Issue 46

Page 42

BLUE MESA REVIEW ISSUE

46

Blue Mesa Review

Albuquerque, NM

Founded in 1989 Issue 46 Fall 2022

Blue Mesa Review is the literary magazine of the University of New Mexico MFA Program in Creative Writing. We seek to publish outstanding and innovative fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, along with compelling interviews. Cover Art

From the Heat AlanaSolin

BLUE MESA REVIEW

Fall 2022 Issue 46

Editor-in-Chief

Managing Editor

Associate Editor

Evelyn Olmos

Ruben Miranda-Juarez

Cyrus Stuvland

Fiction Editor

Nonfiction Editor

Poetry Editor

Faculty Advisor Graduate Readers

Anthony Yarbrough

Kyndall Benning

Tyler Mortensen-Hayes

Marisa Clark Kani Aniegboka

Joe Byrne

Vera Clyne Emily Graves Gwyneth Henke

Leo Williams

Undergraduate Readers

Benjamin Fowler

Jessilyn Hobby

Danica Lee

Áine McCarthy

Alexis Pierce

Matt Rowe

Joshua Schorr

Jillian Selwyn Walden Shank

Table of Contents

Letter From the Editor 7

Poetry

Melanin Inheritance

Anita Cantillo 11

The Summer-Lessened Stream Laura Foley 31

Reconsidering god Dennise Gackstetter 51 Fiction

The King of Tremendous Pines Eric Rasmussen 14

The Message Andrew Joseph Kane 35

Peppers Elizabeth Berlin 54 Nonfiction

Flesh Record Rachael Greene 24

Special Victims Unit Amy Scheiner 43

Art

Garbology Cyrus Stuvland 6

A Need Of Someone Edward Lee 9

Lobotomy Raphael Lino Azevedo 12

Pink Blanket Sarah Gomez 22

Dandelion Monika Galland 29

Depths Of My Soul Jim Still-Pepper 33

Duemilaventi Pasquale Armenante 41 Nasci quadrato, muori tondo, torni a essere tutto Francesca Busalla 49

The Underline Kaloni Borni 52 Clown in my Coffee Robin Young 61

Will
Say
I
Do Anything You
C.R. Arrow 63
Contest Judge Profiles 72 Author Profiles 73 Artist Profiles 76
6 | Issue 46 Garbology CyrusStuvland

Letter From the Editor

Dear Reader,

As genre editors, and then as Editor-in-Chief, one of our very first tasks is to stand in a classroom full of the semester’s BMR readers and tell them what we would like to see in our magazine. When I was poetry editor, this somehow felt easier. I picked a poem I love (Carrie Fountain’s “Experience”) and spoke about the things that are important to me in poetry: accessible language, being able to inhabit the world the poet is building, visceral images, vulnerability, and honesty. But when the Editorin-Chief position was passed down to me, I panicked. I knew I would have to speak about so much more than what I like and expect from poetry. And so, when it was my turn to speak on my vision for the upcoming year, and the values I have been entrusted to pass along, I practiced by pacing around my house for days.

The truth is, I don’t know how to be an “Editor-in-Chief”. When I told my family I got the position I had to google translate it into Spanish. Then, I had to do more googling because I thought it felt too literal (editor en jefe) and it felt like one of those times google translate just gives you a string of words to appease you, but you sound like an idiot when you try to explain to your Spanish-speaking family what you mean. What I am trying to tell you is that, besides for my predecessors, I don’t know a single person who has been in this position before and having this new and unexplored responsibility was, and still is, terrifying. I knew that I could get up there and talk about the expectations that I had from poetry as poetry editor and apply them to the other genres. But I wanted to also talk about tradition and my vision for this magazine. There are two things I kept in mind while coming up with what to tell a classroom of curious, and maybe a bit bored, BMR readers: 1. I am the fourth consecutive person of color in the Editor-in-Chief position at BMR, and 2. our founder, Rudolfo Anaya, wanted to create a “literary magazine everyone will be proud of” and spent his career championing for the voices of New Mexicans and Southwestern writers to be uplifted. I wanted to make sure that I use this position to continue to champion for writers of color, and this semester we tried our best to do so by lowering our contest fee for BIPOC writers and having free submissions for Indigenous writers on Indigenous Peoples Day. I hope these are changes that continue for years to come and that our future editors continue to pass along this tradition

And so, after much pacing and deliberation, when it was time for me to get up in front of that classroom, I blacked out. I have bad social anxiety, which is so writerly of me, but I don’t really remember much of what I said. What I do know is that I must’ve done something right, because the writing inside this issue is honest, vulnerable, and allows you to inhabit the world the writer created for us. Or maybe it had nothing to do with me and our readers killed it. Regardless, I am proud of Issue 46, and hope you all are too.

Lastly, I want to thank every person that made this issue possible starting with our Summer 2022 Contest Judges, James Crews, Ben Loory, and Debra Monroe who signed up without hesitation to help us reward the great writers who make up this issue. BMR’s faculty advisor, Marisa Clark, who is the most energetic person on our team and cares for us and this magazine so much. Our undergraduate and graduate readers who put so much time into going through the submissions carefully. My team, Ruben, Anthony, Kyndall, and Tyler, whose hard work encompass these pages. But a special shout-out to Cyrus, who I force to listen to all my ideas (and whose beautiful collage you saw on page 6). All of the artists who let us use their artwork in this issue. And, of course, to all who submitted to our contest and those of you who are reading. A big congratulations to the winners: Anita, Laura, Dennise, Eric, Andrew, Elizabeth, Rachael, Amy, and C.R. Your work stood out amongst hundreds of submissions. I hope we get to continue to hear from your voices, the world needs it.

you,

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8 | Issue 46 Issue46

A

Need Of Someone

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EdwardLee

1st Place Poetry 2022 Summer Contest

Some poems reach deeply into the ground of daily living, and offer what they bring upward from the depths. This is one such poem, and I can’t help but read it as the pivot-point of this poet’s work. This poem also reminded of what Muriel Rukeyser once said: “Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry.” The action springs from a white son asking his mother why her skin is brown, and the ripples cast out from there are quietly, astoundingly revealed to us readers.

Like the best poems, this meditation on origins, race, memory, and inheritance, arises from the simplest of interactions, an innocent question asked by a child of his mother. I am also struck by how these lines move seamlessly in time, giving us not just a full picture of the present moment with vivid sensory details, but also a glimpse into the past, as the speaker says with full authority: “I speak of native things.” That phrase, and this poem as a whole, remains so resonant I have carried it with me long after the first reading. “Melanin Inheritance” was a clear winner for me—timely, universal, and relevant to anyone with a family.

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Melanin Inheritance

AnitaCantillo

When my son asks why my skin is brown, I am thrown, left breathless by the ordinariness of his question. Its lack of presumption.

I go back to a gossamer half-memory of my own mother. Glass rosary beads corded around her wrist. Her fingers interlaced with mine, she turns our palms, traces our life lines. She is deep in comparison. Quietly, she says soy negra

I do not remember, but feel certain my Spanish faltered. Maybe I said no, eres tan. And this is where the memory breaks, and I am back now, with my son, but still haunted by that diaphanous memory. In the impermanence of this place, the television plays something but the sound has gone hollow, as if I am underwater.

I reach for stories to explain me, talk of coconuts that fall from palms, coffee beans that roast on sunned beds of wood and tin, I talk of yucca root. Tecate trees. Howler monkeys, maiden voyages made by leatherbacks.

I speak of native things so he understands the origin of my brownness is his origin, too. Even if his own hands, white like beaches I have known, deny it.

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Lobotomy Raphael Lino Azevedo

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1st Place Fiction 2022 Summer Contest

Surprising and strange, at once dreamlike and realistic… this story had me smiling all the way through.

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The King of Tremendous Pines

I’m standing in the ice cream line with Dad, and all of a sudden there’s this girl in a mid-riff STAFF t-shirt with a cattle prod.

“Come with me, sir,” she says to my father.

“Why?” he asks.

“You’re over forty.” She’s about three years older than I am, maybe nineteen or twenty, and she stands so close to Dad they’re almost touching. “Everyone over forty gets to enjoy the concert from a special section.”

It’s supposed to be funny. A gimmick, because there are festivals all over this weekend, and because ours, Tremendous Pines Art and Music, failed to secure a decent headliner. The organizers hinted at the plan over social media, and those of us who saw the posts, everyone I talked to anyway, thought it was a joke.

“I’m here with my son,” Dad says.

“I’m not asking,” says the girl.

Dad and the other parents in the food lines and the ex-hippies and childless couples scattered around the field don’t know the cattle prods aren’t charged, so for a minute everything gets really not funny. A few screams sound from different corners of the festival grounds. A circle opens in the crowd in front of the merch tent as some old guy attacks the dreadlocked employee whose request apparently got too forceful. The girl standing in front of Dad is quicker to switch to the speech for those who won’t come quietly.

“It’s just for a little while.” She lets the cattle prod hang from her hand, its tines brushing the matted grass. “We’re trying something. Maybe these will help you cooperate.” From her shorts pocket she produces two free drink tokens. “Only redeemable in the Elder Section.”

“Elder? Ouch.” Dad raises his eyebrows and shrugs. “Do you care?”

I probably should have pretended. Oh no. Please don’t go. I’ve been looking forward to this forever. A sweltering Saturday watching bands I’ve barely heard of is more than adequate compensation for the way you and Mom have been acting lately. But I’m not thinking that fast. “Go for it,” I say.

“You’ll still have a good time?”

“I’ll try my hardest.”

Dad joins the stream of people with graying hair and outdated clothes following their handlers to the big chain-linked square tucked into the trees on the far side of the field. Before he’s swallowed by the multitude, he steps behind two women in peasant dresses and cowboy hats, and whatever he says makes them laugh and separate enough that he can wedge in between. I’m engulfed by a familiar nausea. I wish they had charged the cattle prods, and I wish they had given one to me. *

Liv and her older sister Faith text me to meet them at one of the participatory art/sound installations called the “Lumberyard.” After I get my ice cream, I wander over.

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“I can’t believe you’re here,” says Liv.

“I thought you were allergic to sunlight,” says Faith. “You’re not even melting.”

The “Lumberyard” is just a big circle littered with wood. Sticks, logs, branches, two-by-fours, which we’re supposed to use as instruments. Faith is rubbing a pine bough across a sheet of plywood roughly in time with all the other wannabe musicians in the clearing.

“Did they take your mom?” I ask.

“She was pissed,” says Liv. “She tried to make the guy check her ID.”

“She’s not forty?” I ask.

“Forty-seven. It didn’t make any sense.”

Faith pauses her pine needle thrumming. “That means we don’t get to hang out with your dad. That sucks.”

“Please stop,” I say.

“I’m sorry, but you have to face facts. Your dad is yummy.”

I’ve heard it so many times from so many different people that I’ve honestly stopped caring. But with Faith and Liv it’s different. We’ve been neighbors for over a decade, since elementary school. We were friends before any of us found anyone yummy.

A voice booms through the speakers bungee-corded to the trees. “Welcome to Tremendous Pines!” Everyone stops their drumming and raises their faces skyward. “Now that we’ve dealt with all the senior citizens, let’s get this party started.” The announcer thanks the sponsors, then introduces a band that Faith and Liv and their volleyball teammates love and that I couldn’t care less about.

“Come with us,” Liv says.

“No thanks,” I say.

“You sure you’re okay?”

I give her a thumbs-up, then wander deeper into the trees. *

I remember in fifth grade, a half-dozen of my classmates’ parents got divorced. After we learned of the first one, everyone kept quiet. But by the time we hit number six, it had turned into a bizarre rite of passage. We all but threw parties for the newest members of the broken family club. Still, we lived in fear that it would happen to us, because we saw what it did to our friends. It became a disease that we knew would claim more of us. We just didn’t know who, or when.

I’ve never set foot in a church, but most nights back then I prayed that Mom and Dad wouldn’t succumb. I looked up prayers online, saving the longer ones for the nights when they fought over work or money or how to deal with my sister’s terrible grades and frequent suspensions. When they got along, they had me to thank. When they didn’t, I tried harder. And it worked. Mom and Dad are still together, no matter how much I wish they weren’t. *

By midafternoon I wander over to the forty-plus corral to find Dad leaning against the back fence, surrounded by a half-circle of the most attractive old people the cage has to offer. A woman in a black t-shirt rests her arm on his shoulder. She doesn’t move, even after he starts talking to me.

“Caleb,” he says. “Are you having fun?”

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“Are they going to let you out soon?”

“I don’t think so. They literally padlocked the gate.”

“That’s not legal.”

“It’s cool. They keep handing out free drink tokens.” Dad gestures at his group, which, to make things even more uncomfortable, includes my sophomore year English teacher. “I wish your mom were here. She’d love this.”

I don’t know what expression I produce that makes him think I’m upset, but suddenly he pushes the woman aside and steps up to the fence and lowers his voice. “Are you okay?”

“Sure.”

“Did Faith and Liv find you? They told their mom they would.”

“We hung out a little.”

“There’s so much here for you to do.” Dad pulls twenty dollars out of his pocket and slips it through the fence. “Try to meet some people. Take advantage.”

Over by the campground is another of the festival’s installations: a trailer where, for ten bucks, a semifamous author recites classic poetry to you over lemonade and air-conditioning. I actually know of one of the writers; I’ve read both her books. But by the time I get there, she’s gone. She apparently switched shifts with some travel writer who reads Charles Bukowski poems without looking up. He doesn’t even ask my name.

*

There are ten thousand people attending Tremendous Pines, so it’s strange that I keep running into Liv and Faith. I end up standing behind them while we watch some hip-hop artist at a side stage. The sun is so harsh that festival employees stand in the corners and spray the crowd with hoses, and soon everyone is hot and wet, dancing to a bass beat that vibrates our teeth and a lyrical flow that keeps doubling in intensity until a frenzy overtakes us. When the artist finally departs the stage, the crowd disperses, dripping and bleeding and muddy.

I see the sisters again in the drink line. With all the grown-ups sequestered away, the rules have been suspended. No one is checking ID’s, and the under-21 attendees take full advantage. The drugs have come out, too. Groups of concertgoers share joints and sniff powders off the backs of their hands as they wander the grounds. After the bartender hands Liv and Faith their neon-green beverages, they notice me. “Hey Caleb,” says Liv. “What are you drinking?”

“Water,” I respond.

“You’re so funny,” Faith says. “You’re like my grandma.”

Liv downs half of her drink in one swallow. “You’ll take care of us, right? If we get carried away?”

“Of course.” I touch her shoulder. It’s supposed to be friendly. But she rests her chin on my knuckles, which makes it weird, so I jerk my hand away.

I see them one more time before things really start to get out of control. Forty-five minutes before an all-girl Russian punk band is scheduled to perform, the entire volleyball team plants themselves in front of the main stage. I wander past on my way to the row of porta-potties.

“Caleb,” yells Liv. “Come here.”

I hesitate, but comply.

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“You have any water left?” she asks.

“Ha, ha,” I say. “I get it. I’m super lame.”

“I’m serious. I’m so thirsty.” She teeters, then catches herself. “Never mind. I’m fine.”

“I’ll get you some,” I say.

“Really? Caleb, I love you. You’re so amazing.”

I offer a bow that I instantly regret, then turn to leave, but something stops me. The volleyball players speak to each other over the din of their intoxication, unaware that I’m still within earshot.

“Isn’t that the kid with the hot dad?”

“Dads are my thing. The chubbier and beard-ier, the better.”

“Eww. That was funny when people were saying it two years ago.”

“But that kid’s dad is actually gorgeous. Like Ewan McGregor with long hair.”

“I’d get on that.”

And then someone who I pray isn’t Liv or Faith shares the piece of information that I would give anything to eliminate from the minds of everyone who I have ever or will ever meet.

“You could. His mom and dad have an open marriage.”

“People actually do that?”

“Mom has a boyfriend and his dad sleeps with tons of people. Not just women. It’s super progressive.” “Awesome. But how shitty for that kid?” *

It’s true. My parents came up with their arrangement about two years ago, shortly after my sister left for college. Mom and her boyfriend post pictures of what they do together on a website that’s way less confidential than she thinks it is. Dad puts his dates on the family Google calendar. She wears tons of perfume, he wears tons of cologne, and they smile all the time and joke about stains on their clothing and they’ve never been happier. I, on the other hand, am slowly dying on the inside, and the last thing that’s going to help is a stupid concert in a stupid field. *

I have to find Dad, so I return to the far side of the elder enclosure. The early evening sun doesn’t penetrate the towering white pines, so back here it looks later than it is. The punk music is extremely unpleasant, screaming and thumping and the sound of metal scraping on metal, and it’s hotter than ever, even in the shade.

This time, a full circle of people surrounds my father. The half outside the fence is like a mirror image of the half inside the fence, just twenty years younger. Some are dancing to the terrible music, others sway with each other. Everyone is touching someone else, their eyes slitted under the weight of alcohol and THC and MDMA and hormones. The last thing I want to do is push my way through what looks like a developing orgy, but somehow Dad notices me and waves me over. This time he has one arm around a woman in a tank-top, the other arm around a man in a tank-top, with someone at his feet who wears their gender less overtly.

“Caleb, buddy.” He’s unbuttoned his shirt all the way down. “Please tell me you’re having a good time.”

“I hate this. Can we go home?”

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He makes eye contact with each member of his little harem, and they give him some space. “I wish we could, but the gate’s still locked.”

“When are they letting you out?”

“I haven’t asked.” He can’t help but smile at his place in the bacchanalian scene. “Do you need more money? Would that help?”

“Absolutely. That would make all the difference. A hundred dollars would make me feel all better.”

Dad offers a familiar look: head tilted, lips pressed together. He and Mom insist that maintaining a healthy family requires talking about the feelings dislodged by their insane lifestyle. We even see a family therapist who insists that sarcasm is the final barrier remaining between me and a “mature parent-child connection.”

“We’re both allowed to live the lives that make us happiest,” he says.

“You apparently are,” I say. “But I’m not.”

I walk away, and he can’t follow. It’s the best I’ve felt all day.

*

Back outside the trees they’ve started lighting hundreds of tiki torches and planting them around the field, even though plenty of daylight remains. I told Liv I would bring her water, so I head for the drink tent, but it’s gone. Rioters have torn down the canvas walls and are emptying the coolers, tossing cans of beer to their friends. Pairs of dirty looters claw at each other over bottles of booze. Helpless staff members stand off to the side, trying to find a cell signal. I care about Liv a lot, but I’m not getting hurt over her hydration mismanagement.

So, plan B. In the far corner of the grounds, past the main stage and beyond the now-abandoned First Aid tent, the organizers hid a little VIP section, which should be stocked with refreshments. And because it’s out of the way, maybe the mob forgot about it. I make a wide arc around the main stage and its mass of people. They throw themselves at each other like crash test dummies launched out of laboratory windshields. After impact they fall, then thrash against being trampled while they lie on the ground.

No one is manning the VIP gate anymore, and inside it looks like a British manor house’s sitting room transported outdoors: enormous rugs, plush gilded furniture, ornate ottomans. It’s peaceful compared to the throb of violence from beyond the plastic fence. I check the corners and behind all the couches. No coolers, no beverages of any kind. But there has to be something. I keep going, through a burgundy curtain at the far corner hung from some metal rigging that juts out from the main stage, and suddenly I’m backstage. It’s a futuristic version of the VIP lounge, all chrome and plastic, with a few black leather couches and chairs. Every flat surface holds multiple musicians.

“Who the hell are you?” asks a guy in thick eyeliner.

“Caleb.”

“You’re not supposed to be back here.”

“I’m sorry.”

Through the metal columns and piles of equipment I can see the Russian punk band rocking on stage. The entire structure resonates with their performance.

“It’s pretty insane out there,” says a woman in pigtails and fishnets. “Are you okay?”

“I guess.”

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“Don’t worry about these assholes.” She indicates the mix of people guarding guitars and clutching drumsticks in the makeshift lounge. They’re all dressed like comic book characters, in heavy makeup and costumes that reveal all sorts of skin. “You can stay if you want.”

“I’m just trying to find some water,” I say. No one responds, or moves, and I can tell they’re scared. It takes a moment for me to understand why. A lot of them are parts of bands that have been around long enough to make names for themselves. They’re old, some even older than Dad. Who knows how the masses would treat them?

The pigtailed woman reaches into a cooler near her feet and retrieves two bottles of water. She tosses them to me, and I manage to catch one. “Don’t let anyone see how you got back here, okay?”

“I won’t.”

“Please be careful out there.”

I want to ask for a third bottle, so Faith can have one too, but I refrain. These people need it more than I do.

*

By the time the punk band finishes and the crowd picks themselves out of the dirt, the sun has set and the glow of tiki torches does strange things to people’s faces. I keep seeing Liv on the edges of the spheres of firelight, but when I get close I discover it’s not her at all. The strangers I approach are all madder than they need to be. “What’s your problem?” “Get away from me.” I try texting her, but she never texts back.

The other complication is all the bodies littering the ground. Most of the people I trip over are catching their breath or checking their wounds, but plenty lie there motionless, asleep or passed out, hopefully not dead. In a stretch of darkness my foot catches the leg of some guy on top of some girl, having sex, and neither of them look up, even after I say, “Sorry,” and, “Maybe you should do that somewhere else?”

My job gets easier when I remember Liv is wearing a jean skirt and a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. I don’t have to check the faces of every girl milling around the field or lying on the ground, just those in that outfit. That still leaves lots of partiers, way more than you would think. And the heat still hasn’t dissipated. I wipe my forehead with the front of my shirt until it’s dripping too. *

An hour later I still haven’t found her, but the festival starts to reawaken. The crowd filters from the installations and side stages back to the main field. Groups of attendees collect like rivulets of rain running down a windshield, absorbing individual droplets as they pass. They gather in the torchlight until the grandstand’s lights are fully illuminated, which transforms the whole scene. Now the masses staring at the stage look like woozy cavemen hypnotized by a spaceship. They have no idea what’s going on and they can’t look away.

“What a day.” Fifty yards in front of me on stage, a man in khaki shorts grabs the microphone. “They said Tremendous Pines wasn’t going to measure up this year, but man, were they wrong.” The crowd responds with enough noise to prove his point.

“And we still have one performance left. But two things before we get there.” He looks skyward. “We’ve got some storms moving in. They’ll likely miss us. Nothing to worry about.”

Someone in the sea of fans cheers. A light flashes, probably a phone camera.

“Second, there’s someone I have to introduce. This guy is incredible. He’s been stuck in the Elder

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Section all day, but he’s still managed to become the most popular dude here. Everyone needs to hear what he has to say.”

Oh no.

“Ladies love him. Guys want to be him.” The khakied organizer looks off stage left. “Let’s be honest, guys love him too. And he loves them right back. Allow me to introduce the man we’re calling the King of Tremendous Pines.”

At this Dad walks across stage, leading an entourage of dozens of people. Hundreds. They follow him like a shirtless Messiah. Most of them are mostly naked, hanging off each other, bliss surrounding them like the mist that has started falling from the sky. Nothing about this terrible stupid day has actually bothered me, until I recognize a few of the faces in his posse. Liv, Faith, and their mom. The boulder of emotion I carry around in my stomach gets heavier.

Dad takes the microphone from the host. “Good evening, Tremendous Pines.” Then he starts talking about love and happiness. He steals a bunch of lines from our therapist. The crowd is silent, entranced by some quality he possesses that I can’t understand.

While everyone stares at Dad, I watch Liv. She looks terrible, even from over a hundred feet away. Her face is pale, her eyes squinted. But I can help. I made her a promise, in fact. Both bottles of water remain in my pockets. This time, getting to her is easy. Everyone is so focused on Dad that I can move through the crowd like liquid through gravel.

“You owe yourself your own version of happiness. And the only thing everyone else owes you is the space to pursue the life you want.”

It would have been better if I had snuck up, grabbed Liv, and led her away, but since I’m the only one moving, my mission is too obvious. Everyone watches me climb the stage and tiptoe through the little symposium. Dad waves me over.

“Folks, this is my son, Caleb. He’s on his own pleasure journey, and he needs our help.” Dad turns to me. “Caleb, come here.”

I freeze, but the roar of ten thousand people is hard to resist, so I join Dad at center stage. While the crowd continues cheering, he drops the microphone to his side.

“Are you having fun yet?” he whispers.

“No.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” He rubs my back between my shoulders. “You could be. All you have to do is give yourself permission.”

It’s hard to describe how it feels when thousands of people stare at you at once. I try to look back at them, but there are too many eyes. I can’t focus anywhere.

“I have to go,” I say to my father. “There’s something I have to do.”

I don’t wait for his response. The crowd keeps up their noise as I cross in front of Dad’s disciples and grab Liv’s hand. She startles like I’ve just woken her up.

“Caleb,” she says. “What are you doing here?”

“I got your water.”

“You got me water?” she slurs. “You’re so sweet.”

I pull her hand, and she follows along. “We should get off this stage. There’s a storm coming.”

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For a moment I worry about the crowd’s reaction to our departure, but they don’t care. The members of the final band have taken their places behind their instruments; Dad and the lead singer wrap their arms around each other’s waists as the drummer taps out a beat. The lights go out and the lasers start. The wind picks up and drives the vanguard raindrops into the faces of the crowd, cleaning the dirt and blood from their foreheads and cheeks. Lightning flashes in the distance, then closer, then closer still.

“Where are we going?” Liv asks as we descend the metal stairs and head for the shelter of the forest.

“Trust me,” I say. “Somewhere fun.”

*

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22 | Issue 46 Pink
Blanket SarahGomez

1st Place Nonfiction 2022 Summer Contest

With its beautiful slipstream shape, this essay slides out of the narrator’s life and body into the lives and bodies of her mother and grandmother, into family history shrouded in the mist of time, recoverable only as scraps of memory. Tracing ways the body forms, deforms, and reforms, it finds provisional images of hope.

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RachaelGreene

I watched a timelapse of a blond fitness influencer doing yoga this morning. The word bubble hovering above her in the clear blue sky read, If it feels good and you’re breathing, you’re doing yoga! I think of this as I sit on my own yoga mat, inhaling activated body odor after three days without a shower. If you were to ask me why I’d gone this long without a shower, I’d tell you it’s because I’m recovering from the side effects of yet another booster shot, but really I’ve succumbed to the overwhelming dread that I will never be able to keep up with the unrelenting accumulation of filth on my body, dust in my home, emails in my inbox, headlines on my phone, and excuses I’ve used already.

To stop fixating on these things, I sit cross-legged and concentrate on how slowly each breath goes in, filling all sides of my belly until it’s up into my chest, and out, lungs deflating as I squeeze my abdominals, gently rolling my insides up like an air mattress. At the start of the influencer’s timelapse, this slow process looks like staccato gasps, her torso pumping air like an erratic respirator. This visual effect more closely reflects my frantic thoughts than the act of sitting quietly. I focus on my sits bones pressing into the floor until I imagine roots sprouting out of them and into the ground. I search impatiently for that elusive sense of calm that only seems to come when I’m not paying attention. It feels like trying to watch a tree grow. I’m perpetually tempted to give up until, somehow, I forget about the passage of time, the measurement of it. Suddenly, I can sense the imperceptible. It is impossible to forget about time when recording oneself. The very notion of a timelapse is to fold time, reducing it to a highlight reel of perceptible movements. Stillness becomes the thing unseen.

I like to interrogate my heartrate after workouts on my Apple Watch. The rhythm is depicted in a series of vertical red lines that look more like a sound wave than the jagged mountain range of hospital monitors. Each vertical line marks a fluctuation in my heartrate. The gaps between them are mere voids, as if my heart is simply off grid during these intervals, again unlike the hospital monitor’s constant, jumping line which remains even after a heart stops—the unbroken thread. The activity app maps my workout from start to finish, showing exactly where my heartrate elevated and recovered. Here I did five sets of squats, four rests in between, followed by five sets of bench presses again punctuated by rests, then five sets of bent rows, and there, near the end, a segment of lines suspended above the rest—the dreaded cardio finisher. I feel mildly disappointed whenever I come to the end of one of these workouts. Although I can recall performing the motions in real time, the visual account of my heart’s rhythm is mesmerizing. It makes me want to see my entire day in vertical lines, each one ticking off the minutiae with pinpoint accuracy—the burst when I finally walked to the mailbox, the lull I spent doomscrolling—a heartbeat for every moment. Life measured in (ideally) unwavering intervals. A flipbook of individual efforts and stillnesses. A timelapse in heartbeats.

I wonder what other things my body might be recording. If my hands, upturned on my knees remember

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Flesh Record

the surface of everything they’ve touched—the cold slime inside the bowl pulled from the dishwasher, the evocative crisp pages of a new planner, the patchy hot and cold of the doughy flesh of my stomach. I move my hands there now, pressing lightly to feel my deepening breath. Belly breath. I learned this term from another yoga video. It’s when you initiate the inhale from your core, rather than your chest. Breathing this way grounds the nervous system, as if the direction of your breath could literally tether you to the earth. I imagine again the roots now spreading from my sits bones burrowing deeper into the ground, anchoring me with each rise and fall of my belly. I feel unmovable.

I think of my grandmother whenever I hold the flesh of my belly like this. She was a petite Italian woman, but her midsection grew disproportionately to the rest of her body over the years. Her mother, my great grandmother, also had a voluptuous belly. The Paolucci Curse, as my mom and aunt call it, after her family name. For as long as I can remember, they have battled to control their waistlines, alternately teasing and soothing one other over their abstentions and indulgences. It can’t be helped, they say, firmly believing it can. The focus they give this particular area of the body is as disproportionate as my grandmother’s figure, as the idea of a curse itself.

I’ve heard that gaining weight in the midsection can occur as a response to trauma—the body’s way of protecting itself, shielding vital organs even when the threat is not physical. The effects of trauma, we’re learning, can be genetic as well. Passed down through generations. Epigenetics looks at the ways trauma effects not the genes themselves, but the expression of genes. Studies of famine survivors—human and worm—show that survivors’ offspring tend to be smaller even when they are amply nourished. As if the genes remember the possibility of famine and prepare for its likelihood even though the offspring is not exposed to it—history manifesting in the body, literally shaping it. Also inherited through altered gene expression is what one study on C. elegans worms refers to as toughness. How this toughness is identified remains unclear in my reading of the study, but I imagine a tactile hardening of the worm’s membrane, a protective shell.

When she was still young, my grandmother lost a child to walking pneumonia. He was two. My mother was old enough to remember what would have been her youngest brother, and my grandmother’s grief. Sadly, the loss of a child was not the only source of grief in my grandmother’s life. She had married a charming Scots-Irishman who turned out to be an alcoholic and philanderer, as well as a criminal, forcing the family to relocate often. My mother remembers these things too, and more which she does not tell me. She stuck by him through it all, she says, her lips clamping together as if she tastes underripe fruit.

Unlike my grandfather, my great-grandfather doted on my grandmother growing up—she was the favorite of his four daughters. In an era when slaughtering a chicken for the meat was a luxury, he gave her the choice breast meat. We weren’t rich, she would say, but we always had enough. When he was a young man, my Great Grandpa Paolucci emigrated from Italy to escape World War I, only to be drafted and sent back to fight in the trenches of his homeland. During hand-to-hand combat he was bayoneted in the stomach—a fatal wound in a pre-antibiotic era— yet he survived. After the war, he worked as a coal miner in West

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Virginia, descending into the belly of ancient mountains until his lungs carried enough of their dust to reclaim him to the dirt. My grandmother kept his domed oval photograph hanging across from her rocking chair so she could gaze at him whenever she rocked herself back and forth, hands resting on her stomach, the way my hands rest now.

I have not always liked touching this part of my body. As a teenager I recoiled from it, did everything I could to conceal even the slightest bulge around my middle. When I sat, the fold in my skin was unforgivable, the fact that my jeans dug into it confirmed this. It’s those low-rise jeans, my mother would say. In my room I would stand in front of the mirror, hunched over, gripping handfuls of living flesh and dream of severing it. Red fingernail marks scoring the line I would cut. Remembering it now, it was like the videos of girls who miscalculate when cutting their own bangs. Instead of letting it hang naturally, they stretch the hair down in front of their eyes and snip—it sticks out straight in rebellion when they let go. Had I got my wish, I never would have stood up straight again. Curves stood as the antithesis of early oughts’ beauty ideals.

That line where low-rise jeans used to hit, the dent my mother was so adamant it was creating, is still there today, though I have not worn low-rise jeans in more than a decade. It turns out this is a natural curve where belly meets pelvis, an elegant scoop immortalized in sculpture and artwork long predating the low-rise phenomenon. For better or worse, my figure has always bent toward the classical. I sit cross-legged and lift my chest, abdominals bowing outward unthwarted—the counter pose to my entire adolescence.

The night I was born, my grandmother sat anxiously by my mother’s round belly, camera poised to commit my first moments to film. But when I emerged, a hush fell over the room. You were blue, my mother tells me. Stillborn you could say, as if stillness were the affliction and not the umbilical cord wrapped twice around my neck. There is no photographic evidence that I came into being that night. My grandmother kept her lens lowered. Every year on my birthday, my mother reminds me that I was born two minutes before midnight, although I’ve since learned that she chose to go by the delivery room clock The doctor’s watch read midnight. You were almost born on a different day. It seems to me I was almost not born at all. A silent child slipping between days. Blue, the color of night, the color of vast things. Blue, the color of stillness.

My breath finds a natural rhythm, no longer proactive. My hands still rest on my belly, the part of me I have rejected and reclaimed more times than I can count. The fact that I can keep my hands here without pulling away or feeling a visceral discomfort I perceive as growth. I have always had a low tolerance for sustained physical contact, with myself and others. Perhaps I am cold. Perhaps my childhood made certain expressions difficult for me. Circling my neck are two prominent creases, like wrinkles or choker necklaces. I have always had them since childhood. I catch myself tracing them with my fingers sometimes when I am nervous or uncomfortable. I wonder, is it possible that my body still remembers, all these thirty-odd years later, that it is safer to be unencumbered?

In 2021, I was diagnosed with Hashimotos, an autoimmune disorder tricking the thyroid into attacking

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itself, causing hypothyroidism. The doctor explained this to me, though she didn’t need to. My mother has Hashimotos. As do two of my cousins on my mother’s side. There is no treatment for Hashimotos itself, only the symptoms. After I left the doctor’s office I went straight to the nearest bar, not the pharmacy. I knew this bar from the year before when I found myself surrounded by the lunch crowd and drinking too much wine after the same doctor found nodules on my thyroid. We will have to take a biopsy if they grow too large, she said—meaning they had the potential to turn cancerous, but they wouldn’t. I knew this confidently. My mother has dozens of them, as did my grandmother. None of these dozens has turned against their hosts. As she aged, my grandmother’s throat began to sag, just slightly. An apron curve of skin above the collarbone. A trained physician can tell visually that this apron contains nodules on the thyroid. To my eyes, I see the echo of a belly, quivering with breath passing through it.

Side effects of Hashimotos include inflammation, fatigue, and with it, weight gain. With the daily dose of synthetic hormone my thyroid is incapable of producing itself, I can manage the fatigue, but my body naturally drifts toward softness. I don’t pinch my soft places bitterly anymore. Nor do I always embrace them. Most days striving for neutrality is enough. Resting my hands on my belly, I notice its fleshiness has patches that are cooler than others.

We are the sum of our experiences. Perhaps of our parents’ and grandparents’ experiences too. Collections of moments compressed into physical form, documented in the seemingly unseen parts that comprise us. Cells. Genes. A three-dimensional timelapse. Is this not evolution? The culmination of time and matter? There are no fresh starts. The body translates the grand biography of human DNA and appends it.

I think about what it means to hold all of this. Imagine physically holding it in my hands, in my belly. My body remembers my own life better than I do. It has changed many times. It has expanded and contracted. When I expand, I am desperate for weightlessness, and when I shrink, I crave the resistance—the weightiness—of gravity. A reminder that I am here.

Firmly rooted now, I imagine myself as a tree. Trees document their stories in rings around their trunks as they grow. The rings indicate seasons of drought and plenty. If the tree has survived fire. How long it grew and when it began decaying. Around my core, too, I’m convinced it’s all there—the trauma of my birth, the romanticized horror of childhood, the self-inflicted abuses of youth, seasons of illness and strength, of deprivation and gluttony, the disenfranchisement of being female in an oppressive culture, the mental and physical tax of a global pandemic, and the instability of the climate. A life discernable in layers of tissue. Rings of stories told in a delightful pattern of flesh.

I am vaguely aware that I have arrived at stillness, somewhere outside of time but inside my body. I count my rings, knowing that there will be more. Life has not finished writing itself into my body. My trunk has not finished growing.

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In her last years, after my grandmother moved in with my mother, she would pat her swollen stomach endearingly, the way one pats a mischievous child on the head, and say, I’ve done my time. My mother and aunt hated when she did this. Looking back, it’s as if she knew her stomach embodied the years of turmoil and loss she survived. Even as a child I regarded her belly as a mythical figure, somehow sensed that it encompassed more than fat and organs and bile. As an adult now, I know—it was her prize for a life lived with an alcoholic and disloyal husband, her consolation for a child lost to illness, her insulation against these things. It represented the hard earned space she had inhabited, space her internalized grief had created, a right to no longer shrink herself. It held the life she had borne.

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Dandelion MonikaGalland

2nd Place Poetry 2022 Summer Contest

The music of this poem first caught my ear, and then I couldn’t help but be lulled by the descriptions of this seemingly ordinary action—sitting on a stone by “a summer-lessened stream.” Without distracting too much from the beauty of this instant, and the truth it brings to light, the poem nonetheless manages to encompass climate change, individual mortality, and the healing power of giving our continual attention to the natural world. This poet reveals how, although our planet remains threatened by climate crisis, and we each face our own “eventual burning,” we can still allow ourselves the joy of immersion in nature, receiving it as the spiritual transcendence it always is. This poem encourages us to “step off the path” of our own busy, distracted lives to spend several moments with this speaker beside the stream, finding a deeper sense of “flow” that we often forget is still available to each of us. After absorbing this poem’s careful rhythms and attention to language, I am more able to embody its central message: “to sit and attend the variations” of whatever and whomever I find right in front of me.

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The Summer-Lessened Stream

LauraFoley

I sit on a stone by a summer-lessened stream of less water and more exposed boulders, totems of mid-summer stones gentled by moss and springing ferns, a shady spot relieving morning heat as I read the world is burning, but not here, not yet, by this stream-pool’s shade-cooled water, enough for a water strider to cast its shadow on sparkling, submerged banded schist skating through the dark space made by a human form over it, a forest as open to me as to this little skimmer, to whom I whisper my only wisdom is: to sit and attend the variations of a stream, its strings, oboes and a flute, a thrush’s notes descending downward to me, through hemlock’s darkness, where I forget for these moments my eventual burning; in no hurry, my dog and I have stepped off the path, to sit beside a stream that knows sunlight reflected on a mossy stone,

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and ferns that sway as if there is a breeze in some brief unseen spirit’s breath I don’t feel on the cheek, I turn

to being stream and channel not staying, or going. Flowing.

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Depths Of My Soul JimStill-Pepper

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2nd Place Fiction 2022 Summer Contest

A striking, almost Millhauserian premise that’s executed with aplomb. I imagine I’ll be seeing a lot more from this writer.

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The Message

On the northbound side of the highway that becomes our main street, at mile marker 6.1, there’s a billboard for F Benner HVAC. On the left side of the billboard is a blown-up photo of F himself: middleaged, white button-down, hand extended, smiling. On the right is all the pertinent contact info. Here’s the fun part: with every season, something gets added to F’s likeness. Summer (the long season): a beach ball seeming to bounce from his hand, sunglasses. Halloween: a pumpkin, vampire teeth, no blood. Thanksgiving: a turkey and carving implements, pilgrim hat. Christmas: Santa hat, you’d think. But no. Reindeer antlers, red nose. And so on: champagne for New Year’s, cupid wings, shamrock, umbrella (for April showers), the American flag from Memorial Day to July 4th, then back to the long season. This is the sequence we have come to know, come to love. Alterations are subtle and intended to keep folks guessing: instead of vampire teeth, neck bolts; instead of Rudolph, a candy cane, a present in green and gold.

Last fall, things changed. No pumpkin, no monster costume, no turkey feast. No Santa hat, no beard, no reindeer, nothing. F bounced a beach ball from the second week of July to the end of December. Then, the summer stuff disappeared, and a single additional eye showed up on the middle of his forehead. Like you’d see on some Eastern mystic. We thought, this is vandalism. Some smart alec teen climbed the billboard and spray painted poor F. But why would the vandals reset the beach ball, the sunglasses? Maybe the advertising company goofed and put up Halloween late? Or maybe F missed a payment? This was a busy time of year. It would get sorted soon. We waited.

February came and the third eye left. A great black beard covered F’s face. A wooden cane curled in his hand. A blue cape concealed his usual business-casual attire. At first we wondered if F was meant to appear like one of the founding fathers. But was Ulysses S. Grant usually lumped into the Presidents’ Day bunch? Didn’t he die an alcoholic, in penury? Was it some unsung general then (Sherman, perhaps, that barbarian)? Before we could determine the focus of F’s unusual tribute, someone pointed out that his cane was upside down. Then one of the early music professors from the local community college reported that F wasn’t holding a cane at all. He was playing the crumhorn. Indeed, if you stopped at the billboard at dawn or dusk you could hear a faint kazoo-like buzzing in the wilderness. A quick stroll would reveal seven wireless speakers zip tied to the trees. At the time, we didn’t think to stop and determine their bluetooth pairing capabilities. With a melody neither colonial nor Top 40, we couldn’t fathom what they had to do with either St. Valentine or the framers of our nation.

By the start of spring, F was naked from the waist. His chest was tattooed with multicolored concentric circles. He held a scimitar engulfed in real flames. Some of us began to complain at our local borough council meetings. The seasonal stuff was cute, but what message was F trying to send now? Maps were consulted, and it was determined that the billboard was outside the borough limits, and besides, as some of the more socially conscious attendees pointed out, this latest iteration was likely a nod to Holi, the Hindu festival of love. While not all of us could agree on whether or not our distaste for F’s half-naked fire sword could be interpreted as close-mindedness, we were concerned about safety. We studied the scimitar’s

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pyrotechnical mechanism: a small tank with a properly mounted line on the opposite surface, insulated (phenolic foam, we suspected). The jets that fed the flames seemed unimpeded and cleverly shielded with a newly installed overhang (stainless steel, what else?). Satisfied, however begrudgingly, and moderately impressed, we watched the glow from F’s sword as the last of the snow melted.

The pattern continued. Roughly every sixty days, a new bizarre image appeared: F riding a Pegasus with feathered wings flapping mechanically; F with sixteen arms, some extending off the billboard in wild, snaking undulations; F, but his head was an octopus monster that jetted inky water onto the highway’s shoulder at regular intervals; an upside-down F. No other difference we could discern, just his usual self turned upside down, hand out like always. We studied their assemblies, wondered at the customizations, sulked.

After the borough council meetings, we held our own meetings. When the janitor asked us to leave the large group instruction room of city hall, we gathered in a nearby basement. We tracked each version of F on a calendar, printed out research from the internet, photographs of the various special effects machines and their possible origins (the ink blaster, a repurposed statuary pump?; the Pegasus wings, a windshield wiper motor?). We built a wall display like we were hunting a serial killer. Our committee assembled experts in various fields: history buffs, an amateur genealogist, a professional mortician, tax preparers and tax collectors, housewives who majored in art history, a dentist, two doctors, a retired army colonel, a mildly wealthy restaurateur, and a horse euthanizer who recently gave up his independent veterinary practice.

We contacted media outlets. The local paper ran a small photo spread more as a curiosity piece than a call-to-action. We investigated legal options, solicited a lawyer who would work pro bono, filed right-toknow paperwork requests from government offices serviced by F’s company. The contracts seemed above suspicion. The work appeared satisfactory. His client base was diverse. His execution, consistent.

Our social media presence deepened. We reached out to Yelp reviewers who had assessed F’s business in the last 36 months. Subcommittees assembled data into tables and graphs, copied photos from the F Benner HVAC Facebook page. These too went on the wall. We ran colored yarn from photos of the billboard devices (sixteen arms, octopus head, fire sword) to F’s HVAC handiwork (rafter-mounted air handlers with custom racks, programmable pump timers, modified burner nozzles). We were indignant but incited. Was F himself designing these unsightly machines?

We set sentries to mark the changing of the billboard. But it wasn’t F Benner HVAC who pulled up. The box truck said PRO-Live Advertising. Two guys came bumbling out, ready to unpack whatever latest abomination (as though they were selling hamburgers, tree limb removal).

When questioned, they said they were just doing a job like anybody.

Like anybody? They obviously didn’t have to drive by and look at it every day. And they didn’t, they said. PRO-Live was run out of the suburbs. Fifty miles south. A different world. What could we do? Let them hang up the latest eyesore: a giant hamster wheel encompassing F. The wheel was built from chrome wire and never stopped turning. The motor was patched into a separate power supply. Golf cart battery. Simple.

Next time, they found us waiting again. Were we upset, or were we worried?

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Couldn’t we be both? No one knew F himself. His business was actually located one town over. But for a guy who had established a schedule of predictable promotion, something had to be wrong.

Had it though?

Yes!

They told us to call his number. As if we hadn’t done that. As if we hadn’t ordered heating and air conditioning maintenance at one of our member’s remote homes, hoping to confront F once and for all. The guy who showed up was in a plain white van. F’s name and logo nowhere to be seen.

Was he F?

No. He didn’t look like F, so ok.

Did he work for F?

Sure he did. Isn’t that why we called?

Where was F?

F didn’t do service runs anymore. Mostly retired. A real nice guy though, F, family guy. Used to work a dairy farm in upstate New York. Industry started drying up, no pun intended hahaha. So he went into HVAC because he knew a thing or two about refrigeration. Took out the weather maps and found part of the country that got real hot in the summer and real cold in the winter. Figured they’d need service most of the year, so down he came.

What about the hamster wheel? we asked. What about the flames? What did the octopus head mean?

He acted like he didn’t even know the billboard existed.

The PRO-Live guys just looked at us when we told them this. Hung their big open mouths and looked at us. Then they put up a slightly larger version of F’s head on top of his normal head. As though F were wearing a big mask of his own face, eyeholes cut out, velcro straps, everything.

We returned to the basement, consulted the wall, hired the high school computer science teacher to write a learning machine algorithm to determine a pattern. Apart from the time between new advertisements (which varied only by a day or two), the results were inconclusive. The teacher did admit he was only using the school edition of the software. We asked if it made a big difference. He said he wasn’t sure.

F became a fur-covered yeti, a bat-winged terror, a giant peapod with a green F peaface; his billboard gained a mirror hung to reflect his likeness, a cannon that fired a little flag that said YUM! REAL ICE CREAM! seven minutes after every hour, a word bubble filled with runes that changed depending on which angle you looked at it. The cannon used non-siphon CO2 as propellant. The runic word bubble was a basic variable equilateral triangular prism not unlike the periaktoi used by ancient Greeks dramatists to quickly change scenery. The mirror was just a mirror.

Our members kept sleep journals for billboard-related dreams. We sought counseling, conferred with life coaches, had our tarot cards read. Some of us separated from our spouses, took out home equity loans to fund surveillance equipment, vehicle repairs, cloud computing services. We enrolled in community college courses on psychology, cryptology, ethical decision-making in business. Our resolve continued to be tested, but never more than our next phase of investigation.

We were ready to abandon the hunt for F’s location. His business address was a P.O. box. His shop was nonexistent. We had followed the service guy’s white van after our interview. He returned not to an industrial mall, but to his own home. We tailed him for six additional days while he performed seventeen

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separate HVAC-related visits. All legitimate as far as we could determine (although we consulted every client, five refused to speak to us). Then someone said, What about geodata? Cell phone tower pings? Cloning his router?

Forget F, said another. He’s a deadend. A patsy. A red herring. (Can he be all three?) F’s probably been in Florida for years, sipping Mai Tais. Let’s follow the advertising guys. Who’s to say this isn’t just some marketing study they’re running? Let’s track them, picket them, devise our own billboards that they have to see every day. Give them a taste of their own medicine!

We had the schematics, the resources, the manpower. We could reconstruct the eyesores, part for part. If we couldn’t find promotion space near their office, maybe we could rent a lot, raise our own billboard. Make them see what we were made to see. Disfigure their daily drive. Put this wall, these hours to a purpose.

*

On the west side of the corporate center where PRO-Live Advertising is headquartered, at the intersection of Technology Parkway and Commerce Drive, there’s a billboard for F Benner HVAC. On the left side of the billboard is a blown up photo of F himself. On the right is all the pertinent contact info for our committee. Here’s the fun part: every sixty days something gets added to F’s likeness. Indian Summer: a broadsword dripping green blood, viking horns. Back-to-School: a scrolling LED sign of Kierkegaard’s Repetition translated into Urdu, football helmet. Samhain: a candy windmill that attracts crows, hot sauce bottle. Alterations are intended to keep folks guessing: instead of a string of sausage links strangulating F, the disembodied hands of three 15th century monarchs; instead of a door that opens to a prefabricated room filled with porcelain doll parts, a working waffle iron.

Each new billboard on our highway was replicated and installed at the corporate center within three days. We forewent all analysis, canvassing, and reconnaissance, and saved our energies for the changing of the F image. We had installed cameras in the marsh beside our town’s billboard in anticipation of this new phase. When the PRO-Live box truck arrived, we recorded the load-out and assembly and immediately began drafting our reproduction. Then we performed parts collection (along with any custom milling or cuts), welding and fabrication, paint (or print), and transfer to the corporate center billboard. We got phone calls immediately.

Approximately 1 out of every 20 calls was negative; the rest thought it was absolutely hilarious. Men in polos and khakis took photos in front of the billboard on their way from the office to lunch, on coffee runs. They launched fan accounts. Sign unveiling parties were held both onsite and remotely. Of the negative feedback, 80% were complaints that the sign didn’t change frequently enough. Our following grew. Memes emerged. We continued duplicating. They continued raving. No one realized that only an hour away we waited with the same anticipation for our own town’s new billboard to arrive.

Throughout, we continued to refine. Our turnaround time tightened as our model shifted. We sold off telecommunication equipment, cancelled server subscriptions, and transferred our entire operation from the basement to a new workshop in the alley between Birch and Main. We opened special accounts at the printer, machinist’s, and hardware store. Rush delivery from theatrical suppliers and props storage Still, we received requests from our corporate center enthusiasts to design advertisements. They wanted novelty billboards for galas, soirees, bar mitzvahs, garden parties, high school graduations. They sent inquiries

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and asked for estimates. Gave down payment offers. We tabulated our personal and collective debt; any revenue would help if we hoped to continue our work. But what exactly could we make?

At the wall, we sought inspiration. The reams of paper, the skeins of yarn. Our journey from the third eye on. Photos from when we suspected F as mastermind. Transcripts of our interviews with the PRO-Live guys, F’s technician, former customers. Color-coded pushpins linking to pie charts and bar graphs. Maps with sticky notes; specs on wire gauge, sealant strength, paint chips. Research on trauma related guilt inventory. Woodcuts of Old Norse balladry. Footnotes from an out-of-print series on cosmogonic myth. The sight of it humbled us. Our attempts and failures. Both mosaic and monument. Still no closer to an understanding, with a weightier task now at hand: the charge of creation.

What about a knight? With a knight helmet.

What about--he’s a boy scout and he wears a boy scout sash. Merit badges and all that.

What if he’s a girl scout and he’s got those cookies. You could come eat a cookie even. Maybe like a movie director? With a bullhorn and one of those chairs?

A farmer on a haybale!

We continued to offer mundane stereotypes, stock characters. Each suggestion more vanilla than the last. Nevertheless, our brainstorming generated a list of F iterations we could easily (and cheaply) craft. It read like a Halloween costume catalog. Shallow, flat, uninspired. We were stymied. Neutered by the menagerie that came before us, the madness of the billboard’s origins. What mind could devise such stuff? And what minds could derive such joy from it? Still, these corporate center fanatics kept calling. At last, we offered them the list, and they scoffed. Asked for something off the menu. Something exclusive. Upped their payment figures. We agonized.

Finally, we braved a booking. The one that seemed least risky. A party. A birthday party at a house we would call a mansion. In our town, we could’ve bought a home twice its size with a dozen level acres to spare. This one was packed onto a hillside, its mansion neighbors likewise teetering across the grade. We arrived the night before to install and sent a small crew on the day to oversee the reveal and operation. An eleven-year-old boy had become a fan of F Benner thanks to his UX designer father who could see our billboard from his company’s office. An assembly of tweens paraded up from the finished basement to the small yard carved out of the hill, and waited for the special moment. Thirty minutes after the announced start time, we pulled the rope to release the drape. F Benner greeted them in full clown regalia. His wig was an actual rainbow wig and bounced in the breeze. In his extended hand was a nozzle rigged to release enough helium to fill a tying balloon every half minute. Ready to shape them into a sword, a crown, or a dog, we stood with our bag of balloons eager to delight the bunch. No one cheered.

Seven of the children took balloons. Only three asked for them to be made into swords. The rest accepted the unmodeled tubes and batted at each other half-heartedly. Two snapped a selfie in front of the billboard. One pretended the balloon was a penis and waggled it provocatively. Within ten minutes they had shifted off to play video games and eat coconut chips and chocolate hummus. The father wondered if our work wasn’t a little on the nose and asked if he could Venmo us the balance. We had asked for a check, but when he too disappeared into the basement, we set to disassembling.

At the corporate center, we burned the billboard with five thirty-two ounce cans of white gasoline.

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*

When the fire department arrived, we were gone, and the blaze extinguished (they no doubt discovered traces of a basic foam containing vinegar, dish soap, and baking soda). We’d accepted that our retaliatory endeavors were not only a distraction, but most likely a distraction designed by the architect of this entire scheme, the mastermind behind F’s horrible metamorphoses whom we still had yet to identify. And so having abandoned aspirations of profit or personal restoration, we returned to the workshop to contemplate our future. But the next day, at the billboard on mile marker 6.1, F Benner had disappeared.

Of course, we could not help but wonder at the timing, consider if we had anything at all to do with the change or if it was some kind of impossible coincidence. After all, the chance of shuffling a deck of cards into perfect order including suit arrangement is 1 in 1068. A member of our committee said that number was the reason she believed in God. It seemed much more likely, however, that we had been the target of a grand experiment, and, understandably, this displeased us.

We watched the new billboard for change. It was now a plain white background with red block text that said ADVERTISE HERE and the phone number for PRO-Live. Sixty days passed, and nothing new arrived. Six months, and the same. When reviewing surveillance footage, though, there was something about the way the birds congregated--several times a day, small groups of swamp sparrows gathered on the eastern edge of the billboard. We searched for some seed distributing device, perhaps even a well placed caterpillar nest, but no, nothing. We also noticed that at least once a month the lights of the town would halo the woods behind the billboard in an unnatural hue. We determined this could be executed with several fog machines using altered fluid, but our search could not locate any such machines. The image would often flicker on our screens. Whether it was solar radiant interference or shadows cast by turkey vultures, we were forced to watch and re-watch regularly to assess the inconsistencies.

Now we keep a watchman posted twenty-four hours in case someone would attempt to meddle with our cameras. Petroleum jelly the lenses, disrupt the feed with signal jammers, and yes, we worry about deep fakes. We anticipate the next phase of changes will be subtle in an attempt to sway us from vigilance. But we will not be deterred. We measure the milkweed’s growth at the western pillar’s base, note the days the deer emerge to inspect the hum of the electric meter, trace the geometry between the branches’ weaving, count the constellations that cross the billboard’s apex, their correspondence with the phases of the moon, sounds that shrill and lull from the darkness, itself shifting minutely. Our words cannot describe it, any of it, why anyone would make such stuff thus unpredictable, wondrous, terrible, obscure. But through our efforts, we will try.

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Duemilaventi

PasqualeArmenante

2nd Place Nonfiction 2022 Summer Contest

The narrator’s mother’s career as a prosecutor of sex crimes engendered a hypervigilant parenting style that created a sense of threat so pervasive the narrator trusted no one, and by default, everyone. Because everyone, even the narrator’s mother, has to trust someone. I admire this essay’s refusal to oversimplify.”

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Special Victims Unit

AmyScheiner

Here is a memory:

I am standing in the bathroom wrapped in a towel. My hair drips water down my back. The hot wind from the hair dryer hits my skin and I shriek with laughter as the air moves over my butt. My mom, standing behind me, chuckles as I squirm in front of the mirror.

“Hold still!” She continues the game and I wiggle in anticipation for her next move. She pretends she is serious about untangling my knots until a smile breaks and the hot air tickles me again. My six-year-old laughter floats above us.

This mother-daughter routine is one I savor. The gentle touch of my mom’s fingers through my hair, her mischievous smile baiting me into laughter.

Mom holds the dryer to her side and makes eye contact with me in the mirror. “I want you to promise me you’ll never keep any secrets from me.” Her smile disappears. I stare back. I’m not completely sure what she means but I feel like I should. I nod my head slowly. I understand.

*

When I was eleven, a friend and I blasted Avril Lavigne in my room and painted our faces with electric blue eyeshadow and Kiss-Me-Not red lipstick. We banged our heads up and down, our hair flying wildly, singing terribly off key.

“Snacks,” I told my friend. She and I jumped down the stairs, two at a time, and threw open the pantry door. Mom was standing in the kitchen, shuffling through the mail, phone cradled between her ear and shoulder. It was the weekend so her hair wasn’t styled and she wore no makeup. She nodded into the phone, the line between her eyebrows prominent. I had a mouth full of chips before I looked at my friend, her face struck with horror.

“He inserted his penis up his granddaughter’s rectum, do you really think he should retain any custodial rights?”

*

When I was nine, slouching in my seat in class, Mom and a detective walked past my open classroom door and she waved ferociously at me. I had to blink twice to make sure it was really her. When I was eight, I found out one of my friends went to see Mom after her stepfather molested her. When I was ten, twelve, sixteen, Mom gave talks to my class about internet safety. When I was fourteen, she prosecuted my Math teacher.

I knew the word rape before I knew my times tables.

*

Mom was the Chief Prosecutor of Sex Crimes and Child Abuse in our county. Her job was a lot like Law and Order SVU, although slightly less melodramatic and minus the catchy theme song. For a while, she drove a 2001 dark green Lexus with tinted windows, a perk of her job.

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“It used to be a drug car!” she bragged to everyone she met. I guess that’s why cops would frequently pull us over. Usually she knew the officer but if not, she would casually pull out her license and say: “Oh, would you like to see my badge as well?”

Mom worked a lot but I never felt neglected. In fact, it was the opposite. She was always around, hovering, watching.

One day when I was in middle school, our dog escaped from the backyard. “Take your brother and go look for him.” Mom’s voice didn’t waiver as she slipped her feet into her Crocs and jumped in the car.

I grabbed my younger brother’s hand and dragged him behind me. He shivered in his oversized jacket while mine flapped open around my shoulders, the cold air numbing my neck. We roamed around our cul-de-sac neighborhood, both of us yelling: “Lucky! Lucky! Come here boy!” The orange-red hue of the leaves crunching beneath our feet reminded me of lava.

“What are you looking for?” A man from a couple of streets over asked as he raked his front lawn. He looked like all the fathers in my town; he wore jeans, a polo sweatshirt, and a benign smile.

“Our dog ran away,” I called from the street, pulling my brother toward me.

“What does he look like?” the man said.

Before I could answer, Mom pulled up in the minivan with Lucky in tow. “Get in the car, now!”

I felt Mom’s fury as my brother and I jumped in the back, Lucky licking our faces. I stepped over the take-out wrappers and stray toys on the floor to get to my seat.

“What did I say about talking to strangers?”

*

I grew to believe that men were dangerous. Mom never left me alone with one who wasn’t related to me and although that might seem surprising, it was a blindspot of hers I was fortunate to have. The men in my family, specifically my dad, paternal grandfather, and uncle were the ones with whom I felt most safe. But other men were always a threat.

I didn’t realize the immense amount of anxiety I felt on a daily basis as a child; I didn’t have the language yet to describe it. But I knew the statistics: one in three girls would be the victims of sexual abuse, many girls believe it was their fault, and it’s usually by someone you know.

Mom always accompanied me to appointments with any male doctor or professional and when I was fifteen, I went to physical therapy after I woke up one day and couldn’t move my neck. The doctor said it was because of stress.

My physical therapist was a grandfatherly man with white hair and soft hands. He worked in an office with workstations separated by curtains and inside was a mat table sanitized for my safety. I followed my mom inside of the office, “like a duckling” we used to joke. We had the last appointment of the day given my mom’s long hours so we were the only people in the office.

“You need to leave the curtain open,” Mom said during the first session. She had just come from work and held a portfolio of files close to her chest to read while I was being treated.

“Is there something wrong?” The physical therapist asked, his brow curved in confusion.

“No. This is just for your protection as well as hers.” I was too embarrassed to speak. My mother’s candor made me uncomfortable in my body, as if she was drawing more attention to it, it’s possibility of being a sexualized body, a victimized body.

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*

There was never a question in my mind how much my mother loved me. She made it clear that everything she did was to protect me, even though I was suffocating under her protection. She had to know where I was every minute of the day. I couldn’t go over to a friend’s house if she didn’t know (and trust) the parents. She demanded to know my email and AIM passwords. Nothing was allowed to be private.

I’d hide in my closet journaling about my anger toward her, my desire to break free from her control. Writing that one day I’d move far away and never come back.

I told her I hated her and begged her to leave me alone. She told me I was dramatic and naive. I thought if I was naive, then it must have been her fault.

*

A handful of times I went to watch Mom in court, usually during a sentencing or a hearing. One summer when I was twelve, Mom brought a neighborhood girl and me to work with her. She was a year older than me and I wanted to impress her and show her that even if I had nothing interesting about me, at least my mom did.

“I’m glad you’re here. This happens to so many girls and it’s important to talk about it. Most girls keep it a secret though when it happens.” Mom was sending emails as she spoke, her messy desk covered in papers, heels hidden under her desk. Her department was small and her office was located furthest down the hall with signs hanging on her door reading “Chief Prosecutor” and “The Witch is In” with an illustration of a wart-nosed hag on a broom.

“I just have a brief sentencing this afternoon, girls. Do you want to watch or would you rather stay here?” She asked while we snacked on M&Ms in her office.

“I want to go!” said my companion.

We sat in the audience seating with only a judge, defense attorney, and Mom in the courtroom. The room was still and warm. Mom sat at the table on the right, faced away from me, wearing stockings and a pencil skirt and blazer. She had to wear this every day when I was growing up and I remember thinking that I never wanted a job where I had to wear stockings.

I don’t think my mother ever questioned the appropriateness of bringing her young daughter to court. She had become desensitized to the daily traumas she witnessed and most likely thought that this was the safest place for me. That here all the bad men were locked away.

The defendant sat in the jury box, a pale man with patchy hair, a look of pleasant disinterest on his face. The judge took his seat up front and Mom rose upon his arrival.

I leaned over and whispered to my friend, “Mom says he was arrested for raping a woman in an alley. He’s pleading insanity.”

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“I think it means he’s crazy.”

While the judge sentenced him to the criminal psychiatric ward, the defendant slowly turned his head to look at my friend and me. His eyes were a cool blue of menacing evil.

We jumped down to hide ourselves behind the seats in front of us, she laughing, me almost pissing myself. I would have nightmares and about those eyes for weeks after.

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*

Once a year, I’d visit Mom’s office for Take Your Child To Work Day. A group of us, sons and daughters of law enforcement, sat in the jury box as the police officers, detectives, and prosecutors put on a show to entertain us. We were fingerprinted and put under a lie detector test, the police officers sticking wires on kids and asking them questions like: “Did you really brush your teeth this morning?” and “Is there a girl here you have a crush on?” We laughed. It was fun.

They put on a mock trial, a police officer playing the defendant, the judge playing himself, and Mom playing herself. The plot was simple— the accused had stolen an old lady’s purse.We kids were bewitched at the justice unfolding before us. Mom was always the most dramatic actor, waving her hands and elongating her words for the theatrics. I was proud of my mom, her godlike presence commanding a room.

Mom always had a larger-than-life personality which was never more evident than when she was at work. She was the boss. She was in control. She was in her element. And because I was her daughter, I was important, too. Detectives and secretaries and judges who had known me my whole life would rush over to me with big smiles and hugs. Even the defense attorneys would greet me warmly.

The world made sense there. There was right and wrong. There was crime and punishment. There was Mom, supervising it all. *

Eventually, I grew up, as all girls do. At least, the lucky ones who survive. When I first went away to college I was shy and nervous around my male peers. I didn’t know how to interact with them; I had been kept in a bubble of safety, which is to say, the bubble of my mother.

In the beginning there was alcohol to help me. I went to parties and clubs and made a competition with my girlfriends to see who could make out with the most guys in one night. Getting men to buy me drinks, kissing them, and swatting their hands away when they wanted more. I was in control. I was powerful. I was like every other college girl—fearless.

And then I had sex for the first time with a man I had met only once before. Of course, I never told Mom, not because she was puritanical about sex (she was the one who told me I should “test drive” the car before I buy it) but because I put myself in danger. Because it was with a guy I didn’t know or trust and I followed him to a nondescript location without letting anyone know about my whereabouts. Shouldn’t I have known better? Were all of Mom’s teachings wasted on me?

After that night, I realized that sex, this thing that had always been so concealed in danger because it was connected to violence, wasn’t that scary after all. I felt powerful in my body. I had proved my mother wrong—I wouldn’t be afraid.

I wanted to erase my past and prove to myself that I could be carefree like all of my friends. I heard her voice in my head: You’re so naive. Perhaps the risks I continued to take proved I was naive— getting into strangers’ cars, bringing back guys from clubs and bars to my apartment, taking drink after drink from men whose sole purpose was to get laid. But I felt the opposite was true. I was the one in control, I was the one who owned my body, who couldn’t be hurt by men.

Of course, this rationalization wasn’t that simple. Nothing ever is. My risk-taking was complex and could not be solely blamed on my mother’s hypervigilance. There were so many other reasons as to why I did the things I did.

But the reality was I knew the risks I was taking and I chose to ignore them. How easy it is to push

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things out of your mind when you are tired of thinking about them. I was tired of being afraid, tired of living under my mother’s control, tired of living in my own dysfunctional mind. There was something thrilling about proving my mom wrong, proving that I would not be the victim. *

Here is a memory:

Mom was on the phone talking about her recent Lasik eye surgery to her best friend. “It’s a miracle, it really is! I don’t need glasses at all anymore. Dr. W is a genius!”

Dr. W. had advertisements everywhere. His office was always on the local radio station and we passed billboards with his looming, tanned face from his Florida vacation house.

“I made you an appointment for an eye checkup. You’ll love him. He’s the best,” Mom said.

I didn’t particularly want to see an eye doctor. I was prescribed glasses when I was ten but refused to wear them until Mom finally caved and bought me contacts. I was in eighth grade and was bullied regularly at school and desperate to get out of my house. I felt like I couldn’t breathe inside of my home, inside of my life.

A few weeks later, I found myself sitting in a large, leather chair as the optometrist assistant turned off the lights and placed a machine in front of my face: “E-K-F-M-S-C” I recited.

“Perfect!” she exclaimed.

Dr. W. came in.

“Hello, Robin,” he embraced Mom and she began joking around with him.

“Doctor W., this is my daughter.”

“Nice to meet you.” He reached out and my hand disappeared in his large, firm handshake.

“I’ll be right back, I wanted to check with Celia about something up front.” Mom disappeared and at the time, I didn’t think much about it. Mom was a social butterfly and knew who to trust.

Dr. W. pulled his small, rotating stool in front of me. He wore khaki pants and a blue button down shirt, his hair greased back.

“So, I hear you play soccer,” he said. He placed another machine to cover my face.

I squeezed my legs together, feeling uncomfortable at his proximity.

He moved his stool closer to look through the machine. His legs widened as he planted his feet on either side of my chair. I felt the bulge in his pants pressed up against my knees.

“Yeah,” I answered.

I tried shifting my legs but I was stuck. Something felt wrong, but I couldn’t explain what or why. I felt my whole body tense, my shoulders rising to my ears. I felt his body against me. Was he just trying to get a closer look at my eyes or if I was now one of those girls? One of those one in three girls, one of those girls who believes it was her fault, one of those girls who knew the person.

I squirmed but couldn’t move far, holding my breath until it was over.

“Your eyes look good.” He turned on the lights.

Mom returned, still babbling and joking, always the life of the party.

We got into her Lexus and started toward home, me sitting in the passenger seat, her in the driver’s. I considered telling her what had happened, but I wasn’t even sure what had happened. I felt my stomach

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drop. Was I keeping a secret from her? Or was I over-reacting? After all, Mom wouldn’t have left me alone with someone she didn’t trust. She was the protector of children, and I was her child.

“I just love that Dr. W.” she said, turning onto the highway. “Such a nice man.”

Here was my moment to tell her but I clammed up. Confused and unable to process the event, I said nothing. Looking back, I wonder what would have happened if I had told her. There was never a doubt in my mind that she would have brushed off my accusation or declared that I had misunderstood. That was one of the gifts she gave me— unyielding trust. But maybe she would have have blamed herself, thought that she failed as a prosecutor and as a mother. The roles that defined her, the roles she had sacrificed so much for.

Or, maybe she would have swerved the car and ran into that office, shaking her first and swearing vengeance. Maybe he would have cowered, his eyes drifting toward the floor, terrified of the consequences of his actions. Maybe he would have furrowed his brow, chuckled at the misunderstanding, professed that he didn’t touch me, of course, he would never touch me. And then what would I say?

“Yeah.” My voice drifted as I spent the rest of the car ride staring blankly out the window.

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Nasci quadrato, muori tondo, torni a essere tutto FrancescaBusalla

Blue Mesa Review | 49

3rd Place Poetry

2022 Summer Contest

I love the infectious joy and freedom embodied in this poem, and the way this speaker not only “reconsiders” god, but also reclaims that fraught word, literally meditating in the final stanza on the sounds of it. For me, this poem helps to expand “the possibilities of divinity,” especially by explaining how this preferred version of god would “dance in the wide margins, skipping from white space/to white space.” The speaker here is talking about the delight of writing poetry, and of finding god and the creator in the experience of creation on the page. Yet this also serves as a metaphor for the kind of god that does not stay static, contained only in ideas, “shuttered between heavy covers.” This god does not “lurk in tall tales,” but instead enlarges our notions of what a single word—and what we can contain as well. One can’t help but hear echoes of Walt Whitman throughout this open-armed poem, which urges us to look beyond our old, “stony” ideas of what a more expressive, joyful spirituality might look like.

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Reconsidering god

I cannot believe in the god that lurks in the tall tales on the dark crowded pages shuttered between heavy covers of tarnished gilded books.

The god I could believe in would dance in the wide margins, skipping from white space to white space until the pages’ edge, and then with arms wide take an elegant leap into the unknown.

I cannot even use the word “god.” It is too small a word to contain all the possibilities of divinity. It is a stony sounding word, bounded at both ends by two hard consonants that strain to compress the small “o” that is an exhale of delight, the “ahhhh” of wonder, the first sound of joy.

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The Underline KaloniBorno

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3rd Place Fiction 2022 Summer Contest

The pleasure here is in the language… every line of this story felt like a miniature Fourth of July, tiny little colorful explosions everywhere.

-Ben Loory

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Peppers

“Berta, I trust you with the salad,” Lily says as if she believes it, leaning closer to me and the kitchen chopping block.

I tell her how ignorant she is without saying a word – because I’m good at this. With an “inappropriate” middle finger I fast-poke the secret hots lying beneath my t-shirt.

Love me. Love me not.

“Inappropriate” is one of Lily’s favorite words with me, but she’s old, and I get it. Old and overeducated, verified the first time I late-night researched her wallet. Which was the first time I inventoried her cupboards for my Safety Stash.

“That’s hoarding,” Ms. Fator, my caseworker, told me.

“It’s damage insurance,” I said, my hands in fists, and she backed off. Way off.

My salad is the second course of Lily’s 1st Annual Adoption Celebration. “We’re celebrating you, Berta,” she said. And she said it because she’s like Jesus, trusting people who shouldn’t be trusted, including 16-year-old girls who hide lethals underneath their t-shirts. And have a plan to use them. Girls who can’t decide whether or not they give a shit about being adopted.

It was Fator who got me here to the chopping block and salad bowl, because it was Fator who first heard the story from the Waldo County sheriff about baby-me, snorting like a little piglet, hanging upside down from the straps of my flipped, forgotten stroller. Teenage Mom in a bedroom somewhere making different, happy noises with her boyfriend.

Maybe in the end, Fator and Lily were the best I could do. The young, married Moms, the pretty Moms, held out for newborns instead of older babies, and definitely not babies like the one I was, a biter with choke bruises around her neck like a Goth necklace; already a confirmed insomniac but still craving the dark. ‘Cracked,’ I once overheard an adoption aide describing me, although she was the one too mentally confused to get out the spackle-filler and start the repair. Idiot.

Lily was a volunteer mentor at our group home, an agricultural advisor for the state of Maine, which is to say a woman with a job you can’t picture and a long list of degrees instead of boyfriends. I was chosen for her Experimental Garden Team. This happened because of some “landscaping projects” I created around the group home. That’s what everyone called them, my “landscaping projects,” magnifying the importance of a few shrubs and some King Alfred daffodils.

When I was 13, I asked Lily why she threw away her weekends on weed beds for unwanted girls, and she said – loud – with her British accent, “It’s fun! And all of you have such good minds.” Lily always talks and laughs loud as if volume=sincerity. But here’s my theory about it: because of her smarts and lumpy face – not a helpful combination – no man would have her, because when a man is with a woman, he wants the lights on and he wants to look. At everything.

So, it didn’t happen with a man and Lily broadened her definition of ‘love,’ deciding I was the one. And when I was 15, “How do you feel about it?” Lily asked, with Fator, her silent conspirator, standing

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ElizabethBerlin

close by. This was her asking for permission to adopt me, which seemed weirdly like asking for my hand in marriage, and by the stupid giddiness in her voice, I knew how she felt.

When I didn’t answer, Fator did, betraying confidences. “It’s everything she wants,” she spilled. Another idiot.

Today I need to make an Anniversary salad.

I chop. I do like to chop. I feel wider and taller at the scarred and immovable block. Most of our garden vegetables – Lily’s and mine – end up here, forced to prove their worth after months of our blisters and efforts at rehab.

But my sympathies are always with the vegetables and not with the knife: the red frilled lettuce; firm, cherub tomatoes with their sunbaked smell – I tear off stems to sniff some more. Red radishes with dried dirt still stuck to the skins – under the faucet they go. Sunflower seed kernels from last summer’s heads; shelled green peas. I’ve grated parmesan into savory flakes.

Sitting, waiting nearby is my favorite salad bowl: steely smooth, round and wide. Chills fast. Stays cold. No uneven edges to frustrate fingers.

The salad ingredients, the Good Girl ingredients, are not the ones Lily’s worried about. She’s smart enough to suspect something’s up, and she knows I know it.

Lily wants promises about things, reassurances. That’s why she’s loitering near me; she can’t trust my signals, but she does it anyway, again. Faking it like Jesus, betting on my transformation.

Humming her tunes, scratchy songs from old British and American musicals, today it’s a pile-up of “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance,” from The King and I. PhD Lily’s alter ego is a dance hall girl.

Lily moves to the stove where her homemade pub cheese soup, the meal’s first course, simmers on ‘low’ inside the stock pot. She lifts the lid, sniffs and sniffs, and then smiles her Jesus smile. Replaces the lid. (She does cook food even I like to eat.) Next, she checks on her six-layer trifle in the refrigerator, to make sure it’s setting. That’s dessert.

The string handle of the sling bag underneath my t-shirt hangs over one shoulder with the pouch resting just past one hip. It’s like a tic, the way I reach down to stroke the sweet little lumps, over and over again. The pepper pieces, all from my private garden, beg for release, tickling my thigh in their sexy, delicious way. They are Lily’s fault.

Days after I moved into her house, and after mapping her purse, I researched her office. From the bookcase with its neatly sorted sets of Horticulture: Reports from the Field, I lifted one of the copies, attention-grabbing with its neon orange cover and “Hot Splendor” printed diagonally in a loose, black font. The cover turned out to be a close-up photo of heaped-up hundreds of Thai and cayenne peppers. How I loved that title, “Hot Splendor,” and its story about “Scoville Weaponry,” a reference to the government’s secret experiments with capsaicin, the soul of every hot pepper.

I could not get the idea out of my head: peppers as a defense against enemies great and small. It disrupted sleep and sent me pacing and tumbling around my strange new house filled with British Lily’s dripping beads and fringe, and page after album page of faces: sisters and cousins, nieces and nephews, all in England and too many to ever remember.

In our shared garden, I’d grown the common green and red pepper poofs of the produce stores,

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peppers passive and sweet, and I pretended to love them. But I graduated to the phallic world of the hots, sending away for seeds and cuttings, moving up and up the Scoville heat index, most of the way to the top, where the tiniest piece of pepper flesh whammed the mouth with excruciating pain. How I loved the musical names: Pablano, Cascabel, Serrano, Habanero. Delicious, smoky or sweet, bouquets like wines once you trained your tongue to taste beyond the heat.

And I did. Because I could take it.

Like this: In our group therapy at the Home, Fator liked to read out loud from Ineffable Wound, a classic in adoption literature, detailing the author’s view that there is little to no chance adopters and adoptees ever really, truly bond. This is because of the adoptees’ abandonment and the way that act alters the brain. Abandonment like some original sin.

“Why are you reading this shit?” I blasted one day, my fellow hopeless ones nodding their heads.

Fator said, sounding New York smug, the way she can, “To help you understand the worst of what the experts say about you.”

I said, “Why should I give a fuck about what some expert who never talked to me says about me?”

She said, “Knowledge is power,” or some sort of related shit.

And I said, in a head-storm so red I could hardly see, “Imagine someone stupid enough to think anything in life could be that predictable.” Which shut her up.

In my locked room this Anniversary morning, my blackout curtains drawn, I stretched out my arms and pulled on my long and black gloves, the velvet kind you wear with a gown, every finger hugged. I’d found them vintage after a long search: sweet, sweet pearl buttons at the elbows.

I laid the peppers out on my table, so perfectly clean and trusting. And ripe. Ready. I sliced with my knife, then chopped them. Into my pouch they fell: green bodies and orange, white and red, split wide open, fiery as gunshot. Girlie gunshot with a touch of girlie sugar.

They love me.

They love me not.

I have a happy vision for this party. Picture this: my hot pepper pieces inserted into my salad and ingested by the party guests. Then see it! The thump of Lily’s Waterford pitcher falling sideways and flooding the table; Royal Doulton shattering on the concrete floor; Fator and Lily, and anyone else with the bad timing to sit down as a guest, squawking like chickens, racing to the kitchen sink, fighting over the faucet and cold water. In one panicked moment, realizing that the water fixes nothing. Fator dialing 911, gasping my full, adopted name, as I escape into the dense Maine woods. A manhunt with rottweilers, the cornering, the arrest for Assault with Hot Peppers. The enhanced close-up photo of the Mental Girl against a tangle of dead trees…

I’m dressed for the party; Lily doesn’t know this. She thinks I’ll shower and spritz and change, but I will not be doing that. Sorry, “Mom.” I’m wearing these jeans and my tee, the clothes I slept in, the crotch smelling neutral in spite of me going commando. But my hair and feet and teeth are rinsed and the sleep goo picked out of my eye sockets.

Warbling Lily looks like she’s going to a wedding, with her long and baby pink, taffeta skirt and her hair pinned up all curly-girlie. With her white blouse and its ruffles like a fancy bird’s. Her body’s been

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rubbed with an overdose of our homegrown and homemade lavender lotion.

“This party will be my favorite one every year!” she sings, big and loud. (And how can someone still have a British accent after more than 40 years of living in the States?)

Sometimes I watch Lily when she doesn’t know it, like now, from one edge of my chopping block. From the second drawer in the 100-year old buffet, she lifts out the placemats and doilies hand-crocheted by her British Mum in the weeks before her death. At the party table, Lily plants one placemat and one doily before each of the four seats then runs her blotched hands over each piece as if it were woven of pure gold thread.

To make Lily suffer, do this: with scissor blades sharp enough to make her bleed, slash any of her mother’s placemats or doilies in half. For extra effect, pull every dangling thread until the thing unravels to nothing. Lily will not yell. Ever. “Oh, Berta,” she’ll whisper instead. “Your anger always surprises me.” Her 61-year old chin flab quivers and later, I spot her inside her closet enjoying a good cry.

I wonder: did Jesus have crying jags?

Sometimes the image of the quivering chin freaks me so much that, if I haven’t unraveled the whole thing, I sew the shitty little parts back together and Lily says, all teeth and smiles: “Berta, this is good. It’s a very good thing to think of others,” as if I were five instead of 16. And fixable. (She never moves the doilies to another location.)

The 4th chair at Lily’s party table is one of her weird household traditions: “a chair for the unexpected,” she says, for whoever knocks on the door during the party. (Like Jesus – the door is always open 24/7.)

Except I know and she knows it’s going to be filled by Agnes, the mail lady who imagines herself every man’s pal. Agnes is 50, never married, and hates anyone female who’s more than ten years younger than she is.

Agnes will knock with a strong sense of timing. Why? Everyone in the neighborhood knows Lily’s English cooking. Agnes will smell the pub cheese soup ten blocks away. Wanting that soup will be stronger than her fear of spending an hour in my presence – me, the Mental Girl – and she’ll arrive “unexpectedly.”

I toss and toss my salad inside the cold bowl, stopping to stroke my pepper bag and knead it against bare skin.

Lily’s silver spoons and forks clink their way out of a special mahogany box, and I hope this isn’t the day she notices the missing pieces: the ones selected as overage and now part of my insurance stash – I have a right. And then the Royal Doulton plates and cups are carried from the buffet to the table. I hear the distinctive snap and click of the cabinet’s leaded glass doors as they’re closed.

“I’m cutting flowers for the table!” Lily calls to me as she removes her garden shears from the bottom drawer of the same buffet. She heads outside, the screen door squeaking open and slapping shut behind her.

One English clock chimes two, while a second clock, a plastic rendition of Arthur’s castle, spits out a feathered cuckoo that squawks his own version of “2.” I admit, there’s something silly and soothing about the clocks, just like the family-style portrait of Queen Elizabeth hanging crooked on one dining room wall. (You have to be an insider to get it.) Sometimes with the clocks I deliberately hang around for the 12 o’clock show, noon or midnight.

I peek into the dining room and take it in: yellow balloons the color of pee; matching ribbon curls

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raining from every light fixture in a crazy, British show. Presents, big and little, are on the table and wrapped in gold glitter-tissue, all tied up with huge and sloppy-floppy Lily bows.

Car tires crunch up the long, gravel driveway and a driver sounds a horn; I know the horn and the engine and the Fator recipient of Lily’s particular, “Hel-lo!”

I flick the stove burner to “off” – the soup’s ready – and I place my homemade croutons around the inside rim of the salad bowl, positioning the clean, wooden serving spoons. I finger my t-shirt with the pepper pouch underneath and wrinkle it some more.

Peppers want out.

Lily and Fator approach the screen door, and their voices grow louder as they small-talk, Lily in BritishEnglish and Fator in her New York version. Then they’re close enough that I see the champagne bottle in Fator’s hand and the big, brown, grease-stained bag holding the main course: the traditional Cornish pasties from Kathleen’s Irish Café in Bangor, Lily’s favorite dive, which then became Fator’s and mine, to make Lily happy.

Fator is wearing a short skirt, which should be OK at her age but isn’t – and I’ll tell her that later –because unlike Lily’s legs, Fator’s are bulk and muscle, as in Bulgarian-style bulk and muscle, as in women who really want to be men.

The 4th chair at the table remains empty until – what a surprise – Agnes the mail lady pops up at the door.

“I parked my truck in the driveway,” she says, blinking and twitching. “I hope that’s OK.”

Lily says it is. Fator pours champagne.

“When I smelled the soup, I saved you for the end of my route.” More blinking and twitching – she’s a weasel!

At the table with all four of us properly seated, Lily raises her champagne glass. “To Berta and Adoption day, the best day of my life.” The words come out with flab-quivering and eye-watering.

Am I moved? Maybe.

Lily, Fator and Agnes lift their flutes and drink while I bump my hand up my shirt for one last fat squeeze. Then I drink; Fator (with Lily watching) put enough champagne in my glass for one good swallow - as if they can turn my clock back to virginity.

“I’ll do it,” I say when Lily’s about to rise to do the soup, and in the kitchen, I ladle the pub cheese into the appointed Royal Doulton bowls, delivering them to the table, one by one. We eat.

Agnes, who pretended not to notice my scruffiness after she walked into the house, smiles at me, blinking and twitching again; it’s all to reassure herself that she can handle me, that she is handling me and that maybe I’m not as ‘mental’ as the word on the street.

Or am I? I smile and stare at the side of her head through the entire bowl of soup.

“Did you hear the story about the Greens, the family at my church?” she blurts, edgy from my staring. She looks at anyone and everything other than me. “They adopted a child from an orphanage in Russia, and he was such a brute that by the time he turned three, Mr. and Mrs. had had enough.

“So they drove the boy to LaGuardia – you know how far away that is – and they dropped him off at the international terminal with an unsigned note and money for a plane ticket.”

Agnes stupidly rambles on.

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“And in no time at all – I can’t imagine how they did it – the police figured it all out and – boom – the Greens are in court and all over the news.”

“I’ve seen it,” Fator sighs.

“Goes to show you what a serious business children are,” Lily says. “Adoption, I mean.”

“Kids can kill you, adopted or not,” Agnes argues, so that I can understand the other point of view.

“Agencies don’t always do their job. Explaining the…challenges,” Fator sympathizes while reading my murderous mind.

I up and swipe the empty soup bowls from the table and clunk them into the kitchen sink. One crock split at the bottom. Lily says yes, Agnes can take some pub cheese home for lunch tomorrow – she has a carry-bowl Agnes can borrow. (She thinks Agnes’ question is a compliment rather than a cheap way to grocery shop.)

“Thank you, Sweetheart!” Lily sings from the dining room as if I did the table clearing to please her.

Maybe I did. But maybe I didn’t.

It’s Salad Time.

My plan was to prepare one, giant Royal Doulton bowl and carry it out, complete, but plans change. Love me. Love me not.

I dig into a cupboard for our everyday cereal bowls, each one its own roadmap of fine, internal cracks. I place four on the countertop.

Next, I hand deliver to the party table the extra serving utensils and place them center perfect. Arrange them, the way a Good Girl might.

Back in the kitchen, the four bowls are moved to the chopping block and there, standing out of sight, I retrieve my long, black gloves from hiding and pull them on, finger by soft and lovely, tingling finger. I remove the pouch from underneath my shirt like removing a skin. Peeling it away. I’m lighter…

With gloves off and gone, I drop Agnes’ salad in front of her, “Oh!” she yips, her dull eyes come to life. “The colors! Oh, my…Remember those beautiful boxes of seventy-two crayons we’d get for Christmas when we were kids? Fresh, new Crayolas in a long, gold tray? That’s what this looks like – when you first open the box.”

“Thank you!” Lily says when I don’t.

Agnes stares a while longer, practically drooling before picking up her salad fork and stabbing a hefty portion. She carries it like a haystack into her mouth.

Lily tra-la-la’s around her own salad.

Fator goes last. She doesn’t bite until twenty seconds after Lily’s first nip, and she doesn’t bite much. The whole time she’s watching me with her mouth open. (Fator is not like Jesus.)

“Bits of spice!” Agnes giggles. “Ooooo. That one got me…oh. Ouch! A good one!” Some snorts and fanning with her napkin. More giggles. “It’s hot. Isn’t it hot?” she hollers to the table.

Lily is eating, and when she’s hungry, she eats like she talks.

“Mine isn’t…hot,” Fator says as she chews, with some suspicion.

Agnes’ face blooms red blotches. Sweat beads shoot out the pores above her lip. They wet her mustache, dyeing it black. Agnes’ chair scrapes backward and she pops up. Her eyes roll and “Another one!” she moans as her hands fly to her mouth.

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The mail lady smiles as her lips swell. “It’s so…” she says, giggling again. Sweat collects at her gray and black, crooked hairline.

Lily continues to happily munch, leaving the odd little scene to Fator. Her thin trust in me is growing branches.

But the salad’s for today only – if she doesn’t get it, I’ll find a way to remind her.

Same for Fator, though she acts like she hasn’t received my message.

Because today it’s only Agnes bumbling to the sink and on cue, I – so very surprised – find the proper antidotes in the refrigerator: the cold Greek yogurt, the coconut milk. “Which one?” I ask sweetly while at her side at the sink. In charge.

But Fator is behind me. “She’s compelled,” she throws at Agnes, apologizing for me, but Agnes is having an experience. She’s inside the peppers and champagne and yellow party streamers, laughing, burbling, snorting, her whole face underneath the water.

Fator grabs the can of coconut milk from my hand and waves it close up, where maybe Agnes can see it. And in spite of Agnes’ dripping head and oh-so-sexy piglet squeals, in spite of Fator’s growling in my direction, Lily has eaten to the bottom of her untainted bowl. It’s a sign, she thinks.

“Seconds, please!” she calls to me, her assumptions too bright, her credit to herself for today’s limited crime spree unmistakable. And in very bad taste.

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“Agnes?” Fator panics. “Agnes?”

Clown in my Coffee RobinYoung

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3rd Place Nonfiction 2022 Summer Contest

“I Will Do Anything You Say” is a fractured essay about fractured family history, with juxtapositions that emphasize absences as much as presence.

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I Will Do Anything You Say

C.RArrow

2015

Seventeen’s legs are encased in sheer, thigh-high stockings. Her feet are tucked under her in child’s pose, a position I know well from the mommy-and-me yoga I do with my sons. Her body is fixed on my phone’s screen, framed by my phone’s case and cradled in my hand. She is, in short, my digital, nesting doll.

I lie in bed, curled around a pillow. My mind is foggy, half-present in the half-light of morning. How many nights have I fallen asleep inside her social media accounts? How many mornings have I opened my phone to look again? This particular photo, though, this is the one that does me in. Located a few scrolls down her page, it’s all I need to make me cry.

Beneath the photo, a caption: Happy Birthday to me, motherfuckers! 17!

Viewers offer a mix of hearts, surprise emojis, and a dozen comments.

There’s this from a man’s name: You. Are. Stunning.

From another man’s name: Mija, please put some clothes on. Allen—another man’s name, my husband’s name—calls from downstairs. I leave my phone on the nightstand but take Seventeen to the bathroom with me.

2016

Let’s call this windowless conference room on the third floor of the Humanities building the interrogation room. Even though the college’s Title IX coordinator can’t see my legs under the table, I press my knees together and cross my feet at the ankles just like my mother taught me.

1995-ish

“For when you want to make the right impression,” she said. “It’s your best defense.”

“I thought my smile was my best defense.”

She’s driving us down one of the gravel roads outside our tiny desert town (population: 500). Maybe we’re going to my great uncle’s ranch. Maybe we’re going to church. Maybe I have a school thing, a recital thing, a sport thing. Her thick, permed hair bounces on her shoulders.

“That, too, baby girl. Kill them—” She makes eye contact with me in the rearview mirror.

“With kindness,” I say.

“That’s right.”

I wish my eyes were green like hers. I wonder if I wish enough.

2022

#Metoo has brought scrutiny to the abuses perpetrated by men in positions of power and to the women who are the objects of these men’s attention. These women, in breaking silence, have given voice—and

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presence and power—to object. In fact, you might say they’ve rejected object to become subject.

Off-stage, there is someone else. Hi. I’m your secondary character to be sure. As a conscious or unconscious accomplice or (my favorite) simply delusional, I am neither object or subject. I’m forgettable but never entirely forgivable.

This is beginning to sound like a riddle. Next line: What am I?

My name was, is, once and forever, wife.

2016

There’s a slim recorder on the conference table. We–the Title IX coordinator, the college’s lawyer, the union’s lawyer, the union’s faculty representative, and myself–periodically glance in its direction. The Title IX coordinator presses a button and reports the day, time, attendees. She pauses, sips from a Dasani, poises her pen above a notepad, and starts: “Mrs. Palmer—”

“I kept my last name,” I say. “It’s M—.”

She apologies. “Mrs. M—”

“Ms. M—,” I correct. Considering she’s paid to protect against gender discrimination, I feel this is solidly a point in my favor.

She nods. “Have you read the investigative report outlining the allegations against your husband?” She leans closer to the recorder and says, “Your husband, Professor Allen Palmer.”

I press my knees together harder, harder, until they hurt, then harder. I catalog my body: back straight, head up, shoulders down, hands loosely in my lap. It’s a position I’ve used since I was seven, for church and science fairs and class senate, for job interviews, for a thesis defense, and now, as I apply for the role of a good human being.

I’ve gotten everything I’ve ever applied for. I smile.

2018

We’ve named this position feeding me to the wall. I’ve opened the door, and here we are—Orion’s arms fitted around my waist. He pulls me close as I pull him inside. There’s a lot of pulling—that’s the point here. My face to his face, pulling, his mouth to my mouth, pulling. My fingers pulling at his belt buckle. His words pulling at my lungs. Some air tips out, just a little. Then he pushes me to the wall, and because I lost a lot of weight during the divorce, he can push me up the wall, can feed me to the wall.

“Our wall is extra hungry today,” he says, hot breath collecting behind my ear. For a moment, he pulls away, and my feet return to the floor, but let me be clear—this pull is pallid, flat, your common street pull, not our pull. He is merely taking a step back for affect. “I want to do this forever,” he says. He says it sadly, and I know he is thinking about his wife. “That okay with you?”

“That’s perfect for me,” I say. Then, right there, against a hungry wall, we don’t pull, and we don’t push. Out of our loneliness, desire, and wishful thinking, Orion and I invent a new force.

2015

I undress, take a towel off the floor, and pump soap onto it. I scrub under my arms and between my

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legs, stopping to examine the revolution of hair growing in my armpits. It’s nice, I think, soft. Why haven’t I grown it before?

I wonder if Seventeen has grown out her armpit hair. Probably not. Probably she wouldn’t grow it out when she’s still enjoying the newness of shaving it off.

I make the suggestion in my head. I mean, it’s something I’ve started doing, talking to her, watching her react out of the corner of my eye. Give it a shot, I say. Fight the patriarchy.

She says, You’re not a fighter. You’re a depressed piece of shit.

I don’t like this. It’s out of character for her? Too astute?

I revise: She gives me the finger. Better.

I slip into a pair of flats and spray a cloud of dry shampoo around my head.

Downstairs, my sons are watching Curious George and eating slices of Wonder bread, waving them around like little white flags. Allen comes in from the kitchen. He’s turning a hand towel around the wet belly of a mixing bowl.

“They really should eat fruit or nuts for a snack,” I say. “Not plain bread.”

“Jesus,” he says. “Okay, wow.”

“Hug?” my five-year-old says. He’s been alternating between nibbling the piece of bread in his right hand and the piece in his left hand, so now he’s holding two floppy, white crescents. His three-year-old brother mimics this, but one of his slices is all gobbled up. His empty hand pumps open and closed as if to catch me.

“Tell Mommy to have a good appointment,” Allen says. “Say, Come back happy.”

A piece of bread brushes my cheek when I pull away. It’s cold and wet on the nibble.

“Daddy is silly,” I say. “Mommy is always happy.”

Twenty minutes later, I sit opposite a small woman with straight, black hair and delicate features. The clipboard sits giant in her lap, the pen a sausage between her fingers.

“You look better,” she says. “Are you showering?”

“I think I need to leave him.”

“That’s a thought,” she says. “Still obsessing?”

“Less, I think.”

“Your homework was to delete the social media accounts?”

“Yes. But, no.”

“How often are you reading the emails? Ballpark?”

“Only a handful.”

“So, five times a day?” she asks. “Give me a number.”

“My mother says I can’t do it to my kids.”

She makes a note on her clipboard and then tucks it next to her. She sits forward with her elbows on her knees and her hands clasped, waiting.

“I’m saving money when I go to the grocery store,” I say. “Ask for cash back, put it under the carpet in my closet. Dumb, right? A few hundred dollars can’t buy me a cheeseburger in this state.”

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Some Months Earlier

On Friday, August 22, 2015, Allen Palmer wrote: Send me your number and I’ll think about it. Here are the rules if I text you. Never ever call only text. If I tell you to stop texting do it immediately. Whenever you are in a room with me you must do exactly what I say. Exactly what i say. Once you have my number never email me again.

On Friday, August 22, 2015, [Seventeen] wrote: I will do anything you say.

2016

I nod. I’ve read it. The report, written by an outside investigator hired by the college, is fifty pages long and contains accounts from two students aged thirty-five and thirty-seven. Seventeen, funny enough, is not in the report. It’s not funny. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. In fact, no one here knows about Seventeen. If I told them, this would all be over. The faculty union would drop support of my husband; he would lose his tenure, his job, and I would—

I know Allen and Seventeen exchanged emails a year ago. They burn in my files. I see them when I close my eyes. The thing is, that is, here’s the thing: I can’t believe these new allegations. There are inconsistencies in the narratives, plot holes my mother calls them when I call to read the report to her. Plot holes, impossibilities, sexual encounters on alleged dates and times when Allen was with me.

I don’t tell the Title IX coordinator about Seventeen, but I tell her about this.

“Can you prove that he was with you?”

I guess I can’t.

“Why should we believe you?”

I don’t know.

“How did you and your husband meet?”

I was a student, not his student. He was a professor. My mother introduced us.

“You were a student?”

Not his student.

“Not his student?”

Not his student.

“He’s quite a bit older than you? What’s your birthdate?”

The questions continue. My chest aches, and I feel wild this side of my carefully positioned limbs. How I felt during labor or as a child when I locked myself in a trunk during a game of hide-and-seek.

“Not his student?”

Not his student.

“What kinds of things did he say to you when you started dating?”

A gasping in my body, a flight. I know what she’s after, what she wants me to say. I ask for water, and the union’s faculty representative—poor guy’s been fidgeting in his seat this whole time—hops to fetch some.

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“Sex addiction is an illness,” she says. “He is sick. Would you leave someone who is sick?”

I sip from an absurdly light and fragile cup, the kind that live in stacks by water coolers.

I think I can see, for just a moment, Seventeen—at the whiteboard, in her sheer stockings. I imagine her drawing dicks of various sizes. She giggles over squiggly pubic hairs.

“Is this funny?” the Title IX coordinator asks. She makes a note.

I try to parse it out, looking for context clues. I swear I’ve forgotten the meaning of the word. The union lawyer, a grandpa figure with sharp eyes, pats my hand and says, “Take a breath.”

2020

Allen is suicidal again, and I won’t let him see the kids. They talk once a week. I press my ears to their bedroom doors, but I can only hear muffled voices, which remind me of their soft kicks inside my pregnant body.

Also—although we rarely leave the house, we’re wearing masks when we do. Stores are limiting purchases of toilet paper. Shit has gotten weird.

2018

There are days I still can’t believe I left, and although it has only been a year and a half, I have trouble remembering details.

I can remember Allen driving to a hotel and spa while I packed the house and loaded the Uhaul. “This is really hard on me,” he said. “I can’t believe you’re leaving me when I need you most.”

I can remember the kids stayed with my mother, who finally came around to the idea of me “quitting” the marriage. Of course, she still reminds me that “the grass is not always greener on the other side” and that I’m “swapping one kind of hard for another.”

“True,” I say. “But I like this hard more.”

I can remember my brother arriving to drive the Uhaul. “Are you sure about this?” he said. “It’s just gonna fuck them up like it fucked us up.”

“It is,” I say. “I’m sure.”

But I have to concentrate to remember even the layout of our old house, the one I raised my babies in until just recently. Where was the linen closet? What color were the boys’ rooms?

What’s more, there’s Orion. Another unbelievable. Late night correspondence, long walks, and a month ago he helped me pick out a Christmas tree. After tying it to my car, he squeezed my hand and said he’d follow me home to lug it in. On the way, he called so we could sing Christmas carols together. “Because that’s what you do,” he said, “when you’re falling.”

But, it doesn’t matter where we go—the wall, the bed, the floor, the table—we’re being watched. Sometimes our ghosts are close, their faces inches from our faces. I don’t tell Orion; I don’t want to scare him away. Sometimes they take seats in the living room. Orion’s wife is fond of the red chair by the fireplace. My ex prefers to stretch out on the leather couch, the one he slept on the year prior to our separation. Seventeen chooses whichever corner provides the best light for appearing both sexy and judgy. Our haunts don’t talk to each other, but they share looks that say, “Can you believe these two?”

Today, though, is a good day. They’re watching us from outside. Seventeen is glaring by the rhododendrons. Allen steals glances at her. Orion’s wife presses both her hands to the pane.

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Today, Orion comes in and immediately pushes me against the wall. He says, “I want to do this forever. That okay with you?”

Today, I say, “That’s perfect for me.” God help me, I mean it.

2016

I do as I’m told. I take a breath. I take two.

My two boys. Of all the inconsistencies and impossibilities, these are the two that I wish I could explain. I want to say, The allegations against Allen can’t be true because it’s inconsistent with what they were promised. It’s impossible after what we’ve been through. They deserve more, better.

I want to describe how the day Allen was sent home on administrative leave, he stood at the kitchen sink window to watch our boys play outside. He said, “I can’t believe I ever risked all this. Why would I do it again? I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t do it again. You have to believe me. Say you believe me.”

But I can’t say this to the Title IX coordinator and her recorder. Can’t exactly say these allegations are false because, duh, my husband learned his lesson after sexting with an underage girl.

I can’t say, as further evidence, that I’ve never done anything wrong my whole life. I am a good person. I was spanked once as a child for something my brother did, and my mother later apologized. I am a good person. I am a good girl. I am the good girl.

Besides, I think, these women are thirty-five and thirty-seven—younger than him, but still much older than me. Wouldn’t they just say no? Wouldn’t I just say no?

Some months later, 2017

It’s my best friend who tells the college about Seventeen. My friend works in the same department as Allen, and I don’t know if she approached HR or if they approached her. She knew from the beginning of course. I was at her house when I saw the emails.

The plan, see, was to take a couple days to work on my novel. In the few years since graduate school, I’d written a smattering of stories, none very good, and about a dozen novel chapters. I’d also birthed two bundles of sticky, sweet, complicated joy. I felt I was coming out of the fog that settles over parents of very young children and that my writing was better for it, my aim more true. I would finish the novel in a year. I would take six months to revise. I would call my old professors to ask if they could be my people in it’s-notwhat-you-know-but-who-you-know. The best part? They would be proud of me.

I now pay a woman to ask me if I have showered lately.

At my best friend’s house, I was scrolling through e-books on my tablet when the device pinged. A tiny envelope icon in the top, right corner. Ping, ping, ping, ping, ping.

On Friday, August 22, 2015, Allen Palmer wrote: It’s funny because tonight only my boys are both asleep and my wife is out of town. I’m worried you’d abuse my phone number. There would have to be rules.

On Friday, August 22, 2015, [Seventeen] wrote: Yes sir I promise I will follow all of your rules I swear to god.

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It’s my friend who tells HR, and I don’t blame her.

She’s been avoiding my calls, and when I finally reach her, she is cold. It’s shocking but not surprising, like the floorboards on the first chilly morning in October. She seems to have forgotten that, like my therapist, mother, and brother, she advised staying, sticking it out, forgiveness. “Who even knows their students’ ages?” she said.

Now she says she wants nothing to do with me until I leave him.

As we’re hanging up, I cry so hard that I can only hope she understands me when I say I love her. Maybe part of me knows there’s really only one choice? Leave him and never talk to her again? The next morning I send the emails to the union lawyer.

2020

I’ve met Someone. I can’t tell if his lack of ambition is exactly what I need or if it will eventually piss me off. He makes me giggle into the night, but I often wish he were more creative. Orion was creative. Someone is nothing like Orion who was nothing like Allen. Someone, also, is nothing like Allen. Someone is Someone. He isn’t sad. He knows who he is and what he wants. He just doesn’t create.

The sex is good, all the positions. He appears loyal to his family and friends. Apparently, he is never depressed. I think I already said that. I think the kids will like him. He has the diet of an eight-year-old and does not appreciate poetry. In fact, he downright dislikes poetry. And even though we just started dating, I decide here and now that I will never marry a man who downright dislikes poetry.

I stand in front of his refrigerator, and at the bottom of his grocery list, I brainstorm gateway poets. Seventeen leans over the sink, shaving her armpits. Allen is outside the kitchen window—always outside now, which could be progress? Orion rests against a wall, not a hungry one, helping me.

fruity pebbles mac cheese lays Collins Hoagland Oliver Diaz

1995ish

She says my eyes are beautiful.

“Sure,” I say. “Like dirt.”

She tells me she loves nothing more than putting her hands in dirt. All the beautiful things in this world grow out of dirt. Dirt, she says, is what our house sits on and what our feet walk on. She looks out the window—sky and desert brush in all directions—and says it’s what cradles us in the end. I ask what she means, but she says, “Nevermind.” I wonder if she read it in a book. She’s the high school English teacher and the smartest person in our town, and I think I’ll grow up to be like her and marry a man like my dad, who is the best dad in the whole world, but we’ll have house on green grass, not dirt, with flowers in front

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but not the yellow ones.

2017-2022

You might be wondering what happens to the sick man. The union drops their support, but he’s still not fired. Seventeen is contacted by the school, but she doesn’t want to press charges. The school pays him hundreds of thousands to walk away. He spends that in a couple of years and struggles to find work. He eventually admits that Thirty-seven’s allegations were true. He wonders if Thirty-five was her friend and invented a story out of solidarity. When he calls to say he’s going to kill himself, he admits to a dozen other affairs, some with women I knew. He does not kill himself. He lives with his mother, who is terrible to him. His children love him fiercely.

2016

As I’m driving home from the interview with the Title IX coordinator, I think about the end of Flannery O’Conner’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

“She would have been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

I run the metaphor a dozen ways. I wonder if for years I was holding the gun to his head, and then, what. I freaking dropped it? Oops, butterfingers. Or, was he holding the gun to mine? Or maybe the problem was that we never had any guns, not really. Just two dipshits standing in the woods.

I grip the steering wheel and wonder if I am the grandmother and my childhood is the gun.

I think marriage might be the gun or a Mexican standoff, each of us holding a gun to the other’s temple. I think, Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. I think we are Allen and Candice. I think we are the guns, no bodies, just two pistols, no names, just man and wife.

2021

Someone loses a friendly bet and has to read a book of poetry of my choice. The kids laugh as he groans, “A bet’s a bet.”

I sit on the couch between stacks of thin, colorful spines, but I can’t decide. Instead, when we’re allowed to return to work, I stand at the copier and make a mixed tape. Seventeen presses the button. Despite the mandate, she doesn’t wear a mask.

Can’t find a sheer one to match your stockings, hmm?

Her body is still in focus, but her face is fuzzy now. Probably because it’s been a couple years since I’ve slinked through her social media accounts. Oh well. I don’t need to see her features to know her expression.

Someone comes to me when he’s done reading and says he likes this one, and this one, too. He says, “It’s kind of remarkable, isn’t it? What people can do with words?”

August 2015

To my credit, when I find out, I spiral hard.

I consider Facebook messaging Seventeen to say I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. But, among the photos

70 | Issue 46

of her in lingerie are photos of her holding knives and posts glorifying school shooters. I decide, instead, to do nothing, which is to stay, I decide to live with her. I grow fonder of her with each passing week. It’s a modern-day love story. I tell her often, Any way you slice it, it’s not your fault. And I appreciate the many ways she tells me to fuck off.

2022

Someone asks me to marry him, not against a wall but against a sunset on my father’s lawn. He writes me a poem. But I don’t know, you know? I don’t know how to tell him what I’ve been deciding behind his back—that marriage is an institution, not a poem, that institutions are stages and stages are deserts, that people are numbers and numbers are ghosts and ghosts are viral. That even what’s viral can be denied, or maybe it’s that denial is the most powerful virus of all. I’m still working that one out. That I’m a gun-not a-gun, and that we get one to fuck up and to be fucked up by. That’s not funny or it is, maybe, yesterday or tomorrow. I don’t know how to tell him that even though some of my ghosts sleep outside now, I still think about my hands, and I think about my hands.

2007

In a twist, a tipsy dervish twirl of fate, I have grown allergic to the cat I gifted Allen two years ago. Lolita, we named him before we knew he was a him. Lo is what stuck.

It’s the middle of the night, and I’m sucking in air at the bedroom window. Allen lies in bed with Lo sucking on the pasty crook of his arm—a habit we’ve recently learned means he was taken too young.

“We’re going to have to rehome him, aren’t we?” Allen says, covering Lo’s ears as if to shield him from the conversation.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s okay,” he says. “I’ll still marry you.”

“You want to marry me?”

“Duh,” he says. “But you get to break it to the cat.”

Blue Mesa Review | 71

Contest Judges

James Crews is the editor of the best-selling anthology, How to Love the World, which has been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition, as well as in The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post. He is the author of four prize-winning collections of poetry: The Book of What Stays, Telling My Father, Bluebird, and Every Waking Moment, and his poems have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Ploughshares, The New Republic, and Prairie Schooner. Crews teaches in the Poetry of Resilience seminars, which he co-founded with Danusha Laméris, and lives with his husband in Shaftsbury, Vermont. To sign up for weekly poems and prompts, visit: www.jamescrews.net.

Ben Loory is an American short story writer. His first book, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, was a selection of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program and was named one of the 10 Best Fiction Books of the Year by Hudson Booksellers. His second book, Tales of Falling and Flying, was named a Favorite Book of the Year by the staff of The Paris Review, and one of the 50 Best Fantasy Books of All Time by Esquire Magazine. Loory’s fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, BOMB Magazine, Fairy Tale Review, and A Public Space, been translated into many languages, including Arabic, Farsi, Chinese, and Indonesian, and been heard on This American Life and Selected Shorts. Loory lives and teaches short story writing in Los Angeles. He is also the author of a picture book for children, The Baseball Player and the Walrus.

Debra Monroe is the author of four books of fiction, two memoirs (On the Outskirts of Normal and My Unsentimental Education) and the essay collection It Takes a Worried Woman. Her essays have appeared in The American Scholar, Guernica, Longreads, The New York Times, The Southern Review, Solstice, Rumpus, and they have cited as Notable in Best American Essays many times. She teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University.

Authors

C.R. Arrow’s work has appeared in Colorado Review, The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked: The Anthology of Disability Fiction, A capella Zoo, Cleaver, Eunoia Review, Prometheus Dreaming, and elsewhere.

Elizabeth Berlin is a writer, Reading Specialist-teacher, and children’s advocate working in Tucson, Arizona; she has deep family-roots in southeastern Michigan. Her fiction and nonfiction work has been featured in “Calyx,” “Room” (Canada), and “Storyteller” through the Society of Southwestern Authors. Her nonfiction piece, “Storage,” will appear in “Hunger Mountain Review” early this spring.

Anita Cantillo is the pen name of Shawn Bowers, and there’s a funny story behind it, but we don’t have that kind of time. Anita/Shawn was born in Costa Rica and currently resides in Charlotte, NC where she teaches in the English Department at Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Juke Joint, Pilgrimage, and Azahares, among other journals.

Authors

Laura Foley’s most recent poetry collection is: Everything We Need: Poems from El Camino (2022). Why I Never Finished My Dissertation received a starred Kirkus Review, was among their top poetry books of 2019, and won an Eric Hoffer Award. Her collection It’s This is forthcoming from Fernwood Press. Her poems have won numerous awards, and national recognition—read frequently on The Writers Almanac; appearing in American Life in Poetry. Laura lives with her wife, Clara Gimenez, among the hills and streams of Vermont.

Dennise Gackstetter is a visual artist, writer, and educator whose current day job is Principal Lecturer in the Department of Art & Design at Utah State University. Her artwork has been exhibited in many venues regionally and nationally. Her writing has been published nationally and regionally including Studio Potter magazine and A Celebration of Cache Valley Voices. She has taught in public schools, colleges, and universities regionally, nationally, and internationally including Japan, Cuba, and Czech Republic. Always interested in narrative, she seeks the stories hidden beneath the surface and in the folds of everyday life.

Rachael Greene is a nonfiction writer from Southern Appalachia. She received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work can be found in the Southern Review of Books, Another Chicago Magazine, The Masters Review, and Mulberry Literary. She is currently working on her first book about growing up in rural North Georgia. Find her on Instagram @greenepen.

Authors

Andrew Joseph Kane’s fiction has appeared in Arts & Letters, Chicago Review, CutBank, Eckleburg, Failbetter, Greensboro Review, Grist, Juked, and Vassar Review. He has an MFA from Warren Wilson.

Eric Rasmussen serves as Sundog Lit’s fiction editor, as well as editor of the regional literary journal Barstow & Grand. A lifelong western Wisconsin resident, he has placed short fiction in North American Review (2022 Kurt Vonnegut Prize runner-up), Fugue, The MacGuffin, and Pithead Chapel, among others. He is currently seeking representation for his first novel.

Amy Scheiner has had work appear in Longreads and The Southampton Review, the latter of which was was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature, was a contributor to the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. Amy is currently seeking representation for her memoir.

Artists

PasqualeArmenante

Pasquale Armenante was born in Salerno, Italy, in 1995. He took part in several exhibitions in Rome, Naples, Florence, Bergamo, London. His first solo exhibition took place in 2016. That is when he showcased his first series from which he will then escape from, freeing himself from minimization in his main series InTheRoom. He graduated in painting from the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence, with a dissertation on Glitch Art. After the outbreak of Covid-19 Pasquale worked on human memory by mixing his and others’, creating a workart displayed in FRAC Museum. He is currently studying Multimedia Arts in the Academy of Fine Arts of Rome. He chose a number as name: “16116”, what a better way to reflect the predominance that possession holds on human essence?

LinoAzevedo

Lino Azevedo was born to Portuguese immigrants near the city of San Francisco, California. Like most small children, Lino enjoyed creating from the soul with simple tools like pencil and crayon. Being a painter herself, his mother saw the potential and let him try his hand with her oils and brushes. These formative years set him up for a life-long career in the arts. Lino obtained a bachelor’s degree from San Jose State University and his master’s degree from Winthrop University. He has taught art at the university level for the past 9 years and currently is a Foundations Professor at Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. He is an award-winning artist whose work has been exhibited internationally and published in multiple journals and magazines.

KaloniBorni

Kaloni believes her pieces of art displayed a good range of colors and vibrancy. There is no recipe for how she makes them but believes that’s what makes it a great collective. It could be described as one creative melting pot. Most of her artworks were inspired by various things that include emotional intimacy, explorative identity, mental health, and euphoric nostalgia. When creating the pieces feedback and viewer’s interpretation of what it means to them is what she hopes to invoke

FrancescaBusalla

Francesca Busalla is an Italian multidisciplinary artist. She grew up in Sardinia in a family of artists. These early influences motivated her to pursue her career initially as hair stylist and graphic designer and subsequently in fine art.

MonikaGalland

Monika Galland was born in Switzerland, Basel in 1949. Education by an academic artist 4 years: painting, drawing with several materials. She has participated in exhibitions, and her artwork has been purchashed by government institutions. Long-standing member of an art association. Doing collages is her favourite art. She has done illustration of 3 children books in collage technique. The 3rd one is almost ready for printing

Artists

My collection is about home allowing rest from the performance caused by perception. Burrowed in blankets, the immediate public who judges my body dissipate, and I forget of the microscope I am under. My field of view widens from the intricate measurements of eye symmetry and gum lines, to grandiose operas of color, laughter, and chisme. My body begins to increase in sizes greater than allowed, and I watch as items take part. A throne of comfort, worn socks, red jacket, crunched quilts. Under one roof, we reflect each other by using one bed, one towel, and one bowl. Our likeness is celebrated with lights, fabrics, and colors. A fire soon to be smothered beyond the front door.

EdwardLee

Edward Lee is an artist and writer from Ireland. His paintings and photography have been exhibited widely, while his poetry, short stories, non-fiction have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen and Smiths Knoll. He is currently working on two photography collections: ‘Lying Down With The Dead’ and ‘There Is A Beauty In Broken Things’. He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Orson Carroll, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy. His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com

JimStill-Pepper

Jim Still-Pepper is from Ohio. He is a counselor working with troubled, at-risk youth. He leads workshops throughout the United States. He is honored to have work appear in Driftwood Press, Mud Season Review, The Sunlight Press, Typehouse, Unstamatic, Forbes and US News and World Reports.

AlanaSolin

Alana Solin is a writer from New Jersey. She is currently the Poetry Editor of the online literary magazine Nat. Brut. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Second Factory, Tyger Quarterly, jubilat, and elsewhere.

RobinYoung

Borrego Springs, California artist Robin Young’s keen eye guide her viewers into her own semi-readymade world. Creating micro card size art to large life-sized pieces, 3D sculptures, outdoor murals and art installations. Robin’s interests are in the weird, macabre, different, unusual, strange, bizarre, out of this world kind of stuff from the television shows she grew up on, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Night Gallery, etc. Her collage piece here is made from recycled vintage magazine clippings assembled on card stock.

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