Category Archives: FICTION

Backwater

Backwater

Bill Bilverstone

When he finally came back, he came back with a woman and—clinging to each other, leaning into the warm, slow current—they crossed the river from the opposite shore. 

“Hey!” she called after they’d scrambled onto a low island and crawled thirty or forty yards through thumb-thick willows that shut out much of the twilight, clamped in most of the heat.

Cody glanced back over his shoulder. A disassembled fishing pole thrust from the bulky yellow pack that occulted much of his grimy face. “Just a little farther,” he said. “Just another sixty or seventy yards.”

Donna could barely hear him for the crackle of what must have been eons of drifted leaves, while those that still hung from the willows rattled like tiny bones in the fusty air.

“Damn it!” She shouted when he began crawling again. “Stop!”

Cody fell back on his haunches, turned and fixed her in eyes shining with desperation.

“I know I’ve been asking a lot,” he said. “But I’m not insane. Bear with me, Donna. I can’t afford distractions until we get this over.”

“Help me,” Donna said without pleading. “I know I promised not to ask questions, but I followed you across half the freaking state with you shut up in yourself like a stone. Bear with you until we get what over?”

When she went on looking at him expectantly, Cody crawled back down the tunnel he’d forced in the willows and took her hand

“It begins,” he said, “or close enough, when I was thirteen and we lived in a trailer park a couple of miles upstream from where we are now. My mom gave me her old Discman and a box of CD’s and—especially when they’d scream at each other—I’d lie in the dark listening to the tunes.  

“Anyway,” he said, “This one summer evening after a screaming match with Mom, the old man came bursting into my room, wanting me to take off with him the next day fishing. When I didn’t move fast enough, didn’t answer him quick enough, he tore the Discman out of my hands and hauled me off the bed by the front of my shirt.

 “‘Hey! That’s mine!’ I hollered at this whiskey-smelling jerk with ‘Hotel California’ boiling out of his mitts. And just for that, the bastard smashed my Walkman against the wall.

“For about a second-and-a-half we stood there glaring at each other in the light that fell in from the hallway, and then I lost it big time and gave him this mighty shove. He bounced off the bed, slammed into the wall, and when he went sliding and cursing down between the wall and the bed, I had the good sense to run. I tore through the mudroom, snatched up a pack that I knew held a water bottle and a box of chocolate-covered raisins, and blasted out into the dusk.

“I headed downstream, splashing across an irrigation ditch and loping along the lower end of a misty hayfield until I heard my old man yelling and threw myself into the brush. After thrashing for maybe forty yards, I broke out on the river and ran hard along the bank I couldn’t hear my old man yelling, and then I ran some more. Eventually, I kind of collapsed, still clutching my pack, and when I finally caught my breath, it was so dark I could barely make out an island covered in stunted willows and way-off the silhouettes of ancient trees.  

“I waded across from the opposite shore that we just did, and after a long, dark, claustrophobic crawl through the willows, I came to a clearing with these monstrous old trees. The clearing was mostly bright sand with a few tufts of coarse grass, and way over on the far side where the cottonwoods were clumped together, a pool of black water shimmered in the light of a three-quarter moon and first stars.

“I was just sitting there next to the funky-smelling pool, wondering what-in-the-hell to do next, when something humped up out there, glistening for a moment like the back of a huge lunker fish.

“I right away checked the pack and sure enough, besides the water bottle and box of raisins, there was my cheapo, telescoping fishing pole

“What-the-heck, I thought as I hooked on three or four chocolate covered raisins and plopped them in. Even if it was just my imagination, the casting and reeling will warm me up.

“Right away something big started bumping at the bait, and I got all excited and gave a yank and zzzizzzz here comes hook, line and sinker but half the chocolate covered raisins whipping out of that black star reflecting pool.

“Whatever it was—and I say whatever it was because no trout could live in conditions like that—it must have been spooked, because when I got the hook rebaited and cast back in, it took a while before it began to bite. When it finally did, I waited until it swallowed the hook and then I gave the rod a good stiff jerk. That motherhunper reared back and went plunging all over hell with me reeling and the drag shrieking until all of a sudden it charged up to the surface and stopped. It gave me the willies the way it seemed to peer at me from just beneath the black water. And then it dove. It went straight down, I swear it. With me reeling again and the drag shrieking again, until finally the line broke with a .22-loud Thwack.  

“I got pretty bummed then. I wanted to run home and tell my dad about the humongous fish, but I couldn’t very well do that. What with me being out there in the cold and the creepiness hiding from him. 

“After a while I trudged on back to the willows and scooped a nest in the mass of leaves. I didn’t sleep very well, though, what with these upsetting dreams of hiding and fighting, and in the morning, I felt wrung out. I got up before sunligh reached the clearing, tramped on home and there was my old man sitting on the steps.  

“‘How’d you sleep?’ he says with this shit-eating grin on his big pitted face.  

“‘Not worth a damn.’

“‘Well,’ he says, ‘let’s run on into town and get you a new music machine. That piece of crap your mom gave you was practically an antique.’

“And that was that, not another word said. Except that he liked to brag to his cronies about the night his skinny kid knocked him on his ass.

Cody sucked a breath and wiped his eyes with the back of a gritty hand.

“Probably out of spite, I never did tell him about the huge lunker fish.”

“Well, thank you” Donna said, more heartsick than appeased, “at least I know why you’re toting enough tackle to land Moby Dick. But I still don’t understand why you decided to come back after all this time.”

 “You know how I’ve been jumpy and short-tempered these last few weeks? With you all the time bugging me with, “Talk to me, Cody. Cody, what’s wrong?’ Well, every night I’ve been having those very same dreams of hiding from and fighting with something I can’t make out. 

“I guess,” he said through a tortured laugh, “I’ve gone and caught myself an obsession.”

Somehow during his tale they’d got themselves switched around so that Donna was holding him as he stared off into the cankered scrub. And that was how they remained, blank-faced with no birds singing, until Donna roused herself, planted a sloppy silly kiss on his neck and said, “C’mon, Cody. If we’ve caught ourselves an obsession, we’d best see it through.”

                                                   

Despite their common purpose and much dusty crawling, an orange froth lathered the west when they broke at last into the clearing. They threw off their packs in the dense, Silurian dusk, and Cody stepped back into the leaves to dig for bait while Donna looked around. It was pretty much as he’d described, monstrous trees and mat-black water, except that one of the cottonwoods had toppled across the pool, its leafless crown shattered like a line drawing of a tree on the trackless sand.

When Cody had his pole rigged and baited, they bellied up to the pool to avoid spooking their quarry and halted just back from the torpid water. Right away Donna noticed that the pool seemed to suck as much light as it reflected, and when something stirred out there, she shuddered at the thought of a boy confronting this place alone. It was then— just as she sensed its rank sterility and vain fecundity and was wanting to drag him away whispering the urgent conviction that this pool had nothing to do with them—that he turned on her his desperate eyes. All she could do was smile and nod and give him up to relentless casting and muttered cursing while the moon rose and the cold seeped in. 

When, after an hour, there was nothing, not a single bite, Donna stood up, shivering, and said, “I’m going to start a fire.”

“What fricking ever” he snapped.

Frustrated as he was, Cody flung down armloads of splintered cottonwood while Donna used her pocketknife to shave kindling before erecting a shock. Flames were licking against the stars and half a dozen white grubs squirmed on the hook as clambered out onto the fallen tree and—balanced two feet above the fire-reflecting pool—flipped the bait out into the water.      

Almost immediately there came a tentative bump and he glanced over his shoulder, eager to whisper, “Hey, Donna, watch this,” but she was already up and stalking out from behind the wall of fire.

Bump Bump Bump the thing persisted. Cody set the hook with a vicious tug and the thing struck back like a barracuda. It plunged and writhed and slammed and jerked, but this time he was man-strong, with a man’s hard-earned skill and reckless determination, and the creature soon ceased its frenzied plunging, rose to a spot not fifteen feet from the log where, once again, it held and seemed to watch.

“Go on, you sucker,” he muttered. “Dive away, you big ugly brute.”

Instead, it rushed straight at him, rising and swimming faster and faster so that a great surging bow wave passed beneath the log where Cody never stopped reeling until the pole was jerked down, curled under and pitched him off with a tremendous splash of the blood warm water.

By the scarlet light of the prancing fire, through the wincing facets of shattered water, it banked and came storming back, long as a man but fisted into a head. He clubbed it with the butt of the rod and kneed it with slow-motion knees while the slack line wrapped them sinking together with the slimy gray eyeless head mashed against his face. 

Cody’s mouth burst open and the brackish water filled his throat as a backlit Donna came stroking down, gripped him under the chin and scissor-kicked them to the bank, where she was on them like a Valkyrie, knife glinting, slashing away the stinging line, while “Kill it,” he gagged. “Kill it,” he gasped. “Kill it before it gets away.”

Very calmly, very firmly, Donna said, “Let it go, Cody. Please let it go”

When he flung himself up, enraged, on one elbow, Donna dropped to her knees and wrapped him in a sinewy embrace. The harder he struggled the tighter she held him, whispering, “Leave it, Cody, leave it alone,” until he ran out of steam, fell back and unknotted his fisted hands.  

At the sound of a grinding slither, they turned and watched the creature—long as a man and toothless with a brow like a sperm whale—flop out into the black and scarlet pool and sink slowly away.

                                                      END

photo by Harry Rajchgot

Taquile Island

Taquile Island

William Cass

At an elevation of 13,000 feet, Taquile Island sat alone, as if dropped by the gods, in the middle of Lake Titicaca.  Puno, Peru, the closest town, was twenty miles away.  At that time, 1983, several hundred families lived there, all of them Quechua Indians.  Most of the island was covered in terraces that began at the water’s edge and climbed steeply among stone footpaths and scattered huts to the ruins on the mountaintop at its center.  No electricity, no running water, no vehicles.  It took less than an hour to walk across it in any direction.

Xavier, the youngest boy of one of the families, descended a primary footpath to the island’s main well carrying two empty clay jugs by their rope handles.  Like all males on the island, he was dressed in a loose white blouse under a black vest, black pants, sandals, with a wide red sash around his waist.  He wore a red woolen cap that had tasseled earflaps; the flaps were still tied up in the relative warmth of the dwindling late-May day, but later, after nightfall when the temperature fell towards freezing, he’d drop them.  His clothes had been woven by his mother and grandmother; the sash and cap had been knitted by his father.  The sky on the western horizon mixed vermillion with yellow.  

The well was a hole between two small boulders on the side of the path.  Another clay jug with a long rope tethered to a stake perched next to it.  Xavier set down his own jugs and lowered the roped-one into the hole until he felt it tip over into the water at the bottom.  When it had filled, he retrieved it and poured it into one of his jugs, then repeated the sequence until both of those were filled.  Next, he stood and hoisted them to his side where their heaviness dangled almost to the ground.  He began the climb back to where his family lived near the mountaintop.  He was perhaps nine-years old.  On his way, he passed several other children with empty jugs of their own.

At that same time, his sister was on the other side of the island collecting firewood, sticks and thin branches, in a shawl slung over her shoulders, a load that would become nearly as big as her.  Her twin brother had gone to bring in the family’s sheep; the two of them were a few years older than Xavier.  They’d all left the family work project they’d been helping with that day: the construction of a new hut.  It was for their older sister, Maria, who was in her late teens, and Diego, the boy she’d just married.

The sheep that Xavier’s brother followed were small, black and white.  All of them had red and blue ribbons strung through one of their ears.  Most of the bigger ones also had a front and rear leg tied loosely together to keep them from trying to scamper away; they moved awkwardly and sometimes slipped momentarily over the edge of the terraced pathway.  The sun inched lower, and it began to grow colder.  The dim shapes of slowly moving cows were visible in some terraces, as were other residents completing the same tasks along the pathways.  Here and there across the mountainside, fires and candlelight began to dot the interiors of huts.

Xavier was the first to arrive back at the terrace just below his family’s where three sides of the new hut had already been assembled in a cleared patch beside two scraggly manzanita trees.  Long shadows covered the final wall that his father and Diego had started building with adobe bricks.  In their black dresses, his mother and Maria were using rectangular wooden molds to form new bricks, which they added to the rows they’d set aside to dry.  A mark at the hem of Maria’s dress showed where the embroidered flower indicating unmarried status had recently been removed.  No one spoke.  

Xavier set down his jugs, then reclaimed his place in what was left of the pit they’d been digging and irrigating all day.  He used the spade next to it to break up several new feet of earth, poured water over the spot, kicked off his sandals, and began stomping again on the thick mud he created.  His mother came over and squatted next where he stomped.  She used her hands to scoop mud into her mold and mixed it with bits of straw from a pile next to her.  She shook and turned the mold until the wetted mixture hardly moved.  Then she carried the mold over to the collection of stiffening bricks near the new hut, carefully flipped it over, shook out the new brick, and turned it on one of its short sides to dry.  Maria was turning over other bricks that had stiffened adequately so their remaining sides would dry.  The dark, wet bricks that had first come out of the molds turned a pinkish, chalky color as they hardened.

Diego set a dry brick for the new wall in the next spot Xavier’s father had lined with wet mud mixed with straw, then tapped and straightened it into place with the heel of his hand.  They coated both sides of the new brick and its seams with more wet mud and straw, smoothing the surface with their palms.  The walls at their highest point stood short of six feet, but were taller than each of them.

The family continued to work as light fell further towards gloaming.  Eventually, Xavier’s younger sister, bent under her load, came down a path and dumped her firewood outside their hut’s open door, then joined him in the stomping pit.  Their grandmother came out of the hut and gathered a few scraps of wood for the fire inside that was cooking their dinner of vegetables simmering in a pot.

When the sky on the western horizon had become the color of a bruise, Xavier’s father shouted once, and as they all looked at him, made an “X” with his arms.  They stopped working.  Xavier’s brother was just coming over the nearest rise, his sheep’s cloven hooves clicking softly on the stones, and his father went to help with corralling them.  Xavier’s mother used water from a jug to wash the bottoms of his legs and feet, as well as his sister’s and her own hands, then the three of them walked up to their hut.  Maria and Diego stepped inside the three walls of their new home, looked around it, and embraced briefly before Diego went off to his own family’s hut several terraces away and Maria followed her family into theirs.  Xavier’s father and brother were the last to enter the hut where his grandmother was passing out clay bowls of soup and hunks of brown bread for dinner.  The fire and candles inside provided just enough light to show their faces where they sat on the earth floor and began to eat.

I opened my rucksack, took out a plastic bag of trail mix, an orange, a partially eaten chocolate bar, and the water bottle I’d brought with me on the boat from Puno that morning and began to eat, too.  I was hidden behind a clump of brush under another twisted manzanita tree perhaps twenty yards away and a little higher up the mountainside.  From there, I had a clear vista of their hut, the one they’d been building, and most of that side of the island all the way to the water’s edge at the eastern end where a full moon was just rising.  It threw a cone of shimmering silver across the dark surface of the lake.  I’d walked most of the island earlier that day after arriving on the boat, and then settled into my spot in the middle of the afternoon and began watching the family.  Around that same time, I saw the boat leave on its single daily return trip to Puno.  It was just an old converted fishing boat with benches built into the back for a dozen or so passengers; if they missed me or were concerned about my not being on the return voyage, I had no way of knowing.  I hadn’t asked if there were regulations preventing visitors from staying the night.

While I ate and watched the family finish their meal, I thought about things.  I’d only been able to make out Xavier’s, Maria’s, and Diego’s names when they’d responded to the father’s specific directions to them, but I wondered what the other family members’ names might be.  I thought about the lives they’d fashioned there together, their simple rhythms, their history, their future.  I thought about Maria and Diego’s new life together as a couple and of the woman back home in Juneau I was no longer certain I loved.  I thought about taking the boat back to Puno that next afternoon, the bus to Lima the following day, and then the plane home ending my summer’s travels where she’d be waiting to pick me up at the airport.  I thought about our own embrace there, of returning to our apartment, about starting another term at the elementary school where I taught.  She worked as a graphic artist.  We were both twenty-eight and had been together for two years. 

Full darkness had almost fallen when Xavier and his younger sister came outside the hut carrying the family’s empty bowls.  They used water from a jug to clean the bowls, shook them, and leaned them against the hut on a mat just outside the door. Next to them were the beans, carrots, and onions their grandmother had harvested earlier and sprinkled into a kind of carpet.  While they worked, those inside the hut blew out candles, spread similar mats, and begin stretching out on them under thick woollen blankets.  The mother and father moved into the darkness of the farthest corner, the grandmother next to what was left of the fire, and Maria and the brother to opposite sides of the hut.  I pulled my down sleeping bag out of my rucksack, unrolled it, and climbed into it, too, but stayed sitting up.  A small, cold breeze lifted the acrid smell of collective fires.

Xavier’s sister went back into the hut and crawled under the blanket next to Maria.  Before he went inside himself, Xavier lowered the flaps of his cap over his ears and tied its tassels under his chin.  In the moonlight, his breath came in short clouds.  He looked around him, then his gaze went up to the stars overhead, a canopy so vast it seemed impossible.  From a hut down the mountainside, the notes of a wooden flute broke the silence, a lonely, lovely sound.  For several moments, Xavier stood still, listening,  Finally, he went inside and curled up under the blanket next to his brother.  I lay down then myself, listened to the flute’s mournful song, and waited for sleep to come.

END

Photo by Thomas Quine, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

The Flower Lady

The Flower Lady

Jonathan B. Ferrini

“The Flores Family Flower Shop” was founded by my grandfather at a road side stand and grew to become a fifty-year-old favorite within San Diego.

I drive the truck to the wholesale flower market at 4:30 in the morning six days per week, purchase the flowers for the day, and unload them at the store. I also do the flower deliveries.

My pop handles the office, my mom and sister are expert flower arrangers, and we all work the phone orders and the counter. 

The “cycle of life” is inherent within the florist business; birth, birthdays, graduations, marriages, sickness, and death. We do our best to provide cheer or empathy to our clients depending upon the circumstances.

We are “first responders” to the savagery of Covid, working tirelessly to accommodate the multitude of funeral arrangements required. 

Covid didn’t “discriminate” when choosing victims. So was the case of “June”, a “soccer mom” whose thriving home-based bookkeeping service failed due to the many restaurant and bar clients shuttered by regulatory closures. The loss of a second source of income, the distractions associated with the children seeking assistance with their home-based on-line school instruction, a husband working overtime at work and with his mistress, placed pressures upon an already crumbling marriage. 

June could no longer afford the stress relieving personal athletic trainer and yoga instruction, and sought stress relief from drinking wine. The increasing wine consumption ceased relieving the stress, and June turned to Oxy found within the medicine cabinet. When the Oxy ran out, she sought sedatives from her physicians based upon fabricated ailments. When the pharmacies and physicians caught wind of the medical charade, June was cut off from her daily “fix”.

The substance abuse interfered with June’s responsibilities as a mom resulting in her husband divorcing June, taking the home and custody of their pre-teen son and daughter. The judge ruled June to be an “unfit mother”.

June found herself homeless with her sole possessions being her minivan and clothes. Her friends and family weren’t keen on helping a “substance abuser” and abandoned her.

June took to living in an inexpensive motel room, subsisting on unemployment insurance until it was exhausted and she was forced to live in her minivan. The stress of living in a car, seeking different places to park each evening, often told to leave by security or police, led to the need for heavier sedation which she found in heroin. June looked into her rear-view mirror and saw a prematurely aging junkie staring back at her.

Seeking a quick nap on a comfortable couch inside an art museum, June marvelled at the beautiful flowers painted by Van Gogh. She dreamed of running free and happy through a field of sunflowers. She was awoken by the security guard and ejected but developed an idea. 

Word spread throughout town. A “Flower Lady” was wandering about giving out flowers to strangers in hopes of a handout. We suspected the source of her flowers were the waste bins behind flower shops. 

As I returned one morning from the wholesale flower mart, I saw a beat-up minivan with a person sleeping inside. I flashed my lights at the car, awakening what appeared to be a female occupant, who sped away.

I opened the trash bin, and noticed all of the discarded slightly fresh flowers had been picked through, necessitating a lock. 

Pop said, “Let ‘em have them. Better giving pleasure to somebody than landing at the dump.”

Every morning, over the course of a week, the trash dumpster was picked through. I parked the truck down the block, and hid to find the woman with the minivan carefully assembling bouquets of discarded flowers. She was quick and demonstrated a skill at arranging beautiful sets of flowers. I let her finish and leave, before bringing the delivery truck around. 

I told Pop who suggested we set a “trap” by leaving a fast-food breakfast, coffee, orange juice, and a dozen roses with an invitation to come inside and meet pop. 

June “took the bait”. She entered the store carefully as if fearing arrest. Pop greeted her and invited her inside his office to sit, handing her a cup of coffee she grasped and savored. 

Pop had an instinct about people. I think it was June’s eyes which won him over. Her eyes were dark orbits with tired red pupils, teary, frightened, craving love and understanding. They spoke to Pop’s emotions.

June was about 5’2’’ inches tall, emaciated, with long, stringy, dirty blond hair becoming gray.  The substance abuse and stress of living in a minivan made a woman in her mid-thirties look to be in her late forties.

Ferrini/Flower/3

June’s clothing and shoes were thrift store cast offs. There was a faint scent of urine about her suggesting the lack of a shower and toilet facilities for days. The lines and wrinkles in her face resembled deep, raging rivers leading to her soul, eventually drowning her, alone in an alley, with the only mourners being garbage cans.  

“Don’t be afraid, ma’am. What’s your name?”

“June. I’m sorry for taking your flowers. I won’t return. Please don’t call the police!”

“My name is Hernan, June, and I won’t call the police. I want to help you.”

After hearing June’s circumstances, Pop recanted,

“When I came to San Diego, I was broke and lived inside my beat-up station wagon parked next to my roadside flower stand. I understand hard times, June. I need extra help today. We’re slammed with customers, as it’s prom season. I’ll pay you $100 cash. We close at 7:00.”

June cleaned up in the bathroom and we provided her a clean shirt and florist apron to cover her disheveled clothing. She immediately went to work at the counter and taking phone orders.

June related to the emotional suffering of a teenage girl without a date requiring a corsage to the prom,

“This corsage is beautiful, darling. I’m certain you’ll attract many gentlemen to dance with you.”

June was empathetic with a young man selecting flowers for a first date,

“What’s your budget, Sir?”

“I was hoping to spend under $10.”

“I suggest a single rose. It will include a beautiful fern, lovely wrapping, and I’ll tie a ribbon around it for $5.00. She’ll love it!”

June began to sob, and retreated to the restroom. My mother knocked on the door and asked to be let in to console her.

“Why are your crying, June? You’re doing a wonderful job!”

“The teenage girl and young man are the age of my children taken from me. I haven’t seen them in months and may never will!”

“June, honey, there’s a nightly non-denominational substance abuse meeting run by a female pastor named “Sunny Dominguez”. Many of my son’s friends have benefited from these meetings. Between your hard work here, and your meetings, we’ll have a lawyer convince the judge to grant you visitation rights.

“You’re about the same size of my daughter. The three of us we’ll go through her closet and I’m certain Lupe will be pleased to have you pick out and keep any clothing she no longer wears.

“Sunday dinner is a big deal around our house. Please consider yourself a permanent guest.”

Mom held June tightly until she could resume work.

June had a glow on her face, bolstered by pride in a good day’s work, $100 bill, and a new found confidence in seeing her children. 

Pop offered June a full-time job, and use of a cot in the store room where she could live until she got back on her feet. 

In the ensuing weeks, June was always pleasant, upbeat, and hard working. The work around the store, combined with the opportunity to meet similarly situated people of all ages at the sobriety meetings, brought June happiness and sobriety.

June mastered all facets of the business including the register, taking phone orders, creating flower designs, and even making deliveries and pick ups when I wasn’t available. Customers would call and ask for June by name.

About three months into the job, June was excited to report she had been granted a visitation hearing and hoped her regular substance abuse meetings and Pop’s testimony would win visitation rights with her children.

Pop attended the visitation hearing, sadly reporting the judge denied visitation rights citing “unproven sobriety”. 

June never returned to work. 

We hadn’t seen June for months until I arrived one morning and saw her minivan. She was slumped across the steering wheel, a hypodermic needle within her arm, and an envelope marked for Pop. Alongside her body were opened photo albums showing her family; likely her last moments together with those she loved.

Pop opened the envelope, and found a cashier’s check payable to a funeral home for a cremation and scattering of ashes at sea. There was a second cashier’s check made payable to our flower shop, requesting the creation of a simple spray of tropical flowers.

Mom and my sister immediately went to work on the funeral “spray”. We charged no fee for the “spray” choosing instead to donate the check to Sunny’s substance abuse center. The funeral home provided a 50% discount and donated the remainder to the same cause.

It was sunset when the boat sailed around Point Loma and into the Pacific Ocean. All of our family was aboard. June’s family chose not to attend.

Sunny Dominguez eulogized, 

“The world is full of fragile souls with loving hearts who become lost on their journey through life. When faced with adversity, and despite valiant efforts to recover, they succumb. June was one such soul.

She was fortunate to have met your family and receive your love and compassion. She will always be a member of your family, and you’ll find solace in the belief you were chosen to help June.”

June’s ashes were placed inside a water proof floating container along with her photo albums. The beautiful tropical spray was attached to the container and placed into the ocean by Pop. 

We watched June’s “vessel” quickly carried by the ocean current west towards tropical paradise as the sun set into the ocean. 

We shouted,

“Bon Voyage, Flower Lady.” 

“We love you!”

END

photo by Harry Rajchgot

World Travellers

 

World Travellers

J L Higgs

The airplane descended through the field of dark gray clouds into dazzling sunlight.  Asha leaned forward in her window seat, raised her camera, and pointed it at the dense jungle o

f ancient Banyan and Silk Cottonwood trees.

As the plane’s wheels bumped against the tarmac, she thought,  Air Force.  The takeoffs and landings by each branch of the armed forces were as different as signatures.

Removing her chewing gum, Asha wrapped it in paper and placed it in her shoulder bag next to a small, thick plastic bag.  “We’ll be there soon, Jabir,” she said. 

Traveling North on Sivutha Boulevard, the tuk-tuk moved through the encroaching untamed forest land with a determined steadiness, leaving Siem Reap behind.  After about 20 minutes, it had reached the sandstone causeway.  From there, the towers built to represent Mount Meru could be seen.   

Asha and Jabir were world travellers.  In the last three years, they’d been to Stonehenge, Chichen Itza, Petra, Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, and Easter Island.  All of those places had been impressive,  but this trip was special.

o

After moving into a condominium complex without having done her normal due diligence, Asha had had a sleepless night.  Were there other single older women?  What about other black residents?  She’d often been “the only one,” and found interacting only with people lacking experience and an understanding of people of color uncomfortable.  

As she returned from her early morning walk, she saw a dark-skinned man outside the door of the unit diagonal to hers.  He had salt and pepper colored hair, a graying moustache, and was wearing a well-tailored suit.  With one arm, he was pinning a set of file folders against his side.  In his other hand, he held a commuter cup as he attempted to lock his door. 

“Good morning,” called out Asha.  

  Spinning in her direction, the folders slipped, and the cup’s contents spilled onto his hand and clothing.  “Shit,” he said, shoving the door open with his shoulder.  Then he kicked it shut behind him, his keys left dangling in the lock. 

That evening, as Asha continued unpacking her moving boxes, she heard a knock at her door.  Through its peephole, she saw the man from across the hall.  Sighing, she opened the door the length of its safety chain.   

“Can I help you?” 

“An apology.  For this morning,” he said, holding out a bottle of wine.

“That’s not necessary.” She started to close the door. 

“Then a welcoming gift from one neighbor to another,” he added.  

She hesitated.  His warm brown eyes appeared sincerely apologetic.  “Would you like to come in?”  she asked, unhooking the chain and accepting the wine bottle.

“Maybe for a minute or two,” he answered.

After they exchanged names and basic pleasantries, he explained that he’d been running late for a morning appointment with a client.  She then asked if he’d like to join her in a glass of wine?  He said he didn’t want to interrupt whatever she’d been doing. 

“No worries,” she said.  “I know where the wine glasses are.”  Walking over to a stack of moving boxes, she slid the top box aside and opened the lids of the one beneath it.  “Voilà.”

After pouring the wine, Asha went over to her couch and plopped down cross-legged.  Jabir looked around for a place to sit.  Boxes and unpacked items occupied all the other furniture in the room, so he joined her on the couch.

As she took a sip from her glass, he noted her high cheekbones, cropped hair, and large gold hoop earrings.  She possessed a unique sculptured beauty.  Smiling, her dimples surfaced, making her look playfully mischievous.

“Where are you from?”  he asked.  “You don’t sound like you’re from around here.” “Air Force brat.” She stretched an arm along the top of the couch.  “I was born in South Korea.  My father was stationed at Osan Air Force Base at the time.  You?”

  “Born and raised right here,”  he said, shaking his head.  “What was it like?”

“South Korea or being an Air Force brat?”

“Either…  both?”

“Ever been to South Korea?”

“No.  Always wanted to travel, but never had the opportunity.”

“We moved around.  Ramstein in Germany.  Lakenheath in the UK.  You go where you’re sent.”

“Must’ve been hard.”

“You adapt., though constantly being the new kid isn’t great,” she said, pausing momentarily.  “The hard part is making sure not to form attachments, since your living situation is temporary.  Now that I’ve retired, I’m looking forward to some stability.”

“What’d you do before retirement?”

“Air traffic control.  Same as my father.  I joined the Air Force after high school. Completed my tech training in Biloxi, and was assigned to Aviano, Italy.  Got transferred a few times after that and when I left the Air Force, I got a job across the river, at JFK.” 

“You always wanted to be an air traffic controller?”

“No.”  She laughed and lithely stretched out her legs.  “I will say that keeping all the moving pieces on the ground and in the air in sync is exciting.  That’s why controllers and pilots rely on a shorthand language for communication.  You’ve got to be flexible, creative, and decisive.”    

“Sounds intense.” 

“It can be stressful,” she said, then took another sip of wine.  “I wanted to be a photojournalist, but my folks weren’t too keen on the idea.  They didn’t think that was a realistic career goal for a black girl.”  She shook her head.  “I mentioned Gordon Parks to them and they said one exception was exactly that, and he was a man.  How ‘bout you?”

“Insurance?”  He shook his head.  Necessity had dictated his life decisions.   “Pure accident.”  

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” she said, raising her glass in a toast.

“John Lennon.” He returned the gesture, then took a sip from his glass.

They drank in silence, both lost in their thoughts.  At times, their eyes made contact, and they shyly smiled at one another.  

“Ever miss it?” he asked, breaking the silence. 

“What?”

“The Air Force?  JFK?”

“Sometimes I miss being an air traffic controller,” she said.  “It’s like you’re conducting a symphony but with real life and death implications.  The Air Force or JFK?  Never.  In every workplace, there’s someone who causes infighting.  And there’s also usually some white guy in upper management making everyone’s lives miserable.  Know what I mean?”

“Definitely,” he said, nodding.  “And they’re always spouting their unasked for opinions no matter how offensive they may be.”

“Exactly.”

“What’s that saying?  The higher a monkey climbs, the more you see just a behind.”  

They both laughed. 

“I can’t count how many times I’ve had to hold my tongue,” he said.  “If I ever said what I truly think of them or what they say, I couldn’t keep a job.”

Grimacing, she nodded.  “Well, at least we can commiserate among ourselves.”

“Yeah.  It’s one of the rare times we don’t have to be on our guard.”

With the atmosphere having once again turned somber, Asha and Jabir sat silently, contemplating their own thoughts, and sipping the wine in their glasses.

Suddenly, Asha sprang to her feet.  She went over to one of the moving boxes and removed a thick photo album.  Returning to the couch, she set the album down on the coffee table in front of it.  As she paged through the album, Jabir slid forward to get a better look, his thigh inadvertently touching hers.  He looked down.  She’d stopped on a page of sunlit, whitewashed buildings with blue-domed rooftops.

After staring at the arresting image for a few moments, he turned the page.  There was a photo of The Great Wall of China with morning mist rising from its rough-hewn stones toward snow-capped mountains. 

  “Did you take these?” he asked, turning back to the first photo.  “What’s this one?” “It’s of some homes overlooking the Aegean Sea in Santorini, Greece at sunset.” “They’re amazing.”

“Well, thanks to the US Air Force, I traveled extensively while I was in the service.  I’ve got a bunch of albums like this one…  if you’re interested?”

“I’d love to see them.” 

After that, Asha and Jabir began taking turns hosting each other at dinner once a week.  Following dessert, they’d look at her photos.  He’d ask questions about each country’s food, customs, and inhabitants.  She found his inquisitiveness and attentiveness to her responses uniquely refreshing.  He was consistently impressed by the depth of her knowledge.

  As the months passed, their dinners became more elaborate, the bottles of wine more expensive, and that evening’s attire in line with that of a special occasion.  It was during one such dinner that Jabir told Asha what had led to his lifelong fascination with foreign places.

  Excited by the opportunity to see bare-breasted indigenous women in the Amazon Rainforest, a childhood friend had snuck a copy of The National Geographic magazine from his home.  In that same issue, there’d been an article about the Angkor Vat temple complex in Cambodia.  The photos of the multi-tiered sandstone buildings adorned with images from Hindu mythology had so captivated Jabir that he requested a subscription for his 12th birthday. 

From then on, he’d devoured every page of the yellow-covered monthly magazine when it arrived.  And while his adolescent peers decorated their bedroom walls with photos of star athletes and hot cars, he covered his with pictures of places he dreamed of visiting.  

On another evening, as they looked at some of Asha’s earliest photos, she went into her bedroom and emerged with a small cube-shaped camera.  It was a 243 Baby Brownie Special.  Her very first camera.  She told Jabir her maternal grandmother had given it to her when her father received his first overseas assignment.  She and her grandmother had been very close and agreed that Asha would send her photos of the places they lived.  But photography soon became an obsession.  Over the years, Asha had acquired more sophisticated equipment and taken courses covering everything from shooting techniques and photo composition to darkroom skills. 

With their ages, lived experience as black people, and interest in travel in common, Asha and Jabir’s relationship flourished. In addition to their dinners, they began spending time together attending movies, going for sunset walks, and watching television.  Being in each other’s company so often also led them to share their life stories. 

Asha learned a stroke had partially paralyzed Jabir’s father the summer he graduated from high school.  Because of that, he’d foregone college and gotten a job to help his family financially. When the last of his four much younger siblings completed high school, he was studying for his insurance licensing exam.  After that, he’d married, subsequently gotten divorced, then spent years caring for his aging parents.

“I’ve lived alone since their deaths,” he said.  “I’m not that close to my brothers and sisters.” 

“That can be a good thing,”  she said, “Provided that it doesn’t lead to loneliness.” 

Jabir learned Asha was an only child and never married, despite twice coming close.  In both instances, her prospective husband had wanted her to leave the service and be a stay-at-home mother.  Jabir asked her if she ever regretted not marrying.  

“I’ve grown accustomed to having my own personal space and things as I want,” she said.  “Sometimes when I was doing a lot of traveling, it would have been nice to have had someone with me, but things just didn’t work out that way.”  

“That sounds a bit lonely.”

Looking thoughtful, she then said, “Well, during the day, you’re normally busy sightseeing.  It’s the constant dinners and nights alone in a foreign country with no one to talk with that are hard.”

That night, for the first time in a very long time, they spent the night with one another.  Theirs was not the sexually charged passion of youths.  Instead, each of them took simple comfort in knowing someone understood and deeply cared for them. 

   In the morning, when Jabir awakened, he lay there watching Asha sleep peacefully.  When she finally opened her eyes, he smiled at her and said, “I’ve been thinking.  We could travel together.” 

She stared at him, the silence discomforting.  Then he noticed the warmth in her eyes. Feeling reassured, he said, “I’ve been thinking of retiring.  We’re both in good health.  I’ve never been sick a day in my life.”

“I’d like that,” she said, moving closer until their bodies touched.  “You only live once.” After that, Asha and Jabir often spent the night together.  The focus and purpose of their dinners became deciding what places they’d like to visit.  First to make the list was Angkor Wat. When the places and their potential travel schedule had been settled upon, Jabir asked Asha if she thought they should purchase travel insurance.

“Why?” she asked.

“For protection.” 

She laughed.  “Once an insurance salesman, always an insurance salesman.  You do realize there’s no such thing as unlimited protection or an absolute guarantee.” 

He joined her in laughter.

o

Now,  late in the day, as the sunlight was waning, most of the tourists had departed.   Asha’s thoughts returned to the present as she set her shoulder bag on the ground, knelt down, and pretended to tie her shoe.  Digging in the ground with her forefinger, she created a shallow trough.  Then, she reached inside the shoulder bag, pulled out the plastic bag, and poured its coarse, white, sand-like contents into the trough.  

Jabir’s strokes and heart attack had been sudden and unexpected.  In the three years since his death, Asha had done her best to fulfill their plans.  His siblings, not having kept in contact with their brother, had actually appeared relieved when she asked for some of his cremated remains.  

Task done, Asha swept the loose dirt back in place with her hand and stood up.  She placed the now-empty plastic bag inside the shoulder bag and draped its strap over her shoulder.

  “Angkor Wat is beautiful, Jabir.,” she said.  “You’d have loved it.”  Then, after kissing her fingertips and touching them to her heart, she raised her camera toward the temple and pressed the shutter release button.      

END

Photo attribution: Termer, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

As My Attacker Drifts On Through or Other Men

 

As My Attacker Drifts On Through

or

Other Men 

Myles Zavelo

Ernest is talking to me and I’m talking to Ernest.  

This is a fact.  

If I ever have a boy, I will name him Ernest. 

(This is not a fact.)

And the person standing next to us says he has a headache.  But I forget his name.  

I know the boy with the headache is well read because in spite of the headache he lets us know that he is very well read.  

He has also written an essay on the possibility of cocaine-induced psychosis in Bright Lights, Big City.  In high school.  

I cannot remember his name but the definition in his face is gone, this is of course self-reported, and he’s gained thirty pounds, all because of lithium carbonate.  They used to be in the school plays. Their family used to tell them they were good looking.  Handsome.  That was before lithium––George?  

Is Adele hot?  Adele, our DBT Skills therapist?  This is the topic of discussion.  Ernest would do her, he says.  But there’s also not much Ernest wouldn’t do, these days, he tells me.  Ernest and Adele do different things for me.  They serve very separate roles.  For example, Adele will take me outside when I become overwhelmed (when I lose it, in her office).  She makes me count.  And Ernest will flash me the pornographic videos of him and the women he meets on Occupied and brings back to his sober apartment.  

You could call Adele an expert in what she does.  She used to work at McLean.  I ask her about ECT.  They have ECT at McLean.  These days I’m asking lots of people about lots of things.  Especially ECT.  

We wear the same brand of jeans and she’s spent time at my college, Bennington, in her youth.  She knows it’s not a sober place.  

“It’s just not,” she says. 

Ernest in not an expert in what he does.  He is from Savannah.  Everyone seems to be from Savannah.  He is coming from Cirque, in Utah.  And before Cirque (in Utah), hard intravenous drugs in Georgia.  And before that, action figures in his bedroom.  

And when playing with GI Joe dolls, he was elaborate, and contemplative.  

And when injecting drugs, he would make grocery lists that he could not execute.  

I will ask him questions about ketamine and he will tell me about going to music festivals, when he was my age, and the k-holes that happened at them.  Are k-holes necessarily bad things?  I don’t know.  

But he will still never know Bennington.  My Bennington.  I talk about my Bennington and he is in the room, listening to what I have to say.  

Other facts about Ernest.  His father is suicidal because of Bernie Madoff.  And his father calls his therapist “his consultant”.  Ernest is thirty-five.

And George?  

George?  Seth?  Or Liam?  stands there, with me. 

My brother used to tell me this.  Never play around with the escalator brushes.  Because the brushes will hurt you.  The brushes will eat your feet.  If you look into the brushes you will see a monster that swallows.  This is my first time inside the state of Arizona.  I am making a terrible impression.  I’m in pieces.    

My driver holds up a sign with my name on it.  He speaks to me as if I’m mentally disabled.  But it’s okay because he’s a nice guy and an older man and he’s my driver, and it’s a cliché, but everything is already shattered (have I blown things out of proportion?), and I am in pieces.

For some reason I am afraid of Kevin.  He will call me a fruitcake, later.  But I don’t know this now.  

All the hard work behind his fourth tango in Tucson will not go unnoticed.  He will be appropriately rewarded.  Kevin will become the recipient of, rumor has it, felatio.   

Yes, oral sex, on the track, behind the pool.  This is against the rules.  

The most likely female, judging by his robust homophobia, suspect still unknown.  

But this too, will happen later.  

And never you mind that Kevin is married––to a wife who, like Kevin, has just made an attempt on her life––with three children.  

But I don’t know any of this now.  

I meet Kevin in the car.  Our driver tells us where to sit and this is the beginning of my compliancy.  Kevin knows things.  He knows how much an eight-ball costs.  He knows about the snacks from the cafeteria.  Which, because of the utensils, we cannot enter unsupervised.  

In the car, he makes several phone calls to several buddies back in Spokane.  The ride is an hour long and we speak briefly, in intervals.  Kevin lets me know where we are going (and it’s a place that’s not in the brochure, it’s a place in which I will spend the better part of a week).  He’s done this all before.  Kevin is a train conductor with trauma.  We will be roommates for a few nights. 

I am definitely slouching because this is Ativan and it works (this is before I graduate to Klonopin).  I am in the tank and this is a sofa.  I’m trying to read but can’t.  Across from me are two young men. They’re watching Marley & Me (2008).  It would appear that Jennifer Aniston is not wearing a bra.  They begin discussing their shared enjoyment of this fact.  

Vernon is twenty-one.  He is wearing his favorite blue tee shirt.  He is a father, with a son named John.  He is a husband, with a wife named something.  He got married in Hawaii.  On a yacht.  A helicopter was present.  His father is probably in Ireland right now.  He owns an auto body shop.  This is what he tells us.  And what to believe?  Vernon is a first responder, detoxing from crystal meth.  A drug I can imagine him doing, and loving.  

Zach, his movie partner, calls himself crazy.  He’s from Kansas City and his favorite beer is Blue Moon.  

This place is not working out for him.  

For either of them.  

Zach is too sick.  He leaves early, the next morning.  

Vernon is a plain seizure risk.  

Vernon feels another seizure coming on and no longer cares about Jennifer Aniston’s body. 

And Zach notices that something is not right.  So he asks Vernon the following.  Are you okay?  Do you need water?  A nurse?  

This is a barely audible exchange from where I slouch, but I see everything.  Ativan works well (this is pre-Klonopin) but I begin crying so hard that I fall asleep.  The girls find Vernon funny.  

They think he’s a sweetheart from Savannah.  

The doctors and nurses hope for a transfer to another place (he’s been kicked out of most places but I think Vernon’s behavior is pretty good).  Vernon is in the tank for so long that they begin taking him for walks, outside. Vernon will make it out, two weeks later.  

Kelly stressed me out and made me cringe but Kelly likes me and calls me sweetheart.          So I thank her.  Kelly talks a lot.  Kelly had a crush on John.  Kelly tried sitting on John’s lap but Dirk made Kelly cut it out.  Kelly smokes Marlboro Lights.  Kelly will ask the nurses how the stock market is doing and the nurses have no idea.  Kelly largely complains of a kidney infection.  Kelly wears cowboy boots.  Kelly’s dad was in the Air Force but Kelly’s dad is dead and Kelly was three years old when someone started hurting Kelly and where was Kelly’s dad?  Kelly is not talking about crystal meth.  Kelly thinks Kelly is getting out of the tank but Kelly is not getting out of the tank.  Kelly is mean to Amberlee because Amberlee is traumatized and won’t stop talking about it and Kelly tells Amberlee to disappear but Amberlee somehow does not disappear.  Kelly reminds me of my attacker.  Kelly has two sons.  Kelly has an ex-husband.  Kelly’s ex-husband made Kelly’s blue eyed boy beat Kelly in the kitchen but Kelly’s blue eyed boy’s blue eyes secretly protected Kelly.

Kelly has nephews who ski.  Kelly’s nephews who ski work at a ski lodge.  Kelly’s nephews who ski teach people (who are not Kelly) how to ski.  Kelly asks Olivia if Kelly needs to be Olivia’s mommy in the tank.  Kelly asks Olivia if Olivia’s mom is 51/50 because Kelly’s mom was 51/50.  Kelly loves Olivia because Olivia is English and blonde and has been in movies but Olivia hates Kelly because Kelly is Crazy Kelly.  

Kelly is also mean to Matt.  Kelly is mean to Matt because Matt always calls his mom a cunt on the phone.  You’re not supposed to say words like always, or never.  Kelly is mean to Matt because the nurses caught Matt licking a page of his notebook.  Matt was licking his notebook because Matt dropped liquid LSD on the page.  

Matt is from Skaneateles.  Matt moved from Skaneateles to Colorado.  

Matt talks really funny.  I forget how Matt learned to shoot up.  Was Matt self-taught or did someone show Matt how? 

Matt believes in aliens.  Matt has seen a UFO before. 

I share air with Matt.  How many summers does Matt have left? 

In my room.  It’s the early morning and I could roll out of bed if I wanted to.  I might as well because I cannot fall asleep for the life of me.  Today I was afraid to leave the house because I might run into someone I know.  Tonight I ate an entire pint of ice cream and smoked a whole pack of cigarettes.  And, right now, I want to make a good gesture.  So I put my feet on the floor and everyone in this house is asleep.  Here are some other details.  I’m nineteen.  I can hear birds.  It’s cold outside, it’s December.  I go upstairs.  I go to my parent’s bedroom and before I know it, I’ve woken them up.  I’m going through their drawers and I’m making a ruckus.  I’m trying to find a box of band-aids that I know exists.  I am being naive.  I remember that I’m doing this because I have been misunderstood by my community.  Obviously my parents ask me what I am doing and I tell them that I am trying to find toothpaste.  But it’s band-aids!  

In the kitchen.  This is hard.  I’m not good at this.  But I’m also scared.  Why are you scared?  I’m not drunk.  I need to be drunk.  If I want to do this.  If I want to do this I need to be drunk but my family doesn’t want me to drink and I can’t break the agreement.  I’m scared.         I want to begin at my proximal forearm and I want to end at my distal forearm.

In the backyard.  It must be four o’clock in the morning.  I couldn’t do what I wanted to do in the kitchen.  I light a cigarette with a match and inhale.

At the corner store.  I’m buying ice cream with my brother.  He tells the clerk to never sell me beer or cigarettes.  Then he takes my left hand and shows it to the clerk.  “What’s this?,” he asks the clerk.  The clerk studies it and it only takes him a moment.  He tells my brother that is the burn of a cigarette.  That’s the only thing it could be, he says.  I am awful at slaughtering.    

Now I am living with other men.  This is a step-down facility.  They make declarations here.  They don’t say women.  They say things like…  anorexic bitches are better fucks than bulimic bitches.  They like rub and tugs.  They have gained weight on Zyprexa and Lamictal.  They have poor table manners.  They have blowhard dads.  Some have compliant mothers.  They are SDSU graduates and USC dropouts.  They have access to the very best pornography.  They are psychotic when under the influence of marijuana.  They have body dysmorphia.  They discuss the possibilities of fasting.  They love college basketball.  This is all part of my treatment.  This is the regimen.  What I wanted, asked for, and got. 

Do I actually do that to people?  I don’t know.  But I think it probably happens when she tells me that I do.  That I do that to people.  It probably happens when she tells me that I’m staring.  At her.  She tells me because something about this is not eye contact.  And this could be a part of the reason why people feel uncomfortable around me.  But yeah, that’s when it happens. Or perhaps it happens when he strongly suggests that I begin attending SLAA meetings here, in Los Angeles.  Either/or, that’s when I realize that they have the best therapists in town.  

I should correct myself–– that’s when I remember someone saying that, and agreeing with them–– they have the best therapists in town and I believe all of them. 

I am now officially doing chores for cigarettes.  I am doing this because a sofa has swallowed my wallet.  I am doing this because my parents will no longer put out for cigarette allowance.  This is because I have become a pack a day smoker.  With nothing to do.  So I empty the ashtrays, clean the stovetop, refill the beverages, and clean the kitchen floor.

Someone has messed with the grocery list. 

It now reads like this:

1. Turkey breast

2. Estrogen

3. Egg whites

4. Caviar

5. Oreo/Brownie Quest Bars

6. Breast Milk

7. Peppered jerky

8. Hummus

9. Rolex

10. Bag of spiders

11. Pineapple

12. Dildos

13. Pita Chips

14. Almond Milk

15. Roast Beef

16. Twinkies

17. Viagra

18. Mustard

19. Anal Beads

20. Trail Mix

21. Penis Pump

22. Jiffy

23. Life

24. Money

25. Corn chips

27. Salsa

28. Dark Chocolate

         And as I write this, something is happening.  An ex-Southern California Trojan Prince explains an ex-princess to us.  She was royalty but not quite royalty because his family was wealthier than hers.  Not as wealthy because they had to share a Ritz-Carlton bedroom with her kid brother and sister.  And at night they would make love on a cot and the lovemaking was rough and because it was rough, it was loud.  The kid sister and kid brother would wake up but then fall back asleep and the rough sex on the cot would continue and so on and so on.

Every morning my roommate jumps into the pool.  It is a filthy pool with rain water, tree leaves, some cigarette ash, and a deep end.  The pool is cold, our bodies are white, and the shock is a shock, so I begin joining him.  Dan is from Philadelphia/The University of Alabama. His parents own a sporting goods store near Delaware.  Dan has cannabis use disorder and there’s something wrong with his chest.  Dan is not his real name.  I have cannabis use disorder too.  But mild. 

In my last rehab I met Mark the Shark or Mark S.  A retired optometrist whose husband gave a young hispanic man a Pepsi enema, late one night.  

And a few times in the early mornings, the boy came back for more, and they would play around with him on the optometry chair that Mark had in his home.  

Mark also loved crystal meth and was not going door to door.  

But I go door to door.  

He asked me why and I told him why.  I say alcoholism.  I say alcoholism as a homeless man wearing green pants is being taken care of by paramedics.  My trainer likes drinking except for the carbohydrates.  

After the gym, I run into some boys from the sober house.  As we walk back to the house, it is apparent that we have nothing in common so there’s nothing to talk about but we see a policeman, waiting.  And he’s been there for a while now.  Dan calls him a faggot, barely, and I pay Dan five dollars to pee in his shorts in front of Sorority Row and I’m actually not an alcoholic. 

Why did this happen to me?  I’m not a bad person.  I’m a good person.  It’s been confirmed.  I didn’t hurt anyone.  

I can’t stand the sound of my name.  I can’t look at myself in the mirror.  I can hear the UCLA students on the campus, behind the house.  

DIYA’S WEDDING

DIYA’S WEDDING

Steven Masterson

Tomorrow Diya would marry Tariq. Diya and Tariq had never touched, they had never spoken. Their eyes had met just once. This was the way it was, the way things were meant to be. Syed was pleased with the wedding arrangements he had made for his daughter, and Diya would uphold her family’s honor. 

Tariq was the son of a neighboring village leader, and the bond between the two families would bring respect and strength to both. Connections were important here in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan; they could save your life.

But still she was afraid. Tariq was a handsome man, and she knew she wasn’t a beautiful woman. At fourteen she was really just a girl, but she could work and obey. She knew she could give Tariq sons if he found her acceptable. Tariq would teach her what she needed to know. She blushed at this thought.

With the ceremony a day away, neighbors offered their homes to friends and relatives who had begun to arrive. The village was in a festive mood with old friends meeting and laughing and singing. The dancing would be tomorrow. The women had been cooking for days, and Diya knew that somewhere nearby, the men would have some forbidden alcohol. This would be a joyful celebration! 

High on a mountain ridge overlooking the valley and village below sat two men observing the preparations and new arrivals. They watched with the survivalist eye and calm silence of fighters. If the soldiers came, Atif, the younger of the two, had his escape route planned. He didn’t fool himself; he knew that one day they would catch him and he would die. But the war would go on. In the end his side would win. That was why he kept fighting, and that was why he could face death. Allah willing.

“It will be a big ceremony,” Atif said to Bashir. 

Bashir responded, “Your brother Syed is well respected, an honorable man such as yourself.” 

“Yes, but he will not fight.”

“Atif,” said Bashir, “not everyone carries the sword. Perhaps Allah has another purpose for Syed. We cannot know.”

“You are right, we cannot. In the morning I will go down and see my brother and my niece. I will see my uncles and cousins, friends, maybe an old enemy or two.” Atif put his hand on Bashir’s shoulder. “You, my friend, will stay here and watch for soldiers, to warn me if they are coming.” He nodded at Bashir’s rifle.

Bashir said, “They will not be. You know that they are searching elsewhere. You will be safe but I will watch. Now you must sleep. The village is still a three-hour walk away.” 

When the sun rose over the mountains to the east, the villagers rose with it. Diya ate her final meal as her father’s daughter. She felt the giddiness, the nervousness, the fears, and the anticipation of a bride-to-be. 

Syed knew it was a sin to be full of pride, yet he was proud of the marriage that he had arranged, proud of the fact that his honor had attracted a man like Tariq. Surely Allah would forgive him this sin. This alliance would help bring wealth and security to both families. 

Atif had already been walking for an hour. High on the mountain ridge, Bashir thought of his friend. They’d fought together for twenty years, and Bashir had never seen a braver man. His courage under fire and his charisma away from battle had made him a leader among the fighters. This made him a marked man and continually hunted by his own country’s army and those of the west. He had become a liability. In this war, being invisible was best.

Atif was the battlefield commander but Bashir picked the battlefields. Bashir was the man in charge, the one who coordinated with other units, and the man who made the decisions. No one, not even among their fighters, knew this. It was as Bashir wanted it. Death follows notoriety; it was stalking Atif now. 

Bashir watched through binoculars as the groom and his family arrived on horseback. Syed had indeed done well, thought Bashir; even the women were riding. Looking at the sun, he knew Atif had been in the village for over an hour. It was time. Digging into his pack, Bashir pulled out a satellite phone and, punching a button, spoke three words… “He is there.”

Across the border in Afghanistan, on another valley floor, in a remote hanger on a small airfield, Preston had been expecting the three-word message. The agency had approved the kill-order on Atif. The warlord had hurt them more than once. The bastard seemed to know where and when to fight, and was fierce when he did. He fought where he was the strongest and they were the weakest. But now Preston had him. Atif had gone to the wedding. 

Preston himself had developed ties to this source and he was completely reliable. It had taken months but the source had finally gotten close enough to Atif to pinpoint his location. Now Preston would kill him. He took the target coordinates to the control room and handed them to a controller. “Now…Atif,” was all he said. Preston ignored the monitors and went back to his office. He knew the warlord was dangerous, and he knew he was saving American lives. But he could not watch.

In the beginning he had watched as the blood drained from the bodies and oozed away in the eerie, black-and-white thermal images. He had watched as the stain, and then the body, cooled and disappeared. In the bright light of day, he had watched small children run into the kill zone and die as they played, vaporized into mist, leaving behind no stain at all. He could watch no more.

Bashir was a good commander. He found the best end to the worst circumstance. Atif had become too big a man; they were hunting him. They would get him. He had become too dangerous to be around. Bashir had his replacement picked from among Atif’s lieutenants; a fighter other warriors would respect. Bashir would makehis star shine. The Americans had paid dearly for Atif. Money, enough to train many more rebels. And there would always be more men to train. Bashir had done the best he could. He turned his back on the village; he could not watch what he had done.

He heard the explosion as the drone-launched smoking spear crashed into Syed’s home. The terror from above seldom missed. Allah’s will: Syed’s purpose.

Diya and Tariq died ten feet apart; they had never touched. Atif and Syed died sitting face to face, Atif smiling while Syed spoke. Syed’s wife and two of her young children died making the last preparations for her daughter’s wedding.

Preston had his elbows on his desk and sat, head in hands, when the cheer erupted from the control room. His head sank deeper into his hands, forcing his lips back into the teeth-baring grimace of a man on the edge, losing his grip. His body swayed back and forth as his lungs exhaled in a tortured rush, then re-inflated with a frightened gasp. The sobs started deep in his soul and convulsed his body like Satan’s dance.  

Bashir started down the mountain. He had done the best he could; they would stop hunting. He had seen enough men die, lost enough of his fighters to have a hard heart, but Atif had been his friend. He fought to control his grief, for he knew what he would find below. 

He had been in Islamabad in April and watched the spectacle as the two mostly untrained pups had beaten the Americans in Boston. Even though the Russians had warned them! “They are as vulnerable now as they were for bin Laden,” Bashir said to himself, “still overestimating themselves. Atif and a handful of his fighters could have swept the streets clean of the western devils. Killed them on the corners where they stood.”

Bashir heard the pain as he neared the village. When he reached the wounded, he helped where he could. It wasn’t like it was in the west. There was no doctor, no ambulance, no hospital, no medicine; just dead, dying, and wounded men, women, and children: collateral damage. Bashir’s battle experience served him well closing wounds, setting bones, and removing useless limbs. He worked for hours and then, exhausted and bloody, went to sit in the shade of a tree beside the centuries-old well.

Bashir was a stranger in this village. No one knew him. But they knew he had been with Atif, they knew he was a fighter. He sat and waited in the shade of the tree. Now, Bashir thought, I will see what the Americans have truly paid for Atif’s life. I will see what seed has been planted today, and who will reap the harvest. They will come. If I was not here, they would come to the mountains.

He sat alone in the cool shade, watching the sun slide toward the mountains in the west, wondering when his time would come. “Allah’s will,” he spoke aloud, hoping The Prophet would hear.

They came to him through the village, six men and two boys followed by the remaining villagers, most still dressed in their bloody wedding finery. They stopped in front of Bashir, faces of shock and fear, and grief, hatred, rage, and determination. They stood disbelieving what had happened, yet knowing it had. One man stepped forward and spoke to Bashir.

“These two boys are Syed’s sons; they have a duty to their father. Three men from the village of Syed and three men from the village of Tariq will also go with you. We all have a duty to the families.”

“Debts will be paid,” Bashir said, and motioning to the six, he continued. “These men must train; in a few months they will be ready. The young ones, Syed’s sons, will take longer. Allah willing, they will go to America.” 

Sea Foam

Sea Foam

Sunny Stafford

‘Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep’

(William Shakespeare: Henry VI part II)

It was a place where the sea met the rocks and the rocks melted into the sea. In the shade of a twisted palm tree hosting thousands of glistening blackberries at its base, the girl watched as the translucent moon in a sky of mineral blue pulled the tide further up her legs. On the rocks beside her, a dead sea catfish stirred in the rising waters, its sun-hardened whiskers giving the eyeless body the look of petrified hope. A single crab prodded at the corpse with the patience of a matador past his prime. Dried bits of flesh were poked and prodded from the body of the fish. The girl knew the sea would take care of the rest. 

Galatea rubbed her left eye and winced. Over the years, she had been stung plenty of times. But this time, the walk through the swamp on her way to the jetty came at the cost of half of her vision for the day. The wasp that stung her eyelid was either smarter than the rest or just plain lucky. Galatea looked out to sea and watched the wind cast its sparkles onto the water. She reminded herself that beneath the surface an eternal battle was raging. From whale to minnow, everything was in a constant state of alarm. She knew there was no point in looking towards town. It was the same there, too. The only difference was the medium. But here, in the gray existence between water and air, Galatea felt like she was halfway home.

Dark clumps of seaweed drifted with the current and Galatea closed her good eye. The hirsute image of her father drifted across her mind. All those promises of riches and happiness, all the drunken blame on her mother and herself for the failure of the family Wool-works. It took three generations to build the family business, her great-grandfather nothing but a dirt poor sheep herder much further inland. But it only took a little more than a decade for her father, that monster of a man both in form and action, to ruin it. Fire took care of the rest. There was no reason to bury her mother, she was turned to ashes along with her father whose body was full of fuel in the form of cheap whiskey.

When the sea had reached her knees, Galatea was still deep in reflection with only a sliver of the seascape coming through her swollen eyelid. Then something soft struck her bare back. Again and again, she was struck with something that felt far better than some kind of malicious aerial assault. She looked up into the palm tree and saw nothing but the alternate fronds swaying in the breeze. When she turned back, she saw a few bruised golden grapes on the rocks. The grapes looked exotic, juxtaposed to the countless blackberries that stained the rocks they rested on with a deep purple. She had never tasted golden grapes, just green ones. Galatea picked up one of the grapes, took a deep breath and tossed it into her mouth. A smooth sweetness tinged with just a bit of acid made her tongue swell and her mouth water. When she swallowed, she saw her.

“I know, I know. It’s delicious isn’t it? I wasn’t sure if you’d eat it. Probably thought it just fell out of the sky from nowhere. But everything comes from someone,” the girl’s voice laughed from the palm tree.

“I can’t see you,” Galatea called out, shielding her good eye with her hand.

“You will. It just has to reach your eyes. Sorry. Your eye. Didn’t think I’d come across a cyclops today.”

“I’m not—“

“The name’s Acis.”

“I’m Galatea.”

“Well, what a pair we make. Hey, look!”

“Where?” Galatea shouted, looking around.

“At me.”

  If the sunlight dreamed of being a shadow in the form of a person, it would be who was climbing down the palm. Galatea put her hands into the rising waters to feel some kind of comfort as she watched. When the glistening shadow reached the rocks, texture and detail began to fill out the light. With every step, the form was walking towards personhood. By the time Acis reached Galatea, she was smiling, and in every particle a girl Galatea’s age in appearance. The dark-haired girl laughed as she sat next to Galatea.

“The last person ran away when I tried this,” Acis smiled.

“What are you?” Galatea asked.

“What are you?”

“I don’t know—“

“Me either. I’m just thrilled you can actually see me. Most people don’t get past a voice without a body.”

“But here you are,” Galatea muttered, not daring to make eye-contact.

“Here I am.”

“Well, I don’t like seeing most people and most people don’t take any mind to see me. So I guess we’re kind of even.”

“That makes us almost even. The water feels so good. It always does.”

It was then that Galatea noticed Acis’ legs in the water. Where the sea met her knees, the lower part of her legs were gone. Between the rolling wavelets, when the water had a moment of calm, there was nothing beneath the surface but the green water. A ring of sea-foam marked where Acis’ body gave way to water. Galatea marveled as a gust of wind sent the water to both their waists, leaving nothing below for Acis. As it receded, her body seamlessly was revealed.

“Quite a sympathetic thing I have going here with the sea, huh?” Acis laughed softly, looking down at herself. “When I go for a swim, I lose myself in it. Hey…you’re still here.”

“Me? Of course, I am,” Galatea laughed nervously. “But I keep on watching you disappear.”

“It looks like that. It always has. But you have a sea inside of you. Everyone does. I just have more. Look at your own legs. See how they change underwater?”

“Yes, but thats because of….refraction.”

“Sure. Call it what you want. But every particle of you wants to be what it once was. The sea is the womb of the world. We’re all sea-foam.”

“Can you breathe underwater?” Galatea asked, edging closer to Acis.

“I wouldn’t call it breathing. It’s more like a kind of being underwater. I just am as much as the water just is. Wait a moment. Don’t go anywhere.”

“What?”

Just as Galatea glanced out to sea, a rogue wave crested and crashed on the rocks. Countless particles of united seawater sent Galatea onto her back and into the blackberry bushes. When she looked up, in spite of the thorns pricking her knees and hands, she saw that Acis had disappeared. But when she looked down at the rocks, in a pool of sea-foam, she saw a glimpse of Acis. Looking to her left and right, she saw other bits of the girl as she crawled on her hands and knees back towards the edge of the rocks. 

As the water spilled back into the sea, the form of Acis appeared. Galatea watched as Acis lingered just beneath the surface like an aqueous hologram composed of water rather than light. Jellyfish, catfish, minnows of various sorts, a sea-turtle, a school of dolphins, nurse sharks and indistinct simple-celled organisms gathered around the image of Acis. Galatea watched and waited as the hot wind began its task of eradicating the rogue water on the rocks and herself.

Galatea had always found the wind disorienting. Wind proved the air was one of the minions of death and decay, the slow eater of everything standing. It was the wind that portended what was happening to her. As the creatures of the sea danced with Acis, Galatea felt her swollen eye begin to sting. The tinge of tickling pain turned to torment as the sensation crept down her face and throughout her body. Somewhere in her stomach, a white-hot lump of fire was cooking her from the inside. Galatea tried not to scream and expected to smell burning flesh but the stench never came. A gust of wind took her eyelids first. A dark liquid spilled out of her navel as her insides poured out of her in a viscous goo tending towards molasses. By the time she fell to her knees, nothing remained of her but clinging sinews and her lidless eyes. She wanted to close her eyes and destroy her sight but the setting sun mocked her in its radiance from afar.

Harmony, that strength of binding opposites, found its masterpiece when the wind sent a wave crashing onto the tormented body of Galatea. Following the slant and crevices of the rocks, the water brought her along on its journey back into the sea.

When her ruined body found its way into the sea, when the wind was nothing but an effect in the medium outside of the water, Galatea opened her eyes and saw.

The sea creatures were gathered around her and moving in their multifarious ways in a counter-clockwise direction. Galatea took no breaths, there was no need. She moved through the water as light does through space. There was no space or time, only a being. Her name sank to the bottom of wherever she happened to be like a hailstone would from a storm over the sea, sinking and diminishing before it even forgot it came from the sky. She was someone who had found where she was supposed to be, as true as water.

The palm fronds below her danced in the breeze as she looked down towards the rocks of the jetty. A small cloud high in the atmosphere drifted by the afternoon sun and melted before it passed. Below her, sitting on the edge of the rocks where the rising tide had almost reached her knees, a girl was rocking back and forth. Her left eye was swollen shut. From the top of the palm tree, she closed her eyes for a moment as she felt the light passing through her. Then she remembered the grapes. There were only three but she knew her aim was true. She pulled out one of the golden grapes and threw it at the girl below. Contact. She threw another. Contact again. Then another. The girl on the rocks at the edge of the sea turned and looked up into the palm tree. Acis smiled to herself as she watched the girl eat one of the grapes. When the girl’s lips pursed, Acis felt her own voice return.

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)

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 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. 

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 FAMILY

by

Mitchell W. Baum

Ice cracked under the tires as Mitchell parked at his grandmother’s house. The gray afternoon was fading. Crusted snow in the light of the house clung to laurel leaves, making the bushes sag. Only Mitchell and his sister were left to see the old woman now. Uncle Wally had moved to Florida and paid her bills from there. Mitchell lit a cigarette, delaying going in. He remembered the old house in Waterbury, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The tick of the tall clock in the front hall had made it seem that the house itself was alive and unchanging. In that house he’d always known what was expected. This house was like a shoebox, all on one floor, practical. His visit was overdue. It seemed incredible he didn’t come more often. 

Mary, the Black cook, let him in and took his coat. He liked her but was uncomfortable with her shyness. For both of them it was as if they mattered only for what they meant to the old woman. Mary was in her fifties. Mitchell wondered how she coped with her loneliness. A nurse came most days, but Mary didn’t drive so she couldn’t leave. He’d seen her, on her Sunday day off, hurry through breakfast, change into a pretty dress, and take a taxi to New London. He thought she must live for those days. 

“How is she, Mary?” 

“She’s pretty good. When she gets tired she doesn’t make much sense, but we don’t bother her with that. She’s been asking all day, ‘What time is it? What time is it? When’s he going to get here?’” 

She led him into the living room, where his grandmother sat peering at the fire. She had a round, pretty face and a cumulus of white hair. The big, winged chair dwarfed her like a child. She didn’t notice them come in. They stopped, not wanting to pierce the quiet. A spark sounded in the fireplace. 

“Look who’s here, Mrs. Wallace!” 

It took a moment for recognition, but then her arms shot out. She grabbed his hands, shook them, and laughed. She kissed him, then pushed him back. She held him by the lapels of his jacket. She seemed to soak him in. 

“Let me look at you!” 

She banged her cane on the floor. 

“Well, Mary, what do you think?” 

“Isn’t he handsome, Mrs. Wallace!” 

He was almost handsome but his extra weight made his face soft and undefined. His big, round eyes seemed perpetually questioning and indecisive. 

Mary brought them some drinks and nuts. 

“Good old Dr. Holiday says I need one of these every day for my heart.” The old woman winked. “What would I do without him?! So tell me, how’s that college of yours? Having a gay time with the girls?” 

“I’m keeping up the tradition,” he lied. 

“Well, that’s good! You should. When I was your age, there wasn’t all this seriousness you have now. We had some fun. There was a gang of us. I went to all the parties. Your grandfather, poor thing, was courting me for a long time, wanting to get married. But I kept putting him off because I was having too good a time.” 

Mitchell relaxed back into his chair. He had heard the story so many times, unchanging word for word, like a favorite song. 

“I wanted to go to the Yale Prom again. You can’t be married and go to a prom! But H. Mitchell had finally had enough. He came to see me one morning at my father’s house on Prospect Street. He got us alone, and he sat me down. ‘Now, Louise,’ he said, and I knew I was in for it.” She winked at Mitchell. “‘Louise,’ he said, ‘I’m taking the afternoon train to New York. Tomorrow I leave on a boat to Africa. I’m going to expand the business there. I plan to be gone five years. If you agree to marry me, I won’t go, but I have to know now.’” 

She laughed. “Well, I could see this was it. I didn’t want him to get away. I just wanted a little more time but he was so determined. So what could I do?!”  

She looked at Mitchell as if she was helpless. Then she laughed and looked into the flames like she was seeing it all again. 

Mary brought trays, which she set on little tables in front of their chairs. Mitchell was sad to realize they didn’t use the dining room anymore. 

Now Mrs. Wallace seemed exhausted. Mitchell realized how much the effort to be gay had taken out of her. She looked listlessly at her food. 

She’d always gotten what she wanted and been happy with it, but she was no longer in charge. When Mitchell was young, if he complained or was scared, she would say, “Oh, bubbles!” It always made him feel better, as if whatever the problem, it was not too big. But now the eyes that had been the happiest of his childhood looked tired and afraid. 

When they were done, Mary came in to take the trays. “Now Mrs. Wallace, you haven’t eaten but a bit of your dinner.”

“I tried to eat, Mary. Don’t make me eat more,” she pleaded, looking up at her.  

“Well, just eat some of those peas you haven’t touched while I take Mr. Mitchell’s tray to the kitchen.” 

Peas fell from her fork as she brought it to her mouth. Mary came back and took the tray. “That’s good enough for now, dear.” 

Mary’s approval reassured her. Mitchell saw his grandmother relax. 

“I don’t see anyone anymore. Where’s all the old gang you used to bring down? We used to play all the old songs, roll up the rug in the living room, and dance. Remember?” 

He didn’t remember. It was almost like panic. He didn’t know which generation she had placed him in. Did she think he was his uncle, or one of his grandfather’s friends? 

“I’m just an old woman now. Everything seems to have changed. I don’t understand what happened. Even H. Mitchell never seems to be here, and he was never like that.” 

She watched her grandson closely, as if he might provide some clue. 

“It makes me wonder…I wonder if there’s something I don’t know about?” 

Mitchell realized that she was asking if his grandfather had another woman. It stunned him. The pain of it. That something as strong as their marriage could be doubted and lost. Anything could be taken away. He was afraid to tell her, but there was no one else. He lit a cigarette. He leaned toward his grandmother, clasping his hands. 

“Granny, I’m your grandson, Mitchell.” He paused. She stared at him.  

“My grandfather, your husband, H. Mitchell, passed away. He died eight years ago.” 

She looked like he had hit her. Her face went slack. Slowly anger reanimated her. 

“Why do you say this when you know it’s not true? Why do you want to hurt me?” 

“Granny, I don’t want to hurt you.” 

He thought, I’ve done the wrong thing. His resolve left. He felt he couldn’t finish it. 

“What I told you is true. Granddaddy passed away.”

She continued to stare at him. He drew on his cigarette, not wanting to look back. He wanted to run outside. His grandmother seemed to be trying to figure out what was wrong with him. 

Finally she said, “I’ll prove it to you.” She picked up the phone and dialed. 

“Operator, I want to speak to H. Mitchell Wallace.” She paused, irritated. 

“Well, I suppose he’d be at the club.

“The Waterbury Club.

“Well, of course in Waterbury, Connecticut.” 

Mitchell marveled at the patience of the operator, that she was able to get the call through. 

“Hello… Yes, I would like to speak to H. Mitchell Wallace… He’s been a member of the club for a great many years… I’m his wife, Mrs. Wallace…

“I see. Yes, I’ll try again later. Thank you very much.” 

She hung up the phone and turned to her grandson. Her eyes were clear and alive with triumph. 

“They said he isn’t there yet.” 

Mitchell felt terribly alone. He imagined the kind, well-intentioned man at the club desk. Perhaps he had worked there when his grandfather was alive. 

Mitchell heard a voice that didn’t seem his own. 

“Maybe you can reach him later.”

SECOND LIFE

Shellie Richards

Who checks for lumps before age fifty? I was only seventeen when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My breasts more closely resembled moon pies than actual boobs. The round hockey-puck-like protrusions had grown a mass, and I never even noticed. It spread to the lymph nodes and then it was everywhere. After months of chemo and radiation, I was bald but in remission. About the time my eyebrows decided to grow in (right after I got good at drawing them on), I got run over by a UPS truck. I was pulling a box turtle from the road in early June and then everything went brown—then black. Damn UPS truck. I didn’t die instantly, though. I lingered while my parents and sister held a bedside vigil of hope. Every day after her shift, the UPS driver came by to see how I was. Had I opened my eyes? Had I squeezed anyone’s hand? Had I wiggled my toes? Each day was more waiting, more hoping that I’d suddenly come to life and ask for some nachos, a Pepsi, and my cell phone. Then, on day ten, I flatlined. 

What a relief that was! The constant sobbing and reminiscing and profuse apologies from the driver depressed me, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it but lie in the bed and listen. And I heard it all. I heard my sister on her cell phone with her boyfriend—not her husband, her boyfriend. Who knew? I heard my dad squeal like a little girl when he landed tickets to the Masters golf tournament and then listened to him practice his speech (the one he’d give to my mother) over and over. He cleared his throat and tried various tones of “disappointed yet excited” and “somber yet ecstatic” so she’d understand that while it was their silver anniversary, this was the chance of a lifetime (!!!). Maybe she’d like to come too. Then I listened as my mother said yes and later cried on the phone to her best friend about the anniversary party that would never happen. Then there was the whole living will disagreement. My sister and mother wanted me to remain hooked up to the life-sustaining machines, while my father argued I would never have wanted to live like a vegetable.

“But she’s come so far! She fought the cancer and she won! Against all odds!” My mother’s crescendo of defiance filled the ICU.

“Yes, Marion, I know. You say it like I wasn’t there! I just don’t think Rachel would want this! I know she wouldn’t.”

“Oh really, Jack? And how do you know that? Did you ask her, ‘Hey, Rachel, if you were in a coma and hooked up to machines that were keeping you alive, would you care whether we pulled the plug?” My mother’s voice disappeared into muffled sobs.

But none of that mattered. I died anyway.

I was buried in the family tomb in New Orleans in the Lafayette Cemetery, and before I even had time to fully decompose, I came back. And despite common reincarnation folklore, I remembered who I’d been in my previous life. Reincarnation is funny like that. Stranger still, I’m living in the same city on the same street, attending the same school. Some days I go over to the cemetery and pull weeds from around the tomb where my old bones are slowly baking to dust. No one else in the family has passed away, so I’m still on the top shelf of the tomb. Just the other day, I watched a caterpillar on the marble tableau weave in and out of the date on which I’d died—June 11. He walked up the first one and down the second one and over to the first two in 2012. I left him sitting in the center of the zero, where he evidently decided to take a siesta. I walked home, past my old house and my old family with my old mom cutting roses in the front and my old dad working on a new charbroil grill. They smiled and waved and so did I. They’d no idea and I didn’t want to freak them out, but I could have.

“Hey, Mom, remember the day you taught me how to ride a bike without trainers? A storm was coming, but I was so excited because I was sooo close, and so we stayed on the sidewalk in the pouring rain, and later we went out for milkshakes to celebrate? Chocolate mint!” Or “Hey, Dad, remember when I fell off my bed and busted my chin and got stitches on your birthday and then four days later when it was my birthday, you cut yourself and had to get stitches too? And the nurse took our photos, mine with my stitched chin—I got seven and you with your stitched-up hand, you got eleven—and hung them on the bulletin board at the nurses’ station? How funny was that?”

I admit I think about saying something, but they were good parents, and I just can’t bring myself to creep them out. But there is something… My former sister, the one with the husband and the boyfriend, both of whom happened to be named Jerry, now runs a bakery in the Garden District and, well, I applied and got the job. And maybe I cheated a little. I said how I loved gingerbread, and she said, “Me too!” and how my favorite color was yellow, and she said, “Me too!” and then I said my favorite soup was the shrimp bisque at Commander’s Palace, and that was that. I was hired on the spot. But I hate gingerbread. And yellow. And shrimp bisque. I’m a gumbo kinda girl. I was then, and I am now. But I do have real boobs this time, not those old moon pies like before. The apron I wear at La Bon Bakery stretches nicely over them. It’s been years—sixteen to be exact—and Jerry the boyfriend is gone and it’s just Jerry the husband now. Still, on the days we bake cherry pies, I always sing, “Cherry-cherry double Jerry-Jerry,” and watch for any sign that she gets it. She doesn’t. 

She does talk about me from time to time. How great I was, how perfect I was, and how sad she was when I died. She’d go in my room and lie on my pillow and bury her nose and smell. It smelled like Moroccan oil. That’s what I always used on my hair. She listened to my iPod and after that, she said she’d listen to rap music at least one day a week just to remember me. She’s told everyone about how I died pulling a box turtle from the road and how the UPS driver was never able to forgive herself and how she no longer drives. Instead, she works at Fresh Market grocery in their deli. Rides her bike there and back and, every Tuesday, brings my old sister a pound of London broil and a pound of smoked turkey. In exchange, my sister bakes a cake shaped and iced like a box turtle. I can’t imagine that’s consoling, but whatever, right? 

I mean wtf? “Hey, here’s a cake in the form of a box turtle just like the one Rachel was pulling from the road the day you ran her down in the street like a dog…” Too dramatic? Maybe, but I wouldn’t want some sordid reminder and at 750 calories a slice to boot. No thanks. I must admit I found the whole fixation on the turtle rather odd. I mean, it was just a small part of my story. Just a thing I was getting out of the road. Me, the one who had survived breast cancer. At age seventeen, against the odds, only to be run over by a UPS truck. If I’d died at the hands of a drunk driver who’d been drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, would they toast my memory with PBR? 

My old sister’s not half bad as a boss. She’s fair when I need a night off and she always lets me take home a dozen or so cookies. My favorite, the snickerdoodles, are especially good. I’ve never had a better cookie anywhere. They are crisp on the outside with a soft center and the perfect amount of spices. Last week, a guy drove three hours from Mississippi just for the snickerdoodles. He bought all we had, and I had to take home oatmeal raisin that night. Bastard. And the regulars, the ones with discerning tastes, and the local foodies all come for the snickerdoodles. I’ve no idea what is in them, but I imagine it’s a lot like crack cocaine. Try them once and you’re hooked. 

At the bakery, I don’t actually mix them—that is to say, I don’t know the recipe. I just plop them out in tablespoon-sized dollops for baking. But I imagine baking them at home until my tiny apartment has permanently captured the aroma, storing it in my curtains and walls, and each day when I come home, that incredible smell greets me like an old friendly dog. I figure there must be some secret ingredient that makes them so delicious; I suspect it’s something odd, like a dash of black pepper or walnut oil or some exotic ingredient she has imported. I’ve asked but she always pantomimes the zippered, buttoned-up lip and smiles. Only she knows the recipes for everything she bakes, and she guards them like the NSA guards classified documents. 

I guess if I ran a bakery with cookies that good, I’d guard them too. But I was her sister. Even now, I’m [still] practically family, right? I was family and the only thing that has kept me from having that recipe as far as I’m concerned is that UPS driver! If you were going to share a recipe, wouldn’t you do so with a family member? How much closer can you get than me, former sister, previously Rachel? She keeps her office locked up like a bank vault and she’s good at keeping secrets; we know that already, right? Cherry-cherry double Jerry-Jerry. But I just keep imagining my apartment filling with the smells of baking snickerdoodles, and I wouldn’t mind that red velvet cake or the million-dollar pound cake recipe while I’m at it. Or the pumpkin roll she makes only in October and November.

Here’s my plan (it’s not foolproof, but stay with me). One day while old sister’s busy in the freezer with inventory, I’ll sneak into her office, pick the locks on her cabinets (I’ve researched lock-picking extensively), quickly photograph the recipes with my phone, and be out before she can count three sticks of butter. That’s my plan. Part A. Part B is where things get sketchy. If she catches me digging through her files, I’m going all out with the freak show. I’m going to dredge up every last thing she did when I was Rachel—those things only Rachel would know…like how she accidentally broke Mom’s antique washing bowl that had belonged to her great-great-grandmother circa Civil War era. Or how she burned down the garage and everything in it one time when she was sneaking a cigarette—Dad’s golf clubs (including his lucky driver), Mom’s antique dresser, my childhood books and dolls all nothing but ashes (nothing against ashes—lots of really good stuff ends up ashes). Conveniently, it’d occurred around the Fourth of July, and so “fireworks were the obvious culprit.” Uh huh. I’m with ya, sister. Cherry-cherry double Jerry-Jerry. Marlboro Lights and bottle rockets are hardly the same. Shoplifting. Skipping school. Losing her virginity at fourteen. Underage drinking. I know all of her sins, and if my hand is forced, I’ll have to do it, and it will be greater than any sideshow at any circus. I will try my best to avoid the freak show route. I like my gig here, and old sister is not so bad. In fact, I much prefer her to my brother I have now. But I need that recipe. I need to know what is in those snickerdoodles.

It was indeed a freak show. FREAK SHOW. I waited until she was in the freezer counting eggs and butter, and I went into her office and picked the lock to the cabinet. I went straight to the S’s for snickerdoodles, and without even reading the recipe, I photographed it. Then the million-dollar pound cake, then the red velvet cake, the Italian cream, the fresh coconut, and the pumpkin roll. I lost focus and got greedy, and I would’ve been fine except I noticed cabinet number two. I hadn’t counted on that. With the precision of a seasoned thief, I picked the lock, and that’s when the freak show started. I opened that cabinet to a shrine of sorts. In the center, a single turtle shell and around it, a few candles, some incense, an urn (???), and photos of me everywhere. Well, technically, of Rachel. Photos of me on my bike, me and old Dad with stitches, me at graduation, me on chemo with my drawn-on eyebrows. I examined the turtle shell closely. It had to be the one. Had to be. There were grooves in the shell where it had sailed across the asphalt. I ran my fingertips over the scratches. Without thinking, I shut the cabinet door, turtle shell in hand, and headed toward the front. As I stepped out into the hall, there she stood, old sister. Her mouth dropped and I knew it was coming. The wtf are you doing with my turtle-shell-shrine-shit? But I never gave her the chance. I figured the best I could do was try to get away. So I made a run for it, and the last thing she said was “Butter!” As I turned to look at her, I slipped in a puddle of butter and went down, snapping my neck on the counter as I went. The turtle shell popped out of my arms (once again), and in my peripheral vision, I watched as it skidded across the floor and eventually sputtered to a stop.

I could’ve wasted my final words on “I was Rachel, your sister who beat cancer and died saving a turtle, and I hope the cigarette was worth the garage burning to the ground,” but all I managed before I went was “I love your snickerdoodles. What’s in them?”

LIONS IN THE GARDEN

LIONS IN THE GARDEN

Molly Gillcrist

Erna is sitting in her wheelchair on the sunporch of Homestead Manor while Charmaine braids her hair.

“‘You see, Erna,’ he told me as he stepped back from the crate, ‘it’s not everyone has lions in his garden.’ ‘His garden?’ I said to myself. I’m telling you, Charmaine, from the minute he threw the excelsior off those snarling heads, Mason fought me at every turn. I mean, for a long time he’d been like a zombie at home. Mind at the office, I thought. Ouch, Charmaine! I did what I pleased, and he never noticed unless I pointed out something like the hyacinths under the daphne. But after those lions were out of their box, Mason came to. Where’d I get this, he’d want to know. Why’d I put something here or take it from there? My peace. What? Place? No, Charmaine. Today I say my garden was my peace.

“Two acres on a hill topped with oaks, a step across the city line. Grapevines curling near the bittersweet. May apples blossoming in the spring. And birds. Yes. In bare winter I’d see a nest in every tree. In summer I’d sometimes slip outside when it was still dark and wait at the corner of the porch. I’ve never heard anything so hushed—expectant—you know. The breeze would rise up a little, then fall back with the hint of light. I’d wait till I could see my right hand clearly, then lift it, just a bit, like this. The air would fill with song. I felt like Eve.

“When Orrie was still in high school, I could count on Mason arriving at six. But after Orrie left for the East and those lions were delivered, he started coming at five, at four. He even came at noon a few times, but I wouldn’t look up at him when he did that. He was howling my territory. That’s what I said, Charmaine. Prowling.

“And then he attacked. I can still hear the snarl of the backhoe coming up the drive. Mason ran it straight down the old roadbed Orrie helped me line with walls of rock from the quarry. We heaved those limestone blocks and set in ivy above them while telling stories about the folks who’d rumbled by in their covered wagons, pulling their cows behind. By our time it was grown over, of course, but you could still see the wheel ruts. Those should be saved, you know. Well, because—because they’re evidence, Charmaine. And there was Mason, hoeing up the roadbed, laying pipe to the lions on the bank of the deep hole he’d torn through the violets by the end of the wall. Now, I tell you, that was something I couldn’t forgive. How’d he know about such a thing as a backhoe? He spent all his time with numbers down at the bank.

“You’re right, it was Mason’s land too. But he’d never claimed it. I made it mine. I’d wanted that hilltop since I first noticed it way off in the distance from my father’s office when I was sixteen. From that high and far, it looked like the Promised Land, green and glowing at the end of day. I was careful not to talk about it much. Let it grow on Mason. One day he came home with the deed. I nearly loved him then. I’d thought he was the one who’d get it for me.

“Mason was ten years older, you see. Yes, ten. Not twelve, Charmaine. I should know. Our fathers worked together and he’d always been around, staring at me. Wary. I played the flirt with others and ignored him. He was such a serious person—lean and tight, already a manager. The more I ignored, the more he watched. To be honest, Charmaine, I liked his staring, yet until I saw that hill and knew it was the place for me, I didn’t think of him as a lifetime prospect. But then it came to me that if the hill was to be mine, Mason could help me get it.

“He liked my hair, Charmaine. Auburn it was then. So I was careful, when he was around, to sit where the light would catch it and then look up with a smile when I felt his eyes on me. Little by little I drew him in. We married when I was twenty. I never told anyone what I thought. Yes, maybe you. But I never told anyone else—not even my sister, Hortense. You remember. She stopped by a month ago. The twenty-third? All right, closer to the thirtieth. Anyway, I really did think, now he has what he’s wanted, and soon he’ll give me my heart’s desire, and that will be that.

“But there are many hours, Charmaine. He was always wanting me to listen. ‘Just hear that!’ he’d exclaim when he played music, or ‘Isn’t that interesting? Don’t you agree?’ he’d look over after he’d read me something he’d found in a book. Always wrenching me out of my own thoughts, forcing me to pay attention to his. I wanted to be out where it was quiet, and when he came outside with me, he drove me wild with fussy questions. ‘Why’d you put the lilies here—and facing this way and just so deep and cover them exactly this way?’ he’d want to know. And ask me the same questions later and say I’d said something else before. I couldn’t explain lilies to him, but I knew what they liked.

“How civilly we yanked and prodded each other nearly raw! And neither would yield. Even if Orrie hadn’t been born, I don’t think we’d have ended it. Too obstinate. And then there was Orrie. He was such a soothing child. The years he was home, sometimes we were almost—a family.

“At least until Orrie left, the land didn’t matter to Mason. I ask you, how can land not matter? Remember that poem? You know—where we go to meet all the kings and queens who ever lived? They’re all in the earth, you see. And we’ll be with them. Everyone who ever lived. I like that. Mason hadn’t thought that way at all. He lived on the surface. He stayed with his numbers and books and music like a bird on a wire, unaware of the messages hurtling through the curl of his feet.

“Live and let live, you say. Before I lived with my alternative, I thought that too, Charmaine.

“Orrie knew how to join in. He’d watch what Mason or I was doing, see a part of it he could do, and just step in, the way a jumper watches the twirl of the rope and slips in to the center. I could do that with him too. See a space and step in. Mason never could. It was force with him. You don’t understand what? Why we didn’t talk about it?

“Don’t talk to me about talking, Charmaine. There’s too much of that now. Mrs. Hartley even tells me when she moves her bowels. She does too, and you know it, Charmaine. As if she has to tell me! How could I not know? She looks so satisfied when she hobbles out after. Transfixed on her bowels. What a thing to come to! That’s not funny, Charmaine. Your turn will come.

“Where was I? Yes. You think I should have said what I felt. Well, Mason didn’t say what he’d been doing—studying! After the lions were uncrated, he pulled out a big, yellow envelope and slapped it down in front of me on the table. ‘I’ve been researching,’ he said, ‘and making plans.’

“The next day a truck delivered a load of gravel for the bottom of the hole he’d dug. Before noon the pipe was connected, and by evening enough water had gushed out the lions’ mouths to make a dark pool. Well, Charmaine, it looked dark to me. When it was full, Mason turned down the valve so the water dribbled—day and night it drooled out of the mouths of those lions. Wherever I was in the garden, I could hear the noise it made. Even in the house I was pursued. I’m telling you, Charmaine, that water was not a comfortable sound.

“Then Mason decided to plant an apple orchard, starting at the top of the hill and marching south. I told him that would mean cutting down most of the oaks, and he said, ‘Yes, Erna, it will.’ I told him to wait, that it would drive the birds away, that orchards were best put on a north slope, that summer was not a time for planting trees. But he tapped his plans and said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do, Erna, starting tomorrow.’

“In the morning two workmen knocked on the door, and for the three weeks of Mason’s vacation, there was nothing but noise—the growl of the power saws, the crashing tear when the oaks fell, and the backhoe rending the hill. The birds disappeared. I couldn’t look. I tied a thick scarf over my ears, but I could still hear the noise.

“Mason was true to his plans. By the end of his vacation, the orchard was planted. But I had a scheme of my own. I waited till fall and while he was working at the bank, I picked up a basket, stuck a trowel in my pocket, and went out to gather acorns. It took time—arthritis was already stiffening my joints—but I filled that basket full and dragged it out to the orchard. Around every sapling and in between, I dug small holes, put an acorn in each, and covered them very neatly. You couldn’t tell where they were or where I’d been either because I smoothed over my footprints when I backed up the hill—every row. The next spring I went out and pulled weeds, only those that might smother the oaks. They’d get a good start before Mason could tell they weren’t weeds.

“I knew those fruit trees would wither, Charmaine. They’d be fooled by the sun shining so friendly in January’s false spring and burst into flower. In a day or maybe less, a storm would come to wrench away their bloom, and during summer dry spells they’d use all their resources just to endure. They couldn’t grow in that location. Mason hadn’t learned anything about orchards from his study; he’d just decided to settle our account.

“You want to know about ruin, Charmaine? Listen to me. With no leaf filter to cool them, my daphne and vines and trillium—everything—blanched from the sun. They lost their vigor and faded away. Several birds did return. Out of habit, I suppose.

“Mason staked and fertilized and watered his trees, but most were dead in two years’ time, and he was gone in another. He left for the bank one morning, and they told me he slumped at his desk. He had never apologized. You’re right, Charmaine. Neither had I. He did leave me some money in trust, enough to live in an apartment but not enough to stay on the hill. And I didn’t want to anymore. It was no good offering it to Orrie either. He wasn’t coming back.

“Before I left, I planned to take a hammer and smash the lions, but then I decided to leave them be. I would turn off the water and let nature take its course with them. When the oaks grew tall to shade the hill again, the ivy would return. It has a way of coming back, you know. It wouldn’t be many years before the lions were covered, and the place would be the way it was before I came.

“Yes, I’ll be all right, Charmaine. But don’t wheel me back just yet. If you don’t mind, I’ll stay here on the porch for a while.” 

Photo: public domain, provenance unknown

Deep Cleaning

Deep Cleaning

Ron Singer

 

The first time you make a mistake, you can usually shrug it off. But, if you make it again, you may be stupid. (Is there a saying to this effect?) I also believe that serious pain can teach enduring lessons. In the course of two recent cleanings, for example, I have become a poster boy (aged 72) for dental hygiene. Not to belabor the obvious, but this means thorough brushing and flossing after every meal, and no shortcuts with what Scott, my dentist, calls “the electric”: two minutes every night, before bedtime. I have also put an end to procrastination over office visits (to his office—I don’t have one, anymore). These days, I’m not especially busy, and since Mary is still toiling away in the vineyards of primary-school education, we continue to enjoy adequate dental insurance. Ergo, I go. No excuses. 

Accordingly, three months after the last, routine cleaning, and the day after receiving Scott’s friendly reminder (by snail, still), I made a new appointment, then showed up at the appointed hour, on the appointed day. As I climbed out of the cab and paid the driver, I dared to anticipate another “shallow” cleaning. 

While I waited in the anteroom for Scott to finish up with another patient, my whole dental life flashed before me (the last two visits, anyway): two voyages around the eight surfaces of the four quadrants of my mouth (each, recto and verso); my thoughts during the first, “deep” cleaning, which had included the sudden death, from a brain aneurysm, of a thirty-something friend, Charles Goldstein, and the funeral and sightings of his unquiet ghost; and, finally, Scott’s having confided in me that his son had been diagnosed with bi-polar disease. To my subsequent self-flagellation, his unspoken plea for sympathy and guidance had gone unanswered. 

By now, all that seemed like old hat: omissions, obsessions, and mistakes, there was no reason to dwell upon them–or repeat them. Charles’ restless ghost was long gone, even from my dreams. And, at the start of the second visit, I had asked about the boy — albeit rather brusquely. Not to be cynical, but the best good deed may be when you are rewarded for the intention. Scott had replied that his son’s illness had turned out to be “blessedly mild.” After a dicey start, they had regulated the lithium dosage, and the young man seemed to be doing better. 

“Thanks for asking, Marty.”

As soon as he ushered me into his office, I asked again. This time, although I couldn’t remember the son’s name, I tried to put a little feeling into the question: “How’s your boy doing these days, Scott?” In response, I received the same information as last time. Even Scott’s words, if I remember correctly, were the same: “…regulated the dosage … managing better.” Did he use those words with every patient? For an instant, the possibility hurt my amour propre. But then I remembered my cold reaction when he first confided in me. By what right could I now expect a personalized response? As you sow…. Besides, it would have been strange if Scott enjoyed this topic of conversation.

The moment before asking the question, I had hesitated for a single beat. I was having a little tussle with the residue of superstition that I suspect lingers even in rational people. When my wife holds her breath as we drive past that mile-long cemetery in western Queens, or when my daughter throws spilled salt over her shoulder, I confess to a feeling of amused superiority. But I don’t believe anyone is completely un-superstitious. 

Speaking of which, although I stopped seeing the ghost of Charles Goldstein long ago, it occurs to me that the sightings may also have been a subtle form of superstition. When someone several decades younger than you drops dead on the street one day, resurrecting them could be a way of shrugging off the actuarial implication that you are living on borrowed time. And don’t give me that crap about how “we all live on borrowed time.” The borrowed time of a thirty-something is nothing like the borrowed time of a seventy-something.  

As I was saying, at the moment of opening my mouth to ask Scott how his son was doing, I was brought up short by superstition. To ask the question might upset the stasis that the boy had apparently reached. But, then, I thought how superstitious it would be not to ask. And I realized something else: if the stasis (like a bad dental crown) had not held, I did not want to know. The fact remained that I still didn’t really want to share Scott’s burden. What an ignoble feeling! What a relapse into the coldness for which I had berated myself after the deep cleaning! So, as I have indicated, I did ask, after all, and Scott replied, also as indicated. After that, he changed the subject.

“Let’s get started, Marty, I’m running a little late today. Open, please.” 

And he launched into his usual expert renewal of my mouth. Scott’s care is personalized. As usual, he had hung my x-rays from a clothespin in front of a magnifying light three feet from the chair, so he could refer to them. After the hygienist had glided in, painted a little of the “local” onto my gums, and glided back out, Scott did a quick survey of the territory, accompanied by a blow-by-blow description. 

“Ve-ry good. That old crown, back bottom left, seems to be holding. We can postpone replacing it until the new insurance year kicks in…. And, let’s see … the temporary filling, third one in, top right…” Scott has an exceptional chair-side manner.  

Twenty minutes and three quadrants later, as we paused for a rinse and a jaw stretch, superstition once again pounded at the portals of my mind. (Whew!) Perhaps it was because, for whatever reason, we had not been saying much. Under the circumstances, of course, my own capacity to initiate conversation had been very limited. (“Ehhhee, aaww ett.”) But what about Scott? Had his excellent wife run off with the postman? Had his other, “normal” son disappointed? 

Not that our silence had been uncomfortable, but it was anomalous because, normally, Scott natters. Come to think of it, I would be surprised if there were many silent dentists. If he is typical (and I’m not forgetting the bi-polar son), it could be that many dentists suffer from incipient melancholy, which, most of the time, they fend off by nattering. But now and then, their motors must run down.

Thus far, the cleaning had been smooth and easy –a little picking, a little scraping, nothing that tested my medium-low pain threshold. So now I almost said, “Seems to be going much better this time, Scott. All those two-minute sessions with the electric must be paying off.” Yes, I may as well admit it: I was feeling a little cocky about my newfound dental fitness. But I kept my proverbial pie hole shut. Why? Again, superstition: I feared the evil eye (or tooth). So I rinsed (very little blood), he reinserted the sucker, and we proceeded without incident to the northwest quadrant (top left, verso). As we glided toward this ultima thule, I filled our still-companionable silence by revisiting images from a favorite film, Master and Commander. 

“Which of us is which?” I wondered. And “do Galapagos tortoises have teeth? If so, do they decay and fall out as the animals approach an age not unlike eternity?” In fact, as I have since determined via a thirty-second visit to the Google Virtual Public Library, no modern tortoise has so much as a single tooth. 

On we sped, coming without incident into port. Toothbrush, floss, and paste were proffered, hands shaken, and that was that. Promising to “keep up the good work,” I danced from the office, mentally clasping my clean bill of dental health. As I sailed across the sidewalk, hoping to catch a cab home, I did not suffer, as I had after the deep cleaning, from any self-flagellating thoughts about insensitivity or stupidity, connected, of course, with ever-encroaching mortality. But I did recall something else, which made me freeze right there on the curb, on this typically warm June day. 

Early in the course of today’s session, an unwelcome image from another film had flashed, like heat lightning, across my mental horizon. (The careful reader –frequent sailor on these strange seas of literary thought– will see an epiphany about to appear on his own horizon. Not even a shot across the bows could make it tack and turn.)

The unwelcome image was of Lawrence Olivier, the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man, torturing poor Dustin Hoffman. Fleetingly, back there in the bottom right recto, it had occurred to me to ask Scott his opinion of this film. The question could possibly have started us on a survey of famous movie dental scenes, like the hilarious one in which biker/dentist Bill Murray tortures Steve Martin. But, once again, I had kept my pie hole –well, not shut, but silent. 

No, I had not asked, “Uhht ooo ink uh Awruhnce Oeeiuheh …?” etc. That question might have been given point by the fact that Scott (like many New York dentists) is, as am I (like many of their patients) a member of what I refer to as “the Jewish perversion” (i.e. persuasion). Not to mention that Hoffman plays the eponymous (Jewish) runner, and that Scott is himself a serious jogger. 

Back out on the sidewalk, on this morning of only moderate humility (boom boom), as I stood at the curb, arm upraised for a cab, I imagined how, had I given rein to curiosity and asked the Olivier question, the conversation might have gone:

Marty (I, me):  You’ve seen Marathon Man, right, Scott?

Scott: Hasn’t everyone seen Marathon Man? 

Marty: Well?

Scott: ‘Well,’ what? (Note: doesn’t want to answer. Drop it!)

Marty: What did you think of the dental scene? 

Scott: What do you think I thought? It was horrible.

Marty: Well, of course, Olivier was playing a Nazi.

Scott: Yeah, I noticed. But he was also playing a dentist. A very bad dentist, one who intentionally inflicts pain. 

So, as my raised arm began to tire, and I realized that this was the hour when the taxi drivers’ shift ends, and that I might have to resort to the hated subway, I decided I had done the right thing, after all. Had this conversation actually taken place, during subsequent procedures of any kind, if Scott happened to inflict any pain on me –unintentional, of course—we would both have awkward flashbacks to the Marathon Man conversation.

Yes, over the (I hope) years to come, during numerous visits (not, I hope, too numerous) to Scott’s office, as I try to preserve my teeth, in order to help sustain a Galapagos-like longevity (if I may be permitted a little latitude), I can schedule my regular appointments, then settle into the familiar chair and enjoy Scott’s wizardry, with the small satisfaction of not having evoked the confused archetype of cruel dentist/Nazi/Jew and hapless patient/victim/also Jew. When one visits a dentist repeatedly over the years, one does not need to bring along needless mental plaque. No, the dentist-patient relationship is sufficiently fraught, without making it worse. Scott, the Dentist, and Marty, the Patient, must and will continue to work together in relative harmony.

Note: “Deep Cleaning” (1) narrates two earlier visits by Marty, a retired advertising copywriter, to Scott, his dentist. “Deep Cleaning” (1) appeared at www.snreview.org › Spring2009

My Yoke is Easy

My Yoke is Easy

James William Gardner

It was just Amos Handy and God standing there together on a lonely two lane road in Mississippi in the dark in the middle of the night.  It was God who first spoke.  He said, “Amos, what in the world are you aiming on doing now?”  There was a soft, breeze like God’s breath.  Amos didn’t answer the Lord right away.  He thought about it a while and of course when it’s just you and the Lord that doesn’t really matter because the Lord hears everything you’re thinking anyway.  He more than likely knows it before you do.

Finally Amos Handy said to the Lord, “I really ain’t sure.   I reckon I’ll just go wherever it is that you lead me.”  He didn’t say it out loud.  He said it with his mind’s voice the way he was accustomed to talk to God.  He felt the breeze again.  God’s voice always seemed to come in through the top of his head.  It was almost warm like a stocking hat feels.  Amos Handy hadn’t eaten since Tuesday afternoon and it was Thursday.  “Lord, I sure could use me something to eat if you could manage it.  My stomach’s empty as a drum.”

He began to walk again.  He could hear the gravels crunch under his feet.  He remembered that piece of scripture when Jesus talked about how the Father takes care of his children.  He couldn’t think of the exact words.  That’s how scripture works sometimes.  Just then he saw headlights coming up behind him and he heard a growl of a diesel engine getting louder and louder.  He turned to face the light.  He wasn’t sure, but it looked like a logging truck.  He stuck out his thumb and smiled his best, friendliest smile at the driver.  The big truck slowed down.  The air breaks hissed and it came to a stop right beside him.

“You need you a ride?” said a deep, raspy voice through the open passenger side window.  Behind the voice Amos Handy heard Charlie Pride singing, Kiss an Angel Good Morning.

“I sure do!” answered Amos Handy still smiling as nice as he could.  The door swung open and the voice said to climb on up.  Amos Handy threw his backpack up into the floorboard and got in.  “Man, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.”  All he could see was the dark silhouetted profile of a face in the dashboard light.  It had a cigarette stuck in it that wiggled up and down when the silhouette spoke.

“No problem Brother,” it said.  “I’ve done been down and out.  I know what it’s like.  Where you headed?”

“I ain’t really sure.  I’m just walking and seeing where I can get to.”

The silhouette offered Amos Handy a cigarette.  He pulled one from the pack.  Then a hand came over with a light and for an instant he saw the face of the driver.  “Where’re you coming from?”

“I was staying with this woman over near Montgomery until she kicked me out.”

“Women will do that,” said the driver as if it were nothing.  The big diesel started moving again.  The hand that had held the lighter gripped the gearshift knob and started moving through the gears.  “This is a damn lonely old highway,” he said.  “How come you to come this way?”

“”I caught me a ride with this guy and he dropped me off back there a ways,” replied Amos Handy.  The cigarette tasted good.  He hadn’t had one all day.  He held the smoke in for a long time and savored every puff.

“Hell Buddy, you look like you could use a meal.”

“Man, you got that right.”  Then the big hand came over again and it had a twenty in it.  The driver didn’t say a word.  Amos Handy took the money and put it in his shirt pocket.  “Thank you,” he said.

“There’s a little truck stop up here a piece.  A woman named Leona runs it and she makes some damn good biscuits.  You tell her Travis told her to fix you up.”

“Okay,” said Amos Handy.  Then he got quiet.  He was talking to the Lord again.  “Lord, you’re mighty good to me and you know I appreciate it.”  The Lord just smiled.  You know how it is when God does that, just smiles at you.  You can feel that too, just as real as anything.”

After a little while the lights of the little truck stop came into sight.  The driver pulled the old truck up to the fuel pumps and let Amos Handy out.  “Good luck wherever it is you’re headed.  Remember; tell Leona that Travis sent you.”

Amos Handy said he would.  The airbrakes hissed, and the log truck drove off down the road.  Amos Handy reached to check and make sure that the twenty was still in his pocket.  It was.  He slung his pack over his shoulder and walked inside.  It was warm in there.  He could smell coffee and bacon.  Those are two fine smells when they mix together in the air.  He made his way across the little dining room past the tables to the counter and sat down.  That Charlie Pride song was stuck in his head.  He was humming it under his breath.

“Morning!” shouted a woman’s voice.  Amos Handy looked to see.  A face was staring at him through the kitchen window, a big round face with little twinkling eyes like two raisins in a sweet roll.  “You want coffee?” said the face.

“Yes Ma’am,” answered Amos Handy.

“Just a second Honey, it’s about finished brewing.”  He pulled a paper menu out from between the ketchup bottle and the sugar and opened it up.  There they were right on top, biscuits and gravy.  That’s what he wanted.  A minute later the kitchen door swung open and a little fat woman waddled out with a mug in one hand and a coffee pot in the other.  She sat the mug down and filled it.  “You want cream?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

She reached into the pocket of her apron and pulled out a hand full of little half and half creamers and dropped them in a mound on the counter.  “Are you Leona?” asked Amos Handy looking at the two little raisin eyes.

“That’s me,” she said.

“A truck driver named Travis said to say that he sent me.  He said you fixed some extra good biscuits.”

“Travis Sellers?” she asked.

“I don’t know his last name.  He drives a log truck.”

“That him,” she smiled.  “Do you know what you want?”

“Well Ma’am, I tell you the truth I’m awful hungry.  I believe I’ll have me a plate of gravy biscuits.”

“Do you want any eggs or grits or anything with that?”

“No, just biscuits and gravy,” he said.  The woman nodded and headed back to the kitchen.  He watched her as she walked away.  She had on jeans, tight jeans and you could see the little dimples of fat on the back of her thighs through the denim.  He opened the creamers and stirred his coffee.  Then he raised his mug, blew a couple times and took a sip.  It was hot, but it was good.  An old Pepsi-Cola clock on the wall next to a big mounted fish said that it was a quarter to five.  Amos Handy didn’t have a watch.  He’d sold it to a guy he met in jail one night in Montgomery for seven dollars.  It was all the man had, but the watch wasn’t worth any more than that.  He remembered that he’d bought him a pack of Winstons and a can of beanie weenies with the money.  After just a little while they were gone and Amos Handy wished that he had his watch back, but really when you get right down to it, he didn’t need to know what time it was.  It didn’t matter that much. Time and watches were for people with things to do, places to go and people to meet.

He thought about that girl Tammy, the one in Montgomery that had let him stay with her and then kicked him out.  “Get your shit and get the fuck out of my house this minute!” he could hear her shout.  The sound of it ringing in his head pushed out the Charlie Pride song.  Tammy was a raunchy, messed up chick anyway.  She was on something, nervous and twitching all the time and skinny as a rail.  He though about it a lot after he left and he figured it was probably the best thing that could have happened after all.  Still, he couldn’t understand why she’d turned on him all of a sudden like that.  She’d even said that she loved him.

“Here you go, Baby,” said the little fat, raisin eyed woman as she sat the plate of biscuits and gravy down in front of him.

“Lord!” he said.  “That’s the prettiest, biggest plate of biscuits I’ve ever seen!”

“Any friend of Travis Sellers is a friend of mine.”  She laughed.  “You enjoy that, Honey.  It’s on the house.”  Then she turned and waddled away.  He looked at the biscuits.  There are very few things as pretty as good soft biscuits and sausage gravy with plenty of meat in it.  It was steaming.

“Thank you Lord,” he whispered under his breath.

“Certainly, Amos,” answered the Lord.  “I hope you enjoy it.”  That’s the way the Lord works sometimes at least on easy things, at least for Amos Handy.  He picked up his fork and took a bite. It was as good as he’d ever tasted.   As he was eating a guy walked in and sat right down beside him.  He was a heavyset guy with a black leather cowboy hat perched back on the head and a leather vest with tassels.  He looked over at Amos Handy.  First he looked at his face.  Then, he glanced down and eyed his backpack on the floor.  For a second he looked judgmental, like he was going to say something mean, but then he brightened up and the guy smiled.  He was missing two bottom teeth right in the middle.

“How’re you, Buddy?” he said.

“I’m doing right good,” answered Amos Handy.

“Them’s some damn pretty biscuits,” he said.

“They are.  You ought to get you some.”

The guy hollered out, “Leona!  Get me a cup of Joe and a big plate of biscuits and gravy!”  The woman with the eyes looked out from the kitchen.

“Billy Ray, where in the devil have you been?  I ain’t seen you in over a week.”

“I been down in Hattiesburg.  We’re putting up a warehouse down there.  It’s a big job, thirty-two-hundred square feet.”

The woman pushed the kitchen door open with her knee and came out.  She poured the man’s coffee.  “I seen Shelly the other day.  She was asking about you.”

“We ain’t seeing each other no more,” he said.  “Not since Friday before last. I’m done with her this time for good.”

“Hell, I’m sorry to hear that.  What happened?”

“Aw, I don’t feel like talking about it.  I’ve done pushed it out of my mind.”

The woman didn’t say anything for a minute.  The man just looked at her over his coffee cup.  Amos Handy stared at his plate and ate.

Then the woman said, “Well…” and let it just trail off.  Then she walked back in the kitchen.

The guy in the hat turned to Amos Handy.  “You know something, Buddy?  You can’t trust a woman, not no woman.  They’ll do you wrong as soon as your back is turned.”

Amos Handy thought about that Tammy in Montgomery again.  Then he said one of those stupid, predictable things you say when you don’t know what else to say.  “You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them.”

“You got that right,” said the guy.  The woman, Leona came back out with the guy’s order and sat it down.  Amos Handy ate slow.  He was making it last, enjoying every bite as much as he could.  After a while the woman brought more coffee.  She filled their cups without even asking.  Finally, Amos Handy got down to his last bite.  He looked at it.  Then he stabbed it with his fork, mopped up the last of the gravy and popped it into his mouth.  Sometimes the last bite is the best of all.  Other times you can barely taste it.  He had one more cup of coffee, then thanked the woman and stood up from the counter.

“You on the road?” asked the guy in the hat.

“Yeah,” said Amos Handy as he slung his pack over his shoulder.

“Want a lift?  I’m headed back down to Hattiesburg if you’re going that way.”

Amos Handy looked at the Lord.  He wondered if that’s where the Lord wanted him to go.  He’d never been to Hattiesburg.  Maybe something good was waiting there.  He glanced over at the Pepsi-Cola clock next to the fish.  It was almost six.  “Okay,” he said to the man.”

“Leona Honey, let me have one more cup of coffee to go.”

The woman got it.  The man paid and then they walked out.  It was just starting to get light.  Amos Handy saw an old man coming through the parking lot.  The old guy was pushing a baby stroller.  When he got close Amos Handy noticed that inside the stroller the man had a twenty-four pack of Blue Ribbon Beer.  The guy never looked.  He just walked on by.  “Wonder what the hell that old dude’s doing with that beer at this time of morning,” said the man in the hat.  Amos Handy didn’t answer.  The man pulled out a pack of smokes and offered him one.  Then, they just stood there and watched it grow light.  The breeze of the Lord blew softly across Amos Handy’s face.  Over on the other side of the parking lot next to a puddle of water, he saw a duck sitting there.  It was just as still.  It didn’t move a bit.

They finished their cigarettes.  The guy flicked his butt high over into the bushes.  Amos Handy flicked his.  Then they stepped down off the curb and walked out into the parking lot.  Amos Handy kept looking at the duck, waiting for the thing to move, but it didn’t.  Then he squinted.  It wasn’t a duck at all. It was a damn plastic grocery bag.  It sure looked like a duck.  A lot of times it’s hard to say what’s real.  Then sometimes, it doesn’t matter anyway.  He climbed up into the cab of the truck with the guy in the hat and they headed off for Hattiesburg.

Sea Foam

Sea Foam

Hayden Moore

 

‘Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep’

(William Shakespeare: Henry VI part II)

It was a place where the sea met the rocks and the rocks melted into the sea. In the shade of a twisted palm tree hosting thousands of glistening blackberries at its base, the girl watched as the translucent moon in a sky of mineral blue pulled the tide further up her legs. On the rocks beside her, a dead sea catfish stirred in the rising waters, its sun-hardened whiskers giving the eyeless body the look of petrified hope. A single crab prodded at the corpse with the patience of a matador past his prime. Dried bits of flesh were poked and prodded from the body of the fish. The girl knew the sea would take care of the rest. 

Galatea rubbed her left eye and winced. Over the years, she had been stung plenty of times. But this time, the walk through the swamp on her way to the jetty came at the cost of half of her vision for the day. The wasp that stung her eyelid was either smarter than the rest or just plain lucky. Galatea looked out to sea and watched the wind cast its sparkles onto the water. She reminded herself that beneath the surface an eternal battle was raging. From whale to minnow, everything was in a constant state of alarm. She knew there was no point in looking towards town. It was the same there, too. The only difference was the medium. But here, in the gray existence between water and air, Galatea felt like she was halfway home.

Dark clumps of seaweed drifted with the current and Galatea closed her good eye. The hirsute image of her father drifted across her mind. All those promises of riches and happiness, all the drunken blame on her mother and herself for the failure of the family Wool-works. It took three generations to build the family business, her great-grandfather nothing but a dirt poor sheep herder much further inland. But it only took a little more than a decade for her father, that monster of a man both in form and action, to ruin it. Fire took care of the rest. There was no reason to bury her mother, she was turned to ashes along with her father whose body was full of fuel in the form of cheap whiskey.

When the sea had reached her knees, Galatea was still deep in reflection with only a sliver of the seascape coming through her swollen eyelid. Then something soft struck her bare back. Again and again, she was struck with something that felt far better than some kind of malicious aerial assault. She looked up into the palm tree and saw nothing but the alternate fronds swaying in the breeze. When she turned back, she saw a few bruised golden grapes on the rocks. The grapes looked exotic, juxtaposed to the countless blackberries that stained the rocks they rested on with a deep purple. She had never tasted golden grapes, just green ones. Galatea picked up one of the grapes, took a deep breath and tossed it into her mouth. A smooth sweetness tinged with just a bit of acid made her tongue swell and her mouth water. When she swallowed, she saw her.

“I know, I know. It’s delicious isn’t it? I wasn’t sure if you’d eat it. Probably thought it just fell out of the sky from nowhere. But everything comes from someone,” the girl’s voice laughed from the palm tree.

“I can’t see you,” Galatea called out, shielding her good eye with her hand.

“You will. It just has to reach your eyes. Sorry. Your eye. Didn’t think I’d come across a cyclops today.”

“I’m not—“

“The name’s Acis.”

“I’m Galatea.”

“Well, what a pair we make. Hey, look!”

“Where?” Galatea shouted, looking around.

“At me.”

  If the sunlight dreamed of being a shadow in the form of a person, it would be who was climbing down the palm. Galatea put her hands into the rising waters to feel some kind of comfort as she watched. When the glistening shadow reached the rocks, texture and detail began to fill out the light. With every step, the form was walking towards personhood. By the time Acis reached Galatea, she was smiling, and in every particle a girl Galatea’s age in appearance. The dark-haired girl laughed as she sat next to Galatea.

“The last person ran away when I tried this,” Acis smiled.

“What are you?” Galatea asked.

“What are you?”

“I don’t know—“

“Me either. I’m just thrilled you can actually see me. Most people don’t get past a voice without a body.”

“But here you are,” Galatea muttered, not daring to make eye-contact.

“Here I am.”

“Well, I don’t like seeing most people and most people don’t take any mind to see me. So I guess we’re kind of even.”

“That makes us almost even. The water feels so good. It always does.”

It was then that Galatea noticed Acis’ legs in the water. Where the sea met her knees, the lower part of her legs were gone. Between the rolling wavelets, when the water had a moment of calm, there was nothing beneath the surface but the green water. A ring of sea-foam marked where Acis’ body gave way to water. Galatea marveled as a gust of wind sent the water to both their waists, leaving nothing below for Acis. As it receded, her body seamlessly was revealed.

“Quite a sympathetic thing I have going here with the sea, huh?” Acis laughed softly, looking down at herself. “When I go for a swim, I lose myself in it. Hey…you’re still here.”

“Me? Of course, I am,” Galatea laughed nervously. “But I keep on watching you disappear.”

“It looks like that. It always has. But you have a sea inside of you. Everyone does. I just have more. Look at your own legs. See how they change underwater?”

“Yes, but thats because of….refraction.”

“Sure. Call it what you want. But every particle of you wants to be what it once was. The sea is the womb of the world. We’re all sea-foam.”

“Can you breathe underwater?” Galatea asked, edging closer to Acis.

“I wouldn’t call it breathing. It’s more like a kind of being underwater. I just am as much as the water just is. Wait a moment. Don’t go anywhere.”

“What?”

Just as Galatea glanced out to sea, a rogue wave crested and crashed on the rocks. Countless particles of united seawater sent Galatea onto her back and into the blackberry bushes. When she looked up, in spite of the thorns pricking her knees and hands, she saw that Acis had disappeared. But when she looked down at the rocks, in a pool of sea-foam, she saw a glimpse of Acis. Looking to her left and right, she saw other bits of the girl as she crawled on her hands and knees back towards the edge of the rocks. 

As the water spilled back into the sea, the form of Acis appeared. Galatea watched as Acis lingered just beneath the surface like an aqueous hologram composed of water rather than light. Jellyfish, catfish, minnows of various sorts, a sea-turtle, a school of dolphins, nurse sharks and indistinct simple-celled organisms gathered around the image of Acis. Galatea watched and waited as the hot wind began its task of eradicating the rogue water on the rocks and herself.

Galatea had always found the wind disorienting. Wind proved the air was one of the minions of death and decay, the slow eater of everything standing. It was the wind that portended what was happening to her. As the creatures of the sea danced with Acis, Galatea felt her swollen eye begin to sting. The tinge of tickling pain turned to torment as the sensation crept down her face and throughout her body. Somewhere in her stomach, a white-hot lump of fire was cooking her from the inside. Galatea tried not to scream and expected to smell burning flesh but the stench never came. A gust of wind took her eyelids first. A dark liquid spilled out of her navel as her insides poured out of her in a viscous goo tending towards molasses. By the time she fell to her knees, nothing remained of her but clinging sinews and her lidless eyes. She wanted to close her eyes and destroy her sight but the setting sun mocked her in its radiance from afar.

Harmony, that strength of binding opposites, found its masterpiece when the wind sent a wave crashing onto the tormented body of Galatea. Following the slant and crevices of the rocks, the water brought her along on its journey back into the sea.

When her ruined body found its way into the sea, when the wind was nothing but an effect in the medium outside of the water, Galatea opened her eyes and saw.

The sea creatures were gathered around her and moving in their multifarious ways in a counter-clockwise direction. Galatea took no breaths, there was no need. She moved through the water as light does through space. There was no space or time, only a being. Her name sank to the bottom of wherever she happened to be like a hailstone would from a storm over the sea, sinking and diminishing before it even forgot it came from the sky. She was someone who had found where she was supposed to be, as true as water.

The palm fronds below her danced in the breeze as she looked down towards the rocks of the jetty. A small cloud high in the atmosphere drifted by the afternoon sun and melted before it passed. Below her, sitting on the edge of the rocks where the rising tide had almost reached her knees, a girl was rocking back and forth. Her left eye was swollen shut. From the top of the palm tree, she closed her eyes for a moment as she felt the light passing through her. Then she remembered the grapes. There were only three but she knew her aim was true. She pulled out one of the golden grapes and threw it at the girl below. Contact. She threw another. Contact again. Then another. The girl on the rocks at the edge of the sea turned and looked up into the palm tree. Acis smiled to herself as she watched the girl eat one of the grapes. When the girl’s lips pursed, Acis felt her own voice return.

photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Johnny Six-Shoooter

Johnny Six-Shoooter

 Tim Snyder

Near Winona, Mississippi, the road trip laughs and stories turned sour. Mini complained of nausea and asked to pull over at the nearest rest stop, but Johnny refused. They had made good time so far and were only an hour and a half outside Memphis. Mini needed to buck up. A couple minutes later, however, her stomach – against her wishes – gurgled. Mini tried to explain, but before her plea was stated, Johnny stifled her again: 

“You have to stop whining. You know, sickness is 95% psychosomatic.”

“You’re a jerk.”

“It’s a known fact.”

“Ooooooh. I feel queasy.”

“There you go whining again.”

Mini’s stomach obstinately grew worse. Minutes later, an irrepressible green sludge rode a potent wave of nausea from the pit of her stomach. Somehow, Mini subdued most of it, minus a small shot that whizzed across the cabin and landed half on the dash and half on Johnny’s steering hand. This small glob was enough to cause a chain reaction in which Johnny, horrified, swerved from the right hand lane into the left, which then caused an approaching blood red Chevy pickup to swerve into the grassy median. Fortunately, nobody died in the exchange. No damage, either. The Chevy pickup’s horn did blare, though, while the driver – a sunburned monster of a man – hurled a barrage of muffled curses and middle fingers. Mini whimpered, and Johnny quickly sped off from the scene before the Chevy driver could reorient his vehicle. 

A few miles down the road, Mini started in again.

“Johnny, I’m not kidding. You have to stop. It’s getting worse.”

“Can’t. Not after we almost killed that guy.” 

“I think I’m having morning sickness.”

“It’s three in the afternoon.” 

“Johnny, now!” The creature within erupted. “I’M PREGNANT!”

A dozen miles down the road, Johnny grudgingly pulled off at an exit in Oakland, Mississippi, a town with a population of 536, according to the sign. Sliding into a McDonalds’ parking lot, Mini rushed inside, while Johnny stayed out in the car. 

As Johnny sat brooding, an unexpected pain stabbed at his stomach. His head dizzied and panic engulfed him. Johnny’s life had been a whirlwind since receiving news of Mini’s pregnancy. Now, in this moment alone, a cascade of thoughts concerning the baby gushed for the first time. The sacrifices were already starting. Today, he waited in a fast food parking lot. In no time, he’d be waiting at a baby shower. Then in a hospital. A year down the line, he’d be at the tail end of a grocery line holding a jar of baby slop. He was turning into a domestic field hand. It had taken him years just to resemble a boyfriend, loving and monogamous. Now, a father? A husband? 

Johnny reached into the backseat inside his travel bag and rummaged for his prescription bottle. Eventually, he snagged it and shook it furiously when he saw that no pills remained. 

Johnny rolled down both windows for air. He leaned back in his seat and looked out over the landscape in hopes that the heavenly countryside might offer some redress. Mostly, the area was dense forest. Autumn winds, carrying whispers of winter, had created a leafy kaleidoscope of oranges, yellows, and purples. A nearby creek burbled as misty water rippled overtop its gravel belly. Johnny closed his eyes. His surroundings conjured up a vision in which he was an adult Huck Finn, venturing up the Mississippi through the beautiful southern sticks. In this fantasy, he had no worries. No obligations. He simply lived peacefully inside of fleeting moments and humorous happenings.

Johnny opened his eyes again, his pulse lightened. He looked around.

There were only two other vehicles in the McDonalds’ parking lot, presumably belonging to a couple of the worker folk. Other than that, the only signs of civilization at the exit were an old HEIFERS filling station with a few pumps (but no customers) and a corroded Model T sitting off the side of the road about a hundred yards down. The historical remnant intrigued Johnny. He imagined an old carpenter, maybe even his own grandpappy, hauling lumber in the wagon. A simpler, better time. He romanticized that maybe now a sleuth (?) of little black bears were using the old vehicle as a home. Johnny needed to stretch his legs, so he got out of the hatchback and walked up behind the rusty rig to study it further.

However, with each step that drew him closer to the back bumper, the vehicle grew more ghoulish. There was a gaping hole in the cabin roof. Punched out were the side windows, and cinder blocks – rather than wheels – propped up the back axle. Chips in the black paint job made the vehicle look diseased with leprosy. Inside, somebody had draped a mangy blanket over the front row seat.

Johnny was upset the truck corrupted his romantic mood. He circled the wagon and stopped at the vehicle’s rear-end, outside the view of the McDonalds and filling station. He then unzipped and started to relieve himself on the old hunk of steel. In the midst of his urinary daze, Johnny suddenly saw a furtive head peep up and then go back down inside the cabin. Johnny ignored it thinking it was simply an illusion. He turned his head in the opposite direction and stared down the long stretch of pavement. A gust of wind shuddered the thick autumn leaves on the highway’s edge. Under the sun’s midday glaze, the scene bled together like watercolors on canvas.

Heyy. Pssst. A fink voice whispered.

Johnny then heard a small rustling inside the cabin. He turned his head back and saw the mangy blanket shift. 

“Hell, come on now. Who’s the peeping pervert?”

Johnny. 

Johnny staggered and pissed on his shoe. 

Why do you do such things-s-s-s?

Johnny hopped back and zipped himself in a single defensive motion.

The woman.

The voice was hypnotizing. Unreal even. Johnny knew not to answer, for what good could come from it? Still, he felt compelled.

“You mean Mini?” 

Yeessss. The voice grew pleased, which encouraged Johnny.

“She’s a good woman,” he continued unsure initially but gaining momentum. “A little nuts, but I’m going to follow through.”

Fooool.

“What?” 

The voice said nothing.

“What would you know about it? A man has to make a decision at some point. Settle down. Even if the heart’s not all the way in it, he has to pretend. The heart will eventually follow.”

Listen to the big man. He pours out his soul.

Silence lingered. Johnny felt offended.

Why do you berate her?

“Do I?”

Why did you not pull over the car? Why have no s-s-sympathy?

“Who the hell is this?”

She trusts-s-s you. Looks-s-s to you.

“What do you want?”

Your soul. The laugh was fiendish.

“I don’t think I can give that away.”

Maybe you already have.

“What are we really talking about here?”

From here on out, I want you to remember how weak and pathetic you actually are. I want you to know that I could’ve destroyed you.

“Yeah?”

But only through my mercy do you live. That makes you a slave. And for the rest of your life, you’ll always be that. Nothing more. An inferior being that only through mercy still walks the earth. 

“You’re a piece of shit. You know that? Nobody’s taking my fucking soul.”

Johnny leaned up to the door and took a full look inside the cabin. Sitting there, jaw open, teeth glistening, was a grubby little red fox. Spittle and hisses spewed from his yap. His fur was patchy. 

“Jesus!”

With a bound, the red fox positioned himself at the window opening, only a foot and a half away from Johnny and his sweating torso. The fox’s eyes were a sleazy emerald green. He seemed to smile knowingly. Was this the source of the voice? It couldn’t have been. It must have been.

Johnny dared not move for fear of the fox pouncing. Any sudden movement might lead to punishment. Johnny stared into the fox’s eyes. Deep inside there seemed to be a twinkle. Maybe it was the devil himself. 

Johnny slowly crept his hand into his jeans in search of a peace offering. As he fingered the lint in his pocket, he came across a pack of Bubblicious. Watermelon flavored. Johnny snagged a chunk of the gum and displayed it to the fox. The fox’s head tilted sideways. Johnny, slowly, raised his arm, made the sign of the cross, and tossed the gum up into the air. The fox snatched the chunk in its mouth. The gum seemed to slide down immediately, and the fox’s sneer dissipated. His tail wagged, stupidly. The devil gone. Johnny crept away from the rig and staggered across the old highway.

Reaching the hatchback, Johnny flopped down in the driver’s seat and closed his eyes. He rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and drifted into nothingness.

BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.

The explosive pounding nearly shattered the passenger’s side window and almost caused Johnny to soil his pants. Outside the glass was Mini. Her face had a scowl etched in it. Her hair was disheveled and greasy. Sweat coated her pasty skin. Her breasts, though, seemed plumper than ever.

“Open this door. You’re not funny.”

Johnny pressed the unlock button. The door snapped open, and Mini awkwardly plunked down. Johnny’s eyes deglazed as his spirit returned from its unnerving twilight zone. 

“You feeling better?”

“I puked.”

“What do you have there?”

“I got us some combo meals.” 

“Num.”

“Shut up. I’m not giving you any if you keep being a jerk.”

“I’m sorry for getting crazy.” He genuinely was. Johnny had no plans to mention or credit the fox for his apologetic turn around. Rather, he buried the patchy skank six feet deep in his subconscious. 

“There was no need for it.”

“I just wanted to make good time, I guess.”

“What’s the rush?” Mini shifted around trying to get comfortable, and Johnny for the first time noticed her belly’s bulge. The vision was sobering.

“I guess there’s not,” Johnny said, although he thought being in the car for unnecessary periods was excruciating.

“You have to be a little patient, especially with me being pregnant, especially when the baby gets here.”

“Mmmhmm.” Johnny said, bothered she would play those cards.

“You have to mature a little bit. You can’t keep acting like a child.”

Johnny nodded along and managed to muzzle himself for the sake of peace. To keep the fox at bay.

Mini, meanwhile, looked pleased with her airing of grievances. She seemed happy that Johnny kept relatively quiet through it, too. She smiled at Johnny. Johnny smiled right back. Could this be what women wanted, a nodding imbecile? Johnny wondered. Probably. He supposed men desired the same. The dynamic created a war of emotional attrition for which women – the more complex emotional beings – were better equipped. In this battle of wills, women came prepared as emotional tanks, whereas men arrived with emotional six shooters.

 

photo: Wikimedia Commons

Rideshare

Rideshare

Jonathan B. Ferrini

It was a hot summer, and I was “sweating” my physics final exam. I was required to take physics for a second time during summer school after failing the course during the Spring Quarter of my sophomore year in college. I was also “sweating” the grueling, twelve hour days, I was working as a rideshare driver.

My family lived in a large, luxurious home, in an affluent part of town. My parents were both successful professionals. Although I wanted to become a software engineer and design new Apps, I spent most of my time playing video games, drinking with my friends, and slacking. I attended a rigorous STEM university, and the students were very competitive. The coursework was tough and required intense study. Nobody reached out to one another to share notes, or help explain difficult subject matter. Our access to the professors was limited, and we waited in line to approach overworked graduate students, serving as teaching assistants, who had limited time, and patience for our questions. 

Distraught because I flunked physics and wasn’t devoting the necessary time to my studies, my parents meted out “tough love” to me; they kicked me out of the house for the summer with no money, and told me “to make it on my own.” They explained the experience would be “good for me” and motivate me to take my “studies seriously.” 

I found a friend’s couch to sleep on for the summer. I needed spending money, fast, and signed up for a ride share job using my hybrid car which was ideal because it had great gas mileage. Being a ride share driver had its advantages because I could “cash out” my earnings daily which were immediately deposited into my checking account without tax withholding. I drove twelve hour days, earning about $200, less gas money. After twelve hours of driving in heavy traffic, I returned home, hungry and exhausted. After a few hours of physics study, I’d fall asleep after eating a frozen dinner.

The job took me all over town, and into parts of town I didn’t know; mostly lower income. I’d often race through these “bad” neighborhoods, running red lights, to avoid potential car jackers, and fearful of the menacing appearing homeless who roamed these streets. It was tiring work but I met interesting people, beautiful girls, and felt a satisfaction from a hard day’s work. 

My rideshare app would alert me to a pick up at a downtown, budget motel, which always resulted in a scary ride. The passengers were usually frantic after being evicted, intoxicated or mentally ill. I accepted the rides because I needed the money, and all rides have the potential of becoming long and lucrative.

I arrived at the motel where an elderly, grey haired, black man, was tending to an elderly, frail, silver haired, caucasian woman in a wheel chair. As I approached, he was eager to see me, waived, and approached the vehicle. He told me they were only going a “few blocks”, and apologized for the “short ride.” It was a hot day, and I gave them my last bottle of water because they were perspiring, and I feared they were suffering from heat stroke. They were thirsty and grateful for the water. I noticed the elderly woman’s hands were grotesquely twisted, and she had difficulty holding the water bottle with both hands. The black man gently held the bottle to her mouth, allowing her to sip the water.

I opened up the trunk. The man carefully lifted the elderly woman from the wheel chair, and buckled her into the rear seat with tenderness and care, suggesting a relationship similar to a mother and son. He folded the wheel chair and placed it in my trunk. This man was large and imposing but exhibited chivalry, kindness, and love for the crippled old woman. 

He thanked me for “picking him up” which suggested he may have been the victim of rideshare discrimination by frightened or insensitive drivers. 

He remarked “I’m sweating worse than an Arkansas mule.” 

I had never heard that expression before, asking, “Where did that saying come from?” 

“My pop was a sharecropper in Mississippi and used it and other sayings often.” 

He was perspiring and distraught about his cell phone battery dying. I plugged his cell phone into my recharger cord, cranked up the air conditioning which calmed him down, and he thanked me. We immediately liked each other. 

He introduced himself as “Rollo”, short for “Rollin’ On”. He described himself as a “rolling stone”, never spending too much time in one place. He introduced the old woman as “Beatrice”. I introduced myself as Zack. 

Rollo was an imposing figure but a “gentle giant”. He was about 6’2”, 220+, and his body looked beaten down from a long life of grueling work. His face also showed the many years of a difficult life. He was maybe seventy. The elderly woman looked to be pushing eighty.

“What’s your story, Rollo?” 

“I grew up in rural Mississippi and I was a troublemaker raised by a single mom. We got by on food stamps and a vegetable garden. Despite our frugalness, the food stamps would run out by the third week of the month. Mama was a great cook and could make a nutritious meal from very little foodstuffs. After the food stamps for the month ran out, I wanted to surprise her with a good cut of meat. I got caught stealing a chuck steak from the market, and the judge gave me a choice of spending a year in county jail or joining the Army. I chose the Army which provided me discipline, a work ethic, self-respect, and “straightened” me out. I was happy to send most of my Army pay home to Mama. I did one tour in Vietnam and was honorably discharged in 1972. I was spat on when arriving home at the airport up north by war protestors, and caught the first bus home, back to my poverty-stricken town in Mississippi. Life was slow, no work, so I took to the bottle, and fell in with the wrong crowd. Mama was having difficulty walking and complaining of numbness in her feet. White doctors wouldn’t treat black folk so I took mama to the only 

Black doctor in town. He diagnosed Mama with Type 2 diabetes. He couldn’t treat her and urged me to take her for treatment to the nearest town with a university medical school hospital. Despite her Medicare benefits, the treatment was too costly for mama to pay. I took to stealing to pay mama’s medical bills. I stole anything I could pawn or fence for immediate cash. When she asked me where the money was coming from, I said I was sharecropping by day, and working as a night watchman. 

“I was eventually arrested, convicted, and I spent two years on a chain gang. Mama’s condition continued to worsen while I was on the chain gang but she managed to survive until I was released.

“After serving my sentence, and with the help of a veteran’s organization, I found work as a truck driver trainee, offering full training; decent pay which enabled me to pay all of mama’s bills, and the job had good benefits, including medical insurance for Mama. I moved to Phoenix where the trucking company was headquartered. Man, I loved driving. I drove the entire country and Canada, digging the freedom, and independence of working for myself. North America is one of the most beautiful places on earth, Zack. I’d call Mama every week from a different state or province, and mail her a souvenir. She was proud of me which gave me the self respect I sorely needed. Over the years, I developed lower back pain from hours of driving, and was prescribed opiate-based medicines which hooked me. I drank booze along with the opiates. The booze and opiates created a wonderful high and removed the back pain but I became addicted. 

“When I returned the rig to Phoenix after a thirty day run, I failed my drug test, got fired on the spot, lost my commercial driving license, and ended up on the streets as a homeless man in hot as hell Phoenix. I survived on unemployment benefits for six months, and then turned to welfare. I took on odd jobs, when and if I could find them. I didn’t have the heart to tell Mama I was fired, and was too ashamed to call Mama or return home to Mississippi. I became a drug addict. Within a year, the trucking company forwarded me a faded, official letter from the Mississippi Coroner’s office informing me that Mama died ,and was cremated because no next of kin could be located. I suffered, Zack. The guilt of abandoning Mama was so intense; it could only be quelled with heroin, booze, and meth.” 

Beatrice couldn’t talk, except to mumble. Rollo reached over to wipe the spittle dripping from the side of her mouth. She was petite, and held tightly on to the arms of her car seat as if she was holding on to life. 

Rollo explained, “Beatrice was evicted from a hospice where she was expected to die from liver cancer. Her Social Security disability benefits weren’t enough to cover the expenses even in a poor quality hospice. Beatrice has no family. She is going to die on the streets, alone, without me. Until her time comes, I’m determined to make her life as comfortable as I can. We’re like family, Zack.” 

“Where did Beatrice come from?” 

“I met her at the Salvation Army, sitting alone in the corner of the cafeteria, having difficulty feeding herself with her shaking, twisted hands. I sat next to her and fed her. We’ve been together ever since.” 

“How did she end up at the Salvation Army, Rollo?” 

“Back in the eighties, politicians closed all the mental institutions and released helpless psychiatric patients, who had spent their entire lives under the care and supervision of mental health professionals, into the streets. Beatrice had been placed in a mental hospital for developmentally disabled children as a baby. She never learned to speak nor walk, but could hear, and understand most of what was said. She has cerebral palsy which crippled her hands. She never knew life outside of the state hospital. When they closed the hospital, she met briefly with an overworked social worker who couldn’t understand her, handing her a list of privately owned, overcrowded, board and care facilities, and a pharmacy where she could get her medications filled. It was like casting a newborn to the wolves. Most of her life has included short term stays in emergency rooms, prison cells, or sleeping on the sidewalk. 

“I’ve never let go of the guilt associated with not being by Mama’s side when she died. Beatrice reminded me of my mother. I was drawn to looking after her because it dampened the guilt raging within me. You like this ride share driving gig, Zack?” 

“No, I hate it.” 

“Why the hell do it then?” 

“Because my parents kicked me out of the house for the summer for failing physics and I need money.” 

“They kicked you out of the house for flunking a course?” 

“You have to understand, my parents are over-achievers. Dad’s a neurologist and a clinical professor of neurology at the medical school, and mom’s manages a Wall Street investment fund. They think by kicking me out of the house, and forcing me to “make it on my own for the summer”, they’d “toughen me up”, and I’d take my college coursework more seriously.” 

“Well son, I can tell you stories about tough love.” 

Rollo pulled his shirt up over his head revealing scars on his back. 

“The scars on my back are from whippings my drunken father gave me trying to straighten me out. I begged mama not to intervene because he would turn the whip on her. He eventually split, leaving me and mom to fend for ourselves, never returning. “I’ll take “tough love”, rather than no love, anytime, son. Your parents are showing’ you how hard life can be. Me and Beatrice are perfect examples. It was fate that led you to pick us up. Maybe we’ll teach you about life?” 

Beatrice tapped Rollo on the shoulder with her disfigured hand as if in agreement.

“I don’t even know what physics looks like, but I flunked life, Zack. I wish I could get those years back because I’d accept all the “tough love” my parents could give me, if it would provide me with a future like the one you’ll enjoy. You just treat this summer job as a brief stay in hell, drive the long hours, and remember the faces of the many homeless you’ll see. Take each day at a time, put one foot in front of the other, and hope for the best. If the wisdom you learn passes through one ear and out the other, or remains embedded in your memory, is up to you. When you go back to school, attack your subjects like your life depends upon your passing each course. Any time you find yourself backsliding, remember me and Beatrice. We won’t forget you.”

I drove them a few blocks to skid row where he asked me to drop them. Rollo unloaded the wheel chair from the trunk, and carefully helped Beatrice into the chair. I felt guilty leaving them on a busy, hot street corner, amidst despair. Rollo thanked me for the ride, shook my hand, offering me the following advice, “Zack, you make your own luck in life. You have all the tools necessary for success. Don’t squander them. Seize every opportunity. Failure is your friend because it will eventually lead you to success. Nothing can stop you, brother.” 

Beatrice nodded her head in agreement. She pointed to a faded, green, plastic, shamrock amulet, attached to a tattered string around her neck she must have worn for decades. Beatrice motioned Rollo to remove it from her neck and give it to me. The shamrock had the date of her birth inscribed upon it and must have been a present from jubilant new parents to their baby girl. The faded green paint, and lack of a chain, was like a metaphor for parents who gave up when they discovered their new born was disabled for life. I pondered the pain or relief they must have felt leaving their baby at a state hospital, never to see her again. 

I was saddened watching Rollo carefully wheel Beatrice down the sidewalk to a rescue mission. I hung the faded shamrock from my rear view mirror as a reminder of my new friends. 

As the remaining weeks of summer ground along, I treated my rideshare job like a sociology class. I purposely sought out rides in the downtrodden parts of town, and was pleased to pick up riders who I would have previously shunned for their appearance, mental condition, or economic standing. I was eager to learn who they were, what they thought, and how they came to be? I always learned something new about life and humanity from these sages of the streets. 

It wasn’t until I began receiving voice mail and text messages from my parents demanding I meet with them and “discuss the lessons I learned from my summer job” that I realized the summer had ended, and the fall term was soon to commence. I dreaded the specter of having to explain to my parents “what I had learned” from my summer of driving. They wouldn’t understand, and it wouldn’t be what they wanted to hear.

I was the first student to complete the physics final, racing through it as if it was an elementary school math test. I received an “A”. 

The summer of rideshare driving changed me. I didn’t want to return to the comfort of my home and plush bedroom, full of distractions, and light years from the reality of the streets I witnessed. I was independent now. I sought out minimalist accommodations within walking distance to campus, hoping it would keep me grounded in reality, and permit me to focus on my studies. I was fortunate to find a small apartment above a liquor store a few blocks from campus. The proprietor was the owner of the liquor store, giving me a bargain rent because I was a “responsible college student”, and would watch over the liquor store during closing hours. Although the apartment was a single room, dingy flat, with an old refrigerator, Murphy bed, and small stove, it was mine. I was beholden to nobody’s rules but my own.

I made contact with my parents by text message, with a lyric from a tune from my playlist. I chose Bob Dylan’s album, “Highway 61 Revisited”, hoping the lyrics would convey to them what I had learned over my summer of “tough love”, 

“When ya ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose” 

At night, I lay in the Murphy bed, and thought of Rollo and Beatrice, alone in the world, roaming from soup kitchen to homeless shelters. Rollo and Beatrice profoundly changed my life from that of a slacker to a motivated student because I saw the pain or affluence life can mete out. When the college term began, I attacked my studies with a new resolve. I couldn’t relate to my former classmates. I was a changed person. I fondly recalled the loving assistance Rollo extended to Beatrice and, whenever I encountered a student struggling with the coursework, I volunteered to help them. 

I approached the university and volunteered to become a tutor in those courses I now was mastering. My offer was gladly accepted by the university, and, as students began attending my tutoring sessions, additional gifted students volunteered as tutors. I’m happy to say, I changed the reputation of my college major from a competitive, “lone wolf” major, to a collegial, “help thy neighbor” major. My efforts were not lost on the Dean of Students who promised to write me a letter of recommendation upon my graduation, and encouraged me to attend graduate school at our university. 

My father and mother were very proud of my academic success. My father invited me to the Faculty Club to show off his over-achieving son. After lunch, we headed back to his laboratory where some medical students were dissecting, and studying the central nervous system of a cadaver. To my dismay, it was Beatrice lying on the stainless steel autopsy table. The autopsy technician approached saying, “She was brought into the ER yesterday by a large Black man. She was diagnosed as having terminal liver failure. She died in the ER. The man wasn’t a relative but produced a legal document showing he was conservator for the woman, and he produced a notarized Last Will and Testament, including a “Statement of Donation” of the woman’s body to our medical school.” 

A medical student spoke up while dissecting Beatrice, “We lucked out with this cadaver because it gives us the opportunity to study her liver disease, palsy, and developmental disability. We might find a link!” I was tempted to reply, “Her name is Beatrice and treat her with dignity!” 

I approached the autopsy table and stroked Beatrice’s fine silver hair. She was a small, frail woman, and terribly thin from years of starvation. I stared at her mouth closely, and could make out a glimmer of a smile. I was surprised to find that both of her hands were free from the contortions of cerebral palsy. Her fingers were straight, long, thin, elegant, and resembled those of a pianist. 

I asked the autopsy tech, “I’ve seen this homeless woman around town and know that her hands were severely contorted by cerebral palsy. Why are they straight?” 

My father overheard my question and answered, “I’ve seen this before, Zack. For some misfortunate people, the gift of life carries with it a price in the form of unfair burdens they must carry throughout their lives. For this woman, it was cerebral palsy of her hands and developmental disabilities. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen death provide a “repayment” of sorts for their burdens, and for this poor woman, it was the reward of beautiful hands.”

I suspected Beatrice was happy to leave this world, and I’m certain she was delighted to donate her body for the furtherance of medical science. I excused myself, entered the men’s room, closed the stall door, and wept. I was happy Beatrice found peace and beautiful hands in death, but wondered about Rollo’s fate, recalling the lyrics to the Dylan song, 

“How does it feel? How does it feel? To be on your own With no direction home A complete unknown 

Like a rolling stone?” 

I knew he missed Beatrice and his Mama. I also know he would take delight to see the gift of beautiful hands death provided Beatrice. I washed and dried my face while looking in the mirror, and recited Rollo’s advice, “I’ll take “tough love”, rather than no love, anytime.”

Eclipses

ECLIPSES

by

Rima Lyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s so funny?” he wanted to know.

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

“Guess.”

“Ummm…Jamie?”

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

Now what’s so funny?”

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

“Truce!” Racy shouted.

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

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

“I am not. Take it back!”

“I’m just teasing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuff Like That

Stuff Like That

Michael Johansen

 

“Coat-racks!”

That was Stig talking.

“What?”

That was me.

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

“Sell what as coat-racks?”

Stig was always trying to sell something as something else.

“The old hydro poles by the railway line.”

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

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

Stig had his thinking look on his face.

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

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

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

 

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

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

“You sure they’re dead?” I asked.

Stig ignored me.

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

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Barn boards,” Stig said.

“What?”

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

 

VELO CITY


VELO CITY  

MARK C. HULL

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

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

“Oh?” I said, not believing it. 

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

“I hadn’t heard.” 

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

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

“Are you trying to be clever?” 

“Always trying. Rarely succeeding.” 

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

“A pioneer,” I nodded. 

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

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

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

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

“What?” 

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

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

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

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

“Where are you heading today?” I asked. 

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

“Velo City?” 

“Yep.” 

“Going for something fun?” 

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

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

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

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

“Wrong number,” I typed back. 

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

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

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

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

“No judgment,” she promised. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sure they…” 

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

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

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

“That is my philosophy,” I said. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Just the foot?” 

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

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

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

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

“A fine instrument…” 

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

“What?” 

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

“So what about the Buick?” 

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

“A real mermaid?” 

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

“Sounds like a great night,” she said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just The Lights

 

Just The Lights

Barbara Biles

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

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

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

“And a loch is a lake, right?

“Right.”

“And do they come here, those fairies?”

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

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

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

“And you saw the Spunkie yourself?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Where you going?” said Terry.

“Carol Smither’s.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, we cannot afford.”

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

***

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

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

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

MR. FLINT’S POND

MR. FLINT’S POND

by

Marty Carlock

 

‘Mr. Flint turned him down.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hush, here he comes.’

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

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

Continue reading MR. FLINT’S POND

Moose Pond

Moose Pond

Steve Pinette 

 

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

“Well,” Suzy said. “Here I go.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading Moose Pond

Mother Tugboat’s Children

Mother Tugboat’s Children

a short story

Stephen Poleskie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image by Harry Rajchgot, 2016, Montreal, Quebec