Looking the Part

By Kevin Finnerty

            Nick never paid much attention to the clothes people wore until he met Dana. He cared a little about his own attire, but just a little.   

            Dana managed a boutique clothing shop in the North Loop in Minneapolis. A hip store in a hipster neighborhood. The sort of place where patrons only checked the price after they’d already made the decision to purchase the item. 

            Nick lived in the neighborhood that had been called the Warehouse District for a long time after the warehouses along the Mississippi River had disappeared, only to be quickly re-branded once urban living came back in vogue and the neighborhood offered upscale opportunities to those who worked downtown, less than a mile away.

            Nick and Dana spoke for the first time after he walked into the boutique without any intention of buying, or even pretending to buy, clothes. He’d lived in the city for two years without entering a serious romantic relationship, as he’d discovered Minnesota Nice did not mean warm or inviting. He’d met Dana’s eyes on at least a dozen occasions when passing Fine Threads on his way home from work before he decided to find out if she viewed him as anything more than a potential customer.  

            “How can I help you?” 

            Dana’s question took him aback. He’d planned his approach in advance, but it had not included her initiating the conversation.

            “Do you always wear a suit?”

            Nick thought he could handle the second question at least. “Four days a week.  Five if I have to go to court or meet with a client on Fridays.”

            “What do you otherwise wear on Fridays?”

            “Business casual. Emphasis on the business part.”

            “Most people aren’t so constrained.”

            “What about the military?” 

            “The military, sure.” Dana showed her full teeth as she smiled this time, revealing to Nick the difference between the pleasing smile she’d previously offered and the natural one she now displayed. “What about weekends? Holidays? Vacations?”

            Nick looked down at his clothes — suit, tie, dress shoes — as if they would provide him the answer. “Whatever I want, I guess.”

            Nick left Fine Threads ten minutes later without making a purchase, but he had Dana’s phone number and a thought he’d never previously considered: Most people aren’t so constrained.

            As he walked about his city in the days that followed, Nick paid more attention to the attire of those around him and discovered that even in its corporate center most people took advantage of their freedom.  People wore jeans, both of the designer and second-hand variety, and everything in-between; shirts, collared and pressed, as well as those torn that exposed the wearer’s flesh; sneakers, loafers, boots, sandals, sometimes no shoes at all.  He saw Ts that gave him information about the individual’s favorite band, school, or sports team.  He even saw one guy in his early twenties, hair a little long, but otherwise clean-cut, clean shaven, whose shirt said I’m that guy.

            Nick imagined the slogan would have been profound had the wearer been a philosophy major making an existential statement. The sort of person whose voice mail would have said: “I was going to say ‘I’m not here’ but that may have started a debate that would have been impossible to end. So please just leave a message and I’ll try to get back to you.”

            Nick thought the dude on the street looked too happy to have been a philosophy major, but he was sure the guy wanted to convey some message.    

            “Most people do,” Dana told him on their first date. “You buy top brands at full price, you’re telling the world you want the best, can afford it, and want others to know it. You purchase knock-offs, you want to pretend you’re a member of the first group and hope people can’t tell the difference.”  

            The couple sat at an outdoor patio at a restaurant just across the river in the neighborhood named Northeast but pronounced “Nordeast” by its residents.  

            “What do mine say?”

            “You buy functional clothes and shop middle-of-the-road department stores for items you can afford that you hope won’t offend anyone.” She used air quotes around “shop.” “Nothing wrong with that. I’m with you, right? I wouldn’t have given you my number if you’d worn sweats or sandals when you came into the shop, no matter how good looking you might have been.  That would have told me you valued your own comfort above everything else. Like women who wear yoga pants 90% of the time.”

            Nick wasn’t sure what to make of Dana’s attire and was afraid to ask. He’d noticed at work she wore lots of black or white or black and white. Sharp, professional clothes that would have been beyond her price point but for her employee discount and her employer’s expectations.

            On their first date, Dana wore a striped blouse, solid short skirt, and a red fedora. Nick soon understood she liked to mix-and-match and frequently combined one item that was fairly expensive, another that was dirt cheap, and a third somewhere in-between, but it would be some time before he’d be able to consistently tell which was which.

            Nick better grasped the message she wanted to send on their second date. She wore a Zach Parisee jersey when she greeted him in the doorway to her apartment. They’d made plans to attend a Wild game after he learned, like most in the State of Hockey, Dana was an avid fan on the sport.   

            “No jersey for you?” 

            “I didn’t want to risk it.” Nick had elected to take her to the game when the Wild were facing off against his hometown team, the Flyers.

            She patted him on the shoulder. “That doesn’t happen here. I was at a game last year where we all got serenaded by a bunch of Canadiens fans when Montreal ran us out of the building. Five solid minutes of Ole, ole, ole. Most Minnesotans politely left the arena.”

            “That wouldn’t happen in Philly. Not without a fight.”

            Nick sat quietly through the first period even though the Flyers were the only team to score. After the second goal, Dana leaned into him. “Go ahead and cheer. You know you want to.”

            Nick told himself he would the next time Philly lit the lamp, but as soon as he did so, a Flyer defenseman caught an edge giving a Wild forward an unimpeded path to the goalie. One deke and it was 2-1.

            Dana jumped to her feet. Seconds later she looked down at Nick as if she knew what had happened. Had it been her plan all along?

            Nick wondered if not getting to his feet when the home team scored was just as telling as applauding when good things happened to the visitors. The Flyers scored next, but the Wild scored last during the shootout. Dana left the arena twice as happy as Nick because her team garnered two points and his only one.

            “You look good in those jeans,” Dana said as they reached his car after the game.

            Nick smiled at the compliment but wondered what it was about the jeans she liked during the ride to her apartment. All his pairs were different. Also, did the sole compliment about his jeans imply she didn’t like the shirt or shoes he wore?

            Nick paused when he parked the car outside her apartment, waiting to see if she would abruptly exit or invite him inside. She did neither.

            He turned and stared. She smiled. He leaned across believing it was time for their first kiss.

            Dana moved a third of the way towards him but slipped the kiss and embraced him instead. Nick felt both of her hands on his back, rubbing against his new flannel shirt.

            “You smell good.” She had her chin resting against his shoulder.

            “So do you.”

            Nick couldn’t smell anything. He believed his spinning thoughts must have impaired his senses.

            “I hope we’ll do this again.”

            “We’ll have to go to Philly. They play there later this year.”

            She pulled away. “Slow down, Bud.”

            He prepared to apologize, or tell her that wasn’t what he’d meant, but before he could say the words, she said goodnight and left. He turned around and looked through the rear windshield hoping she’d glance back. She didn’t.

            On their third date, Nick entered Fine Threads while Dana was in the process of closing the shop just after seven on a Friday night. He’d come directly from work wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and maroon tie after spending the day in a deposition until it ended shortly before five.

            Mentally drained from paying attention to every word being said for almost seven hours, Nick considered coming home to change and relax or, alternatively, going out with some colleagues for a drink or two during happy hour. Instead, he stayed at work until 6:45.

            “You should have gone.  Or were you scared of showing Drunk Nick to me too early in the relationship?”

            Nick happily pocketed the last word she said. “I didn’t think about that. I just didn’t want to break with tradition. If staying later on a Friday keeps me out of the office on the weekend, it’s worth it. If I have to come in no matter how late I stay, I might as well take off early on Friday.”

            “So your weekend’s free?”

            “Didn’t say that. Just don’t have to go in the next couple of days.”

            Nick and Dana left the boutique and walked west along Washington towards a popular pasta restaurant that had recently opened in the neighborhood. The place had an industrial feel with its dark brick and wood and exposed ventilation tubes running overhead. Tables were situated close to one another, so guests often had to lean across theirs to be heard. When their server arrived, he bent at the knees and squatted to communicate better with them.

            They ordered one item to be shared from each of the categories on the menu, which included antipasto, bruschetta, dry pasta, fresh pasta, and a meat from the “Secondi” listing. The dishes began to arrive in no particular order from a seemingly endless supply of waitstaff dressed in white shirts and aprons, all of whom (women included) sported a tie. The constant motion ensured guests never waited long.

            Like Dana and Nick, most patrons were in their twenties or thirties. Urban dwellers whose form of relaxation consisted of additional activity, not rest.

            Nick considered the night a huge success until he lost control of the last piece of veal pappardelle and it skated from the plate onto his lap and left him with a stain on his pants.

            “Guess I’ll add visiting dry cleaners to my To Do list for tomorrow.”

            “Give ‘em to me as soon as we get back to your place.”  

            Nick and Dana stopped going on dates. They were dating. She took him clothes shopping, meaning they went to a store together, and she pulled items off the rack, handed them to Nick and told him to try them on.

            “You need more color. And tighter fitting clothes. At least for your free time.”

            Who was he to disagree with the expert in this area? Especially when more than once a person in the street, at a restaurant, or in a store had approached them and said they made a lovely couple.  

            “Tall and blonde, tall and dark,” one middle-aged woman said as she passed their table in the cafe in which Nickand Dana were breakfasting.

            “I wouldn’t think that behavior to be very Minnesotan. Too outspoken.”

            “It’s about you, not me. I’m just like everybody else here.”

            Nick knew Minnesotan women were taller and fairer of skin than the average woman on the east coast, but Dana was far from the norm. She stood eye-to-eye with him when she wore heels, and was far prettier and more lithe than most of those of Scandinavian extraction.

            He looked forward to the opportunity to present her to his world. To show them what she thought of him.

            He soon had his chance when Nick’s firm held its annual meeting in Minneapolis. Lawyers from around the world gathered to attend to company business, to place faces to names they only knew electronically, and to socialize.

            The closing dinner, officially coined The Gala but universally called The Prom by those of Nick’s stature, was a black-tie affair to which lawyers were allowed to invite a guest. Nick invited Dana so he would not have to go stag for the third consecutive year.  

            “Do you own a tuxedo?”

            “I’ll rent one.”

            “You should think about buying.”

            “If I become partner, I will.”

            “Owning one might help you make partner.”

            Nick did not heed Dana’s advice. He thought owning a tuxedo would constitute a commitment he was not ready to make.  

            He entered the converted railway station where The Gala was held wearing a rental once more. For the first time, he paid attention to what others wore.  

            He thought he looked okay. Maybe his tux wasn’t the nicest, but it fit him better than many of the men who were overweight or otherwise out of shape. Formal clothes did them no favors.

            “Except showing they care.” Dana whispered in Nick’s ear after most of the other members of their table — Nick’s coworkers and their guests — had risen to get a drink or head for the dance floor. Mainly the former.  

            “Maybe that’s the opposite of what I want to say.” He saw Dana frown. “At work at least, not with you.”

            “You’re with me here. And you should care, even if you weren’t.”

            “You’re right,” he said, uncertain if he believed himself, “next year I’ll get my own.”

            Nick stood and held out his hand to escort Dana to the dance floor. As she got to her feet, he felt for the first time — not just that evening but the first time in his life — perhaps she was out of his league. At least he believed those who watched him lead Dana, dressed in an off-the-shoulder, black silk dress, would think that. Or that she was banking on him making partner someday.

            Nick wondered that himself, at least until she conceded something to him, or to herself, after the first dance, when she removed her shoes and became slightly shorter than him once more.

            She dropped her shoes just beyond the dance floor’s boundary. “It’s easier this way.”

            They danced for a half hour in a rather unlawyerly way, which is not to say they danced provocatively or even eccentrically. Just that danced. Period. Which meant they made themselves and their appearances open to observation and comment.

            For once, Nick didn’t care.

            When they tired, Nick took her hand and escorted her to one of the bars that had been established in each of the corners of the room for the evening. He left Dana to get in line for free booze. A few minutes later, he found her in a conversation with a partner at his firm. Or the guest of a partner anyway.   

            “We went to high school together.”

            “You guys were really kicking it.” To the extent her sun-soaked skin hadn’t sufficiently aged the woman, her formal white gown did the trick. Nick thought there was no way she could have been a classmate of Dana’s, especially as she was accompanied by a man two decades older than him.

            “You guys having fun?” The partner wore a big smile as he grabbed his date’s shoulders. 

            “Yes, Sir.” Nick took a large sip from his glass.

            “I hope I’m not overdressed.” Dana’s former classmate tilted her head back after closely studying Dana’s appearance.

            “Nonsense.  No such thing. So what do you do, Dana?”

            “I manage a boutique in the North Loop.”

            “See,” the partner said as if Dean and Nick wouldn’t hear, “she’s all about clothes.  You’re with me.”

            Nick wasn’t sure whether he or Dana was the primary intended target of the partner’s jab. In either case, it bothered him.

            Nick pretended it didn’t when he smiled and told the partner he wanted to mingle. He pretended it didn’t when he got another drink and he and Dana found his friends near another makeshift bar. He pretended it didn’t when he and Dana took a taxi to his place an hour later. He pretended it didn’t when they went to bed that night.

            In the morning while they sat at the small round table in his condo drinking coffee, Nick could no longer pretend.  He introduced a non-sequitur into their otherwise banal conversation.

            “Are clothes really that important?”

            Dana offered him a smile he hadn’t previously seen. It wasn’t the smile of the store manager staring at a potential customer. Nor was it the smile of a woman attracted to a potential mate. It was the smile that a person smiles to herself when she expects someone to act in a certain way — a way she wishes the person wouldn’t act — and then sees the person conform to the expected behavior.

            “Happiness is. If I do my job right, I’m helping make other people happy.”

            “For how long?”

            “For a while. That’s something, right? Do you make people happy doing whatever you do?”

            “Not often. Sometimes with a big win perhaps, but most of the time my client is still upset getting a huge bill. And forget about the other side.” Nick stared into his almost empty mug. “Plaintiffs’ attorneys make their clients happy with large verdicts or settlements. Even corporate attorneys do when they make deals.”

            “Why don’t you become one of them?”

            “Not in my nature, I guess.”

            Dana asked Nick to take her home shortly thereafter. He wondered if she’d ever return. They hadn’t ever had a fight before, and he wasn’t even sure if they’d just had one, but there was something about her request. As if she were implying there wasn’t any point if he was going to completely devalue her. 

            On his way home, Nick wondered why he’d sabotaged the relationship. He didn’t agree with the partner and certainly didn’t like him. How was it that other people could influence his behavior in a negative way, even when he knew (or should have known) the person who was influencing him could care less about him while the person against whom he was going to act did?

            Nick knew he needed to apologize but didn’t know what to say, so he avoided saying anything. He thought about what he should do, what he could do, a lot the next day, but didn’t actually do anything.

            Dana knocked on his door Sunday evening. She held a rectangular box in both arms in front of her.

            “I was going to give this to you for Christmas.”

            He stared at the box but didn’t take it. He thought doing so might amount to conceding he was no longer eligible for the grand prize and was merely accepting his parting consolation gift.  

            “So why don’t you?”

            She shrugged.

            “I was hoping you would consider going with me to see my family around the holidays.”

            Nick hadn’t actually ever considered that. Not yet. It seemed too soon. But at that moment he thought he might as well launch a Hail Mary.

            Dana’s somber mood disappeared. Her voice assumed a lighter tone. “Do you think we’re ready?”

            “I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t.”

            “I don’t know.”

            Dana looked behind her as if she wanted to leave. Or perhaps to see if she were being observed. Nick occupied one of only three units on the third floor of his building, so there never was any traffic.

            “I’m sorry, I’m an idiot sometimes.”

            Dana thrust her hands into the pockets of her peacoat. “Everybody is.”

            Nick’s parents lived, by choice, in a tiny town in Oregon, far from all major airports, so he and Dana had to rent a car at PDX and then spend more time driving than flying. After six hours on the road, they puled into a grass driveway off a dirt road.  

            From the outside, the placed looked more like a cabin than a house. Wooden construction home hidden by trees.  

            Dana grabbed Nick’s hand when he got out of the car. “So is this going to be like going back in time?”

            “Not at all. Going to Philly is going back in time. This place, these people, it’s like being transported to an alternate universe.”

            Nick’s sister greeted them at the door. She wore old, stained jeans and a frayed sweater, the sort of clothes Nick’s family called “comfortable,” but which he knew Dana thought were not even good enough to be donated to goodwill.

            “Keily, your uncle Nick is here.”

            Ellyn’s daughter raised her hand with a smartphone in it but didn’t move until ordered to do so by her mother.

            “Just eleven and already at the stage where she just does her own thing.”

            The tween wore a flare dress with horizontal blue and white stripes, but she was not the same girl Nick had last seen a year ago. The formerly ever-engaging child now studied her smart phone as if it, and it alone, contained all the answers to the universe.

            “So how you like Tacoma?”

            “Boring.”

            “Did you recently move there?” Dana directed her question to Keily, but Ellyn answered.

            “Six months. The same time the divorce became final. We used to live in Redmond.”

            “Wish we still did.” Keily spoke to her device.

            “No, you don’t, Little One.”

            Keily retrieved her earphones from her pocket and returned to the couch.    

            “Everybody always used to tell me I married well. Corporate executive. Fine home, car, family. I now see Mom and Dad got it right when they left that world and Philly behind and moved to the middle of nowhere.”

            “What made them leave Philly?”

            “They found a tumor near my brain.” Nick’s mother did not hide her scar. The way she wore her hair intentionally pulled away from that side of her head emphasized it. “Hi, I’m Gloria, this is Joe.”

            Dana shook their hands and Nick briefly hugged his parents before pushing past them. “Let’s go inside.”

            The quintet joined Keily in the living room. Ellyn tapped her daughter’s legs so she would remove her earphones.  

            “I’ve heard this story a million times.” The youth answered with more volume than necessary but complied with her mother’s request.

            “How you know what we’re going to talk about?”

            “Because she knows Mom and Dad always share it first,” Nick said.

            Joe grabbed his wife’s hands. “It answers the question that’s on newcomers’ minds right away so we can all get past that. Am I right?”

            Dana nodded. “You moved out here because of your wife’s medical condition?”

            “Not exactly. We stayed in Philly for my surgeries, chemo, and radiation. It’s just the corporations for whom we’d worked for decades could have cared less.”

            “They did at the start,” Ellyn said.

            “Some of the people did,” Gloria corrected.

            Joe shook his head in disgust. “But with all the time off from work and the enormous medical expenses, they soon hated us.”

            “And I couldn’t do my job as I once could. Lost some processing ability.”

            “You … you seem fine.”

            “Thanks. I’m fine.  Used to be better than fine but that’s okay.”

            “Mom was brilliant,” Nick said.  He felt himself redden for having used the past tense.

            “So what happened, if I can ask?”

            “I got out of my suit and put on a nighty. We had some help for a while, then insurance stopped paying for that. We churned through our savings. Joe eventually left one set of work clothes for another because he had so much cleanup duty.”

            “We did what we had to do.” Joe took his wife’s hand. “We were told 5% chance she’d last more than a year. It’s been seven.”

            “So we told our kids maybe we’d given them bad advice. We’d placed such a high priority on achievement, but at the end of the day, that didn’t matter much.”

            Nick placed his leg atop his opposite knee. “Of course, if you didn’t have jobs that provided quality health care and allowed you to accumulate savings over the years, who knows what would have happened?”

            Joe reached out and smacked his son’s foot. “We probably would have moved in with you.”

            “You’ve got a point, Sweetie. We’re not saying stop doing what you do and live in the woods like us. We’re just saying keep your eyes open about the path you’re on at all times.”

            “The one you put us on?”

            “Touche.” Joe looked at his wife. “That’s the problem with raising smart kids. They can fire back every time.”

            “So how’d you end up out here?”  

            “We got in our car and drove west,” Joe said. “Once we hit Utah, we looked at each other and I asked, ‘north, south or straight ahead?’  Gloria said ‘how about northwest?’”

            “When we got here, we needed gas. While we were stretching our legs and filling up, we looked at each other and said ‘why not?’”

            “Just like that?”

            “Yep, best decision we ever made.” Gloria and Joe hugged, and their matching gray sweatshirts blended so much they almost appeared to be one person. “We never went back.”

            Later, it would seem as if it was all inevitable. It wasn’t quite like that when life proceeded forward.

            Nick pondered his possible professional and personal courses. He wondered what hats he should wear or whether he should wear one at all.

            Dana seemed more certain, save for the time she appeared in his doorway that Sunday evening, presumably to end it.

            One couldn’t have happened without the other, but just because Dana agreed to slip into a wedding dress didn’t require them to work together. Sure, she’d proposed the union not long after he did, but she hadn’t conditioned her acceptance. Even a non-transactional attorney like Nick noticed that.

            No, it was a second proposal during that period in which they’d told the world they would marry but before the actual ceremony. She raised the idea to him at brunch shortly after they’d finished making waffles or French toast, both of them wearing robes and slippers on a Sunday morning.

            “What would you say if I said I think we should buy a store?”

            “I’d ask what kind of store.”

            “You’d really have to ask?”

            “I suppose not.”          

            “But I’d have to know what you’d say.”

            “You don’t know?”

            “No.”

            “Neither do I.”

            He said yes on their honeymoon. While they held each other and kicked their legs in eight feet of water in the Atlantic. She wore a one-piece because he’d taught her while a bikini was fine for lounging at the pool, or even one of ‘Sota’s 10,000 lakes, it didn’t fare so well if one intended to spend the day body surfing.

            After they returned home, they kept their plans secret, or at least unknown to their employers, until they found the right location and arranged for financing. Then they gave notice and stepped off the curb into oncoming traffic.

            They ran Eclectic separately but together. Dana bought and sold. Nick hired and fired. She kept abreast of fashion trends, and he monitored governmental regulations.    

            She wore the sort of clothes that perfectly fit the theme of the store. He wore business casual clothes with a slighter greater emphasis on the casual part of the equation. On the first day, he wore the argyle sweater she’d given him as a present on their first Christmas together. As time passed, instead of her seeking his approval concerning his wardrobe, he made the initial selections and simply sought her confirmation. Sometime later, even this last step proved unnecessary.  

About the Author: Kevin Finnerty earned his MFA at Columbia College Chicago.  His stories have appeared in Eclectica Magazine, The Muleskinner Journal, Portage Magazine, Variety Pack, The Westchester Review, and other journals.

Wasted Years

By Sheldon Birnie

I used to party fuckin hard, but now I’m old and lame.

One time, up on the reserve by Winfield there, my foot got busted when this wild man from the Kootenays come flying outta the pit and stomped right on it, trying to keep himself upright. I was kneeling down, slamming whisky from the bottle and making eyes at the young lady I was smitten with at the time. We’d been drinking beer all day, hadn’t eaten nothing but a couple powerful pills. Yet when the bone snapped, it was a white hot expressway of pain from toes to the center of my skull. Dulled the feeling but couldn’t kill it with joint after joint until I caught a ride into town in the back of a pickup truck, cold winter wind relentless. Don’t think I stopped shivering for days. 

Those were grimy, greasy days, boy. The local legend whose family’s house this all went down at held punk rock and metal shows there all the time. Played there a couple times myself, splattered blood all over the walls. Bands would set up in the dining room, volume cranked, and shake the foundation. Beer bottle graveyard spilling from the sink all over the counters and onto the kitchen floor, air thick with cigarette and dope smoke, ripe with BO and cat piss.

That wasn’t the first nor the last time I fucked myself up good partying. Ripped ligaments, countless bruises, scrapes, and scars. A concussion or two. Cracked my patella walking down the street with my hands jammed deep in my pockets, drunk, like a half-bright child. Any dummy could have picked out the pattern there, but I kept at it for well over a decade. Those golden, wasted years.

Another time at that same house, New Year’s Eve, I opened the front door just as some young drunk punk rolled down the stairs, out the door. I don’t remember anything else from that evening other than we were on mushrooms and somehow I drove me and my buddies home, but I’ll never forget that tumbling punk rolling down the hill into the woods below while all his friends howled like hyenas from the foyer.

Buddy whose house that was got sober, I’m told. Others from that scene are dead, or otherwise drifted away, forgotten, or still plugging away in tattered denim and well worn leather. Some of us have kids and have jobs and all that shit we thought was bullshit back when we were young. I’d like to say the memories live on. But they don’t. Most of them are burnt out, fuckin faded even now. Not unlike the stick and poke tattoo that gal I fancied, the one I was drinking whisky with that time I broke my foot, gave me coming down off an acid trip on a separate occasion. It all meant something, once. But now it’s hard to explain.

About the Author: Sheldon Birnie is a writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada who can be found online @badguybirnie

Oracle

By David Wright

About the Author: David Wright’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Image, Ecotone, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Hobart, among others. His latest poetry collection is Local Talent (Purple Flag/Virtual Artists Collective, 2019). A past recipient of an Illinois Arts Council fellowship, he lives in west central Illinois where he teaches American literature and creative writing at Monmouth College. He can be found on Twitter @sweatervestboy.

State And Local History

By Mikey Swanberg

About the Author: Mikey Swanberg is the author of On Earth As It Is (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2021), Good Grief (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2019), Zen and the Art of Bicycle Delivery (Rabbit Catastrophe Press).
He holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin – Madison & lives in Chicago.

Deer

By Kelli Lage

Author Bio: Bio: Kelli Lage is earning her degree in Secondary English Education and works as a substitute teacher. She is a poetry reader for Bracken Magazine. Awards: Special Award for First-time Entrant, 2020, Iowa Poetry Association. Website: www.KelliLage.com.

The Rapture of Petrach County in Three Parts

By Zoe Yohn

I. 

            They met each week at Daylite Donuts and when that closed, they made the pilgrimage to The Over Easy. The diner wouldn’t be around much longer, either, but when the inevitable happened, there would always be the McDonald’s out near the interstate. 

            – You hear about Peltz’s alien? 

            – Bullcrap. What the hell are you talkin’ about? 

            – Said he found it in the dirt out behind the house. He’s calling it God. 

            – He ain’t. God? Really? 

            – It don’t matter what he’s calling it, he didn’t find shit out there.  

            They shook their heads, rubbed their palms across their eyes, still greasy with the exhaustion of a lifetime. Someone gestured for Debbie, for more coffee. 

            Dale Peltz used to join for hash browns and eggs, but he was a mean bastard. It was a blessing, they agreed, when Dale got sick, because he quit the diner when driving got too sore on his gut. He’d started to stink by then anyway, unwashed skin ripe with odors that weren’t polite to name.

            – Swears he did. And whatever it is, he says it’s going to bring the farm back. He told you that, didn’t he, Jim?

            – Yep. 

            – Like hell. He must be on some new medication, pain management. I had a cousin who gone the same way, near the end. Just lost it. 

            They were quiet for a minute. 

            – That farm is nothing but a weed patch. Won’t even grow stone. 

            – He was a damn idiot not to sell. 

            – Still can. Last plot north of town, and he’s got that good access road. Sensyus offered him a fortune for it. 

            – They’ll get it in the end, anyway.

            – He’s got more dirt than sense. 

             – A fortune. For a plot of piss-poor land not fit for a feedlot. And he still won’t let it go. 

            They’d all sold years back, before the Sensyus announcement, before something like Sensyus even existed, when the factory farms had come in. Petrarch County was wiped clean for pennies. They traded their farms for homes in town. Then, town was gutted and after a few years, so were their savings. Their family land was long gone, too, turned to corn and soy for feedlots, sucking the nourishment from the dirt. Dale Peltz was the only one who held out.  

            – Dale wouldn’t know what to do with money like that, anyway. 

            – That farm’s the only place that can take the smell of ‘im. Stench would kill us all if he moved to town. The man is a walking biohazard. 

            – He can’t move his ass two miles down from that shack. What’s the point of selling? 

            Truth was, no one wanted Peltz to sell. They wanted him to die on that sandbar. He’d been too slow, but they’d been too quick, biting at the first offer that came. They watched as their land was parceled off and cashed the checks. Only a crystal ball could have predicted the arrival of Sensyus to the county, just a few years later, with its multibillion-dollar plans, handing out thick wads of techno cash that should have been theirs by right. It was their land, after all, and the only thing worse than missing payday would be to see Dale Peltz cash in. 

            – A coffee can. That’s what he told Jim, isn’t that right, Jim? That’s where he’s keepin’ it, God or the alien or whatever the hell it is – in a goddamn empty Folger’s can. 

            – Yep. That’s what he said. 

            – Shit. 

            – You seen it, Jim? The alien?

            – Nope. Just know what he told me. 

            – There isn’t no alien, just a foolish old bastard with too much time. 

            They shook their heads. They didn’t like to think about if it was luck or smarts that kept them sane, because they worried they didn’t have much of either, really.

            – Didn’t you offer to buy him out, Jim? Before you sold to QualityFoods?

            – Yep. 

            A low, collective whistle sounded across the table, rippling paper napkins. 

            – Shit.

            – Your land and his. Shoot. That’d be some money now, wouldn’t it?

            – Sure would.  

            – Well, it won’t be long. Sensyus will get it. He ain’t looking good, is he, Jim?

            – Nope. 

            The diner air was heavy with bacon fat. They could feel it on their tongues long after their plates were cleared. It took acid to cut grease like that. Clogged the arteries, mottled the heart. None of them were getting any younger. 

            – Peltz is the last of it. One damn farm between now and the future. Won’t be long. 

            – What is it again? 5G something? 

            – Somethin’ like that. 

            – All that’ll give you cancer. Or autism. Saw it on Facebook. My sister-in-law’s kid, somethin’ isn’t right there and it’s the 5G. 

            –  Yep. 

            Their faces, stale with stubble, all orbited towards the clock hanging above the griddle. Their days were shorter without the rhythm of the land. Pink sunrise to lavender sunset, the scent of freshly turned soil and manure. It’d been a clockwork they’d set their bones to. That was gone, and now their eyes seared beneath neon hot cell phone screens. 

            – Well. It’s a shame anyhow. 

            – About Dale?

            – About Jim’s land. 

            – Sure as shit is. 

            – … wonder if Sensyus will pay for deconsecrating the Peltz farm?

            They laughed. 

II. 

            It was the dowsing rods that found Him. They found everything good in his dirt. Dale just got to dig it up. 

            – Water and blood son. That’s what his grandpa had told him. There’s water and blood in this dirt, you just have to find a feel for it. 

            His grandpa taught him how to use the rods, the right way to hold them and wander the land, paying attention to the slightest tremor in the metal. But there was more to it than that. Even now, laying in the dark on his back – because the lumps in his gut hurt like a son-of-a-bitch – a hum rang down Dale’s fingertips. He could feel copper, cool and smooth in his palms, the pathway of dirt-knowing that ran taut as electrified fishing wire from the rods to his wrists. There was a vein of something rich with moisture was trapped beneath the crust of his earth, waiting.

            Folks in town didn’t think there was anything worth saving on his land. They were idiots, clogged and stupid with methamphetamine and WiFi, or foreigners, who didn’t know the land from the sky. Dale did, though. He held out, he believed. His tongue lapped across his gums and came away tart and metallic. Blood. Blood in the dirt, blood in his mouth, but it would be alright now. 

            Dale had been reared on the land. When he was a boy, the breeze rippled his blood, as it did the wheat in the fields. His fingers and toes froze along with dirt after the first frost. The boys in town thought he’d be better off selling, but they didn’t know worth from value. 

            He shifted to his side and groaned. The bed was rank with sweat, his sheets long yellow. If he had a wife, or some kids, they’d’ve told him to get his stomach looked at years back, when his belly first began to ache and the clods were only pebble-size. They’d expanded over the years. By the time he made the trip to the specialist, the doctors didn’t know if he’d fit in the cat scan machine. A nurse tried keep quiet on the phone to the Denver Zoo, asking if he might squeeze into the machine that scanned large mammals, but he heard. They got him in the hospital machine eventually, and all that just to tell him it was too late to operate.

            Dale took a deep, painful breath in and hauled himself upright. He didn’t turn the lights on. The house was quiet, empty. Padding along the hallway, stretching longer than it ever had before, he palmed the wall to keep upright. Sweat pooled in the folds around his neck. 

            Not long, now. In the kitchen, he reached for the top cabinet and took down the coffee canister where his daddy used to keep folded bills and the keys to the tractor. Not long for him, but forever for the farm. 

            Dale opened the lid and was flooded with the glory of his Savior.

III. 

            The Sensyus CEO was ready to rip it out of the ground, but the lead contractor was a Christian. He knew a miracle when he saw one, he said.  

            The CEO threatened him, told the contractor he could either clear it out or lose a crew and a paycheck. The contractor still refused. It was too late by then, anyway, because the news vans had turned up for the groundbreaking. The contractor, weeping on his knees, was a better image for TV than the Sensyus CEO and his golden shovel.

            The air was metallic, a crisp April morning suddenly close and dense, like a late-summer thunderstorm was boiling across the plains. The folks in town felt it, too. They showed up in clusters, not long behind the news vans, some for the groundbreaking, some unsure of why they were there at all, except to say they’d felt they had to be. Something drew them from their homes and out to the old Peltz place. 

            By mid-morning, the access road was backed up all the way to the northern edges of town. Cars by the dozen, caked in dirt, were stitched tail-to-nose along the road, trucks, cop cars, mini-vans bursting with impatient children. Even the meth chefs found a spark for the rusted-out hunks-of-junk usually cemented to the cookhouse front lawn and joined the parade.

            Rumors began to circulate that the National Guard would have to be called in. No one had ever seen so many people in one place in Petrarch County, not during the County Fair, not during the Octoberfest parade. They must have come from the surrounding Counties – Adams; Burlow; Monart. And maybe even further because there were cars arriving that were city-clean, gleaming and free of dust. 

            On the edges of the Peltz land, clusters of people waited for something to happen. Mothers perched on car bumpers and breastfed their children, high school boys jeered and jumped around, increasingly frenzied as the day baked hotter and heavier. Some folks were praying, rosaries knotted through their knuckles, and others wanted stupid and slow in long, looping circles of their own. 

            A barricade of bodies formed around the site where the ground was supposed to have been broken, surging outwards and circling the Sensyus construction trailer. The crowd heaved against it; meaty shoulders packed to metal rocking violently. Hiding inside, the CEO tried to keep his balance. Legal was in his ear, real-timing a plan of action. 

            – Monica, sorry, can you – can you just, repeat that? No, I can’t – it’s too – there are what, four thousand hicks out there fucking screaming, I just – e-mail it to me, okay? And the ‘copter? Is it on the way?

            The crowd grew thicker, the sun bore onto the earth and baked it dry. Dust haze hung in the air, obscuring the densest depths of the group. It churned against itself, spitting folks out hard onto the dirt before they tried to dig back in again. Law enforcement couldn’t find the way through to the center. Rumors flew like hot oil. Antifa, a bomb, alien spaceship crash. The CIA and FBI were on their way, Air Force stealth planes had been seen circling the south field. 

            By mid-afternoon, the construction trailer and two news vans had been toppled and set alight. There was no sign of the Sensyus CEO. Not a hundred feet from where his abandoned golden shovel lay, a throng of wailing women in prairie garb flung themselves to the ground and clawed dirt into their mouths. Holy men of all sects – priests, reverends, bishops, rabbis, imams, Tibetan monks and more – circled the earth, chanting reverently in their own prayerful tongues. The National Guard hadn’t been able to tear through the order of nuns holding ground over the furthest reaches of the site and in their absence, a handmade infantry marched through the thickets of bodies, semi-automatics resting on their shoulders. They were the guardians, they told the crowds, the protectorate of the land. 

            Meanwhile, the lead contractor had never risen from the ground. The knees of his pants had worn as soft as wet paper, ready to tear. The muscles in his back spasmed and ached, knotted, refusing to unravel. Touring this same spot the night before, surveying the emptiness before it was to be ripped up and churned for the future, his boots had kicked dust from the bald earth, at the nothing before him. 

            And now, from the ash where even the heartiest high-plains grasses had refused to grow, bloomed a pomegranate tree, as rich, ripe and heavy with fruit as it had been in the Garden.  

About the Author: Originally from the Nebraskan plains, Zoe Yohn is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She holds an MA in Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama from University College Dublin. She has published short fiction in The Honest Ulsterman and her short story “Language Barriers” was long listed for the 2021 Exeter Story Prize. Zoe lives with her husband in Dublin, and is currently working on a novel.

The Great Plains

By Jennifer Walker

Author Bio: Jennifer Walker started her writing adventures as a child composing short stories. As she matured, she wrote poetry and novels. Her poetry collection, Prairie Girl, was selected as a 2022 Finalist for The Birdy Poetry Prize by Meadowlark Press. Jennifer is married and a proud mother of three boys. Her other roles include being a high school English teacher and a farmer’s daughter. Jennifer has lived all over the American Midwest before​ finding her way back to her home state of Kansas.

An Interview with Daren Dean

Interview Conducted by Shaun McMichael

Grit lit Novelist, Daren Dean, opens up about his new novel This Vale of Tears (Cowboy Jamboree (CJ) Press; October, 2021), a torrential tragicomedy of manners, miracles, and mortal wounds.

Cuckolded scofflaw Troy Scofield kicks off This Vale of Tears’s torrential tragicomedy when he kills old Bobby Lee Phelps, the lover of his wild-thing wife, Alisha. Troy’s prison release seven years later rekindles the brooding enmity between the pugnacious Scofield and Phelps families who because of their similarities are destined to conflict. Both rural Missouri clans mirror each other’s dire money trouble, generational curses, and cults of patriarchy alive and well in the novel’s 1970 epoch. “Old wounds ran deep. A shared genealogy spooled behind them but was powerless to heal the rift. The men…liked to think of themselves as figures of some grand tragedy and knowing all along that their own flaws of character would eventually bring them low” (60). The liquor-pickled men carouse and pick fights while their women leave, cling, or manipulate in ways that unintentionally double their misery. For example, young Raelyn Phelps flees her family’s abusive confines just to run into Troy. The two entangle in a star-crossed love affair further enflaming already combustible Phelps and Scofield patriarchs. I spoke with Daren Dean about his process writing This Vale…

Shaun Anthony McMichael (SAM): What was your entry point into this novel?

Daren Dean (DD): I wrote This Vale… a while ago and over a long stretch of time. I would have loved to start publishing this stuff when I was thirty-five instead of in my forties and fifties, but it wasn’t ready. But what I remember is that for “This Vale…” I wanted strong-structured sentences that flowed like Cormac McCarthy and William Gay’s style of writing. 

In terms of the story, I had this idea of writing about a deeply troubled character like Troy Scofield meeting a much younger character like Raelyn Phelps and about how she affects him. Then I wrote the first chapter, which operates as a kind of prologue. I didn’t call it a prologue though because of the immediacy and impact it possesses. After I wrote it, I wondered how I was going to keep up with that intensity and pace. The way I tried to achieve that relentless pacing was to cut out all the boring parts, which has always been a goal of mine. At the same time, I didn’t want to overwhelm a reader. As the chapters go along, some of them are more languid as certain dynamics take more time to develop.

SM: Let’s talk some more about Troy: “Everyone knew or had heard of Troy Scofield, he wasn’t a real person anymore in their minds, he was an evil spirit haunting the backroads of the past. An evil man who belonged in a tomb” (255). 

Troy is a rage-filled, entitled mess, yet a reader can’t take their eyes off him. We’re compelled to him the way women are. At outset, Troy appears as a bad seed. But as the narrative unfolds, we see he’s a seed trying to grow in a shallow cowpie. This brings me to the topic of likability. Tell me about what draws you to depicting characters whose unlikeable qualities may turn the average reader away.

DD: I knew I was never going to be the kind of writer who writes to a market. That’s just not who my role models were. Let’s take Flannery O’Connor. You would be hard pressed to think of a single likable character in her prose, yet you still want to read about them. The matter of likability just isn’t something I think about. I wanted Troy to read like a real person whose life is fucked up from the beginning. I wanted to show his progression. 

I grew up around people like Troy—people with good qualities and bad. Let’s take my step-father, a truck driver and a local charmer. Though he and my mom weren’t married that long, I loved the guy. He was great with kids. He was always carrying around a Reader’s Digest to improve his vocabulary. Occasionally, he’d throw out new words at you, only he’d use them in a way that wouldn’t make total sense. Like when we were bickering, he’d argue, “well, that’s immaterial!” And I would scratch my head wondering what he meant. So in my first published novel, Beyond the Pale (2015; Fiction Southeast Press), I give that quirk to my main antagonist, Vaughn so he’s not just a relentless evil.

Or let’s take one of my great aunts who passed away a few years ago. She was always exasperated, saying “Oh my god, all you kids do is mess around!” Whenever I would see her, she would look at me and say “Haven’t seen you for a while. Don’t you love me anymore?!?” When I first brought my wife by her house, I said it to my aunt first, trying to get her goat. “Auntie, haven’t seen you for a while. Don’t you love me anymore?!?” But then she said, “Oh, shoot. I’m the old lady. You come see me!”

I like using little details like these in my fiction, giving mixed qualities to my characters.

To go back to Troy, he isn’t Hitler, but he’s never going to join the Chamber of Commerce. I wouldn’t even say he’s in the middle. He’s just a regular person. And when you get right down to it, we’re all just regular people.

SAM: Troy makes the most sense in the context of his environment: Fairmount, a town in Kingdom County, Missouri. Tell me more about the setting.

DD: Fairmont is fictional, though based somewhat on Fulton and a few other small towns that I grew up around and where my mom and dad still live, separately. These towns were established by Southerners, which is funny because I don’t consider myself Southern exactly.  My fictional county “Kingdom County” comes from The Kingdom of Callaway County. Around the Civil War, citizens of this county tried to remain neutral and succeeded officially from the United States. But as with a lot of places that tried to remain neutral during the Civil War, the towns in The Kingdom of Callaway got taken advantage of; both sides hated them. I write about that in The Black Harvest (2020; CJ Press).

Like a lot of writers who write about their hometowns, I write about these places to gleefully expose their underbellies. Though I’m aware that people from the place may get mad because my novels aren’t PR pieces about how wonderful the towns are and how great the Soybean Festival is, etc.….

SAM: While plot convention necessitates foreboding tones to some degree, I felt a profound sense of ominousness throughout this novel. Even after the climax’s catastrophe, in the denouement, a reader feels that the real storm has yet to break. To what extent did the disturbing nature of our contemporary times fuel this sense of foreboding that floods the novel?

DD: Not so much. The story takes place in the ’60s and ’70s. I grew up in those times and it wasn’t hard to write about those feelings from back then. As a kid, I remember not understanding exactly what was going on or why people were saying what they said. I didn’t know what my future was going to be. So it seemed natural to try to capture that experience. 

SAM: This is a language driven work as much as it is character driven. For these characters, bottle openers are “church keys”; to be armed to the teeth is to be “loaded for bear”. You’re a college professor. Tell me how you keep your ear low enough to the ground to maintain authenticity?

DD: You pay attention to the language, the cadence, and the diction of the people around you. Of course, many of the people who were adults in the ’60s and ’70s don’t speak in the same way anymore; they’ve been exposed to more things and have become more ‘sophisticated’. But in writing this novel, I wanted to remember how people spoke back then. So again, I turned to memories of my great aunt. She still spoke the way she had when she was young. We were out driving down a gravel road to visit some of my cousins and she said, “When I drive through here of a night, I have to watch out for deer and the like.” And, like an idiot, I said how interesting I thought that was, “of a night”. But she just thought I was making fun of her. I love to capture things like that and put them in my fiction. When someone says something in a natural way from the heart, I pay attention. 

SAM: The intertextuality with music is enjoyable in This Vale…. Thank you for sharing your soundtrack for the novel on Spotify (https://open.spotify.com/playlist/58qZpSttC27ZEbF7rD4oSA#login), which makes a wonderful companion for the novel. In addition to musical artists, I hear the following literary artists’ voices in This Vale…: O’Connor, Faulkner, and McCarthy. Who were you listening to when you wrote it?

DD: Two early influences come to mind. Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) was a book that felt really close to my life. I could really understand it in a tangential sort of way. 

In the ’90s, I read Flannery O’Conner for the first time. She’s not a writer they introduce you to in high school because she’s so subversive. I remembered thinking, who has been hiding Flannery O’Connor from me? And I read everything she wrote. Wise Blood (1952) had a particular impact on me. I had a strange childhood—four or five childhoods really. Part of my growing up was with my aunt and uncle. My uncle was a holy-roller, lay-preacher who spoke in tongues and did the laying-on of hands. When I was about eight years old, they asked me what I was going to be when I grew up. At the time, I had this weird obsession with Elvis, so I said I was going to be a singer. They were very irate. “No,” they said. “You’re going to be a preacher and serve God!” We didn’t just read the Bible. Biblical language was your whole life. You memorized it. You had to do citations of it. I went to this little Christian school where you had to recite whole chapters. I memorized 2 Corinthians 13, the love chapter, in the King James, of course, because as they’d say, “if the King James was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you!”

So when I read Wise Blood and Hazel Motes came along with his Church of Christ without Christ… It hit me hard. After I finished it, I knew I had to start writing again, that it was my true calling.

Everybody said it was crazy and that I couldn’t do it. It’s funny. Now that I have these degrees and am a professor, suddenly everyone comments on how I’m so intelligent. But I don’t remember anyone saying that when I started. They told me to pull my head out of my ass.

A few years after reading O’Connor, I came across Mississippi writer Larry Brown, who became another big influence. I’m nothing like Larry Brown, but his characters really spoke to me. I could really understand them. And I thought I could work in that school of writing.

There are writers I read now just for language. Let’s take Barry Hannah, a master of the non-sequitur. He has this great short story called “Ride Fly, Penetrate Loiter” (1983) about these guys hanging around a gas station. They see this beautiful, well-dressed woman and the guys start speaking Shakespearean. With a turn of phrase, Barry Hannah can pivot genres. He’s a genius with language. Reading Barry Hannah or others like him, I get emotional and have to share it with somebody or exclaim “can you believe they wrote that?” When I was younger, I used to read everything, but now, if a writer doesn’t move me that way, I don’t want to read them.

SAM: A reader can’t help but be dazzled by well-limned scenes in your work rendered with fugue-like detail. How do you go about composing a scene?

DD: The secret I’ve learned to writing isn’t much of a secret. It just takes a long time to develop, and you can only progress so far beyond a certain point unless you grasp it. Madison Smartt Bell writes about it in his Narrative Design(Norton, 2000); Robert Olen Butler devotes his book From Where You Dream (Grove, 2006) to it. What the secret is, is what they’re talking about: writing from your subconscious.

Some writing teachers say you brainstorm, then outline. But when I try to write an outline, as soon as I really get into a scene, the outline is no good anymore. If you’re writing well, you’re writing from the unconscious mind, from where you dream, as Butler says.

Since we were kids, we’ve been getting in trouble for daydreaming. “You’ve got to work harder,” they’ve said. “You’ve got to diagram some sentences. That will be good for you.” But as a writer, none of that will help you unless you have great ideas. How many ways can you polish a turd? It might be grammatically correct, and your sixth-grade teacher would love it, but it could still suck.

So how do you write from the subconscious? You get distracted a lot by everyday life: taking out the garbage; telling your kids to do their homework; helping your wife with something; dealing with a student plagiarizing… All those things detract from being able to  get your head in the right place. You have to do those things, but they do detract from being able to dream your stories. Of course, those daily happenings can also enhance your stories. I find that inspiration usually doesn’t happen when you sit down and say “Okay, now I’m going to write.” You might be in the shower and suddenly, a scene starts happening and you’ve got to get out of the shower and write it down or it will be gone forever. So when you’re washing dishes and inspiration happens, if you can maintain that state of mind, that’s where you can start. 

SAM: I found that the most gut-wrenching scenes in This Vale… were those in which an adult tries to fill up a child’s need for love with good manners. Yet one of your epigraphs is a quote from William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932): “Perhaps they were right in putting love into books,” he thought quietly. “Perhaps it could not live anywhere else”. Tell me about the love you put in this book? To phrase the question another way, how/why is it loving to write a book depicting such tragically unloved characters who act out in unlovable ways? 

DD: To me, what fiction is all about is expressing the things that go unexpressed. Even if we love people and they love us, the words ‘I love you’ are inadequate most of the time and we hurt each other. Even with the best intentions, we don’t communicate well. I don’t propose how to fix this in my fiction. I’m trying to capture it. My aesthetic is not to teach moral lessons. That’s what I admire about Cormac McCarthy. He states what happens and you see the story unfold. But he doesn’t tell you how you should feel about it. It’s frustrating because you sometimes want him to. But for me, it goes back to the Bible. If you read the stories in Genesis, there’s very little ethical commentary on what happens. Much like literary fiction, it happens, and you’re left to ponder what it means. Life tends to be that way. I don’t want to give a sermon and tell people what to think. Not to argue with John Gardener too much; there’s a responsibility you have as a writer. But it’s not to tell the reader what to think or how to live.

SAM: There’s a Romeo and Juliet comparison with Troy and Raelyn’s relationship. Indeed, the Phelps vs. Scofield dynamic alludes to the Capulets-vs-Montague tension. Was that in your mind at all when constructing the narrative?

DD: It wasn’t really in my mind when I was writing it. But I was talking to a reporter who did a review of the book and in trying to think of a way to explain the novel to an average person I remarked that it was a hillbilly Romeo and Juliet story. 

SAM: The strongest thematic tie for me between your work and the Shakespeare play is actually in how ineffectual the older generations are in helping the younger generation. Take this quote for example: 

“Walker Scofield (Troy’s grandfather) was crazy and the inheritance he had passed on to his kids and heirs was that each had their own brand of peculiar to contend with” (295). Along with generational curses, This Vale… depicts vicious cycles: sexually-charged relationships imploding and rebirthing anew; the toxic relationship between alcohol and masculinity; neglected children who beget children they then neglect. What inspired these vicious cycles? 

DD: It’s been observation and thinking through what I’ve seen in my family and other people’s families.

Parents now want to help their kids and they try so hard to cocoon and protect them from all the negative experiences that it also can hinder your growth as a person. I’ve been guilty of that as much as anyone. I’ve tried so hard to protect my kids, I worry if they’ll have the necessary grit to make it through truly bad times when mom and dad aren’t there. I’m sure they will, but I can remember growing up and seeing the complete opposite.

During the time that This Vale… is set, it was a different generation. When I was a kid, adults had more of a WC Fields approach to parenting, like “go away, kid. Ya bothering me!” kind of thing. A parent’s attitude back then was, “I’m doing my thing here, you go do your thing over there”. My parents’ generation was all about doing your own thing and making yourself happy. My mom was married five times. My dad was married three times. People were trying to find themselves. That’s what you used to hear all the time. 

And they had it tough. My dad told me a story about how his mom got remarried to this really big jerk. The guy was huge, but he also horded food from the kids. The ice man would come once a week and stick a brick of ice in the icebox. The Iceman Cometh, right? Well this guy would stash food in the icebox and not share any of it with my dad or his brother. And they were hungry. So one day they made a plan to wake up early and gorge themselves on the food and attack their stepfather when he came down after them. And that’s what they did. They attacked their stepfather and felled him to the ground. His mom screamed “you’re killing him”. My dad said, “Well, he’s been trying to kill me for years!” He realized after that that he couldn’t stay there anymore and ran out of the house. He was twelve years old. He moved around with different family members until he joined the army because he could get paid and get his three-square meals without having to asking somebody if he could sleep in the backseat of their car. 

As for my mom, she was only seven years old when her mom died in childbirth.

These are the situations I want to capture in my stories set back in time.

SAM: Though the novel ends in tragedy for some of the characters, one of your middle-aged characters has a somewhat surprising repentant turn around by the end of this novel. If there’s a glimmer of hope in the ending, it’s for this middle-aged character. How did you decide to have this shift happen?

DD: I wanted to show that he had changed over time too. He’s not a perfect character. But I wanted to show this man in the position of acknowledging his own failings as a father while preserving what there is left to preserve. I see this play out a lot with parents who had it hard and were really stern with their kids. But then, when they have grandchildren, they spoil them. I didn’t want the story to just end in death. Sure, you’re the main character in your story, but when you’re gone, life goes on. And that’s the rebirth. 

Daren Dean’s next novel Roads is forthcoming from Cowboy Jamboree (CJ) Press in 2023.

About the Interviewer: Shaun Anthony McMichael is the editor of two collections of poetry by youth affected by trauma, mental illness, and instability: The Shadow Beside Me (2020) and The Story of My Heart (June 2021). Over 40 of his short stories and essays have appeared in literary magazines, online and in print, such as The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row, Carrier Pigeon, Litro, Existere, Nude Bruce, and others. Shaun’s book reviews and author interviews can be found on PopMatters, an online arts and culture magazine.

Looking for the Road to Verona

By Russell Thorburn

About the Author:

Russell Thorburn is a recipient of a National Endowment Fellowship and the first poet laureate of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He lives in Marquette, where he sometimes performs with his sextet Radio On. His one-act play of a retro-alternate reality, Gimme Shelter, was set for a premiere at the Black Box Theatre but was cancelled by the pandemic.

Back in Our Heyday

By Matthew McGuirk

There’s still a clear view in all directions back at the farm and it’s been a little time since I’ve been up there, mainly because life gets moving and everyone has so much going on. With a family and kids and everything you can’t visit every weekend and Christmas is tough because you don’t want to rip the little ones away from their presents. Standing outside the car, though, engine still idling, it all still looks like my childhood. Looking to the left and right and the neighbors are mostly the same except a little older and the buildings look familiar except a little more worn–the barn wood a little greyer and the galvanized roof a little more rust and a little less silver in that sunlight. Time throws a little dust on everything or maybe it shines it up a little and makes it clean, I’m not really sure which at times but being back up here feels like ten or thirteen or maybe eighteen, probably all of them…but mostly it feels like haying. There’s still that scent in the air, the dry hay gets in your lungs and that’s really the best I can describe it. The animals that eat most of the profit are meandering in the pastures because summer allows the unmowed grass to be the primary source of food, some of them as small as black and white dots on the far hill just outside the wood line mixed with pines and maples mainly. 

Days didn’t start too early for us during the summer, but my dad was always out the door early even on the weekends, already on the move before breakfast hit the table. My mom was always the cook, and still likes to cook for everyone, although it’s in a different location since splitting with my dad. We always had eggs and bacon before throwing hay or stacking it on the wagons in the field or unloading it in the barn. When we were young, the bales all spit out in little lines following the tractor that coughed little gray clouds into the air. It was pulling the bailer along just fine, that was before the kicker came and made that part of the process obsolete. I look around now in the cut fields and see big marshmallows and realize we were still doing it wrong back then. I remember riding on the flatbed wagons and trying not to get our feet stuck in the too wide slats, homemade like everything else. My cousin Corey and I did a little more work at that point because my brother Derek was a little younger then and Corey’s brother Shane was still younger than him. One of our dad’s rode in the tractor and bailed up the rows, steering wheel in one hand and light beer in the other; another uncle pulled the flatbed supporting Anheuser as well and the last throwing each of the bales onto the wagon between sips and resting that beer on the edge where it looked like it’d spill with each bump. We lugged them into place like overfilled luggage. 

We didn’t know we were getting swindled by our dads until we realized all the unloading of the wagons happened through our hands. We sat down and negotiated with our dads, the bosses and the employees, maybe this was all part of their plan to show us that to get anywhere in life you’ve got to speak up. So, we went from five dollars a load to ten and that worked out well and bought some extra popcorn at the movies or helped us sneak in a king size versus a regular sized candy bar. It wasn’t until we were all off at college and back for summers that we worked hourly under our dads and it only made sense when it was four or five grown men throwing and stacking bales that they should all get paid that way. 

We had friends that were always over and helping out in those days. They’d throw the bales with us in middle school or wipe sweat from their brows before playing a game of Texas hold ’em after we were done with the wagons for the day. Some doubling what they’d made and others going home with pockets turned to dog-ears. Sometimes, I wonder if their parents sent them over in middle school to run some energy out of them or maybe they just wanted a little time alone with each other for the first time in a while and didn’t want the kids barging in. Maybe a little country air and a little hard work would instill some good values in their boy. I’m not really sure if this is how that works though because I still remember 13-year-old Carter grabbing a beer from my parent’s fridge and putting it in one of the cups from the cabinet, plastic souvenir one from a Sox game, and sipping at it. We all just looked and eventually my mom caught him and sent him home, but he came back and there wasn’t much of a mention of it anyways. 

It was pretty simple most days, at least if you got all the way to dry raked rows, that’s what my dad always said. There was always weather and mulch bales weighed about double what any other bale did, but they fetched a lighter price and quite a bit more anger from the dads when the rains came on a forecast that called for sun.

Of course, farm equipment was always breaking down. I learned about death through a broken bailer. It wasn’t a family pet: a guinea pig in a cold basement, or a dog dying of old age with bad hips or a cat that got hit where the traffic runs too quick in this rural spot. No, my first nudge with death was hearing the mower rumble along in the long hayfields on a day in July and waving at my dad in that cab and hearing some sort of clog, something caught in those whirring blades. I remember seeing smoke plume up into the air from the gears that couldn’t spin and a string of language I’d repeat down the line when I was a few beers deep and debating with a college friend in a bar somewhere. I remember running over, we always wanted to learn the ins and outs of what went wrong on the farm and home and learn the various fixes. By the time I rounded the bend of the still high grass, I heard my dad rambling on, words I knew I wasn’t supposed to say. He was on the other side of the mower and I eased around, the tractor was shut down at that point, but I could hear him heaving his weight against something. I caught a glimpse and turned away; he was yanking on the hind legs of an animal. Later he told us a deer was there, unseen in the grass. Thinking back now, I realized he worked that whole afternoon pulling bits and pieces of a fawn that was recently birthed in the grass out of that mower: small legs and soft fur, heart with too few beats and lungs that had barely tasted the air. 

I still wonder about the hours my dad spent out of the house and the many other odd jobs he held and how that all played out with my parent’s split. I didn’t pay the bills, so I really didn’t know either side of the story. I’m sure I didn’t notice all the spats or silence between them through the years and I’m sure I missed some of the good times as well. Looking back there were the bickering words after the papers had been passed from one hand to another, not a fight, but still, something awkward to sit through while drinking a coffee in the dining room. At that time, I wondered how far removed we were from her bringing beers and sodas out to the hay fields or him driving the John Deere pulling that flatbed wagon full of bales and us sitting on top and my mom telling us not to get to close to the sides or to hang on when we went around the corners. 

Looking out over these fields and barns and the house I grew up in, I can’t help but think about the homemade lemonade pops we ate when the days were hotter than usual, 13 year old Carter grabbing that beer and nobody caring too much because we were doing a man’s work anyways. The hot days where we threw too many bales with hay fever stuck in our eyes and our arms latticed with cuts, still crest and wane like those sunups and sundowns we saw so many of, but a few bucks wasn’t all we pocketed back then. 

About the Author: Matt McGuirk teaches and lives with his family in New Hampshire. BOTN 2021 nominee with words in various lit mags and a debut collection with Alien Buddha Press called Daydreams, Obsessions, Realities available on Amazon and linked on his website.

Website: http://linktr.ee/McGuirkMatthew Twitter: @McguirkMatthew Instagram: @mcguirk_matthew.

On Rust Belt Shame

By Richey Piiparinen

This essay is from a working manuscript entitled “Hunting Octopus: Collected Essays”.

In a June 15th, 1981 Time magazine puff piece called “Nothing Rotten about the Big Plum”, the author describes how then-Mayor of Cleveland, George Voinovich, sauntered onto the mound at Municipal Stadium wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with Cleveland’s new marketing campaign, “New York’s the Big Apple, But Cleveland’s a Plum.” Predictably, Voinovich then proceeded to throw out the “first plum”, a play off the ceremonial first pitch. Unlike a baseball, however, a plum splats. Which it did in this case. In the catcher’s mitt. The Yakety sax-like scene illustrates the lengths cities will go to project an image as far away from reality as possible. These city branding campaigns usually end poorly. 

Figure 17: Mayor Voinovich throws out of the first plum. Source: David I. Andersen

Meanwhile, In Pittsburgh the city’s marketing elite leaned in with a character called Border guard Bob. Dan Fitzpatrick, a reporter Post-Gazetteexplained that Border Guard Bob was a fictional Barney Fife-type persona who was to star in a television ad and be put on billboards. “The idea was for Border Guard Bob to wear a uniform and stop young people at Western Pennsylvania’s borders, he wrote, “before they had a chance to leave for other cities. If he was unable to persuade people to stay, Border Guard Bob would have hitched a bungee cord to the car’s back bumper and, looking into the camera, say: “’He’ll be back.’” 

Yikes. 

Where does the will, or lack of will, come from that incites these once-powerhouse cities to so pitifully delude themselves into thinking that this is how to put yourself out there? How does a collective devolve to be so vulnerably self-unaware?

Though my career is in the field of city building, particularly urban theory and policy, my initial graduate training—my first love, really—was in clinical psychology. My thesis was on secondhand, or vicarious, trauma related to the September 11th attacks, which turned into a few published studies with titles like “stress symptoms of two groups before and after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01” inplaces like Perceptual and Motor Skills. The broader ramifications of the findings are that groups, such as nations, cities, or neighborhoods, are impacted by experiences on an aggregate level just as individuals are on a personal level. Collectively, the perceptual “catch” of these experiences—be they traumatically and instantaneously profound like 9/11, or slower-moving and distress-inducing like deindustrialization and the job and income losses and communal, familial, and personal conflicts that inevitably follow—become absorbed as memories of what was, what is, and what may never be. These memories, however, often remain below the level of conscious awareness. They are thus not processed but left “undigested”, not unlike a brick of food in the belly that echoes forward in the tainting of future experience via the prism of emotional distress, else emotionlessness. In other words, loss unfelt is loss everlasting.

“Only echoes answer me,” writes the playwright Anton Chekhov in Swan Song, the quote referencing the extent of how things can unravel like a fountain of bits and pieces, the manifestation of which is breakage flowing into breakage. Or as Yeats put it in his poem “The Second Coming”: “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”. The issue, then, for people, and groups of people i.e., cities, isn’t about whether things fall apart—things will fall apart—but what’s to be done with the remains. Will they be ignored while yet another undoing is in the making? (This seems the approach humanity is taking toward climate change and late capitalism.) Or will they be leveled with and carried forward?

Arguably, the Rockstar of the notion that collectives have thoughts and feelings is sociologist Emile Durkheim, who formulated the idea of a “collective conscience”, a concept described in his 1893 book The Division of Labor in Society as the “totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society.” The focus in this essay is on the specific beliefs and sentiments about the geography of the Rust Belt that arrive as projected judgement from the outside in yet are preserved by a peculiar regional flare for the self-own that operates from the inside out, the latter of which I’ve come to call “Rust Belt Shame”. 

It’s important, here, to delineate shame from other negative affect, particularly guilt. Guilt is about an act done and the consequences of one’s conscience. “I feel bad. I have done wrong.” These are the types of words we hear in our head when feeling guilty, and it’s is an Adam- and Eve-like self-discourse arising from the backlash that is a moral authority. “Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ And the woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate’.”

Shame is different. If guilt is the internal feeling Adam and Eve felt as they left the Garden of Eden, then shame is the feeling they felt from the hisses of the onlookers that watched from the balcony of biblical context. In modern-day parlance, shame is the gas that gets you cancelled. It’s the societal norming that acts as guardrails to where culture can and can’t go. But hive-minded morality chutes can lead society astray, especially if they are constructed from a collective conscience that is more repressed than processed. Or more virtue signaling than virtuous. As a guiding, resolving, feeling shame carries with it a lot baggage. “Shame is a soul eating emotion,” explains psychoanalyst C.G. Jung, referencing shame’s groupthink tendency to try and erode what’s wrong instead of grow what’s right. And it’s an emotional self-tunneling that can lead to a house of mirrors as far as not knowing where progress proceeds from, a reality eloquated supremely in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s, The Little Prince. “Why are you drinking? demanded the little prince. So that I may forget,” replied the tippler. Forget what? inquired the little prince, who was already sorry for him. Forget that I am ashamed, the tippler confessed, hanging his head. Ashamed of what? insisted the little prince, who wanted to help him. Ashamed of drinking!” Or in this case: “Why are you ashamed, Cleveland? Because I am a plum. Why are you marketing yourself as a plum? Because I am ashamed.” 

That shame is a particularly important sentiment which clots in the Rust Belt consciousness, and it’s the tributary so many Rust Belters flow into and out of in this stream of living that’s been labeled “flyover country”, what’s the source emotion, or the experiential watershed, that gives Rust Belt Shame its materiality? It’s most basic element, its ground truth, is loss, chiefly the loss of status. Here, Lao Tzu put it best: “Pride attaches undue importance to the superiority of one’s status in the eyes of others And shame is fear of humiliation at one’s inferior status in the estimation of others.” Legendary sociologist Charles Cooley theorized in 1922 that there were essentially only two social emotions, pride and shame “The thing that moves us to pride or shame,” Cooley wrote, “is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind.” 

The Rust Belt, of course, is not alone here. Cities the world over are afflicted with the hangovers of history. “Nearly every historic city has its brand of melancholy indelibly associated with it,” begins the author of the essay “From the “Geography of Melancholy” in the American Reader, “each variety linked to the scars the city bears. Lisbon has its saudade: a feeling of aimless loss tied to the city’s legacy of vanishing seafarers, explorers shipwrecked in search of Western horizons. Istanbul has huzun: a religiously-tinged brand of melancholy rooted in the city’s nostalgia for its glorious past.” But the Rust Belt’s version seems to go beyond the romantic notion of nostalgic longing for better times, and into the Japanese art of self-impaling, or Seppuku, known as “hari-kari” in the West. If not for a strange, if subconscious, tendency for the self-dig, how else would you explain selling Barney Fife as a prison guard as the star of an attraction campaign to retain the city’s younger, creative types? The whole concept is perverse. Like selling sand to the thirsty. 

A few years back, I got contacted by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, a writer for the New Yorker, about a piece I wrote that discussed the self-flagellating tendencies found in Cleveland and the rest of the Rust Belt. “Shit happened,” I wrote. “Shit is still happening.” My point was that a fall from grace had occurred. Deindustrialization and urban core abandonment were real and long-shadowed. Cleveland shrank. It shriveled. As did Pittsburgh and Detroit. Socioeconomic effects ensued. A colossal housing market collapsed. A new settlement pattern was categorized called the “shrinking city” and a novel urban aesthetic was even birthed: “ruin porn”, referring to the predilection of vacancy gawkers to play on the untaken cathedrals of the Industrial Revolution. And the fact that it all did—the leaving, the shrinking, the decay, the return to earth, in fact all those features of mortality—it triggered a projection in America’s mind’s eye that something was wrong with “them” but not necessarily with “us”. 

That’s because it’s soothing for a collective to compartmentalize its failing parts. To jersey-barrier the appendages vanishing on the vine. And for good reason, because while swaths of the inland were failing, the Sun Belt was growing. The Coasts prospered. New York was New York, never sleeping. Las Vegas was shiningly gluttonous, albeit literally and figuratively built on a house of cards. Matter of fact, it can be argued that the Rust Belt was the first geography in modern America to “die”; that is, not grow. There was the Old West and its ghost towns, but the Old West never held such a prominent position in the American hierarchy as did the Arsenal of Democracy—home to the likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, and Ford. And given America is a manifest-destined country whose soul was conceived on the crossroads of unbridled consumption and growth, the side-eyed glances, the head shakes, the laughs at that kept coming from late night talk shows at a region that was named after a loss of gloss, well, it was not unexpected. American exceptionalism wasn’t conceived to expire. So, mock the loss and tend to growth. Mock reality and make myth. Drink a boat drink and play roulette. It’s all uphill from here…

Still, the projections, the Cleveland jokes, they are one thing. That’s punches taken. But why do we as a people accept it, let alone curate it? “I have, in fact, never lived in a place whose proud residents so consistently and gleefully disrespect their hometown as Cleveland,” notes well-known Jeopardy champ Arthur Cho in his Daily Beast piece “Cleveland Comes Crawling Back to LeBron: The Masochism of Rust Belt Chic.” Cho, a Cleveland transplant, goes on to write that though he hates to “engage in victim-blaming,” the reason “everyone dogs on Cleveland is that we ask for it.” Why? Cho concludes: “If we weren’t suffering, we wouldn’t be Cleveland anymore.”

Beyond shared identity, there’s an adaptive reason for Rust Belt Shame. It’s not just a collective phenomenon. It’s not simply about losing out on some kind of civic pride arms race measured in skyscrapers, population growth, and Fortune 500’s. No, losing one’s livelihood and one’s ability to make meaning is deeply personal. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” explained a GM Lordstown plant worker in a 2018 Guardian piece “A ‘kick in the stomach’: massive GM layoffs leave workers distraught”, “This is my third GM plant. I’d like to be able to plant my roots somewhere. I feel like a gypsy.” “This is devastating. This is our livelihood,” echoed a co-worker. These public-but-private happenings, then, get stitched into a shared experience that becomes cultural, or part of the menu of sentiments defining a Rust Belt daily life. This response, however, is often adaptive. It’s not moaning. “[T]he very fact that shame is an isolating experience also means that if one can find ways of sharing and communicating it this communication can bring about particular closeness with other persons.” so notes the author of “Shame and the Social Bond.” Hence, the collective character armor that is Rust Belt Shame. 

Yet this doesn’t mean such a group identity can’t tip from adaptive to maladaptive. Or from digested and transcended to imputed, identity-defining, and concretizing. 

Which brings us back to the New Yorker reporter I noted earlier. A few days after we talked he wrote a piece entitled “Donald Trump and the Idea of the Rust Belt”. From our discussion, the reporter, Wallace-Wells, correctly latched onto the notion that in the national discourse of the Rust Belt there was—beyond macroeconomic explanations for deindustrialization and the ideological and voting proclivities of alienated Reagan Democrats—a depth of the narrative that wasn’t exposed and rarely discussed. I called this hidden reality “the idea of the Rust Belt”, or a worm at the core in the national psyche that’s carried around like a shadow, i.e., barely noticed but constantly cast. Wallace-Wells explained that the “idea of the Rust Belt” is a projected upon reality that “…everyone is vulnerable. The story that is told is about the certainty of loss.” 

Yet he also lamented the fact that in that process of existential displacement onto the region, a parallel sentiment has been left out. “It’s a little strange to remember the ideas of the Midwest that the Rust Belt has crowded out,” he writes. “The conviction that the heartland provided a moral counterweight to coastal excess and cynicism.” He’d go on to reference a Jonathan Franzen interview wherein the author remarked: “There is a prolongation of innocence there, a prolongation of childhood, that has to do with the Midwest being just a little bit farther from the rest of the world.” “There is what would strike many Americans as a bizarre absence of cynicism in the room,” echoed the writer David Foster Wallace. 

As for the future of the Rust Belt, there are really only two directions for the region to proceed from, not only from a collective conscience standpoint but also the associated response that is city leadership, policy, and, of course, city branding. There’s the direction that is away from loss. And there’s the direction that is through loss. The former gets you a bungee cord hooked up to your belt loop in which you are snatched from the horizon and slung back to your baseline. That Sisyphean existence.  The latter gets you room to know who you are versus what you are told you are, or what you wrongly tell yourself. 

Like you’re a plum.

About the Author: Richey Piiparinen is Director of Urban Theory & Analytics at Cleveland State University. He resides in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland, OH with his wife, no dog, and three kids. He believes the term “Rust Belt ” is not a pejorative.

Kitchen Visions

By Matthew Schultz

About the Author: Matthew Schultz is originally from Cleveland, Ohio. You can read all about it in his novel, On Coventry. He then attended graduate school at Saint Louis University. While there, he spent a lot of time in Forest Park. Matt’s most recent publication, Encomium: Cento Paradelles, is available from Beir Bua Press. Keep an eye out for forthcoming collections from Alien Buddha Press and ELJ Editions.

Background Noise

By Jim Ray Daniels

 The TV was on. No one was watching it. My nephew Albert stood in front of me, having opened the door and let me in. His wife, Suzie—or Sooz, though I could not call her that, given the warmth and informal goodwill it implied—was on the phone, clearly telling somebody what-for. The nine-year-old twins, Bim and Jim, were chasing each other in a mad circle. Albert held up his hand. I thought he was going to shake mine, but he was giving an air-stiff-arm to the kids that stopped them quick enough to cause rug burns or sparks.

*

My grandfather had insisted on leaving the TV on for his fat dog Ralph when we picked him up for some family occasion at which his presence was required. Ralph had the benefit of a human dog’s life. My grandfather cooked him pancakes and hamburgers in his ancient cast-iron frying pan. He never even rinsed it out, so it always contained a toxic mix of burned food scraps and the yellow stink of old grease.

One day, stopping in to check on him, I found the heavy pan on the floor tilted up against the fridge, and I figured out that my grandfather finally could no longer lift the pan at age 95. He stood, head bowed, hands on hips, as I picked up the pan and put it back on the stove. I expected something from him—an explanation, some comment, I don’t know what, really—but he remained silent, his lips trembling slightly with what was unspoken. The dog looked at me soberly. Whatever had been in the dropped pan, Ralph had taken care of. Grandpa walked back into the living room, where he sunk into his ancient easy chair, leaning his head back against the stained antimacassar which may had not been washed since my grandmother had died ten years ago. Ralph dutifully followed him, plopping down at his feet with a heavy thud, as usual. 

I thought about mopping the sticky floor. I thought about scrubbing the pan with steel wool, or taking a sander to it to erase the accumulated residue, trying to recondition it, but I just kept thinking about the watery eyes of my grandfather and the clear eyes of the dog. I wondered if Ralph had eaten his last pancake. I felt like the heavy thudded clang of that pan on the floor was a sign of something, and it was. Within a month, my grandfather was dead.

*

Albert, his great grandson, took Ralph when Grandpa died and slimmed him down, and the dog lived five more years. Maybe Ralph had insisted that the TV be left on when he was here and it had just become a habit to leave it on. If he couldn’t have pancakes, at least he could still listen to the shrill, exaggerated TV sounds, either trying to sell something, or trying to get you to laugh, or scare you, or whatever. But as Ralph would tell you if he wasn’t a dog, you can’t smell or eat TV, so I’m not sure how much the TV did for him. 

*

My grandfather fed Ralph whatever he had, so Ralph ate a lot of meals-on-wheels. The kindly volunteer driver, a grandmother herself, remarked that my grandfather had quite an appetite. Ralph in turn kept my grandfather alive, if only forcing him to get up and let him out and in a few times a day. Good boy, Ralph. Making it to 95 on your own, quite an accomplishment for anyone I think. My own father wasn’t going to make it that far.

*

I hadn’t been such a great grandson or uncle. In French, brother-in-law literally means handsome brother. If only it were that easy to move into being handsome. My sister Jean was Albert’s mother. If I’d been the age I am now when my grandfather was dying, I might have been more empathetic and caring. I missed seeing him before he died because I had a softball game to play in that night that I refused to skip. My mother said, “If you want to say goodbye to him, you’d better come now.”

We were in the playoffs. One of my teammates had begged off on his 25th wedding anniversary to be there. My grandfather, a big baseball fan who remembered Ty Cobb, would have wanted me to go to my game, I told my family. I’ve come to hate anyone who claims to know what a dead person would have wanted. It’s like pretending to know what a dog is thinking, which maybe I just did.

*

Albert, Suzie, and their twins Bonnie and Jim. No one turned down the sound. Bim was short for Bonnie somehow, and Jim of course was James. at nine, they were still mostly polite or maybe they’d already written off their serious great-uncle who only made cameo appearances during the holidays.

I first sat on the couch, then quickly shifted over to the lazyboy chair on the side to avoid the glare of the enormous TV screen. It was like they always had company, the people on the screen nearly as big as Bim and Jim. There are a lot of names that end in “im”. I hope Bim doesn’t marry a Tim and Jim marry a Kim.

“What are you watching?” I asked.

“Nothing special,” Suzie said. Albert nodded as if I’d asked a question that did not deserve a reply. The kids ignored the question, though they were now staring vacantly at the screen. Cartoon Network, it appeared, and somebody needed to calm down and become human again. Maybe me.

I had never been in their house before. I lived seven hours away in deep, dark Indiana. I work in Elkhart, the RV capital of the world, at Jay Sport Camping Trailers. Jay’s real name was James.

*

We made small talk, just like I’m making small talk now. Stalling for time. 

“Uncle Carl, why are you here?” Suzie asked finally.

“Can someone please get me a glass of water?” I asked the people on TV,

“Bim, can you get your uncle some water?” Suzie said. She squeezed the remote in her hand. One of them, anyway.

“Great uncle,” I said. “I’m your great uncle.” I never got tired of that joke.

“Hmmph,” Bim said, not quite cute anymore, and stomped off into the kitchen, which had been redone, as is the initiation rite for anyone living in this particular suburb, apparently. Some of my old friends from high school lived nearby and had showed me their kitchen islands and peninsulas. Suburban tropical.

*

I drank my water. Cold, from one of those refrigerator water hookups that always break after a year or two.

“We’re going to move my dad into a home,” I said. “Nobody can handle him anymore. Even the aides who came in twice a day to get him up and put him to bed could no longer do either. Like Ralph, he was expanding into extra large. His wheelchair, a double wide. My father paid the bills and let it go on with Grandpa as long as he could. No room at the family inn for the guy who’d killed his brother and never told the secret, even to those who already knew it.

Or son. I should have mentioned. I have not been a very good son. Why Indiana? When the car jobs dried up, a trailer job seemed like the next best thing. Indiana was flat like lower Michigan. Crossing the border was hallucinatory, except the hallucinations speeded up in Michigan, as was the tradition of Michigan drivers, a slur in Indiana. “Michigan driver!” they shouted out their car windows at each other.

I met my first two wives in Indiana, and I hope to meet another one there before I get in line behind the old man on the lonely road of no return. I don’t believe I’ll meet Ralph there. 

All Dogs Go to Heaven was a cartoon that starred the voices of Bert Reynolds and Dom Deluise, both deceased. Am I showing my age?

*

We were planning to pay extra for our father to get a single room. If he ever stopped knowing who we were, we’d move him to a double. Or if his money ran out first, then we’d take what Medicare gives us.

“I love my father,” I said. “But I can’t lift him either.”

“You’re in Indiana,” Albert said, looking at me over his glasses as if he did not believe me, sizing me up like an actuary.

“You could lift him, Al,” I said. “Big guy like you.”

“You’re not suggesting,” Suzie said. 

“No, I’m not,” I interrupted. Al sold life insurance, which I didn’t know was still a thing, though I understand it’s kind of a tax shelter now. 

“But we could use your pickup truck and help moving. We’ve got to get him out of the house and into the home—isn’t that ironical, shouldn’t it be out of the home and into the house?—and get rid of at least half his stuff. We’ll have to sell the house. I’m using up my vacation to come up and do this. He’s on a waiting list.”

The kids had disappeared. I had neglected to bring them bubble gum like I used to do. Their parents hated bubble gum. I, who will never have grandkids, had to spoil somebody, and that’s how my grandfather spoiled me, by giving me things my parents did not want me to have—soda pop, candy, potato chips, cheap plastic toys from the dime store—cowboys, Indians, and soldiers. And how my grandfather spoiled Ralph.

Since Ralph died, Albert and Suzie had not gotten another dog. The kids did not even know about Ralph, like we did not know my grandparents had another son besides my father—that my father’d had a brother—until we were adults. “If we tell them about Ralph, they’ll want to get another dog,” Suzie said in her Suze voice. “No dog,” Albert affirmed.

Of course, the kids might whine about getting another dog, about how they’d missed out, but my father could not whine about getting another brother. The thick curtain of grief followed them around forever. My grandmother, quite frankly, did not seem to like my father at all. The more he did for her, the less she liked him. After she died, I think he took it out on Grandpa.

“He’s sitting over there now with that giant speaker next to his ear watching right-wing news shows and nodding, but he can’t even get up to make himself a sandwich anymore. He ‘lost’ the emergency help button we got him. The house smells worse than every nursing home me and your mother visited.” His mother, my sister Jean. I’d promised her I’d make this request in person. “He won’t listen to me,” she’d said. “He won’t say no to you,” she’d said. I’d never asked him for anything in my life, so I wasn’t sure where she’d gotten such confidence. I could have gone on forever, just like the TV, with excuses, but they really didn’t care. They had twin nine-year-olds.

Twins who were screaming at each other from somewhere in the back of the house. Big house, successful career. Remodeled kitchen. Kudos to Albert. What was I lacking that kept me from staying in love, or at least married? Both my exes still lived in Elkhart. I’ve heard that they’ve become friends, which I hope is a lie or at least an exaggeration.

Jean had borne the brunt, but she knew me and did not begrudge taking on the role of primary caregiver. Brunt. That’s a tough word. Begrudge. Growing up, I had spent a lot of nights in our tiny box of a house eating my dinner alone in the tiny kitchen that had never been remodeled, exiled by my father, who had no brother, but had a son. 

Suzie got up to check on the kids. I could hear her firm voice. Each kid was sent their own rooms to cool down, but Suzie did not come back. She was probably in the bathroom sighing, waiting for me to leave. It was just me, Albert, and the TV. Albert juggled one of the remotes. He changed the channel to one of the all-sports networks. Soccer players were playing volleyball with their feet. I’d seen it before. The novelty wears off.

“Give me a date,” Albert said. “Give me a date, and I’ll be there. Not with bells on, but I’ll be there.”

Bells on. He had added a lot of insurance salesmen quirks to his vocabulary, as if he’d learned English from a David Mamet character. 

I do quality control on the trailers. I go camping on Lake Michigan, on the tiny wedge of it that Indiana owns. Indiana Dunes—it’s almost beautiful. I was close enough to sneeze in Elkhart and be heard in Michigan, but it was not Michigan. In self-imposed exile from the state I loved. 

Why had I never asked my grandfather about his dead son? Why were we passing down the silence from dog to dog?

To get to Chicago, I had to drive through Gary, Indiana, which, despite the Music Man, was better known as one of the top ten armpits of America, one of the many little Detroits. All my compasses tilted back to Detroit, the original armpit, my father’s armpit he would wrestle me into in a playfully violent way until I outgrew him.

*

“I’ll get you a date,” I said, and stood up. It almost sounded like a threat. I was living alone in Elkhart, Indiana. Couldn’t I find a way to move my father down there, or retire early or something and move back to the Motor City? I was 55. Double nickel. A nickel for your thoughts. Hey Dad, what’s on TV? 

I grabbed one of the remotes and pushed the off button, but nothing happened. “I’ll get you a date.” 

A romantic day spent discarding family treasures and deciding what clothes he might want to die in. My father, to be fair, had been the one to help everybody else die—his parents, his aunts, two cousins. Was he making up for not being there when his brother died of a burst appendix in high school? I hadn’t asked him about my dead uncle either.

He’d handled all their paperwork and emptied their houses, but now it was his turn.

“Now, it’s my turn,” my father said. He’d turned his TV off to tell me.

About the Author: Jim Ray Daniels is the author of six collections of short fiction, including, most recently, The Perp Walk, Michigan State University Press, 2019. His fiction awards include  a Michigan Notable Book prize,  finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize, and awards from the Midwest Book Awards, the Independent Booksellers Association, and the Foreword INDIE Book Awards. He currently teaches in the Alma College low-residency MFA program and lives in Pittsburgh.

Platter of Light

Kyle Simonsen

Winter arrived as midnight sleet, spackled everything with a southwest wind’s relentless pressure. Chunky, bubbly ice pasted our patio and the south side of our mailbox. A thin layer of powder fell to camouflage the treacherous ice beneath.

*

I bundle my three-year-old son for the sinister chill. He doesn’t remember winter, doesn’t know snow aside from the glittery stuff in drifts of picture books beside his bed. Before leaving, I crouch down and catch his gaze. 

“Now, be very careful,” I say. “It’s dangerous out there.” 

He nods, eyes big, says nothing.

*

The preschool parking lot is a vast rink, smooth and slick from curb to curb. He clambers out the car seat and down and whoosh, they’re gone, his feet, somehow three different ways, scrambling. I snatch his elbow, haul him up.

“Let’s walk careful. Like penguins,” I tell him, and we do—for a minute—shuffling above the thin light of the ice and the dark concrete beneath.

But then he skates, and then stomps, and slips again but I’m holding his hand, and I catch him, and then again. He cracks ice, kicks it up, takes time teasing at the cracks with his toes, watching it splinter, spiderweb, laughing when his shoes melt enough of the stuff to squeak as he glides across it. I realize I can only see the slipping, but he sees so much more, and suddenly the lot catches the sun at last, a platter of light reflecting back up into the everywhere.

About the Author: Kyle Simonsen teaches writing, editing, and literature at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His writing appears in Assay, Rain Taxi, and March Xness, among other places, and he is the managing editor of The Linden Review. He has a wife, and she has him, and together they have two kids in a place called Wahoo.

Nothing Good Ever Happens in a Flyover State

By Colin Brightwell

Betty was eight months pregnant and Sherman was eight months on the verge of breaking. He’d come into work complaining about Betty busting his balls about painting the room and names for girls. He’d give us this high-pitched shrill impression of her and sulk the rest of the afternoon. Me and the other boys at the construction site were starting to take bets on how soon he’d snap.

Mary and me lived in the same trailer park as Sherman and Betty. We were high school pals, baseball players from the old glory days. Our dads were union workers who spent their days at the bar and came home mad and bitter. Sherman and I thought we wouldn’t end up like them, that we’d fly out of here and end up somewhere warm, where money grew on trees and your car always started. But we got married and settled down and that was all she wrote. Ten years passed and we were busting our asses on the sides of highways and knocking beers down when the world went dark. We hung around together because we stayed behind, both of us reminders of a lost time. We talked in past tense and acted like nothing had changed. But I was growing up and understanding that the world didn’t work that way. Life moved on and you had to move with it or else you’d drown in your own shit.

 Some nights in the summer we’d sit on faded patio chairs and watch the cars roll down 40 Highway towards the city and slam back beers while the women chatted. I liked to think we were all content, taking each day one at a time. But there was always something that got Sherman bitter. He would always say what a life we had, Gene, when we were in high school. All the babes we had. Names were dropped, names and faces that memory faded and I just nodded my head and tended to agree with him. Yeah, Sherman. It sure was great.

 And now he had that baby girl on the way and everything was catching up to him. One night he came over and said that he was dying, that he had to get out and cut loose for one more night. One more night to reclaim that old glory.

“C’mon, Gene,” he said. “It’s killing me being cooped up in there with her.”

 So I kissed Mary goodnight while she slept before the night shift at the hospital and we headed down the highway as the sun started to go down. It was late winter and that Missouri cold was biting and I worried my engine would kill itself halfway down the road. 

 We pulled up to Harve’s, sat at the bar, and ordered a round. Sherman looked around and said that this place hadn’t changed one bit. The bar was empty save for the bartender and us, and I felt alone sitting next to Sherman. He seemed different when he drank, violent. One time he threw a beer bottle at some guy for looking at him wrong back after school ended. But now he seemed ready to explode and tear down anything that got in his way. 

 Sherman slammed his beer down and ordered us a shot of whiskey. We held our glasses up in a toast for the last few weeks of his freedom.

 “Don’t get you a baby,” he said. “I tell ya, there some nights I sit up all night and think about leaving.”

“We keep trying,” I said. “Nothing’s happened yet.”

It always scared me, having kids, but for Mary’s sake we kept trying. But deep down, seeing what it was doing to Sherman, I didn’t want a baby in the house just yet. Money was tight enough anyway. In my head I pictured the bills from hospitals and diapers and daycares and college. 

“Be glad about that. Sometimes I think this is what killed my dad.”

When I was younger I saw my dad’s face grind down to nothing but a pulp mess of wrinkles. I saw that same thing on Sherman’s face. I looked at the mirror behind the bar and tried to see if I was starting to look that way. I drank my beer and nodded along with Sherman.

He got up and chucked some quarters into the juke and played some blues. B.B. King’s guitar wailing about evil women and then Springsteen crooning about some promised land at the end of a winding highway, a place he knew he could get to if he just paid his dues and put in his time. I pictured this highway blasting through the trailer park, the pavement fresh and black, and me and Sherman shredding down the road towards the rising sun. Then the Boss yelled about a storm blowing away all those dreams that eat away at you and that highway disappeared. I ordered another beer and felt a wreck happening deep in my guts and sighed.

“You know, we played some great ball, Gene,” Sherman said. 

“Hell,” I said with a half-assed chuckle, “we couldn’t even make state.”

“I’m just sayin,” he said.

Sherman brought this up time and time again those months when Betty was pregnant. I stopped thinking about ball a long time ago after Mary and I married. I knew I wasn’t ever going to wear a jersey again with my name on it. I was a below average player and knew it. But Sherman wouldn’t let this go. He kept bringing it up, the pathetic cliché lost on him. Kept talking about how he could have pitched for the Royals or Red Sox and been real hot shit. Could have married a swimsuit model and lived in a mansion. He was talking nonsense. He wasn’t ever gonna live that life. We were here, and this was it, the end of the road.

“Why don’t you quit that talk,” I said. “You got a baby on the way. Ain’t that enough?”

 He nodded and looked around the empty bar, at the posters of half-dressed girls holding sweaty beer bottles and inviting men with their smiles. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

 “Why can’t you be grateful?” I said. “Betty’s one hell of a woman.”

“Once that baby comes that’s it for me,” he said. “No more ballgames on the weekends, no more bars. Just diapers and Barney.” 

Mary and me knew each other all through high school, and I knew then I’d spend my life with her. She had these freckles on her face that looked like stars and hair that was fire. Mom loved her something bad and would never let it go if I broke her heart. She was pregnant when we married. She had a miscarriage a month after that. I somehow managed to keep everything alive this long. But there were some nights when I would look at her and think that living in the Highway Estates Trailer Park across the highway from an abandoned drive-in wasn’t enough for us. Maybe she resented me for tying her down to this dead-end way. I thought about leaving so many times but crawled back into bed instead and tried to hold her close, thinking to myself that this was all I wanted. 

“Pretty soon,” Sherman said, “there’s gonna be nothing but crying in my home. All night. Goddamn, this is what it all comes down to.”

 I told him to shut up, finish his drink, and let’s go find another place that had more noise where I wouldn’t have to hear him talk and think about myself anymore, tear into the meat of whatever was awaiting us. 

 We drove down the highway speeding down the empty lanes. Patches of pale light from the street lamps helped guide the way. I pictured that winding highway again from the song and wondered what that promised land looked like. If the streets were lined with whatever you desired, if when you came home from work your body didn’t feel like it was broken every which way, if the beer never went flat and the sun never went away and the air was always warm. I wondered if such places existed at all. It seemed to me that places like that were only real in your head. They were fantasies you told yourself to get you through the workday before you crawled back home and realized that you were stuck there. 

We were halfway to the heart of Independence when we saw her. A lone girl hiking on the shoulder of the highway in a coat that was thick as animal hide. She had blonde hair and looked smaller than a twig. I wondered if she would freeze out there.

“Pull over,” Sherman said. “Let’s go talk to that chick.”

He rolled his window down when I stopped next to her and that cold air blasted in like a shotgun. Sherman smiled at her and called out, wanted to know what in the hell a pretty girl like her was walking outside in the Antarctic. 

“My car broke down a few miles back,” she said. “I was heading west.”

“Well,” Sherman said, “why don’t you get your ass in here before you keel over.”

She peeked in and saw me. I tried to look nice. 

“Where you two going?” 

I glanced at her and even in the dark I could tell she was young. 

“We’re just driving around trying to find another bar,” Sherman said. “You look like you could use a drink.”

She put her hands in her coat pockets and looked down at her feet. “I’m only twenty.”

Sherman chuckled with a sweetness I hadn’t heard in ages. “Hell, nobody cares about that. You come in with us and they’ll let you drink whatever, honey.”

“I don’t know,” she said. Her eyes seemed distant and I thought about pushing down on the gas and leave before she decided to get in when Sherman started talking again.

“You’re gonna freeze standing out there,” Sherman said. “We’ll get you a drink and some food and get you on a bus out of here.”

She shrugged and slowly eased into the back of the car. Maybe she thought she could get some free beer from us, find somebody at the bar willing to take her as far west as they could. Sherman kept talking her ear off and laughing like a madman. Her name was Alison. I kept glancing back at her through the mirror and thought about kicking her out and heading back home.

After a while Sherman told me to stop at a gas station to grab some smokes. He said he’d be back in a flash and winked at the girl and ran in. 

It was quiet before she said anything. 

“I quit school,” she said. 

I nodded and kept watch for Sherman coming back out.

“I’m heading west because I don’t like it here. It’s too cold.”

“It’s Missouri,” I said. “What did you expect in winter?”

She leaned over between the driver’s and passenger’s seats. Her breath smelled like mint. “You lived here your whole life?”

I nodded and dicked around with the radio, trying to find a song worth listening to. But all there was on the air waves this late at night were commercials and talk shows where all they did was talk talk and talk till you lost your patience and slammed the whole thing off and sat in silence. 

“Why don’t you leave?”

“It ain’t that easy,” I said. “Believe me.” She was only about ten years younger than me but she didn’t understand the first thing about life. I thought about playing dad with her and telling her this. 

“You know what they call Missouri? A flyover state. Know why?”

“Because people don’t want to come here,” I said. “Everyone just flies over us and doesn’t give two shits about places like here.”

“That’s right,” she said. “I want to leave. I have family out in California. Or I can stop in New Mexico and work at some tourist joint. I heard it’s always warm out there. The sun’s always out.”

I turned back around as Sherman was coming out. “Maybe you’re right about that,” I said. “I wouldn’t know. Maybe it ain’t all that bad.” 

The Boss’ promised land highway came back to me and I pictured this girl walking down it towards the coast. I looked at her and realized that I wanted her to get out of this place, to find out for me if places like that really existed. I wanted to tell her to get out right now and find someone else to take her out there.

Sherman got in and slammed the door and yelled giddy-up and we drove around till we found a bar off the highway. Some place called The Grid Iron. Trash littered the parking lot and the sign was flickering in and out of life. Some people were gathered outside smoking. They looked half-dead and lost, straight out of those Depression-era photographs they showed us in school.

We sat in the back booth and Sherman ordered himself and Alison a beer and I ordered a whiskey. The same kinds of posters lined the walls, the same kind of women holding the same kind of beer. They didn’t look real to me. They looked like conjured up ideas of women. Sherman kept glancing around at them and Alison. 

I wondered what her life was like back home to make her go out west. She and Sherman were talking but she didn’t seem all that interested. He was giving the same old runaround he gave girls back in the day. He was drunk and she could see that.

After a while he got up and found the juke box and played some slow number and went up to her and grabbed her from the booth and started dancing with her. Her face looked bored, as if she regretted taking a ride with us. She looked like a department store mannequin dancing with him, stiff and lifeless and he buried his face in her neck and her eyes looked gone. 

The song ended and she tore away from him and sat next to me back in the booth. Sherman followed and sat across from her. 

“You’re a pretty little thing, you know that?”

She nodded and looked around the bar. “Thanks. Can you take me to a bus stop now?”

“I wish I knew you a long time ago,” he said. “Maybe I could have gone west with you.”

He sounded desperate and I had an urge to leave the both of them and head home onto the highway on foot.  

I had a strong feeling that one day soon I would end up like Sherman. That Mary would finally get pregnant and I would hate it and try to find some and get drunk and sound pathetic. Looking at him right then and there I felt sick. He was a piece of my past that clung to me like those fish cling to sharks. He was pulling me down and I wanted to hit him. Maybe then he would have finally snapped out of whatever it was that was making him like this. 

“Stop it, Sherman,” I said. He was trying to grab her leg from under the table.

He looked at me and rolled his eyes. “Stop what? I ain’t doing anything. She likes it.”

She asked Sherman for a cigarette and she stepped outside to light it. He watched her go.

“Boy,” he said, “what I would give for a piece of ass like that. Just once.”

“Let it go, Sherman,” I said. “Let’s leave her here and head on back. I’m tired.”

“Suit yourself,” he said. “I’ll stay here. Play things out.”

He winked at me and struggled to get out and walked into the night with a cigarette in his hand.

The bar was full of greasy men. I figured their lives weren’t any better, driving around the night trying to chase something they thought they could find. Something that would make them feel like they did before life bit them in the neck. I imagined their faces when they realized nothing was there. Walking around in their lives looking for something to blame. Sherman was doing just that. He hated the world so much he couldn’t blame himself for the way things went. He’d just keep hating the world and reliving the past instead of coming to terms with the way it was. 

They were gone for a while, and I had a craving for a cigarette. I paid the bartender and headed out. Outside the bar was empty and the highway seemed desolate. I didn’t see Sherman or Alison smoking, so I walked around to the back.

He was standing over her, pacing back and forth, breathing hard under his breath. I could see the vapor leave his mouth like a piece of his soul. He turned around and looked at me. 

There was one lone light on the wall of the bar, and I could see his face. He didn’t look surprised that I was standing there. She was lying there like she just fell. In the light I could see a pool of black around her head. 

“What the hell happened?”

Sherman shrugged and wiped his nose with his sleeve. “I think maybe I pushed her too hard,” he said. “She just sort of lost her footing and hit her head on that dumpster.”

“What did you do?”

“She started it,” he said. “It got out of hand. She tried hitting me, telling me to back off and I had to get her off me. The little bitch was hitting me hard.”

He looked back down at her. I walked over and got a closer look. I couldn’t tell if she was breathing. She looked about dead. There was nothing in her eyes. I could have left then, got into that car, and roared down that highway and that would have been that. 

“She’ll be fine,” Sherman said. “Let’s get out of here.”

Back on the highway he didn’t say one word. He sat looking out the window as we passed the streetlamps and empty buildings that lined that section of road. I felt disgusted with him, with myself for letting him leave her there. I could have called the cops or left him there to deal with it himself. Now I was involved. In the TV shows they called it being an accessory after the fact. Sooner or later, someone caught up to people like me. Nothing seemed to bother Sherman about this. 

Whenever I blinked, I saw Alison lying on the pavement. She’d never get out west away from here. I thought that maybe she’d be a ghost that stalked the back of the bar, doomed forever to never leave this flyover state. I could see the blinking light from a plane overhead and pictured its passengers looking out their windows. We were so small to them. It was like we didn’t exist. They would never come here. Even they knew there wasn’t anything good here.

When we pulled into his driveway he didn’t move. He sat there staring at the front door of his home, tapping the dashboard. 

“No one needs to know,” he said. “It was just an accident.”

“Shit,” I said, turning away from him. “People saw her with us. Someone’s gonna find her.”

“Well, what do you want me to do?” he asked. “Throw my life away over a little slut? It doesn’t matter. She just fell. She was drunk. Could have happened to anybody.”

“Get the fuck out,” I said. When he didn’t move, I nearly pushed him out, hitting him. He slammed the door and spat. I watched him walk up the steps and Betty greeted him at the door. He gave her a great big hug and kissed her on the cheek. She smiled and waved at me. I backed out, my knuckles turning white gripping the wheel.

Back home, the trailer was quiet and dark. I fixed myself a bag of ice and sat in the kitchen while my skull throbbed, and I thought it was going to explode. 

When I crawled back into bed, I wished Mary was there, wished that she would get off her night shift early and come home so I could hold her tight. I loved her and I pictured us having a real family. It would be a matter of time before somebody found Alison and put the pieces together. Pictures of her would be on the news. There would be a knock on both of our doors. I wanted to get out before any of that happened. In the morning I wanted to tell Mary to pack up her things and get into the car. We were going to get the hell away from here. Anywhere. I wished I believed myself. 

About the Author: Colin Brightwell is a Missouri native, from the greater Kansas City area and Jesse James country. He has fiction upcoming in Reckon Review and Bull Magazine. He is currently in the MFA program for fiction at the University of Mississippi.

A Sleepover with Coral Rose

By Lauren Slagter

Pain in her neck was the first thing Sara became aware of as she blinked open her heavy eyelids. She noted a blue curtain running the length of the linoleum-tiled room, metal rails on the side of her bed and a splint on her left wrist, with a petal of the rose inked on the inside of her arm just visible beyond the black velcro strap. 

Slowly, she turned her stiff neck so she could face the Sunday morning light streaming through a small window on the far wall. She heard voices murmuring on the other side of the curtain and the beep of machinery near her head. 

“What happened?” The words scratched her dry throat, coming out barely above a whisper. 

A metallic jangle of curtain rings sliding along the rod announced the entrance of a heavyset woman in medical scrubs. 

“You don’t remember last night?” the nurse said. Her quick smile didn’t spread far enough beyond the corners of her mouth to cover the glint of judgment in her eyes. Sara knew the look well. 

“Good morning?” Sara frowned and tucked a strand of her dark hair behind her ear with the hand not in a splint. “Who are you?” 

“I’m the person who’s been taking care of you all night. My name is Pam,” the woman said, scanning her clipboard. “The police are on their way to pick you up, so we need to get you discharged.” 

“Police?” Sara raised her eyebrows. 

“Yes, the police.” Pam’s disapproving look wasn’t papered over with a smile this time. “They said you were drinking last night when you crashed your car. You sprained your wrist, so you need to keep this splint on for seven to 10 days. And you may feel pain in your neck from whiplash.” 

Sara struggled to piece together what happened the previous day. She remembered the fight with her mother, Kim, who had been pestering Sara about plans for an upcoming court-mandated sleepover with her daughter, Coral. 

“What do you think you’ll have for dinner?” Kim had asked standing over her kitchen sink doing dishes, her sweatshirt sleeves pushed up and her graying brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. 

“Not sure yet, maybe those frozen chicken nuggets you throw in the oven?” Sara replied from the stool at the kitchen counter without looking up from the Cosmopolitan magazine she flipped through. Sara had never cared much about doing her hair and makeup, and she was much curvier — the nice word for the extra weight she carried — than the women pictured on the glossy pages. But she liked to pretend she could be glamorous if only she bought the recommended lipstick. 

“You’ll want a vegetable, something healthy,” Kim said. “What about after dinner? Do you have games to play with her? Books to read together?” 

“I’ll figure it out.” Sara was tired of the topic. 

“And you need to clean up your apartment before she and the caseworker come over, right? When are you planning to finish your laundry?” 

“Mom, relax! The sleepover is a week away. I don’t have every minute planned yet.” “You want me to relax?” Kim stopped with the dishes and turned toward Sara, water still streaming from the faucet. “You’re relaxed enough for the both of us. Someone has to show up for our girl!” 

“And let me guess, you don’t think I’m up to the task. Thank God you’re here to save everybody,” Sara fired back sarcastically. 

They hurled insults at each other until the slam of the front door ended their screaming match as Kim stormed out of her own apartment. More doors slammed as Sara paced the kitchen, opening cupboards so she could bang them shut. She spotted a bottle of vodka tucked behind a stack of paper plates in the cupboard by the sink. 

The familiar burn of the first gulp spread from her throat through her chest. Another pull and the tension dropped from her shoulders. She slid her hip on the edge of the kitchen counter and perched there, cradling the bottle to steady her hands still trembling with anger. 

Coral hadn’t spent the night with Sara since she was placed in foster care nearly two years ago. That night Sara had put Coral to bed and then gone to a friend’s house. She was blacked out on Vicodin and Jim Beam when police arrived to break up her fight with another woman. The officers called Child Protective Services, and a caseworker arrived in the middle of the night to pack a bag for Coral and take her away. 

That was when Sara “hit bottom,” as her court-mandated group therapist said. She’d since quit the booze (mostly), stopped seeing the doctor who treated her chronic back pain with endless Vicodin prescriptions, taken the required parenting classes, passed her drug tests, and sat through countless supervised playtimes with Coral. Under the watchful eye of the caseworker, Sara and Coral played Uno and forced small talk so Sara could prove her parenting abilities. The problem was Coral had become so angry. The girl was only 12, but Sara couldn’t say anything without Coral snapping back at her. 

If they could successfully get through a few sleepovers, Sara’s attorney said she would have a good shot at regaining custody of her kid. Taking swigs from the bottle of vodka, Sara felt the walls of her mom’s now-silent apartment closing in on her. Her daughter, her mom, the CPS caseworker and the judge were counting on her to do this sleepover right — though deep down, she suspected they doubted she could. She doubted she could. 

Sara hopped down from the kitchen counter and grabbed the keys to the beat-up black Ford Escort she shared with her mom. She needed to get out of her mom’s apartment and out of her own head. A trip to Joe’s, her favorite bar, would make her feel better. She hadn’t been there in months, since she was on her best behavior for the court. But a night of chatting with the bartender, Shawna, and running the jukebox would be a welcome relief. She could refocus on the sleepover and make up with her mom the next day. 

She didn’t remember anything else from the night before. 

**** 

“So the hospital’s blood test confirmed your blood alcohol concentration was 0.12, over the legal limit. The police say you crashed your car into a light pole in the apartment complex parking lot,” Sara’s attorney, Mark, read to her from a police report as they sat on a bench outside the courtroom following her arraignment Monday morning. “They’re going to bring this up at your next hearing. We’ll have to decide if you want to stick with the not guilty plea we entered today or try to negotiate a deal. I want to warn you, you could face jail time.” 

Sara nodded numbly. The boom of the judge’s voice as he announced the driving under the influence charge still echoed in her aching head. Turns out, she never made it to the bar or even out of the apartment complex after the argument with her mom. Officers had checked her out of the hospital and into jail on Sunday afternoon. Unable to post the $500 bail, she spent a sleepless night on a metal bunk before appearing in the courtroom, where the judge waived bond since she couldn’t afford it. 

After debriefing with her attorney and finally on her own, Sara paused on the steps outside the courthouse. A deep breath of chilly Midwest January air cleared her muddled mind. She made a beeline for the bus stop down the block, eager to be home where she could crawl into bed and pretend none of this was happening. As she waited for the bus, she switched on her cell phone for the first time since jail staff returned it to her. Voicemail alerts flooded the screen. The bus pulled up, and she hit play on a message from her caseworker as she stepped aboard and paid the fare. 

“Sara, this is Linda. I was at the courthouse for another case this morning and saw your arraignment on the docket. We need to meet Thursday to decide how you want to proceed with your custody case. In light of this new charge and the fact we’re nearly two years into this case, we’re prepared to file a motion to terminate your parental rights. That means we’d have a hearing where the judge would make a permanent decision about your ability to parent Coral. Or, you have the option to voluntarily give up your parental rights and we don’t do the hearing. I’ll tell you more about each option and answer any questions you have on Thursday. Please be at our office at 10.” 

Sara slumped in the bus seat and watched through the window as street signs and trees passed by against the gray sky. 

At the liquor store near her apartment, she grabbed a cheap bottle of pinot grigio from the bottom shelf. Not like another drink could make things any worse. Finally home, she unlocked her door and carried a burst of cold air into her one-bedroom apartment. The living room was furnished with a TV stand, couch and chair her mom helped her pick out from the Salvation Army. A crockpot she was using more frequently to make dinner — like the parent educator taught her — sat out on the kitchen counter. This apartment didn’t feel like home. She and Coral had always lived with Sara’s mom, Kim; that was home. But now half of the monthly disability check Sara received due to her back pain went to rent for this apartment a couple buildings over from her mom’s place. Sara had leased the apartment to appease her caseworker, who insisted she demonstrate she could take care of herself as well as her daughter. 

Struggling with the corkscrew to open the bottle of wine tweaked Sara’s wrist again, but after half a glass, the wine dulled the pain. She sank onto the couch and absentmindedly rubbed her right thumb against the tattooed rose petal on her left arm — the touchpoint that reminded her of her daughter. A coral rose for her Coral Rose. Actually Sara got the tattoo first — to celebrate her 17th birthday, shortly before finding out she was pregnant. Her favorite color and favorite flower, why not her baby’s name? Most people would get a tattoo in honor of their kid, but Sara always seemed to do things backward, unaware of the status quo other people seemed to grasp innately or unable to meet others’ expectations for her. A basket of laundry taunted her from the living room chair, so Sara scooped it up and walked to the bedroom intending to put away the clothes. But her gaze lingered on the pastel drawing of an oversized rose tacked to the wall above her bed. Drawing had always been Sara’s escape. Moving her hands to create lines and shapes was the only way she found stillness inside. Her thoughts could assemble themselves in the saturated colors she blended, rather than swirling around in her head. Art had been the one class she looked forward to in high school, before she’d dropped out when her rounding belly made her the topic of gossip whispered at her classmates’ lockers and announced the pending arrival of Coral Rose. 

**** 

Coral was 9 when she and Sara drew the rose picture together, a few months before Coral went into foster care. Sara remembered waking late that Saturday as Kim finished clearing Coral’s syrup-covered breakfast dishes from the table and announced she’d be at bingo for the rest of the day. Battling a hangover, Sara reached for the pill bottle in her purse. “What do you want to do today, girlie?” she asked Coral, who was still wearing her pink camo pajamas. “We could walk to the park. Maybe check out books at the library.” Sara froze when her hand landed on the pill bottle and felt no rattle inside. Had she taken her last Vicodin the night before? Her mind raced through her options to get more pills and realized none of them were possible with Kim gone with the car and Coral under Sara’s supervision. Without her steady supply of pills, Sara would be in no condition to take her daughter in public. 

“Actually, you know what would be fun?” Sara shifted tactics, trying not to panic. “What if we drew a picture together? Like a big one, with my nice crayons.” 

“The nice ones?” Coral’s brown eyes widened, surprised she would be allowed to use the pastels her mom said were for grownups. 

“Yeah, I’ll show you how to use them. Why don’t you go get my crayon case and a sheet of drawing paper from the bedroom,” Sara said, leaning back on the couch. She took a ragged inhale and tried to focus on a second of relief from her pulsing headache. Coral settled on the floor beside her mom, and they spread the large sheet of paper across the coffee table. Sara started to outline a rose, ring after ring of petals stretching to the page’s edge, her hands shaking as she drew. 

“It’s your flower,” Sara said, grabbing the orange, pink and red crayons from the case. “And this is how we make your color.” 

Coral’s fingers followed Sara’s as they blended the creamy pastels between the lines of the spiraling petals; the girly pink, sunny orange, and fiery red combining to create a warm hue that always reminded Sara of a tropical breeze — or at least what she imagined a tropical breeze felt like when she looked at the poster of a beach scene hanging in her principal’s office, where Sara had waited to hear the same lecture every time she was caught cutting class. Sara’s stomach churned, but she forced herself to conceal her pain from her daughter. 

“It looks like your rose,” Coral said, standing back to admire their masterpiece and pointing toward her mother’s wrist. 

“You’re my rose,” Sara replied, catching her daughter’s hand and pulling her close to her chest, her arm wrapped around the girl’s small shoulders. She couldn’t let her know anything was wrong. 

*** 

A few sips of wine remained in the bottle, and Sara gave up on the laundry and lay down on her bed. The court didn’t understand the bond she had with her mom and her daughter. Kim had requested custody of Coral, but the court knew Kim and her daughter were inseparable. If Coral was to live with either of them, Sara would need to clean up her act. Coral’s dad — who Sara spent time with when she was skipping class during high school — had cut ties with Sara years ago; the latest she heard he was in prison. 

“It appears the grandmother often prepares snacks and activities in advance of the mother’s supervised visits with the child,” read a line in the thick stack of reports the caseworker had compiled on Sara’s interactions with her daughter. 

So what if Kim helped out? Sara was still the girl’s mom. At one of their recent visits, Sara had suggested Coral draw with her like they used to. 

“Mom, I’m too old for coloring,” Coral rolled her eyes. Instead she told her mom about the A she got in math, how her teacher said she could be an engineer when she grew up, the sleep-away camp her foster parents planned to send her to this summer, and the neon Under Armour hoodies she’d meticulously selected during back-to-school shopping for sixth grade. Her words jabbed at Sara, underscoring the gap between what Coral wanted and what Sara had to offer. 

Suddenly Sara felt the wine coming back up. She dashed to the bathroom, kneeled on the dirty blue mat in front of the toilet and threw up the acidic alcohol. Along with the bitter bile, up came the sadness she carried in the pit in her stomach, the insecurities and self-doubt, the belief she could be better. She emptied herself of all she could no longer stand, and her head felt surprisingly clear as she steadied herself on the bathroom floor. She knew what she needed to do. 

**** 

The frigid air cut through Sara’s T-shirt as she got off the bus a few days later and walked up the cracked blacktop driveway toward the Department of Health and Human Services. The square brick building was blandly administrative, looking both innocent of the emotional baggage dragged through its halls and appropriately ominous. 

She took the stairs to the Child Protective Services waiting room on the second floor, where she’d spent so many afternoons over the past two years. Sara often brought Kim along to these meetings, but today she wanted to come alone; she’d already told her mom what she had decided. The smell of stale coffee met her at the door, and the receptionist greeted her by name. Sara managed a nod in acknowledgement as she settled onto a hard plastic chair. She usually stole glances at the other people in the waiting room, looking for signs these folks were more or less messed up than she was. But today, Sara focused on untangling the words she’d need to explain her choice. 

Seated across the table from her caseworker, Linda, in their usual meeting room, Sara fiddled with her wrist splint. She talked in circles about the car crash, how hard she’d tried the past couple years, and how she wanted to do right by her daughter. Finally, there was nothing left but to detonate her sentence-long bomb. 

“It’s better for Coral if I give up my parental rights.” 

With her revelation came a flood of tears. 

“I respect your decision,” Linda said, her blazer bunching awkwardly around her shoulders as she leaned toward Sara. “Coral’s foster parents have expressed interest in adopting her, and your decision will allow that to proceed more quickly. They’ll take good care of her.” 

Sara inhaled sharply and closed her eyes for a long moment, trying to block out the image of someone else taking care of her baby girl. But she wanted better for Coral than what she could give her. This could be a fresh start for both of them, a chance for Sara to pick a different path for herself. 

Linda handed tissues to Sara as she cried. After several minutes of trying to catch her breath and stem the flow of tears, Sara rushed out of the office and away from the course of action she had set into motion. On the bus, she rode past the stop at her apartment complex and got off near Joe’s instead. The place would be mostly empty this early in the afternoon. She felt more at ease as soon as she stepped into the dim room that smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and beer. Weaving through a cluster of low black tables and chairs, she settled onto a stool at the dark wooden bar. 

“Hey girl, it’s been a while,” the bartender Shawna, wearing her signature black T-shirt and heavy eyeliner, greeted Sara and started mixing her usual vodka-tonic. Shawna eyed the splint on Sara’s wrist, and Sara’s right hand instinctively reached to touch the rose petal there. “What happened to you?” 

“Just my latest screw up,” Sara’s laugh didn’t come out as light-hearted as she had hoped. “It’s not a big deal. I’m sick of wearing this thing.” She started to undo the velcro straps and slid the stiff fabric off her arm, her skin looking pale and shriveled where the splint had left imprints. Her coral rose seemed especially vibrant in contrast. Shawna set the drink on a napkin in front of Sara, alongside the splint she’d laid on the bar. 

“Oh, I’ve never noticed your flower,” Shawna nodded at the tattoo. “How long have you had that?” 

“I got it on a whim in high school,” Sara said, realizing in all the late nights at Joe’s she had spent joking with Shawna, she hadn’t mentioned her daughter. There was no reason to bring up her and her connection to the tattoo now. 

“It’s pretty,” Shawna said as she turned to head to the other end of the bar. Sara folded her injured arm against her stomach, the coral rose inked on her skin held protectively against her soft center. With her other hand, she picked up her drink.

About the Author: Lauren Slagter is a writer and freelance journalist who lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and has roots in a handful of small Midwest towns. Her journalism has won numerous awards, and she has a creative nonfiction piece pending publication in Great Lakes Review. See more of her work at laurenslagter.com

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

Rust Belt Femme: A Conversation with Raechel Anne Jolie

Interview Conducted by Brianna Di Monda

Raechel Anne Jolie grew up in northeast Ohio with her mom before receiving her PhD from the University of Minnesota and going on to publish her memoir, Rust Belt Femme. The book was a winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award in LGBTQ Nonfiction and an NPR Favorite Book of 2020. Her story covers her experience growing up in poverty with her single mother after her father is hit by a car. She navigates permanently altered relationships with her parents, grandparents, friend, and boyfriends, and finally finds a home in queer pop culture and the local punk scene. Jolie kindly agreed to an interview about her memoir, and together we discussed witchcraft, male care, code-switching, and common perceptions of so-called “white trash.”

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brianna Di Monda: You wrote your memoir after getting your PhD from the University of Minnesota. Why the pivot? What drew you to writing a memoir after working in academia for so long? Had you written personal essays or creative nonfiction—or just journaled—before?

Raechel Anne Jolie: Why the pivot: One reason is that many people with PhDs were pushed out of academia in any sustainable way. I had short-term contract positions and never landed that secure, full-time position, which is increasingly rare in academia. So part of it was not having a stable job. Although I continued to adjunct, part of the deal in academia is that everything you write is academic research. It dawned on me that I wasn’t getting paid to research in the way that, in theory, professors have a salary and research is part of that. So I thought, “Why am I wasting time?”

I was a creative writer since I was a kid. This actually didn’t make it in the book, but I used to have a notebook that I would write stories in. My creative nonfiction really developed through LiveJournal and online blogging. I realized that I enjoyed writing about myself by bringing in theory. When I decided not to keep doing academic writing that I don’t enjoy, I just let myself start writing this book instead.

BD: Did you have journals and old writing that you pulled from and compiled into the book?

RAJ: I had tons of journals. My mom, as you read, moved around a lot, so I think my personal journals probably exist in a storage facility somewhere or a friend’s basement, but I didn’t have a ton of access to those. I do have photographic memories of some of those journal pages, so I definitely drew on very concrete memories of pages. But as I write at the beginning of the book, the memoir is my version of my memory.

BD: That’s an incredible testament to your memory. I also read in your interview with Hippocampus that you cast a spell to get your book accepted by Belt Publishing. And I noticed aspects of witchcraft in your memoir. You say the lightning bugs on Tinkers Creek were your “first foray into witchcraft” (when you were five) and that they were “sacrificed in rituals some nights.” I was wondering: What was your practice as a kid? When did you develop it? If I may ask, what is your practice now? And how has witchcraft shaped your writing?

RAJ: I definitely wouldn’t have identified it as witchcraft as a small child. That was a retrospective label. But so much of my early relationship to magic was my relationship to nature. And that’s something I’ve been able to make the connection to much more clearly in my adult life, especially when I actually learned the elements of Paganism. I lived with the seasons in these material, worshipful ways. So much of that was just being a rural kid who felt spirits in trees and pretended mixing bowls were cauldrons.

My mom was also a horror buff, so I grew up on scary movies and had witches and magic and fantasy in my life. And then being lucky enough to be a teenager in the 90s, witchiness blended with dark lipstick and combat boots, like in The Craft. So 90s pop culture allowed me to have elements of witchcraft even though I didn’t identify as a witch. It was only much later in my life—my late 20s, early 30s—that I really opened up more to spirituality.

After getting involved with activism work, I didn’t think I had a need for spirituality, because the activism I was involved in was very secular. But then I felt pulled to spirituality, partly because I was half-developing a yoga practice and I was like, “Well, I really like the spiritual elements of this, but it’s not my culture, so I should look into my ancestral roots.” And there was Paganism. And it felt super intuitive. 

My practice now is everything from honoring moon cycles and setting intentions to casting very specific spells. (The spell I set to get my book published by Belt had a jar of honey with mantras written on a piece of paper inside and a particular crystal on top.) I also continue to be in tune with nature and celebrate certain Pagan holidays. Or I light a particular candle before I start writing. I don’t do that on normal workdays. Bringing that intention helps with the magic and writing.

BD: Absolutely. I ask because I’ve similarly gotten into witchcraft and am realizing how this attunement with nature I had as a kid and this interest in astrology and candles and stones has been a throughline in my life. My mom kept this stone collection I had as a kid and I found them recently and recognized them as stones used in witchcraft.

You say your mom got sober “seemingly overnight” after your dad was hit by a car. That she did it because, quite simply, she “knew she had to raise [you].” It seems like your mom put a lot into raising you as a single parent, even if you also acknowledge that she wasn’t always perfect. I’m wondering: How did her strength (or maybe even her mistakes) influence your understanding of womanhood or motherhood?

RAJ: In so many ways. I’m not a mother, and this is actually shifted from the book, but although I still very much identify as femme, I have less identification with the word “woman.” I added “they” to my pronouns. (I’m feeling grateful for young people for their more expansive categories.) So I’ll respond to the question with both not being a mom and not identifying with capital “W” “Womanhood.”  That said, I think my mother helped me understand femininity in a way that was much more expansive and obviously defied any sort of traditional, normative stereotype that women are docile or weak. I got the opposite example of that. 

I will also say, and I kind of hesitate because my sweet, dear mom still hasn’t read the book. I say this with all the love in the world, but she sacrificed a lot for me. Almost her whole self. And I do think that was not healthy for her. I got a lot of love. What I didn’t get was examples of how to set boundaries. I expected a lot from relationships as a demonstration of love. I expected selflessness, which isn’t fair. I am grateful that I was loved so fully and she gave so much to me, but I feel regret for her because it was a sacrificial kind of love.

BD: Yeah, in putting so much care into making sure you were okay and you got the attention you needed after the accident, it almost went too far for her sake. I understand that. In contrast to my last question, you call the “men who took care of things” during the first four years of your life the “heroes.” You acknowledge, “I’m not supposed to say this, but this was what I needed and this was what I lost.” Why do you say you’re not supposed to say this? What framework are you confronting by acknowledging the need for men (or maybe masculinity)—in addition to women (or femininity)—to support you?

RAJ: The reason I’m not supposed to say it is because I’m a feminist studies professor and a queer person. It’s the recognition of the role that men played in my life, as well as my attraction to butch and men-identified people. My attraction to a particular kind of masculinity. I love this question and it’s a hard question. I am looking forward to the day when masculinity and femininity can express themselves, regardless of what you were assigned at birth. But I also think we can find value in what we would traditionally assign as masculine energy and feminine energy, even if those categories are still problematic regardless of somebody’s “sex.”Given my upbringing, I’m okay with the fact that I would like a partner who knows cars because I don’t know cars. That’s a traditionally masculine thing that, to me, is not problematic because we’re not all good at everything. That’s not to say that a masculine person needs to like cars, or that they can’t cook, or whatever. I’m not trying to put people into boxes. But I do think there’s a version of caretaking that appeals to me in ways that some people would say is problematic, but that’s just how my femme shows. I’m curious what you think about that. What comes up for you with that sort of theme?

BD: I think it balances your narrative of not wanting your partner to be selflessly devoted to you—that doesn’t mean you don’t want care. You lost your dad. And that made you realize how much his support meant something. And there is a lack when he’s not there. For you to say you don’t need these men in your life is to say, maybe, that nothing changed when your dad left, which wouldn’t be true and wouldn’t be honoring his memory.

RAJ: That’s beautiful. That’s true though. And I believe that patriarchy harms men just as much as it does all the other genders. Because men aren’t allowed to be vulnerable and emotional. But that doesn’t mean that we have to throw what we consider masculine under the bus. I think there are some beautiful traits in masculinity. Butch women are such a beautiful example of a community that’s demonstrated how chivalry and toughness can be gentle and loving.

BD: I think this also segues well into the next question I have, which asks about this tension between male care and toxic masculinity in your book. There’s a devastating moment where Jack (your boyfriend at the time) meets your abuser and says he wants to kill him. The two of you cry together and you realize you’d been wanting that feeling: “that a man made [you] feel like he wanted to protect [you].” You say you unpack this want in “therapy, in journals, with tarot decks.” You say you come to terms with this want. Why is it okay to want male care? And what did you learn in unpacking? With all these questions about masculinity, I ask because I feel like it’s such a common dynamic people seek in their relationships without ever confronting what it means.

RAJ: It’s obviously a privilege, first of all, to go to therapy. But I think everybody, regardless of class or race or anything else, is in their heads about themselves navel-gazing. It’s just that the memoirists put that on display. And I think it’s important to bring awareness and attention to our choices in relationships—and that doesn’t have to just be in romantic relationships. As much as, for example, Instagram pop psychology is problematic sometimes, I’m glad that it’s a space for people to talk about trauma and feelings. It’s good for us to be mindful in relationships because we are all bringing a lot of shit to them. In a world of sexual violence and emotional abuse, and just all of these horrible relationship dynamics that exist, for me to say that I like being loved by masculine energy feels not bad.

BD: I think that all makes sense. I think you’re making this clear distinction between toxic masculinity and male care. And where you find a home is in acknowledging the importance of male care and not ignoring a kind of masculine care that anyone can emit.

Then, when your first boyfriend breaks up with you and cries in the car, you say you’re “grateful to know the tenderness that existed in this sixteen-year-old boy. That the root of these boys is not toxic masculinity, but rather a limited number of places where they can be free—to feel, to be vulnerable, to say this hurts and I’m sorry.” This is a big theme in the book: redeeming people who have inflicted pain (you sympathize with his tears even as he breaks up with you). You seem profoundly capable of recognizing the multiplicity in people and forgiving them for their worst deeds. Would you say that’s accurate? Is this book, in a way, a redemption story for your exes and your family, your mom, and maybe even yourself?

RAJ: That’s such a sweet question. I do think I am extremely forgiving, sometimes to a fault. I think that has been the case my whole life. I’ve never had a revenge streak. My forgiveness or compassion, with an understanding of the other person’s pain or the root cause of the situation, is intentional. First of all as a prison abolitionist, for example, but also as a person who identifies as an anarchist and a radical. The definition of radical is “the root” of something. So looking at the root cause of harm, to me, reveals that the people who cause harm are victims almost all the time of another situation themselves. That articulation comes through an explicitly intentional political lens.

To bring witchy stuff back into it, I actually have a friend who is a beautiful astrologer and tarot reader who says that people with a lot of Pisces in their chart have this particular trait of being extremely compassionate and nonjudgmental and understanding and forgiving. And I have a lot of Pisces in my chart. I think that’s also part of it. It never crossed my mind to not write about people compassionately. That just felt intuitive. I don’t know that I realized it, but of course I wanted to say that there are reasons for everybody’s choices. I hope that I gave that context.

BD: I loved your description of grieving after your first break up, of playing Fiona Apple on repeat, journaling, crying in your room. You acknowledge a self-awareness in these actions: You relished your “ability to understand what Fiona [was] singing . . . dreaming of how many more loves [you] will have and how terrible and perfect it will be to lose them too.” I loved this description because I think a lot of people share this melodramatic experience growing up. Do you think these actions—mourning over a lost love with delicious self-indulgence—are part of the teenage initiation into adulthood? Why was this important to include in your memoir?

RAJ: I recently went through a breakup with the person who, in my book, I refer to as my present tense partner. We separated after eight years. So a very long, difficult, grown-up breakup, much more shattering than this teenage one. But I thought about that line about how I loved pain. And I really love that less as an adult. The stakes are a lot higher in a separation that happens when you’re in your 30s. 

Sharing your life with somebody is huge, and there is something beautiful in that. Thankfully the separation was mutual. I mean, it was devastating, but not ugly in any way. To answer the question: I guess it’s a teenage thing, but I don’t know. I’ve had really earth-shattering breakups in my 20s as well. And then the most recent one. And of course, the “’I’ll never find anybody again” feeling when you’re 15 is hilarious. But there’s something in me that wants to answer this question by saying it’s the same. It is a teenage thing, but it’s also an adult thing. But yeah, I do think like a first breakup is a life experience that pushes you further into adulthood.

BD: Yeah, it’s a coming of age moment, but maybe we never get over it. I guess what sounded so unique to teenagehood was how you specifically talked about how you relished your ability to understand heartbreak. Maybe there’s like an ego to heartbreak as a teenager.

In the memoir, you say “white trash” is the term we use in the U.S. for “failed” white people, and that our common understanding is “white trash” tends to vote red. You complicate this narrative by showing that queer people can be supported in this community and that there are left-leaning people in the Rust Belt. Was giving a voice to this side of whiteness intentional when you set out to write the memoir?

RAJ: It was definitely intentional. I started writing the memoir the summer before Trump got elected, so that discourse about Trump voters was already in the media. Something that’s important for me to clarify is that the intention wasn’t to say that not all white people are bad. I still identify as an activist. I’m certainly thinking about how to make the world better. I hope my writing gives people this “aha” moment—especially well-intentioned liberals who should talk to “white trash” Trump voters—to not be so snobby about people who are marginalized by the things that I claim to care about. 

My goal was really to illuminate the commonality of oppression. I’m certainly not saying that poor white folks and poor people of color, or people of color in general, are the same, but just that the economically disenfranchised includes people of all races. And there can be space for solidarity, whether that’s for white folks, queer people, people of color, or whatever the case may be. There is room for that. And I want to tell those stories because I think we would have a much more robust movement against repression if more people realized how much we all have in common.

BD: You’ve said in an interview with Autostraddle that you code switch no matter where you are. At what point did this begin, and why? Was it only once you went to college, or did you find yourself code-switching between the Cleveland subculture with Ben (another ex-boyfriend) and home even in your teens?

RAJ: I love that specific question at the end because the answer is yes. Code-switching is something that I’ve really done my whole life. I’ve always been in punk and activist spaces, and then also have very normie friends So there’s a lot of managing what I would or wouldn’t say in certain spaces. I think I’m over the fact that in normie spaces I’m often the only person with tattoos or not married with children (which brings in the queerness aspect). 

I don’t really talk to my super radical friends about the pop culture I consume. It’s very low stakes, but code-switching is something I very much have existed between my normie and queer friends. And then the class thing. At this point, it feels pretty easy because I’ve been navigating it so much. I think I’m not ever in super-rich spaces, but I behave a little differently in family space. I think I’m a little more self-conscious about how I look, especially around my partner’s parents. I’m suddenly embarrassed by my cheap acrylic nails and tattoos, but not enough to do anything about it. 

BD: It doesn’t mean you’re changing who you are, but you are aware of how you look and come across.

RAJ: Yeah. And code-switching is definitely a term that’s been most utilized by people of color who have to navigate much more high-stakes environments than I ever have. Whether it’s code-switching or microaggressions, there’s extra mental energy and labor that people have to do when they’re not taken as “normal” in particular spaces. I don’t want to complain about it too much because I feel like I have it pretty easy, but it is something that exists in my life.

BD: Ok, my final question: You talk about media you consumed before you went on to realize you were queer. You citeBroken Hearts Club, Jeffrey, Kissing Jessica Stein, and But I’m a Cheerleader as some of the movies you watched with your mom growing upDo you have any other recommendations for young queers today discovering their identity, that maybe weren’t around when you were growing up in the 90s, or that you happened to discover later in life?

RAJ: I love this question because I love pop culture. There’s one movie I always gush about when I have the opportunity. It’s called Appropriate Behavior. Desiree Akhavan is the writer and director. She’s an Iranian-American bisexual woman who made this beautiful indie movie about a queer woman in New York City. You see her through one long relationship and a couple of shorter relationships, and it’s just so evident that a queer person made the movie. It’s like, this person knows what it’s like to go to the dive lesbian bar after pride, and not the big tourist gay bar or whatever. She’s just so in the know. I love that movie and I think it’s not super well known because it’s an indie movie. 

Another is To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! – Julie Newmar. It’s one of the best gay movies of all time, and I think underappreciated by younger generations. It’s technically about drag queens, but they would really be read today as trans women.

I also want to say that growing up, the AIDS crisis was still, I mean, a crisis. One of my best friends in college was diagnosed with HIV at the time and it felt like a death sentence. He’s alive and thriving today, thankfully. It was pretty pressing, but I certainly didn’t grow up in the gay mens’ community in New York, where, for example, there were funerals every week. That was not my culture. But so much of queer culture today owes so much to that period of time. There’s a documentary called United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. It’s some of the most important queer histories out there. It offers a lot for us to think about, especially with COVID, and how we take care of each other in a health crisis. It’s about movement building and love and sex and desire in our politics. So that’s my elder queer homework.

About the Interviewer and Interviewee:

Raechel Anne Jolie (she/they) is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Rust Belt Femme, which was the winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award in LGBTQ Nonfiction, an NPR Favorite Book of 2020, and a runner-up for the Heartland Bookseller’s Award.

Brianna Di Monda (she/her) is a contributing editor for Cleveland Review of Books. Her fiction and criticism have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Chicago Review of Books, and Worms Magazine.