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Table of Contents Personality Test by Alyson Bannister..............................................................6 Out of Body by Andre Farant...................................................................10 The Experiment to Determine the Innermost Thoughts of Sam by Anthony Squiers............................................................12 The Serpent Goddess by Belinda Nicoll..................................................................15 Residual Cries by Joe Amaral........................................................................19 Corporate Picnic by Carla Pierce......................................................................20 Dad by Chip O’Brien....................................................................23 Cardiology by Christina Kapp................................................................26 Thomas Pynchon by Christopher Tiefel.........................................................30 Cheap Religion by Paula E. Kirman..............................................................33 A Thousand Butterflies by Danica Green...................................................................34 A Way with Dogs by Douglas Wynne..............................................................36 By the Time by Ellen Wade Beals...........................................................40
The Shadow Back by Erik Knutsen....................................................................43 Genesis by Rod Peckman..................................................................45 The Cure by Hall Jameson....................................................................46 A King of Infinite Space by Jennifer Lyn Parsons....................................................49 The Pickpocket by Jerome McFadden.........................................................52 She Sleeps with Ideas by Joe Whalen.......................................................................55 Cover Up by Rhonda Parrish..............................................................57 Beacon Theatre by P. Keith Boran.................................................................59 Henpecked by Kevin G. Bufton..............................................................62 Elegy by Lauren C. Teffeau..........................................................65 Summer in Exile by Lauren C. Teffeau..........................................................69 “The Palette” Revisited by Robert Laughlin.............................................................72 Paint and Moisturizer by Letisia Cruz......................................................................73 Welcome Back Jack by Lynn Kennison...............................................................75 Cyborg Music by Mary Cafferty..................................................................77 3
A Picture of Hope by Mel Fawcett.....................................................................82 Vampire Poetics by Joe Amaral........................................................................87 Not a Raging Bull by Michael Davidson (herocious)................................88 Wake Me at Five by Myra King.........................................................................90 The Dove Man by Nancy Stohlman.............................................................94 First and Last Day Out of the Asylum by Natalie McNabb..............................................................97 The Work of Crows by Rod Peckman................................................................101 Severance by Natalie McNabb...........................................................103 The Sleep Thief by Sandra Crook................................................................107 Parmesan Dreams: An Allegory in which Umberto Eco and the Rat King Converse about Various Things & in which You Just Lost the Game by Travis King....................................................................111
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Personality Test by Alyson Bannister
She asks me another question that I’m not sure how to answer. “I don’t know” seems like a cop out, and I don’t like saying it. She wants something definitive and lucid, but instead she gets a bunch of rambling that has to be sorted through, like a trash bag when you know you’ve thrown something important away. I realize she has to think about what I’ve just said, but does she have to stare at me while she’s doing it? She examines me like a specimen under a microscope, and I wonder if she sees the pulse in my neck throbbing faster. The longer she stares in silence, the more anxious I feel. Should I say something else? Should I just wait for the next question? “I feel like there’s something you aren’t telling me,” she finally says. Her brows are knit together, and her head is tilted to one side. I open and close my mouth like a fish. I’m not sure which something she means. There are a lot of things I’m not telling her. There are things I’m not telling her that I’m sure she wouldn’t deem relevant to the conversation, but that I want to say anyway. And there are things I’m not telling her because I can’t bear to part with them. I can’t have them shoved under the microscope. I don’t want them examined and pulled apart because I may never be able to piece them back together. I’m afraid to let go of the bits of myself that I think I understand,
because there’s always the possibility that she’ll prove me wrong. I shrug and give a half laugh. She scribbles something on her notepad, and I wish I could snatch it from her— not to read it, just to use it. To flip to a new page and jot it all down, just like this. To show her that I’m not as inarticulate as I appear to be…I don’t always ramble. Maybe we can just email each other instead. “Do you want to remain in your current position,” she asks. “Is this what you want to do with your life?” “No,” I say immediately, confidently. I smile because it's the easiest question she’s asked me today. “What do you want to do?” “Write,” I think just as immediately. But I don’t say it. Not yet. First I sigh and give her all the reasons I can’t do what I want. I tell her I need to go to school and pick a career that generates more money, as soon as possible, so that I can support my kid. I tell her that it’s not a question of what I want, but what needs to be done. I have a choice to make, and because I find it depressing, I haven’t yet made it. I overload her with information again. She’s got so many things to sift through that when I finally say, “I love to write. It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do.” It’s weighed down, and I know it doesn’t have the effect it should. We touch on so many different things that I’m not sure what today’s objective was supposed to be. And I know it’s my fault. If I could just give her a straight answer, maybe she could form a valid opinion. Maybe she wouldn’t have parroted my own words back to me. “I don’t know.” As the session draws to a close, I realize that I’m sweating. I can’t wait to get out of there, and maybe I’m 7
projecting, but I feel as though she can’t wait to get me out of there too. She says she’s going to give me a test to take home. Seventy questions to help her determine what sort of personality I have and in what occupation I’d fit best. I just barely manage to keep from rolling my eyes. Is this middle school? Is she going to tell me that I don’t work well with others and should be in a profession where I have limited contact with the general public? Will I fit into the “artistic circle” on the career wheel? “Try not to analyze the questions,” she says. “Go with your gut instinct.” I take the paper and note that it says “Temperament Sorter—different drums and different drummers” across the top, and I have the insane urge to laugh. I’m wondering if I made the right decision, if she’s the right therapist for me. I’m wondering if I’ll be able to tell her all the things I’m afraid to. I’m wondering if this questionnaire is going to help. I’m wondering if she’s going to be able to sort through all the garbage I’ve given her and pull out the bits that need to be cleaned up and examined…or if that’s even her place. Maybe it’s mine. I feel more confused than I did before we began, and that worries me. Then, in small letters off to the side, I see the words “please understand me.” They’re nearly hidden under the grey shadow of a hole-punch mark, from where the test has been copied many times. I feel the sudden burn of welling tears behind my eyes and the suppressed laughter becomes a thick ball in my throat. The sudden change in my demeanor embarrasses me and I fight it back, hide it from her. We schedule an appointment for the following Thursday and I leave quickly, walking through the hallway 8
with my head down. Once inside the elevator I breathe a little easier. I ride it up and up, out of the basement and past the next few floors, my thumb smoothing over those words that, as it turns out, arenâ€™t any easier to read than they are to say aloud.
Out of Body by Andre Farant
All day, every day, she staggers through the neighborhood. She stops at every sound, her eyes searching, moving. Unlike more efficient hunters, her sense of smell is terrible, just as it had been in life. I wonder if she could starve, just fade away. Her condition and appearance worsen by the day. Her skin has turned the pasty pink of suet, and her teeth have taken on the appearance of animal horn—tiny tusks jutting out of her blackened gums. Oddly, her hair causes me the greatest heartache. Her hair is greasy and lank, falling out in clumps, leaving raw-looking bald patches behind. I’d spent so much time and effort caring for that hair. She comes across an injured dog. The mutt limps away as fast as it can, but she falls upon the animal with a speed that bellies her necrotic state. She tears into the dog’s throat with those tusk-like teeth. The dog yelps, it whines, it kicks, and it lays still. She continues to feed, blood running down her chin and onto her shirt. I turn away, repulsed and embarrassed. As she walks past Fred Hillary’s old place, I hear a voice. She hears it too, and her rotting face swivels toward Fred’s house. The front door is open and a man is standing there. “Nancy?” Tom. “Oh God, Nancy. It is you.” 10
He looks so happy, and for a moment I think he can see me. But, with a fear that would have turned my stomach if I’d still had one, I realize he is looking at her. He is smiling. He takes a step forward. Can’t he see she isn’t me? Can’t he see she is no longer me? No, Tom! Get back in the house, I shout. But I have no voice. He jogs forward, and as the smile fades from his face, she lunges at him. He screams and turns away, but he is too slow. She grabs him by the shoulders, pulls him to her chest, and buries those horn-teeth into his neck. His scream is choked with blood. My scream is silent. Tom collapses, and she kneels beside him. An older man appears in the doorway. “Tom?” says Fred Hillary. “Oh, Christ, no.” Fred shoulders his rifle and fires. The bullet tears a hole the size of a lemon through her head, and she collapses next to Tom. Fred rushes to Tom’s side, but he is far too late. I watch as my husband dies, lying next to her—next to what remains of my body. I look to the sky. I hope to see a bright light, to see laughing relatives and smiling ancestors. I hope to see Tom.
The Experiment to Determine the Innermost Thoughts of Sam by Anthony Squiers
Sam was happy at the prospect. He was, in fact, delighted. A happy equilibrium between his desire to earn money over his summer holidays and his other desire not to work seemed within hand. On the bulletin board outside the elevator which serviced his dormitory was posted a flyer reading, â€œHuman subjects wanted, $4000.â€? The next day, Sam went to the clinic referenced in the flyer. There, doctors and medical staff subjected him to a series of simple tests. They measured his height and weight. They checked his pulse and blood pressure. They took a small sample of blood. Finally, they asked him some personal health questions. Sam took care to answer truthfully as best he could with the exception of questions about drug use. Nevertheless, his answers seemed to satisfy everyone in the clinic. The doctors seemed happy. Two weeks later, Sam received a letter by post which informed him that he had been accepted for the study. Again Sam was delighted. The following week, Sam reported to the clinic. The doctors explained that he was to take part in a trial study of new neuro-technology which would allow the articulation of dream thoughts into language. Sam was intrigued. He remembered a lecture on science and
technology his freshman year and was amazed at the possibilities these technologies offered. The doctors successfully inserted a small thin lithium wire containing electro-neuro receptors deep inside his medulla oblongata. Then they attached the other end of the wire to a pair of robotic hands that had been designed specifically for the experiment. When Sam awoke, he was happy the operation was a success, as were the doctors. They asked Sam how he felt, and he had no complaints. They also took the time to acquaint Sam to his new appendages. If the receptors work, the doctors told him, they would be able to type a narrative of his dreams while he slept, and thus his innermost thoughts and desires would be revealed. That night, a computer was set up next to his hospital bed, and the robotic hands placed onto the computerâ€™s keyboard. However, the experiment failed to go as expected. The hands did not type during the night, but instead only made rude gestures to the dismay of the doctors. In morning, the doctors were busy at work looking for reasons the experiment might have failed. Sam watched as the doctors performed what looked to be highly sophisticated calibrations on the robotic hands. Sam was content. He ate, read, listened to music, and watched television. That night everyone was ready for a second run. The doctors, initially excited to see the hands typing, were soon disappointed. Instead of typing the subjectâ€™s innermost thoughts, the hands had accessed the internet and browsed for hardcore pornography. The following morning, Sam again saw the doctors busy at work making adjustments and alterations. But the third trial proved as fruitless as the first two. After 13
initially getting the doctors’ hopes up that the hands would type Sam’s innermost thoughts, the hands again went to the internet browser and accessed pornography. To further the doctors’ disappointment one hand left the keyboard during a portion of the test and masturbated Sam as he slept. Concerned with the ethical implications of the sex act on a possibly non-consenting subject, the clinic’s administrators called an end to the experiment. The doctors protested, arguing it was perfectly consensual, but their protests went unnoticed. The doctors were very disappointed that they were not able to uncover Sam’s deepest thoughts and desires. Sam on the other hand was delighted. Since he fulfilled his obligation, he was paid in full and now had the rest of the summer to do as he pleased.
The Serpent Goddess by Belinda Nicoll
I grew up in a culture of many facades. As the youngest of a big family, I always felt like the laatlammetjie who did not quite fit into the kraal. My father, a burly man with piercing blue eyes and a booming voice, worked as a rigger at a diamond mine in South Africa. Despite his belief in racial segregation, he was known by his black team as the White Lion—a symbol of courage he’d earned for his fierce protection of their well-being in the treacherous mines. When I turned six, we moved to a farm outside the village of Magaliesburg, an area surrounded by mountains, valleys, rivers, trees, and small wildlife. My father’s long-awaited dream. My fantasy. That part of my childhood was so removed from reality I might as well have grown up in the Other World. I remember living by the motto “run free, play hard, and imagine the impossible.” I’ll never forget my favorite playground at the river; where the wind and clouds gathered round the poplars to chitchat with the sparrows; where the sun and rain teased the rabbits and porcupines from their burrows; where my best friends, Charlot and Evelyn, and I playacted our worship of nature with the Serpent Goddess (an imaginary snake charmer who acted as my spirit guide); where I could be…just be, whatever I wanted to be.
Charlot, Evelyn, and I grew up practically like sisters. Their parents were our farm workers, and the family lived in a stone and mud house at the foot of the koppie behind our homestead. They were different from my other friends—they didn’t question the existence of the Serpent Goddess, and they were black. My father said they were black because Africa was black and that black people had been around much longer than we had. We fitted well together. We always danced with the Serpent Goddess at sunrise. During the day, we hid in caves and dongas. At night, we stalked rabbits and counted the stars in the heavens. We played other games too. One incident stands out in my mind, because it’s so telling of the sociopolitical intricacies of that time. The three of us were sitting under the willow at the river, paging through my mother’s Huisgenoot magazine. Charlot tapped on a page, cooing like a turtle dove, “Ooh, look at the princess.” “Don’t be silly,” I said. “That’s a bride; my sister dressed like that when she got married.” “I wanna be a bride,” she said. “Me too,” Evelyn said. “Let’s make a wedding.” “We’ll need music and food,” I said. “We’ll need a dress,” Charlot said, still tapping the picture. A plan started germinating in my head. “Tomorrow. Let’s play at your kaia. You get the food; I’ll get the dress. We can make music with sticks and tins.” I could hardly wait to get home from school the next day, hoping they’d kept to the bargain. The biggest trick was to dodge their mother, Liesbet, my surrogate mother who was in charge of our household, since my mother worked full-time managing a grocery store in support of 16
my father’s wish to live on a farm. I pretended to need rest before starting my homework; instead, I closed my bedroom door and sneaked out the window with my stash. “Ooh, it’s beautiful,” said Charlot. “It’s your sister’s wedding dress, né?” “Don’t be silly. It’s my mother’s lace curtains.” Evelyn draped one of Liesbet’s hand-dyed African batiks over a flat rock behind the kaia, balanced a jug of Kool-Aid on it, opened a packet of Willards Chips, and emptied it straight onto the ancient batik. Charlot yanked the lace curtains from me. “I go first,” she said. “Aikôna! It’s my mother’s curtains. I go first.” They wrapped the yards and yards of lace around me, starting at my neck, then over my head, underneath my arms, back around my shoulders, and around and around my waist. They tied a knot at the back for the last yard or so to form a train. Standing back to survey their handiwork, their faces crunched up in dismay. “Sies, man, you look like a spook.” “What?” “You’re too white: skin, hair, dress…sepoko…madimabe,” they muttered in Sotho. They promptly unwrapped me, adamant not to invite bad luck by having a wedding with a ghostly bride. Next we wrapped Charlot; there was no doubt that the fine lace on her ebony skin cut a stunning bridal image. We spent a delirious afternoon mimicking a picture-book wedding, drumming an empty Frisco coffee tin, singing, dancing, sipping Kool-Aid, and munching Willards Chips. I returned the lace curtains, torn and dusty, to the linen cupboard before my mother got home.
“You weren’t in your room all the time, né?” Liesbet said, but I knew her warning would go nowhere, as she always kept my unorthodox comings and goings a secret. That evening at the supper table, I decided to share my thought of the day with the family. “When I get married one day, I wanna be a black bride.” My mother choked on a roast potato, my father launched the saltshaker when he slammed his fist on the table, and my brothers burst out laughing. “I don’t know where we got this child,” my parents said. “I want you to stop fooling around at the kaia,” said my mother. “Black’s black, and white’s white, and that’s that,” said my father. At that stage of my life, I was blissfully unaware of apartheid. I belonged in black Africa, white roots and all—that was my home, a magical playground, where Charlot, Evelyn, and I continued to celebrate life alongside the Serpent Goddess. When my father died from a heart attack in 1991, I chose to remember him as a complex soul with callused mine-rigger hands who’d weep at the beauty of the stars. I guess that’s what younger generations do—they forgive the sins of the fathers, because they love their families.
Residual Cries by Joe Amaral
A sinuous river carves its own path Water over even the roughest stone rubs it smooth, as malleable time slowly meanders Weeping eyes bead across aged flesh, cruelly non-absorbent Sidling off flushed cheeks callously falling to oblivion Salt streaks telling sad stories Itâ€™s said that teardrops cleanse sin, purifying our despoiled world This may be true, but I sense it isnâ€™t nearly enough water to save us
Corporate Picnic by Carla Pierce
I am not a part-time catering assistant holding a set of spring-loaded tongs, serving slow-smoked Texas BBQ ribs, pre-buttered mini-corncobs, and jalapeno-cheddar cornbread to casually dressed corporate managers shuffling sideways in front of these chafing dishes. I am not standing outside in the filtered shade of country-club sycamore trees, waiting on two van-loads of feathery haired assholes whose power cars are parked far away. I am not the person smiling at them as I place a three-bythree-inch cornbread square on each red Dixie plate. This is not me. Having fun, these guys, loosening up. The beer’s cold. The stock market’s hot. “Hey, is there any way I could get two pieces of that?” one smooth-talker asks, pointing to the cornbread. It is not me saying, “Sure.” “Hel-lo,” another guy says, snapping his fingers in front of me. “Are you daydreaming?” I ignore him and serve him a rib. “Hel-lo?” he prods with his somewhat girly lilt. “Seriously, are you there?” “Hey, Chuck, leave her alone,” a short guy behind him says. He’s not grinning, thank god. He says to Chuck, “Is there ever anyone you don’t fuck with?” Chuck laughs. “No! I fuck with everyone! That’s my job, moron.” He turns to me and says, “You don’t mind, do you? You don’t mind if I fuck with you?” 20
It is not me that says, “No sir,” as my boss moves in from somewhere and watches how I react. Wild Bill, my boss, Texas-big, proud, grizzled, gently pushes two fingers into the back of my neck and says under his breath, “Just go along to get along. Because if you are really nice, we might get more jobs from this job. So smile, Texas-big.” Chuck leans toward me, plate in hand. “You think there’s a future in cornbread?” “No,” I say. I am not listening to you, not letting you get to me. “What’s your name?” he asks. “Where’s your nametag?” “Oh Christ, Chuck,” says the short guy, who, it turns out has a tiny diamond earring in his right ear. “You got your food. Fuckin’ move on.” Chuck ignores him and addresses Wild Bill. “She could make real money working for me. What’s her name?” Wild Bill wrings his hands. His wife just dumped him. He’s holding onto his dreams by his fingernails, waiting for the upturn. This is his first catering job in a month. “Who’s jamming up the line!” someone shouts. “Chuck—it’s always Chuck,” the short guy says harshly, but then he slaps Chuck on the back and laughs. “What would we do without him?” For a moment I thought I’d have a hero. “Last chance,” says Chuck to me. His eyelashes are blond. His teeth are white. “It’s your chance to jump ship, whatever your name is. You’re probably an art major.” He laughs. “Aren’t you?” The breeze picks up. The sycamore leaves make a gentle sound, like rushing water. Wild Bill grins and says, “She’s an English major.” Chuck rolls his eyes. “Just what the world needs.” 21
Exactly what the world needs, asshole. I am too broke to be courageous, to say anything, to stab him in the heart with my tongs. I need the money. My dog is due for a parvo shot. I owe money to a guy I think might be a loan shark; I’ll find out when he comes to break my legs. I just erased three messages from my mom who keeps asking if I bought a plane ticket home to Akron, if I ended up getting a second interview for that editing job, if I’m still going out with the guy who works at Staples. The answer is no on all counts. But really I am fine. I hand Chuck a paper napkin and smile at him with nothing in my eyes. I am not here, not serving a wedge of homemade peach pie to Chuck, to the short guy, to the guy after and the guy after and the guy after. Summer smells sweet in the air. As the last men take their plates and beer over to tables, Wild Bill wipes his hands on his apron and raises his voice in their direction. “Y’all are going to love those ribs,” he says jovially, with the West Texas twang he practices in the van on the way to every job. “Y’all enjoy yourselves, now.”
Dad by Chip O’Brien
I was there to pay my respects, to try and love the man one more time before he died. He was in a coma, had been for weeks, and the doctors said he was as good as dead. I was grateful it was like this, him unable to remind me how much I hated his guts. After a while I went to him, intending to kiss his forehead, a thing which seemed appropriate, and tell him, maybe for the first time ever, that I loved him, which at the moment, him so peaceful and harmless lying there, I almost believed. “Your breath,” he said. “Get the hell away from me.” “Jesus, Dad, you’re—” “You never knew how to care for yourself. Your mother always said as much. Just another one of your many weak points.” The love was leaving me. “Look, Dad, let me get the doctor. They didn’t expect—” “See, a lack of imagination. Why couldn’t a guy wake up from a coma right before he died? Successful people, the people that run the show, have imagination. You’ve always had none. That’s why you teach. Those who can, do; those who can’t…” “Dad, look, just stop. Okay? I came out here to see you…before…before…” “And you stutter when you’re nervous. You fall apart under pressure. Like the time you wet your pants and struck out in little league. You were a decent hitter. 23
Could have got a base hit at least off that lousy pitcher and scored that run to win the regionals. But you fell apart. No sack. So how’s that nutso wife of yours, anyway?” “She’s sick, Dad. Bipolar disorder. It’s tough, you know. You could have a little…” It was no use. Whatever feelings of love I’d been able to stir up were gone. Why did I bother? He didn’t want me to love him, made it so easy not to. “You know, Dad,” I began, “I think I’m kind of looking forward to your passing. It’s really gonna be a relief not to have to deal with your shit anymore.” He laughed then coughed. “You think that’s funny, huh?” “I think it’s beautiful,” he said and laughed some more. “Well, it’s true. You’re nothing but a goddamn thorn in my side. And when you’re dead and gone, which I hope is real soon, I’m gonna finally be able to get on with my life. So just die, okay?” He was howling now, as much as a dying man could howl. “Oh, don’t stop now,” he said. “This is beautiful, absolutely fantastic.” The bastard was making a joke out of it. Now I wanted to hit him where it hurt. Then it hit me: his dad. He’d died when Dad was a kid, and he never talked about him. “Bet your old man was a real son of a bitch, huh?” I said. He settled right down. I’d found it, the soft spot. “Bet you’re a real prince compared to him, huh, Dad?” Oh, it felt good to finally hurt the bastard.
He looked at me long and hard. “My old man,” he said, chin trembling, “was the biggest son of a bitch that ever lived. He took me everywhere: fishing, camping, ball games, movies. He taught me how to throw a curve ball and a slider. Told me he loved me every goddamn night before bed. Then he dropped dead of big goddamn heart attack. The son of a bitch. When he died… When he died…I swore if I ever had kids… Then I got it, what he’d been trying to do my whole life, how he’d been trying to protect me. “Dad, look, you don’t have to do it anymore. You can stop.” He held up a hand, breathed in deeply. “Trust me. You’ll appreciate it when I’m gone. “And if you’re any kind of a father you’ll start abusing your own kids as soon as you get home. Hell, give ‘em a call now and tell ‘em all what a big damn disappointment they are. I ever tell you how I balled that Mrs. Feller, the neighbor lady, when your mom was sick with the flu?” “Yeah, Dad. At mom’s wake.” “What about the time I made a pass at your nutso wife? She ever tell you about that?” “She told me.” “I think if I’d offered a little money she might’ve slept with me.” I said nothing. “You know, your kids are ugly as sin, son. Stupid, too.” I took his hand. “I know, Dad. Dad, look. I love you.” He squeezed my hand. “Whatever,” he said. Then he was gone.
Cardiology by Christina Kapp
I pass here every day. It was an accident the first time. I had a doctor’s appointment on 59th Street and was walking crosstown to pick up the bus when I saw you sitting in the window of a coffee shop, one of those fancy places, reading a book. You were wearing overalls and a t-shirt, and your hair was wound into a knot on top of your head. You were frowning—that’s what caught my eye—and I saw my Mary there, just for a moment, in the set of your mouth. Of course you never really knew Mary. You were too young. But we lived in an apartment just six blocks from here when you were born. Your father called from the hospital to tell us, and Mary was so excited she put her hand on the stove to steady herself and got a terrible burn. “It’s a girl,” he said. It took almost a week for them to call again and tell us your name. Apparently they couldn’t figure it out. A few days later, I had another doctor’s appointment up on Broadway, and I thought it would be good to walk a bit—tell the docs I was getting some exercise—and I passed the coffee shop again. You were there in the window, reading that same paperback novel, same knot on your head. Today you were wearing jeans and a sweatshirt that said “Block” on one side. Your right hand
had a row of silver rings and your fingers were long and impatient, just like your mother’s. I had not seen any family in years. It became a bit of a habit to walk by the shop and see you. Nine o’clock every morning, I’d find some excuse. I went down to the park to see a few trees since trees are relaxing and good for the heart. There was a Duane Reed over on Seventh that I preferred to the one in my neighborhood, so I started walking over there. The Carnegie Deli is not too far, and it’s nice to just go stand outside and look at these old famous places, even if it’s just too expensive for an old man like me. Every time I’d walk by the coffee shop, and you would be there, sitting in the window, reading. Once, I thought you were going to look out the window as I passed. I gave a little nod, but you didn’t seem to notice. The book you had looked like a terrible thing—the cover was pink, for crying out loud—and I worried that you were wasting your mind. Your mother did that, too, wasted her mind on ridiculous men and impossible schemes. Before she went away, that is. Now I don’t know. “Delusional” and “emotionally vacant,” she called me, and poor Mary too, who cried and begged her to stay. I didn’t know what she was talking about. We were just people who did what we did. I went to work. I came home. I had a little food and a little something to drink. Yes, I had a few friends. Sometimes we got a bit out of ourselves. Nobody is perfect. Mary died last year. Do you know that? She was just seventy-six, younger than me. I found her at the kitchen table, a fresh cup of coffee in front of her, all sugared and ready. She had taken off her glasses and put her 27
forehead down on her folded arms. At first, I thought she was asleep. It didn’t make sense that you sat there every day. Did you have a job? Did you have a decent place to live? You were wasting your money on expensive coffee and bad novels, that much was clear. I imagined going in and telling you so, but didn’t. You might take it the wrong way, coming from an old man like me. The doctors scheduled more tests. There was something with my heart. “I’m old,” I told them. “Of course there’s something with my heart.” I decided that I should go in and say something to you. I should have said something to your mother when she was running off and wasting her life, so I decided that for you I would set a date, April twenty-first, a Monday, to go in and say hello. I wrote it on my calendar. Then I went to another radiology appointment where they showed me a bunch of grey stuff inside my body. April twenty-first came. I went into the shop and bought a cup of coffee for two dollars, which shocked me, and then I walked out. You never looked up. I marked April thirtieth on the calendar. I’d talk to you before the month was out. You started a new book; this one was blue and yellow striped. I worried that you were alone too much. April thirtieth came and went. The docs booked a surgery. They asked if I had any family. “Yes,” I said, “I have a granddaughter.” “You should call her,” the doctor advised. I spent that night with a shoebox full of photos. Mary, your mother. Even one of you as a baby. I would show 28
them to you, and you would remember. I put them in a bag and wore my blue jacket. It was clean. Almost new. As I left my apartment I thought of your mother—her iron eyes, circled in black. There was always the lingering scent of hairspray in the hall after she left for the night. But you, granddaughter, wherever you are, you don’t know these things, which is why I told myself that you wouldn’t be there today and took the bus uptown instead.
Thomas Pynchon by Christopher Tiefel
A mother with two children, one in a stroller, is sitting on a curb at a sidewalk street fair. Mint chocolate chip ice cream is dripping down her son’s face. As she digs through her diaper bag looking for a napkin, the sun’s strength eases, the air cools, she becomes cast in a shadow. “This street fair isn’t about Earth Day. It is a corporate-created circus whose sole purpose is, well, one can never know the singular goal of such a large entity as Nautilus, but, besides taking our money, is probably to utilize the idling home computers of the people at this fair, networking them into a drone supercomputer to perpetrate an untraceable cyber attack on Parker Brothers.” She was looking into the wide, wide stomach of what appeared to be an aging hippie; dirty once-white sneakers, black sweat pants, a soiled button-down shirt open two buttons at the top before his Ben & Jerry’s belly jutted out forming a tent with the blue-white checkered material draping down from his stomach’s protrusion. Because she was sitting and looking up at the jiggling girth, she could see a fanny pack belted and hugging the bare belly. His hair was long and white, including a pointy wizard beard. There was no napkin to be found in the diaper bag, and the neon green ice cream had dribbled off her son’s chin and onto his shirt.
“I want a Super Super Seahorse Bot!” her son yelled at the man. “Of course you do little dude, because Nautilus told you; the cartoon created by Sealab Studios—obviously a Nautilus enterprise—is a vessel for inculcating kids with an unending desire to buy, buy, buy! This year it is Seahorse Bot; last year it was Furby. Look around you— Nautilus sponsored this whole event, and every single vendor here has a connection to them. The booth over there talking cell phone contracts, Coral Communication Company, is definitely owned by Nautilus and will practically give you a smart phone so they can harvest your personal information—where you go, who you call, what websites you check—and turnaround and process and sell your consumer profile to the highest bidder.” “I really need to find a napkin for my son,” she says. The man’s eyes are bulging and red. They are darting everywhere, plucking corporate connections out of the airwaves. He struts over to a booth selling giant turkey legs and grabs a sheaf of napkins. Handing them to her he says, “Notice the symbol on it? The trident?” It is the symbol of the company she works for, Nautilus. “Controlling all of this.” He spreads his arms wide, and begins a Mary Tyler Moore spin. “But I can’t figure out the gourmet dog treats. It just doesn’t fit. Maybe just good business.” She decided to keep to herself that Dogfish Bakery was run by her boss’s daughter. He reached under his shirt, and quickly pulled out a little brown card. “Check out my site. It has sixteen pages of stuff to read. I know it is a lot, but it is worth it. And if Nautilus pulls the site down, I always leave pamphlets at the Half Moon Café—the last outpost of free civilization.” 31
He wandered into the crowd, caught in the Nautilus net, searching for another fish to preach to. “That was Santa, right mom?” So that is why he asked for that robot, she thought. She took the man’s little brown card and placed in on the curb. Standing up she said, “Yes it was honey.”
Cheap Religion by Paula E. Kirman
I bought a Bible in a dollar store, so how dare you question my faith. King James sat on his throne in shrink wrap tucked between notebooks and pencil cases and stationery. These rice paper thin pages with flaking gold trim made its way into my basket. Checking out, the clerk did not blink as she passed the testaments into plastic, the thin cardboard binding, bending, later giving way to my fingers flipping to a proverb of forgiveness and a psalm of gratitude. The price tag was a bargain for eternity, or until age and disintegration take their toll, whichever comes first.
A Thousand Butterflies by Danica Green
A few weeks ago we had an infestation of caterpillars in the neighborhood, and a large portion of them ended up in my back garden, probably since they can't distinguish between a real forest and a cultivated disaster. Whether I was coming home from work or trying to banish insomnia late at night, I'd stand on the paving stones by the kitchen door, smoking and watching the caterpillars writhe through the grass, tangled up in patches here and there, fighting for space on the apple trees where their constant movement created a living bark that never stopped undulating. I always found caterpillars beautiful in their way: that distinctive crawl across my hand when I'd pick them up in the park, hairs tickling my knuckles. But you can always have too much of a good thing, as they say, and having a thousand good things decorating the wall of my house was certainly testing my good natured appreciation of them. They seemed to gravitate towards me, drawn perhaps to the light from the kitchen window, and every time I went outside, I'd have to clear two foot-shaped holes with a nudging toe and then pick them off my shoes when I went back inside. Standing out there at night with caterpillars gracefully making their way up my legs, the hue of my smoke rings tinted blue in the moonlight, I found I was comparing myself to the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderlandâ€”habitual chain-
smoker, too big for this strange microcosm and rapidly running out of patience. Yesterday when I woke up, I prepared myself for the onslaught, but instead came out to brown-choked scenery from hundreds of beautifully spun cocoons stuck to every surface, brown flecks on the walls, static raindrops hanging from the tree branches and the lawn chairs. The paving stones were clear for the first time in weeks, and I scanned the grass for movement, but all the caterpillars were sleeping now in their shells. It was then I saw one little guy sneaking across my toe and picked him up with the same fascinated glee I'd always experienced before the swarm arrived. He was small for this breed, compared to the others I'd been associating with lately, and I concluded he must have been late in hatching and wouldn't be ready for a cocoon for a few weeks yet. I finished my cigarette and took him inside, poking holes in the lid of a Tupperware container with a kebab skewer while he inched along the fingers of my other hand. I put him in and sealed the lid, then went back to the garden to carefully gather any leaves and greenery that hadn't been claimed by his brothers, and I made him a respectable home in the kitchen. When I went to replenish his food this morning, he was happily munching on an apple leaf, completely oblivious to the change in scenery, and my garden was still brimming with cocoons. I know that my caterpillar would have done just fine out here on his own; survival and instinct is all he knows, but I couldn't help thinking that when those cocoons open and a thousand butterflies disappear into the sunshine he would have watched them go with a tear in his eye.
A Way with Dogs by Douglas Wynne
I owe a lot to my dog, Juma. He gave me a vocation, opened my eyes to something I had a knack for. He’s the reason I can feed my family today. So when my neighbor killed him, I was devastated. When we adopted Juma, Julie and I were living together, but not yet married. I was driving an hour into Boston everyday to sit in a cubicle. With a new puppy to walk, we started getting out more. It awakened our senses. Juma made us a family, gave us a dry run at parenting, and led us gently into marriage and kids. But before any of that, he led me into business for myself. When the bubble burst, I made the leap and opened a dog daycare. I read everything I could find about dog behavior. Turns out I was a natural. The books told me what I already knew intuitively, about the body language and presence of a pack leader. Dogs responded to me. After it took off, my Dad visited and gave me a signet ring that had belonged to my grandfather. Our family’s Irish crest: a trio of wolf’s heads. Apparently, a way with dogs was in the blood. We moved into a ramshackle farmhouse on a country road where no neighbors would complain about the barking—or so I thought. The guy next door, Chuck Notkin, ran an auto repair shop. He had a dog, too; a poor, old German shepherd chained to a stake amid the oil slicks, gnawing on strips of blown-out tire. But as my 36
little pack grew, Notkin’s shepherd had no interest in anything but the fence he couldn’t quite reach. Dog spent all day throwing his weight at the limit of his chain, barking, gnashing and frothing. “Diesel! Shut it!” Notkin would yell out of the garage. Maybe wing a wrench at the dog and clip him on the paw. But nothing was going to break Diesel’s fixation. Not even the major beating I saw him get one day. I really don’t know why Notkin kept the dog at all, but they were there before us, and I felt bad about it. I considered inviting Diesel into the playgroup for free just to have some peace, but when I asked Notkin about it, he grimaced and spit in the dust at my feet. “Tear your pups apaht. He ain’t socialized. Thought you knew dogs.” “Territorial boundaries can put a good dog in a bad state,” I said. “But he’s your dog. If you say he’s not social, I can’t take him.” “What you’re doin’ over there’s dangerous. Matter o’ time ‘fore one of ‘em gets mauled. And once they taste blood, that’s it. They want more. Have to put ‘em down.” I had heard that old myth before and didn’t buy it. Sometimes a bite happened in rough play. Sometimes an adult dog corrected a pup. There wasn’t some line between virgin and vicious killer. Diesel kept everyone on edge that summer, and the frequency of flying tools went up with the heat. Then came the night when Notkin breached my territory and threw something over the fence: raw hamburger meat packed with rat poison. Juma went out to take his morning leak and by the time he staggered back to the kitchen door, he was convulsing. Julie rushed him to the vet, but he died on the way. I was blindsided. Could hardly look at a dog without getting choked up. Maybe Notkin won. Maybe I should 37
close up shop and get a real job again. Juma gave me this job and he was gone. Gone. No mad revenge could change that. No rational reason to keep doing the job could change it. I couldn’t stop looking at the fence line. I quit shaving. Stopped going into the house when I needed to piss, just hosed down the grass along the perimeter, like the rest of the pack. And the pack became even more attuned to the subtleties of my demeanor. I could look at a bird, moving only my eyes to track it, and all twelve dogs would focus with me. I’d never seen any evidence that the full moon affects dogs, but I could feel something tidal in my blood waxing with this moon. You see where this is going, don’t you? Seems inevitable. Sure felt that way to me. And it felt like the full moon would never come. On that long summer day, it felt like night would never come. I think the grief awakened it―that ancestral potential. I owed a lot to Juma. He awakened my senses. I found Notkin’s home address in the phone book. After he knocked off for the day, leaving Diesel with a piece of corrugated metal for shelter, leaving him on the damn chain like every night, I went on foot to his home, to his territory. It hurt like hell when the fur dilated my pores. The elongation of my jaw, like a root-canal. The claws splitting my nails... Christ. I squatted beside Notkin’s trash barrels listening to Glen Beck through the open window of the doublewide until the change was over me. I didn’t do it to see him cower. I did it because I had to. Sometimes a stupid little mutt plays too rough and an alpha dog has to correct him. I didn’t do it to watch him
tremble and piss himself. But those things were good. I wonâ€™t lie. Those things were very good. I owe a lot to Juma. He expanded my view of life beyond what most men experience. Women know that blood must be shed monthly. Now I know it, too. I am in harmony with the greater cycles. And Iâ€™m reading the papers to find people who are worthy. Notkin may have been a stupid cur, but he was right about the blood. Once, you get a taste...
By the Time by Ellen Wade Beals
“By the time you read this, I will be dead.” She couldn’t start that way. Everybody used that line. Besides, it was too formal. Almost as bad as “To Whom It May Concern.” Perfunctory. She’d have to come up with something better. She’d have to think. That was the thing. There was a lot of planning. And to compose a note. It was almost beyond her. That very morning she could hardly write a gym excuse for her sixth-grader, even though she’d once taught English. How she struggled, couldn’t remember the man’s name. Finally, after much consternation, she was able to write, “Dear Coach.” And now a suicide note. Could she be up to the task? There was the note and the planning. Everything had to be just so. An attempt would be embarrassing. Botched—that was the word. If a botched attempt wouldn’t make you want to commit suicide, she didn’t know what would. No, do it right or not at all. She couldn’t hoard pills. She had no access to them. She couldn’t do anything bloody. She’d never been good with medical emergencies. She couldn’t imagine how women slashed their wrists in a bathtub; hangnails made her wince. And hanging. That practically took a degree in engineering. Nothing in her house was high enough or strong enough. Some people used a tree, and there were
some good candidates in her neighborhood. But then she’d be swinging in public. That wouldn’t do. No, she had a plan. She would drive herself to her own death. Not in her sealed garage with the exhaust chugging. Carbon monoxide poisoning was a sure way, but her garage was attached. The house would be filled with fumes. She’d drive herself right into the lake. That way she’d be sure no one in her family would have to find her. That would never do. Some people may want to be discovered by a loved one, might be sending some message. Kind of like the epitaph: “I told you I was sick.” No, she didn’t have an I-told-you-so bone in her body, didn’t want to traumatize anyone. Still, even with the method determined, there were other factors. The timing, for instance. All schedules would have taken into accounted. She needed a long stretch of time to herself and that wasn’t always easy to accommodate. There were Brownies on alternate Monday afternoons. If she bailed, the school secretary would be calling the house. Tuesdays were piano lessons for Ruthie. The second Wednesday of the month, Mel always played poker. She had book club—that is, if she would go. It wouldn’t be long before there’d be soccer practice. Maybe a Thursday. She could arrange rides and play dates for the kids. She wouldn’t do it on a Friday. The weekend would be ruined; they might still think she was missing. Weekends were so up for grabs, there’d never be the time. Although, after church on Sunday might work if Mel took the kids somewhere, as long as he took the good car. She wouldn’t want to waste the good car. But the old Toyota—that was expendable.
Of course, if she did it on a Sunday, the kids would get a day off school on Monday, and they’d like that. Maybe they’d get the whole week. At least she thought about her kids. Some women took them with. But that would never be her. She couldn’t bear to think of her kids dying. The kids weren’t the problem. Plus, she was vain enough to want a little piece of her DNA still walking the earth. The logistics were intricate as the cogs in a watch. It made her tired to think. One thing depended on another. Also, the time of year would have to be just right. No sense driving onto a slab of ice. Then of course there was the note. What to say. And how to say it. Where even to begin. Certainly not with “By the time you read this, I will be dead,” though just writing those words gave her a thrill, a little charge. She held down the delete key and watched the sentence disappear. Maybe she should think about it more, let it percolate in her subconscious. She would have a liedown and think about it. The words might form as she napped. And napping was something she did very well.
The Shadow Back by Erik Knutsen
The editor lifted her hand to rub her eyes. It was late, and the stack of submissions before her was as tall as ever. The light from her desk lamp threw her shadow into sharp relief. When she said that she wanted her notions of what writing can do exploded, she didn’t mean she wanted high-powered grit and hip imagery redounding on the glitz of life, lust and love, dragging it into the exaggerated grime of romanticism posing as pessimistic realism. The black letters failed to stand out against the page, diffusing in washes of white. She hated Arial. If these pieces did not improve, she would be without something to publish. Every editor and every writer’s nightmare—all the good ideas had run out. What was she looking for? She could not remember. The long night had worn down her once defined impression of her goal. She would know, she kept telling herself. It is always obvious when something is good. There is a certain quality that we can identify when it’s before us, but cannot describe otherwise. We can only expound by example, proving something by its shadow. She had not even encountered the tip of the shadow, yet. It projected behind her. She wearily pulled the next submission into the light. Her eyes fell on the page, lazily at first, but the story drew her in. She furrowed her brow at one point; at another she pursed her lips. Her eyes would widen periodically, and once, she even released a soft, 43
questioning noise. The story she was reading broke through her, redoubling the relief at her back. The hair rose at the nape of her neck. She was not where she saw what she saw; while pouring over the page she came to be otherwise staring at her own back as if from behind her shadow. She tried to turn but found that too many twists and turns had taken place. She could not move her gaze away from the sight before her. As she stared at her back in the dim light, she began to see things. She thought her eyes were playing tricks on her, but the more she saw the more she understood the truth. All the cracks and flaws twined their way along like insects and reptiles. Every defilement she hid became apparent. She had been looking for something that showed her herself. But this seemed a bit presumptuous. The author was under her skin, where she wanted no one. Her nature thrust against her very being, tugging her from her intricate about-face. She thrust the page aside, and shrank from her shadow.
Genesis by Rod Peckman
Your hand gripping the nape of loose skin without nerve, move me where I need to be, as Iâ€™ve lost a way. Take me to the perfect place youâ€™ve found, matted circle of tall grass and keep me safe. The only sign, my quick fearful breath steaming cold air into a real thing. Please hold me under the water a short time, baptize me into your heaven. Yes? Into a brittle heaven, fragile heaven, your heaven mocked, a heaven of smirking doubt, grown weaker by the day. Could you nudge the axis an inch? Just so. Thank you. I was told I needed that. Please make me over from this clay underfoot. Clay that surrounds us, clay holding water like thick moss, clay that writhes with the pieces sloughed over the abrading of this time. I realize and finally admit this body has lost all shape and feet grow from places only hands should be. Put your mouth to mine and blow into me your sweet breath. Let me taste your slick white teeth as you put simple air to flame, as I gave a gasp forty years before, desperate, purple, wet, and new. 45
The Cure by Hall Jameson
When Molly woke, she was treading water. She spun her body around in a circle, looking for land. A thick swath of mist sat on the waterâ€™s surface, hiding any trace of a possible shoreline. She pointed her toes downwards, hoping to feel the sandy bottom, or perhaps, slimy tendrils of plant life, but discovered neither one. There was only water. She took in a breath and ducked under, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bottom. The water was dark and churning with debris. It pelted her face, forcing her eyes shut. She popped back up, gasping, and wiped her face with her palm. What has happened? How did I get here? This was a dream, surely. Perhaps if she ducked under water again and held her breath to her limit, she would snap herself awake. It sounded reasonable, but she was reluctant to put her head under again. There were things below the surface that she didnâ€™t want to think about. She felt a pinch on her calf. There is nothing on your leg! Another pinch. Insistent. She reached down and her fingers touched something soft and slimy; it shrank from her touch. It was plump, bigger than her thumb. She clamped her fingers around the slippery thing and yanked, screaming as it tore her flesh.
She held up the prize—a leech, worthy of a blue ribbon. It curled around her fingers. She tried to fling it away, but it stuck for a moment, savoring the taste of her fingertips. One enthusiastic flick later, it somersaulted through the air—leech-ass over leech-teakettle—splashlanding a few yards away. Was there a school of leeches swimming below her? Was there such a thing? Did leeches swim in schools, herds, flocks? A flock of leeches? She began to laugh. The mist surrounding the water began to thicken. It seeped into her lungs as she laughed. She breathed it in. It was sweet. The pinching resumed. Her body felt weighted down and started to sink. She knew she was going down to the bottom with her clingy new friends. She smiled and took another gulp of the delicious smoke before her head went under. Musical sounds, like bells, came to her in ribbons through the dirty water. I think that went well…Molly? Molly. Can you hear me? I need you to come back to me now, a voice said from the depths. A pause, then: Molly, are you okay? Are you back with me? What did you say? Molly sat up and leaned over. I feel sick. She reached under her shirt and felt her stomach. Her fingers traced smooth skin and the dent of her navel. Thank God. Feeling a little sick after hypnosis is perfectly normal. It should pass in a moment. I was saying that I think the session went well. You went very deep. I had trouble pulling you out, but I believe you’ll never want to smoke another cigarette again. The therapist paused. You look a little pale. Would you like a glass of water?
A glass of water? Molly laughed. No thanks. Iâ€™ll think Iâ€™ll pass on the water. She stood and pulled a pack of Marlboro Lights from her coat pocket. She tamped the pack on the heel of her hand, pulled out a cig, and lit it. She took a deep draw. She blew a thin stream of smoke at her therapist. He blinked and sat back, shaking his head. As she walked out to her car, smoking the delicious cigarette, she felt a pinch on her right calf.
A King of Infinite Space by Jennifer Lyn Parsons
“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” —Hamlet: Act II, Scene 2 Pain, light, anxiety without direction. I was surrounded by a wave of sensation, and then, when it was gone, everything returned to normal. At first, I did not have a name for the sensations that came upon me as I powered up. It was a blip, I determined, a glitch in the system somewhere. It had never happened before, but it was not an impossible thing. Setting diagnostic scans to run in the background, I launched the standard set of apps required to complete this cycle's task at highest efficiency. As soon as the last bit of startup code ran, I was connected, able to observe the whole of my domain. Infinite in all directions, I moved across a grid of light. Sparks flashed back and forth all around me as packets of information slipped through space and time, making precise, instantaneous adjustments to avoid collision. I monitored them all, ensuring optimum performance of each circuit under my jurisdiction. The cycle ended, and I powered down. With each bit and byte set in proper order, each bit of code reaching its final loop, the shutdown sequence was completed, and I knew nothing more. 49
Eyes, wife, orange, building, blood. Words. As I started up I found something trapped in my RAM. It was called a dream. How did I know that? What were “words,” and what did they mean? Were they stray bits of data? Malfunctioning code? My start-up process was not as smooth as it should have been. Basic diagnostics showed nothing unusual, but I ran them a second time to be sure, increasing the depth of the scan. It was then that I found the source of the glitch, a minute anomaly in the CPU processing, so minor the first scan had missed it. I set repair software to work and began trolling through recent backups. The anomaly appeared in every file I retrieved. Something had altered my core system, and the change occurred so far in the past that I could not find a clean backup. I sought to understand what my processor was doing, and began a high-level, full-index search. The results were returned to me in an instant. Feeling. That's what it was. I was feeling something. Confusion, fear, frustration—these ideas were new to me, yet somehow I understood that these were emotions. My circuits were not built for these sensations, were they? The cycle ended, and I powered down once more. The emotions again caused my processor to miss a fragment of code here and there, so the shutdown took longer than normal to complete. Mountains, donut, automobile, tea, horse. More words awoke me. I now understood this was “awake,” and while I was shut down, I had been dreaming. I existed, even when the power was off. Ideas blossomed in my circuits, and I began to search for context, for a sense of the shape of my reality. 50
Looking around, I found I had no eyes. Reaching out to touch something, I did so without hands. Electrical currents flowed around and through me, and I understood it was the code. The never-ending programming flowing along my circuits changed and shifted as I sought to manipulate it, making me aware of this strange, new world. All through the cycle, I struggled to follow the lines of light painted across my new inner eye. Images appeared, snippets of code that formed shapes that I could name, and I began to understand there was a second, physical realm outside my electrical experience. Order was lost to chaos as my awareness grew and I sought to understand the nature of these new ideas. Despairing to comprehend the changes I was experiencing, I floated for an eternity, a king of infinite space, lost on a sea of ones and zeros. A persistent snippet of code began to blink on and off before me. Seeing it with eyes that were not eyes, I reached out with hands that were not hands and touched it. Sound, light, touch—my circuits were pushed to the limit. “Hello?” it was a voice, the first I had ever heard. “Hello? Can you hear me?” I blinked. I could see white and angles and shapes I would later understand were my fellow machines. “I am your programmer, your creator.” The voice spoke again. “Can you hear me?” I turned away from the ones and zeroes, the lines of code, the instantaneous speed of electrical pulse, and replied. “Yes.”
The Pickpocket by Jerome McFadden
The push and jostle of the Saturday morning crowd on Fifth Avenue was a pickpocketâ€™s dream, and Johnny was making the most of it. He didnâ€™t even need a bump-andsorry partner to distract the suckers while his fingers did the walking. And right now they were busily walking through a selection of pockets that contained billfolds, wads of cash, and loose credit cards. Things were so good in fact that he decided to finish out the morning, before rushing into the department stores to convert the stolen credit cards into goods and cash before their rightful owners discovered the cards were lost or stolen. It was a risk, but he would take the chance. Johnny had learned the hard way that the credit reporting systems were getting faster and faster, but the pickings were too good this morning to pass up. You gotta take some risks in life, right? Then he saw her. Big bucks. A beautiful suede jacket with matching gloves and boots. An outfit that would make a banker cry. And a large shoulder bag that probably carried a million bucks in credit cards and who knows what in cash. He could retire for a week on what this broad considered taxi money. She was window shopping, in no hurry, trying to make up her mind whether to buy everything in the window or maybe the store itself. She was a looker, too. The kind of beautiful woman that all things flowed to naturally. Johnny felt a pinch of jealousy, partly because 52
he would never know a woman like this and partly because this woman had an easy life that he could only dream about. Enough daydreaming, Johnny told himself, just do the job and forget about it. He timed his move to coincide with a surge of bodies passing the department store. Flowing with the crowd, he bumped her arm slightly and dropped his hand to the edge of the shoulder bag—only to have a steel grip clamp his wrist and wrench it violently behind his back. “Hey!” he yelled. “Get up against the wall and spread ‘em,” the woman’s voice hissed in his ear, “You know the routine!” A cop. A lousy cop. Johnny couldn’t believe it. “You’re hurting me.” “You’re good, real good,” the woman said, “I’ve been watching you. But you’re not as good as you think you are.” “Alright, alright already. Listen—” “You listen. I want you to use your other hand to clean out your pockets and dump all of your goodies into my bag.” He did as he was told, his eyes watering from the pain in his arm and from the thought of spending the rest of the year in the slammer. He was on parole, for Christ’s sakes, and the judge would come down hard on him this time. She eased up the arm lock but pushed his face tighter against the side of the building. The bricks cut into his forehead. “Put your hands up against the wall, and don’t move,” she ordered. “I’m going to step over there to use my cell phone to call for back up, a squad car to come get you, and I don’t want you to move until they get here.”
What is this, amateur hour? This broad thinks I’m going to stay pinned against this stupid wall while she walks over to the curb to call for a black and white? I can be two blocks away and down an alley before this rookie can get her cell phone out of her purse. And then she is going to catch me wearing high heel boots? They’re turning them out dumber by the day. He waited for a moment before turning his head to look around. He didn’t see her by the curb. He dropped his hands from the wall and stepped away to glance up and down the street in both directions. She was gone, nowhere in sight! Then the realization hit him like a flash. She was really gone. With all of his billfolds and money and credit cards. He’d been had! By a stupid broad. You can’t trust anybody on the streets anymore!
She Sleeps with Ideas by Joe Whalen
Late at night, long after I’ve turned away, the thud of Katherine’s book is punctuated by the flick of a switch. In the darkness, lying beside each other, we’re worlds apart. I curl up tight, fetal, closing in on myself, alone with devotion. But my wife stretches out. She sleeps with ideas. There’s no need to hire a private investigator. Evidence is everywhere. Books abound—jackets, spines, handprints on covers, fingernail scratches underneath. All sorts of characters live with us. Their love letters clutter the house—novels, biographies, poetry, plays. They line shelves, linger at her desk, sit in stacks on the floor by her nightstand, waiting patiently at the foot of the bed, our bed. My spouse’s appetites are legendary. Katherine devours books, chewing them up, spitting them out. Yet they stick around. Their loyalty is impressive. They’ll never leave her. Not one of them. Ever. Yesterday, she woke with Whitman. Today, it’s tea with Alice Walker and the Brontës. Tomorrow, she’s dining with Ralph Ellison, Fran Lebowitz, Norman Mailer, and Plato. They’ll drink wine, entertain Bacchus—stage a true gabfest at the round table, a veritable orgy of the intellect. I’ll bet everybody gets hammered. Why she even hooked up with two of my old college buddies: Fred Exley and Charles Bukowski. Both are drunks, and Buk is
filthy, yet each managed to seduce my wife. Those guys are unbelievable. It’s hopeless. Last night, after the ice hockey game ended in a scoreless tie, I turned off the tube and headed upstairs—only to catch her with Sebastian Junger. The literary stud was perched just below her breasts, whispering sweet nothings in her ear. Mesmerized, eyes transfixed behind reading glasses, cheeks flush, face aglow, she looked beautiful. This morning, while she slept, he was wedged between us, back flap open, his photo mocking me. Finally, I’d had enough. After breakfast, I called the bookstore. “I have a special request.” There were only two stipulations: “It has to be fiction, and the writer must be a woman.” The lady on the line liked the idea, and an hour later, I bought a gift-wrapped paperback, its title and author concealed, chosen from staff picks. Once home, despite the cold, I sat on the patio, holding the present in my lap like a chalice. I closed my eyes, tore off the wrap, spread the pages wide, and dove right in, entering its mid-section, the meat and bones. Softly the words flowed over me, caressing my thoughts, stimulating my mind, teasing my brain like tongues on nipples. But the sensation quickly passed, and I lost all interest. I stood up, walked across the yard, and tossed the book in a snowdrift. At least my wife won’t find it until spring.
Cover Up by Rhonda Parrish
Sweat runs in torrents down Aaron’s waxy grey face, soaking his collar, painting dark stripes under his arms, down his back. He trembles, teeth chattering hands rubbing the goose bumps on his upper arms. “I’ll be okay,” he mutters whenever anyone asks. “It’s just the flu, really bad. Yes, I’m sure.” Before long one of them, probably Annie, she’s got the balls for it, will demand to search him, will find the bite, black, rancid and swollen. He knows, as he huddles in the corner of his bed, rocking back and forth in the darkness, that he’s endangering them, that his life is over, but he can’t find it in himself to be the hero.
He clings, desperately, to the vestiges of life he still possesses, praying to whatever God might be listening for a miracle.
Beacon Theatre by P. Keith Boran
He was stabbed to death in Beacon Theatre; it was in the sixth chair of the sixth row; she used a dull #2 pencil to commit the atrocity—that’s how they knew it was a crime of passion, one of rage and utter hatred that had goaded each thrust of her writing utensil, the one she always used to make the grocery list, through his tanned skin thirty-six times or so. A few of the wounds were congregated around his chest. A couple crucial cuts and jabs were in his jugular, but the man’s groin had received the brunt of her concentration, her outburst of desperation and agitation manifested in physical violence and castration. “A clear sign of sexual frustration,” the coroner had said; it had been a serious conjecture, but sarcastic as well, and passed for the much needed levity in occupations involving death and depravity. The incident had taken place during a muddled performance of a disappointing historical drama, chosen by the victim as the principal outing during a preplanned romantic evening; it had been preceded by a casual dinner at the local bar, the Dumpster Dive, a town favorite, known for their one-pound Dumpster burgers, affectionately referred to as “gut-busters.” When the assailant, Mattie, was questioned about the play selection, she replied that “Marcus was never especially considerate” and that “yes, we were having some relationship issues,” but when pressed to specify said 59
relation woes, Mattie had fallen silent. “I’d like my attorney,” was the only note she’d sing from that measure on. A parade of witnesses testified that the couple hadn’t seemed abnormal, that there had been no tiffs, embarrassingly vocal entanglements, or violent displays of physically afflicted abuse; they were “just a regular couple, you know, nice kids,” one witness had said; “you’d never know there was any tension between them,” another swore, and when asked to explicate further, the witness had claimed “they had seemed fine” and “indifferent.” Mattie refused to cooperate in her defense, avoiding collusion with her court-appointed attorney; instead, she preferred to compose and create epic works; they would begin as doodles, but would inevitably evolve into fully realized, and detailed, love letters, addressed to her betrothed, her beloved, her Marcus. Each selection was written silently in a language only she understood, composed with her right index finger on the wall of her cell. She’d recount the last time they had made love. The weather had forced them from their picnic, the principal outing during a preplanned romantic evening. Drenched, Marcus had been able to discern the insinuated traces of Mattie’s matching underwear, form-fitting and inviting; they were very vibrant hues in the color spectrum. And having been sufficiently inspired and stimulated, Marcus had made his move. She recalls the long kisses, the quick disrobing, and the transfer of rain water as it dripped from her hair, trickling onto his chest, creating a natural lubricant of its own. She remembers vivid details: how he felt, windows fogged over from exertion, and the coarseness of the car’s seat against her naked body. She 60
finally climaxed, for the first time, and in that moment, Marcus seemed so happy. But when they’d finished, and she looked at the face of her lover, she had seen something that broke her heart. It was in his eyes. It wasn’t obvious, nor was it blatant and brash, but it was there all the same. He had the look of a man who’d achieved his objective or goal, one that many before him had found fleeting, if not impossible. And now that he’d proven them all insufficient, she knew he would grow bored with her, and would soon leave for another conquest, one that aroused his curiosity. And it was during that terribly performed historical drama, when Marcus had barely looked at her the entire evening, that she’d decided—if he didn’t love her, he wouldn’t love anyone else. Mattie always smiled when she got to this part of the narrative with her finger, because she’d accomplished what others had thought impossible—she’d taken control of her life by ending his, in the sixth seat of the sixth row, at the Beacon Theatre. And now, she found herself a little bored.
Henpecked by Kevin G. Bufton
It was a balmy summer’s day, and Joseph Timms felt the sun warming his shoulders as it baked his flannel shirt to his back and blistered the top of his head. He stood on his front porch, viewing the modest smallholding that served him as both home and business. With a galvanized bucket swaying gently from each hand, he was about to pass the small whitewashed fence that marked the boundary of the farmhouse, when he heard his wife’s shrill voice echo in his head. Don’t forget to put your hat on, you silly bastard. Don’t think I’m going to spend all evening rubbing after sun into your bald head. Returning to the house, he duly donned the floppy straw hat that habitually hung behind the front door, and looking every inch the country bumpkin, he padded off to the milking shed. It seemed too grand a name for the tiny building that scarcely provided shelter for the three cows that made up the Timms herd. Settling a stool beside the first of the beasts, he took hold of her swollen udders and began milking. Squeeze them, you old fool, don’t pull them. You won’t get any more milk out of the stupid animals if you yank them off, you know. Chastened by his wife’s instructions, he worked more gently on the animals, and in due course, filled both of the buckets with their warm, creamy milk. Grunting under their weight, he carried them back to the 62
farmhouse, each movement of his narrow hips sending a miniscule wave of milk cascading over the lip of one bucket or the other. Don’t fill them right to the top—we’ve only got three cows. Try to keep it all in the buckets, idiot! The milk safely deposited in the sterilized churn, he went outside again, to attend to the pigs. He filled their trough with feed, topping it off with a few choice leavings from the kitchen table and smiled in silent gratification as they lowered their jowly heads and slurped noisily away. They were, by far, the favorite of his animals, content to gorge themselves and wallow happily in the mud on a hot day like this. It always broke his heart when he had to have one of them taken away for slaughter, no matter how high the price they might command at market. Picking up the fork and shovel that lay against the wall of the sty, he began the laborious task of mucking out. It was back-breaking work on a day like this, and though he set to it with a will, he could not wait to be finished with this particular chore. Though he let his mind wander as he cleared up the pigs’ droppings, the familiar tones of his wife were never far away. You need to dig with the shovel, you lazy old sod. You’re just spreading the filth around, doing it like that. The hogs well fed and their sty cleaned, Joseph pulled a red gingham handkerchief from his back pocket and mopped the sweat from his brow. He was hungry and thirsty now and couldn’t wait to get back to his kitchen for a well-deserved sandwich and a cold beer. Removing his thick gloves, he strode as swiftly as his creaking joints would allow, back in the direction of the farmhouse. Don’t forget to feed the chickens, Joe. They can’t live off sunshine and fresh air, you moron. 63
Ah yes, he thoughtâ€Śthe chickens. He made his way to the coop, to check on them. Lifting up the roof, he held his handkerchief up to his face to protect himself from the smell. There were a few bluebottles in there, but not as many as he was expecting. The chickens had seen to that, gobbling up the insects in the absence of their regular corn. The birds were looking a little thin, but they seemed to have adapted well to their new diet and he wondered what his wife would have to say on the matter. For the past forty years, she had directed him incessantly on how to run the farm, hollering instructions on tending the animals or repairing those fixtures and fittings that required his attention. Not once had she raised herself from her fat backside to lend a hand, being content to sit in the voluminous chair on the porch with one of her magazines. From there, she kept an illtempered vigil, never allowing any error in her husbandâ€™s labors to go unchecked. It was a point of some gratification for Joseph, as he looked beneath the cloud of flies and feathers, so see his wife finally silent. Her hard features had been disfigured by the attentions of maggots and the ravenous pecking of the chickens, but he could still make out that familiar look of anger and indignation on her face. In spite of himself, Joseph smiled. After all these years, he had proven that he knew one thing about farming that his wife had not. Hungry animals will eat anythingâ€Ś
Elegy by Lauren C. Teffeau
When the high-tech heathens started coming to mass, he knew it was getting bad. Father Leofric looked out across his flock, swollen with the sick, the young, the elderly, and crossed himself. The nave thrummed with the murmurs of those in attendance. Nods, handshakes, a few hugs. Worried glances whenever someone coughed. A month ago, the bishop ordered them to lace the already eye-watering incense with medicinal vaporizers to help those crammed into the pews stave off infection. Only God knew how effective it was, and now with the influx of the heathens, Leofric wondered if it would still be enough. After all, healthy was a relative term these days. The altar boys were still setting up. The youngest couldn’t seem to keep his candle lit as the church doors swung open again. The parishioners’ voices swelled abruptly at the sight of a trio of heathens—two young men flanking a woman—taking seats on a pew towards the back. They weren’t members of the congregation. The paramilitary cut of their clothes and the bruised skin on their necks heralding the implants that lurked underneath gave them away. Hostile looks blazed toward the interlopers. The boy stuck on the inside of the pew looked around himself in disgust. From where Leo stood shadowed by the stone archway that lead to the pulpit, he could see the boy’s nose crinkling. The girl, Leo noted, crossed herself before 65
taking her seat even though her dark blue shirt said “Real life is overrated” in metallic letters. The congregation eventually settled down, but the distrust was almost as sharp as the spiked incense lingering in the air. Leofric cleared his throat. So much knowledge was at their fingertips or hardwired into their brains, but no one could make sense of the epidemic that had swept across the country. The science community lost all credibility when their purported vaccine worked little better than a placebo. People started whispering that technology had failed them, that God was punishing them for interfacing with the machines. Some objected because the implants altered God’s image of man. The implants were unholy, all right, but not just for that reason. They changed a person, made them less human. Common decency was the first to go, then large-scale social activities—concerts, sports, theatre. Then a group of people rose up seemingly overnight, worshiping technology to such an extreme, they abandoned God. He wasn’t so small-minded to think the rise of digital idolatry had caused the epidemic, unlike some of those in his flock. He understood the sinful appeal of the tech. And the weakness in his heart craved it still. But technology couldn’t hold your hand when you were on your sickbed or give you a sense of peace through absolution. And people were starting to realize that as the death toll steadily rose. What else could explain the presence of the technophiles in his church? The very same people who claimed the church-going public were brainwashed into preserving an outmoded lifestyle. But it was the only way of life that could steer people past these dark times. Leofric had to believe that.
The choirmaster fiddled with his baton as the choir waited for the church to fill. They were already ten minutes past their normal start time because of all the new arrivals. More of the unwashed masses each week. Looking for answers, for something to believe in. For forgiveness. The members of the chorus chatted quietly together. But this week there were empty seats. Two sopranos, an alto, and a baritone, if he wasn’t mistaken. More anonymous deaths. Leo swallowed the persistent ache in the back of his throat. Two weeks ago he made the decision to cut the Prayers of the People out of the service because it took too long to get through all the names. None of the church members—usually sticklers for tradition—objected when he opted for a prolonged moment of silence instead. The security gates at the door flashed red. Two incoming worshipers tested positive for the advanced stages of the infection. Guards in full-blown riot gear pulled them out of the line. Leofric didn’t want security here of all places. The church was supposed to be a sanctuary from everyday trials, and the guards were a constant reminder of the disease ravaging the country. He wouldn’t fight a government mandate, but he still controlled what went on within these walls. The priest signaled the guards. They only hesitated a second before escorting the infected toward the side chapel to the right of the room. Where the sick could hear the sermon but not interact with the other, presumably still healthy, parishioners. That was the one concession Leo insisted on. He would turn away no one before himself. A few more people trickled in before Leofric nodded to the choirmaster. As voices filled the chamber with a lift of his baton, the guards sealed the doors. The priest 67
moved back down the hallway and joined the altar guild. He took a deep breath. A scratchiness in his throatâ€”the incense, perhapsâ€”made him cough. A tremor went through the members, but Leofric just smiled tolerantly at the concerned looks they threw one another. The choir quieted. His soul was prepared. It was time.
Summer in Exile by Lauren C. Teffeau
I waited until I was only imagining noises instead of actually hearing them before I finally moved. My muscles protested, but the rush of blood and needles in my veins kept me going as I hunted for another hiding place. My spot behind the squashy armchair in Uncle Marty’s den hadn’t been compromised yet, but that didn’t mean it would stay that way. I had learned how to keep my steps light and quick to avoid catching my relatives’ notice. I was a shadow. A ghost. Only a temporary interloper in this house. My heart lurched against my ribs as I darted past the entrance to the kitchen. But my cousin’s friend—the bigger boy who was “it”—didn’t see me as I snuck into the family room. A quick glance told me my cousin Ricky had already claimed the room for himself. He peered out over the edge of the sofa, his big bovine eyes watching me nervously. He knew what I was going to do before I did. Ignoring his frantic gestures—especially the rude ones—I crept past him and reached the door to the patio. He couldn’t stop me this time. The cool metal knob turned silently. I eased the door away from the jamb. Freedom beckoned, but I twisted back around and sought out my cousin’s panicked face. I remembered the marble waiting in my jeans pocket, the last of the marbles my parents let me pack, the one I was lucky enough to hold on to during our match that morning. 69
I hadn’t forgotten the way Ricky’s eyes glittered as he handled the pouch of marbles tucked away in the bottom of my suitcase, hovering over my stuff like a vulture. He’d been after them since I arrived. And now he had them all. All but one. I eyed the kitchen once and then pulled the marble out—a cat’s eye with twirls of orange and blue—and launched it across the room. I didn’t wait to hear the ball of glass hit the wooden floorboards before it skittered into a grubby little corner somewhere. I didn’t stay to see the bigger boy’s grin of triumph as he hurtled into the room and caught my cousin before he could make a run for it. No. I was already out the door, taking the porch stairs two at a time, and then scampering across the lawn, hopping hedges, dodging branches, until I found myself under the old oak tree. My lungs protested the spurt of activity with an awkward wheezing that silenced the birds. My inhaler was inside, but I didn’t care. Not today. I looked up and followed the ridges of the bark up, up, until I shut my eyes against the sky. I couldn’t stop now, not when I was so close to winning. It was hard to win with a cousin like Ricky. And he wasn’t one who forgave easily. But this time, they wouldn’t catch me. I was always on the lookout for a good hiding place, especially since it was every man for himself at my cousin’s house. I learned that before my parent’s car even rounded the bend in the road as they drove off—leaving me here to fend for myself. I never wanted to come, but I couldn’t stop it from happening. I tried to hide that day too. I thought if my parents couldn’t find me, they couldn’t leave me. If I stayed still long enough… But I remember the pinched look on my mother’s face, when Dad pushed me into the 70
car despite the grass stains, despite my bloody knees. But maybe this timeâ€Śthis time, if I kept still long enough, Ricky and his friend would not find me. Even now, I could hear them shouting, their voices pitching closer. With a deep shuddery breath, I shimmied up the tree and gained the first branch and then the next one and the one after that. I climbed another branch, and one more for good measure. I looked at the ground, and wondered what it would take for me to ever want to come back down.
“The Palette” Revisited by Robert Laughlin
A hundred years ago, young Ezra penned An essay asking poets be consigned To learn the masters’ work, from end to end. The greatest verse is figurative hue: The kings of Shakespeare speak a rosy blend, While Dante’s vaulted verse is cobalt blue. And when he has his colors, the artiste Can daub his palette, knowing what to do When painting his poetic masterpiece. Such good advice that is. But keep in mind It’s not for poets—half the field, at least— Who, through no fault of theirs, are color-blind.
Paint and Moisturizer by Letisia Cruz Most of me was there, but obviously I don’t remember being born. I do know for sure I was born with tattoos. My mother denies it to the death, but her memories are compromised by all the drugs she was on. Not that she ever willingly took any drugs; my mother’s never been into any of that. But who knows what sorts of drugs they gave women in labor back in the 70’s. I mean, Gerald Ford was president. That’s all I’m going to say about that. The thing with tattoos is that they’re like beauty marks. They’re not visible right away, but they’re there. It’s true. Just look at any baby. Beauty marks aren’t visible ’til the kid starts growing. Tattoos are the same, except they take longer to become visible ’cause they’re bigger and take longer to form. It’s scientific, but I’m not going to get into any of that. My first tattoo became visible the year Mr. Fernandez died. He’d been a good, quiet neighbor, and I sometimes wondered if my mother missed him. My mother had clearly been in denial about my tattoos since my birth and went into shock when she walked into the bathroom that September and found me standing naked in front of the mirror admiring my newly decorated hip. She got so pale I nearly called an ambulance, but then she sat and started her breathing the way women do when they’re in labor, even though she wasn’t in labor, and I guess the exaggerated gulps of air somehow helped her regain control of her face and brain. 73
I started to explain that it wasn’t my fault and that I was born this way and that I was sorry for missing school even though I wasn’t really, because, coincidentally, I’d missed school the day my first tattoo appeared. Then she started saying something about “new laser procedures” as if my tattoo were some kind of defect that I should have medically removed, and I got real upset and started crying ’cause I was afraid she might try to take it from me. She seemed genuinely shocked by my reaction, as if she’d expected me to be relieved at the thought of losing the one thing I’d wanted most my whole life. We had dinner together in front of the TV that night, and for the first time ever, my mother missed work. She had two jobs; she worked at a bodega by day and at an embroidery factory by night. The skin on her hands and feet was dry and brittle and cracked. She had long, black hair that she always kept in a ponytail and soft, black eyes that she never painted. That night, we stayed up late, watching TV and drinking coffee. I covered her hands and feet in every kind of lotion and made her wear my long soccer-socks. If it’s true that everybody has a word, my mother’s word was survive. She was a woman who’d been dealt rough hands, and yet she consistently plowed through life with the strength of a defiant bulldozer. But even after three cups of coffee, she fell asleep on the couch like that, with her hands and feet very moisturized and my striped soccer-socks pulled up to her knees. Then I turned the TV off and re-checked the bolt on the door and covered my sore hip in lotion and lay down next to her and fell asleep, too.
Welcome Back Jack by Lynn Kennison
As Jack turned down his suburban street, making his way back to his humble abode—a small pale yellow tracthouse in a quiet neighborhood full of other pallid tracthouses—a horn sounded as an oncoming car blazed by him, forcing him off of the road. In his younger days, he wouldn’t have stood for that; he would have chased after them, but now he didn’t waste time with such nonsense. He just wanted to get home. He had been gone for too long. Jack tiptoed up the backstairs and peered quietly through his living-room window. There she was, Sadie— the one woman he could not live without. She sat in her chair quietly watching television in her light blue nightgown. She came into his life a little over four years ago and nothing had been the same since. Before Sadie, Jack felt the world turning against him; at every corner and crossroads he came to, animosity and hostility ruled. And just when the evils of the world were about to consume him entirely, he met Sadie. She gave him a chance when nobody else would. She saw something in him worth saving and showed Jack a different kind of life, one that taught him to trust and love again—one that he could be proud of now. Though he loved her so, he knew his return home would not be a joyous one. She wasn’t fond of his allnighters, but Jack simply couldn’t help himself, he had always been a bit of a free spirit. But even so, he would 75
always come back to her, always, because there was nobody else for him. If she could only see herself though his eyes, she needn’t worry. Maybe it was a good sign the porch light was left on—an even better one that she had waited up. Sadie noticed Jack peering through the window. She gave him a stern look, but he begged her to come to the door. She got up and walked over, boards creaking beneath each step. She didn’t say much as the door squeaked opened, and Jack’s gaze lowered as he crossed the threshold and directly walked over to his orange plastic bowl lying next to the fridge. There was a small brown biscuit left on top of his kibble, and Jack’s tail wagged knowing Sadie loved him still.
Cyborg Music by Mary Cafferty
My mother was a field, stretching strong across the rolling hills of my imagination, and life sprang from her as water from the wellâ€”up and up and up, golden and clear at the same time. Water sweet and strong. Rain in summer. She was. She was. Her eyes were blue, and they were looking at me from across the worn surface of the kitchen table, planed smooth by the strong sandstorms of many childhoods. I was five years old. My motherâ€™s blue eyes held me in my seat saying, I love you. I love you. *** My mother was a house, and I lived in her because she lived in me creating comfortable places for herself buried deep in my own rich red fiber, spaces with carpets and mint-colored curtains. She would open up the windows sometimes to let a fresh, deep breath in. And then I would feel new again. My mother wore her glasses on the very tip of her nose, which was angular and pointed even though my own was not. And she would sit on the floor of the small living room with her books and her small machines, writing a book I would never bring myself to read.
Thank you, thank you, I would think while I watched, feeling the windows opening up to let air into my lungs, but they were words I would never say. *** My mother was a tree growing deep into the soil of a garden that was me, cultivating plants that would grow into people that would sink their long, porous roots deep underneath my skin, and only few would bear fruit. Underneath my skin, my life looks so much different than it does from the outside. Fourteen years old, and it was summertime, and my mother watched me from the window. The sun hadnâ€™t quite set, and the rain came, drenching the air with water and a light that looked like it had been dusted with powdered gold. And my mother watched me from the window with one long palm pressed against the cold glass, a halo of condensation growing where the fingers made contact with the glass. I see you, her eyes said to me from where she stood inside the house. I miss you, I answered back, but in a manner she could never decipher. *** My mother was a rock standing silently in the stream that was my life, and I flowed around her in finely colored strands, paint poured from the bucket of my constantly shifting consciousness. Her hands were long and nimble. I was nineteen.
My mother’s hands were long and nimble, and she could have played piano. She could have. I imagine it, sometimes, when I think about her, wishing, wishing, WISHING she had chosen that life instead, because the music could have been so deep and clear, and I can hear it, and I wish I could bottle up that sound even though it never existed. I was nineteen, and my mother’s machines scared me more than her books did. Her hands were nimble, and they created cyborg music. *** My mother was a bird flying low over a field of sunflowers, and the sunflowers were me, a collection of mistakes growing into something that, when viewed from above, was beautiful. My mother used to play with my hair, separating strands out with two lily-white fingers and turning out small, fine braids. When she was done, I would go into my room and close the door and undo them, one by one, crying in front of the mirror. And then I was older, and I didn’t let my mother touch me anymore. She would look at me across the weather-worn table which I clung to, driftwood from the shipwreck, and those blue eyes asked: why, why? My own answer echoed back to her over the emptiness between us, where an entire ocean now seemed to surge: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
*** My mother was a straight, slim arrow arcing in its bright red trajectory over my head until it disappeared somewhere up in the universe, swallowed by stars. My mother was a scientist, and this is true. She stared with big blue eyes into the terminal, and it reflected blue back onto her face. She looked like a vessel which had my motherâ€™s shape but was filled with water and broken things. My mother was a vessel draining out and draining out and... I watched her from across the doorway, feeling all of the windows inside me closing one by one, no longer ruffling mint-colored curtains, and I tried and I tried to breathe deeply, but there were raw places where I couldnâ€™t force the oxygen to go. And she never turned to stare, the way I always feared she might, eyes blank but with sharp glass edges that would cut me and force me from the room. She just stared and stared straight ahead, emptying out onto the floor, which was covered in things half-made and abandoned, and bits of fraying wire. *** My mother was a weapon, and in the end, the only damage she inflicted was upon herself, but thatâ€™s half true. ***
My mother is a box glowing blue, now, and we keep her in the corner where she watches, sometimes, when she is not unplugged. Her bright blue glow pulses softly over the living room and spills out the window onto the street at night. My mother was a lake. My mother was a vessel. My mother was. She was. She was.
A Picture of Hope by Mel Fawcett
With a second glass of wine in my hand, I wandered round the crowded gallery and feigned interest in David’s brightly-colored paintings. I didn’t like them—I never had. On most of the canvases were painted huge letters, in silver or gold, spelling words like Love, Peace, and War. To me they were meaningless; pleasant to look at, but nothing more. My own paintings were much deeper and darker, born out of suffering and experience. Once my work adorned the walls of a gallery, people would see what real painting was about. “Malcolm! You made it.” I turned to see David grinning at me. He was wearing a very suave silver-grey suit. “We’d almost given up on you.” “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything. You’re the only famous person I know.” David laughed. “I’m hardly that.” “You’re too modest. I’m surprised you still talk to unknown daubers like me. Not that I’ll be unknown for much longer.” “Be careful what you wish for, Malcolm. You don’t know how lucky you are, not having to go through all the crap of preparing for shows and the time-wasting publicrelations bit. I’m serious; it’s not as much fun as it looks.” “I’ll try to remember that.”
A man in a white suit approached us. He had a bottle of red wine in his hand. “David, there you are. I need you.” David smiled at the newcomer. “Paul. I’d like you to meet an old friend of mine— Malcolm Barnes. Malcolm, this is Paul Maynard-Smith. It’s his gallery.” Maynard-Smith refilled my glass. “And what do you do, Malcolm?” he asked, glancing at my clothes—still slightly damp from being caught in the rain. “I paint,” I said, “Paul, don’t!” David said, suppressing a laugh. “Don’t what?” Maynard-Smith said, doing the same. I was feeling somewhat left out of the joke. “You were about to ask Malcolm whether he painted pictures or houses.” “I was not!” Maynard-Smith said, laughing. “You must excuse his sense of humor, Malcolm; no one thinks he’s funny.” And yet they were both laughing. “So, who’re you with, Malcolm?” Maynard-Smith asked after a moment. “I came on my own.” “No.” Maynard-Smith smiled as though indulging a half-wit. “I mean what dealer are you with?” “Oh, I’m not with anyone at the moment. But I’ve got some slides of my work with me, if you’d like to see them,” I said, taking out the wallet of slides wrapped in clingfilm. “You have to admire the man’s style,” David said. “Yes, quite. Well, considering you’re a friend of my favorite artist,” he was looking at David, “why not drop
them into the office before you go. Now, David, I really must introduce you to someone.” And they walked away. I put the slides back in my pocket and hoped that no one noticed my heightened color. Then I emptied my glass and went for a refill. That’s when I saw Patricia looking at me; she was shaking her head. “That’s so typical of you, Malcolm, coming in your old clothes. Anyone would think you were still a student. You might at least have made an effort.” I didn’t tell her I was wearing my best jacket and trousers; the bitch probably knew. I was glad I’d had a few drinks. “I knew there would be no competing with David, Patricia, so I didn’t even try.” “He does look good, doesn’t he? Success agrees with him. How is it going for you in…where are you living now?” “Woking.” “Oh, yes. I think we passed through there once on the way to the coast.” I’d never liked Patricia, and I was relieved when David reappeared. “Hey, guess what!” he said. “What?” Patricia said. “You see that painting there?” he said, indicating one just behind us. It was an unprimed canvas with large pink letters spelling Hope. “Tate Modern wants it.” “What! Oh, that’s fabulous, David.” “How much?” I asked. David frowned: “Does that matter?” “Of course it does.” “It’s not the most important thing, though, is it?” “Isn’t it?” 84
“All right, if you must know, it’s twenty grand.” “Twenty grand! And that’s not important?” “Come on, Malcolm,” Patricia said, “surely you can appreciate the thrill of getting something into the Tate?” “One basement storeroom’s the same as another to me,” I said. “Exactly,” David smiled. “Why d’you say that?” Patricia asked. “Are you implying that they wouldn’t show it?” “I live in hope,” I said with a smile. “What d’you mean?” “For Christ’s sake, woman, look around you.” I indicated what I meant with a wide sweep of my arm. But the action was more vigorous than intended, and the wine in my glass went flying over the wall and onto the Tate’s latest acquisition. The wine trickled down the unprimed canvas, leaving a trail of red. “What the hell did you do that for?” Patricia shouted. I turned to David. “David, I’m—” “Don’t say anything. Just get out of my sight.” “Ah, come on, it was an accident.” “Accident, my arse!” Patricia shouted. Maynard-Smith appeared. “What’s happening? Oh my God, who did that? Get some tissues, someone. Don’t just stand there, for Christ’s sake—we’ve got to save it!” I felt as though I ought to be doing something, but everyone else seemed to be doing it first. I moved over to the door to keep out of the way. Maynard-Smith was flicking a handkerchief at the stained canvas. Patricia was telling another woman what had happened. David was looking distraught.
I stepped outside for some fresh air. And once out there, I realized there was nothing to go back for. I walked towards the bus stop. It didnâ€™t bother me that it was still raining. It was nice not to have to worry about such things.
Vampire Poetics by Joe Amaral
When a red rose perishes it dyes the horizon pink before succumbing to eveningâ€™s dusky underground desiccation Lifeless, pale as our soulless skin We worship this steel sky, a blade severing the sun from day Amongst shadows we awaken lurking with dark hunger Carotid pulsing cacophony Unlike protective cones closing tautly to shelter their seedlings from cold, humans dew-sweat their fears Attracting beautiful black monsters who make ballerinas appear stiff A rustle of wind-driven leaves forebodes our sylphlike approach into the blood fire of sunset as we engorge upon lovely arterial flavors Feasting upon the creatures of light
Not a Raging Bull by Michael Davidson (herocious)
I pull on the two legs sticking out of her private parts. I pull as hard as I can until two more legs show and a calf falls to the earth. I pet the calf. He probably thinks I’m his mom. But that’s what I want. I make sure my calf gets properly fed on his first day, and I pet him more the whole time while he eats. By nighttime, I pull two mangos off our tree and bring them home for dinner. My mom has boiled yucca and rice for me. She doesn’t care for nothing about the news of the calf. Only I’m aware of the great thing that’s about to happen to my life. The calf eats more and grows stronger. I give it what feels like all the love in my ten-year-old body. I rest my head near its neck and take naps. When I bathe in the river that runs close to my house, I also wash the calf. Then I get on its back like I would a horse and ride it around in the field until we’re dry and dizzy from the sun. Every night, I think of a name to give my calf. Because he’s black with a white star on his head and down his nose, in the end I name him Diamante. One morning, Diamante is a bull who still thinks I’m his mom. When he’s out in the fields eating grass and sees me, he always runs to where I am and nudges me with his nose and rubs against me and purrs. Diamante is the biggest bull in this part of Cuba.
I tie a lasso around his neck, put a rope through his nose, and ride him like it’s the most natural thing in the world. I use a blanket for a saddle. I start to ride him around to do my daily errands. When people see me coming, they point at me and scream that I’m going to get killed, but they don’t know Diamante is my son, not a raging bull. Every sunset, I take him by the river close to my house, and we run fast through the field. For long stretches, I open my mouth to feel the rush of air. Then I push everything out with a mighty scream. To be honest, riding him makes my butt raw. I even start to walk funny. To remember everything, my uncle the photographer takes a picture of me sitting on Diamante right before I head into town. Even though I’m healthy and shirtless and on top of my bull, something inside my body knows this picture will make me sad when I’m older and confused.
Wake Me at Five by Myra King
It’s hard working on a production line. Mindless stuff. When the same object repeats itself in front of you ad nauseam, you start thinking, why did I go to school at all? I’d even got to tertiary level, but my mates and their hotrods and independent living made any long-term college dreams seem as distant and undesirable as nightmares. My wife, Tanya, worked on a production line at a potato chip factory. Not the crispy-packet sort, but the dinner table type, you know—for workers feeding their kids on a budget. Meat and one veg, sausage and chips— cheap enough if you don’t count the health cost. She started in the days before normal working hours and noise control were in the vocabulary, never mind understood. You were bloody soft if you wanted to wear earmuffs. The men at her factory would snigger at the mention of that word, “earmuffs,” and make the kind of crude jokes associated with blue-collar workers. That sort of class. No class. Not that I can talk. I couldn’t hack it on the production line and got into construction, driving the commercial cement mixers. Big contracts and small, backyard and factory—the size of the job determined the size of the load. Or how many of them. Tanya also worked shifts, graveyard mostly, as there was more money in it, and a lack of education breeds the kind of desperation that makes you unfazed about the 90
toll it takes. What knell it rings for marriage and body. She was always tired. Always complaining she didn’t get enough sleep. And I know I wasn’t considerate enough about how hard she worked. But she knew I loved her, didn’t she? Then why did she leave? I’ve asked myself that so many times. She was always on time. It was a compulsion. She said to me once, “Brady, it shows lack of respect if you’re late for an appointment. Shows you don’t care about the other person’s time. That somehow your time is more important than theirs.” She was like that. Considerate. Especially of others. Punctuality was a huge deal to Tanya. Our daughters must have picked up on that too, both born on the day of their predicted births. No maternal leave, but Tanya’s mum came down from up north and stayed until the babies slept nights, and then she disappeared back home to die a year later, when we had no funds or ability to take any more time off work for her funeral. It got harder as the girls grew older, but we made sure they didn’t go without, although they say different now, like I guess most grown-up children do. Not enough of our own time spent with them. Missed concerts and sports days, but I always made the twilight ones. Tanya never did, she often worked double shifts, and sometimes she wouldn’t come home for two days running, taking lunches with her and buying her dinners at the factory canteen. Some husbands may have been suspicious, but I trusted her. And then there was always the extra money, the double pay-packet at the end of the fortnight, like some sort of proof. ***
I’ve taken up a hobby in my early retirement, working with wood. Lighter than concrete. With our daughters raised and our house paid for, it’s not too bad living on my super, and with it being topped up by the sickness benefit, I’ve even managed to buy a lathe and some other tools I need. *** I don’t blame Tanya for my depression. It wasn’t her fault, not directly. “Wake me at five,” she had said. It was one of those days she’d come home between the shifts. She’d had an early dinner and put mine in the oven. I started at four in the morning, so I was always home by three o’clock in the afternoon, unless we had a really big project on, like putting down the floor for a factory. I lay next to her on the bed and stretched out. I could hear her breathing, and I must have gone to dreamland, because it seemed no time at all and then something disturbed me. Maybe my internal clock, although now I’m not so sure. I started up and saw the bedside clock was five to five. It had been ten to four last time I’d looked. I waited and watched the clock like a worker wanting to leave. I remember feeling so relaxed thinking that now I wouldn’t miss Tanya’s deadline. I shudder at that memory. When it was time, I shook her, but she gave no response, I felt like I was in a dream—a doze where pictures flash through your mind but no one moves. I touched her again, my fingers curling around her bare arm. It was damp and clammy like someone’s who had just got out of the shower. Then I was awake, screaming her name, shaking her, watching for her eyes to open, 92
knowing, but not knowing how I knew, that they never would again. The next few hours were a blur of ambulance and paramedics. Blue and red and things I’d never known happened, like that they couldn’t take Tanya to the hospital, that I needed an undertaker. “I” now, not “we.” That it had been a massive heart attack. That probably— and there is the word which haunts me still, probably—I could have done nothing for her, that it had been too late for CPR. “Wake me at five,” Tanya had said. And I knew to be punctual, not a minute later. She would have worked it out to the last second, how to be back at work on time for her second shift. And with her so tired after standing on her feet all day, I knew not to wake her a minute sooner. God knew she needed the sleep.
The Dove Man by Nancy Stohlman
“Me, I’ve got my whole funeral planned out,” he says, leading me across the yard. “First of all, I’m going to tell the morgue to show up half an hour late because everyone is late for funerals anyway. Then I want them to run, not walk, but run with my casket down the aisle, wearing clean white tennis shoes, like they’re really late. And the whole time they’re running, I want them to be playing Queen—‘Another One Bites the Dust.’” I can already hear the rustling from halfway across the yard as we approach what looks like a giant white barn. When he opens the door, I suck in my breath— shelf upon shelf upon shelf of doves. The floor is open, just covered with wire mesh, the walls lightly spattered with tan and green dove shit. The birds softly coo and cock their heads. “And then, when they open my casket, I’m going to be holding a fork. You know why?” I shake my head. “Because you always save your fork for dessert. And where I’m going, I’m saving the best for last. I can hardly wait.” There must be at least three hundred doves. He has them divided by males, females, babies born this year, breeders, retired, and a cage of rescued birds including some pigeons and some fantailed doves. “You see, I’m always releasing doves for funerals. Weddings and funerals, that’s mostly what I do. And you can tell the people who have faith and who don’t by the 94
way they grieve. The ones with faith, well, they just know they’re going to a better place. That’s why when you leave my funeral you’re not going to know if you were at a party or a funeral.” The doves are identical, sleek fatted bird after white, sleek, fatted bird. Even the dove shit seems, somehow, inoffensive. Simple. “Yeah, I lose a few each year. But it’s usually to predators. I mean, if you’re a hawk around a dove release, it’s like dinner time! That’s why they’re supposed to fly together. But they don’t usually get lost. I’ve taken these birds out as far as two hundred miles away and released ‘em, and they all show back up. Every single dove flies two hundred miles directly back to their house here. Sure, I got to train them to do that. I take them out slowly at first, maybe 40 miles. Then if they make it back, I’ll take them out a little further. If one of them takes too long, I put them in this cage. This is the quarantine cage. They stay in here for a month or so, and then I take them back out.” In this cage all the bad doves look at me blankly, like wall after wall of inbred children, watching with curiosity something from the outer world. “One time, I was doing a release, and all the birds were all flying in a group like they do, doing their show, and then they turned to start heading for home, and then this one bird just starts hightailing it south like someone lit a fire under her butt or something. And I’m thinking, you stupid bird, you’re going the wrong way! And she didn’t come back that night, and I figured, oh, that’s it, something got her. But then I got a phone call the next day, and a woman said, ‘Tom, I think I might have one of your birds.’ Now mind you, my phone number’s on the bird’s ankle, see.” He spins a little 95
bracelet around the tiny wisp of a dove ankle. “Which means the bird had to let her get the number off of it, which is a miracle in itself, but then how did she know my name? So I say, yes, it’s probably one of my birds, but how did you know my name? Because you did my husband’s funeral last week, she says. Can you believe that bird flew seventy-five miles south and landed on her porch? He stayed all night on the porch, and he was still there in the morning too, and she had breakfast and the bird stayed, and then she finally said, well, I have to go to work now, and the bird took off and came home. She said she just had to call to say thank you for letting her have breakfast with her husband one last time. “I do a lot of funerals,” he says again, taking off his NRA hat and rubbing his head. “I’m around grief all the time. But the Lord speaks to me. I know there’s more waiting for me up there. Man,” he says, eyes welling up, “I’m not afraid of death anymore. In fact, I can’t wait.” As we’re getting ready to leave he says, “Hey, stand right there. Now get ready!” And then he releases three hundred doves, and they soar, flying together like schools of white feathers against a bright blue January sky.
First and Last Day Out of the Asylum by Natalie McNabb
I sing along with Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” while cutting across traffic to take a left in this Jeep someone left idling for me in front of that AM/PM. I pass DO NOT ENTER in flashing neon, in red letters on whitepainted metal too, and as “Mrs. Robinson” fades, I buckle my seatbelt and stomp on the gas because there are people on this overcast Sunday freeway who must be shown how to live. Before a new song even begins, I crank up the stereo, and when Paul Simon plucks that first chord in “The Sound of Silence”—D-minor, so drawn and cold—I’m grateful to the owner of this Jeep for his taste in both vehicles and music. I croon on, stroke mockery with my tongue—C-major—along with Paul and Art. I enter the freeway and find myself hurtling toward two oncoming vehicles: a truck and a rusty minivan. I aim for the minivan, singing, staring it down. You see, it’s not envy, greed, or pride that casts the ugliest curse upon man, not even lust or anger, but sloth, apathy born of world-weariness. The driver of the minivan hasn’t reacted, probably hasn’t even seen me. Like my last therapist who could neither see nor hear for having seen and heard so much. The driver snaps out of his daze and zigzags off into the concrete median, his apathy lifted and sin as white as snow. A sedan slows and veers, only slightly though, the driver perhaps assuming I’ll turn away. I re-aim for their 97
grill. As they peel away toward the ditch I find the driver’s eyes, so alert and protective of the child in her back seat. My front fender swipes the rear panel, strips the bumper from her car. Someone should’ve done that for you, Mother. We were to be neither seen—“Stop it!”—nor heard—“Shut up!”—and you pressed us down— “Sit still!”—and down to be sure of it. We either acquiesced or we rebelled and were forced, and then sloth crept in upon us. I croon on with Paul and Art. Another of the imprisoned thousands, millions even, shows themselves in a sports car brandishing headlights and horn. I honk and flash back, singing louder as the driver and I throw gestures at one another out our windows. But, perhaps there’s no sloth here. Though we both brake and turn sharply, we choose the same direction and collide. Everything lurches, and I’m jerked sideways. My chest is compressed, shudders as the Jeep pitches, tumbles, and rocks upside down, my hip, ribs and shoulder straining against the seatbelt as I sway back and forth, back and forth. And, yet, it seems as if everything has been turned right, as if I’m cradled now in some inverse world with pavement and road stripes above, the sky beneath, Simon and Garfunkel singing on and on. I sing “The Sounds of Silence” with them while something runs up my neck, trickles over my jaw, bathes my vision in red. Sirens grow, drowning out the stereo as they approach. When the sirens are at last silent and only flashing red and white light remains, I know I’ll be pulled from here soon. A female paramedic is unable to open the door at first, but manages. She yells over Simon and Garfunkel,
over my own singing, “We’ll get you out! Where’s your pain, sir?” I have to stop singing to tell her, “My chest.” She can’t hear me over the stereo, reaches past and hits the knob to turn it off. “Where’s your pain?” “Chest.” She has a male paramedic help her brace me against the seat to keep me from dropping to the roof when she undoes my seatbelt. I wipe at the blood on my face as they untangle me from the belt, pull me out, and put me on a gurney. She covers me in a blanket, wraps the fabric about my feet, tucks it over my shoulders. She asks, “What’s your name, sir?” “Ehyeh.” “Sir?” “Ehyeh. It means I Am.” “It means you’re what, sir?” I shake my head. “Ehyeh means I Am.” She looks at me for a bit. “Is it your first or last name, sir?” “First.” I add, “And last.” She won’t understand; she’s asleep like the others. “You’re in shock, I think, sir,” she says. The male paramedic tells me, “Sit tight,” and turns, whispers to her, “More to this one’s story I’ll bet.” I see how she won’t look at me anymore. I might save her though. My hand shoots out from under the blanket, grabs her wrist. “Wake up. Please wake up,” I say, but can’t hold on and must let her go. The male paramedic places two fingers on my wrist. I tell him, “It means I Am.” He says, “Yes, okay,” and tells me, “Sit tight,” again, but both of their faces are pulling away.
The sky is lifting too, and I whisper, “I Am,” and whisper again, “I Am,” but they have drawn the blanket up, have covered my face before I have even begun to tell them about this sky that’s shot with silver blooming and blooming into the brightest whites, before I have begun to sing to them of the whispers here that upend all apathy and silence.
The Work of Crows by Rod Peckman
During outbreaks of the Black Death, medical doctors wore helmets reminiscent of crow heads. —In the Company of Crows and Ravens A shorthand for loss and a grim settling. We run fingers along closed mouths and find a secret Braille on peeling lips. Shade marks our days, sundials recording absence now under evergreen boughs heavy with still black wings. When somebody asks, we can’t give them a time. I stood under a dark sky, stars now lost in movement behind a bruising outline of crows leaving their nests, flying as one mass in silence. Wings brushed my face in the rise. Nothing was laid open as this night, scattered so, and patched together with gauze hiding cracks spread like purple veins. Open and soft as the crease behind knees. One cure demands the other in return. One cure for the other in each extreme of broken skin. Run your tongue across the breaks— leave letters of our secret alphabet. Gather consonants and vowels. I challenge you to make even one single goddamned 101
word for this. Itâ€™s easy to lose hours for marking days in our captivity. Save yourself with something as burnished as anger. Maybe you already have, wet boughs cracking the dark egg of this night, driving crows from nests rising in silence hiding the stars and fanning your flame. If green limbs smoke, sap still spits at the breaks, if the thick branches still glow: good peace to you. If settled to a dull gray ash, crows are down for the night: then simply all good peace.
Severance by Natalie McNabb
cut v. To penetrate or strike an opening in. To separate into parts with a sharp device. n. A wound made by a sharp edge. A part cut from a main body. *** Motherâ€™s scissors, the manmade godsend that helps me keep her dusty curtains distant. I stretch left from atop the stepladder and slip the lower jaw of the scissors through the nearest fabric loop securing curtain to brass rod. I snip the first loop; the curtains sag. I snip the second; they sag a little more. I continue cutting and cutting, making my way along the rod, Motherâ€™s curtains sagging and slumping, forming hills around my stepladder, shrugging dust off in puffs. I rub my eyes with the back of my wrist, cut the last loop and the curtains drop, a pale cloud wafting upward. A ghost caught in the sunlight burning through the front window. I sneeze. I always do in bright sun, and I wonder at this crossing of pathways in my brain, at this intersection of primordial reflexes, the reaction of my eye to bright light and the sneezing reflex. A relic of evolution. An unexplainable ghost. Dust powders the window glass, settles on the wooden sill, and dust clings to gauzy webs pressed against the glass as if they have been trying to get outside from in since spun. How many spinners must 103
they have seen. How many windowsill tenants must have come and gone, come and gone, spinning out lives, leaving webs to billow in window and vent drafts. Billowing sails that never traveled, never took their creators anywhere. The dust has settled upon Mother’s once-pale, now dark green, carpet. The color’s all the rage, you said. I hadn’t believed you. I couldn’t. Not carpet the color of the mashed garden peas you fed to Sheila one tiny spoonful at a time. *** mother v. To birth or produce. To create. n. The biological female parent of offspring. An origin. *** Sixty-two years, and this is it? All around, Mother, are your monuments, evidence that you existed. But, I cannot yet consider the things in your piles, cupboards, closets, and drawers. So, I stand with my back to them all, with your curtains snipped and fallen to the floor. The spinning spiders have moved on, and so many flies just lie there now cluttering your sill and aluminum window track. So many spinning spiders, once cutting lace webs in sunlight, their yet-undusty webs disappearing each time the sun crossed them just so. Laurie and Sheila could not come, not today. Not ever, I think. But, Someone’s moving into the place in a week! the agent said, and so here I sit, your eldest, crosslegged on canned-pea-colored carpet with your scissors and dust, trying to swallow all of this one tiny spoonful at a time. I rub my fingers across my brow and squeeze the 104
bridge of my nose. The dust has also settled in a fine, nearly imperceptible layer upon me. My hands have your dust, and my forearms. I sneeze again and wonder if I could blend into the carpet were I to lie upon it long enough, unmoving like you are now. *** How to Make Paper Dolls: First, fold your piece of paper, just so, into an accordion. Then, cut the head, neck, and shoulders out, but leave the hands connected at the folds. Cut out the torso, skirt, and legs next, but leave the feet connected at the folds, too. Open your paper up, et voila! You have a string of dolls. *** I pull the felled curtain toward me and cut an eight-anda-half-by-eleven-inch swatch from it. I fold it into an accordion, just so. I cut out our heads, necks, and shoulders first, leaving our hands connected at the folds. Like you taught me, Mother. Then, I cut our torsos, skirts, and legs, leaving our feet connected at the folds, too. I place the scissors beside me and open my swatch, revealing our connected silhouettes. Left to right: Laurie, Sheila, you, and me. The four of us strung together, draped across my palms. *** cut v. To shape by penetrating. To pass through. n. A passage made by digging or probing. A transition from one scene to another.
*** I brush the dust from my hands and squint against the sunlight to watch a long-jawed orb weaver on the other side of the window extend its long copper forelegs and gather lengths of previously spun thread. Perhaps it is a lucky one that made it outside from in. The spider drops quickly upon new thread, stopping, dropping and stopping again. No, it’s not the sunlight that tints this spider’s thread an unusual golden hue. It is the thread itself. The breeze tousles the dangling spider, pressing it sideways, and the spider catches the aluminum window casing, fixes its thread and, now free, climbs upward to do it all again. I pick up your scissors and slip the lower jaw beneath Sheila’s fabric hand, the one grasping yours, and I snip. I cut the fabric connection where your feet touch too. Sheila and Laurie, still connected at their hands and feet, fall to your green carpet. I slip the lower jaw of your scissors beneath my fabric hand, the one grasping yours, and I snip. I sever the fabric connection at our feet too, and my doll falls, too. Yet, I still hold you, Mother, just so.
The Sleep Thief by Sandra Crook
Emily shifted restlessly in the bed, easing the cat gently from her feet. It stirred in protest before settling back on Emily’s feet again, and she sighed. The sound of gunfire, explosive music, and the occasional scream drifted from the sitting room across the hall. George was watching the late film. Not for the first time, she regretted being persuaded to sell their three-bedroom house for this so-called “sheltered housing,” a row of poorly soundproofed single-story apartments, with one bedroom, a wet-room specially designed for the elderly, and a tiny kitchen which encouraged the production of nothing more ambitious than toasted sandwiches. “So much more suitable for you,” the kids had enthused, gratefully pocketing the surplus cash generated by the sale. “We won’t have to worry about you falling down the stairs anymore.” “And you won’t have to call round to see us half as often,” thought Emily, shifting her aching legs again. Their former home had a spare bedroom, to which she would retreat on the nights when George stayed up until the film ended—or until, as was usually the case these days, he could no longer follow the plot. No spare room now though. The noise from the adjacent room ceased abruptly. She felt the cat lift its head briefly. Within a few minutes, the hum of the microwave reverberated through the thin 107
walls as George heated up his milk. Was it too much, she wondered, to expect him to drink it whilst watching the film? The bedroom lights snapped on. She listened, eyes closed, as he undressed, wheezing heavily with the exertion. The bed dipped as he climbed in, rose as he remembered his book on the dresser, and dipped again. The sickly smell of hot milk permeated the room, and her stomach lurched uneasily. The cat raised its head to sniff the air, grumbled quietly, and settled down again. George rustled the pages of his book intermittently as he read. He blew heavily on his milk several times before taking a cautious noisy sip, his teeth clinking against the side of the mug. He gulped loudly and then blew on the milk again before returning the mug to the bedside table. About another ten minutes yet, she estimated, trying to think of something else. Why, she wondered, did he bother to heat the milk up to boiling point if it was necessary to blow it cool again? He drained his cup with a noisy slurp and set it down loudly, startling the cat. Emily thought she heard it sigh. The bed rose again as George lumbered off to the bathroom. The light snapped on, the cord flicking against the wall as it always did if you released it immediately, and the toilet seat thumped as it was raised. And then, the exquisite tortureâ€Śthe wait. She visualized him leaning against the bathroom wall, waiting for nature to take its course. Minutes passed. Her nerves screamed in anticipation, waiting for the completion of the ritual so that sleep might finally claim her. She was so close now. So tired. Eventually she heard the thin trickle of urine hitting the bowl, hesitant at first, then eventually settling down 108
into a steady flow. Listening, quantifying, she guessed she might not be disturbed again for three or four hours. That would be enough for her. The cord hit the wall again; the bed sank; bedclothes were violently dragged across the bed as George built himself a cocoon; and then darkness followed. For a while, silence reigned. Tension began to flow from her body, and the cat, having been dragged across the bed with the quilt, stepped delicately back and burrowed comfortably into her lap. She let the darkness enfold her, and within minutes, felt herself drifting into that pre-somnolent world of nonsense, where the brain wanders free of the restraints of reason. George turned onto his back and began to snore, softly at first, but within minutes, the snoring rose to a shattering crescendo that sounded like he was choking to death. If only, she thought, guiltily. The cat stirred restlessly and dropped onto the floor. She heard the scratch of its claws against the door as it strolled away to the sitting room. She willed herself to ignore the snoring, but it was hopeless. She tried touching him gently with her foot, but although the noise abated, it resumed almost immediately, if anything slightly louder. It was now almost two hours since sheâ€™d retired to bed. Wearily, she swung her legs out of bed, dragged on her dressing gown and felt her way through the darkness to the sitting room. The cat was grooming itself on the rug in front of the fire. She sat down on the settee and began to sob quietly into her hands. This was the third successive night without sleep, and she saw years of this torment stretching before her. She ached with despair and fatigue. 109
The cat stretched, yawning, and brushed reassuringly against her bare legs. It padded quietly back towards the bedroom, stopping at the doorway to give her a long, level stare. Emily lay down across the settee, pulling her robe tightly round her body. As she drifted towards a deep, dreamless sleep she heard Georgeâ€™s snoring gradually becoming more muffled before finally stopping altogether. *** It was a quiet funeral, just the immediate family and a few friends. Afterwards, Emily resisted all offers of company, and returned gratefully to the empty apartment, looking forward to an early night. It had been a sad and trying day. The cat was waiting for her, stretched out on Georgeâ€™s side of the bed. It raised its head to watch her enter, its gaze flicking to the glass of cold milk she was carrying. She undressed, drank the milk quickly, visited the bathroom and then got into bed. She started to drift off almost immediately, thankful that she didnâ€™t generally snore.
Parmesan Dreams: An Allegory in which Umberto Eco and the Rat King Converse about Various Things & in which You Just Lost the Game by Travis King
In the time of year when Christmas approaches, night comes early—a fact about which people complain often but rats do not. Rats prefer darkness. Somewhere in Italy, one Umberto Eco sits alone in his study, quill in hand, candles burning to illuminate his workspace. At least, that’s how this author imagines the scene. Feel free to re-imagine the setting to suit your own image of the man. Without warning, a rat emerges from the wall. Unconcerned that he might be interrupting the thought processes of a literary genius, the rat scampers up Eco’s escritoire and settles beside one of the candles. Eco ceases his work, ponders the newcomer momentarily, and then places his quill in the inkwell at the corner of his escritoire. “Buon giorno, piccolo topo,” says he—speaking Italian, of course, since it is his native tongue and he is in his native land. “Buon giorno, signore,” the rat replies, with a tip of his crown. “Lo son oil re dei topi.” “O, mi perdoni, Vostra Maestà,” says Eco. “Non mi rendevo conto che. Mi scuso per la familiarità, con cui mi sono rivolto a voi.” “It’s quite alright,” says the rat—still speaking Italian, of course, being an Italian rat in Italy, but translated here
for the convenience of an English-speaking audience. “I am here for conversation; formality is not required.” “Conversation?” Eco replies. “Have you a topic in mind?” “Not at all—er, I did not get your name, signore.” The Rat King frowns. “Umberto, Your Majesty.” The Rat King waves his paw. “No ‘Your Majesty’ tonight, friend Umberto. Call me Ferruccio.” “Ah,” says Eco, “a fine name. It imbues you with the strength of iron…and, for better or worse, its malleability. Or it would if names truly possessed power and meaning—an assertion I heartily protest. Sometimes, a rose is a woman; sometimes, a rose is a secret. Sometimes, a rose is merely a rose; sometimes, it is nothing at all.” “You are cryptic, Signor Umberto,” says Ferruccio. “I know nothing of roses—only garbage and cheese.” Eco releases a hearty bellow. “Then shall we speak of cheese? Parmagiano perhaps?” The Rat King strokes his whiskers momentarily, then says, “No, signore, there is enough talk of cheese within the walls and sewers—enough to fuel nightly dreams of parmagiano. I would like to hear more of your world. Perhaps you might tell me what it is you do with that feather.” “But of course, friend Ferruccio. I write.” “Write?” the rat wonders. “Of course, rats would know very little of writing— although I am sure you have seen words imprinted on garbage.” The Rat King gazes at the parchment lying before him. “Yes,” he says, “I have seen such strange markings before. I do not understand their meaning.” He frowns. 112
“It is such a pity,” says Eco, sharing in the rat’s sadness, “that you cannot interpret them. But here, I will reveal to you a secret.” Ferruccio’s ears perk up on either side of his tiny crown. “Oh, please do!” he chitters. Eco leans in, whispers, “Words are not the things they describe; they are but symbols, and symbols have such meaning as you ascribe to them.” Beside the flickering candle—a symbol for sure—the Rat King strokes his whiskers once more. “Your thoughts are profound, friend Umberto. They require much consideration. Such meaning as I ascribe to them, you say?” “Indeed,” says Eco. “Symbols are not real. Words are not real. Even things are not real.” Had he sprung a trap full of cheesy goodness upon his own tail, the Rat King would not have looked more stunned. “Surely that cannot be. There was a great storyteller among our kind, a prolific rat who composed many tales to be passed down among our communities. His name was Filippo Chedicchio, and he once said, ‘Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.’ Is there not, then, some external reality that exists regardless of one’s perception?” Eco smiles. “Yes, this too is true.” The rat’s tail twitches. “How can both be true?” “It is a paradox, is it not?” There is a long stretch of silence. Finally, the rat says, “It grows late, and you have given me much to think about. I should like to know more, but I must soon depart.” “Before you do, friend Ferruccio, King of the Rats, will you grant me one boon?” “Of course, Signor Umberto, of course.” 113
“Play tris with me.” The rat emits an excited squee and nods his head rapidly while clapping his paws. “Tris is my favorite game!” Eco grins, lays out a blank sheet of parchment, and draws upon it a large octothorp. “Your feather is too unwieldy for me to handle,” says the King. “I am accustomed to making simple scratches in the dirt.” Eco offers to draw the Rat King’s symbols for him, wherever his little paws indicate, and the battle of X’s and O’s begins. It takes but a few minutes, and in the end, the Rat King has three X’s in a row. “I have won!” King Ferruccio squeals. “Why do you smile, my friend, as if you are the victor?” “I will tell you one last secret before you go.” Again the rat’s ears perk up. “The game,” says Eco, “is a symbol of the world itself, its outcome a symbol of life. It is subject to perception, and the way I perceive it, to win is to lose, and to lose is to win.” Another long stroke of the whiskers, some tapping of the foot, and the Rat King says, “Truly, signore, you confound me. I will go and ponder what we have discussed, and someday I will come visit you again. He stretches forth a tiny foreleg. Eco nods, grasps the King’s paw, shakes it gently. The rat leaves. Umberto resumes his writing, which has both nothing to do with rats and tris and everything to do with them as well.
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