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The Writing Disorder is a quarterly literary journal. We publish exceptional new works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art. We also feature interviews with writers and artists, as well as reviews.

The Art of Carl Lozada

First Responder
Donated to the nursing department in Long Beach Memorial Hospital.

Forever Strong
Donated to Ladder 11 Company, in New York City.

We Belong

Honey Blossum
Showing now through July at The Hive Gallery, Los Angeles.

Moon Man

Motherland

L’Chaim

Jeju Island

New World

Angels & Demons


Artist Statement

I have been painting most of my life, picking up an ethnic style that exemplifies my experience as a Filipino/Jew living in Los Angeles. I am impassioned by the movement of todays culture. I am bound by expressing my feeling and need for belonging. Through my work, I try to show the struggles I faced being a person who never really fit in. Though my work went through a lot of changes, I always try to emote the feelings of the time: from troubles with mental illness and my highs and lows (literally). In my early art career and life I realize one thing that gave me hope to push on. I have found that nothing is perfect, including art. I realize the mistakes can have a more important value than the successes. Though I strive for success, I have learned to love my failures and try to keep them in my art. I realize, that if I try to see me through someone else’s eyes we are all the same. We basically go through the same things and the same struggles. Mistakes can be beautiful too.

www.carllozada.net/illustration.html

Art Experience

The Hive (2020, Feature Artist)
Venice Art Auction (2013-2018, Charity Art Show)
La Luz De Jesus Gallery (2002-2018: Group Show)
Hale Art Space (2013: 2 Man Show)
Van Eaton Gallery (2012: Group Show)
Angel Project Food (2012, Charity Art Show)
Hale Art Space (2012: Solo Show)
Clare Foundation (2010-2012: Charity Art Show)
C.A.V.E Gallery (2009: Group Show)
The Hive (2007: Feature Artist)
The Hive (2007-Now: Monthly Group Shows)
Brea Gallery (2003-2006: Group Show)
Cannibal Flowers (2006-Now)
Monkeyhouse Toys (2006-Now)
De Vorzon Gallery (2001)

The Affair of the Bird

by Harli James

            From the third floor window of the lurking mansion, I spied a hulking black form in the distance. I peered beyond the estate grounds, where the forest stretched into farmland and a brown river ran through the valley. And there, the strange figure presented itself—an obscure mass against the spent and shorn cornfields.

            What is that? I wondered. Was it a bird statue? A tall haystack darkened with rain? The form seemed almost chimeric, an absurd creature imbedded in a landscape that was not its own. The other guests were arriving, bumping their luggage down the hallway outside my room. But I could scarcely notice them, and before I knew it, I’d laced my boots and was heading outside for inspection.

            It was necessary to stretch my legs after the long trip down from Boston into these blue ridge mountains. I found that as I ventured further from my home, and the rolling hills of Virginia turned to brown walls of mountain, my chest tightened. The topography looked like heavy blankets bunched against the sky, and my head grew dizzy with acrophobia. I’d consoled myself, believing that once I arrived at this conference with the other botanists, the grounding of science and intellectual discussion would cure me.

            As I walked along the damp path I felt myself subsumed by the landscape, hemmed in by the loping river on one side and the open fields on the other, where a few rows of dead cornstalks remained. I reminded myself I had to be back shortly for dinner. Though when I’d first arrived, a steady drizzle pelting my collar and my bags deposited at my feet, the staff informed me that my hosts would not be attending the conference.

            “I regret to inform you that your hosts were called away on a family emergency,” the woman at the door had said, her cheeks bitten pink with cool air. “But I assure you the week’s activities will not be interrupted. The staff has been instructed to carry on the workshop as planned.”

            When I stepped inside the home a stunning marble stairwell spiraled upstairs to my left. To my right was a conservatory—a room chock full of plants where in the center stood an over-sized onyx sculpture that resembled a large, leering bird.

            “Your name, sir?” the woman asked with a slight southern lilt.

            “Edwin Carver,” I said, self-conscious of the rain dripping from the hem of my coat onto the polished floor.

            “Mr. Carver, I’ll show you to your room.”

            As we ascended the stairs, I glanced another attendant scurrying to open the door. A rush of sweet, wet air lifted through the stairwell as the guest stepped inside. Her boot entered first, a pointed toe and silver buckles, then the rim of her hat. She was probably one of just a few women attending this botany conference. As I rounded to the top step she looked up, and I caught her lovely eye.

            I was looking forward to meeting her and the other guests at dinner. But without our hosts, I wasn’t sure if it would be much of a formal affair. We were all just botanists here after all, not dignitaries. There were no Rockefellers among us. A hunk of bread and jam with hot coffee was enough for me on a damp evening like this.

            The nip in the air cut through my jacket, and I decided I should turn back, but just then a black mass caught my eye. An enormous dark figure sat—or stood—in the middle of the field. I jerked to a stop. It was a gigantic black bird. It was taller than a man, nearly ten feet as it perched.

            “Dear God,” I muttered. The thing was preposterous. Too afraid to take a step closer, I strained my eyes and jutted my neck. I tried to transform the vision into something more plausible. Could it be a large water trough for cows? A grain bin? Perhaps some type of irrigation system? I stared, heart banging, and tried to believe it was farm equipment. But, no, it was a bird.

            The sun had dropped behind the mountains, and a melancholy gold had cast through the gloom. A gleam of rifted feathers textured the side of the bird. Yes, they were definitely feathers. Again, I transfigured the image in my mind. It was too still to be alive. I wondered why they’d put a statue in a cut-down cornfield, but it was the only possibility.

            The air felt suddenly cold, and the evening was growing dark. I rushed away from the statue back down the path I’d taken. My legs moved briskly, but I couldn’t shake the unease of having the giant figure behind me. I glanced backward.

            Its head swiveled toward me, a lone eye in my direction. I shrieked. Its sheer size! The wings it bore! Those scaly feet that could slice a heart! As I barreled away from it, I couldn’t help but look back. Its wings expanded a shocking width. The great bird raised into the air, lifting in my direction.

            I stumbled forward, arms out to protect myself from a fall. The great bird soared overhead, its draft bearing down on me. Then it surpassed me and flew over the trees and out of sight. I raced back to the side door of the house and slipped in, shaking but unnoticed. I careened to my room, slammed the door behind me, and fell against it, heaving and bewildered.

            An hour later I had composed myself enough to join the group in the dining room. I had spent the last hour gathering my wits and putting on dinner attire with shaking hands. I felt like a mad man trying to make normal.

            A long table ran the length of the room, punctuated by a giant stone hearth with a blazing fire. With luck, the woman I had seen arrive earlier sat across from me. Her eyes were slightly askew, and she had an unusually strong jawline, but nevertheless was pretty enough that she was hard to look at.

            “It’s a beautiful place, don’t you think?” she said. “The isoprene really does make the mountains look blue.” She placed her hand beside her mouth as if to reveal a secret. “Though I did feel a bit queasy driving in through the twists and turns.”

            “I too had a difficult ride in.” I reached for the salt but knocked it over with the back of my hand. She picked up the shaker, offering it to me. The tips of her fingers brushed mine, and I was seized with attraction. “However, I got some fresh air during a walk around the estate,” I said as I over-salted my soup. I stole a furtive look at her, embarrassed somehow of her asymmetrical beauty. She had slight lines around her eyes, which had probably spent as many hours peering through a microscope as mine had. She bore no ring on her finger.

            “I walked a bit myself this afternoon,” she said, “around the back of the home. Did you go far?”

            “I made it down to the river. The landscape makes a subtle shift in the valley.”

            “Did you see any notable specimens?” She sipped a spoonful of broth.

            I racked my brain, trying to blot out the bird and focus on the plant life. “Loblolly pines and a couple of Carolina Hemlocks.” The names of other plants I might have seen escaped my mind. “I suppose I was distracted and didn’t explore very closely.” I felt my cheeks flush.

            “It would be easy to get distracted in such an unusual place. I imagine a long walk on the grounds would provide much to see. There’s plenty of time for documentation later this week.” Her warmth settled my frayed nerves. “I think it’s because it’s such an unusual place,” she continued. Her hair was plaited to the side, and the shadows from the dinner candles created darkness below her eyes. “It’s almost mystifying.” Her words felt heavy with meaning.

            “Indeed.” I attempted to convey a similar sentiment. “Almost peculiar.”

            Her face lit up. “Yes! Peculiar. This place is gloomy, and well,” she leaned toward me, “I know the estate is renowned for its botanical specimens, but I saw animals too. Do you know if they have a breeding program?” She lifted her glass to drink, as if to take the place of her words.

            Had she seen the bird as well? If not, I didn’t want to mention it and have her think me a lunatic. I considered my response a moment too long. 

            “Evening,” the man next to her butted in with a solid western twang. “I’m Bennett. I couldn’t help hearing your conversation.”

            “Hello, I’m Rebecca. And this is,” she hesitated.

            “Edwin,” I said, running my hand against the back of my head. The stiff tangle of my too-long black hair brushed against my neck. This Bennett was dashing. He loomed over Rebecca in a familiar way—the way these sorts of men do.

            “I took in the grounds by horse today,” he said. “I saw the wildest creature down by the river. A bird so large I could barely believe my eyes!”

            Rebecca jumped in her seat. “I saw it too!”

            “That bird?” said a man two seats down, a pair of pince-nez glasses firmly in place. “I’m glad someone else saw it. That thing was downright abominable!”

            “Perhaps they are studying ornithology here?” asked one of the other women.

            “It’s Frankenstein stuff. Genetic manipulation,” said the bespectacled man.

            A frail-looking man next to me interjected, “Your eyes must have deceived you! It’s the altitude.” He swept his hand across his brow, as if exhausted.

            “You’re all trying to reason it!” a blustery man with a bow-tie bellowed from the end of the table. “We scientists demand rationality in everything, but there are dark forces in the world that can’t be explained.”

            The table fell into an awkward silence until the man with glasses broke the tension. “Nonsense,” he said, slamming his fist on the table.

            The room erupted in a jumble of conversation. Rebecca was at the center of it, engaging each new observer. The moment had been ours, but it had vanished in the cacophony of voices. I sunk back, shaken by my own encounter with the bird. I couldn’t reason it. We were scientists. We couldn’t be taken by fantastical ideas that had no empirical merit. The more the bird din grew, the more I wanted to slink away from it. My body stiffened with discomfort.

            Before long the porcelain bowls of soup grew cold. The staff brought plates of pheasant and soft potatoes. I searched their faces for signs of secret or worry, but detected nothing.

            After dinner the group retired to the billiard room. Rebecca perched in a chair, drinking from a crystal glass. The light from a nearby lamp reflected gold in her hair. She had the studious look of a botanist, but her arms and hands had the softness of milk and honey.

            My boots still had a little mud from the estate on them. I had not brought a change of shoes for dinner. My jacket was rumpled. I knew I was not to her standards.

            “Edwin!” she waved me over with a smile that overlooked my shortcomings.

            I crossed the room. Through the muted air, matches scratched to light cigars and billiard balls tapped one another. The chair she sat in was covered in a patterned fabric, and when I sat next to her I noticed the unravelling of the seam in the upholstery, a trail of thread hanging down.

            “I wanted to ask you at dinner,” she said, “is your last name Carver?”

            “Yes,” I said eagerly. Did she know my work?

            “I’ve read your articles in Botanist Quarterly! You’re brilliant!” Her eyes flecked with excitement.

            A desperate warmth rushed through me. “That’s kind of you, but I’m not—”

            “Don’t be humble,” she interrupted. “I’ve been an admirer of your work for years. I live just outside the Boston area too. We’re practically neighbors! We should meet sometime after this retreat to discuss our work.”

            It struck me then—she should be my wife. We’d sit in the parlor after dinner reading scientific article togethers, laugh at the new-fangled ideas, and seriously discuss our own studies. Yes, she was the perfect woman for me, the pink of her lip, the slightly askew eyes, a too-square jaw line that made her just less than exquisite.

            “Yes, I’d like that,” I managed. “And how has your evening been?”

            “Well,” she leaned in, “some of us were talking in the powder room about this bird. The group sitting at the far end of the table during dinner know what’s going on.”

            “They do?”

            “The poor creature is a captive!” She was flush with the secret.

            I felt my eyebrows turn down. “I can’t imagine that’s the case,” I countered.

            “No, it is! Each one of us saw it in a different location, each time tethered with a chain on one of its legs. Someone on staff must have been instructed to move it to and fro, like feeding a cow, or a goat. It probably eats bugs and worms. Can you imagine what it would take to feed that beast?”

            “I saw it fly,” Bennett boomed from behind me. “It wasn’t chained.” His evening jacket fit stiffly over his wide frame and his hair was slicked back.

            “You did not!” said Rebecca, perturbed.

            “I most certainly did.” He stood in front of us.

            Rebecca glared at him and then turned back to me. “We’re going to do something about it.”

            Bennett laughed and shook his head. “You can’t do anything about it.” He swirled the ice in his glass. “It’s foolish to tangle with wild creatures. You all should just let it alone.”

            I couldn’t shake the chill of the bird’s draft when it flew over me that afternoon. It had not been captive, and it had chosen a flight path directly over my head, as if a threat. I wanted nothing to do with it, whatever it was.

            Rebecca crossed her arms and looked away. I didn’t want to think of her as a person given to fantastical notions. But too, shame flickered within me. How could this woman be so bold to be willing to get involved in the affair of a beast twice her size? I looked at my hands and thought of the years spent turning pages, studying the physical world, and suddenly I couldn’t bear the question of how Rebecca viewed me. So I excused myself for bed. But as I left the room, I felt her eyes on me.

            That night, I slept fitfully. A few hours in, I heard a whisper in the hallway, then footsteps. The covers tangled at my waist and I fought to remove them. I stepped onto the cold wood boards with my bare feet. The moon through the window lit the room enough to find my pants on a nearby chair. I slipped them on and pressed my ear against the door.

           More footsteps trod down the hallway, and then came a timid knock. As I turned the knob I imagined Mr. Bird on the other side, head cresting the threshold, beak careening down at me. Shivers ran down my arm as I opened the door. But it was Rebecca.

            “May I speak to you a moment?” she asked. I imagined her inspecting my wild hair that must have stuck out like Albert Einstein.

            I stepped into the hallway. “Is anything wrong?”

            “One of the men found the bird chained in the stable. The poor creature! It’s just cruel.”

            “We don’t even know what it is.”

            “Yes, but it doesn’t belong here. Perhaps it belongs up north in the icebergs.  Keeping it here is unnatural. It’s not right.”

            “I saw the thing fly. It’s not captive. If it wants to leave, it will.”

            “We’re going to set it free.” Heat emanated from her. She smelled like wet leaves and night air.

            “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

            “Birds don’t live in stables,” she said.

            “Birds don’t grow that large!” I put my hand on her arm. “Rebecca, please, don’t go down there.”

            The faint light of the moon allowed me to see the outline of her cheek and the fine frame of her hair, a few strands standing out from her head. The smell of her, the fire in her cause, it rushed on me and I pulled her toward me, surprised by how easily she drew in. In a second her lips were on mine. I kissed her brazenly, and she reached her arms around my back. But then she stepped away.

            The darkness in the hall pulsated between us. The brief encounter left me puzzled by the elephantine emotion I felt for this woman standing in the hall, asking me to join her on a dangerous nocturnal mission. Was she goading me? Was I a fool? My chin trembled.

            “Please come with me,” she said between breaths.

            I considered it, imagined us creeping to the stable with a group of botanists to release the man-sized bird. But I couldn’t do it.

            “The creature can manage itself.” I was resolute.

            She stepped away from me. “Then why have it chained in the stable now? It’s unconscionable to stay here as guests and condone this cruelty. If you won’t help me, so be it.” She spun around and marched down the hallway.

            My voice caught in my throat. I wanted to call her name, but nothing came. The fabric of her dress ruffled through the dark. I sank back against the wall as a chill spread through my heart. Footsteps to the far left revealed someone coming out of the shadows, perhaps from the servants’ stairwell. I stiffened.

            “They think that damn bird is trapped,” said Bennett, stepping into view. “They’re going to get hurt.”

            I looked back down the long hall toward the emptiness where Rebecca had departed.

            Bennett continued, “These people are crazy. I heard them conspiring after dinner. They got no idea what that bird’s capable of. One time, when I was traveling out west for work, I had a nightmarish encounter with a gila monster. You ever seen one of those things?”

            I shook my head. A draft came through the hallway, and I imagined air wafting up from the door downstairs as Rebecca stepped outside.

            “My crew wouldn’t pay me any mind when I told them to watch out for them suckers. I tied my sleeping hammock between two Joshua trees, but the rest of the men slept on the ground. Sure enough I woke to one of them screaming, I mean screaming like hell. I nearly fell out of my hammock trying to turn on my flashlight. A gila monster had bit the toe clean off one of my men!”

            The sweetness of bourbon on Bennett’s breath drifted toward me. “It’s best not to interfere with wild animals,” I said.

            “There was blood all over our damn camp. You wouldn’t believe it. I mean it looked like a war zone. The guy was screaming and hopping around. I wanted to puke when I saw blood smeared all over the place, and Joe leaping around with nine toes and a hole at the end of his foot. God!”

            “Should we stop them, then?” I asked.

            “The guy finally passed out. That’s how the screaming stopped.”

            “Let’s go stop these folks.”

            “I’m not getting involved. They’re idiots.” Bennett turned and shuffled down the hallway.

            My heart pounded as I returned to my room. I peered out the window again, as if I’d be able to see the bird through the darkness. Though fearful, I was gripped by a need to stop Rebecca and cage this madness. My hands clutched the window sill. Wet night fogged against the glass panes. Epiphanies are rare. They require the carved grooves of our beliefs to slacken, and for us to admit we’d been wrong. It requires us to relearn ourselves, but it happened. I realized right then, I’d been lonely for years. I’d only been pretending to be saved by science.

            I laced up my boots and did not recognize my fingers as they worked. When I reemerged into the hallway my legs moved on their own accord. What am I doing? I thought as I descended the stairwell. This was madness, but I was compelled to stop Rebecca from engaging in an act that might get her kicked out of the house—or worse, hurt.

            At the foot of the stairs, plants loomed in the conservatory, like arching arms embracing the foul bird statue that stood there. I wanted to return to comfort of my bed, but instead I slipped out the front door and down the stone steps.

            The enormous front lawn spread bluish-green before me. The moon was at its full power as I traversed the grounds toward the stable, a sense of indignation rising in me. It was foolish of Rebecca to vex a wild animal about which she knew nothing.

            The fact that I was out in the cold in the middle of the night to stop this crew of vigilantes drew my ire. How inconsiderate of them! Rebecca had seemed bright and warm in the house, but the memory of our clandestine kiss faded as I grew angrier with each step.

            My feet crunched through gravel. What kind of woman kissed a man for no good reason in a hallway? We’d just met! It was improper. True, I had initiated it. But it was as if I was under some spell—her hair and the cloaked darkness outside my room. Now we had to spend an awkward week together. And had Bennett seen us?

            Outside the stable, three people stood—the two men who had been standing in the corner of the billiard room earlier, and Rebecca. I cleared my throat.

            “Ed! You came!” The curl of Rebecca’s voice constricted my breathing.

            “I came to stop this madness.”

            One of the men stepped forward. “It’s already in motion. Frank here has located the key to the bird’s shackles, and Veronica is standing watch at the barn.”

            “Why are you doing this? Leave the thing alone.”

            “This bird deserves its freedom!” he said. “The Society of Botanists could find out we sat idly by while it was held captive. And if that’s not enough for you, consider the risk to our own lives if we agree to stay here for a week in its presence. It’s safer to let it go under our watch than allow it do God knows what.”

            “Have you seen it?” The man with the bow-tie at dinner stepped forward. His pasty complexion shone queer in the moonlight.

            “Yes. It flew right over me earlier today,” I said. “It paid me no attention.”

            “It’s beautiful,” he said. “It’s something grand, something,” he turned to a whisper, “special.”

            I recoiled. Everyone looked greenish in the dark, the whites of their eyes flecking anxiously, as if they’d all been transfixed with the notion that unleashing the beast was an inevitable course of action no matter the consequences. The key dangled in Frank’s grip and my palm itched for it. I told myself that I could grab it and run away with it, but some alternative course furrowed through my mind—an image of myself unlocking the barn door. I shivered.

            Frank leapt forward, wild-eyed. “Let’s go!”

            “No!” I murmured, but my voice was weak.

            The crew headed to the stable but Rebecca hung back, re-examining me for a brief moment. I managed a step backward toward the house, still hoping we might leave this calamity together. But as I did, Rebecca turned and darted toward the stable.

            Muffled, disorganized voices emitted from the barn. Someone shouted and a chain clinked. I imagined them crowding around the bird and wondered which of them would be brave enough to approach it and handle the lock—they could be pecked to death. I was angry at Rebecca, that reckless activist, for putting me in this position. But I couldn’t compel myself to leave.

            A great fluttering came from the barn, like the sound of ship sails whipping in a storm. Rebecca cried out. I ran toward the stable in a frenetic attempt to save her. But just as a I did, a wild shuttering sounded and the stable doors burst open.

            The enormous bird erupted from the dark interior, lumbering to exit the confines of the doorway. It shot into the night, its wings flinging open, knocking me down. The men and Rebecca stumbled from the stable after the bird, which careened past the bare Dogwood trees.

            “You stupid people!” I screamed, jumping up. The men stopped, seemingly satisfied that the bird was free and could choose its own course, but Rebecca chased after it. She tore through the field, following the low-flying bird.

            How could the bird keep the enormous burden of its body lifted at such a slow speed? Rebecca could be crushed under its weight if it stopped.

            “Rebecca!” I yelled. I hated her at that moment.

            I sprinted after her. The wretched woman darted through the grass. As I followed, the uneven surface roughed my ankles, and shoots clawed at my pant legs. Rebecca was like a dark apparition in the moonlight, her green dress a thrash of fabric through the pasture.

            The bird was just ahead of us, its massive wingspan lording overhead, plodding and slow relative to Rebecca’s wild flailing. She reached her hand out to pluck its feathers—whether to stop it, or possessed by some madness to have a piece of it, I don’t know.

            I lunged for her, filled with disgust for this woman, readying myself to take her down and lash out at her for all of her moral failings. How dare she put me in this position?

            My fingertips touched the fabric of her dress just as her hand reached the oily feathers of the bird. I cinched my grasp on her gown, yanked her back, and saw her hand slip away from the bird, clutching a handful of feathers.

            We tumbled, my body lurching toward hers, and her body, stopping in mid-run, spooled back by my hand. We landed with a thump on the scratchy ground.

            “Oof,” she said when she fell.

            I toppled over her, rolling to the side, my body crashing on the cold ground. I dropped my hand and it fell on top of her arm. When I felt her skin, warmth jolted through me. I remembered the touch of her arms around my back in the hallway.

            The bird flew on, rising steeply in elevation. I remembered the sound her dress made when she walked away from me.

           The giant bird was far away now, black against the black sky, almost unseen. My hand still rested on Rebecca’s arm as we caught our breath. In that mad dash, how had I forgotten who she was? She was lovely. She was imperfectly lovely. She was the woman with the jaw line that was a little too strong, falling just short of exquisite

* * *

      The little courtyard behind my cottage is small, but private. Ivy clings to the tall brick walls. Ferns bush in the corners and Snowdrop Anemone edge the back perimeter. The shining crown, however, is my gilded bird cage. Its ornate door is embellished with a portico, and the runged dome gleams in the sun.

“Hello my sweet,” I say, offering a palmful of food through the sunlit bars.

She nips the kernels I’ve dropped at the bottom of her cage. She preens her feathers, which with careful study, one can see are truly forest-green, especially beneath the clear sky, which jewels above. She tends to her grooming studiously, one eye on her plumage, another on me.

When her back is to me, the silky luxuriance of her feathers calls to my fingertips, and I hazard a touch. Just as I grasp the texture of them she jerks around, and I retract my hand. Her glare is impenetrable.

“There, there,” I console her. “You’re safe here.”

She ruffles, and I decide this is understanding, though her eye is sharp. In truth, there is sharpness every where—the clinch of the talons, the curve of the beak, the square-like shape of her head.

I tug on the lock to test its surety, then step back and take in my sanctuary. The molting of her feathers gather in the crevices of the walkway and bunch at the flowerbeds. My garden is complete, and even the Lily of the Valley have grown beautifully this year.


BIO

Harli James is a writer living in Asheville, NC. Her stories have been published in Jabberwock Review and Bangalore Review. Her hometown is known for the grand Biltmore Estate, and one time while visiting, she saw a watering trough that she could have sworn was a large bird.




WAY OF THE RAINS

By Abasiama Udom


Sun has been here
ever for so long
when will the rains come?
When will the pitter-patter
on our zinc roofs we hear?

Sun has been here,
we seek the coming of the rains
like unto the coming of angels
may it appear
suddenly in our moment of wait
but who can tell the way of the rains?

Our fathers lift the dust of the earth over fire
to call it forth, It will not listen.
Who can tell the way of the rains?
Our brothers lift their glasses,
looking in instruments pointed to the sky,
it will rain today they say with a smile.
The rain defies them
a mocking smirk on his face,
He laughs true thoughts to scorn.

For who can tell the way of the rains?
The earth cries out in thirst,
trees and leaves morn their fate
for who can tell,
man or angel, the way of the rains –
Today it will come or tomorrow,
never too soon but not too late.
Who can tell?


OF FATHER’S AND NONE


I come from the corner
birthed in darkness in the weary cold night.
I was conceived, in October, brought forth in July
my life will never see sunlight,
only the dark.
It rains tears and sorrow
and my father never had a face,
Mother always weary.
It is time to ask my creator what sin I sinned.
For there is a name I often bear
the beginning of a taunt
the muttering of a chant
It is the feeble cry of some or the roar of all.
It is the word of no man’s,
it is the call of a bastard –


YOU, I AM.


All around you,
I am in your food, in your water
in the air that you breathe
close, right by your side.
I am your reality – Your future
your fini, your very end.
I be your all.

**
The growl of a Tigress,
the pant of a Leopard
I am – the very roar of the Lion
the howl of the drowning whirlwind
the swash of soul seas
the cry of the lone Wolf
I am,
the dark eyes of the hooting Owl,
the enchanted paws of an enraged Cat
I be your all.

**
Coming from the darkness
like the laugher of a closed heart
the wand that drips blood
the piercing scream of the eagle –
the vampire resident in tales and myths
I am here, beside,
the hate in your heart I am.
Your friend.
I think you see – I am you.


BIO

Abasiama Udom is a Poet and Writer with polymathic tendencies. She is currently pursuing a personal course on the meaning of life and has found a few joys during this study: food, music, books, family, sleep, and football.
Twitter: @AneuPoet

Rejuvenation in Fragments

by Jennifer Worrell


Seven years ago, I left a job I thought would be a perfect fit. I turned down an opportunity to work in a grueling catering position—one that could further my burgeoning career as a pastry cook—to work in publishing.

A great deal less taxing physically, working as an assistant cookbook editor not only combined my love of food and books, but provided a chance to sit on my duff at a desk instead of massaging my sore knees every night. Once at the mercy of a fluctuating schedule, my new status as a nine-to-fiver meant designated writing time on nights and weekends.

Though ultimately not the dream job I envisioned, I found contentment in editing copy and testing recipes. The prospect of increased authority, selecting and organizing content, and development of a project from start to finish sparked my ambition toward promotion. Unfortunately, this was another dream about to burst: After a few years of satisfactory routine, my situation changed from pleasant to blandly tolerable to appalling.

Accustomed to working on a dozen or more projects in various stages, I was assigned increasingly fewer until I was down to one or two. Co-workers refused to look in my direction when I passed and ignored me when I said hello. I admit my share of faults: frequently tardy to meetings; often too focused on line edits and not enough on the bigger picture; easily the most introverted person in the department. Dozens of moving parts and my reliably lousy memory assured I’d slip up on a detail here and there. I assumed these flaws caused the change in attitude towards me, yet my reviews ranked positive every year, with only minor suggestions for improvement.

Within four years, Mr. Kennedy*, our editor-in-chief, promoted me to editor. But the head-scratching derision continued. Side-eye glances and stifled snickers followed me through the halls. Clearly some teammates did not agree with my elevated position.

In my first new project meeting as editor, I brought an older book from the warehouse as a sample, but accidentally chose one with one-inch larger dimensions than indicated on the client’s spec sheet. An embarrassing mistake to be sure, compounded by the project manager overtaking the meeting, erasing my voice from the room.

As the common denominator in this equation, I started to believe I deserved all the negativity and questioned Mr. Kennedy’s decision. Still I received no official reprimands, no one-on-one meetings, no specialized training, no demotion.

I dug in my heels, refusing to quit. One day everything would click. Experience would culminate in success. I refused to believe anything less.

The company downsized over the last year of my tenure, repeatedly decimating every department. One afternoon, my cube neighbor slammed a box on her desk and started packing. Another victim of layoffs, she was further infuriated by my obliviousness: While Mr. Kennedy cut her loose, the CEO convened everyone else in his boardroom to disclose the news. All, that is, except me.

I inferred only one meaning to this ostracism: my imminent demise. Why else would they have excluded the person who sat six feet away from their latest victim? I stormed into Kennedy’s office and demanded that if I were next, I’d prefer he get it over with. Instead of hearing the words I both feared and welcomed, I received a look of shock. He insisted my head was never on the chopping block. A beloved member of the team was let go, and again I was spared, with one less advocate on my side.

A more confusing, defeating situation I could not imagine. Why retain an employee they treated as sub-par? If they recognized some potential, why allow me to linger on the cusp of mediocrity? Such bizarre behavior felt like gaslighting.

Unsettled and directionless, my motivation tanked. Pulling into the parking lot, dragging myself up four steps and wending my way through cubicle town, felt like a heavier burden every day. My passion to write fizzled until I rarely picked up a pen.

Though I was safe for the moment, I knew it wouldn’t last. I submitted my resume to any company that fit. A few weeks and interviews later, I accepted an offer while sitting in my car in that same parking lot.

#

Quitting jump-started my motivation to write again, with more than a few pieces finding their way into print. But it took six years to write the manuscript I’m querying now, squeezing in words on lunch breaks and weekends. When I think of how I could have completed a manuscript while I passively waited for my situation to improve, instead of squandering time on Facebook, I still feel a little sick.

Driving back from a research gig for my second novel, I noticed a fence around the old publishing house. The company had moved to a neighboring ’burb a few years ago and the property had been vacant since. A simple brick shoebox, it could have been transformed into any number of businesses. Instead, it was in tatters.

I whipped into a side street and left the car running in the parking lot next door. I tried to get closer through the secret staircase between the two lots, but that too was destroyed. It didn’t stop me from ducking between and under the construction fences to get a better look, my breath halting as if I stood in icy water.

The canopy over the front door hung in rags. Part of the roof had caved in. Pipes jutted out of the remaining walls, and twisted wires dangled motionless despite the breeze. The few remaining windows were reduced to jagged shards. A single plastic blind hung in an empty frame and snapped against the metal.

I peeked into what used to be a rather spectacular vestibule. A gaping hole replaced the tropical fish tank. A pile of rubble filled the waiting area, a pristine porcelain sink from the lobby bathroom upended like a hat. And hanging above it all, the crystal chandelier, perfectly intact.

I haven’t met a ghost and don’t intend to seek one out, but I felt a presence in this grave-still, dusty lot. The fences were tall enough to keep noise out and me from being seen from the street, yet I had the sense of being watched. From the surrounding condos, I wondered if anyone noticed me from their second-story windows. Or was I as invisible as I was six years ago?

Though the outer walls were depleted, I could make out where the art design room used to be. My “office” was on the other side and one cube row north; I could still walk it in my memory. I felt a strong urge to touch the column that separated my file cabinets. Witness my space stripped down to a bare cement floor. Breathe in the absence.

I wanted to smash the remaining windows until the parking lot glittered like diamonds.

Asbestos remediation warnings kept me from venturing closer, as did the uncertain stability of the roof. The last thing I needed was a rusty nail jamming into my sandal or a scrap of metal slicing my calf.

Like an absurd joke, bricks propped open the side entrance. I wanted to reach up and gently close it. The building might be half down, but it would be me who shut the door for the last time. 

I settled for hovering around the site, soaking in the scene, leaving no proof I was ever there.

#

Seven years have passed since I gave myself permission to breathe. I’m at home in my new surroundings at a university library, respected and valued by colleagues. I’ve earned a seat at the table on a team where everyone’s voice matters.

Co-workers nudge me about my manuscript, update me on calls for submissions, and include me in conversations about the writing life, even if our respective genres have no connection. Work is no longer synonymous with torture; the common denominator re-defined.

The publishing house lives on at its new location. That part of my past only dimly enters my mind; less a significant detail than a narrative blip.

But seeing the old workplace on its last legs, bones poking through the mangled flesh, is the way I want to remember it: nothing more than a foundation and a handful of stories.


BIO

Jennifer Worrell got hooked on writing stories in kindergarten using mimeographed prompts. Her supplier, Mrs. Davenport, kept a stash of the Purple Monster handy for a quick fix. Though she kicked the habit for a short time, Jenny’s writing problem has spiraled out of control. But don’t worry. She can quit whenever she wants to. 

Primarily a fiction author, she’s working on two novels and a stream of short pieces in multiple genres. You can find out more at JenniferWorrellWrites.com or on Twitter or Facebook @JWorrellWrites.

Pretty Boy

By Nina Shevzov-Zebrun

           Pretty boy, oh the number of times I’ve been called pretty boy. Sounds arrogant but causes me such problems. It’s a blessing to be attractive don’t get me wrong but it’s also a plague. I watch my movements because I’m always being watched and held to higher standards. Women assume the worst no matter what and the divide grows. In reality my intentions are just like yours. I try to wake up and feel good and keep my insides from squirming out of my mouth. But no matter what, as I’ve said, women assume I’m triple dipping or a player or an eat and run. Those facts aren’t true at all most days.

           As you might imagine, all these assumptions get in the way of finding a relationship and that’s unfortunate. If I do catch a partner it’s always short-lived. She says it’s hard to trust me and calls my friends to tell them all her assumptions. I end up distrusting those I trusted. Jealousy motivates them to undermine me and I lose so many this way. They leak a secret or make my private public. And all because of assumptions about me a pretty boy with a faithless cold heart. If you know me well then you know I’m the complete opposite.

           I thought for instance Martha knew me. I bought her a watch and a sunflower for her birthday, but it turns out she was just dating me for my hair. My blonde hair gets attention that’s for sure especially because I’m tall. Martha was with me for two months, but then said it could never be serious and the only options in life are marriage or breakup, so breakup it was. I know she chose that option because of her assumptions about me which as I’ve made clear are wrong.

           I tried to get her back and can you believe it she called the police. She told them I was following her, another gross assumption, when in reality I was giving her the attention she deserved. The police brought me to the hospital because I hadn’t done anything wrong. I don’t think the officers had any assumptions so they treated me fair. The doctors asked me some questions, and I could see how they looked at me especially the female one with the wider hips making the scrub pants tight in good places. She was looking at my hair when she told me she’d keep me for twenty-four hours for observation to observe me. I can take anything for a day so I did what she wanted. I drank the apple juice and ate the turkey sandwiches and wore the blue gown and watched the patients. I tried not to make assumptions about them. Even about the guy crawling around the floor removing his underwear and licking the door handles because maybe he’s just misunderstood too and people are jealous.

           After one day the doctors held up their bargain and let me out. I went back to Martha because obviously she deserved my kindness despite all her wrong assumptions about me a pretty boy. I found her in the kitchen pouring a bowl of Cheerios and I grabbed her and smashed her against the counter. I told her she was wrong about me and that pretty boys can be serious loving and loyal. She asked me to let go but I needed her to believe me so I kept her down and breathing hard for a while. When I freed her kindly she tried to call the police again. Can you believe it? But I left before anyone could catch me and went back to the hospital to find my favorite doctor.

           By now that doctor definitely had assumptions about me as people always do. She probably thought I was with another woman. But like I said, I mostly only go for one woman at a time. I asked the doctor if she could trust me. She said of course because I had eaten the turkey sandwiches like I was told. This was a good sign so I sat on the floor outside her office waiting for her to be off work. Doctors passing by gave me and my hair jealous looks. One of them tried to undermine me as usual with an injection of something, probably to turn my hair black like his. I grabbed the stuff and stabbed him instead and he went to sleep. He was a pretty boy too, I decided. I locked my pretty hands around his pretty neck and thought of what Martha or my favorite doctor would think if they could see me now. I bet their assumptions would change. I bet they would think I was an ugly boy, trustworthy and so easy to love. 


BIO

Nina Shevzov-Zebrun grew up in Northampton, MA. She attended Deerfield Academy and Harvard University, graduating summa cum laude in 2016. She is currently a medical student at New York University, where she recently completed a fellowship in the Medical Humanities. She is happiest living at the intersection of medicine and art.



(it is spring), i miss
your damp forehead
         between my shoulder blades

(i can’t bear to look at the moon again); i miss
how you used to bite my earlobe
whenever i drifted away
[or whenever i picked up
books like

the hundred thousand songs of milarepa
because
poetry more beautiful than ours
           gave you a headache]

(my darling), i miss 
your firm grasp
          on my hips

(i’ve been sleeping on your side); i miss
how your eyes
used to                                           soften
when i sang
ballads to the                                 cosmos,
wearing your duvet as the high priestesses of athena
would have worn their robes

[and when you looked at me with adoration i felt like an enchantress    ,,,,,    dazzling, alive, fire in my belly, a daughter of the seas   ,,,,,,    and i conjured all the elements in the texture of our lips]

(i’m sorry i promised to visit but i didn’t) i miss
curling up to you
sweaty hearts pressed together,
your fingertips drawing
stars and suns on my back;;;
the night i left you
i laid awake
locking eyes with the night sky
through your half-opened window,
i was cold and
i wiped my tears on your pillow case.
at one-point i could have sworn
the sky slipped into your chamber
and laid in bed with us
and i thought
                        etcetera.




kiss me
i’m peaking

you murmur
lips pressed
against
my
forehead
i look up
to you
your eyeballs
are shaking
your hair
is
damp
and
you look
so
beautiful
i feel
my eyes
rolling to
the back
of
my head
as i crash
my mouth
to yours
my hands
fall
on your
chest
and
i feel
your warmth
slip
through
my skin
wrapping
my heart
your hands
rest on
my waist
your beard
scratches
my ear
and i feel
tangled
with you
my mouth
is
dry
and
the
music
is
tearing
my
chest
open
i
feel
dizzy
i bring
your
hands
to
my
heart


do
you
feel this

your voice
is hoarse
you
are
holding
my
youth
between
your
fingertips
i nod

is it
love

i
don’t
know
but
i
feel
so
close
to you
right
now




                    sonnet    sorrow
                                        brief           to             

                                                               I
                                                        am
                                              digesting
                                                       my
                                                      loss
                                                             as
                                                           life
                                                   dances
                                                     on
                                                         the
                                                      tip
                                                         of
                                                           my
                                                               tongue


BIO

Téa Nicolae is a Romanian poetess based in the UK. She writes confessional, Occult and devotional poetry. She was short-listed for the Literary Lancashire Award 2019 and her poems have been published in several print and online publications, including Cake Magazine, TAST Zine, Dissolved Magazine and SCAN. She is an editor at Flash Journal Lancaster and she studied Film and Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

The Woman in the Window

by Flora Jardine

            Mike kept telling his acquaintances that the new house was fine.

            “How’s the new house?” everyone asked.

            “Fine,” said Mike.

            The neighbourhood was nice, the garden cute and the rooms spacious, Marla had told him on the phone. She and her mother found the house while he was working abroad. They had already discussed the need for a bigger house, what with the twins growing so fast, and then Marla found one.

            “It will be perfect,” she and her mother told him. They sent pictures of course. Many pictures.     

            “Fine,” he said. Then they sent documents. He signed them and sent them back.

            Now they had moved in. Sophie, Marla’s mother, had her own “quarters” downstairs.

            “Just be glad it’s not her own ‘halves’,” Marla joked. Sophie’s investment, of course, had made the purchase possible.

            “I don’t want to hang on to a big house of my own at my age,” Sophie had said. “Inter-generational consolidation makes sense for all of us.”

            Inter-generational consolidation, thought Mike: good phrase. Sophie was good at coming up with le mot juste.

            Marla went along with whatever her mother said. Marla was too busy with the four-year-old twins to give much thought to everything else as well. The world outside, which used to contain places that were real to her, was now mere scenery, a set for the drama of the twins’ growing up. She found stage-managing four-year-olds demanding enough, without bothering with the world.

            When Mike finished the contract in Germany, the house was theirs. The others had already moved in. It took Mike weeks to find all the rooms, meandering around when his wife, kids and mother-in-law were out. So many alcoves, bathrooms, walk-in closets, utility rooms …

            “The sitting room has a wonderfully dynamic ceiling,” said Sophie, which to Mike sounded exhausting. He tended to avoid the sitting room.

            “Which room do you want for your studio?” asked Marla.

            It took him a few weeks to decide. He was a commercial artist, an illustrator working mainly from home. One day he found the small guest bedroom tucked away behind a walk-in linen closet in the upstairs hallway. It looked out over the back yard.

            “Here” he said. This felt separate from the rest of the house, a quiet place to work in, with a pleasingly un-dynamic ceiling.

            He moved his tilted work-table upstairs, placing it beside the window where the light was good. He put the computer behind him and the printer in the corner. In the other corner was a sink and counter top. “A dear little place for you to make coffee,” said Marla. She bought him a little portable fridge as an office-warming present.

            They had moved in during early fall, before the leaves had done any falling. At first Mike looked straight into the leafy crown of a tree outside his studio window, but gradually its leaves shrivelled and fell, slowly revealing a view of the back of the house behind theirs. Like theirs it had two stories and tall gabled roof lines. It faced the street one over from Mike’s street. He looked across the gardens toward a sundeck which no one used. There was a carport to the left but no car was ever parked there. No one, during this chilly blustery autumn, ventured from the house into the back garden, and the windows were heavily curtained. That suited Mike well; he had no need of distractions from neighbours while at work in his studio.

            There was one window however which was often lit up, a small one at the corner of the second floor. Framed within he often saw the silhouette of a female figure. When daylight faded in the late afternoon the glow of a single lamp appeared, and he could make out the figure’s head bent over a book. Mornings, when daylight came from the other direction, the woman was reading again. Mike when he arrived in his studio each morning, coffee mug in hand, would check that she was there. She always was. Sometimes she too held a mug, and sometimes what looked like a pen. Always a different-sized book: sometimes a paperback held in one hand, sometimes something heavy, propped up in front of her. Mike became distracted by curiosity. What did she read that so absorbed her, day after day? She never looked up, never noticed him in the window of the house behind hers. Poetry, he decided. She’s  carried off by the enchantment of verse into realms far from the ordinary world.

            Woman Reading, as Mike began to call her, seemed oblivious to the world. Woman Reading didn’t know that Mike existed. She lived in some other, literary place. Was she a scholar? A book reviewer? Her pale hair fell like a curtain over the side of her face as she bent over the pages, and he couldn’t make out whether she was young or old.

            One day the woman in the window in a sudden gesture swept her hair up on top of her head, and as far as he could tell at a distance she seemed young-ish. Early middle age perhaps? Whatever that is, thought Mike. What counts as middle-aged today? It used to be forty, now it was sixty. This woman looked about forty, but could be twenty. Or sixty. The age question mesmerized Mike. “But why?” he asked himself briskly, getting back to the tasks at hand. I’ve got my own work to do, I can’t be worrying about a phantom figure in a window all day.

            Yet he began to sketch her, in the middle of assignments he should be getting on with. He thought that by sketching quickly, not thinking too much, the act of drawing would reveal the woman’s age, and character. I’m becoming obsessed, he chided himself.

            “How did your work go today?” Marla asked conversationally at dinner. “The illustrations for the children’s book. About knights and towers, wasn’t it?” The twins were rocketing around, spilling food and arguing with each other. Sophie took her meals in her own “quarters”, when she was at home. Usually she was out. “She’s acquired a gentleman caller,” said Marla.

            “Not bad,” said Mike about his day. In fact he might have said: I spent the day staring at a woman in a window, wondering what she was reading … But to Marla he said nothing about Woman Reading. He had made a ridiculously large number of sketches of her, which he kept hidden in a folder in a drawer.

            He liked to take a walk around the neighbourhood each day about noon. He often walked along the street fronted by the house behind him, but he never saw anyone coming or going. Once he even rang the front door bell, just to get the woman in the window to come down and show herself. He had made up a story about searching for his missing cat – had she seen it? — but she didn’t answer the doorbell. Yet he knew she was up there in the second floor back room, he had seen her silhouette before he went out and it was still there when he got home.

            So, a recluse. A person who lived wholly in books, in stories other than her own, which was the story of a woman living alone (alone?) in a big house, never going out, apparently not employed. Mike became daily more intrigued. Winter came on. No leaves remained on the tree between them, and then one day something amazing happened. Woman Reading looked up, and gazed straight into Mike’s eyes. Immediately he glanced away, surprised and guilty, as if he had been spying. When he dared to steal another glance, she was looking down again, her eyes on the page in front of her.

            Had he been spying, these last two months? Had she been more aware of him than she let on? If she didn’t like it, why didn’t she pull her blinds? If she had clocked his observation, would she consider him a “stalker”? Would she call the police, one day? Suddenly Mike was nervous. Had he indeed been, mentally, a stalker? Harmless of course, a casual observer. But an obsessed one? And was she obsessed with being on show?

            Maybe he should draw his own curtains. But then she would wonder why he did that the very day their eyes had finally met. It would seem like an admission of something — but what? Mike was rattled; everything had changed in a moment. Now he and Woman Reading seemed to have a relationship. The space across their two gardens had shrunk. Now they sat together — yet not. Mike was finding it hard to concentrate on his work, and with several projects coming due this was not convenient.

            “How’s the kids’ book illustration coming along?” asked Marla at dinner.

            “Fine.”

            The twins pressed their current favourite animal-tale book upon him with two sets of sticky hands. “Read this book Daddy! Read this one!”

            “Stop that!” Mike leapt from the table, “Get your sticky hands off me will you? Stop jabbering in my ear, I haven’t even finished my dinner. Marla, why don’t you tell these ruffians to sit down at dinner time?”

            “Michael!” Marla stared at him. “What’s the matter with you? You’re so distracted, you never speak, okay fine if you don’t want to speak to me but don’t you dare be cruel to the children …” She was on the brink of tears as she gathered up the twins, their books and toys and bits and pieces, and swept them out of the room.

            Cruel? She was calling him cruel, for wanting a bit of peace? Did she really mean that he was cruel not to the twins but to herself, by being moody and remote? Better make amends, he thought.

            He got Sophie to babysit one night, and took Marla out to dinner.

            “No need for that,” Marla had said, I like being at home with the kids, why don’t we have pizza in the family room, watch a movie the kids will like, a Disney movie …?”

            “Marla, I’m taking you out for dinner, okay? To a restaurant. With no Disney movie.”

            “Okay, fine then,” she said.

            In the candle-light, twirling his wine glass, Mike made an effort to be chatty. The wine made him expansive. “Why don’t we have a few neighbours over?” he suggested. “Have you met any of them yet? Do you know who lives in the house behind us?”

            “I’ve met a few. The ones two doors down have kids, a bit older than the twins but I had them over to play. The mom seems nice. And on the other side of us is a sweet retired couple, Meg and Bill. They’ve lived here for decades, they know everyone.”

            “And who lives behind us?”

            Marla frowned. “I don’t think I’ve seen anyone behind us. No, wait … that’s the person Meg was telling me about … a woman lives there who keeps to herself, she’s really stuck up, has a gardener doing the lawn, a cleaner doing the housework. Pretends she hasn’t seen you when she does go out. Takes taxis everywhere.”

            “You seem to have learned a lot about her. Is she much discussed, then?”

            “I guess so … she has a certain fame.”

            “For what?”

            Marla shrugged. “Nothing really.”

            “So, famous for having no fame.”

            “Whatever.”

            Woman Reading seemed even more intriguing to Mike when next he studied her profile in the window. It seemed her crime – the thing which made the world dislike her – was to keep to herself. Maybe she had agoraphobia. Maybe she preferred the world of the mind, of books, to the social one. How can I figure out a way of meeting her, he wondered? Or why don’t I get on with my work, he thought next, dragging his attention from the silhouette.

            He didn’t have long to wait before he got more information. At dinner Marla said “Oh by the way Mike, remember that woman Meg told me about who lives behind us? It seems the police were at her house yesterday. An officer went right inside, came out twenty minutes later. I wonder why?”

            “Didn’t Meg have a theory?”

            “Well yes, actually. She thinks the woman’s a paranoid schizophrenic who called the cops to discuss some slight she thinks she suffered. She doesn’t like anyone so I guess she thinks no one likes her.”

            “And is Meg right?” Mike doubted Meg even knew what paranoid schizophrenia meant, but it was a phrase often in the media. His mind was racing. What if Woman Reading had called the cops about himself? What if she considered him a spy, a stalker, a peeping Tom? But why now? Was he even that visible when he saw her? He now kept well back from his own window. She hadn’t seemed bothered before. Did she somehow know that it had been him at the door, the day he’d rung her bell? But surely it’s not a crime to ring a neighbour’s doorbell? That’s what doorbells were for. It wasn’t like he’d tried to break in.

            But that night he had a dream in which he did break into her house. At least, he was in it … and she said ‘oh, it’s you’. Then she started pecking at her cell phone and he said please don’t call the police I just want to know where you work. The house was full of cobwebs and shadows, and then she said the gardeners are coming to fix that. Then they were in a conservatory full of bright exotic flowers. “You can sit here and draw, if you like, it will be a quiet place to live.”

            He woke up shaking. Why did he say “I want to know where you work” when really he wanted to know what she was reading? (But what did it have to do with him?) Weeks of watching her read had created an intimacy between them, in his mind if not in hers. But maybe it was in her mind too? Maybe he was an invader, a window-breacher? Maybe Meg was right and she had called the cops about someone spying: himself.

            And why in the dream did she say “this will be a quiet place to live”? Didn’t he already have a quiet place to live: his own house, standing stoutly behind hers?

            A day later, the cops did come to the door. “We’re doing a house-to-house,” they said. Mike froze, then broke out in a sweat. Thefts had been reported from carports and patios, they went on. “Lock your garden sheds.” Mike was trembling. What if they wanted to search his rooms, what if they went straight to the room they would know overlooked the house behind? What if they found the drawings he had done of Reading Woman? How incriminating they would seem. He pictured himself in court, an accused peeping tom.

            To the police at the door he mumbled unintelligibly and they looked at him oddly. Suspiciously?

            “Who was that?” said Marla when he shut the door on them.

            “No one.” She too looked at him oddly.

            “Someone looking for odd jobs? Distributing literature? JW’s?”

            “Yes.” Shakily he went back upstairs. Once there he took the drawings of Woman Reading and shoved them into the recycling box, well under the other cast-off papers. He wanted to close the blinds of his window, but that would make him look guilty, like someone who had just been visited by police. He stole a glance at the window across the gardens. There she sat, as usual, bent over a book. As if nothing had happened. Pretending.

            Christmas was coming. Marla was out a lot, “Christmas shopping,” she said, but Mike noticed she got dressed up first and came back in a cheery mood with alcohol on her breath. The twins she’d leave with Sophie, although Sophie too was often out, with her “gentleman caller”. Did Marla too have a gentleman caller?

            He’d been neglecting her. “Maybe we should have a Christmas drop-in,” he suggested, to make amends, reviving his idea of entertaining the neighbours.

            “Yes, let’s! It’s time we offered some hospitality.”

            When it was time to do what she called the “big shop” for the food for the buffet table, she asked Mike to mind the kids. He took them up to his studio, giving them coloured pencils to draw with.

            His son went straight to the window. “Hey look, there’s someone in that window over there.” He waved. “She’s not waving back. Look Daddy, it’s a lady, she saw me but didn’t wave back.” He semaphored again.

            “Stop that!” said Mike. “Come away from that window!” The boy looked astonished at his tone, and the blinds on the window across the garden came down. Mike felt bereft. What if they never went up again?

            His daughter was rummaging in the recycled-paper box. “Get away from there!” Mike shouted. She had uncovered sketches of Woman Reading. She too looked baffled at his tone. “Mommy always lets us use paper from the recycle box.”

            “Yes, well this is an office, it’s different, now let’s go downstairs. We’ll have lunch.”

            “It’s much too soon for lunch.”

            But down they went, and were soon quarrelling and in tears. Marla walked in, bag-laden, and began soothing them. Mike stole up to his studio. The window across the way was still covered.

            Later Marla came up. “Honestly Mike, I can’t even leave you for an hour with your own kids. What’s got into you? Maybe I’ll take them for a holiday after Christmas, you obviously don’t want us around.”

            “Oh come on, Marla, when did I imply I don’t want you around …” But maybe it was she who wanted to get away, he suddenly thought — away from him. Where to? Who with? For the first time in months he fretted about her doings.

            On the day of the party he chatted with guests, filled glasses, circulated dutifully. A splendid Christmas tree glowed with light and colour in one corner. Sophie appeared arm in arm with an old Hungarian gent named Joseph. A younger man, dark and hunk-y whom Marla introduced as “Ben”, was helping her open wine bottles in the kitchen. It was taking them an unnecessarily long time, thought Mike. Children as loud as the twins ran about and spilled food, but Mike remained serene until everyone departed and peace was re-established. He enjoyed the clean-up more than the party, and Marla retired to put the twins to bed. Afterwards he went up to his studio and saw that the window across the garden was uncovered once more, and the woman sat reading.

            He sighed with relief and poured a last glass of wine. He noticed that she too held a glass as she read. Suddenly she looked up, and glancing out the window raised it slightly. To him? Could she see him, where he stood a little way back from the pane? Or was she just drinking her wine?

            In the New Year Marla took her holiday with the kids. “To give you some peace,” she said curtly.

            “Where are you going?” he asked. “Where will you stay?”

            “With my cousin at first, then with some old friends.”

            “Do I know them?”

            “No, I knew them at university, before I met you.”

            Sophie too was going away, taking a cruise with Joseph. “So you’ll have the house to yourself.”

            At first it was blissful. Marla phoned and the kids took turns on the phone telling him what they’d done that day (“went to the fair, went to the beach …”). Marla herself shared no information, and after a few days the calls became less frequent, and then stopped. She sent an email saying she was extending the holiday. Was Ben with her, Mike wondered? But soon he forgot all about her, and spent his days wandering around the house, day-dreaming, staring at Woman Reading, sketching her and at night dreaming dreams about her which he forgot every morning. His sketches became fantastical, archetypal, full of abstract symbolism. He heard nothing from Marla for days and then weeks. When was she due back? Would she even come back? Where was Sophie? Surely her cruise should be over by now?

            Then, one cold morning in late January the doorbell rang. Puzzled — for the doorbell never rang – Mike swung the door open. There on the step stood a short,,chubby, fair-haired woman who kept glancing agitatedly over her shoulder.

            “Look,” she said in a deep course voice, “sorry to disturb you, but my phone’s gone dead and I can’t charge it, the electricity’s turned off, because I’m moving. I have an urgent request for the movers, before they arrive.”

            Mike stood motionless.

           “They’re late though.” She glanced down the path behind her again. “They’ll be coming this way, and then turning right.” Mike said nothing. “It’s an emergency,” she said impatiently “…could I possibly borrow a phone for a moment?”

            She was so short, much shorter than he’d imagined. Her face was half-covered by a wide scar, it looked like a knife scar, the skin deeply puckered – or the result of a burn perhaps? He would have recognized the curtain of blond hair anywhere. Despite the cold, her feet were bare inside a pair of ancient sandals. And dirty; he saw grime on her toes. He looked away.

            A moving truck hove into view, and she turned toward it. “Never mind,” she snapped in her harsh voice, scuttling down the path. “They’re here. Sorry to bother you.”

           He shut the door. The world had tilted oddly, as if emptying itself. She disappeared into the big van which would be turning right … But no: she had already disappeared. No: she had never existed. Something was missing thought Mike as he sank unseeingly onto the sitting room sofa. Oh yeah: myth, magic. Beautiful women mooning in a solitary towers, dreaming their lives away over books of poetry. The life of imagination. How did all that go again? He couldn’t remember.

            He looked around the room where he had dropped onto the sofa. It looked like the room of vague acquaintances, but not one he would live in himself.

            The doorbell rang. Twice in one morning, thought Mike. This never happens. This time Sophie stood on the porch, a suitcase beside her and a taxi pulling away.

            “What’s up? You look absolutely dazed,” she said in greeting.

            “Sorry.”

            “Where have you been? She’s been calling. Her phone died and you never answer yours. I wanted to catch you before I went round to my own door. Is yours turned off?”

            “My what?”

            “Your phone, Mike! You’re more distracted than ever. She’s due back today you know.”

            “No. She just left.”

            “What are you talking about? Her plane lands in an hour. Don’t you remember the schedule?”

            “Her plane? Who are you talking about?”

            “Marla, of course! Mike – you’re a million miles away. Whatever’s the matter with you? Pay attention!”

            He paused, and dredged the memory of something from the bottom of his newly-empty mind.

            “Oh. Right. Marla.”


BIO

Flora Jardine writes plays, stories and nonfiction on the west coast of Canada. Some of her recent prose has appeared in Popshot Quarterly, Short Humour Magazine (UK), pif Magazine, Corner Bar Review (US),  Island Writer Magazine, and Wandering Words: an Anthology of West Coast Writings, 2018 (Canada).




Liberty Atoms 16

by Christopher Barnes


Uncoerced lion stirred the brink
Of his roundabout,
Dodging traffic’s eyes.
At the open-hamper belt
Maisie’s plastic fork cracked.
Lipstick deformed into a grudge.
Coordinates on our map highlighted words:
“Quick, quick, come and see,
Bettina is teasing a spider”.


Liberty Atoms 17


Nettle-plait bracelet
Fringed her snow-lace.
Quickstepping limped as the amp passed over.
Maisie jostled into our hawthorne,
Sizzling to ends of permanent wave.
Imprint on beetle unevenly read:
“‘I want so much to help you,’ said Edward,
‘To bring you anything you want’”.


Liberty Atoms 18


Toy pigskin angel
Sweats by cinders.
Vase sorrel decomposes, yawning.
Blubbing keeps Maisie from playing up.
Sequins on our drop-leaf neatened to:
“Oh let that not be so! thought Thomas”.


Liberty Atoms 19


A falcon and Maisie
Voodooed seven clocks.
Herky-jerky brick-stuffed pillow
Couldn’t intuit dim light.
No phantoms undertook to align.
Riven fingernails inscaped with:
“Edwards’ first searching look
Was for a male figure, waiting”.


Liberty Atoms 20


Gossamer ping-pong ball
Vaporized into lustre.
Maisie flounced, clacking stairs.
Postwoman disputes virtue
Of balanced economy.
Our ladybird’s spots can be networked to:
“We’re quite cut off now, it’s nice”.

Quotes: Iris Murdoch, The Nice And The Good

BIO

Christopher Barnes won a Northern Arts writers award. Christmas 2001 he debuted at Newcastle’s famous Morden Tower doing a reading of poems. Each year he read for Proudwords lesbian and gay writing festival and partook in workshops. 2005 saw the publication of his collection LOVEBITES published by Chanticleer Press, 6/1 Jamaica Mews, Edinburgh.

A DAMSEL IN BEDLAM

by Kat Devitt



Bethlem Royal Hospital
London, 1869

As patients paced the halls and wailed in corners, William never imagined finding his childhood sweetheart in Bedlam. She’d behaved with high spirits when they were young, always taking his hand and leading him astray, but there’d been no indication of insanity.

Even now, as William watched her, he saw traces of his darling as she sat rooted in a chair, her flesh pale like ivory against the satin blue of her dress. Her bronze hair cascaded over her shoulders like waterfalls. She looked very much as she had ten years ago, when they’d loved each other with all their hearts.

“William, come see.” Her smile flashed as she sat on a stool, her hand waving him over. “I’m rather proud of this one.”

Rays curled about her cheeks in the sunlit drawing room. William wanted to run a finger along her soft flesh, to inhale her rosy perfume, but he couldn’t, not with her parents lurking in the parlor down the hall. “What have you done now?”

Her moss green eyes turned on William, and he found all the world’s happiness locked within her gaze. He craved nothing more than to share in it with her, but it was near impossible. She was a gentleman’s daughter.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” she asked. “It’s you.”

William tore his gaze from her long enough to look at the canvas set on the easel before her. Staring back was his likeness: a lad of nineteen with naïve, blue eyes longing for something beyond his reach.

William turned to her with an ache in his gut. “It seems as if the student has surpassed her teacher.”

“And an excellent teacher you’ve been.” Her gaze returned to her work. “You may keep it if you like.”

“I will, if you don’t mind.”

A few curls fell against her nape as she shook her head. “Not at all.”

He couldn’t resist. He blew, making those tendrils fly.

She whipped around in laughter. “How silly you are.”

Her smile filled William’s small world, and without thinking, he acted. Her skirts shushed as she slid off the stool and into his arms. She didn’t hesitate, because it wasn’t the first time they’d kissed

“You’re mine,” William whispered as he brushed his lips against hers. “You always will be, no matter the challenges.”

And as she laid her head on his shoulder, the door creaked open. Her father appeared with death in his face. A death marked for William…

Her beauty was a specimen preserved in time, but her spirit was changed. Somehow broken, forgotten.

Patients sat along the walls of the female ward, talking to others, real or imagined, while Eleanora languished alone. Her thick eyelashes spread against her cheek like a fan as she watched her hand move in circles. She held nothing, and nothing rested before her, but she made strokes in the air as if she painted a picture begging for freedom from her head.

She glanced up from her invisible work.

William took a sharp breath. Does she see me?

He stepped into the hall, hiding himself from her view—if she even noticed, if she was even coherent.

His first day in Bedlam’s employment, and she was here. He’d thought about her constantly over the years. What happened to her after her marriage? How does her husband treat her? Does she ever think of me? He’d never forgotten about her as if her shadow walked alongside his every day.

Now she was one of the hundreds of women in his care: buying clothes, food, bedding, and whatever else they might need. It wasn’t the reunion he’d imagined every night for a decade. She might not remember him—or herself. She might think of herself as another person or in another time.

William peeked around the corner. Her magnificent eyes were hidden away as she gazed at her lap. Her head hung low, as if she was a broken doll. If she did have any concept of reality, she looked too fractured to repair.

A patient screamed. “Death to the queen!” She climbed onto her chair and punched a fist at the heavens before a caretaker pulled her down.

How could Eleanora thrive in such decay? he wondered.

William clutched his chest as his heart banged against his ribs. He walked down the hall to his office, the head steward’s office, and continued his work for the day, but Eleanora never escaped his mind. 

****

“There’s our Willy!” Oscar boomed for all the pub to hear as he stumbled out of his chair, already halfway into his spirits. “Come sit.”

“Slow down, Oscar.” A groan came from Charles, Bedlam’s doctor extraordinaire, the most sensible of their trio. “Harriet will not like you staggering home.”

“I need to drink to be able to go home to her and our three brats.” He raised his mug in a salute, then drank heartily as if he was a Viking of Valhalla.

William pulled out a chair, its scratch along the floorboards lost in the singing, celebrating, and chatter. His shoulders relaxed as he embraced the noise after a long day of insanity. His mind was still emblazoned with the image of a man being wrestled to the floor as he wielded a handmade knife, claiming he needed to slay the dragon standing in the courtyard.

“I need a drink,” William announced.

Charles passed him a cup. “Here’s your brandy.”

“Ah, you know what I like.” William lifted it toward his friend in thanks.

“You know what else you might appreciate?” Oscar winked as if he had the most original thought in the history of thoughts. “A beautiful woman in your bed.”

“What I need is a machine to take me back five or ten years when I had the chance at a successful painting career.” William tipped back his glass. “And love.”

“I’m neither an engineer nor a scientist, but what I can do is fetch you a bit of skirt.”

Charles leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest. “And how will you supply him with this woman, Oscar?”

“Why, look around you.” He stretched out his arms. “There’s a bounty of breasts.”

Oscar smiled as he scanned the dimly lit pub. He lingered on a brunette lounging on a balding man’s lap. Her ringlets fell over her breasts, exposed by a nice dip in her emerald green dress. He seemed to forget all about finding William a woman as he stared at her décolletage.

Charles gave William a sidelong glance and a shrug. The somber lines around his mouth seemed to say: What will we do? It’s like trying to control a dog in heat.

Poor Harriet. She’d not be pleased when her husband came home tonight.

“How was your first day at Bedlam?” Charles asked.

William’s fingers tapped against the half-empty glass. “Unique,” he said. “Thank you for securing me the position.”

“No need.”

“I would’ve never gained it on my own credentials: the failed painter following his father’s footsteps into stewardship.”

“You’re too hard on yourself. You’ve worked as a steward for a few reputable places.”

“For private families. Never for a large institution.” William sipped. “Or an asylum. If you hadn’t given me a recommendation, I’d be bleeding my hands in the workhouse.”

William allowed himself a peek at a few of the doxies strutting about. Oscar was right. There were plenty of women seeking company for the night: short ones, tall ones, slender ones, fat ones, pale ones, dusky ones, French ones, German ones—an assortment like sweets at a baker’s shop.

He sighed. “Maybe I do need a woman.”

Especially if he was envisioning pies and pastries sauntering about the pub, but none of them tempted him. 

“What you need is a wife.”

William steadied his gaze on Charles. “Why do you think so?”

“You’re not the sort to spend a night with a woman and move on.” He waved a hand at Oscar, his mouth agape. “This is not who you are. You need a companion and lover.”

William nodded. “Someone to hold at the end of each night.”

“Precisely. My darling Emma gives me comfort after a long day doctoring patients.”

Oscar tore himself from his leering long enough to rejoin with, “And my Harriet gives me a good swat when I come home.”

Charles arched a brow. “You deserve it with your dallying.”

“Oh, every bit. It keeps our passion alive.” A buxom blonde stole his attention as she sauntered by, leaving a fragrant trail of lavender. “Excuse me for a moment.”

“Oscar, think of Harriet.” William made to grab his wrist, but he was too quick. Oscar slammed his mug on the table, shaking it on its legs, and pushed himself up, his boots clunking as he staggered after her.

Oscar’s voice trailed off as he asked, “Come here, darling. What’s your name?”

The blonde turned around with a shy smile. A few of her teeth were missing, but it didn’t seem to dissuade Oscar. Her breasts strained against her bodice, which more than compensated for her lack of pearly whites.

“She’ll murder him one of these days,” Charles said.

“Aye.” William took another sip of brandy as he watched Oscar cozy up to the buxom blonde. He drew her close and whispered into her ear. Her cheeks colored, and she slapped him straight across the mouth.

Oscar grabbed his face. “What was that for?”

“I’ll no’ d’ such a filthy act, ye mongrel,” she shouted as she stormed towards the door.

“Not even for a guinea?” he called.

She stopped long enough to spit in his direction before leaving the pub. A round of laughter rang out at Oscar’s expense, her cloud of lavender polluting the air long after she disappeared.

William choked on the odor. “I must be on my way. I’ve had my fill for the night.” He replenished his lungs with a breath, but it ended on a cough. Damn lavender. Eleanora always smelled gentler, softer, like a rose garden.

Charles swatted the air in front of his nose. “Early rise tomorrow?”

“No, I wish to paint for an hour or two before falling asleep.”

William thought of Eleanora in the women’s ward, alone, her hand moving in circles. He remembered teaching her to move her hand in such a way, to flick and flourish with a brushstroke.

“I’ll tell Oscar you left.” Charles lifted his glass toward William. “Enjoy.”

William stepped out into a warm drizzle as fog filled the streets with gray. Few tarried on the road, ducking into doorways and pubs to keep dry, but he risked an illness to make it to his doorstep.

He picked his way on the slick cobblestones as his thoughts drifted toward Eleanora. No other woman could fill the hole she’d left in his heart. He’d tried many times over the last decade to replace her: an affair with a widow, a liaison with a shop girl, an engagement with a poetical protégé. But no one could replace Eleanora.

William started to move his hand in circles. “What is it you need, love?”

William turned up his coat collar to keep his neck dry, but with little success as raindrops splattered on his hunched shoulders. He hurried home and into his dark, dry parlor.

Droplets sprinkled onto the floor as he removed his coat. He threw it over a wingback, a true-blooded bachelor, when a set of eyes drew his gaze. Over the mantel, he found a naive, blue-eyed lad immortalized on canvas.

Looking at Eleanora’s paintings through the shadows, he knew. In an instant, he knew.

William smiled as he shook off raindrops and retreated to his parlor—not to paint, but to gather supplies for Eleanora.

****

“Give these to her.” William handed a paintbrush and palette to Charles. “Her easel, canvas, and paints are by the window at the end of the hall.”

Charles stared at the tools in his hands. “Why am I handing these to a patient?”

“She enjoys painting.”

“Yes, but then, why don’t you give these to her?” Charles shoved them against William’s chest. “It’s your responsibility.”

“I can’t.” William shoved back. “Please, I’ll buy you an extra round of drinks tonight.”

“You know I only ever have the one.”

Somewhere in the ward, a caged bird beat its wings. It chirped through the bars, as if frustrated by its imprisonment.

William huffed. “I’ll take Oscar home tonight.”

This gave Charles pause. “For the remainder of the week.”

“You have a bargain.”

Charles looked down at the brush and palette he held awkwardly. He took a breath, puffed himself up, and started for Eleanora. William edged closer to the fretful bird. It wasn’t the most inventive hiding place. However, it was far enough away where Eleanora couldn’t see him, but he could watch her.

She sat in the same chair, making the same gestures as yesterday. A bronze curl fell at her cheek, her breathing steady. She wore a cream-colored dress, highlighting her emerald eyes.

Eleanora didn’t look when Charles approached. She didn’t speak when he said a few words, but when he placed the paintbrush under her nose, she emerged from her spell.

Her chin tipped downwards as her gaze fell on those bristles, the silver band at the base glistening in the sunlight. Her raspberry lips curved into a smile as if a gem gleamed temptingly before her.

She reached out and grabbed it.

Warmth spread through William’s chest. He wanted to rush across the ward with a whoop, collect Eleanora into his arms, and swing her round and round at this little breach into her world.

But mental leg irons restrained him.

She might not remember him. She might think him a villain attacking heror some other hallucination. Seeing her happiness would need to be enough.

Charles waved a hand towards the window, and Eleanora’s gaze followed to the easel and its effects. She stood up, clutching the brush against her bosom.

William read her lips. “For me?”

“Yes,” Charles said.

Charles left Eleanora to explore her new wonders. He settled at William’s side, opposite the bird, as William watched her brush her fingertips against the blank canvas. Soon, it’d be filled with her imagination.

Charles cleared his throat. “By the way you look at her, I’d think you’re in love.”

A smile grew on William’s lips as she dabbed bright paints onto her palette. Those colors would give blood to her life’s veins.

“I’m only happy to see the pleasure on her face,” William said.

“Why?”

“I knew her when we were young.”

Charles stepped into his view, his charcoal brows arched in judgment. “How do you know her?”

“My father served as a steward in her household.” William peeked past him. “When I was enjoying some success as an artist, her parents hired me to give her lessons. They trusted me as the son of their respected servant.”

Charles cleared his throat again. “Stop staring at her. Others will notice.”

“Who?” William asked. “We’re the only staff here at the moment. Only the insane watch.”

“Not all the patients are lunatics.” Charles directed his gaze to the bird on its perch, chirping till its last breath. “Damn bird never quiets. It’s supposed to soothe the patients, but all it does is irritate my nerves.”

William waved at the bird, and it fell silent. It’s eyes followed his hand as if it was a great beast come to capture it.  “Are your nerves better now?”

“Sorry, it’s been a long day. This morning a patient tried to convince me she was the Virgin Mary come again, and that the baby in her belly was our precious savior. However, she’s not with child.” He rubbed at his temples. “What happened?”

“Regarding?” William asked, mentally off balance after that implosion.

Charles jerked his head towards Eleanora. “Her lessons.”

William slipped through his memories and returned to that fateful day in the drawing room. He’d forever remember her smile, the feel of her lips, and her father’s footsteps. Her lessons ended with his dismissal, right there as she warmed his arms. A week later, she was betrothed.

But William couldn’t tell his friend. At least not the whole truth. “Her lessons ended around the same time my art began to fail.”

Charles studied him. “Do you know why she’s here?”

William shook his head.

“Her husband had her confined based on a moral defect of her character.” His voice lowered a degree. “She sought a divorce from him.”

William numbed. His mind blackened as if he’d been dumped into a vat of icy water. Divorce? And that bastard had her locked up instead?

His fists tightened as anger thawed him. If Gideon James stood before him, he’d direct a blow at the bastard’s jaw. Hell, he’d choke Gideon for imprisoning his wife in such a place.

But this meant something else. Eleanora wasn’t insane, only considered morally criminal.

Charles tapped his shoulder. “Stop looking at her like a lad in love. Gossip will start.”

“She’s an old friend.” William smoothed out his hair. “Nothing more.”

“Mhmm.” Charles pursed his thin lips, not believing a word he said. “I have patients to tend to. I’ll see you tonight, and remember our bargain.”

Charles clapped William on the back, his gaze expressing don’t talk to her, leave her be. And with that bit of unspoken wisdom, he exited the ward. His whistle echoed in the hall, fading with his footsteps.

William stayed a few minutes longer. It seemed a lifetime watching her as she took the paintbrush and dabbed it into the blue. She slashed it across the canvas, like a river being born from her imagination.

Even if she still had her sanity, William didn’t know her feelings. Did she still love him as he loved her? Or was he a dalliance she remembered fondly while drifting into sleep? Or worse… Did she not remember him at all?

It was enough to enjoy her from a distance. At least, William tried to convince himself of this as the bird started to chirp again—and louder than before.

William tapped a finger against its cage door. “Shh, my little friend.”

It’s head turned from side to side, watching William’s finger like a worm. This, at least, shushed the bird.

“Now stay quiet.” William pressed a finger over his lips, as if it’s tiny brain could comprehend the gesture. Then he looked up…and met Eleanora’s deep green gaze.

****

A chill crept through Eleanora as she sat perched on a stool in her airy room. While sunlight poured through the window, the bars in front of the glass reminded her of her imprisonment. Even as her soul sang for freedom, her brush stroked the canvas, and she pretended to not notice William standing in the doorway behind her.

He’d been watching her for weeks now.

In the halls.

In the garden.

In the female ward. William thought he could hide behind a birdcage, but his gaze hadn’t escaped her.

She’d chosen to ignore him. He was the reason behind her newly acquired art supplies, but this small freedom came only by the grace of his love. She had no other liberties in this dark place, and she’d rather not risk losing these few treasures.

Because what if he’d hated her for marrying Gideon James? Eleanora’s brushstrokes wouldn’t be creating the longing in her trapped damsel’s gaze nor the plumes of the dove she held on her finger. Not the window swelling with sunlight, nor her unspoken wish for freedom.

Eleanora wouldn’t be painting her likeness.

Maybe she owed William her thanks for the oils and brushes. Maybe he deserved a display of excitement, such as her whirling around on her stool and informing him a lucid brain worked under her skullcap.

But Eleanora couldn’t do it.

After her father caught them and forced her hand into an unwanted engagement, William never fought for them. He never answered her letters pleading for an elopement. He never came on his white horse and whisked her away to Gretna Green. Eleanora’s girlhood dreams died with his silence.

But now, ten years later, standing in her doorway, he was anything but quiet as his foot scuffed against the wooden floor.

“I know you’re there, William.”

An electric intensity whipped through the room. “Eleanora?”

“I haven’t any other name. Unless you’d like for me to adopt a new one, like so many of my companions here.”

“Where’s the humor in such a statement?”

William’s steps tapped up to her stool. He hesitated, and so she did for him what he couldn’t for himself. She turned to face him for the first time in a decade. He stepped back, as if startled by her sudden movement.

“Your wit has dulled if you cannot see the irony in the freedoms I have behind these walls. I can be whoever I want.” She tapped the brush handle against her mouth. “I could be Joan of Arc whispering to the saints in her head, but there’s already one here. Maybe Eleanor of Aquitaine overseeing her court of love?”

His nostrils flared. “You’re none of them.”

“You’re right,” she said. “Why stay a woman? I could easily adopt the persona of a man, but who shall I be?”

Eleanora’s gaze roved over William. He looked much older than his twenty-nine years. His waistcoat hid a small gut, and his eyes carried a sadness never there before. His fingers were long and slender, perfect for holding a brush, but he was a failed painter if he worked at Bedlam. Despite his melancholy, he clung to claims of handsomeness in his gentle, blue eyes, full lips, and tangled, coal-black hair.

“You’re Eleanora James, wife of the respected barrister, Gideon James.”

“I could’ve been your wife.”

William jerked back as if she’d slapped him. She sorely wanted to for his long absence from her life, but violence wasn’t necessary. Her verbal strike made his cheeks flush with crimson.

“I choose to be Henry VIII,” Eleanora continued. “I can cut off the heads of two of my spouses. I only have the one, so I’ll start with Gideon, but that still leaves me a head.”

“Quit talking madness.”

“But I’m in an asylum. I’m supposed to act like a lunatic.”

“You’re not.” William stepped closer, his breathing quick and steady. “You’re the woman in your painting, even if you did change the color of her hair.”

Eleanora turned to her fair damsel resting in the canvas, cascades of chestnut hair falling over her shoulder. “Don’t I look lovely as a brunette?”

“Even if you were bald, you’d still be the most beautiful of women.”

“You haven’t held too many women then.”

William brushed his knuckles against her cheek. “Because I’ve only wanted you.”

Eleanora’s heart fluttered as if a butterfly was caged within her ribs. He still spoke like a youth in love. She wondered how he romanticized her, and how often.

“Do you know why I’m here?” Eleanora asked.

He blew on her nape, sending chills crawling down her spine. “Only that you asked Gideon for a divorce.”

“Anything more than that?”

“No.”

“He had an affair with his clerk’s daughter, a young girl not long out of the schoolroom. He’d lavished her with gifts and pretty baubles. Eventually, he got her with child.” Eleanora bit her bottom lip, drawing blood into her mouth. “I’d turned my cheek to many of his infidelities, but I couldn’t handle this last betrayal. It was worse than the other women, because he’d given her a permanence when he set her up in a house in Cheapside.”

William lowered himself to his knees. He grasped Eleanora’s chin, forcing her to look at him. “Why did he send you here instead?”

“He’d rather dispose of an inconvenient wife by manipulating his connections in London’s courts and institutions than risk his good name in a scandal.”

Her chin quivered at the truth that lived with her here in Bedlam. Even though she never loved Gideon, his betrayal hurt. They had said vows before an altar, and he had defied them with each woman he charmed into his bed. It’s as if she never mattered, as if she was a pawn he married for a substantial dowry.

“Eleanora,” he murmured, “I still love you. When I lost you, I stopped painting. My art suffered, because I hadn’t my muse to inspire my work.”

“I don’t give a damn about your art.”

Eleanora’s eyes misted over as she shook her head. It couldn’t be. She had no love to give in this madhouse, and least of all, for him. He had abandoned her. He hadn’t the right to beg at her knees.

“Maybe I’m bitter. Maybe I’ve had too much time to think during my stay here, but you were never far from my thoughts, William.” Eleanora wiped away angry tears.  “You ask for my love after years without you, when it was you who left me.”

William squeezed her hands as if he might wring away the last decade. “I needed to protect my family.”

“I sent you a dozen letters, and you never wrote back.” She shoved his clawing hands away. “I choose to be Henry VIII, giving me two heads to cut: Gideon’s and yours.”

His gaze crystalized into sadness. She saw him, her sweetheart from all those years ago, but their childhoods were dead, and she had no flowers to leave on their graves.

“Eleanora, please listen to me,” he said, his voice shaky. “I couldn’t risk my father’s place in your household, because he cared for my mother. I had little fortune as an artist. I couldn’t support them if my father was sacked, much less a wife. I never wanted to hurt you.”

“And yet you did.”

Eleanora’s  eyes sought out the blue skies beyond the window’s bars. She wondered what it might be like if she sprouted wings. If she could break through the glass, find a flock to join, and fly far, far away from here.

“Let’s try again. Let’s at least be friends—”

“Thank you for the canvas and paints.” Eleanora made a little salute. “But I, Henry, now send you to the block.”

And with that, Eleanora turned from William. She took up her brush and continued painting, shedding those years of resentment. Eleanora focused on the damsel and the dove in her hand, because in this horrid place, her imagination was all that existed.

****

Eleanora never liked when he visited. His polished boots clicked on the floor, and his smirk gave her migraines. He’d stay to brag for hours about a successful court case or the love for his new sonof course living far apart from him, so as to not jeopardize his career.

Here and there, she’d jab him with a bit of wit, but he knew full well she couldn’t do more than sit idly and listen. She was a caged bird for display. Nothing more.

But today was different. His mouth pinched at her painting. His eyes blazed with annoyance. She wondered if he looked like that when arguing in a courtroom or with his darling mistress.

“What’s this?” Gideon asked.

“A square with colors on it.”

“None of your sauciness.” He spun on his heels like a lieutenant about to give orders. “Why do you have this?”

Eleanora folded her hands together. “The new steward provided supplies for me to paint. What you see is my work.”

“I never approved this.”

“Must you? I thought you left me here to languish, like the husbands of so many other patients.”

He prowled closer, his steps soft and slow. “Who gave you the right to paint?”

“Someone kinder than you.”

Eleanora and Gideon stood inches apart. He towered over her with his Frankenstein-like height. If bolts jutted from his neck, he could be Mary Shelley’s creature, except his hair was too light. He leaned closer, a thread of gold falling over his forehead.

“Give me a name,” he murmured, his breath hot on her cheek.

Eleanora kicked up her chin. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

“Now, now. None of your nonsense.”

“What?” she asked, smiling sweetly. “Do you not like Shakespeare?”

He snarled in reply. She had quoted the great Bard to him, and all he could do was look like a bear with its paw caught in a trap. No wonder their marriage crumbled.

“Well, then.” His knuckles brushed along her cheek. “I’ll find out on my own.”

Eleanora turned her head away. “You’ve taken everything from me. Why this, too?”

“Because you wished to leave me.” Gideon glanced at the painting. “But I’ll take a part of you.”

Gideon grazed her arm as he walked past her. He posed with his hands on his hips as he studied her damsel. Being married to him for ten years, she could hear his thoughts in her head. She knew what he was after.

Eleanora stormed up to him, her hand falling on his shoulder. “Leave it alone, Gideon.”

He shook her off.

“It’s a lovely piece.” Gideon’s paws clutched the canvas and lifted her damsel into the air. “I think I’ll take it home and hang it over my bed, so I might look on it and think of you.”

Hah! Remember his imprisoned wife as he led throngs of women into their—his—bedroom. Her artwork deserved a better home than over his head—unless it came crashing down on his skull.

Her eyes burned. She tried to blink the tears away. “You won’t take this from me.”

“And who will stop me?” He grinned. “You?”

“Leave it.”

He continued on. “Or maybe I’ll take this to Marianne’s home and hang it in her parlor. She’ll adore this piece.” His lover, the mother of his child. Eleanora’s heart burst into a fit contained for too many years to count.

“Leave it,” she shouted, her voice rising. “Leave it, leave it, leave it!”

Gideon looked down at the gold band on his finger and then to hers. They were linked for all time, till death do they part, whether they wished it or not. They’d said the words, even if they rarely acted upon them.

“I’m your husband,” he said. “You’ll do as I say. Be who I command.”

“I will do no such thing.”

“I’ve owned you since the day we married.”

Eleanora slapped him across the face, a crack echoing through the room. She took a breath, finding her lungs featherlight and her migraine gone. “A ring doesn’t signify ownership.”

His black eyes glowed like embers. “It’s your behavior,” he said, his fingers grazing the red handprint on his cheek, “that has led you to this place.”

“Then I suppose I’ll be here for a very long time.”

“It’s your choice.” He smiled. “I’m going to the head steward straightaway. You won’t be painting anymore.”

“I’ll find other pursuits.”

“And I’ll crush them all.” He strode toward the door. “Thank you for the painting, my dear. Marianne and I will treasure it.”

Gideon’s footsteps clicked down the hall. He emptied her world in one stroke.

Eleanora fell onto her bed, a thin cot on a metal frame tucked against a whitewashed wall. It creaked in protest at her weight. A sound for her ears, and then nothing but silence to feed her thoughts.

Her gaze dwelled on the empty easel; her fingers entwined in her lap. Her paints were scattered on the table beside it. Her palette was wet with fresh paint, and her brushes were lined up according to size. It was familiar. It was home, but Eleanora’s damsel was gone, taken captive by a giant ogre.

Eleanora collapsed onto her dusty white sheets, her wings clipped. She cried for what seemed like hours as the sunlight faded, the shadows shrank, and her tears dried. If she had anything to give before, her soul was now stripped into a desert.

“He’s taken everything.” A tear loosened. “Why not my sanity, too?”

“He hasn’t taken me from you.”

Eleanora bolted upright. She still clung to her pride as she found William in the doorway, his knuckles white from gripping the knob. She had sent both men to the block, but yet they kept reappearing into her little world.

“Why are you here?” she asked, wanting nothing but loneliness.

“Gideon came to my office.”

“Did he recognize you?”

“No. He was too deep in his tirade to notice.” He paused. “May I come in?”

“Don’t bother. I know why you’re here.”

Eleanora slipped further into her sadness. Away from Bedlam and into her mind. Her hand started to move of its own accord as she envisioned her sorrows. Nighttime sprang into her mind, and a woman—wretched and alone.

“Eleanora,” he whispered.

A tower. Eleanora saw a woman trapped watching as fireflies waltzed across a field. She wanted to dance with them, but how did she leave her home? How did she escape from where the ogre had placed her?

“Eleanora, love.”

“Yes?” she whispered.

“Why do you think I’m here?”

“To tell me I can’t paint anymore.”

In the world outside her own, Eleanora heard the door close on a creak. Footsteps approached. Someone stopped her hand with a firm grip.

She blinked.

William knelt on the floor, his two hands creating a shell around hers. His thumb stroked along the ridges of her knuckles. “Don’t retreat again.” He squeezed her hand. “We’ll hide your painting from him, and you can use my office for space.”

“Won’t that jeopardize your post here?”

“I don’t care.” William’s gaze gripped her, lonely and forgiving. “I still love you. I’ll do anything for you.”

It struck Eleanora. He was on his knees professing his love. This was a marriage proposal without the question.

“What will you have me do?” he asked.

Her wedding band glimmered in the sunlight peeking through the window’s bars. If only she could be rid of it.

“Free me, William.” Eleanora touched his cheek, her heart softening. “Please.”

“We’ll find a way.” William kissed her fingers. “And this time, I swear to you, I won’t abandon your side.”

He smiled up at her, the first she’d seen on his lips in a decade. It was the sun emerging from behind a long storm, it’s light chasing images of lonely damsels from her mind.


BIO

Kat Devitt’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Tales to Terrify, The Weird and Whatnot, Corvid Queen, Books ‘N Pieces Magazine, TWJ Magazine, Suspense Magazine, and other venues. Kat is a Puschart Prize nominee, Best of the Net nominee, and placed as a runner-up in OPQ Press’s 2019 Spooky Samhain Contest. She also acts as the fiction editor for Bold + Italic. If you’d like to learn more about Kat or her writing, please visit https://katdevitt.com/.




The Poet Ray Brown

by John Yohe

Billy Kidder read the poet Ray Brown for the first time in his first-year creative writing class at Michigan State University. His teacher made everybody do a presentation on a famous contemporary poet, and gave the class a list of names to choose from. Billy chose Brown by chance, then went to the Barnes & Noble on Grand River Ave., in what pretended to be a downtown of East Lansing but was really a three block section of street across from the university. The poetry section had three of Brown’s books of poetry: Streets of Cruelty and Shame, Grey Sky Forgetting, and Children of Rust Belt. Billy chose Streets of Cruelty and Shame and opened it randomly to the poem “and you too” and at first was confused because it didn’t seem like poetry, or not like the poetry that he’d had to read in his high school english books, which amounted basically to Edgar Allen Poe. First of all, this poem didn’t rhyme. And, it was funny, about the poet getting in an argument with a “whore” who lived in the apartment above him.Billy looked at the cover again, to double-check. A poem about whores? He checked the back cover, with a black and white photo of Brown, a middle-aged african-american man standing next to an old boxcar, looking cold and miserable. He read the short bio at the bottom, and learned that Brown was from Michigan, from Jackson, the city half an hour south of East Lansing.

He bought the book, and went over to the Espresso Royale café a block east, where he bought a coffee and sat down to read. The next poem he flipped to randomly was a conversation between two guys who worked at a factory, about a third guy’s wife who they had both slept with. Again, funny. Though also sad somehow. Or that’s how Billy felt, but he wasn’t sure that’s what a person was supposed to feel about poetry. That is, he’d been expecting that, since it was poetry, he wouldn’t understand it. That was what made poetry good, right? Or if it rhymed and had ravens in it. And yet, he also felt like there was something that he wasn’t understanding about the poem. Something lurking in the background.

For his class presentation, he brought in copies of the whore poem for everybody, and said something about how important Brown was because he was from Michigan and worked in factories and represented that life. But when Billy’s creative writing teacher asked the class if there were any questions, Billy was surprised to find out that people hated the poem. Not like he hated Poe, like about how boring Poe was and therefore he hated having to read him, but like Brown was a real person. One girl said Brown sounded like an asshole. A boy tried to sneer (though really he was too young to truly know how) and say that this wasn’t poetry. Another girl said it was racist for Brown, a black man, to write about a white woman like that, to which a black boy on the other side of the room asked, what’s wrong with a black man fucking a white woman? The girl, surprised that no everyone felt exactly the same way she did, didn’t know what to say, and almost started to cry, and their teacher interrupted, thanking Billy and asking who’s presentation was next.

Rick Cassidy’s first Brown book was Factory Blues, the first book Brown ever published. He found it used in an independent bookstore in Toronto in his third year of university. What Rick liked about Brown’s (and this was true mainly only of that first book, but also of Grey Sky Forgetting, his second book, a little too) was the mix of gritty realness (cold miserable city streets, the suffocating old efficiency apartments, the dirty melting snow) juxtaposed with the strange images of animals of animals like tigers and Kodo dragons that appeared, with violence, out of sewers and refrigerators. Plus the poems about beautiful women.

Rick had studied biology at university, but also semi-secretly wrote poetry, even before he’d discovered Brown, and when he graduated, as a treat to himself, he decided to enter into one of the multiple Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs in the United States, to give himself two years to devote to poetry. The fact that Brown, his favorite poet, had never gone to college, and wrote poetry without having devoted himself to it for two years at the master’s level didn’t really seem ironic to Rick. The only way he could do it would be to obtain a TA-ship to cover all expenses, and of the places he applied, in New York and Michigan, only Western Michigan University offered a good stipend along with free tuition. He accepted without even visiting the campus, intrigued by the city name, Kalamazoo, where WMU was located, and leaving things up to fate. His choice of Western was also made in part by it’s nearness to Jackson, where Brown continued to live and write. Though he didn’t say it to anybody, he secretly thought that maybe he would be able to meet Brown in person and show him his poems, which he felt sure Brown would like.

Guadalupe Rodríguez Ochera, Lupe for short, grew up in an affluent neighborhood of the Districto Federal (el DF) which is also called la Ciudad Mexico, or in english, Mexico City. Her father was a successful businessman, the owner of a fleet of trucks, whose business boomed with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He also owned a house in San Diego, where he made sure that his three children (Lupe had two older brothers) spent plenty of time, so they could learn english and prepare themselves for moving into the family business, though with Lupe, his not so unobvious goal was to marry her off to a well-connected american.

Of course Lupe, and to a lesser extent her brothers, rebelled against her father’s plans for her by hanging out with the most horrifying groups of people her father could imagine: creative liberals. In San Diego she made friends with tragic goth girls who wore lots of black despite the fact that the sun shone almost every day (Lupe had the advantage of not having to dye her hair black). But in Mexico City, where she spent most of her time, she liked to hang out with the older college kids, or the college dropouts, and smoke lots of mota and talk about painting and poetry and writing and independent film from all over the world.

Lupe herself wasn’t a poet. She liked to paint, and also dabbled with creative graphic design, and if she didn’t spend so much time talking in smoky university cafes she might have been more productive. But product wasn’t the point. She liked the creative process, which was just as fun as anything else, so if anything was going on, she was just as likely to be doing that.

Lupe discovered Brown through her older guy friends, the poets, who raved about him as the new black Kerouac, though she wasn’t really clear on what that meant at first. Brown, they claimed, spoke for the real America, for the workers, the proletariat, instead of the canned capitalist America forced down the throats of the world through Hollywood movies and tv shows. Things got kind of deep with the pot-smoking mexican poets and she wasn’t sure about it all exactly, but she liked when guys got passionate about things, that’s where they’re most interesting and attractive. She borrowed a copy of Streets of Cruelty and Shame (Calles de crueldad y verguénza) to see what was so interesting. The translator was actually spanish, the book published by a Spanish publishing company, so the spanish was a little different, like when Brown would call women tías instead of chavas, but Lupe decided that added to the humor.

Brown appealed to Lupe in part because (like her friends had said) he did reject upper class people, the owners of the factories, the landlords, the rich people eating in nice restaurants while los pobres walked by outside in the cold. But she also liked Brown’s celebratory attitude, of finding beauty in the ugliness of being poor. Lupe liked the idea of the poor life being beautiful, which tied in with rejecting her father, and her father’s world.

Lupe didn’t choose to go to the University of Michigan because Ann Arbor was nearby Jackson. She didn’t get to choose at all really. Her father just wanted all his children to go to good american schools. Her oldest brother had gone to the University of California, Berkeley, and her other brother to the University of Texas, Austin. Both of the brothers majored in International Business. Lupe was only allowed to major in something ‘practical.’ Which meant no art. The only interesting thing she could convince her father to let her major in was english, by arguing that english was the international business language and a valuable skill to have in the globalization of business markets.

Lupe was surprised to discover that none of her fellow english majors even knew who Brown was. When she asked her professor of Contemporary American Literature about him, he rolled his eyes and started to talk about Thomas Pynchon and the postmodern american novel. Not even in her African-American Literature class did they discuss him, mostly because la profesora seemed to prefer female authors like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.

Gabrielle du Mont actually preferred Brown’s prose to his poetry. Or rather, his short prose. She felt that he would eventually be thought of as one of the most incredible short story writers on the early twenty-first century. She also liked his collection of ‘essays’ or ‘articles’ (if they could really be called that, since some were fiction (she hoped) which she liked to call ‘structured rants’ that he’d written for a weekly magazine out of Detroit called the Jam Rag. But it was his first collection of short stories, Break The Glass With Your Fists, that had made her fall in love with him, especially the first, and maybe most traditionally written, story, an autobiographical story about a black factory worker who falls in love with a white alcoholic divorcée coworker.

Though there weren’t many black men in Quebec City, Gabrielle had been attracted to black men all her life, and her interest in Brown’s work was how the lives of black men and white women intersected, both sexually and romantically, and even politically, and she felt that only in american literature could this subject really come up and be spoken about, though learning about his lack of popularity in his own country made her second guess that idea.

Again, Gabrielle hadn’t planned on coming to grad school in Michigan because she would be close to Brown. It was that she planned on becoming a public school teacher and wanted to supplement her Canadian teaching degree with a Master’s in Children’s Literature, which was only available in the US, because the US is weird and non-traditional that way, at least as long as there are upper middle-class people who actually want to study Children’s Lit. And one of the only Children’s Lit programs in the country was at Eastern Michigan University, which is the ugly little sister of the University of Michigan, just east of Ann Arbor in Ypsilanti.

Rick realized his mistake soon after coming to Kalamazoo: that there just wasn’t much to do. He lived in an apartment in the student ghetto east of campus, which was somewhat more safer than Gabrielle’s in Ypsilanti, but far from any cultural center, though then he realized that Kalamazoo didn’t have a cultural center. Like Gabrielle, he was used to hanging out with friends in quieter taverns or cafes over pints of beer (at night) or coffee (in the afternoon) but Kalamazoo basically consists of isolated strip malls on corners, some of which might have a bar or two, or a take out chinese restaurant. Undergrads living off-campus tended to fill this gap by playing a drinking game called beer-pong out on the front lawns of the house they were renting, while playing loud rock and rap music.

For how small Kalamazoo was compared to Toronto, Rick found it amazing how spread out everything was. For example, he had to head to a Barnes & Noble by an I-94 exit in order to buy a book, but then go downtown if he wanted to hang out at Club Soda for live music. And since he didn’t have a car, and busses in American just don’t run as well or conveniently as they do in Toronto, he did a lot of walking. Which was fine, except he was the only one that seemed to be doing it off of campus. But it was fall, the air cool but not cold, the leaves starting to change. He always carried a notebook, since he found poems tended to come to him when he walked.

At the time that Billy started his Ray Brown fan club group on FaceBook, he was twenty, in his sophomore year. When she joined that next year, Gabrielle was twenty-four, in the first year of graduate school. Rick was also in the first year of his MFA Program and also twenty-four. Lupe, the youngest, was nineteen. Although Billy had a group of ‘real life’ friends, the others were foreigners and new, using FaceBook to make connections, though Billy, as the only american, had been on Facebook ever since high school. None of them had known about each other, or had met online before joining the fan club group.  They each tended only to browse people in their own cities, though of course the girls got invitations to be what are called ‘friends’ from guys all over the state, and even the country.

Lupe liked to go out every weekend (which in Ann Arbor starts on Thursday) to bars like The Red Hook and Ashley’s, or for music, clubs like The Eight Ball and The Blind Pig. Gabrielle tended to stay in her apartment making notations in the margins of Harry Potter books, not because she wasn’t unsocial (in fact as a quebecoise she prided herself on her european culture of sitting in cafes and smoking and actually talking with people) but because around her one bedroom apartment on Washtenaw, west of campus, the only culture was a couple of take-out pizza places, and a Starbucks about a mile away in front of a strip mall. There was a downtown Ypsilanti, on Michigan, about two blocks long, with one cafe and four bars, filled with drunk undergrads, but she’d been advised by other GAs at EMU never to walk over there, that she risked being shot, stabbed, mugged, or worse. Which was true, but it was also too bad because on some nights there was jazz and blues music, and black men.

Rick did use FaceBook, but as a guy, he didn’t get invitations and he was kind of shy anyways, and at twenty-four he was starting to feel a little old for online social networking. Lupe accepted every invitation she got. To Lupe, FaceBook was just another extension of her social life at U of M. The more friends the better, and she’d already known people online before she even got to Ann Arbor, so that she already had invitations to parties her first weekend there. Gabrielle didn’t accept any invitations. She would never have admitted to her fellow EMU GAs that she was even on FaceBook, since it seemed to her a place where people who didn’t have any real friends could go and pretend they did. The problem was, she didn’t have any real friends, at least not there, and there are only so many quiet nights home alone with The Golden Compass Trilogy that a girl can take. She thought putting herself ‘out there’ (where ever ‘there’ was) and looking at other people’s pages, would give her a sense of being social. But it didn’t really. Sometimes she thought being online made her feel more lonesome. But then she’d think that the next invitation to be ‘friends’ would be from that someone special she’d been expecting. But no, it would be a middle-aged married guy from Toledo.

When Billy started the Ray Brown Fan Club Group on FaceBook, he was surprised at how active it became, and stayed, with people from all over the country, even other countries. Especially other countries. In fact, Brown seemed more popular on the two coasts, and in Europe, than he seemed to be in Michigan. Some of the more popular post topics for the group had titles like “Favorite Poem and Why”, “Favorite Lines”, “Brown’s favorite authors” and “Who should I read next?” Billy also started a Michigan Fan Club post, where the four of them first started getting to know each other.

The group had been up and running for over a year before Rick finally joined in the beginning of October, followed by Gabrielle and Lupe. Once the girls joined and began posting, both Rick and Billy started to post more, though truly everyone did want to talk about Brown, his poetry, his stories, even his novel, RUST, set in his home town of Jackson, Michigan, about a young white boy named Danny. Though never a best-seller, it had an underground reputation, Like some of his shorter work,, there was no resolution, nor was the book even linear. Most people on that thread agreed they loved it, but they also agreed that it wasn’t his best work, nor very accessible to the general public, though there were some diehards, especially from France and Germany, who thought it was the best thing he’d ever done. Lupe put it best in a post: Our expectations of wanting a resolution is the point. The lives of people in a mid-western rust belt cities don’t really connect. Everyone feels separated from everyone else. Life is ambiguous and non-linear.

Because he had the time, and the place to do it, Rick decided to see if he could get his department to host Brown at WMU. And, because students rarely show the initiative about anything like that, the director of the MFA program gave him a budget of three hundred dollars and said if Rick would do all the organizing, he was more than ok to do it. The only catch being it had to be in December at the end of the semester, because the program had already organized other poetry readings in the preceding months (including two poets from U of M, one from Central Michigan University, and one from MSU).

Rick got online to find Brown’s publisher’s website, which was an independent company called Black Crow Press out of Cleveland, run by the editor/publisher Martin Birch. The website just had one page, with no links, listing the various writers they had published, who Rick had never heard of, with Brown’s name at the top and an excerpt from a magazine review talking about Black Crow’s philosophy of publishing (which could be looked at as ‘we basically have no plans to ever make any money doing this’). At the bottom of the page was the mailing address, which actually was the same one at the front pages of Brown’s books. So Rick wrote out a short letter explaining that he wanted to host Brown at Western and asking how he could get in touch with Brown. At the beginning of November he got a letter back from the publisher stating Brown’s reading fee, which was $500, and if Rick could come up with that, to send Birch the date, time and place, and have the check waiting.

Rick quickly had to beg $200 more dollars from the department, which the director approved only if Rick could promise him that Brown would attend a party at the director’s house afterwards, since the director was having some poet friends and he thought it would be interesting (and a feather in his cap) to have a meeting of the minds. Rick wasn’t sure he could do that, but lied and said yes, and sent Birch back a letter saying ok, and giving all the info, then sat worrying whether the event would actually happen or not, not receiving back a reply break that Brown would be there until just before Thanksgiving.

Rick informed his Facebook clan in a new topic thread, and invited them over for the reading, and of course they all said they would come. Gabrielle and Lupe decided to go together by bus until Billy wrote, horrified, that in America, busses are for crazy poor people and that he would drive down to Ann Arbor and pick them up.

The two girls were already real life friends by then. When she had seen that Gabrielle was from Ypsilanti, Lupe PMed her, inviting her out with some friends, and though they were all younger than her, Gabrielle appreciated the opportunity to get out of explore Ann Arbor, which was really only five miles away by bus, but ended up seeming like a different country to people in Ypsilanti.

Gabrielle had taken to coming over to Ann Arbor on Saturdays and Sundays, and sometimes on Fridays, to study in a cafe downtown, Espresso Royale, just so she could not go crazy in her apartment and get out and be around people talking and interacting and studying. Even if she wasn’t exactly doing anything with them, it made her feel at least somewhat social, somewhat human. So at least once a week Lupe would find her in the cafe with all her books and drag her out for drinks.

On the day they went to Kalamazoo, Billy picked them up in his old Ford Escort, after a little confusion about how to find Lupe’s apartment once he got in town, because Ann Arbor is basically almost all one way streets, except not in a grid system kind of way, just all over the place, and neither of the girls really knew the town beyond the major streets, and even then only by pedestrian-friendly landmarks.

The reading ended up being on Friday night, a horrible night to have a poetry reading on a university, because most of the students who might have drifted in out of curiosity and/or boredom were either gone for the weekend, or full-on into a night of drinking and in no way interested in coming back to campus for an event.  It was also maybe in the worst place to have a poetry reading: the blackbox Gilmore Theatre, which Rick requested because it held more people than a room at Waldo Library. But the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra was playing next door in the Miller Auditorium, so there were people in tuxes and black dresses everywhere, staring down their noses at the college kids in jeans and t-shirts.

The three of them met Rick early for dinner at a Bilbo’s Pizza and found him to be a nervous wreck. He hadn’t received any word that Brown would actually show, though he’d already reserved the hall, spent the department’s money on flyers, put ads in the local papers, even had the check for $500 ready, and his professor was expecting everybody to come to a party later. The only thought that made him feel good was when Gabrielle congratulated him on what a great organizer he was. Anything a man can do to get a woman to smile at him is worth it. And Gabrielle was more attractive than her FaceBook picture.

Rick wasn’t even sure he would recognize Brown, since all his books featured the same photo (Brown cold and miserable in front of the boxcar) which had to have been years old, until Gabrielle pointed out that, at a college poetry reading in Michigan, Brown would probably be the only black man in the room. To which they all nodded.

The crowd in the hall was more than Rick had feared it would be. A couple of Rick’s professors were there, the Director of the Program, as well as the Chair of the English Department, with his wife and his two guest poets and their spouses. Some curious MFAers, and at least a dozen undergrads, dressed in army surplus clothes and reeking of pot. Plus also three well-dressed black students, a boy and two girls, looking a little uncomfortable. So overall, a good crowd.

There was a table on the stage, with a mic and three bottles of water. The reading was supposed to started at seven, but by seven there was no Brown and Rick started to sweat. —Jesus I need a beer.

Billy opened his backpack and showed him the six-pack of Bud he had stashed inside. —I was going to give this to Brown, but maybe you could have one.

Rick tore off a can, ducked behind a column, and downed it. Just then there was commotion at the double doors leading into the hall.

—I’m here! I’m here! Where’s Dick at? I need Dick! Hey, that’s a good one. I need Dick!

Brown still looked exactly like his book photo. Tall, wide, with a big beer belly, only slightly balding and with more than a touch of grey hair. He was holding an old beat up backpack in one hand, and had his other arm around a younger black woman in a tight black dress and high heels, looking incredibly bored already.

All heads turned around to look at them and they stopped. Brown looked around the room. —God damn, is this a KKK meeting? I thought I was coming to a poetry reading. Who’s got the noose?

There were whispers and mutterings from the adults and giggles from some of the undergrads. Rick ran back —Mr. Brown, hello, welcome.

—Are you Dick?

—Rick. Rick Cassidy.

Brown smiled even wider. —Rick. My man.

Brown held out his hand and Rick shook it, smiling. —Welcome Mr. Brown.

—Mister? Man, just call me Ray.

—Ok Ray. We’re um, all ready for you.

—Aw shit. Here we go. Where’s my check?

—Um, it’s right here.

—Let’s see it.

Rick took the envelope out of his back pocket and held it out to him, hearing the people in the room talking louder and laughing. Brown grabbed the envelope, opened it, looked at the check, then smiled at Rick. —Alright Rick my man. Let’s get the crucifixion underway.

As they walked to the front of the hall, Brown looked around some more and did a double-take on the three young black people. —Oh shit, there is some black folks here. How you doing? I didn’t recognize you at first, you all dressed up like white folk.

The black kids stared at him, silent, with deer-in-the-headlights eyes. He shrugged and kept walking.

Ray dropped off his girlfriend (or whatever she was) in the front row next to Lupe, Billy and Gabrielle, and walked up to the table. From his other pocket, Rick produced an introduction he had written and unfolded it. Brown saw it and waved his hand. —Aw man, you’re kidding me. Let’s just start the blood-letting and get it over with. Either they know who I am or who gives a fuck.

Gasps from the audience.

Rick, red-faced by then, kind of stepped to the side of the stage. —Ok, um, ladies and gentlemen, Ray Brown!

All the younger people clapped and yelled. Billy whistled and Lupe did the high-pitched mexican ay-ay-ay thing that can’t be described with words.

Brown sat in the chair, hands on the table, looking out at the audience, though the lights had been dimmed. —Alright motherfuckers, I’ve come from Jackson to put Kalamazoo on the map!

The kids laughed and clapped again. The poet guests of the director had started giving him sidelong looks, while he sat in his chair, rigid. From his backpack, Brown took out a few of his books, tossing them on the table. He had started to sweat. —Goddamn I need a drink.

He looked at the bottles of water, then down at Rick, who had taken a seat next to Gabrielle. —Rick my man. Is that actually water in those bottles?

—Um, yeah? Sorry.

Brown sighed, and looked at the bottles again. —Oh fuck. This is going to  be a long night.

Suddenly, from the back, somebody yelled, —Read a fucking poem already!

Brown peered into the darkness, trying to find the person. —Finally, an honest person. Rare in the world of poetry. Ok, this one’s for you motherfucker.

He grabbed his latest book, Winter Madness, and seemingly at random, opened it and started reading his poem, “black pussy white pussy” (96).

By the end, the director of the MFA program was pale, the Chair’s face crimson, and his guests and their spouses silent, though actually Rick’s poetry workshop professor and some others had laughed halfway through. The three african-american kids got up and started to leave.

Brown wiped some sweat from his forehead and looked at them. —What’s the matter? Not black enough for you? Should I announce that I’m converting to Islam and  changing my name to Amiri Farrakhan or something?

The kids said nothing and hurried out. He set his book down. —Fuck I need a beer.

Billy reached into his backpack and tore off one of the cans of Bud, holding it up. Brown saw it and smiled —My man. Toss that motherfucker up here.

Billy threw it and Brown caught it, cracking it open immediately and taking a long swig.

The Chair of the Department stood up. —Mr. Brown, there are no alcoholic beverages  allowed in the hall!

Brown looked at him while sucking down the rest of the beer. When he was done, he crushed the can and threw it on the floor. —Shut the fuck up motherfucker. Have a drink. Kid, you got anymore tasty beverages in that there backpack of yours?

The Chair remained standing. —Mr. Brown, I’m serious, we can’t allow the drinking of alcoholic beverages!

—Man, fuck you.

—Mr. Brown, I’m the Chair of the English Department here. I’m serious.

—The what? The Chair? Well, I’m the couch, motherfucker!

The undergrads cheered. Someone in back started to chant, —Let him drink! Let him drink!

Billy took out the other four cans and put them up on the table. Brown grabbed another can and cracked it open. The director looked around at what was becoming a mob and his wife pulled him back down in his seat, where they whispered to each other, arguing.

Brown re-opened Winter Madness and read two poems, one right after the other. The first was “against the clock” (10) which ends with his floor supervisor at the factory getting drunk and admitting he is gay, which some people laughed at, though Brown didn’t smile, and the second was actually a poem about a girlfriend who “had the best legs he’d ever known” (13) dying in the hospital, coughing up blood. The room became silent after that. Brown opened up another beer.

Someone from the back, a girl actually, yelled out, —Read one of your whore poems!

Brown flipped through his book. —That was one of my whore poems.

—Read one of the funny ones!

—None of my poems are funny, bitch.

The crowd laughed. He grabbed Streets of Cruelty and Shame and started thumbing through it. Lupe took out a bottle from her purse and put it up on the table. Brown looked at it, then at her. —What’s this?

—Un regalo para tí! It’s tequila!

—Tequila! Oh shit. What kind?

—El Patrón!

—Oh fuck girl, you’re trying to kill me. Where you from? You sure ain’t from Michigan.

—Mexico!

—Mexico? I’ve never had mexican pussy before.

There were some gasps, but Lupe laughed. —Best you’ll ever have!

Everybody roared. Or, most everybody. Two more people, and older couple, got up and left.  Brown grinned, opening the bottle of Patrón. He smelled it, making a face. —Goddamn!

Then he upended it, taking three big swallows. Even Lupe gasped. Brown sat back, tequila dribbling down his chin, coughing. —Oh fuck!

The Chair stood up again. —Ok, that’s it! Mr. Brown, please. That is not allowed, and I can’t have you talking to people that way.

People started to boo, though it wasn’t clear at who. Some more bodies were getting up to leave. Gabrielle turned around and yelled at the director, —Let him read! Who cares!

An empty bottle of beer flew out of the darkness and landed on the stage, miraculously not breaking. Brown, tequila in hand, thumbed through to another page. —I’m gonna read another goddamn poem you fucking white motherfuckers. Not because you deserve it, but because it’s true.

He started into “freeway commute fantasy” (73), one of Rick’s favorites actually, but only got about halfway through before the Chair and his wife got up and left, though their guests actually stayed. A half-empty bottle of Mountain Dew came sailing up on the stage. Brown went on to another poem, sweating and sucking the tequila between stanzas.

The whole time, his girlfriend (or whatever she was) sat with her purse in her lap, legs crossed, looking bored.

Brown had gotten through two more poems, with no more people leaving, before the Chair came back into the hall with two campus police officers. Brown saw them and rolled his eyes. —Alright, here we go.

The room erupted in screaming. The cops looking horrified. One of them started talking into the radio mic attached to his shoulder. The Chair pointed at the stage. —Mr. Brown! You will leave the stage now!

Another Mountain Dew bottle flew out of the dark and bounced off of the Chair’s head. Kids cheered. Brown leaned down so his mouth was right next to the mic and said, —Can’t we all just get along?

The lights came on, and everyone was already standing, some people out in the aisles trying to leave, while others were trying to come down to the stage. Rick leaned over to Billy and Lupe and Gabrielle. —You guys, we’ve got to get him out of here. I think there’s an exit backstage.

While Rick hopped on stage, Billy took the girlfriend (or whatever) by the hand and started leading her to the side of the hall, while Gabrielle and Lupe tried to run interference. The two campus police were trying to find the Mountain Dew thrower, and two Kalamazoo city police officers had appeared at the door. Rick went over to the back of the stage where there was a master light switch and shut every light off, leaving the whole hall dark except for the entrance doors. People screamed. Rick led Brown to the side door, and Gabrielle held it open while they all slipped through. By then Billy had found an emergency exit door and led them to it. The six of them stood there, Brown still holding the Patrón, his other arm back around his lady’s waist while she rolled her eyes. The four kids were smiling at the poet. He turned to them. —Well?

Billy pushed open the door and the alarm started sounding. They walked outside and the door slammed shut behind them. Rick shook Brown’s hand. —I’m going to get in so much trouble for this. Thank you. You were great.

The air cold and wet, though still above freezing. The parking lot lights just over a small grassy hill. Rick pointed. —I think your car is probably over there. You should probably hurry.

Brown whispered something to the woman, and without even looking back at them, the two of them started up the snowy grass out into the gloom.

Rick put his face in his hands. —Holy fuck.

Billy slapped him on the back. —Dude! That was the best fucking poetry reading I’ve ever been to!

Gabrielle smiling, still looking after Brown. —I thought it was wonderful.

After meeting the ladies in person, both Billy and Rick thought they were even more attractive than before, though they didn’t know what the girls thought. They never knew what girls thought.

Rick was a little in love with both of them, in part because, how many girls actually would like Brown’s poetry? That meant they would/might like Rick’s poetry. That meant they would/might understand him and like him for what he truly was, which is what guys want. Plus hot sex. And both Lupe and Gabrielle seemed to exude the promise of hot sex. Lupe more obviously, because she was more outgoing and flirtatious (she smiled a lot) but Gabrielle more because she was obviously fucking smart, and there’s nothing hotter than a smart woman who likes sex. Like, that she likes it almost knowing she should know better, like she can’t help it and must give in to her carnal desires. Hot.

Unfortunately, one, he didn’t have a car, and two, he was in grad school (though it was only a MFA and not a real degree) and therefore busy with teaching a comp class and reading lots and writing lots, and three, both girls were outside his acceptable line of logistical dating, which most men put at around 45 miles/minutes. Note that the acceptable line of guaranteed sex is much more extensive, with some men up to an eight hour radius.

The girls were within Billy’s acceptable line of logistical dating, just barely, though actually not really, but close enough to make it tempting. But though he did think Gabrielle was hot, she was also, one, smarter than him, and two, a couple years older than him, which in about five years would not matter so much (and in fact he might even discover the pleasure of a much older woman at some point, if he was lucky) in college, two, or even one year’s difference, when the guy is the younger one, can feel like a decade.

But Lupe was hot and he became totally infatuated with her and eventually PMed her one time and asked her if she wanted to ‘hang out’ sometimes, that maybe he could come down to Ann Arbor sometimes. And…she said yes, but in the context of him hanging out with her and a bunch of her friends. Which Billy took to mean that she only thought of him in the context of a being only a friend, which may not really have been the case but he felt like if he was driving all the way to be with her that if she were really interested she’d just hang out just with him, which potentially betrayed where his thoughts were perhaps, as in sex, but to be fair Lupe was just a social butterfly type person and might not have been uninterested. In Mexico it was very common for younger people potentially interested in each other romantically to hang out in groups, but that’s where the acceptable line of logistical dating proves to be not so acceptable. That is, if Lupe had lived in East Lansing and proposed the same thing, Billy would have probably  at least tried it, but the potential for driving all that ways and not even really being able to talk with Lupe that much was enough to make him politely decline.

Still, a bond had been established between the four of them, and after they had all come back from the holidays and were back in school, it was Billy who first proposed (in a FaceBook thread) a pilgrimage to Jackson to visit Brown. It was centrally located to all of them, Rick would have the longest bus ride, an hour from Kalamazoo, and worse case scenario: they could share a motel room for the night and go back the next day.

They had to decide how to get a hold of Brown, since he didn’t have an email address that they knew of. Rick didn’t want to have to write another snail mail letter to Brown’s publisher, though if only he’d not hogged the idea (that he was the only one who could now write Black Crow) with any authority, Gabrielle or Lupe might have gotten a response, especially if they’d included pictures of them in their underwear. Poets like that kind of stuff.

Gabrielle half-jokingly suggested they pinpoint his apartment from the directions he left in his poems and stories, since he was famous for describing the routes, including street names, that he took to bars and strip joints and court. Rick took her seriously and tried to draw lines over a city map of Jackson he bought, but soon discovered that the apartment locations varied from book to book.

Finally, in an act of research that would have made his first year composition instructor proud, Billy went over to the MSU library, found a Jackson phone book, and looked in the B’s. And there it was: Brown, Ray. He copied the phone number down and got online to share his discovery with his friends, though he himself was too chicken to call the number. He thought Rick should call since Rick was the reading organizer and Brown would recognize him. Rick wasn’t even sure Brown wanted to hear from him again after that fiasco, and thought Lupe should call him because she was cute, and mexican, and had brought the tequila, which he certainly would remember. But Lupe said she couldn’t because she didn’t feel comfortable speaking on the phone in english for something as important as that. So then it came down to Gabrielle, who would do it, except she didn’t think he would remember her at all. There was never any discussion about whether they should call. They automatically assumed Brown would want to see them, because what writer wouldn’t want their fans stopping by to visit?

She called on Saturday afternoon at around twelve-thirty, since she figured he would be awake by then if he had been drunk the night before. So she sat on her living room floor and called on her cellphone.

He answered on the third ring, sounding like she’d just woken him, and that he wasn’t happy about it. —Hello?!

—Hi, Mr. Brown?

—Who the fuck is this? How much do I owe you?

She paused, in shock, and almost hung up, but knew her friends would never forgive her. —Nothing. My name is Gabrielle.

—Do I know you? Are you that married chick I fucked on New Year’s?

—Um, no. I’m a fan.

He moaned, as if he had a migraine. —Oh fuck.

—Are you ok?

—Yeah. Ok, you’re a fan.

—Yes. I was at your Kalamazoo reading last month.

He laughed. A short, bark-like laugh. —Ha! And you’re still a fan?

—Yes actually.

—Wait a minute. Are you that mexican chick that gave me the tequila?

—Um, no, actually she’s my friend. I was sitting next to her.

—Well, where you from? You sound like you got some kind of accent.

—I’m from Quebec.

—Ah, ma belle!

—Mais, vous parlez français alors?

—Nah, I just remember that line from that Beatles song. You sound sexy when you speak french though. Say something else.

—Like what?

—Like I want to suck your cock.

—Excuse me?

—Nevermind. Where you at right now?

—Ypsilanti.

—Too bad. Want to come over?

—Well actually my friends and I were wondering if we could come visit you sometime.

—Girlfriends?

—One of them is. The mexican girl that bought you the tequila.

—Oh christ yes! When can you get your asses over here?

Gabrielle didn’t know what to say, what to commit to, without consulting her friends. —Well, um, would next weekend be ok? Perhaps Saturday? In a week?

Brown sighed. —Yes. Perhaps.

He gave her his address quickly, she almost wasn’t able to copy it down, and she told him they’d be there for dinner and drink afterwards.

—Man, what, are you fucking planning a cocktail party or something?

They hung up and Gabrielle immediately called Lupe to tell her what had happened and Lupe wanted to hear every detail, though that took a while with their English. Afterward Gabrielle got online and wrote a group email to Billy and Rick, and Lupe again, just in case she had left something out.

Gabrielle and Lupe took the Greyhound bus together to Jackson, Lupe felt weird about Billy picking them up again, and Rick took one from Kalamazoo, arriving a little after them. Billy drove his car down and met them all at the downtown bus station at around five-thirty. The temperature in the low 40s, and dropping, the sky grey, like it had been for about a month. the streets wet, with only puddles in the gutters. Downtown Jackson almost seemed like a ghost town. Nobody out on the sidewalks, most of the parking lots deserted. The only life from where they were was the occasional mostly empty city bus pulling into the station. But all the taller buildings they could see, a few up to ten stories, all looked deserted and old. To the foreigners, it was bizarre to have a city center so empty, but Billy, who was from Flint, said that was normal in America.

They were sitting in his car, drinking beer from the case of Bud he’d brought with him. Gabrielle looked at the three big old churches to their north, which also looked deserted and miserable. —But…je ne comprends pas. What do people do? Like, for fun? It’s saturday.

Billy thought about it while he sipped a beer. —Well, I don’t know. Rent a movie. Somebody will probably have a party later. And there’s like, bars and stuff. Like, somewhere.

—But there’s no one place where everyone goes?

He shrugged. —Um, no. We just hang out with our friends. I’m not saying it’s exciting. I fucking hate Flint. I was glad to leave. This place reminds me of it.

Even though they had Brown’s address, and Billy MapQuested directions, they decided to have Gabrielle call him before they went over, but no one answered, and there wasn’t a message machine. So they decided to drive around and see more of Jackson, if there was more.

And they discovered there was a little bit, once they drove over to Michigan Ave and found a small two-block area of three restaurants and two bars, one of which was a strip bar. They took a right on Mechanic and found another restaurant, a mexican place, The Crazy Cowboy, and a tattoo shop, along with some other greasy spoon places that were closed, and adult bookstore, and a pawn shop. And a small real book store that was still open, which they found bizarre and therefore had to get out and look inside. Billy parked in a spot right on Mechanic, and they went in.

There was a small cafe, so Lupe bought everyone some variant of coffee and they asked the two employees about Jackson and what there was to do there. The employees laughed and recommended the mexican place a few doors down for dinner, but other than that they didn’t know, they weren’t actually from Jackson, and were just students at a small christian missionary college nearby. Rick checked the poetry section, which turned out to be about half a shelf next to comedy. No Brown. He asked the employees if they carried his books but they’d never heard of him, and were surprised when they learned he was from Jackson.

Gabrielle tried calling Brown again, but there was still no answer. They went into the restaurant and immediately felt weird because although there were people, most of the tables were occupied actually, everyone stared at them when they came in. They got a booth and asked Billy why. He smiled and said he thought it was because they looked like college students. That is, like they didn’t belong in Jackson.

Gabrielle tried calling one last time while they were eating, and Brown finally answered, sounding just as grumpy as last time. —Hello?!

—Mr. Brown?

—Check’s in the mail.

—Mr. Brown, this is Gabrielle du Mont. We spoke last week.

—Who?

—Gabrielle—

—Oh yeah! That french chick!

—Quebecoise.

—What?

The restaurant had turned up the music and she had to yell over The Rolling Stones. The others silent, listening. —I’m from Quebec!

—Oh yeah. Michelle ma belle. How you doing?

—I’m fine! We’re here in Jackson!

—We? Oh, you and that mexican señorita chick?

—Yes. My friends Billy and Rick too.

—Oh, well, got any tequila?

Gabrielle covered the phone with her hand. —Lupe, did you bring tequila?

—Of course!

Gabrielle continued. —Yes, and Billy brought beer. We’d like to come visit you?

—Yeah, I figured.

—Would that be alright?

—Do I have a choice?

—Well, we don’t want to bother you.

—No. Well, you got a car?

She verified the directions and hung up, telling them what he’d said. They finished eating and paid and got back in Billy’s car. Brown’s apartment was in an old three story building not too far from downtown, further east down Michigan Ave, near the hospital. They parked, got out, went in the building, Billy carrying the beer.  The hallway smelled like piss. They went up to his apartment on the third floor, and knocked on the door, Gabrielle and Lupe in front. When Brown opened the door, he saw them first and smiled. —Ladies! Welcome.

He looked at the two guys and his smiled lessened a little. Rick held out his hand. —Mr. Brown, I’m Rick Cassidy, I organized that reading at Western.

Brown nodded. —I remember you. That was a night. Stop with the mister bullshit. I’m Ray.

He shook Rick’s hand and focused on the case of beer in Billy’s arms. —My man. That’s what I’m talking about.

Billy held out the whole case, like an offering, and Brown took it, reaching in for a can. They stood awkwardly in the living room. There were two couches, and one end-table with a lamp. Off to one side a little L-shaped nook with a table and chairs, leading into a small kitchen, with and old dirty gas oven and even older refrigerator.

Brown sat with Gabrielle and Lupe on the bigger couch, in between them. Billy and Rick sat on the other couch. Brown handed a beer to each of the girls and tossed one each to the two boys. He lifted the box and smiled at Billy. —My man, we’re running low already. You might have to do a beer run soon.

Billy nodded, smiling. —Ok. Cool. No problem.

Brown sipped his beer with one hand and rubbed Lupe’s thigh with the other. —Hello baby. Aren’t you kinda cold all the way up here in Michigan?

Lupe smiling. —Yes. I really like your poetry.

—Of course you do. You understand me and all that bullshit, right?

She nodded. —Yes. I think when you read someone, no matter what they write about, it is really about them.

—Your parents paying all that money for you to learn that in college?

—I think what you do is an act, but I can tell the sadness in your poetry. You are a sad man.

—Oh christ….

He crushed his can and threw it across the room.

Gabrielle had been watching him, half-facing him. —It’s true. Your poetry is very sad.

He cracked open another beer and took a long gulp. —Baby, I don’t want to talk about poetry. You ever been with a black man before?

She kept studying him. —No.

—You’ll never go back.

—I’m sorry?

He looked at Lupe. —Explain that to your friend.

Lupe kept smiling. —I don’t know either. Go back to what?

He rolled his eyes and looked at Billy and Rick. —Boys, would you care to explain to your girlfriends what it means to never go back?

They squirmed on the couch, looking down at the floor, or the walls. Gabrielle said, —Actually, we’re all just friends.

Brown nodded. —Sure you are.

He looked at Billy again. —Son, I think we’re needing that beer run.

Billy jumped up. Rick got up more slowly, trying to make eye-contact with Gabrielle, but she was still watching Brown closely.

Brown got up and showed the boys to the door, opening it and stepping out in the hall with them. He put a hand on Rick’s shoulder and smiled. —Boys, why don’t you take your time? I’d like to get to know the ladies a little better, ok?

Rick tried one last time. —Mr. Brown, I just wanted to say that your poetry has really influenced—

Brown put up his hand to stop him. —Take your time fellas. Take your time.

He went back in his apartment and closed the door. The bolt clicked. They stood there a second, staring at each other. Rick shrugged. —Well….

Billy shrugged and nodded. Then he smiled. —Yeah.

They went out to Billy’s car. Snow had started to fall, covering everything, softening the background city noise. It was almost beautiful.

BIO

Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe grew up in Michigan and lives in Oregon. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, deckhand/oiler, bike messenger, wilderness ranger and fire lookout. Fiction Editor for Deep Wild Journal. www.johnyohe.com

Chief pool boy & beach boy supervisor

By Keko Prijatelj


Parasol’s swaying
Costume’s bending
Parasol’s lifting
Costume’s tightened

A stone between two stone piers
Passes to everyone’s satisfaction
Murava flourishes
In green waves
Blazing attractions
A bumblebee lands on the waterpolo ball
Broom is yellowing
Out of it the yellow scent of the Sun
And lemon


The system of considerations


Insects
Perfected in that specific environment
In thousands of nights & darks
Crashing into that bulb
Light impacts of ferocious attacks
Congratulated admired
Each character with its own specialty
A monolith of single purpose
In thousands of nights & darks
The rise of expansionism
Of endless scrolling
You’re on the upper floor
Comfort lies in the littleness of things
You’re on the upper floor but why wait
You might as well jump in

The thousands of nights & darks

There’s one wing swing
One leg movement
One eye catch
The possibility of reaching the total
With no comparison
Just one bulb and thousands of bugs
Nights & darks


Animals


In the window
Crystal reflection
In the dawn I
Am attacked by panthers lions by wolves bears
In the window I
Crystal reflection of me
In the dawn
Will slaughter
A bear a lion a panther a wolf


BIO

Keko Prijatelj is a writer from Croatia. His work has appeared in several Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian magazines, and most recently in Maudlin House. He is currently working as a junior project manager for an IT company, while majoring in linguistics and phonetics. He has a bachelor’s degree in film & TV directing, and he occasionally directs plays.

Judith Skillman Interview by Janée J. Baugher


Janée J. Baugher: As an undergraduate in the 1970s, you had a rich introduction to poets and politics.

Judith Skillman: Yes, as a student at University of Maryland, I studied with Rod Jellema, Ann Darr, Reed Whittemore, and others. The visiting poets at that time included Galway Kinnell, Tess Gallagher, Stanley Kunitz, and others. Because UM didn’t yet have an MFA program, I studied English Literature with an emphasis on creative writing. Supportive criticism was not in vogue then. Peers in workshops would make statements like, “This poem is shit.” Whether or not someone’s poem is crap, it takes a thick skin to continue to write after feeling eviscerated by your peers.

Richard Brautigan came to Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) when I was an undergraduate. His anti-war poems were so resounding at that time. I was politically active when I was young, joining campaign groups, manning the phones, wearing buttons, and handing out fliers. Working at campaign headquarters in proximity to Washington DC was exciting. When my daughter Lisa was born and only a few months old my mom and I went, all dressed in white, to the Women’s Rights March at the Washington Monument. I was a feminist then, and a member of NOW, for which I did freelance work.

As a child who had to go down into the bomb shelter during the Cuban missile crisis, I have been aware that the world could go nuclear since I was nine. I won’t forget the trauma of walking down to the underground cafeteria carrying my blanket and lunch. One can barely watch three seconds of news before being reminded of the brutality of mankind.

Since moving to the Seattle-area, I’ve had the privilege of taking workshops from Beth Bentley, Patiann Rogers, William Stafford, Madeline DeFrees, David Wagoner, Jana Harris, Marvin Bell, David Wojahn, and Andrei Codrescu, to name a few. At Port Townsend Writer’s Conference in 1995 I met the illustrious Jack Gilbert. We kept up a modest correspondence for a few years. He taught me that when you revise your poems, it’s good to be aware of the difference between fancy and imagination, particularly with associative material. Fancy is contrived, whereas the imagination is defined as the “mind’s eye.” Fancy fits under imagination, and not vice versa. Although it’s employed under the verb, fancy is a “faculty of the imagination.” We want leaps that follow a subconscious thread. We don’t want to impress the reader (s/he doesn’t exist when we’re writing, anyway) with ostentation, showiness, or flamboyance. Keep it understated—that’s a good measuring stick with which to judge images that run rampant. Prune adjectives—another way to resist the ornate. Write from feeling, not from intellectualizing or over-thinking. Pay attention to your dreams and the songs that get stuck in your head.

JB: In our digital age, I wonder if “letter to a young poet” correspondence relationships are still happening. How much did you gain as a writer, for example, with your epistle relationship with Jack Gilbert?

JS: I learned so much from Jack. He was single-minded in his passion for writing, and lived a monkish life, rarely leaving the cottage at Centrum where I was his neighbor for a month. After I gathered up the courage, I showed him a poem, which was, I think, about deer—there were many deer in Port Townsend—he pointed to a few lines in the middle of the piece and asked me pointblank “Is this fancy or imagination?” I remember being both puzzled and fascinated by the question. So we talked about the quality of fancy and how it differs from the imagination. He took it upon himself to teach me this lesson, which has become extremely important as years go by. Fancy is contrived. Jack had an eye and an ear for whatever is fake, forced, strained, artificial, affected, or put on.

While I was under his informal mentorship, Jack spent not a small amount of time discouraging me from continuing to write poetry. He said that there was no point in it, as so few poets would get a job even at the community college level. Yet he continued to support me in my work, as we exchanged letters over the course of ten years or so. I have saved these for their truthfulness. I learned something of his “métier”—to write a poem a week while enjoying the “meanwhile.” For him, the idol of so many poets and non poets alike, the act of writing was one of communication with a wide audience while living a solitary, frugal life.

I recall, when I saw his kitchen table, that there was a letter from The New Yorker soliciting his work. I asked incredulously “Aren’t you going to send them something?” To my surprise, he replied with a shrug. This was not an act. It was the gift of a great poet bestowed upon someone struggling for recognition—a gesture that said everything I needed to know and to remember. The writing is what Gilbert was after. Sitting with his feelings and letting them percolate and finding out what was in there that had resonance; what could become a surprise or the hidden meaning in a broken relationship. It was not the acquisition of a reputation, fame, or fortune. This despite the Yale Younger Poets Award, and the fact that he told stories of walking around with Pound in Italy. He spoke much of his wife Michiko, whom he mourned with an altar on his dresser in each place he landed. This self-imposed reclusion despite having been nominated for the Pulitzer at the same time as William Carlos Williams made him truly unique.

JB: How does a person leap from being a student of poetry to having published eighteen poetry collections?

JS: When I had my first child, my mom was very supportive. She said, “Babies sleep a lot. Why don’t you enroll in law school?” So, after I attended one semester, I turned to poetry, which people are wont to do. Anyhow, shortly after I quit school and began writing, I made a decision. “I’m a poet,” I began telling people. I turned to magic realism, the fiction of Borges, and lapped-up the language of Mark Twain. I wrote poems and was, therefore, a poet. Simple as that.

JB: Is poem-making for you like creating sand mandalas? Normally, I wouldn’t mention obsession, but, given how prolific you’ve been throughout your life, what would you say about the compulsion to writing thousands of poems?

JS: Making is the thing. Poets write the same poem over and over, similar to mandalas. What lasts? Why do we do the things that we do? This isn’t something one needs to overthink, nor should one. The War of Art is a book that, for me, explains the necessity of overcoming one’s resistance to succumbing to one’s innate passions. Why do we have so much resistance? It seems that the “maker” in each writer does have a war to fight, against her/his own inner critic.

As humans we are especially self-critical. The internal voice demands to know why on earth the “I”—that is, the ego—would expend itself to serve the self. There has to be some gain, right? Some recognition for all the work that goes into creating a unique package of words—a poem, a novel, a memoir, or a screenplay. A piece of visual art, or sculpture—even an entrepreneurial endeavor. What is the pay off? I learned a lot when Tibetan monks visited my son’s college (Reed College, Portland, Oregon). They spent a number of days creating beautiful mandalas of sand. My son played pool with one of the monks each evening. Parents came on the day these works of art were to be thrown in the river that flows through the campus. There they would turn to milk, all color gone, nothing left to identify any one of the particular, unique pieces.

Poem-making is the same process. We bring the inner beauty and magnitude of our thoughts out on paper. The exquisite moments of that are personal to the extreme. Will anything come of this act? Will the endeavor last? This is not for the maker to decide, nor to concern him or herself with. It is an act of relinquishment.

Obsession plays a part, as in, possibly, OC syndrome—in that a writer may not feel grounded unless they are playing and replaying some incident in thought, and mimicking this by repetitive behavior. For me, the act of writing poems (and I have dabbled in fiction and essay writing, and written reviews as well) is a welcome respite from the daily grind. Simply sitting still within one’s writing place, whether it is a corner carved out of another room or a room of one’s own, stills habitual thought patterns. Reading and mulling over events become a kind of practice that yields, at times, unexpected results. Sometimes I find myself sitting very still and a strong feeling wells up. It may be uncomfortable. Life is full of grief, for instance, though we prefer to talk about the weather. There are the numerous transitions our children go through, aging parents, financial problems—you name it.

So the compulsion to write poems, while it resembles other repetitive acts, is completely different. In the act of feeling and subsequently writing down what comes to mind without censoring that material, some seed appears. Perhaps the would-be poem remains a fragment. That’s fine. Fragments can be pieced together or lead to sequences. If the internal censor can be vanquished from the room, the act of piecing words together based on either a form or free verse or associations (I prefer the latter) can lead in surprising directions. Connections may not be clear at the time. It’s a form of day dreaming, or, perhaps, in the best case, of dreaming awake.

JB: Some writers have spent a lifetime writing about the mundane, but you’ve found artistic fodder in the subject of trauma. Robert Frost reminds us, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Is it trauma’s dramatic occasion, its personal significance, or its intrinsic tension that interests you?

JS: My personal traumatic experiences go as far back as I can remember. My childhood tonsillectomy, for example. Instead of getting ice cream I vomited three bedpans of blood, and had to stay overnight in the hospital alone. Parents did not stay with children in the sixties! I had hallucinations of spiders; climbed out of my metal crib and wandered down the hallways only to be stiffly reprimanded by a nurse. As a writer writing of tragedies, it’s curious to me how and why I remember these sorts of details so vividly. I barely remember my graduations from high school and university, but those imagined spiders from my childhood still haunt me…

So your question is salient. I would say all three of these come into play—the dramatic occasion that lingers or malingers in the mind, the personal significance, and the tension and/or angst provided by the memory. It demands to be exorcised. I am not sure why my happier memories aren’t stronger. Somehow it’s the wounds that want to come out of the closet when I write. I have tried to change this. Public readings about unpleasant events—these poems are not leavened by humor in the slightest—leave me feeling the audience is not only getting depressed, but I am too. Of course there are exceptions. But by and large, perhaps because of expectations that may have set me up for an easier path through life, my attraction to the trauma has not diminished with the years.

JB: While writing-through-trauma isn’t new, the current zeitgeist is making the mode even more relevant and necessary. While we usually don’t think about the biographical elements of Robert Frost’s poetry, the fact remains that he was a man long traumatized by his loved ones’ diseases, mental illnesses, and sudden deaths. “Home Burial” is a remarkable illustration of that gulf that exists between people caught between the dead and the living. Do you feel as though you’re a poet who writes through tragedies and trauma?

JS: Yes, and there’s so much to unpack. I’ve tackled topics from childhood illnesses to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Rimbaud was right when he wrote, “Too bad for the wood that finds itself a violin.” I think artists of every discipline, compared to the average person, have more acute sensory awareness. Often this manifests in a heightened sensitivity of the body. For example, Wordsworth has a poem about chronic insomnia; it’s his third night without sleep and he invokes God. Sleeplessness erodes confidence. Insomnia is both humbling and insistent, as is chronic pain. One feels one can’t trust the body, its impulses when young, and its ongoing ever-increasing sensibilities and foibles as we age.

JB: Your treatment of writing-through-trauma is resolute and understated, and the mystery is palpable. You span subjects such as illnesses, disease, depression. W.H. Auden was precise when he wrote, “About suffering they were never wrong.” In your Journal of American Medical Association poems, there’s surprise in the juxtaposition of beauty and pain. There’s something ethereal beyond or somewhere within the imagery of tragedy, trauma, suffering.

JS: The fact that MFA writing programs may be offering a new track, writing-through-trauma, is interesting. One of the first “trauma” poems I wrote was “Written on Learning of Arrhythmia in the Unborn Child”. The title describes exactly when this was written—after an ultrasound late in the first trimester of pregnancy, when my then unborn third child had an arrhythmic heart beat. The uneven heartbeat became just the tip of the iceberg, as a subsequent ultrasound revealed that she only had one working kidney. The title “Written On Learning of….” might be an inherent preface for each poem written out of a traumatic experience.

I believe the authenticity of the work depends upon a sliver of disengagement from actual events—an ability to detach, even if just momentarily, from the object or subject of one’s shock. After shock comes fear, and that seems more ordinary. Perhaps by ordinary I mean that fear in the context of daily necessities can become uncomfortable, but subject to avoidance. Daily routine presses onward, and any space one might have for contemplation is lost. By its nature, shock includes a surreal element, but this can make it easier and, in fact, feel safer, to look away from the abnormality of the experience—to discount strong emotions and move on with problem solving. Of course, at the time, I was in a state of shock, as prior to this I had two healthy children by natural childbirth. That is not to say they didn’t have any problems, but the early illnesses they experienced were garden variety compared to this set of issues.

JB: So, while that poem, “Written On Learning of Arrhythmia,” published by Poetry over 30 years ago was your first trauma-related poem, it certainly wasn’t your last. Is it true that for the last 25 years you’ve had over 25 poems published in the Journal of American Medical Association?

JS: Yes. It was at the time of my third child’s major surgery, which required an eight-day stay at Children’s hospital in Seattle, and she came home with tubes in her kidneys and bladder, that I wrote “The Body Especial,”—my first poem published in JAMA’s Poetry and Medicine column. The subjects of my JAMA poems have included, diagnoses such as Hashimoto’s disease, Epstein-Barr, post vitreous detachment, tinnitus, spasmodic torticollis, traumatic brain injury, shingles, serum sickness, and diagnostic procedures such as mammograms, echocardiograms, and biopsies.

While I have had personal resonance with this list of subjects, my first concern is honoring the energy of the moment in which I write. When various maladies are diagnosed, words get involved and that becomes exciting. There is the challenge to discover not only what the word holds, but what the body is holding onto. Our bodies know more than we do about how events in our ever-changing environment influence our lives. I found the term “Spasmodic Torticollis” very funny even as I experienced the pain of a wrenched neck. It does sound like an Italian dish, so the poem’s first line was a found line.

JB: As a poet who battles chronic pain, you’ve mentioned to me the importance of having read Sarah Anne Shockley’s book, The Pain Companion. Will you discuss the correlation between intellectualizing and managing your pain with writing about it imaginatively?

JS: Well, there is a depth of fury and rage when one’s body doesn’t function normally. Often this anger turns inward, towards oneself. That is unproductive and exacerbates the condition. You have to choose how you want to relate to your pain. I can’t trust the body, and have rarely felt comfortable in my own skin.

Writing, however, helps establish a foundation for trust in reality. There is a tremendous amount of release available when one can take to a private place such as a poem with one’s feelings—the heartache engendered by trauma. It isn’t a panacea by any means, but writing holds the moment in place. By anchoring an event with words, the experience becomes externalized, and makes shock more bearable.

So while I feel rather like a magnet for trauma, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to express these events of varying kinds and proportions in the form of verse. While there is little to recommend about trauma, except perhaps the ability to empathize with others who experience it, we all live through deeply distressing experiences. Just being born is a critical condition for the human infant, who relies on his or her parents to meet each and every need for a full year, as compared to other mammals, who are born and learn to fend for themselves in a relatively short time.

JB: Writing-through-trauma seems like a method by which a writer can actually claim an event that she herself couldn’t control. By writing a script in which beauty collides with trauma, a writer can orchestrate a slowing down, a way of regaining command of a life that’s vast and unpredictable. In that spirit, talk to me about the poem, “You’ll Never Heal.”

JS: I have been inspired to write by new traumatic events that seem to spring up continually and leave scars. “You’ll Never Heal” was written after one of my children had a serious car accident. It speaks of the sensibility of a shock experience from mother to daughter. I know for myself healing doesn’t necessarily happen in the actual world. In the ideal, of course, we want and expect that restoration and exactitude: that our loved one will emerge unmarred, unscarred. The thing about poems is that verse, at least for me, can capture the moment better than autobiographical prose can.

Though they say it could have been worse,
give you ice and pills, nothing bandages
the millisecond you can’t remember

or the afterwards, a shock wave traveling
in slow motion through your knee,
your back, neck and stomach.

Though they say the limp will disappear,
you feel as if cottonwood fell to the curb
to be collected by the accident
and packed into the ball and socket.

This kind of snow never melts.
Through glass you watch the great hulk of mountain,
that part you can see, its summit clipped
by cloud, frame, pall.

(Preprinted with permission from Came Home to Winter, Deerbrook Editions 2019)

JB: My favorite Anne Sexton quote concerns her label as a confessional poet: “I often confess to things that never happened.” I wonder if “Writing through Trauma” is just the 21st century term for “Confessional” writing? What’s your take on the mode of writing-through-trauma? Do you consider your writing about trauma to be confessional? Is trauma a matter for art? While there’s an inherent autobiographical nature to writing-through-trauma, my question to you is how can writers ensure that their work doesn’t succumb to self-indulgence?

JS: I would say stick with the experience, stay true to the details, and keep yourself present to what happened. Also, follow the mood, if and when that develops. Think of a mood as a guide forward into the material that needs to be accessed and brought back into the light in order to be examined under a microscope. Use your senses, all five, and the sixth sense if it can be accessed, to avoid self-pity. Know that you are not alone—trauma is experienced every day by everyone, even if it is present as the affront of a wooden table to a toddler who is learning how to navigate a living room. When the pity and confession begin, allow yourself to feel that, but don’t engage overlong. The smallest child moves forward with mercurial changeability from crying to laughing, and in a split second is on to the next thing. That’s a good lesson.

JB: So, is that to say that your primary concern in poem-making is image development versus writing on the facts of a certain situation? Writing-through-trauma for you isn’t a means of catharsis?

JS: I think it goes both ways. The first impetus is “Let’s get this thing that feels like being slimed out of my body…let’s make it into words, because it is too awful to retain inside.” The facts are the facts and they are important. This experience happened. It was shocking and surprising. It made me feel angry, upset, hurt; it caused pain and suffering. I am still here, however, and looking out at a world that doesn’t seem to care that this happened. In fact, people can distance themselves from their loved ones who suffer—this occurs much more often than one might like to think. Pain and suffering are scary and uncomfortable. They remind others of their own pain. Clearly PTSD and its attendant emotions can become a toxic and isolating concoction.

So what in nature does this feeling-experience resemble? That’s where image development comes in. There’s an organic part to being human. We try to pretend that our animal qualities don’t exist. We have our cities, our high rises, concrete, pavement—we’ve covered civilization with a flat veneer of ‘enlightenment’. Despite this, if, when wounded by our own bodies, we turn back to the natural world, there are abundant examples of scarred trees, burnt vistas, branchings, tramplings, floods, and randomness. Many images are available to translate our feelings into words. The correspondence of image to situation may or may not ease the current situation. It is not something to be done for the purpose of catharsis. That may backfire, because any purpose can become pat, forced, studied, and artificial—again, can be fancy.

JB: Speaking of the autobiographical elements in your writing, you’ve had physical injuries, hereditary maladies, social trauma, and chronic pain, all of which have been given voice in your poetry. Will you discuss the struggles inherent to using personal pain as a subject for poetry?

JS: I’ve always had a sensitive constitution. Acute sensory awareness, sympathetic pains, feeling deeply about things, people. A propensity for worry. I’ve felt shame, guilt (some milieu-induced and some society-specific) about my chronic pain, but that never prevented me from writing about it. Trauma is omnipresent and omnipotent, which is to say that no one’s immune. I’ve done research on PTSD, and still I cannot figure out why some people are consumed by it and some people seen to be inoculated from it.

JB: In your poem, “Biopsy,” which ends with the words, “She couldn’t feel / more like a hostage / were she to don / the bee’s jacketed stripes, / the garb of the jail,” there’s a curious string of associations from needle to sting to bee to imprisonment. Do these associations come easily for you in the creative process, or do you made these conscious links during revision?

JS: They simply arrived, in this case. The associative process was working—all I had to do was get out of the way. Of course this doesn’t always happen. I think in this case the links were  internalized from having been stung by wasps, bees, and hornets some twenty times while growing up in Maryland. Physicians and/or nurses often use the phrase “This will feel like a bee sting”…again the process is dipping into what’s already there, waiting to be found.

JB: When I substitute taught your Richard Hugo House class, “Generating Associative Verse,” I puzzled over who were my favorite associative poets. In that class I realized that your poetic associative moves are the ones I most admire. One of my favorites is your punctuation-free poem, “Tiny Animals,” which has that bullet train feeling:

in blown glass on shelves
Wedgewood plates
stacked on the buffet
for company
quilted place mats
salt and pepper shaker
from Tahiti
horns of ivory
rhinoceros don’t you dare
touch else the host
will bellow
you’ll become the child
who ran into winter
jumped the fence
to fall on concrete
where a shard
entered your palm
look at the cicatrix
like a tattoo
a little leg
pulled from flesh

(Previously published in Hamilton Stone Review No. 35)

JS: It’s the subconscious that knows best, so the question then becomes how to access that part of our minds when we go to write. Sensation seems to be the driving force for a poem, especially one of an associative nature. “Tiny Animals” is one of my personal favorite associative poems also. It’s impossible to explicate why, except perhaps that when I look at it now there are concrete images and explicit warnings. The injury experienced by the ‘you’—“you’ll become the child” is a splinter from one of those “Tiny Animal(s)”—but how does the piece move from beginning to end without knowing consciously that there would be a convergence? Because it (the unconscious/subconscious part) is the best tool available to any writer.

JB: Will you talk about the image-and thread-driven nuances of associative writing?

JS: In writing associatively, it’s the subconscious that knows best what material is of the utmost importance for addressing—or for feeling our way—through a specific subject matter. So the question becomes how to access that part of our minds when we sit down to write. Dreams are poem-like; associative poems can be dream like, and are compared to Hieronymus Bosch by Richard Hugo: “When you see a painting by Hieronymus Bosch your immediate impression may be that he was a weirdo. A wise man once told me he thought Bosch had been a cynic, and the longer I thought about this the truer it seemed… Had Bosch concerned himself with the relative moral or aesthetic values of the various details, we would see more struggle and less composure in the paintings themselves. The details may clash with each other, but they do not clash with Bosch. Bosch concerned himself with executing the painting—he must have—and that freed his imagination, left him unguarded…One way of getting into the world of the imagination is to focus on the play rather than the value of words…” (from The Triggering Town)

JB: Besides the propulsion of associations through your poems, will you enlighten me about the irreducible relationship between your titles and your first lines. There’s so much happening in that white space! The poetic leaps don’t feel like leaps at all; they feel more like scaling a German wall. Here are some of my favorite title/first line combinations from your selected, The Phoenix, 2007-2013: Wind—Like pain it came and left by halves; House of Burnt Cherry—Here the martyr and the porcupine; Extinction’s Cousin—I came back for scraps; and November Moon, Past Full—Pours its dead, mimetic light.

JS: In that white space, the poems take-off, so to speak. I think that exists because of the need strongly felt in the body to write the poem. It’s more of a mood or a feeling than an idea. Ideas are the enemy of associative writing; the goal is to allow ourselves access to what’s frozen, or invisible, below the tip of the iceberg. The feeling that drives the poem’s initial impulse and its title come almost in tandem, then a huge feeling that must come out (William Stafford: “writing a poem is like getting traction on ice”). The first line may be the easiest part, because the rest of the poem is figuring out the relationship between the first line and the feeling. You have to wade through self-doubt and confusion. As David Wagoner has said, you have to become a mad person when you write, to see where the mood and the music leads you.

JB: Your poems are a rapid-fire in that I don’t ever know exactly how I got to the end of each poem and when I do get there I want to reread the thing immediately. In a 2008 interview in the Centrum Foundation newsletter (Port Townsend, Washington), you said, “The best poems are those that go through you like a bullet train.” Is that to say that good poetry reverberates? Good poetry is blurry? Will you explain what you mean?

JS: I learned this from Beth Bentley, when I studied from her at the UW. She wanted emotion in poems. She didn’t want philosophy, or even, necessarily, a lot of narrative, though she herself is a master of the narrative voice. Good poetry moves quickly. It contains images that build upon one another—the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Too many ideas spoil a poem—that’s what I came to see from bringing poems in to Bentley’s workshop. The idea contains seeds or germs; this is what needs to be developed. So yes, I would say that good poetry does reverberate in that it calls upon the senses. If there is any blurriness, that would arise from connotations that differ somewhat from person to person, but it’s a straight shot from start to finish, and when you are done reading a good poem, you feel electricity. There is then the aftermath of watching that current pass through you.

Perhaps the poems feel fast because they are not rational, and not puzzled out in logical imagery. I’m more comfortable when I’m in that trance zone—when an unusual or unique feeling leads me to where a poem is headed. These are poems that I don’t really revise. I’m comfortable with the unknown, a gut feeling that I’m an explorer, an adventurer—perhaps the luckiest gift of being raised as the child of two scientists. I love letting thought follow some half-wrought lines anywhere they wish to lead. While composing verse, I myself am suspending disbelief.


BIO

Janée J. Baugher is the author of the poetry collections Coördinates of Yes and The Body’s Physics, as well as the forthcoming academic book, The Ekphrastic Writer: Creating Art-Influenced Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction (McFarland, 2020). She teaches Creative Writing in Seattle.

Pre-sale orders: https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/The-Ekphrastic-Writer/

Fishbowl Frenzy

by Susie Potter

“You’ll never guess who I saw the other day,” my mother says.

“Oh really?” I am somewhat distracted. My mother likes to ramble. Before I left her and here, before I left her here, I don’t think I noticed it much. But, now that I’m away at college most of the time, whenever I come back, her chatter seems incessant.

“He was holding a sign, begging for money,” she continues.

As I pull her dusty-smelling Buick into a narrow parking space, something in my gut clenches.

“Kyle?” I ask.

She nods, painting a look of sorrow and remorse on her face. I want to smack it off of her.

She doesn’t know a thing about Kyle, about what he was to me. We weren’t true loves or anything like that, but he was a good friend, a good boyfriend, someone who rescued me from her all-encompassing, clinging need.

I don’t say anything as I help her unload her shopping bags. I’m silent still as we walk up the stairs to her apartment, the one she’d moved into after selling my childhood home, the home she’d always promised would be left to me.

I help her put away her groceries, the blouses she bought that look just like the blouses she already owns.

“Do you have to be getting back now?” she asks. There’s a look in her eyes like she expects me to say yes and like she’s already judging me for saying it.

I’m here less and less. I help her less and less. But it’s not my fault that my mom is seventy and needs help. She’s not forty or fifty like all of my friends’ parents. She’s old. She acts more feeble than she is. She still acts like she needs me. I don’t want her to need me. I never wanted her to need me the way she did.

“I don’t have to go quite yet,” I tell her.

“Oh,” she says,“good. I’ll make us some coffee.”

As she goes and bustles in her tiny kitchen, my mind wanders to Kyle.

We’d grown up together. We were best buddies in elementary school until, suddenly, all the girls had cooties.

Then, junior year of high school, I’d run into him at a kegger. He’d offered me a beer, smoked me up. We’d had a brief fling. We’d had fun, and God how I’d needed fun.

We’d lasted longer than anyone thought we would. He was too hot for me, too cool, everyone said. But we’d had a nice effect on each other. A calmness, a gentleness seemed to envelop us when we were together.

But still, a couple of months before graduation, things had petered out.

I had been kind of talking to Greg Olsen behind Kyle’s back. Greg was so nice and dependable, while Kyle smoked pot all day. He’d already dropped out of school, sacrificing a degree for delivering pizzas, at least when his gas money hadn’t gone to weed.

Before Kyle, Greg never would have looked at me. But dating Kyle, with his soft blonde hair and his Ryan Gosling features, had elevated me in the eyes of my peers. It had made Greg see me, and, the way I saw it then, there was nothing real ahead for Kyle and me. There were other options.

Kyle had called me one night.

“Listen” he’d said. “Are you into Greg Olsen? That’s what I’m hearing.”

“I don’t know,” I’d answered honestly. “Maybe?”

“So,” he’d said, “this thing between us, is it over?”

“I don’t know,” I’d told him, even though part of me did. “Do you want it to be?”

“No,” he’d answered, “not really.”

“Okay,” I’d said. Maybe we could drag this on for a few more months, at least until I left for college.

“I think it should be over,” he’d said, after a pause, “even if I don’t want it to.”

“You do?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”
            “I don’t know.” He’d sighed then, heavy. I could picture him raking his hand through his hair.“It’s just done, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.” He’d paused for a moment. I’d known he was toking. “I’ll always care about you.”

“Me too,” I’d said, realizing that I meant it.

When we’d first gotten together, there had been those teenage girl dreams. Yes, I’d scribbled Mrs. Kyle Johnson on a notebook or two. But, there was something in Kyle that wouldn’t let me dream too big, that wouldn’t let me make up an entire future. I just knew he wasn’t the one, couldn’t be the one, couldn’t help make me into the person I wanted to be. It didn’t mean I cared about him any less.

“You know,” I tell my mother, coming out of my thoughts,“Kyle is the only nice breakup I ever had. We didn’t fight or throw things.”

I think about my most recent ex, Dylan, who cheated on me at a frat party and then had a bonfire with his buddies to burn all the bras and panties I’d left at his house.

“Hmm,” she mumbles. “Do you want cream?”

“Yes,” I tell her, “a lot.”

 I remember Kyle making us coffee at his apartment.

“I’m going to make us a surprise,” he’d said.

“Okay.”

He’d come back with two cups of coffee, a scoop of vanilla ice cream floating in each. He’d looked so proud of himself.

“Delicious,” I’d told him, beaming. He’d smiled and smoked his morning weed.

That was the thing with Kyle. Morning weed. Afternoon weed. Pre-date and after-date weed. It was all the time.

He’d taken me out to a restaurant once, early in our relationship.

Over chips and salsa, feeling romantically swayed by the lilting music, I’d asked him, “What are you thinking about?”

I’d hoped he’d say something like “being with you” or “holding in you in my arms later.”

Instead, he’d said, “I’m thinking about going to get some weed after this. I wish I had it now. This would taste even better.”

I’d just shook my head, laughed it off.

Once I left for college, he quickly faded from a boyfriend-turned friend to a guy from my past, a harmless but sweet pothead. He’d be okay. There were plenty of guys like him, mucking their way through life at minimum wage jobs, smoking pot, partying. They’d stop at forty and get real lives, usually after finding the right girl. Or, they wouldn’t and they’d be slightly-sad, later-creepy dudes who partied with high schoolers à la Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused.

“Mom,” I say, as she brings in our coffees. Mine doesn’t have enough cream. Definitely no ice cream. “Did it seem like he was on drugs? When you saw him, I mean.”

“Oh, Hannah,” she says. “You know I don’t know anything about that stuff.”

“I know,” I tell her, “but he always had a thing for pot. It can’t be that. I mean, it’s just pot.”

My mother pauses for a moment, giving her coffee a blow-sip. “I’ve heard,” she says finally, a trace of a sensationalist thrill in her voice, “that we have a major meth epidemic in this town.”

I sigh. I hate the thrill in her voice as much as the smug look on her face.

“How did he look?” I ask finally, as if the answer can tell me something concrete.

“He looked like Kyle,” she says, “only his hair was all long, and he looked kind of dirty.”

I nod. I remember the time he didn’t have any toilet paper, any soap, any of the essentials in his house. He’d had weed and Ramen, but nothing else. So, I’d taken a few items from my mom’s couponing hoard.

She’d noticed. It was just a tiny dent in her stash that she housed in the shower, a shower we didn’t use, couldn’t use anymore because of her “bargains,” but she’d noticed.

“Why would you give that boy my stuff?” she’d raged, irrational tears streaking her eyes.

“It was just a few-”

“Hannah, you had no right,” she’d cut me off, angry that I’d taken from her. More angry that I’d wanted to give something to someone other than her.

“You never liked him, did you?” I say now, sipping my coffee.

“He was okay,” she says.

Without meaning to, I make a noise with my throat, a noise that sounds like scoffing.

“Where did you see him?”

“By the mall,” she says. “I think he’s staying in the woods behind it.”

I put my coffee down. I feign a look at my phone.

“Mom,” I tell her, “I do have to get back. I forgot about this project, and . . . ”

“I see how it is,” she says, “you’ve got more important things to do than hang out with me.”

I don’t answer her as I gather my bag, rush out the door, because, for once, she’s right.

I don’t really have a plan as I settle into my car, crank the engine. I just want to see if I can catch a glimpse of him.

I drive the few blocks from her place to the decrepit mall. Not many people go there anymore, haven’t for awhile. The small town is changing, dying even, but people like my mom don’t seem to realize it. And there are lots of people like her here.

I circle the parking lot, scanning for people, scanning for him.

After two times around, he’s nowhere to be found. I sigh. Why am I doing this anyway? I have a life now, a life that’s only two hours from here, but that seems like a world away. I wouldn’t even come back here if it wasn’t for her, and sometimes I think about abandoning this place and her as well. He doesn’t matter to me anymore. He shouldn’t matter to me anymore.

I’m telling myself all these things as I leave the mall lot, get in the line to turn onto the highway. And then, I see him.

At first, I don’t register that it’s him. It’s just a guy, and like my mom says, he does look dirty. Dirty and hard and old, much older than he is, which isn’t that much older than me.

He’s holding a sign that says “Homeless Veteran. Anything Helps.”

It’s a lie.

He walks up to the car in front of me, collects a dollar.

I will him not to look my way.

I wanted to see him, but suddenly, I don’t want him to see me. I can’t.

I look down, fiddle with my phone, the radio buttons, anything to keep him from seeing me.

The car in front of me goes, and I speed after it, too fast.

My hands are shaking. I shouldn’t care this much. It shouldn’t bother me so much to see him like this, but it does.

I pull into the McDonald’s, the one just before you leave town. I need a minute to collect myself, to get my hands and my brain to stop rattling.

Instead, I’m assaulted by a memory. Kyle and I went to this McDonald’s many times, but one particular time is jabbing at my brain, begging me to really see it.

It was a Friday night.

I was playing a free trial of this game I’d downloaded. It was called Fishbowl Frenzy, and it was awesome. You managed this fishbowl. You fed the little goldfish. They pooped gold coins that you collected. As the levels progressed, you had to buy a carnivore to eat the goldfish. The carnivore pooped diamonds.

I don’t know what happened next in the game because that was as far as I’d gotten. I’d only signed up for a one-hour free trial. And, while I loved the game, it hadn’t been worth spending money on, not when I had college to save up for.

I didn’t think Kyle had been paying much attention. He was high, watching television, zoned out. This was how our Fridays went. I was getting tired of coming over just to sit and do my own thing while he got high, ignored me. What was the point? I hadn’t yet said any of this to him.

But, when I’d closed the computer, he’d reached out a hand to stop me.

“What are you doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“I was waiting for my turn,” he said.

“Oh,” I told him, “you can’t. I mean, it was just a one hour free trial.”

“Oh man,” he said. “I really wanted to play.”

“Well,” I told him. “You could do it on your laptop. I think they track it by device.”

“Oh yeah.” He smacked his head. He ran into his messy kitchen, retrieved his laptop from the table, plunked it on his lap as he sunk into the couch.

I helped him download the trial and, for the next hour, he didn’t stop playing. He couldn’t take his eyes from the screen. He clicked. He made it way further in the game than I had, but I was bored, watching television. All I know was there was something about a “Queen Fish” who saved all your money so you wouldn’t go bankrupt. Going bankrupt meant your whole tank died.

I knew when his trial ended because he let out a loud, “God damnit.”

“What?” I asked him anyway.

“I can’t play anymore,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, “too bad.”

“Maybe they track it by email,” he said. “I had to put my email in to play.”

“Maybe.” I was thinking about leaving. Kyle didn’t know it, but I was texting Greg.

“Nope,” Kyle said, after a moment

“Sorry.” I was completely distracted now.

“Did you download the game here?” he asked

“No,” I said, “at school.”

Greg had texted a funny picture of himself at a bar, holding up his fake ID with a wry grin.

“I googled it,” Kyle said, after a minute.

“Googled what?” I was busy telling Greg that maybe I’d come out, if he thought he could get me in without a fake.

“How the free trials work,” Kyle said exasperatedly.

What I wanted to say was, really, you care that much about this, but I bit my tongue.

“They work based on connection, not device,” Kyle explained. “So, if I get on a new connection, I can download another free trial. I can get further. I can win.”

“That’s cool,” I said, “but I was thinking about heading home.”

“No,” he said. “You can’t. Please. I have to play.”

I sighed. He had that look in his eyes, that desperate want that you could never say no to.

“Drive me to the McDonald’s,” he said. “They have free Wi-Fi.”

“Kyle,” I told him. “I don’t feel like it. I had a beer . . .”

“Just one,” he said. “You can drive. Please.”

I sighed.

“Okay, but after that, I’m dropping you off and heading home.” Greg had already promised he could get me in, no problem. He’d done it before, he’d said.

So, I drove Kyle to the stupid McDonald’s. It was closed, at least the inside part was. So, we’d parked, getting as close to the building as we could for maximum WiFi exposure.

He’d started the download and then, a few minutes later, before it could complete, his computer had died.

“Shit,” he’d screamed, suddenly irrationally angry.

“I just need to charge it,” he mumbled. “Let me see if they’ll let me in.”

“Kyle,” I put a restraining hand on his arm, “you can’t. They’re closed.”

“They might let me in,” he said, and there was a fierceness in his eyes, a determination like I’d never seen before.

I hunkered down in my car, as low as possible, not wanting anyone to see me. Kyle had marched right up to that door, knocked. When no one came, he’d yelled out a loud, “Hey.”

Finally, a bored looking girl came to the door, didn’t open it. She just mouthed, “We’re closed.”

I could hear Kyle, loud, trying desperately to explain what he needed, but she was already walking away, shaking her head, ponytail swishing.

He came back to the car.

“Fuck,” he said, slamming my door.

“It’s no big deal,” I told him. “It’s just a game.”

“Not to me,” he’d said, “not to me.”

I’d driven him home, and that night had marked the decline of us. Our connection, once so real and vibrant, had faded away, bit by bit, after that night.

And now . . . he was this guy I didn’t really know, who I heard about from my mom. This guy begging on street corners in our hometown.

I look at the phone in my hand. I think how, now, just a couple of years later, you can download a game in an instant . . . if you have the cash. You don’t even need WiFi. You have data . . . if you have the cash. The world, I think, is different, but Kyle is not.

I think for a minute about what I could do for him. Brief thoughts of bringing blankets, food, all the things he might need, out there, swimming alone in the world, not eating enough to poop gold.

I decide against it. I hate to admit it, but a part of me is scared, doesn’t trust him. Sure, he’s Kyle to me, but he’s also a homeless guy, and homeless people steal. They hurt you.

I hate myself for thinking it, but I think it nonetheless.

Ultimately, I just pull out of the McDonald’s, head back toward the safety of my college campus, the friends who laugh and who only smoke pot recreationally.

When I get there, collapsing in the warm safety of my room, my soft bedspread, the familiar pictures tacked up on college-chic corkboard, I feel weirdly panicked for a moment, like I’m gasping for breath, flopping around and confused. I don’t know where the feeling comes from, but it’s terrifying, like a weight pressing down on me, telling me I’m going to die. And, then, just like that, it passes. I take in a deep breath. I take in the non-threatening room. I’m not dying. I’m fine.

It’s then that I decide, firmly and immediately, that I won’t be going home again for awhile, maybe not ever.


BIO

Susie Potter is a writer with works in The Colton Review, Broken Plate Magazine, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, the Chaffey Reveiw, NOD, Existere, and Grasslimb. When she’s not busy writing, she enjoys spending time with her family and pets and volunteering in her community. She wrote this story to open a discussion on the drug epidemic affecting her hometown.



Full coverage

by Donna Dallas


siphon these little varmints
from beneath my skin
they’ve done nothing for me – these depraved little muses
softly killing me
an awful curse
this constant barrage of music
and the words – the never ending words
their songs part me through the middle
slice down to the birth thoughts
I cannot sleep
I write like a beast
eat little
then wait to hear a sonnet
a song
perhaps a riddle…….
something to fill in the blanks


Gods of a Bonehead 1

I am your fortuneteller
                        I whisper
the song of a future
                        star
born to the sky on the day of
                        a year
in your bones you know
we are a layer of a layer
we walk among bodies
                        with minds
we think we are gods
but we are as vulnerable
                        as a baby bird
yet we hold such power
as to wield weapons – but let me get back to your palm
that long deep line with so many breaks
so many crackled dips
I cannot find the end
                        nor the beginning
the future speaks
the wind blows secrets at us
the rain bleeds on us
the eagle seeks your forearm as if
                        you were a G-O-D
a falcon grips the serpent – do you remember anything my love?
I only know that you are here flesh
and blood and I’ll hold you
                        cradle you


Gods of a bonehead 9

I put makeup on so it looks like I’m not wearing makeup
I don’t know any real reason why I cried at 5:28am
I know the motion of my gut
I know the wave of a feeling that we
are all moving in this direction…….
this dreaded direction
I drive a car with monthly costs
that could feed a village
if I’m blank it’s because
my rip tore the universe
splitting it in two
we long for the other half
never the one we are in
while we dry ourselves up
to bone dust
yearn for the thing out there
missing all the things in here
along the way


Gods of a Bonehead 11

All is the same
maybe it will always be             the same
and is that so bad?
what’s worse than the same?
only death
only end
to anything that is substance for
breathing
I know I will end
with my last breath upon a window
as the steam forms
my fingers sculpt out an awkward shaped heart
later
another breath steams that very piece of glass
and the carved heart reappears
will it be the depth and magnitude
of a universal bonding             I don’t know
I only know we are all
in motion
twirling around in a circle of carnal lust
from Dante’s Inferno
those lovers lost in the wuthering tunnel
can’t stop to catch you
yet need you so desperately
sick joke                that Inferno
so well thought out it rocks centuries
into the millennium as if Beatrice
could walk in at any minute
we would all stand in awe of her
ethereal face and cow soothing eyes
and the only time we learn to live again
is when something so terrible              or so epic
occurs
yet days later                        when the dust settles
we crawl back into our cave
and sit on the edge
of our own skin with
boredom
because those tender times
when we were rocked to sleep
have disintegrated into the frivolity
of our aged bodies




BIO

Donna Dallas studied creative writing and philosophy at NYU. She has most recently appeared in Red Fez, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Opiate, Beatnik Cowboy, Burning House Press and several other publications. Her recent novel, Death Sisters (Alien Buddha Press) has just hit the market. Donna serves on the editorial team of Red Fez.
donnaanndallas@gmail.com
@DonnaDallas15

Save Me and I Will Be Saved

by Riley Winchester


It was late in the morning on a day in late December of 2010. I was in a waiting room with my mom at The Johns Hopkins Hospital Pediatrics Center. One of the walls of the waiting room was made entirely of windows, and natural light lit up the room. Outside was the scene of a normal Baltimore winter: mounds of muddy snow pushed up against walls and corners; the wind was whipping and could be heard through the windows.

I was scanning through the most recent edition of Sports Illustrated Kids and I remember thinking two things. The first was I wished the magazine was the regular Sports Illustrated, not the kid’s edition, because I was thirteen years old and had been reading the regular editionfor over four years now. The second thought was of back home. I wondered if I would have been playing in a basketball game later that day if I was home, 660 miles back home in Michigan.  

A nurse called my name and I stood up to walk into the back rooms where I was to have blood work done and tests run to see if I was right for what I was getting into. It was when I stood up and made my way toward the nurse that I saw what had been around me. It was like I was in a painting, but not a Matisse or a Monet. There were kids—all younger than me—in wheelchairs, with breathing tubes, with IVs hooked into their arms. I saw heads with the fuzz of peaches, smooth heads with no hair, skinny arms and legs, bony faces, and jaundiced eyes.

Through this painting I walked, and I walked with all of my health. I had my hair, a full head of it. I had tissue and flesh covering my bones. I had no machines fixed into me, nothing external needed to provide me with life. I walked; I wasn’t rolled around by someone else’s push. My body was healthy, but I was scourged with guilt.

———

Over the course of forty years Edvard Munch painted six different renditions of The Sick Child. Each time, the content of the picture remained the same but the style changed. The picture is of a young girl, propped up on a white pillow, on her death bed. She is staring at a dark curtain. The curtain, it’s believed, is a symbol of death. By the young girl’s side is a woman, presumably the girl’s mother, who is so distraught and grief-stricken that she can’t bear to look at her dying child, so her head is down, looking at the floor.

The original version was painted with mostly whites, grays, and greens—giving it a dark hue and a somber tone. When Munch debuted the painting at the 1886 Autumn Exhibition in Christiana, critics and spectators dismissed it. They said it looked unfinished and disparaged Munch’s abandonment of line. The hands of the grieving woman, according to critics, lacked discernible details and looked like blobs. In his defense, Munch said, “I don’t paint what I see but what I saw.”

What Munch saw, and what inspired The Sick Child, was the death of his fifteen-year-old sister Johanne, who was only one year older than Munch at the time of her death in 1877. She died from tuberculosis in the Munch family home, and the memory of his sister perniciously losing her health, and ultimately her life, stayed with Edvard Munch.

Munch became obsessed with the picture, and he continued to rework its aesthetic for most of his life. He abandoned Impressionism for Expressionism, and every successive version became brighter. Munch never explained the change in brightness, but he said Expressionism allowed him to express what really stirred his mind. When writing about The Sick Child late in his life, Munch said, “It was a breakthrough in my art. Most of what I have done since had its birth in this picture.”

———

I was at Johns Hopkins to donate, not to be treated. My dad was suffering from Paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH) and had been for as long as I could remember. PNH is a rare disease found in the red blood cells that causes hemolytic anemia in its sufferers. Hemolytic anemia is when red blood cells are destroyed at a rate much faster than they are produced. Over time this is deadly, and the average life expectancy after a PNH diagnosis is only ten years. My dad’s ten years were approaching. But his ten years were approaching at an auspicious time.

My dad had been on the bone marrow donor registry for over four years and couldn’t find a full-match donor. Fortunately, however, haploidentical bone marrow transplants were gradually becoming more accepted in the medical field. In haploidentical transplants, the bone marrow of a half-matched donor is used. Because of developments at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, half-match donations were now safe and came with very few side effects. The Johns Hopkins Hospital was the first American hospital to perform haploidentical transplants, and at the time it was the only American hospital to perform them.

The half-match in a haploidentical transplant is typically a family member of the bone marrow recipient. For my dad, this meant he would be receiving bone marrow from either his mom, his dad, his brother, one of his two daughters, or me—his only son. In the fall of 2010, the other potential donors and I were tested to see whose DNA closest matched my dad’s. Our blood was drawn in an outpatient lab at a Spectrum Health Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was then shipped to another lab to be examined. I remember thinking the whole process felt very casual and almost mundane. We filled a vial, no bigger than the size of a fat crayon, with blood, and that was it. A life was at stake and one of us would be responsible for it. But it didn’t feel like it.

The tests came back and I was the closest match. Years later, I learned I was always going to be the match and the tests were done only to ensure my DNA wasn’t an anomaly and somehow severely different from my dad’s. In haploidentical transplants, the ideal half-match is young and healthy, as the recipient should receive the healthiest bone marrow possible. This eliminated my dad’s parents and his brother. Also, the donor should be the same sex as the recipient, otherwise hormonal issues can arise. It’s possible to do cross-sex transplants, but they’re avoided if they can be. This eliminated my sisters, leaving only me left. Yet I didn’t know any of this at the time, so I was surprised when I learned I would be the donor. In the end, however, it was always going be me and it was always going to be at Johns Hopkins.

———

On my way to the nurse, a young girl in a wheelchair stole my attention. She was maybe five years old, and she wore nothing to cover her bald head. She had on a little purple dress, and in her hand was a stuffed monkey, which she held closely. A doctor was talking to her and her parents, who were standing beside her. The doctor knelt down and asked the girl if it would be okay if she came back on Christmas Eve for more testing. She didn’t hesitate. She said, Yes! And she was happy to come back whenever, she said, because all her friends were there. Her parents didn’t object, and an appointment on Christmas Eve was settled. As I approached the nurse, she greeted me. I followed her through a set of doors, leaving the waiting room behind, and down a hallway.

After a standard checkup of my height, weight, and blood pressure, I was sent into another waiting room where I was to wait until the doctors were ready to run blood tests on me. This new waiting room was designed specifically for kids. There were Rubbermaid tubs filled with Legos and other toys, small tables—with the tops brightly graffitied and etched into—that had coloring books and colored pencils on them, puzzles, picture books, and a TV with an Xbox 360 plugged into it. I turned on the Xbox and the TV as I waited for my name to be called again. I hadn’t yet started playing a game when a boy, around seven or eight years old, walked into the room. He wore a hand-knitted hat on his head and had a bandage on his cheek.

Before him or I said anything, he picked up an extra controller that had been on one of the small tables. I asked him if he wanted to play with me, and he shook his head yes, but he remained silent. It was a hockey video game, and I set it up to where we would play each other. In the game the puck dropped, and we started playing. No goals were scored, and very little time in the game had passed, when a new nurse came in and called my name. I paused the game and stood up to leave. The boy finally spoke, and he asked me if I was leaving. The question halted me. I wasn’t prepared; all my mind could think of was the truth. I could make no excuse or give no palliative answer. I told him, plainly, I was sorry and that I had to leave.

———

Bone marrow is spongy tissue found inside the bones that produces hematopoietic stem cells. Red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets develop out of these stem cells. Sometimes, hematopoietic stem cells turn cancerous or defective, slowing down or completely stopping the life-providing function of bone marrow. A bone marrow transplant is then needed to replace the bad bone marrow. It wasn’t until 1956 that a bone marrow transplant was successful. Doctors had been attempting transplants since the early 1900s, but Dr. E. Donnall Thomas was the first to perform the operation successfully. He extracted bone marrow from a healthy boy and gave it to the boy’s twin, who was suffering from leukemia.

The process hasn’t changed much since Thomas’s successful transplant in 1956: Bone marrow is extracted from the donor’s hip bone using bone marrow harvest needles—which closer resemble a drill bit than a needle—and then transplanted into the recipient’s bloodstream. It’s a safe process for the donor. Health concerns usually only arise in the recipient after the procedure, when their body is adjusting to the new bone marrow. 

Despite knowing the safety and efficacy of the procedure—doctors from Michigan to Johns Hopkins had all informed me of it—I had feelings of trepidation when I saw the needles that would be stuck into me, that would be driven into my hip bone, and that would suck the healthy marrow from me. But I was already at Johns Hopkins, I reminded myself; there was no going back now. And I had seen and been surrounded by so many hurting people, hurting kids, whose bodies were determined on destroying themselves from the inside out. It wasn’t fair to them. I had to do my part at Johns Hopkins.

———

The bone marrow transplant happened in early January 2011, and it was a success. After the transplant, when the anesthesia wore off, I woke up miserable and confused. My vision was sandy, it felt like a steel band was wrapped tightly around my head, and my mouth was so dry and coarse that I wondered if a small rodent had crawled into my mouth and died while I was unconscious. There were thick, bone white sheets hanging from the ceiling, separating me from the others who were also recovering in the same room.

The first thing I heard was the voice of a young boy who was talking to his dad. From the sound and timing of his voice, I could tell he was in the bed next to mine, to the right. He told his dad he wanted pancakes and he asked him when they would be able to eat them next. The dad promised that as soon as the boy recovered and was ready to leave the hospital, the first thing they would do is go out and eat pancakes. Shortly after he said this, the dad made the promise again, to make sure the boy knew.

I was supposed to lie in the hospital bed and recover for only two hours, but I stayed for over six. The surgery was harder on my body than I anticipated, than even the doctors anticipated. My body was weak, and every time I tried to stand and walk—walking was the true test to see if I was ready to leave, I was told—my legs gave out and I had to be caught by a nurse. To use the bathroom, I had to wrap my arms around a nurse and my mom and be guided to the toilet. At the toilet, I had to be held up by my mom because my legs couldn’t support my body.

As the hours went by, a new nurse was assigned to me—the original nurse’s shift had ended—my stomach started accepting food, things in my head became clearer, and my legs felt strong again. Finally I was able to walk on my own, and the nurses said I was okay to leave. I held onto a four-legged walker and shuffled, my mom beside me to catch me if my legs failed again. When I left, I could still hear the boy talking to his dad, but he was no longer talking about pancakes.

———

I spent many hours in The Johns Hopkins Hospital Pediatrics Center. I watched kids go into rooms to receive treatment, have their bodies prodded with needles and filled with radiation, swallow prescribed pills at calculated intervals throughout the day. During these times, I often found my mind stuck on a passage from a book I had read shortly before I left for Johns Hopkins: The Catcher in the Rye. The passage is from when Holden tells his sister Phoebe about a recurring dream he’s been having.

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

I wanted to be the catcher in the rye at Johns Hopkins. I wanted to stop all the sick kids before they went to receive treatment. I wanted to tell them they didn’t need it because I could help them. I wanted to give my kidneys to the kids with Wilms tumors. I wanted to give my liver to the kid with hepatoblastoma. I wanted to give all my bone marrow to the kids with leukemia. I wanted to give my eyes to the kids with retinoblastoma. I wanted to give my brain to the kid with brain tumors. I wanted to give my heart to the kid with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. I wanted to give myself to every sick kid until there was nothing left of me—until there was nothing left of me but there was all of them.

And with every kid I would say, Take it, take this! You can do more with it; you will do more with it! But I couldn’t. Like Holden, all I could do was think about it. All I could do was think and not do. 

———

I left The Johns Hopkins Hospital and was pushed through Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on a wheelchair, because I still couldn’t walk at full speed or for long periods of time. I left with my grandparents who had also been staying at Johns Hopkins. Our seats were upgraded to first class because of me. One of the airline workers saw me, a young teenager in a wheelchair, with two elderly people and she kindly told us our seats were now in first class. I was able to walk onto the plane, so I walked through the corridor that connected the terminal and the plane and found my seat in first class.

For a strange reason that I cannot explain, it felt good, at the time, to leave Johns Hopkins having experienced some pain and discomfort. Perhaps it was a combination of guilt for being healthy and feeling that I had done nothing for the kids, that I had even abandoned some, who I had so badly wanted to do something for. Of course, I couldn’t have done anything for them, but even at thirteen—an age where I should have known this, and I think I did know this but still told myself differently—I felt that there was something I could have done, even if I didn’t know what it was.

But I had done something at Johns Hopkins, and it was the reason for my pain and weak legs and fatigued body. I donated bone marrow to my dad; his PNH was cured and he was healthy. My grandparents still had their son, my mom still had her husband, and my sisters and I still had our dad. None of that would have been so if it weren’t for what I had done, but I wasn’t thinking about that.

———

Abraham Jacobi was born to impoverished parents in a small town in central Germany in 1830. Jacobi was a sick child from birth. In fact, he was so sick and his parents were so poor that they were advised by a doctor to not spend any money on treating the infant Jacobi, because there was little chance he would survive into adolescence. His parents listened to the doctor, but Jacobi survived. In his early twenties, Jacobi earned his Doctor of Medicine but shortly after was arrested for his radical political beliefs. After two years in a Cologne prison, he escaped and immigrated to New York, where he set up an affordable pediatric clinic.

Jacobi found success in America. His clinic was visited by many and he gained popularity in the medical field as both a physician and a pioneer in the field of pediatrics. In 1859, he published Midwifery and Diseases of Women and Children—the first medical text to take an earnest interest in treating sick children. Jacobi was one of the first physicians to understand the importance of treating sick children differently than sick adults, stating, “They are not merely small adults.” He was also the first physician to emphasize bedside pediatrics. Before Jacobi, the treatment of children was often emotionally distant due to high mortality rates among sick children and an overall vein of pessimism in pediatrics—losing multiple patients a week was normal for a pediatrician in the nineteenth century.

By the end of his life, Jacobi had written over 4,000 pages, collected in eight volumes, on pediatrics. He wrote on the etiology of diseases in children, the treatment of children, the philosophy of the pediatrician, and the necessity of pediatrics. In addition, he opened pediatric wards in hospitals across New York, and he served as the first Chair of the Section of Pediatrics of the American Medical Association. Today, Jacobi is known as the Father of American Pediatrics.

But even the Father of American Pediatrics could only do so much for his patients. The first pediatric disease Jacobi became interested in was diphtheria—a bacterial infection in the nose and throat—and he’s credited with inventing the indirect laryngoscope to examine children for the presence of diphtheritic membrane. Jacobi was considered an expert on the disease by his medical contemporaries. But at the age of eight, Jacobi’s only son, Ernst, contracted diphtheria. And, for Jacobi, there would be no saving Ernst. By the time the disease had been discovered in him, it was too late. Ernst Jacobi, the son of Abraham Jacobi, died at eight years old.

———

We landed in Grand Rapids and I was wheeled through Gerald R. Ford International Airport in one of their provided wheelchairs. Every time I caught someone’s attention and they looked at me for longer than a second with a stare of sympathy, I wanted to stand up. I wanted to stand up and tell them I was fine and I didn’t need them to feel bad for me and that there are kids all over who you should feel bad for but I’m not one of them. There are kids who you should feel bad for and I was with some of them but I couldn’t do anything for them.

I was wheeled up to the doors of the airport where there was an area to drop off the airport’s wheelchairs. I found a spot for my wheelchair and left it there; I was eager to abandon it. It was early in the morning, around 4 a.m., and outside everything was bright and lit up by streetlights and headlights from cars and buses. My grandma offered to help me walk as we looked for the car. I told her I was fine and I could do it on my own.

In the car, going south out of Grand Rapids, I started to feel different. It’s a source of stress and physical exhaustion to be in an environment like I was in, and now that I had been out of it for some time, I could feel myself recovering. I didn’t think I left Johns Hopkins a victim of any kind or that I had been unfairly exposed to something I shouldn’t have. I thought I had seen something, something unpleasant, and there were things that could come of it. What they were, I didn’t know, but I knew they were somewhere.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have known what those things were. That no matter what you do, you’ll always wish you had done more or think you could have done more, so it’s best to find pride in the things you have done and be kind to yourself. That hurt isn’t transferred like currency, and you being hurt won’t abate anybody else’s hurt. That you can’t make the world better all on your own, but you can start small, do what you can, and hope it makes your part of the world better. That when you sit and try to think about the big, profound things, your mind will get hung up on the little things like a stuffed monkey or a hand-knitted hat or pancakes, and then you’ll realize those were the big things all along. And a lot of what you learn will sound familiar, and that’s because it is; it’s not new, they’re old platitudes. But until you find something real to attach them to, they’ll never make any sense.

———

On the way home, we stopped at a McDonald’s drive-thru because we hadn’t eaten since we left Baltimore and no other restaurants were open. We waited a long time for our food, very long for being the only customers. It was quiet in the car—there was no radio playing and we were too tired for small talk. When our food finally came out, my order was wrong, and my grandpa said his coffee was cold. But none of these things seemed important or worth talking about, not now.


BIO

Riley Winchester lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He recently graduated from Grand Valley State University, where he earned a B.A. in History. His work is forthcoming in Waymark.

The New Reality

by Tom Whalen

I told everyone the new reality would be easy to understand, there was nothing to worry about, our lives were soon to be made richer, fuller of promise, strange songs we would sing throughout the rest of our days. The new reality would eliminate self-isolation and the difficult. Hard to grasp concepts, four-dimensional chess, calculating the recession rate of stars would be a breeze. And the new reality wouldn’t play favorites, wouldn’t have citizens who would benefit more than others or look down upon those who were dumber, because no one would be dumb. The new reality would elevate us all.

Then the map of the new reality arrived, we pored over it, and I had to eat my words.

I visited the Museum of the Old Reality with its long arms of lists and thick blue veins. I walked through the Door of Ego and down the Corridor of Why with its vines trailing away into a horizonless distance. I looked in the glass cases of the Museum of Old Reality, hoping history would answer some of my questions, my doubts and anxiety about the future of life and the afterlife. In the stairwells of the museum I paused to admire the paintings of the wisdom of the pre-Socratic masters wherein donkeys and sheep grazed and slept in meadows and the sun peeped over the hills. In the closed stacks of the Museum of the Old Reality that I snuck into, I took delight in a moment of prayer. An inestimably sweet infusion of eternal praise, full of warmth and learning, hummed in my bones. Later, in the museum’s coffee shop, Cardinal Newman and I had a long, edifying chat on the cultivation of the intellect and drank several pots of black tea. Then, after I used the toilet, I stepped back into my own unchosen century, none the more prepared for the new reality.

The new reality has cracked my skull, said Edmund. The new reality has cracked my skull, too, said Yoshi. Mine, too, said Richard. It’s cracked my skull and the organ of cognition contained therein, said Gilbert. And mine, said Naguib, scratching behind his ear. And mine, and mine, and mine, and mine, and mine, and mine, said Eunice, Mechilde, Maeta, Dino, Ilse, and Gottfried.

Everywhere, as best I could tell, people walked around lamebrained by the new reality.

Meanwhile Gertrude was unhappy. I’m unhappy, she said. Which is to say I’m sad. I’m not happy about anything. I’m not happy about this book I can’t read. I’m not happy about social networking which changes its apps and offerings by the minute. I’m not happy that our children are being weaned on Jack Daniels by nanny-bots, though often I’m not not happy about it either. I’m not happy that the cost of air per ounce has increased by several creds, and if it had not been I wouldn’t be happy about that either. I’m not happy that the eternal coming of the bridegroom has been indefinitely delayed, I even expected as much. And I’m not happy that the postman has died on our stoop of COVID-919, it displeases me that he died on our stoop rather than another. And I’m not happy that Lowell’s Memoir on a Trans-Neptunian Planet is out of print, never to be printed again. And let me add that I’m not happy that you’re an idiot. I’ve always known that that was what you were, and I’ve never been happy about it. And I’m not happy that I’m not one, too. I’d love to be an idiot, but I can’t deny my smarts. And I’m not happy that I’m not larky, even if I don’t believe larks are really happy, though I bet they’re not unhappy. In a word, I’m like totally fucking miserable. In fact, I think I’m depressed.

Are you happy about the new reality? I asked.

How can I be happy or unhappy about it, she said, when I don’t know what it is?

I received a catalogue of new courses offered at the University, a catalogue on parchment with a gold trim and fish head insignia. Courses now required included New Genetics (for those born under the old genetics, the system of the lamb, the catalogue said the course was free), Basic Banking, Mysticism 101, and Twirl. New electives included Gestalt Text Messaging, Swiss Soups, Color Separation, and Life Cycles of the Ootid, a haploid cell formed by the meiotic division of a secondary oocyte, especially the ovum, as distinct from the polar bodies.

I flew to Zurich to visit Neue Zentralbibliothek and was led by an assistant down a flight of stairs into a cave-like enclosure where its mainframe was incaved.

Of what does the new reality consist? I asked it.

The mainframe sang a vaguely familiar theme I couldn’t place; its lights lit up, followed by a sound like the clacking of a typewriter, then its answer.

Of this that and the other, it said.

That’s it? I asked.

Only one question allowed, the assistant said, ushering me out.

At night we sit cross-legged on the floor in a circle, damaged and adrift in the glow of our screens.

Then the Professor spoke to us.

Fluidics, he said. Fluidics and algorithms. First, wash your face, then wash your hands, then your face, then dirty them up again. How have the questions come to be so confused? Don’t ask the darlings of this earth, darlings with lapwings for shoulders and interstitial eyes. Have you consulted the ghost in the machine? If your comments have been tabulated, investigated, digested and interfaced with the sounds of the year 1918, then slip into your harnessed minds and proceed with your development, first cutting the semantic cord. The ozone is the occult, the sky detonates. There has been a categorical error, I repeat there has been. Once wonder seized me, then faded away into introspection. I have come to you with news, a shower of tweets and hoaxes, veritable observations that the path you lead is not of your own making. If you believe there’s no good to resist, then why resist it? My heart aches, penance may afflict you, Venus has vanished. Now look at life non-optically. The mind reports its own affairs, Ryle tells us, and nothing else. Isn’t that enough? Are you sipping the spinal fluid through plastic straws? I’m lonely. I don’t feel well. You’ve been warned—then he collapsed over the podium, and a thick blue fog descended from the rafters and devoured him.

I had imagined that once we had obtained the new reality, had taken it fully in, it would replace the outworn, message-laden, utilitarian old, crises would dissolve like clouds and a new life would flourish on the planet like a garden grown wild. But I was wrong. The question is: what can we do to ward off the feeling of helplessness that comes upon us when confronted with even a portion, a script, a remnant of the new reality no one seems to understand? A qualitative analysis of imprecision might help, as might making sure the lenses on your glasses, if you have glasses, are clean. It’s possible the so-called new knowledge will help, but I have my doubts. Isn’t the new always only wrapped in the old, like a child decked out in a tuxedo? Still, I sense there’s much to be done, this side of acquiescence. Disasters to prepare for, dreams to disentangle, deaths to mourn. The orange rain, for example, that has begun to fall—orange, triangular rain the size of birdcages—might also bear examination.


BIO

Tom Whalen’s books include The President in Her Towers, Elongated Figures, Winter Coat, and Dolls. His translation of Robert Walser’s Little Snow Landscape and Other Stories is forthcoming from NYRB Classics in 2021.

Photo © Kim Graser, 2015.

And the coldest tree takes root

by Daniel Aristi


They’ve come late
In the evening 1,000 ants
Like ninjas –
Felled this ole Gulliver
At the ankles
(Tomorrow we expected both sunshine
And war).

            Body load is distributed flat
            On minute tribal shoulders
            In a poised, expert manner
            That suggests experience –

Why don’t ants grace humbler flags, they
The Dark Rivers?

            Skin had grown brownbag
            Over the wedding ring –
            That’s how old he
            Were:

                        A fist of twiggy fingers sworn together into a pyre

                        No more running-faster-than-the-bridge-crumbling-behind-you

                        You know, you can measure time in teeth

                        And I want to be buried in my playground – furtively, at night, by loyalists
                        A tad bit drunk.


La violencia

No better, thinner. No better,
Taller. No better,
Got a gun:

                        – Goes Unchallenged Now (GUN)

                        – Gimme Ur Name (GUN)

                        – God’s Urgently Needed (GUN)

                        …

Qué macho es el
Gun, you’ve got another
Dick, hombre mío.

                        In Spanish victim is female – la víctima – and

                        Bullet is female – la bala – and bullseye

                        Is female – la diana – and death is female –


                                                                                                    La muerte.


More of the same

Bullet-pierced milk
Mixed
With you know
Made the street
Pink

                *  

                RE: [Exit wounds] –
                The barrio exhorts:
                Güey you better
                Toughen up, and the bullets
                Stay in

                                *

                                Bullet (n.): nocturnal, burning,
                                Flies quickly from dark to
                                Dark

                                                *

                                                Experiment #54:
                                                Emptied box of guns
                                                Down brownstone
                                                Staircase. Only
                                                The young run fetch them.
                                                All adults
                                                Have one already.


Agamemnon

Order: espresso & beer.

Whatever is necessity

At this time of

History: Tick-tock-tick-

Tock: 73% of respondents

Answered, “Bomb”.

A reciprocal

Perpetual blood

Transfusion:

That’s what I had

With my first wife – the one saving

The other to then be saved back

Again & again.

I’ll have beer first –

Espresso is a

Full stop.

BIO

Daniel Aristi was born in Spain. He studied French Literature as an undergrad (French Lycée in San Sebastian). He now lives and writes in Belgium. Daniel’s work is forthcoming or has been recently featured in Main Street Rag, Berkeley Poetry Review and Cold Mountain Review.

Three New Names

by Masie Hollingsworth

An umbrella. I’m about to lose eight years of stealing, saving, and lying through my teeth to my own mother because of one stolen umbrella, may the moons curse me.

The officer jerks me forward, and I clench my jaw tighter to swallow down more than just the pain of my shoulder being practically ripped out of its socket. I feel his cold gaze on me again, and I risk a glance in his direction. It’s the same teasing glint in his eyes, the corners of his mouth curling upward in a cruelly pleased sneer—one I want with every fiber of spite left in me to match, but even I wouldn’t dare it in this place, every square inch alive with legions of bored and armed officers. It’s the same expression he wore when he first snagged me from behind by the hood of my jacket; I hope whatever muscles hidden by the fat of his face are as aching as I’d imagine they’d be to hold such an expression for so long.

But then again, maybe I deserve what’s coming to me. I’m disappointed at my own self that I made the bright decision to try and escape. Resisting arrest; I hear it’s a pretty major offense, enough to drag out the minor offense of stealing an umbrella. But if they find out the reason why I stole it, why I resorted to petty theft to hide from the rain, why I was wandering the streets of the capital this time of night alone and without a job as far as they could tell, at least…

A large man at the front desk waves away a woman in front of us, her report of a crime apparently not worth their time. I’m not-so-secretly rooting for her to lose it and make a scene to distract everyone, but I’m not so lucky.

Which means it’s our turn to step forward. Me, the dreaded umbrella thief.

Another jerk from my officer, and I’m for once thankful for the handcuffs serving as the impulse control I certainly lack. The officer and the round red bull’s eye of his nose better be glad too, whatever his name is. My eyes flick to the pale formation of sylwei marks curling over his forehead: “Urilhispaisolian,” in common letters. Giving him the sole ability to communicate with swamp-joie birds. My eyes almost water as I disguise a snort; letting on my fluency in the patterns of sylwei would be about as incriminating as strolling in with five case-fulls of stolen alpit spilling from my pockets.

Or wearing nothing but a thin layer of non-waterproof makeup to hide a whole scribble of stolen names crowding my face outside, in the rain, in broad evening daylight.

Dakotyzen will kill me if Sol doesn’t.

I try to cast the thought from my mind. But one tear in my sleeve, a flash of my unpainted collarbone, even if they make me pull up my hair to reveal the back of my neck—a day’s mission’s worth stolen names, powerful or not, killed for or pledged with albeit forced compliance—they’d finally lock up their sylwei thief before I could even get the name “Lord Sol” out of my mouth. Not that he hadn’t made it clear he wouldn’t spare a coin to claim me if the event of my capture ever did arise.

If. I savor the hope of the word, chewing my lip in feigned boredom. I still have a chance, a good one at that, to get away without much more than a fine or even a night in prison. Right now, I can’t afford to let my fear or pessimism shake me. Or the damp pressure on my wrist of one old, brutish officer and his apparent lack of a responsible anger management outlet.

The whole front desk sags at the weight of its occupier, as well as the fierce boredom reeking from the clerk man’s tight-lipped expression and watery eyes. “What’s this one done?”

It’s as if the whole area emanates the weight of his apathy; I try to let it soak into my bones to calm them if I can’t hope to cry my way out of this one. He asks the question more like he thinks he works in a cheap second-rate market vendor than a police station. “Tysedelphawen,” the name on his forehead would appear to the untrained eye. But those swirled symmetrical sylwei letters all combined would mean… the ability to know a person’s heart rate by simply looking at them. Despite the subordination his name’s length might suggest, it could be useful—to detect extreme nervousness. Or lies. Whatever parent named him must’ve been clever to find such a useful name that hadn’t been taken yet.

Officer “Urilhispaisolian” clears his throat, shoulders already set with alert but confident ease, interrupting my internal debate of whether his friends would call him “Uril,” or “Soli,” or whatever else. “Caught her sneakin’ around, trying to pickpocket folks on the streets. Gave me a good chase when I went after ‘er.”

I change my mind. He probably doesn’t have any friends. Awen, as I’ve elected to call the clerk officer, huffs a bored sigh as if to confirm my conclusion. “She take anything?”

“Mm hm. She had this,” Uril’ continues, hoisting the umbrella into the air with enough triumph to spatter a mist of raindrops and startle me (but not to make a dent in my concealer thank the moons), “And who knows what else!”

I let loose a little eye-roll, not enough to seem undermining of his authority but just the right trick to sell myself as a bored, moody preteen. Despite my height, I can easily pass for one.

The front desk man, Tysa-delph-whatever, narrows his eyes at me, then to my forehead. I stifle a shiver.

“Sat-i-al… kala.” He purses his lips, suspicious of the relatively short name that usually earns me extra respect, orjealous stares. I can only pray he can’t read what my power really grants me. “Explain yourself.”

It’s common knowledge anywhere that the recipe for a man’s sympathy is runny mascara and a pair of extra-pouty lips, but there’s no way I’ll be able summon tears with the mood I’m in at the moment. So I settle on a different approach.

“It was just the umbrella.” I turn out my pockets, shrugging off my satchel and dumping all the contents on the front desk for effect. He visibly winces as my Official rations receipt plants face-up on the desk, and I bite down a smile at my luck. And the status working for Sol all these years has brought me. “And I’m not a pickpocket, I just ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

This had better be worth having to pick up all those dropped alpit coins once this is all over.

Awen reclines back in his chair as he clasps his hands together, and I’m not the only one to wince at the strain it squeaks under his weight. “Just the umbrella. Hmph.”

 I’ve changed my mind—the risk of them discovering my various pistols and back-up pistols disguised as a squarescreen and two compass-tracker sorts of equipment was definitely worth it. But Uril officer doesn’t seem as convinced. “So I suppose the umbrella just happened to fall into your hands?”

I struggle to keep my breathing easy. It’s a question I can easily explain, one I actually expected, but it’s his narrowed gaze on one of the spilled items that offsets me; there’s suspicion there for sure, stuck on the compass-tracker-gun like a splinter in my chances of escape, the one weapon slightly less artfully hidden. The pressure of my eyelids as I close them in an attempt to collect myself doesn’t do much to calm me, in a situation where calmness is key.

But I tell myself it’ll be okay anyway. Let him search the blasted gadget; it takes a whole pattern of buttons to lock into place as a weapon, a clever design by whoever Sol pays to plan his dirty-work. And besides, the bright red button in its center still works as a tracking beacon—unless it stopped working in the time between now and about five minutes ago when I sent a little SOS to Dakotyzen. I only wish my partner could spare the effort to arrive just a little bit faster.

I set my jaw, reminding myself of the current predicament. “I didn’t say I took it by accident.” The officer copies my stance, crossing his arms in suspicion. “What I meant was I shouldn’t have hung around with… a certain group. Forced me into stealing the umbrella on a dare, and I’m sorry, but I really didn’t feel like ending up a stain on the sidewalk, so,” I scoop up most of my coins, piling enough to be a worthy fine in front of Awen’s lamentful expression, and pick up my satchel to leave.

The old man sighs, accepting the alpit and reaching for a records file most likely to log my name in. I try to remind myself that this was the better alternative to every other disaster that could’ve happened. It takes Awen a painful amount of time to find my name, and I curse Kota for being so slow to come get me. I’d rather be out of here before the swell of rain from outside succeeds in its plan to ruin my life, by sweeping in to reveal each of my hidden names or whatever other reason it seems so intent on pounding the roof in right from above.

Awen’s chair groans as he finally sets the file on the table after finding my name. Good. maybe they won’t think twice about me when it shows that my power is nothing more than rapid-healing: powerful, but nothing too threatening. After all, I didn’t lie when I said it was my gift. It was one of them and at some point, at least. I just left out the part about killing that drug lord to get it, and selling it months ago to the corrupt estate lord of my hire. Awen’s almost hefted the enormous file onto the desk, but the grumpy officer, Uril, hasn’t had enough.

“Sir, I hardly believe—”

“We’ll still have to log this on your record,” his co-worker, who apparently must out-rank him in this field, says. Completely ignoring him. I’m beginning to grow deeper and deeper indebted to Awen, though he wouldn’t miss the chance to lock me up if he knew it.

Sure enough, he gives a slight nod of his head when his eyes fall upon my name and its meaning. “How’d you get it? Your name? It’s pretty short, I mean.” and therefore powerful.

“Oh,” I have to snap myself out of my reverie. I can’t afford to be complacent at the moment. “My grandmother was a nurse, back in the war. A higher-ranking general pledged it to her before he died, and she passed it on to me before she passed away some years ago.” I look up, with a smile almost as small and tender as the melancholy I’ve poured into my voice.

And only then do I realize my mistake in telling the truth rather than just lying to be over with this. “Well, of course, he was so deeply wounded his gift of healing couldn’t fix him. It was a tragic war, really was, really was.” I curse myself for babbling on like an old gossip, but I can only hope it’ll work. And that neither of them recall about two minutes ago when I mentioned not wanting to… what were my words? ‘End up a stain on the sidewalk.’ My luck’s just getting worse.

Awen’s eyes narrow from across the desk counter, and I look down pretending to be bashful. But now I’m met with another gaze; the countertop’s shiny enough that it’s my own reflection like a wide-eyed shrum caught in a trap staring back at me. I quickly snap my ridiculous gaping mouth shut, and look back up.

And then my eyes catch something I wish for the sake of my heart rate they didn’t. It’s a mighty feat if not an impossible one not to wince as Awen’s sylwei mark glows slightly red; he’s using his gift, reading my pulse at the very moment.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

“Oh, Kala, mom’s going to kill you.”

The words catch me off guard as much as they do the guards. My mom would kill me if she knew what I’ve done to send them money all these years.

My tight-lipped smile when I whip around isn’t anything short than threatening, but it’s real and relieved. “Only if she finds out.” I say, walking with stiff joints away from the front desk, but at least I’m not shaking.

Dakotyzen even ruffles my hair in the way an older brother would, smile wide and unfaltering. “I’m deeply sorry for any damage this little mell-monger did. We’re both sorry. I’ll be taking her home to let our mother deal with her.”

“Will not,” I punch his arm. It’s something I’d do if my real brother had said as much, and the nearest officers buy it with low chuckles.

Kota mouths something like, “Don’t worry, I will,” to Awen, and he nods to let us go. Once again, the age-old sibling act has proven successful, and I’m battling down a smug grin on our way back through the line from the front entrance. At least this time, it’s my own colleague jerking me by the arm, and he’s even brought his own umbrella.

“That was too close for comfort.” Any trace of humor in Kota’s voice is gone, abandoned for a light but dry inquisitive tone. Though I wouldn’t have it any other way; either this, or his wrath. Which I probably deserve, having risked both of us and Sol’s whole band of sylwei thieves at that, all because of a stupid mistake. Or two.

I tighten my jaw, voice low as we join the horde of side-walkers, though it’s not like anyone could hear us through the conundrum of the storm. I knew this was coming, but I still would rather avoid more criticism. “Yeah, they barely bought it. Next time you ought to be my little brother.” Thanks to our conveniently similar dark eyes and hair, it isn’t true that the officers barely believed that we’re siblings, but I needed something to bring the conversation away from my mess-up.

Kota makes a sound like an unimpressed snort, clearly having caught on to my attempt at diverting the blame. But I risk a glance next to me, and sure enough his pride has taken a hit; I almost regret that it worked. Almost. Though he knows I was just teasing, he takes about as kindly to remarks about his height as he does mentions of his… less-than proud origins. Just as I predicted, he doesn’t say anything for at least another minute.

When he does eventually ask the dreaded question, I explain the umbrella situation with as much dignity as I can. I’m just glad I at least had time to relax my tense muscles and feel myself fade into the crowd, a network of busy street folk snaking around every corner under a roof of all shades of umbrellas that almost look like multicolored scales in the distance. It’s times like these when the streets are really dangerous; so much pushing and shoving it’s not uncommon that some passersby meet disaster under the wheels of speeder-traffic, and it wouldn’t be a safe gamble at all to assume anybody with as powerful a gift as some sort of healing would be wandering these streets.

• • •

“Where are you going?” I quirk an eyebrow, though I follow Kota around a curve too soon to be the turn that leads to Sol’s hidden domain.

Kota offers the slightest of grins. “While you were busy getting arrested, I found a short-cut.”

“Alright then.” I highly doubt he actually did, but whatever he’s got up his sleeve, I’ll play along.

Another turn, and we’re in an even less-populated alley-way. No road, nothing but a sidewalk only three-persons wide. I haven’t heard this much quiet, or had this much personal space on the street since a particularly successful mission during last year’s Moons’ Festival.

“So what really happened? Before your genius act of getting yourself caught in the rain, not the other even brilliant-er idea of petty theft, I mean?”

I jerk my chin up away from him, buying a little more time to organize my thoughts, and then allow myself another pause to wrinkle my nose as a particularly fat shrum darts away through the shadows, sending ripples in the puddles in its wake. This is a sketchy side street if I’ve ever seen one, and the darkness from storm clouds overhead doesn’t help.

“Found my targets soon enough, and then a couple of unexpected targets. The four original ones were members of a small little gang, but who knows who they killed to get such powerful names.” Not that anyone Sol would target would have a name any less than priceless, of course. Kota hisses an understanding laugh along with me. “They had two others who weren’t on the target-list with them, so I, ah,  convinced them to pledge their names to me easy enough, too. Sol never objects to extras.”

Extras. For a moment, I wonder if he’ll ask what they are. For a moment, the last decent part left in me wants him to.

But he doesn’t. Maybe he really is cursed.

I bite back a relieved smile, cursing my own wickedness. Though when I turn to him, something in the subtle smirk of Kota’s expression unsettles me; nonetheless, I keep going. “My turn now. What job did Sol have you on today that had you forging your sylwei again? Or should I start calling you… ha, Eglezdipalien?”

I’ve gotten Kota to laugh for a second, the fake name drawn onto his forehead creasing as he raises his eyebrows. The ability to gauge how long it’s been since someone has picked their nose, just by looking at them. An effective alias for Kota in diverting suspicion I’m sure, but I hope for the sake of whoever that it’s not a real name; I’d sooner be nameless.

But then, just like that, Kota’s lost all his humor again—I hope he can’t see that I’ve nearly frozen in place, biting my lip. “How’d you know I was on a mission? Thought you left HQ early?”

“Sorry. Sol tells me everything.” I’m cursing myself inside for the mistake, though I didn’t technically lie after all. Omission of details is a sort of guilty specialty of my own, it seems.

Kota huffs. “‘Course he does. I don’t see how you can stand him, let alone being his little pet.”

I purse my lips, holding back a laugh that could end this all if I let it tumble out. Sometimes I forget how little he—they all—know. How little I’ve told him. There it is again—that little knot of guilt in my stomach, a knot I myself am tightening with every word I’ve said these past few moments. I tell it to go to Harva—I don’t have time for this. Let him think I was just startled by his comment, that I’m still sucking up to Sol for better pay, or whatever the rest of what he’s got in his head that I’ve been doing for months.

“Don’t talk like that,” I hedge, and it’s true. Kota himself once stole the ability of super-hearing for the man, and who knows what else.

Kota’s expression falters, only for the moment that he adds, “I just thought Loma meant more to you than that.”

I have to suck in a breath not to recoil at the mention of our late friend. Of course that’s why he’s been of so little patience with me lately. I should’ve known. I should’ve expected it, seeing as how I’ve manipulated his view so much that I really do deserve such shame in his eyes; but the coward in me still won’t let the act go, even after this. And not to mention his worsening relationship with Sol; it’s really no wonder. The man didn’t even bother to hide his sudden gain of the power—Loma’s power—of emotion-reading, even a day after her mysterious disappearance. Salomachieth deserved more, if not from him then from me.

“It’s not like that,” I shrug away the accusation. “I just need you to trust me for now.” I let my stare linger, once again conflicted as that one last uncorrupted part in my mind begs him to ask just one right question. But soon, it, too, is drowned out by the rest.

And to my surprise, Kota takes it after one long, hard stare. “Alright then.” He even changes the subject, causing me to even cringe on the outside. “My turn to ask questions again: what’s got you so upset about your mission today? I can tell something happened, don’t bother lying.”

Back to that again. Of course he can sense my hesitance. I force myself to relax my shoulders, taking a second’s pause as we dodge around a speeder parking to purse my lips against the thirst in my suddenly dry mouth. “The last one I was assigned to, the most powerful, refused to pledge his gift to me—temperature manipulation. I was lucky I’d snuck up on ‘im without any problems, but in the end I was forced to kill the vain—” I shake my head, stopping myself. Mom always told me to respect the dead.

We continue on a few steps, Kota saying nothing. He just swallows a deep breath. It’s no secret our job has its difficulty; and he knows I don’t like being forced to kill. I just have to remind myself the now cooling corpse mustn’t have felt the same about whatever noble-blood he must’ve murdered for the name’s gift in the first place.

Kota finally regains his voice, though it’s as dark as the alleyway we’re in and much more dry. “Some of them just… would rather have their throat slit than their name taken. Sometimes I wonder if that is better than living nameless…” I risk a glance at Kota, admittedly shocked by his mention of the nameless. Sol himself plucked him out of the Syltana district of the city’s overflowing nameless population, where Kota’s own parents had been graced with the extraordinary luck of few: finally finding a name that wasn’t already claimed, and a powerful one at that. A true Syltana to Sylwei miracle. They kept his gift of shadow-bending a secret on behalf of their son over the course of several years, but in the end no one can keep the secret of a powerful name from Lord Sol.

Since his ability’s pretty powerful for even Sol’s standards, I’ll admit that I was initially smug that he was impressed, ever-so-slightly jealous, even, when Sol brought me for hire into his band of name-thieves. Dakotyzen’s a full letter shorter than my name, but my namesake grandmother’s namesake had resourceful parents; Satialkala, the gift of being able to share a name with someone else, is similar in a way to Sol’s gift. Until me, only Sol could possess more than one gift at once. But here I am, sharing hisgift, after countless years of training and building trust, his greed having finally out-weighed his pride. Or maybe my offering of the first name I ever stole for him—the power to read sylwei and the only other power he allows me to share with him—was just icing on the cake of my cycle of endless dependence on him to feed my family. Even the ability to shape darkness to one’s own will isn’t as effective as the ability to steal multiple names at once, and thus I owe Kota my loyalty at least for the fact that he doesn’t hold too much envy in his heart to even associate with me. Unlike all the rest of Sol’s personal band of sylwei-smugglers. For that I owe him my true honesty—and only that. If only for his sake he knew the right questions to ask.

I’m about to ask where we’re going once more when Kota speaks again. “It wouldn’t have to be like this, if Sol allowed you to use your power to share with your victims. You wouldn’t have to kill them, or even threaten their lives.”

A long pause, more splashing shrum up ahead. The dirty rodents must be nearly the size of men creeping through the darkness—downright obese off of city-scraps and who knows what else.

Snapping out of my distraction, I tilt my head, reminding myself to act puzzled by the suddenness of such a profound notion. And a dangerous one, too. “Yeah, and? He can’t let me, because then someone might actually trace it back to me, and then to him.” And he likes the power of it, to have thousands of names all to himself anyway. Though I wish I could, I can’t say that last part, of course; Kota’s mocking me for “sucking up” to Sol was one thing, but undermining Sol’s own methods? The both of us are rather fond of our heads. One can never be too safe when it comes to Sol’s various surveillance abilities. And I can’t have Kota realizing just how shallow my true loyalties really are in the interest of our employer.

“We both know that isn’t why.”

I feel my brow twist in confusion. “What’s—” I meant to finish with “gotten into you,” or “crossed you with a death wish,” or something, but my words die in my mouth when I see his teeth bared in a grin—and then a flash of silver almost as bright as the glint in his eyes, and then—nothing.

The first thing I register is my eyes are closed. So I open them.

I’m on the ground, staring up at Kota and… Ennerilsha? And Kaltsyll? That explains the ringing in my ears, and why I can even see through the fog of my blurred vision that I’m on the ground. Drenched with rainwater, and—so that’s what hit me. I flinch at the sight of a small bloodstain on the brick in Kaltsyll’s hand—my own blood washing away in the rain.

My breathing speeds up even more when it dawns on me. He’s brought Sol’s other top smugglers to help him threaten me. Two people he’d claimed to hate with me. Two people who are working with him now, who have been for who knows how long. “You—” the words choke in my throat as it constricts on my panting breaths.

Neither Kota nor Ennerilsha nor Kaltsyll even flinch when I wake up, don’t do a thing to stop me from standing. Maybe they know I’m in no shape to, after what must at least be a minor concussion. Or maybe they know that just the three of them is enough. Shadow-bending, lie-detection, and illusion-manipulation, respectively.

I do best to juggle between the three stares, each their own shade of cruel smugness. But each twisted smile is calm. They’ve been planning this for a long time, I think. “Whatever you want, I won’t give it to you.”

More movement, more pressure and disorientation as Kaltsyll lands another blow with a kick to my chest, meant to force my head back into the alley sidewall. I expected the strike, but was in no position to block it or even dodge it—all I can do is bring up my hands behind my head to cushion it from the surface of that grimy wall. They’re careful to leave me conscious, though; they want me awake, they want to see me cowering below them in an upright fetal position. I feel not much more than dizziness and stinging—and cold. I can’t even hear the rain any more with the sharp pulse of my ears. The pain hasn’t quite penetrated my damaged brain yet, but the adrenaline has.

In a blink of movement, Kota jerks me up by the collar, a shiny dagger to my throat. So that was the flash of metal I saw. Not a gun. No, a gun’s too quick, too clean, too merciful for his practice. His eyes reflect the cold metal like a pair of mirrors; he’d always had the slightest tendency toward a deeper-held cruelty—one I should’ve feared. He punches me again, but I just smile through the blood raining from my nose. I hope my face cut his knuckles good too.

“Did you trust me?” His voice is a taunt.

I refuse to take the bait, to look down at the knife he holds right under my jaw. I can feel as its liquid coldness reaches into my skin, but it hasn’t drawn blood, not quite yet. “I—”

I almost say no. Almost.

But that would be too harsh a truth, too soon. So I tell him… not a lie, but a different sort of the truth. “I trusted that you weren’t as shrum-brained as you look. That you weren’t actually stupid enough to do something like this. That you… were better than…” I stop myself. I can’t afford to pity him, not any longer. He’s torn my trust to more pieces than there are stars in the moontime sky, and it was my own foolishness after all that led me to hope that… I’d be able to fit him into my plans. Another cough wracks my body as I struggle to stay sitting up.

I look to the ground, regaining my composure in a disappointed laugh. “I was wrong.” He goes for another punch, but this time I turn my head to miss it, baring my nearly knocked-out teeth like a crazed animal. I hope they’re as bloody as they feel, my smile as wide and gruesome as I can make it to startle them.

I brace for another hit, but Kota just smiles. And something glints in his eyes again, too—I don’t like it. “Pledge me all your names. Maybe we’ll let you come with us, be the nameless little tagalong.”

He doesn’t smile as widely when I spit in his face, deep scarlet with blood. But to my surprise, he doesn’t bend the shadows to his face to hide his shame.

They want me to cower, to beg for mercy. Or put up a brave and valiant-hearted fight, only to fail. I’ll give them the satisfaction of neither. “Do you care about me? Do you want me to live?” I let loose a hacking laugh this time, shifting acute eye-contact between all three traitors. Kaltsyll glares back with menace, but I relish in my success in making Ennerilsha flinch. She knows this isn’t just an act.

“Maybe I should be honorable—come with you and get torn to pieces by Sol. Or I could just stay here—It’s a shame to die at the hands of a bunch of soft-hearted traitors, but it would sure hurt less—” I’ve got to buy myself time, and fast. Lucky I know just the words. “Poor, sad Syltana over here can’t even land a punch—” the pain of the next blow, which Kota does land, brings tears to my eyes. I can only keep my split-lipped smile with the knowledge that they won’t see my tears through all this blood. I pray the rain doesn’t wash it all away—and it’s almost as if it listens, still showering down from outside the covering but not too loud that they can’t hear my taunts.

“Last chance.” Kota jerks my collar even higher, choking my already-shallow breaths. I would’ve laughed in his face if he glared, if his eyes darkened with hate. But they’re bright—not just with cruelty of bloodlust, but with something else. Arrogance. Confidence. Like he knows what he’s doing.

And then my malicious grin fades, every sore and stinging muscle in my face pulsing with the effort. “You found it.” I don’t have to pretend to be surprised. Or intimidated. Maybe I really am becoming a coward, having second thoughts about my own plan.

He seems to thrive on the fear in my eyes, the shock released with the drop of my jaw.

“You shouldn’t have called me that name.” His dark eyes tear into mine, still the same brown flecked with bronze, ringed with black. But now I see another dark shape, my own silhouette close enough to reflect against the menace of his eyes. I breathe in and out, the smell of my own blood so strong it’s as if I’m breathing it in, that it’s what’s choking me by filling my lungs. Rather than the grip of someone I’d thought was a friend.

He found it. He found the name, the power I’ve been searching for ever since I discovered it’s already been used. Immunity to outside powers—yes, I’ve been waiting for this one.

I’m careful not to let the look of terror in my eyes waver. I’ve always been a good actress. But in the end, my smugness wins out in a silent grin.

Kota flinches with the rest.

So that’s why the shadows now betray him—he abandoned his shadow-bending for the new name.

But I’ve still got a few tricks of my own. And he still thinks he found that name all by himself.

I breathe in a last deep inhale, reviving on the feeling of lightness, finally rid of a weight I’ve carried for the past years of waiting for this. Kota’s confidence flickers as I let my smile expand, breathing out a small, disappointed sigh, even shaking my head just the slightest bit. If only he and the rest of them had learned patience. I wish they had, I really do.

“You shouldn’t have threatened me.” My voice sounds unhinged, drunk—and maybe I am, high off of my imminent victory.

I see the focus dissolve from Kota’s eyes, pupils dilating in panic as I toy with his balance, but not before they flash his surprise that his new little name hasn’t worked—even immunity isn’t perfect. Just like Loma had first guessed, the name apparently can only be cancelled out by one other name. One name of the two I found unexpectedly just hours ago.

But I’m not finished. “You should’ve asked what the two extras were,” I say to his slumped form on the ground, writhing out of control with wave by wave of vertigo. Who knew intense dizziness would be almost as useful a tool as name-stealing?  I hear the groans of Kaltsyll and Ennerilsha on the ground, but don’t bother to look their way. Thanks to Kota, theirs or any other powers in existence won’t be a problem any more. Three unexpected targets, now, three new names—one for vertigo, one for name-swiping, and now, one for immunity. Three test runs at once. I think it’s safe to say they all work.

I would have told him if he’d asked. I would have joined him if he asked with his words instead of his knife. I sigh again, allowing myself to pity them all one last time.

I can’t say the idea doesn’t cross my mind, but I decide not to kill Kota that easily. No, that wouldn’t be a proper enough revenge—just as how just killing Sol won’t suffice enough on behalf of Loma, once I get the pleasure of cornering him. But I’ve stolen Kota’s name, without having to kill him or force him to pledge it to me—a useful gift indeed. Same for the others, I think, as I bend down to touch Ennerilsha on the forehead, gentle as I take her precious lie-detection, Kaltsyll and his prized illusions next.

“Thank you.” I say, finally drained of any sarcasm, my voice now brittle with condolence. Even if I remind myself they wouldn’t have spared the same courtesy to me.

I really hope they don’t drown in the pools of liquid gathering on the alleyway ground, its clear rust color just diluted enough to reflect the coming moons; gold even through the conflicting blend of rainwater, my blood, and the grime of the city. The Sylwei side of the city, that is, that they’ll never see again if they don’t drown. I hope their fellow Syltana treat them well.

At the glow of the first night’s star, I remember the final remark I’ve had planned, the one I’d been dreaming of saying, practicing in silence for longer than anyone knew. “And lastly, you should’ve known that Sol would never send the likes of you after the power-immunity.”

Poor Sol might not have even known such a power existed. What he does know, by now, though, is that I’ve broken his topmost rule, I’m sure.

You are mine. The names you steal are mine, too—don’t even think about using them.’

‘Of course, master.’

I laugh after my last parting grace, smearing the blood from my chin onto my sleeve. But then I drop my smile, one more string of words on the tip of my tongue. And I’ve decided I think I will say them, whether or not Kota can even hear me any more. “Loma wouldn’t have been proud. I was right not to let her tell you.”

I glance at my twisted reflection in the pale red puddle at my feet. Vibrant even through my thick but smudged layer of concealer, the mark of Satialkala glows bright red. But this may be the last time it will.

Why share a name when one can take without asking? The three marks around my wrist glow even brighter. No, Sol won’t like that at all.

My giddiness is back. I laugh in time with the swift splashes of my footfalls through the rain. Salomachieth may indeed get her revenge. And after that?

Mother will never lack money for the family ever again.


BIO

Masie Hollingsworth is currently a High School student at Hillcrest High School, as well as the Creative Writing program at Greenville Fine Arts Center. Masie is an avid writer and reader in her free time and enjoys making and sharing all kinds of art as one of her many hobbies. She currently contributes as a reader for the Crashtest magazine and hopes to continue to pursue her passion for writing in the future.

A Survival Guide to Christian College

by Rachel Belth



Dear Meredith,

I hear you are thinking about attending my alma mater, a staunchly Baptist university in the plains of central Ohio. There are a few things I didn’t tell you during our conversation yesterday. For example, what you may not realize now is that eventually, you’ll crack, some small or large or medium-sized part of you. The place is a little bubble of Christian perfection. You can only take so much of girls with clear skin and name-brand shoes and perfectly curled hair even coming in out of the wind. You can only take so much of polite boys with trimmed scruff and pomaded haircuts who hold doors open for girls. Sure, for a lot of them it’s a façade, and sure, there are some awkward, frizzy people like me—I’m just talking about how it feels. How it felt to me.

You can only take so much of required Chapel—every student band perfectly mixed without a single missed note, the worship leader reading an applicable Bible passage while a guitar or keyboard plays emotionally in the background. Not to mention university-mandated room checks (when your RA goes through your room once a week while you’re away, to check for illicit substances, which for Baptists includes alcohol). It really does a number on your faith.

Of course, I must remember who I’m talking to. You’re pretty, big eyes and soft hair, always so gracefully dressed from your flats to your loose scarf. You’re generous of spirit to everyone you talk to, and you speak so earnestly of your love for your parents, your sisters, your God. You seem fearlessly innocent, as if anything dirty in the world would bounce off you without leaving a mark. I try to be surprised by nothing, but I sincerely can’t but believe you’ll be fine.

So, let me re-phrase: what I didn’t realize when I was your age was that eventually, I’d crack (in a small-to-medium-sized way). It was a philosophy professor with a beard and a baritone so epic that everything he said carried the finality of absolute truth, and it was J.L. Schellenberg’s argument of divine hiddenness that collapsed my faith finally like the last brick of a Jenga tower.

I’m sure your faith is stronger than mine was. But if you do crack, here’s what you need to know. What you can get away with:

  • You can cut off the middle finger of your winter gloves. Like those fingerless gloves with the pullover mitten tops, but just for the middle finger.
  • Similarly, you can paint your fingernails lime green except for the middle one, painted red. It will totally go over everyone’s heads. People will even compliment you (“I love your nails!”). You can choose to point it out (“You realize which finger is painted red, right?”) or smile smugly and say, “Thanks.”
  • You can brew kvass in an old coffee syrup jar. Nobody will notice even though it smells distinctly yeasty. You can keep vodka in a travel-size Jack Daniels bottle in a box under your bed. You can probably keep a whole liquor cabinet under your bed, but I wasn’t brave enough—you can get expelled for that.
  • You can scrawl Russian swear words on your arm with a Sharpie, a temporary tattoo. Maybe дерьмо (that is, bitch). Not so much because you believe yourself to be one, although you do, but because you can flaunt a word that everyone would be shocked to see in English.
  • You can keep the handful of Band-Aid wrappers in the trash, right on top. You can keep on your dresser—right there sitting on your perfume bottle—the Bic razor you so tenaciously wrested from its plastic casing, wedging it between the laundry room laminate and the heel of your stoutest pair of pumps, between the carpet and the back leg of your desk chair, leaving tufts of blue between the blades. You can slice the skin on your lower left abdomen where no one will see and worry. (You can cut your arm and most people won’t notice, but those who do will get hysterical when you tell them not to worry, it’s not that big of a deal, so it’s best to keep that stuff hidden. Except, of course, for the razor blade, which you can keep in plain sight.)

What you cannot get away with: throwing your converse against the cinderblock wall, again and again until all the frustration is out and all the swear words have been muttered. Your RA, a peppy girl who flatirons her blonde hair and wears a lot of pink, will hear and come to the door concerned, and she will not believe you when you say everything’s fine.

Or maybe it will be your friend across the hall who hears you, who knows pain better than you do, and she’ll sit on your roommate’s chair and wait for you, even though she doesn’t know what’s going on because you can’t find the words yet.

Maybe, in the thick of this, you will try to write a poem, and you will send it to a friend for feedback, but instead of commenting on its cadence, he’ll ask what’s going on because he knows you’re not OK and that’s more important. And you’ll tell him what you can, even though you still haven’t found the words. You’ll wait for them to stack in the air between you and they still won’t come. And he’ll say things to help that won’t. And he’ll hug you as long as you need him to, which will not make everything better but will begin to help and will comfort you even years later, after you have begun to find the words.

Whatever university you choose to go to, may you find friends like that.

It seems horrendously inappropriate to be telling you this, Meredith, so innocent. To think, my story, benign as it is, may be the first block in your Jenga tower. That is not what I want for you, and I don’t want that responsibility—please let this story bounce off you. But if your faith does crack or crash altogether, I hope you’ll find peace in the rubble. I hope you rebuild, if that’s what you want, or burn it, or learn to carry the mess along with you. Any of those can be beautiful options too. And if you find any new ways of flipping people off or cursing them without them knowing, please tell me; I still enjoy doing that.

Stay strong.

Best,
Rachel

# # #


BIO

Rachel Belth is an instructional designer, creative nonfiction writer, and poet. Her work has appeared in Hypertext Magazine, Crack the Spine, and The Critical Flame, among other places, and she volunteers as a copyeditor at the literary website Identity Theory. She holds a B.A. in Technical and Professional Communication. She writes from an east-facing window in Columbus, Ohio.

Five Questions for Thomas Pynchon

by Nathaniel Heely



The conspiracy was in. The first reaction from the literary public was one of impending death. Why else would a hermit break silence? For there was no new book coming out, no new tome that might define and brand an adolescent century. Thomas Pynchon was sick. Thomas Pynchon was dying. Finally being sent off to see what was beyond the zero, soul ready to investigate the deep web of religious afterlives.

It was even more peculiar whom he had chosen. The young writer/coffee barista had no prior familiarity, indeed had only published a handful of George Saunders knockoff stories, and was more famous for her voluminous output of book reviews on Goodreads. Her most notable contribution to the literary world was a Salon article roasting James Frey and a listicle on Electric Literature: “10 Underexposed Indie Press Female Works of Fiction 2016.” As far as anyone could tell she had never even mentioned Thomas Pynchon by name. Her lone review on Goodreads of his work was a brief paragraph on The Crying of Lot 49—seemingly the book Pynchon had most derided, saying of it years earlier, “I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up until then.”

Rochelle [J’est un] Autry’s full review of CoL49 to wit:

Funny story overall. Afraid much of it went over my head, or else I feel as though the feeling of much information going overhead is required reading for this novel based on reviews I’ve seen. Am told the unusual names (uh, Mike Fallopian? Oedipa Maas?) are kind of par for the course. Was a fan. This book about conspiracy invites us to conspire over its own bookness by use of several MacGuffins factual and counter-factual, real and imagined. It reads like a circus performance. At no point did I feel the crushing disappointment of mystery—of failed detecting—I think I was supposed to on Oedipa’s part. I felt like too much of a watcher.

Further hypotheses were postulated. Rochelle lived in Williamsburg, only a half hour’s drive from The Hermitage. Paths could be crossed, backroom deals long in process. A rumor was traced back to an editorial intern at Penguin that Rochelle had a novel-in-progress that Pynchon believed his interview would help elevate. A literary agent publicly pondered on Twitter whether Autry was a long-time mistress to Pynchon, perhaps inspiring—at least in part—the character of Maxine Tarnow. A white male blogger accused Autry of being a notorious bed-hopper, providing a list of authors and editors she had dated, and was then attacked viciously himself by the Internet horde over everything from his unprofessional and libelous conjecture to his white male blogger privilege.

It was Melanie that contacted Rochelle on Tom’s behalf. She acquired the email via Rochelle’s personal website and stated merely that she was Pynchon’s “agent” and nothing further, and that Tom was interested in exploring the “landscape of digital interviews.” His stipulations were that he not be asked why he was granting an interview, nothing on the nature of his reclusiveness and that all the questions remain literary in topic.

It had been over 40 years since Gravity’s Rainbow, his magnum opus. What does one do for forty years knowing their best work and days are behind them? She considered questioning him more upon this line but felt it would be disrespectful. Knew it would be disrespectful. Tom would come out a victim of this question. That was another thing she was doing nowadays. Thinking of him as Tom. It’s how Melanie always referred to him. Rochelle always wrote back referencing him as “Mr. Pynchon” but fully conscious of it, and feeling that one day she would boldly replace it with “Tom.”

There were so many ambiguities in the world. She could not read people’s sincerity. Everybody acted as though this were a big project, something ambitious that she had chosen to work on. She was all the more ashamed that she had no grand ambitions. She rode the subway every morning hoping to make it through the day with enough energy to ride back in the evening and maybe fall asleep amidst the noise and clamor and rude bumping. Now when she rode back into Brooklyn, she felt a needle in brain’s stem, pressing hard, keeping her awake, trying to re-engage with the active and creative side that would compose what several literary outlets were calling “the Millenials’ finest hour.” Written of course by Millenials themselves, proving no one loves torturing a generation as much as one of its disbelieving members. Not that a belief had anything to do with when you were born, but then what was a generation in the twenty-first century if not a pseudo-cult exclusive to birthdates?

As Flavorwire put it, “Autry and Pynchon are ostensibly two voices of a generation clashing: Tom with his tome-atic ecstasy of printed word, while Rochelle, in contrast, is a mere mendicant producing idle, uncollected thoughts in 140 characters.” n+1 made a vigorous extended metaphor about orphanage and absent fathers in regards to Pynchon’s noted silence and the constant prattling, neuroticism and triple-coated irony that came from Rochelle (or really a conflation of the entire ‘Blogging Generation’) and her perceived lifestyle.

Within a week of receiving the email, word got out, shocked, settled and was forgotten. Rochelle was getting invites to book launches, requests from magazines both large and ignored to write reviews, agents offering their services for her own book writing ventures. She was invited to a launch party for Jonathan Lethem’s latest book. Her boyfriend, Havik Tanner, an editorial assistant for the independent press, Albino Alligator, worked the room, handing out his business card while she hovered over the punch bowl, sipped complimentary champagne and followed the hashtag #LethemLaunch on Twitter and Instagram trying to identify people in the room by their various posts and deciding which ones she despised the most.

Coming home she received an email from a man who identified himself as Richard and as a former friend of Thomas Pynchon.

Dear Rochelle

My name is Richard. Forgive me if this is too forward. The news of your upcoming interview with Mr. Pynchon has made quite a stir in our tiny literary community. If you are interested I would like to speak to you about your subject as I have some information that is very pertinent.

Kind Regards,
-R

She emailed him back with some reserve—that reserve that any young person holds in her head when she feels she is being peddled a scam. Her place in the literary world was one of phantom power, receiving lots of correspondence and requests to meet the man, while she herself was only to have electronic correspondence. Her iPhone dinged at 1:01 AM with a reply:

Rochelle,

What I’m about to say will seems an absolute fabrication, and you’ll likely regard me as the crazy hippy I am. Tom was not very close with many people and even less so with writers, but since we were friends before his genius was ever pronounced to the world, I was lucky to be in that close circle and I kept his silence along with him for many years. It’s very apparent to me, though, that something quite nefarious is going on and I believe that it would be Tom’s wish to communicate to you what I know.

The real Thomas Pynchon died, like the prophets of old, on his birthday, 8 May 2007. He was 70. I was at his funeral. Against the Day was his swan song, and a beautiful one at that. He died of congestive heart failure. Since then his literary trust has remained more secret than most government agencies. Tom was always very fascinated with technology and the modern world in his literature as well as his personal life, and in his last years he developed an early AI program that could compose its own literature. It was based upon the same kind outputs you’ll get from SPAM emails, often the ones that send out those fake prince from Nigeria schemes (sidenote: those programs are actually compelled to riddle their emails with typos and bad grammar to target people who are less intelligent, but think themselves smart that they realize it’s a person speaking in a second language). His family made a discovery of this and has since developed two books: Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge.

Sounds improbable, I know, but if you’ve read these books you’ll notice that they’re very similar to each other. Both involve private investigators, both rely on typical rehashed Pynchon tricks of the search for ambiguous entities (The Golden Fang and hashslingrz) and many critics have gone on to refer to these books (along with a book he wrote in his 20s) as “Pynchon-Lite.” The construction of the books is quite simple. It’s actually a basic 1000 monkey at 1000 typewriters type of scenario. Much of what The Typing Monkey produces is gibberish, but it creates a lot of gibberish. Volumes. Reams. Something like ten full length books a day. The Hermitage actually employs nearly a dozen readers simply to rifle through these manuscripts and select coherent passages, plots, characters etc. I’m giving you just the superficial tie-ins. I can give you more information, but my security in this matter is extremely delicate. I will provide further and substantial proof, but you must not tell anyone about me.

Again, I know I’m crazy, but this is not what Tom would have wanted: his life being exploited for this. It was contrary to everything he was. He was dirt poor for many of the years I knew him, living in squalor and just happy to write. Now everything that Tom created in his life is undermined with the publication of these two novels. At this point only the grave can keep me silent, and I’ve let that day crawl these eight years closer and closer, hoping and praying (to many manner of gods I didn’t believe in, perhaps they are all real, perhaps only some) that someone else would come forward. But I’ve heard nary a word. Perhaps they’ve tried and been silenced. Please contact me. Please take this seriously. Please believe me. I will provide everything you need to prove this. I promise.

Regards,
Richard

PS. If you still need convincing look at this:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/03/08/opinion/sunday/algorithm-human-quiz.html?_r=0

Rochelle’s first instinct was to be afraid. She was caught up in something she didn’t want to even be aware of. The link provided an eight question quiz to see if humans could decipher between human and computer produced writing. She got a 4 of 8. If there was such uncertainty between these simple sentences then of course there was an argument to be made that AI could already write books. Just a few years ago a man named Phillip M. Parker had revealed his own patented system for algorithmically compiling raw data into book form. Because of it, Amazon now had nearly 1,000,000 books for sale from his company. It was ridiculous to believe, but also ridiculous to not at least consider it.

She emailed him back in the dead of that night, hoping that he would still exist outside of it. He replied that it would take a little while to establish more secure communication and that he would write to her soon.

There were other considerations. In the 70s many people judged William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon to be the same person. Gaddis wrote The Recognitions in 1955 and promptly disappeared from the literary scene for twenty years, also never giving interviews. A man identified as William Gaddis would eventually consent to some interviews in the 80s, most notably with The Paris Review and Malcolm Bradbury. Up until Ted Kaczynski was arrested, the popular theory was that Pynchon was the Unabomber. There were those that believed he used the name Wanda Tinasky to write a series of letters to Mendocino Commentary and Anderson Valley Advertiser. He was Bob Dylan’s best man. He met Lee Harvey Oswald in Mexico City in 1963 over a meal of shredded chicken gorditas. He had crippling agoraphobia.

She was firing off all these theories one night to her boyfriend in bed. She rattled through them all off during sex and found herself unable to judge whether the sex was good or bad, only that it had happened. Havik held her quietly listening to the prattle and stroking her thin chestnut hair.

“And then there’s the Richard Farina theory,” he said passively inspecting the hair as though looking for a magisterial, almost angelic quality.

“The what?”

“Richard Fariña. Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me?”

“Never read it.”

“Oh, well he was friend of Pynchon’s. Some say they’re the same person.”

“Friend? Wait that…what was his name?”

“Richard Fariña.”

By the last syllable of his last name she was already digging through her gmail. She confirmed what she believed to be true. “He emailed me! Holy Christ, Havik, he emailed me. I mean I’m not supposed to tell but frankly I didn’t believe it to be true and he told me not to tell anyone and promise you won’t tell anyone but he was telling me all this stuff that sounded insane but he wrote a book you’re saying?”

“Woah, calm down. Who emailed you?”

“Richard. Richard Fariña, look at this email address. RFarinaphobe at gmail, I was wondering what the hell a Farinaphobe was but—”

“Rochelle, Jesus. That can’t be Richard Fariña.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Richard Fariña died in 1966.”

Her blood ran not just cold, but felt like microscopic beetles composed of frozen nitrogen; disappointment, madness, claustrophobia. “What are you—?”

“They went to Cornell together, yeah. Pynchon wrote the Introduction—”

“But that can’t. He emailed…”

“Probably just someone being smart with you.” Her shoulders dragged down to her hips. “I didn’t mean to disappoint you. I’m sorry.”

She wept and buried her face in his bony neck. “What is going on with me? Who the hell…but he can’t…”

“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Don’t say that you asshole.”

“What?”

“Of course you should have said something. You shouldn’t have had to say anything. I’m just an idiot. I know nothing about what I’m wrapped up in.”

“You’re not an idiot.”

“For all I know someone did this just to show how clueless I was. God, Jesus, I’m so embarrassed. I’m so fucking stupid…”

Havik had a copy of the book, but she swatted it away, it being a scepter of her stupidity. He held her and told her he loved her as she struggled against him.

The five questions she sent to Melanie were composed in a flurry the next morning. She just wanted the thing behind her, to be completed. She abided by the stipulations and came up with: 

1. What, in your opinion, is the greatest piece of American fiction of the past twenty-five years?

2. What is your writing schedule like?

3. Your name is brought up constantly as a Nobel hopeful, particularly in light of the fact that it has been more than twenty years since an American won it. How do you respond to this?

4. Some of your more recent books Bleeding Edge and Inherent Vice have been relegated, by some critics, as being genre or cross-genre fiction. How do you view genre fiction in the world and as it relates to your own work?

5. What did you think of P.T. Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice?

A day later Melanie responded.

Ms. Autry,

Please forgive me but I’m afraid I’m going to have to reject these questions. I realize how frustrating this must be! Mr. Pynchon is very peculiar in what he wants…or rather what he doesn’t want to answer. What am I saying? Perhaps that he knows it when he sees it. There’s no rush to this sort of thing. He told me to relay to you that it may take several attempts and to not be discouraged. He would never want to discourage you. In addition he gave some reasoning he thought might be helpful for why these questions seem inadequate:

1. This seems the type of insular question that I ought to avoid. There are a great dozen or two dozen books I could list but I don’t want to come across as a promotional advert. There are many authors I like, some books I’m rather fond of, and even a few I’ve felt necessary to blurb, all of which you can find with a cursory google search. But I don’t wish to single anyone out.

2. The only reason one might answer this question is because some people think I have access to an El Dorado of Writing. I assure you this is not the case. The best answer I could give, which I do not feel is an answer, is that I write enough to produce eight novels in fifty years.

3. Commenting on the Nobel seems to be a dangerous sort of thing. I’d rather the Nobel committee pretend I don’t exist and vice versa.

4 Nope. Sorry, try again.

5. Let Paul’s work have a chance to stand and resonate before I come in with some overbearing and completely unnecessary critique.

He requests you do not make this reasoning public.

Best,
-M

She would have been insulted had another email from the Richard Fariña address not appeared just two minutes before. It simply stated to check her mailbox downstairs. With eyebrow twitching in her kitchen, Havik came strutting in, blinded by the morning glare.

“Morning.”

“Can you see if the mail’s come yet?”

“Babe it’s just past 8:00 I don’t think…”

“Just check please,” she snapped. Havik stood there waiting for her to come to her senses, but she just stared with pupils the size of her iPhone. He walked silently pretending to be angry and not hurt. He came back with a single envelope, her name written in calligraphic grace, and no postage stamp.

“Friend of yours?”

She opened.

It’s me. I told you this would be arriving. For my safety it’s best I don’t deal in specifics. Meet me at the place you and your boyfriend had dinner last Thursday. Tonight. 8 PM. Make sure you aren’t followed.

-R.

She was now thoroughly insulted and realized it was a massive prank. She and Havik had eaten in last Thursday and the letter was clearly a furthering of some perverse internet prank. She flicked it once toward the trash, brought it back, admired the calligraphy—she had always admired calligraphy and was even jealous of it despite its source—and flicked it again into the trash.

Havik was working late that night. In his text he termed it “babysitting an author.” She invited friend and coworker, Connie Quetzalcoatl, to her place for the evening for dinner, which ended up being white wine, pita chips and a tom-sized drum of hummus.

“I want to die,” Connie said opening a second box of pita chips and cramming one in her mouth on the final word.

“Mistakes were made,” Rochelle countered.

“Starting with my parents having sex.”

“We’re better than this.”

“To think I was one hump away from never existing.”

“If only one of us had learned self-control. It might have been enough.”

“I’m not of the mind that quantum physics leads to a multiple Universe theory.”

“But how else do you learn self-control without self-control?”

“It’s just this one. And most of the things, most of the people that could have existed. Just didn’t. And I was the one that existed. Man.”

“I mean if you’ve had no experience with it, how will you ever be able to withstand it?”

“Mistakes were made.”

“I’m out of wine.”

Connie said she ought to be going. They buoyed up off the vinyl couch like pregnant mothers and shuffled to the door. Connie ordered an Uber. At the apartment door they bid each other goodbye. Turning around, Rochelle saw a man in a tan trenchcoat, grey fedora, wayfarer sunglasses and hair so jet black it looked dyed with car grease.

“Rochelle,” he nodded.

She stood stunned. “I’m sorry?”

“It’s Richard. Can we talk?”

She looked about her. For what she couldn’t name. Cameras? Exits? Police? None of the Above? She ascended in a dreamlike manner, taking everything at face value. Sitting back on the vinyl couch the man sat down, looked nervously and began speaking without taking off his coat or hat and without Rochelle offering. He spoke the past to her: how until Tom had married Melanie he had considered himself retired from writing. She was the one who convinced him to release Slow Learner. Vineland actually started as an inside joke between he and Tom. Mason & Dixon had sputtered sometime around ’79 and its publication owed credit to at least three other ghost writers. This was why Tom had invented the Monkey Typewriter. To get out of writing once and for all. The goal was to publish a perfect mimicry of his writing mind…

“You’re supposed to be dead!” Rochelle said.

Richard stopped, straightened himself and said in a calm demeanor. “Yes. I am. It was a…dangerous time for me then. It was necessary to die and as far as the world is concerned I am Robert Feddlestein. I didn’t think I’d live this long.”

“But you’re supposed to be dead!”

“Shh. Be quiet, Jesus.”

“Out. I don’t know how you found out where I live but you need to leave.”

“No Rochelle, please. For my friend.”

“What proof do you have? How can I know you are who you say you are”

“You can’t.” He said coldly. “If I hadn’t destroyed any identifying evidence about myself you’d just assume it was a fake. If I showed you an old letter from Tom in the 60s, you’d assume I wrote it last night. Everything that is,” here he gestured to the apartment, the floors, the kitchen, “is taken on faith.”

Rochelle was on the border of hysterics. “Get out. Just get out I’m calling the police.”

“What you want. What I want is at the Hermitage on the 14th floor facing the street, third window from the right.”

“I don’t want anything! Nobody ever asked what I wanted!” She was shoving him toward the door, slapping his chest which was thin and frail, and it took little strength at all to move his elderly body.

“Shh. Quiet. Mother of Christ, I just need your help on one thing.” He brought her hands together as though in prayer.

“What? What could I possibly give you? Because I don’t have access to him. That’s why it’s an email inter…”

“Just tell Melanie that you’re having a little difficulty and that you’d like to meet her in person. That’s all I need. Her out of her office for a few hours.”

Rochelle stood mute, wounded, angry.

“That’s all I ask.”

“If you don’t leave right now I’m calling the cops.”

He turned, flinging the coat like a cape and whisking the door all but one inch to the jamb. “On the day you do it. Please. Just leave a note in your mailbox. It will get to me.” He closed the door and Rochelle went to cry on her couch.

In researching for her questions she found the sheer fanaticism of Pynchon fans even more frightening and lurid. There were vigils held every May 8th at his old Manhattan Beach house. Fans staked him out for days snapping pictures of old men fitting Pynchon’s description and comparing them on internet forums. Periodically “Missing” posters with his old Navy portrait appeared on the streets of Manhattan. It was obvious that Pynchon feared his fans. In 1989 an 1800 word autobiographical sketch for an application to the Ford Foundation was released to a few scholars. He quickly had them rescind this action, but not before Steven Weisenburger from the University of Kentucky published the article: “Thomas Pynchon at Twenty-Two: A Recovered Autobiographical Sketch” by Duke University Press. There was tale that in 1997 a drunken group at a Pynchon lookalike competition ran down a fellow doppelganger they suspected to be the author, only to trip him and flee when it was found not to be him. He bled on the sidewalk for the next two hours before a New Yorker finally offered to call him an ambulance.

And Rochelle rationalized that perhaps what she was up against was nothing more than a method actor, probably fanatical in his own right. Never mind how he got her address, the Internet existed. These things happened daily, even to those who take intense precaution. She took the criticism from the first email and wrote five new and fresh questions and sent them off to Melanie:

Mr. Pynchon,

1. Paranoia is persistent in your work. For those of us coming of age in an increasingly Orwellian society where the government can ostensibly track us in real-time, how best do you think we can handle this?

2. For you, personally, is fiction an inherently moral art? What is the best way of going about creating art that is moral? And what does it mean?

3. What was your writing education at Cornell like?

4. Does the fact that your characters rarely, if ever, find meaning for the things they most seek indicate a reflection of your own beliefs?

5. Do you still keep in touch with Irwin Corey?

Melanie wrote back exuberantly that Tom had answered one of the questions and encouraged Rochelle not to despair that four others were rejected; that it was “great progress.” The notes sent to the questions:

1. You’re asking about something a little outside my work. I’d prefer if we could stick to that.

2. Nice try, but there are three questions here. Not that I would answer any of these, but I won’t accept multiple question marks in a “Question.”

4. See #1. I’d rather not talk about what I believe. I’m probably wrong as it is.

5. I’m sorry I’m afraid I don’t know who you’re talking about

3. It’s not so much the where I was educated, but when. 1958, to be sure, was another planet. You have to appreciate the extent of sexual repression on that campus at the time. Sure we wrote letters, rallied, demonstrated, marched, rocked, smoke bombed, egged, yet there was no sense of sanctuary there, or eternal youth. Maybe it was the times, maybe it was the brutal winter winds, but death always felt close to us in those days.

She took momentary solace in the one success she had. Perhaps progress existed. She worked her days at the coffee shop, giving old men an extra look, wondering if Pynchon was a coffee drinker himself, wondering if she might as well ask him this since nothing else worked. Havik remained increasingly busy. Their time together was blurry. They fell together at night sometimes for sex, more often in exhaustion.

They had a date night. Dinner at Isabella’s, short walk to Dive 75 where they met some friends and then plodded south to the Wine and Roses Bar. It was 11 PM and she was walking west on 72nd street toward the park babbling to Havik incoherently who was near sleepwalking himself when they passed the Hermitage, ominous and stretching beyond comprehension so that halfway across she was exhausted and they sat down. Here she could think up more questions while the moon burned a hole in the sky and The Ruggles himself lapsed into failed memory of old age. What she hoped was failed memory. Afraid it was more sinister. He toying with her precisely because she was a nobody, picking her at random, coming up with dubious responses to her questions to…to what? To prove a point? To produce an echo of bone-rattling paranoia from inside that mausoleum? To speak death to her as apparently his whole life had to him? To feed some inane desire for performance art? It was all a joke. Everything was a joke to him. He had hired Irwin Corey to accept the National Book Award on his behalf, never having met the man, seen the man, known the man, heard the man, discussed with the man what he ought to portray. And she was like that befuddled audience laughing only to show they were hip to the joke, but not getting the joke, terrified of not laughing, of a world full of silence and nervous coughs. Silence is the essence of meaninglessness. What was the point of asking questions? Of course he didn’t want to talk about the Nobel. Likely he just wanted to win so he could make a mockery of it too and not even show up. Respond, perhaps, by donating the money to a Waco Davidian cult that no longer existed. To answer the question would forewarn the Swedish Academy and permanently blacklist him from the nominations. And then he would no longer be practical joker Pynchon, but angry and bitter Pynchon. The Pynchon that excoriated his former love Lilian Landgraben in his first novel. The Pynchon who rescinded that 1800 word autobiographical sketch. The Pynchon who was so exasperated by the reading public that he escaped to Mexico, an entire country and language barrier separating him from his identity.

And she too began to scowl. There were now watchblogs commenting and updating on her daily internet activity: her Twitter updates, her Instagram photos, her Goodreads progress, all questioning why she hadn’t questioned. As though asking questions were easy work. A Facebook fan page of her popped up and people discussed in the open forum all the salacious rumors that surrounded her. Rumors that, of course, had no origin, came out of nothing, as did the whole Universe. She scaled back, deactivating her Facebook, taking down her Instagram, not posting to social media any longer, but only watching. She wanted to deprive the web of gossip—its oxygen.

Her silence was well noted. Her silences. People began wondering if she was in fact a Pynchonian hoax. One of the watchblogs aggregated data of increased sales of Pynchon’s books and pointed to it as nothing but a clever marketing scheme. But why would he need money? Again, fans feared the worst for the ex-sailor.

1. What is your next book about?

2. Is that really your voice in the Inherent Vice book trailer?

3. Did you ever end up writing those opera librettos proposed in your application to the Ford Foundation?

4. Do you think there will be a time when there are no humans to write books and that you are of the last generation to compose literature?

5. What do you think of the eventual heat-death of the Universe?

More non-answers. More “refer to note so-and-so in email so-and-so.” More and more and more and yet always less.

She finally got around to reading Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. Or rather she read the Introduction and was heartbroken. The one answer she had received, the lone scrap of authenticity she held of Thomas Pynchon was actually a few extant sentences cobbled together from Tom’s most rare of autobiographical acknowledgements. She curled up on the vinyl couch crying, surprised she was still capable. 

Thomas Pynchon was identity in full entropy. An equilibrium across all people where one never knew if their dinner date that night was actually Thomas Pynchon. In a manner, Rochelle could consider herself to be Thomas Pynchon.

She relented to Richard Fariña’s request and asked Melanie if she could possibly take her out to lunch and get a better idea of what he wanted to answer. To her surprise Melanie assented, even encouraged the visit. It was a Tuesday, and Rochelle and Connie worked the morning shift beginning at 4:00 AM working straight through until 11:00 AM. In the Uber on the way over Rochelle commented to Connie that she hadn’t seen Havik in three days and asked if she should be worried. Connie responded by asking if she had been sleeping regularly. Rochelle looked vacantly at the back of the driver’s balding head hoping it would speak for her instead.

They arrived early and informed the lady at the desk of their appointment. They stood in the lobby waiting.

“Y’know I was googling her today.”

“Who?”

“Melanie Jackson. The lady you’re here to—”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I just didn’t—”

“There aren’t any pictures of her either.”

“Of Melanie?”

“Yeah. That’s a bit weird don’t you think?”

“Considering who she’s married to, not really.” Rochelle ran fingers through her hair and stared at the elevator, the elevator’s lips, waiting for truth to emerge.

“But both of them. I mean, it’s like he’s got his whole family now in this sort of secret cult of privacy.”

“Is privacy a cult now?”

“You know what I mean.”

“No but,” she said directing eyes now at Connie, worried look on her face. “Is it?”

But there was no answer. At that moment a screaming came from the ceiling, childlike and full of terror. The whole building began to wobble and the two dashed to the exit and looked up. A plume of dust and orange claws leapt from a window near the top, hail of glass and a resonant pounding from the heart of the building resolute and final. People were running in no discernable direction: toward the building, away, some walking as though deaf or else too bothered to be afraid. A cascade of flimsy paper, some of it burning, eschewed from the floor and there were little children nearby trying to catch it on their tongues like snowflakes.

They went back to Rochelle’s place and lay on the couch emptying their eyes into the TV. MSNBC to CNN to FOX NEWS to ABC to MSNBC…Havik appeared only a few minutes later, kissing her and picking glass from her cheeks asking questions that got no answers. They sat like that for hours. When it was dark, Rochelle noticed there were bandages on her cheeks she did not remember being put on. Connie had left. She asked Havik if there was any mail and he said he would go check. She opened her laptop and typed the only thing she felt possible.

What happened at the Hermitage today at approximately 11:53 AM?

Do you have any reason to suspect that Richard Fariña is still alive?

Why me, Mr. Pynchon?

Are you there, Tom?

Are you alive?

Havik returned. “There’s no mail today.”

Richardson-Orange 2015-2017


BIO

Nathaniel Heely is a graduate of the University of Arkansas and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University. He has published over two dozen stories, appearing in in Burrow Press Review, decomP, Identity Theory, the Los Angeles Review of Los Angeles, and many others. He is currently working on his first novel. For more visit nathanielheely.com

The Campaign

by Michele Alice

Please

     give us another chance

           to do it to you

again.


Anthropology

Put a couple

         of yeast cells together

and look what happens.


Untitled

Through the veil of snow,

                        signs of spring:

buds upon the trees,

crocuses in bloom,

and the cardinal in muted plumage,

singing.


BIO

Michele Alice is: Detroit born, Tucson (U of A) philosophy-major, resides in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

STAY IN TOUCH