to recover their breath, or plot new strategies. Breath restored, mankind might grudgingly accept the stark reality of climate change – that, yes – cigarettes do cause lung cancer and maybe that extra cell phone that fell out from your husband’s backpack and his mysterious absences don’t mean he works for the CIA.

A is for awakened. It’s three in the morning and the phone is ringing. Brain disoriented, I think, don’t the robocallers know it’s the middle of the night? But I pick up, prepared for Serenity Haven to say, “Your mother didn’t suffer; she went quickly.” Instead, it’s my neighbor warning us of a threatening newborn fire and the immediate mandatory evacuation. I check my phone and there are NotifyLA alerts wallpapering the dark screen, texts and emails growing like the fire.

Though I have an evacuation list, it provides little comfort. All I can think about is my blood pressure, the one I’ve been diligently monitoring since the other day at the doctor when it was on the cliff waiting to be rescued by a diuretic. The list is in English and Spanish, in descending priority order, created and honed after the last recommended evacuation. I had to consider need versus want. I need to pack sweats and tennis shoes, clothes you wear after your house has burned down. I need to pack my underwear, those hard-to-fit bras and the bikini panties that hide a stomach like a quick finger wiping escaping cake batter, the underwear that cannot possibly be bought online without trying it on first, the underwear whose purchase I’ll have no patience for after my house is gone. I want to pack my mother’s leopard coat, given to her by her mother-in-law, the one she wore so fashionably in those Kyoto wintertime black and white photos. No one needs a leopard coat. I want to pack my thirty-five photo albums, in chronological order, the ones I’m saving to show my future grandchildren. My daughter laughed later, saying, “But Mom, they’re all digitized.” I want to pack their scrap books, Mother’s Day cards made by kindergarten teachers and, later, poignant ones where my son wrote messages he was too reluctant to say in person.

L is for loss, tangible and intangible. There is the obvious potential loss of the house which we just remodeled, for the third time, a few years back. This was the we-will-die-here remodel, the one where I corrected all the features I disliked from the outset but couldn’t afford to change before, the one where I finally got the soaking bathtub. I treated the bathtub like the beach, sand to be admired from afar, and stepped into its pool only once to assure myself it wouldn’t collapse into the living room below. Our dream remodel also produced the great room, one where the kids could hang out with their friends under my watchful eye. Sadly, the kids had their own apartments now and could hang out unobserved. This was the remodel that promoted the washer and dryer from its spidered existence in the garage to its own laundry room, now that we were doing less laundry than ever. This was the remodel where I got my walk-in closet, the one I would’ve been happy to evacuate into and live out of.

Half the house remained unused, freezing in winter and boiling in summer. We considered renting out that portion but soon realized we would need to add an extra kitchen. We had lived in that area of the house throughout the better part of our remodeling year. All the furniture had been put in storage save for the essentials. With one functional bathroom and no indoor staircase, we walked up and down outside to get from the bathroom to the kitchen. It reminded me of our first apartment and I wondered why I thought a washer and dryer would require its own room.

The intangible losses are tougher. This was the place where I learned about nurturing and growing things – children, dichondra, and homemade apple pie with green fruit from the yard.

I is for information, too much and not enough. It’s an endless, anxiety provoking loop, which we watch for fear of missing out, waiting to hear that Arnold’s house, or mine, has burned down. It’s watching the governor, or mayor, in real people clothes, out of their bespoke suits, talking to us like our next door neighbor, which they’re not.

F is for fire, now so common that we’ve given them names. But, like most names, they’re easily forgettable. We should name them Lucifer, or possibly Dante.

Once, when my son was three or four and I was at work, we had a kitchen fire. The first thing my nanny did was take him outside, next to the pool. “Wait here, puppy,” she said. In the chaos, she forgot about the fire extinguisher; instead, she soaked the small rug next to the sink and threw it onto the stove top, killing the fire. He didn’t know how to swim at the time, but wide eyed, he stood glued to the grass.

O is for objects. I’ve long since given away the things that don’t spark joy, like the matching picture frames my mother gifted one year, the ones with too-happy Disneyland fake flowers. I had to wait until she no longer remembered she had given them to me. Now I’m left with twinkles of joy everywhere, like pastel macaroons or hidden chocolate, so many fragile, difficult to pack treasures that I love. I take none of it, unwilling and unable to select my favorites. It’s like asking me to identify which child I love more. Instead I take the cash, several thousand dollars in twenties and Ben Franklins, hidden inside Dennis Lehane’s dark book, Mystic River. I pack my mother’s pair of black and grey onyx bookends that sit on the floor and accent the black fireplace like the beauty mark she used to embellish on her pale cheek. The heavy bookends could come in handy for protection, I think.

I take my jewelry, all of it.

R is for the many reasons that fire reigns now, climate change chief among them. It’s not just the one or two degree increase in average temperatures, but like a two or three pound weight gain, it’s that resultant bloated feeling where waistbands strangle and zippers suffocate. It’s the cascading effect: the extremes in temperature are greater, the devil Santa Ana winds howl that much stronger, the rains become torrential, or the air desiccates in postmenopausal dryness.

It’s the faceless corporations, utilities who didn’t maintain the electric infrastructure, their only remedy with all this power is now to turn off the power.

It’s the explosion and implosion of the California dream, man inhabiting Mother Nature’s backyard, the one wired to burn periodically to allow renewal and regrowth. Only now those areas are crowded with housing developments, Costcos, and grammar schools. And we still have a housing shortage. Yet in my neighborhood, the homeowners refuse to consider the building of “granny flats,” additional smaller units on the lot for, well, grandmothers or other orphaned people. We joked that we had already built our own granny flat in the unoccupied half of the house.

N is for Nola, my sole remaining friend from high school. I’m always the one to suggest we get together. We meet halfway between her home in northern San Diego county and mine in Los Angeles, always at the same Pan Asian restaurant, always ordering the noodles with the secret sauce. I am surprised when I receive an unexpected text from her asking about my well being. I agree with my dad – there’s nothing like old friends.

The texts keep appearing like electronic ash. Why are people awake at this time of night? Busily packing, I don’t answer. Like tracing shell companies, one nearby friend who had sent increasingly worried texts finally texted her son in Hong Kong to text my son in San Francisco to track us down in my silence. People I hadn’t communicated with in months reached out.

Although I was disappointed not to hear from my friend Constance, whom I considered a sister once, not having any myself. She used to live in the very canyon that was now burning. We drifted apart as our children grew up and she became more religious. Once I hinted she was too religious. If you’re at all religious, you know you can’t ever be too religious. Maybe she was traveling in the jungles of Borneo, I hoped.

I is for insurance – like a deadbeat husband, it’s nice to say you’re married, but really, what good is he? When the specter of earthquake became an actuarial certainty, earthquake insurance turned into its own entity and cost, separate from the homeowner’s policy. And now that fire is so commonplace, will it also have its own classification and price tag? No matter, the premiums have already doubled or tripled, or worse yet, entire policies cancelled. Even insurance companies can participate in our “cancel culture.”

A is for air mattress, the queen size one I decide to buy at Target. I pick the cheapest one only to realize after opening the unreturnable box there’s no pump. The evacuation will likely be over by the time I manually inflate the mattress. After another trip, armed with the electric pump, I proudly assess the makeshift bed. Despite its size, it’s not meant for two people. Newton’s immutable third law – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction – means that every time my husband moves, I am lambasted by a tidal wave of motion. In the middle of the night, unable to sleep, we pump the other queen mattress.

I chide myself for not packing the chairs-in-a-bag we used to lug to soccer games, for there is no place to sit except the dirty floor and the clean bed. With only two changes of clothes, but lots of underwear, I can either sit on the floor in my underwear or put on my flannel pajamas and sit on the air mattress. One day I did take a shower and got in bed at 4pm. I suppose I could’ve picked up a soccer chair, but it would’ve been another reminder of loss, of trying to live in the past, so many wonderful hours spent watching my children from the sidelines.

F is for the fortunate and the fucked. Even the lucky ones, like Lebron James, cannot find shelter. “Man, these LA fires aren’t no joke, “he tweeted. On Twitter, besides some personal invitations that he be their house guest, he was told to check out the Four Seasons in Hong Kong, or to contact the Chinese embassy. Then there’s the man who wondered, anonymously and publicly, how he could save his Lamborghini. The internet might be an even more dangerous place than fire infested California, a place where Lamborghinis, or their owners, could be destroyed.

The unlucky ones are the people whose homes have already burned down once, who have been living in a FEMA trailer, who have experienced serial, multiple evacuations. They’re the ones whose entire town was nearly destroyed, like the ironically named Paradise. They’re the ones without fire insurance, worse off than the people who discover their policies might only rebuild half a house. They’re the ones, elderly, perhaps alone, perhaps diabetic, unable to drive, whose power has been off for a week, looking at their dwindling food supply and wondering: What’s worse? Take a chance and eat the unrefrigerated week old delicatessen turkey? Or mix my white processed sugar with water so I don’t starve? They are the ones too old, too sick, too tired, too dead to resurrect.

They’re the ones who can’t plunk down $350 a night for a hotel room, while the fortunate complain, as one man did on Nextdoor, that an overabundance of caution precipitated the mandatory evacuation notice and, not only does he want to be reimbursed for his $350 nightly expense, he bemoans he can’t be relaxing on his outdoor hammock. The unlucky ones cannot buy air mattresses.

The unlucky ones are the housekeepers, gardeners, and day workers who haven’t been notified by their employers and, for fear of losing their job, go to work anyway, the ones who can’t afford a day without pay.

U is for united, as in firefighters united in a singular cause. They come from everywhere – even tiny Coronado, home of the famed hotel, sent a battalion. Even prisoners, excepting the convicted arsonists, can volunteer in exchange for a few dollars a day and the possibility of better accommodations or a reduced sentence. It’s dangerous, sure, but sometimes less dangerous than the stuff inside the prison, one inmate said. I like being outside, another remarked.

Just think – if our government could work together like the firefighters and fight a common cause rather than each other. Doesn’t the “United” States mean just that?

G is for gossamer, which Merriam-Webster defines as “light, delicate, tenuous,” like goose down or cobwebs. It’s contemporary life, our network connected by fine, sometimes invisible, electronic threads. Is Constance in Borneo or has she really cut our sisterly string? It’s our cobweb, easily blown by a strong Santa Ana, hopefully without us on it, leaving us with the herculean task of remaking yet another delicate and destructible web. It’s our luck, whether we sleep on goose down or cobweb, the commonality being that neither has a solid foundation.

U is for uncertainty. I used to give little thought to the risk of fire, but now uncertainty has become a chronic condition, like hypertension or arthritis. It’s not so bad, I think, sleeping on the air mattress, eating microwave food, watching the news on my phone. I like this urban living, where we share common walls, a parking garage, a cramped elevator. I can listen to my neighbors’ music, their sneezes, their arguments and their rapprochement afterwards. My one friend regrets selling her house in the flats, saying she never had to experience this type of fear. As for unloading her current house in the hills, she says, “I actually don’t have much to miss.” My other more adventuresome friend says I cannot compare my home to “geriatric health metrics.” Life is all uncertainty; only in death do we find certainty.

E is for ending and elucidation: the moment I walk in the door, I know I am home. This is where my beloved closet is, one that can be recreated elsewhere but one that I don’t want to recreate anywhere else. I feel alive here, amidst the green and blue of the outside and the memories inside. Even as the air is shrouded in smoky particulate fog, there is clarity now where the fugue once smoldered.


BIO

Teresa Yang is a dentist in Los Angeles. Besides dental articles, her work has appeared in HerStry, Mutha Magazine, As It Ought to Be Magazine, Potato Soup Journal, and Little Old Lady Humor. She is currently working on a dental memoir about the secret life of a lady dentist.

Deilirium

by Januário Esteves


So that life is not just heartbreak
And don’t give in to capricious arbitrariness
It is vital to raise the spirit to the limit of the symbol
Bringing from this strength the hidden deities
And the cruel stupor that brings the disease
Advance without fear the song of praise
For the charm of the dream of modesty
Settle doubts that clamor with clamor
Everywhere share the experience
That translates the transfigured life dream
In the most intimate and painful experience
In chaos do not fall or be vilified
Bringing customs and signs very close
Disguises of others not wanting
Sweet and warm memories of my parents
Juxtaposing correctly in crescendo.

urban calamum


He lived off the money his mother took out of the safe on
lies that were told with a start in the cinema when the
neighbor once died watching a pornographic film and a
newborn was found in the trash. And through flying cars,
satisfaction comes close to the accounting aspect of the
sum of hours spent in urban traffic that rewards the
recycling of consumption that is available in artificial
intelligence and in drones that spray the crowds in
disagreement with the governments with holy water.
passion being a sporting success plagiarizing the
personas who manifest themselves in the collective
spotlight with the avatar corrected by social acceptance
posthumously in which survival is thrown at the minimum
wage on the way to a secular spirituality in the
confrontation with the urban beast in orgasms of faith
public with the day full of affections in a traffic
enraptured by the paradoxical being perplexed.

Vertigo

10

The joke of the man from beyond the grave who laughs for the last time at his own funeral asking for a divine intervention to the saints that is canonized in the memory of those who stay here and to the delight of a capitalist who healed of problems in the vertical column was acknowledged on a holiday with Mass in which they celebrated it.

Reincarnationem


Play time
And there we were all
Flushed with enthusiasm
Running through the undergrowth
Discovering the hidden body
In the timeless innocence of childhood
We felt sweaty from the cold
We ate carcasses with sugar and butter
Barefoot between the gravel of the street
In the starry night the promised wishes
Noble intentions of a pressing wish
That impelled us to enjoy brotherhood
In the howling reeds that huddled us
The sheets of a dreamy night

And my mother calling;
  – Narinho, Oh Narinho.


BIO

Januário Esteves is a Portuguese poet.

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