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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.



by Kristen Hoggatt-Abader


for Gabrielle Giffords


Of the five beds in the ICU
the only thing moving
was the damaged brain


I was of two brains
wasn’t I?
One of them was indisposed
I rose to the ceiling
and gazed at the damage below me


The pressure gauge needle aimed at red
and the top doc said Ah
That’s why the skin puffs out under the eyes
That’s the brain swell
indiscriminate in cases of TBI
Traumatic Brain Injury
The mother calls a priest
The father calls his lawyer friends
The sister stares at the fire extinguisher propped in the corner
seething at its red


A nurse and a doctor become one
tending the wet organ
A nurse and a doctor and a damaged brain
become one
late into the night
the doctor the brain’s borrowed pulse
the nurse its hand that sets the bone


I don’t know which to prefer
the beauty of the hospital’s silence at midnight
or the beauty of the hospital at midnight
when a rolling stretcher breaks its hum


This is not woodshop but the same principles apply
as a drill removes a piece of skull
Bits of bone drop to the floor
like irrational wooden dowels
One doc says Hold it steady
The cynic Watch your thumb


The brain rules the body
so when it’s away the body rebels
collapsed lungs broken jaw
extra bone growth in the knee
A hole in the neck helps it breathe


The damaged brain can’t signal the tongue to speak
The tongue is not damaged but it too feels the bruise


When nobody’s listening the damaged brain says


Even when the brain understands the words
double vision won’t let it read
Double vision is like having floaters in the eye
that are patterned to the scene


O skinny LPNs in your droopy scrubs
you loathe rolling over the body
to secure the piss pot under its bum
Celebrate that the brain is coming
the damaged brain!


I know numbers colors A through Z
the vocab of being
ten years old
I know I’m eighteen
I know chicken licked off the wing
but the damaged brain wants cinnamon and cumin seed
a fat purple crayon to color outside the lines


It was winter well into March
bone cold but no layer of white
softening the severe rocks on the horizon
The damaged brain hid behind a skull
shaved and scarred by a nonnative tribe

I am still a brain
knotted and crossed
by grooves of wisdom
that made the scalpel pause

Damage rocked through the brain like cat yowls
through the alley way that never


Vocabulary Lessons


Lesson 1—“Stress”

“What’s the meaning, haboob,
in English?”

‘Dust storm.’”

“This ‘dust storm’ on your face
for two month.”

“Oh, you mean
‘pimple.’ “Haboob
can also mean ‘pimple.’”

“This ‘bimbel’ in your face
for two month.”

“This ‘pimple’ has been
on my face for two months—
I know. It’s stress.”

Yani eh, ‘stress?’”

“‘Stress,’ like when you’re scared
for no good reason.”

“No, no ‘stress.’
From the wedding party—
guests give you hasad.”

“The evil eye?!”

Ah walahi!
Because you beautiful.
We have people this way in Egypt.
Guests also give you ‘chress.’”

“No, it’s ‘stress.’”

“What’s the meaning,
‘stress’? Khaifa men eh?

“I’m not scared of anything,
really, just of bad carbs
and the imminent rebellion
of those tiny dogs
that women tote in their handbags.”

“Nermeen doesn’t make a baby.
She angry with her husband.”

“They’ve only been married
for two months!”

Yani eh?

Yani, they need
more time.”





Lesson 2—“Mayonnaise”

“The girl in the taqueria is understanding

“Really? How do you know?”

“I say ‘pescado burrito’ in Arabic
and I get pescado burrito.”

“What’s ‘pescado burrito’ in Arabic?”

“‘Pescado burrito.’”

“And she understood that?”

“‘Kamen’ in Arabic is
‘tambien’ in Spanish.”

“That’s cool!”

“It is same, no, close—
what I say?

“It is ‘similar.’”

“It is ‘similar.’
Do you want some
‘pescado burrito?’”

“No thanks, I don’t eat mayonnaise.”

“What’s the meaning,

“ ‘Mayonnaise’—that
oily white stuff.”

“Why? It is good!
Yani eh, ta’m?


“Good flavor,

“What do you mean, ‘easy?’”

“This ‘easy.’ Put it on
and make stuff better.”

Lesson 3—“Forbidden”

“Don’t tell your friends
that we find this in the street.”


“Because, it’s haram.”

“But I cleaned them!”

“Still, haram.”


“Because they’re coming from the street!”

“But I cleaned them!”

“You don’t listen:

Lesson 4—“Forbidden”

“Gamal, you really should stop calling people

“But they are fat.”

“But people don’t say so here.
It’s considered rude.”

“What’s the meaning,

“You know, I don’t remember.
Mish qwais.”

“Like haram?”

“Yes, exactly like haram.”

Lesson 5—“A little bit”

“Can you help me?”

“What you need?”

“I’m trying to translate this poem.
What’s this mean, nabiyeth?

“No, listen: nabithu.”


“No, nabithu. It means like
‘a little bit.’”

“But the dictionary
says it means ‘wine.’”

“Yes, it does.”

“It means both?”


“But the dictionary—”

“Look Kris,
this book is full
of paper.”

Lesson 6—“Meaning”

“I need something to give
the poem more meaning.”

“What’s the meaning,

“You know what it means!”

“Yes, but I think it means
something different
to you.”

Lesson 7—“My love”



“I read your poem!”

“Really? Do you like it?”


“Can you understand it?”

“Only a little bit.”

“What part do you understand?”

“I told you not to tell your friends
that we found those things in the street.”

“I didn’t tell my friends.”

“You wrote a poem about it!”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did. Listen—
‘Don’t tell your friends
that we find this in the street.’
It’s right here!”

“Habiby, that poem’s about us.”





Kristen Hoggatt’s chapbook of poems, ARAB WINTER, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2014. In addition to previously appearing in The Writing Disorder, her poems have been published in journals including The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Ledge Magazine, Nimrod International, and The Smart Set, where she was also the “Ask a Poet” advice columnist from 2008-2011. She is currently a Lecturer in composition at the University of Arizona in Tucson.





Margarita Serafimova




The crowns of people were gliding,
lighted by their mortality.
I hadn’t anything but the gaze.







The eyes are focused there,
and then, after a time, they look elsewhere.
Nothing can combat time.







The tulip has created red honey
of its inner sun.
The blood of smell is warm.







My life, my life,
you have a mind of your own.
While you live me, you remain distinct.





Margarita Serafimova was shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize 2017. She has two collections in Bulgarian: Animals and Other Gods (2016) and Demons and World (2017). Her work is forthcoming in Agenda, Trafika Europe, The Journal, Waxwing, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Futures Trading, Poetic Diversity, TAYO, The Punch, Aaduna, Three Drops from a Cauldron, The Transnational, Sea Foam Mag, SurVision, and has appeared in London Grip New Poetry, A-Minor, Minor Literatures, Noble / Gas, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Obra / Artifact, Ginosko, Dark Matter, Window Quarterly / Patient Sounds, Peacock Journal, Anti-Heroin Chic, Wild Word, Plum Tree Tavern, MOON Magazine, Outlaw Poetry, In Between Hangovers, MockingHeart Review, Renegade Rant and Rave, Tales From The Forest, Misty Mountain Review, Outsider Poetry, Heavy Athletics, The Voices Project, and Cent. Some of her work can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/MargaritaISerafimova/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel.







The Photography of
David S. Rubenstein


Humphrey and Henrietta


Big Grove


Build the Land

















David S. Rubenstein is an American writer, photographer, poet, and painter.  His short stories have appeared in Crack the Spine, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Blood and Thunder, Yellow Medicine Review, Chrysalis Reader (five stories), The MacGuffin (two stories), Owen Wister Review, DeathRealm, The Monocacy Valley Review, Half Tones to Jubilee, The Rampant Guinea Pig, The Mythic Circle, Alpha Adventures, and others, and have been nominated twice for the Pushcart prize.  His photographs appear in Chrysalis Reader, Midwest Gothic, Blue Mesa Review, Drunk Monkeys, From Sac and others.  His poem “High Place” appears in The Write Launch.  A collection of his short stories can be found on Kobo at the following link:  https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/piasa-and-other-stories





Little Traffic Light Men

by Joan Frank



You can’t wish away a lifetime’s conditioning—movies, print, Saturday morning cartoons—as if it were some dismal weather system. At least this time, after twenty-two years away from Germany, the language sounded more comic than not. Something-fährt was printed on a huge airfield building as we taxied in on a sunny May morning, and Something-else-fährt on another. That cheered me.

So this time (clenched into a wad of aching muscles on the nonstop from San Francisco, tramping the sprawling, halogen-lit maze of Frankfurt Airport) I meant to push aside reflexive dread. Time is ripe, I thought, to flip that trope. I already sensed that confronting the language, and everything it once evoked, might no longer knife me.

Surely it would feel easier this round. Enough years had passed. A new generation had grown up—now itself busy making babies. Things would have changed. Germany, I reasoned, would step forward to meet me more than halfway.

I also longed to be taken out of my own head, made to look outward. Read on.

The last time my husband and I walked on German soil was in 1994. The wall had tumbled only five years before. Five years, in the staggering-to-its-feet of a war-raked city, is not a lot. Sun filtered through pale and weak on our first day there: early spring, exceedingly cold, and Berlin looked and felt like a plane crash. Air held a dazed, floating-motes aftermath. People’s faces appeared locked as they hurried past, scrubbed of any readable inflection as they swayed from hand-held straps with the tram’s roll. Cold spaces. Hard surfaces. Conventional niceties nowhere visible. Bulletholes peppered many walls. Alexanderplatz yawped wide and barren then, an abandoned military concourse, windswept and freezing, the infamous radio tower stabbing from it like a spear, its concrete emptiness a space we could too easily fill, in imagination, with platoons of goose-stepping, helmeted troops—or worse.

We wandered that day, confused: no sense of a there there. Only hodgepodge. Bricks and rubble. Canvas half-draped a gaggle of life-sized statuary huddled at the rear of a vacant lot behind chain-link fencing, like a crowd of refugees trying to shelter itself.  West Berlin, on its surface, felt no more appealing or friendly, no easier to navigate or make sense of, than East. It was only more expensive.

* * *

Some disclosure’s in order. Because of my last name and vague sense of family background (my late folks had no more truck with Jewish orthodoxy than an occasional sip of sweet kosher wine), and because of the 50s and 60s I grew up in—that era’s haste to push off from the past, get on with things—I’d guarded all my life a secret terror that fascism, in the form of a resurrected Nazi machine, could spring back at any time, fast and stealthful as a cancer. Never mind I had no clear idea why an evil cabal wanted to kill people bearing my last name. It had done so once; it could again, wasting no time taking over my country and the world. A child could only build upon what she’d grasped in the first ten years of life, from a range of half-buried allusions and images. Thus, all people of Jewish background (however dimly I understood that) would, in my secret nightmare, be hunted down, rounded up and destroyed in ways I had read about or seen enacted in films—starting with The Diary of Anne Frank.

* * *

I remember, in those growing-up years, feeling dizzy with it, the blank non-comprehension: How could the kind, loving grownups of this world allow what I’d read about, and what I’d seen that film suggest, subtly but terrifyingly, to happen? How could it have been real—how even conceivable?

My little sister and I attended Unitarian Sunday school. We trick-or-treated for UNICEF on Halloween.

Yet before that selfsame world, findable in any library, was The Diary of a Young Girl—breathing quietly beneath its shroud of reverence and fear and yes, titillation. All references to the diary, to the history inseparable from it, made the book itself seem transgressive, hot with controversy, unspeakable implications. Even as a kid you couldn’t not be shot through with queasiness for the reverence, as much as for the implied unspeakable. Somewhere I’d seen photographs; been unable to look away. Living skeletons, hollowed-out animals dying behind cage bars. Tall piles of bony corpses, great mounds of bodies shoveled onto one another by steam-shovel. Arms and legs and feet and ravaged faces sticking out of these piles, mouths frozen open. Tattooed numbers. Piles of gold teeth, wedding rings. Six-pointed yellow stars. Crushed humans by the millions. Families. Children.

This really happened?

All of it juxtaposed by turns against black and white snapshots of the young diarist’s face: sweet, sunny, framed by dark curls above her Peter Pan collar.

My ten-year-old eyes stared at that photo again and again. She’d have loved, I guessed, all the stuff my sister and I loved. She’d have had favorite songs, favorite books, games, a bracelet or necklace, a sweater; maybe a cigar box for keepsakes, an acorn, a marble, a piece of ribbon. I remember trying as a child to imagine how she’d have looked after she and her sister were devoured by the camps: heads shaved, lice-ridden, starved and freezing, death by typhus.

That part, of course, doesn’t appear in the film. All you see at the film’s end are the characters looking quickly at each other after the fatal alert has reached them. Their hopeful, pitiful gambit, hiding silently in an office attic for two years, is up. Their glances at one another in final moments, like the squeeze of a hand, telegraph their nod to the incomprehensible: This is it. Someone in Amsterdam has tipped off the authorities; the SS knows the group’s whereabouts and is that moment bearing down upon them. Awareness is sharpened by the approaching sound, louder, louder, of the two-note German police siren: eee-aww eee-aww, a hellish, hysterical braying.

My child’s mind would always shut down at this point. (How my poor little sister’s mind ingested what we’d seen, I can’t imagine. We wouldn’t have known how to speak of it.)

My adult mind wants to shut down, too—but it’s packed with images, the kind that pop up to terrorize at 3 a.m. for the rest of your life, scored by the sound track of that siren.

To this day the crazed screaming of European police-car sirens—that two-note wail, that high-pitched, frantic eee-aww, unchanged it seems since the war—still has the power to stop the heart, shatter thought, atomize reason like a lightning bolt. It’s an aural marker and fanfare of death’s jaws gaping, a sound I can never completely dissociate from they are coming for me. Can never flush the closed throat, the adrenaline prickle, the bunched fists and stuttering heartbeat. Can never pretend I am co-existing calmly, indifferently, maturely, with that sound.

* * *

We flew into Frankfurt first to visit my stepson, a wonderful young man stationed nearby as part of his military duty. It seemed the right moment for revising the dread that surely now no longer fit. I had rolled up mental sleeves, determined to sweep out biases, see things new. We had all lived—Germany and the world—into new news. Twenty-seven years had passed since the end of the Wall. Other horrors now darkened our planet’s once-clean heavens: climate change, ISIS and Al Qaeda, belligerent viruses, internecine tribal atrocities, refugee crises, insane assassins armed to the teeth, maniacs and despots seizing power. Meantime, in Germany, a full generation had come of age: one that appeared well-educated, matter-of-fact about even the worst aspects of the realities they face, willing to invent something better.

Now comes the “what I supposed versus what I learned” recital. The German contingent of this new (my stepson’s millennial) generation, from what I thought I could discern without language, seems to respect the old nightmare—granting that the nightmare’s after-images still grip aging survivors in bloody talons. But the young adults also seem determined to consider it ancient history, the kind discussed in textbooks. They publicly consecrate the memory of the murdered (now the official word), pledging and repledging themselves, in monuments and speeches, to exemplify vigilance, to safeguard human rights. Markers and museums of every aesthetic, insisting we never forget, crop up everywhere. In Mannheim our son led us to a glass booth on a busy thoroughfare, whose walls bore a kind of foggy transluscence. At closer glance this fog turned out to be inscription, in tiniest letters, of thousands of lightly-printed names covering every inch of the glass. A brief scan confirmed that most of those names were, like mine, recognizably Jewish.

We stood there a moment, running our eyes over column after column.

Each name, someone’s beloved darling: now a cloudy mark on glass, in a bustling city.

We walked the tidy districts and neighborhoods, seeing the young (like their counterparts elsewhere) absorbed by the daily, the necessary pleasures and tasks: showing up to jobs, rearing kids, building communities, savoring arts, sports, landscapes, food, friendship. These people looked smart, humane, preoccupied with survival, hoping (like any species in progress) to make things better.

They were parents, harrassed and proud and tired, pushing strollers or calling toddlers to their sides in parks, cafes, fast food outlets, sidewalks. They were self-styled bohos, smoking and chattering amid the litter of beers and coffees. They were musicians, painters, boutique owners, bookstore and retail clothing clerks, grocery checkers, museum guides, landscape and building maintenance and construction workers, teachers, researchers, drivers, waiters and waitresses, nurses, cops and firefighters, nannies and caregivers, highway repair workers. (“There are two seasons,” our son told us: “Winter and Road Work.”) They were students, rumpled and sleepy, flirting in parks, playing horns or guitars or cellos, sketching in museums; they were old guys perched patiently on stoops or in cafe chairs or on benches. They were tourists exploring palace grounds, forests, scenic lookouts, truck stop restaurants, patiently escorting aging parents, explaining, cajoling. They coached and scolded and laughed at their own kids.

I felt no darkness from them. No perfidy. No scorn. Of course I stood outside the culture, outside the language, but say what you will: humans emit force-fields that can often be felt and heard and to some degree, read. I looked and listened. Young bohos in the Germany I glimpsed appeared identical with young bohos in comparable settings; kids and babies and parents as you’d expect to find them. I cannot claim to have felt great warmth from these individuals, but courtesy and mildness ruled. Sometimes strangers offered to explain a sign or menu, or clarify directions. Our son drove us through Mannheim, Karlsruhe, Nuremberg. I swallowed hard at the sound of that latter name, but the Nuremberg we saw presented as cheerful and handsome, oblivious to the day-of-reckoning thunder its name once evoked. The city has proudly rebuilt itself almost completely—even its cathedrals, which manage to look centuries old.

We found wellsprings of charm and beauty in Bamberg: its genial mix of locals and visitors, cafe culture, vine- and flower-covered, saggy-gingerbread homes along the river, fairy-tale style. An aged man with thick white hair and patrician features leaned out a high window to prune his roses; the blooms were fat, round and velvety, peach-red. Squinting up as we walked past, on impulse I called out to him that his flowers were beautiful. (This was something my sister would have done, along with stopping to pet and croon at every dog and baby.) The aging man nodded wearily as if enduring a stale gesture, as if he heard those words every day. At once my impulse felt smartly checked. Who might he have been, in a prior century? Who might I have been, as part of the population surrounding him? Might he have as wearily targeted me, or the family or compound that harbored me? Might I have been but one of a steady stream of undesirables, as steadily and casually singled out for exile—or extinguishment?

During the hours I strolled past the gingerbread homes and hand-built fences along the river, all of it covered with thick-twining roses—afterward sitting down to trocken, crisp white wine in an outdoor cafe packed with families, couples, students, shouting, exuberant—those questions pulsed below the more mundane concerns: where we might next walk, what were we presently seeing, which photos to snap. I pushed the dark questions down before they could unfurl in pretty daylight.

What, I wondered then and wonder now, has second-guessing ever truly served?

It can be argued two ways.

One: Assign no meaning more sinister until there’s evidence for it.

The other?

Assume the worst. No point second-guessing is what lots of people told each other in the years and months leading up to 1939, to Krystallnacht. Thoughtful people, good, smart people counseled family and friends, Calm down. Be reasonable. Wait and see. No need to panic; just wait a while. It will come right. It will sort itself out.

* * *

Despite those prickling reverberations—inflamed now by the election, in the year of this writing, of perhaps the most frightening proto-fascist ever to assume office in American history, with terrifying implications for the nation and the planet—despite those, I confess that in the halcyon days of touring with our son (and later by ourselves in Berlin) we took refuge in a mental condition we’ve nicknamed a spazz-out of happiness: meaning the arbitrary eruption of a heightened state; antic, glassy, willed jubilation. People are good at heart. History rights itself.  Life and objects may be trundling along having logical, discrete identities and trajectories unconnected with other matters. But the perceiver’s spazz-out corrals, connects, and infuses all it spies in that moment with the meaning necessary to serve the need. The Happy Story we tell ourselves can be a bully and a brute—something Americans do especially well. We do it best, in fact, while we are tourists. We’ve invested a lot in our story. Self-image. Money. Fear.

Fear of what, you ask?

Why, fear of the jolly story being otherwise.

Were it otherwise—they might be coming for me.

Was any of this grim internal tabulating fair to modern Germany? Did Germany know or care? Of course not. What is Germany or any nation-state but an aggregate of individuals, each toting her and his aggregate of needs, touched inadvertently by pieces of common history and current culture? Germany as a collective consciousness cares most at any given moment—like any other generalized group—about survival; as a close second, about a quality of survival. Each person in its fold, infant to elder, wants to feel well, do well, thrive and prosper.

All the rest? My imposition.

But isn’t this the way any traveler moves through the world?

* * *

As noted earlier, weather still calls the shots. Never doubt this. Whatever weather happens to be doing wherever we happen to be traveling, that place becomes that weather, in memory. If we’re stuck in Blackburn, England in January, and the dirty snow outside and bitter-freezing temperatures make my husband’s father take one look out the window and climb back upstairs to tunnel back into his bed, that will forever be Blackburn in my brain’s illustrated dictionary. If I am a twenty-year-old living in a Peace Corps trainee dorm in Dakar, Senegal when sudden rains hammer the corrugated roofs like poured nails—and when five minutes later the soaked earth roils steam into a sky white again with boiling sun, while the smell of pummeled leaves and dirt and feces and rotting mangoes and baked bricks and grease and gristly-meat-smoke fills my skull—that’s the permanent imprint, no matter how many years ago it happened. In my mind’s album of emblematic scenes that will be the diorama floating forward, replete with grit and humid stink.

But recent scenes can, and do, eclipse their predecessors.

So when in Berlin, twenty-two years after our freezing first visit, with its plane crash tableau, we step into a Georgia O’Keeffe painting—a bright blue sky filled with marching bands of cotton-puff clouds—suddenly that becomes the new template, the forever-picture of Berlin (maybe of all of Germany) in the brain’s archive.

Come with me into the present tense now. My husband and I have traveled here after visiting our son, to have a swath of time together in this city we scarcely remember.

Our venture seems blessed by weather. As if weather were the Pope in an extremely good mood, it has palmed the crowns of both our heads and declared, Guys, this is gonna be a bell-ringer. I guarantee it.

We know it the moment we step out of the train into the towering interior of the Berlin Hauptbanhof, a megalopolis of a station serving (from the looks of it) the whole universe. Google it: the Hauptbanhof is a symbol, a machine, kinetic art, a multi-level hive; its entire front wall—three sky-piercing facades—a flashing quilt of blue glass. Not least, the station serves as a multiplex shopping mall, whatever you may think of that—several levels of store upon store offering home decor, clothing, jewelry, pharmacy sundries, sports equipment, chocolate, crystal, groceries, booze. This is how we do it, the German sensibility seems to be declaring. Monolith of glass and steel: seen through half-shut eyes, the structure resembles some hokey science fiction conjuring. Hordes push through in all directions around the clock; people wend their bicycles through swarms of walkers.  Frenzied, roaring futuropolis—and once we manage to thread through the exit doors and step outside, the beauty of heavenly weather falls over us like silk.

Shining City! Hope of men!

Because we have allowed ourselves certain occasional luxuries at this stage of our traveling lives, we take a cab to the hotel. Through its windows we gawk at clustered skyscrapers, thronged streets, motorbikes, babies, cafes, businesses, tourists—and everywhere against that sky for three-hundred-sixty degrees, gargantuan building cranes, moving with slow determination like some giant, benevolent aliens tending the expansion of their earthbound nest. Everything’s bathed in sparkling sun. It is June. It is warm. People zoom around on bicycles.

Spazz-out goes into overdrive.

* * *

We loved everything we saw. I can itemize highlights or you can read about them in Rick Steves. Art: dazzling, brilliantly showcased. Architecture: handsome, stately. Streets and parks and buildings, historic and modern, almost always immaculate. Energy: crisp, strong, exhilarating. Ambience: a festive air of good will toward men, fortified by abundant, delicious beer and wine. (Excellent coffee, bakeries, fish.) Best of all, the rollicking momentum of this feckless bien-être felt punctuated and buttressed at every turn by the regular, larger-than-life appearances, inside the cylindrical cones of traffic lights―of a remarkable figure.

Actually, there are two of them: quite different.

The stocky, bright-red little man faces you, both arms stretched wide to indicate, unmistakably, no no, go no further! Whereas the walking little green man is silhouetted, mid-step, from the side, so you can appreciate his long, confident stride. Both men appear to wear a pork-pie hat. Except on Red Guy, who faces us, it looks more like a helmet. But if it were a helmet, it would not (I must insist) be a soldier’s. It would be the helmet of civic duty: that of a crosswalk guard or civil defense volunteer.

Allow me (assisted by Wikipedia) to introduce Ampelmänchen, Little Traffic Light Men, created in 1961 in then-East Germany “by traffic psychologist Karl Peglau (1927–2009), as part of a proposal for a new traffic lights layout...”

Ampelmann! My new best friend. Symbol, especially in his Green version, of a friendly friend who cares for my safety―and much more. Ampelmann signals not just when it is time to go forward but—pay attention please—how. Do as he does, he seems to be urging. Set forth with resolve, with full-hearted expectation.

All that’s often given to us to control, we’re often reminded, is our own response. Response to the unspeakable, the ineffable, the unknown. Ampelmann enacts a best-of-all-possible responses, one that recalls the late E. B. White’s analogy for commencing to write an essay: namely, going out for a walk. (One envisions White’s cheerful ur-essayist venturing forth in exactly the posture of Green Ampelmann, alert, friendly, spirited.) Call this state of mind, say, forwardism, a pre-emptive Yes: heading out to meet whatever may be coming with an already-extended arm―as if ready to shake hands with a promising, heartening, equally glad future.

Ampelmann’s history, easily found online, likewise moves and inspires. How on God’s earth these stout-hearted emblems made their debut in the starved, brutally guarded, beaten-down wasteland of a German Democratic Republic, is tough to imagine. Perhaps the little traffic light men served in some tiny way as encouragement. (Unthinkable hardship and cruelty were givens. Read Joel Agee’s immortal memoir, Twelve Years, a record of his childhood as his then-family struggled to survive in that Dante-esque netherworld.)

A shameless industry of tokens and goods has burst from these now-beloved images, from key-chains to earrings, T-shirts to beach totes.  It’s an exploitation I can’t begrudge. Even thinking about Green Ampelmann, his sprightly, roving manner—easy to imagine him to be whistling—never fails to lift me, a sturdy cocktail of relief and hope. I’ve pasted a circular bumper sticker bearing his greenly-stepping-out form on my car’s back fender. And every time I lay eyes upon that sane, chipper, striding-toward-excellent-adventure fellow—something in me recalibrates. On the spot I resolve, willy-nilly, to do better, be better.

* * *

Only once—in the area near the river called Museum Island, where the city’s most splendid museums align like a set of Parthenons—did a shadow fall over our spazz-out. A busker implored us in winsome sign language for contributions to an apparent charity for the deaf, putting his cheek to mine as a warrant of tender affection. I gave him a couple of Euros. The busker had counted on receiving more than that. In an instant his Peter Pan charm vanished; contempt deadened his face as he turned away. He stalked off to count the afternoon’s take with a female busker. I stared after them, embarrassed and angry with myself as much as with him—I’d been an idiot to fall, even a little, for his false bonhomie, and what was probably a total con anyway to fetch themselves cigarette and beer money. But what right had I to ordain some candy-shell of unilateral cheer as the personality profile for an entire population—a population doubtless as needy and diverse and complicatedly fucked up as any other?

* * *

In hindsight, I missed certain cues—a tightness on people’s faces and in their carriage; the ways they moved, spoke, stood. As noted earlier (against my own spazz-out’s sugarcoating), I seldom felt from German people what you’d call innate warmth. The vibe was trickier. You might call it a kind of girdedness: a controlled, systematic tension of readiness-against-whatever-might-drop; getting on with duties while taking generic care not to cause harm. The message I absorbed from individuals we watched or with whom we had any transaction, was I do what I must. In short, they were earning a living, taking care of life and business. Of course that’s how people everywhere talk to themselves about hauling themselves to a job every day and performing, hour by hour, what that work requires. Perhaps the tightness I read was my own projection.

But surfaces can mislead, or at least rarely tell the whole story. Some months after we returned home, two New Yorker articles appeared. One, by historian Thomas Meaney, focused upon the alarming ascent in Germany of a neo-rightwing movement which tended to scapegoat immigrants. This piece gave the lie—unnervingly—to my breezy supposition that the country had once-for-all morphed into a model of humanitarianism by dint of sheer group will. The other article, by New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger, was called “Ghost Stories.” Bilger journeyed to Berlin to participate in a kind of progressive group therapy, designed to help middle-aged Germans (“unaccustomed to self-pity and allergic to national pride”) exorcize the abiding internal pain of connection with all the history I’d so blithely assumed them safely past. “Theirs was a country responsible for history’s bloodiest war and most efficient mass murder: sixty million killed, including two-thirds of all European Jews,” writes Bilger. “They were here [in the therapy session] to wrestle with that guilt.”

Grown children of German emigrés have not, it appears, escaped the same stigma. “Family history,” Bilger notes, “is an uneasy topic for a German-American…A sense of guilt by association hangs in the air, even for people of my generation.” Bilger was born in 1964. “To be German, it seems, is still to be one part Nazi.” As survivors with direct memories of the war are now dying off, “people began to realize how little they knew about their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. They needed to hear those terrible old stories after all…Kriegskinder, they called themselves: children of war.” You need to know the story, it seems, to excise the story: to free yourself. “Evidence that the effects of trauma can reverberate through generations has steadily mounted,” observes Bilger. He then recounts the anguish of each therapy group’s participants, as they tried to understand the behavior of a family member who’d been involved at any level with Nazi actions.

Things had never, apparently, been what they seemed.

* * *

In truth, one real trauma did occur in Berlin—the only one of our voyage. Some people might reject that it qualifies as trauma. We weren’t robbed or beaten; not blindsided by a car or motorbike. No one was injured—mortally. The ordeal was interior: a private bomb whose latent power I’d been striving to escape, or bury deeper, with the busyness of travel.

It had nothing to do with Germany. Yet Germany was its context; therefore, its midwife.

It, too, happened at Museum Island, when I suddenly discovered I’d lost my special museum pass, purchased and handed to me by my husband only moments before—a pass good in all the museums for three days. We had just two days left in the city. Each pass cost about forty dollars, not a fortune but not nothing, and we were trying, as always, to control expenses. In the swirl of people pushing through the receiving area of our first museum—as we were puzzling out how to stash our belongings in one of those little lockers requiring a Euro coin deposited in a sticky slot—my ticket disappeared. We later guessed I’d unwittingly dropped it, and that someone had scooped it. Next came a panicked fluster: furious checking of all pockets, dumping out of the handbag—followed by that frantic, sickened feeling when each object grasped and set aside is not the desired one nor is it sticking to, or hiding, the desired one. My husband—a good, sane, generous, consummately decent but mortal man—got angry with me, incredulous that within mere minutes of its purchase I could somehow have managed to let that pass evanesce into air.

In a stroke, I felt crushed.

Defeated. Emptied. Stupid—not fit to live; suddenly not much caring whether I lived.

Please now allow for a last, perhaps outrageously late disclosure, introducing the submerged monster in this odyssey—of personal grief.

My beloved younger sister, Andrea, had died, suddenly and horribly, of apparent pancreatic failure, about a year earlier. The event could not have been more abrupt: a bolt flung by a Greek god. And though my husband and I had eventually resumed life and travel, moving over the surface of the world in customary ways, I secretly felt as though I had to work twice as hard to convince myself (let alone others) that a world without her—lifelong co-pilot, witness, simultaneous mother and daughter, co-survivor of multiple early losses—was still making sense as a world. Not least, I struggled to convince myself that whatever it was that I called “I” was still making sense as a part of that world. Until the moment of the vanished ticket, the world we looked upon had been making a reasonable show of worldness—if never quite fitting together as it once had.

To be sure, ghost reminders had whispered behind people, settings, objects. The names etched into the glass booth in Mannheim. The aloof, aging man whose roses she’d have praised. The babies and dogs, chotchkes and weather.

During the months after losing her, I would hold my head with both hands to keep it from breaking open. My little girl, my baby wren, soft brown feathers for hair, sitting opposite me on the cool smooth concrete of our Arizona front porch, repeating my language lessons with eager, smiling, trusting brown eyes. Hamburger. Hang-aber. Spaghetti. Ba-sketti. Yellow. Lellow.

It is a deeply strange experience to travel after the death of someone as close to you as your own skin. You regress in ways to a blank slate, almost needing to re-learn the most basic assumptions and practices of a modern society. You look around in bafflement at the colossal, intricate, bearing-down life of a world that has neither paused nor changed a jot; you gaze in wonder at the busy, rushed, full-tilt nonstopness of things. Until our hapless halt near the museum’s banks of lockers, the world’s surface—if gossamer, if whisper-plagued—had sort of “held.” When the little ticket disappeared and my husband grew angry, that thin construct shivered, suddenly cross-hatched with a million infinitesimal cracks. In the next moment, like a hurled glass globe, it fell to bits. And so did I.

I didn’t care anymore where we were, what we did, or whether we had money. I wanted my baby sister back—my second heart, known to me in every pore since they first brought her home in a blanket, she who best knew my own heart and the hearts of her children and husbands and friends, who did everything in her power (sometimes beyond her power) to put her arms around the world, make it happy—the kindest, gentlest, most loving soul I’ll ever know, the only one left who could corroborate everything that had happened to us (early deaths of parents and husbands; gypsy-rover lives eventually made good). In the words of a friend, “a million others should have gone before her.”

But you see, they had. They did.

So how do we measure loss? I stared in shock at her motionless form in the hospital room—we’d arrived too late, too late—that adored face still frowning, as if in dismay and perplexion at the terrible pain which had been her last awareness, her last consciousness.

This really happened.

I have begged my little sister silently, every day since, to give me any sign that she still somehow, somewhere, is. No sign has come, except for dreams. They give the brief comfort of her presence, which may be all I or anyone can realistically hope for. Staring from my emptied handbag to my exasperated husband in the midst of that museum lobby’s noisy mobs, I wanted only to slip back into one of those dreams, away from the brittle, thousand-arrows-deluge of living, to hold my sister tight, smell her clean, apricot-shampoo scent. Nothing mattered then. Not travel, not art, not food or drink, not even my dear husband. Not Germany, not planet Earth.

My husband, recognizing what had been loosed, scrambled to stanch and smooth it over—but I’d lost my bearings. Zombified, tear-streaked, I stumbled back to the ticket cage and bought another pass. We entered the museum. It was the Pergamon, I think. Gallantly, my husband (now in triage mode) tried to distract me, pointing out extraordinariness and sublimity in all directions. I could not respond—could not muster a straw of coherent thought, only sickened freefall as I cast my eyes toward magnificent pillars and priceless tapestries, jewelry, glassware, mosaics, weaponry, tools: marvelous things that people (now dust) had bravely made. I can still feel the bottomless cold abyss of it, the outer-space shriek in my ears. What good to me, the riches of ages? She was gone. What good was anything? What could, in fact, any longer be called good?

To whom, wailed one ancient Egyptian inscription, can I speak today?

My husband and I zigzagged, at careful distance from one another, through immense rooms. The Germans, to their unending credit, had arranged sarcophogi, statuary, bas-reliefs and sculptured busts so that there was plenty of light-filled space around each piece—each piece lit so artfully and subtly, the works themselves seemed to glow. I tried to hang back, give my husband a long lead, make room between us to allow for my ballooning horror, which I could not seem to control.

Here’s a fact I can offer with authority: It is very hard to find places in a museum’s rooms where you can cry in privacy. Corners seem to work best, if you face into them. Crave as I did to disappear, the thing that is me lurched on in its same, mute, faithful body: carrying case for a wailing soul.

We kept walking. (He walked. I trailed him.) At last we entered a room in which a massive screen had been mounted on a base of console-height. A long bench was fixed at perfect viewing distance across from the screen.

People were seating themselves there, to watch.

A sign above the installation promised simply, Time Travel.

We sat.

Then all at once we were seeing a semi-animated, computer-graphics-aided film, panning over a landscape of primitive Earth: cave-dweller years, wintry and raw. Soon, swiftly, the camera homed in on a family going about its then-life: a hefty fire crackling, animal skins drying. Details were visible. Our eyes were guided over tools and implements, weapons and eating utensils, crude clothing. Yet the quality of animation softened the view, the panning camera almost smearing it so that the images came at us like a sequence of half-remembered dreams. Then, above the screen, a sort of chronometer (time-ometer?) fast-forwarded several thousand years. And before we knew it we were watching a small tribe building shelters, fishing, dancing, eating. Little kids scrambled; mothers called to them. Laughter. Hammering. Then the time-ometer pushed ahead again and we watched two villages, or townships, at war. We heard shouts and cries and horses screaming, clanks and clunks of metal and wood. A series of stills showed men struggling in combat; we heard them howl in anger and pain. Eerily, what separated this cinematic dream from other kinds were its sounds: no specific language was ever clear but voices carried, voices like ours—as did the warmly familiar sounds of wind and weather, of animals, human merriment, human anguish, human sorrow.

We watched an early wedding. A funeral.

No single word was intelligible: only universally-understood sounds.

This really happened.

Slowly my heart and body calmed and gentled.

Wordlessly, body and heart were absorbing some deep, cellular recognition: the continuum of human struggle, of atrocity, joy, agony and wonder, understood across incomprehensible spans of years.

Up floated a phrase I’ve never forgotten—the hand-lettered title of a folksy mineral display we’d browsed in the Arizona outback many years ago:

The vastness of geologic time.

And the whole of my tired, grieving body recalled slowly, as if by granules through an hourglass, that we had always been part of that. We were part of it—of all we were viewing. Nothing more nor less. We were them. We would fade as they had, this long line of forebears. The time-ometer showed generations blurring inexorably back into a ceaseless, mostly-forgotten past. Me, my sister, her children, their children. All of us sharing a fate stretched along an infinite continuum.

At last, in a trance, we rose and left the museum; emerged blinking into the dusk-lit city of Berlin, the country called Germany, continent known as Europe, planet named Earth, the year denoted, for reasons now nearly forgotten, by the number 2016. And in sepia light, overlooking wide streams of bellowing cars and buses, cop’s whistles, hordes from everywhere moving across squares and playing music and drinking beer and romping with kids in parks and along the river in tour boats, monstrous building cranes nosed slowly side to side in the background as if nodding along with the human roar, against early evening’s fading sun. People were moving, as they must. We moved with them, waking yet still entranced, striding out into it with intensifying resolve to do, to be. Among them, amidst it. Heading out—why not—like Ampelmänchen to meet whatever might next come, while we could. All that it is given to us to invent, to deploy, is response. Later I would think about the curious weightlessness of those moments, as we joined the surging cars and crowds—but also about how, at the same time, I felt the time-ometer pressing forward: infinitesimal, patient, relentless. And in truth it was not a bad feeling, not bad at all.




Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) is the author of six books of literary fiction and an essay collection about the writing life. Her last novel, ALL THE NEWS I NEED, won the Juniper Prize for Fiction. Joan’s work has received many honors and awards, including the Richard Sullivan Prize and two ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Awards. She lives in Northern California.











by Lana Bella


In Charleston, South Carolina,
there is a word that means
the rending from inertia
into the unbodied acreages of
an indigo past where ancient feet
take to running, as the hills warm
with red and the westerly dust
thrusts under the Carolinians’
lament. One could always feel
the idle precision of the heavy
lidded eyes of the townsfolk,
like a trail of cigarette smokes
filling their grapevine with words
they could only whisper behind
cupped hands.

An affluent town like this one,
thickly dank in vanity and
domed sight-line, doesn’t always
have a freight train cutting
through the bustling miles of
history. Still, time hangs over,
new prospects hum with
the dichotomy of all the old

Tonight, the dead wakes to roam
without their bleached white
bones, in a world where the dark
is consumed by lark sparrows
and Brewer’s blackbirds fighting
for space, with the operatic
passion of Porgy and Bess
drapes like damp laundry over
the raised wall of Folly Beach,
while the moon pours more wine
over the earth and sings low
James Taylor’s Carolina in My Mind.





A path to somewhere not here,
you pooled in hollow through film
of my vintage camera, a glowing
wyrm spun and interwove, raised
up the mounds of sand, shifting,
always shifting, cast me finally
over the spines of sun. I was inert,
orchard-lit with breaths of baying
horses, where you halted letting
in discord, immune to my concert
of shoulders above ribs, spilling
of bones refused to keep. But still
I coiled, shadows lie, imagining you
smooth saline held in my invisible
depth-strokes, fluttering gradations
from periphery to bitten shins, as
you broke pale into the embrace of
vines, sent buds to sheath of red.





Knife-palette trees touched fingers
to midnight, and how the cold
hurt you into a break like throbbing.
A collection of breaths closed in
on the pour of sky, your mouth, red,
agilely lithe, laughed away the firs
risen tall on algal blooms, where
bodies of birds laced through with
a continent of shadows. Already you
were bent with nightshade and fox-
glove, where the slightest tremors
may pitch you down the underwater
lake, around which the fossilized
bones of unnamed fishes silver
the currents in slime-spotted hymns.





A three-time Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, & Bettering American Poetry nominee, Lana Bella is an author of three chapbooks: Under My Dark (Crisis Chronicles Press, 2016), Adagio (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and Dear Suki: Letters (Platypus 2412 Mini Chapbook Series, 2016). She has had poetry and fiction featured in over 400 journals including, Acentos Review, Comstock Review, Expound, EVENT, Ilanot Review, and Notre Dame Review, among others. She also has work forthcoming in Aeolian Harp Anthology, Volume 3. Lana resides in the US and the coastal town of Nha Trang, Vietnam, where she is a mom of two far-too-clever, frolicsome imps. Her work can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/Lana-Bella-789916711141831/






Alien Honor

by Richard C. Rutherford



Marge likes to look in windows. When she does, she talks about the things she wants: food, clothing, furniture, cars, a house, a husband, but especially food. Just inside the window, people are eating. Marge gets irritated by the way people eat.

“Look at ‘em in there, Runt. They get a piece of meat on their fork and they just start waving it around like it’s some kind of magic wand or something.” She put her face close to the glass and yells, “If you’re gonna’ eat, eat.” The lady with the fork looks at us and shakes her head, so maybe it isn’t food.

Food is nice, but I like to look on the surface of windows. My reflection is on windows. I’m still getting used to the way I look. I have a blue hat that I can rotate to shade the sun. My coat has a collar that turns up around my ears. I would have preferred a smoother texture. This material gets snagged easily and the stuffing comes out. But it has big pockets and I like green.

“Yeah, bitch, I’m talking to you.” Marge pokes her finger on the window. “Eat your food.”

A man opens the door and tells us to move along or he’ll call the police. Marge tells him to have sex with himself and starts walking. I turn my head, but keep my eyes on my reflection. Marge has a small nose. Mine is much bigger. I practice a smile. Smiles feel different than they look.

I’m lucky I found her. I know all the definitions, but Marge knows the applications. She knows the rules. She blends in. She has command of her body, moving with ease, lifting her feet just enough to take the next step. She tells me I walk like I’m marching and that I draw too much attention to myself. Marge keeps her head still, shifting her eyes instead. She says I talk too loud. Marge can mumble.

I catch up, dragging my heels. Marge turns down an alley. She says, “You’re not going to shit your pants today, are you?”


“You better not. I can’t have no man shits his pants.”

I liked those pants. They had big pockets.

I’m still surprised at the difference between the fronts of buildings and the backs. In front, you have to pay money for everything you take out. But in the back, everything is free. On sidewalks, you have to be in a hurry, but in back you can take your time. Privacy is easier; two nights ago, I watched as this body I’m wearing rolled out of a moving car. I had time to repair the liver and fix the puncture.

Marge stops. “Whoa. I smell fries.” She leans over a dumpster and sniffs. “Runt. Get in there and get me those fries.”

I stand on my toes and look in, smelling for fries. She sniffs again. “No stupid, over here. Get in there.” I put my hands on the edge, jump up, and swing a leg over. Marge pushes me in. “Right there. In that bag. Give it to me.” I crawl over, find the bag, and hand it out. She snatches it from me and starts eating, talking about French fries and ownership.

Since I am in the dumpster, I look around for anything useful. I find a flat magnet stuck to the side, a small battery containing some electricity, and a narrow cardboard tube about the size of my little finger. I put these tools in one of my coat pockets, find three loose fries and eat them before Marge can take them from me. I stand up. In the dumpster, I am taller than Marge.

“Marge, there’s never any money in dumpsters. Look at all the stuff people throw away.” I push some bags around. “But there’s never any money. Seems like there would be some old, used money in here. How come people don’t throw away their old money?”

She stares at me but doesn’t answer. She doesn’t answer a lot of my questions. She looks into the empty bag, hands it to me, and walks away. I catch up with her at the sidewalk and remember to drag my heels. I don’t want to tell her my secret: I want to surprise her. But my time will run out; there are things I don’t understand and I need help.

“Marge, you probably noticed that I’m different from other people.” She keeps walking. I manage to keep up, side-stepping while dragging my heels. Two men are coming down the sidewalk, but they don’t look at me.

“See Marge, I was on this ship,” I wave my hand at the sky, “in space. Naturally it matured, outlived its usefulness, and ejected me.” She doesn’t respond. I say, “So here I am.”

Marge stops and put her hands on her hips, leans over. “What are you talking about?”

“I need to build another ship and get back out there.”

People don’t like it if you stand in the middle of the sidewalk. It makes me nervous and I know Marge is upset. I say, “I’m an alien. I can’t stay here. I need money to build a ship.”

“Get a job.” She starts walking.

I have my first laugh. I call to her, “I’m not gonna work.”

Someone walking past me says, “No shit.”

When I catch up with her, I say, “Look Marge, everything I need is at K-mart. But they won’t let me have it without money.”

“You’re building a spaceship? You need a lot of money. Rob a bank.”

Of course. Some of the simplest solutions don’t occur to me. That’s why I need Marge. Okay, I am making progress. I hadn’t thought of that.

When I catch up again, she iss mumbling something. “What?” I ask.

“You don’t have a gun.”

“Simple. I’ll build one.”

She seems like she is trying to look tired. “Out of …?”

I trace my memories back through trash piles and dumpsters. “I’ll see you at the soup kitchen this afternoon. And, I’ll have a gun.”

“Well, don’t leave for outer space without me.”

“Marge. I’m taking you with me.”

She mumbles again and walks away. I turn back for the alley.

In a trash pile, I find something I can use. A bathroom scale. With both hands, I hold it in front of me and squeeze. The gauge registers pounds of pressure. Perfect. I find an empty bottle and break the thick bottom out of it. I need some adhesive and a grinder, so I head back to the sidewalk. There is a good spot by an empty storefront. I sit down to build my gun. It is easy.

I’ve been a crystal maker for six generations. The bottle bottom was the key. I hold it up to the light and calculate the angles. Then I use the cement curb to grind the edges into facets.

I peel gum from the sidewalk and chew them together for adhesive. I break my magnet in half, connect it to the battery with aluminum foil, and use the gum to attach them, the crystal, and my small cardboard tube. With a nail, I bore a hole in the front edge of the scale. I line the tube up with the hole, pull a hair from my head and calibrate the gaps. Then I carefully reassemble the scale.

I look around. I am concerned about having a weapon in public. When I stand up, I feel conspicuous. Covering the gun with my coat, I hurry to meet Marge.

She hasn’t waited for me. Inside the soup kitchen, I find her hunched over her food like everyone else. I try to shuffle, but I am excited. “Marge,” I pull my coat back slightly, “Look.”

“Bathroom scale.”

“Not anymore. C’mon. I’ll show you.”

“I got you a job,” she says through her food. “Get something to eat, sit down.” She gestures to the line. “Get some food.”

“Marge.” I nod down at my gun. I whisper, “I can’t sit down. It might go off accidently.”

“Everybody!” She speaks in her loudest voice, waving a piece of bread. “Everybody get back just a little. My boyfriend here has a bathroom scale. It’s loaded and it could go off at any moment.”

I tuck my head and brace myself. But when I look around I see only the shapes of people eating. Still, I feel they might suddenly grab me. I back up to the wall, then slide along the side of the room to the door and out.

I pace the walk outside. Finally, she emerges. I hurry up, but before I can speak, she says, “Be here tomorrow at three o’clock. You pass out food, then do the dishes and clean up. We get five dollars and all we can eat.”

It is going to be dark soon. I am walking backwards in front of her. “Marge, I have to show you how this works. Come on.” I turn into an alley.

“Okay, little man.”

Behind a building, I find a dumpster filled with trash. Looking around, I see no one, and pull the gun from my coat.

She breathes out. “Look, you little weasel. Tomorrow you’re gonna work at the soup kitchen. I can’t have no husband of mine hanging around alleys, shootin’ off bathroom scales.”

We are about ten yards from the dumpster. Husband?

“Marge. Watch.” With both hands, I hold the gun out before me, aim the opening, and squeeze twenty pounds of pressure. A thin beam of light shoots out, hits the side of the dumpster, creating a small dark circle, which starts smoking. Then it burns through, superheats the contents, and they blow up, splitting the sides of the dumpster and knocking it over.

I look over, smile, and raise my eyebrows.

“Do that again.”

The dumpster’s contents are strewn around the ally, burning. “See, Marge. And that’s just twenty pounds’ pressure. But now we have to go. The police might come.”

She nods. “Uh-huh, do it again.”

I aim at a garbage can and squeeze five pounds. It explodes, blowing the top off, sending shrapnel flying. I hear a siren, distant, but approaching.

“Marge, we gotta go. Now.”

I put the gun back under my coat and start walking. Marge hurries up beside me. “How’d you do that?” She pulls my coat, “Where’d you get that?”

I walk without my shuffle. Marge hurries beside me. I say, “Tomorrow morning, we’re going into a bank and get some money. Then we’re going to K-mart and buy the material we need.” I walk faster. She keeps up. “Then we’re going to that empty building on Third Street, we’ll seal it up, convert it, and,” I wave my arm at the sky, “we’re out of here.”

I pat the gun. Marge follows, breathing hard. I feel like a policeman.

The next morning, I pick out a nice bank and sit out front by the fountain. I am calm when the security guard opens the doors. I have my gun under my coat. Marge has a plastic bag to put the money in.

She can’t stop talking. “I helped my dad rob a 7-Eleven once.”


“Okay. Well, not actually rob the place. But I did stand lookout while he got a whole case of beer out the back.”

“Marge, please.”


“Let’s just think about what we’re going to do.”

“Okay. I’m just saying. If you’re worried about me or if you think I can’t handle this or if you think I’m nervous—” She lifts her head and looks down the street. “—I’m cool as a cucumber. When I helped my dad that time— “


“Okay, okay.”

I stand up. I know what I am going to do. I know just how to do it. I say to Marge, “Okay, let’s go get some money.” My liver is beginning to leak again.

I lead us into the bank with Marge stepping on the backs of my shoes. I look up at the high ceilings, feel the spacious expanse, wishing I could convert this building instead.

I step up to the first teller, flip my coat back, showing her my gun. “I need some money.”

She is arranging paper, looks up and laughs at me. “What are you going to do with that?” I don’t have an answer. She turns away, saying, “Get help, and get a bath.”

Quickly, I side-step to the next teller, pulling my gun out. “I want money.”

She puts both hands on the counter. “Clyde, you better get your ass out of this bank. Now. And take Bonnie with you.” I look back at Marge. Bonnie?

The next teller doesn’t give me a chance to speak. “Walt!” She calls over our heads, “Get these bums out of here.”

Marge has been standing motionless. She is beside me in an instant, takes the gun, backs up to the center of the floor, and carefully sets it down. She says, “I weigh over two hundred pounds.” She shakes the bag and holds it up. “If you don’t give us all your money—right now—I’m going to weigh myself.”

I hold my hand up to her. “Marge, no.”

But the security guard tackles her from behind, knocking her down. They slide across the floor. She struggles with the guard, but he twists her arm up behind her, grabs her collar, and starts dragging her to the door.

I pick up the gun, and as I follow them, I pop the top off and removed the crystal. I look at it sparkling between my fingers, then throw it in the trash.

The guard is having trouble getting Marge out the door. She has hold of his pant leg. “Shoot him, Runt! Shoot the son-of-a-bitch!”

The scale hangs loose in my hand.

I am out of time. I will have to get in with Marge.





In 2016, Richard C Rutherford had work accepted by Fiction Southeast, Stone Coast Review, Hypertext, Red Fez, The LA Review, Squalorly, and The Tishman Review. Upcoming in Visitant. For thirty-seven years he raised cattle at the edge of the desert. He supports local bookstores and reads DeLillo when he needs a dose of humility. He has daughters, so he’s a feminist. He has a large collection of stories.







by Elizabeth Bolton


Green tears fall soft
Filth raked through thinning hair, what’s left
Plastered to the skull of the meek

The well wounded atop a glorious black nylon pyramid
Shorn by blades in want of new ways to be known
With a cool-fuzzed back of the neck.

Green tears lie cupped
Leather crushed in a hand
Small, fleshy, weak as a cherub’s

Squeezed to a paste and brought to the nose.
Pungent green Death; who knew of its savory spice
Until now?




Winter’s knife won’t cut anymore. It bends, frustrates
Against paper plate against checked cloth
On top of grass abuzz and itching

Its mud-scalp sticks and peels, sticks and peels
Beneath the lush wet earth, burgeoning.
Ground drunk off winter lolls fat with it, belly up.

Winter tucks its useless blade beneath a napkin, decides
On bare hands, favors the sauced meal over dry crackers
Comforting only because we’ve seen it before

Every year the burying of instruments in napkins
The plastic clacks and snaps.
Livers thoroughly poisoned

We wriggle our fingers with greed.


The Thing That Laughs


The driest of horrors
Screeched through leathery throats

And the warmest wettest of murders
Thrown from twisted bellies

Are laughable. Laughable.

It laughs
As it watches one of us shout a great big word out into air
And the rest jostle bridesmaid-like for it.

It laughs
When it sees us stutter, slip and splat
Accidental comedians.

It laughs like the great big rumbling body of parents at a school play
A black and twinkling mass that waits out the years
Till it seems near well enough understood that down
After down

Is up.





Elizabeth Bolton is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto where she studies writing and its effects on the mind. In addition to poetry, she writes narrative nonfiction, though in truth she finds genre distinctions rather meaningless.






Hail Mary

by Erin Smith



During my two seasons on the show Peter’s Rule, I played little Bobby Van Camp—the adorably witty next-door neighbor to the McMahon family—and I said his catch phrase eighty-one times. This is especially impressive given there were only twenty episodes in each season.

Bobby was brought in as a last-ditch effort when the once-popular show started tanking in its fifth season. The writers tried to save it when Peter, drunk, flirted with a secretary at his company’s Christmas party. They tried to save it when Peter’s teenage son got with the wrong crowd and smoked weed.

When none of that worked, the writers brought in me, Bobby Van Camp, the kid from across the street. I had the cutest dimples, an infectious laugh, questionable parental oversight, and a no-nonsense attitude to give Peter’s Rule the kick it needed.

But it didn’t give it the kick it needed. Those things never do.

I didn’t know that, of course. For me, it was my family. Off set, I played in my room alone at home, but here I need only walk into the McMahon kitchen to see my playmates, Chris and Trisha. Off set, we hadn’t received child support from my dead-beat dad in more than five years, but here I had Peter, seated at the kitchen table, dispensing honest, helpful advice.

After Peter’s Rule my gigs dried out. I had my growth spurt; my voice changed. I had acne and limbs that seemed too loose, too long. The last three on-air roles I played under my stage name, Ray Goodman, were junior high and high school bullies, one uncredited. I felt like a lesser Anthony Michael Hall from Edward Scissorhands—the Geek from Sixteen Candles still trying to be relevant.

With the gigs went the money and I dusted off my given name, Ray Carter, and enrolled in public high school. Life went on.

When I was in college, an agent from the studio called to see if I’d be interested in resurrecting the role and doing a guest appearance. The money was so good I kept doing it. I retained her as an agent and she booked me gig after gig on the touring circuit.

And don’t I look cute! Thirty-three year old Little Bobby Van Camp! I sign posters and say the line that made me briefly famous: “Ain’t that what family’s for?”


I watch the line of impatient patrons snake back from the ticket stanchion into the lobby, where those entering the theater—shivering against the cold—must thread through a wall of people in their Sunday best.

Gladys is at the stanchion, fiddling in vain with the ticket scanner. Her brow is crinkled, her shoulders hunched. I watch from my place near the emergency exit and count to ten in my head. When I get to eight, I start to panic that I might have to step in and do something. But finally, mercifully, Gladys puts down the scanner, stubs the tickets and smiles cluelessly at the red-faced couple standing in front of her.

“Your seats are two floors up. Enjoy the show.”

The old bat has worked for the Broadline Theatre for over thirty years and refuses to be told how to do her job. It’s nothing personal. She treats everyone like they’re just a young punk usher and no one of any consequence. I started at the Broadline seven years ago as an usher earning a little over minimum wage and now I’m a manager. But still no one of any consequence. I haven’t been anyone of any consequence since I was Bobby Van Camp.

Here, I’m Ray Carter. My fellow ushers know who I was, but it’s brought up so rarely, and never by me. When I first started I begrudgingly signed a few autographs. But I don’t do that now.

“This is Janine calling Ray,” the voice crackles over my earpiece.

I push the button on my cheap radio and say, “Go ahead Janine.”

“Ray, there’s some vomit in the vestibule, near the trashcan.”

“This is Ray calling housekeeping . . .”

Along with vomit in the vestibule, there’s magic in the air. It’s always there in the moments before the show starts. I see it on the patrons’ faces as they shuffle through the thinning lobbies. The real world is put on pause. Something better than real is about to begin. It’s like the magic on the set before the director shouts “action.”

Those are moments I remember on the set of Peter’s Rule.

Between takes, I would sit at the McMahon kitchen table. I’d go over my lines in my head, but I’d think so hard about them that they would move on my lips, then whisper out.

“Relax, sweetie” Alexandria—Wendy, Peter’s wife—would say.

The cameraman would take his place. The director would lift his microphone.

All was quiet on the set.

All is chaos at the Broadline Theatre.

I reach the First Mezzanine as the two-minute fanfare sounds. Jodi, a Level Supervisor, walks toward the patrons standing by the windows, wine in hand, staring out on the park below.

“Two minutes, two minutes folks,” she’s saying over and over.

As I approach her, I’m trying to look like I’m here to do my job. I’m holding up my fingers in the peace sign, waving them around to anyone who comes near me as they make a mad dash for their seats. My mouth is even moving, but I’m not saying anything related to a two-minute warning. I’m rehearsing my lines. I’ve been thinking of them all day, so hard they are appearing on my lips, unbidden.

They start to whisper out as I follow Jodi to the Center Mezzanine doors and the theater turns to black.

“. . . coffee sometime . . . something to eat maybe?”

We close the last door, locking the magic in with over three thousand people. Soon, the conductor’s baton will drop, the orchestra will strike their first chord. But this is the moment before, the moment of greatest anticipation.

“Thanks for helping,” Jodi says.

I nod, the words still swimming in my brain, willing my tongue to form a sound.

The usually awkward usher uniform—knee-length skirt, white button-up shirt under a gaping-open black coat lined in bright red with yellow rope-like trim—looks good on Jodi’s slight frame. Her body type, shared, I’m sure, by less than five percent of the US population, was what the makers of the uniforms had in mind. On me, the pants hang a little low, my belly pokes out over my belt, accentuated by the obscene openness of the coat. I could stand to lose ten pounds. This uniform reminds me of that every time I put it on.

Jodi adjusts her radio, unclips it from the top of her skirt and clips it in a different location.

“Ray, can I ask you something?”

“Yes,” I say, sucking in my belly and thinking of my lines, now caught in my throat.

“Would you be able to cover my shift tomorrow night? Something came up.”

Some directors don’t mind a little ad lib, as long as you capture the intent of the lines.

“Uh,” I manage to say.

“If you can’t it’s fine . . .”

There’s a long pause. I feel like someone should be feeding me a line. In slow motion, words and thoughts pass through my mind. Coffee. My calendar hanging in my kitchen. Date. Is there something written on tomorrow?

“It’s fine,” Jodi says, walking away. “Think about it and get back to me. I’ve still got John to ask.”

I watch her leave and feel the lines slipping away.

In the glare of the light, behind the camera, I can almost feel the frustration of the director. I was only seven. I was bound to forget some lines now and again.

I’m not sure what my excuse is now.


My agent calls.

“Twenty-five years,” I repeat back to her. “Wow.”

If I could low whistle under my breath like they do in the movies, I’d add that in, too, for effect.

She charges ahead. “Clear your calendar. Reunion episode will be filmed late next month with a Christmas release. Then things get really crazy. I’ll email you details when I get them.”

I go to my wall calendar as my agent hangs up and look at the empty square that is today. A day off. Me in a bathrobe in my cramped high-rise with Flintstone, my tabby cat. Why didn’t I say I would take Jodi’s shift? She’d already found John by the time I recovered enough to say yes. With a heavy sigh, I flip the calendar to November.

Flintstone rubs against my leg. As I draw a long, red line from the middle to the end of the month, I make a mental note to ask my neighbor to stop in a few times while I’m gone.

Red on the calendar is for Bobby. It’s mostly for the area Cons (ValleyCon, RetroCon, StaticCon) where Peter’s Rule is a mainstay. I’m at every one of them. There’s red writing on Friday.


The white space flashes by in a blur of Bite Squad and binge watching, and then I’m there.

On the stage, a table is set up with four chairs, two bottles of water at each station, labels facing out. The forum is sponsored by Krystal Water Corp, and the backdrop of the stage is a sign with their logo—blue waves with the words “Feel the Kool.” I remember hearing they’re currently in a copyright lawsuit with the cigarette manufacturer.

I’ve spoken in front of more depressing backdrops. Three years ago, StaticCon was sponsored by a denture cream. Last year, ValleyCon was sponsored by a drain cleaner.

I wait in the wings with Valerie Sweet—Trisha, Peter’s daughter. I look at her now and I don’t see a speck of that scared possibly pregnant girl on the screen, holding her stomach in the bathroom as her dad pounds on the door shouting that other people live in this household, too, you know.

Now, Valerie is old like me. Older. She keeps her hair pinned back around her oval face and when I look at her, I always think she’d look better with bangs, like she had on the show.

Valerie catches me staring at her forehead and purses her lips at me.

“You ready for November?” she asks.

I shrug. “Rough schedule.”

“Not when you’re used to it,” she says and does this thing where she touches the back of her hair, gives it a little bounce. She looks away, not just looks away, but physically turns her body away from me. I’m so busy noticing this—noticing I’ve always noticed this—that I hardly feel the sting. I have to remind myself she’s insulting me, but I just keep thinking twenty-five fucking years I’ve had to deal with this bitch.

I could say so many things. Like, how was the schedule for the incontinence medicine commercials you did? I could remind her she hasn’t been in a single successful sitcom since Peter’s Rule except for Swiss Queen and she was killed off in the middle of the second season.

I could say so many things, but Valerie’s back is to me now and she’s right. The bitch is actually right. I sleep until noon and go into the theater four days a week around two in the afternoon. It’s been so many years since I’ve worked in the TV industry that I have no idea of the demands of the schedule anymore.

“Where are the others?” I ask.

Valerie shrugs, her back still to me. “They have three minutes to get here. Relax.”

The other two on the panel are Ms. Alexandria Deacon—mother Wendy—and Caleb Wilson, who played little Chris, the boy who got pressured to take a puff off a joint. Ironic, considering that I’d caught him smoking a joint in the back of the studio long before his on-screen character was tempted by older classmates. The little sociopath offered me a puff.

I was eight!

Caleb looks good in an expensive suit and struts onto the stage with all the vigor of a game show host—which is what he’s been doing for the last ten years. I think of that moment behind the studio sometimes when it’s late at night and I’m flipping through channels and see Caleb, microphone in hand, encouraging beautiful co-eds to take their time at whatever game they’re playing.

Alexandria looks polished and dignified as always. She smoothes out the skirt of her grey suit and smears a dab of Vaseline on her teeth before she takes her seat.

The panel host tells a joke and opens it immediately for audience questions.

There’s two dozen or so people peppered on folding chairs. A gruff looking man in flannel takes the mic.

“Is this thing on?” he asks, tapping the microphone. “Can you hear me?”

“You’re good,” the host says impatiently.

“Okay, well, I just wanted to know what the cast knows about the twenty-fifth anniversary reunion episode?”

Alexandria leans into her microphone and answers, smile absolutely gleaming. “We’re all going to be there.”

Valerie nods vigorously. “And we’re all really excited.”

After the panel discussion, I wander through the convention hall past the 20th Century Fox booth and a statue of the MGM lion.

“Mr. Goodman, sir?”

The voice comes from behind me. I turn to see a man, maybe a decade older than me. He has a camera around his neck and he’s wearing a button-down Hawaiian T-shirt.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but can I have your autograph?”

He holds out a headshot. I take it, along with his sharpie.

It’s a familiar image: young Bobby Van Camp, smiling into the camera. I remember the day they took it. I remember the way the photographer looked bored, saying over and over, smile. Smile.


I frown, thinking how I didn’t even need to hear it. The smile came so easily, photo after photo.

I scribble my signature across the upper corner, last flourish crossing my little forehead.

“Thank you, sir,” he says. “This sure means a lot. I remember watching the show when I came home from junior high, every Wednesday night. My dad wanted me to join the baseball team but when I learned practice was Wednesdays I said no. I don’t think my dad ever forgave me for that,” he adds sheepishly.

I pat him on the shoulder and turn to go, think better of it and turn back.

“Ain’t that what family’s for?”

The look on his face makes it all worth it.


Inside the hall of the Broadline Theatre, three thousand people are tucked into the dark, watching the magic unfold. On the lit stage, for eighty-seven minutes before intermission, the actors sing and dance and deliver their lines seamlessly, something that stresses me out to comprehend. On the set of Peter’s Rule we were averaging four takes per scene. I have that to look forward to next week when we begin filming.

During the first act, I make my rounds and go to the bar to get my complementary beverage.

“Diet Coke,” I say to the bartender. I’m watching my figure.

At the Gallery Left doors near the bar I hear two ushers talking.

“It’s her mom,” one usher says to another. “Cancer, I heard.”

I know they’re talking about Jodi. Everyone knows it, though she hasn’t made any formal announcement. This is our theater family. We know everyone’s business. And Jodi has seemed off her game lately.

I wander down to the Second Balcony and see Jodi sitting on one of the blue couches. She has her legs crossed tight, this way she does where she can wrap her foot back around to the other side of the opposite ankle. I’ve seen this for the last seven years, wondering if it’s the length of her legs or something else—flexible muscles, supple connective tissue. I try not to think about it too long, try not to stare at her legs. Most of the female friends I’ve had throughout the years have told me they can sense within a millisecond if a man glances at their chest. Are legs the same?

Jodi is looking down at a sheet of paper, maybe the usher position sheet, but she’s really studying it, like she’s never seen it before and she needs to wrap her head around it, which makes no sense because Jodi has worked at the Broadline longer than I have, going on ten years, I think.

Right before I get to her, she flips the pages, held together by a staple in the upper left hand corner. I see a glimpse of it as the page turns. Looks like graphs.

She looks up at me and I get the feeling I’m seeing something personal—something I shouldn’t be seeing. Like Jodi coming out of the shower, reaching for a towel. Jodi on the toilet, turned slightly, caught mid-wipe.

I shake these thoughts from my head and clear my throat, ready to deliver my line. The script would go something like this:


How many late seaters?



But I see those graphs and I can only imagine what they are—white blood cell counts, clinical cancer staging, insurance Explanation of Benefits—and I want to break from the script.

“How’s your mother?” As I say the words I know I’ve chosen the wrong ones. I say them with what I hope is tenderness, but Jodi looks like I’ve slapped her all the same.

“She’s dying, Ray. How do you think she’s doing?” Jodi says, folding the pages in half and tucking them next to her. Her legs are uncrossed now, both feet planted firmly on the floor.

She delivers the line like a bad actress, her face flushed, her eyes dead. She sounds like she’s reciting lines she quickly memorized off stage. She looks like she was given the line with absolutely no context and is now trying to look convincing.

This line is to be delivered with anger, the director might have said to her.

“I guess I was really asking how you were doing,” I say, my calm voice hiding my panic.

Jodi has felt it, too; that I’ve seen her vulnerability. She stands abruptly.

“Five late seaters,” she says, getting us back on script, where we belong.

“Great,” I say, writing a small “5” on the upper corner of the paper I’m holding. I look at it after I’ve written it for a moment too long. What I’m really looking at is the flyer I’ve written it on.



It’s not the official event report. It was my idea of a distraction for Jodi, perhaps well-intentioned, but not well thought out.

I fold the flyer in half and stick it in my jacket pocket.

“Thanks,” I say and walk down the stairs to the First Balcony. When I get to the bottom of the stairs, out of view, I lean against the wall by the women’s restroom and take the flyer out of my pocket.

One last look and I pitch it in the trash. Without a script, my timing is horseshit.


I’m horseshit with a script, too. We all are with this one.

“Alright folks,” the director yells. “Let’s take a five-minute break.”

It’s day two of filming. Shooting for the The Peter’s Rule Reunion has been slow. Turns out there was enough interest to make it into a three-night special. Each special is an hour long, or about 44 minutes of screen time. Each ten-hour day on set gives us an average 16-24 usable minutes of film. We’ll have all three episodes done in nine days if all goes according to schedule.

Between scenes, I sit at the McMahon family dining table and study the script and think of the last time I watched an episode of Peter’s Rule. I was in public high school. I’d gone to the home of a girl in my English class to complete a project. Her TV was blaring in the living room as we sat at the dining room table, A Separate Peace and notebook paper spread out before us. I glanced at the screen every few minutes, each word my classmate said drowned out by the laugh track.

I pull my phone out of my pocket. I text my neighbor and ask how Flintstone is doing. He answers in pictures—Flintstone on the bed, Flintstone eating.

I glance around the studio.

Caleb is on his phone, pacing and talking too loud about funds and timing. Valerie is in her makeup chair, reading a magazine. Alexandria disappears to her room and Oliver Thomas lumbers over to the table, struggling to breathe. He grabs the back of the chair and it groans under his weight. With a rush of air, he sits and stares straight ahead. I don’t think he’s had any acting gigs since his cameos on Law and Order.

It’s hard for me to separate our scripted and unscripted moments together. Peter and Bobby sat at this table twenty years ago just as Oliver and I are sitting now.

“I love you like a son,” Peter once said to Bobby.

“Your character will resonate if you call on your personal experience,” Oliver once said to me.

But so much of my personal experience was here, at this table. That’s why it’s painful to see Oliver this way. I focus on the wood grain while I listen to his breathing settle to a low rasp.

None of us has said an unscripted word to each other in two days. But I have the urge to say something to him now. I glance at the script, look at the wood grain, think of Jodi.

“I’ve been practicing my line,” I say.

He jolts to attention like I’ve shocked him, but he recovers and smiles at me.

“Oh, yeah?” he asks

So nice. He’s always been so nice.

“It takes me a little longer to remember them now,” he says.

There was an episode of Law and Order where Oliver played a grandfather who is wrongly accused of a crime, convicted and sent to prison. I remember the scene when they gather the proof of his innocence and rush to the governor’s office to exonerate him. He dies at the end of the episode, right before they arrive. Shanked in the lunchroom over a stupid argument. His dead body is uncovered just long enough for the detectives to see his face and shake their heads.

What a shame.

I feel like I’m looking at that man now, laid out on the table. Oliver’s mouth hangs open slightly.

“That’s the funny thing,” I tell him. “I’m fine with all the new lines. I just want the old one to sound just right.”

He nods like he understands but doesn’t say anything. Instead, he traces an imaginary line on the table with his fingernail.

“I guess we all have our lines,” I say, keeping the conversation moving, unsure how or if to stop.

Oliver looks confused.

“Alright, places everyone,” the director calls.

Oliver doesn’t move.

“This isn’t the table, you know?” he says, and I’m not sure I hear him correctly over all the commotion around us. “I wonder what happened to our table?”


It’s December and the big advertising blitz for the The Peter’s Rule Reunion is in full swing; I mute my TV when the promos come on. I brace myself for awkward work conversations. Criticisms. Or, worse yet, compliments.

While I was in my red Bobby bubble, the real world kept going. The Broadline is training new usher hires. Flintstone is happy to have me home.

Jodi’s mom is dead.

I got the mass e-mail from work while still on set. Please pass on your sympathies, it said. I don’t call. I don’t e-mail. I stop by the Broadline to get my check and ask Eric at the Stage Door if he’s seen her around.

“Who knows?” he asks, exasperated. “Do you see all the people coming in and out, man?”

The crew of Wizard of Oz is loading out. The crew of White Christmas is loading in. The stage door is chaos.

I wander into the empty auditorium and stand in the dark at the back of the Orchestra section. The stage is completely empty, the curtain is up. The floor looks scuffed and I can see little x’s of tape here and there.

After a month long run, those actors know each blemish on that stage by heart. Just as Oliver knew the McMahon’s table. I didn’t say it to Oliver, but I was sure the table, the couch, the beds, all of it, the whole set of Peter’s Rule was taken out to the dumpster after it was over.

I don’t know how long I’ve been standing there when I hear the inner door softly close. It’s Jodi, wearing a heavy coat wrapped around her body protectively. She’s looking up at the empty stage. For a second, I think she doesn’t know I’m here.

Then she walks over. “Eric said you were looking for me.”

“I just wanted to say I was sorry.”

Jodi dismisses me with the wave of her hand, but she doesn’t move, just stays with her eyes glued to the stage.

“We never really got along. She was always broke and borrowing money. Never paid it back. Her insurance didn’t cover everything, so I know where this is going,” she waves her paycheck. “And that’s on top of the cost of the cremation.”

I open my mouth to speak but realize I’m just going to say “I’m sorry” again and I think how worthless that would be. I need something meaningful, just that perfect line to make everything better. I dig deep inside myself, feeling this is my only chance. My Hail Mary. I call on the spirit of Bobby Van Camp, the little boy with the big heart.

But Jodi beats me to it.

She shrugs and says, “Ain’t that what family’s for?”

I’m horrified. But then she laughs. It’s an honest laugh that fills the empty theater and ricochets off the rafters and catwalks far above us.

“I’m sorry,” she says with a grin that tells me she is the opposite of sorry and it’s so good to see her smile, even if it is at my expense. “I was so young when that show was on. I remember the reruns, though. I never told you when you started that I always wanted to punch that kid.”

I let out a rush of air, strange relief washing over me.

“When I got older, believe me,” I say. “I did, too.”

Her smile softens to a worried frown and her eyes return to the stage.

“I just saw the ad on TV last night . . .” I cringe and wait for her to go on. “And I couldn’t stop laughing at the irony. And at the fact that yo . . . that he was right. I mean, isn’t that what family’s for? Leave you broke and broken hearted. No answers. Leaving you alone?”

In the semi-dark of the theater, I see a tear streaking down Jodi’s cheek.

On the stage, housekeeping comes out with a broom and starts to clean away the Wizard of Oz and that’s when it hits me that the McMahon table probably wasn’t thrown in the garbage. It was more likely cleaned up and taken to storage to be picked out by another set designer on yet another sitcom where another father-like character dispensed advice and where another child sat between takes, practicing his lines, wanting so bad to make his TV family proud.

I love you like a son, Oliver said. Or was that Peter?

Jodi sniffles.

I turn away from the stage.

The last page of this script is blank. So I write it.

I reach out and take hold of Jodi’s hand, gently. She looks over at me, surprised, but she holds on, then squeezes my hand back as we stand in the empty theater.




Erin Smith is a writer, funeral director, and shiatsu therapist living in the Twin Cities. A transplant from the South, she’s seen her O’s lengthen in her fourteen years in Minnesota and has learned to love All Wheel Drive. When she’s not writing, she can be found with her cat, Chloe, on her lap. Erin has been published in Liars’ League NYC, Mount Hope Magazine, Here Comes Everyone, Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine, Strange Mysteries, TWJ Magazine, Anotherealm and Mortuary Management Magazine. Find her at www.erinsmithwrites.com.









by James Mulhern



“I need to get that chalice, Aiden. The Boston Globe article said some people think it has curing powers. I don’t know if I believe it, but I hope so. The chalice is a replica of a sacred relic from the Middle Ages. If I have your mother drink from it, maybe she’ll get better and come home to us. Won’t that be nice?” She rubbed my head gently and smiled. We were sitting in her Blue Plymouth across the street from Mission Church in Boston. An old man pushed a lady in a wheelchair up the ramp to the front door.

“Won’t God be mad?”

“I’m going to return it, sweetheart. We’re just borrowing the chalice to make your mother well again. I think God will understand. Don’t worry.” She rubbed my cheek.

We crossed the street and entered the musty darkness of the church. The smell of shellac, incense, and old-lady perfume permeated the air. Bright light shone through the stained-glass windows where Jesus was depicted in the fourteen Stations of the Cross.

“Let’s move to the front.” My grandmother pulled me out of the line and cut in front of a humpbacked lady, who looked bewildered.

“Shouldn’t you go to the end of the line?” she whispered. Her hair was sweaty and her fat freckled bicep jiggled when she tapped my grandmother’s shoulder. The freckles reminded me of the asteroid belt.

“I’m sorry. We’re in a hurry. I want my grandson to get a cure.”

“What’s wrong?” she whispered. We were four people away from the priest, who stood in front of the altar. He prayed over people, then lightly touched them. They fell into the arms of two old men with maroon suit jackets and navy blue ties.

“My dear grandson has leukemia.”

The woman’s eyes teared up. “I’m sorry.” She patted my forearm. “You’ll be cured, honey.” Again her flabby bicep jiggled and the asteroids bounced.

When it was our turn, my grandmother said, “Father, please cure him. And can you say a prayer for my daughter, too?”

“Of course.” The white-haired, red-faced priest bent down. I smelled alcohol on his breath. “What ails you young man?”

I was confused.

“He’s asking you about your illness,” my grandmother whispered.

“I have leukemia,” I said proudly.

The baggy-faced priest recited some mumbo-jumbo prayer and pushed my chest. I knew I was supposed to fall back but was afraid the old geezers wouldn’t catch me.

“Fall,” my grandmother whispered. “Remember our plan.”

I fell hard, shoving myself against the old guys. One toppled over. People gasped. His friend and the priest began to pick us up. I pretended to be hurt badly. “Ow! My head is killing me.” Several people gathered around us. My grandmother yelled, “Oh my God” and stepped onto the altar, kneeling in front of a giant Jesus nailed to the cross. “Dear Jesus,” she said loudly, “I don’t know how many more tribulations I can take.” She crossed herself, hurried across the altar, swiping the gold chalice and putting it in her handbag while everyone was distracted by my fake moaning and crying.

“He’ll be okay,” she said, putting her arm under mine and helping the others pull me up.

When I was standing, she said to the priest. “You certainly have the power of the Holy Spirit in you. It came out of you like the water that gushed from the rock at Rephidim and Kadesh. Let’s get out of here before there’s a flood.” She laughed.

The priest frowned. The lady who let us cut in line eyed my grandmother’s handbag and shook her head as we passed.


That night I slept in what was my mother’s room. As often happened, I awoke to the sound of my grandfather’s voice.

Whenever he visited, the bedroom glowed with tiny white lights, illuminated bubbles floating in the air. My face and ears became hot and red, and I heard a buzzing noise that eventually stopped. I had confided to my mother about his visits, but no one else. Her claim of hearing the voices of dead people and her ‘visions’ led to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. My grandmother and father had her declared mentally incompetent and she was committed to a psychiatric facility. Nanna was granted guardianship of her, and me as well, because Dad said he couldn’t handle a child on his own.

“I’m not happy with you, Aiden,” my grandfather said. “Why did you allow your grandmother to steal the chalice from the church? Tis an awful thing to do.”

He sat at the bottom of my bed, wearing black bottle-thick glasses, his dark hair a curly mess.

” ‘Goodness is the only investment that never fails.’ A smart man by the name of Toreau said that. You must return the chalice to the church.”

“Who’s Toorow?”

“You’ll learn about him in school. Mr. Toreau is a famous writer who lived about a half hour away from you, in Concord.” My grandfather was an autodidact. He never went to college. He couldn’t afford it and wasn’t allowed admission because he was an Irish immigrant. My grandmother and he, though they did not know each other, emigrated from different parts of Ireland in the late 1930’s. With hope in their hearts, just a few belongings, I’m sure, and not much money, they journeyed to the promised land of their imaginations.

When they first arrived, it was difficult to get good jobs. People hated the Irish. He dug graves during the day and hauled large bags of mail onto the trains at South Station during the night. She was a maid for the rich protestant Brahmans on Beacon Hill. Eventually, attitudes changed, my grandmother was able to become a licensed practical nurse, and my grandfather, well, he died.

“Aiden, your mind is wandering. You need to listen to me.”

“Yes, Grandpa,” I said.

“You must get your mother out of McCall’s.” McCall Hospital is the largest psychiatric hospital in the Boston area. “She needs to live a normal life. And you must be with her. Every child should be with his ma. The shower of savages at that hospital are pumping her up with all sorts of terrible medicines.” His voice cracked. “Like you, Aiden, she has the gift, and it is horrible that she is being punished for it.”

To me “the gift” seemed like a curse, a burden.

“It’s not a curse,” my grandfather said, reading my mind. “Second sight is something that has been in your family for years. Your grandmother’s mother possessed it, and she, too, was demonized. Of course, it was different in Ireland. Many believed her, but still there were those who acted cruelly. There are always people who are blind to the gifts in others.”

“What do you mean, demonized?”

“Treated badly. Laughed at. . . . Terrible thing to do to another human being. People said she was tick.”


“Stupid. Even your grandmother thought her ma was out of her head. The story goes that your great-grandmother retreated into herself. Once, she was joyful, envisioning life’s possibilities, but slowly she withdrew, hurt by the malice of others.”

“What happened to her?”

“She dropped dead while lifting a bucket from a well. Tumbled right over the stonewall she did. And the night before she had heard the banshees.”

“What’s a banshee?”

“You ask a lot of questions.” He laughed. “A type of fairy or spirit. Her entire family listened to the wailing. Then, in the pitch-black of that windy night, they heard three knocks on the door, which means someone is going to die. The next day your great-grandmother was bloody dead, her body covered in green muck. All for a bucket of water.”

“Did they believe her then?”

He laughed, somewhat bitterly. “Yes, Aiden. But what good did it do the poor woman. Dead she was. . . . Aiden, most people are afraid to believe in things they cannot see. It frightens them and they become nasty. This is why you must keep your secret for now. Think of a way to free your ma. I don’t want Laura to suffer like your great-grandmother, driven to despair.”

“What I am I supposed to do?”

He told me a secret that might convince my grandmother.

“You’ll figure it out, son. I’m counting on you.”

“Grandpa?” I called a few more times, but the bubbles of light faded and he was gone. I went to the bathroom and positioned my face under the faucet to drink some water. In the mirror, my cheeks appeared sunburnt. The color would fade by the morning, as it always did.


Nanna’s back was to me when I entered the kitchen. The table was set—one white plate, a green paper napkin, and silverware.

“It’s about time you woke up, sleepyhead.” She smiled and brought a red mug of coffee to the table, then opened the refrigerator and passed me the cream before moving back to the stove.

“Over hard, as you like them.” She flipped an egg and wiped some grease off her pink nightgown. Rollers dangled precariously atop her forehead.

“Thanks, Nanna. . . . I was thinking.”

“Here we go.” She laughed. The bacon sizzled.

“Maybe we should return the chalice?”

“Hand me your plate.”

She put two eggs and three strips of bacon on it. The toaster popped.

“Grab the bread, and butter it while it’s hot.”

She poured herself a cup of coffee, black, sat down and faced me. Nanna rarely ate breakfast. She preferred to smoke and drink coffee, sometimes with whiskey in it. She lit a cigarette and exhaled smoke from her nose.

“Now why would we do that?”

I put three sugars and cream in my coffee, looking down while I stirred. “Because it’s wrong to steal.”

She laughed. “Phooey.” She waved her hand at me. “I told you we are just borrowing the chalice.” She put her hands on her hip. “I think God is happy we are helping a sick person. We are doing Christian work. Like those missionaries in Africa and China.”

” ‘Goodness is the only investment that never fails.’ ”

Her face blanched and her large hazel eyes widened. “Where did you learn that?” She looked behind her for a second, as if someone might be there.

“I read it in one of Grandpa’s books. It was underlined.”

Her face relaxed and she spoke softly: “I can’t tell you the number of times I heard your grandfather say that. And a bunch of other malarkey.” She laughed. “He had another favorite expression.” She tilted her head and laughed. ” ‘If it was raining soup, the Irish would go out with forks.’ ”

“That’s funny.”

“It is and it isn’t, which gets to the heart of this conversation, Aiden. People need help. That chalice may cure your ma. Stealing it was only a venial sin, not a mortal one.”

“What’s a venial sin?”

“A minor sin. Like a white lie.”

“Is lying about leukemia to make people feel bad and distract them a venial sin?”

She sighed. “Yes, Aiden.”

She turned on the faucet and looked out the window. “Everybody lies. You need to get used to it. The sooner, the better.” She rinsed my plate. “It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

Through the glass, beyond the oak trees, the blue sky was filled with cumulus clouds, a foamy ocean above us. “What’s a mortal sin?”

“It’s more serious, a grave violation of God’s law.”

“Was stealing the chalice a venial or a mortal sin? And how do you know the difference?”

She turned towards me. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Don’t think about things so much.” Like my grandfather, her “th” often sounded like “t” or “d.” “Now go get ready.” She brushed me away with her hands. “Scoot.”


The drive to McCall Hospital took a half hour. Located in Somerville, just outside of Boston proper, you reach the entrance after winding up a slope of lawn to a sandstone Admissions building. Beyond that structure and throughout the large campus are several brick edifices with classical flourishes, such as gabled roofs, Roman columns, and ivy-covered walls. Large oak and birch trees, like sentinels, line the knolls, where dormitories from a bygone era stand, rooted in stability, a quality the clinicians nurture in their patients. We knew the place well. Nanna drove the circuitous road to my mother’s building, a ward of approximately twenty-five patients, all with a variety of illnesses: schizophrenia, mania, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and borderline personality. Above the entryway the limestone sculpture of a woman wearing a tunic stood with one arm resting on an anchor.

Just inside the doorway, on the left, was the nurses’ station, and across from there, the patient lounge with an old television, a scratched pool table, and shelves of tattered books and games. My mother’s room was at the end of the hall on the right, a coveted spot.

“Can I help you?” a short, small-framed nurse with over-bleached hair and gray eye shadow greeted us.

“We’re here to visit my daughter, Laura Glencar.” My grandmother motioned to me. “This is her son, Aiden.” She puckered her lips. “I don’t think I’ve met you. Are you new?”

“I started last week. My name is Nancy. You can call me Nurse Nancy. Let me find out who’s taking care of your daughter. ‘Maura Fender’ you said.” She turned to look at the white dry-erase board with patient names, room numbers, and nursing assignments.

“Laura Glencar!” Nanna rolled her eyes at me. “This one’s a tool,” she mumbled.

“She’s new, Nanna. Give her a chance,” I whispered.

“She’s not new to hearing,” she whispered back, then smiled at the nurse.

“Oh, it’s me!” Nurse Nancy said.

“What did I tell you?” she said, a little too loudly.

“Right this way.” Her hips swiveled in front of us.

“We know how to get there, Nancy Nurse. You don’t have to bring us. I think your time would be better spent, memorizing that board, don’t you?” Nanna smiled at her.

“Oh, but it’s policy.”

“Must be a new policy. Never happened before.”

Nurse Nancy fingered her gold necklace. “I want to do things right.”

“I can understand, dear,” my grandmother said.

“You have some lovely visitors,” she announced to my mother, who was seated by the window looking at patients walking across the lawn. She turned and smiled gloriously, as she always did. My mother was a very attractive woman: thirty-four years old, wavy auburn hair, light green eyes with specks of gold, and fair skin sprinkled with tiny freckles across the bridge of her nose.

“Give me a hug.” She extended her arms. Nanna sat on the bed next to her and plopped her handbag near the pillow. I embraced her, loving the familiar smell of her Avon perfume.

“Thank you, Nancy. You just made my day.”

Nancy beamed and left.

“She’s a dumb girl,” Nanna said. “Didn’t even know you were her patient. Can you imagine that?”

“Ma, don’t be so hard on her. She just started working here.”

“That’s a poor excuse, but never mind. Aiden and I have something for you.”

My mother clapped her hands and smiled. Outside the window, patients walked in circles, hands behind them, not talking with one another, lost in thought, some muttering to themselves or moving their arms in strange ways.

Nanna reached into her handbag and carefully placed three items on the tan bedspread: the gold necklace and cross, a small jar of red wine, and finally, the golden chalice, which sparkled in the well-lit room.

“Mom, where did you get that cup?” Her eyes widened. “It looks like part of the Queen’s crown jewels.” She laughed.

“A friend of mine loaned it to me.” She warned me with her eyes.

“Who?” She giggled and raised the chalice. “Such beautiful stones. This must be worth a fortune. Do you know a museum curator?”

“You could call Joshua that. He works for a very reputable institution. Started it from the ground up. The building is as grand as a temple.”

“Where is it?” Her eyebrows squished together.

“Jerusalem, New York. He’s visiting some relatives in Boston.”

“Jerusalem?” She laughed and folded her palms over the chalice in her lap. “I think you’re telling me a fib.” She raised the cup in a beam of sunlight. “It’s beautiful, but what am I supposed to do with it?”

“Drink this wine. Joshua says the cup has healing powers. I hope he’s right.”

“It’s gorgeous. Thank you.”

“I have to return it, Laura.”

“I figured that.”

“Will you drink from it?” My grandmother’s eyes pleaded.

“There’s nothing wrong with me.” She folded her arms. “But if it will make you happy, I will. Pour some, but be careful not to stain the bed.” Her shoulders drooped.

As my mother sipped, Nurse Nancy came in.

“Hey. What are you drinking?” She looked at the small jar, which my grandmother quickly shoved into her handbag.

“Cranberry juice. It prevents urinary tract infections,” Nanna said.

Nurse Nancy’s eyes squinted. “I hope that’s all it is. Laura is on medication and alcohol could interact in a negative way.”

“Of course it’s not alcohol,” Nanna said. “I’m a Christian woman. Today is Sunday. In our family, we abstain from alcohol in reverence to Our Lord Jesus Christ. I’m insulted that you would suggest such a thing, Nancy Nurse.” She wrapped the chalice in a cloth and placed it in her handbag, then clasped the gold cross around my mother’s neck.


The next Saturday, my grandmother announced at breakfast that we were returning the chalice.

“Do you think Mom’s cured?”

“God works in mysterious ways. I’m not sure that a sip of wine from that beautiful cup performed such a miracle, but I pray that it did.” She wiped her hands on her apron and hung it on the wall. “I often doubt the possibility of miracles, but then I find myself thinking that every moment is miraculous. Do you know what I mean?”

“Like just being alive?”

“Exactly.” She threw my crumpled napkins into the wastebasket. “We make our own miracles. There’s a saying from the old country, ‘It’s the good horse that draws its own cart.’ We must make things happen on our own instead of sitting on our arses waiting for Jesus to put the world right.” She smiled and motioned for me to get up from my chair. “That’s why we will do what needs to be done. Now go get dressed.”


In less than an hour we were in front of Mission Church. My grandmother always had the hardest time parallel parking.

“Get out,” she said.

I stood on the sidewalk and shouted, “Stop. You’re gonna hit that car.”

She bent over the seat and looked at me through the passenger window. “How much room do I have?”

“About two inches.”


She extended her arm across the top of the seat and turned to look behind her before reversing and smashing into the white Ford Mustang.

“Shite.” She glanced around to see if anyone was watching. Everyone was inside, listening to the Mass.

After rolling up the windows and locking the car, she stood on the street, opposite of where I stood on the sidewalk.

“You smashed the bumper.”

“How do you know it was me? Look at the scratches on the door. Obviously, this individual doesn’t know how to drive.”

I joined her and traced my fingers along the scratches.

“Don’t do that.”


“You’ll leave fingerprints.”

I laughed. “You think they’re gonna dust the car for prints?”

We watched two cars pass. My grandmother waved at the drivers. “Let’s get this over with.” She straightened her blue dress and grabbed my hand. “Hurry and cross.”

“Do you have the chalice?”

She patted her handbag. “It’s inside my bag. I had to remove my makeup and a brush to make room. The sacrifices we make.”

We both laughed. I opened the large carved wooden door for her. She looked at the white Mustang before entering and whispered, “We’ve got to make this fast. Before the Mass ends. I don’t want a scene with the owner of that car.”

The air was musty, warm, and dark. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust.

The priest said, “A reading from the first Letter of Saint John. . . .’Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.’ ” People turned in the pews to look at us walking down the aisle. My grandmother bowed to them. ” ‘The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now.’ ” He paused and looked at us as we climbed the altar, then continued reading, half-watching us. ” ‘What we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ ”

My grandmother pulled me to a bench at the side. We sat down. The cool stone felt good against my back. The priest stared at us. People in the congregation were moving in their seats, whispering and watching us.

My grandmother put her hand in front of her mouth and whispered, “I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. Sounds like a bunch of palaver.”

“Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.” The priest held up his index finger and smiled, then walked over to us and whispered, “Can I help you?”

“Yes, Father, like you were saying, that bit about ‘bestowed’ and ‘God’s children now.’ ”

“I don’t understand, my friend.” The people in the pews were talking louder.

A man shouted, “Is everything okay, Father?”

“Yes. Yes,” he called back. “I’ll be right with you.” Again he held up his index finger.

I pulled the chalice out of my grandmother’s handbag. “It is revealed!”

“Where did you get that?”

“A homeless man on the Boston Common was drinking beer from it. I recognized it as the stolen chalice, Father. I read that article in the Boston Globe,” my grandmother said.

“He was all dirty and sad-looking. I think he needed some healing,” I interjected.

“We prayed with the man and asked him to let us return it,” my grandmother said. “I told him, ‘God will forgive you because we are all God’s children’ and some of that other stuff you were just saying.”

The priest’s face lit up. “It’s a miracle,” he hollered to the congregation, holding the chalice above his head and walking to the center of the altar. “Thanks be to God.”

The people repeated, “Thanks be to God.”

My grandmother pulled me from the bench. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” she whispered.

People clapped as we hurried down the aisle.

“Wait,” the priest said. “We don’t know your names.”

“I’m Elaine, and this is my grandson Galahad.”

We ran out the door and across the street.

Her hands shook as she tried to unlock the door. “Aiden, you’ll have to do it for me. I’m a nervous wreck.” She handed me the keys.

An elderly gentleman with a cane yelled, “Yoo-hoo. Come back. We want to speak with you.” He teetered on the steps, clasping the railing.

“Yoo-hoo,” my grandmother answered and waved. “We’ll be right over.” Then to me after I unlocked the door: “Hurry up. Get in the car.”

I ran to my side. We slammed our doors at the same time. My grandmother rolled her window down. “I’m terribly sorry. My grandson is hyperventilating. He gets nervous around crowds.”

I breathed hard, as if on cue, and waved to the man, then held my chest, pretending I was going to die.

The man started down the steps with his cane, holding precariously onto the railing.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” my grandmother said, “Let’s get out of here before that buttinsky falls!” We swerved into the street and sped off. “Who says ‘yoo-hoo’ anymore? He must be demented.”

“Where’d you come up with those crazy names?” I had my hands pressed against the dashboard because she was driving so fast.

“Something I read. Probably one of your grandfather’s old books.”


When we pulled in the driveway, I said, “Grandpa will be happy.”

“What are you talking about?” She scratched her head.

“Grandpa likes when we do the right thing. He wants Mom to come home.”

“Of course, your grandfather would want Laura to leave that sad place.” She opened the car door. “Let’s go inside.”

I followed her across the front lawn and called out, “He’s very upset she has to stay there.”

She turned and stared at me. “Your grandfather is dead, Aiden. Stop your foolishness.” She shivered. “Let’s get in the house.”

In the living room, she sat on the couch and patted the spot next to her. “Come sit with me.”

“Aiden, lots of people have dreams about people they’ve lost. I’m glad you dream about your grandfather. He was a good man. You remind me of him.” She wrapped her arm around me and kissed me forehead. “Would you like some tea?”

“Sometimes Grandpa visits me at night.”

“I sometimes dream of him, too. What good times we shared.” She stared into the shadowed room, then turned on the lamp.

“He told me to tell you that it was not your fault that he died.”

“Of course it wasn’t my fault.” She puffed on a cigarette, eyeing me suspiciously. “I’m tired.” She rubbed her temples and closed her eyes.

“Then why do you cry at night and ask God for forgiveness? Grandpa says he’s in the bedroom with you. He wanted me to tell you he’s sorry. He said he was always ‘full as a bingo bus,’ whatever that means.”

Nanna’s face quivered and she put her cigarette in the ashtray.

“Where in God’s name did you hear that expression?”

“What does it mean?”

“It’s an Irish saying for very drunk.”

“He said you should stop blaming yourself for leaving him in the chair that night when you went to bed. It’s not your fault that he choked on his vomit.”

My grandmother shook and tears streamed down her face. I wrapped my arms around her. “Grandpa loves you, Nanna, and I do, too.”


The next week, we went to McCall’s again. Nurse Nancy smiled. “Laura is doing great today. She’s been busy drawing. Quite a talented artist.”

“She gets that from me. I studied at the Louvre in Paris.”

“Really?” Nancy cocked her head. She led us down the hallway.

My grandmother asked, “You think I’m too dumb?”

Nancy laughed. “Not at all. It was a stupid thing to say.” She turned. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“No offense taken. Next time I’ll wear a beret and carry a paintbrush.”

“Here we are,” Nancy said outside Mom’s room. She smiled, picked lint off her white skirt and blew it off her finger, then leaned into my face. “I bet you’re excited to see your mother.”

“We’re good now. You can go,” my grandmother said.

When she had gone, I said, “I didn’t know you were an artist, Nanna.”

“Don’t be silly, Aiden. That was blarney. Nancy Nurse is a bit too uppity for my taste.” She pushed me forward. “Go in. Your mother will be so happy to see you.”

“Hi Mom,” I hurried to her bed, where she sat drawing in her sketchpad. She wore a green dress that accentuated her eyes.

“I want to eat you up.” She kissed my face and hugged me tight. “I’ve missed you so much. There’s no one to talk to at this place.” She looked past me.

“Aren’t you going to give me a kiss, Ma?”

“You need to visit with Aiden. I have to use the ladies room. That will give you alone time.”

“Ma, that’s not necessary.”

“My taking a pee is necessary.”

We all laughed.

“Enjoy your visit. I’ll be back.”

My mother asked about my favorite subjects in school, my grades, my teachers, and did I have a girlfriend.

In a few minutes we heard loud voices in the hall. “I’m taking her home, Nancy Nurse. I have every right to. I’m her mother and I was appointed guardian by the court. So mind your business. Haven’t you got a bedpan to empty?”

They entered the room.

“Let me at least get in touch with the psychiatrist on call?”

“That won’t be necessary. Nothing he says will change my mind. . . . Laura, pack up your things. You’re coming home.”

“Please give me a few moments to collect the paperwork, Mrs. Mulroy. You need to sign her out A.M.A. That means against medical advice.”

“I know what it means. I’m a nurse, too. And I’m familiar with the procedure. Do what you must. That will give us time to get organized.”

My mother and I were already packing her suitcase.

“I’m sorry for bringing you here,” my grandmother said to Mom. “You should be home with Aiden and me.”


Nanna signed the necessary forms and we left. Before getting into the car, both my mother and I saw him. My grandfather was sitting on the grass beneath a tree. He smiled and waved to us. One star shone in the twilit sky.

“Hurry up you slowpokes,” my grandmother said, then turned towards the tree. “What are you looking at?” She followed our gaze.

“Hope,” my mother said, laying her arm over my shoulder and guiding me into the backseat before closing my door.

When they were inside, I said, “How can you see hope?”

My grandmother started the car and looked at my mother. “Hope is sitting right beside me.”

Mom touched the back of my grandmother’s neck. The car moved forward.

I opened my mother’s sketchbook, which she had placed in the back seat. A paper image of a painting fell out. She had begun copying it, using different shades of pencil. A blindfolded woman wearing a green gown sat atop a light brown globe, her head bent to the left as she played a lyre with a single string. In the background, one star shone in the gray-blue sky. Printed underneath the reproduction was “Hope, 1886, George Frederic Watts.”

I thought of the chalice, the wine, and the revelation of God’s pure love. But mostly, I cherished hope.




James Mulhern has published fiction in many literary journals and received several accolades. Three stories were selected for different anthologies of best short fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a full-paid writing fellowship to study at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. He has also received other awards. His novel, Molly Bonamici, and his collection of short stories, Assumptions and Other Stories, received favorable critiques from Kirkus Reviews and are Readers’ Favorites. The short story, “Blindfolded,” is an excerpt from Aiden’s Secret, a paranormal mystery in progress, soon to be completed.






My Green Card  

by Maria Lopez



Recently a friend gave me a greeting card. The front of it was a beautiful bright green, like the fresh grass and trees in the Bronx Botanical Gardens. My friend didn’t know the effect her little card had on me. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. For years my secret dream and hope has been to have a green card. And here I was holding one in my hand! All I could do was make fun of myself – How easy it is to make my dream come true! I’m so excited I’d better be careful not to have a heart attack before I get to enjoy this gift. I need to calm down.

A Chinese classmate once told me a proverb – “If you want something very badly, you won’t get it. You have to be calm and put yourself in a higher state of mind, and things will come to you.” That’s good advice to avoid a heart attack, but not to get a green card. I had a roommate who’s very religious, and she told me to be patient and leave my situation in God’s hands. With all respect, God has no special influence with immigration officers. Paying an immigration lawyer also doesn’t help. When I first came here and got a job as a maid in a big house, I went to a big office in Queens that had a big sign outside – “Immigration Lawyers. If you have legalization problems, we can help you get a green card.” The sign also said, “We handle divorces and bankruptcies, as well as foreclosures.” I ran there every week on my day off with twenty-five dollars in my hand and gave it to the lawyer who was supposed to be helping me. He was from my country, Colombia, so he spoke Spanish, was well dressed, and seemed very professional. He took all my information and wrote it down, asked me how much money I’d brought that day, and told me he was going to the court and I should come back next week. He said the same thing every week, and every week I expected him to hand me my green card.

One day, after I had given him a hard-earned two hundred dollars in total during the eight weeks I’d been going to him, I was sitting in the waiting room full of desperate people like me when the police came. Some of them went into the lawyers’ offices, and some talked to us. One policeman was Puerto Rican and spoke to us in Spanish. He asked if we had gotten receipts for the money we gave the lawyers.  Nobody had.

I started to cry and told the young policeman that I had already paid two hundred dollars! Two other women were crying harder than me. One of them, who was beautiful, young, and well dressed cried out, “Two hundred?  That’s nothing! I gave him two thousand dollars!” The other one, middle-aged and humble-looking, wailed, “Ay, I paid him three thousand and five hundred dollars!” The policeman was astonished. He asked the women, “Where did you get so much money?” The middle-aged lady said she had sold her house back in her country. The young beautiful one told the policeman she saved all the money she made from cleaning offices at night. After that, no one paid any attention to my poor, lost two hundred dollars, the most money I’d ever had in my life. It couldn’t compete with their thousands.

The next thing that happened was the three lawyers and their three young secretaries, all pretty girls in high heels, all crying, were led out of the offices by the other policemen, their hands behind their backs in handcuffs. We all stopped talking and stared, confused, wondering if we were the next to be arrested! But no, the police went out and loaded the lawyers and their beautiful secretaries, with their mascara running down their cheeks, into the police cars. One secretary got a high heel caught in something and it broke off as she was getting in. The broken heel was left in the street as the cars pulled away.

I was so nervous, thinking they might come back to arrest us that I sneaked out the door and walked as fast as I could to the subway. I could feel an invisible hand grabbing the back of my collar. I got on the first train that came in which was going the wrong way for me, but I didn’t care.

Next week on my day off I headed to Queens as usual, but this time it was different. Someone had told me that they wouldn’t arrest me: “You’re a victim,” he said. I was nervous anyway, but I was more curious. When I got there I stood across the street and looked at the closed storefront. It had a big sign taped to the window. The only word I recognized was “Police.” Finally I got the courage to cross over. A man was passing and I asked him if he spoke Spanish. He did, and he told me that the lawyers didn’t have a license to operate this business. They weren’t real lawyers! I told him I’d given them two hundred dollars to get a green card.  I was hoping for a little sympathy, but he hurried off, almost laughing, and said something that sounded like “Furgedaboutid!” I didn’t know what the words meant, so I quickly wrote down what I’d heard, and looked for a Spanish person who could speak English and was friendly. I stopped a woman passing by who seemed to have the complete package, and read aloud what I’d written. “Olvidalo,” she said, “Forget about it.” I thanked her. But I never did forget about it. I’d still like to have my two hundred dollars back.

Since that time, I’ve seen a few immigration officers and explained my situation. I asked if there was any way I could become legal and get my green card. They didn’t have me arrested, thank God, but the answer was always the same – no. They may have even felt a little compassion for me, but compassion wasn’t in the job description.

So I never got the legal green card, but I still have the green card my friend gave me. Who knows? Maybe some day in the future when there are no borders, a green card from a friend will be more important than one from the government.





Maria Lopez is from the Andes Mountains in Colombia. She grew up in a little shack with no running water or electricity; she only had the moonlight to lead her at night. She could not read or write in Spanish as she had no education, so she had her work cut out for her when she moved to New York and had to learn English. Through working for Americans and free writing classes at the public library and colleges, she has learned to read and write English, better than she speaks it; her pronunciation leaves many Americans scratching their heads. Writing has become her newfound passion and priority.






My Grandfather’s Piano

by Keiona Wallace



Grandfather played piano for me,
his hands like bruised peaches.
Withered fingers whispering to keys
as they’d stick to his frail skin.
He’d sit on unbalanced mahogany and dissolve
into dusted keys, each note a wave–
Crescendo of dysfunction crashing
into my hands– I dipped them into deep
blue and squeezed at strings
mallets tiptoed on tightrope stretched
in reddened palms. I’d listen to
thick wobbly notes bounce in an earthquake of echoes
from pastel walls and flimsy
liquor cabinet.

He sang about man’s desire, how one day, it will
wrap me in shredded sheet
music and leach onto
graveled skin until sad melodies sink
inside constricted lungs, he said
that I will be softened, withered,
and drained from love.

His tired fingers rest on hungry keys ready
to pry open aching bones
slumped over, shriveled, he only hums,
letting dark circles rummage
under sore eyes–
So I press down, feed these starved keys
and his sympathetic hands guide mine over
this lilac wave of sounds so sacred
and I smile because he is no longer drowning.



Aged Whiskey with Honey Colored Legs


Wasted woman lays
tipsy a trance.
My empty flask dangles in tattered coat pocket–
remnants of lazy bootleg liquor
squeeze, scratch, peel at my tongue.
Her bleached hair clamped between fingers covered
in last night’s bloody knuckles,
oily curls leave stains on pruned skin
as squashed cigarette butts burn rustic ashtrays.

Her bright beady eyes are gray smoke clouds,
her slim figure wrapped in midnight blue dress
skin tight– honey colored legs exposed.
unlike my wife who sits late by kindling fire braiding
autumn bows into my daughter’s charcoal colored hair.
pale fingers trace the petals of her rose like cheeks
as my wife murmurs to her that I’ll be home soon.
Soon enough to consume cold medium rare steak,
tuck her into thick princess comforter and
read blurry words scattered– dancing in book about
a prince who will always be there.
I hope he is there.

I penetrate her cracked layers,
squeeze inner thighs, rub skin raw,
kiss my way up to her bursting lips.
with my hand gripped around wrist
she lays there– shaking off parts of me,
barbaric smoke entangles with her lungs–
slight burns choke deep in throat from
aged whiskey and dirt flavored cigars.
I dream of dust clouds tasting of iron roads
and discarded nicotine patches,
littered with illegal A1 firebombs and full
glasses by empty
bar stools, waiting for me.



January 11th, Suffocating


1. Cherry Blossoms

On Sundays we walked
staring up at looming
cherry blossoms dangling towards the earth
caress smooth petals slow,
withering between my clammy fingers,
I hold them out to her.
She smiled at my offer
and tried to explain to me what life tastes like,

I said with baby cheeks, it’s warm vanilla,
cool lemonade during sticky summers
condensation trickling down the side of glass.
She hesitates,
“Only on your brightest days.”
It might taste like caked mud clogging, being
plastered in my throat,
or the thousand butterflies I swallowed in a single gulp,
and on those days,
she says it might hurt to breathe.

I lay on her chest, listening to her steady heartbeat, smothering
myself in the rich smell of her
coconut skin– Japanese cherry blossom perfume.
She squeezed my hand, spreading
wrapping me in a love so large she
can’t breathe.

2. Craving

Her ashes smell like a hospital room
filled with empty beds and smeared lifelines.
like automatic doors, syringes spill over with insulin
pulsing– 50 units.

The breaths she inhales don’t belong to her.
they are loans from bellowing monitors,
deconstruct bones that deteriorate,
pinch at flaking insides– unconscious.

I wondered if it all hurt.
the blood rippling, erupting, filling her skull
Thick staples holding together plates of skin
and memories.
My mother’s fingers so numb to pain
the diabetic test strips don’t hurt anymore.
Does she feel the insulin shot I was taught
how to penetrate through leathery stomach?
Does she remember the plastic tube nestled
down in her throat?

The sun shines,
breaks through cherry blossom petals
and I reach for them,
thin branches
and crisp bark, holding
frail petals between my fingers
I hear her laughter, imagine eyes a deep brown–
they resemble mine, but hers told deeper stories
I memorized her face, watched lips move, but
I could not remember the sound
of my mother’s voice.




Keiona Wallace is a senior at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts studying in creative writing. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida, working as the Print Editor for her school newspaper, The Artisan. Keiona wants to pursue writing in the future and hopefully work in journalism and print. She enjoys using poetry as an outlet for her overactive mind, questioning everything that comes in view. Poetry allows her to get in touch with all her emotions and deeply explore her feelings. She’s very charismatic and loves helping in any way she can, making any kind of detail impactful.





You Kill Me

by Emily Glossner Johnson



Jimmy Gemini looked at his eyes in the photo on the cover of an eight-year-old issue of Rolling Stone. He could see how wasted he was. He was shirtless and had no tattoos; he’d never been much for tattoos. A pair of faded jeans hung low on his hips. One hand was in his pocket, the other in his ash blond hair, fingers laced through it.

He couldn’t remember the photo shoot or the interview he gave. He flipped the magazine open. The year had been 2005 and the interviewer called him a rock god. His guitar skill was compared to that of another Jimi, right down to his left-handed playing. His album that year was the critically acclaimed and internationally bestselling You Kill Me and his music was at its best: hard rock with enough of a pop sound to cross over to top forty and enough edge to be played on the alternative stations. His band that year played to sold-out arenas and auditoriums and large outdoor venues. Jimmy Gemini was everywhere and everything.

“Jimmy!” his mother yelled from downstairs.

Jimmy closed the magazine. “What, Ma?”

“I just saw it. It ran past the dining room doorway.”

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“Get it out of here!”

Jimmy sat on the floor of the bedroom where he grew up in the little house once occupied by his brothers and sisters Paul Jr., Ronny, Joseph, Angela, Tommy, and Gina, and his father Paul Sr., his mother Mary, and him, the baby of the Gianni family. Now it was just him and his mother in this house that he’d paid off. He’d offered to buy his mother a bigger house, but she wanted to stay where she’d spent decades with his father. He’d shared his bedroom with Tommy and Joseph, and a lot of their stuff was still there: books from childhood to their teenaged years, athletic equipment, old guitars, model cars and airplanes, trophies. Jimmy’s mother didn’t like to get rid of things, though everything had its place in the neat, clean house.


Jimmy sighed. “What is it?”

“Come down here.”

“Just a minute. Jesus.”

Jimmy had most recently hit rock bottom in July of 2012 when he was found wandering in a subway station in Queens wearing nothing but bicycle shorts and a single flip-flop. A man who’d recognized him had called a cab that had taken him to his mother’s house in White Plains. The tabloids caught wind of the incident and headlines announced that Jimmy was either near death or admitted to a psychiatric ward. The truth was more mundane. After a three-month stint in rehab, the longest he’d ever been in, he came back to his mother’s and had been there ever since, under the radar, away from the world, preparing for his comeback.

Elizabeth was through with him and didn’t want him around their kid.

“I’m clean now,” he’d said to Elizabeth the last time they spoke.

“How long will that last?” Elizabeth had said.

“For good.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

Jimmy knew she had, a number of times. But this time he’d been clean and sober for nine months, the longest he’d ever gone since he first started drinking and smoking weed when he was a teenager.

“How was Ashton’s birthday?” he asked her. “I can’t believe he’s three already.”

“He’s four, Jimmy.”

“Right, right. Did he have a big party?”

“Jimmy, I don’t want to do this.”

“Do what?”

“You know what. I don’t want to talk about Ashton with you. You can’t see him.”

But Jimmy would see him. He’d show Elizabeth. He’d stay clean and make music and get back on top.

He went downstairs and found his mother in the kitchen, making pies. “I want you to get that thing out of here,” she said.

“Just get a mousetrap.”

“A mousetrap, he says! I have mousetraps. Don’t you see them? And I’ve got poison in the cupboards.”

Jimmy looked at his mother’s lined face and bouffant hairdo dyed the darkest of brown. “Well, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” he said.

She sighed.

He went over to the sauce that simmered on the stove and ate some of it from the spoon that was resting across the top of the pot. His mother slapped his arm. “Stay out of there. You’re putting your germs in it.”

Jimmy grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl on the counter. “Who’s coming over?” he said between bites.

“Tommy and your sisters and the kids.”

“Angela?” he said.

“I just said your sisters. Why?”

“She doesn’t like me.”

His mother patted his face hard. “Don’t you say that. You two are family. She loves you.”

Jimmy examined his unfinished apple; it was overripe and bruised. He threw it away. He noticed his mother’s fancy pink dress and string of pearls contrasting with her yellow apron and house slippers. It was Sunday. “How was church?” he said.

“It’s going downhill fast is where it’s going. I should switch to St. Luke’s.”

“What’s the matter with St. Ambrose?”

“That woman.” His mother ground the shortening and flour together. “She gave the sermon today. She thinks she’s a priest—”

“What woman?”

“They call her the pastoral associate. I’m not having it. She’s conceited and she wears designer clothes.”

“How do you know about her clothes?”

She held up her hands. “Ah.”

“So go to St. Luke’s.”

She continued with the pie dough, the shortening and flour forming little balls. “Your father loved St. Ambrose. If he only knew.”

“So stay. Or go. Whatever.” Jimmy paused. “What kind of pies you making?”

She ignored the question, looked up at him and wiped her brow. Her hand left a smudge of flour on her forehead. “Did you call Mr. Daniels?” she said.

“Ma, I’m not going to sell insurance.”

“Then what will you do? It’s been a year and nothing.”

“It’s been nine months. I’ve been writing music. I’m going to get back into the studio.”

She wiped her hands on her apron and pointed at him. “That life,” she said. “That life is over.” She put a spoonful of water into the dough mixture. “Set the table.”

He set the dining room table and shoved in a few chairs from the kitchen to make room for everyone. In the living room, he put up the card table and folding chairs for the kids. When it was all done, he went out to the front porch for a smoke. It was what he had, nicotine. And caffeine. He drank a lot of coffee, black and strong. So these were it… the drugs he was allowed. He drew deeply on his cigarette.

* * *

All through dinner that day, Tommy and his brother-in-law Mark were on Jimmy’s case about calling Mr. Daniels. “What’s the matter with selling insurance?” Tommy said. “You know, you could do worse.”

“Not much,” Jimmy said.

His other brother-in-law, Scott, had always been star struck by Jimmy. He stayed out of the conversation until Jimmy mentioned going back into the studio. “That’d be great!” Scott said.  “Great?” Jimmy’s mother said. “That’s what nearly killed him.”

Scott bowed his head and dragged his fork through his pasta. His wife, Jimmy’s sister Gina, patted Scott’s hand.

All the adults were drinking wine except for Jimmy. Jimmy felt as though he should have been sitting at the kids’ table.

“I think you don’t want to sell insurance because you know you can’t,” Angela said. “Look at yourself, Jimmy.”

“What?” Jimmy said. He looked down at his Pink Floyd t-shirt, skinny jeans, and Vans.

Angela straightened her silk scarf and touched her bobbed hair.

“Jimmy will be fine,” his mother said.

“Aw, Ma, you ought to let him fend for himself for a change,” Angela said. “You’ve always taken care of him.”

“Come on, Angela,” Gina said. “Leave Jimmy and Ma alone.”

“Sitting right here,” Jimmy said.

“You’ll call Mr. Daniels and get a job,” his mother said to him. “And that’s all I have to say about it.”

“I don’t need the money,” Jimmy said.

“That isn’t the point,” Tommy said. “You’ve got to do something with yourself.”

“I bet you’re writing music, right, Jimmy?” Angela said.

“I am,” Jimmy said.

“How much have you written? Truth. How much?”

Jimmy looked at Angela, ready to reply. But then he looked away.

Later that night after everyone had gone home and Jimmy’s mother had gone to bed, Jimmy picked up the peach schnapps his mother used to make her fuzzy navels. She and his sisters always drank them before dinner. He opened the bottle of schnapps and smelled it. Truth. How much? Fuck Angela, he thought, the fucking prima donna. He’d write music when it came to him—the inspiration would hit, and it would be incredible.

He looked at the bottle, the label, and then in a rush, brought it to his mouth and took a big swallow. It was sickly sweet but pleasantly warm going down. He took another swallow, and another. Then he stopped. He put water in the bottle to bring the level back to where it was and returned the bottle to the buffet.

So much for nine months.

* * *

It was one bottle of vodka—just one—and it was his own, not his mother’s schnapps. He bought it that morning. Grey Goose, his favorite. It stood on his little desk in his old bedroom; sunlight through the window blinds created stripes across it.

Just one bottle. No one would know and he’d get his fill after getting a taste for booze from the schnapps the night before.

He sat down at the desk and ran his fingers down the bottle. He remembered meeting Elizabeth at a party after a show in 2007.

“So are you really a Gemini?” That was the first thing she’d said to him.

“No,” he said. “A Scorpio.”

She laughed and it lit up her face, her blue eyes.

“Then why not Jimmy Scorpio?”

“Why not indeed?” He said. He was floating on a cloud, high as the sky. He’d been shooting up in the largest laundry room he’d ever seen with some guys he didn’t know. Then he’d done a little coke and had a few more glasses of champagne.

Elizabeth had just started modeling then so she wasn’t famous. She was as tall as Jimmy. When he kissed her later that night, he loved that their faces were right across from each other’s and that their lips met with such ease.

She’d been a trooper when Ashton was born. She wanted to give birth naturally—no drugs or epidural—and it overwhelmed Jimmy to see her extreme pain. But fortunately Ashton didn’t take long to come out, and then there he was—Jimmy’s son.

He missed the kid. He missed Elizabeth. He wasn’t always faithful to her and she knew it. A few times, she even left him for a while, but she always came back. Other girls he fucked meant nothing and she must have known it—she had to have known it. His extracurricular fucking was a compulsion like the booze and drugs. Elizabeth wanted to help him; she was wired that way. And so he’d done a little time in rehab here and there, talking about his addictions, getting clean for a while and being devoted to Elizabeth. But then it would start up again and finally she’d had enough and didn’t want to help him anymore. “It’s futile,” she said, and she left with Ashton.

He wrapped his hand around the bottle of Grey Goose. One bottle. That would be all. Then he’d work on getting back to the studio with the guys and making some awesome music.

* * *

A week later, Jimmy woke up with his head at the foot of his bed; he was in his clothes he had worn the day before. He rolled onto his side and looked at the three empty Grey Goose bottles lined up next to the desk.

There was a fourth and fifth bottle next to the bed, unopened, waiting. On his nightstand were a few packs of peppermint gum and a tin of Altoids. Between these and his cigarettes, his mother couldn’t smell the alcohol on him. And she never came into his room, not after that first time when she cleaned and made the bed and he nearly lost it.

“I’m not twelve!” he had said.

“I try to help and this is what I get?”

“All I ask is that you give me my privacy, all right? I can make the bed and clean the room myself.”

She sighed and left the room and he stood there for a while, his hands fisted in his hair. Man, he had wanted a drink.

Now he opened one of the bottles and took a big swig. He lay back on the bed and lit a cigarette. Staring up at the ceiling, smoking, he thought about the music he was going to write. But his mind couldn’t focus and nothing came to him.

* * *

Jimmy woke at 3:26 a.m., his mouth dry and his head spinning. He went downstairs to get a glass of water. A corner shelf in the kitchen held his mother’s cookbooks on the lower shelves, and knickknacks, his mother’s rosary, several magazines, and some mail on the upper shelves. Jimmy heard scratching from beneath the shelf. Then a peep, and another peep.

On his hands and knees, Jimmy looked under the shelf and saw two shining eyes. The mouse. With him there, it had no escape. He could capture it, but he needed something to put it in. What could he use? The water glass. He stood and downed the water and then got on the floor with the glass.

“Come on, buddy,” he said to the mouse, holding the glass under the shelf and moving it in sync with the mouse’s back and forth scurrying. “There’s nowhere to go. I’ll get you away from the old lady’s traps.”

The mouse froze. Jimmy shoved the glass closer to it. The mouse backed into the corner. Jimmy jiggled the glass a little, wondered if he should have put some food at the bottom of it, and then suddenly the mouse was in the glass. Jimmy nearly shouted. Instead, he drew the glass back slowly and as soon as he was able, clapped his hand over the top of it. The mouse, helpless, looked up at him. “It’s okay, little guy. I’m going to set you free.”

Jimmy went down the stairs that led to the back door. Once outside, he took the mouse around to the small backyard and the row of arborvitae that stood against the fence. There, he put the glass on the ground. He shook it slightly, and the mouse bounded out and away, a dark shape leaping over the grass to the darkness under the arborvitae.

* * *

The next night, Jimmy flopped down on his bed. The room spun madly, but despite it, Jimmy, spread eagle, fell asleep and dreamed.

Elizabeth hovered before him. “Jimmy,” she said, “Did you call Mr. Daniels?”

“No. I’m writing music.”

He was in a hospital bed. “Christ, Jimmy,” Angela said. “You’re going to kill Ma if this doesn’t stop.”

If what doesn’t stop? He couldn’t remember. His memory wasn’t what it used to be. Coke. There’d been coke. And pills. And he was drunk to begin with. She hated him, Angela did, but she stayed by his bed for hours each day. And then Ma was there. She wore pearls and a light blue dress and clutched her rosary. Shit, she looked old.

“I’m going to write so much music, Ma,” he said. He’d forgotten once how to play his guitar—once, twice, a few times. A few other times, he’d sat down on stage in the middle of shows. And sometimes, he’d wandered off stage. But that was long, long ago. What were the guys doing now? Where had they gone? It didn’t matter. Back in the studio, they’d be like brothers again.

He found a girl one night and they shot up. While he was lying back, smiling, she stopped breathing. He whacked her hard on the back, twice, and she came to life again. “You died,” he said, and she laughed, and he laughed, too, and they smoked some weed and fucked, fumbling, he and this girl with dirty dreadlocks and cartoon character tattoos covering her body like bruises.

“I’ll buy you a bigger house, Ma.”

“I want you to do something with your life!”

“I am. I’m Jimmy Gemini!”

“You’re my son, James Gianni. Pray with me now. Come to church.”

He’d given a shitload of money to her church. He didn’t have to pray. He was fine. God was good. He’d call Mr. Daniels, sure—he’d call him a douche bag. Jimmy, Jimmy, you’re just going to get back into it, they said. You need to do something with yourself. Set a goal. Be a normal person with a normal life. But he already had a goal. It was a good goal and he was going to reach it.

* * *

The next morning, Jimmy looked out the living room window in time to see the white cat from across the street run by with a mouse in its mouth. The mouse, his mouse—Jimmy knew it.

“Aw, shit,” Jimmy said.

“What’s the matter with you?” his mother said from the doorway.

He turned around. “I got that mouse out of here last night.”

“Was it dead? Because if it wasn’t dead, it’ll come back.”

“It’s dead, Ma,” he said. “It’s dead.”




Emily Glossner Johnson has had stories published in Postscripts to Darkness, The Outrider ReviewThe Linnet’s WingsSliver of Stone Magazine, Lynx EyeThe Mondegreen, and a number of other literary journals. She has essays in The Ram Boutique and Amygdala Literary Magazine, and an essay in the book Parts Unbound: Narratives of Mental Illness and Health, published by Lime Hawk Literary Arts Collective. She has a poem forthcoming in The Poeming Pigeon and a story forthcoming in Masque and Spectacle. In December of 2016, The Mondegreen nominated her story “Santa Lucia” for a Pushcart Prize. She has a B.A. in English from SUNY Buffalo and an M.A. in English from SUNY College at Brockport. She lives in Syracuse, New York.






Where It Can Be Written

by Glenn Ingersoll



it was late but it was getting earlier
the earlier it got the more I had to fart
I was alone with the regal bubble
surely I was dreaming
I have no luck in dreaming
I had another bad idea which was the same one
my cat was snoring
I can’t sleep when my cat is snoring
I took medicine to go with the pain
listen – my intestines are singing
they don’t know how to sing
I know how to sing the wrong way
I played with the bad idea as if it were fun
it could get funner
my cat is my friend but is he, really
there’s a psychological term useful here
this is not a good position
my arm’s gone to sleep
congratulations, arm
fuck you, God! – I heard the Christian say
all the books are curses and nails
and pounded blood
only children are paper
the rest of us are bad ideas
there are places on which bad ideas can be scratched
but of all talking we need to claw
let’s not talk about the available skin
let’s talk up our divinatory alleys
there’s one down the center of the room
and a cat
another cat, seeing I’m sitting up
has come too





awake at 3:33 a.m.
what do you know

was reading a book of drug experiences
mostly psychedelics
learning experiences, some mystic

I hear the cats playing upstairs
knocking something around

I pick up the flashlight by my bed
tiptoe after its circle

as I crest the top step
I hear a scramble to the back room
the cat flap’s slap

I open the human door and play
my light across the porch until two circles gleam back
from a broad band of black above a
sharp gray snout and a little growl

the bathroom linoleum slippery
the kibble dish empty
the water used to rinse a paw not clean

K, who’s followed me up, blocks the flap
with a bucket full of cat litter
was it a small raccoon? he asks

I say it was

the two orangies curl up by me
the black tabby checks in

I go back to reading
more on the drugs
some poetry



Mr. Smith


white? chapped-lips white
and folded and folded and folded
tight as a bud

or mouth sucking a secret like a hard mint
if I hold the paper by two corners
the letter curls, a giant petal

but if I bend it back, change
the direction of the creases
find words like a dusting of pollen

my fingers the thighs of honeybees
but this is a sore blossom
it doesn’t know how sweet it is

how sweet like a mouth
biting its lips to stifle
what is not unconscious on the tongue

no, it is not a mouth I press open
to words smeared slightly by movement
but what got said to a page to me

printed atop a rose bows
also just beginning to open
tipped toward one looking up





Glenn Ingersoll works for the Berkeley Public Library where he hosts Clearly Meant, a thrice-yearly reading & interview series. He has two chapbooks: City Walks (broken boulder) and Fact (Avantacular). He keeps two blogs: LoveSettlement and Dare I Read. Recent work has appeared in Poetry East, Askew, Futures Trading, and BlazeVOX.







Tunnel Vision

by Nancy Antle



Jack was walking down the twisty two-lane in the foothills of the Ozarks, against the traffic like he was supposed to, even though very few cars travelled that particular stretch of highway. He was trying to make his way into town to get himself some beer. He’d downed the last one in his ice chest about an hour ago and he didn’t think he could make it the rest of the long, sweltering day without something to fortify him. His daughter, who he lived with, had refused to take him to town. He could still hear her shrill voice, so much like her mother’s, lecturing him about how irresponsible he was and how she wasn’t going to help him kill himself.

When he heard the car coming towards him, he was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. He didn’t have time to look up and find it with what vision he had left before it whooshed by him blaring the horn. The smart thing might have been to bail into the ravine next to the road but he hadn’t really had time to react. Probably a good thing. Sure as shit he’d have broken something or impaled himself on a sapling.

His old dog, Tate, a terrier, yipped a belated warning bark, as the car’s tires screeched around the bend. Not long after, Jack heard the hum of an engine coming down the road behind him on the other side. He kept on walking, but hoped maybe the car held someone he knew who would give him a lift. The car slowed to his pace and a woman’s voice called to him from across the road.

“Hey! You know I nearly hit you?” she said.

“Just trying to get to town get some beer,” Jack said. “But, thank you for turning around to tell me I’m in the way.”

“Town’s nearly five miles. Maybe you should figure out a way to get there without walking in the road. You’re gonna get yourself killed.”

He squinted trying to see the face behind her voice. There was something familiar about it. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. It had been over thirty years for God’s sake.

“How about you give me a ride to town?” he said. “Seeing as how you’re so worried about me’n all.”

“Are you a serial killer?” she said.

He chuckled. “I’m not, but I suppose that’s what they all say.”

“Can’t you just walk through the woods or something?”

“Lady, I can barely see well enough to follow the road.”

“Well, shit…” she said, more to herself than him, it seemed.

He squinted uselessly again. He still couldn’t see her face. “Beverly?” he said.

She was silent for a moment. All he could hear was the idling car and the call of a crow in the trees.

“Do I know you?” she asked.

He crossed the road hoping she wouldn’t speed off. “It’s Jack,” he said.

She gasped. “Oh, my God!”

“Kind of ironic, huh?” he said. Ironic that she’d almost killed him twice, now.

“I can’t believe it,” she said

He could see her more clearly once he was close-up. She was looking at him, smiling – something he’d imagined for a long time. He smiled back.

“Get your butt in here,” she said. “Before you get us both run over.”

Jack felt his way along the hood of the car to the passenger side door and opened it. Tate jumped in without being invited and Jack followed.

“I cannot believe this,” she said again.

He couldn’t either. She had been his future. The woman he planned to marry even though he never told her. He’d often thought if he hadn’t been such a chicken shit he would have asked her and life would have been better. He’d hoped for this kind of meeting one day but in his imagination, it was better than this.  He was cleaned up, wearing nice clothes, his good boots. This was not the way he wanted her to see him.

He fastened his seat belt while she peeled out, heading back to town – back to where she’d just come from. He turned to look at her through the narrow hole of his vision. He couldn’t get over how much she looked the same and he told her so. She tried to return the compliment but he knew she was just being nice seeing as how he’d gained fifty pounds and his hair was gray. At least she didn’t seem fazed by his scruffy state.

He was surprised how quickly they fell into a long-ago pattern; how natural their conversation was as if they’d been out of touch only a day or so. There was the old familiar rush of lapping up each other’s words as if they were thirsty – asking questions, interrupting for more details.

Jack told her about his two failed marriages and his three grown kids; his retirement from the military on account of his retinitis pigmentosa.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Tunnel vision. At least that’s what they called it when my daddy had it.”

“Sounds serious.”

“It is – your vision kind of closes up – slowly over time.”

“That’s awful.”

Talking about his disease always made him uncomfortable but, luckily, she was in a hurry to tell him about her life so he didn’t have to figure out how to change the subject.  Beverly’d recently gotten a divorce, thank God there were no kids; been working as a librarian in a middle school in LA for twenty years; was in Tulsa for a conference and drove out to see her old hometown; a trip down memory lane.

“Why the hell would you want to remember this God-awful place?” Jack hoped maybe she was looking for him. But he was also thinking about the paper mill that had shut down leaving behind an empty shell; the boarded-up businesses on Main; and of course, all the people out of work, trying to get by anyway they could. All changes that had happened after she was years gone.

“It wasn’t so God-awful when we were young was it?” she asked.

He sighed. “Hard to remember.” He cleared his throat in the long pause, then hurried to ask her more about her life in California. What was her commute like? Was the smog still bad? Did she miss the seasons? He’d been close to where she lived when he was in the service so at least he had a clue what questions to ask.

As she answered, her voice faded, and Jack quit listening, feeling himself pressed into the car seat, pulled into it by the weight of the past calling him back. There was the time they took the dune buggy his father helped him build all over the back roads, up and down, until they got lost in the boonies, far away from anyone they knew. There was the time they went to the horror movie and couldn’t quit talking about how terrified they were for months after. There was the time they swam in Blue Hole in March, teeth chattering as they ran back to his car, wrapping up in threadbare beach towels, blasting the heater. And, always, always there were the hours spent sitting on the hood of her car, staring at the stars, talking, never once considering how small and insignificant they were to the universe.

Jack felt the silence wrap around them like the suffocating heat outside. He knew she was looking at him, that he’d missed a question.

“Sorry,” he said. “I must’ve spaced out.” He adjusted the shoulder harness on the seatbelt that was choking him then patted Tate’s head.

“Guess you didn’t really want to hear all that,” she said.

“No, I do. Really. My mind wanders. Sorry.”

She laughed. “It’s okay. My mind wanders all over creation sometimes.”

She flipped on the radio. A twangy country song that Jack was not familiar with filled the space. She turned it off again.

“So, tell me more about your retini…your tunnel vision. There’s nothing the doctor’s can do?”

“Not a thing. It’s genetic.” He didn’t want to talk about it. Didn’t want to dwell on what the future held for him. That was part of Beverly he’d forgotten; how her curiosity made her cold – oblivious to any pain she might be causing with her questions.

“How much can you see right now?” she pressed on.

“I don’t know.” He sighed. “I guess about the size of dime.”

“And it will get worse?”

He nodded.

“What are you going to do?”

He snorted. “I’m just gonna keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope I don’t get run over by something I don’t see coming.”

“Haha,” she said.

They reached the intersection and the four way stop sign.

“Where do you want me to take you?” she asked.

“The Qwik Trip on Main is fine. They always have Coors.”

She drove slowly to the end of the street and parked the car in front of the store.

“Thanks for the lift,” Jack said. “I appreciate it.”

“I’m going in too,” Beverly said. “I need a bag of chips or something. I’m starved.  I can drive you back?”

“Sure,” Jack said, fighting to keep his voice even. “I’d appreciate that.” He climbed out with Tate in his arms. His hands shook as he tied him to the bench in front with the leash he pulled from his pocket.

The ice, cold air inside made Jack shudder. He threaded his way through the maze of aisles until he stood in front of the refrigerator case searching for the beer he wanted.

“Let me.” Beverly’s voice was suddenly beside him again. One of the glass doors sucked open. “Coors, right? I’ll take it up for you.”

He grabbed another box and followed her to the register where they clunked the boxes of cans onto the counter next to her chips and Coke.

“Is this all together?” the clerk asked.

“No. Separate,” Beverly said, pushing her stuff to one side.

Jack blinked back the sting in his eyes and sweat slipped down the middle of his back. The cash register dinged and he fumbled with his billfold, passing the guy a couple of twenties. The clerk put his change into his upturned palm and he stuffed it into his pocket.

“Crap,” Beverly said.  “I forgot to get some Advil. Here’s my keys if you want to put your beer in the car. I’ll be out in a minute.”

He nodded and went back into the heat of the day shocked again by the change in temperature. He put his beer on the rear floor of the car then returned for his dog. In a few minutes, Beverly emerged with a blast of cold air while he was still beside Tate, fumbling with his leash. She crouched next to him and he smelled her perfume – some kind of flowers and spice. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed before. Her fingers touched his where he held the knot and he pulled his hand back.

“Got it,” she said, standing. “C’mon, I’ll take you home.”

They drove back the way they’d come, Jack navigating. Even though he couldn’t see much of anything, he remembered how to get where he needed to be. He directed her to a side road and then another one that ran along a creek under the dogwoods.

“You can let me out right here,” he said. “Anywhere.”

“You sure?” She put her foot on the brake and the car came to a soft stop. “I don’t mind taking you all the way to your house.”

“That’s okay. My daughter’s place is way back there. Not much more than a cow path the rest of the way. It could do a number on your car. Besides I’m not going all the way home with the beer.”


“Can’t listen to my daughter lecture me.” He cleared his throat. “I have an ice chest in the woods where I keep it. I’ll go there and have a few, then head home.”

“That sounds lonely…” Her words hung between them.

He remembered these kinds of conversations – the hints – never asking for something outright – saying what she really meant. He didn’t take the bait. Didn’t even bother to answer her. He took no pleasure in not inviting her – but what would be the point of having a beer together? Just get his hopes up before she disappeared again and left him with a different incarnation of her lodged in his head for another decade until dementia saved him.

God, he’d thought about her so often over the years. Some weeks, months, he’d thought of little else. Now here she was in the flesh, so much like she used to be, and yet, different. He knew it would be stupid to ask her to stay.

“Well, I hope your daughter won’t be too pissed at you,” she said.

“I’m used to it.”

“And, I’m glad I ran into you – so to speak.” She laughed.


Jack undid his seatbelt, opened the car door and Tate hopped out. As Jack turned to get out himself, Beverly put a cool hand on his arm. He stared at her long white fingers on his tanned skin and felt an ache in his chest. She didn’t say anything else and what he could see of her blurred as he slid out. He waved, a brief flap of his hand, like the wing of a bird, and tried to smile but felt maybe he failed. Then he and Tate walked into the woods.

It wasn’t until he was all the way to his ice chest that he realized he’d forgotten the beer. He stopped, cocked his head toward the highway, straining, hoping to hear her coming back to him. Water gurgled in the creek and grasshoppers chirred in the underbrush and after a time she was there too.




Nancy Antle received her MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction from Southern CT State University in 2013. Prior to that she wrote books, stories and poems for children and young adults for thirty years and was published by Dial, Viking and Cricket Magazine. She is mostly writing for an older audience now and her short stories have been published by Noctua Revew, CT Review, The Los Angeles Review of LA and Drunk Monkeys. She was a volunteer writing mentor for seven years with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project via online workshops. She has also taught fiction writing at SCSU, The Mark Twain House Museum and online for the Gotham Writer’s Workshop.







Leftover Mud Pie

by Mona Leigh Rose



I’ve roomed with the Black Widow for four semesters.  Two college years.  That’s like ten in dog years.  She’s a love addict.  Meets a new guy in study group or at a bar, lets him sweep her off her size six pumps, charms his family, makes fevered plans for the future.   A few months in, she loses interest, takes up with a new guy.  Problem is, the wuss can’t bring herself to break-up with an old “the one,” tell him he’s been replaced by a new “the one.”  That’s my job.

“It isn’t you, it’s her,” I coo into the phone.

“Only saying that to make me feel better.”

“No, really.  You’re a great guy, [insert name here].  Any girl would be lucky to date you.”  Twist the phone cord around my finger, wonder whether tonight’s Seinfeld is new or a rerun.

“But she said she loved me, said,” sniff, “I was the one.”

“That’s the problem.  She loves you too much, got scared.  She’s not ready for–” pause for effect “–true love.”

Lost count how many times I’ve delivered those lines.  My Nana told me a man in love is dumber than a post.  Roomie’s castoffs taught me a new lesson:  A man with a broken heart will believe lies so brash even a post would thumb its nose.

Not that Roomie ever asked me to be her muscle.  I can’t stand loose ends, unfinished business, even someone else’s business.  Not much of a social life of my own, unless you count days spent in the library shooing undergrads who use the deserted stacks as a hook-up spot.  So I helped her out of a tight spot or two, and soon enough, her chore became my calling.

The overture goes something like this:

Her:  “Can you get the phone?”

Me:  “You know it’s him.  He’s called, like, ten times today.”

Her:  “Can’t he take a hint?”  Exaggerates eye roll.  “Besides, [insert new guy’s name here] is waiting for me downstairs.  Taking me to Monty’s for dinner.  He might be the one.”  Rubs lipstick off teeth, smiles at reflection.

Me:  “Fine.”  Mimic exaggerated eye roll.  “I’ll take care of it.”

Her:  “You’re the best.  I’ll bring you my leftover mud pie in a doggy bag.”  Blows kiss, bounces out door.

I’m a darn good breaker-upper.  Sometimes we even become buddies, bond over his heartache.  That’s how I got to see Glenn Close play Norma Desmond on opening night, learned to roller skate on the Venice boardwalk, hiked to the Hollywood sign for the first time.

Everyone was happy until Mr. Boomerang came along.  Roomie put Boomie through two spin cycles.  For their first break-up, I used all the usual comfort words, told him he was a catch, he’d meet the right girl, yada, blah, et cetera.  He moseyed into the sunset, bent but, thanks to my soothing tones, not busted.  Fall semester he showed up again, first on the answering machine, a week later at the door.

Seems they ran into each other at Three of Hearts, shared a pitcher of Amstel Light.  Another round of sunset hikes in Runyon Canyon, weekend trips to Ojai, long walks on the beach.  He was “the one” for the second time.  I like Mr. Boomerang, nice guy, smart, psych major.  Had high hopes for him.  But when Roomie casually dropped a new man’s name in conversation over Cheerios, when she stretched the phone cord around the corner and behind her bedroom door, when Boomie’s voice on the answering machine veered from cheerful to concerned to suicidal, I knew my big solo wasn’t far off.

Pick up the ringing phone one rainy Friday night in January and prepare to cut him loose.

“It isn’t you, it’s her.”


“No really, I’m not trying to make you feel better.  You’re a great guy, any girl–”

“I brought you chicken soup from Langer’s when you had a cold.”

“Um, right, thanks.  Anyway, any girl would be lucky–”

“I told you which box had the See’s Candy at the white elephant gift exchange.”

“Wait, what?”

“Don’t bullshit me.”

“I’m not bullshiting.  She loves you too much–”

“Cut the crap.  She met someone else, didn’t she?”

“She’s scared–”

“Are you reading from a script?”

“Of– of course not.”

“So spit it out.  Why is she ducking my calls?”

An ant crawls out of a crack in the plaster wall, then another.  Smash them with a paper towel.  “She’s not ready for–” one Mississippi, two Mississippi “—true love.”

“What do you know about love?”

My stomach lurches.  “I know enough . . .”

“When was the last time your heart shot fireworks when you held someone’s hand?”

“I have connections with people, feel sparks.”

“To hell with sparks.  I’m talking about a raging fire, an inferno of feeling that incinerates all reason.  Do you even date?”

“What’s this got to do–”

“And don’t count meeting a study buddy for coffee.”

Close my eyes, need to focus.  “This isn’t about me.  You’re hurt now, but you’ll meet someone–”

“Of course it’s about you.”

“I’m trying to help, let you down easy.”

“Exactly my point.  If you had the first idea about real love, you’d never think having your heart stomped on by a self-absorbed bitch could ever be easy.”

“Don’t call her a bitch.”

“Why do you protect her?”

“I don’t protect her.  I help the men– I mean, I’m helping you.”

“You enable her vile narcissism–”


“–and how does she repay you?”

The light from the microwave shines on my finger, bloodless in the tightly wound phone cord.  “I– um, I like mud pie?”

“Jesus.  She breaks your heart every fucking day and you don’t even see it.”

“I’m not gay.”

“Didn’t say anything about gay.  I see the way you look at her, same way I do.”

“She’s my friend.”

“She’s not your friend.  She’s your idol, your goddess on high.  And you’re her pet, her toady, her maid and her minion.”

“No, she . . .”

“She uses you like she used me, and is probably using some other poor fool right this minute.  Do yourself a favor.  Don’t break up with me, break up with her.”

The dial tone bounces against the kitchen wall, echoes in my head, even after I hang the receiver back in its cradle.  My legs feel heavy, my head light.  Can’t muster up the energy to move.  A line of ants marches across the counter now, dozens stagger single file under the weight of crumbs and cereal bits twice their size.  One collapses, struggles to right himself.  The others make a tight detour around him, continue on with their loads.

I flinch when Roomie bounces through the apartment door, flips the light switch.  “Why’s it so dark in here?”  She tosses a gold foil swan on the counter, narrowly misses the ants.  “Tonight was a-mazing.  Bradley brought me a dozen white roses, hired a violinist to serenade me while we sipped champagne.”  She twirls, skips down the hall.  “He’s taking me to Big Sur tonight, need to pack a bag.”

The foil swan stares at me, my face reflected in its creased wings.  Look like a little girl in a broken funhouse mirror.

“I really think Bradley could be the one,” Roomie shouts over the slamming drawers and clanking hangers.

Unwrap the foil, smooth the edges flat.  The sliver of coffee ice cream half melted, the fudge congealed in clumps.  Slide it next to the line of ants.  One changes course and the others follow.  The whole army converges, crumbs still balanced on their heads.  They swarm over the gooey mess.  Soon a wriggling mound covers the foil from crust to whipped cream.

Roomie sashays past the kitchen, an overnight bag slung over the shoulder of my new raincoat.   “We’ll do your birthday dinner another time.  You’re cool with that, right?”

The foil shudders, then slides slowly toward the crack in the plaster.




Mona Leigh Rose is infatuated with short stories, the shorter the better.  Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Writing Disorder, Avalon Literary Review, and Jewish Fiction.net, among others.  She is honored that one of her stories has been selected for the flash fiction anthology The Best Small Fictions 2017.  She lives and writes in Santa Barbara, California. http://monaleighrose.com/









de Kooning’s Women

by Steven Ratiner



pink black and azure smear maw leer
smile puce-and-seasick-green come
hither gesture neck breast belly sex
swell squeal enveloping ochre and gun-
metal-gray pubic tantric flesh eruption
I stare and some naked horror in me wants
to kiss embrace submit to her engulfing
hunger but I fight the urge thought
surging in the brain insisting aloud
lover lover lover lover and beating back
that forbidden that breathy raw-nerve slip
of the tongue between pressed lips:



The Sixties


“I never do this” she gasped – beginning
to buck, biting at my neck – “two men.”
Looking around in the dark, wondering
what she meant: two in one week?
In one night? Me and the man I might
become? Me and the dead beloved
she partnered with wherever she went?
Waves breaking on moonless Pescadero.
Black sand scouring the skin. Aching
at the outset, still aching at the end – we
hungry, heedless un-knowable men.



Her Lament


he fucks like he’s trying to tear
the skin from my bones or to climb
the hell out from his own animal
guttural bountiful pitiful as if I
were finally the woman who could
pluck the black thorn from his
weathered heart flailing gasping
his cry coming from my mouth
my tears from his eyes until every
damned thing comes undone as if
he wants me to mother him back
into oblivion and gathering him up
in aching arms easing down and
rising up believe me baby if I
could’ve I would





Black tide recedes.
Two nestled oysters.
The shovelful the rust-
nicked edge of a knife blade
prying just a
crack salt light flicker
of morning: my eyes
squint open dream brine
draining away along with
the last ferric taste of you.
Blue distance.
Stranded the love-
stung brain commands:



She Told Me Love


She told me love was
a fishhook, the steel-barbed
secret under slack skin so that

you won’t feel the strike until
after you’ve swallowed, knowing
that very instant you’ll be

swallowed in return. She spoke
(the lightless depths of her own
unblinking eyes) from experience.

I took in as much as a ten-
year-old could manage (whose
only chance at love was

the haphazard grace of inexperience) –
and yet the memory stuck.
Years later, in the emergency room,

I saw a young man with a mis-
cast fishhook neatly looped through his
ruddy cheek. I studied his pond-

green eyes, the pall of his grimace, and
wondered whose love had trawled for him,
and why had he escaped.





STEVEN RATINER has published three poetry chapbooks, the most recent of which – Button, Button (OpenEye Press) – was a collaboration with artist Marty Cain. His work has appeared in dozens of journals in America and abroad including Parnassus, Agni, Blackbird, Hanging Loose, Poet Lore, Salamander, QRLS (Singapore) and Poetry Australia. He’s written poetry criticism for The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post. GIVING THEIR WORD: Conversations with Contemporary Poets was re-issued in a paperback edition (University of Massachusetts Press) and features interviews with many of poetry’s most vital talents including Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Bei Dao, Maxine Kumin, and the last full-length interview with Bill Stafford before his death.





Good Things for Jeannie Smith

by Josh Trapani 




I never learned where the idea of hiring Harris Cooger came from. As with many things that happened when I worked for GOA, the Gun Owners of America, there were no explanations, only demands. Everyone was busy, there was little time for deliberation. Barrone said we were in crisis mode.

It started when Rachel James, the tiny blonde who’d survived a dozen years as Barrone’s assistant and was, remarkably, still allowed access to sharp objects, stood in my office doorway. “Barrone says go ahead and look into Harris Cooger.”

“OK. Who is Harris Cooper?”

Cooger.” She spelled it, then raised an eyebrow. “Wasn’t this your idea? Mechler said it was your idea.”

Mechler. That duplicitous son of a bitch.

In my six years at GOA, I’d moved several notches up the chain from Director to Associate VP. Now I was gunning — no pun intended — for a Deputy VP slot that would give me a larger office, bigger paycheck, and even more crushing workload. Mechler, I suspected, fancied the same job.

Before I could reply, Rachel hoofed it back to her desk, afraid to be away in case Barrone bellowed for something. Frank Barrone, VP for Strategic Initiatives, was a legend in the gun lobby. He’d started his career as House Committee staff 35 years before, moved into one of Our Party’s administrations as a Schedule C, then worked through corporate posts at Midway and Beretta USA before landing at the association. Barrone was dedicated as a monk, ruthless as a czar, and seasoned as a stick of beef jerky. As a boss, he was like Mount Etna: constantly smoking, ready to erupt at any time. We worshipped him.

A Google search for Harris Cooger confused me. I expected a pollster or PR consultant, but the only mention of the name, with that weird spelling, was on a plain black website that could have been designed by a teenaged Slayer fan in the late 1990s. His contact information — an AOL e-mail address, for god’s sake — was as archaic as his self-description: “psychic hit man.”

I rose from my desk and trudged to Mechler’s office. He held up a finger, bidding me wait, which I ignored. “Harris Cooger?” I demanded. “It’s on you if you want to suggest that Barrone hire some kind of New Age quack.”

Mechler smirked. “You know how things get garbled around here.”

“Leave me out of it,” I growled.

I returned to my office and forgot the whole thing. Have I mentioned I was busy? I clocked around 70 hours a week. Plus, Barrone was online 24/7, so I was, too. I slept with my phone on the nightstand, sound up. I’d set the ringtone to gunshots, specifically continuous fire from an AR-15 assault rifle. This was a source of tension between Barbara and me, but my responsiveness at all hours was undeniable.

Barrone said we were in crisis mode. I’d be hard-pressed to recall a time we weren’t. We reacted to everything, in a tornado of projects, initiatives, meetings, conferences, campaigns, talking points, surveys, polls, reports, letters, petitions, and other time-consuming debris constantly swirling around the office. Whether important or not, everything was urgent. The sky was falling every day. My association buddies, no matter what industry they represented, always felt like their thing was on the brink of cataclysm. Maybe this constant state of urgency was required to do jobs like ours. You might wonder what happens when crisis mode becomes business as usual, but that’s beside the point.

Especially since the national picture was terrible. Many of GOA’s friends on the Hill had lost their jobs in the last election. Their replacements wouldn’t meet with us at all; those that did continued voting the wrong way. The Other Party occupied the White House, with President Smith pressing an aggressive legislative agenda. Worst of all, gun control advocates included a spokesperson without peer: Jeannie Smith, the President’s daughter. Despite her history of childhood cancer, the cause she cared most about was gun violence, for which she, naively but predictably, blamed guns.

Jeannie was a high school junior, that age where most Presidents and First Ladies shield their kids completely from the media, much less let them actively participate in policy debates. But the only world Jeannie knew was one where her parents were public figures, and her self-possession exceeded her years. Her appearance enhanced her appeal: she had just enough cherubic child left in her face to balance all the signs that she was about to become an exceptionally beautiful woman. The girl knew how to build a platform, but more than that: Jeannie had class. She argued respectfully and avoided the oversharing, generalizing, and lecturing that dominated social media. America was too cynical and divided to have a sweetheart, but Jeannie Smith was the closest thing. “The little bitch,” as Barrone called her in private, was unassailable.

All that swirl of work and, in large part thanks to Jeannie and her father, none of it was gaining us any traction: we were in the weakest position anyone could remember. The ideas got wackier as our desperation grew.

Barrone said we were in crisis mode. Barrone was right.



The next afternoon, I was totally in the zone, plugging away organizing one of our new initiatives — I think it was Bring Your Gun To School Day — when my phone buzzed. It was a text from Barbara. She’d sent me a selfie of her and Sarah. They sat on a bench at the mall, wearing silly hats. Barbara did this sometimes, texted me random photos of their day. It irritated me. I found it distracting, first of all. It seemed to require a reply, though I never knew what to write. And I wasn’t sure what the point was: it felt like I was being labeled remiss somehow. I loved those two, and I spoiled the heck out of them. Barbara drove a forbidding Mercedes SUV with unmatched safety features and a tricked-out car seat for Sarah. When she wasn’t chauffeuring our daughter to one thing or another, she’d often be found in vigorous sweaty communion with our home Stairmaster or top-of-the-line spin machine, indulging her obsession with fitness. It’s true that Sarah wasn’t allowed in the main living room since the blueberry incident, but she enjoyed her own collection of toys whose combined retail price was in the five figures.

I ignored the text and tried to settle back into work, but then a calendar invitation for a meeting with Harris Cooger appeared in my inbox. My annoyance level rebounded. In a flash, I stood outside Rachel’s cubicle.

“Why am I invited to this meeting?” I demanded.

In his office, Barrone yelled, the sound only partly muffled by the door. Rachel didn’t look up from her screen. “Mechler told Barrone you recommended bringing Cooger in.”

“Mechler is a lying sack of shit.”

Rachel gave no sign she disagreed with this assertion.

“And why is Mechler suddenly my middleman to Barrone?” I asked.

Now she looked up, but only to award me one her patented Really?! looks, the kind of people got for cluelessness. “See you at the meeting.”



I sat in my home study that night, playing with my Twitter account and brooding. What was Mechler up to? Usually I could sniff out the faintest scent of office politics, detecting strategies and motivations with a bloodhound’s precision. This was a useful talent at GOA, which was like a bathroom where the abundant spray of fake potpourri couldn’t mask the pervasive odor of shit. But, in this situation, things didn’t add up. Did Mechler think this nonsense would earn him the Deputy VP slot? Eliminate me from consideration? Or something else entirely? All I knew was that we’d waste Barrone’s time the next day, and he’d be furious.

There was a soft knock and Barbara came in. Her hair was in a tight ponytail; spandex pants showed off the lean body from which even all that fanatical cardiovascular activity had failed to excise some of the curves. Thank God. I disliked recent pictures of us together; she sleek and angular and me office-doughy.

“Sarah’s getting ready for bed,” she said. “Maybe you’d like to read her a story?”

“I’m pretty busy.”

She came closer. “Twitter, Brad?” I winced. GOA’s public affairs people recommended we each maintain personal Twitter accounts. I was trying to be a team player.

She read my profile description over my shoulder. “Passionate advocate of Second Amendment freedoms. Proud husband …” she paused for dramatic effect. “And dad.”

“Give me a break, Barbara. We’re in crisis mode.”

“Views expressed are entirely my own,” she quoted. My whole feed was retweets from GOA.

“So what? I agree with my employer’s perspective. I’m helping to amplify our voice.”

“When was the last time you read her a story?” she asked.

“I’m working to ensure that she grows up in a world where the right to bear arms isn’t …” This was over-the-top even for me, and I changed course. “I had a terrible day. I’m too beat.”

Barbara rested her hand on my shoulder, then left. I turned back to Twitter and, Barbara’s sarcasm in mind, retweeted a piece about how most Americans opposed gun control directly from the Fox News website, rather than from GOA’s feed.

That’d show her.



The first thing that went wrong at the meeting the next day was that Mechler didn’t show up. “This is Mechler’s meeting,” I informed Rachel, unable to hide my desperation. This earned me another Really?! look.

“He had to go to the Hill,” she replied, dialing the polycom into the conference line. “He said he’d try to call in.”

The second thing that went wrong was that Harris Cooger and his assistant were right on time. Their incongruity with the staid conference room jarred me. Cooger was built like a bull: trapezoidal face, massive forearms. With a long gray beard and angry green eyes, it was like being stared down by Gandalf the Grey fresh out after serving a tenner at Soledad Prison. His assistant, introduced as Billy, looked like the guy who runs the Ferris wheel at a parking lot carnival. Crank thin, with a lazy eye and weak mustache of sandy fuzz, the word that came inevitably to mind was peckerwood.

When Barrone charged in five minutes late, however, he appeared unfazed by the visitors. “Let’s go,” he ordered. Oversized bifocals perched on his bulbous nose, he peered around the room with hostility, baring incisors like crooked fenceposts. Acne or chicken pox had left his cheeks cratered with pockmarks and when he yelled, face reddening with fury, it felt like being attacked by the world’s biggest, meanest strawberry.

“Mechler here,” came the static-y voice through the polycom. I had just enough time to be relieved before he continued, “I may have to go suddenly. Coffman should lead.”

Barrone turned to me, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Cooger and Billy. They frightened me.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Cooger said, and with his penetrating gaze I could believe this was literally true. I shivered.

“Don’t confuse appearance for competence,” said Billy, sounding a thousand times more educated than he looked. “Like everyone else in America, we’re businessmen. We portray the image most of our clients expect.” He gave that a beat to sink in, then declared, “We can help you.”

Barrone raised his eyebrows.

“Our approach is unorthodox,” said Cooger.

“Progress can’t always be measured,” Billy elaborated. “Sometimes only felt.”

Barrone, desperate for anything that might help us, appeared fascinated. My discomfort grew.

“But what do you do?” asked Mechler, somewhere on Capitol Hill and oblivious to the atmosphere in the room.

“I focus,” Cooger answered. “My attention: my thought, will, and desire. I focus, and I nudge.”

“Nudge?” asked Barrone, eyes narrowing. “Like Cass Sunstein?”

“I nudge circumstance. I nudge karma. In a particular direction. Tell them, Billy.”

“He makes bad things happen,” Billy explained.

Barrone looked intently at Harris. “We need a bad thing to happen to the President.”

Harris didn’t flinch. “Yes.”

I felt deeply uneasy. We were desperate, sure, but this was crazy.

Barrone said, “It could be any number of things.”

“Don’t suggest specifics. I can’t control what happens, or when.”

“In an essentially probabilistic, quantum universe,” Billy explicated, “there’s no way to predict.” His lazy eye drifted upward, as if in heavenly rapture.

“Like I said, I nudge,” continued Cooger. “When the bad thing happens, I can’t prove causation. You, the client, must accept that if something occurs within the term of the contract, we caused it.”

“I can live with that,” said Barrone. I hadn’t realized Barrone was ready for a Hail Mary like this.

Mechler’s voice chimed in from the ether. “Coffman’s idea to bring you in was out-of-the-box, I’ll give you that.” I cringed. “But I’ll ask again: what do you do?”

I needed to correct the record, but was spellbound as Cooger leaned closer and answered with a question of his own. “Do you know that dark, murky place at the edge of your nightmares?”

“I don’t dream,” announced Mechler.

“I don’t sleep,” Barrone boasted.

I’d never thought of it this way, but knew exactly what Cooger meant. I whimpered, “Yes.”

Cooger looked at me. So did Billy … or, at least, he swiveled his head in my direction. “Have you noticed that’s where all the bad things emerge from?”

I hadn’t noticed, but believed it if these two said so.

“That’s the place I go,” said Cooger.

“It’s a bad place,” Billy added, underscoring the obvious in a way that gave me chills.

“I’ve heard enough,” said Barrone. “Mechler.” There was no response. “Mechler?” Nothing but static. Mechler was gone. “Coffman.” Barrone gave me the look I’d always found so scary before encountering Harris Cooger’s Manson lamps. “Make it happen.”



Cooger and Billy left surprisingly professional paperwork, even as their contract more resembled a tour rider. They planned to pitch a tent in Lafayette Square, across from the White House. (I wouldn’t have thought proximity mattered, but didn’t want to ask.) The contract stipulated that GOA would pay for the tent and chairs, food and lodging, modest daily fees, and a hefty bonus payable when and if the bad thing happened.

This was Mechler’s project, right, so I didn’t sweat the details. I sent the contract down to get our boilerplate added: indemnification and all the other legal hoo-ha that GOA included to cover its ass. I told the finance people this was a favor for Mechler, but of course the final document came back for my signature. It sat on my desk until Rachel buzzed to inquire, on Barrone’s behalf, as to its status. So I signed it myself, then moved back to the other 75 million projects on my plate.

At home, a few nights later, with Barbara and I snugly ensconced at opposite ends of our king bed, I started to think about the situation again. What might “the bad thing” turn out to be? Was it possible that Harris Cooger could harm the President of the United States by sitting in a tent and “nudging circumstance?” It was a nice fantasy. I hated President Smith. He was smug, corrupt, incompetent, and gravely mistaken about the direction the country should go. Maybe the harm wouldn’t be physical. Impeachment, for instance. Unlikely given the Other Party’s control of Congress, but you never knew. Or, even better, criminal prosecution. President Smith in prison, now that was a fitting fate: getting fucked up the ass the same way he’d done to the country.

But President Smith was only one guy. We needed to change people’s views. For that, the undeniable truth was that nothing was more effective than an attack. But only if it fit a certain profile. Not another 9/11 or Boston Marathon thing: guns needed to be involved. And the perpetrator needed to be a terrorist; some random nutjob wouldn’t do. Maybe one of those batshit crazy ISIS people. At a school. And the entire thing — kids’ screams, Allah Akbars, the whole caboodle — broadcast on Facebook Live. Maybe the guy could even say, “Too bad no one’s armed or you could stop me” before firing … say it in both Arabic and English, just to beat everyone over the head with it.

I didn’t wish for it. But if such a tragedy occurred, GOA would be foolish not to take full advantage. With thoughts of what such an incident would do to national polling numbers, I drifted into slumber.

I awoke in the downstairs room that I’d set up after my last promotion. Barbara called it a man-cave, but it was a home theatre. Either way, the room was all wrong: its angles off, the edges hazy and darkened like a far-off horizon.

Suddenly, Harris Cooger materialized out of the wall. He appraised the surroundings. “Nice place, Mr. Coffman.”

“I see what you did there,” I told him. “You came from the dark, murky place. Didn’t you?”

He smiled. “Let me ask you something, Mr. Coffman.”

“Call me Brad.”

He scrutinized me. “Won’t it bother you if people die?”

“The world would be a better place without President Smith.”

“What about those kids you were thinking about?”

“Yes, but …” I paused, but only for a beat. “Give me a break, Harris. We’re in crisis mode.”

“I’d hate to burden your conscience with the idea that, by hiring me, you share responsibility for what happens.”

“Then why mention it?”

“You might have thought of it yourself one day,” Cooger responded. “After the bad thing happens. When it’s too late to undo. Then you’d have to face it alone.”

“Face what alone? The view from my new Deputy VP’s office?”

“No.” He pointed his thumb back behind him. “Face that alone.” The walls of the room roiled like a stormy sea, flashed like lightning. Terror seized me. “Take my hand, Mr. Coffman. Come with me to the dark, murky place.” A bloodcurdling scream from behind the wall pierced the air, punctuating his invitation. “I have things to show you.”

As if hypnotized, I reached out my arm to take his hand. Then I came to my senses and jerked it back. “What is this, a Stephen King movie? No fucking way, dude. And I thought I told you to call me Brad.”

Cooger appraised the room again: gargantuan flat-screen TV, custom-built wall unit, Bose speaker system, leather seats. “This must be a great little escape.”

I scanned the still-churning wall apprehensively. “Can you make that stop, please?”

“How often do you get to enjoy this place?”

I shrugged and he shook his head. “What’s the point if you never get to use it?” He snapped his fingers. “Ah, it’s not really for using, is it?” I said nothing, but he’d hit on some truth. “I bet what this room represents gives you far more pleasure than using it ever could. That’s true of a lot of things that are yours, isn’t it?” Again, he gave me a few seconds to mull it over before he went on. “But it all has a cost. None of it’s free.”

“Free?” He’d touched a nerve, and I was tired of his presumptuous clairvoyant moralizing. “Of course none of it’s free. I earn it, every penny, by slogging through shit 70 hours a week!”

He met my anger with a spot-on mimic of Rachel’s Really?! expression, which brought home to me the way I’d described my job. The dark, murky place mocked me with the sound of automatic rifle fire, and all my fear turned to rage. Cooger laughed and disappeared into the wall. In a mix of fury and catharsis, I screamed after him, “Slogging through shit! Slogging through shit!”

That was when Barbara tapped my shoulder and woke me up. “Your phone’s going off,” she yawned. “And you were mumbling about hogging the zit, or jogging to quit, or something.” Once I was sufficiently conscious to make those infernal gunshots cease, she rolled back over.

I basked in relief: my encounter with Cooger was a dream. Then I checked the phone. The message was from Mechler. Whats happening w psychic initiative, he’d written. At 2:14 am. Was he under the illusion that I reported to him, or just being sarcastic? Either way: what an asshole.

Barbara emitted a snore that sounded like a dismissive snort. I got out of bed. Something about the dream sent me to Sarah’s room. I crept in and nestled into the glider by her little bed, placing the phone on her dresser.

Unlike Barbara, Sarah’s sleep was silent. They say that small children change incredibly fast, and the times I’d been away for work I noticed something different about her each time I returned. But I could never put my finger on what precisely changed. In the glow of the nightlight, her face looked ageless. I could envision her as an eight-year old, a 16-year old, a grown woman. I saw the future in her features and wondered, as I hadn’t since her birth, about the person she’d become.

The sound of gunshots disturbed my reverie. I swatted for the phone and knocked it to the floor. I stood up and nearly tripped over it, catching myself on the edge of Sarah’s bed.


“Sarah, it’s just me. Daddy. Goddammit.” Had I kicked the phone? Where had the stupid thing gone?

“Mama! Mama!” Her panic grew.

“It’s OK, Sarah. It’s Daddy.” I reached under her bed, groping, and managed to push it further away. The artillery barrage continued, my daughter’s room transformed into a scene from Saving Private Ryan.

“Ma-MAAA!” came the full-on shriek. “Ma-MAAA!”

“Sarah, chill, OK?” My fingers felt the phone and I got down on my belly for the extra reach to grab it.

I heard footfalls. The light came on and Barbara’s voice said, “Honey, it’s OK. Mama’s here, Mama’s here.”

“Ma-maaa!” The cry changed from fear to relief as Sarah leapt out of bed and ran to her.

I finally grabbed the phone and stood triumphantly, only to be confronted by a squinting, angry Barbara. Sarah sobbed, her face buried in Barbara’s shoulder.

“Would you turn that thing off?” Barbara demanded. The cessation of gunfire was bliss. “What are you doing in here?”

“I wanted …” This would be difficult to explain. “I came in here to …”

“You woke up a three-year old,” she said, in the tone she might use to inform me that I’d put my underwear on over my pants. “And me. Again.”

“It was an accident.” I peered at my phone.


“It’s from Barrone,” I told her. I expect status report on Cooger at 3:30 staff meeting.

“I don’t care if it’s from God.”

Sarah, groggy and disoriented, released her death grip on Barbara. “Daddy?”

“Comfort your daughter, maybe?” Barbara said.

“Sure, yeah, hold on.” Got it. Will do. I thumbed back.

Barbara plopped down in the glider, Sarah on her lap.

“I can take her,” I offered.

“No! I want Mama!” Sarah exclaimed.

Barbara shot me a withering look. “Shut the light when you leave.”



My terrible night’s sleep didn’t mitigate the work I needed to do. Late the next morning, I took an Uber the half mile from GOA’s office to Lafayette Square. It was bright and sunny, warm for the season. The streets were filling with office drones. Lunchtime in downtown DC was a cattle call. Fortunately, I stayed busy enough to eat at my desk and avoid the whole scene.

If you’ve ever walked by Lafayette Square you know that, besides tourists congregating for White House pictures and suit-and-tie types scurrying between buildings, there are always protesters of one variety or another, some with tents. Cooger’s tent — a miniature version of the backyard type people rent for weddings, white with a fake window, about eight feet square — stood out. It was far classier than the others, and the only one without signs. Billy sat in front of it, sketching on a pad.

“He inside?” I asked, trying to peer in.

“He’s at lunch,” Billy told me. He scribbled strange symbols. Was he creating the proper aura for Cooger’s work? Inscribing an occult incantation to weaken the President? Preparing for his weekly Dungeons & Dragons group? Whatever it was, I noticed he was doing it on stationery from the Four Seasons, the most expensive hotel in town.


“He likes that place up a few blocks.” He gestured, his eye still on the pad. “The steak place.”

“The steak place.” This was supremely unhelpful in narrowing it down. But I had a hunch and headed up to K Street. Capitol Steak and Seafood was one of the priciest restaurants around, and I found Cooger alone at a table for four. A platter of surf and turf, largely consumed, rested before him. Various side dishes — mashed potatoes, mushrooms, asparagus — littered the table. A nearby chiller held a bottle of white wine, though there was red in his glass.

“Brad,” he greeted me cheerily. “Long time.” He winked in a creepy way that made me wonder whether my dream the previous night was truly the product of my own subconscious. But that was ridiculous.

“Just checking on things,” I stammered, standing next to his table like a supplicant.

“Doing your due diligence. Smart.” He put a forkful of steak into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “I must say: this place is good, but not quite up to the standard of the hotel restaurant.”

“You mean at the Four Seasons?”

Cooger nodded, then raised a mocking eyebrow. “Maybe I’m not the only one around here with special powers?”

“You are staying there,” I chided.

“We’ve got to stay somewhere.”

“I saw your assistant,” I told him. “He was writing in some kind of runic script.”

Cooger guffawed, displaying strands of expensive beef trapped between his teeth. “It’s not runic script, Brad. It’s math. Complex math. Billy may look like he flunked out of carny school, but he’s got a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Caltech.”

“Then why is he minding a tent for you?”

Cooger shrugged. “More lucrative and less taxing, I suppose.”

“How is it going?” I was unable to hide my sarcasm. “Working hard?”

“Sure am,” he responded. Eyes twinkling, he asked, “How is your work going, Brad? Enjoying your job?” He forked another bloody nugget of steak into his mouth.

“You know,” I said. “I recall that when Jesus faced down the Devil, he slept out in the desert and fasted for 40 days. He didn’t stay at the Four Seasons and go out for surf and turf and Bordeaux at 11:30 in the morning.”

“I’m not Jesus.”


A tuxedoed waiter approached the table. “More wine, Mr. Cooger?”

“Yes, please, Hector.” We watched him refill the glass in silence.

After Hector departed, Cooger sipped his wine and looked at me seriously. “Brad, I need my strength for facing down the dark, murky place. It all helps: rest, sustenance, even a little libation. Let me tell you what it’s like there.” He gestured with his fork. “It’s like a prison, but an alluring one. Full of tormented souls who can’t leave.”

I couldn’t help it. “The dark, murky place is the Hotel California?”

“No, Brad. It’s a dangerous place, and one that can wear you down until you’re nothing but an empty shell.” He nudged the remains of his lobster with his fork and pursed his lips. “Have you ever spent time in a place like that? Can you imagine how it saps your soul?”

I checked my watch. I needed to get back to the office. “No, not really.”

The waiter returned to the table, carrying another massive slab of meat.

“Thank you, Hector. Could you wrap that up, please?” Cooger caught my stare and explained, “Billy needs to eat, too.”

“Can’t he go to Cosi?”

“I think the Gun Owners of America can afford a steak. Anyhow, Brad, we’ve got things well in hand here.” Cooger smiled. “But look, all this food, and I didn’t offer you anything.” He scanned the table. “Want some mushrooms? I’m not going to finish them.”

“How about you bring them for Billy?” I quipped.

“Good idea. Thanks, Brad.”



One doesn’t become an Associate VP at a trade association without the requisite bullshitting skills. Which is to say I survived my status report on the project that afternoon. But I was uneasy.

I was right to be.

About a week later, Rachel appeared at my office door. “Harris Cooger is here to meet with Barrone.”

I jumped up.

“Did you know about this?” she demanded, though I was clearly shocked.

We rushed to Barrone’s office. Somehow, some way, Mechler was already there. God, I hated him.

Cooger was euphoric. “Gentlemen, I’m happy to report success.”

“What’s happening?” asked Mechler.

“You’ll know within 24 hours.”

What’s happening?” demanded Barrone.

Cooger chuckled. “I can’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Well, Billy would say that it’d disturb the space-time continuum. My explanation is it would be unwisely fucking with karma. Either way, you’ll find out soon enough.”

Barrone glowered. “Cute.” He pushed a button on his desk phone. “Get me public affairs. Wiggins, anything big happening now?”

“Like … like what?” came the voice of GOA’s public affairs director, nonplussed.

“Like anything big!” snarled Barrone.

“Biggest story today is the Instagram sex thing with that reality TV star. Slow news day …” Wiggins trailed off and I imagined him wincing, waiting for Barrone to chew him out for whatever he’d missed. Instead, Barrone buzzed off without another word and glared triumphantly.

Cooger laughed. “Just remember you heard from me first.” He proffered a thin white envelope. “I’ll expect payment by the first of next month.”

I grabbed the envelope. The total charges, including all those nights in a five-star hotel and all that steak and wine, must be off the charts. Barrone would blow a gasket. And who knows what nefarious uses Mechler would find for such an invoice.

After Cooger left, Barrone commanded, “Find out what he’s talking about.”

I spent the rest of the afternoon trying. I called my friends on the Hill, checked in with the reporters I knew, even utilized my weak connections at the Smith White House. There was nada. Mechler also turned up blank. Barrone fumed.

My sleep that night was abysmal. I kept checking my phone for news alerts. Barrone messaged me and Mechler hourly to see if we’d heard anything. On her side of the bed, Barbara tossed and turned, until at some ungodly hour she yanked off the blanket and said, “Maybe you should pick up a dozen roses and play some Barry White for your phone, since you’re planning to make sweet love to it all night long.” She grabbed her pillow and departed the bedroom.

The next day, midafternoon, Rachel sent an e-mail ordering staff to assemble in the conference room. The President had announced a press conference, and Barrone wanted us to watch live. Whatever Harris Cooger had done, this was it.

“Sit next to me,” Barrone said. He attempted a smile. It would have been a proud moment save that Mechler already sat on Barrone’s other side.

To our surprise, as we watched on the big screen, the President and First Lady trudged to the podium together. They looked grim.

One of my colleagues yelled, “Resign!” to general amusement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon,” President Smith began. “Cindy and I come before you today with heavy hearts.”

Barrone muttered, “Whatever weighs down their hearts lightens mine.” I chuckled.

“Many of you know,” said the President, “that Jeannie, our daughter, has struggled with leukemia. We’ve just received news that the cancer has returned in an extremely aggressive form. It’s metastasized to her lungs, liver, and brain. Doctors have no suggested treatment, and we’re making arrangements for her last days to be as comfortable as possible.”

Our collective mirth vanished, we all looked at the floor. The First Lady began speaking about her memories of Jeannie as a small child. Barrone’s jaw clenched audibly. “Clear the room now,” he ordered. “Rachel, you stay, along with Mechler, Wiggins, and Coffman.”

When everyone was gone, he turned to us. “So this is what Harris Cooger has done for us. Coffman, do you know what you’ve accomplished here?”

Mechler began to interject. “Don’t forget, I also had s …”

“You have totally fucked up everything!” Barrone roared. I’d witnessed Barrone furious — at me, at others, at the world — many times, but never like this. “Do you know what this means?” he screamed. “He will be untouchable now. He’ll have the sympathy of the whole goddamned nation! I can picture it already. The Jeannie Smith Gun Control Bill. Honoring the legacy of the President’s poor deceased daughter.” He pounded the table with his fist. “Who can stand against that?”

Nobody dared speak, except Mechler, who offered, “I knew Coffman’s idea would never work.”

This was a step too far. I needed to let him have it. “Mechler, you f…”

“Shut up, Coffman,” Barrone said, with a look to wilt flowers, turn green grass to yellow husks, and transform butterflies to smoking black cinders falling from the sky. Then he dropped his voice to a chilling whisper.

“Let me tell you two things that will happen now. First, tomorrow morning, bright and early, we’ll meet with Harris Cooger again, and he’ll begin reversing this thing. Stat. Rachel, make it happen.” He paused for a breath. “Second, damage control.”



I sat in my home study that night, working on my Twitter account. Demonstrating I was still a team player by retweeting GOA’s stuff was like trying to fill the Pacific Ocean with a teaspoon. But it was something to do.

When Barbara peeked in the doorway, I didn’t wait for her to speak.

“I know,” I said, “it’s getting close to Sarah’s bedtime.”

“Read her a story, Brad. Play dolls with her.” Her voice surprised me with its softness. “She wants to spend time with you. And I bet it’ll take your mind off things.”

“Today was miserable.”

She saw the stricken expression on my face. “Is it Jeannie Smith?”

I nodded.

“Such a tragedy for that poor girl, and her parents.”

I looked at her, surprised, not by the sentiment she’d expressed but by her thinking the tragic aspect of it had anything to do with my shitty day. She met my look, then her eyes cut over to my screen. She shook her head.

“Oh, Brad. No.”

You’d think she’d caught me posting on Ashley Madison or looking for prostitutes. All I’d done was tweet GOA’s meme and hashtag.

Guns don’t kill people, cancer does. #RIPJeannie.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Brad, if you don’t know …” Her voice was taut.

“We don’t want people to lose sight of the real issue,” I explained.

Barbara didn’t respond. She threw up her hands as she walked out of the room.

I yelled after her. “I’m amplifying our voice. Give me a break, Barbara. We’re in crisis mode. Our meme will go viral. Our hashtag will trend. Wait and see!”



“It’s simple, really,” Barrone said. “Undo it.”

It was 8:30 the next morning and Mechler, Barrone, and I were back in the conference room. Cooger and Billy’s luggage was piled against the wall. Job done, they were headed for the airport.

“It’s not that easy,” Billy responded.

“You made it happen, didn’t you?” Barrone challenged.

Cooger shrugged. He looked rather proud of himself.

“Our contract stipulates you accept that we did,” Billy answered, one eye focused on us while the other checked the corner for dust mites.

“So you can undo it.”

Cooger and Billy said nothing.

“We’ll pay you double,” Barrone offered. “Triple!”

He didn’t quite understand the financial commitment this would entail … most of it, if the previous contract was any guide, for high thread count sheets and sommelier service. “Um,” I ventured, “we might want to …”

“Shut up, Coffman.”

“I’d love to take more of your money,” said Cooger, “but I can’t reverse it.”

“Why not?”

“It’s complicated. Billy?”

“He only does the dark, murky place,” Billy explained. “He’s, like, a bad stuff specialist.”

Mechler snorted. “So put us in touch with a good stuff specialist.”

Cooger and Billy exchanged glances. “I suppose there’s someone we can recommend. But she’s on a three-month retreat in the Himalayas. It’ll take time to reach her.”

“We don’t have time,” Barrone hissed through gritted teeth.

“Honestly,” Cooger said, “you’re better off not going with a third-party vendor on this.” He looked at me. “From a karmic perspective, the best thing is for the person who desired the harm to seek to undo it himself.”

“That means one of you guys,” Billy added.

Barrone, Mechler, and I exchanged looks.

“Coffman,” said Mechler.

“Mechler,” I said.

Coffman,” barked Barrone.

“What about you, Mr. Barrone?” Billy suggested. “After all, you’re the b …” He stopped talking as his own boss laid a hand on his shoulder and shook his head.

“Coffman,” Cooger decreed.

They all looked at me, like a pack of drooling wolves who’d cornered a cute little bunny rabbit with a fluffy white tail.

“What does he need to do?” asked Barrone. “Is there some shiny, happy place he needs to go to?” He eyed me ominously. “Even shinier and happier than GOA?”

“Do I get all-you-can-eat surf and turf?” I asked. Everyone ignored me.

“The most important thing,” Cooger said, “is to find a peaceful spot and focus. You must eliminate all distraction and relax.”

“We can help him relax,” Barrone said, then yelled, “Rachel, get in here now! Take Coffman’s phone. Lock his office door.” Rachel shot me a sympathetic look as I meekly handed over my phone. “And move all meetings downstairs. Nothing in this conference room.”

“Think of it like prayer,” said Cooger. “Gather all your feelings of benevolence, goodwill, and lovingkindness, and send them to Jeannie Smith and her parents.”

“Ugh.” Barrone grimaced.

“Or meditation. Have you ever tried meditation, Mr. Coffman?” Cooger asked.

Even if I had tried that hippie BS, I’d never admit it in front of Barrone and Mechler. Though Barbara did yoga at the gym sometimes. At least I thought it was yoga. Maybe she’d said Zumba.

“This is like meditation,” Cooger explained, “except your point of focus isn’t your breath or a mantra, it’s the good things you want to happen. For instance, you can picture Jeannie’s sickness as dark clouds, and envision the sun burning them off. It’s important to imagine Jeannie and the President and First Lady as healthy, happy, smiling, laughing …”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” muttered Barrone.

Billy held his watch up close to his face and nudged Cooger.

“We’ll miss our flight if we don’t get going. Questions, Mr. Coffman?”


“Very good.” Cooger smiled, satisfied.

Everyone except me stood up. Cooger and Billy grabbed their bags.

“Make it happen, Coffman,” Barrone ordered, exiting after them.

“Good luck, Coffman,” Mechler gleefully called, following the boss.

I admit: flipping my middle finger at his retreating back wasn’t the best way to begin my quest for lovingkindness. But the bastard deserved it.



Not yet 9:00 am, and I considered the day I’d expected to have. There was a ton to do and I couldn’t do any of it. Deadlines would be missed. People would be angry. Barrone waltzed out without making any provision for my workload. Didn’t any of it matter?

Now my job was to “nudge circumstance.” Not a bad description for much of GOA’s work, honestly. This realization led to a moment of despair, but only a moment. Barrone considered what I was doing high-priority. He’d cleared the conference room for me, after all, which — given the volume of meetings around this place — would inconvenience practically everyone. If this work was indeed important, I ought to give it a try, as idiotic and — come to think of it — humiliating as it seemed.

I sat back in my chair and closed my eyes. Good things for Jeannie Smith, I thought. Good things for Jeannie Smith. I pictured the words running across the darkness behind my eyelids, like one of those stupid scrolling tickers every TV newscast has taken to using.

Repeating this phrase was like counting sheep, with the same effect. When I next opened my eyes, it was 10:30. I was embarrassed. I was also desperate for caffeine and needed to drain my main vein something fierce. But as I walked past Rachel’s desk, her head swiveled up in dismay.

“Brad,” she whispered, “you’re not supposed to leave the conference room.”

“I haven’t had any coffee.”

She glanced toward Barrone’s office. “He will flip his shit if he sees you.”

“And the bathroom’s not optional, either.”

“You need to get back in there now.”

This made me angry. “Do you want me to piss in the conference room coffee pot? My bodily functions don’t cease at Barrone’s command.”

In a huff, I went to the men’s room, relieved my bladder, and washed up. Then I headed to the kitchen, grabbed the largest cup I could find, and filled it with coffee. Rachel and I stared each other down as I walked back the other way.

In the conference room again, I hesitated over the coffee I’d so eagerly sought. My little catnap had been nice. Maybe I could arrange more. I sat back, closed my eyes, and tried again with the Good things for Jeannie Smith stuff. At first I was too irked by Rachel’s behavior and, now that I thought about it, by the way we all tiptoed around Barrone. I knew the guy was a superstar, and yeah, he was the boss. But did he have to be a complete asshole all the time?

Eventually I drifted off again, and when a soft knock at the door woke me, it was nearly 1:00 pm. I felt good. Sleep was underrated, especially when you took away the threat of being woken up by an automatic rifle fire ringtone. I went to the door. Outside, on the floor, was lunch from Sushi Bob’s in a plastic container.

Though ravenous, I ate slowly, savoring Rachel’s act of kindness along with the food. Why couldn’t there be more kindness around here, I wondered, instead of Mechler’s backstabbing and Barrone’s malevolence? Weren’t we all on the same side? I regretted my gruffness with Rachel. It occurred to me what an extraordinary job she did, tolerating Barrone’s moody browbeating and running interference for the rest of us. She was remarkable.

Maybe, I thought, I should take some of these warm fuzzies and aim them at the First Family.

Yeah, right. My mind wanted to go everywhere but there.

As I polished off my lunch, I thought about how I needed to lose weight. Sushi was kind of healthy, right? Maybe I’d already taken the first step.

I followed the motion of the second hand around the clock … four revolutions before I took my eyes away.

I mentally catalogued my retirement investments. Were they properly diversified? This was an issue worth revisiting once I escaped this room. Along with the weight thing.

I counted. Several times. Once almost to 1,000.

After an eternity, I tiptoed out of the conference room. Rachel was gone, Barrone’s office dark. I dumped my stale coffee in the kitchen, then rummaged through the fridge and wolfed down someone’s leftover pasta that they’d probably planned to have for lunch the next day. Well fuck ‘em, I thought, a guy’s gotta eat. But then I felt sorry — what happened to all those kindness vibes? — so I washed the container and put it back in the fridge with a $20 bill inside.

I hadn’t been aware of the hum of the building’s ventilation system, but I noticed its absence when it shut down at 9:00 pm. The silence grew profound when I flipped off the fluorescent lights and lay down on the conference room floor. In the dim quiet, I stared at the ceiling tiles and felt like a prisoner locked in his cell. Except nothing stopped me from leaving: to a restaurant for a real dinner, to a bar for a drink or ten, even home for a few hours’ rest in my own bed … or, given things with Barbara, on one of our many couches.

I didn’t move.

I awoke when the ventilation system kicked back on at 6:00 am, after the most solid, peaceful night of sleep I could remember. As I strode through the empty office, the physical exertion added to my wellbeing. It occurred to me that, at home, Barbara would already be awake and pounding away on the Stairmaster. Did she get a high from exercise? Surely it wasn’t solely fear of a few extra pounds that kept her motivated. Fear could only get a person up in the morning for so long. Soon Sarah would rise and … did she have daycare today? Or was it only afternoons? I couldn’t remember. Photos of the two of them hung in my office. I made casual small talk with coworkers about them. But they were there, and I was here, and that was that.

It would be different for President Smith. He lived and worked in the same place, and his wife and daughter were part of the endeavor. GOA endlessly made hay on social media with all the sordid stories about the First Family: the accusations, conspiracy theories, claims of corruption. It wasn’t enough for people to disagree with the President’s policy positions. They needed to hate him. Even better if they hated his whole family. That was how to mobilize action. It was also, I realized with the morning’s clarity, a good way to keep those of us who ought to know better motivated through an endless crisis.

I sat down in the conference room again and tried once more to do what Cooger had suggested. I imagined the corniest image ever: President and Mrs. Smith frolicking — I apologize for that word, but it’s the right one — through a green field, holding their daughter’s hand. The sun shone, wildflowers bloomed. Puffy white clouds drifted lazily overhead, stolid bumblebees and delicate butterflies flew hither and thither. Total cliché. A scene you’d see on TV only as dreamy irony or a Claritin commercial.

Then it happened: the First Couple transformed into Barbara and me. Jeannie shrank down to the size of a three-year old and became Sarah. She grinned up at us.

It was that image, equally heartbreaking and stupid, that sent me into the mental time warp. Days passed. I didn’t worry about my work, ponder what else to scavenge from the office kitchen, or watch the second-hand travel around the clock. Uninterrupted by the ding of e-mails, the constant Twitter refresh, or the dreaded gunfire ringtone, my mind settled into focused, concentrated thought.

I wished good things for Jeannie Smith. I wished them for her parents, and for the parents of all the imaginary kids I’d envisioned gunned down, whoever they were. And the kids themselves: what had I been thinking, more worried about poll numbers than actual lives? I wished good things for Sarah and Barbara. For Rachel. For Wiggins. My kindness, my magnanimity, seemed boundless.

But of course there was a limit. I hit it when my attention turned to Mechler. The gushing fountain of lovingkindness abruptly sputtered to impotence. I tried again. Total failure to launch.

Then I thought about Barrone, a man to whom I’d devoted more attention than to my own wife and daughter. A man who kept me, kept all of us, in constant fear and stress. Around whom we slavishly maintained a cult of personality. Like some tin pot dictator, the more absurd his ideology and outrageous his demands, the more we loved him. All so that he might bestow on us … what? In my case, a Deputy VP slot that meant more abuse at his hands.

How could a person live like he did? Constant work, continuous agitation … his physical condition must make my office pudge look like Olympic triathlete. I imagined his arteries, clogged and brittle. His heart, angry and swollen. Pounding through meetings where he growled and glared, phone calls where he screamed into the receiver, nights he spent firing off one angry message after another. How long could his heart hold out? It was miles away from kindness, but I began imagining that heart of his going kablooey.

Then I started to desire it.

This was much easier, and a hell of a lot more fun, than imagining good things for Jeannie Smith or anyone else. I was like Harris Cooger in that regard: a natural bad stuff specialist. Circumstance, or karma, or whatever, must have recognized it, because the wall I’d hit became real. It wavered and flashed and pulled me in: finally, I entered the dark, murky place.

Inside was cavernous: the illumination orange and shuddering, as if torchlit. It was like no place I’d ever been, yet somehow familiar. A distant chanting put me in mind of the movies. Was this the Mines of Moria? Some dungeon from Conan the Destroyer? Yogurt’s cave in Spaceballs?

Suddenly it dawned on me.

It was that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — you know the one — and I was the high priest. On the altar before me rested a giant stone god, hungry for sacrifice. Its eyes and mouth were lit by the glow of molten rock. In my hand, I held my victim’s still-beating heart. Cratered and rotten, just as I’d envisioned Barrone’s, it ejaculated black blood with each feeble throb. I was frozen in place, shocked and disgusted.

I looked up at the statue again. Its face was familiar: pockmarked cheeks, globular nose, crooked teeth. The chanting increased in volume and pitch, and the god’s voice rang in my head: Make it happen, Coffman.

Wait, I thought with dawning horror, if the god is Barrone, who is the victim?

The chanting reached a crescendo. I looked down and gasped as I saw who was in the cage, whose heart I held in my hand. Not Barrone. No, not at all. It was ….

“Coffman. Coffman!”

I opened my eyes. I was back in the conference room. Rachel stood at the door.

“It’s Barrone,” she said, eyes wide. “Brad, it’s bad. He’s …”

I stared at her, the reality of what I’d somehow done sinking in. There was both hope and trepidation in my voice as I asked, “You mean he’s …?”

“He’s incredibly pissed off. Like, beyond the pale, even for him.”


“Go back to your office,” Rachel told me. “Close the door. Stay away from Barrone right now, OK?”

“What …?”

“Jeannie Smith died this morning,” she said. “Now go.”



Being in my office felt at once familiar and strange, like moving through your house after returning from a long trip. I checked Fox News: the top headline was Jeannie’s death. I didn’t know how much of it, if any, was my responsibility. But I was sorry.

2,472 unread messages sat in my e-mail inbox. My office phone flashed with 17 new voicemails. On my smartphone, which Rachel had placed next to my computer, were 30 new texts, including 13 from Barrone and 10 from Mechler. Yeah, those idiots kept texting me even after they’d taken the phone away.

There was also a text message from Barbara. Of all that junk, it was the only thing I looked at. She’d sent a silly little photo of herself and Sarah bundled up on a playground bench. Both were smiling. This time, I saw it for what it was: an invitation.

Beautiful, I texted back. I’ll be home soon.



I wasn’t as talented as Cooger. Barrone lasted 12 more years. It was a stroke that finally did him in, and it happened in the middle of staff meeting. The story I heard is that no one called 911 because they confused the shaking, inability to speak, and contorted face with his normal paroxysms of rage. Mechler, by then quite advanced in the Deputy VP slot we’d both coveted, ascended to Barrone’s position. I saw a photo of him online. He looked terrible, like a snaggle-toothed old fox who’d outrun one too many hounds. There but for the grace of God, I thought.

Sarah’s now about the age Jeannie was when she died and, though she lacks the First Daughter’s celebrity clout, in some ways reminds me of her. Her intelligence, curiosity, passion. I love the way she is, and at the same time can’t wait to see who she’ll become. For one thing, no one would have guessed that Barbara and Brad Coffman’s daughter would be an ardent environmentalist, but that’s where she seems headed as of now.

A few weekends ago, the three of us were on Capitol Hill, going to dinner. We came up from the Metro just as the sun was setting, and I spied a miniature backyard wedding tent outside the Rayburn Building. In front of the tent sat a skinny man who looked like he was sketching in a pad.

“Dad?” Sarah asked.

Though it wasn’t on our way, I approached. The sunlight near-blinded me. I couldn’t make out the man’s features. Then I noticed another man, this one stocky, walking toward us, carrying something. For a moment, I was sure it was Harris Cooger, bringing dinner in a doggie bag to Billy.

“Brad?” asked Barbara.

But when I got close enough, “Billy” turned out to be one of those pestilential Lyndon LaRouche supporters. “Cooger” was just some guy carrying a bag. He walked right by.

We went on to dinner.

Too bad. I would have liked to thank them.




Josh Trapani is a scientist turned policy wonk who lives just outside Washington, D.C. He helped start the Washington Independent Review of Books and served as its first managing editor. His fiction and humor have appeared in Parent CoThe Big JewelThe Del Sol ReviewNeutrons ProtonsBrick Moon Fiction, The Higgs Weldon, and others.









The Art and Humor of Danny Ochoa


Piece Frog


Peace Frog


Beany and Cecil Tribute


Lords of the Cemetery




Las Adelitas Sanchez




The Many Vices of Shiva


Immaculate Deception


Luna the Bee


Minimum Wage









Danny Ochoa is an Illustrator and Animator strongly influenced by Folk and Psychedelic Art. Fascinated by the medium of Animation since the age of five, he attended classes at The Academy Of Art University in San Francisco majoring in Illustration and Animation. Having lived in the Bay Area for close to a decade, he managed to meet a lot of interesting Artists, Musicians and Writers who shaped his approach to Life and Art in general. He has worked for such companies as Fox ADHD, Bento Box Entertainment and Lowbrow Studios. He currently resides in his hometown of Los Angeles working as a Retake Animator at Stoopid Buddy Stoodios and spending his spare time completing his short film which has been in production for over a year.














The Dead Doll

by Sola Saar



I was back in Los Angeles at my mother’s house and very pregnant with my first child.

My younger sister Katrina already had twenty-six children.

She seated several baby dolls at the dining table, then placed tiny sauce bowls and teacups in front of each of them. Katrina put Marissa, a doll she’d been carrying around everywhere for seven years, in a high chair on my right. With her tangled black curls and exaggerated eye makeup drawn on with a thick black Sharpie, Marissa looked like a deranged version of me, a junkie child beauty pageant star whose blank stare evoked more than her manufacturers had originally intended. She taunted me with her permanently raised arms.

My sister began this tribe of dolls when she first discovered medical reality television at fifteen. While she liked shows focused on obesity or various deformities, “The Birthing Channel” was her favorite. It was a channel entirely devoted to playing live births, 24 hours a day. Her addiction to this channel vexed my artist mother, but to me it seemed reasonable for someone whose autism diagnosis allowed her to create a world entirely of her own obsessions. It was one I sometimes envied. The gruesome videos only bothered me when she watched them in the living room.

After school, she’d sit on the couch dunking cookies into her milk, transfixed by the endless loop of women giving birth. The shows were very theatric. Operatic music played as sweaty women wept through their contractions, cat hissing sounded as they lashed out at the nurses, and triumphant trombones blared when they finally pushed out lumps of unformed reddish flesh. I always wanted to look away when walking by, discomfited by people not only abandoning their privacy, but turning it into melodrama, but Katrina liked to dwell in their intimacy. She’d pause the television at the exact moment when the baby disconnected from its mother and run back to her room, leaving us with a still of the parturition.

One night I heard loud groaning noises coming from her room and, feeling concerned, opened the door to check on her. When I entered she was sitting in bed with a doll under her shirt, legs spread, crying murderously as I asked her what she was doing. She held up a bald beige doll with one hand on its head and the other on its bottom and said, “This is my son, Xavier.” She lay back, sweating from her performance, and cradled the thing in a towel.

The next morning, Xavier was at the breakfast table sitting next to Katrina. When asked about the “doll,” she frowned and told the family, “Xavier is not a doll. He just has alopecia and severe growth failure,” as though if he weren’t tiny and bald, we might mistake him for human.

Over the next eight years, she had fifteen more doll-children from the same process and adopted eleven others from around the world. She said she was inspired by a television special on Angelina Jolie.

I had recently gotten a job teaching English at a high school far, far away.

I was home this week because my mother wanted to throw me a baby shower. I told her I’d only been to one baby shower and it had made me anxious. She told me I probably wasn’t eating enough meat.

I stared at my empty bowl and scraped the morsels of oatmeal from the dolls’ tiny saucers. I could only hold down bland food in the morning. My sister had left the dishes for me to wash and retreated back to her room. She’d taken all her dolls except Marissa, who remained in the high chair with oatmeal on her face.

I walked over to her, feeling a need to stroke her matted hair, touch her soft eyelashes. Squeezing her head, I remembered my sister would strap her into a car seat, on top of a heap of her other dolls, and leave them there in the hot sun. I pulled Marissa up by her hair to hold her and her head popped off. I looked down at her body, still stuck in the high chair. Frantically, I tried to screw Marissa’s head back on, believing I could easily reattach it, but it was too loose, and would not affix. I peered down the hollow trunk of her body. Some part had been lost, and her head would only stay on if I sat her in a certain position and leaned it against the back of the chair. I let her rest there and hoped my sister would figure out how to snap it back into place.

“Vera, I need to talk to you,” my mother said, suddenly appearing behind me.

I flinched. “I was just cleaning,” I said, turning around. She stood there in a slinky nightgown with her hair tied up in a silk scarf.

“What are you wearing tomorrow? I know you’ve given up a little since you’ve been pregnant, but no sweatpants at the shower.” I looked down at my black-and-white sweatpants, which had food stains on them.

“I have a dress,” I said.

“Don’t wear black.”

“It’s yellow,” I said. “What are you doing today?”

“I have to take your sister to therapy,” she groaned. “In the valley. Did you ask your husband for a recommendation that’s a little closer?”

“I forgot to,” I said. “He’ll be here Saturday. Why don’t you ask him then?”

She unraveled her scarf and let out her frizzed ringlets. My mother was half- black and half-German, although with her olive skin and green eyes she was usually mistaken for being Latina or sometimes Jewish. I had inherited her hair and my father’s Icelandic complexion, one shade above albino.

“Another thing you might want to think about is that when I got pregnant with you, I was petite, like you. So I had a horrible labor that lasted nine hours.”


“And I did an entirely natural birth. No drugs,” she added, almost bragging. “I wouldn’t recommend it though, for a first born. I didn’t suffer for your sister, even with her giant head!”

“What?” I asked.

“There are ways of making birth less painful now,” she said. “Prenatal massages, acupuncture, transcendental meditation. I feel like you haven’t done any research. Are you prepared for this child?”

“I stayed up all night watching live births moms posted on the Internet.”

“Wonderful! So now you kind of know what to expect. But it’s going to be so much more excruciating than you could imagine.”

Suddenly Katrina burst into the room carrying a naked decapitated doll.

“Oh no!” she lamented. “My daughter’s dead!”

“What?” I asked.

“Marissa’s dead!” she moaned.

My mom and I paused skeptically for a few uncertain seconds.

“How’d she die?” I asked.

Katrina looked around apprehensively, and then stuttered, “Marissa had to have surgery. She had to have the body repaired because her neck broke. She tried to have the body repaired but it didn’t work on her and so she died.”

“She will be missed,” my mother told her, still primping her hair. “We have to go soon, Katrina. Start getting ready.”

My sister stood there waiting for a reaction, her tall body rocking back and forth. Suddenly, she broke into tears.

“My daughter’s dead!” she bawled.

“Sweetie, you have other children,” my mom consoled her. “It’s okay.”

She let out a long sob, and said, “but Marissa was too young to die” before leaving the room.

“At least she won’t carry around that damn doll anymore,” mom whispered to me.

“Except she has a whole closet full of other dolls,” I reminded her. “Anyway, weren’t we talking about my baby?”

“Right. I have some ideas for shower games I wanted to talk to you about,” she said.

“Like what?”

Katrina burst into the room again, no longer crying.

“I think we should have a funeral!” she said, her eyes widened like a cartoon’s.

My mother took a while to respond. She sometimes indulged my sister’s eccentric requests, reluctantly supporting her for a few minutes before disappearing into a bottle of red wine.

“It sounds like a lot of work,” she said finally. “I don’t have the time. Why don’t you write a nice poem? Vera will help you.”

“But she’s my daughter,” Katrina pleaded.

“I don’t want to,” my mother said.

“But why?”

“Because I’m not throwing a funeral for that doll!”

“She’s not a doll, she’s a midget. Did you make a mistake?”


“But she’s a human midget. Did you make a mistake?”

“Sorry. Midget. But I think they like to be called little people.”

“But I think we need to have funerals for humans. So we can move on!”

“Fine! Have the Goddamn funeral!” she said, growing impatient. “But this is your thing. I’m not helping you organize this fucking—” she stopped herself. “I already have Vera’s funeral—I mean baby shower.”

“Let’s have the funeral Saturday!” Katrina said.

“Right after Vera’s baby shower is convenient.”

“Yippee!” my sister said with a firm nod. Still sniveling, darted off to her bedroom.

“Are you really going to go through with this?” I asked.

“I’m going to see what the therapist tells us. But I think it’s a good sign she wants to kill off that creepy doll!”

“I broke it.”


“I broke the doll when I was cleaning. It was an accident. It just snapped off. I didn’t think it would kill her.”

My mother gasped and closed the door. My sister had sensitive hearing.

“What did you think, she was just going to go on living without her head like a chicken?” she whispered.

“I don’t know. I thought she’d get another one.”

“It doesn’t work like that. You know how long she’s had this one.”

“I thought you said it was good she was moving on.”

“Well now that I know you killed her, she’s not really moving on.”

“Let’s just not say anything about that.”

“Fine. We’ll take this secret to the grave— no pun intended.”

I rolled my eyes and waddled off to my childhood bedroom.


That day I took my mom’s advice and booked a prenatal spa day at a salon downtown. They had a “Pregnant Gal” special that included an 80-minute massage, acupuncture session, and pedicure.

The spa had a custom-formed massage table for a round belly. I tottered over in my towel, which barely covered my backside, and jumped on my tiptoes to hoist myself onto the high table. I opened the door and called for help. A masseuse appeared, toned and groomed, and asked if everything was okay.

“Yeah I’m fine. Can you help me onto the table?” I asked.

She shut the door and took out a stepping stool. She held out her arm and helped me roll onto the table. My towel slipped off in the process.

“I’m sorry,” I said, covering myself with my hands.

“It happens all the time,” she said, smiling at my naked penguin body.

She extracted fresh towels from the cabinet and laid them over my body, mummifying me from my shoulders to my calves. Then she left the room.  I remained frozen on my side, afraid the towel might fall off again. I still had not gotten used to my body— this teetering, temporary body with a stomach so heavy and unbalanced that even the fitted pregnancy table made me feel as though I might topple over.

As I lay staring at a single flaming candle, my neck planted in the moldable pillow, this woman’s hard knuckles fingering my back, I felt my baby girl being to kick. She seemed to like this woman kneading my back much more than I did, because she kicked with more vigor than she had in weeks. Perhaps it was fun, like a rollercoaster, having someone squish the bubble around you, but I felt nauseated by her touch. My baby and I would probably disagree on many things.

“Not so hard, please.” I said to the masseuse. The baby stopped kicking.

She took some warm, pungent oil and smeared it over my neck and back. She told me to turn over and started making tiny circles on my abdomen in a way that was pleasant but alien.

“How many months along are you?” she asked.

“Seven months,” I said with a plastered smile. “It’s my first child.”

“Boy or girl?”


“It’s a girl!” she beamed. “Aren’t you so excited?”

“Yeah!” I replied, trying out an intonation that was higher pitched than usual. “We are thrilled! We are going to name her Maria.”

She grinned at me, still circling her fingers on my stomach. This baby was already making strangers so happy. I thought pregnancy would have made me happier, given me a sense of instant social validation that would glide me through the day like a fine-tuned compliment, or at least glowing skin. I thought when I satisfied all the important life markers— husband, child, occupation—all by the age of 25, I would have a life that was mine, that didn’t require the constant explanation my own family did. But pretending I was as fulfilled by these things as people expected me to be was exhausting. None of these things were for me, the real, true, inner me, they were just feeding some idealized version of me that persisted despite her dysfunctional family.

“What does your husband do?” she asked.

“He’s a psychiatrist,” I said.

“Oh! A doctor!” she gasped.

“I guess psychiatrists are technically doctors,” I said. “I mean most of them are drug dealers really. He’s not like that, but his cohort is full of the absolute worst people.”

She furrowed her brows and began pounding her fists on my arms. Perhaps it wasn’t the time for my opinions on the pharmaceutical industry. I looked at my arms; they had grown so plump in the last few months. My whole body had swelled like a mosquito bite. I wondered if I’d ever get my 23-inch waist back, or if after giving birth my stomach would deflate like a hot air balloon and I’d just be left with a sack of skin I’d have to lift up to wash.

“You live around here?” she asked.

“No I live in New York. I’m here for my baby shower.”

“How fun! We just threw one for my daughter’s best friend. My daughter’s a little older than you. Hasn’t found anyone yet, though. It’s hard.”

“Yeah, it’s hard.”

“All of her friends are married. I think she’s too picky.”

“Hmm, well, it’s good to be picky,” I said. “What does she do?”

“She works as an aid to special needs children. She really likes it.”

“Oh, cool. I was going to teach special needs—my younger sister has autism— but I got a job at a private school and took that instead.”

“That must be hard on your parents,” she said, massaging the area underneath my breasts.

“It’s just my mom. My dad lives in Colorado.”


“And her doll just died.”


“She had a doll she carried around all the time, like a child. It died.”

“Oh no! How did it die?”

“Complications from surgery.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. We’re having a funeral for it the same day of my shower.”

“Really?” she laughed. “A funeral for a doll?”


“That’s cute,” she said.

“I just wish it weren’t the same day.”

“Yeah but you’re lucky— you have a husband and a baby on the way and she will never have those things. She’ll never have anything real.” She stopped massaging me.

“Her dolls are just as real to her,” I said.

“Exactly,” she said, patting my belly as though it were a small dog.

“Do you want to take a shower before your pedicure?” she asked.


My teenage cousins were playing “Bobbing for Nipples,” a game that substituted baby bottle nipples for apples. Dunking their heads, they bit the baby bottle nipples then released them onto the floor like carnivorous animals tearing through flesh. They were getting the living room all wet.

My husband brought me a large piece of gluten-free cake and started rubbing my back. “I’m so sorry,” he said. I saw he’d poured himself a glass of Rosé.

“I thought you were going to stop drinking out of pregnancy solidarity,” I said.

“I can’t today.”

“This cake tastes like printer paper,” I said, coveting his plate of ribs and fried chicken.

“Want to go next?” my cousins pleaded.

My husband shook his head and watched Katrina seize a bedside table from my mothers’ room and head to the backyard.

“I wish I hadn’t let my mother plan my shower,” I said as she walked over.

My mother told everyone to gather round and announced we were going to play some ‘funny games.’ My aunts came in from the kitchen. My grandmother, who spent family gatherings cleaning up as the party went along, lay back on the armchair opposite me. My mother-in-law sat next to my husband, eyeing his quickly dwindling glass of wine. At once everyone surrounded me, the big fat pregnant lady too delicate to stand up.

My mother had a sly smirk bubbling as she looked at us. “We’re all going to share our most embarrassing story about the parents-to-be! I’ll go first. When Vera was 11 years old, she peed her pants in the school library because she needed to know the ending of some book. Haha! What was the book, Vera?”

“I don’t remember,” I said. “But I wet the bed last week because pregnancy has made me incontinent. There’s my embarrassing story!”

My aunts looked at me as if they weren’t sure I was joking.

“Any more stories?” I prodded. Everyone refused eye contact with me.

“Alright mom, what’s the next game?”

“Well I was going to suggest ‘Guess the Mother’s Measurements,’ but it doesn’t seem as though you’re in the mood to be measured.”

“No, thank you.”

“Okay, how about ‘Pin the diaper on the belly?’”

“Why do all these games involve everyone touching me?”

My husband interrupted her. “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Since you guys are an artistic family, why doesn’t everyone do a sketch of what they think our child would look like? Vera and I will do one as well. I can’t promise mine will be very good but…”

“Mine either,” my cousin, now carrying a bundle of baby bottle nipples, said.

My mother tore out several pages from a sketchbook and passed them around, then went to her room to fetch some pencils.

“Do you have a surface to put under the paper?” my Aunt Jefflyn asked. My cousin handed her a large hardcover book.

For ten minutes everyone was silent. It had been years since I’d drawn anything, but my skills had not left me. My husband showed me his drawing of an asymmetrical being with a mass of curls on its head.”

“That doesn’t even look human,” I said. “It looks like Marissa.”

Katrina emerged from the hallway with an office chair she’d stolen from my mother’s studio. She slid it violently across the hardwood floor.

“Funeral’s starting! Time for Marissa’s funeral!” She lifted the chair above her head and descended to the backyard.

My mother waited until she was out of sight and with a lowered voice said, “It is important for her to ‘bury’ this doll obsession she’s had forever.” She used air quotes. “You can stay if you want, but no pressure.”

“What about my gifts?” I asked, motioning to the pile of unopened presents.

“Actually, I’ve got to get going,” my aunt Sharon said. “I have to pick up Robby from detention.”

Katrina was back in the kitchen collecting chairs for her funeral to bring into the backyard. My other relatives began making excuses to leave, but a couple of my mother’s friends stayed, I think, out of loyalty to her. Katrina emerged from the garage with a misshapen wooden box she’d apparently carpentered last night. It was Marissa’s coffin.

Six humans stayed for the service. Most of the seats were filled with Katrina’s other “adopted children.” Ginger, a Black Raggedy Ann doll, sat on Katrina’s lap. Beside her were David and Yolanda (infant refugees from Syria), and a heap of dolls in the seat next to mine. I sat in the only seat I could fit in, a reclining lawn chair that had a cup holder.

“Full throttle funeral experience,” I uttered, nearly prostrate in the lawn chair. My mother looked down at the notecard with a speech Katrina had prepared. Next to her was Katrina’s best friend Gracie, a girl from her class, and the girl’s aunt, also named Gracie.

“Thank God Marissa is dead!” Aunt Gracie bellowed, laughing. “I hope she buries all of them! Let’s get rid of all these imaginaries!”

“Well I think it’s nice she has these dolls. I remember seeing this one a lot when I babysat her. She just wants company,” our 70-year old neighbor added.

My mother stood up to make her speech. She let out an unapologetic sigh and said, with palpable sarcasm, “Marissa was my granddaughter. She was very kind and I miss her. I think we all miss her because she said nice things to us. Thank you.

I stared at the coffin as Katrina informed the six guests that refreshments were to be served in the kitchen, a slideshow of Marissa’s life to be played. I studied the pamphlet Katrina had created. A square picture of Marissa accompanied her eulogy:

~ Marissa was born on October 26 in Pasadena, CA and diagnosed with primordial dwarfism at birth. She got pink eye when she was 2 because the nanny kept putting makeup on her. She wore gothic makeup, black clothing, and red lipstick. She was a wonderful 1st grader. She likes meditation music, art, and even other things. She wanted to be a writer but she decided to be a teacher to help humans in real life. But she is not in the special needs class. She liked to read and write. She writes “thank u” notes and stuff like that. She was good at painting nails. She used to have playmates. She used to have so much fun. She was a good shopper. Marissa was found suspiciously decapitated in the kitchen on June 17. She was supposed to have the body repaired but it didn’t work on her and so she died. But she was very helpful and she thinks of others. We wish that someone could do lots of things like Marissa. ~

I wondered what she was going to do with the coffin, assuming that actually burying the doll in our backyard would be too much, even for her. I looked around and noticed others staring at the doll coffin, too.

Katrina duct taped a lid over the coffin, shook it to be sure it was securely sealed, and then began digging a hole in the abandoned flowerbed with her bare hands. It was astounding how quickly she plowed through the soil.

“Bye Marissa!” she said, laughing as she packed dirt over her grave.

We moved to the living room and the remaining guests began gathering their belongings.

“It’s not over,” Katrina said, fiddling with the DVD player in the living room. Marissa’s face flashed on the screen, beginning a slideshow of unflattering images of her accompanied by oceanic sounds. After watching for a polite amount of time, I started collecting the dirty paper plates strewn around and all the guests vacated.

“Marissa led a happy life,” Katrina assured herself before returning to her room without warning. “She was a nice midget.”


It was thundering that night as I sifted through my baby shower gifts. My husband and I were in my old bedroom on a mattress still fitted with leopard print sheets. He was gradually polishing off the rest of the wine as I made a spreadsheet of everyone’s gifts on my laptop. Someone gave me a breast pump as a gift and my husband pulled it out and held it up in the air like a beer bong.

“You know, this would go faster if you recorded the gifts and names as I went through them,” I said, reading a bib that said Blame my parents. I winced. “What is wrong with my cousin?”

“Usually, you have your girlfriends do that,” he said, squinting. “But you didn’t even invite your friends from high school.”

“I did invite them,” I said. “They didn’t come.”

“What happened to the pretty one we got drinks with?” This was probably the only one he remembered.

“She lives in Ireland. She has for three years.”

“What about Lucy? The lawyer?”

“I told you what happened with her ex’s weird obsession with me.”

“Oh,” he looked around.

“So did anyone get us that crib I put on our registry? I did a lot of research. It’s the safest out of the nicer looking cribs.”

“No, but my mom gave us five hundred dollars.”

“I think it cost more than that,” he said. He squinted as he took another swig from the bottle.

It was easier for me to stop drinking when I learned I was pregnant, because I no longer felt alone in my body. But it was harder for my husband, who would always feel alone in this house.

I unwrapped another square package and pulled out a neon light-up bouncy seat. It screamed animal noises at me. I scrambled to find the off button but there was none.

“This is from Uncle Bob and Olivia,” I told my husband. He wearily typed in the gifts. I crumpled the wrapping paper and deposited it in the trash bag.

The next package felt fragile but heavy and I only had to pry open one corner of the box to see what was inside.

“This dish set, from my Aunt Jefflyn, and these pot holders also,” I told him. “Hello?”

I looked over at him, peacefully asleep with his mouth agape. He had the wine bottle in one hand and the laptop in the other.

I took the computer from him and set it on my stomach, a convenient table, and typed in the information myself.

Katrina’s gift stood out from the pile because of its bright blue wrapping paper, crumpled around an amorphous object. I never knew what to expect from her gifts. One birthday, I got a single paper clip, tucked inside a set of boxes stacked inside each other like Russian Dolls. Another year, a gift card to Staples that had no money on it.

Inside the manila envelope attached to the horridly wrapped gift were twenty-six cards: one from her and the others signed from each of her dolls’ names. It was all in her frenetic handwriting. I threw the envelope across the room and squatted down to grab the present.

I tried to rip the paper open, but my sister had spun packing tape all around the bundle, and so I had to unravel the tape before the paper finally burst open, exploding a bunch of cloth diapers, a hat she’d knitted, and a handwritten note.


Hi Vera!

Congratulations on your fetus! It’s too bad Maria and Marissa won’t be cousins anymore because Marissa is with Jesus now but she will have plenty of cousins anyway from around the world to play with including Grana, Prana, Daniel, Ginger, and so many others. They can go on picnics or stuff like that. But I think you will visit now more because we both have babies. I have so many babies. But maybe yours will be a midget and look like Marissa- RIP.  Please don’t be selfish like dad. There is so much to do here including museums, parks, restaurants, salsa dancing, and even yoga classes.


Katrina and others


I imagined us all on a picnic blanket, displayed at a public park: Maria and I, Katrina and her clown-faced dolls, my mom and her wine, surrounded by strangers with suspicious glances, other families and units. At the thought of this scene I didn’t feel trapped or ashamed or even abnormal. I felt my baby girl pedaling on my stomach, pleasant, like a back scratch.




Sola Saar was born in southern California and lives in New York. Her nonfiction work has been featured in The Huffington Post, Flaunt, Bullett, Hyperallergic, Whitewall Magazine, Salon, and ArtSlant. An excerpt from her novel was featured in Ishmael Reed’s Konch magazine. She graduated from UC Berkeley and is getting her MFA in Fiction at Columbia University.




Break the Silence

by Damilola Olaniyi


Most days I do not know who I am anymore. Somewhere in the recent past I refuse to remember my identity, I became a conformist and blamed it on the culture – for the sake of peace – my identity is shaky at best. I try to convince myself that I  have grown, that I have become older, more mature; but it is just the brand of lie I tell myself to make my brain stop buzzing so that I can get some shut eye.

On most days, I wake up in cold sweat, doubtful if I really ever went to sleep. The exhaustion becomes worse than the previous night and I check to see why my fourth finger feels a little stiff as I try to flex it and when it finally touches my sweaty cheek while catching the morning light, I find that I am married. But how did it happen, in my sleep?

Weeks leading up to our first year anniversary, I do not understand how I got there and I am so confused. We dance in a funny way and the silence between us is strained. We go to great lengths to avoid each other and I know the magic is lost. I wonder why our dance never seems to satisfy the pregnant silence as I crack my knuckles and he moves one leg, I adjust my pillow and he pulls the covers, I sigh deeply and he presses his phone. We are not the people we are many months ago and I am convinced I traded my happiness to save my family name. You see, we are all girls, five of us and it is said that my father is not man enough. But it is said in whispers so that there would not be a blood bath. My mother has cried and begged and fasted but her X chromosome only merged with another X to produce five girls. She has given up on a male child which is just as well. But still I do not know how to describe myself.

My mother’s brother who helped to discipline me by spraining my ankle with a Levi’s belt buckle on a visit one dull afternoon would possibly describe me as extremely stubborn, in need of taming. Now I understand why his family is still in London aside from the passport detail, my nervous long fingers might just leave welts on their bodies.

My father who would tell me in a good mood that I looked just like his dear beloved mother in stature and physical appearance would proudly say that stubbornness runs in his side of the family. He would also call me a rebel leader and non-conformist, a child who knows what to say to get herself out of any situation not a limp noodle who gets lost in pleasing her mother’s heart for fear of losing her identity.

For my mother, I have put her enemies to shame. With the martyrical tone most African mothers adopt, she would thank God in my presence, say a prayer out loud even though we both really know that those spoken thoughts are meant for me. And on the days when I try to be a good daughter I cut her some slack absolving her of the guilt of my bad sleep and persistent headaches by pasting a smile on my face even though I secretly worry about laugh lines forming around my mouth and my cheeks ache.

And that link created at birth during the nine month bonding period, I’m afraid it never happened for us and what little there is has faded out upon instruction to stay away from my father’s house. I did not even have the luxury of absorbing the message first hand. So now, I tell myself never again to apologise for my writings, avoid family as much as I possibly can and mutter to myself that I would find Me, that things would change and people will see me for who I truly am when in truth I am scared deep down and even the tastiest desserts would not drive away this fear.

And so when at thirty I am married, I tell myself that I am one of the lucky ones all the while wondering how I got here. Even though in my husband’s words I broke the jinx, I wonder why I am deeply unhappy waking up next to him and I place one leg on the floor at three AM because I am unable to sleep for fear that I would wake up as a mother with mournful tales to tell my own daughter.




Damilola Olaniyi is an eclectic creative. She is the brain behind Onkowe Contest aimed at helping children discover their creative side. She is a script writer. She loves writing, reading and has a passion for moving images. Some of her reviews have appeared in local dailies like The Daily Sun and Nigerian Pilot.