Letter from the Editor It is a very, very hot day in July, and here I am, writing the letter for the issue compiling work from as early as February of this year. Ah, what a time, when the world was cold and we all said, “I can’t wait for summer!” Issue 14(!) is one of our largest yet, with work from nineteen writers from all over the world. This is also our first issue with Kristen M. Ploetz at the helm of our nonfiction department, and we’ve added a great writer, Mike Nagel, as an assistant nonfiction editor. If you take a look at the essays on these digital pages, you’ll see that they are an amazing team, and they’ve shepherded some fantastic prose to the magazine. Elsewhere, poetry this issue speaks quite a bit to the environment, as well as the thoughts that keep us up at night. And for fiction, we have a wild group of stories for you to read, featuring djinns, tumors, broken bones, broken people, and more. I’m so proud of this issue, and I hope you enjoy every single word. Stay cool, XO BW
Editorial Board Founder: Brendan Todt • Editor in Chief: Benjamin Woodard Poetry Editors: Liz Ann Young & Summar West Fiction Editors: Whitney Bryant & Cathy Ulrich Creative Nonfiction Editor: Kristen M. Ploetz Assistant Editor: Mike Nagel
Table of Contents Natalia Conte ≈
If We Speak of Memories
Laurel Radzieski †
Reasons That a Person Would Have for
Cutting Off the Tops of the Tulips and Leaving Them Where They Fall
Natalie Vestin ≈
Sara Marron †
Wide Awake, Wondering if Ants Have Hearts
Douglas Cole †
Lynn Mundell ƒ
Marisa Crane ≈
Predictions for a Skeptic
Lisa Brognano †
Lisa Wence Connors †
Dominique Russell †
Poem from a line by John Donne
Candice Kelsey ≈
Claire Polders ƒ
Looking for a Place to Die
Caitlin Barasch ƒ
Sara Bathum ≈
Sydney Sheltz-Kempf †
Josh Denslow ƒ
Jennifer Fergesen ƒ
The Lipomatous Lover
James Braun ƒ
Jenny Wong ƒ
The Remembering Skins
Call for Submissions
Fiction – ƒ
CNF – ≈
Poetry – †
Issue 14, Winter/Spring 2019 Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine Sioux City, Iowa www.atlasandalice.com email@example.com
ÂŠ Atlas and Alice, All Rights Reserved
If We Speak of Memories “To let people begin again. It’s beautiful. You look at a baby and it’s so pure, and so free and so clean. And adults are like this mess of sadness.” — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Tucked into the artistic downtown stretch of Greensboro, North Carolina lies a strange museum. With no glass windows and a swing set that juts out into the street, it disrupts foot traffic as the weather begins to warm. The title is unassuming, the word “Elsewhere” printed in chalkboard white paint and curlicue lettering. Today, it serves as a residence for artists to take advantage of thousands of different textiles and materials, using them, repurposing them, and ultimately turning them into pieces of art that can one day, once again, be deconstructed. In 1937, this space served as a creative business venture started by Joe and Sylvia Gray to stockpile surplus Depression-era materials from the north. During World War II and thereafter, Elsewhere became an important resource for army surplus. The first floor sold army supplies: khaki colored bags, tents of all sizes, and large water canteens. Boy Scouts training to one day take their fathers’ places in the next inevitable war of the worlds were their primary customers, but they sold their goods nationally, this little shop in Greensboro. The second floor served as a family boarding house for the nuclear family: Sylvia, Joe and their three children. The top floor was Sylvia’s personal workspace where she mended and sewed the goods for resale. Joe’s death left Sylvia alone to raise three children and navigate life without the existence of her partner. From the pressure of the little ones, the deep depression she fell into after Joe’s death, and the stress of maintaining a business, Sylvia’s life began to fray at the edges. She looked to material items to mend the cracks forming under the surface, finding value in the obscure and underappreciated. She bought ribbon and
upholstery from local North Carolina mills with little plans to sell them in the store. She frequented the Salvation Army and Goodwill, sometimes twice a day, to find things she deemed valuable—knick-knacks and furniture and beautiful blown glass, wigs of all different colors. She bought blue button down dresses and snip off the buttons to save in a mason jar. She piled up ribbons of all colors and take them home to wash, dry, iron, and eventually, wrap around pencils to give the wood a pop of color. She filled the first level from floor to ceiling with her treasures until only a tiny strip of walking space remained visible amidst the boxes and rolls of fabric. Walking became a great balancing act, all in pursuit of preserving her catalog of things. A catalog of new memories while his memory burned in her like a madness. Her store had become a collection, and her collection had become a hoard made up of possessions she could not part with, could not bear to let go.
I shoved all of your things into a ripped plastic bag without dwelling on each item for too long. Forgive me—the ripped bag was all I could find on such short notice. I didn’t know I would feel my stomach heave each time I caught sight of the poem you wrote for me hanging on the bedroom wall, the one line detailing how my mind is like a library with a thousand floors, feeling futile now that you decided you wouldn’t like to frequent them anymore. You gave up on floor ten, maybe twenty at most. I’m sorry that sometimes the elevator breaks. Don’t paint a girl with a thousand floors and expect an easy climb. I didn’t know what I should keep. I wanted the journal, bound with rich mahogany leather from France and beautiful pages, unlined and yellowing. I wanted the bird hairpin which I used to mark my books, breaking my dog-earing habit after years of chewed up corners. I wanted the red paper boat most, but each time I read the tiny note written at the bottom, “No Matter the Wreckage,” a line borrowed from poet Sarah Kay, I reminded myself we had wrecked. We had wrecked and you had let the water seep in, standing back as I desperately tried to scoop it out with a wooden bucket. The water had only reached our ankles when you declared, exhausted, that we were destined to sink. I decided I would keep everything, but place it out of sight. A half-hearted attempt to push the thoughts of you out of my mind.
The first time I visited Elsewhere, my hands reached to hold everything. We were encouraged to touch as much as possible: a stark contrast to other museums I had visited with their thick black ropes meant to discourage the particularly handsy. I wanted to feel each textile for myself here, wanted to understand what would possess a woman to collect and collect until her memories created great velvet walls to enclose 7
her from the outside world. I had always felt that in order to fully understand something, you had to touch it, to feel at the thing with your hands. I was the child the salesclerks scolded for not being able to keep my hands to myself, touching each thing on display with my gummy fingertips. The reader who hated Kindles because I couldn’t feel the crisp rustle of each page turning.
I hadn’t even met you then. I didn’t even know you existed—that someone could understand all the intricacies of me as well as I thought you did. That I too could want to completely disconnect from the outside world when you left me alone outside my apartment, shaking like something had been stolen from my grasp. My hands reached out for you as you drove away. This was the place where my memories would begin to betray me, each night spent intertwined and breathing the same air turning ominous under the haze. I tried to hold onto them, to stop their lightness from growing dark, but I knew the futility of it all. That night you refused to hold me when you told me goodbye. Refused to let me touch you so I could understand.
But I didn’t know you then. It would be months before you wandered into my life, then cemented yourself there as a permanent fixture. So I wandered around Elsewhere, hands outstretched to meet each new wonder with childlike buoyancy, a stranger to the complexities of pain. I threw bouncy balls at drum sets and piano keys, reveling in the playful bursts of discordant sound. I spun teddy bears secured to a wheel, watching their plush heads and arms whip about, tiny dancers using me to spot their wild turns. I watched myself in a hundred overlapping mirrors and let the light catch my cheekbones at different angles, the shadows transforming me into strangers. Once I wanted to read minds. I wanted to see right into people’s heads, understand their most intimate desires by watching the way their brows braided. How their eyes widened. Wanted to know all of their memories, because the memories we keep shape us in a way nothing else can. Now I don’t know if I want that anymore. The weight of a thousand strange memories might be too heavy for anyone to bear; I can barely carry the weight of my own. Some days it feels liberating to imagine being wiped clean of it all. A clean memory to start fresh and fill with things that won’t taste bitter in hindsight. The first time I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I lay bundled in my bed, skinny jeans a pool of deep blue on the carpet, my cheeks banded with mascara. The movie is science fiction, detailing the falling out of a love affair between two tragically different humans, and their subsequent decision to both have their memories 8
of each other erased through a medical procedure. Clementine, hair colored a different segment of the rainbow in every scene, underwent the procedure first, impulsivity carrying her to the operation table. Joel went next to combat the reality that one day Clementine would look into his eyes and see no one of importance. “Now the first thing we need you to do Mr. Barish is to go home and collect everything that has anything to do with Clementine. Anything.” The words should have felt cleansing, but instead tasted cold and clinical coming from the mouth of the doctor. Why should a man who can erase the mind of anyone feel any emotionality? He had no reason to feel anything. Any unpleasant emotion could be erased.
“Well, I think it’s brilliant. If humans could create this type of technology, we could totally free ourselves from trauma.” You said this while sipping your coffee, nestled in the back room of a coffee shop in my hometown the summer we were doing okay. “But don’t you think it’s kind of sad? I don’t know. Maybe I’m a sentimentalist but I just feel like people come into our lives for a reason. I feel like everyone is kinda meant to teach you more about yourself, even if things end badly.” I waited for your rebuttal. We lived for these big questions then, fed off of each other’s energy and curiosity. It was the pettiness of the small questions that broke us. The things that, in hindsight, mattered the least. “Yeah but there are people that have changed me that I wish hadn’t, you know? Some people come into your life just to fuck you up.” You sipped coffee, adjusting the Ray Ban glasses that had started to migrate down your nose. I felt silly in that moment and I knew you were right. Perhaps if I had encountered more toxic people, seen more of the worst humanity had to offer, I wouldn’t be so quick to defend my own memories. But a line Joel cried out in desperation kept replaying through my mind. A line he yelled before the memory of Clementine was completely eradicated from his mind. I want to keep this memory. Just this one. It reminded me of the night we spent together after we ended things where you held onto me like a memory you were desperate to keep. As if you would wake up and I would be gone if you slackened your grip for even a second. If you unburied your face from my neck to catch a quick breath. And I mumbled into your curly hair, half asleep, or maybe just bold because of where I lay, that you’re it. You’re the one. I’m sure.
You kept the memory book I gave you the Christmas we spent in different cities. Full of the pictures, quotes, and poems that colored our relationship, it had taken hours of work sitting on my bedroom floor, cross-legged and frazzled, to get it just right, to make each memory feel fresh on the page. I painstakingly painted the words “Our Adventure Book” on the cover in thin gold ink, an homage to the Disney movie Up. Even on my bad days when I questioned everything—so unsure of how you could still love me as much as you did—you would send me a picture of Ellie and Carl, old and frail but still holding onto each other. Still smiling. Still deeply in love. You wanted that to be us one day. Rocking chairs parallel. Liver-spotted hands clasped. I smudged the gold ink once near the “A” with my pinky finger and tried to fix it but just ended up smudging it further. I thought you would notice the imperfection in the text but when we laid on top of your childhood bed, giggling, your whole body wrapped around mine, you never mentioned it. You told me you felt remarkably average on the scale of human excellence, but when you were with me, I made you a better man. Maybe you forgot about the book. It sat on that shelf, unopened and ignored, for the last two months we spent together. It’s possible you won’t remember it until you leave that hellhole you live in now, moving boxes growing heavier from the memories of me packed inside. Maybe you knew if you took the book off the shelf, even for a moment to pack it into a plastic grocery bag, if you rubbed the dust and pollen off the cover, something would compel you to open it. To read the words and see our smiling faces and wonder why you had decided our story needed to end so quickly. How hopes of growing old together had turned into a need to grow apart.
The Elsewhere tour guide had a thick ring puncturing her septum, razor chopped hair with baby bangs. Sallow skin. Purpled crescents budding under her eye sockets. She adjusted her glasses as she spoke, fidgeted with the dark clothing that draped on her bones like a hanger. “Can I help you?” I had come back after things ended. I don’t know why. Something about a place that could compartmentalize my longing into tiny rooms made the idea of coping more manageable. As if I could shelve each memory alongside yellowed book pages and old vinyl records, tucking each away safely. An artist sorted those vinyls, asking visitors to describe a distinct memory associated with an album or an artist as vividly as possible. As they palmed the album, the writer would tap out the responses carefully on a typewriter, gently pasting the paper square to the album cover, materializing that memory into a tangible thing. “Do you still do tours here?” I bit at the raw skin around my nail bed. The nails were already chewed to the point of pain. 10
“You’re in luck. One starts in ten minutes.”
You came to my room the week after things ended palming the leather journal I had left in your possession by its binding. A bag of my belongings in your grasp. I reached for the ripped plastic bag I had stowed away in a drawer. Poking out of the tears was the colorful knit I had bought you for Christmas, your checkered boxers, a worn out tshirt I had slept in on a particularly chilly North Carolina night where frost collected heavy on your windowsill. I thought about the sweater. I had bought it for you so sure you would hate it, so sure I would end up keeping it, but you pulled it over your shoulders immediately and wrapped me in its warmth. I pushed the thought away. “Sorry the bag ripped. Couldn’t find one without a hole in it.” I sheepishly shoved it towards you. I didn’t know how to interact with you, didn’t know how much was too much to say. I took the journal from your hand, feeling the detail of the leatherwork against my fingertips. You fidgeted with your hair, a couple of stray ringlets peeking out from under your baseball cap. You wore hats everywhere now, keeping your curls contained. Your eyes fully covered. Maybe you had to change something now that I was no longer a part of you. You peered down at the journal in my hand. “I was going to write something inside. On the front page? I had something written and everything but I …” You stopped yourself from saying more. “You don’t see much of a point now, do you?” My voice was calm and even. I wanted to prove I could control my emotions. Reign in the hurt. Dull the memories. I had been trying to quiet those memories for a while by self-medicating. Letting the numbness spread down my arms and into my shoes. Trying to wiggle my toes between each hiccup. Trying to click my tongue after each sip to see if I could still feel it. I realized it wouldn’t work. Fogging my brain wouldn’t stop the memories from creeping through the vodka haze; instead they became illuminated and grew more urgent. I changed course and filled every minute of every day with activity, never allowing myself to fully be alone with my own thoughts. Sleeping on dorm room floors and friends’ couches with springs poking through the fabric, denying myself solitude to process the wrongness of it all. The immediacy in which a person can leave, and how heavily their presence can still linger in every object, every voice, every memory.
The tour guide stood in the hall, a mosaic of different papers overlapping on the wall, each wall lined with different contraptions. Everything here had been turned into art, even the holes that had been punched in were decorated with ribbons and colorful 11
yarn, interwoven to make the mess more beautiful. She explained the residency process, described how the artists could not permanently alter any of the materials and that any of their art could be added to or be deconstructed entirely. The beauty of the piece was in its impermanence: the ability for the material thing to disappear but the memory to remain. A commodity that made the work even more special.
The creators of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind once said that they had pictured Clementine and Joel erasing each other fifteen times. Meeting, falling in love, falling out of love, and erasing each other fifteen times. Can you imagine, despite everything, falling back to each other every time? I donâ€™t know if that could ever be us. But I like to think if I did erase you, I would find you again and again and again. That we would begin again each time like we did the last, meet again at that party neither of us really wanted to attend. Would I step outside for air as I did the last time, overwhelmed and slightly bored with it all, looking to bum a smoke off any boy who wouldnâ€™t make me pay? Would you spot the bit of teal in my hair, shining brighter under the streetlamp and remember me as the girl your buddies called a bit strange? Would you ask me what makes my days brighter, what makes the blood pump through my veins a bit faster, then spend the night reciting poetry off of our phone screens, asking each other questions too big to discuss with strangers? I think we would. Instead I blanket myself in these moments and these memories. These people and these places. Curate images and words like Sylvia to find beauty in this bittersweet and create something new from the ruin, to turn memories into art.
Reasons That a Person Would Have for Cutting Off the Tops of the Tulips and Leaving Them Where They Fell The tulips were yellow. The culprit was beheaded in a recent past life. A young boy thought he had found a stunning gift for his mother but upon receival she made him bring them back. Yellow is unlikeable. The tulips are a reminder of suspected infertility. Flowers often ask to be cut. The individual needed to influence his surroundings. This is the picture game where you find the differencesâ€”the other picture contains intact tulips.
Four Sleepscapes “There is always a split between fragments that are real and fragments that are virtual, between memory and fantasy. These splits have no existence other than being the passage from one fragment to another. They are relays rather than signs. They are traces. They are in-between.” Bernard Tschumi from Architecture and Dysjunction One September I didn’t sleep for almost a month. That’s when I saw the dogs. Real dogs who made an alternative sleep as I walked around muddled with the desire to bury my face in their fur. Like the heat that hovers at the corner of your lips when you’re just about to fall asleep. That kind of want, that gift, a kiss to the side of your mouth when you’re the only one around. The sleepscape dogs, the candy dogs, now whelped and set free by me on canvas. I mixed my rosemaling pigments: forest-floor green, oxblood, the fleshy pink between sanguine and cadaver. Winter sky blue—grey and lavender—toned to make a boreal teal. Darkness, earth, muscle. Home: ochre toned and made the opaque sadness of its sunshine wish. The sleepscape dogs bridged home and the city, a mirror equation next to the balance of sleep and waking. The sleepscape: not a landscape in which most are sleeping, but a transient world formed by many sleeping bodies in close proximity. Seen best on a dark winter morning when you can gaze at anything straight-on. Where sleep also means the sleeping body is here. Insomnia doesn’t mean sleep is elusive, but that the insomniac has been abandoned half-elsewhere. Where here means the colors that recall my woodland home to me. The bruised sky moving snow from the west. Sleepscape gathering, hot chocolate heated in large tin pots.
Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Cedar Street So much of looking, painting, and writing is talking myself into something. That it is ok to be here, that here everything is right if considered for long enough to see what might be there. Safe safe safe, only awash in whatâ€™s here. Imagine a candy dog holding back the awake world in its jaws so you can clearly see and be within the sleepscape, summon different worlds atop and against one another with your gaze to see what vanishes, what is brought into being. Every day, every second. The dogs hold back the tides of the awake world, and as light starts to hem the horizon, the lines release like a suspension bridge snapping, recoiling, further into the day. The dogs of the night hold the lines taut, sleepscape as much a barricade as a creation. In winter, the same path walked again and again where the darkness is allowed to fall. The distance of the light. Offices, most of them empty. On a summer afternoon, theyâ€™ll reflect the passing clouds, the same skyscape made unrelated in fragments.
Early dusk, air taut and sad as a cello string. Empty and mourning at once. The romance of it: thighs round and strong on the packed snow, pain implicit in the dry 15
cold and your own pain reflected back at you in the eyes of others. Bare concrete and asphalt expanses of parking lots, parks, hillsides. What is a public space without people? Barren, a shuttering. What you can see, feel, learn, in the dark, in the bare cold excess of the sleepscape. What you can learn by cultivating what’s deeply romantic in the loneliness of watching a world destroy and rebuild itself again and again. I am telling you: it is not the same, day after day, minute after minute. Stand in the right place at the right time when the light is changing and with it, the shape of the world. Winter dusk broken by the still lights on the high bridge. The sleepscape prepares itself.
Dale Street and Grand Avenue Away, aweigh. Horizon and sunset deeper from the alley, a lesson in standing in the V of perspective and looking toward the vanishing point. When I tell my parents I’ve arrived safely, I say I’m here and not I’m home. Not all places are here. Some are bridges between two heres and gone in a flash. But before they’re gone, they’re revealed to anyone open enough to see them. My mom boarded dogs for the Humane Society during the time I was growing up. She housed them in our house and our barn, and later, in kennels my father made of wood and insulation and hay cut from our fields. When the kennels were ready to be homes, my father squatted in front of them, proud and smiling, and my mother took a picture. It was my favorite photo of him. Five years later, I tore it up after an argument. As if tearing it meant I refused to accept that people can be kind and cruel and everything else, that I could reduce him to a single dimension through one choice and one act. And later, taping it back together, the regret not that I’d ruined this one photo that existed nowhere else, but that I’d deliberately erased the good in him that came through in it, that I could choose how much of the world and people I welcomed, and that blotting any of it out was easy. In painting the sleepscapes, these scenes that have fixed themselves in place with their snow and candy dogs, I realize there exists some relation between sleep and awake and home and away.
When learning a new language: I am from…, but I live in…. Relation in the here and away, in the overlap. Dala horses from family, now passed, stand throughout my parents’ house and my small apartment. Good fortune, but only one per room, my dad warns, don’t get carried away. Don’t tempt fate by being desperate for something different. The candy fjord horse form, red oxide and bare or with the rippling brushstrokes that mimic saddle and bridle, flicking ears. A candy form to bridge the world of what is and what’s wished for. Not so much to protect a space as to acknowledge that there are other spaces, and if there are others, there are intermediaries to draw your gaze and give it somewhere to rest.
Seventh Street East and Wacouta Street North down Wacouta from Mears Park, sleet suffusing the air so deeply it becomes nearly a memory as it falls. It has never stopped snowing; it will never stop snowing. The church, the lampposts. Ghost signs, windowless granite and sandstone facades. And why here? Walking quickly to meet friends for fish and cider. Why does sleepscape appear? Why does the scene fix itself, stop for a moment at this time in this alignment? I’m worried and wet. I want to be home and not here. 17
The last time I stopped being able to sleep, my mom was suffering under clouds of sepsis unleashed throughout her body, unsafe and awash. I felt her in the way mice may feel each other’s pain in the crepuscular hours when the light reveals the world stepping out of its skin to become different in the course of a day, in the way that my mother and her mother would tell each other their dreams and find them the same night after night.
When surgeons removed my mom’s infected colon, I slept for the first time in weeks. My sister and I wondered to each other if her abdomen was now empty. I pictured the darkness of outer space we pretend to have seen and photographed, like we all think we’ve seen the Milky Way in its entirety. Violet dust, stars in a scatter, pink nebulae.
Summit Avenue and Syndicate Street South Can you live somewhere—sleep there—without being all of the pasts it has buried or built over? All the overlap? All the dogs you’ve ever known? 18
The insomniac’s sleepiness: a softening, though not at first. At first, a dread and inability to fit body to world, trapped in the doorway between sleepscape and awake unraveling from the candy dogs’ jaws. Not here entirely, but awash. Once I woke from a nightmare, veins in my ankles dilating sour. Safe safe safe awash. I stopped my futile dream-running, and I stood in the waterfall doorway between the worlds of sleep and awake and let it pour over me. Awash in it all, but not belonging. Not here fully. Imprint, canvas. Dogs not to show you the sleepscape and the awake world, but to show you how the two come together. To show you how seeing two worlds touch can let you belong here. Dogs letting the sleepscape build itself, then releasing the awake. The worlds mesh with the dawn, the first line of light burning away the sleepscape’s edges, the world becoming once again harsh and known. The shape of a leg, that pork chop curve, the way the foot hits the snow. Learning by painting another’s joints, a body’s articulations, its convexities and spirals. The realization that all dogs are listening when painted in ancestral colors. Through the day, the afternoon, when the awake world coils its cords around and inside you, the only remedy for it is the canine comfort of burying your closed eyes in semblance of sleep. Later, when insomnia builds on itself like a city that was once woodland and is only waiting to show you how its displaced woodland life can murmur into your oblivious skin, there is a softening of the space in your insomniac middle, a warmth that spreads. Daze, muddle, hot sting at the edge of vision and horizon, like your life is a dream your family is having at once. Clouds like falcons ride the ghosts of currents, prickle at the periphery of deep blue sky.
Wide Awake, Wondering if Ants Have Hearts I just wanna be friends I tell you after class We are both so exhausted And measuring the seconds left Before we can undress separately You hang your head out the window “Isn’t this what dogs do?” I laugh and say yes yes, you dog And you say you feel a little less nauseous And I say that’s grand And we each turn into screens Searching and searching and spinning Between searches because the code Is just not Quite As sophisticated As our hearts had hoped.
Zen Painting The land goes on forever you might say with a blue sliver river through it white-face rock crops sun devils and heat devils anvil cloud updrafts and hawks riding on thermals no trail no road no town just pinyon and scrub brush dust and feral eyes chittering chipmunks and snakes like sticks dry lightning in the hills clouds coming with storms big boom of thunder we only pass through
Octavio The grey cat smells of smoke. Is smoke, in the way he materializes one day after a window is left open. Half-starved, he slinks under armchairs, sofa, hutch. Do you own a cat, her newest lover asks, sneezing four times quickly. No, she says, truthfully, raking the man’s back like a scratching post. The newest lover flees one night, wearing only her grandmother’s quilt, taking her favorite umbrella, a gift from another man. The cat stays. He leaves her a small mouse missing its feet. She screams, high and long, a horror movie actress. The cat pops out from behind her desk to strut, occasionally swatting the mouse with his pincushion paws. His bushy tail caresses and blankets her naked calves, bringing goosebumps. Alone at night, lonely, she breathes into her departed lover’s college sweatshirt. He was soap and stuffy rooms. The cat leaps onto her bed, arrives already purring. He kneads her hip like a little masseuse. His long fur is curiously human to the touch. Hello, you, she says. In the morning, the cat is gone. His shed fur has nearly obscured the Harvard crest on the shirt that is now faintly gamey. Three more lovers come and go. The cat leaves each a gift: regurgitated grass, a snarl of dirty yarn, feces. She does not name the cat. Nothing suits him. And, without a name, there will be nothing to mourn when he too leaves. When there’s a new man, she trims and files her nails, lines her eyelids with an upward sweep. She beguiles with absinthe and her sharp, clean teeth. You’re really wild, one says, as a good-bye. She loses weight, until she is lean and lithe. Resumes smoking, an old, teenaged affectation. She starts love affairs so skillfully, but they all evaporate, the same way her perfect smoke rings break up over her head. The cat cavorts across her long living 22
room, chases his tail, pouncing on sunlight. The sound of her own laugh is a surprise. Daily, the cat attacks the postman until the mail is left neatly stacked outside. She awakens one night to find the cat bunched around her head, like a Russian fur hat. Being loved by an animal is not enough, she tells the dark. The cat gets into a fight, limping one morning with a torn ear and scratched nose. She gives him a bowl of half and half, then she laps up her coffee bitter and black. The cat starts to hunt and eat more. There’s the sound of crunched cat food at odd hours. She finds a dead mole, bloodied bird wings, and once a small, mauled rabbit. She takes to wearing her shoes indoors. The cat grows not fat but big. She cuts off his too-tight flea collar. He hisses and bats at a potential lover like a prize fighter, feinting. Is that a Maine Coon cat, he asks, then excuses himself over half-drunk tea. The cat jumps onto her lap and hangs down to her knees. Later, she’ll discover four silver dollar bruises where he landed. She finds dead mice daily, always in the same place, next to her kitchen chair, regular as an online food delivery. In bed she reads while the cat’s tongue lavishly bathes her bare arms and legs. He crawls up her body and nips her neck, then soothes the light sting with his cool tongue. And still the cat stays. She strokes him from head to tail, over and over, a talisman. He closes his eyes, drools, as she chuckles. He could scratch her, but he never does. Finally, his name comes to her: Octavio. When she looks it up, it means wonderful, charismatic, and enigmatic man. She calls Octavio softly and almost immediately the cat appears from behind a corner, swaggering toward her. One night she swims out of sleep to feel a warm, large body alongside her own. At first she thinks it’s the latest lover, but then remembers he was a one-night stand. With a cry of fear, she jumps from the bed and to the front door. Out on the street, barefoot, she stops. With the full moon as her light, she observes the tall figure waiting for her at the open bedroom window, his golden eyes and darkly furred face. When he growls low and deep in his throat, her limbs twitch in response, for they are the same—wild creatures destined to be neither owner nor pet. .
Predictions for a Skeptic you will watch romantic films & witness couples dancing in the kitchen or living room or even in the bathroom & you will shout DO PEOPLE REALLY DO THAT? & the actors will stop what they’re doing, turn around, bend over, & moon you & you will slip into your navy joggers & blackout on well whiskey at the local lesbian bar where you will meet dozens of women who hate women & don’t even realize it & the forgetting will feel even worse than usual. in the morning you will have a text from a recent divorcee saying come on, one date won’t kill you & you will type then erase, type then erase until you turn into one giant thumb you will use to hitchhike back to before the uncertainty began. the driver will look at you in the rearview mirror, eyes so frightening they sedate you, & introduce himself as the devil & you will say if you’re the devil then prove it & he will say I don’t know how. you just have to believe me & you will say jeez, you sound suspiciously like god & he will snicker then drive off the road & into a ditch. when you come to, you will find yourself in a booth across from someone you wind up forcing yourself to love & you will figure it is as good a time as any for a beer & french fries with big delicious globs of ketchup. you will drop ketchup on your hoodie & marvel at how alone the wrong company can make you feel & this loneliness will inspire you to kiss her but you will have your wrong mouth on & your wrong mouth will make you pull away & say my father’s favorite part of photography is editing all the people out of his photos & she will take a sip of her vodka soda & nod for you to continue & you will say don’t you think it would be nice if life worked that way too? she will say I don’t know what you mean & despite not wanting to, you will kiss her some more & wonder who’s really calling the shots. she will come away with fistfuls of your stuffing. 24
the truth is, you will never know what you are made of, just that you were poorly made & this will create problems you could learn to ignore if only you had the gumption. the next four years will go like this: you will be hogtied by depression without your consent. gag in your mouth. blindfold over your eyes. a thrashing that soon dies down. you will begin to resent the submission you’d previously desired. you will dissociate on your bedroom floor & the view from above will be uninspiring. you will clean the cat box. you will put the cat on a diet. you will listen to the cat scream & hiss all night. most nights you will sleep elsewhere & when you come home your roommate will tell you to stop reinventing the pillow & you will make a drink while she plays Bioshock & requests that you learn to mutate. you will lay your head in her lap & ask if she has any more of that molly from the other night. she will stroke your hair & steady your trembling hand. you two will orbit around each other until you get sick of the almosts. after a few months of this you will move to the beach & your cat will leap out your window, determined to become an outdoor cat. your best friend will nickname you outdoor cat & you will act accordingly, slinking through the night & into vulnerable hearts. you will forward your mother’s calls & write instruction manuals on how to talk yourself out of suicide & the solutions will read like prayers if prayers were afraid of themselves. eventually you will find someone you wish you could love less & at first she will belong to someone who isn’t you & you will tear up your instruction manuals & eat the pages. she will hold the best years of your life between the webs of her fingers, only her hands will be somewhere you can’t access them: twenty miles east & intertwined with those of another. after months of swallowing Xanax & whiskey, those hands will become yours to hold. you will marry her on a boat & your five-year-old niece will talk herself out of tears. back home, long after all the I dos & I wills, you will grab your wife’s hand & dance in the living room, you in nothing but your boxer briefs, her in her house shirt & leggings, & you will shout PEOPLE REALLY DO THIS & she will know exactly what you mean. the dog will groan because you’ve been playing your wedding song on repeat ever since it became your wedding song & you will slowly slip out of your doubts & into yourself. you will turn around, bend over, & moon the neighbors. & what do you know, they will be dancing too. 25
Progression The tick of the clock failed to move her life forward so she had to climb onto the wall and adjust the hands The very act of climbing landed her foot on the filing cabinet and her waist against the calendar She felt odd in that position but it had to be done in order to move her life forward, the very thing that could move it seemed so unreal. She should have asked for help, consulted someone first only there hadnâ€™t been time, the day was already there
Lisa Wence Connors
Cicadas’ Hymn Sun staggers, dragging dusk The cicadas’ hymn fills the void — wild against calm, dry air A song, not of gratitude, joy but prompt resignation — short life of devoted suffering No song of biological Bacchanalia only droning duty as buds close for night They become husks — passed into genetic afterlife of dry mud and patient waiting The cicadas’ persistent hymn — choking the twilight air like beads of a bone rosary rattling in my ear
Red Red is the color at the end of the visible spectrum of light. It puts you on edge. It is the edge. Scandals, streetcars and roses. The flush of fatigue and desire. Red is the aphrodisiac of power. Tasteful in small doses, mad in head to toe. Red can be drawn on skin; there are implements for that. In the invisible spectrum of light below it, we see just what is behind our eyes, the dance of heat under hands. Red is the taste of longing in the blind grope towards rayleigh scattering— oh, let’s follow the ochre of our bodies past the galleries of the brain towards the era of the first cochineal, or some monkey’s ass reading ripe the discovery of fire, oh—just— Red Red as dawn, Red as sunset. The number for crimson is repeat.
Poem from a line by John Donne I lied all winter, in my buttoned up coat and red scarf. I was hiding crows. I lied when I said hello, that neutral tone and proffered glove. I should have torn it off. I lied all winter. Season-wise, I frosted my heart. Under my hat my brain boiled. My flesh red and raw. I lied as I turned, cold and heat clashing my brain heart cymbals. I lied. Each time I lied. So good to see you, yes, yes, what spectacle the storms, the vicissitude of future slush, how strangely blue this winter light. I lied. We should have tried, at least, to leave the print of our angels in the snow.
Puzzling Things No hatreds are so keen as those of love. – Propertius They called me Fats. Older brothers have a knack for affectionate nicknames. But it was the 80s, and sensitivity hadn’t quite made its appearance onto the cultural scene. For some reason they referred to each other as Gay Boy. I’m not quite sure how they got away with it—I mean, where was my mother? The puzzle is to build one large pyramid with six small triangular pyramids, three larger pyramids with square bases, five slanted wedges, and a large base unit. I know where she was during our frequent family road trips. All 5’ 1” of her, blonde and smoking Salem Lights, occupied the front passenger seat of our woody station wagon. Her disapproval consisted of a half-turn, a gravelly Heads will roll, and prolonged sip of her trademark iced tea. Not too commanding. Especially since most legs of any given trip found her with makeshift antennae protruding from her French-twist bun of L’Oréal-bleached hair. What else would brothers do with their respective plastic McDonald’s straws? I take three of the six small triangular pieces and place them so that each triangle has an edge flush with a middle wall of the base and their points meet in the center. 30
Some of our deepest family laughs came from watching her walk toward the gas station bathroom looking like an alien, like some oversized insect with extrasensory powers. Today I see more foreboding in it. No one could probe me like the mother ship could. No one was more foreign to me than she was. Still is. My happiest memory was the perfectly green Kermit the Frog tenth birthday cake even though my oldest brother accidentally sat on it in the car ride home from Montgomery’s Main Street Bakery. Kermit with a crushed skull was better than Kermit hanged in effigy from the kitchen ceiling light or Kermit flung out the RV’s bathroom window onto the Jersey Turnpike in a blizzard. Each incident actual expressions of my brothers’ affection. But why, without fail, did they have to celebrate by singing It’s not easy being green? I place one of the larger pyramids with its point down toward the middle of the base in between two of the smaller triangles. I learned quickly that it was also not easy being chubby. My favorite bathing suit was a white one-piece patterned with leaf-bejeweled red tulips. The contrast of red and green with white struck me as the most aesthetically pleasing garment I could ever put on my eleven-year-old body. And I broke it in at Sunlite Water Park, the dream summer destination for any of Cincinnati’s kids. When my mother told me to stand by the edge of the pool for a picture, I was eager to do it. After all, I was wearing the best bathing suit at the best pool and ready to have the best day of my summer. I smiled for her. She told me There, now you can see how huge your stomach looks in a bathing suit. I don’t know where that picture ended up—it’s not in any of my albums. Maybe I tore it to pieces one day. Or my mother, ravaged by guilt, used her Bic lighter to burn it. Is it weird that in some masochistic way, I wish I could have it taped to my bathroom mirror or clipped to my refrigerator? The square base of that piece tilts up and towards the corners of the base. I do the same with the other large pyramid pieces. Food seemed to be the only thing I was supposed to think about. It was my job to write up the grocery lists; I suppose I was the most aware of the pantry’s inventory. I like to imagine it was my way of being important, my way of mattering, my way of exerting a 31
maternal presence that would be appreciated. Something that would earn me a smidgen of praise. I finally see the irony in it. From the age of nine my mother’s idea of bonding with her only daughter took the form of dieting contests. Who could go the longest amount of time without eating? Who could lose the most weight? Competitions consisting of scales, portion control, and dizziness. Today she remembers fondly all the times she took me out to lunch after a long day at the mall; the other day she texted me Just reminiscing about all our fun lunch dates when you were a little girl xoxo! How does she not remember keeping a weekly ledger of my weight? I have struggled with a ledger of hate. Writing and erasing. Inching toward forgiveness only to turn the page and see that child in a tulip swimsuit. Is this how we learn to hate? I place one of the wedge pieces into each corner of the base leaning against the larger triangular pieces. The summer before sixth grade I enrolled in cooking camp where I learned to decorate cakes, whip up omelets, and mince garlic. But the only skill I needed that summer was assembling triple decker salami and mustard sandwiches for my brothers, on demand. Two-a-day football practices made them hungry. So hungry that they sawed off a baseball bat in the garage and then used it as weapon on me, jabbing my rib cage until I made their sandwiches. Was that when I began hiding in the linen closet? Then, I place the remaining smaller triangular pieces on top of the flat triangles of the wedges. A saw wasn’t the only weapon my father kept in the garage. He also had a vise, an axe, two weed whackers, and way too many BB guns. The vise invariably found its grip tightening on my elbow as punishment for not agreeing to be my brothers’ tackling dummy. The axe, ceremoniously carried by two grand-hooded executioners, sliced through the plastic sinews of my baby dolls, taking my mother’s head-rolling threat to the next level. The weed whackers were the perfect way to intimidate me into doing their chores for them. That or their default: spit torture. The only comparable weapon my mother kept was a bottle of Nair hair remover in her shower. It remained a consistent threat, hovering over my childhood like the sword of Damocles. I never took a shower without first sniffing the shampoo for that pungent stench of depilatory. I’m not sure which is more puzzling to me, how my 32
mother thought I would be just fine at home when she went back to work or why my brothers never used those BB guns on me. Did they, perhaps, love me? I slide one wedge piece pointed down into the open space and then the other wedge piece inverted on top of it. Despite all those, my brothersâ€™ most devious weapon was concocted in the kitchen: Serious Mass High Calorie Mix Weight Gain Powder. A magical elixir that helped them be more menacing on the football field and bumped up their numbers for weigh-ins. According to my brothers, everything I ingested would be tainted with this powder. And it is with this particularly maniacal threat that they broke me. This and the bumper sticker they slapped onto our family car: No Fat Chicks. This move forms the pyramid and completes the puzzle. I sometimes find it hard to reconcile the terror I lived then with the relative ease and boredom I find now as an adult. Maybe this is why I feel compelled to write about my family, to figure it out and make peace with not enjoying a single bite of food ever since I was nine. Maybe this is why I spend my weekends solving puzzles, obsessively pursuing solutions to problems. Today my brothers and I have a better relationship. After decades manipulating lifeâ€™s puzzles in their own rights, they each seem to have become more human. Wives and children helped them, Iâ€™m sure. We are now quite civil toward one another. We trade photos of our kids, lament about our aging parents, and even find moments to laugh about our childhood years together. No longer do I fear them, nor do I idolize them. Instead, I see them as the flawed beautiful humans that we all are. Maybe this is what it means to grow up.
Looking for a Place to Die My memories and I sleepwalk into town, arm in arm, down the street of black stockings and long skirts, our flat heels click-clacking on the cobblestones. We pass the hat shop with its window of false promises behind which forgotten heroines change into child brides before our eyes. Horse carriages—the sting of dung—thunder by, so loud that talking to our sisters becomes impossible. We buy milk in glass bottles and are startled by the telephone that rings in the back room like a wayward alarm. With a forced smile, we pick up the horn and pronounce our name, which has strangely changed after we fell in love only once. On the street, the gas lamps have not yet been lit, so we continue along our way in the dusk, my memories and I, arm in arm, distracted by the questioning button eyes of our dolls; we close them at times to protect our dolls’ hearts against the betrayal that is everywhere during the war. We step into a doctor’s office, quickly, hesitant to take off our clothes, until we hear our own voice, screaming in childbirth. Breast cancer is not our fate. Nor is the dark closet of a teacher after school, although we’re not too young to know of such things. At the end of town, we take a left, my memories and I, choosing a dark path where moths are courting one another and age threatens to crumble our bones. We must have changed course, however, because soon early birds are circling in the sky again and spring turns its many green faces toward the sun. What a delight it is, we think, to live a world in which you can witness the dawn multiple times a day.
First Fracture My peers were busy breaking bones in middle school: messy skateboard landing, football tackle, bike crash. (& so: when tumbling down the stairs at twenty-five carrying a basket of dirty laundry, it’s recommended: lean in to the indignity of the metaphor.) The doctor kneads a miniature spine made of plastic & points to the broken place. He says I am young & lucky & will heal soon, but something in me decides this is not enough, or is too much. I had hoped to leave my life for a while. In the life I don’t leave, I use an orthopedic donut pillow at bars & on trains & in my own kitchen while spooning scrambled eggs & watching hour-long (alarmist) YouTube lectures on the Denis classification. In the life I don’t leave, my Uber driver swerves to avoid potholes, shouting “ya don’t got nothing if ya don’t got your health!” & when I arrive at the Boyfriend’s, he kneels in front of my lips & fucks my mouth because anything below my ribcage will hurt. Afterwards, he slides a pair of clean underpants up my thighs & hips. When I try to find a comfortable sleeping position I think of the way my bones stack together, imagine the hairline crack in my sacrum widening & widening until the bone is worn down to dust the Boyfriend will soon sweep away.
Worry Lines The Pacific Ocean thunders a few hundred yards beyond the hood of our car during a late November storm. It hasn’t stopped raining for days. I tweak the rearview mirror and watch my son stare quietly out into the gray. It feels like trespassing, this watching. Stolen, somehow. But I am desperate to understand what’s going on behind those eyes, now reflecting the cement-colored sky. At the same time, I’m frightened he’ll ask the question I cannot answer. The one I’ve asked myself a thousand times. Before the long drive back home to Seattle, our family made one last stop to let the dog run. As soon as my husband opened the door, she rocketed herself across an otherwise empty beach. My younger son piled out after them, grinning, his pudgy preschooler legs hurrying to catch up. My older son didn’t want to go out in the wet and wind so we sit silently and watch the dune grass cower against the deluge. Wrinkles appear and disappear on his seven-year-old brow like lines of seafoam on the sand. He worries too much. He worries like a hundred little tremors preceding an earthquake and then the big one comes. He worries like an endless briar patch, his exposed skin is covered in a thousand little cuts. I worry too much. I worry like giant hiccups of electricity vibrating along cracked and outdated lines. And this small boy in the backseat is my biggest, most perfect worry. Suddenly now, in our quiet hidey hole beside a seething sea, seems like as good a time as any to stare that frightening question down. “Do you remember when Dad and I talked to you the other day about being autistic?” I ask.
“Oh. Yeah.” His whisper is punctuated ever so slightly like a moth hitting a window. Like it hurts just a little. I take a deep breath. “Do you have any questions you’d like to ask me?” Please say no. Please say yes. “Oh, no,” he sighs. “Those questions are hard.” A sheet of rain collides with the windshield and we return to silence. This time he didn’t ask why. Or why me. When he does, what will I say?
Twentieth century child psychiatrist Leo Kanner, commonly credited for “discovering” autism, described mothers of autistic children as “odd and habitually anxious,” always careful to note their level of education for his files. Having highly-educated female forebears, he insisted, was one of the greatest risk factors for autism. Both of my son’s grandmothers have advanced degrees. So do I. Both of his maternal great grandmothers graduated from college. “Just as I suspected,” Kanner would say (rather smugly, I imagine), ticking boxes on his clipboard. Throughout the last hundred years, other highly-trained “experts” have proclaimed with fancy phrases that I gave my son autism. Mothers of autistic children didn’t so much love and give affection to our kids, the experts insisted, as provided them with “mechanized service of the kind which is rendered by an over-conscientious gasoline station attendant.” Children like my son, Kanner said, were “kept neatly in a refrigerator which didn’t defrost.” Me, he meant. My womb, my arms, my heart. Along with his lists of damaging maternal idiosyncrasies, Kanner also noted that autistic children were often “strikingly good looking.” He described this beauty, however, as if it surprised him to find it there, amid all the quirks. At first my son’s beauty surprised and mystified me, but it doesn’t anymore. His eyes are caves of kyanite, shot through with light. His cheeks rise like soft mounds of unbaked challah bread. His is a pulsing and radiant beauty painted with gold on the inside and the sun rising in his chest. I remember him as a chubby toddler, padding around the house nearly naked with a cloth diaper clinging precariously to his bottom. He paused by a living room window and was suddenly backlit by the evening sun. His wild, wispy curls transformed into a messy golden halo. A haystack with a perm. A sugar maple tree in full fall glory. His fat rolls disappeared quickly once he truly found his feet but my worry for him never did. It bloomed in my belly. It slicked my skin in circus colors like an oily film. My mother saw it all and began telling me stories. 37
My grandmother Charlotte had a nervous breakdown when she discovered she was pregnant with her second child (my mother) and her first daughter was only two months old. When the blues and two toddlers wouldn’t leave her be, doctors prescribed a strong antidepressant called Dexedrine; we would come to understand a generation later it was a kind of speed. Dextroamphetamine was also used by the military as a “go-pill” during lengthy combat operations and nighttime bombing expeditions. My father’s mother, Margaret, lost her ability to cope—and my dad to foster care for a time—when World War II took her husband away to the South Pacific. She prescribed her own medication through the years: vermouth, primarily. Still, if Kanner had shown up on Charlotte or Margaret’s doorstep spouting his schizophrenogenic mother hypothesis bullshit, they would have sent him packing with a pie plate (or vermouth bottle) to the side of his head. Charlotte would have called him a jackass, an epithet she saved for the worst of the worst, like politicians. The stories help me feel better. A little less lonely. I wrap them close to my chest and hold them there for the moments when worry for my son threatens to undo me.
The summer before he started Kindergarten, the PTA hosted popsicle playdates at the school’s playground to help the incoming kids get to know one another. We didn’t go. It seemed like walking into the belly of the beast, though admittedly we should have at least taken a peek into its dark and drooling maw before it gobbled us both up, sneakers and all. (It didn’t, quite, but it was always lurking.) This wasn’t daycare or preschool. This was Real School and there would be big kids with big opinions. “Children can be very judgmental, and very quick to judge,” his doctor said. “And once they decide a kid is weird, they aren’t likely to change their minds.” Oh god. At our familiar neighborhood park instead, we watched the typically-developing hordes swarm the slides and swings; my usual anxiety was tinged with something new. Fear about whether his Kindergarten classmates—the ones we stubbornly weren’t getting to know—would play with him and be kind to him made me sit down hard on the park bench. I know all parents feel this way to a certain extent. Every time some well-meaning soul tries to tell me this I feel a modicum of comfort, but mostly I want to scream at them until my voice gives out. I knew my son was worried about those kids on the playground too. Frightened and nervous. “I’m shy about them, Mama,” he whispered. “They scare the shit out of me, buddy,” I wanted to whisper back. 38
I don’t remember what I actually said, standing there holding his hand at the edge of the wood chips. Recently, in a rare moment, my father sat across the dinner table and told me a story about his mother. To hide the evidence of her excessive drinking, he said, Margaret regularly drove around the outskirts of our small rural town and hucked empty vermouth bottles out the open window of her old Plymouth. Having milked cows and mucked out stalls on the family dairy farm for decades, she probably had quite an arm on her. “Hey,” I later joked with my husband, “I may be wound pretty tight, but at least I’m not driving around the neighborhood tossing liquor bottles out of the Civic.” We chuckled but the look he gave me was watchful. It was comforting; someone should be paying attention if I really start to unravel. I think about Margaret’s pain and addiction now and I am sorry for it. I think about Charlotte and how life felt like more than she could manage without her little go-pills. I know now they would understand me, though they’ve both been dead for 20 years. They would know me and my worries. They would shoo Kanner, aprons flapping, out of my thoughts for good.
Back on the coast, my son and I sit together in silence. The car smells like stale coffee and wet socks. We watch his little brother grab fistfuls of sand and fling them gleefully into the rain. The dog trots nearby, stopping to poke her nose in a pile of kelp. They are both soaked. Happy. Rivulets of wet, sandy joy trickle down their cheeks and jowls. If I could distill that joy, that complete absence of care, I would drop it onto my son’s tongue like a drug. A medication beyond the power of his psychiatrist to prescribe. A million-dollar compound beyond the power of the pharmaceutical industry to manufacture. I would tilt my head back and drop it onto my own tongue. I would reach back through time and drop it onto Margaret’s tongue. Onto Charlotte’s. May their worry-ridden souls rest in peace. The women of my family have a proud and time-honored tradition of fretting and brow-furrowing. It is as reliable and unceasing as the tides. We may indeed be odd. We are definitely anxious. And yes, Dr. Kanner, we’ve had the privilege of a good education. Despite all of this, you were wrong. My son’s autism came not from the number of years I spent in school nor the temperature of my uterus, but from somewhere deep down where the roots of our family tree hold tight to the darkness. His worries came from there too, just like his great grandmothers’ did. Just like mine. When he finally does ask why, I’m still not quite sure what I’ll say or whether I’ll have the answers he needs. Will the stories of women he’ll never know help him
feel better too? A little less lonely? Will he recognize his worriesâ€”his selfâ€”in mine? Above all else, I will make certain he never has to worry about whether he is loved.
Legacy My Mother’s legacy taught me how to see in color: blood meandering down my leg as she placed society’s razor in a child’s hand, bride-in-training to hack away anything that didn’t belong in a man’s vision of woman that drifted—still years away— like blue-kissed smoke rings from a home set aflame, ravaged by a never-ending war. Echoes of catcalls lurking behind construction cones while margarita eyes burn, rimmed with salt because we are stuck—trapped in the too-familiar traffic of all mothers and daughters, where one, slightly faded, yearns to be young again while the other, green with naivety, can’t wait to grow up. Yolks oozing from the cracked shells of too many Mother’s Day omelettes delivered in bed, slowly waking up with the ability to recognize 41
the expiration date of your daughterâ€™s eggs â€” despite the purple prose dripping from the lips of everyone who believe that some things never end.
Gravy Boat When Melanie’s grandma died, we got every last bit of her crockery and cutlery and an entire village of creepy figurines made of porcelain. I assumed it would go to the storage space along with the remaining vestiges of my old life, but suddenly we were incorporating these garish atrocities into our household while my workout bench and collection of wind-up tin robots languished in a room with motion sensor lights and climate-controlled air in the next town over. The moment Melanie’s spoils arrived, I had to spend the afternoon washing her family history while Melanie unpacked it from decaying cardboard boxes. “Be careful with that one!” Melanie cried as I pulled a gold bulbous thing from the soapy water by the handle. “That was my grandma’s favorite.” “I didn’t know it was possible to have a favorite one of these,” I said. “It’s a gravy boat.” “I don’t think those two words go together.” “Just don’t break it.” I grabbed a towel and rubbed the side and an enormous plume of dust shot out like I’d opened a crypt. I dropped the gravy boat into the water with a splash as the dust swirled away from the sink and hovered in front of our ailing refrigerator. Melanie turned from the table where she’d been pulling newspaper off of individually wrapped silver spoons and stared with her mouth open. The pink of her tongue gave me a little thrill, like ripping paper in a silent library. I took a step toward her and we were closer than we’d been in weeks. I could smell her lavender shampoo and was shocked to find that I’d missed it. “You smell good,” I said. “It’s moving or pulsing or something,” she said. “Your hair?” 43
“No. Look. This is exactly what I’m talking about. You never pay attention. There’s a floating ball of smoke.” “Yeah, I know. It came out of the gravy boat.” I thought for a second. “That can’t be what it’s actually called.” A burly man in a flowing purple robe stepped from the smoke and took up most of our kitchen. Melanie pulled me in front of her and buried her face into my shoulder blade. I felt invincible. “Who has summoned me?” the man bellowed as his long mustache flopped on the sides of his chin. “It’s a genie,” Melanie whispered in awe. “Actually, it’s djinni, with a D,” he said. “I can tell you’re saying it with a G, and that drives me crazy. But other than that, I’m ready to fulfill your three wishes.” “Wait a minute,” I said to Melanie. “Your grandma had a genie and she still lived in that shitty senior complex?” Melanie grunted. “Well obviously none of us knew.” “Quick reminder. It’s djinni,” the genie said. “The D and the J just roll together. Would it help if we said it in unison a couple of times?” At that moment, it finally hit me that I had three wishes. I could wish for a returned closeness between Melanie and me. An end to our financial woes. Maybe sneak in one about blowjobs every once in a while. “I summoned you, deegenie,” I said with my chest inflated. “Close enough,” the genie said. “What?” Melanie said. “Who summoned him?” “It was me,” I said. “I did.” But she was using that tone of voice that made me feel less certain, and I knew what I said came out more like a question. “He belongs to my grandma. It’s part of my inheritance.” “I rubbed the side,” I said. “You’ve had years to do it and never thought of it.” “You wouldn’t have done it either if I hadn’t made you wash all this stuff.” The genie folded his massive arms and visibly pouted his puffy lips. “You’re talking about me as if I’m not here.” “Give us a second,” Melanie said as she stepped out from behind me. “The wishes are mine.” “What if we split them?” I said and looked up at the genie for support. He just shrugged his shoulders. Melanie shook her head. “You can’t split three evenly.” “If I might interject,” the genie said. “You could come up with some mutual wishes. Things that would affect both of you in a positive way.” “When was the last time we agreed on anything?” Melanie said.
She had me there. We’d been ordering dinner from two separate places each night. One time the delivery drivers ran into each other at our door and I’m pretty sure they had a love connection. The genie waved his massive hands in front of him. “Well there you go. You could wish for more compatibility of ideas.” “Nobody gets a genie and wishes for compatibility of ideas.” “We could,” I said, suddenly overwhelmed with possibility. I put my hands on her shoulders and turned her to face me. The freckles on her nose and cheeks were a galaxy that I hadn’t explored to its fullest. I needed more time. “Maybe the reason we’ve grown distant is because we aren’t trying like we used to. Maybe this is the time to break down the walls. Who cares what other people have wished in the past? This is our chance to show how much we mean to each other. That we’re willing to use these wishes to make us stronger.” “I cheated on you,” she said. “Didn’t see that coming,” the genie said in his booming voice. My face grew cold and light flickered at the edges of my vision. The genie put his warm hand on my back to steady me before I passed out. “You guys have some serious problems,” he said. “Too bad you don’t have a djinni standing in your kitchen offering you three wishes.” “Do you love him?” I said quietly to Melanie. “Of course not. You think I’d still be here if I did?” The genie gave me a push so that I was standing upright on my own. He leaned toward us, his face almost double the size of mine. “I have a great idea,” he said. “Why not wish that it never happened? A fresh start without all the emotional baggage.” Even though I wished that wouldn’t work for me, I knew in my core that it would. “I’m sorry, I just can’t,” Melanie said and she sounded a little sad about it. “Basically, it’s the most fun I’ve had in years. I don’t want to forget that.” Suddenly everything in my life felt fake. I’d given up everything to live in her world. My old friends, my stuff, and with all of this new information, apparently my dignity as well. “Maybe let’s go back to this splitting idea,” I said. Even one wish could get me on my way to a new life, I was sure of it. The genie nodded vigorously. “We could make this totally fair. You each get a wish. Then for the third one, you could wish to release me from the eternal damnation of living inside this lamp.” “I told you there was no such thing as a gravy boat,” I said. “Things are what you make of them. If my grandma wanted to put gravy in it, that made it a gravy boat.” Melanie rolled her eyes. “This is why we aren’t compatible.” 45
There was no going back from that. We were through. And this genie had witnessed the whole thing. He looked a bit uncomfortable. “So, what’s it going to be?” he said. “Let’s do the split,” Melanie said and she gave me a small smile. “But I’ll go first.” “Works for me,” I said. She squeezed my shoulder and stepped toward the genie. I watched her knowing that after this moment, everything was going to change. I drank her in. Her long legs. Her wide shoulders. I tried to hold on to that last touch, tried to memorize it. How her skin felt on mine. Melanie got up on tiptoes and the genie squatted down to her. She whispered in his ear. The genie nodded and then looked at me. The hair on my arms all stood up at once. He shook his head sadly and smoothed his purple robe. Then he snapped his fingers and I was plunged into the most perfect darkness I’d ever experienced. “Melanie?” I said. But there was no sound. I reached forward, hoping to find something in the abyss, and three overhead lights snapped and popped into life. Motion sensor lights. I sat down on my workout bench and started counting how many boxes of windup tin robots I owned. I’d figure out how to get out of here later.
The Lipomatous Lover The first time Pat stripped Jack she gagged, but she was too far gone to go back. The second time Pat stripped Jack she did not shut her eyes against the lumps that clustered on his body like the eggs of a large, fecund amphibian. There were dozens of them, blurring the edges of his silhouette everywhere but hands and face. She touched them tentatively: they were softer than they looked, and more mobile. She could push them half a centimeter from their hidden tethers under his skin. The third and last time she asked what they looked like inside. “I can show you,” Jack said. He took down a jar from the shelf above the bed and passed it to her: inside, an ovoid mass dissolving into amber fluid. In the light of Icelandic night the mass glowed the colour of sunbeams through eyelids. “This is the first one I ever got,” he said fondly. “As soon as they cut it out all the rest started to grow. They were going to go after the rest, but I stopped them. Lipomas are benign, after all. They don’t want to hurt me.” The tumour in its jar resembled nothing more than a raw egg she once soaked in vinegar, a school project to demonstrate a biology concept she couldn’t remember. The shell dissolved, but the egg stayed intact, held together by some transparent membrane. It looked so ethereal, so irresistibly fragile, that she could not help prodding the membrane with a pencil until an orange cloud of yolk spilled into the glass. “I have to go,” she said, still holding the jar. “Oh,” he said, “I thought you were sleeping over.” “Have to catch my flight,” she said. He sighed and laid his perfect, tumourless head on her lap. “Almost forgot you were leaving today. Will you remember me?”
“Yes,” she said. She never wanted to forget anyone, not least this considerate lover who could converse equally articulately about Faulkner and the royal family. However, she was occasionally approached on the street by strangers who knew her name; she recognised nothing in their faces except their own insistent recognition. “Good,” he said. “But let me make you a sandwich before you leave. Can’t trust aeroplane food.” He ensconced to the shoebox-sized kitchen. “Do you like mustard?” he called. She nodded, giving the jar one cautious jostle. The tumour bounced gently, delightfully, almost but not quite floating in the fluid. She felt a small synchronous bounce somewhere near her solar plexus. “So, mustard?” said Jack. “I hate it,” yelled Pat, quickly dressing in the clothing she had strewn across his floor earlier that evening. Everything but her pantyhose. She slid the jar into one leg of the hose and wrapped the other around, then shoved the padded package in her purse. Before Jack could finish the sandwich, she slinked unnoticed out of the flat. Pat spent most of the time before her flight in the airport cafeteria, drinking mineral water and stealing glances in her purse. The pantyhose seemed a proper garment for the tumour; the White Sands shade was too light for her but nearly matched his fairer skin. It smelled slightly of him, too, since it had rubbed against him in the half-dressed fumbling before sex. \ She ran into her first problem when she tried to take the tumour through security. “Can’t have liquids over one hundred milliliters,” the agent said. “Rubbish is over there.” The rubbish bin was cluttered with juice bottles, toothpaste tubes, and unopened cans of cod roe. Adding the tumour to the pile was unthinkable, not least because the jar should be recycled. Pat unscrewed the lid and poured out the fluid in a smooth yellow stream. The tumour had marinated so long that the gas that escaped from its jar smelled more of flesh than formaldehyde—the specific smell of the body it came from. The bacterial strains that lived in his crevices had found room to multiply in the fluid despite its antiseptic qualities. Earth and onion, truffle and cream diffused into the security hall, recalling the sweat-thick air of their first lovemaking. Pat noticed another, more acidic note that she associated with her own body, something like white wine or fermenting bread. She was not sure if this came from the jar or if the chemical fingerprint of her former lover had set off a Pavlovian response in her own glands. The sensory effect was so frankly erotic that the more perceptive people in line shifted from foot to foot in uncomfortable arousal. She was allowed to board her flight with the drained tumour. When they reached a certain altitude, she sensed a slight lightening in the jar. She pulled away the 48
pantyhose; in the dry pressurised air, the tumour was shrivelling like a scrotum in the cold. Heart quickening in protective panic, she flagged down the flight attendant. “Ginger ale, please,” she said, because it was closest in colour to the jar’s original contents. “No ice.” The contents of the standard-issue cup, even without ice, barely reached halfway up the side of the tumour. She asked for another cup from another flight attendant, and a third from the third. By then the tumour was submerged, but she asked for one more cup from the first flight attendant to be safe. Visibly irritated, the attendant gave her an unopened, room-temperature can, which filled the jar nearly to the brim. The tumour’s wrinkles smoothed away as it returned to its bouncing healthy heft. She thought she was in the clear after the plane landed and she passed through passport control without incident. Perhaps she looked too eager, however; she was chosen for a random luggage search at the customs desk. The customs officer removed her pantyhose from the jar with methodological nonchalance. “Do you have a proof of origin for this potted meat product?” he said, when the tumour revealed itself. Pat considered how she would explain the tumour’s origin to the officer. Should she start with the moment she took the jar from her lover’s flat, or their first flash of contact three nights before? Would it be more accurate to begin by describing the origins of the body where the tumour formed, the reasons why his body began to erupt like the underside of a fertilised she-crab? She never knew him well enough to say, “The documents should be right here,” she said, taking the jar from the officer’s desk. Before he had time to react, she unscrewed the lid and drank the contents in three swift swallows. The tumour slid down her throat like an oyster, ginger-flavoured and faintly mineral. Pat was never very good at biology, but she thought there might be something contagious about lipomas. Maybe Jack’s tumour would dissociate in her digestive tract and spread through her bloodstream until its offspring burst from her skin all over, like wasps from a parasitised caterpillar. Every time she looked at her own lipomas she could remember his. Every day she would rub her smooth skin and wait.
Wither The other boy, the boy before Jonathan, was a child of twelve years who came into Mercy with a nail in his head. He had had to get it surgically removed––the nail, not his head––and left with only a few stitches covered by a Band-Aid. Before him was a girl who remained on suicide watch for the entirety of her stay. She was sixteen, and my first roommate. After the suicidal girl and after the boy with the nail, there was the anorexic boy, Jonathan. In the afternoon the day nurse wheeled him in my room and helped him into bed, where she hooked three leads into his body. Two ran from his heart and upper chest, and one ran from his stomach. When the machine beside him sensed his heart, it ticked off the twenty times it beat each minute. She set up an IV drip, sliding a needle through the top of his hand. As the needle went in, Jonathan exhaled, and the striations in his neck went taut. “It’s over,” the nurse said, “it’s over.” Although it wasn’t. We were on the third floor of pediatrics. I was there for treatment of chronic bronchitis, a condition known to be inflicted by smoking, though a cigarette had never passed my lips. The bronchitis was something given to me by smoke, my mother’s smoke, and chemicals, my town’s chemicals. Three months I would end up staying in Mercy. Only a week for Jonathan. The day nurse walked out into the hospital corridor. I spit into the pan next to me, yellow-gray mucus joining the rest of the phlegm. Jonathan said, “You’re not going to get me sick, are you?” I told him I wasn’t contagious. “Me too brother, me too,” he said. Two women walked in, one in pink scrubs, the other wearing a fuzzy yellow sweater and skinny jeans. The woman in scrubs held a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other, said she was the dietician. The other woman didn’t need to introduce 50
herself. She and Jonathan had the same blonde hair, only his was shorter and thinner, less full and more like pine needles, and they both shared each other’s features––large ears, widow’s peak, straight lines for eyebrows. “I have some paperwork for you to sign,” the dietician said. “Your mother’s looked it over and said it’s a good idea.” She handed the papers to Jonathan, which he read, then pitched them to the floor. “I’ve never been a hundred fifty-five pounds in my life,” he said, “and that’s supposed to be my ‘goal weight?’” “It’s a healthy weight,” his mother said, picking up the papers and setting them on his sheets. “If you’re going to get any better, you need to do what the dietician says.” “Do you have any other problems with the agreement?” the dietician said. “Yeah,” he said. “What’s this about me not being allowed to exercise until I reach this ‘goal weight’ of ours?” He pointed at me. “What about him? Does he get to exercise?” I said, “You do realize this is a hospital, right?” The dietician pulled the string on her ID badge and let it slap back into itself. She did this as she said, “It’d be pointless for you to exercise right now. According to the blood tests they took back at the clinic, your testosterone levels are comparable to that of an eighty year old man. Once your body starts functioning like it should, then we’ll talk exercise.” Jonathan stared into his bedsheets. The dietician set the clipboard next to him, a pen on top. The dietician told him, “You don’t have to sign. You can leave if you really want to. But within a month, you’ll probably be dead.” He signed the agreement.
The next day, at five-thirty in the morning, a male nurse walked into our room and shook Jonathan awake. He was quiet about the whole thing, trying not to disturb me, but I was already up, was up for most of the night. “I need to take your weight,” the man told him, wheeling a portable scale next to the bed. “Just two seconds and I’ll let you get back to sleep.” When Jonathan stood on the scale, the male nurse had him face the wall. “No peeking,” he said. The “no peeking” rule was enforced by a sticky note taped over the scale’s digital reading, one that said “No peeking!” in purple Sharpie. The scale beeped and the male nurse flipped up the paper, reading the weight and writing it down. Even in the dim hospital lighting, I could see Jonathan’s eyes pull to their corners, trying to get a look.
For the next hour and a half, Jonathan slept. Most of the time he had trouble sleeping such as I did, but he slept then. In sleep, his heart rate fell even lower than twenty beats per minute. I watched the number subtract from itself on the monitor next to him. At the lowest point it reached thirteen, and it occurred to me that this boy’s heart beat as many times per minute as years I had spent on this earth. At seven in the morning a nurse wheeled a breakfast cart into our room. Our room smelled of scrambled eggs, generic brand toast, overcooked bacon, all of which were for Jonathan, and more. I reached down the side of my bed and held a button that made my mattress incline. Sitting upright, I pulled the table tray in front of me, which the nurse set my breakfast on; a platter of orange juice, Cheerios, 2% milk, and an overripe banana. The nurse set Jonathan’s meal on his tray and swiveled it over his body, but he made no attempt to sit up. His legs tightened under his sheets, the striations in his neck flaring into lines. But still he smiled when he sat upright and looked at me and said, “Watch this.” He moved his fingers over the meal like an orchestrator. “Thirty-two grams of fat, most of it saturated and coming from the bacon, eggs, and milk, Jesus the American diet is fatty, and fifty-four grams of carbs for the toast and some from the milk, those lactose sugars, and maybe, I’m guessing here, thirty-eight grams of protein from the bacon, eggs, milk, and a little wheat protein from the toast, not bad, but with thirty-two grams of fat?” He slid the plate away from him with a bony finger. “No thanks.” The nurse didn’t look very impressed, but I was about to ask him what was in my own meal. She shook her head and said, “Whatever you don’t eat, we have to give you in a shake. We’ll give you fifteen minutes until the dietician comes in.” Before she left, she scribbled some notes on his whiteboard hospital chart. I turned to my meal. How were you supposed to eat in front of an anorexic? But Jonathan didn’t seem to mind. As I poured milk into my cereal, he turned to me and asked, “Where are your parents?” “I’m going to be here for a while, so they don’t come every day,” I said. “Where’d your mom run off to?” “Probably fetching my dad. That,” he said, tapping his fingers on the tray in front of him, “isn’t going to go well.” “How come?” He poked at his water cup. “You know what that agreement said? Six cups of water a day. Apparently flushed out all the important shit in my kidneys by drinking so much. Oh, and you know what else? No caffeine. No caffeine. I guess I really am dying.” He turned to me, looking for someone to understand his predicament, then drew his eyes below his plate. “Sorry,” he said. “Divorce. Parents are getting a divorce. Shit’s
been going on for months now, like it never ends. Always something to argue about, to fight over. Like me. Dad wants me, Mom wants me. Like I’m a thing to be had.” The dietician walked in. In one hand she held a clear plastic cup with a little white pill in it, and in the other she held a large styrofoam cup filled to the brim with a brown liquid. She stood in the space between the bathroom door and his bed and said, “I figured you wouldn’t eat much. What seems to be the problem?” “The problem is,” he said, “all this food is going to make me gain weight.” “Jonathan, that’s the point, that’s why you’re here.” “It doesn’t matter. I’m not eating this crap.” “You signed an agreement.” “That I did,” Jonathan sighed. “But if we’re going to do this, I want to do it my way.” The dietician lowered both cups to her waist and looked at him. “Yeah?” she said. “Look where ‘your way’ got you.” Without much in the way of a response from Jonathan, the dietician continued. “I have two things here for you, one of which is a meal replacement shake to make up for what you didn’t eat. The other is a pill to boost your testosterone and to get some electrolytes inside you.” Later that week, another doctor would come into our room and ask Jonathan how the pill was working for him, was it making him hungry like it was supposed to? But Jonathan knew what the pill did before that man told him about it, because after he put it in his mouth and after the dietician left, he said, “An appetite pill. Pathetic. Don’t they understand? They can make me as hungry as they want. Won’t make a damn difference.” I expected him to turn to me and stick out his tongue, and on his tongue would be the pill, sitting there in a bed of saliva. But he didn’t. He washed it down with the shake. “They think hunger is the issue. What a fucking joke.”
That night, Jonathan reached over and pressed the call button for a night nurse to come down and unhook his leads so he could go to the bathroom. I wasn’t sleeping. Chronic bronchitis does that to you, a constant onset of coughing that won’t let you sleep. I worried I’d keep my new roommate awake, but he hardly slept any more than I did. Both of us were awake. And so I lay there, watching. All of the night nurses’ footsteps could be heard passing our room. The sound of gurneys, wheelchairs being pushed across the linoleum. This was pediatrics, so some nights you could hear a G-rated movie playing somewhere in one of the nearby rooms. That night, Pooh Bear was singing the honey song. When a night nurse came in and removed Jonathan’s leads, she told him to press the call button again when he was ready to be hooked back up, and she left to attend to other children awake in the night. 53
Jonathan walked to the bathroom with one hand wrapped around his IV pole, wheeling it with him. The faint glow of my monitor casted his shadow on the wall as he passed my bed. He walked like no one I’d ever seen before, every movement a sudden movement, anxious for his arms and legs to take action. And the way he looked. A white pallor, skin dry, all the features of a corpse, only with life inside it. He shut the bathroom door behind him. I’m not sure he cared if anybody heard him. He took his time in there. Heavy breathing came from the crack under the door, and inside the bathroom he was likely exerting himself in some way, doing pushups, sit-ups, all to burn off whatever he’d put inside him that day or what he might during the next. Minutes passed and he didn’t come out. The toilet never flushed. After a while, the door shook as though he’d thrown himself against it, followed by the unmistakable sound of weeping. I unhooked my own leads, taking my IV pole with me. I stood outside the bathroom door and knocked once, twice. He went on crying, uncaring about my being there. I whispered so the night nurse wouldn’t hear. I whispered, “Stop.” I said, “It’s okay to stop.”
Jonathan’s heart rate almost reached thirty beats per minute when his mom and dad walked into our room the next day. His father was a large man but not overweight by any means. Unshaven. He wore a Carhartt jacket that he left unzipped and loose jeans that wrinkled around his boots, boots with laces so big around they might as well have been considered rope. You could’ve hung yourself with those shoelaces. Bits of wood shavings and some other white material clung to his body, most of it residing where his skin was exposed, such as the hair on his neck and wrists. My guess, his occupation had something to do with building. Either that, or tearing something down. Jonathan’s mother stayed near the doorway as his father stepped forward and gripped the end of his bed. He looked down at his son. Looked at the ankles you could wrap your whole hand around, discolored skin, hair falling out in strands onto his bedsheets. If Jonathan’s father ever recognized him before, it didn’t show. Dad wants me, Mom wants me. Like I’m a thing to be had. Without turning to her, Jonathan’s father said, “You can have him.”
Around two o’clock in the morning on our third night together, after watching Jonathan refuse meals and choke down shakes and pills, his monitor’s beeps coalesced into a single long one. He had flatlined in his sleep.
Several nurses came running into the room. One of them went for the defibrillator and another rolled Jonathan over on his back. A male nurse looked over and saw me watching. He put up a hand. “Go back to sleep,” he said, turning to attend to Jonathan. “We’ll take care of this.” “There’s nothing to take care of,” said another nurse. She pulled up Jonathan’s leads in her hand, all three grouped together as if Jonathan had torn them away himself. “This one’s fine, he just needs to be hooked back up.” Jonathan shifted, yawning. He blinked, stared at the nurses surrounding his bed, looked at the one with his leads in her hand. He touched his chest. “Ah, my bad,” he said. “They must’ve fallen off when I rolled over or something.” They got to setting him back up, taping the leads to his body. The monitor started beeping again. The male nurse said, “Glad to see you’re still alive, buddy.” “Yeah, that’s unfortunate,” Jonathan said.
While Jonathan had a meal plan that was increased daily, and while he often struggled to get his food in, there were days that didn’t seem all that bad. On the fourth day, therapy dogs made their rounds, and one of them, a Dalmatian named Lacey, jumped on Jonathan’s bed and lay with him for a good ten minutes. The dogs were by far the highlight of the week that we spent together. But the first good moment had happened earlier on that fourth day. His mom walked in with a wheelchair. She wheeled it close to his bed, patted the seat, and said, “Get in.” For fifteen minutes she wheeled Jonathan through the halls of pediatrics. The floor layout was that of a figure eight, and together they completed lap after lap. Each time the two of them passed our room, they waved to me. Jonathan waved how I imagined the dead might wave. He seemed upset that he still wasn’t allowed to walk, but once he returned to our room, he said, “Look at me. All mobile and stuff.” As for myself, I was getting better with every passing day, though my parents didn’t visit anymore. It was on Jonathan’s fifth day that they let him walk. Under the supervision of the dietician, two nurses, and Jonathan’s mother, he rose from his bed, unsteady. The only steps he’d taken that week were the few to the bathroom, and so his steps came awkwardly at first until his legs remembered their purpose. As with the wheelchair ride he was allowed fifteen minutes, only this time he didn’t wave as he passed our room. He faced forward. Then came the Evolution of Man. He walked at a toddler’s pace as blood flowed back into his legs and feet, then he walked just like me and you, a speed such as one might use while grocery shopping, and on Jonathan went, the dietician telling him, “Slow down a little,” but then 55
Jonathan was an athlete, a track runner in the hundred meter dash, sprinting through the hallways of the figure eight and zipping past our room until a guard was called in, who tackled Jonathan and pinned him to the ground. On the sixth day, they prepared to let Jonathan go. The dietician wrote a personalized meal plan for him and another doctor signed off on a prescription list for pills Jonathan would have to take after his hospital graduation. Discharge papers were made, and they were signed. Our last day together, Jonathan’s mother wheeled him out of our room, Jonathan leaving with the promise of following through with the agreement he had signed on day one, the one hundred and fifty-five pounds he would have to make of himself. We never exchanged names, though we knew each other’s by the information written on our whiteboard charts. As Jonathan and his mother left the room, I heard her say to him, “It’s over, son,” even though it wasn’t.
The Remembering Skins A herd of sheep stampede down a cliffside, all of them staring at the same fixed point in the middle distance. They can’t see me. But I wonder if they can still sense my gaze searching for the hidden seams beneath their fur. Their thin legs bolted to artificial rock. Parched mouths wedged open in permanent thirst. Eyes hollowed out, replaced by the dry gleam of rounded glass. At least they kept their horns. For our third date, Wesley has chosen the Natural History Museum. “Bighorn sheep – Western Cordillera” unfolds before us. Up above, birds chirp from hidden speakers, little ghosts flitting in the darkness. “I’m done,” I say. Wes shrugs, letting go of my hand. “There’s only one exhibit left,” he says, moving onwards, around the corner. I scurry after him, unwilling to be left alone with sixty dead sheep, naturally posed. Warm sunlight hits my face. The beat of drums pulses in my chest, deep and tribal, a pounding of taut skins over carved frames. The path winds through tall grasses. A small piece of an African plain. Blue sky soars overhead. I almost miss the gap, a hidden place tucked in the savanna. A creature stares back. His patchy mane thinning, yellow eyes haunted by the memory of firelight. He is cowering, claws clamped into the dirt, lips curled into the shape of a single word…run. I am seized from behind, yanked away. My legs are heavy branches scraping along the ground. Sound unravels from my throat. “Geez, don’t freak out,” Wes says, releasing me. We’re back in the lobby, just outside the exit to the “Mammals of the Continents” exhibition. Wes is laughing now, 57
saliva slick and shiny on his teeth. The corners of his mouth remind me of sickles. “They aren’t alive, you know.” I look away. No, not alive, not anymore, dust coating their plastic lips, stories sewn tight beneath their skins.
Call for Submissions ______________________________________________ Weâ€™re always looking for writing that spans genres, that demands to be read, that might be considered the black sheep of a family. Art and science thrill us, but so does the simple image of a man standing at a crossroads. Surprise us. Thrill us. Make us laugh and cry and cringe. Tell us your thoughts. We canâ€™t wait to hear from you! For submission guidelines, please visit http://atlasandalice.com/submit/
Contributor Notes ______________________________________________ Caitlin Barasch is an NYU MFA candidate. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Day One, Hobart, Word Riot, Grasslimb, The Knicknackery, Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry, Jellyfish Review, and ellipsis. Sara Bathum‘s essays have been published in The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2005, 2010, 2011 and 2017, as well as The Mighty. James Braun’s work has appeared in Minnesota Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, the Main Street Rag, and elsewhere. He lives in Rochester, Michigan. Lisa Brognano is the author of the novels A Man for Prue (Resplendence, 2017) and In the Interest of Faye (Golden Antelope Press, 2017) as well as a book of poetry, The Willow Howl (Nixes Mate Books, 2017). Her poems and fiction have appeared in national and international literary journals. She holds two master’s degrees, one in English and one in Fine Art. The author lives in New York with her husband. Douglas Cole has published four collections of poetry. His work is in anthologies and also appears or is forthcoming in journals such as The Chicago Quarterly Review, Owen Wister Review, Chiron, The Galway Review, and Slipstream. He has been nominated for a Pushcart and Best of the Net, and has received the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry; the Best of Poetry Award from Clapboard House; First Prize in the “Picture Worth 500 Words” from Tattoo Highway. His website is douglastcole.com. Lisa Wence Connors retired from the United States Army and now enjoys life as a libertine and woman about town. She divides her time between Fruita CO, Salt Lake City UT, and the open road. Her work has been published in Gyroscope Review, Bluestem Literary Journal, and Inspired Magazine, among others. Natalia Conte is a student at Elon University in North Carolina pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Creative Writing. Currently, she works as the EditorIn-Chief of Colonnades Literary Art Magazine and has enjoyed the opportunity to magnify important voices within the community. This past year, she was awarded the 60
Hartmann Prize in both Nonfiction and Poetry. Natalia’s works have been previously published in So to Speak magazine and Colonnades Literary Art Magazine. Find her on Twitter @talliecon. Marisa Crane is a lesbian writer whose work has appeared in Jellyfish Review, Pithead Chapel, Hobart, Drunk Monkeys, Ghost Parachute, and elsewhere. She currently lives in San Diego with her wife. You can find her on Twitter @marisabcrane. Josh Denslow wrote all of the stories in the collection Not Everyone Is Special (7.13 Books). In addition to wearing matching shirts with his three boys, he plays the drums in the band Borrisokane and edits at SmokeLong Quarterly. Jennifer Fergesen is a writer and food journalist based in Sacramento, California. She has a BA in English and Geology from Mount Holyoke College and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis. Candice Kelsey‘s work has appeared in such journals as Poet Lore, The Cortland Review, and North Dakota Quarterly. She published a successful trade paperback with Da Capo Press, was a finalist for Poetry Quarterly‘s Rebecca Lard Award, and recently was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. An educator of 20 years’ standing with her M.A. in literature from LMU, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children. Sara Marron is a writer from New York City currently living in Washington, D.C., studying to become a lawyer. She believes in the power of words in every application, with imagination adjudicating as the great equalizer. She has two cats and uses a chess table for meals. Lynn Mundell‘s writing has appeared in The Sun, Booth, Portland Review, Permafrost, SmokeLong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Tin House online, and elsewhere. Her story “The Old Days,” originally published in Five Points, is included in the W.W. Norton anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. She is co-editor of 100 Word Story and its anthology Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (Outpost19). Learn more about her at http://lynnmundell.com/. Claire Polders grew up in the Netherlands and currently roams the world. She’s the author of four novels in Dutch and co-author of one novel for younger readers, A Whale in Paris (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2018). Her short prose appeared in TriQuarterly, Tin House, Electric Literature, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. Online she can be found at www.clairepolders.com. 61
Laurel Radzieski‘s debut poetry collection, Red Mother (NYQ Books, 2018), is a love story told from the perspective of a parasite. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and she is a poetry editor for Clockhouse. Laurel has been a Resident Artist at the Wormfarm Institute and her poems have appeared in The Golden Key, Really System, The Slag Review and elsewhere, including on roadsides in rural Wisconsin. She lives in northeast Pennsylvania with her husband and a fish. Dominique Russell is a Toronto writer, activist and teacher. She is the author of Instructions for Dreamers (Swimmers Group, 2018) and Kensington, I Remember (Russell Creek Press, 2013; 2016). Sydney Sheltz-Kempf is a PhD candidate in Biological Sciences at Western Michigan University. Sydney’s previous work can be found at Intima: Journal of Narrative Medicine and The Scene and Heard journal. The Poet’s Haven released a chapbook of Sydney’s poetry in Fall 2018. Natalie Vestin is a writer from Saint Paul, Minnesota. She is the author of Gomorrah, Baby (Anchor & Plume, 2017) and Shine a light, the light won’t pass (MIEL, 2015). Her essays have appeared in Territory, The Normal School, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. She works in infectious disease research at the University of Minnesota. Jenny Wong is a writer, traveler, and occasional business analyst. She resides in the foothills of Alberta, Canada and is currently attempting a sci-fi poetry collection, Brazilian jiu jitsu, and electric skateboarding. Her publications include 3 Elements Literary Review, Grain Magazine, Vallum, NoD Magazine, Sheila-Na-Gig Online, The Stillwater Review and elsewhere.
Image Credits: Cover Photo: Benjamin Woodard