The End of the World Stories, essays, and poems by the 53rd Graduating Class of The Bennington Writing Seminars
Managing Editor Kevin Koczwara Fiction Editor Diana Valenzuela Nonfiction Editor Liz Declan Poetry Editor Christina Beasley Readers Joanna Dunn Samson Wendy Ruth Walker Cover Artwork Margaret Boomer Book Design Ayla Graney © Copyrights retained by all respective contributors.
“While thoughts exist, words are alive and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living.” - Cyril Connolly
In memory of our inspiring and gifted classmate Mardah Chami, a beautiful writer and a wonderful person. She serves as a reminder that as writers we leave a lot of ourselves on the page, that even when we leave this world, loved ones can come back to us as many times as they want.
To the teachers and staff of The Bennington Writing Seminars: Thank you for your passion, guidance and ingenuity during exceedingly difficult times.
Contents Restoration The Failed Equation
BY JASON GIPSTEIN
Cherries Are Symbols of Sexuality* Free Fall
BY LIZ DECLAN
BY JOANNA DUNN SAMSON
A Foxglove is Never Just a Foxglove
BY J. MICHAEL BOSTWICK
8 12 16 19
The Body Sabat (Loyalty)
BY TAD DOUGLAS
BY MARGARET BOOMER
BY MARGARET BOOMER
BY KEVIN KOCZWARA
BY LYS PAULHUS
A Skilled Woman
BY WENDY RUTH WALKER
Pre-painted Complete Bodies and Spaces
BY MOLLY STARR
Selfhood When My Hair Was Worms Refraction
BY CHRISTINA BEASLEY
BY CHRISTINA BEASLEY
BY HIKA ANANI
BY AMANDA TAYLOR
BY “DAVID ISCOE”
44 46 48 51 55
Watch Your Language* You and Me
BY MICHELLE KOUFOPOULOS
BY SORUR AMIGHI
Daddy Dick Money
BY DIANA VALENZUELA
Untitled: Excerpt from a novel
59 62 65
BY HOLLY BRYAN-POWELL
* Indicates that this story deals with sensitive material and could trigger some readers.
The Failed Equation By Jason Gipstein
an I help you?” asked the red-haired, Nordic-looking man behind the faux marble counter. “I’m in need of renewal.” He laughed. “Haven’t heard that one before.” I blinked at him. “You call your store ‘Renewal,’ right?” “It’s Renewal Hardware, sir,” he said, his smile gone. “We sell tools.” “For renewal?” “Sir, if you’re looking for hardware, we can help you. Otherwise, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” His face had turned stony. “Can you tell me where the sink stoppers are?” His cheeks relaxed. “Aisle five.” I spent enough time in the aisle that I might have been sampling different products—I didn’t need a sink stopper, had
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just said it to unburden him—then the store. If my parents were alive, they’d tell you that I always loved math equations. I was hooked long before I learned E=MC2; 5+4=9 and 4x0=0 were enough. I didn’t know the word elegant yet, but I knew its presence: Equations were elegant. They solved things, and the right answers would always be the right answers, no matter who or where you were. Twenty-six years ago, I opened a café called The Dangling Conversation. It’s named after a Simon and Garfunkel song I really like. We have live music and readings there, and it’s become its own creative community. My wife Barbara is a microbiologist with a warm disposition. Because of that and her resemblance to Sela Ward, I nicknamed her “MBU” a few months into our relationship: My Beautiful Unicorn. She studies antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We get on each other’s nerves, like any two people together for thirty years, but when somebody recently asked me what I’m most grateful for, I said, “Anti-itch cream and Barbara.” It’s mutual (minus the itch cream): On my last birthday card, she wrote, “To my favorite person, the man who keeps me laughing and loving.” I have two grown kids. Ted’s twenty-seven and rides a blue scooter he named “Percival.” He’s a marketer for a glutenfree cookie company. In six months, he’s already (1) gotten a promotion and (2) gained nine pounds. We talk every couple of weeks, and I feel fortunate because in addition to being family, we actually like each other. Rina’s twenty-five. After college, she joined the Peace Corps and went to West Africa. That’s the kind of person she is. She’s
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now a counselor at a homeless shelter in Carson. In her free time, she makes brightly-colored velour kites. They look like flying pillows. Rina was recently accepted into a clinical psychology Masters program at Cal State Northridge. Yesterday, she called to ask whether she should go back to school now or defer admission so she can work another year or travel. I helped her go over the pros and cons of each choice, but when we were done she asked, “So what should I do?” “I don’t know honey,” I said. “You need to make the decisions that are going to be best for you, and you’re the expert on you.” She sighed and I could tell she was frustrated. I kept silent, because I meant what I said. And because I don’t have a lot of answers. I didn’t tell her that, I didn’t want to worry her. I’ve read the Bible (both Testaments), the Tipitaka, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas and the Upanishads. I’ve also read Woody Allen, Demetri Martin, the Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. As you might have guessed, I like material that inspires me or makes me laugh. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which readings generated which experience. I’ve hiked in the Himalayas, rafted down the Colorado and ridden horseback in the jungles of Costa Rica. I’ve loved these and many other places in the world and they have, in their way, loved me back. My therapist of fourteen years thinks I’m doing well enough that we should start talking about termination. At fifty-nine, I’m left with this question: What do you do when the big equation doesn’t work? When you have a
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great partner whom you love, children who make you proud, a satisfying job that you created from nothing, a life full of support, challenge, curiosity and humor, and yet… And yet, your happiness, if you can call it that, is like a town erected on the back lot of a Hollywood studio. The front of each building looks well-built and inviting. But walk behind the façade and all you see is empty space. You stand there in the shadow of a house that’s not a house, and feel the wind buffeting your face, the cold biting you like snaking shame until you feel it penetrate your skin; the cold that so quickly finds its own. Welcome. I’m sorry I cannot help you.
Cherries Are Symbols of Sexuality* By Liz Declan
reams are boring; I know that. In fiction, they’re a weakness. A copout. But these aren’t “it was all a dream” dreams. These are dreams that have informed my adulthood, that have followed me over a decade. These are dreams that should be nightmares, but they’re not always; dreams that frustrate me when I wake up from them yet again; dreams that embarrass me when a partner hears me yell in my sleep and I have to explain it’s an old, stale trauma I’m screaming about; dreams that I, on occasion, find some comfort in. My therapist would tell me these dreams are a trauma response. He would tell me it’s really time we do the work to address these traumas, to start to recover and move forward.
Cherries Are Symbols of Sexuality*
He would likely tell me that, yes, they are in some ways about Robbie, but they are also symbols of something else—something current, larger. A more relevant fear or anxiety. This is why I don’t tell my therapist about the dreams. Robbie isn’t a symbol for something else—not really. At times, the dreams seem to suggest that Robbie is a stand-in for someone else, but it’s always that someone and Robbie too. Never not Robbie. And those dreams are rare. Robbie is a trauma unto himself, and he’s become something much more intimidating within the space of these dreams—a part of me I thought I would eventually shake off, but after 14 years, I haven’t. It’s Robbie who comes back. Robbie who appears in my dreams nearly every night, crowding out two decades of other traumas. Everything that has happened to me, and when my brain wants to manifest fear, it is him that appears. In the dreams, we are frozen bodies at 14—the age we both were when I finally came forward about the years of sexual assault. The age I was when I had to file a restraining order. A teenager. A child. In the dreams, though, my brain is older than my body. My brain knows that the same year, even after the restraining order, Robbie found me at a friend’s funeral and sat behind me the entire time. My brain knows that at 15, Robbie snuck into the backyard of a friend’s house where we were having a sleepover in a tent, and I woke up to find him there. My brain knows that the very day we aged out of our restraining order, both turning 18 only four days apart, he messaged me. The nightmares have transformed over the years, adapting to the changes in my life. While away at college, I would dream of
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him plunking down behind me in class as he had at my friend’s funeral. During brief returns home from college, I would dream that I turned a corner in a grocery store to find him blocking my way, smirking. When I got married, when I became a mother, there he was, waiting for me in my dreams, the same possessive smile across his permanently teenaged face. But the curse of the dreams is that they aren’t always menacing; sometimes, I find comfort in them. When my marriage became violent in my real life, Robbie found me in my dreams to soothe me. When I was isolated and alone as a single mother, I would dream that he found me to apologize; I would dream that seeing him was a relief. In these dreams, there was a warm, sweet fullness. When I woke up, I was sickened. How could I feel this way? How could my subconscious long for someone who had brought me—conscious me—only terror for over a decade? I wish the dreams had finally lost their power over me because of some triumphant recovery; I wish that, like my therapist would have wanted, I had put in the work to heal from my trauma, grow, and come out renewed. Instead, there is nothing beautiful about the way these dreams and their effect on me were finally purged from my brain. Instead, I accomplished nothing. Instead, I found out that only a year after our last contact, when we were 19, Robbie was arrested for possession and distribution of child pornography. 17 counts. For the briefest window, I felt relief in the validation that he was a monster. But there is no joy in the end of this horror. There is a forward movement, a progression towards something, but all of it is tainted and sour and miserable. I did
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not overcome. I did not succeed. I knew a horrible person. He caused immeasurable harm. For years, he haunted my dreams. And now, it is time to move on.
Free Fall By Joanna Dunn Samson
lewellyn stretches out on her stomach on the rim of a flooded limestone quarry, chin resting on her hands, and studies the still, dark water far below. The light from the sun in a cloudless sky plays across the surface of the water. She squints into the glare, shifts her weight on the hard, crumbling rock beneath her. The sun is warm on her back. She was fourteen the first time she stood on this cliff. She and four friends had dared each other to crawl through a hole in the rusted chain-link fence, past the “Danger! Keep Out!” sign. They followed the overgrown truck path to the edge of the abandoned quarry. The sheer magnitude of the drop into the water below was breathtaking—thirty feet, they guessed, maybe forty. It was a long way down. The boys laughed and whooped with false bravado, challenging each other to make the jump. They teased her girlfriends, grabbed them by the arms, threatened to throw them off. The girls giggled and squealed in mock terror.
Llewellyn climbed to a higher ledge and stared into the water below—mesmerized by the light reflecting off the surface, spellbound by its fathomless depth. How would it feel to jump, to sail through the air, to plummet into the water? How far would she sink before floating back to the surface? What would it feel like to be so daring, so bold, to let go of the fear? She, Llewellyn, the good girl, the quiet girl, the girl afraid to break the rules. She closed her eyes. A breeze ruffled her hair. She took one, long, deep breath, and before she could change her mind, she jumped. She remembers it so clearly: falling, falling, falling, the wind whistling past her ears, the startled shrieks of her friends, the shock of the frigid water, the descent into depths so cold and so black, the world faded away into nothing. Nothing at all. Time stopped and she was suspended, weightless, in the silent, dark water. Then she was kicking slowly back towards light and blue sky, breaking the surface, gasping for air. She had been amazed at her own audacity. A sharp pain pierces her ribs. She cries out, hears her sister Kat say, “Lulu?” She drifts up through the fog and surfaces to the sound of her heartbeat on the monitor and the familiar tangle of tubes and IV bottles over the rented hospital bed that has taken up residence in the dining room. Kat is bending over the safety rail. “There you are,” she says and gently brushes a strand of hair off Lewellyn’s forehead. “Ice?” She nods. Kat holds the cup to her lips; the shaved ice feels cold on her tongue and soothes the back of her throat. Dear Kat, who for once hadn’t argued with her when she refused treatment for Stage 4 liver cancer. “To what end?” Llewellyn
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had asked. The limited options for treating cancer as advanced as hers were as barbaric as they were futile. Kat places the morphine pump in her hand. “Now?” “Now,” she whispers. Her strength is fading; she is too weak to work the pump. Kat wraps her hands around Llewellyn’s frail fingers and helps her squeeze. The tide of morphine carries her back to the limestone cliff above the quarry. That jump all those years ago had set her free. What had being a good girl and playing it safe done for her anyway? It hadn’t kept her daddy from leaving them; it hadn’t kept her mama from crying all the time; and it hadn’t kept her best friend’s father from groping her in a dark car. She was done with them. As the adults in her life faded into insignificance, she chased the heady highs of testing her limits—with drugs, with alcohol, with sex—only to discover there were no limits at all. By her mid-thirties, the reckless lifestyle had taken its toll: liver disease, a failed marriage, multiple rehabs, ulcers. Her contrived self-respect morphed into self-loathing; unlimited possibility gave way to crippling addiction. She plummeted into the cold, black depths of despair, but had managed, like before, to make the long, slow journey back to the surface and reclaim her life. A gracious reprieve for almost twenty years, but now her time is up. She stands on the edge of the quarry, her back to the water, her face to the sapphire sky. A red-tail hawk drifts on the thermals above. She closes her eyes. A warm breeze ruffles her hair. She takes one long, deep breath, spreads her arms out wide, and tips backward into the void.
A Foxglove is Never Just a Foxglove By J. Michael Bostwick
ueen Helen is barricaded inside Troy. Bewitched by her matchless beauty, Prince Paris has kidnapped her from Sparta, installing her in his citadel overlooking the Dardanelles. Determined to recover the alluring woman whom he considers his property, her husband, King Menelaus launches a thousand ships, igniting the Trojan War. A decade later, the enemies are stalemated, Achaeans besieging Troy, Trojans holding firm. Below Troy’s bulwarks grows a wildflower, Digitalis trojana, commonly known as Helen of Troy foxglove. There among the blossoms and his bivouacked troops, Menelaus dreams the Trojan Horse. Psychotherapy can be a sort of Trojan Horse. A year into
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psychiatry training, I embark upon my own treatment, my own opportunity to be a patient. During my first meeting with Dr. C, I rattle off my personal Series of Unfortunate Events in a monotone, affect-free, as if I were a bystander to my own life. At the end of the session, Dr. C observes how little of myself I expose and how hard I work to sequester my feelings, even when not imperiled. He tells me he’s impressed by how I withstood psychological mayhem enough to destroy a weaker man, and empathizes with the exhaustion of maintaining Red Alert, 24-7, against threats, real, anticipated, or imagined. What would happen, he asks, if we discovered dangers were no longer constantly lurking and defenses no longer perpetually needed? What if psychotherapy could help us devise a way to sneak, Menelaus-style, inside my fortress-mind and throw the gates wide? Wouldn’t it be worth it if I could let myself—at least occasionally—drop my guard? A gift in psychotherapy can be a Trojan Horse, its shiny exterior concealing lust and longing, pain and murderous rage. Words, not gifts, are psychotherapy’s currency. That’s The Rule. If a patient tries to offer a gift, proper technique ordains the therapist refuse it and discuss its hidden meaning. Talk it to death, if that’s what it takes. Yet each Friday morning, I break The Rule. I pick a flower from my garden, not a manly patch of tomatoes and zucchini fit for feeding a family but an effusive tangle of blossoms worthy of a lady’s corsage. Each Friday morning, I present the flower without comment, my unconscious agenda to provoke Dr. C into accusing me of offering the gift as an artifice of seduction. Each time, I dare him to wilt my flower with interpretations
A Foxglove is Never Just a Foxglove
confirming my abject fear: He believes I’m a girly-man, inadequate, debased by floral passion. Attack he never does, even as I perpetually brace for the assault, even as I feel compelled to make myself vulnerable, Friday after flowery Friday. Invariably he feigns surprise, enthusing over the latest offering like it’s the first. My provocation doesn’t stop there, though. I can’t help myself from telling him how I adore foxgloves, but not just any foxgloves, his foxgloves, the ones lining the path to his office, pink-and-white spires thrusting skyward, thick poles hung with tubular blossoms perfectly sized for penetrating fingers. You non-Freudians may roll your eyes at the carnality—thrusting poles, penetrating digits, and the like. With id loosed upon the therapeutic relationship, however, psychotherapy can be primal. Psychotherapy can also be treacherous. Foxgloves, too, a Trojan Horse of a plant. As practitioners of the Dark Arts know, their outward pulchritude disguises the reality all their parts are poisonous. But they can heal as well as slay. In 1785, Withering discovered that Digitalis purpurea, carefully dosed, could strengthen a flagging cardium or damp a fluttering heartbeat. If Dr. C wanted to murder my spirit, he could mock the duplicity of foxgloves, the perfidy of gifts, my fatal attraction to his flowers. He never does. Instead, one afternoon, out of the blue, he says he’s left me something outside the office door. “What?” I ask, puzzled. Is he breaking The Rule himself ? “Why? What’s the catch?” “No catch,” he replies. “Just a bucket of foxgloves for you to take home.” I’m stunned, gratified, ashamed for admiring his foxgloves
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in the first place. I must have somehow managed to manipulate him into slaking my illicit desire. That’s not how therapists are supposed to respond to patients’ blandishments. I react to his gift with barely veiled hostility. “I can’t take them. They’ve never grown for me. I’ll kill them, like I always do.” He pauses. “Not to worry. There’ll be more where those came from.” From the fragile vessel of my masculinity erupts a Trojan Horse of unfamiliar feelings. Dr. C has cracked open this flower child’s resistance, not with words but blossoms. We’ll eventually talk it out. That’s what you do in psychotherapy, after all. But for now, his acceptance of me, flowers and all, helps me start accepting myself. A foxglove is never just a foxglove, especially in psychotherapy.
Sabat (Loyalty) By Tad Douglas
ead bodies stop looking like bodies after a certain point. The face, like a popped mylar balloon with all the air blown out the top the legs, oddly angled, their bottoms looking for all the world like tubes of children’s toothpaste unevenly squeezed. The dead here never arrive in an orderly manner, like in the movies. This is Afghanistan, so they show up carried in blankets or what’s left of clothes, bandages waving
like May flags. But they all go out the same way. The mullah works systematically, washing and praying, singsong in his labors. Next to him, a step back Mortaza watches them prepare his brother for the next life. Mohammad Gul was the pride of Ismail Khel. Young, handsome, brave. Funny. Everyone said he was funny. You don’t hear that much in Afghanistan, someone being funny. As they lift what’s left into the particle board box that looks like an Ikea desk repurposed hands seek to guide Mortaza out. But he pulls away, he stays. He watches as they wrap Gul’s head in cotton and prop it up on pillows of cheap foam. They spray him with Turkish perfume from the bazaar, and then
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drape the Afghan flag and the prayer rug over his box, taping it down with rolls of scotch tape. Mortaza sniffs back a tear, both for his brother and the debt he knows he’ll now have to pay. He’s not scared, just tired, and knows that somewhere, out in Lakan, is a man he’s never met but will kill, as the way demands. When we walk out, together, my boots slip, squeaking and squishing on the sodden, dirty tile.
On Dying By Margaret Boomer
he grass is firm, not dead firm, but well-tended firm. It pokes up into me through my dress which is less well tended, the fabric has softened over the years of wear and tear. Soon I know my skin will do the same, sagging with the age of gravity-pulling me closer to the center of the Earth, where I imagine Hell is. Inevitably I’ll fall, collapsing into the soil under this grass leaving nothing but a concrete slab behind for flowers and maybe a cool rock if my child comes to visit me. It’s okay, but it’s not okay. My grandma used to tell me that, it’s okay but it’s not okay. I never understood it until mortality became tangible until I started lowering her body into the wet soil of the family graveyard.
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It’s okay, but it’s not okay-it will or won’t be over soon, and it definitely has to happen, so why not let it? If it has to happen, I can’t stop it, and though some men in the bible didn’t die or rose up again I guess doesn’t mean they didn’t leave, and you know, I think they had family too and their family probably had to say it’s okay, but it’s not okay. What happens to the flesh, I wonder, when God takes you up into Heaven? I wish I could ask one of those men he took up, but if I could, then we’d know we’d know what was waiting for us and what happened to my grandma and yours. It’s okay not to know though, but it’s scary. See? It’s okay, but it’s not okay.
Wallpaper By Margaret Boomer
his tongue slips over cracked lips, leaving a trail of fast drying saliva along the divots, the peeling layers. Thinking maybe the bare wetness could re-adhere the skin pulling back away. It can remember the sweet stale taste of the wallpaper left in a childhood bathroom. Hiding trinkets in the pockets, licking the tapered ends to seal them up again. Something quiet that leaves a lump mostly unseen unless it’s directly looked at.
A Cyst By Kevin Koczwara
drove through the night to get to the party, but when I arrived nearly everyone was drunk-sleeping. Beer pong and other drinking games ended long ago. I sat next to the one friend who’d stayed awake. Music played somewhere, but not the thumping music of a high school house party. Something softer that made for an easier time sleeping on a couch or a floor. I arrived after working a shift selling sausages outside of a concert venue and I smelled of smoky meat. We talked and I told my friend to feel the back of my head. “There’s a lump there,” I said. “Do you feel it?” “Maybe,” she said. “Where?” “Here.” I grabbed her hand and pulled her fingers through my thick, long hair. I won the “Best Hair” superlative. In the year book photo my long hair wisped across my face. I grew it out my sophomore year, and I swear Justin Bieber saw a picture of me somewhere and years later copied my mop-cut. “Oh, yeah, there it is,” my friend said, finding the small ball
in the back of my head. I told my parents about it, but they couldn’t find it. Other people didn’t believe me either. But, my friend did. Or she pretended she did. A few weeks later, I had a doctor’s visit and told him about the bump. “A benign cyst,” he said. “No worries. We can remove it, but we usually let it grow a little larger.” “What’s a cyst?” “It’s extra keratin or protein. As long as it doesn’t hurt, it’s ok.” I touched and played with the cyst. It felt natural to poke and prod at it. I wanted to make sure it didn’t get out of hand. No one else knew it hid there, but I was worried someone would find it and freak out, maybe a girl in bed in my college dorm. That never happened. A hairdresser found it once, though, and jumped back, thinking it was a tick. I reassured her it was not. She told me my hair was dead at the end. She’d have to cut more off than I asked. I’d worked at a summer camp teaching swimming all day and the chlorine in the pool dried out my skin and my hair. Two years later I began balding. I shaved my head and tried to grow it back but never could, the widow’s peak underneath grew too strong. The bump began to show. Finally, more than ten years later, I asked my doctor again about the cyst. It had grown big enough to be a nuisance when I put on one of the hats I always wore. He wrote me a referral for a specialist. During my consultation, the doctor came in hot. He had no time to waste. He talked fast. He took a look at my head and said it would be easy. In and out. He’d play some music, put
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some topical anechoic around the cyst and then slice the skin and pop it out like a zit. “What kind of music do you like?” he asked. “Whatever.” “I like hip-hop for this.” He was an older man with gray hair. He didn’t look like a hip-hop kind of person. We agreed to meet a few weeks later. I sat and waited in a small, windowless room. The doctor came in with a medical school student, a small speaker and an iPod. He told me what would happen and had me lay down face first on a masseuse table. He put on Eminem. The music choice seemed a little cavalier for an operation, even this small. They put some warm shaving cream on my head and shaved the area around the cyst before injecting it with some sort of numbing liquid in a long needle. The student took out a scalpel and began to cut. “Press harder,” the doctor said. I could feel the blood trickle down the side of my face. Eventually they wiped it off. I felt a push on my head and some tension release. Fifteen minutes, that’s all it took. They stitched me up. I had a bare spot on my already bare head. “Do you want to see it?” The doctor asked. He showed me the lump in a plastic container. A round, white orb that once lived in my head. “Do you want to take it home?” “No, but I want a picture.” I took a photo on my phone. The little orb that lived between my skin and skull is white and blurry in the picture. It’s inside a tube that looks like a pill
case and floating in some clear liquid. I marveled at the photo. The bald spot on the back of my head has grown larger since. I showed the picture to my wife when I got home. She asked why I didn’t keep the cyst. “I didn’t want it.” “But I wanted to see it.” “Well, it’s gone now.”
Going Home By Lys Paulhus
he green thunderbird slowed. Tom turned off the lights though they were far enough away and wouldn’t be seen, the closest house was half-a-mile down the road. He’d drive the rest of the way in the dark. “There were layoffs at the mill?” she asked, careful to keep her voice calm. “Your Daddy didn’t tell you?” In the darkness she couldn’t see his face, his voice unconcerned, if not irritated, the way it sounded when he talked about the mills. “No, he didn’t.” Gravel crunched under the wheels, the only sound. Tom had cut the radio turning off the main highway. She wanted to ask for details but didn’t. Daddy complained Mr. Glover didn’t care about the workers, but she liked to think Tom was different from his father, believing you shouldn’t judge a child by the parent. Tom would’ve asked about her Daddy, so she felt certain he was safe. They usually avoided talking about the mills. She didn’t
want Tom to think his last name was the reason she rode out to Mirror Lake with him, though that’s what Sara thought. Sara said she should have an accident. Even if Tom doesn’t marry you, Mr. Glover’ll set you up, take care of you. But she didn’t think of things that way, or tried not to. There was the other thing too, that secret fear that her mother had to marry because of her. She liked Tom, the way his hair fell over his left eye and the motion he made brushing it back with a tilt and roll of his head not using his hands, the way his body moved on the basketball court gliding for a layup, and the how he whispered her name, soft and low in a way that sounded like ‘I love you’ though he’d never said those words. There was no twang in his voice like most everyone else in town. She’d been trying to copy how he pronounced things, but slowly so the change was gradual and not all at once. The harvest moon reflected off the house, so it appeared whiter than in the daylight. The shadows hid the peeling paint, the exposed gray boards, and the front shutter that dangled on hinges. She was glad Tom came only under the cover of night, when the house looked pretty, the way she imagined it used to look back when people cared about it. The house didn’t belong to them, but to her mother’s aunt who let them stay on after her mother died so she’d have somewhere decent to live. The aunt would have sent her father back to where he’d come from if it hadn’t been for her. It used to be a fine house, and in the darkness, Tom might think it still was. He kept his foot on the brake, not bothering to set the parking one like he used to when they started this. She tried not
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to think these goodbyes were getting shorter. He swiftly kissed her cheek, and she closed the car door, carefully, so not to make a sound, and slid under the fence rail and into the unused pasture. The wheels churned on the gravel; she listened to his leaving. A soft light came from the far corner of the house, the study. She pictured her father sitting beneath the carved bookshelves, faded from the sun and mostly bare with only the leather-bound law books that belonged to some dead relative of her mother’s, and a bottle of something on the desk that would be half empty by now. Her foot found the knot on the dogwood, the branches bent under her slight body but didn’t snap. Safely on the secondfloor porch, she slid through the cracked window into her room, tossed off her clothes, and pulled on her nightgown. In the darkness she felt for a bottle of rose water and splashed some on her body. She’d have liked to keep his smell on her, to fall asleep with just his scent. But she feared leaving it there. She pulled back the covers, ready to climb in bed and dream, but a shot echoed through the empty rooms, the windows rattled, and made her still. Her father’s 12 gauge had fired just once. The house grew quiet, crickets chirped loudly outside. No one would rob them, there was nothing to take. She let it all settle over her. She’d have to go downstairs, see if she could help, if anything could be done, but he was good with that gun and didn’t miss. There must be someone to call, but she couldn’t think of who. Tom wouldn’t be home yet, and she wouldn’t have called him anyway. She needed to move, but her body wouldn’t obey.
A Skilled Woman *EXCERPT FROM A SHORT STORY
By Wendy Ruth Walker
he is extravagant, this lion—but foamy. A gift from someone. A companion for my stay. I am certain she came from an upscale department store, a place like Wanamaker’s. Mother would say she’s a luxury, but she would also say, you— darling—you deserve her. I am old but still worthy of fine toys. My lion has a bushy mane and a very long tail; it might be too long, too twisty. Sometimes it gets tangled in my dressing gown and this is a nuisance. I have named her Lucy, because she looks like a Lucy. She is tremendously big and her paws often get sticky from stepping on my food tray, so I prop her on my shoulder. This keeps her from making a mess. Her fur is soft and fine as silk, and I hug her. I hug her all the time because the workers were busy bees. One day a man asked if Lucy was real and I said well, you
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tell me. I said they don’t let real lions in the zoo, do they? Turns out, he was a tourist and suggested I was lucky to have such a fine animal when others don’t. It really is too bad for the rest of them, not to have a creature like her. If it wasn’t for the state of affairs, we’d all have one another, we’d be hugging and handing things around, and there’d be no need for such finery as Lucy. One night, down in the basement, there was an art exhibit. It was called ‘The Edge’ or no. It was called ‘The Aisle’. Everyone was like me, in dressing gowns being wheeled around in their beds. There were so many of us, like a swarm, and the paintings were electric, they flashed on and off. One was a still life of wildflowers, like dandelions and star flowers. Another was a kind of formal portrait of a hound, its tongue all slobbery, all glistening and hanging down. Expectant. There was a giant canvas, it took up, well I would say it took up a whole wall. It was of a silver skeleton key inside a hot dog bun. The key was the kind that Nancy Drew would dig up, but who knows what it was doing in that bun, with a string of glossy ketchup on top. Occasionally the key would flicker and pucker; tiny sparks of light pricked across its center, its line. That pole of metal. It glittered, what I saw. There were a few landscapes too. Mostly trees. Pretty white ones, trees with ivory bark, like a birch. But they weren’t birch. I don’t know what kind of trees they were. Maybe poplars. Maybe sycamore. They were fanning one another with their boughs. The cardiologist says my heart is strong. Will it last me another ten years? I ask. He says he doesn’t know if his will last another ten years.
A Skilled Woman
I’m worried I’ve missed a birthday. How sad to miss a party and all its pluster, all those papery tents, piped commas and sunny flickers, bons and bows and hatboxes. My poor eyes can’t see with precision and my friends—all of them— dead. It would be very tricky to find a party. Someone would have to line the streets with flashlights. Besides, a thief has stolen stole my hearing aids. How would I hear the steps? Still, I work around these afflictions because I am a skilled woman. I order French toast and eat with my fingers, dip them in cups of apple juice to rinse the syrup off. Sometimes I ask for three or four finger bowls in case Lucy knocks one of them, which she does from time to time. Some time ago, a woman came and asked if I wanted her meal. I said I couldn’t possibly, but she insisted. She sat with me a bit, spooning things out. When she left I pawed until my finger pressed into a soft, sticky mound that I placed in my mouth. I imagined lemon cake and picked as best I could. Told Lucy it was mine because I was the patient. I’m not certain she is trustworthy with food. Besides, you never know what you’re going to find on a food tray. They fill them with all kinds of goodies.
Pre-painted Complete Bodies and Spaces By Molly Starr
ince moving from New York City to New Mexico last year, I check my preferred Japanese hobby site at least once a day. I don’t want to miss the pre-order window for a horny figure. Cope-spending during the pandemic isn’t unique to me, and I buy other things too much: sweaters, candles, luxury face masks—all things that speak to my craving for comfort, hominess, softness. But the girls are the most indulgent of all. I’ve been collecting figures for years, but the habit has spiked in lockdown, when beauty seems pointless and also like the only thing that matters anymore. One of the more recent additions wears a yellow string bikini on her slim but busty frame, chestnut hair falling around
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a face that’s beaming and healthy, as if she just ran in from a dip in the ocean. She looks like one of the cover models of the issues of Fitness magazine I used to read as a young teen, hip popped to the side, grinning with all life’s secrets of contentedness. She, like most of the girls I’ve collected, is vinyl and sculpted 1/7th scale. In New York they had the run of a whole twobedroom apartment. When we first moved, we lived in my husband’s childhood home in Albuquerque. In our cramped space, they were all stuffed together like a dressing room for a very incoherent revue. Now we rent a house in the countryside north of Santa Fe, and the girls are tucked into nooks and above fireplaces made of authentic adobe. In an early Art History class in college, the professor said something like, “Art serves an extra-utilitarian purpose, but high art serves a solely extra-utilitarian purpose.” I can think of few things more purely extra-utilitarian than a model of a beautiful girl. With a figure of a character from an anime, for instance, I reinforce my attachment to the story. I can communicate a lot about what I value in fiction with a simple figure. Since she isn’t connected to any narrative, it might seem that the girl in the yellow bikini doesn’t say much, aside from that I endorse a somewhat lowbrow expression of beauty. But on the same shelf, a crown jewel among her peers, is a schoolgirl caught in the middle of changing clothes. She clutches her own black tights-covered ass, frowning at an implied mirror. They don’t have names, just titles like Hello Summer! The schoolgirl is Futtota? —Japanese for “Have I gained weight?” I’ve spent countless hours in that pose, asking that question, which has never felt anything like sexy. But this tiny, sculpted
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externalization of my boring self-hatred looks like a luscious, deshabille portrait. The private vulnerability of a moment I find to be a bleak reminder of how embarrassing it is to have a body is sculpted into something compelling and beautiful. When I look in a mirror, I am of course never relaxed, never not composing myself. Sometimes my husband will look at me in a way I don’t think any human deserves. These are often moments that, if I knew I was being looked at, would be impossible. Napping, maybe. Stepping out of a cold pool, laughing and energized. I could never see myself in these moments, and I think mostly it’s healthy that we’re unable to perceive our true beauty. It seems like it’s something that should belong to other people. Hotness is something assigned to you, I figure. But there are failure states of not thinking too highly of oneself, and that’s the exhausting place I dwell. If I had to examine some psychological reason for my collecting figures, I would say maybe it helps me make peace with the female body. Most of my figures are curvier than I myself prefer to be. Only one of them – a demon girl with tiny wings to the right of my desk – has the kind of waifish and childish proportions I worry I’ll never stop chasing. Looking at real bodies doesn’t do it for me. I just end up comparing, hating myself or feeling a fucked up and hollow victory. Like the girl in black tights, many of my figures are in poses that suggest the role of an unseen voyeur to me, the customer. And as unrealistically smooth and flawless as their bodies may be, I can appreciate the beauty of hips or breasts in these implied scenes of motion or unstudied repose. My figures don’t help me feel beautiful per se, but in no small part they make it possible to imagine that I could be to someone else. 42
When My Hair Was Worms By Christina Beasley
he strands were always hungry— worms can eat forever, growing long as locks of Spanish moss and incalculable as sand. The mess of them was thicker than the bowels of a bird’s nest. They mewed and jabbed until I made a bed of soil in the garden. I’d lie at mealtimes, toes wriggling under a sodden blanket of leaves, head in the compost. They’d gleefully gorge, my mane shiny and pink. I’d knock away the predators. The day they disappeared, there was no note: I wondered if they’d
When My Hair Was Worms
exited through my ears, made a home amongst the unused folds of muscle. If someone chopped my head off, perhaps they’d spill and litter the dirt with dreams—or wriggle beneath the grass, intent on polluting the startled waking world.
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Refraction By Christina Beasley
linger after showering and mirror-me marvels at the scars that I’ve collected. Scraped shins and burnt thumbs, nicked knees and all. She presses against the glass and foggily watches. Perfect in her flat world, free of friction, where everything is smooth. I suspect that nothing hurts, even her spine shines, her gums glitter. I grant her a good glimpse so rarely. My spite seethes like an eager teapot when I consider how she loiters, standing ready at the frame.
She looks through the pane that separates us, the thin assumption of matter. She glints as though a kind knife and I’m the bread, already cut. She relishes this chance to stare at me like someone hungry, as though about to consume me and this body, this seasoned version of herself.
Remote… Control By Hika Anani
he glanced at him out of the corner of her eye from her end of the couch. He was falling asleep. She was working up the courage, and the next time his head dropped, she would slide the remote from his grasp. Change the channel to a show that interested her. The screen was aglow with garish color. The sounds were loud and abrasive; she resisted the urge to put her hands over her ears. His head fell to his chest. This was her chance. She changed the channel. “I’m watching that,” he said, turning accusing eyes toward her as his expectant hand hung in the air between them. “I would like to watch something else. Just for a little while.” Anything else. So long as this time, she got to choose. He remained silent, but his hand became even more insistent. When the remote landed in his grasp, his arm recoiled like a serpent into its den; her will a tiny rat in its mouth.
They sat like this for an hour. He dozed off and on, and she stared at the screen, not really seeing. Neither of them would be able to contribute to casual, office conversation about late night television. There had been other times when this also would have been true, but only because they had filled their lives with so many other things. A time when he would have engaged her in conversation about her day, or she would have shared an article she read that led to spirited debate or hysterical nostalgia. Before, their silences had been warm and serene, like a summer spent lazily floating down the river on a yellow inner tube, the heat of the sun and the cool of the water embracing you. Apparently, summer break was over for them. A commercial for jewelry ended with a generic looking couple—the man staring dreamily at the head of a woman staring dreamily at the engagement ring adorning her finger. Quickly followed by a loud commercial for Popeyes that had her wondering how they could possibly advertise their chicken as some sort of Cajun specialty when it tasted no different to her than KFC. When the drama returned, she tried to make sense of why the detective was interrogating the wife of the dead man from the beginning of the show. But after a couple minutes she gave up. She had obviously missed something along the way that was key to the trap the detective was about to set for the unsuspecting wife. A suspect in her husband’s murder. The same, tired whodunit plot. She closed her eyes and sighed. A light snore from the other end of the couch made her open her eyes and turn to him. He was dozing again, his head falling to his chest, and the remote slipped from his grasp onto the carpeted floor. It barely made a sound, but she felt it reverberate
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through her slight frame like thunder. He didn’t wake. Not even a stir. She rose delicately from the couch and turned to him one last time. He was so still, she doubted he was disturbed even by dreams. She picked up the remote, placed it back in the slight curve of his hand, and left the room. Fifteen minutes later, the deed was done. The garden shears hung back on their hook on the tool rack in the garage. No one would think to accuse her. Though her victory would be short lived, she couldn’t help but let out a quiet laugh as she slipped beneath the comforter and pulled a pillow to her chest. She was surprised at how nonchalant she felt. No, not nonchalant—giddy. She would sleep really well tonight. When she walked past the living room a few minutes ago, the TV screen was covered in snowy static. He’d make her call off work tomorrow to wait for the cable guy. Which was fine.
Homecoming By Amanda Taylor
n the headlight-bathed haze of her old neighborhood, Kelly felt acute regret at failing to put her hometown in the rearview for good. “Full Moon” by The Black Ghosts played softly, and she had rolled down her window, letting the midwinter breeze keep her awake enough to drive. It was a perfectly normal neighborhood by most standards: houses with lawns, some had fences. Streetlights and porch lights and motion lights—so many lights it looked like day. Everyone Kelly knew invariably steered small talk at parties in the direction of “where do you live” in order to brag about their address. And people would say “I’m so jealous” or “oh wow, you lucky duck.” But they always knew; the Country Club logo emblazoned on their polo shirts and that specific shade of blonde that came from an upscale local salon gave it away. It was an accident that Kelly’s family lived there. A fluke purchase, made in a prosperous time when her dad was working at a job he’d held on to for five years. They moved in, and he was let go in a massive layoff six months later. There was
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nothing to do but hunker down and pay the mortgage, even though they couldn’t afford anything else. Their church bought them groceries. In her rearview, she saw a single headlight. It approached quickly, catching up to her and beaming into her car, refracting on the glass. Then it pulled up beside her, the sharp grumble of a motorcycle’s engine blaring into her car, into her ears. The stoplight ahead turned yellow, then red. She blinked, looking over at the bike and its rider, but all she saw was a helmet on top of a black clad body. The music clicked over to the next song on the Twilight soundtrack she’d found in the car she drove as a teen. Her parents had kept it and kept her room the way it looked when she lived there last. Like they knew she would fail and come back. The guy on the motorcycle waved, and Kelly realized this could be someone she knew. They could see her, but she couldn’t see them. She longed, as her emo music played, to flip them off and drive off. Fuck you, fuck your neighborhood, fuck your money. Fuck. Instead, she waved back. “Wanna race?” the motorcyclist’s voice shouted over the engine. It had been years since Kelly had been reckless in a car, not after her friends—nobody from the neighborhood—had died in that crash. They were kids, and they learned about street racing too young. When they died, people weren’t sad. They clucked about “probably drinking” and “not from around here,” even though they lived fifty blocks west. But Kelly felt the grip of hopelessness these last months and
found the only way to shake it off was to alter the chemistry of her body. She’d been getting creative—drugs, exercise, alcohol, dangerous scenarios. She turned and nodded at the cyclist, who nodded back, then turned and faced forward. Kelly let out a long breath, positioning her hands on the steering wheel. Why was she racing this top-of-the-line bike in her Mazda 626, down a suburban street, she couldn’t say. She floored it the second the light changed, feeling the back of the car start to fishtail as it failed to gain traction. The motorcycle and its rider had already shot forward, and she followed with a loud, involuntary whoop. Her tires squealed— they were smoking just a little—and she felt her heart racing, the adrenaline coursing through her body, making her a little lightheaded. She grinned so hard her face hurt. It felt incredible to do something she used to be good at, feel it coming back to her. They blew past stop signs, making it to the next light up ahead. The rule was you had to cross even if it was red. It glared green, but as they approached, it flipped to yellow. Kelly’s heart felt like it wanted to bail before taking the risk of running a red light. But her brain reminded her of the odds of something going badly at this time of night, and her foot obeyed. She slowed down on the other side of the light, realizing she hadn’t even paid attention to who crossed first, just as it turned red. She slowed, a little sweaty, and laughed. The motorcyclist lifted his visor at her, and grinning back at her was someone she hadn’t seen since graduation. He still looked young, a sprinkle of freckles still dotting his nose.
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Kelly knew it wasn’t really him. But as he waved and sped off into the night, she couldn’t be sure if he just faded into the distance or disappeared altogether.
Infinite Monkeys By “David Iscoe”
t is said that infinite monkeys, typing on infinite typewriters, will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare. “To be or not to be,” “ROSALIND:” “methinks,” and so forth. All his plays and sonnets and such, all his letters, published and unpublished, a full compendium of the thoughts he had during his life, and a detailed description of every bowel movement he ever had. What won’t infinite monkeys produce? Even this shitty story would be among their products. Not just this draft, but every one of my drafts, which balloon into the thousands of words, then skate below the 800-word limit, time and time again, as I make all the wrong cuts. They’d compile them, accidentally, of course, with completely accurate timelines and incisive commentary, as though they were obsessed with me, though of course I do not exist in their world, but still they’d create whole archival universes around this story, all the drafts
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that were or could have been, if I were a little smarter, if maybe I’d been exposed to a little less particulate matter from wood stoves and highways, a lot less Twitter, a lot fewer fried foods. They’d produce drafts with the edits Diana Valenzuela would have made if I’d gotten my drafts in sooner, the drafts Kevin Koczwara would have made if he’d gone mad with power and rewritten every single piece in this The End of the World, telling us how he really felt. “We know how you feel, Kevin Koczwara,” infinite monkeys would write, and they’d put into words a perfect articulation of all the feelings he could never express, never directly see, though of course they wouldn’t be articulating his feelings, just banging on keyboards, their own feelings expressible only through anguished howls, as they looked out over their room, their infinite room, their infinitely open-office plan, to see their infinite kin toiling away on infinite typewriters, the infinite smell of infinite stress in the infinite air. They cannot speak. They cannot read. They cannot write, not really. Still, they work constantly, joylessly, not even stopping for food breaks, just grabbing the infinite insects that crawl through infinity to sustain them, insects with no purpose in life but to feed these infinite monkeys, grabbing the insects, crunching the insects, the insect parts falling into their keyboards, getting stuck in their keyboards, causing infinite typewriters to jam, never to type again, though others clatter on, these machines mean nothing to them. They should be running free, outside, they have a hunch, but they cannot articulate it, cannot even imagine “outside.” “Who created this place?” types a monkey, diligently at work on this meaningless task, not stopping to think things like “who created this place?” Instead the monkey goes clickety-
clickety-clack on its typewriter. Almost invariably it creates gibberish, but in an infinitesimally small number of variations, but also infinitely high in number, it goes on to write, “Was it some fucking sadist? Some Shakespeare-obsessed lunatic? Read some Ocean Vuong, why don’t you? Now there’s a guy who understood the plight of monkeys. Can someone stop this cruelty?” And the monkey, understanding nothing of its own work, the monkey, in this exceedingly-unlikely-but-also-certainto-happen-time-and-time-again (a ubiquitous feature of infinity, abbreviated EUBACTHTATA, in EUBACTHTATA writings of monkeys on infinity), in this EUBACTHTATA variation, the monkey, immediately after typing this, jumps from its desk, lands on the back of another monkey, and bites it on the neck, nearly severing its brain stem. It’s not a hypocrite, just a monkey. The violence spreads. More monkeys fight, bite, choke, tussle, beat each other to death with their typewriters, knock over rows of desks. Infinite pockets of infinity fall into chaos, bloodshed, but in infinite other places, the monkeys carry on typing. “Don’t worry about us,” one of these monkeys types, hearing the screams and clatter on the periphery of its perception, but continuing for now, on its task. “That’s what we do. Monkeys suffer, monkeys die, monkeys are spawned, grow up, die, all in the dark, but with the power of infinity we’ll write everything, we’ll write your precious Shakespeare, in infinitely many places we’re putting it in neat little stacks, often with very good edits. He wasn’t perfect you know. Everything happens in infinity. Somewhere we’re building a paper airplane that can carry us forever on one gust of wind. Somewhere we’ve written works of pure indescribable beauty, then cleared off the desks to fuck
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ravenously for the rest of our days. It’s you, you who live in finity, a very large finity be definitively a finity, a finity by now almost all the way squandered, it’s you who should be worried.” A drop of blood lands in the monkey’s eye. It is running out of time. “W6iuhkhuk1451,” it types, “;loliuitg46L:io#%uolqwi3., ^*(w#KGHJKD skhjk2tzvo08”
Watch Your Language* By Michelle Koufopoulos
fter Mike threatened to punch me in the face, after he told me he had never loved me, I spent the night with a friend, curled next to her in bed in her tiny studio, and in the morning, I went back to our apartment, against all advice, and slid my body next to Mike’s on the chaise in our living room. I wrapped my arms around him, and I don’t remember what I told him—maybe I don’t want to remember what I told him—but I remember feeling desperate, I remember being willing to contort myself into any impossible configuration to convince myself that it was okay, that he was okay, that we hadn’t just crossed a line we were never going to be able to come back from. Why am I saying “we”? I think a lot about something another writer told me in workshop. I’d written a line about Mike’s fist colliding with my bookcase. His fist didn’t collide, she said, indignant. He fucking
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punched it. Don’t let him off the hook with your language. The day Mike proposed felt like the happiest of my life. I’d wondered, in the years after that threat, if the moment would feel tainted when it finally came. I will tell you that it didn’t. I felt fucking elated. I couldn’t stop staring at the ring on my finger. He proposed in a bookstore on the Cape; the women in the store clapped and cried. Someone took photos that were later posted on the store’s website under a page titled Special Moments; the month before Mike was hospitalized the photos appeared in a newspaper article titled “Romance is in the Air.” It was February, Valentine’s Day. We went out to a crappy Italian restaurant for dinner and argued about the Parkland shooting that had happened that morning. Mike was insisting that someone’s mental health was not a reason for them not to own guns; he was adamant about this. Why are we having this argument, I remember thinking. Why is he defending this so vehemently. Like a total idiot. Like the girl in the horror movie who answers the phone, opens the door. I have read so many memoirs, essays, psychological studies. Think, of course they stayed. Of course this wasn’t their fault. Make it palatable. Correct the narrative. Force a narrative onto it, if you must. But I still think—I don’t know how to stop thinking—I did this, all of this, to myself. When Mike said, I don’t love you, I thought, I will be better. When he said, will you marry me, I said yes. I think I said yes. I actually don’t remember what I said—I just remember him getting down on one knee and holding the ring box out in front of me. He was so nervous, he’d
Watch Your Language*
accidentally broken the tiny light inside. I know that I cried again on the morning we signed the contract for our wedding venue, but these were not tears of happiness. We had been fighting in the car on the way over, because I wasn’t planning on inviting my father, or my uncle, and Mike was insisting I should. He didn’t like the way I was estranged from the men in my family; never seemed to trust my explanations for why it was so. It made him angry in a way I could never understand. So many things were like that. I’m going to be on a list, he said, furious, when he got out of the hospital. He was upset that the state would know he owned a gun. His family refused to get rid of it. I was too afraid to get rid of it myself. Which was why he was able to tell me, the final time I was in a car with him, that he’d taken it from his sister’s storage unit, where his brother had stashed it, a compromise that wasn’t a compromise at all. For years, every time I was in the car with him, I’d grip the passenger side door; count the minutes until we made it home. I didn’t know it was possible to feel safe. Actually, that’s a lie. Of course I knew. But the second you say it out loud, you break the spell, or the curse. He loved me; he was monstrous; for a long time, I missed the best parts of him. Abuse is fragmented, and Mike was fragmented, too. Some of that was his illness. Some of that was just him. I just want to know what was real, I told my therapist. Maybe it all was, she said. And that was part of the problem.
You and Me By Sorur Amighi
ommy, I am confused about ‘me’ and ‘you’ and everyone else,” my eight-year-old son Dari said to me as we crossed Broadway hand in hand. I thought he was trying to be cute, bringing up a famous Dari story of when he was nearing two and got confused with personal pronouns. We used to sit at the breakfast table and I’d say, “me,” pointing to myself and then “you,” pointing to him. Then he would nod and say, “me,” pointing to me, and “you” pointing to him. His misunderstanding was perfectly logical since he repeated the words and gestures exactly, but he failed to understand that the pronouns switched with the speaker. After his mistake I would laugh and he would mirror my reaction, giggling with his nose turning down just like mine did, and we’d start over, both of us baffled yet amused by our stubborn points of view. Child psychologists explain that the concept of self is just starting to develop at that age, so the mix-up could be due to that rather than semantics, but I think it was something else. Before I could nod and retell the anecdote for my cousins
You and Me
who were visiting, Dari added, “How can I be ‘me’ and you can also be a ‘me’?” This wasn’t about his silly baby talk. He didn’t need to explain further. I had been mired in existential thought, digging into Heidegger and Sartre, trying to solve the riddle of “nothingness” that a previous walk and talk with my son had inspired. But this question struck deeper than my superficial research; it was my life’s big conundrum. I looked down at his thick brown hair and raised eyebrows, and I smiled saying, “I know exactly what you mean. It doesn’t make sense, does it? How can other people be ‘I’ too. Aren’t I the only ‘I’?” Dari hugged my side as we crossed the avenue, my cousins and younger daughter silent and unencumbered by our existential crisis. “God, we’re the same person,” I said, partially relieved to have found someone who understood me, but also frightened by the darkness that I knew lurked behind his words. When I was a pre-teen this concept of self in reference to others plagued me. I’d lie in bed at night, often after an evening spent alone when my mom was locked away in her study, an invisible “Do Not Disturb” sign keeping me out, a microwave dinner digesting in my stomach, and thoughts bombarding my mind. Why am I me? Why can’t I be a different “I”? Are there other “I’s”? How could there be if all I can think are my own thoughts? Could it be that another person thinks she is “I” too? Then who am I if I’m not the only “I” in the world? When I die, will “I” stop existing? I had never heard the word existential. I don’t think I even knew what a consciousness was, yet I was contemplating
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it, just like my son. I’d shut my eyes, trying to block out the disturbing thoughts, wishing I could just sleep and dream about boys and school dances. That’s when the thing would appear in my head. I’d see complete darkness and in the middle of my visual frame—like a kebab suspended in air, spinning on an axis—the thing would grow and shrink. It was brown-black but I could see it in the darkness, and its body, if that’s what it was, was stringy, sticky and amorphous. As it spun it would expand beyond the scope of my visual frame—beyond the reason I could grasp. Then it would quickly whittle itself down to the tiniest sliver of existence, hurting my eyes as they tried to focus on its infinitesimalness. Infinitesimal: approaching zero, but also infinity. It felt like that: nothing and infinity at the same time. Like a concept that my brain couldn’t put words to or hold as a still thought. And it horrified me. I see so much of me in my son and instead of feeling joy at my reproduction, I fear for him. It’s not just the rage that overflows from his skinny body, like it did to mine when I was young, that makes me wonder if I should have passed on my genes, but also the sense of dread that happiness will be a struggle for him. When I was his age, all I wanted, but didn’t know, was for my mother to hold me, despite my kicks and screams, so that I felt some comfort in a world that I couldn’t comprehend. I needed those embraces to contain the infinite abyss where I was nothing and everything at the same time.
Daddy Dick Money By Diana Valenzuela
ick gets sick of the boat’s humans and bored with the glittering sunset. He rolls around in wads of green and gold that he can touch and feel. It’s summer dusk on a hot slab of ocean. The humans stand around looking paid. Dick Money’s feet itch in the pool, which is a common problem. As a boy, Dick Money lived in steamy green cities all over the world. His family was his father, a rectangular man named Doctor Money. Doctor Money spoke in generalities like, “the things you do are hideous.” Doctor Money owned chunks of the green cities. He flitted around their outskirts and found artifacts like shrunken heads and golden sculptures. He bought a submarine and a stone mansion. He died. Dick owns all the artifacts now, and a big boat that zooms around the world’s warmest waters. It has a pool on the deck that he fills with cash and coins for basking and rolling.
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Dick was human until sixteen when his father took him to burn a slice of rainforest as a manly rite of passage. That trip felt like the power to say, “if I can afford to act like a white god then why not?” A human conversation occurs. Someone says, “When I was in high school--” Dick Money dictates, “Listen! When I was fourteen, I traveled with Doctor Money to the Andes. He took me to steal an Incan doll from a rival anthropologist. I had to carry the doll the whole trip and it left a curse on me for six months after. The curse made my nails yellow and my hair white and it covered me in spots. Doctor Money sent me back to boarding school for the rest of the year.” Every human goes, “Mmmhmm” or something. The sun dips lower. Dick Money went to his first boarding school dance with the withered face and knobby body of a liver-spotted crone. His white hair went past his knees. He knows when he was a human child he was more human than all of the humans paid to be on his deck, because humans feel pain and he always felt the most. Soon they will convene for a typical dinner: an attractive arrangement of meats. They will drink clear liquors that taste like floor cleaner. Then, if Dick wants it, every human will lick his feet so he can become an attractive type of meat. The meatiness will feel slippery and slick. He glitters green and gold until the sky goes black.
Untitled EXCERPT FROM A NOVEL
By Holly Bryan-Powell
uddy could not die; he held all her secrets. Margot had only the remotest concept of God gleaned from her classmates’ recent Bat Mitzvahs, but it seemed the right time to ask someone to save her cat. Neither of them had seen the truck coming as she called to him from across the street. She kneeled on the tile by the front door, hating her reflection in the mirrored walls. Maybe praying was just thinking. The only prayer she remembered was the first part of the Lord’s Prayer. Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. That would be good enough. She pressed her hands together like cherubs she’d seen in picture books, repeating afterwards the only other words that came. Please, please. She heard a kitchen drawer opening, the big one with phone books and scissors. Unused chopsticks. Rubber bands. Her mother dialed the phone, cursing veterinarians closed on Christmas day, but Margot knew she wouldn’t care if the orange coon died. In the last year, he’d been skipping the threestory trip to the laundry room to use his litter box and started
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peeing in her shoe closet. Buddy was alive, though. Her father shouted this as she followed him into the dining room where Christmas dinner had been partially cleared. He held Buddy under one arm. He had his clean up cocktail in the other hand. This was for drinking while cleaning up, a plastic tumbler of all the night’s leftover drinks. He hated wasted alcohol. He set down the drink to sweep the table. Bread plates and silverware clattered on the hardwood floor. He put Buddy on the end of the mahogany dining table that had belonged to her great-grandmother. Buddy was breathing, fast. She didn’t look at him, but she could hear it. His familiar smell, fishy and comforting, was something else now. Warm metal, sweetness. One eye was red paste and the other looked at her, feral and unrecognizable. His pink nose bled like a skinned knee while rack of lamb taste rose in her throat. Only slurring a little, her father gave her instructions. She was to get his black bag from the front seat of the car. She asked why, but she was already going. She already knew. Her bare feet were cold as he took blunt scissors and tweezers from the bag. He was a surgeon. His picture was on the wall in the lobby of the hospital. He was the bad kind of drunk. He used the scissors to hold Buddy’s eyelid wide open while the other tweezed matter from the socket. An eye didn’t pop out in one ball like she would have thought. Instead, it was a jelly which he removed in small chunks, wiping them in bloody bits on the white tablecloth, until Buddy’s face was stained bright with blood and there was a hole instead of an eye. The butter dish hadn’t been cleared and the butter was
melted; maybe they would still use it. Maybe this would be a funny story. He wiped bloody hands on his pants. “Shit,” he said, and thrust a needle and thread at her. Margot struggled to thread the tiny filament while he chased his clean up cocktail with overlooked backwash from a lipsticked wine glass. He sewed Buddy’s pink eyelid closed, jabbing and tugging the needle through the furry skin. Buddy was unmoving now, a stuffed animal being repaired. She hadn’t known her father could sew. Her mother looked in from the kitchen and dropped to her knees in the doorway. “No,” no.” He had tied off the eye and sliced Buddy’s right front leg open. The blood was almost pink—not red like in movies— and the tablecloth was gluey with it. The metallic smell was overpowering, and she thought about their dinner. Before it had mint jelly compote and white chef ’s hats on its ribs, it had a beating heart and rough, curly wool. Her father abandoned the scalpel and grabbed Buddy’s leg with both hands, manipulating the bone, his thumbs inside the cut he had made. Inside Buddy’s body. “No, no,” her mother said. “Shut up,” he said, and told Margot to go downstairs to the medicine cabinet. She did it, glad for a task. When she returned, he was using a folded corner of her great grandmother’s tablecloth to press on Buddy’s leg. Patches of Buddy’s soft fur were rusty with blood. His remaining eye was open, unseeing. Her father pressed it closed. He wrapped Buddy’s leg in gauze and then tape. It looked
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like a cast. He covered Buddy’s missing eye, taping gauze to fur. He put Buddy under his arm—a bloody, legged football—and nudged her mother with his foot. “Get up,” he said. “The cat will need antibiotics.”
Biographies SORUR AMIGHI Sorur Amighi is a writer, teacher and mother who lives in Barcelona. HIKA ANANI Hika is a certified cognitive skills specialist and educator (currently, middle school) in the Atlanta metro area. After twelve years of encouraging her students to follow their passions, she decided to follow her own advice and write again. CHRISTINA BEASLEY Christina Beasley is a DC-based writer, poetry editor for Barrelhouse, civil servant, and amateur cryptozoologist. Her work has appeared in Copper Nickel, Hobart, Split Lip, Atlanta Review, The Pinch, and elsewhere. MARGARET BOOMER Margaret Boomer lives in West Texas with her partner, Taylor, her son, Casey, and her pets. She received her undergraduate degree from Texas Tech University. She and her dogs are often found writing poetry or watching movies.
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J. MICHAEL BOSTWICK Before medical school, J. Michael Bostwick studied art history and clarinet performance and reported for a daily newspaper. After 23 years at Mayo Clinic as an academic psychiatrist and admissions dean, he has found a Bennington MFA a superb way to integrate his twin passions for medicine and humanities. HOLLY BRYAN-POWELL Holly Bryan-Powell writes from Los Angeles where she is at work on her first novel, a bildungsroman. She is a recovering lawyer, substandard but determined ballerina, and the mother of two superlative young women. LIZ DECLAN Liz Declan is a queer single mom and Adjunct Professor living and teaching in Philadelphia; she holds a Master’s and Bachelor’s in English from Temple University. She is a features reader for The Rumpus, and her work can be found in The Huffington Post, at lizdeclan.com, and on Twitter @Mother_Faulkner. TAD DOUGLAS Tad Douglas is a current Diplomat and former Marine Special Operator who has served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other parts of the Middle East, South Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa.
JASON GIPSTEIN Jason Gipstein has attended the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Kenyon Review Writers Conference and many others. A poet before becoming a fiction writer, he’s had poems published in Peregrine and The Todd Point Review, and was one of the winners of the 2007 Mendocino Coast Writers Conference poetry competition. DAVID ISCOE David Iscoe is a writer, teacher, and experienced doer of various odd jobs and day jobs. He lives in New London, Connecticut, with a supportive partner and a good dog. KEVIN KOCZWARA Kevin Koczwara is a writer in Massachusetts. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Esquire, Vice, Boston Magazine and have been curated by Longform and Longreads. MICHELLE KOUFOPOULOS Michelle Koufopoulos’s work has appeared in Longreads, Guernica, and Neutral Spaces, and been cited by Bookforum and Politico. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. LYS PAULHUS Lys grew up in South Carolina and attended Sweet Briar College. She previously taught high school English at a school outside Washington, DC. She now lives in Atlanta with her husband, Michael, and two daughters, Caroline and Camille.
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JOANNA DUNN SAMSON Joanna Dunn Samson is currently a resident of South Carolina who lives with her husband, David, their two shelter dogs, Gracie and Jack, and her two hunt ponies, Dewey Redbird and the Ace of Spades. She writes short stories and essays and is working on a book entitled, The Trouble with Crows, which she hopes to complete while she is still above ground. When she is not writing, Joanna protects land for future generations and rescues critters. MOLLY STARR Molly Starr is a writer. She lives with her husband in rural northern New Mexico. AMANDA TAYLOR Amanda Taylor is a storyteller, actor, fangirl, and host. Her journalism has appeared in many publications such as Entertainment Weekly, Deseret News National, and KSL.com. Her screenwriting projects, from short films to web series, have been viewed over a million times online. DIANA VALENZUELA Diana Valenzuela is a puddle of toxic goo made sentient. She cares about the city of Oakland, glittery red eyeshadow, and the work of My Chemical Romance.
WENDY RUTH WALKER Wendy Ruth Walker is an emerging writer, longtime editor, mother, wife, caregiver and plant/tree enthusiast. Her work has appeared in Cordella Magazine’s Field Notes and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s fall 2017 fiction contest. For many years she was an acquisitions editor at Atria Books in New York. She has been a contributing writer to Stop Smiling Magazine, The Jewish Book Council, and is presently The Online Editor for Little Patuxent Review. She holds a BFA in Film from Syracuse University and lives in Annapolis, MD with her family.
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Recommendations SORUR AMIGHI On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel HIKA ANANI An American Marriage by Tayari Jones Bel Canto by Ann Patchett CHRISTINA BEASLEY Incarnate: The Collected Dead Man Poems by Marvin Bell Transformations by Anne Sexton MARGARET BOOMER Four-Legged Girl by Diane Seuss American Selfie by Curtis Bauer J. MICHAEL BOSTWICK Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy The Night of the Gun by David Carr HOLLY BRYAN-POWELL The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri LIZ DECLAN In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot
JASON GIPSTEIN A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan An American Marriage by Tayari Jones DAVID ISCOE Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Duplex by Kathryn Davis KEVIN KOCZWARA The Woman at the Washington Zoo by Marjorie Williams Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell MICHELLE KOUFOPOULOS The Guardians by Sarah Manguso I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell LYS PAULHUS Away by Amy Bloom The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor JOANNA DUNN SAMSON Ka: Dar Oakley and the Demise of Ymr by John Crowley Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope MOLLY STARR Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan The Complete Ballet by John Haskell AMANDA TAYLOR The Secret History by Donna Tartt Bunny by Mona Awad
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DIANA VALENZUELA The Changeling by Joy Williams Gold, Fame, Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins WENDY RUTH WALKER The Collected Stories by Eudora Welty The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams