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.

Dead River

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.

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