Tag Archives: fiction

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.

STEW

STEW

by

Vivian Lawry

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yes, please!”

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

“Of course! Everyone knows about those.”

“Well?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judith looked aghast. “How?”

“With your finger, of course.”

“Ugh! Put my finger up there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inmate Trout

Inmate Trout

By Dr. Patrick Dobson

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any idea what he would like?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

War and the Compassion of Cows

War and the Compassion of Cows

R. Newell Searle

In general, a dairyman and his cows know each other intimately. He identifies each one by her name, appearance, personality and habits. Cows are sensitive and recognize their owner’s voice, look and touch. They won’t easily let down their milk to a stranger because a dairyman is married to his herd. That kind of marriage didn’t suit 18-year-old Henry Gershon in 1942.

When the war came, he was happy to leave his father’s drafty dairy barn and enlist in the 101st Airborne. The heady months of paratrooper training in Kentucky and England remained a romantic memory of uniforms and badges; demanding drills and unsupervised pleasures. Completing jump school put him in the ranks of elite—a proud parachutist with corporal’s stripes. When his unit based in England, he dank in the pubs, dated the ‘birds’ and took in the sights! He was, as the Brits griped, over-paid, over-sexed and over there. No matter. He believed he was about to do something more important than pulling tits and shoveling shit. It was a fool’s prelude to horror.

That was 50 years ago! Why couldn’t he forget the war? Why couldn’t he wash it out of his mind and memories? When he jumped into France he landed in an eternity of mud, fatigue, misery, destruction and death. He still shuddered at the memories of fighting across pastures littered with the bloated carcasses of cows among the corpses of dead GIs and Germans. Dead GIs and Germans—he expected that—but why did cows have to die? Many times, he looked carefully to be certain his target was a soldier and not a cow. During this fitful year of combat, he expected a bullet to find him but it didn’t. Instead, bullets killed the men on his right and on his left.

In the decades after the war, he held at bay the horrific memories of his decimated company slogging from one brutal fight to another. His youthful delusion of heroic action darkened to a grim determination to stay alive. If he survived, he wanted to marry and settle down with his own herd of Guernsey’s. Nothing seemed as peaceful as a dairy. All he had to do was survive.

When the peace came at last, he returned home and used his savings and veteran’s points to buy a herd. Then he married Shirley, his high school sweetheart, and they raised two daughters and a son. For half a century, Shirley’s bubbling laughter, the children and the grandchildren kept him from talking about the war. Then Shirley died and he had nothing to keep the dark memories from returning at night and staying all day. Without Shirley, he had only the cows for companions. He talked to them, confided in them and apologized to them for the boys who didn’t return home. The cows didn’t speak but they listened without comment.

“I’m sorry Dickey. I’m sorry I got you killed,” he whispered as he attached the suction cups to the cow’s teats. “My fault … all my fault,” he muttered. “I should of known …” As he moved from cow to cow, he called each of the dead squad members by name and apologized for their deaths. “Danny, your chest! Oh my God, your chest …” he said, except it was a lumpy sack of oats that resembled a corpse. He avoided looking at window panes because he sometimes saw their pallid features, like portraits, each as boyish as they were in 1944. We thought we were immortal. But we weren’t. Now they’re dead and I’m not. The cows’ tails swished away the flies but not his memories.

Daily, he hoped for consolation and forgiveness but the cows offered no solace or comfort or release. Little by little, the war and dairy became inextricably entwined until he dreaded rising in predawn darkness to milk the herd. The memories were the worst in the morning twilight when Germans attacked out of the darkness and nothing was as it seemed.

The sounds of zipping coveralls and buckling goulashes took him back to the night of June 5th, 1944, when he jumped into hell. Lately, his small milking galley seemed as confined as the C-47 transport that took him over France. He snapped on the radio because the polka music banished his thoughts and calmed the cows. Then he let in the herd and each cow went to her stanchion. One by one, he hooked the suction cups to the udders and turned on the milking machine. Its compressor hummed but the vacuum pump pulsed and, in its two-count beat, he heard the jumpmaster’s order: “Stand-up, hook-up—stand-up, hook-up” as the troopers leapt from the plane and floated downward through the fog of war to a life or death landing in the drop zone.

The 101st Airborne suffered heavy casualties from German snipers and machine-gunners among the dense French hedgerows or bocage. The company’s ranks thinned quickly and captains replaced colonels, lieutenants became captains and sergeants were promoted to lieutenants. As green as he was, they jumped him from corporal to staff sergeant in charge of a platoon. At 20, his responsibilities weighed more than a loft full of hay. He thought he was too young for the rank but the other boys were younger and someone had to do it. Men died fast in Carentan, Bastogne and Floy. They died but he didn’t.

Danger and misery welded them together but bullets and mortars ripped them apart. In the woods near Bastogne, they huddled in foxholes without winter coats and shivered as snow drifted around them. Then he got orders to attack a German outpost. He sent four men to flank their machine guns while he and the rest rushed straight in. All the flankers died silencing the guns and three more comrades went down in the frontal assault. He knew men died in wars. That’s what war was. It wasn’t heroic. Just death and misery.

Just before Shirley died, he received an invitation to the 50th reunion of his Airborne unit. For years, she urged him to attend the once-every-five-year reunions but he resisted. No, he couldn’t do it. He feared a meeting with his old comrades would remind him of the boys who died carrying out his orders. Now, as memories of the war closed in, its chaos and terrors lurked in the guise of familiar things. He saw danger where the paddock fence was weakest. I’ve got to reinforce the line. Can’t let them break through and flank me. Digging a post hole brought back to the mucky smell of foxholes. On another day, he heard the rumble of a diesel engine. My God a panzer tank headed this way! He took cover before he realized it was his neighbor plowing an adjacent field. The worst was the day he ran toward squeals behind the barn, yelling “Medic! Medic!” and came upon two hogs fighting over an ear of corn.

He could never erase the faces of the young men who died following his orders. At the age of 20, he couldn’t know what lay ahead. Now, at 70, he knew and still feared the recurrent terror of killing and the anguish without surcease. So, he talked to the cows, apologized to them and said he was sorry that one trooper or another would never get home. He apologized for all the Thanksgiving dinners they would never eat, the girls they would never marry, the children and grandchildren who would never carry a bit of them into the future. His squad had come from all over—Michigan, Nevada, Alabama, Connecticut and other states and they died all over. Those who didn’t make it home slept in France, Belgium and Germany. Far away. Forgotten.

His war ended on the day he rose in the dark and the house felt cold although it was June. He dressed with care, zipping his coveralls over his clothes and buckling the galoshes over his boots. Then he went to the barn and put the things he would need later on a bale of hay. As usual, he set out feed and let the cows into the barn. Mocha, the herd’s leader, found her stanchion and stood patiently waiting for him to close it around her neck. They seemed nervous this morning. He didn’t turn on the radio or talk to them as he hooked the cups to their udders. The machine pulsed its one-two rhythm and the milk flowed warm and white from the udders to stainless steel cans. When he finished the milking, he unhooked the cups and opened the stanchions so the cows could go to the paddock.

Mocha didn’t move but stood in her stanchion and looked at him as he removed the goulashes and coveralls. Henry stood before them in his Army uniform with the eagle patch and chevrons on its shoulder and the paratrooper’s badge and bronze star on his chest. The sergeant went to the bale and pulled a .45 pistol from its canvas holster Then he opened a bottle, swigged some whiskey and saluted the herd with “Cheers.” Surely, a drink would make his war end more easily. Henry jacked a bullet into the pistol’s chamber, gripped it in both hands and tipped the muzzle under his chin.

Mocha craned her brown neck and looked back at him with dark, moist eyes. Then all the cows turned to watch him. He looked at Mocha, knowing cows could pick up on emotions and sense when things weren’t right. They always differently when he and Shirley were angry at each other. Was it possible Mocha and the others sensed he was up to something?

Why haven’t they left the barn? What are they thinking? What do they know? Their somber eyes carried no hint of judgment or anger or recrimination. Only a question—why? Shirley had large, dark eyes like theirs and often asked that silent question. The cows stood, ears out, square muzzles down, their lower jaws chewing with a sideways rotation. They waited for what he might do next.

In a flash of clarity, he realized no one would find his body until the creamery truck arrived, four days hence. Who was going to milk the cows between now and then? If they weren’t milked twice daily, their udders would swell painfully and they would come down with mastitis. He remembered all the dead cows she saw needlessly killed on the battlefields of France. I can’t leave them this way.

The cows watched with wet eyes. Looking from one to another, he saw the same patient expression his men gave him while awaiting his orders. Whatever you say … We signed up to live or die. And we did that. That war wasn’t about me. It was about us. So, what is this about?

Henry lowered the .45 and slipped on the safety. I gave the orders but my men died for each other. Who am I dying for? Myself? He dropped the pistol onto the bale and Mocha tossed her head. Maybe she understood. He felt she did. It was important to be understood.
Then, still chewing, Mocha turned toward the barn door and the others followed her outside to the paddock.

He watched them go and slumped against the door jamb as the sun cleared the horizon. Morning light flowed across the rolling fields of new corn. A breeze carried the promise of warmth and lifted the scents of dewy alfalfa. Crows waged their ancient war against an owl perched in the windbreak. He picked up the stainless-steel cans and poured the fresh milk into the holding tank. For the first time since Shirley died, the sounds of war ceased pounding in his head. He felt clean, cleaner than from any shower or bath; the feeling of purity. Whiskey bottle in hand, he stood in the doorway and poured it on the ground. The herd stood in the paddock’s corner, their heads together, and gazed at him.

“Thank you,” he said, swelling with gratitude for their compassion. I’ll go to the reunion. The war is over.

image by Bleron Çaka,  2011, Boge-Rugove, Kosovo (Wikimedia Commons)

Pickup

Pickup

Hannah Ford

He’s been driving trail shuttle for nine years, ever since his wife took her kitchen appliances and smoking habit and left. Their dog had howled after her for a week or so, then he’d forgotten about her, curling up on her rocking chair like it’d always been vacant.

His sons check in once in a while, but it’s mostly just him and the dog now. It’s not a bad life, maintaining the trail during the day, picking up hikers when need be, getting home in time to watch the sun set over Lake Jocassee.

The couple called three days ago, having found his number on the Trail Angels website. The boy asked about getting picked up at the end of the hike. I mapped it out, the boy said, and we should get to the end seven days after starting. But Trip has been around the Foothills for a while and so he says no to that plan, because nobody finishes when they think they will, and many don’t even finish.

He picks the couple up at the trail’s end, where they’re standing next to their car and holding paper coffee cups, the girl leaning her head against the boy’s arm. The boy is skinny with a wide frame that he’ll eventually grow into. The girl is small, barely to his shoulder, her hair brushed neatly into a ponytail and her hiking boots stiff and new. She’s wearing makeup. Just looking at her, Trip knows she won’t make it. Continue reading Pickup

The Whirlpool

The Whirlpool

Kate Henderson

 

Dickie’s teeth click when he eats. I have known for years they are false, but I can remember when I was a little girl and thought they’d come loose with age. Only his chewing interrupts the questions. What are you going to do now? Why don’t you finish university? His eyes are earnest. They bulge from his head, his head bobs up and down. It is hard to pay attention to the words, so I shrug at what I think are appropriate intervals.

“I guess you just have itchy feet.” He sighs, shakes his head, scoops up another spoonful of ice cream.

The conversation takes on a more general tone. The kids he teaches at school. Other grandchildren. Unemployment is terrible. Why don’t the kids take trades? I listen, but not closely. I let my eyes wander to familiar objects in the room I know so well. I remember Christmas dinners, when the Virgin Mary smiling down from above the cutlery box seemed less peculiar, when the table, filled with family, seemed less long. My eyes come back to Dickie; he is still talking. He is greyer now, his hearing even worse than I recall. He is retired, and teaches a class in Introductory Engineering at the community college. He is concerned for his students who are reluctant to settle down and work for a union. Instead they collect unemployment. He calls it “the dole.”

GrandEm fidgets at the other end of the table. We call her GrandEm because her name is Emma, and she says she was too young for Grandma when we were born. Her breathing is audible.

“You were far too young, Anne,” she interrupts suddenly. Continue reading The Whirlpool

Trans-Canadian Train

Trans-Canadian Train

William Cass

I met a young woman many years ago during an August evening of soft light and liquid shadows. It was during a short stopover heading west on the Trans-Canadian train that ran across the country’s southern portion. I’d boarded in Montreal following a visit with my grandmother in Vermont after a summer travelling the hostel circuit through Europe. I was on my way back for a second year of teaching in a bush village in the upper corner of the southeastern Alaska panhandle. I was twenty-four years old.

Passengers were permitted to disembark for a few minutes while the train was changing tracks in that town above the Boundary Waters separating Ontario from Minnesota. I was stretching on the platform while new and current passengers waited for the train to be ready to board again. The young woman was among those new passengers and stood reading a large book with a satchel at her feet. I guessed I was a little older than her. She held the book with both hands just below her chest that rose and fell slowly with her even breathing. She wore a mauve blouse under a light cardigan sweater, jeans, and sandals. Her auburn hair fell to her shoulders in a mass of curls, and when she looked up to regard the track-changing progress, I could see that her eyes were pale blue. Against that hair and those eyes, her skin reminded me of bleached driftwood. In the muffled light, she was so lovely that I found myself holding my breath. Continue reading Trans-Canadian Train

James

James

Robert Boucheron

 

James Pettigrew was the bell ringer of St. Giles Episcopal Church for as long as anyone could remember. Longer, in fact. The oldest members of the congregation remembered him from early childhood.

Clinging to their parents’ hands, they had trooped through the narthex on Sunday morning, glanced to the side, and there he was in the shadows. He stood there silent, straight as a stick, hard to make out in his black suit and dark brown skin. They were afraid of him and curious. Was a bell ringer like anyone, or was he a special kind of person?

James rang the church bell in an alcove off the vestibule. A short, slight man, he pulled down the rope with all his might. Then he flew directly up, hoisted five feet in the air on the bell’s return swing.

“He looks like a monkey,” people said, though they never saw a monkey do any such thing. James’s antique manners and grave demeanor stifled ridicule. Nevertheless, the title of “sexton” seemed overly dignified for a black man. Continue reading James

Traveler #17

Traveler #17

Jim Cole

 

By the time he was 46 years old, he had orbited eight planets, and then, finally, they selected him to go live on one for a time.

The blue surface felt like moss. Even through zinc boots and socks insulated with an aluminum alloy that left a rash on the soles of his feet, the planet felt luscious. Stepping onto the surface was exhilarating, as if he were the first to ever touch another planet. And yet, the weight of 300 pounds of gear – those zinc boots, four oxygen tanks, a big helmet they called the pumpkin, a tent made of carbon fiber, a stove, a camera and tripod, a solar battery pack, a weapon slung over his shoulder that frankly he had not learned how to discharge – left no trace. After three steps, he stopped to turn around – a maneuver more cumbersome than his instructors on Earth had warned. He stumbled, started to tip over like a dead oak tree, caught his balance, took a deep breath, smiled at his good luck, and pulled the camera from the pouch on his chest. He was giddy about snapping a photograph to beam back to his home planet, but looking through the lens all he saw were the faintest z-shaped tread marks in the powder blue surface. Before he could turn on the flash and focus again, any hint of his presence was gone. Continue reading Traveler #17

Jalopy

Jalopy

Mitchell Grabois

 

1.
My father ran aground amidst a naked, barbaric race. The women’s cologne must be distilled from excrement, he and his mates thought. They held their breath. The men’s penises dragged on the glacial ice. My father wondered why he had ever set sail.

2.
With global warming, the glaciers recede like a pack of erections that have simultaneously changed their mind. The Mendenhall Glacier wonders: Viagra or Cialis? I need to assert myself. I need to get back to fucking the world with my cold rod. The world is too hot. Women are supposed to be hot, but not planets. I remember when I was young and stretched out beyond what I could see or be aware of. I did not know myself. All the worse for me.

Now I know myself better, but what I know, I don’t like. I’m retreating from the battle. I’m becoming more frayed and mud-spattered every year. President Obama visited me, and he had tears in his eyes. Then, to take his mind off my fate, he went and watched Eskimo children dance in colorful costumes, big smiles on their faces. They laughed with joy when he got up and joined them in their dance.

3.
I once had a friend who was a microwave oven. She heated up quickly, but had a cold heart. I went to high school with her. We kept in touch over the years.

She married a man because she believed that as he aged, he would grow more and more to resemble his father, whom she greatly admired. But as he aged, he became the antithesis of his father. It made her bitter. Her glass door became greasy. You could no longer see what was inside her.

I talked to her on the phone. I was thinking about all the appliances that I’ve owned that have broken down and I’ve discarded. Continue reading Jalopy

Tug Hill

Tug Hill

R. Edward Hengsterman

There’s a boy. He does not speak. Dirty blonde and barefoot, he sits cross-legged in space. His arrival is unusual, but I have no fear. So in silence, I wait, until the moment comes when I can’t wait any longer. Then I scream, dance, cry, and laugh – outlandish pantomimes to break his silence, but still he never speaks. This ritual goes on throughout the night.

Then I wake.

Three days ago a boyhood friend died. The news of his death, though not a complete surprise, disrupted my sleep. To be honest, I’m ill-equipped to handle any emotional problems beyond my own. So I keep to myself.

Eric hadn’t crossed my mind in years. In fact, I didn’t realize I’d had any lingering feelings other than a few withered childhood memories until a one-sided conversation with my mother reminded me of the true depths of my baggage.

“Eric’s dead,” she said, “Died at home. Guess I’ll see you at the funeral.” Click. Continue reading Tug Hill

Neighbors

Neighbors

Eric Smith

 

My family had been in the neighborhood five years when Robert Aronson started the Belly Button Country Club. Robert, the only adult in the neighborhood whom every kid called by his first name, lived next door to us with his wife, Nan, and their two kids, Charlie and Elly. Like streets in every suburb that bloomed after the war, ours was a bare vine at first, houses growing up and down its length like fast appearing fruit. The Davies house went up on other side of the Aronson’s, the Roses’ on the other side of them, the Haskin’s house sprung up across the street. All modest homes compared to those in an older part of town, a section between us and the bay, where stately structures stood veiled behind dense shrubs and spreading oaks. We, too, planted trees and shrubs and built fences along property lines on our block but our fences were always partial, with openings left between us and our neighbors. A dirt path went around our chain-link fence to the Aronson’s where Robert laid down planking to keep us out of the mud. The redwood fence between the Davies’ and the Aronson’s had a gate that was always open, shut only by the wind. Moving freely between home and the homes of friends, we all eventually ended up at Robert’s. Continue reading Neighbors

PASS/FAIL


img_4323

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PASS/FAIL

Janice E. Rodríguez

When you’re a child, you’ll believe anything—that Santa Claus has a giant warehouse of wrapping paper so his gifts match the ones at your house, that parents are infallible, and even that school is a haven for clever students.

The mile between Rhonda’s home and school had grown longer as autumn progressed. The maples that stood like sentries along the grounds of the state hospital were bare now, and a fragrant detour into the crunchy windrows of leaves added five minutes to the daily journey. The less pleasant reason for dawdling appeared beyond the last maple—the swarming migration of students into squat, red-brick Lafayette Junior High.

Rhonda waited at the crosswalk, wishing the light would never change, knowing it would. She eyed the sign plastered to the lamppost, “Nixon, Now More than Ever,” and smoothed down a curled edge. The first bell rang; the light changed.

Time to run the gauntlet.

Continue reading PASS/FAIL