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.

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.