The Emerson Review 2014
The Emerson Review is an annual literary journal published by undergraduate students at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. All genres of original, unpublished writing and visual art will be considered for publication. The reading period for the 2014 issue runs August 1, 2013 through February 1, 2014. All submissions are handled anonymously. Materials can be submitted to The Emerson Review though our online submission manager http://emersonreview.submittable.com. Complete guidelines can be found on our website. General questions and comments should be sent to email@example.com. http://emersonreview.com Printed by Excel Graphix. www.excelgraphix.com ISSN 2156-2237 ÂŠ2014 The Emerson Review
Editor-in-Chief Jessica Slavin
Co-Managing Editors Ashleigh Heaton Allison Trujillo
Assistant Fiction Editor Meaghan Oâ€™Brien
Assistant Nonfiction Editor Madelyn Reese
Poetry Editor Gabby Tyson
Readers Erini Katapodis, Aaron Griffin, Caroline Cassard, Katherine Bove, Alexandra Schmelzle, Raychel Viera, Noah Meistor, Elana Willinsky, Sarah Marcantonio, John King, Alexa Kelly, Sarah Malley, Amanda Canny
Fiction 3 23 44 57 70
Too Old for War Frank Scozzari Shoreline Cynthia Hawkins Eggshells Jill Birdsall Stick Folk Love Joseph Seale Limbo Vinoad Senguttuvan
Poetry 1 Songline Richard Prins 12 The Flash Crashes My Fatherâ€™s Kieran Collier Second Wedding 14 For Matthew Ellyn Touchette 21 Winter, 2013 Wynne Hungerford 31 Peaches Jonathan Barrett 41 Visiting Bill on the Ward P. Ivan Young 43 Aging and Other Habits Amanda Bondi 55 Saint Gileâ€™s Chapel Marc Harshman 68 The Man Made of Red Elana Willinsky
Nonfiction 15 Splinters Elana Willinsky 33 This Is Not My Beautiful House Sara Selevitch
Photography 49 The Three Guitar Players Dr. Ernest Webster III 50 Three Modes of Color Dr. Ernest Webster III 51 Boat Houses Jamie Ditaranto 51 Royâ€™s Peaks Jamie Ditaranto 52 Skipping the Gondola Ride Jamie Ditaranto in Queenstown 53 as above luke kurtis 53 hidden luke kurtis 54 the unseen luke kurtis
Spotlights 81 Faculty Fiction Pamela Painter 97 Undergraduate Poetry Donald Welch
Songline Richard Prins
A platypus dream is boomeranging back to me. Teenaged, petrifed what eggs might pop out my tract. Sports were hard with webbed feet. I joined the swim team, grew back my duckbill. Electric pores made me sneeze, a blizzard of sense where my nose meant to be. “Bird Snout,” they laughed as I gagged on chlorine. Pointillist swirls whistle a broke chain of lagoons. Aquatic rats are knocking up stray duck lings in my sleep. I was raised on street signs scaling Central Park, can’t tell east from west unless I press webby hands against a mental landmass. 6th grade—snuck into Dogma. I heard my name, “God has a sense of humor. Just look at the platypus.” In taxonomy class, I read myself back as far as I go: 1799—A platypus holotype arrives at the British Museum, preserved in a keg of spirits. They scissored my beak to prove me stitched and called me paradoxus—” a high frolic practised on the scientifc community by some colonial prankster.” They called the land I sang “a zoological penal colony” and sent convicts to settle it. 1803—Pinching me, arguing, “If these are mammary glands, where is the butter?”
1884—They marshaled 150 aboriginals and found an egg dilated in my uterus. A telegram, cabled home to the academy: “Monotremes oviparous! Ovum meroblastic! Who would have thought an animal with a milk gland should demean itself, laying small white eggs?” 1943—Churchill awaiting platypus’s arrival. Packed in a swim tank of waterproof burrows, they fattened me with earthworms & crayfsh for my audience with the Minister. We cruised the ocean surreptitious. A submarine moseyed beneath us. We released depth charges. My bill exploded too. These electroreceptors are tuned to detect insects at riverbottom, not the bombs of men. Churchill mounted me on his desk. A parrot squawked, “Fuck the Nazis!” It wasn’t until the 1980s that they found, in Lightning Ridge, the opalized jaw of my ancestor who sang Gondwana live one hundred million years ago. But I couldn’t hear my dream through treecut pages and I refused to write a paper of human tales. Got home to lippy parents, unpadded fngers dialing surgeons to remove my bill. I burrowed in their record collection with my eyes closed. A dark monk’s fngertips poured an ivory stream of mollusks and pink wiggling shrimp: my promised path. The world spins a hoax. One god laughing at his own joke.
Too Old for War Frank Scozzari
Old Makatiku looked wearily upon the young Katanuku. A pillar of youth he was, standing more than two meters in height with broad shoulders, a head full of shiny black hair, skin that was taunt and clear, and muscles that rippled like the palms in a tree. His shadow stretched out on the African earth like that of a giraffe. And from his position seated below in his thatched throne, Makatiku knew he looked old and weak and worn from a life lived fully. It was me, Makatiku thought, staring up at the young shujaa warrior, forty years past. But I was taller, and even stronger, and I did not have this look of pity in my eyes. â€œYou must answer,â€? demanded Kantaku. The council sat anxiously waiting. Makatiku glanced over at them. Among them were the elders and friends, and the many brave warriors he had fought along side of in the internecine wars, all in their colorful, ceremonial tunics. If only there was a way out, gracefully, Makatiku thought. He glanced back at the towering young Kantaku. But there was none. Every spear has two edges and each side cuts with equal depth, he knew. If he agreed to the challenge, he would face a humiliating defeat. He was no match for a man one third his age. After all his wonderful years of ruling with dignity and judicious benevolence, having his face rubbed in the dirt now was something he could not bear. Is this a fit way to end it? The thought of it offended his soul. Yet if he refused, he would have to abdicate the throne. It was law. Kantaku stood waiting. And behind him was his entourage of young Maasai warriors.
“Are you sleeping?” Kantaku asked impatiently. “I am thinking.” And then a pleasant thought came into Makatiku’s head and small grin formed on face. Could young arrogance be so foolish? And when Makatiku did speak, everyone seemed a bit mystified by his confidence and by the cleverness in his eyes. “I accept the challenge,” he spoke loudly. “It is a great tradition and it is the people’s right to see the challenge answered. Although I doubt that you are up to the task. I doubt that you or any of your young followers have the strength nor the will, nor the intelligence, to win such a match.” A sigh came from the council, as did all the villagers who were gathered around. Kantaku too seemed a bit surprised by Makatiku’s willingness to accept the challenge but welcomed his words nonetheless. “Okay then, let’s get on with it,” he said. “There is one condition, however,” Makatiku added. “Yes?” “I would like to choose my own weapon.” “Weapon?” Kantaku asked. The young Maasai warriors standing behind Kantaku exchanged curious glances. “Yes, I ask that I be allowed to choose my own weapon in this case.” Kantaku looked over at the council. It had been more that fifty years since a challenge for the throne had been decided by a fight with weapons, a fight to the death. The Kenyon and Tanzanian governments had long since outlawed the practice and tribal leaders throughout the Maasai Mara had come to accept the notion of a bloodless succession. “Do you accept my request?” Makatiku asked. “A request for weapons is evidence of your antiquity. You are an old man stuck in old ways.” “Nevertheless,” Makatiku said calmly. “It is in the book of laws, and has never been distorted. Though foreign governments have tried to rid us of our ways, the rules have never changed. It is the challenger’s choice of weapons. But in this case, I ask that I be allowed to choose my own weapon.” Kantaku glanced over at the council expecting some form of intervention from them, but there was none. “I know tradition,” he replied. “Only women and politicians desire weaponless fights,” Makatiku said. “Though it is the warrior who chooses peace over war, it is also the warrior who chooses bloodshed over defeat and humiliation. Yes?” As Makatiku said this he ran his eyes through the crowd of villagers. “And it is the warrior who accepts death over dishonor, even from a foe?”
Kantaku remained silent. For nearly a minute he remained silent, then he looked over at the council members and raised his chest high. “I accept, old man,” he said, confidently. Makatiku nodded his head pleasingly. And then there was the issue of an aged body? Makatiku thought. What an abomination it would be if no animal sought his meat! In all his years, he had seen it less than a dozen times. There was the remembrance of Old Nampushi, who had died of some terrible, western disease and had been left in the sun for the buzzards, but no buzzards came. And how a spotted hyena came by and sniffed his dead body and walked past it without even taking a simple bite. This will never do. A corpse rejected by scavengers was seen as having something wrong with it and was cause for great social disgrace. He dropped his eyes down to the red dirt beneath him. Nor was burial and option, he knew. It was harmful to the earth. To place a rotting corpse in the ground was to defile the earth! “Also,” he then spoke, “I will need five kilos of ox fat and blood, placed in the care of my good friend Jakaya.” Makatiku turned and looked over at his old friend who sat with the other elders on the high council. Jakaya nodded his head. Kantaku looked at Makatiku curiously. “It is not for me,” Makatiku said. Kantaku chuckled. “We will see who it is for, old man. Anything else?” “Nothing.” Kantaku signaled two young boys who hurried away to the butchery to gather the five kilos of fat and blood. “And the weapon you will choose?” Kantaku asked, his voice now conveying a tone of disgust. “I would like to know the weapon you choose first? If that’s acceptable?” “Okay, if it is your wish,” Kantaku said. He looked around at all the villagers, knowing anticipation was building. “A long spear,” he said boldly. The young warriors exchanged spirited words, voicing their pleasure of his choice. A long spear was the ideal weapon for mortal combat between two men. Its long shaft enabled a thrust from a great distance. Its barbed headpiece, once in, could not be retrieved, at least not without causing substantial additional damage. And when thrown properly, it could pierce the stretched cowhide of a Maasai shield. “And you?”
Too Old for War
“A simi.” “A simi?” “Yes, a simi,” Makatiku said firmly. A lively discussion erupted, not only among the young warriors, but among the council members as well. A simi was not a weapon designed for warfare. It was a simple tribal knife with a blade not more than fifteen inches, used ritualistically or for skinning animals. “This is silliness,” Kantaku said. “It is the weapon I choose,” Makatiku replied. Kantaku looked back at the warriors behind him. Then he glanced over at the council members. Makatiku sat quietly, joking with the idea of it in his head. What form of trickery is this? Kantaku thought. All his life he had been taught to be suspicious of gifts from adversaries, and he was wary of Makatiku now, of his deception and cunning. Weapon, a simi was not; yet skillful Makatiku was, in the art of combat and killing. Kantaku’s father had told him all the stories, of how Makatiku had overcome a group of five Kaputiei warriors by hiding in the dead, rotting corpse of a water buffalo, and how he sprung from the corpse with bow and arrows and had killed all of them. And how he had been chased once into a steep canyon by a herd of crazed elephants, only to start an avalanche that crushed and killed most of them. His feats of bravery were legendary and his acts of cunning, something to be weary of. For Makatiku to choose a simi now, in a fight that would determine the end of his reign and perhaps the end of his life, surely there was some form of trickery behind it. And he could throw a knife, Kantaku thought, further than the length of any long spear. And its two-sided blade was perfect for finding a place to stick after sailing end over end through the air. Makatiku sat quietly in his rickety throne, waiting. “And I will take a tall shield,” Kantaku said, unflinchingly, “along with my long spear.” Again the warriors nodded their heads and voiced their approval. “It is a wise choice,” was all Makatiku said. A tall shield, two-thirds the length of one’s body, was capable of deflecting a barrage of arrows. It could easily deflect a single, hand-thrown knife. Despite his arrogance, that which comes along with youth, Makatiku was fond of Kantaku and tolerated his youthful ambitions. Of this new generation of warriors, a generation that Makatiku did not like or understand, with cell phones and a desire to live in cities, Kantaku stood apart. It was he who most cherished the traditional ways. And he who was most clever. The
others were merely “warriors” in name and appearance, Makatiku thought, who posed for photographs and dressed the part only to satisfy the expectations of the safari lodges. It is not an easy thing, Makatiku thought, to make way for a new generation of warriors, some of whom had exchanged their spears for cricket bats and textbooks. It was a contradiction, he thought, to accept the new; a contradiction of all he was and all he knew, and of all that his father and grandfathers were and all that they knew. But this one, perhaps, had a chance, he thought, watching Kantaku’s eyes, if he was forced to eat hyena. He noticed a digital watch on the wrist of one of the warriors. Ah! The New World! It is a pity that life must evolve, and change, and end. And standing way in the back was another young warrior wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, no doubt given to him by one of the safari tourists. He quickly removed the cap when he caught Makatiku’s eyes upon him. Yes, too many changes had passed, Makatiku thought. He had seen it all, the erosion of customs over many years, from one governmental program to another, each designed to strip his people of their traditional ways. And the unstoppable inflow of technology, like a giant dust storm of locusts that he could not keep out. Commercial cotton and synthetic clothing had long since replaced the traditional calf hide and sheep skin, and the beadwork was no longer made of stone or wood or ivory, but was now made of glass or plastic. He glanced down at the feet of the warriors and realized that half of them wore sandals soled with pieces of motorcycle tires, and one even wore a pair of Nikes. And too came the digital age. It was all too much, this new world that invaded his land and had swept through his people like a foreign disease. He recalled the electric pumps brought in by the new government to filter their water, and what happened when they broke and they had no water for three days because the unfiltered water now made them sick. And how the doctors poisoned their children with injected medicines, making them ill for one week when they were otherwise well; and how lion hunting was banned by the Kenyan government. What kind of obscenity is that! And yet fee-paying trophy hunters were granted permits to hunt lions under a new government plan to create a “wildlife corridor,” which essentially evicted tribes of his flesh in northern Tanzania. We cannot kill the lions to protect our herds yet foreigners can hunt them for trophies? It was not a world that Makatiku liked, or wanted to be in. “Bring two tall shields,” Kantaku said, motioning to a junior warrior. The young warrior, a boy not more than fifteen years old, went off to gather the weapons, but Makatiku stopped him.
Too Old for War
“Wait,” he said. “It is not my desire.” Kantaku looked on, waiting. “I would like a short shield,” Makatiku said. The sound of snickering came from the villagers. Again he mocks me! Kantaku thought. He ran his eyes through the crowd, tightening his upper lip. “Follow his wishes,” he then said with a tone of disgust, and the boy hurried off to gather the weapons and shields. “Anything else?” “No. It is quite enough.” Nothing more was said, and the boy returned quickly with the simi, the long spear, and the two shields. And now it was time for Makatiku to rise from his thatched throne and face his young challenger. And he did so gloriously, but slowly, feeling the pains of his arthritic joints. He rose to a height equal to that of Kantaku, and despite his age of nearly sixty-two years, his shoulders were still broad and muscles still lean and well-defined. He wore a kunga of red and blue, and pink cotton, which wrapped loosely around his trim waist and angled down over one shoulder, across his large, protruding chest. Everything about him symbolized tradition, and the customs of old, and the seniority of his rank, and the success of his reign; from his graying, long hair that was woven in thinly braided strands and fell to the middle of his back, to his multi-brightly colored anklets, which numbered no less than ten. His earlobes were pierced and stretched in a manner reserved only for royalty, and there was the symbolic beadwork that embellished his body and told of his meritorious past; of a life lived long and fully. The boy handed Makatiku the short knife and the small shield. Makatiku examined the knife, running his finger along the edge of it. It had a finely honed metal blade and a wooden handle with a cowhide grip. Then he studied the small shield, flipping it over and looking at the face of it. It is correct, he thought. It bore the sirata of a red badge that signified great bravery in battle and was only permitted to be painted on the shields of the highest of chiefs. Still, it was a decorative piece at best, meant only to be hung outside one’s door to indicate one’s presence. Less than twenty inches in diameter, it was not designed for warfare. The boy gave the long spear and the tall shield to Kantaku. The shield, made of stretched and hardened buffalo hide sewn to a wooden frame, nearly cloaked his entire frame. The spear, made from the finest dark ebony wood, rose more than a meter above his head. There was laughter among the villagers, and Kantaku realized how ridiculous it must have looked. Makatiku smiled broadly and ran his eyes through the crowd. His considerable stature dwarfed the small shield and simi in scale, he knew,
even more so than their actual size. He glanced over at the council members and nodded his head appreciatively. Then he raised the shield and knife high above his head to the applause of the villagers. Kantaku waited for the applause to subside. “Now you must answer,” he spoke loudly. Makatiku stared at him. Could young arrogance really be so foolish? he thought. Then, seeing the muscles on Kantaku’s chest tighten and his shoulders flex, Makatiku’s face became gaunt and serious. It is time! He quickly squatted down into a combat stance, holding the small shield firmly in front of his chest and the short knife high and aggressively high above his head. Kantaku likewise firmed his stance, ducking low behind his large shield and raising his spear into a throwing position. The two men stood there momentarily, opposite one another on a small mound of earth, the old and the new. The time for talk had ended. The differences between the traditional and modern were past them now, and Kantaku did not wait. He was certain Makatiku had a plan and would spring it upon him quickly if he gave him the chance. He wielded his spear way back, holding it cocked high to the side of his head, and with perfect aim, not wanting to give Makatiku time to strike first, he thrust it forward with all his might. At the same moment Kantaku released it, Makatiku dropped his shield and short knife to his side and pushed his chest forward. He stood there poised and relaxed with his chest exposed as if it were impenetrable to the spear. The blade of the barred spearhead flashed in the morning sunlight. All the villagers looked on in wonderment as the spear soared through the air and hit him squarely in the chest, slicing through his flesh and bone and coming out his back. For a perceptible instant, Makatiku remained upright, impaled by the spear. It was as though his body defied gravity, held high by the soul and the pride of a great chief. Then he dropped to the ground, dead. The dazed villagers looked on in disbelief, as did Kantaku. The suddenness of it was shocking. Their great king, the fierce warrior who had fought and won so many battles, had not even lifted a finger to fight. His natural ability to dodge and deflect, and to counterstrike, failed to invoke at the time he needed it most. Though he had out-maneuvered all enemies in the past, he had left them now, strangely, without a strategically plan. Jakaya summoned the young warriors. “Mnakamata!” he said.“Take him.”
Too Old for War
The spearhead was quickly removed. The shaft had snapped when Makatiku fell to the ground, making it easy to extract. The warriors gathered him up, and upon Jakaya’s directions, carried him to a place outside the village, down near where the river flowed out onto the savannah. The five kilos of ox fat and blood was also brought down and set beside the chief’s body. “Enda!” Jakaya shouted to the young warriors. “Go! Go away!” And they did so, solemnly, without looking back. Jakaya knelt down and took a moment to look over his fallen friend. His face was sullen and old, and had the dark lines that come from oldness. His face was gray with all the signs of death, but his expression still revealed a regal presence. He was king, once more, Jakaya thought. And now was cut the umbilical cord between heaven and Earth. With a wooden ladle, Jakaya covered Makatiku’s body with the ox fat and blood. He covered every inch of it, making sure no place was left exposed. Then he sprinkled the body with beads of black, green, red, yellow and white, which mimicked the colour sequence seen in the animal life cycle. He added more white for the decade of peace he had brought to his tribe; and blue for the colors of the waters which ran clean and fresh until the machines of government destroyed it; and more red for the warrior’s blood and bravery, which Makatiku had witnessed many times. A good death is its own reward. “Come feast little Oln’gojine,” Jakaya said. “Come taste the meat of a great warrior.” Jakaya left, back to the village, to the cluster of mud houses where he hung Makatiku’s small, red shield, and his simi, outside his inkajijik. Then he went to join the others in the celebration of the new chief. Though Katanuku sat in the thatched throne in full ceremonial dress, he found no joy in his heart. He had achieved the throne, but had not won a victory. Even in death, Makatiku mocked him. He laughs now, he thought. There, down by the river of life, he revels in laughter! The coronation was quite subdued. Though all the villagers gathered for the festival, it was not full of song and dance like the great celebrations of the past. “It was Makatiku who threw the spear,” one of the villagers said. Katanuku looked down at him and quietly hung his head. “Makatiku is still King,” another villager said. Down by the river Makatiku’s body laid in the hot African sun. All day it lay there and by late afternoon the tsetse flies had gathered and the smell of the fermenting ox blood rose across the savannah. Before the sun had
completely set, three spotted hyenas came across him. They encircled him and sniffed the earth around him, and the kunga that wrapped him. Their nostrils filled with the scent of human, but there was also the smell of the ox blood and fat, and when they tasted the meat, they found it to be unique and flavorsome. On through the night they feasted, gnawing down on the bone and flesh and stealing chunks from one another. By morning when the villagers returned, nothing remained of Makatiku but a stain on the earth.
Too Old for War
The Flash Crashes My Father's Second Wedding Kieran Collier
The day the Flash decided to crash my father’s second wedding nobody tried to stop him. I asked for his autograph, my younger cousins challenged him to a race, and my sister flirted with him while he vibrated through the ice sculpture of Cupid. He said he didn’t believe in fake gods, then laughed while tossing back a glass of champagne. After the I Do’s, I asked him why the ice sculpture didn’t melt as he passed through it, because vibrating molecules are supposed to create heat. He told me that the speed force was a funny thing, that it exists so that we can break through it, but that we can’t truly understand it. I asked why he was there in the first place. He said he crashes weddings all the time, unexpectedly saving what could have been a potentially boring ceremony. I asked why he let my cousins beat him in a race. He said that sometimes he likes to be someone else’s favorite, at least for a little while. I asked why he always had an answer to my questions. He asked why I always had to question his answers, why I was asking questions in the first place. So I asked him the question that been on my mind the entire time: could my dad ever love his new wife the way he loved his old one?
The Flash tells me that the speed force is a funny thing, that it exists so that we can break through it. He tells me grief is the same way. That we must acknowledge that it is always around us, but that the only way to move is to go on not in spite, but because of the losses we have already had. He tells me that love is a funny thing, but heâ€™s sure if my mom was looking down she would love that my father has learned to love again.
The Flash Crashes My Father's Second Wedding
For Matthew Ellyn Touchette
A Pantoum This body is not designed to draw near. My elbows and knees push you further away as we lie strewn across this too-small bed we share. I pull you so tight my body goes numb. My elbows and knees push you further away when my body thrashes in fits of lust or panic. You pull me so tight my body goes numb. My hands remember only how to shove. When my body thrashes in fits of lust or panic, I lose your face in a lineup of men in prison suits. My hands remember only how to shove. You fall back and my fists won’t open. I lose your face in a lineup of men in prison suits, so I sketch a new face onto someone else’s neck. You fall back and my fists won’t open. I turn up my collar and let this stranger clasp my arm. I sketch a new face onto someone else’s neck, but I always ruin the color of your eyes. I turn up my collar and let this stranger clasp my arm. He looks like you did, when your eyes were green. I always ruin the color of your eyes, for this body is not designed to draw near. I imprint red ring stains on your face as we lie strewn across this too-small bed we share.
Splinters Elana Willinsky
One of the last things she remembered before the anesthesia took her under was a morbid feeling of amusement. The women performing the procedure on her were militant feminists, strong-minded and stereotypical; men werenâ€™t allowed past a certain threshold in the outer waiting room of the clinic. As she lay back, splayed, with her feet in stirrups, the women walked heavily from one end of the room to the other, readying utensils, checking charts and good-naturedly arguing with one another. She smoothed her hospital gown, it had a pattern of kites on it, and tried to focus on what they were saying. They asked her where she went to school and where she worked so she mentioned the well-established, Bostonian, old boys country club she had recently begun bartending for. They grinned knowingly when she explained that the dining room was run by Serbians and Mexicans and exclaimed with sardonic delight at the perfect horror of rich, right-wingers being elegantly served by the immigrants they surely despised. Along with her they formed a group of four. A tiny army, she imagined, thrown together by chance, battling an even smaller, unsuspecting enemy. The three of them were the generals, fast-talking above her, shoving equipment this way and that, and adjusting her IV, her hospital gown. Besides a brusque rundown of the particulars of the procedures and aftereffects, there was no acknowledgement of the tiny dollop of life within her. She envied their demeanor. Again, she smoothed her hospital gown down over her stomach. What was she? A decoy? A civilian exploited for military ends? A traitor, that was what she felt like. One of the women told her to take a deep breath and count backward from one hundred. When she awoke, she was crying. She remembered hearing once that when waking up from anesthesia, one is always either laughing or crying.
As the tears leaked down her cheeks, unstoppered and hot, she wallowed, thinking that as long as she lived every time she awoke from anesthesia she would be crying. It was who she was. A nurse sat her in a large armchair with a box of tissues and a heating pad for her abdomen. Another girl, waiting for her husband, looking dazed and puffy, sat in an armchair next to her. The girl turned to her, “Don’t cry. Why are you crying?” “I’m just sad,” she stuttered back through tears, “But I’ll be fine. It’s the anesthesia I think.” The girl wouldn’t look away. “We aren’t bad people you know. We aren’t.” She turned from the girl’s words and her dazed stare and curled up in the armchair, clutching her tissues. A few weeks later and she sat in a stall, feeling gross as the public toilet seat warmed beneath her. The thought of what she had done slithered its way to the front of her brain. She considered considering it, but settled on deciding not to worry about going back to class for awhile. Slumping, resting elbows on knees she stared up at the graffitied walls. Memento mori one wall said, written in white-out with a matching little skull next to it, grim and grinning. Remember your mortality. Identical words were tattooed along a rib directly under her left breast. No, she wasn’t going to worry about going back to class. Right now her professor, a round, flamboyant little man with overly bright cardigans was reading poetry aloud. Since she had done it-the thing she now tried to not think about-the world had felt distant, rubberized and surreal. Since she had done it, emotion hadn’t resonated within her the same way. It seemed every poem left her feeling empty, the words and the normal warmth and meaning they would have carried before now slid around inside her, bumping off newly jagged edges and not knowing how to embed themselves. Sometimes her own emotion bowled her over and left her breathless, but before, feeling the emotions of others had kept her grounded. She had lived for, or perhaps because of, the moment when a story retold in whispers made the hairs on her arms stand up, when surrounded on a crowded train she read a line that made her laugh out loud. In the aftermath though, in the shadow of the ever-looming thought, the air that inflated her felt stale. She saw humankind, so plaintive and raw. They wrote their poetry and their essays, trying to heal, trying to make sense of the world, asking for empathy and community, needing to spill their mushy, quivering guts. Sitting in the defaced bathroom, she knew all this emoting was useless, for our exposed insides were only to be picked
over by vultures of chance, cackling with delight at humanity’s insistence on meaning. We made decisions, we dealt with the consequences. We danced in random, arbitrary circles, but we didn’t seem to learn from the past. She was being self-pitying and she hated herself for it. But, she sighed, it was probably only the hormones, rocketing in spikes and dips that left her feeling this hollow. Now, in penance she was going to concede a little bit: crook a single finger over the top of the drawer that held the thought and pull it out to peek gingerly into the dim interior. She shook her head, stared up with a rueful look at the little white-out skull leering down at her from the wall and then looked down. The bloody pad stuck to her underwear sat there, as she knew it would be, a dark penetrating stain of reminder. In the artificial light of the bathroom the hellish, deep red of the blood, so dark in spots it was black, was the color of anguish. The words of the psychiatric nurse at the clinic came back to her. The bleeding will last for three hours, maybe for three weeks. It is different for everyone. But remember, this is not your period. She wished the nurse hadn’t said that last part. If she could only pretend this was a natural function, maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much. Walking to the clinic, alone, was when she had begun thinking of how to write about it. If she was acting to fulfill a plot line, she was no longer a terrified young girl making an immense decision, she was only a character in an essay. She made sure to remember specific details, the address of the clinic, what she was wearing, the people in the waiting room. A few days later, she would be talking to a friend and fellow writer who would comment on doing the exact same thing. In certain situations, like at parties, her friend found herself living outside of the action of the moment and formulating what was going on into plot, arc, and character development before the dust of the moment had time to settle. Her friend said she hated doing that, that sometimes it happened on autopilot and she wished she could simply be. She thought that a writer who wanted to-needed to-capture the world around them, who saw and felt things deeply, distanced themselves in this way as a means of self defense. Self-preservation is necessary, she thought as she walked, noting the way her heart was beating double time, so that she could include it later. The day she had the abortion happened to be Halloween. She had told almost no one what had happened and what she had done so in order to keep up with appearances she went out that night to a party. She decided to dress as a skeleton, painting her face heavily with makeup. It took her a
half-hour to complete the elaborate design and it was with growing mirth that she watched herself transform into the dead. As she painted the hollowed eyes and gaping cheekbones, she was surrounded by her roommates and friends who were giddy with the excitement of dressing up for the holiday. It was as if their simple happiness was behind a sheet of plexiglass, removed and muffled. She knew she was being dramatic, but couldnâ€™t help it. The paint dried stiff on her skin so she could barely smile without cracking the surface. Stony-faced, staring at herself in the mirror before she left, a leering skull in the dull lighting of her dingy bathroom, she had to laugh at the idiocy and irony of the situation. Remember your mortality. She had never had the modern, pervading sense of impending death. It was a common trope, she knew, the conversation about the state of frenzy collective humanity had managed to work itself into. People realized now that a freckle could be cancer, a cancer you could diagnose yourself with on the internet. Shaking hands with someone during flu season was as good as injecting yourself with with a plungerful of (insert) the latest medical threat fad. It seemed to her that more ways to die than to live were emerging and she chose not to subscribe to the fear-mongering. Her father, a doctor, had tried to instill the importance of healthful living and holistic healthcare options upon her. She had taken away a stubborn non-dependency on medication and an unfortunate habit of ignoring medical issues or ailments in favor of the belief that the body would heal itself. Getting pregnant was a different than all this, she had to admit. Much before the two trim lines on the first pregnancy test, and then a second and third pregnancy test, caused her become short of breath in her bedroom as a group of her friends laughed and joked and drank in the living room next door, she had known something was wrong. In her common practice of denial, she had refused to calculate the days since her missed period. She blamed her growing paunch and enlarged breasts on overeating and vowed to start going to the gym. During the interim of knowing she was pregnant and getting the abortion, she had a moment of sincere, bizarre sadness and regret thinking of the nights of heavy drinking and snuck cigarettes sheâ€™d had recently. She imagined herself poisoning the microscopic suckling life and let her arms wrap tenderly around her midsection and her head hang. She knew it was irrational, not even medically sound to be worrying about harming a fetus like that and so early, yet she let the sadness sit deep in her throat. The irony of her worry, as she thought about her upcoming appointment at the clinic, was sour, like the taste before vomiting. Later on that night, she cut through an alleyway going back to her apartment. Not unlike other late night walks home through the city, she imag-
ined a mugger waiting for her in the shadows. The hulking figure would mercilessly beat her and steal her belongings. But in this particular invention, due to the beating and the stress of the situation, she would miscarriage. It was a dark and wild fantasy, yet it left her with an unsettling sense of calm. After her appointment at the clinic she could, if not commiserate, at least comprehend those who subscribed to the medical panic. It was heart wrenching to her that she could have been so careless with her own body and with creation of life itself. In the days following the procedure, she lay on her side in bed, grinding her teeth through tears of pain and embarrassment, and clutched her violently cramping sides, ignoring her painkiller prescription. Now she understood that there is an awful, desperate cling that life has to life and it needs to be respected. The train buckled beneath her making her jaw clench at every turn. It was two weeks after she had left the clinic, blinking in the overcast light of the cool fall day. The anesthesia had still been fading and the world had seemed far away, like she was looking through the wrong end of binoculars. But everyday after got a little better as she tried not to remember. Even as her body constantly reminded her, the thought of it came less frequently and without the stabbing feeling it previously held. Poetry seemed less dismal. The train lurched again and her pelvis ached, she was exhausted. She donned headphones and tried to be lulled to sleep. Every couple of minutes she awoke with a start, feeling that specific vulnerability and disorientation of being awakened in public. Then, as a song that reminded her of the past came on, comforting and mewling in her ears, she opened her eyes to an arresting scene. A child, an extraordinary child, oblivious to the racket and rumble of the trolley car, slept undisturbed in a stroller across the aisle. For no discernible reason she wore a sparkly, purple tutu. One tiny, perfect hand was thrown above her head in slumber. On her head sat a wide-brimmed bucket hat. It was red (the underside white and polka-dotted) with a pattern of lady elephants, dressed and made up to go to a party. From the look of their garb, it was a 1920s flapper party. In that moment, staring at the child, she experienced a painful realization of the exquisite absurdity she had had growing within her. As she intoned to herself every day, the decision had been the right one. Still, she could not escape the thought that she had destroyed something wonderful, more wonderful than all the poetry in the world could ever explain. She had committed a barbarous act against her body and carved out a creation that was the highest humanity could achieve. She sensed that she had been staring too long and too intensely, probably creepily. Get it together, she told herself. Looking up and away
suddenly, she met the fatherâ€™s eyes, widened with mild concern, at her, the deranged baby-snatcher. After her attempt to smile non-threateningly, he moved the stroller away from her to face him. She sighed and turned her music up, a little too loud, and leaned toward the window of the trolley car.
Winter, 2013 Wynne Hungerford
These past months have been a string of cold hard facts. Appointments, measurements. Ping pong ball in her breast. Potato soup and gel packs sparkling Turkish blue. She rings a bell after the final treatmentâ€” the applause is smaller than sheâ€™d hoped. Wheels on the snack cart whine like puppies, an elderly man wets himself.
Two days later, crashed on the couch, the cat wants to sleep on her chest, and it kills her to push him away. She touches skin the color of bruised mango, washes a load of pajamas and socks. When dusk falls inside her chemo brain, a comet streaks left to right. She wants to know if each life has a purpose. Or if itâ€™s pointless. I think of her braid in a plastic bag in the drawer. I give the wrong answer.
Shoreline Cynthia Hawkins
Jamie Blankenship was draining the pool the day a bullet from an antique Webley revolver sliced a gouge from just above his left temple to just above the bridge of his nose. He’d heard the whistle and a dull thunk and stood there, holding the pump hose, squinting an eye against the blood gushing over his brow. Little splats of it colored the pavement around his flip-flops and sprawled threadlike in what was left of the pool’s water. He stood there, holding the hose, until the half-empty pool did a somersault in his vision and he dropped like a coat slipping off a hanger. Across a walking path, under the sweet gum branches joining limbs, ninety-one-year-old Vincent McCray left the Webley with its cleaning cloth on the kitchen table and crossed to the screen door. A rip in the metal mesh marked the bullet’s path. “Sweet lord,” he breathed, seeing Jamie slumped over the pump hose. Blood wended its way down a pavement seam to a chain-link gate. In the fifties, the cabins climbing the wooded slope overlooking the lake had been summer residences and rentals. Decades later, they’d transitioned into year-round homes sagging on their foundations amidst the ruins of tackle shops and paddleboats and go-cart tracks. The manmade sand beach near the docks had long ago eroded to muck and fish bones. Sludge floating on the water in great swaths slapped the peeling buoys of the old swim barrier. A breeze ruffled the puddle on the bottom of the community pool Jamie had been hired to revive. And when Jamie was discharged from the rehabilitation hospital forty miles north, he came back with a woman wrapped around his arm. His Aunt Lou Anne, standing in the lakeside park spinning her three grandsons on the merry-go-round, was the first to see Jamie emerge from the sedan parked in front of the one-room cabin she’d been leasing to him
for the past three years. A half-spent cigarette waggled between her teeth. A stack of metal bracelets clacked together on her wrist. She stepped back from the dip of a worn path encircling the merry-go-round and sheltered her eyes from the sun behind the hills. The boys, ages four, six, and seven, whom she always referred to in the collective as the grandbabies, stood in the center of the slowing circle and scowled in their matching crew cuts and plastic huarache sandals. Jamie’s hair had grown over his ears. She could see that from where she stood. She could see the way his head darted to take the place in. And then the woman -- spindle arms, spindle legs, a little knot of a body—came hustling around the bumper from the driver’s side. With her arms around Jamie’s, she led him up the walkway. Lou Anne stomped her cigarette butt out in the dirt and said, “Stay put, grandbabies. I got to see about Jamie, now.” Their eyes grew wide. Lou Anne hitched her bracelet stack up to the crook of her arm where it stuck, silent, as she walked up the hillside. The boys gave her a ten-step lead before following her across Shoreline Drive. By the time Lou Anne reached Jamie’s cabin, he was inside, sitting on the sofa, leaning forearms to knees as the woman rummaged through the kitchen cabinets. Lou Anne stepped in and let the screen door fall shut behind her. She turned her bracelets around and around on her wrist as she said, “Jamie,” with a pleat in her voice. Jamie looked up at her with his face pinched in concentration. The three boys, John, Luke, and Marcus Dean, piled up outside of the screen door. John blocked the younger two as he leaned to peer in and said over his shoulder to them in a whisper, “I can’t see shit. He grown some girl bangs over it.” Marcus Dean stepped back on the porch stoop with all the fingers of one hand stuffed in his mouth. Inside, the woman found a tumbler in the cabinet, filled it with tap water, and brought it, sloshing, to Jamie. “Hello, ma’am,” she said, “you must be …” “I’m his aunt. And you are?” “Ida.” Without sitting back, Jamie took a sip as Ida joined him on the sofa and folded her hands over the little knobs of her knees poking at her jeans. Her hair hung in two skinny braids over her collarbones. “Ida?” Lou Anne stood in place in the middle of the room turning her bracelets. “Yes ma’am. I was his nurse.” Ida’s throat pulsed with a swallow. “But we’re together now.” Jamie’s lopsided brows had yet to go slack. His eyes drifted from Lou Anne to the baseboard of the far wall. Ida slowly slid her hand down the curve of his spine and said, “He’s a little overwhelmed.”
“I see.” Lou Anne wrestled a cigarette package from her back pocket and looked down as she squeezed the cellophane, one cigarette rolling over the other, back and forth. “Well. How about I let Jamie get settled in, then.” “Thank you, ma’am.” Ida’s hand retreated to her knee again. Another swallow slunk all the way down to the divot at the base of her throat. Lou Anne shifted a cigarette free as she pushed the screen door open and into the toes of the grandbabies. “What’d I tell you?” she said with a smack to the back of each shorn head. “Get on home, now.” They scurried down the concrete steps and ran ahead to where their mother Noreen sat two cabins down on a swing hung from the trees, eating the last of their rocket popsicles. “What you done now?” Noreen asked them, shaking hair from her face. They hurried past her, snorting laughter, each fighting the other to see who could squeeze through the front door first. Noreen, Lou Anne, and the grandbabies lived in the larger of the lake cabins, one with a detached garage and an add-on from which Noreen ran the town’s only salon and barber shop four days a week. Her husband Bill drove a commercial truck. When he was home in the gaps of his schedule he slept fully clothed on the sofa with the tabby cat, Horatio Greenbean, stretched down the crevice between Bill’s straight legs. The morning Vincent McCray had sat at his kitchen table to clean the Webley, Horatio Greenbean had dug claws into Bill’s jeans and darted at the crack of the gunshot reverberating off the hills. Bill had sat up, his hair smashed into a duck tail, and split the mini-blinds with a “V” of two fingers to find the street empty, quiet. It wasn’t until he’d pressed his hair flat and opened the front door that he’d heard Deb Carmichael, the woman who ran the Pizza Shack, screaming for help from the pool. Bill had trudged down in his socked feet, snagging the spines of fallen leaves. “I think he’s dead,” Deb had told Bill when he’d reached the chain-link gate and angled his foot past the rivulet of blood. Across the path, Vincent McCray had placed the Webley on the purple velvet of the wooden box he’d made for the revolver himself, closed its brass clasps, and sat with his back to the kitchen cabinets, fidgeting with the frayed hem of his khaki pants. His family sent him to the Veteran’s Home after that. After that, Bill slept holding Noreen in her bed while he soaked his bloodied t-shirt in bleach in the stoppered bathroom sink. With leaf mulch crunching under her soles, Lou Anne stopped in front of Noreen in the swing, lit her cigarette, and said with an exhale of smoke, “Oh honey. Your cousin’s back, and he don’t know his nose from his toe knuckle.” Lou Anne turned her face toward the sun filtering through the leaves and closed her eyes. “Thank the lord his mama’s not around to see it.” Jamie’s mother, Lisa, died of ovarian cancer when he was fourteen. His father, Bruce, lived one town over, further back in the hills, on twenty acres
of his family’s land where he hosted the area’s small animal swap on the second Saturday of every month and kept bees and ran a business fixing bush hogs and boat motors from his work-shed. It was just far enough away. He hadn’t seen Jamie since Jamie was fourteen. “And who’s the woman?” Noreen asked. “Oh, you saw them coming in, did ya.” “I’ve got eyes.” “The whole town’s got eyes.” “Well, who is she?” “Ida.” “But who is she?” “Says she’s his girlfriend. If you can imagine that.” “Huh.” Noreen chewed the popsicle stick until it split. “And he don’t know nothing?” Lou Anne’s mouth shaped a frown around the slant of her cigarette as she slowly shook her head “no.” And to everyone in town, this seemed to be true. The Shoreline United Methodist Women brought meals to Jamie the first two days he was home and found their empty casserole pans with a pile of dirty dishes, utensils and all, in the curbside trash. Mack Durell came across Jamie sitting in the pet supply aisle of the Dollar General, staring at a box of dog biscuits in his hands while Ida pushed her cart toward the check-out line. “D’you get a dog, James?” Mack asked him. “No,” Jamie answered, handing Mack the box. “And the way he said it,” Mack later explained to his fishing buddies as he cast his line from the docks and took up the slack, “it was like an animal grunt, just barely a word.” When Noreen sat Jamie down in her barber chair for a haircut and hitched the chair higher, Jamie’s eyes never wavered from his own eyes in the mirror. Marcus Dean waited with his toy broom for clean-up duty. “You want it like it was before?” Noreen asked him. “Or maybe you want it to cover your scar?” Jamie didn’t answer. With the tail of her fine-tooth black comb, she lifted his bangs to reveal the red ridge of flesh pushing his left eyebrow down into a permanent scowl and decided she could trim it just enough that it’d look more John Lennon circa 1964 than mad scientist. Marcus Dean reached to hold Jamie’s hand. He rather liked Jamie this way, he decided. The old Jamie would have twisted his hand free and made some joke with a laugh that would have rattled the walls. “Don’t be growing up soft, now,” he might have said. The old Jamie didn’t have much to do with Noreen’s kids. The most time he’d spent with them was the afternoon he’d agreed to play hide and seek and then snuck back in the house to sit on the sofa with can of Pabst and watch them circle past the front windows in search of him. But mostly it was the way, every
morning, roughly nine o’clock, Jamie waded out into the lake fully dressed while Ida chased after him that signaled the Jamie Blankenship they’d once known was gone. Ida. There were stories about Ida too. Lou Anne was convinced Ida was waiting on the lingering civil suit settlement against Vincent McCray. Lou Anne’s childhood friend Georgia Powers thought maybe Jamie’s father had secretly hired Ida to watch over Jamie for him. “Lord knows he’s got enough money up in them hills, more than most,” Georgia said as she stood in Lou Anne’s kitchen, lighting a cigarette off a red-hot coil of the stovetop burner. Then Ida started taking on Jamie’s unfinished jobs. Dressed in cut-off jeans hidden under the drape of Jamie’s Cardinals t-shirt, Ida walked barefooted down the slope of the pool to the puddle in the deep end and leaned to scoop the leaf sludge out with a net. Lou Anne’s grandsons watched Ida from the chain link fence. They wedged their sandals in the diamond openings. They curled their hands over the top rail. They clung like caterpillars on a porch screen. Ida’s braids dangled forward. Her thin arms trembled when the net grew heavy. “Bet there’re snakes in there,” John told his brothers, and Ida looked up at them from the bottom of the pool. Then she drew her chin in and scooped with as much distance from the puddle as the net’s pole would allow. By the time Ida walked back up the slope and the semicircle steps to dump the wet leaves over the chain-link fence, there was a Volvo parked at the end of the path to the adjacent row of cabins and the door to McCray’s clanged shut. “Hey,” Ida shook the net and addressed the boys, “did you see someone go in there?” “Some old lady,” John said, adjusting his grip on the fence. Ida drew the net back into the perimeter of the pool and stared at McCray’s door for a few seconds before making her way back down to the puddle again. The net’s rim carved a path through the black water and dipped. “You know,” she began as she watched the water for any signs of a snake slithering away from the ripples her net made, “maybe you fellas should go on home and tell your grandma.” The boys didn’t answer. Ida lifted another bundle of leaves and debris and looked up. The fence was empty. She reached the steps and stopped to set the net down and wipe her brow with her t-shirt hem. “Boys?” She called out, then lifted the net by the pole again, climbing the steps, softly slapping her soles across the warm pavement to the fence. Across the path, John was standing with a heavy-set seventy-something woman in a button-down housedress and canvas sneakers. He was holding a stuffed garbage bag and listening to instructions. “Just drop that in the trunk over there.” The woman pointed to the Volvo
and scrubbed the frayed curls of her gray hair. “And when we run out of room we can use the back seat.” “Where are your brothers?” Ida asked John. “Inside.” He gestured with his head and dragged the bag down the path to the car. “I paid them a little something to help me move some things out,” the woman explained. “And who might you be, ma’am?” Ida left the net propped on the fence and came down through the gate. “Vivian,” the woman extended her hand and waited for Ida to step close enough to shake it. “Vivian McCray. This here’s my dad’s place.” “I see,” Ida said and instead of shaking Vivian’s hand, she walked past her and into the cabin. “Boys?” “Right here,” Luke answered, standing on a kitchen chair, sliding orange melamine plates out of the cabinets and into one of the garbage bags Vivian was packing her father’s belongings in. Ida turned a circle in the living room, looking for Marcus Dean. “There a problem?” Vivian wanted to know as her hands came together in a clap. “You know who these kids are?” Ida asked her. “No.” “They’re Jamie Blankenship’s relatives.” “Oh.” “And I’m his girl.” Ida’s chin jutted at the point of punctuation. She liked the sound of it, his girl. At the rehabilitation hospital, she’d mostly treated elderly patients who were resisting the more permanent full-time care of a nursing home. The day Jamie arrived, Ida had been passing an inflatable ball to a woman named Alice Boyd whose arms had snapped to catch it three seconds too late. The ball had rolled down her lap and bounced off the footplate of her wheelchair. “Lands sake,” Alice Boyd had drawled. Sitting crooked and cumbersome in the chair, swollen twice her size from a congenital heart defect, each exhale, each syllable, had burbled in the back of her throat. She’d thought she was one successful ball-catch away from going home again. “I’ll need to weed the azalea bed first thing,” she’d say and Ida would look past her. Ida couldn’t take it anymore, the way false hope bared itself here in the stench of colostomy bags and industrial Pine Sol like a raw nerve. While she’d passed the ball to Alice Boyd, a candy striper in the hallway had struggled to wheel Jamie past Alice Boyd’s door. His knees had jostled against one another as the wheels hit the seams in linoleum. A flop of his
hair had brushed across his squashed brow. He’d seen Ida framed there, a single ink stroke of a figure, tentative, standing in her scrubs, holding a beach ball. He could smell the mossy fish-rot waters of the lake back home, could hear the soft slap of it at the banks. She’d been sure he’d smiled at her, and days later when she’d held his hand she’d been sure he’d squeezed back. “I’m Ida Marie,” she’d said, and that was the beginning. “Well.” Vivian threw her hand up, exasperated. “So maybe we shouldn’t be in here.” “I paid them five bucks a piece,” Vivian said as Ida walked off. “I just needed a little help. I didn’t know.” Ida found Marcus Dean in the bedroom where the mattress had been stripped and left leaning against a wall. The bed frame had been disassembled. Its rough slats were stacked one on top of the other. Marcus Dean sat on the shag rug, McCray’s wooden box opened on his crossed legs, the Webley nestled in its velvet. He ran a finger down the length of the barrel to the front site. Ida squatted beside him, and the second his hand drew back from the gun she shut the box and latched it. “I need to take that from you,” she said. “That belongs to Miss Vivian.” She lifted the box off of Marcus Dean’s lap. “I don’t want that blasted thing,” Vivian said from the door. “You give it to Lou Anne. You tell her that’s all dad has to his name. She should be ashamed, trying to wrench the last dime from a dying man’s hand over nothing but an accident.” “We don’t want it,” Ida said as she stood and held the box out for Vivian, but Vivian refused it. “I said we don’t want it.” Marcus Dean stood close behind Ida. “You tell Lou Anne it’s worth something,” Vivian said. “It’s an antique. You tell her to let us be.” Ida tucked the box under her arm and took Marcus Dean by the hand. “Let’s go round up your brothers,” she said. They stepped past Vivian and into the living room where Ida left the box on a painted trunk by the front door. Luke followed them out. John saw them coming down the path and managed a goose-step pivot toward the direction of his grandmother’s cabin. “Easiest five dollars I ever made,” he said, dusting his hands off. Marcus Dean, hanging onto Ida’s bundled fingers, started crying in long, monotone draws of breath. Though he was a little more than half her size, Ida swung Marcus Dean up to her hip as they walked down the street and pressed his head onto her shoulder. His legs dangled. She arched her back against his weight. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” she breathed across his ear. Lou Anne, watering the purple shamrock in its planter on her front porch, set
the watering can down and took her cigarette between her fingers when she saw them approaching. Horatio Greenbean licked his paws in the shade of the porch swing under the sweet gum. “And what’s all this?” Lou Anne asked the boys. “We packed up stuff for the man who killed Jamie,” Luke said. “Jamie is not dead.” The force of the syllables was enough to send Horatio Greenbean running through a hole in a trellis and into a crawlspace underneath the cabin. Lou Anne gave Luke’s shoulder a hard, twisting pinch as he passed. “The man’s daughter is over there cleaning,” Ida said, lowering Marcus Dean to his feet. “She’d paid the boys to help, but I got them out of there. So.” Marcus Dean dried his eyes with his shirt. Ida rumpled his hair. “Get on in that house, boy,” Lou Anne said and returned her cigarette to the clench of her teeth. She and Ida looked at each other for a good minute before Lou Anne said without surrendering the grip on her cigarette filter, “thank you,” and Ida said, “it’s nothing,” and walked away, her soles dirty and aching against the rubble of the faded asphalt. Nine a.m. the next day, Jamie crossed Shoreline Drive in a t-shirt, sweatpants, and hiking boots and kept walking, past the metal merry-go-round, past the gravel studded with bottle caps and candy wrappers, through the muck of the bank, with Ida chasing him in the plaid shirt and baggy jeans she came here in. Her wisped hair, loose but crimped from yesterday’s braids, wrapped around her face in the breeze. She shook it free, caught his elbow. “Wait,” she said, her bare feet sinking into the silt, lake water splitting around her ankles, “What I keep telling you? You’re going to drown wading out in all your clothes. They soak water. They get heavy.” She unbuttoned her shirt, shrugged out of it, tossed it to the rocks. “We’ll take them off first. See?” He studied the bend of her neck, the jutting of her slim collarbones under her bra straps, her ribs like little fish bones, a freckle constellation of a birthmark just above her belly button. He stepped back and sat on the rocks of the bank to unlace his boots. She set them aside, folded the sweatpants on top, then the shirt, then her jeans. “See?” she said, and she was so small in the water, holding his hands, helping him up, so small walking out into the deep with the lake radiating from her hips, then her pinched-in waist. He followed her out and out until he was swimming, weightless.
Peaches Jonathan Barrett After a half-line by D.A. Powell I call you Peaches because your face is fuzzy, freckled with pockmarks, black specks, and scabs. I watch you Peaches, split lips peppered by wet ash and spittle, smoke sucked through crags of teeth. Peaches, are you a black cherub? Human head, bird body, guardian of sidewalks stained with winter road grit, crabapples, and bird shit? You mumble to a man smoking a cigarette. A gnat floats in his cold cup of coffee. Iâ€™m not a lip reader Peaches, but I think he said no. You stare through storefront glass, go-go to the door. You shuffle from table to table, stutter did-you, did-you, did-you jutting out your hand like a sparrow hopping
on the sidewalk, chirping and pecking randomly at what seems to be nothing. Chairs squeak, screech like a burdensome confession. You check the restroom door. It is locked. Peaches, I imagine your skin without porous sores, your head without a wig to cover your scabs and scars; the scent of sunlight and hyssop in your hair; hyacinth and lilies growing where burr grass and sandbars once concealed burry fruit and prickly envelopes buried deep in your throat. You find rest on a rusty bench in the smokerâ€™s courtyard, continue singing did-you, did-you, did-you. You listen to endless chitchat and chatter about salvation and resurrection: the blood spilt, spires of light sprouting from a landscape of brick buildings, the erratic cymbals of Godâ€™s heartbeat clanging, clanging, clanging and you, Peaches, tapping your feet and snapping your fingers trying to find a rhythm.
This Is Not My Beautiful House Sara Selevitch
My hands grip the wheel as I squint at the sign in front of me: an exit for a town in Virginia I’ve never heard of. I am so many miles from home. The green sign zips by as the speedometer rises. I’ve never driven barefoot before. I switch lanes. A boy I barely know sits to my right, while another, our mutual friend, lies asleep in the back seat. Music plays softly in the background, but I don’t know the song. There is a pause in conversation as we wait in line for a toll. “So, uh… my grandma died last Sunday,” the boy says quietly. It’s the following Monday. We’d just spent the past week at a music and arts festival in Tennessee camping and laughing and dancing and eating and not showering and not caring and generally celebrating being alive. I’d met him exactly a week ago, the day after his grandmother’s death. I never would have guessed he’d just suffered such a loss. We talk about it for a bit: what she went through, their relationship, his family. “It’s weird how little it seems to matter,” he says. I don’t know if he means her death or her life, or if the distinction matters either. “I’m sorry,” I say. And I am. One of my dad’s favorite tricks is to ask someone to hold something for him and then if they accept, hand them trash that he’d wanted to get rid of. He did this to me once last summer when I went to the beach for ice cream with him and my mom. He stuffed his sticky, ice-cream covered napkin into my palm and laughed that deep rippling laugh of his that I know so well. I smiled as I walked down the sandy sidewalk to the trash can, thinking
how the exchange exemplified the essence of my dad, always the jokester. The line sounded to me like something one would say in a eulogy. Dad was always a jokester. I remember one hot summer day when we stopped for ice cream... It struck me then that I’d undoubtedly be the one to deliver my father’s eulogy, being both a writer and his daughter. I thought of other things I would mention about my dad: his determination to make family his first priority, his ability to see into the heart of any issue with astounding clarity, his disciplined work ethic, his easy grin. Suddenly the instance of lighthearted humor that had occurred only moments ago seemed to carry a heavy weight, illuminating my father’s mortality and the temporary nature of our laughter. At age 58, my dad was hospitalized with some kind of skin infection. The doctors couldn’t determine what caused it: maybe a cut or a scratch, something small, something typically negligible. It spread from his calf up to his groin, its path outlined by the doctors in purple magic marker. The infection was a deep red color, contrasting starkly with his pale skin and blue veins. If the infection had continued up to his chest, my mother told me, it could have killed him. That information, though scary, failed to resonate with me; any one of us could be killed in an instant by any number of situations, and yet this realization still so often surprises us. I took the 66 bus thirteen stops and twenty minutes down the road from my apartment to visit my dad at the Beth Israel Hospital. I did a lap through the lobby trying to find the elevators, ignored signs requesting me to check in with the nurse’s desk, and stumbled upon his room. I pulled back the curtain surrounding his bed, and there he lay. “Hi, honey,” he said, his smile uncharacteristically faint, but present. There are few ways to describe my dad’s physical appearance besides the obvious: he’s a big guy. Broad shoulders, thick neck. He was a football player in high school and college and even semipro after that, well over six feet, but lying there in the hospital bed, he didn’t look in command. I suppose you can’t in that position, not wearing a light blue hospital gown, not with an IV protruding from the crook of your elbow, not with dark bruises up and down your arm where needles injected this drug and that. Every so often a frantic beeping noise emitted from the machine next to his head, indicating seemingly important updates for the stream of revolving nurses. My dad handed me a lunch menu, and we had egg salad sandwiches delivered up to us while we watched Tower Heist on the TV that hung from the ceiling. Later we flipped through the channels, pausing on Jerry Springer and Maury, shows my dad developed a strange fond-
ness of during his days tied up in bed. Shaking his head, he laughed at the drama onscreen. “Everyone’s nuts,” he said, grinning. He asked me about school, about work, the books I’d been reading, things I’d been writing. I sat perched on the windowsill next to his bed, swinging my legs in front of the warm radiator. The view outside the eleventh floor window was of brick buildings and trees, everything the same deep brown hue in the January weather. No leaves—just stark, brittle branches silhouetted against a bleak grey sky. Looking down at my father, I noticed his hair was thinning. I’d never thought of him as old before. I grew up in a two-family house. My family lived on the second and third floors, and the first floor was occupied by a woman who had been best friends with my late grandmother. We’re not related, but I call her Aunty Pat. I always have. When I think of her, I see her standing at her bedroom window looking out onto the street from behind open white blinds. She watched things: neighbors walking down the street, the mailman coming and going, cars turning around in our driveway. She knew who didn’t pick up after their dog, who threw trash on the sidewalk, who parked illegally in the handicap space out front of our house. That handicap sign was installed for her, but she hasn’t driven in years. I remember her car, though, a white, boxy Oldsmobile. Classical radio stations on the preset, a thick red lock covering the steering wheel when the car wasn’t in use, and silver circular shades in the windshield to keep the inside from getting too hot in the summer. She sold the car when she moved into a nursing home just before Christmas. When I was younger, I used to go shopping with her and my mother, usually to Walmart, where Aunty Pat always bought me McDonald’s—a chicken nugget happy meal with an orange soda. She used to push the carriage carefully down the aisle, a cardigan draped over her shoulders, leaning on the bar for support, even then. She doesn’t go shopping anymore. During her last few years in our house, she rarely went outside. Emphysema ridden, Pat is hooked up to an oxygen machine at all times, the transparent cord trailing behind her wherever she goes, a reminder of her limited air. She is a constant scuba diver. I’m not sure how old she is. Sometimes in the summer if it wasn’t too hot, she’d shuffle outside to our front porch and sit in the shade. Sometimes I’d join her and watch her crochet, her thin veiny fingers still nimble, wrapping yarn around the needles with a distinct sense of purpose. I asked her once about her friend Margaret, who lived across the street.
This Is Not My Beautiful House
“How’s she doing?” “Not good,” Pat said. “She’s 92, you know. She can’t go out much. She just hangs around. At least I crochet.” Aunty Pat loves animals more than anyone I know. What little money she has she donates to organizations like the Humane Society and ASPCA. When I was growing up, she had two cats: a fat calico girl named Cocoa, and a wiry orange boy named Spikey. She and my mother found Spikey in our yard the winter after I was born. He was just a baby too, huddled up with his mother who had just delivered a litter of kittens. They kept him in the basement, setting up one of my playpens for him until the vet determined he was healthy enough to take in. She’s told me this story many times. In the past few years, both her cats have been put down. “They were such company,” Aunty Pat told me with tears in her eyes. She’s lonely. Is this what it must come to? I wonder. Is all hope for vibrancy or spontaneity robbed by age? Failing bodies trump sharp minds, leaving us imprisoned in our own skin. Aunty tells me stories about when she was young, growing up in Maine. She once showed me slides of her wedding day that she kept in a shoebox under her bed. Her long gown trailed behind her as she walked down the aisle, this young woman with dark brown hair and spirited eyes, this young woman walking towards a future that had not yet played out. Going through slide after slide, I couldn’t make the connection between this young woman and the old lady who stood next to me in the kitchen. To me, her hair has always been grey, her bones always old. While my dad was in the hospital for his skin infection, he received word that his father, my grandfather, had passed away. I was drunk, sprawled across the floral couch in my apartment living room when I found out. “No, he didn’t,” I sobbed into the phone to my mother. “No, he didn’t.” My dad got on the phone next, his calm voice ringing through the speaker. “He just got old, honey,” he said. “It happens.” My grandpa lived in Florida, and I hadn’t seen him since I was thirteen years old. I can’t even remember now the last time I talked to him. The morning after that phone call I went out to breakfast with my friends. I did some homework, watched TV. I laughed. I went through the majority of my day not thinking about the fact that a person I loved was no longer alive. The same has been true for most of my days since then. Nothing in my world has changed since the man responsible for my father’s life lost his. I called my dad several days later. I sat on my light blue comforter bit-
ing my nails, my teeth digging into the groove between the nail and skin, over and over, as the dark red polish chipped and fell flake by flake onto my lap. “When is the service?” I asked when he answered. They’re not sure of dates yet, he told me, the process delayed due to the holiday weekend and scheduling conflicts with the veterans cemetery where my grandfather’s ashes were to be placed. My dad asked me if I could miss a few days of school to fly down with him to be with my grandmother and say a proper goodbye. I agreed without hesitation and asked him how long he thought we’d be away. “Probably just for the night. We’ll stick the ashes in the ground and call it a day,” he said, and I could hear the resigned smile in his voice. He responded to my uncertain chuckle. “You know Grandpa,” he said. “You know he’d want us to joke about this.” This approach to death is something that must run in my father’s side of the family. A few years ago, I attended a funeral for one of my mother’s aunts. All I could think about was how heavy it all was, from the ornate decorations that adorned the inside of the church to the sorrowful organ playing biblical hymns, to the clanging bells that chimed as grieving relatives exited the ceremony, hearts burdened, eyes wet. There is a gravity to funerals that makes everything else seem irrelevant and insignificant, a painful sort of beauty. Driving away from the cemetery, my dad looked out the window at the mound of flowers surrounding the freshly dug grave and shook his head. Minutes before, my mom’s cousins had stood before their mother’s grave struggling to express themselves through broken speeches. They fought to keep their composure as with each syllable emotion threatened to overcome them. “There has to be a better way to celebrate a life,” my dad said. My dad, he wants to be cremated. “Just sprinkle me on Revere Beach,” he always says with a grin. “Make a sand castle out of me.” When I was in sixth grade I became intensely transfixed by the idea of death. It was an obsession that I couldn’t stop thinking about. I’d see it everywhere. My brain could not stop imagining what catastrophic events could occur at any given moment. I thought about the last moment of breath: what my thoughts would be, where I’d be lying, what I’d be thinking. How very afraid and alone I would feel. I’d think about how my parents would probably already be dead. I wondered who would go to my funeral, who would care, who would cry. I thought about being buried, being confined to a box surrounded by dirt for all of eternity. I imagined the men who would dig my grave; to them I’d be just another body to be put in the ground, all
This Is Not My Beautiful House
in a day’s work. I’d think about what forever meant, the great expanse of nothingness that I wouldn’t even be aware of. I wondered about the afterlife. Would I get into heaven? How would I find my family once I got there? What form would we take? Would we be the age we were when we died? Or would we get to choose, be able to select the very best versions of ourselves to walk around this land in the clouds for the rest of forever? I don’t know what sparked this existential crisis, but I used to lie awake at night thinking myself into paralysis. I made myself physically sick through my fearful questions. I’d clutch my stomach under the covers, waiting for the wave of terror to pass, trying desperately to think of something grounded, like puppies or math. Sometimes I’d slip down the hallway into my parent’s room and try to weasel my way into their bed, something I hadn’t done since I was six or seven. I’d curl up under my mom’s arm, not knowing how to explain when she asked me what was wrong. I tried to tell her what it was that twisted my insides so severely, but I could not put into words the weightlessness I felt when I thought about death, the way I could stare at my hands for minutes on end and forget that I was attached to them. That fall I went over to my friend Mehgan’s house after school. She lived in the projects, where all the houses looked the same. All beige, they sat scattered on the street across from a Dunkin Donuts. Exercising our fairly new 12-year old freedoms, Mehgan and I took a walk down her street, stopping to buy hot chocolates with coins I’d taken from the jar on my refrigerator. On our way back we passed a house with a fake graveyard on its lawn, all ready for next week’s trick or treaters. I stared at the styrofoam headstones, morbid thoughts reeling, as usual. I asked Mehgan if she ever thought about dying. She shrugged. “Nah, not really.” I envied her. When I moved into my first real life apartment, one of my roommates surveyed his plain brown walls and decided they just wouldn’t do. So we got drunk one night on rum and coke and took paint to the walls with an urgent fervor. Swirls of color, Jackson Pollock inspired splashes, distorted cartoon images, peace signs and stars, flowers and handprints. There were lyrics from Biggie Smalls and Bright Eyes, a quote from Hunter Thompson, various inside jokes and unidentifiable blobs, all clashing horribly with the initial brown backdrop. “I feel like I sleep in an ADHD kid’s coloring book,” he proclaimed when we were finished.
On the wall next to his desk one of us wrote the words “All joy is young.” The letters are traced over multiple times, white paint mixing into pink and blue and green. Between the letters someone else painted a square cartoon head smoking a joint, poetics be damned. I’m not sure if they’re true, those words, but they’re easy to believe. So often, however, attempts to corral our youth and channel it into something vibrant and real end up ringing untrue. Each weekend my friends and I send texts to everyone we know, scouring the depths of our acquaintances—anything going on tonight? any parties? have you heard anything? Some friends routinely have parties at their house in Jamaica Plain, where kids are drawn in spades. One weekend I found myself upstairs in a large bedroom. Distorted music played from a laptop’s small speakers, the consistency tinny and garbled. People sat on the bed, leaning in close to hear incoherent conversations. A boy I know and a girl I don’t sat close beside each other, going through the charade of calculated distance, her hand on his back, his hand playfully slapping her knee. Meanwhile my favorite song played as I spun in the corner with some friends, our hands up, each of us involved in our own strange dance. The room felt hazy. The wall next to me was grey with royal blue stripes that blurred together the longer I stared at them. Midway through the song, I stopped and looked around, and rather than a kinship with the people around me, I just felt sad. There seemed to be a collective hole all of us were trying to fill, but none of us knew how. The best we can do is put these substances into our bodies and then try our best to act sober, a paradox that will never make sense. A few days before the drive through Virginia I was standing in a field in Manchester, Tennessee, with a thousand other people, all for the same purpose. Unbridled excitement pulsed through the crowd, everyone buzzing on a frequency I’d never experienced. Dressed freely, faces painted, flags waving, hands held. Everyone smiled at one another, everyone was laughing, everyone was in love with the world that we inhabited, the world we ourselves had created. In the days preceding the festival, Sean, our very own flower child, came up with an idea for a Naked Revolution to take place during the Beach Boys’ set. “We just need to pick a song and tell everyone to get naked when they play it,” she said excitedly. I suggested Barbara Ann, and the matter was settled. Throughout the week we told nearly everyone we met about our plan. “When Barbara Ann comes on, you have to take all your clothes off!” we’d explain gleefully. “Everyone’s going to do it. It’s a movement.”
This Is Not My Beautiful House
When the Beach Boys took the stage that Sunday morning, we danced wildly, the moments between each song charged with anticipation. Not all of us were as sure about the plan as Sean, and I wasn’t even sure that I could bring myself to do it when the time came. But when Brian Wilson sang the opening three ba-ba-ba’s, there was no opportunity for self restraint or anxiety. Pure and unadulterated freedom that does not exist in day to day life existed in that moment, and as I flailed around on the grass with this group of people I love so intensely, I felt the answer to all those questions about purpose and possibility. For those fleeting moments, I, and everyone around me, embraced the reckless beauty of our youth. That Monday morning car ride home took place on my twentieth birthday. The last song on the mixed CD we’d been playing on the drive started off slow, with a plucking guitar that reminded me of a sunrise. “This is a good driving song,” the boy to my right said, reaching to turn the volume up. I’d never heard it before, but I haven’t been able to listen to it since without that memory of smiling and driving, knowing that I was in exactly the right place. I could have sworn then that it all meant something more, something as sweeping and grandiose as the highway we sped down. I can see it then, the sunshine pouring through the windshield and the three of us looking forward and smiling. Tanned skin, white teeth. We are so young, and so very alive.
Visiting Bill on the Ward P. Ivan Young
He had become a raw river, spilling Stories into the afternoon heat Of the visitorâ€™s room. No space For breath as he lit one cigarette With the butt of another, dug his Thumbnail into the nicked formica table top And chipped away bits to punctuate His conspiracies. I thought of the day he confessed his mother was ill, how her unfocused eyes scared him. We sat by the rusted pipe Where we sometimes Found snakes coiled, sparkling With a bit of dew and sunlight, a full rain echoed Through its corrugations, bellowed Water into diamond curls of air. Sometime in the evening, As mosquitoes hummed about our faces, The stream diminished, died with the light Through the trees, and then I realized I was somewhere else, that Bill had stubbed His last smoke into the ashtray, was looking Silently through me as if we were both seeing
The same thing, the swirling nest of sticks and leaves That said water had once flowed here.
P. Ivan Young
Aging and Other Habits Amanda Bondi
I am growing into the little girl I always was. Picking up the plans I stopped making when I was 17, asking Shane about our Country. What did you find way out there? From the lost dogs of the Pacific to all the sordid drifters sipping cool coffee in Amtrak dining carts— how wonderful that all must have been. Here are the plans I never finished: follow winter until the end, build a story for myself, die in Massachusetts. My Grown-Up-Self is sneaking into this poem, which is in my house. So we will hide away in pages, in snow, in December, until the kid comes back. Until the sound of the Atlantic is like I remember it. Until the beach at night doesn’t remind me of all the love I’ve ever had.
Eggshells Jill Birdsall
In winter he saves up, keeps shells from all he’s eaten-omelets, meat loafs, hard-boiled, deviled, scrambled, over easy. Come spring he starts anew. He’s out early each morning before the sun is up. He shines the porch light on his yard and sets to work. Mondays he bakes the eggshells to dry them. Tuesdays he crushes them in the blender. Wednesdays he adds these to his garden soil. Together we built the brick wall between our properties. Some years he laid a course, other years I did. Two decades ago we agreed on rowlock across the top. We’ve lived on opposite sides of this wall our whole adult lives. His yard is filled with long winding roots, beets and onions and rutabaga he calls neep, along with a collection of grunts and curses. Always tilling, composting, weeding or raking, he’s an organic old man farmer who fancies himself a teacher. I’m not sure why, but in his mind this makes me, a woman exactly his age, his pupil. When I’m stung by a wasp, “Drop an eggshell into apple cider vinegar, let it soak for a couple of days then dab the mixture on the sting,” he says. He tells me this across our wall. You might think this is sweet, but I know better. They are on my property. He has loaded his side with so many eggshells, they’ve spilled over. I try to scoop them up and return them. It’s no use. They come up from underground. It’s wasted energy for me to sift through the earth to pick his shells out when every morning my soil is covered with a fresh layer. I won’t think about them. I will ignore them, I tell myself. Each morning is a new day.
I don’t wake to a clock or alarm. I rise with the sun. I love the way it’s warm and fuzzy in the morning, like a voice not yet fully there. Sleep is hanging on and I’m fine with that. In my garden chaise I close my eyes, my night-gowned body lounging in an s, curving with the cushion, I lean to the sun, let it warm me. I’m taking my morning bath and it’s golden. I listen for the hum of insects from the night before, cicada. The cat finds me, sometimes she’s waiting; she settles like a puddle beneath my feet, puts a paw out every so often and I give a tug to her ball of twine. She unravels it, bats it around, and there it is, her morning’s delight. It is the ultimate indulgence, I think, to remain as long as possible in that crossover place still threaded to night. But then I walk on eggshells to water my thyme. He says thyme doesn’t need watering. I walk on eggshells to pick my mint. I shouldn’t pick so much mint, he says. To my strawberries I walk on more eggshells. You have to stop planting flat! I should be growing vertically, he insists—air circulation. He always cooks his rutabaga with potato and carrot and onion. Root mash. He leaves a bowl on top of the wall for me. I refuse him. He’s frustrated with me. I try not to water in the morning but the thyme dries out. I try to go without mint, but what’s iced tea without a sprig of freshly picked mint, especially when it’s right there? I tell myself I can grow my strawberries higher. All the time I’m wondering, why can’t we just be different? I enjoy herbs: lavender, rosemary, lemon balm. I plant a knot. There’s a sundial and a small pond in my garden, heather and my favorite mounds of june-bearing strawberries. All these I love. He made a deal with our local market to sell his vegetables. He’s a succession farmer, he claims. “Watch me!” he says. He can grow an early crop of lettuce followed by fast-maturing corn followed by overwintered garlic, all in one season. He plants his peppers extra early by using two blankets. Six weeks before the last frost date, he preheats the cold soil, covering it in a black sheet. He makes a clear plastic tunnel. Then he takes the soil’s temperature. Yes, with a thermometer. When it reaches 65 degrees, he sets the plants. He covers them with straw, removes the plastic tunnel only when the danger of frost is past. On Wednesdays he dumps bucket loads of eggshells into the garden but on Thursdays he kneels and spoons the crushed shells into individual holes where he’s planted peppers. He spoons the same around his tomatoes on Fridays. When he pulls an onion from the ground and takes a bite, I’m
glad he’s enjoying his crop, but he spits it out. Just checking, he says. Don’t want them to overcook. It’s a risk, leaving a crop underground too long. It’s all about timing, he tells me. You have to strike at the optimum time or decrease your yield. This isn’t the stock market. It’s a garden. Besides, sometimes, I believe, it’s important to wait. I wait as long as I can before tiptoeing to my hose bib. When he hears me, he makes his way to the chinks in the wall. I see his eyes through the holes staring at the water I’m spraying on my thyme. At night after he’s asleep, I fit colorful sea glass into the chinks and holes on my side. Next morning instead of his eyes watching, amber and turquoise like mirrors reflect sun and sky in my garden. I love to listen to my garden. I hear the breeze ripple the water, a droplet break its surface. When they’re full the hydrangea rustle. He listens to AM radio, a transistor on battery he turns up to ten. Talk shows with people arguing. No one ever solves anything. They just yell at each other. They call in and let loose. They rant about politics— conservative politics. I’m liberal so they sound ridiculous to me. I ask him to turn his radio down but he can’t hear me above the racket. Please! I beg him. I’m not living next door to a teenager rock wannabe. He’s an old man listening to people at their nastiest. “I don’t want to put that into myself.” “Go inside then,” he says, still annoyed about the sea glass. He sits on our wall like you would on the rim of a bathtub, swings one leg over then the next, that’s how he enters my garden. He doesn’t look at me. He bends over and grabs a handful of earth from under my lavender, lets the soil fall through his fingers. It’s dry and he’s left with a handful of pebbles. “Building up your soil will pump up yields,” he says. His words fly over my shoulder, out the driveway where they scatter and rain down like fine dust. “Round edges.” He’s walking around my knot garden as if it were in his way. He’s eyeing my thyme. I follow him. Round edges could be useful, I suppose. I try to see three plump plantings of common rue rounding the bends. “A twenty-foot bed rounded gives 120 square feet of plantings versus one hundred. That’s a twenty percent gain. You should raise your beds,” he says. I want him to go home. “Stop planting in squares and rows!”
I’ve had more than enough of him. “Stagger your plants. Now that I plant in triangles-forty percent higher broccoli production. Seventy percent cabbage.” I don’t plant broccoli and I don’t plant cabbage. He stops at the end of the row, his feet less than an inch from my thyme. He’s pointing angrily down. I don’t want to know what is wrong. I stop following him and retreat into my house, close the door, then open and close it again. To dry eggshells, bake them in a 250-degree oven for thirty minutes. I’m still thinking about these things he’s told me. Put them in a plastic zipper bag, seal it, and crush the shells with a rolling pin until they’re a fine powder. I don’t know how anyone can eat so many eggs. Through my window I see he’s bringing more bucket loads. Good thing I’m looking. I catch him with my cat. She’s by the wall and he’s feeding her. Yes, I’m sure of it. “What are you doing?” I open the window and call out to him. He looks up guilty, the cat still licking his finger. “Good for her bones,” he says. There’s white dust on my cat’s whiskers. He’s making the rounds in my garden. Like a dog, marking his territory, he paces. He is never still, a foot tapping accompanies him, punctuation to the banter in his head. Next morning I find my thyme dug up. All of it! It had to be rabbits, I think. I search under the wall but can’t find a hole where they’d come through. I get down on my knees and crawl the length of that wall three times, back, forth and back again, still can’t find a rabbit hole. I don’t say a word when I see green stains on the palms of his hands. And when he passes my chaise on one of his inspections of my garden, I smell thyme in the air. I’ve read about situations like this: Do not let your anger be known. Feel later. Above all, remain calm. I listen to him. (But I love my strawberry mounds!) I do what he says now. I set up cages, four of them right in the middle of my garden. I hope the strawberries will grow up these to his satisfaction. At night when I’m sure he’s asleep I light a candle on the rowlock. In half-light I knit fish hooks between the bricks and line barbed wire across the top of the wall. Take that! I think, meaning the rabbits, of course. He carves a turnip instead of a pumpkin. It’s the right way to do it, he insists. He fixes his turnip to the barbed wire as if that wire posed no problem for him even if he can’t climb over to replace the pumpkin on my sill. He still talks to me over the wall. He’s mashing his potatoes and rutabagas separately now, he tells me: neeps and tatties.
In Germany, where my parents are from, this is called food of last resort, emergency food, I tell him. I still refuse. It’s a case of genotype, he tells me. I’m a PAV/PAV so I find rutabaga twice as bitter as he does. He’s lucky, he says, because he’s the insensitive type, AVI/AVI. Mustard greens, turnips, broccoli, horseradish—I taste their bitterness. He doesn’t. It’s my bitter receptor, TAS2R, that detects the glucosinolate. TAS2R is my problem. I’m well-versed in compatible crops. He’s taught me all about interplanting. I can tell you about the three sisters—corn, beans and squash. How the cornstalks support the beans while the squash grows below. There are many compatible combinations: tomatoes, basil and onions; lettuce and peas; carrots, onions and radishes; beets and celery. So, why can’t we find something between us that’s compatible? You can do all these things with eggshells: clean your house, your pots and pans, unclog your drains, sweeten your coffee, clear up your skin, start seedlings in them, scare away slugs, deter deer. He’s told me this. You can also fertilize your garden. I don’t tell him that people choose coffee grinds, dried banana peels, or epsom salts to supplement soil. I grind calcium pills. There are other ways, I could tell him. By the weekend my wasp sting itches. I dab the vinegar-eggshell mixture he recommended on my skin. It is difficult to reach the place on my arm where I was stung and applying this mixture of his is not soothing. He doesn’t come out of his house anymore. He is nowhere to be seen. Saturday it rains. I listen for him but all I hear are raindrops and the ping they make on my pond. The sun doesn’t come out Sunday either. If I look at the right angle I see his footprints in my garden, a path worn over years not only at the perimeter, but around the knot and right up to the pond, a deep rut in the center of my strawberries. The main ingredient in eggshells is calcium carbonate, the same ingredient that’s in pearls. Wherever he stepped, when it’s wet the earth shimmers purple and blue, like pearly gasoline in a puddle of water. On Sunday I sit in my chaise staring at his footprints. My cat rubs her back against the wall. Except for the hydrangea still dripping, everything is quiet. All those years I lived in fear of when he came over, I was never afraid of what it would be like when he didn’t.
The Three Guitar Players Dr. Ernest Williamson III
Three Modes of Color Dr. Ernest Williamson III 50
Boat Houses Jamie Ditaranto
Royâ€™s Peaks Jamie Ditaranto 51
Skipping the Gondola Ride in Queenstown Jamie Ditaranto
as above luke kurtis
hidden luke kurtis 53
the unseen luke kurtis
Saint Giles’ Chapel Marc Harshman
Somewhere beyond the starry mountains in a room big as a dime theater, the body is being broken and blood being poured like wine. Down the corridor, slowly, inevitably, comes the clanking of a metal walker, the lame man coming for his fix. He will be denied, arriving after the peace has been signed and the debt remitted another day. And though he argues the service had been posted for eight, the priest is adamant and within his rights—it had been changed to seven. The man lowers his shoulders and leaves, driven home through snowy fields by grandchildren who have become urchins from a foreign land of ancient scriptures. Only with his wife’s assistance is he able to rehearse their names, reassemble all those things he once knew. The sky is blue. The snow stays longer on the mountains than it does in the valley. We were poor in the Depression. The moon’s light will last a little longer, he thinks, if he closes his eyes and repeats the alphabet backwards interwoven with times tables. Then, suddenly, he’s back at school, remembers the pearl of great price—there, in the painting above his Latin teacher, there, smoldering in a hay field orange with the fires of autumn. When the teacher leaves with her flock for recess, he sneaks back. Standing from her desk, one foot on the chalk ledge, he could reach, step inside if only he had another year to grow. But the moments race away as they are doing from us now. And when you look out tonight on Oak Street, the Christmas lights will all be gone, and the dream you had tucked away under the wrist of your blouse will have flaked to ash and bone. Down the corridor, somewhere beyond the sorry excuses—the Alzheimer’s,
the Parkinson’s, the dead son, the real excuses—he has picked up his pallet and begun again his tentative steps toward salvation. It is you he is coming to see. Collect as many tablets under your arms as you can, recite your doom from them and be done with it. Listen to yourself, weeping now inside the lip-stick cage of that tin confessional.
Stick Folk Love Joseph Seale
Jeb sits on the porch swing, whistling and gently rocking back and forth, occasionally spitting tobacco juice over the railing. He whittles at a block of wood fashioned into the shape of a woman with slender legs, elegant hips, giant breasts. Her hands and feet are still blocks, and her hair is crudely outlined, barely done at all. She’s not quite yet a person, not quite yet given over to life. Her breasts are plump and round, defying gravity in their refusal to droop, and realistic stretch marks slightly mar the smoothness of each. Jeb focuses his attention on the nipples. The areolas are neatly rounded and the nipples long, as if the stick-woman is cold and would shiver if she could. The woman has no face, but still, she is some kind of beautiful. I’m lying next to his feet, staring at the chipped ceiling paint and humming, the rough floor boards creasing and pinching at my back. I make up songs when I hum, notes that subtly resemble real songs but aren’t. Occasionally Jeb joins in, and somehow our notes are often close enough to sound harmonious. “What do you think?” he asks, and he points the breasts of the stickwoman out at me, proud of his knowledge of mammary geography. “I made them like yours.” I glance at his hands and stop humming long enough to say, “My nipples aren’t hard, and you know I don’t have stretch marks.” “Yet,” he says. “You don’t have them yet. These are your babies in the future.” “Well, that’s encouraging.” He spits and folds up his knife, then opens it again. “I need to work on her pussy. I don’t suppose you’d model for me?” He grins, his crooked teeth stained with tobacco juice.
I turn my face toward him. “You gonna copy my current one or my future one?” He laughs, spits, rubs his thumb over the wooden breasts with their fine points. “I’d need to look first, then decide.” I know he’s just trying to push my buttons, that he loves getting me angry so that he can make up with me. His favorite is when I get mad enough to punch him, and his eye is still faintly yellow underneath from the last time he made me that mad. He loves my temper. “You keep that up, and you might not see mine again for quite some time.” We both know I’m not really mad, but he still frowns, wounded, and I hate how big of a baby he can be. “I reckon I can do it on my own, Grace, but what’s the fun in that?” He looks at my face, then drops his eyes to the stick-woman. He begins to work on her hands. The hands always give him trouble, but not as much trouble as the feet. He spends hours and hours making microscopic changes, smoothing the arches, rounding the heels. He saves the toes for last. He told me once how he hates the big toe because he can never get it to look right, that it always looks like a flat thumb. And he’s right. It always does. “You know I hate when you pout,” I say. Then I hum something similar to “Rock-a-bye Baby.” He doesn’t answer. He’s making her right hand into a tiny fist. His face is determined, his jaw set and shoulders stooped, his neck bent. He’ll spend hours in that position, carving their hands, fingers, and toes. He gets giant knots in his neck and shoulders that take me forever to knead out. “Rub me out, baby,” he’ll say. “Just a quick rub out.” But it’s never quick, and we both know it. He grunts and groans and winces as I dig in my fingers and knuckles, my elbow on the big ones, and when I’m done, he goes right back to work. “Actually, I don’t care if you pout.” “I know you don’t,” he says, and we pass several moments without conversation. I hum, and I hum, and he scrapes away at the wood, his strong hands making shape out of nothing. After a few moments, he says, “Hey,” and when I don’t look over, he says again, “Hey.” I sigh and look up at him. He has finished both hands, tightening them into little clinched fists, with the exception of the middle fingers, which are flipping me off. I smile at him. “Cute.” “Even my stick-lady here thinks you deserve a big ah-fuck ah-you.” The way he drags out the words makes me laugh, and, finally, he laughs too. The flatness of her mid-section is beautiful. The lack of detail there is the
most stunning part of the figure. Other than her giant breasts, she is sexless. Faceless and sexless, but so angry at me, her middle fingers pointing at the sky to prove it. “I like her,” I say. “She’s like my dream woman. She’s an action-figure for female defiance.” “She’d be more defiant with a pussy,” he says. I sort of agree with him in that I think she’d have some kind of weapon, but I don’t say this to Jeb. It would only encourage him. “How are you going to do the feet?” He runs his thumb over her breasts, down her stomach with its protruding navel, between her legs. He turns her over so I can see her tight, round cheeks, smooth and glossy. “I don’t know. I got an idea for her, though. I was thinking of making her feet like those Chinese women’s feet. You know the ones I’m talking about?” “Lotus feet,” I say more to myself than to him. “Foot-binding.” “Exactly. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about the toes, you know?” “It would make it so much easier for you,” I say. “You could give her a nice, big pussy and lotus feet to go with her stretch-marked tits. She’d be almost perfect.” I don’t know how Jeb knows about foot-binding, about the golden lotus or the lotus gait. He’s a hick who has only left the state once, but he always surprises me with his knowledge, especially about the manipulating and ornamenting of women. He knows so many things that he shouldn’t. “It ain’t like that, Grace,” he says, again. “I just don’t like making the toes.” He spits juice over the railing. “I know you don’t, baby.” “Wouldn’t it make her more ladylike? More feminine and beautiful and all that? Isn’t that what it was all about?” I know he’s serious, that he’s not trying to make me angry this time, that he’s not trying to push my buttons, and I wonder if that is why his words make me so angry. Sometimes being stupid is worse than just being an ass. “You know some of the lotus descendants still exist?” I say. “It was thought to be an honor for the eldest daughter of a poor family.” “That right?” He spits, his head still bent. His voice tells me he already knows, but I go on anyway. “She’d be a lady. She’d never have to work. Her one job would be her beauty, to be feminine. Her sisters, her normal-footed, plain and forgettable sisters, would go work in the fields. She never would.” “All that in one of your history books?” I sit up with my back to him but don’t answer. Him and his internet again. “Sounds like a pretty good set-up,” he adds.
Stick Folk Love
“Other than being a cripple.” “Goddammit, Grace. You know I just don’t like making the toes.” I hum softly and think about how even today some women will cut off their pinky toes to better fit into high heels. Some traditions never die; they just learn to hide better. “You really think my titties will look like that in the future?” I turn my head toward him for a second and then get up without waiting for an answer and walk into the house, my house filled with all of his things. My walls were bare when he moved in, but he’s put up shelves on all the walls and has stacked them full of his wooden figures-animals, people, wagons and ships. Everything you can imagine, stiff and wooden and shelved for no one but us to gawk at. With its walls full of stickfolk—women, men, children, some with hinged joints and some without, some with clothing and some naked—my house looks like a sad toy shop. At night, the shadows of his figures move, and Jeb gets scared of his own creations. He always leaves lights on and darts from room to room like he’s a phantom himself. I wonder if that’s why he wants to cripple the new stickwoman, so he won’t have to be afraid of her shadow chasing him in the night. I grab a beer from the fridge and an apple and a knife and sit down in front of the television. I stare at the screen, at a man on a cooking show preparing some fancy cuisine with tiny portions. I cut slices off the apple, not entirely sure if I’m really upset or why. Jeb and I weren’t always together. We were once other people with other lives. I was still learning to teach, watching people, studying them. Jeb was a carpenter, specializing in cabinets. He was married to a woman who loved him until he knocked it out of her, and I suppose I was in the same boat as she was, married to a man who thought he owned me, but people change. I got a job at the community college, little pay but little responsibility, and tried to forget my past. I wish I could say Jeb had been one of my students, that that’s how we met. Sometimes I long for a storybook life. In reality, I met him when we were both drunk but only he was trying to get sober, and I can’t explain how it all happened. How he went from staying the night to staying the weekend. How staying the weekend turned into keeping a few of his things here. How he one day stopped looking for a job making cabinets and started the carving. His hobby turned into his craft. I told myself at first that I was just tolerating him, that I was helping him get back on his feet. I wouldn’t admit that I liked having him around, that I enjoyed him. And now my empty house has shelves full of creepy wooden toys that Jeb swears can move, and I’m living with a man who thinks he’s smarter than he really is.
Back when Jeb was married, he drank a lot, probably too much. It was a real reciprocal deal. He hit her, and she hit him back, until one day she had nothing left to fight for. When she left him after he lost his job refinishing kitchens, he started trying to get sober and took to carving stick-figures full-time. Whenever I ask to talk about the people we used to be, he gets frowned up and grabs his tools. It’s like he carves himself away from who he used to be. In a cruel twist of fate, now I’m the one always drinking. Sometimes while I’m bent over papers, I look over at him as he smiles and carves, and I’m tempted to brandish my sweating beer bottles at him, taunting, enticing. But I never do. Now, my house feels more like his than mine, filled with more of his things, occupied more often by him than me because I’m always working. He’s always here, surrounded by his wooden family. I keep telling myself it’s better than an empty house, better than empty walls holding empty furniture, but sometimes I wonder if I wouldn’t like him more if he still drank. He shuffles in behind me, past me into the spare bedroom that I’ve let him make into a workshop. He hasn’t had a job in months, visiting the unemployment office just often enough to keep the checks coming, but he treats the workshop like his office, and he works more hours a day than I do. I humor him with his hobby, with his ability to bring forth life out of wood, and every now and then he manages to sell one on eBay for a few bucks. He calls it his art and swears someone will take notice one day, and I smile at his finished pieces. I rub his shoulders when the knots get really bad. And all-the-while I go to work at the community college where I teach American history to teenagers and thirty-somethings who can’t get into school anywhere else, rarely saying a word about how stupid I think he is, though I think it all the time. An hour later, he comes out of his workroom, a smile on his face. “Grace, you remember that black boy I finished a few weeks back?” I nod, sipping my beer. Jeb’s favorite thing is to make obscene figures, ones that will make people blush, that will piss people off. He likes women with big pussies, some with surprisingly realistic mounds of pubic hair or giant clits, and he loves to carve males with disproportionally huge penises. Most of these figures are only slightly taller than your average Barbie, and somehow they all fit into your hand snugly, like they belong there. Lately, he’s been working with the heart of a persimmon tree that fell behind the house last fall, relishing in the black-blood color of the wood. “Did you know the genus of this tree, Diospyros, comes from Greek words that mean divine fruit?” he asked me when the lightning struck it down. It was still smoking faintly as we stood over it. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
Stick Folk Love
I stared at him and shook my head, wondering if it’s safe for him to be on the internet so much. He smiled. “Yup. They also say you can tell how severe the next winter will be by slicing open a persimmon seed.” He took out a pocket knife and sliced open one of the fallen fruits that we normally ignored until they rotted. He opened the seed and stared at it, then up at the sky, then back at his hand. “Well?” I asked. “Hell, I can’t read this shit. I’m no expert,” he said with a grin. “But I can safely say, it’s going to be cold.” That day in the yard, as he stood there with the open seed in his palm, I called him an idiot and went inside, disgusted at him for again pretending to know anything. He later looked it up online and decided the winter would be a harsh one filled with storms and trials, citing a Native American folk tale to prove it. And the son of a bitch ended up being right. He’s taken to making dark-skinned people of various shapes and sizes from the dark wood of this tree, each figure stereotyped to the nth degree. He calls them his black army, his “brothers and sisters from the tree out back.” I don’t understand his fascination with them. I’ve never heard him actually call anybody a nigger, never heard him badmouth any of the ones that live all along the dirt road on either side of us. It’s like he takes his hatred out on the figures, men and women both black and white, in order to treat the real thing better. I can’t help but hate him for this. I’ve told him to let it out, whatever rage, hate, or unfairness he may have, but he just smiles at me with stained teeth and bends his head over whatever life he holds in his hands, chipping away at it as he sees fit. His silence always makes me think about myself, makes me wonder about my own prejudices, and I don’t like it. I often wonder what happened to his anger, to the rage he used to have. How did it all just disappear? His black women, with their large-lipped mouths, are draped with hanging breasts and giant nipples, unrealistically round hips and enormous asses. The men, long-limbed and gangly, are weighed down by cartoonish penises and large feet. He thinks they’re hilarious. He brings each one out to me when he’s finished, giggling like a schoolboy who has done something his mama would beat him for. He wants me to touch them, to rub my hands over the breasts and the asses and the giant dicks. He gets turned on feeling their smooth wooden skin. I’m often startled at the near-accuracy of his exaggerations, the comical shapes of the figures. I catch myself feeling the disdain for them that he refuses to have. Every so often he’ll bring me a particularly offensive figure, and behind the smile on his face there’s something else, some expression
I can’t decipher, almost like he’s challenging me to respond a certain way. Like he’s goading me, but I don’t know what about. The black boy he’s talking about is a figure he made to mirror one of the kids down the road. The figure is a model of everything racist, so exaggerated it is nothing more than a caricature of itself. The boy has a gaping hole of a mouth that grins stupidly, long spindly arms and legs, wide hands and flat feet, and a small afro, but it’s hard to notice anything other than the penis that reaches past his knees. Somehow, in an act of artistic blind luck, the wood making up the boy’s member is much darker than the rest of him, so much darker that it seems to glow in its blackness. The boy is bowlegged, and he bends slightly at the waist as if his burden causes him immense strain. Jeb, in the mania he often experiences after finishing a particularly offensive figure, insisted that we let the boy, named Jerome after Jeb’s favorite football star, watch us fuck. Assuming this was an innocent request and that the figure would merely rest on our dresser and watch from a distance, I agreed and lay down on the bed waiting for him. Instead of his usual routine of adorable clumsy foreplay, fumbling around until I mercifully make him stop, Jeb proceeded to turn me over and enter me from behind, forcing my face into the pillow. Seconds later, I felt the hard coldness of the boy’s wooden penis poking at my asshole as Jeb taunted me. “Oh yeah. Here comes the hammer. Here comes the black hammer. Here comes the big, black-dicked boy from down the street.” His words shocked and angered me, and Jerome’s invasion of my ass angered me even more. The anger scared me, but I let Jeb do it anyway, and I’m still not sure why. It was almost like I didn’t hate it, like I hated Jeb for making me realize I didn’t hate it. I remained there on my knees with my face in the pillow, refusing to make a sound as Jeb and Jerome used me. Jeb was the only one I heard grunting, one hand on my hip and the other controlling Jerome, who was innocent, a pawn in the hands of a maniacal woodsmith. The second Jeb finished, I turned on him and knocked the figure from his hand before going after his face. This is how he got the black eye. He stood there, grinning and rubbing his eye, and I knew he wanted to ask if it was as good for me. “I remember Jerome, baby,” I say, my third beer sloshing heavily in my stomach. “He’s hard to forget.” Jeb brandishes the boy at me, Jerome’s darkly glowing penis winking in my direction. “Just sold the little fella for thirty-seven-fifty.” He dances a little jig, making Jerome dance along with him, the boy’s rigid limbs waving stiffly from side-to-side, and I wonder if Jeb realizes how offensive his words
Stick Folk Love
could be to some people. Jeb may be stupid, but he knows more than he should. I think he is probably innocent, that the glee on his face is over the sale of a piece of art and not a boy, but I wonder about his motivation. Why these black figures of his? What point is he trying to make? “We should celebrate,” he says. “That didn’t work out so great for you last time,” I say. “Why don’t we let Jerome keep that thing to himself?” Jeb’s babyish pout threatens to resurface. “You don’t give one goddamn about my work, do you?” I say nothing, fuming in silence. He paws at the floor with his boot, Jerome’s lightning rod aimed at the ground. “Can we at least fuck?” Jeb asks, his eyes pointed at his feet. I smile at him and reach out my hand for Jerome. Jeb grins and hands him over. Looking up at Jeb, I take Jerome in my hands, working my fingers up and down his exaggerated length. He’s maybe a foot tall, his stooped back costing him some height, but the length between his legs is laughable, ridiculous. Is Jeb really that insecure? Jeb licks his lips, and I smell him, a mixture of sweat and tobacco. I speed up my fingers as Jeb’s crotch bulges. He leans toward me for a kiss, and just as I feel his breath on my cheek, I look him in the eye and snap Jerome’s big black dick right off of his wooden body. Jeb is speechless, stabbed. “Don’t worry, baby,” I say as I hand him the broken boy and his cartoon penis. “It’s not his dick right now. It’s his big boy in the future.” I don’t know what I mean, but I don’t have to. Jeb stares at the figure in his hands for several moments before dropping him on the couch and walking out, not even taking the time to slam the door. The way the little man still grins without a penis, with a bloodless wound splintered in his middle, turns my stomach. I pity him for being the victim of something he has nothing to do with. Two hours later, it’s dark outside, and Jeb still hasn’t returned. I pretend he’s getting drunk, that he’s going to come home and try to knock me around even though he’s never so much as bruised me on purpose, to make me pay for breaking his toy. Several more beers have made my belly full and my legs heavy as I slip my way into Jeb’s workroom. Blocks of wood of various sizes and shades are stacked in the corner. Littered across the room are various projects in different stages of completion. So many disfigured wooden shapes, stricken like poor folks in a crowded slum. Among them are the tiny hinges he sometimes uses to make limbs that bend and other tools of his trade that I don’t know the use of. Top-of-the-line items bought with my money, shipped to my house.
Figures lay scattered all over the floor, along shelves on the walls, piled next to the computer on the desk against the wall. The only other furniture in the room is a single wooden chair and a small box that holds Jeb’s knives and sandpaper gloves. As I look around the room at the workspace so cluttered but so neat, I admire Jeb’s skill. I never tell him how good his work is. I never have to. He knows he’s good. But as I look around the room and realize that the only things in my house are the things he’s made, it becomes clear that what he calls his art may actually be just that. These figures, incomplete and scattered lifelessly about his office prove that. They’re not the same as the ones sitting on the shelves in the living room, the ones whose shadows seem to dance and move. The ones that are alive. I let myself admit I’m afraid that Jeb won’t come back. That he might take them all with him. That my house will become empty again. On the chair, flat on her back with her legs splayed, is the sexless woman from the porch. Her shapely breasts stare at the ceiling, and her arms stick straight up, flipping off the entire world above her. I pick her up. She’s so pale she reflects the light of the room. She still has no face, no mouth or expression, but Jeb has finished her hair and begun her eyes, carved dead circles on either side of a dainty nose. I rub my thumb over her pointy nipples, then her sexless crotch, relishing in the smoothness. I envy her cold eyes, her perfect breasts, the void between her legs. I try to envision my face on her body, but I can’t make it fit. Her jaw is too round, her eyes too open. She is not me. She is not alive. As my eyes and thumbs travel down her body, over the flat stomach and sculpted legs, I reach the two, small blocks where Jeb has laid the groundwork for her deformed feet. His tribute to the tradition of the golden lotus. I drop to my knees and set her on the chair, surprised at her ability to stand on her own, impressed yet again by Jeb’s skill. But as soon as I take away my hand, I feel an immediate jolt of fear for her safety. She looks so beautiful and feminine but so tragically deformed and helpless despite the rebellious finger on each hand that dares the world to try her. She could topple at any moment and shatter, lost to the world. I scoop her up and run back into the living room. Jerome is face down on the couch, his bent waist forcing his ass up in the air—his maker’s favorite position. I drop to the floor and lift him gently, whispering, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I need you, we need you, I’m sorry.” I stand him up on the couch, proud and thankful for Jeb’s ability to give the boy sturdy, flat feet. I take my faceless beauty and introduce her to Jerome, fully aware I am just a child playing in her room while her parents fight down the hall, a helpless someone trying to change things bigger than herself. Some traditions never die.
Stick Folk Love
As tentatively as my drunken hands allow, I turn Jerome so that his back is to the stickwoman and her block feet. I check over my shoulder for Jeb, hoping he will come back, whether angry or sad or horny, just back in my empty house full of his things. I help the stickwoman climb on Jerome’s back, whispering encouragement. “There, there. No one can hurt you once you can run.” I secure them to one another with electrical tape, and I set Jerome back on his feet. He leans, threatening to topple, but the faceless woman’s feet drag the ground and hold them both up. The going will be slow, but their balance will be steady. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Jeb leaning in the doorway, watching me. I stand to pull the cord on the ceiling fan to turn off the light and allow myself to lean as though I may fall over. As my rubbery legs give way, I wonder for a long second if he will catch me or if he will let me crash to the floor, and then his arms wrap around me. I look up at Jeb as he lowers me back to the floor, and I say, “I have to help her. You’ve maimed her to get back at me, haven’t you?” Jeb stares at me in silence before sliding down beside me. “I wish you’d at least given her hinges so she could hold on, Jeb. All she can do now is flip off the whole goddamn world.” Between us on the floor, the couple leans toward the door. They look straight ahead, ready to face anything, stuck to one another without embracing, without love, held together by the need for survival. The woman glows mouthless in the pale light, and Jerome grins as he carries her. The two of us sit there in the near-dark next to the two of them, and I lean my head over so that it rests on Jeb’s shoulder. “They almost make a pretty couple,” I whisper. “I tried to get drunk,” he says. “Couldn’t stomach it. Lost the taste for it I guess.” “Why couldn’t you just give her some feet, Jeb?” “I don’t like making the toes.” “I know you don’t, baby, but this isn’t right.” Jeb looks at the room around us with its shelves and shelves of figures. “You got that backwards anyhow,” he says quietly, pointing at the couple. He leans back against the couch as I stare at the figures between us, and I lift my head to look at him in confusion. “The wrong one is doing the carrying,” he explains. “I wish I hadn’t broken him,” I say. The dim light casts shadows all across the room. The shadows of the couple stand tall and blend together as they lean toward the door, eager to spring. The stickwoman’s arms and legs are rigid flags refusing to hold
on, and the way she lets her middle fingers talk for her makes her seem dangerous, defiant. Jerome grins with his open mouth facing the world as he runs, his flat feet sturdy, his limbs firm and ready. Jeb closes his eyes, and I wonder what he’s most afraid of, me or the shadows of his creations. Eventually, I know I will see their shadows run far from this place. All I have to do is wait. I hold out my hand to Jeb. “Help me up.” He looks over at me and climbs stiffly to his feet. He pulls my dead weight up to him, and I touch his face and then grab his shoulder to turn him around. He yields easily. His back to me, I push on his shoulder to bend him over slightly. I ask him if he’s ready and jump before he answers. My legs heavy, I barely leave the ground and bump into him hard, nearly knocking us both over. He turns, and for a second I think he’s going to hit me, and I realize that’s not what I want after all. I just want to climb on his back, to jump on him and let him carry me. “What the fuck are you trying to do?” he asks. He stares at me, through me, as we stand there in the dark. His face looks kind, gentle. I hardly recognize him. I motion for him to come closer. “Carry me,” I say. “Let’s run together.” I grab the couple from the floor and hold them in his direction. Without another word, he turns, drops to his knees in front of me, and offers me his hands. I climb on and wrap my arms tightly around his chest. He stands and faces the door. “Now what?” “I don’t know,” I say. “Run.”
Stick Folk Love
The Man Made of Red Elana Willinsky
The man made of red was a friend of mine. We met waiting on a bus stop bench. I was on my way to the supermarket, he was going to a meeting, always in recovery from something. The bus was late, the bench cold and once our hands accidentally brushed. His touch burnt me so deeply my lungs felt singed. In the frozen food section, I found a piece of paper in my pocket with his number on it. The first time I called him, I invited him to my little nieceâ€™s birthday party. As a gift, he brought her a single feather from a hawk. We bounced with the kids on a big trampoline all afternoon and he jumped so high they said he looked like a beetle humming along against the blue sky. I never saw his eyes. He always wore dark glasses. When we went out, he kept his hat pulled low. Sometimes I would look up from my menu or from tying my shoe and he would be gone. All that remained was a fractal sheen, like August heat rising from the pavement. People would stare, but he was never bothered. If he could find a red wall or car, he liked to stand very still next to it and then jump out to scare passerby. He could play this way for hours, but at night I usually went home. I never told him, but after the sun set he faded into swooping, prickling shadows like the kind you get from pressing your fingers too hard into your eyes. He kept a notebook where he wrote down every time he bled. Once, while we were making dinner he sliced his hand on a potato peeler. He wrote it down immediately as a bloody constellation dripped onto the kitchen tiles.
It was the coldest night of winter when he called me saying he was going to kill himself. We met in our favorite park and he said he tried to bring me flowers but they had died in his hands. It was the only time I saw him cry and the tear slid down his cheek leaving a mark like a body being dragged across muddy linoleum. The funeral of the man made of red was a quiet affair, sparsely attended. I wore my long red coat as a gesture of farewell, but took it off before getting out of the car. They buried an empty casket and a neighbor told me she had seen his body wheeled to the ambulance. A paramedic noticed the body bag go slack and they unzipped it to reveal mounds of ash that scattered in the wind. That night I bit my nails to the quick. I pressed my fingers against one another, relishing the warm itch of pain it produced and admiring the raw red of blood just below the surface.
The Man Made of Red
Limbo Vinoad Senguttuvan
Dhania heard her father’s footsteps on the other side of the temple wall and scrambled to wipe the chalk marks off the stone tiles. It was just the sound of sandals scrapping against the gravel outside, but his throat-clearing and the pace of his stride-like he was always racing against the passing day— were giveaways. Scrubbing the uneven floor with her toes, Dhania removed most of the white markings, and then she squatted and ran her fingers over the smooth stone eliminating the last traces. Her father rounded the corner and entered the temple compound. He didn’t notice Dhania to his far right, about twenty feet away. His attention was focused on the deity straight ahead, deep inside the chambers. He brought his hands together and lifted them high above his head. Dhania watched his mumbling lips move in an exaggerated manner, as if he was chanting rapidly. She surveyed the floor, turning on the spot, pleased with her clean-up effort. The sun was high up, and the blob of her shadow twirled around her feet as she spun. That was when she noticed the smears of white on her fingers and toes. And she knew better than to wipe them on her navy-blue skirt, her school uniform. She looked around for a way out. “Shiva, Shiva.” Her father finished, tapping his cheeks with his crossed arms. “Do something about this drought, wouldn’t you?” Dhania spotted the remnants of dew on an uneven patch of grass and stepped over to it. She turned her back to her father, squatted once again and wiped her fingers between the blades. “What are you doing?” her father’s voice boomed. “Shitting?” The squat that came naturally to her lanky limbs was the posture of defecation, and that often led to irritation among adults and ridicule from classmates. Her left-handedness and sitting cross-legged didn’t help either. 70
She stood up, turned to face her father, and he regarded her. The day-old braids half-done with black ribbon snaking out of them. The school uniform that her mother had washed and pressed for Monday that Dhania just chose to wear that Sunday morning already soiled at knee, hem and shoulders. In return, she reciprocated, looking him up and down. His shirt, the saffron dhoti folded just above the knees, a ritual bead on his necklace. And for a second, a smile slipped under his moustache, but he firmed himself up. “What are you doing?” “Nothing.” “You were gone all morning. Were you here the entire time?” She nodded. “Doing what?” “Nothing. Just wandering.” A class trip, about a few weeks back, brought Dhania here for the first time, to this ignored and aged temple by the river bed. That day, as her classmates stood bowing in front of the dancing Shiva deity deep in the chamber, Dhania hopped around the vast temple grounds encased by a stone wall twice her height. After her one-bedroom house, narrow streets and overflowing buses, the open space and the stone facades etched with fading figures was liberating. She circled the temple grounds, which alternated between stone tiles and unkempt grass. And that was when she saw him, perched on the far end of the high wall, a bird so large she jolted back. His blue-green tail rustled in the midday wind, the tips of which she could touch on tip-toes. Dhania returned to the temple day after day, after school, heading a mile south instead of her home westward, and on weekend mornings too. Sealed away from town by the fortress-like wall, she made the temple grounds her own personal playfield, interrupted only by the bird. “I came looking for the peacock,” she said to her father. Possibly a good reason. “Where is he?” “I think he has a nest on that tree.” Dhania pointed toward the river. “He flies over the compound. And is not at all afraid of me—” “Did you pray?” Dhania considered lying, but her silence was taken as a negative. “Every place has a purpose, you come to the temple to pray. How many times do I have to tell you? Go to the river if you want to play.” She could argue. Her teacher had explained how ancient kings never built lavish palaces because invader will burn them down, but rather built massive temples that served the public and their activities. Every harvest
season, the monarchs would host galas and performances for the people. But today, her teacher had said, thrusting down her forefinger, in the 21st century, temples are reduced to petty rituals and sacrificial coconuts. “I’m going to the store for some mutton and turmeric,” her father said. “Say a quick prayer and come home for lunch.” He walked a few feet, refolded the hem of his dhoti and turned around. “And Dhania,” he said. “You mother isn’t feeling well. So no vegetable today. Don’t make a scene, just use the curry from the meat.” Dhania wanted to yell back. Why couldn’t she cook eggplant and skip the mutton? Instead, she squeezed the piece of chalk, letting the sprinkle of powder line the inside of her pocket. She wouldn’t give up. She would eat plain rice again, let them gorge on their meat. It was the family astrologer who had given her first nickname twelve years ago, just a few days after she was born, even before she got her real name. He looked at the planetary alignment at the time of her birth, a routine procedure, the verdict of which usually involved the pronouncement of future mansions, civil engineering degrees and parrot-like beauty. But bending down to her chart, his old spine did a double take and he placed his finger on the paper tracing round spheres. “See here,” he had said, pointing to no one in particular. “See how the major planets intersect and make the shape of an anvil?” He looked up at the half-dozen family members, to see if they realized the weight of the observation. He shrugged away the empty stares and continued, “This is a limbo baby, he could swing either way, become a great leader or a downright criminal. You have to be very strict and beat him if necessary—” “It’s girl,” her mother and aunt had said together. “Oh, that is good. Very good. I mean, how much harm could a girl do, right? You’re very lucky.” He snorted and said to himself, “I’ve never seen one of these personally, a limbo baby.” The name stuck, limbo baby. Her aunt called her that and then all her relatives too. The story of the astrologer and his surprise were exaggerated at the holiday gatherings. His eyes bulged to twice their size, they retold, pressing forefingers to thumbs to form large circles. It is all in good humor, her uncle said ruffling her hair, when Dhania sulked. No one believes these things. Yet she felt the constant eyes of her parents on her, watching and waiting for her to make a mistake, to slip up. She was never beaten, of course, but constantly reprimanded. For eating dosa with her left hand, for squatting, for drawing on the front porch, for not braiding her hair. And every such
incident only served to anger her and push her towards acts of retribution. She took to stealing—tobacco rolls from her uncle that she smoked in the sugarcane fields, sour candy, chalk, diabetes medicine, jasmine bunches and textbooks from classmates, which she piled in a ditch behind school. The next day Dhania headed to the temple as usual. She walked a dirt path along the river, the entire way canopied by overhanging banyan trees. The backpack was heavy on her shoulders, with books and a full lunchbox. She had traded her mother’s fish curry for two vegetarian lunches. Kids were happy to swap their whole lunch for half of hers. She ate the minced cabbage for lunch, and with the fried okra still in possession, she could stay out much longer. The bank made a sharp turn and the steep wall of the temple, its stones blackened on the edges, came into view. About a dozen boys were playing cricket in the middle of the riverbed. This time of the year, the river was bone dry, and all that remained on its bed was fine brown sand, like mounds of dirty chalk dust. “Dhania,” a stout boy called from the outfield. She squatted on the river bank and waited for him to approach from down below. Vikas was still wearing his white and navy-blue uniform, same as her, and his white shirt muddied with dirt and smears. “We are losing badly.” He said thumbing back to the game. “Wanna go pick mangos from my neighbor’s tree?” She shook her head, her ponytail—still retaining clumps of the former braids—swayed back and forth. In the weeks since she discovered the temple, Dhania had spent far less time with Vikas. “Are you going in there?” Vikas pointed to the temple. “What do you do?” Dhania fished out a chalk from her skirt pocket, its length diminished and blunted from use. “Huh,” he exhaled. “Hopscotch?” “Among other things.” “In the temple? Really? And you call me evil for eating mutton?” “That’s different.” Dhania had quit eating meat a few months ago. She doesn’t remember which came first, the principle or the gag effect. One day she devoured a goblet of fish curry, and on the next, the first bite of mutton made her throw up. “Why?” he said. “It’s just food.” Dhania was bored of this argument, a frequent one with her mother and relatives. But she didn’t want him to have the last word either. “You wouldn’t eat it if you had to kill the animal yourself, will you?” And
she walked away before her friend could respond. The peacock was on the grounds that day, sauntering with a high head, his neck making a waving motion. Dhania brought out a handful of rice and dry lentils from her skirt and tossed it in front of him. She petted the back of the pecking bird, resisting the urge to pluck a long feather off his back. Will he ever fan his tail, she wondered. Maybe with the monsoons. But even without a peahen? Dhania wished her mother could come to this temple to worship. Twice a week, she would drag Dhania to a Vishnu temple near their house-a squat tower housed in a small compound. The front porch and walkway surrounding the tower were cluttered with people smelling of sweat, chewing tobacco and fresh jasmine, and carrying a myriad of coconut and guava offerings. In school, Dhania learned that every god had his role, the creator, the god of knowledge, the destroyer, etc. In reality though, it was like fashion, people just a picked a temple, went there and did the same thing everyone else did. But of course if Dhania made the suggestion that they come to this temple instead, it wouldnâ€™t go well at all. Shiva the Destroyer? they would say, and she wouldnâ€™t hear the end of it. Dhania imagined how this temple would have been in its heyday, nine centuries ago. Her teacher talked of parades and performances, and of a special group of companion women, who lived in the temple and headed all the ceremonies. Dhania closed her eyes and imagined the burgundy silk the women would have draped around their shoulders and the clang-clang of their anklets as they danced before the king. And in war times, this place was turned into a fortress. Archers would line the walls and hand-operated canons would be setup on the grounds. Her teacher had pointed to footholds at the base of the tower, and now Dhania climbed using those, stretching herself from one groove to the next. The inlets were made for six foot men, not a twelve year old girl. But all that climbing of trees with Vikas helped, and she made it to an inlet about twenty feet up. From up high, she could see past the temple wall to the boys playing on the riverbed and further past the arching trees to the spread of farmlands tilled and waiting for the sugarcanes to be planted. Dhania was grounded the following evening for staying out past bedtime the day before. She sat with her notebook on the porch outside, and the air was heavy with heat even in the twilight breeze. From inside the house came the sound of pressure cooker and the smell of steamed lentils. The homework refused to get itself done. Dhania twisted the middle of her fountain pen until a drop of blue ink fell on the floor. She pressed her
finger to the stain and spread it on the brown cement floor. But the ink dried too fast, and in her frustration, Dhania took out her white chalk and went to work on a drawing. “I have a good mind to call the minister, that bastard’s son.” Her father’s voice came from inside the house. “We are planting this week and there is not a drop—” “The drought has been bad.” Her mother interrupted, tired of hearing the same old rant from her father every night. “They are saving the water for later months.” “Without the water, the sugarcane will have no sweetness—” “For that, you would let the crops die?” “It will rain before that, I have faith.” The easy chair creaked as he stood up. “And if the plants perish, the government will at least give some compensation money. What am I supposed to do with tractors full of sweetless sugar cane, huh?” “What are you doing?” Her father’s voice said from up close. Dhania looked up to see him standing by the doorway, a jute bag in his hand. What are you doing seemed to be how most conversations with her father began. Now her mother was by his side, looking over his shoulder. The porch was covered in chalk figures, curvy dancers with overly large hands and feet, their legs adorned with thick anklets. “What are you doing?” Her father said again. “My god,” her mother said. “She is drawing whores. It’s that teacher—” Her father turned around. “She doesn’t know what she is drawing. She is just copying what she saw inside the temple.” But Dhania knew. On the class trip, her teacher had got special permission and taken them to the top rooms of the temple tower to see the preserved paintings on the inner walls. And she had explained the social structures of that period to great detail. “Where did you get the chalk?” At school, the chalks and the blackboard were off limits to students. The class monitors had the privilege of using the dry eraser to wipe off the board, a benefit they doled out to friends in return for favors. But chalks were accounted for as if they were riffle bullets. How did Dhania land enough to waste on the porch drawings, was what her father wanted to know. Maybe he thought that was the more important issue to address. Or maybe it was the more manageable issue. Dhania shrugged and mumbled. Her mother went back to the kitchen. “I’ll deal with you when I come back.” And her father walked towards the center of town, to the grocery shop.
Dhania went the other way, towards the temple. On her way, she stopped at a neem tree and from its branches she broke off sticks, each about an arm’s length. At the temple, she climbed up the tower, slow-stepping on the footholds and clutching the handful of thin stick. Sitting on her usual perch, she fished out the pocket knife that she had stolen from Vikas and began sharpening the ends of the sticks. When finished, she counted seven pointy arrows and no bow. Lifting an arrow with her left hand, she clutched the middle and threw it like a javelin toward the empty riverbed glinting under the high moon. The spear took a short arc and went down to the grassy patch right below her, about a few feet away. The second attempt was no different. She needed a bow, but there was no way to haul one up here on her own, assuming she could find a bow. Vikas wouldn’t help. And none of that mattered because she wouldn’t be able to shoot an arrow past the temple wall anyway. And to think archers from this spot shot down attackers on the other side of the river. She felt small. The next evening Dhania was drawing entwined human figures with chalk, tracing some of the statues on the temple walls. Each day was now hotter than the one before. The patches of grass on the temple grounds were turning a rusty brown. As she stretched her arm, Dhania could smell a mix of sweat and sandalwood soap. Her stomach let out a pang of hunger. The fish her mother had packed that day was so dry and salty, her classmates gave a quick look and shrunk away. Dhania had emptied the entire lunchbox into the trash can and sipped off her water bottle. “Dhania.” She looked up to see Vikas enter the temple compound. Dhania let go of the chalk and smiled. Let’s go pick some mangos, she was about to say. Then she noticed another boy right behind Vikas. She didn’t know him, he was older and walked with his upper body thrust forward. Dhania stayed in her squatting position and watched the boys approach. Vikas with a smile of anticipation, and the other one self-assured and looming ever so larger. “Remember,” Vikas said, “how you said I wouldn’t eat meat if he had to do the slaughtering myself?” Dhania bit her lip. She was in no mood to argue. Not anything, definitely not that topic and not outnumbered and in the presence of an unknown older boy. She hadn’t eaten since morning and all she wanted was a piece of fruit, a fleshy mango, an unripe banana, she’d eat anything. Vikas’s smile widened, and Dhania braced herself for some long winded
argument. But she was unprepared for what came next. The other boy stepped forward. He didn’t look at Dhania, but stared straight ahead, and he blinked far less that the average person. “We own chicken,” he said, “and I kill them. I break their neck with my hands, the blood runs everywhere. Look.” He showed her the dull stains on his white shirt, his school uniform. Dhania leaned back as if she was fending an assault. While the older boy stared straight ahead, Vikas looked down at his feet. He kicked at the tiny gravel with his toes. “It is fine if you don’t want to eat meat, but don’t sit on the high horse.” Dhania felt a burning and clouding in her eyes. “Bastard sons,” she said standing up. “I just want to be good.” But actually, she just wanted to be left alone. Vikas stepped back and turned to his companion, who stood erect and unmoving. This probably wasn’t what Vikas intended, they had gone a bit too far. “Look at what temple you are in,” the other boy said. “If you would stop doing your silly drawings and think for a moment, you’ll see.” Then he turned around and began to walk. Vikas gazed from the Dhania to the boy and, not knowing what else to do, followed him. She watched them go, their loose shorts swaying around the back of their knees and their feet reddened by the dark soil. They disappeared around the entrance, and at a distance Dhania heard the faint shouts of the cricketers on the riverbed—the group that the two boys would probably join and play till the last light of the evening was used up. That night, at home, Dhania stayed awake to the sound of sleeping around her. She lay still on a straw mat, its fibers leaving their imprint on her arms and calves. In her palm, Dhania could still feel the weight of the arrows she had carved. What was she trying to do with them? She pictured the burly boy snapping the necks of chicken, their brown bodies lined out in a row. In her image, he worked in a familiar rhythm with a bored distant glance, the way Dhania’s mother snapped off the tips of okra before sautéing them. Everyone seemed to have their place and looked comfortable with their status. But whatever her deeds, Dhania felt that wasn’t her true self. All she wanted was for her life and actions to matter, to mean something, whatever that may be. How to crawl out of the limbo, to one side or the other, she wondered. Is it true, there isn’t much a girl could do? The next morning, she carried her stolen possessions in a jute bag and dumped them into the pit piled with books—the pieces of chalk, the tobacco, medicines and dried rose petals. Then she lit a match and dropped it in the
pit, only to watch it scar the cover of middle school biology before extinguishing. Again and again it happened. She tried tossing a lit tobacco roll, but that merely smoldered in a corner. She clasped lumps of red soil in the palm of her hands, tossed them into the pit in a ritual burial and walked away. In the temple that evening, for the first time, she kicked off her sandals and climbed the steps to the inner chamber, where the deities were housed. The chamber was so dark, she was blind. Dhania slow-stepped inward, feeling the cold rough stone with her feet. After a minute, the shape of a sitting bull came to view—the gatekeeper of Shiva. Further inside, she saw the dancing form of the god, encased in a circle the size of her outstretched arms. This deity was made of bronze aged with time. She breathed in hard, inhaling the lingering camphor and incense from bygone rituals. She had come to pray, but couldn’t. Instead she reached over the railing toward the statue—a forbidden act. Her hand pulled back, fingers inches away. But in a swift motion, she leaned forward and kissed the deity, pressing her lips to the right shoulder. She tasted burnt oil, butter and turmeric —offerings that had been poured over the head of the statue. Back outside, she tossed a hand full of grains to the peacock and climbed up the side of the tower to her usual perch. She watched the bird peck away the grain down below and the boys playing on the riverbed, two running to catch a high ball, only to collide into each other and the ball landing on the sand untouched. She bit her lips, still feeling the grease from the deity and a new sense of elation. She unbraided her hair and instead of making a ponytail she dropped the black ribbon, watching it sway down. She loosened her hair, letting the wind flay it over her face. From the corner of her eyes, she saw something move on the river bed at the far bend. Like a large animal. It was a swarm of branches, twigs and pieces of colored fabrics rolling forward, as if pushed by a wild wind. And then she caught the glimmer, like powdered glass in the sun. Water! They must have opened the dam miles west, sending water for the sowing, and the stream was rushing forward to regain its due. Unaware, the boys played, bickering and laughing. She screamed, but they were too far away, the wind taking her sounds backwards, away from them. She flayed her arms, hoping the motion will catch their eyes, to no avail. She could run to them, but that meant climbing down the tower, running the length of the wall to the entrance and then back around to them. There wasn’t enough time. Besides, she couldn’t take her eyes off the flood, its rolling gluttonous march. The batsman broke off his stance and pointed to the bend. Every head turned to that direction, legs frozen and right arm lifted forward. One began
to run toward the bank and the rest followed, their feet slowed by the sand, rushing, stumbling, regaining balance. By now, the water was over their bare feet and covering their ankles, rising fast. Dhania searched for her friendâ€™s face and found him in the last bunch. Two boys climbed up the bank and began pulling up the rest. Covering half their calves, the force of the stream was pushing them downstream. The last group, half wading, half swimming reached the bank a dozen feet further down. Some lay panting on the ground, while a couple studied the faces, as if making sure everyone was safe. Dhania turned to the water, looking for a bobbing head or splashing limbs. All she saw beside the debris were stumps, two cricket bats, a yellow ball and half-dozen flip-flops, floating, drifting downstream and out of sight. The boys departed in pairs, some in silence and others in animated conversation. Dhania was left on her perch and down below was a full stream gushing away, as if it had always been there, always moving toward the sea. That was when she noticed her own panting breath, the remnants of an inconsequential effort. She climbed down the steeple and walked back into the inner chamber, but she stepped back before her eyes could adjust to the darkness. There was nothing for her in there. She sat on the side of the steps, dangling her feet, brushing the floor with her toes. The peacock scurried next to her with short clucking sounds. Dhania dug into her pocket and produced the last grains of rice and lentils, scattering it in front of the bird. As the bird bent down to peck, she jumped on his back and reached for his neck. Her palm closed on delicate feathers and thick muscle. The bird struggled under her. Dhania strangled and tugged simultaneously, squeezing her palms together and yanking them. The peacock grew stiff, his legs squatted and the rustle of the long feathers stopped. Surprised by the silence, Dhania paused for a moment and then pressed harder. In a single motion, the bird rose up and swung to the side, and Dhania found herself slipping off the peacock and felt the ground thump against her back. She laid there, back to the ground, a peacock blue sky with chalky clouds flitting in and out of focus. Next to her, the bird continued to peck at the grains she had tossed, his face bending next to her and as he turned around, his tail feathers brushed over her face, tickling her nostrils.
is the author of three story collections, Getting to Know the Weather, which won the GLCA Award for First Fiction, The Long and Short of I, and Wouldn’t You Like to Know. She is also the co-author of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Five Points, Harper’s, Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, and Ploughshares, among others and in numerous anthologies. She has received grants from The Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, has won three Pushcart Prizes and Agni Review’s The John Cheever Award for Fiction. Painter’s stories have been presented on stage by Word Theater, Stage Turner, and Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. Painter lives in Boston and teaches in the Emerson College MFA Program.
Your Letter In An Envelope In The Mail I never expected to see your handwriting again, but I’d recognize it anywhere even after all these years. A short letter, but it is oddly all still there. The frenetic, unpredictable hodgepodge of printing and script. The narcissism of the ornate capital letters—except for your lazy disinclination to flow with the capital F when a demonstrably intelligent right angle will do. The jovial belly of the lowercase f, the fat loops of the lowercase g, q, j, p, and y spreading exuberance, chatting up the line below. The ungenerous rendering of contained vowels. The dots of the i often off elsewhere. Your empathetic t’s—mirroring the dash of all those mad dashes. The parsimonious h—more like a t and needing a revised stroke to provide its rounded tummy. Oh you revised. And now? In spite of the way we parted years ago, tell me when and where—no, write me a note, another note with date and time and place. If I am still affected by your hand, I’ll come.
Snap Judgement “Two mice drowned in the toilet,” he told her, then immediately he wondered what made him mention or even think of that? They were flat on their backs in his bed after making love. Languorously drying. It was the middle of the day. Ordinarily after sex he would be thinking of French toast, bacon, or smoked salmon and her soft-scrambled eggs with chives. The Times. “So I bought traps. Two traps. Three days later, I caught two more.” The traps were those that snap. “Snap.” He explained the virtue of snap versus poison or glue boards. Glue boards were cruel, poison also. She pulled the covers up to her shoulders. “What do you have against mice?” she asked. “Mouse turds in my skillets, and they gnaw the electric wiring and burn the house down. They carry disease. I’m up to number nine,” he said. “You?” she said, “you!” He felt her turn on her side to study him, the mouse murderer. “You know,” she said. “There are statistics—ratios of mice caught to those still, so to speak, roaming free. In your house.” He knew almost everything but he didn’t know this. “For every mouse you kill—snap—you can be sure there are seven more flitting about your kitchen, nesting in the walls, doing what we’re doing. Did.” She lifted the covers to peek at their mutually satisfied selves. Then she continued, “A buck mouse can impregnate four doe mice in one day, then each doe has four kits—you’re doing the math right—and that happens every third week.” “Sixty-three mice. You’re telling me that at minimum I still have sixty-three mice in my house?” “Not all the same age, of course,” she said. He imagined nightly forays for food, scrabbling in his beloved iron skillets, nibbles out of his soap. Was she pulling his leg? Telling one of her tales? She barely knew anything. “Doe mice?” he asked. “How do you—”
“Whatever. Yes, sure. Right now they’re probably listening to us. They heard everything we did. They probably watched. We probably turned them on,” she said. “So of course quite a few are pregnant,” he said. Then he turned to her to see if he’d passed muster. “Right,” she said, smiling, as if he were catching on. “Oh, fun. Done.” He pulled her in close to him, fitted her hips to his. Cozy, warm. From the kitchen, together, they heard “Snap.”
Air Show There are twenty of us in the Captain’s office, brainstorming new tricks, slick formations for the show. “Attendance is down,” the Captain says and we know what’s coming. Nervous talk about Medina’s fiery crash at the Phoenix fairgrounds last July. His plan peeled off the tightest V formation ever flown and headed straight for the lowest, nearest mountain. They said the crowd’s gasp near scorched the grass on the landing field. His crash made page one in every paper but The New York Times. My girlfriend tucked the clippings into the back of the album she keeps on me. “You guys need to really get it on,” the Captain says, his chin deep in Air Force medals. “Hell, we get any tighter,” Gates says, “our wings’ll be kissing pilots’ asses just before we all explode.” He is folding paper airplanes that are tight with angry creases and aerodynamic precision. Gates and me, we sometimes sit over a beer and talk about getting out, maybe into commuter runs or civilian cargo. We joke about flying real slow to Peoria or Peru. “Can’t Design give us multicolor exhaust, Walt Disney colors?” Banko says. And Hennesy, “Let’s fly that rock star who looks like Marilyn Monroe.” “Or hire all those out-of-work Russian astronauts,” Mendez says. The rest of us chime in saying get the President to sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” or hey, we could scramble in a snowstorm—if anyone would come. Gates wings a paper plane at each of us, and finally, after more dumb, desperate suggestions, we wind down. “Truth is,” the Captain says, “I got my order yesterday. We gotta do what we gotta do.” He squares his shoulders as he says this and slaps his cap upside down on his desk, settling everything. Soon, it’s bristling with twenty folded, crip white slips. We jostle slowly into line like last time. Gates is first to take a slip. In slow motion, he unfolds it and takes a look,
then protocol, he holds it up for all to see. Nodding, he refolds it fast and better, to make and unmarked plane winging wild with relief and joy. One by one we shuffle forward. Banko waves his slip under the Captain’s nose, saying, there ought to be twenty-one slips in the pot. The only time he could get away with insubordination. Halfway through, it’s my turn. I take a slip and slide my thumb in to the undo fold. I hold it up to show the buck stopped here. With a shrug I tell Gates everything: that it’s too late for me to get out now, that he has to do Peoria for both of us. Because, now, in the few weeks left before we fly El Paso, now it’s just me competing with Medina, me thinking up my own last, best show.
First Night of Married Life He said I can’t believe it’s really over? She said were we required to stay to the end? He said did you see your Aunt Harriet take off with two of the rose centerpieces before the reception finished. She said I thought your father was supposed to pick up the liquor tab. He said no, only the rehearsal dinner. She said I didn’t know it was just going to be appetizers followed by appetizers though there was lots of wine. He said I think your cousinthe-chef nabbed the leftover case of Burgundy. She said Bordeaux. It’s probably on the restaurant’s video cam. He said if your mother hadn’t picked a dickhead society photographer he wouldn’t have been stranded in Venice. She said your sister repeatedly assured us that her adorable threeyear-old ringbearer would not drop our wedding rings. He said I told you it should have been a child-free wedding. She said we forgot family-free. He said it was my family that was outnumbered. She said your mother’s neckline was much too low as the mother of the groom. He said out of bounds. She said really! He said your mother had her fingers all over the wedding. She said at least one hand was writing out checks. Well I would have chosen a different best man if I’d known your brother would get a Mohawk two days before the wedding. She said wasn’t your cousin supposed to be in charge of transportation for the out-of-town, out-of-country guests? Get them places on time. He said how could my cousin know that the patriarch of your family had somehow gotten himself locked in the bathroom? She said which friend recommended that awful band? He said your maiden aunt evidently needed to, as they say, cut loose, and the band probably helped. She said “cut loose” with your gigolo uncle. He said how did we end up with, with— you know, those flowers they always have at funerals. She said you mean the chrysanthemums your mother’s florist sent as a gift. He said what are we going to do with all the Tiffany vases. She said they are more useful than the Scottish coat of arms from your fraternity brothers. Especially since I’m
keeping my maiden name. He said weâ€™ll have a garage for the coat of arms. She said and the Tiffany vases. He saidâ€Ś nevermind. She said right, we can take it all back.
Chance Encounter at LAX Dear X, Your plane about to leave; my plane about to leave. Each for a different coast. Final boarding calls minutes away. Only time enough for two glasses of ice water in a bar that is not scheduled to open for another hour, served by a sympathetic bartender alert to the minutes passing. What did we talk about? There was no time to ask about your twins, are they still speaking only to each other, to ask if you still reread James every summer or who you are reading now, and when did you gain weight, is your dean still obsessed with outcomes assessment, does your mother-in-law still add to your tie collection every year, do you still wear a tie, were you wearing a tie that day? How new is your computer or do you still write by hand? Did you make the move from violin to fiddle? Do you still dislike Penderecki? Who chose the cover for your latest book? Do you still ask for a Tanqueray martini with three olives? Doodle Escher-like sketches on reports and cocktail napkins? Are your house plants still only cacti? Did you give away the puppies form the next litter? Do you remember the time—? Do you recall the way—? Do you ever wish—?
The Kiss No one can guess so she finally tells us. Actually Mona doesn’t tell, she sticks out her tongue at us and there it is—a gold ball the size of a small pea, sitting in the creased rose lap of her glistening tongue. We all lean forward form our pillows on the floor, seven of us, the wrung out remnants of a grad party in the low-candle stage. Inge asks Mona where she got it done (Cambridge as an undergrad), Raphi our host asks her why (she likes something in her mouth), my boyfriend wants to know what it tastes like (no taste). We’re still peering into her mouth so she lifts her tongue slowly, the rosy tip pointing up toward sher nose. There on the silky downward slope is another gold ball. “A bah-bell,” she says, her tonue still showing off. And it is. A tiny gold barbell piercing her tongue. We settle back into our pillows and she closes her mouth. My boyfriend, a chef at Valentino’s, is probably wondering which tastebuds sit in the middle of the tongue and if they are affected and how. Inge, the etymologist, is mouthing the word tongue, no doubt marveling at how the tongue loves to say that word. I can tell we’re all wondering something. Our tongues feel heavy in our mouths, empty except for the privileged gold fillings and ivory bondings of the middle class. It occurs to me that Mona’s not able to enjoy her barbell. Enjoy the way the tip of my tongue visits a rough molar, soothes a canker sore moistly healing on its own, or wetly licks the hairy friction of chapped lips. I say I wonder what it’s like to kiss her? Everyone shifts and nods as if they were wondering the exact same thing. We turn to the man Mona came with who shrugs and says he doesn’t know. They just met three hours ago at Huddle’s Publ. Well, who’s going to kiss her? Inge says.
We all look first to the man she came with and then at the other eligible male. No one counts mine, which disappoints him and he lets it show. The man she came with weighs thirteenth century Inca bones after reducing them to ashes in an autoclave the size of a toaster. Raphi, our host, is a religion major—the Hellenistic culture—who thinks the world is fast approaching non-religious end. “I’ll kiss her,” he offers, then defers to the man she came with. “Wait a minute. Maybe not,” Jorie says, holding up her hand. She and I are in gender studies. “Don’t you think we should run it by Mona first?” We all turn belatedly to Mona. “Oh,” she says, “It’s all right with me.” The gold ball doesn’t show when she talks. I wonder if it makes a dent in the roof of her mouth. The man she came with says “I’ll kiss her.” Neither man is looking at Mona. “You choose,” Inge says to Mona. Mona shrugs and points to Raphi. “You offered first.” He grins. In perfect synch, they both stand up. “No, do it here,” we all say, “here in front of us.” But we needn’t have worried; they had no intention of leaving. Monda and Raphi face each other above us. They are the same height. Mona’s hands rest on the hips of her black jeans, her elbows jut out, claiming space to equal Raphi’s greater weight. He has his hands deep in his pockets. We are all aware of his hands in his pockets. They stand inches apart—two inches apart. She tilts toward him first, just her shoulders and head, and then he catches her tilt, catches her mouth with his mouth. They kiss. They kiss tenderly and well for two people who have just met. Their heads glide with their mouths and their shoulders move ever so slightly. I imagine his tongue filling her mouth, sliding toward the ball, searching, pressing, perhaps turning it, rolling it; her tongue letting him. I imagine her hands aching to touch the other person but refraining as if to abide by some set of rules. No one looks away. Minutes, but probably seconds, later they stop. “It’s pretty far back,” Raphi says and we all swallow with him. Mona turns and sticks out her tongue to show us she thinks not, and we see it’s not so far, really. Perhaps and inch and a half. She turns back to Raphi and they kiss again and we all watch them kiss, even better the second time: harder, deeper, her tongue and his tongue, her generously letting him, that slight tilt, their scrupulous hands. They pull away. We have all been holding our breath. Well?
They settle themselves cross-legged and facing each other. I imagine another night such as this for them, moving away from the kiss toward the questions and answers of getting to know someone, and that moment when they invite their hands to join their kiss. We listen as Raphi describes to Mona the amazingly hard muscle of her tongue, the cool surprise of the tiny gold ball, the flick past the ball underneath. They tilt toward each other. Raphiâ€™s hands talk. Monday is smiling that smile. Sheâ€™s got what she wanted. The man she came with leaves first. My boyfriend leaves with me, but we got home separately. We all go home with something missing on our tongue.
Twins Our house is hopping when I get in from Little League. The Hennesseys, Cardulos, people up and down the street are sitting on the porch with no drinks and the dog is going apeshit in the basement. Dad says the Vinales were in an accident. Mrs. Vinales is still under observation, but doing well considering. Mr. Vinales’ leg has already been operated on. Vinny, the twin with the missing front tooth is being “prepared”—Mrs. Hennessey’s word— at Spassky’s Funeral home across town. Dad’s hand rests heavy on my shoulder when he tells me Bobby, the other twin, is in my bedroom. We’re waiting for his uncle from Toledo to take him home. He says Bobby asked to play my drums. I picture busted snares, splintered drumsticks and double time the stairs. My door is closed and Mom is singing Bobby “The Little Brown Fox” even though our whole family knows his favorite word is fuck. Saturday nights I babysit the twins. To find out which is which I tickle them. Vinny has the missing front tooth; Bobby’s grin is all white and sharp. I dig my fingers into their ribs till they howl. Bobby is poking my drumsticks into his snotty nose. I sit at the bottom of the bed where his feet can’t reach me. Mom gives me the eye—like I’ll know what to say. When she leaves, I tap Bobby’s shoes as if I’m playing the drums. We both start to sniffle. I tell him it’s OK. I promise him no tickling ever again. I tell him he won’t even have to smile.
Confusing the Dog My wife and I, we have this game we play called “Confusing the Dog.” My wife, she plays the game, knows all the rules, but she doesn’t know I named it. I named it about the time I realized we were hooked—us and the dog. The game goes like this: Every few weeks or so, I go to bed or my wife goes to bed and the first one there changes sides. Then the other one comes in. We don’t have a plan or pattern, it just happens. “Well, now, it’s been a while,” my wife might say when she sees me on her side of the bed. “Just get in bed,” I’ll say, lifting the covers. Or it might go like this: “So, tonight’s the night,” I’ll say. Now, see, she’s changed to my side. “Just get in bed,” she’ll say. The other one can tell immediately because whoever made the trade has already moved the pillows and magazines. We read at night or watch TV. Sometiems my wife tears out recipes or coupons and sorts them into bright piles that crinkle between us on the bed. I catch up on Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Maybe check out the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. On “Confusing the Dog” nights we don’t read or anything, we turn out the lights and wait. Pretty soon the dog realizes the rest of the house is empty and all activity, what little there is, has moved to the bedroom. So the dog trots in, his nails clicking on the bare floor, and he looks for his place on the bed. He cocks his head at us and sniffs, wagging his tail. It’s like he knows something’s up. Then he begins to travel back and forth and back and forth around the bed. The tip of his long tail moves just above the horizon line of the blankets like a shark’s fin in dangerous waters. Without even touching her, I can feel my wife lying quiet and tense beside me as if she’s praying or something. The dog’s this shaggy cross between a golden retriever and a lab. A light
molasses color. We got the dog about two years ago at the pound. “Someone must have dropped him off at the interstate,” they said. “No collar or tags on him or nothing.” They thought he was about ten or eleven. “He’s so friendly and well-trained, sometimes we let him out of his cage just for company,” they said. My wife took to him the minute he nuzzled her hand and wagged that long bushy tail. “Look at those eyes,” she said, kneeling down to where her eyes were almost even with his, running her hand the length of his amber coat. “He acts like he was here waiting for us,” she said. “Not many people want an older dog,” they said. So that was it. He went home with us that very day. We got an older dog because just the week before we found out that we couldn’t have kids and my wife didn’t want a puppy right then. I can understand that. We got him in the summer before my wife returned to work. She cooks mornings at the regional high school. Afternoons she’s mostly home with the dog. “Confusing the Dog” started when I twisted my ankle at a Saturday basketball game. I been away from organized ball almost 15 years now, but I still go down to the gym on Saturdays for pick-up games with the guys from the plant. Maybe a few lessons for the St. Francis kids. I was the best point guard our high school ever had. I kept the ball low and moving and still do. I dribble it off the tips of my fingers, never allowing it to touch my palms. Tap-bounce. Tap-bounce. Either hand. For me, the real power is keeping it in play. Points only make it more real. Well, one weekend I sprained my ankle going in for a lay-up. I came down hard and there went the old ankle. Blew up like a kid’s balloon. The guys rushed me to the emergency room and then brought me home with crutches and two six-packs. My wife held the door wide open. “What happened to you?” she said. “He’s out of commission for a while,” they told her. We all shuffled past as the dog barked and ran around nosing at the crutches and my bandaged ankle. That night when I was hobbling into bed I told her how the doctor said to keep my ankle elevated and quiet and what’s when I suggested we trade places. Ever since we got married, I’ve been sleeping between my wife and the bedroom door—sleeping that way through two apartments and one house It’s as if I’ll be on hand to protect her from a burglar or something. I imagine all guys sleep this way, waiting for a crash in the night, or a big shape to fill up the doorway. I imagine women sleep tuned in to smaller sounds. Raccoons in the garbage cans, squirrels on the roof, or babies crying to be changed or fed. I think my wife still sleeps this way even though
we won’t be having any kids—unless a baby comes along for adoption before the agency decides we’re too old. The lady with the glasses and all the paperwork said she couldn’t make any promises. My wife got the room all ready— painted it bright yellow, mad curtains—but nothing’s happened yet. So, we switched places that night for the first time, me with my foot bandaged and stiff, propped up on pillows like a beacon. My wife put my crutches and magazines beside me on her table and the remote for the TV, then she got into bed real careful. In the dim light of our bed lamps the dog went crazy. He traveled back and forth and back and forth. He sleeps in the crook of my wife’s knees, between her and the wall. But that night he wouldn’t find his place. He kept seeing me, probably smelling my fear that he’d pounce on my ankle. “Maybe we should keep the dog out tonight,” I said. “Good idea,” she said. She started getting out of bed real careful like again, then suddenly the dog got wise. He let out a bark and jumped up and got himself settled in between us, this big dog, although it took awhile for him to adjust to the warmer wall—me. We slept that way for almost a month. Like everything else, ankles take a while to heal. Then one night my wife said, “Let’s change back” and the same thing happened. Back and forth and back and forth. Tonight, again, I’m feeling restless. When my wife comes in, she notices immediately. “It’s been a while,” I say from her side of the bed. I am sitting up against the headboard, sheets tucked tight beneath my arms. She laughs. “The dog loves it.” My wife is always game. She pulls on one of my old T-shirts and climbs in. I turn off the light. As we listen for the dog, I grope for her hand beneath the sheet. I scratch her palm a little like I used to—it’s been a long time for other things too. She gives my hand squeeze and I begin to hope. Then she pats it and lets it go. We wait for the dog. Sure enough, pretty soon the dog comes along and back and forth and back and forth. We are both tense, listening. The dog is getting older now and he’s been showing signs of arthritis in his joints. So my wife gives him hints. She whispers his name. She pats the bed down behind her knees. I feel the comforter flatten and puff, flatten and puff. Suddenly the dog heaves himself up with a bark and flops down in the space between us. Hair flies everywhere. He scratches. He slobbers and smells bad. He snores. He sleeps long after we get up, get dressed. Sometimes he whimpers in his sleep. I worry about the dog. I worry about us.
Donald C. Welch III
is from Boston, Massachusetts. He received his BFA in Writing, Literature, & Publishing from Emerson College and is interested in exploring new mediums for poetry such as @SocialLit (https://twitter.com/SocialLit). His poetry and essays have appeared in Passages North, Concrete, Rare Breed, Catharsis and as the 2013-2014 Senior Feature in The Emerson Review. His collection of children’s poetry Who Gave These Flamingos Those Tuxedos? was published by Wilde Press in 2013. In his free time Donnie searches for the best Eggplant Parm sub.
Eat Your Heart Out, Kid I want to die happy. Hear that symphony of angels my Driver’s-Ed teacher believes in. I want to waltz my way through those pearly gates, give Pete a high-five or say some speakeasy password because this is The Great Beyond, baby. Scientists believe there’s a chemical ensuring death happens this way. These visions of heaven people see and come back from and write books about are hallucinations trigged by our brains helping us accept our own passing, making dying easier. And why shouldn’t it be? Living isn’t simple, so why not let dying be smooth? Let’s ease our way out. Sit back and relax. Who cares if the trumpets aren’t really there? We can hear them striking up a familiar tune.
Buddha Statue in Rural Indiana Not a pristine Mahayanist shrine, but a trailer park beside Interstate 65. You sit, weather worn with scratches, an onyx statue on unmowed lawn. You look so strange in this place, in Christian landâ€”flat and compliant. Everything here is exposed. People defend themselves against the vulnerability of their geography. These arenâ€™t New Age college students, or middle class ex-hippie idealists. People living here have tornado seasons, and understand the futility of attachment. Storms and outsourcing sweep everything away from them. Have you come here to learn? You have nothing you can teach these people.
Ms. Pac-Man For B. Crawford There’s never been a way out, just more levels. But here you are, running around corners, in that glamorous, neon pink bow. Proving a game has meaning even if there’s no winning. Following flickers of light, a path of stars, hoping they lead you to one bright enough for a chance to chase your ghosts, rather than always letting them follow you. Setting new high scores on the machine, leaving your initials for future generations to see like a constellation. Showing them there’s greatness in the absence of victory. Looking for a lover, an Ariadne with cherry lips who’ll call you Theseus and laugh with you at the silly sacrifices people make. Asking only that you love her even after you escape.
Zen in the Art of Beer Pong 1. Sitting in the recreated Buddhist temple at the MFA I contemplate how life’s been going recently. Six months ago I felt like the people I trusted betrayed me. The Buddha would tell me to let that go. But when I tried, it didn’t work. Six months ago I also realized everything I own, even my body, can be compartmentalized, packed away into boxes. While moving my apartment I wondered if storing my mother’s Christmas present away in Rhode Island meant I was leaving her in Providence, too? I wondered why we attach our memories of people to the objects they leave us? Coping with their absence by creating a new presence. But sitting here, now, in the museum display, all I’m thinking is: I want to play a game of beer pong against the Buddha. We’ll set up our ten cup racks, two triangles facing each other, and on my orange table cloth it’ll look more like a religious ceremony than a drinking game. When we go eye to eye for first shot, he’ll win then promptly remind me there is no I, talking shit the only way he knows. 2. Two months ago, my best friend’s father unexpectedly died. I said nothing, I kept silent while I hugged him and we both cried. I tried recalling Buddha’s approach to death. Sadness reflects attachment, a desire to cling to life, to change what is final and beyond our grasp.
I realized then, I wasn’t betrayed. I just liked the way grudges kept me grounded. In retrospect, I probably had it coming, that’s how Karma works, right? Maybe not, sometimes the universe has it out for people only because they exist. And for all of our wishes nothing changes, the truth doesn’t become any different. Now I’m in front of the Buddha. He’s relaxed on a golden lotus, a single, bright, display light illuminating the huge statue, smiling at the relativity of human suffering, finding comfort in the belief that losing all attachment brings happiness. I imagine this same smile on his face while I explain the rules of beruit to him. Demonstrating behind the back shots and comparing re-racking to reincarnation. Watching him nod patiently as I tell him about “balls back,” how he gets to shoot again if he makes both cups. 3. We take for granted that the opposite of Love is Hate, but this isn’t true. The opposite of Love is Grief. Loving is being overwhelmed by someone’s presence and grieving by their absence. But both are moments at which you aren’t afraid to show the most intimate side of yourself to strangers. So it stands that in the face of grief the only thing left to find is love. It is the rule of balance: once you reach one extreme, you begin again toward the other. Death didn’t teach me to accept non-attachment, it taught me how much I didn’t want to lose the people I love. Shit talking, I’d tell Buddha, you got it wrong. Attachment is all humanity’s ever had. All I’ve ever needed are friends with futons and hearts they are always willing to unfold to make more room whoever needs them. Keep your enlightenment. When I inevitably hit his middle cup, he’ll call me on it and I’ll say in reply: There is no bitch cup, only the illusion of pride. Drink motherfucker! Laughing he’d remove the cup, drink, then gesture toward the empty space in the table left by the cup.
4. I now believe we hang onto photographs, sweatshirts, and the random junk our loved ones give us for the same reason people made these statues and genuflected before them or why I spend my weekends looking at art in a museum. We don’t mind death, we just don’t want people to disappear. We don’t trust our memory, and for good reason, they’re the most unreliable thing we have. We only trust our sense, we need something we can see, hear, touch. Despite a person’s absence, we feel the presence of others. This how we heal. Or at least how we start again. It’s still not proof life goes on after death, but at least it’s proof that the living don’t have to suffer alone. When the Buddha finally beats me, being the master after all, I won’t ask him for a rematch, I’ll accept defeat, greeting his smile with my own and recite that age old American koan: Win or lose, it’s how you play the game.
Hospital Bed Tom isn’t afraid of dying. A church-goer all his life, he’s ready to meet Christ and see his wife again for the first time since May. The rheumatoid arthritis had gotten worse. His toes all curled into each other, digging backwards into the balls of his feet, so the doctors went in and broke each individual bone, then straightened them back out with pins. Tom says, “The pins in my toes make me feel like Jesus.” He smiles at how close he feels to his savior. Shrugging off the pain, Tom says, “It feels just like cracking your knuckles,” says, “It’s kind of relieving in a weird way.” The fluorescent lights make everything look so strange and bright. When Tom wakes up and thinks he’s in Heaven. Then, seeing it’s still just a hospital, Tom laughs and says, “Well, at least I’m dressed in white, that ought to count for something. ”
Grocery Shopping with a Vietnam Veteran Donâ€™t leave him alone in the seafood section where the red body of a snapper is laid out on a pile of ice, sleek and greasy from all the fish oil, eyes staring up through the Plexiglas, mouth open as though asphyxiated.
Executive Staff Jessica Slavin a BFA Writing, Literature, & Publishing major who is minoring in Photography. When she tells people this they usually question her sanity. The only things she knows for sure are: she wants a dog and the oxford comma shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Ashleigh Heaton is a Writing, Literature, and Publishing student at
Emerson College. Born and raised in Coppell, Texas, she escaped to Boston to pursue her dreams to work in trade publishing and ended up becoming a Red Sox fan in the process. She can tell you more than you need to know about comic books and Sailor Moon, so it’s best not to get her started in the first place. Seriously. Just, like...don’t.
Allison Trujillo is Co-Managing Editor and Assistant Poetry Editor of
this magazine, Prose Editor of Concrete Literary Magazine, and Junior Slam Master of the Emerson Poetry Project. She has represented Emerson College at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational for the past two consecutive years, and she WILL be the one to tell you that the Brontosaurus never existed.
Madelyn Reese is pursuing her BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing
at Emerson College. She is an avid hiker and runner, and loves being able to do these things in her favorite state of Montana. She is a staff writer and photographer for WERS.org and enjoys journaling with pen and paper in her free time.
Brady Detwiler is a Writing, Literature & Publishing major who has been
working on The Emerson Review for two years. He hails from the suburb of Wilmington, Massachusetts where he cultivated an unhealthy and unwarranted angst which he now uses to write short fiction and nonfiction. When not reading and writing, he loves to play basketball and drink caramel swirl ice coffees from Dunkin Donuts.
Meaghan O’Brien is a senior WLP whose special talents include incoherent, late-night tweeting and excessive tea consumption. The book-
shelf above her computer has a Jim Henson biography, Kant, Morrissey’s autobiography, and too many books about androids. Make of that what you will.
Libby Webster is graduating from Emerson in May of 2014 with a BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing.... AKA hurtling into the great unknown.
Gabrielle Tyson is a lover of the snarky and outrageous when it comes to
poetry (and, you know, life). She likes to imagine herself reading said poetry while lounging against a tree in the Public Gardens, Wordsworth-style, but can in fact usually be found sitting on her butt in sweatpants, reading poetry and eating Doritos.
Sara Selevitch is a senior WLP major. She is currently completing her nonfiction thesis, interning at DigBoston, dabbling in performance art, and finding time to eat as much pizza as her body will allow. Her work can be found in The Emerson Review, Gauge Magazine, DigBoston, and hanging on her parent’s refrigerator.
Megan Foster is a Sophomore WLP always banging her head against an
empty notebook hoping the thing will write itself. Pie Jesu Domine. Dona eis Requiem.
Contributors Other stories from Jill Birdsall’s collection Salvage can be read in Alaska Quarterly Review, American Fiction, Ascent, Chicago Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Gargoyle, Iowa Review, Kansas Quarterly Review, Madison Review, Painted Bride Quarterly Review, Potomac Review, South Dakota Review, Southern Humanities Review and Story Quarterly. She is currently finishing a novel set in Sea Bright, New Jersey. To read more, visit www.jillbirdsall.com.
Vinoad Senguttuvan is a writer, photographer and data scientist in New
York. He has an MFA from the University of Miami. He has worked for the animation studio that made “Ice Age” and “Horton Hears a Who”. His short stories have been published at SoMa Literary Review, Ducts and Word Riot. His photography and art+writing installations were featured in juried shows in Miami and New York.
Richard Prins is a New Yorker who sometimes lives in Dar es Salaam.
He received his MFA degree in poetry from New York University. His work appears in publications like Baltimore Review, Los Angeles Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Rattle, Redivider and Thrush Poetry Journal.
Cynthia Hawkins teaches creative writing at The University of Texas at
San Antonio and serves as Editor of Arts and Culture at the online literary magazine The Nervous Breakdown. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Good Men Project, ESPN the Magazine, Stymie Magazine, Crossborder, and Passages North as well as the anthology The Way We Sleep.
Wynne Hungerford’s work can or will soon be found in the Tulane Review, The Evansville Review, The Whitefish Review, The South Carolina Review, The Weekly Rumpus, Pif Magazine, Pilgrimage Magazine, edible Upcountry, the anthology What We Remember, What We Forget, and Montana Public Radio’s program Reflections West.
Sara Selevitch is a senior at Emerson College. Her interests include
expression, irreverence, serendipity, giggling, snacking, hand holding, asking questions, fuzzy blankets, tiny flowers, sunshine, and intuition.
Frank Scozzari lives in Nipomo, California, a small town on the central
coast. He is an avid traveler and once climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa. A Pushcart Prize nominee, his short stories have appeared in many literary journals and have been featured in literary theater.
Ellyn Touchette is a performance poet from Portland, Maine. She has represented Port Veritas at both the 2013 National Poetry Slam and Women of the World Poetry Slam. Her work is present or forthcoming in The Ghost House Review, Wicked Banshee, and The Open Field. Ellyn likes calculus, roller derby, and contemplating her mortality.
Joseph Seale comes from extremely rural southwest Alabama and is still
getting used to all of the city concrete in his current home of Knoxville, TN. He is completing his master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Tennessee, where he also teaches freshman composition, and he will begin his PhD in creative writing somewhere in the fall. He spends the majority of his time grading student papers or making up stories, and he likes to eat in rundown fast food restaurants in sketchy parts of town to pilfer story ideas from unsuspecting customers. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Blackheart Magazine, and The Sucarnochee Review.
Marc Harshman’s full-length collection, Green-Silver and Silent, was
recently published by Bottom Dog Press. Four chapbooks include Rose of Sharon, Mad River, MA. Periodical publications include Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, The Progressive, Bateau, Fourteen Hills, and Poetry Salzburg Review. Poems anthologized by Kent State University, the University of Iowa, University of Georgia, and the University of Arizona. Eleven children’s books include The Storm, a Smithsonian Notable Book. New children’s titles forthcoming from Roaring Brook and Eerdmans.
Dr. Ernest Williamson is an Assistant Professor of English at Allen University and a self-taught painter. His poetry has been nominated three times for the Best of the Net Anthology. View more of his artwork here: www. yessy.com/budicegenius
luke kurtis is a Georgia-born interdisciplinary artist focusing on the intersection between photography, writing, and design. He lives and works in New York City’s Greenwich Village. http://lukekurtis.com
Kieran Collier is a Boston based poet, two-time member of the Emerson
College CUPSI team, and a curator of the Emerson Poetry Project, Emerson College’s only spoken word organization. He is the author of a self-published chapbook Rough & Tumble, and his work has most recently been published in FreezeRay, The Legendary, Maps for Teeth, and Concrete Literary Magazine. He is also the assistant poetry editor for and a staff writer at The Catharsis, an online literary magazine. He has flat feet and a vitamin D deficiency.
P. Ivan Young is the author of A Shape in the Waves (Stepping Stones
Press) and the 2013 winner of the Norton Girault Literary Prize. His work has most recently appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Blood Lotus, Mayday, Barely South Review, and the forthcoming anthology A Sense of the Midlands (Muddy Ford Press).
Elana Willinsky is a senior at Emerson College studying Writing, Literature and Publishing with a minor in Political Science. She primarily writes non-fiction, sometimes dips her toes in the poetic ocean, usually comes up dry and is lucky to draw inspiration from the magic energy of Boston and a colorful cast of characters who surround her daily.
Jamie Ditaranto spent four months studying in New Zealand. She drove on the left side of the road, did a lot of hiking, and almost fell off a cliff. She lost the lens cap to her camera somewhere in the Tararua mountains.
Jonathan Barrett works in banking and lives in Kansas City with his wife
and three sons. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous literary journals including American Literary Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Flyway, The Literary Review, The Minnesota Review, The North American Review, Notre Dame Review, Phoebe, Poet Lore, and Subtropics. He is also the editor of the literary journal Cant.
Amanda Bondi is a Boston-based social drinker and novice bread enthusiast who occasionally dabbles in the poetic arts.
Colophon The fonts used in the issue of The Emerson Review are Sketch Script, Univers, and Georgia. Univers is a sans serif typeface designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1954 and was transferred into the Linotype collection in 1989. Georgia, the body font of the issue, was designed in 1993 by Matthew Carter and is a transitional serif typeface. It is the serif companion of the sans serif font Verdana. The fonts used on the cover are Manus and Georgia.