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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.

Word May Set You Free

By Marco Etheridge



Sweeney thought the kidnappings would be the difficult part, but they proved to be the easiest. What he discovered is that people are disconnected from their surroundings. Each of the abductions went down more or less the same way. One of the agents would be walking down a city sidewalk; strolling from the office or the subway station. Their faces were invariably glued to their smart phones, oblivious to the world around them.

Buck Mulligan and Sweeney worked as a team. They slipped up from behind while the agent was busy reading texts or yakking into the phone. Sweeney zapped their target with a stun-gun. Buck grabbed the sagging body under the armpits before their victim turned into a rag doll. While Buck held them upright, Sweeney popped a sack over their lolling heads. The van pulled up, side door already open, Stephen’s strong torso leaning out. The wobble-legged agent was thrown to the yawning door of the van and Stephen Dedalus snatched the hooded body into the shadows. After scooping up whatever belongings the victim had dropped, Buck and Sweeney followed. The van door slid shut and Molly Bloom drove them away. It was as simple as pie. No one seemed to notice or care. Maybe that was because it was New York City, or maybe because even in NYC, nobody likes a literary agent.

No, the hard part wasn’t snatching them off the street. The hard part was the long van ride from the City back to the warehouse in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey. That first drive, after they snatched Jeff Lyons, that was the longest. The guy whined and babbled like a little girl: What do you want from me, I don’t want to die, please, please. It went on forever, over and over, until Sweeney wanted to club him like a baby seal, which would have spoiled the plan.

After that first interminable ride, Banshee said she was damn sure going to show them another use for duct tape. She did just that. The second drive was quieter; mostly just inarticulate moaning and nose breathing. Leave it to the mystery writer to have a practical solution.

It was blind luck that they got two of the bastards in one day, or, more correctly, a bastard and a bitch. In retrospect, Sweeney realized they shouldn’t have been all that surprised. The literary agencies in Manhattan are grouped in clusters, like infected buboes in the armpits of the island. Set off a big enough bomb on West 21st Street, and you were liable to take out four or five agencies. Not that Sweeney would consider that as an option. Bombs were far to random, far too anonymous. It was a much more specific revenge that he craved.

When Allie Stark ducked into the alley behind Greenburg-Golden, she practically stepped into the van. The crew had just snatched the Reuben guy, so why not?  Bad luck for the stylish Ms. Stark, and one less trip into the City for them. At least the Stark chick was quiet, unlike Mr. BJ Reuben. He blubbered and made eyes at the Stark woman like he knew her. She ignored the crybaby, keeping her eyes focused on her abductors. All that long drive to Jersey, she didn’t make a sound.

*  *  *

Molly leaned through the heavy steel door, her voice coming thick and dull from under the latex mask.

“Are you ready for the opening monologue? I want to lock these parasites in their boxes. Everybody is sick of listening to their shit.”

Sweeney rose from a battered steel table, five manila folders in his left hand.

“Yes, Ms. Bloom, I am ready.”

“It’s Mrs. Bloom, as you know all too well. Don’t forget your mask.”

“Right, the mask.”

Sweeney dropped the folders onto the chipped tabletop and reached for a crumpled pile of latex. It was the distorted face of a nightmare leprechaun; a corpse face without an Irish skull. He stretched the thing over his head, letting it snap into place around his neck. The latex pulled against the stubble on his cheeks.

“How do I look?”

“No more of a fool than the rest of us.”

Molly Bloom raised a hand to either side of her distorted head, miming alarm. A fake orange beard wobbled below an exaggerated nose as she rolled her costumed head in a show of alarm.

“Oh, the humans, they be after me pot of gold! C’mon, Sweeney, let’s get this show on the road.”

Molly disappeared through the doorframe.

Sweeney watched her go, this woman he loved, the woman who would always be his best friend and never more.  He stood alone in the room, his breath was hot under the latex of the mask.

Sweeney’s mind wandered back to the conversation that had changed everything, before she was Molly or he was Sweeney. They were celebrating the completion of her latest work, some of the most poignant and beautiful memoir he had ever read. Over drinks in the corner of a favorite bar, their talk was of the usual frustrations, and the struggle to get published. Then the words were coming out of his mouth: It’s time to teach these bastards a lesson, change the rules of the game.

More than a year of planning followed, with endless discussions over endless pints of beer. Sara was brought into the scheme and became Banshee, then Joe became Buck Mulligan. What began as a formless fantasy of revenge took on sharp edges. By the time Stephen Dedalus joined the group, the thing had become real. Sweeney shook himself out of his memories and looked through the open doorway. And now it all comes down to this. Are you ready?

He grabbed the five file folders from the table and stepped past the rusted steel door.

*  *  *

Evening light leaked into the warehouse through jagged holes in the painted-over windows. Layers of surplus industrial paint peeled from the concrete wall; huge patches of pea green sloughing away from baby-slime yellow. Water dripped into puddles at the windowless back wall. Time had not been kind to this abandoned hulk, and it had been abandoned a long time. A collection of five small shipping containers stood in a rough row; ten-foot long steel boxes in faded colors of blue and red and green. The doors of the containers were standing open; eight-foot-wide by eight-feet-tall.

In front of the containers sat a row of five aging steel chairs. In the chairs sat two women and three men, all looking decidedly worse for the wear. Each of them were manacled; one ankle hand-cuffed to a heavy chair leg.

Sweeney crossed the chipped concrete floor, taking his place beside four masked figures standing in front of the seated line. He slapped the file folders against his thigh. Five sets of eyes looked up at him, eyes that were angry, or confused, or frightened. Sweeney ran his own eyes across the faces, looking for the cracks.

The Collin woman looked scared; just plain, ordinary scared. The first one they’d snatched, Jeff Lyons, he looked ready to burst into tears. The BJ guy was a bluster of anger and indignation. It was the last two that mattered. The older guy, Peter Schear, his eyes were taking everything in, looking for a way out. But the Stark woman, her eyes never moved. They were staring straight into Sweeney’s. He smiled at her, just to see what would happen. What he got in return was the slightest raise of an eyebrow, nothing more.

“Right. Let’s get started, shall we? Some of you have been with us for a few days. Others have just arrived. Now that we are all here, we can begin by laying out the rules. I…”

The BJ Reuben character interrupted him, his voice loud and angry.

“What the hell are you talking about? What rules? Are you some kind of crazy terrorists, or what?”

Banshee started forward, a Taser gripped in her left hand. She aimed her outstretched hand at the crotch of Mr. Reuben’s expensive slacks. He became suddenly very quiet, wide eyes staring at the thing Banshee held.

“Well, then, let’s move straight into introductions. BJ Reuben, I’d like you to meet Banshee. She will be your handler. I would advise against any more outbursts. I don’t think she likes you very much. Ms. Banshee, here is Mr. Reuben’s file. And would you pass the rest of these down, please?”

Banshee reached for the files. Through the holes of her grotesque mask, Sweeney caught the bright gleam in her eyes. Someone is enjoying this far too much. He had no doubt that Banshee would turn this whole escape into a cutting edge mystery novel. Sweeney turned his attention back to the seated captives.

“Moving right along then, let’s get to the rules. I am sure most of you are aware that you are in the same business. In fact, I am reasonably sure that some of you know each other quite well.”

He watched for any furtive glances and was not disappointed.

“Think of these rules as submission guidelines. If you don’t follow the rules, exactly as they are laid out, your stay here will be a long one, and more uncomfortable than it needs to be. Each of you will be paired with a handler. You will speak only to your handler, understood?”

“Ms. Collin, you’ll be working with Stephen. I think you’ll find Mr. Dedalus to be quite a gentleman. Peter, you’ll be with Buck Mulligan. He’s a bit hard at the edges, but I’m sure you two will hit it off.”

“Jeff Lyons, you’ll be working with Molly Bloom, you lucky devil you. That takes care of everyone but Ms. Stark, who will be working with me. My name is Sweeney. Ah, yes, Mr. Schear, thank you for the raised hand.”

“Mr. Sweeney, I’m guessing that we’ve been abducted for some reason, but I’m struggling to figure out what that reason is. I mean, we’re just literary agents; not exactly high ransom targets if I understand the situation correctly.”

The man’s voice was calm and smooth, probing for an advantage.

“If we could just hold off on the questions, I think this will go faster.”

Peter Schear shrugged, his hands in his lap.

“You are here for one reason, and that is to write. The way you are going to get out of here is to write your way out. Your choice of project is up to you. It can be a novel, a collection of short stories, even a play if you like. Buck, what would you think about the choice to write a stage-play?”

The answer came rough and hard.

“Delusional.”

“There you have it folks; and from a source that should know. Buck writes some of the best dramatic dialogue out there, but I’m sure none of you have ever heard it. His work is performed so far off Broadway it might as well be Uzbekistan. As you can see, Buck is a large man, and I can assure you he has no love for agents. I would not cross him if I were you.”

Sweeney paused to let his remark sink in.

“Now, back to why you are here. Whatever project you choose, it will be submitted to a jury of your peers, namely other agents. We will, of course, have to submit your work under assumed names. If an agent, any agent, asks to read a full manuscript, or further chapters, or expresses the slightest interest in representing your work, you will be free to go. One simple, positive response is your magic key.”

“Wait, you want us to write something, submit it to an agent, and wait for a response?”

“Another country heard from. Yes, Mr. Lyons, that is exactly correct. You will write, your handler will transcribe the manuscript into a computer file, and then we will send it off with as perfect a query letter as we can conjure.”

 Sweeney watched the change in the man’s face; the look of a little boy about to cry replaced by the look of a little boy struggling with his maths. Jeff Lyons swung his eyes up as the difficulty of the problem dawned on him.

“But, but, that could take months!”

“Yes, it could, Mr. Lyons; all the more reason for you to write well and quickly.”

“Ah, Mr. Reuben, you wish to comment?”

“Is this some crazy stunt to get published? Some elaborate piece of performance art?”

“An astute and hopeful question, Mr. Reuben, but no, this is not a stunt. Besides, each of us have published work, though perhaps not to your standards. After all, you are the gatekeepers, are you not? You judge who is worthy to walk the hallowed ground and who will remain out in the cold, dark night. No, we are well past stunts or trickery. This is about something much simpler; it is about getting even. I admit that there is some thought of making it better for the writers coming after us, but mostly this is just revenge. Banshee, do you have Mr. Reuben’s wish list?”

Banshee swung the folder open with a flick of her right hand, the Taser still held in her left.

“Got it right here, Sweeney. BJ Reuben, always willing to take a chance on a debut author. Looking for something that makes him miss his stop on the subway. Likes literary fiction that is quirky; surprise him. The usual rot.”

Sweeney raised a hand to cut off any more comment. I should just let Banshee Tase this bastard in front of the others. That would move things along. Just a nod and she would be so happy to oblige. She’s angry and ready. Sweeney knew he could count on Banshee to do her part.

“We are wasting time here. Forgive me, perhaps I have not been clear. If you wish to leave, you will write. Behind you are your accommodations. Think of them as monastic cells. Each has been furnished with a cot, a desk, and writing materials. Chairs you already have. Meals and other essentials will be provided for you so long as you write. If you want to eat, you write. If you want to shower, you write. It’s quite simple, really. Three thousand words per day, seven days a week; in four weeks you will have a novel of eighty-four thousand words. That is, I believe, your optimum length for a debut novel, yes?”

“And what if we refuse?”

Lauren Collin has found her voice. Sweeney looked into her brown eyes; attractive eyes. She may be scared, but at least she is thinking.

“That is a very good question, Ms. Collin. There must be penalties, of course, else how would the system function? If you refuse to write, you will not eat. You will not shower. You will not be allowed out of your comfortable cell. There are some other penalties as well, which I should make clear. You may write whatever you wish. Your work can be tailored to your own wish list, or the wish list of an agent that you know. But do not try to plagiarize someone else’s work. If you do, we will know it. The penalty for plagiarism is death, and I do not mean that in a metaphorical sense. You will be shot, and your body will be dumped in a place where no one will ever find it. Likewise, for any attempt at escape or mutiny. Do I make myself sufficiently clear?”

The words seemed to sink in. There was a silence from the line of chairs, then one raised hand.

“Yes, Ms. Stark, you have a question?”

“I just want to clarify. I write a novel. You send that novel out to other literary agents. If one of those agents requests additional material, or expresses any interest other than a rejection, then I go free?”

Sweeney smiled to himself, making note of the careful choice of pronouns. There is no ‘we’ with this woman.

“That is exactly correct, Ms. Stark. I couldn’t have put it more succinctly.”

There was that same barely raised eyebrow, the slightest nod as if she were confirming something she already knew; then nothing. I like this one, even if she is an agent. Careful, Boyo, this is not the time or place.

“Very well, if there are no further questions, we need to get you back into your cells. We must start the dinner preparations. There are some good cooks amongst us, as some of you already know. You will not suffer unduly. Tomorrow is our first work day, so you will want to get your rest.”

Sweeney turned to his companions.

“If you will, please; one at a time of course. Escort our guests back into their cells.”

*  *  *

Buck Mulligan bounced his ass down the bench between the concrete wall and the long table. He pushed a plate of breakfast down the worn surface. Once the big man was settled, he smiled across at the others.

“G’morning Banshee, morning Ka… sorry, Sweeney.”

“Morning, Buck. What, two weeks of practice and you’re forgetting your lines? You’re the stage professional.”

“Yeah, sorry, a momentary lapse. Your two shining faces put me off my guard. Banshee is smiling like a cat in a canary factory.”

“Understood, of course, but no mistakes in front of the guests, please.”

The bigger man grunted, stabbing a fork into a mound of scrambled eggs and roasted peppers. He chewed and nodded before he spoke again.

“Mmm… that’s some fine tucker. I don’t know if the original Dedalus could cook, but our modern version is a wizard. What is the line? God made food, the devil the cooks, or something like that.”

Banshee smiled at Buck from across the table. She was curled around her coffee; a soft smile gleaming through a tent of dark hair and bare forearms.

“You have it exactly, Mr. Mulligan.”

Buck looked between the two of them, Banshee’s dreamy smile and Sweeney’s smirk. His suspicion grew in spite of the known facts. He pointed his fork at them as he spoke.

“Okay, what’s the deal? Have you two been laying pipe?”

The first response was laughter, then more smirking.

“You have a suspicious mind, Buck Mulligan. Banshee and I have done no more than sit here and enjoy each other’s company.”

Sweeney leaned into Banshee’s shoulder.

“Not that I wouldn’t jump at the chance, my dear, if proclivities weren’t what they were.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll send you a memo if something changes. As for you, Mr. Mulligan; laying pipe, really? This is how a man of the theater speaks?”

Buck waved them off with his free hand, reaching for his coffee with the other.

“Theater is the art of the people, don’t you know, written in the language of the common man. Unlike the fancy prose of your highbrow novelists like Sweeney here. So what’s with all this bliss and happiness then?”

Banshee pushed herself upright, raising her coffee mug between thin, spidery fingers.

“I can honestly say that I haven’t felt this good in years. Almost three weeks of dealing with that whiny shit Reuben, and yet I feel fantastic.”

“Is he actually writing anything?”

“Just enough to eat, and what he’s scribbling down is crap. Worse than you would expect. Bitching, moaning, and scribbling shit; that’s pretty much his daily agenda. It’s a good thing we aren’t actually submitting this garbage to anyone.”

Buck nodded, savoring the tang of the peppers against the smooth taste of the eggs. He looked between the two faces sitting across the table, his fork poised midair.

“So what do we do with him?”

Sweeney turned to the smiling Banshee.

“He’s your guy. What do you think?”

She smiled even more, wrinkling her forehead as if it were a stupid question.

“Look, I signed on for the long-haul here, just like the rest of us. But I don’t have two years to waste on this little bitch. He doesn’t have a bad novel in him, much less a decent one. I have my own projects to write, and lovely maidens to chase. So I think it’s obvious: We kill him.”

The two men nodded their heads. Buck shoveled another forkful of eggs into his mouth. Sweeney spoke first.

“Sounds reasonable to me. When do you want to do it?”

“After breakfast tomorrow. I’m feeling too relaxed right now.”

“Who do you want to help you?”

“I don’t need any help to shoot him, but Stephen can help me dump the heavy lump of shit. I’ll have more free time after that, so I can play in the kitchen. I’ll bake you some biscuits, Buck.”

“I like biscuits.”

Buck pushed the empty plate aside, reached for his coffee.

“Listen, I’m worried about this Peter Schear cat. He’s the exact opposite of Banshee’s BJ. Pardon the pun.”

“In your dreams, Buck Mulligan.”

“I only dream about flying monkeys. Anyway, my guy is following the rules like a hall monitor. I swear, it’s like he’s analyzed the entire program, trying to figure out how to unlock it.”

Sweeney sipped at his cooling coffee.

“What about the stuff he’s writing?”

“Well, that would be worse news. It’s pap, pure and simple. Setting that elitist judgment aside, it’s the kind of pap that would sell in very respectable numbers. A dog, a pretty girl, a mildly shocking conflict; every element is lifted from somebody. But we can’t shoot him for plagiarism. He’s not lifting from one person; he’s lifting from everyone.”

“Well, I suppose it was bound to happen. It’s not unreasonable that one out of the five would turn out to be a writer. Maybe we just handed him an opportunity. At least he’s not trying to bust your balls.”

“No, but he’s a calculating bastard, I can tell you that. I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of a negotiation with him. A fella would come out short on that deal.”

“Think about what we should do with him, Buck. Banshee will have a bit more time after eliminating the annoying Mr. Reuben. When she’s not baking biscuits, perhaps she could give Peter Schear’s cage a bit of a rattle?”

Banshee shook back her hair, grinning a wicked grin.

“I’d be delighted.”

*  *  *

It was after breakfast when they came for him. The captives were all in their cells, but she could hear every word. The steel boxes did not hide sounds as much as magnify them. Every noise, every groan or fart, was broadcast across the open concrete room. Allie Stark heard the outside door open, the footsteps heavy across the floor. This wasn’t part of the routine. The handlers usually stayed away in the morning. No one had shouted for a bathroom privilege. Allie sat absolutely still, the tip of her pen hovering above a yellow legal pad. The footsteps passed in front of her box, the sound of two people moving further up the line. She heard the wrenching creak of a steel handle, then the groan of a heavy door opening.

“Okay, Reuben, on your feet.”

It was the woman, Banshee, with that voice like soft gravel. The other one was silent; maybe one of the men.

“What do you want? What’s this about?”

Allie shook her head at the tone of BJ’s voice. You poor idiot, three weeks and you still haven’t figured these people out. As if you were still in charge of everything. You never were much for learning things. Banshee’s voice cut across her thoughts, harsh and metallic.

“Shut up. I am sick to death of listening to you. Turn around and put your hands behind your back. We’re going for a little walk.”

“But I…”

“I said shut up. I won’t say it again. Turn around, hands behind your back, or I stun you right now. Dragging you will be more work, but if that’s the way you want it, fine.”

There was the creak of a chair, the muffled sound of movement, the faintest click of steel on steel. Then the sound of shuffling feet, footsteps being retraced. Allie Stark sat quite still, listening to the quiet that followed. She knew the others were listening as well.

The first gunshot cut through the silence, rolling like thunder against the concrete walls. Two more shots followed, the echoes mixing and dying. The thunder fell away, replaced by the sound of weeping from the next cell.

*  *  *

“Dammit, Stephen, couldn’t you two keep your hands off each other for a few more weeks? I thought you were the writer who wanted to reinvent the modern love story. Instead, you get involved in some pulp romance.”

Molly Bloom stood in front of Stephen, her hands on her hips. Dedalus raised his hands from the arms of the chair, shook his head, dropped the hands to his lap. Molly blew out a huge sigh, turned to the others.

“Does someone want to help me out here? Anyone?”

Sweeney was slumped over the long table, silent. Banshee leaned against the wall casting dangerous looks. Buck Mulligan sighed and scratched at the stubble on his jaw, thinking of where to start.

“I think it’s safe to say that this changes things a bit. Stephen, can you give us the quick version? But please, without any graphic bits, because I am really not in the mood for that.”

Banshee laughed out loud.

“Yeah, I’m dying to hear this. At least someone is getting laid. Please tell me that you took that stupid leprechaun mask off.”

“Look, I’m sorry; really I am. It was after you took that Reuben prick out. Lauren was scared; I mean really freaked out. We were just talking, you know. We had to whisper, so we were leaned in close. Then it just happened.”

Sweeney raised his head from the table.

“Yes, it just happened. The Stockholm Syndrome kicked in, or the earth moved beneath the two of you. It doesn’t matter at this point. This pretty much tears it. Ms. Collin has to go, and so do you, Stephen. Then you two can live happily ever after, or she can hand you over to the Feds.”

“I don’t think Lauren would do that.”

“Sure, of course. Buck, would you care to script this one out for us?”

“No, Sweeney, I most certainly would not. But I agree that they have to go, and they have to go quickly, which means we have to close up shop. The question is, how long is it going to take to clean everything up?”

Sweeney’s laugh was sour.

“When we were planning this thing, we weighed out a lot of contingencies, but I swear, I never thought of this one. But at least we have an evacuation plan. I need to go over the checklist, but I originally figured two days at the outside. We can probably get it done in one. After we serve our guests their dinners, we can start packing up the gear. Stephen, you’re going to have to wait a day or two before we can spring you two lovebirds. Can you live with that?”

“Sure, of course we can. Look, I’m sorry. I’ll never breathe a word of this to anyone. And you guys can keep my share of the profits.”

“No, Mr. Dedalus, a deal is a deal. We spent an entire year planning this thing. One of the rules was that if there were ever any royalties, we split them evenly. You did your part, just like everyone else, so the deal still stands as far as I’m concerned. Besides, you may need some money when you finally get out of the slammer. As far as talking goes, never is a long time. But we can’t kill you; we all go back too many years. Is everyone okay with that?”

There were nods around the room. Sweeney shook his head.

“Right. There’s not a lot more we can do tonight besides packing up the miscellaneous stuff. Tomorrow we move everyone out. Buck can drive Stephen and Ms. Collin to the Denville Station. That’s in the opposite direction of where we dumped Reuben. They can get to the city from there, or wherever they choose to go. Stephen, you need to do whatever you can to keep a lid on your new girlfriend until we can get clear of here.”

 Stephen Dedalus nodded his head, still slumped in his chair. Sweeney rose from the table.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, so we better get to it.”

*  *  *

Hers was the last dinner to serve. Sweeney rapped twice, his knuckles ringing on the steel door. Heavy cams groaned as he rotated the thick handles. Before he fully opened it, Sweeney peeped through the gap in the door. There was no need. Ms. Allie Stark was not poised to attack, sharpened pencil raised to stab. She was sitting at her makeshift desk, as always, her eyes calm and waiting. Vaguely disappointed, he retrieved a tray of food and pulled open the door, edging into the steel box.

“Good evening Ms. Stark; here is your dinner.”

“Good evening, Mr. Sweeney. Mmm… it smells like curry. It must be Stephen Dedalus’ turn in the kitchen. He is a very good cook, Mr. Dedalus. I may actually miss his curries.”

Sweeney set the tray on the desk and took one step back.

“Are you leaving us, Ms. Stark?”

“Everything must come to an end, Mr. Sweeney, even this little vacation.”

“Yes, well, I will leave you to your meal.”

Her voice stopped him before he could move.

“Would you mind very much staying for a bit? I am sick of eating alone, truth be told.”

Sweeney shrugged, seated himself on the narrow cot.

“A bit of time is all I have, I’m afraid. Lots to do, dishes to wash; you understand.”

“Yes, and love affairs to see to, I would imagine.”

She caught his harsh look and gave him back a half smile.

“Relax, it’s no business of mine. The walls are quite thin, that’s all. But it would make a very good party story, don’t you think? A wonderful response to that awkward ‘how-did-you-two-meet’ question. Speaking of questions, do you mind if I ask you one?”

“I believe you just did.”

“Alrighty, let’s make it two.”

Sweeney raised his hands palm up.

“Your name; how did you choose it? I mean, I understand the others, the Joyce characters: very clever. And Banshee, that requires no explanation. She has the sexiest voice on the planet, all gravel and threat. It is a treat to listen to her.”

“She would be pleased to hear it.”

“Yes, I’m sure she would. But back to your name. Which version of the Frenzy of Sweeney are you? Were you cursed for insulting a holy man, or broken in the shock of battle.”

“I am impressed, Ms. Stark. You are well-versed in your Irish literature.”

“Allie, please; I think we are long past the formalities. And yes, I have a little something to show for all of that money my parents handed over into the coffers of the Ivy League.”

“Brown University, if I remember correctly.”

“Yes, six years of it; and you?”

“I spent a bit of time in academia, but nothing so prestigious.”

The woman ignored her food, her eyes fixed on his.

“Tell me, Sweeney, what do you think of my story?”

You asked for this, Boyo, engaging in a serious conversation with this woman. All you had to do was drop off the food and go on about your business, but no.

“To be honest, I like what you’re writing. It’s good, edgy, but it will never sell.”

“I wasn’t thinking about it selling. You never had any intention of submitting our manuscripts, so what does it matter? I may as well write what I want. Isn’t that the way to create something real?”

Sweeney rose to his feet in one motion.

“Damn you, Allie Stark. Damn you to hell.”

*  *  *

Buck Mulligan stepped into the room. His crumpled leprechaun mask dangled limply in one hand. The other three looked up from the cramped table. Molly was the first to speak.

“Did everything go okay, Buck?”

“Sure, by the numbers, just like we planned. I dropped the two lovebirds off at the Denville Station and came straight back here. But the clock is ticking. We need to wrap this up if we want to stay out of prison.”

Sweeney looked up from a pad of paper.

“Buck’s right, of course. We need to get the others out of here and clear out ourselves. Let’s run through it one more time. Banshee, is the pistol taken care of?”

“It’s handled, Sweeney. I ran the tap thing down through the barrel. There were metal shavings everywhere. No one is getting ballistics from that pistol. I swept up the shavings and mixed them in with some other piles of junk.”

“And you dug the three slugs out of the hay bale?”

“You know I did. We can’t be leaving any bullets for the cops to find. They went down the toilet.”

“Good work, thank you. We can toss the gun when we leave. One more pistol in a New Jersey ditch; no one is going to notice or care. I can smell the chlorine, so the bleaching must have gotten done, right?”

“Yes, we made Stephen do it. It seemed only fair. He doused the toilets and the kitchen like a madman. I don’t think there is going to be a lot of DNA left. Better if no one ever finds this place at all, but we did our best.”

“Okay, Mrs. Bloom, that’s checked off the list as well. Everything went to the storage unit this morning. I paid three months rent on that thing, so no one will be opening it anytime soon. I don’t think anyone will ever connect a bunch of pots and pans with a kidnapping, but if they do, we will have a long head start.”

“Do we tell them anything about the cel phones, Sweeney?”

“Sure, tell them the truth. We’re not thieves, but we couldn’t have the cops tracking us. Their phones are in a package buried in the mail room of the Reuben Park Group. It’s disguised as an unsolicited manuscript. If they look hard, they may find it in a week or two.”

There was grim laughter around the table. Sweeney pushed the legal pad away and looked at the others.

“You know they’ll never stop looking for us, right? Kidnapping, a Federal offense and all of that; we need to get this last part over with.”

Everyone nodded. Buck Mulligan’s voice cut across the group.

“We need to be careful about the finger prints. Everything has been doused with WD-40. All the doors will be open, so there should be no need for anyone to touch anything, but make sure you keep the latex gloves on until we are in the van and driving.”

Sweeney nodded his head.

“You all know what to do. You three take the van. You dump Lyons and Schear near the train station. Their hoods don’t come off until you push them out of the van. I do the last wipe down, then I take Ms. Stark in the car. Once we’re all clear, we head for Philadelphia. Remember to watch the speed limits and all of that. Any questions?”

It was Molly Bloom who spoke.

“The wild card is that prick Reuben. Banshee, you dumped him in Patterson, right? He’s had a few days to do whatever he’s going to do. What do you think?”

“We gave him the spiel, about how we know where he lives, where his family lives. I think he’s scared enough to keep his mouth shut, at least for a little while. I told him that if he talks, someone will find him and kill him for real; slowly and painfully. Stephen said there is a lot about this that Reuben wouldn’t want made public, but who knows.”

“I suppose we will find out soon enough. We give the same talk to the others, of course. Let Banshee put the fear of all the gods into them. Buck said it best; the clock is ticking. You guys get a move on. As soon as you’re clear of here, I’ll do the last walk through and follow. See you in Philadelphia.”

Without a word, the crew rose and set to work.

*  *  *

Sweeney crossed the concrete floor, a canvas bag in his hand. The warehouse was in shadows. Steel doors gaped open on four of the shipping containers; empty mouths on empty cells. The nearest, the fifth, was shut tight. Sweeney rapped twice, then pulled at the heavy handles. The door wrenched open, the handles clanged. A feeble light trickled in from a small overhead vent. The generator was gone and the lights had gone with it. 

Allie Stark was seated on her narrow cot, hands in her lap, as if she were waiting on a bus. She held a hand to her forehead to fend off the sudden light, weak as it was.

“Good afternoon, Sweeney, or evening; whichever it is.”

“Sorry to keep you waiting Ms. Stark. Late afternoon would be accurate, I suppose.”

“If you call me Ms. Stark one more time, I’m going to scream. And I can scream really loudly, so fair warning. Not that it matters, since everyone is already gone. They are gone, aren’t they?”

“Yes, Allie, everyone else has left, as I’m sure you heard. “

“Then I should be terrified: Trapped alone with a legendary Irish madman.”

Sweeney did not think she looked at all terrified.

“What is it you’ve got there?”

Stepping into the gloom, he held out the canvas bag.

“I brought you your things; your purse, wallet. You’ll have to do without your cell phone.”

Allie Stark took the bag with one hand, motioned to the cot with the other.

“Have a seat while I pack.”

Sweeney shrugged and sat, leaning against the steel wall at the far end of the cot.

Allie rose, took three steps to the desk, reached for a stack of legal pads. She fit the pads into the canvas shopping bag and returned to her place on the cot. It creaked under her slight weight as she sat.

“I’m packed.”

Her smile flashed in the dim light. Sweeney reached into a side pocket of the work coat he was wearing.

“You should add this to your packing. It’s your manuscript; as best as I can transcribe it.”

“Oh, a thumb-drive, how sweet. Now I will have something to remember you by.”

“Right, a keepsake. I didn’t want you to lose all of your hard work, that’s all.”

“One of the lessons I have learned in the last four weeks is that I rather like working with paper and ink. I had forgotten that lovely scratching sound the pen makes as it slides across the paper. Speaking of lessons, did you learn yours?”

“And what lessons would those be?”

Allie Stark turned away from the bag in her lap, giving Sweeney a frank stare.

“You know exactly what I am talking about. This elaborate abduction; weeks of watching and listening. There must have been some surprises, lessons you weren’t counting on.”

Sweeney looked away from her probing eyes.

“I’m going to need to get back to you on that. I wish I had something profound to say, but I’m still trying to sort it out in my head.”

“I suppose that’s fair. Did you at least get what you wanted out of this whole thing?”

“No, not so much, or rather yes and no. I think there was more of the unexpected than the expected. Let’s just say that things didn’t stick to the outline.”

“Maybe not as much as our friend Banshee? Direct anger, driver revenge; she is very good at it.”

“Yes, I think you’re right. Banshee got exactly what she was looking for, exactly what she was needing.”

“Are any of the others really dead?  Mr. BJ Reuben in particular?”

“Dead?”

“Yes, you know, shuffled loose the mortal coil: Dead.”

“No, no one is dead.”

“Good, I’m glad for that.”

“You’re glad for them?”

“No, I’m glad for you, Sweeney.”

She raised a hand, pointing to his face.

“Since it’s just the two of us, would you be willing to take off that stupid mask? It’s most unflattering, you know.”

“No, Allie, I would not be willing to take off this stupid mask.”

Her eyes were on him again; grey, serious eyes.

“Then I am stuck with the image of a horribly disfigured man; saber scar across the left cheek, a crooked, broken nose.”

“That is remarkably accurate. We should be going now.”

“All right, Sweeney, but just one more thing before we go. When you send me the query letter for this novel, make sure you put in a line, a code word, something I can recognize. I know, use this sentence: And your words may set you free. I’ll make sure my assistant is looking for that.”

“What makes you think I’m going to write a novel about this?”

“You’d be a fool not to.”


BIO

Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His fiction has appeared in Literally Stories, Dime Show Review, Five on the Fifth, Storgy, Inlandia Journal, Manzano Mountain Review, Every Day Fiction, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Literary Yard, Mobius: A Journal for Social Change, Czykmate, Cleaning Up the Glitter, and Fleas on the Dog. His non-fiction work has been featured at Route 7 and Bluntly Magazine. Marco’s third novel, “Breaking the Bundles,” is available at fine online booksellers.

Reflections

by Regan Kilkenny



It was always empty at this time of night. Everyone else had gone home to start their weekends – see their kids that they had visitation rights to see – although had no custody over. The addiction had made it that way.

I dragged the chairs out of the little circle we had set up and back into their proper formation. A chill had set in. The heating turned off at nine each evening and the old, poorly insulated walls did little to nothing in order to help keep it warm. The cold wind managed to trickle in through the cracks in the single-paned windows and, at the same time, created a high pitched howl that echoed around the room. The artificial light that had been shining down on me for the last few hours was beginning to give me a headache. The muscles behind my eyes had been working too hard and had started to become strained, forcing the unpleasant soreness that wrapped it’s way around my head to intensify.

I dreaded the drive home. Navigating the winding country roads that remained unlit at this time of night, the darkness that set in would always crowd her, the blanket of black creeping its way in, suffocating me. I hated it.

The isolated town hall, that was far too elegant to just be a town hall, was situated outside of town which unfortunately meant a grueling drive for me every other Friday. It had once been home to an eccentric, elderly man who had supposedly donated it once he had died. Whispered rumours informed us all that he had gone mad in his old age and when he died there had been no next of kin and so the council deemed it the new town hall.

Most of his belongings were still here since no one had bothered to clear it out. The antique furniture that had a permanent layer of dust settled on its surface, the unpolished marble floor. The grandfather clock that stood proud at the top of the carpeted staircase and yet always chimed at the wrong time. A forgotten plate was still placed on the dining room table. I passed it as I walked to the coat room to grab my gloves, coat and bag, glad to be done for the day.

I whipped my head round when I heard a noise from another room. A high-pitched squeak, like worn shoes dragging across a too-shiny floor.

“Hello,” I called out, my voice confident despite my shaking hands. I told myself it was just the cold.

Expecting the noise to be from some kids that had snuck in as a joke, I walked in the direction that it came from – behind a pair of large double doors that stretched all the way up to the high ceiling. The wood that the doorway was made of had cracked and discoloured in places. The corners had even rotted slightly. The gold handle had been well worn, rust settling into the delicately sculpted design. Grabbing the handle, the cool metal sent shivers up my arm. I turned and pushed. 

The floor was made of mirrors. As I walked across the room, a deep pit eroded away my stomach. A weird tingly feeling spread over my arms and legs. Like fireworks, except I felt nauseous. My fingers were numb.

Looking down at the floor beneath me, the mirrors began to move. Ripples spread out from under my feet, the mirrors sliding over each other like a reflective pool of water. Yet I seemed to still be standing on solid ground.

I jumped back when a pair of hands reached towards me, through the pool of mirrors. More ripples spread over the surface. The skin on the hand was grey, almost translucent and rough; patches of dry flaky skin chafing against my own smooth skin. Long black talons pierced into my wrist along with a burning sensation – a handprint burning into my flesh. I screamed as the hand began to pull me down.

I was pulled through the river of mirrors, an icy chill settling over my skin as the unusual liquid splashed around my body. An indistinguishable pressure encompassed me – as if being squeezed through a tube that only just allowed enough space for me.

The claw was still wrapped tightly around my wrist, tugging me along; branding itself deeper and deeper into the flesh on my arm.

I struggled against it, pulled with the weight of my body. But with nothing else to pull myself towards, my efforts were futile. The hand pulling my body along as though i was a limp ragdoll.

The pressure around me began to grow tighter. Tightening around my chest, my ribs, my lungs. It became harder to breathe. The effort it took in order to get air into my lungs was unbearable and when I opened my mouth to attempt to breathe, a foul taste of iron entered my mouth and coated my taste buds.

I was drowning in metal. And then I wasn’t.

All of a sudden, the tightness around my chest released and my feet had found purchase. I was no longer falling through the river of mirrors. Instead I was in a room of mirrors, with multiple versions of myself staring back at me. My hair was now a wild nest on top on my head; completely windswept. My jumper had ripped, the stitches up my left side that held together the purple polyester had come apart completely.

In the dim light, the figure behind me was barely visible. It was all but a shadow that towered above me. It lifted a clawed finger and point towards one of the walls that was coated in mirrors. Though these mirrors had gone dark and cloudy. A dark inky mass spreading across the once crystal-clear wall and with it, the last of the light that lingered in the small room. It pulled all the light away and me along with it, I couldn’t seem to look away. When I dared to try and look at the creature behind me, I just couldn’t. My vision was fixed. I felt a cold hand rest on my shoulder.

In a rapid movement that lasted all of a second, the inkiness cleared and a brief spark of yellowing light flashed across the wall; a scene from a film, playing in front of me.

A younger version of myself stumbling down an alleyway, visibly intoxicated. It was nighttime; a full moon stood proudly in the pitch-black sky. No stars were out that night.

A man was following me, the glint of a knife reflected off what little light the moon provided. He walked with purpose, towards her, me, as I continued to stumble down the alley, wanting to be home. The me on the screen pulled out her phone. I remembered that I had tried to call a taxi, but the screen of my phone danced around, my eyes wouldn’t focus. The man had reached me now, grabbing my arm and roughly pulling me around to face him. I almost fell over with the force that he enacted onto me.

“Give me your money,” he said. My own mouth, the one in the room made of mirrors, mimed along to his words, like it was me saying them. The cold hand clutched my shoulder even tighter.

“I don’t have any,” My words were slurred as I tripped over my own feet. I pulled him with me as I fell. His body landing on top of me with a grunt. I struggled under him, trying to move his heavy body off me. I remember feeling as though he was suffocating me. I remember passing out. I remember the feeling of his dried blood clinging to my jeans that made it even more impossible to move. I remember his body crushing me.

I had still been drunk when I left him there. With a knife sticking out of his chest. It had somehow managed to lodge itself inside him when he had fallen on me. I was left limping away covered in a stranger’s blood.

The wall went black, like a television turning off. My cheeks were sticky with tears, but when the lights came on, I was back in the town hall, with nothing around me except the howling wind. And a burning handprint scarred into my wrist.


BIO

From the U.K., Regan Kilkenny is a young aspiring author currently studying for a Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Staffordshire University.

Smoke: A Memoir in Ten Puffs

by Dennis Vannatta


            Don’t believe it when they tell you that, as you get older, your short-term memory goes but your long-term memory grows sharper, the distant past set before you bright as a reality series on a plasma TV.  Trust me, nothing gets sharper as you age.  That’s why, nearing my three-score years and ten, I’m always pleased when something I’d thought lost in the past does come back to me, for then I’m given my life back, at least a small part of it, at least for a little while before it begins to fade again.  It happened again recently, and I’m grateful for the gift, even if it was mostly smoke.

Puff One

            My wife and I were staying in what was billed as a “rustic cabin” in a state park an hour’s drive from our home in Little Rock.  That night I built a fire in the fireplace, and sat back in a wooden rocker with a glass of wine, prepared to enjoy the atmosphere.  Strangely enough, though, for a moment it wasn’t the burning oak faggots I smelled but a different odor:  pipe smoke.  And then I was gone, a little boy again standing beside my father on a cold gray winter’s day in a depot agent’s office in Appleton City, Missouri.  A pot-bellied iron stove was in one corner of the room, burning coal, no doubt, although I don’t remember that, or even the pipe itself, only the musty, pungent odor of pipe smoke emanating from the agent’s wool slacks and sweater.  I think I was holding my father’s hand.  I’m not positive about that, but I think I was because when I was little I’d walk with him, my tiny hand in his huge, gentle one.

            It’s a good memory.  My wife and I had treated ourselves to a couple of nights in the rustic cabin on Valentine’s Day weekend, and I’d like to think that that moment retrieved from my childhood was a gift from Aphrodite’s pal, Mnemosyne, Goddess of Memory.  Strange that it would involve smoking, though, because I’ve never been a smoker.  Wait, though.  Now that I think about it . . .

Puff Two

            When I was a boy, many men smoked pipes.  In my family, however, although there were a few cigarette smokers, only my grandfather, John Vannatta, smoked a pipe.

            I was a late child, my father in his forties when I was born, and even as a young boy I thought of my grandfather as an old man.  He was shorter than his sons and slightly stooped, but he had broad shoulders and even as an old man incredibly strong hands.  I vividly recall my cousin Johnny—seven years my senior, star athlete—hand-wrestling with the old guy (each grasping the other’s right hand and squeezing), his eyes growing wide in amazement and then face crumpling in pain as his hand was crushed in the hard-callused, farmer’s hand of our grandfather.

            Grandpa was rumored to have been quite the lad in his younger days, hell on the ladies (I’ll tell no tales) and a sometime drinker—hard for me to imagine in that strict Baptist family. 

            Smoking was also frowned upon by Baptists.  Grandpa smoked pipes, against which wickedness the puny efforts of his local preacher were of no avail.  The tent revivalists who came through periodically were another story.  Those guys were real pros.  They could entertain and put the fear of God in you at the same time.  They’d put the fear of God in Grandpa, too, who’d return from a revival meeting, grab his pipe, run out of the house, and hurl the pipe as far as he could into the pasture.  As soon as the revival folded its tents, though, he’d have his sons out there in the pasture with him looking for it.  “Find that son of a bitch!”

            That was from a time before my time.  In my earliest memories, he was already retired from farming and living in a little house in Windsor, Missouri.  He’d given up trying to give up the pipe.  I remember the smell of pipe smoke on him, those flat rectangular Prince Albert tins, remember vividly his drawing on the pipe and then pushing his index finger into the bowl, tamping the tobacco down, I suppose.  I couldn’t understand how he could do it without burning his fingertip, but his hands were still hard-callused even though he no longer farmed.

            He had several pipes and kept them in his bedroom in a wooden rack which, decades later, I had one much like.  I was fascinated by the various pipes lined up in the rack, and every visit I’d go into the cold dark bedroom to look at them.

            Grandma would be in there, too.  She’d had a stroke and sat in a wheelchair.  She couldn’t talk although she’d try and would make a grunting, whining sound I couldn’t understand.  When we came for a visit, she’d be sitting in her wheelchair in the living room.  We grandchildren would dutifully file by the wheelchair and give her a kiss, and she’d make that sound.  Then Grandpa would wheel her into the back bedroom and close the door on her.  We’d have dinner, and afterwards the adults would visit or play cards while we children played outside or whatever.  At some point before we left, I’d go into the bedroom and look at the rack of pipes.  I’d try not to look at Grandma.

            Like I said, he had hard hands.

Puff Three

            Grandpa was the only pipe smoker in the Vannatta side of the family that I recall.  Uncle Dud (Durward) smoke cigarettes despite the Dud Vannatta branch of the family being especially religious.  From this half-century distance, I’m not sure whether I actually witnessed or only heard about cousin Johnny getting down on his knees and begging his father to stop smoking.  Whether Uncle Dud’s smoking affected the condition of his soul is between him and his God, but I don’t think it affected his health much.  He had stomach trouble as did my father, probably from the same cause:  stress.  (Both were school-district superintendents.)  Smoking didn’t have anything to do with his death:  he and Aunt Anna were killed in a car wreck when I was in basic training in the Army, spending a part of each day policing up cigarette butts.

            My father wasn’t a defiant smoker like Uncle Dud but a sneak smoker.  If you want to talk about strict Baptists, you’re just playing games until you get to my mother.  No drinking, no smoking, no cussin’.  I’m not certain how she managed to conceive three children.  Add to the religious prohibition the fact that my father had his first of three heart attacks when I was six, and you can see why smoking for him was forbidden.

            My mother watched him for signs of smoking like Hera watched Zeus for signs of philandering, and she enlisted me as one of her spies.  It was a game for me, trying to find his latest hiding place for a pack of Camels, but it was serious business for those two, locked in perpetual marital combat, smoking just one among many battlegrounds.  I didn’t realize how serious it was for him until one day I found a pack of cigarettes hidden somewhere in the house and gleefully flashed it to him as I was about to run with it to my mother.  “If you take those to your mother, I won’t play catch with you anymore,” he said.  I think I must have been about eight at the time.

            Let’s move on.  And quickly.

Puff Four

            My experience of smoking was not entirely vicarious, even at a young age.

            I suppose that all children . . . . No, wait.  I was about to say something silly.  What I think of “all children” doing probably vanished about the same time that people in small towns stopped letting their children roam all over in search of relatively innocuous adventures and started locking their doors night and day.  (My family would not lock the doors even when we went on vacations.)

            One of those things I was going to suggest all children indulged in was smoking reeds, dry hollow stems of some weed or flower (I don’t recall exactly) about the diameter of a pencil, broken off in cigarette lengths.  Light up, puff puff puff.  Well, two puffs at most.  They wouldn’t stay lit like a cigarette, and you wouldn’t want them to anyway because they tasted awful, and you certainly didn’t want to take a big puff and draw fire into your tender young imbecilic mouth.  Still, this allowed you to pretend you were smoking the real thing, which is what we thought adults were supposed to do.  We were assailed by commercials and ads for cigarettes on radio, television, billboards, signs on screen doors of cafés announcing, “It’s Kool inside.”  The women in these ads were beautiful and the men handsome, confident, and tough, qualities we did not possess.  If we had to choose just one, though, it would definitely be tough.  We watched Alan Ladd, John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden in the movies; they were all tough, and they all smoked.

            It’s not easy for a young boy to be tough, but you could attempt to look the part by dangling a cigarette out of the corner of your mouth.  The effect, alas, was diminished somewhat by dangling a smoldering hollow reed out of the corner of your mouth, so my friend Jerry and I graduated to cigarettes.  Once in awhile we’d steal a cigarette out of our fathers’ packs, but it was dangerous to do that too often.  It’s tough to look tough when your dad is blistering your bottom.  Mostly we picked up butts off the street.  Sanitary?  Ha.  To even raise the issue shows that you’re not tough, Nancy boy.

Puff Five

            Instead of progressing from smoking butts picked up off the street to buying packs, I gave up smoking before I reached junior high. 

            My high school friends and I would have described ourselves as scholars and athletes; others would probably have described us as nerds.  Whatever, only one of my half-dozen closest friends smoked then or thereafter.

            I speak of cigarettes.  I never developed a habit for cigarettes for the most basic of reasons:  I didn’t enjoy smoking them.  Cigarette smoke seemed like sucking in hot air to me, vapid, virtually tasteless.  Pipes and cigars were another story, and while I avoided the temptation in high school, there was a time in my undergrad college years that I smoked a fair amount.

            Cigars were my favorite.  No smoke beats a good cigar.  I use “good cigar” primarily in a theoretical sense, having almost nothing to do with them myself.  Back in my undergrad days, even Dutch Masters and El Producto were too rich for my blood.  White Owls, Roi-Tans—those were more my speed.  Swisher Sweets and Mississippi River Crooks (wavy-shaped cigars with a sweetened end, pack of five two bits).  I liked those Crooks.  I smoked a thing called Erics, I believe it was, cigarette-sized cigars with a filter tip. Ghastly.  I looked good with one hanging out of the corner of my mouth, though—or thought I did.

            That, in fact, was the problem with the full-sized cigars, the best smokes:  they didn’t look cool.  A nineteen-year-old college student with a cigar in his puss looks less like Warren Beatty than a Chicago ward-boss trainee.  What chick would go for that?  It was the chicks I was really interested in, of course.

            If not cigars, what about pipes?  A college man with a pipe is a chick magnet.  Not.  At least not me.  While they didn’t help me with the ladies, though, I liked everything about smoking pipes:  the pipes themselves and all the wonderful sizes, shapes, and colors they came in; my really neat wooden rack with the built-in humidor; sampling different tobaccos; tamping the tobacco into the pipe; the process of lighting the pipe (drawing the flame down into the bowl, then shooting it back up with that distinctive little pop); smelling the smoke (nothing beats Cherry Blend, my friend, especially when you’re poor); even cleaning the damn things.

            I’ve never understood why pipes smell so wonderful and cigars so atrocious and yet pipes can’t come close to cigars for taste.  Not that they don’t beat the hell out of cigarettes.  It helps to buy a better quality tobacco, for which I did not have the wherewithal.  Still, I would have kept on smoking pipes but for one drawback:  they gave me a sore throat.  I’ve always battled allergies and spend most of the spring and fall with a raspy voice as it is.  After smoking pipes for awhile, my throat would be raw, and I, never more than a step away from full-blown hypochondria at any time, would imagine an army of cancer cells marshalling the troops.  That pipe rack with the humidor and six cheap but still pretty cool pipes went into the top of my closet, and never came down again.

Puff Six

            This is not to say that my experience of smoking ended in my undergrad years.  One could not serve in the United States army, in my day at least (1969-1971), and escape all experience of smoking.  Indeed, the Army encouraged us to smoke.  A little packet of two cigarettes came in every carton of C-rations.  Cigarettes could be purchased dirt-cheap in the PX.  Virtually every formation—unless the sergeant in charge had a case of the ass at us for something—would include a break where we were invited to “smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em.”  Most had ‘em and smoked ‘em, and those of us who didn’t could look forward to the pleasure of policing up the butts.  In basic training and MP school, one of our daily rituals was to line up and slowly traverse some area looking for butts.  “Hey, you missed one back here!” some horse’s ass sergeant would inevitably call out without indicating exactly where the “here” was, and back we’d go across the grounds looking for that renegade butt.  I enjoyed that a lot.

            We didn’t do much policing after our training was over with, but the smoking continued, blue clouds of the stuff in the barracks, EM clubs—wherever there were GI’s.  Some of it was even tobacco smoke.

            When I was stationed in Germany, there was a guy who would drive his VW van with the hidden compartment under the floorboard down to Spain and once even to North Africa and come back with slabs of hashish big as a dictionary.  My company was divided between the hash-smokers and the juicers.  I was a juicer but not from any moral or legal scruples.  I tried hash a couple of times, but all it did for me was put me to sleep and leave me with the same sore throat as pipe tobacco. 

            Almost all my friends there were hash-heads, though.  They were a mellow bunch.  I never saw a hash-head get in a fight or get violent in any way.  I can’t say the same for my fellow juicers.  (There was a lot of drug-taking:  LSD, mescaline, and toward the end of my tour a new group of guys who were into heroin.  The most disturbing thing I saw involving any sort of mind-altering agent was a sergeant whose wife and small son lived off-post with him.  He was a juicer to beat all juicers, kept two hollow plastic pistols filled with vodka in holsters on his belt.  To entertain us, he’d hand one of the pistols to his son, I’d guess around eight; the boy knew what to do with it.  He’d take out the stopper, put the barrel in his mouth, and drink.  Most of the guys laughed, thought ol’ sarge was a great guy.  Me, not so much.)

Puff Seven

            I got out of the Army in 1971 and enrolled in graduate school.  The hash smokers were now pot smokers.  I knew a lot of them and would take a hit now and then, but weed didn’t do any more for me than hashish, so I don’t have much to say about it (except you could buy a lid for ten dollars if you knew the right guy; eat your hearts out, twenty-first-century tokers).

            One more thing from grad school, 1971.  I met a tall blond girl from Queens, New York, who smoked cigarettes.  I didn’t like the smell of it on her clothes or the taste when we kissed, but I put up with it because, well, tall, blond, kiss.  Eventually, she gave up smoking for me, along with her parents’ dream of her returning to New York to marry the kind of doctor who actually made money, not some doctoral candidate in English.  Today our children are astounded at the idea of their health-conscious mother ever smoking, but I think back on those tobacco-tasting kisses as magic time, violins floating in the honey-sweet air, angels eatin’ pie.

Puff Eight

            In the nearly four decades since I got my PhD, my experience of smoking has waned almost to the nonexistent.  Of course, it’s a different world today.  Not so long ago one dined in restaurants surrounded by smokers.  We watched movies in theaters thick with smoke and flew in airliners where non-smokers were banished to the last four rows, next to the toilets; but even there the stuff would reach us, clog our noses, foul our hair, impregnate our clothes.  The halls of every public building were lined with sand-topped canisters for cigarette ash and butts—although simply dropping a butt on the floor and giving it a quick stomp was common practice.  (I think we do have an ashtray, tacky faux-gilded aluminum thing, in a drawer somewhere even now.  We’ve lived in our present house since 1985; to the best of my recollection, no one has ever smoked a cigarette in it.)

            In the almost two-score years since grad school, I have smoked a few times, pipes and cigars, never cigarettes.  When our children were little, to save money on our trips from Arkansas to New York to visit my wife’s family, we’d drive straight through, twenty-four hours, and I’d try anything to keep myself awake behind the wheel at night, including smoking a pipe.  Fiddling with the damn thing with one hand on the wheel, trying to fill it, light it, keep it lit helped me stay alert—or so the theory went.  It was the only time I ever smoked around the kids with my wife’s consent, a little second-hand pipe smoke being preferable to my missing a curve in the Tennessee mountains.

            I was never one of those pipe-smoking college professors, even if I did still have my pipes from my undergrad days, plus the de rigueur corduroy jacket with elbow patches.  Many of my colleagues smoked pipes, and I did think pipes lent one an air of intellectual gravity.  (No, one never becomes oblivious to image.)  Problem was I still had that sensitive throat.  My God, risk having to miss a day or two of school because of a throat too sore for lecturing?  Leave my students bereft of my astounding command of the best that’s been thought and said?  Mais non!

            I do fondly recall two episodes of cigar-smoking from my professor days.  The first was thirty years ago probably.  My wife and I along with several other couples had dinner at my friend and colleague Ralph’s house, and afterward the men repaired to the front porch.  It was a soft spring evening.  Ralph opened a box of cigars, and we smoked and passed around a bottle of bourbon.  A pleasant night to look back on, especially poignant for me because all those friends, save one, are now scattered across the country, all alive and well, I hope, although in truth for me they live only in memory, wreathed in pipe smoke.

            The only one of those friends still here is Dave.  A number of years ago, another warm evening, our wives off somewhere, we old buddies sat on lawn chairs on the back deck of my house, smoking cigars and sipping cognac from tiny snifters that had come with a Courvoisier gift set.  We enjoyed ourselves so much I smoked a second cigar and was suddenly so dizzy that when I got up and went into the house I walked straight into a wall.  Wretched as I felt at the time, by now, twenty years later, it, too, is a good memory.  If I’m not mistaken, it was the last time I ever smoked anything.

Puff Nine

            Not all smoking memories are pleasant ones.  Smoking does kill.

            My father was superintendent of a small rural school district, and when I was a boy his janitor was a fellow by the name of Harvey, a smoker.  My father was quite fond of him.  It was winter, a cold starless night in my memory, and we were sitting in the car somewhere, perhaps ready to drive home after a basketball game, when my father turned to my mother and said that Harvey had lung cancer.  I wasn’t old enough to know precisely what that meant; nevertheless, the darkness, the cold, the dampness, not the sound but the weight of my father’s voice pressing down on me, told me that Harvey was done for.  He didn’t last long.  My father would visit him at the hospital and come back looking like something had grabbed him by the throat.  Like he couldn’t breathe.

            My wife grew up close, geographically and emotionally, to her Uncle Bob, Aunt Pat, and their children, almost another set of parents and siblings to her.  Uncle Bob had been a career man in the Navy before going into the insurance business, and in photographs in his uniform he looked like a more robust Ray Milland.  But he’d been a heavy smoker, and by the time I knew him he was yellow and haggard, coughed continually and sounded like he was drawing through a water pipe when he tried to breathe.  Emphysema.  He was a proficient amateur photographer, and at my brother-in-law’s wedding, he was to take photos of the ceremony and reception.  On the morning of the wedding, he took me off to the side and said, “Dennis, I’m not sure I can hold the camera steady enough.  Will you take over for me?”  Of course I did although my expertise with cameras ended with putting a new flash cube on the Instamatic.  All those dials and meters on his fancy camera flummoxed me, and the results were disastrous.  Uncle Bob died not long afterward, and a few years later his wife, Aunt Pat, until then a vigorous, healthy non-smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer.  I don’t know what part years of breathing second-hand smoke played, but it couldn’t have helped.  I remember her final Christmas, more than a dozen of us sitting in my in-laws’ big living room, dazzling Christmas tree in the corner, presents being passed out, glasses of wine and beer in hand, hors d’ouerves consumed, laughter, good times.  In the midst of it Aunt Pat, once the life of any party, sat in her chair looking down, communing silently with something inside her.  Something not good.

            My older sister, Delores, died of congestive heart failure on top of years of suffering from emphysema.  She smoked up until the very end.  Before deteriorating health forced her to quit, she worked in a deli, where she wasn’t allowed to smoke.  One day she slipped behind the counter, fell and broke her ankle.  The deli owner called an ambulance.  Delores, in terrible pain, beseeched him, “Oh please, won’t you let me smoke just one cigarette?  You know they’ll never let me smoke in the ambulance.”

Puff Ten

            My daughter was a smoker.  I’m not sure when she started, but she smoked a lot and for enough years that my wife and I worried about her health.  Our nagging no doubt only exacerbated the problem.  She finally kicked the habit a few years ago.  I think it was when she broke up with a boyfriend, who was a smoker.  Bad breakups can turn out well in some respects, evidently.

            My son never smoked cigarettes or, as far as I know, cigars or pipes.  At least with any regularity.  Like all young men, no doubt he tried this or that a time or two.  The only time I know for sure he smoked something was in high school, an all-boys Catholic school run by a notoriously strict monsignor who, if he caught a boy smoking, would sit him in a chair before the entire student body assembled in the gymnasium and make him smoke cigars until he vomited.  On their very last day of school, though, the monsignor would let the seniors light up a cigar.  Matthew bought a big one, and if he smoked the whole thing, he was probably sick as a dog.

            He gave me the last cigar, the last smoke of any kind, I’ve had.  It was the occasion of his first son’s birth, my first grandchild.  (I was the one who reminded him that he had to pass out cigars to commemorate the occasion.  I didn’t want him to ignore the tradition and deprive me of my first stogie since Dave and I smoked ourselves dizzy many years before.)

            Matthew is a true Dutchman, throws nickels around like manhole covers, and I’d been expecting something cheap but got a real shock:  the cigars were Bubble Gum!  I admit I felt a little cheated, but at least this way I have a souvenir, the gum cigar still in its IT’S A BOY! wrapper in my chest of drawers.  I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to resist the temptation of a real cigar.  Too, the literature professor in me appreciates the symmetry provided by that cigar, for my first experience of smoking wasn’t those butts Jerry and I picked up off the streets of Sedalia, or even the dry-reed “cigarettes” we lads smoked, but the cartons of candy cigarettes I’d get occasionally instead of a Baby Ruth or Butterfinger.  So in a sense you could say my smoking life has come full circle—candy to, well, something close to candy.

            Isn’t it pretty to think so, anyway?  The sobering truth is that life doesn’t come full or any other kind of circle.  The years roll by, not back.  Nothing returns.  All we have of the past is what we remember of it.  The marvelous thing is that, when you reach a certain age, all memories are good, even the bad ones.  Think not?  Just wait.  It’s forgetting that’s death; remembering is resurrection.

            Proust told us that long ago, of course, his rebirth through a tea-soaked Madeleine.  For me, a whiff of pipe tobacco will do.  Make mine Cherry Blend.


BIO

Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories and essays published in many magazines and anthologies, including River Styx, Chariton ReviewBoulevard, and Antioch Review.  His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was recently published by Et Alia Press.


My First Dance

by Juanita Rey


This is what it looks like
to be dressed in
what a family can’t afford:
a chiffon dress,
blue as a lily flower,
wide lace,
vertical pleats,
new nylons,
creamy white shoes,
tight enough to hurt.

My mother remembers
when she first went dancing.
Her parents went without for her
on that occasion too.
It’s romance.
She figured we all
owe a debt to it anyhow.
Otherwise, there’d be none of us.
So why not owe more.

My father can remember
hanging out with his amigos,
all done out in hand-me-downs,
watching the cluster of la chicas.
on the opposite side of the hall.

He was brave enough
to ask my mother for a dance.
So she reckons the expense
will be worth it
if I meet someone half as fine
as the man she married.

Of course, mostly they argue these days.
But always in clothes they can afford.


My Street


Families, loners, occupy the tenements,
play in the park,
shop at the grocery store.
I’m sure there’s a story to why
all these people live where they do.
I’m learning it bit by bit.
Some have been here all their lives.
Others are just passing through.

Lots of folks sit out on their stoops.
If you want to know why they can’t get a job
then stop a while and listen.
Economy’s bad,
they tell me.

This city’s a crazy grid
of streets just like this one.
Except elsewhere
there’s different houses, different people.
So it’s not alike.

Some of the streets are better kept up.
Some look like battlegrounds.
Some boast fancier parks and grocery stores.
With others,
the playground’s littered with glass and needles
and, if they have a store at all,
it’s most likely boarded up.

I’ve seen people
sitting on their stoops
on block after inner city block.
But I only get the news
from the ones on my street.


The Whistle from Above


Are you pleased with yourselves…
I think the word is “voyeurs.”
Or is it “lechers.”
This is what comes of all these
English as a Second Language classes.
I have rid myself of el lascivo, el libertino
but then some would-be stud takes their place.

Okay, I get it.
I’m a piece of meat
with hair where it should be
and brown skin where it’s not.
And I have the shape
that corresponds with
someone’s momentary libido.
Now there’s a word that’s the same
in English and in Spanish.
So there’s no getting away from it.

But, to be honest,
a catcall, high up on a construction site.
has nothing to do with me.
From that distance,
my possibilities are endless.
Up close, I can only be so much.


BIO

Juanita Rey is a Dominican poet who has been in this country five years. She has worked many jobs while studying to improve her English. She has been writing for a number of years but has only recently begun to take it seriously. She enjoys reading. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison are particular favorites. Her work has been accepted by 2 River View, Harbinger Asylum, Pennsylvania English, Petrichor Machine and Madcap Poets.

The Walker

By Martin Keaveney



            I stop walking on the hard shoulder. There is a light flashing in the distance. It’s different from the yellow glow of the streetlights. A silver torch beam from the bog, over the sparkles of tarmac, through the hue of the blue moon. Now it lights up the canvas of a small tent. There is someone inside. It’s a female. I know by the shape of the shoulders. I better be careful.

            I always leave the city when the buses stop running. The clubs are starting, there’s queues of youngsters lined up, perfumed, heels tapping, phones blinking, excitement of the night to come. I hit for the ring road, past the 24-hour service station. Around the big roundabout and onto the east route. I walk fast. I go if it’s dry, if it rains, if it snows. I take what comes. I go no matter what. I probably shouldn’t walk on the dual carriageway. But I live with risk.

            There isn’t much notice taken out here after dark. The night has its own laws. I could go by the old road. There’s a lot of hills that way. But I’d get over them. Or I could go cross-country. I have done. Squelching across the bog, trawling through streams, climbing over fences. The world slows you down. It’s never in a hurry. Nature is always on time.

            But my old boots are leaking this last while. You can get no wear out of anything these days. I only have them a few years. I can feel the damp coming in already. Even though the shape of this road rolls down from the centre, there is still a film of dampness across it. I sense it coming in my woollen socks. Around the toes. The reeds and marsh are out for now. I’m afraid I’ll have to get new boots for the winter. Then I might take on the cross-country. But the motorway is the most direct. As-the-crow-flies.

            They knew what they were doing when they set it out. I know all about road-making. I did an exam on it. I studied the production of road coverings, bridge-building, urban and rural planning, infrastructural strategies and policies, waterways, dams. The route was well planned. On certain parts of the road, you can see the track of it for miles by the lights each side. You can see things better in the darkness of the night.

            It’s hard to get silence in the world these days. I’ve tried lots of places. The church. The last morning, I found a couple of parishioners by the devotion candles. Chatting as I knelt and prayed. Down the library. A row broke out one day over an unpaid fine while I was looking for a history book. You can’t even walk along the canal in the daytime, without whooping children rattling crisp bags, beeping mobile phones. People racing everywhere. Round in circles.

            I’d only be about during the night if I could. Sounds that were hidden all day come alive at night. The rustling on leaves, doors banging, bins emptying, dogs barking. You couldn’t hear them things during the day. Not with all that goes on. But I wouldn’t be the first to throw light on that.

            No cars have passed for a while. Awful waste of a good road really. Lying dormant here for hours. It’s funny to be walking slow on a surface designed for great speed. The road tries to hurry you. But I’ll not be hurried.

           It’s like you are in slow motion. The big white and yellow lines, the flat bitumen skin, the crash barrier of two aluminium channels running all the way. The massive green and blue signs. The smaller yellow ones with bars showing how many hundred metres before the next turn-off. Billboards at the slip roads. Designed for people zooming by. You get a glimpse of a woman using a shiny lawnmower or a man filling a sleek washing-machine. Happy people that have something the drivers of the cars should buy. You see it. You want to buy it. But I’m looking at these pictures for a long time as I walk. When you come up close to the giant board, you see them better. You see it as a flat sheet of colours and shapes. If you look really close, you can see it’s just lines of coloured full stops.

           The hostel lobby clock put temperatures at between 4 and 5 Celsius tonight. The autumn is dying. The leaves won’t be rustling for much longer. Except in the Copper Beeches. And the evergreens. I’m an evergreen. I don’t lose my leaves in the winter. I don’t hibernate. I keep going all year round.

            I’ve decided I’ll move out of the hostel as soon as I can. I’m in one of six bunk beds in a room. The people change every night. But even so, they’re the same. Rattling plastic bags. Fiddling with zips. Blowing hairdryers. Flashing phones. I get cold with those noises. Scratching at you. Great silence out here. I was always fond of the night.

            I didn’t want to go to bed at all when I was a boy. The old man would tell me it was time. I’d spell ‘N-O’. He would spell ‘Y-E-S’. But I couldn’t spell ‘Just another half-hour?’ The old man was good at spelling.

            There’s always hassle in the hostel. One night in there I thought I heard the cuckoo. I never heard one, even though I lived in the country until I grew up. I was awful excited. To hear the cuckoo for the first time, and in the city. I jumped down off the bunk, the man sleeping below groaned, rattling the wooden bead necklace he wore. I ran to the window. It was like waking up Christmas morning, running to the bottom of the tree to see what the man in red had brought.

            I looked across the roofs. There were owls hooting by this time as well. Another first. I couldn’t believe it. But I couldn’t see any birds. I thought they must have all their nests under the eaves. Then I saw a square blue light reflected in the glass. The man with the wooden necklace was sitting up in the bed. He had his phone out. He turned off his alarm. The owls and cuckoos stopped.

            I don’t need to find anywhere else when I leave. I’ll firm up for the winter. It’s surprising what the body can attune itself to. Surprising what the skeletal structure, the muscular tissue, the organs can withstand. It’s a durable design. Almost limitless. You’d be minted if you owned the patent.

           I’ve tested it well already. I was able to hop sixteen foot when I was sixteen years. The long jump at the village sports day. The sports field was green grassed. White fence posts and blue ropes marked out the running track. Crease suit lines ran in huge decreasing circles for the laps and relays. Wooden swing boats rose high into the blue sky. Children laughed. A man in a suit walked around speaking into an orange spongy microphone with a short piece of wire that wasn’t connected to anything. His voice came out of two blue loudspeakers attached to the top of a telegraph pole. I always wanted a go on that microphone. You could hear him speak all over the village, giving the results of the under-10s three-legged race. But I didn’t mind the noise then. I always loved the night though.

            The schoolmaster in the village shook my hand and gave me the winner’s trophy. It had a small golden statue of a man in sports gear. The master’s name was Joe. But he wasn’t my teacher anymore by then. When he gave me the trophy, I could have said ‘Thanks, Joe’, if I wanted. But I didn’t. I said ‘Thanks, sir.’ The master told me I should take sport more seriously. I had a real talent, he said. I could jump very high as well. And I could run fast. I looked at the trophy as he talked, my fingers on the marble base, the little golden plate glued on, inscribed with the year and the word: ‘Winner’. The man in the suit said my name into the orange microphone. It came out the two blue loudspeakers on the telegraph pole for everyone in the village to hear. They took my photograph. Everyone clapped for a long time.

            But I didn’t take sport more seriously. I went learning about the roads instead. The old man told me it was more secure. One of the arms broke off the trophy figure a while later. I never did any sport again. That was fifty years ago.

            I’m still fit enough. I walk most of the day as well. It’s surprising what the body can train itself to do. Imagine all the miles I could walk over another twenty years if I keep in good shape. No one should ever be in any hurry. Nature is always on time.

            I moved out of the flat in the city a month ago. The crowd I was living with were fairly lively. ‘Sticky People’ the landlord called them. He didn’t mean me. If they were all like me, he’d be elected, he said. But they’re not all like me. That was the problem. He was getting rid of the lot of them.

            The buck from down the country that called a kettle a ‘kittle’. The foreigner that was trying to learn English from him. The father of three whose family lived in a different continent. There were a few women there too. I didn’t know much about any of them. They’re all sticky people, the landlord said. He wanted to clean the place up and get in a family. Every landlord wants a family.

            I didn’t mind. I was glad to be getting out of there. I took a top bunk in the hostel. But I’ll be getting away from there soon enough too. Sticky people in it and all. Out here on the road, there’s none of that. It’s all left to you. Freedom.

            I looked at a few places last week. But I didn’t like the terrain. I’ll firm up for the winter instead. I’ll wear two trousers and two shirts if temperatures go below zero. My woollen cap. Thick socks and gloves. I’m fit for anything. I’ll sleep behind the crash barrier on the motorway. It’s surprising what the body can attune itself to if the mind is right. The mind is a powerful tool. The old man told me that once.

            I’m getting very close to the torch beam in the bog. I can see the tent better now. It definitely wasn’t there last night. Someone sleeping by the motorway. Moved in under cover of the day. Someone with my idea. I can see the woman inside. I can make out the jawline. The shape of the hair. It would be funny if I hopped the barrier and called in to her. Tell her I pass this way every night. Maybe she could do with something brought from the city 24-hour next time I’m passing. A carton of milk. Or a pound of sausages. Or a bottle of 7up. But I don’t talk much to women. Never did. It’s hard to know what to say to them. They’re not straightforward. The old man told me that once. They can be sticky. The night is not sticky. The night is straightforward.

            But it would be funny if I told her I was going to be her neighbour. That I’d the same idea. Except without a tent. She’d probably call the law. Say I was some weirdo. There’d be a court visit. A cell at the finish. That’d be the end of the freedom. I value my liberty. I pass by her tent and keep going. Good luck to her. She’ll have to do her own shopping.

            I turn onto the slip road after the last yellow sign. I walk up a little hill to the bridge overhead. I walk across, looking over and back at the carriageway, streetlights stretching out into the dark. I can see the tent in the bog. A small triangle of canvas-shaded light. I go by a little roundabout. Then I come into the suburbs. Streetlights shine torch beam silver here instead of the motorway yellow. Security alarms flash in industrial estates. Lines of trucks parked up all night. Awful waste really. The night is a neglected space.

            Near the town centre, I cross an old bridge. I stop in the middle, go to the wall, look into the canal. The water never stops flowing here, from dusk to dawn. I hear it splashing against the bank. On the stone cut cap someone has written a small message in white paint: ‘Don’t Jump’.

            I get to the main street. I pass the traffic lights, a post office, a supermarket, a clothes shop, a bank. I walk into the town square, cars parked around it.

            I get to the statue in the centre. I stand by the square concrete base. There is a gold plate at the front inscribed with the words: ‘J.M. Barrie 1757-1845 – “The Walker”’. I look up at the bronze sculpture. I can see the outline of the boots, the jacket, the big bag on the back, the hat on top. The arms are outstretched. The wall lights of the town hall behind shine against the statue and the head is a black shape as I look up. But I always imagine The Walker is smiling.

            I pull my bag off my back. I sit on the concrete base. I look down the street. I have the freedom of the town. There’s always sticky people around the city. But not out here at night.

            I’ve walked ten miles on the dual carriageway. But I feel like I could walk forever. I stand. Better not to sit for too long. Hard to get going again. I bend each leg. I rub the backs of my thighs and calves. I’ll have to get new boots for the winter.

           I walk down the main street to the traffic lights. They change every thirty seconds, even though there’s no drivers to come and go. Changing colours all night to an empty street. Awful waste of electricity really. I go up close to them.   The lights are just circles of coloured full stops. I stare at the amber when it comes. It means prepare to stop. It reminds me of the torch beam yellow. I walk back up the street and sit under The Walker.

            I pull off my shoes and socks. I wiggle my toes and stretch them out. I take off my high-viz jacket. The jumper with ‘Champion’ written across the front. The check shirt. The vest.  I sit in my skin. It’s good and cold. I look around. Not a sinner, not a sound. I scratch an armpit. I walk out to the middle of the main street. The road is wet on my feet. I stand on the white line in the centre. I flex my biceps. After a minute, I let off a roar. The silence falls again in the town. I let off another roar, louder. I’m coughing after this one. Heart thumps. A light comes on somewhere.

            I go back to the statue. I put on the vest, the check shirt, the ‘Champion’ jumper, the high-viz jacket, the socks and the old leaking boots. I put my bag on my back.

            I walk by the bank, the clothes shop, the supermarket, the post office. I stop at the traffic lights. I look to the town square. I can see The Walker, the arms outstretched. Smiling down at me. I smile back.

            The walk is always easier on the way back to the city. A car whizzes by outside the suburbs. Boxy lads squeezed inside, music beating, a purple light shining from the underbelly. They circle the little roundabout a few times. Then they zoom back by me toward the town. They beep as they pass. Sticky people. I shouldn’t be walking out here at night. But I live with risk.

            As I walk across the motorway bridge, I see her leaning against the crash barrier. She is looking up at me. The only trouble with the motorway is there is no cover. But usually there is no need to hide.

            There is nowhere to turn off on the slip road. I have to keep going toward her. I don’t let on to see her at all. I keep my eyes down on the sparkling tarmac. But as soon as I set foot on the hard shoulder, I hear her say ‘Excuse me?’ I say nothing. I keep walking. She has the torch in her hand. It shines on the road. But she could flash it in my face, if she wanted.

            ‘Excuse me?’ she says again.  I’m close by now. She says it so loud I couldn’t miss it. Unless I was deaf. But that could be dodgy to pull off. I stop. ‘Yes?’

            ‘Did you pass by here a while ago?’

            ‘Pass by? Where? Here?’

            ‘Yes.’

            ‘No. No, I wasn’t this way before. Not for a long time.’

            ‘I thought I saw you pass by earlier. From my camp.’ She nods back to the bog, ‘I thought it was you.’

            ‘No. That wasn’t me.’

            ‘You don’t normally pass this way?’

            ‘No.’ I look back toward the little town. ‘My car broke down. Back there. In the town. But there’s no one about. I’m going to the city. To get help.’

            ‘That’s awful, can it be fixed?’

            ‘What’s that?’

            ‘Your car, can it be fixed?’

            ‘I don’t know. I don’t know much about cars.’

            ‘Can you ring anyone?’

            ‘I don’t have a phone. I don’t use them.’

            ‘I’d give you mine, but the battery is flat.’

            ‘That was it.’

            ‘What?’

            ‘The battery. In the car. It’s flat.’

            ‘You poor thing. There wasn’t a phone box in the town?’

            ‘Vandalised. I must be on my way.’ But I’ve hardly gone two steps and she calls me again.

            ‘Excuse me! Really sorry to bother you when you have enough trouble, but I’m very stuck, and I wonder, do you, by any chance, have such a thing as a tin-opener? Maybe in your bag there?’

            ‘A tin-opener?’

            ‘Yes.’

            ‘You need to open a tin?’

            ‘Yes, do you have one?’

            ‘I do.’

            ‘Great! Could I borrow it? Just for a couple of minutes?’

            She has a funny accent. She’s not local. Her voice is like the current under the bridge, where they tell you not to jump, she gets higher pitched, same as the water splashing against the sides of the bank, as she reaches the end of each sentence.

            She must have grown up in a place hundreds of miles away from here. She picked up that twang in the schoolyard.  Pushing, pulling, shouting, screaming. Bouncing balls, stones grazing your arms, a busted nose. I hated them places.

           I pull off my bag from my back. Everything I need is within. Three pairs of trousers, three shirts, three changes of underwear, three pairs of socks, my wellingtons and a belt. Three cooking pots of different sizes, a frying pan, one knife, one fork and one spoon. A mug. A razor, a comb and a toothbrush. A shirt, tie, suit jacket and black shoes. A football jersey. My woolly hat. A bar of soap. A penknife with a tin-opener. Carrying all this around probably makes the walk harder. But I never leave anything in the hostel with the sticky people and their sticky fingers. ‘You have a tin and no tin-opener?’

            ‘Well, yes.’ She could be smiling, but her face is a black shape in the streetlight.

            ‘If you get the tin, I’ll open it for you,’ I say, taking out the penknife. ‘There’s a knack to this.’ A penknife is a valuable item when you live in the bog. She might not want to give it back.

            ‘Thank you so much!’ She sounds young, but she could be old. She climbs over the crash barrier. I hear the boots squelching over the bog. I know they are boots by the stamp. I wonder where she bought them. I will ask her that before I go. The torch flashes out the opening, lighting up a part of the night. The tent looks to be of decent quality. I wonder where she bought it. But I’m not getting a tent.

            When I move out of the hostel, I’ll lie directly onto the bog. There’ll be nothing separating me from the elements. It can get as cold as it wants. I hope it does. It’s welcome to. It’s surprising what the body can attune itself to. Strange machine really. If you ever built something as durable, you’d be minted.

            But no one has yet. It’s a long way off. I’ll take full advantage of the skeletal and muscular structure I was born with in the meantime. Firm up the body. Away from all those racing sticky people. Nature is in no hurry. It’s always on time.

            If I fit with nature, I’ll be alright. That’s what they mean by staying fit. Fitting in with nature. Everything makes sense at night. You couldn’t ever get your head straight during the noise of the day.

            She’s coming back now with a pile of tins in a plastic box. She must have strong arms. ‘I may get a few opened while you’re here. Do you mind?’

            ‘No. I don’t mind at all.’ She takes out the tins and lines them up along the top of the crash barrier. I take the first one and clip the tin-opener onto the top. It bites into the rim. I wiggle the handle until it grips the little wheel. As I twist, it clicks around the circle.

            ‘This is so great,’ she says. An articulated lorry whizzes past. The gust lifts her hair high into the moonlight. There’s a smell of oil and burning rubber.

            The moon goes behind clouds. She shines the torch on the tin-opener. I look over to her. ‘If you turn off your torch, I’ll see better in the dark.’

            ‘Really?’

            ‘Once the eyes become accustomed.’

            ‘Ah-hah.’ She turns off the torch. I stop twisting the handle and the lid comes off. I can smell sweet fruit juice.

            ‘Good man,’ she says. She takes the opened tin from me and pours it into the plastic box. I start on the next one. ‘Do you like peaches?’

            ‘Peaches? Is that what these are?’ I fiddle with the handle. The wheel catches and the teeth chew the rim. I guess she nods, her hair moves around her shape.

            ‘They’re not fresh fruit, but still they’re good,’ she says.

            I get them all opened. I hand her the last one. She’s happy. ‘Thank you so much.’

            ‘You’re welcome.’ I push the tin-opener back into the bottom of my bag.

            ‘Would you like a bowl?’

            ‘What?’

            ‘Would you like a bowl of peaches?’

            ‘No, thank you. I’d best be on my way. My car, you see.’

            ‘Of course. Do you not like peaches?’

            ‘What?’

            ‘Do you not like peaches?’

            ‘I do. I do like peaches.’

            ‘Don’t you want a bowl?’

            ‘I’m not sure I’m that hungry.’ I’m beginning to wonder if maybe she is a bit sticky after all. ‘But where are the bowls?’

            ‘Actually, I use mugs. They’re back there. In my camp.’ She points to the bog.

            ‘I’d better not.’

            ‘Come on! You’re safe enough.’ I guess she is smiling now by the rise of her voice. ‘What’s your name?’

            ‘What?’

            ‘Your name?’

            ‘My name is Jeremiah.’

            ‘Of course it is. Come, I’ll get you a mug of peaches for all your hard work.’ She climbs over the crash barrier. She carries the box of peaches to the tent. She is fit enough. You have to be to live in the bog. Her boots squelch. She stops at the tent and turns. ‘Come.’

            I climb over the crash barrier. My old boots sink. The ground is soft. It wasn’t the best spot to pitch up. With no tin-opener and no bowls. People get very confused. But that’s because of the day.

            She has gone inside the tent. I stop at the entrance. ‘Welcome to my camp!’ she says. Her voice sounds different in there. She’s kneeling on a sleeping bag. There are lengths of beads hanging everywhere, all different colours. Some are wooden but most are plastic.

            She has the torch set up in the corner. She has two mugs on a small wooden table. They are three-quarter full with peaches in fruit juice. The plastic box with the rest is now covered with a lid, beside a pile of folded clothes. ‘Are you coming in, Jeremiah?’

            ‘No. I’m fine here.’ I kneel at the edge of the floor cover.

            ‘Fair enough.’ She hands me the mug. It’s a fisherman’s tin. They use them mainly for worms as far as I know. Good for little else. Burn the lips off you if it were hot. But it’s not. It’s ice cold. Pieces of peach float around in the juice. I sip it. It’s sweet. I suck up one of the peach segments, making a slurping sound, breaking the silence of the night. ‘Sweet, aren’t they?’

            ‘They’re good. Not like fresh fruit. But not bad.’

            ‘Not many peach trees around here, Jeremiah.’

            ‘Not many.’

            She sips the juice. ‘I don’t suppose you have anything to smoke?’

            ‘No.’

            ‘Pity.’

            ‘Are you going to be here long?’ I say. I’ll have to change my route by the looks of this. Get new boots for the winter and get off the motorway. Take the old road.

            ‘It depends. I don’t make plans anymore.’

            ‘That’s about the best plan,’ I say. She slugs the mug. I look around the tent. There’s a pillow with blue strawberries on the case and a photo sellotaped to cardboard on top. There are two children in the photo. Beside the pillow, there’s an alarm clock with two silver bells on the ears. The woman keeps track of time.

            I finish the mug. ‘Thanks.’

            ‘Thank you so much for the use of your tin-opener.’

            ‘You’re welcome to it. I better be going. My car.’

            ‘Of course.’

            I hand her the empty mug. ‘Hope to see you this way again, Jeremiah,’ she says and shakes my hand. She doesn’t let go. I don’t know what to do. Her hand is warm. I couldn’t say what age she is. She’s not that young. She’s not that old. Hard to say with women. They’re not straightforward. Then she takes her hand away.

            My old boots squelch on the bog as I walk back to the dual carriageway. The water seeps into my socks when I hit deep puddles.

            I’ll take the old road tomorrow night. The buck from down the country told me it had been upgraded. New surface, yellow lines for the hard shoulder. Cat’s eyes. Nearly as quick probably. There’s no crash barrier on the old road. But I live with risk.


BIO

Martin Keaveney’s debut collection of stories, The Rainy Day, was published  by Penniless Press in 2018. Short fiction has been published in  many literary journals in Ireland, UK and US. He has also written for the screen and his writing has been produced and exhibited at many international  film festivals and on broadcast television. His  scholarship was recently published in the peer-reviewed  New Hibernia ReviewJournal of Franco-Irish Studies, and Estudios Irlandeses. He has a B.A. in English and Italian, an M.A in English (Writing) and a Ph.D. at NUIG (Creative Writing and Textual Studies).   He was awarded the Sparanacht Ui Eithir for his research in 2016 and the NUIG Write-Up Bursary in 2018. See more at www.martinkeaveney.com    

The New Girl in Our Office

by Deepti Nalavade Mahule



The New Girl in Our Office arrives for the first time one rainy morning with glistening raindrops splattered like stars on the lenses of her glasses. She is without an umbrella or raincoat. This indicates that she is clumsy, but it could also mean that she’s very excited to start her first day at work. 

Her manager introduces her to all of us. She shakes all of our hands in turn and furrows her brow in concentration as we tell her our names. 

Although not exactly a beauty, she has the rosiness of youth and a face that many might label “moderately cute”. She smells of lemon and lavender, a mix of two commonplace fragrances, which suits her personality just fine.

The New Girl sets up her desk on her first day. Among her personal items, there’s a picture frame of her green-eyed tabby cat and two palm-sized red dice with white dots on them. 

The New Girl asks many questions about her job responsibilities but during lunchtime banter, she is mostly silent and only answers when asked a question. Because she keeps her mouth shut for so long, it emanates a slightly unpleasant odor when she opens it to talk.

She’s fresh out of college and has touched down onto this bustling city as if she were a fledgling landing after its first flight from its nest. However, even after weeks in office have passed, with her sitting among different groups of people during lunch hours, she doesn’t seem to be part of any particular flock. When we talk to her, we cannot help but look away from the loneliness in her eyes staring back at us unabashedly.

On most evenings, when we’re leaving for the day, the New Girl is still at her desk. She barely looks up from her computer as she murmurs a “good night”. Sometimes, she’s not there with us at lunch. We find her later, devouring an apple in the break room while she scrolls through work emails on her phone. She does not interrupt others in meetings, but after everyone else has gone silent, she offers creative solutions to most problems. The New Girl’s earnestness in applying herself to her given tasks grates on our nerves and makes us question our own efforts.

At a team dinner one night, which she’s forced to attend, as the alcohol flows freely and tongues loosen, someone pesters her during a game of Truth or Dare to share the purpose of the dice on her desk. She finally discloses that they are containers to hold her antidepressant medication.

Months pass and the New Girl is fading into Just Another Go-Getter Girl at our office when hushed whispers are heard at the end of one workweek. Words like “New Girl”, “New Girl’s boss’s boss”, “sexual misconduct” are thrown around, followed by “brushed under the carpet”, “consensual”, “too ambitious” and “The Girl of Questionable Character”.

On Monday, the New Girl calls in sick and does not show up for work. She is absent for the rest of the week and at the end of Friday, we learn that she was last seen at dusk the previous evening by her landlord. She was standing on the bridge overlooking the rushing waters of the river that runs through our city. She’d already given her notice of resignation at the office and had probably stopped by at our workplace in the early hours of the previous morning to gather her things from her desk. Having cleared out her belongings from her rented apartment as well, she was presumably planning to be on her way back to her hometown.

The Monday of the next workweek comes and goes, and it is confirmed that The New Girl will no longer be with us. Gone from her desk are her dice. One of our colleagues who has a cousin in the police force tells us what he’s heard. He says that two red dice — one of them with four dots and the other one with two dots on the sides facing up —  were found when they plummeted from the top of the bridge and landed in the bushes near the river bank instead of on the rocks jutting out in the middle of the surging downward current of the river. It’s surprising how much detailed information the colleague has about the position and location of the dice and yet he doesn’t know if they were thrown down first by the girl or came down with her.

We rack our brains about the four and two on the dice and talk excitedly among ourselves theorizing about the meanings that they might have tried to convey. In the end, we give up and look away from the blank space that they’ve left on her desk and talk about her cat instead. In our minds, we convince ourselves that the New Girl in Our Office has gone on to a higher paying job at an ideal workplace and that her dice-like containers are sitting on her new desk with nothing but breath mints inside them.  

      

BIO

One of Deepti Nalavade Mahule’s short stories was highly commended in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 1999 and others have appeared in Daily Flash Fiction Magazine, 101 words, Kitaab, Aphelion webzine, Women’s Web and elsewhere. 

Originally from India, Deepti currently lives in California, where she spends time developing software, reading aloud to her five-year-old daughter, submitting short fiction and fretting about what to put in her author’s bio. 

Her website is: https://deeptiwriting.wordpress.com/

Smitten to Spitten

by Madeline McEwen



If only we’d had a prenup, none of this would have happened, but we didn’t and it had.

The first hint of something amiss was when I couldn’t pay the hackney cab driver with my credit card. The second hint, after I paid with cash, was when my latch key wouldn’t fit in the lock. It took a few seconds for the light to dawn.

I stuck my finger on the bell and hammered on my front door. Nothing. No response. Was anybody home?

Bending down, I lifted the flap on the letterbox and peered into the empty hall.

“Kevin! Are you in there? Open the bloody door, I’m freezing out here.”

Turning, I checked the street. Where was his precious car, a prestigious, gold colored Infiniti? Our two-story, Edwardian terraced house had no garage, and only a tiny garden the size of a picnic blanket currently full of Kevin’s dismembered motorcycle—a Royal Enfield Bullet, which lay buried beneath a season’s worth of soggy leaves. The man had a million projects, none of them ever finished. Although, changing the locks might signify the start of task completion and the end of our stagnant relationship.

I grabbed my phone, dangerously low on power, called Kevin, and put my ear to the letterbox. If he was hiding, I’d hear him since he never switched his phone to vibrate. Like a surgeon on call, his inflated ego demanded 24-7 availability. CyberTex, his fledgling business enterprise, swallowed his attention and energy.

Listening to the silence, I sighed in defeat. Where was he? Then I remembered the app—TrackMyPhone—which Kevin installed even though they’re illegal in the UK unless the trackee consents. The red battery icon flashed and died, the screen turning black.

Typical. Now I was stranded, powerless, homeless, and carless—my battered jeep was in the local repair shop–on the coldest February evening I could remember.

How had this happened? Where had I gone wrong? What should I to do next?

That’s when I heard a snuffling sound from inside the house. Oscar must be waking from his late afternoon nap. I’d come home early, thirty minutes earlier than my schedule permitted. Usually, Oscar was awake and ready to play for a few minutes before I prepared dinner and tackled the other chores I had to conquer. But now I couldn’t get in, entry barred, and banished from the house I’d learned to call home over the last eighteen months.

What would happen to our little family? Divorce was inevitable, but Oscar was the innocent party. He didn’t deserve to suffer. Somehow, I must maintain his routine and stability. Obviously, that goal was best achieved if Oscar lived with me, his primary caregiver, in a new home, somewhere far away. No chance of accidental meetings causing endless grief and unnecessary heartache.

Hearing the clunk of a car door, I glanced behind me.

“Kevin! Where have you been?” He stared at me, his expression unreadable. “No matter. Don’t tell me, I don’t care.”

“You’re home early.”

“Shut up. I’m not here for a debate. Just give me Oscar and you’ll never have to see me again.”

“You’re spitting in the wind if you think I’ll give up Oscar without a fight.”

“I’ll take you to court, sue you for custody.”

Kevin leaned against the front door and swallowed hard. He spat a wad of phlegm onto the concrete.

“That’s all you’ll get from me.”

#

I fled without further pointless protestations. His words were lies, but I didn’t want to make a scene for my neighbors’ entertainment. Instead, I opted for a safe harbor, walking distance from home until I could collect my jeep.

I charged along the road and into the next street where the old terraces had been torn down and replaced with luxury, single-dwelling homes with double-garages and generous gardens. Lydia, my friend since childhood, lived in a mock-Tudor monstrosity with her numerous, obnoxious children.

What can I say our friendship?

Things were great until the twins were born, but after that I couldn’t compete for her attention, the woman caught baby-fever. At least this meant she was almost always home.

On the doorstep, I listened to a peel of bells announcing my arrival.

Lydia threw the door open and gaped at me open-mouthed.

“Clare! What have we done to deserve the honor of your presence.”

Sarcastic as always, Lydia’s face broke into a hospitable smile. I missed her company and her witty mind, but I’d given up on our friendship when her brain was over-taken by child development milestones and a never-ending pile of baby related trivia. No longer a corporate lawyer, she’d betrayed her sex and settled for domestic suburbia. But as ever, Lydia was a sucker for a sob story. I dabbed my eye with a crumpled tissue.

“What’s wrong, Clare? What’s happened? Come in.”

I picked my way over the carpet strewn with discarded toys, sippy cups, and assorted primary-colored clothing while Lydia cooed words of soothing solace to me. She swept the sofa clear of detritus, and I sank into its soft, supple warmth.

“It’s Kevin,” I explained. “We’re finished.”

“Oh dear. How ghastly. Are you sure? I always thought he was the one.” A frown fluttered across her face. “Let him cool off for a couple of days and maybe you can patch things up. I’ve always liked Kevin, he’s so good for you, so stable, so calming.”

“Calming?”

“You know what I mean. Your personality traits are complemented by his. Together you make the perfect couple. Yin and yang.”

“Don’t give me that romantic claptrap. We’re like chalk and cheese, incompatible, and now we’ve have an irretrievable breakdown. But I need your advice, legal advice, on what to do about Oscar. What are my rights? Will you represent me in court?”

“In court? I don’t practice any more, and even if I did, that’s not my field of expertise.”

Damn. I’d spat it out too quickly. I should have played the pity card first.

“But,” I said, using the gentle tone of a sympathetic plaintiff, “I remember you saying that everything in law boiled down to contracts, didn’t you?”

Lydia’s deep wrinkle of concentration distracted me, which was when I noticed the palpable silence.

“Why is it so quiet, Lydia? Where are,” I trawled my memory for the kids’ names, came up blank, and whitewashed my question, “all the children?”

“On Wednesdays after school, kindergarten, and day care, they spend the evening with their paternal granny. Why do you ask?”

“I’m interested. Being a mother is such a huge part of who you are and because of that, I’m hoping you can understand my desperation about Oscar.”

Lydia’s eyebrows jumped. She pursed her lips.

“It’s hardly the same thing.”

“It stems from the same desire to nurture.”

“I don’t wish to be unkind,” Lydia said, “but you can’t equate giving birth to six children with buying–”

“I thought you of all people would be aware of the politically correct terminology. I didn’t buy Oscar. I adopted him.”

Lydia raised her hands in a gesture of exasperation.

“Whatever,” Lydia said. “The point is, no matter how smitten you are and how cuddly he is, Oscar is still a dog.”

#

I spent the rest of the evening in Lydia’s luxurious guest bedroom ostensibly weeping in private while watching Netflix on my phone. Fortunately, Lydia lent me a posh, silk nightgown—price tag still attached–and a charging cable. She’d also called the repair shop and paid the bill for my jeep’s repairs—ready for collection tomorrow.

After a fitful night’s sleep during which I had formulated a plan of action based on Lydia’s advice, I crept out of the house before dawn with a sheaf of paper from their copier machine. If I used my flexi-time hours at work by starting at six, then I could clock off at two leaving the afternoon free and clear. With luck and a handful of intimidating copied receipts, Oscar, once again, would be mine exclusively.

#

At the park, I left my jeep at a discrete distance and lay in wait for my victim, Hamish, a self-employed dog-walker, as wiry as a whippet.

Before too long, Hamish appeared, or rather eight dogs barreled into the park like a pack of working huskies dragging Hamish behind them.

Oscar, my favorite, ninety-five-pound, Old English Sheepdog puppy was flanked by three other large dogs, none of whom I had seen before. Judging by Hamish’s struggle to control them, they, or rather their owners, were new clients.

I stepped into their pathway. The dogs surrounded me, a single sheep in an overgrown litter of barking, bouncing, salivating dogs frantic in their excitement.

“Clare! You shouldn’t be here. Kevin warned me.”

“Warned you?”

Hamish was flushed, sweating, and breathless from exertion. He was both outclassed and outnumbered as I had hoped.

“He said you might try to dog-nap Oscar.”

I unrolled my sheaf of papers and flapped them in front of his face.

“These,” I said, “prove Oscar belongs to me.”

“No, no, no.” Hamish wrestled with the tangled leashes. “I can’t get involved in another custody dispute.”

“There is no custody issue.” I unhooked Oscar’s leash, and he leaped free. I hurried away, Oscar following my outstretched hand dangling a bag of his favorite treats. I called over my shoulder, “I’ll let you know my new address”—if I ever found a dog-friendly landlord.

#

My jeep chirped and unlocked, which was when Kevin’s tires screeched into the curb. He stomped toward us, fists clenched, jaw locked.

I had a spare leash in the jeep. Without it, I had no chance of reining in my powerful puppy. Instead, I dodged around Kevin, dashed toward my car, and yanked the rear door open.

 “Enough,” Kevin shouted, spittle bubbling at the corner of his mouth.

He blocked the dog’s path as Oscar ran toward the jeep. Kevin grabbed him by the collar and lugged him toward the Infiniti.

“You can’t take him,” I said, stuffing the treat bag in my pocket.

I was yelling too. A man wearing a bike helmet leaned against his motorcycle, arms folded across his burly chest, enjoying the show. A group of mothers and children in the play area stood gawping at us too. Kevin bundled Oscar into his car and gripped his key like a lethal weapon.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” he said.

“No, UK law treats pets as property. Money changed hands. I’ve paid for his food,” I counted them off on my fingers, “his vet bills, the microchip, and all his other paraphernalia.” I saw Mr. Motorbike striding toward us. “In contract law, he’s mine, and I have the proof in this paperwork.”

“Hey, you!” Mr. Motorbike stood too close, spitting distance from Kevin. “Is that her dog?”

“No,” Kevin said, “get the hell away.”

“Wait a minute, Mate.” Mr. Motorbike opened the Infiniti’s door.

“Take your hands off my car.”

With his shoulder, Kevin shoved Mr. Motorbike, but the guy barely flinched, an immovable buffer.

“Call your dog,” Mr. Motorbike said. “We’ll see who’s his owner.”

I slipped my hand into my pocket–a secret, visual cue to Oscar. “Here, boy!”

Oscar bounded toward me. I flung the treat bag inside the jeep, and Oscar followed. Sometimes I too acted like an animal, thoughtless and instinctive, occasionally unkind when I was with Kevin, but Oscar brought out the best in me and made me a better human.

With Oscar’s tail safely inside, I slammed the door, jumped in the driver’s seat, and reversed. I sped off in triumph with my love-smitten pup drooling on the backseat, showering gravel in our wake, and Kevin, no doubt, spitting nails in defeat.

BIO

Madeline McEwen is the author of three stand-alone novelettes, numerous short stories published both traditionally and online, and is a contributor to several anthologies. Currently, she is focused on two cozy mystery series, one set in the UK and the other in San Jose, USA both featuring a significant character with a disability, and a senior female amateur sleuth. She is an ex-pat from the UK, now settled in San Jose, California in the heart of Silicon Valley. Bi-focaled and technically challenged, she and her Significant Other manage their four offspring, one major and three minors, two autistic, two neurotypical, plus a time-share with Alzheimer’s. In her free time, she walks the canines and chases the felines with her nose in a book and her fingers on a keyboard.

Fasting

by Cliff Morton


My mother is Muslim and my father is a seldom practicing Catholic. As a kid, I viewed my parents as people who followed religion but they weren’t going to go out of their way to practice it. It was kinda like any sitcom that was wedged between Friends and Seinfeld on Thursday nights. You wouldn’t change the channel, but now, twenty-something years later, you’re not endlessly searching Netflix for old episodes of Suddenly Susan. My parents were the same way; they’d put up a Christmas tree, we’d visit my grandmother’s house for Eid, we’d go out to brunch on Easter morning, and we’d fast and abstain from all Haram food during Ramadan.

Ramadan always felt like the playoffs for a Muslim. You waited your whole season for this moment to shine and waver between feeling habitually hungry and then overfed. Starting at point guard, number 11, Muhammed, at shooting guard, number 2, Mohammed, at small forward, number 25, Abdul, at power forward, number 33, Muhammad. Lots of variations of Muhammed growing up. And me, Cliff, the whitest looking Muslim in the Ramadan starting lineup.

Whereas other people prepared mentally for the many days of fasting ahead, I prepared physically. I knew that in the thirty days, I would crave nothing more than what I was not allowed to eat. That meant Jamaican patties, hamburgers, burritos, pretty much anything meat related that was ethnically different from the Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine that would make up my menu over the next month. I ate all of it. I shoved all of that Haram deliciousness into my mouth, savoring every last bit of sinful goodness.

When it came time to actually fast, I felt doomed from the start. My days of gorging on carbohydrate and fat laden foods did not prepare me for the Ramadan playoffs. If I didn’t take it seriously, I was going to be bounced within the first week. I first started fasting when I was eight years old. In the previous two years, I would fast for half the day, eventually progressing to full days on the weekends, but when I was allowed to do a full day fast, the first of thirty days in a row of eating and drinking only before sunrise and after sundown, I felt like I was being called up to the big leagues. My grandmother fasted, my mother fasted, my aunts and uncles fasted, my older cousins fasted, and now I was on their level.

Within the first five minutes of sitting at the lunch table on the first day of Ramadan, I begged to be demoted. My friends were all eating, because, of course I was the only Muslim kid growing up in a town in Connecticut. The usual suspects were tantalizing; hot lunch, which happened to be spaghetti and meatballs, sat across from me at the table, my friend, Sean, shoveling it in, bite after bite, barely allowing the steam to escape from the top of the tray before he moved onto the garlic bread. Sure, its consistency could have been cardboard, but the smell of buttery garlic was overpowering. I turned my gaze towards my friend Pete’s lunch. He brought lunch, and based on his history, I was expecting peanut butter and jelly or a sad looking bologna sandwich with Kraft singles American cheese on white bread. Even at my weakest and most vulnerable stage of hunger, I could resist those temptations.

Instead, he reached into his bag and pulled out something wrapped in tinfoil. What the hell was in that thing? He opened it up and there was half a hoagie roll, with tomato sauce pouring out of the side, with some kind of indistinguishable filling. Two ravioli looking things rested against the side of the bread. Are you fucking kidding me? I knew Pete since I moved into Trumbull, I went over to his house a bunch of times, and the one thing that was certain was that no one in his family cooked. They were a Stouffer’s or take out kind of family. Snacks at his house consisted of Fruit Roll Ups or bags of chips, that’s it.

“What is that?” I asked, conscious of holding the drool back from my mouth.

“Oh, it’s called Golabki and pierogi!” he said excitedly, “We went over to my gammy’s house for dinner last night. It’s so good. Do you want to try it?”

Damn you Pete! Damn you and your hospitable nature!

“No, I’m good,” I said sheepishly, my arms crossing my chest to muffle the sounds that echoed from the walls of my empty stomach.

“You sure? Did you forget your lunch?” he asked, genuinely concerned. Pete was a good friend, but I would have much preferred a tact similar to Sean’s Lord of the Flies, survive at all costs, at the moment.

I hadn’t completely thought out the whole Muslim thing yet. I was nervous about telling people that I was fasting because I didn’t want to come across as weird. I was already the only brown kid in the school, and I didn’t need any other non-cool distinguishing features to make me stand out. “No, my stomach was feeling kinda sick this morning, so I didn’t bring lunch today.”

“Got it,” he said, as I breathed a sigh of relief. He took a bite out of the sandwich and its juiciness poured out onto the tinfoil below. “The… only bad thing… it’s kinda messy… in a sandwich,” he said in between bites. He swallowed the entirety of his bite before adding, “Normally you just eat it with a fork without the bread, but my gammy makes it into sandwiches for us for lunch.”

Alright, alright, with the Polish food lesson and stories about your gammy, Pete. I’m starving to death over here and I’ve still got a few more hours to go until sundown. I looked at the clock, 12:05. I did the math in my head. It wasn’t dark until around six o’clock each night. I had six more hours to go of this torture! Noooooo!

* * *

Eventually, I got over lusting after other people’s food, but when I had my first basketball game during the day, I nearly lost my shit over the fact that I couldn’t drink water.

“Remember, you can’t drink any water during the game, so load up now,” my mom advised me as we ate together in the wee hours of the morning. The worst part about eating so early in the morning was that I wasn’t truly hungry because I should’ve been sleeping, but I also knew that I had a full day ahead of me without food, so I better find a way to shovel in the food.

I took a bite of my egg and cheese sandwich on an English muffin, a meal that I thoroughly enjoyed during normal daytime breakfast, but found to be an arduous task at four thirty in the morning. My brain started to turn itself on and I began to process what my mom had just said, “Wait, what?” I asked, confused.

“You can’t eat or drink anything while you’re fasting. You know that,” she said, a little too chipper for my liking.

“Umm…” I began to say, trying to temper my annoyance, “But I have a game today.”

“And?” she asked.

“I’m gonna be thirsty! How am I supposed to play a game without drinking water?” my voice raised with each word, but the glare of my mother began to tamp down my volume by the time I reached my second question.

“You know, Hakeem Olajuwon is Muslim. He fasts during games,” my dad said, emerging from out of nowhere. Where did he even come from? I didn’t even think he was awake.

“What?” I asked, confused less about my dad’s information and more about his sudden appearance in the kitchen.

“Yup. Houston Rockets. He fasts during the games. There was an article about it in Sports Illustrated,” he said.

Nice. Real nice, dad. Use sports and one of my favorite magazines against me. My mom nodded towards me, encouragingly, “See?”

I quickly finished my breakfast and began guzzling water in preparation for the day ahead. As I walked out of the room, I said, “You know, I’m gonna play like crap now.”

“Watch your mouth!” my parents yelled in unison.

* * *

Years later, at a family barbecue, I was playing basketball with my cousins. A seldom seen relative who was visiting from Toronto chimed in from afar, “You know that Hakeem Olajuwon is Muslim, right? He even fasts during Ramadan! During the games!”

Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets had defeated my beloved Knicks in the NBA Finals a few years prior, “I hate that fasting sonofabitch,” I muttered underneath my breath.

* * *

By the time I entered college, I was already on the fence about fasting. I couldn’t imagine trying to work around my class schedule, my work study job, and absolutely necessary extracurricular activities, such as pickup basketball games and hanging out with the girls from the other end of our dorm.

The year prior, I learned about the newest downfall to fasting that was previously unbeknownst to me; no sexual relations during the daytime hours. No kissing… nothing. I tried explaining the concept to my girlfriend at the time and she gave me an odd look as if to say, “We can’t make out in this empty house because you’re fasting?” The devilish character on my shoulder was dressed ironically in an all white suit like he was in a Jagged Edge music video, while my moral compass was standing around in khakis and a polo shirt. It certainly seemed like the Jagged Edge version had better plans for the afternoon.

Fast forward a year, and I was about a month and a half away from Ramadan, with my mind still undecided about whether or not I would fast during the month. My friends wanted to go to a pizza place on Charles Street, a place for higher end fare that would be out of the price range of most college students, but we had a friend who waitressed there and she said that she could hook us up with a deal.

We ordered a couple of pizzas to share for the table. They all looked delicious, but there was one in particular that caught my eye. It had a thin crust, with pink strips crisscrossing the top of the oblong pie with a layer of thick, brown sauce underneath. It looked unlike any pizza that I’d ever had, especially considering that the full gamut of pizza flavors that my parents ordered ranged from cheese to, well, cheese.

I took a bite and there was an explosion of flavor in my mouth. I hate rats, but the scene in Ratatouille, where Remy describes the combination of flavors, with fireworks shooting through the air, intertwined with food, explained my feelings completely. The saltiness from the unknown pink substance combined with the sweet sauce, mixed with the bitterness from the arugula, and the creamy but sharp cheese made for the most delightful bite of food that I had ever eaten.

“What is this?” I asked, turning to one of my friends.

“Prusciutto fig pie,” he answered as he savored a bite as well, “It’s so good, right?”

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” I said, but I was still perplexed, “But what’s that?”

“Prusciutto? Oh, it’s like Italian bacon, but better,” he answered.

Bacon? My mind raced. I’d never eaten pork, and now that I had, I pretty much traded in my Muslim card. I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to ask, just in case, “So it’s pork?”

“Yup,” he said, nonchalantly.

I stared down at the pizza and pondered my choices, but in reality, there was no turning back. I took another bite and basked in the bliss of delicious swine.


BIO

Cliff Morton is a small business owner who lives in Connecticut with his wife and three children. His poetry has been featured in Alexandria Quarterly. When he’s not chasing after two dachshunds and seven ducks, he is known to dabble in woodworking, baking, and sneaking away to the quiet confines of his home to write.

A New Method of Wellness

By Charles J. March III




Maybe I begot the Y2K bacterium…
I mean, it’s conceivable—since I was a reckoning, millenarian millennial—who withdrew from the world while waiting for the coming of God; notwithstanding the certainty that I wasn’t yet counting down the days until my odometer was ready to roll over and cross the great divide, as I progressively gazed forth to my calendar being filled with astronomical events, leading me to consider giving the 12 modes of Gregorian chanting a chance, which, I knew—in all likelihood—would have reflected my new light potential like a Gregorian telescope. So I started to deliberate about the day when I would get up-to-date with myself, be the arbiter of my arbitrary actions, and advance on a date with Destiny.

But many twelvemonths would make their way before the good government of my being would come to be. Momentarily after the millennium, I ran my eyes over different discourses of methods, which fomented my overthinking—therefore—winding me up in an extremely existential existence. I became cynical, and skeptical of the whole shebang, as I started smoking more peace pipes than Method Man, and yenned for my red skinned counterparts. I progressed to the edge of unemployment, and ambitioned about cutting myself in the line, but my avant-garde alter ego guarded me. I even thought of utilizing a TEC-9 technique, by shooting my star-crossed nut, but instead of destroying my third eye and waking up to a pearly gated ghetto—some of my pearly whites were serendipitously purloined by a slug, and I ended up in an ebony neighborhood.

I tried to plead temporary insanity—by saying that the state of my art was underdeveloped, and that all of my original ideas about original gangsters who experimented with experimental drugs would one day be certified fresh on old-fashioned tomatoes—but nobody bought them. Providentially, I wasn’t prosecuted, and was able to persecute different pursuits. The only doohickey I got out of the new deal was a set of newfangled fangs, which left my debt in mint condition. Perchance the second-hand smoke and hackneyed horse would have executed me toothless regardless. The solitary structure I had at that juncture was puncturing the organization of my largest organ, which was semi-erotic, but wasn’t likely the best logic. I was kindred to a method actor in a dreamlike requiem I once had, which turned out to be the nest of a nightmare gone bad.

People were starting to co-sign my slow death by design, and not even Dakota Fanning could stop the subconscious planning of my inner world’s wars. So I tried methadone, but got sick from its scientific methods, and knew that I needed something more, in spite of the fact that my spiritual practice was out of practice, and that the ecclesiastical tactics were rather taciturn—the bells would shortly toll for me, and my éclat would soon emulate the complex algorithms of Method ringing that were set/sent by The Holy Spirit. The pedantic permutations of my modus operandi began to find a routine, but it all became too routine, and I digressed from the process as my strategy grew into an elegy. I knew I needed a new order, because all my sun declines were like blue Mondays.

So I set out to get away from all my Hellenistic mistresses, who were like Nike—in that they were mindless, damaged goddesses who wanted to just do it, but which I suppose were sublimely beautiful witches nonetheless. And when I look back, it’s putative that they were all victories in discernment. Posterior to the pronouncement of this purpose, I ended up erecting passage to pristine pastures in an area where flora and fauna flourish, where the Beats found their rhythm, and where customers who are accustomed to alternative lifestyles have consumption. I also decided to take another shot at/as the unknown soldier, and the days that shadowed were extremely strange. Even familiar faces seemed unfamiliar. But I put my trust in The Man with the plan, and one day, my fiendish friend—who goes by the moniker of Monk (sobriquet, due to the resemblance to Tony Shalhoub and his OCD, but I suspect that he does, indubitably, have a certain, ostensible cenobitism to him) introduced me to a consortium called New Method Wellness, and after many kismets, came across the possessors, who launched me into a whole new way of life. The trying of untried herbs was inaugurated (which enabled me to be reborn by means of Mother Nature), and I also engaged in various, vigorous exercises (which were reinvigorating, and refreshing to my physique).

This all went well for a time, but the day where I became diffidently indifferent to “something different” soon betided. They then suggested that I get the lead out of my head, so I made progress to become an inky octopus, in search of the 8 areas of wellness. But then the rabble began to call my babble dense, and in a sense—it may be verifiable—but at least I rarely lose in scrabble. And I never scrawl before any man when it comes to the spouting melody of my fountain pen’s composition. Having said that, I only sign things when I see sigils to do so. I log my Logos, list my trysts, and scribble as I see fit (which usually ends in the ripping up of my scripts), but in the end—it all has a hand in creating the calligraphy of my calling card.

Anyway, many moons have waxed and waned from the time that the tides brought me upon these beauteous beaches—and I’ve since become involved in many New Thought Movements—where I preserve to attain alternatives to my old-self-medicated alternative medicine. Under no circumstances will I peter out in the persistence of being a wellness tourist, and peradventure—my passport will unabatingly be stamped—even as I pass onto/into the thereafter-life.



BIO

Charles J. March III is an impoverished, asexual, INFJ, neurodivergent Navy hospital corpsman veteran from the South Side of Chicago, who is currently trying to live an eclectic life with an interesting array of recovering creatures in Orange County, CA. His avant-garde poetry & prose has appeared in Literary Orphans, Stinkwaves, Fleas on the Dog, Harbinger Asylum, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, et al., and is forthcoming from Angry Old Man, 3:AM, and Free State Review.


Separated by Glass

by Kailyn Kausen

 

He’s a slice of a red hot velvet cake. She’s a creamy chocolate cheesecake with many layers and curly hair made of chocolate shavings. They are each surrounded by others like them, but they don’t want the others. They want each other, the one on the other side of the glass, the plate standing vertical, separating the cakes from the cheesecakes.

It started out like this. They were formulated one after the other by the same hands. First it was him, the red velvet, mixed together with his brethren in an old silver pot. Those were the velvet’s youthful years. He was poured into a pan along with his brothers and warmed from a gross gooey boy to a firm, but sensitive man. While he was cooked to perfection, she was mixed, settled into layers, refrigerated, and transformed into a woman.

After maturing, they were carefully separated from their brothers and sisters, individually wrapped, and placed into specific rows – he with the other red velvets, and her with the other chocolate cheesecakes. They ended up in the back of their rows and learned each other’s expressions as they moved forward in line, unable to speak or touch, but learning more about each other than a cake and a cheesecake ever cared to.

His brothers made fun of him.

“You won’t ever get her. Look at that glass! Might as well give up now and accept your fate.”

“Why would you want a cheesecake, other than her being rich, of course?”

“She’s not one of us.”

Her sisters had a similar reaction.

“He’s dry, honey.”

“He’s only got two layers. And buttercream!  He’s a simpleton, sweet heart.”

So they learned to ignore the others. They grew worried as they approached the front of the line, nearing their inevitable deaths, but also grew more in love. They stopped hearing the buzzing sounds of the others making fun of them. Nothing mattered except the other.

The worst times were when they weren’t next to each other, when too many of her sisters or too many of his brothers were purchased for the pleasure of the moving giants. They grew nervous the other would be taken away for good long before they could devise a plan to be together, to touch each other just once. The rows always evened out eventually, so they approached the end together.

She reached the end first. She hung onto the edge of the slanted shelf, nothing but the lip holding her in place, covered in the sweet remnants of others trying to save themselves, the lip that said, “Chocolate Cheesecake,” like that was all she was. Everything that had settled to the bottom while she matured threatened to explode out of her. She couldn’t look away from the vast chasm before her even though she knew if she looked back at the velvet, he’d give her that reassuring look. She thought she should look back. If she did, she would see his face. That’d be the last thing she’d see, whether she dropped over the edge of the cliff because she wasn’t good enough anymore, or if she was picked up by a customer. His face would be a happier sight than either of those, buts, she couldn’t look away from the scrawny boy with the crumpled five-dollar bill waving in his hand.

The boy was coming for her. She knew it. If only she knew the red velvet’s name, if only he’d be able to hear her say it. The dirty fingernails snaked towards her and she closed her eyes, waiting. But the boy didn’t reach for her, he reached for the red velvet next to her – not her red velvet, but the one preventing them from being side to side.

So, the red velvet and the chocolate cheesecake were side by side again, each waiting for their deaths, each scared on the side of the cliff, each wanting to speak, and each staring at the other from the corner of their eyes, both waiting for the ring of the bell at the door that would signal their end.

When the ring did come, it was much louder than either of them expected it to be because it rang for both instead of one. A young woman and a young man walked into the store, laughing and so involved in  each other they could barely tear their eyes away from the other’s face.

The chef, hearing the bell, came to the front of the store. “When you’re ready,” he said, smiling.

The young man grabbed the red velvet.

The young woman grabbed the chocolate cheesecake and two plastic forks from a cup on the table.

“Will that be it?” asked the chef, placing the two cakes into a white bag.

The cakes shivered in fear and their proximity, now able to touch and speak, but they didn’t want to speak. They were afraid of what to say and too frightened at what would happen to them in the next moments. It was simultaneously the best and worst time of their lives.

The young man handed the chef a bill. “Yes, thank you,” he said. The chef returned his change and the young man dumped the coins into the tip jar.

“Anytime,” said the chef as the young couple exited the store.

The young man stood behind the woman and fumbled with the bag, slipping a ring into the plastic wrapping of her cheesecake. She chose a table and sat down. He sat across from her and pulled the cakes from the bag. She handed him a fork and began unwrapping the plastic. When she uncovered the ring, she stopped unwrapping.

He got down on one knee and looked up at her like he was the earth and she was the moon. “Will you marry me?”

She smiled and tears filled her eyes. “You know I can never say no to cake,” she said, laughing and crying.

He took the ring from her hand, slipped it over her finger, and kissed her knuckles. “That’s why I asked you like this,” he said.

They smiled and talked a while more with excitement before settling in once again on opposite sides of the table to open and eat their separate cakes.

This is the moment the chocolate cheesecake and the red velvet had been dreading from that very first moment they were created. But, at least they would go together.

The fork sliced into the red velvet first, his buttercream filling smearing over the fork and across the lips of the young man. Crumbles of the cake dripped from the man’s mouth like drops of blood.

Next, the young woman pushed the cheesecake onto her side, slowly ripping her apart before the first bite was taken. This bite stripped the cheesecake of her form, reducing her to a pudding-like consistency, which flowed down the woman’s esophagus into an acid bath.

The cakes were forced to watch as the other was eaten by the couple, pieces of red velvet flying across the table and onto the floor, smears of chocolate against the plastic wrap, chocolate shavings rolling away like unwanted ornaments after Christmas. Dismembered and dissected, the cakes hoped each other would leave this world quickly and find peace in the next world as a brown reincarnate.


BIO

Kailyn Kausen commutes between Santa Barbara and the Central Valley of California, and spends her evenings imagining the secret lives of inanimate objects. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of Spectrum literary journal. She has been published in Disturbed Digest and Perspectives on Undergraduate Research and Mentorship.

Assumptions

by James Mulhern


“You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.”
(Song of Solomon 4:7)


Peggy Fleming, according to my grandfather was the “homeliest damn woman” he’d ever seen. Her face was swollen and pasty, with broken capillaries that sloped down the sides of her nostrils, flooding the arid plain of her skin, like some dreary river and its tributaries eking over a delta of nasolabial folds to terminate in the red seas of two droopy cheeks. Spindly, awkward limbs stuck out of a round body, like you might see in a kindergartner’s rendering of a person. She was, unfortunately, toothless and hairless as well, suffering from a mysterious childhood disease that had left her with chronic alopecia. Peggy used to tell us kids that she lost her hair because she refused to eat green beans when she was a child. I always thought it a cruel irony that she had the same name as the graceful and beautiful skater who had won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1968.

I remember hearing my grandparents and Auntie Ag, my grandmother’s older and “much smarter” sister (the one who graduated high school), likening Peggy’s features to those of a bulldog as they puffed away on Lucky Strikes and Parliaments, stopping every now and then to slap down a poker chip or a playing card, or take another sip of whiskey. While they played, I circled the kitchen table and listened, picking up snippets about Peggy’s tragic life.

Her story goes something like this–She was married once to a very handsome man named Jim, who was quite successful in business, something to do with cutting pants–“slacks” my grandmother called them–for a good company. Everyone was surprised that Peg could get such a catch, but like many ugly people, she had a heart of gold, and oh could she sing! The two of them, they met in a nightclub in Boston’s Back Bay, one of those divey joints, nothin’ too swanky, where Peg sang jazz classics for a small crowd on Friday nights. Jim often stopped by the nightclub after work, and you know, eventually they hit it off. One thing led to another, and of course they got married. But by Christ! How in God’s name could Jim stand to look at that puss day in and day out?

And wasn’t it a tragedy, how one evening, after a game at Fenway Park, Jim drove the green Buick that he loved so much into a fruit stand on the side of the road, killing the old Italian guy selling the stuff, and himself, of course. Afterward, Peg was never the same. She wouldn’t go out, still hardly does, and that was years ago. It’s a shame how she’s tried to drown her sorrows by cozying up to that bottle. It’s a good thing she has a neighbor like Helen to check on her, and take her out once in a while.

My grandmother would beam smugly. Aunty Ag would say, “Oh what troubles some people have,” and my grandfather would look down, embarrassed he had said too much.

In the knotty pine basement of Peggy’s home was a beautiful Steinway piano. My most vivid memory of Peg’s singing was when, after my grandmother and she had a few highballs, they led me down the cellar stairs so that she could sing for me. My grandmother had bragged, as most grandparents do, that I was a most talented pianist, and Peg wanted to share her own talent with me, encouraging me that I could “make it” like she had.

They were both very drunk; I was relieved that neither of them fell down the stairs and broke their necks. My grandmother goaded Peg to sing “When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New,” Peg’s favorite.

With one thin arm braced against the polished black surface of the Steinway, she sang with no accompaniment, and even now, years later, I hear the swelling sadness in her voice, remembering too, the indignity and shame that I experienced when my grandmother slyly smirked at me and rolled her eyes. Peg was horrible of course–years of smoking, drinking, and heartache had ravaged her vocal chords–but her pain was so real. I knew that she was dreaming–longing for her husband Jim–and I think it was then that the first throb of death’s glower entered my consciousness.

When I was ten, my father sent my dog to the pound because he barked too much. I cried and phoned my grandmother, who had just come from lunch with Peg. The two of them arrived within the hour, scolded my mother, and cursed my father, who was still at work. A few hours later, we had retrieved Scruffy from the Animal Rescue League of Boston. During the ride back, my grandmother and Peg convinced me that the best thing was to find a new home for the dog.

“To hell with your father,” Peg said, passing me a mint she kept in her pocketbook in case her blood sugar dropped. “We saved Scruffy’s life, sweetheart. And what matters most, Jimmy, is knowing that he’s happy.  Sometimes that’s the way it has to be, my love.”

At my grandmother’s house, Peg took charge, calling the local radio stations and asking would they broadcast that “the sweetest dog Scruffy” needed a home. She and my grandmother drank several whiskey sours during their home-for-the-dog campaign, and I’m certain that the disc jockeys did not take Peg seriously, let alone understand her slurred words.

“You’ll see. Everything will be all right,” she kept telling me.

We had Chinese food delivered, and at the end of our meal, Peg opened a fortune cookie and read, “Do you believe? Endurance and persistence will be rewarded.” For Peggy, this was a mystical sign that we should “get off our arses” and knock on doors all over the neighborhood. “Where there’s a way, there’s a will,” she stammered. “What we need is faith is all, and our coats.” She smiled at me and rubbed my head.

My grandmother said she was too damn tired to go traipsing around the neighborhood, and passed out on the couch. Peggy said, “To hell with you, too, then!” and laughed.

The three of us–Peg, Scruffy, and myself–began canvassing the neighborhood. It was December and cold; the sky was crystal clear. I could see my breath, and just above us, one bright star seemed to be chasing a crescent of moon. What a sight we must have been! Peg zigzagging beside me, me nudging Peg–trying to keep her from falling off the curb, Scruffy following behind, wagging his tail and sniffing spots along the way.

We walked several blocks that night, ringing bells and knocking on doors, stopping a few times to plan what we should say. Peg said that what we needed was a “hook.” She suggested that she could take off her wig and tell the people “just a little white lie” about her dying of cancer. I said that I thought that was probably a mortal sin, and my grandmother wouldn’t like it. She reluctantly agreed, and we decided to state the simple facts. “No blarney. Just the bit about your father sending poor Scruffy to the pound.”

Some people didn’t answer their doors. It must have been after 10 p.m., and I imagined tired strangers peeking out at us, annoyed to be disturbed at this time of the night. Of the people who listened to our tale of woe, most were gracious and polite. Some of the neighbors clearly recognized Peg though, and there were looks of exasperation and disgust on their faces.

“Take the boy and his dog home,” one young mother said. “It’s too late to be out, especially with you in the state you’re in. You should be ashamed of yourself. It’s freezing out there and the boy’s gonna catch a cold.”

“But the dog needs a home!” Peg pleaded.

“The boy needs a home. Now take him home before I call the police and have you arrested for public drunkenness.” She gave me a pitiful look before shutting the door in our faces.

“Show me the way to go home. I’m tired and I wanna go to bed,” Peg sang. “I had a little drink about an hour ago and it went right to my head—

“Have faith,” she told me, “We’ll find a home for him. You know I’d keep him if I could, Jimmy, but I’m all allergies. Makes my face puff up and screws up my breathing.” In addition to alopecia and diabetes, Peg suffered from episodes of acute asthma.

My grandmother was snoring on the couch when we returned. Scruffy jumped onto the wing-tipped chair, and curled himself into a ball. Peg and I serenaded my grandmother with “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” until she awoke with a start and asked for her “damn” drink.

The rest of the night is a blur. Perhaps I fell asleep on the rug watching TV? Maybe my grandfather carried me to bed when he returned from his night job? What I remember most about the events of that evening is that Peg kept her promise. Later that week, she found a home for Scruffy–with a “rich doctor” at the clinic where she got all her medications. A couple times over the following months, she took me to see Scruffy. I was content–he had a large fenced-in yard, and there were other dogs as well. I was happy to know that he was happy. Peg had been my savior.

A few years later, my grandmother brought my sister, Peg, and me to be “cured” in the waters of Nantasket Beach. Snapping open her compact, she peered into the mirror while she smothered her lips with red, all the while explaining the importance of August 15th to Beth and me. We were seated in her kitchen, sunlight flickering on the orange-and-gold checkered pattern of the wallpaper behind her.

“On August 15th,” my grandmother elaborated, “we celebrate the Feast of the Blessed Mother’s Assumption, when Jesus’s mother, was taken to her heavenly home.”

“Who took her?” Beth asked.

“God, dear.”

“In an airplane?”

“No, sweetheart. Finish up your eggs.”

“Then how’d she get there?”

My grandmother rose and began washing dishes at the sink. Beth and I looked past her head through the window to examine the sky.

“It’s a mystery, Bethie. Just one of those things,” she said.

“Oh.” Beth picked up her fork. “A mystery.”

The dogma of the Assumption, I later learned, was firmly established in 1950 when Pope Pius XII made his decree that the Immaculate Mother of God was “assumed into heavenly glory.” I’ve always wondered why it took so long to decide on the fate of poor Mary, who like a participant in a tableau vivant, remained motionless, one foot on the earth and one foot in the air, for centuries.

On that August day, the idea of a “cure” paled in comparison to the roller coaster ride my sister and I, if well behaved, might enjoy at Paragon Amusement Park across from the beach. Since we weren’t sick and didn’t need a cure, “Mary’s blessing” seemed like a gip.

After breakfast, the three of us–Beth and I wearing bathing suits under our T-shirts, and my grandmother arrayed in a white and gold sundress, a wide-brimmed hat with a spray of lilies, and black Farrah sunglasses–crossed the street to get Peggy, who had been “very ill” lately. I had overhead my grandparents whispering about Peg’s “delirium tremens,” how she was imagining things, and telling crazy stories about monkeys calling her up on the phone. One night a police officer brought her to my grandmother’s house after he found Peg wandering the streets of a nearby square; she was bruised and teary. Peg said she was looking for her husband Jim, trying to bring him home. I remembered our cold walk in December and wondered if Jim had been on her mind even then.

In the bag I carried were six baby-food jars to collect salt water for our family, some clusters of red grapes, as well as apples, raisins, and a few banana loaves that my grandmother had stolen from Solomon’s Bakery, where she worked part time. My grandmother believed it was a mortal sin to waste the day-old baked goods, even though the management had insisted that they be tossed in the rubbish.

Just outside Peg’s door, my grandmother stopped us. “Now you both behave. And Jimmy, remember to call her ‘Lovely Peggy,’ ” she whispered quickly. ‘Lovely Peggy’ was the sobriquet my grandmother had invented one Sunday after a sermon the priest had given on the power of names and the mystery of the Word. If we thought lovely things about Peggy, she explained, Peggy’s life would be happier, and she would feel better. “You kiddos don’t know how much this visit means to a lonely old lady.”

Peg opened the door. I mechanically announced, “Good morning, Lovely Peggy.”

Peggy responded, as she always did, “Isn’t he adorable,” while Beth skirted past her into the kitchen, desperate to get away, and my grandmother, appalled at Peg’s appearance, said, “What’s the matter with you? Did you forget we were going to the beach?” She looked down at Peg’s feet, tsk tsking at what Peg was wearing. “You look foolish in those things.”

Peggy had a confused look on her face, like she was half-asleep. There was pure grief in her expression, as if she felt cheated from a surprise. Her housedress, which had a pattern of tiny roses, shrouded a pair of small black boots; there were red stains at the end of her sleeves from where she had spilled some juice. She had forgotten her wig and the sunlight highlighted a laurel of peach-fuzz hair; a few silver strands, moist from sweat, garlanded the area by her temples and behind her large ears. The blinds were pulled down on the window behind the kitchen table, and the sweet smell of cedar cabinets and wine surrounded us in a cloud.

My grandmother crossed the threshold, flicked on the lamp, and guided Peg to the table. I hadn’t seen Peg in several months. Her usual cheeriness had vanished, and she was distracted and distant. It unnerved me to see how much she had changed. I joined my sister who was seated on the verdant green divan in the living room, strategically positioned in front of the dish of hard candies that we had grown accustomed to raiding on our visits.

We were quiet, enjoying the deliciousness of peppermint candy, swinging our legs together and humming just a little, eavesdropping on the conversation from the kitchen table, which was not far from where we sat.

“Let’s have one for the road, Helen.”

“You’ve had quite enough already, Peg. Aren’t your feet hot in those God-awful boots?”

“Not really.”

“But your feet must stink. You’ve got to take those damn things off! The salt water will be good for your gout and all that puffiness around your ankles. And the water will help the calluses on our soles!”

Peg laughed. “I figured the boots were perfect for the beach.”

“For Christ’s sake, Peg! The point is to get wet. How else are you going to get the cure?”

“Cure for what?”

“Anything! Your aching bones, your mood, your bowels, whatever it is that’s bothering you. God will know what you need. Miracles do happen, ya know.” I pictured my grandmother making the sign of the cross, Peg watching dreamily. I don’t know that Peg was very religious. I’m not even sure if she was a practicing Catholic, but that wouldn’t have stopped my grandmother in her missionary zeal.

“I believe miracles sometimes do happen, Helen,” Peg said at last. “It will only take me a moment to get ready. I have to use the little girls room and put on my fancy wig and makeup so I can look divine for my Jim over there,” she said, looking at me.

“I need to straighten out, get my life together,” Peg said, arching her back.

“You’re fine, Peg.” My grandmother helped her through the narrow doorway and down the hall. Peg hesitated every now and then, pressing her trembling palm against the wall, as if to discern whether it, or she, was still really here.

It was breezy at the shore. Soon we found a comfortable place on the beach. My grandmother rubbed tanning oil into Peg’s bald scalp, forehead, and the nape of her neck; she shone like a miniature Sun. Peg let Beth and I drape a necklace of dried seaweed upon her; we pretended it was a string of jewels. Then the two of us scribbled words into the sand with our fingers and played Yahtzee until we lost one of the die. The salty north winds felt good against our skin, and Peg wrapped our shoulders with her purple towel so we wouldn’t get burned.

Later, as Beth and I waded through the shallow waters at the ocean’s edge, we stopped occasionally to work and wedge our feet into the cool sand, then sloshed our legs through the foam a bit, deliberately making heavy giant steps and dancing to keep pace with the sun. We splashed ourselves as we jumped to avoid dark clumps of seaweed or a jellyfish, and we scanned the hard bottom for a lonely starfish or stone, or the clam with a secreted pearl. For a while, we explored large rocks that edged the beach, unearthing small crabs in the sand between, and startling a mourning dove that sped from its cleft into the bright sky. It made a whistling sound as it rose; then it began to descend over the water where my grandmother and Peg were walking towards the ocean. The waves beyond glimmered like sparks from an unquenchable fire. On a jetty in the distance, a father and his son cast fishing lines into the sea.

Suddenly, we heard my grandmother shout, “Watch yourself!” but it was too late; both she and Peg were surprised by a spirited breaker that razed them in its wake. Of course we ran to help, but delighted, too, in the spectacle–my grandmother and Peggy, seated on their asses, just a few feet from where the waves trickled to their end. In an instant they were kneeling forward, laughing so hard that they cried. As we began to help lift them, my grandmother and Peg, in between guffaws, groaned that the soles of their feet were cramping from shells and stones beneath their feet. My grandmother said that her “permanent is all ruined” while she fussed with her hair. Peggy answered, “At least I don’t have to worry about that,” and they laughed even harder. Then Lovely Peggy reached for me. I was mesmerized by her wet silvery scalp, and resisted the urge to touch the crown of her head before I gave her my hand and she rose from the sea. “Jimmy, you’re my angel,” she said, and kissed me on the forehead.

We filled six jars with water that day, and starving, we made a feast of the bread and fresh fruit by a small tide pool in the shade of a bony cliff. In the late afternoon, Beth and I had our roller coaster ride. With hands shielding their eyes from the sun, my grandmother and Peggy waved to us, transfigured figurines on the earth below, their clothing white as snow. The coaster lifted our chariot further into the crystal sky, while on the horizon, heat lightening flashed behind a lacey curtain of gray.

It has been a long time since that ride, but when I recall that afternoon, I feel the heady anticipation of the rising, and the delightful fright of the quick fall. Only a few days later, early on a Sunday morning, my mother would come to my room and wake me. She sat on the side of my bed where I had propped myself against a pillow. When she told me that Lovely Peggy had died in her sleep, I felt the pang of grief, but a sweet happiness, too, as I remembered our December journey, Peg’s persistence and her songs.

I imagined Peggy “over there,” eyes no longer teary, her countenance reflecting the brightness of a blazing fire. Finally she would be at home with her Jim. Completely awake–laughing, altogether beautiful, and divine–she rises once again to sing her favorite song. And the Sun’s great light shines upon and caresses her warm skin, like the flesh of a Father’s hands as He cradles His child’s head before lifting His crossed arms to kiss her soft cheek. A Father, joyful and tearful at the same time, hallowed by a loveliness that would forever be a part of Him.


BIO

James Mulhern has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in literary journals or anthologies over eighty times. In 2013, he was a Finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His writing has earned a Kirkus Star. His most recent novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Readers’ Favorite Book Award winner, a Notable Best Indie Book of 2019, and a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019.

Sleepy Whale 254

by Terry Brinkman


Shaving by night, Agglutinated Lather

City Weekly read, reread, while lathering

Unexpectedly, Postman double knocks

Titrations a clattered Milk-Can

Relathering the same spot

Aught he sought

Psychophysics therapeutics’

Full masculine-feminine

Absent of light disturbs him

Reluctant to shed Human Blood

Cut My Self



Sleepy Whale 311


Shake of a lamb’s tail

Glass of old Burgundy

Crimson halter around her neck

Dropped out of the Army

Lifting forearm tone of reproach

Sobbing behind her veil

Pure Mare’s moon light

She rests behind her hand, that’s drunk

Unshed Tears in her eyes

Inebriated murmurs vaguely

Misunderstood scapegoat’s dress



Sleepy Whale 327


Diphthong, three hands limb from limb

System-palmitic listener, Mahawianvatard

Maze of reading

Wine stained pages of City Weekly

She blew foamy crown from her pint

Splashed on her Chalkscrowled silk stockings

Crucified shirt elbows on the bar

Cowboys, steersman and Archbishop’s drinking club

Rubs stockings with Irish face cloth

Alabaster silent life of Dark lady and fair man





BIO

Terry Brinkman has been painting for over forty-five years. He started creating poems and has had five poems in the Salt Lake City Weekly. Five Amazon E-Books. Variant and Tide Anthologies. Poems in Rue Scribe, Tiny Seed, Juste Milieu Lit Review, Utah Life Magazine, Poem Village, Snapdragon Journal, Poets Choice, In Parentheses, Healing Muse, Adelaide Magazine and the UN/Tethered Anthology.



The UMAMI Museum Field Trip

by Cecilia Kennedy



A swarm of children from the St. Lawrence Catholic Elementary School—all dressed in blue and white plaid uniforms—descended upon the University Museum of Art, Muses, and Inspiration (UMAMI) in the center of town one afternoon.  They were on their best behavior, having previously been banned from field trips.  (Henry and Justin, as the story went, had startled the monkeys at the zoo by throwing “snap-its” fireworks into their cages.  The teachers and parents in charge of the trip thought that someone was shooting a gun in the area, so they made the children run for cover.  However, security cameras in the vicinity caught the two St. Lawrence boys throwing the fireworks.  Shortly thereafter, the second-grade class was banned from the zoo for life, and the school administration decided that the children shouldn’t be treated to anymore “experiential learning opportunities.”  However, the school administrators also realized that they couldn’t keep them from cultural experiences.  It just didn’t seem right.  A zoo was one thing; art was another.)

            At the same time that the children entered the museum, the Senior Citizens’ Home was treating residents to a trip to this very same museum.  The occupants of that bus filed out in orderly fashion, and promptly expressed their disappointment that they’d have to share their outing with a group of school children who, at the moment, were not misbehaving, but who could turn on them at any moment.  They just knew it.

            The featured exhibit at the museum was called “More than ‘Eats’ the Eye”—a clever nod to a particularly talented food photographer/artist who happened to be presenting a lecture on his work.  He was especially eager to speak to impressionable children.  How precious! How delightful!  He would certainly rock their world.

            Meanwhile, the principal of St. Lawrence Catholic School, who was called in as extra back up if things turned ugly, directed her gaze upon the children.  Many were smart, but many of them came from what she considered “broken homes.”  No wonder they acted out, the poor dears.  And, the ones who didn’t have strong reading scores, could probably excel at something. Some were showing great promise in art.  They could grow up to be artists, perhaps . . .

            The children began to form a circle in the central gallery. The artist—Reginald Piper—stood off center at a distance to gauge their reactions.  They stared blankly up at the walls of photographs, which included a shiny stream of milk pouring out onto cereal flakes in a bowl, colorful ice cream scoops perfectly stacked upon one another inside a waffle cone, shiny red apples in a basket, enchiladas dripping with cheese and sauce, and fluffy pancakes covered in syrup. 

            They’d seen these things before. They’d probably eaten them too. What made this art?  Reginald could read their presumptuous little minds, but he couldn’t stifle his laughter, which spilled out into the gallery and made the children turn around.

            There, in a dark corner near the exit, they saw a strange, thin man dressed in a rather garish Kelly-green suit that was paired with a pastel pink and yellow checkered tie. He wore exceedingly round spectacles, which made his face seem small.  Certainly, there was much that the children could make fun of. However, there was also something about him that they didn’t quite trust. Perhaps he knew their weaknesses and could gut them with humiliation. 

            “Yes, yes. Gather ‘round,” Reginald said, as he moved closer to the center of the circle.  The senior citizens edged in closer too. They knew the presentation was for the children, but who would kick them out?  Who would dare tell them to leave?

            “I suppose this exhibit bores you,” Reginald began.

            Truthfully, the children were bored.  The zoo was better. 

            “I suppose you think you could take pictures of food that are just as good—” Reginald continued.

            “I could take a better picture of Mrs. Motley’s face,” one of the children said.  The others erupted in laughter.  The senior citizens frowned.

            “That’s enough!” Mrs. Motley, the principal said. She knew she wasn’t what the children would consider “pretty,” but she believed she was the most successful adult in the room. She had a job. A good job.  Still, it hurt.

            Reginald—not one to lose control of a class—stood right next to the boy who made the comment about Mrs. Motley’s face.  All Reginald did was stand there quietly. The boy grew silent—not out of respect—but because he thought Reginald, standing so close to him, was creepy.

            “Good. That’s good,” Reginald said, smiling.  “Now that everyone’s paying attention, I can tell you that there’s more than ‘eats’ the eye in these photos. 

            Pointing to the photograph of the cereal in the bowl, Reginald said,

            “I didn’t just snap a picture of a bowl of cereal.  This photograph took nearly four hours to shoot correctly.  Children, do you know what happens when flakes of cereal just sit in a bowl of milk?”

            “They get wet and limp like Mr. Zenkins’ p—”

            “Stop it!” Mrs. Motley shouted to the boy who made the comment.  “I will send you home on the city bus now! You’ll be the only child on it, and I won’t care what happens to you!”

            Reginald just raised his pointer finger and smiled. The children turned their attention back to him.

            “Let me ask you a question—a simple one.  How many of you have a bottle of glue in your desk at school?”

            All of the children raised their hands.

            “Well, glue looks a lot like milk. And, if you use enough of it and let it harden, it won’t ruin cereal flakes.  Lots of things I use in these photos can’t be eaten—or maybe you could eat them, but you wouldn’t want to.”

            During the rest of the presentation, the children learned how the ice cream scoops were really mounds of mashed potatoes, dyed in different colors. The maple syrup was actually motor oil, simply because it was thicker and more luxurious looking.  The shiny red apples in the basket had been lovingly doused with hairspray.

            “And now, we come to the enchiladas. Don’t they look delicious?  Who likes enchiladas?”

            A few of the children raised their hands. 

            “Well, many of us food photographers know, that in order to make the enchiladas look like they are stuffed with incredibly tasty ingredients, we could use mashed potatoes for the filling. But I found something better, children. Much, much better.”

            Now, the children were paying attention.  This was what their deranged little minds craved. By the time Reginald finished his story about how he found his enchilada stuffing in the alley, behind this very museum—on a body covered with boils that, when squeezed, looked like ground beef—Mrs. Motley was convinced that the children could definitely make something of themselves someday.

            After the presentation, the children filed past the museum’s cafeteria, which displayed perfectly formed sushi rolls in the window.  Little Rosie thought that the cubed pieces of tuna looked like the tip of her grandmother’s tongue, which she stuck out slightly when she would thread a sewing needle.  And, for the first time, Rosie thought that maybe she had what it took to be an artist.  Oh, if she could just get a hold of that tongue! Just the tip—sticking out from a roll of sushi—would make for a lovely photo.


BIO

Cecilia Kennedy earned a PhD in Spanish from The Ohio State University, and she taught Spanish and English Composition in Ohio for 20 years before moving to the state of Washington with her family. Twenty-three of her short stories have appeared in 17 literary magazines. She also writes a blog called Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks, where she details her humorous attempts at cooking and home repair:  https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/

When in Rome

by Abigail George

(for my paternal grandparents)

You and that see-through dark-haired girl, you love
her, don’t you. Let me count all the ways you love her.
I could be dead, or just missing, or just missing out
on you. Your name is a song inside my head, and mob
justice burns bright tonight. There’s so much of you
in the narrative and context of my stories. There will
always be so much of you. And we were never lovers,
nor boyfriend and girlfriend, just a crack in the system,
and you know how much I love you, and you know
about my nervous breakdown, that I never finished
high school, and I know you want to be a family-man,
I know you want to build a home; I know you want
to belong, but life means different things to us, to us.
My home is the world, my home is under Scandinavian
skies, my home is sexy-Swaziland, minor earth and

major sky. Your lips are like velvet, and my face is
made of stone. I think you’re the epitome of cool, want to
kiss you so much, pull you in real close, but you’re in
love with a dark-haired girl now, and I have to respect
you, and remember you, and remind you I loved you too,
I loved you before she did, I loved you first. It’s
lonely out here blogging away in this frozen wilderness,
but writing brings an order to my life, and my neck is
graceful, and you’ll never see me naked, it has been too
long, and so many things have gone unsaid between us.
So, this is goodbye then my loyal friend until I see you
in heaven. And I’m going to cry Argentina, there’s nothing
you can do about that. We could have been lovers. We
could have been lovers. We could have been lovers. And I’m
not maternal, although my throat has a masculine energy.


Hemingway is third time lucky

(for my paternal grandparents)

I’m lost, I’m lost, I confess. In a minute I’ll be gone. In another
minute I’ll belong to the past, escape the present. I’ll be stripped
bare. I’m a stranger to man, and I’m a stranger to woman, and all
I’ve ever wanted was to be in your arms, and be loved forever. But,
this relationship, or whatever it is, or was belongs to the past, and
I’ll count myself forever holy amongst the stars, and the passing of
time, and the illustration of dust, and the interpretation of prayer.
And all I ever wanted was you, dear boy, dear man, dear finite space,
and biological gap, and psychological warfare, and a wish bone to
lead me home, and universal sanctuary, and a university degree, and
a high school diploma, and now, and now I have none of these
trivia, none of these things that makes the woman, that marks the
career woman. And I have a mother, but she abandoned me at birth
because my father loved me more, and my sister despises me, and
my illness, my disease, my Christianity, my radical feminism, and
most of all me. I’m an extra, I’m a starlet-harlot, I’m a monkey who
does not want to behave, but I’ll only behave in your arms, except
that position is filled. It is nearly midnight, nearly turning-point when
I’m near-death, near-life, and in death I’ll be extraordinary and in
life I’ll be extra-ordinary. And if I ever get married, I promise to
submit, I promise to obey, I promise to love in sickness and in health.
I am in a tunnel fast approaching another bright light, another
nervous breakdown, and was I really so difficult, so different to love,
and you tell me in a thousand different ways of how much I’m impossible
to love, and the hallucinations, and the insomnia leave me bleary-
eyed, and I look you straight in the eye, I want to try and make

eye-contact with you, but you look away because you love another,
and I don’t binge-drink anymore, I’m no criminal mastermind,
fuck my intelligence, I’ve never slept with a married man, I’ve never
fallen for a woman, and even though I feel as if I’m a statistic, you
don’t, you don’t, you don’t love me anymore and I find it all so
difficult to be on my own, and I can’t bear the loneliness, I can’t
face you with another woman on your arm, and you say I look
like your daughter, and then I find it difficult to breathe, to look
away, because all I’ve ever wanted was you, and you tell your
secretary to tell me to fuck off and leave you alone. You’re work,
and I love your superstar personality, you were my sweet escape,
once my sweet embrace, and now because of the Sylvia Plath-
effect you want nothing to do with me, because of the mania and
the euphoric-high, because of the unstoppably catastrophic blue-
depression I guess I’m no good for anyone, but especially for you.
I’m a saint walking on water, I am Saul of Tarsus, I am Paul on
cocaine on the road to Damascus. I am the finite apostle glowing.
I’m swimming, my body like velvet, head above water rooting
for all daughters, and then drowning. Body-surfing, and then
head sinking beneath the vibrations of the waves, drowning again.
You have genie-daughters, while I have none. The lunar-phases
of endometriosis saw to my infertility. I have had orphan-abandonment
issues in the past. You have had abandonment issues in the past.
We’re both orphans. That’s the one thing that we have in common.
I can’t bear the rhetoric, the dogma, you can’t bear the church.
We should be in love, life-falling for each other but we’re not.



BIO

Abigail George’s fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She briefly studied film and television production at Newtown Film and Television School opposite the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. She is the writer of Africa Where Art Thou (2011), Feeding the Beasts (2012), All About My Mother (2012), Winter in Johannesburg (2014), Brother Wolf and Sister Wren (2015), and Sleeping Under the Kitchen Tables in the Northern Areas (2016). Her poetry has been widely published in anthologies, in print in South Africa, and in zines from Nigeria to Finland, and New Delhi, India to Istanbul, Turkey. She lives, works, and is inspired by the people of the Eastern Cape, South Africa.



The Art of Jessica Brilli

OPEN ROAD

JoAnne

DIVING LESSON

MERGE

PA

ADULT SWIM

JAN 1967

LONG DIVISION

MILES AHEAD

JESS B



Artist Statement:

The enclosed body of work was inspired by 35mm Kodachrome slides and generations-old photographs that were gathered from locations across the United States. Through my experience of painting and sharing these photos, I have found that there is something inherent in them that speaks to many Americans, whether it be a photo taken at a pool party in 1965 or of someone’s mother standing in front of the family car—we insert our own lives into these scenes from the past.

I view thousands of slides and photos to find the ones that moves me emotionally. I’m constantly on the hunt for photos that mirror scenes from my childhood, or that I feel a connection to through personal or familial experience.

The suburban scenes I paint reflect my own childhood in New York on Long Island. The cars proudly displayed on driveways, the meticulously manicured lawns, inviting neighbor’s pools, and 1960’s architecture were the backdrop of my youth. Though I don’t live in this setting anymore, I still feel a significant connection to it.

This process of photographic research, and painting the essential scenic components, is very personal. I’ve realized, however, that my experiences are part of common thread that many Americans share regardless of age, race and gender. The images that produce a flood of involuntary memories for me often evoke similar cascades of feelings and thoughts in others. Why is this?

Another angle I’m interested in exploring is the effect of color on memory. When looking at vintage photography, I see the color as a built-in time stamp. Different types of film age in various ways because of unstable color dyes—the faded color scheme adds a Gestalt effect that evokes these nostalgic feelings.  Most of my paintings take place in the past before I was born. The photographs that inspire me act as my window to the past, and in my own case these photos color my impression of the past. Through these paintings I’m engaging with the past, and bringing along the view for the ride.

VISIT HERE: http://www.jbrilli.com/

RUNES

by Lance Lee

Night empties a pitcher of rain through my trees.
     Sibelius spins, weeps, rages.
The washer rocks back and forth.

My dog barks, but Orion, behind the blinding storm
     tightens his belt and passes unseen
as my friend cries, grief-stricken, but holds

leechlike to death, sucking life from the dying rune
     of his wife.
I want to say nothing ever dies, but wonder

if I can move so far from despair and fear,
     my own wife so near death once,
my life full of terror from wishing ill,

dreading good, so incomplete a man
     threatened by wholeness or lack in you,
touching the dread of living with my death,

that child who grows in me until one day
     I will be the old skin he sheds.
The truth is very strange, for the best things

are wrung from opposites, closeness
     from hate, courage from despair, life from death:
profoundest love from the grave.

                                                                                    In memory of Bob Rodman


Grandfather Daddy Wilds

              or

                         Myth, Malevolence, Truth



Two images haunt me:  Daddy Wilds
willfully slewing his Lincoln around
at a hundred miles an hour in the rain,
sure he would spin the right way home:
and, his face battered as a refined
boxer’s, shambling from his room
at the end, though warned
any motion would burst his heart.

He was the wild free father brimming
with gifts:  cars replacing those
his son smashed, always found unused
in some maiden aunt’s garage; money
he went on making as a stockbroker,
after the ’29 crash; adoration
of my mother he kept company
as she modelled, outfacing
all the young men until too sick
to face my father down; the castle
and title he spurned because
they weren’t good enough:

and he was the man whose mastery
grandmother punished for ten years
with no sex,
who laid in his deathbed while
his son went on smashing things
for someone else to make good, and
his daughter brushed leadpaint and
turpentine around, as if no one was there:
the man who got up and broke
the only heart he knew he could.

  I

Some nights I hear him hum
like an engine under the dry
white rain of stars we spin beneath
and I grow dizzy looking for true home
and lie there, short-breathed,
my jaw set like a boxer’s against
the pain in my side, weighing
what fuels our pride,
our bribery of love,
our final love of death.

                                                  (1985)

  II

Or so my father whispered
when I was young. Older,
the truth is precious as breath.
Grandfather smelled no paint
where he lay on the far side
of his home, while all his son smashed
were Germans in North Africa
and France, and himself, earning
a Purple Heart: and grandfather
died in bed in my mother’s arms,
who was heavy with me—
his death a shockwave in us both.

Some nights I hear him hum
like an engine under the dry
white rain of stars we spin beneath
and I grow dizzy looking for true home
and lie there, short-breathed,
my jaw set like a boxer’s against
the pain in my side, weighing
what fuels our pride,
our bribery of love,
our final temptation to love our end—
or if, as he clove to her ripe body
he knew too
life is more pure more adamant
than death.

                                                 (2017)



The Names of Love

         or

The Red-Tailed Hawk of My Forgetting



rises on a thermal of desire over the sunlit seacliff,
     red red tail flashing
as he turns head lowered, eyes spears that seek
     the merest telltale motion in the chaparral—
found, he stoops down the angle of his need
     a sharply exhaled breath,
talons hammerheads to the careless head
     whose thin scream they cut off
in a fury of feathers and dust and blood.

     Or he perches on eucalyptus trees
winter winds have long stripped,
     that brace one another or they would fall—
Ten years he muses      twenty slides downwind
     in hunger      forty mark him changeless
as I age.
     So I shimmy up the gunbarrel smooth trunk
to meet his gaze, dig my feet in for traction:
     sweat blinds I shake from my eyes until
with a last heave his gaze meets mine…

         ‘There is the man who day by day
     watches me. His father mother children
         are all one, and no one. The years are
     long peels of eucalyptus skin that fall
         to the earth, the man always the same
     while in me waits one whose greater
         wings one day will spread and shed me
     like a husk as he cries into the sun.
         In his gaze I forget my father’s name,
     mother’s, children’s, and love forgets mine.
         I am become everyone, and nothing…’

     ‘Here is the hawk who day by day
         ignores me. His father mother children
     are all one, and no one. The years are
         long peels of eucalyptus skin that fall
     to the earth, the hawk always the same
         while in me waits one who someday
     will shed me like a husk as he steps
         away from the sun. In his gaze
     I forget my father’s name, mother’s,
         children’s, and love forgets mine.
     I am become everything, and no one…’

Therefore wherever I go I name all I see,
     given or  new-coined— it is all one to me.
What I record may last while the sun endures,
     past that no one can care.
Name by name I chip away at my forgetting.
     Each word I give is a name for my love.


Report from the Front


Everything tumbles together, syringa
          in bloom, sweet clover on the air,
the earth’s breath between showers,
            bitterns poised to strike unwary fish
who abandon their granite posts
            with staccato QUAWKQuawkquawks!
when I come too close;
            muskrat who ignores me
as she parts the water with her nose,
            twigs for her den in her teeth;
and hissing snapper with jaws
            even death respects
who slides into tall grass
            that trembles at his passage.
Not far from this suburban edge
            semis from Quebec roll by
with cargoes of furs, blocks of ice,
            cedar sprays, antlers, Eskimo songs
and shrieks of children from farthest north
            where they fence small squares of sky
from wilderness and polar bears. I want
            to link all these in a causal chain,
as though I am he who knows, weighs,
            values, names—
but only this moment by moment teeming
            answers my hunger for sense.



BIO

Lance Lee is a Los Angeles poet, playwright and author. His poems, stories and articles have been accepted in both American and English journals such as Antioch Review, Cross Currents, Agenda, Outposts, Stand, Acumen, Nimrod, Iron, and Poetry Northwest. Recent publications include Iconoclast, The New European (UK), Ambit (60 Anniv. issue) (UK), Orbis (UK), POEM, Chiron Review, and Blue Unicorn. Books include Wrestling with the Angel, Becoming Human, Human/Nature and Seasons of Defiance (2010). His most recent book, Homecomings, is available here and in the UK. He is a recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and various other scholarships. A full review of his works and further samples can be found at lanceleeauthor.com


The Power of Poetry:
An Interview with Chryssa Nikolakis

Bill Wolak and Chryssa Nikolakis

Chryssa Nikolakis was born in Athens, Greece. She graduated from the University of Athens, Theology Department, with a Master’s of the Arts; she also received a Master’s Degree in Literature from the Hellenic Open University. She also holds a Diploma in Translation and Subtitling (British Council). She has published literary studies in many scientific-theological journals. In 2017 she published her first poetry collection Sea Gate (Ostria). Her stories and poems have been published in anthologies such as Short Story Anthology 2017-2018 (Ostria 2017), Colors of the Soul (Ostria, 2018), 4th Anthology Collection (Dianysma 2017), Calendar 2018 (Vergina), Conversations with Cavafy (Ostria), and Conversations with Kazantzakis (Ostria). She primarily deals with literary criticism about poetry, prose, theater, and fairytales. In April 2019, her first book of fairytales, Boy and the Dragon, was published (Aparsis); it was read in the “Fairies and Dragons” program of Voice of Greece (ERT). Her poems “In Defense of the Marginalized” and “Justified” received honors at the Delphi Pan-Hellenic Poetry Competition (2018 and 2019). Her poem “Redemption Time,” was awarded the 3rd Prize at the 8th World Thematic Competition of Hellenism, (2019). She writes literary reviews for many magazines, such as: FRACTAL, TOVIVLIO.NET, MAXMAG, and AUTHORING MELODIES. In May 2019, she became a member of the Panhellenic Union of Writers (PEL).

Bill Wolak: What was it that first attracted you to poetry?

Chryssa Nikolakis: Τhe emotional part. Ι was sixteen when I read Yannis Ritsos’ “Moonlight Sonata,” and that made me cry. Soon after, I started writing little poems, especially when I was stressed.

BW: Who were the first Greek poets that you enjoyed reading?

CN: Cavafy, Livaditis, Papadiamantis, and my favorite one Yiannis Ritsos.

BW: Were there any other Greek poets or poets from around the world who later influenced you?

CN: Υes, Edgar Alan Poe and Tennessee Williams.

BW: The title of your first book of poetry is Sea Gate. Can you tell me a little about the kinds of poems in that book?

CN: It is inspired by my dreams, by love, and the human condition, as well as the divine.

BW: You graduated from the Theology Department of the University of Athens. What aspects of theology interested you?

CN: The parts that interested me more than everything else were philosophy and sociology in connection to theology.

BW: How did you first become interested in fairytales?

CN: I started telling fairytales to my little daughter, Simela, and she was very excited about them. So I decided to write them down and create a book out of them.

BW: Can you tell me a little about Boy and the Dragon?

CN: Boy and the Dragon is a fairytale about loneliness and friendship. The Boy lives all alone in the woods along with the little animals. The Dragon comes, first saves and  then rescues the Boy, and together they travel all over the world. Children have to choose between money and friendship, between freedom and borders. In the end, love is the real winner.

ΒW: What other languages have you studied?

CN: French, but English has conquered me.

BW: Can you explain what you find so compelling about the poetry of Yannis Ritsos?

CN: I’m attracted by his simple way of developing his poems without any obscure allusions and polysyllabic words that some poets use to attempt to impress their readers. I also love him for the sense of humanism I find in his poems and his genuine affection for humanity.

BW: In Cavafy’s poetry, which kind do you prefer: his more objective historical poetry or his more personal erotic poetry?

CN: I prefer his historical poetry, which I think it is unique, although his erotic poems are quite dramatic too.

BW: All American students read some Edgar Alan Poe during their time in school. Did you first read him in school, or did you find him on your own?

CN: I read him on my own because he’s not taught in school. I love his way of writing and the fact that he catches the readers’ attention with the final images in his poems.

BW: Were you first attracted to Poe by his poetry or his short stories?

CN: Yes, poetry, which, of course, I find more realistic and vivid.

BW: How exactly did poetry help you relieve your levels of stress when you first started writing? Does poetry still have the same stress-relieving effect on you when you write today?

CN: Poetry is my eternal love. I will write till my last days. It relieves all my troubles and pain. I believe that poetry has the power to grace one with catharsis only because of the images and its vividness.

BW: What kind of a career have you pursued? Are you a freelance writer, an editor, or a teacher?

CN: I am a literary critic and a freelance writer; I send my work to various magazines, and they are always accepted and published. I also write fairytales as well as poems and short stories

BW: How would you describe your writing process when you are writing poetry? Do write in notebooks, journals, or directly onto the computer?

CN: I prefer to write in notebooks and afterwards I jot them down to the computer; you might call me an old fashioned person, but that’s how I function.

BW: What sort of literary studies have you published?

CN: Quite a few of them, mostly on Ritsos, on Kazantzaki’s, and a research paper on Cavafy.

BW: Have you ever participated in any international poetry festivals?

CN: Yes, this year I participated in the International Festival of Poetry For Peace in Athens.

BW: Have you had a chance to travel to other European countries or other destinations outside of Europe? Are there any places in the world that you would like to visit next?

CN: I have travelled in France, Prague, and Italy. I would like to travel in Spain, Las Vegas, and Tokyo.


Five Poems by Chryssa Nikolakis

LONGING

I want you like a fallen angel
who reached his Heaven
and drank water from the crystal spring.
I want you like a flower
that discovered the Castalian Spring
in a Jewish desert.
I want you like a lake
that yearns for its escape
to the untraveled ocean
into which to merge.

I wish I could become
light wind upon your lips 
to get the kiss of your water
though your pitcher is too small
and how can it quench me?

translated from Greek by Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis)


IMAGE

At the first glimpse of dawn
the graceful sun
spreads the summer’s conflagration
onto our bed-sheets

when winged Eros charges
through the window
to appease his hunger
as it rests his arms
on our sweaty bodies

translated from Greek by Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis)


TWILIGHT

Eternal moment
hidden in the damp sky
when I close my eyes
before the unachievable
gates shut tight
petals of the night-flower

spring distances itself
while you climb up the hill
sacrifice that wasn’t meant for you
the preacher’s voice
inside the empty church

and I still love you
my starless night sky
like the clear table
on a Sunday twilight.

translated from Greek by Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis)


THE GIFT OF PNEUMA

I laid an honorary wreath
I prayed for your name
in the church I lit a candle
and I started my frenetic
and ecstatic dance
on Dionysus’ rhythm

and I said

Heaven and Hell
you my Earth and you my Sky
barefoot I run
away from the temple
crying I raised my head up high

and I asked:

oh you, Adam’s descendants
which is your original sin?

Life is here and so is Death 

translated from Greek by Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis)


LOW TIDE, HIGH TIDE

Flood of happiness
which I feel for the first time
wild dustbowl into which I jump
fast talkative creek
water to quench the thirst of Nereids
the Centaur’s shake up amid the clouds
almost sundown, a twilight
just before the stars warm our sky

low tide and high tide
inhaling, exhaling
Love and Eros
Gods’ chosen gift
hidden into an angel’s crypt
away from unhappy eyes
faraway from an earthly sin
into the eternal manger 
of our Love

translated from Greek by Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis)


Bill Wolak is a poet, collage artist, and photographer who lives in New Jersey and has just published his eighteenth book of poetry entitled All the Wind’s Unfinished Kisses with Ekstasis Editions. His most recent translation with Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, Love Me More Than the Others: Selected Poetry or Iraj Mirza, was published by Cross-Cultural Communications in 2014.Recently, he was a featured poet at The Mihai Eminescu International Poetry Festival in Craiova, Romania; Europa in versi, Lake Como, Italy; The Pesaro International Poetry Festival, Pesaro, Italy, The Xichang-Qionghai Silk Road International Poetry Week, Xichang, China, The Ethnofest, Pristina, Kosovo, the Chengdu International Poetry Week, Chengdu, China, and the International Poetic Conference, Poznań, Poland. He has published interviews with the following poets, writers, and artists: Anita Nair (India), John Digby (United Kingdom), Dileep Jhaveri (India), Gueorgui Konstantinov (Bulgaria), Naoshi Koriyama (Japan), Sultan Catto (United States), Ilmar Lehtpere (Estonia), Jeton Kelmendi (Kosovo),  Yesim Agaoglu (Turkey), Mahmood Karimi Hakak (United States), Philip Cioffari (United States), Yongshin Cho (Korea), Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis) (Canada), Jami Proctor Xu (United States), Stanley H. Barkan (United States), Annelisa Addolorato (Italy), and William Heyen (United States).

Mary Boys by Karl Stephan

ABOUT THE ARTIST:

My name is Karl Stephan and I’m from Bristol in the UK. I write and draw (and publish) independent comic books. My latest project is called Mary Boys and it is currently funding on Indiegogo.

Mary Boys is about four teenage Knights Templar from a backwater English town. Their guardian and mentor is an old Catholic priest named Parrish who raised them in the ancient Templar fighting arts. Many year prior Parrish was the victim of an attempted robbery which left him with a bullet in his skull and flashbacks to a past life when he was a member of the original Order of the Knights Templar hundreds of years ago.

The Mary Boys are quadruplets born with a rare genetic condition that causes enlarged hands and feet, distorted facial features  and prevents sufferers from growing any body hair. Hence their strange appearance (I can draw normal people, honest!). Their condition also affects the way they metabolize alcohol. Drinking beer gives them almost superhuman strength strong and endurance (unlike the rest of us who send drunk texts to people we … shouldn’t).

The story takes place in Basham, the Boys’ home town, which is riddled with many social problems thanks to a huge retail corporation driving out small businesses, resulting in job cuts which left large sections of the community impoverished and resulted in a rise in organised crime.

Parrish prophesied that Basham will suffer a great biblical apocalypse unless it is purged from its evils so the boys roam the streets at night with their cricket bats, heavy boots and lager cans to bring in the needed salvation by force.

The ‘Mary’ in the title is a reference to the Boys being Catholic and also to the mysterious image of the Blessed Virgin being ever present in their nocturnal missions, guiding them in their fight against gangsters, hooligans and wrong ‘uns, including Basham’s own police force.

To raise the necessary funds to cover printing and shipping costs, which is where you lovely people come into the picture. In return for your monetary support, you will receive print copies of both 24 page comic books and other incentives as well, including art prints, emroidered patches and digital copies from my published comics catalogue.

A bit about the comic: My chief  stylistic inspirations for this project are golden age artists like Jack Davis, Will Eisner and Wally Wood.  Save for the lettering, all the art is traditionally illustrated with paint and ink, so it will have that old school feel to it. Please download a sample of the first 7 pages in the link below.

This Indiegogo campaign covers the first two issues, which contains the Boys’ origin story and introduces major characters and themes.

Sound interesting? Please join the mailing list at: https://maryboys.blogspot.com/ 

I’m on twitter too https://twitter.com/MaryBoys1

Social Media Links:

https://maryboys.blogspot.com/

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0wyrrvyb_rzDPBN8GqJF-A

https://www.instagram.com/maryboyscomic

https://www.facebook.com/MaryBoysComic/

Link to Mailing List:

http://eepurl.com/gocn4L

Natural Burial

by J.L. Moultrie

With a will buried beneath the conditioning and walls of childhood, he rode his bike behind the ice cream truck. As he veered into the middle of the street, sudden regrets about being poor stood in his mind, then his body collided with the front end of an accelerating Lincoln town car. He flew into the air, his frame falling upon the summer scorched asphalt.

The children and parents of the neighborhood either gawked or gathered around him as he crawled out of the street onto the sidewalk grass. The car kept going. A sense of shame covered him because he was the center of attention. His lower back and head were ringing with a burning sensation. The crowd dissolved after he managed to walk into his older sister’s home.

He winced as he slid onto the far dining room wall. He followed his sister’s eyes as she walked past him without uttering a word. No one took him to the hospital.

At moments like this, upheaval rose in him that he could not understand nor accept. His limited sphere of understanding was constantly demolished and slowly rebuilt. He didn’t know it, but these things would be planted in the fertile soil of his recollections.

Unable to circumvent the monoliths of familial history and expectation, he found himself at the center of his 5th grade teacher’s Academic Game’s team. After he tried to quit his teacher refused saying he, “Did not like quitters”. He tried his best to avoid the event, asking his mother if he could stay home for two days in a row. However, on the third day, at his locker, his friend asked him if he was, “Ready for the big day.” He stood on stage shocked, looking for his parents in a sea of faces, but seeing none.

After spelling a few words correctly he failed and retreated to the bathroom, where he relieved himself after holding it for a long time. He felt a weight lift from his shoulders as expectations and attention towards him dissolved. Later, he found himself in the principal’s office – she congratulated him on making the honor roll and principal’s list, then she asked him if he’d like to go to a hockey game. He said yes but couldn’t go because his parents had no transportation.

After a day of school, he went over to his friend’s house, but his visit was cut short when his parents began shouting at one another in the bedroom. His friend’s mother emerged into the living room with fresh blood covering the white of her eyes. She told him that he’d have to come back another time.

An ache, resembling a futile longing, was all that he’d inherited from his parents who ran the streets and worked enough to support their habits. The dimensions of his days were steeped in the heavy brine of neglect. He saw and felt too much until he sought emotional blindness. He played and spent time with kids his own age, but an incurable distance ebbed between them.

His experience afforded him no reference for how to interpret the phenomena surrounding him. He entered middle school sulking, barely speaking a word. In this silence, his body began a slow transformation. As his inner world began to split at the seams, his emotions slipped beyond recovery. He barely made it through each day, subsisting on the morsels of wavering possibilities.

He slept on the floor in the projects, finding himself languishing further and further into and undeveloped self. He found himself in a situation where many were not afforded self-belief. The quality of his potential remained unkindled embers, dangerously close to being extinguished.

One night his father, who he remained largely a stranger to, stopped by. He took him to get pizza, but they barely spoke. His hunger for genuine connection superseded any desire for popularity. This orientation engendered scorn and derision, even from some of his adult relatives.  His experience felt tenuous and ephemeral, as if it could be supplanted at any time by anyone. The adults in his life feigned warmth and recognition, but he knew they did not see him. He, in turn, developed a healthy mistrust.

That same night, he waited outside of the bathroom as his mother came in and out of consciousness after injecting heroin. This event etched shame and anger upon his young soul. As his performance in school began to decay, he withdrew into numbness; lying by saying he was “okay” when he clearly was not. Talking amongst themselves, the adult speculated if he were inarticulate or simply withholding his thoughts.

In truth, his mind was full of chimeras and inhospitable expanses. The features of his psyche were nebulous, sharp to touch and as ubiquitous as stars in a clear night’s sky. When he walked into a room, people noticed. When he spoke, many paid attention. His eyes were penetratingly innocent; these qualities of gravitas were lost upon him. He was frightened and confounded by the sensations that passed through him. Each step resembled a perilous leap into the unknown.

While walking alone in a desolate field, he heard mewling amid the tall, wind swept grass. Nestled in a small clearing was a litter of newly born kittens, their eyes barely letting in the pale, fall sunlight. They were an assortment of limbs and mouths, splotched with white, black and orange. They grasped and gaped at the newly entered world.

Buried under the bronze veneer of his flesh were turbulent waters where many sunken vessels lied. He softly grabbed the nearest rock; its rough texture pushed tightly against the sweaty center of his hand.

He tossed the first stone at the scrum of fur and murmuring. He walked around the field, picking up rocks and scanning his surroundings, making sure no one was watching. He tossed them as hard as he could, connecting several times with the heads and chests of the litter. He stood in the field, aware that what he’d done was not good, but his body persisted. He slowly took steps toward what he created.

Warm streaks of scarlet lie spattered on paws, whiskers and multicolored rocks. He pushed the long-idle torment back into the spacious compartments of his subconscious. He scoured the large field for a suitable object. Upon finding it, he returned to the site and began using it. With a fallen tree branch and his hands, he dug a shallow crevice in the cool, coffee-colored soil. With one hand, he shielded his eyes from the quickly setting sun, he used the other to push the still murmuring pile into a shallow grave. He hastily filled it and returned home.

That night consciousness was wrested from his body only partially. Vague, dissonant impressions startled him back onto the terrestrial plane. That morning as he through the field on his way to class, his face darkened, and his heart began beating rapidly. It went on this way for several weeks to the point that he began having mild convulsions – trembling whenever his surroundings became too loud or moved too quickly.

As his headaches and backpain persisted, he became more submerged in the rapids of deterioration. He rode his bike and took walks aimlessly, going as far as he could from home. His interactions were skeletal – he spoke with his eyes downcast, his voice a tenuous thread of sound. That fall, he was taken to churches, roller rinks and libraries, but none of thee excursions managed to take his attention away from recollections of the field and stones.

On Halloween, he went out collecting candy with some cousins in a werewolf costume. It was a rainy evening, punctuated by barking dogs, careening headlights, droning thunder and vacant alleyways. His interpretation of these phenomena mingled with his senses, putting him in a state. The coarse sonic fabric of voices, distant aircrafts, locomotive horns and rustle of fallen leaves momentarily subdued what was ever present.

After hours of walking and eating candy, he got into bed. But before he got settled, he vomited onto the floor. The result resembled gasoline on concrete – liquid hues of green gold and purple bled into one another. Even when he was sitting still, he was sprinting into the night across ambling terrain. Even when he was silent, one got the sense that he was on the verge of screaming.

It went against every fabric of his being to try to be other than who he was, despite the subtle and not so subtle urgings of his relatives and schoolmates. When class became inhospitable, he began spending long days walking and taking the bus across the city. Though he was alone, he enjoyed the absence of expectation mixed with repulsion. He refused to grow buoyant upon the trauma but allowed himself to sink beneath it: it was the only way he could get out.

As his volition had not grown to a level that could sustain his world, he remained dependent on these around him. The barriers between him and others had only grown more intense and glaring. His rare episodes of anger and defiance were largely dismissed as him, “needing an outlet”. Thus, he grew more intangible by the day, only holding long conversations when he saw fit.

He was plagued by a confounding curiosity; questions ruminated in his mind to the point that he couldn’t sleep. In his pajamas, he’d wander inaudibly into the early morning. Once he was found by his mother having a conversation with a homeless man in front of a library. His silence would not relent as she berated him. When she questioned the man, he told her that, “The boy was only concerned about me and how many books I’ve read”.

That night he slept soundly but continued to live under the doubt and suspicion of those around him.

BIO

J.L. Moultrie is a native Detroiter, poet and fiction writer who communicates his art through the written word. He fell in love with literature after encountering Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Baldwin, Rainer Maria Rilke and many others. His work appears or is forthcoming in  Datura Literary Journal, Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, Visitant, Backchannels, The Free Library of the Internet Void and elsewhere. He considers himself a literary abstract artist of modernity.

A day at Isipingo Beach, Durban, S.A.

by Natasha Deonarain

you should have drowned me
amidst your disappointments
               first-born female—

but instead I floated free

where longing became a bone ache
in the middle of ocean undercurrents
nipping at my heels

wanting to give in to the pull back
let my tongue swell with brine
tie my limbs in weeds

but I emerged from the waves gasping
and when darkness washed from my sight

               you were all I could see
backlit arms outstretched

awaiting my arrival


I do

It wasn’t like I’d planned it
months in advance,
setting the date, time, the flowers, wine—
our song;

               not like I wanted anyone to see us
on the way to the ceremony, she and I pulled over, opening the door
spewing vomit in the street

               and not like I wasn’t going to make it right
between them and me,
Shacking up with that man, hers;
A disgrace to the family, his.

It’s not like I’d never held the bouquet
or posed for their pictures in a white-satin strapless
placing one sober heel in front of the other lockstep time to
Pachelbel’s canon pounding in my temples, wiping the memory of last night’s

pasty pipe-cleaner shins, dishwater blue eyes—
               the acid taste of second-hand cheap cigarettes and beer
               in my throat as he goes down on me
               smelling of her

               or like I know what he wants
when under the Aegean sun he whips his head round, jams brakes
on the Honda, straddled motor purring between knotty thighs,
waves
of golden carpets
rippling under the pebbled beach of his forearm

               and not like I’d ever know
his lashed hazel stare, exquisite lips overlooking a jutting rock jaw
tonguing words off cliffs I catch in my mouth but can’t understand

as if I’ve done something wrong when—
he switches to English and says, “Get on.”
I do.


The plot continues without them

                                               [Scene 1]

Must I endure your hiccups? It’s not enough
to want darkly,
you should want me, adorable nightmare.
When the crows
discovered the murder, he left home with a broken
wing but unlike us, lions will never give up
their pride

                                               [Scene 2]

or goats their kids. Every
new day is a fresh homicide, fear and loathing
aren’t required
for the plot to continue. Snakes
build nests but don’t fly so you really shouldn’t
get drunk at the feast.
Someone is bound to betray you
after I speak my confession
to the praying mantis, but forgiveness hasn’t been
invented yet; we still live amongst the
unkindness of ravens.
Dandelions send helicopter drones to spy

                                               [Scene 3]

on the swollen desert
(without healthcare benefits, of course)
but my hard-boiled legacy, cut from rapture
when the Yangtze River
was still an irreversible wonder has no place
when the backdrop changes
color.
Look, if you have a question, don’t
be afraid
to hold up your hand—
receive and you shall ask.
Its will is done
if you so name it, for when you allow
the Book to open, it falls to the correct page.
She doesn’t like
your charms, but
to a fox, water’s your best friend

                                               [Scene 4]

or your worst enemy. It all depends on hindsight.
Is the stairway to Heaven paved in stone, you ask?
It depends
on how far this pavement goes
but be careful, no matter
how far they let go, sonar always brings them
home. Should I call You Mister or Missus, then?
The Gardener doesn’t know if crimson
will be in style this year,
but pay what you owe. He’ll
decide the price later since this
journey’s not done. The lightness of being is insatiable
yet we still hide truth

                                               [Scene 5]

under our pillows
in the quiet’s night air. Remember
don’t take the shortcut or
you’ll be cut short this time, like lonely cows in a lonely field
that really don’t feel alone when they stand and face the
pelting storm, so you should easily find

                                                [End]

your own compass through this dark matter and other such physics particles. Shards of glass embedded in your skin don’t hurt but you still feel their hurt. It’s the business of ferrets that you’re too concerned with so rather adopt an attitude of shrewdness like a few apes with whom you’re well acquainted. Oh for Heaven’s sake, why should all this be such a mystery to you?   

     

BIO

Natasha Deonarain is a medical doctor and lives part-time between Arizona and Colorado. Her poems are published or forthcoming in The RavensPerch, Door is Ajar, Crack the Spine, Juked, NELLE, Rigorous, Packingtown Review, Thin Air Magazine, Dime Show Review, Prometheus Dreaming and Canyon Voices Literary Magazine.  

Sozzled

by Hannah Green

When I came to the U.S., I was pleased to see that Americans drink just like Africans. They get just as drunk, do the same stupid shit, and find any excuse to crack open a cold one. However, I also found a distinct lack of vocabulary for talking about being drunk, and, as every writer knows, a good vocabulary is indispensable for telling a tale. A single well-chosen word can say so much more than a bland paragraph, it can describe a moment, a scene, a mood.

There’s a whole scale of drunkenness to talk about, a gradation of ways of feeling and acting under the influence. From the general tipsy to the all-out three-sheets-to-the-wind drunk where the drinker’s ship has sailed and it’s not clear when their binge will end. It’s not just a case of being drunk or sober. You can be the everyday buzzed, blitzed, or pissed. Cockeyed or shitfaced. Pickled or wrecked. You can tell someone is sloshed when they walk about as well as their drink stays in its cup. You can be loquacious as a lord, or as legless as a pirate after six months at sea. I’m sure we’ve all steered a dancing friend or two home from the bar when they’re those-aren’t-strobe-lights-they’re-headlights drunk. Then there’s befuddled and befucked where it really doesn’t matter what you call it there’s no coming back until the drinker has sufficiently emptied the content of their stomach in a bush or trashcan, but preferably in the nearest toilet bowl if you can drag them there in time. And, to be avoided at all costs, my all-time personal favorite: snot-flying-drunk. Which is exactly what it sounds like.

While I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, my favorite spot is the comfortable sozzled which lies somewhere between buzzed and sloshed. Sozzled is how champagne must feel if it got drunk: bright and bubbly, light and festive, just drunk enough to make you think you’re witty and have others agree. But it’s been a while since I’ve been there.

No one ever told me I had to learn how to drink. When I was young, it seemed so easy. You were either drunk or you weren’t. But when I started drinking, I found a whole world of drunkenness to explore, a landscape of stories to write about. I launched my fearless exploration of this territory when I was fourteen with a sip of Castle Larger stolen from a can my uncle left in the fridge. I discretely cracked the tab just enough to get some out, but not all the way. When he visited again a few months later, the beer had gone bad and he wasn’t sure why. Next came a few sips from the brandy my mom kept for baking, gulps of the liqueurs my parents took nips of on extra special occasions. Soon I seized endless opportunities to chug, slurp, and swig any drink that came my way.

It was easy to get drunk when you were underage in South Africa in the ‘90s. The legal drinking age is still eighteen but back then few shop owners enforced the law. This let me try ales, lagers, ciders, wines, coolers, mixers, and shots (Jell-O and otherwise), pretty much any type of alcohol my friends and I had access too. We were indiscriminate drinkers. I also tested a few sayings I’d heard in my childhood. Whiskey indeed makes you frisky, and gin sure helps you sin. I eventually discovered that while what you drink is important, when you drink isn’t. I’ve partied all night and watched the sunrise from the hood of a car. I’ve started a New Year’s Eve celebration with so much gusto that I passed out by nine and woke alone at two in the morning to find my friends had all gone clubbing.

There was also one very festive morning at a local restaurant that started with Kahlua in my coffee and ended with shots of Jägermeister. I developed a particular fondness for that cough-syrupy brown liquor that, when interspersed with plenty of water, was guaranteed to get me drunk and keep me buzzing for hours. I have a vague recollection of the morning in question, of celebrating an insignificant event with my friend Suzie. It might have been the end of a college semester or payday, maybe it was just because it was a Tuesday. I remember a couple of hazy moments where I fell off my chair and dropped my cigarette in her beer. But the day is mostly a blur, except for two details. First, I know I got home sometime after lunch. Second, I woke up in the early evening and found an extensive array of pony- and butterfly-shaped temporary tattoos covering my arms, legs, and torso. You see, as a writer, I find one of the wonderful aspects of drinking is that, whether you remember what happened or not, you’re always left with a story to tell.

I don’t drink anymore. Not really. I’ve lost my taste for wine and beer. I’ve developed a peculiar allergic reaction to tequila—one whiff and my stomach heaves. I avoid shots too because they tend to make me sad or angry drunk, although I can still always be tempted if Jäger comes my way. In social situations, I occasionally go with a single moderately priced cider or a fruity cocktail. A Screwdriver or Sex on the Beach, if only so I can crack lame jokes about the name. I nurse this drink for hours, letting the ice melt and dilute the alcohol, if only to avoid others asking why I’m not drinking.

I always tell people I stopped drinking after I drove home from a night out and couldn’t remember how I got there. I remember leaving the parking lot of the Keg and Baron pub, I remember pulling into my driveway, but the half an hour it took to get from A to B are gone. Not hazy, not black, just gone. The arrogance and invincibility that comes with one’s early twenties convinced me it didn’t matter. But the ‘what ifs’ multiplied as my drunken recklessness continued. What if the cops had pulled me over? What if I lost time again and woke up somewhere with someone I didn’t know? Or what if I wrecked my car as nearly happened one night as I raced my friend home in our respective vehicles. With inches to spare, I noticed my headlights reflecting off the black car parked on the side of an unlit road and managed to slam on breaks and swerve behind my friend, narrowly missing her back bumper. The weight of these actions wavered though, and I kept drinking well through my mid-twenties, although the nights slowly became less enjoyable after my friend was hit by two rat-arsed drunk drivers. The first knocked him off his motorcycle into oncoming traffic. The second drove over his waist, all but crushing his pelvis. After three uncertain weeks in the hospital, it finally looked like he’d make long but full recovery. But then he got pneumonia and died a few days later.

The real reason I don’t drink anymore is that it doesn’t mix well with my epilepsy medication. It’s petit mal temporal lobe epilepsy, so I don’t have grand mal seizures, I don’t lose consciousness and my body doesn’t spasm. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult to deal with as the simple partial seizures come with sensory and psychic symptoms that affect my hearing, vision, and emotions. This can linger for days after a nightlong binge. When I drink on my medication, I experience cases of sad drunk or grumpy drunk. Instead of dulling my stress and anxieties as alcohol should, they come rushing at me and I tend to dwell on stories. Stories I’m not good enough to write. Stories I want to tell but I don’t have courage to. Stories I wish I’d written. Stories I’ve written that I wish I hadn’t. Stories I wish I could forget. The pharmacological interactions also make me tired, slow my thought process, turn me into suck-the-life-out-of-the-party drunk. There aren’t really a lot of words to describe that kind of drunk, I guess because people don’t like to talk about it. And I don’t like to talk about my epilepsy, because people get a weird, slightly fearful look. It’s as if they expect me drop to the floor at any moment and they’d be stuck trying to shove a spoon between my teeth so I don’t bite my tongue or they’d have to perform some other epilepsy-related TV trope.

Regardless of the cause of sad or angry drunk, it’s always a little awkward and there’s never really a good time to bring it up when you see someone that way. I generally take it as a sign that they’re wrestling with unpleasant thoughts and I don’t want to intrude. And, while it seems like they’d fare better drinking on their own than dampening everyone else’s alcohol primed party, I never advise anyone to drink alone. That’s taboo, hinting at signs of alcoholism, of potentially unresolvable problems. No good ever comes from drinking alone. I’ve always preferred not to drink by myself, because sometimes alcohol amplifies the thoughts I’d rather not think.

In a way, I guess it’s strange that I don’t drink anymore, because, frankly, I’m actually quite fond of getting trashed. My confidence increases, I become quite hilarious, I discover hidden talents, like my ability to bust a move and my Emmy worthy renditions of Janis Joplin and Elvis. And one thing I’ve always wanted to try is getting absolutely shitfaced and trying to write. I imagine it’s quite liberating, that the alcohol will drown out the insecure editor in my head, that somehow the floodgates of literary greatness will open, and pure gold will fall from my fingers. After all, it seemed effective for several of the literary greats. But, every time I contemplate doing it, I get scared, because… what if it works?

Occasionally, I still get tipsy, maybe even a little liquored up. Mostly I seldom drink enough to even register on the spectrum, just enough to take the edge of my social anxiety. Of course, I would never tell another writer not to drink. After all, no one ever convinced Charles Bukowski, Raymond Carver, or Tennessee Williams not to drink. Or Capote or Highsmith or Poe. Or Kerouac. Sexton. Hemmingway.

Writers should know all too well the consequences of drunkenness, not to mention the suffering of sobriety. Hell, it feels good to pour yourself a drink after a long day, it helps you detach from all the bullshit that comes with teaching and studying and students. As a teacher, there’s no doubt that a drink or two sure helps with grading. And, when you get to week thirteen and half your students suddenly realize that there is this thing called a grade and that it does in fact matter and that yes the answers were in the twenty-page syllabus all along, taking the time to step away from your email and have a drink may very well save your career. Honestly, I’m overdue for another night of dedicated drinking, another binge to purge my mind for a few hours and my wallet for the rest of the month. Eighteen months ago was the last time I was downright twatted—a wedding, a free bar, a story for another night.

BIO

H.R. Green, born in South Africa, now lives and writes in the Midwest with work appearing in publications such as Pank, The Rumpus, and McSweeney’s

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