Interview with Matt Miller of Milk Carton Press

Interview conducted by Megan Neary and Joe Neary

We were fortunate enough to speak with Matt Miller, a poet and co-founder of the new independent publisher, Milk Carton Press ( https://milkcartonpress.com) Below is a condensed transcript of the wide-ranging conversation we held, which focused on such topics as the Beat poets, the MFA experience, the need for independent literary presses, and the burning passion to write. 

Flyover Editors: Matt, to start off, could you give us a rundown of Milk Carton. When did you and your two co-founders meet, how did you choose to start the press, and what works are you looking to publish?

Matt Miller: Well, it’s really been a lot of fun. So, the three of us, Sean, Garrett, and myself, we’ve been really good friends, but we’ve also been contemporaries in the Sioux Falls arts scene, and we’ve all been self-publishing, been coming out with our own books, hosting our own readings, trying to build a community, and to live our own art. We’ve been trying to do this as hard as we can. And the three of us, we met through Sean’s book bar, a book and conversation bar, called Full Circle book Co-op. We also had a community open mic where we would meet once a month, as well as a writer’s happy hour. Eventually, Sean and his business partner, Jason, opened the Co-op, after raising money through a Kickstarter. And they were able to stay open through COVID. It’s kind of hard to talk about Milk Carton without talking about Full Circle, because it’s been such a community generator. In fact, Full Circle is where our physical address is for Milk Carton. Our dream is to one day have a Milk Carton office in the basement of Full Circle, almost a city lights kind of thing. …

The three of us have a shared aesthetic and values, similar enough that we agree on what stuff has value. So, from this and very long conversations, and helping each other edit books, it was really kind of inevitable that we should do this. And my experience at BGSU working at Mid-American Review, and just seeing like this is how you run a publishing house, that really helped to kick things off. We’ve been going now since February 2021, both been sprinting and going slow on this thing. We are about to release our third book. Each of use three co-founders is releasing a book because this just seemed like the right thing to do. I released a book, Here and There, which during my MFA, I wrote two books, The Silly Knife and Here and There, which I decided to release through Milk Carton. Garrett has released Shotgun Vernacular, which was the kickoff for our experimental chapbook series. We are trying to release both traditional books of poetry and also experimental chapbooks. Crazy, off-the-walls stuff, stuff no one has seen before, but stuff that has value and gets people talking and thinking. Sean is coming out with his book in November. And then, Tim’s book, Self-Titled by Alien, we are releasing their full-length collection in the spring of 2022. We currently have open submissions for both the full-length books and chap books. We are also doing an online magazine, more of an online art thing. We are trying to include not only poetry and literature, but also things like short film, hybrid work, gifs, and really releasing this as an eBook format. We are taking open submissions for this as well. Oh, and we have a blog, which is pretty much for anything. If you send us something we think is cool: essays poetry, art, we will publish it there. Also, we are leaning really hard into the whole milk thing. If you send us a poem about milk, pretty much anything, if you just write something about milk, we will publish it. We have gotten some really cool stuff.

Flyover Editors: So, Matt, that was an awesome overview. It sounds like you are doing some very cool stuff at Milk Carton, but we need to know: where does the name Milk Carton come from?

Matt Miller: Oh, yeah, so it kind of started with a half idea. Then it kind of bloomed from there. So, the three of us are very inspired by Beat poetry. Like, the Beats are what inspired the three of us to get into writing. They keep us going, and we always come back to them. And the thing that draws us to them the most is this idea of seeking, of not being complete. This idea that something is missing. We’re sitting off-kilter and we need to find it. Also, this idea of nostalgia for things we’ve never had, like hopping trains, or their whole hitchhiker lifestyle. You can’t feasibly do these things anymore. The world that we live in is fundamentally different than the one the Beats lived in. Yet, we still feel the same way. We know that there is more to this than what we see and what we hear. And the three of us have deep, personal issues that make us write and keep us going. And so, this idea of Milk Carton. At one time, missing kids were on milk cartons. And it’s not a perfect metaphor, but this idea of something being missing. And yet, at the same time, it’s fundamentally not even there anymore. If you were to find a milk carton with a missing kid on it, you could keep seeking, but like they don’t even make milk cartons like that anymore. It’s double lost, so completely lost. And we feel like that is how we are right now. They call the Beats the lost generation, but they were lost in a world that could fundamentally still work with them. And we feel like we are double: unaware, and too aware of everything at the same time. And there is nothing we can do, so we just write poems about it.

Flyover Editors: Talk about your experience living in Ohio and attending Bowling Green State University’s MFA program a bit. Did this experience change how you approach writing?

Matt Miller: It’s kind of funny. You know, I grew up on a farm, like so many people in South Dakota have. I find myself writing about the city so often. You know, I’ve written several poems about the concept of the city itself, and just my experience living in them. I find city life really exciting, and love seeing different types of people, or hearing different languages. And I did not get that on the farm. Yet, at the same time, it was really interesting living in Ohio. When I moved to BG, I had an idea of what I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about my time as an EMS. I used to be a paramedic. So much of my identity was wrapped up in that, but then I found out I have terrible back issues, and I don’t have a future lifting heavy things. So, I couldn’t do the job anymore and it ruined me. And I knew, coming into an MFA program, that I wanted to unpack that. The more I wrote about that, the more I ended up writing about childhood. It was funny, but, going to Ohio, I really started writing about the farm. All of my writing up until that point was focused on the city. Though I think that was less about Ohio itself, rather than being able to focus on one big project, to chase it to its core. But Bowling Green was awesome. The town was very nice; it had character, and the campus did too. The thing I like most, other than Flatlands, was probably just the people I met. Once you get into academia, everyone is from all over. 

Flyover Editors: Thanks for that. It’s very interesting hearing that you almost had to leave something behind, to have enough distance from your personal story and upbringing, in order to write about it. That seems to be a thing with many writers, a common theme of sorts. So, Matt, going back to your comment earlier on our generation being an even more extreme version of a lost generation than the Beats were, the idea that there is even more of a disconnect within our experiences. Do you think art can help to fill in what is missing? Is this a part of what Milk Carton aims to do, in the sense that you still believe in the transcendent power of poetry?

Matt Miller: Yeah, definitely. And even if art can’t do it, we can’t not make it. For me, I can’t not write or create something. You know, I get sick if I don’t. And maybe where this illness is coming from, is that we all know that there is more than what people are telling us. The people on the screens are leaving something out…. The world isn’t black and white, but they try to say it is. And this is a problem because life isn’t like that. Everything is complicated….

Flyover Editors: Could you talk a bit more about the types of creative works you are open to. Are you interested in publishing any short stories or novels, along with poetry?

Matt Miller: Right now, we’re focusing on poetry, but who knows about the future. With the blog and the magazine, anything goes. You know, fiction, hybrid, essay, anything. We’re drawn to poetry, the three of us. We read fiction and nonfiction as well; I’m also an essayist and Garrett worked as a journalist, but, for us, it’s almost a waste of time to read anything that’s not poetry. When we keep asking why and we keep focusing, it always comes down to that. I guess our factory default settings are all set to poetry….

About the Interviewers:

Megan Neary is a writer and fifth grade teacher in Columbus, Ohio. Her recent work can be found in The Cleveland Review of Books, The Schuykill Valley Journal, and The Amethyst Review.

Joe Neary is a PhD student in English Literature at The University of Kentucky. His recent work can be found in the quint: an interdisciplinary quarterly from the north, and Olney Magazine.

Ice Chest

By Jody Rae

*Content Warning from the author: this piece engages in the subject of suicide, however there are no graphic scenes.

 On some mornings, the base of Simplot’s Hill was littered with white, malformed ice blocks abandoned on the grass from the night before. We never saw the people who brought stacks of ice blocks, purchased from the Shaver’s grocery store farther down Bogus Basin Road, only to sit on them and ride down a particularly steep incline which, over time, gouged the earth and left raw, muddy wounds in the otherwise pristine green grass. 

My mom and I jointly judged those ne’er-do-wells, those suburban hoodlums who carved their inconsiderate glee into private property. Mr. Simplot was never stingy with his estate. He didn’t mind the ant-like march of schoolchildren across his hill each morning and afternoon; our little legs straining and slipping against the tilt of each rise in the dewy, lumpy hillside; our dirty backpacks full and awkward over our coats or t-shirts. He didn’t care if we tossed our backpacks on the slope to roll ourselves down the hill, shrieking as the world spun faster and faster, just so we could share the thrill of dizziness and grass stains when we stood up at the bottom, only to climb back to where we dropped our book bags. In the winter, his was our favorite sledding hill. 

 Though he was conspicuous in his consumption and material wealth, we regarded Mr. Simplot as a benevolent distant uncle or a prestigious forefather of Boise’s white settlement. We would never recognize him on the street; he remained faceless and voiceless, always, yet we considered him a legitimate member of our community. Neighborhood lore kept us in awe of his financial prowess and might; it was said that trick-or-treaters who broke away from the lower neighborhoods on Halloween to traipse up to his mansion and knock on the door would be rewarded with full-size candy bars. Nobody we knew actually trick-or-treated at Simplot’s mansion, but the myth of regular sized candy earned him our respect, and we pledged allegiance as much to his rumored philanthropy as to the enormous American flag that flapped above his mansion on a twelve-story steel flagpole. 

 I was never really interested in seeing the interior of the Simplot Mansion, nor did I fantasize about living in it. I loved our own house too much, even if it was the dumpiest house on our block. Amidst grand English tudors and elegant Cape Cod style homes nestled against the Boise Foothills, ours was a shoddily-constructed, two-story wood-shingle eyesore that my parents painstakingly painted a light grey with teal trim, by hand. But it was the largest house we ever lived in. The second story, merely a reading loft with a master suite, made me feel rich. I loved my bedroom, with the high vaulted ceiling and morning sunlight. I loved the three tall pines in our steep, private backyard that may or may not have been a retaining wall hazard, and I loved our two and a half bathrooms. I loved our street at sunset. I didn’t need a palace perched on a hilltop to feel at home. I didn’t need the grandiose staircases and sweeping views of the Highlands that many of my friends had. 

 At night, snug in my canopied bed under the moonlight and the shadow of Simplot’s flagpole, I silently gave thanks for my quiet bedroom tucked against the backyard, and my own telephone on my bedroom wall. Sometimes one of our cats, Jasmine or Mocha, would nudge my door open and crawl onto my bed to doze on my chest. “I have everything,” I would whisper to the cat. The cat would purr and knead the bedcovers with its front paws. 

 Occasionally, my friends gathered the remnants of melting or evaporating ice blocks and tried to sail the morning frost of Simplot’s hill, but I remained indignant, chin in the air, resolved to rise above my station. Nobody was instructed to quit ice-blocking on Simplot’s Hill, per se. The police were never summoned. No private security guards ever drove down the mountain to scold anyone. And yet, for the most part, ice blocking was only ever done after dark, as if everyone knew it was at least somewhat disrespectful and uncouth. 

And so, when our refrigerator broke and we were forced to store food in Dad’s creaky old Coleman cooler in the garage, I was horrified when Mom’s outwardly judgmental position on ice-blocking shifted from loud scoffing when we drove by the jagged remains to an air of opportunistic complicity. For weeks, if she spotted the gleaming white shards of ice on the grass near the road, she pulled over and ordered me and my sister out of the car. 

“Hurry!” She said. “Run out there and pick up as many as you can! Quick, I’m parked illegally!” 

We scampered to and from the car, carrying lumps of muddy or grass-flecked ice in our bare hands, ice blocks that strangers sat upon the night before, to deposit on the floor of Mom’s light blue Subaru sedan. Then Mom raced home to dump the scavenged ice into the cooler, where we kept our milk and cheese and yogurt; items that soured no matter how many ice blocks we picked off of Simplot’s Hill. 

“People’s butts touched these ice blocks, Mom. This is butt-ice,” I said, picking grass off a particularly battered block. 

“Oh, just make sure to get it underneath the milk,” she said. 

 My grandparents stopped by one day and expressed dismay over our cooler in the garage, where we tried to quarantine the sour smell. They asked my mom why she hadn’t replaced the broken refrigerator yet, and I was stunned when she told them, “I don’t want to buy a brand new refrigerator for a house that’s going up for sale! Let the new owners buy themselves a refrigerator.”

This was news to me. Selling our house, the house I loved and wanted to live in forever, seemed unthinkable. And yet, hadn’t Mom been dropping hints for years?

My sister remembers the day Mom seemed to give up, ostensibly on housework but as it turned out, on a lot of things. According to my sister, we were ten years old and Mom was in the middle of cleaning the house when she sat on the stairs leading up to her master suite and numbly said, “I just can’t do it anymore”.

Instead of gardening for hours in the evenings, or sewing velcro strips into the seams of her blouses to affix shoulder pads while watching TGIF shows, Mom took long naps after work and got a prescription for Prozac. 

That summer, as soon as school was out, Mom drove us to California to visit Aunt Carole and other relatives. After only a couple of days at Aunt Carole’s house, I woke up to find that Mom had driven herself back to Idaho, leaving me and my sister behind. Aunt Carole couldn’t understand why Mom hadn’t told us her plans to leave us there, but she also couldn’t believe Mom didn’t pack enough underwear for us. We shuffled between relatives’ homes for several weeks, our suitcases bulging with new pieces of clothing or stuffed animals to augment our vagabond wardrobes. As my duffle bag swelled, I felt like a growing burden with each passing day until my aunt and uncle finally drove us partway to Idaho to meet my Mom, who acted as if silently leaving in the middle of the night all those weeks ago was a totally normal, stable thing to do. 

I didn’t understand depression so, with Mom already deep in the pit, I was prone to uncharacteristic fits of jealousy. Back at our own house, I yelled at her and tried to coerce her. I ripped her precious shoulder pads out of all her blouses and dresses and blazers. She responded by either ignoring my antics or hollering. On at least one occasion, when I argued with her about her endless threats to move away to California, she yelled, “Well, how about I just kill myself! How would you like that, huh?” I feared I would find her in a bathtub with her wrists cut for the next five years. 

But she was serious about moving us away to California. We would have to leave our dad behind, who came to see us on weekends and holidays and special events. We would have to leave the only friends we’d ever known, the community we grew up in. My house. 

When I came home from school to find our cats sniffing a For Sale sign in the yard, I dropped my backpack on the grass and tried to pull the sign out of the ground, but it was surprisingly rooted into the topsoil. I didn’t care if neighbors saw me karate kick that sign loose enough to wrestle it out of the ground and toss it over our back fence. When the realtor stopped by the next day to replant the sign, she gave me side-eye, but I gave it right back and called her a Homewrecker behind her back. 

I turned to some of the adults I felt close to at the time, or at least trusted enough to open up to about my impending crisis. Seeking an ally, I prodded grown ups to advocate for me. But they were squarely in Mom’s corner.

“Don’t you want your mom to be happy? She deserves to do this for herself. You’re the kid, don’t you see? Your feelings don’t matter.” Over and over, Mom’s friends and relatives admonished me for not supporting her decision to spread her proverbial wings, take flight and learn to love herself, at the expense of our family. “Your mom has done a lot for you. It’s time she does something for herself for once.”

I walked through our house in a daze, touching walls as I passed by, trying to memorize the contours of the layout and the textures of the wood or plaster surfaces. In my bedroom, I cranked my cassette tapes up loud and performed elaborate dance routines in front of a slim wall mirror propped against my closet doors. The movement helped me expel just a little nervous energy each day. With no one watching or judging, I could escape into fantasies of Mariah Carey music videos or backup dancing for Paula Abdul. If I kept moving, it seemed, everything else might stay the same.

When the Homewrecker sold our house in October, we moved into my godmother’s basement for the next five months to prepare to relocate to California. My godmother, Skylar, and our godsister, Willow, lived in a huge house built into a cliff in the Highlands with broad views of the foothills, the Crane Creek golf course, and a distant, clear shot at Boise’s handful of downtown skyscrapers. Before we moved out of our house, I stowed one of my journals in the secret room behind Mom’s closet, believing I could come back one day to find it and prove to the current owners that I had a claim on the property, and they would obligingly sell it back to me. 

 Skylar’s basement had two tiny windowless bedrooms with low ceilings, a comfortable den, and a bathroom with a bathtub but no shower head. My sister was the Alpha so she got her own bedroom and slept in a twin bed. I was forced to share a full sized bed with my mom and our two cats. Mom snored and listened to Louise L. Hay audio books as she tried to go to sleep, which meant I had to listen to them, too. I barely slept at night with all the racket, and soon my forehead erupted in tiny red zits that persisted no matter how many times a day I washed my face with Clearasil. Puberty was nigh, and I was in no way prepared for hormonal or stress breakouts, nor the hygienic requirements thereof. The boys who were my friends growing up started being mean to me; adults had a sadistic habit of pointing out my budding acne. My godmother once greeted me in the kitchen one morning by way of commenting on how my preadolescent zits reminded her every day how fast we were growing up. I responded to this chaos by chain-reading novels like a literary junkie. 

Each night, Louise’s sonorous self-help voice would haunt my dreams if I managed to fall asleep before the tape ran out, and I resented her when I started memorizing her instructions for creative visualization. 

“See peace breaking out all over the planet,” Louise read, and I could only imagine the Earth’s surface breaking out in tiny red volcanoes, making it ugly and unbearable to look at, impervious to the Creator’s brand of zit cream. Louise L. Hay became a target for the extreme hatred I felt towards my circumstances. Instead of following her nightly instructions, I wrote long missives in school about how much I hated the sound of her soothing voice and I creatively visualized her having terrible Christmases. 

The heat in Skylar’s house was used sparingly. While lying awake all night, I tried to remain as still as possible, because to move a half inch in any direction meant all the heat I’d gathered against my skin would leak rapidly into the dark. To touch the ice-cold wall immediately to my left was certain to shock my senses, but I refused to snuggle against Mom, who slept soundly while presumably dreaming about palm trees and seashells. I learned to drape the next day’s clothes over myself on top of the bedspread. That way, by morning the clothes might have absorbed some of my body heat and I could squirm into them while staying under the covers, my teeth chattering in the dark. 

Because the basement bathroom didn’t have a shower head, I didn’t shower during the entire five months we lived at Skylar’s. Instead I ran a bath each night and washed my hair in my own bathwater. I thought this was an effective way to stay clean, until my friend Jenny walked behind me in single file on our way to P.E. one day and began swiping at the dandruff and dried soap flakes in my hair. Later that day, Mr. Loveless, our P.E. teacher asked me, “How come you never smile?”

The only showers in the house were way up at the third level, and those were Willow and Skylar’s quarters, so I never went up there unless they were home and watching TV on the loft. Mostly I stayed in the cramped room I shared with Mom, listening to Bryan Adams while reading a stack of library books. 

My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Henderson, was my first role model for feminism, art appreciation, and outrage against the Patriarchy. She was tall and slender and had long dark hair. She was married but waited tables three nights a week to cover her bills. I’m not sure we deserved her. But she looked out for me in a lot of ways. I was obviously struggling at home, but what may have initially tipped her off was when it was my turn to present on current events for the week and I mounted a half-hearted defense of Dr. Kevorkian. 

While windshield-wipering my bony legs on a tall squeaky stool in front of the class, I grasped the lank news clipping between my fingers as my only visual aide while describing how the doctor assisted terminally ill patients with end-of-life wishes.

“Last year, the judge dismissed charges of first-degree murder, but the state of Michigan revoked Dr. Kevorkian’s medical license. And this week,” I told my peers, “the Governor of Michigan signed legislation temporarily banning assisted suicide. So. Legally, Dr. Kevorkian isn’t allowed to help people anymore.” I shrugged. They stared at me, slack-jawed, at a loss for words. Most current events stories were human interest pieces, or anything NASA-related. Brandon had just reported on the New York Yankees signing a new pitcher. Mrs. Henderson glanced nervously around the room before excusing me back to my seat. 

At Skylar’s house, I was embarrassed about not having a shower, or a room, or a bed of my own. When we first moved in, my godsister Willow, eager to maintain her reign in her own house, told her mom that I didn’t want a ride home from school, so I walked the mile and a half home, entirely uphill, in the winter. I did want a ride, but I also missed privacy, so I didn’t mind the cold or the gray skies. I liked the fresh air and I liked imagining myself living alone in any of the fancy houses I passed on the sidewalk. I wiped my runny nose on my coat sleeve as my body curved under the weight of a backpack wider than my shoulders. My ankles ached against the steady incline. I didn’t have a space to dance to my favorite songs anymore, so I began to look forward to the cold walks and the clarifying burn in my chest and throat. It was often the best part of my day. 

Meanwhile, a new family moved into our old house, and they had a daughter who was our age. Her name was Kelsey and she enrolled in my sister’s class, which was a blessing because, even though I liked her, if I had to look at the girl living in my old bedroom every day at school, I would not have handled it well. Kelsey found the journal I stowed in the secret hideout and she read it. She knew who I was, and she felt compelled to return it to me, so she delivered it to my sister. “Please give this to your sister for me. I would return it myself, but I’m worried she might be mad at me for living in your old house. Tell her I promise not to erase the height marks she made for herself on the bedroom wall.”

I wasn’t mad at Kelsey, no, not really. And I appreciated her sensitivity to the situation, which actually showed a great deal of maturity on her part, for an eleven-year-old. I didn’t know what to do with the old journal where I had written all my deepest fears and thoughts and lists. But I did know I wanted it to stay preserved, in Boise, so I tossed the journal into the storage space behind the washing machine at Skylar’s house, ceremoniously, like they were my own cremated ashes. But a few weeks later, Skylar cleaned out that long dark cavern and found the journal. She returned it to me, thinking it was misplaced somehow. What the hell, with trying to offload this damn journal? I thought. 

It was during one of my long walks home from school that I hatched a plan. If I could turn everyone at school against me, they would be mean, and I wouldn’t miss them so much when I left. Because, oh, how I would miss them, and already did; these classmates I cherished and wanted to keep close forever. In my young brain, sabotage seemed like the only solution.

It was an obnoxious revelation that backfired gloriously. When one boy made a benign wisecrack at me, I walked behind his chair and yanked his hair. When my friend Beth, who sat directly behind me, tried to talk to me in her unwavering kind and friendly manner, I blatantly ignored her. At recess, I took a book outside or kept to myself, leaping from one slick ice mound to another on the playground, hoping I might slip and knock myself unconscious. Perhaps I would enter into a coma and my mom would have no choice but to stay in Boise, working at the public library, while I struggled to survive at St. Luke’s hospital, her plans ultimately thwarted. 

The other kids gave mostly bored or dismissive responses to my alienating scheme. The girls, not yet hardened by middle school social warfare, left me to my own devices and wasted no time or attention on me. The boys were insensitive but not cruel, save for the two boys in my class who were, we later realized, raised by abusive fathers. In me, they saw an easy thing to verbally torture. Stopping just short of any physical harm, the two boys attacked from separate angles, with no coordination between themselves. Their words are lost on me now, as they were then. Nothing they said to me gave them any indication that I was bothered, and this seemed to both excite and infuriate them. To hurl invectives and insults towards an unresponsive or aloof girl like me became less about hurting me and more about performing for everyone else. 

After some time, their behavior wore on everyone. “Come on, just leave her alone, will you?” The boy I loved since fourth grade said one morning, while keeping his head down on his schoolwork. He didn’t love me back anymore; he just wanted some peace and quiet. Mrs. Henderson occasionally overheard one of the two boys’ vitriolic rants and she intervened. “Why would you say that to someone? How do you think that makes her feel?” She yelled. 

“I’m fine,” I’d say. “It doesn’t hurt my feelings.” After all, I reasoned, my feelings didn’t matter anyway. 

The worst part was saying a slow goodbye to my dad. My parents split up when my sister and I were three, but I never suffered the pain of divorce because my dad was always at our house on weekends, or we were with him in McCall, a hundred miles north. He was with us every holiday, every birthday, and a lot of major school events. My mom assigned constant projects for him around her house, even though he didn’t live there. On any given weekend, our outing involved walking the wide concrete aisles of a hardware store while Dad shopped for materials for Mom’s house. As we slowly transitioned out of Idaho, he was visibly breaking down. Sometimes he wiped his eyes while driving us around in his loud Chevy van.

My godsister Willow was watching her own parents split up at the time. She spent half her time at her dad’s house and half at her mom’s, and even though we were raised together like sisters, this was never something we discussed. I remember being told not to talk about it unless Willow brought it up, which of course she didn’t. She was ten. 

Instead Willow became extremely attached to her terrier, A.J., who never left her side. While her parents divorced, A.J. was Willow’s solace and constant companion. That is, until we let him follow us down the street to a friend’s house and we watched him get run over by a car. Nothing will erase the sound of Willow’s screaming sobs when we raced towards A.J.’s still body; nothing will erase the small pool of blood seeping from his ear onto the asphalt. Nothing would ever compare to the helpless feeling of watching tragedy strike someone I loved, while not being able to stop it, even as I stood right beside her.

That afternoon, while Willow’s parents handled A.J’s effects, Willow and my sister and I roamed the main floor, wailing separately, like three ghosts passing from room to room, unable to look at each other. Now, not only was Willow dealing with her parent’s divorce, she had to mourn her dog, too. With the two of us living together, it became a very bleak house indeed. 

When Christmas arrived, my dad seemed to panic. He took me and my sister shopping and bought two of everything we wanted so we wouldn’t have to share. That meant two boomboxes, two sets of the same cassette tapes, two pairs of Reebok Pumps – those sneakers with an internal inflation device that they didn’t even make in kids’ sizes. Dad bought us adult sized Pumps because we thought they were cool and because it fit his shopping philosophy that I would “grow into them someday”. The sales guy at the shoe store said something like, “Seriously, man, don’t do this.” I wore the Pumps at school, but changed out of them before and after recess so they wouldn’t get dirty. We in fact never grew into those Pumps. 

I wasn’t aware at the time that my dad, who doesn’t go to the mall on purpose, was having a prolonged emotional breakdown. But while I memorized En Vogue’s Funky Divas album in its entirety, it occurred to me that he was desperate because his daughters were moving away soon. 

I tried to picture my life without the classmates I’d grown up with, even the ones who were mean to me, and that was unbearable. But when I finally realized how much my dad was hurting, I sealed off some important part of myself and tried to absorb as much of the impact for him as possible. If I tried to keep a stiff upper lip in his presence, maybe he could think about things other than the clock winding down and the calendar flipping towards the inevitable. Sparing Dad’s feelings became a priority, but the weight of despair sunk me further into a cold darkness. 

“You can stay behind and live with Skylar or move to McCall to live with your dad, but I am going to California with or without you,” I remember Mom saying flippantly, while rolling her hair in curlers before bedtime. I was angry that she refused to wait until I finished sixth grade to relocate. For the first time, I felt forced to choose between my parents. When I asked Dad if I could live with him full time, he told me, “Well. I’d like that. But I just don’t know how to raise girls…” As if anyone does. 

In my vocabulary tests, I began to reference Dr. Kevorkian in example sentences. Mrs. Henderson noticed. So one day my mom pulled me out of school to visit a psychologist. If I had to guess, my gingerbread house at Christmastime was the final straw for Mrs. Henderson, when I added a graham cracker gallows platform in the frosted yard, complete with a red vine noose. Also, not one for subtlety, the entire roof of my gingerbread house was aflame in orange gumdrops. Next to everyone else’s cheerful and cozy cottages, mine was a Halloween hellscape of spun sugar and red sprinkles, “for blood splatter,” I explained to one of the room moms, who pursed her lips and furrowed her brow with matronly concern. My cry for help could not have been more shrill.

I certainly was not a little Wednesday Addams at the beginning of the school year, so Mrs. Henderson took the only action within her power, forming a protective dome-like barrier over me in her classroom. But then I submitted an Historic Figure report on Billie Holiday, with a strong emphasis on her heroin addiction and tragic death. I don’t think Mrs. Henderson worried so much that I was aiming for Lady Day’s trajectory. To her, this was just one more chilling message shot over the bow of my sinking ship. 

The psychologist across town on Parkcenter Boulevard was a friendly lady, with short silver hair and kind eyes, but she remained silent throughout the entire session. I recognized the office park because my friend Tyler’s family owned the Red Robin across the street, and my friend Jennifer’s grandparents owned the Garcia’s Mexican restaurant where we used to eat fried ice cream, back when friends used to invite me places. In the psychologist’s office,  I played with a toy train in a sandbox while my mom waited in the lobby. Even though the psychologist let me stay quiet for almost a whole hour, she must have mastered her technique, because five minutes before our session was over and without any prodding, I burst into heavy tears. 

“Please tell my mom not to move me away from my dad and all my friends,” I begged her. “I hate living in someone else’s house and I want my own bed. My dad says he doesn’t know how to raise me, so I have to live with Mom. But, please, she won’t listen to me.” The psychologist’s face, held for so long in a soft and pleasant stare, hardened into a thin-lipped, straight mouth. She glanced at her watch and handed me a tissue. 

“I would love to see you again soon,” she told me as she escorted me into the waiting room, softening once again. I beamed, as if I had passed an exam. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to speak with your mother for just a few minutes.” 

My mom took me out for ice cream afterwards at the Baskin Robbins on Broadway. She was chipper and she smiled, but I never saw that psychologist again. 

Louise L. Hay’s voice continued to interrupt my sleep habits. I remember crying after Mom fell asleep when Louise airily stated, “If you can’t get close to other people, it is because you don’t know how to be close to your own inner child. The child in you is scared and hurting. Be there for your child.” Since Mom was fast asleep, I wanted to elbow her awake to ask, What about the child right next to you? What about her?

At school, I sometimes looked at my arm resting on my desk over an open textbook, and I suddenly felt like the arm didn’t belong to me, as if it was a weirdly detached mannequin’s arm inside a too-short jacket sleeve, the white cuffs dingy and hollow above the wrist where the elastic wore out. Whose arm is this, I wondered. If the classroom became loud during group activities, the sounds elongated near my ears so that everyone sounded very far away, or like I was underwater. I no longer raised that mannequin arm in class to swiftly answer questions incorrectly or tell long-winded stories to stay alert and interested in the topic at hand. I wrote love notes to Idaho on my desk, desperate to leave a mark of my existence on a place I would leave behind. 

On another long night while Louise droned on, the words landed haphazardly in a way I’m certain the author never intended. 

“Responsibility is our ability to respond to a situation. We always have a choice,” she read. Yes, I thought. I do have a choice in this situation. And that choice is to run away. Surely running away would communicate to my mom how desperate I was to avoid moving out of Boise. In a colorful note with hearts drawn along the borders, I informed my friend Beth about my plans to sleep under a bridge somewhere. I didn’t know of any bridges in the Highlands, so I would have to walk downtown, or perhaps curl up inside one of the long metal tube slides at Camel’s Back Park. Beth begged me in a reply note not to run away. She pleaded with me to stay logical and consider the real and perceived dangers of sleeping outside in the winter. 

After Beth tried to convince me not to run away, I walked home to my godmother’s house, searching out alcoves and hideaway spots near the street where I could camp. In Skylar’s basement, I started packing a book bag with supplies like snacks and a blanket, but when it came to clothing, I didn’t know where to start. I had never owned a quality winter coat and any ski gear that still fit was packed away in a storage unit with the rest of our belongings. It was below zero outside and I lost my nerve. Instead, I daydreamed about opening the car door while Mom drove us on the highway to California, losing consciousness the moment I hit the blurred pavement. 

I didn’t know much about how suicide should be accomplished without Dr. Kevorkian’s calming voice at my bedside, leading me to the other side with an intravenous tether, but I’d heard that ingesting massive amounts of multi-colored pills or drinking chemicals from under the sink ought to do it. No stranger to chemicals under the sink, growing up I fancied myself a yet-to-be-discovered genius chemist. I frequently locked myself in the bathroom with a notebook and a tall water glass, where I would mix various cleaning solutions and record the results of each reaction in a notebook. I didn’t know about volatility, so I didn’t consider how close I came to mixing rudimentary napalm through one of my under-the-sink potions. It was years before my folks broke down and finally bought the small chemistry set I kept asking for. But I was older and wiser now, and I suspected I could decipher a noxious poison from an inert substance. The thought made my heart quicken. 

In the meantime, I read my books, one after another. Biding my time.

Mrs. Henderson led a reading program that rewarded students who read the most books each month with a pizza party. I never missed a single pizza party until we left Idaho. I lived for those monthly pizza parties with just Mrs. Henderson, a few classmates, and maybe a special guest faculty member. For every book we read, we got to write the title on a large green paper leaf that Mrs. Henderson attached to a giant papier-mâché tree trunk that crawled up the front wall and across the ceiling over our heads. At the end of the year, after I had already left the school for California, they counted up the leaves and I had the most, with sixty-three leaves. Nobody else came close. 

Mom left us with Skylar to move some of our stuff to California. 

“I’ll only be gone a week! Stop crying, right this instant!” 

Uncle Roger arrived in a giant moving truck and loaded all of our stuff out of the storage unit. I knew this was serious because Mom took Jasmine and Mocha with her. While she was gone, I finally had the whole bed to myself, but I didn’t sleep because I was terrified Mom wouldn’t come back, and I would be the last to know, just like that summer she left us behind in California. As angry as I felt, I spritzed her flat pillow with her amber-colored perfume, which was called something like “Wild Musk”. That week, I took her pillow upstairs to the den to watch TV with Willow and Skylar. Willow snuggled with an old bone that her dog A.J. used to chew. She wrapped the jagged bone in a fuzzy blanket and tucked it into its own bean bag chair, or she cradled it absentmindedly while I curled up on the carpet with my musky Pillow Mom.

Once, during a commercial break, Skylar said, “You know, you’re welcome to stay here with me if you want to keep living here.” I shrugged with my back turned to her. My throat constricted in a silent sob. Don’t kids belong with their Mom? I thought, even if they don’t? 

If I stayed with Skylar, how could I live in the basement all alone? I don’t have my own alarm clock anymore. How will I wake up for school in the morning? I need Mom to help with my homework, I reasoned. Looking back, I am surprised this was a concern for me. I could have asked my friends and their parents for help. I could have asked Mrs. Henderson to find me after-school tutoring. I could have stayed behind, but I had already secluded myself at school and severed the most important ties in my life. And doesn’t a kid belong with their Mom? 

In March, Mom moved us to Aptos, California and rented a mildewy duplex on Seascape Boulevard that exceeded our budget, but was within walking distance to the beach. I gathered Jasmine and Mocha into my arms and murmured into their fur, talking shit about Mom. They concurred through a twitch of a tail, a short yowl, a violent purr. I telepathically whispered to them that I would find our way home. 

We enrolled at an elementary school to finish out the last two months of sixth grade. The school was woefully overcrowded, and reeked sweetly of rotting food and garbage from the playground. My sister had to share a desk and textbooks with a girl in her classroom. The only reason I got my own desk in my classroom was because it was vacated by a boy who went to rehab or a psychiatric hospital for sniffing glue.

It is difficult to articulate the arrival of rage that had surely gained momentum over time. When it made its presence known, it gave no indication that it was inside of me, other than it was the only thing that seemed to bring feeling back into my mannequin arms. During heated moments, when I looked at my hands, I felt every nerve tingling down to my fingertips. Destruction was not instinctual before, but suddenly I wanted to mindlessly wreck things. I meditated on how I could pull the entire wooden entertainment center away from the wall, and let it crash across the kitchen table. The garage was lined with shelves, stuffed with all our belongings that couldn’t fit in our tiny duplex. Those shelves could come down with a shove, and kiss my ass on the way down. Though I didn’t act on it, my desire to topple heavy pieces of furniture frightened me, and soothed me all at once. 

After just three days at my new school, I sat on the stairs in our duplex and whispered, “I just can’t do it anymore”. I locked myself in the bathroom and sat on a soft, tasseled champagne bathmat while I emptied cleaning supplies from the cabinet beneath the sink. I opened and sniffed each bottle, some of which still had the faded green “Mr. Yucky” stickers I brought home from school, where they taught me not to do the exact thing I was now doing. I didn’t want any of the dyed solutions, which felt impure and I wondered if perhaps the dye diluted the strength of the active ingredients. I chose a small brown bottle filled with clear liquid that had an ominous name. 

I sat cross-legged on the bathmat and brought the bottle to my lips, my hand shaking, and I thought my final thoughts. My plan was to haunt my old elementary school in Boise, in a friendly way, but scare bullies away from the loners. I thought about my dad and my friends in Idaho who I didn’t think I would ever see again. I thought about my new school and how impossible it was that I wasn’t sitting in Mrs. Henderson’s class that very moment, bored with plant cell structures, instead of staring down the open mouth of a dark bottle of poison. What I wouldn’t give to hear those two abused boys unleash their fury on me, just to be in Boise again. Leaving everything I ever knew behind, while knowing everything was still progressing day by day without me, felt like a death. As if my absence didn’t really affect anyone.

I drank from the bottle and coughed immediately. I anticipated discomfort, but I did not foresee the burning in my throat and the roof of my mouth. Terrified by the sensation, I remembered hearing on an after school special that milk can neutralize acid, so I ran upstairs and gulped milk straight from the jug while my mom and my sister watched Golden Girls in the living room. Gasping, I immediately confessed to my mom and my sister, my eyes watering and my voice shaking. 

“Well, you seem fine now,” they said. God, Mom could be such a Sophia. And my sister was always such a major Blanche.

Later that night I heard them snickering together in the bathroom over the scattered bottles on the floor. Sons a bitches, I thought. I had tried to poison myself with hydrogen peroxide, which at best may have caused vomiting and at worst would have caused tissue burns. 

Then Mocha ran away, leaving me and Jasmine behind. For days I sat on the front porch, stroking Jasmine’s giant gray belly while he sunbathed. Every once in a while, he jerked his head towards the street, his light blue Siamese eyes fixated on nothing, and I thought he sensed Mocha returning. I hurried up and down the unfamiliar road in socked feet, calling her name. Maybe she was lost and couldn’t find her way home? I cried for all the neighborhood to see. 

I made posters every day after school and taped them on every corner mailbox within walking distance and on the bulletin board at the Seascape Village. The signs were torn down as quickly as I put them up, and it became a sort of cold war between me and the culprit as my mission shifted from Missing Cat to, I’ve got no real friends here and all the time in the world to make flyers, Asshole. I drew Mocha in haughty repose, her fluffy black lion’s mane crowding under her ladylike chin; I drew her mugshot, straight-on and in profile; I drew her dainty paw prints, like inked fingerprints that would somehow crack the case. 

One afternoon, I came home after my daily flyer distribution, and our living room was filled with all my aunts and uncles and older cousins. It was a Welcome to California party, where they mostly sat in the living room watching footage of the Branch Davidian compound tragedy in Waco, Texas. I forgot they were coming over to see us.

“Is this a shoulder pad intervention?” I asked. “Because maybe you’ve noticed my mom is out of control.” 

“Oh, stop that,” Mom yelled from the kitchen. Later, they failed to comfort me with platitudes bordering on guilt trips. “Think of your mother’s happiness,” they said. “She deserves to be happy”. The implication was that I didn’t deserve to be happy as much as my mom did.

Eventually, we admitted to ourselves that Mocha was likely overtaken by a gang of vicious raccoons. Or hit by a car. I thought of A.J. lying in the street back home, and I recalled Willow’s agonized moans, and I wondered which was worse: never knowing Mocha’s true fate, or witnessing her sudden death and forced to grasp the finality of it. 

Along the beach, atop sheer cliffs of sandstone and granite, enormous houses as big as Simplot’s mansion sat silently like a row of sturdy, gleaming teeth. The residents and owners of those mansions were faceless, but also nameless. None of them possessed the mythical reputation of Mr. Simplot. None of them allowed hundreds of schoolchildren to cross their property, ever, let alone daily. None of them even seemed to like having neighbors; iron gates and thick stucco privacy walls kept them enclosed and separated from the rest of society, discouraging even the most intrepid trick-or-treaters. Their mansions spoke above the fog bank, you can look, but you can’t touch. 

Like other things I’d lost over the past year, I held onto Mocha’s disappearance like a hard, frozen tangible object close to my heart, letting it gouge raw grooves into a place struggling to regenerate. Louise L. Hay would never approve of my methods, but during rare moments at that time when I felt my heart warming towards the future, or glimmer with hope, or grow affection for anything other than my cats, I gathered those losses close, preserving them and letting their weighted, cold touch cool any warmth in my chest. I had to. To allow those losses to evaporate meant losing them forever, even when I knew I couldn’t keep them forever: my dad, my house, my room, my friends, my cat, my school. My whole world. No, letting go of all of these at once could only mean that nothing really mattered at all, least of all my feelings. 

About the Author: Jody Rae’s creative nonfiction essays appear in The Avalon Literary Review, The Good Life Review, and From Whispers to Roars. Her short story, “Beautiful Mother” was a finalist in the Phoebe Journal 2021 Spring Fiction Contest. She was the first prize winner of the 2019 Winning Writers Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest for her poem, “Failure to Triangulate”. She lives in Colorado, and her work can be found at www.criminysakesalive.com.

Surviving The Autopsy

By Susan Sonde

They’ve trimmed my hair, pared my nails, picked my teeth clean with a knife, Broom strolls from the closet. Cat’s got a wild look in his eyes. I’m thirsty. Fire’s burning up the morning darkness. I think he wants to kill me. 

I thought of you again last night. 

The streets are overflowing with people. The water in my tap’s never cold enough. How much you didn’t love me. In winter it’s never hot. My algorithms don’t add up. There goes the neighborhood dive bar. 

My memories of you are endless       

winding stairwells. I never reach the top. Oh, memory that stems from abandonment, you make my head heavy with zeroes. The butchery of the heart never stops. I, always the first to  apologize. You, always looking naked and desirable in the clothes you wear when you leave. Your name in my throat’s become a feral cry. Our lives together were a rising tide. Day after mismanaged day going under. My thoughts grew increasingly fearful of one another. Standing under water made me giddy on my feet.

The wind’s turning pages. I hear the slurred speech of trees, the rustle of a few raindrops it hectors into the leaves. Air’s the color of an open wound left to fester. It’s a challenge to breathe. Street’s now flat as a meadow minus its mellifluous sheep. The day won’t hold still for a picture and there are ashes between my teeth.

About the Author: Susan Sonde is an award winning poet and short story writer. Her debut collection: In the Longboats with Others won the Capricorn Book Award and was published by New Rivers Press. The Arsonist,  her fifth collection was released in 2019 from Main Street Rag. Her sixth collection, Evenings at the Table of an Intoxicantwas a finalist in the New Rivers New Voices 2019 contest. The Last Insomniac was a 2019 finalist in The James Tate Award. 

Grants and awards include, a National Endowment Award in poetry; grants in fiction and poetry from The Maryland State Arts Council; The Gordon Barber Memorial Award from The Poetry Society of America. Her collection The Chalk Line was a finalist in The National Poetry Series.  Individual poems have appeared in Barrow Street, The North American Review, The Southern Humanities Review, The Mississippi Review, American Letters and Commentary, Bomb, New Letters, Southern Poetry Review, and many others.  

Liquid Gold in Big Sky

By Michael Carter

Mother said we would no longer be hungry when the rain came. Rain would grow the rye, and we’d take our harvest to town. We’d sell it, buy food and medical supplies, and if there was money left over, maybe a doll for my sisters.

She baked bread for us each morning. When our stomachs shrank, a large piece of bread made us feel full most of the day. But we were still hungry. At night, I dreamed of the borscht and green-pepper soup she used to make for us.

I learned later that Mother was lying about the rain. Even if the rain came and even if we had enough energy to harvest, no one could buy it. That’s because the “suits” thousands of miles away made mistakes just before Halloween of ’29, and now nobody had any money.

Mother told us other things to keep our hopes up. “Maybe we’ll move to California, where it’s warm,” she’d say. We could pick peas year-round, she explained, and we might find gold along the way.

“We’ll stop in Helena to see if they’ve struck gold again. Then we’ll make our way to Carson City, Nevada, to see if they have gold there. We’ll buy food with the gold, and you’ll all be full.”

I said, “Maybe there’s gold here?”

Mother said, “No, sweetie, there’s no gold out here in the Plains.”

So I prayed each night for the rain. And even though Mother said there wasn’t any, I prayed for gold. I prayed that Mother would make it all work and we’d eat.

When the rain finally came, I left our sod hut and peered into the big sky, greeting the drops as they hit my face.

Mother and my sisters joined me and did the same. I looked at their faces and saw something that made me think Mother was right about hope but wrong about the gold.

I saw smiles as the raindrops glistened and rolled off their cheeks. Like tears of happiness. Like liquid gold running down their faces that would drip to the ground and make everything all right again.

We put our arms around each other, and for that moment, a moment in time that felt as long as the span between the horizons, we were no longer hungry.

About the Author: Michael Carter is a writer from the Western United States. He comes from an extended family of orchardists and homesteaders in Montana, also known as Big Sky Country. He enjoys RVing and wandering remote areas of the Rocky Mountains with his dog Hubbell, primarily along the banks of the Gallatin River. He’s online at michaelcarter.ink and @mcmichaelcarter.

*This piece originally appeared in Spelk on February, 8th 2019. An archive can be found here: https://spelkfiction.com/2019/02/08/liquid-gold-in-big-sky/.

A Good Villain for the Ages

By Ernest Gordon Taulbee

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

At first, astrology wasn’t just some bullshit built for people to check horoscopes in old TV Guides they found while cleaning out their dead grandma’s house. Originally, astrology was an attempt to understand the universe and the human’s place within it — when math was made of monsters and science was a demon that could crawl into your soul. It holds the concept of a Great Year and within that construct there are smaller portions known as Ages. 

An Age consists of two millennia, a century, and a few decades to spare — a good stretch of time. There have been only a few Ages at best since the Great Year was first conceived, and, though it may seem like a poor man’s approach to understanding infinity, it is the perfect length of time for the nap my body needed.

Now there’s this guy. He’s been blowing up my phone all morning. He blew up my supervisor’s phone yesterday. He blew up my director’s phone the day before. I called him back and made an appointment with him. I have complied. I hope he mirrors that behavior, because all I want is compliance. 

The process should be simple: Metrocall receives the complaint, the complaint is sent to a compliance officer, we inspect and send our report to the owner, they make the repairs, and we close the case. Your most eager egghead shouldn’t be able to make a very interesting flowchart out of that one, but it always gets complicated. 

Owners complain. They don’t want to make the repairs. It isn’t financially feasible. It’s not their fault the property is in disrepair. It was like that when they bought it, and, if Metro expects them to make repairs, they will leave it in the lawyers’ hands. 

This guy was no different. The problem with him is that he was supposed to be different. His company was supposed to improve the neighborhoods. His company, Promise Properties LLC, submitted a plan to the city saying they would purchase vacant properties and have them ready for market within eighteen months. I was instructed by to “work with them.” 

His company could be called Broken Promise Properties LLC for all I care, because I am yet to see one of the properties improve. One of those astrological Ages could pass, and I doubt we would see improvements. The developers are all the same. At first, they see cheap properties they can flip and by flipping improve the neighborhoods and make tons of money. Then the financing gets tricky and they realize it may not have been that wise to invest in such an economically depressed area. 

Then, I’m stuck being a compliance officer who doesn’t get compliance on his cases. I stopped working with him and placed some fines. I figured the non-compliance would get me more noticed than the fines, and I desperately need to be under the radar. 

After the fines, the phone calls started what seemed like Ages ago, and now here he is asking if I know him.

“Sir,” I said. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Goddamn, Devin, how can you not remember me?”

“Sir, I would prefer Inspector Prentice?”

“I’m calling you Devin. That is what I have always called you and will always call you.”

“Sir, we just met.”

“You don’t remember me,” he repeated. “How can you share a bedroom with someone for two years and not remember them?”

***

Is something we see something we experience?

That was the question I kept asking myself. I have been doing the job for almost seven years. I had just finished my fifth year when the trouble started. It’s been nearly two full years of trouble. 

There were actual experiences before “the trouble.” My wife left me less than six months after my father died. The truth is my father had been in poor health for twenty years, and we weren’t that close. Also, my wife and I were both messing around on the side and our marriage had ended long before she left me. 

 It wasn’t either one of those that made me drink. It was the stuff I saw that made me want to stay drunk. There were the last minute Narcan saves, after I found a body in an alley. There were the kids covered in bedbug bites. There were the people who hoarded their used toilet paper, whose skin looked gray from the constant exposure to toxins. It got in my head and made me thirsty. 

 I may just be driving around sending notices about broken downspouts and gutters, but I saw things scribbled on walls inside vacant houses. The vacant houses got to me as well. I had to verify the doors were open before I could submit the boarding requests. Usually the front or back door was kicked in and everything was in plain view. I could see inside those houses and get an up-close look at how time passes and everything fails. Looking at these dead houses reminded me Ages end. 

 I drank before the job, but in group settings and rarely alone. Once I settled into the job and the forty-hour week, I started to drink more. Then, I was working with a hangover every day. Then, the hangovers went away. Then, I was mixing a vodka and Sprite in my thermos in the morning and keeping the blood alcohol content even during the day, until I could turn it up after my shift.

 My steward was the one that tipped me off that I was being watched. He told me it was better to confess than to get caught, so I did. The steward met me at the office and I spilled my guts. My drinking was out of control and I needed help. 

Help was offered along with a correction plan at work. Moving forward I would have to submit to drug and alcohol screenings. My urine could not test positive for either.

***

“You know, I tell my kids about you?”

“How could I possibly know that, Caldwell?”

“Well, first, don’t call me Caldwell. My name is Steven.”

 “I thought your name was Caldwell Stevens.”

“It was, but I changed it when I was adopted. I always hated Caldwell. I especially hated the way you said it, but I liked Steven. I kept it and took my adoptive parents last name, so now it’s Steven Simpson.”

“It’s a great name,” I said. 

 I knew him now, but I could still barely recognize him. He was well over six feet tall. His hair was thin and he wore glasses, but he looked healthy in a way I could not remember him ever being. His body was lean. I could still see the tiny circular scars on the top of his scalp, especially now that the hairline was receded. 

“Don’t patronize me, Devin,” he said. His clothes were crisp and his tie was in perfect knot.

“I’m not trying to patronize you at all, Steven.”

“Oh, no, not you. Never. “

“I swear, Caldwell.”

“Steven.”

“Sorry, yes, I meant Steve.”

“Not Steve. Steven.”

“Jesus Christ, can you just calm down so we can talk?”
“You don’t tell me to calm down,” he said. “You know I did an open records request for your employee file? Did you know that?”

 “I didn’t,” I said. “They gave it to you?”

“Yes, they gave it to me, Devin. They had to. It’s the law. I know you are a fuck up in your job. I know you are hanging by a thread.”

“Can we talk about the property, Steven? We’re supposed to be here to talk about the property.”

We were standing in the yard just outside an old Victorian. His company owned it and I had placed a fine on it for exterior violations. It had been vacant for years before he bought it and it had been vandalized several times.

“You knew it was mine, didn’t you? You figured out Promise Properties was my business and that is why you started fining us. Admit it.”

“No, I placed the fines, because you weren’t keeping up your end of the bargain. You were supposed to fix these properties, not just leave them vacant and boarded.”

“What would you know about keeping a bargain?”

***

 I was drunk the first time I took copper from a house. It was about a year before I had to go into my supervisor’s office and ask for help. My inspection area has the largest collection of vacant and abandoned houses in Metro, and half of my inspections were to get them boarded. I can remember seeing the back door open and walking up to take my picture to have the thing secured. 

I needed to take a leak. Typically, compliance officers pop into convenience stores and fast food places to use the john. The job requires us to use bathrooms intended for customers and not the general public, but few places complain about it. I had grown skeptical of doing this, because I was afraid someone would smell booze on me and report me to Metro the same way they do tall grass and graffiti. The open doors on vacant houses made for a perfect place to release. 

I could take a few steps into the vacant house, stomping the floor to make sure termites hadn’t devastated it. Then, I could relieve myself and go about my day undetected. 

On one such break, I saw the pipe lying on the floor. It was tarnished the way copper will discolor, but they were perfect pieces about two feet in length. There were about two dozen pieces total. It didn’t make any sense. I didn’t know if someone had left them there, intending to come back for them, but I didn’t care. 

I bundled them up and put them in my trunk.

I knew the value. Copper prices were on the rise and have been on the rise for ages. Security had cracked down on it a bit, but you just had to show ID and say where you got it from. It was too easy. I could get extra money with little to no effort and all while on the clock. Extra money was something I could always use. I had felt the need for extra income for the entirety of a Great Year, or at least since I first began working. 

Within days of my first collection, I had copper cutting tools in the trunk of my work car. I would swing by on Friday nights after my shift was over and retrieve the week’s collection. Saturday mornings I was at the scrap yard in the neighboring county, which kept me off the Metro records. Abandoned as they may be, the houses in my area were built right and full of copper. I couldn’t believe how much money I could make while doing my regular work. It was genius, really: evil genius, but genius nonetheless.

***

“I am working on them,” he said. 

He walked to the electrical meter and grabbed the green tag hanging from it. I knew what that meant. Red meant the power was off due to nonpayment, yellow meant that the power was off due to nonuse, and blue meant that the meter had been tampered with at some point in the past. 

Green was good. 

Green was always good, be it with grass or money or power or the tarnish on a piece of copper. Green meant the power was on and the bill was being paid.

“I send my crews in at night. They pull up in the back and they take the boards off and they go inside to do renovations. I am fixing the interiors first. I’ll take care of the outside once I have the insides fixed. If people see the outside in good condition, they’ll start breaking into them. I’m going to bring this neighborhood back to life all at once, so I am doing the exteriors dead last.”

“Well, Metro Compliance prefers an opposite approach,” I said. “We like to see the exteriors repaired first.”

“I know you do,” he said. “That is why I made the arrangement with your director. Have you ever had to get the grass cut at one of my houses? Have you ever had to get one of them secured?”

 “No.”

“That’s right. You gave me a fine over violations that existed years before I bought these houses.”

 “I was just doing my job, Steven.”

“You did the opposite of what you were told to do, that’s why I know you figured out I was the one who owned them.”

 “Steven, we were kids. I don’t have any problem with you.  I mean, fuck, Steven, we were kids.”

 “I know we were kids. I told you, I tell my kids about you.”

  “What do you tell them?”

  “I tell them bedtime stories about Caldwell the Kid who fights the evil Devin the Devil Boy.”

“Jesus, Steven. Do I really deserve all that?”

“You’re my villain, Devin. You terrorized me. You could have accepted me, but you treated me like shit, and I’ll never understand why.”

“Neither will I. I can say I’m sorry.”

 “You wouldn’t mean it.”

 “Goddamn, Steven, I would mean it more than I’ve ever meant anything in my life.”

***

 The conditions were strict. I had to do inpatient care and successfully complete the treatment program. After that, I had to attend meetings to keep me sober and submit to random screenings. I did well at first. The screenings were “random” but seemed to run on a schedule; I became predictable and I could plan for it.

 I really tried, though. I’ll give myself credit for that. I wanted to stay sober. During the doctor visits and screenings, I did find out that I had some liver damage. Cirrhosis and heart problems took my dad out. He drank as long as I could remember. In fact, I can remember being surprised even as a child we were allowed to keep foster children in our house. I assumed the social workers would figure out that he drank and that would be a nonstarter. I was wrong.  I guess he hid it well. I knew he stashed his beer and bottles away before their inspections. 

 I began to keep books with me in my work car. That is when I started reading about astrology. I liked the idea of it more than the practice. It seemed comforting to believe your fate was written out in the universe and you had no control over it. It made things make sense.

 Sobriety made it easier to get the copper too. 

 My hands steadied and I was more focused. When I found an open door, I could pop inside and pull a few pieces of pipe and stow them in my trunk. I had to come by after my shift to empty my trunk almost every day, because I didn’t want my coworkers to see my harvest. I was able to put money aside. As amicable as it was, the divorce did a number on my finances, and the copper was really helping me get caught up. 

 I started to drink again though. I found this huge house full of unsullied copper pipes – more than I had ever seen in a single dwelling. I took more from it than I taken from any other house, and it just seemed to keep giving me more, like it was growing back once I cut it out of the walls and from between the joists. Then I found it secured. I never had to have it boarded before. The door was just unlocked, not destroyed. That let me just take the copper and close the door behind me. Then someone secured the damn thing. Guess who: that’s right, Promise Properties. 

 It was a recent acquisition. 

***

 The truth is I hated him. I still remember the night he showed up at my house. He was the same age as me, but he was much shorter. That is why I found his current height so shocking. He had scabs in his hair I could see from where his parents put cigarettes out on him. He cringed every time my father spoke. Whenever my dad saw it, he would kneel down in front of him and apologize for upsetting him. My old man would rip the roof off the house to yell at me, but when Caldwell teared up Dad was Captain Comfort to the rescue. My mother was always made food that Caldwell liked and took him to appointments. 

 During summer vacation, he got a new bicycle. Mine was a hand-me-down from my cousin. It was infuriating. The worse part was I always had my own room before, but I had to share it with Caldwell once he moved in. There were two girls that stayed with us as well. They were sisters and they stayed in one room. They left me alone, but Caldwell meant I had to give up my space.

 He woke up screaming a lot too, and my mom would run into the room to comfort him. She would tell me to shut up whenever I complained. Sometimes he would wake me up crying as well. He did this quiet enough for my parents not to notice, but it always woke me up.

“Devin the Devil Boy is always trying to set traps for Caldwell the Kid, but Caldwell is always too smart to get caught in them. I use them as little parables to teach my kids how to treat other people.”

“We were kids, Steven. I can’t say that enough.”

“I don’t remember being a kid. Maybe you do, but I sure as fuck don’t. I refuse to let my kids miss out on their childhood.”

“I don’t know what to say, Steven. I can promise you I’ll back off your properties, though. No more citations. I’ll get out of your way and let you do your work.”

***

The first time I pissed dirty Metro was all sympathy. They sent me in for more in-patient treatment. It was just a week this time, but it seemed much longer. All I did was sleep, eat, and read the old horoscopes in the stacks of magazines that were strewn about every surface in the place. I had group therapy twice a day to talk about what caused my relapse. The truth was I just stopped drinking the first time to save my job, and, though I did well with it, I always felt thirsty. Even when I wanted to sober up, my body didn’t agree.

Once I was released, they had me ride with the steward for a few weeks for re-training. It seems my quality controls were under the microscope. The number of inspections I did during the day were below the rest of the team, and – in truth – my area should have a high number of inspections per day, since little owner contact was necessary. 

While the steward was with me, I couldn’t take any copper. That was sad, because at that time the income from that was nearly as high as my take home pay from being a compliance officer. I had paid off my credit cards and had money set aside. I stayed dry while he was with me. 

 Once I was back to myself, I tried to stay dry as well. I shot for meeting production and trying to coast back below the radar. I figured going unnoticed would help me get myself back together and keep the trunk full of copper. 

 I kept feeling thirsty, though. 

The second time I pissed dirty, they weren’t so kind. At that point, they stated Metro’s obligation to me was nearly fulfilled, and that there were only so many chances available. That one was my fault. I assumed they would keep the same schedule as before, but they randomly tested me less than forty-eight hours after I pissed clean. 

 The steward told me there was only so much he could do, but he ran what he called a “last chance grievance” by them, and they went for it. I think the point was to get both Metro and the union off the hook if I fucked up again.

 I think that is the only reason I was given any patience when the call complaining about my citation against Promise Properties LLC hit my director’s desk. Still, the kid’s gloves were ready to come off, and I knew it. 

***

“May I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“And I mean this with all due respect. I mean it with all sincerity. Why keep the Steven? Why not just pick out a new name all together? Why keep any shred of the birth name?”

“I wanted to be someone new, but I didn’t want to forget why. I wanted my life to change trajectory, but I didn’t want to forget how my course in life started. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that is the best way I can explain it.”
 I had spent my evening at home looking over his Facebook page. He had one for his business and one for himself. The business one was not of interest. I knew as much about his business as I wanted to. His personal one grabbed my attention. He had three kids and appeared happily married. His wall was filled with pictures of all five of them at amusement parks and the beach. It seemed he was a key funder in a victim’s advocacy group. I looked at it for ages. If a contest started in that bedroom when we were kids, he won. There was no doubt about it.

“I think I get it,” I said. “What I need you to understand is I don’t know why. You were a stranger in my house. You were a stranger in my room. You were this kid who showed up who was messed up in the head and who my parents paid all kinds of attention to, rather than pay attention to me. I didn’t understand.”

 I had his personal cell phone number in my work phone. I cracked a bottle and drank up enough courage to call him. He answered on the third ring, seemingly uncaring I called so late. He cleared his throat and entered into the conversation.

“Your parents treated me like a son, you could have treated me like a brother.”

“I know I could have, but I didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t understand why they treated you better than they treated me. And, I mean, wasn’t the guy who adopted you a doctor? I know the foster care system ends in a jail cell for a lot of kids in situations like yours, so I think you did okay.”

“No thanks to you. It was thanks to your parents and to the parents who adopted me. They shaped me into the man I am, but it didn’t happen overnight. Your parents and my parents were eternally patient with me. Their patience is the stuff of legends, but so was your cruelty.”

“Well, the man you are turned out better than the man I am,” I said. “I can guarantee that one will go down in the ages. You turned out better than I did, if it’s any consolation.”

***

The house that was full of copper was not secured. Someone had slammed through the back door. I was surprised. As soon as he had purchased it, he kept it secure. It was bound to happen in this part of Metro. I would actually have to make him aware he needed to get it locked.

 I needed to piss, so I walked inside. Normally I just took a leak in the corner, but I didn’t want to do that here. It didn’t appear that any work had been completed. This one must have not made it to the top of the list for interior renovations yet. I went into the bathroom. I could see it from the open exterior door. I did what I needed to do in the bathtub. The entire interior was in disarray. There were empty beer bottles and someone had taken a shit on the living room floor. I collected a few pieces of copper that were lying on the kitchen counter and went back to my work car.

 I texted his phone to let him know the building needed to be secured. He texted back that his crew was aware and would have it secured by the close of business.

“Hey, maybe we could get together for coffee or something,” I texted.

“Sure,” he replied. “That may be nice.”

The texts continued.

“You know, when we were kids, sometimes the bad guys in the cartoons would shift sides and help out the heroes. Does Devin the Devil boy ever turn into a good villain and try to help Caldwell the Kid?”

“No, but maybe someday.”

***

 The steward called me the next morning. He said he needed me to meet him at the office, because management wanted to do a follow up on my last chance grievance. I figured it was another piss test. They dip the sample into a container that gives them results in less than two minutes. 

I knew I would piss dirty for the third time and that would be the end of it. I had an extra set of keys for my work car. I figured I would come by after hours and collect the copper from the trunk. I could probably make a decent living scrapping copper under cover of night, until something else came along. I agreed to meet him and take what was coming. 

The steward was waiting outside the office building and he led me to a conference room. When he opened the door, my director and my supervisor were sitting at the table. There were two police officers as well. Steven wasn’t there, but there was a man wearing button down shirt with Promise Properties embroidered on the breast.

He was the one who played the video on a laptop. It was me walking around inside I found open yesterday. The video included me walking out with an armful of copper. The power was on and so was the security system. 

Another police officer entered the conference room announcing that my trunk was also full of copper. I knew he was telling the truth. I had a load that would have nearly paid my mortgage for the month waiting to be cashed in sitting in the trunk of my work car.

The steward remained silent, as I was taken into custody.

The police officer stated I would receive professional courtesy, which meant – since I was sworn officer – I wouldn’t be put into general population. I was given the name of a bondsman in anticipation of making bail. 

On the way to booking, one of the police officers commented on a take-out place we passed, saying she hadn’t eaten there in ages. I remembered there were two police officers with the social worker the first night Caldwell and I spent under the same roof.

It’s not my first time being arrested, and I knew it would seem like forever between being booked and making bail – it would feel like the Ages. I sat on my cuffed hands hoping those Ages would pass through like the stars lighting vacant houses and a child’s room. 

About the Author: Ernest Gordon Taulbee has published stories in The Electric Rail, KAIROS Literary Journal, Molotov Cocktail, Centifictionist, Litbreak, and several others. One of his short stories was a finalist in Still: The Journal’s Fiction Category in 2017. He holds an MA in English from Eastern Kentucky University and lives in Louisville, KY. His Twitter handle is @gordtaul.

Two Poems by Cal Freeman

By Cal Freeman

Bella Vista

You’re staying in Room 8. You like it here, despite the musty smell. You can watch the lake from the picnic table on the patio. “Bella Vista” is spelled out in bold cursive on the concrete bottom of the pool. It feels good to say it aloud—Bella Vista, beautiful view, grand view. It doesn’t translate perfectly, but you look out and there’s Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay; it’s ocean-blue or blue as the sky or blue as what we maim in our descriptions. The waves this evening are whitecapped combers that spray the support bars of the jet ski lift before collapsing in a despondent clop in the sand. They haven’t hosted weddings at the Bella Vista in years, but they still advertise this service on every room door. Of all the marriages doomed to failure, why have so many of the profligate befriended me? seems like a question for the shuttered ballroom or a prescient epithalamion. Is it something other than doom that keeps the vows coming but not keeping? A tacit understanding that ten good years beats ten lonely ones? The wisdom of knowing that forever is a concept which, despite our formal histrionics, can never be convincingly acted out? Weddings are soliloquys; marriages are more than that. A steel swing set is anchored in the breakwater. Kid Rock blares from someone’s Bluetooth speaker. You want to say it doesn’t sound like here, but how could it not sound like here? You’re somewhere south of the Big Dipper, unsure if that makes sense. The lone maple soughs in humid air. The shouting next door’s become rhapsodic. Drunks cloak themselves in noise, but it’s really more akin to resignation. Too late for apology or grace. The gone years, the wasted calligraphy and crepe. You step into a swing and boomerang over the water. You think it might be Tawas across the bay. You went to a wedding there once that took place behind a little blue cottage on the banks of the Au Sable. Now they’ve sold the place and split the money. Nothing really ends, you think, looking out across the lake and knowing otherwise. Shadow of a pier in the light of a buoy that tells you you’re returning to something: song, place, or figment. Superior mirage; lights, refraction, inversion of air masses revealing the impossible—a buoyant city, a levitating ship.  

Waltz Inn

A heavy oak door 

has opened of its own volition 

after having just been closed, 

and the figure of a woman 

looks at our troubled time 

in languor. A spirited restaurant 

where each denizen believes 

in spirits. I’d have liked 

to have gone back one more time 

for un-wooded chardonnay 

and lightly-pankoed perch, 

to swallow spirits and ghost,

to take something for the ditch,

but all I have is the old farmhouse 

in my viewfinder and another plaintive

photo for a relic. 19th-century 

farmhouse storied of good food 

and visitations. Maple bar 

with backlit mirrors rimed, 

soon to be gone as the gone trees 

of Whispering Woods, 

gone as the figures the night cuts 

of parallax and artificial light. 

If I listen I can almost hear

the clip-clop of hooves

in the fresh hell of half-sleep, 

the clatter of iron and steel tolling over 

hash marks as an engine tumbles 

toward the city. Such repetition 

is how every ghost is born. 

In the headlight of a train, 

the atemporal’s a fact,

the known’s a whistle stop, the mind’s a token visitation

About the Author: Cal Freeman is the author of the book Fight Songs. His writing has appeared in many journals including Sugar House Review, Southwest Review, Commonweal, PANK, Rattle, and The Literary Review. He is a recipient of the Devine Poetry Fellowship (judged by Terrance Hayes) and winner of Passages North’s Neutrino Prize. He currently serves as Writer-In-Residence with InsideOut Literary Arts Detroit and teaches at Oakland University

The Moose of Morrow County

By William Burtch

Surging flood water pitched a hateful tantrum. Death itself surfed upon its waves. The roiling river currents so feral that the rickety shack on its bank would be gulped like a raw oyster. 

An aged hound endured a tethered existence just outside of the shanty. A beast of no papers, a lineage put to no written record. As the flood waters rose, the old hound doggy-paddled in an ever-shrinking circle, dictated by the length of leash yet available. At some approaching moment, the leash, spent of all remaining slack, would pull the dog under.

Inside the dank shanty snored Chet, the lord of the manor, stoned to the Seventh Circle. Chet was a self-styled carver and curer of meats, such as venison, squirrel and woodchuck. And other luckless quarry dropped off by local hunters and poachers. Chet also processed the freshest mammalian carcasses the county roadsides could offer, served up in the soup, stews and chilies that always simmered in the valley. The odd milk cow, succumbed to old age, a revered treat.

Chet was a tanner of animal hides. Raw pelts of indeterminable vermin, tacked to the ceiling to cure, hung like morbid stalactites.  The ancient art of taxidermy held particular fascination for Chet. A completed but yet to be retrieved bull moose head stirred in him a modicum of self-love.

But, etched for eternity, there was a confused, almost startled, expression upon the countenance of the moose. Chet hoped his client, Rudy, would still approve of it, in the main. Rudy was the local plumber. Rudy had saved up, overcharging for the occasional stopped-up toilet, for the hunting adventure of a lifetime. To the northernmost regions of Ontario. 

Rudy’s lone hunting companion on that excursion was concluded to have become lost, never to be found. His presumed demise opened up suspiciously just enough room in the camper for Rudy’s moose head, which seemed to peer out the RV’s window the duration of the drive back to the States. A VW van full of already sensory distorted occupants was startled right off the road at the sight.

“Rocky, I’ve got some bad news about Bullwinkle,” Chet had said, when Rudy presented him with the severed moose head. 

Chet’s cot, a jerry-rigged assemblage of mismatched and patched tire inner tubes, was bound together by butcher twine. A plank of scrap plywood served as a mattress of sorts. A quilted blanket, rotted by rye whiskey sweated from every pore, covered Chet head to toe.

The tire tube bedframe was buoyed, spinning, trapped in the raging whirlpool of rogue river water. The flood consumed the shack’s interior, save for three feet of remaining oxygen between the water surface and the ceiling. Chet and the moose head filled the dwindling airspace. Chet was passed out, like a dozing frog on a lily pad.

Outside the shack, Chet’s hound paddled on, to a state of exhaustion, in a circle shrunk to the circumference of a family-sized pickle jar. The leash was taut, expended. Only the dog’s nose still breeched the surface. In less than a minute the hound would vanish to the depths.

Approaching the end of that minute, a flat-bottomed boat sidled up to the frantic canine, water lapping at its lone remaining nostril yet above the surface. A swift flick of Rudy’s hunting knife severed the death leash. By the collar Rudy hoisted the gasping hide sack full of bones into the boat, where it slumped to an unrecognizable, but still breathing, heap.

Rudy nudged the small droning outboard motor toward the shack, a structure on the verge of succumbing to the whims of the bank-breached river. He reached the lone shack window still above the waterline. Rudy jolted. His prized moose head gazed right back at him. It’s bewildered and alarmed expression, permanently frozen for all of time. 

“Jesus Almighty,” Rudy yelled in disgust. “What the jump’n hell, Chet?”

Rudy could make out the blanketed form of Chet, riding on the whirling cot next to the moose head. 

Rudy knew he had to act with haste, with an uncharacteristic urgency. He had mere moments. He evaluated the boat’s capacity for the rescue of a mounted moose head, its drunken taxidermist, a geriatric hound dog, and Rudy himself. The small outboard motor was already over-taxed, to the point of belching white smoke. The spatial geometry did not calculate well at all. 

A decision loomed.

                                                                        ***

Ginch Yoder, who had fled his Amish heritage in pursuit of heightened worldly offerings and temptations, never once waivered in his account of what he saw that day. He would pay a hefty toll for the tale he told. He would endure the mockery of his liquor capacity, at best, and his very sanity, at worst. Nutty Ginch he would become. 

The rain had been torrential, sure. Visibility limited. Some booze may have been abused. But Nutty Ginch would swear to his grave as to what he had witnessed. A bull moose, in the heart of Ohio. Antlers like the satellite dishes of old. A confusion, even terror, upon its face. Swimming right down the middle of that raging river. Perched on the moose’s back, waving to Nutty Ginch, sat Rudy the Plumber. 

Situated behind Rudy, an old hound dog. Grinning, wagging its tail to beat the band.

About the Author: William Burtch has been a finalist for the American Fiction Short Story Award, appearing in American Fiction Volume 17 (New Rivers Press). Recent work has been published in Great Lakes ReviewGone LawnBarren MagazineSchuylkill Valley Journal, Riverbed Review and others. He tweets at @WilliamBurtch2. More at williamburtch.com

Infinity

By Sara Chansarkar

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

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

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

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

Players and Wombats

By Dan Brotzel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fires We Build

By Matthew Schultz

We split wood and stack logs along the property line

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

tonight. There will be boots and flannel shirts, coffee

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

Kids are walking up the hill between the long grasses,

their slight dirt path worn wide by daily parades to the

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

creeps in and the weightlessness of august youth grays.

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

in the spreading glow, like Andromeda and the Milky Way

reaching out across the great expanse, hoping to connect

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

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

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

we look out upon our small, ephemeral kingdom beneath

the reassuring stars still flickering like ancestral campfires.

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