7 1 0 2 mmer
Masthead Editors-in-Chief Jordan Hubrich & Amanda Corbin Senior Editors Chad Gilpin & Gary Thomas Smith Interns Chelsie Abney, Kate Heinonen & Julia Mikulec
Faculty Advisors Julia Johnson, Gurney Norman Limestone would like to thank the Department of English at the University of Kentucky for its continued support.
Cover Artwork: collage by Julia Mikulec
Contents New Look by Aram Mrjoian 6 The Way We Listened to Music by Elizabeth Vignali
Litter & Cattails by Stephen Wells Brand
Firsts by Luke Coffey 21 Answering Service of the Muse by Richard Weaver
Provinage by Eric Rawson 29 The Drowning by Christina Kapp
Halyomorpha Halys by Megan Fahey
A Walk in the Back Lot by Elizabeth Poreba
Seven by Cindy St. Onge
Pomonaâ€™s Prayer by Meri Culp
Two months after the World Trade Center collapsed, I bleached my hair like Slim Shady so the other seventh graders would stop calling me a terrorist. I allowed the chemicals to scorch every hair from the roots of my forehead to the nape of my neck. When I lifted my head from under the faucet’s cold water, I found my hair had turned an unpleasant, burnt orange color. The dull hue of mushy, overcooked carrots. It had an indeterminate, pulpy quality, as if someone had scooped out an enormous, pale grapefruit and plopped the rind on my head, like a helmet. Sickly, tan rivulets leaked down my face. They streaked my skin and fell in cloudy, brown splotches across the white countertop. I felt like a dopey country simpleton. A boy who should be wearing overalls while doing chores around the family farm. After the change soaked in, I laboriously scrubbed at the stained surfaces of the sink and floor. I removed any trace that the color had been manufactured. The plastic wastebasket next to the sink was soon full with wet fistfuls of crumpled toilet paper. After I finished cleaning, I turned off the lights above the mirror. The damp hair atop my head radiated in the darkness—a stinging blaze illuminating my scalp. Fullridge, Michigan, was not the place to be named Movses Paradikian after 9/11. Even though everyone called me Mo, there was no escaping the bigoted associations of my peculiar name. My seventh grade classmates didn’t have the wealth of knowledge necessary to recognize that Armenians had historically been shafted for being Christian. My father always said Americans were too busy trying to erase their own genocides to bother educating anyone about ours. So the logic was simple. A funny ethnic name meant Muslim. Muslim meant terrorist. Though my parents were fairly lenient, I had to be clandestine about bleaching my hair. They thought such cosmetic alterations were foolish and nonsensical. My mother shrieked when she laid eyes on me. She could not 6
comprehend why I would expunge my handsomest feature: a mat of hair as thick and black as tar. My father, on the other hand, immediately recognized the look of desperation in my eyes. He could see I was trying to hide in plain sight. He knew more than enough about reinvention. After scanning me up and down, he flapped the day’s Wall Street Journal back in front of his face. From behind the shield of his inked curtain, he sternly stated, “You know better than to upset your mother.” I knew that when I walked into school on Monday I’d catch some shit for the poor dye job. Seventh graders had a knack for isolating one another’s weird features and making them larger than life. A small change—a slobbery railroad of braces or an uneven hairline—was all it took to become the topic of conversation. After all, bullying was often the art of hyperbole. My father dropped me off on his way to the office, sparing me a bus ride of humiliating questions from my classmates. He worked in the accounting department for a fruit distributor that trucked Michigan’s abundance of apples and cherries across the nation. He often repeated an awful joke that balancing the books on apples was easy as pie, but the profit margins on cherries were the pits. On my normal bus ride to and from school, I usually just hung with Jonathan Jenkins in the back row. We would kick our legs out across the small leather benches and exchange CDs in isolation from the rest of the gossiping kids near the front. Jonathan never went by Jon, and we had lived down the street from one another since we were toddlers. There were no eighth graders on our route, so we laid de facto claim to the rear of the bus. These seats were coveted, because they were farthest away from bus driver Kenny’s constant scowl. He always yelled “watch it!” when we cursed and warned us we would go deaf by high school for blaring hip-hop through our headphones. We knew we’d be pushed back to the front of the bus as freshmen, but Sandy, the high school driver on our route, was supposed to be a bit more chill. She’d numbed herself to teenage melodrama. On the mornings that my father dropped me off, I would usually just hop out somewhere in the hectic expanse of the parking lot, but today he pulled into the string of idling SUVs near the school’s front doors so I wouldn’t have Art. Prose. Poetry.
to run through the rain. I unbuckled my seatbelt, yanked my backpack from between my knees, and reached for the silver, faux-chromed door handle. “Movses,” my father said, waiting for me to turn and face him. “Remember that it’s not important what the other kids think.” “I know, dad.” I said briskly, halfway out the door. Even though it was a year and a half old, I popped The Marshall Mathers LP in my Walkman when I walked into the building. Slim was my go-to rapper before I really learned much about hip-hop. It was easy to fall into the fastpaced, meticulous lyricism and roiling angst that oozed from every word. Slim made it easier to pretend like I didn’t give a fuck about what anyone else thought of me. I could let his nasally fury rush over me until I somehow felt more American, more normal, more alive. I always met up with Jonathan and Rick Cass near their lockers where A hall and B hall intersected. To get there I had to walk the entire length of A hall until it dead-ended, passing by the swarms of eighth graders who had earned the full-length lockers near the front entrance. The endless rows of red lockers felt like a gauntlet. A cacophony of metal doors creaked open and slammed shut above the clamorous din of dozens of kids bantering. A clump of girls gave me a uniform, bizarre stare as I walked by them. One or two passersby glanced as if trying to place me, their faces morphing into walleyed looks of recognition as I neared. A group of boys on the hockey team leaned against their lockers smirking en masse. I sit back with this pack of Zig Zags and this bag of this weed it gives me the shit needed to be the most meanest MC on this Earth and since birth...The din drowned out my music as I got closer to the T-shaped hub where the two main halls met, so I cranked the volume up a couple notches on my Walkman and quietly weaved through the traffic. “Dude, you actually went through with that shit?” Jonathan asked me as I approached him and Rick. “Yeah man.” “I thought you were just clowning.” Rick leaned into the cavern of his open half-locker. He had the top half and Jonathan had the bottom. He was using the door as a shield while he frantically copied Jonathan’s math homework before the first-hour warning 8
bell cleared the hallway. Rick was more laid back than anyone I’ve ever met and didn’t even bother to turn around from the task at hand to see what Jonathan was talking about. He was busy scrawling out tortuous stretches of numbers, making calculated adjustments to differentiate his work from Jonathan’s pristine equations with lightning precision. Rick was a gifted procrastinator and had mastered the art of not getting caught for plagiarism. Once he was satisfied with his transcription, he closed his locker and turned around. He examined me for a brief moment, nodding his head. “That’s dope,” he said. The chime of the warning bell cut across the hallway. Everyone that had been loitering around jolted into motion at once, smashing into one another to get to class on time. Jonathan and Rick both nodded at me and bolted off down B hall for algebra. I had to go back down A hall from the direction which I came for English class. I was in a rush, but Rick had lifted my spirits and given me the boost of confidence I needed. I sauntered through the dissipating crowd with newfound bravado. “Hey light bulb!” A voice shouted from my right. Without looking over I knew it was Alex Johnson, an eighth grader who played travel hockey and already had a reputation as an enforcer. The Darren McCarty of the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association’s Pee Wee league. He’d given me a lot of shit over the past couple months. Alex was a head taller than me and already ritualistically lifted weights. Even under his gray Redwings hoodie I could see the square build of his shoulders. He had a crook in his nose from where it’d been broken in a bench-clearing brawl at hockey camp last summer. A couple other hockey goons were leaning on the lockers next to his. The new nickname threw me off for a moment. I stopped walking even though I knew I was going to be late for class. I looked Alex in the eyes. He had a slight cleft chin and gaunt jawline that he contemplatively wiggled from side to side. He said, “You’re still a punk ass bitch.” Before I could think of anything to say he peeled off the wall. His friends followed in his wake. They all cradled black three-ring binders overloaded with unfinished homework in their right arms. They laughed at something as they strolled past a bulldogish hall monitor. The bell rang. “Come on, Mo.” Ms. Falter’s voice echoed down the hall. She always Art. Prose. Poetry.
closed the door the moment she heard the final bell. It was an easy way to mark students tardy. But I knew Ms. Falter liked me and was giving me a free pass by calling out to me. On my last report card she noted that I had elegant prose and surprisingly coherent ideas for my age. I was disheartened by Alex’s bullshit, but kicked up my Sketchers into a light jog over the filthy gray tile. They squeaked with each step until I came to a stop beyond the classroom threshold. I gave Ms. Falter a forced smile and she responded with a look of puzzlement as I passed her. It wasn’t like me to be late. She closed the door without it making a sound a motion she must have executed a thousand times before. When Jonathan and I boarded the bus at the end of the day, the morning’s light drizzle had escalated into globs of rain soaking everything in inconsistent gusts of wind. We were in our usual seats at the back of the bus, listening to music and blankly staring at math homework. We swapped CDs the moment we sat down. Jonathan had borrowed an album from his older brother, Jake, and insisted I give it a listen. Jake was a real hip-hop head with profoundly good taste for a sixteen-year-old. He had given Jonathan an LP by some Chicago emcee I had never heard of named Common. Like Water for Chocolate. I didn’t get the reference at the time. The music seemed philosophically different from the Eminem I’d been blaring on repeat for months. Whereas Slim was all foaming lyrical wit and intentional vulgarity, Common’s LP was far more cerebral. The beats were composed with precision and deceptive depth, despite feeling like they were crafted with ease. I didn’t really understand his lyrics. I gave “The Light” two or three listens. It felt like one of the more accessible songs on the album, and the chorus was catchy. But I couldn’t decipher it. Some niggaz recognize the light but they can’t handle the glare you know I ain’t the type to walk around with matchin shirts if relationship is effort I will match your work I wanna be the one to make you happiest, it hurts you the most they say the end is near, it’s important that we close…to the most, high regardless of what happen on him let’s rely… We got off the bus to play video games at Jonathan’s house, running down the street and getting drenched in the rain. I knew from my morning shower that the flood of water would exacerbate the grimy, orange color of my hair, so that it almost turned murky brown. It looked like chunks of rotten 10
squash. When we made it under the cover of his garage, we swapped back our CDs. The garage was empty, as usual, because Mr. Jenkins was still at work, and Jonathan’s mom was probably out grocery shopping. She went to the store almost every day, picking out items from a perpetually incomplete list of food she must’ve kept track of in her head. Jonathan and I listened to the rain plummet downward and splash on the driveway. Without looking away from the downpour, Jonathan said, “Damn man, you have to get off that Marshall Mathers and find some new shit.” “Slim is hard, dude.” “Jake says that shit’s stale. He says there’s way better music coming out of the mitten. That Common I gave you, most of the beats on that are from some Detroit guy named Jay Dee. Jake’s got this group called Binary Star too. Two guys that met in Jackson Prison or something. Real Michigan shit.” I didn’t offer a response. I wasn’t worried about knowing too much about music. I just wanted my anger reaffirmed. To hear someone more pissed off than me. I watched the rain inundate Jonathan’s front yard and saw a couple worms squirming across the cement surface of the driveway as they tried to find a way out of the flood. When the sun came out they would dry up like purple, serpentine potato chips. As if hearing their infinitesimal cries for help, the weather abruptly let up and the rain reduced to mist. “You know what we ought to do?” Jonathan asked. “We should smoke some weed. We can buy some from my brother. He’s got a stash in a cigar box under his bed. I think my mom knows it’s there, but she doesn’t say fuck about it.” “You got any Gushers inside?” I asked. “Fruit By The Foot. No Gushers.” “Let’s take a box of those out to the woods and get high.” Jake’s room was overloaded with a combination of stereotypical teenage trinkets and eclectic junk no normal sixteen-year-old would bother purchasing. He had an array of unframed posters tacked up on the wall: a tricolored Rasta portrait of Bob Marley, Miss Hawaiian Tropic in a revealing, yellow bikini, Tupac wearing an oversized Redwings jersey and matching bandana tied at the center of his forehead, Steve Yzerman holding his stick across his waist on the Art. Prose. Poetry.
ice. There was also a hodgepodge of random knickknacks and memorabilia hung on the walls: athletic pennants pinned pell-mell, sticky notes lined neatly around Jake’s desk, random doodles stuck above the bed with Scotch tape, bumper stickers from old political campaigns that took place before Jake was born. He had a floating bookshelf of tattered detective novels squeezed between two marble bookends carved in the shape of enormous chess knights. The top of his dresser was invisible under stacks of illegally downloaded CDs, the tracklist labeled on each with black Sharpie marker. In the corner of the room, there was a peculiar table hockey game (likely the slow-going garage woodwork of some cheap and crafty father) that Jake purchased at a neighborhood rummage sale. But Jake’s most prized possessions were a collection of pristine board games. He kept the boxes organized alphabetically on a six-foot bookshelf in the room’s back corner. He and his friends often played after they’d ventured into the nearby woods to smoke a couple spliffs. No one was allowed to eat in his room while they played, no matter how bad the munchies hit. It was too much of a risk to soil Monopoly’s frail paper money with potato chip grease or sully a Scrabble tile with sticky ice cream sandwich fingers. Also uncharacteristic was Jake’s collection of fisherman’s caps, which were kept at the top of his closet in individual cubbies. Since Mr. Jenkins was a fairly successful investment broker, he could gift Jake and Jonathan with authentic Redwings jerseys on birthdays and Christmases. There were a half dozen hanging in Jake’s color-coded closet, blazing a streak of red across the middle. Jonathan and I always knew Jake’s intelligence got in his way a little bit. He was erratically high functioning. Before he started smoking weed, he’d skipped eighth grade and won a statewide high school essay contest as an underage freshman. Earlier still, in middle school, he made it to the finals of the statewide spelling bee, but missed the word “unguent” on purpose so he wouldn’t have to go to nationals. He could switch between guitar, bass, and drums with ease, despite never spending much time practicing. Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins basically let him do as he pleased, because they knew he’d be able to get into a good college without difficulty—somewhere like the University of Michigan if he wanted to be close to home or somewhere like Stanford if he wanted to escape the Midwest’s gray winters. I think he was perpetually stoned just to slow his brain down. No one could blame him for wanting to mellow out a little bit. 12
Jonathan pounded on Jake’s door so that the noise thudded over his music. Jake was playing Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan. I recognized it because my dad listened to it sometimes while he read the paper. Jake opened the door. He was wearing oversized blue basketball shorts and a tenting gray Tigers tee, a black Greek fisherman’s cap askew atop his head. He was stoned and his eyes were dewy—the whites a tumult of irritated pink. “New look.” He said, walking back toward his desk where his American history textbook was spread open. He sat down backward on the chair to face us, his arms wrapped around the wooden back support. “So what can I do for you, baby bro?” “We need some weed,” Jonathan said. “Shit, why?” Jake asked. “We just want to get high.” Jake tugged at his cap and mulled it over while he looked down at the beige carpet. The wailing harmonica on Dylan’s “I Want You” faded to silence before rising on “Stuck Inside A Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again.” The change in tracks appeared to awaken an eerie energy in Jake. His eyes widened and his mouth curled into a devilish smirk until it seemed he involuntarily bared his teeth. “Okay, baby bro.” He said. “But give me a few minutes. I’m almost finished with this assignment.” He walked us to the door and closed it behind us. We went down to the basement and played N64. Jonathan had rented Mario Tennis from Hollywood Video and we finished a couple matches while we waited for Jake. His controllers were old and the joysticks were too loose to dash across the court effectively. A crust of chalky plastic shards and dirt scratched against the ball joint at the joystick’s base. We were sprawled across a brown velvet sofa where Jonathan would lose his virginity five years later. Jake walked downstairs and glanced around the basement out of instinct. He looked jittery. He pulled a dime bag from his pocket. “Here you go, friends.” “Is it good shit?” I asked. “The best, Movses.” Jake said sympathetically. He always called me by my full name like that. As if we were wrapping up an after school special. “Give it a sniff.” Art. Prose. Poetry.
I dunked my nose into the bag and inhaled. It had the earthy, skunky odor I had come to associate with Jake’s bedroom. “How much do you want for it?” Jonathan asked. “This one’s on the house. Next time it’ll cost you ten.” Jake handed Jonathan a rolling paper. He swiveled on his heel and did a bowlegged jog across the basement and back upstairs. We looked at the small parcel of bud. It was just enough to fill a decent joint. It wouldn’t be for another month that we realized Jake had duped us. After we had retreated to the cool cavern of the basement, he transferred some of his weed from one baggie to another, leaving behind the dank aroma we already recognized, even though we had never smoked. When we got old enough to smoke with Jake, he’d always joke about it when he came home from Ann Arbor for the weekend. “Hey, remember that time you guys got completely baked on oregano and thyme?” I let Jonathan roll the joint. He said he’d seen Jake do it a hundred times. Jonathan pocketed the jay, some Fruit By The Foot, and a couple cans of Vernors from the basement refrigerator. I found a pack of kitchen matches next to some candy-striped birthday candles in a drawer in the mudroom. Jonathan’s mom still hadn’t come home, but Mr. Jenkins caught us on his way in from work while we were zipping up our coats. His black suit and matching leather briefcase gave him a look of austerity. “Where you boys headed?” he asked. “Just out to the woods, dad.” Jonathan replied. “We’re going to try and build a shelter.” I was grateful Jonathan had an excuse on deck, because I had no idea how to maintain our cover. Mr. Jenkins kicked off his loafers toward the floor mat. They clunked in a heap of tennis shoes and wingtips. He was a VP at a trading firm and looked fatigued, weary from a long day at the office. “Give my best to your parents, Mo.” Mr. Jenkins said. With his obligatory niceties put to rest, he stumbled off into his house. The sun had fallen and it was cold enough to see our breath. I exhaled ephemeral clouds as if practicing for when we smoked the joint. The sheet of brown leaves on the ground had turned to mush in the rain, but they still rustled 14
as we kicked them with each step. We had only walked about a quarter mile when we stumbled upon a dead fawn, all knobby limbs curled beneath a frail body. Its one visible eye was a pearly, black orb, unflinching in its lifeless gaze. We stopped to look at it. Jonathan looked back toward his house to make sure we were clearly out of view. We were hidden behind a curtain of oaks and birches, but there was still a dewy haze from the floodlights on the Jenkins’ back patio. “You got those matches, Mo?” I handed him the pack. Jonathan stuffed the joint between his lips and lit a match, but it fizzled out before he could get the flame to the paper. He repeated this process three or four times unsuccessfully, so I moved closer to him and cupped my hands in front of his face to block the wind. When we finally coaxed the joint ablaze, Jonathan took a couple shallow puffs and tried to casually inhale. He coughed, but managed to stifle his hacking long enough to pass the joint to me. My whole body twitched in the cold. I inhaled as hard as I could and tried to hold the smoke in, but soon I was coughing along with Jonathan. We both spit strands of bubbly saliva at the trunks of nearby trees until we got our breathing back under control. Jonathan lobbed me a can of Vernors so I could clear my throat. When we reached the nub of the joint, Jonathan stomped it under the sole of his black Pumas. “You know, Mo.” Jonathan said. “Alex Johnson is spreading that light bulb shit. I heard Nancy Gregor talking about it today in bio.” “Fuck, it’s better than Mosama.” “Yeah, man. I know. It’s just why do you care what they say anyway? Your hair’s not going to change anything.” “I don’t care, man. No one wants to be called a terrorist. My dad even caught flack at work. Guys on their lunch break asking him about extremism as if he was an expert on all this shit when we’re fucking Armenian.” “That sucks, man.” “I just needed a change. That’s all.” I said it definitively, ending the conversation. This was a trick I’d seen both my parents use. Say something vague with enough force for the other person to get hung up and drop the subject. We shifted back and forth from our heels to toes trying to keep our Art. Prose. Poetry.
blood flowing, waiting for the weed to kick in. We each ate a strawberry Fruit By The Foot, allowing the gummy ribbons to droop from our mouths like limp lizard tongues. I thought the strawberry flavor was stronger than normal, even though my mouth was scorched from the smoke. Jonathan knew I thought Nancy had a cute ass. She had come back from summer camp curvy and tan. I’d been crushing on her all year. It felt like an unnecessary blow to bring her up, even if I knew he had my best interests at heart. “Are you feeling anything?” Jonathan asked. “Not really.” I said. “Jake told me once you don’t get high the first time. Maybe we just need to buy some more for later.” I looked down at the dead fawn. The brown fur was velvety smooth and I could count the ribs down its side. Its hooves were muddy and black but faded to the pale color of dried chicken bones near the tips. The split down the middle of its feet made me wince. It looked painful, even though I realized it was no different than the space between my own toes. The one visible eye started to make me anxious. Like we were being watched. “Let’s just forget it tonight, man.” I said. “We’ll cop more from your brother over the weekend.” We reentered Jonathan’s house and walked straight toward the basement, hoping not to reek of smoke. Mr. Jenkins had his feet kicked up on an ottoman in front of the television, a Collins glass in hand. A mangled slice of lime was curled over the rim. On the television, I saw a picture of Osama bin Laden above the ticker tape newswire on CNN. In his portrait, he had the demeanor of a jovial schoolboy, the resting smile of someone remembering a pleasant joke. The next day at school, Alex Johnson asked me what it was like to be in bin Laden’s boy band and I took a swing at his face. My backpack straps weighed me down and limited my range. My clumsy right hook grazed his jaw and I could tell it would bruise, but he was used to such treatment and too adrenaline-charged to notice. By the time I’d followed through, he had connected squarely with my nose. It began spouting blood over my lips and down my chin. I could taste the iron of it swishing between my teeth and dribbling down my throat. A hall monitor yanked Alex toward the principal’s office and another 16
shouldered me to see the nurse. My nose wasn’t broken, but it wasn’t long before the skin around my eyes turned swollen and took on a plum complexion. We were both sent home for the rest of the day. My father had to leave work to pick me up. He didn’t say a word on the ride home. The car jolted to a halt after we rolled into the driveway. He turned off the radio and sighed. “Movses, your mom’s going to be pretty upset. I understand why you did what you did. But you need to know, violence is never the solution.” “Dad, he was calling me a terrorist.” “I know what he called you. The principal explained. What he said is awful and bigoted and deserves consequences. But you must be above it.” “And what if it doesn’t stop?” I asked. My father sighed again. “That is why you must be above it,” he said. “Because in my experience, it won’t.” I clung to hip-hop in my adolescence because I found peace in the repetition. A catchy song could cling to my mind for days, and once I’d memorized the lyrics I could recite full verses like litanies during any mundane moment. A good beat was a call to prayer. Strong lyrics were scripture. It was an ancient oral tradition that had evolved into something wondrous. My favorite songs adapted to comfort me in any situation. They used the infectious quality of rhyme to guide me through good times and bad. I could as easily have fallen into the distorted power chords and falsetto screams of alternative or the bubbly redundancy of pop, but I didn’t. Hip-hop gave me permission to feel depressed, elated, violent, horny, dismantled, rebellious, intelligent, disoriented. The list goes on. In time I’d shake off my allegiance to Eminem and branch outward. I’d find new artists, ones without the same fortitude for meter, but who ultimately had more interesting things to say. But that night, after I was banished to my bedroom with a glass of water and a peanut butter sandwich, I fell back into the comfort of the music I had come to love. I completed three-dozen math problems and read fifty pages of The Pearl for Mrs. Falter’s class, bobbing my head to Slim’s jagged anger the entire time. I listened to the LP three times through from start to finish. After hours of studying, I nodded off with my bedside lamp still aglow and Steinbeck’s novella tented across my chest, the pages crinkling obliquely. Dido’s chorus on “Stan” was Art. Prose. Poetry.
the last thing I heard before I fell asleep. I woke up the next morning before my alarm chirped, waves of achiness surging across my face with each inhalation. I went into the bathroom to wash my face and I could hear my mother downstairs puttering around the kitchen brewing coffee. The earthy aroma wafted all the way upstairs. I flipped on the bathroom light switch. The flood of light caused me to squint and my entire face seized up with pain. The pouches under my eyes sagged with clotted blood. I brushed my teeth to rinse the aridness from my mouth and scratchy throat. I spat a glob of rabid foam under the stream of running water and craned my neck up to look at myself in the mirror. At the base of my forehead I could see the minuscule nubs of dark roots, buried coals nestled under my flame of bleached hair. My scalp pulsed with heat. I felt more like my true self already.
The Way We Listened to Music
In the den, lights off, windows open behind beat-up blinds. I sat on brown shag carpet, parted its long strands to find the yellow glue disintegrating between the fibers in sharp crumbles like sugar. I picked at the pieces, rolled them between my fingers, pressed them hard into my skin until it hurt. No one was allowed to touch the turntable but Dad. We listened to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherezade. Stevie Wonder’s The Secret Life of Plants. The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed. Puccini’s Turandot. My back pressed against the gold velvet couch that smelled like cat piss, like the dregs of Dad’s Coors Light he let me finish. Skyscraper equalizer lights rose and fell, green cities built and destroyed by the beat. Fleas hopped on my bare legs. Jumped at the cannon’s boom during the 1812 Overture.
Art. Prose. Poetry.
Litter & Cattails
Stephen Wells Brand
I recall the chilly pewter sky when we made a kite using litter & cattails thatched with our hopes and fears, and fed it to the oak tree.
Roy Luke Coffey
The first time I was in a firefight, I was caught in the wide open. The patrol had come to a halt, and as I began to look around I realized how exposed I was. I instinctively crouched to try and lower my silhouette against a dusty and open field. In mere seconds the morning’s silence was shattered with the mechanical popping of a machine gun. I was back on my feet and running toward some pillars, where the rest of my squad was seeking cover. Please don’t step on an IED, please don’t step on and IED. I said to myself, over and over again, as I sprinted across the open ground. Bullets whizzed over my head and kicked up dust around my rapidly moving feet. Finally I arrived. I immediately turned on my heel and aimed my rifle at the enemy position. I could see the sharp V of dust kicking up from the pressure of a muzzle laid on a wall. I aimed down my ACOG scope and began firing into that dusty V. I saw the Navy dog handler shouting, “Shit! Shit! Shit!” as he crawled in the prone, his left arm pushing his body along. The magazine pouches on his plate carrier dragging in the dust. The right arm tucking his M4 under his armpit. Pointing down the alleyway to our front. Firing frantically while bullets rained and he slid to cover. I heard the smacks and cracks of bullets hitting a wall and realized we were taking more contact from the mud hut complex fifty or so meters from the front of the pillars. We tucked in even closer and adjusted fire away from the V. I leaned out, fired some rounds, leaned in, and repeated while we tried to gain fire superiority. For an instance the firing died down. In those few precious seconds, I quickly reloaded and brought my rifle back up, training it on the doorway on the roof of the complex. Movement. A white man dress, a black beard, equally black turban. A fucking AK47. I trained my crosshairs and fired. five, six, seven rounds. The last two smacked into the frame of the doorway, kicking up dust. The AK fell to the ground, and Art. Prose. Poetry.
that strange form fell back into shaded blackness. I didn’t have time to think. Across the rooftop another black turbaned head braved a glance and squeezed off a few rounds. The fight continued. The first time I saw a dying man was soon after. When the fighting died down another man walked out on the roof of the complex, trying to surrender. He had his hands up, and I looked down my scope to see the stark blaze of his palms. “There’s one on the roof,” somebody shouted, then followed with gunfire. We all opened up, and he dropped. The last eruption of fire until we started to push north, toward the exfil, and another firefight. A few minutes later a teenage boy came out of the compound pushing a wheelbarrow, and in it was his father. He precariously balanced the wheelbarrow on the skinny log that served as a bridge over the dank green shit creek. His father was moaning and crumpled. The fight in him was decimated. Our medic began to treat two bullet wounds. One in the arm, the other a gut shot. He took his time and was not gentle in his treatment. My first thought was, is that the guy I shot or was it the man from the roof? Had he been shot in his attempted surrender? Or was he already wounded and trying to surrender? The truth is I’ll never know for certain. An NCO hollered for me to take his fingerprints with the small handheld computer we packed with us on patrol. I got out the device and prepped it while the black bearded man breathed shallow, through distant moans. I grabbed his bloodied hand. It was cold. And in that touch I understood that distance through which he breathed. And I understood he was going to die. And he did die, shortly afterward, on a medevac helicopter on its way to Kandahar Air Field. It didn’t bother me that he died, and it didn’t bother me that it may have been me who took his life. The simple, soldiering truth of it is, I like to think I killed him. The first time I saw a dead body, we were in the never ending grape rows of Panjwai District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Grape rows are mud walls that varied in height. Some of them only waist-high and easily surmount22
able. Others stood towering, six or seven feet over your head. The grape vines hung off their hardened dirt sides, growing up from the ankle-deep water that had been forced in between them by hand dug irrigation canals. The whole district was crossed with them, running east to west. The combination of vegetation, one hundred ten to twenty -degree heat, and putrid water, made for miniature jungles of intense humidity. The grape rows were squared off into parcels. They ranged in size but never larger than half an acre. They were squared in by raised goat paths that we harshly learned not to use. The Taliban set IEDs into chokepoints where the paths cut through a small gate or hole in the packed dirt walls that bordered the tree lined roads. Roads that we only crossed and never walked down for fear of the IEDs that lingered below the surface, waiting to leap up in explosion to take your leg. Only one leg below the knee, if you were lucky. We were pushing across one of those goat paths when the Taliban opened fire from a mud hut to the east. I climbed a grape row, lugging the thirty-pound M240B machine gun with me, to see if I could get its much needed volume of fire into the fight. The leading squad was in my field of fire, leaving me useless. I could only slide back into my grape row, and listen to the firefight. The leading element got on line and began firing wildly into anything that looked like good cover. The Afghan National Army, or ANA unit, followed suit, launching a few RPGs into potential enemy firing positions. By that point it was routine, another day of work. Then: “Medic!” The shout for a medic is always followed by a terse, anxiety filled question, that hangs in the air for a short eternity. “Whose hit?” “It’s ANA,” was the response. All the American soldiers breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps it was wrong to be relieved, but that was the brutal nature of the place and time where we were. Better it be another strange face, whose language you don’t understand, religion you don’t share, and family you don’t know. I was up and moving, laboring over the grape walls, sliding over the goat paths, trying to keep my silhouette low and small. We moved up to where the lead element had set in and pushed to the wall where they had taken contact. There was a small hole, just wide enough to get a single man through. I stepped Art. Prose. Poetry.
through and quickly slid down the wall on the backside. And there was his body. I had to catch my footing to keep from stepping on the corpse of the ANA soldier. I somehow managed to avoid his splayed limbs and stepped around him. He had been shot through the gut, coming through the same hole in the wall I had just struggled through. He had bled out in a couple of minutes. We loaded the body into a plastic stretcher that cinched down to create a strange womb, to securely transport it to a nearby field we could use for a landing zone. A few of us, alongside some ANA, rotated out on carrying the stretcher. We drug the body through the ankle-deep water and pushed it up over the walls to roll down the other side. In the stretcher you could hear and smell the blood and shit swishing back and forth. The first time—and only time-it broke me, we were at the end of the first day of a two day operation. It was about six months into the deployment, and Afghanistan was beginning to wear. That day was a culmination of It. Whatever It was. We landed that morning, about three a.m., and pushed into a nearby village. A couple of weeks earlier we had discovered, quite by accident, that it had become a Taliban stronghold. They had forced the locals out, planted IEDs in the roads, and turned rooftops and compounds into fighting positions. We were in the first compound at day break, to begin a long, slow process of trying to clear the village one mud hut at a time. The day drug into the early afternoon, and we were nearly finished. The village was totally abandoned. A ghost town scattered with pots and pans, sleeping mats, and shell casings from the previous weeks. The roads were lined with IEDs, so we had to scramble over walls and rooftops. Exposing ourselves in mad dashes to get back to cover. The rule of thumb in Panjwai was you never got the one up on the Taliban. They always ambushed us. Word came down on the radio, our First Sergeant was lost, trying to move south to our company’s other elements. He wasn’t even an infantryman. He was a tanker who had been sent to our company because he had all the right connections with all the right people. To really get out there, in the shit. He was 24
an ignorant and stupid man. We pushed back out, through the village, through the heat of the early afternoon. Backtracking across ground we had already covered, backtracking across wasted effort, knowing the Taliban would quickly reoccupy. All because of the First Sergeant’s fuck up. We made it back to the north, to the main road, and began to walk toward the trucks, when what we had anticipated that entire day finally erupted. The nature of fighting in Panjwai was mostly hit and run, quick ambushes and small firefights. A handful of fighters making quick work, then disappearing before the helicopters got on station. But sometimes during especially shitty days, and always during the large operations where we moved to clear areas of a strong Taliban presence, we fought battles. They opened up from the mud hut village we had just “cleared”, firing from fifteen or twenty meters on my squad mates who were in the open along the road. Another group opened up fire to our south and southeast from a corn field and grape hut about a one hundred fifty meters away. I was fortunate enough to be behind the wall of the village, not quite out in the open yet. It was a miracle no one was hit. The leading element hit the dirt and returned a massive volume of fire. I began to tug out a hand grenade from its pouch on my plate carrier. I looked up at the wall above my head, the pin on the grenade about halfway out, and judged my capacity to clear its ten foot reach. I quickly decided I had better not try my luck. I carefully pushed the pin back into its original position and forced the grenade back into its tightly fitting pouch when my squad leader began to shout orders to move to the trucks. I somehow managed to get the grenade back in its place. I took off running. I turned to look at the enemy fighting position as I ran. It was crumbling with rifle, grenade launcher, and machine gun fire. We managed to crowd to the relative safety of the armored trucks and the ditch line along the road. The fighting had temporarily lulled, and I sat down, my back to a tire, the sweat from my ass soaking the ground around me. The day began to creep into my mind, and the months leading up to it began to settle into my gut. And I hated it. I hated being there, I hated that I was sitting next to our incapable first sergeant. That was about as far line of thought went. Bullets began to snap on the armor of the truck I was behind. The First Art. Prose. Poetry.
Sergeant was hanging his large head into the open, observing in awe the shit storm that was unfolding. Bullets whizzed overhead, and I said in the tone of a reprimanding kindergarten teacher, with as much condescension as I could, to this tanker, who having spent his career behind feet of armor, was convinced he was impervious to small arms fire: “First Sergeant, they’re shooting at you.” I was surprised with the pleasantness of my voice. Kid gloves as they would say in the jargon. He pulled his head out from the open, clambered back into his truck, and sat there in the AC until the fighting died down. Lucky for him the aging, Russian-made anti-tank rifle that I had been on the receiving end of a couple of weeks before, had been found by another unit. The fighting slanted off again, a brief respite in the ebb and flow of combat. But it was quickly shattered when, once more, we began to take fire from the village we had just cleared. I didn’t care anymore. I stood up with a patience that negated my sense of self-preservation, my sense of place. I calmly stepped out onto the open road. Slowly walking with the upright stature and canter of a farmer checking his crops, and fired into the town. Into the corn field. Into the grape fields. I was looking down my scope, lining up my sights on anything that looked like a good fighting position. With a collected nature, that showed no worry or stress for the potential harm that could come to me, I emptied a magazine. The Taliban retreated from the fight to reorganize and rearm for the next round. We consolidated our unit to await the next round of orders. We were to continue to move south, escorting the First Sergeant to the rest of the company, and the commander’s, location. They called for someone to lead to element with the mine sweeper, and it was met with a deep, hesitant silence. I stepped up and took the lead. I practically led at a run across the open ground leading to the corn field, wanting to at least shroud myself in the concealment the corn offered. In the corn field I could see tracks of pushed over corn, where just minutes before Taliban fighters had been firing at us. I waited for the crack of an AK and the impact of a bullet on my body. It never came. We left the field, dropped into the grape rows, pushed into the southernmost village. I rounded the corner and there, finally, I saw other soldiers. The 26
southern element of the company was settled into their own exhaustion. While we were fighting from the open road with Taliban in the fields and the northern most village, the southern element had been dredging through the alleyways and rooftops, fighting inside theirs. I didn’t care, the day was over. I collapsed in exhaustion and began to think that maybe, just maybe, we were done. That here on the edge of dark, our much larger force could settle in for the night and prepare ourselves for the fight we knew was coming the next day. That small moment of hope was quickly shattered. We couldn’t believe what came out of the commander’s mouth. Our squad was to move back to the north and continue clearing, now that the First Sergeant had been led by the hand over only three hundred meters of Panjwai. We consolidated and moved out and once more I was in the lead. We went back the way we came, on the edge of the village, as I moved along the last wall, a few feet from it, I saw in my peripheral vision a quick and urgent movement. My heart stopped. Time stopped. And I knew in the minutiae of that moment I was going to die. Then, the dog began to bark. My blood rushed and my heart raced and my legs weakened. The dog retreated briefly, then came back to the doorway again. And the exhaustion of the adrenaline submitted itself to an intense anger that craved destruction. I shot the dog. And sent it whelping into the courtyard. Into the hands of its owner who looked at me with a distance only hate can build. I moved on. Twenty meters, my legs began to shake. Thirty meters, my breathing was rapid. Forty meters, tears began to swell. Fifty meters, I thought about the undeserving violence I had done, to an innocent being. Sixty meters, I went to my knees, in the bottom of a grape row. And I sobbed and cried, and my mind melted into a confusion, and I lost myself to the deterioration of where I was, what I had done, what I had seen. That was the first, and only time, it broke me.
Art. Prose. Poetry.
The Answering Service of The Muse Talking with you is like cutting open a cat to read the miceâ€™s bones. No matter how the words land they are glass falling from your lips. I listen with my eyes like a deaf mute, and talk with my hands, each finger a tongue mouthing the smooth alphabet of scars.
Eric Rawson The farmer cuts the vine to check its reckless behavior, bends the branches until they root. Some men beat their children. But violence is not guidance. Release is not the same as saving the crop from itself. More true for poetry, in its anxiety to roam. Even more for friendship, which grows too big then too heavy. In the good years the grapes are aggressive but the champagne is disappointing, like the noise and heat that fail to turn into love after all, like a wilderness that will not stay put.
Art. Prose. Poetry.
Christina Kapp Her face would have grown, stretched round and flat as a dinner plate on an empty table. It would have glimmered with hopeful appetite letting the silk of her dress catch the lightâ€™s rippled rush, romance slithering her sequins like a fishâ€™s scales: a sheath of flat, graceful muscle, a superpower of stillness. I drop. I scatter like oil. She reflects the surface of the moon, teasing out the darkness with her fingertips her lips rising like bread on the water, splitting open, releasing her heat. I want her to tell me what is inside my eyes, the silence of underwater pools, water forming words refracting truth to look like prayer.
The stinkbug trod along the baseboard—one slow, sure stick-leg in front of the other. Jennifer clutched a towel to her breast and watched the insect closely. She ran a hand through her hair, worried about the bugs that, at that moment, might have been burrowing deep down in her dark roots, or evolving with skeletal exo-highlights that matched the ones from the box she’d just finished applying in the bathtub. For all she knew her very scalp had already morphed into a parasitic ecosystem. To think, after she’d salved and conditioned all these years to keep dandruff and itching at bay, here she was being prickled apart by the brown spindly legs of a stinkbug army who rifled down the bushwhacked path of her perfect part. She scratched and scratched. In the mornings before work, Jennifer swatted at phantom insects when they flittered too close to her periphery. She slapped at her thighs and the soft skin on the backs of her arms mistaking loose hairs and threads for bugs. She tried meditation, but that didn’t work since a moth had chewed a hole through the bag in which she kept her yoga mat and increased the problem twofold. Her mother had said that a spoonful of apple cider vinegar would do the trick, but vinegar was made from worms, and sometimes apples had worms, and the more she thought about it the more the whole thing just made her feel slimy. Bathwater didn’t help. Even when she sat backward in the tub and creaked the cold faucet off. Even when it scalded a streak down her spine. Even when her nails raked her head and dug follicle by follicle in scrupulous rows. Even when her fingers flattened and scraped and scrubbed and teased and pulled until her hair looked matted and wild, and a few loose strands floated down to the sink. And a stinkbug crawled out of the drain. Surprised, she grabbed the first blunt instrument she could find and Art. Prose. Poetry.
stepped back a safe distance—raising her hands above her head in a warrior pose that came to her from some deep-buried instinct. Only her eyeballs flickered. Even her chest seemed to cease its consistent rise and fall as the stinkbug took its first flat step onto that Formica counter. And splat. Its mysterious expedition out of the drain and across the sink reached its dramatic end beneath the heavy, cold cylinder of Jennifer’s aerosol hairspray. She whispered neither prayer nor sentimental word as she scooped the thing into a gob of toilet paper and flushed. No struggle. No flailing little legs. Just a small brown body, no larger than a tiny leaf, swirling out of the world forever and leaving behind only the faintest scent of coriander. The next morning, there were three stinkbugs in the bathroom, four on the TV during the weather report, one which scampered out from under the toaster while Jennifer sipped her coffee, and an audacious little rascal that clung to Jennifer’s blazer and rode with her all the way to the office before it worked up the moxie to crawl up the back of her neck. It died, dry and bloodless, when she tossed it to the pavement of the parking lot without regard and smashed it with the sole of her red wedge heel. Way back, when the very first stinkbug crossed the border of Pennsylvania with its brown marble body, Jennifer’s mother didn’t smash it even when she woke up one morning to find it sharing her pillow. “I’ve heard about these,” she said. “They come from China.” So she pulled out the vacuum cleaner, unraveled the tidy cord, and sucked up the little beast. “You have to do it this way,” her mother said, “Otherwise, you’ll just attract more.” That was an adventure of childhood. But, grown up and living alone, taking out the sweeper each time one spotted an insect was all so much tedium. Surely this technique was a habit of old wives—propaganda by the vacuum company to sell more bagless uprights. “Come one! Come all! And watch the bug as it meets the cyclone of its demise!” Moreover, it was certainly a legend that murdered dead stinkbugs begat more stinkbugs with their posthumous odor. Wasn’t “stinkbug” a colloquial term anyway? Weren’t they insurgent creatures by nature? Wasn’t it just that time of the year? And just that temperature? Perhaps that was true. Perhaps the temperature and the change of the 32
seasons were enough to explain away the bug in the drain, and maybe enough for the one that tickled her neck in the parking lot, and maybe the one that sneaked out in fear when she pushed down the plunger to toast her bread. But it didn’t explain the fact that by the time the work day ended, a stinkbug family had taken up residential ceiling space in each room of her house, and more were outside: skittering along tan bricks, setting their perimeter, stinking up the place. In her youth Jennifer had seen TV movies where exterminators were harsh, uneducated men who drove vans of white or yellow or green with giant plaster roaches perched on the roofs—as if the offending bugs might follow them out of town like some sort of twenty-first century pied pipers. Extermination companies had teams of marketing virtuosos, who drafted gaudy logos and clever business names like Critter Ridders and Pest Cemetery, as if somehow the bugs would reel in the face of such keen human intellect and exterminate themselves. Once, while vacationing in South Carolina, Jennifer spotted a pickup truck wrapped with a tessellated pattern of venomous snakes and black widow spiders as if somehow this camouflage might gain the insects’ trust and disguise the vehicle’s true identity: a four-wheeled agent of doom. When Dave (from Dave’s) pulled up with his rusty, round sedan and his plain blue jumpsuit that said “Dave” on the patch, he looked so ordinary that Jennifer didn’t believe he was real. “Are you Dave?” she said. He nodded. “From Dave’s?” “That’s right.” He laughed a little, and when he did, it was just enough to showcase that he still had all his original teeth—which relieved Jennifer in some small way. He yanked open the creaky back door of the round sedan, releasing a catastrophe of stainless steel bottles that clattered to the ground at his feet. Jennifer cupped a hand around her temple and untucked her hair from behind her ears to shield against the curiosity of her neighbors. Dave rustled around in the mess of equipment littered across the backseat, muttering and cursing to himself, until he returned to Jennifer and presented her with a neat plastic folder. “Inside that folder,” he said, “You’ll find two years of pest control appliArt. Prose. Poetry.
cation notifications, two years’ worth of records of pesticide use, pesticide reports to the county agricultural commissioner’s office in Bedford County, written recommendations from the agricultural pest control adviser, and, if you do so desire, a valid journeyman pest control aircraft certificate with an FAA operating license in the event I am required to act as a commercial agricultural aircraft operator.” Jennifer blinked. “But I don’t think she’ll come to that,” the man said. A teetering unmarked aerosol can clanked to the pavement as if to punctuate his sentence. Jennifer scratched at the sides of her head and ruffled through the paperwork. “Am I being silly?” she said aloud. “I mean—I didn’t bring all these things here, did I?” He examined the house then examined the woman. The area near the garage droned with so much insect activity that when the sun passed over it the house seemed to transform into shimmering fish scales and took on an airy, animated look. Jennifer’s amber eyes were wet and buzzed about in their sockets. Dave reached toward Jennifer with his filthy, calloused hand, but she didn’t pull away, even when the swollen knuckle of his thumb grazed her neck and sent a chill down her back. “Looks like you got yourself a case of BMSBs,” he said. Jennifer winced when he pulled his hand back. Dave held a bug by the thorax. Its legs wriggled wildly. “B—?” “Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs. Halyomorpha Halys. Whatever you want to call ‘em, you got ‘em.” For a moment, she thought he might squish the thing right there between his fingers. Instead, he unzipped his coveralls and deposited it into a meshy vial, which he then returned to his inside pocket. “You been smooshin’ these things?” he said. Jennifer lowered her head. “About how many you smooshed?” he said. “Not sure,” she said. “Twenty? Thirty?” He tugged his zipper back up to his chin and inhaled deep. “Sounds like 34
we got some work to do.” Relief peeled in layers from Jennifer’s shoulders, slowly, as the process began. In the morning, on her daily commute to the office, her coffee tumbler felt lighter, even if only by an ounce, as she rolled the last drops in the bottom of her cup before sipping. Her car maneuvered into its parking spot with more ease than before, and the heels of her red wedge shoes clacked more quietly than usual as she entered the building. She’d asked the man, Dave, would she need to find a place to put herself up for a few days? Would she need to pack a bag for all her things? Would he drape her house like a big top and burn the bugs with poison? She’d asked the man then how did he plan to kill them? But somehow, as she watched him handle the insects, careful not to risk tearing their fragile appendages, she knew the answer even before he’d said it. “Kill them?” he’d said. “You are an exterminator, aren’t you?” “Killing’s got nothing to do with it. I get them out. You pay your bill. I go home.” “That’s it?” “That’s it.” Alone in her office she laughed to herself at the simplicity of the thing—how easy it had been to decontaminate her life. And then she smiled, and it was one of those smiles drawn from a well of happiness sprung from somewhere deep, and she caught its reflection in the glassy dark of her computer monitor. Her skin, which had begun to wither and risked drying out, began to bloom again—especially in her cheeks and in her ears and at the base of her neck. And the amber marbles of her eyes regained their former sprightliness even if they were still a bit sunk in their pallid sockets. It all came rushing back to her at once—the nights she tossed, awake; the worrying over the individual creases and folds of her comforter; the way she double and triple checked her cups after a flat bug body surfed a lemonade wave into the cove of her mouth and tickled her tongue; the meals she forgot to eat; the quarantine and sterility of the office; the chomping of her fingernails, the sleeplessness, the neuroses, the hunger. They multiplied together, factoring Art. Prose. Poetry.
exponentially one day after the next, and their product was the exhaustion in her face and the buckets beneath her eyes. If she could just find herself a decent meal, she thought: a celebratory meal, a balanced meal for restoring balance. The courtyard outside the office hosted a convoy of food trucks each afternoon that sold everything from lettuce wraps and seltzer water to deep fried cheese with cheese sauce. She stepped to the window of the grimiest, filthiest food truck in the lot, and said, with her chest out and her chin held aloft, “I’d like a cheeseburger.” “Six bucks,” said the voice of the cook. Jennifer reached for the wallet she carried in the pocket of her loose-fitting skirt and spread its leather lips apart. A small brown bug—a baby, maybe— leapt from the wallet and landed softly on a sesame seed. Jennifer left the burger on the ledge and the paperwork piled in her inbox. She charged as fast as her red wedge shoes would carry her to her car, which delivered her home recklessly but in one piece, despite the fact that she used her free hand for scratching and swatting instead of signaling as often as she could manage it. She was in such a mad dash to the front door, she never noticed that even the gray mortar lines between the tan bricks had been cleared of bugs, and so had the spot above the garage, and so had each room of the house. Meticulously. The exterminator was waiting in the dining room. She stomped toward him, stretching out her shouting finger and taking vexatious breaths. But when she saw the huge terrarium, the size of the hutch and just adjacent, filled with moss and rocks and orchids and all the bugs that had been transplanted, she forgot what had made her so huffy in the first place. She watched the stink bugs float weightlessly upon the leaves and consume them bite by bite. She watched them climb the grid of the terrarium screen and hang upside-down and fall to the ground noiselessly and painlessly. She watched them disappear beneath the carpet of leaves and dead grass. So enraptured was she that she screamed when Dave, from Dave’s, said, “I thought you might like to see them.” She wrapped her arms around his neck. “Thank you,” she said, “Oh, thank you! This is marvelous.” “I’ll take it with me when I go,” he said. “But before that, there’s just the 36
little matter of the, uh—” He rubbed two fingers against his thumb, which made the faintest sound. “Oh right,” Jennifer said. “But before you go. I found a bug in my wallet earlier.” She took it from her handbag and held it open under his chin. A second stinkbug wriggled around inside. Dave stepped closer, eliminating the space between them, breathing, for a moment, the same air Jennifer exhaled. With his eyes locked on hers, he clasped the bug with a pair of metal tweezers and dropped it into the terrarium. “I—I’ll write you a check,” Jennifer said. She walked into the living room and took the checkbook from an end table drawer. “Well, now wait a second,” said Dave. “I couldn’t help but notice you’ve got a few cobwebs in the basement. I was thinking I should probably check ‘em out before I go. Stinkbugs are one thing, but you don’t want to mess around with spiders.” “Oh sure,” Jennifer folded the slip at the perforation but still ripped the check when she tried to separate it. “Maybe you can come back tomorrow?” “Thing is—” the man said. “Spiders are nocturnal. I won’t get a real good look at ‘em until nighttime.” He walked into the living room where he plunged back onto the couch and propped his boots on the glass top of the coffee table. “I was thinking I’d just wait here.” He stayed the rest of the afternoon. When he was hungry, he helped himself to the refrigerator and rummaged through the crisper. “Have whatever you want,” Jennifer said. “But when you’re done eating I think you should leave.” The sun set and still the man sat. “It’s getting pretty late. Are you going to get started soon?” “Ain’t time yet,” the man said. “Gotta be good and dark.” Though Jennifer had known Dave only a few hours, there was something harmless about him—something warm and homey that blended in with the furniture. So instead of calling the cops or shouting him out on the street, Jennifer made up a bed for him there on the couch, tucked a sheet under the cushions, and fluffed a set of spare pillows with mismatched cases. Art. Prose. Poetry.
She trusted him because he kept his distance—because of his quiet, even breathing; because when she said good night and slipped into the bedroom he never even looked at her. But she still turned the small doorknob lock quietly when she got inside. She sat on the edge of the bed and smiled as she smoothed down the covers, disinfected as they were. She let herself fall backward with her arms spread wide. She breathed deep and fresh. She spread her arms and fanned them, making something like a blanket angel. Beside her the bed creaked and sagged under the weight of a body. Her mother. She shared Jennifer’s pillow, and held the sealed plastic dust bin of a vacuum cleaner as if she were holding her own ashes. “Mom?” Jennifer said. Her mother had the same amber eyes, but they were blank and lifeless as they turned toward Jennifer and stared. She shook the dust bin, rattling the corpses of a thousand insects inside. “You’ll just attract more,” she whispered. Jennifer’s eyes shot open. Hours had passed. The room was pitch dark except a faint white light which creeped in around the door jamb, and a high buzzing noise—the sound of a bright blue television with the volume turned low. The padding beneath her carpet rustled like tissue paper when her feet pressed into it, but she moved slowly and lightly until the sounds her footsteps made were no louder than the sound of the buzzing. She took a full minute to turn the doorknob to the unlock position and another minute to crack the door just enough to see into the living room where the man, Dave, from Dave’s, was sitting cross-legged, directly in front of the TV, hypnotized. “Dave?” she whispered. “Dave?” He shifted to his knees and brought his face even closer to the blue screen. The small hairs along his chin stood on end. “Dave, are you all right?” He raised his hands to the screen, arms bent at the elbows, like a cactus. Static crackled the hairs on his forearm. On TV a charismatic salesman in a suit gestured madly. A studio audience laughed. Jennifer snatched the remote control from the end table and turned off the television. In a dark second, Dave was upright and standing in front of her, looming. In the dim glow of the street lights coming through the window, his 38
body was cast in an orange glow and his form took shape before her. Jennifer’s whole body trembled. She gulped hard. “You need to go,” she said. “Or I’m calling the police.” The man craned his head left, then right, but showed no signs of leaving. Jennifer marched to the front door and held it open. “Now,” she said. She didn’t wait for him to get in his car before she slammed the door behind him and locked it, and locked the deadbolt, and slid the chain into its holder, and stood with her back against it and all her weight pressed in. She heard the sound of an engine turn over, and a creaky belt squeaking under a hood, and tires rolling farther and farther down the pavement. She breathed deeply and smoothed back the hair on her head. She tugged at the bottom of her loose-fitting skirt which she hadn’t changed out of since returning from work. She took off her top and threw it in the hamper on her way to the shower. She flipped the switches for the light and for the vent, and set her rings and bracelets in the soap dish beside the sink. She loosened the skirt button and the zipper from her hips. She draped her towel over the shower rod, and when she pulled back the curtain, a man in a blue jumpsuit was curled up with his knees to his chest, sitting on the drain. Jennifer screamed. She covered herself with one hand while the other turned on the hot water. The man hollered and leapt from the tub. Jennifer backed into the sink where her rings and bracelets fell off the soap dish, and the aerosol hair spray clanked to the countertop. She scrambled for it and sprayed the man in his eyes and mouth. He continued to wail. He followed Jennifer into the bedroom where she picked up her wedge shoes and struck him repeatedly with the thick ends. “Get out,” she yelled. “Get out!” He lunged out of the room. Jennifer followed him out the door and into the living room, but she couldn’t find him anywhere. She crawled quietly to the coffee table with the phone and took it from the cradle. She wrapped the receiver in her towel to muffle the sounds of the numbers as she dialed them. Art. Prose. Poetry.
“Hello?” she said, “Hello, I have an emergency!” But there was no answer on the other end—just a low, metallic scratching. “Hello?” She crawled to the front door and looked out the peephole. Dave stood on her welcome mat in his blue jumpsuit with one hand scraping across the screen door. “Please go away,” she said. She ran to the back door in a mad panic, but there were three men in blue jumpsuits there running their fingernails across the metal mesh. And men in blue jumpsuits getting closer as they navigated the ducts of her air conditioning. And blue jumpsuits on the windows, scratching at the screens.
A Walk in The Back Lot
Criss-crossed by disturbance in the trees— branches tossed and heaped as if for bonfires of monstrous festivities— and sealed off by snow annealed to shell, the wood road was invisible. I’d gone to get a glimpse of deer whose hoofs had pocked paths in the debris, to note signs of lives beside my own, grace notes to bring home, but got lost instead, for their wandering led beyond the ridge to a terrain untouched by sun, edged in pines that soughed in sounds unknown, and I was deeply lost, though I’d have thought these woods were my own.
Art. Prose. Poetry.
Cindy St. Onge (for Virginia Woolf ) We are ever walking to deep water, heavy with stones around our waists, sunk by the heft of the legend that we’re images of God, counterfeits of the Cosmic Knowing. Each of us, an upright man struggling to stand in roiling eddies, eroding then to the river bottom, sanding the banks with the grit of our souls— a coterie of memory, of stories, of lives we had dreamed we lived, before planting ourselves into the marsh waiting for purposeful grasses to grow up from the jagged seams of our skulls while rapids rush just overhead, where we’ve created small turbulences, the Ouse’s perch, unmoved by them.
Pomona, goddess of garden, of orchards, lead me to your sacred grove, where plum shadows curve, rounding to dusk, purpled in the deep gold of over ripe pears, the stretch of your arms covering the tallest of trees, the smallest of cherry; find in me, Pomona, a remembrance of place, the pulse of stone fruit, the planting of my feet, strong and sure, the soft dirt welcome of fallen figs, of Eve apple comeuppance, the simple seduction of orange, your gown, your hair, nectarine smoothed; leave me here, Pomona, in my mythology— your platters of fruit, my sustenance, your gardens, my sacrament, my so be it amening your dusk orchard call, your sway of ritual bending branches— watching for nightfall, fruit fall, mindful of this still life.
Art. Prose. Poetry.
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