Child

By Wilson Koewing

I knew little about the child except that his grandmother was a 2nd grade teacher at the elementary school I attended when I myself was a child so many years ago. I’d heard she was a disciplinarian, and I was happy then to be put in the class of the other 2nd grade teacher. I only know any of this because my mother told me as we rode by their home in the rural Piedmont of South Carolina. I’d commented on the beauty of the yard and she mentioned who lived there. The yard was large and freshly mowed. The modest brick house had a front porch swing. Some distance away stood a massive oak that’s branches tendrilled so far out they almost reached the roof of the house. The child was buried under the tree. He was her grandson. He’d gotten pediatric cancer at the age of 4 and that’s how old he was when he died. St. Jude’s couldn’t save him. It had been the child’s request to be buried under the tree. I don’t know why the child requested this, but I can easily guess he liked to play in the shade of the oak during the brutal, humid South Carolina summers. The leaves on the trees and the grass seem greener in South Carolina especially on endless summer days without clouds where you come to understand the term “Carolina Blue.” For whatever reason the sky never appears bluer anywhere in the world than in South Carolina. It was told to me, or perhaps I said it myself, that no story can possess beauty unless it first acknowledges the inherent sadness in all of our existences. Then it can be beautiful. Beautiful like the child must have believed the shade under the oak to be. I imagine him under that tree, though I don’t know what he looked like or even his name, pushing a yellow dump truck toy or blowing bubbles to chase. Marveling at insects crawling in the grass. Gazing across the expanse to the tops of other, distant trees, hoping to glimpse a hint of breeze. Aware, even though he had a very short life, of the beauty that can be held in a place. A home. A place he wanted some part of him to always be.

About the Author: Wilson Koewing is a writer from South Carolina. His work is forthcoming in Gargoyle, Wigleaf and Hobart

Book Review: Lost in the Furrows, by William R. Soldan

Soldan, William R. Lost in the Furrows. Cowboy Jamboree Press, 2020. $13.99. 113 pages.

http://www.cowboyjamboreemagazine.com/books.html

Review by Nick Gardner

William R. Soldan’s Lost in the Furrows, is a collection of short and flash stories about the seamier types that exist in this fictionalized, rural Rust Belt town. While often these characters are seen as insular, caught up in the reiterations of addiction and violence common to the growing trend of “Grit Lit,” or “Gritty Realism,” Soldan imposes outside forces upon his characters, pressing them to question their limited, often patriarchal worldviews. Such questioning occurs in the first story, “Training,” when the protagonist squares up against his brother wondering if there’s “A chance for something else?” something beyond the fight and violence.

Though the characters in Lost in the Furrows rarely find a solution to violence, through them Soldan illuminates the misunderstandings that often exist between townies and impinging outsiders who attempt to overthrow or at least ignore the townie hierarchies. This is most evident when the fracking employees, a “‘Buncha loudmouths,’” invade the drug dealer, Elvis’ turf in “King of the Blue Rose.”  As the frackers colonize Elvis’ pool game and jukebox picks, Elvis is forced to protect his gospel music from the rabble rousers the only way he knows how, by starting a brawl. Of course, though it is uncertain whether Elvis, a pill dealer in the midst of the opioid epidemic, actually learns from or even questions his criminality and violence, his story captures a moment of change, of leaving his past behind him. Elvis had, “always planned to go places, and though he’d never given much thought to where, he knew his time had come.” His violence in The Blue Rose serves as a catharsis, a cleansing of his past life in a move toward freedom, from his violent life of crime.

There are many other examples of characters hoping to escape their murky and troubled pasts, and in a way the entire book explores this move from backwards to forwards, from destruction to success. In “Stairmaster” the protagonist works his way up from addiction, pondering “Without drugs, what other comfort can a person find in this world?” His story is a question of a future, a hope turned to faith that the future will be better. Similarly in “Across State Lines” the teenage protagonist rides shotgun with his alcoholic father and recalls his mother’s urging to “be better.

However, growth and a move toward more positive futures is not always possible for Soldan’s characters. Set against a small-town Ohio landscape, Lost in the Furrows gives a voice to the lonely and the desperate, to those struggling in recovery, and to the victims of the opioid epidemic–not just the “suburban white kids.” In a sociopolitical climate that often others such outsiders, relegates them to an anti-intellectual crop of industrial fodder and conservative votes, Soldan’s book complicates these characters. It shows the way this hate and violence is systemic, ingrained bone-deep. He also tells us that at least some of these people want more. They just don’t want it forced upon them, only a bit of grace while they figure it out.

About the Author: Nick Gardner is in recovery from opioids and is a recent graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at Bowling Green State University where he was an assistant editor at Mid-American Review. His poetry and fiction has appeared in Ocean State Review, Fictive Dream, Flash Fiction Magazine, Main Street Rag, and other journals. His book of poetry, So Marvelously Far, was published in 2019 through Crisis Chronicles Press. He lives in Ohio.

Breakable Bones

By Connor Thompson

On summer Sundays my father played golf with his pal Chippy. After drinking and fighting, golf
was my father’s favourite hobby, in no small part because it combined so easily with drinking.
Combining it with drinking and fighting had earned him lifetime bans from three local courses.
All three fights had been with Chippy over score discrepancies. One time he came home in
sodden clothes because Chippy had thrown him in a water hazard.

The day my father died, Chippy was not with him. They’d had a falling out over an
unpaid debt, so my father played his final round of golf alone. At the clubhouse they paired him
with a mother and son, but by the third hole he had frightened them off with his boorishness. By
the time the storm hit, mother and son were sheltered in the clubhouse, and there was no one to
suggest to my father that riding out a thunderstorm under a tree on a golf course was a bad idea.

At my father’s funeral, Chippy gripped my mother’s shoulders and begged her
forgiveness. “I should have been there!” he sobbed, swearing he would forever regret the
pettiness that kept him from the course that day—some nonsense over a harvester part that
Chippy acquired on my father’s behalf that my father never paid him for. Chippy was convinced
he could have persuaded my father to shelter inside. At Chippy’s hysterics my mother stared
back coolly and said nothing, knowing as we all did that had Chippy been there he’d have been
under that tree too.

The police were careful to distinguish the cause of death. My father had not been struck
by lightning; lightning had struck the tree, causing a branch to fall and strike my father. Killed by
the final thrashings of an oak, itself mortally wounded. My father would say: “It’s the wounded
man you gotta watch out for. A man isn’t dangerous until you’ve drawn his blood. That’s when
the fight really starts.” My father might have expected a wounded man to one day get the best of
him, but not a wounded tree.

The policemen who came up the driveway on the day my father was killed were known
to my mother. The one with silver hair was Beersma. The younger, blonder one was Pinkley.
Pinkley had nosed out Beersma for a promotion a couple weeks past, and Beersma was mulling
over just how much he cared about that. I didn’t know this; from my bedroom window, where I
sat and blew cigarette smoke into the outside world, I saw only how they lingered in the squad
car before climbing out and plodding to the door. But my mother knew. Information had a way of
finding Pam Pollock. She gathered gossip like seeds in her palm, there to be doled out or hidden
in a closed fist, whichever was to her benefit. So from the kitchen window she might have
clocked the tension in the two police as they shuffled up the walk, dead-headed dandelions
poking through the flagstones to brush at their polished shoes, and mistakenly attributed it to
professional jealousy.

Beersma had been out to our farm a bunch of times in a number of capacities: as
chauffeur to my drunk and disorderly father, as chauffeur to my drunk and disorderly brother, as
intervener in one particularly memorable domestic brawl. (“Goddamn it you two, you’re better
than this!” he yelled, as my parents sat bloodied and shamefaced in the kitchen. It was their
eleven-year-old son, cowering upstairs, who’d called the cops, the one and only time I did so.)
Every now and then Beersma came out to ask my father about this or that incident that so-and-so
had reported the night before, and had he been at Duffy’s and had he seen anything and—just be
honest—was it him who committed this or that petty crime? And my father would laugh and
Beersma would laugh, and with their eyes they’d say to each other: You sonofabitch, I know what
you’re up to.

Pinkley had never been out to the farm but no doubt he’d heard of Cal and Pam Pollock,
and probably Danny Pollock too. He might have come across my father in the drunk tank, or
been called down to Duffy’s to pull him off someone, or someone off him. He might have caught
wind of Danny’s shenanigans, like his hamfisted attempt to grow weed in the basement of his
girlfriend Lauren’s house. Likely he’d just heard the way people talked about us, had filed the
name Pollock away as one to watch for, as a family from which he could expect some trouble.
The front door was ajar, and when Pinkley gave it a respectful knock my mother cried,
“Just come in for Christsake, I opened the fucking thing!”

They found her at the sink in her nightshirt, back to the door. My mother rarely got
dressed on summer Sundays. They were her only days to herself, and she spent them smoking
and cleaning. When my father was present she was indifferent to tidying, but as soon as he left
she attacked the house with a fastidiousness that as a child I found embarrassing and unlike her.
Depending on how the golf went and how much he’d had to drink, upon my father’s return the
order she’d restored in his absence would either be remarked upon kindly, ignored, or met with
derision, which might mean words or fists—but my mother was always prepared to fight for
what little part of the world she could control.

Pam Pollock, Pinkley noted, was a woman with thin, flaxen hair, a face ruddied by
alcohol, and a body the shape of a hay-bale. If he guessed her age he guessed ten years older than
the truth. Seeing her, he might have understood some of the stories he’d heard, that if it came to
it Pam Pollock could give as good as she got, that Cal Pollock didn’t get all his black eyes from
Duffy’s. Maybe then he knew why Beersma had volunteered to do the talking, and when
Pinkley’d insisted that as the superior officer he be the one to break the news, Beersma had
shrugged, run a finger over his mustache, and said nothing.

Upstairs in my room I heard my mother cross the kitchen to open the front door, her call
for Beersma and Pinkley to come in for Christsake, the linoleum creaking with their footfalls, the
shuffling of chairs as they sat, the short overture of pleasantries, my mother offering a drink.
After that my interest waned; their voices were too quiet. So I didn’t hear Pinkley clear his
throat, didn’t see him glance at his notes (struck by BRANCH, not LIGHTNING), didn’t see him
force himself to meet the eye of the anvil in a nightshirt sitting across from him. And I didn’t
hear it then but I would hear it in the coming days, what my mother said when Pinkley delivered
the news, the only eulogy for Cal Pollock she’d ever give: “That stupid motherfucker. What a
stupid way to die. Of all the ways to die he had to die like that. What a stupid way to die.”

*

The same storm that produced the lightning that struck the tree that killed my father had
rolled over the house. Sally and I spent it submerged in bed, tracking the storm’s approach, Sally
tapping the seconds between lightning and thunder on my cast.
Flash-tap-tap-tap-tap-boom!
“Getting closer,” she said. I moved my face closer to hers.
Tap-tap-tap. “Closer.”
Tap-tap. “Closer.”
Until the storm was overhead and we stopped counting.

She barely looked up when I told her a cop car was coming up the driveway. On the bed
she read The Guns Of August. She was doing this thing where she only read books with the
current month in the title. It had proven harder than she’d anticipated (and in her words she’d
been forced to read some “real rubbish”) but so far she was eight for eight. Even explained to
me, the project was one of the many things about Sally I had to accept without fully
understanding, like her use of the word rubbish instead of shit or trash. We were both eighteen
but she lapped me in every measurable category of maturity. Her father owned a car dealership
and she’d appeared in some commercials for it on local TV, would even on occasion be
recognized in the street. She was accustomed to being looked at, comfortable holding eye
contact. For pocket money she worked the counter at the diner in town, charming tips by the
fistful from stingy farmers. My family regarded her with a coolness bordering on suspicion, but
that was only because she steadfastly refused to be fazed by them.

On the surface, we’d passed a typical teenage summer: getting drunk on beaches and in
fallow fields, making out around bonfires and in darkened cars. I’d done my part and pretended
there was no such thing as a future beyond these moments. But now September loomed. Sally
would be off to university across the country. The thought of it sent a surge through my guts.
I lit another cigarette. Sally put her book down spine-up and stretched. “Gotta work in an
hour,” she said. “Those milks won’t shake themselves.”

She went to the bathroom and I looked to where she’d lain in the sheets. Later, alone, it
would thrill me to inhale the remains of her sunscreen and shampoo. Did I linger with her the
way she lingered with me? And when summer ended, what would linger then? The night before,
we’d sprawled in the grass and watched the Perseids. Out of a prolonged silence she’d sighed
and said, “Sometimes beautiful things aren’t meant to last, and they’re all the more beautiful for
it,” which had ruined my night. The metaphor—if that’s what she’d intended—seemed apt in
another way: to me, Sally was the meteor, and it was all I could do to snatch a little dust from her
tail.

She came back from the bathroom and leaned on the doorframe. I opened my mouth but
the words weren’t ready yet; I turned them into a sigh. She laughed and arched an eyebrow at my
seriousness. I stubbed the cigarette on the sill and followed her downstairs.
In the kitchen, Beersma and Pinkley and my mother turned as one to look at us. It was my
mother who told us, her voice not shocked or broken but angry, incredulous, that my father had
found such a stupid way to die.

*

After Beersma and Pinkley took my mother to claim the body, Sally led me to the living
room. We sat on the couch where my father would yell wrong answers at Wheel of Fortune. I
stared at the fibres in the carpet and Sally stroked my back, as if to churn my feelings to the
surface. What broke me was the image of my father that afternoon, swinging his clubs into the
bed of the pickup, whistling tunelessly to no one, barely an hour from death. In the lead-up to
golf he was always at his most benign. Sally held me as I wept but never shed a tear for my
father, ever, and the only other person to do that was my mother.

Sally got her shift covered and that night we lay in bed and listened to my mother get
trashed with the Flock. One by one they’d careened up the driveway in their station-wagons: a
hairdresser, a receptionist, two cashiers, and a beautician. They shared with my mother their
proportions, tastes, and rough edges—everything but their hair, bottle-blonde, where my mother
kept hers natural. Otherwise they were so similar that Danny called them once a flock of pigeons,
and the name stuck. Their slurry cooing echoed through the house.

Upon seeing my father’s body, scrawny and impotent on the metal slab, my mother made
a decision: she would not linger in grief for such a paltry thing. When she returned from town,
my mother called the Funeral Home and made the arrangements for as soon as they could get
him in. It was as if in dying my father had committed an embarrassing faux-pas, like farting at a
dinner party or asking a fat woman if she was pregnant, and my mother was keen to move on to
other subjects. She allowed no maudlin displays of sorrow, that night or going forward. Of the
voices wafting up to us we heard my mother’s the least, lost in the shrill, gravelly chorus of the
rest of them. But when one of the Flock spoke too fondly of my father, my mother’s voice could
be heard telling it not to waste her time.

Sally ran her fingertips over my cast. Underneath, my arm itched. We listened as the
Flock took turns listing the ways my father could have died that wouldn’t have been so
humiliating to my mother.
“Coulda gone through the ice on his skidoo like Bryan Fullerman.”
“Coulda flipped his ATV like Harry Harvey.”
“Coulda had a heart attack in the drug store like Andy Salmon.”
“Coulda wrapped his truck around a tree like Ben Sykes.”
“Coulda shot himself with his own hunting rifle like Reg Ulridge.”
“Now that was a stupid death.”
“Not as stupid as Cal’s,” came my mother’s voice. “Not as stupid as getting killed by a
tree in a fucking thunderstorm.”
It was after midnight when Sally disentangled herself.
“I’ll walk you down,” I said, sitting up.
“No, no,” she said, and with her hand on my chest guided me back to the mattress.
I listened to her show herself out—the fussy overtures of affection from the Flock, all
under the illusion that when they were her age they were as pretty as she, and Sally’s goodnight
to my mother, answered if at all with a curt nod.

An hour later the Flock was still at it and I went downstairs for a glass of water. They
sprawled around the table, bottles of beer and wine and vodka coolers scattered about like weeds,
the conversation one sustained chord of cross-talk and interruption. At my arrival they stood to
smother me in fleshy hugs, their bodies sluicing from under their clothes, red where the sun
could find it, pasty where it couldn’t. Only my mother remained seated. I managed to get to the
sink and run the tap and when I looked up there were lights coming up the driveway.
I turned to my mother. “Danny’s home.”

After the Flock and the Funeral Home, my mother called Danny. He’d been holed up
lately at Lauren’s, too ashamed to come home for what he did to me. No answer, so Danny didn’t
know yet. The Flock looked unsure what to do. My mother put up a hand and they arranged
themselves around her like a Renaissance painting, white trash cherubs attending their patron
saint.

I wasn’t in the mood to hear it. I went upstairs and lit a cigarette by the window, leaving
them to ambush Danny with the news. He came inside, made some crack about the tableau in
front of him, and I heard my mother’s quiet voice.

The door slammed and the motion light flicked on and I watched my brother sprint to his
car. Before climbing in he paused and looked up at me with the face of a man feeling the first
tremors of the world shifting under him. His mouth opened and closed. Taillights like unblinking
eyes receding into the night.

*

When I was eight a boy named Derek Kirby singled me out on the school bus for the
scruffiness of my clothes and haircut. The laughter from the onlookers hurt more than the
punches. I came home with a split lip and a torn shirt and eyes red from crying.

My father found me in the kitchen. At the sight of him I wept again in fear of what he
might say or do. Even then I knew that violence was his most fluent language. As I blubbered, he
watched my face. More than my words, he listened to my bruises and tears and the blood
crusting on my lip. When I finished, he said, “Come with me.”

He led me to the barn. The stink of manure and the dusty, metallic reek of straw hung in
the heat. Filaments of sunlight slipped through the slats onto the floor. We sat on overturned slop
buckets. Before he spoke he gave a heavy sigh, like a priest mustering the wisdom to save a
sinner.

“There’s no shame in losing a fight,” my father said. “But I can help you so next time you
can give a better account of yourself. You listening?”
I nodded.
There are three rules to fighting, my father said: hit first, hit hard, keep hitting.
The winner of the fight is the one who gives up last.
There’s no such thing as fighting dirty or fighting clean. Only fighting to win.
If possible, break a bone. Fingers, toes, nose. Those break the easiest, but with the right
force you can pop a wrist or a forearm and then you’re golden.
If you can’t break a bone, gouge an eye or strike the balls.
You can’t always count on pain to subdue an opponent because of the adrenaline, so you
have to debilitate.
“Stand up,” he said. “We’re gonna spar.”
For the next hour I flung my little fists at my father. The more I swung the more his face
softened into a grin. On account of his own life of violence my father’s face was chiseled from
rock, but the effect of his smile was to tuck away the scars and blemishes; when my father smiled
you saw what remained unbeaten.
“This,” he crowed, my knuckles smacking his palm, “is how the men fight!”
Later that night my father did something he almost never did and came and sat on the
edge of my bed.
“Now,” he said. “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re gonna wait. You’re not gonna
go find this kid tomorrow and pop him. You’re gonna wait for him to come to you. He thinks
you’re an easy target now. He won’t know what to expect. And when he does come, what are
you gonna remember?”
“Hit first, hit hard, keep hitting.”
I did as I was told and waited for Derek Kirby to make his move, and when he did I
remembered my father’s rules.

*

I told this story at the funeral. Behind me the officiant shuffled his feet. Twenty-seven
mourners swayed in the heat by the graveside, rough men and women chafing against their
formalwear. The funeral home provided roses and we clutched them in our fists like medieval
weapons; most of my father’s friends (including the inconsolable Chippy) looked like they’d
never held anything so delicate in their lives. But they grinned at the mention of his fighting
manifesto, an ideology they’d heard him expound upon for years down at Duffy’s.
Afterwards a few of them came up and pointed with rueful smiles at my cast, said things
like, “Still following your father’s rules, I hope.”
And I said something like, “Can’t win’em all.”
And they chuckled and nodded and said something like, “He sure didn’t.”

My mother didn’t speak at my father’s funeral except to rise before the interment and say,
“Don’t waste your roses. Dumb sonofabitch wouldn’t know what to do with them anyway.”
A few cracked smiles, who knew my mother the least. My father’s friends who knew my
mother best threw them into the grave to spite her. Others stared down into their blooms,
uncertain how seriously to take my mother’s instruction.

My mother didn’t linger. She stomped off towards the car, head up, eyes dry, into
whatever future lay before her.

*

In the weeks before my father’s death we’d seen less and less of Danny. He’d moved in
with Lauren and came back mostly to do laundry. More often than not the laundry would sit
forgotten and Danny would spend the night drinking with my father in the barn. Sometimes they
fought, and I’d hear them come into the house to ice their knuckles and staunch their bleeding
noses and laugh and keep drinking.

We didn’t see Danny at all in the days before the funeral. My mother organized the
service with bureaucratic efficiency. The Flock was enlisted for various tasks, their primary
assignment being to keep my mother as drunk as possible at all times. I volunteered to root out
some pictures from the albums but was told there wouldn’t be any of that bullshit. I was asked
only to make sure my suit still fit.

The morning of the funeral I asked my mother if she’d heard from Danny.
She shrugged. “He said he’ll be there.”
He was, with Lauren, standing at the back, his lanky frame draped in blacks, face
obscured by aviator sunglasses. Lauren gripped his arm with two hands and leaned her head on
his shoulder. As I told my story she blew bubble gum.

One night in early summer Danny knocked on my bedroom door and said, “Come on,
we’re drinking.” Outside, the sun hung on for dear life over the treeline, the infant corn glinting,
soaking it in. My father was already in the barn, reclined in a lawn chair. A cooler next to him
filled with bottles. The doors wide open to let the evening in.
“There he is,” my father said. “Danny go get us some more chairs.”

I drank slower than them but they didn’t say anything about that. My father spun us a
story about when he was a kid and they stole a goat from a neighbour and rowed it to an island in
the middle of a lake, how for weeks everyone in their cottages wondered where all that bleating
was coming from. We laughed, even though we’d heard the goat story a thousand times before.
Danny mentioned that I had a new girl, this Sally chick, said she was a smart piece of ass,
that those kinds of girls were the wildest in the sack. He asked for details. I told him to cool it
with that shit. My father sat smirking, swigging his beer, staying out of it.
“Or what?”
“Or what what?”
“Cool it with that shit or what’ll you do, Petey boy?”
“Shut up, Danny.”
“No, I wanna know. What’ll you do if I don’t cool it? You gonna fight me?”
I rolled my eyes and shook my head.
“Man, the things I would do to that Sally if I had the chance…”
Danny stood and humped the air, moaning my girlfriend’s name.
My father chuckled. “Easy Danny,” he said. “My money’d be on Pete.”
Danny laughed. “Oh yeah? When’s the last time you threw down with someone, Pete?
When’s the last time you threw a punch?”
“Fuck off Danny.”
Danny bounced on his toes, raised his fists. “Come on, Petey, let’s go a few rounds. It’s
been a while since I beat your ass.”
I shook my head and swallowed the last of my beer. “I think I’ll go in,” I said.
“No, no, you can’t go in,” said my father, holding up a hand. “Not when it’s getting
interesting.”
“Come on Petey boy, tell me. When’s the last time you had a scrap?”
“Jesus, I don’t know, what does it matter?”
“Was it when you kicked the shit out of Derek Kirby? That was what, ten years ago?”
“I remember that,” said my father.
“Oh, you told Dad about that, did you?” Danny paced around the barn, grinning at me.
“How Petey stood up to mean old Derek? Went out to the trees behind the school and beat him
good, didn’t you?”
“Damn right he did,” said my father.
“Did he tell you how Derek started crying? Begging Petey to stop? And Petey got off and
walked away and the kids, oh, they thought he was a hero, standing up to mean old Derek Kirby
like that.”
“Fucking right,” said my father.
“Bet he didn’t tell you what he did after that, did he?”
I felt the heat crawl into my face. “Shut up, Danny.”
“Went down to the little ravine behind the school and tough-guy Petey started crying too.
Then he puked his guts out. Our little warrior. Puking and crying all by himself, saying how he
was sorry.”

I remembered how it felt to thrash Derek Kirby. Blinking through the tears, the squishy
thunk of my fists landing. One by one, as if summoned by my anger, they’d appeared in place of
Derek’s face—my father, my mother, my brother—and I thrashed them all until it was Derek
again, sobbing, pleading, squealing in pain and fright. And afterwards, retching in the dust, my
trembling hands streaked with Derek’s blood, the revulsion and shame of being the instrument of
another’s hurt.
“Honestly, what does that Sally chick see in you, anyway? Fucking pussy.”
The dim light of the evening mixed with the yellow of the barn incandescents, casting
Danny’s angular face in shadow, teeth popping from behind his sneer. My father looked at me,
his face inscrutable. I stood up.

It was not a long fight. I landed no punches. Danny had beat on dozens of men bigger and
tougher than me. He laughed as he hit me, and then I slipped on some straw and fell on the
concrete. I cried out and Danny stopped, frowning, the fun of it ripped away by my writhing.
“Shit, come on Petey, we’re just fucking around,” he said. “You’re alright, come on.”
Tears seeped from my eyes and I tasted blood. My father’s shadow fell over me.
“Goddamn it, Danny,” he said. “You broke his fucking arm.”

We went into the house. Danny muttering apologies, saying he was just fooling, just
busting my balls. I puked on the lawn from the pain. When we came in my mother rolled her
eyes, put her drink down, and went to get the ice. My father beckoned for Danny to come close
and then punched him in the gut. Danny doubled over, gasping. My father turned to me and said,
“Come on, I’ll drive you to the hospital.”

On the way into town, I rolled the window down and shoved my face into the rushing
world. Over the din my father said, as if picking up the conversation, “You see? Break a bone
and you’re done. Debilitate. You gotta debilitate.”

*

My mother never returned to my father’s grave. “Why would I visit that stupid
motherfucker?” she’d say. “Dying the way he did.” Still, even long after his death, the only day
she ever cleaned was Sunday. Asking whether she thought this ritual was in some way a
consequence of my father’s continued presence in her life would have gotten me told to shut the
fuck up, so I didn’t bother.

I returned to my father’s grave only once, years later, because my own son had asked
about his grandfather, and he was old enough to know about his family. Another time someone
from the cemetery tracked me down because some kids had vandalized some of the graves,
including my father’s, and asked if I wanted to press charges or to replace the headstone. To both
questions the answer was no.
I don’t know if Danny ever visited.

When the cigarettes and drinking finally got around to killing her, my mother asked to be
scattered in the woods beyond the house, a request we granted not fully understanding its
significance, since as far as we knew she’d hardly set foot there. Afterwards, in arranging her
affairs, I came across a photograph of my mother and father strolling among the trees at the
height of autumn. Young and unscarred, smiling wide, a single yellow leaf clinging to my
mother’s flowing hair, strangers to me.

*

After the funeral we went back to the house and my mother got drunk. In the living room,
mourners circled a folding table covered in finger foods. The Flock enveloped my mother like an
atmosphere, deflecting anyone foolish enough to attempt condolences.
Sally and I went upstairs. Sally sat on the bed, twirling her rose between her thumb and
forefinger. The sun came through the window and struck her hair and she looked so lovely and I
felt so raw that the words that had been building in me finally broke apart.
“If you want, when you go off to school, I can come with you.”
The rose stopped twirling.
“I know you’re staying in a dorm but I could get my own place, and get a job, and we can
be together. If you want.”
“Pete, listen, we shouldn’t talk about this now.”
I swallowed. “Why not?”
“But let’s talk about it when this all settles.”
“It’s just—I’m ready to go. I think I’m ready to go now. Like, tonight.”
She laughed but behind her eyes I saw the machine she’d spent the summer building for
the express purpose of handling this moment begin to turn its gears.
“Well, I won’t be there for a couple weeks yet, so maybe hang around for now.”
“But do you think you’d like that? If I was there with you? I love you. You know how
much I love you.”
She turned a flinch into a smile. “I love you too,” she said. “I do.”
I heard my father’s voice: keep hitting.
“We’d be happy, we’d be so happy. Far from here, away from all this bullshit.”
“Yeah. Sure we would.”
Some tears came up and I wiped them away with the back of my hand.
“Let’s just talk about this later,” she said. “You don’t need to make any decisions right
now.”

We lay together on the bed in silence. My head spun at how quickly it had ended, my
impotent plea. Sawdust in my throat, eyes prickling. Her fingers stroked my cast. Forever fixated
on the hardest part of me, the least penetrable, the most temporary. We would not speak again of
decisions.

One by one, the mourners downstairs found they could stand the awkwardness no longer.
They slid into their cars and exhaled, assured their partners they weren’t like those Pollocks, no,
that when it came to it there would be proper grief. My father’s closest friends made noise about
heading to Duffy’s where they’d honour Cal the right way. We heard a male voice raised and
then my mother’s telling it to fuck right off then. Unfettered, the Flock kicked into high gear
around the kitchen table. Sally lifted herself from my shoulder and kissed me goodnight. I moved
my hand to where she’d been and found her rose, wilted and forgotten on the pillow.

*

It was past three when someone shook me awake. My mind filled the silhouette with my
father; my heart lurched and I lifted an arm to protect myself. I blinked and it was Danny,
swaying in the darkness, jabbing his finger into my shoulder.
“Come on,” he said, and stomped out of the room.

The Flock had called it a night. The kitchen was dark. A galaxy of empties glinted in the
moonlight. Danny sat in my mother’s chair. When I came into the kitchen he stood and headed
for the door.
“Take a drive with me,” he said.
I followed him into the yard. Dew already up on the grass, the shrill thrum of crickets
from the fields. My father’s truck was tucked next to the shed. Danny tossed me the keys.
When the cab lights flicked on I saw how terrible he looked. His face puffy and red, eyes
bloodshot. He leaned his head on the window. The reek of booze and sweat. He still wore his suit
from the funeral.
“Where are we going?”
“Town.”
“What for?”
“Just drive.”

It was ten minutes into town. The glistening bodies of insects danced in the headlights
and spread their insides on the windshield. My brother, with considerable effort, straightened up,
laid his skull on the headrest.
“I never knew that story,” he said.
“Story?”
“The one you told at the funeral. Of him teaching you how to fight.”
“Oh. Yeah.”
The truck needed work. We had to speak up to hear ourselves over its effort. The lights of
other farmhouses drifted past, the peace of their rest broken by us careening through it.
“How’s your arm?”
“Broken, thanks.”
“When’s the cast off?”
“Couple more weeks.”
Danny put his head in his hands. “I ruined your whole fucking summer.”
I shrugged. “Nah.”
The shining eyes of a rabbit in front of us. I took my foot off the gas and it scampered to
safety. Danny followed its path into the darkness.
“I never wanted to be like him.”
I looked at my brother looking at the road, his face made ghostly by the dashboard light.
“You’re not,” I said.
Danny laughed. “You’re the one who got away.”
“I don’t know.”
“Let’s put it this way: he never had to teach me how to fight.”
The orange lights of town came into view.
“Just make sure you do,” said Danny.
I slowed the truck as the first houses slipped past.
“Do what?”
“Get away.”

I opened my mouth to tell him about Sally, how I wanted to go with her, how to her I’d
been the meteor, bright and pretty and brief. But Danny was rolling up his sleeves, saying, “Pull
over here.”

I parked the truck and cut the engine. Ahead of us, one long stretch of yellow brick and
plate-glass storefronts under darkened apartments. Lonely streetlamps standing sentry. A few
slumbering cars next to the curb.
Danny opened the door. “I don’t know if you should get out,” he said.
“What are you doing?”
“Maybe just stay here.”
“Danny?”
“I just need to hit something.”

He hopped out. The slamming door echoed in the empty street. He fumbled in the bed of
the truck, emerged with something long and slim and shining. I turned to look and there they
were: my father’s golf clubs, the only witnesses besides a wounded oak to his absurd death.
Closest to us was a knitting store. Baskets of yarn on display, reds, oranges,
browns—autumn colours. Danny brought the club back and swung it through the window. The
glass exploded and fell to scatter on the sidewalk, nestle in the softness of the yarn. Danny leapt
back from the shattering. From inside an alarm sounded.
I froze. Danny shook his head and bounced on the spot, let out a whoop.
I opened my door. “Danny, what the fuck are you—”
He pointed the club at me. “Stay in the truck, Pete!” He pushed the door shut. “Stay in
here, goddamn it.”
He turned and went to the next storefront, the dentist’s office.
Smash!
Another alarm, another shower of twinkling glass. Danny growled and shook his left
hand. He’d been cut.
Next up, the Morningside Diner. Sally’s diner.
Smash!

The glass rained down into the window booth, where all those weeks ago I’d sat,
slamming coffee, mustering the courage to say hello.
Across the street a light flicked on in an apartment.
A car in front of the diner—the windshield took a few strokes, the side windows less.
Danny strolled across the street, the club over his shoulder like a parasol.
The pharmacy. Smash!
The sporting goods store. Smash!

More lights flicked on above us and an angry voice echoed, wondering what the heck was
going on down there. Danny’s arms were covered in his own blood.
I got out of the truck.
“Danny,” I called. “Come on, that’s enough, let’s go.”
Hardware store. Smash!
“Fuck this place!” Danny cried. “Fuck this whole shitty place and everyone in it, right?”
Down the street I saw them twirling, red and blue. The siren burped a warning and Danny
turned. A station wagon in front of him. He leapt onto the roof. Smash went the windshield. He
looked back at me.
“Get out of here, Pete! Don’t worry about me! Get out of this shithole forever!”
I climbed into the truck. The cop car bore down. I threw the truck into gear and swung it
onto the street, pointing homeward. I opened the door and called again for Danny to come, but he
shook his head and waved.
“Go!”

I closed the door and pushed the pedal to the floor. The truck screeched forward. In the
mirror, the cop car ripped to a stop next to the station wagon. Pinkley sprung out, hand on his
holster, shouting orders. I slammed the brakes. Beersma got out next, hands raised, telling Danny
to just take it easy, to put the club down.

Danny swung the club in front of him, egging them on. People were leaning out their
windows, gawking, shouting at him. Our father would say, “Sometimes the only way to win a
fight is to let the madness take over.” Danny raised his bloody arms above his head and howled
into the sky.

Pinkley drew his gun. Beersma told him to put it away for Christsake before he hurt
someone. Using the distraction, my brother leapt from the station wagon and ran up the street,
whooping, flinging the club in the air and trying to catch it like some deranged majorette.
Pinkley caught up to him and tackled him to the ground, breaking Danny’s wrist. Later, at the
station, Pinkley would write Beersma up for insubordination, and Beersma would use the
opportunity to voice his opinion of Pinkley to the Chief. In October, Beersma would be granted
an early retirement.

All of this I would learn from my mother. I didn’t see Pinkley draw his gun, or my
brother’s mad dash, or how the spectators gave a mocking cheer when Pinkley brought him
down. Didn’t see them linger in their windows to jeer as the paramedics loaded him up. Didn’t
see them slink back to bed lamenting that even with Cal in the ground they’d never be free of
those goddamn Pollocks and all their carrying on.

As the weary Beersma first climbed from the squad car, I slid the truck into reverse. My
heart roared, fingers tightened on the wheel, foot hovered over the gas. I knew what would
happen if I slammed it down. I closed my eyes and saw my father’s grinning face, heard the
distant smack of my tiny punches on his palms, in his eyes the satisfaction of knowing that with
each strike I was becoming his son.

When Beersma checked his shoulder to see where Cal Pollock’s truck was, he saw it
pulling away. He reached for his radio, hesitated, and then that dipshit Pinkley drew his gun.

About the Author: Connor Thompson is a writer and actor from Toronto. He has work published or upcoming at TL;DR Press, X-R-A-Y, and Interstellar. One time he was in a Kia commercial with Paul Anka. He can be found on twitter @cpethompson.

Lunch Break

By Sy Holmes

Jim Conville had thirty minutes for lunch, but lately he was taking thirty-five. Running to his car to eat his sandwich in five, then leaving his hardhat in the passenger seat, spending the next thirty sitting in the coffee shop, out of the Great Falls cold. Sipping a large cup of overpriced coffee and thinking over things.

​Jim had a lot to think over. There was the job: electrical subcontracting on a boutique hotel they were building to accommodate the influx of out-of-staters into Montana. Nobody in their right mind, people had told Jim, would build a boutique hotel in Great Falls. But people were out of their minds these days. Jim was the token easterner on the team. He had always wanted to move out west. Out of North Carolina. Into a land of more possibility. Where the skies were bigger and the people freer. Now he was just waking at five a.m. and driving down the skeezy state route from the house he was renting for too much money to the jobsite downtown while it snowed and the roads turned to ice. All the snow of Minneapolis with roads management expertise of Raleigh, he thought. Jim thought a lot of things at five, cup of instant coffee he had made at home in his cup holder. He thought about them while he worked through the morning. Mostly he thought about them on his lunch break.

​The job was going poorly: the entire hotel was out-of-sequence and had been for months now. Parts going faster than scheduled, parts lagging behind. People showing up with shit that wouldn’t be ready to be put in for two weeks. People showing up with shit that should have been here a month ago. The super, Joanna, was losing her mind. Jim didn’t blame her. She was under immense pressure from her bosses, who had also been investors in the project, and everyone has their breaking point. For Joanna, that came when she broke the eighty-hour week mark. Foaming at the mouth. Snapping at her own laborers and all the subcontractors. Subs, there was a bitterness in the way she said it these days that really did make it sound like a domination thing. Every trade handled it differently. The plumbers had gone completely internal, not talking to anyone but playing upbeat music from the ‘50s while they worked. Hank, Jim’s boss, was trying to handle it with good humor, but he was running out of steam.

​“Jim,” he said one morning, “I feel dead inside.”

​The welders, more a tribe of feral apes than actual human dudes, who were from somewhere south of Missoula and were assholes, had decided to go to war. Openly smoking on the jobsite, which had a strict no-smoking policy. Going home early. Screaming matches between Joanna and their foreman. They had been fired from the job about six times but kept getting hired back. It was a seller’s market at the moment. Jim wondered why they hadn’t just moved on. Every morning Jim sat in the car for five minutes and took a couple deep breaths. Some days would be great. Some days something he or another electrician did would trigger a Halifax-sized explosion from somebody involved in project management. Eardrums gone. The eyes of any child unfortunate to be looking in the direction of the jobsite melted out. But he was never sure what kind of day it would be, and one kind could turn into the other in a second. At lunch he had only reached the half-way point. Landmines could lie ahead. That was the son-of-a-bitch of it all. The constant uncertainty. He needed coffee and a fancy-ass scone to fortify himself.

​He looked at his phone. No texts. Nothing. The thing he had had with this girl who had been working with small businesses to help them weather the crisis had blown up yesterday. She was a couple months out of a six-year relationship with an Air Force pilot who was still stationed at the base up here. It was a casual thing, never would have gone anywhere. Chill on the couch, watch dumb movies, drink and smoke weed. Jim had gotten too drunk at his house on Saturday night and hooked up with the yoga instructor who sold his landlady/roommate shrooms. Turns out the two were best friends and things had collapsed from there. Small town problems, he should have known. There’s no Hallmark card for shit like that, Jim thought. “Sorry, I wouldn’t have done it if I had known because I’m not an asshole but since I didn’t I did and now I feel like an asshole.” These things happen. He never thought he would be missing nights on a near-stranger’s couch getting it on while Blades of Glory played. Ridiculous shit like that. But it was some sort of intimacy in the middle of this cold-as-shit spell. He had told Chris, one of the other journeys about it and he had just laughed.

​“Get back on that horse, son.”

​Jim wanted to explain that he didn’t want to have to get back on any sort of horse – he just wanted to stay on one, but it wouldn’t have been any use.

​Jim wanted to get out of one thing, though. His landlady, who lived in the other room in their house that sort of looked like the Unabombomber’s cabin, had been brought home by the cops on Tuesday morning, right before Jim left for work, with her crazy sister after some sort of altercation with her ex-boyfriend at a bar in town. Jim had been standing on the porch and the officer just looked him up and down in the kind of way that said he would remember him. The coke dealer, who sold shitty Montana white for criminal prices, was coming around the house like the motherfucking milk man. Her best friends coming over with weird, sketchy dudes and doing blow in the living room from six to six. No uninterrupted sleep in a week. Youtube videos of a random French guy explaining the history of tea blaring in his ears just so he wouldn’t hear his landlady’s sister yelling at her boyfriend. Lease still had three months on it, but the situation was out of control. He liked his landlady as a person. She was cool. She had driven him places when his car had been broken down and occasionally bought him beer as a sort of apology. He was sorry it had to end this way. It felt like a weird breakup. Now he had to try and find another place to live and it was all just a pain in the ass. That’s all it was. No big existential crises these days, no burning questions, just extended pains in the ass that dragged on way too long because they weren’t so urgent that he couldn’t ignore them when he put his mind to it. Could ignore them until they turned more critical than they had any right to be. Just little shit that piled up and ruined his lunch break. ​

About the Author: Sy Holmes is a writer from western North Carolina. He lives in the mountain West with other people’s dogs.

Turtle-Gate

By Dan Brotzel

Arriving early on the empty beach, the black sand a vast naked canvas, he and Lilly had dared to dream big.

Google ‘sand turtle’, grandad, she said.

The template they had sketched out with Google’s help was easily as long as him. He saw that the turtle’s flippers would have to come out much higher up the body than he would have imagined, almost up by its head. He was also surprised to realise that the creature would need quite a long pointy tail.

But it was only after he and his middle grand-daughter got started that he realised that the sand where they sat was compact and unyielding – especially hard work as they only had one split bucket and a tiny plastic spade between them.

About 15 yards away, however, there was a lovely big pile of loose sand that must have been displaced for someone else’s holiday project the day before; this sand was loose and crumbly, even if the surface around it was too uneven for turtle-building.

So there was nothing for it but to get stuck into the laborious commute between their spot and the pile, filling up the bucket over and over and tipping sand into the middle of an animal shape which now seemed impossibly large, almost infinite. Lilly joined him for the first five minutes, signalling her official approval of the project by ferrying a few tiny handfuls.

He had been soldiering on alone for a good half-hour when he became aware of another family group settling down close to them, in a position at right angles to their own encampment and directly to the side of the turtle.

While his group comprised two grandparents – him and his wife Jan – and three grandchildren, this new group boasted the full generational flush, by the looks – a pair of grandparents, a son with his wife, and a little toddler of indeterminate sex.

Together, they gave off an air of quietly complacent affluence. The gran was an attractive woman with a deep all-over tan, hooped earrings and expensive-looking casual beachwear. The grandad wore deck shoes and blue cotton shorts and a Polo shirt with a designer logo that was international code for ‘expensive’. His receding hair was artfully cropped to make him look rugged and well-travelled. He looked like the sort of man who owned a boat and once ran his own company and now went into town once a week to attend the odd board meeting or check in with his broker.

The new group had brought with them a fancy cool-box. It contained food that appeared to have been sourced from an Italian deli, though to his knowledge there wasn’t such a thing within 30 miles of here. They had clearly disdained the local Spar, where Jan had bought their crisps. They were clearly not local.  

He was initially a bit put out by just how close this new family had chosen to sit. But then he looked up and saw that while he had been slaving away at his turtle, the beach had been steadily filling up. An hour ago the beach had been all theirs, but the prairielands of the virgin frontier had given away to tight-knit strip-farms. Space was at a premium.

It quickly became clear to him too that the new family did not like his turtle, especially as little sandy avalanches from the creature’s growing shell kept tumbling onto the space they had marked out as theirs. The new family kept ostentatiously brushing bits of the loose blackish sand away, strategically placing towels and blankets right up to the edge of the shell and pointedly fidgeting in its direction.

What complicated matters more was that, in order to shortcut the creation of a 3D effect, he had decided to turn the outline of the animal into a deepish gully. This would instantly give the illusion of depth and cause the animal to ‘pop’, as Lilly put it. But to dig the turtle out the whole way round, he would eventually be obliged to encroach on the other family’s territory further.

Why was he still working on the turtle anyway? Lilly had wandered off to the rockpools ages ago and seemed to have completely forgotten about their shared project. She might come back to it perhaps, you never knew. But finishing the turtle had for some reason become a point of personal pride, especially as there was a hostile force – or family, if you will – that was now actively trying to stop him.

Completing the gully could have been a flashpoint. But just as he neared his Gibraltar moment, the posh gran suddenly set off with the toddler to paddle in the tide.

Britain at its best, he mused. There was naked animosity in the air, but no one was going to actually talk about it.

The gully completed, he sat back on the far side of the turtle from the interlopers, and began to smooth and shape the huge shell. Perhaps Lilly would want to decorate it with all the seashells and pretty stones that she would be bringing back from her exploration of the shore.

He sat back and surveyed what he had done. It was, he had to admit, a ludicrously large thing he had created, its scale all wrong in among the bustle and throng of a holiday beach.

Just thinking about what he had done tired him. He felt tired all the time now, a sort of grey wash that lay behind everything he did. The constant tweaks of back and bone. The endless need to pee. The breathlessness at the top of the stairs. The strange heavy feeling as he sunk into his bed every night, the weight of time pushing him down into his mattress, as if the bed was a grave and he was sinking deep into the earth. The early waking, the sense of sleep as a temporary respite that never really left him feeling rested or refreshed. The way he had to sit down and stare into space for ten minutes after a walk to the shop for the paper. The absent-mindedness. The endless need to pee.

He was old, of course. He looked at his wife, Jan, who was old too, though she looked much better on it than he did. Jan was chatting happily with Izzy, their eldest grandchild. Izzy wore a skimpy bikini these days – in a shade she told him was ‘electric pink’ – and spent hours in the bathroom and took endless selfies on her phone. It was just five minutes ago, surely, that Izzy had been dressing like Snow White and writing endearing letters to her tooth fairy; this morning, he heard her humming a song about waking up with murder on my mind.

And here they were again, looking after the grandkids for yet another week. He loved to seem them, of course he did, and Jan would have had them over every weekend given the chance. But living on the coast was a hostage to fortune.

He stood up and arched his back tentatively. The posh woman was on her way back from the water now, steering the toddler expertly between sandy puddles and somehow keeping her white culotte things spotless.

Tom, his youngest grandchild, was over with Lilly now too, he noticed, jumping in and out of pools and chasing seagulls and lying down in the tide and just generally being a boy. (Albeit a boy who had no interest in giant sand turtles.) Tom’s grandad looked over at the other family, the turtle-haters, and hated them back.

On the way down to the water, he saw that elaborate sand fortifications and comedy burial scenes were springing up everywhere on the beach. Men stood, hands on hips, boasting to other men of their new phones, comparing motorway routes, troubleshooting boiler issues. Women rubbed their necks with cream, closed their eyes and looked to the heavens. Excited children ran past carrying milkily translucent buckets full of crabs. Tiny ones dipped their feet in the brisk tide for the very first time.

But as grandad stood at waist height in the water, the queasy hostility he had felt from the earlier tussle for territory slipped away from him, like a burial at sea. The current pushed and pulled at his frame, and he let it drag his steps where it would. Looking back myopically at this vista of happy human ants, he wondered if there was anything on earth as profoundly pleasurable as weeing in the sea. The oceanic amniotic surrender to the warm, wet embrace, all-knowing and all-forgiving. And again. Aaah.

Out beyond him, towards the horizon, jet skis and dinghies traced white plumy lines in the infinite blue. The sun breathed warm and true on everything and everyone. It became impossible to believe that anyone in the world could wish harm on anyone else.

He took to pondering the meanings of Turtle-gate. Why this sudden anger? Was it to do with politics in some obscure way? Everything else was, these days, apparently. Was it a projection of his annoyance at being taken for granted by his son and daughter-in-law, who assumed now that he and Jan would have the kids for this week every year? As far as he recalled, they had offered to take the older two when the third arrived, because the parents obviously needed some relief. But somehow this had morphed into a regular annual obligation, a tradition that he had no memory of initiating or even signing up to, but which he was convinced his son now thought of as a favour to him. He could just imagine the pair of them, lamenting the fact that they couldn’t go to Spain or The Canaries in August ‘because mum and dad would be so disappointed’.

Would we heck.

Well yes, OK, maybe. We’d miss the little buggers.

More delirious weeing. He fantasised now that when he returned to the beach, the giant turtle would have come to life and turned out to be (what else?) jovial and endearing, taking all the kids for rides on its shiny convex back. But like any respectable fantasy cartoon animal, it would of course always be aware of health and safety issues, taking care never to stray out of the kids’ depth. And it would even take up the little one from the other family, and bring everyone together, so they all sat round in one big circle and held hands and sang songs, and the posh gran was really rather attractive, actually, and…

What actually happened when he got back, or soon after, was that Tom got stung by a wasp. Tom, the youngest, the boy, the tough wiry one who seemed to feel no physical pain but was insanely sensitive to the slightest barb, more sensitive in fact than the two girls put together, launched into a hysterical delirium of panic from which he could not be consoled. Wasps were everywhere, they were all out to get him, everything was infected, nowhere was safe. He clung to his granny for dear life, ducking and flinching as imagined aerial assaults rained in on him from every direction.

The fact that granny had just brought everyone a lovely ice cream was no consolation; it only made things worse because of course wasps love ice cream. The day was ruined. Happiness was gone forever. Life was over.  

Grandad did his best to stroke Tom’s head over his wife’s embrace, but Tom just thought he was under attack again and roughly pushed his arm away. Under cover of his undoubted concern for the boy, he felt a rising irritation that he was going to have to clear everything up again so soon – all the beach crap that he had so laboriously lugged down the hill and across the sand only a couple of hours ago: the canvas bags, the sandwich boxes, the flask, the folding chairs, the towels and mats, the broken bucket. Not to mention leaving the turtle. Only…  

Only now the other family were in there with them, offering sympathy and soothing gestures and practical help. The posh gran had produced wipes and cream and water. The posh granddad was telling little Tom in a lilting Welsh voice that wasps never sting someone twice, that no wasp would ever sting him again, that in fact it was a mark of great fortune to be stung by a wasp, a sign that Tom was a man of courage who was destined for great things. (All obvious nonsense, but it did seem to be having an effect.) The posh gran had produced a special ointment which she said was ‘a magical and proven wasp-scarer’ – wasps would never go near the smell, she said. (He could see that it was actually some sort of M&S lavender moisturiser thing, but this too seemed to be working.)

So: the enmity had been a fiction. The hostility was in his head. It was the sort of scene that could restore your faith in human nature. Indeed, the only sand in the sandwich, the only piece of grit in the oyster, was that, in the course of their ministrations, the other family had accidentally stamped on the face of the turtle, mutilated one of its flippers, punctured the shell beyond repair, and smudged the artfully pointed and surprisingly long tail into an effete little stump.

After all the drama had subsided, he glanced over at posh gran, stretched out on a fancy, adjustable lounger that now occupied what had until very recently been the bottom half of a giant turtle. For a moment her gaze seemed to lock with his from behind her dark elusive shades, and a gold filling glinted as she flashed him a triumphant smile.  

About the Author: Dan’s debut collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is published by Sandstone Press. He is also co-author of a forthcoming comic novel about an eccentric writers’ group, Work in Progress (Unbound). His stories have featured in numerous competition lists and publications, and received both Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations.  

An Interview with P.F. Kluge

By Megan Neary

I spoke with author P.F. Kluge over the phone while he sat on his porch at Kenyon College enjoying Ohio’s first day of Spring weather. Kluge is the author of several novels, including: Eddie and the Cruisers, The Day that I Die, Final Exam, and Biggest Elvis. He has also written numerous nonfiction essays and articles, with many fine examples collected in the  books, Keepers, Alma Mater, and The Edge of Paradise. Here at Flyover Country, we’re interested in highlighting authors who give voice to the lives lived between America’s coasts. Though he’s from New Jersey and lived in New York City for years, Kluge has made Gambier, Ohio his home. He first went there to study at Kenyon College sixty years ago and he’s been leaving and coming back ever since. In his novels, he captures the sound of Ohio and the complicated feeling of loving a town while wondering if there’s somewhere else you should be. Interestingly, Kluge’s works regarding Micronesia–where he served in the Peace Corps–reflect an atmosphere not unlike that of a small, isolated college and he captures the voices and stories of the people on those small islands, bringing to life a place many readers may just be discovering. 

Today, Kluge lives within walking distance of his freshman year dormitory, which he returned to for a year during the writing of Alma Mater, a nonfiction account of a year in the life of Kenyon College. The book was somewhat controversial, according to Kluge, “some people said it was an act of revenge, some people said I should not have written it, but, generally I think people understood that it was a fair shot at this place.” The book weaves together history, autobiography, and journalism to provide a beautiful, complex portrait of the college. 

Kluge first left Kenyon for graduate school at the University of Chicago. After graduating,he joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to Micronesia, which wasn’t his first choice, or even on his mind as a possibility. But, once he got there, he fell in love with the islands. His first novel, The Day that I Die, was inspired by his time there. The novel tells the story of a murdered war hero turned actor who returns to the islands where he once fought. 

While on the islands, Kluge became involved in politics, befriending a man named Lazarus Salii who would later become president of Palau. Kluge stayed on the islands after his term with the Peace Corps ended to write speeches for Salii. Later, he would write the preamble to the nation’s constitution. A nonfiction book, The Edge of Paradise, speaks to this friendship with Salii, as well as his love for the islands themselves. 

After returning to the United States, Kluge worked as a journalist, publishing stories with Life Magazine and the Wallstreet Journal. He also wrote and published several novels. He was invited back to Kenyon on a temporary teaching assignment and is now the college’s writer in residence. 

To Kluge, “reading is the breathing in and writing is the breathing out.” He cited Philip Roth, John Updike, and Alice McDermott as favorite recent authors. Currently, Kluge is working on a book called Wordman about writing and teaching. The title is a callback to a character in his novel, Eddie and the Cruisers. 

Kluge began writing early, working on grammar school and high school newspapers and holding summer internships during college at newspapers and Life Magazine. His interest in writing comes from his belief that “it’s your responsibility as a human being to leave a record behind.” He has always felt, “that something hasn’t happened until it’s been written down.” So it comes as no surprise that Kluge is still writing five days a week. He writes in longhand with paper and pencil, going back to the beginning and reading through the whole manuscript every thirty pages or so. In his office, there’s a shelf that holds his published books. He glanced at it and said, “you know, I like them all–I really do– and I’ll keep writing, that’s for sure.”

About the Author: Megan Neary is a teacher and writer from Columbus, Ohio, and a contributing editor at Flyover Country. Her fiction can be found in Near Window and Rejection Letters, and is forthcoming in The Amethyst Review, and Schuylkill Valley Journal. Her journalism can be found in The Record Herald.

The Sunday Incident in Nebraska (That Will Never Make the News)

By J.V. Sumpter

Last Sunday, at 9:32 AM, Father Francis almost confessed to the congregation that, for the last ten years, he’d been stealing from the collection to buy himself booze and drugs. In fact (he almost said) he’d once performed a wedding completely trashed, and what’s more, he didn’t even believe in God.

Unlike most confessions he’d made and heard, this one wasn’t born of a conscious-rankling secret. It didn’t dig its claws into the ego, a spidery parasite. No, this secret was more than willing to dawn the wings of confession, be reborn in the hearing of many witnesses. As Father Francis scanned the unsuspecting faces in the pews, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to let this go. Speechlessness dropped from his lips. His tongue relaxed. The exact words he would need queued helpfully on his tongue, and he let his mouth fall open—

but he stopped himself. In time.

What am I doing? he asked himself. He felt suddenly lightheaded and clenched his teeth together, hard, until the moment passed.

The most bizarre part of the almost-confession was that Father Francis hadn’t done any of those things. The untruth of it will confuse the old priest to no end. He’ll spend the next three weeks in solitary prayer, chanting rosaries while his mind wanders back to the strangest temptation to ever come over him—the temptation to tell a lie that would have gotten him in big trouble.

*

At precisely the same time that day, Aesop Castellanos, oral maxillofacial surgeon, was performing what would be his last operation, though he didn’t know it at the time. Afterwards, he walked out of his practice on shaking legs.

He hadn’t planned to retire until two years later but figured he had enough money to live comfortably after he quit. Maybe he would find another job. But it wouldn’t be surgery. No. Not after he’d almost pulled every tooth out of that unconscious teenager’s mouth.

He didn’t know why he’d wanted to do it. Or maybe “wanted” isn’t the right word. It happened right as he removed the second wisdom tooth. He’d been standing there, surgical knife and suction tube in hand, when he was hit by the sudden realization that he could do it, and that if he did, it would be absolutely awful. His mind instantly flooded with nightmarish visualizations. Empty, pocked gums erupting blood onto the blue t-shirt. The teen’s eyes would speak terror as the kid starts choking on blood and gauze. A hysterical mother, a bewildered judge, an unpayable fine, a life sentence. And most painful of all, guilt.

The terror of it gripped him with the sudden impulse to make it real. It moved his hands fluidly back to the unsuspecting teenager’s mouth. But by the grace of God, Aesop Castellanos, oral maxillofacial surgeon, did not pull any more teeth out. He finished up, sealed the holes, and hightailed it out of the building.

He won’t explain to anyone why he suddenly decided to give up his job (and his cushy salary), not even to his none-too-thrilled wife. He will take the crime he nearly committed to his grave.

*

It wasn’t a coincidence that these parallel incidents happened to the surgeon and the priest on the same day at the same time. All across the state of Nebraska and parts of northern Kansas, people terrified themselves by almost committing senseless and dangerous acts. A builder on a riser almost pushes his partner off (and the partner was his brother). A man who’d just secured a promotion and a first date almost jumps from his tenth-story office window. A mother with her five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son almost crashes her car into a tree.

But something stops them just in time. The brothers on the riser look at each other, wordless. The businessman stumbles back into his chair and puts his head in his hands. The mother pulls into a parking lot and stares at her kids in the rearview mirror for a long, long time. When the girl asks, “You okay, mommy?” she doesn’t respond.

The state-wide incident doesn’t make it to the news. Everyone assumes their part in it was a personal incident, some freak expression of a hidden perturbation in their psyche. Shame keeps what happened from ever being brought to the public’s attention like an effective spy.

This covers over the mistake made by actual government agents. You see, a team of them accidentally created an anomaly from their secret labs in rural Nebraska. Fortunately, they were able to reverse it in under two minutes, and everyone was able to bear through their strange temptations that long.

Everyone, that is, but me.

*

I’m grateful though. My temptation was comparatively innocuous. All I was tempted to do was take your phone out of its case—and throw it clear across the mall.

I’ve never played a sport in my life, but I wound up like a pitcher, let it fly with such good form that even you would have been impressed if you’d come back from the bathroom in time to see it. I watched its perfect arch and smiled as it reached its zenith. Then it started its decline, and I was suddenly reminded of our relationship’s recent trajectory.

 But I swear our recent fights don’t have ANYTHING to do with me throwing your phone. I was compelled to throw it by the invisible force of a statewide anomaly created by secret government agents. Haven’t you been paying attention?

About the Author: J.V. Sumpter recently earned her BFA from the University of Evansville. She is an assistant editor for Kelsay Books, Thera Books, and freelance clients. She received 2020 Virginia Grabill Awards in Poetry and Nonfiction, and her most recent publications are in Leading Edge Magazine, Not Deer Magazine, and New Welsh Review. Visit her on Twitter @JVSReads.

Riding Bikes With Devin

By Nick Gardner

Ryan was drifting off in the shade when his neighbor bashed open the screen door, slung a writhing pillowcase into the front yard, and squeezed off three shots at the hissing and scrambling ghost. The cat dodged out in a zigzag, flicked like a skipped stone under a parked car where it proceeded to lick. The neighbor dropped the gun to his side. He grinned. He said, “There we go. Cat’s out of the bag.” He laughed at his own joke. “Name’s Drew.” Ryan’s ears rang, his mouth hung open.

“Ryan,” said Ryan.

There was a silence as they looked at each other, then Ryan said, “You better put that thing away. Cops are probably coming.”

Neighbors congregated on their porches. Shadows materializing to gawk. Drew shouted, “Nothing to see here. Everyone can go back inside.

He turned back to Ryan, winked. The screen door banged behind him.

#

Three months earlier, Ryan had been elated when Devin asked him to move to the city with her after she enrolled in Columbus College of Art and Design. She said she didn’t like the idea of dorms, shacked up with someone else’s mess, but Ryan’s was a mess she knew from high school hangouts in his basement where they’d create playlists, burn CDs. And Ryan could easily find another job. The Midwest was peppered with factories. He had worked at Richland Sensor for the last year and saved a decent chunk of money, a nice cushion to prop himself on while he waited for the right job. The house in Columbus was beautiful, though a bit rundown. It was also cheap. Victorian Village was absent of parents, of anyone they knew. They could be whoever they wanted there.

Ryan imagined riding bikes with Devin in Columbus, through the neighborhoods, passing their aloof shuttle and weft against the fabric of traffic. It was only a couple miles from their new house to the Short North where they could stop by a gallery or coffee shop. And when they got home, they would sit on the porch like so many other Columbus kids and drink beer from the convenience store down the road that Devin said didn’t card. They would smoke cigarettes or joints if they pleased.

So it was the beginning of Summer when Ryan and Devin took the U-haul from the Western Ohio farmland of their parents to the rental in Victorian Village. The house had slumped gutters and wood floors with worn out pathways down the center of the hall and cracks you could see through. In the kitchen, the linoleum peeled up to reveal layers glued onto each other as previous owners covered over one ugly style with another. The drawer handles pulled out and twisted loose in their sockets. The bathroom door didn’t latch properly and had the habit of being pulled open by a draft catching the user in embarrassing positions. They were happy with the house though. It was the first home of their adult lives, and it was close to Devin’s school.

#

“What is that?” Devin had said as Ryan rolled the 1976 baby blue Schwinn down the ramp of the moving truck.

“Your new bike. I bought it cheap and fixed it up. It’s how people get around.”

Devin had a smile that was only a tweak in the side of her mouth, then she hugged Ryan who turned bright red and grinned at the wall.

That summer they rode every street of the neighborhood. These were tall houses with steep roofs, balconies on the second floor, turrets and stained glass. They were trimmed exquisitely, carved wood that was now cracked and peeling paint from the sunshine. They were faded, elegant houses made cheap by their disrepair and Ryan and Devin loved them.

When school started and Devin was too busy to ride with him, Ryan biked alone. He could do 30 miles, pass an afternoon cutting down alleys instead of filling out applications. He’d blow through stop signs and ignore interviews.

When Ryan made it back to the house, he took the chain off the bike, walked to the kitchen, filled a bowl with degreaser, and dropped the chain in. Devin smoked a joint and hovered around her sculpture. She liked to alter her perception while she worked. Her long hair hung in her eyes as she bent over the piece, backed up, closed in on another view. Her medium was barbed wire and rebar scalped in rusted clumps from abandoned buildings and construction zones. She worked in the living room on a tarp, clipping, bending, twisting, sprinkling a light flurry of rust flakes. Music was always turned way up, Dead Milkmen, Buzzcocks, The Cramps. She liked punk while she worked. The sculpture was much too big by now to move through the door.

After his rides Ryan would lean into the fridge, feel the cold air and the empty space of it, then emerge with a beer in his fist and announce his mileage as he read it off his tracker. He would say, “Thirty four miles today.” And Devin would say, “Damn! Well done,” without looking up. Then Ryan would move through the house on his wobbling legs and floating body to sit on the porch and drink without anyone to tell him to do otherwise.

#

A week after the incident with the cat, Ryan got home from a late afternoon ride and saw a large package on his porch. He hauled his bike up the steps, set it against the wall of the house and opened the box. When he broke through the carbon lining, the smell of dank weed hit him full in the face and he jerked away. Inside the box was at least a pound of high quality marijuana.

When Ryan looked up, he saw his neighbor watching. Drew stood attention-stiff with that same grin. Ryan waved and bobbed his head hello, but didn’t meet Drew’s eyes. Then Ryan had a thought, looked back at the box’s label and turned red. It was addressed to Drew Goddard, number 346 and Ryan’s address was 344. He shouldn’t have opened it. Ryan gestured to the box, said, “Sorry dude. They delivered your stuff to the wrong place. I didn’t realize…”

Drew grinned but didn’t move, “I see that.”

“Here,” Ryan picked up the box and carried it over the lawn and up to Drew’s porch. His hands shook, heart punched.

Drew asked, “You see what’s inside?”

“I mean, I don’t really give a shit. What’s your business is your business.”

“Hold up.” Drew picked up the box. “You wanna smoke?”

 “Well.”

“Come on. It’s good shit and I have a new vaporizer.”

Drew’s house was spotless and the first thing Ryan noticed was a De Kooning on the entryway wall that didn’t appear to be a print but must be. He followed Drew straight into the kitchen where he set the box down on an expensive-looking table scrubbed into an oaky mirror.

Drew said, “Pick out a bottle to sip while we smoke. He gestured to a wine rack filled with dusty labels. “And call your girlfriend if she wants to join.”

Ryan said, “She’s not my girlfriend.” Which sounded defensive. He said, “We’ve just been friends forever so it’s like, you know.”

Drew said that was a shame and winked and walked into the other room. “Still, call her if you want. Plenty to go around.”

Ryan picked through the bottles, finally settling on a 1991 because that was the year of his birth.

Drew emerged from the bedroom. He hadn’t stopped grinning since the porch and Ryan began to feel like this was all going to turn into a giant practical joke. But Ryan also didn’t feel like he could decline Drew’s offers, like saying ‘no’ would change Drew into the angry man who shot cats in the front yard. It was just weed and some wine, and Ryan didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

“I see you picked the Bordeaux,” Drew said, “A hundred fifty dollars. Brought it back from my tour in France. Bourgogne.” And he continued to announce other expensive items saying things like, this glass is a Steuben. Ryan asked about the De Kooning, and, yes it was original, bought on a whim from a collector when Drew was stationed in Baghdad.

The wine was tannic, a perfect melding of tastes that moved over each other so as to become indistinguishable. The weed was dank, rainforest deep, and Ryan’s head floated with these pricey objects. When Ryan asked which branch of the military Drew was in, Drew said, “Private. Security contractor, but I’m thinking about retirement.” He smiled and winked.

#

Ryan went to a party that night at the house of one of Devin’s art school friends. There was a DJ sliding beats around on his MacBook and as the night went on the number of dancers increased and their inhibitions decreased.

Ryan and Devin hung out in the basement where a kid named Antoine screened Brakhage films while spinning Coltrane on the record player. The room was filled with smoke and Ryan was on his third beer when he realized Devin was no longer with him. He was on the couch telling either Jack or Jake – he hadn’t quite caught his name – about starting a bike repair business out of the local makerspace, and then he looked around and Devin was gone. He checked his phone and there was no message. It was only a mile home, but he had hoped they’d walk that together.

 He knew it was no big deal though. He shouldn’t make it a big deal. He had only hoped. He said to Jake or Jack, “Anyways, I have most of the tools and I know how to do it. I should just do it. Yeah. I’m going to do it.”

Jack or Jake nodded, passed the blunt, and said he’d be right back.

Ryan coughed on his next inhale and it hit him all at once. The film and music blended perfectly but no one else was watching. His legs were light but sturdy as he made his way upstairs. The bass vibrated the floor and lights roved the room in primary colors.

Ryan saw her then, sitting at the coffee table sniffing powder off a hand mirror and leaning back to make out with the tall thin boy beside her. He had never seen Devin do anything but weed and he felt an urge to yell at her, to tell her to stop, but it wasn’t his job to control her. The music was not Ryan’s thing. The party was too wild, and he would be walking home alone.

#

The cat was filled with incredible forgiveness and was back within ten days. Drew stopped sweeping the orange and yellow leaves from his porch, to crouch and pet the animal while its body lunged and convulsed with each swallow of canned tuna. Ryan watched from his porch, trying to understand this bond that could snap and fire bullets at you in an instant.

Drew seemed to sense Ryan’s wonder and said, “I think she’s learned her lesson. Don’t you?”

#

Later that night, Ryan and Devin walked to the corner store, Lou’s, to buy some beer and smokes. Ryan kicked a shard of sidewalk along in front of him for a time and didn’t say much. It was the first time they had hung out since the party. Just too busy with school and things.

When they got to the counter, Drew was in front of them ordering the cashier to retrieve pricey bottles from the glass case behind the register. Drew was sweaty despite the cool night and there was a deep channel of wet that went down his spine to the bottom of his untucked shirt. His hair stuck up at all angles. He was still attractive, a well-carved jawline, television smile, twinkling eyes that were life itself and wild.

Drew took them in with his grin, said, “Back in Iraq they had me in this cushy office job for a while. Paid me one hundred grand to sit behind a desk and drink and smoke cigars. Got a taste for the good stuff and now I’m hooked.” He gestured to the counter, “But it’s hard as fuck to get quality whiskey in this shithole.”

Ryan said, “Hey, this is Devin, my roommate.”

Drew offered his largest smile yet and a hand to shake. “So this is the beautiful, mysterious roommate that you’re not dating?” Then he turned back to the counter to settle up.

Devin shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her cutoff jeans and blushed, blinked. She couldn’t meet Ryan’s eyes. But when Ryan nudged her, she did look at him and blushed more deeply.

They walked back together. While Ryan floated off in his head, Devin jabbered away with Drew, asked him questions about what he had seen overseas, what his family was like, and when he asked his own questions back, when he flirted, she stumbled over her reponses. Ryan had never seen this nervous side. She let Drew lead and she followed every step.

Back at Drew’s place, Ryan sat on the couch and sipped scotch worth half his monthly rent and Devin reclined on a La-Z-Boy, tipped her drink back a little too fast. Drew paced in front of them and told stories of Iraq, how he holed up on a rooftop for days before he took his shot. Hours of waiting to release his breath, squeeze the trigger, watch the body drop. Then he went on, as if continuing the same train of thought and described the expensive drinks with important people, exotic places. Devin hung on every word as Ryan slipped into a boozy darkness.

Drew didn’t mention why he was now in Columbus, only that his dad used to rent out the house out but had given it to Drew to use while he tried to settle down. Drew didn’t mind where he ended up. He had money. He could make friends. “With enough booze and weed,” said Drew, “You can sleep easy anywhere.”

#

But Drew did not sleep easy. At some point Ryan must have blacked out. He woke up on the couch to Drew telling him to get the fuck out. Drew screamed, “You think this is some kind of fucking hostel?” A boot flew through the air and bounced off the cushion next to Ryan’s head.

Ryan jumped up and fled. Another shoe struck the door as he pulled it open. There was no sign of Devin, Ryan realized as soon as the door slammed behind him and another shoe hit it.

#

A week later Ryan was back on the porch with a beer. It felt like a very Columbus thing to do, he thought. Devin had been hanging out at Drew’s most nights, brought over pizza, maybe a six pack, while Ryan sat on the porch with his forty and watched the Fall breeze by. He didn’t know if he could believe anything that Drew told them. The only evidence was a rage that spiked and then disappeared with no warning whatsoever. Devin insisted that she could help Drew, but Ryan wanted no part in it.

#

That spring, Ryan got the phone call he’d feared. Just that month, two houses in the village had been bought and were being refurbished. For what seemed like the first time in a century, a street sweeper made its rounds and just last week the city tore up the sidewalk to begin repairs. He didn’t know exactly what would happen next, but he felt it was something else beyond his control, something else changing, pushing him away.

Ryan stopped his bike beside the road and opened his flip phone. The landlord began right away, “You know the year’s almost up and it was just a year lease,” he said, “Property values are increasing, property taxes are rising. I could easily get double what I charge you.” He said he would hate to lose Ryan and Devin as renters, but he had ends to meet. He was really giving them quite a good deal.

 Ryan choked on a fistsized ball of disgust. He figured it would come but he had also hoped. He said. “You stingy fucking bastard! Do you have any idea what you’re doing to people? You don’t give a shit about anyone, just your goddamn money!”

The phone had already clicked off. The click said that the landlord knew exactly what he was doing. It acknowledged and accepted that the landlord didn’t care. Ryan would have to tell Devin, but first, he wanted to get drunk.

#

So, later, after he downed a forty and a half alone, and after he’d texted her with no response, he went next door. This is how he found Devin: sitting on Drew’s couch reading the labels of fourteen prescription bottles that sat on the coffee table and putting the drug names into her computer to research. Ryan sat down beside her. He noticed the bruises on her arm, but didn’t mention it. He asked her what’s up?

She said, “Drew’s gone.”

“Gone where?”

“Nebraska. Or some shit. He took me with him to buy a van. He buys a POS minivan with cash and hauls off to BFE to pick up a bunch of weed. He’ll probably come down from whatever he’s on, hate himself and flush most of it.” She took a swig of wine from a Steuben glass and set it down in its ring on the table. “But today, he just assumes I’m going with him. He demanded it. Fuck that. He refused to take his scripts.”

She spilled several pills into her hand. They bounced on her callused skin and rolled but she contained them. She plucked one between index finger and thumb and held it up to Ryan: “Klonopin. Want one?”

“I’m not taking his pills.”

“It’s fine. I’ve been taking them all afternoon. It’s not like he’s using them.”

“He’d flip his shit if he found out.”

“He doesn’t care. When he gets like this he starts giving everything away anyway.”

“I think.” Ryan paused, wondering if this was the right time. “Dev, don’t get mad at me, OK. But I think we need to get him help. Is he hurting you?”

Devin said, “Hurting?” Like she was mulling it over. She placed a pill in her mouth, chewed, scrunched up her face and chased it with a shot of wine. Then, she pushed the Rx bottles away from herself. She said, “I see why he doesn’t take this stuff. It doesn’t do shit for me. Just makes me feel weird.”

“For you? What all have you taken?”

“All of it. Lexapro, Lithium, Lamictal, Xanax…” She continued picking up orange bottles, reciting names. She said, “They only make me feel fuzzy, make everything meaningless. I’m a little bit sick.”

“You took all of those?”

“Only as prescribed,” she held up a self righteous finger then bowed over and puked on the floor. When she was done, she looked back up with watery, innocent eyes.

Ryan jumped up. “You took all of those? Shit!”

Devin nodded, knelt next to the puddle on the floor. Ryan could see pills dissolving in the waste in front of her. Devin said, “Look at this!” She spread her arms gesturing at an overwhelming everything. “There’s nothing I can do.”

#

That night Ryan could hear Devin tossing and turning in her room down the hall. She had absolutely refused to go to the hospital. Most of the pills had been puked up anyhow. The next day she stayed in her room and when Ryan knocked she said she wanted to be alone. He was glad she was talking, but he couldn’t tell her that the landlord wanted $250 more per month.

Ryan took off on his bike and headed toward campus. He cut through the university and took the roads on the other side at speed. Heavy air, thick with mown grass. If he had been his father he would work sixty to eighty hours per week, save money, and plan for marriage and then retirement. But Ryan wasn’t Ryan’s father. He was too sad, too anxious. He also wasn’t lazy, but he’d seen his father after 30 years running General Motors presses and that life didn’t seem like life at all. Maybe all Ryan wanted was the freedom to choose, to take control and not be killed by it.

After a time Ryan found himself on a road with fields on either side. The country. The breeze blew warmth into him, a chipmunk scurried across the road, then stopped, terrified, and sprinted inches in front of him either showing off or attempting suicide, Ryan couldn’t tell.

he turned around and headed back to the house. It wasn’t his home with Devin like he imagined. More a derelict interstitial space he’d been stuck in too long. He lived there. He survived till he didn’t. When he arrived he sat on the porch and drank beer, just like it was Columbus and just like he belonged there and everything wasn’t over. He drank like he had an idea of what he was even doing. Devin came out and joined him. They sat in silence. Then Devin said, “We got a notice in the mail that rent’s about to skyrocket. Stingy fuckers.” She took a drag from her cigarette. “Drew said I could move in with him if I wanted.”

Ryan didn’t say anything. Just swigged his beer.

Devin said, “Anyways, Drew called from Nebraska to apologize. I don’t want to leave you out on your own, but I have school and stuff.”

Ryan said, “I may just move back home. Get my old job back.”

“I’m so sorry, though. I keep trying to make everything work and it just falls apart. I’m sorry I dragged you along.”

“No. I get it. It’s fine.”

“But I also don’t want you to be mad.”

#

Ryan had to live with his parents and save up for three months before he could afford his new place, a two bedroom farmhouse with attached garage where he set up his bike stand and began repairs. His old road bike didn’t cut it on the gravel and dirt of his hometown so he bought a hybrid with wider tires. There were no bike lanes anywhere, no sidewalks and people liked to speed around in their trucks creating a level of danger that excited him, kept him alert. Ryan coolly pedaled on.

The move was worth it for the world around him. He liked the cows who wanted nothing more than to chew grass, backs turned to the road, farting at traffic. He liked the fields, the trees. He had even developed a nostalgic passion for the smell of skunk as long as it was faint and passed by quickly.

He hadn’t seen Devin in a year, a few months since they had even talked on the phone, but her parents had let him know that she moved back home to recover. A bullet had grazed her cheek. She said the gun wasn’t supposed to be loaded, but then she stopped answering questions altogether about Drew, about whose hand held the trigger, any of it. Ryan read that Drew had been arrested, charged with quite a few misdemeanors, and released on bond.

On the phone, Devin admitted there was nothing she could do to help him.

When Ryan looked up his old house on Craigslist it had been completely remodeled and the rent had more than doubled.

Ryan went out to the garage. He had three bicycles on stands in varying stages of repair and two more in the queue. From the ceiling hung more than a hundred wheels both old and new. It wasn’t perfect. He still struggled, but he woke up and went to his workshop every morning, clicked on The Clash and sanded and painted as long as he wanted to, which could be quite long if he was in the mood. He pulled down an old Schwinn outfitted with fat tires and he took off down the road, picturing Devin’s face back when it used to smile, memories of cigarettes and a laugh they shared over inane conversations in embarrassingly goofy voices.

He turned onto Washington South Road and heard the Super Duty truck with its loud muffler pummeling behind him. It revved by him then, a shout from the window gone indistinct in its cloud of smoke and sound. And Ryan hit the ditch, sprawled out on his hands and knees at the edge of the cornfield. He lay there in the sun, inventoried damages. He rolled over and sat up, stretched his legs, his arms, knees a bit tender, hands stung. He held up both middle fingers at the lingering cloud of exhaust from the truck’s stacks, but the truck was long gone. He stood up, shook himself out. Lucky. Some people get to walk away without a scratch.

About the Author: Nick Gardner is in recovery from opioids and is an MFA fiction candidate at Bowling Green State University where he is an assistant editor at Mid-American Review. His poetry and fiction has appeared in Ocean State Review, Fictive Dream, Flash Fiction Magazine, Main Street Rag, and other journals. His book of poetry, So Marvelously Far was published in 2019 through Crisis Chronicles Press. He lives in Ohio.

Blood and Dust

By Mitchell Nobis

Cal stomped the clutch, and the massive tractor lurched to a halt and disappeared in a tower of dust. There had been a metallic screech and a clunk, and he instinctually pulled it out of gear and eased back a hydraulic lever to raise the implement out of the dirt. He turned off the ignition, and in the new quiet, he could hear birds over by the creek. The dust billowed around the tractor. He sighed and put on his worn Tigers ball cap, took a swig of water from a dusty gallon milk jug, and once the wind blew the dust away, opened the cab and climbed down.

“Shit.”

The problem was obvious from fifteen feet away: The left wing of the front-folding bean drill had sprung a hinge again, causing the wing to drag at an angle. Any farther and the wing might have broken off altogether, let alone planted the beans in drunken, unsteady rows. It was a ridiculous breakdown, the result of inexcusably poor workmanship. Cal pulled out his cell phone.

“Ricky,” he said. “I broke down again. Same part. Yeah, I know, ‘reconditioned’ my ass. Yeah, get the old one and bring it out here so we can get rolling again today. I can’t move this one without screwing it up worse, so I’ll call Hector’s to let ‘em know they’re coming out to fix it here and for real this time. And for free.” He watched the birds and listened to Ricky. “Yeah, we’ll need both tractors here. I’ll stay and keep planting, so tell Dale to follow in a pickup so you’re not stuck out here.”

Irate, Cal made the phone call, reamed out the dealer, and when he finished, plopped down on the bean drill’s hitch bar. It was, by most regards, a perfect day. The sky was endless and blue with occasional clouds skirting past. Spring days like this used to elicit boyish excitement from Cal. He would stroll up to his workers in the morning and bellow, “We should be on the cover of a magazine today!” He must’ve said it a hundred times. Cal was still a good boss, a fair boss. He paid his workers well and treated them like professionals. One of his neighbors a few miles away paid his men low cash wages and worked them during planting and harvest seasons for 19 or 20 hours at a time without more than a piss break. Cal often wondered how the man could sleep after claiming to be a Christian in the daylight.

Gonna take Ricky awhile to get here, Cal thought as he watched a flock of Canadian geese fly overhead. Cal was working one of the distant properties, a good mile from any houses and about seven from the farmstead. Plus, a tractor pulling a bean drill can only go so fast in the first place. He knew he had to call his sister.

“Hey, we’re going late again. I’m broken down on the 80-acre way over by Johnson’s. I’ll have to go well past dark.” Cal was quiet for some time, listening to her and watching a fox skulk along the creek bank. “I know.” He paused and listened again. “Yeah, I know. Look, I’d like nothing more than to see her tonight, but I gotta get the beans in. We’re almost done. They keep saying rain’s coming, and without anything in the ground we get no money, you know.” His tone was dry. Cal went quiet again. His jaw tightened. “Dammit, I know she’s my daughter.  I also have to buy her clothes and food, y’know. Look, I’ll talk to you later.” Cal resisted the urge to see if he could throw his phone all the way to the creek. Instead, he set it down on a knobby tire and walked away, rubbing his head and kicking the dirt.

He made his way to the creek. Dry, sun-bleached stalks of last year’s pussy willows lined the creek bed on both sides.  A few trees grew along the creek too, and he watched a silver maple’s reflection ripple in the water. Cal wondered why everyone always said water was blue. The creeks were almost always brown. He remembered reading once about tannins leaching from roots into the water, or maybe he heard it on a field trip as a child. Either way, he had never seen a river or creek run more blue than brown.

Cal sat on the bank, rested his elbows on his knees, and stared down into the water. In the stagnant pockets behind branches or rocks, pollen gathered thick atop the water. He saw tadpoles dart about from under it and thought it seemed early for tadpoles, but there they were. It was spring again, and the world went on though he admitted to himself that until now, he hadn’t really noticed.

Cal realized he was tensing his muscles again, and he took conscious, long breaths. He’d had trouble breathing since the bank’s most recent round of calls. Several years of low crop prices were crushing the operation, so his advisor suggested doubling down, both playing the futures market and rotating crops based on those prices. This all made Cal’s chest tighten and stomach churn. Life only got more complicated over time, he thought, never less.

Thinking about crop prices made him antsy. He got to his feet and walked along the creek. He watched a turkey buzzard float lazy circles above a straggling oak tree out in the middle of the field, but he didn’t watch where he was going. His ankle twinged with quick pain as it caught and twisted into a hole. Cal barked and tumbled over. He grabbed his ankle.

“Goddamn woodchucks!” Cal groused to himself after sitting upright. He brushed the dirt off to check for swelling and left the boot on in case he had rolled the ankle or even sprained it. He moved his foot in circles against dull pain. On the rare afternoon that Cal was caught up with farm work, he brought his .22 to the fields and shot woodchucks. Their holes along the creek caused erosion and damaged his machinery. Since they were only doing what came naturally, he felt a moment’s regret when he plugged one, but it passed quickly. He put some pressure on the foot to test it. He couldn’t sit in this dirt all day, he thought, so he dragged himself upright. Cal stepped back tenderly on the foot, unzipped his fly, and loosed a steady stream of urine down the hole. It steamed in the spring breeze.

 Cal stumbled back to the tractor, walking off the tightness in his ankle. The ground north of the machinery was rough, but to the south and behind it, the soil lay furrowed with clean, straight rows, a fine seedbed for the beans if only rain would finish the deal. The ankle wasn’t badly hurt but ached enough to be an annoyance. He climbed up the ladder back into the cab, rooted through an oily cardboard box of tools, and pulled out a grease gun to freshen up the bean drill while he waited.

Climbing down gingerly, unable to put his full weight on the ankle, Cal wondered if Ricky was at least on the road yet. He hated down time when there was so much to do, especially when he was stranded out in the field. Cal ran through a mental checklist of everything that needed to be done before he could quit for the day. It was good that his sister could help because he wouldn’t be home till long after nightfall. Were he at the farmstead, he had plenty he could be doing. Ricky or Dale could grease the drill while he crunched numbers, he thought. But he wasn’t at the farmstead, so he turned his attention to the broken implement’s grease fittings.

He started at the front and then worked his way across the machine, crawling on the dirt and contorting to reach the secluded spots under the drill, a sprawling contraption of steel, tubes, discs, wheels, seed bins, grease, and magic. A horsefly buzzed nearby, so Cal pulled up his collar to protect his neck. He avoided the broken hinge but was pumping new grease into the other fittings when he realized he needed to lower the drill to prevent extra pressure from breaking off the hinge altogether. As he hurried himself backward and out from under the machine, Cal spotted a length of wire wound around an axle. This plot had turned up all sorts of discarded bits over the years. Lord knows what used to be here, Cal thought. Farmers could turn anywhere into a junk yard. He paused and yanked at the heavy wire to loosen it enough so he could unwrap it from the axle quickly, but it was a thick gauge and sharp on its broken, pointed ends. Cal braced his foot on a cross-bar and pulled harder. The wire jerked and slipped from his hands, gouging his right palm and the fleshy pad of his thumb. Cal inhaled between gritted teeth. The cut was deep. With the instant first look, he saw skin and muscle tissue separated cleanly in a straight line about three or even four inches long. He didn’t think he saw bone. The blood pooled and overflowed the cut’s ravine. Cal pressed his hand in his left underarm.

He pulled himself upright with his left hand and hobbled into the cab. His shirt wicked and spread a darkening expanse of blood. Using his unsure left hand, Cal dug through the box of tools and pulled out a utility knife. He also grabbed the thin roll of paper towels from behind the seat. After tearing off the dusty outside layer, he ripped off three feet of towel. He poured water from the jug over the cut, and quickly and clumsily, he folded up the paper towels and compressed the wad on his cut. The blood grabbed hungrily at the paper and stuck it to his wound. Cal then used the knife to cut off a shirtsleeve. He wanted to cut off his left and leave the right to keep the injured arm covered and warm, but that meant using his sliced hand to maneuver the knife. The thumb was useless. It couldn’t move, and he feared severed tendons. He laid the knife on his thigh and used his index finger to slide out the blade. Then, he gripped it with the middle, ring, and pinky fingers, directing it between his index and middle fingers to avoid putting pressure on the thumb.

He managed to hack off the left sleeve and tie it tightly around his right hand. To make sure it stayed put and to help seal if off from dirt, he wrapped it all with a few layers of duct tape. It wasn’t pretty, but it was better than nothing.

Cal realized his jaw was starting to spasm from gritting his teeth this whole time, so he took a steady, deep breath. Ricky’s on his way; he can plant, and Dale’ll be right behind in a pickup, he thought, so I’ll just head in with him and go get stitched. Cal cursed himself under his breath for not grabbing leather gloves out of the cab before greasing the drill. All he could do now was wait.

He turned the key and clicked on the radio. He punched the buttons until he got news. The market was down for the day. The governor announced new regulations at a press conference earlier. There were traffic jams over by Detroit. And the weather forecast remained the same as it had been all spring: warmer than average and dry but with rain on the way. The forecast had yet to manifest in actual rain. Cal sighed and clicked off the radio. He climbed back out of the cab and calculated that he had at least thirty more minutes until Ricky and Dale would get there.

The initial shock of the injury began to ebb, and the pain made Cal wince. In the bright sunlight, he inspected his bandaging job. It appeared to be staunching the flow, but it wouldn’t stay clean. Dust stuck to the bloody residue on his shirt, jeans, and makeshift bandaging. He had forgotten about the ankle, but he hobbled back to the creek’s oasis of moist green and lay down in the new-growth weeds and grasses. A dragonfly hovered over him for a long moment. Cal wondered how he looked to the bug, what the bug must think of him, but he decided the bug probably didn’t much care about him one way or the other. The wound throbbed.

Each pulse brought new pain, and Cal started to consider the possibilities. He didn’t think the cut was bad enough that he could bleed to death, but it could cripple his hand if he’d sliced tendons. A man can’t bleed to death from a four-inch cut, can he? Cal thought, and he wondered if he should stumble the mile to Johnson’s. The wind picked up, and Hal grew reflective lying in the grass. He hadn’t been a good father, in his estimation. He was practically an absentee parent, trying to raise their daughter alone while operating the farm. He worked 365 days a year and he knew that if it weren’t for his sister, he would’ve had to sell the farmstead and seek new work. Either that or make his daughter drop out of school to work for him. That would’ve been the only way he could see her and raise her in those circumstances, the only way he could be sure she was okay. Cal wasn’t sure if her staying at his sister’s so often wasn’t actually a good thing. He never felt like an adequate parent anyway, and this way she had a female to look up to, to learn from. Still, Cal ached when he thought of his child. The only thought he allowed himself of her mother was that it was a clear, dry day like this when they buried her. Yes, it was a day just like this, he thought. Cal snapped his head to the side, looking for more bugs or a plant or anything to prevent his thoughts from going down that road. He spied the dragonfly again. He watched the bug and watched the bug and breathed deliberately and evenly for several minutes and watched the bug. In time, Cal dozed off.

The horsefly’s buzz by his face jolted him awake. Cal leapt up, screamed from the electric pain in his hand, lurched away to avoid the horsefly, and tripped from his own sudden momentum. He fell and rolled down the bank, rolling over his hand twice. He doubled over and screamed again from pain. The flesh around the bandaging looked discolored, but that could just be blood and dust. When the pain subsided enough that he could breathe, he lifted his head and saw water. Had he rolled another foot, he’d have been soaked.

Then he couldn’t keep it back anymore. It was a day just like this when they buried her, a day just like this, and he looked at himself in the water. He clenched his teeth again and breathed rapid, shallow breaths. His eyes swelled and spilled for the first time in months. The tears coursed down his filthy cheeks, dripped off his chin, and fell into the creek. He gulped air and howled an unearthly, guttural wail as the day rolled over him.

After some time, he caught his breath and wiped his face with his right sleeve. He stared at his reflection for several exhalations, tucked his wrapped hand behind his back, and dunked his entire head under into the water. He kept it there. His cap floated off down the creek, and two deerflies zipped around it like scavenging satellites. Finally, Cal lifted his head out and water streamed off him, soaking his clothes and leaving trails in his dust. A shudder passed through him. He stumbled and rose.

Cal climbed up the creek bank. He saw dust rising to the north. It had to be Ricky and Dale, he thought. His hand pounded inside the wrapped sleeve and duct tape. He needed medical attention. He needed to hug his daughter, to thank his sister. He needed to get these beans in the ground, and he needed to figure out the market, how to buy or sell the future. The rain was nowhere to be seen. He looked at the new green of the creek bed all about him and thanked God that the dust cloud was getting closer.

About the Author: Mitchell Nobis is a writer and K-12 teacher in Metro Detroit. His poetry has appeared in HAD, Roanoke Review, No Contact Magazine, Porcupine Literary, and others. He is a co-director of the Red Cedar Writing Project and hosts the Wednesday Night Sessions reading series. Find him at @MitchNobis or mitchnobis.com.

Two Poems by Yuu Ikeda

The Birth of Blue

The birth of blue

changed bloody dawn

into hopeful dawn

The blue was not mere blue

Humming of sorrow

Waves of bravery

Hovering of expectations for future

When the blue

appeared in my hands,

every fear was burnt,

and

every will bloomed

strongly and hopefully

The birth of blue

was the birth of light for life

The blue was not mere blue

The blue was everything I hoped

In Spring

Vulnerable hope

whirls in faded purple spring

Under an umbrella,

I’m waiting for rain of hope

to moisturize me forever

Dewdrops emit

woeful smile

in the morning glow

I look back them,

and imagine that

momentary spring

weeps on leaves

Under an umbrella,

I’m waiting for spring

to stop crying

Instead of spring,

I swear to cry

for vulnerable hope

About the Author: Yuu Ikeda is a Japan based poet. She writes poetry on her website.https://poetryandcoffeedays.wordpress.com. Her published poems are “Broken Pieces of the Truth” in <Briefly Zine>,“The Shadow of A Cross” in ❤ Moon Magazine>,“On the Bed” in <Nymphs>, “Love? or Death?” in <Sad Girl Review>,and more.