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A literary magazine about challenge and change

Eclipses

ECLIPSES

by

Rima Lyn

Iluna was confident that today was a very important day. She added extra moonshine to her sleigh. She showed her intended path to her four milky-gray horses. “We must stay in alignment. We must keep our pace,” she instructed them. She zipped up her soft faux-fur coat with the pearlized sheen. The fabric had the magical ability to keep her warm or cool depending on the heat. 

The heat would depend on how angry Solaris became when she blocked his view. He was so arrogant and full of his own magnificence that daily dominance wasn’t enough. His horses were even bolder. They never became tired, for they were made entirely of fire. The golden skin of Solaris would never burn from the heat because he was the heat.

Solaris, who so generously warmed them all, spoke his mind at all times. His sculpted legs never faltered. His chiseled arms never became fatigued from reining in his majestic solar steeds. But today would be different. Today, when sleep would normally claim her, Iluna would be wide awake. 

Awake and floating like a cloud of stars. Her unusual activity would give parts of the Earth two unexpected hours of cool relief. The stars would shine in the morning. A pleasing breeze would billow, and her lunar love would cool the sizzling Solaris to a fizzle. 

This did not happen often. Zoyu would not allow it. But today! Today was her day. She kissed the whiskery nose of each moon pony. One by one, she rested her smooth brow against the foreheads of Star, Silk, Sand, and Stellar. She fed them each a treat, a small square of milky whey cubes. 

Iluna closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she exhaled, the sound of wind chimes blew through the air. She gracefully stepped into her silver sleigh and reclined on her llama-hair pillows. She gently claimed her pearl reins and started the countdown…five, four, three, two, and RISE.

The mythical ponies took to the sky. Iluna donned a pair of iridescent glasses, the rims studded with stardust. Again she took a breath, deeply calm. The large but elegant ponies flew straight up like a team of equine fairies. High above they rose, to where the steeds of Solaris were beginning to flick their ears along the horizon. 

Iluna flew in what seemed like the opposite direction, but she knew where she was going. Unerringly, she navigated the sky to reach the impasse ahead of the fire. Instead of oozing through the sky like marshmallows, she rolled along like a tidal wave of pure foam. 

There! A flick of her ring finger against the reins and her beasts hovered to a pause. The moonglow radiated from the ponies’ manes and tails. They floated, galloping in place, gaining strength and speed without moving forward. 

Unaware, Solaris charged upward into the shimmering sky like a wildfire. He didn’t even see her. Enchanted by his own glory, confident that everything would be the same today as always. (It wouldn’t be.) He felt victorious in advance. Yes! Once again he would rule the day and enjoy a sense of accomplishment. He was amazed that something so simple could provide such endless enjoyment for him.

As he hit the 9:00 a.m. section of the sky, everything went dark. Solaris looked up in confusion while Iluna held her position and closed her eyes. He checked the dial he kept on his wrist. Why was the sky a cavern at 9:00 a.m.? Why could he see the stars? It was impossible. Utterly ridiculous in fact. 

For a moment Solaris assumed Zoyu was playing a trick on him, one he would consider forgiving this once. He looked to his right and saw Iluna and her silver sleigh glowing below him. Her horses continued to thunder in place. 

The beams of moonlight flowing from her chariot calmed him down. And yet, he was furious and wanted to punish her for interfering. Before he could plan his revenge he decided that a nap was the best idea. Solaris drooped into drowsiness. His chin crashed to his chest while his horses buckled their knees. 

Iluna removed her glasses and stood up. She stretched her arms wide and tilted her head back to take in her beloved stars against a daytime sky. The stars smiled at her. Iluna swayed and the light from her hair looked like shooting stars to the people watching below. 

Iluna enjoyed every extra minute of this glorious freedom from the heat of the sun—every delightful drop. But she did not stay a moment longer than the fates had planned. The hours felt like years. She was luxuriously drunk on moonshine.

At exactly the right moment, she sat back down. She replaced her eye guards and deftly flicked the luminous reins. She moved out of position, and as she did, Solaris awoke as if from a dream, disoriented like a confused child after a sticky summer nap. His chariot lurched ahead as his horses came back to life with fiery snorts. Within minutes they were awake and scorching the sky with contained fury.

The day proceeded without further incident. Solaris managed to forget his misty interlude. At the end of the day he devoured a bottomless bowl of fireflies with lamb as his second course. His horses dined on lava from a nearby volcano.

Iluna went to bed much later than usual. High on her invigorating change of routine, she skipped dinner altogether. Iluna had the most delicious, peaceful sleep. It was a restful, dreamless sleep. She floated on moonbeams, and relaxed to the smell of jasmine and gardenia. The whole time a smile played across her incandescent lips.

* * *

Racy stood on the tarmac with all the other sixth graders and their pinhole shoeboxes. She’d cut the hole in her box with Aunt Becky’s sewing scissors. With precision, she taped the small piece of aluminum foil over the square opening. Then she poked a hole in it with a needle. How could anything come through such a tiny hole? 

At the opposite end of the box she’d taped a small piece of printing paper as instructed. Instead of making her peephole round, she made it the shape of her eye and drew purple eyelashes around it. Miss Simmons had complimented Racy on what she called her artistic touch.

The eclipse began at 9:00 a.m.. From where they watched in central California, they would only see a partial eclipse. The moon would completely align with the sun, covering it all except for a ring of light around the edge. A total eclipse would only exist for people halfway around the world. 

They were waiting in orderly lines, organized by classroom. Racy searched the yard for Cory’s class. They were clear across on the other end, which might as well have been the moon it seemed so far. But if he was there, Racy felt sure her eyes would recognize the imagined halo around his blond head. That was how keen she was on bumping into him on any given day. 

The sky was clear. The children turned their boxes and the sunlight came through the pinhole in the tinfoil. Racy lined her right eye up and looked into her shoebox with wonder and anticipation…

It worked! The shadow of the sun projected through the tiny hole and onto the piece of paper. It looked like a cookie with a bite taken out of it. As she watched, the shadow became a half-eaten cookie. Then the moon took one more small bite out of the sun. Racy resisted the urge to look directly at the sun. She didn’t want her eyeballs to burn. Would they really?

Later, the children stayed outside on the schoolyard, talking and playing for over an hour. When they went back inside, there was juice and round, yellow crackers. She tried to make her first bite look like the partially eaten sun. 

After the bell rang, as she was leaving school, she forced her mind away from possible Cory sightings. As her mind cleared and became quiet, someone ran up behind Racy and put their hands over her eyes. First, she wondered if it was one of the girls from recess—but the hands were rough, so she knew it had to be a boy. 

She wasn’t friendly with any other boys besides Cory, so common logic said it had to be him. But she didn’t want him to know that she knew it was him, so she pretended not to know. She tried to turn around. “Who could it be?” She said aloud with what she hoped sounded like genuine surprise.

“No, no. No cheating,” clearly Cory’s voice said. His body standing right behind hers kept her from turning and looking. Racy peeped a smidgeon. She could see through Cory’s fingers and saw her shadow against the cement. For some reason, she had an extra head. 

She realized that Cory’s head was higher than her own. Their perfect alignment made them look like a tall creature with a giant Adam’s apple. In their joint shadow, her pony tails landed somewhere near his armpits. She laughed.

“What’s so funny?” he wanted to know.

“Oh nothing. I wish I could figure out who you are…” Racy laid it on a bit thick.

“Guess.”

“Ummm…Jamie?”

“Who’s Jamie?” Cory actually sounded worried. This made Racy giggle.

Now what’s so funny?”

“Your hair is tickling my neck.” Racy laughed through her words. As Cory let go, he tickled her ribs and goosed her under her armpits. Racy shrieked, “Stop, stop, please…” Her request dissolved into laughter. She was aware that some of the other kids were watching them, but she didn’t care.

“Truce!” Racy shouted.

“Okay, okay… Truce.” Cory put out his hand for her to shake, but as she grabbed it, he pulled her closer and began tickling her again. Then he grabbed her under both armpits and swung her around in a circle. 

Racy closed her eyes and felt the wind lift her as the sun warmed her face. Cory put her down after what seemed like hours and then collapsed to the ground. “Man, you’re heavy!”

“I am not. Take it back!”

“I’m just teasing.”

Racy looked at him, trying to catch her breath. She wanted to stay mad, but she couldn’t. She flopped to the ground beside him and blew air across her lower lip.

“Nifty trick with the shoebox, huh?” Cory asked her, as his gaze drifted up at the sky. He folded his hands behind his head.

“Yeah…I looked for you this morning, but your class was on the opposite side from mine.”

“I looked for you too,” Cory said, as he lowered his voice and stared at her.

Her red-hot face was saved by the sound of a car honking. Cory leapt to his feet. “That’s my mom, I gotta go. But we should hang out sometime—with or without eclipses.” 

Racy smiled and nodded at the sunlight that rounded his head in rays. She shielded her eyes and waved as he jogged backward toward his mother’s station wagon. After they drove away, Racy got to her feet and dusted off her cotton print dress. If it wasn’t for the warmth lingering on her cheeks and the smile in her heart, she would have doubted the whole thing.

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How I Broke Up With Larry

How I Broke Up With Larry

Joan Potter

It was the leather jacket – scuffed brown leather that I knew would be soft to the touch and carry a musky scent. It was the kind of jacket a bohemian would wear, I thought, a poet. And sure enough, one day the jacket’s owner, a lanky guy with rumpled brown hair and an ironic grin who sat next to me in my economics class, his long, dungareed legs stretched into the aisle, passed me a folded sheet of paper. On it he had written a poem.

I don’t remember the words or even the theme, but I was impressed. I soon fell in love and we became a couple. It was 1953; we were juniors at Cornell. Although I was in the school of hotel management and Larry was studying engineering, we thought of ourselves as literary. We read the New Yorker religiously. We pored over E. B. White’s essays and his short pieces in “Notes and Comments,” and J. D. Salinger was our god. We’d just read his story “Teddy,” the one about a ten-year-old spiritual genius who predicts his own death in a fall into an empty swimming pool on a cruise ship. “Wow,” we said. “Amazing.”

One day early in our relationship I was skimming through a collection of T. S. Eliot’s poetry and noticed some familiar words. It was the poem Larry had passed to me in economics class. I wasn’t as bothered by his deception as I probably should have been, and decided not to tell him about my discovery. 

Larry and I remained a faithful couple during the whole spring semester, and the weekend after it ended he drove me to my home upstate, where he would meet my parents and two high-school-age sisters. He had filled the back seat of his car with random piles of dirty clothes; I can still picture a pair of grimy boxer shorts. The drive was long and Larry was tired when we got there. While I was unpacking my bags, he stretched out on the floor under the baby grand piano in the living room and fell asleep. The family tiptoed quietly around him. My parents were prepared to forgive him anything. Like us, he was Jewish, after all.

At the dinner table Larry was chatty and charming. He told a vivid story about how he’d taken a year off after high school and hitchhiked through Alaska, working in canneries and fish-processing plants. I was surprised he’d never mentioned this to me.

Later in the meal he told us that he’d taken some kind of test to determine his masculine and feminine traits. “It turned out that I’m thirty-percent feminine,” he said. My parents received this news with polite smiles. My sisters were wide-eyed and silent.

After a few days Larry drove back to his hometown of Mount Vernon, which also happened to be the birthplace of our idol, E. B. White. I had landed a summer job at the front desk of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and after a couple of weeks at home I flew to New York City to start work. I had dressed up for the flight, and was wearing new shoes, the best my hometown department store had to offer, brown-and-white spectator pumps with chunky Cuban heels.

Larry and a few of his friends were there to meet me as I stepped out of the plane and down the metal steps onto the tarmac. They drove me to the YWHA on 92nd Street, where I had reserved a small room for the summer. Later, when we were alone, Larry told me I had disappointed him.

“We were all watching everyone’s feet when they came out the door of the plane,” he said, “We were trying to guess which ones would be yours. But I didn’t think you’d be wearing those old-lady shoes. I was pretty embarrassed.” 

I cringed inside and kept picturing how my feet must have looked, stepping jauntily down the steps in those clunky shoes that I’d thought were so fashionable. But living in the city offered me an education in urban fashion. It also gave me a chance to spend a weekend at Larry’s Mount Vernon home. When we arrived on a Saturday morning, his mother, a plump woman with a curly blond perm, emerged from the kitchen to greet me. She told me I could use Larry’s room during my stay while he slept on the couch.

I was in his room hanging up my clothes when I overheard his mother on the phone, telling a friend that her son’s girlfriend was visiting. “He’s crazy about her,” she said. “I don’t understand it.”

While Larry was in the bathroom taking a shower, I was sitting on his bed, looking through the books on his shelves. I picked out his high school yearbook, class of 1950. There was his picture among the rest of the class. 

This time I confronted him. “I was looking at your yearbook,” I said. “You graduated in 1950. We’re both juniors in college. How could you have spent a year in Alaska?”

He launched into a rambling explanation, something about starting school a year earlier, a mistake in the yearbook, nothing that made much sense. I was beginning to understand that Larry had a skewed notion of the truth. But he was still cute and sexy so I convinced myself it was not an important problem.

Larry transferred to the City College of New York for his senior year – his father, who was separated from his mother – said he could no longer afford Cornell’s tuition. I went back to Ithaca and we kept in touch with phone calls and occasional visits. After graduation I moved to New York City to start a new job with an accounting firm.

I was sharing an apartment with two girls I’d met at the 92nd Street Y. We lived in a one-bedroom, fifth-floor walkup on East 26th Street; I had the pullout couch in the living room. My job was boring and tedious; I knew I should have majored in English.

Over the next few months I became increasingly sick of my work and annoyed with my roommates. I was also tired of Larry, who was now in his fifth year of engineering school and spent much of his spare time lying on my couch. I was beginning to meet new people, young men with jobs and ambition who also read books and the New Yorker and loved Salinger. I decided to break up with Larry.

It was a weekend afternoon. My roommates were both out. The buzzer sounded and I knew it was Larry. He gave me the usual hug and headed for the couch. I took a deep breath. 

“I want to start dating other people,” I said. “I don’t want to see you anymore.”

He rolled over and turned to face me.

“You just want another E. B. White,” he said, “and you’re never going to find one.”  

Stuff Like That

Stuff Like That

Michael Johansen

 

“Coat-racks!”

That was Stig talking.

“What?”

That was me.

“Coat-racks!” Stig was adamant. “We can sell ’em as coat-racks.”

“Sell what as coat-racks?”

Stig was always trying to sell something as something else.

“The old hydro poles by the railway line.”

“Hydro poles? They’d make pretty big coat-racks,” I said.

“Not the whole thing! We take the cross pieces with all the insulators, turn ’em sideways and mount ’em on a wall. Two hundred bucks, easy. We sell loose insulators for 20 bucks a pop down in the city and add five bucks if it’s still got a peg poked up its ass.”

Stig had his thinking look on his face.

“You know, we could roll up the wire, ’cause there must be all copper inside them, what?”

What nothing. For once Stig’s idea wasn’t so stupid. He was right about the wires. There were miles and miles and miles of them alongside all the tracks. They must go right across the country. They used to turn switches and stuff like that, but the railways started using satellites instead. They let the wires go dead. They let them rot, too – just letting the poles fall down any way they like: easy pickings for a fellow like Stig.

He was right about everything else, too. I’ve seen myself how much people charge for old glass and that wasn’t even in the city. I thought his coat-rack idea could work. Slap on a bit of paint, or call it rustic. Some’ll pay good money for stuff like that.

 

That’s how Stig got me out on snowmobile. I followed him way the hell back off the trail. I pulled a bobsled – better, he said, for the cross pieces. He had an ordinary box sled and said we’d toss the loose insulators in there. He said he’d already found a spot. We just had to follow his old tracks. The spot was perfect, he said, because none of the poles had fallen down along that stretch. They’re still fresh, he said.

He was right about that, too. There was a whole long straight row of poles and none of them were down. All the insulators looked ripe for picking, all the wires still strung between them all the way down the stretch.

“You sure they’re dead?” I asked.

Stig ignored me.

We had two chainsaws with us, but Stig wanted to make the first cut. I didn’t care. He said he wanted to do it just right, so we left the snowmachines down the line where the bushes would keep the railway folks from seeing them. We walked and Stig picked the pole just about in the middle and started up his saw. I stood back. He cut out a big wedge on the side where he wanted it to fall – away from the tracks – and then tramped around in the snow to make the third cut on the other side.

“Get ready!” he shouted when he was just about through, stepping back when his saw bit air.

Nothing happened.

Stig let the motor stop and then gave the pole a push. It teetered a little one way and then back, but it stayed upright. It looked like the wires were holding it there.

“We’ll need to take another one down,” Stig said.

Five poles later and they still wouldn’t fall. I’ve never seen Stig so pissed off. I was thinking I should take the chainsaw away from him. He was hardly even taking any care any more, just hacking through the pole as fast as he could, no wedge or nothing. When it wouldn’t go down he just cursed it and stamped to the next, attacking it like all the others. I was glad when his saw ran out of gas and sputtered off by itself. He cursed that, too, and it looked like he was going to throw it, but something caught his eye and he just cursed that instead.

“That’s it,” he shouted at me and pointed. “That’s what’s doing it: It’s that tree!”

He was right again because a few poles past us there was a big tree had fallen across the lines and was pinning them down, pulling them really tight. It sure looked like what was holding our poles up and I wondered how we were going to get it off. I wanted to think about it some more, but Stig already had the answer.

“I’m going to pull that son of a bitch down,” he said and stamped to where we left the snowmobiles.

He didn’t say he needed me for anything so I just had a smoke. It really was a nice day – sunny and not too cold. Without the saw running I could hear birds in the trees and wind and stuff like that – and far away I’m pretty sure I heard a train. It was a good smoke.

Stig started up his machine and drove towards me along the poles he’d just cut, but then he did a little loop in the woods around me, coming out not too far from the big tree. He had me take a rope and go back to tie it as high up as I could, so he could drag it off.

It was a spruce, so it wasn’t too hard to climb, especially as it was laying down pretty straight. I was still thinking about everything and I wasn’t sure if his rope was good enough for the job and I was thinking he should maybe cut the tree first, before he pulled it, but I climbed up it and tied the rope and got down again and Stig never gave me a chance to say anything. I was walking back to him where he was gunning the motor and he couldn’t hear me. He couldn’t wait so even before I got to him he took off fast, spraying me with snow, ’cause he must have figured the faster he pulled the rope tight the easier the tree would come down.

Well, he was right about that, too, but I was right about the rope. When the rope came tight the tree kind of bounced and the snowmachine bounced too and the tree came over sideways, but then the rope was tight again and it snapped. I could hear it and then I could feel it because I was right beside the rope and it wrapped around me and jerked me off my feet. I just had time to grab the rope myself so at least I’d be dragged frontwards and I yelled at Stig to stop and for once he heard me and stopped, looking back to see what I was yelling about. I rolled over onto my back so I could get the snow out of my nose. That way I could see Stig had been right about the tree holding the poles up. The tree was down and the first pole was starting to teeter, first one way and then the other, and then it started to fall. The second pole was right beside me and I knew where it was going to come down.

“Go on, drive!” I yelled. “Go on, man!”

Stig couldn’t hear me though, ’cause suddenly there was this train running right alongside us and blowing its horn. Stig must have seen the poles coming down anyway because he booted it, jerking me on the end of the rope and dragging me backwards. First I was too busy to notice anything else happening because I was watching one pole after the other slam down right behind me, the coat-racks pounding themselves deep into the snow right where I’d been seconds before, but then I saw these faces staring out at me from the train windows – a few little kids with these shocked little expressions on their faces seeing me almost get clobbered by those hydro poles. I tried to give them a smile and a wave – let them know I’d be all right so they shouldn’t be afraid – but Stig had come to the end of the trail and had to veer around the sled he’d left there. The rope hauled me clear into the air and then let go of me. Lucky for me I didn’t hit anything except a thick drift of snow, but I sank into that pretty quick. It took me a few minutes to dig myself out. The train was gone and Stig was looking at all the poles. They’d fallen just like they were supposed to, but the wires had wrecked all the insulators, shattering them when they pulled tight and snapped.

“Barn boards,” Stig said.

“What?”

“Barn boards,” he repeated. “We take the broken insulators off and sell the cross pieces as barn boards. You know how much people will pay for stuff like that?”

 

Forever Held by an Invisible Patch

Forever Held by an Invisible Patch

Suzanne Ondrus

 

Some plants live for life, despite their two-year visible life, continuing on forever, full in imagination.  Maybe it is those joyful things gained with pain that we cherish most– our children, degrees, homes, gardens, and citizenship.  I cherish the blackberry patch that I grew up with by my house.  Every year in May half the stalks would set their tiny white flowers and half would wait for their turn the following year to bloom, resting on the dead ones.  I think about how we humans rest upon layers and layers of civilizations, how we individually stand thanks to those fallen, for our nation, for our family.  I remember how the flowers would then die and green nubs of berries would come, growing to red and finally to full dark blue, black. The important men in my life are snared by this small, dark fruit, painful to gather. 

Growing up my sister and I would take old metal coffee cans and go out back to the patch with my Dad.  The three of us spread out in the patch.  We were flexible then, bending down to stare up at the silent burgeoning beauties hanging.  We always came back with colanders filled and with one or two thorns somewhere in our flesh.  The patch thrived between a row of pines and a willow.  

The berries were so abundant that we froze bags and bags of them.  They went from dark purple to red in the freezer.  I cannot remember when the patch started to thin.  I suppose it happened gradually or when I was away at school.  I remember when the willow by the patch started to die, its large limb broken, swaying downwards.  It was the start of my parents’ divorce.  The tree went untended, just like the patch.  While my Dad threw furniture around and we righted it, nature was left to tend to itself.  The hanging limb withered year by year, but still hung, like the noose my Dad told the therapist was around his neck; the noose was us. 

One day I noticed poison ivy around the blackberry patch.  I was picking in August.  The patch was thin, and there were few berries.  The berries there were small and not plump.  I remember spotting one plump one on a low plant.  I bent down to pick it, then suddenly stopped as I saw the three leaves signifying danger.  The berry was so ripe, so full of juice, but I could not proceed to pick.  How would I put it in my mouth?  I stopped and retreated.  I could only look at this berry.  I dared not to touch it.

After my Dad had moved out of the house, he was not allowed on the property.  The land and the house that he spent thirty years in were verboten by law to him.  You strike your wife, you threaten her, and you may not come near her.  The trees he planted grew.  When he came to pick us up he could only stop at the driveway.  The land that he had lived on for so many years was forbidden territory.  The hanging limb stared at him from down the driveway saying, “it’s over, it’s over.”  But he still asked us to bring him berries when we saw him in July or August, and every time we came with a handful he was in disbelief, as if we were hoarding barrels of them at home.  The patch had simply stopped.  Instead of picking with colanders and coffee cans, a small bowl sufficed.  

Perhaps the patch was destined for decay, being that it was by a dilapidated barn.  Half of the barn had to be knocked down so the rest could remain usable.  Maybe that corner of the property pulls things down. Adjacent to this corner stands a tall oak tree.  It has grown wide and is firm in place.  Sometimes I would go to sit there during my parents’ divorce, my back to the patch, staring at the corral, remembering how my father had wanted to burn the field, to make anew.  We were small.  It was a Saturday.  We were doing family yard work when he decided to burn.  The whole corral started on fire and we turned to see him standing there yelling.  We came with shovels and buckets of water.  Everyone covered a different side, working for a common cause.  We were lucky that day.  The fire was contained.  It did not spread to neighbors’ land.  My favorite childhood knickknack is a candle of a little firefighter girl holding a hose, with the inscription at the base that “only you can put out the fire”.  I like to think of how we are responsible for our anger.  My Dad had such difficulty controlling his anger, whether it was his loud voice, curses, angry eyes or red face, and I too have trouble maintaining composure or right words when something pricks me.  With fire and anger comes responsibility.  

Some of my fondest memories are of my family together on our land, doing yard work.  You cannot really talk when you are doing yard work, so I guess there is very little chance of things going wrong.  And this was a plus since my Dad liked to say things to get a rise out of people.  Picking up sticks and raking leaves were big family projects, helped by the trailer attached to the little yellow Sears tractor my Dad drove.  It was time to breathe the same air, look at the same things and time to reach out together.  I do not see many families working together in their yards today, and it makes me sad.  There is something so beautiful about pulling a tarp together, grunting till reaching the dropping place.  There is a sense of united entitlement to end the day together.  We give something very important away when we hire landscaping crews to do our yards for us.  Perhaps the moment we hired others to come to work on our yard is when our family really started to fall.  There was no need to work together on the outside, on the visible, the tangible.  Maybe we lost a connection to our land at that moment.  Maybe our land lost its connection to us too and started to die, the blackberry bushes one by one lost.

Our next-door neighbor to the North was like a grandfather to me growing up.  He’d been there since my parents had moved in.  When my Dad learned about the neighbor’s blackberry patch in the woods he asked if he could have a few bushes. The neighbor later told me my Dad had cleared the whole patch; he was shocked.  After our neighbor died about forty years later, a huge blackberry patch came forth between his garage and row of pines.  It was like those berries came to stitch his fifty-year spot he had on that piece of land in place, as if someone would be sure to lose some blood if his property was altered.  When I saw the blackberry patch on our neighbor’s land, I felt like he had given us a sign that he was o.k., that he had given us a present, as if to say that new patches will come into your life.  Those berries were like justice served, though too late, but they stand and flower returned back to where they first came from.  Maybe because our neighbor was so deeply rooted to his house and his land, he was able to be porous, to let my Dad come like a hawk and take those blackberries, because he knew the flux of nature, that what goes out finds its way back eventually.  My Dad died two years after my neighbor.  Now they are both in the invisible patch; it is abundant beyond my human eyes.  There is sweetness in their mouths.

Casser Tour, Summer of Love

Casser Tour, Summer of Love

Glen Moss

In the Summer of 1967, as heat and anger gathered to explode in Newark and Detroit and love gathered in San Francisco, I boarded a bus in New York’s Port Authority with my parents.  This was the last vacation I remember my parents taking and the last I felt obligated to take with them.  I was 13, wouldn’t be turning 14 till after we returned with images in my bag I would unpack and explore after Midnight when the voice of WNEW-FM’s Allison Steele added her purple throated voice to my Brooklyn nights.

My parents could teach a class in pretending to a middle class life while seeking to cover working poor income. This may be far more common today with great recessions recent and looming, and an economy of deepening and widening divide, leaving many with memories of assumed solidity and finding liquidity only in the sweat from fear.  Back then, even as the ‘60’s opened rifts in perceptions of permanence, we weren’t yet at recessions, gas shortages, and disco.

My few friends were all at camp, volunteering or working at places with doors opened by parents. Me, with a stutter and imagination, I packed a small bag and joined my occasional bookkeeper mother and always women’s shoe store salesman father. How did they even come up with the money for this 7 day tour of upstate NY and a day trip to Expo ’67 in Montreal…the last world’s fair of any note. Back in September, when I had my poor kid bar mitzvah on a Thursday morning, apparently the other sanctioned day for this particularly Jewish American affair, what little money was offered by the 15 or so family in attendance was quickly handed to my parents so the rent could be paid that month. “Today I am a renter”, is what I should have said.

The “should have saids”, especially self-damning for a stutterer, would have prominence one particular night on this trip. The thread of that evening’s tapestry began when we first entered the bus. My parents sat in the fifth row of two seats on the left side while I took the window seat across the aisle so I could lose myself in the scenes that would roll by, knowing that everyone else would be coupled up and no other kid would be dragged along.

Within minutes, my parents and the couple in front of them started talking and laughing. I was pointed at, and I turned my head and waved. No need to attempt saying “hi”…I could get stuck on that ‘h” until the bus reached Westchester.  So began a vacation connection that dominated my parents’ attention, not to my surprise but to my liking as it allowed me to be separate and wander.

The other couple, Sal and Donna Bonneti from Newark, was as authentically middle class as my parents were not. Sal owned two plumbing and hardware stores and Donna was a junior high school teacher. They had two kids, both boys, 16 and 17, at sports camps in Pennsylvania. Just the kind my father wished I was and knew I’d never be. I was the son who he beat at boxball and handball every Sunday morning. The one who threw the Passover meat down the incinerator by mistake. 

As the bus took its route north to the first stop in Lake George, I heard the shared laughter as my parents and their new friends exchanged histories, real and shaded. I looked out the window as suburbs and then more rural space opened up to the July sun.  In just a few days we would hear the news about riots in Newark with fires burning a city that would see ashes and broken glass as a turning point; where blood and national guard boots marked spaces where homes and stores stood only a week before. Sal and Donna, shaken and the easy smiles gone, would leave the tour early to return home and become part of the Newark exodus to find a new place to try and start over in middle age. Memory advises that they moved to Westfield, with a new hardware store and stories to add to the July that changed Newark and Detroit, and the hopes from 1964 and 1965.

Lake George was a half-day stay in a town where a beautiful lake and history from the French and Indian War were obscured by the honky-tonk commercial drapes.  We likely had lunch somewhere but no memory is attached even as an aftertaste. The taste that mattered would come that evening.

We pulled into the parking lot of the St. Moritz in Lake Placid around 5 PM. It was a large Victorian hotel with all the requisite dark wood and American imaginings of Old World grandeur. High ceiling lobby, polished floors, uniformed employees, overstuffed chairs and a genteel hush.

My parents’ room had a large bed and thick curtains. Mine, smaller, had a single bed set against the wall with the window opposite.  The Casser group was set to have dinner at 7, so I asked if it was OK to take a walk to town and be back in time. As I took many walks on my own in Brooklyn, this was an easy ask.

An Adirondack town of once and future Olympics, Lake Placid allowed me to easily imagine I was walking in a village in Switzerland or Germany. That’s the beauty of an imagination nurtured by time alone and internal architecture; my eyes become a projector of images that mix reality and dreamscape. Walking past shops keeping winter like a child you don’t want to change, I could feel a chill and hear the glide of skis. 

I made it back by 6:30 and my parents were wearing their best. My mother in a dark blue floral dress and my dad in a suit. I had dark brown corduroy pants and a dark shirt. We took the elevator down to lobby and were shown to large dining room, almost a ballroom it seemed, filled with tables for the Casser tour and one or two others. Sal and Donna were already seated at a table and waved us over to the three empty seats.

As we walked over, my heart sped up and I could feel sweat forming in my scalp. She wore a black dress and black stockings, and her black hair framed a face with red lips that were slightly open and eyes the color of a lake at dusk. We sat down and no one noticed my sweat or my breathing. And then, she came to the table.

“Good evening. Welcome to the St. Moritz. My name is Beth and I’ll be serving you tonight.” I saw my father and Sal glance at each other and I felt angry. I tried to lift my eyes to hers but couldn’t. Donna told her how lovey she looked and asked if she was a student or worked at the hotel full time. Beth said she was a student at Ithaca College, majoring in English and her family lived in the area.

She asked for drink orders and when she came to me, I managed to look up and, in one of those moments I could never rely on, I said, “Coke” without a stutter. She smiled and I reached quickly for my water glass, almost knocking it over.

Dinner was a blur of my watching Beth as she approached the table, asked how everything was, asked about the tour and where we were from. When she heard, “Brooklyn”, her dark lake eyes widened and she said a friend lived in Brooklyn Heights. She visited during Christmas break and the streets were so pretty and did we live near there. My mom smiled and said we lived across the street from Prospect Park, only a few subway stops away. Hinting that it was as nice as the Heights, maybe even a little finer. Another pretend, but so much had become that I wasn’t sure if she knew the difference. Beth looked over at me, smiled, and said,

“Sounds like a nice place to grow up.”

I swallowed my third Coke and managed, 

“Oh, yeah. I l-l-love the park.” My stutter brought looks from Sal and Donna, but it was Beth’s that mattered. In her eyes I saw more than the usual mix of embarrassment and pity. Or believed I did. I wanted to say more but could not.

I did love Prospect Park. It was my escape in many ways; a place where I could be in Middle Earth or the England of Edward III, anywhere but Brooklyn and the three room apartment I choked in. I would sit in the living room that was my parent’s bedroom at night and read Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia. Or sit out on the fire escape outside the bedroom I shared with my older brother and read, getting lost in the story and the sound of the open subway trains rolling noisily just beyond a concrete wall. In that moment looking into Beth’s eyes, I knew I added something special to my walking dreams. And maybe to my sleeping ones.

 

As dessert was being served, a group of four from the hotel came into the room carrying a microphone and moved to a space at the back of the room near a large piano. Three were musicians, one guy carrying a bass fiddle, another a saxophone. The third sat down at the piano.

The fourth guy set up the microphone and said, “Good evening, ladies and gentleman. On behalf of the entire staff at the St. Moritz, we hope you are all enjoying your stay with us and thanks to Casser Tours and McClellan Vacations for choosing us for your visit to Lake Placid. Tonight we would like to continue with a tradition we have here at the hotel. We’ve discovered through the years that every summer we are lucky to have among you some real talent in song. So, we’d like to invite anyone who has talent and feels brave enough to come up and share a song or two.”

Oh no. I knew what was about to happen. Whatever happened to their lives, however smaller and plainer they became, my parents always saw themselves as entertainers, at least together. My mother did have a fair husky kind of voice and back in the late 1930’s was asked by a quartet who played Brighton Beach to accompany them on a tour. They had heard her sing, maybe on the boardwalk one summer afternoon when she was with friends, and thought she’d be perfect for their sound. They even had a group name picked out, Gypsy and the Four Kings. But when she asked her parents, Rachel and Morris, a clear ‘no’ kept her in Brooklyn and singing at family gatherings, and maybe still at the boardwalk. But no farther.

My father wasn’t a singer. He could help my mother keep a tune moving, but his real talent was in dance. He looked a bit like James Cagney and he moved a bit like Gene Kelley. Together, my parents found their escape through dancing, gliding in sync with an energy and grace they could never replicate in lives that seemed to forever recede from pre-war dreams. And I existed in the regrets when the music stopped. 

One or two people from other tables found the courage and need to step up and sing a standard the band knew and could adapt to the singer.  Then, I heard the chairs move and I saw my parents heading toward the microphone and the space where, for a half hour, they could make all the pretend real.

As they began with Gershwin and switched to Berlin and began to dance, you could feel each table’s conversation turn to silence and surprised admiration. All the attention they always wanted right there amidst the coffee and chocolate cake in a ballroom at the St. Moritz in Lake Placid, New York.  Sal and Donna watched them, smiling. Sal turned to me, and whispered, “Hey, they are really good. You must be proud.” I nodded, looked down and wished I could get up and leave. I thought about it and then suddenly, sitting down next to me was Beth. She leaned over to me and I stopped breathing. She leaned into me and said, “I know. “ She put her hand on mine and continued, “Once you are a little older and can get away, it will be OK. I promise”. 

She got up and maybe she smiled at me but I couldn’t look at her then. Only when she walked to other tables could I watch her walk, stop, and lean in to a whispered request.  I wished I had said something.

My parents continued to dance, now to Porter. I  got up and walked away, unseen. Or so I thought. As I turned to look back, I saw Beth looking at me and she waved.

I walked to the lobby, sweating and my hands shaking. I heard applause as I left the hotel and walked towards town. The lights from the shops were on now and I stopped to take a breath, and then another. I started walking again, and imagined Beth was with me, not saying anything, just holding my hand. After a while, I imagined telling her about England in the 14th Century and her smiling. I saw that smile for a long time. After I had left for college, as Beth had promised, things did get better, and I was able to smile back.

Wedge

Wedge

Louise Carson

 

Wedge. A great word

      caught in my beak.

          Wedge heel. Can’t be

              caught in the grate.

                  Wedge the budgie

                      yellow

                  in his cage.

              A wedge of geese

          honk no surrender in a

      Wedgewood sky. The manuscript

wedged under my door keeps it open.

VELO CITY


VELO CITY  

MARK C. HULL

We sat there plopped like puddles of water on the floor, at the gate, waiting for the flight to depart. She was a stranger to me and I to her, and sometimes those are the best friendships I’ve ever had, fleeting as they are. It wasn’t obvious that we had anything in common, other than the fact that, due to the crowd, we had taken up spots on the marbled tile. It was as good a bond as any, us sitting on the floor together. As it turns out we were both heading home, too. Home as in the geography of our youth, not necessarily where we were currently living. 

“Did you hear they found D. B. Cooper?” she said.  

“Oh?” I said, not believing it. 

“He gave a sworn deposition. He’s been living as an investment counselor outside of Seattle for almost fifty years,” she nodded, intent on convincing me. I was familiar with the story. D.B. Cooper was the notorious bank heist villain who parachuted from a commercial airliner in nineteen-seventy-whatever, most likely dead, the stuff of lore and legend. I suspected that, somewhere in the United States, every day, someone was claiming to be D.B. Cooper.

“I hadn’t heard.” 

“What fantastic speed these things have,” she said, looking out the window, regarding the airplane parked at the gate. I sensed she was the type to toggle back and forth between subjects, in a way, traveling twice as fast in conversation as I was. 

“From the outside, sure. From the inside it feels like you’re sitting still,” I said. 

“Are you trying to be clever?” 

“Always trying. Rarely succeeding.” 

“Technically, the first American to travel to outer space was a chimpanzee named Ham,” she told me. 

“A pioneer,” I nodded. 

“Imagine if everything came to a screeching halt,” she said. 

“I believe that is referred to as death,” I said. 

She winced, almost imperceptibly, at the mention of the concept, although I got the impression that she was less afraid of death than she was of stillness, of being rooted to one spot, of running out of gas. She tapped a message into the phone she was holding, fielding yet another conversation. I sat back and thought about my trip home. Speaking of being motionless, I was traveling in order to sit, for a while, in a parked 56’ Buick Skylark convertible. I was going to sit in the backseat on the passenger side. It was a thrilling and scary and stupid plan, to make a thousand-mile journey in order to sit in the backseat of an old parked car. Yet here I was, making it. 

“They discontinued them, you know,” she said. 

“What?” 

“The rear hatches that used to be in planes. The one D.B. parachuted out of. They stopped installing them.” 

“Were you planning on trying one out?” I said. 

“Oh, oh, look! That guy’s luggage bag is open and his stuff is spilling all over the place!” 

I turned to see a man wheeling a suitcase down the concourse with a line of random items in a trail behind him. Someone stopped him to point out his open bag. He turned and began cleaning up the path of clothing he had left. 

“Where are you heading today?” I asked. 

“Same place as you, hopefully, since we are on the same plane.” 

“Velo City?” 

“Yep.” 

“Going for something fun?” 

“I have to go to a funeral,” she said, not sounding the least bit sad. 

“Oh,” I said, in sudden realization. “I’m sorry.” 

“It’s going to be great,” she said. “My friend that died is going to be there.” 

She had me stumped with that one. It was so obvious as to be utterly confounding. My own phone came alive in my pocket with a tiny spastic shudder. I looked at it, hoping that the girl sitting next to me, a complete unknown, had somehow figured out my phone number and decided to send me a fun little message. No such luck. Instead it was from someone named Constantin, another stranger. “Constantin here,” the message read. “Meeting A.S.A.P.! Stock in free fall. Circle the wagons on software crash!” 

“Wrong number,” I typed back. 

“Oops. Thanks,” responded Constantin, now gone forever.  

My phone never gives me anything exciting. It is a gadget of spam mail and wrong numbers. It promises the world of possibility at my fingertips and keeps it just out of reach. All the mystical opportunities, invitations and offers are careful to avoid my inbox, like sailors circumnavigating the Bermuda Triangle. 

“What are you going to Velo for?” she asked me. 

“If I tell you it will sound like I’m crazy,” I said. 

“No judgment,” she promised. 

“A car from my past has reappeared. It holds a special place in my heart and I am going to go sit in it and try to relive a very special night.” 

“Reappeared! Like D.B. Cooper,” she said, aglow with the connection. “Did you lose your virginity in it?” 

“No. We used it to rescue a mermaid down at Swift Beach once,” I said. 

“I love Swift Beach. In fact, if I am ever reincarnated I want to come back as a seashell on Swift Beach.” 

I guess the 56’ Buick Skylark convertible was my own personal D.B. Cooper. I didn’t even know what year the car was actually made in, I just liked to say 56’ because it sounded cool. It had fins on it, and a lot of chrome. I had been obsessed with it since I was seventeen, casually obsessed, if there is such a thing, because my ride in the car was the result of a blast of spontaneity that still mystifies me, twenty-five years later. There had been a high school band recital, and I had been playing the kettle drums, which means I commanded the thunder, and there is no greater rush than commanding the thunder in a hundred-piece orchestra. I was so powerful that the conductor himself, started melting. Really, the man’s arms began dripping off him. 

“I wonder if they sell battery chargers around here?” she asked, frowning at her phone. 

“I’m sure they…” 

“I can’t wait for a slice of pizza,” she declared. “First place I’m stopping when I get to Velo. A slice of pizza with extra grease.” 

“It’s funny about home,” I said. “The things about it that we love and the things about it that we hate.” 

“It’s the place where I keep all the embarrassing stuff from my past tucked away, like in an old attic, gathering dust,” she said. “All the zits, the punishments, the taunts, the tantrums, the awkward kisses, the growth spurts, the wild spread of pubic hair, a hundred broken hearts. All the wrong words I’ve ever spoken I’ve spoken at home.” 

“That is my philosophy,” I said. 

“I don’t like philosophy. Philosophy is stupid,” she said. I nodded. It would make sense that she would think that and I would disagree, given that she was seven or eight years old and I was a hundred and forty. These ages were very rough estimates. 

“It is the tether that keeps pulling me back, like a child tugging on a balloon that keeps trying to escape to the sky,” I said. Not a child, though, a Buick. Jodi’s Buick had been taken away from her by her parents because she wasn’t supposed to be driving it that night and now it was back, somehow, in the driveway. My brother had called me to tell me the news. After I hung up the phone I booked my plane ticket, before it disappeared again.  

“These days I seem to only return for funerals,” she said. 

“Was the person who died close to you?” I said. 

“He is my one crazy friend. He was out in Moab doing some dangerous hike through the desert and something bit his foot, and by the time he got help his foot had shriveled up and died, so he is having a funeral for his foot.” 

“Just the foot?” 

“Yes. He is the only person I know wild enough to pull off a stunt like this. He is always risking his life for something or other. I suspect he will die off in increments. One day there will be nothing left but his head.” 

I chuckled, and excused myself for finding amusement in tragedy. She encouraged me to laugh like she was.  It was ridiculous, after all. Though we were sitting next to each other right there on the floor of the airport I felt that she was a satellite, above me and around me, whizzing by in an arc of movement and flux. Every soul has its own momentum, and some travel faster than others. 

“Was it your car that you lost?” she asked. “The old Buick?” 

“The car was Jodi Kilgore’s,” I said. “She lived in the neighborhood and was part of the band. Played the flute, if I remember. What had happened was we had a band recital and I was playing the kettle drums…” 

“A fine instrument…” 

“And I was hammering away with such intensity that the conductor’s arms fell off.” 

“What?” 

“He was a guest conductor and he was flailing so wildly that he split open the  tuxedo jacket that he was wearing. At first I couldn’t understand why he kept pushing his coat sleeves up, and his tempo got faster and faster and the orchestra got faster and faster as he tried to keep his sleeves on and still keep his baton moving, except he couldn’t because the jacket had ripped right down the back and eventually he had to let it fall off him. It was a miracle the musicians kept playing, I mean, a few slight flutters but we got through the piece. To have teenage musicians watching a grown man burst out of his concert jacket and still keep it together is evidence that some kids are amazing and the future is not doomed. We were young professionals. We held tight. Once the show was over, though, and we were outside the auditorium we howled, the kind of laughter that makes you think something in your chest will be damaged beyond repair.”  

“So what about the Buick?” 

“There was an after-party at a band kid’s house, the tuba player, and I didn’t have a ride and so Jodi had an extra seat in her dad’s Skylark, which she wasn’t supposed to be driving, as it turns out. Until that moment we never had spoken and now I was in a car with her and her friend Sarah riding shotgun, and two guys that played the trumpet in the backseat with me, and we set off to this kid’s house but we were still laughing so hard about the conductor’s arms falling off that Jodi had to pull off into the Swift Beach parking lot because her eyes were filled with joyful tears. Then she decided to whip the laughter out of us by driving that Buick in big wild circles through the empty stretch of pavement. We went sailing around and around in crazy orbit. I was pinned to the back wall of that car and the two guys next to me were pinned against me, and we laughed and I looked over at Jodi Kilgore and fell in love with her right then and there, her magical profile, and her stunt driving, and the song that was cranked up on the radio that was the best song ever even though it was super cheesy, and when she finally screeched to a halt we all decided that wasn’t enough and so we jumped out of the convertible without opening the doors and ran straight into the water, fully clothed, drifting in the surf that reflected a billion stars above us. That’s where we found the mermaid.”

“A real mermaid?” 

“It was a six-foot wooden masthead washed up on shore, covered in seaweed. We had to save her. So we loaded our mermaid up into the Skylark and took her to the party. We arrived all damp and wild-haired and we were hailed as heroes for rescuing a mermaid and also for playing a smashing concert even though the maestro had fallen to pieces.” 

“Sounds like a great night,” she said. 

“After that everything started to unravel,” I said. “A gang of football players showed up uninvited to the party and stole our mermaid. Then when Jodi’s dad found out that she had taken the car he was so angry that he got rid of it the next day, or so we thought. Now it’s back in the driveway of that old Kilgore house and I’m going to walk right up to it, yank that canvas top down and climb into it and sit there for as long as I need to, and in my head I’m going to drive in big wild circles. I don’t care if they call the police.” 

“You’ve left a part of yourself in that car,” she said. “Since then you’ve been dying off piece by piece, like my friend.” 

“You have been very helpful,” I said. “Enjoy your funeral.” 

Time to board. We gathered ourselves up and got on the plane. I hoped, maybe, that her seat was next to mine, but of course it wasn’t. Instead a man sat down next to me, a man that looked strangely similar to the police sketch of D.B. Cooper. Somehow I knew she wouldn’t be sitting next to me because all the magic, fortune and luck I had ever known had come and gone in that one strange night with the melting maestro and the Skylark and the mermaid and Jodi Kilgore, who went off to college and never came back. Just as well. Let her exist in her perfect state in the dells and glens of my memory. 

As eager as I was to see that Buick again I was also a little scared that it would not be the fascinating transport of my nostalgic youth. It may have, over the years, settled into being a plain old car. Maybe it would sense my presence, remember me and, between the two of us we could get a little bit of that old sizzle happening again. Victory or failure. Either was possible. 

It occurred to me that the elusive concept of heaven may just be getting to return to a moment, a cherished, full moment, and realizing that it was as glorious as you remembered it to be, that it did hold all the sacred energy you had assigned it for all time since then, that it was the boost of velocity that kept you going for years afterward. Hell, on the other hand, would be getting to go back to that same moment and realizing you had it all wrong; that it was a con, a mirage, a false event, a dead boneyard that was forever playing a trick on the senses. I got off the plane, hailed a taxi, and crossed my fingers for heaven. 

First Snow

 FIRST SNOW

Margaret Miller

I was thirty the first time I saw vehicle snow chains, a necessary part of my new life in northern British Columbia. For thirteen years I’d been a city driver, confidently navigating my way through the traffic maze of Australia’s largest city, Sydney. Ice scrapers, block heaters, lock de-icers and snow chains were not a part of my life. But all that changed when I moved half way around the world to a small cabin at Moberly Lake, more than a thousand kilometres north of Vancouver. 

I spent many weekdays alone at the cabin. The closest neighbours lived a few kilometres away; the small town of Chetwynd was a twenty-minute drive south. One winter morning I planned to visit a new friend in town, so pulled on extra layers and Mukluk’s and waded through freshly fallen snow to the two-wheel drive truck. After some worry and a few wheel spinning efforts I knew I was snow-bound. I simply could have returned to the cabin and phoned my friend to let her know I was marooned until the driveway was ploughed. She’d understand; weather often altered plans in the north. But I was hungry for company; a new-comer with too much time on her hands feeling frustrated at the bottom of a long driveway. I pulled the tire chains from behind the bench seat and my ready-for-anything snow pants, suited up and wriggled under the rear wheels of the pick-up. I’d been shown how to fit chains a few weeks earlier and knew it could be awkward. But it wasn’t rocket science.

Like most Aussies, I hadn’t grown up with snow. Summer or winter, my backyard was green and the eucalypts in our garden and street were always in leaf. During crisp winter mornings, frost collected on the lawn and in rare summer hailstorms ice stones briefly blanketed the street so it oddly resembled a Christmas card. But it never snowed. The only flakes I grew up with were housed in a small glass dome on a shelf in our living room; one tiny cottage and three tiny evergreens trapped under glass. White flecks swirled in the oily sky when the dome was tilted. Was this anything like real snow?

In my twenties, I set off from summer-time Sydney to experience snow in Britain and Europe. With the temperature hovering in the mid-thirties, I departed from the airport, carrying a knee-length wool coat, wearing thick socks and laced boots. I explored cold London for a few weeks, rain and drizzle but no snow, then ventured northwest in a blue rental Mini to Wales. I woke the following morning in a cozy Cardiff Bed and Breakfast and parted the heavy drapes by my bed. A few inches of snow had fallen overnight. White dominated the landscape; everything looked new and clean. I hadn’t heard a thing. No tell-tale pitter-patter on the roof during the night. No rattle at the window pane. I studied the new view. A downy layer on the lawn and shrubs. The stone fence, dark and mossy under a white crown. A vanilla ice-cream scoop on every fence post. Big white pillows on the roof and bonnet of the Mini. A white strip on the overhead wires. Did snow stick to everything? I thought about driving in these changed conditions. Could an Aussie in a Mini handle it? The B&B owners offered pointers on winter driving, so I ventured out in my first snow to my first medieval castle.

There were few visitors at Caerphilly Castle that day. Mid-week, off-season. After a cautious drive along flat roads, an immense fortress loomed in front of me. Dark stone; tall walls; turrets and towers, most intact and straight, some crumbling or leaning with gaping cracks against the grey winter sky. And fresh snow everywhere. I donned my long wool coat, pulled the hood over my head and left footprints in the snow as I crossed the draw bridge and made my way to the top of the gatehouse. New snow-covered the seven hundred year old structure; milk-white against grey and dark brown and black. I stood alone in a quiet sepia landscape devoid of colour.

I saw snow in other landscapes in the next few years: a tour of Scotland, a beginner’s ski course in Innsbruck, weekend jaunts to the Snowy Mountain seven hours south of my Sydney home. But snow remained a novelty for me, a respite from the mild winters and long, hot summers of Sydney. Then in the eighties I moved to Canada for life with Bryan, a Canadian I’d met travelling, and snow became part of my daily life. I certainly knew snow could be beautiful; it sparkled in sunlight and captured the hues of the rippling Northern Lights. And it was fun; we played in it, skied across it and down it. But snow was work; for seven months of the year, we shovelled and piled it, ploughed, scraped and occasionally cursed it. As a driver, snow tested me. With practice, I learned to read winter road surfaces, to be soft on the brakes and to steer into skids. I came to recognize the bump-bump of a frigid morning drive as the flat spots on the tires rounding out and accepted the need to stow emergency winter gear in the truck.  But my pioneering sense of adventure wore thin that morning, so I grabbed the chains angrily and dragged them in under the vehicle. 

I felt warm and cramped under the truck, but my effort with the first chain was working. I fitted and closed the locking levers, then wriggled over to the other wheel. I pulled and tugged a few more minutes, then more success. I crawled out and climbed into the truck, turned over the engine and hollered when the chains bit through the snow and carried the Toyota and me up the driveway and onto the ploughed road. I pulled over and repeated the whole process in reverse. Chains unlocked and off. Snow pants off. Gear stowed. I cooled my flushed face with snow from the roadside, sucked on a ball of it to quench my thirst and settled back into the driver’s seat. I slid on my sunglasses, pushed an Eagles cassette into the player on the dash and drove through the northern landscape to the home of a new friend.  

One Saturday a few weeks later, when the temperature warmed to a mild five degrees below zero, Bryan and I decided to top up our water storage tank. The cabin had no running water, so year round we relied on lake water and with careful winter use it could last about a month. A green garden hose snaked up from the tank to the ceiling in the mudroom, passed through the wall, crossed the living room, and dropped through a second wall into the bathroom. The spigot that dangled over the claw-foot tub was the only water source in the cabin. We had no shower. No flushing toilet. No kitchen sink or taps. No hot water tank. But we were comfortable. The big kettle on the gas stove heated kitchen water; an immersion heater designed to prevent livestock water from freezing heated our bath water.  

We suited up for our water collecting routine and ran  a Pink Floyd tape to the outside speakers under the eaves on the deck. Bryan disconnected the electric pump from the metal tank and lugged it twenty metres to the frozen lake. He fetched his chain saw and a few tools while I ran an extension cord and another hose from the tank down to the collection spot. About fifteen minutes later, after Bryan cleared snow from the ice, cut an impressive thirty centimetre block from the solid surface and checked all fittings, soft and delicious water ran uphill and into the tank. I checked the kitchen clock. It took about ninety minutes to fill the tank, so we’d need to watch the time. 

 

After the work of set-up we relaxed on the deck with steaming mugs of tea.  

“Time to build a snowman,” announced Bryan. “The snow is just right and the steep driveway will be great for this.”

It would be my first snowman. I’d seen cartoon versions of giant snowballs rolling downhill so understood a little what he was thinking. We tested snow quality with small balls rolled on the flat spot near the cabin. They swelled and left widening tracks in the snow. We moved a good distance up the driveway, eager for a massive ball to begin our man of snow. Unwieldy weight defeated us, so we moved closer to the cabin and began rolling again. We worked together to create three impressively large snowballs and maneuvered them close to the picture window in the living room. We laughed, stacked and decorated the balls. I smoothed the big white tummy and carefully shaped the white head. Branch arms grew from our man’s shoulders and spruce-needle hair sprouted from his scalp. Would we be able to find stones for eyes under all the snow? 

“Of course he needs a carrot nose,” said Bryan. “Any in the cabin?” 

Any carrots in the cabin? Realization hit us at the same moment. How long had we been playing in the snow? We rushed back into the mudroom. Lake water gushed from the storage tank onto the floor. The mudroom, living room and only bedroom were flooded. Shoes floated under the coat rack. Plywood floors and carpet squares were sodden. Bryan yanked the hose from the tank, threw it outside and unplugged the extension cord. One final hiccup of water trickled down the outside of the tank, then all was quiet. We looked at each other and started to giggle. Much of our home was waterlogged. It was mid-winter and below zero outside; and our big new snowman was waiting for his nose. We laughed. 

After more work inside and outside the cabin, we shared a bottle of wine by the woodstove in the living room. The pump was back on the tank. The extension cord rolled and stored. Hose drained and coiled. Chain saw and tools stowed. Floors mopped. Soggy rugs hauled outside to freeze and stand guard by the woodpile. We relaxed together on the couch and looked through the picture window at our big man of snow, his carrot nose firmly in place. 

Did You Ever Think of Love This Way?

 

 

Did You Ever Think of Love This Way?

Michael Robins, Lieutenant and Commander, Tank Corps, Canadian Army, during the Italian Campaign of the Second World War

Did you ever think of life this way?

Away from all the things you dream by day

Alone where battles rage and wars are won

In inwards eye see things bygone

Did you ever think of life this way?

 

Did you ever think of love this way?

Parted from loved ones who had to stay

To keep hearths burning and love aglow

For men who might not return you know

Did you ever think of love this way?

 

Parted from loved ones who had to stay

To keep hearths burning and love aglow

For men who might not return you know

Did you ever think of love this way?

 

Did you ever think why wars are fought?

Has not world’s history the world taught

That men can live in bliss and peace

Not kill each other like savage beasts

Did you ever think why wars are fought?

 

Did you ever think of death this way?

Away from all the folks you’d like to say good bye

Torn by either gas, shell or mine

Never wholly using life’s full time.

Did you ever think of death this way?

 

Did you ever think of death this way?

Alone in cold, damp, blood stained ground

Without a guiding light or sound

To lead you on your final way

Did you ever think of death this way?

 

Did you ever think of why we fight?

Of death and torture a constant sight

Tired, hungry, worn men in flight

Never peaceful through the night

Did you ever think of why we fight?

 

Did you ever think of peace this way?

Of bliss and quiet through the night

No fear of bombers now in flight

No torn bodies, no ghostly sights

Did you ever think of peace this way?

 

Written, according to the poet, “in an hour of weakness”, on a battlefield in Italy, on November 21, 1943

Just The Lights

 

Just The Lights

Barbara Biles

The sun was up, the sky overcast. Josie skipped along beside her father, her hand in his, and saw their reflection, a bonded pair, in the blinded windows that they passed. He whistled a tune that cheered her and confirmed that she belonged in this very moment.

“Tell me about the Spunkie, Papa.” This was a favourite request when Josie’s mother, who was not fond of hearing about spirits, was out of town.

“Lights, dear. Strange and suspicious lights appeared over the loch.”

“And a loch is a lake, right?

“Right.”

“And do they come here, those fairies?”

“No. They live in Scotland. And they are not exactly fairies. More like ghosts.”

“Well I think they are fairies. Do they live anywhere else?”

“They have been spotted on the continent but I only know about Scotland, as you know.”

“And you saw the Spunkie yourself?”

“Just the lights, Josie. Just the lights.”

  On this morning, a spangle of lights, not lights diffused from a ceiling fixture, shone through the window of one building. It was one-storey rather than two like the others on this block and the window was draped with a white sheet and Josie supposed that some kind of stranger existed inside. Although the town was small and people claimed that everyone was known she was not yet old enough to make this claim herself. As they both looked in, her father broke his tune but then continued on as though everything was normal. Except their hand grip was broken. Except he did not pick up on another tune and their pace quickened though they had plenty of time before he would open his store in the next block.  

Once settled at the back of the store, Josie spun in her father’s desk chair while a farmer paid for a tractor part and prophesied on the weather and vowed to teach Ottawa a lesson. All of no significance to her. It cued her to look for her friend to play out the next part of her day. “I’m going to Carol’s, okay?” she said to her father.

“See you back at lunch,” he said. Josie’s mother was off to the city for a day of shopping and a night of visiting with her sister, Auntie Irene. Josie and her father would cross the street to the hotel and she could order fish and chips and a butterscotch sundae.

She was on her way to Carol’s house, anxious to resume their paper doll scenarios, developed the day before, when she ran into Terry who was older and prone to going down streets and alleys that Josie would never go down herself.

“Where you going?” said Terry.

“Carol Smither’s.” 

Terry put her feet on the ground and maneuvered her bike, pushing along with tip toes and matching pace with Josie. Her front wheel wobbled at times, having to go so slow. “She’s at Mary’s house. They put up a tent.”

“Oh,” said Josie in her ultra-neutral tone. Had not she and Carol been, like her mother said, two peas in a pod the day before and had they not vowed to continue with their paper doll fairies in a tableau inspired by her father’s will-o-the-wisp tales? The ones she begged him to tell over and over?

Suddenly Terry turned left at the corner and right into the alley and Josie followed along, corralling her feelings of betrayal and disregarding her natural inclination to keep away. They skirted ruts that held rain from the day before and candy wrappings that stuck to the ground. Empty beer bottles glistened through weeds and grassy edges and the unpainted backs of the buildings looked oily ochre brown. The one-story building was different though. It was painted blue with grey enamel steps. Thistles and dandelions grew along the base and stinkweed and wild grass spread out towards the lane. Lights had shone out the front of this building, just a little earlier, but the back was totally dark. The door window was covered with a dark curtain.

“They’re bohunks,” said Terry as she aimed a pebble right at the door. It struck with one sharp clink, obviously hitting metal.

While the urge to flee hit Josie, big time, a corner of the curtain lifted and the head and shoulders of a girl appeared.  Josie had never seen her before. The girl was wraith-like with dark brown hair and big eyes that for some reason did not seem matched. Her face was without expression. Josie could not help but stare before fear clicked in and she ran.

“She can’t talk, you know,” said Terry as she coasted by. “She’s dumb!”

***

They never warned of staying out of certain alleys but Josie suspected that she had taken a route that her parents would not recommend. Therefore she would not bring it up. She would not ask about the building, surely never meant to be a home, with lights flashing in front and a dumb little girl staring out the back. And just how dumb was she? Could she not read nor write and why couldn’t or wouldn’t she talk?

Josie headed to Carol’s, just in case Terry was wrong, and knocked on her door.

Mrs. Smithers opened up. “Well Josie,” she said, “Carol is at Mary’s today and will be staying overnight. Perhaps you can try again tomorrow.”

“I’ll need my paper dolls then,” said Josie, embarrassed by her own anger and feeling close to tears. “I need them for another friend!” It was a lie of course but a good one, she thought, and she headed back to the store with the shoe box of fairies under her arm while dark purple clouds formed overhead.

It was easy to pass by Mary’s house on the way back to the store. Sure enough a tent was pitched right next to the crab apple tree and she could hear Carol and Mary’s voices. They giggled and scuffled while flashlights jitter-bugged through canvas walls. A pox on them, Josie thought.

***

There were four of them; fairies with flowing pastel dresses and sashes and wild flowers permanently set in their hair, but none had wings. They were mostly like teenage girls with magical skills who prepared fairy food, tiny biscuits with cream and clover honey, and they treated girls and boys, especially boys, to secret meadow ballets. Sometimes Josie and Carol performed the dances themselves before getting back to their story. It was so much fun. But never again. Never again. 

As she laid out the paper fairies on her father’s desk the ceiling lights flickered and the store turned dark. The scent of newly applied oil rose from the wooden floor and filled the air. It was a warm aroma, familiar and reassuring. Then a wild crack of thunder, a powerful boom, rattled the china and windows and jiggled the front door. She thought about the H-bomb they were talking about on the news and about how her mother often said H instead of hell, as in “Who the H do they think they are?”

The first ping of hail sounded like the pebble hitting the dumb girl’s door but then a swath of white stones began to attack the windows and the cars out front. She covered her ears and her eyes, and cowered at the back, waiting for it to be over, but suddenly the town siren filled the air and both she and her father rushed to the front. The sidewalk and road were white like a snow day in winter but not a reason to send out the warning. There was nothing unusual going on that they could see and the onslaught seemed to be over.

“Maybe it’s an electrical short,” said her father. They both breathed a sigh of strange relief and Josie ran out to collect some ice stones, sounding delirious whenever she found one larger than before.

***

The news travelled fast as it does in a town. Lightning struck the tree and the tent. Of all the places it could come down it chose Carol and Mary’s sanctum. And it rendered Josie speechless.

It was a town of mourning. It was a town of hail damage talk. It was a town of broken windows and Josie’s father was set to work cutting glass in the store for all those affected. One Saturday morning, while robins announced imminent travel south and the sun was just rising because the days were now shorter, Josie held her father’s hand, or he held hers, as they headed to the store. But on this morning he stopped at the one-story building. The window was opaque because cardboard lined the other side of fractured glass. Light could neither travel in nor out. He let go of her hand and knocked on the door. An old lady, with a kerchief tied under her chin, peered out through the narrow opening then hollered something Josie did not understand. A man with a mustache appeared and gestured for them to go inside. Bohunks, she remembered Terry saying, and DPs too, whatever that meant.

Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plumb Fairy filled the air and the dark-haired girl with the unmatched eyes was dancing away, oblivious to their arrival. Above her head was a twirling glitter ball sending spangles of light onto the ceiling and the floor and the cardboard window.

Suddenly the girl was aware of eyes on her and she ran and hid behind her father, clinging to his shirt, hiding her face as best she could.

“My daughter,” the man said, “she doesn’t speak since they burned our house. But we are lucky still, to finally come here.”

“I want to fix your window,” Josie’s father said.

“Ah, we cannot afford.”

“But it’s on me. I will do it for free.”

***

The shoe box of fairies sat on a shelf at the back of the store but had become invisible to Josie’s eyes. Sometimes things don’t exist anymore, like the Spunkie who lived in her father’s time and created receding lights that scientists now say are ignited methane gas on the rise. They probably did look more like ghosts than fairies. It had been a wonderful, fanciful world, the one she and Carol had created, when Carol was still alive.

“I have an idea,” her father said once he had cut the glass and wrapped it with brown paper. “Bring your box of paper dolls and share them with Alina.” 

The dumb girl now had a name. Josie also learned that she could read and write. Both girls simply had nothing to say out loud. Perhaps they could dance under the glitter ball with a fairy in each hand. It was possible.

Cotton

IMG_0253.jpg

Cotton

David Franke

In 1967 the Volkswagen Beetle was given a 12-volt electrical system. They also upgraded the engine to 1493 cc.  Mine was blue, if I could call my parents’ car mine, and I did, and I assumed some subtle credit for the intelligent way it was designed, the rear engine heavy over the driving wheels and all. 

I read a book about the Beetle’s history.  It explained how this design helped Rommel drive through the deserts of Africa in the Second World War. Now it helped me drive through the winter in Ames, in the abysmal cold, street lights blurring and warbling through the windshield ice as I drove from work to that girl Cotton’s apartment.  These cars had no heater, really.  I pulled off my gloves anyway.  In the dark driver’s seat, on the empty road, steering with my knees, I pulled out my box of Marlboros and lit one by skittering an Ohio Blue Tip match over the dash, pulling on it for the familiar hit. I steered with my left hand, cigarette clenched between my cold right-hand’s knuckles.

With all the engine weight in the back, I slurred around snowy corners, oversteering to skid straight into the lane, heading up the slight hills of campus and by the giant cyclone—our fatalistic team icon in spiral neon— past the apartment building I got lost in during one very strange acid trip, past Ames Fruit and Grocery where my parents shopped, past the hamburger joint where they said the cooks spit on your burgers, past the trailer park where my brother’s best friend lived, and up Lincoln Way, the main highway through town, the old road that threaded through Iowa from NYC behind me to San Francisco in front of me, my wheels tracking two lines, no traffic, just this car, snow blowing sideways across the gridline highway all the way to her building.  It was maybe only two miles but I was shivering now, really cold.  It was something like 20 below even before all that wind of the rising storm.  The parking lot was unplowed — not a problem for a driver with my skills, of course, executing a 360 on the ice before crunching into place.  This ordinary solstice-season dark felt like Christmas. I flicked my butt out the window, turned on the dome light, opened the Marlboros.  Inside, one cigarette had been flipped upside down, a dark dot in the box.  The deal: If the dark one drops into my lap, it is going to work, she’ll say ok. I tried to be cool about it, as if I were just getting another smoke, not engaging in augury.  I turned the box over and tapped.  Two cigarettes fell out into my lap, neither one special.

 

She called herself “Cotton” because she said she was from the south, but I knew she grew up here.  She had gone to my high school five or ten years before. She knew the same trailer parks and the grocery stores, she knew the kids who painted the water tower during their graduation year. This hard winter wasn’t strange to her at all.  But she came back from Texas saying “y’all” as if she earned it. She came back with a baby, stories about drugs, and with a body different from the stiff, straight lines of the girls I knew.  She knew things.

I hunched against the wind on my way to the door.  Cotton was pale and wore a nightgown, translucent even in the dim light; she let me in fast and told me to be quiet.  There was a daughter asleep in the next room, one I never saw in all the times I went over. Cotton didn’t want to talk, didn’t let me sit down.  She sent me into the bathroom to take a bath.  I drew the bath and squeezed zits while it filled.  I took my Hardees uniform and threw it on the floor, greasy polyester stained with ketchup.  I soaked in the tub a while, thinking about my luck, about the danger of pushing too hard and getting over-confident, and about the spooky mechanism that could tell when you were overeager and wrecked everything.  I kept thinking about her skin or the way her muscles moved in her legs, her loose breasts that I struggled not to stare at.  I knew she wasn’t a beautiful woman. It never occured to me to ask why she lived alone, or where she worked, if she worked, why she left Ames or why she came back.  Taking a deep breath, I swooped under the bathwater entirely, getting my head wet and coming up for air, then slid my hands all the way down my Robert Plant hair to squeeze out some water.  I shook my head, spraying the walls like sheepdog, dried off and put my clothes back on.

 

The apartment was dark and she was sitting on the couch, watching the Olympics.  All we wanted to see were the long jumps.  Being up there, hung up in the air like that, falling for what seemed like a day and half, did they expect to land right, the smooth line of their decent merging with the smooth sleek line of the hill?  Or was the whole slow fall terrifying, expecting snapping bones, bouncing and flailing into the ice and snow?  How do you learn to do stuff like that, we wondered.  I thought of Evel Knievel jumping his motorcycle over 17 semis.  

“They say he broke every bone in his body,” I told her.

She agreed he was an idiot.  “He’s saying, ‘If y’all are stupid enough to pay me to break my bones on TV, then ok, pay me!’”  

The figures on the screen swooped and slipped with skiers. She let her hand fall on my leg, pressed her hip against mine as we looked ahead. When she lived in Texas, on the Army base, she and her husband spent most of their time shooting up, and she told me that if she just smelled dope it would make her throw up now.  I wondered what it smelled like, whether I’d take the needle without flinching.  

I was damp and warm, and we talked over the announcers about the last Olympics, back in 1972, the massacre — and you got the feeling that everybody was sort of hoping for some action, something scarier than bobsled races.  I don’t remember us kissing.  Her strong thighs were outlined under the blanket, one foot was curled up under her.   She made sounds that gave me some direction, and she moved into my touch, unlike the bony speechless girls who had let me grope them.  She pulled her nightgown up and in the jittery television light Cotton flickered in the dark for a second and returned to view.  Tonight she turned away from me and I started to despair, but she said it was ok.  She reached behind herself, took my hands and put them on her hips while she curled onto her knees.  I had heard about this.  She pulled up her nightgown some more and stayed there and bent into the cushions and with one hand helped me find my way and pressed back against me. All I could see was TV-jittery, so I closed my eyes and felt my way, heart fast, gasping for air, shaking like I was freezing.  She pressed toward me again and I started to understand how we could move together.  The television mumbled in and out of ads and announcers.  There were times when I thought she was very beautiful, when I felt she had caught me, grabbed me out of the air.  Making love was as close as either of us got to being held.  She didn’t hurry me or slow me, and when we were done, she rolled back up to sit on the the blanket, leaning against me.  “So there are a lot of ways to do it,” she said, and I was silent.  There had been no terrorists.  Everyone on the long jump had survived.

We were ketchup, sex, cigarettes.  The blue balloons of our smoke mingled in the blue light of the television.  I looked around for the first time since I got there.  She had this couch, a chair, a TV on the kitchen table and a bassinet.  I felt — I wondered what she did all day.

I told her why Palestinians didn’t show up to kill Israelis. I explained to her how the VW had been designed for Rommel in the Second World War. I explained that the babysitter my parents hired—her best friend—found my pot.

“She flushed it,” I said. “I told her that it cost $30 an ounce and that she owed me that money because throwing it away was like stealing. So she paid me!”.

“Be quiet, now,” she said, but smiled at the rug.  We shook our heads at all the stupid people in the world.  She told me a story of sneaking into the Ranch Drive-In down the road, how she and her friends had put some people in the trunk, and how they almost got busted when the clambered out later.

I said I had to go. I walked out into the storm, snow deep on the car already.  The engine turned in the thick oil, twisting in the dark crankcase.  It started and I headed home, late now. I walked down the stairs past my parents’ closed door, slinking into the basement. I hated their weird relationship in there, the angry sleeping they did, the mumbled arguments they boiled late at night.  But there was no light under their door.  They were asleep.

I closed my door and groped for blacklight switch.  When it flickered to life, graffiti popped out of the walls, drawn with a special crayon on the walls of my room: ZoSo, LSD, giant pot leaves. I put Dylan on the turntable and lay down. The storm surged outside my basement room and clouds of snow billowed under the ambient light outside my basement windows.  In the song, travellers are emerging from the dark.  They have come a great distance; they are unknown and dangerous:

Outside in the cold distance,
A wildcat did growl.
Two riders were approaching,
And the wind / began to howl.

I lay there with all my clothes on, Hardees uniform, winter coat, feet crossed at the ankles, boots dripping into the sheets.  I lay loose and long on my waterbed, smoking a Marlboro that I set on a cardboard box when I was done, filter down for safety.  Outside in the cold distance — I listened to the wind blow down from Alberta to Montana and over the Dakotas, surging over half of Iowa and finding me here.  It ran its fingers over the house and then kept leaving, arriving and leaving, over all that long distance while I lay still, knowing things.

Nine Tons of Rock

Nine Tons of Rock

Patrick Dobson

Three rock yards: One sat on an old railroad switch north of the city. The second was just over the Kansas River in sight of my bluff. The third lay down in the Turkey Creek Valley.

I had a wall to build. My house was new, built in the inner city as in-fill housing, what we used to call “worker housing.” The hill in the backyard used to be one of Kansas City’s construction and demolition landfills. The incline allowed water to pool at the base and around the sides of the house, creating a malarial swamp. I didn’t know how to build a wall, but I wanted space to sit and build fires. I needed to terrace the hill to make room.

At the first rock yard, the owner, Chris, was out back burning a load of trash and wood. He greeted me with a strong hand. I was his only customer.

“Rock. We got it,” Chris said. He was a tall, sturdy man in a flannel shirt, overalls, and a heavy canvas jacket. “You just look around here and you see somethin’ ya like, we’ll arrange to have it delivered tomorra.”

The stone was gorgeous even if Chris’ yard wasn’t. Stacks of various colors, sizes, and shapes sat on dirty pallets set on muddy sediment, runoff from behind a railroad service shed. Water pooled in concrete bays where Chris kept stores of substrate and fill—limestone gravel and chat, river rock, granite dust, and sand. Behind the bays rose mounds of disturbed earth. The railroad still ran next to Chris’ property—now a line from an intermodal yard in North Kansas City to Houston. Piles of rubble and ballast lay tangled in weed, grape, and scrub. Discarded appliances jumbled about as if on a stormy sea of Virginia creeper and poison ivy. On the property, Chris had started and restarted a hundred projects, some finished, some in evolution.

We walked along the muddy road, talking prices. Moss Rock, $200 a skid. Kansas Dry Stack, $350 a pallet. Cherry Blend, “twel’fiddy per three twenny square.” He ran his catcher’s mitt hand over his shaved head as he talked up the advantages for each of the ten kinds of stone and gravel on the lot, for wall and walkway—since I needed both. Ten. That was all and that was good. A limited selection is a grand thing for an uncertain shopper like me.

Chris was a good man and an excellent educator for the novice in stone, and not a bad salesman. We came to the fencepost limestone from farms in central Kansas. “I can’t go get it myself,” he said. “Them farmers don’t like having ya on their places. They bring it to me, and I sell it for a hunnert a post.” It was beautiful. Pin and feather holes still visible along the length of the stones. A person could find a “hunnert” uses for them, he said, all of them ornamental and none of them practical. That’s the nature of landscaping sometimes.

After looking at the posts for a while, talking of the unique stratum of stone they come from, I used an excuse to leave without buying. “I have to run this by my wife,” I said. We shook hands. He smiled. He knew I was off to look someplace else.

A few days later at a rock yard in Kansas City, Kansas, just in sight of the bluff on which I live, I ran into a man and his toddler son. The yard was open to shoppers. Richard was a landscape architect. Harry, his son, rode astride his father’s shoulders in thermal overalls. They looked like they were out for a stroll in the park. There was no one else in the yard but us.

“Just getting some ideas,” Richard said, looking around the yard. He handed me his card. Guenther Lawn & Landscape, Basehor, Kansas. “I got a patio with five kinds of vintage stone I have to put together. I’m just trying to see what’s around.” Vintage stone. It occurred to me that even ordinary limestone is made only once.

“Me, too,” I said. “I have a steep hill in a small backyard up there on the ridge.” I pointed to Silk Stocking Ridge about mile and half distant. It rose out of the industrial river bottom of warehouses and railroads. The buildings of downtown Kansas City towered above the bluff.

I gave Harry a finger to wrap his hand around.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do, really,” I said. “I just want to see what kind of stone’s around.”

“What’re you thinking of?”

“Whatever’s around this area,” I said, turning back to the yard, a crossword of neatly stacked pallets of stone. “There’s rock all around where I live, and if I had the time, I’d pick it up myself.”

“But a man’s got a life to live,” Richard said. “That’s why me and Harry here’s going for burgers after this.”

“Have to make it fun.”

“Rock’s always fun,” he said.

We parted ways and I looked at the stacks of stone and their prices. Pecos Tan, Buckskin, Osage Buff, Birch White Ashler, Calico Crème. Nothing made much sense. I understood simple names like limestone, sandstone, granite, feldspar. The yard’s market names for the rock added a layer of mystique to sometimes ordinary stone. Where did it come from? How did it get here? Who quarried it? The signs in front of the pallets of rock contained none of this information. Sometimes a state of origin was listed, but never a geologic stratum, never a notion of an era or epoch.

It was a good yard and seemed like an honest place. But it was too neat and orderly. Battalions of neatly stacked pallets of stone stood in perfect lines on a lot two blocks square. It was a lot like a suburban lawn center, the opposite of Chris’ railroad switch. I’m sure the owners worked hard to give the yard an aura of gentility. People with money ordered stone in bulk and had it delivered. Men like Richard created new spaces with it. 

The third rock yard had a website. Pictures of stone. Prices per ton clearly marked and how that price worked out per square foot. No shenanigans. I drove over and parked on the gravel lot out front. Men in work clothes walked in and out of a spare room next to the office. They said “good morning” to the room as they walked in, and everyone replied in return. They were contractors, workers, all with gloves in their pockets, some with concrete and stone powder on their jeans and boots. They stood in a loose formation at the counter. A woman sat at a desk behind a rough wood partition. A little cocker spaniel made the rounds of the men, most of whom bent down for a pet quick and soft word.

A printer’s box on the counter displayed samples of different gravels. Price per ton, limestone or granite. I asked where to see stone I could build a wall with, and the woman smiled, got up from her desk, and led me by the arm to a door at the end of the office.

“It’s all right out here,” she said, looking out onto hundreds of pallets and piles of stone. The yard was orderly but worked in—somewhere between Chris’ entropy and the suburban yard’s cleanliness. “You just look. See anything, just come back and tell us. Any of us can answer your questions.”

All the stone in the yard had nice names, much like the yard where I met Richard and Harry. But the yard was separated into classifications I understood—limestone, sandstone, quartzite, granite. Small signs in front of skids and piles of stone listed the genteel market name of the rock. The signs also displayed price per ton and square yard. Notations beneath named places of origin. Some signs even provided the name of the quarry. The prices were all better than either of the two places I’d been before.

Dwight stood behind a simple counter in the sales room. He was a big man with canvas overalls and jacket, his name embroidered on his shirt. His hands were the size of baseball gloves. I asked him about the big pile of stone I’d seen in the yard, the stone I wanted in my yard.

“Kansas Dry Stack,” he said. “It’s good stuff for around here. What’re you planning?”

“I want to build a terrace in my back yard, something about twenty-five feet long, about four of feet high,” I said. “I won’t be using mortar. It’s a hill. A lot of water comes down and through the hill.”

“Good thinking,” he said. “Winter’d murder a mortared wall. If you’re not into anything fancy, that dry stack is about the best I can recommend.”

It was also the least expensive per ton. Other rock would build the same wall in fewer tons, but without mortar holding things together, this rock was looking great.

Dwight pulled a pocket calculator from behind a cash register, worked a couple of figures into the keys, and wrote some things on a small pad with a golf pencil—everything looked ridiculously small in his hands. Then, he told me how much I might need, as well as what might cover two walkways either side of my narrow driveway (which turned into muddy sumps in the rain). He told me how much it cost.

“Seven tons all together. Five Kansas Dry Stack. Two Kansas Flag. We can have it delivered tomorrow,” he said, looking up from his pad. “What do you think?”

“I’ll do just that,” I said.

“It’ll come in a big truck,” he said. “You have any problems with your driveway or the place we’ll deliver it? Any cracks, that sort of thing?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“There won’t be any problems unless there’s problems already,” he said. “As long as there aren’t, there won’t be.”

I ordered two tons of limestone gravel I would pick up in my truck a half ton at a time when I needed it. He rang the figures into the cash register, and I handed him a credit card. I signed the ticket and walked away the proud owner of nine tons of rock—seven of Devonian limestone, two a little flatter than the rest, and two tons of limestone pea gravel.

The next morning, I woke early. I had arranged for delivery of the stone after my obligations at the university. When I was finished there, I rushed home in time to see the bucket truck drive up the boulevard. When it halted in front of my house in a flush and squeal of airbrakes, I was in awe. The truck wasn’t a small, big truck. It was a big, big truck. It was cherry red and well-scuffed. A tall, lanky, older man climbed down the ladder from the cab and shook my hand. He smiled kindly and talked softly. I told him where I thought I wanted the stone—off the side of the driveway. I would haul it from there in a wheelbarrow to the back.

“That’s a sound plan,” he said. “I see you gotta crack.”

We looked down at the drive. A fracture ran from the street up the ramp. Right in the middle. I’d never noticed it before.

“You think it will be a problem?” I said.

“With these new drives, it’d be hard to say,” he said. A wisp of his thin white hair flipped up in the breeze. “Could be a little heave or settling. The truck could make it worse or it could do nothing at all. It really depends on what your insurance looks like.” He smiled and adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses.

“I’m not going to worry. Repair it now or repair it later. I wouldn’t know where else to put this stuff.”

He unclasped the door on the back of the bucket, climbed into the cab of the truck, and backed it into the drive and onto the side yard. Once stopped, he pulled the engine out of gear and the engine revved and the bucket began to rise on a hydraulic arm. The back gate swung open, and with a great clamor of stone on steel, then rock on rock, stone slid and bumped out of the truck onto the grass. My neck and the back of my head became sore with tension. Was this the right rock? How do I build a wall? The man pulled the truck forward, and more rock tumbled out, and then more. When it was nearly done, he bumped the bucket up and down on the arm to get the last of the stone out.

It struck me as the man smiled and waved, as I watched the red truck bump off down the boulevard beneath the bare sycamores toward the rock yard: I was committed. I’d build a wall and to do that I needed to move this pile of stone–some six feet high and twelve and some feet in diameter–120 feet and down steps to the backyard. The only way was one rock at a time. The possibilities defied my imagination.

The Witches!

The Witches!

Annabelle Blomeley

The girl walks to the edge of the woods, hands in her pockets, wind through her hair. Goosebumps raise on her arms like mountains, leaves crunching like thunder under her feet. Behind her, children laugh and a friend calls out to her in a high squeaky voice. She turns and when the other girl reaches the woods, they both turn to stare at the tall pines and oaks that loom overhead. They both wear t-shirts and jeans, with jackets pulled close.

“What do you think they’re doing?” the other girl asks, her heavy breathing making clouds form in the crisp air.

“I don’t know. Probably something bad,” the girl responds, pulling her blonde hair out from under her jacket. 

They stand in silence, shoulder to shoulder.

“I think we should go back inside,” the blonde girl says, her hand trembling.

Together they walk against the wind, back towards the looming school building in front of them. Other kids run to line up to their teachers, their noses pink with frost.

The two girls line up to a man with a beard, who calls roll and leads them inside. The pavement turns into tile as they walk through the door, heat hitting their faces like fire. 

They then learn how to add fractions in math and how to grow flowers in science. They get reading time next, and the girls hurry to get the two spots on the red couch next to the window. The teacher mentions signing out a book from the classroom library and the girls get up, carefully leaving notebooks and jackets that mark their spots. The blonde girl signs out Roald Dahl’s The Witches  and signs A.B. next to the book’s spot on the list. The other girl, who has stick-straight brown hair and freckles, signs out a book about Ancient Egypt and signs B.L. And they walk back to the couch, where the springs creak as they sink down into the cushions. The room is quiet, full of only rustling of papers and shifts of seats. With one of the bulbs completely burned out, the room is illuminated dimly. Outside the sky is gray and the swings on the playground sway in the wind, lonely.

“What do you think they look like?” A.B. whispers, looking down at her book whenever the teacher looks up from his desk.

B.L. pulls her knees to her chest and glances outside. In her head she sees pointy hats, broomsticks, and long noses. “Like witches probably,” she responds, her eyes never leaving the window. Finally, she turns back to her friend and glares at the front cover of A.B.’s book. “I mean, they probably look like that,” she says, pointing to the witches on the book with evil eyes and claw-like hands.

A.B. shifts in her seat. “Maybe they look like the blonde witch in Hocus Pocus. She isn’t ugly like the others.”

“Maybe,” B.L. responds, her eyes never leaving the window.

*

The next day, the pair walk towards the woods again. They bring extra jackets today because the weatherman told them to. A.B. is even wearing her pink and orange scarf. 

In the girls’ hands, they are holding chalk, stripes of pale pink and blue lining their palms and coloring their fingernails. Together they stare at the woods for a while, but eventually they get to work on their assignment. 

First B.L. stands straight and holds up her arms, while A.B. gets on the ground and outlines her shadow on the concrete of the sidewalk. Then they switch.

“Since we’re done we can go play now,” B.L. says, glancing over at the teacher who is reading a book on the old concrete basketball court.

A.B. nods and they walk to the edge of the woods. This time they peer in and move along the base of the trees, straining their eyes to see more than wood and leaves.

“Found it!” B.L. shouts, pointing to an opening in the trees where a few pieces of metal stick out of the ground. Further back, they can make out a peeling red set of monkey bars and an ancient slide that lays on its side and is half covered with leaves.

“The others won’t even notice we’re gone,” A.B. says, glancing anxiously at the teacher and the students who were throwing a frisbee. 

B.L. looks back, nodding. “Yeah, we’ll only be gone a few minutes, right?”

A.B. stares and slowly nods, her hair flowing like waves in the breeze. She sets her chalk on the ground carefully, and quickly stuffs her hands back into her jacket pockets. 

The girls walk into the woods together, stepping over rotten trees and crumbling rocks. They trip up now and then, gasping quietly and moving on. They both stop at the metal playground erupting out of the ground, taking note that it resembles a graveyard. B.L. starts shivering.

A.B. bends down and runs her finger across the red swing set, paint chipping off in her hand. She recoils from feeling the cold metal on her skin.

B.L. walks up to the slide, which is standing straight up. She slowly lifts her leg and puts her foot on the silver surface. It creaks under her weight.

“My dad told me that they don’t make slides like this anymore,” B.L. whispers, putting her foot back on the ground. 

“The metal kind?” A.B. asks, shuffling over to her friend and glaring at the slide.

“Yeah, he says they make you slide real fast.”

A.B. nods and carefully puts a foot on the first step of the ladder that goes up the slide. Step by step, she ascends, gripping the rails until her hands turn as white as snow. Finally, she makes it to the last rung, freezing in place at the top.

“There’s no way it’ll hold me,” A.B. whispers, looking around at her bird’s eye view. There was nothing but trees and branches for what seemed like miles. Clouds hung low and wove between leaves and trunks, reaching out for A.B. like a hand.

A.B. jumps down. “I don’t see anything,” she says, breathing heavily.

B.L. nods, sympathetically looking at her friend. She turns away and shuffles aimlessly through the metal poles in the ground. 

“What’s this?” she asks, kicking a pole that makes a clinking sound.

A.B. walks over, grabbing the side sticking out of the ground. “It looks like monkey bars,” she says as B.L. grabs the other side.

They look at each other and pull. Nothing budges. They both position their feet and put all of their strength into it, sticks falling away and dirt flying into the air. The other side finally creaks and erupts out of the ground like a geyser. A.B.’s foot slips in the leaves and she gasps as she hits B.L. who tumbles down after her. 

They both lay in the dirt under the monkey bars, stunned. From the sky, they imagine that it would look like they were hanging off the bars, just playing together to see who could keep their grip the longest. But they are not, they are instead staring at the clouds in awe, breathing heavily with their hands shaking. And after the initial terror disappears, A.B. sits up, her scarf covered in brown specks of dirt.

B.L. rubs her ankle where A.B. had slid into her, a footprint etches across her jeans like a map to nowhere. 

“Sorry,” A.B. says, glancing at the other girl. 

B.L. giggles. “It’s all good.” She pushes her palm against the dirt in an effort to stand up, feeling a slimy blob wriggle through her fingers.

“Ew!” B.L. yells, flinging her hand off the ground and shaking it in the air. The girls look down, eyes big in disbelief. Hundreds of worms, snails, ants, and roly polies litter the ground like squirming polka dots trying desperately to seek shelter. 

A.B. and B.L. gasp and frantically push themselves off the ground, wiping their jackets off as quickly as they can. The unlucky bunch of bugs that had held onto the girls when they got up, now rained down like waterfalls. 

For seconds after, the girls wipe themselves down, not caring about anything else. But a rustle echoes through the trees, and A.B. is the only one who notices. She looks up, forgetting about the insects that weighed her down like anchors. 

“Do you hear that?” she asks, grabbing B.L.’s arm and gripping it.

B.L. stares into the sea of wood and leaves where everything is still and quiet. They can’t hear the wind anymore, only the sounds of their own breaths forcing their way out of their lips. 

B.L. turns to say no but a deafening rustle vibrates through the trees. Birds flap into the sky from the tops of the branches, leaves fall in bunches, and the wind blows the girls’ hair in circles. They could almost swear they see a figure (just a figure and nothing more), darting through the trunks, skillfully keeping out of sight. They hear another sound behind them, turning as quickly as they can and (maybe) seeing it again. They feel like they’re being watched, eyes boring into them, every little move recorded. So they scream and run towards the school, pushing branches and spiderwebs aside. They feel like they run forever, until finally they burst into the clearing, falling onto the gravel, and freezing in place.

The girls look at each other. A.B. grabbing B.L. and forcing her up, together wheezing in harmony. They make eye contact and A.B. opens her mouth, forcing her words out like they’re glued to the back of her throat. 

“The Witches!” she says, eyes wide. “The Witches are real!”

A Glance in the Afternoon

A Glance in the Afternoon

Sarah D’Stair 

 

a dozen limp roses crackle with dust 

on the bedside table, rotten with 

fallen leaves and dewy residue

caroline should be the name 

of a flower children suck the sweetness from

I remember my own sweet little friend

an imagined embrace in the flesh of my arms 

pushed against the wall of sweet honeysuckle

later that day 

picnic table conversations pierced our wild faces

A Frozen Flower And A Tombstone

IMG_4168 - Version 4.jpeg

A Frozen Flower And A Tombstone

Suchoon Mo

 

she has become a frozen flower

in the darkness of winter night

and he stands in the snow facing her

he has become a tomb stone

mute and still

they are together

in this cemetery

 

Suchoon Mo’s musical work can be accessed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbr-1Kv8kmcAMmZw2EvFo_A

MR. FLINT’S POND

MR. FLINT’S POND

by

Marty Carlock

 

‘Mr. Flint turned him down.’

‘Justifiably so, I say. A pointless scheme it is, I say.’

‘Well. It’s good to see the boy with a worthy goal in mind, for a change.’

‘Boy! Twenty-eight years old! And no career. No vocation. Terms himself a surveyor, and works not one day out of thirty. Or a schoolmaster, and has no pupils.’ Her husband’s eyes began to bulge and his color grew high. ‘I’ve given him time enough and over, Lord knows, to get himself established. Help and advice. A year of college. Which he had not the self-discipline for. I have honest work awaiting him at the factory, but will he have it? No-o-o. And not as if I’d expect him to dirty his hands; a clerk’s job it is, but honest.’

She took an ear of corn, broke off the stem and yanked the green husk down, like stripping off a stocking. She pulled the pale silk from the other end and meticulously picked out a few remaining strands of it ‘It’s not as if he’s wasting himself in drink or chasing after women.’

‘Yes, and that’s another thing. It’s not normal. A man his age ought to be establishing himself, thinking about acquiring a wife, thinking about a family. Does he even look at a female?’ He glowered in silence for a moment. ‘But then, who’d have him, penniless as he is?’

‘Hush, here he comes.’

Out the window she watched his lanky, stooped figure shambling up the road, dressed in flannel shirt and canvas britches, a handkerchief knotted around his neck. He stopped unaccountably and stared into the bushes, stepped closer, slowly extended his cupped hands and with a graceful gesture trapped something between them, careful not to crush it. He put his eye to the gap between his thumbs and inspected his prey intently for a longer time than she thought necessary, then opened his hands and watched it fly. She could not see what it was. She finished husking the corn and slid the ears into a kettle on the black-iron stove.

She had to admit her second-born was not a man to turn a girl’s head. Face-on, comely enough; his intelligent eyes took your thoughts off the rest. But his profile, with its great beak of a French nose, was almost laughable. He had begun to affect a fringe of beard which counterbalanced the nose somewhat. She sighed. A good man, but impractical. Perhaps weak.

Continue reading MR. FLINT’S POND

Moose Pond

Moose Pond

Steve Pinette 

 

John turned the truck into a turn-out and cut the engine.

“Well,” Suzy said. “Here I go.” 

“Wish I could’ve cancelled this meeting tonight and hiked in with you,” John said. 

“It’s okay, I can handle it.” Suzy eyed the two forest-green pickups with the Fisheries & Wildlife emblems parked along the five-foot snow bank. “I’ll look for you mid-afternoon tomorrow. Hopefully, I’ll catch some trout to fry for dinner.”

 John gestured toward the trucks. “Probably state biologists checking bear dens. Maybe they’ve broken the trail to the pond.”

“That’d be my lucky day,” Suzy said as she stepped outside.

She stretched and looked around. John removed the red pack sled and two sections of aluminum tubing from the truck box.

“Hawk?” Suzy pointed to the brown bird sailing overhead. 

“More likely a juvenile bald eagle. The head turns white around four years.” John smiled at her. “You’ve been away too long.”

“I haven’t heard that in a while.” Suzy knew her mother and father had been proud of her. The first girl on either side to graduate from college. But her thirty-year foray into Africa and South America as a mining geologist and two failed marriages had diminished her family currency.

Continue reading Moose Pond

Wormwood

 

Wormwood

Ilona Martonfi

Black rain falling 

dust and ash

setting off down these village roads 

because there is no word for this colour, 

old newspapers from the day before 

26 April 1986, Chernobyl nuclear disaster

ninety kilometres northeast of Kiev,

as it spreads morning, there is no word for 

this every day and every morning and evening, 

now contained inside a birch forest

keening the loss, wondering if

coming here. I was lost. 

I couldn’t have been more lost

reinforcing the narratives told to me:

the ghost town of Pripyat

drifting from room to empty room trying 

to find what it is that I was after

marshes, peat bogs

at the insistence of loam and clay

radioactive cesium and strontium

a clock stopped at 1:23 am

loose words falling into a void, 

to this day I have no

notes and the space between the notes

going back into the exclusion zone.

Visiting babusya’s grave

its music, incantation in half-light. 

Urgent and elegiac 

foraging wild blueberries.

VIOLENCE OFTEN HIDES

VIOLENCE OFTEN HIDES

by

Bonnie Lykes

 

The consignment shop is only a yard from vicious traffic. It doesn’t seem fair the sweetness of so many grandmothers and dear uncles suffers the exhaust. Flimsy tapestries, shaky wood shelves, a nickel cooktop, beaded wallet, a painting of post-modern ladies fanning fans all crammed up, orderless. I have an open wall that needs something.  

I shuffle, in neutral, and wish, for what I don’t know. A path winds through these mismatched histories. The owner wears army shorts and a thin white tank. His boney hands grab at the piles. He snatches at pleather, wood, and canvas cranked all around us. His skin is alive and peculiar. An intensely complicated tattoo covers his face, neck, ears, shins, and arms, and, I’m sure, sweeps down to his dark inches. The ink is delicate and crawls over his body like a fine red lace. No macho flowers or smiling snakes, no Sanskrit. No philosophical quotes, no irreversible ex-lovers—only dark, angel-hair lines. They look like the fragile twines of an antique doily stretched in all directions to cover him completely. Jesus, he’s stuck in a net! Whenever he turns, I avoid his eyes and look at his big black boots. He has no open flesh. Not an inch of real pigment. No shine of plain sweat to commiserate with. I can’t look straight on, but I feel his eyes beam, caged and frenetic.

I rest my hand on a table statue of a fisherman with a bent spine. I move on to a black ashtray with yellow lettering: Belle Of Baton Rouge Riverboat Card Room. I linger. He bleats out, “You want that one?” He hunches and lurks five feet away consistently. 

I answer to his boots, “No, no thanks.” 

He floats a fragile nightstand up and away from a throng of loveseats.

* * *

Continue reading VIOLENCE OFTEN HIDES

Tales He Told When I Was Ten

Õ

Tales He Told When I Was Ten

Steve Broidy

 

Standing tall behind his drug counter

Dad told his customers stories:

He’d speak of a man who knew better than taking

The pills that his doctor prescribed–and died;

stories concerning miraculous healings

of those who followed, religiously, regimens

Dad wrote out. Listening there,

behind the counter, I seemed to see 

those healthy faces grinning at him

in gratitude, for all of us 

believed him.

At bed times, Dad told me tales of the war:

how he traveled on ships across mountainous seas

making medicines, curing the soldiers and sailors 

the ship picked up all over the world.

He never spoke of being in battle;

but said instead that a shark ate his hair 

when he leaned too far over a railing

to wish that fish a good day. I

believed him.

I heard about Lollapalooza the hippo,

who befriended him once in an African port:

how the hippo taught him to swim underwater—

(which I’d dreamed of doing, though afraid in the pool).

He told me that reading his books late in bed 

had exploded a light bulb and burned down his house;

and how sitting too close to his old TV

had gradually ruined his eyes.

I stopped doing both those things,

because I believed him.

Dad told me the story—confidentially, of course—

of how seeing my mother for the very first time

made him lose his balance and fall down the stairs;

how it never hurt one bit;

how the year they got married, late in Fall,

he moved (without telling her) all their belongings

from Oakland to Columbus, to be close to her family.

Scratching his shiny scalp, he admitted

she wasn’t happy at first—but he thought 

she’d forgiven him ages ago. I said

I believed him.                                          [more]

He told me the pills he took all day

made him smarter and stronger—he would live forever.

And I believed him.

The Travails of Hunger

The Travails of Hunger

John Grey

 

Hunger is well-traveled,

knows its way around the globe,

the cities, even the countryside.

And it’s sometimes selective, 

sometimes random – it’s

there for a famine 

but also for a family man

who’s just been fired from the job.

I don’t know whether or not

hunger ever feels guilty.

It leaves conscience to those

who know where the fat resides,

keep it apart from the lean.

Hunger just takes like 

something that’s hungry itself.

So biting and gnawing,

swallowing, devouring, 

it sates its deprivation.

But hunger is never satisfied.

It’s acquired a taste.

No question where it stole that from.

I LEFT PARIS FIRST

I LEFT PARIS FIRST

Anna Kapungu

 

Knew in my spirit we looked over the edge

The edge of love’s season

Season where May apples bloomed

Bloomed in the sunlight

Their natures essence filled our path

That was the mystery of us

The wonder of love

We stand at the edge of the oceans

Hear the bells toll in the lighthouse

Breathe in the viridescent seaweed

That floats above the oceans

Hear my heart beat

Face the moon

Know my truth

Love was true

In the smallness of my being

Against the currents of the oceans

Through the tumultuous days

The days of twilight

Like days of war

Gloom ridden, bleak and dreary

Love was like a painting

Covering the unhappiness of our affections

Paradise laboured to delight in passion

 

GHETTO CHILDREN

GHETTO CHILDREN

 John Grey

 

We had to stay in

perfect position

not only throughout

the class

but even as the bell rang.

 

We carried

pencils and paper

for note-taking.

We took no notes.

 

For we were

the paper.

Our instructor

was the pencil.

 

He wrote all

over us –

“Good children.”

 

Come the war,

the words were rubbed out,

replaced by

serial numbers.

 

Liberia, 1985

 

Liberia, 1985

John Edward Ellis

In our neighborhood, the electricity dies at night.  On those evenings—the blackouts—my father holds a flashlight, and he and I walk out the front door of our house, into the yard, to a shed—inside, a generator.  When I press the switch, the generator howls.  The house is floodlit again, and the silhouette of my mother, eight months pregnant, presses against the balcony window, her stomach reaching against electric light.  

Around the yard is a high wall and an iron gate; beyond, night collapses.  Mosquitos thread the humidity in the kind of space and time that gnaws on the imagination.  It is the end of April, and as my father and I sit in the yard, he tells me he’s going to have to leave soon, for work.  He tells me to help my mother while he’s gone. 

When I go to sleep that night, I see Liberia’s coasts, the beaches where my father takes Sarah, my older sister, and me, on Sundays.  I see dunes—round, full, expectant—as if something waits beneath the sand.  The beaches curl north, curl south, and both ends reach their respective horizons.

In May, my father leaves.  My mother will pick Sarah and me up from school.  The school is one room.  Inside, we sit at a table; Sarah draws and I write.  The afternoon passes without us seeing it go; as the sun steps behind the mangrove trees, our teacher takes us to my mother, waiting outside, in the car.  Sarah points to my mother’s stomach as it grasps the steering wheel.  She asks if our little sister kicks.  My mother says sometimes.  Feel.  She holds Sarah’s hand against her stomach.  

When will she be born, I ask.  

My mother says soon.    

We go to the market in Monrovia.  Women walk with pots balanced on their heads.  Naked children sit on their mother’s laps.  Men stand behind tables, holding up baskets of fruit.  

Sarah and I walk behind my mother.  We watch people yell at her, telling her to buy things.  She buys cassava and shoves it into a cloth bag.  We walk back to the car, and inside my mother breathes in, as if shivering.  She puts her hands on her stomach and her breathing softens.  Sarah and I don’t say anything.  My mother puts on her seatbelt.  Let’s go home, she says, frowning.  Hopefully, the electricity will stay on tonight.

I think then of walking next to my father, of holding the flashlight, of seeing the house lit like fire.  I look at my mother.  Mom, if the lights go out, can I go outside and turn on the generator.  My mother smiles.   

All week, after school, Sarah and I play in the yard.  Fruit has bloomed in the trees, and we throw rocks, trying to hit coconuts between the palms so that one will fall to the ground.  Musu, who works in the house, watches Sarah and me while my mother runs errands.  Musu tells us to be careful throwing rocks.  

Continue reading Liberia, 1985

August Bloom

August Bloom

William Doreski

 

The flaw begins in my left eye,
expands to warp skyscrapers
and streetlamp posts, then nestles
in the contours of her body,
having firmly established itself.

Now everything looks slightly off,
but I’m always delaminating,
shedding parts I no longer use
and reopening wounds that healed
in the dark moments of childhood.

The lies and evasions return
like army ants. Moonrise over
fly-speckled ponds in the forest.
Insincerities caught in amber.
Those trysts in glib summer dusk

when music sagged in the distance
and kisses as vacant as craters
shared themselves without shame.
The flaw expands to include
tobacco fields ripened in August

and hail peppering the long sheds
where we hung the toxins to cure.
It warps the memory of lightning
spearing the family elm tree
six months after my father died.

The general erasure of time
no longer applies. Warping
that distance, the flaw speaks for me
in pearly tones a healthy eye
would reject because unnatural.

Funereal blossoms close the season
with sighs I can’t replicate,
even though such emissions
would reduce the pressure in that eye
and save me from going blind.

 

image by Harry Rajchgot, 2008, New York City

Mother Tugboat’s Children

Mother Tugboat’s Children

a short story

Stephen Poleskie

To our great distress my wife and I had been summoned down to Florida for one of my mother-in-law’s frequent family affairs. Technically, she was my stepmother-in-law. After my wife’s mother died her father had remarried to the “Tugboat,” a massive figure who steamed along pulling everyone in her wake. My wife couldn’t stand the woman, so I had driven down here alone, to get away from the cold and snow for a few days and to “show the flag for our side.”
It was my first visit to their new apartment in a retirement compound, which Tugboat had berthed them in after convincing my father-in-law to sell the house he had lived in with my wife’s mother since they retired to Florida some twelve years ago.
“Ugh! You smell bad, John,” Tugboat grunted at me as a greeting when I arrived. “Go take a shower.”
My reminding Tugboat that I had just driven twelve hours to get here from my last motel stop, one of two overnights, cut me no slack. When Mother Tugboat speaks, you do what you are told.
I pushed open the bathroom door. The room was small, dirty and
crowded with ‘stuff,’ including my father-in-law standing there in his underwear.
“You can’t come in here yet, John,” father-in-law insisted. “I’m not finished shaving. Go sit out on the porch.”
As I had stripped down and only had on my boxer shorts, he handed me a white bathrobe and a pair of Tugboat’s pink bunny slippers, and pushed me out a side door, saying, “I’ll call you when I’m finished.” I stepped out onto the empty porch and sat down in one of the empty chairs.
“Can I get you something, sir?” a man, dressed as a waiter, who had suddenly appeared asked. “I’m sorry; I didn’t know anyone was sitting out here.”
“Sitting where?” I asked.
“Sitting on this porch, this is the porch for the hotel,” was his curt reply.
“What hotel?”
“The hotel you’re staying at.”
“I’m not staying at a hotel; I’m staying at an apartment . . . through that door.” I said pointing.
“But there is no apartment through that door,” he the waiter explained.
To prove the waiter wrong, I knocked on the door; “It’s me, John. . . .”
“I’m not finished shaving yet,” my father-in-law shouted out. “Very good, sir,” the waiter said politely and went away.
Several people passed along the sidewalk, some eying my costume of white bathrobe and pink bunny slippers with interest. Curious myself as to where I was, I walked around the corner of the porch to the front entrance.

“May I help you, sir?” a man behind a reception desk asked.
“Oh, not really, I was just trying to find out where I was.”
“You are in the lobby, sir.”
“The lobby? . . .”
“Yes. Would you like a room, sir? We have a special rate today, only $199 for a single.”
“No thank you, I am staying in the apartment around back,” I informed him.
“But there is no apartment around back, sir,” he assured me.
Not wanting to argue, and perhaps questioning my own credibility, I went and pounded on the door I had just come from.
“I’m not finished shaving yet,” my father-in-law shouted again.

I wondered what he was shaving that was taking so long—perhaps his whole body.

A couple came out from the hotel and hailed a taxi. The driver, who had been parked out front with the motor off, got out, handed them a length of white rope and got back in. The two tied the rope to the front bumper, and then, slinging it over their shoulders began to pull the taxi forward. When they got it up to enough speed, the taxi driver popped the clutch and the engine started. The couple untied the rope, returned it to the driver, and got in. The taxi drove off.
I sat there for some time wondering about this. Then another taxi drove up and parked and the process was repeated. All in all I saw this happen three times in approximately half an hour.

“The dining room is open now, sir,” a waiter announced, a different person than had come around before, a Hispanic. “We have a special today, the roast beef is only $22.”
I was tempted, being hungry, but I didn’t have $22 on me, and Tugboat had promised us a slap up dinner. “No, thank you,” I said. “I don’t believe I’m dressed for dinner.”
“It’s not a problem, sir; our dining room is very casual; a white bathrobe and pink bunny slippers would be completely acceptable.”
“No thank you,” I repeated. “I am having dinner in that apartment back there.” I pounded on the door.
“I’m not through shaving yet,” a familiar voice replied.
A short time later yet another waiter arrived. “Do you have a dinner reservation, sir?”
“No.”
“Are you waiting for a taxi?”
“No.”
“Are you a guest at the hotel?”
“No.”
“Then you can’t sit here in a white bathrobe and pink bunny slippers.”
“No?”
“No!”
“But just a while ago it was okay to go into the dining room in a white bathrobe and pink bunny slippers.”
“That was then, sir; the rules have changed.”
“I didn’t know,” I apologized.
“Haven’t you been listening to the public address announcements?”
“What announcements?”
Just then there was a squeal, and the blare of a loud speaker: “It is not allowed to sit on the porch wearing a white bathrobe and pink bunny slippers.”
“You have got to leave, sir.”
I pounded on the door. “Father-in-law! If you’re there you’ve got to let me in!”
“You’re in luck, I’ve just finished shaving,” was his welcome reply, “and dinner is just about ready.”
The small apartment was full of people, all wearing white bathrobes and pink bunny slippers. They must have arrived through some other door as I had not seen them come across the porch. Half of the men were male versions of the Tugboat, in various sizes and shapes, while half of the women were female tugboats. The rest of the crowd was made up of river barges, ferry boats, skiffs, and scows.

“I’ll make the salad,” said a little female tug.
“I’ll do the desert,” added a medium lady barge.
“My children are so wonderful,” beamed Mother Tugboat as her family backed and filled around her. And the sons were not idle either. ”
“I’ll convert the basement into a game room while dinners cooking,” said one.
“The roof looks a little ragged,” declared another,” I should be able to get a new one on before it’s time to eat.”
“I could put on a new overhead garage door and still have time to mow the lawn,” the littlest man tug volunteered.

The place was a flurry of activity as white bathrobes and pink
bunny slippers hurried to and fro.”And what are you going to do, John?” Mother Tugboat asked, staring at me in what I took to be a hostile manner.
“Oh, I thought I’d take a shower.”
“You were supposed to have done that earlier,” she glowered.
“But the bathroom was occupied,” I said, “So I sat out on the porch.”
“THE PORCH!” everyone said in unison, stopping their activities. “There is no porch,” Mother Tugboat said firmly.
“Yes there is . . . it belongs to the hotel,” I replied, “through that door; I sat there watching the taxis.”
“THE TAXIS!” everyone shouted, again in chorus.
“Yes, taxis would arrive, and the people who took them would have to pull the cabs a short way by a rope to get them started.”
“So?”
“So I thought it odd. . . .”
“Why?” Tugboat asked.
“Well … that’s not the way it’s usually done, at least not where I come from.”
“If you just get in you have to pay full fare,” Tugboat explained. “But if you pull the taxi to get the engine started you get to pay a much lower rate, it saves the battery.”
“Oh, I see, kind of like those ‘early bird dinners’ everyone eats down here,” I said. “I guess everyone living in Florida is out to save money.”
“But we’re not in Florida now, were in New Jersey,” Mother Tugboat declared with a dismissive wave of her hand.
“New Jersey!” I exclaimed.
“Yes . . . New Jersey.”
“How did we get to New Jersey? . . .”

The bustle in the kitchen had resumed; a clanging of pots and pans. And from the basement, garage, and roof came the sounds of male tugs hammering and sawing. I was lost at sea in a storm. My mind told me I was supposed to be feeling guilty, but I did not. I lifted up my armpit and sniffed; I did smell bad.

Seeing my gesture, a middle-sized female tug sailed up to me and announced: “I’m going to take a shower now.” Opening up her white robe, she flashed her naked body at my startled eyes. “Would you like to join me?” she said with a wink.
“Oh, are we still in New Jersey?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.
“Does it make a difference where we are,” she replied with a smile.
“I think I’ll just go sit on the porch until dinner,” I said, pushing open the door to the porch, but there was no porch there, only a sidewalk and a parking lot.

image by Harry Rajchgot, 2016, Montreal, Quebec

THE CASTLE

THE CASTLE

Mary Street

 

Dublin, Ireland, 1978: The taxi pulled up to the curb on a narrow street, lined with identical brick houses side by side. Pushing past the metal gate that opened onto a tiny, bleak front yard, I knocked on the black enamel door.

Vera swung the door open, baby at her hip, her face betraying a slight panic when she saw me.

“Ah! Mary! What a surprise to see you!”

“But, didn’t you get my letter with my arrival date?”

“No, no, Mary. Don’t you know we’ve had a mail strike for the last month? But, come in, come in.”

And so began my short vacation to Ireland, a special get-away for a single woman about to get married back in San Francisco. My suitcase was packed with the bare minimum: a pair of jeans, a quilted green jacket I’d bought in Chinatown, a sort of peasant blue dress with a billowing skirt, a pair of high leather boots.

I stayed for a few days with my Dubliner friends, then planned to explore Galway on the west coast. Vera’s husband was a cameraman at the television station, so a highlight of my visit included tickets to a popular variety show, broadcast live.

Wearing my blue dress, I made myself comfortable in the audience. There were maybe 30 seats, situated in a small studio painted entirely black. A tacky velvet curtain served as backdrop for the moderator’s desk and chair, atop a small elevated stage. Very low budget, but the right ambiance for the first guest. It was a farmer who brought along his goat for the interview.

The moderator cracked jokes, and the audience leaned forward, enthralled. I shifted in my seat and wondered how long the interview would last. Then came three dancing girls, dressed in satin shorts and fishnet stockings, crammed onto the stage. They harmonized about the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B.

After a rousing finale, the goat, the farmer and the dancers marched off the stage. The audience followed them into an adjoining room for a cast and crew party. My friends and I found seats to relax and share a cup of tea. I was about to sip from my cup when a young man joined our group, kneeling beside me to fall into conversation.

“Ah, yer from San Francisco, miss, and where do you go from here?”

“Well, my friends have suggested I take the train tomorrow morning for Galway, to stay at the castle there.”

His eyes twinkled. “And what time does your train leave, may I ask?”

His eyes were very sweet, very playful. He seemed irresistible to me.

“Seven a.m. On the dot.” I swallowed hard.

He broke into a merry smile and said, “I’ll be there, and I’ll go to the castle with you.”

And then, he took a bowl of sugar cubes, held the bowl high while he met my eyes again, and silently spilled the sugar cubes onto my lap. He leaned over, took a cube delicately between his teeth, and dropped it gently into my tea cup.

As he slowly leaned away from my lap, he turned his face toward mine and grinned.

Did I blush? Did my heart race? Did we exchange another word? None of that remains in my memory. I can recall the weight of the sugar on my dress, the way his dark curls fell forward as he leaned to capture a cube from my lap.

Next morning, I left on the train for Galway. Alone. I felt disappointed that he hadn’t materialized, but it was a relief to keep traveling light without a stranger as extra baggage. Once I arrived at the castle converted into a hotel, a bellboy escorted me to my room in a tower overlooking a moat with white swans.

As we rode the elevator, I asked him, “Are you from Galway?”

“No, ma’am, I’m from Belfast, Northern Ireland.” He stared at his shoes, then looked up to see if his response made any connection with me. His ill-fitting beige bellboy uniform only made his poor complexion look more sallow. A ridiculous cap on his straw-colored hair made him look like a sad monkey.

That night, I wore the blue dress — my sugar cube dress — to dinner in the elegant hotel dining room. A gregarious couple from Texas invited me to join them, sharing a bottle of wine and a wonderful meal. Feeling well fed, content and tired, I nodded hello to the bellboy as I passed his station on the way to the elevator.

“Room 11, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Right,” I said. As the elevator door closed, I thought, “That’s odd.”

An hour later, I was locked away in my turret room, snuggled under a comfy quilt. Suddenly, I heard the distinct sound of metal to metal, as a key turned in the door lock. A slice of light from the hallway cut across the far wall as the door slowly opened.

Into the room slipped my prince charming monkey bellboy. He stood stock still facing my bed, his back against the wall. Wordless.

Reflexively, I pulled the covers up to my shoulders, as I sat up in bed.

“What is it?” I half-shouted.

“Electricity’s out.”

I switched on the bedside lamp.

“Well, this light’s working.”

A long silence ensued. I glared, my mind racing. He took a deep breath, eyes on the floor, then nodded.

“Yes, ma’am. Just checkin’.” And he left.

 

Image from British Library, original photo of Dublin Castle by Maurice O’Connor Morris, 1888. (Wikimedia Commons)   

My Suitcase Is Packed

My Suitcase Is Packed

Scott Laudati

i know you’re home somewhere out there
in colorado
where the desert flowers
wait all year to turn yellow
and horses with spanish blood
whip their manes under lightening
as the snows melt down to refill
the dried beds.
somewhere where enough was enough
and you had to put a continent between me
and new jersey.
i’ve seen that land and pulled over
to swim naked where the white crests shatter
and freedom is something more than a dream.
there are no dead ends on your streets,
the rain only falls straight down
and even stray cats
come when they’re called.
i bled for you once
when the war was still far from over
and the end hasn’t gotten any closer
so i guess
i’d do it again

 

image by Benbarka,2014. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Fortune Teller, Miami Beach, Fla.

The Fortune Teller, Miami Beach, Fla.

Michael C. Gebelein

I was on a beach in Miami with two beautiful girls.
they were both topless and, even though I wasn’t sleeping with either one,
I counted myself as the luckiest son of a bitch on that stretch of sand
and as we were laying there, joking and laughing,
an old woman, a fortune-teller, walked up to us.
she looked me in the eye and asked if I wanted my fortune told,
but before I could send her on her way she told me that
I looked happy but, really, I was very sad,
that something was broken inside of me.
I laughed, and said that it must be true for almost everyone.
and one of the girls touched my arm and
kissed me on the cheek and told me that
no, it’s not true for almost everyone,
that there are people in this world who are content,
easy-going, satisfied with the way things are,
but that there weren’t any of them on that stretch of beach that day.

 

image by Harry Rajchgot, 2008, Miami Beach, Florida.

Inmate Trout

Inmate Trout

By Dr. Patrick Dobson

 

Fishing the North Platte River under crystalline sky, I cast a Royal Coachman on a number-eight hook behind a large rock midstream. Immediately, a big trout pulled my rod over, silencing the wind on the sagebrush hills and rocky outcrops where the night before I had heard mountain lions. The trout fought up and back downstream, narrowing my vision to the width of the line as it telegraphed messages to my hands. Reading code, I could tell when its fear turned into determination, and I lowered my rod tip to keep the fish from jumping and getting a good look at me.

I played that trout several minutes before it tired and moved in fits toward me. It was a healthy rainbow, twelve inches long, not fat but not skinny. It was picture book. The silver of its belly blended like sunset into blue and red on its sides. Black flecks started at the pectoral fins, gathered momentum along the sides and melted into themselves along its back. Had the trout been human, I would have just caught the perfect physical specimen, ideally proportioned, with wiry arms and shoulders to gather fruit and carry babies, and legs made to walk.

I held the trout up from the water, and in the clear depth of its black eye, I saw a couple I met three years before. Standing there with a trout inches from my nose, the sun stopped and the North Platte turned into a flowing mirror of memory.

The couple seemed old beyond their years as they moved around the gourmet coffee and cheese shop. They lightly touched packages of chocolate covered espresso beans and tiny packets of saffron with their callused fingers. The racks of wines packed between shelves of ceramic cups and specialty mustards intrigued them for a moment. Then, they shook their heads and moved on. As they walked the narrow aisles, they stopped now and then before bins of tea leaves. They whispered to each other, shifting in their worn shoes and adjusting their dusty spectacles.

Years of work bowed the backs of the man and the woman. His tall frame dropped like a waterfall about to dry up in a curve from beneath his ball cap into his loose jeans. She wore a fading pink button-up sweater and a translucent polyester scarf over her gray mane. In their eyes flashed dreams like rays of sun through pines reflected off dark, blue trout pools.
The other store clerks ignored them, and customers for the boutique restaurant and coffee bar in the back of the crowded shop shuffled past them as if they did not exist. After packaging up some Stilton cheese and a jar of Devonshire cream for a blustery and parsimonious real estate agent, I came from behind the counter of glass bins full of coffee beans.

“Can I help you find something?” I asked the old people.

“We’d like something special for our son,” the man said quietly, his wife nodding as she stood close to him, love of decades binding them into one. “He is far away. We need something nice.”

“Any idea what he would like?”

“We think he might like some sausage,” he said, “the kind you have in the case there, and some cheese. He would probably like some crackers to go with it. We will have to send it to him, so it can’t be anything that spoils easy.”

The three of us walked over to the deli case. Tins of caviar, glass jars of marinated sardines and anchovies lined the shelves. Wheels and odd pieces of cheese were laid out on decorative mats and surrounded with plastic grape leaves. The man pointed to some hard salami from Italy, some pepperoni and wheels of Swiss cheese.

I took the things out of the case and sliced a hefty length of sausage from a long moldy link. I gathered some pepperoni and cut and wrapped a piece of aged Swiss cheese. I folded it all among wafts of tissue paper in a box on the counter. The woman placed a small jar of mustard and some expensive crackers gently, but firmly, into the box, like she might assemble a jigsaw puzzle. I closed the box, taped it, began to fill out a form for the parcel delivery service. They handed me their son’s name and address on a small piece of paper.
Their son’s name was written in tight, neat script. I recognized it. The story of the murder and his trial had appeared on the front-pages of the newspaper. The stories recounted his terrible mistake, a murder. But it seemed to me he was not the murderous maniac the news made him out to be. His lawyer was a drunken, dottering sot. His parents attended court every day of the trial. They were in pictures in the papers, holding each other as they did in the food shop.

They thanked me quietly after paying their bill for $29.46 and $7 post. I had no idea what prison regulations were for packages to inmates. The couple disappeared through the door, still holding on to each other, as I finished the form and attached it to the box. I never saw them again—until I looked into that trout’s eye.

I think about that couple frequently now. I know the sausage and cheese never made it past the door of the Kansas State Maximum Security Correctional Facility in Lansing, Kansas. Prisons don’t take food delivered in the mail. Their son never knew the moment his mother placed the mustard and crackers into that box.

Sometimes, that couple comes to me late at night, when I am not sleeping well, and I dream I deliver that package to their son. I swim past wires and bars, walls and guards on rays of light flowing from his cell window. I see him open the box while he sits on his bunk staring into forty years-to-life. He pulls one of the carton flaps back, and the ice-blue sky over the North Platte streams from the folds of tissue paper and fills his cell. The river itself flows through the holes in the Swiss cheese, spilling over riffles of crackers and falls of salami. He peers into the pool behind the mustard jar and finds his parents with their arms open to him.
And there are trout. Lots of trout.

 

image by Rhododendrites, 2016, Old Police Headquarters in San Diego’s Seaport Village/Marina district, California. (Wikimedia Commons)