welter 20 1 4
Welter, an annual literary journal, is published by the School of Communications Design at the University of Baltimore 1420 North Charles Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21201.
The editors thank Kendra Kopelke for her support and guidance, and Dean Laura Bryan in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Chloe McDaniel Christopher Gray
Charles Clark Wesley Hunt
Nonfiction Editor: Cover image: The Birth of the Ataxian Mongrel by Allen Leper Hampton www.AllenHampton.net Cover font: Handwriting Draft
Is there no way out of the mind?
Layout & Design:
Address inquiries to the University of Baltimore, care of Welter. Visit welter.ubalt.edu for guidelines.
Mohak Bhatt Matthew Cascio
Justin Salas Shay Simms
Glancy Edwards Bryan England Ayanna Graye Matt Hickey Salieu Jalloh
Jessica Taylor Michelle Wallace Tyaire Wilkerson Ian Williams Marissa Williams
Printed in the U.S.A. ÂŠ2014 University of Baltimore School of Communications Design.
contents K.D. Dickerson 8 A Walk Through Hell K.D. Dickerson ingested words and regurgitated stanzas. B.C. England 9 Just Hungry B.C. England’s favorite time of day... is night. Sharea Harris 12 Authority Sharea Harris could be an incarnation of Asherah, could not be. Selwyn Toa 12 Tagarobulu Selwyn Toa likes engaging with people and exploring new ideas. S.P. Myers 13 Leslie S.P. Myers, ruined. C.E. Clark 14 The Red Road Hailing from Arizona, C.E. Clark is a desert rat, seeking the savage truth.
contents Marion Winik 17 My Dear Boys Marion Winik posts selfies at marionwinik.com.
Holly Osborne 28 Lock and Key Holly Osborne loves sleeping all day when it rains.
Mandy May 19 Dear Good Sir— Mandy May supports frequent and extended naps.
Molly Goldman 29 Ryan Molly Goldman lines her bookshelves with cookbooks.
Lisa Beebe 20 Squdgie Lisa Beebe lives in Los Angeles, where she sometimes talks to the ocean.
Megan Wilkins 31 Insects Megan Wilkins is on the continual search for the elusive beauty of the indigo bunting.
Gary Blankenburg 22 Star-gazing Septuagenarian Gary is gathering himself up for eternity and a meeting with The Great Perhaps.
Brendan Morris 40 Silo Point Pano Brendan Morris is the greatest man that ever lived. Mira Fouad 42 A Hand for Birds Mira Fouad writes to her wannassah, always. Cheri L. Miller 48 Fight Cheri Miller loves light on water.
Emily N. Spanos 32 Dogwood Emily N. Spanos is the writer in all places published.
Elizabeth Wilson 23 Shhh #5 Elizabeth Wilson is also known as Lizzie Spaceship.
Dustin Fisher 33 With Child Dustin Fisher and his daughter are learning how to raise each other.
Courtney Birst 24 Puerto Rico Courtney Birst is worth Googling.
Jules Rolfe 35 Early Acorns Jules Rolfe kisses frogs under the new moon.
Chris Eisner 25 Vega Kim Malinowski 16 Pompeii Kim Malinowski is a lover of words.
Jim Taylor 39 Origami Jim Taylor sits in darkness with the light on.
Betsy Boyd 36 On Becoming a Bumblebee Betsy Boyd is into stretch pants.
Chris Eisner has licked a BPD Police Officer’s neck and survived the aftermath.
Kerrin Smith 49 Alms Kerrin Smith fell asleep reading a forum called “I Hate Myself” the other night. Brandy McCluskey 49 I Have Not Eaten Brandy McCluskey lives in a basement with her cat and goldfish. K. Zauditu-Selassie 50 Pattin’ Juba K. Zauditu-Selassie writes the stories her ancestors whisper.
contents Christen Chorba 52 A Better Place, I’m Told Christen Chorba is very discreet, but will haunt your dreams. Tommy Lucas 53 Those Who Were Seen Dancing Tommy Lucas doesn’t eat cooked spinach. Christopher Warman 58 Catharsis Christopher Warman wears his Captain America shirt to work often. (Ironically.) Erika Ostergaard 58 Speak, Fridge Erika Ostergaard is a renaissance man. Kimberley Lynne 59 Baked Kimberley Lynne and her characters love chicken potpie! L.C. Sanders 62 Light Mist L.C. Sanders is a visionary in search of a vision. Jacob Ian DeCoursey 63 Santa’s Train to Heaven Jacob Ian DeCoursey thinks this is too short for a bio.
Judith Krummeck 79 Getting the News Judith Krummeck, an immigrant, writes love letters to America.
Tom Rasinski 66 Folk Music Tom Rasinski [refuses to cooperate]. Dave Stroh 67 Playing in the Street Dave Stroh’s greatest work is still unwritten.
Saralyn Lyons 82 About a Kiss Saralyn Lyons wants to sing backup for you at karaoke.
Mike Smith 67 665
Erin Drew 83 Research and Development Erin Drew really loves that her last name is a past tense verb.
Mike Smith is a Prince fan. Joseph Rathgeber 68 G.O.D. Joseph Rathgeber really enjoys New Jersey gourds.
Jeanette Garcia 87 Smear Jeanette Garcia Polasky provides Polasky dispatches from the brink of sanity.
Bremer Acosta 72 The Wolf Who Ate the Boy Bremer Acosta: Biography is still uploading, 26%.
Nathan Hollaway 88 Brother Sister Dog Nathan Hollaway is a friend to dogs and little brother to the world.
Nancy Davidoff Kelton 75 The Pajama Game Nancy Kelton’s parents paid a lot of money to send her to camp.
Wick Fields 92 The Transfiguring of Fletcher Hammond Wick Fields would like to thank living for making this story possible.
G.J. Sieck 78 Horde of the Unvanquished G.J. Sieck: Human-transmitter of ideas through words and images.
Michelle Wallace 97 I Am That, I Am Michelle Wallace is just a girl who likes to take pictures & write. S. Fischbach-Braden 99 Name Me Sylvia, Tracy, Katrina, Anna, and Lisa have T. Hauser a total of eleven a’s in their names. K. Robinson A. Slesinski L. Van Wormer Alan Ginsberg 100 Baltimore with You Alan Ginsberg is the one that isn’t dead or a Supreme Court justice.
A Walk Through Hell
K. D. Dickerson
between the treads of track shoes old chewing gum molded into the ridges of a dirty sneaker soon washed away by miles of splashing in cloudy rain crunch of syringes without a drop to spare roasted urine in the cracks of alleys the stench marinating fertilizing concrete gardens over-smoked cigs remaining residue from crusted lips flooded walkways damn wet socks dew between toes malfunctioning crosswalk red hand forever flashing
cracked pavement scuffed shoes weaving through flocks of bus riders who own the sidewalk all to arrive at a destination that closed early
His eyelids lifted slowly, and his gaze swept left to right, left to right. It took more than a few seconds for him to figure out where he was. What had happened. Why he was here. His head throbbed, but his hands refused to rise up and massage his temples. He tipped his head forward to look down, then stopped before his chin fell forever to his chest. In that quick glance, he had seen his numb, unresponsive hands resting alongside his thighs, as well as a white curtain of deflated airbag draped across his knees. Peering through disheveled strands of steel and onyx hair, he saw the rough-hewn brown of a light pole, the car’s hood crumpled around it. Overhead, a yellowed streetlamp fought the early evening darkness. Flurries fluttered down, melting to nothing on the sunroof glass. When his eyes shifted to the rearview mirror, his brows caterpillared together. He remembered the alley having a heavy carpet of slippery, dirty, grey slush. He remembered the car accelerating, sliding, turning, the blurred rowhouse fences, the stone of backyard garages. The light pole. And he remembered how he ended up here. * Yesterday was a good day. As a Code Enforcement Inspector, it was his job to keep the streets and alleys of his district free of the debris that provided housing and food for those wretched rats. To protect the community from the brainless creatures by planting poison and laying traps. And to educate by citation those who provided for this tide of death. So when he had driven his
compact car down this particular alley, he was astonished to find a young girl spreading food for the scourge. He stopped, got out, pushed through a sagging chain link gate and stepped into the yard. The child froze, and then called out, “Mom!” The back door of the house opened and a woman came out, pulling on a worn fall jacket. She stopped a few feet away, then had the nerve to look confused when she recognized him. The girl scurried behind her, any remaining breadcrumbs tumbling from her hands to the frozen concrete. “Apparently you didn’t learn.” “But Mr. Leo, I bought the metal trashcans you said to get, and I put them up on cinder blocks just like you told me.” He glared down at the little girl peeking around her mother’s leg. “Then why is your child out here providing for the vermin?” “Please, Mr. Leo. We can’t afford another fine. She was just putting out bread for the sparrows.” He did not raise his eyes to the woman. “The food is on the ground. The rats eat from the ground. She is feeding these evil creatures, and I cannot allow that.” “They’re not evil,” the child said. “They are just hungry.” “They are destructive, brainless, selfish demons who feed on your naïve goodness and spread their filth.” He slipped a citation book from his pocket and flipped to the next blank sheet. But before he could lower pen to paper, the young girl stepped from behind her mother and stood tall, her tiny fists planted on her hips. She looked up at the man who had come into her yard and upset her mother. “Rats are not dumb, they are very very smart, even smarter than some dogs, and they can remember a lot. They laugh and dream. And they have families and communities. And they help
and take care of each other. And they even take food back to their babies before they eat. I learned that in school.” She was steeling herself for a second round when her eyes widened. She scampered back behind her mother as he bent toward her. He glared at this waif who dared challenge him. “They exist to defile and defame and destroy. I know you don’t understand, so let me simplify: they are bad. It is my job to get rid of them.” “They are not. You are dumb and wrong. They’re cold and hungry and just trying to live. Just like us,” she said, her arms tight around her mother’s leg. He straightened, his anger wiped away by an icy smile. His bony fingers whitened as he gripped his pen, wrote on the pad, tore off the top sheet and speared it at the woman. “The fine is doubled this time. It doubles again on the third citation within thirty days. Control your property.” He turned away from them without another word, slipped back into his car and drove down the alley. As he pulled onto the street he saw one ahead. The dirty, grey rat was trying to cross in front of him. The car’s tiny engine whined as he drove it over the creature. He truly believed he could feel its organs burst and hear its bones crunch beneath the tires. He looked in the mirror and saw the body squirm then lie still, sinister red eyes fading to black as it died. * Today was a better day. When he had shown up for work this morning his little car was gone. Parked in its place was a new full size sedan, complete with leather seats and a sunroof. His boss explained that because he had issued more citations in the past
year than the rest of Code Enforcement combined, he was being rewarded with one of the first new cars in the city. He had taken his well-deserved keys with a flourish and resumed his crusade. Nearing the end of the day, he found himself stopped at the entrance to this same alley. His new chariot affirmed his duty to defend his territory, and he had to know if the woman or her child would once again be providing for the rodents. He eased into the alley carefully. It was a much tighter fit with the bigger car, and it was beginning to snow. He slowed at that particular yard, but it was empty. He squinted but did not see any new or even old breadcrumbs or other citable debris. Disappointed, and forgetting for the moment that he was in a different car, he pressed the gas pedal too hard and spurted down the alley. When he tapped the brakes, the car began to slide on a thick layer of crunchy, lumpy, grey slush that seemed to undulate in the fading sunlight. Slush that he was sure was not there yesterday. He gripped the ineffective steering wheel and pumped the brakes as he watched the houses yards fences garages blur by. Then there was the pole. * He could see that the car was wedged at an angle across the narrow alley between twin cinderblock garages, barely twenty feet from the blacktop street. What he could not see was the grey slush that had caused him to lose control. Instead there were four wide ribbons of liquid red that curved from one side of the alley to the other before disappearing beneath the rear of the car. His hands still would not move, so he tried his feet. He had no idea if they were moving. He certainly could not feel them, nor could he feel or move any other part of himself below the neck. It
was a struggle to keep his head upright. Frigid wisps of air caressed his cheeks as the car’s heat faded. The snowflakes no longer melted on the sunroof. The alley dimmed. Movement in front of the car caught his attention. Two young men walking across the alleyway had apparently seen his wrecked car and started toward him. His joy turned to dismay when they stopped short. Their faces showed awe, then horror, and they began backing away. He tried to call out, but could manage only a whisper. His breathing remained slow and steady, on involuntary autopilot. Overhead, the streetlight flickered. Both men turned and ran out of the alley as the lamp lost power and faded. A slender slice of setting sunlight was all that remained, washing across the buildings, skipping over his darkening crevice. But there was still enough light to see what was just beyond the windshield. Perched on the hood, settled back on its haunches, paws resting on the wiper blade, was a grizzled old grey rat. It was leaning toward him, its eyes, like soft red crystals, locked on his. His brain screamed at his body to move, and he was rewarded by a scraping sound from beneath the dash; his soles moving ever so slightly against the floor mat. He smiled. The sliver of sunlight was gone, and there would be no moon tonight. The snow was falling harder, coating the sunroof but not hiding the unblinking crimson orbs gathering overhead. He willed his body to move. A grating from beyond the airbag, as well as a shift of his torso, rewarded him. He was coming back. He grinned. The top half of the windshield was covered by snow, and the car continued to darken. Tiny claws scraped the hood as dozens of rats gathered at the glass. Rubies skittered around the edges of
the snow-coated sunroof. He closed his eyes and reached deep, searching for that uncompromising resolve that had made him the king of rat eradication. He heard movement at his feet, the sound of pant cloth rustling. His abdomen wobbled and shifted. He almost giggled with glee as he opened his eyes and finally rested his neck, letting his head tip forward. It would not be long. In the vanishing light he saw the front of his shirt move. A pair of red crystals pushed from between the buttons over his stomach. He could not raise his head. Another pair followed, then another. They scaled his chest. He could not look away. The white airbag lifted, and his thighs were awash with a scarlet glow that trooped past his waist. He could not run. He could do nothing but watch and think as the red eyes advanced. He realized that there had been no grey slush. Understood why the skid marks were red instead of black. Knew why he was sitting under a streetlight in imminent darkness. Heard the little girl’s prophesies. Not just hungry, he thought. Then, finally, he did feel something. A brush of soft fur at his throat. A needle sharp nip just below his ear. “It had to be done,” he hissed as the car went black.
tonight is a blue clear sky cold and crisp bright and dominant in a gentle
She is small. So small, in fact, she is microscopic. She is broken and she knows this. Tears stream down her face and dot her skin. She wishes to become smaller because small things don’t get hurt. No one pays attention to small things. Small things roll around, slip through cracks, and ease past the big things that smash and break and beat and hurt. No, this doesn’t happen to small things, not ever. Except…Leslie is small. And she is broken. Leslie? She wonders if that is still her name. As she sits in the corner, her essence slowly folding into herself and evaporating, she realizes that she is not Leslie. She couldn’t be. Leslie is strong and powerful. Leslie sings songs and skips on her way to the store. She buys chips with the quarter that her Daddy gives her and gets ice cream from the ice cream man with the dollar from her Mama, a dollar and a quarter for sprinkles. Leslie does hopscotch better than anybody else on the block and is never frozen in freeze tag. She knows how to dial her phone number and can say her address fast. So fast that it can barely be understood, but she knows it. And she knows not to whistle at the dinner table because it’s rude. And not to put her feet in the chair because Mama just cleaned the house. And not to take shortcuts because bad things hide there and they are frightening. But Leslie does not know not to play with chalk in the backroom in the afternoon by herself, because men will touch her and because she is small, it will hurt. And she will bleed. And since the men are Big they will not care. And they will say how good it feels, and how she was asking for it. But it doesn’t
i do this every day kind of way.
Tagarobulu (Eternal Unity) by Selwyn Toa
feel good and Leslie didn’t ask for it because Mama always said “keep your pock-a-book closed.” And she did but Mama never told her what to do when the men ask her if she wants to see a trick and she says “yes” because it is lonely in the backroom with the chalk and these men look like friends. Friends that will hold Leslie down and stick wet things inside her that rip and tear. And she will cry because she is the trick, and she is ruined. But the men will just laugh as the tears begin to mix with blood and the brokenness swallows her whole. And the blood coated with tears and innocence, will stain her tights and her “Monday” panties that she sometimes wears when it’s not Monday. Mama says this is ok because sometimes Wednesdays feel like Mondays. But Leslie knows there will be no time to clean the bloodstained “Monday” panties left on the floor of the backroom with the chalk because laundry was done two days ago, and Mama has no time for girls too small to clean messes too big for them to understand. Leslie is no longer Leslie and no longer beautiful. She is ugly and small. Small and broken. And in the spaces that are not full of smallness, there is hate.
The Red Road C.E. Clark
Deacon had never meant to become a killer. As he took the reins of his appaloosa and swung himself softly into the saddle, all he could remember were the angry bursts of gunfire and the heavy stench of gunsmoke and the stinging in his eyes. Two men were dead. One was left, his leg twitching on the floorboard soaked with blood beneath him, the sound of his boot knocking on the wood. Deacon remembered standing over the man, how the brown scar that dug across his cheek and over his jawline made his face look ugly. He wasn’t sure if the man had been conscious. He didn’t much care. Deacon took three measured breaths, then pulled his long-knife from the scabbard and bent low to the man. He placed a hand over his forehead, like a priest might. The leg twitched harder against the floorboard. The boot-heel thump, thump, thumping. Over and over. The rest of the world was a quiet shell around them. Deacon lifted the chin, revealing a pink neck ringed with dirt, sweat, and grime. The rest of it reminded Deacon of his uncle, slaughtering hogs for the winter. A quick movement of the knife across the neck, and nothing but the hot blood streaming out. The ugly man’s face might have contorted had he been conscious. He might’ve screamed. He might’ve thrashed around. But there was only the slow, slow, slow twitching of the leg, and then there was silence. It could have been the end of a sermon. It could have been the end of time. For Deacon, it was the end of a memory. The memory of the ugly man, with the ugly scar, murdering his parents while he watched, hidden beneath the floorboards of their cabin.
It had taken a year to find the man. A year in which Deacon had grown beyond the bounds of his age. His wants were no longer the wants of a fifteen year old. His eyes were no longer soft along the edges of the whites; they were sharp and hard and had seen things. As the horse plunged into the river, its dark mane floating with the buoyancy of black silk, he twisted in his saddle to see Isaiah, following him into the water on his own bay horse. The animal’s eyes grew wide and white with the shock of the water, the reddish mane tossing side to side. Isaiah calmed him, stroking the broad neck. Soon, the two boys were on the far bank of the river. The sun was angling toward the west, like a red needle peeking over the mountains. It had all been a rush after the killing. Deacon wouldn’t allow Isaiah to take part. He had made that clear. Now, the dark-haired half-breed sat stoking their campfire with a stick. His mother had been Apache, his father white. Isaiah was only ten when the soldiers cut out his tongue. Deacon didn’t know any more than that. He didn’t want to. It wasn’t right to ask a man those kinds of questions. Deacon lost himself in the hypnotic wanderings of the flames until a rock hit his arm. He looked up to find Isaiah staring at him, the question alive in his eyes. Deacon looked down at his hands, and realized without realizing it, that he had been holding the Ugly Man’s scalp the whole time. He wrapped it back in leather and washed the blood from his hands with his canteen. Isaiah wrote in the dirt next him, “bad.” Deacon stood up and rubbed the word away with his boot. He
pointed at himself indignantly, “I earned that! You hear me? Why else we been riding all over this damn country?” Isaiah didn’t back down. He stood still, back straight, chest out, his black hair mussed from riding, his hands dirty, but the rest of him clean. His shirt tucked into his trousers, and wrinkled where the gunbelt would sit. He put out his hand, and shook it, demanding. Deacon responded with a slow, deliberate shake of his head. His eyes never leaving Isaiah. Finally, after another tense moment of waiting with his hand out, Isaiah backed down. Deacon caught his eyes before he turned away - and what he saw in them—hurt. Isaiah walked around the fire and back to his bedroll and lay down with his back to Deacon. Deacon hadn’t moved. He remained still, listening to the wood popping in the fire. He felt the heaviness of the scalp in his hand. Still fresh. Still bleeding. He looked at the fire. He looked at the leather and what was wrapped inside. He let out a heavy sigh, which seemed to emanate from his very bones out toward the dark universe above. He peeked at the flames one last time, his eyes glazed with relief, then kneeled, and shoved the scalp back into the saddlebag. He rested his head against the hard edges of the flaps, and let the release of the moment pass through him. He could almost let the tears stream down. Almost. It was over. He took another breath, then pulled the scalp out of the saddlebag and clutched it in his fist until he felt the wet moistness cold upon his palm. With some reluctance, but also some letting go, some peace that rose sharply in his chest, Deacon tossed the
scalp into the fire. It popped and smoked. The coppery smell of the blood hit his nose, and then the deep rancidness of the hair that made him cough and his face wrinkle up and then it was gone. Just another pile of ash, sitting on the smoldering mesquite and cedar. He looked up to find Isaiah standing over him. The Indian’s dark eyes clouded with uncertainty. But finally he nodded. He made a quick gesture, the edge of his hand cutting toward the ground, it’s over. Deacon watched the cinders float into the darkening sky. Whatever it had been, whatever it had come to, he was free. It was done. Whatever life was left for him. It was done. It was done, now.
My Dear Boys
Let the ash mix with sweat. Grasp my shoulder, tangle your fingertips in my hair. There is no music, only embers and heat. Let us lie together, my back to your hip, legs splayed,
Even before I was old enough to drink, I was desperate to get into El Moroccan Room. I didn't know why I thought I would feel more at home in a gay bar with a drag show than I did in the straight teenaged world of my New Jersey high school, nor did the bouncer at the door. When I produced a fake ID, he invoked No Open-Toed Shoes to keep me out. I switched to saddle shoes and returned with a couple of swishy senior boys from the Drama Club. Success. I saw my first Tallulah, my first Judy, my first Liza. They were outrageous— husky-voiced, garishly painted, gleefully lewd. Threading my way to a spot beside the runway, I stared up in admiration. I had been having a rocky coming-of-age as a young woman; femininity felt like a put-on. All around me, girls seemed to be magically metamorphosing into silky, alluring creatures; I was still looking for the teen magazine that would tell me how. Vamping down the runway in their clodhopper high heels, those reckless, ironic drag queens appeared as beacons to me, fur-coat aunties from somewhere in my spiritual family tree. What a little pioneer of gender dysphoria I was. If I could not be one of them, I could at least be the kind of girl the gay boys love, a dramatic, whiskey-flavored, junior division fag hag, a reputedly derogatory term that never bothered me. My apprenticeship in this department included an intense friendship with a hazel-eyed, long-lashed college housemate who read Proust in French and put Gruyere and peas in the macaroni. I was not jealous of his boyfriend nor he of mine, but those two were
sometimes slightly annoyed. Next came my brilliant boss at Stanley Kaplan headquarters, stooped and bespectacled at 38, who taught me to write reading comprehension passages and to love the painter Marsden Hartley. His mother was a famous novelist of the mid-century, still alive when we met. The only time we were together outside the office was the day he kindly escorted me home from work on the subway—my bumpy romance with a reluctant co-worker had collided with my drug problem and caused a nervous breakdown in my cubicle. I still attempt his dashing way of pouring hot coffee from the carafe into the cup, beginning high, swooping down and up, finishing with a snap of the wrist. After the breakdown, my friends took me to Mardi Gras to forget my troubles and there in The Fatted Calf on St. Peter Street I found Tony. The second I saw him I fell for him, and by this time I was enough of a Judy to get his attention. At the time, I customarily wore a satin-lapelled tuxedo jacket, one of the pockets filled with packets of drugs. Once he began to return my interest—and then to fall for me, hard, famously propping up my picture on the napkin dispenser at meals after I went back to New York—I briefly considered having a sex change so I could be perfect for him. In the end, he was the one who changed as best he could; we married, set up house and had two sons. For everything that didn't work about this relationship, there is little doubt we were the loves of each other's lives. Not long before he died of AIDS in 1994, Tony and I became friends with a young gay deejay who ended up staying in the guest room for several hot summer months of our Blue Period, a time of betrayal, disease, dysfunction, and despair. To live with
us at all was noble work, including not just emotional chores but quite a bit of free babysitting. When it was over, my pseudoson, as I thought of him (Tony may have had other thoughts) paid me back all the money he'd borrowed, swept the kitchen one last time, and moved to San Francisco. These days—and how different these days are from El Moroccan times—Mark is engaged to a handsome architect, a pseudo-mother's dream, and I have recently become ordained a minister just in case they need my services. But more about my godless ministry another day. My second husband was straight, and good thing. I was ready for that. But among the other crises that developed over the ten years I lived with him in rural Pennsylvania was the prolonged absence of gay men. I missed having them in my life almost as badly as if I were one. In any case, when the marriage collapsed, it is no surprise that the hand that reached in to save the day belonged to a tall, dark, handsome realtor from Baltimore who was also gay. After six months of careening around town in his smashedup car, my new BGFF showed me a place for sale around the corner from his, and I moved right in. Ken and I have had a great mutual aid society in recent years, supporting each other through various health crises and vehicular disasters. He too is getting married, on January 6 in Buenos Aires, an event which I will only miss because I have a ticket to Africa to visit Jim and Steve, a beloved pair who have decamped to Kampala. The older I get, the more like a drag queen I feel. I am not complaining.
Dear Good Sir— Mandy May
You aren’t well-behaved on Mondays; that boding stare of yours buries itself in my bones, boils me like burnt butter. I need to soak after all this silent courting: eyes laced in the gaping of rooms. My delicate mouth is fat with worry over words and whether to say them —or keep eating them. Your eyes are very intense sir and yet I don’t know what color they are. Something silly to know them so intimately and still not know them at all.
Squdgie Lisa Beebe
Tyler was the first professional puppeteer I’d ever known. He’d worked on Sesame Street, Muppet movies, and a few national tours. He was good. He could pick up a fork, a napkin, or a pen, and give it a personality. I was still messed up in the head over an ex, so I didn’t care that Tyler talked more than he listened, or that he had a sarcastic laugh. I didn’t mind that instead of taking me to dinner, he’d drunk dial me after he’d been out with his “real” friends. I needed a distraction, and Tyler fit the bill. Since I had roommates, we mostly hung out at his place. Ty’s apartment was covered in puppets—wooden marionettes, papier maché creatures with googly eyes, and even a bedraggled Grover from when he was a kid. One day, he introduced me to Squdgie, a hand puppet made of thick orange felt and old socks. Squdgie had a green faux fur mohawk, button eyes, and a tiny Metallica T-shirt. When Tyler first brought Squdgie out, I made a face. “What is that?” Then he used his right hand to bring the soft body to life. “Hey, beautiful,” the puppet said, in a voice lower than Tyler’s. “I’m Squdgie.” After that, Squdgie was usually on the couch in the living room, almost like a fuzzy throw pillow with a face. Whenever there was a lull in the conversation, Ty would pick him up, and I’d end up chatting with Squdgie instead. Ty sometimes said things that pissed me off, but that never
happened when he was speaking through Squdgie. Squdgie would touch my arm with a furry four-fingered hand, and ask me about my day. He’d rest his head on my shoulder and call me “the gorgeous-est woman on Earth.” As I got to know Squdgie, things with Tyler kept getting worse. One night I woke up around 3:00 a.m. and realized he was trying to have sex with my sleeping body. My self-esteem was so low I stayed with him anyway. Squdgie, though... Squdgie was the kindest living creature I’d ever known. I knew he wasn’t really alive, but it didn’t matter. He was more considerate than Ty, and the perfect antidote to the exboyfriend who’d broken my heart a few months earlier. One night, Ty joked about taking Squdgie to bed with us, since I was so into him, and I blushed. I was nervous about sleeping with Squdgie, like it meant something, and I’d never felt that way with Ty. It was like Ty had been my rebound, the one who treated me like crap because that’s all I thought I deserved, and yet, through him, I met someone who believed I was worthy of love. That night was the closest I’ve ever come to having a threesome. Since it was Squdgie’s first time, we played ‘80s ballads, lit candles, and opened a bottle of champagne. It was the silliest sex I’ve ever had, full of puppety nibbles and tickles. As I lay awake afterward, my cheeks still sore from laughing, I caught myself wishing that Ty hadn’t been there. I knew Squdgie wouldn’t exist without him, and that when Squdgie caressed me, it was really Ty, but that didn’t change anything. I wanted to be with Squdgie and only Squdgie. God, this part is so sad. Ty had to fly to L.A. to shoot a pilot, and he let me stay at his place while he was gone. For two weeks, I slept with Squdgie
against my chest. I never tried to use him as a puppet or speak in his voice. I just held him and loved him and felt loved in return. When Ty came back, he gave me an awkward hug and thanked me for looking after the apartment. Something felt strange between us, and I wondered if he was going to confront me about my feelings for Squdgie. Did he know? No. He’d met a girl in L.A., an artist working on the set, and he felt closer to her than he’d ever felt to me. He apologized and sounded like he meant it. In those final moments, his voice sounded almost as gentle as Squdgie’s. He got in the shower, and I gathered my things. At first, I felt empty. I didn’t love Ty anyway, so what was the point of being upset? As I packed my bag, I saw Squdgie on the couch. His head was tilted to one side, and he looked disappointed. “Squdgie!” I ran over, picked him up, and hugged him as hard as I could. I considered stuffing him in my backpack, but I knew there was no point. Things between us would never be the same. “Oh, little guy,” I said. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” I hugged him again, set him upright on the couch, and headed out. That was years ago. I thought I was over Squdgie, until last week, when a friend asked me to babysit her daughter. When the girl asked to watch Sesame Street, I thought of Ty and wondered if he still worked on the show. We watched for a while, and then, during a song about the number five, the camera cut to a crowd of puppets dancing. Right in the middle was Squdgie. He was wearing a blue polo shirt and a fedora, but I recognized his eyes.
I didn’t realize I was crying until my little charge asked, “You don’t like this song?” “I do like it,” I told her. “I like it too much.” She leaned over and hugged me. “Let’s turn off the TV and go for a walk,” I said. I helped her put her shoes on, and we headed outside. As we walked up the street, we held hands. We paused before sidewalk cracks and hopped over them together. We kept going. We are humans, and that’s what humans do.
Star-gazing Gary Blankenburg
Lauren claimed that her mountain home was the best for star-gazingâ€” that when she looked up there came over her a blessed and quiet disembodiment. One night we walked down through the meadow and stood at the edge of the pond. We looked up as the darkness crowded in around us, and I swear I have never seen so many stars so crisp and gleaming, and together we felt a disembodimentâ€” a calm, other-worldliness, accompanied by the whish of night-wings and the croaking of frogs.
Afterward, in bed, I touched her small breasts, felt the curve of her spine, her pelvic bones, tasted her lips, her sex, and in her embrace I felt my spirit leave me to join the stars we left above.
Shhh #5, Elizabeth Wilson
The windows down, hair flying round my face, obscuring my view but your hand is on my knee and I’m grounded, even if this feels like flying. The feel of wet sand under my toes as we walk the beach at night, your hand in mine. Salt water hangs in the air, a scent I will forever associate with those months we spent playing house— Latin music floating up through our open windows and you dancing while you cooked, me laughing as I rounded the corner and surprised you. The salty air mingling with us late at night, sticking to our naked skin as we roll and collide, connect and eventually, divide.
The Vega whined in second gear but Chrome Road forgives no one. She got jerky and I was doing the turkey bob something fierce the last quarter mile, where the road gets narrow and passes between the quartzite walls like a black snake in banana pudding. The tachometer danced on the redline and I couldn’t hear David Lee Roth not talking about love when I rounded the last bend to the straightaway. A flagman was yelling and whipping his flag like it was on fire, standing where everybody stomps the gas and hangs their head out the window to hear their four barrels kick in. I hit the brakes too fast to take it out of gear and the engine farted and stalled, about 10 yards from where the flagman stood. “Road block,” he said, holstering his flag in his waistband. Untied boots scraped pebbles on the blacktop and he shuffled up the hill, his body suppressing a stride. Other than the engine cooling, his steps were all there was for noise. The last stretch of Chrome Road straightens out to forever and it’s shrouded in oaks and shrubbery of a thousand varieties, blocking sunlight even at its highest point in the day. A pack of roadmen stood in silhouette at the end of the straightaway, all pondering the center of the road where double white lines used to be, and a steamroller sat idle just beyond with a blacktop grinder. Back when the white lines were bright, we would race on Saturday night or Friday if there was a home game. MeMaw gave me Uncle Kevin’s yellow Vega on my seventeenth birthday, and
Still, humid salty air transports me back to when rash decisions and young love conquered all, or at least it conquered us.
on a Friday night in October of the same year, Eric Butanello, the quarterback, asked me if I wanted to “race my lemon or sit home and squeeze it.” I raced him after the game he lost in overtime to a town I can’t remember because of a Hail Mary he lobbed to the wrong player. When I got half a car length past his electric red GTO, paid for by Daddy the John Deere Salesman, I turned my lights out. He freaked, fell back, and I kept going, past the shrubbery and on and on until it was too black to see anything. I pulled over a mile later and Melanie Duffy was already getting in the back seat, wiggling out of her jean shorts. “What the hell you drivin’?” the flagman asked. Terry fucking Rowalski. A legend among the grits; I had not seen him since graduation. Just an older version of his teens now, puberty had left behind a potato sack body with stick legs. His face and neck were tanned brutally with lines of grime in the folds of his chins. His t-shirt didn’t fit and a hernia I remembered from our years in gym class bulged asymmetrically through a catfish belly. A stripe of black hair ran down to his privates and suddenly I wondered what the condition of his toilet was like wherever he now called home. “Vega,” I said, turning away. “Chevette?” Hands on hips, he scanned horizontally front to back, glancing at me when he got to the middle. “Hell, I haven’t seen one of these in years.” He all but fell on the car, putting both hands on the door frame. Tar and ass wafted in from those hands meant for nothing more than shoveling or scooping or pounding flesh into unconscious states on a Saturday night, then tearing clothing off to investigate the creamy filling. There was gold on one of his fingers. “What’s the problem down there?” I asked, unclipping my seat
belt, as if I could do anything about it. I sat up, leaned forward. Where the shrubs and trees started was a dead snapping turtle in the middle of the road on its back, arms and legs outstretched. “What, down there?” He stood straight again, taking his camo hat off, revealing a crisp hat tan on his forehead. “Crack in the road. Prob’ly sink hole. It’s releasing steam so gotta’ wait for HAZMAT to come take a look.” He ran a palm across his head, a sigh whistling through bamboo nasal passages. My hairline was creeping back every year and this troglodyte shaved a full head of black hair to the scalp, only to have the hand of God himself replace it days later like a Wooly Willy. The roadmen moved a few steps back from the center. There was a rumble and steam puffed out of where they had been standing moments before, engulfing them. Terry snorted and shook his head. “My daddy had a Chevette,” he said, putting an elbow on the roof and resting his head on his fist. His flag poked me in the shoulder and I leaned on the center console. “Door bottoms rusted out.” He coughed, choked up a loogie, spit it over the roof. “No, wait, he had a Vega. Yeah. Piece of shit, that thing.” Chrome Road saw little traffic now. The townhomes built two years before were completed under the condition the builder put in a connector across Finkelton Farm to the highway. The builder bought the farm, owned by one of the councilman, and built the town its road. A shortcut to the highway, along with a strip mall, and Chrome Road was demoted to the “back way.” No need for those curves anymore, where the teenagers died or worse, got pregnant and smoked weed. No point in even painting the lines. Nothing but quartzite cliffs to run into and snapping turtles to
run over. “Guess I’ll turn around.” I put it in neutral, started her on the second turn of the ignition, and the engine’s roar bounced off the cliffs. Terry stepped away, looking at the hood. Uncle Kevin had replaced the tranny and engine and hooked up dual exhaust. The Holley four barrel carburetor could never get enough gas but I never tired of seeing those stupid looks it got like the one Terry had when the engine came alive. Uncle Kevin was Airborne and died in the Panamanian War. MeMaw got sick of looking at his car collecting dust and red berries under the hawthorn tree next to the house. “He would have wanted somebody making good use of that thing,” she told me on my birthday. “All that work he put in it, just doesn’t seem right not driving it.” “Give it another minute prob’ly,” Terry said. “Maybe couple few.” He was leaning forward, squinting my direction. “What high school did you go to?” I told him and he nodded with more confirmation than smile. He fished in his pocket and his pants came down a little more revealing more pale skin and no underwear. Out came cigarettes and lighter. “Play ball?” “No.” He offered the pack and I said no thanks. A turkey vulture swooped in from the trees and landed a few feet from the snapping turtle. Terry clapped his hands and yelled like it was his own kill. The bird spread and flapped wings so wide I could hear them over the engine and Terry resumed position when it was gone. He mumbled about the past few years and how he got married and got a job with the county and I revved the Vega a
couple of times to drown him out but he didn’t pick up on it. “Bunch of pussies here, ya’ know?” He nodded at the workers down the road, spitting through his teeth in their direction. “I was up in North Montana over the winter plowing roads. Contract job for the government. They don’t call off school there. Weeks it would snow and hell if them kids weren’t not to be smack dab in their seat ready to go when that bell rang. Roads? Sheeiitt.” Another throat clearing, another spit. “You don’t see ‘em for months. Can’t tell where the oil ends and the gravel starts. When the snow finally does melt, sometimes the cars had up and made new roads without even knowing it. The foreman up there told me one year when June finally came, the snow and mud dried up and hell if they hadn’t been driving over one of the old Blackfoot Cemeteries for all of winter.” He was trying to pick up where we left off, only we had never started to begin with. There was only one high school in the county and there were over 500 of us in senior year. I was small, nervous, not much of a friend to anyone, and Terry sure as hell didn’t remember me. Only the Vega had brought me notoriety in my junior year when I beat Mr. Quarterback on Chrome Road. He lost the first game of the season, his girlfriend, and a race against an unknown face in a lemon Vega, all in the same night. I lost my virginity and a couple weeks of freedom when I came home at sun up, hung over from lack of sleep and too much sex. We watched the sun rise, me and Melanie Duffy. Watched it rise over tractors and dump trucks on the ridge, our skin stuck together at the shoulder. “Try to shake a Blackfoot’s hand. Look at you all caddywompus. Like you just pissed in their teepee.” The roadmen, dressed in blue Dickies and button up shirts,
had given up and were walking towards us. The steam wasn’t stopping, coming out in thin sheets. The trees were too dense for the steam to escape and it filled the straightaway. “What’chu say your name was?” He tucked in his shirt just at the front like young boys do after they pee. “I didn’t.” “Huh?” The roadman at the head of the line yelled for Terry to get over there and Terry paused in defiance a few seconds, firing off a smirk before shuffling off the way he came. Some of the men were looking at the snapping turtle as they passed it. One of them gave it a shove with his boot and there was a damp spot of blood underneath. Terry looked homeless next to the uniformed men of the road. Sloppy, a hanger on. My last name started with a B so no way I’d ever have homeroom with Terry. We never had the same lunch period or any classes together. Two strangers from either end of the county. He was six feet tall by ninth grade with a baby hair moustache. You couldn’t miss Terry. “Well,” he said when he came back over, hat off again, palm to bare scalp, “looks like the road is closed.” He put his hat on and leaned in. “Indefinitely.” “Alright.” I put her in reverse. “I’ll see ya’.” I watched him grow small in the rearview mirror. He stood there, waving, the line of working men walking by him. I would have honked but the horn never did work. Uncle Kevin cared about speed, not noise.
Lock and Key, Holly Osborne
There are a million and one little things I could tell you about his body. He had a slight scar on his chin from falling down the stairs as a child, and a series of freckles on his shoulder blade that formed the shape of a star. He had light blue eyes the color of a summer’s noon sky. I knew the arc of his muscular back and the scruff that ran across the lower part of his face. He would flare his nose when he was annoyed and would raise one of his brown eyebrows at you if he was in a playful mood. His goofy smile was what defined him to the outside world. He had one of those smiles that he could flash at you and somehow your day was instantly brighter. He was one of those people that decided the mood of a room. When he was happy people gravitated towards him and fed off of his exuberant energy. There was nothing significant about that day. It was early May, and all of the trees had already bloomed. There was that seasonal youthful excitement in the air because it was headed towards the end of the school year. The fresh breeze had brought his favorite light green shorts and old work t-shirt out of storage. He had taken the roof off of his jeep a week earlier and he drove it with a renewed pride. I was sitting on my porch reading my book when I spotted his bright red jeep pull into the driveway. I could see his signature Oakley sun glasses, bright red headband, and larger than life smile glued to his face from more than 50 yards away. I quickly dropped my now meaningless book and ran to the bottom of the driveway where his jeep was parked. It was a Saturday, the only
day we both had enough free time to practice guitar together. I ran straight for the back of the car and grabbed his hard guitar case decorated with years of what he called “quality” band stickers. He took great pride in such a silly case. We walked hand-in-hand up to my yellow room. We practiced till our fingers were sore and I eventually surrendered to his superior skill set. He was in a hurry to leave that day; his best friend Matt had been calling him the whole afternoon because they had to finish a project for Monday that they had not yet started. Once we were done with our Saturday afternoon ritual, I could see his stress building about the assignment. So I told him he should just go to Matt’s. I walked him down to his car. I remember the last thing we talked about was his project, his stupid videography project. I remember half listening to the specifics and half just watching his mouth move. He had a funny way of talking out of the side of his mouth when he was excited about something. I remember thinking about how shamelessly energetic he was about the project. He told me he loved me, flashed me one of his goofy smiles and gave me a peck on the mouth. It was nothing special, just routine, like we had done it a million times before and would do it infinite more times to come. I remember when his hand pulled away from mine he tickled the inside of my palm purposely. He backed the jeep out of the driveway and yelled “I’ll come back after the project if I have time.” I walked back to the house, when he got onto the road he did his customary double honk and sped off. I have imagined it countless times, a thousand different ways. Sometimes when I picture it, I get so angry. I want to shake him, to tell him to put the phone down. I want to scream at him to put
his seat belt on. “Why was that text so god damn important to you!” I scream at his fading image in my head. Other times when I see it, I’m scared for him. I can feel his fear as he lost control of the car, he must have known, but then again it happened so fast hopefully the thought of his mortality never crossed his mind. I wonder what his brilliant mind’s last thoughts were. Sometimes I can hear him whispering his mother’s name apologetically. I often selfishly wonder if it was my name, my face, my touch he thought of. For some reason the answers are different every time I picture it, something I’m trying to do less and less these days. I used to be obsessed with it or maybe it haunted me, picturing the accident that is. I read somewhere once that people are the accumulation of their favorite people’s habits. Ryan took so much of who I was with him when he died. But I feel lucky that I knew him so well, that I get to carry him around with me in my habits. Sometimes I can find him in a twitch of a leg and it momentarily fills me with joy that I can still find him, feel his presence in who I am, even in the smallest of ways.
Megan Wilkins I plucked the insects off the wall they were plucking at antennae no more than fleshy digits of the infants we entertain. The concrete was cold and it didn't belong to summer, and I didn't belong to anything, standing, cradling beetles in a blood-beat palm with leathered flesh, all wanting warmth. My hands were no more than their Summer bed.
Flowered fingered boughs wave ably in the wafts of imagined lifts that are carried
There is no better description for what pregnancy really is than saying that someone is with child. When you’re pregnant, you’re just with child. Walking in the mall? With child. Sleeping? Still with child. Trying to get off the sofa? Definitely with child. And it will be a bunch of months until you are without child, at which point, you will have a kid. Which is a little different. For example, I have a pruning saw, but it’s probably in the basement somewhere. I’m not currently with it. I am, however, with my left arm. Everywhere I go, there it is. Just like my wife is with our child. I had a rather unsettling conversation with a coworker recently. To be clear, my wife and I were completely prepared to have a child when one was conceived. It was always a goal of mine and quite honestly, if I were to wait until I dug myself out of credit card and student loan debt, we’d probably be in diapers ourselves. I was of the we’ll figure it out philosophy, which has gotten me into a lot of trouble in the past, specifically when I had a car that didn’t have reverse. My colleague, who was married on the same day Jenn and I were, mentioned that she was going to the Grand Canyon for vacation. I’ve been there about four times now and Jenn and I talked about going a few times since we’ve been together. We even briefly looked at having our honeymoon there. I had been saving some of my dad’s ashes to spread in the canyon, hopefully in the next few years. At least that was the plan. But now, who knows? I’m not going to ask my pregnant wife to hike six miles down into and back out of the earth. And I have no idea how hard
Emily N. Spanos
throughout an aura of oddity. The buds that flourish and thrive in the balminess of the sun’s gleams emit tranquil vales of desolation and absence. The itinerant will gaze with great wonder pending the blooms to ignite the leers that are hidden within us all, waiting to escape.
it’s going to be to fly on a plane or drive across the country with an infant or a toddler, let alone finding the time and money to do this. And that’s just the beginning. There are so many things that I meant to do before we actually had kids. This isn’t entirely true, but the Grand Canyon is definitely one of them. Buying a house is a close second. One last road trip with the guys is a distant memory now. I imagine all this is normal and that even if I had gotten to the Grand Canyon and we lived in a house, there would always be something. I never went skydiving; I never learned to surf; I never legitimately finished a power hour. Yet, regardless of what minor accomplishments have floated onto and off of my bucket list, there’s always been one goal I’ve had my entire life and that is to have a child of my own. And one could argue that carrying, birthing and raising the child for 18 years, give or take, is worth at least 7,000 power hours. * On my first doctor’s appointment with my unborn child, I was granted the gift of listening to the baby’s heartbeat. I was curious what emotions would come up when I actually heard it. Would I be overwhelmed with joy? Nervous beyond control? Scared out of my grey matter? Jenn asked me on the way home what I felt. If it was finally real to me yet. Not necessarily. I did figure that it meant she couldn’t possibly be kidding about this anymore. Not that I thought she was faking it for three months, but she’s been known to be wrong about things before. And she’ll never admit it either. Despite logic, pleading and hard evidence to the contrary, she is still convinced the elevator in our apartment complex comes quicker if you hit
both the up and down arrows. I realize this is not on par with having a child growing inside you, but up until I actually heard that heartbeat, there may have been a sliver of a thousandth of a percent of me that thought maybe she was wrong. Not that she was making it up, at least not consciously—but maybe it just wasn’t as serious as she thought. Like maybe there was a prepregnant phase she was in. I realize all this makes me sound ignorant at best, but these are not thoughts I even knew I was having until I heard that heartbeat. It’s tough to articulate—as I’m sure I’ve already successfully proven—but it was a new level of sureness that wasn’t there before. I thought I was sure before, then I heard that rapid little heartbeat and I was this new level of sure. Much like how I thought I had gotten food poisoning before until that night in Austin when I really got food poisoning. And you’ll know what I’m talking about when you’re up all night on the floor of a hotel room puking your life away, willing to trade your jeep for a roll of Tums that will never come. To be clear, I’m referring to the food poisoning here. * As one might expect, pregnancy can be used in virtually any situation as an excuse for virtually anything. Sorry I’m late. My wife is pregnant… Sorry I forgot to return your hat. My wife is pregnant… Sorry the Eagles lost. My wife is pregnant. However, getting used to this excuse can be damaging if not controlled. A friend of mine recently asked why I didn’t make it to a party of his. I told him it was because my wife was pregnant and that I was very sorry. He informed me the party was over the summer. Oops. I then apologized for lying to him, something I normally wouldn’t do,
and explained to him that it was because my wife is pregnant. This same relative theory, however, can also be used against the father. Here is an example of something my wife actually said to me. “The baby and I really want you to do our laundry tonight after you go get us some ice cream.” The unborn child, with half of my DNA, is now also being used as a tool to give an extra vote to anything my wife and I might disagree on. Television shows, weekend plans, food options. “The baby and I don’t like it when you eat the last pudding.” It’s unfair because there is no defense but to pretend that either 1) my child doesn’t exist yet, which is sad and untrue; 2) she is too young to get a vote in such matters; or 3) she doesn’t always agree with her mother and, occasionally, I happen to know what she would prefer—Actually, the baby wants to watch the Eagles game, honey. So please turn off Say Yes to the Dress and give me the remote. The third option does not go over well with pregnant women. Deep down, they know they’re just using their unborn children to get their way. But on some level, if the mother would prefer to watch Say Yes to the Dress, maybe that actually means our little embryo would too. Probably not, but it is likely our baby wanted that last pudding, so there’s a glimmer of truth in there. After all, I’m not really the one with child. I just have a stupid pruning saw.
Early Acorns Jules Rolfe
Green August acorns Shook from the mother tree In summer’s slow rain Lying brown-topped green Like spring’s broken pottery Waiting discovery
On Becoming a Bumblebee Betsy Boyd
Tonight’s prenatal yoga instructor, Lilia, reminds me of Spiderman, if he had a ropey side ponytail, her lithe limbs capable of springing her from one side of this wide Fells Point studio to the other in a flash. Whenever she’s moved to correct by example the wobbly posture of one of her many pregnant students—I won’t be overlooked—she Spideys herself over and lands gently as a moth in front of the mommy’s plastic mat. Then before you can inhale, she’s back to her own mat far in the front of the room, her eyes closed, her throat humming low exhalations. “Don’t tell my husband, but you beautiful women are making me want to have a third baby,” she announces as class continues. I want to roll my eyes, but no one rolls their eyes in yoga class, that much I’ve gleaned since purchasing my studio Groupon. Plus, I believe Lilia is one of those diehard fans of female fertility, one of those former little girls who knew she wanted to be a mom by age five, one of those naturally inquisitive science students who paid extra-riveted attention in sex ed and considered becoming a doula after college. Otherwise, she wouldn’t use words like ischium, which she has to translate into “pubic bone.” With her ribcage the size of a fiddle and hips as slim as a boy’s, how did Lilia’s ischium ever widen enough to birth two kids? I wonder. (Difficult for me also to believe she’s ever consumed an entire sandwich in one sitting.) Still, half an hour in—despite the fact that I’m jammed too close to the wall, because I arrived last minute to a packed house, despite the fact that I’m as clumsy as ever in this sacred setting—I find I’m a little less self-conscious in
my practice tonight. I like the soothing, Zen way Lilia addresses the class—“Be wherever you are with your practice tonight…that’s all you ever need to do.” When my legs vibrate in revolt, I simply release them and start my pose again. Toward the end of our standing session, as I’m modeling warrior one (or maybe two, I forget the difference), I actually feel semi-graceful despite my belly. My feet are planted shoulderlength apart, my arms extended like a victorious T-shaped statue. Of course, it’s at this exact moment that Lilia webs across the room and somehow touches smack down between the wall and me—unobtrusive as a shadow. I feel my face burn in shame. I always get embarrassed when a yoga instructor thinks she can help me, the ultimate newbie novice/what’s-wrong-with-thispicture? participant. Plus, I thought I was doing well…or at least adequately. Encouraging a more fluid warrior stance, Lilia tugs my fingertips slightly, as though holding my hand in solidarity, reaching to reach me. It’s a tiny modification. Right away I see that it helps a lot, even though I’m still blushing. Right away I’m a liquid warrior like many of the other round ladies surrounding me. “Thanks!” I chirp, my voice too loud. Lilia has already glided away. A lifelong distance runner who shuns stretching because I can’t wait to hit the pavement, and a neurotic creative writer, I was hesitant—make that half-terrified—to try yoga a few weeks ago. But I needed to find a safer form of exercise. Because I’m pregnant with twins, the track, to which I’ve been addicted since
age 14, is now a medical no-no. Really, the yoga challenge is the least of my latest worries. As much as I knew I wanted to become pregnant just before I did, the whole body-transforming concept’s foreign to me—the nine-month responsibility makes me nervous. I wasn’t one of those little girls who dreamed of motherhood; I dreamed of dirt bikes and Star Wars; I jumped confidently from tall trees. Until I decided to try to become a loving mom, I was a female warrior in constant frenzied motion; I competed to win. These days, as I rub my firm, full belly, I want to apologize aloud sometimes to these kids-to-be for not being prepared enough, not being girly enough to know what to expect on their upcoming birthday and well beyond. “Sorry I’m not more like Lilia,” I want to shout to be heard through layers of flesh and fluid, but I stop myself—the twins don’t need to hear this nonsense. But what do they need to hear? I’m sold on Lilia after a few classes and stop visiting other prenatal sessions to discover which bendable instructor I like best. Lilia wins. She’s a yogini to the max. Maybe my kids will pick up her patience, her gracefulness, and her calm. Maybe an ounce of it will rub off on me. After one evening session, it comes up that I’m having twins. Lilia and I are standing in the hallway. “I’m a twin!” Lilia confesses, raising her voice more than she ever would in the classroom. We almost hug, but instead grip each other’s hands. Tug each other’s fingertips before we let go. Surprisingly, now that Lilia’s my sort-of guru, I begin to find moments of authentic fun in this setting. She makes it okay to be bumbling in her beloved sanctuary—sometimes she actually
makes me laugh. When I tip over doing a tree stance, she whispers near my ear, “Timber.” Lilia’s so much herself, with her crazy/messy hairdo and her high song of a voice, yet so into the idea of guiding her group, I want to trust her. I want to become her egg-shaped groupie, her A+ student—even though we don’t get grades, because that would defeat the whole one-with-everything endeavor. Two weeks pass. I’m getting, if not better, more limber and comfortable in my body, as I grow bigger. At the end of most classes, Lilia tells us to seal our ears with our thumbs, close our eyes, and buzz like bees, creating an internal engine, a wordless peace at once our own and connected to the communal buzzing we hear vaguely all around us. After another month of class, Lilia flies to my corner less often to correct a point of posture. When she does, I don’t redden; I tell myself to follow her. Though I don’t announce my appreciation out loud, I consider each adjustment an honor of sorts. I notice in my daily life that I’m a bit less worried about being pregnant and attribute this change to all of the buzzing and freezing in place, the refusing to indulge my chattering mind at every invitation. Perhaps Lilia has, though she doesn’t speak often, told me something I needed to hear. The babies inside me, who’ve revealed themselves recently as boys, exist in gentle rhythm with my work life and writing life. Sometimes they kick or deliver a soft high-five. Overall, though, they’re quite calm (I think). Now and then I consider talking to them exuberantly at length, as one pregnancy how-to guide suggests, but I’m not sure what I ought to say. I’m such a big talker about nothing, such a jubilant complainer. The truth
is: Here they are in their gooey floating bunk beds, meditating luxuriously, snoozing, stretching, slurping the milkshakes and turkey burgers I serve them, and frankly, I’d hate for them to get a glimpse of the less yogini, less Lilia-like me. That’s why I’m thrown when Lilia switches up our next cooldown practice, encouraging everyone not to buzz but to whisper words—silent, psychic words, but words nonetheless—to our growing, percolating little babies. “I can’t wait to meet you,” she says, suggesting something we might tell them. But this line is too Lilia, or too polite or something. I can’t transmit the message. Besides, I can wait to meet them; my husband and I have a million things to do before they get here. Now that she’s brought it up, I begin to list the tasks rather than to talk to my babies: buy car seats, baby-proof all sockets, read the 400-page manual on nursing… After class, as I’m rolling my mat, Lilia pays me a compliment for the first time ever: “Betsy, you had a great session—you’re finding your own way.” I forget to thank her quietly. My true voice booms. It’s okay, though. She gives me a high-five, a soft one. In the car, on the drive home, I realize I did have a strong session. I extended my arms farther than I thought possible, even though Lilia wasn’t holding my hand; I perched my foot to my calf and balanced on the other foot in expressive tree formation without trembling in discomfort, without feeling like a freak or a phony. When I caught myself in the mirror, I noted that my foot rested lower on my leg than most everyone else’s—they’d tucked theirs mid-thigh quite easily, like erotic genies, but the observation came and went. At a red light, I stretch my arms straight, grasping the wheel
with two hands. I turn off the radio. “You should know I’m a very bad dancer,” I say softly to the dark park, to the nippy air. Then I try to say it again to my little boys. Not psychically, but straight out loud. “I’m a bad dancer,” I begin, raising my voice to its natural boom, “but I know how to have a good time. As good as my yoga teacher Lilia is at bending her body backwards, I’m good at making up games and stories; I’m good at running and working up a sweat. And, well, all I wanted to say, really, is that I’m sure you’ll both be good at these things, too. And lots more. It’s going to be cool to see what you like to do most. One thing I highly recommend? Sticking your thumbs in your ears, closing your eyes, and buzzing like bumblebees. We should all do it together sometime soon! What do you say? Speak up.”
Origami Jim Taylor
A square of green paper fold along the vertical center and return cast aside negative thought allow yourself to concentrate fold here and separate now you’ve completed the beginning
and blow lifebreath into him gently place him on the figured carpet wait for him to jump.
The second stage builds on the first squash-fold here and open it out fold in the raw edges and repeat fold top to bottom and return expose the almost hidden edges aware that concealment is the art Completion lies ahead fold and refold return reverse fold hold the frog
Silo Point Pano by Brendan Morris
A Hand for Birds Mira Fouad
Night drew near the Giza zoo, unwilling and loud, and the swelling sound of an unsettled city rattled the cages. The dik diks and Nigerian antelopes were on the edge of the park’s acreage along the main Giza Street, and their folded bodies quivered with every shout. The city had grown, choking so tightly around the ancient zoo that the animals were used to sleeping to the din of peddlers haggling prices and the old Egyptian songs clawing their way out of cassette tapes from the gravely speakers of passing taxis. Then a month ago men started shouting in the streets and boys started hurling rocks at parked cars. Taxis and hookah cafes switched out their cassettes of Om Kalthoum love songs for patriotic songs on loop. The spill of machine guns, the clumsy dust dance between protestors and soldiers, rocks and rubber bullets, the call of church bells and mosque adhans, all who believe in a new day come! The four legged beasts, the winged, the scaled, crawling, swimming, nesting, all were aware of the people’s revolution just outside, rubbing up the against the zoo gates. Mother will arch her back in labor. First come the feet, then the nose, head, and the body. If the mother leaves it, clean off the mucus to make sure it’s breathing. If still not breathing, grab legs and swing slowly. Yusef read the scrawled instructions in the old calendar notepad. He grabbed the bucket he had prepared with two clean towels, disinfecting alcohol and large cotton napkins and headed toward the dik dik cages. He wished Wadeeh was there in case something went wrong with the delivery. Prayers that he
could clear the kid’s airways fast enough for it to breathe slipped between his tight lips. A faraway crash, perhaps a car windshield, scattered his thoughts; his hands gripped the bucket handle tighter as he made his way to the dik dik cages. Before the revolution blasts began, night was his favorite time in the zoo. He would walk through the winding paths, listening to the uninhibited animal chatter once the visitors had gone home. Yusef lived with these animals for so long he imagined he could make meaning of their howl, hiss, and growl as they mocked the children who threw peanuts at them and gossiped about the wife who met a different man every Thursday by the reptile house. The animals seemed to whisper now that the shouts from the streets drowned out their calls. Yusef came to the large garden at the entrance of the South gate that branched into three paths. His hand felt along the cool metal as he checked the lock on the main gate and the side door hidden behind a row of jasmine bushes. All the zookeepers were now gone except him. Once the revolution began in Tahrir Square and the number of visitors dropped to five families over three days, the north and south gates of the Giza Zoo were bolted shut. At first, Wadeeh, the head zookeeper and trainer, rallied the men to stay for the animals’ sake. Only Yusuf stayed because the zoo had been his home since the day Wadeeh asked his grandmother if the boy wanted a steady job. He stayed because he had no family to search for or protect, unlike the other men who stayed home to put out the Molotov cocktails thrown in their balconies. Yusuf stayed because he wanted to know what would happen to a zoo where all the keepers ran off and the animals were abandoned. His grip over the flashlight tightened. Under his steady steps the concrete ground turned into the colored mosaics that lost their
luster and were littered with hay. He was walking toward the heart of the 80-acre park where motes rose from the sunken orangutan enclosure to join the afterthought of protest chants outside the zoo fence. Not one word or chant was ever decipherable from the next, and Yusuf wondered if the revolution had lasted this long because neither side could understand what the other was saying. His fear stemmed more out of worry over caring for the animals alone than for his own safety. As he walked he recited, “If still not breathing, grab legs and swing slowly…” The notebook was Wadeeh’s idea. The other zookeepers were hesitant about leaving Yusef to care for the animals in their charge until Wadeeh convinced them that the boy was capable if they each left detailed instructions. So they filled an old calendar notebook with scribbles about elephants’ food portions, antelope and zebra birthing months, necessary grooming and hygiene for the black bears. The pages ran out before they could tell him which chimp liked to spontaneously piss on you when you’re brushing him for ticks. He found out it was Kimo. They also didn’t account for the chinchilla rabbits to over-copulate since they had nothing else to do with the petting zoo now closed. He wasn’t warned that the hippos will bite each other fighting over a chucked potato. The notebook was supposed to be a temporary solution. Wadeeh assured him that he would be back as soon as the revolution curfews eased up. It had been three weeks. His boots broke the straw blanketing the antelope house floor as four dik diks sprung to the corner, pacing anxiously at his presence. Whisper gently to a scared animal before handling. In the corner, a soft body was mewling into the ground. She had already delivered. Yusef let out a sigh of relief, reverently
spread the towels he brought, and, still whispering, gathered the newborn in. The mother had not cleaned the small lump of flesh from the muck of delivery and Yusef began to worry if it was even alive. He leaned closer, thinking perhaps he was mistaken, when the tiny creature suddenly opened its eyes at him. When she saw this, the mother settled herself between Yusef and her newborn and began to lick its wet hide. The newborn dik dik had Zeeka’s eyes. Yusef and his brother Zeeka were only five and four when they began going out with their grandmother to panhandle downtown Giza. The boys were never allowed to downright beg. They would meander through stalled traffic selling tissue packets, half-full matchbooks, lighters collected from street curbs and refilled with water, while their grandmother would sit outside the zoo’s southern gate selling the same spread of trinkets. By the end of the day they would have enough change to split a bowl of kosharee. His grandmother would take two spoonfuls of the lentil, rice, and caramelized onion mixture plain then would ask the vendor for extra sauce. The vendor never charged her the extra twenty five piastre. Once the red lava of paprika, lemon, and crushed garlic seeped through the grains, his grandmother would withdraw her spoon, feigning an upset stomach and let the boys lick the aluminum bowl clean. On some nights they would be joined by Wadeeh, back when he was the zoo’s gatekeeper. He would unwrap the handkerchief rolled around his head where he kept his customary fried date sandwich. “How do fried dates taste?” Zeeka once asked. “Why don’t you try it yourself?” Wadeeh extended his untouched sandwich. “No,” his grandmother’s weak but stern eyes on him.
“Don’t look at other people’s food. Eat what’s in front of you.” Shame suddenly colored Yusuf’s neck. He wanted to slap the suppliant look from his brother’s face. They weren’t beggars. “He can trade me a bite of my sandwich for a spoon of that kosharee,” Wadeeh offered. “No,” Yusuf said. “One bite for two spoonfuls. That should be even.” He didn’t want to owe anyone anything. The man and Zeeka exchanged sweet for sour under Yusef’s narrowed eyes. Wadeeh extended his sandwich to Yusuf as well, but he turned on his worn heels and walked down along the white washed wall, less angry with his brother than with the smear of saliva that warmed his own tongue at the offer of fried dates. For several years, Wadeeh continued to treat the boys to whatever his wife packed in his kerchief until the day he had to bring Yusef to the zoo as his helper. Yusef was grateful, having nowhere else to turn, and no one to stay on the streets for. He had been awakened by a street sweeper who couldn’t nudge Zeeka and his grandmother aside to sweep the strewn Chiclets wrappers and cigarette butts underneath them. They had passed in their sleep, fading in from the cold night like two foxes intertwined. Again, keep the money on you at all times in case the protestors break into the park. Use it for emergency veterinarian visits if you manage to get a doctor to the zoo safely. Yusef stood proudly over the mother and newborn, his fear now replaced with a desire to return the whole allowance back to Wadeeh intact, to be praised by the other zookeepers for being resourceful and staying loyal to his post. He touched softly at his shirt pocket where the notebook rested, and momentarily consigned himself to a world that wasn’t caving in.
He would call the newborn Zeeka. * Yusef was becoming more anxious for Wadeeh’s return. He was desperate for more instructions. He wanted the notebook to be filled with every minute directive so he could simply tend to the animals without fear, like a prelapsarian Adam. He would stop worrying about how to get the ostriches distracted long enough to check their eggs, or whether the tigers can survive long on a smaller food portion. He would sleep again. The newborn dik dik hadn’t walked yet. It had been lying next to its mother for three days and now the other dik diks were biting at him. He needed fresh outside air. He even considered having a cigarette. The keepers had gifted him with several packs as a show of thanks before they left him to many sleepless nights. Yusef never smoked, even though he didn’t mind the smell or the burn. It was the pack he couldn’t stand. All the keepers smoked the same Cleopatra cigarettes, storing them loose in their shirt pockets. Only Sayed kept his in the red-rimmed pack. Sayed was the first aviary keeper Yusef met in the zoo after Wadeeh took him in, and the first to leave his post without notice or notebook entry. Yusef knew how it was to be instructed by Sayed, and it could not be written in any notebook. He stepped outside the small iron door near the Southern gate that opened from the zoo to the back alley. The midnight air was clear of animal pelt and feces. It burned his chest. The possibility of leaving the zoo to find Wadeeh now seemed unthinkable. Yusef knew he didn’t belong outside with those who pushed their way along the Nile Corniche hoisting banners and flags, loudspeakers,
pumping fists of unchained vitriol. He held the pack of cigarettes, thinking of the last time they were in Sayed’s hands. “Please don’t smoke. The smell irritates me,” a girl’s voice came from somewhere down the alley. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you,” Yusef cleared his throat. He hadn’t heard his own voice in weeks. “It’s alright,” she came close enough for him to notice that she was dressed in a long skirt and loose shirt that had a tiny spatter of blood on the shoulder that came from a cut on her forehead. “Are you bleeding?” She touched her head, bringing blood down with her fingertips for inspection. Yusef tried to understand her calmness, but he couldn’t help but notice her eyes darting around like two green finches. “I was selling halabesa on the Nile Corniche when a rock hit me out of nowhere. I tried finding a shortcut down this alley.” Yusef noticed the royal blue cart two yards behind her. “I have bandages and iodine at the zoo.” “I’m fine. There are people who’ve been stabbed and shot with rubber bullets.” The stain on her shirt spread wider. “You’re still bleeding. Let me take you to the hospital or a doctor.” “The protestors get hungry for hot chickpea around midnight and that’s when I sell the most. If I don’t make enough money tonight from the cart, I will owe the man I rent it from. He’s got a loose hand when he doesn’t get his money.” She was so frail, Yusef thought, if she broke no one would notice the difference. “I have money.” “No.” “You can pay me back. I work here at the zoo and I have an
allowance. Let me help you.” At this she smiled wide. He had never seen a smile spread like that. It spilled over the corners of her lips, past her cheeks, beyond the lines of her faced, washing the perpendicular alley behind her concave. “I used to visit the zoo every Friday when I was little.” “You can still visit,” he wanted to see he ride an elephant and have the giraffes eat carrot wedges off her belly. “My father told me never to accept charity. I don’t even know you.” “Your father is right. But this is not charity. You can pay me back in halabesa. How much money do you need?” “A lot of halabesa,” she joked, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes this time. He wanted to put it there again. He emptied his pockets knowing it included the last money Wadeeh gave him in case the animal’s food delivery was delayed by the protests. “Watch my cart and don’t let it out of your sight. I’ll pay my guys and come right back.” He watched her make her way between the narrow graffitied walls and slip into a group of young protestors who looked a little older than him. They were chanting something through a loudspeaker that he didn’t understand. * She didn’t come back. Yusef pushed the cart down the alley to the main road. He stood, stretching his neck, looking around for any climbable height to spot her from. He felt paralyzed with every conceived plan to find her. An old man came up to him asking for a cup
of halabesa. Yusef served him in a glass off the cart, trying to imagine how she would’ve ladeled just the right mix of chickpea and soup. “Do you have the time?” “I have all the time,” the man smiled. Yusef didn’t reciprocate. “It’s almost three.” “Have you seen a dark- haired girl as tall as my shoulders?” “Son, you don’t want any girl that’s out this time of night. Stick to the girls who are out in the daytime.” “You don’t know what you’re saying, old man.” “I am an old man. What do I know? I thought I lived in one country, I wake up a month ago and it’s another country. I pay ten pounds for my tea at the coffeehouse and it tastes like paint chips. You’re right, what do I know? You say there’s a pure saint walking around the streets of Giza at three a.m. I’d be a damned fool if I contradicted you.” The man handed him back the spoon and emptied glass, and crossed to the median like a shadow in reluctant street light. * Yusef waited until he heard finches waking in the trees along the Nile. He leaned on the wrought iron fence of the corniche path. The sound reminded him of the first time Sayed took him into the aviary. Yusef was still new to the zoo and had accidentally touched one of the birds without the zookeeper’s permission. “Do you know how to hold a bird, boy?” Sayed had spat, the smell of rancid Cleopatra cigarettes on him. “No,” Yusef said. Sayed snatched a yellow finch straight from the air. He grabbed Yusef’s hand and slapped the bird into his small palm.
Before Yusef could close his fingers the bird had escaped, flying over the cages and between the high jacaranda branches. “Homar! What kind of no-good idiot are you?” Sayed grabbed another finch, “learn, you idiot!” He plucked a soft feather out of the small squealing bird. Tiny yellow green plumes floated to the dust at Yusef’s feet, one after the other until the bleeding bird seemed to faint from pain. Sayed opened his hand wide, palm toward the sky, but the tiny creature just nestled between his fingers, unwilling to move. “This is the only way to hold a bird! You make it cold and naked like the day it was born. Then your hand is the only warmth it has. It needs you now. It needs you like God.” Sayed threw the bird aside, grabbed his cigarettes, staining the pack red from his fingers. Yusef watched the river as it moved away from where he stood. He wanted to wash his hands in the mud green water. It wasn’t long before he left the cart where she left him and walked back inside the zoo. He made his usual round. Another white tiger was sick. He had no more antibiotics, and according to the notebook, the food allotment for the tigers would only last them another week. The two white bears were losing weight. He found blood splats and chunks of fur scattered where it looked like the hyenas tried to chew on their youngest pup. He kept thinking about why she hadn’t come back as he cut across the park to check on the newborn dik dik. Where did she go? Was she alright? The finches were calling out and he wanted them to call her back to the zoo. He nearly smiled imagining himself riding in on a float of elephants to save her from her abusive employer. Yusef turned the corner of the aviary. He kept thinking of
her with the desire to make her cold and naked, pressing into his hands for warmth like from God. Was she lying about the man who beat her? The image of plucking her feathers, his hands stained red, dissolved as the antelope housing came in view. He entered through the back of the antelope house where little dik dik Zeeka was still lying in the same position. Yusef put on his gloves before trying to nudge it awake. A gentle cold seeped through his gloves. He felt a strange loosening in his head, like a peeling back of some insulation. It was dead. Unaccounted moments spurted by before he put the body in the same bucket he brought for the delivery. The notebook’s spine cracked between his hands until he found what he was looking for. God forbid, should any animals die on your watch, bury them in the ditch by the shrubbery near the west side of the zoo. The zoo seemed to stretch unbearably from east to west with suspicious hisses, mewls, and growls. The inhabitants sniffing as Yusef passed their dark cages; the weight of the bucket pulling down on his arms. It was the first time he was in danger of being lost in this place, his isolation becoming more apparent. After circling around the reptile house twice, he found a ditch that spanned the shadow of three trees. Yusef looked down into its dusty mouth. He had never helped any of the keepers bury animals there before. Still holding the bucket in his hand, he reached into his pocket, and flung the notebook into the pit. Yusef lay down in the dust, nestling the bucket in his belly, He could hear the protestors near the zoo gates begin their chants for freedom from tyranny, and he thought of a time when he wanted to join them. He pushed his cheek further into the ground so the dirt would
fill his ears instead. Closer and louder, they cried out like hired mourners. Women, in procession, draped in sheets of black that seemed to invert streets to a starless sky, crying, screaming mad, over a stranger. The richer the corpse, the louder they’d cry. Yusef brushed his finger over the postlapsarian earth as he closed his eyes. Sleep until the howling ends.
Cheri L. Miller
Beyond the roses and manicured lawns, beneath the oak shade on a day already gray, beside the fence knitted with new vine,
My hands, even, are wondering if they have the right to hang from my wrist. I cup them but hold nothing. I am reaching out for a reason to be there.
on the sidewalk littered with grass and trash, a small starling jumped over and over, her wings flapping furiously, all her heart fighting for flight. And I thought of myself still thrashing around in last yearâ€™s leaves, my spirit not yet able to get off the ground.
I Have Not Eaten, Brandy McCluskey
Pattin’ Juba1 K. Zauditu-Selassie
The scent of burning cane riding the night air is getting stronger. A young woman is running in the woods. She is naked from the waist up. She is alone. When she reaches the fork in the road, she stops. Behind her, a soft halo of lights blinks in the distance. To the right is the swamp. The unknown is to her left. She chooses the water’s edge where night birds, nestled in the cypress trees, rustle the leaves. Her gran’s words echo, “de water brung us here, an water gon’ bring us back.” She wades, toeing the depth, her feet patting the spongy bottom, the heel of her other foot sinking into the coffee-colored water. She crosses to the other side and continues to run. When she cannot go any further, she lays her body down. As the sun’s rays brighten the indigo sky, she wakes in a field of ripe cane. The morning air leaves an acrid taste of molasses in her mouth. A diamondback terrapin plods towards the razor grass. She gets up and begins running again. It is noon, but the sun has not kept its promise of light. The sky is metal, gray like a galvanized washtub. She welcomes its darkness. Without the warm rays burning her exposed back, maybe she can gain more ground. Her feet bleed from the cuts made by hickory nutshells. She stops and collects a few whole nuts. She finds a large stone with a sharp point and cracks a few. Pattin’ Juba refers to a counter clockwise dance of stomping the ground or patting the body. Pattin’ Juba allowed Africans to communicate hidden codes in places where the drum was outlawed. 1
One at a time, she puts them in her mouth, but does not chew until she has five nuts tucked carefully in her cheek. Then she takes off running and chewing. When she tires, she retrieves some of the nutmeat tucked away in her jaw. She cannot stop again until it is dark. Her legs are trees, they want to root to dig down deep in the earth and stand firm. She has to keep moving. The moon looks like itself, a large yellow globe. Her legs are stones. They weigh her down, pulling her to the ground. Wait, she sees a shack. Near the hovel’s door is a cross, fashioned from two tree branches. It is lying on its side like an X. On the other side of the door is a mound of dirt, sprinkled with white powder. She stops, then makes the sound of a hoot owl, approaching only after she hears the response, “’Hoot, hoot, hoot.” A door shuts. An old woman steps out from the darkness, the moss draping from the tree makes a lacy shadow on her face. The old woman speaks first. “I hoped somebody would be headin’ dis way right ‘bout now. Where ya comin’ from, ma chile?” “From up roun’ Jackson, Ma’am” “Jackson. My, my, my, you were runnin’a while. Dis hyeah is de Piney Woods.” “Yes, Ma’am.” “I think I heard tell ‘bout you. The chil’ren were in the yard pattin’ juba. They was a just clappin’ dey hands, moving around the circle, sashayin’, and sing talkin’ about de woman who done killed her massa. They said somethin’ about burnin’ down a cane field, too.” “Yes’m.” The old woman takes off her shawl and covers the woman’s breasts with the checkered cloth. She crosses it over her back like she is tying a baby on, then ties a bow in front.
“I used the top of mah dress to torch the cane,” the woman volunteers. “Bless yo heart. Rest yo’self.” The old woman reaches into her apron pocket and pulls out a piece of faded calico cloth. They sit on a hollow log. “Ain’t nothin’ but yesterday’s pone and a piece of benne seed praline, but it will keep yo stomach from eatin’ out yo back.” The young woman unwraps the cloth, takes a piece of each item, and covers the remainder with the material. “Jes ‘bout every night somebody comes down here to see if they can help a runaway. Give dem some vittles. Say some words to give dem courage. Dey needs a heap of help. Dem patty rollers2 and de rest of dem bukra3 got the law on dey side. It can make you both soul and body weary, but don’t stop until you get to where you headin’. Like the song says, Walk together, children; don’t you get weary. Walk together, children; don’t you get weary. Oh, walk together, children; don’t you get weary. There’s a big camp meeting in the promised land.” The women sit together for a while in silence. The strident yelps of a pack of dogs ricochets off the cypress trunks. “Well, ma chile, you best be goin’ now. Stay close to the water’s edge and follow de drinkin’ gourd. The call at the next place gon’ be de sound of de mockingbird.” The young woman tucks the provisions in her bosom where the bow is tied. A young woman is running in the night. She is not alone. Patrollers Bukra is an Efik word meaning master. The term is a general reference to any white person. 2 3
A Better Place, I’m Told
Those Who Were Seen Dancing
The wind gives movement to the bristles of a raccoon’s back lying on the shoulder of the road. Until this moment I had never considered the life of a raccoon, or the way the wind touches its back as it does my own.
Christmas came the week following Aria’s sudden appearance. The cuckoo clock leapt forth eight times from its carved and lacquered prison. Elwood tore through present after present. He received long johns and snow boots, a couple pairs of socks, a new jacket, and several action figures. He was about to begin furiously disrobing what he believed to be the final gift when his father pushed into the room a brand new bicycle. The handlebars were cloaked with ribbons, and a little bell sang beneath his father’s thumb. Elwood jumped around the room, an immense smile on his face. He scrambled to his bike, anxious to learn to ride. No one could outrace him now, not with this wonderful new toy. The remaining gift was opened and there, presented before him, lay a brand new helmet. His eyes swam and visions writhed throughout his mind. He imagined himself speeding down the highway on the back of a motorcycle, dodging cars and cops only to disappear out of sight at the last second. It would be just like in the movies. This entire time Aria was absorbing the scene from the comfort of the couch. Elwood’s parents apologized for not being able to afford her any gifts. They simply hadn’t the time or money. Aria didn’t mind this. Her mind was blank and new. She couldn’t remember what Christmas was, or the ecstatic feeling of surprise typical of a child on Christmas. Eager to ride, Elwood grabbed Aria by the hand and pulled her through the door. The air was frozen and brittle. It thrust itself into their lungs, seeking the warmth of their bodies, starving for heat. The little bit
of snow that managed to survive the course of the previous week glistened gently along the surface of the lawn. Not a soul lingered outside and their houses lay shivering and lonely along the street. Practically all of the neighbors traveled elsewhere during Christmas time. The elderly preferred to stay inside, huddled by the fireside, in the company of crossword puzzles. Elwood could hear a symphony of dripping water; tree branches dancing wildly in the wind; a cardinal performing merrily. Elwood and his father pushed the bike onto the driveway. Grin persevering in the frigid air, Elwood strapped on his helmet and gave Aria thumbs up before positioning himself on the seat, his father listing off the various techniques involved in riding a bike. Guiding the bike into the street, Elwood peddled slowly, his father supporting his weight, keeping the bike upright. Several meandering circles later and Elwood’s father began to gradually let go. Laughing, wobbling, every now and then shouting to Aria, he was doing it. He was riding the bike. She returned his wave. She saw him. He rode up the slope of the street. His joy absorbed him in its gluttony, its appetite whet. It wanted more. It needed more. Long fingers of wind grasped at his face as he peddled and peddled until he was at the top of the hill. Elwood loudly sought his father’s approval, who yelled for him to come down. He began to descend to his house. The bike took control. Like Elwood’s joy, it hadn’t had enough. Speed! It needed more speed! Elwood accelerated with gravity, exhilarated by his ability. Elwood’s father had neglected to teach him how to use his brakes and shouted in vain to inform Elwood of this but it was too late. A few more moments passed before Elwood realized his father’s shouting wasn’t praising him for his return, but pleading with him.
Elwood hit the bottom of the hill and the bike began to buck beneath him, angrily attempting to throw him off. He saw Aria sitting in the driveway with a puzzled expression on her face. Elwood howled in terror. His father ran after the bike. “Look out,” Elwood screamed, tears now obscuring his vision, slipping down his face. The bike sought to trample Aria beneath it. Only a few feet now remained between the bike and this desire. Elwood panicked. His bike collapsed onto the pavement beneath him and together they went sliding and bouncing across the ground, avoiding Aria by inches. The cardinal gave up on its concerto and took flight. Its crimson wings beat against the pale morning sky. Several hours, a few stitches, and a shoulder sling later, Elwood made Aria swear to never let him ride the bike again. In his eyes it had become a menacing and terrible beast. He saw himself careening down the street once more. He could feel himself shattering into little tiny pieces; just out of sight, an infinite darkness pawed him gently. That night, finally asleep, he dreamt of peddles and wheels and handle bars— little bells ringing and ringing. * Over the next few months Elwood’s father made several attempts to get Elwood back on his bike. All of these failed until one brilliant day late in April. Elwood was sword fighting the large tree in the backyard, neither participant having a clear upper hand. The tree and Elwood sparred often but the tree was an experienced knight of the forest and King of the Ents and as a result, the oaken soldier always managed to best the smaller and softer of the two fighters. Elwood’s father returned home that evening with a genius plan he had concocted. It was surefire
going to get Elwood back onto his bike. When Elwood heard the news, he snapped his stick sword in two against the bark. His father explained that they would be taking a biking trip along a beautiful nature trail. Infuriated, Elwood stomped his feet and flailed his arms. His father explained that once he learned to use the brakes everything would be fine. Elwood remembered the searing pain. It wouldn’t be fine. Elwood was desperate and little droplets of water now glistened along the edges of his eyelids. Elwood couldn’t face the bike—not alone. Lips quivering, he asked his father if Aria, his best and only friend, could come. She couldn’t. They didn’t have a fourth bike and she would be fine at home by herself. Besides, his father said, she was much too fragile. Elwood ran sobbing into his room and didn’t come out for the rest of the night. The following afternoon the cuckoo clock stabbed the air seventeen times. Elwood’s father had configured this cuckoo to display military time. His mother was busy making him write out each of his weekly spelling words. On Monday he wrote each word twice. He wrote his words four times on Tuesdays, six times on Wednesdays, and finally eight times on Thursday. On Friday his mother administered the big test. Elwood aced this perfectly without fail on practically every occasion. His parents were pleased with their effort to circumvent public education. The timer on the oven went off. Elwood’s mother concluded class for the day and went into the kitchen. The smell of chocolate chip cookies tickled his nose. Aria closed her notebook and gave him a hungry look. Cookies were their favorite, perfect for the adventure they planned the night before whilst hidden away in his room. In a small backpack in his room lay a folded piece of paper, scribbled upon with green and red and blue crayon. The
green represented the trees encircling the cul-de-sac, the great lush rainforest they would have to cross. The red represented the barren desert they would encounter once surviving the rainforest. Then there was the blue, the most difficult part of the entire journey. This was the poisonous river, where demon sharks lurked, waiting for their prey. An attempt to swim it would undoubtedly mean certain death. The goal of their mission was to ditch Elwood’s bike on the opposite side of the river. This way he couldn’t be forced to go on the biking trip and could stay at home with Aria, fighting shrunken, hairy dwarves or exploring damp, cramped caverns. At the present moment, drooling from the dense, warm odor wafting from the kitchen, Elwood decided that there might be a need for something to eat in case they got hungry. His mother was in the kitchen chopping carrots, cookie tray cooling on the counter, when Elwood and Aria came sliding across the floor. Elwood requested two cookies, but his mother handed him one. He wouldn’t want to spoil his dinner, she said. When he asked if Aria could have a cookie, she narrowed her eyes and trained him with a stern glare. This lasted for several moments. Mother glaring down, Elwood grinning widely up. Usually when face-to-face with a dangerous creature one was told not to make any sudden moves. Elwood attempted to smile even bigger. This was an effective tactic and no matter how hard his parents tried, it worked every time. She sighed, unable to look at his puppy dog face another moment. She snatched another cookie off the baking sheet and handed it down to him. She didn’t have time to say anything else before the screen door banged and Aria and Elwood were running off into the fleeting light of the evening. Cookies firmly contained in their pockets, they ran to the
side of the shed where the bicycle had sat since that horrifying Christmas morning. He was determined, and mentally prepared himself. The first sight of the shiny metal creature made Elwood cringe in terror, but Aria’s presence boosted his courage. Creeping slowly, carefully, he untied its leash from the wall and led it to the edge of the forest. Aria placed her hand on his shoulder. The rainforest was densely populated by all manner of plants and animals. Elwood had warned Aria of the dangers of the jungle: deadly snakes that either kill with their bite or crush with their bulk, stalking jaguars patiently waiting to slit your throat and drag you away in the darkness, man-eating plants with enormous jaws that instantly snap shut, devouring you whole. When Elwood’s foot pressed into the blanket of fallen growth, his face lit up in excitement. The light brooded about the canopy and lazily made its way to the earth, forging a fuzzy yellow triangle upon Aria’s face. The perfume of the jungle was exotic and foreign, yet familiar and earthy. Elwood breathed deeply. The underbrush was so dense that he could barely walk, let alone push a bike. Luckily, a sword lay nearby and he picked it up, slashing at the air. It was a decent sword, not too heavy and not too thin. It appeared very durable, it wouldn’t snap and it wouldn’t be cumbersome to wield. Hacking at everything in their path, bits of vegetation flying about, they were off. Thanks to their swords, the pair made good time. Elwood swore he could see the end of the jungle just as Aria tripped over something thick and dark, almost slimy in appearance. The creature rapidly slithered towards her. A giant python! Elwood stood between Aria and the snake, eyes closed, swinging wildly with his sword. His many hours of sword fighting practice were about to prove useful. The black rat snake, comprehending the
gravity of the situation, quickly wheeled about and shot off in the other direction. They were saved. He hugged Aria tightly. If he hadn’t acted with such swiftness, utilizing his newfound bravery, that could’ve been the end of her. But they couldn’t stop now, not with the exit in sight. Instead of brief respite at the edge of the rainforest, Elwood and Aria were face to face with a barren desert as far as they could see. They pressed onwards, prepared for the siege of the sun. Their clothes were covered in bits of plant matter, and vegetation had gotten stuck in various parts of the bike: the spokes of the wheels, the chain. Every step made divots in the rows of the newly-planted field, the tires of the bike forging a trail across the sands. If the farmer caught them his parents would ground him forever, but his parents wouldn’t come for him here. He knew they wouldn’t cross the desert, let alone brave the rainforest. They had been walking for quite a while when Aria sighted a group of black sand dragons feeding on the horizon. Several flew high above the dunes, circling around, rising and falling with the flow of the air. Their numbers so great that Elwood speculated that they had made a monstrous kill and proceeded to celebrate with everyone they knew. Sand dragons were dangerous and Elwood kept his distance. The heat drummed a rhythm along his neck and down his back. Sweat poured into his clothes causing them to sag, heavy with moisture. Wind blew sand into his eyes. He grimaced and strove onwards. Behind them, on the opposite side of the grove of trees, Elwood’s mother called his name from the backyard. Aria and Elwood traversed the summit of an immense sand dune. An avalanche of sand cascaded down its sides. The deadly river was now visible from where they stood; they were so close.
Elwood’s mind felt coiled and ready to pounce. Soon they would set the bike free and he would be safe once more. Needing rest, they sat down in the dirt. To pass the time Elwood brought out their cookies and set about devouring them. Somewhere nearby a dog barked, sharp explosive words of prayer catapulted skywards for his canine brethren. Cars rumbled in the distance; a faraway siren howled emergency. The local musket club echoed stiff shots off the hills and sent them bounding against Elwood’s eardrums. He always thought it sounded like tennis balls striking the court and careening over the net. Solemnly, the trees waved down at him. When they were finally prepared to proceed, Elwood led the bike to the edge of the river. Aria kept a lookout for the sharks as Elwood prepared to sail the bicycle through the deadly waters. No sharks in sight, she said. Elwood helped her onto the bike. She couldn’t balance very well on her own, so Elwood tied her down with a length of jump rope from his backpack. Wouldn’t want her to fall off and drown. The pavement before them was still warm from the afternoon sun and shimmered like fresh obsidian. Two yellow stripes ran along the spine of the great stone serpent, little sparkling eyes watched their every move— unblinking. Elwood pushed the bike up a few feet from the edge of the pavement. He looked at Aria and smiled. It had been their most important and dangerous mission yet, and here they were, so close to completing it. Aria smiled back and she nodded that she was ready. Placing his hands behind the seat, he got a running start, and then, released, hands unclenching the seat. Aria gigged with exhilaration. “Peddle Aria, peddle!” She struggled but couldn’t reach. It was all she could do to keep her balance. The bike wobbled
awkwardly into the road. The sirens in the distance grew more feverish and pitched, the dog’s barking more dire—urgent. Turkey vultures dining in the field scattered, gawking awkwardly, cooing deep within their throats. Elwood shielded his eyes against the setting sun that pressed itself firmly against him. Screeching of tires and sheering of metal, shattered pieces of porcelain scattered over the surface of the road. A bicycle tire limped lonely down the street. Elwood lay in the dirt sobbing, tears flowing down his cheeks. A car door opened and shut. A brittle hand fluttered down and landed on his shoulder. He looked up: the elderly woman from two houses down. He didn’t care what she was saying. Minutes passed, glancing sidelong at the boy, shuffling their families along, then hours and days, then months and finally years. Time shambled by, dropping now-wilted roses to float and land, dust motes danced about the casket. Elwood’s mother scooped up the boy and carried him to her car. Later that night, as he sat alone in his room, water drying on his cheeks, he overheard his parents’ whispered conversation. “Can’t buy him another one,” she said. “I always thought dolls were for girls anyways,” he said. “What should we do?” she asked. “We’ll get him a new bike, we can still go on the trip,” he said. “Give it a rest with the bike already,” she said, “if he doesn’t want to ride, don’t make him ride.” Hearing this, a micron of a smile wormed its way through Elwood’s lips. How quickly things change. The final twist of a Rubik’s cube, a multifaceted multicolored disco party dance floor, and a new tune ploughs from its speakers—it’s the universal rule: everything
changes. Sometimes it’s because of an alteration in perspective, a shift in light or a trick of the mind; M.C. Escher hard at work. Sometimes it’s because new information is revealed and, film emerging from the darkroom, a new image of truth is unveiled, now more mature, fuller, more complete. And sometimes there’s this other something, whatever it is, reigning wholly responsible. Its very essence begins with a spontaneous ethereal act teetering precariously upon the border between quantum physics and free will. The dying breath of the evening drew a shimmering golden crown upon Elwood’s brow. Shadows were tickled into stony unlit corners. The foundations of his house trembled and rose from their slumber, towering into the sky complete with parapets and gargoyles and arrow slits. Out his window, the lawn bucked and the grass fled, giving birth to fields and farmers with horsedrawn carts. Armored knights, newly oiled and glossy, mercurial, tossed roses to beautiful women. He raised a pencil high above his head; jewels glittered happily on the tip of his scepter. The world bent before him and the boy king knew this was his alone and none other. This was his kingdom.
I feel like I might have outgrown wearing that Batman shirt to work or at least the stains that don’t wash out of it.
Felix Tripman heard banging on his back door at ten o’clock at night. He had just swallowed a Valium with the last swig of lukewarm Natty Boh, brushed a mouse turd off his bedside table, turned off the lamp, and closed his eyes. The wooden back door rattled. He pulled his bumpy pillow over his shaved head. His nephew Minnow was probably returning from his heroin runs. Felix wasn’t going to open the door and let him sleep on the sofa. Minnow could spend the night in that tent in the woods across the street with his junkie friends, even if it was November. He had ruined all the spoons in the house and sold Felix’s Led Zeppelin boxed sets. Felix closed his eyes and tried to recall an afternoon in his youth when nothing was wrong, when Grandma Mimi baked and Grandpa Ralph watched the Orioles on Channel 13. When Felix thought he heard glass breaking, he dragged himself up and locked his bedroom door, suspecting one of Minnow’s customers. Even high, Minnow wouldn’t break a window, but his junkie friends had pretty loose ideas about personal property. Felix’s laptop and the server were the only things worth stealing in the house, and they were in his bedroom, so Felix wedged a chair under the doorknob and returned to bed. A dull clang reverberated distantly from the basement, and the valley outside echoed with crashes and calls through the darkness. His mind wandered, and when he awoke, he doubted that he had even heard the glass break. Then he remembered that the
Speak, Fridge, Erika Ostergaard
carnival was camped at the Parkville VFW Hall; maybe a carny friend was hunting for weed. He was drinking buddies with traveling carnies who used Brannan’s Pub as a base, and he wasn’t up to their shenanigans. The Valium kicked in, and he dozed off again and dreamt of his mother in the kitchen. Mom-mom had been creeping into his dreams of late and usually frying bologna sandwiches when she did. Sometimes his Grandma Mimi would show up, and the women would bicker about what to make for dinner. When he was a kid, Felix helped them cut carrots and knead dough. His older and absent sister, Theresa, wasn’t in any of those cooking dreams, but Grandpa Ralph usually barked from the living room for more Utz potato chips or another hot dog. When pots clanging and clanking pulled him from sleep, Felix thought Mom-mom might be downstairs until he remembered she was gone. Maybe Minnow did break some glass. Felix opened his bedroom door and crept out. A floorboard creaked under him. Light bled up the twisting stairs. Someone was cooking in the kitchen and, from the sound of it, the cook was heavy and not sober. It didn’t sound like Minnow; he was lighter on his feet. The intruder clumped around more like Grandpa Ralph, but Grandpa had never cooked anything while he was alive. He was a plumber and could barely boil water. When Felix heard the timer ding, he tensed, expecting an incendiary device of some kind. Nothing detonated, so he tiptoed back to his closet for his Little League baseball bat, but froze with indecision in the middle of his bedroom until he had to sit on the bed because he felt so dizzy. When Felix smelled the warm, flaky goodness of pot pie, he called the police. “But my nephew doesn’t have a key anymore! . . . I thought I heard glass . . . And I can smell it. Someone’s
downstairs, cooking something with a crust,” he whispered to the 911 dispatcher from his bedroom phone. He remembered how he used to wait for his grandmother’s apple pies to cool, breathing in their aroma. The buttery scent wafted through the uneven floorboards, mixing with his elevated stress level and tugging a memory at the front of his brain, an argument between his mother and grandmother. Maybe the baking smells were hallucinations, but he only had three beers, half a joint, and a sleeping pill. More banging followed; this time on the front door. On the phone, Felix urged, “Tell them the back door’s probably open! The intruder broke in there!” Felix gently laid the receiver on his comforter and tiptoed down the stairs with the baseball bat to meet the police. Still disoriented, he clung to the balustrade. Although Felix had turned off the TV before he went to bed, it crackled with explosions. Sitting in Grandpa Ralph’s recliner in the living room was a stranger in his late twenties, a mountainous man sporting Cleveland Brown boxers, a stained wife-beater, and mutton chops. He was eating a pot pie with a fork. If he was a carny, Felix didn’t know him. Outside, the policeman shouted Felix Tripman’s name. The flashing lights of the cruiser danced across the floral wallpapered walls. “Yes,” said Felix weakly, responding to the cop. The seriousness of the situation hit him as he edged to the door with buckling knees. He had a baseball bat, but the intruder had a fork and was unpredictable, enormous, and only six feet away. “Coming,” Felix barely spoke above a whisper. “The A Team’s on,” the strange intruder said through a mouthful of food. A lone pea nestled in his hairy chest. “No
spoons, though.” Felix watched him chew. “I smelled cooking,” he finally said. “Is that pot pie?” “Yup, thanks, creamy and salty,” said the intruder. “Heated in the oven. Microwaves are the work of the Devil.” Despite the butterflies in his stomach and the grogginess of his brain, Felix agreed. “Better that way; the crust is crispier. “Are you from the woods?” he asked. The police yelled and hammered. “Someone at the door,” Felix said lamely. He unfastened the deadbolt. “What woods?” asked the intruder pleasantly under the tumbling of the cylinders. The door swung wide, and cold air rushed in. A policeman stood on the front steps with one hand on his holstered gun and the other holding a flashlight. “Mr. Tripman?” he asked. “Did you call about an intruder?” He was slight but wiry and had very short, blond hair. Felix nodded and felt nauseated. The policeman charged into the living room, pushing Felix and waving the flashlight. “Is that the intruder?” Felix nodded again, clutching the door jamb. “Stand up and put the pot pie down!” the policeman bellowed. “I’m not done!” The intruder protested. Felix tried to steady himself but lost his balance and slammed right into a radiator. He heard a surprisingly piercing scream, and the living room went dark as he blacked out. Felix thought he heard Mom-mom and Grandma Mimi fighting about Grandpa Ralph. He was hiding from them behind the recliner, and he seemed younger. His legs seemed shorter. He wondered if they were ghosts or if he was dreaming, but
it really didn’t matter. It was good to hear them again, and they sounded real. His mother accused his grandmother of sprinkling his grandfather’s dust over an apple tart. “What’s Daddy’s urn doing in the kitchen?” “I miss the smell of him!” Grandma Mimi cried. Baked apple perfumed the house. “That’s disgusting!” Mom-mom screamed. “Don’t you dare wash that spoon!” Crouching behind his grandfather’s chair, young Felix didn’t understand their fight and salivated at the thought of fresh apple tart. “He was a plumber!” cried Grandma. “And now he’s outside time.” Felix heard them struggle. “Everything returns to the same stuff!” Grandma Mimi scolded. “Grow up.” Something big shifted in the recliner beside Felix, and he jumped. When Felix woke up, he had a terrible headache, and his lip was bleeding. He tasted blood. Red and blue light mixed into purple in the living room, and a siren keened outside. Across the rug, the intruder lay trussed and handcuffed; he was crying about the uneaten half of the pot pie. “It was so crispy,” he whimpered. The young, wiry policeman overlapped the whining. “I don’t think he knew the intruder, no,” he said into his radio. Other people entered the house and began all speaking at once. Someone yelled at the intruder to shut up. Someone gently moved Felix’s throbbing head into a neck brace.
Felix wondered what painkillers the doctor would prescribe. He wondered if he had ever ingested any of his grandfather, for that would explain his great love for Utz barbeque potato chips.
Santa’s Train to Heaven Jacob Ian DeCoursey
You connect to the pieces that make me whole as I strive to know what parts your lips and ignites that sparkle in your gaze. The synergy as our hands meet, a subtle glance to a subtler smile. Passion runs rampant in the dark, emotions hang densely in the still air. A name so much more than a simple word rolls off my tongue. This longing escalates, a great escape into your world. We connect, unravel, and delve into these mysteries like detectives, searching for each clue. A desire to trace your frame, part your hair, embrace you nightly.
It was Halloween night in New York City, or at least it had been; I looked at my wristwatch: it read four in the morning. The sun would be coming up in a few hours. But there was so much left to do. I’d been hopping from train to train, station to station for a long time. Now I was standing in the subway someplace under Manhattan—I had no idea where anymore—with gray subway dust coating the inside of my nose and a dry, gray subway taste in my mouth, and I was so tired I could barely think straight. There were no people around except a few sleeping, homeless men who kept waking up to masturbate or yell at friends they didn’t have. The white polyester beard itched and the suit itched, and the kids were screaming for more candy. I lifted my arms, my gloved hands, and commanded silence from my disciples. “Everyone hush!” I said. They wouldn’t. The Rapture was coming. “Be still!” They ignored me, ran in circles and took off their shoes and socks and threw their socks at the homeless. Except one little girl, small and wearing a Lucy van Pelt costume with a black rubber wig, a little girl who’d been awkwardly quiet until now, was beginning to ask for her mother. The little girl’s name was Molly; she’d told me when I found her. Now, standing off by herself in this cacophonous and dusty cellar below the city, she asked for her mother again, but was too
quiet to be heard over the echo of the madness from the other kids. So she became silent. I watched as she walked toward me, slow and gentle footsteps, and tugged on the hem of my red and green, fake-satin robe. “Santa?” I looked down at her and lifted the cartoon, hair-shaped rubber covering from her eyes. Her eyes were amber, almost yellow. The smooth and burning color of boiling honey. The kind of eyes that knew God when He was alive. “Yes, Molly,” I answered. “I’m cold…” She sniffed. Snot ran in a clear line down from one nostril and over her bottom lip. She licked at it. “I know. But there will be comfort soon, child.” She looked at me like she didn’t understand, and I patted her head and promised her there would be a show of signs and wonders in the tunnels tonight and then asked her to round up her brothers. “Okay,” she said. “But Santa?” “Yes?” “Why couldn’t our mommies and daddies come with us?” I looked at her and asked, “Do you believe in me?” “Yes,” she said. I looked at her, into her honey-burning eyes and said, “Well, they didn’t. Your folks, they weren’t of faith. Not like you.” “Is that why you didn’t want them to see you when you told us to come with you?” “Yes.” She stood there and just looked up at me for a little while and didn’t say anything. Then her eyes squinted as though her next
question had shined on her like a spotlight. She tugged on my robe again. “But Santa?” she asked. “Yes?” I answered. “Where are we going?” “I already told you,” I told her. “Don’t you remember?” Her face expressionless, she nodded, never taking her eyes off mine, never blinking. I patted her head again. Children are the only perfect people. They needn’t any saving: only freeing. Reaching into my robe, into the breast pocket of my tee shirt, I fingered the smooth, wooden handle of the switchblade therein, and then I looked at Molly again. Molly was still looking up at me. With Molly next to me, I watched my perfect disciples. They were running barefoot now, the pads of their feet slapping against the frigid concrete floor, playing a game of tag around the sleeping, shit-stained derelict they’d thrown their socks at. I raised my hands again and began to call them, then stopped, lowered my hands. I didn’t know how to command them, didn’t know how to make them listen. I pressed my face into my palms and moaned. I wondered if God was this stressed his first day on the job. I’d seen a vision the night before: the Lord in all His magnificence weeping alone in His heavenly throne room. The room was filled with a pale light. All His disciples were gone, and He was disappearing. It was a sparkly kind of disappearing, kind of like the way Yoda did in Return of the Jedi: just slowly fading into pretty nothingness. Before vanishing, He looked at me and spoke, asked me to
take His place. Asked me to take a train. The Rapture. Said I knew the right one, but I didn’t. Said a sacrifice was necessary first. A sacrifice. Like Abraham to Isaac; my little lambs in the brush were waiting to be freed, He said. His voice sounded amazing. The voice of many waters. “Do you hear that?” Molly asked. In the black distance of the tunnel, I could hear the rumble of a train coming. Behind me, one of the kids, the oldest boy dressed as Charlie Brown, had stuffed a handful of Dubble Bubble into the sleeping homeless man’s mouth. Where he’d gotten the gum, I could only guess. I turned and saw the man’s eyes widen and heard him gag through the mouthful of stale gum and yellow wax paper. The man hacked and spat and smacked the kid in the head, and the kid ran to me and cried, and the others, Woodstock and Snoopy, followed screaming like girls. The homeless man hissed at them, pulled his brown-stained sweatpants off, tied them over his head, fell to his knees, and began speaking in tongues—bareassed and looking terrified. The kids were gathered, standing crying in a semicircle in front of me. They all began demanding the same thing. They wanted to go home. I lifted my arms again. “Peace and quiet!” And this time, they listened to me. When they were quiet, I reached into my robe, into the breast pocket of my tee shirt, then looked at Charlie Brown. “What you did for that man—” The boy looked at me, a shamed gaze in his eyes. “—was a good thing.”
From my pocket, I retrieved four Tootsie rolls, handed them to each child. “Giving is virtuous,” I said. “It is like a miracle. No, it is a miracle, and a show of signs and wonders.” I pointed behind them with my chin—pointed at the homeless man. “Look at the man.” They didn’t want to look. They complained that he was naked and had poop on his bum. “I said look at him!” I said. We five looked at him together. He was on his knees and pawing at the cement floor and crying. Ass to the ceiling. Face to the ground. Only lifting his head long enough to shout unintelligible slurs at us and throw spitty pieces of wrapped Dubble Bubble into the air. The hard gum made faint tapping sounds as it fell on top his shiny, bald head. Against the gray, dusty floor. “You all have a wonderful gift,” I told the kids. The rumbling was loud and growing louder. I looked up. With its wheels growling against the metal of the tracks and screeching as it slowed, the train pulled up to the platform and stopped. The doors opened. A pale, beckoning light flickered inside. The same light I’d seen in my vision. “Come now, children,” I said. “The Rapture is come!” “Where are we going?” Snoopy asked. “To Heaven,” the little girl, Molly, turned to him and said. “This is Santa’s train to Heaven.” Perfect humans. All of them, perfect. My followers into the light I’d seen, the light I’d soon teach them about. “Enough,” I said. “We need to hurry before the Rapture leaves
us behind.” “Is it a rapture or a train?” Snoopy asked Charlie Brown. “What’s a rapture?” Charlie Brown asked Woodstock. Woodstock shrugged. “I think it’s a dinosaur.” “There are dinosaurs in Heaven?” Snoopy asked. Woodstock shrugged again. I’d teach them soon. I took the children under my arms, my long, red sleeves brushing against their costumed backs, and guided my disciples into the light. As we stepped into the car, I looked over my shoulder. Behind me, the homeless man stopped praying to the god of gum and looked at us. The doors began to close. He got to his feet and ran to the doors and pried them apart. He stepped aboard and sat his naked ass on the seat in the far corner of the car. “Looks like there’s room for him too,” Molly said. I agreed. There certainly was room for him. The lights flickered as I relaxed into my seat. Then the train bumped and wormed into the darkness of the underground. As we picked up speed, I looked down at my disciples, two at my left hand and two at my right, and they looked up at me, and I motioned toward the de-pantsed man. They turned their heads in unison and looked at him. In my shirt pocket, the knife handle bumped and tapped against my chest near my armpit. And I felt a smile stretch across my face as the man looked at us and trembled. Our sacrificial ram had come after all.
Playing in the Street
It’s like bumping your ass down in a dusty bar on a sunlit morning, where a few barely awake dregs scuttle about the bar room, flipping down chairs placed on tables, just a few short hours away from the night before. Thus, as are all things that shock the eyes back to the rudiment of the physical world,
Young boys crash toy cars and toy trucks.
They grow older, and die similarly.
And in the stillness of the morning, and the breeze of the road blowing through the screen door, she flashes quite regular in the poor light; simply another. Eyes of oil, hair of morass, a piano’s teeth ring in deafening bells hollow and long across the field in foggy moonlight where so many were buried that few tilled the land to live. To laugh, to laugh what could I ever do to make her laugh, and convince her to laugh for me? If I were to write this down, perhaps she’d find the dream of one dreaming of her laughing to suffice. Her strings, so obvious in her wave that the space where no echo treads is lit naked, allied to life by lack of life, and all things are thus a stepping stone.
665, Mike Smith
Joseph Rathgeber We were pulling out of the gas station when we were struck by the truck. This is how the father dictated it to the officer for the police report. The father scratched his scalp beneath his newsie cap. Shoulder-length strands of greasy and crinkled hair like black kelp were pushed behind his ears. He had no collision on his car, of course. Outlaws didn’t purchase insurance. To him, the damage was negligible. He drove a beat-up Plymouth with a broke-down engine. The car was marred by dings, dents, and body damage even before the accident happened. The license plate was held on by twist ties. The father was the poster child for New Jersey’s lemon law. The father was into Zappa. He was no bluesman. But he sang a lament as he angled his gaunt body into his wrecked car to eject the Zappa cassette from his tape deck. I ain’t cryin’ for no religion, Lord. The officer pulled him from the wreckage by the tail of his sleeveless t-shirt. No, no, Lord. I ain’t cryin’. The officer didn’t want to hear that ditty, only details. “Only details, sir.” The little girl, the daughter, shouldn’t have been in the passenger seat. That’s what the medic said. An ambulance had arrived on the scene, if you can believe that—quite a hubbub. That seatbelt was liable to strangle her. A seatbelt being no different from the cords on venetian blinds or the cables behind the television set.
“What were you doing at the gas station, sir?” Gettin’ gas. “That all, sir?” Got a soft-pack. “Why does the response team say your tank is almost empty?” Almost empty? “The needle’s on E, sir.” I only put in two dollars. Just enough to get us home. “Where’s home, sir?” Where the heart is. The officer called the father a smart aleck. The father simpered. He knew how to deal with the pigs. * The car was struck on the rear driver’s side. The impact sent the Plymouth spinning. The father glimpsed the tractor trailer in the rearview mid-spin. He saw GOD coming at him. One does not notice punctuation in a moment of panic. The father was never religious. He was always conspiratorial. He begrudged his wife a baptism. The daughter was decked out in a ruffled christening gown. It looked like froth when they tilted her into the font. Weeks later, the priest that poured the holy water on her bonneted baby head pleaded guilty to embezzlement. He was financing an addition to his Lake Hopatcong cabin and had an open credit line at Corbo’s jewelers. He had an affinity for gold bracelets. The father scissored out the article from the StarLedger and posted the clipping on their fridge. GOD was G.O.D.—Guaranteed Overnight Delivery, a now defunct trucking company. They shipped freight locally, based out of Newark. It crushed the car substantially. All the experts on the scene declared the vehicle totaled. The father heard their assessments and prophecies, and with each edict he envisioned a multicolored square of scrap metal being lifted by a giant circular magnet above a junkyard. His crushed and compacted car was like the word itself: totaled, TOTALED, TTLD.
The Plymouth was towed, and the father and his daughter waited to be picked up. Mama was en route. They walked around the industrial wasteland. They were in the meadowlands amidst landfills and filling stations. It was an area difficult to discern. Where did preservation end and sanitation begin? Natural and mechanical waste commingled: decomposing swans and discarded carburetors. How to systematically separate salt hay from sludge? Meadowlandfillingstations. * For Darlene, the daughter, faith was a notion explored—an exploration yielding no riches. She “lost” her faith—like the loss of eyeglasses, house keys, or virginity. She lost her faith in St. Joseph’s Hospital, standing at the bedside of her sick friend. This was in third grade. Two little girls left alone in a hospital room. Striking big girl poses with prepubescent body parts. Mama told her to pray to God that the leukemia would leave Becca’s body. Darlene prayed to God and to Luke, too. The name of Becca’s disease sounded like his area of expertise. Darlene knew most things were according to Luke. Mama told her to pray to God, pray to Him hard, and He’d help Becca. But He didn’t, and Becca died. Darlene didn’t know why. She’d even been picturing God’s name and all the pronominals related to Him in uppercase letters. She knew God preferred to be capitalized. It was disrespectful to diminish His name, even in thought. Becca died. And it was just days after Darlene prayed so hard. Becca died. Dead as a doornail, her father said. Not about Becca, but about the batteries in the remote. He smacked it on his thigh;
he removed the back cover and rolled life into the batteries; he touched the tip of the double-A’s to his tongue and jerked back at the acidic fizzle. He changed the channel to C-SPAN. God was omniscient and omnipresent. C-SPAN was too. Like God, C-SPAN was uppercased and always on. When Darlene found her father peering out the living room window late one night, C-SPAN was on MUTE on the TV. God was immutable. God had a one-up on C-SPAN—omniscient, omnipresent, and immutable. God was greater than C-SPAN. Darlene had come downstairs for a snack. “I’m hungry,” she said. The father turned to her from the window and said: “The parameters are in place.” He had sugar sprinkled in his mustache. Darlene asked for sugar cookies. He said the cupboard was empty. He promised he’d go to market tomorrow. “Where are the sugar cookies you’re eating then, Daddy?” “I haven’t been eating sugar cookies.” The father ducked below the window sill as a car drove by. He held a police scanner to his ear. He was in boots without socks. His eyes were glazed and alive. * I am the third-person narrator unlimited. I am C-SPAN and God and Law. I am the authority. If I could ask Darlene what she felt immediately following the accident, she’d say she felt the solace her father provided her by the placement of his knobby hand on her kneecap. He was her palliative, her grizzly bear on all fours on the living room floor. He was her deliverer from Mama’s reprimands and religion.
If I could ask Darlene what she thought immediately following the accident, she’d say that she didn’t know why God was broken up by periods. G-dot. O-dot. D-dot. It was punctuation like the punch of a key. Like the peck of a hen—something potent. Potent interruptions. Darlene wondered what God stood for. She knew what her and Mama stood for. They stood for the priest when he emerged from the narthex, when he walked down the nave like a blushing bride—the broken capillaries flushing his swollen face. They stood when he bowed before the altar. It was her and Mama side-by-side in the pew. The father never went. He rebuffed his wife’s invitations. “Damn it all! That priest’s got a bad case of bending elbow.” The father stayed home with the funny papers. The ink on the edges of his fists was the color of his greasy and crinkled hair. If I could ask Darlene when she first challenged Mama about faith, she’d say it was when she asked if Santa Claus was real. “The Tooth Fairy isn’t real,” Mama said. “Neither is the Easter Bunny. But Santa…Santa is real.” So Darlene believed her. When she discovered that she’d been lied to, she was irate. Darlene didn’t want to hear about wellmeaning parental prevarications. The damage was done. Mama locked Darlene in her bedroom for throwing a tantrum. * The father held Darlene’s hand as they climbed over a sheet of corrugated roofing. Darlene jumped up and down on it. The sound was gentler than the compacting and crunching sound of the collision. They looked through a chain-link fence at garages the size of airplane hangars. Parade floats were being constructed. Floats for local parades and even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day
Parade were built there. Darlene’s fingers curled around the links of the fence, her face pressed to it until indentations appeared on her cheeks. It was a shimmering sight. Even on an overcast day, the shiny frills reflected light. Each individual frill twitched like falling tickertape. The father explained the basics of how the floats were built. Floats were the parade cars. And float was what the angels did, Mama said. Above Darlene’s head, in and out of the cumulus clouds—the angels float there to protect her, she was told. Word became flesh. Darlene felt Mama’s hand on the back of her head. Mama’s fingers ran through Darlene’s hair and scratched her scalp, rigorously. Darlene closed her eyes, entered a trance, and saw the shining bald head of Mr. Wolack. He and his family always sat in the pew in front of them. The Wolacks held hands during the Our Father, and when everyone else holding hands let go, they didn’t. They kept holding hands through the embolism and the closing doxology. Darlene moved her lips but didn’t form comprehensible words. She only joined into the murmuring of a mass of devout people: “Or a kindum, the powder, an grorry are yorns, nounsareforever.” The luster coming off the crown of Mr. Wolack’s bald head was radiant. Darlene traced the beam of light upward to the barrel vault. The flood lights, bright as interrogation lights, were aligned equidistant to the soffits of the arches. She stared upward until her eyes began to blur, and she started to see spots. “You left Entenmann’s crumbs all in the sink,” Mama said to the father. “Give it a rest, will ya?” “Like you were resting behind the wheel when you nearly killed our daughter in a collision with an 18-wheeler? What were
you thinking?” Darlene was thinking: here we go again. The family walked toward the car, crossing railroad tracks that had fallen into disuse. The rails were flush with the pavement. Mama pulled Darlene in close, squeezing Darlene’s head into the crook of her arm. “Thank God the guardian angels were floating up above your head, darling. Thank God for that.” The father looked at his feet and scratched under his cap. He guided his greasy and crinkled hair behind his ears. “Enough with the God already.”
The Wolf Who Ate the Boy Bremer Acosta
People always say “it gets worse before it gets better” but I never believed their stiff heads, their cults of numb positivity, their shitsoaked silver linings, or their bumper sticker religions. To me, all of their slogans and wet-eyed words aren’t even worth a bucket of sludge. And what’s worse, these phonies never leave me alone. Just let me lean back in my plastic chair where I can hide with the rows of losers. I don’t need to be cleaned up, or recite scripture, or hug the bald man next to me. I don’t need to hold hands with cellmate “10939-230” and sing folk songs in a nasally Bob Dylan voice. And most of all, I don’t need to reject my old life. Now one of them burnt-out baby boomers sits across from me and tells his story. He pulls his gray ponytail behind his shoulder and says, “I’m so glad I got to be part of this group, really I am.” His brown eyes linger around the group’s faces and then he looks directly at me, almost like he’s pleading for me to help him, to save him from all this. “I know you think we’re here to judge you, but we’re not. So in this meeting, I want to hear from some of the newer guys.” I watch him for a moment and tighten my fists, feeling my blood pulse through my palms. I can’t share – no, not yet, no, not this way. I sigh and look down at my shoes. As I hear the man jabber on about how he’d been put in here on account of selling drugs, I think about the philosophy of this group, and how they wanna make me a proper citizen again. They want me to wear black suits and black ties, hold my hand over the holy book, and plunge straight into the warm tears of repentance. When the aged baby boomer stops his talking, he mutters a
few words to himself. Then he turns to the man sitting next to him, a bald guy with a pink birthmark on his cheek. I never heard him talk in my time here but I heard the other boys whispering about how he killed his wife when he found her with another man. He took the hammer to her and her lover’s skulls. And when the cops found him, he was standing silently on the front lawn, like nothing had ever happened. This man’s name is Jerome. And he says, looking at his rocking feet. “I-I-I didn’t even think ’bout it, no, I sure didn’t. I jus’ hit her… I jus’ hit her with the claws and left… I’ll never forgive myself for what I done. Never…” He puts his hands in his sagging face, and gulps back a sob. The other boys hush him and say “It’s ok,” and “Take your time, Jerome” and I hear my own voice saying “It’s alright, buddy,” not knowing where that came from. He had a rough string of luck, he sure did. But what the cops said I done wasn’t nearly as bad as all that. I’m only in this place because the judge fucked me on the sentence. “Six to ten years and you’ll be up for parole if you behave yourself,” he said. That dim judge draped in his death robe forced me in here, trapping me inside a concrete cell with two bunks and a butch roommate who glares at me at night, sometimes masturbating while I’m trying to sleep. And I gotta wear an orange jumpsuit with a number on it, in weather so greasy I start to stink like the rest of my fellow inmates. And they smell of sweat, blood, and desperation. It stains my nostrils even now as the boys talk, as I hear every one of them speak their life stories. If that judge had to serve a sentence like us boys here, he’d stick a revolver to his temple, and bet against Satan.
But let me tell you, and you can believe me or not, I’m not like these boys. Really, I’m not. I think I might be the only innocent man in this place. Just because my dad’s a pure Puerto Rican junkie and my momma’s the oldest stripper at the Hustle, don’t mean I can be labeled a bum. But down here in Memphis, even before I got sent to the joint, people didn’t like me much. They thought I was some kind of punk. I’ve seen their glares and their avoidant eyes, waitin’ for me to steal a purse, or expecting me to stand outside the fucking Home Depot, just eager to work a construction job. But I wasn’t so bad a guy, you see. I had a good life, working for an auto mechanic down route 55, fixin’ up a battered red truck, a rust stained motorcycle, all while trying to be an electrician on the side. But when I strolled round the pot-holed highways at night with nothing but my hands in my pockets, people stared, wondering just what the hell I was doing. And that’s how they caught me. A police car drove behind me, flickering his reds and blues. Took me into the station, booked me, said I fit the description for a rapist round this way. I saw the picture. He looks nothing like me. My eyes are hazel, not brown, and my nose is much straighter. Even my lips are a different shade, not bloodless like that pervert’s. And what I’ll never forget about that drawing is that man’s glassy eyes. How the hell could that be me? But apparently, the cops thought I was the man they’d been looking for. They probably imagined me prowling ‘round the brick alleys, stalking the general stores and theaters, just waiting for some white girl to step outside and play with her jingling keys for a second too long. I might not be a looker or anything, but I don’t need to be
with a girl the rough way, if you know what I mean. If I looked like Antonio Banderas, maybe that judge would’ve just shook his head and said, “We’ve got the wrong man.” I guess I’m too ugly to fit the look of innocence. So now I’m trapped in this gray-walled gymnasium, listening to these faulty reformed boys telling their stories about how they’re new men now. They all wanna be upstanding citizens, I guess—forget their old ways, start a fucking charity or shave time off their sentences. “Hector,” says one of the leaders of the group. He’s a big fat boy with tattoos on his neck. Got caught for burglary from what I hear, but now he’s one of them converts to Islam. It’s interesting— before that, he said he was a Buddhist. Now he’s looking at me, rubbing his cheek, and asking “would you like to share?” He gazes at me for a long time and the rest of the group is silent. The clock above them ticks. It’s my turn now and there’s no way for me to leave, no more new boys to talk but me. “No,” I say as I look down at the floor. Just move on to the next guy, to the older ones who like to jabber so much. “Are you sure?” he asks. The rest of the group watches me. All their eyes are dim and wet. One of them touches my shoulder and says, “It’s alright. This is a safe place.” “Fine,” I say, standing up from my chair. I had never stood up before, never would’ve even thought I’d be here. And they’re all watching me, gazing from the desert sand of orange jumpsuits. I feel the weight of their expectations crushing my chest, squeezing those valves in my heart that haven’t been opened in so long. “I’m new here. There’s not much to say.” I sigh and look down, trying to think, trying to work with my best words, but choking
on them all the same. “Guess you’d call me one of them real drinkers, you know, one of them boys who becomes a different man when he’s got the blood-drunk in his veins, but then is a new man the next day. I guess that might be what you’d think of me, but that’s not all I am, not really…” After a pause I say to myself and the group, “Well, I been in this program for two weeks so far and I got a long way to go now. Had a girl back home for a little while. Her name’s Gloria but she left me when she heard what I done.” Some of the boys nod sympathetically. One of them says, “Go on, please.” “Well,” I say, feeling my chest tighten up. “Do I feel sorry for what I’ve done? Well, I’d say yes and no, because first I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m no criminal and I don’t belong in this place.” I gaze around at the group and feel the pain of their silence scalding inside my throat. “Now, I know, some of you are looking at me and saying bullshit, but it’s the truth, the god’s honest truth. I’ll serve what I’m ordered to serve, but I’ll tell you now. I don’t feel sorry for myself. No,” I say, feeling the words spill from my lips, feeling the thoughts release from my tension, “No, not anymore.” I stop talking for a second, feeling the fear burn up inside me, and then I say, “But what I do deserve is the rotten luck. If I didn’t end up in here for what I was convicted of, I’d have ended up in here eventually. You ever hear of the boy who cried wolf? Well, my girl Gloria used to say I was the wolf that ate the boy. Now, I’m not sure what all that means, but let me tell you, I’ve been born with pure rotten luck. I might be the unluckiest son of a bitch alive.” The big chief who called me up earlier says, “That’s alright, Hector. This isn’t a place of judgment. Everyone, let’s hear it for
Hector.” And they all clap and some of the boys slap my back. That’s the first time I got up and talked to them since I’ve been with this group, other than saying my name and how long I got to serve. And I don’t know what it is, but maybe I’m warming up to this telling the truth business. I sit down and feel a desperate, hungry smile spread across my face, a smile that hasn’t been ‘round for a long time.
The Pajama Game Nancy Davidoff Kelton
A few months before my mother was admitted to Harding Institute, a mental institution in Ohio which I called the “nervous hospital,” she spent three weeks at Sisters’ Hospital on Main Street, fifteen minutes from our house. Her psychiatrist hoped a rest there would cure her. It didn’t. Her three-week ‘rest’ made her worse. She came home angry and sadder, wanting nothing to do with me. I thought she did not get better at Sisters’ Hospital because the nuns who ran the place disliked that she was Jewish and only helped Catholic patients, who crossed themselves. Back home, Mom returned to lying on the living room sofa, sitting up in the afternoons to watch The Kate Smith Show and speaking to me if I sat down next to her before the show started to guess whether the neckline on Kate’s dress would be scooped, high, or V. Mom also spoke to me when she and Dad took me to a musical. Musicals perked her up. When we saw The Pajama Game at the Erlanger Theater, my parents bought the cast album. I took it to my friend, Sally’s. We learned the songs. I suggested we perform the show for our families. We rehearsed at her house after school every day. Her freezer was filled with ice cream sandwiches and Sara Lee cakes, not packaged bread and Birds Eye vegetables like ours. Her mother, still wearing her skirt and matching monogrammed cardigan from her afternoon bridge game or lunch, insisted our snacks include fresh fruit. I insisted we eat the Sara Lee Cake, frozen.
The frosting tasted better hard and cold. The living room became our theater. The area by the fireplace became our stage. No one rested on the couch. The family portrait of a smiling Sally with her older brother, Richard, and their mother seemed to occupy more space over the sofa, where in my house hung an oil painting of a boat. Sally looked like Sally. Bigeyed. Adorable. Sweet. Her mother and Richard did not resemble themselves or anyone else, but the three looked like a mother duck with ducklings, a captain with mates, announcing to the world they were stronger as a unit than alone. “Do you mind being the man?” Sally asked one day after we sang Syd and Babe’s duet “There Once Was a Woman.” “Fair is fair,” I said. Sally won Rock, Paper, and Scissors. A good thing, too. She was prettier. That I minded. That was unfair. Particularly when grownups rubbed it in. “Sally’s precious,” and “Sally’s a doll,” they would say, with me standing next to little precious. If I played Babe, the audience would laugh. The good news, I got first dibs on the supporting roles. I picked Gladys. Her big number, “Steam Heat,” called for jazzy dancing and finger snapping. In one scene, Gladys gets drunk. Not being ‘the pretty one’ meant working harder, acting kooky and figuring things out. Sally had it easier, though. Pretty girls do. A week before our big Friday night show, we handed everyone in our families homemade invitations. We needed costumes, including men’s pajamas for the last scene when Syd wears the bottoms and Babe wears the tops. Sally’s father didn’t own pajamas. Daddy did. One night, while reading in bed, he said I could take a pair from his dresser. I did.
“Those will swim on you,” he said, seeing what I chose. “Roll up the bottoms or you’ll trip.” I had not asked my mother for the aqua silk Chinese pajamas she wore to rest at Sister’s Hospital. Those wouldn’t work for Syd. And Mom hadn’t worn them at home. Maybe she left them at the hospital. Maybe a nun was running around in them. Would God punish a nun for wearing aqua silk pajamas? Probably not if she obeyed him, kept on her headpiece, and did good works. My family did not talk about the hospital. Or Mom’s illness. I learned not to ask her for much. Like getting around being the pretty one, I figured some things out. Friday after school, I went to Sally’s. Her Grandma Lil and Great Aunt Bea came for dinner: lamb chops, mashed potatoes, and canned peas. When Sally’s mother served homemade cherry pie, Richard excused himself. An argument started. I liked that Sally’s family was not perfect. At 7:30, I called my house. The line was busy. I tried again. My sister answered. “You’re coming, aren’t you?” I asked. “To what?” A pause, then “Pajama Game. It’s tonight. At Sally’s. Her family’s all here.” “I forgot. I’m going to a party,” Susan said. I couldn’t breathe. “Can’t you go to your party after?” “No,” she said. A little before eight, Richard reappeared with a girl in a red flannel poodle skirt. “This is Rona,” he announced. Rona shook our hands. After our performance, they were going to their high school dance. I stayed in the foyer on tiptoes looking out the front door
window. Sally, in the living room on Richard’s lap, giggled with Rona. She brushed Sally’s hair. Sally’s mother tapped my wrist. “Look who’s coming up the walk.” My father. Alone. Daddy stepped inside, putting his hat—like the kind Frank Sinatra wore—in his hand. “It’s nice and warm in here.” “Where’s Mommy?” I asked. My father’s eyes went from Sally’s mother to Sally, now beside me, to her father, on her other side, and finally to me. “She can’t make it, honey.” Sally and her mother both put their arms around my shoulders. From the living room, Richard called, “Girls, we’re waiting.” Grandma Lil and Great Aunt Bea sat together on the couch. “Come sit, Max.” Sally’s father ushered Dad to a comfortable chair. Sally and I sang our songs and did our routines. As Syd, my knees shook. I could not look at Sally or belt out the words. But as Gladys, the stage became mine. I forgot the audience. Forgot my mother and sister were not there. My voice did not come from my throat, but from someplace further down. My hands and feet followed the music, taking on a life of their own. After each number, everyone applauded. We got a standing ovation. I looked around at our audience: the eight people who came for Sally. And my one. I took my final bow. After school on Monday, I sat close to my mother on the sofa before The Kate Smith Show came on. We guessed about the neckline on Kate’s dress. Mom would remind me Kate wouldn’t wear the same kind two days in row.
The game ended when my mother went to the nervous hospital. No one in my house watched The Kate Smith Show. The moon stopped coming over the mountain. It stayed behind it way too long.
Getting the News Judith Krummeck
Theopolis 3rd January, 1837 My dear brother Whether my dear Father and Mother are still living or not, I do not know as it is long since I received a line from any of you. On the 20th of December last, my Dear partner was suddenly snatched from me… she was in the family way and we feared a miscarriage from the first. George Barker This was part of a letter that my great-great-great-great-great grandfather sent from the Theopolis mission station in the eastern cape of South Africa to Thomas Barker c/o the Old White Hart, which still exists as a pub in Wimbish, Essex in England. The letter would have taken about six weeks to get there by ship. In all that time, Thomas lived unaware of his sister-in-law’s death, and George would have to wait even longer to learn about the wellbeing of his family. *
Horde of the Unvanquished, G.J. Sieck
At first, February 9th, 2011 was a Wednesday like any other as I abstractedly checked emails before getting down to work. It’s always a rare pleasure to find a message from Hillary (our erratic correspondence would make us lose the thread if we weren’t so close). Then I read her subject heading, Sad news about Stephen Watson, and—quickly—the message, Oh darling, so sorry to send you this news. Oh No. My eyes skimmed over the words …terrible
news about Stephen…diagnosed last week…worst possible news…the cancer is incurable… For a while, perhaps as long as a minute, I sat unresponsive and unmoving, looking out of the window at the slightly foggy, chilly day, until the shock found its mark. This was how I learned, sitting in my study on the other side of the world, that Stephen, beautiful man, gifted poet, lifelong friend, had months to live. * On an early spring evening in late April, I was luxuriating in a bath redolent of lavender when the phone rang. My husband brought it to me. “Joobiliblottopopsillyday!” Even if it weren’t for the fact that nobody else in the world had this convoluted nickname for me, I would have recognized the beautifully enunciated, rich baritone of my friend, Peter, calling from London. As soon as his ebullient greeting was over, his voice modulated. Had I heard the news? he wanted to know. As I sat in a bath slowly turning cold, he told me that Jonathan, who was at drama school with us in Cape Town, had gone into the clinic to have a stent inserted into an artery in his heart, and they hadn’t been able to stem the bleeding. They rushed him to the Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, but couldn’t save his life. Jonathan and Stephen had shared a study at boarding school, and it was Jonathan who introduced me to Stephen. It was also Jonathan who introduced me to Hillary. She told me that Stephen’s latest book was by Jonathan’s bedside when he died. Jonathan was my first love. *
There is a curious sense of suspended animation before going on air for a public radio fund-drive. The event itself is so fraught with adrenalin and energy that waiting for it to begin is like being poised on the brink. As I was filling the time before starting a 9 o’clock shift, I checked for instant messages on Skype and found this one from my brother, Peter: May 8, 8:27 a.m. I have just got back from visiting Lee. There is no easy way of putting this, but I do have cancer of the bowel and liver. She has arranged for me to see a Dr Coetzee at the Cancer Clinic at Groote Schuur on Tuesday 14 at 9 a.m. He will do further tests and scans and, with Lee and myself, decide on the best way forward. All the signs had been pointing to this, but to see the word cancer staring back at me from the computer screen made it lurch towards reality. I methodically closed down Skype, logged off from my computer, shut the lid. Then I walked to the Chief Engineer’s office, sat down opposite him, and made myself say the words, “My brother has cancer.” I felt I had to say it out loud so that the words could be a buffer between learning the news and the mundane and immaterial task of going on the air to ask the listeners for money. * When the phone rang at 11:18 p.m. on the eve of the Fourth of July, I hoped it was a wrong number. Then I heard my brother’s voice. He didn’t beat about the bush. “Joan has died.”
We have called our mother by her Christian name since we were adults. For a long moment, while my brother waited quietly, everything hung in the balance. I couldn’t move or think, much less speak. It was the moment I had wondered about ever since I made the decision to emigrate. Every time I left Cape Town after a visit, I would turn on the street and look up to the corner window of my mother’s apartment on the third floor, where she would be waiting for a final wave. I always imprinted it on my memory in case it was the last time. Conservatively, it takes about 34 hours, door to door, to get from Baltimore to Cape Town. Ever since I left Africa, this had been at the back of my mind as I wondered: would I be able to be with my mother when she died? As it happens, I now don’t remember the last goodbye. * The Damoclesian sword of bad news can drop at any time and in any place. The question is how you choose to live your life around that certain knowledge. I could have stayed in Africa and been closer to hand for these events that made me feel so very far away, but I doubt that I could have done nothing to change the events themselves. Peter was in Cape Town—but he wasn’t with our mother when she died. As with anything, you have to weigh up the risk. You can take a chance and reach out for a full life of possibility, or you can make the very valid choice to live a more moderate life out of respect for fear of the unknown. Either way, it’s a compromise. My compromise has been to seize the chance of an enriching life in another country, and to try to share that life, as best I can, with
the intimates I have left behind. Unlike George Barker and his family back in England, I am lucky not to have to rely only on letters that take six weeks to get there by mail ship. I had time to write everything in my heart to Stephen, and he told me it was better than a love letter when I spoke with him on the phone that last time before he died. I saved up every detail, big and small, to share with my mother by email and phone, and her deep, mellifluous voice was firm and strong when I called her on the Sunday before she died. I don’t know for certain, but I’m fairly confident—hopeful—that she received my last email on the morning of her death. In the months after our mother died, at odd hours during the day and night because of the time difference, I Skyped and emailed and instant messaged with Peter, supporting him in his decision not to have chemotherapy, hearing the daily progress of the radio play he was writing, sympathizing with his thwarted plans to make one last trip to England and America, sharing in the daily shifts of cortisone and morphine doses, making plans to go to Cape Town to help him sort through his life’s work of writings and theatre productions so that they could be archived.
see him, I talked to my brother and heard his vocal but nonverbal responses. He is my soul mate, we have been talking deeply all our lives, I know he can hear me. When the charger lost power in Cape Town, I was in the dark for half an hour, not knowing. When we could connect again, I asked my niece to make it a video call. The midday light was falling across his bed. He looked tranquil, but he drew his breath in shallow gasps, with such an interval of time between each breath, that I kept thinking I had lost him. I talked for twenty-six minutes, unfiltered, pouring my thoughts into his unconscious mind. Then the charger lost power again. At 9:24 a.m. my niece called back. She was holding his hand. At 4:22 p.m. in Cape Town, Peter had gently closed his lips together, and he was gone. It was five and a half hours before I was due to leave for the airport to go to him.
* On November 9th, six months and one day after Peter’s diagnosis, I was ready to leave for Cape Town. He had been admitted to St. Luke’s Hospice for observation, and I was on my way to take him back home and care for him there. At 6:00 a.m., I was woken by the phone. “Oh no!” I knew instantly it was about Peter. My niece was with him at the hospice and she suggested that I should get onto Skype. For sixteen minutes, without being able to
About a Kiss Saralyn Lyons
My mouth is wrong with you, simmering on the edge of my tongue like hot magic. You dig a hook into my chest and pull me by the spine to where your breath meets mine, where I dance my fingers across the back of your neck, and the whole wet mess of me stays wrapped in you like steam on a plastic shower curtain. You are a storm across the desert. I am Mars burning red in the pocket of the sky.
Research and Development Erin Drew
The Interview It was L.A. and it was hot—the kind of hot that made me want to spend the rest of my day lying on a cold floor, rubbing ice cubes all over my naked body. Unfortunately, my impending August bills begged otherwise. I had just moved my life to California from Maryland, without much of a plan. I had a free couch to stay on, my car, a few suitcases, and $42. I needed a job. Fast. I had never heard of R&D Kitchen before parking in its neighborhood that day. But, as I walked up to fill out an application at the Craigs-list-recommended time of 1:00 p.m., I realized that 50 others had heard of it. Applicants were lined up around the building. It was still hot, the cover-up on my monstrous zit was melting off, and I’m pretty sure I had armpit stains. A gorgeous hostess, who looked like Jasmine from Aladdin, handed me a fivepage application. I peeped inside the restaurant to get a good look at the staff. All of the servers looked like they were models and actors. I was neither of these things. “There is no way I’m getting this job,” I muttered to my pimple. But after an academic assessment, a personality test, three interviews, and a brief phone call, two days later I was hired. The Uniform The list of necessities is fairly modest for a server at R&D Kitchen: an endless supply of pens, a pair of non-slip shoes, black pants, ironclad mental fortitude, and starch. We were handed two pristinely white chef coats upon
graduating training. It never made sense to me why the servers wore chef coats. Regardless, the coats had R&D Kitchen embroidered on the chest and they were expected to be starched stiff, daily. “Your uniform shirt should be able to stand on its own,” said the on-duty manager at every pre-shift meeting. My ironing board, my most functional possession, stood a proud four feet tall and could usually be found standing ten-hut in the apartment, ready to endure some serious heat. At around 3:00 p.m. six days per week, I would uncap the Niagara Heavy Starch and suffocate my cotton threads with dousing sprays. I probably went through a can of starch every three weeks. I began to develop anxiety from the steam because as soon as I saw the vapor escape from the iron, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I’d be wishing to escape the demands of my needy tables. The Training I would like to go on record and say that I am a proponent of communication. Huge fan. It makes the world go ‘round. It saves relationships, friendships, and foreign policy. But at R&D Kitchen, we not only communicated, but we re-communicated, over-communicated, and communicated again for good measure. It was a rule that you constantly had to announce what you were doing and the team always had to acknowledge it by yelling back, “Heard!” Here is a verbal communication snippet: Katie: Food in the window! All: Heard! Sabiha: Coming around corner! All: Heard! Bartender: Drinks are up!
All: Heard! “You should always be saying something to your teammates,” Jean instructed during my training. She was a short, curt Asian with an attitude. The service we provided at R&D was “team service.” We were assigned a section for the night, but anyone could greet our table, fetch their drink order, bus the table, and sweep afterwards. Early on in my career at R&D, I grabbed a pitcher of water to refill my guest’s glass but made the “huge” mistake of not announcing it first. I got three feet out of the server station and Jean stopped me. “Are you ‘walking water,’ Erin? I told you how important it is to communicate. Ugh. I don’t know if you’re going to make it here.” She sighed this ridiculously awful sigh as if I had just broken 27 champagne flutes. “Tell everyone what you’re doing, please, and hit table 15 with water while you’re at it.” I wanted to hit her in the face while I was at it. “Walking water!” I yelled, rolled my eyes, and then proceeded to my table. “Heard!” lingered in the air behind me. The Staff 10:30 p.m. on a Friday: “Whose dick do I have to suck to go home around here?” This one question had instantly made Katie Hill my favorite person in Los Angeles. Katie was a five-foot-tall in-your-face spitfire. She was hilarious and didn’t care what people thought of her. She worked hard, played hard, and had more success in the movie industry than anyone else in the restaurant. She had worked at R&D for about six months when I met her. She ended up leaving a couple
months later because the movie that she wrote and starred in had won a few independent film awards. No one else liked Katie’s attitude or potty mouth. I loved it. She was my only saving grace during those dark days. She was the reason I stopped crying every day after work. She pulled me aside one night as I was cleaning the crumbs out of each booth cushion in the restaurant. “This job sucks donkey balls, huh?” I laughed. “Yeah, it really does.” “The people are the worst but you’ll make a lot of money if you can just ignore them. Let’s go out for drinks later.” I was giddy. “OK!” The Name I made the mistake once of asking one of the head servers, Laura, what the “R” and “D” in R&D Kitchen stood for. I had been there two weeks. Laura was a white girl, about age 26, who was just as stiff as our chef coats. The minute I posed the question, she looked at me with absolute disgust. “Are you serious? How do you NOT know what R&D stands for??” “My table wants to know,” I said, impatiently. She rolled her eyes. “Research and development.” I laughed. “So, we work at ‘Research and Development Kitchen’? That’s really stupid.” She beamed her laser stare directly into my pupils. “Our parent company owns so many restaurants; they wanted a restaurant where they could test different menu items and stuff. It’s not stupid.”
The Performance Review Three days after Christmas, and four and a half months after I started at R&D, I was asked to come in early one morning before we opened. Scott, the 24-year-old General Manager, asked me to sit with him at table five. The smell of fresh blueberry pancakes wafted through the air. I was hungry, but the uneasy look in Scott’s eyes made me lose my appetite. He had a piece of paper in front of him. Scott was a hybrid between a weasel and Ryan Seacrest, in black-rimmed glasses. He was a tiny, spineless man who probably had a loving heart somewhere buried beneath his Gucci tie and his desire to kiss ass. “Erin, I want to review your performance. How do you think you’re doing?” He barely looked me in the eyes. I was very confused as to what I was doing there. Was I being written up? What did I do wrong? Despite my hatred for the place, I had followed the rules to a tee since day one. Katie was right, I was making a lot of money, so I found no need to challenge the restaurant’s absurd rules. “I think I’m doing well.” My heart rate sped up. Something was about to go terribly wrong. I could feel it. “Well, we’ve noticed that you haven’t had very consistent facial expressions.” What?? “What?” “Yeah, you don’t consistently smile. And we’ve decided that you’re not a good match for R&D. I have a severance package here for you to sign. I think you’re a great person and I’d be happy to give you a recommendation in the future.” He was shifting uncomfortably in his chair. My brain was paralyzed. What just happened?? I had worked my ass off during the holidays, always showed up to work on
time, treated customers better than I treated family, and had never been warned about my behavior prior to this… and I was being fired for…inconsistent…facial…expressions? THREE DAYS AFTER CHRISTMAS?! I wish I could say that I picked up table five over my head and slammed it through the front window. But I didn’t. I sobbed uncontrollably as the day-shifters trickled through the side door. I was so incredibly embarrassed and furious and confused that I couldn’t form words through my crying. I think I managed to verbalize that I had never been written up before, but it didn’t matter. Someone wanted me out. (I learned later, from an inside source, that the owner of the restaurant saw that I had a tattoo on my wrist and was furious that I was hired at all.) A few of my coworkers tried to calm my hysterics with hugs but they were asked to stop and I was told to leave. I plotted all sorts of horrid things to do to that place: unleash roaches, start a small fire, sue. But in the end I did nothing. The End One of the servers at R&D told me to apply to La Grande Orange Café (LGO) on the other side of town. I was hired there within two weeks of being fired. After a few months I noticed a new service bartender who was cleaning off the liquor bottles. He had dark features and I couldn’t tell which nationality he was because he could pass for Spanish, Mexican, Greek or Italian. He was incredibly handsome. “Hi, I’m Erin,” I worked up the nerve to say one day. He looked up from behind the bar and stuck out his hand. “I’m Nathan.” My heartbeats flickered.
We started small talking during our shifts. Not only was he handsome, but he was goofy and intelligent too, a perfect combination in my book. “Hey, who’s your favorite muppet?” he asked me one night as he made a mojito for my table. “Umm… Fozzie I guess.” I was thrown off-guard. He smiled at me and I knew I was in love. Turns out he is part Mexican, part Portuguese, and part love of my life. He moved back to Maryland with me a year and a half later. Heard!
Jeanette Garcia Polasky The Appalachian beach-bum look; the scar that spanned a bulging Adam’s apple; sixfoot-five and jockey-thin; the air guitar to “Old Brown Shoe,” the drugs, the endless tricks behind the fix; the pulsing frontal vein I feared; the mountain rides; the dropping dimes; the grit. The OCD, the great campaign for labels facing-front; the roguish crimes of vulpine chases, Ozark hens beneath the Bonneville; the blaring horn that drove the Amish buggies from the road. The brief exchanges feigning love I learned to loathe; the blows; the dog I twice stole back from you, the ring I hocked; your lingering tattoo.
Brother Sister Dog Nathan Hollaway Jen
The tree limbs groaned under my small frame as the wind brushed the leaves. It was 1995. I was six, perched atop a creaking oak, frozen. My sister was staring up at me from the bottom, desperate both to help me and to avoid trouble she’d be in if I fell. “Ok, now, put your foot there and grab that.” She instructed me on every move, in order to get me down. As I lay dangling from a low lying limb, she called out, “It’s not very far. You can let go!” I would have fallen into her arms, if I could. Luna She was the runt of a litter of Shiba Inu pups. She looked so much like a fox with her ginger coat that people asked if she was one, or maybe a hybrid. I thought her curly tail made it obvious, but no one else seemed to notice. I got to know the dog while staying with my parents in Kentucky, as my sister sorted her life out. I discovered that her nature was indeed foxy and, at times, wild. Luna thought she was bigger than she really was. When we would go to a nearby dog park, she was too much for the smaller dogs and when she went into the larger field for the bigger breeds, she’d show off her speed. If they could catch her as she sprinted round, she’d do an acrobatic roll to change direction. “Hey Nathan,” said my sister nudging me, “did you see that?”
The Kids In the early 2000’s, she would take her gift of advising and helping and use it to get two degrees and numerous jobs in social work. I remember her bringing home pictures of ecstatic children. Yet, these children had been born in dysfunctional families, addicted to substances, with disorders of all kinds; very alone. She had pictures of her hugging the children, ravishing grins sweeping across their faces. Adam Luna was purchased in 2008 in a New York City pet store as an anniversary present from my sister’s boyfriend. He would later become her fiancé. He was a good-looking, stocky, ItalianAmerican from Queens. His profession was in construction, but he specialized in elevators. Not just any elevators, but earthquakeproof ones. Because of this, they moved to California. Hyperactive To say Luna was rambunctious would be an understatement. For years she stayed in the puppy phase of chewing things up when left alone. Someone in the family was always yelling at her when we came home. No one could stay mad at her for long. Separate Rooms In 2009, my sister’s life fell apart. I can’t be certain what exactly happened. The most strain I saw was our parents’ disappointment in them living together, unmarried, most because our father was a pastor. Anyone who could make my sister happy was okay by me. It was only two months after they had moved in with each
other when my dad rented a U-Haul and drove from our home in Kentucky cross-country to California to pick up my sister. Apparently, Adam had run out of work earthquake-proofing elevators and had gone into regular construction, overqualified and unhappy. He began drinking and smoking—obsessively. The two started fighting, sleeping in separate rooms, until he eventually kicked her out. I didn’t say anything about it to her. I was happy to have my sister with us, even if the circumstances surrounding the move-in were less than pleasant. Shiba Inu The Shiba Inu is one of the world’s oldest breeds, a small, stocky Japanese dog used since the third century B.C. for hunting. Its thick double coat is prone to atrocious shedding. They are highly intelligent, incredibly active, stubborn, and known for being aggressive towards other dogs. Yet, they also have an affinity for cuddling, if they are in the right mood. Fun fact: Shiba Inus are so intelligent that they house train themselves. Little Brother My sister was staying in the guest room across from our parents while she was with us. She was sleeping on a cushiony, queen sized mattress with Luna next to her on a pillow. I lived in the attic. I felt like a protector. When I think of those days it’s as if I had spent every waking moment watching over everyone. I would have given anything to make my sister happy again. I did what I could. I took care of her dog.
I don’t know how many times I walked her, but by the end of summer, there wasn’t anywhere new to go. If she didn’t want to go in a certain direction, which was usually towards home, she would either walk on the opposite side of a tree or pole in order to get the leash snagged or plop down on the ground trying to pull a dead weight maneuver. She weighed close to fifteen pounds. There was no contest, but she had her breed’s stubbornness. I once dragged her two blocks before she decided she could walk again. When Luna was spayed and forced to wear a cone, I kept an eye on her. Her head hung low to the ground. So close to the floor, in fact, that I expected her to rest it there. There was nothing much I could do but offer a toy, or take her to my sister. I waited for things to get better. One of my last times taking Luna to the dog park, and the last time I did it by myself, the entire place was empty, just fences and dug up ground, embedded with the hardened and dried paw prints of roughhousing canines of times prior. The only activity, beside watching her chase flying insects, was a game of fetch with a tennis ball left from some previous game. We must have played for half an hour before she took notice of a tree close to the fence. When I went over, I found a flightless juvenile robin, wearing a jacket of leftover down, hopping around the ground. The situation seemed safe with her keeping an eye on the bird and me keeping an eye on her. I only looked away for a second when I heard someone coming to the park, they were a ways off, and when I turned back, she lunged for the bird. I screamed, “Luna! No!” It was shrill. I grabbed her by the collar and she dropped it, slobber-coated, but unharmed.
Flight Eventually, in late 2009, my sister found a job in Massachusetts as a social worker and moved into a small apartment by the sea with Luna. I was off in college. My parents moved to an island off the coast of Rhode Island where our father would take up a job as pastor of the First Baptist Church there. It happened one fateful night. My sister was sitting on the beach with Luna. I can only imagine the two of them staring out towards the vast, blue void, in awe of such seemingly endless expanse. Luna’s attention was drawn by a figure in the woods behind them. Before my sister could react, Luna had sprinted off to see what it was. Now, my sister stared into the dark forest, her heart aching for return; anxiety of the unknown swelling up inside of her, twisting her insides. There wasn’t a yelp, no bark, but simply a reappearance, and a pungent aroma hit my sister as this little dog dutifully returned without chase, for the very first and last time. She’d been skunked. It was painful. The odor seemed to envelop her like some hideous aura. The smell was Adam’s. The smell was the death of love. Even though my sister took her to a professional, who gave Luna a “special” bath, the smell lingered for months and never really seemed to go away. Sitter During a visit at my parent’s house in the summer of 2011, she gave us the news. In a hushed voice she leaned in towards us and said, “You know that sitter I’ve been using?” We nodded. “Well, Luna really gets along with her. I don’t really have a lot of time to spend with Luna anymore… It’s a tough decision, but I’ve
decided to give Luna to her.” There was a simultaneous group inhale of shock. My sister was giving up her baby. Questions How and why come to mind. In trying times, these are the questions that often arise. I wish I could give a simple explanation of how or why events unfurl the way they do. I may never fully understand. As difficult as it is to recall memories of the relationship of Luna and Jennifer, I still have one that is always most prominent in my mind. It happened, as all revealing events do, in the greatest time of crisis. My sister and Luna were still staying with us. A shriek could be heard echoing throughout the house. I was downstairs when I heard it. My sister came into view at the top of the stairs. “She… She… She…” was all she could manage. She was holding Luna tightly to her breast. Luna had consumed some unknown, potentially poisonous pills. Our father drove us all to a nearby animal hospital that only a month ago had been struck by lightning and nearly burned to the ground. My sister sobbed above the dog she held. Luna kept still and silent. There was nothing I could do. I could not hold the world up. If it was ending, I would have to let it happen. I could not steady my sister’s shaking body nor calm her cries. I could not save her dog. I could not save her. The best I could do was appear strong. We were fortunate. After a forced regurgitation, a stomach pumping, the reveal that nothing was found, and the reassurance that Luna would be fine, my sister was still upset. On the ride home, she cradled Luna in her arms, like an infant. Luna, belly-
up, looked back at my sister. The memory lingers after it ends with feelings of panic and relief, like Luna’s scent after her skunk encounter. Questions without answers are stirred up. Life has a way of bringing these up, but it’s pointless to try and separate what you can do with what you should. I could not take Adam from that dog. I could not heal my sister. It was not my job to do so anyway, but to embrace these memories as something special, and to release them when the time is right.
The Transfiguring of Fletcher Hammond Wick Fields
Fletcher Hammond woke that morning with a great desire for cigars—more accurately, he woke with a great physical need for them—one that swelled so great before leaving his apartment he’d become nauseous, making the daily route to his Honda Civic especially taxing. Sitting behind the wheel his mouth filled with spit, a warning issued from his stomach of atrocities to come if the desire wasn’t satiated. Not wanting to take a sick day from his flourishing career in telemarketing, he inhaled deeply, composed himself and turned the ignition. A 7-Eleven was near.Cigars were near. Once there he selected the short and slim kind. He was surprised he’d remembered to call them cigarillos, but not as surprised as he was by the response he gave the clerk who confessed they didn’t get much call for cigars anymore and were considering removing them from inventory. “Well you probably don’t get much call for the surviving works of Euripides either, that doesn’t make them any less magnificent,” a quip that left the clerk blinking in bewilderment. So with the addition of his morning coffee Fletcher stepped outside, placed the cup atop his car, unwrapped the first of the five packs he’d bought (he knew this craving had legs), withdrew his first fix of the day, gnashed it between his teeth and lit the other end with an orange lighter he’d also bought.Soon the tobacco’s compounds settled his mind and calmed his blood. What the hell was happening? he wondered, at last somewhat lucid. Cigars? He didn’t smoke cigars. He didn’t smoke anything at all.
Reaching for his coffee he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the driver’s side window. Something was happening to his hair. It was... thickening? He then watched in astonishment as it systematically turned white—a brilliant, fluorescent, scintillating white—streaking rapidly across his head, seizing eventually every hair. His new mane was vertical and wild, seeming to reach for the sky and wilt concurrently. But it was not his hair. It was someone else’s. It was Mark Twain’s hair. Oh Jesus God. He quickly got into the car, determining that if he were truly going insane, it would be better to do so alone with the doors locked. Pulling down the visor, he ran his fingers through the stringy mass above his forehead. It was indeed real, this was indeed real. He was becoming Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He took a long drag off his cigarillo. He finished his smoke before calling into work and driving home, wondering all the way if obsessive reading of Twain had resulted in this. How a man can so immerse himself in another that he adopts his flesh? It simply could not be. Pulling onto his street, he felt a tingle under his nose, followed by what felt like a thousand pins pricking. He watched horrified as his reflection in the rearview grew a glorious and full grey mustache within seconds. Then it was as if his face drew itself down. Creases grew around his mouth and nose. Every existing line hollowed deeper in his skin. His brown eyes went blue. Panicked, he withdrew a cigarillo from its pack and pressed in the car’s lighter, then reached for his coffee. His cup holder was empty. He’d left the coffee on top of the car. Dammit to hell! The lighter popped. He snatched it up and ignited his second smoke of the day. At home the lack of caffeine began to take its toll. His eyes
grew heavy. He thought of brewing a pot, but decided a nap might be his solution (deep down he knew this was as impractical as his condition was absurd, but his need for control was great and impracticality prevailed). He lay on the couch. For some reason he thought of his own writing—the writing he’d abandoned after years of toil when a creative writing professor at Canoga Community College declared his work “median” and “rife with manufactured irony,” and that it suffered from “emotional anemia.” He remembered how after this catastrophe he’d re-read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the forty-third time, marveling at how Twain was none of those things. A great and thundering id torching hypocrisy, something he’d never be. Why had he been granted such a romance for words but not the capacity to give them life? He remembered the trumpet he’d bought soon thereafter, hoping the long held belief that he housed a dormant maestro would be realized. It wasn’t. The horn was soon put away for good after hearing Louis Armstrong play “West End Blues.” Hammond’s curse was an excess of consciousness (both of himself and the world), it plagued everything he put his hand to. He caressed his mustache unwittingly and drifted off. * He awoke on a couch, but not the couch he’d fallen asleep on. This couch was smaller and more ornate. He sat up, yawning. His sight was fuzzy but he could see a billiards table before him. He often played billiards and was pretty damn good at it, truth be told. And there was his desk, where he wrote. He wondered if it would be as important a hundred years from now as it was today. Immortality is a destination traced on no map, he thought. The life that
has learned its sentence is not worth living anyway. It struck him that he’d thought that before—written it before—as he stared at the liver spots on his hands without alarm. And why would there be? They were his hands, Mark Twain’s hands, old hands. Not a trace of Fletcher Hammond existed anywhere. Then it came. Pain, deep and devouring pain, and with it came faces. A very young man. A toddler. Two young women. A grayer woman. A brother, a son, two daughters, a devoted wife. All loved. All gone. But to where? In all likelihood oblivion. God had made it very difficult to think otherwise. “Very difficult indeed,” he said aloud, his voice drawn and scratchy. He fixed his eyes openly ahead, thought of the grayer woman. Livy. Oh Livy. Suddenly his vision filled with history. He was much younger, as was she. They were in a theatre. So much younger. The first time he escorted her out? Yes, yes, Dickens. They went to hear Charles Dickens lecture. The hall was smoky and they sat far away, so he’d heard little of the master’s testimony. He’d been too enthralled with what sat beside him, and he’d loved Dickens, but not like he loved her. She was so terribly lovely. So terribly young. Dickens would be dead in the grave in just three years. “Whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart,” orated Dickens from behind the podium, Twain only hearing pieces as he stole glances at Olivia. “Whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself completely; in great aims and in small I have always been in earnest.” Twain remembered the crowd’s applause. “There are dark shadows on this earth, yes,” Dickens continued, but its lights are stronger in the contrast. We are that light.”
The crowd erupted, ascended to its feet. Life is made up of ever so many partings welded together, Twain thought. He said that as well. The pain returned. He looked to Livy. She was gone. He looked to his hands. They were old again. Furious, he rose to his feet shouting, “Life is made up of so many partings!” his wail barely discernible amidst the cheering. He shouted those same words again and again and again, each time the crowd’s collected voice softening, each time his words heard by more and more ears until finally the master himself heard. “You said that as well,” charged Twain. “I did indeed,” responded Dickens. “Then what use is the light?” demanded Twain. “Where’s the joy in a life that steals from you ceaselessly?” “‘The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again’, I said that as well.” “In Nicholas Nickleby, yes, you did,” answered Twain. “But I’m an old man, sir, and I’ve learned only one thing.” “Which is?” “The dead stay dead.” “That they do,” agreed Dickens. “So then I ask you again, sir. What use is the light?” “... To make sense of the remains.” Then Twain was gone. Back in his study. Staring at the billiards table thinking of the dead. He rose and walked to the mirror on the wall. He was so old. His eyebrows wisped at their ends. The skin below his eyes hung low and dark. Every joint throbbed. His heart felt thin. He shuffled to the window and peered out. The sun was beginning to set over a 1910 New York City.
He then found himself wandering the streets of the city, the sun brimming over rooftops in its descent. Not a soul was anywhere in sight. He walked into the park and by the lakes, then up a hill, to the carousel, where he heard the most splendid horn playing. Walking around the side of the ride, he found a young black man playing his trumpet. It was the most sublime sound he’d ever heard. The young man finished his tune and looked up at the applauding Twain. “That’s the most beautiful horn I’ve ever heard, and I’ve been all up and down the Mississippi.” “Well I am from New Orleans,” replied the boy. “Wonderful town.” “First time I’ve been to New York City,” the boy admitted, “and I gotta say, I like what I seen so far. You play?” “Me? Oh no,” rejoined Twain, glancing up at the riderless carousel. “I play a little piano, but—” “Then you can blow a horn.” “I’m afraid it’s not that easy,” proclaimed Twain. “I promise you it is,” insisted the boy, extending the horn to him. “Go ahead.” “An oyster has a better chance of playing a harp.” “Go on now and play,” insisted the boy. Not wanting to insult the boy and his message Twain took the horn. He just stared at it. “All you gotta do is blow. Blow and press in those finger buttons, that’s it.” “You make it sound so easy,” Twain responded. “That’s ‘cuz it is.” “Maybe for you.” The boy just looked at him knowingly, saying nothing,
smiling. “Just blow into the small end. It’s that easy.” “You might wanna cover your ears, this could become unpleasant,” Twain warned before inhaling deeply, waiting for the air to collect in his chest, then he put the small end to his lips and followed instructions. The noise emitted was even more hideous than anticipated, but that didn’t seem to register with the boy, who just went on smiling. “Told ya,” affirmed Twain. “Do it again, but this time move your fingers,” instructed the boy. “You want to hear that horrid sound again?” “Just press the buttons while you blow.” “Alright,” said Twain, shaking his head. “If only to prove that first unholy squall was no accident.” He then returned the small end to his lips and blew. Another unholy squall flung itself from the horn. “Move your fingers,” directed the boy, “and forget about everything but that horn.” Twain wondered how one went about forgetting everything before blowing again, this time pressing the buttons randomly. The noise improved. “That’s it,” encouraged the boy as he dropped his head, focusing entirely on the sound. Then something peculiar happened, Twain’s fingers seemed to somehow know where to go and in what order to press the buttons. Soon it was as if he’d been playing for years. It was palpable. Pleasant even. “Oh yea...” crooned the boy as Twain’s sluggish melody took form. “Now put your whole heart into it.” And just like that the pain returned with a ferocity, coming up and through Twain, over his shoulders and down his arms,
through his hands and fingers, which in turn, pressed the buttons in a perfect succession. The pleasant melody became something more, something stirring. “Oh yes,” endorsed the boy, swaying. Twain raised the horn as his melody rose. Glancing at the carousel, he saw a young man atop one of its horses. There was something familiar about his shape. Henry? “I said your whole heart,” commanded the boy. A command that pushed Twain’s torment to the surface. His song’s beauty multiplied. “Yes!” exulted the boy as Twain glanced up again, and with slightly sharpening sight, saw a second person on the carousel. A young girl. He recognized her blue dress before she and her steed rounded out of view. Clara? Twain then hit a series of notes so exquisite the boy gasped. Twain saw a third person, his sight sharper still. Jean? Yes, Jean. Twain continued playing those perfect notes in perfect succession as the boy hummed harmoniously, his eyes shut in rapture. Twain then saw yet a fourth person. A woman, not on a carved wooden horse, but standing beside one, holding a young child firm in its saddle. Twain’s sight was now impeccable. Livy. Langdon. Then they too rounded out of sight. As he longed for them to circle back around Twain’s blowing found a swell so mournful and so splendid the boy could take no more and broke into sobs. But Livy and the children never came back around. His brother Henry never came back around. It was just Twain and the sobbing boy. “That was the most beautiful horn I’ve ever heard,” said the boy as Twain’s last note faded. Twain handed the horn back to the boy. “Farthest thing from
it actually,” he said before turning and walking back the way he came. Dusk was giving way to night. He then woke up on his couch. His own couch. In his apartment. He looked at his hands. They were no longer old. He rushed to the bathroom mirror. In it was Fletcher Hammond. He wasn’t Twain anymore. Is this how you go mad? he wondered. Is it a process? Was I dreaming? Surprisingly these thoughts bothered him little. What possessed him now was the sadness that lingered from the dream. A sadness that blunted everything. A sadness as constant as the earth. A sadness that was tyrannous and consoling all at once. A sadness that made him whole. He wondered where he’d put his horn as he walked to his kitchen, spotting his cigarillos on the table. He stared at them for a few moments. He had no desire to smoke. Where is that horn? he wondered. All he wanted was that horn.
I Am That, I Am Michelle Wallace
Would it be pretentious of me to reject the words rolling from the lips of a twenty year practicing oncologist? She holds her title close, her Ph.D tight, and her alma mater clings to her back, like second skin Who is she to relay to me that after twenty-six years, my journey is complete? My purpose replete? Then snatch the prideful mane that soon lay at my feet? Who is she? Has she been ordained by the Highest of High, provided a staff and a crystal ball which gives her clarity on when I will die? Who am I if I listened? Just as the 1-in-3 who will soon find their breasts missing. The hundreds of thousands who are sitting
in the chair of doom in the same hour being stung by the same Nulasta shot, feeling pain shoot through their vein as their flesh turns hot. Her, I AM NOT After two years of dictation, mutilation, defecation, uncontrolled regurgitation I have now emancipated myself! Free from the lie that I won’t survive this Hell. Manifesting my own reality into perfect health! Who are they to tell me it is impossible when I have already transcended the inevitable. I AM ME, I am divine, stashing inside of me the power of the Creator, who designed each cellular memory
which concieved what we perceive as the Universe. So, I will live with joy, uncursed. Showing love to all of whom have been fed these fallacies, denying them of their own hopes and dreams Who are We? The Architects of our own well being. Far too heavenly to heed to the false prophecies of some Ph.D.
S. Fischbach-Braden, T. Hauser, K. Robinson, A. Slesinski, L. Van Wormer The shade glowed, the Roman burned out. It’s Guy Fawke’s Day in Nantucket, and cream of wheat slides down the lid of Aunt Melindy’s Mason jar. Touch my lips—the ruby red Mary Kay sheen—your Levi’s rise. Twinkling audience reflecting in Whaler’s Bay, shifting in tantalizing time with the roaring Chevy semi, keep your eyes on mine, let your hand slip down to South Dakota.
Baltimore with You Alan Ginsberg
The moon has been getting bigger and more sunlike daily. Tripping into the sidewalk has become a happy accident. People start using words like ruckus and cuckold appropriately. Sadness still comes as predictable as the tide and you keep saying that I deserve better, but out of breath and wet with thunder, I donâ€™t know what could possibly be better.
The text of Welter is set in Book Antiqua; Monotype’s copy of Palatino, designed with the same character widths, spacing, and kerning properties. The headings of Welter are set in Myriad Pro. Myriad is a humanist sans-serif typeface designed in the 1990’s by Robert Slimbach and Carol Twombly for Adobe Systems. Myriad is easily recognized due to its special “y” descender (tail), slanting “e” cut, and rounded curves. Welter was published and bound by Spencer Printing. Visit at www.spencerprinting.com.
University of Baltimore's student-run literary journal