Oasis

By Nick Young

The town was in for it, he knew.  Gonna be a big storm.  He could feel it, see it in the way the thunderheads were crowding the western skyline.   A helluva storm.    

He continued muttering to himself as he picked up his pace, causing the rhythmic squeak of the wheels on the small cart he pulled to quicken – a-wee-ah-kah, a-wee-ah-kah, a-wee-ah-kah . . . 

Gotta get oil, 3-in-One – yes!

He left the alley at Cotler Way and cut west to Main and across the street to Sandy’s Diner — low-slung, neon-lit, big windows all around.  Carefully, as he did each time he came, which was almost every day, he parked his cart in the same spot, a little patch of worn asphalt not far from the entrance, so he could keep a close eye on it while he was inside.

He was a fixture at the place, so none of the scattering of dinnertime customers who remained paid him any mind when he pushed through the revolving door and slid onto one of the red vinyl-covered swivel stools at the end of the counter.

“You’re late, Connie,” said LuAnn as she ambled toward him, wiping her hands on a small towel and depositing it under the counter.  He had never much cared for the name “Connie.”  Too girlish, or so he had it in his mind.  But it was better than his given name – Conrad.  He really hated that.

“Yeah, I know.  Couldn’t be helped, Lu.  No way to avoid,” Connie went rattling away, his mumbled speech like bursts from a machine gun.  “Went all the way out to Luten’s, Lu,” and then he laughed, showing a row of grey teeth benesth his thick walrus mustache. “That’s funny, ‘Luten’s Lu,’” and chuckled again.  He began rummaging around the threadbare Army fatigues he wore, one that still bore his name “Hellenmeir” embroidered in black on a strip of cloth sewn above the right breast pocket.  Connie’s spidery fingers extracted a crumpled pack of cigarettes.  He burrowed into the foil and paper until he found a smoke and pulled it free.  “Last one, Lu.  Maybe I should break it in half.  Save part of it for later, you know?”  The waitress, at fifty old enough to be Connie’s sister, shook her head, leaning across the counter.

“No need,” she said, hushed.  “I’ll take care of you.”  She raised a finger to her lips.  “Our little secret.”  Connie gave her a clumsy wink in return, went back into the pocket for a battered Zippo, lit his cigarette and then appraised his lighter.

“Long time.  I’ve had this a long time.  Do you know how long I’ve had this, Lu?”

“You’ve told me.”

“Yeah?”

“Many times, Connie.”

“Since ‘nam.”

“I know.”

“Same day I got drafted.”

“Nineteen sixty-seven.”

“September.”

“September.  Yeah, September.  How’d you know that, Lu?”

“You told me.”

“I did?”

“Many times.”

“So, yeah.  September, 1967.  That’s a long time, Lu.”

“Almost thirty years.”

“Goddamn.  Long time.”  Connie drew deeply on his cigarette, the corners around his eyes crinkling.  “You can’t tell me who was President then.  Bet you can’t.” LuAnn pursed her lips and appeared to look far away in thought, the repetition of a game they’d played countless times.

“Let me see . . . 1967,” she said, tapping the pencil she held against her chin, finally announcing:  “Nixon.  Richard Nixon.”  This brought a look of glee to Connie’s face, as he leaned his head backward, laughing.

“Noooo, Lu – not tricky-fucking-Dick!  Lyndon Baines Johnson!”

“Oh, yes – why sure, you’re right, Connie,” LuAnn said with mock surprise, “It was LBJ.”  Connie’s head bobbed up and down at his triumph.

“Yeah.  Yeah.  LBJ.  Not the Trickster!”  He took another drag on his cigarette.  LuAnn could not help smiling at the man’s unadulterated joy.

“So,” she began, “what’ll it be for dinner tonight?  The usual?”  Connie’s mirth evaporated as he furrowed his brow for a moment.

“No.  Not tonight, Lu.  No mac-and-cheese tonight.  No.  I would like a Sandy Big Burger – yes!  A Sandy Big Burger with the works – but no onion.  The works but no onion.  And crispy fries.  Large order, crispy fries.”

“And what about something to drink?  Coke?”

“Sure, yeah.  Coke.  Ice-cold Coca-Cola, Lu.”

“You got it.”

“And make it to go.”

“You’re not going to keep me company?”

“Noooooo.  Can’t,” Connie declared.  “Not tonight. Gotta boogie on, Lu.  Big storm.”  The waitress cocked her head and looked outside.  It was getting on a quarter-to-nine.  The evening was drawing down, growing darker because of the thick canopy of clouds moving in.

“Okay,” she said.  “I’ll get this ready for you chop-chop, and you can scoot on your way.”  LuAnn bustled off to the kitchen, leaving Connie to nervously glance outside, first toward the gathering storm, then to make sure his cart was safely in its place.  He drew on his cigarette in between inaudible mutterings.  From time to time his wandering eyes met those of one of the other diners scattered in booths along the main wall and they nodded and smiled or raised a hand in greeting.  Everyone knew Connie.  Everyone liked him, looking upon him with benevolence.  He squinted as the smoke from the cigarette between his lips drifted into his eyes.  Flattening his hands, he laid them palms-down on the countertop and slid them slowly across and back relishing the smooth, cool feel of the Formica.

Long before that night, Conrad Hellenmeir had been well-known in his hometown of Holloway, Missouri.  He began attracting some notoriety when he was just was a schoolboy.  It wasn’t a particularly unusual story; it was replicated in a thousand other small towns all over the country.  

Connie, who grew up on a farm with a younger sister, was a born athlete.  He first showed his prowess during softball and rag football games with the neighbor kids on a half-acre patch of grass his dad had left next to the bean field.

Once he was old enough, Connie started playing in organized baseball, where he stood out as a perennial all-star second baseman.  On the basketball court, he was a pretty fair jump-shooting forward.

By the time he reached Holloway Regional High, Connie’s was a regular name in the sports pages of the local weekly.  And all the coaches were eager to sign him up for their teams.  He didn’t disappoint, either, lettering every year in three sports.  As good as he was on the baseball diamond or handling himself in the low post, he was most gifted as a tight end and middle linebacker for the Holloway Yellowjackets.

“Never seen a young man with his kind of instincts,” Ben Tomlinson, who coached the varsity, often marveled.  “Offense . . . defense – he just knows where the ball’s gonna be on every play.  Somethin’ special.”  

In his junior year, he was a unanimous all-state first-team pick in the Missouri coaches’ poll.  College scouts started sniffing around.  The University of Missouri in Columbia, then rivalling Nebraska as the powerhouse football program in the Big Eight, even dangled the prospect of a full scholarship ride if he duplicated as a senior what he’d done the year before.  And he was well on his way, picking up where he’d left off, catching five touchdown passes and making a dozen tackles in his first two games.

Then came the bicyle incident.

“Here you go, Connie,” said LuAnn as she set a brown paper bag down on the counter.  “One specially made Sandy Big Burger with the works – no onion . . . a large order of crispy fries and an ice-cold Coke.  Oh, and I slipped in a slice of peach pie for you.”  She leaned in a bit closer and whispered, “On the house.”

“Mmmmmm, peach pie – yes!” Conrad exclaimed.  “My favorite, Lu.”  He relished the thought of the sweet fruit filling with the perfect melt-in-your-mouth crust for just a moment before his brow creased.  “Money, Lu.  You’ve got to have some money.  How much?  What do I owe you?”  LuAn dutifully reviewed the check stapled to the top of the bag.

“Looks like four-fifty will cover it.”  This sent Connie thrusting his hand into the other breast pocket of his fatigues.  He drew out a fistful of crumpled bills and loose coins and deposited them carefully on the countertop. 

“You count it for me, okay?”

“Sure,” LuAnn said as she began picking through the money.

“And don’t forget to give yourself a niiiice tip, okay Lu?”

“I always do, Connie.”  All of this was part of the ritual, too.  But LuAnn never took the full amount of the check – that was on orders from Sandy himself — and never a tip.    Instead, she made a great show of counting out the money, then taking a single dollar bill and putting it in her apron pocket.  She folded the few bills left and stacked the spare change on top. “There you go.  All square.”

“We’re square, Lu?” 

“We’re square.”

“You sure?” He was insistent.

“Positive.”

“Well, okay, then,” Connie said, rising from the stool.  He cast a quick glance over his shoulder out the window.  “Gotta get a move on.  Big storm, Lu.”  As he put away his change and picked up the paper bag that held his dinner, LuAnn snapped her fingers.

“Oh . . . I almost forgot,” she said, reaching into the big pocket of her pink apron.  She drew out a pack of cigarettes and pushed it over the countertop.  Conrad’s face broke into a big smile.

“Heyyyyy, Lu – thank you!  My brand, too.  Camels!  How did you know?”  LuAnn smiled.  She had long before taken it upon herself to buy him cigarettes or flints and fluid for his lighter.

“A lucky guess,” she answered.  Conrad tucked the smokes into the pocket of his fatigues.

“Thanks again, Lu.  Can’t stay, though.  Gotta keep truckin’.  Big storm.”

“Stay dry, Connie,” the waitress said as he pushed open the diner door.  Conrad bobbed his head in reply, stepping quickly outside and tucked the bag of food inside the worn khaki canvas knapsack lashed to his cart with a bungee cord.  Then, with another nervous glance at the sky, he hurried off – a-wee-ah-kah . . . a-wee-ah-kah. . . a-wee-ah-kah . . . .

How often does it prove so that the trajectory of a life can be altered irrevecobly by a happenstance that seems inconsequential at the time?

Such was the case of the bicycle accident.

It was in late September, 1966.  A Saturday.  A beautiful fall afternoon. The gold and crimson maples were beginning to shed in earnest, and a few people around Holloway were taking advantage of the nearly windless day to get ahead of the game by raking the leaves into curbside heaps and burning them, infusing the air with their smoky, seasonal perfume.  Conrad and his best friend Ray Dunbar, the Yellowjackets’ quarterback, were walking along Eaglin Street over by the high school on their way to meet their girlfriends at The “In” Spot when, like a bolt out of the blue, Eddie McCorkle, the town’s eight-year-old answer to Dennis the Menace, laughing and looking back over his shoulder, not paying a damn bit of attention to where he was going, came rocketing down his driveway just as the two boys approached.  Connie wasn’t aware, but it caught Ray’s eye and he cried out:

Eddie!

Eddie’s head whipped around and, when he saw what was imminent, slammed on his brakes and swerved.  At the same moment, Connie, startled by his friend’s shout, turned in the direction of the onrushing bicycle and instinctively pivoted to his left.   Eddie’s move and Connie’s reaction avoided an all-out collision, but the young boy’s bike did strike a glancing blow off Connie’s right knee.  He winced and let out a grunt while Ray yelled:

“Eddie, you want to kill somebody?  Watch where the hell you’re going!”

“Geez, I’m really sorry,” Eddie said, abashed.  “You hurt bad?”  Connie flexed his leg. 

“Nah.  Just a bump.  I’ll live.”  He walked up and down a few paces, limping slightly.  Ray glared, still furious.

“You do that again, kid, and I’ll personally drag your ass into the house and let your old man take care of you.”

“It won’t happen again,” said the young boy, now seriously chastised.  “Promise.”

And so Ray and Conrad moved on, Connie rather more gingerly, though he didn’t complain.  Nor did he make much of his injury later when his dad noticed his son favoring the leg.

“Nothing.  Only a bump,” Connie had said.  “Just need to walk it off.”  But that had not worked, and the ice pack he applied that night had had little effect.  The next morning there was stiffness and some swelling.  On Monday, after examining his star player’s knee, coach Tomlinson instructed Connie not to practice during the week in the hope there would be sufficient healing for that Friday’s big conference homecoming game against West Bensonville.

And the knee did come around with plenty of ice and rest.  By Thursday, the swelling had disappeared and Connie was able to run with no pain.

When game time rolled around, he was ready, eager for action.

But as we live betrayal is never far off; it lurks, ever opportunistic.  On the second play of the game, a simple slant pass over the middle, Connie sensed a twinge, nothing more, when he made his cut; but in that instant the supreme athletic confidence of his body failed him, short-circuited by a shadow of doubt, infinitesimal, but enough, and the ball slipped past his fingers by a whisper.

In the stands there was a groan from the Holloway faithful, but no one placed any great importance on the moment.  Although it looked like a sure thing for a score, it was just one play, early in the game; and besides, you couldn’t expect even Connie Hellenmeir to make every catch.

If it had been only that moment, only the one dropped pass, it would have been erased from memory.  But that’s not how it ended.  As the game went on, there were more signs that something was not the same with Connie.  It wasn’t so much his play on defense.  He made his fair share of tackles.  No, it was when Holloway had the ball, and the team was leaning on him to make the big plays the way he always had.  For the shadow of doubt was growing and would soon come to suffocate his self-confidence, in that game and the rest that followed.

It was a mystifying turn that those around Connie – his coach, the team, his parents, the whole town – simply couldn’t explain.  For Connie himself it was an incomprehensible loss of mojo, and the harder he tried to recapture it, the more it eluded him.  In the remaining games that season, he caught only three passes, not one of them for scores.  

It was over.

The college scouts stopped coming around.  Mizzou let it be known that, with regret, there would be no offer of a scholarship.

Yes, there was basketball in the winter and track in the spring, but his play was desultory; and he collected his sports letters at the end-of-the-year awards assembly with no great fanfare.  People had taken to looking the other way.  His name rarely appeared in the newspaper again and then only in the small print, never the headlines.

Without an offer of an athletic ride, college disappeared from Connie’s horizon.  The reality was that he had little interest in the scholarly life and less aptitude for it.  He spent the summer after graduation dividing his time between helping his dad around the farm and bagging groceries at the Kroger in Delmark, twenty minutes south of Holloway.  

With the war heating up, a few guys Connie’s age decided to enlist.  Ray Dunbar signed on for a hitch in the Navy.  He tried to interest his friend in doing the same, but Connie said shipboard life wasn’t for him; he would stick it out as long as he could.

He didn’t have much of a wait.  Connie’s letter from Uncle Sam arrived in late September.  By the end of October, he was doing basic at Fort Polk.  Six months later, he was on the other side of the world, a fresh-faced grunt in a place called Tay Ninh.

*****

As Connie hurried south through the town, the darkening clouds grew increasingly menacing.  There were the first growls of thunder and brief strobes of lightning.  When he reached Oak Street, he paused before crossing to the opposite side of Main.  As he did, a Holloway police car rolled to a stop by the curb and the passenger side window glided open.

“Hey, Mr. Hellenmeir.”  Tim Binter was one of the town’s four police officers.  “You okay?  Everything cool?”

“Yeah, man.  I’m cool.  Very cool, but – “ his eyes shot toward the sky – “gotta keep movin’.  Big storm, Tim.”

“Well, okay.  You find a place to get out of the rain.”

“Dry – yes!  You got it, Tim.  You got it.”  And with that, the patrol car rolled away.  Connie swiveled his head, looking carefully from side to side for traffic and crossed the street.

Two blocks away, he ducked into the entryway of a nondescript three-story brick building flanked on one side by several ancient, towering trees and on the other by a small parking lot.  The sign that ran along the front of the building announced it as the Jasper County Housing Authority, where Connie had lived in a tiny studio apartment on the top floor for more than ten years.  Without any income except from the now-and-again odd jobs he was given around town, Connie needed all the help he could get from the government to keep a roof over his head.  Still, he spent as little time as possible there, choosing instead to walk the streets compulsively during daylight and  find shelter where he could at night.  He never spelled out his aversion to his friends, his sister or his parents.  The only explanation he offered was to his social worker.  He told her the confines of his room reminded him of “a bad, bad place.”

On this night, despite the impending blow, Connie wouldn’t be staying, but he made time to stop by the apartment long enough to pick up a couple of crumpled tee shirts, a dirty pair of jeans and a Ziploc bag containing several dollars’ worth of quarters.  Then he left the building and moved through the lowering gloom as quickly as he could, his cart at arm’s length behind him.

*****

When he was in country, Connie never felt safe.  Nobody did.  How could you?  Vietnam was a thin wire stretched at maximum tension across a chasm of horror.  At any moment it might snap.  By the summer of ’68, the shitstorm of the Tet offensive early in the year had died down, only to surge and ebb in the spring and then flare again over the summer. Northwest of Saigon, the generals had ordered forward firebases set up to cover infantry operations against North Vietnamese regulars and VC moving down from the Cambodian border.  

Three klicks north of Tay Ninh, two platoons had been dispatched to probe along enemy lines; and on July 28, the day before his nineteenth birthday, Conrad Hellenmeir and his squad of eight others moved with all the stealth they could through deep jungle, unsure how far ahead they might encounter Charley.  It was a nighttime patrol in the season of the monsoon, which brought along with drenching rain, humidity that would rival a sauna, magnifying the other miseries of the bush that the grunts had to endure.  

When the downpour eased, with a dull crescent of moon overhead, the sergeant signalled for two men, Connie and Roland Jackson, to angle left and make their way down through a shallow ravine.  Jackson moved out first as Connie lagged back, fumbling to free his rifle which had become snagged on his poncho.  By the time Connie had taken care of the problem, Jackson was crouching low, moving quickly through a small clearing in the ravine about ten yards ahead.  That distance saved Connie’s life, for in the next instant, as Roland Jackson stepped over a fallen log, his right boot touched a tripwire and triggered the Russian-made mine that had been hidden in the undergrowth.  The explosion — a sickening ka-whump! –- blew Jackson apart.  Connie, shielded from the full force of the blast, was raked by small bits of shrapnel.  He would have survived those with little more than a lifetime of scars along the left side of his torso.  But it wasn’t just the shrapnel.  It was the piece of the barrel of his buddy’s M16 that struck under the lip of his helmet, just above the left temple.

Connie never knew what hit him, not until long after he’d been choppered away, his life snatched back by a MASH unit surgical team and flown to a U.S. hospital in the Philippines to recover.  It would be many weeks before Connie was able to comprehend the full story of that night.  He had been the only one in his squad to survive.  A miracle, he was told, given his wounds and the ferocity of the firefight.

All of it was lost to Connie.  His last memory of the night was that of a nocturnal creature snuffling and grunting somewhere near him.  What came next in his consciousness was the red-orange flare behind his closed eyes and the persistent screaming in his left ear, like the noise of an F4 idling on a flight deck.  

It took seven weeks and two more operations before Connie was well enough to be put on a plane back to the States.  The whine in his ear subsided over time.  The noise in his brain and the recurring dreams — haunted nightscapes, full of shadows and dread — never did.  And while Connie regained most of his normal speech, his damaged cognition would never be repaired.

Holloway made a big fuss over his return.  The high school band played at a ceremony outside city hall.  The mayor spoke, calling Connie “our hometown hero,” and pinned a medal that hung from a short strip of red, white and blue crepe cloth onto his uniform.  Over the years, the color in the cloth faded and the gold plating on the medal mostly rubbed off, but Connie was extremely proud of it, even though he sometimes struggled to make sense of its significance.  Nevertheless,  he made sure he wore it every Veteran’s Day, along with his Purple Heart.  And he never failed to wear it on Memorial Day in honor of Ray Dunbar, his best friend.  He was killed in a freak accident aboard the USS Enterprisewhen a bomb he and two crewmates were loading onto a Phantom exploded.  Ray never got a parade, never heard inspiring words from the mayor, never had a ribbon pinned to his chest.  His reward was his allotted share of the family plot in the shade of small elm tree at Rolling Hills Cemetery.  So the medals held great importance for Connie, and he kept them both carefully tucked inside his knapsack.

After all the hoopla died down, Connie settled into a routine.  During the first year or so, he lived on the farm.  A couple of times a week, his sister drove him fifty miles to a VA hospital near Jefferson City for rehab sessions to try to restore his normal speech and unscramble his cognitive functions.  The therapists were patient, and over time, Connie made some improvement. 

His personal life was a different story.  His girlfriend from high school was long gone, living in a hippie commune in Oregon.  There would be no other women in his life.  At home, as understanding as his parents tried to be, there were inevitable tensions.  Connie’s injuries had left a brittle edge to his personality that could easily lapse into a childish stubbornness.  The flashbacks he suffered that too-often rent the night with anguish, alarmed his parents.  And they were deeply sorrowful, filled with guilt that they were powerless to make life the way it had been.  Connie’s taste for alcohol – and his father’s – often led to jagged standoffs and bitter recriminations.  So, after months of deterioration, rather than see their relationship permanently scarred, the decision was made to have Connie move out and into his own place.

In the beginning, Connie liked his Housing Authority apartment, or he seemed to.  But as the years passed, it increasingly became a way station and little more.  In Connie’s world there was another place he had found and adopted as his frequent refuge, especially on a night like this when the lightning and thunder breaking over the town triggered fearful memories of the terror that had gripped him many times while hunkered down in the bush.

The laundromat sat near the edge of Holloway, where West Providence Street ran out and County Route Twenty began.  Built in the Seventies, “The Sudsery” had changed hardly at all.  Its cinderblock walls remained a psychedelic swirl of puce and avocado green, now faded with age, yet still god-awful.  A trio of hazy windows looked out at a small parking lot that was veined with cracks and buckled in several places.  The “laundrymat,” as some of the locals called it, had seen better days, but to Connie there was no place in town more beautiful.  He relished the garishness, the  fluorescent glare.  Most of all he found comfort in the steady rhythm of its machines. 

He hurried up to the door just as as gust of west wind rose and the first fat drops of rain began falling.  Inside, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the harsh light.  No one else was there, and Connie knew there was little likelihood there would be through the night because of the weather.  He liked that, having the place all to himself.

“Gonna be a good night,” he said, with a touch of deep satisfaction. He ran a hand through the thick spray of curly gray hair on his head, as his eyes swept the familiar space.  The building’s exterior color scheme became an equally grating combination of tangerine and canary yellow on the inside walls, inset with eight front-load washing machines on one side, eight dryers on the other.  Down the middle of the room sat a row of top-loading washers, and two vending machines – one for sodas, the other for packets of soaps and softeners.  At the far end, there was a sink, small folding table, bathroom and supply closet.  

Connie’s first order of business was rummaging inside his knapsack and removing the wad that was his jeans and black tee shirts.  He put them in one of the washing machines, bought small box of detergent and dumped it in before slipping two quarters into the slots on the washer and starting the cycle.

Hot wash . . . cold rinse – yes!

Beneath the windows at the laundromat’s front ran a plain wooden  bench for sorting and folding.  As the washing machine hummed behind him, Connie reached into his knapsack and withdrew a rectangle of cream-colored linen cloth and unfolded it on the table, taking pains to smooth away any wrinkles.  The first wave of rain rattled in staccato sheets off the window glass, while Connie carefully laid out his meal and began eating, always following the same pattern – a bite of his burger, two fries, a drink of Coke, saving enough of the soda to enjoy with the slice of peach pie LuAnn had given him.

Dee-licious!

Once he’d finished and cleared away the trash, he refolded the linen cloth with great attention to make sure the edges lined up perfectly and put it back into his knapsack. 

It was time to take inventory.

Without fail, Connie’s visits to the laundromat included making the rounds of all the machines, methodically checking each one for change that hadn’t been collected.  Most nights the cupboards were bare, but once in a while he’d score a quarter, maybe two.  He always checked.

You never know!

That done, he next went to the row of washers that sat atop worn white linoleum tiles in middle of the room.  He bent down in a gap between two of the machines and reached behind.  His hand felt around on the floor for a moment before his fingers wrapped around the top of a ziplock bag, and he pulled it free. 

“This is gonna be a real good night – yes!” he exclaimed, eyeing the contents of the baggie.  There was a cluster of quarters, probaby three bucks’ worth, Connie thought.  But the big prize, nestled among the coins, was a pint of bourbon. Smiling broadly so that his mustache flared, Connie slid the bottle from the bag, unscrewed the cap and tipped the pint to his lips, letting the liquor flow down his throat, quickly warming him in the way nothing else could.  And it soothed him as well, taking the edge off his anxiety over the gusty tumult outside. 

It had been this way every night he’d come to the laundromat for the better part of ten years.  Someone had taken to watching over him.  Always, the baggie contained quarters for the machines, sometimes cigarettes or travel-size toiletries.  And, once every week or so, there was an appearance by his old friend Jim Beam.  Connie had no idea who his good samaritan was, and though grateful in his way, he had long since ceased to care.

When the washing machine shut off, Connie put his laundry in one of the big dryers and dropped four quarters into the slot, good for a solid hour.  Now came the favorite part of his nocturnal visits.  From his knapsack he retrieved a book, picked up a small green aluminum ashtray and his bottle of whiskey from the sorting table, squatted and pushed himself underneath the countertop until his back was up against the corner where the row of dryers met the front wall.  

Safe.  Good.

Reaching into the pocket of his fatigues, he took out the Camels LuAnn had given him.  He slowly removed the cellophane from the top of the pack, peeled off enough of the inner foil to expose the cigarettes and shook one free.  He lit up, allowing his lungs to fill with the strong tobacco smoke.  He closed his eyes and held it a long moment before exhaling.  Next, he uncapped the pint bottle and took a small sip, not wanting to rush.  He ducked his head enough to see the big starburst clock high up on the back wall.  Nearly eleven.

Outside, the worst of the thunder and lightning was easing, but the rain continued to fall in sheets, buffeted by the wind.  Connie settled back, listening to the dryer’s thrum, feeling the vibration of the machine through his back.  He let his legs stretch, crossed, on the floor in front of him and gently took up his book.  

It was the only book he owned, the only one he ever read now, over and over again.  Treasure Island, given him as a Christmas present by his sister (“To Connie from Sally, 1955,”read the inscription inside, the letters jaggedly rendered in ballpoint blue ink.)  He was seven that Christmas; Sally was just five, so she could not possibly have known the import of her gift, what it meant to him as a youth, what it had come to mean to him as a damaged man thrust back into boyhood.

The book, with its brightly colored cover illustration of young Jim, Long John Silver and his pirate cohorts coming ashore on the novel’s eponymous island, was fragile.  The pasteboard cover, which had separated front and back along the edges of the spine, had been lashed together many years before with cellophane tape.  Now old and brittle, it was barely up to the task.  But Connie handled the book with great care.  It crackled arthritically as he opened it, turning the browning pages until he reached the beginning – Chapter One — The Old Sea Dog.

Connie read in fits and starts, his mouth moving silently as he formed the words.  He sipped the Beam and smoked from time to time until he began to nod with drowsiness, lulled by the rhythmic hum of the dryer that so calmed him.  At length, he slept.  And dreamed.

He was seventeen again and strong, playing in his final football game for Holloway, the one that mattered most, the one for the state championship.  Banks of dazzling lights bathed the big stadium field, etching the chalk yard markers sharply against the deep green of the turf.  In the stands, ten thousand voices roared as one.  The game had come down to one last play with the clock ready to run out.  Holloway trailed by a field goal.  The only path to victory was a touchdown, with the end zone forty yards away.

As Connie coiled tensely into his stance, he was conscious of the din from the spectators, rising like a massive ocean wave, washing over the players.  The ball was snapped, and time slowed by half as he sprinted, slanting, toward the goalpost.  When he had run twenty-five yards he turned to see Ray Dunbar launch a high, arcing pass in his direction.  He knew he must find within himself a final burst of speed if he was to make the catch.   Time slowed yet again as he lunged, arms shooting out full, hands turning palms-up.  The ball curved over his head, just in front of him  – it was there for the taking!  His fingers flared open . . . 

In his sleep, Connie’s curled hands, resting in his lap on the pages of his open book, twitched once, and he awoke.  A half-mile to the north, the klaxon on the 5:10 freight out of St. Joe, bearing coal and propane, sounded its long, loud warning as the train lumbered through the Holloway station.  Connie’s eyes fluttered.  He rubbed life into them with a thumb and forefinger.  

When the fog gave way in his head, Connie slowly unpacked himself from beneath the bench and got to his feet.  The storm had passed through to the northeast, and the laundromat was quiet except for the low hum from the flourescent lights.  Connie retrieved his clothes, carefully folding and packing them away with his book and what was left of the bourbon inside his knapsack.

Pushing his way through the door, he stepped outside with his cart and stood for a moment before reaching into the pocket of his fatigues for a cigarette.  He lit it, dragging deeply, savoring the first nicotine rush of the day.  The train was way east now, its horn a faint echo off the distant hills.  Connie looked in its direction, noting the scarlet smear where the rising sun met the last scraps of the night’s storm clouds.  The air had cooled; the streets bore a clean sheen and a fresh breeze murmured through the maple leaves overhead.

Conrad Hellenmeir jabbed the cigarette between his lips, turned west and began walking in rhythm with his cart –ah-wee-ah-kah . . . ah-wee-ah-kah . . . ah-wee-ah-kah . . . 

Gotta get oil, 3-in-One – yes!

About the Author: Nick Young is an award-winning retired journalist whose career included twenty years as a CBS News correspondent. His writing has appeared in the San Antonio Review, Short Story Town, CafeLit Magazine, Sein und Werden, Fiery Scribe Review, Sein und Werden, 50-Word Stories, Pigeon Review and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies.

Leaving it all Behind

By Jason de Koff

Air flows down a sluice of veins,

across glistening surfaces,

to swirl about imperfect edges.

A frenzy of bobbles

as more follow

describing the meanders

of ever new fascinations.

Capsizing and swelling 

as if borne on the sea

with sights both pleasant

and disturbing

revealed in its wake.

The kite-like conflagration

of whirling and twirling

about its tethered tine

yields much about the chains

yet to be broken

and the change

that must first take place.

About the Author: Jason de Koff (he/him) is an associate professor of agronomy and soil science at Tennessee State University.  He lives in Nashville, TN with his wife, Jaclyn, and his two daughters, Tegan and Maizie.  He has been published in a number of journals including C&P Quarterly, Bandit Fiction, The Daily Drunk, Sledgehammer Lit, Ayaskala, Fahmidan Journal, Near Window, Briefly Zine and Flyover Country Literary Magazine.  His chapbook, “Words on Pages”, is currently available on Amazon at https://amzn.to/3eookJk
Twitter handle: @JasonPdK3

Desperado

By Mitch James

Desperado

Why don’t you come to your senses
You’ve been out riding fences for so long now
Oh, you’re a hard one
But I know that you’ve got your reasons
These things that are pleasing you will hurt you somehow”

-Eagles

Every group needs an other. I don’t know how a society can exist without classifying another as the other.

Rabih Alameddine

It is not possible to extricate yourself from the questions in which your age is involved.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

After fourteen years and a child, Eno couldn’t see the fence line like he used to. Once the flesh was picked clean, it was just a long run of skeleton and rebar. Proof that at his core, he was just like them. 

On the other side of his fence line was the Coopers’ property, which sat empty for decades until recently and was now undergoing fertilization. Having not seen it done but once when he was a child, Eno had forgotten how many bodies it took to fertilize sterile land. The Coopers’ men dragged them from the hills by the truck load. When Eno was little, he remembered how they wailed and fought the chains of his grandfather’s men. Now, they were drugged. The Coopers’ men lined them up and, with just a hand on a shoulder, laid them down. It was done humanly, unlike in his grandfather’s day. Now, it was a single bolt through the brain stem. When done like that, they fell like dropped cloth.

The workers had spread the bodies over the Coopers’ land and now scrambled at what to do. Eno would’ve have told them had they asked, but the Coopers swooped in and got to work without as much as an introduction, it evident to Eno that the Coopers were an enterprise used to buying up land. But they didn’t know the white-rumped vulture, local to the area, was nearly extinct, that there were far too few to clean that many corpses before they rotted. That old way of doing things didn’t work anymore. That’s why it was outlawed. But when you have a county that’ll overturn a law to make money, then Eno guessed this is what you get.  Now, for the past three days, the Coopers’ men have been shooting dogs who come from ten miles in all directions to feast. Just the day before, Eno had to tell Beth to keep Hannah in the house while he put a .22 shell through the head of husky dragging himself across the yard, it’s back legs bloomed and useless. 

Botulism attacks the hindlegs of a dog first on its way to its lungs. 

After he killed it, Eno drove the dog to the pasture and pitched it over his fence, onto the Coopers’ land, where it fell limp atop a bloated body he identified as female because of the breasts. As he studied the corpses and then the skeletons upright on rebar, he cinched the bandana tighter around his mouth, certain of only three things: he didn’t feel the same about it, he was raising a daughter, and he didn’t know what to do.  

*

Back home, Eno kissed Beth’s head and touched her hip on his way to shower, then joined her and Hannah at the dinner table. 

“It’s getting hard to even enjoy a simple meal,” Beth said of the stench that followed Eno into the house and clung to their lives. 

The Coopers’ pasture was a mile from the home, but the smell made it to them now, the bodies had sat so long.  “If they were going to repeal the law, I just wish they would have taken all else into account, not just overturning something from a different time to make money now. Times have changed. The process needed to as well” replied Eno.

“Should’ve never been a way of doing things in the first place.”

Eno peered at Beth and thought, you knew what you were getting into when you married me. Sure, you never liked it, but you approved of it more then. He thought, We can’t just uproot our lives and change everything because times have changed. He thought, What would we have then? But he knew not to say it angry or at dinner or with Hannah there.

“How was school,” Eno asked Hanna, changing the subject.

“Fine.”

“What’d you do today?”

“Math and reading. And we looked at maps.”

“Oh yeah?” asked Eno, wiping his teeth clean with a roll of his tongue. “What about maps? Daddy has maps of all the land around here.”

“Maps of where the hill people used to live. They lived in the hills, but they also lived everywhere else. They probably lived right here, where we are.”

  Eno glared at Beth. 

“They’ve got to learn history and geography, Eno. Glad somebody’s speaking the truth,” she grumbled under her breath.

   “You’re teacher’s right, Hannah. They were here first,” Enno confirmed.

  “I know,” she said. “Mr. Tikeman said when our ancestors got here, they killed a lot of the hill people, even children, to force them to be like us.”

 The nonchalant way Hanna discussed the death of children shook him. Looking at Beth, he asked, “Why are they teaching kids this stuff so young?”

 “Because it’s the truth,” she said.

“Lot’s of things are truth. It doesn’t mean a child needs to know. Honey,” Eno said to Hannah, “there are a lot of ways to tell the same story. Our ancestors,” he paused, “who are not us,” he assured, glaring across the table at Beth, then back to his daughter, “came over here and did bad things, but that’s how things were then, so it didn’t seem so bad. Good and bad change over time.”

“Why would it ever seem good to kill a baby?” Hannah asked, with a push that made it clear to Eno that she didn’t realize that if his ancestors hadn’t proceeded the way they did, her comfortable and safe life would be very different.

 After a moment, Eno said, “It’s never right to kill children. It never has been. But sometimes certain things look one way one time and a different way another. Now, let’s talk about what you read in class. That’s enough about maps.”

*

   “Jesus,” Eno said to Beth as they got into bed later that night, “they need to teach this stuff in context.”

  “What she said wasn’t wrong.”

 “I know it wasn’t wrong, Beth, but it wasn’t the full truth. Nearly every nation in this world was built by the bodies of slaves. We’ve always exploited each other. It’s just a bad truth about us being human, but what I wish that history teacher would remind the students is that you and I never did any of those things. And we never raised Hannah to do those things.”

   “Their bodies still mark our property line,” said Beth. “That teaches Hannah something.”

   “My grandfather did that. What am I supposed to do?”

  “Take them down, Eno. Put up a wooden fence like they do in other parts of the country.”

 Eno thought about the land. It was done a certain way for hundreds of miles in all directions. “What would people think? If we took down the property line and put up fencing?”

  “That you’re not your grandfather. That they’re not your wife or daughter, so you don’t care what they think.”

   “It’s more symbolic now than anything. It’s more about tradition.”

  “Does it smell symbolic?” asked Beth. “Does it look symbolic when you’re walking the fence line? Did you symbolically kill a dog the other day?”

 “It’s not supposed to be done that way anymore, but that land hadn’t been broken for over thirty years. Hell, it’s been damn near salt flat since before dad died.”

 “Not supposed to be done that way?” Beth mocked. “What a waste of your words.” 

 “Fine. But what about the other part of it. Breaking new ground is expensive. How’s the county supposed to pay for it? We can’t fertilize all that land by taxes alone. It’d bankrupt us.”

“If you can’t afford to do something the right way, you don’t do it,” Beth growled. “You see us with a huge house? No. Bunch of cars? No. You can’t afford it, you don’t do it. Government needs to live that way too, and if they are gonna splurge, it shouldn’t be at the cost of life. Always about money. What’s the cheapest way to accomplish something.”

“It’s better than cheap, Beth. It’s free.”

“Oh, Christ crucified,” she snapped. 

“I’m not defending it,” Eno growled, “I’m just speaking logic. We make the land prosperous for the community at no cost.”

“You think it doesn’t cost them everything?” Beth asked of the people from the hills. She rolled away from him.

  Eno was quiet a long time. When he wasn’t certain she was still awake, he asked, “When did you know? That you didn’t feel okay about it anymore?”

 “The first time I felt Hannah kick.”

 He thought, I’ll never feel that, something that can make me so certain about anything. Though Beth lie next to him, he suddenly felt alone.

 “I just hope that the teacher’s teaching Hannah none of it’s her fault, that she didn’t do any of it.”

  Beth said, “I think he’s doing his best to make sure it never happens again.”

*

 Eno rode early the next morning, the sky bruise before dawn. Bill O’ Conner had called the night before. Eno listened to the message over coffee and thought of it now as he walked the line and stared at the Coopers’ land over the curve of a parietal bone that looked just like his beneath the flesh. Bill said it had come during the city council meeting, the idea that they could burn the bodies. He said the city council voted it down, but Bill didn’t confirm how he felt one way or the other, though Eno knew Bill had two boys, one a teen, like Hannah. As Eno stared at the sunrise crawling over the bodies, bloat flies settling in like dew, he wondered if Bill could put both on the same page, the killing of the hill people and his own boys.

Eno slipped from the horse and approached a skeleton, the bone white with sun bleach and fissured where the heat had split it. The fence line was simple construction, really, easier to install, even, than a wooden fence. You simply sink number four rebar into a footer and slide the structure over it through the foraman. Though he’d never done it himself, Eno knew that sometimes a drill  was needed for the lower back, but that was it. You just slide it over. Then you link one structure by the hand to the other down the line. When finished, your boundary is marked. They stand like that forever. 

“It takes a long time to weather bone,” Eno mumbled, words his grandfather said decades before, as he held smooth metatarsals to his own. He did the same with Hanna’s pink hand the day she was born and recalled it then.

*

Eno returned home at noon to find no one there and was surprised. Though Beth’s car was gone, Eno still called her name once in the house, then checked his phone to find a missed call. It was Beth, trying to control the emotion in her voice as she told him Hannah never made it to school. She said not to panic, said a number of kids were missing that day and that the sheriff suspected they had simply skipped and taken a couple of quads out on the range. She said she was grocery shopping and would be home by two and not to worry, though it sounded more like she was telling herself and not Eno.

As promised, Beth barreled through the door, grocery bags in hand, at two, the only new update being a call from Sheriff Banks to inform them that both Harold Jackson’s quads were gone, as where his boys Terence and Spencer, and that of all the kids who never showed to school, only Pete McKibben’s pickup was missing. Banks’ detective work instilled a kind of confidence in what he said, more or less proving, he assured, that the kids were skipping school, nothing more, and that they’d be home by dusk. “If not,” said the sheriff, “they’ll need fire to stay warm, and we’ll spot it.”

Eno thanked the sheriff and updated Beth as she shelved groceries.

“What do you think she’s up to?” Beth asked, slotting canned soup onto a lazy Susan.

  Adding a box of cereal to a cabinet, Eno said, “Oh, just being a kid. We skipped our fair share of school days.”

“You did,” she said, giving him a long stare as she climbed far enough back into her mind to see him when he was young. “I was too busy chasing that basketball.”

 “You were.” 

  They paused to smile at each other before finishing the groceries.  

 As the light outside put itself to rest behind the hills, Eno and Beth worked around the kitchen to prevent talking about the fact that Hannah was still gone. Short of a few phone calls from other parents whose kids were missing, there hadn’t been any correspondence since the sheriff called that afternoon. When the dinner was finished, they left it covered on the stove, neither needing to say they couldn’t eat. Then there was a call, the sheriff.

   “Sheriff,” Eno said, answering the phone.

   Beth crossed the room and stood hip to hip with Eno, tipping her head towards the receiver.

  “Hi Eno. I need you to come to the west end of your property line. We’ve got a small rebellion on our hands.”

    Eno heard a deputy chuckle in the background.

   “What?”

   “Just come on out.  You’ll see what I mean.”

 Eno hung up the phone and peered at Beth.

 “I heard him,” she said.  “Let’s go.”

 They drove along the western edge of the property, the orange sunset sluicing across the still grins of skeletal faces, their frames whipping unevenly along the straight line like musical notes along a staff. The truck jerked and rattled atop the course earth until Eno saw a squad car, a pickup, and two quads. The Sheriff stood in his hat at the fence line. A dozen kids, Hannah at the head of them, had yanked the skeletons from the rebar and chained themselves in their place, then joined hands. Looming across from the children was a line of men in thick suits and masks, fuel packs on their backs and torches in their hands, small tongues of orange flame licking from every barrel.

 “Hannah!” Beth exclaimed, nearly falling from the truck before it came to a stop.

 Eno followed suite and looked at the skeletons, then at the children and his daughter chained in their places. He glared at the men facing them with flame throwers. Eno paced his breathing. He felt he might explode. 

 “What’s going on sheriff?” Eno asked.

“Well, as I said, it appears our youths are making political statements now.” The sheriff hooked his thumbs in his belt. “I’m gonna let ya’ll figure out how to discipline ‘em. They locked themselves up pretty good, though. I will say that.” He kicked a bucket of opened padlocks beside his foot. “I sent deputy Woods to the station for the bolt cutters.”

 Eno looked to the children whose backs were to them, then to the men. “What about them?” he asked.

“They work for the Coopers. They’re gonna to do a controlled burn test, just to see the results.”

“The council voted against it.”

“That’s why it’s a test, to see if the council’s concerns are truly warranted.”

“That’s not how that works,” Eno snapped.

“Eno,” said the sheriff, “It’s just a test.”

“We voted against fertilizing the land with bodies too. That was a law, but you all got around it.”

 “Goin’ against that wasn’t my doin’,” assured the sheriff. “That’s above my pay grade.”

 Eno let out a belt of disbelief and spun in a circle.

 “Just take a second,” said Sheriff Banks.

Eno looked at the sheriff, then laughed. “Unbelievable,” he said, looking again at the line of children hand-in-hand, chained to the poles, and the line of men with fire across from them. “Unbelievable,” he whispered again.

Eno walked to the fence line and faced his daughter. Beth stood behind and stared Eno in the eyes in a way he’d never seen. Then he looked at Hannah, her chubby face dirty and hair astray, her eyes fixed on his. There were tears and fire and certainty there, something he’d never break. But there, too, was something else, something that let him know more than ever that she needed him. Beth said everything changed when she felt Hannah kick. This was it, the moment, the closest to that kind of knowing a father can get. Right then, in his own way, he felt his daughter roll and turn inside him. He felt her kick.  

Eno turned from Hannah and slid one body from the pole and placed it on the ground.

“What are you doin?” asked the sheriff.  

 Then Eno did the same with the one beside it.

“I said, what are you doin?”

Eno walked past the children, took Beth’s hand, then took two locks from the bucket.

“Now, Eno, I ain’t plannin’ on holding the kids accountable for all this, but a couple of adults go get themselves involved, well, that’s different. Ya’ll are grown.”

Eno stood beside Hannah and wrapped the chain around his waist, the pole, and his legs, then lopped it in tight and locked into place. He handed the other lock to Beth, who did the same. Hannah looked up at her father, thene took his hand, and he took Beth’s, and together they faced the line of men across from them, the sheriff’s voice, a background sound, something behind them all.

About the Author: Mitch James is a Professor of Composition and Literature at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, OH and is the Managing Editor at Great Lakes Review. You can find Mitch’s latest fiction at Flash Fiction Magazine and Scissors and Spackle, poetry at Peauxdunque Review and Southern Florida Poetry Journal, and scholarship at Journal of Creative Writing Studies. Find more of his work at mitchjamesauthor.com, and follow him on Twitter @mrjames5527 and Facebook @perhupsous

Farmbelt Inn, Decatur

By John Timm

I’d played this medley a thousand times. I could do it in my sleep and probably have. 

Anyway, I was looking around the room one Friday night a few weeks back. The house was 

about half full after the fish fry ended. There was this one kid—not really a kid, more like in his 

mid-twenties—sitting off to my right in the second row of tables by himself. He had facial hair 

and glasses. That was all I could tell, except I noticed he seemed to stare at me during much of 

the evening.  I flash an automatic smile around the room every so often to make it look like 

we’re all having a good time, and whenever I did, he’d smile back. He didn’t come up during the 

break, and I was just as happy he didn’t; it was getting a little creepy. After the break, he was 

gone and I forgot about it. Until Saturday night.

There he was, alone and staring at me again, this time sitting up front at the edge of the 

dance floor. He would stare, look away, or get up like he was going to leave, then come back, sit 

down again and order another drink. At the break, he’d apparently mustered up enough courage

to approach the bandstand, with me still not knowing who he was and more than a little leery 

about finding out.

I was the first to speak. “Do we know each other?”

“I think maybe we do.”

“How so?”

“Are you Donald W. Lawrence?”

“That’s me.”

“From Harrisburg, P.A.?”

 “I guess.”

“My name is Donald Lawrence. Donald W. Lawrence . . . Junior.”

                                                                        ###

 I’ve spent much of my adult life watching other people having a good time—and 

just as often, a not-so-good time. I’m that anonymous musician you see at weddings, grand

openings, bar mitzvahs, and in my case, playing gigs in hotel cocktail lounges. You’ve seen

me, but you’ve paid little attention. As long as I and my fellow musicians play in tune, we

may as well all be invisible. You could outsource us to a satellite music service and few 

would know the difference. Maybe someday that’ll happen. For now, at least, we’re there 

without being there, if you know what I mean.

There was a time in my life when I sought out fame. I kept searching, mostly in all the 

wrong places.  Certain events in my life managed to get in the way of the dream: women, babies, 

marriage, divorce, booze, drugs, in no particular order. Some say it goes with the territory. I’m 

not sure I buy that. Plenty get into the music game without winding up in blind alleys. I look

back and wonder what I could have done differently to end up in a different place. Any place

other than the dining room and lounge at the Farmbelt Inn. It’s not that I’m bitter. After 

all, the Farmbelt Inn represents the height of nightlife around here. Decatur, Illinois. It’s 120 

miles to St. Louis, 180 miles to Chicago, with not much else in between—unless you want to 

count Springfield or Peoria, which I don’t think you do. 

The Farmbelt Inn is one of a vanishing breed. Motels are now hotels, and the newer ones 

have shorn themselves of their restaurants and cocktail lounges in favor of a breakfast bar with 

do-it-yourself waffles, a toaster and rubbery scrambled eggs. Over the years, there’ve been 

several owners and multiple changes in name. Every once in a while someone spreads the rumor 

it’s being sold again, or torn down to make way for another—you name it—Home Depot, 

another Lowe’s, another Walmart. When things start to get out of hand, the latest owner, Joe 

Patel, gathers his troops together for a quick denial and a pep talk. We all breathe a collective 

sigh of relief until the next time.

We play three nights a week, Monday, Friday and Saturday. We’re just a trio on Mondays, a sextet the other

two days. You want to know why we play on Mondays? That’s when most of the vendors who deal with what’s

left of the local factories are in town. Decent guys, making a living for their families back in places like

Chicago, Minneapolis, or Omaha. They’re usually not rowdy. And while they may eye the occasional stray

female, they tend to start yawning around nine-thirty and disappear by ten.

Friday night is fish fry night, a Midwestern tradition the Catholics brought over from

Germany and Poland and won’t let die. Not that it isn’t a good tradition if you like hand-breaded 

Atlantic cod, crispy fries, coleslaw and an adult beverage for around nineteen bucks. And it’s 

not bad. Even decent, I’d say. It may well be the best thing they put out of the kitchen all week. 

Saturday night is like every Saturday night anywhere else. People get a little drunker, a little 

more sentimental. They want more standards, more torch songs. More Sinatra.

When all is said and done, I’m thankful such a thing as the Farmbelt Inn still exists. My 

leg has never been the same after a car accident ten years ago. At least I got a lifetime payout 

from the other driver’s insurance company. Not like winning the lottery, but along with this gig, 

it all helps keep a roof over my head.

                                                                        ###

Life can smack you in the face when you least expect it. Think of it: Donald W. 

Lawrence, Jr. An unlikely father and son reunion in a most unlikely place. I kept asking myself, 

is this for real? You can only go with what you can see and hear. The rest you take on faith. But I was positive

there’s a physical resemblance. He has his mother’s blue eyes and my jutting jaw. 

The hair is brownish—a lot like mine before the gray took over. He’s taller than me, but that’s 

true for his generation. It was Donny. After all these years, my Donny. 

Even though it was late, when I got back to the apartment I called my half-sister, Karen. 

She’s my only relation within a thousand miles, and I had to tell her the good news. She lives 

only an hour away and said she’d come over on the Monday night. We thought it might be fun to 

surprise Donny with a relative he hadn’t seen in years, maybe bring back some good memories 

for all of us.

                                                                        ###

 Karen showed up around six. I didn’t have to play for another hour, so the three of us had 

dinner together. After the usual small talk, Karen said, “Donny . . . is it okay if I call you that?”

  “That’ll work. Sure.”

 “Donny, I only saw you once. You were three or four. Your Uncle Chuck and I came 

out to Pennsylvania for a visit. Here’s a picture I took of you and your sister.” It’s a wrinkled 

Polaroid of a boy and a girl dressed in matching cowboy outfits. The boy’s hair is slicked down. 

The little girl has a bow in hers. They both wear obedient smiles. Donny held the photo for a 

moment, then handed it back to Karen. She said, “No, keep it. I want you to have it.”

Donny set it off to one side of the table without saying anything and had little to say 

the rest of the meal. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to spring all this on him. We were leaving 

the dining room when our server came running up. “Someone forgot this photograph on the 

table. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to lose it.”

                                                                        ###

 Donny said he liked the town, and maybe he’d stay if he could find work. He’d gotten 

laid off from a bank somewhere back East. I’m still not clear exactly where. Made it all the way 

to manager. Then one day, just like that, says he was out the door. No explanation. Not even a 

severance. Some people have no loyalty, I guess. Says he wants nothing to do with working at a 

bank ever again. Can’t blame him for that. I offered to let him stay at my apartment. He said he 

didn’t want to put me to any trouble. Maybe he would once he got his feet on the ground.

Joe Patel was nice enough to give Donny a room and let him eat in the restaurant for the 

next few weeks in return for favors on my part, to be determined at a later date. I’d just gotten 

my monthly annuity check from the insurance settlement, and had some spare cash I don’t really 

need, so I spotted the kid enough to make his car payment and some gas money. He refused the 

offer at first, but I insisted. Glad I did. Kids can be stubborn at times. Mine is no exception.

                                                                        ###

 A regular who works over at Caterpillar said he’d heard they were hiring. I told Donny 

about it. “You need to get over there quick. We’ve got a lot of people out of work around here 

ever since the tire plant shut down. Decent jobs are scarce.” 

Donny said he needed some clothes for the interview. He’d left most everything he 

owned in a storage locker Back East. The next morning, I took him out to the mall to get a suit, 

shirt and necktie. The kid looked real good all dressed up. On the way back, he said he was 

hungry, so we stopped for lunch. I figured it would be a chance to get to know each other better, 

too. Donny went right to the top of the menu, ordered the 16-ounce New York strip. He chowed 

down like I did at his age. That’s also when I first noticed he was eating with his right hand. I 

seem to remember he was left-handed when he was little. “You used to eat with the other hand, 

didn’t you? It didn’t come from my family, but I think your mother said there were several 

southpaws on her side.”

 Donny paused to finish chewing the food in his mouth and took a long drink of his 

Coke before replying. “Her boyfriend made me use my right hand for everything. He had 

a thing about being left-handed. He hit me once. Said he’d hit me harder if he ever saw me use 

my left hand for anything. Anything. He was crazy.” 

                                                                        ###

 Most of the time, Donny and I connected at the hotel for lunch and dinner. Whenever I 

asked about Diane, his mother, I could tell it made him uneasy. Maybe he was just trying to 

protect me.

  “I was just wondering if you knew where she is and if you keep in touch.”

 “She kicked me out of the house before I finished high school. Best thing that ever 

happened to me.”

 “So, you don’t have any contact at all?”

  “Not since I was seventeen.”

  “Any contact with your sister?”

   “She left home right after me. Never heard from her after that. Just as well . . ..”

   Afterwards, I felt bad bringing up so many bad memories for him. I hope he understood.

                                                                        ###

 Donny likes to get around like I did when I was at his age. After a few days, he’d

already made some friends in town, even found a girlfriend.  She was with him one night at the 

bar. Jill worked at a tattoo parlor out on Eldorado Street. Pink hair, nose ring, multiple piercings 

and body art. A free spirit like his mother and every woman I’ve ever known. The attraction must be in the

Lawrence family genes.

My own current love life?  It’s on a par with everything else around here. The only thing that vaguely

resembles a female interest is Carla, one of the dining room cooks. A lot of random flirtation that never leads

anywhere. We both do it and both know we’re playing a game. Carla’s been married twice and divorced with

three kids. She’s no great shakes to look at, but neither am I, so we’re even on that score. Carla admits she

barely finished high school, but she’s got plenty of street smarts to make up for it. She likes to say, “Fool me

once, shame on you”—and all the rest that goes with it. She spends most of her nights after work watching

TV reality shows and surfing the Internet. It’s her survival tool. We all have them. Hers are just not as harmful

as some others you might think of.

Monday night, the crowd cleared out early. Donny was somewhere else. I wasn’t sure 

where. I hadn’t seen him all day. As for me, I was at loose ends. I wasn’t hungry or in the mood 

for a drink, but I wasn’t tired either, so I just sat at a table in the dark and collected my thoughts. 

I needed to put some of the pieces back together, apologize for the time together Donny and I 

never had. Except I didn’t know how to go about it. His recollection of when he was a little boy 

was pretty hazy. I didn’t think he remembered much of me. Maybe that was a good thing. I had been gone

much of the time and was not always sober when I was around. After a while, I pretty much decided I

shouldn’t press him about it anymore.

A little after nine, Carla closed the kitchen and came into the dining room. She sat down 

across from me. Not one for much ceremony, she opened with, “I’ve asked myself all day if I 

should tell you this . . . You’re sure you want to hear it?”

 “How can I be sure if I don’t know what it is?”

 Even though we were alone, she lowered her voice. “I don’t think Don Junior is who you 

think he is . . . There’s something about him . . . I’m not sure. Call it a woman’s intuition. I hope 

I’m wrong.” We both got up and called it a night without saying anything more.

                                                                        ###

 On my way out the door, the night clerk called me aside. “Your son and his buddies were 

making a lot of noise in his room last night. I kept getting complaints from the other guests and 

had to go down there two or three times. And somebody broke the light fixture over the sink in 

the bathroom.”

“Does Joe know about it?”

“Don’t worry. Nobody’s going to tell him. I called maintenance, and they’ve fixed it already.”

“My apologies for the trouble. I’ll talk to my kid about it. And I owe you one—big time.”

On Tuesday, Donny showed up at the end of the lunch hour. I wasn’t sure what to say to 

him about the ruckus in his room. I didn’t want to get him kicked out, and I didn’t want any 

issues with Joe Patel, either, especially after how he’d gone out of his way for me. 

“They sure don’t have much left on the buffet, do they?”  

“Look, Donny. We need to talk about last night.”

“Oh, that. Yeah. Some of Jill’s friends heard we were getting together at my place. They 

weren’t invited, but you know how it is. What can you do?”

“I wouldn’t have let them in. But that’s not the point.”

 “I know. I know. It won’t happen again. Swear to God.”

 “Thanks. I just don’t need any problems with the management.”

 “You won’t. Wow. This meat is like shoe leather. And cold.”

We ate mostly in silence. He was about to get up to leave when I remembered to ask him

about the job interview at Caterpillar. It had already been over a week. He said, “Hey, I’m 

sorry, I thought I told you about it. Anyhow, it wasn’t a good fit for me. A paper pusher in the 

maintenance department office. I need something that leads to a career. You know?” Then he 

rolled up his sleeve and showed me a small tattoo with Chinese symbols on the inside of his 

wrist. “Jilly did this. Pretty cool, don’t you think?”

                                                                        ###

 After work, Carla and I had another discussion about Donny. She’d been searching on 

line at those people finder and public records sites. She says the only Donald W. Lawrence, Jr. 

she could locate was married and living in Tampa, Florida. She’d also read about scammers who 

travel the county, claiming they’re somebody’s long lost kid. “They take their victim for 

whatever they can and then disappear again.” She reached across the table and placed her hand in 

mine. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to upset you. And it’s not any of my business, anyway. I hope 

you’re not mad at me.”

 “Don’t worry about it, I’m not mad.”

 We changed the subject after that. No, I wasn’t not mad at all. Carla meant well, but I just 

was not buying it. He was my Donny. I was sure of it.

                                                                        ###

 Next day at lunch time I stopped by the hotel. I knocked on Donny’s door several times 

and then called his room on the house phone because he liked to sleep late. No answer. At the 

desk, I asked if they’d seen him. “I would of mentioned it to you earlier, Don, but I figured you 

already knew. They checked out early this morning. Him and that girlfriend of his. Right after I 

began my shift.”

“Do you know where they were headed?”

“No. Didn’t say. But they both had luggage. Like I said, I figured you knew . . ..”

                                                                        ###

 It’s been over a month now. Mondays, Fridays, Saturdays. I keep scanning the tables 

for my Donny. Then again, maybe Carla’s right. Maybe he’s not my Donny. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have

to be him. It really doesn’t.

About the Author: John Timm writes short fiction in several genres. His work appears, or is scheduled to appear in 300 Days of Sun, Bartleby Snopes, Fiction Attic, and Flint Hills Review among others, as well as several anthologies. John holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and when not writing teaches courses in Spanish literature and communications.

                                                                

The Crack Up

By Steve Carr

Morning, a hot wind blowing from the east sent the tall yellow prairie grass bowing in ripples toward the old house. Colin leaned against the wood post to the barbed wire fencing that stretched from east to west as far as the eye could see, altering nothing in the flat prairie, but an intrusion in the pristine western open landscape nevertheless. He lifted a nearly empty bottle of Jim Beam to his parched lips and poured the whiskey into his mouth while looking skyward, squinting in the glare of the yellow sun unobstructed by the white pillows of clouds that hung in clumps in the pale blue sky. He lowered the bottle and with his bare back against the post he slid to the ground, sitting in a nest of grass that he had formed while standing there kicking at the earth with his boots. A meadowlark alighted on a distant post and let out a brief melodic aria. Colin raised the bottle to his mouth again and looked the direction the wind was blowing, focusing blurringly on the house, and took another long swig.

Even at the distance he was from the house, he could hear Jack barking, probably having caught the scent of a gopher or jackrabbit. Good old Jack. Colin opened his eyes wide, trying to fool his booze addled mind into believing he could clearly see what he was looking at. What he was seeing was the image imprinted in that part of his brain that retained the same image he had seen since he was old enough to crawl around in his diapers among the chickens. Gnats buzzed around his ears and sweat ran in rivulets down his bare chest and abdomen. He took another drink of whiskey. 

With the bottle empty he tossed it aside and removed his dingy white cowboy hat and placed it in the grass beside his outstretched legs. The wind rustled his curly black hair and he turned to the east and opened his mouth and gulped in the blowing aroma of the prairie in late August; dry earth and sun scorched plants. 

                                                                      #

The next noon, the chickens in the yard busily pecked about for the scattered kernels of corn that Colin’s mother, Janet, has tossed around in handfuls scooped out of a large wooden salad bowl. Her cotton floral print skirt fluttered in the breeze that also caught loose strands of her graying black hair creating tentacles that curled and twisted around her sun-weathered face. Jack was at her side, rubbing his lean body covered in long red hair against her bare legs. She looked to the west and watched as a line of bison crossed the range beyond the barbed wire fence. Colin came out of the house and stumbled from the small set of stairs that led out of the kitchen to the backyard, catching his balance before falling face-first into the dirt. Jack ran over to him, his tail rapidly wagging.

“Hey old boy,” Colin said, rubbing the dog’s bony head. He held the back of his hand to Jack’s mouth and let him lick it. “It’s going to be another hot one,” he said to his mother.

She turned from watching the bison and scooped the last handful of corn from the bowl and tossed it to the chickens. “Your father was hoping you would ride out to see about the cattle with him this morning,” she said. “He tried but he couldn’t wake you.”

“I think I had a bit too much to drink last night,” Colin said, wavering unsteadily on his bare feet.

“You always have too much to drink, Colin,” she said, looking up to see a flock of geese flying in a v formation cross the sky.

“My friends took me to that saloon in Scenic,” he said, swatting at a horsefly that landed on his shoulder, tickling his flesh. 

“Your friends are what got you in the trouble you’re in to begin with. Them and alcohol,” she said walking past him and up the stairs. As she opened the door she turned to him and said, “We hoped you would try to be sober at least a couple days before you go to prison.” She went into the house letting the screen door slam behind her.

Colin staggered over to the empty water troth, a remainder from and reminder of the days when they rode about the ranch lands on horses. They were sold in favor of a used Ford pickup that his father called Magnet because that was the name of his favorite mare he no longer had. His stomach was in upheaval; the chili he had at the saloon had not set well with the whiskey, his preferred choice of beverage.  He turned around and barfed into the troth, then wiped his mouth with the back of the same hand that Jack had slobbered on, and took a pack of Marlboro’s from his back pants pocket, a Bic lighter from his front pocket, lit a cigarette and took a long drag on it. He watched the curl of exhaled smoke quickly dissipate in the noon time breeze.  He wanted to drive somewhere, anywhere, just for the hell of it. But his car was gone, sitting in a car junk yard among all the other hunks of mangled automobiles.

Driving while under the influence, DUI, they called it.

                                                                     # 

Night, the month of June, Colin was under the influence of a full moon shining bright and low in the early summer star-filled sky. He was under the influence of the rush of wind though his open car windows, his car being filled with the scents of wet earth from a day-long raining spell and sprouting  bright green prairie grass that grew along highway 44 coming from Rapid City. It had not been the fun night he had planned, but he never liked the saloons in Rapid City anyway; too filled with businessmen posing as cowboys wearing clothes, hats and boots that had never been worn on an actual ranch or farm, and desperate secretaries not interested in meeting anyone but these fake cowboys. He had had a few shots of whiskey at the last of the three saloons he had been to that night, drove in a half-lit state around the city with two friends until he found a store where they could buy a couple bottles of Jim Beam. 

He and his two buddies sat in the darkness in the grass along Rapid Creek and drank until sunrise. Leaving them to sleep it off there along the creek, he got into his car, opened the last bottle of Jim Beam, put a Garth Brooks CD in the player, and drank and sang his way under all those influences half way to Scenic before swerving off the road to avoid hitting a deer crossing the road. His car flipped three times before he was ejected miraculously unharmed out of the smashed windshield and landed in the grass, still grasping the neck of the broken bottle. He laid there in the grass with his car upside down on top of a bent highway sign, until a deputy sheriff found him, the demolished vehicle, and destroyed Highways Department property, an hour later. His blood alcohol level was two times over the limit. Two days later he was under the influence of a judge.

“This is your third DUI charge in six months and the records show you have not sought help for your excessive drinking,” the judge said. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

Colin wanted to say he needed a drink, but he looked at his dad who had barely looked at him all the way from the house to the court building in New Underwood, and seeing the pale face and dour expression on his father’s face, he kept his mouth shut.

“You’re a menace to anyone else on the roads. Maybe two years in the state prison will help you with your drinking problem,” the judge said before bringing down the gavel with a resounding crack. 

                                                                      #

Afternoon, three o’clock, the pendulum in the grandfather clock in the corner ticked monotonously from side to side as the chime behind the clock face sounded three times. On the sofa, Colin sat up and ran his fingers through his hair. Through the open window hot wind blew the sheer blue curtains into the room, their hems fluttering and snapping in mid-air. He got up and ducked beneath the curtains and looked out. Jack was lying under the swinging chair that rocked back and forth hanging from  rusty, squeaking, hooks in the porch ceiling. A small eddy of dirt, like a miniature twister, whirled across the bare front yard.  

                                                                      #

Afternoon, fifteen years before, Colin was twelve years old and sat in a hard wooden chair in the principal’s office swinging his legs back and forth under the seat. His father, Al, sat on one side of him in another wooden chair and his mother sat on the other side, in a similar chair. The principal, Mr. Dawson, was seated behind a big metal desk, his hands folded on top of a small stack of manila file folders. The window behind Mr. Dawson was closed and the brown shade up. Colin watched heavy snow fall on the playground equipment and school yard behind the school. Several crows were perched along the top of the schoolyard fence like avian sentinels.

“Al and Janet,” Mr. Dawson said looking first at one then the other, “we’ve been friends for a long time and I’ve known Colin his entire life, so I feel I can be frank with you.”

“Certainly,” Janet said, shifting uncomfortably in her chair.

“Colin is one of the brightest pupils in his grade, but his teachers can hardly handle his restlessness. Mrs. Upshaw said it’s like Colin is fighting against invisible restraints around his body,” Mr. Dawson said. “And as you know, Mrs. Upshaw is not prone to exaggeration.”

“He’s the same way at home,” Janet said. “He was examined by the doctor and all he said was that Colin is just going through a phase.”

Mr. Dawson leaned back in his chair and grasped onto the arms as if trying to hold himself in his seat, and looked at Colin’s dad. “What do you think, Al?”

Al cleared his throat. “It’s nothing that a good hide tanning won’t take care of.”

                                                                        #

Afternoon, 3:15, Colin pulled his head back in and turned around and through a curtain that flickered in front of his face he saw his mother standing in the doorway leading into the kitchen looking at him. She was wearing an apron and her face was smudged with flour. He had never been able to read her facial expressions.

“You have flour on your face, Mom,” he said, pushing aside the curtain that had given his view of her being seen in a dreamlike bluish haze. 

“I’m making bread,” she said, lifting the hem of the apron and dabbing her face, sending a light snowfall of flour onto the wooden floor. “You always liked my bread.”

“You make it sound as if I’ll never have it again,” he said. “I’m going to prison, not Siberia.”

“If only you had gotten some help for your drinking,” she said wistfully. “It’s what your attorney said you needed to do after the second charge.”

“I like to drink,” Colin said. “When I pass out then wake up I don’t even notice time has passed.”

“I don’t understand that at all,” she said, pushing a stray hair back from her forehead spreading flour across her brow. “You can’t just drink to throw away what little time you have on this planet.”

“I can’t think of any other way to do it,” Colin said.

                                                                       #

Evening, 5:30,  Al sat in the large chair in the living room trying to pry a splinter out of the palm of his hand with a Swiss army knife. Jack sat at his feet gnawing on the bone he had been given from the roast that Janet had fixed for dinner. The grandfather clock ticked and a steady hot breeze blew in through the open window. The sound of a lone coyote yelping from somewhere out in the prairie momentarily interrupted the solitude. Colin came into the room carrying some sheets of paper and sat down on the sofa and began to read what was written on the first sheet.

“What you got there, son?” Al asked looking up from the bleeding wound he had made in his hand.

“It’s a list of what I can’t have when I am in prison. Contraband they call it. They want to make sure I don’t bring along any files or hacksaws when I check in,” Colin said not looking up from the paper. “Basically I can’t take anything to make life more comfortable or to make time pass faster.”

“You were never happy with what you had or where you were anyway,” his father said grumpily. 

“It’ll be two years of just sitting around,” Colin said. “I’m going to get pretty restless.”

“You were born restless and you’ll die that way,” Al said.

“You tried to beat it out of me,” Colin mumbled.

“What?” His father asked.

“You tried to beat it out of me,” Colin said, his voice raised.

“What?” 

“You tried to beat the restlessness out of me,” Colin screamed.

“I was just trying to help,” his dad said, his lined, tanned face red with anger. “Look where being restless has gotten you.”

“You tried to beat it out of me,” Colin whispered.

                                                                      #

Night, Colin ambled his way through the tall prairie grass, carrying a bottle of Jim Beam, the one he had kept hidden in his room. He looked up at the night sky and watched a shooting star streak across the heavens and disappear into the clutter of stars. Jack followed close behind and Colin stopped and patted the dog on the head.

“Go home old boy,” he told the dog, who whined briefly then turned and went back toward the house.

 At a wood post, part of the barbed wire fence that divided their property from the open prairie and the boundaries of the Badlands National Park, Colin leaned against it, took his cowboy hat and laid it in the grass at his feet and opened the bottle and took a long swig. He could see the light on above the porch of his home but all the windows were dark. Coyotes howled in the distance. He drank until he was drunk and had reached that point where the passing of time went unnoticed and the endless boredom became meaningless. Then he passed out.

                                                                      #

Morning, Colin opened his eyes and shook his head trying to erase the dream he had. It had been so vivid, as if his brain was showing a movie about the details of his life, his home, the blowing of the hot summer winds across the prairie and even Jack’s barking. He looked at the stretch of prairie between him and the house, and the house itself. In the dream he had set it all ablaze. 

 The day before had worn on like most of the days before it, the only difference being that he and his parents were confronting the reality that he would be going to prison. Lying there in the grass he didn’t know what the feeling was exactly, but it was like he was a piece of glass, cracking, about to shatter. Reaching into his pants pocket he pulled out a red Bic lighter, turned westward, flicked the small wheel on the lighter, put the flickering flame to a clump of dead grass, and watched it ignite. With his hat he fanned the flame and felt the heat of the erupting fire. He scooted a few feet from the spreading fire and watched it move westward, rapidly consuming the combustible dry grass, stretching out in a crackling line of exploding grass, north to south, a rapidly moving and expanding inferno. He heard Jack whining, and then silence, and then the house was covered in a blazing blanket.

About the Author: Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 550 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.

Extinction Event

By Lindy Biller

***Content Warning: allusion to domestic abuse 

*The children’s book quoted in this story is Dinosaurium, by Chris Wormell and Lily Murray

It started slowly, without warnings or sirens. Astrid pulled out a box of Cheerios and found it coated in a fine layer of ash. Her fingers left circles of yellow cardboard. It was the same with everything else in the cupboard: the bear-shaped honey, boxes of cheddar crackers, bags of rice. All of it a dusty gray. 

She brushed off the Cheerio box and poured each of her daughters a bowl, one with milk, one without, just the way they liked it. After breakfast, she took them to the park, planted each child on a swing, googled ash kitchen cupboards. Found articles about ash sapwood, ideal for building cupboards and pantries. She watched her daughters swinging. Whenever her husband was around, the cupboard doors were always falling off. He would yank them too hard, or slam them shut, or shatter her mother’s china against them. The plates with the tiny orange flowers. 

Push us, Mama! the girls shouted.

She pushed them, the chains groaning. Maybe it was termites? Accumulated smoke from all the charred cookies and heads of cauliflower and pot roasts she’d left cooking too long? She toyed with her wedding ring. The girls soared back and forth like birds on a string, tethered.

By evening, the ash had spread. A thin layer on the drop-leaf table, the laminate countertops. The girls giggled and drew pictures in the dust: shooting stars, princesses, dinosaurs. Astrid rinsed out a saucepan and made macaroni and cheese. She called her sister in California, but the call went straight to voicemail. 

It’ll be okay, she imagined her sister saying, even though her sister never said things like this. She tried to think of the last thing they’d talked about, before they stopped talking. Before her husband exploded between them, his blast radius flattening everything for miles. She couldn’t remember. Maybe something about winter. How cold it was here. 

The next morning, Astrid made coffee, stirred Hershey’s syrup into cold milk for the girls, and they sat on the porch together, watching the sun glow through a haze of smoke. By now, people were talking about it on social media. A weather anomaly. Maybe something to do with all the wildfires. How could it be everywhere, all at once? What did it mean? 

“This is not an extinction event,” a scientist said emphatically. 

Astrid knew denial when she heard it. She pulled out one of the girls’ old dinosaur books—the most up to date book she could find, with chicken-sized velociraptors, with full-color, sad-eyed illustrations. At home, while the girls played, she read about the asteroid strike. How ash choked out sunlight, and the world went dark, and all the plants died. Then the plant-eaters. Then the meat-eaters. Except for a few, the theropods who discovered flight. Their arms became wings. Their bones lightened. 

It would’ve been a time of cold and darkness—winter on an epic scale, the book said. All major extinctions of life on earth have been followed by a burst of evolution, it added, softening the blow. 

Astrid dropped off her kids with a neighbor, who was drinking margaritas and soaking her feet in a kiddie pool. “They’ll be fine,” she said, “go out, have some fun, you’ve earned it!” Astrid went to the grocery store, where panic clung to her like tar. She bought jugs of water. Toilet paper. Fruit snacks shaped like actual fruit, orange slices and strawberries and bumpy clusters of grapes. She saw church people with coal-black smudges on their foreheads, even though Ash Wednesday had been months ago. She saw a man with a curved beak like her husband’s, elbowing to the front of the checkout line. She watched him slash the air open, making space for the hunger of his body. 

Astrid went back home. Retrieved her daughters from the booze-soaked neighbor.

“We’re going for a drive,” she told them. 

She packed their clothes, the dinosaur books, the matching baby dolls. She packed the last of the unbroken china. The winter gear. She packed sunscreen. She left her ring on the table, where dust immediately began to cover it. They drove. 

The highway twined through countryside, its waving cornfields sugared with ash. It would be a four-day journey, with breaks for sleep. The six-year-old read out loud to the three-year-old about the fossils on a site called Egg Mountain—parents, eggs, juveniles.  “Many would never hatch,” she recited. “Instead they were covered by volcanic ash, preserving them for future study.” The girls ate fruit snacks. They played rock, paper, scissors. They fell asleep, their bodies folded like praying hands. 

Astrid turned on the radio, and listened to the voices from far away, trying to make sense of things: “scientists still have no explanation,” and “people are advised to shelter in place,” and “if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction,” and “water should be strained through cheesecloth or coffee filters, then boiled before drinking.”

Astrid turned off the radio. Listened to her daughters’ breathing. 

I love you, she told them, until the words became only sound. A mourning-dove coo.

At a playground outside Omaha, Astrid checked her phone. Three breaking news updates. Seven voicemails from her husband. One text from her sister: Please, please call me. 

This time, her sister answered on the first ring. 

“Astrid, thank God. Thank God. Where are you? Where are the girls?”“Nebraska,” Astrid said, and then she laughed, and couldn’t stop laughing. She could feel it filling her up. The lightness. Wind through hollow bones. She told her sister to set up the spare room, and she’d call again soon. She made peanut butter sandwiches and spread a blanket on ash-choked grass. She pushed her girls on the swing set, higher, higher, their T-shirts billowing open like wings.

About the Author: Lindy Biller grew up in Metro Detroit and now lives in Wisconsin. Her fiction has recently appeared at Chestnut Review, X-R-A-Y, Longleaf Review, and Superfroot Magazine. 

The Belle Fair

By Timothy Tarkelly

For Nolan and Elena

The parade made me nervous
as every cop car and fire truck
in a twenty-mile radius were there,
tossing candy and blaring
their cacophonous tune of catastrophe
for fun, for the kids. I just hoped
no one’s house was burgled or burnt
to the ground as we cheered
for childhood’s best motivators,
for the promise of funnel cake,
for the newest queen of Belle, Missouri
who came riding in on a bale of hay,
who later thanked a crowd of grandparents
for this royal opportunity, her queen’s heart
showing through seven layers of makeup,
sparkling even brighter than her plastic tiara,
making us all forget about the smell of the pigs,
about how one day she will grow old
and stand in the mud, with not a single set
of eyes looking at her. 
By the time the bluegrass band
takes the stage, we’ve moved on,
lifted plastic cups to toast the evening’s
humid diffidence and almost let Mark
convince us to steal the show ourselves.

About the Author: Timothy Tarkelly’s fiction and poetry have appeared in Rhodora Magazine, Back Patio Press, Paragon Journal, and others. His third book of poetry, On Slip Rigs and Spiritual Growth, was published by OAC Books in July 2021. He has two previous collections from Spartan Press: Luckhound (2020) and Gently in Manner, Strongly in Deed: Poems on Eisenhower (2019). When he’s not writing, he teaches in Southeast Kansas. You can find him on twitter: @timothytarkelly or at timothytarkelly.com

A Place Called Beautiful

By Jane Hammons

When you live in a town like Vlan, and it is not much of a town, you must look far and wide for a place that is pretty enough for a picnic with your family and friends. If you should find a spot in the dry scrub and yellow grass, don’t go so far as to take visitors from out of town there, expecting them to marvel at its beauty. It is unlikely they will share your view. But down by the river there is a place called beautiful, and if you find it, you will not be alone. The water is the color of a well-worn slate, the earth red clay. In winter when covered with a brittle layer of frost, you will seldom see another soul out there. Bent twigs of mesquite along the river path, barely visible impressions upon the near frozen ground and the slight muddying of otherwise undisturbed waters are the only signs that someone has come before you. Few appreciate this beauty. Hondo Duggins and Estrellita Serna were two. Before the first snow fell and ice formed on the surface of the water they buckled up and took a drive to the bottom of the river.

Hondo and Estrellita were one year out of high school and still hanging around town like kids do when they don’t go off to college or out to the oil fields. Hondo was a busboy at Benny’s. Estrellita was a student at the Beauty College. Their absence was noted with silence for fear that merely pronouncing their names would disturb the quiet that had come since they had gone, which is exactly what happened once the strange woman arrived. 

Plagued by dreams of hair—long twisting strands, short blunt clumps—she’d wake to find her auburn tresses decorating the pillow where she slept, the follicles black and dead. Her stylist assured her it was common in middle-aged women.

“I hardly qualify as middle-aged.” The woman bristled at what was meant to be reassuring information.

The stylist did not respond. She didn’t know the woman well, but she’d done her hair often enough to know she didn’t want to do it again. She bestowed upon the woman her last tube of a homeopathic treatment her parents had made before they were forced to cease production because of their products’ disturbing side effects. She took the tube of ointment from a drawer. 

“Riovlan.” The woman read from label. “What is it?”

“I don’t know,” said the stylist, and that was true enough. “But it works.” 

Following the directions on the tube, the woman massaged the ointment into her head for several nights. She didn’t expect immediate results, but she also didn’t expect to see a young couple appear next to her own image in the mirror as she sat at her vanity. Frightened by the hallucination, the woman immediately swore off the Riovlan and shoved it into a drawer. But the next morning, there were fewer strands of dead hair on her pillow. She attributed the ghostly images to her stress, and returned to the treatment regimen. Again the young man and the young woman appeared, even more clearly this time. Though concerned about her mental state, she could not help but note how handsome the man was, how beautiful the woman, what a perfect couple they made. Over the next few days, she saw them reflected everywhere she looked—the side view mirrors of cars in parking lots, puddles of water left by rain and even in the highly polished surface of the wide cleaver she used for chopping lettuce. 

 She interpreted the advent of the two youths as a sign she was meant to be part of a couple, so she flirted with inferiors at work and visited a dating website a couple of times before deeming the available male population of her town worthless. The ointment almost gone, her head full of hair, she dreaded the loss of her visitations as much as she had the appearance of dead follicles. The couple wiped her tears, stroked her cheek and ran their fingers through her hair until at last the woman got it. Their ministrations were an invitation. She wasn’t meant to be part of just any couple. She was meant to join them. She consulted the tube of ointment that had summoned their appearance, noted where it was made, quit her job and closed up her apartment. Then she purchased a bus ticket to Vlan, a place few have dreamt of.

Upon arrival the woman appraised herself in the glass door of the bus station. She smoothed her skirt over her trim hips, tucked her soft white blouse into the tiny waistband of her skirt, then yanked her suitcase from the bottom of the pile on the luggage cart and headed down River Street to The Rio Inn, its metal sign beaten and battered by the sun and wind into the flat dull sameness of the rest of the town.

While the woman waited for the couple, she wandered out to the little kidney-shaped swimming pool where she admired herself for as long as she could stand the heat. In the evening, she’d walk along the dusty banks of the soggy creek that ran behind the Inn. Covered by trickling water, bright ferns flourished beneath the surface. Fronds extending above the shallow water were dead, blackened by the sun. Reminded of her affliction, the woman took this as a clue and began visiting every beauty parlor, as they were still called, in Vlan. She asked questions about a young couple, describing Hondo and Estrellita perfectly. No one responded until finally Lupe Villanueva directed the woman to Velynda Ashcroft’s Beauty College. 

In the restful months that had passed since Estrellita’s absence, Velynda Ashcroft had put the wicked girl out of her immediate thoughts. She became agitated when the redhead came into the Beauty College asking questions about a girl who had once attended her college. Noting Velynda’s distress, the woman knew she had found a source. She sat down in one of the many vacant chairs, freed her long hair from a tight French twist and requested a shampoo.

Velynda’s hands tingled with the anticipation of getting her hands into that gorgeous hair. She tied a stiff plastic apron around the woman’s neck and led her to a sink where she plunged her fingers into the auburn locks, shampooed and rinsed, shampooed and rinsed again as she talked about the frustration of teaching cosmetology to students who did not truly appreciate the science of beauty, did not comprehend the importance of the right haircut, professionally manicured nails, the correct moisturizer, foundation and lipstick.

Estrellita Serna. Velynda could not stop herself from saying the name, was such a student. She had not attended college to learn how to properly cut, comb and curl, but only to pass the hours her boyfriend was at work. Estrellita refused to keep up her tuition payments. She stole beauty supplies. But worse, she had destroyed the reputation of the Beauty College. 

Every fall Velynda and her students represented their profession in the County Fair Parade. And every fall since Marva Kunkel was thirteen years old, all the beauticians in Vlan had vied for the presence of her thick chestnut hair on their float. With the promise of a year’s worth of styling and beauty products, Velynda had won Marva in last year’s contest.

On the morning of the parade Velynda, Marva and all of the students gathered at the College to style one another’s hair. Only Estrellita was idle; she refused to style her glossy black hair, letting it hang as always straight to her waist. So Velynda assigned Estrellita the task of turning Marva Kunkel’s ponytail into long symmetrical ringlets. But instead Estrellita cut it off and ran shrieking triumphantly from the College, waving the shimmering trophy as she went, leaving Marva with an unattractive ducktail protruding from the back of her head.

Though in a state of shock Velynda and her students were determined to go on with the show. Velynda surrounded herself with her sniffling, nail-biting students and rode center stage, having whipped her hair into a hurried beehive that collapsed half way down River Street. The tale of Estrellita’s assault on Marva spread quickly along the twelve blocks from North to South River where the parade ended. Townspeople booed and hissed at the Beauty College float as it rolled past, its black tires disguised as pink sponge curlers.

Filled with compassion for the shorn Marva Kunkel and repelled by Estrellita’s behavior, the woman doubted it was Estrellita she sought. But to be certain she asked for the address of Estrellita’s family.

Weary from washing, combing out and blasting every bit of natural wave out of the woman’s hair with a powerful blow-dryer, Velynda didn’t think to ask why she wanted it but trudged to the shoebox where she kept the delinquent file. After giving the woman directions to the Serna’s house, she closed up shop. Overhead small dark clouds, clenched like fists, beat upon the glaring face of the sun. Blinded by jagged flashes of lightning that ripped open the sky in a sudden thunderstorm, Velynda dashed madly across the street to her usual parking space in front of Primm’s Pharmacy just as Tad Ostermann sped down toward her, an hour late for a date with his girlfriend Marva Kunkel. He didn’t see Velynda and hit her hard. She flew several feet into the air before landing in the back of his truck. Her spine snapped, Velynda died quickly, splayed out in the bed of manure Tad had planned to spread on his mother’s lawn.

Sip Drang, sole reporter for The Vlan Daily Witness, was in the pharmacy purchasing travel size toiletries to take on his annual vacation, keeping a journal from which he’d write his popular Great American Sights column. Folks in Vlan don’t get out of town much, so he used GAS as a way to educate them about the larger world. Sip saw the entire incident and supported Tad’s claim that it was a terrible accident though the town gossips would call it an act of revenge.

Meanwhile the woman walked toward the Serna’s small brick house on Sunset Ave. According to Velynda, Estrellita was a great beauty, but there was little evidence that she had inherited her looks from the woman who answered the door, Mrs. Serna appearing wrinkled and worn beyond any reasonable affect of time. She stood firmly in the doorway and told the woman that Estrellita had probably run off with her boyfriend, Hondo Duggins. Then she shut the door.

The woman walked a few blocks to Benny’s dinner where she assumed she’d find an in tact phonebook in the indoor phone booth. Three Duggins were listed. She called each of them asking for Hondo. The first swore at her; the second number was no longer in order. On her third call, she found a woman named Modine who owned up to being the boy’s mother, gave her directions and invited her over. 

Modine Duggins had plenty of things to worry about. The disappearance of Hondo was not one of them. She counted that among her few blessings. Her husband had recently run off with another woman, and she’d just had a phone conversation with her daughter, Nodell, who said she had found a lump on her right breast. But she welcomed the woman into her home anyway. She hauled out the family scrapbook to show the woman a picture of Hondo but ended up showing her a collection of newspaper articles about Nodell’s short-lived career as a faith healer.

After a few reported successes, Nodell had attempted to cure Mrs. Russell Palmeyer of arthritis. When she grabbed the cane from the old woman’s hand and commanded her to dance before God, Mrs. Palmeyer had fallen flat on her face, breaking an arm and cracking a cheekbone. Nodell had been so shamed by Sip Drang’s damning articles in The Witness that she moved out of town.

Hondo? Modine turned to his section and showed the woman clippings about her son’s numerous arrests for fighting, drunk driving and vandalism. She’d quit reading them but dutifully continued to clip and past them into the family chronicle. Just what was the nature of the woman’s business with him anyway, Modine wanted to know.

The woman told Modine how she had been summoned to Vlan. She made clear she was not certain Hondo was the man of her dreams. He certainly resembled the pictures of the boy in Modine’s album, but she was having a hard time reconciling the love she had felt from him with the deeds of Hondo Duggins.

For the first time in her life, Modine Duggins had not a single word to say. She thought maybe the woman had escaped from an asylum and directed her to the door. Then she left a message for Nodell out at the trailer park north of town where she had set up business. PALMS READ HERE the white board with a big red hand on it announced to travelers who ventured down the highway. When she finally returned her mother’s call and heard the story of the redhead’s visit, Nodell claimed that she had recently dreamt of Hondo dead in a watery grave. She felt destined to meet the woman who might have more information. She had a few appointments, but she promised to be home early the following day.

As eager as Nodell was to reach Vlan so was the woman eager to leave it. The youth she dreamt of could not be born of these ugly women in this ugly town. She checked the bus schedule. One last night in Vlan then she would return to her apartment and begin looking for work. The very thought of updating her resume gave her a headache. She’d never had an easy time finding or keeping a job. Not even angry that she’d given no notice only a few days ago, her supervisor had simply escorted her to the door. Feeling foolish she began packing her bag. 

The woman arrived at the bus station early the following morning, purchased her ticket and was the first to board. She hadn’t slept well the previous night. Praying that the couple would come to her rescue, she tossed and turned until it was time for her to get up. As the bus pulled out of the station, she closed her eyes and fell into a deep sleep. The young man and woman surfaced in her murky dream, and she began to choke and gasp for air. 

Sip Drang, who had given his statement to the police along with a list of telephone numbers where he could be reached, was seated directly across the aisle from the woman. He jerked her up out of her seat, positioned himself behind her and performed a quick Heimlech on her.

Infuriated, and not the least bit grateful, to find herself in the arms of the chubby bald man, the woman shoved Sip away. Sip let the bus driver take over. He was on vacation after all, and he had only recently witnessed the demise of Velynda Ashcroft. He didn’t need any more trauma in his life. He’d handed the writing of Velynda’s obituary off to his friend Lupe Villanueva who covered The Witness for him when he was on vacation. He wasn’t sorry he’d miss Velynda’s funeral. Next to Nodell Duggins, Velynda was one of his least favorite people. The two of them had taunted him, wondering how someone so homely and fat could be the son of such a beautiful woman, however crazy she might have been. They’d flirt with him and then reject him, jerking him around like a yoyo. 

Because the woman wouldn’t stop shrieking about a boy and a girl she needed to find, the bus driver decided to take her to the hospital in Vlan. He swung the bus around, nearly running Nodell Duggins off the road.

The ER doctor examined the woman, asking her questions she found entirely too personal. Had this ever happened before? Was there someone the hospital should contact? What kind of medications was she on? 

The woman declared she was on no medication except for the Riovlan she’d been using for the past month.

“Riovlan?”

The woman took the empty crinkled tube from her purse and gave it to him. “It’s made here. I’d like to buy more if you know where I can find it. I wasn’t able to locate the name of the business in the phone book.”

The doctor examined the tube. “La Oscuridad Inc. Not familiar with it. Massage into scalp nightly,” he read the directions aloud. “Have to be careful what you put in your head.” He chuckled at his joke, but got no response from the woman. He handed the tube back to her.

“I didn’t put them there. They came to me.”

Puzzled, the doctor stared at the woman. Then decided not to ask what she meant. “I can give you something for anxiety.”

“Anxiety?” The woman scoffed at the suggestion she suffered from that condition. “A little hair loss,” she said. “That’s the only health problem I’ve ever had in my life.”

“What you experienced on the bus sounds like a panic attack.” The doctor explained his diagnosis.

“I was drowning.” Only in the moment she spoke those words did she understand the vision she’d had on the bus. Catching sight of her rather disheveled appearance in the towel dispenser, she smoothed her hair and left with renewed determination. Somewhere, in dark waters, the couple awaited her arrival. 

When you ask people in Vlan about bodies of water, as the woman began to do, they are most likely to tell you about their ditches, tanks and reservoirs. They might quote you the cost of their new pump or tell you how much they paid to have a well dug. If they mention the river, it will only be to dismiss it. Fishing is poor—mud cats and carp. It is not consistently wide or deep enough for boating or water-skiing. There are no shade trees, so in summer if you are tempted to go there for a swim, you are likely to find yourself alone.

Teenagers go to the river for precisely this reason. There is nothing to do, and they can rest assured there will be no babies or old people to bother them. As they mature and feel the need to find entertainment outside themselves, they’ll drive the thirty miles to Bottomless Lakes. Many of them just keep going. That’s how Nodell Duggins explained the lack of youth in Vlan to the woman who found her annoying but tolerated her because Nodell let her use her car while she worked. She was eager to provide assistance in the search for Hondo and Estrellita, sure that her recent visions would lead to their location and restore her reputation as healer and visionary.

Night after night, the woman was drawn to the cliffs above the river. She parked near the bridge at a turnout in the highway called Scenic Spot. The Spot is where high school kids go to make out. Encased in their automobiles, they find the privacy they long for even though most nights the Spot is about as private as the laundromat on a Saturday morning.

The woman had spent enough time at Scenic Spot to know that if she sat there long enough she would see at least one shooting star. When she saw the pair falling in perfect unison and watched their arc disappear into the river below, she knew she had found her destination.

She fixed in her mind the place where the two stars had fallen and drove back to town. She noted a dirt road that led away from the highway to the river. She was confident that in the light of the following day she would be able to find the place. She was eager to return to the Rio Inn and check her map of the area, but first she had to meet Nodell at Benny’s for what the woman knew would be the last time. As soon as the sun rose, she intended to return to the river. And she intended to return alone.

Sip Drang thanked Lupe again for picking him up at the bus station and waved to her as she backed out of his front drive. From her he’d learned Nodell Duggins was back in town, and that for the past week she’d been stirring things up with a story about how she and a psychic were looking for the bodies of Hondo and Estrellita who had been visiting them both in dreams and visions. 

Sip quickly unpacked, put away his clothing and toiletries without his usual concern for neatness. Then he donned the Panama Hat he had purchased in Baton Rouge and left the house. Eager to learn more about Nodell and her psychic sidekick, Sip pressed the gas pedal to the floor and sped toward Benny’s where everyone was always willing to talk.

When Sip entered Benny’s he was shocked to find that Nodell was something called a Dinner Hostess. As Benny’s had never before had a Hostess, he correctly assumed that Nodell had managed to create a job for herself. She turned a cold shoulder to Sip who seated himself at the coffee counter where he was greeted by those who awaited his return with stories of their own to tell: a new grandchild; a two-headed snake found out on someone’s ranch; Bervin Fall’s prize Longhorn had died.

Knowing Nodell, Sip was prepared for just about anything but he was not prepared to see the woman he’d Heimliched on the bus plaster a fake smile on her face and wave cheerfully at Nodell, inviting her to sit at her booth. Curious, Sip got up to inquire after the woman’s health. Fine, was all the woman said and dismissed him brusquely.

Nodell shot Sip a wicked smile, pleased with the discomfort her new friend had caused him. She slid into the seat across from the woman and explained loud enough for all to hear that Sip used The Witness to spread malicious gossip. The woman, who was beginning to get on Nodell’s nerves, seemed preoccupied and did not respond to her. Nodell ground her teeth. In the short time they’d been sitting together, the woman had admired herself in the window and had even managed to get a quick look at herself in the underside of the waitress’s shiny metal tray. She was using a water glass as a mirror and applying fresh lipstick. Nodell needed a break. She told the woman she’d be unable to drive her around the next day. 

The woman again said merely, “Fine.” She explained she needed to catch up on her beauty sleep anyway and the sooner she started the better. She left Nodell sitting in her booth and walked back to The Rio Inn.

Sip finished the last bite of pie, wished everyone good evening, then drove to the Rio Inn and parked across the street. There he waited, imagining headlines, lead sentences and the Who What When Where Why and How of his next big story, another revealing the chicanery of Nodell Duggins and whoever the redhead was.

Inside her room, the woman took a pen and blackened the road on the map that would lead her to the place in the river. Early the next morning she paid the desk clerk twenty dollars for the use of his car. She drove out of Vlan, past the places that had become familiar to her. Cheerful and feeling at home, she even waved to the boys on a hay truck. Sip Drang, who followed at a discreet distance, had a sick feeling about where she was headed.

As the woman drove along the river road, she watched the water grow faster and deeper with every mile. She stopped near the place where the water runs purple and gray. She got out of the car and made her way down the river path, creeping in and out between the cacti and cholla, until she reached the water’s edge.

The river licked at the tips of her open-toed pumps and invited her in. Caressed by the current, she walked into deeper water. Lulled by the swirl between her thighs, the woman shivered with desire.

From a ridge, Sip watched. He would never forget the day that he and some other youngsters—Nodell and Velynda among them—had taken a large wooden raft out to the river in the back of his father’s pickup. When they put the raft in the water, Nodell told him about the contest they were going to have. What she described hadn’t seemed like much of a challenge. In fact, it seemed like the kind of dumb thing Nodell and her friends would think was an accomplishment. They’d take the raft out to the deep water. Each person would swim the length of the raft while those aboard timed the swimmer. The fastest person won. Though he didn’t expect to win, he knew he could swim from one end to the other. Sip slid off the back end with a confident splash. As he swam beneath it, the raft grew longer, the water darker.

Sip remembered swimming for what seemed an eternity, surfacing in the belief that he had surely reached the end of the raft, bumping his head each time on its underside. Logic told him to swim to the side of the raft and away from it. But his pride and the river’s dark current kept him paddling pointlessly forward.

Weary of the constant thump thump of Sip’s head beneath the raft as he tried to rise for air and the fear that they might actually cause him to drown, one of the boys dove in and rescued Sip as he descended into the muddy arms of the river bottom. Later everyone laughed as they roasted marshmallows around a campfire, telling him that as he swam, they had paddled, negating any progress he made. They had played the trick on others who had all been smart enough to simply swim away from the raft once they began to tire. No one had ever been as dumb as Sip Drang. “No wonder you’re mother left you behind,” he could hear Velynda Ashcroft saying again, “you’re not just fat, you’re stupid, too.” He let them laugh and said nothing about the seductive force that had pulled him deeper and deeper into the river.

Sip scrambled down the river path and plunged in after the woman. When he saw her disappear, he took a deep breath and dove after her, grabbing her by the hair and to his horror, ripped it easily 

Her lungs filling with water, the woman clutched her bald head in humiliation. She sank into the purple water where she saw Hondo’s dirty black car. Decayed flesh dripped from Hodo and Estrellita’s bodies. Tiny fish swam in and out of their eye sockets. Tendrils of green algae and moss flowed from their mouths. Their noses were plugged with debris and mud. Dozens of Styrofoam wig stands bobbed about in the back seat. A blank-faced hollow chorus, they jeered at her. Angry at their betrayal, she pulled at the door handle, but it gave way in her hands. They were beyond her reach. An old catfish with sickly pink eyes circled the woman, jutting back and forth between her legs, tickling her with its whiskers. It gave the woman one last scaly caress before she slid beneath Hondo’s car and settled behind one of the tires.

Sip walked back to the ridge, his soggy sneakers leaving damp impressions upon the ground. When he looked inside the car the woman drove to the river, he saw the map inside her large open purse. Next to it, something caught his eye—a shiny flattened tube decorated with a purple snakelike figure. Something familiar about it filled him with dread. He retrieved the tube and discovered it was what he suspected. Riovlan, made by La Oscuridad Inc., his parents’ old company. Riovlan was just one of their many products made from the red clay he stood upon mixed with the waters of Rio Oscuro that flowed past him as well as plants native to the area. So many people complained about the sickening side effects of their homemade remedies that they had eventually gone bankrupt and out of business. Sip’s mother took his little sister with her to live among a group of Wiccans, leaving Sip behind with his father who became a goat farmer for a few years before dying from an undiagnosed stomach ailment. Sip put the tube in his pocket. It had been a long time since he’d thought about his family. He credited his career in journalism to their talk about magic and cures and spells. Disgusted by their superstitions, not to mention the harm they’d done him and his sister, using them as guinea pigs for their concoctions, he’d turned to facts.

But he’d lived in Vlan long enough to understand that their were things he could not explain. He put the empty tube of Riovlan in his pocket, drove to his house, changed his clothes and went to Benny’s for an early lunch.

Sip ate his omelet slowly, waiting until Nodell had no one to seat, no kids to boost into booster chairs, no customer to chat with. Then he took a deep breath and approached the Hostess Station, which was just a TV tray that Nodell had brought in to sit behind. Before she could begin insulting him, he apologized for the harsh words he’d used in reporting on Mrs. Palmeyer’s accident. Mouth agape, Nodell stared at him with the deep green eyes that had so captivated him in his youth. He fought the impulse to fidget like a lovesick boy. He told her about his new column for The Witness: VIP Vlan’s Important People. If she wanted, she could be his first subject. In it, she could respond to the faith-healing fraud article if she chose to. Nodell listened, chewing on her already chapped lips. She was suspicious but interested.

When she told Sip she’d consider it, he acted grateful. “Don’t wait too long. I need the interview by tomorrow.” He took a peppermint candy from a glass dish and unwrapped it slowly. “My second choice is that new woman—the redhead.” He popped the peppermint into his mouth.

“She can’t be a VIP,” Nodell protested, “she’s not even from Vlan.”

“Well,” said Sip. “She seems to love the place, the way she drives all over the countryside. And let’s face it, she’s a knockout. A photo of her on the front page will sell a lot of papers.”

“Fine. Tomorrow,” said Nodell.

“I’ll pick you up, and we’ll drive out to the river. Real pretty this time of year.”

Nodell snorted. “It’s never pretty no time of year. I want my photo taken in front of my trailer.” She held both of her palms out in front of her. “PALMS READ HERE.”

“Your trailer isn’t really in Vlan. We need a local background, especially for the launch story.” 

Determined to become the first VIP, Nodell agreed to the river.

“Four o’clock sharp. Maybe we’ll catch a pretty sunset.”

“Don’t get any ideas, fat man,” said Nodell.

“Strictly business.” Sip cracked the peppermint between his teeth and left.

The next day Sip and Nodell made uncomfortable small talk—the only thing in common a history of dislike. Sip talked about his recent trip to Louisiana. Nodell described how to read the palm of a hand.

When Sip pulled up right next to the car the woman had driven to the river, Nodell hopped out, curious about who was there. When she looked inside, she recognized the familiar marked up map the woman had left on the seat. Nodell yanked the door open and grabbed it. “What are you and that crazy woman up to?” She waved the map in his face.

Sip played dumb. “I had no idea she’d be here.” Casually he followed the path the woman had taken to the water. “Looks like she went this way.

Nodell scurried to catch up with him as he approached the water. “You have some crazy idea we’re going to compete for VIP, for your attention. Dream on, you idiot.” She grabbed Sip by the arm meaning to spin him around and unload a barrage of humiliating name calling on him. She was surprised when he pulled her into the river behind him.

“She’s waiting for you,” he said.

Nodell recoiled at his touch, but as they tussled in the shallow water, she became excited by Sip’s hands slipping up her skirt and down her blouse. He groped and grabbed trying to get a firm hold on her. They tumbled farther out into the river, losing their footing as the current grew stronger, the river deeper. Nodell got up on Sip’s back and pushed him under. She held him down and beat on his bald head. Thump thump. She laughed, remembering the sound of his head bumping the bottom of the raft so long ago. She was surprised when Sip surfaced easily and tossed her off. He swam for the dark water. Determined to teach him another lesson Nodell slipped out of her skirt and swam after him, thinking he must have forgotten that she’d been the state 400-meter freestyle champ all four years in high school.

Sip was happy to see her taking the bait, but the sight of a newly energized Nodell, her muscular legs churning the water, made him tired. He wasn’t worried about the dark water. Twice he’d been caught in its current, and twice it had released its hold on him. He worried that he wouldn’t have the stamina to lure her out to the deep water.

Just as Nodell reached him, she went down. She popped back up, her eyes wide in surprise. She yelled something at him before she went down again. When she surfaced the third time she flailed only briefly before she disappeared.

When he got to the shore, Sip picked up the map Nodell had dropped along with her handbag and tossed them into the river. If their bodies were found, the people of Vlan would acknowledge a logical conclusion to the story they’d gossiped different versions of for the past couple of weeks. He sat down on the bank of the river and warmed himself against the flat sandstone rocks that layered the shore. He took off his shirt and let the heat of an early spring sun warm his flabby white belly. He saw the delicate blossoms quiver on the hardy cactus. He allowed the yellow grass to tickle his face and chest. He watched the fluffy white clouds separate, revealing the brilliance of a turquoise sky. Dark water coursed through his veins, and he called the place beautiful.

About the Author: Jane Hammons taught writing at UC Berkeley for thirty years before moving to Austin, Texas, where she writes, takes photographs and, before the pandemic, listened to a lot of live music. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Maternal is Political (Seal Press); Selected Memories (Hippocampus Press); Columbia Journalism Review; and San Francisco Chronicle Magazine. Three of her photographs were included in Taking It To the Streets: A Visual History of Protest and Demonstration in Austin, an exhibition of the Austin History Center. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Permanent Reverberations

By Carter Davis Johnson

Blades of grass,

Adorned with frozen robes,

Transient.

Delicate. 

Vaporous crystal. 

These are the unbreakable things; 

These are the permanent things. 

The hewn dominion of granite, 

Ruling the ages with stoicism,

Trembles.  

Even you, proud granite,

Wear on your smooth head 

Slow decay, 

Like a crown of washed pebbles

That the shore carries 

in her breast pocket.

Heraclitus and the Lethe watch 

Over the ruins of Wolf House.  

Your flinchless form is regal, but

Shrunk 

With every drop. 

Your time, absorbing nothing

save heat and chill, 

Wanes

Imperceptible to the aged eye, lest he 

Keep watch with Tiresias. 

No. You are no more 

Permanent than the 

Effervescent jubilation of frost covered 

grass;

Until the canopy of torn canvas 

Wrinkles and rends,

Its death is perpetual resurrection.

Dancing daughter of frailty.

Bone-chilling felicity.

Lyre of the morning. 

The intersection of permutations with

Permanent reverberations. 

About the Author: Carter Davis Johnson is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky. In addition to his scholarly interests, he is also a creative writer who has been published in The Society of Classical Poets, The Voices Project, and SteinbeckNow. 

*Photo by Tyler Johnson

Two Poems by Rodd Whelpley

By Rodd Whelpley

South Loop

Thankfully, this was years ago

our family in a receiving line

at a restaurant on Harrison or Wabash,

my wife first, me, and our son –

maybe 10 – shaking hands

with our first set of grooms, 

thanking them for including our kid 

on the invitation, apologizing 

for making this political, but he needs 

to see this. 

                    We all need to see this. 

Then, me at once hugging both the husbands,

the three of us gazing over shoulders, wondering 

at how hard it is to steal home, to have 

a Jackie Robinson of marriages, hoping

one day, we can criticize the shitty tuxes, 

the way too many bridesmaids, take odds 

on just how long these kids will last, be catty, 

drunk, and hell-bound joyous at these things –   

just the way we used to.

Although Zero Structures in Our Hometown are Listed as Historic Places

There lived the deities,           the populace of childhood:

                                                Coach. Teacher. The Senior quarterback 

                                                we didn’t know would never make

                                                Ohio State. Bobby Burton’s guide dog

                                                plucking dimes and nickels 

                                                from the floor of his master’s bookshop.

And the household gods         Grandma. And the babysitter, Mrs. Druppel,

                                                who blushed, when, we, tired before our naps,

                                                called her grandma too – 

Who we thought of as             our unwitting saviors those nights

                                                when mom’s, then dad’s, voices,

                                                whet as kitchen steak knives, 

                                                much too loudly echoed words distorted 

through the old-house heat vents

Twins alone                            in separate rooms, wondering

                                                what we did to make things

                                                go so wrong.

 
– inspired by Lannie Stabile’s poem “Callisto”

Rodd Whelpley manages an electric efficiency program for 32 cities across Illinois and lives near Springfield. His poems have appeared in numerous journals. His chapbooks include Catch as Kitsch Can (2018), The Last Bridge is Home (2021) and Whoever Said Love (coming in 2022). Find him at www.RoddWhelpley.com.