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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.

20/20

by A.L. Bishop

I woke with limbs full of wet cement, head woolly and hot, wanting only to go outside and lie down in what was left of the snow along the fence. Instead, I went to see the police, as I had promised to do.

“So, you were driving southbound to Fort Erie on the QEW?”

“I was going to the Falls.”

“Why?” He leapt on it. This was one hungry traffic cop.

“That’s where I live.”

“And there was a back-up on the Garden City Skyway? All three lanes?”

“Yes. The Friday of March Break—the exit to the outlet mall—”

“And you knew the young woman?”

What? “No. I didn’t know her.”

The officer watched me closely, a canary feather dangling from his mouth. “You weren’t acquainted in any way?”

“No. She just rear-ended me.” A crunch, bewildered squeaking as my car rocked back and forth, and when I got out—which took forever, because I would have done anything to just sit there and pretend that nothing had happened—when I got out, I saw her behind the wheel, eyes wide as tulips about to drop their petals. I’d never seen someone so young driving a Caprice Classic.

“She ‘just rear-ended’ you.”

“Yes.”

He leaned forward in his chair. “She ‘just rear-ended’ you and then jumped off the Skyway. Just like that.”

Not just like that. First she had crawled over to go out the passenger side door, but then she was up and gone, scrambling over the guardrail like a centipede, translucent, indifferent, disappearing into nothing until, after about half a kilometre, she hit the surface of the canal, though I didn’t know that at the time. I looked into the empty air where her head had just been, catastrophe streaking out into the sunny sky and through every nerve path in my body. I ran to the spot but couldn’t bring myself to lean forward against the wind and the horror and look. So whether we were over water or roads or trees or industrial wasteland at that particular point on the elevated highway was a mystery, but not the most pressing one, in that moment, which was also occupied by intense salivation at the roots of my tongue and puking onto the grit left behind by a winter’s worth of salt and ploughing, near the faint scuffs where she’d gotten out of the car. How small she must have been, to turn in that tiny space. “Pretty much.”

Traffic Columbo decided to change tack. “And you hit the car in front of you?”

“Yes. Tapped it.”

He lunged once more. “Did you exchange words with the young lady?”

“No.”

“Were you carrying a weapon of any kind?”

“What?”

“Did you lose your temper? Was she trying to escape? There will be footage,” he warned. “Traffic cameras.”

In the preceding sixteen hours, I’d replayed what had happened in my head hundreds of times, often with tiny tweaks, trying to conjure up a different outcome. In all those versions, never once had I imagined what would have happened if I had stayed in my car like I wanted to. “Wait. You think she jumped to get away from me?”

“Is that what the witness statements are going to tell me?”

My impression from the cops at the scene had been that it was just a routine public suicide, insofar as suicides in Niagara, a land of waterways and bridges, are more often routinely public. The scene cops were the ones who told me that she’d landed in the canal. I looked it up in the middle of the night—the Skyway is 130 feet at its highest point, and the Welland Canal is about 25 feet deep. I don’t know anything about physics, but I saw a Canada goose get hit by a sports car once on the 401 and just explode. If the girl hadn’t burst when she hit the surface, she might have hit the bottom, like landing on concrete twice, breaking, then breaking again. Could the skin be expected to hold together? She was so small. “I didn’t say anything to her. There wasn’t time to—”

I don’t remember much else that he said after that. He wound up by noting he might need me to come back for further questioning, that I shouldn’t go very far—a moot point, since they still had my car, were keeping it as part of the investigation—but he’d already lost me deep in the notion that the girl might have been frightened. Of me. Most people barely register me, and I’ve certainly never scared anyone, certainly not to death.

If anything, I was on her team. Who hasn’t thought about it, a final exit, on your own terms? Living in a tourist town can do that to you, knowing that everyone else gets to leave and you have to stay right where you are. But I think I would have paused for a look around, sat on the edge for a bit, surveying the sky and then maybe just leaning back, a scuba diver. Not straight up and over, like her, a GIF on autoplay—up and over, up and over.

What if it wasn’t up and over, but simply away, and not simply away, but away from me?

+ + +

At work, I drank the stale water from the steel bottle in my locker left behind after my last shift. As always happens at this time of year, I could taste fish. Today I wondered how much of the taste was actually fish—scales and waste—and how much was from other animals—the great blue herons in the gorge, the twenty or so gull species that pass through—and how much was from people—spilled food and drink, dissolved sunscreen, flaky skin, sewage, the rot of the unembalmed. I stared at the screen, tried to make sense of the delivery schedule, chatted with the FedEx guy like any other day. But it was like a smudge on my glasses, the image of her face behind the windshield, impeding my view whether my eyes were open or closed. Only now, I couldn’t remember where she was looking. We hadn’t made eye contact, but had she seen me at all? Or was it always that vacant stare?

Instead of fading out or lumping together, the questions in my mind got sharper and multiplied and developed taunting laughs, so that when I overheard one of the women on the morgue staff chatting with a mortician outside the dock—for in hospitals, you’ll almost always find shipping and receiving next to the morgue—I locked on like a lamprey.

“Can you imagine? I mean, traffic gets under my skin, too, but…” Ha, ha.

“Well, let’s make it official, shall we? Williamson, Agnes, female, 24…”

“No, never anything quite like this…”

“And they’d only just opened the canal for the season…”

“Interment, yes, small service. Eleven o’clock Tuesday at Fairview. Will that be a problem?”

“Amazing that they recovered enough to inter…”

“I hate talking to my insurance broker, too, but…” Ha, ha, ha.

I stepped into the hallway. “Did she leave a note?”

Elaine—who would have needed a more self-contained temperament in her line of work, I’d have thought—jumped.

“Are you speaking to me?” said the mortician, mortified.

“Ms. Williamson.” Saying her name felt like a betrayal and a consummation at the same time. “Did she leave any indication of why she—?”

“I’d best be on my way,” the mortician told Elaine.

Elaine, now recovered, forced a smile at me.

I wandered back to the computer terminal, thinking about remains. Through the dullness of lingering shock and the faint and constant diesel fumes of the dock, an idea sprang into my head, a motion-sensor light triggered by scurrying rats. If I were to go—pay my respects—what could her people tell me? Or, perhaps, not tell me, overcome with grief and not paying any attention to the nondescript stranger who seemed so broken up about things, but let me hear and see and learn—what clues, what skeleton key?

So, I would go to the burial. That’s what I decided. After work, I got all the way out to the employee parking lot before remembering where my car was, that I had to walk home.

+ + +

My attic apartment is in an old neighbourhood close to the Niagara River, one that used to be something before the bottom fell out of downtown. The street’s leafy quiet butts up against a garish wall of tourism, so that you step out of this creaky old enclave straight into the plastic fantastic if you’re going anywhere on foot, which I was now, heading to the graveyard. It was a bit like having to pass through Disney World to get anywhere, but with more smut and fewer people tasked with cleaning up urine.

Dirty snow clung to the ground, defiant of the brightening sun, and my face felt hot from the cold by the time I arrived at the cemetery. I surveyed the scene as I approached along the walking path. People weren’t thick on the ground—a minister, attendants from the funeral home, though not the giddy mortician, and a few middle-aged women in parkas and matching black pants. Those matching black pants, a uniform, gave me pause. If Agnes Williamson had no one to bid her farewell apart from a few work friends, my already-uncomfortable status as an intruder on a fact-finding mission felt shameful, obvious, and futile, worst of all.

I stopped and someone ran into me from behind.

The woman had a face dried out from too much nicotine and eyes like amber, glistening through as much mascara as I had seen one person wear at one time. Her red scarf had catches in it. She looked at me, put out and expectant.

Under her gaze, I felt unable to go anywhere except forward, toward the gravesite. Panicking but anxious to blend in and escape her, I left the path, stepping onto the colourless, snow-flattened grass. She fell in beside me. She stood where I stood, not far from the minister, who appeared to take our arrival as a signal that he could begin. The wind moved his greying hair off his head. He patted it down.

The woman sniffled quietly at first, but soon began to sob. Christ, was this Agnes’s mother?

The service, which couldn’t have lasted for more than a quarter of an hour, took a thousand years standing next to the weeping woman. As soon as the minister wrapped up, all of the black-slacked ladies on the other side of the grave hastened over en masse to huddle around her and, beside her, me.

The heaviest one grasped both her hands. “You must be Agnes’s mom. My name is Maria. I was her supervisor at the restaurant.”

Agnes’s mother nodded but didn’t speak.

“We’re all going to miss her. She always helped out if one of us needed a break. Never complained. Good worker.”

Multiple sympathetic gazes landed on me.

Overwhelmed with guilt, I dropped my head, but this somehow implied confirmation of a relationship, elevating me from rubbernecked gawker to full-on imposter.

“Ah, Agnes never said much,” said Maria, patting my shoulder. “Agnes was not a big talker, either, was she? But she did good work. We’re all going to miss her.” Then she said to me in a low voice, “Can you come by the restaurant? Agnes left a few things in her locker. We wasn’t sure who to give them to.”

Agnes’s mother looked up at me with blackened eyes.

“You should have that,” I said to her. She burst into fresh tears.

“It’s Sunny Side Up, on the Lane,” Maria said, trying to keep her voice down and be heard over Agnes’s mother’s wailing at the same time. “I’m on morning shift, next four days.”

Maria stepped away and I seized the chance to peel off with the work friends, but Agnes’s mother put her hand on my wrist, a burr.

“Won’t you help me?” Her voice held me, though I wanted only to be away from her.

Everyone else, even the minister, had hoofed it. “What can I do?”

“A drink, to start.” Didn’t she care that I was a complete stranger? “I’m staying downtown. So, close to that.”

“I don’t have my car.” I felt lucky that my knees didn’t give out as I spoke.

She hadn’t let go of my arm. “You have a couple of casinos in this town, don’t you?”

I held out a slight hope that if I started moving, she might let me go. Instead, she clasped my elbow and walked with me out of the cemetery.

“I’m due in for my shift at the hospital,” I said, which wasn’t true.

She ignored me. “You knew my daughter?” The word “daughter” stuck in her throat.

“Not really.” Her sharp glance drove another lie from my lips. “Not—well.” It took my breath away.

“You’re here, aren’t you? You wouldn’t be here if she didn’t mean something to you.”

As we got closer to Bridge Street, a man who should have been wearing a coat passed us on the sidewalk, too close.

“I need to understand what happened to her,” she said.

So did I. Ever so much. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.” I took my arm away from her, anxious to commence the likely interminable process of forgetting that I had ever crossed this line. I put my hands in my pockets, keeping an eye on the coatless man.

“What’s your name?”

I met her eyes as briefly as I could, dropped them to the lipstick bleeding up into the skin around her mouth. “Alex.”

Her face lit up. “She talked about you!”

I can’t imagine what I looked like when she said that.

“She did! All the time, she did.”

“It must have been another—”

She grabbed my wrist again. Flecks of mascara floated in the tears collecting over her heavy lower lids. “I know you were good to her. I know she would want you to be good to me. We’re both hurting, here. I think we can help each other.”

“I’m sorry. I have to get to work.”

She made a sort of huffing noise, and then fumbled around in her purse and came up with a pen. She scribbled down a number on a business card and handed it to me. It was for Leopold Drewe of Drewe Financial in Halifax. On the back, she’d written “Vi” and a telephone number. “I’m here for a few days.”

The man with no coat lurked a few feet away. The thought of learning more about Agnes, maybe finding answers—not just for me, but for Vi, too, for both of us—wrapped itself around me in slow, sticky loops, like the pulled candy they used to make behind a window on Queen Street when I was a kid. I held the card for a few seconds, scraping its edge against the winter-dry skin on the inside of my thumb, staring at the man.

“I can come with you for a bit.”

She smiled, then wilted, out of relief, I guess.

+ + +

We went to the old casino, what was once Maple Leaf Village, and ordered drinks in the restaurant, scotch and soda for her, tea for me.

“You came from Halifax?”

Vi frowned. “Who told you that?”

“Oh.” I pulled the card out of my pocket. “It says—”

She took it and peered at it, then tossed it on the floor. “Some man in a bar gave me that.”

“Oh. So did you have to travel far to—?”

Vi cleared her throat. “I was already on my way here when I got word. I wanted to see her—Agnes—about something.” Her shoulders crumpled in an exhausted, hollowed-out way. “Well, I’m sure she told you all about it. You know the bind I’m in.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“If I don’t get to Andrew, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“Andrew?”

Vi drained her glass. “My son.”

“I didn’t know she had a brother. She—never mentioned him.” And there I was, manufacturing Agnes, my mouth so sour from it I thought my gums might start to bleed.

Vi held up her empty glass as a signal to our server. “Half-brother.”

“Older or younger?”

She paused. “He’s 24. They weren’t close.” She looked at me through bitumen-encrusted lashes. “How long have you and Agnes been friends?”

I took a big sip of the mug of tea the waiter had brought me and felt the fingers of hell on the insides of my cheeks, my tongue, my throat, the boiling water claiming what felt like many layers of tissue. Trying to recover, I took off my glasses and cleaned them on my shirt, then resettled them on my face. When I blew on the tea, they fogged up.

Vi smoothed back her thin brown hair, pressing the skin at her temples. “Are you all right?” She let it hang, my mounting discomfort.

“Yes. Sorry. You were saying, about going to see Andrew?” The inside of my mouth was still on fire. “Where is he?”

“Switzerland.”

“That’s why he’s not here today.” Not the right thing to say. “For Agnes. For you. It was too far to come.” Disdain weighed down her heavily plucked brows. “When does he expect you?”

Vi’s face contracted into helplessness. “I can’t afford it now.”

Sure. Funerals. “That’s terrible.”

“He’s ill. He needs me to take care of him.” Vi touched her cheekbone with her ring finger, blotting tears I couldn’t see in the patchy casino lighting. “I just don’t know what I’ll do now. If I don’t get to Andrew, I don’t know what I’ll do. I can’t lose another—”

“That’s terrible,” I said again.

She trained her golden eyes on me. “I don’t need your pity. I need your help.”

“How can I help you?”

“You said you’re a doctor.”

When had I said that? Is this what people meant when they talked about losing track of your own lies? “No. I’m not. A doctor.”

“You said you had to get to the hospital. For work.”

“Oh—no. I work in shipping.”

I hadn’t seen anyone look so disappointed in me since I’d last seen my parents.

“The mail room?” She let out a little bleat of laughter. Our server walked by, a young man with broad shoulders and purplish white teeth. She waved him over. I thought she might be checking on the status of her refill, but she asked for the cheque. He started to fish through a wad of papers.

I grabbed the bill when he held it out. “Here, I can—”

“You don’t want to help me. I don’t know why you would pretend.”

The server handed me a portable card reader. Vi rolled her eyes at him under her laden lashes and he put his hand on the back of her chair, brushing her shoulder, giving her the smile he almost certainly saved for women like her. He flirted out of habit, to while away his shifts and maybe wring a few extra dollars out of the perpetually sad clientele. But Vi had just buried her daughter. I cancelled the tip I’d been about to confirm on the device and handed it back to him.

“Do you want to go anywhere else?”

“With you?” Vi pulled on her coat, tied her ratty red scarf. It seemed that the answer was in the question. I followed her out of the restaurant anyway, through the casino, into the parking lot, where a light, icy rain flicked against the awning overhead.

“Was Agnes going to come with you overseas?”

“Are you trying to upset me?” She was small, like Agnes, but not at all frail.

“Of course not. I’m sorry. I’m just—I just wish I knew why Agnes was so sad.”

She unleashed that bitter laugh again. “You sound like a terrific friend.”

Desperate to hold her there, desperate to atone, I said, “I wasn’t her friend.”

Her face went still.

“I was just there. When she did it. And I wanted to—”

“Did what?”

I dropped my voice. “When she killed herself.”

“Killed herself,” Vi said, almost as though she didn’t believe me. “What does that mean, you were there? You watched your friend die?”

“She wasn’t my friend.” I kept running out of air when I tried to speak. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t know your daughter. I only happened to be there when she—I just need to know why, I need to know what made her do it.”

Vi’s yellow eyes flared, twin matches. “You’ve been lying to me.”

“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

A taxi pulled up from the nearby taxi stand. She turned away.

“Vi, please—I’ll give you anything. But please, can you just tell me what was going on with—why she was so—”

Vi stopped, holding the door handle, and said, “I need money.”

Her voice sounded different, so it took me a minute to process. “To get to Andrew,” I said at last.

She threw her arms around my neck, back to herself again. “I knew you would understand, honey. Agnes was going to give me the money. She’d been putting it by to try and help me out. But I can’t get to it. Everything’s all tied up.”

I tried to catch up. “I’ve heard that sort of thing can take forever.”

“I can’t wait. I thought that if you knew how much she wanted to help me, that you might step up.” When I didn’t immediately volunteer, she hardened. “That was when I thought you two were friends. And here it was all a filthy lie.”

“You want me to give you money?”

Lend it to me,” said Vi, hurt. “Just for a while.”

No one had ever asked me for money before for what, to me, were obvious reasons—nine hundred of them, the sum total of my personal assets. I didn’t know the correct reaction, or the protocol for agreeing or refusing. “How much?”

“Ten grand.”

“I don’t have—”

She cooled off again. “Right. The mail room.”

Agnes wasn’t my friend. Agnes wasn’t my anything. And yet, if I had only stayed in my car, she might—

 Vi made a move for the taxi.

“I didn’t know that’s what you wanted,” I said, stalling.

“It isn’t what I wanted.” She pouted. “You’re abusing me terribly. I thought you might like to try to make it up to me. If I could trade it all and have my daughter back, you know I would.”

She opened the cab door. I spotted a standalone ATM near the lobby entrance. “Wait.”

I went over and withdrew my daily limit, four hundred dollars. The taxi was just starting to pull away as I got back but I yanked open the door and jumped in. I thought she would have the driver throw me out, but when I handed her the money, she started counting it. I nodded at him to go.

She rolled her eyes and put the cash in her bag, stonewalling me all the way to a mouldy motor inn downtown, where I got out with her and paid the cabbie, hoping she might relent and ask me in and tell me all about her dead kid.

Fluorescent lights shone over each numbered door. As Vi stood before her cabin, one lit up her hair from behind, sad and wispy. “You know, you have my number,” she said. “If you actually want to help.”

She closed the door in my face. Halfway across the parking lot, I remembered that I didn’t have her number anymore—it was on the floor under the table at the casino. I went back and knocked, but she didn’t answer. Maybe she was taking a shower.

I wandered around downtown for a while, through the underpass where all the stray cats live, imagining Vi’s next few days. There would be lawyers to deal with, perhaps police procedure, not to mention scraping together the money to pay for the burial. She would have to go through Agnes’s home, her things. And all of it would be worse than just the fact of doing it—it would all be compounded by why she was doing it. And what had I given her, for all that misery? A pack of lies and a few hundred bucks.

+ + +

Sometime in the night, I remembered Maria and the bag of Agnes’s belongings waiting for Vi at the restaurant.

I set out first thing. I still hadn’t heard from the police about my car, so I walked again, the cold, damp air clamouring for the space between my clothes and my skin.

The restaurant’s ‘please seat yourself’ placard was up. Everything looked tired—the plastic plants, the stained upholstery. I ordered toast and then thought of Agnes with her goggle eyes bringing toast to liars in the early morning and lost my appetite. When Maria came out of the men’s room with a mop and bucket, I snapped my face toward the window, filled with regret. I took a sip of water but choked on it when I heard her say, “Is it you?”

I coughed and sputtered. Maria yanked napkins from the plastic dispenser on the table and handed them to me, then wiped down the table. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry to startle you.” Her mild accent gave her words a plunging rhythm.

My eyes watered, which I’m sure made her think I was crying. “It’s OK.”

“It is you. I didn’t mean to—of course, you wouldn’t remember me. We met the other day.”

“I remember. You said you had some stuff that was—”

A small man stalked out of the kitchen, his hair greased back over the popped collar of his tracksuit jacket.

“Yes, yes, I’m glad you were able to come,” Maria said. “I wondered how you and your mother are doing. Oh, how we miss your sister.”

Maria couldn’t see the little guy hopping up the aisle toward us, so when he spoke, she recoiled.

“Maria? What’s the problem here?”

“She’s helping me,” I told him. “I was choking.”

“Tony.” Maria bunched up the soggy paper napkins in one hand. “This is—you remember poor Agnes—”

“Who?”

Maria, horrified, said, “Agnes!”

“Get this cleaned up.” He returned to the hostess stand.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “He’s the manager, but I usually take care of anything to do with the staff.” Her troubled smile fell apart, and she opted for retreat. “I’ll only be a moment.”

I watched her head toward a back room. Then my eyes settled again on Tony at the cash register and stayed there until she got back with a grocery bag. She whispered, “There’s money. I made sure no one touched it.”

The shame at being so unjustly trusted threatened the integrity of my skull. Still, I couldn’t help myself. “Can you tell me anything about her? About why she was—like she was?”

Maria shook her head. “It can be hard, families. I know. I wish I could tell you more. She was so quiet. Worked hard, never complained. I didn’t know her better than that.”

“Maria!” Tony hit the side of the register with the flat of his hand.

“I’m sorry, I can’t talk no more,” Maria said. “But I appreciate you coming in here. Agnes was a good girl. Now, you give our best to your poor ma.”

Head spinning, I left a ten-dollar tip for the two-dollar toast that hadn’t arrived and managed not to throw up in the bushes. Maria thought her dead friend was my sister, and now I had swindled her out of Agnes’s last worldly possessions.

I took a deep breath. After all, a work locker is hardly the place for worldly possessions. Mine had cough drops and empty hand sanitizer bottles. If there was a letter or a will or a manifesto, it wasn’t going to be in this bag.

Anyway, I hadn’t gotten Agnes’s things for me. I’d gotten them for Vi.

+ + +

Downtown, a heavy, damp chill trapped foul smells in the road.

I walked to Vi’s motel, stopping only at an ATM to get out another $400. It was still early, but I knocked on her door. She didn’t answer. I waited next to the overgrown and yet mostly dead cedar shrubs lining the parking lot, holding the bag of Agnes’s things, switching it back and forth between my hands as they got sweaty in spite of the cold. Apart from a few meandering derelicts, there wasn’t much foot traffic. A patrol car passed without slowing down. Cracked, faded plastic bowl chairs, stacked up at one side of the motel waiting to be set out for the summer, or maybe for garbage collection, were my only companions, apart from a parked silver Mercedes and Agnes’s legacy.

My phone rang.

“Alex Larson?”

The lead investigating officer, not the keener who had taken my statement, wanted to inform me that I had been cleared of all wrong-doing, and that no charges would be filed by the driver of the car I’d hit, either. I could collect my vehicle later in the day.

He was starting to say something about insurance and estates when the door to cabin five opened.

“Great, thanks.” I hung up.

Vi’s dusky head appeared in the weak sunlight. She had on her dressy coat, the red scarf with catches in it. Behind her, a bald man in a suit followed her out. The Mercedes chirped.

Her coal-rimmed eyes went stony when she saw me approaching. “What do you want?”

I held out the bag. “I went to the restaurant where Agnes—you remember, her coworkers said we should—these things belonged to her.”

Vi moved toward the passenger door. 

“Agnes’s things,” I said. “From her work.”

“Friend of yours?” The man looked me up and down, grinning.

“No.”

“You can join us, if you like,” he said.

“I’ll just be a second,” said Vi.

He shrugged and got behind the wheel. She grabbed the bag and dug around, pulling out an envelope and emptying it of the money Maria had safeguarded. The car started. Vi tossed everything else onto the pavement.  

Grief makes people do strange things. I bent over to rescue the bag and the discarded envelope. “I’m sure it must be so hard, going through all of her stuff and every—”  

She got into the car, which pulled out and away.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but the motel owner came out of the office and hollered at me. “Hey! You can’t work here!”

With no idea where to go, I started to walk, the bag bouncing against my leg.

+ + +

At the cemetery, the grass was crunchy with frost, the ground cold and hard as I sat across from the temporary marker that read “A. Williamson.”

People who die in freak accidents have all kinds of half-finished detritus kicking around afterward. Their loved ones have to decide about every single piece, whether or not to donate the teach-yourself-to-play-harmonica book to charity or to teach themselves to play, in honour of the dead person, who may have gotten the book as a gift and never had any intention of learning. If, on the other hand, you’re making an exit, you make sure things are sorted—you don’t want people stumbling across something you’d prefer left unseen, or swooping in and claiming a memory or memento that shouldn’t be theirs. If you’re on your way out, you get your house in order. Unless, of course, you’re on the fence about leaving when out of nowhere, you find yourself faced with an opportune moment. Or scared out of your wits by some stranger you’ve just hit with your—

I wrapped my arms around my knees and pressed my forehead against them, shivering at all of the horrors I’d come to see in the last few days, most of them perpetrated by me.

Then I sat up again and opened the bag.

Inside, there was a black cardigan that smelled of kitchen grease. I didn’t pull it all the way out. A few coloured elastics and bobby pins fell off of a sleeve, with one or two long brown hairs still in them. What would Vi have done with the hairs? Take them out of the elastics? Drop them onto the ground or release them to the wind—when these were the last, the very last ones?

Under the sweater was a coupon for a local uniform manufacturing store, and the envelope, which had a word that might have been “index” scribbled in pencil. At the very bottom was a folded piece of paper, a printout of Agnes’s obituary. Had Maria printed it? Unauthorized use of the office printer hardly seemed characteristic, from what I knew. I hadn’t ever seen the obituary, was surprised there was one. I couldn’t imagine Vi at a keyboard, hunting and pecking out a death announcement for publication.

A sharp breeze caught the paper. I thought about letting go.

Instead, I read it—several times, without making sense of it—loving parents, both deceased. Edgar and Carolina. No siblings. Not survived by anyone. Loving parents, both deceased.

I knew those names. They were on the stone next to Agnes’s marker.

I squinted in the sunlight to read the stones again. Edgar and Carolina Williamson, different birth days, same death day, three years ago. They died on the same day? How? A fire? Car accident? Atrociously bad luck?

I forced myself up into a crouch, then willed my knees to straighten as I stood. My numbing fingers lost their grip on the obituary, which almost refolded itself as it skittered away. I rolled up the bag and tucked it between a small shrub and the headstone for Edgar and Carolina. Then I drove my fists deep into my pockets, punching something. My right hand opened and closed again around cold polymer, heedless and aloof, a wad of ATM twenties.

BIO

A.L. Bishop is a writer in Niagara Falls, Canada whose stories have previously appeared in Book Six of the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology Series, Exile: The Literary Quarterly, and The Forge. Learn more at www.albishopiswriting.com.

Poem for the New Year

by J.A. Staisey

Crack the champagne  Yesterday already happened
once and for the first time  Now it’s almost morning
The resolutions will be made diamond-hard
on the pale slates of memories  So when we forget
it will be intentional and when we say we didn’t know
it will be because we did  We will pick up dust
and soldier on through fields that aren’t ours
past the eyes that know our names  Eyes that know
our footfalls and the lies trapped by teeth  Evident
and obvious to skeptics Those enquiring minds  Wondering
when will the clock sound and where did all the champagne go?


120 Lincoln Ave.

Through the door and into
the puddle of mail—
waist-deep, knee-wide.

A bag in the corner means
‘junk,’ means ‘sorry
they don’t live here now.’

We sift and sort
our way to the stairs,
fishing for our keys.

Neighbors come and go
so fast no one notifies
the banks or next-of-kin.


Peaceful Cohabitation

Since neither of us has been able to exterminate the other,
the roaches and I have learned to live together.
Our initial bloody battles—the screaming, the poison—
none of it got us anywhere.  This is their home just as it is mine.
They were here before me and will be here after me; I have learned
to respect this.  They have history and numbers.  I have size
and a lease.  Determination is shared.  So this—cohabitation—is
the only available solution.  We try to keep to ourselves,
go about our business, interact as little as possible.  And we’ve managed
to lay a few ground rules, our own peace accord:
drains and windows are acceptable, drawers are not,
the bedroom is reserved for me alone.  Though occasionally
a renegade breaks free, to explore uncharted territory.
Being of greater stature I seldom venture into their terrain.
I did once reach behind the heating pipes—am still sorry.


notes on a scene

1.         Six-thirty in the morning and I can’t sleep
            like this.  Knocking on the veranda door,
            a misinterpretation: I only want help.
            Fingers pulling pins and flowers from my hair.
            Gathering on your bed all you’ll keep
            once I’m gone.  In the morning
            it will be too late; the bags will be packed.
            So, this is all there is.  Your fingers, my hair.

2.         She returned a month later wearing
            the same clothes as the day she left.  By coincidence
            or design, it drew all his attention.
            He kept trying to think of something else
            to say as she poked the ice in her glass.  Twice
            he opened his mouth.  She blinked nervous
            and thought of smiling, smiled, the glass at her lip.
            A coaster moved into place.

3.         Midday wakes alone, but not me.  A girl still sleeping
            in the bed as I dress, leave.  I find you
            at the harbor where we sit, drink beer, try to eat.
            Again and again I look at you; again and again
            linger on your lips where words come out.
            Here we are, in chairs separated by a table
            killing time: you pull at your hair, watching
            the water.  Waiting to stand and turn.

BIO

J.A. Staisey lives in Los Angeles. They work in an office by day and write by night.

A Better Parent

by Alison Gadsby

Niki is smiling. Just in case. She’s not happy, but when her son Jeremy sees her sitting in the stands she wants to look it. She got up at 5:00 am, tossed frozen fruit and some green protein powder into the blender (as instructed by her ex-husband Chris) and swirled up a nutritious smoothie that was immediately rejected as being too green, too wrong. Jeremy scrambled up his own eggs and slurped the barely cooked mess into his mouth as she drove downtown to the university pool for his first swim meet of the season.

His eyes wander up every few minutes, not to Niki, but to the empty spaces around her. No Dad. He’s had his headphones on since he woke up. She knows she shouldn’t be here, but it’s her weekend. She hasn’t been to a swim meet in two years. Ever since Jeremy got fast and started qualifying for bigger and faster meets, he always chose his dad.

It started with the dog. The thing she’d hoped might save her marriage. One parent had to stay home with the puppy while the other did swim practices and meets. Niki got the dog.

Jeremy needs to take six seconds off his 200 Fly to qualify for Provincials. That feels like a lot to her, but Niki knows nothing. Chris was the swimmer. When Jeremy started with the club three years ago, he was just a small, keen eight-year-old who had a knack for it. Good genes, Chris joked. But it’s no joke now. He swims nine times a week and Chris is some kind of swim official. The early mornings, when Jeremy is with her, are a killer. Some days she asks him to go back to bed and not tell his dad he missed practice. She figures it will make him a more flexible person. Chris’ philosophy is, ‘there’s no point in doing anything if you’re not going to do it right and do your best’. That was their marriage. Niki didn’t do it right. She never remembered to ask him about his day, she drank too much wine, and she couldn’t get up before eleven even one day on the weekend so they could get shit Chris wanted done, done.

Jeremy is bobbing his head back and forth to whatever song is playing in his ears. The rhythm of the imagined race moving his body.

Margaret, another mother, is screeching “Aidan, Aidan” like a fox looking for a lost pup.

Niki can see Aidan trying to ignore her, but her shouts are so loud the other swimmers start poking him to get her to shut up.

Aidan tilts his head slightly and his father yells, “20 seconds.”

Niki flips through the heat sheet for Aidan’s name. They want their eleven-year-old to go well under three minutes in the 200 Backstroke. Seems outrageous, but what the hell does she know?

Margaret turns to Niki, “Jay going for Festivals, too?”

Her using Chris’ nickname for Jeremy is irritating. In the buffet line at the awards banquet last year, Niki asked if she preferred Maggie or Margaret. Her reply was a terse ‘while some call me Maggie, it’s Margaret’. Niki was granted Maggie status last spring, but has stuck with Margaret.

“I have no idea,” Niki says. It must drive Margaret bananas to know someone like Niki exists. A parent who doesn’t spend hours poring over time standards and calculating Olympic probabilities for her kid.

The Olympics. That had been their biggest fight. After a particularly good swim meet Chris ruffled Jeremy’s wet hair and said, “Kid stands a good chance at going in 2028, maybe even 2024.”

“God help him if he changes his mind,” Niki said.

“Well I’m sure if you could weasel your way into his head, you’d change it for him.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t waste your time,” Chris had finally said, “Haven’t you got better things to do, wine to drink?”

They went on for over an hour, and when they paused for a second, she’d looked at the clock. She wanted to know the exact minute it ended for her. At 11:46 am on a snowy December Saturday morning, she officially hated him.

“Aidan!” Margaret shouts again waving her hands wildly. When he finally looks up, Niki can see fear crawling all over his face. Blotches of red over pale grey skin. Someone announces they’re marshalling the 200 Backstroke. There’s still loads of time before his race. But Margaret is spewing her panic all over this kid. His father’s fingers are frantically scrolling up and down his iPad at the time standards.

Niki wants to say something, but instead looks away and pulls a magazine out of her bag. Who was she to judge bad parenting? Everyone has a story to tell about their shitty parents. Jeremy won’t be any different.

“Nothing therapy won’t fix,” Niki’s mother used to say. “It’s not like we locked you in the closet or tied you to the bed.”

“Mama,” she hears Jeremy’s voice, but he’s no longer sitting where he was. Hawk-eyed Margaret pulls on Niki’s t-shirt pointing to Jeremy directly beneath them.

Jeremy holds up his goggles. He has chewed at the ends and anxiously twisted the rubber so that now they’re broken.

 “There’s a spare in your bag,” she shouts quietly.

“These are them,” he says.

Margaret interrupts, “Aidan has an extra pair.”

Jeremy looks to Margaret and then back to Niki and shakes his head. They are not the right kind. He can only wear some Swedish brand with silicone pads. Chris found them, of course and they can only be purchased at the swim store miles outside the city. Niki points at her watch. She doesn’t have time. He’s terrified. She nods her head, but taps on her watch to tell him it’s too late.

Jeremy puts his hands together and pleads with her. She knows if Chris were here, he’d have a dozen pairs in the glovebox of his BMW. In his back pocket.

Niki collects her things and as she puts her sweater on she asks Margaret to give Jeremy a pair just in case she doesn’t get back in time.

“47 minutes,” Ken says. He counted the number of heats and the average times and gives her what is likely the exact time of Jeremy’s heat.

As Niki pulls open the doors to the gallery, a man falls through, almost tripping down the stairs. A small boy, about four or five years old, stands holding the door with his small body while the man struggles to get back up using the railing. He reeks of alcohol, a familiar blend of freshly drunk beer and stale old whiskey. Niki’s Dad had the very same smell. It’s as overpowering now as it was when she was little.

The boy’s eyes are glued to a bright pink Nintendo DS. He follows his father as he weaves between the backs of cheering and whistling parents and the wall, falling down on his butt beside Margaret and Ken. Niki can’t take her eyes off the boy who doesn’t miss a step walking and playing his game. The drunk man scans the deck and when he sees someone, he waves awkwardly. Niki follows his gaze to a girl about the same age as Jeremy. She doesn’t wave back until the young boy lifts his eyes from the game. They share a smile as the girl bends her wrist back and wiggles her fingers. The boy gives her one small thumb up, before sinking back into his game world.

Niki can hear Nana Mouskouri blaring in her head with that tinny car radio voice.  The CBC playing full volume while her Dad slips on and off the gravel shoulder of Highway 7.

Niki’s unblinking eyes start stinging and she goes back to where she was sitting. Jeremy is waving his hands, but Niki doesn’t look down.

Margaret lifts her phone points to the drunk Dad and mouths to Niki, ‘Should I call the police’? Niki shakes her head aggressively, no. Aidan is in the water and Ken is shouting over the railing. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. AIDAN. Kick. Even the drunk Dad is startled each time Ken yells. Margaret puts down her phone and joins her husband at the railing, blocking the view of anyone else who might want to watch the race.

Niki sits. She sees the young boy is playing a word game. He’d already found a bunch of four and five letter words from an eight-letter anagram. She looks closer.

“Did you get, SPILL?” she says.

The boy tilts the game away from her.

Aidan finishes his race and Ken is shredding the heat sheets.

Ken looks up to the clock and shouts, “Jesus fucking Christ,” before he turns to leave.

Aidan goes under the water and then comes up and starts banging his head on the wall. He took off eight seconds, won his heat and now has to wait for the other boys to finish. Not good enough he’s the fastest kid here. Jeremy approaches him after he gets out of the water and whispers something in his ear. They share a handshake that includes a fist bump, a side fist and a high five.

“Fucking high fives. Are you kidding me?” Ken says to Niki as though she’s to blame for the gesture.

Jeremy holds up Aidan’s goggles and gives her the okay sign.

Then from across the gallery, at the deep end of the pool, she hears Chris’s whistle. He used to do it in the playground when Jeremy was little. Like their son was a dog. Chris shouts Jay’s name and holds up a pair of goggles. Ken uses Niki as a handrail as he steps up and walks out of the gallery, mumbling more profanities and throwing the ripped and crumpled sheets to the ground.

The drunk Dad stirs and Niki can see it before it happens. He’s choking on all the drink, trying desperately to not spill his guts, swiping at the saliva dripping from his mouth. Liquid vomit fills the concrete floor at his feet.

It takes over twenty minutes for two security guards to turn up. One of them steps down and kicks the drunk Dad in the lower back. The man opens and then closes his eyes. The boy slowly slides to sit beside Niki, never once turning away from his jumbled words.

“Sir, can you stand on your own?” the other guard asks. The man shakes his head. The guards bend on either side of him and put an arm under each shoulder and lift. On the count of three they step up and drag him to the top leaning him against the railing as one speaks into his walkie talkie asking for help.

Niki’s head bounced off the wall. She was thirteen. She listened as her father tried to crawl up to this bedroom. He fell backward twice, landing on the hardwood floor with a thud that shook the house. When she had dared leave her bedroom to help him navigate the narrow flight, he had just enough strength to give Niki a good shove down the stairs.

As the guards turn the dad toward the exit, Margaret shouts after them, “Hey, his kid’s here too.”

The boy shrinks into Niki. “He’s fine here,” she says.

“He’s from some club up north,” Margaret says, “We don’t know them.”

“How’d you get here, son?” One of the guards kneels beside them.

“Did your father drive?” he asks.

Niki says, “We can hang out until his sister finishes swimming. I can get them both home.”

Margaret says, “You can’t do that.”

Niki tells her to shut up.

“I can get him home,” she says again.

“Unless you’re a relative or friend of the family, I’ll have to take the boy with me,” the guard says.

The Dad is mumbling something, barely able to keep his head up. It’s as if he’s gotten drunker.

The boy stands up and robotically follows the guards. Niki wants to grab him, stop them from taking him away, but her throat tightens and she cannot take a breath. How she always dreamed of punching her father back but the best arguments happened after he died. Minutes after the dad and boy disappear, Niki still has her eyes on the door.

They announce the boys 200 Fly. Jeremy is in the last of three heats.

He swings his arms around as he takes his place behind Lane 4. He unplugs an earphone gives his name to the timekeeper and steps back, intermittently slapping his legs and swinging his arms.

Niki can’t speak. She wants to cheer him on.

Chris has moved closer to the starting blocks. Go Jay Go. Jeremy claps his hands and throws two fists in the air toward his dad. Happier than a pig in shit, Niki’s mother might have said.

Chris was filling a suitcase with clothes when Niki stumbled into their bedroom at two in the morning last January. It was a post-holiday holiday party she had to attend, but she was angry he was leaving. What gave him the right to pack his bags? It was over. Long over. And don’t think because you’re packing up all your shit that it’s you who’s come to some suddenly wide-eyed decision that this isn’t working. You massive mother-fucking dickhead. She’d gone off the deep end, she knew it and all the while she helped him throw his crap in a couple more suitcases, she was stripping off her own clothes. As he stopped at the front door, Niki stood naked in the living room applauding him and his big move.

Margaret is still talking about the drunk father. All disgust, pity and shame as they wonder who his swimmer is. Niki looks down to the girl, who is beside her coach staring blankly at the gallery’s exit doors. Niki knows that face, lifeless because any twitch or slight movement will trigger tears and with tears comes a full-blown breakdown.

The race starts and Jeremy kicks fast and furiously before he comes up with his first stroke, a full body length ahead of the swimmer next to him. His first turn brings him even further ahead of the pack. Niki rocks back and forth to the rhythm of the stroke. It soothes her. This is what she will tell him after the race. She will thank him. How the grace of his swimming calmed her.

As Jeremy turns again, Margaret asks Niki if she knows the drunk asshole. Niki shakes her head without looking at her. Margaret keeps talking anyway. How she demands people don’t speak to her when Aidan swims and yet she yacks and yacks now. Margaret adds, how sorry she feels for the drunk man’s kids.

Jeremy finishes. Niki’s eyes are clouded. When she stands to cheer, tears spill down her face.

“You wonder why some people become parents,” Margaret says.

Jeremy glances up at the clock and throws his hands in the air before diving backwards under the water.

Niki watches Chris whooping and hollering, wiping his own eyes. He stares back at her. If only once he could look like he doesn’t know he’s the better parent.

BIO

Alison Gadsby is a Toronto-based fiction writer. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and holds a BA in Creative Writing from York University, where she was awarded the bp nichol award for exceptional achievement. She was also recently awarded a two-week residency at the Banff Centre of the Arts. 

Alison is an active participant in the literary community and is the founder, curator and host of Junction Reads a monthly prose reading series in Toronto. 

DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN

by Tony Van Witsen

I awoke and even before I remembered where I was, I knew it wasn’t Michigan. The light was different: soft and cottony. The house shook slightly from traffic on the freeway and the air smelled of lemons. Sitting up, I saw a range of jagged hills outside the window. Then I remembered: it was just my luck that when my mother skipped out on her happy home for Hollywood, part of her plan was to take me along and make an actor of me. Another part was to trade Michigan and my Communist-obsessed father for California and a chance to breathe the same air as movie stars.

As a plan, it was no more or less logical than our block back home. To our left, Skip and Betsy Ambler maintained the biggest collection of science fiction I’d ever seen. On Halloween they greeted candy seekers by dressing in silver spacesuits with plexiglass bubble helmets.

Somewhere they had found hard candies shaped like cherry red or lime green rocket ships with tail fins. When my brother Ted reached into the bowl for another, Betsy gave his hand a sharp little slap. “Only one per star fleet, Ranger.”

To our right lived our dentist, Dr. Frederick Payne, whose name made him the butt of endless jokes. Dr. Payne was the only person we knew who’d supported Adlai Stevenson for President, giving him and my father something to argue about during cleanings. I knew Dr. Payne took unfair advantage by arguing when he had my father’s mouth clamped open and couldn’t talk back.

Three houses down lived Hap McGuire, a photographer for the Shackley Gazette which seemed like the best job in the world to me. Not to Hap, though. “It’s nothing, Phil. You go to a Cub Scout fundraiser, wrestle the little brats into a single line behind their craft stand. Fire off two shots. Drive to a ground breaking. Wait for the guys in suits to stick their shovels in. Fire off two more shots.” It sounded routine enough, but then came Hap’s moment to shine when Harry Truman’s presidential train stopped here on his way to Kansas City. “Damnedest thing happened, Phil,” he told me. “I had a copy of the Chicago Trib with that headline, DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. Couldn’t resist: I yelled, ‘Hey Mr. President, how about holding this up for us?’ He grinned as I shoved it into his hand. I said, ‘Move it to the left, it’s blocking your face.’ There was three, four of us on the platform; we all fired our flashguns. He started to lower the paper. I said, ‘One more?’ He said, ‘You boys should form the Just One More Club,’ but he raised the paper again. I screwed in another bulb, pulled the slide on the plate holder. Fired the flash.”

“And the rest is history?” I said.

“Hell no,” he snorted. “Truman is history. Newspaper photographers are nobodies.”

I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe this could have happened anywhere within shouting distance of Truman but for our purposes make it West Shackley Grove Michigan, summer of 1954. There was my mother who worked as a ticket taker at the Grove Theatre downtown, my father who balanced a solid business doing doctors’ and dentists’ tax returns with a hobby of fighting world Communism and my older brother Ted who won awards and ran around town with girls, listened to modern jazz and collected prints of paintings I couldn’t understand. A two- bit prankster and cutup, I brought up the rear of this parade.

When I said summer I really meant Fourth of July. Evening. We all sat in chairs on our front lawn waiting for the sky to darken so the fireworks could begin. Pop had a home movie camera in his lap. My parents had already talked about the heat, how their respective families were holding up, and if it would rain Friday. They could do this for hours. She mentioned her sister who went and married a farmer on the U.P, never had kids and seemed perfectly satisfied to live with pigs and chickens. Then he brought up his cousin who was so good with people and became a real estate agent. “Was that Peg?” my mother said. “Didn’t she also run for City Council?”

“You’re thinking of Trudy,” my father said. “She wanted to run but those Republicans wouldn’t give her a crust of bread to gnaw on. Peg was the real estate tycoon.” I began to wonder why they didn’t write it all down somewhere and save themselves the trouble, when he shifted tone. “Philip, Ted. I want you to listen to this.” He took a sip of his scotch then began another of his warnings that Commies were everywhere. “I happen to know that the KGB— that’s their spying agency, the KGB—has a training center in Siberia with an exact copy of an American town. Homes, schools, city hall, everything. Now what do you think of that?”

”Sounds batty to me,” Ted said. I responded by walking to the porch where I’d left my firecrackers, lighting a string, and tossing it over the rail into my mother’s hydrangeas,

wondering what clever thing would make me seem as competent and popular as Ted. My mother had only to say, Ted, what’s wrong with the folding closet door in the master bedroom? Up he leapt, ran to the basement and returned, hands full of tools. After ten minutes, he emerged and calmly pronounced, It’s fixed. And it was. Or she said, “Ted, how about whipping up an angel food cake? We’d all love some angel food cake right now.” Off he sprinted to the kitchen. We heard utensils clink, eggshells cracking, the mixer. An hour later he emerged with the warm cake on a platter and a cake knife. We all knew Ted was headed for some eastern college which was merely the first step on a pathway to whatever success he chose. Girls of all shapes and sizes were pleased and proud to be seen in his company. Somehow his interest in abstract art, Dave Brubeck and foreign films made them feel like women of the world, though he never dated them. I spotted him in the center of a crowd walking down the school corridor, arms around each others’ waists. Ted was singing something fractured and deliberately off key as the girls, giggling, tried to keep up.

These stories filtered back to my parents, perhaps exaggerated, perhaps not. One evening, when they’d been discussing family relations again, the door to Ted’s room opened, flooding the room with the sounds of a saxophone.

“What the hell is that?” my father said. “Don’t ask me,” my mother said.

“What is that stuff anyway?” my father repeated as Ted appeared in the living room. “Bebop,” Ted said.

“I mean who’s playing.” “John Coltrane.”

“Is he a Negro?” “Why do you ask?”

“No reason. I have nothing against Negroes, nothing at all. Some of them are extremely talented. Is Mr. Coltrane a Communist?”

“He’s a modalist.”

“Well–we just have to watch out for subversive influences, that’s all.” Ted and my father gazed at each other as my mother began flicking through a movie magazine, then Ted headed to the kitchen, emerging a moment later biting into an apple. The sounds of Coltrane’s sax grew muffled as he returned to his room and closed the door.

Until my dad brought up Communists I’d been reading Earl K McMaster’s Fourth Orb From The Sun. This was a tale of daily life on Mars or Tessort, as they called it. Tessort had red deserts and sand cliffs, jewel-like cities and rivers of flowing purple glass. It looked nothing like this place. My mother, who could watch the main feature at the Grove as often as she liked, had been talking about Joan Crawford’s fierce, eager smile when she begged David Brian to take up a life of crime in The Damned Don’t Cry. She’d recently spent a week in to Los Angeles with her friend Hazel, who worked at a talent agency in Beverly Hills, returning full of stories about stucco houses with red tiled roofs and oranges you could pick off the trees yourself. Her problem with Communists was that they weren’t movie stars.

“Philip is such a showoff,” my mother said. “But he wastes it all on pranks.”

“I know what you’re wondering,” my father said as though the previous hadn’t happened. “Why can’t we tell the commies by their accents or their dress or their habits.”

“I’m sure you’ll inform us,” my mother said. “Well sir, that’s a measure of how clever they are.”

“See those moths buzzing around the streetlights?” Ted said. “They’re from the FBI.” “That’s enough, Ted,” my father said. “It happens to be a fact that Russian spies spend

months practicing to be Americans.”

“Do tell,” my mother said.

“They read our newspapers. Learn about our sports. Wouldn’t be surprised if they listen to transcriptions of Your Hit Parade. They could be living right on this block and you’d never know it.”

“Hah! J. Edgar Hoover!” Ted grinned as a swallow flew down the street. “Or is it Stalin

disguised as J. Edgar? Typical Commie trick.”

“We are all responsible for fighting this threat to our way of life,” my father said. “You boys might want to write this down.”

Already suspended from school twice, I had recently been threatened with expulsion when my best friends Rick and Ronnie fingered me as the ringleader in some vague shenanigans, though I had nothing to do with it. Rather than expel me, they suspended me a third time, reasoning that even if I didn’t do it I very well could have, which was the same thing. I sat out the idleness on our porch, reading The Man Who Sold The Moon while Ted brought my homework so I wouldn’t fall behind.

Maybe it was the fits of purposeless boredom that defined my whole existence, but something in my father’s warnings stuck to me. If he said Commies read Readers Digest Condensed Books, why shouldn’t it be so? If we had to protect American life from spies, why not help? On Saturday I watched Jerry Peters, across the street, working up a tremendous sweat as he pushed a hand mower across his front lawn. He didn’t look remotely like a spy, so of course he had to be one. He noticed me staring and waved a friendly hand. Perhaps the KGB had taught him to sweat like an American including the damp circles under his arms.

I couldn’t find any Martians with x-ray vision that exposed Communists so I telephoned old man Peters. “I know who you are,” I growled. “I know what you’re up to.” He recognized my voice instantly and threatened to call the police on me. Reform school was threatened along

with stern-faced judges, child psychologists. Summer in California suddenly made all kinds of sense; my mother called in a favor from Hazel to find me something. And so here I was in this concrete block room off Sunset Boulevard that housed the Hand Laundry Theater Collective, which would make an actor of me or die trying.

It was some kind of place alright; more like a garage or a former drycleaners than an acting school. Picture a symphony orchestra tuning up: energy without direction. Two people were discussing apartment rents in Sawtelle. A piano which everyone ignored. Also a table laid with newspapers, gum, aspirin bottles, a sack of jellybeans, water tumblers, cigarettes, a cap pistol. Props, I guess. All presided over by an exploding cigar of a director, which is what J.D. Wagner seemed like with his shock of black hair and sweatshirt. My mother stood next to me, dolled up like it was church bingo night.

“What have we here?” were Wagner’s first words.

“He was in Our Town,” my mother said. “In Michigan.”

“I asked Philip, not his mother,” J.D. said. “Now why don’t you sit in one of those chairs and just watch for now?”

J.D. turned and began talking about actors and directors with an extraordinarily beautiful young woman named Rudd Markson. “I don’t know. I think so,” she said, speaking the words with a theatrical intensity that left me oblivious to anyone else. It was scary how beautiful she was: not just her bone structure but her movements, how her body fell naturally into an elegant sprawl the moment she straddled a chair. The way her voice, even her features seemed like a window to her most private self.

The talk stopped. Rudd sat very still, considering something, perhaps. I felt I’d been sleepwalking through life till that moment. Why hadn’t anyone told me what real movie stars looked like?

This wasn’t what my mother wanted to know as she sat at Hazel’s living room table that evening with a bourbon and water. “Did you actually get to act today?” were her first words.

“I did the lead in Our Town,” I knew this was what she wanted so I gave it to her. “Just like in Michigan. No scenery.”

“Really?”

“Really. I also played Lady Macbeth. As an experiment.” “You played—”

“Henry Higgins too.”

“Philip, will you be serious a moment? You are very annoying.”

Recently a prankster, now an actor—how serious was that? Mostly I’d spent the afternoon just sitting and listening. “J.D. says we should aim for the primal trauma,” I said.

“It sounds like a con to me,” my mother said. This was exactly what I would have expected from my father. “Well it doesn’t matter. My boy is going to be an actor any way it has to happen, aren’t you, Philip?”

“What did you do today?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s the most awful thing. They’ve got me turning out scripts on the mimeograph. I can’t work those things. Ink gets everywhere.”

“Clint Walker came into the office today,” came Hazel’s voice. “He’s so tall! Six-five at

least.”

“Did you talk to him?” my mother said. “Of course I talked to him.”

“That so? I would have thought he’d be too stuck-up to talk to real people.”

“And that’s where you’d be wrong. He’s like regular folks, only a whole lot better looking.”

“Well now. It just goes to show.”

Hazel’s job typing up contracts seemed like the stupidest work in the world. “Maybe I’ll play Captain Queeg tomorrow,” I said. My mother reached out and touched my hand but her face said, This is your chance to make something of yourself. And if you don’t, I’ll blame you for it.

“What happened with the mimeo?” I asked.

“Another mimeo lady took pity on me and told me just to bind pages together with those little brass fasteners. So that’s my job.” Rather than answering I went to my room, tore a sheet out of an old notebook and wrote REVENGE OF THE REPTILE PEOPLE across the top.

The rehearsal studio was no more inviting the next day when J.D. handed me a sheaf of pages such as my mother might have fastened together. “Philip, go up there and work with Rudd.” Feeling like less an actor than a block of wood, I shuffled into the open space in the center of the room to play a ten-year-old, with Rudd my adoring mother. Paying no attention to my embarrassment, Rudd began to caress my face and smother my cheek with little kisses. When I froze, certain I’d muffed it, J.D. leaned toward me. “Do it again,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. “But this time when she’s completely engaged with you, pinch her butt.”

I read my lines, always aware of J.D’s gaze, but when the moment came I froze again, clutching Rudd till she jumped up, fell over the prop coffee table and bumped to the floor.

“Philip,” said J.D’s voice. “What did I tell you to do?” When I saw his grin I realized it was he who’d pinched Rudd’s behind for me.

“Damn! Is this the Dempsey-Firpo fight?” Rudd said. “I could have broken something.” “The scene was flat before,” J.D. said. “Now it roars. Take two aspirin and do it again.”

When I finally put down the script and plopped into a chair at the edge of the room I spied another company member looking at me as if he knew me. “Answer me something,” he

said. “Does this burg remind you of Mars?” I agreed—something about those foothills against the sky at dusk.

“I have a past,” Chuck said, as though I’d asked. “Froze my kiester off in Korea in ’51 and ’52. Now I’m here where it’s warm, writing science fiction. Do you think J.D. is the biggest phony since General MacArthur?” I had no idea what he was about, shambling around like a bear in his beret, hornrims and bushy black beard. At lunchtime Chuck took me to the Galaxy bookstore two blocks away (“FOUR FLOORS OF SCIENCE FICTION”) where we heard Jack Allenby read a chapter from his bestseller Invaders From Planet Vesta. English, in his forties, he had a glow on his cheeks as he read in his clipped speech to a crowd full of young men in sport jackets, buzz cuts and glittery tie clips.

Afterwards, one of them asked, “If you don’t mind, Mr. Allenby, what’s the secret of your incredible productivity?”

“Glad you asked,” he nodded. “My agent says you have to have a book every 18 to 24 months to stay in the game. Bit of a strain, that. But I have a system. My secretary arrives at my home in Pasadena at 8:30. We have a cup of coffee, then we go into my study at 9 o’clock sharp. I dictate all morning; she takes it down in shorthand. We both have a cigarette at 10:30, then back to work till noon. After lunch she types up what I’ve dictated while I revise what she typed the day before. We turn out a chapter every two weeks.” He paused to chuckle. “I’m amazed she can read all my scribbles in the margins when I’m done revising. Then she retypes it all and we’re halfway there. Or as we English say, ‘Bob’s your uncle.’”

“Did you think that guy was as big a fraud as I did?” Chuck said afterward. “Do you think everyone’s a fraud?”

“Right-ho!” He fell into an impeccable British accent. “I’d like to thank my attractive and creamy complexioned secretary, Miss Fiona Balderdash, for making sense of my scrawls and pothooks. Yes, quite. Dear indispensable Fiona practically writes those books for me.”

“Why are you in J.D’s class?” I asked.

“If I want to make it in the science fiction market I’d better know everything about how stories are created. I guess that’s it. But I don’t really know. Maybe I’ll fire that cap pistol tomorrow for fun.” I pictured J.D. enthusing about what it did to the scene.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was mother, decked out in pearl necklace and earrings. “I thought I’d find you here. Have you made any friends in that class?”

“This is Chuck,” I said. “We’re learning to write best-sellers.”

“We’re at the stage where the Vestans advance on the U.N. with their demands,” Chuck

said.

“You know what I especially love about that story?” my mother said. “Where the aliens build a replica of an American town on Vesta so they can practice being Earthlings.”

“I don’t remember that part,” Chuck said. I could tell he was entertained.

“The houses are filled with transcriptions of Your Hit Parade,” I said. I knew my mother read nothing but romance novels. What would happen if I handed her a newspaper headlined VESTA DEFEATS EARTH?

“Vestans are more earthlike than we humans,” my mother said. “That’s how you can spot them.” It wasn’t the lying that shocked me, it was the casual insolence toward my father’s beliefs, his ideals.

“You’d fit right in on Mars,” Chuck said. “Are you an actress?”

“I’m in charge of story development for Cosmo Pictures. I read hundreds of novels and scripts to decide what we’ll produce next.”

“Why did you feed him that B. S?” I said as we drove back to Hazel’s place.

“I think he has important connections in the movie business,” she said. “It’s imperative to meet him at his own level.” She couldn’t get Chuck out of her mind. There was something humiliating about it.

“Your father called today,” my mother said. “Hap was hospitalized after a bank robbery downtown. Police shot the perpetrator as he left the building. Hap photographed the guy bleeding to death on the street. It made the front page. Hap needed a day to recover from the shock. Can you believe it?”

“Is that all?”

“Your pop’s helping Skip Ambler build a rocket launcher in his backyard.”

I looked into the darkness for Martians scurrying through the underbrush with their chrysoberyl eyes. Chuck was right. California was nothing like flat, platted Michigan.

One afternoon when I stole away from class to visit the Galaxy again I saw my mother leafing through a copy of Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine. She slammed it shut when she saw me.

“When did you get interested in science fiction?” I said.

“Chuck thinks I should produce science fiction epics exclusively,” she said.

I could hear my father saying, “Son, you can’t solve your problems by pretending.” There was more pretending going on here than in acting class but it only drove me deeper into my mother’s delusions. “Good idea,” I said. “that might get you a promotion.”

Next day J.D. told me to play a troubled kid with Chuck a high school principal. Sitting across from me, Chuck glowered so realistically that I knew why J.D. said we should live the part through emotional memory.

Until J.D. stopped us. “Why did you hesitate before disciplining the boy?” he said.

“I don’t know,” Chuck said. “It just felt right.”

“Don’t. Just keep going as if was the most natural thing in the world.” “Why?”

“What do you mean, why?” “What’s the reason, that’s all.”

“If you’re wondering about character motivation—”

“I mean I’ve been here four months and I don’t know what I’ve really learned yet.” “Right,” J.D. said. “Well it doesn’t happen quickly. You have to have faith.”

“No pep talks, please. No psychological stuff. Why can’t we just act?” “Easy, now,” J.D. said. “You haven’t been drinking, have you?”

“What if I have?” He seemed on the verge of causing grievous harm to someone, possibly himself.

“Look,” J.D. said. “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?” Chuck’s shirt-tail was coming untucked as he shuffled toward the door.

When I got to Hazel’s after a long bus ride, I found Chuck seated in the living room across from my mother, both of them holding glasses of beer. A wedge of Chuck’s pink belly showed. The tabletop looked like a saloon at closing time.

“Guess who dropped by?” my mother said with a grin. “Chuck’s been entertaining us with tales of your director and his—how shall I put it? Antics.

“He’s nothing compared to some magazine editors I know,” Chuck said. “Pretentious,” my mother said. “He probably doesn’t even believe in scenery.” “How was your day at the studio?” Chuck asked my mother.

“I signed Clint Walker to a three-picture deal,” she said. “You what?” Hazel said.

“It’s still a secret. You won’t read it in the papers.”

“Your mother’s an amazing woman,” Chuck said to me. “But that J.D. He doesn’t know a scene from a Studebaker.”

“Call me when dinner’s ready,” I said, heading to my room. Over the next few evenings, in Hazel’s living room, I heard them discuss plans for a movie of Chuck’s work in progress, Pods. Developing the script, budgeting. Who would they get to star? My mom wanted Technicolor; Chuck leaned toward black and white. I realized there were some things I’d never understand about self-deception.

Those wooden folding chairs with their slatted seats remained perpetually arranged in a circle or semicircle while different cast members tried out their scenes under J. D’s demanding gaze. Alone one steamy afternoon, the others gone, I nibbled on jellybeans. The bus to Van Nuys wasn’t due for 45 minutes. I could picture Dr. Payne, back in Michigan at that very moment, telling a patient to open wide.

“Hey! I want to talk to you.” It was Rudd, coming up on me from behind. “Why?”

“No reason. I just think we should talk as one actor to another without J.D. around. I mean you can’t play scenes with someone and not notice things.”

“Maybe.”

“Because I think you could be a fine little actor if you’d loosen up, Philip.” “My real name is Clint,” I said.

“What I mean,” she continued “is you have to stop resisting your own self, know what I mean? I’m an intuitive actor but it took time to figure that out. I didn’t know you could make choices about how to play a scene. I thought my kind of acting was all there was. Give me some of those, will you?”

“What choices?” I poured jellybeans into her cupped hands.

“Why do I look in this direction? Why do I sit down at that moment? Why do I sit at all? That’s some peoples’ way. It’s J.D’s way. It’s Brando’s way. Not mine. For example, the couch scene.”

“Chuck says J.D. is the biggest fake he’s ever seen.”

“Never mind Chuck; it’s just you and me right now. Do you know you tighten up every time I touch you? Don’t be afraid to do something easy and intuitive with your body; the audience has a sixth sense about that.”

“Think the Tigers have a chance to win the pennant this year?”

“Let me give you my thoughts,” Rudd said. “I think mom is hungry for a little love. But it doesn’t make her lovable, it makes her overbearing. Her son intuits that.”

There I was, discussing character motivation with this looker. “I can’t go on being a cutup all my life. I have to do something real,” It was B.S. but I meant it too.

“Or you could try being more of a cutup rather than less. Great acting means doing what you’re already good at only more so.”

“Can I?” I pictured myself onstage tossing firecrackers into the audience whose cheering grew with each blast. This one is for the first suspension. BANG! This is for the second. BOOM!! That’s for Dr. Payne’s daughter Doris with her shining blonde hair who didn’t return my notes in class. Until my pop jumped up from the audience, grabbed me by the collar and told me to stop making a scene. He would have pulled me offstage entirely but in my imagination, Rudd intervened and persuaded him to give me just a moment more with the crowd.

“I hate everything about my life right now.” That slid out. “My brother can do everything. I can’t do anything. My mom wants me to be an actor—”

“Oh she does, does she?”

“—while Communists are taking over the country. What’s wrong with me anyhow?” “Come on,” Rudd said. “I’ll drive you home.”

Fading daylight made the flat floor of the valley look like another world as Rudd’s car reached Mulholland Drive. That stuff about my family made sense when I said it, less so now. “So tell me, Philip,” Rudd said as the car began to descend. “What are you most afraid

of?”

“Have you ever noticed how much this place resembles Mars?” “I asked you a question.”

“Or would you say it looks more like Venus?”

“Quit your kite-flying and answer me. Pretend I’m not an actress. Pretend I’m a carhop.” Below us tiny pinpoints of light moved along the boulevards like alien transport modules. I was afraid my mother would never return us to West Shackley Grove; equally afraid she would.

“What are you most afraid of, Rudd?”

“Getting too comfortable. Winding up in a movie contract where I do just what they tell me and I make a lot of money.”

“I don’t believe you. Why do you want to live like an ordinary person? You aren’t one.” “If I looked like a character actor I could do what I want. Live in a little apartment

someplace, maybe a beach house. Do interesting roles. Does that surprise you?”

Her words made me feel so commonplace. “Thank you for the ride,” I said as the car pulled into my street.

“And goodnight,” she said as I opened the car door. “You don’t like acting, do you?” “No.” I wondered how she could have figured it out.

“For what it’s worth, I’d respect you more if you just did what you damn well wanted.”

All the lights were off when I entered. Sinking onto the couch, I jumped right up again because I’d sat on one of my mother’s romance novels. For weeks I’d done what was expected of me but learned precious little about acting. “Do something character-defining,” J.D told us. I longed to notice a single flaw in some spy’s impeccable façade, tip off the feds, then watch with quiet pride as two blue-suited G-men led the Commie to a waiting car with two more agents lugging the mower as evidence.

Gradually, I perceived the voices of my mother and Chuck from her bedroom. Their talk was quiet and true, like two people who spoke so honestly they didn’t need to shout. I must have dozed off because after a while I made out my mother standing nearby.

“Philip?” she said. “Yes.”

“We’re going home next week.” “Why?”

“If you must know, Ted’s gone.” “Gone? From where?”

“Michigan. Your father called long distance. Ted found a job in New York. We don’t know how. At a fashion house.”

“Just left?” I said.

“Can you believe it? Threw away a college education. Your father was on the phone for half an hour; you know how he goes on so. ‘Never figured him for a dress designer, that’s for sure. I mean he was so popular with the ladies. Who’da thunk it?’” She mimicked his astonished tone so perfectly it was like he was in the room. “I’ve been a terrible wife and mother, Philip. If I’d been home, Ted would never have run off like that.”

“So that’s the reason we’re leaving?”

“It’s other things too. Everybody hates me. Your father. Ted. The mimeo people. I’d like to kill myself right now. What do I have to live for?”

“Ma!” I didn’t believe her dramatics. “Does this have anything to do with Chuck?” I said. “Now you listen to me, young man. You are never to mention Chuck when we’re back

home.”

“What do you see in that creep? He should have stuck to acting and not walked out on

J.D.”

“When I said never, I meant never,” she repeated. “Can you do that for me? Can you?

Please?”

I didn’t answer, just thought about my obligations to my family, to J.D. and a girl who looked like a movie star but didn’t behave like one. Eventually my mother returned to the bedroom and closed the door. Next day when J.D. told me to play a scene as though I knew a secret, I didn’t have to invent one.

My mom stared vacantly ahead as pop pulled the car into our driveway. “Welcome home,” he said. “Skip’s rocket blew up on the launcher yesterday. Nearly set his house on fire. Does that beat all?” The place looked like a movie set cleverly fashioned to mimic our house only they’d gotten the proportions wrong, or the scale. The new school year was just days away.

The first thing my mother did after putting down her suitcase was start opening and closing kitchen cabinets.

“What’s for dinner?” pop called from the living room.

“How should I know?” she said. “I just arrived. Get your own dinner; then you can have anything you want.”

“What are you doing in the kitchen?” “I thought maybe Ted left something.”

“I can make French toast,” pop said. “Do you expect us to be grateful?”

I soon found people didn’t want to hear about what I called “my Hollywood escapade.” They were more intrigued by Ted’s job as an assistant to a dress designer in New York. My mother spoke of returning to California to see Hazel but didn’t follow through. Pop must have realized something because at Christmas he closed the tax office and took her on a month-long tour of Europe.

Like my mother I started opening cupboard doors and slamming them shut again. I felt Ted would leave a trace of his presence in the halls of Shackley High, some flicker of a remembered good time on the faces of the girls he knew, as though he’d shown them a higher version of themselves only to have it slip away after he was gone. Vanished, like the last slice of angel food cake. This was something godless Communists would never understand which was why we had to stop them from taking over the country.

“I think I’d like to write to Ted,” I said. “Do you have the address?” “What?” my mother said from the next room.

“Nothing. I’ll get it from pop.” I slammed another cabinet door and walked out of the kitchen.

“What?”

BIO

Tony Van Witsen is a five-year resident of Michigan and has been writing fiction for approximately fourteen years, specializing in short stories.  In the summer of 2001 he enrolled in the MFA program in fiction at Vermont College and received his degree in January 2004.  His published stories and essays have appeared in a range of journals including The Missing Slate (featured as a story of the week), Ray’s Road Review, Crosstimbers, Identity Theory and Valparaiso Fiction Review.

Painters and Poets: A Final Farewell to My Mother

by John C. Krieg

Painters and poets are the odd and tragic lot of human kind. This I always suspected, but it was unequivocally verified when I picked up a copy of Break Blow Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of The World’s Best Poems. None of mine were included among them. Perhaps that’s a good thing, because the most revealing thing about the book is the short yet harrowing biographies that appear in brief one paragraph form in the back.

Sylvia Plath and Percy Bysshe Shelly both died at thirty. She committed suicide in the belly of her kitchen’s oven. He drowned while sailing, but not before scandalously leaving his wife, who committed suicide, and taking up with Mary Goodwin who wrote Frankenstein. Poets, you see, are monsters of their own making.

Paul Blackburn, George Herbert, and Frank O’ Hara didn’t make it out of their forties. Blackburn was abandoned in youth when his mother won the Yale Younger Poets series when he was three. A classic example of life imitates art if there ever was one. Herbert toiled in  anonymity before releasing The Temple, a collection of 160 religious poems from his death bed when dying of tuberculosis. Predictably, his work became popular and profitable posthumously. O’Hara was swash-bucking, handsome, and gay with the height of his career occurring during the late fifties and early sixties, paradoxically the worst decade and the best decade in which to live an alternative life style.

Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Theodore Roethke, and William Shakespeare all checked out before their sixtieth birthdays. Dickinson and Marvell lived their lives unpublished, their collected works not brought to the light of a printing press until they were in their graves. Over 1000 of Dickinson’s poems were found in a locked box after her demise, perhaps the ultimate case of the ravages that the fear of failure can wreak upon a psyche.

William Shakespeare received notoriety as a poet late in life when 154 of his sonnets were published seven years before he died. He is, of course, probably the most recognized historic literary figure in textbooks today.

Of those who lived, or are still living into their sixties, two: Langston Huges and Wallace Stevens got the credit they deserved for their talent while still living. Hughes is recognized as a leader in the Harlem Renaissance while Stevens received critical acclaim for his Collected Poems one year prior to his death. Robert Lowell was clinically treated for ongoing manic depression, a condition no doubt exacerbated by being jailed during World War II as a dissident conscientious objector, and his avid protests of the war in Vietnam. Joni Mitchell is considered a great poet by Paglia and myself, and I frequently refer to her as the poet laureate of my generation.

Of the 20 poets cited in Paglia’s book, eight lived into their seventies. William Butler Yeats is the most famous having won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923 and so inspiring the afore- mentioned Sylvia Plath that she rented the home that he died in when she was in London, which subsequently became the home she died in. Life imitates life.

Age 80 was a milestone for two of the 20 poets and one that wasn’t exceeded. Both William Carlos Williams and William Wordsworth died at the doorstep of their eighth decade of life. Wordsworth, it should be noted, met Samuel Taylor Coleridge when he was twenty-five and Coleridge was seventy-three. They co-wrote Lyrical Ballads in 1798. Coleridge, definitely the grand old man of the poetry world, enjoyed its critical acclaim for 39 more years until his death at the age of 112! Coleridge lives in infamy for being afflicted throughout his life with severe bouts of depression, which he combated with massive dosages of opium. At least, he didn’t commit suicide.

Paglia deserves the reputation she’s earned as an intellect and critic. She’s one of the very few I can stomach. She can dissect eight lines by Rochelle Kraut or twelve by William Carlos Williams and write two or three pages about their meaning, all the while, making perfect sense. You see, poetry is completely logical, as well as emotional, if one is sensitive and intellectually attuned enough to simply read between the lines.

As wild and wacky as the poets have been, they pale in comparison to the painters. Oftentimes, a phenomenally talented individual is both. Ralph Pomeroy (1926-99) was accomplished enough to be an exhibiting artist in New York City the town that chews up artists and spits them out. Joni Mitchell has always viewed herself as a painter first and song writer/poet second. That the public may feel differently is of little consequence to her as she identifies herself and her preference in “A Case of You” off the “Blue” album when she sings, I am a painter, I live in a box of paints.1 It kind of lets everyone know where she stands in no uncertain terms. John Mellencamp has also succeeded in this genre. I, of course, have wallowed in obscurity in both disciplines leading me to wonder whether I have any talent at all, or should I just up and die in order to get discovered?

Considering the painters, there are two artistic periods that mean anything at all to me, those being the Renaissance of 15th century Italy, and the Impressionist period of 19th century France. The former represents the birth of classical art while the later freed itself from convention and tradition and lived on its own merits.

Titan, Leonardo de Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael represent the height of the Renaissance while Rembrandt, primarily because of his remarkable ability at portraiture, is mentioned with this group although he came along a century-and-half later during the High Renaissance. Without advances in the manufacturing of pigments and their suspension in oils there may never have been an artistic Renaissance. This is because paint could now be applied to canvas and while it doesn’t seem like a very big deal to us in modern times, at the time, it was huge. The artists of this period were exacting in proportions and color rendition. Subjects were primarily of Roman Catholic religious origin and the reigning nobility. Some fine work was done, but it transcended the reach of the common man making him even more insignificant then he already was. Art was for the rich, and the rich literally patronized artists.

Post High Renaissance, the Baroque period slipped in which was basically more of the same except the paintings got darker, drearier, droller, and more pompass. As a backlash to this 17th century glitch, the 18th century art world returned to the Renaissance period and this movement is referred to as the Neoclassicism period. The paints lightened up, and the painters loosened up but they still concentrated on the same lame subject matter. One great thing had happened however, an ism was born, and isms birth other isms faster than rabbits. The events of the nineteenth century, particularly those in France, were about to turn the art world on its bourgeoisie ear. The country that had just waded through the bloodiest internal revolution in history was rife for artistic and social upheaval. During a rare period in history these upheavals were one and the same. Neoclassicism was followed in rapid succession by romanticism, realism, naturalism, impressionism, symbolism, post-impressionism, and neo-impressionism. In the eighteen hundreds, every time the art world experienced a schism it invented an ism but the only one of any real importance was impressionism.

Impressionism was based on changing light and color which, by necessity, brought the artists outdoors where conditions were under a constant state of change. The term impressionism came about from a painting by Claude Monet. His “Impressio: Sunrise” (1872), a view of the port of LeHarre set in the early morning mist caught the attention of hostile critic Louis Leroy who wrote, “Since I am impressed it must contain some sort of an impression.”

Impressionist paintings capture moments in time and how the light at that moment affected (above all else) color. Easels were set up outdoors where transitory light conditions forced the painter to attack the canvas fast, furiously, and with a passion that spoke to form and mood as opposed to object and exact representation. Brush strokes were quick, decisive, and heavily laden with paint, which could now be squeezed from a tube lending swiftness to a genre based on speed which was an absolute necessity in capturing a moment in time before it passed. Bold, often broken brush strokes, lent a feeling of air and light to impressionist paintings and gave pictures what they here-to-fore had never possessed – life.

Subjects were slices of everyday life on the streets, in the fields, or at the bars and brothels. Christianity took a back seat to the artist’s desire to depict and capture the truth of who they really were and how they really lived.

The earliest members of the movement were Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissaro, and Alfred Sisley. All were represented by the official French Solas gallery which categorically rejected their work and let it be known among critics that these artists had officially gone mad. The artists banded together and displayed their work at the studio of the photographer Nadar which they dubbed the Salon des Refus΄es in the spring of 1874. They continued to defy the conventional entrenched art establishment for a decade. Henri de Toulouse – Lautres, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin and even isolationist loner Paul C’eranne displayed pieces at subsequent showings. No one was more alone than Vincent Van Gogh who revolved around the periphery of the movement, perhaps as distantly as Pluto revolves around the sun. At the time no one, least of all himself, knew what Van Gogh was all about.

Early on, all of the impressionist painters were starving as the art world turned a cold shoulder to their efforts at breaking away from its shackles. His brother Theo, who could barely afford to support himself as a curator of a Paris art gallery, supported Van Gogh. Theo believed in his brother’s talent and must have felt unrelenting rage and frustration at seeing Vincent’s work repeatedly criticized and passed over by people who didn’t know which end of the brush to apply paint to. Vincent Van Gogh wallowed in obscurity while his bouts with an incurable disease that was driving him to madness increased in frequency and lengths of duration. Theo brought his brother to Paris in 1880 with mixed results. Vincent Van Gogh did meet all the impressionists in vogue at the time which inspired him to more deeply commit to his calling which was a plus, but city life just made him more unpredictably volatile and deeply depressed.

After a two-year period in Paris in which Vincent painted over 200 pictures, Theo sought to isolate him so that he could concentrate on his work without the distractions of urban life. Theo sent him to the small rural town of Arles in the south of France where he took a studio in a building that came to be known as the yellow house. Theo also represented Paul Gauguin and twisted his arm to join his brother in Arles. It was a match made in hell. Some biographers suggest that Gauguin was secretly jealous of Van Gogh’s talent, but in fairness to Gauguin, Jesus of Nazareth would have had difficulty living with Van Gogh at this point in time. After announcing that he was returning to Paris, Gauguin was followed about Arles one evening by Van Gogh who wielded a straight razor in a threatening manner. Gauguin slipped away and spent the evening in a hotel while Van Gogh slipped the razor across his earlobe – thus the famed self-portrait of his bandaged head.

He then voluntarily entered an insane asylum in the St. –R’emg-de-Provence  and spent a year there trying to regain confidence and mental stability. The violent mental attacks continued. The impressionists stuck together, and on the advice of Camille Pissarro, Van Gogh went to Arles-sur-Oise where a doctor Gachet volunteered to look after him. He entered an extremely prolific period cranking out painting after painting in rapid-fire succession. He may have survived for years at Arles – except for an ill-fated visit to Theo in Paris where he discovered what a financial burden he was upon his brother. The mental anguish he felt caused the madness to return with a vengeance. He went back to Arles, and out to paint in the fields just like he always did only this time he took along a gun and shot himself in the chest. Initially, like all the other times in his life, it appeared he would survive the incident relatively unscathed, but something had changed. Vincent Van Gogh hadn’t sold a painting during his entire life. His record remained intact as on July 29th, 1890 he died. Dead at 37. I mention this, not because he is frequently cited by those expert enough at such things to do so, as the world’s greatest artist, but because he was my mother’s favorite artist. You see, my mother was a painter and a poet – or so I was told. So this one’s for you mom. It’s about time I got this off my chest.

During the brief periods of my life that I spent with my mother I also spent time with the work of Vincent Van Gogh. His 1887 “Self Portrait” hung in our living room. 1888’s “Sunflowers” (her favorite) hung over the kitchen table. 1889’s “Irises” were displayed in the bath while “The Stormy Night” hung above her bed. Mom was sure into Van Gogh, which was a mystery to me because everyone said she was one terrific artist, and if that was so, why would she like these amateurish paintings obviously done by someone in the eighth grade? It would remain a mystery as we permanently parted company when I was ten. In my entire life I would not read a single word she had written or gaze upon a single brush stroke laid down by her hand. For the better part of my life I viewed this as some sort of tragedy because she was a terrific painter and poet – or so everyone said.

She was born Mary Ellen Lundquist on March 28th, 1928; crazy eights for the most part. The fortunes of women in America in general were on the rise in the roaring 20’s as the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution enacted August 18th, 1920 granted them the right to vote. So it can be said that my mother was born into a period of an unprecedented female renaissance. That would only be fitting.

She was also born during the height of prohibition, which causes me to wonder why alcohol came to play such a pivotal and destructive role in her life. Prohibition was instituted January 16th, 1919 as the 18th Amendment to the constitution. While the religious right in America sought to drive the country back to its puritanical roots, the whole plan backfired and birthed bootlegging, speak easies, looser morals, and the entrenchment of organized crime. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The Lundquist’s were furniture makers from Sweden who came through Ellis Island in the late eighteen hundreds. From 1895 to 1924 twelve million immigrants flooded into America, the home of the free, the land of the brave. Grandfather Lundquist was born on American soil in Jamestown, New York in 1898. He fought in World War I as a fighter pilot in aircraft less than two decades in existence. He loved to tell stories of control columns, and later, steering wheels coming off of planes during battles. He spoke with reverence of the legend of Manfred von Richthofe, Germany’s top gun, the renowned Red Baron, and although they never squared off in battle, grandfather Lundquist was sure that he would have given the ace a run for his money. Grandfather Lundquist was fearless, driven, and destined to be financially successful.. He married my grandmother, an English beauty and precursor to what we now call a trophy wife, upon returning home from the war in 1919. The stock market crash of October 29th, 1929 did little to dampen his enthusiasm as he founded Lundquist Hardware in a three-story building in downtown Jamestown. It stood until the 70’s as the tallest building in town. So while the rest of the country was thrown into destitution almost overnight, my mother lived a life of relative prosperity while her mother sought to see that she became educated and cultured. Daily she painted canvasses resembling the works of the impressionists. She studied the post impressionistic work of Matisse which evolved into fauvism. Fauvism championed less detail but more color which she was definitely for. Before the genre made a splash the art world shifted gears and rallied around Pablo Picasso and cubism. Mother felt cubism too rigid and fell back to impressionism. She didn’t feel any other ism was worth much of her time until Jackson Pollock came along and lead the abstract expressionism movement or as mom told her art friends, “anything goesism.”

Mother, by all accounts, was a voracious reader, and while grandmother pushed Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, and James Joyce, mother invariably went for Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, and Faulkner. And while grandmother rolled her eyes at young Mary Ellen’s literary selections, it must be pointed out, that the later two did walk off with the Nobel Prize. Mom must have known something. It wasn’t long before she leaned towards radical political poetry especially the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, a free-spirited, rebellious beauty who lived life on her own terms, took many lovers, and died before reaching sixty. Mom loved The Harp Weaver and other Poems and Make Bright the Arrows. Both works illustrate Millay’s increasing involvement with social issues and disillusionment with human mortality. Not-to-surprisingly mom became rebellious, disillusioned, free-spirited, hard drinking, and wild which completely explains why she was so attractive to my father.

My father was born into a completely different and more familiar set of circumstances. The Krieg’s suffered mightily during the great depression. In fact, if you were to ask my grandfather, there was never a time within the reaches of his memory that the Krieg’s didn’t suffer. He was four when his father and mother fled the potato famine in Germany, crossed the Atlantic, and came through Ellis Island in 1898, an experience he could recall in vivid detail. My grandmother, Monica McLaughlin, left Ireland with her parents again fleeing a potato famine, and came through Ellis Island in 1904. Both families settled in Saint Mary’s, Pennsylvania, a town that was once recorded as having more bars per capita than any town in America. Needless to say, they were hard drinkers and prohibition didn’t much slow them down. In their youth, the German and the Irish school children walked to separate Catholic schools on opposite sides of Main Street throwing out taunts and insults in fall and spring, and well aimed snowballs in winter. He lusted after her from afar and welcomed high school graduation, which was an event that apparently ushered in a thawing in the cold cultural war and allowed the two nationalities to intermingle. He summoned up the courage to ask her out, and eventually, to marry him. She traveled with him from small town to whistle stop as he embarked on his initial career as a minor league baseball player the zenith of which was when he was called up for two weeks in 1917 to pitch for the Cleveland Indians.

When the US entered World War I in 1918 he was not called up. They must have been remarkably adept at the rhythm method for birth control, which was considered taboo and evil at that time, and was discouraged by staunch Christians. For example, Margaret Sanger, an ex-nurse was twice sued in 1916 for perpetrating the hideous crime of distributing pamphlets describing birth control techniques. The charge, of course, was obscenity. Better to have six to ten kids that you couldn’t feed than to be immoral. He gave up on his professional baseball aspirations at age 26 and settled in Bradford, Pennsylvania where he worked on the railroads when my father, their first born, came along in 1925.

My father inherited grandfather’s athletic ability and starred in baseball and basketball during his foreboding high school years. Young men in high school during the late thirty’s and early forties kept a watchful eye on Europe as Hitler waged his Blitz Krieg and western European countries fell like dominoes. My father was 15 and a freshman in high school when Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term as president primarily on a platform of continued economic recovery from the great depression (his New Deal) and the commitment to keep America out of the war across the Atlantic. Dad and his jock buddies were already suffering from acute “war jitters” when Roosevelt’s hand was forced not to the east but to the west in the Pacific Ocean when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The following day President Roosevelt petitioned Congress to declare war on Japan calling December 7th, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.” Hitler, never one to pass on ill-gotten opportunity and feeling that America couldn’t fight a war on two fronts, declared war against us on December 11th. Greed, more than anything else (including fanatical hatred) is what did Hitler in for history would unfold to reveal that it was he who couldn’t fight a war on two fronts. Dad and his buddies lived in tenuous and turbulent times which they responded to with acts of great courage and there is no argument from me when they are referred to as, “the greatest generation.” He led the region in scoring during the basketball season of his senior year in 1944, and immediately enlisted in the Air force after graduation. That athletic skill was put to good use, and he became an airplane pilot and was part of a special unit known as the “ski troopers.” Off to Western Europe he went jumping out of airplanes, skiing into enemy territory, conducting secret reconnaissance missions. Who knew what he saw and experienced. Who knew what a toll it took on him. What a toll it took on all of them for that matter. American casualties at the end of the European and Japanese conflicts totaled just under 300,000. With all nations counted 20,000,000 military personnel and 6,000,000 civilians were killed. What mental damage could carnage such as this do to the human psyche? War correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed by Japanese sniper fire near the end of the war. In his pocket was found the last report he intended to file.

There are many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedges throughout the world.
Dead men by mass production – in one country after another – month after month and year after year.
Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.
Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.
Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them. 2

Most of the combatants who came home from World War II came home with emotional scars. Germany surrendered on May 7th, 1945 and Japan followed suit on August 10th, 1945. Dad came back from Europe in early 1946 ready to blow off steam. He never got flying out of his system. In order to keep up his love affair with aviation he then flew jets for the National Guard.

An avid trout fisherman and sail boat captain he lived to be out on the water. Lake Chautauqua was the largest lake in the area and Jamestown lie at its southern end. Grandfather Lundquist, now one of the wealthiest men in town, had a house on the shore. Dad was sailing there with friends one fine summer day in ’46 when he met mom. Sparks flew. Love at first sight. Neither of them ever did anything half-assed. When they went for something they were all in. On that fateful day they went for each other.

Straight-laced grandmother Lundquist nearly had a coronary when she first set eyes upon my father. My mother was about to enter her second year of art school at Rochester Institute of Technology and was showing great promise. She was even contemplating running for sophomore class president which, in the forties, was unheard for a woman in a mixed sex school. Mom went against convention at every turn, and I like to think she would have won. Grandmother Lundquist was certain her daughter would marry well and set up a cultured household with someone of a similar, or hopefully, better station in life. Then along came dad. Rugged, brawny, tanned, handsome, confident, and unafraid of anything, least of all the disparaging glances and remarks of Lillian Lundquist. It was hate at first sight. She loathed this lower-middle-class fly boy who drank whiskey by the gallon, caroused all night, sailed and fished all day, and stole her daughter’s heart within seconds of meeting her. He didn’t much care for Lillian either, but rather than bad-mouth her he opted to avoid her.

Mom immediately dropped out of college. My parents married quickly and had their first child within a year. Then in assembly line, baby boomer fashion, they pumped kids out like clockwork every two years. I came along in 1951. Their marriage was on the rocks by then. Their different socio-economic backgrounds, their temperaments, their drinking, and dad’s infidelity drove a wedge between them. Dad split for the first time shortly after my ass was slapped in the delivery room. He went missing for months on end. Grandfather Lundquist took up the economic slack in mom’s household. The Krieg’s assumed their son was on some secret government mission such was the status of his noble pursuits. It was believable because in the town where he grew up my father was a bonified grade A hero. Nobody ever suspected that he would do something so ignominious as abandoning his wife and kids; so imagine the surprise of one of my distant (and disliked) uncles, who when on vacation to Las Vegas, Nevada ran across my father working in a casino as a shill. Dad could sell snow cones to the Eskimos. He could woo women and delight men. He could easily make naive casino patrons believe that the luck was in the room. He had a new life in a town given to always creating the new, the unbelievable, the illusion that the unattainable could easily be achieved. He was living a fairy tale life in fantasy land so imagine his disappointment at being brought down to earth.

Grandfather Krieg had this distant (and disliked) uncle drive out there and shame him into coming back. After that their marriage went from bad to worse, but it didn’t deter them from pumping out three more kids. One, a brother four years younger than I, died of pneumonia. I have vague distant memories of him. If the truth be known, I have very few memories of my life up until age six. That’s when we moved to Lake Skaneateles, New York. Dad had a sea scowl sail boat. Wider than more traditional boats with a larger main sail and no jib sail, it was built for straight away assaults and was perfect for dad’s temperament. Those other boats dug into the turns quicker during races but he reeled them in and passed them on the open stretches of the course. He was a dare-devil and wouldn’t back down from anyone. He would cut them off or ram their sterns if they tried to keep him from getting to the front. He was the most disliked sailor on the lake and he could have cared less. I have memories of family outings where we would sail from Skaneateles, at the base of the lake eleven miles north, to the end of the lake. Dad would invariably get in a race with someone. He was overloaded with all of us and another couple one day when a racing adversary who was sailing alone challenged him. Dad said he would accept when the odds were better. The other guy laughed. Mom didn’t like it and told dad, “You’re not going to let this guy go home and tell his wife he beat a sea scowl.” The race was on. We kids bent deep in the hull. Mom and the other couple laid down on the bow. Dad was a madman. Dad was dad. Dad never lost.

In spring there would often be trout he had caught swimming in the kitchen sink. I marveled at their beauty and dad’s skill as an angler. He took me skiing with him in the winter of ’57 and left me on the bunny slope. I stayed out there all day freezing my ass off. I didn’t want him to come back and find me in the lodge. Not that there was anything to worry about because when he hit the slopes he wouldn’t come in until sundown. When he came in it was dark. He took me into the lodge and bought me a hot chocolate with one marshmallow. I nursed it for a half-hour. I never forgot that marshmallow. Whenever I have coco this memory comes back to me. My father and I in a ski lodge laughing; him asking me if I was ever going to eat that marshmallow. The problem with this memory is the one that immediately follows it. As much as I’d like to forget it, I never can.

When we got home mom was mad about something. Probably being stuck in the house all day without a car to get to the liquor store. She went ballistic, breaking glasses and dishes in the kitchen, shouting obscenities, charging at him with a knife. He wrestled it away from her and walked out. I never saw him again. I never liked skiing after that. I hated to go on the slopes. I avoided the sport of skiing like the plague. No one knew where he was, or if they did, they didn’t see any necessity to tell me. I wondered about him. I missed him. Not many memories of my father have I. I mostly remember that he was always gone. Never home. Never around. I hadn’t seen him in over two years. Then something happened. Something I’ll never forget.

The small town’s people of Skaneateles were coming to our house in droves, and bringing plates of food, mostly baked goods, along with them. There were hushed conversations in the living room, which we children were excluded from. Everything was very secretive, very adult, and very serious. Later in the day, when everyone had left, I found out what the fuss was about. There on the black and white TV screen were pictures of destroyers at sea with those old fashioned monochromatic letters flashing the message, “Airman lost at sea.” They pulled up a picture of my father and I turned up the volume. They were talking about dad alright. His plane went down in the Atlantic off Long Island. He and it were never found.

Why couldn’t you have told me mother? I was almost eight. When you couldn’t find the words, why didn’t you turn to your writing skills and simply jot down a few lines? A quick clean little poem explaining that troubled times had come to our troubled lives. Unrhymed and unmetered free verse would have sufficed. You could have employed iambic pentameter and hissed the words across the page. Perhaps a little sing-song onomatopoeia would have gotten the message across. You never said anything, even after it was obvious we all knew. Perhaps you were still mourning the premature death of Jackson Pollock. I guess you were lost in some deep-seeded artist’s pain that I could never be expected to understand. Either that or you were smashed. You really went over the deep end after that. For three months I hardly ever saw you. I don’t know how we survived. I stopped going to school entirely. I just wandered around Skaneateles checking the boat docks for dad’s sea scowl thinking that perhaps he could miraculously sail home.

Ours’ was a family that never talked about any real issues. Everything was hunky-dory and full-steam-ahead. When it wasn’t, we sat idle in our moorings and did nothing. Dirty little secrets spawned dirty little lies, which would be taken to the grave before suffering the horror and truth of being exposed to the light of day. Finally, in my late thirties, I guess when they thought I was old enough to know, they sent me an article about it. Yellowing paper in clear laminate with dad’s clean-shaven heroic face smiling out at me from a lifetime away. It was the internal trade paper of Brown and Bigelow called “The Page” that was published on Thursdays by The Hudson Star Observer newspaper. B&B was a lumber yard out of Syracuse and the article read:

Thursday, March 19t, 1959
B&B Salesman Lost On
Air Guard Training flight
A new Brown & Bigelow salesman, father of five and a National Guard jet pilot, was lost over the Atlantic on a return flight to his base at Syracuse, N.Y. last week.
Air-sea rescue operations failed to locate the plane or the pilot, First Lt. William J. Krieg, 34, who joined the Brown & Bigelow Syracuse district February 16. Krieg and his wife, Mary, and their five youngsters ranging in ages from 3 to 12 live at Skaneateles near Syracuse.
Krieg presumably was lost at sea on the return flight of a F-86 jet fighter from Myrtle Beach, S.C. to Syracuse. He was on the last leg of his journey Monday, March 9 when he checked in by radio at 3:20 p.m. He was over Atlantic City and was to have landed on Long Island a few minutes later, his last stop before heading home.
There was no indication by radio of trouble or possible ditching because of weather which was favorable at the time. He was believed to have been at about 30,000 feet when he last radioed and his route to Long Island was mostly over water.
Krieg was a World War II Air Force veteran.3

The article was typical of the repressive fifties. It was not indicative of any in-depth reporting. On the surface, it appeared that dad was a real up-and-comer, and that this was a human tragedy of epic proportions. A few more of the base facts of the gossip-driven back-story, which older family members refuse to verify or deny, even to this day, were left out. There was no mention, for instance, of his other family, the one he lived with in Auburn, which lay at the tip of Lake Cayuga, the middle finger of the major Finger Lakes. Lake Skaneateles was the little finger and much smaller. So dad had better water to sail on and more trout to catch less than thirty miles away. He had a better woman and a better family, which were hardly things he made any concentrated effort at hiding from us. Cayuga represented the middle finger alright – the one he shoved in our faces. There was no formal funeral, or if there was, I wasn’t allowed to go to it. Shortly after the search was called off three uniformed service men were standing on our front porch. They handed mom a triangularly folded American flag, stepped off the porch, and fired seven shots each into the air. A twenty-one gun salute, and a flag in exchange for a father. Big fucking deal. Mom really tied one on that day.

I was sent off to live with my aunt and uncle in Olean, New York, which is an occurrence I’m convinced saved my life. Mom and my older brother went down to Tampa, Florida to stay with her parents and regroup.

Growing up I heard the rumors, the sordid details, but sons are tied to their fathers, especially those made more noble in death. I worked the whole scenario out in my head. Dad couldn’t live with mom. I mean, who could? He wanted to make sure that we were taken care of and was probably so morally responsible that he looked after the needs of his other family as well. Ergo, I surmised, he headed out over the Atlantic, ditched the plane seconds after activating his ejection seat, and landed just mere yards from where a pre-arranged life boat was waiting. We, his primary family by marriage, would receive Veterans Administration assistance while his secondary family most likely cashed in on a lucrative life insurance policy. Selfless dad took care of everyone in one dramatic fell swoop and probably headed off to Africa or South America to collect precious gems and/or hunt big game with Ernest Hemmingway. I fully expected that he would reappear during my adult life to explain how complicated it all was back then. How severely divorce was frowned upon. How this was his only option at a free and happy life so he exercised it – no hard feelings.

During the initial ten months that I stayed with my aunt and uncle, I communed with nature, forged some lasting friendships at Saint Mary’s of the Angels Parochial School, and frequently wondered what mom was painting and writing about down there in Florida now that she was free from the stress of raising us and dealing with dad’s demise. With her art career back on track, it wouldn’t be long before she would send for me and my sisters, and we could all be one big happy family again.

At last she did send for me, and when I arrived in Florida things were somewhat different than I had imagined. Grandfather Lundquist had set her up in the guest house on his property which was quaint and clean if somewhat cramped. There were the Van Gogh’s occupying their usual positions on the walls. Mom was gone. There were no signs of artist’s easels. No paint smears by the kitchen sink. No notebooks of poetry lay lingering on the dining room table. It looked as if she barely lived there. Come to find out, she didn’t. Mom had taken up with a fellow who lived over by the beach who had a one room apartment, three sons, and a million pet cockroaches. A real go-getter, he mowed lawns for a living on those days when he wasn’t too hung-over to get to them. Within two weeks we were all moving out of the guest house and out of his apartment and loading ourselves into the bed of a pickup truck that looked like it wouldn’t make Tallahassee much less the state of Michigan, our final destination. Mom was ecstatic as alcoholics frequently are when in the throes of a relocation. Grandmother Lundquist, always and somewhat deservedly portrayed as the ice queen, blew the whistle on our ill-conceived, ill-planned, ill-fated get-away, and the car from child protective services roared up and blocked the truck from leaving. The police arrived next. There was a heated argument, and mom was carted off to jail acting for all the world like a noble political prisoner being repressed by a totalitarian government.

By nightfall, my older brother and I were in a three bedroom foster home with eleven other kids. Foster parenting in Florida at that time was a profit-laden cottage industry on the rise. Castro had recently sent over his first wave of boat people and those hardened Cuban children were being shuffled off to anyone who would take them for a price. There were two such children in this home. I got my first inkling that this was a house without love when our foster father burst into our room, pinned my brother’s neck to the wall, and viciously swiped a leather belt across his face. The crime, of course, was for talking after curfew, and after that I hardly talked at all. Needless to say, our foster home experience was one of sheer trepidation and terror, and I prayed daily to be delivered from the place immediately after it was consumed in flames, and the last of my foster father’s tormented shrieks were heard.

On weekends we were hauled off to the beach or the public swimming pool as the season dictated with twenty-five cents in our pocket, and the helpful reminder to spend it wisely as we were going to be there all day. I begged not to go to the pool on Christmas day because my mother had told me that she was coming to pick us up and there would be presents – lots and lots of presents. Even my older brother didn’t believe it and he left with the others. I waited by the mail box all day not wanting to go into the house and hear the jeers and disparaging remarks of my foster “parents.” My heart leaped at the sight of each approaching car and fell with a thud as they passed. I was out by the mail box still waiting when the crew came home and can attest to the saying that, “children can be cruel.” My brother was the worst, and this was the day that marked the fact that I truly and totally hated him.

So where were you mother? Were you overcome with literary passion reading Keats, or Yeats, or Shelly, or Shakespeare? Did the light streaming through the window of your cheap hotel room onto a spent wine bottle give off such a radiance that you just started painting and lost track of the time? Was there a special on “Old Crow” whiskey that necessitated spending the Christmas money and you just couldn’t bring yourself to see the disappointment in my eyes? I waited for you for the entirety of Christmas day, and when you didn’t show up, I decided at the ripe old age of nine, that I would never wait for you again.

Well at least mom stayed true to her aspiring full-time lawn mowing boyfriend. Passion consumed the two of them one evening or perhaps they had moved up to “Canadian Club.” They decided then and there to get married and eloped across state lines to consummate the sacred union. They were unexpectedly and unceremoniously pulled over for drunk driving and sent off to jail. Undeterred, oblivious to her surroundings, mom petitioned the warden to smile upon their good intentions, marriage at that time perhaps being the most sacred institution in the south save for gator wrestling and stock car racing.

I have to hand it to you mother. You knew how to attract attention. You got married from a jail cell in Georgia dressed in a white bathing suit. The pictures run in the papers. “Look! That’s my mom!”

Less than a year later it was over, mom. The day is etched in my mind like a wood burning. Ended on the front lawn of the block house grandfather Lundquist had bought you so that you could get us out of the foster home. You wanted to leave. I guess one hand-out check or another had just arrived. He didn’t want you to go out drinking. At least not without him. He opened the hood of your car and removed the coil wire from the distributor cap, and dangled it in your face as if to say, “What are you going to do now?” Big mistake. No one ever got between you and your drinking; least of all your kids. You picked up a bicycle tire pump lying on the lawn and swung it at him. The thin open tubular metal handle hit him on the side of the eye socket. It gouged out a huge gapping piece of flesh. Blood spurted like a geyser. His eye was half-in half-out of its socket. I couldn’t decide which was more ugly; what you did, or how he looked. It sickened me to the core. Ten years old and the worst violent act I had witnessed up to that point. You held the pump threateningly in your hands ready to swing again if he came back at you. He didn’t. He just slouched down on the lawn, put his head in his hands, and sobbed. Broken. You sure could break people. I knew, if given the chance, you would break me. I turned and walked away. You didn’t notice. You watched him like a hawk fully expecting retaliation, which didn’t come. I heard later that like me, he finally left. People were always leaving you mom. And you hated them for it. I’ll never know if you died hating me. I broke into a trot, and then a full sprint. I ran until I thought my lungs were going to burst out of my chest. Then I slowed to a lost disoriented gait. Sometimes, in my worst moments, I still walk like that. One foot in front of the other, aimlessly moving forward while not knowing where to go yet knowing I can’t stay.

Eventually, I happened upon a drinking friend of yours who lived in a rundown hovel of an apartment at the beach. Darkness had fallen. Loneliness hung with the humidity in the air. There were a dozen men in her front room. She would come out of the bedroom with one and go back with another. Between trips she told me I had to go home. I refused. Finally, she said she had called you, and I left. I figured out years later that she was a prostitute. She sure was a whore that night. Sending a ten year old kid out into the darkness knowing he was lost, alone, abandoned.

There are angels in this world mother. You must have called the one you always did. Grandfather Lundquist finally found me after searching every shore-side dive and honky-tonk you frequented. I was on the Clearwater Bridge. Jumping seemed less of an option and more of a solution. I didn’t think I could take it anymore but it’s amazing what you can take when you have to. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get in his Cadillac. I think that he sensed it. He drove slowly alongside me gently calling my name out the window. “Chris, Chris, Chris, Christopher.” I hated that name. I hated the sound of it, the reminder of where it came from. Family continued to use it, but with everyone else I was John C. Krieg after that. He coaxed me in, and I collapsed wailing in his arms. I cried every tear I had in me and thought I had cried you out of me. Of course, I was wrong. Mother’s have a hold on their sons. The umbilical cord is invisible but always present. It tugs at me from your grave.

I told him, “If you take me back, I’ll just run away again. I’m never ever going back.” And I didn’t. So how would you paint that scene mother? What colors would complete the canvas? A little red for blood lost literally and figuratively? Some cold foreboding blackish-blue for the water I wanted to jump into? A salty translucent yellow for tears? Being an impressionist what impression would you have imparted upon this scene? If you could have pulled this one off of the raw edge of life Van Gogh would have looked up to you.

By the grace of God I was sent back to Olean, New York. My aunt and uncle tried, but she would never let them adopt me. She would never do anything that hinted at disrupting the flow of cash into her coffers. Mom was an accomplished double-dipper utilizing welfare checks and Veterans Administration checks to assure that the whiskey tap flowed uninterrupted. She had a master’s degree in bounced checkology. Before I finally left, she had even developed other less lucrative yet always dependable profit centers by rifling my Christmas, Easter, and birthday cards. I initially thought my aunt and uncle had forgotten me and then thought it cruel that she couldn’t have at least left the cards in the mailbox. That she couldn’t have made some half-hearted attempt to reseal the envelope, but she didn’t. Perhaps she was jealous, but most likely her alcohol-addled brain felt she needed to dispose of incriminating evidence. That was my mother though. No matter how wrong the things she did were, she was never wrong. There was always someone else to blame for her dire set of circumstances. Life had dealt her a shitty deck of cards but she would stoically play them. Good for you mother. And right you are too. Keep a stiff upper lip mom.

We basically lost contact with each other while I waited around for my father’s athletic, and her artistic genealogies to kick in. Life in Olean, New York brought one rude awakening after another.

There was nothing evident in my youth to remotely suggest that I was the son of a painter and a poet. Art teachers saw nothing special in me. I saw nothing special in myself. I briefly embarked on a flurry of short story writing, even enjoyed the work, but was inevitably told I wasn’t very good at it. I put down the pen in disillusionment and disgust. Perhaps genealogy had skipped a generation, or perhaps they had switched babies at the hospital.

In athletic endeavors, I didn’t rise to the stature and legend of my father which was a bitter disappointment in that eighty percent of the girls in Olean aspired to the lofty stature of a varsity cheerleader, and failing that, at least to the station in life that one occupies as girlfriend of a star jock.

My astounding inability to be very good at anything marred my high school experience, and by my senior year I couldn’t wait to leave it and Olean, New York behind. I began thinking of my mother again as graduation day, and the terror of leaving the womb it entailed, began to approach.

I was going off to college, not to appease the pull of academic longing, but to avoid the war in Vietnam. It played out in our living room on TV every night in living color that depicted death, destruction, and despair. For shock value, no television show writer could have written a better script. My uncle, the World War II veteran, thought that enlisting would make a man out of me. I, on the other hand, wanted to live long enough to become a man. I sensed that I would learn and accomplish a great many things if my life weren’t cut short defending whatever it was that we were supposed to be defending half a planet away. Then a friend from another school that I played summer league basketball with came home from Vietnam in a body bag. He was a good guy, three years older, fun to be around, full of life, full of potential. Now he was dead. No, that just wasn’t for me. Somewhere within the deepest reaches of my psyche, or perhaps contained in the blood coursing through my veins, I wanted to create, express myself, and above all else, live to see my potential, that only I felt I had.

Was it like that for you, mother? Did you sense you had potential? Or was it a foregone conclusion by your senior year in high school that you had transcended potential and gone straight to talented. Having achieved that lofty rung on the ladder, were you now expected to drive on into accomplished? Potential unrealized is a waste, but talent unutilized is a curse. Once you’re labeled as good you’re expected to be good all the time, or worse yet, to constantly get better. Is that why you turned your back on your craft mom? Is that what did you in? Expectations ran too high, did they? No matter how well you did everyone knew you could do better. Everyone, that is, but you. Did you sit in terror in front of your mediums afraid to get started knowing that when you finished it wouldn’t be good enough? Is that what happened? Did the weight of their expectations, which soon become demands, press down upon you and eventually suffocate you? Well let me tell you mother, it’s not so great on the other side of the fence either where nothing is expected, where no one sees talent in you, and you’re free to fail, and no one’s surprised when you do.

In junior college I stumbled across landscape architecture, more by accident than design. I wrote some articles for a counter-culture newspaper which garnered no critical acclaim. I expressed creativity in acquiring girlfriends and surviving for months without any money. I acquired an associate’s degree in horticulture and would have settled for it only Vietnam forced me to press onwards towards a bachelors degree. Upon entering a four-year program in landscape architecture, it was quickly determined, by condemning evidence, that I was the worst in the class. Since I couldn’t drop out, there was nowhere to go but up.

You see, that’s the thing mother. That’s what separates you and I. That’s the chasm that exists between us. Not physical. Not intellectual.  But potential. I struggled mightily just to be good. You were already great. Where was there for you to go but down? Why did you allow it? Artists are misunderstood. Misunderstanding breeds persecution and persecution breeds contempt. Why did you give them the satisfaction of seeing you fail? Were you too preoccupied with grief, overcome by the death of Pablo Picasso to care?

I limped out of college, vacillated in odd job mediocrity, and coughed and sputtered my way into my professional career. Here I found the rungs on the ladder to be well defined, and the pay scale commensurate with the climb. Everything I did was studied and measured, accepted or rejected, assigned a score, compared against the work of contemporaries, and more often than not, found severely lacking. I don’t know how I improved. I stopped drinking entirely thinking it wise to at least give myself a fighting chance at success. It seemed like I struggled for years on end just to tread water and hold on to a job. But I must have improved for I eventually became registered which is the bench mark for a minimum level of proficiency in my trade. I climbed one rung on the ladder and held on for dear life.

I thought about you then mother. About how you never much placed any importance on something as mundane as an everyday job. That would have choked the artistic tendencies right out of you. Did you suspect somewhere in the furthest reaches of your mind that you would return to your work? Did you think that you would paint and write poetry again, and that when you did, that everything would turn out fine? Why didn’t you then? What was the hold up? Why can’t artists just be artists? Why does criticism, self-loathing, self-doubt, and self-destructiveness get in the way? Why are the truly great required to pay for their position in life with misery and pain?

I struck out on my own, hung out my shingle, learned how much I didn’t know by having it shoved in my face. Always struggling. Always one step behind the eight ball. Always robbing Peter to pay Paul. Never enough. Designers routinely demonstrate their lack of self-worth in their fee proposals. I repeatedly slit my own throat. I was low bidder. I got the job. I battled my way through the job against clients, cities, contractors, and critics. I could well have been the most hired and fired landscape architect in all of Phoenix. My life was a revolving door of commissions and dismissals. Eventually it dawned on me that something was wrong. I came to realize that there was always tension. Tension seemed to follow me all of my years. It seemed as though I should be able to get rid of it since I was the one who created it in the first place. Then it occurred to me that I liked to be tense. Unfortunately for those around me, this was my comfort zone. John Mellencamp once stated that he was comfortable with his anger. I’m glad that someone was honest enough to admit it. And so it is with me, and the tension that permeates my life. Without tension nothing gets done. And, above all, I was a doer.

I could burn lead and push ink and always make a deadline. A client called me, “the fastest gun in the west,” and speed became important to me. It also pigeon-holed me in my career. Half-a-decade into my professional practice I started to hate what I was doing. I was timid, never a good thing for anyone who wants to get ahead. I was cautious and afraid. I started contemplating a parallel career in real estate development not being willing to wing too far from the nest.

The more things I failed at the more I resented all the things you failed at. I tried to forget about you mother. I Prayed to God to help me forget. When any relatives asked about you or had something they wanted to tell me, I said I didn’t want to know, and I meant that I did not want to know. I found out though. That’s what sisters are for.

That’s when you died mom. Basically, your liver just gave out. Jill called unexpectedly one night to say you were nearing the end, and by morning you were gone. Didn’t quite go out in the blaze of glory that everyone expected you to, did you mom? Van Gogh shot himself at 37 and hung on for two days before expiring. He’s buried in Arles not far from where he did himself in. You’re buried somewhere in Florida. I don’t even know where. Nor do I really want to know. I’ll place no flowers on your headstone. I’ll shed no tears on the ground that covers your casket. I cried for the last time the day you died. I wailed at God about how meaningless and empty your life appeared to me. About how I was denied the opportunity to reconcile with and forgive you as if my or anyone else’s forgiveness would have meant a damned thing to you. But, deep down inside I always intended to make the effort. That’s the similarly between you and I mother; our good intentions that we just couldn’t seem to act on. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Actually, I waited too long. I wanted to make a grand entrance and impress upon you how accomplished and successful I was. Trying to impress someone is the reverse osmosis of envy and it’s just as ugly. Your death taught me a lesson. Never wait to tell someone you love them. So I’ll admit that I love you mother, for all the good it does either of us now. You were gone before I got my chance to mend fences. Dead at 56. For a belated eulogy I’ve chosen a passage by e.e. cummings:

Little Effie’s Head:

here is little Effie’s head
whose brains are made of gingerbread
when the judgment day comes
God will find six crumbs

stooping by the coffin lid
waiting for something to rise
as the other somethings did-
you imagine His surprise

bellowing through the general noise
Where is Effie who was dead?
-to god in a tiny voice,
I am may the first crumb said

whereupon its fellow five
crumbs chuckled as if they were alive
and number two took up the song,
might I’m called and did no wrong

cried the third crumb, i am should
and this is my little sister could
with our big brother who is would
don’t punish us for we were good;

and the last crumb with some shame
whispered unto God, my name
is must and with the others i’ve
been Effie who isn’t alive. 4

You could have picked up the brush or the pen again at any time in your adult life mother, but you didn’t. You could have, should have, would have, but you didn’t. What might have happened if you had?

Another half-decade ground on. My passion for my craft waned. There were times I hated to sit at the drafting board. Times I dreaded the thought of doing this for another day. And times I didn’t. I got so fed up with my mediocrity that I tried to become a painter. I bought huge canvasses thinking that proportion could mask a lack of ability. I painted the mountains I hiked in Phoenix, romantic naïve by-gone images of the west, and a portrait of my mother. I tried to sell my paintings in my own art gallery but no one was interested. I eventually sold, at drastically reduced prices, or gave away all but one of my paintings, and threw the portrait of my mother out. Then I recommitted to my career and headed off to California, the cradle of landscape architecture.

I wrote a book on landscape architecture, which proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, just how little I knew about the subject. I wrote books on the environment, which demonstrated unequivocally, that I’m a terrible environmentalist. I wrote an autobiography, which begins at my high school graduation, proving I wasn’t ready to deal with my youth. And now I’m sitting here and writing this because I have to. I have to lay this beast that torments me to rest and move on.

Do you hear me mother? I’m breaking free of these shackles of the memory of you. I’m sorry that you had to go through whatever it was that caused you to live (and die) the way you did. You chose to wallow in it, and it sucked you under and suffocated you. I’m moving on. I want more. I want to live and breathe during the years I have left. I’ll say goodbye mother. Once and for all. Goodbye and good riddance. I’m sorry for the things you endured and that you couldn’t rise above them. And I’ll thank you for your legacy. I write poetry every now and then and have even started painting again, but not for you – for me. I’ll give credit where credit is due mom. This didn’t come from just anywhere. If came from you. So thank you.

As I spin through the mental roll-a-dex of things I could have been I come to realize exactly why I wasn’t any of those things. My life, to some extent was predetermined, before the day I was born. As the son of a painter and a poet, I was bound to experience misery. I seemed to seek it out, and if misery is what you’re after then painting and poetry are the perfect mechanisms for finding it. Stevie Wonder said it in “Songs in the Key of Life”:

Sometimes I know you get in trouble
That makes you wish that you
Were born in a different time and place
But I’ll bet you this
And that it’s double
That God knew exactly
Where he wanted you to be placed.5

So, if what I’m doing with my life is God’s will, I embrace it. Late in life everything makes sense. This was meant to be.

Goodbye mother. Rest well. I wish you would have left a body of work behind you that I could proudly point to. Look, see, that’s my mom. That’s where it comes from. But you didn’t. You lived the life but avoided the work. Not me. Bring it on.

Thank you mother. God bless you mom. Good-bye.

BIO

John C. Krieg is a retired landscape architect and land planner who formerly practiced in Arizona, California, and Nevada. He is also retired as an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) certified arborist and currently holds seven active categories of California state contracting licenses, including the highest category of Class A General Engineering. He has written a college textbook entitled Desert Landscape Architecture (1999, CRC Press). John has had pieces published in A Gathering of the TribesAlternating CurrentBlue Mountain Review, Clark Street Review, Conceit, Homestead Review, Oddball Magazine, Palm Springs Life, Pegasus, Saint Ann’s Review, and Wilderness House Literary Review.

Works Quoted:

1). Joni Mitchell. “A Case of You” – “Blue” – Reprise Records 1972

2). Ernie Pyle. Article intended for a “Victory Day” column. Circa 1945

3). Anonymous reporter. “The Hudson Star Observer”by The Brown and Bigelow Public Relations Department. March 19, 1959

4). e.e. cummings. Selected Poems. “Little Effie’s Head” New York. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-87140-154-1

5). Stevie Wonder. “Songs in the Key of Life.” Portrait EMI Records 1976

Why Don’t You?

by Kevin R. Farrell, Jr.



Skipping rocks across the river between your ears,
I’ll fake my way through impermanence,

a slave to boredom,
scar tissue tickle spots,

I’m neutral,
indifferent,

I’m frightened my rage will come out of retirement,
a comeback tour of only the classic fuck ups, 

a graveyard of mass apologies,
an answering machine of only what the fucks?

chokes me like, 
cool beans, asshole,

I sprint through the crawl spaces of my mind,
someone should tell the rats about marathons.


Hellp

Saunters in,
I’m unaffected,

what’s it look like
to look like
you’re not looking?

Toe the line,
self-service check out body bags,

all of our wounds internal,
putting cigarettes out on my past,

give yourself a hand,
I don’t need it,

I’ve destroyed myself so you can’t,
built myself back up so you couldn’t.


Rise and Spit Shine

Good morning!
Fuck everyone…

Personality,
no contest,

politically active contraceptives,
dictating to the choir,

to raise the bar,
lower your standards,

licking your novice chops,
meetings are murder,

furrowed brow beaten but not out,
hard pressed to remain soft spoken,

sulking your way to the top,
cower in humble defeat,

you’re so lovingly receptive,
I’ll walk all over you,

no really,
fuck everyone.


Never Slept On It


My OCD sees only the unkempt,
trimmed my beard with a mouse trap,

ego maniac with an inferiority complex narcissistically mirror gazing,

I’m having rage issues,
I have no control when it comes to not having control,

I’m a free spirit grounded on the tarmac,
my heart is heavy, 

wet cement,
you press your name into it,

when it dries we’ll get a frame,
hang it in the hallway of my childhood home,

cover the hole I sucker punched in the wall,
right next to the other hole I sucker punched in the wall,

the new tenants walk on eggshells
to not disturb my ghost writer,

last night I fought a coworker in my dreams because he refused my help,

when I see him today 
he’s getting the cold shoulder,

that’ll show him who’s not even the boss of his own mind,
my alarm clock rolls its fives.


Lawn


Melancholic whoa is me tea parties,
raised pinkies, 
furrowed brows,

eavesdropping,
eye rolls, 
the flesh of, the blood of,

the conversation hasn’t changed,
a long lineage of talking heads,
a sense of triviality,

listen, 
we should talk less,
count all the frowns
to divide them by the smiles,

jeez, 
you haven’t heard a thing,
no need to be saved when you can run away,

and before I forget,
the lawn looks great. 

BIO

Kevin R. Farrell, Jr. is a New York based artist, poet, and educator whose work has been published in Burning House Press, Rumble Fish Quarterly, Adroit Journal, Terror House Magazine, Former People, Blakelight Magazine, Visitant Lit, Ink in Thirds Magazine, Indiana Voice Journal, Foxhole Magazine, Yo-NEWYORK!, BONED Stories, Yes, Poetry, and The Writing Disorder. His work attempts to capture life from the vantage point of someone in the backseat of a stolen car running on fumes. His poems are a play on words in the form of political, satirical, surrealist, tongue in cheek rants that often border on stream of consciousness ramblings that are a last-ditch effort at taking it all in before we get taken out.

Complicit

by Jane Snyder

Violet, disgusted, closed her eyes, lay as still and small as she could, hoping they’d go away, but they stayed, John and Dr. Walters, talking above her head.

I might speak, she thought, if they’d shut up. Her husband, John, old, thin, raspy as a grasshopper, showing off for Dr. Walters, the psychiatrist. Twenty years before, when Dr. Walters was an intern and John was chief medical officer, the nurses under Violet called Dr. Walters a pretty boy. Those young nurses were funny. She’d liked them so much, hoped they’d liked her a little too.

“Psychosomatic,” John said. “Well, I wondered. I did indeed. It came on so suddenly. Of course, I go back to when we called it hysterical blindness. Wandering Womb. I still think there’s something to that. Not at Violet’s age, of course,” he added comfortably. “But what do you think, Doctor?” Violet wished she could take a damp cloth, wipe the crispy bits from under John’s nostrils.

What Dr. Walters thought was that Violet’s behavior was a response to her daughter’s death. When he’d see her around town he said, with her daughter or John, he said, she was fine.

 News to Violet, this benign presence observing her successful adjustment to old age. John, Violet believed, would have liked it if Dr. Walters had said hello.

“One of those cancer tragedies,” her husband said, of Anne. “It seems as if it’s always the woman who’s the center of her family’s world, the one everyone depends on. When they become ill they’ve already exhausted their strength caring for others. They can’t put up any defenses against the cancer.”

Oh, so that’s what happened.

John was wearing a clean shirt today; hadn’t remembered to shave.

“Violet,” Dr. Walters asked. “Do you know your daughter has died?” When Violet worked at the hospital the nurses claimed Dr. Walters would raise his hand for silence when he spoke. Doctor at work.

Anne had died nine months ago. The doctor may have her grieving, Violet thought, decided she’d be the judge of that.

“What was her name, Violet?”

“Anne,” her husband said, embarrassed, Violet guessed, by her recalcitrance.

“Was her name Anne, Violet? I know you can talk if you want to.”

I was never so flattered as when Anne was small. I was a queen to her, could soothe, delight, comfort, enchant, entertain, anything. How she loved me.

“What was Anne like?” She was as dull as John made her sound, Violet thought. A good wife, mother, and daughter, put the needs of others first.

 It was what I was like when I was with her.

“You spoke last night, Violet. To that young man. Mark. You scratched his face.”

“Oh my,” her husband said. Not embarrassed. Currying favor.

Dr. Walters wants me to be ashamed, Violet thought. I’m not.

“Did you think you were in danger? That you were home and he was breaking in?  That he would hurt Anne?”

“Mark. I marked him.” Violet thought she’d spoken aloud but no one answered. You’d think a healthy young fellow could have gotten away from me. I wanted to hurt someone, she wanted to say, and you weren’t here.

“We cared for Anne in our home. With help from Hospice,” her husband said. “Our son-in-law just wasn’t able. It was easy for us, with our medical background.”

I cared for her, she thought. John came to Anne’s room once a day, showing off, as if he were on rounds with the residents. Keep the patient comfortable, he’d told the CNA. That’s the main thing in palliative care. She knows all that, Violet wanted to say. She works for Hospice.  

“Violet,” Dr. Walters said, taking her right hand in both of his. “I know you can hear me.”

Yes, and it’s no treat. Anger, now, anger is what I enjoy. She held onto it as tightly as Eliza held onto her son Harry in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, running over the ice floes, away from the bloodhounds to freedom.

“You’re a smart one, Violet,” Dr. Walters said into the room, performing again. Not for her so no need to listen. “And I’ll tell you: I’m not putting up with this. I know you can talk and if you’re not doing that very soon you’re out of here. Nursing home, assisted living. Whatever. This is 1995. Sicker and quicker. Hospitals don’t provide long term care. Get better or don’t. Your choice. Either way, you’re not staying here.”

Eliza felt the dogs’ hungry hot breath on her legs as she ran. They’d tear her apart if they caught her but better that than being dragged back and Harry sold away from her. She held on and ran.

Violet’s head dropped forward and she bit into Dr. Walters’ hand.             

“Really, Violet.” Her husband made a clucking sound.

Her mouth was pried gently open. Sue, the nurse she liked, would have done it.  Dr. Walters snatched his hand away. “So you heard me all along, didn’t you, Violet?” His tone was triumphant; she must have hurt him.

‘She’s never done anything like that before,” her husband said. Thinks he knows everything about me. Apologizing for me.

“I may have come on too strong,” Dr. Walters said. Violet imagined the bruise growing darker. The skin would coarsen, appear granulated.

“Oh, no,” her husband said. “No.”

“It isn’t that I don’t sympathize with your loss. But sometimes confrontation is what it takes to get through to a patient.” Dr. Walters had always been like that, Violet remembered, pluming himself on his “unconventional” methods, knowing more than anybody else.

John’s voice was creamy. “Oh, of course.”

What a toady, Violet thought. What a pantywaist.

When he said goodnight John kept his distance. Afraid I’ll take a bite out of him, too, Violet thought. “Tomorrow will be a better day,” he said, before leaving with Dr. Walters. Violet snorted. Trying to align himself with Pretty Boy. Just who do you think is going to take care of you.

John had been frightened last week when Violet stopped speaking. When he tried to take her to the hospital she inserted herself between the stove and the wall.

He told the Crisis Team she was the gentlest lady alive. Violet had kicked at them.

Like a donkey, she’d thought, braying.

“I wish you could have seen Dr. Walters’ face,” Sue said after they’d gone. She laughed. “I probably shouldn’t tell you that. I don’t know; I’ve never worked Psych before. We’ve got low census on 4A so they sent me here. It’s kind of fun.”

Violet began to wish she could ask questions. Sue, though, spoke as if Violet was speaking and she, Sue, was responding to her. “4A is oncology. I don’t know if that’s different since your time. My nurse manager sure has been talking about you. Linda Richards. Remember her? She wants to see you tonight before she leaves.”

Linda. Not an agile mind, not as pretty as some of the others, but persistent.

“You don’t have to see her if you don’t want to.”

Violet remembered when oncology was on the seventh floor and called cancer. This was when she was the nursing supervisor on night shift. Her choice. She could sleep when Anne was at school, be with Anne when she came home. On weekends when John wasn’t on call, she was supposed to catch up on her sleep. He’d take Anne to the hospital with him, stow her with a coloring book at the nurse’s station while he saw patients. Violet, when she was alone, slept deeply.

When she was small Anne was sweet and appreciative and time with her father had gone smoothly. The summer Anne turned twelve, though, John became fierce with her. Chubby, he’d call her and say there’s no excuse for that. Wanted Anne to drink warm water and lemon juice when she got up in the morning and instructed Violet to serve fruit for dessert. At dinner he’d quiz Anne on what she’d eaten during the day, tell her she must be eating more than that.

Violet said it was temporary. She’s not going to be heavy, she told him. We’re not. When Anne was a baby she’d been the same, get a little chunky, have a growth spurt and be thin again. Why bother her about something that would go away on its own?

You indulge her too much, John said. There are serious health risks involved here. The subject, he told Violet, was closed. He wanted Anne to exercise, made her go on bike rides with him. He’d sit up straight, spare and erect in his khaki shorts and gingham shirt, talking the whole time, to prove he wasn’t winded.

Anne was embarrassed, didn’t want her friends to see them. She swam in their pool every day, she said. That could be her exercise.

“You float on your back and daydream in the warm water. Genuine exercise is what you need,” John said, announcing plans to take her to the pool at the country club. “It’s bigger. You’ll get a real work out.”

Anne said the high school kids went there on weekends and she’d feel funny.

Perhaps, John told her, you’d be less self-conscious if you’d lose weight. In any case, we’re members, have every right to be there.

He took her one Saturday after breakfast. Anne was sullen. John was stolid, cheerful; pretended they were having fun.

Violet anticipated trouble but she’d worked a double and fell deeply asleep as soon as Violet and John left for the pool, slept till late afternoon when the smell of chlorine and emesis sent her rocketing up from deep sleep to the surface. Anne was gripping her hard around the waist. Shuddering, sobbing.

“Sweetie? Where’s Daddy?” He’d be angry with Anne for waking her and scold her for crying and getting in their bed. Like a baby, he’d say.

Anne sobbed louder. She was still in her bathing suit. Damp. She ought to have changed; she knew about mold and mildew. Violet felt the heightened anxiety she sometimes had at work when there was no quarter for mistake, when everything had to be done right. “Sweetie? What’s wrong?” There was another smell. Acrid and sweet. “Tell me.”

Violet cautioned herself not to yell, not to frighten Anne. She was frightened herself, guessing what was coming.

“Don’t be mad.”

“No. No, I won’t be mad.”

John had dropped Anne off, and, as Violet learned from Anne, had driven on to his office himself, too angry to tolerate his daughter’s company for another minute.

Anne had gone into the hall bathroom and swallowed the contents of a leftover bottle of baby aspirin on the top shelf of the medicine cabinet, the first thing she found, Anne said, crying harder. She’d gone to bed, thinking she’d sleep and not wake up. She’d lain there for a few minutes, feeling dizzy, but then her stomach had started to hurt and she’d vomited a big pinkish blob onto the rug.                                             “

“It’s a throw rug,” Violet said, thinking how inadequate this sounded.  “I can put it in the washing machine. It’s all right. Everything’s all right.”

Again she asked her where her father was. He wasn’t home, that was clear, or Anne wouldn’t have allowed her to lead her to the kitchen where Violet made lemonade from a can of concentrate. Anne gulped it all down even as Violet cautioned to drink slowly. “I’m not going to die?” She was diffident, wanting to know the answer, not wanting to show how much.

“No.” Violet thought of the things that could have happened. “Not today.”

“You’re sure?”

“Well, I’m a nurse.”

John, when he wanted to pull her up short would say, “Oh, I think I know, Violet. I’m a physician.”

Johns hay fever pills would have been enough. Or Anne could have made herself a noose and not been able to extricate herself in time. “Did you want to die?” Anne started to cry again. She had. She’d formed the thought and intended to carry it out. Violet felt something being pulled from her grasp.

“Why?” Imagine letting yourself entertain those thoughts. Actually thinking them, following where they went, not pushing them away. “What’s wrong?” Allow me to fix it for you, Violet wanted to say, put it in perspective for you, change it for you. I’m so glad you’re not dead, she wanted to say but already she was moving away from that. Moving herself and Anne away. “I’m so glad you’re all right. Whatever it is I won’t be angry.”

“Daddy is. Daddy’s angry.”

Violet wanted to promise to take care of it, wondered if she could. When she complained about the fat talk John only got harder on Anne. “I think it must have been a misunderstanding.”

Anne stood up. “I know what he said. I hate him and he hates me.” The lemonade had dampened the orangey pink powder around her lips.

She’s little, Violet thought, she’s just a little girl. “Oh, no, sweetie.” Do it right, Violet told herself. It has to be right. “Please tell me what happened.” She stood behind her, put her arms around Anne who seemed to grow smaller.

Her father had wanted them to swim laps but there were older kids in the lap lane. Larking, he’d said, not swimming at all. So he’d asked them, is this not the lap lane, specifically designated for laps? They’d shrugged.

A few minutes later he came back with the embarrassed lifeguard and the young people rolled their eyes and complied with her request to “move to the general pool area.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Anne said. “I didn’t say anything. He just yelled. He said they were rude and he was going to talk to their parents. And he said I wasn’t even trying. My stroke was lazy. I wasn’t doing it right or I’d swim faster. He said I must want to be fat.”

She’d turned mulish then, pulled herself onto the side of the pool to get out. He’d tried to pull her back but she’d run to the dressing room. He hadn’t gone after, Violet guessed, because he couldn’t bring himself to break the rule against running on concrete. He hadn’t gone into the ladies dressing room to get her. He’d called in to her to come out. “I know you’re there. You’re behaving like a spoiled child who needs spanking.”

She’d stayed in the shower till the same lifeguard, still embarrassed, came in and said her dad wanted her to go to the car. “He’s pretty mad,” she told Anne. “I think you’d better.”

I should, Violet thought, be telling her none of this matters. Only she couldn’t; she was feeling what it had been to be Anne, unable to get away from her father. “Daddy wouldn’t spank you,” Violet said, knowing this was true. He was too dignified, no matter how mad he was, to struggle with Anne. He was more afraid of looking ridiculous than Anne; the events at the pool would have been horrifying to him. I ought to tell her she’d done wrong, trying to hurt herself, Violet thought, say it isn’t as bad as she thinks, there is no problem that can’t be resolved. “I’m so glad you’re all right.” Fatuously. “You didn’t really want to die.”

Anne turned away.

“Now. You don’t want to die now?”

Anne got up, stood in front of her.

“Oh, sweetie. You can tell me.”

Anne paused, appeared to be struggling to pick the right words. Violet couldn’t remember Anne editing what she said to her mother before. “Don’t tell Daddy. I don’t want to talk to Daddy about any of this.”

“I don’t think it would be right to keep this from your father.”

Anne had never questioned her mother’s ideas about what was due her father before. “What about what he did?”

Violet imagined the three of them at a therapist’s office. A man of course, someone John would pick. Would interview first to make sure he wouldn’t question John’s authority. But maybe, she thought, I’m not being fair. Maybe he’d be shocked into a new approach. Or maybe John wouldn’t see the need for outside help, would talk to her himself. Violet imagined him sitting behind his desk and Anne, still with the grainy pink stuff around her mouth, sullen in the chair in front.

“If you think he’s right you’re no better than he is.”

“He shouldn’t have embarrassed you.” Anne glared at her, didn’t acknowledge the concession. “I don’t know why he did that.” Because he never lets anything go, Violet thought. “But it isn’t really the same thing. This is serious. He cares about you.” If she said love Anne would argue. “I know it doesn’t feel that way to you now.” 

“No. It doesn’t feel that way to me. Fat, fat, fat! If you tell him you’re as bad as he is.” This is ridiculous, Violet told herself, childish manipulation. I won’t be doing Anne any favors if I give in. The thought was in John’s voice. “I won’t tell your father,” she said. “But you must never do anything like this again.” Violet told herself she’d had no choice but to bargain. John would be furious if he found out. If Anne ever threw it at him in anger, for instance, accused him of driving her to it. “I’ll talk to your father. He never had a sister. I don’t think he knows much about girls.”

Or maybe he did. Violet thought of the distaste in John’s voice when he talked about Anne letting herself get fat. He knew how to hurt her.

You have to stop, she’d told John that night. No more talk about her weight.

No, he said, his confidence restored from the time spent in his office. He would not lower his standards and he would not be swayed by tantrums. He meant Anne. Violet was too frightened to be angry and she couldn’t match him in arguments. How had he harmed Anne, he demanded. Why did Violet ask less of Anne than she could do? Why was she selling their daughter short?

Violet wore him down, not talking. “Oh, very well,” he said, benevolently. “Since you feel so strongly. It may be, too, that the woman’s point of view has more value now that she’s an adolescent.”

Violet knew what was expected and expressed gratitude. John stopped twitting Anne on her weight, didn’t comment when she became slim again. He found other ways. A boy she liked who asked her out once, didn’t ask a second time. A poor grade in a class where she’d thought she was doing well.

“She’s her mother’s daughter,” he would say. As if Anne’s preference for Violet was a personal idiosyncrasy, like preferring broccoli to green beans. He could be humorous about it, telling their dinner party guests about Anne’s calls from college. “Fine,” he’d say. “She’s fine. If I answer the phone she’s always fine and her classes are interesting. And then she talks to Violet for an hour.”

Linda came after supper. She had the air of one conferring a favor by her attentions, no mention of Anne’s death or the circumstances surrounding Violet’ s hospitalization. In the old days, Violet remembered, Linda often expressed the belief that an elderly patient should be taken out of him or herself, needed to know they weren’t the only ones with problems.

 “Can you believe it? They’re having us chart four times a shift now. Every aspect of care, you have to write it down as soon as it happens.” Violet, who wanted to remain with her thoughts of Anne, listened in silence, nodding politely. Thick as a brick, thinking she, Violet, cared about that or wanted to hear about Linda’s children. Who were in college now, though, as Linda pointed out, they’d been toddlers when Violet retired.

Imagine that.

Violet longed for the quiet she remembered from night shift. The patients sleeping and the staff subdued by the stillness. She used to imagine herself walking through the patients’ dreams. A soothing presence, she hoped. She wasn’t usually imaginative. Being awake when others slept, moving through the dim corridors, gave a fairy tale quality to the time.

“She told me to take good care of you,” Sue said after Linda announced she had lots to do and went away. “So I guess I’ll let the other patients go to hell in a handbasket.” Violet, surprised, laughed. She was glad Sue was her nurse. “If she comes again I’ll tell her you’re asleep.”

She won’t come again, Violet thought. 

She admired the way Sue helped her to the toilet without making a thing of it. Got her ready for the night without talking overmuch. Good thing, too, Violet thought. You go on and on, ii makes the patient nervous. She asked Violet if she wanted to sit up, guided her hand to the button for lowering the bed, and to the call light, if she wanted a sleeper.

I won’t, Violet promised herself. I won’t give Dr. Pretty Boy the satisfaction. If he even checks on details like that. All style, no substance, was the way she remembered him. She moved to her right side, pleased Sue hadn’t closed the curtains. It was early summer and the sky was still light.

Nightshift started at 10:00 pm. Violet remembered it was always dark when she began her rounds but the summer darkness was different. Not as heavy. The stars, when they appeared, were less sharp.

Violet couldn’t see the ground from her bed. The shallow rooms on this side of the building faced Monroe Avenue. There was a little park on the other side. She remembered looking down on it. Mysterious in the night, flushed and pretty when the sun rose. A creek ran through the park and Violet was always surprised when she saw this evidence of a world beyond the hospital.

Snowfalls were impressive when seen from this high, she remembered. Whenever she saw one she thought of the ticker-tape parade they’d had for John Glenn in New York. She’d watched the footage from a television in a wakeful patient’s room. In black and white, the sky thick and gray with torn bits of paper.

The last year she worked, 1975, there was a freak snowstorm in April. It melted off before her shift ended but that night the snow twirled down in huge flakes. Violet had stopped to look for a moment when she got off the elevator on the ninth floor, the ward for respiratory patients.

Violet had come up, hoping to be useful, because the patient in 906, a Caucasian male of 50, moderately obese with a history of cocaine use, had coded. Acute myocardial infarction. They didn’t use the intercom at night. Violet had a beeper, something new then. She sat at the nurse’s station, answered the phone. She did rounds on the hour, walking from room to room. The patients were sleeping despite the hubbub, except for Ruth, an elderly woman, close to death herself. The room was bare, none of the pleasant clutter Violet would later assemble in Anne’s sickroom. Flowers, photographs, treasures from Anne’s childhood, as if their cumulative weight was enough to hold her, keep her there.

The second time she did rounds Ruth had gotten out of bed. How, was a mystery. She was too weak to even feed herself and ought to have been in soft restraints, Violet thought. If she fell she’d no doubt break her hip. Which would be painful and indicative of substandard care but Ruth was so weak, never trying to sit up, and old skin tears easily. The nurses would have thought restraints weren’t necessary.

She sat in the chair by the window, watching the snow.                                                       

“Isn’t it pretty?” She was small. Violet thought she could manage to get her back to bed on her own. It was a young crew of nurses that night and they’d want to be together, talking over the code.                                                                                   

“You’re cold, Ruth,” Violet said, holding Ruth’s hands, ringless and knobbed with arthritis, in hers. “Let’s get you warm.”                                                                               

She’d smiled a conspirator’s smile. “I’m so excited.”

“Of course.”                                                                                                               

Ruth stared at the damp, swirling snowflakes. “He’s coming.”

If she dies in the chair, Violet, thought, I’ll have to call for help. I can’t manage her if she goes slack.

“You wait and wait. You wait forever. But he always comes.” She pursed her colorless lips and hissed into Violet’s ear. “Santa.” She drew her head back a little to study Violet’s reaction.

Violet, entrusted with a confidence, nodded solemnly. “I think so.” The absence of personal possessions, of visitors, of anecdotes to establish herself with the nurses, suggested deprivation and institutionalization to Violet.

Ruth would have been a good little girl, she thought, anxious to please. Violet imagined her receiving a stiff doll in a dusty cardboard box, colored pencils, a jigsaw puzzle.

Her Santa Claus was driven hard through the cold night, Violet thought, imagining Ruth’s mother dreaming of a golden haired doll who cried mama, a teddy bear made of genuine mohair, telling herself next year would be better. 

Violet had made wonderful Christmases for Anne. She’d sit with John in front of the tree on Christmas night after Anne had gone to bed, tired, but replete, thinking about how lovely it had been and what she’d do next year.                                                                   

“You work too hard,” John would say, “Anne’s too young to appreciate it.” She wished he’d talk about what she’d actually done, perhaps admire the dish towels she’d embroidered for Anne’s play kitchen.                        

Ruth, still smiling, allowed herself to be guided back to bed. She was quiet then, but not still. Her hands reached up as if she was pulling threads from the air. Her eyes shone with excitement. She took fewer breaths. Ten one minute, then six. Four. Two shallow gasps.

Here, not here.

Violet left Ruth for a moment then to call the morgue and get a shroud and the body bag from the supply room. She would prepare the body herself, she decided. It would bother her less, she thought, than it would the inexperienced young girls. Ruth was even lighter than she’d supposed and the log roll to move the body bag and then the shroud underneath her was easily accomplished without help. ADC, After Death Care, it was called, and simple enough in the absence of family. No need to propitiate a coroner, or harvest organs.

Ruth was squeaky clean but a bed bath, with special attention to the hands and face was customary. It wasn’t necessary to place pads to protect the workers at the funeral home from possibly infectious fluids; Ruth was dry toast. Her limbs, despite the distorting effect of the arthritis, were graceful. Ruth’s eyes were open and Violet, imagining Ruth staring out into eternity, massaged the eyelids down and outwards till they shut.                                                            

Violet imagined Ruth smiling with delight, her thin fingertips stroking the soft cotton shroud, and realized she was thinking of Ruth as if she were still alive. A common mistake. She’d heard nurses talk to a child’s corpse, explaining what they were doing as if to reassure it.

Is that what you’d think about as you died, she wondered. Santa Claus? It was regrets usually, regrets the family didn’t understand. Not the steadfast conviction that someone, not God, was coming.                                                                            

Someone anyway.                                                                                                      

After the two orderlies took away Ruth’s body, Violet sat at the nurse’s station charting.  She was glad Ruth had died at night, when the other patients wouldn’t know.

The nurses were apologetic. The girl who’d been assigned to Ruth was near crying. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Wythcombe. You shouldn’t have had to do all that. If you’d only called.”

“It was nothing,” she said, hoping the girl didn’t feel she was being scolded. The patient in 906 had also died, and Violet wanted to be kind and helpful, draw her good deed around her like a shawl, so that the nurses could relieve their feelings by speaking freely, but they went back to their charting in silence.

I didn’t know anything about Ruth, she realized. Not one thing.

She looked again into the soft darkness and imagined herself talking to someone. Perhaps Sue, when Sue came back. “To the old,” she’d say, “the dead are not so far away. They wait for us in another room. I’ll go to Anne soon.” Tonight, though, it wasn’t a calm, happy, nicely dressed Anne she saw but a fat Anne, her features sunk deep in protective fat.

What if Anne hadn’t resumed her young girl’s body? What if, instead of becoming slim again, she’d gotten bigger, spilled out of her clothes? What if she’d been grossly, morbidly, obese? Would Violet have harried Anne? Would she have looked at Anne’s body with disgust? Said ‘piggy, piggy, what’s in your trough,’ as John had done once when he walked into the kitchen and found Anne there, eating ice cream?                                                   

Anne’s face, as Violet saw it then, was blurred with fat and misery, a mirror reflecting Violet’s betrayal.

Unloving, complicit with John.

I didn’t love her enough.

John would hate being alone. No one noticing him. His little grasshopper legs rubbing all the time, rasp, rasp, but no one to hear. If no one watched him, if Violet wasn’t there, what would he have?

Violet, alone in the soft dark, tried to loosen her clutch on the bitterness she held, found she couldn’t. Reaching for the call button she thought how it would be one in the eye for John, for Dr. Walters, even for Linda, that Sue, substitute Sue, would be first to hear her speak.

BIO

Jane Snyder‘s stories have appeared in Cobalt, Lunate, and Bull, Men’s Fiction.

Head of the Ulna

By Tessa Vroom

The brown-grey weathered bone lay within my palm. I had been searching for fossils within the shade under sweeping tree branches overhanging the gentle creek, but instead found a bone. Staring at my discovery, I reconciled two facts: the animal that owned this was dead for sure, and there was no way my mama would let me bring it home.

#

Bones are the framework of the body, defining the unique shape of a body. Bones are much like snowflakes: no two people have the same jaw, the same ribs, the same arms. Two bones make up the forearm: the ulna and the radius. The ulna stretches from the hand to the humerus, brushing against the carpal bones by the thumb and settling gently in the crook of the arm to form the elbow joint.

#

The first time someone besides my mama told me I was attractive I bloomed. She told me I looked like a twelve-year-old boy a week later. I asked her why she loved me then, and she shrugged. I forgave her quickly. I never told her that after, when I looked in the mirror, I could no longer find the beauty within my round cheeks, crooked eyebrows, and short hair.

#

Ulna means “elbow.” Ulna involves brushing the tongue against the back of the teeth and snapping it down to make “l” and “n” and ends in an open “ah,” a breath of relief. It’s a beautiful, round word, full of curves. The bone, by contrast, is long with awkward ends full of bumps and bits that don’t seem to fit. When you squint, the ulna can look like a budding iris.

#

I stare every morning at the slight bend at the bridge of my nose, the high rise of my forehead, the red patches by each jaw: a permanent blush attempting to flee from the confines of my face. I have to reintroduce myself daily to the stranger in the mirror. I raise my hand to wave, and see my wrist. My peaked wrist bone, that is mine. I know it, I know the little freckle at the base of the hill, I know the dark hairs that grow like dry grass. I touch the pronounced triangle of bone under my skin, feel real. My peaked wrist bone, that is mine, but my face and body belong to a stranger.

#

Forearm fractures account for more than 40% of all childhood fractures. Forearm fractures often occur on a playground, or during sports.

#

My older sister says her wrist talks to her, likes to remind her it exists. I remember when she broke her wrist; I was jealous of the cast, the reason to pay attention to her body that had nothing to do with her bruised knees, the width of her hips and shoulders. I never thought about the pain that came with falling hard enough to crack bone. I learned about that pain thrice over as retribution for my jealousy: my nose, my right shoulder, and my cheek (the zygomatic arch). My cheek talks to me sometimes when the weather is cold. I do my best to ignore it. I’m mad at it for being swollen, for pressuring my right eye, for making my face crooked.

#

At birth, the ends of the ulna are cartilaginous. After about the fourth year, the head and styloid process form, but it takes another fourteen to sixteenyears for the ulna to finish ossifying.

#

I don’t tell my mama I hate my body. I don’t tell her I can’t find it within myself to love the shape I’ve been given. That ever since I started puberty, before my ulna was finished turning to bone, I could not fit comfortably within the confines of my skeleton. That I spend time every morning picking out an outfit to hide all the worst parts of myself from view. Only my wrists survive the suffocation of cloth. I don’t tell her I hate my body, but I think she knows.

#

Near the wrist, the ulna has two parts; the larger is rounded, termed “the head of the ulna.” The narrower end, which stretches up the side of the wrist beside the hump of the head of the ulna, is the styloid process. The styloid process looks like a canine.

#

I wrap my middle finger and thumb around my wrist, measure the distance around, feel my bones moving. There’s one part of the ulna, in particular, that fascinates me. It juts out of the landscape of my skin, a small hill marring the smooth topography. My right wrist has a peak taller than my left, but I seem to be the only one who can tell. I spend many hours climbing the hill with my nail.

#

I dream of my skin melting off as I stare in the mirror, leaving red-stained bones behind. I raise my hand, recognize the bump at my wrist, and greet myself.

BIO

Tessa Vroom is Dutch-American and grew up biking over Dutch polders and hiking the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. She is a creative writing major at Western Washington University, and spends the majority of her time wandering through Bellingham listening to podcasts. She works as an audio assistant for a podcast production company.

TITO’S DESCENT

By Marylee MacDonald


If you lose a friend in his youth, the years after such a loss become a kind of afterlife, an unreality, as if you, yourself, are fixed in that time when death lies far in the future. At first, you miss them, and all the questions of whether there is a heaven immediately stand in your path. The person you love like a brother is gone, shimmering in the stream of memory, and that is the picture you carry forward, taking it out now and then and pondering how the miraculous and the tragic can coexist.

Back in April 1968 when Tito led us down into the cavern, we had no fear of death nor suspicion that what we were about to find would splash our names across the Spanish newspapers, and indeed, the newspapers of the world. With the promise of a few pesetas, two local boys — mascots, of sorts — agreed to guide us. The boys said that our destination, the Well of Ramu, had no bottom, that their grandmothers claimed evil spirits lived inside the bluff. Shepherds, standing on its top and looking out toward the Atlantic, had many a time been startled by the eerie-sounding moans of disembodied suffering. The moans came from a pothole called the Well of Ramu, but, perhaps I should explain for the benefit of those urban dwellers who will watch your documentary that this “pothole” was not the kind of pothole one finds in cities, where the asphalt washes away and a street crew must be summoned to throw in a couple of shovelfuls of macadam. This was a geological pothole, a hole in the tabletop of a bluff into which a stray sheep or goat might fall to its death.

Neither Jesús nor Aurelio believed the tales, but they thought it well to warn us. They wanted to show us a different cave. Some crawling, but big grottoes and excellent formations. Most certainly worth the effort and “much easier for the girls,” Jesús said from beneath the first traces of a mustache.

“Don’t worry about the girls,” Tito said, championing the three of us. “We go all together, or not at all.”

Tito sprang over the stone fence that encircled the pothole and dropped to his knees. “The main thing is to determine how much rope we need.”

Then, flattening himself on the ground and with a handful of rocks, he slid his shoulders over the abyss.

Potholes were new to our caving group. In fact, I had never heard of a pothole until Tito proposed this expedition. The guides were country boys and had never rappelled down into one either. Aurelio, the older of the two, warned us not to get too close to the edge in case our weight made the ground collapse; but curiosity got the better of them, and they, too, flattened themselves around the perimeter, cocking their ears and listening to see how long it took for Tito’s stones to hit bottom.

Your cameraman asks why we spelunkers didn’t lower a lantern. A lantern only works if the floor of the cave is near the surface. Otherwise, darkness swallows the light. We could only determine the depth by feel, so when Tito couldn’t hear the stones strike bottom, he lowered a lead fishing weight, the hefty kind fishermen in Ribadesella once used to sink their nets in the ocean. I suppose they must still use them, come to think of it. As to where he’d found one, I don’t recall precisely, but Tito was very careful about bringing whatever we might need for the caves he wanted to explore, and I think he had borrowed the weight from a cousin. By the time we were finished with our preparations, we had five climbing ropes of eighty meters each tied together.

The plan, Tito said, gathering us around, was for him to descend first, assess the situation, and then send down one of the guides.

Instead of saying “of course,” the guides looked at one another.

Aurelio, maybe fourteen, said that when the boys explored caves, they slithered along with flashlights until the batteries dimmed, at which point they backed out.

“Do you want to go down or not?” Tito said.

“I’m scared,” Jesús, about thirteen, said, “but, yes. I’ll try.”

“One of you must stay behind.”

“Can’t we both go?” Aurelio said.

“It’s better to draw straws,” Tito said. “If we get injured down there, the one up here can run for help.”

“Where should we go?” Aurelio said.

“The mayor’s house,” Tito said, nodding his head in the direction of the town across the river. “Or the Guardia Civil. And, if the one who draws the longest straw is still scared to jump into a dark hole, one of the women can show you how it’s done.”

The boys smirked at us girls.

The younger, Jesús, drew the short straw. “So, am I just supposed to wait here, or what?”

“Yes, wait,” Tito said. “Once we’re down, you’re the only way we can communicate with the outside world.”

Tito secured the rope around a boulder and attached carabiners to his climbing harness. Saluting, he slid over the lip.

Adolfo, a bull whose callused hands came from years of scything his father’s hay, stood over the coil, the rope running around his leather-vested back and through his hands. Counterbalancing Tito’s weight, he lowered our leader down.

There were twelve of us in the Torreblanca Speleological Society, mainly geology students at the university in Oviedo, plus Tito’s sister and one of her friends. The name “Torreblanca” came from the town where Tito grew up. I know “Speleological Society” makes it sound like we were some kind of learned group, sitting around and drinking port and discussing academic articles about rock strata, but we weren’t a “society” at all. Our youngest was fifteen and the oldest twenty-two. Eight were geology students — always out in the field, gathering rocks and carrying them back to the lab to hammer apart and examine. Tito, though still not finished with his baccalaureate, had already discovered his life’s passion. Tito was a real rock-hound, completely mad for rocks.

In order to join the Torreblanca Speleological Society, as founder and self-appointed president, Tito insisted that we each buy the basics: a helmet, carbon lamp, and Levi’s from the store where workmen bought their clothes. For caving, he preferred rubber waders, but he let two of us get away with hiking boots — what he wore when he went out with his mountaineering friends. His kit of chocks, carabiners, and climbing ropes filled the trunk of his car.

These days, when I think of Tito, I see him in that famous photograph: in his helmet and muddy, as we all were. Chin down, he is spooning cold beans from a can. We are all smiling and looking at him in wonder. His appetite had become a joke. Bony shoulders with a hunch that hinted at his shyness, all elbows and skinny legs, Tito was a study in angularity. A shock of hair hung over his forehead, and the camera caught him looking down into the can. If I have one regret, it is that Fernando, our unofficial Society photographer, having lined us up, did not say, “Tito, amigo, look at the camera.” I should so have liked to see the tiny windows of light in Tito’s coal-black eyes.

We later learned that the Well of Ramu was actually four hundred meters deep, the length of four football fields, and because of its depth, the temperature remained a constant ten degrees Celsius, barely above freezing. The caves we had explored before this were not quite as cold and often high up, generally an opening on the face of a cliff. To reach them we had to climb, and afterwards, rappel down the rock face. To do that, we slid the rope under our behinds and then leaned back, letting the rope play out as we backed down or bounced down the vertical wall. In the case of the Well of Ramu, we had no wall with which to brace our feet and slow our descent. Our hands served as our only brakes, and when we dropped into the pothole, the rope slid through our gloveless hands.

I was supposed to show Aurelio how to manage the rope, but as I lowered myself down, I found that even twining my legs around it did not slow my descent. By the time I reached bottom, my hands burned, and blisters were already forming. I pressed my palms together, wishing the pain would stop, and took a step back from the rope, my waders sinking in. Mud over-topped them.

“Watch out!” I cried. “Quicksand!”

Tito had been standing nearby and grabbed my arm. “I think we’ve landed in a riverbed.”

“It’s the San Miguel,” said Aurelio, letting go of the rope and dropping freely the last three meters.

And, indeed, the sound of water echoed through the chamber, a gurgle that made me think we might step into the channel and be washed downstream. The things I feared most in caves were being sucked by the force of a river that would be too powerful to resist or stepping out into space and dropping into a lower chamber. My armpits began to tingle and, despite the cold, sweat formed on my upper lip.

Partly to overcome this aversion to confined spaces and partly because of Tito himself, I had joined his club, and now that he had accepted me, I dared not confess that in narrow passages, where I had neither room to turn around nor squirm and where I could see only the boots of the person crawling ahead, I feared the rock would shift and crush me.

The two other girls followed next, and then studious Fernando, who had a crush on Tito’s sister, but was too shy to ask her out. Adolfo, whom Tito called “the human crane,” came next, and finally little Ruperto, the youngest member, age fifteen. A lighter snapped briefly, illuminating his profile, and a moment later, I made out the glowing tip of his cigarette. Trying to appear older, no doubt.

We had all made it down safely.

“Let’s see where we are,” Tito said. “Each of you turn a hundred and eighty degrees and take five steps.”

We did and, in the faint illumination of our carbide lamps, saw that the mud, the murky grayish-brown of a tidal flat, extended beyond the reach of our beams. The cave smelled like no other cave we’d been in before, the air dank and humid, like an ice box exploding with rotting cheese and moldy bread. The river, hidden from view, sounded close, but to reach it and possibly follow it to where it emerged from the earth, we would have to cross the reeking, gray pudding of mud.

The pothole, through which we had descended, and the rope, our only way out, stood behind us, and I was tempted to turn around and keep a hand on it. Were it not for the light falling from above, I could not have told up from down. It was discombobulating.

“Now take five more steps,” Tito said, as if we were playing “Mother, May I?”

When the group had spread out so that each person, leaving his companions, felt a chilling awareness of the cold, Tito said to stand completely still and tilt back our heads.

I did.

Looking up, I could not see the top of the cavern, only a barricade of stalactites as evenly spaced as the twisted, iron bars on a window.

“Which way, do you think?” Tito asked the guide.

“To the right,” Aurelio said, sounding assured for his age.

“To the right it is,” Tito said.

And, then, as if needing to justify himself further, the guide said, “The air is cooler in that direction, and the sound of the river louder. This way should take us to the cave I told you of.”

“And?” Tito said.

“From there we should be able to walk out.”

“But you don’t know that for certain?”

“I don’t know if the passage is open,” Aurelio said.

“Let’s take a quick look,” Tito said.

“What about us?” I asked on behalf of the female contingent.

“All for one, and one for all.” Tito waved his hand inclusively, beckoning us to follow.

His and Aurelio’s lamps bobbed toward the gurgle, less river than burbling creek, its sound magnified by the echo chamber of the cave. A drop of water landed on my cheek, but when I looked up, I still could see no more than I would have seen in my grandmother’s windowless root cellar.

Walking away from the rope plunged me into darkness. As I rocked forward, mud sucked the wader from my heel. I tested each step and waited for the ground to render itself firm. The others cried out and cursed the sucking mud. It was impossible to move quickly, and I was breathing hard by the time I could see that rocks and boulders blocked our way. I placed my hand on one of the rocks for balance. I stopped. Had the stone dislodged from the ceiling, or had the river carried it in? Maybe Tito could tell. Meanwhile, the hiss of carbide, snaking up the tube on my back, reminded me of the hissing, slithering, eyeless albino salamanders we had seen in another cave. I hoped we wouldn’t come upon any creatures like that in this airless space.

Tito told us to wait while they explored, and if this didn’t prove to be a passageway, we could search the cavern for another. So far I hadn’t felt the air movement Aurelio claimed would lead us to the other cave, and I began to think it would be better for us to stay in this large chamber where, at least, we could look back and see the shaft of light beaming down from the pothole.

Tito squeezed sideways through pointed, egg-shaped rocks as gigantic as those the Arabic astronomer Ibn Yunus was said to have used as gnomons. Meanwhile, Aurelio ducked into a fissure that looked as though it led to another cavern, and I thought he might find another big room, but without the river running through it. Shivering and hugging ourselves, we heard his boots splash through water and Tito cautioning Aurelio to watch his footing. When they found themselves in the same passageway, Tito called back and said they could stand upright, but not see daylight. That meant the walk out could take a long time.

At last, their lamps bobbed back in our direction.

They had been gone half an hour, and I had no confidence that we could get out this way. What if we encountered more blockages? It might be better to follow the river in the other direction. I turned toward the sound of water. Above me, I saw a flash of red. It startled me.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“What’s what?” Tito said.

“Red.”

“Where?”

Looking up and trying to relocate the color on an overhanging rock, I moved sideways from the boulder. Because I had taken my attention momentarily from the ground, my feet slipped, and I fell, scraping my blistered hands and letting out a yell.

Then Tito had me by the elbow. His lamp blinded me, and my heart thrummed in my ears. Unlike the others, I was an art student, and the vividness of that red could only mean one thing: paint. I squinted, looking in vain as my headlamp’s faint beam moved across the undulating rock above my head.

And then I saw it: the charcoal silhouette. A single horse’s head. The horse had ears, nostrils, and the same throat latch—that thickening on the bottom of its muzzle—as horses in the pastures of Ribadesella. What was different was its mane. The mane stood as stiff and upright as a zebra’s.

“Look up there.” I pointed.

“A horse,” Tito whispered in awe. He put his arm around me and drew me closer. He was trembling.

I had never been as aware of my body as I was at that moment. The warmth of another human being, the sideways pressure of his hip, the squeeze of his fingers against my arm, the ripple of sensation from my forehead to my feet, made me feel as if we humans were designed, on a primitive level, to connect with one another not just with words, but with the intimacy of touch; that touch was essential for our well-being and the reason we have bodies, not just souls.

The others joined us, and Tito released me. Once again our leader, he directed us to form a line and tilt our heads in unison. Tito’s sister, Eloisa, squeezed between us and put her arm around me.

Hefty little Pilar, one of the most irreverent women I’ve ever met, had her arm around my hip. “What gives?”

“Cave paintings,” I said.

“Like at Altamira?”

“Well, we’re not far from there.”

Our lamps illuminated a swath of red.

“Is that blood?” Pilar asked.

“No. Ocher or iron oxide.”

Honestly, at the time, I had no idea what kind of pigment paleolithic artists might have used. I only knew that blood would have darkened and chipped away.

The artist had applied an orange-red wash to the cave wall just below the horse’s head. In the illumination of our combined head lamps, a herd of horses jumped from the darkness. Six that we could see immediately, although with better light, the archaeologists would later document more. The herd faced the opposite direction and appeared to move across a plain of red that might have been grasslands set afire.

Of these figures, the best preserved was a mare in the fullness of pregnancy. Horizontal bands of black and white circled her legs, reminding me of the mimes who perform in traveling circuses. It gave her a comical aspect that drew a smile.

Most remarkably, the artist had painted her body violet. Could it be that horses in prehistory were violet? In every other respect the horse was as realistic as if Goya himself had drawn it.

We lingered, tracing the animals with our fingers and seeing if others agreed that, yes, that was a horse. Or perhaps a deer, for as we continued to examine the figures, we saw that some had antlers.

Our watches told us that the day had advanced past one o’clock, and though we had filled our metal canisters with carbide pellets, we had a maximum of four total hours before the fuel ran out.

We walked as a group around the cavern, unable to locate any other painted surface.

The Torreblanca Speleological Society was not a democracy, but Tito asked our preference. Should he attempt to monkey-climb the four-hundred-meters of rope and prepare to pull us out, or should we follow the river, in which case, we should get going or have Jesús send down more carbide just in case. Like coal miners, cavers have always used carbide lamps because the lamps can be refilled and the fuel costs next to nothing. With the river below, we would have water, and could add it to the canisters when the gas pellets fizzled out. The main thing was not to get stuck down here in the dark.

The group split evenly, six to six. We gathered around the rope and Tito called up to Jesús. Expecting to see his face looking down, I was stunned when he did not answer.

Tito turned abruptly toward Aurelio. “Did your friend run off?”

Aurelio nervously cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted.

Still no Jesús.

“Maybe he got bored,” Aurelio said.

If the passage proved to be a dead end, we’d have to come back here and wait for rescue. The ground was too muddy to sit.

“We need more carbide,” I said.

“I’ll get some.” Tito extinguished his lamp and took off his helmet. “Back in a second.”

Hand over hand, he ascended the rope, twisting it between his muddy galoshes. When he made it to the first knot, he rested and looked down.

“You can do it!” we shouted in unison. His face took on a look of determination. At the second knot he rested again, this time, calling up angrily, “Jesús, you lazy lout! Come over here.”

Jesús did not appear.

Halfway up the third section of rope, Tito began to slide. He tried to slow his descent at the second knot by clamping it between his insteps. That helped, but unlike when I had abseiled in, with the rope acting as a swing beneath my butt, Tito had no such control and landed beside us with a thud.

Determined to try again, he prepared to remove his galoshes.

“Let me try,” Aurelio said.

He did not even make it past the first section. By now, mud had made the rope too slippery to hold.

Tito put his helmet back on, and Ruperto took out his lighter and lit another cigarette.

“So, it’s to be the river. Aurelio, what is your opinion?” Tito said. “Should we follow it downstream or up?”

“My instinct tells me up.”

“Mine, too,” Tito said. “Back to the passageway.”

The prospect of discovering more paintings made us avid to stay underground, but not having the use of the rope made escape a necessity. Before we tore ourselves away from these paintings and began our trek to the exit, Aurelio ducked back into the fissure he’d explored. There he found a small chamber with deer incised on rock. Not painted deer. These were petroglyphs and finding them made him glad to have won the coin toss. Now, he could legitimately say he was the discoverer of the cave, or at least part of it.

Expecting more discoveries, we picked our way along the rock-strewn passage, our feet slipping on the slimy stones and me fearing that we would reach a dead end or an underground channel that would force one of us to submerge and try to swim against the current.

“Tito,” I called out, my voice swallowed in the dark. “What if our lamps go out?”

“I have some extra carbide,” he said, “and a dozen candles, but I suggest we not think of that and sing to keep up our spirits.”

“What shall we sing?” Maria Pia called.

“How about ‘Puppet on a String?’” Tito suggested.

Adolfo and Fernando began whistling, and the melody carried us along; however, we were concentrating so hard on where to put our feet that the lyrics simply drifted away.

After three kilometers underground, we caught the scent of fresh air. Just as the first sign of daylight appeared, our lamps sputtered out.

Ordinarily, when a cave is discovered, it’s a shepherd who stumbles in, usually unappreciative, which is why so few caves are recorded or mapped. But the Well of Ramu was different. No one knew it was there. We were the first.

Since then the cave has changed. Despite the three air locks, the artificial tunnel introduces outside air, and the unforgettable smell is gone. No one can experience it as we did fifty years ago.

It annoys me that I must pay an admission fee to bring my grandchildren, and it annoys me when people complain about the path being uneven and rocky and dimly lit. It is a cave. What did they expect? The last time I went there, a French-speaking woman was complaining to the guide, who happened to be Aurelio’s son, that she’d had to walk a long way back just to see a few paintings. She had expected more for her money.

When I heard this, I felt a tremendous sense of abandonment and loss. “You have been privileged to see one of the treasures of the world,” I said, “and yet you disparage it. This is not the same experience as going to the cinema.”

I wanted to tell her what a miracle it was to stand before those paintings for the first time, to wonder at the artists who painted them and held them sacred. To imagine the horses that must have been running wild. And I wanted to tell her about Tito, how vibrant and alive he had been as we probed these secret grottoes. How he dove into his can of cold beans right after we had made it back to the top of the bluff and startled Jesús, taking a siesta. How euphoric we were as we tore off our muddy clothes and had Aurelio direct us to the mayor’s house.

Would you mind turning off the camera? Good. Now I will answer your question. Do I think Tito was a risk taker? Certainly, no more than any other young man his age, an age that predisposes the male of the species to believe he will live forever. Tito had his full share of the invincibility hormone. It surged through his veins, and it was what drew us to him. Tito was brave. A leader. He believed in living life to the fullest, squeezing every drop of joy possible from his time on earth. And, remember, this was 1968, seven years before Franco’s death. In a certain way, to live boldly was an act of political defiance.

When Tito slipped in a mountaineering accident a few days later, his sister brought us the news. The Faculty in Oviedo called for a day of mourning. The train to Torreblanca filled with students, but we, who knew him best, drove. At the Mass, his father wept like a man who’d lost a part of his very soul. And because of Señor Bustillo’s intense grief, the authorities decided to name the cave in Tito’s honor. No longer the Well of Ramu, today it is the Cave of Tito Bustillo.

Just this morning, I was thinking about Tito, how he stood next to me in that cave and how my body rippled with pleasure. Tito and I might have had a future. Instead, what he gave me was a single moment of ecstasy. Following his example, I have sought to live every moment as if it were my last.

BIO

Marylee MacDonald is a former carpenter with a Master’s in Creative Writing. She’s the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE AND BLOOD, and THE RUG BAZAAR. Her forthcoming story collection, BODY LANGUAGE, is about people consumed by their infatuations, hungers, and fears. When she’s not at her desk, you can find her strolling in a redwood forest, hiking in the red rocks of Sedona, or exploring California’s Mendocino coast.

the shallow ocean floor

by Mark Young


Make your own website, quickly.
Reconcile such a dramatic economic
year. Forget that planned journey
to Damascus on Monday; instead
visit the Angel City Bookstore in
Santa Monica. Has anyone tried
& was successful at Globalization?


The pedestrian bridge


The female goes nude
to bed, wears wire
mesh in the hope she’ll

morph into a docuseries
in which four men con-
template colonialism &

wonder if they’d feel the
same about it if it came in
a variety of pastel shades.


The Wanted


A woman appeared behind
the man. The necklace glittered.

They laughed. Dinner was
coming. Its eyes were fearful.

The smoker drew deep. I won-
dered what she was thinking.


Answered. Solved. Expired. Invalid.


The innate immunity of pigment
& nomenclature can not only be
seen in every land-based casino
in Mumbai but also in the third
studio album of Realizing Beebo.
Stigma may be attached to the
disparity in the access to & use
of fishing & fun; but this is an

exhibition, not a race, & will
change Generation Y more than
a shift to a daytime cable. They
are broke & can no longer be re-
lied on as an alternative to horses.
Perl hashes are so case sensitive.


A line from Joni Mitchell


I add the instrument. It doesn’t
play back as it should, gives
me an error message to tell
me there is no pause present

in global warming or climate
change. Claims that it is other-
wise come from standardized
files with text & formatting

created by people unwilling to
upset the status quo or the donors
of their research money. I find
a new starting point, one that

recognizes truth no matter how
politically unpopular that may
be. I add the instrument. Now
I can clearly hear the castanets.

BIO

Mark Young lives in a small town in North Queensland in Australia, & has been publishing poetry since 1959. He is the author of over fifty books, primarily text poetry but also including speculative fiction, vispo, & art history. His work has been widely anthologized, & his essays & poetry translated into a number of languages. His most recent books are The Perfume of The Abyss from Moria Books; A Vicarious Life — the backing tracks from otata; taxonomic drift from Luna Bisonte Prods; Residual sonnets from Ma Press of Finland; & The Comedians from Stale Objects de Press, all published during 2019.

The Art Collective

by Robert Boucheron

    

Swathed against the November chill in a woolen wrap and a silk scarf, still chic in her fifties, Nora Devereux made her way along Main Street. She walked every day, no matter the weather. The historic district, built in the late 1800s, offered endless vignettes—the intrigue of a cobbled alley, the thrust of a turret, a mask molded in terra cotta.

     Down a side street, Nora spotted something called the Art Collective. The grand old building had arches, carved keystones, and a beetling cornice. She detoured and peered in the storefront. The space was bare—white walls, a polished hardwood floor. Track lights hung from a high ceiling, bright as diamonds.

     A thin woman seated at a small pine table caught sight of Nora and waved her arms over her head, as though drowning. She wore a long skirt, a bunchy sweater, and a loop of beads that dangled from her neck. No one else was visible in the space. The gesture was not a cry for help but an appeal for company.

     Nora pushed through the glass door. The woman popped up, and her bob of gray hair flew.

     “Welcome to the gallery! The Art Collective is owned and run by a group of local painters, sculptors, photographers, and what-have-you. Many of the members are older and retired, including some retired art teachers. I’m Helen Tabasco, the artist on duty. Please look around, and if you have any questions, I’ll try to answer.”

     “Thank you,” Nora said. “I’m retired, too.”

     Trying not to ignore the artist on duty, Nora glanced right and left. The white walls displayed framed watercolors, sketches, collages, paintings, and photographs. Small ceramics of uncertain shape reposed on large white blocks. Here and there stood sculptures made from scraps of wood and metal, like primitive robots or post-industrial idols.

     “Are you represented here somewhere?” Nora asked.

     “Yes! Look for the big arrow.” Helen Tabasco pointed. High on a wall was her name in block letters with a cardboard arrow stuck beside it. Five canvases hung below. Nora felt obliged to take a closer look. Her heels clacked on the hardwood floor, and Helen followed in staccato counterpoint. In planes of orange, yellow, azure, and dark blue, the canvases were geometric views of a village in dry country. Cubism happened a hundred years ago.

     “Very interesting,” Nora murmured. She moved to the next artist, and the next. Helen was always few steps behind, tethered by an invisible lifeline. A telephone rang on the small pine table.

     “Excuse me,” Helen said. “I ought to answer that.” She hurried away.

     One side of a long conversation rang through the empty gallery. The subject was troubling, something to do with illness, a prescription to be refilled, and a cranky patient. Known only as “he,” the patient had accidents that required cleaning up after. Was he a dog or an incontinent senior citizen?

     Nora did her best to ignore this as she gazed. Strangely, nothing in the gallery reflected the wealth of architecture just outside the door, or the gardens and farms nearby. There were blurred portraits, bowls of fruit in unnatural colors, abstract splashes of black and blood red, and vistas of unremarkable hills. Street scenes reproduced a tangle of overhead wires, parked cars, and dented trash cans. The photographs were doctored, made grainy or dim, as if to disguise their bland subjects—a leafless tree, a railroad track. Artist names were posted above in bold type. Everyone got a few square feet of wall space, and a Featured Artist had a spread near the front.

     Nora gave each artist a minute and moved on. She was grateful not to have to talk. Truthful impressions were hazardous. Yet the gallery cast a kind of spell, like the stage of a theater. It made you want to believe.

     Nora worked her way back to the street door. A pocket of flyers hung there, and a neatly lettered sign was taped to the glass. The sign read:

The Art Collective is in search of talented individuals to join and exhibit their work for sale. Please take a flyer. Or call this number and leave a message. Or visit our website for rules, procedures, and a new member application.

     Helen Tabasco was still on the phone. Unable to desert her post, she grimaced with regret. Nora took a flyer, waved goodbye, and exited. The flyer explained:

Each member pays an annual fee and volunteers to staff the gallery twice a month. A portion of each sale goes to the gallery to pay rent and utilities. Members and their guests meet a few times each year for events like lectures and special exhibits. The month of December is the busiest, as people shop for Christmas.

     Nora had drawn with pencil and pen ever since childhood. Art teachers complimented her sense of proportion and distribution of light and dark. As an adult, she drew what struck her as funny or sad. They were quick sketches, done in an hour or two. She carried a pad and pencils in her bag. Weather and kibitzers could be overcome. She tried once to draw an old chair from memory and gave up halfway. Now she snapped a photo for later.

     Nora sometimes gave a drawing to a friend. She had not shown or sold her work. Until now, the idea never occurred to her. She had never taken an adult art class, and she was not sure she felt up to it.

     Could I learn how to paint? Nora asked herself. Do I have the patience to devote days to a single canvas? Where would I find a studio? My sketches are at least as good as what was on view. Maybe I should give it a try. If nothing else, I’ll have a new activity, meet new people. Volunteer for the cause of art.

     The gallery asked to see four or five samples with the application. In a tattered portfolio, Nora found a dozen or more drawings. She spread them on the floor of the apartment. They were of different sizes, drawn on different kinds of paper. How to choose? Should there be a theme to tie them together? Did they need to be framed? Custom framing was expensive. Ready-made frames that came with the glass and mat already cut might be acceptable.

     Over the next few days, Nora tiptoed around the living room. She rearranged the drawings, set some aside, and stepped on one by accident. It was creased, not ruined. Maybe it gained in character. In the end, she settled on four drawings that had nothing in common—a seedling in the crotch of a large tree, a shed built of discarded doors and windows, a pigeon soliciting a toddler who had a cookie, and a street vendor of scarves bundled up in her own merchandise.

     At an art supply store, the choices were overwhelming. After an hour of comparison, Nora found a plain black frame and bought four. Home again, she assembled the artwork on the kitchen counter. As she worked, she wondered. How many drawings had she given away, and what had become of them? All that was out of her hands. At the last minute, Nora swapped the street vendor for a poodle in a perambulator, with a ribbon in a bow on its curly head.

     The application asked for a name and address, media used, and any previous exhibitions. That much was easy. At the bottom, Nora read this:

Please attach an Artist Statement, or respond to these questions. What style best describes your art? How does the visual intersect the psychological? Where does it fit in the realm of phenomenology?

     Nora was stumped. She looked up “phenomenology,” but the definition was as opaque as the word, something to do with perception. At the public library, she browsed back issues of Art in America in the hope of picking up the lingo. “Line” seemed to be important, along with “profile” and “form.” She liked the adjectives “intuitive” and “spare.” That evening, she tried various combinations and ended up with this:

My work is grounded in the purely visual, without distractions of theory or interpretation. The line is intuitive, and the line is spare. The line marks the boundary of form implicit in the profile. Perception is profile, after all.

     The next day, Nora slipped the application and the four framed drawings into the bag from the art supply store. With this bulk under her arm, she walked to the Art Collective. A week had passed. Helen Tabasco was again on duty.

     “I’m here most Saturdays, except when I drive my husband to chemotherapy.”

     Nora explained her errand.

     “Wonderful! I’m also on the review committee. May I?” She reached eagerly into the bag and laid the framed drawings on the table. “Oh, these are very good! I see no objection to admitting you as a new member.”

     “When does the review committee meet?” Nora asked.

     “There’s no set schedule. You’re the first to apply.” Helen returned the drawings to the bag and placed it on a large white block behind her. A sculpture pedestal, Nora thought, or an altar.

     “Do I need to appear before the committee?”

     “Not that I know of. The others will come by and take a look. At some point, we will talk to each other.”

     “Will someone phone me?”

     “I suppose. It’s hard to say exactly what will happen.”

     This vagueness was far from reassuring. On the other hand, Nora had nothing to lose. She wandered the galley, and Helen returned to a large book that lay open before her, a book on the Desert Southwest.

     Nora gazed without seeing anything distinctly, as though struck senseless in the presence of art. A few minutes brought her to the door. She waved farewell and hallooed.

     “Thank you!”

     Helen looked up in alarm from her reading. Then she recovered.

     “Good luck!” She hallooed back.

     A week passed. Caught up in errands and holiday anticipation, Nora forgot about the gallery. It was off the beaten track, hidden on its side street. Another week passed.

     In December, happening to be on Main Street where she first saw it, Nora detoured again to the Art Collective. A different artist was on duty, a petite young woman with a striking figure, all in black. She wore a sleek silver necklace. She projected cool detachment. She did not stir as Nora approached the small pine table.

     “Good afternoon, I’m Nora Devereux.”

     “Astrid Unger. Can I help you?”

     “A few weeks ago, I left an application and some of my drawings here. Has the membership committee reviewed them?”

     “I don’t know anything about it.”

     “Helen Tabasco was here at the time.”

     “Oh, yes. She had to drive her husband to a medical appointment.”

     “She said she was on the committee and it was likely they would approve.”

     “Did she? That dingbat.”

     “Excuse me?”

     “Helen Tabasco gets confused. She has no authority to speak for the gallery.”

     “Is the Art Collective welcoming new members?”

     “We’re busy right now with the holiday season.”

     Looking beyond Astrid, Nora spied her bag on the pedestal, untouched. A couple entered the gallery from the street. Astrid stood and went to greet them. As soon as they were occupied, Nora slipped behind the table.

     The four framed drawings and the application were in the bag. Astrid chatted with the couple, well-dressed and middle-aged. The man held a lidded paper cup in front of his chest like a sacred object. The three took no notice as Nora tucked the neglected offering under her arm and walked briskly to the door.

     In the street, festive lights twinkled in the early winter dusk. Nora released a sigh, a wisp of vapor that instantly fled. She distanced herself from the gallery.

     A narrow escape, she thought. She could not have said from what, and nobody would ask. She refused to let the incident bother her. Still, what would become of poor Mr. Tabasco?

BIO

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.

Robert grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. His academic degrees are Harvard University, B. A. in English, and Yale University, M. Arch. He is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he has lived since 1987. His stories and essays on architecture and literature are in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.

Temporary Cat Lady

by Caitlin Sellnow

My new foster, a little black cat named Gallagher, spent most of our early acquaintance under my bed. On his third night in my apartment though, he emerged without being coaxed. He settled onto the back of the olive-green microfiber loveseat in my living room. I had bought the loveseat hastily, right after I moved into my Evanston apartment. My dad took me to a second-hand furniture store to find something to replace the camping chairs I had set up in front of the TV. I hadn’t intended to keep it at the center of my apartment for six years, but I’d never found a reason to get rid of it. That night, I was happy it was helping Gallagher feel at home. He settled his face on the back cushion and draped his paws over the front. His eyes almost disappeared into his face, except for the thin rings of gold around his pupils. He leaned into my knuckles as I rubbed them under his chin. I figured we could both start to relax. By then, I really should have known better.

I went into the kitchen to microwave my dinner. Gallagher was out of my sight for about five minutes. I came back to the living room with a bowl of stew and glass of wine in hand, ready to catch up on the Great British Bake Off. When I rounded the corner and saw Gallagher again, I froze.

“Oh, God!” I gasped.

Gallagher was still on the loveseat, blinking calmly at me. But now, there was a stream of blood coming from his left eye – bright red against his glossy fur. I grabbed a paper towel and tried to clean him up. Up close, I saw that it wasn’t his eye, but his eyelid that was bleeding. A few years ago, I probably would have reacted with less composure. But at that point, Gallagher’s gothic horror show was only the latest in a series of diseases, disorders and quirks that had padded through my home on little cat feet.

Gallagher was the sixth cat that stayed in my apartment. That’s admittedly a lot of cats for one one-bedroom. In the context of the city’s entire feline population though, it’s almost nothing. According to the Tree House Humane Society, there are at least 700,000 owned cats in Chicago today, and 500,000 un-owned cats living on the streets. The ones that come to me are somewhere between being owned, unowned and owned again.

When I started fostering these animals, I was trying to avoid making a home here in the city. I made sure that everything in my apartment was only here “for now.” When I had to move, I figured, I would just leave my loveseat on a street corner and buy a new one for another $60 somewhere else. But I could not communicate this to the cats. They made themselves at home in spite of me. And eventually, they helped me figure out that “home” and “for now” are not mutually exclusive.

I did not know what the future held for Gallagher as I scrubbed his blood off my loveseat. But I did know that, at that moment, he was in the right place.

Shayla

I began down this path over five years ago, when a stranger showed me a blurry picture of a cat on her phone. The stranger was Shannon. We met for the first and only time at a dinner with some mutual friends. The cat, which was grey with toffee-colored stripes and green eyes, was Shayla. Shannon explained that Shayla belonged to Chicago Cat Rescue. The founders of the organization met as volunteers for the Tree House Humane Society – Chicago’s largest cat adoption agency. They bonded over their distaste for keeping adoptable cats in shelters. They believed the cats would be better off staying in people’s homes. The cats would be more comfortable and more willing to show their true personalities to potential adopters. So, the volunteers branched off and founded their own, smaller cat-fostering agency. Shannon had been Shayla’s foster mother until Shannon’s landlord had discovered the cat and evicted it. Now, Shannon was trying to find Shayla a new, temporary home.

I was intrigued. I had thought about getting a cat. I didn’t feel lonely, exactly, in my apartment, but I didn’t like how still it was. I constantly had Big Bang Theory reruns on my TV, just for some sound and movement. I’d had pets growing up, and I missed their unobtrusive warmth. At a recent New Year’s Eve party, the host’s cat had hopped on my lap. I did not move for the next 90 minutes.

Still, I didn’t feel ready to adopt – partly because I wasn’t sure if I could handle the stress of caring for another living creature. I’d tried adopting a Ficus in an early attempt to add some life to my apartment. After a couple of months, it started slowly, pathetically withering. Every hour or two, another leaf hit the floor with a soft tick. I heard the tree whispering, “you’d make a terrible mother.” Mostly though, I was wary of the commitment. I knew that in my current apartment, with my current job, at the current moment, I could take care of a cat. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in this moment.

 A month after I moved to the area, my father had died suddenly of a heart attack. I went back to my childhood home in Minnesota for a week. All the doors of our suburban house were unlocked, and all the people we loved osmosed in and out, bearing condolences, stories, and crock-pots full of meat. When I came back to Chicago, the city felt even further away from my family than it had before. A year later, when I met Shannon, it still didn’t really feel like home. The idea of doing anything that might make it more difficult to move away made me feel claustrophobic.

I told an abbreviated version of my concerns to Shannon. She explained that, if I became Shayla’s next foster parent, I wouldn’t have to pay for any vet costs or make any big decisions about Shayla’s wellbeing. Most importantly, I would be free to return her to Chicago Cat Rescue if I ever needed to. It seemed like a way I could play house without actually making a home.

A few weeks later, Cindy, a representative from Chicago Cat Rescue arrived at my apartment with a large scratching post, a paper bag full of cat toys and a cat-carrier. She was a wiry, middle-aged woman with a frizzy knot of hair at the back of her neck. I took the bag and the post from her and let her set down the carrier in my entryway. Both of us crouched down to look in the grate. A pair of green eyes stared at me, unblinking. “Hi Shayla,” I said.  Cindy unlatched the grate. Slowly, Shayla emerged, stretching her back legs. Her tail curved over onto her back instead of standing straight up, making a shape like a shark’s fin.

As Shayla slunk around the perimeter of my living room, Cindy told me everything she knew about Shayla’s troubled past. This would be Shayla’s fourth foster home. Cindy said that Shayla seemed pretty resilient but, “You know.” She tilted her head and suddenly sounded sad, “Every move is harder than the last.”

Actually, I didn’t know. I didn’t think it was possible to gauge a cat’s emotional wellbeing. To me, it seemed like their “feelings” were mostly limited to shades of “hungry,” “irritated,” and “asleep”. But I didn’t say that to Cindy. I just tilted my head at the same sad angle and nodded.

Cindy was probably referring to the fact that place is important to cats. In 2011, researchers at the University of Illinois ran a study of 42 outdoor cats – both feral and non-feral. Each cat they studied had a territory that it patrolled, systematically. Every day, the cats visited all the places they already knew. Different cats crossed paths and got into squabbles sometimes, but mostly they just let each other wander their separate, overlapping territories. Where they went was more important to them than the company they kept.

I had no idea where Shayla’s past routes took her, but I knew that she hadn’t really left those places behind. On her third night in my apartment, she coughed up a tapeworm. That was just one, tangible example of the baggage she carried with her from the street. Her other quirks suggested traumas I could only guess at. She had a weary, husky voice that I called her “smoker’s meow.” It evoked an image of her in the shadow of a dumpster, with a tiny cigarette hanging under her whiskers. When I handled plastic bags, she jetted out of the room like I’d sounded a raid siren. With most guests she was perfectly charming. But when my six-year-old cousin Lily came to visit, she disappeared under the bed for three days.

Every once in a while, I got an email from Cindy about someone interested in adopting Shayla. First, there was a mother with a nine-year-old son. She never emailed me back. Then, there was a Russian couple that wrote to ask me if Shayla liked to be “picked and petted.” I responded in the affirmative, but they found a cat they liked at another shelter. Each time this happened, I was surprised by my indignation on Shayla’s behalf. Sure, she had her quirks, but she was also pretty and affectionate and playful, without being too needy. I told some friends about how the Russian couple didn’t want to meet Shayla after all. “She’s a good cat.” I looked down at the floor, embarrassed that my eyes were welling up, “She deserves a good home.”

And yet, I was not willing to provide Shayla’s forever home. I had a hard time articulating why. The truth was, I was carrying baggage from past routes with me too. From age zero to 18, I lived in the same two-story house on the curve of a quiet horseshoe-shaped street in Rochester, Minnesota. It was occupied by my mom, dad, sister and brother. We had a backyard and a mini-van and two rhubarb plants that sprouted in the backyard every spring. We also had a gray tabby cat named Phoebe and a sixteen-pound Shih Tzu named Marshmallow. He had an underbite, feet that splayed out to the sides, and a thyroid condition that caused him to lose much of his hair. And he was my best friend.

I did not necessarily want rhubarb plants or a minivan or a quiet suburban street in my future. If I did, I wouldn’t have moved to the city. Still, those things were in the picture that appeared in my head when I thought of “home.” It was the place where my family was a complete and humming circuit. So whatever place I was carving out in Chicago had to be something else. It was not forever, not a place for family or a permanent pet, not home. Shayla was an animal that matched my situation: A temporary city cat for my temporary city life. We had our separate histories and kept our separate patrols.

Finally, after about nine months, Cindy connected me with Bryn – a young graduate student with an asymmetrical haircut and a sweet, dorky demeanor. We made a date for her to come and meet Shayla. Bryn sat on the floor of my apartment, petting Shayla and looking at her the same way a mother in a baby lotion commercial looks at her infant child. It was a look that, I was fairly certain, I had never given to Shayla myself. Within an hour after she left, Bryn called Cindy and told her that she wanted to adopt Shayla.

Rudy

After Shayla, there was Gunnar and then Dempsey in quick succession. Gunnar was big and gray and built like a bodybuilder, with a big head stacked on a short neck, and broad shoulders that tapered to a narrow waist. Only his high-pitched, squeaky meow undermined his tough-guy image. He had only been with me a few months when I introduced him to my friend Christa. She was visiting from Madison with her boyfriend. They had recently moved in together and were talking about adopting a cat. We sat in my apartment, and I offered them drinks and snacks and Gunnar’s favorite toy – A plastic wand with a ribbon of felt attached. I asked Christa how she liked her new place and how work was going, but the conversation kept veering back towards Gunnar. She and CP wanted to know all about Gunnar’s likes (wet food, snuggling, a pristine and roomy litter box) and dislikes (dry food, crowds, being brushed for 2.5 seconds too long). The day after they left, Christa e-mailed me: “We haven’t stopped talking about Gunnar…we want to adopt him.”

Dempsey was a brown tabby who wasn’t even one year old. He was all legs and eyes. Cindy would have liked to put him in a foster home with another cat to play with, but she didn’t have any available at the time. Dempsey tore around my apartment, scaling my window screens and chewing holes in my blinds. After two or three months, Cindy proposed a foster-home swap. Dempsey clearly needed a playmate, and Cindy knew of another cat who had turned out to be afraid of the other cats in his foster home. The scaredy-cat’s name, she told me, was Rudy.

Rudy was a small orange tabby with a chirpy meow. His rescuer, Kelly, delivered him to my apartment. Kelly found him near her house in the city, so malnourished that he could barely lift his head. She would have adopted him if he hadn’t been so terrified of her other cats. He wasn’t shy around people though. As soon as she left, Rudy crawled up onto my lap and reached his paws around my neck. My insides thawed a little. I thought, my friends are going to want to see this, and took out my phone.

I had sort of been waiting, since I signed the foster cat-parent forms, for the thing that would trigger my descent into full on cat-lady madness. I had never gotten overexcited about cats before, but I thought things might spiral out of control once I started spending so much alone time with them. I wondered if I would wake up one day, surrounded by portraits of my fosters dressed as various celebrities and historical figures (Alexander Ham-Meowl-ton perhaps, or Cleo-paw-tra). As I snapped my first cat selfie, I thought, I guess it’s starting now. It turned out Rudy did drive me to a new level of mania. But it didn’t have anything to do with how cute he looked in pictures. 

Over Christmas, I went home to Minnesota. Rudy stayed at my apartment, in the care of some Chicago Cat Rescue volunteers. The evening I got back to Evanston, my apartment had the same strange, stagnant feeling it always did when I came back to it after spending time in a full house with my family – like a museum exhibit where someone else had tried to make it look like it did when I used to live there. There weren’t enough pictures on the walls or light coming through the windows. This time though, there was a little movement.

Rudy stood on his hind legs and reached his paws up my thigh. I picked him up and let him put his arms around my neck. When I put him down, he went to the litter box. I unpacked and put on my pajamas, and I heard him go to the litter box again. Then again.  I stopped what I was doing and followed him to the box. It seemed like he was trying to pee but could only get a few drops out.

I pulled out my computer. I had traveled the dark paths of online pet-health research before. VetWeb had previously convinced me that my foster cats’ excessive meowing was a sign of liver damage; that their staring at the walls indicated brain damage; and that I might have hookworms. This was the first time though, that it informed me that my cat needed to see a vet IMMEDIATELY. Shaking, I looked at a few more sources, and they agreed: If Rudy had a urinary blockage, he could be poisoned from the inside within a matter of hours.

Fat snowflakes had begun to fall outside. When Cindy didn’t answer her phone, I called my friend Tracey. “Rudy is sick,” I told her in a quavering voice. I flashed back to the last time I called her in tears to ask her for a ride, the morning after my dad died. “I think he needs to see a vet right now.” She told me she’d be right there.

The closer of the two CCR-approved animal emergency rooms was about a half hour’s drive south, in the city. That night, as Tracey drove through a thickening layer of slush, it took longer. The three of us, including Rudy, rode most of the way in silence. The clinic was hard to make out through the snow, but the sign was easy to see – lit up on a pole at the corner of the near-empty parking lot.

 Tracey and I sat down in the vet’s exam room on a couple of chairs facing a metal table. On the wall to my left, there was a poster of a baby animal that could have been a cat or a dog or a seal. It had a white, pompom-shaped head and two big, unreflecting black eyes.

The vet seemed nice. I don’t remember her as well as the ink-eyed creature on her wall. After a brief exam, she told me that Rudy had cystitis. It was a condition that might lead to a blockage or an infection but hadn’t yet. For some reason – probably stress – his bladder had inflamed, making him feel like it was full all the time. There was no way to really treat it. I would have to wait for it to go away on its own. She gave me a handful of skinny syringes with individual doses of a painkiller and sent me home.

Humans have a long history of letting cats into their lives, and then letting them take over. Early explorers took them on their ships to help with rodent control and spread them across the globe. For some reason, Vikings preferred orange cats – there tend to be more of them along their plundering routes. Unfortunately, cats are an extremely invasive species. They have no natural predators and a high “kill drive.” Every year, cats kill billions of birds and mammals. They’ve wiped out at least 33 entire species. More recently, in 1949, a group of researchers imported five cats to their sub-arctic station on Marion Island. By 1979, there were over 3,000 cats roaming the island, spreading seabird carnage everywhere. Wherever they go, they dominate the environment.

That midnight trip to the vet’s office turned out to be the beginning of Rudy’s takeover of my life. Over the next few months, I ceded more and more territory to him. His cystitis became a chronically recurring condition. He had an episode every three to five weeks. I became terrified he would develop a urinary blockage, and I wouldn’t notice until it was too late. I lost my appetite. When I tried to sleep, impressions of VetWeb warnings flashed on the backs of my eyelids. When coworkers asked, “how are you?” I knew that the correct answer was, “fine, and you?” What I found myself saying was, “Not great. My cat has inflammation of the bladder and the sound of his scratching in the litter box has infiltrated my nightmares.”

Every time Rudy relapsed, Cindy consulted with the regular Chicago Cat Rescue vet and gave me a new remedy to try. She sent Kelly to my apartment to give him IV fluids. I helped hold him on the bathroom floor and listened to him whimper as she pumped the electrolyte solution between his shoulders. I dosed him with painkillers and antibiotics. I brought home probiotic powders and bottled tonics (recommended by a cat homeopath in California) and pheromone mists and laid them at his feet – like an ancient Egyptian at the temple of Bastet.

My mom encouraged me to ask Cindy to find another placement for Rudy. I understand now that it was not unreasonable for her to prioritize the health of her human daughter over the health of a foster animal. It did not seem reasonable to me then. I told her I couldn’t turn him out now. When he came into my home, I became responsible for his care. The irony – that neither one of us recognized – was that she was the one who taught me that rule.

My mother was not a pet person. She only tolerated the animals in her home for her family’s sake. Yet, when the animals needed her care, she always gave it. My sister had a hamster named Tiger who once bit my mom so hard that, when she lifted her hand, Tiger dangled from the pad of her thumb by his tiny jaw. After that, she kept cleaning his cage – but she wore gardening gloves when she took him out. She cleaned up after Marshmallow in his old age, when he turned senile and started pooping behind the rocking chair in the living room. I was in college when my parents finally decided to put him to sleep. My mom called to tell me the news. “It’s OK to cry if you want,” she said, “I cried a little and I didn’t even think I liked him.” She and my dad both stood with him while the vet put him under.

These were extensions of the same courtesies my parents gave to their human children – Mom and Dad kept us well-fed and up to date on our shots too. They taught me that this is what you do for all the creatures, great and small, under your roof. You are in charge of keeping them well. Even though my place in Chicago didn’t resemble my Minnesota home in any other way, I felt the weight of that responsibility. And since there weren’t any other humans living with me, it all collapsed in on me and one little orange tabby.

Eventually, Rudy went on a prescription diet that seemed to work. I went out of the country for two weeks in the summer and when I got back, he was still using the litter box normally. Shortly after that, Cindy connected me with a young couple interested in adopting him. They seemed un-phased by Rudy’s health history when I told them about it. I gave the woman a laser pointer and told her to turn it on. As soon as she did, Rudy let out a desperate squeak. He raced across the room and Parkoured an arc up the wall to try to catch it. The woman yelped with joy, as though she had just watched a close-up magician reveal that the entire deck was now made up of queens of diamonds.

By now, I knew what was going to happen next.

Paploo

When Cindy took Rudy to his new forever home, she left me with Paploo. He was a barrel-shaped tabby with a round face that always seemed to say, “Oh yeah? What are you gonna do about it.” Our first night together, I crouched down and ran my fingers through the soft fur on his belly. Without warning, he reared back and swiped me across the knee, leaving three white, stinging marks. Beads of blood appeared. “Hey!” I said. I stood up and looked him in the eye. He looked back with his neck short and his pupils so wide his eyes looked black. Then he scratched me again.

Paploo wasn’t totally wild. He rubbed up against my legs when he was hungry, followed me from room to room, and sometimes rested his head on my thigh. He must have belonged to somebody at some point. Cats that aren’t socialized within the first six months of their lives can almost never learn to trust humans. But he wasn’t totally tame either. He never pretended that I made the rules for him. If I rested my hand on him for too long, he would twist around and scratch me. He pooped nonchalantly, then exited the litter box without covering it. Most cats bury their waste to keep predators from tracking them. Paploo, clearly, was not worried about becoming anyone’s prey.

Once a week, I had a few people over for dinner. Paploo liked to hop up on the table and slink between the serving dishes, plates and empty water glasses as though they were prairie grasses. When my friend Matthew caught him on the table, he would yell, “Hey! No! Get down! Caitlin?” while waving his hands in a frantic shooing motion. Paploo would blink at him, and then go back to rubbing his face on the top of the wine bottle.

Cats haven’t evolved much since they first wandered into human civilization, 20,000 years ago. It’s another way they’re different from dogs. Over the course of many generations, people have bred most of the wild out of “man’s best friend.” (Consider Pugs exhibit A. They seem like they’d have trouble digesting unfiltered tap water, let alone hunting through forests or dumpsters.) Cats are different. They found their way into human company on their own. The theory is that they stumbled upon ancient Mesopotamia and stayed – not because they liked people, but because they liked all the grains, garbage and rodents people left in their wake. They have shadowed us, on their own terms, ever since.

Since they haven’t changed much to be with us, they can still survive without us. Housecats that wind up on the street are often able to adapt. Their lives will be shorter and harder outdoors, but they know what they need to do to get by. I had a difficult time picturing some of my cats in the urban wild, but not Paploo. I could see him so clearly, prowling around Chicago’s alleys. I couldn’t imagine him getting into a fight he couldn’t win.

I appreciated that about him, because I liked thinking about the other lives I could have lived too. From the outside, it probably looked like I was settling into Chicago. More furniture filled in the space around the olive-green loveseat in my apartment. I now had an Ikea bookshelf, a waxy antique dining room table, and a full-sized mattress. I knew dozens of routes through my neighborhood by heart – to work, to the clean Aldi, to the lakefront bike path, to the coffee place where they still had Pumpkin Spice Syrup in July, and more. I was wearing ruts deeper and deeper into the city. And yet, on the inside, I did not feel settled.

By this point, it wasn’t just because my Chicago life didn’t match the Minnesota standard. It was also because the standard itself didn’t exist anymore. My brother, my sister and the minivan had all moved on from my childhood home. The Shih Tzu and my father were gone forever. Now, where home had been, there was just a house – occupied by my mother and a second generation of pets that me and my siblings left her to begrudgingly take care of.

I did not know how to orient myself anymore. I daydreamed about teaching English in Cambodia, or getting a cooking apprenticeship in Germany, or just packing a few essentials in a van, listing everything else on Craigslist, and moving to some other apartment in some other city. Then, I would think about the tedious logistics of moving and the daydream would evaporate. And I would just be left with the vague feeling that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. But I was beginning to think that maybe I wasn’t supposed to be anywhere. Maybe there were only places I might wind up. So, I enjoyed sharing space with another creature who didn’t seem like he was supposed to be in my living room either. Both of us could have wound up somewhere else. We were making do just fine though, on the loveseat we happened to share.

When I first met potential adopter Yiran, I didn’t think she would like Paploo. She was a slight woman with big eyes and long, wavy black hair. She had just begun dual PhD programs in Mathematics and Philosophy. I got anxious, watching her stroke the fur on his belly. Every time Paploo moved, I scooted closer to the edge of the loveseat. I felt a responsibility to warn Yiran about him. I told her that he wasn’t a snuggler, and I couldn’t get him to do anything he didn’t want to. Trimming his nails would be a two-person job. And yet, even as I told her all this, I saw her give Paploo that baby lotion commercial, close-up magician, warm and fuzzy look.

Cindy emailed me the next day to tell me that Yiran wanted to adopt Paploo. I told Cindy I was kind of surprised that Yiran was so taken with him. Cindy thought maybe Yiran wanted a tough, rebellious cat because she liked to think of herself that way. I said I supposed that was possible. I thought to myself, the things people project onto cats…

When it was time for him to leave, I was worried about how Cindy and I would get him into his carrier. But we sprinkled a couple of treats in the back of it, and he walked right in. We closed the grate and he turned around. Now, his expression seemed to say, “Oh well. I’ll be fine, wherever I go.” Or maybe, that was just what I wanted to believe about both of us.

Gallagher

Cindy emailed me Gallagher’s sad story while I was still preparing to say goodbye to Paploo. He had been adopted, but when his new owner brought him to the vet, he tested positive for the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus: The Feline version of HIV. So, his forever mom gave him back to CCR. Cindy explained that FIV works differently in cats than it does in humans, and that he wouldn’t need any special care from me. I would just have to keep an eye out for secondary infections. I consulted with my mom. She, remembering Rudy, strongly advised against taking Gallagher in.

“Caitlin, I know how much you’ll worry.”

I said, “Mom, I already know it’s a bad idea and I already know I’m going to say yes.”

As it turned out, the FIV and the bleeding eye were only the beginning of Gallagher’s health problems. After several vet visits and weeks of trial and error, we figured out that the wound on his eye was a skin infection that had been caused by a food allergy. We put him on a very expensive diet of rabbit and pea pate. Then, Cindy noticed that his eyes weren’t tracking moving objects. While we were trying to figure out why, he stopped eating. After he was taken to Chicago’s dedicated pet-eye specialist, he tested positive for a rare, deadly fungus that is usually only found in the Mississippi river basin. It had caused him to go almost completely blind. He was given anti-fungal pills, an anti-inflammatory medicine to counteract the anti-fungal’s side effects, and two different kinds of eye drops. Then, he also stopped eating his rabbit food for no apparent reason. So, I cooked him a tilapia fillet in the microwave twice a day.

He padded around the apartment tentatively, like the sickly cousin in a gothic novel – meowing at a pitch that reminded me of the sound a car makes when you open the door while the headlights are still on. Still, I didn’t worry about him the way I worried about Rudy. It was partly due to different nuances in his condition, but it was also partly due to the fact I understood my cat caretaker role differently by then. I didn’t feel responsible for keeping these cats alive, so much as I was responsible for giving them space to live – only as long as they need it.

This is the kind of home I made, while I was trying not to make a home. It hangs, tentatively, at the center of a web of connections I have made to the city. Like a cat might bring a sparrow back to its threshold, I bring all kinds of treats and treasures back here: stacks of library books and bags of vegetables from the farmer’s market and playbills and dresses I don’t need from thrift stores. And I leave my door open for other creatures wandering the sidewalks, scavenging, looking for a nest. I welcome in here, and I take care. But my place still isn’t permanent. Even after six years, it feels like it would be easy to lift myself up and go. I’ve realized though, that is part of its draw – especially for the cats. They come here when they need a haven the most. I give it to them, and in return, they make my little one-bedroom feel important in this sprawling metropolis. That will be true as long as I keep welcoming them in and keep sending them out.

Shayla was the first foster cat I said goodbye to. As soon as Cindy arrived to take her to her new forever home, Shayla disappeared. We found her under the bed for the first time in months. Cindy had to grab her by the scruff of her neck and stuff her into the carrier, hind legs first. Shayla desperately rubbed her face on the front grate. “It’s OK,” Cindy told her, “I promise this is the last time.”

For once, I knew exactly what Shayla was thinking: She wanted to stay in the space she knew. For a minute, I wanted to tell her that she could. I had more perspective than she did though. I knew the move would be hard at first, but better for Shayla in the long run. She deserved to live with someone who looked at her like she was the only cat in the world – who could build a home around her. I couldn’t give her a home like that. My place had to be available for the next cat ready to come in off the street.

Cindy and Shayla left through the front door. I closed it behind them then went to the window to watch them leave. As the two of them crossed the street, Shayla’s mournful meow carried all the way up to my second story apartment. Cindy had asked if I would host another cat right away, but I said I wasn’t ready. I told her to ask me about the next one though. As my empty apartment creaked and settled, I hoped it would be soon. My door was open temporarily, indefinitely.

BIO

Caitlin Sellnow currently lives in Evanston, Illinois, but she will always be a Minnesotan at heart. Her book reviews have appeared on the TriQuarterly Review website, and she has contributed to Living Lutheran magazine. She earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Northwestern University. By day, she works in nonprofit marketing. By night, she tells stories about city streets, the creatures who live there, and the communities they make. She also collects choral sheet music, potluck recipes and increasingly pathetic foster cats.  

Cowgirl Buys the Ticket

by John Wiley

Over jumps, around barrels,
gliding fast over ground
that might come up to meet her;

but just now the ground behaves itself
just like her horse does, and anyway,
falling is the price of the ticket.

Get up, push the hair back,
find the hat, catch the horse.
The hair gets in her way and she’d

probably cut it, but forget that – cowgirls
have long hair, plus it’s the only thing on her
that really says “girl” (yet, anyway),

and she’d say “girl” loud and high and yippee-ky,
(if anybody actually said that), and if there was
a girl here she’d say it to;

not the English saddle rich girls, or the buckle-bunny
cowboy groupies watching the guys from the rail; the bunnies
are good for recreational fights at tailgaters, though

(she kissed a girl’s neck once when they were
tangled up in the dirt and got away with it,
like she just did it to piss the girl off).

But one of the Latino grooms,
his daughter picks him up every day;
never gets out of the truck,

but when they’re eyes-on…

What if she said, hey, Diego – tell your daughter
I’ll take her riding sometime if she wants to go –
what’s her name?

She’s pretty sure Diego’s on to her, and a
girl just up from Mexico is gonna be so deep
in the closet she’s in a trunk in the attic.

But that girl’s eyes burn her to the ground …

“Hey, Diego – tell your daughter I’ll take her
riding sometime if she wants to go –

what’s her name?”


Midnight at the Well of Souls


Bodiless, floating,
feeling like nothing
will ever feel, our faces
are drawn up like water

as full Moon’s light,
carefully touching down
and down the slick,
brick wall, realizes us.

She stops, a bright coin
in a dark circle,
to watch us quicken
in her rippling image,

and she looks lovely
over us.  She knows the Well
is a wishing well;
she breathes in, out –

and plummets to us,
her bright-coin body
flipping bright side/dark side,
brightside/darkside,

full/new/full/new
full/new/full
and we fall up,
headlong through her

to the Mouth
as she tumbles down,
and her splash
is heavenly below us.

We hover as full
Moon’s light shines
up out of water,
shines on our faces,

on the soles
of our feet;
and we set our
soles on Earth

as she rises again,
roaring joyfully past,
stopping clean
over our heads,

dark, and new –
not shining, brightly,
on us.


Lanky Girl


Linky, lanky,
slinky, strong,
arms thin, legs long,

sleekly swift –
sling shoulders, slung hips,
rainwater wrists and fingertips,

hips drip drowsy,
easy angles,
gangly gangles,
sweepy circles,
elliptical elan.

BIO

John Wiley started out as a ballet dancer and began writing when his knees finally gave out for good. (It is harder to write poetry well than it is to dance well, but it’s much easier on the knees.) His work has appeared in Terror House Magazine, Outsider Poetry, Montreal Writes, and Detritus. He lives in Carpinteria, California, and works in his wife’s audiology practice.

I as the being sui generis

sui generis – something odd

by Pawel Markiewicz

I have just returned from a walk with my beloved hound on foot, which has a good heart, the tenderly shaped by Erlking dog’s heartlet. I’m feeling very well at home, as well as blissfully. I have a light heart. It’s frosty outside, to wit It’s 3 degrees below zero, as If the Winter Queen ruled without any snow.

There is not a starry night. A moon is not visible. I dream of starlings of philosophers on sibyl-like heaven. I have not seen a red sky in the evening, such an Apollonianly marvelous charm, a weird of druids. All night long my dreams will be live in my dreamy soul. Afterwards I will sleep in a meek silence. I want to say You, my tender reader, a manifesto of my dearest dreamiest being.

As far as I’m concerned:

My immortal soul is typically German. I am able to feel a sempiternity, each poetical winglings, namely: Apollonianly tender-eternal vans that philosophize about dawn of ontology of poetries. My poetry, like a poesy of Poseidon’s dreamery, heralds fulfillment of each stars, morning starlet and shooting stars. Rilke likes me in the eternal time. Goethe said me he were proud of my meek poem, under the title: >Prometheus<.

In effect my body is Polish. I can indeed design neither robots nor spaceships such the Americans. My parents, my home, my language are polish. My polish blood seems to be indeed red. My nation knows: mourning and death, wars and subservience. This time is my polish time, the ontology and logic of starry night above the polish homeland.

In my heart the Japanese Basho lives who likes melancholic fantasy of a handful of haiku. My heart beats in rhythm of dancing samurais’, enchanted by each morning glow. My haiku are being carried  by some metaphysical traces of the eternity which loves my gorgeous three verses. In each haiku the beauty of sirens-like dreamery-miracle comes true, as if the Japanese soul had told me: Be thankful valedictorian of a sheening time!

Outside the body, there are magical romantic notions, which keep me one step closer to heaven, namely the gorgeous English poesy. Some Herculean muses bring me into: a woodland in the midst of England, next to a druidical fireplace. The druidic altar is also my heart, my whole being of the sui generis-miracle. English muses dancing under the most philosophical stars such my English hound, the mixed dog, between cocker spaniel and field spaniel, my houndlet, that likes huntings in a fairytale-like holt.

BIO

Pawel Markiewicz lives in Bielsk, Podlaski, Poland. He is a poet who also writes flash fiction. Pawel was (2007 and 2010) in Forum Alpbach, a village of thinkers in Austria. After his experience with poetry, he wants to write some good stories.

The Photography of Leigh Anita

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIO

Living in Maine is like living in two places. I spend my days walking circles in the forest, down side streets, and through pocket gardens. In summertime, days pass slowly and the crystal green ocean glistens with falling waves. Deciduous forests cloak winding carriage trails to the Atlantic. In the winter there is only silence. Seaside towns that are so empty even light footsteps echo down their streets. Stone walls that once marked property lines crumble along the forest floor. Nature reclaims the ruins of ancestral homes and resort hotels. By night, dark salt water crashes against seaside cliffs while foghorns moan in the harbor. Three of the four seasons are spent in total isolation. Memories of being submerged in the amber glow of August fall away. Cicadas sing as the days grow shorter, until one morning a fog rolls in to hover above the marshland. I cross the great Piscataqua River by foot. From the bridge I watch its powerful current. Tankers pass along the waterfront with salt, freight, and scrap metal.

I grew up on a small island, and sometimes wonder if I grew up to become a small island. There are days that I escape to the city, but find vines creeping between the bricks and cobblestones.

Winter is brittle, trees lose their leaves and reach toward clouds heavy with snow. Days are dark and fade into what feels like endless night. Roads snake along the coast without streetlights, becoming treacherous after dusk. During my adolescence, I spent a great deal of time wandering the island. My brother and I made our playgrounds in abandoned bunkers and atop timber pilings that once supported an anti-submarine net to capture German U-Boats. When I couldn’t sleep, my father tapped messages on my back in morse code.

When I came of age, I left the island and all of its architectural ghosts. Every night, I found myself wandering city streets until sunrise, searching for patterns and visiting the dark waterfront. Silence no longer existed, and the stars were masked behind the ochre glow of millions of lights. As an adult, I find myself on the mainland, but within close proximity to the island and the unending loop. Although I work primarily as an illustrator, my creative process involves wandering alone and trying to understand what it means to be remote. I have returned for it. I vanish into the trees, down side streets, beneath the waves, into the salt air.

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Where the Street Learns Its Curve

by Donna D. Vitucci

 

 

As a child, there is a period when you do not leave your yard, a world drawn with a grade schooler’s compass. When you finally walk down the street and spy others, it’s amazing to step outside the known pecking order, to present you, only you, with no family attached. By the time you meet Connie Marlowe, her dead mother’s name was not spoke. None of you’d known this family existed, suffering and crying and being winnowed.

As a child, when you’re driven down streets, and especially with regularity your own street, your world begins to fan out. Your sponge-mind sees, accepts, files and your base expands concentric. Your core is the core of your one tree, and you are its pith.

Soon you can skip down the road in your mind and identify Donovan’s blue ranch, Bender’s new modern black-roofed house, a peach colored brick ranch with a mystery owner; Mrs. Overbeck’s shady porch attached to white clapboard; and then Marlowe’s blond brick ranch with pink trim, where Mr. Marlowe’s red truck anchors the gravel of the far right drive. Cars park on a second driveway of blacktop to the left of the front yard, partly blocking out a net-less basketball hoop.

Mr. Marlowe has a temper. With a swarthy complexion, prominent nose, dark eyes and hair that falls insistently front from slicked-back-ness, he’s the handsomest dad next to yours. Inside his house you learn to watch your mouth. He is “in sod,” and he can mow you down.

You’re lucky he doesn’t remember your name; he might tease you to the hilt or tell you to clear out of his headache. You can’t rest easy around this moody man. You, your little sister Karen, and Shellie, the girl next door — you’re just a locus of gnats circling Connie and her younger brothers Colt and Petey. Connie’s skin tone, and the boys’ too, make you guess their mom had been of the tropics, their mom a vacant color now cold in the ground. Her being dead polishes up the Marlowes. You want inside that family.

Winter shrinks the circle to you and Karen, the school back-and-forth, sledding the backyard where Mommy can watch you from the kitchen window as she irons. Tag-along Shellie from next door might join, since she never fails to horn in on your sled hill. She calls it her hill. You all climb it and sled it and use it and claim it. You learn to share, otherwise Shellie’s brother will bean you with an ice ball. The snow is deep, winter long, and homework incessant. The Marlowes ride your school bus, but Connie’s not assigned to your classes. Whenever you see her, she’s bundled in a blue coat with a hood, she goes hatless, her brown eyes wide in her dusky face. Her laughing with the boys in the back seat intimidates and needles you. In school’s realm you don’t even act friendly. Her bus-wiles and cutting up make her smarter than you by leaps.

Neighbors learn Mr. Marlowe has married Sadie Henfair over the winter.  How? When? Where?  This was no white dress church occasion, or people would have known. Talkers easily deduce the why– to help corral his five children. Alone he sure couldn’t do it all, or do it right, not even a little bit. Children sixteen down to six, with Petey the wobbly first grader.  Sadie adds her three colts to the barn—Jeannie, Sophie and Monique—12, 15 and 8. Too many names, but names are mostly place holders. Concentrate instead on the constellations, their creep across heaven, how the seasons suck and shed light, as your legs lengthen and strengthen and you lose your baby fat.

The Marlowe-Henfairs are the one blended family on your street, in your neighborhood, in your parish. Connie acquires a same-age step-sister. Jeannie’s in Connie’s and your seventh grade.  Call neither of them Cinderella.

Jeannie rubs her fingers absentmindedly across her forehead as she watches Connie push a white leather belt through the loops of her hip-hugger jeans. Boys just won’t leave Jeannie alone. Boys glom to Jeannie like bobby pins to a fridge magnet. Her forehead’s bumpy as sandpaper while Connie’s free of blemish, but the phone ringing constantly for Jeannie’s got handsome Mr. Marlowe in one of his black moods. All three of you bolt downstairs because he makes Jeannie take it in the kitchen where he sits at the large trestle table with his new wife. None of the girls are allowed phone privacy–one reason why they each, eventually, will run away.

For now it’s much lesser crime– junior high’s worst boys calling and asking for Jeannie, and while she talks with her back turned and her shoulders hunched to guard what she can, Mr. Marlowe says, “Bees to the new hive.”

Sadie says, “Shush,” puts the hand she’s smoking with on his wind-worn hand. Dark-skinned all summer and winter, for the moment he even glows.

You’re the smartest in the room but also the most naïve. You sense something shameful in Mr. Marlowe’s simple words. You swear you won’t be caught up with Jeannie, you’ll never be named alongside her, and you’re out the door in a flash.

 

A long alcove beside where the stairs cut into the second floor serves as the Marlowe children’s closet. Their clothes hang on long garment racks like those in a department store’s back room—boys’ to the left and girls’ to the right.  Minus any electric light there, the shadowy space inspires a confessional mood. Funny how no light fosters light. Your Catechism-coated childhood is starting to crack, and why? Because  amped-up wattage in the back seat on the school bus. Because Connie’s new half-family. Because Education Night the school required junior high parents to attend, where they divided boys from girls and ran gender-specific filmstrips about your changing bodies and God’s intentions. How can a “unique woman” emerge from your squirming? You look like puberty sounds—puny, half-formed, and eyeless.

 

In the Marlowes’ finished attic all six children sleep. Four beds whose head boards meet the wall along the closet exterior sketch out the girls’ section. Beds are arranged in a line a giant rabbit could bounce across one-two-three-four, if anyone could get away with jumping on the beds. A dresser with a mirror and a chest of drawers hold underwear, folded clothes, makeup, and jewelry you can buy up the street at Chinatown.

When Sophie turns sixteen she’ll drop out of school to work there, will be promoted from cashier to service desk to front end manager. Chinatown will be her realm. Sophie sits and rats her hair before the dresser mirror. She adds two inches to her height and three years to her age, after the liquid eyeliner.  Round the attic’s corner to the top of the stairs and that dead-on area holds one bed that Colt and Petey share.  Colt’s skinny ranginess doesn’t handicap him when he’s pounding his little brother. He’s elusive and slippery, you’ll learn. Sophie may be new to the house but she’s got vibrancy. Maybe she’ll teach you how to be taller, hotter. Sophie erupts from the bench, breaking the boys apart, whopping Colt with her rat-tail brush: “Leave. Him. The hell. Alone!”

Jeannie has been seated cross-legged on the floor, in a corner of the attic closest to the window, out of any fray.

“Who’s the smart one now?” she says. She winks at you. She’s got this whole new family of hers sussed out, and you’re not related but she includes you in the sussing.

She’s been penciling darker her rather light-brown eyebrows, and as in Sophie’s case, eyeliner also makes Jeannie Eqyptian-eyed. All the girls in the Marlowe house wear eyeliner. They are sister raccoons while you are of an entirely other species; you pace, hunted, through attics and basements. You haven’t got the goods these sisters have. They see you as furniture. Among them you might as well be hairless or blind. You are the bench where they rest their backs, the step-around in the kitchen while they’re intent on the door, and still they’re careful not to knock you over.

 

 

  

BIO

Donna Vitucci’s stories, poems, and creative non-fiction have been published in print and online since 1990. Her novels IN EUPHORIA, SALT OF PATRIOTS and AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE are 5-star-reviewed. Her most recent novel, ALL SOULS, along with the others, is available through Magic Masterminds Press. A Midwestern girl, she has relocated to the North Carolina piedmont, where she enjoys gardening, reading, walking and yoga.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My GWOT, Annotated

by Paul D. Mooney

(GWOT: “Global War On Terror,” pronounced Gee-Wot. It sounds dumber every time you say it out loud. Trust me)

 

Ours was (“Is” would be more appropriate. Nearly two decades long and the fat lady ain’t warming up yet) a peculiar war. At least, the part of it I played a role in. It was not, like some people might expect, a heart-pumping cacophony of action, explosions, and movie-style badassery. That shit never happened, at least not to anybody I knew. Most of our experiences involved large swaths of boredom with random moments of strangeness and tragedy in a series of locations equal parts bland and bizarre. Big, crowded ones like the sprawl of our gravel-paved FOB (Forward Operating Base). Big, empty ones like the vast swaths of desert between the tiny strips of green tightly bracketing the Helmand River and the distant horizon of the Hindu Kush. Small, crowded ones like the tiny Hesco barrier (Large, collapsible containers made out of chicken wire and overpriced fabric that are filled with sand and dirt to create fortifications and buildings. Think big, fancy sandbags) shed we worked out of crammed with outdated government laptops and dented filing cabinets. Small, empty ones like the sun-baked port-a-shitters that provided us the closest thing to privacy we enjoyed for seven months.

Of course, I didn’t know any of that at the start. Most of us didn’t. And the ones who did, the ones who’d deployed to a combat theater before, weren’t really thinking about such esoteric hogwash. Not while our whole detachment (a military unit formed for temporary and/or non-standard purposes) sat sweating on an ugly, beat-up, run-down bus pumping out exhaust as it idled on the sun-baked street in Camp Pendleton’s (Primary base for the 1st Marine Division, located north of San Diego, California. Prone to bouts of wildfires, flooding, and ill-advised tattoos) Las Pulgas Area.

That bus was one of those small, crowded, and decidedly dull spaces. The first small space of our generation’s war-proper for those of us who’d only been through non-combat zone pumps (filthy sounding slang for deployment) or, Christ help them, recently graduated from MOS (Military Occupational Specialty. A person’s job in the armed forces. Like on a GI Joe action figure’s file card) School. And it was definitely the first one of this particular deployment for all of us. A full-sized school bus painted the same rotten white color as all buses utilized by the military and jammed to the gills with Marines, Corpsmen (US Navy Sailors who serve as medical personnel for Marine units), packs, seabags, body armor, a smattering of guitars, an unknowable quantity of well-stashed pornography (Possession of porn is illegal in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the law extends to US troops and only US troops deployed there. Same goes for alcohol. Because war isn’t shitty enough), and everybody’s personal weapons.

Las Pulgas was one of the big spaces; a wide-open patch of uneven land ringed by high, grassy hills and filled with ugly, red-roofed buildings and vast concrete lots housing the personnel, trucks, gear, and guns of the 1st, 2nd, and 5th Battalions as well as the Headquarters of the 11th Marine Regiment (The artillery unit of the 1st Marine Division. The 3rd Battalion is stationed at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center 29 Palms in the middle of the Mojave Desert, roughly halfway between Satan’s butthole and ballsack. The 4th Battalion was disbanded shortly after Vietnam). Suffice to say, there’s a lot of big machinery housed in Las Pulgas, which always struck me as a funny function for a place that’s name translates to “The Fleas” in English.

Even over the hum of the engine and the rumble of nervous chitchat echoing throughout the shitty bus I heard First Lieutenant Doggett’s girlfriend sobbing out on the sidewalk. I could see her, even from my seat near the aft of the vehicle, in the midst of the crowd out front of the trailer that served as the HQ for the Regiment’s rotating civil affairs detachments (This is a complicated one, so deep breath and bear with me: Civil Affairs [CA] is the term for units and operations focused on relations between the military, local governments and civilians, aid organizations operating in the region, and the like. The Marine Corps has several reserve units that fill this role but during the busier years of the GWOT it stood up temporary activity duty units under the commands of the artillery regiments. Personnel were assigned for periods of roughly a year; the first half focused on both specialty training in civil affairs and standard pre-deployment combat training and the second half consisting of the deployment itself. These Marines mostly came from the artillery regiments, like myself, but not all. Since the position guarantees going to a combat theater about half of us were handpicked from slews of eager volunteers. But since it’s a job with a low chance of participating in actual combat, the other half was forced into it as punishment for fucking up in some way. It made for a fun mix. Whew! I’m proud of you for reading all that. Have a cookie or something).

She had buried her mascara-smeared face into the shoulder of Gunnery Sergeant Aquino’s statuesque and stone-faced wife. One of the latter’s firm hands patted the former on her heaving shoulder with mechanical affection like some sort of hi-tech comfort robot. Something I would never describe her as to Gunny Aquino, but I filed it away in my brain as an apt description for the cold, beautiful woman currently comforting the Lieutenant’s buxom bucket of tears.

The rest of the significant others, friends, and family lining the sidewalk expressed varying degrees of emotional states running the gamut from bawling with despair to calm acceptance, the two aforementioned women representing the extremes of the spectrum. Nobody looked particularly happy, understandably. Even if some of them would no longer be significant to their current others by the time we returned from OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom, which is the one in Afghanistan). Some would be downright insignificant others (rimshot!).

Hell, Doggett’s girlfriend ended up dumping his lanky ass less than halfway through the deployment, right around ten weeks in. All those tears and weeping and ballyhoo added up to a whole lot of nothing the moment her Bikram Yoga instructor offered up a private chakra realignment session (wink-wink). Such is the risk of leaving someone you love all by his or her lonesome in sunny, sexy San Luis Obispo for a long period of time. Rumor had it that he was the very same longhaired, douchebag of a Jody (nickname for any civilian who bones a service member’s loved one while they’re deployed) who broke up the second marriage of Team 3’s CO (Commanding Officer. A unit’s first in command), Major Mercer, while he boated around with the 11th MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit. Pronounced like the sound a kitten makes. Rotating combined Navy and Marine units on semi-constant nautical patrol throughout the more troublesome/newsworthy parts of the world) two years prior.

Doggett, our team’s XO (Executive Officer. A unit’s second in command. Why not EO, you ask? Because, as energy drinks and ESPN2 taught us, X is a way cooler letter), took it well insomuch as he didn’t end up dying from it despite his best efforts. Months three through five of the deployment for the young officer were marked by a constant string of semi-passive attempts to get outside the wire where something might shoot at, explode near, or possibly even stab into him. The XO of the civil affairs team assigned to the same district two deployment prior lost two fingers to a Taliban sympathizer armed with a hatchet and a significant percentage of his blood replaced by heroin, so rest assured that kind of thing happens in modern warfare.

Sergeant Popovich and I fretted over these developments at first, particularly given that Doggett had previously been the kind of happy-go-lucky fella who freely shared smokes, called enlisted guys “bro,” and offered hyper-critical teardowns of the homemade cards countless school kids regularly shipped over in bulk to us “Marnines” and “Amerracan Heros” overseas. And to think, some folks wonder what use an art history degree could be to a fighting man.

Our team’s CO, on the other hand, didn’t give the whole emotional mess much thought. I initially took it as a sign of heartlessness, or maybe dislike towards the diametrically chummy goofball of an executive officer she’d been saddled with, but in reality it was a case of her knowing the score. After all, it was her sixth deployment, the third to a combat theater, and she’d spent enough time in a front row seat overlooking breakups, long-distance divorces, and Dear John/Jane emails. Doggett’s fruitless and woeful hunt for a Combat Action Ribbon (Award given to US Marines and Sailors who have engaged in direct combat with or received indirect fire, to include IED detonations, from an enemy. Typically abbreviated as CAR and pronounced exactly how it’s spelled) or a posthumous Purple Heart (medal awarded to US military personnel killed or wounded in action) was nothing new to a salty campaigner like Major Carol Butterfield, callsign Gold Digger.

“Was that particular sobriquet your idea, ma’am?” Popovich asked with an eyebrow raised nearly to the Neanderthal-esque hairline that topped his pudgy face one evening after Doggett tramped off on one of his woulda-coulda-shoulda-suicide patrols.

We’d grown accustomed to them by that point. And I learned to take a little selfish relief from the fact that his patrolling kept me from having to share the burden of being the CA representative regularly outside the wire. Popovich was too vital to risk, being the only one who knew the overly complex computerized requisition system, and the Battalion didn’t allow field grade officers (majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels) like Butterfield beyond the FOB walls unless necessary due to their being choice targets for the bad guys.

She guffawed in that biting, staccato way of hers; a throaty burst from a Ma-Deuce (Affectionate nickname for the M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun. It’s huge, armor piercing, and a ridiculous amount of fun to fire) made human and awarded naval aviator wings (that description give anyone else an erection?), “Yeah, not so much. Nobody picks their own and they’re all pretty much on the stupid side. But that’s the whole point of call signs for us Air Wingers (personnel who serve in the aviation units of the Marine Corps).”

“Sexism?” I theorized.

“References to popular rap songs white people can’t justifiably pick for karaoke no matter how badly they want to (“Gold Digger” by Kanye West, featuring Jamie Foxx, Def Jam Records 2005)?” Popovich speculated.

“Both wrong. It’s mockery plain and simple,” she corrected us. “Though I suppose Uunaia (My last name. It’s Samoan) guessed closest, so he wins.”

“Ha! Suck it, Sergeant!” I gloated. Turning to Butterfield, “What do I win, ma’am?”

“You win attending tonight’s BUB (Battle Update Brief. A semi-weekly or daily staff meeting where the key members of a unit brief each other on the tactical, administrative, and strategic goings on of said unit. They’re very important and totally suck balls) in twenty minutes instead of me,” smirked the Major.

“Fuck.”

“Rumor is this one’s 214 slides long. New battalion record.”

“Fuuuuuuuck.”

“What do you have to do tonight that precludes you from such suffering, Skipper (traditionally a nautical term for boss or captain, but we Marines use it to refer to a commanding officer whenever we want to picture them as a flustered fat guy smacking Bob Denver with a hat)?” Popovich asked Butterfield with a sideways grin aimed at my misery.

“Nothing. But they never listen to me and it’s 214 slides so they can fuck right the hell off.”

“As can I, apparently,” I grumbled in defeat.

“Rank has its privileges, Lance Corporal. I’ll be in the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Readiness) tent. Let me know how it goes. And somebody come get me if my XO ever gets back. Or dies,” and, on that cheery note, she sauntered off to Skype her husband alongside all the other Marines and Sailors quietly weeping/engaging in phone sex in that sandy, tent-shaped conduit to home.

“Look on the bright side,” Popovich suggested my way.

“Which is?”

“Damned if I know. Better hurry up and grab grub. By the time you get out of that briefing the chow hall will be closed. Shit, the war might be over,” he chuckled and redirected his attention to typing away on his SIPR (Secure Internet Protocol Router. Government Internet for stuff classified as secret or higher) laptop, meaning he was either hard at work answering Gunny Aquino’s request for permission to order more school supplies or firing off dirty emails to his wife while she floated somewhere near Catalina with the rest of the USS Stockdale’s crew. In which case he was also “hard at work” (wink-wink). Privileges of rank indeed.

“By the time I get out of there, the goddamn sun will have exploded and wiped our solar system from existence.”

“Then you won’t have to worry about going to the next BUB. Hop to it, dicknuts.”

“Aye aye, sergeant. By which I mean: fuck.”

“Fuck’re you doing here, dicknuts?” the infantry Battalion’s CO, Lieutenant Colonel Llewellyn Hebog, politely queried of me through the tight lips of his wrinkled, angry, trailer-park-Dracula face. He sat at the apex of the giant, U-shaped plywood desk that nearly filled the whole briefing room of the command bunker.

Arcing out to both sides of the old fucker sat the rest of the Battalion brass (Slang for high-ranking personnel. Comes from back in the day when their shiny insignia was made of brass. I think) along with representatives from each section of the unit and it’s supporting elements: our team, the FET (Female Engagement Team. Small units comprised entirely of women formed to gather intelligence from other women firsthand in countries where the local men don’t allow their wives/daughters/sisters to speak with the opposite gender. Sound vaguely sexist? It sure is. Because that’s how shit often works in the third world), the HumInt (Human Intelligence. People who gather intelligence directly from other humans) guys, a hatchet-faced woman who always wore Oakley sunglasses and black polo shirts and “absolutely did not work for the CIA so don’t even bring it up,” a team of Army PsyOps (Psychological Operations. They fight the enemy’s brains with science! And sometimes leaflets) drunks who somehow maintained a steady supply of illegal hooch, et al.

In addition to the true bigshots a crowd of underlings and note takers lined three walls, shoulder to shoulder. And all of their eyes peered at me as I stood off to the side of the projection screen upon which the accursed slideshow glowed. Well, the eyes that weren’t distracted and/or bored as shit. Or hidden behind sunglasses and definitely not CIA.

“Sir?” my quizzical response was the first thing I said in the BUB. Hadn’t even gotten to my spiel.

“Where’s your boss? Why the fuck I got a lance corp’l gawking at me instead of your Major?”

“Major Butterfield has a pressing personal matter to attend to, sir. But I am fully prepared to answer any and all questions that may arise from the CA update.”

The Colonel grunted and waved at me to proceed in a fashion his ancestors likely used when they required another mint julep fetched by someone they owned.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen, the construction of the main irrigation weir is ahead of schedule, despite the initial use of sub-standard concrete in the spillway. Coordination for distribution of food to the poorer families in the southern end of the district has begun with USAID (United States Agency for International Development. Government agency that helps people in impoverished countries. I’d mock them but they’re pretty all right) and the governor. Latter’s promised to lend us some ANP (Afghan National Police) support to get that done.”

I’d lost the attention of pretty much everybody in the room, though I didn’t hold it against any of them except the PsyOps Staff Sergeant snoring loudly into his threadbare maroon beret. Not because of the snoring, but because I smelled the whiskey on it and those greedy doggies (adorably PG-rated, insulting nickname US Army Soldiers) refused to share. That aside, I felt everyone’s pain. Not like I wanted to be stuck in this PowerPoint purgatory, let alone forced to participate in and prolong it.

War is hell. Which I guess makes PowerPoint some kind of double hell. I pressed on.

“The big hurdle coming up for us is the girls’ school we’re looking to build outside Shamblatan, about ten miles downriver from here on the west bank of . . .”

“Hang on,” Hebog slammed a flat palm on the desk and leaned in. “Girls’ school? Ain’t that gonna piss off some a them more hard-line locals? Like that ah . . . err . . . help me out, Charlie. The bearded feller.”

The downright aggressively likeable and absurdly muscular Battalion XO, Major Charlie Blank, shot me a sympathetic shrug before turning to his boss, “I have no idea, sir.”

“Fine, whatever. That Elder Hajji Whatever. He ain’t gonna like folk coming in here teaching their gals to read and math n’ shit. Ain’t he?”

“I suppose he won’t at that, sir,” Major Blank concurred.

“Ain’t asking you. I’m asking Lance Corp’l . . .” he trailed off and leaned forward in an attempt to read my nametape from across the room.

“Uunaia, sir,” I assisted.

“Sure, why the hell not. Well?”

“Well? Oh, still my turn to talk? Hajji Whatever. Thing is, sir, we’re working on that now and have a potential solution. We offered to pay for a bridge to go up over the Helmand right next to his compound. He’s so stoked about the prospect that he promised to publicly endorse the school if it’s made official. It’s a pretty sweet deal. A crossing there would cut the travel time for most of the wheat farmers from further south to the big market in town to boot, so it’ s a win-win.”

Hebog rolled his eyes towards the ceiling in contemplation, stealing further irretrievable seconds from my life.

“Bridge, huh?” he muttered at last. “Gonna have to think about it.”

“If I may, sir, we need to get the project approved and started ASAP if we want to continue the school construction uninterrupted.”

“Think about it, Lance Corp’l. That’s all. Who’s next?”

Somebody nudged the inebriated Army PsyOps Staff Sergeant, who indeed happened to be next, into relative consciousness and I returned to my seat at the table.

I reentered the CA office a few dozen eons later, my mood having failed to improve in the meantime. There I found a distracted Popovich and a cheerful Butterfield both typing away at their laptops in addition to a surprisingly present Doggett cleaning his disassembled M4 (carbine model of the M16 rifle you see in war movies, carbine being a fancy word for “shorter version of a gun”).

“Intermission over at the Bijou, Uunaia?” Doggett hummed without looking up from his task.

“Uh . . . sir?”

“The BUB, dude. Popovich said you’d be over there at least another twelve hours. New Battalion record and all.”

“No, it’s over. Thank Christ. At least I think it’s over. I kind of blacked out during the weather portion and now I’m back here. Unless I actually died of boredom, which would make this purgatory. Yeah, that adds up.”

“Wouldn’t this be hell?” Butterfield smirked crookedly.

“No, that would be another BUB.”

The others all muttered and nodded in consensus.

“Anything of note to report?” Butterfield asked while snapping her blocky computer closed.

I listed the highlights, “The PsyOps team has switched from vodka to whiskey, that guy with Bravo Company whose buddy accidentally shot him in the ass is gonna be okay, and the Taliban cut off another police captain’s head in front of his family outside Jarham. Also the Colonel says he’s gonna think about the bridge/girls school exchange proposal.”

“Goddamnit,” Popovich rapped his knuckles against his laptop.

“At least he didn’t say no,” I pointed out.

“No, not that hillbilly and his bullshit.”

“Hey,” Butterfield cautioned semi-seriously.

“Sorry, not that glorious and shining example of the finest tenets of our Corps who truly deserves to command over a thousand of our brethren. And his bullshit.”

“That’s the spirit.”

“Trouble on the home front is all.”

“Your wife accidentally forward another one of your erotic emails to the rest of the Chiefs’ Mess (Separate mess hall aboard US Navy vessels for enlisted personnel ranked E-7 and higher. Because they’re usually pompous dicks who can’t get along with personnel of other ranks) again?” I asked.

“Nah, she bribed one of the comm (short for communications) sailors to smash the boat’s server with a fire axe in case she does that again. Our daughter got in a fight at school is what happened. Some shitheel picking on her.”

“She win?” I asked

“The trans one?” Butterfield asked simultaneously. Popovich, long having considered himself the father of two boys and a girl, learned on pre-deployment leave that his eldest was a transgender teenage girl. As if falling into each of those categories individually doesn’t make attending middle school on a Marine base difficult enough.

“Oh yeah, kicked the shit out of the little butthole.”

“Nice. But I still think he’s looking to get some shooting started,” Doggett muttered absentmindedly.

“The other kid?” I asked.

“No, dumbass. Colonel Hebog.”

“Ah, of course. Wait, what?”

“I believe my currently-scatterbrained XO is jumping back to the first half of this conversation,” Butterfield surmised.

“Right. That. Stuff. What were we talking about?” Popovich sighed.

“The Colonel is holding out on giving the thumbs up to the bridge deal and the Lieutenant thinks it’s because he wants to provoke some gunfights with the local Taliban,” I recapped.

“Come on, this is an infantry battalion. They want to fight,” Doggett pointed out. “Why do you think they’ve conducted, like, three raids a week since we got here? In a district with eight Taliban left alive?”

“There’s eight now? Did they recruit two more since the last BUB I attended?” Popovich harrumphed. “Please, that hillbi . . . beacon of great officership or whatever I called him before wants to prove he’s the boss and demonstrate that building schools and handing out cash isn’t as important in a war as shooting people in the face.”

“If wars could still be won solely by shooting people in the face, this whole clusterfuck would have ended in a tickertape parade down 5th Avenue a decade ago,” Butterfield noted.

“They didn’t shoot Bin Laden in the face until 2011, ma’am,” I pointed out.

“Well they would have held the parade then. Shit, I’m not a ‘what if’ kind of person. My point is I agree with Popovich. Hebog’s flexing his muscles. He’ll give us the bridge after he gets some blood flowing back to his wrinkly, old pecker. Which is a sentiment that does not leave this office my young, gossipy Devil Dogs (One of the many, many nicknames for Marines. One of the least insulting ones).”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” we three subordinates chorused.

“He’s wants to get the shooting started in our district, mark my words,” Doggett added in a defiant singsong.

“Sir, with all due respect . . .” Popovich began.

“Oof, that’s never a good start,” Butterfield guffawed, her eyes and Doggett’s both rolling almost in unison. Privileges of rank indeed.

“. . . Isn’t that what you’re doing?” Popovich finished.

“Hey, I’m trying to get myself shot. Or at least shot at. Lightly shrapneled, perhaps. But myself and only myself. I don’t want anybody else getting hurt,” Doggett protested.

“Fair,” Popovich conceded.

“This may be the weirdest goddamn conversation of the deployment,” I pointed out.

“So far,” Doggett crooned as he slapped the upper and lower receivers (hey, what did I tell you about the diagram?) of his weapon back together with bemused finality.

“Hey there, Major,” Hebog’s inescapably ear-stinging drawl echoed across the FOB four BUB’s worth of evenings later, catching Butterfield halfway between our office and the COC (Command Operations Center) a few minutes after the latest PowerPoint purgatory’s conclusion.

From under the ramshackle gazebo that served as a smoke pit (designated area for the smoking of tobacco on any US military installation), with a Marlboro Light in mouth, I watched and heard as she made no attempt to hide her annoyed sigh. God love her.

“Word is your Sar’nt Poppinfresh raised his self a queer son,” Hebog chuckled like a corrupt sheriff in a cheap western. “Must have caught that from you feel-good, pussy-ass civil affairs fuckers, huh? Just kidding. Hear the little weirdo knocked out Staff Sar’nt Bucket’s kid.”

“Well sir,” my Skipper didn’t so much trail off as allow her attempt at a polite, appropriately subservient answer evaporate before it could condense. “If by ‘queer’ you’re referring to the Q in LGBTQ which stands for those who identify specifically as queer, or ‘questioning,’ regarding their sexuality, then I’m afraid you are incorrect. Sir.”

The squinty hillbilly’s eyes narrowed further.

“Matter of fact, Sergeant Popovich’s eldest is a transgender woman. Which would be the T for any weak spellers overhearing this exchange,” Butterfield ignored but definitely saw the double thumbs-ups that I and the two members of the FET smoking with me that evening flashed behind the Battalion CO’s back. “Her choice of new name is pending. But as I understand it, the modern Marine Corps is an all-inclusive, all-American fighting force where tolerance is extended to all but our enemies. Sir.”

“Point taken. But ain’t sure I appreciate your confrontational tone, Butterfield,” At least the old prick pronounced her name correctly.

Butterfield shrugged.

“Mm-hmm. Officers can get can Ninja Punched (Deceptively goofy term for a Non-Judicial Punishment or NJP. What happens when you get caught fucking up in a serious way but not serious enough to warrant a full-blown court martial like you see in the moving pictures. A Few Good Men and such) too, you know,” he finally cast an irked eye toward us enlisted types.

Butterfields shoulders sank a teeny tiny bit, succumbing to the difference in metaphorical weight between the brown oak leaves on her collar and the black ones (The rank insignias of majors and lieutenant colonels are both oak leaves, colored gold and silver respectively. Officer insignia worn in the field and combat theaters trades those shiny hues for matte brown and black so it’s harder for snipers to spot them and blow their brains out because that’s what snipers do) on Hebog’s.

“Apologies for my tone, sir. Been a long . . . decade. Give or take. But I’d appreciate you not disparaging the families of my Marines. Stick to insulting my idiots and me directly. Like good, old Lance Corporal Unpronounceable over there.”

I clicked my boot heels (though heavy duty rubber makes more of a thud than a click) and dramatically doffed my cigarette in deference to my Skipper.

Hebog snorted victoriously, though the exchange struck me as a more of a draw. Until the next part.

“Since I have your undivided attention for the moment, might I follow you to your office and further discuss the subject of the girls school/bridge project, sir?” Butterfield’s reserves of feigned subservience ran low.

“No.”

“O . . . kay. Perhaps tomorrow?”

“No. Full no.”

“Sir, I . . .”

“Ain’t approving’ it.”

The cigarette nearly dropped from my mouth. Motherfucker.

“Beg pardon?”

“Ain’t approving’ it. It’s a bullshit deal and I ain’t gonna allow it. Not in my district.”

“It’s not your district, sir. It’s the Afghans’ district,” the cigarette actually did fall from my lips, either from opening them to speak or out of shock that I’d spoken.

“Shut up, Unpronounceable!” snapped Hebog without looking at me.

“Not now, Uunaia!” snapped Butterfield in the same manner. “Why is it a no to the bridge? Elder . . . Whatever will not be happy if we nix that end of the deal and go ahead with the school construction.”

“And he can eat shit because I don’t want every fuckstick Islamic Fundamentalist in a hundred mile radius knocking at our front gate demanding concessions over every project he claims pisses him off.”

What a shockingly good point made in a relatively comprehensible manner.

“Fair enough. But we’re not giving up the girls school project, so . . .”

“Good, you shouldn’t. Deserves being built.”

“And if the Elder vows reprisals against the school like we suspect he might?”

“This is fucking Afghanistan, Major. And it ain’t your first rodeo. Every-goddamn-body and their mama vows reprisals every time a sheep shits on the wrong side the Helmand. Hajji Whatever’s pissing in the wind.”

“And if he ends up telling his people to start winging grenades, rockets, and those ever popular rocket propelled grenades at us in response?”

Hebog chuckled in the fashion of a born killer you at long last realize you’re glad is on your side, “Then we shoot ‘him in the fucking face.”

Doggett presented a sanitized and summarized version of the information exchanged in the above conversation during the fifth hour of his next eleven hour patrol, throughout which nobody shot at or exploded him to any degree to his continuing dismay.

Two days later Elder Hajji Whatever ended up throwing us a curveball and opting for the middle ground between Butterfield and Hebog’s predictions: paying one of the impoverished locals working construction on the expansion of the ANA (Afghan National Army) compound connected to our FOB to convey his displeasure in a most unsubtle fashion. While the Afghan troops prepped for their weekly Thursday night orgy (Real thing. Seriously. Just Google image search . . . no, wait . . . eh, do what you want) this enterprising young lad laid down his sledgehammer, snatched a stray Pakistani knockoff Tokarev (Old Soviet pistol model. Ever see one of those WWII movies where the Russian commissars start shooting their own troops for retreating in the face of the Germans? These are usually what they’re doing that with. Yay for fun facts!), tucked it into his robes, and furtively flip-flopped over to the gym. Even when cheaply made, a pistol’s firing pin striking primers sends rounds downrange. This semi-pro assassin managed to get off five before a quick-thinking, mid-CrossFit scout sniper with no neck crushed his skull with a precisely hurled 16kg kettlebell.

Of those five rounds one nicked a dumbbell, another put a hole clean through the padding of the bench press, the third shattered the cheap elliptical machine’s console, and the last two took Popovich smack dab in the heart as he cranked out a set of lat pulldowns. Our hirsute sergeant died before his killer’s twitching corpse hit the deck. It happened so fast he didn’t have time to look shocked.

Popovich, that is. Nobody could tell what the Afghan’s final mien might have been before the avenging CrossFitter grabbed an even heavier kettlebell and made sure the motherfucker was dead. Hard to read the expression on a concave face.

So for all their supposed hootin’ and hollerin’ and raidin’ for a big, brassy fight with the enemy, the only Marine the Battalion sent home in a flag-draped steel box was Sergeant Alexander Popovich. Slightly pudgy, extremely hairy, idealistic, directly supporting (term for when an individual or a unit is operating in a role alongside a specific unit but not fully tied into its chain of command), never patrolling Sergeant Alexander Popovich.

Before Colonel Hebog could arrange for a bullet to pass through Hajji Whatever’s skull, the Elder piled his favorite wife, favorite son, second favorite chai boy (Tweenaged house servant/sex toy that many middle class and wealthy Pashtu Afghans own at least one of. Let that sink in and then tell me how despicable America was for trying to instill some of its values on the locals. Eat a dick, moral relativism), three AK’s (general term for all weapons in the Kalashnikov family, the most famous being that classic staple of generic bad guys in both movies and real life: the AK-47), and twenty pounds of opium into a pickup truck and escaped across the border to Pakistan where he eluded authorities for several months before being captured and garroted by a Taliban officer who refused to forgive the guy for working with us infidels in the first place. So the whole affair turned out pretty disappointing for all parties across the board.

Somebody from S-1 (administrative section, or “shop,” of a unit) plugged a pair of travel speakers into an iPod and blasted a tinny rendition of “Taps” as six grunts (nickname for infantry personnel) carried Popovich’s coffin out the open flaps of BAS (Battalion Aid Station. Central medical facility of a . . . wait for it . . . battalion) two days after his death. Butterfield, Doggett, and I stood at attention in a row along the path of packed dirt the pallbearers took to the waiting Osprey (The V-22 Osprey is a Vertical Takeoff and Landing, or VTOL, transport aircraft that looks like the deformed baby of an inbred propeller plane and a helicopter with fetal alcohol syndrome. They’re great in theory, but in reality they’re terrifying death traps that have killed 39 people in crashes. Lowest bidder and all) while a dozen or so members of the Battalion staff assembled similarly to our left.

“That’s what they almost called me, you know. For my callsign,” Butterfield half-whispered in a sad, dreamy tone that broke my goddamn heart all over again as our shipmate’s body passed by.

“Ma’am?”

“‘Taps.’ They almost made that my callsign Taps. Because of Dan Butterfield.”

“Dan . . . Wait, the Civil War general? The bugle call guy?” Doggett queried from the corner of his mouth closest to the Skipper.

“There was both a Civil War general and a bugle call writer named Butterfield?” my grief-stricken brain played catch-up.

“One guy. Same person. My great-great-great uncle or whoever. Wrote ‘Taps,’ though I think they called it ‘Butterfield’s Lullaby’ at the time,” Butterfield explained.

“That’s a way creepier name it,” I opined.

“Right? Given its use,” Doggett agreed.

“So true. Which is why I’m glad they passed on calling me ‘Lullaby’ as well.”

“Also creepy. And somehow a little condescending,” I mused.

“Ah-ah-ah-ahem!” Hebog cleared his throat, thereby drawing attention to how loud our whispering had grown and the fact that none of the other assembled Battalion staff gave a shit that we conversed. We responded by not giving a shit about the Colonel in turn. Popovich was our Marine, after all.

“So, ma’am, they didn’t call you Lullaby because it’s too creepy even for the air wing. And they didn’t go with Taps because . . .” I prodded.

“Too depressing. And foreboding.”

The recorded trumpet notes ended. Then started over. That whole tune is barely a minute and a slow walk from the aid station to the LZ (Landing Zone) takes that long even without a coffin to carry.

Very fucking depressing.

The grunts reached the open ramp of the bird (Slang for aircraft. Because flying) and carried the coffin up into it, disappearing into its shady bowels with Popovich’s mortal coil.

“So why Gold Digger?” I pressed on, hoping new knowledge might temporarily edge out the melancholy.

“After the war Butterfield, apparently, went into government and got busted for some gold related scam. Think he was Undersecretary of the Treasury (He was actually Assistant Treasurer of the United States. Totally different thing) at the time.”

“Man, they really took your historical footnote of an ancestor and ran with it, huh ma’am?” Doggett ventured.

“Yeah, well, everybody gets pretty wasted at the get-together were the callsigns get handed out.”

Doggett and I nodded to each other. Of course.

“And, frankly, it could have been worse. They usually are. One guy in my first squadron wound up as ‘Shit Stain,’ for example.”

“Yeesh,” I breathed.

“Rough. Not as creepy as ‘Lullaby,’ at least,” Doggett pointed out.

“And not as depressing as ‘Taps,'” sighed the Skipper.

The Osprey’s rotors began their slow starting spins as the six grunts filed back out, unencumbered and blinking at the kicked-up dust.

“All right,” Butterfield sighed louder this time, her boots rustling the gritty ground as she turned away. “We’ve got work to do.”

“Like what, ma’am?” I asked earnestly.

“Damned if I know, but we gotta do it.”

That we did. Nearly two months of deployment remained ahead at that point but little of it turned out worth telling. Things stayed sad until rolling into predominantly boring and then, when we started turnover with the advance party (members of a unit who deploy ahead of their shipmates in order to liaise and coordinate with the unit they’re replacing) for our replacement team (who thanked us profusely and repeatedly for all our great work and then blamed us for every single fuckup they made over the first half of their deployment as is standard procedure), life got too busy to be much of anything else. Then we packed up our gear, chucked it into a series of aircraft across the world over a period of two weeks, and landed at last on the ugly, weed-lined tarmac of March Air Force Reserve Base (Riverside, California) one humid midnight.

From there another ugly, beat-up, run-down, rotten white bus drove us back to Las Pulgas to greet the dawn, a bedazzled  “Welcome Home” banner, and those others who remained significant. And so ended our madcap participation in OEF: twitching with impatience as we clambered off another rumbling, cramped, crummy vehicle surrounded by the big guns (M777A2 155mm howitzers) and rockets (M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems or HIMARS) in the heart of The Fleas.

 

 

 

BIO

Paul D. Mooney is an NYC born writer with pieces published in American Writers Review, The Big Jewel, three minute plastic, Task & Purpose, and more. You can see more of his work on his website, thewritepaulmooney.com, so long as he remembers to update it. He received a BS from BU, an MFA from SLC, and served four years in the USMC. He currently works as a copy editor at a marketing company and loves tacos, sailing, eating tacos while sailing, and his two cats (the dumb one and the fat one).

 

 

 

 

Broom Dance

by Dilantha Gunawardana

 

Someone complimented me, saying
That I have beautiful hair; which either falls

From my ankles, or rises above my forehead.
Depends on which way you hold me….

I collect dead cockroaches and gecko droppings,
Like a spiky comb catches trespassing lice,

While dust, seemingly like dandruff, lifts
From a body and is assembled in

To a little collection. I’m no genius though!
I keep the little sorrows, or my melancholic blues,

Of seeing my hair fall, strand by strand, deep inside,
And still the floors, are like autumn earth,

Filled with fallen leaves. I pray piously,
That my days will not be numbered,

As I look at a partially-dead cockroach,
Frantically struggling to get back up

And I like a merciless guillotine,
Coming down on it, crushing the gauzy wings.

Sometimes, I see my tall dark master,
Dance with me, his hands curled like

A skipping rope around my waist, and I drifting
In and out, like a broomstick flame,

Braided locks, radiating around my ankles,
Those metatarsals lifting, and grounding;

My little toes at the very end, sliding
On a surface letting my feet – and heart –

Be led, knowing that a man who
Can take a woman places, on the dance floor,

Can take her anywhere, la la land, Emerald city,
Xanadu, orgasmic utopia, or the moon and back.

I let him take me away slowly, his hands
Going deeper down my slender hips, his grip

Gentle enough to yield, like a kite string from
A kite runner, and not as adamantine, as God’s hold,

Letting an electric feeling enrapture me,
Like how a kiss sends a current down the spine,

To the quiet whereabouts below a navel.
You can say, I’m a perennial woman

On a dance floor, my meadows of goose bumps,
Giving away secrets I try valiantly to hide,

Like a brilliant moon behind cumulus clouds.
How I let myself be glided on a surface,

My little toes like the front line of a war party,
My fingers, convulsing with feeling,

Letting a man with unassailable wrists,
Sweep me off, my featherweight feet.

 

 

Paper Boat Dreams

 

Tumbling down in a rush, in panic,
broken clouds, as white and loopy,
as Santa’s cotton wool beard, while in Africa,
conga drums are being played by zesty palms,
while dancers, do their magic around an open fire,
Calling upon the rain gods, to intervene.
The pitter-patter, the growl from the heavens,
the neon flashes, the evergreens turning greener,
while, beads of raindrops, on jade surfaces,
are funneled down a tubular leaf, as a child
with Gene Kelly shoes on, looks at a kaleidoscopic rainbow,
with a sense of glee, like a prophetic Noah,
who looked at seven bands of parallel running color,
on the heavens, as a harbinger, a beautiful sign,
that the floods were now finally over.
How that man, Noah, cut the boughs of Cedar trees
In modern day Lebanon, to build a sturdy boat,
while a little child of 7, folds an A4 paper, to build the softest hull.
How beautiful, that a miniature boat,
inside a child’s palms, made of commonplace paper,
can carry something more exquisite, than a timber body,
holding a cargo of paired animals.
How a little ragamuffin, carries on his paper ark,
a consignment, many folds richer,
than the merchandise on board
Noah’s cedar hull.

 

 

Wooly Mammoth Tusks

 

How tons of ivory, are found,
deep beneath Siberia and Alaska,
as the worst kept secret of the Arctic tundra.
A reminder that being big was a casualty
10000 years ago, and is now.
While the modern day elephant
plods on the savannah, knowing that
their distant cousins, paid the ultimate price
For being too conspicuous, for
being too gargantuan.

How African elephants have more
tusks than the Asian counterpart,
the former called by the genus name Loxodonta,
Which means slanted tooth, of which,
there are two extant species;
africana, the bush elephant, and cyclotis, the forest elephant.
While the Asian elephant, walks
in troupes, less threatened by modern-day poaching,
Although they too fall easy prey
to man’s lust of ivory.

How paleo-indians brutalized mastodons
In the Americas, while hunters in Siberia,
killed wooly mammoths, to the point of extinction.
How ivory, in the contemporary,
is a prized item at auctions, and precious memorabilia
for collectors. While a businessman in Shanghai,
impatiently awaits, for the delivery
of two wooly mammoth tusks,
to embellish his study.

How the behemoth phenomenon
scientists call climate change, has bred
a new form of ivory trade;
how wooly mammoth tusks are found,
below a melting permafrost, like,
a milk tooth beneath a pillow,
waiting for the riches,
of a magnanimous tooth fairy.

 

 

BIO

DILANTHA GUNAWARDANA is a molecular biologist by training, yet identifies himself, as a wordsmith, papadum thief, “Best Laksa” seeker, poet of accident and fluke, hoop-addict, a late bloomer on all fronts, ex-quiz-druggy and humor-artist, who is still learning the craft of poetry. Dilantha lives in a chimerical universe of science and poems. His poems have been accepted for publication /published in Kingdoms in the Wild, Heart Wood Literary Magazine, Canary Literary Magazine, Boston Accent Lit, Forage, Kitaab, Creatrix, Eastlit, American Journal of Poetry, Zingara Poetry Review, The Wagon and Ravens Perch, among others. Dilantha has two collections of poetry, Kite Dreams (2016) and Driftwood (2017), published by Sarasavi Publishers, and is working on his third poetry collection and a book of haiku poems. Dilantha was awarded the prize for “The emerging writer of the year – 2016” in the Godage National Literary Awards, Sri Lanka, while being shortlisted for the poetry prize, in the same awards ceremony.

 

 

 

My Most Constant Lover

by Miriam Edelson

 

 

I am never truly alone in this place.

Toc-toc-toc. Bleary-eyed I crawl out of bed. Toc-toc-toc. Shuffle to the washroom. Toc-toc-toc.  A downy woodpecker has staked a claim in the mixed forest outside my door. The day comes alive to the rhythmic sound of its search for bugs and beetles in the bark.

Later the loons call, plaintive and insistent. It is said the same loons return to the lake year after year and that they mate for life. I admire their constancy.

My own story is different, of course. Loves lost and found, a myriad of stories like threads woven to textured cloth. And in this colourful fabric is my centre, this land, my most constant lover.

Shoreline dappled with craggy rock. In the shadow of the trees, maple, pine and cedar, a canopy emerges. White birch trees pop against the green and brown canvas. The green belies the dust on the road that accompanies me, a gravel and stone plume trailing my arrival to this place.

I come alone now, seeking the refuge that I can only find here. A serenity beyond the noisy highway to a lakeside cabin that bears my touch. Children playing in a lifetime of photographs, paintings and sculpture adorn the knotted pine walls. In this place I am quiet, mistress to a trunk load of books chosen carefully for company during the long summer nights. Their tattered covers explode with stories to transport me and yet, I always return here.

Breakfast of coffee and yogurt with berries picked by nearby farmwives. I write until one p.m. and then walk for an hour through the woods to the gate that greets the main road. A light lunch and then, on a good day, the sun is on the dock below. I take my pocket radio and a towel and listen to CBC radio in the afternoon while sun tanning for an hour or so. I am never alone here.

As a young woman, many years before a shelter graced the property, I sat and watched by the sunlit rock, astride a still-watered lake. Covered with soft green moss, the rock anchors cedar trees with their majestic crowns. A fresh, almost citrus odor wafts from the cedar fronds, reaching me below.

Sitting on the rock, in the indented space I claim as my own, I am sunbaked and naked. I chase away the odd fisherman in my brazen nudity. As I feel the mossy texture beneath me, the water now churns amid the fishing boat’s wake. In the distance, a small island beckons. It sports one lone, spindly pine. The island is always named for the youngest visitor to the lake. To give the power of place to the children and gather hope in their outstretched hands.

 

As always, this place offers up the quiet for reflective practice, for writing. Two decades ago, I charged my laptop on a marine battery, red and black cables spilling akimbo, to create a memoir about my son’s short and difficult life. Now, having harnessed solar energy, I am able to write night and day. Power and light now accompany even the most blustery, sodden days of late autumn.

In the early years of my daughter’s life, I nursed us back to health here at this land after the breakup of my marriage. Folded together on an Adirondack chair, we read stories overlooking the lake at dusk. It was a sad time but also, a time of renewal and the sun, shade and wind helped us both to heal. After all, I had chosen the separation. But for my young daughter, abandonment reared its worrisome head. Fortunately, those fears never unfurled and this land helped to nourish her enormous strength and resilience.

Now, late afternoon, time to think about an evening meal. The rustic pine table is big enough to sit eight comfortably. It sprawls in the area once a screened-in porch, now rebuilt into a room with windows that open onto the lake and forest. The table is covered with blue and green woven placemats that set off its honey-golden hue. Sometimes it’s just me, while often we’re two or three and, on occasion, several more gathering around. There is something in its sturdiness that encourages the sharing of pleasure, of friendship. The cast of characters changes with each passing week; the table, in its constancy, endures as witness.

Lying on the dock again in the early evening. Summer sun readies to set. As if a stage prepared by professionals, the western sky turns golden, then amber-orange and finally, to pale rose. An evening grosbeak sings from his perch on the large cedar branch overhanging the dock. As the sky colours fade and darkness gathers, the temperature falls slightly. A lone canoeist on the lake seeks shelter in a cove across the way. It is evening and we all must take heed.

Night falls. It has been a productive day, I’ve fashioned a few new lines for my piece. I prepare for bed, taking my little radio with me for company. I am never alone here. The loons pierce the darkness, making their presence felt and I am content in the knowledge that we share this remarkable place.

 

 

BIO

Miriam Edelson is a social activist, writer and mother living in Toronto, Canada. Her literary non-fiction, personal essays and commentaries have appeared in The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and CBC Radio. Her first book, “My Journey with Jake: A Memoir of Parenting and Disability” was published in April 2000. “Battle Cries: Justice for Kids with Special Needs appeared in late 2005”. She has completed a doctorate at University of Toronto focused upon Mental Health in the Workplace and is currently at work on a collection of essays.

 

 

 

 

Vulvae

by Steven Ratiner

 

The plural, tongued by Latin.

Tight-lipped like oysters,
a muscular desire holding fast
to their brined solitude.

Just the tip – the pleading of
ten thousand thousand smooth-
cheeked boys – but, with a quick
thrust and twist, the fervid blade
shucks the universe.

And where does that leave us?
Sun horned like a minotaur, still tethered
at the center of things.
The wavery desire of revolving stars.
And homeward sailors with
full sails on turbulent seas,
longing to sleep again in their own beds,
leaning into the Pleiades.

Vulvae is what the Roman gods
murmur, pretending to say love,
preparing to rain down
disaster via bolts
of priapic lightning. Vulvae,
the weary sigh of those open vowels,
that oldest of mortal odes from which
all worlds, sacred and profane,
are ushered into being.

Vulvae, I am old now and
seasick with fever. I close my eyes,
let memory slip its moorings,
and count them like sheep.

 

 

Old Satyr in a Second-hand Tux

 

I don’t care to belong to any club
that would have me as a member.
He’d cribbed Groucho’s good line,
made it his gospel. And copied,
as well, the black smear across his upper lip
as if he’d been gobbling darkness.
Like it or not, Member in Good Standing of
The Fraternal Order of Breathers and Weepers.
Late night – his breath a miasma of
good scotch, bad snatch, rancid tears – he’d
mope by the wrought iron gate of the cemetery,
thinking: look how damned pristine their
marble pillows! Mossy beds laced in moonlight,
how goddamned beautiful! I’d
lay my head there in a heartbeat if only
that tight-lipped quiff would let me in.

 

 

King David

 

wielded both harp and sword, and guess
which did the most damage? Which
one’s flourish yielded the most tears?

As sovereign, he could make love his guest,
conscripting the loyal husband for a sandy ditch
beside a battlefield. (Psalms have tongues but no ears.)

Between rivers, between a woman’s legs – the surplus
by which kingdoms flourish and kings touch
history’s bloody hem. The old gods are buried here.

 

 

 

BIO

STEVEN RATINER has published three poetry chapbooks and his work has appeared in scores of journals in America and abroad including Parnassus, Agni, Hanging Loose, Poet Lore, Salamander, QRLS (Singapore) and Poetry Australia. He’s featured in the new anthology Except for Love – New England Poets Inspired by Donald Hall. The poems appearing in The Writing Disorder are part of a new full-length manuscript entitled The S in Sex. He’s also 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 important figures.

 

 

 

The Garden

by Leslie Boudreaux Tidwell

 

Thoris lay in his favorite tree and tried to remember his home as it had once been. He closed his eyes. Memories came and went as they pleased lately. On the days when thoughts could be summoned at will, Thoris tried to live slowly, letting each breath be its own morning, noon, and night.

There it was. Now he saw it. His forked tongue flickered on its own, already hunting for supper without him. But for now, his mind was still his mind, and the image of his old, perfect garden washed over him.

__

Everything in the garden–alive or not–had been special. It was how the Master worked. Thoris’ home tree was his favorite thing in the garden. In the morning, bark was green, soft, and new. At midday it was dark, rough, and brittle. Each night its dry branches leaned over and waited to be born again. It had lived hundreds of lives, each one a little different. Sometimes the leaves were greener, or more branches sprouted, or the fruit changed from small and red to fat and orange. Thoris memorized the detail of each life. It was the only thing in the garden that had to die, and he wanted to honor it.

At night, the Master spoke through the pores of every living thing. An instant before the sun disappeared, the garden would erupt with joyful humming. Every piece of creation served as an amplifier for his love. This love never translated to speech–at least not the tongue of the garden creatures. He remembered it as a dissonant, yet sweet song paired with the chattering of birds and the sigh of the woman when she felt sleepy. Sometimes the grass and leaves shivered, but he wasn’t sure if this meant the plants were being spoken through or were answering back.

After that chorus of heavenly noise, Thoris’ tree would die, and he would curl up to sleep, looking forward to its rebirth. He always chose the thickest branch as his resting place. It was the perfect spot to watch the sunrise. In the afternoon, after its leaves had come in fully, it provided plenty of shade for his afternoon nap. Somehow, the wood felt as soft as sheep’s wool.

It had felt that soft.

__

Snapping back to his current life, new corner of Thoris’ mind took hold. Eat. Hunt. Eat. He ignored the command to hunt–while he still could–and plucked a puny piece of fruit from a branch. He nibbled on it slowly, as mindfully as he could, and watched the sky. It was a clear day, but the sun felt hotter than usual.  Mice and lizards below him crept through the grass.  An urge seized him, and a chunk of fruit came rolling from his mouth. It painted his teeth like bloody flesh.

How effortless it would be with his speed and stealth to creep over and swallow them whole.

His eyes flashed from their normal yellow to black.  He shook his head and took another bite of fruit. Drops of dew leapt off the skin as he tore out large pieces to chew.  Not only did the fruit taste bitter this morning, but he could only bring the very edge of the surface to his mouth.  Most of it would have to be thrown away for the ants, or else he could place it on the ground and roll it around with his nose to reach the middle parts.  Thoris could no longer see his shriveling limbs. It would not be long.  Within a week, his legs would be completely gone.

Not only would he lose his legs, but he would completely lose the power to communicate with man.  That didn’t matter, though, for he had not seen the man in days.  He gazed off in the distance, and there stood the mighty creature appointed by their Master as a guard for all eternity.  It looked sort of like the man who had been born here; he had once been cloaked in that same light.  Unlike the man, this guardian’s eyes were not welcoming; nor were they cruel.  They seemed to be made of stone.  No newcomers were allowed, and the garden’s old tenants were slowly retreating to the new, frightening world.  It didn’t matter anymore where they lived now. The Master’s protection was gone.

Thoris could no longer stand the taste of the fruit. He rolled it off the branch with his nose and watched as one fly after another landed on it. His hunger gone, he waited for clarity to return to him. He tried again to remember the past, ignoring the raspy, cold thoughts that were creeping closer to the center of his being.

He thought about the day the announcement was made. It hissed out of the pores of every being like steam. Thoris remembered freezing in place as that heavenly noise came softly, sorrowfully, from him and every other creature and plant. The leaves of his tree rustled with the sound. The Master had spoken to them plainly. Thoris squeezed his eyes shut so tight that tears came out. Words were hard to remember. He focused on them. Cherished them. He begged them to come to his mind.

“We will try another way.  You beasts may stay or go, but you will not hear me for a while.”

“Where are you going, Master?”

“Ask the serpent.  The changes to come give me no pleasure, but something must be done.  This offense must be remembered.” 

“Serpent? Master, how have I offended?”

“It was not you, child. It was your neighbor.”
Thoris’ eyes flew open and flashed black again. His mouth opened in a twisted grin, and another word came to him. It felt similar to the word hunt. Kill. Kill. Kill him.

No. He shook himself so violently that he nearly fell from his branch. He steadied himself and spoke aloud. It hurt his throat.

“Olfrid. Cannot. Kill. Olfrid.”

The withering away of all serpents’ legs, the exile from their home, the fading away of music and thought… this was Olfrid’s doing. Those words, your neighbor, has blossomed into a vision from the Master. A final act of kindness. Thoris concentrated as hard as he could and asked for the vision again.

“If I see it again, perhaps it will stay with me when I am gone. Perhaps I won’t be completely lost.”

__

“The mornings come so quickly,” Olfrid grumbled as he crawled out of his hole. He hadn’t considered the inconvenience of an opening facing the east.

“The morning comes exactly when it must.” The answer came from the tree above him.

“Then why do I still feel sleepy, Thoris?”

“Because it’s time to eat. You’ll feel better after you’ve had breakfast. I was about

to go and pick fruit. Come with me.”

“I’ve eaten fruit with you so many times my teeth are stained red.”

“Such vanity, Olfrid,” Thoris teased. “Come on, the company will improve your mood.”

“If it’s all the same to you, neighbor, I’ll go for a little walk to wake up … get used to the light. Is it hotter than usual?” Thoris looked around and shook his head. Then he  descended from his branch and crept away.

‘I suppose I could cover the entrance at night,’ Olfrid thought as he walked away, eyeing the ground for fallen leaves.

The morning was damp and breezy. The grass sparkled and shook as he walked. It was almost too thick to move through. He spread the blades apart with his claws and lifted rocks with his pointed snout in search of leaves. The ground was perfectly clean–not even a speck of dirt out of place. He walked on, moving closer and closer to the end of the garden, to the place where trees got shorter and grass felt drier under his feet. Still no leaves.

Olfrid frowned. He had watched Thoris’ tree shed leaves in the late afternoon. Where did they go after they fell? Did they disappear into the ground? Were they carried away by the ants? Anyway, couldn’t he always climb a tree for leaves? But that doesn’t answer where the fallen ones go… He frowned and lowered his head to think.

The garden was home—a beautiful place. He enjoyed plentiful food, courteous neighbors, and a warm place to live. After a hard rain, he could count on the Master to open up the clouds and blanket him with warmth. The river provided him with cool water but also a place to admire himself. All creatures were proud of their looks, but Olfrid had a feeling that a little extra effort went into the serpents. Their scales were smooth and caught the sun’s light so nicely. He loved to look at himself in the water. His scales were large–much larger than Thoris’. They were a greenish brown with darker stripes wrapped around his body, with the occasional spot of white. His head looked noble, wide and pointed at the jaw narrowing to an upturned snout. His narrow eyes looked serious–the eyes of an intelligent creature. Many lazy afternoons were spent reflecting on these facts.

Olfrid also admired the beauty of his home and the grandeur of the evening song. It made him feel important. ‘Whoever made all of these things wants to speak with me,’ he would think. But the Master never waited to hear his words. As soon as the song was over, so was that feeling. That soft little squeeze near his heart and the buzzing of his mind returned to stillness. Peace. Absolute silence. Was it a satisfying silence? He could not say.

Olfrid’s body twitched again. New thoughts were making him feel uncomfortable, like the itch that came before shedding. But it wasn’t that familiar discomfort. When was the last time he had felt uncertain? Olfrid could not recall. When was the last time a question went beyond ‘where will I bathe today’ or ‘when will I have supper?’

Creatures for miles around might have heard Olfrid’s stomach rumbling, but he could no longer think of finding food. Instead, he spent a good part of the morning watching the treetops. He waited for the wind to pick up and make the branches whip wildly from side to side. Surely just one leaf would fall. Nothing. For some reason, this harmless leaf mystery had birthed questions that would never leave his mind as long as it was working.

‘Why have I never wondered before? About this or anything?’

He wanted to think about it more, to try and remember more about himself. Where had he begun? When had the garden begun? His heart squeezed. Then he felt another new discomfort. His stomach cramped painfully in a way he had never experienced.

‘Better to think about this later,’ he thought.

Berry bushes and fruit trees surrounded him, and a variety of tasty root vegetables were hidden underground. He only needed to scrape the earth gently, and one would appear. But none of these things sounded good to him at the moment. After half-heartedly prodding at the dirt, Olfrid decided to wander closer to the border. Maybe there would be something new to try there. He would put up with this growing discomfort and observe how it made him feel. The urgency was a little frightening but exciting at the same time.

‘I need to find food. Need?’

 It was a word he’d never used. The Master used it when he lay down rules. They needed to share with one another. They needed to sleep at night and give the garden time to rest and revive. They needed to stay away from… he could not remember.

Stay away from what?

Olfrid met the stranger at the garden’s edge. He was sitting on a large rock just inches away from the grass, and a violet robe was draped over his gaunt form. Beyond the stranger lay an expanse of orange and brown earth with a few scrub bushes poking out of the ground. Though Olfrid felt a breeze on his skin, it did not reach the land beyond the garden. None of the sick plants moved, nor did the stranger’s long hair. It was like looking at the pictures that the man drew for his woman in the dirt.

The stranger’s head was in his hands, and his shoulders were bobbing up and down. Olfrid recognized this. The man had done this on the nights before his woman was created. The noise was never heard in the garden after that, but he remembered what the Master had named it.

“Why are you crying?” Olfrid asked.

The figure startled. Then, after a pause:

“I am crying because I have no home.”

“How terrible. Would you like to live in the garden?”

“That garden is not mine,” he said.

“But it could be yours as well. There are creatures like you here.”

“They are not like me,” muttered the stranger.

“But they are.  They walk on thick legs.  They have fur on top of their heads.  They talk loudly and have long fingers,” Olfrid wiggled his own stubby fingers to demonstrate.

“Can they fly?”

“Why, I’ve never seen them fly.” Olfrid reared back on his hind feet, staring at the man with interest. “Can you fly?”

“I could once,” said the stranger, touching his shoulder tenderly.

“What happened?”

The man turned away from the serpent, refusing to speak.  Two holes in his robe revealed the parallel scars on his back.  Olfrid cringed at the shapes which did not seem to belong.  The wounds gave off a foreign stench, and the edges were moist and sticky.  At that moment, Olfrid realized the stone he had been sitting upon was also red. This substance looked like berry juice, but it smelled like something else. It smelled like Thoris’ tree at the end of the day, like the end of life.

“Those marks are not good,” Olfrid said, though he could not say why.

“No. I had wings there once. They were ripped from by body and torn to pieces.” The stranger returned to softly sobbing.

“Who did this to you?”  he asked, taking a single step forward.

At this, the man snarled and stared greedily at the garden. “The Master of your home did this to me. The tyrant. He saw my power and ripped it from me.”

Olfrid stepped away from the man and his venomous words.  He had heard from the Master that lies were a like a disease.  The stranger in violet scoffed at this reaction and looked down upon the animal.

“So he’s fooled you as well.”

“Quiet!” said Olfrid.  Don’t you know he can hear everything?”

“I do know.  Doesn’t that frighten you? How can you abide someone rattling around in your brain?”

“I’ve done nothing wrong and have nothing to fear. But if he hears you lying—”

“He tolerates lies,” the stranger leaned closer, clenching the parched earth.  “What he hates is the truth.”

“The master only wants us to tell the truth,” Olfrid recited.

“We can only tell what we think is the truth.  If the real truth is never given, we can claim innocence, even if what we say is a lie.”

Olfrid fell back on all four legs and lowered his head to the ground.  He frowned.  It was a strange feeling when words made sense in his mind but felt bad to hear.  Stranger still, the words reminded him of his own worries. His stomach churned.

“Don’t be afraid, now.  I have learned many secrets,” he crept closer now, inching toward the grass but never touching it.  “I could tell you the truth about your Master—about many things.”

“You—You’re a bad creature!  That’s why you’ve been punished!”  And with that dismissal, he ran away as quickly as he could.

__

Thoris felt ashamed.  He had stumbled upon this conversation during his morning walk.  He could have stopped his neighbor.  I didn’t know it was my responsibility, he said, knowing that the Master would hear but would not answer. He had gone home with a resolve to speak up if he saw the stranger again–to protect his friend Olfrid from the dangerous words of this intruder. But the pleasing sights and sounds of the garden had distracted him. That evening had been so lovely. He thought of that time while his memory still functioned.

__

A flock of white cranes made elegant shadows against the canvas of dusk. A black female serpent crossed his path–one with whom he had hoped to mate. She chose a smaller male with shiny yellow scales that rivaled the sun. They still smiled at one another and behaved cordially. There was no need for jealousy in this land filled with gifts. If he was meant to have offspring, the Master would also provide a companion for him. Perhaps the black serpent didn’t enjoy berries and the evening music as much as he. Perhaps the Master would mold a sweet and friendly creature from his own claw or one of his scales, much like the human’s mate.

Thoris loved the woman. Some days were veiled in vague feelings of contentment, but her birth was as clear to him as the first day he felt breath rushing into his lungs. He recalled her immediate affection and curiosity for everything around her. Her first question to the man was about his favorite place in the garden. The man obliged, taking her hand and walking her to a brook filled with silvery fish and swaying reeds. She scooped up her first mouthful of water and laughed her first laugh, unable to contain the fullness of those first moments. Then they walked together, reviewing the names of things. Unsatisfied with calling every serpent ‘serpent,’ and every deer ‘deer,’ the woman moved her mouth around to get accustomed to her language. Then she named them–she gave every creature a second name so they could be more like her and the man. Thoris cherished his name and the love he received from the woman.

There was so much to be grateful for and so much to do, Thoris thought as he climbed the dry, peeling wood of his dying tree. The leaves fell and curled themselves tighter and tighter until they were nothing. But he did not notice this. He was too busy reveling in the song and smacking down the last of his berries. Tomorrow would come just at the right moment, and he would go about his normal day. And there was something else that he would do. Something very important. What was it? Well, no matter. He would remember, precisely when he was meant to.

 

The following morning, Olfrid and his new companion were debating again. Thoris had forgotten his task and was far away, making the woman laugh with a song about beetles.

__

Again you call me a bad creature,” the stranger rolled a stone between his thumb and forefinger, sounding very bored. “It is not bad to oppose slavery.”

Slavery.  It wasn’t a word that anyone in the garden knew.  The part of Olfrid that loved the Master begged him to run away, to find a branch in the cool shade and never think of the stranger again.  But instead he allowed a trance to take him.  Slavery.  The word made his head ache a little.  The sound left a foul incense around him.  It sounded as wicked as a lie.

“What is that?”

“Slavery?” The stranger flicked the stone away and spread his arms wide.

“Slavery is this garden.  Slavery is what keeps his voice in your head.   I know, because I lived by his side.  I have seen what you’ve never seen.”

“You’ve seen the Master?”

“I have.  Even when I could not see him, I felt him.  There was no rest.  When I tried to drive his voice from my mind for one moment—when I tried to remove him from my heart just for an instant, he devoured my strength and cast me out.  My old friends chased me from home.  Some followed me, but they are even more mutilated and powerless than I.”

“And… their wings are gone, too?”

“No one here may have wings.”

Olfrid didn’t speak for a long time. “You think you’ve been wronged. You think you’ve been punished unfairly. You seem to be truthful. But this is more than I’ve ever had to think of in my life.”

He’s seen to that.”

“But all he wants is to be near us. Why try and be apart from someone who loves you and provides for you?”

“To know which thoughts are mine!” When the stranger’s voice raised, it sounded like a crackling fire. The air felt warmer around him. “To have one moment’s peace! Don’t you ever wonder?  Don’t you ever wish to know which decisions are truly yours?”

“I … don’t think of that.”

“Because he won’t let you.” For the first time, the stranger reached out for his companion. He gripped the serpent’s limb, and Olfrid thought he felt a searing pain upon his scales. When he pulled back, there were no scars, but the sensation remained.

“I can’t listen to you anymore.  These are all lies.  They’re lies!”

“Talk to the master tonight,” he called as the serpent made his escape.  “Don’t depend on my words! Find out for yourself!”

Olfrid crept away, almost free.  That night, he could not feel the Master singing through him. Instead, whispers of doubt circled him and kept him from sleeping.  By morning, his mind was neither his nor the master’s.  The garden’s little pleasures failed to satisfy him as they did when something small troubled his mind.  These new worries were so much greater than anything else in the garden—so much greater than a splinter in his foot or a cloud of dirt in his drinking water.  It felt like prickles in his chest.  Olfrid shifted from side to side until there was nothing to do but sit, and that didn’t help either.

The stars and moon were all pointed at him, staring, asking him questions.  What troubles you?  Why are you afraid? Whom do you seek?

“Is it true?” he asked aloud.

The lights of the night sky gazed back, unmoved.  Olfrid could not remember what the master’s song sounded like.

Every sunset ritual felt as distant as the birth of the world.

“I just want to hear you say it,” he pleaded many nights after. “Just once.  Say he’s lying.  I’ll believe you.  I’ll believe whatever you tell me. Just once. Aloud.”

Olfrid returned to the edge of the garden after days of waiting.  The stranger was not there.  He stared at the desolation, gently moving one toe towards the wasteland beyond his home.  He searched for green in the distance, but there was none.  The serpent could not imagine surviving there.  Moreover, he could not imagine an offense terrible enough for such a prison.  He had nearly disappeared into the brush when a voice emerged from the dead world.  There stood the stranger. His robes looked cleaner than before. His shoulders, straight and strong.

“Did he speak to you?”

Olfrid had many questions, but the sick feeling in his stomach told him to run.

“Leave me alone.  Stay away.”

“I am away,” he said, sitting down on the same rock where Olfrid had found him. It was also cleaner, the blood washed away.  “I thought I made it clear before that I won’t harm you. Now … Did. He. Speak. To. You?

“He … he didn’t,” Olfrid wanted to cry. “It was so strange.”

“And how did you feel?” He clasped his hands together and cocked his head. Listening.

“I felt … covered in mud. Buried.”

“And free,” the stranger clenched his fist, claiming a victory that Olfrid was not sure of.

“I feel sick.” The serpent lowered his head.

The stranger made a soothing, clicking sound with his tongue. Olfrid thought he’d heard an ape make this sound when its baby was chattering and fussing late at night. He drew back but could not turn away from this man who was not quite a man. The words the followed kept him in place.

“It’s odd at first,” he admitted, “but what you experienced was not a bad thing.  You challenged him, and he surrendered.” The stranger lifted his arms towards the sky.  “You … bested him.”

“He didn’t speak to me because he knows I was talking to you.” It was the first time Olfrid could truly admit his guilt. He stared at the grass–the grass that was still his if he wanted to walk upon it.

“Do not fear him, my little friend. Now that you know what I know, I’ve come to share another secret with you.”

“What can you tell me? I know what you are.  You doubted him and so have I, and now he’s sent you to live in a world with no life.” Olfrid panicked, stricken with a new realization.  ”It’s what he’s going to do to me. It’s why I can’t hear him!” He threw himself to the ground. If he begged, could he be forgiven?

“No life?” The stranger laughed for the first time. It wasn’t the quiet scoffing sound that Olfrid was used to. His voice was full of excitement.  “My friend, you haven’t seen all the corners of my home. I’ve explored it myself.”  He pointed out past the dusty hills. “Believe me, there is life. There is food. There is water. There is music sweeter than the Master’s. And best of all…”

Olfrid felt another pull. “What’s the best of all?”

“Everyone there has the Master’s eyes … the Master’s voice … the Master’s mind. Everyone is his own king.” The stranger’s lean arms and long fingers painted an idyllic picture in the air.

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“Unlike the Master, I am happy to show you.” He was leaning towards Olfrid now, his voice small and secretive. “I only need you to help me first.”

Olfrid thought for a long time. He sniffed the air, looked back at the greenery, and waited for a breeze to hit his face. Any sign. In those moments, he gave the Master one more chance. If he is bad, tell me. I’ll believe you. When no answer came, he walked forward, lengthened his neck, and spoke:

“What do you want me to do for you?”

“I am afraid for the man and woman who live here. You can help free them. You

can go where I cannot,” he whispered.

“How can we free them?” Olfrid asked, matching the stranger’s voice.

“I remember when your home was created. The Master warned his children of a place they should never go. Do you know this place?”

“The tree,” Olfrid pointed at the garden, stretching his arm as far as it would go to suggest a long distance. “The one in the center of the garden.”

The Master often sang images of that tree into his creations’ heads. With it came woeful melodies and dark colors. Thoris had nearly chosen it as his home, but its trunk could not be climbed. Though its bark appeared coarse and covered in knots, to an animal it felt as slippery as the slime-covered stones in the water.

“That’s it. I’m sure he never told you why it was forbidden,” said the stranger.

“He only said it would harm us.”

“Why would he put something harmful in your home?” Another question to turn Olfrid’s stomach and make his feet feel restless.

“I never thought about it.” How many times had he said or thought those words recently?

“Think about it now,” the stranger pressed. “Think hard.” Now he was inches away from the serpent’s face. Without realizing, Olfrid had inched closer and closer to the garden’s boundaries. One claw had crossed that line and rested on the stone.

“I don’t know. I can’t. I just… I don’t feel well,” Olfrid said, his head swimming. Suddenly hot and thirsty, he gasped and drew back on his hind legs. The one traitorous claw backed away. The heat of the outside land left him feverish after barely one touch.

“Stay with me!” He reached out to Olfrid. The impatience in his voice might have betrayed the gentleness in his eyes of the serpent hadn’t felt so ill. “Stay strong. I have felt what you are feeling. It will pass.”

“My chest,” Olfrid gasped, a tear rolling down his scales. “Something is squeezing inside me.”

“Yes. It hurts,” the stranger purred, inching closer.

“Why does it hurt?” His legs bent and twisted from the pain. He curled up, his tail close to his snout. He closed his eyes tightly. Does the hurt come in through the eyes? The discomfort of hunger could not compare; it would have felt like a shallow splinter now. Tell me the truth and I’ll listen,” Olfrid begged. Tell me to run and I’ll run. I’ll never return to this place. The stranger watched the serpent’s eyes searching past the clouds, past the sky, past infinity.

“You’re dying,” said the stranger. His words were like a lullaby now.

“What is dying?” The word tasted like that other word. Slavery. Olfrid wanted to rub his tongue in the dirt after speaking it.

“Dying… is what’s inside of the fruit,” he said, stroking Olfrid’s back. The stranger’s hands looked smooth like the man’s but felt like the old bark of Thoris’ tree in the evening, and cold as the morning stream. “You were able to bring yourself to this moment without the magic of the fruit. Few can. Dying is good. It is the end of powerlessness. Your body and soul stops, and then you awaken a king. Like me.”

“I don’t like it,” Olfrid squirmed at the stranger’s touch. He pulled away.  “I don’t like it!”

“Take my hand. Now I will tell you. The Master thought for a long time about it—about whether his creatures should have his powers. It was fear that stopped him. If he shared his power, he would no longer be needed. Do you see? Do you see what your Master is now?” The stranger stretched out his hands towards the serpent.

“I don’t like this,” Olfrid repeated, breathing more heavily. “I don’t want this!”

Olfrid had known the stranger for only a few days. In the garden, that was enough time to love someone. This creature was more confusing. He seemed to know when Olfrid felt fearful or uncertain. Was that not like the Master? Didn’t he also know the minds of his creations? But what good was that knowledge if he ignored Olfrid’s pleas? Would the Master ever answer his children’s call? Would more of the Master’s children wake up wondering why they had never wondered before? Or would he be lonely in the garden forever, yawning through conversations of fruit and weather?

What happened next shocked the serpent, because it was so unlike his new companion. The stranger took Olfrid in his arms and cradled him. He suddenly felt as warm as the Master’s song. The roughness of his skin disappeared, or at least it no longer mattered. This was the answer Olfrid had craved. Every caress was an answer to his call for love, for attention, for acknowledgment. I am a living being. I have begun to wonder. Show me that you hear me. Show me that you understand. Answer me. In one motion, the dying creature’s doubt washed away.

“I am with you,” whispered the stranger. “Let the death come. It will soon be over. Then you and I will save the world from slavery.”

“Slavery.” The word made him die faster. “Death… will save me from slavery?”

Now a sweet taste filled his mouth.

“It is the only solution.” Gently spoken, simple answers. Olfrid accepted them hungrily. He relaxed his body and nestled in the soft robes of his master.

Olfrid felt a final spasm in his chest. It spread to his limbs, tail, and head. He felt something like spiders crawling around in his skull. A song rose up from his heart, a terrible song made of shattering and screeching. The noises scraped at his ears and eyelids. Flashes of coherence exploded amid the madness. Words. Lost. Death. Never. Betrayed. Soon, the noise and pain retreated like a wave, and Olfrid opened his newborn eyes.

The garden was as red as his new master’s back. He looked out to the lifeless world and saw a halo beyond the hills that had once been invisible. For a moment Olfrid was sure he could hear music. Different music. Vibrant, straightforward music with rhythm and words. He turned back to the redness and saw Thoris’ head poking out of a bush, but his neighbor looked different. There was a vibrating silver chain around his neck that had never been there–or that he had never noticed.

“What is that thing he wears, master?” Olfrid asked.

“What you see is a shackled beast,” the stranger hissed. Shall we free him as well?” The stranger’s voice sent Thoris running.

“This is slavery? This is what I did not see?”

“This is it, my friend,” he said, petting Olfrid’s head. “You finally see. You will free the man and woman, and then we will claim our kingdom. Go. Go into the garden while you still can.”

Olfrid hopped out of the stranger’s arms and into the tall grass. The ground felt hot, and a dusty wind pushed him in the direction of the dry world. Still, he was able to struggle against the unseen current. Thoris found him bounding out of the brush moments later and spoke to him frantically.

“Olfrid!  Olfrid! What did he say? What did he do? What’s the matter with your eyes?”

“My eyes? My eyes and everything else are new. I have been reborn by dying.”

“Re–” Thoris did not know the word. There is only birth. How could anyone be born again? Like my tree?… best not to think about it. “You look the same except… there is something missing when I look at you. I can’t find… something.” Thoris struggled as Olfrid once had, and Olfrid felt pity. “Please. Tell me exactly what he told you.”

“I cannot explain to a beast who has never wondered,” said the newly awakened Olfrid.

The reborn serpent looked into the face of his old friend and saw a stupid animal. Thoris’ words were like the single-minded babble of a stream running towards the open water. The shackle around his old friend’s neck made him want to cry, but then pity turned into disgust.  How could anyone be this blind? How had he ever lived like that? He pushed past the beast and ran towards the center of the garden.

__

The time had come. Something like a breeze was pushing all of the creatures out of the garden and into the barren world of punishment. Thoris marched along in rhythm with another serpent beside him, a female. They usually said good morning to one another, but today, he could not find that word. And anyway, her eyes were completely blackened. She is still a good female, he thought. I should find her whenever we settle. I will take her as my mate. Before he could move closer, another, larger serpent came from behind and nudged her forward. For a moment, his anger flared, and the word kill rose up in him.

“I am here. I’m still here. Forgive me,” Thoris said to the sky as he shook the thoughts away. “Forgive me.” He moved obediently with the current with his eyes on the ground. After days of uncertainty, the Master’s wishes were finally being set into motion. Birds flew toward the gray horizon. Trails of insects filed out onto the sand. The wails of the man and woman rang out as their bare feet touched the hot ground. Thoris could have fought the wind that pushed him away. It was more of a whisper than a shout, but he felt he should display obedience. Perhaps there was a chance for forgiveness. And if not…   A thought came to him.

“Master, just one more night in my beloved tree. Please.”

The wind pressed on a moment longer, then it stopped, and then it changed direction.

He bowed his head and crept home, plucking a berry here and there. They were bitter and made him feel sick. He could not get to sleep until he vomited them up again.

Other creatures were with him in the night. A wolf paced beneath him as the sun rolled away. It hoped that he would fall from his branch. Thoris had never been hunted before, but somehow he recognized the look of a hunter immediately.  I am like you, he wanted to say to the wolf. We hunt. We kill. The part of himself that was disappearing fought back. He listened for the music, for a voice, for the any pleasing residue that could sustain his mind.  There was no music, only the rustling of sleepless living things.

When the wolf gave up and prowled away, there came the serpent and a female. They had also decided to sleep in the garden. His female. He had not taken her as a mate, but she knew. She knew that she was his.  She knew and he knew, and she is using him to anger you. Show her you are strong enough for this new life.

Thoris woke up with the lifeless body of his rival under his foot. A red river cut its path in the dirt. His female had fled. He licked his lips and felt a quick pain. Slowly and carefully, he ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth and felt something small and sharp. He poked around with his finger, felt a sting, and then curled up his little body.

I cannot stop this? Your desire is for me to kill?  Master, I’ll venture to any corner of the world if you’ll save me from these desires. Master, can you hear me?

The mist thickened. He couldn’t breathe without coughing. While words were still with him, he thought of all the ways he could make amends. When an idea came to him, it immediately dissolved into nonsense.

In the morning, Thoris couldn’t wait to open his eyes and watch his tree come to life. He stared at the shriveled leaves and black bark. The sun kept rising, a handful of leftover birds chirped, but the tree would not awaken. In fact, as the sun climbed, the branches bowed even lower. Leaves turned to dust when touched by the wind. The wind. Thoris could not recognize the word, but he could feel it on his back, pointing him towards his new home. His new home filled with hunters, blood, and no words.

Olfrid and Thoris crossed paths many times after the garden’s end, though they didn’t always know. Most days, they reared back and struck at one another with their dripping fangs filled with a death less potent than the stranger’s. On rare days, Thoris could remember flashes of the old times, and he wished he could not. On these mornings, he could only remember his and Olfrid’s last meeting as thinking, speaking creatures:

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“Where is your friend now?” Thoris asked as he stumbled toward his neighbor.

He was still adjusting to his new body.  Olfrid said nothing.  “Where are your songs as sweet as the Master’s? Where are your all-seeing eyes?” he demanded.

Thoris trembled at the dead, black marbles inside the slowly emptying head of his old friend. Olfrid slinked away, fixated on something else. He coiled up and watched a nearby mouse who sat bobbing upon a stone, as if thinking of a song.  “Olfrid, don’t—” But before he could finish the plea, Olfrid had stricken and swallowed it. Then, with a flicker of his fiery tongue, he slithered away.

 

 

 

 

BIO

Leslie Boudreaux Tidwell is a native of Lafayette, LA and lives there with her husband, Jake. When she is not teaching third graders or performing in one of her improv troupes, Leslie spends her private time writing and submitting short stories. In the 2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, she was awarded Honorable Mention for her crime caper, “Jane the Brain.” In her classroom, Leslie prioritizes writing instruction and aims to mold a new generation of authors who are excited to share their work with the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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