Exodus into Suburbia

By Alexis Draut

Louisville. South side suburb
synthetic flowers in hospital room: I
came out crying, gills for lungs in a
basket on the Ohio River, baptized
in July fireworks and thunder

Favorite color was swing set under sky,
leaves dried on sidewalk, Mother cried
for City’s mercy, peach trees in Saint
Matthews always with barren seeds,
sewer fish thirsty for feet

Swim through humid autumns,
hands grown from a holy love of
pumpkin guts, baseball cap covering
sunscreened red bangs behind third,
a mitt ready to catch the foul

A first sorrow: bikes don’t teach 
flying lessons. A second: blue television
living room light pixel grained breath – 
every sun-filled minute of spring
drenched in Dogwood-soaked sweat

July locusts, popcorn and lemonade 
stands, selling watermelon just beyond
front room mustard walls: who knew a
small house could claim an entire decade,
Lourdes’ bells fill a child’s first gasp

About the Author: Alexis Draut (she/her/hers) is a nature writer who has worked for a small-town newspaper, an organic farm, and a study abroad program. Her poetry, which she describes as place-based, has been published in The Social Justice Review, Havik Anthology and Internet Void. Alexis recently earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Chatham University (Pittsburgh, PA), and is currently working on her Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of Kentucky. She is a native Kentuckian, born and raised in Louisville. 

An Interview with Greg Gerke

Interview conducted by Megan Neary

Greg Gerke is the author of the essay collection See What I See, the book of short stories Only the Bad Things, and many stories and essays that can be found in various publications, including Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and 3AM Magazine. He is also the editor of the new literary journal Socrates on the Beach. 

 Gerke said he created Socrates on the Beach because “he wanted to make a place that was more open to long form work,” adding, “I’d been thinking a lot, just ‘cause of my own writing, with mostly submitting longer essays, people don’t typically take them.” So far, there have been two issues of the magazine. He said his “favorite thing has been being introduced to writers I did not know…I’m really excited to find those new writers and I hope publishing them can help on their writing path.” According to Gerke, Socrates on the Beach “is about literature. It’s not really about politics. I wanted to kind of get away from that.”

One of the writers who has appeared in Socrates on the Beach is Joseph McElroy, whom Gerke counts among his favorite living writers. McElroy has published nine novels, including Plus and Women and Men. Gerke said McElroy “writes in a very special way, kind of maybe as special as a Faulkner or a Henry James… there’s probably nothing like it in American literature.” Gerke plans to write a long essay on McElroy this year. 

 In addition to writing essays, Gerke is working on revising a novel called In the Suavity of the Rock. About the novel he said, “people will say it’s autofiction, but I’ve tried to almost detonate a bomb in autofiction because there are certain correspondences in my life, but then I make up other things.” He is also “faintly planning another essay book” that will focus on art, literature, and film. Gerke has also written another novel that he described as “a New York novel with three main characters.” The characters are a film critic, a scholar, and a homeless outreach worker—three roles that Gerke has played in his own life. He said, “it’s kind of a Seinfeld thing, but serious too, and funny, hopefully.” The novel clocks in at 700 pages, which Gerke feels may be too long to attract interest, but he hopes “it’ll see the light of day sometime.” 

One of the authors who has most influenced Gerke is William Gass, who wrote essays, short stories, and novels, including Omensetter’s Luck. Gerke said, “when I read him… it really touched something and luckily he was still alive and I went to interview him and that was really important—to experience him after experiencing all of the work…just to see him how he lived, it was just, it was…very influential.” One aspect of Gass’ writing that Gerke seeks to emulate in his own is the “exuberance” with which he wrote.

Gerke also sees a connection between the writing he does and the films he loves, saying, “there seems to be a rythm in sentences… related to cutting in film and editing in narrative film and, you know, the words you use are kind of camera positions—if it moves or not, what’s in the frame.” “There is kind of a connection in a way, I think it’s hard to replicate…great directors in words, but I mean, I can read an essay by Emerson, take one of his older essays, like Fate or Power, and I can see images from Terrence Malick films.” He added, “In the vaunted shot of the camera coming at ground-level toward the mother on the salt flats, I hear the adamantine language of Emerson—the same sublime.”

 Gerke’s advice to writers is to “read everything, read widely: poetry, philosophy, Shakespeare, Dante, all the people you would think to read, that would be the people to read.” Adding, “it’s good to read things that are alien and strange—they challenge you.” But, he says, “I wouldn’t read anything just because it’s difficult, it has to be beautiful too.” He gives Shakespeare as an example “it’s amazing every time, that he wrote this thing and there’s so much beauty in it that you just go running, leaping with joy.”

About the Interviewer: Megan Neary is a co-founding editor of Flyover Country, and 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.

The Sin of Sunday Rock And Roll

By Cerys Harrison

Henry Ford built Greenfield Village as a shrine to American commerce. He dismantled historical homes from across the country and reassembled them on the property he purchased in the middle of my hometown. Locals were hired, at minimum wage, to dress in period costumes and perform Americana chores for tourists like candle making, butter churning, hog feeding.

My father, a rabid Democrat, asserted the real reason for Greenfield Village was to keep ol’ Henry’s property taxes down. Regardless, each year he bought a family pass, and we spent many Sunday afternoons chugging around the Village in the 1873 Torch Lake locomotive that encircled Henry’s menagerie. I felt as if I was traveling between two worlds. One world held the clean, refurbished wooden benches on which we sat as we tooted past the pond with Stephen Foster’s steamboat on our left. The Southfield Freeway on my right led to another world, with Corvettes and Barracudas revving their engines.

I inherited a passion for gift shops from my mother and the one in Greenfield Village was exceptional. The summer I turned twelve I wrinkled my nose at the dolls with heads made from dried apples and the wooden hobby horses that had fascinated me the year before. Instead, I made my way to the section of the shop with racks of women’s dresses and matching bonnets, where shelves with Early American cookbooks and pamphlets with stencils for decorating rooms with Early American patterns soldiered next to packages of vintage sewing patterns. I imagined myself transported back in time to the general store in my cherished Little House books.

I wanted to churn butter with Ma Ingalls. I wanted to read books with Laura by candlelight. I wanted to wear bonnets and skirts that rustled around my ankles. I wondered what kind of underwear Early American girls wore. Those patterns weren’t on the racks in the Greenfield Village Gift Shop. I wondered, too, what Early American girls did when they got their periods.

“They used rags,” my friend Merilee replied as she crossed her delicate arms over her narrow chest and planted her Buster Browns firmly on her backyard grass. “That’s why they say, ‘she’s on the rag’.”

I wondered how Early American girls kept their rags in place. My newly acquired sanitary napkins were constantly sneaking out of their belt and laying at odd angles on my panties.

Merilee fixed me with squinted eyes. “Back then, girls didn’t run around all over the place like you do. They sat still and were quiet. So, the rags didn’t move.”

Merilee’s statements automatically carried the weight of authority whenever we had discussions. She was taller, eight months older, and she consistently brought home better report cards than mine. During Olden Days arguments, Merilee was especially persuasive because her father was a minister and her family lived as if they were in the Little House books. Like my own, Merilee’s family were Fundamental Baptists.

“And then some.” My mother rolled her eyes as she slipped her hands into soapy dishwater and looked through our kitchen window at the Hanson’s backyard.

As next-door neighbors and best friends, Merilee and I were often in each other’s houses. I studied the Hansons’ home as if it were in Greenfield Village. The rooms were dark with the curtains and blinds drawn, no matter the time of day or outside temperature, giving the entire house a musty, old closet smell. The small living room was cramped with bulky dark furniture, including an uncomfortable sofa with two matching stiff, boxy chairs.

“Is this horsehair?” I demanded of Merilee as I ran my hand over the unfamiliar, natty fabric of the living room couch.

Merilee rolled her eyes. “It’s tweed.”
“Feels like I’m sitting on a dead horse.”
To the left of the front door was the kitchen, twice the size of the living room, and Martha, one of Merilee’s two older sisters, was usually there. Large-boned and tall, Martha had just finished her high school freshman year, but she carried herself like a matronly widow, shoulders tucked forward, rarely making eye contact. She was solitary, quiet, and quick to respond when anyone made a request of her. I thought she could easily get a job churning butter at Greenfield Village. Her drab brown hair was long and twisted into a tight bun at the back of her neck. Her button brown eyes seemed smaller because of her bulbous, highly set nose. When I saw Martha walking from the parsonage to her father’s church, her movements were furtive, awkward.

But the Martha who ran the kitchen was a marvel. There, her movements were certain and forceful. The pies and cobblers she pulled from that antique oven were works of art. Her roasts steamed with fragrant juices wafting down the street to the delight of our neighbors. The pastries she delivered to the kitchen table were better than anything served at the cafeteria in Greenfield Village.

“Martha,” I gulped a bite of homemade apple pie, “you should call ol’ Henry Ford and offer to run the Early American Restaurant. Just send him some of your desserts. He’d hire you in a heartbeat!”
Martha ducked her head and gave me a grin that reached from one side of her wide face to the other before she scampered off to load the lunch dishes into the kitchen sink. Merilee gave me a sidelong smirk as she collected both our plates for Martha to wash.

The distribution of labor in the Hanson household perplexed me. Reverend Hanson spent most mornings working on the sermons he would deliver to his paltry congregation. Martha was responsible for everything that happened in the kitchen, all the cooking, cleaning, and shopping. Judy, the eldest, was the smart one. Her job was to do the laundry after she studied for the classes she would take in her upcoming senior year. Merilee was still being treated as a child by her parents, and their only requirement of her was to keep her eight-year-old brother, Archie Jr., entertained.

“What does your mother do all day?” I challenged Merilee. “My mother does all the cooking and cleaning. She does the laundry, too.”

“That’s because you’re spoiled,” came her familiar admonishment.
After lunch each afternoon, Mrs. Hanson sat in the uncomfortable chair by the front door. She smiled benignly, hands folded in her lap, easily blending into her surroundings. Her dark hair hung limply on her thin shoulders. Her black dresses reached the heels of her shoes, when she stood, which wasn’t often. I was fascinated by her stillness, her unaffecting voice, and, most of all, her complexion. It was thick, leathered, and wrinkled like the apple doll heads on display at Greenfield Village. I desperately wanted to touch Mrs. Hanson’s skin, to feel if the wrinkles were as parched as they appeared.

Each weekday afternoon, perched on that chair by the front door, Mrs. Hanson watched her husband like a crow on a telephone wire while her daughters went about their housekeeping chores. Her head dipped to the left as her eyes followed Reverend Hanson from the living room to the kitchen, then it dipped to the right as he moved from the kitchen to the stairs leading to his study on the second floor. Her hands were still, but her eyes skipped and jumped as she followed her husband trotting through the house.

Like clockwork, “Daddy?,” she’d call out minutes after Reverend Hanson returned to his upstairs study. “Do you want me to fix you a little something?”

“Just a cup of tea, Mother. If it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all!” Mrs. Hanson would shoot straight up from the chair. Off she’d scuttle to the kitchen, where Martha brewed a pot of tea and set a plate of cookies on a wooden tray with cups and saucers for two. Merilee, Archie Jr., and I would hear Mrs. Hanson softly knock on the study door, followed by the creak as it opened for her and, moments later, the click of the key in the lock. We knew what that meant. Merilee and I could play uninterrupted by her parents for the next several hours.

Both Merilee and I received transistor radios for Christmas and we agreed that CKLW, “Radio Eight-oh!,” played the best music in town. Every weekday, after her parents disappeared into the Reverend’s study, Merilee and I tuned our radios to 800 on our AM dials, slipped on our transistor’s wristlets and, each holding our radio against an ear, sashayed down the block. We toured our neighborhood from Telegraph Road to Crowley Park, from Lapham School to the railroad tracks singing along to Chicago’s “Colour My World” and Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train,” logging several miles each afternoon. Occasionally, we’d meet a kid from our class who screeched his bike to a stop and attempted a conversation. Merilee was unaware she had a habit of allowing her gaze to lazily wander from the boy’s hairline to his shoes and up to his eyes while her lips slightly pouted.

“Boys! Pfft! C’mon!,” I’d grouse, slipping my forefinger through the belt loop on the back of her pants and dragging her to consciousness.

That summer, we devoured teen magazines and I decided cut-offs was the look for me. I ripped and frayed my old jeans with fringe that hit mid-thigh. I wore my Keds without socks in a vain attempt to make my legs look longer. Merilee’s older sisters had recently handed down threadbare shirtwaist dresses in shades of taupe that looked like they were costumes from Greenfield Village. Her father allowed her to continue wearing pedal pushers and sleeveless blouses through the summer, but when we started seventh grade in the fall, her parents would insist Merilee wear those old dresses to our new junior high school. Although she and I didn’t talk about it, we both knew Merilee would have a lot of explaining to do to the other kids.

Merilee and her eldest sister, Judy, had the good fortune to look like Joni Mitchell when “Clouds” and “Blue” were the rage. Their blonde hair was worn long and straight with bangs that swept across their almond eyes. They looked sophisticated and svelte. I struggled with unexpected and self-conscious curves — hips and breasts that seemed to have bloomed overnight, and cheeks that retained their baby fat. If I had worn her pedal pushers and sleeveless blouses, I would have looked like I raided my grandmother’s closet. On Merilee, the look was stylish, retro.

One afternoon just before sixth-grade graduation, my mother and I stepped into Kresge’s Department store. While my mother debated the merits of buying Tupperware knock-offs, I wandered over to the makeup department to experiement with the Maybelline samples. I noticed Judy at the opposite end of the counter, poking through the Yardley display. I raised my hand in a wave as she stood, stunned, looking in my direction. Judy’s lips glistened wetly as she made a quick swivel to her right and bolted out the main door. Later that afternoon, while I unloaded my mother’s Kresge bags from her car, I glanced at the street in front of the Hansons’ house and saw Judy sitting very close to a boy in the front seat of his car.

I reported these events to Merilee one August afternoon when she lectured me

on the reasons God didn’t want people listening to rock and roll on Sundays. Tiger baseball games were okay. Like Reverend Hanson, we were fans and listened to every game on our transistor radios. The Reverend said listening to baseball on Sunday was in perfect accordance with the Bible, but listening to rock and roll was not.

“What about the rest of the week?” “The rest of the week is okay.” “Even The Doors?”
“The Doors are okay.”

“But they sing ‘don’t you love her madly’.” “They mean don’t you love her a lot.”
“I don’t think so.”
“That’s because you have a dirty mind.”

“What about Love Me Two Times? Does that mean to love him twice as much?”

“Sure. What else could it mean?”
“I don’t know. But I don’t think your dad would like Jim Morrison no matter what

day of the week it is. I mean, look at his picture in Tiger Beat! He doesn’t have a shirt on! And look at what it says his favorite meal is, pizza and beer! I think if your dad saw this Tiger Beat he would make you change the station when The Doors came on.”

Merilee frowned as she considered this because Jim Morrison was our favorite rock star.

“Daddy said rock and roll is okay. But not on Sundays.”

“Wait.” I shoved my glasses up the bridge of my nose. “Are you telling me I’m going to hell?”

Merilee’s arms crossed her chest. “Your family does lots of things on Sundays that they shouldn’t, like listening to rock and roll or going to Greenfield Village. It’s not just your family going to hell. All the people who work on Sundays are, too, even if they don’t know the Bible. Daddy says if your dad was a better father, your family wouldn’t have to worry about hell.”

My cheeks flamed as tears pooled in my eyes and the part of me that is my mother’s daughter chewed on my lower lip, but the part of me that is my father’s child won out. I squared my shoulders, wiped away the tears, and took a step towards her.

“I’m going to hell because my family does things like go to the Village on Sundays. All the people working there in the concession stands and the ticket booths, they’re going to hell, too, because the Bible says no one should work on Sundays.”

Merilee nodded firmly. “That’s right.”

“At Tiger Stadium, people working in concession stands and ticket booths on Sundays won’t go to hell?”

Merilee’s eyes flicked around her bedroom.

“Can you show me where it says in the Bible that God. Likes. Baseball?” My nose was an inch from Merilee.

“Daddy says listening to rock and roll on Sundays is a sin but baseball is okay!” Merilee’s Buster Browns stomped on the parquet floor.

I played my trump cards about her favorite sister, Judy.

“You are such a troublemaker. She had wet lips because she licked them, probably. And the boy who drives her home from school needs help with his homework.”

“Brother!” I hooted. “I hope I never have to help a boy with his homework if it means he has to put his arm around me to study!”

Merilee chewed her thumbnail and glared at me. “Daddy is going to be so mad.”

After this exchange, we spent less time together. Merilee resented learning her sister had worn makeup and socialized with a boy because she had no choice but to rat Judy out to her parents. I was furious that my closest friend, a girl who was older and smarter than me, parroted her father’s hypocrisy. We were at a stalemate.

Judy didn’t finish high school in my hometown. Not long after Merilee and I debated the sin of Sunday rock and roll, Reverend Hanson announced Judy needed to improve her relationship with God and she was sent to an evangelical high school in Indiana.

“It doesn’t make sense to me.” I huffed. “If Christians only stay with other Christians, what’s the point? Our preacher’s always saying how tough it is to be a Christian, but it wouldn’t be if everyone were.”

“You don’t understand.” Merilee glared at me.
“No. I don’t.”
“Daddy says the boys around here only think about one thing. He says we need to be around other kinds of boys.”
“The boys we know only care about baseball.”
Her eyes narrowed. “No, they don’t. And you know it.” “You mean they think about sex.”

“Yes.” she nodded, arms crossed and Buster Browns planted. “You and I think about sex.”

“It’s not the same.”
“You and I think about sex all the time.” “It’s different with girls.”

I smirked.
“It’s true. You and I think about it, but we would never do it.”

I rolled my eyes. “We wouldn’t know what to do.”
One Saturday afternoon in late September, Merilee showed me a letter from

Judy describing a proper boy from her senior class who proposed marriage on their first date. Judy said yes. Merilee thought this was very exciting and proof her parents’ decision to send Judy to their alma mater was the right one.

“Don’t you see? If she hadn’t gone there, she never would have met him. He wants to get married right away, right after they graduate. It’s so romantic!”

“What are they going to do for money?”
“They don’t need money, they’re going to college!”
Shortly after the receipt of Judy’s letter, Martha and Merilee each packed a

suitcase and waited in the back seat of the family’s Buick Roadmaster. I lay in bed staring at the clock on my nightstand. The day before, I sat on Merilee’s bed while she packed sensible shirtwaists and anklets, her copies of the Little House books, and her transistor radio. I promised I would get up early the next morning to wave goodbye from my porch, but I didn’t. My body felt as if it were made of stone as I imagined the black Buick pulling out of the driveway. Merilee broke her promise to send me her new address. I never heard from her.

As seventh grade rolled into eighth, I considered the loss of Merilee’s friendship to be an ache that had calloused over. The days spent pouring over teen magazines and learning the words to songs I shared with a best friend were wispy, infrequent memories. On the morning of my first day in high school, I climbed up the school bus steps to find there was only one open seat. Gwen, a girl I slighlty remembered from sixth grade, used an envelope to mark her place in a worn New Testament and beamed up at me from under white blonde lashes as I sat next to her.

We chatted about the reputations of our teachers as we compared our class schedules. We had none in common. Our conversation stalled. Gwen began twisting a lock of hair around her index finger. She suddenly blinked rapidly and grinned. Did I remember Merilee Hanson, the girl who used to live next door to me? I admitted I did, addled by the unexpected question. Gwen’s cheeks flushed as she pulled out the envelope.

“I just got a letter from her! During summer vacation, I went to the Bible camp Merilee’s brother-in-law runs in Indiana. We had such a great time! There are some people, you know? You just click with them. That’s how it’s always been with me and Merilee. Ooooh! Are you okay?”

“New contacts,” I lied as I examined the mascara smudges on my fingertips.

#

The summer I graduated from high school, I got one of those minimum wage jobs at Greenfield Village. I didn’t feed chickens at the Firestone Farmhouse or cook meals over the hearth at Cotswold Cottage. At the orientation meeting, I received my assignment to research the late 19th century Bloomer Girls and develop a character to play while on the job as a reenactor. I was given a bicycle from the Overman Wheel Company and a list of items to retrieve from the Village’s costume shop including, to my astonishment, underwear appropriate for an Early American Girl: a loose chemise and tight corset.

I soon discovered I had a plum assignment. I simply rode my bicycle around the Village, chatting up the guests at a Suffragette. On hot, sticky summer days, reenactors who had traditional women’s roles were stuck in their assigned house and the expression “slaving over a hot stove” took on real meaning. Their only relief came from brief excursions to fetch water or wood and from breezes that occasionally drifted past the heavy damask curtains in the houses. For me, the most challenging aspect of my job was getting used to riding a bike on the bumpy dirt roads that crisscrossed the Village.

The small group of roving reenactors included my summer boyfriend. Jamie wore a grey Confederate officer’s uniform that complimented his wavy, dark hair and aquamarine eyes. His character, Rupert Beauregard Calhoun III, was in Greenfield Village because he was making his way back to the family’s Virginia plantation after deserting his infantry regiment at Gettysburg. Rupert’s remarkably poor sense of direction being one reason he failed so miserably as a soldier. Jamie used his character’s AWOL status to scout out the best places on the grounds to sneak a cigarette.

I couldn’t look at Jamie without wanting to run my hands up his arms, to pull his shoulders closer, to kiss the mouth that tasted of Marlboros and Wintergreen Lifesavers. I was heady with lust. We met regularly in the secluded areas of the Village. Afterwards, he helped me pin my hair back into a Gibson Girl pompadour under my straw boater and dust the dirt from my bloomers. I navigated the rocks on the dirt roads back to the carousel in the middle of the Village; Jamie dodged in and out of trees along the outfield of the Walnut Grove Base Ball Field at the far end of the property.

Our affection for each other was mutual and finite. On Labor Day, Jamie would hop in his Mustang Mach 1 and take the Southfield Freeway north to Michigan Tech where he’d finish his degree in computer engineering. I had a one-way ticket to LaGuardia and a student loan for my freshman year in the NYU drama department.

One August afternoon, after Jamie and I clocked in at the Administration Building, we followed the path to the Josephine Ford Water Fountain at the entrance of the Village, a spot where tourists typically gathered to pull out their Instamatics for a snapshot before crossing the railroad tracks and setting out to explore the grounds.

I was walking my bike through the crowd, careful to avoid bumping into any of the guests when I saw that long, blonde Joni Mitchell hair. I abruptly stopped. She was no longer what I would have described as tall; she had maybe an inch on me. Her dress was made of the familiar thin, faded cotton, but it wasn’t a shirtwaist. She was five or six months pregnant. When the baby in the stroller next to her began squawking, she rummaged through the diaper bag on her hip, pulled out a pacifier, and plugged it in the child’s contorted mouth. A slight, older man scurried out from the Gift Shop carrying two large strawberry Slushies. He deposited one in the cup holder of the stroller and slurped the other between animated gestures at the buildings encircling the outer perimeter of the pavilion.

Merilee’s eyes followed the man’s jabbing finger. That’s when she noticed me looking at her from across the fountain. She tilted her head to one side, frowned slightly, then a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She said something to the man with her and made her way through the crowd. Jamie turned around a few steps ahead of me. “What?” he mouthed at me.

Merilee nodded at Jamie and addressed me, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

Her voice was soft, with no trace of the authoritative tone I remembered. I shrugged awkwardly. She continued, “Can we buy train tickets at the station, or do we have to go all the way back to the entrance and buy them at the ticket booth?”

I hesitated. Jamie interjected she could buy tickets for the train at either place. She nodded at him again, walked a few paces before pausing and turning towards me.

“Thanks,” she murmured. And she was gone.

About the Author: Cerys Harrison was born and raised in the home of the Ford Mustang, Dearborn Michigan. Growing up, she was fascinated with New York City and, after graduating from college during a recession, decided to move there, thinking it was more glamorous to be an unemployed actor than an out of work librarian. After a detour in advertising, Cerys returned to her hometown and libraries. And an occasional turn on the stage. 

Citadel in the Clouds

By Catherine O’Brien

At that altitude everything slowed, everything but our defiance to be understood and known by the people we existed because of. Blindfolded by the night we proceeded at a funereal pace, one of your hands all slayed fingers queried our future, the other held mine heating our palms with all its might. All around us the snow received yet more snow and the ripeness of our loss walked between us. We telepathically agreed to ward it off by replaying the showreels of our memories. Therefore, our giggles were wholly in context. Our laughter was a riotous explosion when it arrived like a lid dancing a jig on a boiling pot. We must have looked delicious to our predators, two marshmallow figures for main, with snow billowing in soft pillows on a dry iced plate for afters. 

It was excruciatingly difficult to breathe as each breath challenged our lungs to a new level of endurance testing. I knew that sparkling stalactites must have dangled from most of my alveoli. You had done well convincing me not to scream their names any longer, it was weakening not waning (the guilt I mean). It divested me of my ability to think straight and so you were our compass. You, their favourite and only son. 

You were also and still are, an accomplished guide and so, we were unsurprised when our destination despite a veritable blizzard spewing all around us, elbowed its way into sight. The moon had usurped the sun’s position in the sky casting playful shadows on the sombre citadel which meditated in the clouds awaiting our arrival. The surrounding walls ravaged by time begrudgingly stayed aloft despite the odd crumble. As we mounted its granite steps, we saw that the sky had belched stiff meringues of snow coating its soaring steeples with dainty edible hats. Two flags, that of our world and that soon to be ours, flapped and slapped a ceremonial welcome. In that moment, the preceding hours and minutes felt like a thumb print on an already blurry picture. We felt giddy with relief and mounting fatigue.  

Although we were soaked through to the skin, the only visible traces of the snow we carried inside were a light chalk dusting on our soles. A man with a cherubic smile who was a touch taller than average approached us. He held his open arms aloft and spoke in a timbre which knew the hallmarks of the unspeakable trauma we were still tethered to. 

“You are so welcome friends but now you must rest”

We walked together as our gesticulating guide provided an impromptu tour. Richard laughed when he saw the growing brightness of my eyes as they swept over the potato fields which stretched before us on our left. Ears of cheeky corn waved at us from the right. I spied cotton ball sheep grazing on the hills above us and butterflies with mosaics on their backs luxuriated in a world not known to hurt. The countryside looked just as ours had before our world fell asleep, recalcitrant in stubborn beauty. A tractor in combat against the earth was like the snap of impatient fingers jerking me back to life. Suddenly I felt present and exposed to vulnerability with just a fig leaf to cover my modesty. Despite Richard’s efforts to stand in front and block it, I saw the poster nailed to a Sycamore tree. The words seemed alien to me but the faces looking at me could not have been more familiar. We stood on either side of them in pixelated realness. I removed us by gently tearing at the perforated fault lines of our lives until they remained wrapped around one another, hip to hip and heart to heart. I handed you the papier mâché of yourself and stuffed myself in my pocket for later. Richard clacked his tongue in sympathy and we moved on towards the accommodations leaving you behind, yet again. 

You, my dear brave brother, were strong enough to start mopping up the splattered ink of our lives. I floundered. 

“Just because I don’t say it, doesn’t make it any less real”

“Yes,” I said.

I envied you, the horologist tampering with his timepieces setting his own increments within which to deal with it. I longed to learn your secret. In hindsight, maybe it was those magnifying glasses that held all the power and called all the clocks. 

“Eventually, it will pass,” you said. 

I didn’t ask what you meant but I considered and still wonder this, is sadness subject to atrophy? Can it be shrunk to a size so diminutive and light that it becomes too meaningless to be absorbed? Those were the thoughts that occupied my mind. Your conversations about them tapered and I imagined you as a bird. You were soaring above the fields among a structured cloud formation knowing the neat circumference of your personal grief. 

Seeking aloneness not loneliness, I sat in the shade of a yawning Eucalyptus tree. There were no apples which spared me a Newtonian moment to shatter my head full of sadness. It wasn’t until the second hand alighted on my shoulder that my heart began to flurry and time lapsed in the most perfect of moments. 

They applied the subtlest compression as they handed me a crumpled poster. 

About the Author: Catherine O’Brien is an Irish writer of poems, flash fiction and short stories. She writes bi-lingually in both English and Irish. Her work has appeared in print and online. She holds a PhD in English Literature. Her work in forthcoming in Idle Ink, Janus Literary, Five Minute Lit, The Birdseed, Free Flash Fiction and more. She tweets She tweets @abairrud2021.

Oasis

By Nick Young

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

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

Gotta get oil, 3-in-One – yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve told me.”

“Yeah?”

“Many times, Connie.”

“Since ‘nam.”

“I know.”

“Same day I got drafted.”

“Nineteen sixty-seven.”

“September.”

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

“You told me.”

“I did?”

“Many times.”

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

“Almost thirty years.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what about something to drink?  Coke?”

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

“You got it.”

“And make it to go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then came the bicyle incident.

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

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

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

“You count it for me, okay?”

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

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

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

“We’re square, Lu?” 

“We’re square.”

“You sure?” He was insistent.

“Positive.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such was the case of the bicycle accident.

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

Eddie!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was over.

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot wash . . . cold rinse – yes!

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

Dee-licious!

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

It was time to take inventory.

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

You never know!

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

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

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

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

Safe.  Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotta get oil, 3-in-One – yes!

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

Leaving it all Behind

By Jason de Koff

Air flows down a sluice of veins,

across glistening surfaces,

to swirl about imperfect edges.

A frenzy of bobbles

as more follow

describing the meanders

of ever new fascinations.

Capsizing and swelling 

as if borne on the sea

with sights both pleasant

and disturbing

revealed in its wake.

The kite-like conflagration

of whirling and twirling

about its tethered tine

yields much about the chains

yet to be broken

and the change

that must first take place.

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

Desperado

By Mitch James

Desperado

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

-Eagles

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

Rabih Alameddine

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

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine.”

“What’d you do today?”

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

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

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

  Eno glared at Beth. 

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

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

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

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

 “Because it’s the truth,” she said.

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

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

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

*

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

  “What she said wasn’t wrong.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, Christ crucified,” she snapped. 

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

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

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

 “The first time I felt Hannah kick.”

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “You were.” 

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

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

   “Sheriff,” Eno said, answering the phone.

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

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

    Eno heard a deputy chuckle in the background.

   “What?”

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

 Eno hung up the phone and peered at Beth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The council voted against it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Just take a second,” said Sheriff Banks.

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

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

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

“What are you doin?” asked the sheriff.  

 Then Eno did the same with the one beside it.

“I said, what are you doin?”

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

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

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

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

Farmbelt Inn, Decatur

By John Timm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gone and I forgot about it. Until Saturday night.

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

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

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

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

about finding out.

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

“I think maybe we do.”

“How so?”

“Are you Donald W. Lawrence?”

“That’s me.”

“From Harrisburg, P.A.?”

 “I guess.”

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

                                                                        ###

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

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

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

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

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

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

without being there, if you know what I mean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sigh of relief until the next time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

it all helps keep a roof over my head.

                                                                        ###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

for all of us.

                                                                        ###

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

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

  “That’ll work. Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                        ###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                        ###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

southpaws on her side.”

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

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

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

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

                                                                        ###

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

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

protect me.

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

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

happened to me.”

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

  “Not since I was seventeen.”

  “Any contact with your sister?”

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

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

                                                                        ###

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

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

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

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

Lawrence family genes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

as some others you might think of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

shouldn’t press him about it anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                        ###

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

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

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

the bathroom.”

“Does Joe know about it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                        ###

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

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

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

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

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

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

you’re not mad at me.”

 “Don’t worry about it, I’m not mad.”

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

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

                                                                        ###

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

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

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

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

began my shift.”

“Do you know where they were headed?”

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

                                                                        ###

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

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

to be him. It really doesn’t.

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

                                                                

The Crack Up

By Steve Carr

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

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

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

                                                                      #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                     # 

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                      #

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

                                                                      #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                        #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                       #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” His father asked.

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

“What?” 

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

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

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

                                                                      #

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

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

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

                                                                      #

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

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

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

Extinction Event

By Lindy Biller

***Content Warning: allusion to domestic abuse 

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

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

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

Push us, Mama! the girls shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time, her sister answered on the first ring. 

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

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

The Belle Fair

By Timothy Tarkelly

For Nolan and Elena

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

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

A Place Called Beautiful

By Jane Hammons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Riovlan?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine. Tomorrow,” said Nodell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s waiting for you,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

Permanent Reverberations

By Carter Davis Johnson

Blades of grass,

Adorned with frozen robes,

Transient.

Delicate. 

Vaporous crystal. 

These are the unbreakable things; 

These are the permanent things. 

The hewn dominion of granite, 

Ruling the ages with stoicism,

Trembles.  

Even you, proud granite,

Wear on your smooth head 

Slow decay, 

Like a crown of washed pebbles

That the shore carries 

in her breast pocket.

Heraclitus and the Lethe watch 

Over the ruins of Wolf House.  

Your flinchless form is regal, but

Shrunk 

With every drop. 

Your time, absorbing nothing

save heat and chill, 

Wanes

Imperceptible to the aged eye, lest he 

Keep watch with Tiresias. 

No. You are no more 

Permanent than the 

Effervescent jubilation of frost covered 

grass;

Until the canopy of torn canvas 

Wrinkles and rends,

Its death is perpetual resurrection.

Dancing daughter of frailty.

Bone-chilling felicity.

Lyre of the morning. 

The intersection of permutations with

Permanent reverberations. 

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

*Photo by Tyler Johnson

Two Poems by Rodd Whelpley

By Rodd Whelpley

South Loop

Thankfully, this was years ago

our family in a receiving line

at a restaurant on Harrison or Wabash,

my wife first, me, and our son –

maybe 10 – shaking hands

with our first set of grooms, 

thanking them for including our kid 

on the invitation, apologizing 

for making this political, but he needs 

to see this. 

                    We all need to see this. 

Then, me at once hugging both the husbands,

the three of us gazing over shoulders, wondering 

at how hard it is to steal home, to have 

a Jackie Robinson of marriages, hoping

one day, we can criticize the shitty tuxes, 

the way too many bridesmaids, take odds 

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

drunk, and hell-bound joyous at these things –   

just the way we used to.

Although Zero Structures in Our Hometown are Listed as Historic Places

There lived the deities,           the populace of childhood:

                                                Coach. Teacher. The Senior quarterback 

                                                we didn’t know would never make

                                                Ohio State. Bobby Burton’s guide dog

                                                plucking dimes and nickels 

                                                from the floor of his master’s bookshop.

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

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

                                                called her grandma too – 

Who we thought of as             our unwitting saviors those nights

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

                                                whet as kitchen steak knives, 

                                                much too loudly echoed words distorted 

through the old-house heat vents

Twins alone                            in separate rooms, wondering

                                                what we did to make things

                                                go so wrong.

 
– inspired by Lannie Stabile’s poem “Callisto”

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

 

                                               

                                              

                                             

                                              

                                           

                                                

                                              

         

                                                

                                                

                              

                                                

                                                

Kneel the Cattle

By L. Ward Abel

Under winter lightning kneel the cattle 

while behind windows  

          I bathe in a flashing room.  

Dreams of sea-level fill thunderheads:  

they drain all darkness down to the Gulf.  

Their song rattles windows  

          hereabouts.  

Someday I’ll die too 

on a course to later fall as rain 

when the cedars bend  

and the air changes just  

enough—then the number ‘one’  

will  

share me  

with about  

          a billion stars.  

About the Author: L. Ward Abel’s work has appeared in Rattle, The Reader, The Istanbul Review, The Worcester Review, The Honest Ulsterman, hundreds of others, and he is the author of three full collections and ten chapbooks of poetry, including  American Bruise (Parallel Press, 2012), Little Town gods (Folded Word Press, 2016), A Jerusalem of Ponds (erbacce-Press, 2016), The Rainflock Sings Again (Unsolicited Press, 2019), Floodlit (Beakful, 2019), and The Width of Here (Silver Bow, 2021). Abel resides in rural Georgia.

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.

Pig

By Sean Jacques

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

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

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

“He’s an inbred.”

“A what?” Junior Barnes asked.

“An inbred.”

“What’s that?” inquired Wayne Henderson. 

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

“Why not?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

“Claude Black! I said get to work!” 

Again he ignored her. 

“Claude!”

“Leave me alone,” he mumbled.

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

“What did you say young man?”

“I ain’t gotta mind you none.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where you goin’?” asked Wayne.

“To see if he’s okay.”

“What for?” asked Tyler. 

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

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

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

“Get outta here!” he yelled.

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

“Leave me alone!” 

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

Then it happened. 

Two days before the first day of school. 

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

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

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

“You seen Pig?” Tyler asked.

“You mean Claude?” I shot back. 

“Well have you seen him or not?” 

“I don’t think he’s at school.”

“Did he tell you anything about it yet?”

“How would he?”

“Thought you were his friend.”  

I looked away. Then they left me alone again. 

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

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

Bowling Green, 2005

By Linda McMullen

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

Rocky Horror Picture Show

MIDNIGHT

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

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

I could just stay.

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

 …she recalled, contemplating her fishnets.

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

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

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

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

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

Artwork by: Parietal Imagination Art.

Walther Fingers

By Amy Barnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loveland

By Dave O’Leary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

River Teeth

By Leslie Benigni

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

___________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which one is Tommy?”

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

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

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

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

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

________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm.”

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

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

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

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

__________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martha latched onto his shoulder and Tommy rolled it away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Uriah could wait.

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

My head shivered.

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

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

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

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

“What did they do with them?”

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

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

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

I screamed.

He fled, smirking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________

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

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

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

Book Review: So Marvelously Far, by Nick Gardner

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

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

Review by Joe Neary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

The Dying Breed

By Daren Dean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Were you asleep?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was silence on the other end of the line.

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

“I hear you.”

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

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

“Well don’t.” Monroe said.

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re damn right I did.”

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Child

By Wilson Koewing

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Nick Gardner

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

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

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

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

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

Breakable Bones

By Connor Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was not a long fight. I landed no punches. Danny had beat on dozens of men bigger and
tougher than me. He laughed as he hit me, and then I slipped on some straw and fell on the
concrete. I cried out and Danny stopped, frowning, the fun of it ripped away by my writhing.
“Shit, come on Petey, we’re just fucking around,” he said. “You’re alright, come on.”
Tears seeped from my eyes and I tasted blood. My father’s shadow fell over me.
“Goddamn it, Danny,” he said. “You broke his fucking arm.”

We went into the house. Danny muttering apologies, saying he was just fooling, just
busting my balls. I puked on the lawn from the pain. When we came in my mother rolled her
eyes, put her drink down, and went to get the ice. My father beckoned for Danny to come close
and then punched him in the gut. Danny doubled over, gasping. My father turned to me and said,
“Come on, I’ll drive you to the hospital.”

On the way into town, I rolled the window down and shoved my face into the rushing
world. Over the din my father said, as if picking up the conversation, “You see? Break a bone
and you’re done. Debilitate. You gotta debilitate.”

*

My mother never returned to my father’s grave. “Why would I visit that stupid
motherfucker?” she’d say. “Dying the way he did.” Still, even long after his death, the only day
she ever cleaned was Sunday. Asking whether she thought this ritual was in some way a
consequence of my father’s continued presence in her life would have gotten me told to shut the
fuck up, so I didn’t bother.

I returned to my father’s grave only once, years later, because my own son had asked
about his grandfather, and he was old enough to know about his family. Another time someone
from the cemetery tracked me down because some kids had vandalized some of the graves,
including my father’s, and asked if I wanted to press charges or to replace the headstone. To both
questions the answer was no.
I don’t know if Danny ever visited.

When the cigarettes and drinking finally got around to killing her, my mother asked to be
scattered in the woods beyond the house, a request we granted not fully understanding its
significance, since as far as we knew she’d hardly set foot there. Afterwards, in arranging her
affairs, I came across a photograph of my mother and father strolling among the trees at the
height of autumn. Young and unscarred, smiling wide, a single yellow leaf clinging to my
mother’s flowing hair, strangers to me.

*

After the funeral we went back to the house and my mother got drunk. In the living room,
mourners circled a folding table covered in finger foods. The Flock enveloped my mother like an
atmosphere, deflecting anyone foolish enough to attempt condolences.
Sally and I went upstairs. Sally sat on the bed, twirling her rose between her thumb and
forefinger. The sun came through the window and struck her hair and she looked so lovely and I
felt so raw that the words that had been building in me finally broke apart.
“If you want, when you go off to school, I can come with you.”
The rose stopped twirling.
“I know you’re staying in a dorm but I could get my own place, and get a job, and we can
be together. If you want.”
“Pete, listen, we shouldn’t talk about this now.”
I swallowed. “Why not?”
“But let’s talk about it when this all settles.”
“It’s just—I’m ready to go. I think I’m ready to go now. Like, tonight.”
She laughed but behind her eyes I saw the machine she’d spent the summer building for
the express purpose of handling this moment begin to turn its gears.
“Well, I won’t be there for a couple weeks yet, so maybe hang around for now.”
“But do you think you’d like that? If I was there with you? I love you. You know how
much I love you.”
She turned a flinch into a smile. “I love you too,” she said. “I do.”
I heard my father’s voice: keep hitting.
“We’d be happy, we’d be so happy. Far from here, away from all this bullshit.”
“Yeah. Sure we would.”
Some tears came up and I wiped them away with the back of my hand.
“Let’s just talk about this later,” she said. “You don’t need to make any decisions right
now.”

We lay together on the bed in silence. My head spun at how quickly it had ended, my
impotent plea. Sawdust in my throat, eyes prickling. Her fingers stroked my cast. Forever fixated
on the hardest part of me, the least penetrable, the most temporary. We would not speak again of
decisions.

One by one, the mourners downstairs found they could stand the awkwardness no longer.
They slid into their cars and exhaled, assured their partners they weren’t like those Pollocks, no,
that when it came to it there would be proper grief. My father’s closest friends made noise about
heading to Duffy’s where they’d honour Cal the right way. We heard a male voice raised and
then my mother’s telling it to fuck right off then. Unfettered, the Flock kicked into high gear
around the kitchen table. Sally lifted herself from my shoulder and kissed me goodnight. I moved
my hand to where she’d been and found her rose, wilted and forgotten on the pillow.

*

It was past three when someone shook me awake. My mind filled the silhouette with my
father; my heart lurched and I lifted an arm to protect myself. I blinked and it was Danny,
swaying in the darkness, jabbing his finger into my shoulder.
“Come on,” he said, and stomped out of the room.

The Flock had called it a night. The kitchen was dark. A galaxy of empties glinted in the
moonlight. Danny sat in my mother’s chair. When I came into the kitchen he stood and headed
for the door.
“Take a drive with me,” he said.
I followed him into the yard. Dew already up on the grass, the shrill thrum of crickets
from the fields. My father’s truck was tucked next to the shed. Danny tossed me the keys.
When the cab lights flicked on I saw how terrible he looked. His face puffy and red, eyes
bloodshot. He leaned his head on the window. The reek of booze and sweat. He still wore his suit
from the funeral.
“Where are we going?”
“Town.”
“What for?”
“Just drive.”

It was ten minutes into town. The glistening bodies of insects danced in the headlights
and spread their insides on the windshield. My brother, with considerable effort, straightened up,
laid his skull on the headrest.
“I never knew that story,” he said.
“Story?”
“The one you told at the funeral. Of him teaching you how to fight.”
“Oh. Yeah.”
The truck needed work. We had to speak up to hear ourselves over its effort. The lights of
other farmhouses drifted past, the peace of their rest broken by us careening through it.
“How’s your arm?”
“Broken, thanks.”
“When’s the cast off?”
“Couple more weeks.”
Danny put his head in his hands. “I ruined your whole fucking summer.”
I shrugged. “Nah.”
The shining eyes of a rabbit in front of us. I took my foot off the gas and it scampered to
safety. Danny followed its path into the darkness.
“I never wanted to be like him.”
I looked at my brother looking at the road, his face made ghostly by the dashboard light.
“You’re not,” I said.
Danny laughed. “You’re the one who got away.”
“I don’t know.”
“Let’s put it this way: he never had to teach me how to fight.”
The orange lights of town came into view.
“Just make sure you do,” said Danny.
I slowed the truck as the first houses slipped past.
“Do what?”
“Get away.”

I opened my mouth to tell him about Sally, how I wanted to go with her, how to her I’d
been the meteor, bright and pretty and brief. But Danny was rolling up his sleeves, saying, “Pull
over here.”

I parked the truck and cut the engine. Ahead of us, one long stretch of yellow brick and
plate-glass storefronts under darkened apartments. Lonely streetlamps standing sentry. A few
slumbering cars next to the curb.
Danny opened the door. “I don’t know if you should get out,” he said.
“What are you doing?”
“Maybe just stay here.”
“Danny?”
“I just need to hit something.”

He hopped out. The slamming door echoed in the empty street. He fumbled in the bed of
the truck, emerged with something long and slim and shining. I turned to look and there they
were: my father’s golf clubs, the only witnesses besides a wounded oak to his absurd death.
Closest to us was a knitting store. Baskets of yarn on display, reds, oranges,
browns—autumn colours. Danny brought the club back and swung it through the window. The
glass exploded and fell to scatter on the sidewalk, nestle in the softness of the yarn. Danny leapt
back from the shattering. From inside an alarm sounded.
I froze. Danny shook his head and bounced on the spot, let out a whoop.
I opened my door. “Danny, what the fuck are you—”
He pointed the club at me. “Stay in the truck, Pete!” He pushed the door shut. “Stay in
here, goddamn it.”
He turned and went to the next storefront, the dentist’s office.
Smash!
Another alarm, another shower of twinkling glass. Danny growled and shook his left
hand. He’d been cut.
Next up, the Morningside Diner. Sally’s diner.
Smash!

The glass rained down into the window booth, where all those weeks ago I’d sat,
slamming coffee, mustering the courage to say hello.
Across the street a light flicked on in an apartment.
A car in front of the diner—the windshield took a few strokes, the side windows less.
Danny strolled across the street, the club over his shoulder like a parasol.
The pharmacy. Smash!
The sporting goods store. Smash!

More lights flicked on above us and an angry voice echoed, wondering what the heck was
going on down there. Danny’s arms were covered in his own blood.
I got out of the truck.
“Danny,” I called. “Come on, that’s enough, let’s go.”
Hardware store. Smash!
“Fuck this place!” Danny cried. “Fuck this whole shitty place and everyone in it, right?”
Down the street I saw them twirling, red and blue. The siren burped a warning and Danny
turned. A station wagon in front of him. He leapt onto the roof. Smash went the windshield. He
looked back at me.
“Get out of here, Pete! Don’t worry about me! Get out of this shithole forever!”
I climbed into the truck. The cop car bore down. I threw the truck into gear and swung it
onto the street, pointing homeward. I opened the door and called again for Danny to come, but he
shook his head and waved.
“Go!”

I closed the door and pushed the pedal to the floor. The truck screeched forward. In the
mirror, the cop car ripped to a stop next to the station wagon. Pinkley sprung out, hand on his
holster, shouting orders. I slammed the brakes. Beersma got out next, hands raised, telling Danny
to just take it easy, to put the club down.

Danny swung the club in front of him, egging them on. People were leaning out their
windows, gawking, shouting at him. Our father would say, “Sometimes the only way to win a
fight is to let the madness take over.” Danny raised his bloody arms above his head and howled
into the sky.

Pinkley drew his gun. Beersma told him to put it away for Christsake before he hurt
someone. Using the distraction, my brother leapt from the station wagon and ran up the street,
whooping, flinging the club in the air and trying to catch it like some deranged majorette.
Pinkley caught up to him and tackled him to the ground, breaking Danny’s wrist. Later, at the
station, Pinkley would write Beersma up for insubordination, and Beersma would use the
opportunity to voice his opinion of Pinkley to the Chief. In October, Beersma would be granted
an early retirement.

All of this I would learn from my mother. I didn’t see Pinkley draw his gun, or my
brother’s mad dash, or how the spectators gave a mocking cheer when Pinkley brought him
down. Didn’t see them linger in their windows to jeer as the paramedics loaded him up. Didn’t
see them slink back to bed lamenting that even with Cal in the ground they’d never be free of
those goddamn Pollocks and all their carrying on.

As the weary Beersma first climbed from the squad car, I slid the truck into reverse. My
heart roared, fingers tightened on the wheel, foot hovered over the gas. I knew what would
happen if I slammed it down. I closed my eyes and saw my father’s grinning face, heard the
distant smack of my tiny punches on his palms, in his eyes the satisfaction of knowing that with
each strike I was becoming his son.

When Beersma checked his shoulder to see where Cal Pollock’s truck was, he saw it
pulling away. He reached for his radio, hesitated, and then that dipshit Pinkley drew his gun.

About the Author: Connor Thompson is a writer and actor from Toronto. He has work published or upcoming at TL;DR Press, X-R-A-Y, and Interstellar. One time he was in a Kia commercial with Paul Anka. He can be found on twitter @cpethompson.

Lunch Break

By Sy Holmes

Jim Conville had thirty minutes for lunch, but lately he was taking thirty-five. Running to his car to eat his sandwich in five, then leaving his hardhat in the passenger seat, spending the next thirty sitting in the coffee shop, out of the Great Falls cold. Sipping a large cup of overpriced coffee and thinking over things.

​Jim had a lot to think over. There was the job: electrical subcontracting on a boutique hotel they were building to accommodate the influx of out-of-staters into Montana. Nobody in their right mind, people had told Jim, would build a boutique hotel in Great Falls. But people were out of their minds these days. Jim was the token easterner on the team. He had always wanted to move out west. Out of North Carolina. Into a land of more possibility. Where the skies were bigger and the people freer. Now he was just waking at five a.m. and driving down the skeezy state route from the house he was renting for too much money to the jobsite downtown while it snowed and the roads turned to ice. All the snow of Minneapolis with roads management expertise of Raleigh, he thought. Jim thought a lot of things at five, cup of instant coffee he had made at home in his cup holder. He thought about them while he worked through the morning. Mostly he thought about them on his lunch break.

​The job was going poorly: the entire hotel was out-of-sequence and had been for months now. Parts going faster than scheduled, parts lagging behind. People showing up with shit that wouldn’t be ready to be put in for two weeks. People showing up with shit that should have been here a month ago. The super, Joanna, was losing her mind. Jim didn’t blame her. She was under immense pressure from her bosses, who had also been investors in the project, and everyone has their breaking point. For Joanna, that came when she broke the eighty-hour week mark. Foaming at the mouth. Snapping at her own laborers and all the subcontractors. Subs, there was a bitterness in the way she said it these days that really did make it sound like a domination thing. Every trade handled it differently. The plumbers had gone completely internal, not talking to anyone but playing upbeat music from the ‘50s while they worked. Hank, Jim’s boss, was trying to handle it with good humor, but he was running out of steam.

​“Jim,” he said one morning, “I feel dead inside.”

​The welders, more a tribe of feral apes than actual human dudes, who were from somewhere south of Missoula and were assholes, had decided to go to war. Openly smoking on the jobsite, which had a strict no-smoking policy. Going home early. Screaming matches between Joanna and their foreman. They had been fired from the job about six times but kept getting hired back. It was a seller’s market at the moment. Jim wondered why they hadn’t just moved on. Every morning Jim sat in the car for five minutes and took a couple deep breaths. Some days would be great. Some days something he or another electrician did would trigger a Halifax-sized explosion from somebody involved in project management. Eardrums gone. The eyes of any child unfortunate to be looking in the direction of the jobsite melted out. But he was never sure what kind of day it would be, and one kind could turn into the other in a second. At lunch he had only reached the half-way point. Landmines could lie ahead. That was the son-of-a-bitch of it all. The constant uncertainty. He needed coffee and a fancy-ass scone to fortify himself.

​He looked at his phone. No texts. Nothing. The thing he had had with this girl who had been working with small businesses to help them weather the crisis had blown up yesterday. She was a couple months out of a six-year relationship with an Air Force pilot who was still stationed at the base up here. It was a casual thing, never would have gone anywhere. Chill on the couch, watch dumb movies, drink and smoke weed. Jim had gotten too drunk at his house on Saturday night and hooked up with the yoga instructor who sold his landlady/roommate shrooms. Turns out the two were best friends and things had collapsed from there. Small town problems, he should have known. There’s no Hallmark card for shit like that, Jim thought. “Sorry, I wouldn’t have done it if I had known because I’m not an asshole but since I didn’t I did and now I feel like an asshole.” These things happen. He never thought he would be missing nights on a near-stranger’s couch getting it on while Blades of Glory played. Ridiculous shit like that. But it was some sort of intimacy in the middle of this cold-as-shit spell. He had told Chris, one of the other journeys about it and he had just laughed.

​“Get back on that horse, son.”

​Jim wanted to explain that he didn’t want to have to get back on any sort of horse – he just wanted to stay on one, but it wouldn’t have been any use.

​Jim wanted to get out of one thing, though. His landlady, who lived in the other room in their house that sort of looked like the Unabombomber’s cabin, had been brought home by the cops on Tuesday morning, right before Jim left for work, with her crazy sister after some sort of altercation with her ex-boyfriend at a bar in town. Jim had been standing on the porch and the officer just looked him up and down in the kind of way that said he would remember him. The coke dealer, who sold shitty Montana white for criminal prices, was coming around the house like the motherfucking milk man. Her best friends coming over with weird, sketchy dudes and doing blow in the living room from six to six. No uninterrupted sleep in a week. Youtube videos of a random French guy explaining the history of tea blaring in his ears just so he wouldn’t hear his landlady’s sister yelling at her boyfriend. Lease still had three months on it, but the situation was out of control. He liked his landlady as a person. She was cool. She had driven him places when his car had been broken down and occasionally bought him beer as a sort of apology. He was sorry it had to end this way. It felt like a weird breakup. Now he had to try and find another place to live and it was all just a pain in the ass. That’s all it was. No big existential crises these days, no burning questions, just extended pains in the ass that dragged on way too long because they weren’t so urgent that he couldn’t ignore them when he put his mind to it. Could ignore them until they turned more critical than they had any right to be. Just little shit that piled up and ruined his lunch break. ​

About the Author: Sy Holmes is a writer from western North Carolina. He lives in the mountain West with other people’s dogs.

Turtle-Gate

By Dan Brotzel

Arriving early on the empty beach, the black sand a vast naked canvas, he and Lilly had dared to dream big.

Google ‘sand turtle’, grandad, she said.

The template they had sketched out with Google’s help was easily as long as him. He saw that the turtle’s flippers would have to come out much higher up the body than he would have imagined, almost up by its head. He was also surprised to realise that the creature would need quite a long pointy tail.

But it was only after he and his middle grand-daughter got started that he realised that the sand where they sat was compact and unyielding – especially hard work as they only had one split bucket and a tiny plastic spade between them.

About 15 yards away, however, there was a lovely big pile of loose sand that must have been displaced for someone else’s holiday project the day before; this sand was loose and crumbly, even if the surface around it was too uneven for turtle-building.

So there was nothing for it but to get stuck into the laborious commute between their spot and the pile, filling up the bucket over and over and tipping sand into the middle of an animal shape which now seemed impossibly large, almost infinite. Lilly joined him for the first five minutes, signalling her official approval of the project by ferrying a few tiny handfuls.

He had been soldiering on alone for a good half-hour when he became aware of another family group settling down close to them, in a position at right angles to their own encampment and directly to the side of the turtle.

While his group comprised two grandparents – him and his wife Jan – and three grandchildren, this new group boasted the full generational flush, by the looks – a pair of grandparents, a son with his wife, and a little toddler of indeterminate sex.

Together, they gave off an air of quietly complacent affluence. The gran was an attractive woman with a deep all-over tan, hooped earrings and expensive-looking casual beachwear. The grandad wore deck shoes and blue cotton shorts and a Polo shirt with a designer logo that was international code for ‘expensive’. His receding hair was artfully cropped to make him look rugged and well-travelled. He looked like the sort of man who owned a boat and once ran his own company and now went into town once a week to attend the odd board meeting or check in with his broker.

The new group had brought with them a fancy cool-box. It contained food that appeared to have been sourced from an Italian deli, though to his knowledge there wasn’t such a thing within 30 miles of here. They had clearly disdained the local Spar, where Jan had bought their crisps. They were clearly not local.  

He was initially a bit put out by just how close this new family had chosen to sit. But then he looked up and saw that while he had been slaving away at his turtle, the beach had been steadily filling up. An hour ago the beach had been all theirs, but the prairielands of the virgin frontier had given away to tight-knit strip-farms. Space was at a premium.

It quickly became clear to him too that the new family did not like his turtle, especially as little sandy avalanches from the creature’s growing shell kept tumbling onto the space they had marked out as theirs. The new family kept ostentatiously brushing bits of the loose blackish sand away, strategically placing towels and blankets right up to the edge of the shell and pointedly fidgeting in its direction.

What complicated matters more was that, in order to shortcut the creation of a 3D effect, he had decided to turn the outline of the animal into a deepish gully. This would instantly give the illusion of depth and cause the animal to ‘pop’, as Lilly put it. But to dig the turtle out the whole way round, he would eventually be obliged to encroach on the other family’s territory further.

Why was he still working on the turtle anyway? Lilly had wandered off to the rockpools ages ago and seemed to have completely forgotten about their shared project. She might come back to it perhaps, you never knew. But finishing the turtle had for some reason become a point of personal pride, especially as there was a hostile force – or family, if you will – that was now actively trying to stop him.

Completing the gully could have been a flashpoint. But just as he neared his Gibraltar moment, the posh gran suddenly set off with the toddler to paddle in the tide.

Britain at its best, he mused. There was naked animosity in the air, but no one was going to actually talk about it.

The gully completed, he sat back on the far side of the turtle from the interlopers, and began to smooth and shape the huge shell. Perhaps Lilly would want to decorate it with all the seashells and pretty stones that she would be bringing back from her exploration of the shore.

He sat back and surveyed what he had done. It was, he had to admit, a ludicrously large thing he had created, its scale all wrong in among the bustle and throng of a holiday beach.

Just thinking about what he had done tired him. He felt tired all the time now, a sort of grey wash that lay behind everything he did. The constant tweaks of back and bone. The endless need to pee. The breathlessness at the top of the stairs. The strange heavy feeling as he sunk into his bed every night, the weight of time pushing him down into his mattress, as if the bed was a grave and he was sinking deep into the earth. The early waking, the sense of sleep as a temporary respite that never really left him feeling rested or refreshed. The way he had to sit down and stare into space for ten minutes after a walk to the shop for the paper. The absent-mindedness. The endless need to pee.

He was old, of course. He looked at his wife, Jan, who was old too, though she looked much better on it than he did. Jan was chatting happily with Izzy, their eldest grandchild. Izzy wore a skimpy bikini these days – in a shade she told him was ‘electric pink’ – and spent hours in the bathroom and took endless selfies on her phone. It was just five minutes ago, surely, that Izzy had been dressing like Snow White and writing endearing letters to her tooth fairy; this morning, he heard her humming a song about waking up with murder on my mind.

And here they were again, looking after the grandkids for yet another week. He loved to seem them, of course he did, and Jan would have had them over every weekend given the chance. But living on the coast was a hostage to fortune.

He stood up and arched his back tentatively. The posh woman was on her way back from the water now, steering the toddler expertly between sandy puddles and somehow keeping her white culotte things spotless.

Tom, his youngest grandchild, was over with Lilly now too, he noticed, jumping in and out of pools and chasing seagulls and lying down in the tide and just generally being a boy. (Albeit a boy who had no interest in giant sand turtles.) Tom’s grandad looked over at the other family, the turtle-haters, and hated them back.

On the way down to the water, he saw that elaborate sand fortifications and comedy burial scenes were springing up everywhere on the beach. Men stood, hands on hips, boasting to other men of their new phones, comparing motorway routes, troubleshooting boiler issues. Women rubbed their necks with cream, closed their eyes and looked to the heavens. Excited children ran past carrying milkily translucent buckets full of crabs. Tiny ones dipped their feet in the brisk tide for the very first time.

But as grandad stood at waist height in the water, the queasy hostility he had felt from the earlier tussle for territory slipped away from him, like a burial at sea. The current pushed and pulled at his frame, and he let it drag his steps where it would. Looking back myopically at this vista of happy human ants, he wondered if there was anything on earth as profoundly pleasurable as weeing in the sea. The oceanic amniotic surrender to the warm, wet embrace, all-knowing and all-forgiving. And again. Aaah.

Out beyond him, towards the horizon, jet skis and dinghies traced white plumy lines in the infinite blue. The sun breathed warm and true on everything and everyone. It became impossible to believe that anyone in the world could wish harm on anyone else.

He took to pondering the meanings of Turtle-gate. Why this sudden anger? Was it to do with politics in some obscure way? Everything else was, these days, apparently. Was it a projection of his annoyance at being taken for granted by his son and daughter-in-law, who assumed now that he and Jan would have the kids for this week every year? As far as he recalled, they had offered to take the older two when the third arrived, because the parents obviously needed some relief. But somehow this had morphed into a regular annual obligation, a tradition that he had no memory of initiating or even signing up to, but which he was convinced his son now thought of as a favour to him. He could just imagine the pair of them, lamenting the fact that they couldn’t go to Spain or The Canaries in August ‘because mum and dad would be so disappointed’.

Would we heck.

Well yes, OK, maybe. We’d miss the little buggers.

More delirious weeing. He fantasised now that when he returned to the beach, the giant turtle would have come to life and turned out to be (what else?) jovial and endearing, taking all the kids for rides on its shiny convex back. But like any respectable fantasy cartoon animal, it would of course always be aware of health and safety issues, taking care never to stray out of the kids’ depth. And it would even take up the little one from the other family, and bring everyone together, so they all sat round in one big circle and held hands and sang songs, and the posh gran was really rather attractive, actually, and…

What actually happened when he got back, or soon after, was that Tom got stung by a wasp. Tom, the youngest, the boy, the tough wiry one who seemed to feel no physical pain but was insanely sensitive to the slightest barb, more sensitive in fact than the two girls put together, launched into a hysterical delirium of panic from which he could not be consoled. Wasps were everywhere, they were all out to get him, everything was infected, nowhere was safe. He clung to his granny for dear life, ducking and flinching as imagined aerial assaults rained in on him from every direction.

The fact that granny had just brought everyone a lovely ice cream was no consolation; it only made things worse because of course wasps love ice cream. The day was ruined. Happiness was gone forever. Life was over.  

Grandad did his best to stroke Tom’s head over his wife’s embrace, but Tom just thought he was under attack again and roughly pushed his arm away. Under cover of his undoubted concern for the boy, he felt a rising irritation that he was going to have to clear everything up again so soon – all the beach crap that he had so laboriously lugged down the hill and across the sand only a couple of hours ago: the canvas bags, the sandwich boxes, the flask, the folding chairs, the towels and mats, the broken bucket. Not to mention leaving the turtle. Only…  

Only now the other family were in there with them, offering sympathy and soothing gestures and practical help. The posh gran had produced wipes and cream and water. The posh granddad was telling little Tom in a lilting Welsh voice that wasps never sting someone twice, that no wasp would ever sting him again, that in fact it was a mark of great fortune to be stung by a wasp, a sign that Tom was a man of courage who was destined for great things. (All obvious nonsense, but it did seem to be having an effect.) The posh gran had produced a special ointment which she said was ‘a magical and proven wasp-scarer’ – wasps would never go near the smell, she said. (He could see that it was actually some sort of M&S lavender moisturiser thing, but this too seemed to be working.)

So: the enmity had been a fiction. The hostility was in his head. It was the sort of scene that could restore your faith in human nature. Indeed, the only sand in the sandwich, the only piece of grit in the oyster, was that, in the course of their ministrations, the other family had accidentally stamped on the face of the turtle, mutilated one of its flippers, punctured the shell beyond repair, and smudged the artfully pointed and surprisingly long tail into an effete little stump.

After all the drama had subsided, he glanced over at posh gran, stretched out on a fancy, adjustable lounger that now occupied what had until very recently been the bottom half of a giant turtle. For a moment her gaze seemed to lock with his from behind her dark elusive shades, and a gold filling glinted as she flashed him a triumphant smile.  

About the Author: Dan’s debut collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is published by Sandstone Press. He is also co-author of a forthcoming comic novel about an eccentric writers’ group, Work in Progress (Unbound). His stories have featured in numerous competition lists and publications, and received both Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations.  

An Interview with P.F. Kluge

By Megan Neary

I spoke with author P.F. Kluge over the phone while he sat on his porch at Kenyon College enjoying Ohio’s first day of Spring weather. Kluge is the author of several novels, including: Eddie and the Cruisers, The Day that I Die, Final Exam, and Biggest Elvis. He has also written numerous nonfiction essays and articles, with many fine examples collected in the  books, Keepers, Alma Mater, and The Edge of Paradise. Here at Flyover Country, we’re interested in highlighting authors who give voice to the lives lived between America’s coasts. Though he’s from New Jersey and lived in New York City for years, Kluge has made Gambier, Ohio his home. He first went there to study at Kenyon College sixty years ago and he’s been leaving and coming back ever since. In his novels, he captures the sound of Ohio and the complicated feeling of loving a town while wondering if there’s somewhere else you should be. Interestingly, Kluge’s works regarding Micronesia–where he served in the Peace Corps–reflect an atmosphere not unlike that of a small, isolated college and he captures the voices and stories of the people on those small islands, bringing to life a place many readers may just be discovering. 

Today, Kluge lives within walking distance of his freshman year dormitory, which he returned to for a year during the writing of Alma Mater, a nonfiction account of a year in the life of Kenyon College. The book was somewhat controversial, according to Kluge, “some people said it was an act of revenge, some people said I should not have written it, but, generally I think people understood that it was a fair shot at this place.” The book weaves together history, autobiography, and journalism to provide a beautiful, complex portrait of the college. 

Kluge first left Kenyon for graduate school at the University of Chicago. After graduating,he joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to Micronesia, which wasn’t his first choice, or even on his mind as a possibility. But, once he got there, he fell in love with the islands. His first novel, The Day that I Die, was inspired by his time there. The novel tells the story of a murdered war hero turned actor who returns to the islands where he once fought. 

While on the islands, Kluge became involved in politics, befriending a man named Lazarus Salii who would later become president of Palau. Kluge stayed on the islands after his term with the Peace Corps ended to write speeches for Salii. Later, he would write the preamble to the nation’s constitution. A nonfiction book, The Edge of Paradise, speaks to this friendship with Salii, as well as his love for the islands themselves. 

After returning to the United States, Kluge worked as a journalist, publishing stories with Life Magazine and the Wallstreet Journal. He also wrote and published several novels. He was invited back to Kenyon on a temporary teaching assignment and is now the college’s writer in residence. 

To Kluge, “reading is the breathing in and writing is the breathing out.” He cited Philip Roth, John Updike, and Alice McDermott as favorite recent authors. Currently, Kluge is working on a book called Wordman about writing and teaching. The title is a callback to a character in his novel, Eddie and the Cruisers. 

Kluge began writing early, working on grammar school and high school newspapers and holding summer internships during college at newspapers and Life Magazine. His interest in writing comes from his belief that “it’s your responsibility as a human being to leave a record behind.” He has always felt, “that something hasn’t happened until it’s been written down.” So it comes as no surprise that Kluge is still writing five days a week. He writes in longhand with paper and pencil, going back to the beginning and reading through the whole manuscript every thirty pages or so. In his office, there’s a shelf that holds his published books. He glanced at it and said, “you know, I like them all–I really do– and I’ll keep writing, that’s for sure.”

About the Author: Megan Neary is a teacher and writer from Columbus, Ohio, and a contributing editor at Flyover Country. Her fiction can be found in Near Window and Rejection Letters, and is forthcoming in The Amethyst Review, and Schuylkill Valley Journal. Her journalism can be found in The Record Herald.

The Sunday Incident in Nebraska (That Will Never Make the News)

By J.V. Sumpter

Last Sunday, at 9:32 AM, Father Francis almost confessed to the congregation that, for the last ten years, he’d been stealing from the collection to buy himself booze and drugs. In fact (he almost said) he’d once performed a wedding completely trashed, and what’s more, he didn’t even believe in God.

Unlike most confessions he’d made and heard, this one wasn’t born of a conscious-rankling secret. It didn’t dig its claws into the ego, a spidery parasite. No, this secret was more than willing to dawn the wings of confession, be reborn in the hearing of many witnesses. As Father Francis scanned the unsuspecting faces in the pews, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to let this go. Speechlessness dropped from his lips. His tongue relaxed. The exact words he would need queued helpfully on his tongue, and he let his mouth fall open—

but he stopped himself. In time.

What am I doing? he asked himself. He felt suddenly lightheaded and clenched his teeth together, hard, until the moment passed.

The most bizarre part of the almost-confession was that Father Francis hadn’t done any of those things. The untruth of it will confuse the old priest to no end. He’ll spend the next three weeks in solitary prayer, chanting rosaries while his mind wanders back to the strangest temptation to ever come over him—the temptation to tell a lie that would have gotten him in big trouble.

*

At precisely the same time that day, Aesop Castellanos, oral maxillofacial surgeon, was performing what would be his last operation, though he didn’t know it at the time. Afterwards, he walked out of his practice on shaking legs.

He hadn’t planned to retire until two years later but figured he had enough money to live comfortably after he quit. Maybe he would find another job. But it wouldn’t be surgery. No. Not after he’d almost pulled every tooth out of that unconscious teenager’s mouth.

He didn’t know why he’d wanted to do it. Or maybe “wanted” isn’t the right word. It happened right as he removed the second wisdom tooth. He’d been standing there, surgical knife and suction tube in hand, when he was hit by the sudden realization that he could do it, and that if he did, it would be absolutely awful. His mind instantly flooded with nightmarish visualizations. Empty, pocked gums erupting blood onto the blue t-shirt. The teen’s eyes would speak terror as the kid starts choking on blood and gauze. A hysterical mother, a bewildered judge, an unpayable fine, a life sentence. And most painful of all, guilt.

The terror of it gripped him with the sudden impulse to make it real. It moved his hands fluidly back to the unsuspecting teenager’s mouth. But by the grace of God, Aesop Castellanos, oral maxillofacial surgeon, did not pull any more teeth out. He finished up, sealed the holes, and hightailed it out of the building.

He won’t explain to anyone why he suddenly decided to give up his job (and his cushy salary), not even to his none-too-thrilled wife. He will take the crime he nearly committed to his grave.

*

It wasn’t a coincidence that these parallel incidents happened to the surgeon and the priest on the same day at the same time. All across the state of Nebraska and parts of northern Kansas, people terrified themselves by almost committing senseless and dangerous acts. A builder on a riser almost pushes his partner off (and the partner was his brother). A man who’d just secured a promotion and a first date almost jumps from his tenth-story office window. A mother with her five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son almost crashes her car into a tree.

But something stops them just in time. The brothers on the riser look at each other, wordless. The businessman stumbles back into his chair and puts his head in his hands. The mother pulls into a parking lot and stares at her kids in the rearview mirror for a long, long time. When the girl asks, “You okay, mommy?” she doesn’t respond.

The state-wide incident doesn’t make it to the news. Everyone assumes their part in it was a personal incident, some freak expression of a hidden perturbation in their psyche. Shame keeps what happened from ever being brought to the public’s attention like an effective spy.

This covers over the mistake made by actual government agents. You see, a team of them accidentally created an anomaly from their secret labs in rural Nebraska. Fortunately, they were able to reverse it in under two minutes, and everyone was able to bear through their strange temptations that long.

Everyone, that is, but me.

*

I’m grateful though. My temptation was comparatively innocuous. All I was tempted to do was take your phone out of its case—and throw it clear across the mall.

I’ve never played a sport in my life, but I wound up like a pitcher, let it fly with such good form that even you would have been impressed if you’d come back from the bathroom in time to see it. I watched its perfect arch and smiled as it reached its zenith. Then it started its decline, and I was suddenly reminded of our relationship’s recent trajectory.

 But I swear our recent fights don’t have ANYTHING to do with me throwing your phone. I was compelled to throw it by the invisible force of a statewide anomaly created by secret government agents. Haven’t you been paying attention?

About the Author: J.V. Sumpter recently earned her BFA from the University of Evansville. She is an assistant editor for Kelsay Books, Thera Books, and freelance clients. She received 2020 Virginia Grabill Awards in Poetry and Nonfiction, and her most recent publications are in Leading Edge Magazine, Not Deer Magazine, and New Welsh Review. Visit her on Twitter @JVSReads.

Riding Bikes With Devin

By Nick Gardner

Ryan was drifting off in the shade when his neighbor bashed open the screen door, slung a writhing pillowcase into the front yard, and squeezed off three shots at the hissing and scrambling ghost. The cat dodged out in a zigzag, flicked like a skipped stone under a parked car where it proceeded to lick. The neighbor dropped the gun to his side. He grinned. He said, “There we go. Cat’s out of the bag.” He laughed at his own joke. “Name’s Drew.” Ryan’s ears rang, his mouth hung open.

“Ryan,” said Ryan.

There was a silence as they looked at each other, then Ryan said, “You better put that thing away. Cops are probably coming.”

Neighbors congregated on their porches. Shadows materializing to gawk. Drew shouted, “Nothing to see here. Everyone can go back inside.

He turned back to Ryan, winked. The screen door banged behind him.

#

Three months earlier, Ryan had been elated when Devin asked him to move to the city with her after she enrolled in Columbus College of Art and Design. She said she didn’t like the idea of dorms, shacked up with someone else’s mess, but Ryan’s was a mess she knew from high school hangouts in his basement where they’d create playlists, burn CDs. And Ryan could easily find another job. The Midwest was peppered with factories. He had worked at Richland Sensor for the last year and saved a decent chunk of money, a nice cushion to prop himself on while he waited for the right job. The house in Columbus was beautiful, though a bit rundown. It was also cheap. Victorian Village was absent of parents, of anyone they knew. They could be whoever they wanted there.

Ryan imagined riding bikes with Devin in Columbus, through the neighborhoods, passing their aloof shuttle and weft against the fabric of traffic. It was only a couple miles from their new house to the Short North where they could stop by a gallery or coffee shop. And when they got home, they would sit on the porch like so many other Columbus kids and drink beer from the convenience store down the road that Devin said didn’t card. They would smoke cigarettes or joints if they pleased.

So it was the beginning of Summer when Ryan and Devin took the U-haul from the Western Ohio farmland of their parents to the rental in Victorian Village. The house had slumped gutters and wood floors with worn out pathways down the center of the hall and cracks you could see through. In the kitchen, the linoleum peeled up to reveal layers glued onto each other as previous owners covered over one ugly style with another. The drawer handles pulled out and twisted loose in their sockets. The bathroom door didn’t latch properly and had the habit of being pulled open by a draft catching the user in embarrassing positions. They were happy with the house though. It was the first home of their adult lives, and it was close to Devin’s school.

#

“What is that?” Devin had said as Ryan rolled the 1976 baby blue Schwinn down the ramp of the moving truck.

“Your new bike. I bought it cheap and fixed it up. It’s how people get around.”

Devin had a smile that was only a tweak in the side of her mouth, then she hugged Ryan who turned bright red and grinned at the wall.

That summer they rode every street of the neighborhood. These were tall houses with steep roofs, balconies on the second floor, turrets and stained glass. They were trimmed exquisitely, carved wood that was now cracked and peeling paint from the sunshine. They were faded, elegant houses made cheap by their disrepair and Ryan and Devin loved them.

When school started and Devin was too busy to ride with him, Ryan biked alone. He could do 30 miles, pass an afternoon cutting down alleys instead of filling out applications. He’d blow through stop signs and ignore interviews.

When Ryan made it back to the house, he took the chain off the bike, walked to the kitchen, filled a bowl with degreaser, and dropped the chain in. Devin smoked a joint and hovered around her sculpture. She liked to alter her perception while she worked. Her long hair hung in her eyes as she bent over the piece, backed up, closed in on another view. Her medium was barbed wire and rebar scalped in rusted clumps from abandoned buildings and construction zones. She worked in the living room on a tarp, clipping, bending, twisting, sprinkling a light flurry of rust flakes. Music was always turned way up, Dead Milkmen, Buzzcocks, The Cramps. She liked punk while she worked. The sculpture was much too big by now to move through the door.

After his rides Ryan would lean into the fridge, feel the cold air and the empty space of it, then emerge with a beer in his fist and announce his mileage as he read it off his tracker. He would say, “Thirty four miles today.” And Devin would say, “Damn! Well done,” without looking up. Then Ryan would move through the house on his wobbling legs and floating body to sit on the porch and drink without anyone to tell him to do otherwise.

#

A week after the incident with the cat, Ryan got home from a late afternoon ride and saw a large package on his porch. He hauled his bike up the steps, set it against the wall of the house and opened the box. When he broke through the carbon lining, the smell of dank weed hit him full in the face and he jerked away. Inside the box was at least a pound of high quality marijuana.

When Ryan looked up, he saw his neighbor watching. Drew stood attention-stiff with that same grin. Ryan waved and bobbed his head hello, but didn’t meet Drew’s eyes. Then Ryan had a thought, looked back at the box’s label and turned red. It was addressed to Drew Goddard, number 346 and Ryan’s address was 344. He shouldn’t have opened it. Ryan gestured to the box, said, “Sorry dude. They delivered your stuff to the wrong place. I didn’t realize…”

Drew grinned but didn’t move, “I see that.”

“Here,” Ryan picked up the box and carried it over the lawn and up to Drew’s porch. His hands shook, heart punched.

Drew asked, “You see what’s inside?”

“I mean, I don’t really give a shit. What’s your business is your business.”

“Hold up.” Drew picked up the box. “You wanna smoke?”

 “Well.”

“Come on. It’s good shit and I have a new vaporizer.”

Drew’s house was spotless and the first thing Ryan noticed was a De Kooning on the entryway wall that didn’t appear to be a print but must be. He followed Drew straight into the kitchen where he set the box down on an expensive-looking table scrubbed into an oaky mirror.

Drew said, “Pick out a bottle to sip while we smoke. He gestured to a wine rack filled with dusty labels. “And call your girlfriend if she wants to join.”

Ryan said, “She’s not my girlfriend.” Which sounded defensive. He said, “We’ve just been friends forever so it’s like, you know.”

Drew said that was a shame and winked and walked into the other room. “Still, call her if you want. Plenty to go around.”

Ryan picked through the bottles, finally settling on a 1991 because that was the year of his birth.

Drew emerged from the bedroom. He hadn’t stopped grinning since the porch and Ryan began to feel like this was all going to turn into a giant practical joke. But Ryan also didn’t feel like he could decline Drew’s offers, like saying ‘no’ would change Drew into the angry man who shot cats in the front yard. It was just weed and some wine, and Ryan didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

“I see you picked the Bordeaux,” Drew said, “A hundred fifty dollars. Brought it back from my tour in France. Bourgogne.” And he continued to announce other expensive items saying things like, this glass is a Steuben. Ryan asked about the De Kooning, and, yes it was original, bought on a whim from a collector when Drew was stationed in Baghdad.

The wine was tannic, a perfect melding of tastes that moved over each other so as to become indistinguishable. The weed was dank, rainforest deep, and Ryan’s head floated with these pricey objects. When Ryan asked which branch of the military Drew was in, Drew said, “Private. Security contractor, but I’m thinking about retirement.” He smiled and winked.

#

Ryan went to a party that night at the house of one of Devin’s art school friends. There was a DJ sliding beats around on his MacBook and as the night went on the number of dancers increased and their inhibitions decreased.

Ryan and Devin hung out in the basement where a kid named Antoine screened Brakhage films while spinning Coltrane on the record player. The room was filled with smoke and Ryan was on his third beer when he realized Devin was no longer with him. He was on the couch telling either Jack or Jake – he hadn’t quite caught his name – about starting a bike repair business out of the local makerspace, and then he looked around and Devin was gone. He checked his phone and there was no message. It was only a mile home, but he had hoped they’d walk that together.

 He knew it was no big deal though. He shouldn’t make it a big deal. He had only hoped. He said to Jake or Jack, “Anyways, I have most of the tools and I know how to do it. I should just do it. Yeah. I’m going to do it.”

Jack or Jake nodded, passed the blunt, and said he’d be right back.

Ryan coughed on his next inhale and it hit him all at once. The film and music blended perfectly but no one else was watching. His legs were light but sturdy as he made his way upstairs. The bass vibrated the floor and lights roved the room in primary colors.

Ryan saw her then, sitting at the coffee table sniffing powder off a hand mirror and leaning back to make out with the tall thin boy beside her. He had never seen Devin do anything but weed and he felt an urge to yell at her, to tell her to stop, but it wasn’t his job to control her. The music was not Ryan’s thing. The party was too wild, and he would be walking home alone.

#

The cat was filled with incredible forgiveness and was back within ten days. Drew stopped sweeping the orange and yellow leaves from his porch, to crouch and pet the animal while its body lunged and convulsed with each swallow of canned tuna. Ryan watched from his porch, trying to understand this bond that could snap and fire bullets at you in an instant.

Drew seemed to sense Ryan’s wonder and said, “I think she’s learned her lesson. Don’t you?”

#

Later that night, Ryan and Devin walked to the corner store, Lou’s, to buy some beer and smokes. Ryan kicked a shard of sidewalk along in front of him for a time and didn’t say much. It was the first time they had hung out since the party. Just too busy with school and things.

When they got to the counter, Drew was in front of them ordering the cashier to retrieve pricey bottles from the glass case behind the register. Drew was sweaty despite the cool night and there was a deep channel of wet that went down his spine to the bottom of his untucked shirt. His hair stuck up at all angles. He was still attractive, a well-carved jawline, television smile, twinkling eyes that were life itself and wild.

Drew took them in with his grin, said, “Back in Iraq they had me in this cushy office job for a while. Paid me one hundred grand to sit behind a desk and drink and smoke cigars. Got a taste for the good stuff and now I’m hooked.” He gestured to the counter, “But it’s hard as fuck to get quality whiskey in this shithole.”

Ryan said, “Hey, this is Devin, my roommate.”

Drew offered his largest smile yet and a hand to shake. “So this is the beautiful, mysterious roommate that you’re not dating?” Then he turned back to the counter to settle up.

Devin shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her cutoff jeans and blushed, blinked. She couldn’t meet Ryan’s eyes. But when Ryan nudged her, she did look at him and blushed more deeply.

They walked back together. While Ryan floated off in his head, Devin jabbered away with Drew, asked him questions about what he had seen overseas, what his family was like, and when he asked his own questions back, when he flirted, she stumbled over her reponses. Ryan had never seen this nervous side. She let Drew lead and she followed every step.

Back at Drew’s place, Ryan sat on the couch and sipped scotch worth half his monthly rent and Devin reclined on a La-Z-Boy, tipped her drink back a little too fast. Drew paced in front of them and told stories of Iraq, how he holed up on a rooftop for days before he took his shot. Hours of waiting to release his breath, squeeze the trigger, watch the body drop. Then he went on, as if continuing the same train of thought and described the expensive drinks with important people, exotic places. Devin hung on every word as Ryan slipped into a boozy darkness.

Drew didn’t mention why he was now in Columbus, only that his dad used to rent out the house out but had given it to Drew to use while he tried to settle down. Drew didn’t mind where he ended up. He had money. He could make friends. “With enough booze and weed,” said Drew, “You can sleep easy anywhere.”

#

But Drew did not sleep easy. At some point Ryan must have blacked out. He woke up on the couch to Drew telling him to get the fuck out. Drew screamed, “You think this is some kind of fucking hostel?” A boot flew through the air and bounced off the cushion next to Ryan’s head.

Ryan jumped up and fled. Another shoe struck the door as he pulled it open. There was no sign of Devin, Ryan realized as soon as the door slammed behind him and another shoe hit it.

#

A week later Ryan was back on the porch with a beer. It felt like a very Columbus thing to do, he thought. Devin had been hanging out at Drew’s most nights, brought over pizza, maybe a six pack, while Ryan sat on the porch with his forty and watched the Fall breeze by. He didn’t know if he could believe anything that Drew told them. The only evidence was a rage that spiked and then disappeared with no warning whatsoever. Devin insisted that she could help Drew, but Ryan wanted no part in it.

#

That spring, Ryan got the phone call he’d feared. Just that month, two houses in the village had been bought and were being refurbished. For what seemed like the first time in a century, a street sweeper made its rounds and just last week the city tore up the sidewalk to begin repairs. He didn’t know exactly what would happen next, but he felt it was something else beyond his control, something else changing, pushing him away.

Ryan stopped his bike beside the road and opened his flip phone. The landlord began right away, “You know the year’s almost up and it was just a year lease,” he said, “Property values are increasing, property taxes are rising. I could easily get double what I charge you.” He said he would hate to lose Ryan and Devin as renters, but he had ends to meet. He was really giving them quite a good deal.

 Ryan choked on a fistsized ball of disgust. He figured it would come but he had also hoped. He said. “You stingy fucking bastard! Do you have any idea what you’re doing to people? You don’t give a shit about anyone, just your goddamn money!”

The phone had already clicked off. The click said that the landlord knew exactly what he was doing. It acknowledged and accepted that the landlord didn’t care. Ryan would have to tell Devin, but first, he wanted to get drunk.

#

So, later, after he downed a forty and a half alone, and after he’d texted her with no response, he went next door. This is how he found Devin: sitting on Drew’s couch reading the labels of fourteen prescription bottles that sat on the coffee table and putting the drug names into her computer to research. Ryan sat down beside her. He noticed the bruises on her arm, but didn’t mention it. He asked her what’s up?

She said, “Drew’s gone.”

“Gone where?”

“Nebraska. Or some shit. He took me with him to buy a van. He buys a POS minivan with cash and hauls off to BFE to pick up a bunch of weed. He’ll probably come down from whatever he’s on, hate himself and flush most of it.” She took a swig of wine from a Steuben glass and set it down in its ring on the table. “But today, he just assumes I’m going with him. He demanded it. Fuck that. He refused to take his scripts.”

She spilled several pills into her hand. They bounced on her callused skin and rolled but she contained them. She plucked one between index finger and thumb and held it up to Ryan: “Klonopin. Want one?”

“I’m not taking his pills.”

“It’s fine. I’ve been taking them all afternoon. It’s not like he’s using them.”

“He’d flip his shit if he found out.”

“He doesn’t care. When he gets like this he starts giving everything away anyway.”

“I think.” Ryan paused, wondering if this was the right time. “Dev, don’t get mad at me, OK. But I think we need to get him help. Is he hurting you?”

Devin said, “Hurting?” Like she was mulling it over. She placed a pill in her mouth, chewed, scrunched up her face and chased it with a shot of wine. Then, she pushed the Rx bottles away from herself. She said, “I see why he doesn’t take this stuff. It doesn’t do shit for me. Just makes me feel weird.”

“For you? What all have you taken?”

“All of it. Lexapro, Lithium, Lamictal, Xanax…” She continued picking up orange bottles, reciting names. She said, “They only make me feel fuzzy, make everything meaningless. I’m a little bit sick.”

“You took all of those?”

“Only as prescribed,” she held up a self righteous finger then bowed over and puked on the floor. When she was done, she looked back up with watery, innocent eyes.

Ryan jumped up. “You took all of those? Shit!”

Devin nodded, knelt next to the puddle on the floor. Ryan could see pills dissolving in the waste in front of her. Devin said, “Look at this!” She spread her arms gesturing at an overwhelming everything. “There’s nothing I can do.”

#

That night Ryan could hear Devin tossing and turning in her room down the hall. She had absolutely refused to go to the hospital. Most of the pills had been puked up anyhow. The next day she stayed in her room and when Ryan knocked she said she wanted to be alone. He was glad she was talking, but he couldn’t tell her that the landlord wanted $250 more per month.

Ryan took off on his bike and headed toward campus. He cut through the university and took the roads on the other side at speed. Heavy air, thick with mown grass. If he had been his father he would work sixty to eighty hours per week, save money, and plan for marriage and then retirement. But Ryan wasn’t Ryan’s father. He was too sad, too anxious. He also wasn’t lazy, but he’d seen his father after 30 years running General Motors presses and that life didn’t seem like life at all. Maybe all Ryan wanted was the freedom to choose, to take control and not be killed by it.

After a time Ryan found himself on a road with fields on either side. The country. The breeze blew warmth into him, a chipmunk scurried across the road, then stopped, terrified, and sprinted inches in front of him either showing off or attempting suicide, Ryan couldn’t tell.

he turned around and headed back to the house. It wasn’t his home with Devin like he imagined. More a derelict interstitial space he’d been stuck in too long. He lived there. He survived till he didn’t. When he arrived he sat on the porch and drank beer, just like it was Columbus and just like he belonged there and everything wasn’t over. He drank like he had an idea of what he was even doing. Devin came out and joined him. They sat in silence. Then Devin said, “We got a notice in the mail that rent’s about to skyrocket. Stingy fuckers.” She took a drag from her cigarette. “Drew said I could move in with him if I wanted.”

Ryan didn’t say anything. Just swigged his beer.

Devin said, “Anyways, Drew called from Nebraska to apologize. I don’t want to leave you out on your own, but I have school and stuff.”

Ryan said, “I may just move back home. Get my old job back.”

“I’m so sorry, though. I keep trying to make everything work and it just falls apart. I’m sorry I dragged you along.”

“No. I get it. It’s fine.”

“But I also don’t want you to be mad.”

#

Ryan had to live with his parents and save up for three months before he could afford his new place, a two bedroom farmhouse with attached garage where he set up his bike stand and began repairs. His old road bike didn’t cut it on the gravel and dirt of his hometown so he bought a hybrid with wider tires. There were no bike lanes anywhere, no sidewalks and people liked to speed around in their trucks creating a level of danger that excited him, kept him alert. Ryan coolly pedaled on.

The move was worth it for the world around him. He liked the cows who wanted nothing more than to chew grass, backs turned to the road, farting at traffic. He liked the fields, the trees. He had even developed a nostalgic passion for the smell of skunk as long as it was faint and passed by quickly.

He hadn’t seen Devin in a year, a few months since they had even talked on the phone, but her parents had let him know that she moved back home to recover. A bullet had grazed her cheek. She said the gun wasn’t supposed to be loaded, but then she stopped answering questions altogether about Drew, about whose hand held the trigger, any of it. Ryan read that Drew had been arrested, charged with quite a few misdemeanors, and released on bond.

On the phone, Devin admitted there was nothing she could do to help him.

When Ryan looked up his old house on Craigslist it had been completely remodeled and the rent had more than doubled.

Ryan went out to the garage. He had three bicycles on stands in varying stages of repair and two more in the queue. From the ceiling hung more than a hundred wheels both old and new. It wasn’t perfect. He still struggled, but he woke up and went to his workshop every morning, clicked on The Clash and sanded and painted as long as he wanted to, which could be quite long if he was in the mood. He pulled down an old Schwinn outfitted with fat tires and he took off down the road, picturing Devin’s face back when it used to smile, memories of cigarettes and a laugh they shared over inane conversations in embarrassingly goofy voices.

He turned onto Washington South Road and heard the Super Duty truck with its loud muffler pummeling behind him. It revved by him then, a shout from the window gone indistinct in its cloud of smoke and sound. And Ryan hit the ditch, sprawled out on his hands and knees at the edge of the cornfield. He lay there in the sun, inventoried damages. He rolled over and sat up, stretched his legs, his arms, knees a bit tender, hands stung. He held up both middle fingers at the lingering cloud of exhaust from the truck’s stacks, but the truck was long gone. He stood up, shook himself out. Lucky. Some people get to walk away without a scratch.

About the Author: Nick Gardner is in recovery from opioids and is an MFA fiction candidate at Bowling Green State University where he is an assistant editor at Mid-American Review. His poetry and fiction has appeared in Ocean State Review, Fictive Dream, Flash Fiction Magazine, Main Street Rag, and other journals. His book of poetry, So Marvelously Far was published in 2019 through Crisis Chronicles Press. He lives in Ohio.

Blood and Dust

By Mitchell Nobis

Cal stomped the clutch, and the massive tractor lurched to a halt and disappeared in a tower of dust. There had been a metallic screech and a clunk, and he instinctually pulled it out of gear and eased back a hydraulic lever to raise the implement out of the dirt. He turned off the ignition, and in the new quiet, he could hear birds over by the creek. The dust billowed around the tractor. He sighed and put on his worn Tigers ball cap, took a swig of water from a dusty gallon milk jug, and once the wind blew the dust away, opened the cab and climbed down.

“Shit.”

The problem was obvious from fifteen feet away: The left wing of the front-folding bean drill had sprung a hinge again, causing the wing to drag at an angle. Any farther and the wing might have broken off altogether, let alone planted the beans in drunken, unsteady rows. It was a ridiculous breakdown, the result of inexcusably poor workmanship. Cal pulled out his cell phone.

“Ricky,” he said. “I broke down again. Same part. Yeah, I know, ‘reconditioned’ my ass. Yeah, get the old one and bring it out here so we can get rolling again today. I can’t move this one without screwing it up worse, so I’ll call Hector’s to let ‘em know they’re coming out to fix it here and for real this time. And for free.” He watched the birds and listened to Ricky. “Yeah, we’ll need both tractors here. I’ll stay and keep planting, so tell Dale to follow in a pickup so you’re not stuck out here.”

Irate, Cal made the phone call, reamed out the dealer, and when he finished, plopped down on the bean drill’s hitch bar. It was, by most regards, a perfect day. The sky was endless and blue with occasional clouds skirting past. Spring days like this used to elicit boyish excitement from Cal. He would stroll up to his workers in the morning and bellow, “We should be on the cover of a magazine today!” He must’ve said it a hundred times. Cal was still a good boss, a fair boss. He paid his workers well and treated them like professionals. One of his neighbors a few miles away paid his men low cash wages and worked them during planting and harvest seasons for 19 or 20 hours at a time without more than a piss break. Cal often wondered how the man could sleep after claiming to be a Christian in the daylight.

Gonna take Ricky awhile to get here, Cal thought as he watched a flock of Canadian geese fly overhead. Cal was working one of the distant properties, a good mile from any houses and about seven from the farmstead. Plus, a tractor pulling a bean drill can only go so fast in the first place. He knew he had to call his sister.

“Hey, we’re going late again. I’m broken down on the 80-acre way over by Johnson’s. I’ll have to go well past dark.” Cal was quiet for some time, listening to her and watching a fox skulk along the creek bank. “I know.” He paused and listened again. “Yeah, I know. Look, I’d like nothing more than to see her tonight, but I gotta get the beans in. We’re almost done. They keep saying rain’s coming, and without anything in the ground we get no money, you know.” His tone was dry. Cal went quiet again. His jaw tightened. “Dammit, I know she’s my daughter.  I also have to buy her clothes and food, y’know. Look, I’ll talk to you later.” Cal resisted the urge to see if he could throw his phone all the way to the creek. Instead, he set it down on a knobby tire and walked away, rubbing his head and kicking the dirt.

He made his way to the creek. Dry, sun-bleached stalks of last year’s pussy willows lined the creek bed on both sides.  A few trees grew along the creek too, and he watched a silver maple’s reflection ripple in the water. Cal wondered why everyone always said water was blue. The creeks were almost always brown. He remembered reading once about tannins leaching from roots into the water, or maybe he heard it on a field trip as a child. Either way, he had never seen a river or creek run more blue than brown.

Cal sat on the bank, rested his elbows on his knees, and stared down into the water. In the stagnant pockets behind branches or rocks, pollen gathered thick atop the water. He saw tadpoles dart about from under it and thought it seemed early for tadpoles, but there they were. It was spring again, and the world went on though he admitted to himself that until now, he hadn’t really noticed.

Cal realized he was tensing his muscles again, and he took conscious, long breaths. He’d had trouble breathing since the bank’s most recent round of calls. Several years of low crop prices were crushing the operation, so his advisor suggested doubling down, both playing the futures market and rotating crops based on those prices. This all made Cal’s chest tighten and stomach churn. Life only got more complicated over time, he thought, never less.

Thinking about crop prices made him antsy. He got to his feet and walked along the creek. He watched a turkey buzzard float lazy circles above a straggling oak tree out in the middle of the field, but he didn’t watch where he was going. His ankle twinged with quick pain as it caught and twisted into a hole. Cal barked and tumbled over. He grabbed his ankle.

“Goddamn woodchucks!” Cal groused to himself after sitting upright. He brushed the dirt off to check for swelling and left the boot on in case he had rolled the ankle or even sprained it. He moved his foot in circles against dull pain. On the rare afternoon that Cal was caught up with farm work, he brought his .22 to the fields and shot woodchucks. Their holes along the creek caused erosion and damaged his machinery. Since they were only doing what came naturally, he felt a moment’s regret when he plugged one, but it passed quickly. He put some pressure on the foot to test it. He couldn’t sit in this dirt all day, he thought, so he dragged himself upright. Cal stepped back tenderly on the foot, unzipped his fly, and loosed a steady stream of urine down the hole. It steamed in the spring breeze.

 Cal stumbled back to the tractor, walking off the tightness in his ankle. The ground north of the machinery was rough, but to the south and behind it, the soil lay furrowed with clean, straight rows, a fine seedbed for the beans if only rain would finish the deal. The ankle wasn’t badly hurt but ached enough to be an annoyance. He climbed up the ladder back into the cab, rooted through an oily cardboard box of tools, and pulled out a grease gun to freshen up the bean drill while he waited.

Climbing down gingerly, unable to put his full weight on the ankle, Cal wondered if Ricky was at least on the road yet. He hated down time when there was so much to do, especially when he was stranded out in the field. Cal ran through a mental checklist of everything that needed to be done before he could quit for the day. It was good that his sister could help because he wouldn’t be home till long after nightfall. Were he at the farmstead, he had plenty he could be doing. Ricky or Dale could grease the drill while he crunched numbers, he thought. But he wasn’t at the farmstead, so he turned his attention to the broken implement’s grease fittings.

He started at the front and then worked his way across the machine, crawling on the dirt and contorting to reach the secluded spots under the drill, a sprawling contraption of steel, tubes, discs, wheels, seed bins, grease, and magic. A horsefly buzzed nearby, so Cal pulled up his collar to protect his neck. He avoided the broken hinge but was pumping new grease into the other fittings when he realized he needed to lower the drill to prevent extra pressure from breaking off the hinge altogether. As he hurried himself backward and out from under the machine, Cal spotted a length of wire wound around an axle. This plot had turned up all sorts of discarded bits over the years. Lord knows what used to be here, Cal thought. Farmers could turn anywhere into a junk yard. He paused and yanked at the heavy wire to loosen it enough so he could unwrap it from the axle quickly, but it was a thick gauge and sharp on its broken, pointed ends. Cal braced his foot on a cross-bar and pulled harder. The wire jerked and slipped from his hands, gouging his right palm and the fleshy pad of his thumb. Cal inhaled between gritted teeth. The cut was deep. With the instant first look, he saw skin and muscle tissue separated cleanly in a straight line about three or even four inches long. He didn’t think he saw bone. The blood pooled and overflowed the cut’s ravine. Cal pressed his hand in his left underarm.

He pulled himself upright with his left hand and hobbled into the cab. His shirt wicked and spread a darkening expanse of blood. Using his unsure left hand, Cal dug through the box of tools and pulled out a utility knife. He also grabbed the thin roll of paper towels from behind the seat. After tearing off the dusty outside layer, he ripped off three feet of towel. He poured water from the jug over the cut, and quickly and clumsily, he folded up the paper towels and compressed the wad on his cut. The blood grabbed hungrily at the paper and stuck it to his wound. Cal then used the knife to cut off a shirtsleeve. He wanted to cut off his left and leave the right to keep the injured arm covered and warm, but that meant using his sliced hand to maneuver the knife. The thumb was useless. It couldn’t move, and he feared severed tendons. He laid the knife on his thigh and used his index finger to slide out the blade. Then, he gripped it with the middle, ring, and pinky fingers, directing it between his index and middle fingers to avoid putting pressure on the thumb.

He managed to hack off the left sleeve and tie it tightly around his right hand. To make sure it stayed put and to help seal if off from dirt, he wrapped it all with a few layers of duct tape. It wasn’t pretty, but it was better than nothing.

Cal realized his jaw was starting to spasm from gritting his teeth this whole time, so he took a steady, deep breath. Ricky’s on his way; he can plant, and Dale’ll be right behind in a pickup, he thought, so I’ll just head in with him and go get stitched. Cal cursed himself under his breath for not grabbing leather gloves out of the cab before greasing the drill. All he could do now was wait.

He turned the key and clicked on the radio. He punched the buttons until he got news. The market was down for the day. The governor announced new regulations at a press conference earlier. There were traffic jams over by Detroit. And the weather forecast remained the same as it had been all spring: warmer than average and dry but with rain on the way. The forecast had yet to manifest in actual rain. Cal sighed and clicked off the radio. He climbed back out of the cab and calculated that he had at least thirty more minutes until Ricky and Dale would get there.

The initial shock of the injury began to ebb, and the pain made Cal wince. In the bright sunlight, he inspected his bandaging job. It appeared to be staunching the flow, but it wouldn’t stay clean. Dust stuck to the bloody residue on his shirt, jeans, and makeshift bandaging. He had forgotten about the ankle, but he hobbled back to the creek’s oasis of moist green and lay down in the new-growth weeds and grasses. A dragonfly hovered over him for a long moment. Cal wondered how he looked to the bug, what the bug must think of him, but he decided the bug probably didn’t much care about him one way or the other. The wound throbbed.

Each pulse brought new pain, and Cal started to consider the possibilities. He didn’t think the cut was bad enough that he could bleed to death, but it could cripple his hand if he’d sliced tendons. A man can’t bleed to death from a four-inch cut, can he? Cal thought, and he wondered if he should stumble the mile to Johnson’s. The wind picked up, and Hal grew reflective lying in the grass. He hadn’t been a good father, in his estimation. He was practically an absentee parent, trying to raise their daughter alone while operating the farm. He worked 365 days a year and he knew that if it weren’t for his sister, he would’ve had to sell the farmstead and seek new work. Either that or make his daughter drop out of school to work for him. That would’ve been the only way he could see her and raise her in those circumstances, the only way he could be sure she was okay. Cal wasn’t sure if her staying at his sister’s so often wasn’t actually a good thing. He never felt like an adequate parent anyway, and this way she had a female to look up to, to learn from. Still, Cal ached when he thought of his child. The only thought he allowed himself of her mother was that it was a clear, dry day like this when they buried her. Yes, it was a day just like this, he thought. Cal snapped his head to the side, looking for more bugs or a plant or anything to prevent his thoughts from going down that road. He spied the dragonfly again. He watched the bug and watched the bug and breathed deliberately and evenly for several minutes and watched the bug. In time, Cal dozed off.

The horsefly’s buzz by his face jolted him awake. Cal leapt up, screamed from the electric pain in his hand, lurched away to avoid the horsefly, and tripped from his own sudden momentum. He fell and rolled down the bank, rolling over his hand twice. He doubled over and screamed again from pain. The flesh around the bandaging looked discolored, but that could just be blood and dust. When the pain subsided enough that he could breathe, he lifted his head and saw water. Had he rolled another foot, he’d have been soaked.

Then he couldn’t keep it back anymore. It was a day just like this when they buried her, a day just like this, and he looked at himself in the water. He clenched his teeth again and breathed rapid, shallow breaths. His eyes swelled and spilled for the first time in months. The tears coursed down his filthy cheeks, dripped off his chin, and fell into the creek. He gulped air and howled an unearthly, guttural wail as the day rolled over him.

After some time, he caught his breath and wiped his face with his right sleeve. He stared at his reflection for several exhalations, tucked his wrapped hand behind his back, and dunked his entire head under into the water. He kept it there. His cap floated off down the creek, and two deerflies zipped around it like scavenging satellites. Finally, Cal lifted his head out and water streamed off him, soaking his clothes and leaving trails in his dust. A shudder passed through him. He stumbled and rose.

Cal climbed up the creek bank. He saw dust rising to the north. It had to be Ricky and Dale, he thought. His hand pounded inside the wrapped sleeve and duct tape. He needed medical attention. He needed to hug his daughter, to thank his sister. He needed to get these beans in the ground, and he needed to figure out the market, how to buy or sell the future. The rain was nowhere to be seen. He looked at the new green of the creek bed all about him and thanked God that the dust cloud was getting closer.

About the Author: Mitchell Nobis is a writer and K-12 teacher in Metro Detroit. His poetry has appeared in HAD, Roanoke Review, No Contact Magazine, Porcupine Literary, and others. He is a co-director of the Red Cedar Writing Project and hosts the Wednesday Night Sessions reading series. Find him at @MitchNobis or mitchnobis.com.

Two Poems by Yuu Ikeda

The Birth of Blue

The birth of blue

changed bloody dawn

into hopeful dawn

The blue was not mere blue

Humming of sorrow

Waves of bravery

Hovering of expectations for future

When the blue

appeared in my hands,

every fear was burnt,

and

every will bloomed

strongly and hopefully

The birth of blue

was the birth of light for life

The blue was not mere blue

The blue was everything I hoped

In Spring

Vulnerable hope

whirls in faded purple spring

Under an umbrella,

I’m waiting for rain of hope

to moisturize me forever

Dewdrops emit

woeful smile

in the morning glow

I look back them,

and imagine that

momentary spring

weeps on leaves

Under an umbrella,

I’m waiting for spring

to stop crying

Instead of spring,

I swear to cry

for vulnerable hope

About the Author: Yuu Ikeda is a Japan based poet. She writes poetry on her website.https://poetryandcoffeedays.wordpress.com. Her published poems are “Broken Pieces of the Truth” in <Briefly Zine>,“The Shadow of A Cross” in ❤ Moon Magazine>,“On the Bed” in <Nymphs>, “Love? or Death?” in <Sad Girl Review>,and more.

A Piece of Work

By Dan Brotzel

i.

An exhausting evening out with Trish in The Calf and Plough. She has freckles, I notice. I don’t really like freckles.

Trish is having troubles with her on-off boyfriend Rob. Rob treats her like shit, she says. He takes her for granted. ‘One minute, he’s all into it, knocking at my door at midnight with a bottle of wine,’ she says, with a hint of that West Country twang I got rid of long ago. ‘Then he’s off at dawn, and I don’t hear from him for weeks at a time.’

‘Have you asked him where you stand?’ I say, grateful for a line I heard on daytime TV that very morning.

‘I’ve tried. He just says, we don’t have to give it a name. Or some such.’

‘Hmm. It’s almost as if Rob only ever comes round when he wants a shag.’

‘Oh shut up, you,’ says Trish, pushing me playfully but actually quite hard. ‘It’s just coz of his parents. He was really hurt when they split up.’

Trish seems to think that I’m joking about Rob, but I was just making what seems to me an obvious inference.

‘You can talk, Matt, you big old dog,’ she says. ‘How many have you got on the go now?’ 

‘Three in play and another five potentials,’ I say.

‘You probably could too, if you wanted,’ she says, apparently determined not to take anything I say at face value. ‘You’re going to break a few hearts in this parish, you know.’

‘Well, there aren’t many eligible blokes, but there seems to be a glut of needy young women,’ I say. ‘Not to mention all the affluent widows and widowers. I’m bound to clean up.’ 

‘Sarcastic sod,’ she says, laughing again. 

By closing time, Trish has run through the Rob saga a further three times. It’s basically the same account each time, with a few additional details: gifts he’s given her, promises he’s broken, things he likes doing in bed, more things she said that he didn’t respond to.

‘Rob’s on to a winner,’ I try again. ‘He gets ready sex when he wants it, with someone who’s always prepared to make excuses for his failure to commit.’

‘Oh stop it,’ says Trish. ‘He’s not like that. You should see these texts he sends me. I know he wouldn’t see anyone else.’

I know about the texts. I helped him write some of them. I also know about the things he likes.

When it’s time to split, Trish leans over and gives me a big wet kiss on the cheek. Her freckles loom in at me, and I’m subjected to a big rancid blast of cider breath. It’s no wonder I don’t drink.

‘Thanks for letting me get all that out, mate,’ she says. ‘I feel so much better now.’

‘No worries,’ I say. ‘See you at Choir.’

‘It’s great that we’ve got each other again, isn’t it?’ she says, as her Dad’s car approaches. ‘Someone that knows you inside out. Someone you can say anything to.’

‘You don’t know the slightest thing about me,’ I say.

‘Oh you,’ she laughs, and punches me again.

‘Hello Matt!’ waves Trish’s Dad cheerily. He seems nice. He doesn’t for example slur You’re a fucking piece of work into the dark, as he bolts the little attic door shut on me for another night.

After Trish leaves, I unlock my bike and cycle down to the lorry park by the ring road. I find a man there who bangs my head against a car door and gives me what for. It is a convincing performance and I decide to spare his life.

ii.

‘Matthew, would you come here a minute?’

‘Coming!’ I say, as brightly as I can. I throw my Bible down on the sofa, where it stays splayed open at the Book of Jeremiah.

‘Could you just give this a read-through for me?’

Nicholas is hunched as always over his PC, pecking away at another of his life-affirming takes on contemporary politics. He is a profoundly Whiggish writer, a cut-price Pollyanna who can take the blackest situation – fatal bushfire, devastating plane crash, ethnic oppression – and find a silver lining to console his audience of worried Christians, whom I imagine, like him, sitting in their little cottages wringing their hands at the Radio 4 news in their identikit M&S outfits. All wishing, no doubt, they had the courage to take in a refugee, only, you know, the box room still needs a proper clear-out and the neighbours might not understand.

‘It’s good,’ I say, leaning closely over him with an arm on his shoulder, in a way that I know makes his breath quicken. ‘I love the bit where you compare Christ to a bottle of hand sanitiser.’

‘Oh good, good,’ he smiles, sitting back, removing his specs and sucking on one plastic arm – a gesture, I have learned, that means he is feeling very pleased with himself. ‘I was worried you might think I was going too far.’

‘Absolutely not, Nicholas! It’s the best bit.’ Nicholas has an extraordinary talent for finding things to compare Christ to, usually in a way that he thinks gives his work a refreshing contemporaneity. In the last few months since he hired me to be his editorial assistant, Christ has variously appeared in his columns and radio talks as a cricket bat, a lightning rod, a respected trading partner and even as the ultimate bingeworthy box-set.

‘Please,’ he says. ‘Call me Nick.’

My role is to be a sounding board, to provide praise and validation, but if my judgements are to be credible, I know they cannot be 100% positive.

‘Only one thing,’ I say.

‘Yes?’

‘That quote from the Psalms at the end there. It’s a bit hackneyed, isn’t it – a bit obvious?’

‘Yeeees,’ he says.

‘How about that one from Jeremiah: ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster.’

He is silent a moment, and I have no idea what he is thinking. I keep my arm on his shoulder.

‘Oh yes! In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. That’s brilliant!’ he says, clapping his hands in delight. I return my gaze to the screen and pretend not to notice as he steals a glance in my direction.

‘Quite a piece of work,’ he smiles to himself. His expression, I know, is one of naked admiration.

iii.

After Choir, we younger ones go for a quick drink in the Calf and Plough. (Or the Blade and Bastard, as I like to call it.)

Trish has alerted me to rumours that Becky has a thing for me. She is not the only one, of course, and I have done my best to keep them all interested with some carefully rationed parcels of attention. Now, on returning from the loo, I discover that somehow Becky and I are the only two left in the bar.

‘They’ve all gone, it seems,’ says Becky, with embarrassing transparency. She is, I suppose, the sort of woman that many men might find attractive. Her expression could be read as kind, and I see that her eyes cannot lie. She has petite ears and rather large teeth, not alas a combination I have ever cared for. (Though I suppose the opposite combination would also have its drawbacks.)

‘I’ll walk you home,’ I say.

We stroll the long way round, like lovers are supposed to, and I make sure that we saunter and meander and tell stories and share jokes. When we reach the door of her flat, she asks if I’d like to come in for a coffee.

‘No thanks,’ I say. ‘I never touch caffeine after 11am.’

She touches my arm lightly and I sense that I have misread her meaning. There are those born only to give, and it is my duty to accept their offerings in good part.

‘Do you have any sparkling water?’

The power of my words often surprises me, for she leans up to me and flings two arms around my neck. As we kiss, I can sense her body trembling, and for a moment I feel a tremendous, aching hollowness. A space, I suppose, where pity might go.

Twenty minutes later, she is leaning heavily across me on the sofa and the necessaries are well under way. There is the usual confusion of textures and odours, sensations and sounds. I am wondering why I’m here until I spot a photo on a cupboard.

‘Who is this striking woman?’ I say, picking up a framed photo of a glamorous older lady in some sort of ballgown.

‘Oh that’s my gran. You must have seen her around church. Myra – she does the flowers.’

Indeed I have.

‘So,’ says Becky a little later, with terrifying predictability. ‘Perhaps we could see each other again?’

‘I’d love to,’ I say. ‘How about three weeks on Thursday?’

iv.

‘Matthew,’ he says.

‘Yes Nicholas?’

‘Nick. Please.’

‘Sorry. Nick.’

‘There’s something I want to show you.’ He’s been smiling away to himself all morning, and now we are about to discover his ‘secret’. ‘Would you mind stepping this way, sir?’ This comic formality is his way of expressing affection. (I do not mock him for this specifically; it is one more way than I have.)

I follow Nicholas into his little pantry and out through the door beyond, which he now holds open for me. It is, as I well know, the door that leads to the neat little grannexe that housed his mum right up until her long-overdue death a year or so ago. (I only met her a few times, but it never went well; I would have liked to have done more to hasten her departure.)

‘I’ve been thinking about your money troubles and accommodation issues and so forth,’ he is saying now, although I am not really listening; I’m just watching the key he keeps twirling in his fingers. ‘You’ve been absolutely invaluable to me in my work. And so I can’t help thinking that it’d make more sense all round if you were to… move in here.’

I put my hands over my mouth and count to ten, as planned.

‘I don’t know what to say,’ I say, as planned.

‘Think nothing of it, old boy!’ he beams.

‘Those dreadful beige curtains will have to go, though.’ This was not planned, and I sense from Nicholas’ expression that I have committed some sort of error. But it is an error that is not hard to rectify, especially once I start touching him in an intimate place and enjoy the rare spectacle of the great commentator at a loss for words.

‘Well Matthew,’ he says, picking himself up off the floor at last. ‘I did not expect that.’

‘Please,’ I say. ‘Call me Matt.’

But he never does.

v.

I find I am becoming more and more active in the church. It began in the Choir, which is where I reconnected with Trish again, years after we used to hang out together at school. For some reason I have joined the Youth Team and become the Youth Liaison on the Parish Council, which is how I first got to know Nicholas. Through Trish, I met Rob (though Trish does not know this) and Becky too, and through Becky I found a connection to Myra. There are plenty of other assets, some in play and some as yet to be activated. They’re all on the spreadsheet, awaiting their turn. It’s password-protected of course, along with my poems.

It’s well-known in the parish that I now lodge with Nicholas, but he is keen to keep our relationship discreet for now, as there are many who still have fond memories of his wife and might be troubled, he says, by this change of direction so late in life. I encourage this view, since it occurs to me that Becky might be troubled by it too, and possibly Myra and a few others. Such complexities show why a spreadsheet is so useful.

Father Martin is a great ally. He and I have got to know each other well. To Nicholas’ great pleasure, I have decided to put myself forward for holy orders. Father Martin has to approve my application, and we’ve begun a series of chats to ‘explore my call to the diaconate’. I can’t help feeling all this will be a formality. I do so much around the church, I’m already the vicar’s right-hand man. ‘You have an enormous heart for service,’ he’s always telling me, as he eyes my pecs. I do sometimes wonder if he isn’t a little besotted. People often are.

Trish expresses surprise at all this. She says she just doesn’t remember me ever being very religious at school. I’m not of course. But it’s a wonderful way to make valuable connections and unearth new potentials.

‘I don’t remember you ever having much of a thing for priests and Jesus and all that,’ she says.

‘I’m very interested in Jesus,’ I say. ‘We can learn a lot from him.’

‘I think that’s the idea,’ she laughs.

I am indeed interested in Jesus. Also his father. I like how he gets people to do all sorts of stuff against their will – and then they just worship him for it.   

vi.

I am just updating my spreadsheet – adding a new row for another girlfriend of Becky’s – when Nicholas calls out to me. I drop his phone into an empty vase and head into the study.

‘Take a look at this,’ he says. ‘How does it sound?’

Following our weekend in the Cotswolds, my friendship with Matthew has taken off in a completely new and unexpected direction. I know now that we are meant to be together, and that I am about to embark on a wonderful and quite unprecedented new chapter in my life. This is not a decision I have taken lightly, and Matthew and I continue to discuss future plans and details. But I can say with confidence that I now know where the rest of my life is heading, and I have never been happier.

‘I’m not sure the Anglican Herald will print that,’ I say. 

‘You mistake my intention, sir!’ says Nicholas, chuckling fondly. ‘This is to Bob.’

I put my hand over my mouth and count again. Twelve beats seems about right this time. Bob is Nicholas’ best friend. He was the best man at Nicholas’ wedding to Diane. He also did the honours when they divorced three years ago – ‘more in sorrow than anger’, as Nicholas always puts it. (I met Diane once. It didn’t go well.)

NB: Bob is Nicholas’ solicitor.

‘This is so exasperating,’ says Nicholas now. ‘I can’t find my phone again.’

‘Oh Nicholas,’ I say. ‘This is becoming quite a habit, isn’t it?’ And then I say, quietly and for the first time: ‘Darling.’

He looks up at me and smiles.

‘Thank the Lord I have you,’ he says.

‘I’ll always be here,’ I say.

‘I shall have no other gods before you,’ Nicholas says. He has the arm of his specs in his mouth again.

First I do a scandalised look, and then I do ‘secretly delighted’. Nicholas smiles at me cravenly.

‘When did you last brush your teeth?’ I say. ‘You stink.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ he says, and hurries away to the bathroom.


vii.

Trish is not sure if me dating Becky is such a good idea.

‘She’s not really in your league,’ says Trish. ‘You’re studying for a Masters,’ she says. ‘She’s more of a babies-and-baking kind of girl.’

‘I like babies,’ I say. ‘Though I couldn’t eat a whole one.’ Trish slaps me. ‘I’ve seen you do this before,’ she says. ‘You like to be around people that make you look clever.’

‘I am clever,’ I say.

‘You know what I mean. You always want to be the one with the intellectual put-downs.’

‘Becky is a lovely girl,’ I say. ‘I’m meeting the whole family on Sunday.’

‘Well, I’d be keeping a close eye on you, if I was her.’

‘“If I were her,” I say.

‘What?’

‘The subjunctive.’

She gives me a funny look, as if she’s uneasily aware that she’s become the butt of a joke she doesn’t understand. It is a feeling I once knew, before I made the world my punchline.

‘I’m really looking forward to meeting Becky’s people,’ I say. ‘Especially Myra.’

‘What is it about you and Myra?’ she says. ‘You’re always mentioning her.’

I have this answer ready. ‘Becky is really close to her,’ I say. ‘I need to get her gran on side.’

‘Wow,’ says Trish. ‘This sounds serious! Perhaps she’ll make an honest man of you yet.’

‘I’m the most honest person I know,’ I say.

Later that night, as the village bathes in the unpolluted skies of a full moon, I rise from my place next to Nicholas (a man who could sleep through a bombing raid) and let two men in to the grannexe. I explain that I have sinned and need to do urgent penance. They understand, as they are paid to, and I take my carefully defined punishment like a man.

viii.

I am about to head into Myra’s for another Sunday lunch with her and Becky when I receive a text from Nicholas.

‘Have you seen my credit cards?’

‘Try under your keyboard,’ I say, fingering his plastic.

‘OK. Keep feeling dizzy,’ is his satisfactory reply.

Myra is 82 but she has, I tell her when Becky leaves the room, the heart and soul of a much younger woman. I tell her how beautiful she is, and how I cannot understand why she is on her own.

‘Just haven’t found the right chap, not since my Clive passed,’ she says, with a sad nod at the jumble of silver-framed pics that clutter up her sideboard, all showing her in various poses and settings with a cheery-looking bald man with a silver moustache. Then she nods at the ceiling. ‘Anyway. It’s all in His hands,’ she says. ‘My will is His will.’

Her walls, I notice, are dotted with crucifixes and devotional texts and photos of Myra and Clive standing next to various men of the cloth.

Now she catches my eye. ‘Becky is a lucky young woman,’ she says gravely.

‘The man who could woo and win your precious heart would be a lucky man indeed,’ I say. I worry for a moment I have overdone it, but I have forgotten the bottle of prosecco I brought along, half of which has already descended into her gullet.

She blushes and simpers and smiles and looks at the floor all at once. Then she says something that sounds like ooaammhhh. It is hard to spell but easy to interpret, even for me.

ix.

Nicholas’s behaviour, I confess to Father Martin, is becoming steadily more erratic. It’s hard to know with certainty how things will progress, it’s not as if you can look these things up. (The idea that one can delete one’s search history is a transparent fiction, of course.)

Nicholas keeps losing things, forgetting things. His speech is slow and repetitive. Some mornings he can barely drag himself out of bed. It seems obvious to me, I tell Bob, that he is suffering from some sort of as-yet-undiagnosed neurological deficit.

One evening, I stay on for supper at Father Martin’s. I confide in him my worries – I tell stories of the delirium, the mood swings, the violent outbursts. The falls. Father Martin is such a good listener that I end up tearfully confessing my fear that Nicholas has a severe alcohol issue.

‘Poor Matthew,’ says Father Martin, with a fierce arm around me. ‘It’s not exactly the ideal engagement gift, is it?’

‘In sickness and in health,’ I say with a sad smile.

Father Martin says, ‘You’re very brave, Matthew.’

‘Till death us do part.’

x.

Now Trish knows that Nicholas and I are engaged, and she wants answers. When did I know I was gay? It’s the first she’s heard of it. Why did I string Becky along for so long? How can men be so heartless, taking what they want from someone and then just pissing off at the very moment that the other person has let them into their hearts?

‘Are we talking about Rob again?’ I can’t help asking, and am rewarded with yet another shove.

‘I’m sorry,’ I hear myself saying. ‘I know you want some answers, and you deserve them.’ The thing with Nicholas comes from a part of me that I’ve always tried to repress, I tell her. But this is a union of heart and soul, and mind, and with Nicholas I have at last had to acknowledge my true feelings, my true self. I tell her that it all goes hand in hand, somehow, with the growth of my faith. My friendship with Becky – and yes, other women – was a desperate attempt to deny my true nature.

‘So: Are you saying you’re gay now?’ she demands. ‘That you’ve never been straight?’

‘You’re drinking rather a lot tonight,’ I say. ‘I get enough of that at home.’

‘Oh.’ She eyes her cider guiltily. ‘Is Nicholas still…??’ she asks, her face a picture of concern.

‘Yes,’ I nod sadly. ‘I’m working on it, but old habits…’

I open the crisps. I bring my own, as they don’t have prawn cocktail in the Axe and Foetus and it’s the only flavour I eat.

‘Anyway, it’s not a question of gay or straight,’ I add. ‘It’s about your relationship with an individual person.’

Then I tell Trish that she is the only person in the world that I can really confide in, and that her friendship means everything to me, and that Rob is a prize dick for not appreciating what he had with her. That she is such an amazing person she can have anyone she wants, and that I’m sure it won’t be long before she finds someone who is worthy of her.

Trish blushes on cue. Then she hugs me, and all that.

No. It’s not about gay or straight, I reflect later as I lie in a crumpled heap in a diesel-tinged puddle in the lorry park. It’s about those who define reality – and those who submit to it.

God gets it.

xii.

A visit from Bob and from Diane, who has driven 76 miles to be here. I believe they are attempting some sort of intervention.

Nicholas slumps in his chair, silent as instructed. I wait on him hand and foot, as always, but cannot/do not prevent the empty Bells bottle slipping out of his dressing gown.

‘Are you sure you’re really up to all this, Matthew?’ says Diane. ‘Nicholas seems to need a lot of care right now.’

‘Matthew’s all I need,’ says Nicholas, on cue.

‘And now I understand you’re studying for the priesthood too, as well as editing Nicholas’ book and completing your masters?’

‘You mean Musings Against the Backcloth of Eternity? I’d hardly call it a book.’

Diane looks at me sharply, and I imagine her suddenly disappeared.

‘I see it as more an ongoing conversation between a questing soul and its saviour than a mere book,’ I add smoothly. (I don’t mention that I wrote most of that twaddle anyway. My favourite section is called ‘The Lord is my air bridge’.)

‘And what about your parish duties?’ says Bob. ‘Visiting the sick and hospitals, and so forth. I gather you’ve taken on Whiteoaks Care Home too. How will you fit it all in?’

‘Attending to the elderly and the infirm: it’ll be good practice for married life.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, look at him.’ Nicholas is now lolling almost sideways in his chair, dribbling and babbling, like a man who has been innocently ingesting a small amount of a toxic substance in his hot milk every night for several weeks.

Diane feigns shock, but I know lots about her from Nicholas.

Later, I step lightly to the closed pantry door, where Diane and Bob are conferring in a low murmur.

‘Something just isn’t right,’ she says. ‘How can Nicholas have just declined like that?’

‘It’s certainly very sad,’ says Bob. ‘But at least he has a full-time carer now, in a sense, someone who obviously means a great deal to Nick.’

Please just tell me he hasn’t signed over the house.’

Silence.

‘Bob? Bob?

‘You know I can’t comment on that,’ I hear Bob say.

The ensuing silence is broken only by Diane swearing very quietly but forcefully.

‘Look at this kitchen,’ says Diane, clinking things. ‘There are bottles everywhere. It reeks of spirits.’

‘It is very sad,’ says Bob again. ‘I just don’t remember him ever being such a big drinker.’

‘I was married to Nick for 23 years,’ says Diane. ‘And one thing I know for sure about my ex-husband is that he couldn’t stand the taste of whisky-’

I open the door fully so they can see me, holding a pack of antiseptic wipes, and togged up in Marigolds and a wipeable apron.

The pair of them look around, like a couple of children caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

‘And did you ever know this about him, Diane?’ I lift up my top and show off some of my choicest cuts and bruises. They are both suitably appalled.

I take a hand from each of them, so that we are joined in a little circle of concern. ‘I know it’s not really him, when it happens,’ I say. ‘That’s what I tell myself.’

Diane sobs. ‘He’s not the man I know,’ she says.

‘Me either,’ I reply sadly. ‘But we must put all this in His hands. Perhaps… we could all say a prayer?’

Bob and Diane bow their heads obediently, and I scrutinise his bald spot and a little patch of eczema behind her left ear, as I invoke some of the words that Father Martin used with me the other night.

Listen, Lord, to our prayer; hear our cries for help. We call to you in times of trouble, because you answer my prayers.

Psalms. A little obvious and hackneyed, perhaps, but it seems to do the trick, for Bob at least. But I notice that Diane’s eyes – eyes that live 76 miles away, by the sea – do not stay closed as we pray.

x.

Myra is touched by the way I look after Nicholas. She comes round on a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon with one of her lovely lemon drizzle cakes or a plate of her delicious chocolate and peanut cookies.

‘I daren’t ask you for the recipe,’ I say coquettishly.

‘Oooh no!’ she laughs. ‘That one goes with me to the grave.’

We sit by his bed – Nicholas rarely gets up now – and we talk of this and of that. In her company I develop the story of Gabrielle, my half-sister, and our crowdfunding project. She has a rare liver disorder and requires specialist treatment. In Israel, I add.

‘The Holy Land!’ she says, marvelling.

‘Yes,’ I say quietly. There is no need to add that this treatment would be very expensive.

One week, Myra arrives to find me sitting in a deep prayerful trance by Nicholas’ bedside. A bottle lies under his pillow. Nicholas does not move.

At the funeral, I give a faultless eulogy, loosely adapted from one I ghost-wrote for Nicholas’ ex-father-in-law. Afterwards, so many parishioners come up to tell me that I am ‘brave’, a usage that has always confused me. Only the weak can be brave.

Outside the church, Nicholas’ relatives huddle together in the rain, trying to draw strength from each other. They acknowledge me with nods and handshakes and muted smiles. Only Diane stands aloof, eyeing me coldly across the coffin. A 76-mile stare. I can’t help thinking how fitting it would be if she were to fall into the hole beside dear old Nick.

Grief is a terrible vice, cloying and narcissistic. The sniffs and moans appal me. I maintain a dignified silence, head bowed at all times. Black becomes me.

At the graveside, Myra holds my hand for the first time. That’s one for the spreadsheet.

Xi

I like to spend my weekends round Myra’s, helping out with the house and the garden. There are always lawns to mow, bonfires to build, pictures to put up, white goods to drag out and clean behind. Things that involve a bit of heavy lifting or the climbing of a stepladder.

Myra is endlessly grateful. It’s nothing, I say – just another way I can serve the Lord, by lending a hand to one of His most faithful servants. It’s amazing what you can do with a bit of elbow grease and a few power tools.

Myra hates phoning companies and ‘being passed from pillar to post like some sort of leper’, as she puts it. She says she can only get through the waiting by quietly reciting her favourite bits of The Book of Common Prayer.

I say I’m happy to help.

On the six-month anniversary of Nicholas’ death, I find myself dialling for her again, this time to help her divert some funds from an ISA into a crowdfunding account for Gabrielle. We agree it’s probably easier just to transfer the sum to me first.

I do the phoning and the waiting and the chitchat, and then when I’ve got hold of the right account executive at last, I pass over the handset and discreetly retire. It is not for me to intrude on such conversations, though I can’t help catching the phrases ‘sometimes you just want to do a bit of good for someone’ and ‘withdraw it all please’.

I retreat to Myra’s guest room, which I have made into my study, and to my personal poetry. Myra is not an easy rhyme, but with a rap-like intonation the words starts to flow…

Myra
I’ll build you a pyre
To set you on fire

As you turn to ash
I’ll burn through your cash


It’s a little different to the verse I present her with that night.

Myra, you have set me on fire
With righteous passion;
Holy beauty; I am wholly yours.
I yearn for your embrace,
For the sunlight in your face —
The exquisite surrender
Of a heart full of grace.

Xii

Myra has doubts. Her intimates are worried for her. The age gap, the finances, the business with Nicholas that some in the village will continue to mither on about. A call from Diane that she will not discuss.

‘I understand,’ I say. I’m supposed to be going away that weekend, on a Bible Studies course for Anglican ordinands at a residential centre run by the diocese.

‘Let us pray,’ I say, and she smiles and bows her head. I head off to the guest room, where I’ve got all my books out, to fetch my missal.

‘Oh my God! Myra!’

‘What is it?’

‘I don’t believe it!’

She heads as fast as her arthritis will allow into the guest room, where a series of large, slightly cursive letters, written in the ash of Ash Wednesday, spell out a message across the far wall and window.

M + M: BELOVED SERVANTS

BLESSED UNION

LOVE AND SERVE ALWAYS

‘M & M!’ says Myra, breathless and ecstatic. ‘You don’t think…’

‘Well, I don’t think it’s the chocolates.’ I do not say this, though I very much want to.   

That night, a Friday, Myra takes me to her bed for the first time. She is surprisingly directive and I happily follow her lead. I have learnt a lot about what people want, and what to do when, but it is refreshing when someone like Myra – with the impatience of age – just lays it out for you. Afterwards I lie with my head on her bosom, and I wonder if this is what mothers and children do, albeit no mother I ever knew.

‘Well. I did not expect that,’ she says. ‘Not at my age.’

‘My bride and my queen,’ I say, and I feel a deep heaving sigh beneath me. I think about the strength in frailty, and the beauty in disgust, and how in the morning the letters will have gone, and the possibilities before me are so many that I almost swoon.

I bring us both cocoa in bed, and make sure Myra drinks all hers. I have a long drive before me. Seventy-six miles.

xiii

Despite what I say to people, I am not one for visions as a rule. But recently I dreamt of a woman who lived in a wooden house by the sea. And in my dream I betook her to the very top of a cliff, and smote her with kindness, and lay her down with her dead head overhanging the sea. And I made a hole through her skull, from one temple right through to the other, so that her blood flowed straight out pure and true, and lost itself in the green waters far below.

I was not able to follow my vision to the letter. But I like to think, out there on the moor, with my axe and my power saw, that I was true to its spirit. Visions are good, but proper Ordinance Survey-backed research is your true friend, every time. 

I think if Diane could have her time again, she would probably not have opened her front door to me. She would probably not have got in the car. She would probably have started struggling sooner, or called for help while there was still a chance that people might hear.

But I told her that I needed her to be happy with what was happening. She was the person everyone looked up to. Myra, like Nicholas before her, trusted her judgement implicitly. I apologised for the lateness of the hour, but I realised that I too needed her blessing. I just wanted to go for a drive and talk things through. And if I couldn’t convince Diane of my good faith, I would gladly withdraw from the parish and the village altogether. I would bow to her wisdom, her powers of discernment.

I was humble. And Diane, in spite of everything – in spite of herself – was flattered. 

When I arrive home, Myra is still in bed, as she should be. She has slept through it all. I slip in beside her just as the light of a new day starts to peep beneath the curtains, and fall into the deep sleep of the just. In the morning, delighted to find me there, she brings me a tea in bed. I tell her how well I slept, and how happy I am to be here. 

‘What about your training course?’ says Myra.

‘I couldn’t bear to be away from you,’ I say. ‘I can learn more about grace and the living faith here.’

This is almost too much for her. ‘Bless me, father,’ she says breathlessly, and – though technically I’m not allowed to do this yet – I slice a cross through the air, up and down, and left to right. Myra makes the sign of the cross too, and her whole face settles into an expression of devout calm. It is powerful magic.

I think about the day, three weeks hence, when we shall go to the cathedral and the bishop will lay his hands on me, and I shall be ushered into the inner circle of the ordained.

Forgiving sinners, healing the sick, saving souls, casting out demons, bestowing holiness with the wave of a hand…

I open my laptop and I start a new poem.

Diana the huntress
I penetrate your fortress
Lady Di, your time to die

To be or not to be
There was no question. 

What a piece of work is this man.
How like a god.

+++

HMP Bedward, August 2019

Hi Jill

Thanks again so much for agreeing to take a look at this.

Just to recap the background: Matthew Manston remains on remand here at Bedward, awaiting proceedings at the Central Criminal Court on two counts of Murder, one of Attempted, and various Attempting to perverts.

Following the granting of an expedited exhumation licence, full post-mortem forensics were carried out on the body of Nicholas Roy. The discovery of the (partial) remains of Diane Harkness will of course be familiar to you from TV and tabloids. 

The alleged crimes apparently only came to light as a result of extensive informal surveillance carried out by two of the defendant’s former friends, Rebecca Winstrop and Patricia Wright. Courageous and resourceful stuff, by all accounts.

As discussed, the judge has requested a more detailed psychological evaluation, and I’d very much value a second opinion – specifically yours! – at this point. I think a good place to start are these extracts from the defendant’s diary, which he stored on his laptop and regularly updated over a period of almost seven years. These extracts cover the period March 30, 2016 to February 12, 2018.

Do give me a shout if you have any questions. Perhaps I could give you a call in a week or so when you’ve had time to digest?

All the very best – and thanks again Jill!

Robert Steveny

Head of Forensic Psychology, HMP Bedword

PS Despite the weight of media opprobrium to which he has been subject, I have to say Manston has conducted himself as a model prisoner at all times. He has been helping a number of other prisoners to develop their literacy skills, and has been on hand to offer support and guidance to two prisoners – and one prison officer! – experiencing spiritual distress. All in all, he is a charming resident, and we will miss him.

About the Author: Dan’s debut collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is published by Sandstone Press. He is also co-author of a forthcoming comic novel about an eccentric writers’ group, Work in Progress (Unbound). His stories have featured in numerous competition lists and publications, and received both Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations.  

Coping for Tomorrow

By Angelo Lorenzo

It was a Saturday night when Giselle felt a new episode coming. Her heart slammed in her chest, trying to rip its way out as if it had a mind of its own. She tried to take deep breaths, but a certain pressure gripped her throat. A call for help would be vital, and she would do anything to have someone to talk to right now.

She rose from her bed and darted toward the window. She swung the panes out and let the breeze in. Deep breaths from the cooler air outside helped ease the tension. For a while, she stood there, trying to avoid the thoughts that made her worry. The panic attack was unsolicited, but current facts about the pandemic were hard to ignore.

The Coronavirus flu, as sources said, was lethal, and it exempted no one from catching it. It had been a month since the world was asked to stay home. Although she was safe under her parents’ wing this summer, she was having a hard time managing her paralyzing anxiety. How could this not be a natural reaction when, around the world, the virus was spreading at a rapid pace? Numbers of positive cases doubled every week in April as she’d seen and heard on the news, and there’s no telling whether this was slowing down any time soon. Everyone was vulnerable.

Standing by the open window, she saw the tinted panes glinting with the glow of the streetlamps below. The sight was a good distraction, a respite from the surge of thoughts that troubled her. When her breathing returned to normal, she thought she heard music.

 “How are you holding up?” A young man stood up from a stool on the terrace across her house. They were facing each other. The guitar he held with both hands caught her attention. Its brown wooden board gleamed with its varnished surface and the silvery metallic strings.

“Conrad?”

He smiled, revealing braces that shone, complementing the glee in his face.

She remembered the last time their eyes met. He had that same smile. They had grown up together, had gone to the same school. But years of not seeing him again had left her wishing and wondering how he’d be in a time like this. She remembered the Conrad who had the potential to easily win over people’s hearts with his performances at campus events, where intermission numbers from parent-teacher conferences to programs during the school’s founding anniversary had him strumming his guitar behind a microphone stand onstage. Whether it was an original composition or a cover of a Jackson Five hit, Conrad had known how music could easily relate to people. She, on the other hand, had grown fond of the comfort she found in solace. After all, she believed books would never leave her like people would.

She remembered way back when he used to play his guitar on that terrace. This was the Conrad she knew. But he wasn’t there to catch her attention or to play for all the neighbors to hear. He used to spend his time there, usually before bed, alone but with music as his company. She had asked him about it once during one of the bicycle rides around the neighborhood one afternoon many years ago. He said practice made him feel good.

She snapped out of the flashes of memories. But she forgot what he asked a moment ago. “I’m sorry. I didn’t quite get that?”

“Can’t sleep?” he asked instead. His brows narrowed. He had asked that before. Many times. Perhaps every time she had opened her window to hear him play. At this time of the evening, she had her gaze fixed on him. Seeing every detail — from his black close-cropped hairstyle to his glistening eyes — brought back the same feeling she had every time she’d seen him before. Only this time, he was just older than she had last seen him up close. She knew this wasn’t a dream, and she couldn’t deny that a reunion like this made her feel better.

 She ran her fingers through her hair all the way to her shoulders where it ended. She felt the strands dampened with sweat.

Conrad smiled and strummed his guitar. “You don’t mind if I play, do you?”

She shook her head. “You don’t mind if anyone listens anyway.”

He shrugged and tilted his head to one side. He closed his eyes just as she did, and the music began. It was one of the same songs he had played before. And she started humming, recalling the lyrics of that song he used to love so much.

Emotions could betray people. She had known from the many times they would trigger another reaction. She knew better than getting stuck. So she opened her eyes and closed the window before she could think twice.

 Later that night, she took a peek through the window to see if he was still there. All the terrace had instead was an empty space. She sat on the corner of her bed and, with the beam of the moon, gazed over the scar on her knee. Like an inkblot, it had darkened with age. She still couldn’t forget that one afternoon when she had fallen off her bicycle. He had been there with her.

The next day, Giselle was plucking malunggay leaves on the counter of their kitchen while her mother was stirring the heated contents in the pot on their stove. Plucking didn’t require much effort as the leaves, shaped like the curves of a clover leaf, detached easily. This mundane task eased her mind just as sweeping the floors and wiping tables did.

Her father was at their dining table next to their kitchen. His eyes fixed on the laptop screen. His ears were covered with a headset. He had been on a virtual meeting with his clients since morning. They needed to inquire about their insurance policies as the pandemic was projected to affect the economy and inflict not only sickness but a stream of global crises. Businesses were at a standstill, and lives were at stake. She knew he was not meant to be disturbed.

The appetizing salty scent of pork cuts boiling in broth wafted in the air, mingling with ginger and bundled lemon grass. The brewing fragrance had always uplifted Giselle, who grew up with her mother’s sumptuous dishes. Pour in the malunggay leaves and the meal would be complete.

“Is everything okay, Giselle?” her mother asked.

“Oh, it’s nothing.

“You seem so silent lately. What’s bothering you?”

 She sighed. “I just thought about Conrad.”

“Well, that’s something new,” her mother said. Like Giselle, she was a tall woman with long sinewy limbs. Maybe it was maintaining a distinct fashion even while at home — with a ruffled floral overall duster — that gave out her slender figure. “You don’t usually want to talk about him. But it’s good that you remember.”

“Well, it’s not really a big deal,” Giselle said.

“Why isn’t it? You two used to be so close.”

 “Yeah, sure. I don’t see how that changes anything.”

 “Are you feeling okay?” Her mother ceased her stirring and looked at her with raised eyebrows.

 “No, Ma. I just-…” she sighed. She didn’t want to be interrogated. She felt her heartbeat rising again. She dropped the malunggay stem into the bowl.

“You know I can’t hear you when you’re mumbling,” her mother said. “You can always tell me if there’s something bothering you.”

 Giselle didn’t want to ruin lunch with an argument.

“I’m fine, Ma. You don’t have to worry about me. Now can we please continue with the cooking?” She pushed the bowl containing the malunggay leaves, showing that she was done. Her mother pointed at the stem in the bowl. Giselle picked it up and bent the green supple stem with her fingers.

 She didn’t want her parents to worry. But if there was one nightmare besides closed windows and dark rooms, it would have to be the collective sight of white sheets draping the mattress on a stretcher, the glint of a needle’s sharp tip beneath bright fluorescent lights, and the bottles of alcohol emitting nausea in the guise of sanitizing the air. The memory brought her back to when she was nine. The wheels of her bicycle had struck stones scattered on the road. Whoever put them there remained a mystery, but what happened afterwards was impossible to forget. Off she flew into the air before she landed on the rusted bars that covered the mouth of a canal between the sidewalk and the road. Little Conrad had been there too, but Giselle had to take the road alone, limping in their subdivision, screaming as the blood dripped off her open wound. She had wept, nearly losing her voice as they took her to the hospital’s emergency room.

She remembered the white tiles that covered the floor and the walls. White lights glared from the white ceiling. The green plastic curtains closed around her. Her mother’s hand holding her arm, caressing. It’s going to be okay. The lullaby didn’t help silence the mild weeping of a lady on the other side. Beyond the green curtain, she could imagine the lady on a stretcher like her. No, it was a woman, and those were tears of joy, her mother had explained later on. A baby was on their way.

Then there was a man who held a syringe. The word, tetanus felt strange in her ears as he explained what the shot was for.It was a word she could associate with another word she had learned growing up. Tenacious. The pandemic was tenacious, she would describe from the headlines she had been reading on her phone in present day. She didn’t want to get sick. She didn’t want to have a needle pinned deep into her skin, didn’t want the sting to last for days.  The sickness drains anyone dry, and treatment would always be given in the hospital. Ever since that accident, she had dreaded being confined to a hospital again.

She knew that happened years ago. She was well now, safe from all the harms that the accident had brought. She opened her eyes and sunlight streamed through her window, casting light around the blue walls in her room. It calmed her.

 She had spent the rest of the day doing chores to distract herself from reliving that memory. But three nights since Conrad played his music again on the terrace, she felt her body sinking into her bed. She heard her pulse throbbing in her temples. She pushed the sheets off with her clammy hands, and winced as she brought herself up. No more nightmares tonight. Her joints started to ache from her neck to her knees. She sat on the side of the bed and took in deep breaths before her pulse settled. She checked the time of her phone. It was half-past midnight.

 An hour later, she kept turning in her bed to find the right position. But whether she lay face-up or to her side, she couldn’t find a way to relax.                

She decided to do what worked before.

Through the window, music came in with the breeze. The acoustic was a fresh sound from the buzzing of the air-conditioner behind her. It was enough to calm her down.

She looked straight ahead, and there he was. Broad-shouldered in his white shirt, cradling the guitar on his lap as he sat on the same stool, Conrad was playing his music. His eyes were closed as if he was immersed in his element, unaware of the world around him.

She stood by her window and listened to him play. And when the tension eased, she closed the window, hoping that the episode would not come back sooner than expected.

There were a lot of reasons why people had to go separate ways and move on. It’s when circumstance sets them apart, or when choice dictates their actions. If only there had been enough closure to say goodbye…

Race towards home! She remembered him saying that fateful afternoon. Last one to reach there is a stinky loser.

For a nine-year-old, she had the whole world to prove.

She had felt the wind through her hair as they had increased their speed. Her hair waving behind her. The air whistling. She remembered their laughter, some squeals and giggles that defined joy that had no end. Danger only lurked in the pages of fairy tales. The race to the finish line could go on forever.

Then there were the stones scattered before them, gray like the road. The wheels squeaked on the rough surface. Palms wet with sweat slipped from the handle bars. She screamed. He screamed. He never talked to her again.

 Did she wish to talk to him again? After all these years, it had to take a pandemic to bring people together. What choice did others have but to let everyone know they care that they really do? Why do people have to go their separate ways? Why did she have to leave him there?

 The next night, she opened her window again and saw him leaning over the terrace railing. His guitar on the stool behind him.

“Aren’t you going to play your music tonight?” she asked, mildly a whisper.

 He smiled but kept his lips together. She remembered those cheeks that rippled in rosy tan whenever sunlight hit them. But tonight, the light of the moon made his face paler. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping instead?” he responded.

 She shook her head. “It’s hard to pretend that everything’s okay, Conrad,” she said. “It’s been years since it happened, and I still remember every detail. I know I should just let everything go. But I can’t forget you.”

 “Do you feel better when I’m here?” he asked.

“I’ve always wished… you were.”

What would he look like now that they were sixteen? She pictured him with close-cropped hair. Braces that he had always wished to have since some classmates in school would call him, Doc, and pretend to hold carrots to imitate the comical gesture of a cartoon character. And there was always his guitar, which was the only thing that kept reminding her of him.

“Conrad…”

He looked at her.

“I’ve missed you so much.”

He raised his hand to the side of his head, the exact spot where it had hit the rough road. Then he gestured a salute. “Whenever you need me…” He went back to his stool and held his guitar. Remembering him that way was a good distraction. But she knew it didn’t have to last. It was not a question of who was in a better place now. The world keeps going even for those who had seen loss right before their eyes. But everyone can grieve. There were those who remember. He was a memory, and she remembered.

As he played tonight, his image gradually receded. She saw all that was left over the dark and dusty terrace of the house that had long been emptied since his parents moved to another city. Dry leaves swept by the wind. Dust coating the rusty railing.

She closed the window and wrapped herself in the sheets of her bed. She hadn’t cried hard enough since she was nine and wounded. Heavy sobs released the tension, eased the pain. Tears could hydrate the soul. She remembered her mother’s words. Anything that’s bothering her… Will her father spare a little time to listen? Will her mother understand?

Despite all those cold nights, shallow breaths, recurring dreams, and thoughts about the world ending, she found herself breathing easily tonight. Nothing could last forever. If good things don’t, so do those that end them. She thought about tomorrow. There was still tomorrow.

Tomorrow came and she was with her family at their dining table. On the table, faint vapor swirled from the bowl of vegetable soup she and her mother had prepared for their lunch. While they were all seated with their plates set before them, the TV at the living room just beside their dining hall showed news about the cases concerning the pandemic. By this point, it had infected thousands in the country, and thousands more across the world.

“Dad?” she asked after setting her spoon on the edge of her plate.

  “Hm?” was all her father could say between chewing.

 “Is it okay if we turn the TV off?”

  “The news is important, Giselle.”

  She sighed. She couldn’t bear watching and listening to the rising number of cases.

  Before she could say anything else, she felt her mother’s hand on her back.

  “Is there anything wrong?” her mother asked.

 Perhaps this was her chance to be blunt about what she had been feeling lately. On the TV screen, she caught sight of a family in a commercial where they’re gathered together in their homes’ living room. The words, We heal as one, appeared below the scene.

 It took her a few moments to respond, but she wanted to believe that her parents would understand.

“I’ve not been feeling so good lately,” she finally said.

Her mother and father looked at her with concern in their faces. Her father laid his hand over her forehead. “Are you sick?”

 She shook her head. “It’s not that.”

Her father put his hand away, grabbed the remote, and switched the TV off. For a while, silence dominated their home. He gently shifted in his seat and faced her.

“Would you like to talk about it?”

Both of her parents were looking at her now, concern deep in their faces. She heaved a sigh. She pushed back her plate, and told them everything. She started with the panic attacks that disturbed her sleep and that particular traumatic moment on a bicycle ride back when she was nine. Then there was that memory of Conrad. Remembering him was her way of coping, and her parents began to understand everything she had told them.

Opening up to them had somehow eased the tension in her chest, as if the weight of the problem had gradually lifted off her. Then she found herself in her mother’s arms, and her father hugged her as well. “Don’t worry, my child, this won’t last forever,” her father said.

 She now understood that opening up to her loved ones whatever that concerned her was a good way to cope. The pandemic will not last forever, she believed, and if there was anything good that might come of it amidst all the sufferings it had caused, it would probably be the experience of being with her family again.

Later that night, she stood by her open window and saw the lights glowing from the streetlamps below. The neighborhood was silent save for the drone of frogs and crickets somewhere in the distance. But despite the darkness, the lights still shone. She thought about the many people who had to go through this trying time. Everyone has different experiences, but she believed all of this shall pass. Her father reassured her of it. Her mother encouraged her to share anything that’s troubling her. Whatever happens, she has her family.

Losing someone she cared about due to an accident was a pain she had to bear, but moving on was inevitable. After seeing Conrad’s limp body on the street where they had both fallen off their bicycles many years ago, she had been convincing herself that someday, he would return and they would see each other again. But accepting what happened was the first step to moving forward.

Conrad would still be in her memories just as the people who have passed on will remain in the hearts of their loved ones. She wondered about the many lives that the pandemic had claimed since it broke out earlier this year. Like the families of deceased loved ones, all that’s left of them were the memories. She would always remember Conrad with his guitar, his music, and his songs.

She went back to her room and pulled the window panes close. As she sat on the edge of her bed, she breathed calmly. She held onto the fact that, despite the night, a bright new day will always follow. She went to sleep with this thought in mind and let her dreams fill her with hope for better days ahead.

About the Author: Angelo Lorenzo (he/him) writes from Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines. His works range from journalism to literature. His articles can be found on news media outlets such as the Philippine News Agency, Rappler, and Sunstar, among others. His short stories have been published by New Pop LitThe Elixir Magazine, and Marias and Sampaguitas, to name a few. He is currently taking his Master’s Degree in Literature at Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan while assisting podcast producers in his full-time job, and interviewing passionate individuals in his YouTube channel

Two Poems by Michael Igoe

 Cheer Section

Way back in 1963

I remember when

My dad and Jesus,

with John Kennedy,

young Jack Kerouac,

on a hitchhiking spree.

They left town in a Rambler,

lived it up in plastic saloons,

those formica counter joints

what they wanted for roosts.

They entered dry good stores

where they all tried to boost.

Only Jesus smoked Kools,

discarding his spent packs

across the stinking desert.

In high top blue boots,

he strode into a motel

they call Mesa Springs.

After beers they join up

at an old drive-in movie

to watch King of Kings.

Starlite

They took time

to frame me up

as a meddling pauper.

They caught me laughing

tried to make me glum.

I am very much alive,

behind inanimate glass.

See through glass,

never disrespected.

You can glimpse,

a climate change.

The lion and the lamb

never wanted

to lie down together.

They told the assembled

they weren’t quite ready.

But we have their blessing,

in both their orphaned eyes.

About the Author: Michael Igoe is a neurodiverse city boy who used to live in Chicago and currently lives in Boston. He has had numerous works appear in journals online and in print, including: https://linktr.ee/derailleurpress, bookofmatcheslitmag.com , Spare Change News(Cambridge Ma), The Poets Of 2020 (Anthology), Avalanches In Poetry (Fevers Of The Mind Press), National Library Of Poetry Editor’s Choice Award 1997, and Feather Pen Blog best Poem 2020. You can find him on Twitter: @MichaelIgoe5. Urban Realism, Surrealism. He likes the night.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Two Poems by Jason de Koff

Road Trip

In the early morn of departure,
a misty coolness entices the sleepy,
to the warm harbor of car seats,
to reinstate their abbreviated slumber.

They weave amongst belts, doors, and seats,
heads bobbing to the road rhythms,
oscillating between,
the staccato beats of road work,
and expansion joint lullabies.

Waking later, the vacant stares,
admire the impressionist strokes,
of leaf and limb,
where colors deepen with elevation,
between twisted deciduous,
and tall pole pines.

The inner dryad,
imagines the mossy mattresses,
festooned with clusters of yarrow,
and the sunlight dapples,
of mid-afternoon senescence.

The acute-angled sun,
hints at evening adventures,
with new realms to be found,
and explored.

Largesse

Single steel blades,
cut parallel tracks,
across solid lake,
like northern Nasca lines.

Sweeping away the downy layer,
with windswept strides,
reveal multitudes of shiny spheres,
crystallized above the black beyond.

As if a slumbering beast,
might yield its time,
and seed the surface,
cracking the eggshell silence.

The crisp air brings craggy summits,
into hawk-eyed resolution,
occasionally blurred,
by foggy exhalations.

The quiet solitude,
beckons the mind to dream,
with the warmth of inner aspirations,
tempered only by the cold.

About the Author: Jason de Koff is an associate professor of agronomy and soil science at Tennessee State University.  He lives in Nashville, TN with his wife, Jaclyn, and his two daughters, Tegan and Maizie. He has published in a number of scientific journals, and has over 60 poems published or forthcoming in literary journals over the last year. 

Hard Hat in the Information Age

By John Kropf

When my father died, I couldn’t part with a hard hat that had belonged to him. It’s white with a ridge down the top center like the spine of a reptile or the midsagittal crest of a great ape. It has a short brim at the front with a sticker above reading Vulcan Materials Company with the tag line underneath, “Think Safety.”  The sticker is in the company’s colors: navy and deep gold, with a logo that looks like two chevrons, one inverted above the other.  At the end of his life, my father kept the hard hat in the trunk of his car, a gray Ford Crown Victoria. He would have last worn it in a work capacity in the mid-1980s.

My father served as a US Navy Corpsman at the end of WWII.  When he came home, he graduated from Wayne State University on the GI Bill, then went to work as a salesman for the Vulcan Materials company’s predecessor, Aluminum-Magnesium, in my hometown of Sandusky, Ohio. The company smelted aluminum and other light metals, selling them to manufacturing companies across the Midwest to be forged into aircraft parts, engine blocks, lawn mowers, and light industrial products. As a salesman, he traveled to mid-sized cities with flinty sounding names like Benton Harbor, Gary, Ft. Wayne, Union City, Milwaukee, Jackson, Toledo, and Muncie.

My freshman year in high school, my father gave me a tour of the Sandusky foundry wearing the hat and hard-plastic safety goggles. I had to be outfitted with the same. He took on a business-like air of authority talking about the temperatures of the metals, the operation of the furnace, and the equipment needed to protect the men working in such hazardous conditions. He raised his voice to a yell to be heard over the din of the furnaces smelting aluminum at over 1,300 degrees.

The summer after my freshman year in college, my father arranged a summer job for me doing unskilled tasks in the plant. I wore my own hard hat and steel-toed shoes. Decades later, my memory still tingles when I recall the heat and grit of working in the foundry. The experience has stayed with me, giving me a respect for the hard work of manufacturing.  

My father had a theory at the end of his life, at the beginning of what we call “the Information Age.” He believed American companies that manufacture tangible things should be given tax breaks.  He felt the country had lost its ability to manufacture material goods like cars or machinery. Manufacturing had given him a job and allowed him to provide for his family and he mourned the country’s loss of such jobs. 

In 1986, the company sold off the metals division because it was unable to compete with cheaper metal manufacturers in an ever more globalized world, and my father was forced into early retirement.  He put the hard hat into the truck of that gray car of his and held on to it. He would have been nearly the same age I am as I write this—his late 50s. That’s a challenging time to get hired again — you’re too old and too expensive.  He moved into seasonal work as a tax preparer, working for the next 25 years for H&R Block. He enjoyed the tax work and never looked back.

In the 1990s the Sandusky plant was sold off, demolished, and the land was reclaimed to become a city park.

Today, I work as a lawyer as part of the Information Age economy, looking at laws and regulations that affect data.  Although he was grounded in the manufacturing age, my father had a strong grasp of what I did and was proud of it.  Still, I have this hard hat.  He told me to keep it. The hat sits in my workshop should I ever need it to make something tangible.

About the Author: John Kropf is a Washington, DC area attorney born and raised in Ohio. He has written a travel-adventure book, Unknown Sands: Journeys Around the World’s Most Isolated Country. He’s currently working on book, Color Capitol of the World, a family history of the American Crayon Company and its hometown of Sandusky, Ohio. 

Harry Pulls Up Weeds

By D.T. Robbins

Harry pulls up the weeds in his garden. The weeds keep suffocating the lavender flowers Harry has been trying to grow for the past few months. Harry pulls at the weeds with his good arm, the only one he has left, the one his ex-wife didn’t take in the divorce settlement. His right arm.

The weeds pull back. Harry goes underground. Harry screams, scared shitless. AAAGHHGHHARERLKARGAA*@$%*!!!!

Bye, Harry!

Hi, Harry!

Welcome to your new home. It isn’t much different from the world above except all the colors are inverted and capitalism is dead. Harry doesn’t mind at all. Harry tried capitalism, tried opening a convenience store in his previous world. It left him bankrupt and bored and divorced. Ugh. Bummsville, right? Yeah, Bummsville. That’s what he calls his old world. He doesn’t have a name for the new world yet. It’ll come in time, Harry thinks.

Harry finds an apartment cheap, much cheaper than he would have found back in Bummsville. Yay! This apartment has carpet that sways and tickles your toes. Spiders come at night and sing you to sleep if you want them to. The fridge is always stocked with Miller Lite and the bread never goes stale.

Harry finds a job as a taxidermist. They stuff everything here: wolves, cats, chickens, couches, pinecones, dead uncles, people in comas. Harry is good at stuffing things. It reminds him of how he dealt with his divorce back in Bummsville.

Harry’s neighbors smoke crystal meth and yell at each other all day. Uh oh. Harry’s neighbors put a roll of aluminum foil in their microwave, set the apartment complex on fire. Everyone runs out screaming and crying and dancing dances of mourning and sorrow. Harry straps his fridge to his back, barely makes it out alive. Worth it, he says. Free beer forever!

Harry has to move into a trailer park. None of these neighbors smoke crystal meth or scream at each other throughout the night. These neighbors are all part of a cult. They mostly keep to themselves, though they invite Harry to their weekly meetings. Harry says no thanks, he’s not religious. Is this what all those coexist bumper stickers were talking about back in Bummsville?

A tornado hits the park. It’s beautiful, made of glitter and laughter. Harry always wanted children. Harry cries as he watches all the trailers get destroyed. All except Harry’s.

Everyone moves in with Harry. All 350 cult members. Harry doesn’t mind so long as they stay the hell out of his beer and bread. No exceptions! Harry charges the cult ten pies a month to stay with him in his trailer. The cult calls him a slumlord, shits on his couch, moves out.

The cult secretary, Daphne, stays behind. Daphne bakes as many pies as Harry wants. Harry and Daphne fall madly in love. Daphne proposes to Harry with a diamond arm to replace the arm his ex-wife in Bummsville took from him in their divorce settlement. Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!

Daphne gets pregnant, gives birth to a fiddle leaf. The fiddle leaf becomes mayor of the trailer park. Crime goes down. Yay!

Harry and Daphne move to New Orleans, live in the French Quarter, eat beignets all day every day, hell fucking yes! Harry keeps taxiderming because he likes the quiet and now he has his diamond arm and can do the work doubletime. Harry becomes a world famous taxidermist, even gets his own television show. Congrats, Harry!

Daphne dies at the age of 256. Harry hasn’t aged a day. At Daphne’s funeral, Harry buries the diamond arm that she gave him when she proposed.

 Harry retires, becomes a carpenter. He knows nothing about carpentry. Harry builds his first house with his one good arm, the only one he has left. His right arm. The house is beautiful, made of sunshine and oak.

A thousand years go by. Harry sleeps through most of them. The fiddle leaf becomes president. The USA burns to the ground, killing everyone and everything, including Harry. All Americans return as ghosts. The USA is the only 100% ghost-occupied country in the world. Harry travels cross-country to see if he can find Daphne’s ghost. But she’s gone. Gone forever. Farewell, again, my love. Kiss kiss.

Harry comes home from his road trip, goes out into the yard, sees all the weeds that killed his lavender. Harry pulls up the weeds. The weeds pull back.

Bye, Harry!

Hi, Harry! Welcome to the after-afterlife.

Harry transforms into a mountain. He’s covered in lavender. The wind sounds like Daphne’s voice.  Harry watches the sun hang in suspended animation, almost and never setting for all eternity.

Author Bio: D.T. Robbins writes a whole bunch of shit. Find more at dtrobbins.com

X-Files on VHS

By Sheldon Birnie

The living room of Skeeter’s shack was lined with VHS tapes. Stacks of shit he’d taped off the TV. Wasn’t much else, apart from a couple ratty sofas, one of which doubled as his bed, and a coffee table covered with all you’d need to blaze.

Skeet had every season of X-Files, complete with commercials and the weather reports from the station down in North Dakota that aired the show in its prime. Had that fuckin’ poster of the UFO taped to the back of his door, too. That I WANT TO BELIEVE one. Got it off a rental shop up the Wheat City that was going outta business.

He kept them first three seasons next to the bank of old VCRs he had wired to the flatscreen that took up nearly a whole Reflectix-lined wall of the shack out back of his uncle’s taxidermy shop, behind the mound of broken antlers and the platoon of rusted Chevys.

 Seen those episodes over and over, whenever I’d drop by to pick up, or just smoke and kill one of those long winter evenings. Even if I knew just what was gonna happen during those 60 minutes, it beat drinking in the dirty old bar by the highway there, listening to Top 40 and the VLTs buzz. Or driving up and down them backroads through the darkness, waiting for something weirder than whatever Mulder and Scully was after to jump up outta the ditch.

Show went to shit when it switched to Sunday. That’s Skeeter’s position. Bald-ass albino freak, he’s big on episodes about the alligator man, the Jersey devil, that motherfucker who could stretch himself thin and sneak into cracks above doors to nibble on the livers of his victims. That spooky shit. Show lost its edge with all that conspiracy crap, he says. Tried getting too sexy.

But me, I could dig what Mulder was chasing. Dana and that deep state shit. Told Skeet he’s tripping, over and over and over again. You fuckin’ know the government’s hiding shit from us, bro.

Motherfucking Smoking Man himself, Skeeter’d just toast a bowl up into the resin caked 2L gravity. He’d take it down, hold up. Then fill the living room with that dank haze.

True that, he says, hacking. But don’t need no complicated conspiracy to do it. Shit. Most motherfuckers don’t want to believe nothing. Like those fucks over in the bar. Soaking up the piss. Fuckin’ tourists, going in debt to get the itch from the lake a week or two every summer. Fuckin’ happy knowing nothin but the sweet fuck all. Makes me wanna puke.

Bitter he may be, but Skeeter’s not wrong. ‘Bout that, anyways.

Not like me and you, Skeeter’d say, credits cutting into the opening of another episode. Me, I just nod. It’s not like me and Skeet was ever best friends or nothing. But in a way we was too. Not many people around here worth a half-a-shit. Or anywhere, I guess.

 Not like me and you, bud, he’d say. We know shit’s out there. Eh, bud?

Fuckin’ right it’s out there. All that weird shit and worse is out there waiting in the woods. Shit that show never even hinted at. When you stare up into the night sky long enough out here, away from the lights, nothing but woods and fields and bogs all around, you know you ain’t alone and you ain’t special. Hanging with a buddy, even one as fucked as Skeeter, blazing, watching old fuckin’ X-Files episodes beats staring out into that emptiness alone, that’s for sure. But nobody wants to talk about shit like that.

Better believe it, bud, I’ll tell Skeet. Believe it.

Sheldon Birnie is a writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada who can be found online @badguybirnie

Probable Friends of the Pod

By Joe Neary

The morning begins with a now familiar knot-like ache in Alex’s upper back, immediately following his seeming to gasp himself awake, as if bursting up through the water’s surface, after holding in his breath for a childhood dare. Long, protruded breaths now, lying in an awkward position on his side, feeling his stomach press against his tight T-shirt, caught between his recently growing gut and his bed, a shirt corner stuck under his back. He feels old and sore, and suddenly understands how his 30ish-year-old assistant high school basketball coaches came to be the way they were—the squareness in the torso, love handles protruding at waist, and shoulders draped in flab. The awkwardly chunky calves, seeming to juggle in every direction as they made their way down the practice side courts, breathing heavy, sweat soaking their oversize cut-off shirts. He rolls out of bed, back still aching, shirt and boxers damp with sweat, and makes his way across the creaky wood floor in his apartment, and over to the bathroom.

Outside now, and walking along his lake-shored street, grungy remains under his feet: beer cans, receipts, cigarettes, fast food bags, and the occasional stray clump of vomit that he steps around—remnants of a Thursday night in Chicago. The buildings around him are mostly brick apartments, aging, yet recently renovated, a few Victorian homes sprinkled in, here and there, the lake a dark, cloudy blue to his left. He hears the grinding screech of the subway in the distance, like a knife sharpening, metal on metal, sparks of sound and heat showering outward, elements and industry meeting head on, releasing a propulsive energy. 

On the train now, he feels this energy with each chug, feels it rocking the cabin from side to side, his right hand grasping the rail bar above, arm looming over the top of two strangers bunched in front of him, like the branch of a creepy, bare oak tree hanging over two miserable picnickers, who are somehow chilly, yet overheated; claustrophobic, yet lonely; somehow engaged and interested in this wonky podcast episode, yet also appalled and disturbed—Wallace? Again? Isn’t this like the third interview you’ve had with him in like the past six weeks, and isn’t he polling in like seventh right now? Also, the guy is blatantly against Medicare for all, refuses to turn down PAC money, yet, somehow, you’re still hosting him again, and doing so in your typical, evasive, faux-woke tone. Maybe he’s projecting a bit now. The early-thirties-looking, suit-clad dude in front of him seems like a probable friend of the pod, and now that he turns his eyes downward, he notices a rolled-up copy of The Economist tucked in, and sticking out of, his glossy, fancy-lad satchel. Yeah … definitely projecting. The girl in front of him is wearing yoga pants and is diligently carrying a rolled-up yoga mat under her armpit, while she grasps the hanging plastic handle connected to the railing above. Her other hand is holding out her phone in front of her, some sort of Snapchat filter (it looks like the cat one from here) on her screen. Maybe not the world’s two most likely candidates for lefties.

The train whizzes along, the passengers continuing to flail, careening from side to side, as they hold on to the handles and railing above them. It’s a Friday, and he and Tim are supposed to have some plans tonight, maybe dinner and drinks in Wicker Park. This excites him, and he feels an urge to rush through the day. He looks up at the stop alert flashing across the screen overhanging the cabin. Three more stops to go.

Suddenly, he’s unable to hear the pod, a deep, soulful singing voice muffling their nasally quips, and he’s unable to smell the damp, trapped heat, mingled with hints of BO of before (the standard Chicago subway smell), and, instead, feels his nose, mouth, and every other orifice, clogged and battered and drenched in the putrid, decaying smell of death itself. He nearly throws up and loses his balance, at the same time, one hand now held over his mouth, and his other hand hanging by three fingers on the railing. For a minute he thinks he isn’t going to be able to hang on. Slanted halfway down now, one arm nearly touching the putrid floor beneath him, his eyes fixed on his outstretched hand, and those strained three fingers hanging on for dear life, Mufasa style. He feels forceful hands behind him, and, suddenly, he’s recovered his balance, and avoided the fall.

One hand still over his face, he awkwardly removes both of his earbuds with the other, turning to view the source of the now echoing onslaught of song filling the cabin. He sees a tattered old man with stringy white, waist-length hair, his senses locating stench and sound as coming from the same source, some primitive signals clicking within his mind/body continuum, genes and memes developed and passed on through the ages, through space and time, converging in on this instant, on his own awareness of this filthy old man, on his stench so strong that one can taste it, on his bellowing voice, hundreds of eyes now fixed on him, of… Destiny’s Child lyrics? The man rocks from side to side in smooth strokes, bare feet rhythmically caressing the dirty floor beneath him in salsa-like, arched-foot movements, snapping his fingers and continuing to belt out lyrics in a voice soulful enough to attain Beyonce’s approval. Alex looks around, and most of the other people in the cabin have their faces covered as well, a few brave (or maybe it’s just nostrily-challenged) folks simply smile and watch, some now joining in for backup vocals. He hears a high-pitched croon come from right in front of him, yoga mat girl now belting out lyrics as well, gyrating her hips in the process, and gaining several woots and onlookers.

The man finishes the song in its entirety, the cabin erupting in cheers, most of the passengers now acclimated to the stench–a process akin to driving through rural Ohio on a trip to Cedar Point: eventually, the manure-stench-buttressing windows roll back down, and the wind batters your face, the endless corn fields forming a horizon of optimism for the day you finally take on and survive Millennium Force. The train stops, and the old, barefoot man regally bows, then turns, walking off the train. Alex eyes the cabin’s location screen—one more stop to go—and places his earbuds back in.

Joe Neary is a graduate student and writing instructor at Bowling Green State University, and a contributing editor at Flyover Country.