All posts by JONAHmagazine

A literary magazine about challenge and change

Christmas tree

Christmas tree 

Louise Carson

Snow squalls tear at petals

                                                                                                                                                            and you can’t see this miracle

of intemperate growth in your own back yard

or remember the slanting lane

(vision of men in flat caps

walking to work past brick warehouses)

where the parent tree began one spring –

                                                                                                                                                            or the granary shed

made of sun-burned hemlock and tin

in front of which where it never was before

winter’s magnolia

transplanted from city shrunken leaf-nude

is dream – flowering

                                                                                                                                                            angels and glass candy woven in.

African Americans Didn’t Exist in the 1960s

AFRICAN AMERICANS DIDN’T EXIST IN THE 1960s

Joe Sumrall

Across the road from Mee Maw’s house, gray mist rose above the cornfield. That cool mist covered my face on what normally became an unbearable July day. Now a city boy, it was something I hadn’t felt in quite some time. Nor had I been sitting in a rocker on a front porch a recent memory. Eyeing the dilapidation of my grandmother’s porch, the idea of rocking was just going to be a memory. No one had been in the house in at least ten years. Soon as Mama passed, neither my sisters nor I wanted to try to rent the place. Too much hassle with all of us living hundreds of miles away. I was there now to meet up with a real estate agent.

The smell of the rain’s ozone reminded me of a simpler time. A time when there had been no looking at my smartphone every five seconds. A time I could hear Mama softly gossip while Mee Maw rocked as they shelled crowder peas. Rocking in chairs my grandfather built with hickory and cowhide, they often got louder. 

I remembered smelling the fresh green paint of Mee Maw’s porch. The porch that seemed like a vast expanse at twelve years of age seemed so narrow now.

The rockers were gone and the bright green had faded to a dusty olive interspersed with the speckled blackness of rotting wood. After fifty years, many of the wood slats were either buckled or vanished. I had to be careful sitting on a plastic milk crate probably left behind by the renters. I remembered Mama called them “trailer trash upgrades” before she passed. 

I didn’t listen much because I didn’t know who they were gossiping about nor did I really care. I killed flies while they shelled peas. I got a nickel for every seven flies sent to fly heaven, using the metal grated swatter. I brought many a fly to its demise that summer of 1967. They don’t make flyswatters like that anymore. Everything is cheap plastic now.

I remember every so often, a pea bounced and rolled underneath a rocker. 

“Ronnie Newsom’s wife caught him in bed with the colored maid.” Mama gazed my way to make sure I didn’t hear what my grandmother just said. Can’t say I cared much then, though for a soon-to-be hormone-driven teenager, it was one of a few gossip memories that stuck. I pretended not to hear while going about my business chasing flies.

Strange how something that put a one-red-light town in south Mississippi on edge appeared now to be nothing but a faded memory. There’s a good possibility the cuckolded adulterer and colored maid were now dead or in a nursing home. It’s an even greater possibility I’m the only one who remembers this shocking event that took place so long ago. 

Time can fix the importance of all things. There is wisdom in the words my gay Black priest friend often said to me.

“This too shall pass.” 

I met him where I work. Not sure if he ever made a pass at me. Didn’t matter. We soon became friends. He was a part-time priest and a full-time professor at Boston College where I worked.

“Betty shot Ronnie.”

Mama said, “Well, did she kill him?”

“Naaw, just a twenty-two in the butt.”

“What about the colored girl?” Mama again looked my way as she asked this.

“She didn’t get shot, but she sure won’t be doing any cleaning at the Newsom house anymore.” Mee Maw reached into the paper sack and brought out another passel of unshelled crowders for her bowl. 

After bending back to start shelling, Mee Maw added, “Ronnie had the slug taken out of his ass at Doc Moore’s office within the hour.” 

“Are they gettin’ a divorce?”

Mee Maw snickered. “Betty lives in Richtown, Mississippi. I’m not sure she finished high school.”

After more rocking, Mee Maw said, “She’s stuck with his sorry ass for better or worse.”

I thought it ironic—the idea of a white man loving a Black woman. But, in Mississippi during the 1960s, that kind of love proved impossible to consider. Neither Mama nor Mee Maw said anything else about the Black girl. I’m sure they just figured it seemed a repulsive and vulgar carnal act. Don’t think they thought particularly bad things about the girl. She just wasn’t important, apart from the fact Ronnie Newsom got a bullet in his ass because of her.

Time changes things, I repeated to myself. What were socially unacceptable mores in 1960s’ Mississippi are accepted today. I guess, at least for the most part. Looking at the cracked and busted sidewalk leading to the front steps, I noticed how shards of grass came through, continually widening the gaps. Made me wonder what my mother and Mee Maw might say about my second wife today.

College-educated Chelsea is a mixture of Irish and African American. Mama never met or knew about Chelsea. That’s probably for the best. Time changes some things but not all people. Sitting there hearing the now-steady rain hit the tin roof, I knew their meeting just wouldn’t have worked. My mama wouldn’t approve, and Boston Chelsea had no interest in ever visiting Mississippi.

A new memory hit me as a car rolled past the old house. When I wasn’t on the porch killing flies, my going to the movie house in Richtown became quite a racial experience. It was easy walking distance from Mee Maw’s house. 

Every Saturday in the summer, my sisters and I went from Mee Maw’s house to the one-screen theater. After the walk in the hot Mississippi sun, it felt nice sitting in the cool darkness despite the musty smell that emanated from the concrete floor. I remember pouring Dixie straw powder down my throat waiting for the projector to crank up. You could hear the Black kids rustle as they sat in the balcony. It had been weird never seeing these beings while knowing they were behind and above like dark angels looking down upon whitey. We never saw them come in since they had a separate entrance. I suppose the idea was to make you think they didn’t exist. 

But we knew they were there despite never seeing them. Popcorn, and every now and then a popcorn box, came down from above. We didn’t think much of it since we sat in the front row. Guess if a white patron got hit, the manager would have done something. But usually the place wasn’t crowded.

Sitting on this porch thinking about the past, the “how it has changed” became my epiphany. Sure, there were plenty of bigots in 1960s’ Mississippi. But I knew plenty that weren’t. And there may be fewer bigots today. Who knows for sure? But thinking about the way it used to be, I now believe a big change for many of the non-bigoted Mississippians is the realization that Black people do indeed exist.

They seemed to be nothing but a sidenote to many white people when I had been a kid. 

*******

When I flew into Logan from Mississippi, I was ready to be home. My priest friend picked me up, and my wife would be home waiting to love on her Mississippi boy. 

I tried many times to convince Chelsea that Mississippi had changed. She wouldn’t believe me. 

“So yow tryin’ to tells me ‘us colored folks’ didn’t exist when yow wuz a chillen?”

She knew I really hated it when she talked ghetto to me.

“Mississippi cracka boy had him some jungle feva!” Chelsea tried to rattle me after I told her the story of Ronnie Newsom getting shot in the buttocks.

“Just had to get him sum of that safari girl!”

Chelsea was an expert at sarcasm. I knew I was going to hear it, but it still made me uncomfortable.

“Guess I would get you really mad if I used the word irrelevant.” I knew I shouldn’t have said that as soon as I said it. The glare had been something to behold.

Finally she said, “Is that why you married me, Joe? Wanted to get you some safari girl?”

After quite some time, she calmly said, “So you’re trying to say the non-bigots in your cracker state didn’t know we existed in the 1960s?”

“Not ex…”

Chelsea interrupted, “Just answer the question, please.”

“Not sure I can answer the question without you getting madder at me.”

I think my voice seemed weak, and I know I cowered. Chelsea never got violent, but she had a temper when it came to race. I knew referring to racism in south Boston would not go over very well in this conversation. That had been my go-to defense, when defending my home state. 

“I’m just trying to say as a child I was not very aware of racism or how African Americans were seen in that time period.”

“Not going to get mad at you, Joe. Not going to have one of those—what did your first wife call it—?”

“I wish you would forget that. She was just repeating what some doctor said.” Chelsea had been referring to my “nurse” first wife, saying what Black people had in the emergency rooms of hospitals, according to the doctors.

She muttered something I couldn’t hear.

“Chelsea, you know I love you, but when you get mad it makes me uncomfortable. And as you know, your daddy said it was your Irish temper that made you this way.”

She again muttered something inaudible.

Finally, Chelsea looked at me calmly and said, “What about your mama and Mee Maw?”

“I’m certain they were aware of things, but I also think they didn’t have feelings of love or hatred for another race.”

Pausing, I said, “I never heard them say anything derisive about Blacks. Certainly never heard either use the N-word.”

“You don’t think using the word colored is offensive?”

“Well, of course. Yes!” I knew I needed to emphasize that calling an African American colored seemed offensive. We had already gone there before.

“But, in that time frame, the term African American didn’t exist, and besides, there were a lot more negative words used other than colored.”

Chelsea kind of smiled as she muttered, “Nazi Germany.”

“What do you mean?” I knew where this appeared to be going; we’d had this conversation before. Playing ignorant wasn’t going to work.

“Come on, Joe, you know what I mean.”

Chelsea earned a graduate degree in sociology with a minor in history. She had a particular interest in what people do in crisis situations.

“I know good folk can become selectively blind.” I was glad she stayed calm as I said this.

“Yes…?” She wanted more from me.

“The real question—I guess—would be if these people could actually be deemed good people,” pausing I added, “if they ignore injustices?”

“Yes…?”

“The question out of all this is—what would you or I do in 1960s’ Mississippi?”

“Not me, Joe. I’d be up in that balcony throwing popcorn boxes at your white ass!” She smiled after saying that.

I had to laugh.

After a pause, Chelsea asked, “And what would you do, Joe, if you were an adult in the 1960s?”

“Well…I know what I’d like to say but, honestly, I don’t know. There were a lot of things, including the risk of your life, that were a deterrent to doing the right thing.”

I knew Chelsea would no longer be mad since I affirmed her beliefs. She understood human nature. Being a realist is one among many things I love about her.

Like Fish That Rain Down From Heaven

Like Fish That Rain Down From Heaven

Paul Smith

Sometimes the making up was harder than the fighting. The quarrels were stupid and pointless. We both dug in, refusing any acknowledgement of each other. Occasionally, I stalked out of the house, telling myself I would never go back. Then I rethought things, realizing either I was stupid and had no real place to go, thinking maybe this is what true love was, and finally saying to myself I was a coward. I would slink back.

This time it was over platanos fritos versus platanos hervidos. She was just as locked in as I was, though she never stormed out of the house. It was her domain. I often felt like an interloper even though I was the one with the salary that paid the downstroke on this place. When I snuck back in, she ignored me. This might go on several days. Then, for no reason at all, things softened up and we gradually accepted each other. It was a mystery.

We had visited a friend of hers in Chicago named Duñia, who made us a nice Honduran style dinner – sopa de caracol, pan de coca, and of course, platanos. I told Dunia and her boyfriend that Tina, my wife, usually had platanos hervidos, or boiled plantains just about daily. I was trying to establish some sort of common ground or camaraderie or whatever was supposed to bring people together. It didn’t work out that way.

Tina exploded. We wound up leaving. As we left their apartment on Whipple, I apologized to Duñia and her boyfriend, an old Peace Corps hand with a pony tail. We never saw them again. Friends came and went. I tried in the car, and later on, at home, to find out what I had done wrong. She folded and unfolded her arms every minute or so, waving me away. By now, I had learned that any attempt at reconciliation was useless. I went upstairs, as far away as possible and just stared out the window at the other houses on our block, wondering did everyone have stupid arguments like we did? Were we fated to disagree because women were the opposite of men? Or did each one of us have the capacity to do dumb things? 

Eventually there was a thaw. It didn’t happen abruptly. Instead of carrying her head down, she lifted it up from time to time. Her pace gentled from a gallop to a trot. Then, at the breakfast table there was evidence – her eyes looked up and tried to make eye contact. I had been waiting for this. 

“Good morning,” I said.

“Good morning,” Tina replied.

“How are you today?”

Bien, y tu?”

“I’m sorry about at Duñia’s.”

“Never mind.”

“Alright.”

It could have stopped here. If I had been really smart, I would have stopped. I was not really smart, though.

“I just didn’t understand.”

“You’re American.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, apologizing for being American. “It was something about platanos.”

Platanos hervidos and platanos fritos.”

“Right.”

“So forget it.”

Again, I should have stopped. Thinking myself rational I thought that since Tina grew up in Trujillo, near the coast, maybe platanos hervidos were a coastal thing, enjoyed by all the costañeros, from Puerto Cortez to Trujillo to Brus Laguna. “So boiled platanos go good with the seafood around Trujillo and La Ceiba?”

“No!”

“OK.”

Tina shook her head. I remember her shaking her head when I met her working in Trujillo. It was usually because my grasp of Spanish was so frustrating for us both. I was something of an oaf. How she shook her head told me that.

“Look, we’re different, that’s all.”

I could have just accepted it, but went on. “I thought there was some sort of gap in my knowledge. I was just trying to understand, you know? I’ll drop it.”

We didn’t exactly establish full eye contact over the breakfast table, but we came close. Her eyes swept from side to side, brushing mine as they circled the dining room. “It’s not about you. It’s not about me. These are things that just are.

It was coming. Tina was about to school me again on the principles of metaphysics. She went on. “You think that you are responsible for things. You’re not. These things just happen.”

“If I’m not responsible for platanos hervidos being different from platanos fritos, then why are you angry at me?”

“Because I’m not responsible, either. This is something you don’t understand.”

“I really think we could work these things out.”

She sat straight up in her chair and now looked me right in the eye. “You know every year it rains fish in Yoro, right?” She did not wait for me to answer. “Yes, you do. The year you were in Trujillo there was the biggest lluvia de pesces since Hurricane Fifi. Everyone in Yoro ate fish for a week.”

“They say the lluvia de pesces is due to waterspouts in the Atlantic.” I made my hands into the shape of a geyser, complete with a spouting action of my palms facing up so that they would shower the earth with water and fish.

“The ocean is more than a hundred miles away. They also claim it is the result of a dumb Spanish priest many years ago wanting some miracle to feed the poor. That is all mierda, murandanga, bofonada. What role did you play in the lluvia de pesces?”

“The priest – “

“Forget the priest. They are all corrupt and seduce girls from the confessional box. Girls like that whore Duñia – that puta from Tegucigalpa with her Peace Corps friends, eating platanos fritos in a Cuban restaurantlike they were tourists.  Did you make it happen? Did I? No! Nobody made the lluvia happen. It just is. There is nothing we can do to stop it or make it get bigger. It is. We are here only for a short time. ‘This’ is forever,” she spread her arms to signify what ‘this’ is. She was describing something big, bigger than our fruited plains, our purple mountain majesty, the Republic of Honduras, the province called Gracias a Dios, the Horse Latitudes, the Humboldt Current, the snow that falls on all the living and the dead, the sun, the stars, all that was and will be, maybe even including God who might be puny beside it. It included everything but us, because we were at odds with It, and It would prevail.

“This is the one thing you don’t understand.” Tina refolded her arms. “One of many things,” she corrected herself.

If I had been really smart, I would have stopped there. But something happened. As her eyes swept across the room, I felt something inside me swell. We were talking. She was doing most of it. I was listening. That was enough. This was how I felt before we got married at Saint John the Baptist church in Trujillo, in love with a foreign-looking, foreign-speaking beauty whom I thought I could tame. Her eyes captivated me, and I wanted to give her a hug. Maybe this is what God had in mind. Maybe it wasn’t fate or luck or free will or where we are headed. Maybe He knew that after fighting awhile, our arms would get tired and we would lay them down and learn to forgive each other out of exhaustion. Sometimes He was right, and sometimes not. There might have even been a law above Him not even He could fix.

We both stood up. Three days of silence had softened us up like one of those mallets used to  tenderize meat.  I held out my arms. She came over, a bit reluctantly, and then we grasped each other. I felt her leg go between mine and had to shove my chair out of the way so I could fully latch on to her knee and make it mine once again. Her knee, though still reluctant, gradually accepted its status of a thing that I longed for and her lips let me kiss hers. I decided not to ask about platanos hervidos and platanos fritos.  She told me that was not my decision to make.

“But I’m glad we’re at least talking. I’m glad we decided to do at least that.”

“We didn’t decide that either,” she said.  “All of this was decided for us, just like those fishes.”

Captain Jack’s Deep-Sea Fishing

Captain Jack’s Deep-Sea Fishing

Niles M Reddick

When Lee’s dad, who was our manager at the Ponderosa, said he would take us deep sea fishing in the Atlantic off the coast of Jacksonville, I wasn’t sure. I had been in Bass boats in ponds and lakes and even in the alligator infested Okefenokee Swamp in rural Southern Georgia, but I had never been on a boat in the ocean and wasn’t sure I wanted to see “Jaws” in the real world any more than I had wanted to in the theatre when a group of us had seen the film when it was first released.

  There were four of us, plus Lee’s dad, and we each had to pitch in to cover the costs. The others were stoked to deep sea fish. I figured if we went too far from land, we would have life vests and rafts in case something happened, so I said I’d go, too. I wasn’t sure what would happen at the Ponderosa restaurant since we were busboys and dishwashers, but Lee’s dad said some of the cooks were going to assist while we were away for the day.

Lee’s dad drove their family’s Bonneville, and with the early morning darkness, the cool wind blowing in the open window vents, Lee’s dad’s Marlboro smoke, and the plush seats, I drifted. The sun hadn’t risen when we arrived at the marina, and Captain Jack wasn’t all that friendly and smelled of stale beer. He tossed some ice bags in a cooler, cranked the old boat, and unraveled ropes tied to the dock. He warned us, “You boys watch your step and don’t slip.” 

We had all worn our Sears tennis shoes, gym shorts, and t-shirts. I had wrongly assumed the boat would have a restroom and asked. 

“You can hang it over the side or use my bucket in the cabin,” he said. We only had one shared bathroom in our house, but we never used it at the same time or with the door open, and I didn’t feel comfortable everyone on the boat watching everyone else, but using the restroom was the least of my worries.

  Moving through the harbor in the still water was nice, and light showed just at the horizon. I imagined it would make a great painting. Once the boat passed the rock jetty, we rollicked up and down like we were riding a mechanical bull in a cowboy bar, and Jeff, the buffest and toughest guy among us threw up the biscuits, eggs, and bacon his mom had made him for breakfast. 

Captain yelled over the motor and crashing waves, “Boy, you’ll be alright. My first time out, I got seasick, too.” 

I was queasy, but I held my cinnamon pop tarts. Once we were out, the water was calmer, and land disappeared. We came to a stop and bobbed up and down. The Captain tossed the anchor over, told us it was a good area because of a shipwreck below, and helped us bait the hooks with small fish. I wasn’t quite sure how he knew there was a shipwreck, but I didn’t want to question him and get him angry. After all, he was in charge, and I had been taught not to question those in authority.

I had been used to red wrigglers or earthworms to catch bream or chicken livers to catch catfish. He showed us how to cast and cautioned us to hold the rods tight and with both hands. Within five minutes, Lee, his dad, and Jeff had bites and yelled, reeled, and pulled their red snapper and sea bass into the boat and tossed them in the cooler. For the next six hours, we did one repeat performance after another, catching over two hundred pounds. 

At one point, we saw a huge vessel about a mile away, and Captain Jack shared from his binoculars, “She’s Russian, probably spying.” It seemed frightening to me given the escalation of rhetoric Dan Rather shared on the nightly news about Reagan and Gorbachev. I only hoped that if tensions escalated while we were at sea, that we would be the least of their concern.

Lee’s dad cut the heads off fish and tossed a bucket load overboard and I felt the boat bump. I turned and looked down into the water and watched a shark’s fin glide through the water around the boat. I whispered to Joe, “Did you see it?” 

“Hell, yeah, I saw it. It’s huge.” 

“He’s not as big as Jaws, but he was still big,” Joe said. 

I hadn’t thought about the life jackets or rafts since I had initially committed, but I didn’t see them anywhere, and suddenly, I wasn’t sure who I wanted more—my parents or Jesus. Quite frankly, either would have sufficed.

After a few minutes,“Jaws’” fin disappeared into the murky deep, and the fish stopped biting. The Captain said he thought it would take about an hour to get back, and I felt elated the adventure was almost over like my first ride on Disney’s Space Mountain, my first drive on the interstate, feeling almost blown off the road by the eighteen wheelers, or even the first football game we lost, but I also felt between the Russian ship and the shark, I was reassured that land was where I belonged. Unfortunately, we had a way to go before we reached land, and as we bumped and busted each wave, I noticed a dense fog surrounding us, and Captain Jack slowed the boat.

“Gonna have to slow her down, boys. Never know what you might hit in a fog. Instruments and radio don’t work.”

“Did he say what I think he said?” Joe asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t like this.”

“Me neither.”

“You think we’re in the Bermuda Triangle and might disappear?”

“Shut up, Joe, or I’ll make you disappear.” I didn’t tell Joe I had already thought the same thing, but we had recently completed Geography with old man Ferguson who showered the front row with spit, and I remember the triangle was further South near the Bahamas.

“One of you boys needs to get up there on the bow and look port and starboard to make sure nothing is in the way.” 

I was relieved Jeff sprinted into action. Every now and again, Jeff yelled “Looks clear”. I imagined ghost pirate ships and fins surrounding us, but I changed my thoughts to family and prayed that if we made it home, that I would stop conjuring nude images of the Morgan twins in class. It wasn’t my first broken promise and wouldn’t be the last. 

We heard the bell on a buoy and barely missed running into it, but Captain Jack said he knew exactly where we were and which direction to take. The closer we got to land, the more the fog cleared, and especially when the jetty appeared in my vision, I felt I could swim if needed. When the boat bumped into the dock at the marina, I didn’t help unload the coolers of fish. I headed inside the market to the restroom and vowed if I ever went fishing in the sea again, I would stay on or near the jetty, stay close enough to see land, make sure to have life vests and a raft handy, and go on a boat with a restroom. 

A Very Reluctant Reaper

A Very Reluctant Reaper 

Alexander Mercant 

Today, I was at a motel. I leaned my scythe against the wall and I looked down at my leather-bound ledger to double-check I was at the right room. 12B. That was correct. I stood outside the door and took a deep breath and wished for a cigarette. I still missed them after all these years but it was hard to smoke without lips or lungs. I shook my head and put up my black hood. I floated through the room. Just from the sight, I knew I was lucky I couldn’t smell the place. Body on the bed with black hair, some band shirt, tight jeans, and no socks. There was the blackened spoon that had fallen onto the ground. Needle still in the arm. The body was resting on that floral bedspread the shitty motels had and it had absorbed most of the bodily fluids. By the looks of it, the body had been there for quite some time. She, however, was sitting at the edge of the bed and was staring at me. Her arms crossed. I braced myself for what was coming. 

“I’ve been here for DAYS,” she shouted, “Where the hell have you been?”
I held up my hands, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. We’ve been a little backed up.”
“Backed up? I’ve been stuck in a motel room with my dead body. Do you have any idea what this is like?” All too well

“Hey, hey, hey,” I said, her frown growing in intensity, “I’m here now. You have a problem with the time? Take it up with management. Us reapers can only be at so many places at once. The organization was made when there was a lot less of us on the blue and green.” 

She shook her head, “So, now what? Do I have to stay here longer?” “You go to the white light. Get processed. You’ve seen the movies.” 

“Do I go to Hell?”
“Not my job. Sorry, I’m just a delivery boy of souls.”
“Job? This is your job?”

Aw shit, I wasn’t supposed to say that part. They talk about the pearly gates, that marble staircase in the sky, and St. Peter checking whether you go up or you go down. They fail to mention that St. Peter has a big clipboard that has your afterlife occupation designation. That’s the real hell. Well, depending on how you did. I did rather poorly on my exit exams. 

“Yeah,” I leaned against the wall, “Nobody tells you but you still have to work when you’re dead. How good you did determines the job you get.” 

“How’d you get yours?” 

“I was pretty bad at most things Christians are supposed to do. I jerked off too much, I drank too much, I got rich (the news anchors always forget to tell you that’s a no-no), and I didn’t really believe in God. So… he decided to teach me a lesson. For eternity. That’s how I got the black clothes,” and I brushed my black sleeves and twisted my scythe so the light reflected off of the metal. 

“And they still give you a scythe? Really?”
I looked at it and felt self-conscious. I rocked on my heels.
“Don’t you think you look a little ridiculous for the time?” She continued, looking me up 

and down. My clothes felt extra baggy that day. Bones will do that. I guess God doesn’t want us naked even in Death. 

“I don’t make these decisions, okay? You ready to come?”
She looked behind her at her dead body. White, cold, and staring at the ceiling. “I can’t believe I died.” 

“Yes, you can,” I yawned, “Heroin users aren’t known for their longevity.”
She shook her head, “I was going to get sober soon.”
“I know, dear. At least you won’t have to suffer anymore,” Unless she goes to Hell but I was trying to be a team player. The workshops teach us that.
“Okay,” she looked up at me in my eye sockets, “Before I go, can I feel the breeze one last time?” And she motioned to the window.

I was late already. I had picked up an extra shift for another reaper. But I’ve always been a softy. So, I went over to the window and slid it open. The breeze of the day filled the room. She inhaled deep into her nonexistent lungs. She looked at peace. She wasn’t upset. She understood which is more than I can say for most. I’ve learned plenty of those who dance on the edge of death are less resistant when this time comes. They knew this was a possibility. After a few minutes of the wind blowing through her hair, she stood up and brushed off her jeans. She brushed her hair back and straightened her back. 

“I’m ready.”
“Okay.”
“What’s it like?”
“You’ll see,” I nodded.

She made a brave face and I waved the scythe. I could do it with my hands but it was always more dramatic with my scythe. A hole was cut into the room. White light beamed out of it. It was the size of her and brighter than anything she had ever seen. She stared at it. Entranced at the reality of it. I stepped to the side. She looked at me one last time before she walked through it. As her body disappeared from this world, the hole closed behind her. I was in the room by myself. I took out my ledger and crossed the name off the list with a pencil. I looked at who was next. A stockbroker. He had been holed up in a condo trying to fight off death for a few months. I groaned. Stockbrokers were always the worst. Not as bad as tech giants but still bad. I had to travel all the way to Chicago. Not my jurisdiction usually but that reaper was on vacation and I had volunteered to help out. A job is a job and you always want to look good for the boss. 

Closed-Captioned Book Clubs

CLOSED-CAPTIONED BOOK CLUBS

Nancy Ford Dugan

(sounds of squealing)

It’s so good to see you after all this time! 

(floorboards creaking on makeshift dining structure jammed onto sidewalk outside Spanish restaurant)

Oh my God, your hair! It’s so long! And so gray! And in pigtails!

(group gasping, sound of Fosamax jaws crackling open in shock)

Great to see you all too! How are you? You all look wonderful!

(sounds of social exhaustion creeping in at first encounter in over a year)

Well, we can’t even see you. Are you going to take that damn mask off? For God’s sake, we’re outdoors. We’re all vaccinated. 

(indistinct yet specific chatter: “She looks awful. It’s the hair. It’s so aging. She’s too pale to pull off gray hair.”)

When we eat, I’ll take the mask off.

(sounds of chairs scooting closer to table, accompanied by effortful grunts; cellulite-ridden thighs encased in snug capris slapping together as they settle into the uncomfortable chairs)

I could snip those pigtails off for you. 

(mumbling to self: “Wow, that seems aggressive, even for a dog groomer. And who is she to judge anyone’s hair? She’s had Ruth Buzzi’s center part for decades.”) 

Why? I actually like my pigtails. 

  So do I (waitress approaches). And I like the ombre coloring.

Thank you! See, ladies. I get surprisingly kind reviews from the younger demographic. 

(group muttering: “Sure she does. The waitress wants a tip.”)

They’ve already ordered. What can I get you?

Do you have any mocktails? No alcohol. Anything festive is fine. And to eat? Anything with vegetables and without shellfish would be great. Thanks. 

Coming right up.

A mocktail? That’s a departure for you. You usually just sip water. 

Well, we are celebrating getting the gang back together. Although I know the rest of you have had your monthly meetings for a while now.

(personal muttering: “In violation of all that is sacred and holy; and the mocktail is a new defensive strategy after all these years of splitting the check and covering your multiple glasses of wine.”)

Isn’t eating outside great? 

Yes. But if I lean over just a smidge, I’ll be in the street and may get clipped by a moving vehicle. 

(sounds of sirens, cars honking)

True. And there are so many! Scooters now, and bikes. 

How many more bike lanes do we need, for heaven’s sake?

(sound of creaky older necks nodding in agreement)

They can promote bikes till the cows come home, but it’s just not realistic. 

At least we don’t have cows!

That might be sort of nice actually.

(chuckling)

Yeah, when the progressives get a little older, let’s see how eager they are to bike everywhere. Try hopping on one after your colonoscopy. See how that feels!

(cackling)

And wait till they get vertigo! Oh, thanks. Here’s my mocktail. To your health, everybody! We are incredibly lucky, and I’m grateful we are all okay. 

(sounds of slurping through a biodegradable straw wedged between greenery and unidentifiable fruit)

So, who’d you all vote for today? In the primary.

I am the face of the democratic party.

(sounds of laughter and sighs)

Most of us voted for the sanitation lady.

You know she’s not Hispanic, right? 

She’s not? Oh. 

Yeah, it’s her married, now divorced, name.

Thanks to ranked voting, we won’t know the results for a week. Let’s see if there are any updates.

(sounds of colorful drugstore reading glasses being whipped out of cases, sounds of swiping and punching on cellphones)

Why, after the last four years, am I still surprised when people vote for TV personalities? 

I know! (hums of agreement) It’s all brand recognition. (sounds of tsk)

Did anyone read the book?

(indistinct conversation)

What was it again?

The Furies. I thought it was fascinating. It’s about…

(sounds of abrupt cutting off, cacophony of multiple people talking at once, indecipherable) 

Oh, here’s our food. Whoops. We all ordered mussels. Will that trigger your allergies?

(sounds of bowls placed on table and requests for extra napkins)

Just my nose and eyes. And skin, with the hives. 

(sounds of resignation, sniffling behind a mask, yearning for social distancing)

Stop leaning away from us. We’re all vaccinated. We follow the science.

Maybe she’s leaning because she’s allergic to shellfish.

Oh, that’s true. Sorry. Here comes your vegan platter.

(sounds of gentle mask removal and placement in zippered section of oversized purse; sounds of chewing, swallowing, roughage entering delicate intestinal system, unaccustomed in past year to food prepared by others)

Why is your bag so big? Isn’t it heavy?

(personal muttering: “What’s it to her? Is this how conversation works? It’s been so long.”)

I’m just beginning to venture into stores after months of overpriced online shopping. I wanted to zip into one spot I like in this neighborhood.

What did you get? 

(mumbles to self: “Again, so intrusive!”)

Oh, you know. Sundries. (singing) “I want a Sundries kind of love.(laughs) Remember that song?

No. (scoffs)

(sounds of plucked shells tossed into gruesome, life-threatening bowl)

Did you finally get to visit any members of your family outside the city? 

Yup. At last! The train upstate was great. They mandate masks. It wasn’t crowded. I felt more comfortable than I expected.

I don’t think anyone who’s vaccinated should have to wear a mask.

(sounds of sighs and exasperation)

How far is that trip again? Where do you go?

Under two hours to Brewster. Then it’s another thirty-minute ride.

Brewster! Makes me think of Marlo Thomas in That Girl!

Or in my case That Crone!

(giggling, followed by group at nearby table singing “Happy Birthday” as non-lit, candled cake arrives)

Oh, they’re so loud!

It’s nice to see a happy family gathering. Despite their aerosols spraying on us. 

(joins singing)

Did you catch the birthday girl’s name? It went on and on. How many syllables do you need?

Oh, come on. 

Seriously. Two is perfect. Three or more is just showing off.

Or just making it hard for you to pronounce?

Well, there’s that.

What book are we not reading for next month?

Oh, this doesn’t look good. That bike is going awfully fast, and it’s awfully close. It may make that car swerve…

(sounds of chairs scraping, screams)

LOOK OUT!

(sounds of splat)

Running

Running

Alan Brickman

Ever since Ben was on his high school’s cross country team twenty years ago, he loved running. It had always been his preferred workout, and he could run for an hour or more without difficulty but with that perfect blend of challenge and achievement that made exercise so satisfying. The year he turned thirty, he ran a marathon, and while he was happy with his time, the raucous crowds that lined the routes and cheered the runners made him miss the solitude of distance running that he so enjoyed. 

Now in his forties, he would leave the house early, before the midday heat, and be predictably gone for an hour or two, running through streets, wooded areas, open fields, sometimes even losing his way and simply running until he recognized some landmark that reoriented him so he could find his way home. He stayed remarkably fit, and when he ran, he felt weightless, as if on the magic carpet of his sneakers, powering through the air toward the horizon and into the future. 

This morning, a Sunday, he left the house without saying goodbye to his wife Sharon because of an unpleasant argument they had over breakfast about one of the million little annoyances that plague marriages. The things that needed fixing around the house. Their teenage son Nathan’s drinking and poor choice of friends. The difficulty Sharon was having finding child care for their three-year-old Beth, and Ben’s resentment that all the daycare slots were gone because Sharon had procrastinated. And of course, money. Ben didn’t get the promotion and pay raise he was expecting because his company lost a major bid to a competitor, which necessitated layoffs. Ben felt lucky just to be able to keep his job. They had recently purchased a new car for Sharon and a new living room set they had been talking about for the better part of a year, and their accumulated credit card debt had now become alarming. 

The aggravation Ben felt about the argument gave some extra power to his running, and he took off at a sprint. After three blocks, he knew he had to pace himself if he was going to get in his usual distance so he slowed his gait and let his breathing return to a comfortable level. He turned onto the main boulevard through the town center, across from the ball fields where he saw teams of Little Leaguers practicing, then up the hill and into the state park that covered hundreds of acres. He smiled to himself and thought, “I’m not a dirt track runner, I’m a cross country runner,” remembering how much more he preferred the wooded, overland routes to the boring tracks or roads. He saw a trail marker that said, “Scenic vista, 10.2 miles” and decided to run uphill. 

As he ran, he became angry and self-pitying about how lonely he felt in his marriage, how Sharon never took anything seriously, which meant he had to make all the important decisions himself.  “Oh, honey,” she would say, “everything’s going to work out,” this being her idea of problem solving. She was in total denial about Nathan’s drinking, and chalked it all up to “boys will be boys.” Ben had a serious drinking problem before he met Sharon that he had never talked to her about. It was in the ’80s, so of course there were routinely mounds of cocaine around. One night, after a stupid stunt that left him with eight stitches in his left shoulder, he went cold turkey for about two years before he settled into mild social drinking and absolutely no drugs. He’d been lucky. He knew all too well about the slippery slope of substance abuse, and he was convinced that Sharon had no idea. There is nothing worse, he thought, than feeling alone in a marriage. It was supposed to be a partnership, a shared enterprise, that’s what makes it all worth it.

He realized he was on the downhill side of the trail, having missed the scenic vista, and was back below tree line. He turned left, off the marked trail and into the woods, hoping to challenge himself a bit by having to dodge the tree roots and boulders. After about twenty minutes, he came out of the woods onto Route 109, a small two-lane road that went under the interstate and into the next county. He looked at his watch and saw that he had been gone for almost two hours. He didn’t feel nearly as tired as he would have expected, and kept running.

He took a few random turns onto random streets, half-hoping to get lost. He thought, “What if I just keep running, end up in some motel three counties over, call my friend Sal to come get my key, sneak into the house when no one is home, bring me my wallet and a few things so I can just keep running. Away from the debt and the house and the new car and the kids and the wife and the job and the living room set, away from all of it. Start over somewhere, anywhere, even change my name or fake my death and just be someone else.” 

He felt stronger as he ran, and this idea felt increasingly compelling. There was no downside. He pumped his legs a little harder and felt himself reaching escape velocity.

Without consciously meaning to, he saw that he was running back through town, then onto his street and up his driveway. He looked at his watch, he’d been gone for four and a half hours. He stopped at his side door, stretched his calves, and stepped inside. He forced himself not to say, “Hi honey, I’m home.”

AMAZED

AMAZED

Eleanor Windman

Clenching my teeth, with head held high and comfortable shoes, I stride out the front entrance of the Iowa City Graduate Hotel. I am spending the weekend at the Iowa Writers’ Conference, one of the most prestigious writing schools in the country. I have rented a deluxe room for this occasion, a lifelong dream realized, possibly, just in time. My room is one of a few with a private bath. This splurge was a long time coming, after my husband’s prolonged illness.

The rooms are decorated with a writing theme. The walls ingeniously clad with multicolored pencils, the lamps, old school trophies, the desk equipped with black-and-white notebooks and Eberhard Faber pencils—for your writing pleasure. Years ago, I might have called it tacky. Now, it makes me feel relevant, involved, alive. I search the photos hanging on the walls of the men on the soccer team and imagine them today, their muscles flaccid, their uniforms moth-eaten, in their prime in 1937, when I was born.

After my husband’s death, I stayed put. Afraid to try things on my own. For fifty-seven years, I’d had a bodyguard. He carried the boarding passes, lifted the luggage into the overhead bin, would probably notice if I dropped dead in the hotel room, slipped in the shower, or was trailing a tail of toilet paper out the door. He killed the bugs, paid the bills, stroked my head, and loved me.

I’d never considered the possibility of tripping on a plastic bag and going to Iowa City Medical Center alone. I found the insurance cards and remembered my address and my next of kin. The X-ray disclosed a hairline fracture—the pain continued for the duration of my stay. They gave me a cheesy sling, and I was on my own. I stood on an overturned garbage receptacle and flung myself onto the high bed, amazed that I scaled it by tugging on the sheet.

Most of the time, I was navigating around in a maze.

Backtracking, searching for something, something I need: keys, phone, shopping lists, insurance cards—all nag like a toothache.

My life is now a continuous scavenger hunt. I enjoyed that game when I was a kid. I was good at deciphering the clues, but now, when I finally locate what I’ve misplaced, it’s validation that I have not yet crossed the line.

My thoughtful grandson has given me a doormat that reminds me in bold letters to check for:

KEYS PHONE MEDS

It’s early; I’ve given myself plenty of time to locate my classroom. It’s hot, humid, and uphill—a trifecta that impedes my determination. My writing paraphernalia is heavy; I lug it behind me in a burgundy backpack with wheels that clunk as I shlep them noisily over the cobblestones. They reverberate, causing the students racing past me to turn around and stare.

The concierge has drawn me a diagram; I know to turn left when I exit the hotel. Then climb the hill leading to the campus, and the quadrant of pale stone buildings at the top. They are identical. Each has four entryways, leaving sixteen possible choices. I am out of breath, and panting. I feel the sweat gluing my thighs together as I circle the buildings looking for the right door. Nothing is familiar, even though we had a welcome dinner here last night. Time is running out, and I am forced to ask a coed wearing shredded shorts with long strings hanging from the crotch, and tendrils of hair echoing the statement. “Where is building A?” I ask, horrified that I might be at the very place where my journey began ten minutes ago. “You are standing in front of it; follow me.” She beckons.

Breathlessly, I enter the classroom. My eyes averted, I lift the wheely thing off the floor to keep it quiet. Everyone stares as I take a seat in the last row and ruffle through my papers, retrieve my water bottle and shawl. The air conditioning temperature cannot be regulated and is on the igloo setting. I am aware that they are all waiting for me to get settled, and also, that I am the oldest person in the room.

I remember another time, more than forty years ago.

My late husband and I are sitting in the front row at a comedy club performance—never a good idea—I remember being warned about that, too late.

I glance around the room and notice that we are probably the oldest people in the audience. I mention that to my husband, whispering into his familiar warm ear. “You are nuts,” he responds curtly.

The hyperactive comedian leaps onto the stage and greets his loyal audience. There is a lot of clapping and catcalls. He is strutting, enjoying the adulation when suddenly he stops and notices us in the first row—big mistake. I sense it coming; something tells me I am right; he is staring at us with lust in his eyes.

Slowly, with determination and a deep bow, he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, look who we have with us tonight.” Long pause. “Let’s give a rousing cheer for Fred and Ethel Mertz.” The audience and my husband are hysterical. I, on the other hand, am mortified. Is it too late to move to another country that reveres its elders? I wonder.

I have not forgotten that moment—the burn can still crawl up my neck, and my eyes can still smart. I can feel diminished and humiliated. But suddenly I’m laughing with them, and I’m the audience, not the victim.

“I’m here, aren’t I?” I ask nobody in particular.

I am amazed when the maze eventually leads me through to completion—giddy, when the other students laugh as I read my newest story to them. One gent sharing later how he almost “pissed his pants” when my protagonist told us that she considered writing porn part of her writing practice.

But most of all, I am amazed to know that I can still be amazed.

Growing Up

Growing Up

Lois MacLaren

It was five o’clock. I had just passed through Covent Garden and was walking towards the Thames Embankment. Throngs of people… Londoners, mostly business people in proper navy or gray pin stripes, heads down, faces serious, mingled with talkative tourists dressed in jeans and sandals. Everyone hurried…a dash to the underground, a bar, or yet another of the small shops dotting the area. The sound of rushing footsteps was occasionally punctuated by strains of violin or accordion music provided by street musicians eager to add a few more coins to their day’s earnings. A corner pub cast its calm, benevolent gaze over this mass of bustling humanity. Cascades of brilliant violet petunias and flaming marigolds overflowed the flowerpots hanging under its eaves. “Old Nagshead”, written in elegant, gleaming gold script, graced the black border that ran across the building’s facade.

Suddenly, I noticed a small crowd forming a semi-circle at the corner opposite the pub. All eyes were fixed on a strange, otherworldly figure standing by the lamppost and facing the group. An oasis of silence had been cast amid the bustle and rush of the crowd. The figure, painted in silver from toe to head, glistened in the slanted rays of late afternoon sun.

Silver shoes…large with bulbous toes; silver trousers…tightly stretched across a bony frame; silver, close-cropped jacket. Hands, fingers…all painted silver. My eyes traveled upward to his narrow shoulders and high collar centered by a wide, silver four-in-hand. Then to the face…again, silver. A faint, enigmatic half-smile wavered on closed, silver lips. At last a respite…his eyes, laced round with dark lashes, were shiny brown orbs framed in white. A silvery frown creased his forehead as those dark, expressionless eyes surveyed the group of curious, silent, gathering spectators. He carried a small, silver umbrella in his left hand, and slowly, ever so slowly, raised it over his silver, peaked cap. Gradually it opened, protecting him at last from the setting sun filtering down over tops of shops and restaurants. He lifted his right foot ever so slightly… paused…then after a moment or two, carefully closed the umbrella and placed it deliberately on the sidewalk beside him. He paused again, then solemnly reached into his trouser pocket and leisurely removed a gray, string-like object. He raised his hand to his lips, and with measured breaths began to inflate the limp mass. 

My gaze strayed from this hypnotic figure and rested on a young boy who stood at the front of the onlookers. He couldn’t have been more than six or seven. His red hair was close-cropped; his skin pale and freckled. Head tilted, thin mouth ajar, a frown creased his forehead. A mixture of puzzlement and wonder filled his blue eyes, eyes which never for a moment left the bizarre figure of the silver man.

Soon a form emerged from the mouth of the man…a dark, silvery gray transparency of a dog…a curly balloon tail; short, pudgy balloon legs; long body and small head topped by the tiniest of balloon ears. With each blow of silver breath, the boy’s knees pumped as if to help his mysterious friend complete his magical task. At last the creation was complete. The silver man held it up for the boy and all around him to admire. He slowly, oh so very slowly, turned in a triumphant half-circle, the same, never-changing half smile grazing his silver lips. 

Abruptly, in mid-turn, and for no apparent reason, the silver man jerked to a stop. He raised his arm, seized the silver cap from his head, and tossed it on the sidewalk where it landed near a box sparsely filled with coins. He then squashed the balloon-creature and tossed it casually into the corner waste bin. The spell broken, he paused, calmly took a cigarette from his silver trousers, lit it, then squatted down on the curb, eyes averted, waiting for the next group of passers-by. “Old Nagshead”, steadfast, continued smiling down, but the crowd, anxious to get on with its concerns, dispersed as quickly as it had gathered. 

I saw the back of the little boy, head down, shoulders hunched, clutching the hand of his father as his small legs struggled to keep up with the rushing crowd. He did not look back, and I did not wish to see his face. 

Sunday at Jarry Park

Sunday at Jarry Park

Ilona Martonfi

“Oh! They are married.” Granddaughter Jessica twirls round and round. Sings: “Kiss. Kiss. Tam. Ta-Tam. Oh! She is so pretty.”

A wedding party is coming around the bend on a narrow gravel path. A photographer and a cameraman accompany the newly married Asian couple. Tell them where to stop. Where to stand. Two bridesmaids walk with the young wife. One is dressed in tomato red, the other in black lace. The maid of honour, in pale yellow. 

My grandchildren play hide-and-seek in the park. Amanda is ten, Jessica, seven, and Matthew five-years-old. The children run toward the couple. Laugh and giggle. The bride is lovely in a long, white satin wedding dress. The groom is wearing a black tuxedo.

My daughter Marisa sits on a low cement wall facing the pond. Blinking in the afternoon sun, she looks with indifference at all the commotion. Amanda sits down beside her mother and states in a matter-of-fact voice: “I guess she is marrying him because he is so handsome.” 

Marisa gives her a half-smile. I wonder what she is thinking. Twelve years earlier, it was her wedding day. October 8, 1988, she married Jeffrey. The bride Catholic, the groom Jewish. We gave her a traditional Italian wedding with three white limousines, a Rolls Royce, a photographer and a cameraman. Over a hundred guests danced all night to a trio band at Princess Buffet. The bride’s parents’ wedding gift, a key to her own house. 

I was still married then. I left my husband a year later, on the first wedding anniversary of Marisa and Jeffrey. They were expecting their first child.

I look at Marisa’s huddled body. Blinking in the afternoon sun, she doesn’t speak to young Amanda. Outpatient at Douglas psychiatric hospital. The medications are powerful. They also tranquilize her joy. She suffers from chronic lung sarcoidosis. Generalized anxiety disorder. Melancholia. She lives in an adult foster home under public curatorship.

Youth Protection court. Divorce court. Jeffrey obtained full custody. I supervise her children’s visits: “Owing to potential, accidental, harm to children.” 

Bees are buzzing at the open garbage can. We have an Indian summer in October. I call my grandchildren and we walk back to McDonald’s on St-Lawrence Boulevard. They romp and slide in the playroom. Jeffrey and his girlfriend Alicia pick them up at three o’clock. The Sunday visit is over. Marisa takes the metro back to the foster home in LaSalle. I catch a bus to my downtown studio.

What Might Have Been

What Might Have Been

Mara Fein

I have a photo of me standing next to my mother.  I am probably two or three years old.  It is a wintry day and my snowsuit envelopes me.  My right hand points up at the sky.  Perhaps at a bird, perhaps the sun, perhaps the faintest of moons.  I have no idea what my childish self saw.  But as I now gaze upon that moment of magical thinking, I wonder if it is good to let yourself stray from the path a little and follow your inner child, because you never know what you might find.

In Greek mythology, the Fates, a group of three goddesses, weave our destinies at birth.  Supposedly, they determine not only the length of one’s life, but also the allotment of joy.  Or misery.  You might think, since the Fates were women, they might have been kind to the women in my family.  Sadly, that was not the case.

The women in my family had no poverty of aspiration.  My father’s mother, blessed with a beautiful soprano voice and an offer to study music in Vienna, found that road closed to her because of her fearful parents.  As fate would have it, her parents had just arrived in America and refused to allow their daughter to return to the country they had fled, even if it presented the possibility of a stellar career in the world of opera.  Her life continued through an arranged marriage to a much older man.  A child followed, then his frequent absence, and his return leading to another birth, then another, and finally divorce.  In a limited education and job that wasted her talents. In a basement apartment in Brooklyn, where she could never fully escape poverty or loneliness. In perennial resentment towards my mother, never ever good enough for her son. In bitterness that made me a fearful silent child whenever my father and I visited her.  

Poverty crushed my mother’s dream of teaching. She grew up in Hartford, Connecticut and her parents offered to send her to the nearby New Britain State Normal School for teachers.  Too close to home for her.  She dreamed of college in some far-off place.  

Her sister Irene, the eldest, wanted to be a nurse.  But it was 1933, there were eight children, and the Great Depression being what it was, the family needed Irene to work.  So she took a job at the local department store and never left Hartford.  My mother escaped to New York City and the nursing school Irene had hoped for, one sister’s dreams cascading into the other’s.  

Nevertheless, they remained close.  When I was a child I often heard them on the phone.  Long conversations, often about their unhappy marriages, never about their careers.  Conversations overheard that determined me to never marry, because marriage would stunt my talents and derail my dreams.  

I was wrong.

I was a bit of a tomboy as a child.  I played every sport I could in high school and lettered in track and field, softball, and bowling.  My parents wanted me to go to college.  I wanted a career in sports.  Title IX, providing new opportunities in sports for women, was passed two years after I graduated high school.  Too late for athletic scholarships or women’s varsity.  Too late to imagine a decent-paying career in sports other than as a physical education teacher, a career I did not want.  The best I could do, as my college newspaper reported, was star in powder puff football, with “two interceptions … in the final game of the regular season.”

I loved sports, but I also loved theater.  Musical theater.  I inherited my grandmother’s voice, and what I longed for most of all was a life on Broadway.  

I attended auditions but was never cast.  One day my voice teacher said “music can always be an avocation, you know.”  I was stunned.  Slapped in the face.  Was she saying I wasn’t talented enough?  Would never earn my living with my voice?  I couldn’t ask.  But I now realize she knew, and perhaps deep inside I knew, that my happiness lay elsewhere.  

This detour did not result in bitterness like my grandmother’s, although I inherited her voice and the irony does not escape me.   This simply was not the star my inner child saw.

My mother was not bitter either, although a bit disappointed, I think.  She shared recordings of my voice with neighbors, queried them about children who were in “the business” and might “give me a break.”  

She was not disappointed by my next move.  A move that took us both by surprise.

My husband and I met at a swimming pool on a sunny March afternoon in California.  We marvel over the insistence of the Fates.  Had we made different choices, we might well have met and married in New York City, he taking the job he was offered there and I remaining to seek a career in musical theater.  Or even earlier, in Illinois, where we both strode the same campus at the same time, but apparently never crossed paths.  If destined to meet, we certainly made it quite difficult for the Fates to succeed.

After my mother died many years later, as I cleaned out closets long neglected, I found old family photos.  Of weddings, of days at the beach, of holiday parties, of old people sitting around and talking. Those photos gave me a clearer and more focused picture of my family’s choices.    

Divorced when it was still considered shameful, a single mother supporting three children and her own mother, the best job my grandmother could find was as housemother to student nurses in Beth Israel Hospital in New York City.  I found a photo of her at her desk, sitting ramrod straight, gaze cold, and lips stiff, as if she had just issued a reprimand.  Probably little different from her demeanor when my father told her he was marrying my mother, one of her former student nurses.

Mother was tough on her nurses too, but former co-workers told me she was the best head nurse they ever knew.  Perhaps that’s why a 1939 photo reveals her, just out of nursing school in starched uniform and cap, grinning at the camera.  Newly licensed.  Independent. Hopeful about the road ahead.

The wedding photos of my aunt Irene suggested that she was not hopeful about the road she was heading down.  She frowned in every photo.  Wedded bliss was not what she was expecting.  And not what she got, either.  She married an inveterate gambler more interested in the ponies than raising a family and uninterested in the children she so wished to have but never did.  Photos through the years show an increasingly worn and saddened woman.  Was it for this, she seemed to ask.  My mother must have agreed about my uncle.  She kept plenty of photos of her sister Irene, but few included Irene’s husband.

I noticed something else in those photos.  As Irene aged, she seemed to become someone else.  All the relatives did.  Like those high school reunion photo name tags, they became ancient witnesses to the people they had been.  But then, I thought, perhaps they actually became more themselves … perhaps after being on the road a long time, they simply knew themselves better, were more able to show their happiness, their bitterness, their disappointment.  

And I wondered if, as I had wandered down paths too numerous to remember, perhaps I too had become more myself.  More able to understand the triviality of my so-called failures and to cherish my accomplishments.  More able to understand the sadness of others and not hold grudges.  More aware of the immense love in my life.  Yet aware of questions I should still ask, of love I should still give.  

I found my intellectual path somewhat late in life, at least that’s how I felt in graduate school, a thirty-eight year old student, isolated from much younger hipper classmates.  I labored for six years for a doctorate in English Literature and loved teaching, but had no desire to teach in any of the places I interviewed.  A major press showed interest in my dissertation, but I did not follow up, my desire to labor on a book that appeared unlikely to get me a position in a field flooded with younger candidates fairly low.  Neither my dissertation director nor any other professor explained how the road ahead might diverge, offering other choices.  And earning a decent living loomed largest. 

But literature now colors all I see and I do not regret the worlds it opened up.  Books are my most trusted of friends and I sit down with them often.  When I am about to speak in anger, Jane Austen reminds me “good opinion, once lost is lost forever.”  When I think only of myself, George Elliot reminds me: “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other.”  I no longer bear grudges, because Charlotte Bronte reminds me “Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.”  

Robert Frost once said in a letter to a friend, “No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another.”  I still wonder what life would have been like had I accepted a professorship and married another scholar or coached softball or been a star in musical comedy.  But these days I do find the time to read George Eliot, sing in a choral group, watch women competing in softball and basketball, and dream of what might have been.  And so those things have become, not my vocation, not the way I earn my daily bread, but my avocations, the things that bring light to a world that sometimes threatens darkness at any moment.  

If my grandmother had become an opera singer, she might have had a happy marriage and mentored me.  If my mother had been a teacher, I might have found my literary path sooner.  But I now realize the might-have-beens of three generations of women are not useful. Learning to be at ease with the life I have is what mattered most.

Remembrance

REMEMBRANCE

Fabrizia Faustinella

She died at age fifty. Not too young anymore but definitely not old. She had insulin-dependent diabetes. She was diagnosed at a young age. She didn’t just die of some accident or disease; she killed herself. Serene was her name. How ironic. Her life turned out to be everything but calm, everything but peaceful and untroubled. She grew up in a dysfunctional family with an inept father, a sister, and a brother. That brother was the only one who managed to escape the village and a sad fate. I was told that Serene and her siblings were faraway cousins to me, although I never understood what that meant. The intricacies of my genealogy tree and the various relationships among its members, if not within the immediate family, have never been clear to me. 

Serene’s mom, Atessa, died in her early thirties of an ictus, a cerebral thrombosis. There is nothing else that can be done. Her life is now holding on to a thin thread, the doctors reluctantly and apologetically announced to her husband as he, I heard, was tightly grasping his hat with both his hands, his mouth agape, while slowly getting up from a white metal chair in the white waiting room of the hospital. 

Atessa agonized for a few days at home. Then she exhaled her last breath, leaving behind three beautiful children and a useless husband. If he was the one to die, things would have turned out better for everybody, I often heard other relatives whisper to one another. Atessa would have taken much better care of the children. There is no substitute for a good mother. They would have had fewer troubles and a happier life. 

My parents went to visit the family after Atessa was brought back home from the hospital. I was very young but I have memories of that visit. 

Atessa’s family lived in a beautiful villa on top of a sunny hill, surrounded by green meadows. I remember thinking that I would have loved to live there. But then I saw Atessa in the darkness of her deathbed, her eyes rolled back, her breathing harsh, her once beautiful face now swollen and deformed. A deep sadness came on to me, and nothing about that house seemed desirable any longer. 

My parents and Atessa’s husband, a tall, skinny man with ill-fitting clothes whom I was told to call uncle, asked me and the children to go and play outside. I guess the adults wanted to talk freely about the enormity of that tragedy and keep us from peeking into Atessa’s bedroom, although it was customary to let children go at the bedside of the dying.

I led the way as we walked down the hallway and left the house in silence. We immediately started to run toward the wildflower fields without making a sound. There was no laughter, no screaming. Our ears were filled by the high-pitched chirping of the swallows and our lungs by the fragrant spring air.

We raced all the way to the edge of the woods. I remember the three siblings refusing to go any further. They seemed scared of the dark path ahead, which looked impenetrable to sunlight. Their parents had told them not to go into the woods alone. Wild boars would occasionally come down from the surrounding mountains looking for food and could be dangerous.

I looked at the three children. There were no smiles on their pale, worried faces. They looked like little ghosts. I don’t ever remember them smiling. The death of their mom and what followed must have thrown them into a deep depression. The father was not a bad man, although he would scream and yell at them for the smallest things. He just didn’t quite know how to be of comfort to the children nor even to himself. He lived in a different world, a world of photography and filmmaking that took his attention away from the family. He was absent. The children grew up unwell, starved for affection and much-needed attention. They must have been fighting depression since young ages. The girls never recovered from the trauma. One of them, Sondra, earned a PhD in mathematics, but she never did anything with it. She never worked. She became a recluse, living in a large, old apartment back in the village left to her by her grandmother. She lived there with two dogs in total filth. Serene used to say Sondra had a hardened heart, that she was capable of loving only her dogs. But that was not true. My mom said that after Serene died, she would hardly leave the house. She would sit in the kitchen in almost total darkness and feed the dogs what she should have cooked for herself, whispering songs to them.

Serene had diabetes and needed insulin to control her blood sugar level. Her grandmother had diabetes too and had died of the complications that came with it. I remember her: a thin, small woman with fine features, long, silky white hair gathered in a bun, pale skin, and blue eyes. I remember her struggle with ingrown toenails and the painful extractions that she had to endure. The diagnosis of diabetes is a tough one to swallow, and when people are that young, like Serene was at the time of her diagnosis, when they don’t have any support and they are already struggling with deep feelings of sadness and depression, then there is no way they’ll ever win that battle. Short of a miracle, they are doomed. There were no miracles in Serene’s life and so she was doomed. 

One year, in late summer, Serene became very sick with a foot infection and ended up in the small, local hospital. My mom, who was down in the village at that time, went to visit her. Serene told her she didn’t want to live anymore. She said she was tired of it and wanted to leave. She began to refuse her medications. After discharge from the hospital, she started eating a lot of sweets and skipping the insulin injections until she stopped them altogether. Her aunt Marisa saw her before Christmas and said that Serene looked very old and emaciated. She had lost a bunch of hair and a lot of weight; her skin was gray and all wrinkles. 

Serene very well knew that stopping the insulin injections and eating sweets would have been the end of her, and she did it on purpose. It was the only way to put an end to her painful life without a clamorous gesture like jumping out of the window or overdosing on medications. It was a suicide by omission, and it was well thought out, without last-moment regrets. She killed herself slowly and could have stopped anytime, but she didn’t because she truly wanted to go. She was determined to die. Death was her way out, maybe the only thing she felt she had control over, the only way to free herself of so much pain. 

My mom said she was relieved that Serene was not among us any longer because she knew how bad her life had been, and finally now she wasn’t suffering anymore. There was truth to that, but the fact that she wasn’t suffering anymore wasn’t of much consolation to me. I thought of all the things that could and should have happened to change the course of her life, all the misery that could have been avoided or lessened, but nothing happened, and nothing could have been changed any longer. I didn’t help either. I was so far away, gone for so long. I never really had much of a relationship with any of the three cousins. I was raised in another region. Then, as I grew up, I proceeded to move from city to city, from country to country, shredding many of the already thin threads of my genealogy tree. I have realized, over time, that those children were not the only ones I had left behind and forgotten about.

I hadn’t forgotten everything, though: one episode continued to haunt me, maybe because I’ve always regretted the way I behaved. I was about seven or eight, and we were at a campsite right on the beach. My family invited the uncle and the three cousins to come and visit. Their mother was already gone. My parents gave me some money and told me to go to the bar with the children and buy them an ice cream. So we went together but when I got there, I came up with an excuse not to buy them anything because I wanted to keep the money for myself. My parents never gave me any allowance, and when I found that money in my hands, I had a hard time letting go of it. Earlier in the day I had seen a cute necklace with a starfish pendant and thought that I could have used the money to buy that instead of the ice cream. I remember us sitting at a table on the bar deck. I can still see those sad little faces and me coming up with a stupid excuse not to spend the money. I said that since we already ate cookies and chocolate and drank sparkling lemonade at the beach, the ice cream wasn’t really necessary. The moment I said that, I so very much regretted it. I knew it was wrong but went ahead with my little scheme nevertheless. I was a child, maybe too young and selfish to understand that small gestures of kindness go a long way, but shouldn’t I have bought them the biggest, most delicious ice cream there was on the menu, and hugged them and been extra kind to them, knowing how unhappy they were? 

What happened to the lives of those children? Were they ever happy? Did they ever feel loved? What is this life about, if human beings have so much trouble going through it? They say that life is not what happens to us, it’s what we make out of it, placing a lot of emphasis on our inner strength and our ability to overcome difficulties of all sorts. This statement makes the assumption that every human being should be capable of summoning that strength and coming out on top, despite the misery of their own personal circumstances and the constraints of their own genetic makeup. Granted that some people might be able to do just that, I don’t think it’s possible or realistic to expect it of everyone or to blame those who can’t. Ideally it would be wonderful to turn lemons into lemonade or, even better, into Limoncello, but this is not going to happen because, since birth, human beings have to reckon with the cards they’ve been dealt. These cards can be really challenging ones, and they come in the form of broken, dysfunctional, underprivileged families, medical disease, poverty, physical and mental challenges, abusive environments, lack of support, and unfortunate zip codes. 

Some people, fueled by faith, hope, and personal beliefs, are able to struggle through life all the way to the bitter end. Others will kill themselves. Others, like Serene, stop doing what keeps them alive, because you don’t have to put a gun to your head or in your mouth to kill yourself. You don’t have to hang yourself, or slit your wrists, or jump out of the window, or overdose on pills. You can do it like she did. Slowly, willingly, without ever looking back. Or maybe it was the looking back that made her do it because all she saw was pain and abandonment. 

Some people write letters when they decide to die. I wondered if Serene left one behind. I don’t believe she did, but her sister, Sondra, said that Serene wanted the people in her life to know that she carried no hard feelings toward them, although they might have disappointed or hurt her. Was I one of those people?

Sondra also said that Serene started talking more often about how much she wanted to see her mom again. Serene wondered if her mom was in a better place, a brighter place filled with love and peace, the things that neither one of them had on this Earth. Serene said that she felt like she didn’t belong to this world anymore; all she ever wanted was a chance to shine and be happy. Serene had searched for something that was not here, and she had no hope she could ever find it. Her life had been a heartache, and she wanted to forget it all and be free. Sondra said that Serene used to listen to a song of Macy Gray, a song about a letter, and would sing along and whisper, while looking at her, don’t be sad for me. 

Sometimes, in the twilight of my dreams, I see myself and my three cousins running again toward the woods and hesitating for a moment as we enter the dark, shaded path, smiling at each other and holding hands. 

The Elusive Taint of Perfection

The Elusive Taint of Perfection

Linda Caradine

I’ve never traveled to St. Ives but I have in fact met a man with seven wives. Isn’t that the way the riddle goes? And though this particular man had one cat, he had neither sacks nor kits. What he did have was a prodigious ego and a huge repertoire of killer stories. As he described himself, “I may not have class, but I do have style! Whoa!” 

I met Ronnie on a dating website and answered his ad because he used the word “cogent“ in his note to me. After seeing many posts with misspellings and typos, or simply with boring litanies of each man’s purported interests, I had to sit up when I saw that word. I answered Ronnie’s ad, we met for coffee and the rest was dating history. 

An avid book collector and trader, we would pore through the stacks at all the local Goodwill stores looking for volumes that he had an interest in or could resell. It was an enjoyable way to spend my afternoons after many men on the site promised sensual escapades or walks on the beach. Ronnie was different.

Ronnie was a cab driver. He took pride in his car and in being “first up” at the Hilton. Whenever I needed a ride, all I had to do was call his private number and he would appear with a big grin on his handsome face waiting to whisk me away.

He was a bigger-than-life man, secure in his corpulence. He smoked huge cigars and told the aforementioned killer stories whenever there was a momentary gap in our conversations. “Did I ever tell you about the time I treated ten teenage boys to a Yankees game?” or “Did you hear the one about how I adopted my cat Betsy from a crazy person on Craigslist?” Some might have thought Ronnie tedious and self-centered but I preferred to think he had a real zest for life.

On one evening, after we’d finished searching the shelves at our local second-hand store, Ronnie and I were relaxing at his apartment. He had put on a Coleman Hawkins recording just a little too loudly, as he was wont to do, and we vibed to the sweet sound of the sax while Ronnie shouted to be heard over Hawk. “Did I ever tell you about the time I spent as a volunteer fire fighter?,” he asked, not wanting an answer but merely using the question as a segue for his story. “I was living in Santa Barbara with my third wife – that was Gina – and I guess I decided life was too serene. I wanted to get out and save some lives so I went down and joined the fire department. Unbelievable, right?”

The story went on. The saxman went on. And I couldn’t help but smile. Here was a middle-aged man who took such glee in his own exploits that he had to share them enthusiastically and often. Here was a man, one might say, who had something to prove. The stories were entertaining but they were also sad. Ronnie was constantly needing to prove himself. I only learned this gradually and after hearing and analyzing a prodigious assortment of his exploits. All of his stories featured himself in the hero role. I didn’t know what was real and what might be purely apocryphal. To be sure, Ronnie enjoyed hearing them as much as I did. And he kept them coming.

And the thing was, Ronnie adored women. I wouldn’t have trusted him as far as I could throw him, but life with him was a spectacle. He treated me to lavish dinners and weekend trips to the coast or to the deserts of Eastern Oregon. He regaled me with stories and songs of love, with flowers and with promises made in passion but kept in friendship. Don’t get me wrong. He had a lot of issues. He was not Mr. Right. But I had fun with him and fun is often in short supply when one is a woman of a certain age looking to meet eligible men.

His living room had a massive grandfather clock that chimed every hour and half-hour and a sprawling gold-upholstered settee that made me want to lie down and eat peeled grapes (which Ronnie once accommodated). He had a state-of-the-art sound system for listening to his beloved jazz records. In time, I came to learn it was all an illusion. The furniture was rented and he scrambled each week to make the payments out of his up-and-down income as a cabbie. The dinners and the trips were done on borrowed funds. He wanted so badly to be that man of means who had the world by the tail.

Ronnie had loans out all over town and spent his off-work hours driving around repaying them in little dribs and drabs, just enough to keep his chits afloat. I know because he borrowed money from me too and paid it back in small irregular sums every day or two. When he’d finally repaid me in full, he made me call him a man of his word. This was very important to him. I got the feeling that it was a matter of some debate depending on who you talked to.

Ronnie was a tornado passing through my life and, at the time, I welcomed the stormy diversion. He was loud, emphatic and easily impressed with the creature comforts. Underneath it all, he was a sweet man who wanted to be liked. And I liked him. I guess that was the basis of our friendship.

Once, at a time when the leaves were starting to turn and the days were long, Ronnie suggested that we take an impromptu road trip to Florence, Oregon, to partake of the casino and enjoy the Fall color along the way. I packed snacks and drinks in a cooler, provided some relevant AAA maps and guidebooks, and set off to pick up Ronnie at his townhome. When I arrived there, his drapes were pulled shut and I couldn’t hear any music coming from inside so I got out of the car and knocked on the door. He answered after two or three knocks and told me he had changed his mind about the trip. He no longer wanted to go. There was no reason given, just the general impression from his uncharacteristically quiet voice and the sad look on his face that something bad had happened. He didn’t want to talk about it. I couldn’t convince him to change his mind so I got back into my car and set off alone. When I returned three days later, there were no messages from Ronnie. He hadn’t phoned or come by. I tried calling him but there was no answer, just an automatic rerouting to his voicemail. Puzzling, for sure.

I continued to try to reach him until I finally got the message after several days that he was purposefully incommunicado. The party was over. I just figured he’d met someone else and that our affair was at an end after six months or so of noise and carousing. The possibility of something being seriously wrong never crossed my mind. Ronnie was emotional and likely to end a relationship in as messy a way as he had lived it. I guess I always knew the day would come. So I moved on.

I took a writing class, adopted a dog and started seeing another man, Dennis Chang. Dennis was more sophisticated and more reserved than Ronnie. He lived his life in a careful, thought-out manner. We took a few really nice trips and went out for coffee or meals at least twice a week. With Dennis, life was orderly and dare I say it – ordinary – after the chaos that was Ronnie. There was a cultural aspect, I thought, to what was a fairly significant incompatibility between us. Just once I would have liked to see him do something spontaneous, but it never happened. As a traditionally Chinese man, he lived his life with a guarded sense of balance at play. Harmony and order were important to him in a way that I could neither understand nor embrace. Our relationship fizzled out in time, not with a bang but with a whisper. He was probably bothered by my impulsiveness and I was, quite simply, bored to tears. He was a good man but not the right man for me.

After Dennis, I tried again on and off to contact Ronnie but without success. I wondered if he’d packed up and moved away. I tried to forget about him. Still, there seemed something unfinished in our relationship, an aspect that was left dangling. One day we were fine and the next day he was gone, up in a puff of cigar smoke.

I had gone into Goodwill one day to find some travel books on the Mexican Riviera as I’d planned a cruise with a writing buddy of mine, and I glimpsed a friendly face in the stacks. I couldn’t put a name to the face but there was something familiar in the stance, the affect.

“You don’t recognize me, do you? It’s me, Ronnie.”

He had lost perhaps a hundred pounds and wore his hair long with a beard.

“I knew you were somebody I knew,” I stammered. “But you look so different than you did a year ago when I last saw you.”

“I had a heart attack,” he said. “I’ve had to change the whole way I live. No more elaborate meals. No more salt. No more cigars. I’m a real bore.”

“Are you okay now?” I sputtered, not sure what to say.

He assured me that he was okay physically, but there was something missing in the aura of joy that he’d once exuded. He was a changed man. I could see it plain as day. 

We hugged. He promised to call me, though I knew he never would.

Then it all made sense. He must have been sick when he broke off our relationship. He didn’t want to share that fact, didn’t want to be the subject of what he would have interpreted as my pity. He just went away on his own to suffer, like a wounded animal. Now he was different, chastened, and he thought the new man not worthy of my love and admiration. It was true, I did feel sorry for him. And that was the last thing he would have wanted. 

I went home saddened. 

It was at about that time that I reconnected with Dennis and drifted back into a relationship with him. If the first time had seemed distant and somehow impersonal, the second go-round was a real eye-opener. It hadn’t occurred to me that we spent all of our evenings at my place, never his. When we went by his house, it was just so he could pick up some belongings or feed his dog. I always waited in the car.

Then, on one occasion, we went by his house after work to pick up his binoculars en route to the beach. He paused and then invited me inside. I knew this represented a new stage in the relationship. He was trusting me to go into his home. 

I took a breath and followed him in. What I saw were not the accoutrements of a secret life or a messy frat house scene as I’d imagined. It was surreal. Everywhere I looked Dennis had plastic bins stacked and organized containing a wide array of belongings from paperclips to old newspapers to hamburger wrappers. There were grease-stained paper bags all neatly folded, soiled plastic dishes and utensils stacked high, rubber bands, old batteries, and empty tubes from paper towels and toilet tissue. It turned out he saved literally everything he’d ever touched, all neatly ordered and labeled. The mess was enormous, towering, and crowding in on the narrow walkways that remained throughout the house. He didn’t look at me as we made our way among the bins and piles, whether out of shame or because he needed to watch where he was going.

The fact that Dennis was a full-on hoarder took me aback. I can tolerate my share of kinks but somehow this struck me as more than neurotic. It all made me wonder what he did with the people in his life. Did he store their bodies in the crawlspace? I tried not to react too strongly. I could tell he was waiting and feeling vulnerable to my response. Surprisingly, he was able to locate the binoculars straight away and we made our way out of the claustrophobic setting and back to the car for our trip.

Nothing was ever said. He never asked me what I thought about the scene and I never ventured an opinion. It was the beginning of the end for us. We drifted apart and I saw less and less of him until he ultimately moved back to Arizona where he’d come from. 

In the meantime, I continued to think about Ronnie. 

Everyone, by a certain age, carries a lot of baggage. I include myself in this supposition. After the brief glow of youth, no one remains unblemished. Everyone is flawed, everyone is damaged. I was not going to find Mr. Right because he didn’t exist in my compromised world. I had been tearing through life looking for some type of perfection that wasn’t there. Where I should have been seeking a kindred spirit, I was searching for a straw man.

I allowed my membership in the online dating service to lapse. If I was to find a partner in life, I would find him in some more prosaic setting, perhaps groping among the avocados at the grocery store or walking his dog in an Oregon downpour. There would be no romantic epiphany. No magic. Just an ordinary meeting of two impaired souls on solid ground. Still, I liked my odds. It meant I didn’t have to feign faultlessness either. I needn’t lose those final ten pounds. I didn’t have to worry about whether my clothes or my car were good enough. I didn’t need to hide the fact that I liked cats or that I’d never really graduated from college. Instead, I was free to be myself, in all my quirky, imperfect glory. 

DORIS IMAGINES A RELATIONSHIP IN THE GROCERY STORE

DORIS IMAGINES A RELATIONSHIP IN THE GROCERY STORE

R. Nikolas Macioci

 

It is in her head to meet someone new.

In the Kroger produce department people

pause to pull plastic bags from spools.

Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale drip

with perpetual water. A lean man

in khaki cargo shorts and a green golf

shirt strolls up beside her, reaches for a

head of lettuce, smiles, says hi, and walks

away. She hangs back then follows him,

stays at the top of the cereal aisle

while he grabs Wheaties from a shelf. He

turns, sees her and smiles again. This time

she wanders past him to the other end

of the aisle and disappears around the corner.

She’s embarrassed by brazen boldness, stands

still as if examining ingredients of a potato

chip bag and asks herself what best can come

out of this situation? Her chest hurts

from being desperate, from showing too much

vulnerability. Did she veil her face

with nonchalance? Was her need visible?

He’s two lanes down from where she’s checking out.

She can see only his head over impulse items.

DORIS AT THE HOLY BIRD BAR

DORIS AT THE HOLY BIRD BAR

R. Nikolas Macioci

She’s sipping a margarita when he

sits down at the next table with his back

to her. He’s wearing gray slacks, plain

twill tweed sport coat and shirt as white

as marshmallow. Her eyes keep going

to his neck as if to study its anatomy:

muscles, ligaments, tendons, but she is

staring at visible skin and hair touching

the collar. To change focus and distract

herself she looks around at Art Deco

glass, chrome, stainless steel, shiny fabrics,

streamlined geometric forms. Everywhere

she looks leads back to his neck. The

fascination defies ordinary explanation.

She wants to touch him, but it’s more,

it’s desire magnified, sensual need at

her fingertips the object of symbolic lust.

Again she attempts to look elsewhere

at the lacquered bar, inlaid wood, mirrors,

clean lines that bring her back again to his

neck. What if he turned around? Would

she feel the same? He finishes his drink

and leaves which breaks the spell. By

herself, she still imagines stroking his

hair, feeling her hand against his neck

like a hymn to passion.

Card House

Card House

Josephine Gawtry

for 44 nights i stayed up until the sunrise: bird chorus weeping, in tito’s and tea with clover honey we hold sacred

and no amount of melatonin or cbd gummies would sedate me so: i stole Restoril from my sister’s drawer and fell blank on my bedspread. 

golden like every morning and evening. the maps started to lie, twisting the roads and Wal-marts together, got so stoned i started seeing your face behind the closet door, your wrists and ankles scarred by ropeburn

listen. the question you asked, among spring trees flowering: what made you?  i was raised in the card house, i am the forever queen of sagebrush and toothbrush. Flat white and chewed like gum.

the werewolf

the werewolf

Josephine Gawtry

it’s true that if we were in a storybook you’d be the werewolf. slouching around the kudzu on the perimeter of my yard at night, with the rabbits and groundhogs quivering in their viney coves, the deer still and wide-eyed across the old fence in the shady spruce knoll—illuminated only by distant headlights from the main road—i would look out my window and think i saw something moving out there. dismiss it as one of the mountain creatures, a fox, a black bear;

in the long farm grass we walk in springtime. ticks tickle our hairy girl legs. we find a stream with a sitting stump and a climbing tree and a bushel of wineberries. we stain our cut-up, nettle-stung hands purple and red, place the berries on each fingertip and suck them off, giggling. on our walk back we fiddle with sweetgrass and tuck eachother in our palms. i bring home wild onions and my dad puts them in the salad.

its winter and we wear jackets and go to the bakery. i choose an elephant ear and my dad asks why they are getting more expensive. looking outside at the freeway, i pant mist onto the window, spelling my name with the J backwards in fingersmudge. we go back to the house we can’t afford (the recession just happened) and my mom yells at me, in the harmless way that i am used to. i have my own room now and change my own clothes, still hesitantly. 

in summertime, i see the werewolf again. at the edge of the neighborhood, where the new houses are being built—among the concrete shells and loose nails, he stalks, blue eyes studying me. he is a mixture of tenderness, confusion, seduction. my dad calls from behind me, tossing a ball with my little brother, and i turn away, running back home. the sun will go down soon, and mom wants me back.

after my dad and i watch the fall thunderstorm on the equinox, i go to the new school with real snacks (not ice cubes) and a plastic playground painted all different colors. i am perpetually in trouble and when i am, my mom comes in sweating from the gym and grabs me by the wrist. i lie about being sick and read my chapter books so fast that i hate them for being so short. scholastic book fairs and swinging outside eat me alive, and my blood is so red and juicy i drink with them, gleefully smiling, my mouth full of baby teeth.

it’s true that if we were in a storybook you’d be the werewolf. i would walk out in the woods alone, sidestepping the boulders by the stream, my skinny child arms pushing mountain laurel branches aside and seeing you in the unfinished lot. i would run to you and feel your bristled mammal hair on my cheek. i’d bite off the honeysuckle tip and kiss your wolf mouth so you could taste the sweetness.

AVATAR OF GRIEF

AVATAR OF GRIEF

Stacey Meadows

Early in our relationship, Christoph and I took a short winter vacation to Negril, Jamaica. We found a promotional deal at a resort that was right on the beach, although still under construction. Outside our door the endless white sand beckoned, bordered by the aqua waters of the Caribbean Sea. We bounced along the beach to reggae music blaring from the outdoor bars, stopping for an occasional rum punch or Piña Colada. Aromas of meat pies mingled with the skunky scent of ganga. I fingered colorful strands of beaded seashells and batik wraps sold by vendors along the shore. A trio stopped by our beach blanket to perform a harmonious rendition of “Under the Boardwalk” on a beat-up guitar, cracked stand-up bass and percussion egg shakers, all of which looked like they had recently washed up on shore. We loved the band’s spirit and beckoned them to our blanket every day. We immersed ourselves in waves of turquoise sea, reggae music, ganga and love.

On one of our beach walks, we noticed a small shack with carved wooden figures arrayed in the storefront window. The door was open, so we wandered in. The art gallery was filled from floor to ceiling with primitive-looking wood carvings of animals and human figures bearing enigmatic expressions. With his discerning sculptor’s eye, Christoph selected three carvings from among the assemblage: a long-eared rabbit poised to leap; a Black angel in a light brown robe, with a cap of white hair and body-length wings emerging from his scapulae, and a tall, lean woman, looking forlorn, her hands tucked into the pockets of her knee-length black skirt. She had sad, dark eyes, and lips pressed together, the corners of her mouth turned down. She was a human representation of sorrow, an avatar of grief. I placed her on my dresser, unaware that she was a portent of what I would someday become.

When Jonah died, I made no attempt to deny, become angry or bargain over his death. I was raw, but not depressed. I simply accepted it, bypassing the other four predicted stages of grief. Jonah’s death left me with a new, indelible identity––I now belonged the vast human tribe of mourners. When I considered how I appeared to others, the words of Psalm 40 came to mind: “Here I am. I have come with the scroll of the book that is written upon me.” The story of loss had become the story of my life. With inconsolable sorrow permanently etched on my face, I recognized my affinity with the Jamaican carving that had stood on my dresser for so many years.

Some who had witnessed my path over the years told me that I was an inspiration. Steeped in heartbreak, I found this confusing. It seemed like such an odd choice of words. What could I inspire others to do? What encouragement could I possibly give them? I wondered what others saw as I stumbled along. Like other mourners, I hungered for role models to show me how to carry on without being crushed by overpowering loss. I never found any. I saw this as the unfortunate consequence of our culture’s refusal to accept death as an inextricable part of life. Although death was inevitable, people invariably seemed stunned by its untimely arrival. It shifted our interior and exterior landscapes in ways that we had never anticipated. We hadn’t been prepared to be so fundamentally altered. Like other mourners, I persevered with the essential tasks of daily life as I bore the staggering weight of mortality. When the time came, we all learned how to do this. We moved forward, always slightly out of step in a world where time moved along too quickly, and where others were still inexplicably concerned with trivial pursuits like accolades and possessions. All that mattered was time with those whom we loved and would someday lose.

Sometimes I felt as if I were reduced to a personification of my loss. I didn’t understand that my forthright acceptance of my child’s death had transformed me into an unwitting role model for how to bear a grief which was, by all accounts, unbearable. As others sought me out, I recognized that I had the capacity to stand with other mourners in a way that many were unwilling or unable to do. I was drawn to the wounds of loss, which I saw all around me, like stigmata. I felt called to bear witness to the suffering of those who were burdened with illness and grief. I wanted to help them find a way to heal. I recognized a new purpose in the role that had been thrust upon me. Demonstrating the strength to embrace my sorrow, I had become a broken-hearted warrior, one who could carry the grief of others.

I recently paid a shiva call to a friend who lost her husband after a valiant four-year battle with colon cancer. As soon as she saw me enter her living room, she burst out in tears. I sat down beside her on the couch and held her as she sobbed into my shoulder. When she lifted her tear-stained face to me, it was my grief that she addressed, rather than her own.

“I lost my husband, but you lost your son,” she cried.

I stroked her hair. Yes, I lost my son. My grief would forever be a benchmark against which other grief would be measured. Watching me bear my grief over the loss of my son, she knew that she would bear her own. My life had taken on an unforeseen but ineluctable purpose: I had become a living, breathing Avatar of Grief.

The Bard of Frogtown

The Bard of Frogtown

Allison Whittenberg

Like most writers I am full of shit. 

Sometimes I look at the piles and piles of half started 

prose and think, “Got a match?”

And then, I think, I’ll write a poem. Poems save paper.

So all of a sudden I am a poet.  Yet, I still have 

nothing to say.

Write, writer, write!  Goddamn it, write you fucking 

idiot.  Asshole, hole in the ass.  Craphead.  Son of a 

bitch!

Hey!

What?

Don’t get personal.

By the way, my real father, yes, the one I have never 

seen in my life, is a goddamn poet.  My mother still gets an 

occasional sestina through the mail from his as yet to be 

published chapbook entitled, The Part of Me that No One 

Knows.

Tell me about it.

Yet as a poet, I just don’t feel like I am any good.  

When I was younger I used to read my stuff with a sense of 

accomplishment.  Now I just cringe.  After work I come home 

and try to get busy on something gold and it turns on 

trite, banal, and unkempt.

Children are natural artists then they get old and 

they dry up.  I am 19 now.  And as I keep saying I have 

nothing to say.

I’ve lived with Debra for the past four years. 

When I left home it was like a funeral except no one 

had died.  I was so sad.  I cried once I hit the main drag.  

Big tears, buckets of them.

I was fifteen, when Debra and I found our own place.  

We moved from a little town to a big city. From West to 

East while still staying North.  We live in rough and 

tumble Frogtown.   In Frogtown, us people sell crafts, they 

line the drags with their handufactured baskets, pottery, 

metal works, and textiles.

She is a little bit older than me and helped me out a 

great deal.  Not just with the security deposit but she 

listen to me hash out about my childhood.  Long nights we 

spent therapeutically bottle and blunt passing till I got 

it all out, the words.  I realized now that not only do I 

hate my stepfather, but I also resent my younger brother, 

and that my mother is a continual source of frustration.

With all that memesized and catharsis size, I should 

crack open like an egg.  I should have plenty to write 

about.  I should look at a blank piece of paper and fill 

it.

I wash airplanes for a living.  

Somebody has to.

I wake up at five in the AM and go down to the airport 

and scrub the thick plastic windows with a long handled 

brush.  I have always loved planes, always dreamed of 

floating above things.  Tempting God with man made angel 

wings.

When I got home this afternoon, Debra was in broken-in 

jeans, a teal tee shirt and the familiar fawn colored 

leather jacket. She wears all of this indoors because we 

have limited heat.  Sometimes the walls get frost-covered 

Still, Debra is a diligent writer.  She does songs.  I walk 

in an she is holding the guitar pick between her teeth as 

She scribbles notes on a page.  She flicks her head back an 

winks at me.  She is a winker.  Always winking, an I think 

just who in the hell wears the pants in this relationship.

She does.

Debra loves bits of clutter: Books and papers and 

hankies that she blew her nose on.  I can’t stand it.  

Often I just want to tidy up but dare I take liberties with 

her, her, her — well, I suppose genius is as good a word 

as any.

But perhaps it’s still not the right one.

A few months ago, Debra sold one of her songs to a big 

deal Cosmopolitan company. She got 500 dollars outright. We 

had steak for a week.  That’s the problem with being a Zoe 

and dealing with the Cosmos everything you sell is sold 

outright and haven’t us Blacks have given enough away.  

They have stolen our land, our women, now our music.

The name of the song was, “A White Sleeve of 

Moonlight.”  And when Debra sang it felt Black.  It was 

textual and lilting yet bodacious as cowboys.  She used 

steel strings instead of the Cosmopolitan twinkling of a 

piano.  I heard the Cosmo version on the radio and I almost 

kept passing the dial.  It was a totally different song, 

and a corny one at that.

Oh Debra…  She was the sanctuary from my problems I 

forgot she had so many of her own.  She was like an regular 

Zoe with a family tree that tangled at the root.  I could 

never get it straight but I knew she was the half sister of 

the dead Rice Street Man.  The Rice Street Man that my 

brother, Jak, was so enamored with.  The Rice Street Man 

that smelled worse than his dog.  And as if that weren’t 

bad enough, quite a few of Debra’s short on dollars, long 

in the tooth relatives used to stay over temporarily for 

months and months.  And poor little Deb was treated like 

she was invisible.  She was forced into disappearing to 

create a room.  

She used to have to give up her bedroom and sleep on 

the couch. It was then that she learned to play that funky 

old guitar that she’d found in a dumpster.  At night while 

all the live-ins where raising Hell she’d mouth the words, 

practice fingering, playing without sound. Just another 

blond haired girl, in a country that over flowed with 

them.   

So unprettied up, you could take her for granted.  I 

have never seen her in a dress but then again she’s never 

seen me in one either.  I like to use her life in my 

writing even more than I like to use my life in my writing.

Writers are the worst type of people God ever put on 

this earth.  They note the way the dirt falls on a casket 

of a dear friend because they know they can use it later.  

It is always my writing, my writing, my writing.  The whole 

fucking world revolves around my writing.

I want to write a poem.

Lovers make the worst critics, so why do I always ask 

my Debra?

I show her my words few and she says, “I don’t know it 

sort of sticks in my throat.”

I snatches the paper back from her and tell her that 

she was supposed to fucking read it not fucking eat it. 

She laughs at me.  She laughs at me.  She throws her 

lovable head back and laughs at me.

I read my work aloud:

Salt without bread.

Thorns on a cactus.

Buddy Holly, I miss you. 

Why didn’t you go Greyhound?

I smile, puffing my chest out.  Sure, it needs some 

revision but its not all bad.  The images are clear and 

concrete.  The sound and rhythm may need some spit and 

polish.

All right, it sucks.

It bites the big wiener.

But at least it has punctuation and it does not employ 

the lowercase “i”.

I want to be Langston Hughes.

Enough of these meditations.  These scream fests on 

the mysteries of freedom, love, and hate.

I want to be remembered.

I know I am not a great writer I am only a great re 

writer.  Half the time there is nothing pithy in the first 

draft.  Half the time I don’t know where its going its all 

improved.  I don’t have a style or tone that I wish to 

effect.  I feel like screaming at myself where is my theme? 

Where is my message?  Why am writing this poem in the first 

place.

I will switch back to prose.

Inside every fiction writer there is a failed poet.

Metaphors, like my heart is dry like a big red 

balloon, are inflated but then I think all right so where 

where do I go from there?

I break for supper.  Debra fixed homemade pizza pie 

with marmot meat and shrooms as topping.  I down a few 

pizza slices and drop the crust. She’s not a bad cook, but 

I’m a little better, I measure, I do not gestamate so much.  

She has a great smile, nothing but teeth.  Big teeth and 

squinchy eyes. I enjoy this time a couple of low rent 

artists eating pizza off a white plate with blue trim.  She 

asks me about the planes and I tell her quite recently they 

had entrusted me with an unbelievable amount of keys.

“How many is too many to believe?”

“37.”

“Unbelievable,” she winks at me. “Now don’t fly off 

with the place.”

I stand and she makes a grab for my butt, smiling, “ 

Off to do more writing?”  she asked.

“That’s a good question,” I answer.

After our meal she washes the dishes and I take my 

compositions to the bedroom.  

In this next expanse of time, I had done everything to 

write.  I drew a bath, drank some murk, splashed cold water 

in my ears, danced the bop, the bump, the butterfly, the 

electric slide, the four corners, the icky shuffle, the 

mashed potato, the shingling, the worm.  I felt refreshed, 

but still no words.

So I light up and dream, I was make love to Debra only 

she has thick black hair and the wind blows and exposed her 

blond roots.  Her eyeliner ran down her cheeks like fast 

graffiti.  Those long full breasts had shrunk to teacups.

I dream of white food as symbolism. Rice pudding and 

glazed doughnuts.

SPACE.  Time and space.  Time sitting, smoking in the 

numb silence, watching the snow, as if it were doing 

something wild, like disappearing instead of the same old 

same old.  I press my face against the pane and gaze at the 

wide, white city below.  

Winter.  Heavy snowstorms at the floodgates bringing 

up a whirlpool of memories.  Snowing as marvelous as sugar 

— pink and white candy coated Christmas.

Debra, her bland blue eyes told of a fairy tale of 

cabbage and rye toast.  Toy soldiers.  Debra vouting a 

rendition of “White Christmas”.   I start singing along 

real low and soft you’d have to read my kisser to tell.  

Wilting.

The soundtrack mixes over and over.

“Are you gonna share or is a contact high all that I 

can hope for?” is the question that wakes me.  

Debra stands by the doorway, 25 years old, and wasting 

her time on me.  I’m just an adult child still so full of 

dream.  Unable to achieve any synthesis.

I roll a herb her way.

Sometimes it’s better not to force it I think as my 

ram road is in her and I’m frictioning her.  Sometimes it’s 

better to distill in the hope of further cross 

fertilization.

I do have a beginning of something:

Snow like sweat 

or smoke, like mercury,

rising above itself 

in a cloud.

The Curious Life and Time Of 

The Curious Life and Time Of 

Kenneth Kesner

Just inside our school there stand two black lions flanking the entrance.  Every one of good character is moved by their courage and their compassion.  These are the desks where Headmaster and Head Teacher had spent so many years and left just as they were when they left.  First it was Father a day after seeing the six grandkids at his birthday party, then Mother, maybe a few minutes later, so happily of a broken heart.  It’s said that, even during typhoons, none of their papers rustles.

As a young man, Father fell in love with the sea.  He travelled in a sampan to Butte, Montana, USA, where he met Mother when she was working in a salmon hatchery.  She had been vacationing during a regime change in China, and simply ran out of money to return home.  Or maybe the currency was devalued.  Either way, they sailed Pacific currents where Older Sister joined them, somewhere off the coast of Saipan.  I came along some years before landfall on the Pearl River Delta, where we stayed until we left.  

Almost every day we’d wade ashore, help with village chores then lunch then return to our home.  Late afternoons would see a number of visitors visit us, always bringing just enough food to content everyone.  In return Father would weave stories of history and magic whilst Mother would sketch something even more mysterious.      

Soon a school was to be built, so Father and Mother contributed by crafting teak furniture from our boat until there was nothing left.  We moved into the city where the villagers now lived, a few blocks from our school.  Somehow all the villagers found work inside or outside—teaching or gardening or both.

The day of her final Spring field trip was the only time I saw Older Sister at school.    It was just after her twentieth birthday.  She was in a field.  You see, we visited a field that day.  So many younger students flocked to her.  She’d begin a story and each kid would in turn add something until the story was complete.  After a number of stories, they shared lunch boxes until time to board the school buses and return home. 

Older Sister wasn’t really aware of herself until the day Max dropped in.  Max left Brooklyn after some involvement with various rackets—or syndicates, as he preferred.  He went underground—first as a subway maintenance-man then as a water-technician, both based in Manhattan.  “From rackets to ratchets,” he sometimes used to say.  Max reached Hong Kong in the mid-sixties, and immediately found a niche in the plumbing trade, servicing the many low- to mid-income housing projects that sprung up as the economy began to take flight.  Ours is one of them.  

The only absence Older Sister had during her school years happened in her Upper Sixth Form.  Max was making his rounds in the concrete boxes of our building when she stepped from the shower to discover him arriving to check the pipes.  

“EXCUSE ME.  Can’t you see I’m …?”

“Lady, either that or you have the strangest taste in clothing.”

Max eventually began plying his trade in the Kowloon financial district, where he did quite well even though some people began to confuse him with Marx.  Some traders were heard to say they were on the phone with Marx.  Ripples or great waves on the financial markets ensued.  Good old Max.  

John and his siblings were expected to study earnestly and work diligently—then everything else would fall into place just like luck.  His grandfather and his grandfather reasoned, “You learn the streets, the eddies of society, you learn a good business.”  

As a teenager, John worked as a message runner in the financial districts, moving from one securities firm to another, securely relaying nuances from one executive to another.  After college abroad, he deservedly joined the family business as a custodian to learn all the offices and the coworkers—their habits and their characters.  In time John showed promise brokering deals between brokers and so earned an office position, always making certain to welcome new employees on their first day.

Older Sister never studied much but mastered the vocals of most current Janis Joplin songs.  Instead of writing answers to her assignments, she’d draw something that incorporated something from each of the subjects.  The family agreed that Older Sister should pursue a clerical career, which she began in a business soon after graduation.  She was to live at home until she married.  

As you know, all companies require 4 documents of new graduates:  attendance records, marks and IQ test results—no exceptions.  One Thursday morning our school clerk approached Father to let him know of a firm’s request, which delighted him since Older Sister was showing initiative.  She also informed that IQ results were nowhere to be seen so Father stepped next door to ask Mother.  She shrugged and asked the same to Father, who shrugged.  Older Sister had been absent the day her Form tested so she would have to report to the Education Ministry and undergo the ordeal—this time escorted by Father and Mother.  They remained perched in their seats until the administrator returned and announced that, with scores ranging over 170, they couldn’t be accurately pinpointed.  Father and Mother refused to believe this, had her sit for another, then surrendered when the same results were announced.

“Because, if you had known, you’d have made me study even more.”

John and Older Sister met, fell in love, married and raised 3 beautiful children by early afternoon.  It’s just as well—in late afternoon near tea time, 2 raven-haired lawyers—one in red qipao, one in gold aodai—and their stenographer landed in the corporate conference room for the final meeting to complete the hostile takeover.  Older Sister was asked to take notes, which she did using brush and ink.  

After reading over their documents, she asked the kill team, “Just one question: ‘How did you?’” 

Now the qipao and aodai were on the floor, and the two phoned in resignations, agreeing to work with Lark Securities in any capacity available to them.  You can still see both pushing tea carts through the corridors of the building or fetching boxed lunches from the corner restaurant.

The corner restaurant isn’t a restaurant, though.  Mr and Mrs Lim had closed it years before.  They would usher lost patrons through the maze of dining room tables, past the kitchen, through the pantry to the lane behind, where Son and Daughter-in-Law have their own.  This way they could have tea and share the newspaper, reading together one page at a time, squabble about reported events—how one was more confused than the other—until they left to bring the grandkids back from school.  One Sunday morning one of the grandkids noticed Grandfather was reading from left to right and Grandmother from right to left.  They decided to reopen the restaurant.  

With the wedding dinner approaching, the elderly couple happily wrote John and Older Sister:

“For the wedding party, we’ll prepare a meal somewhere between feast and famine, and neither fish nor fowl, but both!  First we offer Celestial Roasted Albino Duck.  As you will see, each has only one wing so that it flies in circles to Heaven then back to Earth.  Next a seasonal favorite of the Emperors:  steamed Manchurian whitefish in freshest ice and snow.  Finally a dessert of Pearl River Pearl—to remain a secret to some until wedding day.”

John left it up to Older Sister, who left it up to the parents and grandparents, who left it up to the siblings.  

During dessert, Mother-in-Law uncovered her bowl to remove and string a pearl on a gold thread, and such was continued by everyone around the table until it reached Mother-in-Law, who knotted the thread securely and handed the necklace to John, who placed the family’s gift around Older Sister’s neck.  John and Older Sister spent their honeymoon watching the moon rise as they walked to their new home.

It’s said that the Northwest wind arrives carrying good and bad fortunes so we learn:  Wait to see how things change.  Three of Father’s and Mother’s former students dropped in on us one evening bearing delicious snacks and sad tidings.  There was talk in the Education Ministry that a certain Madame Xi was appointed by the Northern government to investigate the credentials of every Hong Kong administrator and teacher.  The Pekinese had fished around and detected that files containing Headmaster’s and Head Teacher’s diplomas and certificates were missing.

“Simple enough, dear students, we don’t have any.  We began as gardeners and remain so today.  Our salary receipts demonstrate such.  As you know, we ask each student on the final day to write just one statement—the most valuable lesson they’ve learnt that year.  We summon each one, one by one, and ask whether they will always live according to that lesson.  They nod then they pass.  Simple as that.”

Mother kept knitting, though her position moved from the sofa to a corner where ceiling and walls joined.  She stayed there knitting away, spinning a most exquisite web of revenge.  Tomorrow morning, the city would know of it, and everyone would gladly participate.

Madame Xi had the habit of stamping her tiny feet and waving her pudgy fist then almost yelping when flustered.  You could see this about to happen when she marched into Headmaster’s office and demanded to interrogate the Head Master, who wasn’t in his office.  She stormed into Head Teacher’s office, where Mother sat chatting with a gentleman of about the same age.  

“Where is this Headmaster?  I want to see him right now.”

“Simply take the stairwell to the 3rd level, walk down the East wing, then one flight down, past the library, one more flight down.”

The inquisitive visitor did so, and so arrived again at Head Teacher’s office, where the couple looked up and offered so many different sets of directions, all with the same result.  

“You haven’t seen the last of me.”

An exhausted Madame Xi returned to the boarding house to phone the Northern government.  Before trying the key, her room door was opened by a well-attired mockingbird couple holding their nestlings.

“So good of you to drop in … you see, we’re feeling a bit peckish.”  

All the landlords and merchants would, one and all, shoe Madame Xi away with a sweep of the wing—no one would lease or sell anything to her.  Sometime later, what remained of her was whisked away by the wind to Hong Kong Bay, where she was gobbled up by a vacationing salmon.  Poor old Madame Xi.

Do you remember those lions?  Hong Kong attended their funeral, as did the Mayor of Butte, the Governor of Saipan and a representative of the Northern government amongst so many others from far away.  The school day following, the new Headmaster and Head Teacher quietly announced that Dad and Mom wanted everyone to enjoy their lunches outdoors today and to forget about anything troubling anyone, whatever it might be.  A few hours after we all finished eating, a windless, light rain began to fall and moved everyone slowly indoors.  It seems Celestial Heaven hadn’t heard the announcement. 

AD CRUMENAM

AD CRUMENAM 

Mark C. Hull

EVERYONE AGREED WITHOUT a word that, because the man was well-tailored and missing an arm, he knew what he was talking about. 

“Bull sharks don’t just attack,” he announced. “They go through a process. If they’re interested in eating something they’ll give it a bump first. Sharks are some of the smartest creatures on the planet, I’ll have you know.” 

Yes, he was right, we all decided, because his right arm was conspicuously missing from his torso and his jacket had been tailored to accommodate the disability. His plaid sport coat and the dead-end sleeve hemmed into the side of it with such careful consideration implied a man whose wealth was vast and whose wisdom was well-earned through the painful ordeal of limb severance. He must’ve lost it on a scuba expedition to Roatan, perhaps, or while studying the migratory habits of White Tips in the Bahamian Sea. Doing something noble right before it was rent from him, most assuredly, although decorum prevented anyone from posing the question outright of how he lost the arm. It was obvious the man was wealthy and it’s unwise to insult the wealthy for fear of the consequences that money can levy when a wealthy man senses offense like a shark senses blood in the water. 

There were about ten of us, all strangers to one another for the most part, being ferried up to the top of the mountain in a glass gondola. We coasted high above the Rockies in the salubrious air with the plicated forest floor far below. It was a rich and rarefied environment and we were atop the world, literally and figuratively and every other way. There was a lookout restaurant at the top, and we were going to an afternoon cocktail party. 

It was because of me that the subject of sharks had come up in the first place. I’d been humming the lyrics to Mack the Knife, specifically the part about the shark with its pretty teeth. It was a random snippet, part of this scattered jukebox in my head that will play no more than ten seconds of any given song, repeat it four or five times, then shut off as abruptly as it started.  

I’d given voice to the fragment, and in no time the lecture commenced about the feeding habits of sharks from the one-armed sage who’d probably sacrificed his arm rescuing a child from being devoured after the kid had received the ominous bump from the sea predator to appraise the level of edibility.  

I wondered what would’ve happened if I’d absently sung the lyrics to Summer Wind? Would the man have started a lecture on the meteorological consequences of the prevailing westerly air currents during perihelion? Most likely, because when a person has that much money they know a lot about a lot of things because they can buy all sorts of exposure.  

Well, hell, it’s time for a confession. I’m lying, and I hate that it’s even come to this. There were ten of us, that much is true, except we weren’t on an airy gondola headed to the top of a windswept mountain. Instead we were seated on a city bus, trudging along the expressway in bumper-to-bumper traffic with nary a mountaintop in sight but plenty of dirty rooftops and angry drivers honking their horns at nothing and everything. 

It was summertime, the air was sticky with the kind of heat that radicalizes folks and the bus’s air-conditioning system was only partially working. I should be forgiven for my momentary reverie of being in the mountains and airlifted to a cocktail party as a reflexive coping mechanism. I was headed to a job I hated. 

There is a vein of truth woven through every fib, though. The man with one arm had boarded the bus and seated himself close to me, a bit too close considering the bus was mostly empty. There’s an unspoken rule of city-bus entropy which states that travelers will position themselves as far from strangers as possible and only converge as the seating area gets more crowded. It serves as a warning, like a shark bump, when a rider violates the rather Newtonian law of public transportation and prematurely plops down too close to another passenger. 

I could tell he had one arm from the way one sleeve of his shirt had been sliced off at the elbow with a pair of dull scissors and then cinched with a rubber band. His one hand had been carrying a tote bag filled with dry sponges. He tried to sell me ten of them for five dollars. 

I had been singing Mack the Knife, because no lie is without its adornments of factuality, to which the one-armed solicitor, in a rather unsolicited manner, told me, “Ten drops of blood in the water and a shark can smell it and track it from a half of a mile away.” 

I gave him a look that suggested just because I happened to be singing a song didn’t mean I’d signed up for a lecture. The man was probably full of shit anyway with his shark trivia—just a couch potato watching ocean documentaries, collecting sponges and awarding himself an honorary doctorate in marine biology. 

“Sharks are incredibly smart,” he said, which made sense for him to want me to think that, because if his arm had been severed in the murky water of some public beach by a bull shark he would want it to be a smart bull shark because there’s nothing worse than being maimed by a dumb one. There’s no dignity in losing a limb to, say, a three-toed sloth. 

“Yup, damn sloth just lazily crept out of the tree and attacked. I should’ve known he was coming for me, because it took like fifteen minutes for him to reach me from seven feet away and another three minutes for him to pluck my arm off like a grape and stuff it in his fool mouth. I tell you, that was the smartest dumb three-toed sloth I’d ever seen.” 

I wondered if I’d been absently singing the song Summer Wind would the one-armed sponge salesman have told me about the time he farted in August? I’m sure he’s an expert on that subject, too.

In every situation, be it gondola, half-broke bus or otherwise, there’s a moment of reckoning, and I suppose it’s now time for such a squaring of accounts. I wasn’t riding public transportation, and I certainly wasn’t in a glorious mountaintop sky tram, although either of those two scenarios would’ve been preferable to the one I was actually in, which was a crowded room where we sat, all ten of us, waiting to be called in for our monthly meeting with our respective parole officers.

I wouldn’t blame a single soul for not believing me at this point. I’m a liar and a cheat and a conman, made official by our modern court system. I’m on my way to rehabilitation but obviously not quite there yet and I will say that the best at the art of deception are those who can wield these fictions from some firm foundation of truth. 

The man only had one arm, sure enough, although I hadn’t noticed it at first because in this place everybody ought to mind their own business. He’d sat next to me in the last empty seat. He had a bit of a pong about him too, a creeping odor that I thought it best not to turn toward for fear that it would only get worse if my nose had been oriented in his direction. I was humming Mack the Knife, and he started humming along with me and that’s when I glanced over and saw his severed arm because it was hanging out of his tee shirt sleeve with the skin at the bottom sewn up like the butt of a sausage.

“A shark can actually smell muscular movement in its prey,” he told me. 

I gave a polite nod even though I’d be damned if I was going to believe a deranged lunatic who’d probably lost the shank of his limb in a robbery gone bad. Armed robbery? Not anymore. I was sure that the only sharks he was familiar with were the ones in the alleyways, dressed in full leather, throwing dice against the wall and talking double-fast about a real easy score, because they’re all easy until they turn out to be a setup. In this place everyone is scamming everyone else, and if they start fast-talking in some sub rosa street code it’s because they want to pull a guy in, see what they can get from him. They’re the sharks and this is the bump right before the attack, and how the hell can anything smell movement and so he was a straight lying grifter who probably wanted to recruit me because I had twice the amount of arms that he had.

If I’d been singing Summer Wind would he have told me about that time he was stealing automobiles in August with the windows rolled down doing a hundred miles an hour with the pedal to the floor? After that he would suggest we partner up for a few scores because since the doberman took his arm off he’s been unable to steal anything with a stick shift and that’s where the real money is because sports cars tend to have standard transmissions. He’d suggest we go fifty-fifty because he had the connections and I had the arms, and so how about it? 

“Bull sharks don’t just attack,” he said. “They go through a process. If they’re interested in eating something they’ll give it a bump first. Sharks are some of the smartest creatures on the planet, I’ll have you know.” 

“Lying-ass convict,” somebody muttered.

The Pandemic Under my Hot Tropical Sun

The Pandemic Under my Hot Tropical Sun 

Fariel Shafee

Note: This piece is inspired by the writer’s Covid experience in Bangladesh.  However, much artistic license has been used.  The piece should not be construed as perfect reportage or as a means to harm anyone’s reputation as the characters have been somewhat changed, and much of the views are coloured by her own experience.

Has Covid made us more human?  Do the piles of bodies stacked in morgues and the numbers proclaiming nameless deaths added from peak to peak make us crave for love and hence forgive?  We cannot come together, hug.   We sit and we think.  We get tired.  We question, shout.  Then we take pills.  Those pills inundate our heads with tailored small molecules that clog the nerves, soothe us, make us forget.  But can we?

Has nature, instead, then inserted itself inside our biological urge to survive in a vengeful sprinkle of inanimate bits that suddenly turn alive and eat us from the inner lines that separate our sovereign identities, force us into coughing out all the hatred – something akin to what we, together as a species, had perhaps been spreading with numb, dissociated pride into the keys, knobs and springs that connect us to our souls – the larger animus of existence?

Outside, I hear a female voice throwing expletives:  This epidemic will eat you all.  All of you I say.  Hey doctor! Upstairs there. Where did you hide?  Come out.  My father is dead.  You all will die.

I look out from my window.  A lady in her early thirties peeks out from a neighboring verandah.  She is well dressed and looks healthy.  They had moved in a few days back.  The houses are mostly empty these days – to-let signs hanging hopelessly from large mansions and once cluttered messes that accommodated the working class alike.  Some cannot pay.  Others preferred to move away from the city to be close to their beloved ones in case death beckoned.

This house still has the apartments to be sold lying empty – like ghostly opulence surrounded by neatly cut shrubs and fairy tale garden-lights sparkling at night.  The builders made a mansion for the mites.  The flats belonging to the owners have been let out.  Perhaps the girl that came out is related to an owner.  She tries to understand the neighborhood – the large ambulance with the flickering light and the scream – the havocs of Covid. 

This curious lady’s own flat had not been quiet from the day they had moved in either.  I had often pretended that I was not trying to locate the voices.  This part of the town was posh, having been handed out to the white-collar successes in a planned manner.  But the accent was rustic, unrestrained.  The woman was shouting. She was not a whore but a wise woman was the claim.  She also did not realize how love had waned with time.  Once upon a time a maid like the one in question would not have raised her voice.  But the beggars too do not care about the location now.  They are not starving, but Covid had brought in a dimension one simply cannot ignore.  The disease seems to empower them.   A fear crawls in to the bones of the rich.  The man from the slum screams.  She wants a new dress for her daughter who just landed in the station.  On the other hand, the pregnant maid wants her rights.  She is NOT having an abortion, I reckon.  Not so easily these days. 

Outside, the ambulance light is still flashing.  The dead body will not be allowed in.  The doctor upstairs too is silent.  He does not face up to the very serious accusations.  Perhaps it is not fear but simple reluctance.   No, he shall not come down to see the dead.  He had asked the girl to take him to the hospital, asserting that the disease was Covid.  The girl had requested him to put on a PPE and then come down, to ascertain the damning news.  He did not.  For days, the girl sat by the window and dropped money to the beggars.  With time, only more beggars came.  From early in the morning, they would begin to chant.  She would give out hefty sums – bills no other would drop from their windows.  The beggars would bring in their friends next.  The girl would rush down to hand in mosquito nets, old clothes.

 The story was finally out.  We knew of all the details over the phone.  When all patience was strained, the doctor in the fifth floor and the building association had dragged the Covid patient to the hospital.  The plasma had made him better for a day.  There was joy for a while. “He is better.”  “Thank heavens.” 

That respite was though short. Finally, he had succumbed to an age-old ailment that had remained suppressed until the new disease havocked his last defense. Was it covid of was it the heart?

I do not know how I feel for that girl.  She wishes death for others.  As she was paying the beggars most mercifully, she was also spending her evenings wishing others ill on facebook using thinly vailed synonyms, codes that did not confuse.  One would be excused to wonder if she thought of herself as a princess and the rest mentioned as the devil or as dispensable dead cows as targets for her publicly expressed brilliantly dressed up schemes.  “The royalty has common blood now,” she had exclaimed, “and that is me!”   There were also comments about how amazing her relationships were sent with love from Romania.   

Her mother did not let us know of the husband’s illness.  She had asked the neighbor to hide it.  When we had found it out from facebook we had thought of calling him up, to wish him well, but then we did not.

I felt nothing about the death, but my mother shrieked.  The news was on the TV.  It was one of many pictures displayed tagged with names and occupation.  To me it was yet another death.  To my mother, it was a man she knew, and even if not all the past was smooth, it was a character that was part of her mature existence, which now looked back with a gaping hole.

The dead body lying surrounded by one-way arrows of words chosen indiscriminately to hurt others was cold inside a bag, but the bugs we had not seen before had paid a visit to our flat two stories above-head.  The flies were large, monstrous.  They had gathered in a cluster right behind the curtains.  They sat quietly and they stared as though they had escaped from yet another world.  We got newspapers, a swatter, killed them one by one, as though we were trying to shrink down the portal that had opened up by the act of an irritable child, now to suck us all back in.

I was apathetic to the words that wished to drag down the world with one dead man.  I let the days roll by as I sat in my room and passed MOOCS.  I read about maggots in dead bodies in my forensic class, and from time to time I went to that filthy mouthed girl’s facebook page.   I did not know whether it was to forget her pain, but she was listening to film music now.  She had posted a picture of her father’s burial.  Now she was attacking the journalist who should have published a better photo (and I agree).  I felt sorry that day, but I did not ring, or even leave a note. I kept the sorrow to myself and I went back to my MOOC.

Then one day she posted a confession: that she had been blackmailed into facebook, to victimize others in hope of gaining.  Afterwards, she was back, ridding the world of the devils.  None was spared.  We were all to perish with the world perhaps.  Did she wish it all for herself?  Would the beggars stay?

I had felt sadder for the doctor who owned a flat upstairs.  We had a tiff.  “He did not come to me first,” he had said when our father had a stroke and withered slowly.  They had issues.  But I remembered him in our home. My mother was seated on the sofa and he was comforting: “You will get well soon, madam.  Not much to be worried of.”  In reality, my mother had stage four cancer.  She did not know the gravity of her symptoms.  Neither did he.  She had trouble walking.  To us all, it was an accidental spinal compression, and he had checked the nerves meticulously.

I was angry about my father’s fate.  But I did not expect him gone.  “Sorry we could not save doctor,” a junior apprentice one day posted on facebook.  I knew the girl. I felt a sudden surge of pain – it was sharp and unkind.  The disease was cruel and ungrateful.  The man was overseeing an ICU.  

“He’s dead?”  I had commented on facebook, shocked.

“Yes, we could not save him.  We tried.”

I thought of all the patients who had Covid but hid their ailments, walked up to the doctors and pushed the disease into their purported saviors.

Inhuman!  But then the doctors too were scared.  Many of them.  The hospitals would turn away the sick.  

“Who will treat you if we are dead?  Tell me?  We want a certificate.  Covid free,” they would claim.  More than one of those patients died – getting carried from hospital to hospital, waiting for that piece of paper that marked them as safe.

Those were the early days of the disease – the uncertain bubbles filled with fear and panic – dead bodies popping up once or twice in the middle of the street – abandoned by those who feared for their own lives.  Once we heard of a son deserting his mother.  People chided in unison.  Then they themselves left their homes for their livelihood, tucking the masks in their pockets.

The sea of people in the streets, on the public transports and running stores had first tiptoed outside their lockdown zone using alternate routes – as though Kings of forgotten eras had evaded the enemy attack through a secret passage.  Now there was no lockdown, and they all had masks to show, though not in direct use.

Most of these people would not die.  A newspaper claimed that seventy percent of the people in the slums had already had Covid.  Their lack of apathy for the aggressive death comes from their own resilience.  Their poverty had made a truce with germs and dusts.  The body knew those well.  So those people buzzled in the dust and went to work.  The protected bourgeois peeking out from time to time, asking for help from the otherwise unfortunate lot got ambushed by the bugs.  Those floated out in the breath – perhaps a curse to the world for the fate of long-time neglect.

We did not understand why bodies were stacked in the streets of South America, but the laborers of Bangladesh were so regally damning to the tiny strands that the mighty feared the most.   But here they were, peddling goods in the streets, leaving the quickly made Covid unit empty.  The rich man who had donated to make that very large tent for the ones who would need it in sickness was dead though – one of the first ones to die of the disease.

We do not understand this disease – its rage and its inclinations — where it finds a safe home – who it wishes to tear up into bites.  Some take a chance and die.  Some walk out apathetically and leave.  Some others leave with maladies stuck to their guts – for days. even when the bug has left.

We fear most what we do not comprehend – the ones that kill us furtively, chaotically and indiscriminately.  

I have holed myself up inside my room.  There are frail ones I need to care for. For a long time, I watched streaming reels and then drew, and I made up characters to let my anger out for all the lemons life has presented to me.  Now I feel no emotion.  I just sit – frustrated, bored – waiting for something I cannot define.  The wait is long and tiresome – at times giving rise to feelings that wish to embrace nihilism.  I read about the brain – see pictures about the little flashes – the fears brought in by images in the deepest part of our inner selves.  

The virus has taken away my anger against others.  Perhaps we have indeed become the same.  Perhaps I have just given up.

As I sit, I hear that little girl shout.  She wishes the whole world dead.  Yet, a few days later, when I hear about the dead doctor who was alive and well, breathing inside our home a year ago, I wish some one would pray, and I hope someone would remember.

No one in our apartment complex says much.  They are afraid.  Perhaps it is okay only to whisper the name of covid.

One day, though, our locked down gate is open.  A man walks into the house to fix the pipes.  A mask though is in place.  The next day, someone re-orders his newspaper.  They all would like they lives back – whether they live or die.  

I still sit and wait.  I cannot take the risk for the sake of others I love.  In a small bubble of confinement, perhaps we can talk – say all the things we never did, reconcile – find how precious life had been all the years we let roll recklessly.THIS PHOTOGRAPH IS TAKEN BY GANESH DHAMODKAR. ATTRIBUTE AS GANESH DHAMODKAR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS..

Nelson Harris

Nelson Harris

by

Connie Bedgood

I was born in 1936 in Fort Worth and I lived with Aunt Jessie and Uncle Nelson Harris back then, but my memories are of 1941 when I was living with them once more.  They had no children and he owned five-night clubs in Fort Worth, Texas.  I remember setting at one bar and eating Jell-O during the day when my stomach was upset.  There were juke boxes at the booths, and you could tell the lady which song you wanted her to play after you put the nickel in.  We were in Fort Worth awaiting the birth of my brother who was named Robert Nelson Blim.

The next thing I remember was being led into a large building with ladies with long black and white out fits surrounding them.  Their head pieces looked as like if the wind caught them exactly right…they would take off and fly.

Seated at long table were kids under the age of five eating scrambled egg sandwiches.  I ate my first one that day.  All the other older kids were in school.

A few days later we kids of school age were driven there.  I became fast friends with Sam from Georgia.  After all, he had every color of Crayon in the world—including gold.  We spent a lot of time coloring which was alright with me.

Then nap time was upon us.  We all had our long piece of brown paper which we laid on…upon the hard floor.  I still today, do not like brown paper bags.

At lunch on Fridays we ate pinto bean sandwiches on brown bread. I liked and missed them later when I moved back to Los Angeles.  When rain hit the windowpanes in the attic, up the stairs we ran falling all over each other.  The attic was huge and looked as if haunted but could not be as it was a Catholic boarding place.  I figured that out at the age of 5.  We could run and scream and play which did not bother the ladies in the black and white outfits.

Every week or two one of the ladies in the black and white outfits stood at the foot

of the stairs as we came down, they presented us with a large spoonful of the nastiest tasting liquid stuff in the world called cod liver oil.  After a few times of this, I found something else to do upstairs till the lady with the tablespoon was gone.

In good weather it was out into the back yard playing under the clothesline.  Sometimes we played Hide and Seek or Tag. As we were running everywhere it is no surprise I fell and cut my left wrist on a piece of glass.  I still have the scar.  I am sure Uncle Nelson paid for my time at the boarding school, along with Bobby’s birth and mine.

Then my dad, who lived in Tyler, had the summer months with me.  He was a postman and his mother, whom I called Other Mama, was at home taking care of me.   She 

was washing dishes in the kitchen looking out the window watching me in the back yard playing with A. W. Brady whose parents were divorced also.

He said, “Say Dam Connie! Say Dam, Dam!”  Before I could say anything, Other Mama was out the back door yelling at A.W. to go home till he could behave himself.  Evidently, A. W. never grew up to behave, he was racing on brick streets in Tyler down South Broadway and was killed in his 1954 coup Ford.

During the time we lived on East Edwards Street where A. W. taught me to cuss, I do have a memory of Uncle Nelson coming up the long set of concrete steps with his 38 caliber pistol in his shoulder holster and my grandfather, P. O. Bedgood setting in a chair at the screened-in widow of the front porch with a rifle in his lap.  No one shot anyone, that time.

Eventually daddy requested a change of venue for his custody case for me to live with him and Other Mama.  The change of venue was to Grayson County from Smith County.  I was living in Pottsboro with my mother’s mother Laura Lindsey during the end of World War II.  The paperwork shows Aunt Jessie and Uncle Nelson put up the money for mother’s lawyer.  A letter written in 1959 from Aunt Jessie stated that mother gave me up to daddy rather than cause any more bad information becoming public about Uncle Nelson.

Uncle Nelson was always kind with a great laugh and came to Pottsboro several times during the four years I lived there bringing real toilet paper instead of using the Sears Catalogue sheets like we did.  One of these visits I accidently stepped on Aunt Jessie’s foot and she screamed and carried on as if she were bleeding.  I felt bad about it for years.  Perhaps

if I known what kind of life, she lived in Fort Worth, I would have been more understanding, but then I was a kid of only nine at that time.

Recently I asked the library in Fort Worth to look up newspaper articles on Uncle Nelson and they sent me the following information.

He started his life of crime as a deliveryman for the Green Dragon narcotics syndicate and became a bouncer for some joints on the Jacksboro Highway after serving two years in the federal prison.  He also ran a prostitution racket out of his own house.   Nelson Harris was considered one of Fort Worth’s toughest and most versatile criminals.  After reading this and more, I had to take a few days to absorb this about the man I knew.

******

I did go visit Nanny in Pottsboro several times after moving to Tyler.  I never saw Uncle Nelson again.  Aunt Jessie was in the V.A. hospital after she was discharged from the Women’s’ Air Forces.  She had been in a big storm on the ocean while taking care of the wounded from battles overseas.  She joined the military to get away from the hounding of the FBI.    I wrote her all about being fourteen and fifteen and dating.  She wrote me back and enjoyed my roller skating and boyfriend stories.  She married and divorced many times…society was different back then.  

Then in November of 1950 while dating my first boyfriend in a car…right before Thanksgiving daddy showed me an article from the newspaper.  For the first time in my life I wanted to be all alone…trying to understand the news.  Uncle Nelson opened his car door, 

climbed in and was seated with his young wife, who was pregnant.  He started the car and dynamite blew the top off the car. They were both dead.  The explosion was audible for blocks in all directions. The two-door car was parked beside the Harris’ duplex apartment.   I cried a lot. 

I called Aunt Chloe and she, of course, already knew it and said Aunt Jessie had called her.  We were all sad.  Aunt Jessie was in the V.A. hospital longer because of the news.

Research revealed a lot about Uncle Nelson.  He was a gangster not the machine gun type but broke the law several times.  He squealed and so received two years in Leavenworth Prison which is one of the worst ones.  Even after all of this married to the young wife, he was still committing crimes.

No one ever stood trial for the three murders but it did end the rein of the Jacksboro Highway gambling, prostitution, drugs and crime with a lot of jail time and bodies found in secluded places of some of the past criminals.

My question is, “Did the three in the car get justice?”  That baby was not guilty.  Since I believe we reap what we sow…whoever did it…more than likely was blown up also.

Photos available of Jessie and Nelson

STEW

STEW

Vivian Lawry

Alta set the Dutch oven on the stove and smeared the bottom with bacon fat. The cast iron shone smooth as black satin. When the fat shimmered, she scraped in the chopped onion and gave it one quick stir. The smell of onion and bacon bloomed.

Judith poked her head in at the screen door. “Hey, sis. Something sure smells good.”

“C’mon in. I’m making stew for dinner.” Judith slid onto the bench behind the old oak table and plucked at a little triangular tear in the oilcloth covering the big rectangle. Alta glanced at her. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m feeling like the old woman who lived in a shoe.”

Alta turned to the chuck roast, bloody and marbled white with fat. “What do you mean?”

“You know. Granny always said, ‘There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do. If she’d known what to do, she wouldn’t have had so many children.’”

Alta chuckled. “You aren’t even married so you don’t need to worry about that.” She cut a look at Judith. “Or do you?”

Pink flooded Judith’s face from collar to hairline, nearly hiding her freckles. “Of course not! I’m not Rosie! It’s just… Well, Bill asked me to marry him. But I just don’t know. I don’t want to be like Ma. I don’t want thirteen children—nor six, neither!”

While they talked, Alta blotted both sides of the beef, tossing the bloody towel into the wash basket in the corner. “You should talk to Lena or Bessie. They’ve only got one each, so they must know what’s what.”

“But their sons are older than I am! That would be like talking to Ma—and what’s the use of that? If she knows anything about stopping babies from coming, she must not think it’s the right thing to do or there wouldn’t be so many of us!” She tossed her strawberry-blond curls, her eyes pleading. “I was hoping you’d tell me.”

A pained look flashed across Alta’s face. She picked up the slab of beef, rubbed salt and pepper into both sides, and scraped the wilted onions to the edges of the pot. She sighed. “I’ll tell you what I know—what I’ve heard and such.”

“Oh, yes, please!”

Alta dropped the roast into the Dutch oven, jerking her hand back from the popping oil. “Surely you know about rubbers?”

“Of course! Everyone knows about those.”

“Well?”

Judith blushed again. “I heard Bill joking with some of his poker buddies. One said something about sex wearing a condom feeling like wearing galoshes, and Bill said one good thing about getting married was not having to wear rubbers anymore.”

“Oh. Hmmm. And you say you and Bill haven’t…?” 

Judith whipped her head back and forth so fast her curls flew out. “I told him right off that we would never go all the way unless we were married!”

When the first side of the beef had seared, Alta turned the roast with a long fork. At the end of the stainless steel handle, tapered scarlet Bakelite always made Alta think of a hot pepper. She favored this cooking fork, partly because Granny had given it to her. “Does he want kids right away?”

“We haven’t talked about that. But I know I don’t!”

Alta poured iced tea for both of them. “Well, if he won’t wear rubbers, I guess it’s up to you.”

“Why do you think I’m here! What can I do?”

The second side had seared. The beefy smell was heavy in the kitchen. Alta moved the pot to a cooler burner and dumped in a quart of canned tomatoes. The sizzling and bubbling quickly subsided to a simmer. The lid was too heavy for steam to escape, so a rich broth was guaranteed.

“Some of our cousins down in the hills talk about it a lot. Mostly they seem to try to keep their husbands’—or whoever’s—seed from getting through.” While the roast simmered, Alta collected the vegetables—dirt-brown potatoes, purple-and-white turnips, and sunset-orange carrots. “I don’t know how well any of these things work. One said to tie a square of sponge with string, soak it in honey or vinegar, and push it up against the opening to the womb.”

Judith looked aghast. “How?”

“With your finger, of course.”

“Ugh! Put my finger up there?”

Alta grinned. “Hon, there’ll be bigger things than a finger up there!”

“But… But… Won’t it get lost?” Judith’s voice was a high-pitched squeak.

“It can’t. The opening to your womb is tiny. And you have the string there to pull the sponge out after.” Alta started scrubbing the potatoes—so young they didn’t have eyes to bother with—using the toothbrush she kept for the purpose. “Personally I think that’s better than another thing they’ve used: tobacco shreds mixed with honey and cotton lint—just pushed up in there.” She glanced at Judith. “Up against that nob that feels like the tip of your nose.” She turned back to the potatoes. “I’ve heard of lots of things like that—like a paste of juniper berries smeared on your privates, outside and in. Cousin Ima said she’s used a lemon half with all the juice squeezed out, pushed up there like a cap—but she can’t always get lemons. Irma said she cut the fingertip off a rubber glove, but it was devilish hard to get in place.”

Alta dropped the chunked-up potatoes into a bowl of water to keep them from browning and to make potato water for the next bread-baking. 

Green tinged Judith’s face. Alta said, “You could find a Catholic co-worker and ask about the rhythm method—the calendar method they sometimes call it. One thing I can tell you is that when you notice a creamy discharge in your panties, that’s when you’re likely to get pregnant. My doctor told me having sex as long as it looks like egg white is likely to get a baby. If that isn’t what you want, wait till four days after it disappears.” 

The carrots and turnips were scrubbed and chunked, dumped into another bowl. Alta had nothing pressing while the beef simmered, so she sat across from Judith. “Listen, hon. Great-Granny talked about stoneseed root—said the Lakota swore by it—but if that’s around here, I wouldn’t know what to look for or where.”

Judith’s shoulders drooped and Alta patted her hand. “But there are things right in the kitchen you could try. I’m taking this from what my doctor told me not to do if I didn’t want to miscarry next time.” She looked aside. “You know Elwood and I lost another baby, don’t you?”

Judith leaned across the checked oilcloth and squeezed Alta’s hand. “Oh, sis, I didn’t think…I mean, I thought you wanted to stop after the two girls and would know what I should do. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” Alta’s small smile quivered. “We’d just really like to have a boy.” Tears filled Alta’s eyes and she wiped them away with her apron.

“Oh, sis, what kind of person am I, making you talk about this when you want another one so bad!”

Alta shrugged one shoulder. “Don’t fret about it. It’s not like one has anything to do with the other. Now, according to Dr. Hodson, too much of any of these can cause you to lose a baby—and some will keep you from getting one in the first place: lots of aspirin, raw cinnamon, and laxatives.” 

Alta rose, checked on the stew, reduced the heat, and wiped her eyes again before she sat back down. “I found an old herbal in that box of mixed goods I bought at the auction awhile back. The first section is growing and storing herbs. The second is recipes. And the third section talks about medicinal uses. According to the herbal, eating apricot kernels or roots of Queen Anne’s lace should trigger a miscarriage too. Or drink teas made of ginger root, rue, angelica, jack-in-the-pulpit root, pennyroyal, parsley, chamomile, or nutmeg.” She squeezed Judith’s hand again. “Ask around. Some women who’ve used them might not be willing to talk about it but some will. I think some of the teas need to be taken more often than others, some every day to build the effect.”

“I’ll never remember all that!” Judith wailed.

“Hon, you really need to talk with Bill about whether to have children, how many, and when.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you’re right.” Judith jumped up, face blazing scarlet. “Thanks, sis. I…I have a lot to think about.” The screen door banged behind Judith. 

Her failure to give her husband the son he wanted—a son to carry on the family name—weighed on Alta’s heart like a river rock. She retrieved the herbal and sat down to read, hoping she might find something she’d missed before.

When the roast was nearly fall-apart tender, Alta added the drained vegetables to the pot. By the time the vegetables were cooked but not mushy, the biscuits would be done. 

Alta dabbed her tears with the sleeve of her dress. She wished she had a recipe for Judith—and for herself.

MY TWO NOVEMBERS

 

 

 

MY TWO NOVEMBERS

 Abigail Warren

 

Not this freight train

barreling down from Canada

an unwanted guest

leaving mornings smoky

with a drunken sun

too tired to push

his belligerent fires

to that quivering hemlock,

standing erect as a boy

in 3rd grade who’s

pinched a girl

and is waiting outside the principal’s office

for punishment.

Not you, November.

The other one.

Where the pokeweed is still alive

with purple orbs hanging heavy,

trees still crimson

oaks, cinnamon.

No smell of fossil fuels,

but leaves gathered

in mounds where children

dive recklessly

in great leaps crackling

until some father gathers them,

and they blaze under a

November moon;

look close, the hydrangeas,

their fading heads droop 

like those sullen children, 

called in after evening’s play.

But let the children stay

let them gather leaves,

let them believe all this

will not end

THAT BEACH, AGAIN

That Beach, Again

      I thought 

  to put a piece

    of the sun in

a standard business 

    envelope and

  then stamp that

        for you

  loved the sand

    and seasighed

        song under gulling wing     

        as your skin

    drank salty day

to firm the borders

between bold bronze 

           and more shy

porpoise belly bare

  a little later there

with moonlight smile

  you know exactly 

      what I mean

     or once meant

         to you too

        and I wish

  I had and sent it

  if in mere meta4

        but it’s been

               than 30 years

           it

IKEA

IKEA

DS Maolalai

on the floor of the bedroom

searching the carpet for screws

while the mattress stands over me

like the approach           

of a two-storey

truck. I slug a beer

and put it down somewhere

out of the way

on the carpet, (I know

before I’m done

I’ll knock it over). pick up a strut.

I work steadily;

place wood against

wood and screws

in holes. forget

where I left

the allan wrench. the screwdriver.

dust spews up

like spores out of mushrooms

or a movie

about discovering old cities – digging in, I find

forgotten books, dirty plates,

t-shirts and condom wrappers. outside

a broken box-spring

sits in the garden

and soaks – it will be there

at least a year

once we get used to it. the carpet

under the bed

thirty years fresher. I work

in spilled beer

and old receipts, hoping

to get things done

before chrys comes in

and decides we should change that

too.

Photo credit: Iris Yue, Unsplash

TALL GLASSES

Tall glasses

DS Maolalai

pouring our gin

onto icecubes

and limes.

enjoying              

the crackle

and crunch.

and summer

is trapped

by the walls

of our balcony;

the ice in a tall

glass of gin.

we lean back in tandem,

stretching like poolside

recliners. below us

the traffic is steady; locked

like a lime

in our ice. we stir

our tall glasses

with takeaway

chopsticks,

shifting the garnish

around.

LETTERS FROM HOME

LETTERS FROM HOME

Anna Kapungu

 

In the deserted days

Where the sun is my champion

And the blood thirsts for water

I tell the rays what I miss the most

Hear my breathing

Sweat drip down my back

My hands cracked  from the labour

Labour  without  gains

Split the grounds to pass the hours

Read the roads of my palms 

Roads that lead me back home

Then I receive your letters

Your words are like rain in the summer

Comfort my blackened heart

Feel the elevation of my spirit

My people,the force of humanity

I cannot pray to surrender my heaviness

I cannot cry to release my sentence

THE TRACTOR AND THE FARMER’S WIFE

John Grey

 

It’s one thing to be private.

It’s quite another to be so obsolete

that your tires are flat

your flywheel’s shot

your gas tank’s empty, rusty.

and you’re abandoned

hi the far end of the paddock,

mid-winter,

smothered in a foot of snow.

It’s one thing to think that the ideal

is to be done with work.

cooling off,

when that work is what’s sustained you.

and you’re not cooling off,

you’re freezing up.

And sure, it’s one thing

to materialize out of melting,

with spring upon you,

the unplowed field ahead of you,

when there’s a newer model in the showroom.

and the bank is making loans

to every farmer in the county.

And it’s one thing to be a tractor.

But such a misery to be you.