Infinity

By Sara Chansarkar

Newly married, in Ohio, we used to take long, cold morning walks, looping through the suburban neighborhood to the wooded trail across the street. I’d forget my hat and gloves, you’d forget to remind me. I’d stuff one hand inside my pocket and the other inside your oversized mitten, rubbing against the sandpaper of your skin, the hillocks of your knuckles. Then, I’d whine about my gelid ears. You’d place your gray beanie on my head; it’d slide down my face to the bridge of my nose. I’d bend, head parallel to the ground like a goat, and shake it off, playfully. You’d blow into my ear tunnels, nibble at the lobes, and ravage my mouth, not caring about our before-breakfast breaths.

Five years later, when we moved to California, you adopted a different morning routine. You swam in the pool, I couldn’t—I’d told you about my fear of water since the age of five when I fell into my grandfather’s pond. I walked on the inclined treadmill, not wanting to go outside on my own, watching from the wall-sized windows, your long arms parting the water, half of your face emerging then disappearing with each freestyle stroke. After the swim, you touched my shoulder with water-shriveled fingers, pecked me on the cheek—as if to check off a chore. Later, I picked up your wet towel from the chair, each hair on my body aching for the before-breakfast roughness, the raw stimulation of our Ohio walks. Your mitten lay alongside dust and domestic debris in the junk drawer.

Here, in Seattle, eleven years into our marriage, I wake up to the sound of rain every morning—some days a light rap on the windows, some days a merciless pounding on the fiber-cement siding. My fingers long for the warmth of your mitten—lost in the last move. I extend my arm to feel the rough terrain of your hands, but you have them tucked inside the white blanket wrapped around your body like a tortilla. Only your face peeks out of the cocoon. I lean closer and observe your cleft chin, the light stubble on your cheeks, the faint furrow on your forehead. I know you don’t know I’m watching you. I know you’re in deep sleep. And I know I shouldn’t expect expression, emotion, or anything else from a sleeping face. Yet, I can’t help thinking how distant you look—like an astronaut on a spaceship, off to an infinity he can’t share with another.

About the Author: Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American writer. She was born and educated in India. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Reflex Press, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere. She has been highly commended in National Flash Fiction Microfiction Competition, shortlisted in SmokeLong Quarterly Grand Micro Contest, shortlisted in Bath Flash Fiction Festival. She is currently an editor at Janus Literary and a reader-in-residence at SmokeLong Quarterly. More at https://saraspunyfingers.com. Reach her @PunyFingers

Players and Wombats

By Dan Brotzel

Thursday was social tennis night at Sean’s club. After some peremptory bed-farewells and a tough Q&A session with the kids — ‘Why are your glasses on a string, daddy?’ ‘Why do you take five bats?’ ‘Is that headband really appropriate?’— he was out the door by 5 past seven, and throwing his giant Nadal-inspired Babolat bag (actually capable of carrying up to 12 rackets) into the back of his profoundly unsexy but deeply practical Kangoo. (Or Kangaroo, as the kids liked to call it.) 

Play started around 7.30pm, but some of the first and second teamers got there earlier to be sure of a more competitive knock. Sean liked to do the same, and by club protocol they were duty-bound to include him. After negotiating a rather large pile of empties and cardboard boxes by the club-house door, Sean knelt down to execute a few approximate pilates-style postures that he was pretty sure were actually making his lower back pain worse. Then he clicked the catch of the chain-link door as subtly as he could and sidled into the empty spot of a four on Court 1, where he tried to look assured as the balls began to fizz past him or bent his racket back at the net. 

Sean was a very modestly gifted player, a member of the Men’s Seventh Team in a lively club with seven men’s teams. Though he secretly believed he was nearer Fifth Team level or even, on a good day, Fourth, the team selection process seemed really rather political, and he knew he would have to do his hard yards in the lower divisions until such time as his talents were recognised and he got the call to move up. 

The Seventh Team — along with many of the teams it played — was a motley collection of the very young and the rather old, the bandaged and the crocked, the strapped-up and the visually impaired. And at this level, many of them actually rather looked up to Sean.

For one thing, Sean had a forehand return of serve that was virtually unplayable so long as (a) the ball landed exactly where he needed it to, (b) he managed to connect with it properly and not send it pinging bounce-less against the back fence, and (c) his opponent was not familiar with Sean’s need to attempt a down-the-line passing shot on every possible occasion. There were quite a few variables here, but it looked good when it worked, and Toby had seen it once. ‘I say!’ Sean had heard him remark from the clubhouse.   

Sean was a deft little imp at the net, a man whose wittily unexpected reverse-angle shots often left weaker opponents wrong-footed, even when they didn’t go over. He hit his overheads with a late tentacular action that made good use of the racket frame and was very effective except when it wasn’t (typical comment: ‘I didn’t think you were even going to try and hit that!’). He was a dogged chaser after net cords and short drops and lost causes, and liked to run up to the net looking to your left but sending the ball to your right — another tactic that only lost its effectiveness once you realised that he did it every single time. 

Sean generally hit the ball very hard. He ran round on to his forehand whenever possible, having only sliced ruses and ramshackle swattings where his backhand should have been. A confidence player, he was capable of missing a shot from anywhere on court, while his serving veered wildly from triple double-fault to ace in the course of a single game (as he liked to joke, ‘I never know where it’s going so I don’t see how my opponent can!’). He was an inveterate poacher, a helpless choker, and a notorious hitter of balls smack at the player standing at the net — a lawful if unsportsmanlike tactic which he feared people muttered about. 

He was working hard on his shit-to-champagne ratio. When Pauline bought him two lessons with the club’s Belgian coach Jean-Luc, Sean discovered that for 25 years he’d been gripping his racket wrong on both forehand and backhand. This meant that whenever he played a ground stroke now, he had to (a) remember how not to do it, so he could unlearn his bad habit; (b) remember to apply the new correct grip on top; and then (c) look on in despair as all that thinking made him too late for the ball and it ballooned into the top of the net yet again. ‘Stop thinking!’ he would scream at himself. Or: ‘Legs! Where were you?’  

Yet secretly – so secretly he barely admitted it to his secret self – Sean continued to believe that he would improve and one day excel at the sport in a way worthy of public accolade. ‘You are a man who wants to get better. You have good ideas. You have… courtcraft. And this I like,’ Jean-Claude had said with great seductive seriousness at the end of their first lesson. (’I bet he does,’ said Paula afterwards. ‘Did he say you need more lessons by any chance?’ ‘I think you’re missing the point,’ replied Sean, who’d had no idea that courtcraft was even a word, let alone that he might himself be blessed with any, and had secretly signed up for another dozen one-to-one sessions already.)

‘Evening Sean!’ called Dominic impassively. ‘Good God!’ he said, eyeballing the rubbish pile. Dominic was a good ten years older than Sean, somewhere in his mid to late fifties. He was a veteran of hundreds of league matches and had a way of playing that enabled him to keep on competing hard in spite of his advancing years. His game was all drop shots, flat, surprising wide-angled serves, and canny spins and disguises, and he always partnered up with a super-fit late adolescent, whom he used like a cricket runner to do all his legwork. The youngster, in turn, learned matchplay and strategy from Dominic, in a relationship that was positively Grecian. 

‘Evening Dom! I know!’ said Sean, rolling his eyes in sycophantic agreement at the piles of recycling but remembering too late, shit, that he liked to be called Dominic. Though Sean had been at the club three years, Dominic had not recognised him for the first two. But last week in the bar, Sean had actually had a conversation with him. This was itself something of a compliment, as the better players tended only to socialise among themselves. Dom had flattered Sean with a lengthy explanation of how pleased he was to have switched to a two-handed grip. 

‘It gives you so much more flexibility and disguise. But still,’ said Dom suavely, ‘there’s nothing more satisfying than pulling off a pure, classic, one-handed swishy backhand.’ 

‘Oh absolutely,’ said Sean, who had never managed one in his life. 

As they talked, Sean had even got a hello from Toby, the club captain. Toby was effortlessly self-confident both on and off court, with a grand, plummy manner that made him a natural leader, and a sliced backhand approach worth sacrificing children for. He was also a theatre agent and married to an award-winning tapestry artist who was reportedly extremely famous in international tapestry art circles. 

‘Ah, Sean,’ said Toby, briefly holding him with his golden gaze. ‘That was some sterling stuff out on court today. I love how you really leave it all out there! Remind me — I must have a word with you some time.’ And before Sean could scream, ‘Why not NOW please, Toby!’ he had shimmered off into the crowd, blessing members with a word here, a pat on the back there, and even sharing a few full sentences with his playing equals. 

Sean secretly divided all club members into Players and Wombats, a dubious epithet from the playgrounds of his childhood. Players were all decent, solid, consistent performers at the very least; to be partnering or playing against any of these on a social doubles night was to be guaranteed a learning experience and a decent set’s play. Wombats were everyone else — the women who played endless high loopy shots from one baseline to the other, the old boys with frying-pan serves, the juniors who insisted on smashing everything. These were the people who screamed in terror at an unexpected bounce, who stood and watched balls admiringly that they could have been chasing, and who had so little core of technique to fall back on that they had to re-invent every shot from back-twisting, limb-contorting, tongue-extending scratch.

Natural Seventh Teamers or worse. Not like Sean at all.   

That evening, and despite arriving early, Sean had again ended up – by a clandestine process of nods and winks whose workings always eluded him – stranded in a Wombat four. There was Val, a woman who flinched when the ball came near her; Rhys, a lively ten-year-old who’d be a good player once he could see over the net; and Vernon, Rhys’s dad, who had some nice strokes but was about as mobile as a Subbuteo footballer, and looked really quite cross if you hit the ball somewhere he had to move his legs for. 

At one point, Rhys chipped one up and Sean ran in and smashed the volley away, very hard, narrowly missing the little lad, and perhaps also uttering a very small warlike grunt as he did so. The ball made that proper gunshot sound that signalled a pure, hard contact, and the youngster flinched and recoiled sharply. Sean looked round to discover that everyone else had witnessed this, across the club’s six courts, because they all seemed to be exchanging knowing chuckles and quips he couldn’t quite follow. He was left with that odd out-of-body feeling you get when (a) everyone else knows exactly why something is funny and you don’t, (b) you are clearly the source of the amusement, and (c) your evident confusion about (a) and (b) is somehow only adding to the joke for everyone else.  

The shot had been a fine winner, but somehow he had been ridiculous, he sensed. But he didn’t really care. For a golden hour or so, he had forgotten to think about work. And here was Toby now. 

‘Splendid inside-out swing volley just there, old boy,’ said Toby. ‘You’re really leaving it out there on the court today!’

‘I wish!’ said Sean, all a-flutter. ‘Thanks, Toby.’ For god’s sake. Why just you just ask if you can smear yourself with his used swat band and be done with it?

‘I’ve been meaning to ask you actually, Sean…’

‘Yes, Toby?’ Don’t be too keen. Breathe, man. Breathe

‘I notice you’ve got that van thing there…’ 

‘The Kangaroo? Well, yes, Toby. It’s not exactly a sexy vehicle but it’s certainly very practical.’ Of course! He’s going to put me up to the Fifth Team and ask if I can drive everyone to the away matches! 

‘Yes,’ said Toby. ‘I imagine it’s quite the workhorse.’ He looked around him. ‘We seem to have a lot of drinkers in the club these days.’

‘That’s OK, Toby!’ said. ‘I’m always happy to be the designated driver…’ The players always had a drink or three with the opposing team after a league match.

‘You’ve really got quite a lot of room in there.’ Oh yes, Toby! Plenty of room for all those chunky racket bags… ‘Yes – I think you are just the man.’ Christ. Maybe it’s… the Fourth Team?!?

‘Whatever you need, Toby!’ Just keep breathing…

‘Excellent… Would you mind taking away a couple of sacks of recycling? It’s just the Council want to charge us 40 quid for the privilege.’ 

‘I’d be… happy to,’ said Sean, breathing out hard as Toby sailed off to exchange a braying witticism with a fellow Player. As the conversation at the bar turned to the upcoming French Open and the wonderfully breathable wicking of the new PlayBrave range, Sean began loading the first of several bags of flattened cardboard and empty J20 bottles into the capacious interior of his deeply unglamorous but wonderfully workmanlike Renault Wombat. 

About the Author: Dan Brotzel is the author of a collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack and a novel, The Wolf in the Woods (both from Sandstone Press). He is also co-author of a comic novel, Work in Progress (Unbound). Sign up for news at www.danbrotzel.com 

The Fires We Build

By Matthew Schultz

We split wood and stack logs along the property line

as summer retreats across the lake. We’ll make a fire

tonight. There will be boots and flannel shirts, coffee

in enamel mugs as bitter as September’s pallid pull.

Kids are walking up the hill between the long grasses,

their slight dirt path worn wide by daily parades to the

beach and back––each trip eroding their need of us. Cold

creeps in and the weightlessness of august youth grays.

Our hands are tired from the work, but we find each other

in the spreading glow, like Andromeda and the Milky Way

reaching out across the great expanse, hoping to connect

in this cosmic wilderness––bizarre and bleak and brutal.

The dogs come closer to the warmth and lie at our feet

as if we were royalty, as if any of this mattered at all. And

we look out upon our small, ephemeral kingdom beneath

the reassuring stars still flickering like ancestral campfires.

About the Author: Matthew Schultz is a writer from Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of two novels: On Coventry and We, The Wanted. Matt’s recent poetry appears in Olney MagazineSecond Chance Literature, and Taco Bell Quarterly. His chapbook, Parallax, if forthcoming from 2River Press this fall, and his prose-poem collection, Icaros, is forthcoming from ELJ Editions in May 2022.

Pig

By Sean Jacques

Raised as an only child, on the outskirts of a rural town, I shared the first few years of my life with imaginary friends. I spoke to them, listened to them, and we never argued. Best of all, whatever hero I dreamt myself to be, whether it was Daniel Boone, Zorro, or a Cherokee brave, they would always choose to be the villain and let me win the day. Then upon turning five, I entered Kindergarten and met Claude Black. It was the first time I saw loneliness. 

He was wearing a soured yellow t-shirt and pink hand-me-down corduroys, two-sizes too big, with the bellbottoms bunched over an old pair of scuffed boots. His wild black hair looked as if it’d been chewed-off by a saw, and his body smelled like pee. But it wasn’t his pitiful look and stink that made me suspect that he was a different sort. It was his eyes. Translucent gray, like two dime-size fogged mirrors. And they were perpetually shifting. It was hard to tell if he was staring at you or was crossly trying to decipher the world’s mean intent.

On the playground during those few weeks of school, I learned how lines were drawn and mobs were shaped. Most of the girls bonded by slapping patty-cake, while most of the boys established a pecking order by tussling. Since I was small and not much of a wrestler, I had a hard time making an impression, but after I proved to be a fast runner, a few of the boys acted like they wanted me to be their friend. But not Claude. He would keep off to himself under the Big Oak Tree–the tallest on the playground–picking off its bark with his clawed fingers and staring at only God knows what with his spooky gray eyes. Whenever I bothered to notice him, I found myself wondering why made him so strange, but I couldn’t ever put my finger on it. That is until Tyler Mann, the stoutest boy in our Kindergarten gang, educated the rest of us on Claude’s natural-born peculiarities. 

“He’s an inbred.”

“A what?” Junior Barnes asked.

“An inbred.”

“What’s that?” inquired Wayne Henderson. 

“Means his mom and dad ain’t supposed to be havin’ no kids.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Cause they just ain’t,” Tyler replied with a snark. I took it that he didn’t like his leadership being questioned, so I veered my eyes away from him as he went on. “My brother is in fifth grade, and so is Claude’s older brother, and he says his older brother comes to school every day stinkin’ like pee, and he don’t hardly talk to nobody either, same as Claude does.”    

“So inbred means they’re retarded?” Junior Barnes asked. 

“Kinda like it, yeah,” Tyler answered. “My brother says it’s like bein’ born a donkey from a daddy mule and mama horse.” We all gaped at him, hungry for more explanation, but he didn’t seem to have any other examples for us to grasp what he meant. 

“Or maybe like bein’ the runt pig?” Randy Buxton chimed up. 

“Yeah, like that,” Tyler responded, laughing. “Like a runt pig.” 

The rest of us got to snorting and giggling too, and we all gawked at Claude standing off in the distance beside the Big Oak. He was kicking its trunk like a clumsy Kung Fu fighter. At the time, I still wasn’t altogether sure of Tyler’s explanation of what an inbred was, or why mules and horses or runt pigs had anything to do with it. Still, even as a five-year-old, I understood that Claude must’ve come into the world as something not quite right with nature. 

“Hey runt!” Tyler threw his hand in the air and yelled out at him. “Suuueee! Suuuee!” 

All of us laughed and joined in. “Suueee little pig! Suueee! Suueee!!” 

Claude spun his spooky gray eyes at us and then went back to booting the Big Oak. And that was the way we came to calling him Pig.

#

And so it went during our early grades in elementary school. Pig passing his days as a friendless outcast, while the rest of us kept sprouting up within our fated lots. In first-grade we figured out early on that Ms. Walker was sloppy with discipline, so we ran wild as monkeys and disregarded her hollow threats. Except for Pig. He stayed so buttoned up and gentle, Ms. Walker deemed him as her special pet, and hardly a day went by that she didn’t ask him to sit next to her desk, while she forced the rest of us to practice our addition and subtraction or to read the silly exploits of Sally, Dick and Jane. Then in second grade, the tables turned. Most of us tamed our unruliness, out of our fondness for kind old Mrs. Smith, but Pig had gotten so spoiled by Ms. Walker, he went to back-talking and raising a ruckus with the girls. Mrs. Smith was sweet enough, but she wasn’t a pushover, so she would make Pig stand in the corner or clean her erasers at recess, and if none of that worked, she would send him to Principal Snead’s office. All the while, Pig never did learn letters or how to figure numbers like the rest of us.

When third grade came around, we were sentenced to serve in the prison room of mean old Mrs. Robinson, who treated us all with equal spoons of vinegar. We figured out the first week that she would scold any one of us for any transgression, and so we quickly adapted to sitting tranquil with our heads straight, our eyes wide, and our ears perked. Except for Pig. He would doze in class. Break his pencils. Pester others. Doodle stick figures on his desk, which was the biggest no-no. Then came a day when he upped his surliness. It happened right after first recess, when our spirits were running full throttle. Mrs. Robinson had instructed us to read silently, and then she went to napping behind her desk as she commonly did. But after a few minutes passed, her eyes snapped open to catch Pig slumped over his chair and daydreaming. 

“Claude,” she cried out. “Stop that lazy slouching and get to work!” 

Pig didn’t move. He kept staring at the floor, transfixed by the frayed carpet. 

“Claude Black! I said get to work!” 

Again he ignored her. 

“Claude!”

“Leave me alone,” he mumbled.

“Wha–” Mrs. Robinson swallowed her sound. She jerked upright from her seat while the rest of us raised our eyes toward what was fixing to happen. 

“What did you say young man?”

“I ain’t gotta mind you none.” 

Mrs. Robinson exploded from her desk, marched over to him, and clawed onto the back of his neck with one hand, while her other hand pinched his ear. She yanked him up from his slouch, nearly ripping his head from his neck, and dragged him out into the hallway–him twitching like a catfish out of the pond and hollering the whole way–and when the door slammed, we stayed sat in shocked silence, half-way believing that Pig was headed for slaughter. 

“Pig’s gonna get it this time,” snickered Junior Barnes.

“Be quiet!” Lori Roy shushed us. “You’re gonna get us in trouble.”

“Shut up, four-eyes,” Wayne Henderson barked back at her.  

We all hushed, but not for snooty Lori Roy, rather we wanted to listen to what was happening in the hallway. All we could make out was Mrs. Robinson’s muffled speech. But then a few minutes later Principal Snead’s gruff voice was heard growling with mad words. After that came the loud whaps of a hickory paddle blistering across Pig’s behind, and each one of us cringed in our seats and privately counted the licks until they ended at five. 

“Oh man…” Junior whispered, for us all. 

In the aftermath, one would think that we would’ve praised Pig for standing up to mean old Mrs. Robinson, as none of us carried the courage. This was my own sentiment at the time, yet instead of praise, the other boys only grew more encouraged to get violent with Pig, no differently than Principal Snead had done. Tyler and the bigger boys began to shove him to the back of the lunch line, and knock school books out of his hands, and trip him to the ground when he wasn’t looking. It felt wrong, but strangely enough, instead of fighting back, Pig just snorted whenever they picked on him, acting as if he was getting a big kick out of being the victim of their cruelty. The way he begged for more made me want to join in their riotous fun, but I was still the smallest of the bunch, and my worry over getting hurt held me back. 

Then one day at lunchtime recess, Tyler asked Pig if he’d like to play smear the queer–the favorite game of us third-grade boys. We’d not yet become aware of what queer meant, no more than we’d known what an inbred was in Kindergarten, but we did know the only real rule to the game was to punt a rubber kicking ball into the air and the player who happened to catch it–recognized as the queer–had to run like the dickens before everyone else chased and caught and pummeled him to the ground. Sort of like wild-born pups honing their kill skills with one another outside the den.  

“All I gotta do is tackle who gets the ball?” Pig asked us.

“Yeah,” answered Tyler. “You see us play all the time. It’s easy.”

“And when you catch it, you just gotta run till you get caught,” said Wayne.  

In the past, we’d all shared an understanding that no one would get marred too awful, other than whelps and bruises and maybe a busted lip. Like everyone else, I’d take my turns of being the queer, confident that I’d get pummeled in a pile, but in the end, it was all in good fun. This time though, I spotted the others signaling to one another to purposely not catch the ball, and after six tries of Pig snatching it out of the air on every turn, his ignorance led to us tackling him harder. Wayne kneed him in the nuts. Junior ripped his shirt collar. Tyler took him down in a choke-hold. Even I felt compelled to hold his face down in the dirt. All the while, Pig took our licks like they were inviting gestures of allowing him to be a part of our rugged pack. 

When the bell rang to end recess, Wayne hollered, “One more.” Pig grinned at him and punted the ball into the wind and it came falling down into Tyler’s hands. Our stout leader shrugged and sprinted off with little chance for any of us to catch him, but Pig went ahead and took chase all the way across the field. 

“Sick him, Pig!” Junior egged on. “Sick him!”

When Pig got within reach of snagging Tyler’s arm, Tyler spun around and started running backwards–taunting and teasing–then he stopped on a dime, and with no advance warning, hurled the ball straight into Pig’s face. Even from a distance, the sight and sound of the impact was brutal. 

Pig collapsed to his knees and covered himself with his hands, while Tyler strutted away from his dirty deed as prideful as a morning rooster. When Tyler reached us, he slapped high fives with Wayne and Junior, and as the others praised him for his mean trick, I felt a strange sickness roll inside my guts–some fast-moving plague that was burning into my chest and climbing to my throat. All the while, I held my sights on Pig, watching him rise and stumble toward the Big Oak. Then I began to creep in his direction.  

“Where you goin’?” asked Wayne.

“To see if he’s okay.”

“What for?” asked Tyler. 

“Mrs. Robinson will send us to Principal Snead if we’re late,” Junior yelled out. 

But I didn’t say anything back to them. I just kept walking towards Pig. And one by one, they trotted back to the classroom, like a pack of guiltless wolves. 

As I neared the Big Oak, I heard Pig bawling. He was squatted against the trunk with his head buried between his knees, and when his face lifted up, tears were raining down his cheeks, and a mixture of blood and snot was dribbling down his nose. 

“Get outta here!” he yelled.

I stopped, mid-step, a little fearful of him.

“Leave me alone!” 

His face fell between his knees again and he went to whimpering. I wasn’t sure what to do, what to say, so I stood there in dumb puzzlement. 

Finally, I said, “I’ll go tell Mrs. Robinson you fell off the teeter-totter.” I waited for his agreement, but he just kept whimpering. Eventually, I just left him alone and headed to the classroom, wondering if the fib I was going to tell Mrs. Robinson was to save Pig from shame, or to save myself from trouble. But I would never come to know the answer, as after that day, we stopped playing smear-the-queer, and for the remainder of third grade, no one ever spoke to me about the reason why. 

#

By the first week of fourth grade, we’d already rated Ms. Hodge as a boring stiff, and so from August until May the success or failure of our daily learning bordered on our own enthusiasms, which see-sawed in degree from hour-to-hour. She was so dull, we were dull, and if it were not for Pig’s exploits, I probably wouldn’t have remembered much about fourth grade at all. 

He had come to school that year with his spooky gray eyes shifting at a more intense pace than before, and the rebellion within himself had risen a notch. On the third day of school, he slugged Junior in the jaw over a disagreement on whose turn it was at the water fountain. The week following, Wayne took one on the nose because he’d poked fun at Pig’s smallish ears. I remember how all of us had come to understand that Pig’s turn to violence was his way of warning us to leave him alone, and as it turned out, staying clear of him became a fairly simple task since he was gone a great deal of the time. Sometimes it would be because he’d been in another fight and told to stay home. Other times we’d heard he’d come down with a sickness. Plus, it seemed that every other week Principal Snead would pull him out of class for reasons we would never know.  

After the dull year of fourth grade with Ms. Hodge was over, and fifth grade rolled around, we got our first man teacher, Mr. Hill. But having a man bossing us was the least of changes. On the first day, I noticed how the other littler boys in my class had grown taller over the summer, while I had remained stuck as the shortest, and I was also baffled by how the straight-as-a-board bodies of some of the girls had magically curved. Plus, without anyone prompting us to do so, we were now freely spouting nasty words the older kids had once taught us, adding “mother fucker” and “eat shit and die” to our playground conversations. But the biggest change was that Pig would no longer be with us. He’d been held back to redo fourth grade on account of him missing so much school. 

In some ways, not having Pig in our classroom was a relief. We felt like we’d won the war against him, and even got to calling him “Flunking Pig” as a way to celebrate. Still, his absence left a hole in our regiment of childhood unkindness, so it was only a matter of time before we set our sights on a new victim: Pig’s little sister, Doris. She was in second grade and bore the same spooky gray eyes as her big brother, though they didn’t spin like pinwheels in the wind. She also smelled like pee. To us, she became a game of disease, and the only cure to avoid her cooties was to weld an “x” with our index fingers whenever she came around. Some of us even inked “x” on our wrists and shoe soles as a permanent vaccine. Such is the way we treated her. No better, no worse, than we did Pig. But then, all of the fun and games came to a rolling head of thunder one day at lunch in the cafeteria. 

We were all sat along the lunch tables, scarfing sweaty hotdogs and guzzling chocolate milk, when Tyler hollered, “Hey, look out, Doris is comin’!” As usual, we crushed ourselves up against the edge of the table to avoid her deadly strike, but by now, she’d become used to our games, and so she walked down the line and patted our backs, one-at-a-time, while we howled as if our spines had taken flame. Then out of nowhere, here came Pig rushing from across the room, his eyes twitching, his arms pumping, his jaw dropped–and he crashed head-on into Tyler. The two went to wailing on one another, busting lips, reddening cheeks, scratching necks, and puffing eyes. Mrs. Robinson hurried over and tried to yank them apart, but Pig threw out his arms and whopped her in the eye, and the scrap kept going on for a while longer until Mr. Hill came to the rescue, gripping Pig into a headlock and barking at Tyler to stay on the floor. 

It was by far the fiercest fist-fight any of us had ever seen, and a heated debate arose over who had won the battle. Both had scored punches. Pig would wear a scar over his left eyebrow, and Tyler’s smile would bear a chipped front tooth well into his manhood. The grownups kicked Pig out of school for two weeks, while Tyler had to spend five days after school to pick up trash and sweep floors with the janitor. But the way I’d judged it, and the way I still remember it, anyone who was willing to stand up to Tyler was a winner. I said as much to Junior and Wayne, and it was the last time either one of them would speak to me for the rest of the school year.

#

The summer following fifth grade, I began to grow. I remember how my leg bones would stretch at night, and wake me, the ache so sharp my mom would have to rub them until I’d fallen back to sleep. Still, whatever pains I had to bear, they could not match the thrilling thought that I would now be able to meet my friends eye-to-eye. It was the first summer I’d looked forward to its end, and I remember counting down the days until school started again, when I would rise into sixth grade and become a top dog on the playground. 

Then it happened. 

Two days before the first day of school. 

The whole town felt it, as it had happened right there in public view. The story went that Pig’s mom had suffered a heart attack at the Black’s house way back in the woods. Pig and Doris were there, but they couldn’t do anything but call 9-1-1, as the only other grownup at home was their daddy, who had suffered a stroke a couple years earlier and couldn’t speak or drive. A deputy sheriff and an ambulance rushed out to the Black’s home, but it had taken a while on the crooked log roads, then right after they got there they’d turned around and hauled the whole family back to Dr. Sawyer’s clinic in town. Pig’s mom died along the way. Around this same time, Pig’s older brother, Steve, who was sixteen now, had learned of his mother’s heart attack while he was working his summer job at a sawmill, and he’d hopped into his pickup and sped to meet everybody at the clinic. He must’ve been traveling pretty fast, as when he hit the town streets, his truck barreled through a four-way stop, he lost control, and the truck flipped over and crashed into Hanger’s gas station. He was killed instantly.     

After my parents had finished telling me the sad story, I conjured up question after question about the reasons why, and I still remember the anguish on their faces as they tried to summon impossible answers. They could only say that the Black family were good folks, just simple people trying to survive as best they could, but they’d suffered a long run of bad luck. I heard my mom say it was shameful that it took their deaths to gain the town’s sympathy. I heard my dad say that what had happened was no one’s fault. And as they saying all of this, I began feeling the same sickness that had swelled within me the last time we’d played smear the queer on the playground. Like before, it birthed itself inside my guts and snaked upward into my throat, but this time it was choking me, and the only way to breathe was to cry. 

When school started the next Monday, I was still troubled over what had happened. None of it made any sense. At recess, Pig was nowhere to be found on the playground, so I sat down beside the Big Oak, whispering to him, like I’d once whispered to my imaginary friends. Tyler and the others soon walked up. Heads down. Bodies slumped. I didn’t like them bothering me, but I allowed them to share their say.

“You seen Pig?” Tyler asked.

“You mean Claude?” I shot back. 

“Well have you seen him or not?” 

“I don’t think he’s at school.”

“Did he tell you anything about it yet?”

“How would he?”

“Thought you were his friend.”  

I looked away. Then they left me alone again. 

Over the next few days, we tried and failed to fall back to our old ways, back to our old structures, back to our old routines. But our hearts didn’t seem to be in it. We were broken, and without saying it, we all privately placed our faith into Pig’s return so he could tell us the answers that none of our parents could provide. Instead, we were to learn from our sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Banks, that Pig and Doris had left town to stay with relatives who lived far away. We would never see them again. When she told us the news, I saw everyone’s faces fall. Some started sniffling. I suspected they’d caught the sickness too. 

About the Author: Sean Jacques is a fifth-generation native of the Missouri Ozarks. Currently, he teaches English Literature in Los Angeles, while writing new noirs, westerns, and country-gothic tales of woe. His most recent work can be found at Across the MarginDead Fern PressCowboy JamboreePunk Noir, and A Thin Slice of Anxiety — plus, more upcoming works will soon be hitting the pages of Pulp Modern Flash and 34 Orchard. He can be found on twitter @SeanJacques10. 

Bowling Green, 2005

By Linda McMullen

Ashley stood in front of the Cla-Zel Theatre, one fishnet-stockinged leg crossed behind the other, watching drunken freshmen stagger up Main Street in search of existential meaning, or late-night pizza.  She had gotten the call that the regular Columbia had gotten stuck in traffic on her way back from Chicago, and – hoping against hope – she had assembled her painstakingly acquired costume pieces and hustled downtown to the marquis that read 

Rocky Horror Picture Show

MIDNIGHT

But Wendy – the real Columbia – had not only arrived in time, she had also acquired a bespoke wig for her role.  Steven, the manager, had apologized, and had offered Ashley a free ticket.  But now the thought of staying – of throwing toast, squirting water, and wriggling through the dance numbers, again –

She looked up and down Main Street, ran through the list of BG mainstays, the forthright, square storefronts, beads on a ‘50s-esque string.  I need a new plan.  Grounds for Thought was closing or closed; Easy Street Café was invariably straining the fire code’s capacity at this hour.  

I could just stay.

Five years before she would have leapt at the chance, as a newly minted Adult, three time zones away from Daniel and his busy prom-night fingers – her born-again mother and the everlasting Josiah – her father’s headstone.  A college student.  When her mother had asked why she’d chosen such a “random” school, Ashley pled a scholarship.  A nice one.  She had written her final paper for her American Studies major on how The Rocky Horror Picture Show both subverted and supported sexual and gender stereotypes.

 …she recalled, contemplating her fishnets.

 She’d stayed before.  After graduation she had gotten a job at the registrar’s – “while I’m considering my options,” she’d assured her mother – while the incumbent took time for a new baby.  But Nicola had just called to confirm that she’d booked the baby into day care, and would like to return in early June.  Ashley’s other applications – to companies in Lima, Toledo, even Columbus – had vanished into the echoes.  The market for American Studies BAs remained Ally McBeal thin.

The few friends she’d made in undergrad had moved on.  No one to meet her at Campus Pollyeyes to mindlessly consume stuffed breadsticks on a Saturday night.  She sighed.

Maybe I can find something at the financial aid office, she mused.  They must be coming into their busy season.  One more year, until I find a new idea.

She headed back into the theatre, after all.  To do the Time Warp again.

About the Author:  Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over one hundred literary magazines. She received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations in 2020. She may be found on Twitter: @LindaCMcMullen.

Artwork by: Parietal Imagination Art.

Walther Fingers

By Amy Barnes

I swore I would never have guns in my house. There would be no pistols or hand guns or rifles or pop guns or water guns. I wouldn’t wear bullet bras or have a Bullet mixer. 

No guns allowed. I said to my mom’s group before my son was born. 

I knew a lot of the moms had guns in their glove boxes and purses. I did not because I was going to be a better mother. I looked at them and tried to guess who was packing pink gun heat in their pink gun purse. Was it Sarah who wore spotless white maternity jeans or Angela who insisted on stilettos into her ninth month? 

When I gave birth, it was a cruel trick: my child was born with finger gun fingers. I had hoped he wouldn’t inherit his father’s fingers but there they were, long and locked and loaded.  

The doctor suggested surgery but David was tiny and I was worried. I also hoped he would grow out of it, grow non-trigger fingers that wouldn’t trigger me or his grandma or the mailman. I wanted him to be just a biter. Instead, he sprayed tiny bullets all around when he was bored and aimed gun fingers at my breasts while he nursed and didn’t get enough milk.

He was sent home from kindergarten when he pointed dueling dual fingers at his teachers and classmates at recess. 

He’s just playing. I explained to the principal.

He started keeping his fingers in an embossed leather holster I bought for his birthday when he didn’t want anything else as a gift. I thought it might hide them a little but he kept taking them in and out, with a quick draw and blow-off the barrels. 

Pew pew. He said. I’m Aaron Burr. I’m Jesse James

I tried to help him overcome his gun fingers. I took him to therapy. He saw guns in every Rorschach inkblot. I took him to anger management classes, and it only made him angry because I wouldn’t let him visit the gun store next door for a treat. His father was no help either. He bought him a gun safe bed and a deer blind instead of a backyard treehouse. 

I tried to help David find friends that didn’t have gun fingers. It was harder than I thought it would be. He turned 18 and held up a convenience store with only his right hand. The police had real guns and real handcuffs when they took him away. He waved his fingers at the judge in court and was sentenced to 10 to 20.

When I visit him now, his hand is finally flat against Leavenworth glass.

About the Author: Amy Barnes has words at FlashBack Fiction, McSweeney’s, Popshot Quarterly, Flash Fiction Magazine, 101 Words of Solitude, X-RAY Lit, Stymie Lit, No Contact Mag, Streetcake Magazine, JMWW Journal, The Molotov Cocktail, Reflex Fiction, Lucent Dreaming, Reckon Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Flash Frog, Leon Review, Perhappened, The Lonely Press, Spartan Lit, Blink-Ink, The Mitre, Complete Sentence, Gone Lawn, Cabinet of Heed, and others. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction and long-listed for Wigleaf50. Her fiction has been included in Retreat West, Bath Flash Fiction, NFFD, NFFDNZ and other anthologies. She’s a Fractured Lit Associate Editor, Gone Lawn co-editor and reads for CRAFT, Taco Bell Quarterly, Retreat West, The MacGuffin, and Narratively. Her flash chapbook “Mother Figures” was released in June, 2021 with a full collection of flash fiction forthcoming in February, 2022.

Loveland

By Dave O’Leary

The acoustic guitar hummed a faint tune when he hit a bump in the road, and Ray hummed along with it and thought about the Guinness he had cooling in the back of the van. It was for the holiday, certainly, but also to celebrate later the leaving from where he’d been, the love, if that’s what it was back there, the possibility of it to come. But no, celebrate wasn’t the right word. It wasn’t to honor or commemorate either, and to simply remember would be too soft and passive. He couldn’t decide really what it was. Maybe just an excuse to get drunk. That was, after all, the whole point of the holiday, a release, an escape. He looked in the rearview. There had never been any love or the making of it on or in between or behind those seats, the space now taken up by all his possessions, his suitcases and boxes and lamps, his books, the acoustic guitar that was still resonating a little. The van was a vehicle that had once seemed ideal for possible road trips like this, shared ones though, excursions and weekend getaways with hands held while driving and the inevitable non-hushed, frantic sex he’d imagined such traveling would involve, but it was now just a residence, a mobile version of the apartment he’d left that morning.

He was heading west from Midwest on I-80 in Iowa at the moment and making good time. When he passed Davenport a little ways back, he said it for some reason, “Davenport.” Perhaps because he never thought he’d be there, but now he wasn’t there of course and driving by doesn’t really count as being or having been somewhere anyway. Perhaps he’d said it because it might easily have been a destination, the transition from Illinois into Iowa, but it was early yet and he was rather hoping to reach a little further, to make it to the other edge of the state where he planned to pull over and sleep in the van even though it was mid-March, St. Patrick’s Day, and there were still bits of snow on the ground. His initial plan had been to stop wherever his energy ran out, to simply head west until something gave, his head, his heart, his will, and he thought that most likely might have been Iowa City or Des Moines, the obvious places on the map where it would be easy to find accommodations, but during his investigations and planning, when he’d looked at his highway maps and visualized the openness of the road, he’d discovered a small town near the border, right at the end of the interstate where his options were only north or south, and he’d set that as his destination for this first day of the trip, the first day of his move west and away from those who knew him. It was the name. And it was silly, he knew, like picking a racehorse for such, but when he saw it there on a map two weeks ago, he couldn’t get over the stupidly symbolic nature of it, the idea that he was leaving an almost love to spend the night in Loveland, Iowa, population 35.

He glanced back and quickly forward again, “Home is where the suitcase is.” The guitar hummed a little again as if in answer. It was a droning sound, a kind of lament maybe, a tune mostly made up of the open A string and the occasional accent of other notes, a hint of the high E ringing in there unwavering but faint. And home is where the guitar is too, he thought. Ray smiled at that and tried to make up his mind if he was running with his things from things that weren’t working out and someone he couldn’t have or if he was choosing his own destiny, leaving the almost love behind and seeking all the things he’d ever want, reaching for them, making them happen. Another idea came to mind then. “Home is where the heart is.” No answer from the guitar, but it was another thing that had him confused in this moment. It was the thing. Where exactly was his heart? Was it back there still? Here in the van? He hoped it might be up there, out there, ahead of him somewhere so he said the name of the town, “Loveland,” as a kind of reassurance to himself that he would make it there, that he would be, if only temporarily, a resident in such a place.

He was tired from a little under five hundred miles of driving though. A quick break was needed. Coffee was needed so he pulled off at the next exit and found a diner, parked, considered having a Guinness, a kind of coffee in itself, as a celebration of sorts for making it this far, for being now somewhere in the unknown, somewhere making his way, a new way, a new start, a new life wherever he was and where no one knew him. That was too much though. He was just a guy driving on a highway with a bunch of stuff, nothing special really, and besides, there were no holidays on the open road. There were just miles forward and back, and today was just a Tuesday, a gray March day like any other, so he decided against a beer for the moment. He went into the diner and got a booth. There was country music playing, something unknown but not unfamiliar, the kind of song one might tap an idle finger to while looking at a menu and then completely forget when it was done. At the other tables there were a few families and a few couples but no one else alone. The waitress came over. She had blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her nametag read, “Susan.” She said, “Hi, how you doin’ tonight?” as she set a glass of water and a menu on the table. “Can I getcha anything to drink?” “I’m sorry. Can you just give me a sec?” “Sure thing, hon. Take all the time you need.”

He sipped the water, tapped his fingers. At the table next to him was a woman helping her son color on the back of the placemat. The family at the next table—mother, father, two little boys—was eating quietly. There was a couple in the corner booth leaning forward, eyes locked. Lips would be too but for the table between them. It reminded Ray of a similar moment not long ago with his almost love. There were drinks, a kiss, a window with a sunbeam in the late afternoon. There was hand holding across the table and then glasses were empty and she had to go home, somewhere Ray could not follow. “Let’s stay a little longer.” “Okay.”

She was married, not happily but not quite unhappily either, and it stood between them sometimes, and it was there in the fading sunbeam and a Bryan Adams song on the café radio, but they clung to the moment sipping from the empty glasses. She would be late. She would need to make an excuse, something obvious and mundane like working late or maybe meeting a girlfriend for coffee, someone her husband didn’t know well. She texted something, but Ray didn’t ask exactly what. And it didn’t matter anyway. She was there with him. She’d chosen to be. There was a reply of some sort and then they put their phones away, paid, left. On the way to her car they held hands again, his left, her right, fingers intertwined, squeezing lightly every few steps, wringing just a little more from the moment, and they talked about where and when to go next time. He pushed for a happy hour, one with drinks and music, maybe a place with no sunbeams. “How about Tuesday?” She kissed him on the cheek, “Okay,” and then she was gone, off to sleep in the same bed as the man he knew of only as a concept, her husband.

He stood on the sidewalk for a while next to where she’d been parked and after her car turned left a few blocks up the road he watched all the other cars driving in the same direction. It seemed like everyone was turning left up there, even the bicycles and pedestrians. Everything followed her as he wanted to. A police car turned that way as did a man walking his dog, a beagle. It barked once at something he could not see. He lingered a little more. Given the time, her husband must already have been home when he got the message and replied, and Ray imagined her getting there and telling him that nothing special had happened that day, maybe she’d chosen the late work excuse, just a day like any other really, and then asking of his. Maybe they each had a glass of wine with dinner and another with TV afterward. Maybe she rebuffed his advances later in bed while thinking of Ray. Maybe not. He always paused at that thought to clear his mind, always took a deep breath. There had been no declarations between them yet, no promises of any kind, but he knew they were approaching something, and it was a good road to be on. It was leading to a happy hour after all and who knew what else? Tuesday? Okay. A van turned left up that street, a beer truck did too. A woman on a bicycle. A group of kids, one of them bouncing a basketball. The numbers were adding up as he stood there. Another cop car, this one with lights flashing. Perhaps there’d been an accident. He thought about Tuesday then. It had initially had the ring of tomorrow, of being just up there, right there, the drinks within reach, but it was five days away. It hadn’t seemed like much when they’d agreed on it, but for all that was between them in the moment it might as well have been five months, or maybe 500 miles, and the road they were on together did go straight for a little while, perhaps through a few more sunbeams even, but it turned left up there and went where he couldn’t see, couldn’t follow, to some whole other existence for her at a place off the edge of some map. And so, it was then that he decided to leave, to head west with her warmth still on his hand, the moisture still on his cheek, to give up rather than lose. She’d lingered. She’d kissed him. They’d made plans. Maybe that was enough. “You make up your mind there, hon?”

Ray looked up. Susan wasn’t smiling, but she didn’t have the disinterested expression of a waitress at a highway diner either. She looked rather comfortable, almost like they might be at a party at her place and she was being the polite hostess offering to get something for a guest. “Uh, yeah, can I just have a coffee, black. And I won’t need this.” He held up the menu. “You got it. One coffee.” She then checked on the silent family, and the father nodded to her questions. She dropped Ray’s menu at the stand by the door where she told an elderly couple waiting to take any table they liked and then she went to the coffee station, poured a cup, placed it on a saucer, brought it back, “Here you go.” The coffee was steaming. “Thanks.” “Let me know if you need anything else.”

He nodded and wondered what it would be like to work in such a place. Sure, there would be local regulars, people visiting from their homes nearby, but many of the customers would be one timers, passers through, people on their way to or from somewhere or nowhere, people starting, ending, pausing lives. They would have their own stories, some of them interesting, some not, and they would most likely forget this place when they left even if the meal was fine and the service good. He looked around trying to discern which of the other customers were travelers like him but got the feeling he was the only one. He liked that. He liked being somewhere in Iowa where he technically lived for the moment but where no one who knew him knew he was.

Susan was dropping off food for an old couple at the table closest to the door. They said something and she laughed before making a circle of the dining room and then disappearing into the kitchen. Working here, should he stay, he would get to know her, maybe even befriend her. They’d watch the people come and go on their way to live out lives in other cities, towns, states, maybe even countries. They’d pass the days in a place that was not a destination, a stop that was just an exit number on a highway, a little west of somewhere and a little east of somewhere else. There was a map of Iowa on the wall. He looked at it, squinted, but was sure this place wasn’t marked. Loveland probably wasn’t either and all the better really, all the more to the point. There was a line for the highway of course. It was blue and looked like a river from where he was sitting, and he followed it west through Iowa City and Des Moines all the way to the state border where it simply stopped as if that were the end of the known world.

That gave everything the air of an adventure, of soon stepping into the beyond, and he had indeed felt that way when he left in the morning, but as he sipped the last of his coffee the emptiness of his cup began to fill with doubt. Maybe this was all a mistake, this being here on the road to who knows where over there at the edge of the map. Maybe he should have declared his almost love rather than hint at it around secret drinks and the furtive holding of hands, the whispered messages into his voicemail telling him she was on her way or wishing him a good night. Yes, he should have. Married or not she’d chosen him in some moments. They’d planned a happy hour. There could have been more. There could have been hours, hours in the plural, maybe a weekend or two. The kisses could have turned into other things. Life doesn’t present such chances often. Almost loves are a rare thing, and here he was some five hundred miles away thinking about being nowhere, almost fantasizing about it as if that were a good thing, as if it were a substitute, but of course, there was no substitute. He missed her now, needed her, pined for what almost might have been, and so husband be damned, he would go back. “Katherine,” he whispered in confirmation imagining he was leaving her a message. He liked her full name, not Kath, not Kathy. It took more time to say. It lingered, made it seem like she might be out in the van waiting for him. Katherine. It was actually the first time he’d said her name since leaving that morning as he’d been avoiding it because he thought it might lessen his resolve, which it appeared to be doing. He said it again, but this time it came out as more of a question, “Katherine?” “Susan. Refill, hon?” He looked up at Susan smiling at him now, “Uh, yes, please. And I’ll take the check too.” She poured right to the top of his cup. “Don’t worry about the check. Just a coffee. You take all the time you need here.” “Uh, thanks.”

She went off to refill the other tables, to collect their plates, box and bag their leftovers, gather the bills and coins left for her. More people came. She greeted them, took their orders. Some smiled. Some were silent. They all would leave. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine Loveland but could not. How could one? He placed a ten on the table with the cup still half full and was saddened to see that as he got up to go, as he walked past the hostess stand, as he looked back one last time before exiting, Susan, the waitress, the hostess, the resident, was nowhere to be seen. He’d thought to thank her again with a nod and a smile, but realized as he stepped outside that what he really wanted was the goodbye, the thanks for stopping in, the drive safely to wherever, the come back any time.

He opened the side door of the van and grabbed a Guinness and some crackers, got in the front seat. He sat drinking quietly, slowly, building resolve and giving in at the same time. The lovers from the corner booth exited the diner holding hands. They got in separate vehicles and left heading in the same direction, not toward the highway though. They went north to someone’s home or maybe a hotel, and he didn’t see it, but he imagined them turning left somewhere up there, both of them, one following the other, to a place they both knew. He would never have that with her, with Katherine. And sure, it was one reason why he left. The other was her husband, of course. He called her Kath, which was really why Ray had always used the full name. He said it now though, “Kath,” but it didn’t fit, not as he knew her anyway, but he could see how it might if he were able just to peek around that corner and into her house as they drank orange juiceand coffee with eggs in the morning. Maybe as they grilled burgers out back with friends he didn’t know, maybe the one was there, Rachel, the one who was always the excuse when it wasn’t work. Did Rachel know about him? Did she use Kath too? He saw Susan then over by the far corner of the building smoking and alternately checking her phone or looking at the sky. She was beautiful in that moment. She was in her place, and he thought to get out, maybe offer her a Guinness as a thank you for the free coffee and strike up a conversation about life there, maybe see if they were hiring, maybe pause a little longer here, somewhere new, somewhere nowhere. Maybe it was as good a place as any. Here. Home is where. And really such a place, Loveland, wasn’t a destination. It was only a place one happened to be, a place just up and around the bend that remains unknown until it isn’t, and it would always be there where the road went straight no more, where one had to turn, but Susan soon stamped out her cigarette, twisted it twice under her foot, and put her phone in the pocket of her apron. She straightened her dress, tightened her ponytail. She went back in. He said her name out loud, “Susan,” and there was no question about it. She was there and she always would be.

Ray finished the beer and put the empty in a plastic bag behind the driver’s seat. One was enough in the moment. He started the engine. No, this wasn’t the place, not in the now anyway, not in the permanent sense. It was just a brief stop along the road, a turn, an exit off the highway only when needs be, so maybe it was like Loveland then. It was nowhere and everywhere, and for a guy with his stuff passing through, maybe the timing of such things, the moments when they mean something, could be chosen. He got back on I-80 West and kept the radio off preferring the hum of the tires on the road accompanied by the guitar which seemed a lower register now, a little sadder but more powerful, urgent even, a kind of pulse expecting the high accompaniment of a saxophone or maybe a violin or an oboe at any moment. He had lived there for a little while, somewhere in between somewhere else, only about an hour but it would stay with him. Refill, hon? He pushed the van up over seventy energized by the caffeine and the stout and eager to make up time toward the end of the known world where left and right were his only options, north, south, up, down, but no going back, filled up, no, nourished, even saved, he thought, by the brief residency, the home where no one who knew him knew he was.

About the Author: Dave O’Leary is a writer and musician in Seattle. He’s published two novels and has been featured in, among others, the Daily Drunk, Versification, and Reflex Fiction. His new collection of poetry and prose—I Hear Your Music Playing Night and Day—was published in May 2021 by Cajun Mutt Press.

River Teeth

By Leslie Benigni

The last time I saw Tommy Agnew was in the summer of my eleventh year as my father carried the injured boy from the river and laid him on the back of his aunt and uncle’s boat. The sharpest memory that I have from that twilight haze of an August night was pale bone rupturing from Tommy’s leg like a red-stained egg.  I stood there without a sound, not from the inability to jump in and help, but rather from the inability of resuming my role as an active member in this mess. The consequences of my actions were laying before me as I stood inside the boat, watching, as the others in their boats roped to the Agnews were watching. As I looked down at the two, I noticed a pair of tan feet stop, stoop, and then swerve around them. Martha Agnew, Tommy’s aunt, yanked my earlobe and began screaming a mixture of indigenous tongue and white vitriol until my mother had to pull her away.

___________________

Growing up, my mother had worked for Martha, as a personal assistant in a tradeoff for paying our boat space at their marina and as a way to create a college fund for myself. Every week in those warmer Delaware months, I clung to whatever bandaged book my high school English teacher father let me snatch and consume from the previous year’s curriculum, along with a plastic bag of other small items, and tagged along with my mother to the Agnew’s home.

Because my mother was good at her job, ticking away tasks sent on her Blackberry at a rapid pace, the Agnews considered us a part of the family. Every Friday, I would scale up the winding gravel driveway behind my mother as she checked for the task list Martha sent out every morning, which always caused her to bite her unpolished nails. She still does, but not that much anymore.

 Glass door, white tiled foyer, dogs barking upstairs, hallway, kitchen, Martha. I can remember the house perfectly, how grand I thought it was with all of its sunset-colored rooms and tapestries tossed up on walls, nothing like our Lower Southbend duplex on 5th. I had sincerely thought as a child that that was how houses were built and decorated in the Southwest, from which the Agnews were from built decided to build their wealth in the East.  Theirs was a second home as in my mind as going there once a week during the summer meant that I practically lived there.

Martha and my mother would talk in the kitchen, an amalgamation of crackly noises with whispers, such is the product of memory. Often times, Jon, the husband would be at the marina, meaning that it would give me the freedom to pick up one of the Agnew cats (Inky, Boots, Toto, Oscar, Giblet, etc.) and wander through the rooms. Beyond the TV room where there was a plasma screen and a decommissioned pinball machine was a nook of an office that had the only pictures of the whole extended Agnew family in the house. In every picture, Jon and Martha were primmed and glossy, smiling and stupid, looking more like paler tourists than with their own family.

As I looked at the pictures of all the children, nieces and nephews, wishing I was closer to my own cousins, I remember being called into the kitchen. Martha, a short, portly woman with an arm full of jingling charm bracelets and cat eyes, found me clever when I secretly threw in a book character’s phrase into a primarily adult conversation and passed it as my own. She never knew the difference—I liked her for that.  I came in through the side hallway with a wide, blank expression, carefully lowering a cat to the ground.

She smiled and said that her nephew Tommy would be coming in from New Mexico to come work at the marina for some weeks of the summer, he was a few years older than me, and that I should hang out with him or something, to make him feel welcome.

My mind instantly to the pictures in the nook, which of those young faces could have been around my age. Being an only child, the prospect of having another kid my age around a marina full of mainly retirees and a smattering of some new parents with gurgling babies and toddlers thrilled me, as did the thought of being a part of an informal welcoming committee.

Martha found me back in the office gazing at the picture while my mother was in their garage, probably rearranging something.

“Which one is Tommy?”

“Let me see…” she said, tapping her painted nails on the wall beside me. “There he is.”

A gangly, hawk-nosed boy with long black hair and paint-splattered clothes stood arms crossed in the corner of a picture with a slew of younger siblings, tired parents and the whitened smiles of Martha and Jon next to them.

“He hates having his picture taken, a ‘classic teen’. Never be like one of them, Nora.” She chuckled to herself. “He’s an artsy type, bless his soul, and they say he’s good, though I never got his art, a little too political, if you ask me. He actually applied to some performing arts school and we’re still waiting to see if he’ll get the email that he’s been accepted. Might be nice to get him off that reservation if he is…”

I didn’t know what to say and out of a bad habit to blather to fill the moment’s gap I nodded and said “Yeah, uh, of course.”

I came to two realizations years later from this: 1) I thought I liked being talked to like an adult as an 11-year-old, but really Martha didn’t know how to talk to children being childless herself and 2) Tommy didn’t hate his picture being taken, but hated his picture being taken with Martha and Jon.

________________

The following weekend while we were rumbling in to get our pontoon filled with gas, Tommy sat hunched over on the fill-up station bench, flicking away at a clunky phone. Though at an odd angle from my front-of-boat perch, I can still vividly remember him. His face had a certain wideness to it without any depth and his dark eyes had the same characteristic and as he finally stood up to retrieve the gas nozzle, he was all bone and tendons tugging underneath his skin. He didn’t look like anyone I ever knew, only read about in the books I took from my dad’s class, which made my 11-year-old heart flutter.

He only introduced himself, shook my father’s hand awkwardly through the angled awning bars, when Martha and Jon came down the tall catwalk from the parking lot of the marina, carrying coolers and towels and crooned when they saw us all together.

I remember Tommy, in ripped and dyed clothes, standing several feet away from his decked-out aunt and uncle as they tried to ham him up in front of us. They had explained that he would be staying for two weeks to be with family, earn a summer wage, and ease his “stressed head”.

In between the chattering, mainly from Martha, talking to my mother as if it wasn’t the weekend (Pick up cat litter…Tommy made Honor Roll…make an appointment with my _______…. check on the invitations to the Boat Rope Up…), Tommy stood dense and constrained. I had taken out David Copperfield from my drawstring bag in the hopes he would notice and think I was super smart. He only noticed the dramatic flourish of my pulling it out.

I remember he took a deep inhale. “Dickens. Isn’t that, like, kind of hard for you to read?”

“Oh, no!” My face burned a bit. “I’m picking up on a lot!”

“Hmm.”

Unasked for, and something I still regret, I started talking about the book, using as many big words that didn’t make sense in context to try to impress him as I tried to do with everyone. It’s too embarrassing to tell in detail here and would waste time.

By the time Tommy was lazily nodding his head to the point it might have rolled off from my ramblings, our gas tank was filled and the adult conversation had also ended. I told him I would tell him more about it at the Rope-Up in the next week.

My mother said, harmlessly, before we left the marina for some rocky shoreline up the river that she couldn’t wait for the little pow-wow, a word casually used often by the Agnew couple. They smiled, agreed, and waved us off.

The Agnews faces didn’t harbor any expression, but Tommy’s mouth twitched as we pulled away from the dock. His leg bounced as he sat back down on the bench, checking something on his phone.

__________________________

The following Saturday entailed runs to the grocery store, hastily making dishes that wouldn’t spoil in the summer heat, and my head following all of the thought threads back to Tommy who would most certainly be at the Rope-Up. I remember going through every detail I knew about him as I helped my parents unsnap the canvas boat covering before we made the trek out around the river’s bend toward the dam of our loch. And as I released the final rope from the cleat before pushing off, as was my duty I took great pride in, I remember something about the way I landed on the front part of the pontoon caused me to knock the sunglasses off my head and into the water. I knew I had to unlock the front gate and get back in the boat, but it’s a funny little thing thinking about how those white and pink cherry shades sank with great speed into the murky green depths.

The engine roared with the kneading of waves pushing away from the pontoon as Dave Matthews Band, which is now a part of my own CD collection, crackled over our junky radio. Down the bend from the marina submerged an island by the dam with an inlet and a sandbar which was the marking point for the yearly Rope-Up. The Agnews picked the spot for their drunken festivities from a local fisherman that told them about the sandbar and then drove out all the fisherman. So they anchored their hulking houseboat and invited others in their less expensive vessels from the marina to join them with bumpers and ropes on either side to create a watery, horizontal caravan. Once all of the boats were anchored and connected, you could carefully hop from boat to boat and usually everyone would have a different food dish or alcoholic beverage to sample.  In short, it was a yearly marina thing that couldn’t be missed.

Because we were who we were in a dingy pontoon, we were towards the end of the row of boats. As soon as we were settled and greeted our speedboat neighbors herding their toddlers in their life-vests, we climbed from boat to boat, slowly reeling tied in boats toward us so we wouldn’t fall in the crevices made for our bumpers to prevent scratches from waves bouncing the boats together. My mother was in her pink sarong, as she called it, carefully balancing a layered bean dip in a Pyrex dish from boat to boat, stepping over lines and I still cite that when asked what my mother was like and I say ‘graceful’.

When we finally came to the center of the boats, it was also the center of the party. The Agnews had so many people piled into every spot you would have thought the giant boat would sink. Inside the cabin of the boat were some pleather chairs, a small kitchen, and nautical decorations, some of which my father created in his spare time and some of which my mother bought for the couple. While my parents fawned over them as well as vapid faces they recognized from the marina, I was told to go find Tommy on the upper deck, which I was going to do anyways.

Through the wooden sliding door, I startled the kid who had his headphones in and was yet again searching for something on his phone. Face red, I had immediately apologized and with a little too much pep, I reintroduced myself to which he awkwardly replied, “Yeah, it’s only been a week.”

As I closed the sliding door behind me, I opened the one on the upper deck that led out to the bow in the hopes of letting in some air to help my situation. I looked around and the closest people seemed to be outside on the bow of the boat where there were some folding chairs. I asked if he minded if I read my book near him. He kept looking at his phone and didn’t mind.

He would let the screen illuminate his face for a few seconds, lean back on the fake leather bench with a barometer spiking like a pike above his head with his eyes closed, then immediately go back into his phone. I remembered the feeling of crawling under my skin as I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. It was like he was waiting for something, kept checking for something to refresh and bear some kind of news for him.

I would catch glimpses of him in his tattered AC/DC shirt and worn-out jean shorts and wonder if he actually had swimming trunks. He then started bouncing his right leg at a vibrating pace and between that and the constant laughter from outside the boat and the distant crying of the toddlers on my end of the boat descension, Tommy and I were cohabitating an opaque silence. The silence of our space made room, an amphitheater for the bits of conversation that happened on the lower deck.

They were talking about Tommy and I knew he could hear it, too, but his eyes darted back to me. ‘New Mexico’, ‘school’, ‘Reservation’, ‘fitting the drinking habit’ and ‘acceptance’ floated up to our ears and Tommy fully took out his headphones. He had turned his body to the door that led down below, lowered his head and listened. They weren’t the voices of my parents; I knew that, despite what I now know was a microaggression from my mother earlier that previous week. All of the voices from inside and outside muddled together and while I kept trying to read the same line from Dickens five times over without real comprehension, all of my attention was on my silent cohabitant, looking like he was ready to hurt someone.

Before one final check of his phone, he opened the door with force and stepped down to the lower cabin for everyone to see. The majority was silence as soon as he made his entrance, but then went back to clinking glasses and joke telling.

I laid down my book on my seat and stood, looking down at Tommy from the doorway leading down.

“…not about you, Tom-boy, no way,” I heard Jon say. Tommy was standing next to his uncle in the kitchen as the latter poured some stingy-smelling stuff into a crystal glass. “I drink, your dad drinks, you probably drink…” he winked. “It was just a joke that didn’t mean anything, in fact, just means a certain awareness.”

Martha latched onto his shoulder and Tommy rolled it away.

“What is wrong with you people?” Tommy growled.

He then dove to the bottom deck where all of the bedrooms were and I didn’t see him for a few hours. It was then when I was spotted in the upper doorway that my mother said that she, Martha, Jon, and my father were going back to the marina on the Agnew’s dinghy to help bring boxes of liquor forgotten in our SUV back to the Rope-Up. I was a sufficient eleven-year-old, but one that would get in the way. They never said that, but I always like to think that’s the reasoning why I was left behind on a boat with relative strangers and some angsty teen curled up with his phone in a bunk bed.

I agreed that I would remain reading in the upper deck where I was and if I needed anything to just ask Tommy. I saw them zoom off from the control room window facing the bow as many of the strangers waved them off and even cheered at the thought of even more alcohol joining the party. Once the Agnews left their boat, being the original life of the party, people scattered and went off into slightly smaller boats that trailed along.

So I went back to my Dickens, but naturally had trouble now knowing there was something going on with Tommy that I knew I couldn’t help with and probably shouldn’t help with as it didn’t seem my place. I’d like to think my intuition has improved over the years. I went on in my reading, of David Copperfield, and Uriah was just disclosing his love for Agnes when I heard a loud beating sound that filled the inside of the house boat, followed by an “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?”

Several doors were thrown open beneath me, I could hear it just I could hear my own nasally breath flow right along with the rising of my shoulders and chest.

Through the doorway to the lower deck, which I didn’t close after Tommy went down, the boy in question stomped through the kitchen/resting area and went back to the stern, throwing his arms over the railing, looking out onto the water. He had received his news.

He stood out there for a while, peering beyond the water at a point which I can only now assume was the island, with the sandbar somewhere in between. I tried to go back to my book cradled in my crossed leg nest, but still kept the speck of him in the corner of my eye. When I felt comfortable enough to focus completely on my book, of course that was when he looked up at me through the doorway. Tommy said something along the lines of needing to clear his head and said he was going swimming to find the sandbar in case his aunt and uncle came back and wondered where he was.

“Can I come?” I said it too lightly for him to hear. He stripped down to his boxers and jumped in.

He was supposed to be responsible for me while they were gone, or I wondered if I had made that up, but it nonetheless seemed like the natural rule. Plus, he didn’t know the waters like I did so I thought he might have been grateful for my presence.

 Uriah could wait.

From the water’s surface, the linked boats looked like a group of small white hills, bobbing with the restlessness of oncoming boats from a ways away. Tommy was a fast swimmer and my doggie-paddle tried to match his speed as best I could, but he never looked back once to see where I was or that I had even followed. The deep, layered green of the island was not that far off and I instantly thought of the slimy mush that usually existed on the shores of these island shores. I called to him and just as I did, he stopped. Stiff as a board with long black hair trailing down his shoulders like the tips of paintbrushes, he stood without paddling. He just stopped. If he was surprised, he didn’t show it, he was stone-faced.

 I lowered my feet in the hopes of touching the bottom, flinched when I wrapped my ankle around seaweed, then finally stood on the grimy ooze of river rock and mush. The water was clear enough and the surface was close enough that we could see the colors of the rocks and plants beneath us with bits of pale color among the dark algae.

My memory is fuzzy leading to the conversation, he might have made some remark about my following him, then about the water and the island…but the pinnacle of what started it all happened with the mentioning of an animal. It was something to do with sturgeons, how someone had caught one of the prehistoric looking fish by this very island. As I blathered on about them, Tommy stepped closer to the island, though it looked like he was drifting from the surface. I naturally followed and let my words flow more loosely than before while his shoulders dropped occasionally and he dunked underwater, prompting me to start my sentence over—I, the little fool that couldn’t shut up and take a hint.

“And so I can totally relate to sturgeons…they’re like my spirit animal,” I said.

He turned suddenly; a look of disgust wrenched into a straight mouth line. “Can I tell you a story, now?”

I nodded.

“You know something, yeah, my family told me of this place, my ancestors if you will.” He seemed to be sitting crisscrossed on some underwater ledge as his shoulders hunched over.

“Long ago, the Lenape flourished in these woods that surround us, building tribes that would reach out to other tribes, spreading harmony and sharing the wealth of the land. They could feel the earth around them, be one with it, but only take what they needed and nothing else as that is what our gods prescribed to our people, red as the clay earth that we will be borne into eventually.”

“They say it happened in the spring, when the fog tumbled on the early morning river onto an island like this, maybe this very one. A wooden ship, built to the size the Lenape had never seen showed up to the shores of the island. It was mystical. The Lenape were sure it was a gift from the gods, an omen of good wealth to come for the tribe. Then, the passengers of the ship trekked out of their safety. God, how ugly they were! Flesh: pale and scabbing and disgusting. Like fucking ghosts dug up from ashy graves.

The Lenape saw their illness, and being who they were with the resources of the remedies of the earth, they opened their land and homes to these white savages from across the world. As they nourished the white folk, the disease spread throughout the tribes, spreading death and rotting flesh to those that helped them. They did not ask for it. Did they ever ask to be burdened?”

My head shivered.

“No. They did not. The Lenape were taken advantage of and seen as resources to aid others, and for what?”

He seemed closer to me than before. Only his shoulders upward were submerged.

“Those white folks became one with the land, though it was not theirs. They took the plants and herbs, though they did not speak to gods thanking them for them. The Lenape were not used to the white man’s disease, they weren’t immune and their bodies couldn’t handle it, soon, the Lenape grew to be the sick ones, dying off, buried away from everyone else as to not spread the disease too far, though it was too late.”

We grew quiet. The world around us and turned a slightly darker shade of blue. Then, I asked:

“What did they do with them?”

“Oh,” he raised an eyebrow in all his performing arts school drama. “They buried them in the river of course, the fools. That’s where they got their drinking water from so the disease flowed right back into them just when they thought they had gotten rid of it. So they all died on the –this island and as a humble reminder of the tradeoff between tribes and the gods, the gods made their bones into the rounded, smooth river rock beneath our feet.”

I dared not to look down. “And the white people?”

“Oh, they’re here, too.”  He leaned in close to me and gestured my wrists up from the water and I thought he wanted to hold my hands. Then he carefully placed small objects into them, removing his hands from the tops of my palms. “But just their teeth.”

I screamed.

He fled, smirking.

It was a rush of water and tossing of what I now know was small white river rock, but I swam after him as he headed for the rope-up of boats, calmly bobbing, but everything was so chaotic in my small head that everything seemed rugged and pointed, a red-colored lens on a calm, blue night. I saw him climb up on the back part of his aunt and uncle’s house boat, a cursive Nettie II I caught swimming back, wringing out his stringy hair before walking inside the cabin. My legs were sore from kicking water, but also from hitting the back ladder.

Like a reflex, he went down below to grab his phone, checking it this time for I don’t know what, and came back up, swathed in a striped towel.  I could hear the adults a few boats over laughing about something, talking, making some kind of noise. My head was on fire and I didn’t know what to say. Sure, I was mad at the kiddie ghost story, but I was pissed off in a way that I couldn’t place. I don’t even remember what I was saying, but I know it was persistent and I know it made Tommy want to go to the front of the boat.

“Why do you have to be such an asshole?” I asked, the cuss strange on my tongue.

“Oh, good one,” he laughed. “Why do you have to be an asshole?”

“I am not! You’re the one being mean.”

I’m being mean? You are, your parents are, my aunt and uncle are, everyone is being mean…to me.”

When he climbed up the stairs to the second-tier door to the outside of the boat, I followed. My heart pounded.

“You’re just mad because you didn’t get into that school you wanted,” I yelled.

He turned to me with black marble eyes and spit in my face.

It was a no-thought action. I could clearly see in between the movement of the boat next to the Agnews that the dinghy carrying the couple as well as my parents and a few others were zooming back. Actually, I think I just heard the small, persistent buzzing of the engine as my hands pressed against the back of Tommy, pushing him in the widening crack between the houseboats.

There was a horrible snap echoing up to my ears in between the crack that was then closing with the oncoming waves. We learned later that his ankle twisted around a rope the tied up the boats. A large splash from Tommy was followed from another, distant splash. I looked out to the approaching dinghy and my father swam in between the boats to retrieve the flailing boy I had pushed. Neither looked up at me, though I looked down at them without a word. They were like two rats in a drain, hurrying before a deluge.

_________________________

They had seen it as my fault and throughout the screaming matches between my parents and Martha and Jon, I felt the burning behind my eyes like I wanted to cry. A ‘like’, an ‘almost–never carried out somethings of my own intentions. My mother would never return to work for the Agnews which dashed any buildup of a college fund for me and what I would later learn their desire to get a larger, better boat to keep up with Agnews. We lost the marina community and would later find a decrepit dock up a nearby creek of trailer camps to park our boat in the following years until my high school graduation.

On the drive back to our home in the dark, my knobby knees bounced with a whiteness that matched every passing streetlight. On the corner of the next street over before we pulled into our driveway, I chanced to see a THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU wisping plastic bag lift up into the air and sucked into the darkness. I was told to go straight to bed and my eyes opened wide with only the thought of pearly stones passing through my head the whole night.

About the Author: Leslie Benigni is a current MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University in Ohio though she originally heralds from Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has been published in Perhapped Magazine, :Lexicon Literary Journal, and Athenaeum Magazine. Find her on instagram and twitter, respectively: @benignileslie and @lbeni894 .

Book Review: So Marvelously Far, by Nick Gardner

Gardner, Nick. So Marvelously Far. Crisis Chronicles Press, 2019. $10. 64 Pages.

https://ccpress.blogspot.com/2019/11/gardner110.html

Review by Joe Neary

Nick Gardner’s book of poetry, So Marvelously Far, details his experience with opioid addiction. Rather than focusing solely on the details of the life of an addict, Gardner’s book traces the process of recovery. At the same time, this process is framed within the trajectory of his hometown of Mansfield, OH, which, in many ways, perfectly encapsulates the image of a midwestern rustbelt city that has been reshaped by deindustrialization.

In an interview with Richland Source, Gardner describes the experience of writing this book upon his return to Mansfield after rehab, “”I saw the revitalization of the city—a new bookstore, a new brewery, and realized in a way, I too was revitalizing myself: becoming a new life form in a way” (Jones).  The process of this realization is evident in the structure of Gardner’s book, which opens with poems centered on the experience of addiction, before progressing into what he terms “urban exploration” poems where he turns his focus to the landscape and cityscape around him, offering what he describes as “a deep look at the importance of place and the connections I feel with my hometown” (BGSU). The book then progresses into, and ends with, details on post-addiction life.

By framing both his addiction and his process of recovery within the landscape of his hometown, Gardner perfectly captures the dialectic relationship between personal subjectivity and the social and physical spaces one dwells within—a relationship that, ultimately, serves to configure one’s sense of self. This relationship is often overlooked in discussions of rustbelt life. By filling in this gap, Gardner offers a powerful new contribution to artistic representations of the post-industrial Midwest, as well as a profound look into the life of addiction that so often takes hold within this geographic area. Gardner’s unique vision shows how these towns and their ways of life, rather than needing to be left behind, must, instead, be fully embraced in all of their messiness and flaws, just like one’s past as an addict, if a brighter future is to be imagined and realized.

The book consists of 49 total poems, all of which initially began as sonnets. In an interview with Bowling Green State University (from which Gardner recently graduated with an MFA degree in creative writing), Gardner discusses his reasoning behind the decision to follow this format, saying, “I picked the sonnet form because it is short, but also constrictive. The form challenges how I express myself and I liked the idea of kind of a battle between what I want to say and how I can say it. Of course, I broke the form quite a bit, especially in revision. Sometimes there were things that needed to be said that broke down the walls of the form completely” (4).

The benefits of this decision to focus on form are evident from the very first pages of the book. In “Finding Faces in the Moon,” Gardner writes, “I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone in the moon/ Ever. Saw, once, a glimmer of eye or/something like the beginnings of a smile/ the very start of his tiptoe out of gloom” (4). This spare, reserved language leads the reader to a sense of submersion—bringing them into the difficult experience of confronting one’s own addiction (a process that often amounts to confronting one’s way of thinking). This sensation is further heightened when Gardner writes, later in the poem, “But some nights, I look into the moon and see/ the red veins of a burned-out eye blazoned/ on a backdrop of that soft wax-yellow-skin” (4). Throughout the first section of the book, one can feel this continual sense of submersion into the mind of an addict hoping to change, but seeing his own sense of entrapment all around him. At the same time, the formal approach that Gardner takes keeps these desires and fears bottled up, placing them at arm’s length from his reader—something that highlights both the distance addicts often have from their own thought processes, as well as the somewhat unbridgeable gap between the mind of an addict and those around them.

 As the book progresses, Gardner’s growing ability, once in recovery, to own his past and to embrace the future becomes more evident. In, “Urban Exploration #5,” he writes, “We all came from something bare/ naked and scrambling to hide itself … Turning on the light for the first time/ in twenty years, we see the ballroom filled/ with pigeons and empty beer cans. We see/ newspapers from nineteen sixty-two. We/ see painted windows covering broken glass/ You cannot remove the past, only change it” (27). Evidenced, once again, is Gardner’s emphasis on the ways in which one crafts meaning through an interaction with the spaces around them. In this example, it is a recognition of the present’s infusion with the past that is reflected back to him by his hometown of Mansfield. By embracing Mansfield’s changes and the messiness of the very notion of change itself, including the ways in which change always brings remnants of the past along with it, Gardner offers a positive vision beyond personal addiction and collapsing cityscapes.

At the end of So Marvelously Far, Gardner writes, in the poem, “Looking at Ohio From the Other side of Lake Erie: Erieau, Ontario, Canada,” “I can think about/ myself: a nostalgic worrier, a/ tossing dreamer. I think on how to keep/ my world within my grasp like hugging a shy/ child who keeps wanting to run into train/ tracks. I have come so marvelously far” (61). The optimistic note here is paired with the recognition that recovery is an ongoing process—one that requires an ever-shifting relationship to oneself and the outer world. As Gardner’s book demonstrates, literature has a valuable role to play in this process, as it can serve as a powerful tool for relating to oneself and imagining a new future.

About the Author: Joe Neary is a recent graduate of Bowling Green State University’s MA program in Literary & Textual Studies and a contributing editor at Flyover Country.

Works Cited

Jones, Noah. “Mansfield poet publishes book about his and the city’s recovery.” Richland Source, 10 December 2019.

“MFA Student Nick Gardner Releases First Volume of Poetry.” Bowling Green State University, https://www.bgsu.edu/arts-and-sciences/english/news/mfa-student-nick-gardner-releases-first-volume-of-poetry.html. Accessed 6 July 2021.

The Dying Breed

By Daren Dean

Monroe heard a commotion down the hall to his left just before he was punched in the jaw and knocked to the waiting room floor.

His sister, Carolyn, was in the hospital having her gall bladder removed and he was waiting to hear word from the doctor. He had been talking to Ed Travers on his cell about getting a load of hay for his horses when it happened, so it took him a moment to digest the situation.

The man hulking over him was about to give him another wallop, but he hesitated as he struggled to grab a fistful of Monroe’s shirt to yank him up off the newly waxed floor. He recognized the man as his niece’s husband, Rick Barnes. Barnes was a big man at 6’5 and probably weighed somewhere north of 250, not to mention he was at least two decades younger than Monroe. Still, Monroe had never shied from a fight. In fact, he still liked mixing it up even though he was now in his early sixties.

With his left forearm he pushed away at Barnes’ grasping hand, and felt at a waiting room chair with his right and used it as leverage to pull himself up on his feet. Monroe was irate about being sucker punched, but now that he was on his feet again Barnes blanched just a little and that was all the encouragement Monroe needed. Just that little bit of uncertainty because everyone knew his reputation for fighting.

The people in the waiting room had scattered to the fringes. A nurse screamed when Monroe delivered an uppercut to the big man’s ribs. Barnes grunted from the impact. A little more confidence oozed out of him like an old balloon that didn’t know the party was over. Barnes thought he would waltz in here and take care of business with one punch because of his size, but now he knew better.

A wiry, bespectacled young man wearing blue nursing scrubs with yellow smiley faces on them stood ready to pounce on one of them should the need arise, but at the same time he wanted to stay just outside arm’s reach of the battlers. He held his hands aloft as if unruly children had just spilled milk in the floor. If that sissy comes at me too, Monroe thought, I’ll have to knock his ass out.

Barnes snatched up a chair and threw it and before Monroe knew what to do it had him in the chest and knocked him down again. The young nurse rushed forward and got his nose broken and bloody by Barnes. He fell into the fetal position cradling his nose and big bad Barnes stepped over him.

A woman watching the melee dashed forward and helped the nurse up off the floor. Monroe had to admit to being a little stunned and told himself to lay there for a second while he waited for the room to stop spinning. The chair had ripped open a gash on his forehead and he felt his own blood coursing down his face. Better take an eight count. Now the big galoot was pushing down on him. Monroe had the presence of mind to hold him off with his legs. It was like giving a ride to a little kid on your legs, but this was no kid. He managed to kick Barnes over to one side onto the freshly waxed floor.

Monroe had fought in the Army out of sheer boredom when he was stationed in Korea back in the early ‘60s. What a freezing shithole! Once he had sparred with a black man named Larry who said he was a New York Golden Gloves champion. The southpaw had tore him up with his stiff jab. The best he had been able to do was land a glancing blow off the boxer’s shoulders due mostly to the fighter’s superior footwork. Monroe ate a solid left cross just to deliver a glancing blow. It was clear he was going to lose this one. Never one to admit defeat, he finally gripped the southpaw around the waist and threw him down in the center of the ring. They’d fought on the boxing ring floor, using teeth to pull off the gloves, to fight with fists and elbows, foreheads and knees.

Monroe allowed anger, an unreasonable hatred, overcome and fuel him. The rage made him feel like a feral animal living in the woods. It felt good to surrender to such a powerful emotion. Everything else, every other thought and feeling, was shut down. After they were pulled apart, Larry laughed and said Monroe couldn’t box worth a shit, but he could fight! They became good friends after that; no one wanted to spar with either of them.

The head nurse snapped, “Someone call Carl up here!”

Rick’s head snapped to his right, “Don’t call that son-of-a-bitch! I’ll have to kick his black ass too!”

“Bull!” Monroe spat blood. “You ain’t going to whoop anybody today.”

Carl had played tight end at the University of Missouri for two years before concussions pushed him out of the game, but his arms looked like someone had jammed footballs where his biceps should be. He was as big as Rick, but still muscular and athletic.

“Soon as I get up from here, I’m going to lay you out and Carl’s going to carry you off to jail.”

“Who’s laying on the floor with a busted face, Monroe?” He jammed his finger on top of Monroe’s chest for emphasis.

“Yeah, well, we’ll see! I’m about to stomp a mudhole in your ass!” Monroe threw the big man off of him and got on his feet again, wiped the blood from his nose with the back of his shirt sleeve, and held up his balled fists. Monroe was still pretty solid for a man his age and though he wasn’t as massive as Rick, his freckled fists were twice as big as most men his size, and his upper body was like an old bull’s.

 “Hello?” Monroe answered the phone. “Carolyn?”

“No,” a belligerent male voice said. “It’s Wayne, Uncle Monroe. Mama told me to call you. She wants to know when you’re coming up to the hospital? She said I couldn’t come up unless you said okay.”

“Is she already there?” Monroe rubbed his eyes trying to wake up.

“Were you asleep?”

“No,” he lied. “I’ve been up for awhile.”

“I thought she wanted me to take her to the hospital? Is she okay?” He tried to make sense of what Wayne was telling him.

“No,” Wayne sighed. “She said she didn’t want me to take her.”

“Well hell!” Monroe said. “I knew that already, but it ain’t time yet. I told her I’d pick her up and get her over there when the doctor said.”

“Why you . . . . is what I want to know?” Wayne said. “Why does she want you instead of me or Jeanette? We’re her kids for Pete’s sake!”

“Well,” Monroe said, “I’m her brother. I guess she’s got her reasons. Even grown kids don’t need to know all their mama’s business. I’ll take her and see that she gets settled in. I’ll give you a call when I know something.”

“Okay then,” Wayne said. “Thank you.” There was a grudging tone to his voice. “It’s just that I wanted to be the one to take her up to the hospital to get her to sign some papers first—before Jeanette.”

And there it was, Monroe thought, the crux of the situation. Ever since their daddy, Joe Bishop, had passed Wayne and Jeanette had been fighting over their mama’s money. It was almost laughable the way those two were trying to beat each other to the lawyer’s office with papers. Someone needed to remind them both that she was still alive.

Carolyn had been afflicted with a nervous condition her entire life. She had never been exactly right in the head. Monroe couldn’t think of a nice way to put it. She had been in the State hospital for awhile and the doctors pumped her so full of drugs over the years she had become a walking pharmacy. She had lived a hard life, but her kids wouldn’t know about that.

“Don’t worry about them power-of-attorney papers just now,” Monroe said. “I got news, your mama yet lives.”

There was silence on the other end of the line.

“I need to know you hear me, Wayne? Say it for me.”

“I hear you.”

“Good,” Monroe said. “I’ll call you tomorrow. She told me she don’t want you up there trying to get her to sign papers. She’s worried enough as it is about the surgery. She could use your company. If you would just sit with her—”

“I just want to make sure she’s okay,” Wayne mumbled into the receiver.

“Well don’t.” Monroe said.

“You can’t tell me what to do,” Wayne said. “What if I do come up there? What then?”

“If you come up here I’ll have to kick your ass,” Monroe said. “That’s a natural fact. Got it?”

“Yeah.”

Monroe shook his head in disgust. He squeezed the tears out of his eyes. He could still remember Carolyn teaching him to tie his shoe and how to ride a bike when he was little. They had always been close. He stared at the battered old yellow kitchen wall phone after he crammed it into the cradle. Wayne and Jeanette were so busy trying to get over on each other they didn’t seem to realize or care that it was their own mama they were treating like an ATM. Plain greediness. He was the only one really watching out for his sister anymore just like he’d done with their mama before she died.

Monroe knew she didn’t have much besides her social security and Joe’s veteran’s pay. A widow’s might. All the land and farming equipment had been sold off a few months after his brother-in-law died. There was a backhoe and an old GMC flatbed pickup that they couldn’t find a title for so Monroe had been able to sell them both to a farmer near New Bloomfield that didn’t give a care. He only wanted to use it around his farm anyway. That was a good bit of money but he hadn’t had life insurance so a good chunk of it had gone to the funeral. Carolyn’s grievous spawn didn’t even make sure she had groceries half the time and if they did they used her checkbook to buy their own groceries and fill their own vehicles with gas to boot.

Joe had died seven years ago from a sudden heart attack out in the pasture behind a haystack. He was a good farmer and he had a sense of history since he reserved a few acres to thresh with the old steam powered threshing machine like people had done when he was a boy. Joe Bishop hadn’t been good to Carolyn as much as he’d liked Joe personally. Looking back on it, he should have said something but in those times family matters were kept private. A man was king of his own castle as the saying went. Joe had passed on his own disrespectful attitude toward her to his kids. It was sad to see what had become of his older sister. All they really had was each other.

He knew Carolyn loved her kids, but he wondered if they loved her. They had had life easy by comparison to his generation. One Christmas, when they were kids, his Christmas present had been a jar of peanut butter and Carolyn’s was jelly. Their mother had wrapped the gifts up in eggshell white tissue paper she had saved from past birthdays so that they would have at least one present to open. They were glad to get them too! But her kids didn’t know what hard times meant. The Christmas tree, an artificial white job, their mother had for years and decorated with great care down to doing each piece of tinsel one strand at a time each year. And to think their daddy had been off spending oil money from mineral rights he had retained from Landrush land in Oklahoma City.

“You ain’t going to tell Wayne or Jeanette they can’t see their mama!” Rick spat.

“So Wayne ran crying to you!” Monroe laughed. His mouth had filled with blood so he spat it on the floor. You don’t know what you’re talking ‘bout, Rick! You and Jeanette don’t know the half of it!”

Rick rushed at him like an offensive lineman, Monroe stepped aside and with his left arm used his momentum to slam him into the wall. Rick blinked in surprise and held Monroe away from him at arm’s length. Monroe pushed down on Rick’s arms and kept lunging and swinging his right hand at Rick’s face, but his arms were longer so he just manage to hold off the blows from the old man. Monroe was encouraged by the fact that he was getting a little closer to connecting with his jaw each time he swung. Rick was big, but he didn’t have much endurance. All he did was drive a gravel truck for ten dollars an hour.

He knew what had happened now. Wayne had told Rick and Jeanette that he wouldn’t allow them to see their mama, but he probably left out the fact that he was trying to get her to sign all of her accounts over to him so she wouldn’t get anything. He didn’t tell that part of it. So big Rick was going to come charging down here and take care of it. Well, he was about to get his ass handed to him by an old man. Now Monroe was bearing down on Rick. Rick was starting to have to look up at him as he slid down the wall on his back. Monroe swung his right fist and this time he barely felt the tip of Rick’s nose. Just one more swing now was all he needed.

Just then Carl the security guard showed up. He was black and bald with biceps like a professional wrestler. Carl wore an all black uniform that made him look like a real cop. Maybe he was a Carnage police officer too, but Monroe didn’t think so. Carl grabbed him by the wrist and began trying to pry his left arm away from Rick. The three of them grunting and groaning like some kind of savage ménage-a-trois. He didn’t find himself giving a shit how big Carl or Rick was either one. He was going to put Rick’s lights out before it was done. Finally, Carl wedged himself between them and pushed them both away like they were dead weight on some kind of hydraulic weight machine.

“All right!” Carl hollered. “Settle down, damnit! You sit down there, and you sit down there! Mr. Cahalin, ain’t you a little old for this? What the hell’s going on here? Why did you attack this man?”

“Attack him? He attacked me! I was getting some pay back for his sucker punch! Just ask the nurses and all these other people. I was sitting here and talking on my cell phone.”

“That true?” Carl asked. “What’s your name, sir?”

“Rick Barnes,” he said. He took out a pack of Winston’s and began trying to pull out a cigarette with trembling fingers.

“Mr. Barnes,” Carl said. “You can’t smoke those in here. The police will be here directly. You can tell them what happened, but I’d like to know what’s up with you two?”

“He knows!” Rick put the cigarette on the end of his lip where it bobbed up and down, but he didn’t light it.

“I know that you’re an idiot!” Monroe said.

“Screw you, Monroe. You ain’t God! You can’t be telling Wayne and Jeanette that they can’t see their mama. That shit ain’t right. I’d do it again in a heart beat.”

“Mr. Barnes!” Carl said. “Is that true? You took the first punch?”

“You’re damn right I did.”

The nurses standing around shook their heads and told what they had witnessed between the two men.

“You going to press charges, Mr. Cahalin?”

“No.”

“Why not?” Carl shook his head in disgust. “He’s already going to be banned from the hospital for 30 days.

“I just don’t, that’s all.” Monroe stared at Rick until Rick gave him a nod. “I hope he tries it again.”

When Monroe went in to see his sister she was still unconscious in recovery. She looked like a science experiment and he smiled bitterly to himself. He’d have to tell her that after she woke up. At the moment, laying on her back with her mouth gaping open it was easy to imagine what she might look like in her casket. She looked like she had died already. A drop of water on his hand had him looking up at the ceiling for a leak until he realized it had been a tear. It surprised him because he rarely allowed himself to cry over anything. Only weak-minded men and women cried about things that were inevitable in life. He took her hand in his and held it. It was a plump little hand with delicate green and purple veins sticking out. He felt a palpable relief that she had made it through surgery just fine according to the doctor. She had been sure that she would die in surgery. She had a dream about dying while they had her on the table a week beforehand. It was the first death dream she had ever had in her life.

The same sort of premonition had come to him once when he was caught in a tornado on Interstate 70 in the middle of nowhere in Kansas and his pickup was blown off the highway and into the ditch. He had been racing a black anvil that hovered just above the earth like something out of a horror story. Yellow and purple jags of lightning flew out of the clouds. He had watched the storm blow over upside-down, still seat-belted at the wheel of his truck, in the ditch. Another time he was sure that it was the end of the line was when he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer. They had put three tattoo dots on each hip, and one well below his bellybutton, so they could align them in the crosshairs of the laser. He had thought the radiation would kill him for sure, but he had survived.

Monroe dreamed he was looking out over a swampy land, but now it was a dried-out sepia landscape. A middle-aged native American woman stood next to him and said, There was much rain recently. She pointed across the dreamland like a sentinel, but for as far as he could see there wasn’t a drop of water to be seen. She grabbed a handful of his jet black hair and pulled it out by the roots and grafted it into her long, shining head of hair with a simple combing gesture of her hand.

A moment later, Monroe found himself sitting in what resembled an old baby swing. A blue metal chair with a slide bar jammed down on his lap to prevent him from falling out. He began to float up and out over a gorge in the chair like an astronaut, but he was tethered by a strong logging chain. He floated to the end of the tether upside down until he jarred to a halt at the end of its length. This happened two more times become more violent and terrifying each time. The chair shook him like a carnival ride that jolted you this way and that. If the chain snapped, he’d be sent into deep space and oblivion.

Carolyn had tried to tell him about her procedure, but he didn’t want to hear it. It wasn’t because he didn’t care about her. He loved her. He didn’t want to lose her like he had lost his parents and older brothers. It was the loss of control that bothered him as much as anything. A person can’t control cancer when it’s in their body. He certainly can’t make a gall bladder whole or cause it to double-up like a fist and smash someone’s face in defiance. These human failings of body and mind just happened as you got older. There was nothing you could do about it except to keep fighting or simply accept it and die.

Carolyn didn’t fight; she prayed instead. Her pastor was a holy roller preacher at Signs and Wonders Ministry. He took her to the little white church on the picturesque banks of the Osage river last fall. The husky preacher looked like Mark McGwire, the Cardinals homerun King, not a preacher at all. The preacher had prayed that God would heal all of his sister’s problems in the name of Jesus, but as far as he could tell there hadn’t been any change at all. The trip to the church had kept her going. It had renewed her faith, but she was still just as forgetful, took all the same medications, and her children continued to disrespect her. As far as Monroe could tell, Jesus had done diddly squat even if he did still believe in God—they clearly had faith in two versions of God. He didn’t pray himself and he took the view that God helps those who help themselves. God was all-powerful and was going to do whatever he felt like doing no matter what you prayed for. He had seen that when he was a boy and prayed for all sorts of things that never came true. When he thought of God, which he didn’t do often, he couldn’t help picturing Charlton Heston as Moses holding the Ten Commandments. His God was an Old Testament God who was pissed off at mere mortals most of the time.

When he left the hospital the sun was just setting a brilliant orange fire ball in the sky with tendrils of pink in the heavens like a painting. On the other side of the parking lot he saw Rick and Jeanette standing in front of their pickup arms crossed. He remembered a time when Jeanette and Wayne both had sat on his knee at holidays over the years. Look what it had come to. They had called it in the cavalry against him when they were the ones who were about to have an all-out war if their mama died. Standing next to them was Steve, Rick’s brother, who was every bit as big as Rick, and Wayne was just a little behind all of them next to his own work rig. Monroe stopped and looked back defiantly at all of them with his head held high. His hands doubled themselves into fists.

“Those are some big boys,” Carl said. Monroe hadn’t heard him walk up. “You want me to call the police again?”

“No,” Monroe said. “I’ve known all of them since they were little babies. No matter how big they get, they will never get big enough to whip my ass. They’re the ones who are going to need extra help. And they know it.”

 “I just wanted to say,” Carl began, “I’m so sorry for your loss. Miss Carolyn was a good woman. We’ll be lifting you up in prayer come Sunday.”

Monroe nodded thanks to Carl and shook his hand. A vision of holding Carolyn’s hand just after she had passed illuminated his mind like a candle before softly dying away. He nodded to Carl and blink the tears from his eyes.  He’d let the boys in the truck know she had died, but he was afraid they wouldn’t listen. He could remember watching the Lone Ranger and Tonto on the black and white television with his sister right by his side just like it was last week. She had always liked playing with the little boys on their road best. Now he would have to tell his nephew, niece, and his niece’s husband but he wondered if they would care or simply ask about the contents of her bank account.

About the Author: Daren Dean is the author of Far Beyond the Pale, I’ll Still Be Here Long After You’re Gone, and The Black Harvest: A Novel of the American Civil War. He has been featured in Bloom, The Huffington Post, Missouri Life, and Ploughshares online. “Affliction” was a Finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Fiction Contest for New Writers.  His short fiction has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lincoln University of Missouri.