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

The Land of Mist and Snow
Winter Coat
Footprint
Ice Storm
No Lifeguard on Duty
Shield
Solstice
Winterreise
Montrose Beach
Rogers Park



ABOUT THE ARTIST

Kevin Nance is a freelance photographer, arts journalist and poet in Lexington, Kentucky. His photography has been exhibited in galleries, libraries and hospitals in Lexington, Chicago, Portland, and other cities, and published in book form in “Even if: Photographs and Haiku” (University of Kentucky Arts in Healthcare, 2020). His writing and photography have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Poets & Writers Magazine and other publications. As an arts journalist, he currently contributes regularly to the Lexington Herald-Leader, Ace Magazine and UnderMain.

https://kevinnance.tumblr.com/

How to Read 100 Books in a Year

by CL Glanzing


Reading one hundred books in a year is probably not that unusual. And yet, when I mention it to friends or colleagues, they look surprised.

Why?

I could never do that.

Now you’re just showing off.

Well, contemporary wisdom (i.e. Instagram) states that your 30s are the time for unlearning all the conformity you learnt in your 20s and returning to the feral weirdo you were as a child.

If you asked me where I could be found between the ages of 4 and 10, the answer would probably be reading a book. Under my bed. Under a chair. Upside-down on the monkeybars – now there was a trick that required discipline.

As an only (lonely) child with a Montessori school background, I was used to entertaining myself. And what better adventures could I possibly experience than the ones flickering in my mind? Ghosts, dragons, elves, mysteries, children living off the land or surviving in the woods. Books were easier to operate than a VCR.

Then, I transitioned into an ordinary, American-style Elementary school with schedules and designated snack-time, and books in a completely separate wing of the building.

I discovered quickly that reading carried no social capital. No one cared that I could read. In fact, two teachers told me to slow down – and not make the other kids feel bad. My fifth grade teacher took Hatchet by Gary Paulsen out of my hands on the playground and demanded that I go engage with the other kids.

One year, I decided to read all the books nominated for a YA award. I was terrible at sports, but having a little reading goal set a thrill inside me. I was competing against myself. It was the ultimate game of solitaire. I wasn’t looking for praise or validation, but when I finished all thirty nominated books, I genuinely felt alone in accomplishment. I’m sure that people who collect belly button lint must feel the same way.

So my hobby, along with so many other childhood hobbies, dwindled. I only read books assigned by school or university courses. I would still buy books, ones I thought would look intellectual and interesting on my shelves, and never crack the spines. During one particularly stressful exam period, I just opened fiction books at random – the middle of the fucking book – and read until I fell asleep. I couldn’t commit.

In January 2020, I decided to cauterise my festering reading habits and engage in some serious exposure therapy: 20 books in 2020. Incredibly, I achieved this goal and it was due to two factors: a pandemic and moving to a country with free libraries. Like for most people, lockdown was confrontational about how I spend my time. What do you do with the hours you should be commuting, socialising – doing literally anything outside your apartment?

But the greatest gift I received was access to a public library. ‘You know these books are free, right?’ I want to shout as I grab library patrons by the lapels.

I have actually only bought one book this entire year.

It would be impossible for me to afford to purchase 100 books per year. Let alone house them, or reconcile the environmental impact. (Would I recycle them? Pass them on? Self-entomb using them as bricks?)

I have never been more aware that access to books is a privilege. Literacy itself is a privilege.

If you don’t have a library card, I strongly urge you to get one (even if you don’t think you’ll use it) just to bump up the recorded number of users. Local authorities are so quick to close libraries thinking it’s an easy way to save money. But we have a duty to keep them funded. Libraries provide free information for those who may not be able to afford access to books, audiobooks, or the internet.

Does borrowing from libraries still support authors? Absolutely. Publishers like to allege that library sales impede their profitability (which is convenient when publishers set prices and royalties). But libraries often pay two or three times the retail cost of a book, and have a demand to buy multiple copies if it’s popular. Some libraries even have a pay-per-use system where authors get royalties for every check-out. And who says you might not go and buy the book later if you really like it? Bookshops and libraries are not mutually exclusive ideas.

But enough about that.

After I managed to read 20 books in a year, of course I needed to up the ante. 40 books. Then 60 books. And then, here we are, 100 books.

The truth is that I could not have read so many books without the work of some truly extraordinary authors. Their words inspired me, delighted me, comforted me, and made me feel grateful to be alive.

My tastes may not be for everyone, but looking back over my 15 favourite reads (or re-reads) of 2023, I realise how haunted this list is.

Firstly, haunted locations – chilling places full of mysterious atmosphere, poignant memories, or inexplicable tragedies.

The Field by Robert Seethaler showed me the entire history of a small Austrian town, told by the residents of their local cemetery, with tender poetry akin to Spoon River Anthology. Then there are the desolate, apocalyptic landscapes. I starved and despaired with a man and his son in The Road by Cormac McCarthy and then I starved and despaired again with a group of forgotten women in I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman. Books like these make us wonder: How could this happen? And then, worse, Could this happen to me? What would I do?

When I’m in a reading slump, I reread Shirely Jackson, inarguably one of the greatest writers in history (excuse me while I blow a kiss to her framed portrait on my desk). Dark Tales is a masterclass in horror short story writing. I re-read The Haunting of Hill House, which happens to be one of my favourite books ever. And then I had the privilege of reading this book’s modern reincarnation in Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt. A love letter to Jackson with all the horrifying fears that queer and trans people face on a daily basis.

Then there were the haunted spaces of transformation. Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield brought me to tears with her superb writing, beautiful metaphors, and a love threatened by a supernatural transformation. Perfect for fans of The Southern Reach Trilogy or Love and Other Thought Experiments. Not all haunted spaces are inherently malevolent though, as can be seen in Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, which is a truly joyful exploration of a surreal environment. Sister Maiden Monster by Lucy A Snyder made me mutter out loud, “fucking genius” several times. Zombies, octopodes, pandemics, cosmic beings, and queerness. What more could I want?

Secondly, there are haunted characters – people stalked by their past and difficult choices, unable to cope with their present surroundings. I adore these psychology-driven works, perhaps because they make the mess inside of my own head seem just as comprehensible. 

You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian was un-put-downable. Wonderfully grotesque character examinations in a stellar collection of short stories. You would think she couldn’t outdo Cat Person, but she can. On a train journey, I listened to the audiobook version of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, and heard the author himself narrate vignettes of intergenerational trauma, immigrant identities, and queer first love, as tears ran down my face under my N95 mask.

Mrs March by Virginia Feito has already received so much praise this year, there’s little I can add to it, except saying that it is worth the hype – like The Driver’s Seat meets Mrs. Dalloway. There’s nothing I love more than a messy, female protagonist. And I got her in spades with Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder. A feral scream of female rage that I encourage all women to read – whether you have children or are childfree. I enjoyed seeing women blossoming in callous wildernesses. Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy gave me a haunted protagonist trying to save a dying species. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook is another favourite re-read, telling the complicated, resentful story of a mother and daughter surviving in a national park as part of a climate change experiment.

You may think that 15 treasured books out of 100 (15%) are low odds, and make the process hardly worth the outcome. But you would be wrong.

I wish everyone in the world were as privileged as me to be able to read 100 books. And experience 100 different lives in a year.

So if you want to twist my arm and ask me for some digestible pearls of wisdom – CL, how can I also read 100 books in a year? Here we go:

  1. Get a library card.
  2. If you want to buy a book, try to prioritise buying from independent shops or sellers that keep high streets alive and ensure that authors are paid fairly. Fun tip: treat it as a date location. Trust me on this. It’s better than a movie or a drink in a loud bar. Take your paramour or your spouse. Walk around the stacks and discuss the book-jackets. Then buy them a book.
  3. Stop reading the books you think you should be reading. I will never read Jane Austen. I have never read Dickens. The phrase “but it’s won so many awards” will never entice me. Read what actually grabs you. What punches you in the gut. There are no guilty pleasures. If you only want to read vampire smut or nonfiction botanical encyclopaedias – that is fine. Anyone that judges your reading tastes clearly has to work on themselves, and learn how to say, ‘hmm, that’s not for me, but I’m glad you enjoy it.’
  4. If you don’t know what you like: read widely. Try a new genre. You might find a new author that speaks to you. Experiment until you find “your thing”. I know so many people that thought they didn’t like reading until they found the right genre.
  5. Join a bookgroup. Even a small one. Even a virtual one. It will give you the monthly consistency of reading at least one book.
  6. There is nothing wrong with listening to audiobooksinstead of reading with your eyes.
  7. Normalise talking about books. Ask your family and friends and colleagues what they’re reading. Ask them what they like about it.
  8. Stuck in a reading rut? Re-read a book that you liked in the past. It will remind you what you’re looking for, and you might even read it with new eyes. To quote T.S. Eliot, we might “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I am grateful that I have reignited my bibliophila and rediscovered an activity that I adored as a child. I know that I will continue devouring books for the rest of my life.

And what about 2024? Will I read 100 books again?

Maybe. We’ll see how it goes. 

BIO

CL Glanzing is an international nomad, currently living in the UK. Her work has been published in Luna Station Quarterly, The Writing Disorder, The Quarterl(ly) Journal, Jet Fuel Review, Uncharted Magazine, Meniscus Literary Journal, Minds Shine Bright Anthology, and received nominations for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is currently pursuing her dream of living in a haunted lighthouse.







Doomsday

by Anastasia White


I was thirteen when my mother taped a stick of celery to my right calf. She had used the old duct tape we kept in a drawer by the sink, and circled it around my leg three times. She said that it’d “ward off unwanted objects,” like a meteor coming to crush us all. I’d heard about one on route to Earth, the whole world did, but it was too small to do any real damage. Even if it did, my world had already been crushed the moment she brought out the celery. It was cold and stiff from the refrigerator. I complained about it, but she insisted that it would warm up with the weather outside. Maybe it was from shock, but instead of ripping it from my leg like I should’ve, I stood in silence. I only had two thoughts running through my head. One, wouldn’t it spoil in a week? And two, I’ll never be able to show my face in public, like, ever. 

“Can’t you just tell her that this whole thing is ridiculous?” Yasmin, my best friend of two years, inquired.

I huffed in response.  

I had escaped through the backdoor as soon as my mother left the kitchen, through the backyards of Mr. Shepard and Miss Candy to avoid any onlookers passing by my street. When I arrived at Yasmin’s chipped-blue backdoor, I beat against it in a desperate frenzy. I felt like some kind of scared soul in need of sanctuary. My glorious savior, Yasmin, opened the door. Streams of sunlight cracked from behind her like she was some kind of goddess. Now, her knees were stuck to the hardwood floor of her bedroom as she poked and prodded at the celery stick. She inspected the subject of my demise like it was an autopsy, and I almost wished she had a scalpel to remove the duct tape from my leg.

“Did your dad say anything?”

“He hasn’t seen it yet, and he’d probably just agree with her anyways,” I whined.

Yasmin hummed in agreement. 

Despite living two houses down from each other, we had only become friends in our last year of elementary school. We used to stand at the same bus stop every dewy morning, by the wooden telephone pole that had more staples in it than the entire population of Larring. And though we stood right next to each other every morning, we were placed on different ends of the elementary spectrum. She wore blush and always had a pretty French braid. She liked One Direction and spent her time at recess standing in a circle, gossiping. Meanwhile, I had chipped orange nail polish and greasy hair. I spent my time thinking about My Little Pony, which was apparently not trendy anymore, and how I wanted to become a vampire. 

I didn’t blame her for keeping distance because that’s just how it was. After all, I was cautious too. I didn’t want to be friends with someone who didn’t like the same things I did because I felt like we couldn’t have a conversation. But I was also scared of her and her friend’s power. What if she were to spread some rumor about me? Granted, I didn’t have any friendships that could be broken because of a rumor. I just didn’t want to be the subject of gossip.

Her “friends” eventually spread rumors about her, that she held hands with Tyler, the weird kid, on the rug during reading time. I guess that once she had reached that point of utter betrayal, she realized they were all the same. They would all turn on each other eventually, and so, she became friends with me shortly after that. We made the “Code of Unbreaking,” which entailed that we would stay friends no matter the rumor. Unless one of us like, killed someone or did drugs, obviously.

“I mean, it’ll rot eventually, right?” Yasmin reasoned.

“That’s what I’m scared of!” My hands slapped against my face. 

The code we made helped us, but that’s the thing, despite deciding to unapologetically be ourselves, I began to care about what others would think. Middle school was a puddle of judgment, one I became deathly afraid of splashing in. 

 “I’ll have to parade around the halls with a gross, stinking, moldy vegetable! And once my terrible embarrassment has reached its peak, she’ll probably just try to strap a banana around my other leg!” 

“Why don’t you just take it off when you leave the house and then put it back on before you come home?” Yasmin proposed. 

She was a genius.

“That’s probably what it’s going to come to,” I whispered.

“Is your mom, like, okay? Mentally?”

“Ugh, I don’t even know anymore,” I said, and crashed down onto her bed face-first. 

Her comforter was a sky blue, but with my face pushed into it, all I could see was a black void. 

I didn’t think my mother was mentally ill, and in fact, her strange antics had been a constant in my life. My first ever Field Day in elementary school had solidified that. I had been standing in line with my classmates, whose parents had just come to watch us play dodgeball and soccer. We wore orange and yellow netted jerseys, the kind that probably hadn’t been washed in a decade and sat in the gym’s storage room all year round. My classmates’ parents gave them bottles of water and goldfish with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I remember feeling jealous at the fact that their parents had actually shown up. As far as I had been concerned, no one was coming to watch me run in circles. When my mother did appear, she was wearing a sunhat with a squash glued to the top. I didn’t think much of it because I was seven, but looking back on it now, it makes a lot of sense. She hadn’t worn anything like it since that day, but started leaving vegetables and fruit in strange places around the house shortly after. It only continued as I got older. 

When I was nine, I found six blueberries in her purse, she claimed would keep bugs away. I thought that, if anything, it’d just attract them to it. When I was eleven, I found sprigs of cilantro in between our couch cushions. She said that it would help our backs so that they wouldn’t be sore. And at thirteen, it was the celery and the end of the world. Her strange antics had been present since Field Day, but I just hadn’t expected her to go as far as to include me in whatever the hell she was doing. 

“Oh my god, Cara!” Yasmin shrieked. 

I pushed myself off her puffy comforter and whipped my head around. She held her phone in her hand, so close to her face that I could see the screen’s light shining on her. She didn’t say anything else, but her wide eyes made my stomach drop. She turned her phone towards me, and I wondered if my downfall was about to come even sooner than I had already imagined.

bigman_jackson815: do u wanna hang out at the mall today with me and Dylan? U can bring Cara if u want.

“Oh my god,” I whispered. 

Jackson “bigman_jackson815” Reed was Yasmin’s crush. More importantly, he was best friends with Dylan Kim, and he had just invited us to hang out with both of them. Dylan Kim was one of those boys most girls didn’t pay attention to. He existed somewhere in between the loud and quiet type, someone who’d rather let their friends take center stage. He had brown hair that covered much of his forehead, save for the tiny part that revealed a mole above his left eyebrow. He didn’t do any sports outside of school, but was a part of a group that liked basketball. During gym he would play with his friends, most of whom I couldn’t stand (except for Jackson sometimes) because they always caused disruptions in class. I had a huge crush on Dylan Kim, but there was a vegetable duct taped to my leg, and I was too scared to tell my mom I didn’t want to wear it.

“We have to go!” Yasmin said. 

“Who’s gonna drive us? My mom? I’d have to get out of the car with this stupid thing on my leg,” I pointed to the celery. 

“You could always just put sweatpants on, or something,” 

“Yasmin, it’s like, ninety degrees out,” 

“I’m just trying to throw ideas out here,” Yasmin said, and crossed her arms. 

“What about your parents? Are they still working on weekends?”

“You already know the answer to that.”

“Shit, what are we gonna do then?”

“We could always just take the bus to Larring Plaza and walk from there?”

Yasmin started typing a response to Jackson, but all I could feel was uncertainty brewing in my stomach. It didn’t boil like excitement or fear did. It felt like someone had dropped an anchor in my stomach, and it was weighing me down to port. My palms became moist with sweat, but my blood had run my entire body cold. I wondered how I could be both warm and cold at the same time. 

 “Cara, you good?” Yasmin asked.

“Uh, yeah, I think my stomach is acting up though,” I rubbed my belly. 

“You better not be trying to get out of this. We have to go!”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I whined. 

“If you’re too scared to see Dylan you can always go hang out with Harrison.”

“Ugh, Yasmin, please stop.” 

Harrison was the local homeless man. He had long, curly black hair and a graying beard, downcast eyes that seemed broken, and nine teeth. He wore a puffy, tan bomber jacket in the winter, and a thin scarlet flannel during the rest of the year. He would roll up the sleeves during spring and summer, and jest at how he was lucky it had holes in it. The two items looked like they had followed him from womb to tomb. Although he wasn’t quite at his end yet, he might as well have been. I’m sure he must have felt that way at some point. 

Yasmin told me that we’d leave in an hour. I was fine with taking the bus, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was about to get myself into something truly awful. I reached down to my calf to drag the celery stick out of the duct tape. It felt like pulling teeth. I wiggled it until it was at the right angle to disconnect. Once it was removed, I tried undoing the duct tape, but it wouldn’t budge. Yasmin walked to her oak wardrobe and pulled a drawer open. She dug inside of the drawer for about fifteen seconds until she pulled out a pair of fabric scissors. She walked towards me, the thick blade glinting, and I only felt relief when she bent down and cut the duct tape from my calf. 

“There, good as new!” she exclaimed.

“You looked terrifying,” I giggled. 

With an hour to spare until my doomsday approached, I felt the feeling in my stomach only move throughout my entire body. I sat on the edge of Yasmin’s bed while I felt my leg bounce up and down. I texted my mom that I was going to the mall with Yasmin, and that I’d be back by six. I didn’t tell her how we were getting there, mostly because she’d probably freak out if I told her we were going to Larring Plaza. She’d probably throw cherries through the bus’s window at me. 

The walk to the bus stop was short, but with the beating sun, it felt like my body was melting from the inside out. Each step felt like I was getting closer and closer to my end, even though I had covered up the duct tape and Yasmin had the celery stick in her tote bag. The feeling in my stomach became a dull throb, which turned my fingers numb. Somewhere in the haze of getting on the bus I checked my phone, to which I noticed my mother hadn’t responded to my text. I told Yasmin and she said “good luck.”

Larring Plaza wasn’t an awful place. It had its ups and downs, mostly because it happened to be a three-minute walk from the mall. The downsides of Larring Plaza involved strangers from the city, most of whom were just students or office workers trying to get a ride on public transit. I didn’t see the issue of utilizing what was available to us, especially in such a dire time. Pigeons liked to stalk the area for breadcrumbs or half eaten subs sticking out of trash cans. They liked to sit on the benches when it rained, and despite people’s best efforts, always brought new friends to spread the ruckus. 

Yasmin and I made it to Larring Plaza in one piece, and we were determined to make it to the mall in the same fashion. We strutted, not too fast, not too slow, in order to reduce the amount of sweat that would mess up our hair. Pigeons soared next to us, runners swept by, and kids ran down the sidewalk with their parents in tow. The heat was awful, but with our pace we kept a singular bead of sweat from forming on our heads. When we did arrive at the stone entrance of the mall, we passed by the alleyway.

I could see Harrison sitting on a black crate, picking at some kind of fruit in his hands. An orange. He turned his head and waved to the two of us, but we snapped our heads away and sped up towards the glass doors of the mall.  

Jackson and Dylan stood by the Auntie Ann’s pretzel stand. Dylan wore a bright orange shirt that had some spaceship on it. He wore black shorts and converse, and his hair was flat against his forehead like I had always dreamed about. My heart was thumping against my chest with each step we took. 

“Hey,” Jackson said. His voice sounded deeper, likely an attempt to impress Yasmin. 

“Hi,” she said. She was impressed. 

Dylan waved to me and smiled, to which I held up a shaky hand. 

“Do you guys wanna get something to…” Jackson was cut off.

“Tomorrow draws near! We’ll witness a rapture after its destruction!” An older man yelled.

The man held a sign which read The End of Days Is Coming: Are You Prepared? He wore an American-flag bandanna around his head. His tank top was drenched in sweat, and his green cargo pants were filled to the brim with objects in each pocket. Spit spewed from his mouth at each word. He continued his ranting about a meteor passing by that was “certain” to hit us. A security guard quickly grabbed him by his shoulder and escorted him out, which caused our group to gather in a circle and discuss what we’d just witnessed. 

“That wouldn’t happen to us though, right?” Yasmin asked.

“I dunno, my dad seemed pretty freaked out by it,” Jackson said.

“Yeah, but your dad is a wacko,” Dylan added.

“Maybe, but I mean, who’s to say he’s wrong?”

“Isn’t he a flat earther?”

“Not the point dude,” Jackson said.

Jackson and Yasmin ended up wandering away from Dylan and I. My hands had been sweating the entire time. Dylan looked at me with a smile on his face and it felt like my heart was on fire. 

“So,” he said.

“So,” I said.

“I don’t think anything will happen to us.”

“Oh.” I let out a slight chuckle. “I don’t think so either.”

“So, uh, I wanted to ask you something.”

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“Next week is the end of year basketball tournament at school, and I uh, was wondering if you’d come and watch me?” He reached his hand behind his neck and rubbed it. 

“Oh, god yes,” I rushed, “I mean, yeah, sure!” Heat filled my cheeks, and I avoided his gaze. He laughed to himself and thanked me, but I felt like I was the one who should’ve been thanking him.

What felt like a talon sank itself into my shoulder and turned me around. I came face to face with the steaming, red face of my mother. Smoke should’ve been puffing from her nostrils by the way she was heaving with pure rage. The anchor in my stomach returned, only this time, it kept on pulling me further and further down with no end in sight. 

“Where’s the celery?” she spat.

“Mom, what do you mean?” Operation: denial. 

“The celery, Cara, the celery!” she rushed, her hands sinking further into my shoulders.

“I don’t know! Look, can you please quiet down,” I pleaded.

My mother’s head whipped to where Yasmin was standing, next to Hot Topic. She stomped up to Yasmin, interrupting her from whatever conversation she had been having with Jackson. 

“Where is the celery? I know you have it, Yasmin,” she said.

Yasmin didn’t utter a word. She looked at Jackson with wide eyes before looking for me. She saw my bewildered expression and matched it equally. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to play damage control but my mother was a ticking time bomb that had already gone off.  Yasmin swallowed her words and opened her tote bag. She reached a hand in, and of course, pulled out the cursed celery stick. My mother ripped it from her hands immediately, and strutted back to where I was standing in shock.

“I come here to find out that you’ve taken the city bus.” She pulled a roll of duct tape from her own purse. “Where any stranger could’ve kidnapped you.” She wrapped it around my leg and stuck the celery back into the duct tape. “And that you aren’t wearing what I told you to!” I struggled against her hands putting the celery back in.

“I’m thirteen, mom! I have to learn how to do things on my own. I was with Yasmin anyways,” I tried to reason. 

“I don’t care, Cara, just because you want to do things on your own doesn’t mean you can do stupid things!” 

My vision became red.

“Oh, I’m doing stupid things? What about you, huh? You’re the one who puts random vegetables in sinks and tapes a piece of celery to her daughter.” I pointed at her. “You’re the one who’s doing stupid things! I don’t question anything you do but the moment I want to be on my own, you have to go and ruin it with this stupid shit.” I seethed.

My mother stopped fiddling with the celery. I looked at Yasmin and Jackson, who’d been joined by Dylan at this point, and felt my anger wither. They all had embarrassment written on their faces. I didn’t have to look twice to know that I’d be dead at school, and that Dylan probably wouldn’t want me at the tournament anymore. I felt the corners of my eyes become wet with tears, and I looked at my mother crouched on the ground. Her eyebrows furrowed together in concern.

“Cara, honey, wait!” she called.

I ran. Hot Topic was littered with pictures of celery, children ran with ants on a log, Auntie Anne’s only sold celery, and my mother’s ramblings of what would ward off unwanted guests terrorized me. I huffed and puffed and ran backwards, forwards, anywhere that would get me out of this situation. Dylan probably thought I was a weirdo, just like I had been in elementary school, like I was destined to be the celery girl. The stupid, weird, end of world celery girl. 

I pushed through the mall’s glass doors. Eyes stared at me from every direction, at the celery on my leg. They dissected my appearance despite my best efforts to keep them at bay. I ran towards the brick wall on the left side of the opening to the mall. There was an alleyway most people avoided because it was home to a certain individual, but at this point I felt that nothing could harm me more than what had already been done. I slouched on the cement with hot tears falling into my palms. Everything was crumbling and it was because I had let it. 

“Miss?” a strained voice called.

I turned my head sharply to see Harrison, standing in his torn scarlet flannel.

“Are you alright?” He looked unsure.

“No,” I choked. 

He looked over my slumped figure. His eyes moved downwards, probably to look at the celery stick. If everyone did, why wouldn’t he? He didn’t say anything else, and instead of walking away, he sat down across from me. He leaned his back against the brick wall.

“Do you think the world is going to end?” 

“It already has,” I whined.

“Is that why you got that thing on your leg?” 

“Do you want it?” I offered.

“No, no,” he started, “make sure you keep that celery real close to ya.” He wiped his nose with his sleeve. “It’ll be gone before you know it.”

I looked at Harrison, perplexed, but his face remained stone-cold. I had no clue what he meant. If anything, it had caused more harm than good, and I wanted it far away from me. But despite my best efforts, it had returned to its place on my leg. Maybe he’d meant that it wasn’t the end of the world or that I needed to appreciate my mother. But he didn’t know me, so he didn’t know the situation. I started to wish that I had dragged Yasmin with me. Harrison stood up, and without a word, walked onto the busy sidewalk. He took one glance at me, at the celery, and headed towards Larring Plaza. 

I looked up at the sky and my hand moved towards the celery. It was warm now.



BIO

Anastasia White is an emerging writer who lives in Rumford, Rhode Island, with her dog-like cat, Bertie. She will be graduating from Salem State University in the spring with a bachelors in English. She is planning on attending graduate school in order to become a licensed mental health counselor. Other than writing about meteors crashing into the Earth, Anastasia spends her time analyzing film and playing video games. This is her first time being published. 






STORIES

by Elizabeth Morse


They make up stories for each other like children,
drinking tea and leaning together over the couch.
Their laughter crackles through the rooms.
Heat fills the midnight windows while each tale
bounces and glows. Even the electrical storm
beginning outside cannot shock them apart.


ESCAPE


It’s hazardous outside.
I’m double locking the door to protect you.
I’m your mother and I want to keep you safe.
You’re escaping? They’ll eat you alive.
Don’t you know they all have knives, guns?
They stick up banks and pawn shops.
Supermarkets, too. Watch yourself.

Why are you running away?
You never had much common sense,
never return books on time to the library
Do you think you can just leave?
Your father and I are so concerned.
You can’t just live on the sidewalk
or under the trees in the park.
You’d be reckless enough
to eat a pigeon.


IN THE DEPTHS

In memory of Zach Harris


My cousin died in the coal mines on his twenty-seventh birthday
in the highlands of West Virginia. He dreamed of the Milky Way,
that walkway of stars. Biscuits and gravy for breakfast,
then work. That afternoon, he fell into a lost mine,
cavern of nightmares, stepping on the paper-thin edge of sky.
Accident in the coal fields, the news reports announced.

Every song about the coal mines is a dark ballad,
a room without windows. The mines take and don’t return.
So many think they are secure from the depths of earth.
My cousin died in the coal mines on his twenty-seventh birthday,
expecting his days to be the same, counting on it in ways he couldn’t,
dreams reaching upward, away from the deep that killed him.

 

BIO

Elizabeth Morse values the quirky, the darkly humorous. She is hard-wired to be a night-owl and writes exclusively after 9 PM. Her work has been published in literary magazines such as Ginosko, Survision, and Kestrel. Her poetry chapbook, “The Color Between the Hours,” is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in late 2023. She was a finalist in the Blue Light Press full-length poetry collection contest and has her MFA from Brooklyn College. A job in information technology supports her writing.









Self Portrait by the Thing Within

by Clayton McMillan

Metamorphosis Phase II, Oil on Canvas 2023, Katja McMillan


There were gasps and even some laughter at the unveiling of Paula’s painting, and although she stood within arm’s length, she could barely make out the details of what she had created. This response was not what she had planned. She felt a sense of drowning.

Paula had had a following in the avant-garde art scene in Hamburg in the early 1920s, particularly among the expressionists. It was the Weimar Republic, Germany’s fledgling experiment with democracy following the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles. At the exhibitions of the artist group the Hamburg Secession, of which she was a member, patrons  surrounded her in the back room where her work was on display, and marveled at her excellent German as she answered questions about growing up on the vast expanses of the Kansas prairie.

“What are the Indians like there?” someone asked.

“They are long gone,” she replied.

“Where did you learn to speak German?”

“I’ve lived in Germany for five years. What do you think of my paintings?” she prompted.

Ignoring her question they replied, “Do the buffalo herds really number in the thousands?”

“They are long gone.”

“Do you have any buffalo paintings?”

When Paula had first arrived in Germany at age 23, she made friends with a group of young Germans also trying to break into the art scene. In the art museum, the Hamburg Kunsthalle, she marveled at the broad post-impressionistic brushstrokes in Pierre Bonnard’s Evening at the Uhlenhorster Ferry House. Hamburg was a wealthy port city, with beautiful tree lined boulevards and two sweeping lakes, the Innenalster and  Außenalster, whose shores were lined with the villas of the wealthy and with foreign consulates. When she learned that Bonnard’s painting depicted an actual place in Hamburg, she asked her friends to take her there. 

On the day of the outing, the water was crowded with sailboats, as in the painting. A surprise gust of wind caused several boats to capsize, throwing Paula headfirst into the water. Disoriented, she panicked, she was a poor swimmer, and the weight of her wet clothing pulled her down. In the opaque murkiness there were vague shapes and then the light of the surface above. She swam towards it: a chaos of kicking limbs and swirling ores and masts and sails and boat hulls, and many other boaters in the water. The men, being the stronger, pushed past her. Paula was kicked in the face and several times she was pushed down by the feet of those above her as if her head were a steppingstone. It was her nature to let others go first and later she realized that was a mistake. Each time she rose she was pushed down. Finally, when she felt she would surely drown she broke to the surface gasping ferociously for air.  It was a traumatic incident which led to a suffocating darkness in her paintings. She vowed never again. She replayed it in her mind, but the other way around, with her rising quickly to the surface by stepping on the others, and this reversal helped the trauma subside. By the time she joined the Hamburg Secession she had put it behind her and adopted a brighter style consistent with the other artists.

Rumors circulated that Otto Fischer Trachau, the expressionist painter, interior architect, and founding member of the Hamburg Secession had taken her as his lover. They were seen together often, in the bars and restaurants of the Reeperbahn or strolling through Hagenbeck’s Tierpark, the luxurious and extensive park-like zoo in Hamburg.  He was 15 years her senior.

Paula was fond of animals as artistic subject matter.  Strolling through the gardens of Hagenbeck’s, beneath the lush weeping willows that drooped over the edges of the two expansive ponds shading a waddle of sleeping ducks, past the vivid, abundant flower beds, they would stop at one animal pen or another.  Trachau would school her in the appropriate German, “ein Rudel Löwen” for “a pride of lions” or, he would explain animal behaviors in the way that smart men talk to women.

“Pelicans fly several meters above the surface,” he once tutored her. “When they see a school of fish, they fold their wings and drop like a stone into the water, filling the pouch beneath their beaks. They consume as many as they can at once, swallowing them whole. It’s gluttony.”

“Fascinating,” said Paula.  The subtle sarcasm in her voice went unnoticed.

Trachau continued, “Because of their excellent eyesight they thrive, but ironically, they go permanently blind at the constant impact. Without eyesight they cannot see the fish and they starve to death.”

Paula did nothing to quell the rumors, which went on for years, of the affair. The art world was competitive and being seen with Trachau led enthusiasts to assume her work must be good. She was getting noticed. One of her paintings was featured in a local art rag.  She was referred to as the “female Trachau,” which made her seethe. She had developed her own unique style and anybody with training could see that it was not a copy of Trachau’s. But she simply nodded politely and observed, “He’s a great artist. I take that as a compliment.”

At the exhibitions and in smaller gallery shows Paula started wearing a tuxedo and smoking a cigar. In her youth she was stunning. The dark fabric of the jacket and the silky black bowtie accentuated her cascading blond hair, which she held back with a glittering headband. The red lipstick she wore encircled the cigar like a tight-fitting ring as she inhaled, and emphasized the shape of the smoke rings she could blow with perfection, one after another, until she smacked her lips shut again, slipping into a coy grin. She was featured in the mainstream daily, the Hamburger Anzeiger and its weekly supplement, Das Reich der Frau (The Realm of Woman) as simply “the American”. The appropriateness of her attire, if not her art, was discussed at length.  It had not been easy to break in and it was not easy to stay in, as a foreigner, and especially as a woman. Each time she rose she was pushed down. She learned to run with the boys. She was often in the bars in the red-light district smoking and drinking with the male artists till the wee hours of the morning. She carried a palm sized derringer in her purse for when she had to walk home after the last tram.

In 1929 Paula was offered a position as a lecturer at the St. Georg Kunstakademie, an unusual honor for a woman.  She had just turned 32. Even though she had lived in Germany for years, she had not lost her American self-assurance that was foreign to staid German culture. She moved through space with a sense that she owned it and was forgiven for regular social transgressions because she was American and thus wouldn’t know any better.  Young artists, especially the few that were women, were drawn to her cocky but seemingly kind approach to everything, whether it be dealing with the director, with the male artists, or with her own painting.

Her students embraced her brashness in their own art and Paula took satisfaction in the promise they showed, seeing herself as their source of inspiration.

One young woman by the name of Karla Offenbach demonstrated true glimmers of brilliance in her still unpolished grasp of painting. She had grown up on a farm on the remote North Friesian Island of Föhr and thus had a natural eye for animals. She had never been in a big city before and walked around Hamburg with eyes as wide as a cow’s. Paula found herself attracted to Karla, to her youth, to her beauty, as if she were looking in the mirror of just a few years earlier. Charmed by the innocent way Karla seemed to adore her, she took the girl under her wing, nurturing her in the theories of the avant-garde and the new way of visual representation.

As Karla blossomed Paula began to bring her along to some exhibitions and took her to some of the tamer Cafés in St. Pauli popular among the young bohemians. They were mostly artists, anarchists, and students, nursing a single cup of coffee and a chain of jealously guarded cigarettes over an endless afternoon of vigorous discussion in politics, philosophy, and the arts.  Karla thrived.

Eventually Paula introduced Karla to Otto Fischer Trachau. Even before Karla’s slender porcelain fingers slid from his handshake Paula could see in his eyes that she had made a terrible mistake. He looked at Karla the same way he had looked at Paula just a few years earlier, like the tigers at Hagenbeck’s Tierpark looked at the humans outside of the bars. Paula thought she saw Otto lick his lips.

“I’d like to see some of your work,” he effused.

Paula was powerless to intervene. Soon it was Karla who was rumored to be Trachau’s lover, and Paula found herself alone at Hagenbeck’s, sketching in solitude the pelicans in their watery pen. She thought of the boating accident many years earlier. She would not be pushed down to drown by the feet of others, not now. 

Karla, oblivious to Paula’s bitterness and still grateful for her mentorship, turned to her for a letter of recommendation for funding from the academy. Paula’s letter was, of course, confidential. That, along with some support from Trachau and her obvious potential as an artist should have guaranteed her the award, but somehow, she fell short. The economic situation in Germany in the early 30s had grown increasingly dire, and without the funding Karla was forced to quit her studies and return to Föhr.  Paula accompanied her to the train station, a most generous thing for a faculty member to do for a student. It was only later that Karla began to wonder exactly what Paula had written in her recommendation.

Watching Karla’s train vanish slowly down the tracks, Paula noticed for the first time that objects in the distance didn’t look as crisp as they had before. It was as if the drizzle that sometimes filled the city when the dark clouds blew in from the North Sea had moved in permanently, even when the sun was shining. She rubbed her eyes and it seemed to get better.

There were other up and coming artists whom Paula helped in one way or another, but they all seemed to encounter some unsurmountable obstacle on the verge of success.

One of these, a young anarchist by the name of Friedrich, was seen together with Paula often enough that new rumors of an affair began to circulate, this time with Paula in the role of Trachau. Paula had just turned 36. “Freddy” as she called him, loved going to Hagenbeck’s with her to look at the animals. She would take him out for a glass of wine afterwards, discussing which ones he should try to paint. At first his depictions were naïve. But over time, with Paula tutoring him in the behaviors and movements of his subjects he began to capture them in quite clever and unique ways. One of his paintings was featured in the student art journal, which praised him for his challenge of the boundaries of expressionism, particularly with respect to animals.

Freddy was invited to show his paintings at an exhibition. Paula’s face flushed when she discovered at the opening that his paintings hung closer to the main entrance than her own. Standing barefoot in front of his paintings, surrounded by a dozen enthusiastic young women, he wore nothing but the pants of a tuxedo, his muscular naked torso framed only with a black bowtie, a well-dressed Adonis. He was chattering away and barely noticed Paula as she stood to the side, fists clenched. She rushed out of the building.

“No one will come to my paintings in the back, anyway,” she thought with rage. Overcome by a sense of betrayal, she felt as if she were being held underwater, unable to breathe.

Despite the success of Freddy’s debut, he was not invited to exhibit again. Paula was on the board. Discouraged, he turned to her for advice. After several consultations they agreed that his appearance had garnered so much attention not because of his art, but because of the way he was dressed, or more precisely, not dressed. The National Socialists, the Nazis, had become increasingly active in Hamburg and stunts such as his were becoming risky. For years the party had recruited disgruntled unemployed men to wear brown shirts and roam the streets in groups, beating with impunity anyone whose face they didn’t like. The Weimar Republic was falling apart.

Freddy no longer went to Hagenbeck’s Tierpark with Paula. He was hired to design propaganda posters for the Nazis, filled with heroic Aryan characters in the traditional bourgeois, Wagnerian style. A few months later, the school director saw Freddy walking down the Mönckebergstraße, the main shopping boulevard, with a group of Brownshirts. He was dressed as one of them. Freddy was quietly asked to withdraw from the academy. He acquiesced, but the look he gave Paula as he departed warned of reprisal.

“You think you have helped so many young artists,” he said angrily. “You think you are a great artist yourself. But why, despite your efforts, do so many of them fail just when they are on the verge of success?”

Paula was enraged. “What are you talking about,” she cried. “You didn’t need my help to become a loser.”

“No,” he retorted. “You destroyed me, and you destroyed the others. You scooped us all up and swallowed us whole.”

In the mirror Paula saw a middle-aged woman. She wondered if Freddy was right, if she was lying to herself, if she fancied herself a great mentor when in reality, she was a monster sucking up and consuming anyone who threatened to overtake her. She looked through her portfolio and found it to be much less compelling than she had perceived just a few years earlier. She had learned to accept brutal German honesty in the manner it was meant. But now it was becoming harder for her to overcome her increasingly vulnerable American sensibilities.

Her painting was going badly. The streets seemed to be more and more dangerous with roving bands of Brownshirts and thugs. The general populace was blind to what was happening. With alarm she observed that her own eyesight was increasingly failing; everything looked thickly opaque. The optometrist  concluded it could not be corrected with glasses. She put off going to the doctor for fear of what he’d say.

It was 1933 when the board of the Hamburg Succession announced its final exhibition. Hitler had just been legally elected Chancellor of Germany and they could see the writing on the wall. The free-thinking avant-garde would soon be over. Paula decided to submit just one painting. She wanted to try something new; perhaps the end of the avant-garde would also be the end of her as an artist. But she knew whatever she created would be accepted by virtue of her reputation, whether fading or not.

By the time she was preparing the new canvas, her eyesight had deteriorated to a fog. She could see nothing but a blend of colored shapes in the distance. Only by holding the page right up to her eyes could she read the fuzzy newspaper headlines. Somehow, though, she was inspired by the dire times, by the sense of impending doom, by the formerly bold anarchists slipping inconspicuously around the corner at the sight of the Brownshirts and by the once vocal political philosophy students who were suddenly silent. She worked feverishly all day and well into the night until the vapors from the oil paint just a few centimeters from her nose resulted in a fierce and piercing headache. Forced to retire to her bedroom, she flung the window wide open to the winter night air, a raining coldness punctuated by the clanging of the bell and the screeching of the tram in the dark street below. She worked on it for days on end. There was a clear picture in her mind of what she was painting, but she could not be sure of what was coming out onto the canvas. She could move close enough to judge with conviction what one small patch or another contained, but how all these little patches came together into a coherent image, if they came together, she did not know.

Most of the paintings in the final exhibition hung without ceremony on the wall on opening night. Paula conceived the idea of having an official unveiling of her work, hoping to generate some mystique and excitement. She looked forward to it with great anticipation. A mere six people showed up, long-term diehard followers. Hans, Paula’s new protégé stood by her side, a handsome twenty-year-old pastry apprentice with tousled hair whose paintings she had discovered hanging in the bakery around the corner.  At the unveiling there was a round of gasps. Someone laughed with amusement or perhaps disgust. This was nothing like what Paula had painted before.  The commotion garnered the attention of exhibition goers nearby, and soon a crowd was assembling. Paula gazed out nervously at the vague shapes of faces, trying to make out through the chatter what people were saying, whether it was good or bad.

“What’s it titled?” someone called out.

Selbstbildnis,” replied Paula, “Self Portrait.”

More laughter. The back room allocated to Paula was getting crowded.

“Hans,” Paula said in a quavering voice, “why are they laughing? The light is so poor… my eyes are so tired… what is it that they see?”  

Hans described it to her as best a nervous baker’s assistant could. Rough brushstrokes and vivid reds and greens. A middle-aged woman in a brightly lit room, sitting casually on a red Biedermeier sofa as if she were waiting for her friend to serve tea. One can imagine a well-dressed middle-class Frau, perhaps a merchant’s wife. Except that she is naked. She leans slightly on her right hand, which is placed a bit out from her naked thigh. Her bare feet are crossed, one on top of the other, resting on a red oriental carpet, creating a sense of ease. To her left next to the sofa is an arrangement of red hibiscus flowers. Maybe it’s not a room after all, maybe it’s outside… or maybe a blend of inside and outside; she appears to be beneath tree branches dripping with olive green Spanish moss. A leaf from the tree hangs over the back of the sofa. The moss frames the monster head.

“Monster head?” Paula asked with surprise. She was suddenly filled with trepidation. Had the little patches she could see if she placed her nose close to the canvas coalesced into something she had not intended? Had she slipped into delirium after breathing paint fumes for several days on end? Was it something horrible?

“Well, yes,” said Hans, “you know, you painted it… the woman’s neck, it’s in feathers, it twists and turns into that of a bird’s and then it becomes a huge pelican head that fills a third of the painting. It’s a monster, half woman half pelican.”

Paula’s hand covered her mouth in horror. Trachau’s lecture years earlier came back to her. “They consume as many as they can at once, swallowing them whole. Their gluttony makes them blind.” There was Karla, and Freddy, and others. She took Hans’ hand for support, and he didn’t pull away.

Diagnosed with cataracts, Paula’s blindness was easily resolved with surgery a few months later. When she saw her painting for the first time, when she saw it in its entirety in a bright light, she wept for days in despair. Then the epiphany. She had been blind long before her eyesight went. She had been lying to herself and to the world, just as Freddy had claimed. A blind painter or a deaf composer can only create from their inner self, shedding the outside veneer that the world, and they themselves may see in the mirror. The Self Portrait was the unconscious reflection of the real Paula, executed by a connection between her mind and her fingers that blindness had allowed to circumvent the ego.

“It’s the truest thing I have ever painted,” she told Hans. She had vowed quietly to herself not to consume him, and she would keep the vow.

It was in the Hamburg Kunsthalle, hanging in the same room as Bonnard’s Uhlenhorster Ferry House.  It was a special exhibition celebrating art of the 20th century, particularly the twelve years of the Hamburg Secession, which was shut down by the Nazis shortly after the opening of the final exhibition because the group refused to expel its Jewish members. Trachau, whom Paula had not talked to in years, saved himself by retreating to the innocuous art form for which he had once been famous, interior design.

Four years passed. The Nazis confiscated modern works from art museums all over Germany and displayed them at the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich, including works by Ernst Kirchner, Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh.

The Degenerate Art Exhibition was a Nazi propaganda device to be contrasted with the nearby Great German Art Exhibition, which displayed heroic Aryan scenes by Nazi-approved artists; the bad vs. the good. The Degenerate Art Exhibition was a huge success, receiving over 2 million visitors in just four months, many times the number who went to the Nazi’s Great German Art Exhibition. As with so many autocratic societies, degenerate art was great art. The success of The Degenerate Art Exhibition was an enormous embarrassment for the Nazis.

Paula’s Self Portrait was among them. It hung prominently in the section of the exhibition labeled with the banner, They Insult German Womanhood. As with many of the paintings, it dangled from the end of a rope as if a warning of  execution for the artist. Hundreds of thousands viewed it. She was warned by the US Consulate in Hamburg to flee Germany before it was too late.

On the crossing to New York Paula was terrified by the drop from the deck to the sea 60 feet below.  At first, she had to edge herself slowly to the railing, which she held fast with both hands as she looked far off at the retreating German coastline, averting her eyes from the water beneath. She refused to be submerged by fear, however, and within a few days was gazing hour after hour over the side. The swirling tempest of translucent wine dark sea was mesmerizing, cascading along the hull as the bow broke through the waves. She was overcome by a great sense of joy and optimism for the future.

“To be labeled a degenerate artist by the Nazis,” Paula predicted with satisfaction upon arriving in the US, “will one day be judged the greatest of honors.”



BIO

Clayton McMillan lives with his wife and two daughters in Boulder, Colorado. He spent four years in Germany and taught at the University of Hamburg. More recently he has published several short stories in the Syndic Literary Journal.







Old Man Winter

By Annette Gagliardi


Snow whiffs from branches—
no thaw in sight

the white slick of January
cold enough for unseen flames

heats the blistering cold,         leaping
across space like Jack Frost

etching my window
silent scratches, making light years

string time — broken chrysalis
and webbed wonder

a caravan of long-lashed camels searching
for warmth like finding water

in the blazing desert
thread the days with a meager

wisp of transformation
smell the sweat of winter’s chill

sizeable piles of relaxing snow
let old man winter die a dawdling death



Partial Eclipse


Grey-brown creeps
                        over the horizon
on its way to sundown,
                        shading the bridges,

ridges of trees and hills and buildings
            as it gathers the troops of night

for a full-scale
            assault on the lightness
of midday, offering another brand
            of illumination

that supplies shadow by the bucketful,
            adds nuances to all the silhouettes

not seen in the brightness
                        and chases
the clarity of day away.
            “I surrender.” I say

in my most
            mysterious voice.
Like a lover, shadows oblige my request
            embracing daylight     and me with it.

We are the penumbra
            cocooned
 in the gathered gloaming.




BIO



Annette Gagliardi looks at the dimly, tinted shadows and morphed illusions that becomes life and finds illumination. She sees what others do not and grasps the fruit hiding there, then squeezes all the juice that life has to offer and serves it up as poetry – or jelly, depending on the day. Her work has appeared in many literary journals in Canada, England and the USA. Gagliardi’s first poetry collection, titled: A Short Supply of Viability, and her first historical fiction, titled: Ponderosa Pines: Days of the Deadwood Forest Fire were both published in 2022. Visit her author website at: https://annette-gagliardi.com







Embarrassment upon Humiliation upon Mortification in My Intern Year

by Christine Benton Criswell


As I turned and stacked my papers into an ever tidier pile, ready for my presentation, I peered out into the audience and saw Dr. Peña’s sapphire eyes looking back at me through his round, dark-rimmed glasses. He was, as always, wearing his starched white lab coat, buttoned up and so bright that it practically glowed under the conference room’s fluorescent lights. His hair, flecked with white at the temples, was perfectly styled and gleamed every time he moved his head. He smiled a professional-looking smile at me, and I smiled back, holding his gaze long enough to try, once again—but without success—to define in my mind the shape of his face, the hue of his lips, the texture of his skin, to etch it all into my memory. But alas: he was, to me, an elusive entity, like the whiff of a flower that floats through the air, so refined and beautiful that he lay beyond my ability to capture him with words or concrete thoughts.

This was Morning Report, and, as one of the Team Medicine interns, I was, for the first time, presenting a case to the rest of the residency program. My fellow interns were huddled together in the back of the room, standing with their eyes closed, their heads nodding, their shoulders slumped. The more senior residents were seated in folding chairs a little closer to the podium, tapping on their Palm Pilots and talking in booming voices. And seated around the oval, mahogany conference table in large, leather chairs were the Internal Medicine and subspecialty attending physicians. All but one of them were occupied with something other than my presentation: preparing their coffees, nibbling on breakfast pastries, reviewing journal articles. Only Dr. Peña was focused on me, his pen primed to take notes.

I began. I was unsteady at first. But as I relayed my patient’s history, physical exam findings, and laboratory results, my voice grew louder and more solid. I remembered to say everything I had planned to say, and I said it just the way I’d rehearsed, with the proper tone, a good rhythm, inflection at all the right spots.

The patient I was discussing was a woman with advanced liver disease, so severe that the organ was no longer effective at clearing toxins from her blood. I explained how these toxins had built up and were affecting her brain, causing confusion and other neurologic problems, a condition called hepatic encephalopathy.

At the end of my presentation, I looked out into the room and enjoyed a moment of silence. Several of the attending physicians—including Dr. Peña—then began to ask me questions: What is the name of the hepatic encephalopathy grading criteria? Which neurotoxin is most associated with this ailment? How does this neurotoxin work at the cellular level? Having prepared for weeks, I was able to field these questions with ease.

Morning Report ended shortly after that, and as I prepared to leave, I saw Dr. Peña standing by the door. I steadied my breathing, prepared my mind for the conversation, then approached him and said hello.

He complimented me on the depth of my research, my presentation skills, and the way I handled the questions. I said nothing at first, instead concentrating on his soft Colombian accent, its staccato rhythm, musicality, precise articulation. I tried my best to memorize it, as if one could memorize something as abstract as the color of a dialect, the feel of a cadence on your skin, the taste of an intonation. Finally, I answered him.

“Thank you so much, Dr. Peña. I’m so glad you liked it. I did work hard on it.”

He said nothing, and I began to puzzle over what to do next. Suddenly, he lifted both of his hands in front of him to the level of his ears, palms facing me, and began twitching them forward and back. I thought this was odd but of course did not let on.

So I did, I think, what any person my age would have done in that circumstance. I reached out and gave him a double high-five.

I retrieved my hands and waited for what I was sure would be an enthusiastic response. But Dr. Peña just stood there, his hands in the air as before, twitching them back and forth. His facial expression did not change.

“Asterixis, Christine. This is the hand tremor people with hepatic encephalopathy get.”

Of course it was. And I’d just double high-fived the most distinguished, most sophisticated doctor in the hospital. I immediately shifted my focus from his face to his hands. I studied the branching pattern of his palmar creases, the fleshy and wrinkled thenar web space, the interphalangeal articulations until my vision blurred. At some point, he bid me well and walked away. My mind was so paralyzed that I’m not sure I managed to say goodbye.

Many times over for the next two weeks, I thought about the moment our hands made contact. I kept replaying it in my mind, longing to go back in time, somehow erase the act from my memory, and his. I tried to avoid Dr. Peña. Fortunately, this wasn’t too difficult, as I had just started on my elective Surgery rotation and was interacting with faculty from the Surgery department rather than those from Internal Medicine.

While on this rotation, I was required to “take call” every third night. On the second night, a severe ice storm struck the area. I was up with admissions, so I was unaware of the weather until my upper level resident contacted me early the next morning. He told me that he and the other members of our team would be unable to drive in, given the treacherous road conditions, and that I—the first-year intern—would have to round on all of the patients by myself.

My morning was nightmarish. By noon, though, the roads had improved and my teammates made it to the hospital. Given my post-call status, I should have been able to go home. But I had considerable leftover work to do, work I was not supposed to leave for my teammates. By the time I’d finished it, I’d been awake for thirty-six hours.

I was about to collect my things when I overheard the front desk clerk say something about the roads becoming bad again. Although I was desperate to get home, I thought it would be unwise to try to drive, considering the area’s steep hills and the fact that I was so sleep-deprived.

So I headed straight for the resident overnight call rooms and claimed one as my own. I wasn’t supposed to do this—the call rooms were only for the residents working the night shift, not off-duty residents who were too tired to drive home. But considering the circumstances, I felt justified in my action. The bed was threadbare, with a flat pillow and a single, thin sheet that only came up to my mid-chest, but I fell almost instantly into a deep sleep.

I woke at four thirty a.m. to the screeching of my pager alarm. I got out of bed and headed to the scrubs station at the end of the corridor to get clean clothes before taking my shower.

It was a long walk. Our hospital was one of the largest buildings in the country, right up there with the Pentagon, and each passageway seemed to go for miles. I walked through several vast departments but never once encountered a patient, a nurse, a doctor—not even a janitor. Everything was quiet, empty, at this hour. The only sound was my own footsteps.

Once at my destination, I discovered with surprise that only one pair of scrubs remained. I looked for a label indicating the size but there wasn’t one. I didn’t know if they’d fit, but I was out of options. I grabbed them and hurried back to the call room.

There, I showered, dried myself off, and pulled the scrubs shirt over my head. It was too big, at least by a couple of sizes. And the shirt had a deep V-neck, which would have been too revealing for work. I looked at my reflection for a few minutes, wondering what I was going to do. Then, in a flash of inspiration, I decided to try on the shirt backward. It was uncomfortable, with the high collar pressing up against my throat, but it would do.

I put on the scrub pants. They were also too big, but I rolled up the cuffs several times, and luckily, they stayed in place. I reached for the waist drawstrings. To my dismay, one of them had retracted back into the paints. I grabbed the available one, which was dangling some distance from the waste, and yanked at it, praying that I wouldn’t pull it out. I did not, but this maneuver caused the pants to cinch way up on my left side and gape open on my right. I reached around to the right side, feeling for the retracted drawstring, hoping I could pin it down through the fabric and somehow guide it out. I found it bunched up under the waistband, but I could not get enough of a grasp on it to pull it out.

By now, about ten minutes had elapsed. I was running out of time to get ready. I had no choice but to wear the scrubs as they were and hope no one noticed.

The room, which was spartan in every other way, was equipped with a high-power hair dryer. I plugged it in, and in no time, my hair was dry. It was only after this that I remembered that my post-dryer hair routine required the use of a heated hair curler to tame wayward bangs. There was a small mirror in the bathroom, and I took a peek. My bangs were sticking straight up to the ceiling.

I tried patting them down, to no use. I tried spitting into my hands and rubbing the saliva into my bangs, but all this did was mat the hair together. I was close to paging our team’s resident and telling him I was too sick to come to the hospital, when I remembered that one of the nurses kept a can of hairspray in a drawer at the front nursing station.

I opened the call room door and looked both ways. Then I darted out, one hand clutching the baggy side of my scrub pants and the other holding down my vertical bangs. I walked as fast as I could, but it was an awkward way of moving, so my progress was slow.

I reached the nursing station and found the hairspray. I would have liked to use it right then and there, but I needed a mirror and there was none to be found. So, I decided to take the hairspray back to the call room. I had a decision to make: Which hand would I release to hold the can? I opted for the hand currently holding down my bangs so I could keep a grip on the pants.

As I began the trek back to the call room, I got the uncanny sense that someone was approaching from behind. I turned, and there, appearing debonair as usual, was Dr. Peña. He looked right at me.

“Christine, how are you this morning?” His eyes flitted from my bangs to my scrub pants, but he spoke naturally and smiled his usual, easy-going smile. I met his gaze briefly, then quickly looked away, locking my eyes onto an emergency crash cart down the hall.

 “I’m fine. Thank you.” My voice was shaky and quiet.

He continued in his customary, congenial manner. “Are those surgeons treating you well? I hear it’s a difficult rotation for the interns.”

A drop of sweat rolled down my back. My shoulder muscles tensed. I looked up and tried to smile, but my mouth was too stiff to move. Articulating anything was out of the question.

He waited for me to speak, questions in his eyes. Then he said, “Ah, I see. They are working you so hard you are afraid to tell me. Don’t worry. It won’t last forever, I promise. Get some rest soon.” He walked past me, and, catching my breath, I watched him glide down the hallway until he turned and disappeared from sight.

Two weeks later, I started my second Internal Medicine rotation. I’d been assigned to Dr. Cunningham’s team, and for this, I was grateful. I was not yet ready to come face to face again with Dr. Peña.

One of the patients on our rounds was a sixty-three-year-old man with lung cancer. He’d developed excess fluid around his right lung, making it difficult for him to breathe, so our team came up with a plan to drain the fluid by placing a tube (known as a chest tube) into his thoracic cavity. Dr. Cunningham had performed many chest tube placements over the course of his career, so we were all looking forward to watching his technique.

Before the procedure, the resident, my co-interns, and I gathered at the patient’s bedside to obtain his consent. As the resident explained the potential risks and benefits of chest tube insertion, I looked around for Dr. Cunningham. We were in the ICU, where the patient bays were open to the central part of the room, so I had a clear view of everything. There were dozens of people milling about: nurses in their bright-colored scrubs, charting, distributing medications, silencing incessant machine alarms; doctors with stethoscopes slung across their necks, talking in serious tones to their reverential trainees; phlebotomists poking their needles into increasingly difficult-to-find veins; radiology techs maneuvering their bulky, portable x-ray machines from bed to bed. I even saw a chaplain approach a small family, moving in that kind, heavyhearted way clergypersons do when death is imminent.

But Dr. Cunningham was nowhere to be seen.

I was about to turn my attention back to the resident when I spotted Dr. Peña walking into the room. I swiveled around and dashed over to the corner of the patient’s bed, where I did my best to hide behind his tall but skinny IV pole. It wasn’t much of a hiding place, of course, so I bent down and pretended to tie my shoes. I could see Dr. Peña’s shoes, his unmistakable wingtip Oxfords, and I tracked them as they made their way in our direction. Eventually, they stopped right in front of us.

The resident and interns greeted him. He did the same and explained that Dr. Cunningham had the flu and had asked him to perform the chest tube insertion. The resident updated Dr. Peña on the patient’s condition, then asked, “Where’s Christine? She needs to be here.”

They began to look around, and almost immediately, my co-intern spotted me. “Christine! What are you doing on the floor?”

I slowly rose, trying my best to avoid coming into contact with Dr. Peña’s line of sight. He was, however—just like everyone else—looking directly at me. I grew faint. I began to stagger. And then, I collided with the IV pole and nearly fell backward. There were several cries of concern, and the resident even leapt forward to come to my aid. Somehow, I managed to calm myself enough to lie and tell them that I was fine, that I had just gotten a bit lightheaded after standing up. Thankfully, as far as I could tell, they believed me and moved on to the task at hand.

Dr. Peña, the residents, and the other interns walked over to the sink and “scrubbed in” for the procedure, after which they had to be very cautious about what they touched. If they came into contact with anything that wasn’t sterile, they would have to stop everything, “break scrub,” which entails removing all of the now contaminated clothing, and go through the entire sterilization process again. It’s a big hassle, so, for each procedure, the resident appointed one of us to be the “unsterile” intern, available to do such tasks as handling paperwork, picking up instruments that accidentally drop to the floor, answering pages. It was my turn. As usual, they had taken off their pagers and placed them on a countertop to give me ready access to them in case one happened to go off.

The resident and my co-interns cleaned and draped the patient. A scrubbed-in nurse organized the procedure instruments. Dr. Peña palpated the patient’s chest, feeling for the best place to insert the tube. Once he was satisfied, he drew a circle around the spot using a sterilized marker, picked up the syringe containing local anesthetic, and injected the site. The patient hardly flinched. Dr. Peña picked up the scalpel, pressed it to the skin, and slowly pulled his hand back, making a neat incision. The room grew silent.

I began to recover from my embarrassment. No one was looking at me anymore. I’d become invisible, blending into the patient’s room like a piece of furniture. I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. I felt the tension release from my body.

And then suddenly, a loud, shrill, beeping sound fractured my tranquility. It was a pager alert, turned up to top volume. I rushed over to the pager counter to find it and silence it. As I was making my way there, though, Dr. Peña said, without a trace of hesitation or shame, “It’s mine. I forgot to put it on the counter. Christine, will you please get it? It’s attached to my belt—at my right waist.”

I froze. It was an impossible task. The pager kept going off, over and over, each note louder than the last. After I could delay no longer, I approached him. I tried to visualize the pager on his belt and all of the steps I would need to take to remove it. I’d have to act calm and nonchalant. No chit-chat whatsoever.

He was wearing cologne—a light, earthy woods fragrance. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. I could have remained like that indefinitely, imagining us walking through a pine forest, the crisp air on my cheeks, broad columns of sunlight piercing through the tree branches, his warm hand in mine—

But then he cleared his throat, and, with a jolt, I came back to reality.

The pager continued to sound. All eyes now were on me. I inched closer, just behind him and to the left. I said a quick prayer. Focusing on the gap between his gown and his body, I reached forward, slid in my arm, and aimed my now shaking hand toward his beltline. My primary goal, other than finding the pager, was to avoid touching any part of his body.

I began to “explore.” I extended my fingers and moved them around, waiting for the solid form of a pager to materialize under them. It did not. I was forced to increase their range. I stretched my fingers out as far as they’d go and started sweeping them in wide arcs: forward, backward, left, right. And then my hand brushed up against his stiff belt. I followed it forward and, finally, I found the still-beeping pager.

Now I had to remove it. It was in a case attached to his belt with a spring-loaded clip. I grasped the clip, squeezed, and pulled. But it did not budge. I repositioned my fingers and attempted the maneuver a second time. Again, it clung to his pants. I tried again, and again, and again. Over and over, I pulled at the pager, all the while becoming increasingly aware of the rising tension in the room as the minutes ticked on and the beeping continued. 

Bless his soul, Dr. Peña said nothing throughout all of this, though I could hear the nurses in the room whispering and snickering.

I said to myself, I am going to remove this pager even if it kills me. I switched off my emotions, silenced the executive part of my brain, and, in an act of desperation, shoved my fingers under his waistband in an attempt to remove the pager from a different angle.

He may have flinched, may have even said something to me, but, by then, all of my senses were numb. I grabbed at the pager case and yanked, screaming at it in my mind to come loose.

But the wretched thing still did not.

I was on the verge of collapse when an idea struck me. Why not try sliding the pager out of its case instead of attempting to remove the entire contraption, case and all?

I reinserted my fingers, wriggled them around a bit to achieve optimal positioning, and, with infinite ease, slipped the pager out from its case and into my hand.

Clutching it to my chest as if it were a baby bird fallen from its nest, I retreated to the remotest telephone in the ICU. I went through the motions of returning the missed call, then spent the next ten minutes or so regaining a solid footing on my fragmented emotional state.

When I regained my composure, I walked back to the patient’s bay, deposited Dr. Peña’s pager on the counter with the others, and watched as he finished the procedure. At one point, he looked up, made eye contact with me, and, without a trace of reproach in his expression, mouthed the words, “Thank you.”

Dr. Cunningham returned to work the following day. One afternoon, after I finished my morning responsibilities, I stopped by the computer lab to do some research on a condition affecting one of my patients. I was engrossed in reading when I heard someone from the hallway call out my name.

“Christine, how’s it going?” It was my former teammate Alex in the doorway, beaming. Alex was one of my favorite people in the residency program. He always provided levity when I needed it most.

But he was not alone. Behind him was the entire Internal Medicine C team: interns David, Carrie, and Leigh Anne; upper-level resident Jack; and, of course, attending physician, the one and only: Dr. Peña.

My face began to flush. I looked away, but it was too late. He’d seen me.

Without warning, Alex blurted out, “Hey, Christine, what’s wrong with your skin? It’s so red!”

Everyone turned their heads toward me. Some of them craned their necks, some of them leaned to the right or the left, some stood on their toes. Alex’s eyes were wide and full of alarm, as though he’d never encountered someone my shade of crimson before.

In that moment, every thought in my brain vaporized except for one: I must, at all costs, avoid Dr. Peña’s gaze. He was standing such that he’d be in my peripheral vision if I looked directly at Alex. So I rotated my head as far to the left as it would go and fixed my eyes on what turned out to be Leigh Anne’s earlobe.

I stared at that small, nicely-shaped ear for several seconds, trying to think of what to say. Using every ounce of creativity I could find, I managed to craft a story about having a rare dermatologic condition, something I was sure none of them had ever heard of before, something that hadn’t even been written up yet, and—please do not worry, I am under the care of a highly skilled physician.

I held my breath. Alex and Dr. Peña said some things I couldn’t process, and there was, I think, some quiet tittering. And then they walked on down the hall, and I began to breathe again. Feeling suddenly tired, I lowered my head to the computer desk.

I stayed that way for a long time, contemplating with a shudder what Dr. Peña must now think of me. Thoughts of leaving crossed my mind: for the day, for the month, for the year, maybe, considering not just Dr. Peña but also the suffering inherent in internship itself, for the rest of the my life. I even cried a little. But eventually, that kernel of resilience that had always resided within me, that had up to now been buried under layer upon layer of sleeplessness, self-doubt, and humiliation, began to grow, softening my thoughts’ edges until I was able to pull myself up from the desk. Internship was not going to last forever, I reminded myself, and, besides, I already had my schedule—I would not be working with Dr. Peña again.

I had a few minutes before our afternoon conference, so I checked my email, hoping a message from a friend might take my thoughts off things. But instead, near the top of the list, was an email from our program director with a subject line reading, “Important: Schedule Change.” I opened it, to find the following:

Dear doctor. Please note that you have been reassigned from Team A to Team B for your April Internal Medicine rotation. Your team will consist of

I shut my eyes and said a quick prayer: Please don’t let it be Dr. Peña’s team. Please, please, please. Please don’t let it be.

I took a deep breath, opened my eyes, and scanned the list of names: interns Joe, Kathy, and Evan; resident James; and then, there it was, in bold letters: attending physician Dr. Peña. Once again, my head fell to the desk.

Still, I resolved to persevere. On our first day working together, I woke up early so I’d have plenty of time to get ready. I made sure my clothes were ironed, my shoes polished, my sweater free of stray hairs. I left for the hospital two hours before rounds started in order to read through every page of the patients’ charts and perform comprehensive exams. I took notes and even practiced what I would say when the team arrived.

Finally, it was time to round. Dr. Peña led us through the halls, saying a warm hello to everyone we happened to come upon. The hospital was more cheerful than usual that day, as the nurses had decorated their stations for Valentine’s Day. Garlands of red and pink hearts, plush Cupids with their bows and arrows, and candy dishes brimming with chocolates adorned each unit. We visited the ICU first, checking Ms. X’s ventilator settings and oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. We went to Mr. Y’s room and asked him how his abdominal pain was today. Then it was time to check on Ms. Z, a young woman with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

I somehow ended up walking directly behind Dr. Peña as we approached Ms. Z’s room. He knocked on her door, paused for a moment, and walked in. I followed, trying to keep a good distance between us, but the crowd behind me pushed me right up next to him.

He was almost to the patient when it happened. I didn’t see what caused it—maybe a loose shoelace or one of Ms. Z’s belongings on the floor—but Dr. Peña tripped on something, and his normally graceful body began to hurtle through the air like a bolder launched from a catapult. His hands were in his pockets at the time. He tried to pull them out, but they must have gotten stuck, for he came crashing down, unbraced, onto Ms. Z’s chest.

Her eyes flew open. We residents gasped. Dr. Peña let out a loud, prolonged groaning noise that filled the room.

After what seemed an eternity, Dr. Peña lifted his head and made eye contact with Ms. Z. Her eyes were wild, her neck craned, her arms poised to shove him off of her. He jumped from the bed as if it were a hot stove and stammered an apology, then turned and looked at us with a sheepish expression. There was, I noticed, a slight change in the coloration of his face—the birth of a blush—and his eyes began to drift around the room, roaming from face to face. They eventually landed on mine. For a moment, he just looked at me blankly. Then there was the slightest smile, a subtle crinkling of the eyes, and, in some way I cannot explain, I knew with certainty what he was thinking. We are one, you and I: imperfect, clumsy doctors, inevitably making fools of ourselves from time to time, and would you please be so kind as to overlook this in me as I did for you?

I wanted to run to him with open arms. I wanted to embrace him. I wanted to once and for all declare my love. But of course I restrained myself. I held his gaze, smiled back at him with conviction, and mouthed the words, It’s okay.

And then he began to laugh. He laughed and laughed, and soon we were all—with the exception of Ms. Z (who remained scowling)—laughing.

The room seemed suddenly brighter and more colorful. I felt a buoyancy in my spirit that I hadn’t felt since before internship. As Dr. Peña turned his attention back to Ms. Z, I pulled back my shoulders, straightened my back, and breathed a sigh of relief. Given everything, I thought, there’s little hope of my ever winning Dr. Peña’s heart. But at least we are, without a doubt, now even.



BIO

Christine Benton Criswell is a writer and physician in San Antonio, Texas. Her work is featured in several journals, including Jimson Weed, The Headlight Review, and New Pop Lit. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, practicing tai chi, and watching K-dramas.







Proper Posture

by Angela Townsend


Most of my life, I’ve been unable to speak the language of Boys Like You.

Even now, I am limited to “I am lost,” “Where is the bathroom?” and “Please take me to the hospital.” Generally speaking, that’s enough to get around town.

I once crashed into walls so reliably, I was a hazard to my health. My mother was forced to institute an emergency alert system. Meandering the mall or chit-chatting with tenors after a choir concert, she had sonar for shining eyes. If I was actively being appreciated, she would exhale what I can only describe as a Scandinavian drawl: “yahh.”

I never believed her, not even when her hypotheses grew sinews and spoke. A week after a science-fair “yahh,” Jake the sophomore told me I was prettier than all three girls on Friends.

“See?” My mother was exultant.

But he never asked me out. He never asked me to dance. In fact, he said I looked like a “lunatic linguini bean” when I leapt and whirled to Mariah Carey in the strobe light. He ended up going out with Jenna, who was blonde.

I was too much for them, my mother said. “Wait until college.”

My English teacher took this further. “Do you see all the hangdogs around you?”

“No.”

“The kennel is open. But you have a forcefield.”

She was a fool. All my gates were open.

“You are wiser than you realize,” she insisted. “They are not ready for you. I don’t even foresee a boy rising above the buffoonery in college. Wait until grad school.”

I cursed her prophecy through college, where my only irrefutable admirer was a grizzly with a beard to his belly button. Isaac was my square-dance partner at orientation, and he circled me for four unsatisfying years.

“Why don’t you give him a chance?” my stepfather demanded.

“Because there are woodland creatures living in his facial hair.” I was, at least, honest. “Because he is semi-feral.”

“Because he’s too interested?”

My mother interjected. “She calls him ‘the hairy, scary guy.’”

“Because he’s too interested,” my stepfather confirmed. “I’m gonna start calling you Fox on the Run.”

“I’m no fox.”

Isaac drew me cartoons of men with hot dogs and hamburgers for hats, his mysterious specialty. He threw them under my dorm room door: “Salutations, my pixie! Library, 11am?” I piled them under my Post-its. Isaac found a film major named Hannah but still bowed at the waist every time he saw me.

Senior year, I waited for the train with a boy who always let me cut in line at the salad bar. He looked like the host of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and had the courage to wear Dick Tracy hats.

“I don’t think I’ve ever caught your name.” With NJ Transit only three minutes away, I could be brave.

He was pleased to answer. “I’m Michael.”

“Angela.”

He shook my hand. He told me he was born on Michaelmas. He described the asters in his mother’s garden, planted to celebrate his birth. He asked about my birthday.

“St. Patrick’s Day.”

“How fitting!” He clapped his long hands.

“How so?” Did he not know that I was the girl of no beers? I hid in the chapel on the campus the Princeton Review voted “most likely to ignore God on a regular basis.” I was the unofficial psychologist to the anthropology department. Did he have any idea how depressed those professors were after field work in Yemen and the Trobriand Islands? Did he not know that I could tell the difference between the scents of marijuana and Cinnabons? Did he not know that I had Type 1 diabetes? Also, I was a virgin.

Should he not be wearing a hazmat suit, or at least the lead vest from the dentist’s office?

He threw an asteroid. “It’s one of those holidays that exists to add color to our lives. You radiate joy.”

“What makes you say that?” I was not about to accept such a thesis without teeth.

“I don’t know. I mean, I do know.” He adjusted his fedora. “You are just this little orb of light everywhere I see you.”

“Radioactive.”

“If so, nuke it up, my lady.”

I felt lightheaded. “I think I want that on a bumper sticker.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

NJ Transit arrived. Michael sent me emails on Candlemas and Michaelmas. I never saw him on campus again.

“You should have been more responsive,” my stepfather chided.

“But I did respond.” I did. “I want them to pursue me.”

“I don’t think you know what you want, foxie.”

I wanted to go to seminary, where pastors-to-be would pursue me in the Presbyterian way, “decently and in order.” The first month into a Master of Divinity, liturgical hooligans proved we had not come far since high school.

The gentlest boy in Koine Greek cornered me in the mailroom to sing that numinous Top 40 hymn, “Hot in Hrrr.” He had sacralized the lyrics: “I am getting so hot/that I wanna take my robes off!”

I laughed, and I ran.

I chose to concentrate in Pastoral Counseling. The first day of The Minister and Mental Illness, Dr. Dykstra informed us, “conservatively, one third of you have some form of pathology at the diagnostic level. Statistically, at least one of you in this classroom is a predator.”

We would learn our Myers-Briggs types and the wrong reasons people skulk pulpits. We evaluated television preachers as charitably as possible, although we were unanimous that a man named Prophet Angelo Prosper was placed upon this earth exclusively for educational purposes. A boy named Mark rolled his eyes at me every Tuesday and Thursday at 10:40am.

One day he manifested behind me in the dining hall. “So, you think it’s me?”

“What?” I laughed for no reason.

“The predator. You think it’s gotta be me, don’t you?”

He had hair like overcooked ramen and something very John the Baptist behind his eyes. He wore T-shirts that said things like Save Darfur and Love is Love.

“Definitely,” I answered.

“What kind of music do you like?” This seemed an appropriate follow-up.

I answered without thinking. “Johnny Cash.”

“Aw yeah!”

“Willie Nelson. Emmylou. You know, country when it was still folk.”

“AW! YEAH!” Mark slammed down his tray. “That’s right!” He nodded for several seconds. “Wanna know which one you are?”

“What?”

“You’re not the predator. But I know what you are.”

“Please tell me.” This could be helpful information.

“You’re the one with the best posture in the whole wide world.” He nodded in rhythm with some inner music.

“I am?”

“You are.” He took a stance that I could only assume would merit my mother’s “yahh.” “Were you a ballerina?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You sit perfectly, so properly.” He extended his neck and crossed his eyes. “You learned that somewhere.”

I had wanted to be a ballerina so badly, I had put magazine pictures of pointe shoes in my parents’ lunch bags until they relented to lessons. I had lasted three months before the instructor, my body, and my ego agreed this was not meant to be.

“I took piano lessons.”

“That ain’t it.” Mark shook his head. John the Baptist kindled his eyes. “It must be the Hoooooooly Ghost.”

He went to his lunch table and never talked to me again. Maybe he was the predator.

“He wanted you to follow him,” my mother insisted.

“He put his entire heart on the tray,” my stepfather groaned.

“He didn’t ask me out!” I shouted so loud, a man in a fedora heard it all the way across the asteroid belt. A boy at a science fair dropped his “linguini beans.” All the woodland creatures crawled out of a distant beard and said “yahh!”

And I walked into the wall and knocked my glasses off. And I staggered into the bathroom. And I saw a tall girl in the mirror, blurry but alive. And I took my robe off.

And I decided to sign up for salsa lessons on the far side of town. I would not stop at the mall. I did not need anything there.

I packed my translation guide.



BIO

Angela Townsend is the Development Director at Tabby’s Place: a Cat Sanctuary. She graduated from Princeton Seminary and Vassar College. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Chautauqua, The Penn Review, The Razor, and Still Point Arts Quarterly, among others. She is a Best Spiritual Literature nominee. Angie has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 33 years, laughs with her poet mother every morning, and loves life affectionately.







The Preterite

by Frederick Pollack


You’ve been called in to construct
a language. You should feel flattered,
perhaps honored, that they chose you
despite your amateurism. What worries you
is theirs: vital texts
are missing from shelves and computer.
Meals are slow and cold.
The girl assigned to help you is eager
when there, but never there. You wonder if
she loathes you. With the instincts imparted
by age and marginality, you wonder
if you were selected simply
to get language and/or you out of the way.
But that’s upsetting; you immerse yourself
in the advantages and disadvantages
of agglutinative, fusional … Zamenhof
was eurocentric; you want to bring in
that Japanese noun for the sound of a pencil
rolling across a table, a Warrumungu expression
for thirst that brought you to tears, once …
What’s worst is they never told you
whether they want something ideal
or pragmatic, mere trade-talk. Given
your nature and the effects
of solitude you tend towards the ideal:
that harmony Leibniz convinced himself
the West would achieve by imitating
Mandarin. Your notebooks fill
with ideograms, vast melded radiating
concepts. All seem based
on reddened eyes, a haunted spotted hand.



Plein Air

Raying along the short blocks
beneath the usual big cloud
(like the belly, I think, of a boar),
the westering light creates
a Wagner-effect that is almost
too much. The rubble-slides
twinkle from glass;
I’ll omit most of that
and the rays, but retain,
inevitably, the upended, somehow
embarrassed vehicles,
the crater ponds.

Some trace in the air affects
my oils, but this adds
an aleatoric kick. And I’m never
quite sure what I’m seeing through
the mask. At Times Square,
all paper posters
are torn (they’ve been done), but
the looming Black Squares
that used to throb with ads lend
a focus, can be made to have
poignance, as if longing for
an image, any image.



Eye of the Denier


The years, high double digit, are
a weight, a block – what can you do
with that? But the days
were many; it’s easy enough
to multiply, and then you have
such a wealth! You could even
obtain a blank set
of calendars, from an environmental
NGO, spread them over
a floor and discover the animals
mysteriously linked to
your months, some gone now.

And from the little empty squares, like a mole
peering out, a bird who nests in earth,
a mouse among rocks or a small or
large cat, the true
protagonist of those days
would emerge – you could peer down at him
making love
and money, successfully striking
foes and poses,
disdainful of your gaze and the flat white world.



The Harbor Cruise


Half a kilometer past
the marina, the boat turns east,
and as it parallels the shore, the lights
that gild the walls of hotels, casinos,
seafront mansions, and those
of looming inland office buildings
go on more or less at once. Overwhelming
tourists aboard with magic:
the calm sea calmer, air cooler with dusk, the boat
turning, the lights – all for them! While older
locals, here to rekindle whatever,
applaud a successful expensive effect.
The captain, alert to his radar, avoids
yachts entering and leaving, heedlessly,
the harbor, a cruise ship’s wake. Young
guests, mostly rich and native,
perceive the lights as a signal for something,
though unsure what it is besides drinking.

And as all crowd the bar and table,
the distinction between those wearing
tuxedos and those in shorts and T-shirts
increasingly galls the old, diverts
the young who notice. Holding
glasses and plates, the groups separate,
tourists distinct in each; but in
the romantic darkness all are merely
shapes, with the lights of the city reaching
for them across the water. Seeing
bits of the young, the nicer old
attempt to forgive their laughter. Seeing
them, the young at most recall
superiors to get around.
Some figures, outfits, and the sea are noted.
One of the old remembers
lighting a cigarette in darkness; thinks,
If I could do that now I would be real.



BIO

Frederick Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems, THE ADVENTURE and HAPPINESS, both Story Line Press; the former reissued 2022 by Red Hen Press. Three collections of shorter poems, A POVERTY OF WORDS, (Prolific Press, 2015), LANDSCAPE WITH MUTANT (Smokestack Books, UK, 2018), and THE BEAUTIFUL LOSSES (Better Than Starbucks Books, September 2023). Pollack has appeared in Salmagundi, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Fish Anthology (Ireland), Magma (UK), Bateau, Fulcrum, Chiron Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, etc. Online, poems have appeared in Big Bridge, Hamilton Stone Review, BlazeVox, The New Hampshire Review, Mudlark, Rat’s Ass Review, Faircloth Review, Triggerfish, etc. Website: www.frederickpollack.com





PUPPY

by Ruth Rotkowitz


            The road to the breeder seemed to enter another realm. As Edna forced the blue Chevy farther and farther from the highway, abandoning the neatly planted rows of trees which lined the exit ramp like proud relatives standing erect on a receiving line, she nodded at the shiny leaves of lime green sparkling in the light. A cold shadow of darker foliage now surrounded them, and she shivered.

            Squinting into her rearview mirror past her daughter in the backseat, she noted the halcyon autumn scene receding from her vision. She drove slowly, into the fog, flinching as a low branch suddenly smacked like a whip across the hood. Trees whose leaves had stiffened and deteriorated to dull brown now crowded upon the roof of the old car as if to ensnare its occupants.

            Edna had to acknowledge that she never realized how large the state of New Jersey was, since it had always looked so tiny on the map of the United States she’d had to study in school long ago. She’d been driving nearly two hours and they were obviously deep in the boonies, an alien and unfamiliar world, far from their suburban home. As if to echo that realization, Edna’s cell phone emitted a long beep from within her pocketbook, letting her know it had gone dead – no signal in the area.

            Checking the directions on the seat beside her, Edna turned into a narrow dirt road filled with puddles and bumps. A rusted mailbox hung at a menacing angle at the edge of the road, signaling the existence of a home somewhere beyond the thick, overgrown shrubbery. Bits of garbage lay strewn on the ground, and a squashed orange juice container became engaged in a game of tag with a flapping, coverless magazine when a gust of wind sent them both swirling. The whoosh of the chilling wind suddenly caused Edna to imagine her daughter getting sucked out of the back window, lost forever in this alternate realm. She checked the rear view mirror again and closed the car windows.

            “Well, this certainly is what you’d call rural,” Edna chirped, cringing at the squeaky pitch of her voice.

            Eight-year old Allie could barely contain her bright-eyed excitement. “Are we almost there?”

            “I think so, sweetheart.”

            “I can’t wait to see my puppy, Mommy,” Allie chimed, bouncing up and down in her seat as much as the seat belt would allow.

            “Me too, sweetie,” Edna responded, hearing the dark thread snaking through her voice. When will this deserted road end?

            “It’s taking so long. Are you sure you didn’t make a wrong turn?”

            “No, no, it’s right here,” Edna said, checking her directions again. “This is the street we need! Sharp right, and it’s the second house on the left. This has gotta be it!”

            Grinning at her daughter in the rearview mirror, she almost overshot the strip of road that suddenly appeared on her right, wedged between a sprawling bush and a rotting tree stump. She guided the car carefully onto what felt like a forsaken trail as her tires crunched piles of dead, brittle leaves and rose to carry them over mounds and roots lurking beneath them. Through her fingertips gripping the wheel, Edna had no choice but to receive her car’s vibrations and acknowledge its groaning resistance. The vet who’d referred her to this breeder — had he ever driven here? Edna snorted at the thought.

            “Let’s go, Mom,” Allie bounced. “I can hear dogs barking! It’s the right house!”

            Edna blinked several times at the vision blooming before them. A long, sprawling, ranch-style house, painted clean white with royal blue trim and matching shutters, it flaunted a mowed lawn and neat shrubbery in the front. Straight rows of red begonias were planted along the edge of the walk. Normal enough, Edna had to admit. In fact, welcoming. Hand in hand, mother and daughter advanced upon the front door, their sneakers making soft, mushy sounds on the gravel. Wet leaves lay plastered along the walk, evidence of last night’s rainfall, and their pungent aroma, like a bonfire doused quickly, rose to their nostrils.

            The door flew open before the first knock was completed. Harried -though- trying -hard was the phrase that came to Edna’s mind as she looked down upon the short woman with the frazzled, reddish-brown hair — hair that was apparently cut well in a blunt pageboy and was capable of a sleek, bouncy effect but now stood out in untamed waves and straggly ends.

            “Come in, come in,” the woman ordered as she pulled them both towards her by their arms and then slammed the door shut. Distant strains of barking filtered through the house.

            “Hi, Doreen. We finally meet! I’m Edna, and this is my daughter …”

            “I know, sure. This way,” the woman interrupted. Working with dogs all the time might account for her abruptness with people, Edna allowed. Nevertheless, the person she’d been conversing with over the phone for weeks now about philosophies of dog breeding and the rewards of dog ownership had been quite friendly and talkative. Edna had pictured an overweight matron who bustled sideways while walking and wore graying hair in a bun at the base of her neck.  An Earth Mother, in a huge housedress covered by a flowered apron, whose pockets bulged with treats for children and little biscuits for puppies. This trim, petite woman standing before her – whose throaty voice was the same as that of the person on the phone – wore tight, stylish jeans and a dark purple turtleneck. Edna scolded her irresponsible imagination for creating some fanciful storybook character.

            “Follow me,” the woman commanded, and Allie hurried down a dim hallway after the striding figure, flashing Edna an eager smile first, then swinging her little head so that her ponytail swung with her. As Edna hastened to keep in step behind them, she managed a quick look around and was encouraged to see a bright, airy living room furnished in various shades of beige. The back wall consisted of a large bay window that opened onto an impressive expanse of lawn and woods.

            Where was the invitation to sit in the kitchen and enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee, to chat about the habits of this unusual breed, to be patted on the hand across the table and told that her daughter was wonderful and loving?

            Edna quickened her step to follow her daughter’s ponytail into one of the bedrooms, and suddenly found herself in a beautiful little room, neat and light. Edna unclenched her teeth. A dollhouse world. Miniature china figures stared down at her from a shiny white shelf. Why did this seem so incongruous?

            “Make yourselves comfortable,” said Doreen. “I’ll get the puppies.” Allie lowered herself to the floor as Edna perched on the edge of the bed, noticing the needlepoint pillow on a facing armchair, and a small glass Tiffany lamp on the nightstand. Beside the lamp, beneath the protection of its dangly fringes, a brass frame boasted a photograph of the breeder holding a Mexican hairless dog – a Xoloitzcuintli –  in her arms. Both woman and dog were grinning in pride, the dog’s grin accentuated by the pointy tongue lolling out of the side of its little mouth.  A red prize ribbon adorned the animal’s thin neck. As if to accentuate the unity of woman and dog, both the dog’s bat-like ears and the breeder’s hair were blowing in the same direction.

            A pleasant breeze caused Edna to turn from the photograph toward the window, where frilly white lace curtains fluttered. Through the sheer fabric, Edna had the chance to study the group of dogs outside more carefully. For months, Allie had looked up various breeds, immersing herself in books and websites. Edna, filled with pride in Allie’s resourcefulness, had encouraged the research, allowing her daughter to select the type of dog she wanted. When Allie announced that her heart was set on a Mexican hairless, Edna was stunned. Never having heard of the breed herself, she read some of what Allie showed her. Vets she phoned tried to talk her out of it – the dogs are unusual, develop skin problems, and are not that common so might be difficult to find. But Edna had made a promise to her little girl, and Allie had put in so much time and was now so excited. Finally, one of the many vets she’d contacted had recommended this breeder, out here in the hinterland.

            Watching the scene in the yard, Edna had to admit that the dogs were indeed weird-looking. They didn’t really look much like dogs; they were more like rodents, or some mutant breed. They did play nicely together, she observed, and their movements were those of any other dog. All the literature indicated that they were friendly. Edna nodded, as if to reinforce that belief. The dogs scampered about, the smaller ones tripping over toys lying in the grass. A few large German shepherds were out there as well. They stayed together, ignoring the little hairless ones, as if segregation were the natural order of things in the canine world.

            Turning back to her immediate surroundings, Edna noted that the carpet in the little room was a bright green, a continuation of the lawn outside. French provincial furniture in white — a desk and dresser — stood neatly against one wall. Edna jumped as she felt something pull at the leg of her jeans, and smiled down at a very small hairless pup tugging at her sock. Two more dogs, clones of the one clutching her leg, darted into the room, sniffing intently and leaping about as if the most exciting event in the world were happening right there. As the pups frolicked, the room filled with the sweet, intoxicating scent of baby breath.

            “Oh, they’re so cute,” cooed Allie, leaning over to pet them all as they tried to climb into her lap, tripping over one another in the process. Laughing, she freed one pup’s little paw that had gotten stuck in the lacey trim of the bedspread. The yellow and green color scheme of the room, the matching bedspread and curtains, and the general antique daintiness should, Edna noted, make her feel better. It should.

            “So now I pick one, right?” asked Allie, her hand resting gently on one little puppy’s smooth head.

            Doreen, staring distractedly out the window, nodded. It was then that Edna noticed two suitcases in the corner, a stuffed giraffe lovingly placed atop one, its legs splayed so that it kept its balance against the wall.

            “Oh, my daughter and I are taking a little…vacation,” Doreen said, waving her hand at the suitcases upon noticing Edna’s gaze.

            Edna tried to remember if the woman had ever mentioned a daughter in their conversations. “How nice. Who will stay with the dogs?” Doreen had told Edna, in one of their talks, that she was divorced – a bond they shared.

            “Oh, my, uh, brother.” She coughed. “He’s here a lot, he helps out…” Her voice trailed off, and she scratched at something behind her ear.

            “Where will you be going?” Edna asked.

            The woman turned to Allie, a smile fixed on her face. “Well, dear, have you made a choice?”

            Allie held up one of the pups. It looked like the tiniest one. It could be mistaken for a mouse, Edna thought with a jolt. What was she getting into? And why was Doreen rudely ignoring the question she’d asked? Perhaps the question was too personal.

            “Come, then, let’s get him all ready.” With a big smile, Doreen scooped the puppy out of Allie’s arms and was about to march out of the room when the sound of a door slamming at the front of the house reverberated in the little room.

            “I want to say goodbye!”  shouted a youthful voice tinged with haughtiness. A flicker of annoyance danced fleetingly over the breeder’s pert features, but she called out with composure, “In here, darling! Hurry up, one puppy is being picked up now.”

            A girl around twelve-years old burst in and headed straight for the dog in her mother’s arms. The girl had a lanky build and seemed to have outgrown the clothes she was wearing, which consisted of dirty beige stretch pants and a too-short navy sweatshirt. Her dark blonde hair was long and unkempt, and hung loosely in her face. It looked like it needed a shampoo, Edna concluded, as she stood against the wall waiting for some kind of introduction. One that was apparently not forthcoming. She noted in a stern admonition to herself that she’d come for a puppy, not an exercise in etiquette.

            “MaryAnn feels so attached to this one. He’s our tiniest pup, right?” the breeder cooed, maple syrupy sweetness dripping from her voice.  The woman looked intently into MaryAnn’s face. Too intently, Edna thought. “Now say goodbye,” the woman cajoled in a soft voice, “because these people are in a hurry to get him home to his new family.”

            Did we say we were in a hurry? Edna wondered. The girl picked up the pup and planted a kiss on his little head. As she hugged him tightly to her chest, Edna caught the girl’s profile, the small pointy chin and slitted eyes. She saw MaryAnn gently rub the tiny dog between his eyes and her heart softened towards the child.

            “I’m going to bathe him now and get him all ready to go to his new home.”

            “I’ll help…”

            “I need you to feed the others,” the woman interrupted her daughter, her voice rising slightly.

            MaryAnn stared at her mother, shifting from one foot to the other; finally, she relented, stomping from the room with a toss of her head.

            While Allie accompanied the breeder to the bathroom, Edna paced the hall. The two of them were even giggling in there. Allie wanted a male so she could have a baby brother. She already had a name picked out – Fletcher. It was the name of a boy in some story she’d read for school, and she thought it sounded smart and strong.

            Allie emerged from the bathroom, her cheeks flushed. The door closed behind her.

            “She’s taking him out of the water now,” she explained. “He shouldn’t get a chill. And guess what? She’ll put some clothes on him! I got to pick the outfit! He’ll look so cute! Like a little…”

            “Clothes?”

            Doreen then appeared, holding the dog in her arms. He was completely wrapped up in a green blanket. Only his tiny face was visible; the blanket even covered his head.

            “Oh, the kids get such a kick out of dressing these dogs. They’re so tiny, it’s fun. And they’re such good-natured dogs, they don’t mind, even when they’re older. You’ll love it on Halloween.”

            She winked at Allie, who grinned.

            “He’s awfully quiet,” Edna found the courage to declare. “You have guaranteed us a totally healthy animal.”

            “Oh, he’s fine,” the breeder exclaimed. “I just gave him some medication to keep him calm for your ride home.”

            “Some…what kind of…?” Edna sputtered.

             “Oh don’t worry, I get it from the vet. I’ll even write down the name of it so you can check with your vet. It’s a harmless drug, given to dogs before they travel so they’ll relax and sleep. It will wear off in a few hours,” she assured them.

            “Let me get a good look at him,” Edna proclaimed, stepping forward, her legs wooden poles she had to forcibly activate.

            “O.K.,” answered the woman hurriedly, “but he has to stay warm since he just had a bath, so I can only uncover the blanket for a minute. He’s such a small one, we want to be careful.”

            As Edna reached out to the blanket, she was certain the woman brushed her hand away in what could have been an accidental motion. Edna shrank back, hugging her arm to her side, and watched as the breeder uncovered one side of the blanket. The dog was wearing a long blue shirt with little red pants. His tail curled around him, covering part of his body.

            As Allie and Edna bent their heads forward, squinting, the woman said, “He’s still susceptible to new germs, you know.”

            The little creature’s eyes were closed and Edna reached out her hand and placed it gently on the smooth, hairless head. There was something unnatural about a bald dog, but Edna resisted the shiver that began in her neck and inched its way through her shoulder blades. Realizing that she’d gotten to touch the animal without interference, she decided to consider that reassuring.

            “Just remember that his skin is exposed, unlike other dogs,” Doreen recited as she wrapped the blanket even more tightly around the pup. “So especially in the winter, we want to keep him warm, don’t we?” Allie nodded solemnly; she’d already insisted on buying a little puppy-coat of red wool for winter walks. The breeder looked to Allie with a smile and a tilt of her head, which struck Edna as birdlike, the pointy chin and clipped little motions reminiscent of a sparrow looking nervously about for something to peck.

            “All the instructions for his care are in this shopping bag,” the breeder said as she handed over a brown bag with “Lord & Taylor” emblazoned on it. The letters of the Lord & Taylor name danced teasingly in Edna’s face, daring her to find their presence incompatible with the surroundings. “Also, several items to start you off with for the first few days.”

            Edna cleared the buildup in her throat. “I want to speak to my daughter alone for a minute, please,” she heard herself mumble. The breeder darted her a startled look.  Instantaneously, the woman managed to transform that look into one of gentleness. Her features actually softened, a smile forming around the edges of her tight mouth, and she nodded in mother-to-mother understanding. “Of course,” she replied, and slipped back into the bedroom.

            Edna grabbed the shoulder of Allie’s jacket and pulled her daughter further down the hallway. Allie looked up at her with wide, questioning eyes. With a sigh, Edna bent to her daughter’s level.

            “I don’t have a good feeling about this, sweetie,” she whispered, caressing the child’s smooth cheek, expecting the further widening of the green-specked brown eyes and the protests that followed.

            “Everything’s fine, Mommy,” Allie whined, glancing back into the room. Her daughter’s earnestness left hot spurts of sweet apple breath swirling in Edna’s face. She pulled Allie closer and looked into her face. “Listen,” she hissed, “something doesn’t …seem right…I feel… he might not be healthy. We can call this off…”

            “No, no…” Allie began to wail, her entire body bobbing up and down…

            “…and,” Edna interjected immediately, “we’ll get a puppy somewhere else. I promise. We’ll go looking tomorrow.”

            Tears were already collecting in the corners of Allie’s round, liquid eyes. “Mommy, no! Please! I want this one!  I love him already! If he’s not healthy, we’ll take care of him and make him better!  You know we won’t find a Mexican hairless anywhere else!”

            “Darling, please,” Edna stammered, feeling tears building in her own eyes as well. “There are so many other puppies, other places to…” she pleaded.

            “Please, Mommy,” Allie choked, “please! I love him so much! This is what they look like – we saw pictures, remember? And I’ll take care of him, you’ll see.” She grabbed Edna’s hand and the intensity and heat from her little hand flowed into Edna’s, shooting right through her arm and across her chest. “And we’ll be having him checked at a vet, right?” she added, ducking her head closer to Edna’s in an attempt to keep whispering despite her agitation. 

            “Well, that’s true,” Edna conceded, groaning slightly as she returned to a standing position. “Mommy, please,” Allie mouthed, looking up at Edna and giving her hand one last squeeze. It was then that Edna noticed a closet door slightly ajar farther down the hall, with something long and brown sticking out. Leaving Allie, she took a few steps toward it and peered inside. What was sticking out was a rifle.

            Edna recoiled as if she’d been struck. What kind of place was this, what kind of house had she brought her daughter to? Looking back at Allie’s expectant face, she told herself that this was a rural community, unlike anything she would find familiar, and hunting was probably a common sport.  She shoved the rifle back in and shut the door. The sooner she and Allie left this house, the better.

            Returning to the now darkened room, Edna watched as the breeder rose from the bed, the bundle still in her arms. The two women looked across at each other.

            “Well, I guess there’s nothing left but to pay you the balance and be on our way.” The woman nodded politely, as if there were never any question that this was the case. As her stomach lurched, she watched the breeder bend gently to a smiling Allie and carefully hand her the little bundle. Edna reached into her pocketbook with robot-like stiffness and handed over the check she’d made out at home, sitting at her kitchen table last night with a hot cup of herbal mint tea and a warm cinnamon Danish. 

***

            The trees lining the road took on gargantuan proportions in the encroaching darkness. Their branches slithered upward into the waiting stillness of the blackening sky, their menacing silence reinforced by the silence within the car. It gets dark awfully quickly around here, Edna snapped, to herself.  

            “I guess he’s sleepy,” she finally spoke aloud into the darkness, mustering whatever hopefulness she could salvage and directing it into her voice.

            “Umhmmm,” came the response from the back seat, followed by “He’s really cute, Ma..”

            They rode in silence a while longer, the car snaking its way through the darkened world, following the little road that had at one time cut through the forest. Still in evidence all around them, the surviving portion of the forest grasped at their weary vehicle as it bravely forged ahead.  

            At the clearing, Edna hesitated, confused, unable to get her bearings. “Get my bearings,” she muttered. A phrase that seemed to imply that there was a piece of matter that she was missing, something that would lead her safely home. She resolved to purchase a GPS device over the weekend – she certainly could have used one in this place. Instinctively, she turned her head to the right, feeling somewhere within her that she had previously approached this corner from that direction. She imagined herself coming down that way and making the left turn. Yes, it seemed that she had.  An orderly row of flickering lights in the distance, suggesting cars traveling on a regular stretch of highway, beckoned to her from that direction as well.

            But several lights later, no such highway appeared. Where had it gone? Had it been a mirage? Not even a gas station, where one traditionally asked for directions, was in sight. And a sign seemed to be too much to hope for.

            “This road doesn’t look familiar, Mommy,” Allie whined. Edna swallowed hard and slowed down. No one was behind her. Or in front of her. Or anywhere. Was she supposed to have turned left at the end of that dirt road? While inching along, she shuffled among the papers on the seat beside her with her right hand but could not find the index card containing her handwritten directions, the ones she’d followed to find the place. It must have dropped or gotten blown out of the car when she’d opened the door. Either that, or it was wedged beneath one of the seats, keeping company with candy and gum wrappers and an overdue library book or two. Edna pulled over.

            “What are you doing?” asked Allie. Edna could feel that her daughter was leaning forward towards her, a worried, intent frown on her little face.

            “Just let me think a minute, sweetheart,” she responded, making the effort to sound breezy and carefree as her eyes lighted on a rabbit hopping across the road in front of her headlights, hopping in no particular hurry from one clump of dense bushes to another. “I’m trying to remember, in my mind, which way we came from when we approached that little street that led to the breeder’s house. Then, if I can remember, I can figure out how to get back and go the opposite way! Okay? You close your eyes for a minute and try to help me. Think back.”

            A few moments later, Edna was back on the road, more hopeful that she was heading in the direction of the highway. But casually glancing at her watch, she nearly jumped when she saw the time. It couldn’t be. They could not possibly have been on the road forty minutes already. The breeder’s house had not been more than ten or fifteen minutes from the highway. Did time progress at a different rate out here? She ran her dry tongue along the inside of her mouth. Allie must surely be hungry for dinner already, unless the excitement of the day had supplanted that. If she could just get them home, Edna told herself, everything would be all right. Safe in their snug house, on their friendly street, the dog will look like a dog, and she and Allie will return to their peaceful life.

            Driving more slowly, squinting into the windshield, Edna was suddenly relieved to see she was passing the rusty mailbox she remembered.  As she settled back, a bit more confident, she heard a familiar-sounding noise emanating from the back seat.

            “What is that sound?” she demanded, hearing her voice louder than it should have been. “Is it — no — is it — sucking?”

            “Yeah,” Allie responded matter-of-factly.  “He woke up and looked hungry so I’m giving him a bottle.”

            “A bottle?! A bottle of what? What do you mean, a bottle? Where did you get a bottle?” She screeched to a halt.

            “It was in the bag, Mommy,” Allie explained, her voice small and fearful. “The bag of supplies she gave us.”

            Ah, that elegant ‘Lord & Taylor’ bag. Of course.

            “She told me in the bathroom that when these pups are first taken from the mother, it’s comforting for them to get a bottle. Just at the beginning.”  Allie was pleading, on the verge of tears.  Edna took a deep breath. It was then she looked around and began to suspect she’d made a wrong turn.

***

            The eerie quiet of the surrounding woods and the darkness within the car made it impossible to ignore the persistent sucking sound from the backseat punctuating the stillness. Edna knew that she should look back there. But how could she dare, before they were out of here, someplace safe?

            But now her job was to get them to such a place. “Of course, I had to go to a breeder,” she mumbled, giving in to the anger that she was trying to save for later. “Had to do it right.  The only way to make sure to get a purebred, with the right disposition. It’s well worth the trip.” Who had said that, anyway? Some sophisticated know-it-all at her office? Or had she read it in some stupid book?

            She snorted. Why couldn’t she have gone to a plain old neighborhood pet store, like any other idiot buying her kid a puppy for the first time? In broad daylight, a regular store, with bright lights and bubbly, talkative sales people. No, she had to do it the complicated way. So here she was, lost in some back woods, alone with her daughter who trusted her and that tiny, weird-looking creature. Maybe…no, she couldn’t let her mind go there…but just maybe…that sneaky Doreen – probably not even her real name! How could she, Edna, have been so stupid, waiting in the hall like a dutiful child? What if …she couldn’t even think it.

            She smacked her hand on the steering wheel. The sucking sound halted for a second, then resumed, picking up its rhythm immediately. Yes, they were all alone here, all alone in the world, she and Allie. No one to lean on.  It was up to her to protect them both. She could not sit here whimpering in self-pity. She had gotten them into this; she would get them out of it.

            This couldn’t wait. She had to know now.  She turned on the car’s overhead light.

            “Let me see the puppy, Allie.” She kneeled on the seat, facing the back.

            “Mom…”

            “Allie.” Her voice quivered as she held out her arms to receive the green bundle. She felt Allie’s eyes boring into her as she placed the blanket on the seat beside her and slowly unwrapped it. The tail came off in her hands. With a gasp, she flung it to the floor. His little bottom was so wet that the “tail” had become unglued. She pulled down the pants and peeled back the diaper. Well, it was a male all right; that promise had been kept.

            Her heart was beating in her ears as she pulled the blanket back from his head. With a slight tug, the ears came off. Where had that woman gotten this stuff – a costume store? Or had she shot and skinned some wild animal with her trusty rifle?

            Edna could not breathe.  She could see Fletcher’s chest rising and falling, so he was clearly breathing. She patted her own chest, and then began to gag.

            “Mommy, are you sick?” came Allie’s worried query from the backseat. Edna opened her door and stuck out her head, waiting to retch. But nothing came, except the emptiness and blackness of the unlit road. She pulled her head back in and slammed the door shut, hitting the lock button. She sloppily rewrapped the bundle and returned it to Allie, then pulled back onto the road, tires squealing, and executed a sharp U-turn, hitting an unseen bump in the process.

            “Change of plan,” she announced loudly. “We’re going back there. There’s been a mistake. A huge mistake.”

            “Mommy?” came Allie’s tiny voice. “I…do love him.”

            “I know, honey. But this is something else. That lady did something wrong, something she’s not allowed to do. We have to go back, and Mommy is going to do the talking. I will make it all right. Do you understand?”

            “Umhmm.”

            She’ll make it up to Allie, she vowed. But first things first.

***

            “Okay,” she announced, a little too jovially. She was a general with a plan to execute, and she was eager to get to it. “I think we weren’t supposed to turn yet. If I remember correctly, we went straight on that road, past the corner where I turned. So, if we were going home, I think I would now go back to that corner and turn left, which would take us onto the same road, only we would continue until the next intersection, and turn then. But since we are not going home…yet…we need to reverse that. Right?”  She didn’t really expect an answer as she steered in the direction back to the breeder.

            Several dirt roads later, with perspiration forming on her upper lip, Edna silently cursed herself. They could end up going in circles all night. She had been sure this was the block – even the rundown homes visible beyond the bushes looked familiar. But there were much more woods here, and no neat little ranch house was in sight.      

            Suddenly, a huge animal leaped out in front of the car and Edna skidded sideways, letting out a scream as she slammed on the brake. She thought it was a wolf, then realized it was a German shepherd leering into her headlights. The large ears pointed upwards, stiff and alert, and the wolf-like features jutted sharply from the brownish-gray fur. Edna, hands clenched on the wheel, could smell the animal’s tensed muscles. The stillness was suddenly broken when a voice, a child’s voice, confident yet definitely belonging to a child, called from a distance, and the dog, casting them a last, regretful look, trotted off.

            Edna caught her breath and eased her foot gently back onto the gas pedal. “That dog looked mean, Mommy,” Allie commented. Something gnawed at Edna and she slowed even more. That child’s voice — it sounded familiar. She shifted its cadences through her agitated brain, hovering over the slightly lispy “s” and the hint of arrogance.

            Yes, she had it. It was the voice of that girl, the breeder’s daughter!  So she had turned merely one block too soon, for this road must back up to the breeder’s property, which stretches farther than she’d realized. Maybe that woman owns the whole damn county.

            Edna coasted to a stop, pulling over by the trees, and peered into the darkness. Squinting through the denseness of the woods, the remains of the old forest, she tried to follow the meandering of the road with her eye. In the distance, she perceived a large clearing. Beyond, yes, a house, definitely the back of a long, low ranch house. White. It had to be.

             Fine. She was doing fine, she reminded herself.  Despite her confusion, she had found the house again. It was fate. She now had the opportunity to bring Fletcher back. One way or another, it would be over. Edna would be able to erase this entire day, and head home with her daughter. Perhaps the presence of… him… in the car was some kind of jinx, preventing them from getting out of the area. Once he was no longer shackling them, so to speak, she would find the highway and they’d be free.          

            She leaned her head back and felt, in the darkness, Allie’s face leaning close to hers. She turned and kissed her daughter’s smooth button nose.               

            “Listen, honey, we’re going to leave the car here, hidden in the trees. Then we will walk through these trees together and then across the lawn beyond them and we’ll be back at the breeder’s house. It’s that house over there.” She pointed in the direction of some faint lights through the trees.

            “Now, Allie,” she added, being sure to convey seriousness, “we’ll be approaching from the back of the house and we’ll have to be very quiet until we get there. Okay? We don’t want to scare anyone away. Anyone who…might not be expecting us.”           

            “Okay,” Allie answered softly, frightened by her mother’s tone. “But we won’t leave Fletcher alone in the car, right?”

            Edna looked back at the innocent sprinkling of freckles dotting her daughter’s nose. “No, we’ll take him along,” she said. “You can carry him.” 

            She held her breath as Allie sat silently, looking down. Then, without a word, the child gathered the bundle to her chest and shuffled over to the car door, opening it.

            Placing one foot out onto the muddy road, Edna briefly entertained the idea of leaving the motor running. A series of movie scenes flashed across the screen of her mind:  fleeing victims, hotly pursued by criminals, pounce upon their car hiding in the woods, scramble into it, and discover, to their horror,  that the engine will not even turn over. The camera zooms into their faces, which register terror and panic, as the car continues burping out that choking sound, and the pursuers close in….

            “Stop it!” Edna hissed through clenched teeth, shaking her head as if to rid it of an annoying tic. She turned off the car. Grabbing Allie around the waist, she steered her away from their parking spot, over bulging tree roots and mounds of dirt, grateful that her daughter had nearly covered Fletcher’s face with the blankets.

            The walk through the wooded area seemed longer than it should have been, especially with Allie being so careful not to trip. The darkness of the sky was weighted and complete; no moonlight would bother to penetrate this particular small section of the world. Trying to ignore the pounding in her temples, Edna kept glancing backwards, marking landmarks in her head, so that she would find the car again. Quickly, if she had to. She could have used a knife, to mark the trees. Yes, she should have brought a knife, put it in her pocketbook with the lipstick and checkbook.

            She swallowed hard, but the lump wouldn’t go down. Each time she looked behind her, the trees seemed to crowd more closely together and to metamorphose into a row of huge, amoeba-like faces, taunting her. If bread crumbs were in her pocket now, she realized, she could leave a trail of them, like Hansel and Gretel. Gripping Allie’s waist tightly as they stepped out of the woods and into a clearing at last, she stared across the back lawn of the breeder’s gingerbread house, the house that had only recently held out such sweet promise to her little girl.

            Together, they tiptoed across, although the grass was so deep that tiptoeing was not necessary. A few dogs barked in the distance but the barking seemed listless, futile; the dogs all knew they’d been called in for the night and couldn’t do anything to anybody right now.  Suddenly, a pair of little eyes appeared at Edna’s feet, staring up at her. She drew back with a gasp, instinctively pulling Allie with her, and the eyes were gone. A skunk? raccoon? It could be anything around here. She squeezed Allie’s upper arm and forged ahead.

            Edna knew she needed a plan, a prepared speech. Perhaps it would come to her when she and Doreen were face to face. She had to do something to obliterate this nightmare and buy her and Allie’s freedom. She was here, not running away. She meant to stand up for her rights, and that meant something would have to be settled.

            Before she could formulate a more concrete scheme, her wet, sneakered feet froze in the ground, and Allie’s, in syncopation with her, stopped short as well. The voices coming from the side of the house were raised, angry. Edna strained, but could not make out any actual words. Her heart beating against her shivering chest, she inched closer, noticing that Allie, alert, was moving like a cat, bending one leg at a time forward in slow, exaggerated motion, like a sleuth from one of her television programs.

            One voice was Doreen’s; the other, a man’s. Although Edna had never heard the breeder speak in an angry tone, it seemed natural to hear it now, more natural than the cloying sweetness that had oozed from her earlier. Edna pressed herself into the white shingles, leaning her body into the frame of the house as closely as possible, and Allie, imitating her, did the same.

            The voices were near to them now, just around the corner of the house. Their sharpness cut into the dense night air.

            “That’s right, we’re leaving. So let go of me, and give me back…” a scuffle of some sort was taking place. She was leaving. Shit! The suitcases! She meant to be out of here by now, Edna realized. Something…or someone…was preventing them.

            “Where’s MaryAnn?” the male voice demanded. “She in that cab over there?”

            “How dare you even mention my daughter’s name to me!” the woman’s voice sputtered, its fury shooting out into the placid thickness.

            “You are my sister,” the male voice, deep and insolent, almost bored, declared. Edna immediately pictured him as tall and lanky, with dark, wavy hair, wearing a dirty trench coat and mud-covered boots.

            “Your sister!” the breeder screamed. “After what you did to my MaryAnn?! You are a monster, not a brother! Now let go of me this minute. Or I’ll…”

            The man chortled. “You’ll what? You’re really going to shoot me with that thing?”

            “Get the hell off my property!” the breeder screeched. “or I swear, I will…”

            The sound of a body slamming against the side of the house reverberated, followed by grunts and curses and more shoving. Edna remained frozen, her eyes fastened on Allie amid the sounds of arguing. Suddenly, to her horror, Edna saw the bundle begin to stir. Allie put her face into it and crooned something, then jiggled it gently, lovingly. 

            “You gonna at least tell me what you did with it?” the man’s voice snarled. “Is it buried somewhere back here?”

            Edna clutched at the top of her jacket, accidentally pinching her neck with her ice-cold fingertips. Her teeth began to chatter, as if electrified wires had been set in motion inside her jaw, and she feared the sound from within her mouth would give them away. She looked down at Allie, innocently hovering beside her, hugging the…Fletcher…to her thin chest. Why had she come back, put her daughter in danger? Why hadn’t she gone to a police station, presenting her story along with the…Fletcher? The police might not have believed her, of course, and she could be accused, imprisoned, leaving Allie… Tears were forming somewhere but she blinked them back. There was no time for that.  And there was not much chance they could sneak quietly back to the car now.

            Edna’s panicked mind groped for options. Keep the money and we won’t say a word – just take him back? Give me a real dog for my daughter and I’ll drop this bundle at a hospital for you? But with that brother, standing right there…

            The frantic jumble of Edna’s thoughts was suddenly interrupted by a sound — a clear, distinct, loud — sound. Everything froze. It was the very real and unmistakable cry of a baby, a human baby. Edna’s hand shot out and pushed the bundle upwards onto Allie’s shoulder, shoving it and holding it there by what she felt was the little buttocks. But the cry persisted. He had had enough.

            “What was that?” growled the man’s voice.

            “You wouldn’t know,” retorted the breeder as the crunch of stomping feet rounded the bend of the house. Face to face with Doreen again, Edna, backed up against the house with her hand on Allie’s shoulder, managed to note that the breeder’s pert little hairdo was now totally out of control, the ends wilting and dangly.

            Then came the laugh. An hysterical, non-human, madwoman’s laugh was springing forth from Doreen’s open mouth. Edna peered into the depths of that widening mouth, mesmerized by its darkness. The abyss deepened as the laugh grew more piercing, and the darkness seemed to extend into a tunnel. She and Allie were careening madly through this tunnel, trapped in a wild roller coaster ride, hurtling through an infinity from which emerged longer and louder shrieks of insane hilarity. Edna’s breath burst forth in frenzied pants; she and her little girl were in danger of crashing into the walls of this tunnel and flipping over onto their heads.

            “I want to go, Mommy,” Allie wailed in a low, terrified whisper while pulling at her mother’s sleeve. Paralyzed by the maniacal shrieks that continued, mercilessly, to pour forth from the open mouth, Edna stood rooted, her sneakers melding and intertwining with the heavy tree roots reaching upwards through the earth beneath her feet.  She never even saw the man slink around the corner, never saw that he now held the rifle. Edna’s trance broke when Doreen turned away to lunge at her brother. As they scratched at each other’s faces, each grabbing for the rifle, Edna thought of the dogs in Doreen’s yard fighting over toys. But she could not connect those playful dogs with the ear-splitting blast that suddenly shattered the thick veil of night silence.

***

            She had never felt so light and quick before — her feet were not even touching the ground. Gotta run – gotta keep running, running from that loud, crashing sound still echoing in her head. Running and running and running and never stopping, even for a second, the clean cool night air charging her lungs with the extra energy she needed. She could see clear across the field into a wide vastness that became another field where lights flickered, perhaps from a farmhouse, or a road.

            The moonlight glowed over the open green space, lighting her way. She could even see better at night, with the moonlight illuminating the path. There were no distractions. She was never afraid of the dark, the way Mommy is. Mommy. She hesitated, almost stopped, but then made herself run even faster.

            She clutched her bundle tightly against her heaving chest. He is really being good now, very quiet, she commented to herself proudly. He knows he is safe. She would protect him and take care of him, no matter what.

            She wouldn’t go back to where they’d parked the car. What good would that do? She’d have to run through trees on bumpy ground, which would take too long, and then she couldn’t drive the car anyway. She thought of the car keys in Mommy’s jacket pocket, where she always put them, and then of the cell phone in the purse Mommy wore slung over her shoulder and which was now lying crumpled in the dirt, and this momentarily slowed her pace. So she pushed it all out of her mind for now, and kept going. No, she would stay where the ground was smooth and open, where she could go really fast, and where one lawn probably led to another and another and she would head for the first house she saw.

            She knew exactly what she’d do then. She would knock on the door, and even though she’d be panting and upset, she would be real polite and nice and calm and tell the people that she needed help and could she please use the phone. She could dial the emergency number Mommy had taught her, and she could call Mommy’s best friend Susan, who would definitely come and get her.

            They would never catch up with her. She’d had a good head start and when she’d shot out into the clearing like a rocket being launched, she’d left the two of them, those two horrible people, fighting with each other over that gun, and she knew that would keep them busy for a while. And poor Mommy –– lying on the ground with her face in the dirt.

            But Mommy would want her to run, to run as fast as she could to get away and be safe. Mommy loved her more than anything, she always told her that, especially at bedtime when they were saying goodnight. When she reached that house, she’d make sure she got someone to go back and get Mommy and take her to a doctor.

            Her breath was coming out in little cottony puffs that she could see right in front of her eyes, and it felt good. It was leading her to the right place. As she flew over the thick grass and open fields, Mommy’s love propelled her forward, filling her head and chest and traveling down through her legs, even to her toes — filling her up like a balloon fills with air.  She’d won the first place ribbon in the 500-meter dash two years in a row at her school’s field day, with Mommy standing on the side cheering for her all the way.

             It was almost the same now. Only now she had both Mommy and her puppy-brother. They’d be there for her; she’d be there for them. She nodded her head, taking a solemn vow as the soles of her sneakers skimmed the surface of the soft green earth, its spongy bounciness hurtling her into flight.



BIO

Ruth Rotkowitz is the author of the novel Escaping the Whale (2020) and the novella The Whale Surfaces (2021). She has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in a number of literary journals and anthologies. For several years, she served as a staff writer and member of the editorial board of the (now defunct) Woman’s Newspaper of Princeton. Feature articles of hers for this publication garnered awards from the National Federation of Press Women and New Jersey Press Women. In addition, she has taught English on both the college and high school levels.







THE GROUND BREEDS TREES

By Lawrence Bridges

The ground breeds trees with an itch for air beneath our armor of atmosphere. The sea’s restless swaying so seldom visits land it thinks land’s a beast, a fish so large its scales are windows where my pocket square reflects, flowers on weapons, born to tame, upholding the best of all tides. The soaring thunderheads of smell eclipse rain, snow pebbles, and crunching road under turning tire. We proposed an opera here and built if for the deaf to know the depth of music, to spike frozen notes into rocky ground, to freshen spring of our next year.



NO ONE BOTHERS ME

No one bothers me. I’m not accountable to anyone. I’m forgotten and happy, not centuries dead but alive, today! I pass unnoticed, driving next to you. I stand on your sidewalk admiring your walnut tree, cataloging the pleasures I never miss while enjoying them. I’m nobody’s somebody, loafing in each day’s summer parts, in a coat with binoculars, on an ocean voyage, with wings. I’m unproductive, never make things, march with bands, hurl morning papers, read in a park, everybody’s nobody.



WHEN I TRIED TO SLEEP

When I tried to sleep, I slept for a year. When I tried indolence, I withered to sticks, anxious that I could never return to rigor, knowing my notion of work made me a loafer. I disappeared, no forehead, hands, stomach, or nose, no seat for chairs, elbows for desks, feet for floors. I just clawed the air in silence around you. I am your breeze, bird at your window, your morning temblor.



THAT BERG OF AIR

That berg of air out the train window flies south with all my cares. It’s crosswind you don’t hear until you’re in the next lane. Relinquishment, then a forgotten verb. Choose one. Remembers. Reminds. Reprieves. Restores. R is for red. Roar past emotions like shredded paper that doesn’t cling. No wake wallowing. Wait a few days and you’ll have forgotten.






BIO

Lawrence Bridges’ poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Tampa Review. He has published three volumes of poetry: Horses on Drums (Red Hen Press, 2006), Flip Days (Red Hen Press, 2009), and Brownwood (Tupelo Press, 2016). You can find him on IG: @larrybridges







The Longer View

by Patrick Parks


Professor Radtke owned two pairs of metal-framed glasses: one for distance, one for reading. Because the frames were identical and because he was perpetually engrossed in his work, whether he was actually at it or merely thinking about it, he routinely forgot to change from his reading glasses to the ones meant for distance, which meant, unless he had a book in front of him or was making notes, his world was a blur. Such was the case on a particularly gray and damp day when he left his house for a walk, something he did every morning before settling in at his desk and had, on many other occasions, undertaken wearing what he called his “short spectacles.” This had not proven to be a problem on earlier excursions because he followed a set route and rarely looked up from his feet, having already begun to review the efforts of the previous day and to speculate where this day’s study might lead him. Professor Radtke had retired from the university more than a decade ago, but now that he was free of teaching and directing students, he felt he was doing some of his best research, his most thoughtful scrutiny of national literature, stretching back through time to its origins as folk tales and ballads, all in support of a new thesis that could change the very way the country viewed itself.

This is what was on the professor’s mind that morning—the rethinking of the country’s heritage—and might explain how he mistook a sign with the word DIVERSION and an arrow painted on it, a sign propped against a wall by workers the day before for placement today on a different street, as an instruction meant for him, a change in his normal routine for some unknown but apparently official reason, which he followed without question or, apparently, without recognition of having done so. The street he was now on, much narrower than the one he had been going along, did not take a straight path but angled this way and that, around one windowless building and then another, none of them marked as to their purpose but all built of the same yellow brick. By the time he extricated himself from his reverie and looked around, he realized he was quite lost in an inscrutable maze of indistinct structures, fuzzy-edged to his eyes and each indistinguishable from the rest.

Professor Radtke considered his predicament, aware now that his vision—and therefore his perception—was limited by a prescribed bending of light, the grinding of lenses to precise specifications, a sharpening of vision for things at close range, but here, now, he was faced with longer stretches and more remote objects, all of which were made vague by his impeded vision. Certain that he could, with patience and concentration, retrace his path back to the familiar cobblestones of his morning stroll, the scholar turned and headed in the direction he was certain was the correct one. At the first intersection, the crossing of five streets—not four, which would have been much easier—he veered to the left and immediately regretted it. He could see, however dimly, that this street was a cul de sac with a fountain or a statue (he was not sure which) at the dead end. He walked back to the intersection and took another street. Before he had gone far, he realized that this, too, was the wrong way. He would surely have remembered such a melancholy avenue with black ribbons hung on doors and dead bouquets piled in the gutter. So, once again, he retreated to the place where the streets converged and diverged and followed a third possible route.

This one seemed more promising. The stones were smoother under his feet and, from a window above, he heard the sounds of a family preparing for the day: parents urging, children complaining, the sharp bark of a dog whose tail had been stepped on, the breaking of a sugar bowl. He pressed on, squinting as he neared a corner, hoping for a landmark, a hunch. Turning left, he found himself in a square from which four streets entered or exited, depending upon one’s intentions. Professor Radtke stopped, took a handkerchief from his pocket and polished the lenses of his inadequate eyewear, believing that it was, perhaps, smudged fingerprints hindering his sight. Such was not the case, as he discovered after resettling his glasses; all remained a drab smear of dolorous hues, the sallow facades smoke-streaked and grimy.

The professor took a watch from an inner pocket of the tweed jacket he wore beneath his top coat and lifted it to his face so that he might better read the dial. Eight-twenty-nine. On a normal day at this time, he would be climbing the steps to his front door, his morning perambulation at its end and the business of the day just ahead. Inside the front door, he would remove his gloves and scarf and put them into the pocket of his coat which, along with his hat, he would hang on hooks above the bench where he would sit to remove his shoes, replacing them with carpet slippers. From there, he would make his way to the kitchen and put on a kettle for tea. While he waited for the water to boil, he might cut a slice of bread and toast it over the blue flame of a burner on the stove and then spread it with butter and jam. If not that, he might find the paper bag containing sweet buns he bought yesterday at the bakery. He would place the pastries or the toast, cup, saucer and kettle onto a silver-plated tray and carry it to his library where, at nine o’clock, more or less, he would drink tea and chew something sweet while he looked over his notes from the day before. And there would be birds just outside the window: warblers.

This was not, however, a normal day, and Professor Radtke became anxious thinking about the things he should be thinking about. Here he was, blocks away from his home, in a part of the city he did not recognize and no idea how to get from here to there. He once again surveyed the square, noting that it was not large enough for a marketplace and had no band shell. It was simply a cobblestone plaza, its surface undulating and uneven. Clearly whatever civic purpose this wide space was meant to provide, it no longer did. He angled across the square toward a gap between two buildings that seemed to be leaning toward each other. As he neared the passageway, he saw ahead a vehicle—white, perhaps a delivery van—parked with its engine running. Exhaust rose in the damp air and floated sluggishly toward the tattered clouds overhead. When he was still some distance away, the door of the house in front of which the vehicle was parked opened and three men emerged, two of them struggling with the third. They, the two holding the other, opened the double doors on the back of the truck, and Professor Radtke was startled by what seemed to be a muffled gunshot. The man in the middle slumped, his knees buckling. He was pulled into the rear of the vehicle, the doors were slammed shut, and the van sped away, turning at the first cross street.

What had just happened? The scholar swung his great head from side to side, looking to see if anyone else witnessed the event, but the street and the square behind him were empty and silent except for the dripping of water in a zinc downspout. He turned his bedimmed gaze in the direction of the incident and squinted. He was not sure what to do. Should he turn around and get as far away as he could get, despite not knowing where he was going, or should he investigate?

He moved slowly toward the place where the delivery van had been parked, toward the door from which the men had appeared. He shuffled as he made his way, a bit crab-wise, in case there was a need to move quickly the other way. He held his arms away from his body and bent his knees slightly, a posture he felt provided him with the best chance for flight.

He reached the spot where the vehicle had been parked and stopped. The door to the house, which was shut tightly, offered no clue and neither did the wet stones at his feet. There was no sign of blood. He sniffed the air, searching for a trace of gun smoke, though he reminded himself that he probably would not know what it smelled like, anyway, having never fired a weapon of any kind. Uncertain about the nature of the abduction—if it could be called that—yet confident that the players in the drama were no longer nearby, he resumed his normal way of walking and went to the corner where the truck had careened to the right and disappeared. Along this cramped byway were a series of wide wooden doors, the kind that were lifted to allow vehicles entry. There was no sidewalk, which implied pedestrianism was discouraged. So he retraced his steps to the square, arriving at the same time as a police car, a boxy black automobile with a round red light atop its roof, unlit but still a beacon of succor. Professor Radtke waved both arms above his head and hurried in the direction of the officers who now got out, each dressed in a dark blue uniform with red epaulets, each putting a badged cap on his head and tucking a nightstick into his belt. They stood flanking the car and waited until the harried scholar reached them.

“I’ve seen something,” he said, a bit breathlessly. “Down that street.” The two policemen looked in the direction he was pointing.

“What was it you saw?” the shorter of the two asked.

“Perhaps a murder. Certainly a kidnapping. Of that, I’m sure. Two men tussling with a third. There was a gunshot, I believe. I’m fairly sure of that.” The professor knew he sounded irrational, but the appearance of these men allowed him to lose his nerve, to become frightened because they would see to his safety. He went on rambling, miming with broad gestures and a kind of shambling dance what he had seen, until one of the officers, the shorter one, put a hand on his shoulder and calmed him. He told the professor that his name was Walleck Diederich and his partner’s name was Stoyan Kovic.

“What is your name?” Diederich said. “Do you have any identification?”

Some mornings, the professor would leave home without his hat or scarf or, as happened today, wearing the wrong eyeglasses, but he never left without proof of his identity. He carried more than was necessary, in part because the government was suspicious of everyone, but also because he feared he might someday suffer a stroke—it was how his father had died—and he wanted to make sure he would be taken care of in a manner appropriate to his station. He did not want to end up in the paupers’ hospital next to the river, nor did he want his body, should he not survive the apoplexy, to be interred in one of the purported mass graves hidden in the trees on the grounds of that grim institution.

While Diederich looked over his passport, his university credentials, his driving license, his pensioner’s card, Kovic walked across the square to the street where the alleged incident had occurred and disappeared from Professor Radtke’s sight.

“These all look quite official,” Diederich said, tucking the bundle into a leather pouch he wore on his belt.

“May I have my documents?”

“Of course. Let’s now join Kovic and see what he might have found.”

Professor Radtke followed Diederich as he strode across the square, falling behind with each step. By the time he reached the door of the building the three men had exited, the officers were waiting for him.

“No sign of anything,” Diederich said. “No evidence of a crime.”

Had he been asked, the scholar could have told them they would find nothing, that the place held no clues and could provide no proof as to anything at all having happened there. His own perfunctory and unskilled investigation revealed that much, at least, and he had hoped that agents of local law enforcement would employ more sophisticated methods of detection. But rather than alienate the police and risk their retribution—he had heard of many such cases in the city—he simply frowned and nodded his head.

“Please understand, professor, that we are not doubting you. This certainly requires further examination, and we will pursue it, I assure you. In the meantime, it’s necessary for us to take you to the station and record your experience so that a formal inquiry can commence.”

“Is that necessary? As you yourself have said, there’s nothing here, so I don’t understand—“

“It’s standard procedure,” Diederich said. He took the professor by the elbow and started back to the square and to the black car. Kovic followed close behind. “And it’s possible that if something did occur, as you’ve suggested, another responsible citizen with a different angle, someone just around a corner, may have already reported the incident, and your deposition will be used to corroborate theirs.”

“It’s also possible that I was mistaken.”

“We can’t really take that chance, can we?”

They reached the car, and Diederich opened a rear door. Professor Radtke climbed in and tried to get comfortable. Though he was not a tall man, his knees were bent at a severe angle and pressed against the back of the seat in front of him, and when Kovic started the engine, a blast of hot air from the dashboard vent hit him in the face, making it hard to breathe. He tipped sideways so that he was nearly lying across the seat, leaning on an elbow. Kovic abruptly shifted into gear and spun them around so that they were headed the way they had come. The professor braced himself but still was flung onto the floor—partially, at least, given the space between the front and back seats—and remained with his shoulders wedged and his face just above a rubber floor mat until they reached their destination, Central Station.

As the officers helped him out of the car, Professor Radtke looked up at the edifice looming above him, a massive block of black granite with a wide stairway leading to brass doors. People ascended and descended this stairway in a variety of gaits from the slow trudge of a guilty man to the tap dance of a man freed on bail. Before he could start up the steps, he found himself being taken by both elbows and guided between Diederich and Kovic, lifted almost. Thus steered, he was swept through marble-floored corridors and left, at last, on a pew-like bench next to a tall door. Diederich and Kovic departed without a word, their boot heels clicking. Professor Radtke removed his hat and smoothed his hair, loosened his scarf and tucked his gloves into his coat pocket. As police officers and office workers hurried past him in both directions, he tried to assume a posture reflecting calm and nonchalance, at one point throwing his arm across the back of the bench and crossing his legs. But this grew uncomfortable very quickly, so he set his hat on the seat next to him and reached inside his pocket, realizing as he did so that his identification papers were not there. They had not yet been returned to him. He withdrew his hand and clasped it with the other, his physical discomfort transforming into something more worrisome, something confusing. He took out his watch, held it close to his face and read the time: ten-thirty-two. That was not possible! Surely two hours had not passed since he realized he had lost his way! He tried to get the attention of any one of the many that passed so that he might ascertain the correct time, but no one seemed to notice him, not even when he waved the watch in their direction, the fob chain swinging wildly. Defeated, he slumped back and tucked the watch away. 

At last, someone approached him, an attenuated young woman with colorless hair. She said nothing but knocked on the tall door, waited for a reply, then opened it and nodded. Professor Radtke stood, nodded in return, and went through the doorway into a well-appointed office, a vast chamber with a high ceiling and velvet drapes hanging on either side of a large window which looked onto a pond where a single swan swam. In the center of the room was a beautiful desk constructed of fine and highly polished mahogany. At the desk, seated in a leather chair which creaked when he leaned forward, was the police superintendent, the highest-ranking member of the local constabulary. His navy-blue uniform was spotless and the brass buttons reflected light like tiny mirrors. He stood when the professor entered and, with a tight smile, indicated a second leather chair, this one placed in front of the desk. Professor Radtke sat, rested his hat on his lap and held the brim with both hands. The police superintendent took the scholar’s identification papers from a manila envelope and studied them.

“So, you are a professor.”

“I was. I’m retired from the university, but still quite active in the field of folkloristics.”

“I’m not familiar with this area of study. What do you do?”

“It’s quite diverse, actually, with researchers studying a variety of artifacts. I myself am a biblio-folklorist with an emphasis on our nation’s myths and legends. Currently, I’m comparing common tales from the six indigenous regions—“

“What is the purpose of this work?”

“The purpose, though that seems an inadequate word, is to create one story out of many and to identify our nation’s character, our identity.”

“That seems a rather difficult task.”

“It is, actually. It occupies all of my time from waking to sleep.”

“Even when you are out walking?”

“Most especially then. With no text in front of me to consider, my mind spins, and I compose complete chapters in here—” he tapped the side of his head. “—and then transcribe them when I return home.”

“You are able to do that?”

“Quite often, yes, to some degree. Not chapters in their entirety, of course, but notions of chapters.”

“Were you composing this morning? Was your mind spinning when you reached Arulas Square?”

“Arulas Square? Was that—“

“Yes, but were you aware of the world around you or were you creating notions in your head?”

“By that time, I was concerned with my whereabouts and thought only of getting to my own house.”

“That would mean you were not daydreaming and you believe you actually saw something occur just off the square, on Vesela Street?”

Professor Radtke was taken aback by the man’s dismissal of his morning routine as daydreaming, but he felt it better not to be argumentative.

“I don’t know the name of the street,” he said, “but, yes, I did observe what I believe was an abduction and perhaps a murder. Possibly.”

The police superintendent leaned farther forward on his elbows, and the professor could see that the man’s eyes were an icy blue.

“Why are you so uncertain? Did you see something suspicious or not?”

“I can’t be certain because I’m wearing the wrong glasses. I need the pair for distance, but these”—the professor removed them and waggled them the way he did when he was lecturing”—are my short spectacles, which are for reading. Even with them on, everything beyond the end of my outstretched arm is bleary. I feel as if I’m looking through water.” He put his glasses on again, and the police superintendent came into slightly sharper view.

“Despite your faulty vision, you believe you watched a crime?

“I would not stake my life on it, but, yes, I am convinced, quite convinced, that I saw an irregular event occurring. It left me rattled, to be honest, and fearful for my own life.”

“Why is that? Did the men see you?”

“I don’t think so, but again, with my eyesight, one of them might have glanced over his shoulder.”

The police superintendent once again began to study Professor Radtke’s papers.

“And why were you in Arulas Square?”

“I didn’t realize that’s where I was. It’s not my usual route. I took a wrong turn, apparently, and then several more. Apparently.”

“You know nothing of the anarchists?”

“Anarchists?”

“Until recently, they gathered in Arulas Square and exchanged information. They had been under military observation for the past eight months until, as I said, recently when they suddenly stopped meeting in that location. It is believed that they were alerted to the surveillance and have moved to some other place in the city.”

“I had no knowledge of anarchists meeting anywhere. Or of there even being anarchists.”

“There are always anarchists, professor, you should know that.”

“I’m afraid I don’t pay much attention to the world. My work—“

“Yes, well, because of this activity in Arulas Square and your being there without an apparent reason—“

“I told you, I was lost.”

“—you will need to talk with Major Nemeth, who is with military intelligence. Officers Diederich and Kovic will transport you to the Citadel. They are just outside the office.” He gestured toward the door and then tucked the professor’s papers back into the manila envelope from which they had been taken. Although he felt he could legitimately ask that his identification documents be returned to him, Professor Radtke put on his hat and pulled his scarf more tightly around his neck as he walked into the hallway and into the care of the policemen who had brought him here. When they reached the broad stairway that led to the street, a cold wind had kicked up, and there were faint swirls of snow skimming the ground.

The drive to the Citadel, unlike the trip from Arulas Square to the Central Office, was almost leisurely. Kovic drove slowly and was courteous to other drivers. Diederich turned in his seat and asked Professor Radtke what he thought of the building he had just left.

“It’s a stunning example of contemporary architecture” the officer said, without waiting for the scholar to reply. “It is Ohlbrecht’s work, of course. Not his finest, perhaps, but very good, nonetheless.”

“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with Ohberg—“

“Ohlbrecht.”

“—Ohlbrecht, but the station is quite an imposing structure. It is a prime example of form and function, I would say.”

The Citadel overlooked the city from atop a sheer cliff that paralleled the river, a perfect defense position in those times when invading armies marched across the soft, swampy land that stretched from the opposite bank to low hills in the distance. Professor Radtke had never been here before, never taken the steep road that wound its way up the backside of the cliff to the rugged fortress. Virtually unchanged since its construction centuries ago, entry was gained to the Citadel through an arched gateway into a large courtyard above which thick battlements rose, old cannons still aimed across the river. The professor was able to catch but a brief glimpse of the place as he was escorted from the car through another archway and down a spiral stairway, its stone steps slippery from use. He was careful to hang onto a thick rope that acted as a banister and to keep his eyes on the back of Kovic as they descended.

At the bottom of the stairwell, Professor Radtke found himself, along with his escorts, in a kind of shaft, clearly underground but open to the cheerless sky above and the snow that was falling more steadily now. Kovic turned to him and pointed upward.

“Murder hole,” he said, then turned back and followed Diederich to another stairway, this one going up. The professor looked again at the clouds and imagined men in chain mail ringing the top of the opening, rocks held above their heads, ready to let them drop. He hurried after the police officers and climbed to a landing where a single, unpaned window looked out onto the courtyard where the black police car was parked. They entered a dim low-ceilinged passage that gradually grew wider and taller and finally became a well-lit barrel-vaulted hallway. The professor could make out, at the far end, two soldiers in deep green army dress uniforms on either side of a closed door.

“This is where Kovic and I leave you,” Diederich said. “Major Nemeth is in the office straight ahead. He’s expecting you. We will collect you after the interview, unless some other arrangements are required.”

Professor Radtke was going to ask what other arrangements might be required, but the two policemen were already disappearing into the murk of the passageway, leaving him to find out for himself. As he approached the doorway and the soldiers, the professor removed his gloves and tucked them into a coat pocket. He unknotted his scarf then removed his hat and carried it in his left hand by the brim. Without a word, the soldiers saluted. One of the men stepped forward, twisted the door handle and indicated to Professor Radtke that he was to enter, which he did and discovered that he was still in the arched corridor, another pair of soldiers and another closed door thirty meters or so farther along.

As one of the soldiers stepped forward and reached for the door handle, Professor Radtke stopped. The soldier stepped back and resumed his original posture. The scholar turned and looked at the door he had just gone through, wondering whether or not he would be prevented from leaving this place and finding a way to get back to his house. He was here voluntarily, of course, but there was an assumption of compliance, almost an insistence, that suggested he perhaps would be wise to acquiesce and be of whatever assistance he could, though he was unclear as to what that might be. With a resolute nod of his head, Professor Radtke marched on, the way was opened for him by the attentive soldier, and he saw there ahead yet another set of guards, another closed door. So he charged on, and this time entered not another stretch of hallway but, instead, a circular room—one of the fortress’ towers, no doubt—where a group of soldiers sat around a round table eating. The air in the room was thick with the smell of boiled sausages and onions, and Professor Radtke suddenly felt hungry. How long had it been since he had last eaten? Last night?

One of the men slid his chair back and came to where the scholar stood. As he grew near enough to be in focus, the professor saw that he was a junior officer of some sort with an imperious air about him. His chin was lifted in such a way that he looked down his nose.

“You are Professor Radtke,” he said, a statement rather than a question. “Please, this way.”  

Turning on his heel, the arrogant young man led the way, looking over his shoulder every few steps to make sure the professor was still behind him. They went through yet another hallway that, by Professor Radtke’s reckoning, ran at a ninety-degree angle to the one that had led him to the room where food was being served and was, in every way, an exact replica of that passage, down to a pair of guards at every door. At the end of this corridor was another circular room, another of the Citadel’s towers. In this place, instead of a dining table, there was a metal desk, painted a drab military green, surrounded by a half-circle of similarly hued filing cabinets. At the desk was a homuncular man with steel gray hair dressed in a uniform with large epaulets, his head and shoulders barely clearing the desk’s surface. He was writing rather rapidly and, it appeared—given his stature—rather uncomfortably, on what looked to be a map or a diagram of some sort, oblivious to the arrival of the junior officer and the professor. The young man tapped his heels, snapped a salute and said, in a voice much too loud for the room, “Major Nemeth, this is Professor Radtke. The man who was apprehended in Arulas Square.”

“No, no, no,” the scholar said. “I was not apprehended. I was there quite accidentally and happened to see something. That’s all. I did nothing wrong.”

Major Nemeth looked up. His face, the scholar thought, was that of a child.

“Lieutenant, please take Professor Radtke’s coat and hat. It’s quite warm in here.”

With some awkwardness, the junior officer wrestled the coat off the professor, collected scarf, gloves and hat and left through the door they had entered a minute earlier.

“Professor, please.” Major Nemeth was again scribbling, but he paused long enough to point with his pen at a chair across the desk from where he sat. As Professor Radtke lowered himself onto the seat, the chair scraped the stone floor. The sound seemed to surprise the officer. His head jerked up, and he capped his pen, then lay it on the desk. He smiled a quick smile and then pursed his lips. He nodded and frowned.

“You know why you are here?”

“I believe so, but there appears to be a misunderstanding. I was not apprehended nor arrested. I am a bystander, an innocent bystander.”

“So I understand. So I’ve been told.” From a familiar-looking manila envelope, the major produced a bundle of documents that the scholar recognized as his identification papers, and he again felt it appropriate but unwise to ask for their return. The contradictory emotions rankled him and he resolved to be conciliatory but not overly so.

“Can you describe your time with the university?”

“I did my research. I wrote extensively. I taught classes. That was what was expected of me.”

“Were you involved with any political groups?”

“No.”

“Did you advise students to resist the government and to disobey laws?”

“No.”

“Are you an anarchist?

“No.”

“Why were you in Arulas Square?”

“I have explained why I was there already a number of times. I am wearing the wrong eyeglasses, which caused me to take a wrong turn and become lost. I ended up there quite by accident, and that’s where I saw a man murdered, or just kidnapped.”

“You were wearing a red scarf.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I have a number of scarves of different colors. I chose the red one at random.”

“The anarchists, as you know, can be identified by their red scarves or red kerchiefs worn in a pocket or around the neck. Sometimes a red flower.”

Professor Radtke’s irritation had reached a point where he felt an outburst was inevitable, but he recognized that losing his temper in this situation was ill-advised. He knew the tiny man could have him locked away or in front of a firing squad as easily as he, the professor, could dispose of an unpromising student. The fact that Major Nemeth’s youthful face reminded him of so many of those whose academic careers he had ended further unnerved him, and he wondered, however irrationally, if this man might be one of them. He took a deep breath before answering, hoping to clear his head.

“I’m afraid I did not know that,” he said. “Though I wish I had because then I would not have been wearing the red scarf and would not be taking up so much of your time. I apologize for any confusion this has caused and would now like to be taken home.”

Major Nemeth nodded.

“I can arrange that, of course,” he said. “Once the extenuating circumstances have been fully investigated and explained.”

“Extenuating circumstances?”

“Professor, you must realize that these are uncertain times. Our government is at risk, and every incident that threatens our nation has extenuating circumstances.”

“I don’t know what more I can do. I’ve answered all of your questions.”

“All of mine, yes, but I have been asked to send you along to the Ministry of Information. They, too, would like to speak with you.”

At that moment, the door opened, and the professor’s old companions, Diederich and Kovic came in.

“Thank you for your cooperation,” Major Nemeth said, uncapping his pen. “I hope the Ministry will find you to be as amenable.” He began scribbling again on his notepad.

“Professor Radtke, this way.” It was Diederich who spoke. Kovic simply turned and headed out the door. They navigated the Citadel by a different route but wound up in the courtyard where the black police car waited. Kovic was holding a back door open. As he ducked into the automobile, Professor Radtke felt the sharp sting of the winter wind and realized that his coat and hat and scarf had not been returned to him. He backed out of the car and asked Diederich if he could retrieve what had been left behind.

“Of course,” Diederich said. “But we have an appointment, so we must go now.” He took the professor’s arm, assisted him into the automobile and closed the door. Though the inside of the car was warm, the scholar was freezing. The absence of his coat and scarf and hat on a day like this, not to mention his gloves, left him exposed and bitter with cold. All the way to the Ministry, a trip as silent and portentous as a trip to the cemetery, he shivered and his teeth rattled, and he wondered if it was the cold or his destination that chilled him so completely—to the bone. This frigidity seemed to affect his mind as well as his body, and he was cast back in his memory to a day from his childhood, a day as wintry as this one, when his mother had sent him to the butcher’s shop to purchase a ham bone for soup, and he had dropped the coins she gave him into the snow. He fell to his knees and began to dig frantically. By the time he retrieved the money, his fingers were so numb that he could not close them around the coins, and they slipped again into the snow. This happened again and again until he finally woke and realized it had been a dream.

Professor Radtke raised his chin from his chest and saw that they were now on Dusha Boulevard, the widest thoroughfare in the city, its easternmost terminus the Presidential Palace. Along the broad street, on either side, were government buildings, home to the country’s extensive bureaucracy. Constructed less than 20 years earlier out of prefabricated concrete slabs and stacked like boxes atop and next to each, they offered no clue as to which agency was housed where. Only those familiar with the layout of the complex knew its secrets.

Kovic was apparently one of those with that knowledge. He steered them off the boulevard and into an alleyway. He took a series of turns and finally pulled around to the rear of a single-storied structure into what appeared to be a delivery dock. He and Diederich exited the vehicle and made sure that he, the professor, was aimed in the right direction and delivered to the place to which he was to be delivered, a trip that took them through subterranean storage rooms, a kitchen, a long utility closet, and ended, at last, in a room that had a single high window and a bench fastened to the far wall. The two officers left, and Professor Radtke took a seat on the bench. It was silent in the chamber, except for a faint, arrhythmic ticking. There was no light fixture that the scholar could see, and what sunlight found its way in through the high window was gray and weak. Snow fell at a greater rate now, it appeared. Fat flakes gusted past the glass, and the professor turned up the collar of his tweed jacket, crossed his arms over his chest and buried his hands in his armpits.

The sun continued its descent, and the room grew darker. A new luminescence suddenly appeared in the window, and Professor Radtke realized that a streetlight had just come on, its sharper light seeming to agitate the snow.  Suddenly, he was tired. Exhaustion wrapped itself around him like a shawl. He could barely remember the events of the morning that brought him here—the road sign, getting lost, the white van, the gunshot—and he wondered if any of it had really happened. Perhaps he found himself here in this dank room, alone, with a snowstorm outside for some other, forgotten reason. It was a great fear of his that he might lose his mind the way his wife’s father had and wander the streets asking people if they had seen his dog, a Pekingese, which had died years earlier under the wheels of a streetcar.

The door opened and a shaft of light cut across the floor, itself cut by the silhouette of a man.

“Professor Radtke?”

“Yes.” The professor stood, his knees cracking as he did so.

“My name is Ungur. Nicolae Ungur.” The speaker was a dumpy-looking man in a wrinkled suit and a crooked tie. His hair and moustache, both unkempt, were going gray, and his eyes were rheumy. To the scholar, he was the epitome of a career civil servant, a lackey with no ambition or future, a man always groveling, always apologizing. As if to prove the professor right, he bowed his head.

“I’m terribly sorry. You were left in the wrong place. Please come with me.”

Professor Radtke walked out of the room, squinting in the glare.

“We need to go this way,” Ungur said. “Please.” He swept the air with his arm and then charged off. Though his energy was spent, the professor took after him. When Ungur reached a crucial intersection, he turned and looked back, then swept his arm again in the direction he wanted Professor Radtke to turn. They moved along in this fashion until, at last, the scholar rounded a corner and saw Ungur standing next to a door with a frosted glass panel. Painted on the glass was the title, “Cultural Attaché.”

Professor Radtke had heard of the Cultural Attaché, a man, he was told, who was as well-read as anyone in the country, a man whose knowledge of opera and music was superseded only by his knowledge of literature, particularly poetry and, more particularly, the poetry of their country. The professor straightened a bit, his fatigue lessened at the thought of meeting a fellow intellectual.

“This way, please.” Ungur opened the door onto darkness. He swept his arm and then stood in the doorway, requiring the scholar to turn sideways and squeeze past. The man’s features, even up close, were soft and ill-defined, and Professor Radtke doubted if he would remember what the man looked like should they meet at some point in the future, and he was wearing the proper pair of glasses.

Ungur plunged into the darkness. A moment later, a gooseneck lamp came on, its illumination unable to reach the corners of the room, a room which struck the professor as the kind of place where custodians gathered to smoke cigarettes and play cards. There was only a long, collapsible table in the center and a handful of folding chairs arranged haphazardly around it. Ungur pulled one of the chairs out and gestured. Professor Radtke sat and turned to the table, resting his elbows on the stained surface. He was perplexed. The sign on the door indicated a man of some prestige worked behind it, yet this hardly seemed the office of an attaché. It was not, in fact, even an office. What kind of government official, and one with such a lofty title, would allow himself to be treated in this fashion. It made no sense.

“I’m not clairvoyant, but I do know what you’re thinking.” Ungur closed the door and came to the table. “What a dump! Am I right? Of course, I am, and of course it is! Where else would you put a cultural attaché than in the basement of a spectacularly hideous blockhouse?” He shook his head and smiled.

“I imagine the attaché would be less amused than you,” Professor Radtke said. “From all I’ve heard, he’s perhaps the most astute man in the entire government and certainly worthy of better than this.”

Ungur’s smile vanished. He moved away from the table, out of the light thrown by the lamp, and began to walk around the room, keeping close to the wall. The professor swiveled his head to watch the man, but after a couple of laps, his neck stiffened and he gave up.

“It stands to reason,” Ungur said, “that someone with my reputation should be a more dignified individual. Handsome, perhaps, certainly taller and more regal in bearing. However, I am the son of two rather plain and unremarkable parents, a baker and his wife.”

“I apologize if I’ve offended,” Professor Radtke said, turning his head once again as the other man moved around the perimeter of the room. “My assumption had nothing to do with appearance. It never occurred to me that you would yourself come fetch me personally. I presumed there were assistants for that sort of errand.”

“A natural assumption, to be sure, though I suspect you did have a different image of what a cultural attaché would look like.”

“Oh no, I thought nothing—”

“It’s irrelevant, professor. Merely my weak ego.”

The scholar tried to calm himself. His insensitive remark, unintentional though it may have been, could not be retracted nor atoned for. If he had felt himself the quarry of his interlocutors before, now, with Ungur circling him like a bird of prey, he was even more aware of his perilous situation.  He concentrated on breathing and slowing the rapid tattoo of his heart. He needed to have a keen mind so as not to be tripped up or cornered by another imprudent comment.

“I heard you once many years ago,” Ungur said, bobbing his head as he paced. “I was trying to woo a young woman who was infatuated with you and was going to hear you speak, so I tagged along.”

“And were you successful with the young woman?”

“Sadly, no. She was, it turns out, already engaged to someone else.”

“At least you had an evening of mental stimulation,” Professor Radtke said with a slight smile: a bit of self-effacing humor, a trademark of his.

Ungur nodded and continued his wall-hugging walk, swinging one arm, the other crooked across his back.

“Yes, I did. You lectured on the myth of the six brothers.”

“Ah! The six brothers.” He was pleased that the Cultural Attache had attended the lecture most often requested by sponsors of educational events and the core of his research. He had delivered it perhaps a dozen times before he retired, each time to an enthusiastic audience.

“It is, of course, the story that shapes our nature.”

“Of course. I learned it as a child and then studied it as a university student.”

Radtke refrained from retelling the tale to someone who clearly knew it. Six brothers, one father, six mothers. Each one unlike the rest, each one vying for the attention of the father. Their constant warring scorched the land and decimated the population. To put an end to the devastation, the father divided his lands and gave each son a portion upon the condition that they live peacefully.

“It’s a story common to each part of the country,” the professor said.

“That’s true, but in each variation, the brother that represents a particular region is seen as the hero, a benevolent figure surrounded by his intractable siblings. In one version, the brother who was given the lowlands built dams and made the marshy ground tillable. In another, the brother who inhabits the mountains dug into the rock and discovered veins of copper. From the aspect of the others, the brother who reclaimed the lowlands flooded the lands of his brothers, and the one who mined copper fouled the water that flowed from the mountains. So, despite the best efforts of the father, there remained distrust among the brothers. Today, though it is rather benign, this mutual dislike remains. Most evidently at sporting events”

“But such division is detrimental to our nation. It makes us appear childish and untrustworthy, petty.”

“Yes, yes, I’m familiar with your thesis. It runs through everything I’ve read of yours today, and while I admire your tenacity, I find the notion to be, in a word, disruptive. A dangerous word in these times, professor, very dangerous.”

Someone rapped on the door. Ungur answered it. He stuck his head out into the hallway, spoke a few indistinguishable words, then reappeared and stood aside as a woman—the professor guessed her to be in her fifties, though he had no reason for ascribing that age to her—hurried in with an armload of envelopes and file folders, which she dropped on the table and then hurried out as quickly as she had come in. The scholar looked at the papers heaped in front of him and recognized the handwriting.

“These are mine! This is my work! How did you—?”

“Your wife let us in.”

“My wife is dead.”

“Your housekeeper.”

“I have no housekeeper.”

“A woman, then, unidentified but familiar with your apartment.”

“There is no such woman.”

“Does it really matter? Your papers are here now, and I have read quite a lot of it today waiting for your arrival, and I must say I’m reminded of the work done by Hasclav thirty years ago. Do you know Hasclav?”

“Of course, I do. I read his early work when I was a university student and Provincial Tales was on the reading list for the seminar I taught. But I am introducing new ideas into the study of national mythology, building on Hasclav’s studies and weaving them together into a single narrative.”

“But we are a country divided into six distinct regions, each with its own literature and foods and music. Why do you want to make them one? Why do you want to take away their singularity?”

“That is not my intention. What I’m hoping—”

“May I borrow your glasses?” Ungur said, reaching out his hand. “Like you, my eyes are not what they used to be.”

Professor Radtke handed over his spectacles. Ungur put them on and took a folder from the desk. He held it unopened in his hand, waving it at the professor.

“What you hope to accomplish denies our differences, our inherent qualities, the very essence of what makes each part of our nation unique.”

Ungur tossed the folder onto the table and retreated into the shadows. Professor Radtke could hear him moving along the walls, but he could see nothing, no sign of the man.

“Some of my superiors are concerned with your studies. They worry that, if published, your notions might instigate some action, particularly among students who are easily provoked. Their idealism, as you no doubt remember from your days at the university, is heartfelt but naïve. They will, of course, grow out of it, just as you and I did, but now it is problematic.”

Professor Radtke rubbed his eyes. The strain of not being able to see clearly was giving him a headache. He listened to the sound of his interrogator’s—his tormentor’s!—shoes scuff along the floor. He had no idea what he was supposed to say or do, but he was certain it would entail his acquiescing and prostrating himself (only figuratively, he hoped) should he ever get home again.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand your point,” he said.

There was a noise from the shadows.

“My point, quite simply, is that you are promoting ideas that threaten the security of our country. Your notions of our all being one people with great power runs counter to the philosophy of our government, which thrives paradoxically on polarity and loyalty. Your ideas run counter to the reality of today’s political world.

“And what am I to do about it?”

“Nothing! What do you imagine you might do to discourage unrest? You’re a retired professor, Radtke. You’re not skilled in the art of diffusion, nor do you have the tools to create diversion. Those are the domain of the ruling party, as they should be.”

“Then why am I here?”

“You know the answer to that, my dear man. You alerted the police to a crime and were asked to be deposed in the matter.”

The scholar closed his eyes and shook his head slowly.

“I am utterly confused,” he said. “I am confused, and I am tired, and I am hungry. I’ve not had a drop of water, a bite of food nor a comfortable place to sit in the past”—he looked at his watch and calculated—“22 hours.” The realization that he had been held for such a long time brought him nearly to tears. He took a handkerchief from a trouser pocket and dabbed at his wet, tired eyes. “Please tell me what you want.”

Ungur appeared from the shadows and leaned on the table. He was still wearing the professor’s glasses.

“It’s quite simple. Those who know better than I are requesting that you abandon your project. They would like you to leave your research and writing in our hands and pursue some other line of academic inquiry.” Ungur stood up and his head disappeared. “If you choose not to honor the request, you may find yourself labeled an enemy of the state. You would not want that.”

Professor Radtke’s glasses dropped onto the table. He picked them up and put them on.

“And the crime I witnessed?”

“It was nothing. A man’s wife called his friends to pick him up and get him to work on time. He was quite hung over and wanted to stay in bed. That’s what you saw.” Ungur opened the door to the hallway, and the room was suddenly illuminated. The professor squinted and shaded his eyes.

“It was nothing,” Ungur said, “and yet, it led to something, did it not? Much of life appears to occur in this way, I think. All coincidental, all happenstance. But, if we take the longer view, we can see it is not as random as we might imagine. Everything is connected in one way or another. If you give it some thought, I believe you will agree.” He left, closed the door, and the room grew dim again. The professor slumped more deeply and wiped his eyes once more.

In the past, Professor Radtke knew, colleagues of his at the university—political scientists or sociologists, historians, behaviorists—had endured government scrutiny. In those cases, they had published a provocative article or had delivered a lecture that riled up the audience. Some of them disappeared. Others returned to campus gray-faced and listless. For that reason, he had remained neutral, a serious scholar who could be trusted to have no opinion whatsoever about the world as it existed. But now! What irony! He imagined those who had suffered would take no small delight in his predicament. They would see it as the reward for cowardice. “You can only duck your head so low,” they would tell him. “Eventually, you will be noticed.”

The door opened, bright light cut in, and the woman who had appeared with the folders entered with a tray, which she set on the desk in front of the professor. Breakfast. A hard-boiled egg, thick slices of rye bread, and a mug of coffee. As the scholar dug in, the woman collected the folders she had brought in and hurried from the room. So ravenous was he that Professor Radtke gave but the briefest thought to his work as it was taken from him. He wanted another egg, more coffee, jam for the bread. He was pressing crumbs with his index finger and licking them off when there was a knock on the door and his two attendants, Diederich and Kovic, came in. Kovic was carrying the professor’s coat and hat and scarf, which he helped the weary man put on. Without a word, the threesome walked through the basement and out into the day. Like yesterday, the sky was heavy and gray, but it was warmer, and the snow that had fallen was melting, requiring them to hop puddles on their way to the car.

Once settled in the rear seat, Professor Radtke leaned against the door and stretched his legs as best he could. He closed his eyes and felt his body relax. He was still hungry, though, and as he fell asleep to the sizzle of tires on wet pavement, the sound conjured up bacon and potatoes frying in an iron skillet. When Diederich shook him awake, he was dreaming of Sunday dinners he had enjoyed as a boy: a table laden with roasted venison and vegetables, loaves of bread, a crock of butter, a crystal dish heaped with pickles; on the sideboard bottles of mineral water and wine, pies, cakes, pastries, and, in the background, a symphony on the radio.

“We’re here,” Diederich said. He opened the door and stepped aside.

Professor Radtke got out of the car, expecting to be on his own street, in front of his own house, at the foot of the stairway to his front door. Instead, he found himself in Arulas Square. He grabbed at Diederich’s sleeve.

“Why are we here? Why was I not taken home?

“This is where we found you, so this is where we must leave you.”

“I don’t understand. Haven’t I been through enough?

“What can I say? I follow orders.”

The scholar looked around. The square was as empty as it had been the morning before.

“Here,” Diederich said. He held out an eyeglasses case. The professor took it from him and opened it. Inside were the spectacles he used for distance.

“They were in with your papers,” the policeman said. “We have no use for them.”

Before Professor Radtke could say anything else, Diederich got back into the patrol car, and Kovic drove them away. After the car had gone, leaving a wisp of oily smoke, the professor carefully exchanged one pair of glasses for the other and looked around at the plaza with its crooked cobblestones and shuttered windows. He could see it all clearly now, but that would not help him find his way. He was still quite lost.



BIO

Patrick Parks is author of a novel, Tucumcari, and has had fiction, poetry, reviews and interviews appear or forthcoming in a number of places, most recently, TYPO, Change Seven, Ocotillo Review, Bridge Eight, and Full Stop, He is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and lives with his wife near Chicago. More at: patrick-parks.com







a girl shaves her legs for the first time

by Charlotte Suttee


the razor chokes
on spider-leg hair,
roils cold water,
and coughs again,
to erase bit by bit
her body thicket.

her thighs crack
like moth wings
cornered and dry
for the dustpan
(weeping).




Hat Trick


The climbing gym’s closed so we watch
the Chicago Bears draft a defensive back
from Washington. We pick a scab on our chin
clean off. We don’t get sad this time when
the frat boys talk about the girl’s deadlifting
ass and can still enjoy the same sunshine.
What else do we do? We don’t reply to Nana’s
text: “I want you to be in heaven with me.
Please respond.” She would love to see us
come home with one of these hairless men
strutting to the door in greasy gym shorts
who headline their Instagram profiles with
1# God 2# Family 3# Football. She would
clap her hands together and weep, the perv.
We stretch out one leg. We forget to stretch
the other. We watch the Dolphins pick next.
We wonder what to do with Freedom and freedom,
if we can get away without seeing another snow
and ski on banana leaves until the knees give
in then mercury tremors finish us. Papa made lots
of money calculating bullet trajectories and
cut off his gay son. We don’t know the gay son’s
name but we know he rides motorcycles. We love
our grandparents, their bone spurs, cancers, and other
Freedoms. Nana taught us how to glue anything
to anything else and this is our most precious
talent. Papa taught us how to wrestle for our life.
We pull love out for them like hares from a magic
hat. Jeff Goldblum tries to get us to bet on our
favorite sports team in an app. The gym closes
early on Friday because there are better things to
do, like following the trail of frat boys to
their drinking games posted in dirt backyards,
then waking up in time for church on Sunday.




We will always betray ourselves


moving as fast as we do
through embracing arms
we go so fast with a force so loud
we must wonder
if we heard a             snap
we must wonder
if we could have finally been held



Madrigal (as a type of bird)


    i am a teenager and wish
i could be smart enough to draw
     as poorly as them
the ones with a place
     threaded through their fingerbones
i made my hills rounder
     than they come
because childhood is learning
     how not to see.
i only know how to draw the
     birds
with hands pieced together from graves
     it’s so dead this me now
the bird on its head a
     deliberate accident
but creating is throwing
     a piece of broccoli
over family thanksgiving
     into the fat laughing mouths
of people who set house alarms
     like violence.
creation opposes birds on their feet
     but the wings disturb  God
the tears from nana’s eyes





BIO

Charlotte Suttee’s poetry is published in a handful of Colorado magazines and her experimental speculative fiction novel “Weather and Beasts and Growing Things” is available through Lethe Press. She howls, cooks, and explores with her husband in Minas Gerais, Brazil.







Some Peace

by Rita Plush


Two old ladies now, I met my brother’s future wife in the ’50s—let’s rock and roll!

And we did; within a year we both were married. Other life events jibed as well: becoming pregnant with our firsts, buying our homes, hers far more lavish in size and zip code than mine (my brother was a rousing success early on). 

Though I did want nice things, I couldn’t see myself in her house, or the country club they’d joinedthe lifestyle too la-de-da for my more earthbound tastes. Was I jealous? I didn’t want what she had, but I didn’t want her to have them either? Trying now to get a pulse on what I felt back then is taking some doing. But I’m working on it.  

She had a standing Friday at a salon for a wash, set and blowout, mid-week for a recomb. Except for a cut every six weeks, I washed and rolled up my hair, slipped on my Lady Sunbeam bonnet (hose attached), hitched the portable motor around my waist, and vacuumed while my hair dried. With three children under five years, my main interest was getting out of my nightgown before my husband got home from work.

Her hobby was shopping; she had a stylish eye. I learned from her to be more selective in my choices and upped my wardrobe. I asked her once where she bought a certain dress, scurried over, and snapped it up in a different color. The sour look she gave my new frock said she was not flattered.

Years later, my children grown, I started an interior design business. After that, I decided I wanted a college education and got undergraduate and graduate degrees in English. She had a brief stint selling real estate, also enrolled in college but dropped out because my brother wanted to travel. Our goals and aspirations were very different. Instead of creating a yin/yang, a complementary balance between our personalities—me, outspoken and opinionated, she, thin-skinned, easily took offense—our different makeups widened our gap. To be blunt: we rubbed each other the wrong way.

If matters were tenuous between us, the shit hit the proverbial fan when my mother died.

Writing in earnest then, eager to capture the family dynamic, I put to paper my impressions of her shiva, the Jewish seven-day mourning period. I fictionalized my brother as a landscaper and his wife as an Israeli who couldn’t cook, when she was actually a pretty good cook. The piece was published. The description offended her. My family sensed the slap; our strained relations, a secret no longer.

Defending myself to myself, and to others: That’s what writers do; we make up things! But did I have to make up that thing? Was it the writer in me cracking wise, or was I taking a swipe at her? She swiped me but good. Dropped me like an before ing. I was relation non grata for years.   

During that time, I would meet my brother occasionally for lunch. I need to say here that we were not ever close.

Growing up I had never felt his big-brotherness, that under-his-wing mentoring often felt by younger siblings. The most we had in common was to eye-witness my father’s hot, unpredictable temper, most often aimed at him. Belittled and criticized at every turn—You’ll never amount to anything! shrieked my father—it’s amazing he turned out so well. I hurt for my brother then, but don’t think I ever told him. Would that have made us closer if I had?

At those infrequent lunches we did find things to talk about: our children, upcoming vacations—surface talk, information talk. The few times I brought up our father—real talk—I noticed he was overcome by an urge to visit the men’s room. I sensed his distress and went back to safer ground. At least we had contact; I was grateful for that.  

Eventually, his wife thawed and, as with warring nations, we arrived at a detente. Still, keeping conversations between us light and agreeable was an effort; so much of her talk annoyed me that if I managed to keep my mouth shut—shooting from the lip was my default—I gave myself an A+ in self-control.

By then, I had more pressing things on my mind—a son stricken with ALS;a daughter with advanced breast cancer—than chasing someone who, at best, wanted nothing to do with me. Week by week, their conditions worsened. The realization that I would likely survive them was unbearable. I needed support, the listening ears and open hearts of those I loved. I needed my brother.

He would be there for me, he said. I could count on him, he said. “Anything, sis.”

Anything turned out to be a once-in-a-blue-moon call asking how my children were. For the most part, I took the initiative. I told myself, let it go. It’s not in him. He can’t do more. Accept it!

A stroke took my brother a few years ago.

At his grave, the rabbi told of his many contributions to yeshivas and other Jewish causes. My brother was a generous man, devoted to his faith. But what struck me were the beautiful tributes from his children and grandchildren. You could hear it in what they said—they had pet names for him—feel the emotion with which they spoke, how they clung to each other in their grief. Adored is the word I came away with. And he must have adored them, and cared and given fully to them. Apparently, he did “have it in him.” Perhaps when he packed up and left home—and our father’s constant put-downs—he made a clean break, and somehow broke with me as well.

Last year my daughter died of breast cancer. His wife came to the funeral, the shiva, but after that… months passed. How much time does it take to shoot a text or send an email—Thinking of you. How’re you doing? — if you can’t drag yourself to the phone for a proper call? And because I so much wanted her to reach out to me, I, like a schmo, texted her.

 Ever hear the joke about the lady and the gorilla? 

She’s on a trip to Africa and she gets lost in the jungle. No food, no shelter. A gorilla finds her and takes her into his lair. Ravages her for weeks on end. Finally, she’s rescued. Home, she tells her friends all about her ordeal.

“What about the gorilla?” they say.

“He doesn’t call … he doesn’t write…”

That’s her! Not a word, not a peep since my text a year ago and counting. Her husband’s gone; she wants me gone. So … why did I pursue her? Why am I still expecting/hoping for her call? Why, when I’m looking to keep stress and aggravation out of my life, do I want this woman back in? Maybe, I’m thinking now, it’s not her I want or ever wanted. Maybe it’s my brother I’m still looking for. My distant elusive brother. To be close to his presence, through her. The way I feel close to my son and my daughter now—their energy, the essence of who they were—when I’m with their spouses. As of a precious metal over a duller alloy, they give my life a little shine; a luster, otherwise lacking.

I will get no gold from her, but I’ll do without. I’ll believe that my brother did care for me; he just wasn’t able to show it. When I think of it that way, it gives me some peace.

                                                            

BIO

Author of the novels Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations, Rita Plush is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches memoir at Queensborough Community College. Her stories and essays have been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Art Times, The Sun, The Jewish Writing Project, The Jewish Literary Journal, Kveller, Jewish Week, Newtown Literary Review, Down in the Dirt, and Down in the Dirt Collected Stories, 2021, Potato Soup and The Best of Potato Soup, 2021. Flash Fiction Magazine, Broadkill Review, Backchannels, Persimmon Tree, LochRaven, Avalon Literary Review, Chicken Soup For The Soul, Sanctuary Magazine, Write City Magazine, Hadassah Magazine and Delmarva Review.

http://www.ritaplush.com

http://www.facebook.com/ritaplush







Nothing Better to Do

by Tom Eubanks


He comes by every Saturday—my only day off—to watch me work in the garage. Sarah, my wife of 30 years, who still works as a nurse downtown, doesn’t like him. I think he’s figured that out, because he only comes by on Saturdays when she works a day shift and I’m home alone.

His name’s Jerry, he’s retired, and he always has news. News from the neighborhood. Who’s who, who’s doing what, what’s going on, all those private stories you find so interesting but you wish, ultimately, you didn’t know, because the next time you see that neighbor, all that’s careening around in your brain is what Jerry told you.

Lately, Jerry’s especially interested in the new couple who moved in at the end of the cul-de-sac. He knows their names—Tim and Jody. He’s very, very suspicious of them, because they’re from New Mexico, and he firmly believes that people living in New Mexico are nut-jobs—as he puts it—by telling a story of how one time he passed through Albuquerque, stopped at a Denny’s, ate his breakfast and how the waitress insisted that the meal was on the house, and then after he thanked her—still having no idea why she was letting him go without paying—she whispered, “And thank you for not hurting us.” He might have a point—if the story’s true. At the time, he asserted in that “just-so-you-know” voice that Albuquerque is “right next to Area 51,” except it isn’t. When I pointed out to him that it’s 700 miles away, he snorted and said, “Yeah, well, you oughta know that’s close enough.”

Tim and Jody have lived in our neighborhood just under a month and Jerry’s been on a binge to get to the bottom of something. I don’t have any idea what that something is, but he’s trained his retired brain with laser precision to find out about our new neighbors living three doors down from him, who don’t wave at anyone and don’t have children or dogs.

Jerry says, “I got news about neighbor Tim.”

“What?”

“He’s a member of a club.”

“A club.”

Jerry nods. “He’s a member of a club—some club, I don’t know what club, but he’s a member.”

I’m fixing the latch on my back porch screen door and distractedly say, “All right.”

“They went somewhere. And then they came back—today.”

“Who did?”

“The club.”

“Be more specific.”

“They came back on a good plane.”

That confuses me. “A good plane?”

Jerry says, “Yeah, a good plane. Not a bad one, a good one.”

“What does that mean exactly?” I say, wiping WD-40 off my fingers.

“Yeah, what does it mean? Ya know, maybe a good plane’s one that don’t never crash.”

“Not crashing’s good.”

He goes on: “Maybe they got more leg room.”

“That’s a good plane that’s got leg room,” I say to get him closer to the point of the story.

But he’s got another idea: “Maybe a good plane’s just faster.”

“Possibly.”

“Maybe a good plane shows up and takes off on time.”

“Definitely a good plane,” I say, leaning the screen door against the workbench. “But I don’t see where this is going.”

“It’s what he said,” Jerry says.

“And what exactly did he say?”

“He said, ‘My club came back on a good plane today.’”

“My club came back on a good plane today. Hm.”

“There’s somethin’ goin’ on there, some work-thing, I can feel it—and you know how I get these feelings—like, really strong tuition, know what I mean?”

I know he means “intuition,” but I’ve learned not to bother saying anything. And I have no idea how he’s come to a conclusion there’s anything going on, but you have to let Jerry get around to telling his story to understand the point sometimes, so I ask, “Okay, so what’s he do? What kind of work?”

“Get this: he’s what you call a day trader—he works the stock market.”

“What makes you think he works the stock market?”

“‘Cause he don’t go to work, and he reads The Wall Street Journal, Investor’s Business Daily and Traders Magazine. And I called my sister-in-law, who’s a receptionist for an accountant, told her what he reads, and she says he’s a day trader and she should know.”

“How do you know what he reads?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he says dismissively, “he just does, that’s all you have to know.”

I dismiss the thought that Jerry’s committing felonies by getting into their mailbox and tell him, “Okay, well, that doesn’t make sense then. Is there a club for day traders? I don’t know. So, what does he do besides work?”

“Rides a bike, works out.”

Knowing what he reads and how he spends his free time is way more than Jerry should know about Tim. “How do you know that, Jerry?”

“I pay attention, Mike. And I followed him. He rides his bike along the greenway every morning and he works out three afternoons a week over at Body Works across from Food City. I’m thinkin’, maybe it’s a bike club.”

“Bike clubs don’t fly on planes—good or bad—they ride bikes.”

Jerry shrugs. “Okay, what about a golf thing?”

“He plays golf?”

“Yep. Seen him play today.”

“You followed him?”

“Sort of,” Jerry says, trying to be mysterious about it. I refuse to entertain his phony mysteriousness, so he tells me, “I was comin’ out of the senior center after gettin’ my toenails clipped—they have free pedicures on Wednesdays—and I seen him drive by—probably after comin’ back on that good plane—and I was goin’ in about the same direction. Ended up at Brody Springs Golf Club and played eighteen holes with three other guys. He’s been here all of a month and already he has three golf buddies? Right? See what I’m sayin’? And they played for money. And he won.”

“How do you know that?” I ask.

“I keep binoculars in the trunk.”

“You waited around for four hours while he played golf? I don’t think you should spy on your neighbors, Jerry.”

“Well, Michael, it’s not up to you to decide what I do with my day, is it? You like workin’ your ass off six days a week. So be it. Sarah likes workin’ twelve-hour shifts, waitin’ on sick people all day. So be it. Me? I’m retired, Mike. It’s a free country. Tim’s out in public. It’s not like I’m peekin’ in his window, for cryin’ out loud.”

I’ve learned not to take anything Jerry says too personal. I take a couple of breaths and ask, “So when they finished, you were close enough to tell he won the match?”

“Yep. He won a hundred-fifty bucks. Each guy paid him fifty.”

“You saw this with binoculars?”

“No. I was sittin’ at the next table in the clubhouse.”

I carry the screen door outside to the back porch doorway and Jerry follows me. I begin to screw the hinges into the doorframe and realize something. “You’re sitting at the next table and he doesn’t recognize you?” He gets uncomfortable, sniffing and looking off into the woods. “Jerry. He didn’t recognize you sitting at the next table?”

“No, Mike, he didn’t.” I stare back at him, waiting for the whole truth. He huffs and says, “If you have to know, I was . . . wearin’ a mask.”

“A mask. What kind of mask?”

“Covid?”

“Like, a cloth mask?”

“Yep. One of those baby blue throw-aways.”

“But no one wears masks around here anymore, Jerry.”

“I keep it in my car.”

“For what?”

“Occasions like this.”

“What occasion? I’m not getting this.”

He rolls his eyes. “Oh, Michael, Michael. When I need a disguise.”

“What? You’re disguised?”

“As a Californian, yep.” He pulls on the front of his T shirt, which is a print of a surfboard superimposed over a sandy beach that reads, California Dreamin’. “Part of my disguise.”

“Where’d you get that?”

“Some store, I don’t know. I keep it in the trunk with the binoculars.”

“So you’re sitting at the next table pretending to be a—what? California tourist?”

Jerry says proudly, “Yep. Drinkin’ a beer and getting video with my iPhone.”

“Sounds conspicuous.”

“Not at all. Turn it on, stick it in my shirt pocket so the camera peeks out. Under the radar.”

“So you got video?”

Jerry smiles conspiratorially, takes out his phone, scrolls and finds the video. He presses

“play” and hands it to me. I watch it. And there’s Tim, sitting in the clubhouse with three other golfers, having a sandwich and a beer, when he gets a call. And after Tim says “hello,” he tells the caller something—it’s difficult to hear what, because the audio is poor. But then he turns slightly in his seat and the sound is clearer. Tim says, “Today, my club came back on a good plane.”

“There it is,” Jerry says. “He’s a member of a club and just got back from somewhere on a plane—and the plane was—”

I stab my hand with the screwdriver. From the shock of—I don’t know—amazement? Tim was talking about swinging his golf club. Checking the extent of the wound, I say, “The plane of his golf swing, Jerry, is the angle of the circular motion of the swing!”

“Oh, wow, Mike, you’re bleedin’!” he says, ignoring that I’ve just solved the riddle for him. “Lemme get you a Band-Aid!”

“That’s all right, Jerry,” I say, tossing the screwdriver on a chair and squeezing my hand. The wound is bleeding badly and a sharp pain is coming on strong. Jerry’s already inside my house. I follow him, calling out, “What’re you doing? I can get my own Band-Aid, Jerry!”

I head for the guest bathroom. Jerry’s in my kitchen. I hear him open a drawer. I open the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. No Band-Aids.

Jerry calls out: “Where’d you go? I got your Band-Aids!”

He finds me in the guest bathroom. Blood is dripping down my wrist. Jerry holds up the box of Band-Aids.

Jerry asks: “What’re you doin’ in here? Sarah moved the Band-Aids to the top drawer in the kitchen a month ago!”



BIO

Tom Eubanks’ stories have appeared in The Woven Tale Press, The Oddville Press, pioneertown, The Courtship of Winds, The McGuffin, Los Angeles Review of Los Angeles, and Rivanna Review.  His novel, Worlds Apart, was published in 2009; five of his full-length plays have been produced.  He served 14 seasons as Artistic Director for The Elite Theatre Company and presently serves as Founding Artistic Director for Theater 23 in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he lives as a recovering Californian. 







Lost Thought

By Duane Anderson


Something finally showed up
after a too long of time,
knocking at the door to my mind,
a thought, patiently waiting
for me to open it up
before disappearing,
lost and forgotten,
like the many before it,
but once again, not quick enough.


WAOFTMM

(WHISKEY ALPHA ZERO FOX TROT MIKE MIKE)


We do not talk any more.
I do not understand his language.
Dots and dashes,
dashes and dots.
I have no antenna
or radio
to receive his messages.
He speaks in Morse code.
He may as well speak
the language of the apes.



BIO

Duane Anderson currently lives in La Vista, NE. He has had poems published in Fine Lines, Cholla Needles, Tipton Poetry Journal, and several other publications. He is the author of ‘On the Corner of Walk and Don’t Walk,’ The Blood Drives: One Pint Down,’ and ‘Conquer the Mountains.’











Dad Stuff

by Toni Kochensparger


All of the dads on the block bought different fireworks.

The ritual had gone on for years: each Independence Day, the ten or twelve families who lived on California Avenue shuffled through a line of backyards, watching explosions. With the exception of two different rivalries (otherwise represented in the landscaping of their respective front yards), the natural competition resulting from each house’s decadent destruction was basically harmless. Each year, the neighborhood kids all voted on a favorite and the winning house received a lawn ornament, shaped like Uncle Sam, to be displayed, during the intervening period.

“Todd’s really fucking up this year,” Tevin’s dad whispered. “It’s going to take him forever to keep the sequence going.”

Tevin grinned at his dad. Cursing was what they did in secret, when his stepmom was out-of-earshot. He glanced over at her–at Kathy–who was giving Greg Gerolski’s mom (notorious for over-politeness) what looked like the ear-beating of the century, likely regarding her latest collection, a series of ceramic bird statues from Hallmark which currently clustered the house like gnats and which Tevin’s dad had privately told him, on multiple occasions, were the absolute bane of his existence.

“He should have just built out the launchpad,” Tevin’s dad whispered, “instead of lighting them all, one-by-one.”

“Fuckin’ A,” Tevin whispered. The two of them grinned at each other, then turned back to the sky, full of gunpowder.

*

“She looks smug, doesn’t she? She looks smug.” Kathy had been standing at the living room window for the last hour, peering through the blinds while Bonnie McArthur (Tommy’s mom) trimmed the hedges on either side of Uncle Sam.

Kathy’s rivalry with Bonnie was a secret from Bonnie, who thought they were friendly. Tevin’s dad had stopped Kathy, on multiple occasions, from sneaking across the street in the dead of night to pour bleach in Bonnie’s flowerbed.

Kathy often became manic, in the evening time, a psychosis most often represented by a complete rearrangement of the birds, which she splayed all over the living room, a habit Tevin’s dad had told him, privately, was a manifestation of Kathy’s need for personal space, which she wouldn’t meet, otherwise. She was almost always in the same room as Tevin’s dad, a cause for concern, early in their marriage, on Tevin’s part, because there are some things about growing up that you can really only talk about with your father. In addition to emanating hysteria, the clusterfuck of ceramics meant the path through the living room was completely blocked off, which meant taking the long way, through the kitchen and den, to get anywhere. The whole thing was a nightmare for everyone involved.

“I don’t understand why she can’t get the fucking things herself,” Tevin told his dad, in the car, a few days after the firework crawl.

Language,” said his dad, in his best imitation of Kathy. They both laughed. His dad turned onto Indian Ripple. “I figure this gets us out of the house for a while,” he said. “I figure, we try to find this stupid thing she wants, fast, and then we go somewhere and have some fun. If she asks, we’ll just tell her we had to drive to the Hallmark in Springboro to find the goddamn thing.”

“You’ll probably score some points cussa that,” said Tevin. “Maybe she’ll fuck you.”

God willing,” his dad said. “There’s been a draught on the level with Grapes of Wrath. Your dad’s getting rusty.”

“Mr. Crawford told us, in Sex Ed, that we should use lotion,” said Tevin. “It shouldn’t be rusty.”

“That’s good,” his dad said. “That was quick.”

Tevin smiled. His dad had always been brutally honest, when it came to jokes. When Tevin was still in the knock-knock stage, and trying to come up with his own, his dad would always point out whenever they didn’t make sense and make him try again, a practice that used to drive Tevin’s mom crazy (“You’re not Lorne Michaels,” he heard her say to his dad one time, “and your son is six.”)

After they had retrieved what they both prayed was the correct ceramic bird, Tevin’s dad drove them to Maverick’s, the comic book shop they’d been visiting since Tevin was too-young to read. He was always allowed to pick out two single issues, which evolved over the years from the little kid books, like Roger Rabbit, to more advanced series, currently a run of Superman Tevin liked which was, admittedly, ridiculous (in the current arc, Superman had become electric and had an evil twin), but still fun to talk about. When he was little, his dad would read the comics to him, with Tevin on his lap, looking at the pictures, telling a kind of PG-version of what was happening in the story. Now, they both read their respective periodicals of choice and then traded off. It was a seamless transition: by the time Tevin started actually reading his dad’s selections, he was fully caught up on the narratives, which were frequently much more graphic than the versions his dad used to tell him, often morbidly so.

“Hey John,” Tevin’s dad said to the owner, as they made their way into the store.

“Got ‘em right here,” said John, who had Tevin’s dad’s weekly picks in a stack on the counter (you could sign up to have each month’s issues of whatever you were reading set aside). “Saw you two park the Camry.”

Tevin wandered through the store while the two men caught up. The shop—like all comic book stores—was like being inside a kaleidoscope, this little explosion of color all around you: illustrations, posters, statues, game pieces, action figures, and trading cards. The first time Tevin visited, he thought the place looked like when you walked through the gates of a carnival.

“So how is it?” Tevin’s dad asked. Tevin always started reading as soon as they got in the car.

“It’s not very subtle,” said Tevin. He had learned about the concept of subtlety the previous week and was using it to describe everything he could, most frequently Kathy. “Superman goes back home to show his parents what he looks like, now. He just used his powers to draw the logo on his chest.”

“Is changing his appearance one of his powers?” his dad asked, signaling a left. “What are the rules of this world?”

“The whole thing’s pretty stupid, so far,” Tevin said. “Like: I still don’t really get why an electric Superman is any different than a normal Superman.”

“You just said it’s because he has different powers.”

“Yeah, but he was already Superman,” said Tevin. “He basically already had all the powers there are.”

“Fair point,” his dad said. “Superman’s hard to make interesting.”

“He’s interesting,” said Tevin. “He’s Superman.”

“Right,” said his dad. “That’s the problem. I mean, he can do basically anything. He’s like Sherlock Holmes.”

“Sherlock Holmes doesn’t have powers.”

“No, but Sherlock Holmes is, like…a genius, right?”

“Right,” said Tevin.

“Not even that: he’s not even just a genius, he’s like…the smartest man who ever lived. He can solve anything.”

“Okay, but he’s still not a superhero.”

“That’s not my point. My point is that if Sherlock Holmes can literally solve any mystery, what’s the point of a story where he’s got to solve a mystery? Like, he’s always going to figure it out.”

Tevin thought for a moment. “If Superman has the most, like…the strongest powers, what’s the point of attacking him with a bad guy?”

Exactly,” said his dad. “He literally can’t be killed.”

“I thought he was killed,” said Tevin. “Don’t you have that one, like…that special edition with the box in the garage?”

“They didn’t even kill him in that,” his dad said. “He comes back to life in the second volume. Not comes back to life, I mean: he was never fully dead, in the first place. And the thing they got to “kill” him was just some random monster. It’s a real shit show.”

“What about kryptonite?” asked Tevin.

“Kryptonite’s dumb as hell, too,” his dad said. They were almost home. “Kryptonite just weakens him. He needs to have, like…alien leukemia, or something. There needs to be something that can actually cause him to die.”

They turned onto California Avenue and parked in their driveway, where they tucked the comic books under the seats and double-checked that nothing had happened to the bird, during transport.

*

Kathy was in another one of her moods. “Tevin, I need you to dust the shelves before we add the blue jay,” she said, holding the bird. She almost always referenced her collection with a royal we, which Tevin quickly discerned indicated collective responsibility, rather than ownership.

“I’ve got homework,” Tevin said, clearing his dinner plate. “I’ve got math.”

“You’re great at math,” said Kathy. She turned to Tevin’s dad. “Isn’t he great at math?” She turned back to Tevin. “Come on, it’ll take you five minutes to do your homework. The dusting will barely take that long. Then you’ll have the rest of the night to goof around.”

The last time Tevin was assigned to dust the bird shelves, it took forty-five minutes.

“Remember: you have to pick up all the birds as you go,” Kathy said, getting a rag and spray can for Tevin. “You can’t just dust around them, or they’ll break.”

Tevin knew better than to argue. He and his dad had learned that lesson early on, in the marriage. Back then, Kathy was collecting Beanie Babies which were, it turned out, absolutely worth driving to multiple stores for, even if Tevin’s cartoons were on next.

“Well, we need to find out more, before we do anything,” Kathy was telling Tevin’s dad, in the next room, as Tevin picked up bird after bird in her collection. He imagined them chirping, like real birds, an internal sound he strained to turn up, as Kathy talked. She had a voice like The Nanny, but worse.

He couldn’t understand the point of collecting anything that wasn’t comics. His dad couldn’t either—a conversation the two of them had had, one of the first time he took his son to Mavericks:

“But I don’t want a book. I can’t even read,” Tevin had told him, holding an action figure.

His dad then explained something that stuck with Tevin—a moment Tevin would later grow up to define as a core memory:

“Look: first of all, you have way too many toys. But that’s not why I’m saying No. I’m saying No because the difference between buying one of the comic books and buying an action figure is that each comic book is a container for a story.” He paused, then kneeled down to get on Tevin’s level. “Here’s the thing: for the rest of your life, as long as you’re a person, what’s the first thing you have to do, every morning?”

“Poop.”

“No, before that.”

“Oh…” Tevin thought for a second. “Wake up?”

After you wake up. What’s the first thing you have to do, to begin your day?”

“…get out of bed?”

Exactly,” said Tevin’s dad. “That’s the first thing you have to do. That’s the first thing we all have to do.”

“Dad, what are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about curiosity,” his dad said. Of all the moments in their whole conversation, this was the one where the image was the clearest, in Tevin’s mind.

“Curiosity?”

“Curiosity is what actually gets you out of bed. It’s what gets me out of bed. And the same goes for everybody,” said his dad. “Even if it’s just to see what happens when you try to take a shit: the thing that makes your body physically get up and start your day is when some part of you wonders what’s going to happen next.”

All around them, surrounding his dad’s speech, was the carnival of the comics store, exploding.

His dad continued: “If I buy you the action figure, you’ll probably have it for…I don’t know…let’s say six years. And that’s fine. You’ll have fun with it. You’ll make up games. It’ll keep you company, even—in its own way. But, the difference between an action figure and a comic book is that comic books tell stories. And the whole point of stories is to nurture your curiosity.” He placed his hand on Tevin’s shoulder, a hand Tevin could feel, even now, as he dusted the shelves in the living room. “All stories are, are a series of questions. The person writing the story’s job is to think of really good ones, the kind that keep you turning the pages. The more questions you have, the more pages you’ll turn—the more you’ll want to find out what happens, next.”

Tevin could hear Kathy droning on, in the dining room. She was talking lower now as if, for once, what she was saying was actually important. Unlike the chirping birds, the memory of his dad’s speech could be turned up, loud, in his mind. Then he couldn’t hear Kathy, at all:

“Getting out of bed is like turning the page. You have to physically do it. In the story of your life—like in the story of mine and the story of everyone else’s, in the world, since the beginning of time—there are going to be days when that’s really hard to do.”

“Why is it hard?” Tevin asked.

“It’s hard because…well, you remember when your mom and I…when everything changed?” his dad asked. It had been just over a year, since the divorce.

Yeah,” said Tevin, looking down.

Tevin’s dad moved his hand from his son’s shoulder to the back of his head, tilting it up, so that they could look at each other. “Do you remember when I was really sad? When we both were—those first couple months?”

Tevin nodded his head.

His dad went on: “Sometimes, when you feel like that, it’s difficult to want to get up and go do things. Now, when you’re an adult, you won’t have the option. You’ll have to go to work. Or, if you’re a parent, you’ll have to make your kid breakfast. Probably waffles.” Tevin smiled a little. “Okay, so: in order to do those things, when you’re feeling sad, you’ve gotta have a really strong curiosity.”

Tevin smiled now, thinking back. He had stopped dusting and was just standing still, ceramic bird in hand. This was his favorite thing his dad ever told him.

“We have to read a lot of stories because we have to exercise our curiosities. We have to make them strong.”

“Like the Hulk?”

“Yeah, but this kind of strong is in here,” his dad said, placing the palm of his hand flat, against Tevin’s chest.

“I don’t understand.”

“Stories,” his dad said, “are how a person raises their soul.”

Tevin.”

Tevin looked up from where he was standing, holding the bird, to see Kathy, in the entryway.

“You should have been done twenty minutes ago,” she said. “Come on. Finish up, so you can go do your homework.”

*

Tevin’s crush lived two houses down and was named Jenny. The kids had met the first day that Tevin and his dad moved into the new house, but hardly spoken a word to each other in the three years, since—not even on the Fourth of July. Sometimes, Tevin didn’t look at the fireworks, at all.

Jenny was always out the window, it seemed, biking up and down the street with girls who also went to their school and who wouldn’t be caught dead, talking to Tevin, which basically discouraged any and all pursuit of twelve-year-old love. Instead, Tevin hid up in his room, drawing Spider-Man, whose neighbor, Mary Jane Watson, looked more and more like Jenny, with each picture.

“Are you ever going to try and actually talk to her?” his dad asked, as the two of them painted the dining room, a project Kathy was conspicuously absent from, seeking a ceramic robin in Xenia that had been advertised for sale in the Sunday paper.

Tevin traced the edge of the back door with precision. He was good at this. “I’m pretty sure our current plan is to love each other secretly, at a distance.

“Like Romeo and Juliet.”

“What happens in Romeo and Juliet?”

“They both die,” said his dad.

“That sounds right,” said Tevin, scraping his brush on the paint can’s inner rim. “We’ll love each other secretly, from far away, and then, one day, we’ll die.”

Tevin’s dad set his brush down and stretched.

“You know, love’s probably worth your time,” he said.

“Are you in love?” Tevin asked.

“I’m married.”

“Yeah, but are you in love?

Tevin’s dad studied his son for a moment. Then he took a drink of water and said, “I mean, it doesn’t always turn out the way you…look: I’m just saying it’s one of the good things in life.”

“I think I’d rather read comic books,” said Tevin.

“A lot of comic books are about love.”

“They’re mostly about what happens when the girl the superhero love gets kidnapped.”

“Well, sure, but…I mean: why do you think they always risk their lives trying to save her?”

“Because they’re stupid,” said Tevin.

“Because they’re in love,” his dad said. He picked up his paintbrush, again. “Half of all the superheroes that exist wouldn’t do any hero-ing at all if they didn’t love somebody.”

Batman doesn’t have a girlfriend.”

“Yeah, but he loved his parents. That’s what kick started the whole thing.”

“His parents died,” said Tevin. “I don’t want to love somebody, just so they can die.”

Tevin’s dad paused. “Well, you know…that’s part of it, too. That’s what makes us human. And, that’s part of what makes love love. You don’t know how much time you’re actually going to get to spend with a person. You just kind of…hold onto them while you still can. Look: it’s a rare thing for two people to truly love each other. It’s even more rare when that happens and they actually like each other. It’s kind of like…okay, you know when you’re watching a really good movie?”

“Like Mission: Impossible?”

“Exactly. Like Mission: Impossible. So, you know how—in the middle of the movie—there’s that moment when you know it’s going to end?” his dad asked.

“Yeah. When he’s on the train.”

“Right. But, I mean: you know when you’re enjoying the movie, like having a really good time, but you realize that time can’t go on forever. The movie can’t just keep going. You’re having fun but, you know—eventually—the fun’s going to stop.”

“…I guess?” Tevin said.

“Okay, so: when that happens…when Tom Cruise is…when he’s hooked up to the wires and, you know—you’ve seen it a hundred times—that you’re about halfway through the fun and in, like…an hour, you’re going to have to leave the Mission: Impossible world and go do your homework, or something—do you stop having fun?”

“…no,” said Tevin.

Right,” said his dad. “Exactly. When you think about that—when you figure out you’re in the middle and it’s a thing that’s going on right now and you’ve only got a little bit left, it starts to make what’s happening—the scene with the wires—more special. Because, in an hour, it’ll be gone. All of it.”

“And that’s like a person?”

“That’s like love. It only happens to you when it’s happening. And, you never know when it’s going to stop. It could be two weeks. It could be…it could be: you get to spend your whole life with someone. Like, someone you really like. Someone who makes you laugh. Someone who’s fun to hang out with.”

“But Kathy sucks.”

“Forget Kathy,” said his dad. “I mean: like a person who’s really, really special. Someone who makes the time that you spend together really worth it. Like: if you weren’t hanging out with that person, you’d be missing out on something really, really good.”

“Okay, but Kathy sucks.”

“Kathy’s…Kathy’s just…Kathy,” his dad said. “Kathy’s Varsity Blues. I’m talking about a person who’s Mission: Impossible. What if you found out that there were, like…twelve other Mission: Impossible movies? Would you watch them?”

Duh.”

“Even if you knew that the last one was the last one, ever?”

Duh, Dad.”

“Why would you watch them?” his dad asked.

“Because it’s Mission: Impossible.”

“Okay, but why do you watch Mission: Impossible? Why do you watch any movie?”

Tevin thought for a moment and then said, “To see what happens.”

“And there it is,” his dad said, setting down his brush, again. “Even though the story’s going to end, you still have to see how it’s going to go.”

Curiosity.”

Tevin’s dad smiled at him. “Love’s just another kind of story,” he said. “A powerful one.”

Tevin looked down at his shoes. Several blue dots of paint littered the floor: he didn’t realize, but he had stopped painting the trim. He was just standing, holding a dripping brush.

“…I should try to talk to her,” he said.

“Probably, yeah,” his dad said, resuming his work. “Make sure to ask if she collects ceramic birds.”

*

“I swear to God.”

Kathy had been jittery all day. The conversation in the front of the car had ranged from whispers to almost-shouting, which Tevin watched, from the back seat, as the three of them made their way to church.

“You don’t know that,” he heard her say.

Sometimes, when Kathy and his dad fought, Tevin would turn up the sound on his CD player. Sometimes, he would get curious or afraid and hit PAUSE to try and get context for whatever was happening. Mostly, he would just ignore his dad and his stepmom and draw.

He carried his sketchbook everywhere. His dad had bought him his first one when he was seven, to entice him to stop drawing in crayon, on his bedroom wall. Tevin took to it, immediately, and, as the habit developed, new sketchbooks evolved to become a cornerstone of his dad’s love language—a sort of insistence on providing whatever his son required, like a caveman, making sure his offspring had a hide to sleep in. The task was always urgent, for his dad—like something primal. He offered it to Kathy, in the form of breakable birds.

“I’m just trying to be realistic,” his dad whispered, in the driver’s seat, lowering the volume of the argument, just as Tevin turned up the volume on his Journey CD.

Jenny also went to their church. Her mother—Mona—was another one of Kathy’s secret rivals, a woman she especially hated after a neighborhood barbecue, where she decided Mona’s remarks, regarding her pasta salad, were probably sarcastic. As such, Tevin and his family routinely sat on the opposite side of wherever Jenny’s family was sitting, and church, itself, was littered with Kathy’s quiet commentary on Mona, who she stared at, the entirety of the service.

“So, are you going to talk to her?” Tevin’s dad whispered, while they waited for their row’s turn to join the line for Communion.

“I don’t even know what to say,” said Tevin.

“Just say Hi,” his dad said.

Hi?

“What’s wrong with Hi?”

“Nothing. Just: what do I say after that?” Tevin asked.

“I don’t know…nice service today?”

“That sounds like I’m talking about a restaurant,” said Tevin. “Or that I’m, like…really into church.”

“So? Maybe she is.”

“Yeah, but I’m not,” said Tevin. This was true: Kathy, who was currently in the bathroom, pulling out her hair about Mona, was the only reason that they ever went, making it all the more ironic that she talked through every mass.

“Okay, well: maybe she isn’t, either,” his dad said. “Look: the whole point of the first conversation is to try and find common ground. Curiosity, right? You want to find something you’re both interested in, so she’ll want to talk more, later. You want to ensure her that there’s more to say.”

“I can’t just talk about church,” said Tevin.

“Okay, so: talk about something else. Talk about comics.”

Tevin shot his dad a look.

“Or drawing. I don’t know,” his dad said. “Just pick a topic and ask her what she thinks of it. The main thing is to ask her questions. People like it when someone gives them a chance to share their opinions. Plus: the conversation’s just as much about nurturing your curiosity about her as it is nurturing her curiosity about you.”

“What if I can’t think of any questions?” asked Tevin.

“You’re great at asking questions,” his dad said. “You just asked me a question.”

“That’s different.”

Look,” his dad said. “It’s simple, okay? Pick a topic you’re interested in that you think she might be interested in, too, maybe. Share one thing you think about the topic and then move on to her, right away.” His dad stood up to get in line for communion. “First, say Hi.”

Tevin glanced over at Jenny and her family, as he stood up. When he made it to the front of the line, he declined the wine, certain, beyond a doubt, that he’d throw up, from nerves.

“After we finish the dining room, we’re going to do the hallway,” his dad said, when they returned to their pew. “We should be able to finish them both, this afternoon.”

“Oh, come on,” said Tevin.

“It’s not my idea and I think you know that,” his dad said.

“But why do we have to do it today?” Tevin asked.

“Again: not my idea.”

Tevin groaned. Half of the summer was over, already. The second half had been partially (mostly) ruined by math camp (also a Kathy idea). Before long, the whole thing would be dead and he’d be back at school, where everyone thought he was a nerd and where he was always getting in trouble for drawing in class.

He looked over at Jenny, again. Jenny, like 99% of the school, didn’t have to spend her mornings, during summer, practicing algebra. Jenny was always biking on their block, or eating ice cream outside, or laughing with her friends while Tevin watched from the window, like Jimmy Stewart.

“Would the both of you please get it together?” Kathy asked, as she returned to the pew. The patch on the side of her head was missing even more hair than usual. “I can hear you two talking from three rows back.”

Tevin felt his dad’s hand on his shoulder. He felt it, again, at the end of church, as the two stood, patiently, while Kathy talked, cheerfully, to Mona.

“You got this,” his dad whispered, but all Tevin managed to say out-loud to Jenny was Hi.

*

Tevin got in trouble for drawing at math camp, too, a subject of more than one argument with Kathy, at dinner, who would remind Tevin that camp wasn’t free and that she worked hard, at her job, to help pay for Tevin to improve his algebra skills.

“Never mind that each of those birds costs thirty dollars,” his dad had mentioned to him once, following a particularly ugly meal.

Tevin shaded the claws jutting out from Wolverine’s knuckles, as Jenny played cards with one of her friends on her porch, summer sun all but igniting her hair. He had spent the afternoon cleaning the gutters with his dad (a Kathy plan, while she did laundry, acting like a hero for her role), a task he performed while constantly checking to make sure Jenny wasn’t across the street, watching. He let out an actual sigh of relief when the chore was complete—not because the work was finished, but because, at that point, her friend had not arrived, and she had yet to make her way out to the porch.

“Your dad and I were thinking that we could go to Christopher’s on Friday,” Kathy said that evening, at dinner. The end of the week marked the end of Tevin’s time at math camp, an accomplishment Tevin and his dad each privately suspected Kathy thought of as her own—particularly since Christopher’s was Kathy’s favorite restaurant.

“It’s a big deal that you finished the camp,” she said. “It shows initiative. And it shows dedication.”

She beemed as if someone was saying these things about her.

His dad turned to Kathy. “Hon, I’ve got…I mean, we should consider Saturday, instead,” he said, looking more than a little uncomfortable.

“Why can’t we do Friday?” Tevin asked.

“I just think…it’s just Saturday works out better,” said his dad. “Friday’s…you know: sometimes I have to stay late, at work.”

“But you’ll be done by 3:30,” Kathy said to Tevin’s dad, firing a look. “You specifically said.”

“But what if…” His dad trailed off.

“You said you’d be done,” said Kathy.

“No, I’m just saying—”

Wayne,” said Kathy. The whole table was silent, for a minute. Tevin looked at them both. They seemed to be having some sort of telepathic conversation, which didn’t include Tevin, who then looked down at his food.

“Fine,” his dad said, finally. “Fine. We’ll do Friday.”

Great,” said Kathy, suddenly cheerful, as if there had never been an issue. “I’ll call and get us a reservation.”

“We don’t need a reservation for Christopher’s,” Tevin’s dad said. This was true: it wasn’t that kind of a restaurant. It wasn’t fancy, at all, actually—just a little sit-down spot in a strip mall, a few doors down from Mavericks. The two businesses shared the building with a shoe store and a Family Dollar.

“They take reservations,” said Kathy. “It’s Friday.”

“No one’s ever really in there,” said Tevin’s dad. “And they have that whole second room.”

“I’m going to try that new salmon,” Kathy said, ignoring him. “Oh! I’m excited!” She turned to Tevin. “See: this is what happens when we dedicate ourselves.”

*

The rest of the week was a fever of variables and housework and Wolverine. Tevin watched, as the summer passed him by, while Jenny ate snow cones, and gossiped, and tried to teach herself to stand on the seat of her bike.

On Friday, math camp came to its stunning conclusion, a test everyone took and a pizza party no one enjoyed (Tevin bonded, on more than one occasion, with his fellow campers, who were all also there at the behest of a parent who believed children should be raised in the fiery waters of Hell).

“How’d it go?” Tevin’s dad asked, as Tevin climbed into the car.

“I feel like I’m brain dead,” said Tevin.

“That sounds about right.”

“I really fucking hate doing math,” Tevin said. “I feel like I just wasted the entire summer.”

“Well, did you learn anything, at least?” his dad asked.

“I learned not to marry someone like Kathy.”

Tevin’s dad winced.

“You know: she’s trying,” he said.

“I know,” said Tevin, leaning his face into the window.

“She’s…she’s a good person,” his dad said. “Like, underneath.”

It was true that Kathy had her moments. It was true that Kathy never tried to replace Tevin’s mom, a conscious effort she had vocalized, when she and Tevin’s dad got married. For all her bullshit, she never said an unkind word about his mother, and even seemed to genuinely respect the woman, even if it sometimes came out in the form of telling his dad, “I don’t know how Sarah ever put up with you.” She always asked Tevin about his mom, when he got back from her house, and was kindest to him, in these moments. Her parents were divorced, also, and this shared fact seemed to inspire some sense of connection with the boy—an unspoken understanding of the small things that make a person feel grounded, when that happens. This was the Kathy that Tevin liked best.

“We have a reservation,” Kathy said, proudly, to the hostess at Christopher’s. The restaurant was practically empty.

They were seated at a table by the window and handed laminated menus. Kathy pretended to pour over hers, like the place was unfamiliar, even though she ate there, almost three days of every week, for lunch.

Hi, Kathy,” said their waitress who, Tevin could tell, had seen enough of her, for one lifetime.

“Oh, Becky: how are you?” Kathy asked. This wasn’t the fake tone she used with Bonnie McArthur or Mona. She genuinely cared how the waitress was doing—Becky, the sacred keeper of the new salmon. Becky, the symbol of all things good about Christopher’s.

“It went well,” Tevin heard his dad whisper to Kathy, as Tevin picked out a sandwich from the menu, all of which came with potato chips. “I mean: considering.”

“Okay, good,” said Kathy.

Tevin hid his face with his menu and looked out at the parking lot. Across the street, past the Taco Bell, the sun lingered, singing a late summer song, behind the façade of another strip mall with a Great Clips.

“After this, I want to see if we can’t figure out the closets,” Kathy said to Tevin’s dad, when they had ordered. “And, Tevin: I want you to do a spot-check on the birds.”

“Do I have to?” Tevin asked. His dad’s eyes grew wide. “It’s like…it’s the last day of camp.”

Kathy’s face flushed with just the faintest bit of red. “What’s that tone?

Tevin’s body became stiff. He said, “No, I just mean, like…maybe, I could do the birds tomorrow? Just, like, because camp’s over.”

“I believe I said I want you to do them tonight,” said Kathy.

“But—”

“Camp is finished. That’s why we’re celebrating,” Kathy said. She gestured toward the rest of the restaurant. “This is for you, remember? The least you could do is a simple spot-check.”

Tevin’s dad turned to Kathy. “Maybe we should let the boy have the night off,” he said.

Kathy glared. “So, now you’re on his side?”

“I just mean—”

“He’s got plenty of extra time, now that camp’s over. He’s got plenty of time to do his drawings.”

Tevin clutched his sketchbook, in his lap. During the worst of these arguments, his drawings had been a focal point for Kathy’s anger as they related to her needs. He didn’t want his art brought into this.

“The boy’s been working hard all summer,” said Tevin’s dad. “I just mean: maybe we let the poor kid have a break.”

“A break?” Kathy asked. “He’s already on break.”

“Kathy—”

“How come he gets a break? Why don’t I get a break?”

“He’s twelve.”

“We have a whole house that needs put together,” Kathy said. “We have two more weeks to do it, before the school year starts.”

“So, why can’t he have a goddamn…” Tevin’s dad stopped short. Tevin looked at him. Every time either of them had accidentally cursed in the middle of an argument, Kathy took it as a personal affront, and escalated things.

“You really want to do this, Wayne?” she asked. “During celebration dinner?

Tevin turned bright red. The few families, also dining, were starting to notice Kathy.

“At Christopher’s, of all places,” she said, growing louder.

“Kathy—”

“We are having a nice night,” she said. “And this is what you do.”

It was at this point that Tevin noticed a familiar face, on the other side of the dining room. Jenny and her mom were having dinner, together. They were both looking at his table.

Jenny stared at Kathy and then at Tevin, whose heart sank like rocks in Virginia Woolf’s pockets.

“Kathy, can you please—” his dad began.

“Can I please what?

“People are—”

“You always do this, Wayne. You always start these things. When we’re in the middle of some kind of nice—”

Here we go, gang,” said a nervous voice.

The three of them looked up. Becky was holding a tray with their meals. Tevin had no idea how long she’d been standing there.

Becky,” Kathy said, attempting grace.

Becky set down each of their plates.

“Right. Um…we’ve got a Filmore,” she said, setting Tevin’s sandwich down, in front of him. “A Christopher sandwich, and…the salmon,” she said, setting Kathy’s plate down, last, like a bowl of dog food for a chow with sharp teeth.

Thank you, Becky,” Kathy said, now fully-pretending everything was normal. “It looks wonderful.”

Becky scurried back to the kitchen.

Kathy held her silverware, still in its napkin, next to her plate, with the energy of a highwayman, holding a buck knife. “I can’t believe you would embarrass me like that,” she whispered to Tevin’s dad. “I can’t believe you would embarrass me at Christopher’s.”

Tevin looked across the dining room. Jenny’s eyes were locked on Kathy.

“You know, I’m so angry, I can hardly even eat,” Kathy said, digging into her salmon. Tevin and his dad both sat, frozen, watching her, neither of their silverware, unwrapped.

What?” Kathy asked. She looked from one of them to the other. “Come on. We’re having dinner. Eat.

*

Kathy finished her food in record time and left the two of them at the restaurant. Tevin watched, as she pulled out of the parking lot, her car nearly hitting the curb, as she made the turn onto the street.

Jesus,” his dad said, setting down his sandwich like a sailor, who no longer had to pull rope, in a storm, the sails finally in place and getting their wind.

“She’s like a nuclear bomb,” said Tevin.

Tevin’s dad was looking out, at Kathy’s empty parking spot. “I think…I think she just had a bad day,” he said, almost to himself.

“She was in a good mood when we got here,” Tevin said. He glanced at Jenny and her mom, who had finally returned to their conversation and were ignoring his family’s table.

Tevin and his dad ate in silence for a few minutes chewing, uneasily.

“You know, I’m proud of you for finishing that camp,” his dad said, finally. “I know you weren’t…I know you weren’t exactly thrilled to be a part of it.”

“I didn’t exactly have a choice,” said Tevin.

“Right,” his dad said. “Right, but…I’m still proud of you.”

They looked at each other. Tevin’s face relaxed, just a little. He smiled at his dad.

“You know, maybe…maybe, when we’re finished here, we could head over next door and look around, a little.”

Tevin’s face relaxed a bit more. “But it isn’t new comics day.”

“Well…maybe we head over, anyway,” said his dad. “We’re celebrating, after all.”

*

The kaleidoscope swirled around them as they walked into Mavericks.

“Hey, Wayne,” said John.

“Hey, John.”

Tevin and his dad made their way past all the baseball and Pokemon cards to where the comic books were.

“Go ahead and pick out something good,” his dad said. “Whatever you like.” He practically said the same exact words he said, the first time they visited the store together—when he told Tevin about curiosity.

Tevin wandered through the long cardboard boxes of back issues until he found The Uncanny X-Men.

“You don’t want some old Supermans?” his dad asked.

“I think I’m done with Superman,” said Tevin. “I think I’ve grown out of it, maybe. Plus, I keep thinking about Sherlock Holmes.”

“Well, I hate to break it to you, but Wolverine is also pretty-much unkillable.”

“I know. But, I figure: he’s got less powers. So the stories are probably more interesting.”

“They are,” said his dad. “Especially the ones by Chris Claremont.”

“Which ones are those?” Tevin asked.

“Here, let me find them. We’re looking for stuff from the 70s.”

Tevin’s dad leaned over him and flipped through the long line of old comic books. He could smell his dad’s cologne as he watched the man’s fingers skitter through the plastic sleeves encasing each issue, the same fingers—the same hands—that had held him, as a child.

Here we go,” his dad said. “All of these. From here to…” Tevin’s dad located the end of Claremont’s run. “Here.”

Tevin grinned. He looked up, at him. Then, without thinking, he wrapped his arms tight, around his dad, and squeezed.

Hey, Buddy. Hey,” said his dad, a big smile on his face.

“Why isn’t she nicer to you?” Tevin asked, his voice muffled by his dad’s chest.

“She’s…she’s under some stress, right now,” said his dad.

Tevin’s eyes soaked his dad’s shirt, just a little. “You always say that.”

“Right. Sure. Just…this week…” His dad looked out at the kaleidoscope. He sighed. “Fuck. I honestly don’t know.”

*

“I’ve got one more…just a small surprise for when we get back home,” Tevin’s dad said, as John was ringing them up, in the front. “Before you do the birds.”

“You know she’s gonna kill us if we don’t help, right away,” said Tevin. “She’s already mad.”

“Yeah, well…if she’s already mad, we might as well get a little fun in. In for a penny, in for a pound.”

John rang them up and put the books they’d picked out in paper bags.

“Do you want any of yours, now?” Tevin’s dad asked, as they walked to the car.

“Can I have the first one of those X-Mens?”

“Sure, let’s see…” They paused, while his dad flipped through the stack of back issues. “Here,” he said, handing Tevin a comic with a furious Wolverine, on the cover. Tevin had picked it out, first.

They were about to get in the car when Mona spoke.

“Well. How goes it?” she asked, nervously. She and Jenny had apparently parked in the spot, opposite Tevin and his dad.

Mona,” said his dad. “It goes…it…well. You know.”

“Yeah,” Mona said. She paused and then said, “We saw.”

“You were at Christopher’s?” Tevin’s dad asked.

“Yeah,” Jenny said to him. Then she turned to Tevin. “Hi.”

“…hi,” said Tevin, as his dad and Mona talked.

“Um…how’s your summer?” Jenny asked.

Tevin blushed. “It’s…I mean: not great. I spent the last two weeks at math camp,” he said, immediately regretting the decision to share the detail.

Math camp?

“It wasn’t…I mean: my stepmom made me.”

“That sucks,” said Jenny.

“Worse than you can imagine,” Tevin said. In his mind, Jenny was eating snow cones, playing cards, standing on the seat of her bicycle. “How was…what did you do?”

“Basically nothing,” said Jenny. “We were supposed to go to Florida, but then my Grandma got sick.”

Tevin could hear Mona describing the sickness, in detail, to his dad.

“I’m sorry,” Tevin said.

“It’s okay,” said Jenny. “She’s ninety-nine.”

The kids were quiet, for a moment.

Tevin scrambled to think of anything. “Did you…um…I mean: have you been, before?”

“Been what?” asked Jenny.

“To Florida?”

Jenny rolled her eyes. “Duh. I just told you: my grandma lives there.”

Tevin winced. “Oh…sorry, I just thought. Um…” He briefly looked down at his shoes.

The kids were silent, again.

“What’s that?” Jenny asked.

“What’s what?”

“That: in your hand.”

Tevin’s grip tightened. The Uncanny X-Men back issue suddenly felt like a pair of his own soiled underwear.

“It’s…nothing,” he said.

“What is it?” Jenny asked.

“It’s…” Tevin looked down at the underwear, dripping with shit. “It’s a comic book,” he mumbled.

“A what?

Alright, you two,” said Tevin’s dad. “Tev, we gotta get on home.”

Tevin didn’t hear him. “It’s a comic book,” he told Jenny.

Jenny’s eyes grew wide. “Ew.”

“It’s…right, I mean…it’s dumb,” said Tevin. “It’s just…I mean, my dad likes them. So I, like…they’re stupid. Honestly.”

“Why do you have one, then?”

“I don’t…I mean: I’m just holding it,” said Tevin. “Like: for my dad.”

Really?” said Jenny.

“Yeah, really,” said Tevin. “They’re…like I said: they’re really stupid. I don’t know why he…”

And then Tevin felt his dad’s eyes, cascading through the conversation like rain.

*

The car ride home was quiet. Kind of weird. Tevin opened his mouth to speak several times but, each time he did, his dad cut him off to say something about the Reds game, playing on the radio.

Tevin watched the trees and cars and strip malls pass them by as they drove. His heart felt like an anvil. A kind of heat, in his body, that was hard to understand.

They pulled into the garage and Tevin’s dad parked.

Tevin stared at the glove compartment. “Dad, I—”

“Go ahead and wait on the porch,” his dad said, sort-of quietly, and without emotion. “Wait on the porch while I get it ready.”

Tevin got out of the car. He walked to the porch and sat down, covering the picture of the furious Wolverine, with his sketchbook, on the ground. He looked at the large oak tree, sprawled throughout the air next to their driveway, a cacophony of branches and leaves. The tree had been smaller, when they moved in.

Not much, but still: smaller.

“Wayne, I’m really not in the mood,” he heard Kathy say, as she stepped out onto the porch, behind him.

“It’ll only take a second,” Tevin’s dad said, as he ran back into the garage.

Tevin could feel Kathy’s eyes, but he didn’t look. He felt like bursting into tears. The comic book beneath his sketchbook had morphed into a whole different kind of soiled underwear.

Here we go,” Tevin’s dad said, returning from inside the garage with a colorful cardboard package. “Just a second—you two wait, just a second. We’re almost ready.”

“Well, hurry up,” Kathy said.

Tevin’s dad ignored her and moved to the center of the driveway, away from where the oak tree populated the air. He undid the cellophane packaging and set the cardboard box upright, on the ground.

Then he pulled a fuse from the side of the box and lit it.

Tevin watched the fuse’s sparks, which made the sound of some distant applause, as his dad ran back to join them, on the porch, and put his hand on Tevin’s shoulder.

Great job, Bud,” he whispered. And then the fuse disappeared, into the box.

The firework didn’t launch, like it was supposed to. Tevin flinched as its parts, all its singular splashes of light, exploded in a thousand different directions, all around them. The lights were pink and red and violent and the explosion was loud and, while it happened, the three of them stayed completely motionless, frozen in the heart of the star.

When it was over, Kathy turned and went back into the house, the screen door slamming, behind her.

Tevin and his dad didn’t move. They just stared at the empty driveway, his dad’s hand still on his shoulder.

They just watched the vacuum, where the light used to be.

*

Tevin dusted the birds as Kathy and his dad argued in the kitchen. He tried to drown out the sound with the echo of a firework, ringing in his ears, but it cut through anyway, ugly, like it was made out of knives.

Tevin set one of the birds down with a bang. The shelves were made of glass and he could see himself, starting to cry.

He picked up another bird.

He didn’t feel the anvil, anymore. Or: the anvil was different, now—was in a different part of his body and shaking, more and more, as Kathy’s voice grew louder.

He set the second bird down with another bang.

He could hear Kathy’s anger multiply in the next room. He picked up a bird and saw his eyes, in the shelf’s glass, welling with tears.

“Well, I think the least you could do is step up, for once.” The Nanny, but worse. The Nanny with a throat, full of fireworks.

Tevin’s hands shook. He picked up another bird.

“I mean: Jesus, Wayne. How many times do we have to have this conversation?

The anvil swelled. The soiled underwear, sitting with Tevin’s sketchbook, on the couch, got worse. His hands shook like the dryer in the basement.

Tevin set the bird down with a bang, and then it happened.

The shelf exploded. The birds fell, exploding the shelf, underneath. The birds crashed into the other birds, which crashed into the birds beneath them, as the third shelf gave in and, all of a sudden, there they all were: shattered, on the floor.

The whole house was silent.

Tevin closed his eyes. For a moment, he heard absolutely nothing. For a moment, time froze, and he wondered if any of it—the glass or the parking lot or the dinner—had even happened. He wondered if the math camp ever occurred, if the summer had really been pulled from underneath him—if there was ever a fireworks crawl, or a divorce, or a Jenny.

And then he heard footsteps. And then he opened his eyes. And then he turned and he saw Kathy, staring at him.

And then he opened his mouth to speak just as Kathy said, “Tevin, your dad has cancer.”



BIO



Toni Kochensparger was born in Kettering, Ohio and now lives in Ridgewood, New York, where they write jokes on trash that they find on the street. Their short stories can be found in Kelp Journal, miniMAG, Caveat Lector, Bulb Culture Collective, Free Spirit, Alien Buddha, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, The Writing Disorder, Two Two One, and Scribble. Their work can be found online at linktr.ee/gothphiliproth







Poetry Book Review

Tangled by Blood: a memoir in verse
by Rebecca Evans

Moon Tide Press, 2023, 89pp, moontidepress


Reviewed by Lisa C. Peterson

Power. Silencing. Child abuse. Tragically, these themes co-exist. When perpetrators steal their victims’ voices, they rob them of a precious gift—the ability to express and protect themselves. Yet not all victims remain silent. And when the one who speaks is a poet, adept at massaging words to circle difficult experiences, the effect can be profound.

In Tangled by Blood, Rebecca Evans exposes the reverberating nightmare of childhood sexual abuse that was etched into her body as a child—by parents who were supposed to protect her but violated her, instead. Silent no more, Evans uses her lyrical voice to reclaim her power by shouting, whispering, and singing her story. The arc of this memoir-in-verse progresses from childhood recollections to adolescent struggles to adult reckonings. Throughout, echoes of the narrator’s dysfunctional upbringing remain—in the form of disordered eating, suicidal ideations, domestic violence, and the shame, secrets, and lies that abuse often engenders. Yet through verse, Evans guides the reader through this difficult subject matter, building understanding and empathy by presenting poems and prose from different points of view and by using a variety of styles and forms to create a multi-faceted story of her experience living with this trauma.

A chorus of female voices (sister Tina, a young “Beckala”, the mother, and a wiser adult Rebecca) offers a glimpse into the narrator’s youth. The preface poem, “I wanted to be your womb,” written in the voice of Tina, introduces the theme of innocence poisoned by “Daddy’s” uninvited intrusions. The rest of the book is broken into three parts, which works well to separate childhood experiences from adult reflections and lingering pain.

Part I creates a mosaic of abuse—a stepfather sexually assaulting his young daughters as well as a biological mother who knows yet doesn’t intervene. In powerful lines that build between descriptive stanzas, the narrator condemns the complicit mother: “Mother…Mother was…Mother was worse…Mother was worse than…Mother was worse than Father.” In “Cremation” she reiterates this blame, yet also hints at the complexity of their relationship in a stanza containing the apt title for the memoir-in-verse:

            …. If she asks my forgiveness,
            I’ll fail her,
            though we remain
            tangled by blood….


Poems written in the mother’s overbearing and dismissive voice further cement this image of a child alone and undefended against the force of an abusive stepfather.

The entirety of Part II is a six-part poem in Tina’s voice. In “I wanted to be your wall” Tina weaves the story of two sisters facing a cruel reality at the hands of a monster. Yet Tina also imparts a sweet song of sisterhood —a picture of what mothering should have looked like.

            …. In our after time,
            I’d wrap you, Sweet Baby
            Sister, curve you
            in my arms, wait ‘til
            your heart slowed
            and your eyes slid low….

This loving voice provides a stark contrast to the mother’s condescension as well as a more appropriate role model for young Beckala that offers a glimmer of hope.

In part III we find the adult narrator grappling with life in the shadow of abuse. Having survived her traumatic childhood, Evans explores the persistent memories that she carries in her mind, soul, and body, even as she moves forward—tales of her own sons, spousal abuse, and finally an un-silencing.

In “Tombstone Roses,” the narrator uses the model of Norma Jean transforming into Marilyn to morph from child, Beckala, to adult Rebecca—renaming herself, owning herself.

            …After I entered the military, I unnamed my-
            self, introduced Rebecca, no longer Becky—no

            longer victim. Not as drastic as Norma Jean spinning
            into Marilyn, though I thought I could alchemy

            into gold, story selected memories…

Yet the desired transition proves elusive, and Evans goes on to write of her own adult struggles in poems that are increasingly complex and metaphoric. In “Not the Land of Milk and Honey” Evans uses images from nature to reflect on her pain:

                         …And I wonder

            if there’s ever a right time—for war or tears
                        or feeding a hunger that’s selfish
                        and red. Wonder if the tubular

            felt raped and left for dead after her
                         nectar-draining, like blood-drawn
                         from empty veins…

In this and other poems, we see that the trauma is never truly left behind. Instead, it contorts in form from daily threat to haunting memory.

Despite the lingering anguish, Evans allows us to witness her extraordinary love—in the exquisite joy she feels in becoming a mother herself. We see her humility, strength, and humor in the checklist-formatted “The Non-Standard Parenting Plan for Turning Boys into Men,” including advice that is humble, “Say I’m sorry. Say it often,” profoundly true, “Tell them to value their own body and the bodies of others” and humorous, “Sing aloud in public when they misbehave. Get the lyrics wrong.” We journey alongside our narrator as she transitions into a conscientious caregiver (with a self-deprecating sense of humor) even as she continues to face adult struggles. And we cheer as she reclaims her power in “Yellow Declaration”:

            …. Some say detasseling corn is like rape, savaging female stalk centers. But I,
            Rebecca, declare, don’t compare rape to anything but rape or yellow

            to anything but yellow.

This truth-telling feels well-earned after so many years of silencing.

Throughout the memoir-in-verse, Rebecca Evans bravely condemns the abuse for what it was and attempts to break the cycle through her own fierce style of mothering. Although ripple effects linger, there is an increasing sense of, if not “healed,” at least healing. Overall, this lyrical memoir presents a personal journey through breathtaking imagery, word choice, and rhythm. It confronts pain, struggle, resentment, and ultimately, resilience with vulnerability and honesty. Its poetic styles immerse us into the mind and body of a survivor, a woman who has taken her trauma and turned it into art, so that her story is no longer shrouded in silence.



BIO

Lisa C. Peterson holds an MFA from UNR at Lake Tahoe as well as a BA and an MA from Stanford University. Her work has appeared in Hypertext Magazine, HeartWood Literary Magazine, Writer’s Foundry Review, Sport Literate, The Closed Eye Open, Sierra Nevada Review Blog, and elsewhere.



The Angels Are Leaving, The Angels Are Leaving

by Gaurav Bhalla


“Wish we didn’t have to leave home,” the mother said, placing a pouch of keys on the antique entryway table. 

“Home will live in our hearts,” the father whispered, wrapping her in a heavy pashmina shawl; the place where they were headed was further than the furthest clouds.

“I’m afraid,” she said, shivering in her shawl.           

Single malt in hand, the son paced the marble foyer of his condo—five paces forward, three back … a stutter step … an unplanned meander to the left pinching the bridge of his nose to subdue a stubborn migraine, then a distracted pause leaning against the archway to the family room, then a halting amble to the French doors opening on the terrace, gazing vacantly at the ashen dusk. Here he stood for several minutes watching the city and street scenes below.

Gurgaon, India’s newest happening city, was advertising itself, wearing its brand of chaos like a badge of honor—cars zig-zagging battling for space, horns blaring, brakes screeching, heads popping out of car windows cursing and hollering, passing pedestrians taking sides, joining the fray; swarms of people spreading in all directions; people returning home from work, others coming from home to work; eager shoppers going into neon-drenched malls, excited shoppers exiting malls balancing shopping bags; ice-cream parlors, street-food vendors, and liquor stores doing brisk business; bars and restaurants filling up; sounds of people laughing, joking, living it up; children playing gully cricket, roaring at the fall of every wicket, wildly cheering every boundary; a sing-song electronic voice rising above the din announcing the arrival and departure of metro trains: Unabashed Gurgaon was awash in chaos.

But eleven floors above the frenzy, in the condo, there was stillness and solitude. The son retreated from the terrace to this welcoming calm. Sinking into the sofa, he swirled his single malt, took a slow meditative sip, and recalled a verse he had composed earlier in the day:

It all begins with family …

But does it also all end with family?

What vexing issues he was trying to lift into the light, only a soothsayer could tell.  

The condo was his, a valued possession, an upscale address in a gated community with fountains and Mughal-style gardens, and easy access to golf and tennis, and to friends he had known since elementary school, several for more than fifty years. It had all the totems and hieroglyphs middle class folk use to show the world they are doing well … actually, better than well … very well, thank you. But to make the brick-box a warm-blooded home he needed help, so he invited his parents to live there. Fulfilling filial attachments was important to them; they moved in and nurtured the condo as they had their own two children.

The choreographed comings and goings of daily life kept the condo chubby and chirping for the seventeen years the parents called it home. Here is where they celebrated their sixty-third marriage anniversary, a quiet candlelight dinner with another silver-haired couple. And here is where they departed within hours of each other, a few weeks into their sixty-fourth year when their fates shifted. In two short weeks a warm-blooded home lost its pulse, everything now was dyed by their absence. And as frequently happens when tightly crocheted lives unravel, a new and emergent fate began rescripting existing kinships—erasing privileged and spacious relationships—with things and events the parents once enjoyed.

The son too felt the chill of change. His parents’ passing placed him face-to-face with questions he occasionally had thought about, but was unprepared to confront; the most pressing being the fate of the condo: Keep it or sell it? Sell it? The question always corkscrewed his stomach as though life was demanding he amputate a vital limb. He could keep it only if he moved back from the US. He knew people who had, mainly couples, but they all had family—parents, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins—tohelp ease the move back. Since he didn’t have any family, selling the condo seemed the more practical and sensible option. But the sell decision came with its own nettles of guilt and doubts, many sounding like accusations. Was he being a good Indian son? Was he being too hasty? Maybe he should wait a bit longer, the ink was still drying on his parents’ death certificates.

After several days of dodging and weaving, and two-handed evaluations … on the one hand thison the other hand that … he buckled and threw in the towel.

The condo was listed on a Sunday; it sold the following Monday; the son had three weeks to hand-over the keys. The thought that soon his home will be someone else’s made him dizzy. He reached for his tranquilizer and glugged the remaining single malt in one go; considered pouring another but decided against it and lay down. In less than a minute, his snoring, sounding like a tuba in F-flat, began echoing through the condo.  

“Soon someone else will move into our home,” the mother said, dabbing her eyes.

“Want to go back for a pilgrimage?” the father asked.

Pilgrimage? What a wonderful idea. “You still read me like an open book,” the mother said, resting her head on her husband’s chest.

Hand in hand, they stood a few feet from where their son lay asleep. “Just like you,” the mother said. The father nodded, remembering the many nights, a book yawning in his lap, his mind wandering, fingering a rosary of regrets—missteps, lost time, and missed opportunities—he had fallen asleep. The mother wanted to hug her son, but the father held her back. “We don’t want to wake him.” She made a moue but didn’t insist. No, they didn’t want to wake him.

They tiptoed from room to room, caravans of memories in tow, so many friends waiting to say hello—photos, rockers, low sunken chairs with woven jute backs and seats; silk shawls and Jaipur quilts; terracotta pottery figurines and brass statues of gods and goddesses; marble inlay jewelry boxes. And jewelry—bazaars of bangles, earrings, necklaces, chokers, bracelets, and rings. Pointing, lifting, opening drawers and cupboards, they traveled as far back as their friends wanted to take them. “Everything still in place,” she observed, with a wide sweep of her arms. “We haven’t been gone that long, darling.” No, they hadn’t been gone that long. The walls were still damp, weeping.  

In the annex of the bedroom she stood before her dresser, turned one way, then the other. “Looking for something?” “I thought I left it here.” “Left what?” he asked. She shrugged, “Alzheimer’s.”

“Look hubby … ,” she said, pointing to the white marble jewelry box on the dresser. Hubby is what she had called her husband, from the moment Pandit ji had sealed their marriage by sprinkling holy water and a mixture of rice, jaggery and cumin on their heads. “Yes, your favorite garnet and pearl necklace.” “A birthday gift from you. Fiftieth.” Sixtieth, in fact, but the husband didn’t correct her. Must memories be accurate to enjoy?

Now in the bedroom. “Here, we slept … ,” she said. “And took naps,” he added. “Yes,” she said, but only to keep the conversation alive; napping was not on her mind. This room was their haven to which they retreated when tectonic shifts tremored their lives. A hideaway, hers more than his, when she needed a healing cry; when her parents were killed by a drunk truck driver speeding on the wrong side of the highway; when her only daughter, a jokester, collapsed on stage. One minute she had the audience in splits, next minute she was gone; she wasn’t even forty. How cruel, how wrong, so-so wrong. This one wound time didn’t heal.

“Did you remember what you were looking for?” he asked to pull her back; a dark brooding had engulfed her like a hijab. “Me? I wasn’t looking for anything, you were.”

She eased herself into the rocker in the corner, her favorite spot for lazing in the winter sun. The condo was blessed. Morning sun in the family room and kitchen, afternoon sun in the bedrooms. And on nights when the moon claimed the sky, shimmering beams of moonlight dropped in to visit and waltz. “We always had our bed tea here,” the father said. “Yes, two cups each … with hot milk and two sugars,” she replied, rising from the rocker and linking her arm in his.

“I don’t understand,” she said as they shuffled toward the bedroom door. “What?” “Why he doesn’t take milk and sugar with his tea.” “Maybe that’s how they drink tea in America.” Even after thirty-three years, she had difficulty accepting some of her son’s Americanisms. For the father it was not the traits, not the habits, it was what he yearned for most but never experienced—a living breathing friendship with his son—cricket, Urdu poetry, Sunday golf, politics, and their mutual distaste for institutionalized religion. So much of his son was foreign to him. He didn’t know his son’s stories, the stories his son told those closest to him. What he most feared he had become, a mere biological father. Perhaps this is the inexorable destiny of parenthood—losing your children, losing their stories, becoming strangers to each other’s dreams and fears, even more so once they fly the nest.

The foyer. On his writing desk, a lacquered box containing fountain pens—blue, blue-black, black, red inks. He lifted the box to dust the pens and nearly dropped the whole lot. “Shh, careful, we don’t want to wake him,” she reminded him.

No, they didn’t want to wake him.

On the way from the foyer to the drawing room she veered off to look in on her son; she couldn’t hear him snoring. She was worried. Exactly how she used to worry when he was a toddler, when she couldn’t hear him breathing in his crib. Could he be awake?

“Sleeping soundly,” she reported after rejoining her husband.

The drawing room. The drawing room was rich with curios and souvenirs from their numerous domestic and overseas trips—porcelain and crystal vases from Bohemia and China; Dutch tin-glazed earthenware; a motley mix of Indian and Spanish pottery bowls, pitchers, and trays; a trio of cheery Matryoshka dolls; miniature models of the Taj and the Alhambra Palace; wall hangings, framed miniature Kangra paintings, and weathered oils.

“How sweet that man was?” she said admiring the three Kakejiku—hanging silk scrolls—they had bought in Kyoto. “Nishioka san, I even remember his name.” “Easy,” the father teased, pointing to the name painted at the bottom of each scroll. Pulling a pretend pout, she elbowed his ribs, “Smarty-pants.”

After tiptoeing through every doorway, after visiting and paying their respects to all the remaining rooms—guest bedrooms, all neat and tidy; the storage room, their well-traveled, heavily stickered bags needed dusting; his study, papers all over his desk, his third novel, unfinished, and sadly now abandoned; the kitchen, where she lingered the longest … why was the fridge so empty?—the couple returned to the family room, where they had begun their pilgrimage, and where their son was still snoring on the sofa.

The family room. Here they had spent most of their waking hours; watching Bollywood movies and serials; reading books and magazines, popular rags and literary ones; balancing the check book; consuming their daily dose of local, national, and global news. And eating—apples, almonds, and walnuts; breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The chairs, rugs, curtains, and everything on the dining table remembered fondly how the mother would attempt to make each meal an event; how even a simple staple, scrambled eggs on toast, she would elevate to a treat—a sprinkling of chives, dollops of bitter marmalade … and thick cream … and cubed melon—enough for the mother to say, “You know how much a five-star hotel would charge for this?” And he would respond with his pet repartee, “I’m glad I married the chef.” For them, the condo was more than a five-star hotel, it was what a five-star hotel could never be.

Outside. Their vigil complete, sleepy stars had begun pulling down their shades. And on the ageless peepul tree, amid frenzied cawing, a territorial tussle was raging between the resident crows and a marauding murder of treeless branch grabbers, each faction fanatical about their claims and entitlements.  

“It will be light soon,” the father said. “Did we accomplish everything we came for?” she asked. Only she could answer that question. Every photo, every picture, every millimeter of wooden and marble floor, the beds, the chairs … she didn’t think she’d missed anything … not the curtains, not the bedspreads, not the cushions … she hoped she hadn’t hurt anyone’s feelings … even more, she hoped she’d expressed her deep love and heartfelt thanks to all.

During the pilgrimage, despite their stopped lives, despite broken links with their yesterdays, despite empty chairs and deserted rooms, she had not shed a single tear; crying was for later. Our deepest sorrows spring from the absence of our greatest joys, she murmured to herself. “Sorry, did you say something?” the father asked. “The crows are cawing, we should get going,” she answered. She wanted to hug her son, but …. “I wish he would marry,” she said. “He’ll be fine,” the husband assured her, looking away to hide his pain; in the areas of relationships and marriage his son’s dreams and desires were foreign to him.

Hand in hand the old couple shuffled toward the front door, lugging the deadweight of their regrets, doubts, and maybes—Did we lead a good life? Were we good parents? Could we have done more for our children? Maybe we should have ….

A lone sentry, the owl-shaped candle perched on the antique entryway table, spotted the couple tiptoeing out and hooted an alarm, “The Angels are leaving, The Angels are leaving.” As the alarm echoed and re-echoed throughout the condo, a great migration began. All things that could move—Maasai warriors carrying spears and shields, sandal wood and ivory elephants, wood and clay camels, three see-do-speak-no-evil bronze monkeys, terracotta Bankura horses, the brass dancing Nataraja, the marble statue of Lord Ganesh—filled the foyer. Several smaller things—a porcelain mermaid, wooden baby-dolls, and a Faberge-inspired egg that played Für Elise—hitched a ride on the backs of elephants, camels, and horses. Things too old, too elaborate, unused to roving—replicas of the Taj and Alhambra, wall hangings, oils, and Kakejikus—waved and bid farewell from their assigned stations. The owl-shaped candle hooted again, “The Angels are leaving, The Angels are leaving.” In unison, all things in the condo chanted, “The Angels are leaving, The Angels are leaving.”

Then the entire condo fell silent.  

But outside on the peepul tree, there was no silence, only anarchy. Having vanquished the trespassing marauders, the resident crows were celebrating with raucous glee. Their boisterous cawing thrummed the son’s ears vandalizing his sleep. Muttering, he rose to a glare shining his eyes—sunlight bouncing off the stainless-steel saltshaker (his mother had tidied the dining table before leaving). A light breeze on its morning stroll through the condo playfully flicked a paper off the table, landing it on the Rajasthani dhurrie near where the son, still rubbing unburnt sleep and rheum-crust from his eyes, was standing, feeling for his leather chappals with his feet. He picked up the paper, it was a list, a list of things he needed to order from Abdul’s, the resident Kirana store. The fridge was empty.

Eggs, Bread,  Butter, Jam/Honey, Cheese

Apples, Papaya/Melon, Pomegranate, Fruit Juices

Sweet and Salty Snacks—Monaco biscuits, Walnut-Date cake, Amul chocolate bars

… … … … …

But whose handwriting … wasn’t his … wasn’t the maid’s … looked like … NO … couldn’t be. NO. How could it …? Sorry. Later. Nature was calling.



BIO

Gaurav Bhalla is an author, educator, and former global, C-suite executive. Published in both business and literature (books, articles, essays, short stories, poems, novel, screenplays), he writes with a distinctly cross-cultural voice to enrich and diversify people’s perspectives concerning their relationships with themselves, with others, and with the worlds they live in. His short stories have been published in India, UK, and USA. Recently, his short stories have appeared in Jimson Weed and Defenestrationism.net. He can be reached at gaurav@gbkahanee.com.






East of Emmaus

By Michał Zieliński


All flows together, even if so painfully slow.
The baptized & the doves tweet in bursts,
Johnny got the back of his neck Brazilian waxed,
but he ain’t gonna spoil none for Leif & Chris,
& I talk too much, so we’re just being cute & innocent ab it.

Then Josh comes by, like “Hey, wanna see a trick?”
So he makes Jordan run with Bud Light & turns pebbles into chips.
The air went putrid, the poisoned tilapia floating about,
but it was then that me & the Messiah turned friends for life
& I felt a glowing ribbon emerging from my hair whorl.

1 night, Josh tells me to split myself in 2 to go
both beyond the pillars of Hercules & north of Danube.
“What the heck man? What is there for me to do?
I’m too old to be a rapper, too young to be a millennial!”
But before I replied he was already making out with Jude.

When they took him down, I left the town, once sweet like the wine
of quarter-term night, now gross like the pukes the morning after.
So under this onion-cutting sky of steel it’s just me & a homez of mine,
& half of a cig we’ll pass till it gets so short it burns our fingers
& just drops on the stony road. Your story ends here. Ours didn’t.




homeric Oregano

FNAP! it’s summertime,         it’s Oregano time.       purple
flowers,           torches in the daylight,           spades of green,
leaves with peach hair.           i came to talk, perennial
son of the basin.          between us the roaring vacuum of time,

the abyss of white       peering from between letters,
the silence       between nondescript syllables.
NOOOOOOO!            the brightness of the mountain
is the sole common     waypoint. we will never be lovelier

than we are now.         get it offa me! Time! i can’t stand it,
i can accept only not too hot summers           before i’m old again.
YEAH             opposite leaves           follow the burning,
cracking into murmurs            i struggle to transcribe into

straw circles.   faces carry what’s lost.            LE’S GOOO!  Yin —
there is            the heat of Love,         irresistible.                 Yang —
the cold lemonade       gulped from below,     running down
soft stones.      the beverage is a matchmaker, our bumblebee.

eyes locked, we swerve.         though it’s a thing of the past,
gone Soon after constant laws                        like the ice cubes melting,
watering down the ambrosia.              taste the pain! bless
the inflorescence, late but still!          cheer before the Ulp!




Baby Car

                                    One newborn car tried to
                                    carry me into the air in its bout,
                                             for a glimpse at grander perspective,
                                             for a fleeting touch of Death,
                                             for a cliffhanger,
                                             for a moment of uncertainty.

     James is gonna save them.
                                                            I murmured in the dark,
                                                teetering on the twin sharp points
                                                of solitary orchid scissors.
                                                This means they’re frozen until the next episode,
                                                            screaming in the corner,
                                                                                                   but safe.

                                    Cats are born blind & deaf, but into mother’s warmth.
                                    Cars are born complete, but cast alone into cold superposition
          dormant
                                                                                                                                       volant
                                    meant to viciously race each other since infancy.

                                  This driver was mad his brand new ride
                                  got scratched. I tried my best not to yell.
                                                It was a baby car after all.




Frank OHara Eyes on My Wings

I recognized a lamp, started flap after flap,
charcoal trace from the trunk to the nose, a thread of a rod
to the fresco, like the settling ashes — still warm & nameless.
Half-words come thru giggles, a great psalm in this space of interruptions.

I let it drip, the teary sand in some hourglass, even if
time & time again I mourn the years gone where
what’s real history is a mystery & all the truth drowned
the moment a moment is no longer now. Just like this one.

Me? I’m no witness, just a passerby. Don’t you worry, paddle on
to the lake’s apple, where the moon likes to swing doubled,
where the sand regroups & lovers’ sweet words soften
further into the abyss, under the algae powerhouses regime.

Up & down, here I go, no note taken,
just a postcard to be eased between unread pages,
erroneous navigation due to no fault of mine,
a little out-of-character irony to smile at — once by the light.




Hell Parade at Szczeliniec

Backpacks against chests,
sponges of sweat, jammed
between dried seas. A weekend

trip down the walls that
speak but can’t hear. Made
in their shape, for our times,

ever so slowly, down that
throat, where tomfoolery
is mass murder, we tiptoe.




BIO

Michał Zieliński lives in Poland’s Lower Silesia. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Metaworker, Wayward & Upward anthology, The River, and elsewhere.







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