Selected Works from the Alabama Writersâ€™ Conclave 2013 Literary Competition
Authors retain all rights
Marian Lewis Cover: Tulip (Huntsville Botanical Garden, Huntsville, Alabama) Digital photography by Marian Lewis
The Alabama Writers’ Conclave (AWC) proudly presents the 2013 ALALITCOM This year, the Conclave celebrates its 90th year. The AWC has the distinction of being one of the oldest writers’ organizations in continuous existence in the United States. True to the mission statement at its inception in 1923, the intent of the AWC is "…to promote fellowship, to provide an opportunity for improvement of craft, and to support Alabama writers."1 Through its annual meeting and writing contest, the AWC fulfills this mission. The Conclave also nominates, for the Governor’s appointment, the Alabama Poet Laureate, an honorary office created by the Alabama Legislature in 1931. Dr. Sue Brannon Walker filled this post from 2003 to 2012. She is succeeded by Mr. Andrew Glaze who became the current Poet Laureate in 2013. The Alalitcom is the online journal of the AWC. Each year the first through fourth place winners in the eight categories of the Annual AWC Writing Contest are eligible to publish their winning works in the journal. Contest categories include fiction, short fiction, nonfiction, juvenile fiction, humor, first chapter of a novel and traditional and free verse poem. The 2013 issue includes the works of Alabama writers across the state, as well as other locations throughout the country. Congratulations to the 2013 contest winners. As always, each story, article, poem and novel chapter entered into the AWC contest represents a writer's creativity and honor of the craft; thus every participant is a winner. I hope you enjoy the 2013 ALALITCOM. Marian Lewis, Editor ____________________________________ 1
Raecile Gwaltney Davis, Giant Sages of the Pen: A Narrative History of the Alabama Writer's Conclave, 1923-1946, (Alabama: R.G. Davis, 1993)
A WALK TO THE RIVER (JF).....................Cindy Tanquary Peavy….....
THE SILVER GRAYS (FCN)….…………....….Margie Tubbs………...….…...
PLAYGROUND (FVP)....................................Frank Dawson……..…..…….
A GOOD PATCH OF SUNSHINE (F)……...Richard Perreault..............
UPON THE STAIR (SF)…………………….…...Larry Wilson.......................
THE FALL OF SQUIRREL (H)……………....Richard Key...…………………
UNREQUITED (TP)………......................…….Jerri Hardesty………….…….
LIFE IS A PUZZLE (F)…………………….…....Sara Gipson..………………….
CURLY HEART PINE (FVP)…….………….….Annette Clifford...….…...…..
BECOMING MARILYN (SF)………….……….Deb Jellett………….……..…...
WILDEST DREAMS (H)……………..…….……Richard Perreault.…..........
THE ZOHEAD (NF)………………………....…...Mary Lou Simms.……....……. 53 MY FATHER’S WOODPILE (TP)………....…Nick Sweet...........................
THE JUST DESSERTS MURDERS (FCN)………………………...…....Deb Jellett……….……….…….
THE PHOTOGRAPHER (SF)………….…......Glenda Slater………............. . CARNIVAL (FVP)…….....................................Jeff Santosuosso....…..........
NEKKID GRANDPA (H)……………….…........Deb Jellett….………..….…..... . BIG BOX SONGS (NF)…………….……….……Annette Clifford…………......
SLAVE WEDDING VOWS AT ROSE BELMONT HALL (TP….….…Joseph Whitten…....….....….. 89 THE GHOST (SF)……………………........……..Mollie Smith Waters……..…
VARRONE (H)……………………………..…....…Nick Sweet............................ 94 BIRD CAGE (NF)………………….……………....Margie Tubbs…...................
THE EGG (FVP)………………………………..…..Carolynne Scott……...….….. 103
2012 Contest Winners List…………………………………………….……. 105
(F) Fiction, (NF) Nonfiction, (SF) Short Fiction, (JF) Juvenile Fiction, (H) Humor, (FVP) Free Verse Poetry, (TP) Traditional Poetry, (FCN) First Chapter Novel
Cindy Tanquary Peavy Come with me to the river I love. We’ll follow the well-worn path beneath the canopy, where sunbeams pause to dance among the boughs. Step softly— can you hear the water’s distant voice rippling over rocks? Listen to its hum when it swirls in eddies, its whisper when it widens in a pool. Come along to the end of the trail. We’ll stand on the bank together and gaze at the river, winding like a silk ribbon among the trees. If it’s autumn, we’ll marvel at the colorful leaves and trace their mirrored flight from sky and depths until they meet upon the surface and scatter, like pieces of a puzzle. If it’s winter, a sprinkle of snow 6
will outline the pebbled shore and the tree limbs reaching over the water, so bare and lovely against the gray sky we’ll forget to shiver. If it’s spring when ferns unfurl, we’ll peek at shy green gifts and delicate bluets basking in the sun. We’ll linger until dusk when peepers join in a chorus, the sound adrift with the scent of honeysuckle, gentle and warm and fruity. But I hope it’s summer, when tadpoles—plump as ripe berries— wiggle in the shallows and schools of minnows flash by like slivers of a full moon. We’ll hunt for crayfish then, those armored knights with battle-ready claws. We’ll search among moss rocks for spotted salamanders, their blue-black bodies freckled with drops of sunlight. Perhaps we’ll spy a yellow-bellied slider lounging on a log, or a banded water snake, its head raised like a periscope as it slithers away, an S in motion.
We’ll join the river that summer day, swimming to the symphony of tree frogs and cicadas. Afterwards, we’ll rest on sun-warmed boulders and when we’re still enough, the damselflies will perch upon our knees, and the river will flow into our hearts.
________________________________________________________________________ Cindy Tanquary Peavy teaches English at Mountain Brook Elementary and serves as a teacher consultant with the UAB Red Mountain Writing Project, dedicated to improving teachers' writing instruction. For their encouragement and thoughtful critique, she's indebted to her son Marcus and the women in Women Writing for (a) Change.
First Chapter Novel
Margie Tubbs Chapter 1 This is only the second time I’ve told this story. My short-term memory fails me, but I can remember every second of that day fifty-seven years ago just as if it were happening now. Right at suppertime two men came to our house to talk my father into selling our land. My daddy told them that the farm isn’t for sale and won’t be for sale. The one they called Mr. Oakes took a roll of paper money from the inside pocket of his wrinkled suit and peeled off each bill with a jerk so hard the paper made a popping sound. He placed them on the table, one at a time, and after five he stopped and glanced at my father’s face. It had not changed expression. Daddy shook his head. “No matter how much you put down there, Mr. Oakes, the answer is no. This land is watered with generations of Armstrong sweat, and, left to me, it will be Armstrong land as long as there is an Armstrong.” My mother was taking pork chops out of her iron frying pan and stacking them on a plate. The other man edged his scuffed brown boots toward the stove and snatched one. Mama swatted his hand with a spatula still sizzling with grease, and he let out a noise that made the outside dogs howl. “All you’d have to do is ask!” Mama scolded him. “You don’t have to go snatching no food around here. We’d give it to you if you asked cause we don’t want none of God’s children to go hungry. And you is God’s child, whether you act like it or not.” Wincing and glaring at Mama, the man took a handkerchief from his denim pants and held it over his burned hand. I thought he was going to cry. 9
Mr. Oakes rolled the brim of his straw hat in his hands and gritted his teeth, curling his mouth up at the corners. It seemed he was smiling, but his eyes were dull and lifeless. “If you colored weren’t so damned uppity you’d see we’re trying to do you a favor, Hiram. You’re going to lose the land anyway. You’d be better off to take the money and leave. It would be to your advantage.” My daddy’s eyes sparked, like fire. “What you’re saying sounds like a threat, Mr. Oakes. I don’t take kindly to threats. I can’t see where you need my piddlin’ forty acres, since you own the rest of the whole county. This land is all we know. If I take that money, what will we do then? We’ve never had nothing but this land and the grace of God to sustain us since Abe Lincoln. And that’s been enough.” The upturned corners of Mr. Oakes’ mouth fell to match his eyes. “That’s your decision?” “You’re asking us to give our lives away! This land is my family’s because they already gave their lives to rich white men like you. Forty acres was cheap repayment, but we took it. We live here not bothering nobody. We grow our crops. We take care of our own. We’re good neighbors. We don’t ask for nothing, and we don’t expect nothing, except a little respect for what belongs to us. Yes, that’s my decision. Far as I’m concerned, it can’t be no other way.” Mr. Oakes motioned to the one still nursing his burned hand. “Come on, Randal, looks like we’ll have to leave well enough alone for now.” They both stomped out with their shoulders thrown back and an anger in their faces that seemed like trouble to me, but what does a fiveyear-old boy know? Getting cotton and peanuts to grow in the sandy soil along the Intracoastal Waterway in Alabama was a trick my daddy learned from his father, who learned it from his father, after the Civil War. We were deeded what was supposed to be junk land, but a combination of prayer, knowhow, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made it flourish with bolls the 10
size of a man’s palm and, in alternate years, peanuts as long as a giant’s thumb. The day after their visit, I lost my innocence. My scrawny legs were ashy from busting up clots of dirt with my feet and following Daddy along rows of the fullest, whitest cotton in Alabama, checking for stink bugs. I was almost to the house to help Mama shell some peas when whitesheeted Kluckers appeared. I had heard that when they show up, there are so many of them that they stretch out across a cotton field like weevils, but there were only three. One of them asked me where my daddy was. He had a hood over his face, but I recognized the ugly boots and the burn on his hand. “If you don’t tell me, I know damned well where to find your mama.” He had a blowtorch in his hand. I knew what it was because my daddy used one to burn off stubble after the crops were all picked. So I told them, “Out there in the field,” and I pointed in the direction I saw Daddy go after lunch. My daddy was just about the strongest man I knew, and if anybody could handle these men, he could. I knew he would want me to protect Mama. The one with the boots said, “Come on, Billy,” and they headed that way. My mama came out of the house running after them. “Get back, you bitch!” the third one hollered and hit her across the face with a shovel, knocking her to the ground. She fell face down, just laying there, bleeding, so I crawled on her back, screaming for Daddy to come. My mother was as still as a dead woman, except for raspy breaths. I stayed where I was, glancing west at the sun spreading a benediction of melted gold over the fields, and thinking that God wastes beauty when he creates it in the presence of such evil. After about fifteen minutes the men left, and I was too hoarse to scream anymore. I slid off of my mama and stood up, afraid to look toward the field.
Mother pushed herself up carefully, staggering a little, and then caught onto a tree trunk for support. Her fingers felt the gash on her forehead, then she walked slowly toward the field, sobbing, with blood dripping into her eyes. I was right behind her, unable to let Mama out of sight, dreading what I would see, and unable to do anything but see it. “Oh, God! Oh, no Jesus!” my mother screamed, kneeling down in the cotton. “Go get help, Alonzo! Go to the neighbors and tell them to call the sheriff!” I was staring off into the cotton as if Jesus himself would appear and tell me what to do. “Get hold of yourself!” Mama screamed. I saw him there, ashes shaped like a man, blow-torched to death and left in a cotton row. The golden sunset was sitting close to the bolls, and dark was about to overtake us. I began running, looking back once or twice at Mama, until she was a tiny kneeling silhouette praying in the cotton. I ran as fast as my spindly legs would go to our nearest neighbor about a half-mile away. I stopped outside the screened-in porch where Brother Titus was sitting, rocking slowly in his chair, and screamed, “The Kluckers have killed Daddy! They burnt him up with a blowtorch! Please, come help us!” “No, son, I can’t come, but I’ll call the sheriff for you. My lumbago is sure stirring around.” He didn’t even offer to give me a ride back to the house. “Now you run along, Alonzo. I’ll make the call.” I don’t know if he called or not. No one came. Running home, tears blurred my eyes, and I could hardly see where I was going. My bare feet were calloused enough that an occasional rock didn’t hurt, but my head was a disconnected balloon bobbling down the dirt road toward home. When I would fall, I’d sit there for a minute or two until my legs were solid again. My thoughts kept pace with the cadence of my feet: God who is in control of all things let this happen. God, who is love, let this happen. God, the maker of the universe, let this happen. Jesus, who lives in my heart,
let this happen. I decided at that moment that black folks aren’t any more important to God than they are to those men in sheets. I swore I would get out of this country that had taken my little boy soul and replaced it with anger. If there was a boat back to Africa, I wanted on it. By the time I staggered back into the yard, Mama had the mule and wagon hitched together. “Get in,” she said. I was too small to get into the wagon without help; Daddy always put me in. I stuck my foot up the front of the wagon with my leg fully-extended and my heel resting on the high step. With hardly any effort, she grabbed me from the back and scooped me over the side. Mama was strong, and I was a kid--these two things I knew, even though I felt I had become grown in the past hour or so. Never had I seen the mule move so fast. Cotton bent under us, and bolls flung off the stalks. Mother shook the reins with both hands, but Dolly was already going top speed. I had never seen her eyes like that before, my mama’s eyes, full of anger and hurt, unaware that I had been bounced to the floor and was bracing my feet against the side of the wagon to keep from being thrown out. The wagon came to a stop, and she climbed out. I dismounted over the side, landing on my bottom and not wanting to get up. There he was, his blackened hands and arms still extended ready to fight, but he was nothing more than a pile of ashes that seemed as if it would disintegrate if touched. I screamed when Mama grabbed his legs and climbed into the back of the wagon. She tried to pull him up but couldn’t. “Shove!” she shouted to me. Surely she didn’t want me to touch him. I stood up awkwardly and stared at her. “Grab his shoulders and shove!” I still remember my hands covered with his cooked flesh. Even after I pulled them away, I could feel his slimy skin between my fingers. I tried to wipe them on my pants, but it wouldn’t come off, and I heard a shrill scream. Next thing I knew, I was stretched out on my bed at the house. It 13
was dark except for a light in the kitchen and a sliver of moon. Outside my bedroom window I could hear the clanking of the shovel as Mama dug another hole in our family burial grounds. I curled up in a ball and stayed there. I hated being a helpless boy—it seemed as if there should be something I could do about this—but someday I would be captain of a boat that would sail me all the way back to Africa. I let my mind take refuge in the fantasy, interrupted only by the sound of the shovel. The digging continued all night. Every once in a while Mama would scream something at the sky, but I didn’t want to think about who she was screaming at. I didn’t want to give God the satisfaction of knowing I cared that he had betrayed us. It took all that night and half the next day for her to get the hole dug deep enough, and then a tropical rain fell for a few hours like it often does here in the late afternoon. She put a paintsplattered tarpaulin over the hole to keep it dry and sat down on the screened porch. I snuggled up beside her on the old couch there, and we kept silent vigil as Daddy lay dead under a quilt on the unpainted woodplanked floor. Toward evening, the rain slacked to a drizzle, and Mama went to her bedroom and unlocked an oak chest built by my grandfather. Ironically, she called it her hope chest. It is where she kept her wedding dress and family pictures, my baby clothes, and two corn cob dolls from her childhood. She stacked all the mementos on the bed, and then dragged the chest through the house, making scrape marks on the floor all the way to the porch. There she opened it and lined it with a pink sheet. I watched from inside the house, peeking around the door facing, as she wrapped Daddy in the quilt, grunting as she lowered him inside, then locked the chest, as if he would try to get out. There were three steps down from the porch. The chest banged on each one until it reached the ground. She then pushed it through the mud to the hole she had dug in the side yard. She aligned the narrow end of the chest with the hole, pushing and pulling it back and forth to make a slick 14
rut. Finally, she pulled it back to her and shoved it with all her weight, quick and hard, and it slid right into the hole, landing on its bottom and settling down with a dull swoosh. After that, she took the shovel and covered him up. To this day, my nightmares are filled with the cascading sound of dirt and clay landing on a wooden burial box. She was staggering by the time she finished. She hadn’t eaten or rested in two days, and she collapsed right there in the mud and motioned for me to come. We sat together and cried. We cried as loud as we wanted because there was nobody to hear. We screamed, and she prayed, and asked God for the strength to continue living. But there was nothing God could do now. He had let all this happen. When she was finally quiet, she said, “This is not your fault, Alonzo. I don’t ever want you to think it was your fault.” “I shouldn’t have told them where he was!” “You didn’t do a thing wrong, son. They would have found him, no matter what. You were helpless, and I was helpless. There’s just so much that helpless people can do until they make up their minds not to be helpless anymore. Do you know what I mean, Alonzo? You must be strong to survive in this world.” “Yes ma’am. I promise that. I’m going to grow up and kill them dead.” “You don’t go talking like that, Son. Trading evil for evil don’t do the world one bit of good. God don’t want you to be that kind of man.” “God don’t care about us, Mama. God could have struck those Kluckers dead, but he didn’t, so I don’t care what he wants.” “Don’t you go blaming God. He hates the meanness just like we do. We don’t understand everything now, but someday we will, and you’ll see that something good will come out of it.” I shut my mouth then, because I couldn’t understand what she meant about not being helpless and something good coming out of something so wrong.
The next morning we loaded our old Ford pickup with important papers, pictures, and clothes and headed for my grandmother’s house in Fort Deposit. As we left, it looked like all the neighbors were leaving, too. There were enough loaded trucks to make a caravan. “What’s going on?” I asked, but Mama nodded to them and waved goodbye, no questions asked. “Alonzo,” she said. “Some things you just don’t need to know.” We never discussed it again. Mama blocked it out like it never happened. Like Daddy never existed. She found a new church where she continued singing praises to the one who stood by and watched while my daddy was killed and didn’t lift a finger to stop it. I vividly remember that day in 1956. I can even smell…. Alonzo’s voice falls to a whisper as his words morph into anguished memories. Alonzo Armstrong daubs his eyes with the handkerchief he keeps neatly folded in the back pocket of his work pants. A wall of red and gray law books, framing the window behind the attorney, coaxes him back to the present. “Damn if you didn’t pull the scab off the wound.” Martin Shearer listens, his bare elbows propped on the oak desk that had once been his father’s. He laces his fingers behind his head and closes his eyes. The slight, brown-haired lawyer is visibly shaken by the story Alonzo told. He never knew that such atrocities were perpetrated in Alabama, except for the cases that made the law books, and even those seemed to belong to generations long dead. He runs his hands through his freshly-trimmed hair, shifts his weight, and rolls his claw-footed chair back from the desk to buy time to think about what to say next. “That explains things,” he says softly. “What things? Like why I’m here? I’d love an explanation of that. You came and found me on the job at the shipyard. I didn’t come looking for you. I haven’t needed legal counsel since my divorce thirty years ago, and I don’t plan to need any now, so this had better be good.”
Shearer is considerably younger than his unwilling client. “You’re not in trouble, Mr. Armstrong. Your mother was right. I remember an old saying about everything, no matter how bad it seems at the time, benefitting a person in the long run.” “The Apostle Paul said that God works all things together for good. That, however, has not been my experience.” Alonzo scowls. “But I know you didn’t call me here for Bible study.” Shearer chuckles and pushes his back against the chair to stretch. “We have a few things to settle from Kenneth Kingston’s estate, and my intent at this point is to make you aware that you have been included in his will. Of course, the family will have the opportunity to contest his wishes, but they are cognizant of the close friendship that you and Mr. Kingston shared. I needed to hear your story so I can complete my research.” Shearer’s eyes begin to twinkle. He is an Alabama boy—private prep school, Auburn University, University of Alabama Law School. “I don’t believe the serendipity of all this.” He taps his pointer finger and a smile spreads to the corners of his mouth. “I think you’re going to get your boat.” “You’re not making sense.” “The boat the little boy wanted to captain. It is docked at Kingston Shipyards.” “You talking about the Silver Gray?” “Yes, the tug. Mr. Kingston left it to you in his will with some rather unusual stipulations.” Alonzo lifts his eyebrows and waits. “The first is that he wants you to live on it.” “Permanently?” “That’s up to you. The second is that you let five aging, white gentlemen live on it with you.” “Oh, shit!” Alonzo’s laugh starts with a reverse sniff. He tries to be serious, but the sniff turns into a chuckle, characterized mostly by 17
exaggerated shoulder movements, and finally uncontrollable belly laughs that subside to a sniffle again. “Thanks, Martin. I needed that.” He strolls to the door and lifts the handle. Shearer waves dismissively. “We’ll talk after the funeral.” “About me adopting five old white men?” Alonzo begins chuckling again. “I don’t think so.” “About that and other matters. Some money and land.” Alonzo hears money and land as he closes the door. He opens it again and stares soberly at Shearer. “What are you saying?” “It’s complicated. We’ll talk more after the funeral. By then the family will have had time to review the will in depth.”
Margie Addison Tubbs is a former newspaper columnist, deputy sheriff, and special education teacher originally from the piney woods of Louisiana and now a resident of Mobile, Alabama. She enjoys retirement with her husband Dennis and writes when the mood hits. She just completed her first novel, The Silver Grays.
Free Verse Poem
The rain has stopped, but not the wind. The wind loves to play at limbs and branches so as to make a pretty scene of pretend violence. And soon it stops, only to surprise again by scooping up the greeny skirts of dogwoods.
________________________________________________________________________ Frank Dawson lives on the Cahaba River near Leeds with his wife, Joan. He likes to paint, draw, and write short stories and poems. He and Joan belong to the Leeds Area Poetry Group. Some of his work has appeared in the Birmingham Arts Journal.
Richard Perreault Noel looked down the trail behind him to where the beagle snuffled through new-fallen leaves carpeting the forest floor. “Come on, Buges,” Noel called. “If we’re going to make it to the top and back down before dark we can’t lollygag around.” The dog kept plodding ahead without looking up, closing the distance between himself and his master at an almost imperceptible pace. “Used to make it up in half-an-hour, Bugler,” Noel said, as though hoping to shame the old dog into hurrying. “We’re forty-five minutes in and still on flat ground.” Truth was, Noel didn’t care how fast they traversed the half-mile between the parking lot and the trailhead for Tracer Mountain. All that mattered was they were together on their favorite stretch of trail on a cobalt blue, perfect autumn day. For months Noel had been promising Bugler that at the first opportunity they’d drive to the mountains and hike to the Tracer overlook. But sometimes first opportunities can be a long time coming. The promised outing had fallen victim to a few must-do commitments and a string of those unnecessary necessities that clutter folks’ lives. Ever the Post-it Note philosopher, Noel had scribbled: The less time you have left, the quicker it seems to get away from you, on a yellowsticky he intended to slap on the wall beside his desk. After thinking about it, he decided there was nothing profound about less time passing more quickly than more time, just like less wine in a glass likely wouldn’t last as long as more wine. The sticky was still in the glove box of his car. Before Noel had found his way clear for a drive to the mountains; summer was fully baked and the first few weeks of fall stashed away on a 20
shelf. With icy weather now no more than a calendar page away, he’d decided this crisp October day might be their last chance before the year was done. The day had turned out colder than Noel had planned for, but a thinning canopy overhead allowed dappled sunshine to filter onto the trail and the trees in the notch between the two promontories, Kolb’s Hill and Tracer Mountain, were still thatched with enough leaves to blunt the cutting edge of the October wind. At the base of the trail leading up to the overlook, Noel checked his watch. “Right at an hour, Bugler. We should have already been at the top and be thinking about starting down. I hope your night vision is up to snuff.” The old beagle’s tail began switching like a metronome, then stopped in mid wag, as though it forgot where to go next, or just plain wore out. Noel peered up the steadily ascending trail. Six hundred feet above it would crest beside what in his mind was the prettiest view in western North Carolina. He and Bugler had made the climb a hundred times in their decade together, but as he struggled to lift his foot onto the first stone of the ascent, he acknowledged the challenge before him. Bugler stood silently, waiting to see what Noel would do next. “Come on,” Noel encouraged. “We’re going to have the six tiredest legs in North Carolina, but it’ll be worth it.” After a few hard earned steps, Noel reached the first switchback at the edge of the ridge where the undergrowth turned sparse, opening a window for the wind to come whipping through. He snugged the collar of his corduroy jacket and with some effort coaxed his thumb and forefinger to press the snap together. Noel’s thoughts tripped back to the first time he’d taken the puppy Bugler up to the overlook. “Remember?” he said, certain the dog knew exactly where his mind had blown to and settled. “About halfway up you 21
plopped down and stared at me like I’d lost my ever lovin’ mind. Up ’til then you’d held up pretty good, but I could see you’d had enough. I carried you the rest of the way up. Mama fretted the whole time that you’d get too close to the edge and we’d have to climb down to gather up what was left of you.” Through the canvas of his hiking pants Noel felt a nudge against his calf. He glanced down just as Bugler looked up, the dog’s rheumy eyes searching perhaps for a clarity that had long since deserted him, but comforted nonetheless by the familiar nearness of his master. The beagle wheezed as he pressed his muzzle against Noel’s leg. “You’re right about that,” Noel said. “She should be here. Left us way too soon.” In the two years since his wife, Cheryl, died, Noel’s sadness had dulled, smoothed by the incessant pounding of passing days; but the emptiness endured, cutting-sharp, intensified even more when his mind was given over to remembering. In the more than 30 years they’d been together, Noel never lost the wonder of how out of all the men in the world she’d chosen him. He’d told her he suspected she was the reincarnation of the Welsh sorceress Rhiannon, who’d yielded her mystical powers in exchange for the pain of loving a mortal. On a lightning bolt of a day, as they held hands in the counseling room of an oncologist’s office, they learned she had also yielded her immortality. “She’d have still been able to do it,” Noel said, letting his eyes wander as far up the trail as they could. “She’d be standing up there fifty feet ahead of us, looking back and laughing. You remember that laugh. She learned it from the wind and taught it to the stream running through the valley down there.” Noel leaned into his stride and resumed trudging up the incline. All around him the woods smelled of dry must and the gentle desperation of
the forest clinging to life, not yet reconciled to the inevitability of harsh November. Within a hundred feet, the path gave way to a hodge-podge of worn rocks and fallen limbs as it wound between scatterings of large, lichencrusted boulders. Although lifting his feet to clear each ledge was an effort, Noel maintained a heady pace until he reached the next switchback. Before making the turn he checked to see if Bugler was following. Twenty yards behind, the dog shuffled along, nose to the ground, no doubt fantasizing about the wild things hinted by the panoply of smells roiling inside his nostrils. When he looked up and saw Noel standing at the top of the trail, he halted. Noel lifted his cap and dabbed away a rivulet of sweat with his coat sleeve. “Making sure I’m going on before you waste the energy catching up?” Bugler plopped down on his haunches. “Am I going to have to carry you like the first time? What’s that? Yeah, I know. Seems like somebody’s moved the overlook further on up. It used to be right about here. They made the trail steeper too.” The wind kicked up and Noel turned to face it. He resettled his cap, pushing it down tight so it wouldn’t blow away. “You’re a lucky dog Buges. To be down there, where the wind doesn’t know who you are. Let’s go. Can’t be all that far now.” He made the tck-tck-tck-tck sound that they’d agreed long ago meant, come on, and took a step to show Bugler they were moving on, hesitating just long enough to make sure the old dog followed. Fifty feet on Noel was forced to duck his head and steady himself against a tree as another gust of wind whipped down the trail. He pushed on then until his legs and lungs conspired to once again bring him to a stop. He leaned against a tall slanting poplar and sucked hard at the chilled air. Had it been 200 years before, the loud pounding in his ears might well have been the sound of Cherokee drums, 23
but Noel knew it for what it was, his heart trying to rush oxygen to every cell in his aching body, to assuage his lungs and calm the uncontrollable gasping. Bugler had fallen even further behind, so Noel waited for him to catch up. When the dog struggled to a stop at his feet, Noel reached down and fondled a floppy ear. “Next switchback the wind will be behind us for a while. That should make it easier. And just another turn or two and we’re there.” But even with the wind in his favor, Noel couldn’t go more than a few dozen steps at a time before having to stop and once again catch his breath. He dismissed the idea that his legs felt like lead as there was no way lead could ache and tremble. He lowered himself onto a shaded, flat boulder, tilting his cap back to feel the breeze as though his head were also struggling to breathe. Noel snapped his fingers and made the tck-tcking sound for Bugler to come to him, but the old dog had wandered a few feet off the trail into a patch of sunshine, and was slowly circling, preparing to plop down. “So. Is that it? We going to admit we can’t do it?” Bugler, who had settled into the sun splotch, released a deep, pleasurable sigh. “It wouldn’t take much to talk me into stopping right here,” Noel said. With the help of an overhanging limb Noel pulled himself to his feet and moved toward the dog. Bugler had closed its eyes but his nose was twitching, processing the aromas that garnished the afternoon, perhaps weaving them into dreams of old adventures and escapades yet to come. His grizzled jowls had relaxed into what could have passed for a smile. Noel stood beside Bugler, careful his shadow didn’t block the splay of sunshine bathing the dog’s sprawled body. “I tell you what, Buges. If you want to keep going, just say so. If you don’t, then don’t say a word.”
Bugler had lapsed into the fluttered breathing Noel knew to be the dog’s personal rendition of snoring. Noel toed a jagged rock out of the way to make a flat place to sit, and lowered himself to the ground. “Okay, we’ll stop here. But just remember it was your idea. I don’t want to hear any bellyaching about us not going all the way to the top.” He smoothed the fur along Bugler’s forehead just above eyebrows long since gone white. “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we tell some of the old stories? The wild and woolly adventures we’ve logged along the way. I’ll start.” Noel picked up a stone, turned it a time or two in his hand, then tossed it into the undergrowth beside the trail. “I know you remember this one. Utah. Northeast corner near Flaming Gorge. Blue-bluster-bitch of a night, but just a one-dog night, not a three. Which was good because you were the only dog we had. The Warning - Grizzlies signs were out, and the wind gusts were pounding the tent like cannonballs.” A squirrel scuttled down a tree and scurried away through a drift of leaves. Bugler opened his eyes but didn’t bother giving chase. Noel petted the beagle’s flank then continued. “You’re right. The grizzly signs were in Montana. But this is the moose story, and that was definitely Utah.” Apparently satisfied with the clarification and eager for Noel to continue the story, Bugler closed his eyes. “So, we made it through the night just fine, but at dawn, we heard a munching sound right outside. You let out a yowl a Yukon wolf would have been proud of, and lunged for the front flap. I caught you by the hind legs and dragged you back. I wrestled you down and Mama stuffed you into the sleeping bag and pinned you down. You were squirming like a python in a frying pan. You wanted a piece of whatever was out there, but I was afraid it might be something that had beagle on its breakfast menu.” Bugler raised his chin, settling it on an exposed hickory root. Noel brushed a clump of dirt off the dog’s nose. “While Mama was tending to 25
you, I grabbed the mess kit and started banging things together like I was alerting folks a fire had broken out in a dynamite factory. Then we heard something crashing through the brush. Running away I hoped. We put you on your leash and the three of us crawled out into the mist. Remember that mist? It was like walking through a rain cloud. The whole time you had your nose to the ground, trying to pull loose. I thought you were going to drag Mama clear into Colorado. Then, up on the side of the hill, we saw them. A mama moose and her baby.” Bugler opened his eyes and moved his head just enough to rest his muzzle on Noel’s leg. Noel laid his hand on Bugler’s face and stroked the fur along his jowls. “That was something, wasn’t it? A baby moose. Knobbly knees. Scrawny as a scarecrow. And what about the time the beaver came crashing through the ice at the edge of that lake in Wind River? Scared the bejesus out of all of us. You too! Don’t deny it. And that ghost of a silver fox on that snowy road between Banff and Jasper, and . . .” Bugler had shifted his head and was licking Noel’s hand. I’m sorry, boy. It’s your turn. I get wound up when it starts coming back to me. So, what’s your favorite story?” The old beagle once again closed his eyes and lapsed into the somnolent song of shallow breathing, no doubt dreaming of things wild and adventurous, things that could not be forgotten. Noel lay down on his back with his head pressed against the dog’s shoulder; the warm sunshine penetrating his jacket, his skin, his bones to the marrow and beyond. He closed his eyes and felt the benevolence of the forest as it took him in its arms. He knew when Bugler woke he would have decided what story to tell. In that old I ain’t nothing but a hound dog way of his, he’d start in on the one about how he chased the bears away from the campsite in the Smokies, or the time down in a Georgia swamp when he tried to tree an alligator. Bugler’s favorite stories were ones where he’d done something brave. Those were Noel’s favorites 26
too. Whatever story Bugler told, Noel knew he would enjoy it. It would be a story about how things were in the old days, when the man and the dog were younger; when there were three of them, not two. It would be a story about a time when the world was theirs for the taking.
________________________________________________________________________ This is the third straight year Richard Perreault’s writing has been honored by the Alabama Writer’s Conclave. His short fiction has also received awards from Appalachian Heritage Writers Symposium, Gulf Coast Writer’s Association, and the Atlanta Writers Club. Richard lives in Atlanta, Georgia and on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
Larry Wilson My daughter is sleeping fitfully, her long blond hair gone, replaced by a smattering of fuzz, her body wasted to skin over bones, and her mind dulled by the chemo drugs and pain killers. She is far from a perfect daughter but I love her. She’s fought her battles with alcohol and mostly lost. I’ve loved her through the many rehabilitation programs, her commitment to a mental health facility, her DUIs and accidents, her failed marriages and attempt at single parenthood. Those things forced me to accept her life might be short; cut by some tragic accident or overdose, but it did not prepare me for cancer and dealing with the reality of her slow, heartbreaking decline. In her darkened room I sit wishing I had a glass of scotch to dull the pain. I’d admire its rich color, listen to the tinkling of ice cubes in a crystal glass, inhale its fragrance, and savor its peaty flavor. Wishing I still smoked so I could spin the wheel of an old Zippo lighter, watch the flame as it kissed the tip of my cigarette, feel the sharp bite of the smoke my lungs still remember, watch the tip glow in the dark, blow perfect smoke rings, and feel the caress of the soft, smooth, white cylinder between my fingers. Instead there is only the room’s darkness, the sound of her ragged breathing, the stench of sickness, and an old verse running endlessly through my mind. Yesterday upon the stair I met a man who wasn’t there He wasn’t there again today Oh, how I wish he’d go away
I open the door and walk out on the small deck. Dense fog has settled in and the street lights glow pale like distant planets in the unknown vastness of space and the air is heavy and hard to breathe and smells of the damp wood deck. The end of the stairs is barely visible but the man still isn’t there. Oh how I wish he’ll stay away. Back inside I lean over and gently kiss her cold damp forehead and whisper, “I love you, daughter,” before I sit down in a chair that’s too low to be comfortable and stare through the window into the fog, waiting for the sunrise to burn it away so I can see tomorrow. ________________________________________________________________________ Larry Wilson is a retired Air Force officer who lives on the lip of the Wetumpka meteor crater overlooking Montgomery. He is a member of several creative writing groups and past president of Montgomery Creative Writers. He writes primarily short fiction, but if sufficiently depressed, an occasional poem sneaks out.
Richard Key Squirrels seldom inspire serious thought. Those who have had all their trees cut down may never have to think about the little critters at all. I don’t have that luxury as numerous trees surround our house and squirrels outnumber humans a hundred to one. Yellow jackets outnumbered us fifty to one until I put the hurt on them with traps and spray poison. Humans can be a formidable foe when stung in the right place. However, I and the squirrel population live more or less at peace. Unlike a few people I know around here who occasionally dine on squirrel tenderloin, I do not, and feel like I have earned some respect for that. But if I catch the one that’s been gnawing on the Ipe balcony railing outside my upstairs home office, our tastes may expand. No, I am a laissez-faire landlord and they know it. As an observer of nature—as distinguished from someone like John Muir and scouts in general who dwell in nature and seem to enjoy it—I sometimes witness natural and biological phenomena firsthand. One such phenomenon is falling squirrels, something about which you could Google all day long and find out very little, except as the name of a rock band or something. My second floor office desk faces a window where several trees are nearby and I can waste considerable time observing phenomena as I await my next feeding period. Well, the other day I saw a gray blur in rapid descent shoot past my vision, not unlike the scene in Vertigo when Jimmy Stewart sees the plummeting lifeless body of Kim Novak on his way up the stairs of the mission tower.
Don’t worry about the little feller—he’s OK. I have actually been standing near trees when I was startled by the thud of a squirrel making sudden contact with terra firma. Squirrels learn much from their elders and one of those lessons must be the same that little league dads all across North America teach their young—shake it off! Indeed they squander few seconds in puzzlement before they and their tiny addled brains scamper back up the tree to get CT scans and sit out the next few games until they’re cleared by the trainer. It happens more than you think. Of course there are no records. There is no squirrel equivalent of the CDC that carefully tracks the morbidity and mortality of daredevils running slap dash across busy streets or teenage squirrels on rumspringa chasing each other high tail through the forest like the frenzied tree rats that they are. It’s all very hush-hush. I imagine a small minority of enlightened squirrel parents— perhaps accompanied by a diminutive lawyer squirrel with tiny briefcase—banding together at the elementary school to back legislation requiring helmets for those engaged in risky behavior. They form a nonprofit organization—Neighbors United for Tree Safety (NUTS)—and before long are handing out t-shirts and bumper stickers. They make a little headway, but soon things are just the way they used to be, and the attorney is making big bucks in the personal injury business. But squirrels do face mortality, dwelling as they do in the land of Nod. I suppose they don’t have the full complement of nine lives that their feline nemeses possess, but they have several. Eventually they run out, and there it is, a carcass to the insensitive, a wee little soul to the overly sensitive. This much we owe to the .22 rifle and the automobile: without them you’d probably never see a dead squirrel. The rituals surrounding squirrel birth and death are bathed in secrecy. I suspect if you knew when and where to look you could observe final rites of extreme unction performed by the squirrel priest equivalent. I could show 31
you markings on some trees in our woods that resemble Masonic symbols etched with deliberate care by clans of mystic rodents (or it could be evidence of pine beetle infestation). One of my future projects will be to observe nighttime burial habits of Sciurus carolinsis, that is if someone buys me that pair of third generation binocular night vision glasses for Christmas (hint hint). Maybe I could get a grant from National Geographic. Anyway, I’m keeping my eyes focused on the woods east of Eden with the hope of further advances in deciphering squirrel behavior. WHUMP! On second thought I may study why birds in flight occasionally veer off course, concussing themselves against my observation window—which brings to mind another Hitchcock film…
________________________________________________________________________ Richard Key is a semi-retired pathologist living in Dothan, AL with his artist wife and their over privileged cat, Kiko. They have two grown children who reside in other states. Richard began writing four years ago, although he’s always had stories swirling around in his head.
Jerri Hardesty As twilight creeps its way across the land, And darkness rolls along its flowing skirt, The stars spread out across the sky so grand, And all the earthly lights begin to flirt. They twinkle as they wink up at the stars, They lure them down with rainbow color hues From streetlights, windows, neon signs, and cars, They signal to the night and wait for cues. The manmade luminescence rises high, Bright beams to bridge the gap from dirt to air, And as the dawn approaches near, they sigh, And flee beneath the sun's encroaching glare. The lamps of Earth reflect the sparks above With longing glow of unrequited love.
Jerri Hardesty lives in the woods of Alabama with husband, Kirk, also a poet. They run the nonprofit poetry organization, NewDawnUnlimited, Inc. (NewDawnUnlimited.com) Jerri has had over 250 poems published, and has won more than 500 awards and titles in both written and spoken word/performance poetry.
Sara Gipson Late June, 1965 The egg timer I kept next to my lounge chair buzzed. I yawned and stretched before announcing, “Time to turn.” In unison, four of us rotated. Candy and Bev were stretched over their yellow and white striped lounges on my right. Deidra was on my left. She had unhooked her bikini top to prevent unsightly strap marks, so she had to reach around and reconnect the back closure of her bra before turning. Watching her practiced fingers made me wish I could be as risqué and bold. Of course, Mother wouldn’t allow me to wear anything so outrageous—she said it was a sin to expose my navel outside the bathtub. Thus, I wore a utilitarian tank style suitable for any ultraconservative swim team. Candy and Bev’s moms also restricted them to one-piece swimwear, but not with the same bland message. How was I supposed to attract a beau wearing such a drab suit? At fourteen, scouting for beau was our vocation, finding a prom escort was our goal. Everyone knew prom invitations were issued to juniors and seniors; thus, we had to attract men from those grades if we intended to attend. And who didn’t want to go to the prom? How to attract the appropriate man seemed one of life’s enigmas. Mother used to say, “Don’t rush it. The right one will come along when God thinks you’re ready.” Her advice might have worked for her generation, but I considered it obsolete. My friends and I garnered a treasury of more current wisdom from fashion and movie magazines. These proved invaluable sources of worldly knowledge, like how to use hydrogen-peroxide to whiten teeth 34
and lemon juice to highlight hair—things Mother never considered important. Our mothers left us to entertain ourselves at the pool while they played a round of golf. Working on tans, we studied magazines and men. Unfortunately, I had an added responsibility, my mischievous five-yearold brother, Todd. Among the first arrivals, we selected lounge chairs which allowed us to stake out the best viewing advantage. From there we could observe men and still watch my brother’s antics. As soon as mother departed, Todd looked around for witnesses, then he jumped with his feet drawn to his buttocks, splashing out as much water as possible. When he surfaced, he turned toward me and grinned. Discovering I was unable to avoid his displaced spray, he hooted and pointed until he drew uninhibited attention to my dousing. Wasted were the early hours I spent teasing and combing my hair to perfection. In one micro-second, Todd gave me the drown-rat-look. No chic model or movie star could have had to live with a little brother. Todd liked water dodge ball. Lifeguards organized and supervised the games. When a game was in play, I could pretend he didn’t exist and sunbathe undisturbed with the girls. Our lounges were stationed between the snack bar and entrance gate, the hub of foot traffic, providing maximum opportunities to manwatch. Most of the boys who hung out at the pool were young like Todd. We sought sixteen-year-old GQ models with the polish of Cary Grant and the flavor of Elvis Presley—definitely not the norm found at the country club pool. Today, I was bored. The blank faces of my companions said they, too, were bored. But what else was there to do? Budding women at fourteen can only take so many perfect summer days. Yet, here we tested our tolerance. Our bodies were slathered and saturated in rich oils scented with coconut extract and cocoa butter. A 35
cloudless sky granted the sun uninhibited access to let us achieve at least one summer mission—a perfect tan. Since commencement of summer break, we’d spent every dry morning basking in sunrays. Already, we’d attained the sun-roasted skin tones which any movie starlet cast in a beach scene would envy. But, perfection remained elusive. Country club rules specified lifeguard shift changes. By mid-June, my friends and I knew which guard sat each shift. Deidra was first to spot the new guard. She had a built-in radar system which must have been genetic since her mom was married to husband number seven. “Do you see what I see?” Deidra slyly indicated the lifeguard climbing to his perch. We faced the sun, eyes shielded behind Polaroid lenses which allowed us to study him without appearing to notice. From our lounges, we pronounced the new lifeguard ideal. At least sixteen, his skin was bronzed to a tone deep enough to shout August. A silver whistle gleamed against his oiled chest. When he settled into the elevated chair, he blew it. Instantly, the pool filled with splashes of loud raucous children, including my little brother. Discovery was one thing, attracting the new guard’s attention proved another. Only Deidra could fully implement any advice from the magazines. Her mother allowed her to wear cosmetics anytime. Today, she wore matching coral lipstick and nail lacquer. Candy’s mom allowed nail polish and lipstick if she applied only the palest of pinks. Bev wore Chap Stick, but that was all. Mother insisted she’d scour me with Ajax if she caught me wearing anything remotely related to makeup. While Todd and the other children played dodge ball, I pondered the situation. Dark glasses hid his eyes, a baseball cap covered his hair, and he wore the standard red swim trunks issued by the club. Mysterious and perfect, he had mega-watt prom date potential.
“Sissy, could you get our ball? Ple-e-e-ase?” Todd’s whiny voice disrupted my concentration. “Where is it?” “Don’t you ever pay attention to anything? It’s under your chair.” With no graceful method to remove the ball from under my lounge, I bent, grabbed the ball, and pitched it into the pool. Once back in my seat, I noticed the new lifeguard staring at me. Deidra whispered, “Don’t be too thrilled by your conquest. Your suit crawled into your crack.” I felt my whole body flush crimson. Even though the egg timer hadn’t reached its mark, I announced, “Time to turn.” I hid my face in the terrycloth towel spread over the vinyl strips connecting segments of the chair frame. This had to be my last day on earth! No way could I let the new lifeguard see me again after having a view of my buns. How could God let me keep living after such an experience? Still buried deep in my pity party, I heard Todd shouting. “Help! Sissy, h-e-l-p me! Ple-e-e-ese!” Without turning, I yelled, “Get it yourself!” “Sissy, help me!” Giving in, I rolled off the lounge. On my hands and knees, I peered under my chair. But no ball was there. Todd’s voice echoed. “Help me! Sissy, help me!” Forfeiting the ball search, I turned toward the pool. The ball was under Todd’s belly. His legs and arms were spread like he was flying. I was furious. He was having fun while I suffered repeated embarrassment. I sat on the edge of my lounge and complained. “Little brothers are pests.” Deidra commiserated. “Sissy, how do you do it? I hope my mother never has any like him.” 37
Candy added, “No chance of that. Your mother isn’t married long enough to have a baby.” “Let’s not get catty,” Bev said. She flipped over and raised her chair back to support a sitting position. “However, I agree. It’s too much to ask Sissy to watch Todd. Couldn’t your parents hire a nanny?” “I wish. But, they say I need to learn responsibility.” Deidra volunteered to quiz the new lifeguard. When she returned, we listened to the scoop while she whispered. “His name is Steve. Besides being a lifeguard, he’s on the club’s swim team; he plays on a Babe Ruth baseball team; and he drives. He’s from Panama. His father works for Army Corps of Engineers. This summer, he’s staying with grandparents. Have you ever known anyone so exotic?” “Doesn’t Todd play tee-ball in the Babe Ruth Park?” Bev asked. I answered, “Yes, but they don’t always play at the same time. Besides, my parents make me sit with them and be part of a family cheering squad.” “I wish my parents wanted to do family stuff.” Deidra’s complaint took me by surprise. I thought she had the best life possible. The egg timer buzzed, and we rotated. Facing the sun, Bev and Candy thumbed magazine pages. Deidra began one of her mother’s romance novels. I opened a Jane Austen novel, half-watched Todd, and gazed at Steve. Two juniors from the high school were flirting with him. He seemed peeved, but it could’ve been my wishful thinking. “Sissy, look at me.” Todd yelled. By then, I was actually reading my book, so I didn’t look. “Isn’t that your little brother again?” Deidra asked. “Yes.” “How do you tolerate his interruptions?” Deidra’s words hung in the air.
I closed my book. Steve smiled at the flirt wearing blue eye shadow. Then, he passed a tube of zinc oxide to the Sandra Dee clone. How could any man be taken in by women who stuffed socks in their bras? “Sissy, see how tall I am!” I looked and gasped. Todd was astride the shoulders of an older boy who was issuing challenges to other pairs. Alerted, I signaled a demand for him to get out of the pool before he met trouble. But he ignored it. Flaying his hands, Todd fought valiantly with another boy also riding a taller pal. Other kids formed a ring around the horseplay. Evidently some had chosen sides and cheered for their team. Most backed Todd’s opposition who was clearly winning the battle. Then, Todd’s mount sunk under the surface and reappeared behind his foe. Todd grabbed the kid around his neck and pulled. “Your brother fights like a girl.” Bev pointed towards the boys. The next instant, Todd was embroiled in a bitter war. Todd’s adversary knew how to fistfight. The kid pounded his fists—right, left, right, left—into Todd’s stomach. Todd let go the kid’s neck. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Circling on-lookers pointed and jeered. Todd threw his hands over his face. I glanced toward the empty lifeguard chair, then, returned my attention to my brother. The other kid continued punching Todd’s stomach. “Sissy, help me! Help me!” Choking sobs halted his cries. The rival quit punching and started pushing. Todd reached for the other kid and missed. His opponent took advantage of the swing and jerked Todd off balance. “Sissy, help me!” From the first aid center, a whistle blew twice. Already out of my chair, I wove through the maze of lounges while Todd’s head dipped under water. The big boy who served as Todd’s ride 39
was too busy deflecting punches from his opponent to care what happened to my brother. The shrill scream of the lifeguard’s whistle filled my ears the second I hit the water. My dive sent me to the pool floor where Todd rested, much too still. I reached his foot first and pulled. Avoiding scissor-kicking legs, I tugged his foot and side-stroked toward the surface. Another face approached us like a rocket. I almost lost hold of Todd avoiding a collision. Steve secured Todd with a perfect Red Cross rescue and lifted him to the surface. When I caught the pool edge, Todd was prone on the ground. Steve counted aloud while he pumped life back into my little brother. The pool emptied, but I didn’t notice. I climbed the ladder and rushed to Todd. In unison, Steve and I applied CPR and artificial respiration until the ambulance arrived. My parents declared the pool taboo for the rest of that summer. I saw Steve occasionally when both he and Todd played baseball at the same time. But, each time we managed to extend the unique bond we initiated during our struggle to save Todd’s life. Needless to say, he returned to Panama at the end of the summer and didn’t escort me to the prom. But, we became pen-pals. Later we studied at the same university and solidified our friendship. After college we married. How could I have known at fourteen how life’s pieces would fit together? Life can be a puzzle.
________________________________________________________________________ Published in several anthologies, Sara Gipson has won awards for works in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, photography, art, and fashion design. In 2011, she won the Euple Riney Memorial Award for The Storyteller Magazine Editor’s Choice in Short Story. She also serves as creative mentor for local artists and authors.
Free Verse Poem
Annette Clifford I grew a diameter inch every thirty years one-hundred-twelve feet tall with a cat-face cut on my flank where Iâ€™d been tapped for turpentine. Solid for beams or a mast I was ax-cut, 1896, hauled by horse to the Suwannee, fastened with forged iron pins, rafted toward the mill through water tinged orange by oak tannin. Fate jostled me free and I sank in an elbow of swamp. A century fluttered the river, 80 million long-leaf acres fell while those first loggersâ€™ bones bought a fast nothing on the worm exchange. Current scoured off bark, sapwood. I was resin-hard. Free of human purpose, I slept until a diver with insulated hands hauled me to his barge. He sold me to a carpenter who stroked my knots and sang as he fed me 41
to a circle of eight-gauge steel. The whorls of history in a rare plank, recherchĂŠ, underfoot, silent, at the stylish soiree. ________________________________________________________________________ Annette Clifford is a journalist and writer who recently moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Her editorials have been awarded by the Florida Society of News Editors. Her work has appeared in the anthology Micro Fiction, Sundog, Apalachee Quarterly, SnakeNation Review and elsewhere. She is the author of World's Toughest Job.
Deb Jellett She was 19 and still Norma Jean when we worked together at the Los Angeles munitions factory. We spray painted Radioplanes. She had her moods, but she was a nice girl, usually. In our off time, we went to the pictures and strutted around Hollywood in hopes of being the next big thing. Norma Jean was mad about Clark Gable, said he was a real man. A photographer came into the factory one day to take pictures of us girls as we worked. He took several of Norma Jean in her blue overalls. He told her she should try modeling, gave her a number to call. She got lots of work and I remember her telling me that it was just about the first time something had gone right for her. Pretty soon she got noticed by Hollywood. They fixed her nose, bleached her hair and changed her name. She didn’t like Marilyn, said it was a common name. She called once in a while during that first year. “Hi Rosie,” she would say, “this is Norma Jean.” She said she hated Hollywood, despised the hoopla surrounding Marilyn. “Makes me feel like a piece of meat,” she said. She was going to make a fortune, get out, find a real man and have three kids. She had read a lot about Jean Harlow and said Hollywood had killed her. She hadn’t gotten out in time. In 1950, she got her first big break playing a gangster’s girlfriend in “The Asphalt Jungle”. Her body, not her name, appeared on the movie poster. I think she thought she could control things. But by that time, Norma Jean had vanished into Hollywood and we lost touch. Sometimes I would go to the premiers of her movies. Marilyn came in a tight dress, blonde hair piled high, and luscious red, red lips. She 43
wiggled and blew kisses and would stand in a doorway, her back against the frame, moving slowly down and then up again. Like a caress. One night, I got my courage up and stopped her and asked her for an autograph. She squealed and hugged me, asked how I was. I told her I had found my real man and had three kids. “What?” She said, as she scrawled “Marilyn Monroe” across a sex kitten studio still. She hugged me again and disappeared into a limousine. As the car pulled away, she tapped on the window and held up three fingers. I nodded and she grinned and gave me a thumbs up. After that, she called once in a while to ask about the kids. She said I was the only normal person she knew. One year, out of the blue, she came by with Christmas presents. My husband nearly passed out. He made me take a picture of him and Marilyn. He had his arm around her waist. Over the years, I mostly saw her from the back of a growing mob of fans. Her dresses got tighter, lower cut, her hair bigger and blonder. She had problems, huge ones that sometimes crushed her down. Everyone, including Clark Gable, said she was difficult, impossible to work with. Joe DiMaggio came and went. Arthur Miller said she was nuts and divorced her. The last time I talked to her she said she hated Elizabeth Taylor and that she was moving to New York. She was drunk. In 1962, she was fired from a movie. She had been difficult, erratic. And she was 36 and no longer fresh faced. Elizabeth Taylor was. That August I was sitting at the window counter of a Beverly Hills ice cream store when I spotted her coming out of a drug store across the street. She was dressed in old jeans and a wrinkled linen shirt. Her face was pale, her lips thin and colorless. She drifted by and was gone. That was the last time I saw her. She died a week or so later from an overdose of sleeping pills, naked in her bed. Most people assumed it was suicide.
I should have stopped her, said hello, maybe bought her an ice cream. But the thing was that even pale and drifting and wrinkled, she was still Marilyn Monroe. I sometimes look at the picture of me and Norma Jean the photographer took that day at the factory, at the untamable mass of curly brown hair, the nose that was a little too big, and her sweet almost shy smile. And then there is that picture of Marilyn she autographed for me. Norma Jean and Marilyn side by side. You know, Iâ€™ve decided that she just got tired of being Marilyn. But Marilyn was all that was left.
________________________________________________________________________ Deb Jellett lives in Lillian, Alabama. Her work has appeared in the Birmingham Arts Journal, Dead Mule School, Storyteller Magazine and Alalitcom. She will start an MFA in July.
Richard Perreault On a dazzling fall afternoon in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, Evan Stinson stood at the Split Rock Canyon overlook, mesmerized by the brilliance of the colors. The autumn leaves were spectacular too, but the colors catching Evan’s attention were the peacock-swirl shoulder-to-wrist tattoos on both arms of the young woman who’d emerged onto the flat ground at the head of the steep canyon trail. A slobbering black lab-and-something mix had bounded out of the canyon ahead of her and she was breathlessly trying to command the dog to stop. “Stay, Bonkers,” she panted, “stay.” The day was warm for October in the mountains, but a Novemberhinting wind intermittently gusted across the canyon rim making Evan grateful for the rag-cotton sweatshirt he wore and causing him to puzzle over the woman’s exposed arms. He wondered if the thousands of needle jabs might have caused her flesh to numb, or if the tattoos themselves possessed some mysterious insulating property. Still gasping for breath, the woman bent over and braced herself with one hand on a knee. With the other hand she lifted a torrent of honey-shaded hair off her neck revealing another tattoo, this one a cobalt-and-violet, spread-winged creature that appeared to be an inkpulsed heartbeat away from taking flight. Evan amused himself with how out of shape the woman seemed in spite of looking to be at least 30 years his junior. Only a few minutes before he, too, had come out of the canyon, and although he’d turned sixty the summer before, he was barely out of breath. Behind a smirk, he made a joke of the woman’s poor conditioning, deciding to think of her as the girl with the draggin’ ass tattoo. 46
The dog had returned to the woman’s side where it dropped into the familiar tripod position, one leg horizontal the other pointed skyward, and was enthusiastically giving its genitals a morning bath. When it paused in mid-lick to look around, it noticed Evan. Scrambling back onto all fours the dog bolted toward him. Evan could tell the rush was one of frenzied delight, not malice, so he dropped to a knee, opened his arms, and braced for impact. Then, as if tied to an invisible tether, the dog spun in a circle, punctuated the morning with a yelp of excited frustration, and sprinted back to the woman. Evan was a dog lover, but five years earlier when he and his wife, Rhonda, moved into their dream house at the country club, she had issued a No Dogs edict. There had been no discussion. He missed having a dog and wanted to go over and give this friendly pup a good scruffing, but he was afraid it might lead to an unwanted conversation with the woman. The dog had genuflected at the woman’s feet and rolled onto its back. It squirmed and whimpered then righted itself and once again looked Evan’s way. When it lowered into the half-crouch that is the universal canine gesture for let’s play, Evan couldn’t resist. “Hey, Bonkers,” he said, hoping he’d understood the name the woman had been calling out. Bonkers raced toward Evan, turned a couple of tight circles around him, and then, tail lashing like a buggy whip, loped back toward the woman. Evan followed. Still bent over, the woman grabbed the dog around the neck, looped her fingers under the collar, and looked up. Evan had anticipated another array of tattoos, and perhaps enough metallic protuberances to look like she’d fallen face-first against the artificial lure rack at the general store outside the canyon entrance. Instead, it was a flawless complexion, deep chocolate eyes, and a sunshiny smile that greeted him.
The next surprise was the gentle country girl cadence of the woman’s voice; the syrupy y’alls and yonders a far cry from the acidic biker-chick bite Evan expected to hear. While taking turns bending down to give deference to the licking, pawing, Bonkers, Evan and the woman chatted idly about the glory of the day and the spectacle of the canyon. When they’d talked long enough for it to feel appropriate, they introduced themselves. She said Evan was a nice name, one that portended gentility. Evan couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in a conversation where anyone had used the word portended, and for the life of him couldn’t think of a single thing her name, Steffi, portended. In fact he thought Steffi a rather ordinary name for a woman with kaleidoscope arms. It wouldn’t be until later that night that he’d learn the unusual way she spelled Steffi and confirm that she was far from ordinary. Soon after they’d gotten past introductions they moved their conversation to a bench on a knoll between the canyon and the parking lot. Over a granola bar Steffi seemed eager to share, they began talking about the things that interested them back in their other lives. Steffi’s eyes sparkled like fireflies on a summer night as she recounted the complexities of fashioning an intarsia replica of the cliffclinging, seaside Italian village of Riomaggiore out of wood scraps she’d salvaged from behind the high school where she taught sociology. For his part, Evan effervesced over his near obsession with faceting gemstones. “There’s a moment of revelation when a polished plane opens a window into the soul of a stone,” he told her. “It’s like solving a mystery, or finding a tiny treasure Nature’s hidden inside a rock.” He made sure she knew that even though he’d only been at it for a year, he’d already won honorable mention cutting the complex Portuguese design in an amateur competition.
Steffi seemed genuinely impressed by Evan’s success, which was a palpable contrast to the way his wife had reacted. When Evan received news of his award he’d excitedly scoured the house until he found Rhonda sitting on the closed toilette in the master bathroom with her feet propped on the edge of the jetted tub, waiting for her toenail polish to dry. He held out the certificate with the emblazoned gold Honorable Mention seal in the lower right hand corner and said, “In your wildest dreams did you ever see me winning an award for one of my stones?” Without looking up, Rhonda replied, “Of course not. You’re never in my wildest dreams.” Where it’s not unusual for romance to spill through the holes of a marriage worn thin, the affinity for physical closeness often survives the graying of libidos. For Evan and Rhonda, however, even the occasional obligatory bouts of routine intercourse had stopped; a condition Evan called being put out to pasture. As it turned out, Rhonda’s loss of carnal interest was Evan-specific and had nothing to do with her passing the signpost of middle age and bearing down on the city limits of senior citizen. Pretty much everybody in town knew she and at least three other women who belonged to the country club were banging the tennis pro, Arthur. Evan couldn’t imagine chubby, bald, Arthur being in anybody’s wildest dreams either, but he’d concluded it was Arthur’s thrusting serve, authoritative forehand, and overhead slam that set the ladies’ racket strings quivering. Where women were forever asking Arthur for pointers, none of them ever asked Evan’s advice on anything. If they had, he would have told them there were two things they needed to be sure of before putting their own men out to pasture. First, since every pasture has a fence, make sure when your man gets to that fence there isn’t greener grass on the other side. Second, know for a fact your man can no longer get over the fence.
It hadn’t taken Evan long to reach the fence at the edge of his pasture, but he’d found nothing on the other side but withered brown grass and unsightly weeds, and until this bright fall afternoon above the canyon there’d been no temptation to test whether or not he could still climb over. That Steffi found Evan’s lapidary accomplishments impressive was only the first of several lines of interest she showed. When they’d gotten around to discussing the rigors of hiking the canyon, she’d seemed genuinely concerned to hear how much pain he’d felt in his knee on the descent. “I’ve had trouble with that knee since I was a little boy,” Evan explained. “I was about to have surgery on it down in Atlanta but Sherman burned the hospital.” Steffi giggled and burst into a flashing smile. “You’re not that old,” she said, giving his forearm a playful hush your mouth slap. Evan had intended the comment to be a self-deprecating acknowledgement that he knew his youth had slipped away. It was similar to things he often said in the presence of younger women, trial balloons floated in hope of getting exactly the response he’d just gotten. The tactic had never been successful and Evan had long since forgotten what he expected to happen if one of the balloons ever flew. Along the course of the ensuing conversation Evan and Steffi discovered they were both camping in the West Rim Campground. “I’m in site four,” Evan said. To which Steffi responded, “We’re neighbors. I’m in six.” They’d both laughed when Steffi described her new campfire cappuccino contraption and the unique wood smoke flavor it added to the froth. When she invited him to come over that evening and share a bag of reconstituted freeze-dried lasagna and see the cappuccino machine for himself, he accepted without hesitation. “Bucolic Italian,” he proclaimed. “Bucolico Italiano. Or should that be Italiano bucolico?” 50
“Either way, it should be Italiana,” Steffi corrected him. “I always like to emphasize the feminine.” Later that night was when Evan found out how Steffi spelled her name, when he saw it embroidered on her panties. Beneath the dancing ghost shadows thrown off by the lantern swaying at the top of her tent he would also discover she had tattoos in places he would never in his wildest dreams imagine anyone having tattoos, although he had been imagining the places themselves all afternoon. The next morning at the Canyon Cafe, Evan and Steffi enjoyed a cheerful breakfast of what Steffi suggested they call melt-wetted food, “Since it’s totally opposite of freeze-dried,” she explained. The one-night trysts of Evan’s youth had almost always ended in awkward monosyllabic farewells. So he was relieved that Steffi exuded neither ebullient reminiscence nor crippling guilt about the night before. For the first time in his memory the idiom, a good time was had by all, really rang true. When they said goodbye in the café parking lot, Steffi left him with a warm hug and a kiss on his face, close enough to his mouth to deliver a message, but not an invitation. The words, stay in touch, were never hinted. That afternoon when Evan got home, Rhonda would ask her usual, perfunctory, How was your camping trip? Evan would answer with his equally usual and perfunctory, Fine. Since it was mid-October, Rhonda would enquire about the foliage. “How were the colors?” she’d ask. “The colors?” Evan would reply. Then, after a hesitation he realized was longer than it probably should have been, would say, “The colors were amazing. Far beyond my wildest dreams.”
This is the third straight year Richard Perreault’s writing has been honored by the Alabama Writer’s Conclave. His short fiction has also received awards from Appalachian Heritage Writers Symposium, Gulf Coast Writer’s Association, and the Atlanta Writers Club. Richard lives in Atlanta, Georgia and on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
Mary Lou Simms
How a Canada goose changed my life To this day, I can’t tell you what drew me to her. I was jogging around a city lake, maneuvering my way through a hazy, low-lying fog when a Canada goose—a wispy little thing with petroleum-colored wing feathers and disheveled black tufts of fur around the neck—suddenly stepped out of nowhere. I stopped short, as startled to see her as she was to see me. Then emerged the rest of the winged entourage: three goslings and a good-sized gander that I presumed was the mate. The dad, plainly not thrilled by the intrusion, began hissing. Clearly, I was the one expected to move. Instead I stood there like an idiot. I’d never seen newborn goslings up close, I guess, and I seemed immobilized, unable to place one foot in front of the other. Eventually reason took hold and I stepped aside, letting them pass. That chance encounter would mark the beginning of a friendship that would span the years. I couldn’t know it then but the mother in this unexpected scenario would change my life in ways I never dreamed, influencing even the direction of my career. She would take me from journalist to activist as I strove to tell the story of the Canada goose and its tumultuous and courageous struggles to survive an often hostile urban environment. I liked her immediately. Maybe it was her unerring gentleness around the babies or the way she clucked about, conscious of their every move, but a connection was born. I kept my distance but I took some 53
corn from a back pocket—a treat I carried for some mallard ducks—and spread it along the ground. The mother ate greedily—hungry, I suspect— from having spent much of the previous month cradling a nest. The babies, following their mother's lead, sampled the corn while the dad stood guard. I hadn't expected geese this far south. I had moved here from the Midwest where my encounters with wild geese had been confined to watching them graze along Lake Erie after a torrential storm transformed the rye grass into something particularly palatable, at least to the geese. Ziggy, my oriental short-haired cat, and I would gaze from a window, mesmerized, as the geese went after the grass like it was candy. Then I moved to central Alabama where I inadvertently came across about a dozen or so in a city park as I sought a place to jog. Perhaps they reminded me of home, I don’t know, but I was enthralled to find them. I called her Zoey—Zo, for short—or the Zohead when I was feeling particularly affectionate. It took weeks to decide on a name—and months for her to decide to answer to it. Wild geese aren’t used to having names but eventually she came around and when she did, she went from ignoring the name completely to looking up every time I said it. At some point, she seemed to realize that the sound was hers—and hers alone. She was my goose and I was her human. It was never more complicated than that. Within weeks, I was drawn into her world, gradually becoming swept up in the family’s antics, their comings and goings, the tears and travails and the complex social structure that is an integral part of Canada geese behavior. I came to appreciate her intelligence, the graciousness with which she went about her life and her wonderful sense of the absurd.
From Day One, for example, she made it clear that she didn’t like anything electronic. If my cell phone went off in her presence, she would reach over and gently nip my wrist, her way of letting me know she found it annoying. The camera was less intrusive. It didn’t suddenly let loose with a loud, jarring sound that caused one’s neck feathers to stand upright. On days when the park became crowded, Zo would head for a cemetery on the hill, Dad (her mate) in the lead and the goslings, giving way to natural curiosity, somewhere in between. The tombstones were their refuge; the geese themselves had become mine, solace from a wild and desperate world. There were no iPods here, no emails, no cell phones; just silence punctuated by the occasional honk. The cemetery was strategic for another reason. From here, we could see the entire lake…the walkways, the parking lot, the playgrounds and a chapel above the other side, without fear. It was also here that our conversations began. One day, as we sat atop the hill, I noted the sudden emergence, from a car below, of two afghans—huge, energetic, silky, beige-colored hounds prone to chasing geese. “Uh, oh,” I said to Zo, motioning in their direction, “The brats are here.” “Huh!” she answered. And I was like “What? What did you say?” as I turned to her, laughing. “Huh!” she remarked again. I had often engaged in conversation with her but this was the first time there had ever gotten a response. From then on, “huh” became an integral part of our conversations. It was like a secret word known only to us. I had long been convinced that she could comprehend the meaning of my words anyway. When I asked that she and her mate refrain from chasing other 55
geese, for example, they always obliged. Zo and Dad were good that way. They also seemed able to read each other’s minds so why would it be inconceivable that she could read mine. I also began noting subtle differences in their personalities. Zo was blessed with a natural effervescence while her mate, Dad, was as stoic as they come. He spent the bulk of his time standing guard over the family, keeping other geese at bay. Woe to any that inadvertently wandered near his goslings. The back feathers would rustle in warning and if there wasn’t an immediate exit, the chase was on. Geese are highly territorial, and chasing is part of their natural behavior. Anyone outside the family circle is fair game. Many times, I saw Zoey’s mate rush by me at breakneck speed in pursuit of an offending goose; I was grateful I wasn’t the target. Chasing other geese also seemed a necessary part of growing up. Adults give all goslings a wide berth, apparently equating such behaviors as skills necessary to survival. Still I had to laugh whenever I saw little Horatio, one of Zo’s goslings, chase a gander a dozen times his size without fear of retribution. No one wanted to provoke the parents. Other new families also flew in expecting confrontation. Usually the dads would duke it out, grabbing each other’s necks until one gave in. Sometimes one would fly over the other’s head, avoiding actual physical confrontation, the ritual satisfied. Eventually, wanting to know more about their habits, I began researching the Internet. That was how I learned of the national conflicts surrounding urban geese. The feds were going into locations like mine and gassing beloved community geese in the name of profit. I applied for a national reporting grant to investigate the agency responsible—the USDA’s Wildlife Services—and six months later, began a remarkable journey that would take me to communities along the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways where the lives of thousands of community geese were at stake. 56
The results of that investigation, published by McClatchy-Tribune News Service, indicate that taxpayers are subsidizing a $126.5 million program that exterminates more than four million wild animals annually, including thousands of community geese like Zo and Dad. Zo was responsible for that investigation. Had it not been for her, I would have never thought to research geese or to investigate a federal agency which kills rather than helps communities learn to co-exist peacefully with wildlife populations. I’ll never know how many lives we saved but it is an accomplishment of which I am immensely proud. Zo influenced me in other ways. She sharpened my perception of the natural world. Ants, butterflies, goose feathers, blades of grass, all became cause for scrutiny. I remember one afternoon when the goslings became enthralled by the comings and goings of a colony of red ants. There we sat for half an hour in a kind of trance-like state watching the ants’ activities. How cool and crazy was that. Television also became a thing of the past. When it came to a choice between spending Monday evening with Zo and Dad or "The Bachelor," the geese won every time. It occurred to me that Zo and Dad seemed more steeped in reality that the bulk of the show’s contestants. She also lowered my blood pressure. Canada geese are among the best stress-relievers of all time, and Zo was a genius at putting the rest of world on hold. I’d be at a computer, for instance, and when the pages began to blur, walk to the lake to hang out with them. Within half an hour, writer’s block was a thing of the past. On occasion, I’d take a blood pressure reading after being with the geese and note a drop of 10 to 15 points, prompting me to wonder if there was anything about these remarkable creatures that wasn’t beneficial to the human spirit. Zo also became something of a celebrity at our lake as residents came to know her gentle spirit.
Once a child of about nine or ten came rushing over, loaf of bread in hand. “Do you know where Zoey is?” she asked, breathlessly. “She flew out,” I said. “Do you know when she’ll be back?” the child asked. “No,” I answered, laughing. “She was headed straight West, toward Mississippi.” It wasn’t long into the friendship before I was feeding Zo by hand. Geese are primarily grazers, like horses and cattle, but they love the occasional treat. Zo liked bits of stone ground wheat bread or handfuls of cracked corn. My reward was the feel of that soft leathery beak against my fingers. One day, Zo noticed a small bag of cheese crackers stashed in a shirt pocket. “These aren’t healthy,” I said. “Huh,” she remarked. Finally I pulled one out to satisfy her curiosity, never dreaming she would like it because of the cheese. I was wrong. From that day on, cheese crackers were the undeniable treat. Considering them junk food, I doled them out in small quantities but I carried a bag for her all the same. Canada geese are also a community unto themselves; their existence fraught with ceremony, territorial bickering, never-ending arrivals and departures and touching reunions. One evening, for example, I heard a commotion by a nearby bridge, and curious, I walked over to where some of the geese had been gathering. There, in the dusk, I saw a pair of adult geese with newborns stationed on a small island. The other geese knew to keep their distance but their pleasure at the emergence of the family was obvious. They were welcoming the new babies!
I stood on the bridge and watched, straining to identify the adult geese in the growing dark. I was praying it was Zo, who’d been nesting for six weeks. I called her name, and when one of the parents looked up and began swimming in my direction, newborns in tow, I was overcome with relief. “Thank God you’re safe,” I said, as she came to the shoreline where I was now waiting, to introduce her young. A friendship with a wild goose is not without qualms. I never knew when—or even if—I’d ever see her again, and I worried incessantly about her safety during the hunting and nesting seasons. And then six years into the friendship, my worst fears were realized. She didn’t come back from nesting. Six weeks passed, and then seven. I checked adjoining lakes. Perhaps she or her mate was injured, I reasoned, and stranded somewhere. Eventually, her mate returned alone, and I knew she was gone. Neither, I knew, would abandon the other unless one had died. I was so stunned that, for weeks, I went to the lake only to give the remaining geese their treats. I just couldn’t walk the sidewalks without feeling engulfed in sadness. Her spirit was everywhere. Eventually her mate also left. Perhaps it was too painful for him to remain here. In geese society, the death of a mate, especially a long-term pairing, is a monumental loss. Three years have passed since her disappearance. Time was the eventual healer. That—and the solace provided by her offspring. Horatio, a big, strapping gander from the first clutch who turns eight this spring, is a daily visitor—and like his mother, an aficionado of cheese crackers.
I’ll be sitting quietly and suddenly I’ll sense this movement behind my back and a long neck will creep around my shoulder, inching its way to my shirt pocket, where I always keep a few crackers stashed. Sometimes, for a few seconds, I’ll think it’s Zo and then I’ll remember it can’t be Zo. The Grandparents are also still here, continuing a 10-year reign as the lake’s power couple. Best of all, the delight that comes from just being in the presence of geese—the surprise visits, the boisterous reunions, the built-in enthusiasm—has resurfaced. The other day, I was feeding some 50 geese when a gander approached with a mate and four goslings, and walked right up to me. He seemed unusually comfortable in my presence as he ate from my hand. I must know at least 500 geese by name or sight, but for some reason I couldn’t place him. I sat with the family awhile to see if it spurred any recognition. Sometime later, he began uttering a series of soft, barely definable honks, and suddenly I knew who it was. Zoey’s mate, Dad. “It’s good to see you,” I said, in what was a bittersweet reunion. I was delighted that he had found another mate but his presence brought back still-fresh memories of another goose—and another time. I reminded him of the first time he took bread from my hand. For ages, he had refused my offerings, preferring to keep his distance. Then one day I held out a piece of bread and with no prompting, he simply walked over and took it. “I don’t believe it,” I said. “This is cause for celebration. What has it been, three years since I’ve known you?” He didn’t acknowledge my comments that day, as his former mate would have, but from off in the distance I swore I heard a barelyperceptible, unmistakable “huh”. Perhaps a heaven-sent honk of 60
approval from a beloved goose whose spirit—if not her physical presence —continues to permeate a park she once ruled. Even today, children still ask if I know where she is…. ______________________________________________________________________________
Mary Lou Simms, an investigative reporter from Alabama, is currently writing a book, “Learning to Live with the (Ultra-cool, Ubiquitous) Urban Goose.” The story is about a goose and her extended family at Joe Tucker Park in Helena.
Nick Sweet My father cuts his firewood His chain saw smokes and spits Though he’s four years past fourscore A lot of wood is split Beneath the searing midday sun His energy is waning Still he stalks the timber Intent and uncomplaining Sweat pours off in rivulets Wood chips pierce his skin Though covered in shavings He stacks it to his chin I wonder why his woodpile Never seems diminished Every time I visit His work is never finished Then in an epiphany It’s all precise and clear Why, when the day is oven-hot, He’ll gamely persevere Whoever hears my father’s prayers Would never take a man With an abundant woodpile Stacked by his own hand He fights to free his jammed-up saw Soon it’s extricated Once more he attacks the log His purpose unabated I view this self-reliant man Who never seems defeated And wonder: Can I face the day His woodpile is depleted? 62
_____________________________________________________________ Nick Sweet has been a freelance stage director since 1977. He has directed more than 130 productions for theatre groups in Texas, Oklahoma, Alaska and Georgia. In 2010 he was named Oklahoma's Senior Poet Laureate by the Kitchener Foundation after finishing Runner-Up in Texas in 2007.
First Chapter Novel
Deb Jellett November had been a bad month, but when she turned up, I saw dollar signs. To begin with, I had turned 35 that month and was on the downhill slide to 40. According to my Italian mother, I was on the verge of becoming a spinster. Plus my sex life was nonexistent. Clients had been thin on the ground for a while, and so I had done some shifts at Ed’s Bar. Not that I’m complaining. All my friends hang out there. And I get free drinks, within reason. And what clients there had been weren’t exactly “A” list. The week before, a seedy sort of a guy had come in saying that he thought his wife was trying to poison him. A Private Investigator, especially a female P.I., has to take it as it comes. So, I charged the guy $250 and checked into it. Turns out, the D.C. police had investigated and decided that there was nothing in it. I talked to the wife, nosed around a bit and decided I agreed with the cops. So, I gave him my report and told him to shove off. Then I bought some groceries, paid a bill and moved on. But she was a different proposition. I was betting old money and lots of it. She was tall and blonde and blue eyed and dressed subtly, but expensively, in Italian loafers, beige cashmere turtleneck and pearls and wool tailored pants, with just a whiff of delicate perfume. Her hair was expensively cut into a chin length bob and her coat was politically incorrect mink. And the way she carried herself combined poise with an air of certain entitlement. She was probably around my age. She was the Episcopal Church and Vassar. And me? I am the Catholic Church and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School. Lapsed Catholic. In fact, I am a lapsed Catholic exnun. I was an Outie in a cloistered convent, which meant I dealt with 64
visitors and phone calls. Let’s just say the life was not all it’s cracked up to be and the Mother Superior and I didn’t always see eye to eye. She was very rules based. When I got out, Teresa Sinatra (no relation), my BFF from Sacred Heart, told me there had been a betting pool on how long I would stick it. She won—eleven months. I don’t even feel guilty about jumping ship anymore. No thanks to my mother. What I can’t figure out is why I joined the convent in the first place. I was born Bernadette Flannagan. Mama has this thing for unusual names. She tells me she debated between Bernadette and Etheldreda, both saints. Etheldreda? St. Bernadette helps those in poverty, which is very apt for my circumstances. I go by Bernie. It could have been a lot worse. My sister, Serendipity, swears her name has ruined her life. All through school she was dubbed “Dippy”. My opinion? Even if she had been named Mary, her life would be a mess. She is just that kind of girl. Pops says I am way too hard on her. If I stand up straight the way I was taught by the nuns at school, I am 5’3” tall. My face is nice enough, but my nose is a little too big and my mouth a little too small. Occasionally, I wear lipstick and my designer of choice is The Gap, often by way of the Goodwill Store. I have been a P.I. for eight years. After I left the convent, work was hard to come by. Very few jobs call for a person skilled in prayer and meditation. One day, about ten years ago, I was walking around because I needed to get out of the house and away from my mother and her guilt tripping me about leaving the convent. I passed a sad looking office that had a help wanted sign in the window. Turns out it was the office of a private detective by the name of Ed Sawyer. He wanted someone to answer the phones and do filing. The pay was lousy, but I gradually learned the trade, mostly by trial and error, and when Ed retired and opened up the bar, I went out on my own. Some years have been better than others. But I cope.
It was a Monday, gray and wet the way D.C. can be in November. It had been raining forever. Cities seem dirtier in the rain. When I got in at 8 a.m., she was sitting at the curb in a baby blue Merc. My neighborhood is not a Merc kind of place. Arlington is more VW bug and Toyota Corolla territory. I live on Pollard Street in a rented basement apartment that the landlord calls an efficiency, which is a way of saying itâ€™s one room with a kitchenette in the corner and a toilet and shower behind a curtain. I rent office space in a row house on the other side of the Lee Highway. I share it with a young lawyer named Arthur and a perky wedding planner called Brook. I occasionally do some work for Arthur and he has hit on me once or twice. Nothing much has happened. Only enough to keep things pleasant. It would be cheaper to work from home, but experience has taught me that itâ€™s safer if not too many people know where to find me at night. Most of my neighbors are young professionals who work in D.C. and hope, someday, to graduate to McMansions in McLean or Great Falls. One look at her and I decided she had long since graduated. Heck, she probably had her PhD. I parked my slightly banged up 1999 Nissan Sentra at the curb and grabbed my duffle bag. She was parked a few cars behind me. I bounded up the stairs and into the front hall. My little office is on the ground floor. The rent is cheap, the location convenient. On nice days, I can walk from home in ten minutes. You get used to the traffic noise. It is decorated in what might be called eclectic Salvation Army, with just a touch of hand me downs. Mama donated some pictures of Saints that I keep forgetting to put up. I deposited my wet wool coat on the hook at the back of the door and sniffed the air. Damp, dust, with just a hint of cigarettes. The plug in air freshener had given up the ghost and so I cracked the window just a tad.
I had barely got my backside onto the desk chair, when the woman appeared in the open doorway. She too sniffed the air and for a moment I wondered if she would turn and run. “Ms. Flannagan,” she said in a soft Southern accent, “my name is Avery Benedict. I must speak to you. I need…I need your help.” At first, she seemed cool, calm and collected. But, there was an edge there. Just beneath the surface, she was upset, or was it worried, about something. Her eyes darted around the room and when she came in, she went over to the window and looked out on to the street for a few seconds. I didn’t get up and I didn’t say call me Bernie. It isn’t good to appear too eager. Clients behave better if they think you can do without them. “Why don’t you sit down and we can talk,” I said. I grabbed a legal pad and found a pen that worked. She turned around and spotted the little plaid sofa that I had snagged in a yard sale. Puddles, the world’s most confident calico cat, was curled up bang in the middle of it. Technically, he belongs to Brook, but he prefers me. I think he thinks Brook is too perky. Occasionally, he comes over for a sleepover. She seated herself in a folding chair in front of my desk. She crossed her long legs, slid the Chanel bag onto my desk and sat back in the chair. She had perfect posture. The nuns would have been proud of her. We eyed one another for a bit. Me in my best blue jeans and sweatshirt. Her, head to toe designer. I pulled the last cigarette from the pack of Marlboros. It dangled from my mouth as I rummaged around in the top drawer for something that would produce fire. “I’d rather you wouldn’t,” she said. I was a little miffed, but slid the cigarette back into the pack. 67
“OK,” I said, “What brings you to my doorstep.” Ed used to chit chat about this and that with the clients before he launched in. He tells me I need to work on my bedside manner. She looked around the room for a few seconds and then looked at me and said quite calmly, “The murder of Rob Thomas. You know about that, I guess?” “Of course, I said. “Local TV hot shot newshound murdered in Turkey Run Park ten days ago. It was all over the news.” I watched her to see her reaction. Nothing. I got up and went to the mini fridge in the corner and pulled out a bottled water. The only other thing in there was a tuna fish sandwich that was beginning to turn green and petrify. I held up the bottle and she shook her head. I plopped down into the desk chair and took a swig of water. “Who’s in charge of the case?” I asked wiping off the water dribbling down my chin on the sleeve of my sweat shirt. She rummaged in the quilted Chanel and came out with a card. She handed it over the desk. Aaron Strauss. I smiled. “Do you know him?” she asked. “Slightly,” I lied. Aaron and I have had this on again, off again thing for a couple of years. At that moment we were in neutral. It was my idea this time around. We were both beginning to almost say the “L” word. “You knew Thomas?” I asked. She nodded. “Winston, my husband, and I met Rob at a Christmas party last year.” She paused and studied the floor. “And you hit it off?” I asked. Didn’t seem likely. Old money and hot shot reporter. 68
She considered this for a moment and began slowly, “I didn’t particularly care for the man. He seemed a greedy, pushy type. But he and Win got on pretty well. They occasionally met for lunch or drinks. They have, had a lot in common.” A wistful smile appeared briefly and then disappeared. Suddenly it clicked. Winston Benedict was a big league, high profile forensic accountant with an A-plus corporate client list. And he was big on media attention. He occasionally appeared as a talking head on Fox, usually when some financial scandal had hit. Hence his interest in Rob Thomas. And Rob probably saw Benedict as a source of expertise and maybe as a means of gaining entry to the national cable scene. A friendship of convenience. She shifted in her chair, then tucked her perfect hair behind her ears. I realized I had been staring into space. “Sorry,” I said, “go on.” “Win had drinks with Rob on the day he died. Some place in Georgetown. And the police had him in for questioning a couple of days after the murder.” “And how did that go?” I asked. Aaron was usually civilized, except when was hung over. “Win said it had been low key. The police had listened and taken notes and sent him away again.” I didn’t say to her that police investigations may start ‘low key’, but usually don’t stay that way. “What’s your husband’s version of events that night? What does he say happened?” I asked. “Win says that he left Rob alive and well around 8:30 and that he drove straight home to McLean. Says he got home around 9:30.” “Says?” I asked. There was something in her tone when she said the word.
“I had a killer migraine that came on me about 8 p.m. I took a pill and went to my room. I was out like a light. And the servants were off duty in a wing at the back of the house.” “So, no alibi. And Thomas was shot, what, around 10 p.m.,” I put in. And Turkey Run Park was no more than a half hour from McLean, a little west on the Parkway. I went over and stood with my back to the radiator. Puddles jumped off the couch, stretched and went to the door. I let him out and watched him pad confidently up the stairs to waiting kibble. I walked across the room and sat on the edge of the desk facing her. “And you?” I asked. She licked her lips and said in a low voice, “The police called me yesterday. They want to come by the house later today, while Win is at work, and talk to me. I knew what that meant. Aaron considered Winston Benedict a possible suspect and he wanted to nose around his life. He had probably already done a background check on both of the Benedicts. And he was going to take one look at Avery and start thinking affair. The only thing that surprised me was that she hadn’t been asked to come to the station. She would be more relaxed, comfortable at home. But maybe that was the point. She went over to the window and stared out at the street, her arms locked together across her chest. It was raining again. Her perfect posture was drooping a little. “They wouldn’t tell me anything when they called.” “They are like that sometimes,” I said. “Like to play their cards close to their chest. It rattles people, especially the guilty ones.” She reached out and traced the path of a raindrop as it slid down the pane. 70
“I could make some coffee,” I offered. “No,” she said quietly, “no, thank you.” She fingered her pearls and was quiet for a minute or so. When she turned to face me, her eyes were glistening. “This is hard for me, Ms. Flannagan. Very hard. I am worried sick about…everything.” She leaned against the wall, breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly and said, “You see, I think my husband killed Rob Thomas.”
________________________________________________________________________ Deb Jellett lives in Lillian, Alabama. Her work has appeared in the Birmingham Arts Journal, Dead Mule School, Storyteller Magazine and Alalitcom. She will start an MFA in July.
Glenda Slater He’d had his eye on her for some time. Passed her in the hall as she ran errands from office to office. Saw her out on the sidewalk as she came to work. She had posed for him once. In front of a camellia bush in full bloom. He had happened along with his camera just at the right time. Her coloring was vivid against the bright pink of the flowers. Dark hair, red lips, green eyes. He had tried to capture her eyes. Capture that special look in them when she smiled. But it had escaped him. He was a photographer. That was his job. She was taller than he. Most girls were. She was also younger. By a good bit. She had graduated from high school in ’53, just two years before. She told him that while he was taking the pictures. She was outgoing, talkative. Friendly. Hadn’t been in Mobile long. A few months. Came down from Nashville with a girl friend to be near the Gulf. She could have no interest in him; he knew that. But he dreamed of her eyes. The chance came during Mardi Gras. He was hired to take pictures at a private party over the bay, in Fairhope. The rich bachelor host had told him he could bring someone along. He didn’t give himself time to get too nervous. The next morning, he saw her alone in the hall. Stopped her. Asked if she would like to go. Was careful not to call it a date. She’d hadn’t been to a Mardi Gras party yet, she said. Hadn’t even been to Fairhope yet. It sounded like fun. Was a costume required? She did have something she had made to wear to a fraternity party. It wasn’t very colorful; she’d have to find a sparkly mask to go with it. She didn’t know…maybe she shouldn’t….
He hastened to say that he would be busy taking pictures. She’d be mostly on her own. But there’d be plenty of people to dance with. He could find a mask for her. He’d like to do that. He could hardly believe it when she said yes. He picked her up in his old brown Chevy. He wore his suit. She wore a pale green toga. He had rented an expensive mask for her. Green sequins all over it. Two long, green feathers stood up in the middle and curled to the sides. It made her green eyes flash. She loved it, she said. The place was packed with costumed revelers. Dancing, drinking, eating. He left her as soon as they came in. Was kept busy with instructions from the host: Catch this moment. That moment. This costume. That couple. The party took up several very crowded rooms and spilled out onto a deck. He caught glimpses of the green feathers now and then. Time went by fast. He didn’t know how long they had been there when he was approached by the host and led to a bedroom in the far reaches of the house. She’d been sick, throwing up. She was lying on the bed now, very pale. Two women in costume were taking care of her. They assured him she would be all right. A case of too much drink, too little food, they thought. “She’s so young. She’s just a baby,” one of them said. He went back to his picture-taking. An hour later, he was summoned to take her home. The host said he hoped she would be all right, thanked him for his work, said he looked forward to getting the prints. She was feeling much better. She was embarrassed. Told him how sorry she was. He assured her it was all right. Could happen to anybody. Had happened to him. He walked her to the door of her apartment and said he would call the next day to see how she was. She told him he was sweet, but he didn’t need to. She’d be fine. Anyway, she’d be gone all day. To church, 73
then Biloxi with her roommates. She smiled at him. Patted him on the arm. Said don’t worry. Told him again that she was sorry she’d made a fool of herself. Let herself into the apartment and closed the door before he could think of anything else to say. The mask was lying on the back seat of his car. He had found it on the floor of the bedroom as they were leaving. Next day, the party host called him. Asked about her. Asked for her name and phone number. Wanted to call her to make sure she was okay. Maybe take her out. If it was all right with him. What could he say? When he hung up, he looked over at the mask, glittering on his pillow. Picked up his camera. Took a picture of it. He would take it back tomorrow.
________________________________________________________________________ Glenda Slater lives in Spanish Fort, Alabama. She writes poetry, light verse and children’s plays and is working on a novel for middle-graders. She is a member of SCBWI, Alabama Poetry Society, Alabama Writers Conclave and Pensters, a writers’ group that has inspired her to write short stories.
Free Verse Poem
Jeff Santosuosso Sandals, sleeveless young women summer Saturday nights lights and festivals, festooned arcades cadence of crickets white noise dark of night moonlight, pathways and bending grasses anticipating dew Dusty dirt roads, farm gates, wagon wheels ruts of certainty like fingerprints gripping onto something sure Ferris wheel freedom, apex top car sway in the breeze, moonlight descending at my side like a mother dangling feet, sandals released, heel drop toe clutch The wheel lurches again, descending great circle of youth toe touch earthdown, swinging back up clockwise toward darkness banners, boomboxes disappear below Safety latch, peg removal, gate swings open midway processional parading balloons ascendant candy apple stomach, cotton candy eyes kewpie dolls dangling from strings 3 throws for a dollar sphere hurtling bottle breakdown 75
clean victory, teddy bear hoisted among the balloons plastic eyes and red rubber globes sandals, sleeveless summer night circulating
________________________________________________________________________ Jeff Santosuosso is a business executive and poet who lives in Pensacola, FL. He is a member of the West Florida Literary Federation. His poems have appeared in IllyaĂ˘s Honey, Pif Magazine, Red River Review, Texas Poetry Calendar (2012), Avocet, Red Fez, OVS Magazine, Extract(s) and other online and print publications. You can find him on Facebook.
Deb Jellett When Grandpa Charlie’s friend Ben told Vera that grandpa had been buried nekkid, she fainted and fell in the direction of her skinny husband Trey. Trey jumped out of the way, he said because he was startled. Cousin Jake said it was because he didn’t want to end up flat as a pancake. Vera is big. We don’t use the “F” word. Ben had come to Grandma Wiggin’s funeral, along with most everybody in town. Against the strong objections of grandma, a tearful and totally tipsy Ben had delivered the eulogy at grandpa’s funeral a few years before. Grandma flat out hadn’t liked Ben, had said he was a bad influence on grandpa. Ben said it had been a mutual thing. “Pots and kettles,” he said. “Pots and kettles.” Grandma was laid out in the Serenity visitation room at Tylers Funeral Home and Crematorium. People dressed in their Sunday best stood around gossiping about anyone who wasn’t there and saying how peaceful grandma looked. Trey said he thought she just looked dead. About ten minutes before the service was due to start, Ben came in. Vera stared at him and then said that his clothes were identical to the ones grandpa had asked to be buried in. Green sports coat, yellow shirt, “Roll Tide” tie, merchant marine tie pin and all. “He left detailed instructions. Down to the underwear,” she said. “I voted for the Superman boxers,” Trey said. Vera punched the air in his direction. But Trey was too fast for her and she thumped the wall. Ben walked over to Vera, scratched his nose and bent his six foot frame down to Vera’s level and looked her straight in the eye. 77
“Charlie said it was gonna be warm where he was headed and he wanted to pack light.” He straightened up and smiled down on her. Vera had this blank look on her face. Trey calls it her stupid look. Ben put both hands on Vera’s shoulder. “Vera, Charlie Wiggins was buried nekkid. Totally, utterly, butt nekkid. It’s what he wanted.” He gave her a little shake. And then he patted her on the head. He had what grandpa used to call a shoot eating grin on his face. Well, at that folks stopped talking and turned to look at Vera and Ben. He stroked the Alabama tie. “These here are his clothes.” That’s when Vera got it. She gave a little shudder and keeled over. Hit the ground hard and lay there, legs akimbo, revealing more of her enormous step-ins than anyone wanted to see, her best blonde wig half off her head. Trey laughed and emptied a bottle of water over her face, to help wake her up he said. And when she came to, the mascara was running down her face and she was babbling about the Second Coming and grandpa rising up and walking around… “Nekkid. What will people think? Oh Lord. What will people think?” She sounded pitiful. She mumbled something about Jesus. Vera’s oldest boy, Tommy, said they ought to dig him up to see. Trey rolled his eyes and went out for a smoke, saying something about being one sandwich short of a picnic. I stayed to watch. With some difficulty, Pastor Jericho and several deacons hauled Vera upright. The preacher took her to the funeral director’s office and prayed over her. And several of the women did what they could to make her look presentable. Eventually, we got on with the funeral and grandpa was laid to rest next to grandma. Vera continued to snuffle and her gaze flitted between the two graves. Then, we all adjourned for eats and gossip at Trey and 78
Vera’s house. Trey had a keg hidden out in storage shed. He needn’t have bothered. Vera locked herself in her room as soon as we got there and sniffling noises could be heard coming from inside. Trey said she was fine, just needed a little rest. He and I, and the police chief spent most of the time out in the shed drinking and telling a dirty joke or two. It was real nice. Ben had skidaddled as soon as Vera hit the floor and, wouldn’t you know it, several people left early to spread nekkid stories. Everybody in town was talking about it. Lee Jenkins had used his cell to snap a few pictures of Vera when she keeled over. Someone said he had skipped the eats so he could go downtown to try and sell them to the local newspaper. The next day I met Ben at Ed’s Bar. It’s a dingy little hole in the wall way on the wrong side of the tracks. It’s the kind of place that would depress you if you weren’t drunk. The same principal as ugly women becoming less ugly the more you drink. Ben and gramps had been regulars. Ed was behind the counter, telling a dirty joke to the mayor and Ed’s girlfriend, Lurlene, was wiping down tables and displaying her cleavage to the chairman of the board of deacons. He was not resisting temptation one little bit. Ben was holed up in a booth at the back of the long, narrow room sipping on a beer. He had one waiting for me. He thumped the table. “Just like we planned,” he said as I slid into the booth. “Just like you and me and Charlie planned. I didn’t think we would get away with it. I didn’t think Vera would be that…” “Gullible?” I asked. “No, stupid,” and he laughed. “I should feel guilty,” I said. Ben looked at me sideways. “But I don’t.” He smiled. Then, raised his beer mug, “To Charlie.” 79
“To Charlie,” I said as we clinked glasses. Lurlene came over and stood with her hands on her hips. “What’s this I hear about Charlie being buried nekkid? Is it true,” she was grinning to beat the band. Ben took another swig of beer, puckered his lips and said, “Maybe. Maybe not.” Lurlene bumped him on the head with her tray and stomped off. I think we got drunk that day. The last thing I remember is Ben and Ed shouting at one another. It was something to do with football. For a time, Vera talked about digging grandpa up to “cover” him. But, after a while, she gave up on that idea. Pastor Jericho convinced her that gramps would be clad in angel’s robes by that time. “And carrying a pitch fork,” Trey had put in. I never did tell Vera the truth, that grandpa had been fully clothed when we put him in the ground. But I did tell Trey. We were sitting in a booth at Ed’s. We were both a little drunk. I don’t think I’ve heard that poor man laugh so loud and long. He pounded the table and then bought a round of drinks for everyone. Last I remember, Lurlene was sitting on Trey’s lap. Or maybe it was mine. We had a great time that night. You know, I guess Ben is right. I take after my grandpa.
________________________________________________________________________ Deb Jellett lives in Lillian, Alabama. Her work has appeared in the Birmingham Arts Journal, Dead Mule School, Storyteller Magazine and Alalitcom. She will start an MFA in July.
Annette Clifford We work eight hard hours in Men’s today, moving kitschy T-shirts around to different tables so they’ll look new, ripping boxes of merchandise open with our box cutters, filling shelves with guy Christmas trinkets in little red boxes. You know the kind of thing: tabletop basketball games, pocket tool kits, red and green ear buds, stress relief balls, cheap gadgets originating in Thailand or China. Then we de-box the “retro” stuff, old-time flashlights and grooming kits, whiskey balls, fake vintage junk you might give your dad if he needed nothing, but you had to give him something. We set up convertible racks to hold superhero boxers in shiny metal containers and packs of red and green winter pajamas. We move clearance items—hundreds of short-sleeve polos and fall shirts no one bought—somewhere else before they inevitably go to salvage. At the end of my shift, I break down empty cardboard boxes for the compactor in the back room and stomp apart Hanes shippers and big cardboard display boxes with plastic signage affixed for recycling. The heavy, redheaded young man who works in the back room, deceptively oafish looking, slowly goes about his meticulous task, putting together a bike. When we have traded remarks in passing I have recognized him as an angel in disguise, soft-spoken, sensitive, perceptive. I wonder again why he is here. Is he working on his college degree? Forging art in the early dawn hours with brushes or power tools? Caring for a parent, supporting a wife and children? He is serene, with the manners of a past age. I finish at the compactor and head up to the staff rooms. 81
Margo and Ellen and I shared a locker for our purses this morning, since keys for most of the lockers have disappeared and the store seems in no rush to replace them. I wait, locker key in hand, turn it over to Margo, who just moved here from Arizona and lives with her married daughter, and who will turn it over to Ellen, who has a condo and a dog, grandkids in Virginia. I unhook my walkie from my front pocket, turn it off, sign it back in the metal cabinet that holds all the devices. I lodge it to recharge overnight, clock out and leave the store. Outside, in the early evening light, I press a button and see my car lights flicker me hello across the crowded parking lot. My car seems like my friend, someone who knows me from my old life. ***** Cold morning shift. Crows collect atop lamp poles in the parking lot. They caw and watch as we wait at dawn for the store manager to unlock the front door. One bird sweeps down, banks past us as if to taunt with its freedom. There are seven of us, five women and two men. All are young, late teens or twenties, except for me and another middle-aged lady. Three white, four black. The customer who comes every day an hour before opening pulls up in a car driven by her husband. He gets out and collects a stray cart, pulls it in front of their car, saving it for her, as if there might be a dearth of carts inside the store. He does this for her every morning. “She OCD,” Netta says. “Tells you double bag what she buy, one item per bag and double bag every bag. Then she return the stuff the next day.” Netta’s boy is in Boston, playing basketball for a college. My boy is in Boston, working in computer security, his first job. “I tell you what,” says Jason, dark-haired 30-something with two kids. “Not me. That was me, my wife? Not doing that.” 82
“Nursing home for her!” Netta says. The rest of us murmur or grimace in agreement. What idiot voluntarily shows up this early in a big box parking lot every morning to please his troubled wife? But then, who knows where the offices of duty will lead us, in what chill asphalt deserts we will practice our own last rites of love? ***** I have lived in an ivory tower. Now I live at my big box store. What a huge and consuming home it is. My room in the ivory tower was small, my desk as narrow as Mrs. Dalloway’s bed, yet conducive to selfaggrandizement. I lost my job in the ivory tower a year ago. “You’re not coming in with me,” the tween girl at the fitting room entrance says to her mother. “Yes I am coming in with you.” “No you’re not.” “If I’m paying, I’m coming in with you,” the mother says. I hand the girl a plastic rectangle printed with the number three. Grim faced, mother and daughter enter one of the small, mirrored chambers of their long battle. “This is so cute!” a young mother in Infants cries. She plucks an outfit off the rack and shows it to her partner. “This is why I hate shopping with you,” he huffs. “You’re always buying, and he don’t need it.” The baby boy sleeps, unknowing, in his infant seat in their shopping cart. “Do you like this or is it too purplish?” a little boy asks. He’s sitting in a buggy by the women’s clearance rack near the fitting room, pulling out women’s clothes on hangers. The woman supervising him, six feet away, rifles through another clearance rack, doesn’t look up. “Too purplish,” she says.
The boy drops the shirt on the floor and grabs a hanger holding a black top. “How about this one?” “No,” the woman replies, not looking. Down on the floor the black top goes, and the incident repeats. I stand at the fitting room counter, folding clothes still warm from the bodies of people who tried them on. I stare at the boy and he gives me a leer. Bad Mom, I think. Then the woman glances over and sees the damage the boy has wrought. “Why did you do this?” she exclaims. “Because I’m not a good boy,” he replies, calm. “Do you do this for your mother?” she asks, picking up his mess. “You can’t just throw things on the floor!” I keep my eyes on my work, folding re-shop sweaters, a spy in the house of caregiver tension. When I glimpse up the boy is beaming at me, exultant, riding away on the shopping cart. He has won whatever battle he is fighting. Later, I push a last-minute load of stocking items for a green cardboard receptacle shaped like a Christmas tree out on the floor in Infants/Toddlers. Red headbands, silver tights, tiny tubes of lip gloss. Corporate types are coming tomorrow to scope out the store’s holiday preparedness, and we’re behind. The LOD has given me her PDA, but I’m lost about which items go in which green bin and among the acronyms of retail. Every industry, every world has its lingo. Learn it or be illiterate, and I am an illiterate in the house of commerce. LOD must mean leader on duty. Or is it leader of the day? No one tells you. A pog is a planogram, a layout for moving around old merchandise and showcasing the new. I can barely understand the minute diagrams and fonts of the instruction manual. Once, I lived in an ivory tower. Now I live at a big box store. *****
The lovely older woman with the English accent – the one who does yoga stretches outside the store as we wait to be let in at seven a.m.— amazes me. Such physical grace, and there she is cutting open food containers with her box cutter as we rush to get the groceries from the morning truck on refrigerated shelves before the time-safety-limit passes. I would like to know all the stories of all my colleagues, but am usually too shy or busy to ask. Shyness is a powerful handicap. But fear is worse. I’m afraid of the black women who work here. Not because they’re black, I tell myself, but because I can’t understand their South Carolina Gullah accent very well. And because they are so supremely confident, at home, whereas I am adrift. But probably it is also because they are black. I have lived a whitebread life, few black friends or acquaintances beyond those met through working at newspapers and colleges. Lived for 17 years in a mostly white town in Florida, for the good schools there, we told ourselves when we bought a house. For the kids. But white bread is white bread. The black women at the big box aren’t in the highest positions, but have carved out niches of power. Some come from an area near the store known as Six Mile, a traditionally Gullah, working-class community now surrounded by pricey subdivisions and developments. They are mostly friendly to me but some, I think, suspicious. In the break room, it can feel like a high school cafeteria, all the blacks at one table, the whites at another. But not always, so maybe it’s just random segregation. The Hispanic cleaning crew members—contractors from Central or South America—practice their own self-seclusion, sitting apart on their breaks. They must come in around two a.m. to do the floors, the bathrooms, polish the doors.
They pass as quietly as spirits through the back aisles of Intimates, Ready to Wear, Men’s, finishing their tasks before many customers come through the doors. And then they vanish. ***** These songs are false, a charade, a lip-synch, because I can leave the big box, quit and not risk eviction. I have a husband who has a good job. We’d add more debt to our lives if I quit, but I’m not going to starve. ***** How quickly things change. Last week I thought I could quit the big box. Now, with my husband saying he’s losing his job after Christmas, I may need it for the health insurance benefits I’ll be eligible for come January. Except we can’t afford to stay here if he’s losing his job—can’t afford the apartment rent/utilities, etc. We will have to return, jobless, to Florida, where we have rented out our old house, or move in with my mother in Raleigh temporarily, while we search for new work. That’s what my husband is doing today, Christmas Day, jobhunting online. This morning he gave me an inexpensive necklace and earrings made by a woman at his job who crafts jewelry by hand, a gift card to a bookstore, good quality tea. I gave him a new Carolina ball cap, good chocolate and coffee, a promise of a massage coupon through Groupon. None of the boys could make it here, but we talked on the phone. I miss my children—miss their childhood. I miss my old life, my old illusions of competence and stability. I’m telling myself to be grateful for what we have. Still the dread I feel is not imaginary, a mix of uncertainty, fear, shame, exhaustion. Where will Christmas 2013 find us? I work an early shift tomorrow. ***** Mareshia sees me shooting bar codes in Girls and tells me to leave the building ASAP, some kind of emergency.
The bad smell permeates the big box, but you can get used to it. A faint odor has been circulating for days, and we’ve all been griping. “Smells like sulfur,” someone said when we came in yesterday. “I thought it was the cleaning crew’s farts,” a manager joked. Someone higher up the chain of command must have pulled the trigger, called 911 in case it was a gas leak. We evacuate the building an hour after opening and hustle across the parking lot to stand in front of the long-term-stay hotel, the emergency-regrouping site. And stand and stand, stomping our feet and rubbing our hands in the 40-degree weather. Ten minutes or so and the fire trucks arrive. Some fire fighters put up crime-scene tape to block the store entrance, while others go inside. The sky is a clear, bright blue, the day as beautiful as you get in January in South Carolina. Crew members commiserate, joke about whether there’ll be a gas explosion. The younger kids congregate to the left, older workers to the right, but there’s no racial divide. Only the smokers self-segregate, happy for a long cigarette break. “It’s just sewer gas, from cold, dry drains,” Debbie says. She was laid off from a health care job last year and works the early morning shift, starting at four a.m. And so we wait, hoping not really for an explosion, not really for anything bad, no matter how we feel otherwise about our place of employment. You don’t really wish that much ill on your bosses, not even on a huge corporation that pays low wages. Certainly not on the fire fighters doing the dirty work. Besides, you need your job. You hope maybe just to be released to go home for the day and still get paid. To climb back into bed, get under the covers to nurse your frozen toes, fall back into a morning dream of Sunday ease. Mareshia, a tall, take-no-prisoners type who runs the planogram team, drives out for juice and doughnuts. We gladly inhale the calories
when she returns. A young woman who always wears a skirt to work is shivering, barelegged. Our collective mood reminds me of a high school fire drill or bomb threat, back in my day, before high school bomb threats were deadly serious. One of the low-level managers, a former substitute teacher from Detroit with a college age son still up there, claims to feel no cold in his short sleeves. He entertains us with quips. What’s he doing here? What’s his story? Would-be customers drive into the big box parking lot, circle us, ask what’s going on and when the store will be open. Some offer sympathy for our plight, seem to see us in a different light. We are the people you barely look at, rarely wonder about, the ones working in retail stores, the ones at the cash registers, the fitting rooms, lifting boxes back in receiving, quietly restocking merchandise. The fire fighters give the all clear. It is just sewer gas, not natural gas, a distinction that leads to more jokes. We file back into the store and get back to work. The food truck arrived during the evacuation, and all hands are called to get the products out on the floor before busting safety rules. Fingers numb, we drive into the boxes of frozen dinners, chicken breasts, fish sticks, the yogurts and cheeses and gallons of milk to be shelved before the timers ding. It’s not fun, but we try to make it more tolerable, taunt each other, share box cutters and snide remarks, glad to be back inside, glad to have a J-O-B, glad to be alive and working, instead of anything worse. ________________________________________________________________________ Annette Clifford is a journalist and writer who recently moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Her editorials have been awarded by the Florida Society of News Editors. Her work has appeared in the anthology Micro Fiction, Sundog, Apalachee Quarterly, SnakeNation Review and elsewhere. She is the author of World's Toughest Job. ~~~~~ 88
Joseph L. Whitten As old and gray as Father Time, live oaks stand sentinel around Rose Belmont Hall. Her Greek revival portico evokes long yesterdays, whose whispering shadows call to mind those slaves, unnamed, whose labors pleased but brought scant praise. Men, owned by men, dug clay and made the bricks; they felled the old-growth trees and planned each measured plank. No choice. Obey. Though slaves, their needs the same as men who’re free: to share a woman’s love, and quieted in her embrace, to call her wife; to be a man. Master agreed that two should wed, but had them vow, “Till death or distance do us part.”— a sale or death would cleave the shackled, heart from heart.
_______________________________________________________________________ Joseph Whitten, Odenville, AL, is a member of AWC and the Alabama State Poetry Society. In ASPS he has served as Treasurer, Contest Chair, President, and Editor of Muse Messenger. He was ASPS Poet of the Year in 2002. He also holds membership with the Georgia and Pennsylvania Poetry Societies. His collection of poems, Learning to Tell Time, was published in February 2013 by Negative Capability Press of Mobile.
Mollie Smith Waters His name was Tommy, and he had AIDS. Of course, that’s not what was said at church. Instead, Tommy had come home from San Francisco with “cancer.” Cancer was something we could understand; it was something we could pity. In fact, cancer was acceptable, unlike AIDS, which in the early 1980s, we were only just beginning to hear of, and what we heard wasn’t good. Tommy’s father, George, was our church’s song-leader, and his mother, Betty, was the children’s Sunday school teacher. A petite woman who wore too much makeup and hairspray, she had a knack for discovering new ways to embarrass us each week. What menstrual cycles had to do with Noah and his ark was not a subject we were eager to explore. Tommy also had an older brother named Fred, who had been killed as a teenager when he and a friend were playing with guns. George and Betty had been faithful to the church before Fred’s death, but after it, they became more passionate and devoted than ever before. As soon as Tommy graduated from high school in the late 1970s, he left our rural Southern town for California. When asked, George and Betty proudly reported what their son was doing. “Tommy got into college!” “Tommy got a job!” “Tommy got a new car!” But never once did anyone say, “Tommy got AIDS.” When Tommy came home for the first time since his graduation, he was a ghost of his former self. Too thin. He looked wrong, but several of the doddering old church ladies explained away his changes. 90
“Five years in San Francisco would change anyone.” “He works too hard!” “He just needs some good, ol’ Southern cookin’ to fatten him back up.” Tommy ate what they gave him, but he never gained a pound. Tommy went back to San Francisco, but three months later, he was home again. Only this time, Tommy had come home to die. On the first Sunday after his return, Tommy revealed to the congregation that he had cancer. He was too sick to hide his illness now; it had taken a visible toll. No, he couldn’t hide it, but he could disguise it. Tommy would die of cancer, a revelation that sent us into a flurry of concern. “Cancer! But he’s so young!” “First Fred, now Tommy, their only surviving son!” “We must do something for them!” And do, we did. Each Sunday, Tommy would approach the altar, and the minister would call for a laying on of hands. We would rise, surround Tommy, place our hands on him, and pray. It didn’t work. Every Sunday brought a change, but not the one we had prayed for; Tommy grew thinner and weaker. Tommy got so sick that he could no longer come to church, so the church went to him. We organized to cook for the family and to relieve George and Betty by sitting with Tommy. Neither George nor Betty could express their gratitude without getting choked up. Tommy was going to die, this they knew and accepted, but at least he would die with dignity. Then he showed up. Tommy’s roommate Dan from San Francisco came to visit him. Tommy’s spirits rose, and some of his energy returned. He seemed to thrive again since Dan’s arrival. He was so much better that he even resumed church attendance, now with his steadfast roommate by his side. 91
At first, the church members were glad that Tommy had such a devoted friend, so the meals continued to be cooked and the home relief visits went on. But it didn’t take long before the whispering began. “When’s Dan leaving?” “I saw Tommy and his friend in an embrace the other night.” “Something’s not right there.” Then the whispering began in earnest, the worst whispering of all, and it caught like wildfire. “AIDS.” “AIDS.” “AIDS.” No one would dare say it to George and Betty, but we all knew. The laying on of the hands was the first thing to go. You could touch cancer, but not AIDS. Next went the relief visits. Finally, the cooking stopped. No one wanted their dishes back, not now, not after Tommy had used them. Tommy and Dan stopped attending church, but George and Betty still came every Sunday. George continued to lead us in song while Betty kept embarrassing us in Sunday school. If anything seemed amiss, they never let on. Not once. We still continued to pray for Tommy, only now we did it from a distance, safely tucked away inside our sanctuary. Despite our prayers, Tommy died anyhow. He died of cancer, that was the lie that had been told, and nothing was going to stop it now. The morning after Tommy’s death, Dan left, and we all hoped he had taken the taint of San Francisco back with him. When we saw Tommy in his coffin, we were shocked by the transformation the two months since we’d last seen him had wrought. Already emaciated, he was truly a ghost now. Raw and horrific, fluid wept from the multitude of lesions covering him. No one touched the body. 92
After the funeral, we opened the church for the family to share a meal and for them to receive visitors. Not many people outside the church came. George thanked the congregation for its kindness during Tommyâ€™s illness, and Betty expressed her wish that donations be made to the cancer society in Tommyâ€™s memory. By the next Sunday, everything went back to the way it had been before, and neither Tommy nor his cancer was ever mentioned again. ________________________________________________________________________ Mollie Smith Waters teaches literature, public speaking, and theater at a rural community college. She writes book reviews for The Montgomery Advertiser, Alabama Writer's Forum, and Southern Literary Review. In her spare time she enjoys traveling, writing, and walking. She is married and has one son and a step-daughter.
Nick Sweet “The nuns appeared in black and white, and so did every rule. Things were either wrong or right at St. Clare’s Catholic School.” This line from a song featured in the musical, Nunsense, crystallized my own years of Catholic schooling. At Christ the King School there were no shades of gray—no situational ethics. The nuns meant business, and their business was learning. However, this is no tale of “taught to the tune of the hickory stick.” The nuns never touched us. They never had to. Anytime you got “too big for your britches,” the verbal dressing down you received was far worse and lasted longer than any corporal punishment. The verse from Ecclesiastes which stated, “There is a time for every purpose under heaven,” was the nuns’ credo. They knew when to play and when to work and never confused the two. Their angelic singing or the wonderful stories or poetry they read to us marked playtime. The work time objective was intense scholarship—no shenanigans. The lines between work time and playtime were seldom blurred, and the nuns had little trouble keeping students “on-task”—except for Robert Varrone. My best buddy since fourth grade was, quite simply, the quickest witted person I have ever known; a world class wiseacre with a knack for cracking up the class and even our most taciturn teacher at the most inappropriate times. The students at Christ The King attended daily Mass Monday through Friday during the school day and again on Sunday with our parents. Because our church services were mostly in Latin and had a certain sameness to them, Varrone and I became accomplished daydreamers. I usually opted for doodles in my prayer book, while 94
Varrone busied himself surreptitiously carving his initials into the pew in front of him. Though it took him several weeks, he completed a small but impressive “R.V.” in the wooden bench. Unfortunately, someone from another class saw it and ratted him out to our teacher. The next morning the inquisition began. “Robert Varrone,” Sister grimly intoned, and the classroom went quiet as a tomb. “Did you carve your initials into one of the church pews?” Caught completely off guard, Varrone resorted to that timehonored Catholic schoolboy tradition: deny, deny, deny. “No, Sister,” he replied timidly. “You had better examine your conscience, Mr. Varrone, or I had better have my eyes examined. I just came from the church,” Sister continued. She had him on the ropes and was going for the knockout. “I’m sure I saw the initials ‘R.V.’ on one of the church pews. Now, who else could that possibly be?” “Rudolph Valentino,” he quickly responded, and the class exploded with laughter, Sister Paul Marie included. There was always a swarm of “bees” at Christ The King School— spelling bees, Catechism bees, parts-of-speech bees and Latin bees. In the seventh grade Latin bee, the nun would spell the Latin word and the student would give the meaning. For example, the nun would say, “P-AX,” and the student would respond, “peace.” Varrone’s word was ‘salve,’ pronounced ‘sol-vay,’ meaning ‘hail’ such as in the hymn title, “Salve Regina,” (Hail Queen). The nun spelled, “S-A-L-V-E.” Varrone replied, “An ointment that you put on cuts and burns.” Even our teacher enjoyed that one. Later that same year we were having a bee involving word usage. The nun would give the word, and the student would have to use it correctly in a sentence. The stakes were a little higher for this particular bee. If you were incorrect, not only were you eliminated, but you also had to stay after school writing sentences for an hour. Varrone’s word was 95
‘heretofore.’ His response was, “If I miss this word, I will be heretofore o’clock,” and, indeed, he was there until four o’clock writing sentences. Spring break of my senior year Varrone and I took a trip with my Dad. We owned a cabin on a lake about 35 miles from my home. My mother had orchestrated this “boys week out.” My relationship with my Dad had been somewhat stormy during my high school years, and Mom hoped my Dad and I could mend a few fences before I went off to college in the fall. She sent Varrone along as the referee. This was fine with my Dad, who was no slouch himself when it came to the quick quip or perfect squelch. He welcomed the chance to play verbal volleyball with Varrone. They had traded barbs for years and were pretty evenly matched. The week went well—full of “manly” activities like water skiing for hours on end and digging the foundation and pouring concrete for a new porch. But, by Saturday night, Varrone and I were ready for a little action sans Dad. We persuaded him to let us take the car to the nearest town about ten miles away to the drive-in movie theater. Before we left, Dad laid down the law, “I don’t care what time you get in,” he exclaimed. Varrone and I exchanged dumbfounded glances. I’d always had a curfew. “But, you’re both going to eight o’clock Mass with me in the morning,” he continued, “no excuses, no alibis, you’re getting up and going to church!” He handed me the keys and walked away. Varrone and I jumped in the car and headed for the drive-in before Dad could change his mind. What happened that evening was hazy, but I seem to recall several idiotic episodes involving too much beer and attempting to pick up girls at the drive-in who wanted nothing to do with us. We returned to the cabin about four a.m. and stumbled into bed. At seven a.m., Dad was shaking us awake and telling us to get ready for church. We weren’t hung over. We were still intoxicated. We staggered around, bleary-eyed, searching for our clothes. Varrone pulled on a pair of madras shorts, and my father was on him immediately. 96
“Don’t think you’re wearing shorts to church, Varrone,” Dad huffed. “That’s disrespectful.” Though nearly comatose, Varrone rallied, “Look at you. You’ve got that gross beard. That’s just as disrespectful as these shorts.” It was true. My Dad hadn’t shaved the whole week and was sporting a gnarly, unkempt mass of Robinson Crusoe whiskers. Dad and Varrone hammered away at each other with variations of, “Those shorts are disrespectful” and “that beard is disrespectful.” I was sure my pounding head would explode at any moment. Finally, I saw a glint in my father’s eye. It was match point and he was positioning himself for an overhead smash. “Varrone, I’ll tell you what you do,” Dad smiled smugly, “when you walk into that church today, take a good look at the guy up there on the cross. You’ll see that he has a beard.” Varrone quickly replied, “Yeah, well, he’s wearin’ shorts, too.” ________________________________________________________________________ Nick Sweet has been a freelance stage director since 1977. He has directed more than 130 productions for theatre groups in Texas, Oklahoma, Alaska and Georgia. In 2010 he was named Oklahoma's Senior Poet Laureate by the Kitchener Foundation after finishing Runner-Up in Texas in 2007.
Margie Tubbs Pete’s cage in the dining room was set atop a hand-made china cabinet purchased second hand in the 1920s. I couldn’t see him unless someone lowered the cage or I retrieved Mother’s step stool from the kitchen. “Put him down here,” I begged, jumping in the air for a glimpse of yellow-green feathers. “I want to see Pete do his tricks!” My older brother Jacky lowered him to the table as I watched his bright swatch of chest feathers grow from the size of a nickel to a fifty cent piece when he was eye-level. I was hopping on one leg as Jacky reached inside the cage and placed a small plastic car on a narrow wooden slat. Pete tucked his head and gently nudged the car with his curved beak until it rolled off the end. “Come on back. Pete won’t hurt you!” he repeated in his nasal voice until his car was repositioned for another roll down the ramp. I laughed as if I had never seen the trick before. “Come on back. Pete won’t hurt you!” I mimicked. “Mama, why don’t you teach Pete something new?” She was sitting on the couch studying a book of crochet patterns. “I’m working on it. It will be a surprise,” she said, slightly curving her lips into the knowing smile that usually substituted for an answer. “Gotta put him back now,” Jacky said, lifting the cage to its spot about six feet off the floor. “You can see him again later.” I could feel Pete’s loneliness return as I felt it recede during the brief moments when that little car was under his control. “You’re crying again,” Jacky said.
“Just seems unfair to keep Pete locked up there all by himself.” He wiped my face with the tail of the blue plaid shirt that Mother had made him. “When’s the last time you got out?” “Out of where?” “Here. When’s the last time you went anywhere?” “Tent church every Sunday.” “Is that all? Have you ever been to a drive-in movie?” I gave him a blank stare. “I don’t even know what one of those is.” “Get your shoes on. We’re going.” “Not with her.” Daddy had just left his shop. He brushed his sweaty khaki shirt, and sawdust fell onto the floor as he stood inside the door. “She’s not leaving this house. You can go out whoring with your pretty boys, but she’s not going.” Daddy had cut off half his pointing finger in a saw, but he was shaking what was left toward me. On the couch, Mother vigorously crocheted pineapples for a few seconds and then stopped, looking over her glasses, her needle still. She challenged Daddy with her stare. “Just keep on wiggling that thread,” he shouted. “Or better still, slither over there and coil up in the corner.” It was just last week that he threatened to kill himself and took the .22 pistol into the woods. “Why aren’t you stopping him?” I screamed to Mother. “He won’t do anything.” A few minutes later we heard the shot. “Aren’t you going to see about him?” I asked her. She didn’t answer. “What are we going to do?” “Nothing.”
It seemed like a year before he shuffled up the driveway kicking dust. “Ain’t nobody here cares if I live or die,” he said. “Nobody even came to see about me.” Jacky stared at Mother until she looked his way, then he shook his head slightly. His penny loafers stomped across the back porch and down the wooden steps. The car door slammed and his old jalopy cranked up. “What about me?” I ran out the screen door, jumped on his running board and held on to the side of his car. “Don’t worry, he won’t bother you. He only hates us boys.” The light from the living room window played hopscotch on his black, Brylcreamed hair, and his clear blue eyes were sad, but dry. “Daddy scares the poop out of me. I never know what he’s going to do.” He chuckled at my language. “I’ll be back soon. I’m going out for tonight. If things get out of hand, run get Bobby. He won’t let the old man hurt Mother.” Our oldest brother lived with his family across the field on land Daddy had given him to keep him from leaving. “But try not to let Daddy scare you. Fear makes him worse.” He backed out of the driveway, and the anxiety associated with the smell of gasoline fumes set my bowels on edge. Mama always said that Jacky and I were alike, but we weren’t. He was a wanderer who had been to exotic places like Miami and had even eaten pizza pie. Whatever that was. He left home for the first time when he was fourteen and I was one. But occasionally he blew in and stayed a few weeks until all the molecules of air in the house began to churn and pop with static. I thought it was because Jacky was beautiful and vulnerable that Daddy resented him. Now I know that Daddy couldn’t control Jacky, and Jacky would leave rather than take Daddy’s abuse. He wanted to be home with
the family, but he said that when he was home Mother was the one who paid. I didn’t know for what. I squatted to pet our big cur dog. Daddy came to the porch to see what was going on. He had a crazed look in his eyes as he stared at the taillights of Jacky’s car in the distance. “Promise me you’ll never leave me,” he said. “Promise.” “I promise,” I said, putting my arm around his waist as far as it would go. “I’ll never leave.” An awkward feeling crawled into my chest right then, and I knew that I had been violated. Life was over, and I was only nine years old. Now he had killed me instead of himself. I knew it, just like I knew Jacky wasn’t coming back. I ran back into the house with the cur dog right behind me. I got the step stool out of the kitchen and took Pete’s cage down, opening the cage door and taking him out on my finger. “Fly, Pete!” I said. “Fly!” I held him as high as I could and waved my hand to shoo him off. He flapped his wings and barely cleared my finger when he began fluttering downward. “Pete’s a pretty boy!” he screeched. The cur dog saw him falling and stood with his mouth open. I tried, but I couldn’t stop what happened next. The dog snatched up Pete, and I could see nothing but a yellow head hanging out of the slobbering mouth. Pete looked at me in desperation. “Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!” he called to Mother. “He did it!” she said with delight. She looked up from her crocheting just in time to see Pete swallowed whole. I will never forget the piercing scream that Mother let out that night. It was a scream like I have heard only once since, and I know now that it was that of a mother losing a child. “I clipped his wings just yesterday! He wasn’t able to fly!” 101
I sank to the floor, heavy with everybody’s pain. Mother’s. Daddy’s. Jacky’s. Pete’s. Mine. The daughter they knew died that night on the dining room floor, and born in her place was a little girl who remembered the cage and the clipped wings. Who hated the cage and would open its door a little at a time until she could fit through and slip away for pizza pie, whatever that might be. ________________________________________________________________________ Margie Addison Tubbs is a former newspaper columnist, deputy sheriff, and special education teacher originally from the piney woods of Louisiana and now a resident of Mobile, AL. She enjoys retirement with her husband Dennis and writes when the mood hits. She just completed her first novel, The Silver Grays.
Free Verse Poem
Carolynne Scott In my dream, we enter the toy room and stand beside an old oak basket empty momentarily of my sonâ€™s small universe. You dip in and fish out an egg. Not a mere pulletâ€™s nor even turkey-sized, but a huge one done in Florentine golds, reds and blues. You do not stop to run fingers through your thick young mane over this. you hold on, elevating the thing, then cradling it. Suddenly a baby girl in baptismal whites is in your arms, and I watch, astonished. The psychic says it is I you cradle, a reborn flower child gurgling at this attention, adoring your arms, anxious to have a crack at life! Jung says it is an irrational third, something invincible light above all lights bringer of healing.
But I hope without reason that I see a union, a joining against all odds, all or nothing as youâ€™d say an epiphany, my daughter.
________________________________________________________________________ Carolynne Scott's poetry has appeared in Southern Poetry Review, Azorean Express, Noccalula, The Birmingham Arts Journal and Alaliltcom. She received an M.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and taught fiction writing there in Special Studies for 22 years.
2013 AWC Writing Contest Winners List
FICTION – 2500 WORDS 1. 2. 3. 4.
Richard Perreault Margaret Truly Annell C. Gordon Sara Gipson
A Good Patch of Sunshine The Gift Seer Life is a Puzzle
Chamblee, GA Hoover, AL Grove Hill, AL Scott, AR
Fiction Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)
Deb Jellett Richard Perreault Carolynne Scott Glenda Slater
The Lover The 60-Year Dash Heartspeak My Dialogue was Brilliant
Lillian, AL Chamblee, GA Birmingham, AL Spanish Fort, AL
SHORT FICTION – 1000 WORDS 1. 2. 3. 4.
Deb Jellett Glenda Slater Larry Wilson Mollie Smith Waters
Becoming Marilyn The Photographer Upon the Stair The Ghost
Lillian, AL Spanish Fort, AL Wetumpka, AL Greenville, AL
Short Fiction Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)
Sara Gipson Aurelia Jane Rasco Lynn Veach Sadler Larry Williamson
Ladies and a Gentleman Jubilee Fumarle(s) Smello
Scott, AR Birmingham, AL Pittsboro, NC Tallassee, AL
HUMOR – 2000 WORDS 1. 2. 3. 4.
Richard Key Richard Perreault Nick Sweet Deb Jellett
The Fall of Squirrel Wildest Dreams Varrone Nekkid Grandpa
Dothan, AL Chamblee, GA Shepherd, TX Lillian, AL
Humor Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)
Sara Gipson Carol Robbins Hull Deb Jellett Richard Key
Model Dance Ah, The Gravity of It All The Great Kisses Caper Cakewalk
Scott, AR Montgomery, AL Lillian, AL Dothan, AL
FREE VERSE POEM 1. 2. 3. 4.
Annette Clifford Jeff Santosuosso Carolynne Scott Frank Dawson
Curly Heart Pine Carnival The Egg Playground
Montgomery, AL Pensacola, FL Birmingham, AL Birmingham, AL
Free Verse Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)
Sally Clark Patrick Cabello Hansel Katherine A. Roche Larry Wilson
Rear View Mirror Bath Time for the Robins, St. Luck’s Day 2011 All Faiths Chapel The Song
Fredericksburg, TX Minneapolis, MN Wymore, NE Wetumpka, AL
JUVENILE FICTION - 2500 WORDS 1. Cindy Tanquary Peavy 2. Sally Clark 3. Randi Lynn Mrvos 4. Carolyn Madero
A Walk to the River The Twelve Days of Christmas Cholla: The True Story of an Artsy Horse The Trouble with Rs
Birmingham, AL Fredericksburg, TX Lexington, KY Stamford CT
Juvenile fiction Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)
Vicki J. Cypcar Sara Gipson Robert B. Robeson Peggy Walls
Clara’s Prayers Sandy Changes Rosie Gets a Tug Dory’s Story
Sparta, TN Scott, AR Lincoln, Nebraska Alexander City, AL
NONFICTION – 2500 WORDS 1. 2. 3. 4.
Annett Clifford Margie Tubbs Mary Lou Simms Rebecca Carroll
Big Box Songs Birdcage The Zohead I Have Never Lived in a Castle
Montgomery, AL Mobile, AL Helena, AL Clinton, TN
Nonfiction Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)
C. D. Bonner Annell Gordon Robert B. Robeson Jackie Romine Walburn
Seeking Asylum Retirement … Really? Drowning in Regret Awakening from a Knee Nightmare
Camp Hill AL Grove Hill, AL Lincoln, Nebraska Birmingham, AL
TRADITIONAL POEM 1. Joseph Whitten
Slave Wedding Vows at Rose Belmont Hall A Roach in Church My Father’s Woodpile Unrequited
2. Catherine Moran 3. Nick Sweet 4. Jerri Hardesty
Odenville, AL Little Rock AR Shepherd, TX Brierfield, AL
Traditional Poem Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)
Bob Cofield Carol Dee Meeks Carolyn Madero Katherine Joline (Tucker)
Sonnet 1001 Stratford-upon-Avon’s Prized Offspring Would You Like to Hear My Poem? A Disposable Life
Bessemer, AL Tulsa OK Stamford, CT Barefoot Bay, FL
FIRST CHAPTER of a NOVEL 1. 2. 3. 4.
Richard Perreault Margie Tubbs Deb Jellett Debra H. Goldstein
Coming to Fruition The Silver Grays The Just Desserts Murders Should Have Played Poker: A Mah Jongg Murder Mystery
Chamblee, GA Mobile, AL Lillian, AL Hoover, AL
First Chapter Novel Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)
Michelle Lowery Combs Lucy Stallworth Kubiszyn Ann Robbins Phillips Elizabeth Winn
Queen Esther Comes Home Crossover The Sighted Sister Pathos Fair
Jacksonville, AL Tucaloosa, AL Hixson, TN Mountain Brook AL