Montana Mouthful: Blessing In Disguise

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Howdy Montana Mouthful Readers! So many amazing people submitted work detailing their blessings in disguise; it was an honor to read them all. With every new call for work, the amount of submissions increases, and we appreciate the growing interest. It’s both difficult and rewarding to select our contributors, and this issue was no exception. The “Blessing in Disguise” theme especially inspired nonfiction writers. You’ll notice the majority of written contributions are in that category. Personally, my own blessing in disguise started with a very painful experience, as many often do. Twelve years ago, at the young age of 44, I lost my husband unexpectedly. To assuage my grief and fill the sleepless nights, I immersed myself in the written word. I began with the heavy task of writing my husband’s obituary, but I continued to write after that. Years of journaling turned into writing short stories. Eventually, I started a novel, which I have yet to finish! The desire to write more eloquently prompted me to take a Creative Writing class at the local community college, taught by none other than my Montana Mouthful co-editor, Jasmine Swaney Lamb. After taking multiple courses, we started a literary group with other writers in the Helena community. One evening, Jasmine presented the idea of developing our own, independent digital literary magazine, and so the origination of Montana Mouthful began. At the time, we had six participants, but alas, due to life and loss, our team has dwindled in number, but the Montana Mouthful magazine dream continues on. We published our first issue in early 2018, and we continue to publish today despite many challenges. While my personal blessing in disguise began with the pain of losing my husband, that grief sent me searching for something to fill my loneliness and to improve my writing skills. My continued blessing is this magazine, which I am thrilled to share with all of you. On that note, please enjoy the selections contained within these digital pages. Our contributors’ blessings come in a range of disguises—illnesses, violence, missed opportunities, and more—but their ability to find and appreciate the blessings of these circumstances is beautiful, courageous, and inspiring. I hope you continue to look for blessings as you move throughout your life. With warmest thanks, Cari Divine, Co-Editor, Montana Mouthful

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Vol. 4 • Issue 2

VOLUME FOUR • ISSUE TWO Montana Mouthful is an independent nonprofit literary magazine devoted to short fiction and nonfiction, poetry, and visual artwork. Each issue is themed. We aim to publish three times per year.

Blessing In Disguise

Although we seek short pieces—just a mouthful— avoid sending anecdotes. Surprise us with your words. Strive to submit stories that build toward something more than a punchline or trick ending. Montana Mouthful is open to most subjects and styles; however, we are not interested in gratuitous sex or violence.

Introduction .......................................................................II

EDITORS Jasmine Swaney Lamb Cari Divine

A Reason to Grow Up ......................................................16

WE PUBLISH Fiction Flash Fiction: 1,000 words or less (up to 2 pieces); Short Story: 2,000 words or less (up to 2 pieces);

Kitsune’s Cup....................................................................26

Non-Fiction Essay: 2,000 words or less (up to 2 pieces); Narrative Nonfiction: 2,000 words or less (up to 2 pieces). Poetry 1,000 words or less (up to 3 pieces) Artwork/Photography Up to 10 images SUBMISSIONS Please send us your work via Submittable at Emailed submissions will not be accepted.

Greyhound to New York.....................................................2 All That Remains ................................................................7 Where Muscle Connects to Bone.....................................11

Two Peas ...........................................................................20

Relapse..............................................................................30 Tattoos ..............................................................................36 Today and Tomorrow........................................................38 But for the Grace of Maynard ..........................................42 Heartburst.........................................................................46 The Art Farm ....................................................................50 Gloria Steinem in the Desert............................................56 Editor’s Enclosure: Out in the Open ................................60 ESL feature.......................................................................62


Editor’s Note.....................................................................64




Advertising info ................................................................68

Web: Facebook: Instagram: Twitter: DESIGN Layout and graphic design by Luke Duran, Element L Design

Cover art:

A Visit for Alice in Wonderland


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Greyhound to New York by Catherine Dowling

The bus driver started it. “I wrote a poem I’d like to recite,” he announced over the Greyhound’s intercom system, “If that’s ok with you all.” We were somewhere east of Billings, Montana and everyone was busy reading, or sleeping, or staring out at the winter night closing in around us. Nobody spoke. “It’s about life,” he continued, undaunted by the silence. “How I see it anyway.” Still no objections. So, he cleared his throat and began a long ode to the beauty of life. He painted in words a world where people were inherently kind and when something went wrong, they rallied round and took care of each other, an idealized world ripe for cynicism. But by the time he finished, we were all listening. It wasn’t his view of life that entranced me; it was his raw, guileless sincerity that could stifle the most ardent cynic. And somehow, without looking back, he knew we were listening. “Your turn now,” he invited. Somebody recited Walt Whitman, “O Captain! My Captain!” A young man toward the middle of the bus uncased his guitar and sang a Willie Nelson song, and because we were moving through the vast planes of eastern 2 | Montana Mouthful

Montana, he also sang Livingston Saturday Night. When he finished, from the back of the bus somewhere near the toilet, a woman’s shaky voice piped up, “Go placidly amid the noise and haste…” Christmas was three days away so when she finished the “Desiderata,” someone else sang Silent Night, and we all joined in. And so it continued until, without our noticing it, we—a bus full of strangers—had leap-frogged over the boundaries of our individual lives and gone straight to that place where people connect beyond words. We had become a community. I looked out into blackness and tried to imagine what our dimly lit little world looked like from the outside, snaking through the hushed, frigid night, while the rest of the country slept. “Candy?” a man’s hand reached across the aisle proffering an open bag of Jolly Ranchers. Connections in my life were slow, cautious dances that took time and work, but he smiled straight at me as if there were no barriers to overcome, as if we had always known each other. I felt like someone had spun me around, my bearings lost in the flat Montana landscape. He didn’t ask where I came from, only where I was going. I explained I was a student at the University of Montana in Missoula, Vol. 4 • Issue 2

Almost Heaven


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heading to New York to catch a flight home to Ireland for Christmas. The Greyhound was the cheapest way to get to the east coast, the only way I could afford. “Ireland. Cool. Charlie Goodtimes,” he said mangling the name of a nightclub in Dublin. “You’ve been there?” I asked. “Nah, heard someone talk about it. You mind if I sit with you?” “I’m Denzel,” he said as he slid into the seat beside me. His movements were slow and deliberate like he had all the time in the world. When we shook, his hand lingered in mine but not too long, then he told me he was going to Chicago where he had “people.” He asked if I liked college. I told him I thought of dropping out, of becoming a hobo, riding the rails, to get what I thought was an authentic American experience of freedom. I once called the train station in Missoula trying to find out when the freight trains passed through. The man on the other end of the line must have heard it all before. He told me train hopping was illegal and hung up. “You really that type?” Denzel asked laughing. Obviously not, I was still in college. But forgoing the hobo life is a decision I’ve never regretted. Talking to Denzel was easy. We whispered together long after the bus had gone silent for the night. At some point, he took my hand and examined my fingers intently, as if fingers were endlessly fascinating. A middle-aged man, a pack of Lucky Strikes in his hand, grabbed the back of Denzel’s seat to steady himself. He was headed to the back of the bus where smoking was allowed. Denzel went silent until the man had passed. “If we were in a relationship, would you clip my nails for me?” he asked. I’d clip a child’s nails, a dog’s nails, the nails of someone too infirm to take care of themselves, but a healthy man’s? 4 | Montana Mouthful

He looked at me, waiting for an answer, and I realized he was measuring how fluid I could be, how open I was to life in that spun around landscape without landmarks. “Maybe,” I said for the sake of saying something. I don’t remember falling asleep, but when I woke it was day. My head was resting on Denzel’s shoulder, his afro-textured hair soft against my forehead. We were speeding through Wisconsin closing in on Chicago. “It’s been a pleasure, folks,” the driver said as he brought the bus to a standstill in the Chicago terminal. “I hope to see you all again soon.” When the door opened, our little over-night community disintegrated. We were strangers once more, back in the world I recognized. Some people said goodbye, some shook hands, but mostly they were silent as they exited the bus and went their separate ways. Denzel pulled his hand luggage from overhead and moved along the aisle to the door. I followed. “I thought you two would get along,” the driver said as I passed him. He smiled, a twinkly grin, and it dawned on me that he knew exactly what kind of world he was creating when he began to recite his poem. Back in Missoula, I had anticipated a torturous 2,000-mile journey east, my legs cramping from hours of sitting with nothing to do and nobody to talk to. This man made the first 1,000 miles magic. I thanked him for his poetry. Denzel pulled his luggage from beneath the bus. I grabbed mine. “You going to come with me,” he asked, “meet my people? See what happens?” His invitation might have led to something bad, or it might have opened up that free, spun around world I feared and longed for at the same time. But I had a plane to catch in New York City. Saying no to Denzel is a decision I occasionally regret.

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Freedom Behind These Walls by JJ Rogers No matter what I achieve, it is not good enough. I am made to feel as though I should apologize for being born poor— I was not included in that decision. I will not apologize for taking a different path; Ivy was never in my future, seminary was—from prison. My path may not have led me to distinction, but it led me to something more important— me. I found my voice in hardship. I healed through the ache of loss. It wasn’t all for naught: the tears moisten my skin; the pain assures me I can still feel; the loneliness reminds me that there is someone (oh, please let there be someone) out there for me; the sadness reminds me of happier times. My path may not impress you, but it led me to freedom— freedom behind these walls.

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Beyond Her Sight

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Vol. 4 • Issue 2


All That Remains by Kate Maxwell

The car slumps into ash and dirt like surrender. Its image, a gut-punching reminder, every time its photo’s run in the paper, social media, and news, of what she’s lost and what survived the flames. Running fingers over the charred wreck, now scorched white amidst the skeletons of trees, the car cedes into dirt with stubborn dysfunction. Just scrap. A souvenir of useless durability when all around disintegrates to dust. She sighs. Another bloody mess to clear. And somewhere in the glassless wreck she sees herself singing along loudly to ‘Love Shack,’ windows down, coast breeze whipping her hair, as she drives Tash to school. All at once mortifying and delighting her teen daughter as they pull up to the school gates. Now the tin heap couldn’t wheel them down the road. Sunk into charcoal browns and blacks, like so many of her plans and aspirations. At least its remains are metal. The few trapped sheep, slower beasts, petrified into blackened twisted forms, are harder to view. Yet, mixed into the sorrow is also a deep chest exhalation that she and hers still stand. Breathing in the lingering ghosts of smoke, rotting stench of death, she’s grateful it’s not theirs. And this time, it was close. With all

diligence and preparations made; safe foliagefree perimeter maintained around the house, gutters cleared, pump set up at the dam, and the last ten minutes hosing down the front veranda and eaves, it was still a heart-thumping, eye-stinging scramble at the close. Assumptions blazed in seconds. What was imagined and feared, merely a bad dream compared to the day-stealing dark, and towering horror of the nightmare descending upon her little farm. The ‘tree change’ they’d yearned for, now a barren acreage as monochrome as concrete. Their glorious green oasis gone. Tall trees, lush scrub, wildflowers, and berries. Undergrowth always bustling with scurrying little feet, a sky full of bird song, and the gulping splutter of guppies in the dam. No more clucking chatter of chickens pecking in the coop. She’d kept them safe from foxes, flood, but in the end, they’d only wrangled two into the ute before the reckoning came. It was the enveloping darkness that terrified, flicked the switch in her head from stand and protect, to flee for your life. Somehow, Kel’s switch had stuck. She squealed at her husband to leave the hose and buckets, leave the house he’d built piece by piece. All those hot afterMontana Mouthful | 7

noons levelling frames, laying bricks, the halfpainted third bedroom that would be finished by the weekend, must all be left behind. Just go. Her daughter’s eyes flickering, like a trapped roo, neck-veins twitching, and young feet set like springs to bound. Tash pulled at her stepfather’s shirt and with all the instincts of pure terror, shoved, and dragged him towards the ute. “Now! Get in the bloody ute. It’s useless, now!”

mark, branding all in its punitive and sweeping possession you don’t own me it seems to sneer, and you never did. And that reclaiming, so indiscriminate, contrary. At once, expansive, and cruel, and then randomly undelivered. For while the shed, the car, the equipment, and many animals are gone, the house still stands. Dirty, scared and desolate in its little unburnt island, but standing. She has to keep telling herself, the biggest fears, the worst has not occurred. Life and home remain. She knows she will continue. But tiredness and dread pour into her limbs like fast setting concrete, It was the enveloping darkness that terrified, flicked the pressing into her chest and skull a switch in her head from stand and protect, to flee for your heaviness she fears she cannot lift. life. Somehow, Kel’s switch had stuck. She squealed at her “The house is fine. We’re all husband to leave the hose and buckets, leave the house he’d here. I’ve still got my computer, built piece by piece. All those hot afternoons levelling my clothes, and drawings. frames, laying bricks, the half-painted third bedroom that We’ve still got all our photos, would be finished by the weekend, must all be left behind. and Grandma’s necklace. We really are so lucky.” Tash winds her long arms about her mother’s shoulders. Then she remembers her boot upon the Kel continues loading rubbish into the trailer. pedal. Her eyes like lasers fixed to the road, and He hasn’t said much. They haven’t spoken yet every muscle threatening to seize. Somewhere, about the danger of his gamble to save the in that lung-crushing smoke, filthy heat, and house. She knows it could be the reason the crackling crescendo, a silent howl of sorrow house still stands. But they will never know imploded in her throat for all she left behind. how many minutes lay between nothing and Those last minutes still set to a torturous replay everything. She doesn’t want to know. on each sleepless night since the escape. “It’s just a pity we forgot to leave Aunty But she is luckier than most. And yet that Val’s Cross-Stich Opera House picture in the word tastes sour in her mouth. Standing, hands shed,” Tash adds, throwing what looks like the on hips, surveying flattened earth, rusted tin, the remains of a lawn mower in the trailer. smouldering ash piles of trees, and once-living “Ha. Maybe we did,” she laughs and rests things, luck is not a word that suits the scene. her head upon her daughter’s shoulder. All is toasted black and grey. Colours curled But yes, she is lucky. They are lucky. It just back to bone and murky brown. Country left its doesn’t feel like it yet.

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Vol. 4 • Issue 2


Band Class by Deryck N. Robertson I have stood at the front of children some eager and hopeful some filled with anger and hurt all offered the potential of lifetime friendships and the frustration of imperfection dented trombones and oxidized trumpets whose slides move hesitantly and clarinets as old as your father with sections that do not match squeaky saxophones and chipped drumsticks banging out unbalanced paradiddles but somewhere in the chaos of Bb concert of whole notes and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star of piercing noise and repetitive rehearsal is rough beauty and evolving elegance I stand there waving my arms and for the briefest of moments we are in that place that only musicians know exist

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Vol. 4 • Issue 2

Art in the Age of Isolation - Considering Relics | ELISABETH KELVIN


Where Muscle Connects to Bone by Darlene Pagán

The neurologist is a portly man with thinning gray hair and glasses. He walks us out of the exam room and sets toys down at the end of the hall. In my arms, my two and a half year-old son chews a wooden block as I stand beside my husband. We’re here at the recommendation of a physical therapist to understand why our son still walks on his right toe. Confused, I had asked, Why a neurologist? She only said, They see things we can’t. The neurologist points to the toys. “Tristen, can you bring one back to us?” I set Tristen down. He walks to the end of the hall, turns back with a shy smile, a ball in hand, and throws it. “That’s great,” the doctor says, waving him back. I fold my hands together, pleased my son has passed a test, though I have no clue about the subject or the rules. “Are you fast?” Tristen nods. “When I say go, race to those toys this time, as fast as you can. Go!” Tristen bolts down the hall, rocking from his left heel to his right toe, flapping his arms like a bird. He started walking on his toes at a year and a half, much later than we expected given that he pulled himself to a standing

position constantly at six months, and bounced with eagerness to move. When he planted the left foot, the pediatrician was sure the right would follow. It didn’t. Now, I see his movements aren’t just a function of his legs but his whole body. My face goes hot. How could I have missed this? The doctor checks Tristen’s movement and flexibility and near the end of the hourlong appointment, drags us through a murky pool of medicalese—something about brain processes, quadrants, spastic muscles. I catch an acronym. CP. “Wait,” I say, “CP?” “Cerebral palsy,” he says. My breath catches in my throat. “Are you saying Tristen has cerebral palsy?” The doctor shifts on his chair. “Hemiplegia in his case because it only affects the right side of his body.” Tristen squirms with impatience in his father’s lap. “You can see it in his right side?” I ask, incredulous. “Oh sure,” he says, pointing a thick finger, “you can even see it there in his face.” The tone startles me, and I can’t tell if the hot flash across my chest is embarrassment or Montana Mouthful | 11

anger. There? In his face? Where? I don’t hear what he says next. All I see are my son’s enormous blue eyes, smiling cheeks, wisps of sandy hair as he reaches for me. My husband asks a question. The doctor responds. Eventually, alarm stirs me. “What does this mean? What should we expect?” The neurologist shrugs. “Well, he’s probably never going to play professional basketball.” His mouth moves, but I’m stuck, like a record skipping in and out of the same groove, my head shaking. He’s never going to play professional basketball. I’ve never given it thought before, but it strikes me as a loss, a line drawn in the sand too early in my son’s short life. My scalp buzzes as I pull Tristen close. I push his hair back and mop the drool on his chin with my sleeve. “You can schedule the MRI on your way out,” he says, “I’ll let you know if there’s anything noteworthy. Otherwise, we’ll see you back next year.” We stand to leave, but I hesitate. I know I have questions. They’re already emerging in the fog of my brain, but not one of them comes fully formed, even as we’re ushered out. The doctor hands me a card for an orthopedic surgeon. “He can help you get Tristen into a leg brace to work on his flexion so we don’t lose any more ground.” Heart fluttering, I can only stare. I didn’t know we’d lost anything. The doctor shakes my husband’s hand. I hold my son close, a balm from the neurologist’s stinging matter-of-factness. On the drive home, my thoughts ping-pong, returning again and again to the same corner: how? If the damage occurred during pregnancy

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or at birth, when? What did I do? The pregnancy was easy, blissful. I’d never felt more grounded or vital. I didn’t even have morning sickness, though there was a moment during the delivery when Tristen’s heart rate dropped. Was that it? The doctor also said CP was static, and nothing would get worse, but that challenges might emerge with his development. He gave an example I cannot remember. How will I know? I grip the card in my lap. I search my son’s face in the visor mirror as if he might tell me. Wide-eyed, he watches smoke from a brush fire as he wolfs down fruit snacks. When we pull into our driveway, I shake my head, “I just don’t see it. Maybe his leg or the way he runs, but his face? Do you see it?” My husband hesitates, “No, but he seemed sure.” That night, I curl up on the floor and watch my son sleep. I worry over what I’ve missed, what I will still miss despite my diligence and care, whether or not I can trust what I see. The fear reaches deep, where muscle connects to bone. In the days and weeks and months to come, I’ll dive deep into the research and sometimes find my son there, smiling in its depths, but mostly, I won’t. I’ll realize that everybody is born with limits, and still limitless, and my fear will devour as much fuel as I give it. Over time, I work the fear loose when my son reaches for me, his face blooming with joy, and later, when he learns to ride a bike, or runs off the court after making a basket to hug me in celebration, and later, when he asks a girl to dance, and much later, nearly a man, when he dives from a cliff into deep waters, his youthful body spinning, his arms open wide.

Vol. 4 • Issue 2

Shelter from the Storm | G.J. GILLESPIE

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Vol. 4 • Issue 2

Art in the Age of Isolation–Lockdown Fireworks | ELISABETH KELVIN


Nineveh by Andrew Hanna A city, stranded by waves of bleached sand, Beached on the bleak shores of oblivion. Smoldering ruins beneath a merciless, scorching sun, Stretching forth into eternity. Loosened by its own doing, unraveled by others, Cursed, beloved, despised, adored— An echo of a greater past; a murky record etched into the desert plains And yet a memory remains. Once, perhaps, there was light, Bustling streets; avenues bejeweled in finery, Walls that rose like mountains above the shifting sands, A broken dream of immortality. Sunken in the windswept plain; pounded by relentless waves, Mired in avarice, in vanity, in sweeping hubris. A corrupted fantasy; a stilted song; a futile quest– Bells that chime no more. A city, bereft, condemned, forgotten, Vanishing like the trickling ice on a mountaintop, Its deeds, its past, its greatness stifled; sealed in chains, And yet a memory remains.

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A Reason to Grow Up by Maggie Ainsworth-Darnell

If Thanksgiving was a time to be thankful for what you have, 10-year-old you is grateful for your parents using some of their grant money to buy you a personal computer for school. Sitting on your leather couch next to your two pugs and eagerly waiting for the download of Wizards 101, you procrastinate packing for the road trip you and your family are about to go on. As soon as it was done, you beg your mom to allow you to show her the game. She tells you to run upstairs and take a shower first, and then she’ll take a break to watch you build a character. You bolt up the stairs. You hop into the shower trying to clean yourself as fast as humanly possible. The familiar sound of the door unlocking is registered in your subconscious. It was probably your mom’s boyfriend coming back from work. You hear voices. Not familiar voices. It’s probably nothing. Solicitors at the door doing early winter rounds asking people to donate to the church. These ended the same way every time. Your mom would tell them y’all weren’t interested, and if they ask further, she would say to them that the people in this house are Satanists. That would typically stop them in 16 | Montana Mouthful

their tracks. You aren’t, but at least they leave you alone. But they didn’t. The voices got louder and louder. It must be an alt-right Christian group preaching hate because your mom’s voice starts projecting louder and louder. You have never heard your mom yell before that moment. You shut off the water. You lock the drain to minimize sound. You step out of the shower, still wet with shampoo in your hair. Yelling grows to screaming. You grab a towel. You can feel your heart beating. You hide behind the door because you don’t know what is happening. Silent tears flow down your face, and you aren’t sure if you can’t hear yourself crying because your heartbeat is drumming in your ears. You know it is after a second as all the words they say become unintelligible. Gunshots. You hear two of them. It takes you a second to realize what the sound is cause you only ever heard it on TV. Silence follows. Not empty silence; it is a silence where the fan on the ceiling is way too loud, and you can still hear the tap dripping in the tub. Your breathing is echoing in the small space behind the bathroom door, and you can’t handle the deafening noise of the silence following the gunshots. Vol. 4 • Issue 2

You imagine your mother sprawled across the floor of the entrance to your childhood home. Imagine the slowly expanding pool of blood coming from her. Imagine your mom dead and having to live alone in the world. The ringing of the gunshots stays in your mind. Your memory is holding this moment to engrave the panic into the fabric of your reality. The only thing that pulls you out is the screech of the car seconds later, as you assume the shooter pulls away. You become overwhelmingly aware of your vulnerability. Alone. Naked. Young. Girl. Scared with nowhere to go. Moments pass. Silence continues. You wrap a towel tighter around yourself and sneak your way to the top of the stairs. You fully expect to see your mother’s body at the bottom. Crimson blood like in the cop shows you would watch with her. Your voice cracks weakly as you try to remember how to speak, calling out to her. Your mom turns the corner, and you remember how to breathe. Her face pulls itself together as it softens for your benefit. Some men held Mark at gunpoint and made him unlock the front door. They took everything, but everyone is fine. Go get washed off and get some clothes. The police will be here soon she says. You imagine an empty room, from your leather couch to all the books, but you take a moment and listen to your mother. You rinse your hair out and don’t bother with the rest. By the time you get your clothes on, the police are downstairs. The second wave of relief comes as you discover that they have only taken your electronics. Your couch and table are still there. Everything’s not lost, but your expectations were meager. It was the little things that made what happened sink in. Your brand new computer is gone. The Xbox 360 is gone, with your favorite

scooby doo game still in the disc slot. The television you would always watch reruns of Avatar the Last Airbender on, gone. The only things left in their place were partial fingerprints from the dust-covered shelves where items previously rested. You walk outside to call your dad with your mom to tell him what happened. They got divorced when you were two, and you travel back and forth every week. You figure you should say to him what happened. While your mom ducks under the caution tape, the police are finishing wrapping around your house, and you watch as the homicide and state guard vans pull up. You know the state guard is nearby, but you don’t understand why they are here. You don’t know this then, but you learn over the next four years that the leader of the three men that robbed your family at gunpoint murdered someone yesterday, raped multiple women before and after that day, and would go on to rob over a dozen houses just like yours. They were known as the John Boys, and your mom had just gotten the license plate number as she chased them out of the house. She only chased them after they threatened to go upstairs where you were. The bullets were fired at her because she was trying to protect you. That same car would give evidence to attach all of the crimes together. Something that the cops had speculated but would soon have evidence for. The detectives show up with the state guard because they have bullet-sniffing dogs that would soon match the shots fired at your mom to the murder weapon from the night before. You, being a child, are just excited to see the fluffy dogs coming to your house. You are very disappointed that you aren’t able to pet them, but you know they are working hard to keep you safe. Your father comes within a few short Montana Mouthful | 17

minutes and asks whether or not you want to go over to his place because you might feel safer there. You look to your mom, and two thoughts come to you. Your mom will protect you. Your mom needs you to be here with her right now. You only say the former out loud. You don’t want to acknowledge that you have a responsibility to help your mother stay strong. You have to be the active person in this home now. To comfort your crying family, help your mother through a breakup because of this night, to have teachers tell you that what

you are saying doesn’t happen to people who look like you, and to bond with your favorite waitress at your childhood restaurant who was raped at gunpoint two days later by the same men. You will comfort your friends during a school shooting years later because, as you’ll tell them then, this isn’t your first shooting, you know it won’t be the last, and it will always be someone else’s problem until it is yours. But by then you’ll be the one no one is going to hear when you ask for help or change.

Art in the Age of Isolation–Holiday Spread

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Vol. 4 • Issue 2


Thanks by Susan G. Duncan after Yusef Komunyakaa Thanks for the cellphone close at hand & the hand that closed around it & the hand that dialed. Thanks for the voice who answered & questioned & insisted I get your body from the bed to the floor & who persisted when the sheets conspired to hold you.

Thanks to your heart, alone only with me— & despite my inartful rhythm my hands to your chest my breath into your hollow throat & though it went quiet & a darkness like sleep held us— thanks to your heart for holding on & holding on until other hands took you & gave you back.

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Two Peas by Christi Krug

Karen forgot to roll down the car windows, and she’s smoking on I-5. It takes a few minutes for the smoke to reach the carpeted back of the station wagon where I ride with Nina. My throat fills with a tingling cloud. Nina and I roll on our backs, flip over on our elbows, and turn all the way around to make faces at the people in the cars behind us. At home, Karen empties two small boxes with red cellophane windows. Thin valentine cards flutter onto the vinyl daisy tablecloth. The kitchen smells of damp dog and rainsoaked grocery bags. I’m used to it. I can’t tell the cigarette smell anymore. “Pretty dumb,” says Nina, picking up a card shaped like a banana. The banana is wearing sunglasses. The flap says, You ap-peel to me, Valentine. I tug my shirt down over the top of my jeans. Karen bought this shirt when she took Nina and me school shopping. “I’ve never had a sister before,” Nina told me. “I’ve always wanted a sister.” She isn’t my real sister. She’s not even my half-sister, which is something complicated that Monica has, and Felice. Nina’s half-sister, halffriend; someone I never knew existed until this 20 | Montana Mouthful

school year, which is halfway over. It’s a halfway year, this year, with Mother in a halfway house and me in a foster home. Nobody knows when Mother will get better, but they said, the social worker said, it would take a year. I don’t know how time works sometimes. Is a year until the end of school? Around here you never know. My shirt faded, but it’s still pink, with an ice-cream soda and swirly letters and you can still read it. It says, “Thirst-Day.” Nina’s shirt is red, with french fries: “Fry-Day.” When Karen bought them, we wore them same days, even though one of us would match the Thursday, or the Friday, and the other wouldn’t. We wanted to match each other more than the day. Nina used to paint my fingernails. The social worker said I was well-adjusted. School was fine. Plenty of time. Even Larry Olson liked me, Larry Olson with wavy caramel hair who sprawled over his desk all day making everything a joke. I helped him in math. I read language arts instructions. Larry Olson got picked team captain for gym class, and also Trevor. All the girls have a crush on Trevor. His hair is as stuck up as he is, feathered and peaking like a flame. The boy who doesn’t get noticed is Gene Vol. 4 • Issue 2

Inner Peace | J.E. CRUM

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Russell, who wears shirts with buttons and smells like guest room soap. He never needs help on anything. I like a boy like that, who doesn’t need anyone. I’m used to all of it now. But when I was just getting used to fall, Christmas came jerky and fast, a Charlie Chaplin movie. I saw my grandma. She gave me this watch, Swiss, with painted Edelweiss. “You always go places and get cool things from your grandma,” said Nina. “I never get to go anywhere.”

“Cute,” I say. “You give that to someone special,” says Nina. “Someone you actually love.” Anymore, Nina’s too busy to do stuff with me. She’s got cheerleading, and Algebra tests. Her room needs organizing. She’s filling a box on her bed with junk for Salvation Army. She scoops up her half of the valentines. As she walks out, I look at my watch. I have things, I know things, I can look busy too. Alone at the table. I fold hearts, lick envelopes, and write names with purple Doodle Art pen. I don’t want to give Nina a Nina gives me a valentine and I pull hers better valentine than what she’ll give me. That would mean I like from my stack. I glance up while opening the her more than she likes me back. envelope flap. This is the part where you look For Nina, I label the pear. Love, Christy. In pencil. In case I surprised and delighted and say thank you and change my mind. “Let’s wear our Thirst-Day, how sweet. Things you don’t mean. Fry-Day shirts on Valentine’s!” I tell her on Monday. She’s doing But Nina has Karen and Ned for her own her Spanish homework. She says, sure, whatreal parents, and I’m the only one who came ever, but doesn’t look up. from somewhere else. On Tuesday, I wear my shirt by myself. It “This valentine is for someone you don’t doesn’t match the day, but it’s pink. I give Larry really like,” says Nina, picking up the card with Olson the orange valentine: Orange you glad the grinning corn stalk. Don’t be corny, be mine. we’re friends? “Roger,” I say. He’s the kid down the block who The banana goes to Trevor, who thinks he’s likes Nina and wears heavy Wranglers. “He appealing. walks like there’s a hockey stick up his butt.” I write Gene Russell’s name on Two Peas. Nina laughs. It’s good to make her laugh. At lunchtime, I throw it in the trash. I give Nina taps the wobbly smile of a green fruit him a Bugs Bunny valentine I find in my desk. with her chipped plum fingernail. We make quite Larry Olson forgot his valentines. Only a pear, Valentine. “You give this to someone you Monica gives me a good one: an upside-down like okay.” hippo that says, I’m head over heels for you. I nod. Nina gets another. Two peas round, After school, I come through the garage. smiley, and cuddled in greenness. A cardboard box sits by the door. I fold it open, “Peas be my podner,” reads Nina. “It’s my poke through sneakers and frayed playing cards. favorite.” There’s Nina’s red Fries-Day shirt. I fold the 22 | Montana Mouthful

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cardboard shut. Karen is setting out valentine cupcakes with sweethearts, a smell like sweet chalk. The phone rings. I try not to listen, but it’s my social worker. “Sorry to hear that,” says Karen. “Well, you can’t hurry these things.” Her voice is tight. “She’s staying much longer than we originally planned.” She doesn’t know I’m in the living room until she goes to sit with Ned on the couch. Nina leans against the wall copying problems from her Algebra book. Under the coffee table, Lowell is poking the cat who is trying to catch a few winks before someone boots her outdoors. Barney’s sucking his thumb and yanking his blanket. Karen says, “What shall we talk about? Christy. Tell us what you know—” What I don’t know is so much bigger than anything, and I’ll never get used to it. “. . . about sex,” Karen finishes. She laughs her cigarette-butterscotch-laugh. My breath swells. I can feel it making a huge, hot pink ruff around my throat, like a lizard’s. It’s not something Grandma would say. Or Mother. Around here, you never know. “What did one potato chip say to the other potato chip?” says Karen. Nina leans forward, shakes her head. “Are you Frito Lay?” “Ha!” Nina covers her mouth and sputters. She eyes me, whispering to the inside of her

arm, “Christy doesn’t get it.” “Do too,” I say. “Explain it, then!” Ned laughs right along with Karen, his Coors beside him on the square of floor by the fireplace. Dinnertime, we pass mashed potatoes and corn and meatloaf. “Valentines before cupcakes,” says Karen. I run and get the ones on my dresser. For the people who are halfway my family. I want them whole, and mine, and always, like the best valentine. But even your favorite shirt fades before you’re ready. Nina gives me a valentine and I pull hers from my stack. I glance up while opening the envelope flap. This is the part where you look surprised and delighted and say thank you and how sweet. Things you don’t mean. I am still looking at Nina when I pull out Two Peas. Podners. Please, it says. I look down. “Happy Valentine’s day,” says Nina. “You, too.” There’s a choke of scared and wishing in my throat, because the words weren’t ready to come out. I got to see my Grandma at Christmas, and she gave me a Swiss watch with a hinged cover. I open my watch and shut it again. The face is always hiding. You know it’s there, underneath the painted flowers, but you don’t really know what time it is. Half past whenever.

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Montana by Thomas Turman Along with dusty farm pickups and menacing big rigs, we get the traveling salesman’s early start. In the high desert, the sun rudely leaps up over everything eastern collecting the blue-gray coolness into shadows of morning. We sail through silent, sandy oceans of ochre, low-brush covered waves stretching to the sun. We feel the silent symphonic change of saltbush music waiting patiently to become slow-you-down hot. A quick sideways glance picks up tiny bits of wildflower color in the sea of gently waving brown. The long shadow poetry of early morning begs for a second look, a third look, and finally a permanent place in memory. In the heat of the day, we approach erosion carved hills as introduction to the violent mountains in the distance. We pass up through roast-beef-red cuts in hard hills sculpted for us by hardhat engineer/artists of the 20’s. Rising up again, who can resist staring at dirty yellow roadwork giants straining to carve and flatten Montana’s rocky fields. Up, up the Rising To The Sun highway to bald, breathtaking view to coast down between chalky white slopes on our shiny black ribbon. No-stoplight-towns that time forgot with better-time brick buildings and worn out gathering-place cafes, where generations of weatherworn faces under sweat stained Stetsons gather to silently discuss their world. Wide backed ranchers hunched over breakfast and coffee cups filled by solid women who call everyone ‘Hon’ 24 | Montana Mouthful

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New Growth After Fire | MEG FREER

Forming a solid wall of snap button shirts, Levis and working boots that doesn’t invite urban small-talk conversation. I know these towns from 50’s travels; they waited unchanged for my return to show me their solid, tough, lasting stability. Montana, Montana, killer cold and then deathly hot, you can’t seem to make up your mind. Windows open, at 65 miles an hour, we smell, hear and feel you in damp sage, meadowlark and approaching mirage. Deadly rattlesnake desert or bear and moose traffic jam wilderness is why we come to see you. Montana, Montana; you Blackfeet/white face nation of history and sadness towering and then stretching out flat to embrace the Dakotas, you demand that we soak up your silky rough beauty, and return again and again.

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Kitsune’s Cup by Jay O’Neal

I suppose I would have normally looked for a Coffee Time or Tims, but tonight was different for two reasons. My brother had given me twenty bucks and I’d be getting back whatever I spent. Kitsune’s Cup was an independent little café with the outline of a fox’s face as the logo. The chairs were uncomfortable and the small metal table had an uneven surface, so it was difficult to put your cup down without a coaster. It was also one of those places where you ask for a large and they tell you, no, it’s a JUMBO here, or a Giga-Coffee, or some silly name like that. And the barista—because it’s never just a worker, it’s always a barista—smiles like it’s okay that you made the mistake; she gets it all the time. Pardon my outlook but I’m 47, unemployed and, legally speaking, homeless. I usually wouldn’t find myself in a joint like this. But like I said, tonight was different. When I sat on the hard steel chair, a realization occurred. I actually looked the part of a Kitsune’s Cup regular. I was shaven, washed with soap and wearing my brother’s expensive clothes. The only giveaway was that I kept my tattered Nike shoes; everyone else in the snowy world was now wearing boots. Still, I looked like I fit 26 | Montana Mouthful

in. I didn’t feel it, but with my shoes tucked under the table, I looked it. The coffee burnt my tongue, so I removed the lid and balanced it on the coaster. The snow was piling outside. It was a cold night—maybe even colder than the one before— so I was glad for the coffee. Coffee Time was doing ‘buck a cup’ week, and Tims still had Roll Up going on, but I couldn’t go there. Those places had CCTVs. Sure, Kitsune’s cost me $3.50 for a cup, but I’d get it back. This little cafe, this family-run, hipster place, had no cameras; just two workers. I took a tiny sip, but the coffee still burnt. I tried to put the lid back on, but the table shook, so I left it. Anyway, better to sit back and let it cool while I considered how to do what I came here for. My baby brother let me sleep at his downtown condo last night because it hit -22° Celsius. According to him, it ‘felt worse’ with the wind chill, but I’m not sure how he came to know that. He fed me and gave me the twenty bucks—ten for a proper meal the next day (today) and ten for a bed at a shelter the next night (tonight). If you think that’s low, then you don’t know my brother or what he’s already done for me. Even I can admit—at my worst, Vol. 4 • Issue 2

too – that he’s the only person really trying to I could easily stun her with a quick rabbit help me. My parents never have (and at 47, I’ve punch and flee north. She’d never see me. I now surrendered hope) and my friends do what knew people up north who could get me work. they can, but they’re about as transient as I am. Joey D’Angelo could give me a job in his lumCallum only took me in last night because ber yard. I’d done it before when I was at rock he felt justified by the ‘extreme cold alert.’ But bottom—not worked lumber, but robbed folks he kept telling me that he couldn’t keep helping and fled. I was there now. Rock bottom was a me—couldn’t keep being a last resort—because familiar setting, but it almost didn’t feel bad to I had to stand on my own. I knew that our sit in Kitsune’s Cup, waiting. If only the chairs parents had warned him about being an enabler were comfier. and, since they frowned upon him for it, it was An elderly couple came in and sat down, something he felt deeply; my brother had always removing their jackets and laying a newspaper taken our parents too seriously. I blew on the cup and took a sip; it was still hot, but bearable. Normally when I hit rock bottom, I also look it. It warmed both the stomach I even smell it. It’s ground deep into the layers of and the hands. my skin and it hangs on the clothes I wear, even if I’d always gotten into trouble at the shelters, so I didn’t consider I’ve only worn them for a day. But my brother’s outfit them a good option. It was true, was like armor. I could still smell his Old Spice body I’d sometimes pay the ten bucks and duck into Eastminster church wash from this morning, an enchanted perfume masking my identity.” if I found myself downtown in a blizzard, but I wouldn’t stay for breakfast. I’d know too many faces at the table, and those faces would make me out on their table. They couldn’t stop me, but anxious. But being at Kitsune’s, in the costume I still watched to see what they’d do before I I was in, felt surprisingly comforting despite the acted. Perhaps they could distract the barista hard metal chair. It was just me, the small Asian while I did the deed. I waited while they settled barista, someone working in the back and a in at a pace only the elderly can know. The huswell-dressed customer working away on an band spoke a few words with his wife and then Apple computer. The typing lady wasn’t paying went to the counter to order. The rich lady clacked me any attention and the barista, if I had to away at her laptop, not tearing her eyes from the comment, didn’t seem to mind me. screen. My coffee was cooling quickly without The coffee was finally drinkable, but I was the lid, but I paid it no attention. It was time. more interested in the people. It might be easier Normally when I hit rock bottom, I also look to just rob the wealthy customer. She was closest it. I even smell it. It’s ground deep into the layers to the door and was wearing valuable assets on of my skin and it hangs on the clothes I wear, her ears, neck and fingers. And how much could even if I’ve only worn them for a day. But my I get for the laptop? I adjusted in my seat while brother’s outfit was like armor. I could still smell I weighed my options. his Old Spice body wash from this morning, an

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enchanted perfume masking my identity. Kitsune’s Cup still had some holiday decorations up. They were one of those places that made the effort of writing ‘happy holidays’ instead of merry Christmas. The big banner streaking across the entrance read ‘HAPPY NEW YEAR 2014’ above the logo of the establishment. There were bookshelves on the far wall, but I couldn’t tell if the books were real or not. The elderly man was slowly returning from the counter with a croissant and two steaming cups on a tray; my own coffee no longer had any steam rising and would have been safe enough for a toddler to drink if it wasn’t so caffeinated. “’Scuse me? Can you watch my stuff?” The well-dressed lady had slid off her chair and was in my face, smiling with her head tilted to one side. She looked like she worked long days in an office. “Huh?” “Can you watch my stuff for a minute?” The lady, her smile frozen on her face, gestured to her laptop and jacket while maintaining eye contact. “Oh. Sorry. Yeah, yeah. Sure thing.” I flashed my best smile as she turned for the

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restroom. I sipped my coffee to look casual, but it was no longer warm enough to be enjoyed. I didn’t love coffee, but it warmed me better than a tea. The laptop was open to Microsoft Excel and had a Blackberry plugged into the side, charging. Beside it was a half-eaten carrotwalnut muffin. The elderly man rose to get a few napkins, but the barista, seeing this, grabbed a handful and cut him off between the counter and the table, proudly beaming as she handed them over. The old man was sitting down again when the lady came out of the restroom, smiled at me and took her seat without a word. She typed away. I put the lid on my cup, looked around the snug café, curled my toes away from the holes in my Nikes and left. I poured my coffee into a snowbank, staining the icy canvas, and tossed my cup atop a shut dumpster. A streetcar was coming and, though my destination was within walking distance for a guy like me, I decided to board it. I had the funds and was heading downtown to look for a place where I knew I could get a warm bed—and maybe even some breakfast in the morning.

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After the Second Shot | K.L. JOHNSTON

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Relapse by Melanie Ahlf

I start drinking again, not with any real intent, but with a very real, lack thereof. I leave a door in my mind cracked open—just an inch. I’m back at “home,” which is my mom’s house in Arboles, Colorado. I’m staying with her for a few transitional weeks over the holidays. I just left NYC and am en route to New Mexico, awaiting my boyfriend Kevin who is finishing tying up loose ends in the city before joining me. It’s December, so everything is brown. There is old snow, crusted grey against a bank of dead reeds and frozen mud. I am agitated by the holidays and the loneliness that hollows out my bones. I love my mom, but being alone with her in the tiny house, surrounded by Christmas lights, Snowbabies and stockings, fills me with the silence of an empty home. The absence of family and laughter. Normally it’s tolerable, but the holidays suffuse everything with nostalgic, useless pain. And so I’ve agreed to meet Adia in Durango for “drinks”. I haven’t seen her since her wedding the summer we graduated from high school. We were seventeen and I got so drunk I passed out under the gift table in my bridesmaid’s dress. I avoided being in Arboles as much as possible throughout my college years at CU Boulder, but 30 | Montana Mouthful

now I’m back. I’ve been sober for a little over a year and am committed to it, but something stops me from telling Adia about it on the phone. I simply say, “yes,” when she suggests happy hour and agree to meet her at the Office—an old bar on Main Street that is full of lustrous wooden furniture and heavy upholstery—not a place we snuck into in high school. It’s a forty-five minute drive from my mom’s house to the bar. It’s dusk and as Pinions and deer blur past my window, scenarios begin to play in my head… “I could just not mention that I’m sober. She would never know. I could just have one drink like a normal person…” These thoughts make my pulse elevate and ignite flames in my stomach, similar to the feelings I had when I was sixteen, making this same drive to an older boy’s house. Now, it’s the yearning to be normal. Booze is exciting, but beyond that, it’s the allure of being an autonomous being once again. It’s the electric buzz of being able to be someone I’m not—to be someone else. No one knows me here anymore. Back in New York, my choosing to quit drinking caused upheaval in our friend group. I got a lot of strained pats on the back and forced “good jobs.” There were also blatant eye rolls Vol. 4 • Issue 2

and the ever-present line, “but you don’t have like watery velvet. I watch the level of Adia’s a problem.” chocotini, not wanting to drink more than her “Yes, I do and so do you,” but I kept my or faster. She asks me questions about living in mouth shut and slowly slipped away into the New York with such enthusiasm that it breaks dark silence of ostracization. Ever stubborn and my heart a little. She wanted to get out of here also terrified, I refused to replace my drinking more than any of us, but got married instead. I friends with twelve step friends and so I found tell her about the city, carefully sidestepping the myself lonely. I never entertained the idea of large chunk where I’d been sober and spent drinking again because I thought my friends most of my time wandering the city on foot, would mock and judge me. I felt stupid. Fear and youthful selfconsciousness kept me sober for a But now I’m free. Adia doesn’t know anything about this version of me. I park my Xterra a few blocks away in free while. But now I’m free. Adia doesn’t public parking and walk through the biting evening air to know anything about this version the bar where she and I hug and laugh and hug some more. of me. I park my Xterra a few I missed her. She is familiar—this is the feeling of home blocks away in free public parking I’ve been wanting. Minutes later, after I take a drink of my and walk through the biting extra dirty martini, I descend to an even deeper level of evening air to the bar where she and I hug and laugh and hug home--in front of the warm hearth of booze where I am some more. I missed her. She is safe and protected. Where no one will ever hurt me. familiar—this is the feeling of home I’ve been wanting. Minutes later, after I take a drink of my extra half hoping to crack the code to my existential dirty martini, I descend to an even deeper level tumult, half hoping to be hit by a cab. of home—in front of the warm hearth of booze “Oh my god, yes, it was so much fun. I mean, where I am safe and protected. Where no one it’s super expensive and crowded and I couldn’t will ever hurt me. stand it by the time I left, but there was someAdia is telling me about life in Durango, her thing magical about it too. I’m glad I had the family and her husband Rocky. I smile and nod, experience,” I say. but I can’t hear her over my own silent dialogue. She asks about Kevin. I wish I remembered if “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m drinking a I was enthused by him then or not. I remember martini. I hope no one sees me. This is amazing. missing him intensely, but that’s what I do best. What am I doing? This is horrible. I am horrible. Miss people. I don’t remember if we had a third I want another one. What if I’m too drunk to round or not and I suppose the lack of memory drive? Ha! I can’t believe I’m drinking! What. points toward yes. The. Fuck? I love vodka!” Adia and I say goodnight and hug goodbye Our server approaches in her black pants and with promises exchanged to keep in better matching vest, “Do you girls want another round?” touch. It’s dark, but I need time to process my We nod in unison. thoughts so I walk up and down main street a Condensation forms on the side of my glass couple of times in the cold, night air before

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deciding to drive home. I feel pretty sober, which is alarming, but favorable. I crank my stereo and the heater and drive back to my mom’s in a state of sweet abandon—the alcohol insulates me against worry and guilt. Again, reminiscent of feelings of being a rebellious teenager. Only now I’m rebelling against myself. Am I a drinker again? No. Not yet. I don’t have to tell anyone, I can just sit on this for now and decide later. But the booze feels good. It feels like being hugged by an old friend. An old friend who knows me better than anyone else. I wish I understood what it was about alcohol that made it such a good companion. I’ve dabbled in many mood altering substances, many illicit drugs that push dopamine and yet, nothing spoke to my heart like alcohol. I see now that that night with Adia was the perfect storm. She and I began drinking together when we were thirteen. I was home and triggered. I was anonymous. I was lonely. Sad. It was Christmas. Everything was pointing me toward drinking the martini. But had I had resolve, I never would have touched it. Had I told her on the phone before we met that I was sober, I would have been fine. I didn’t rush back into drinking, but slowly reclined into it. I drifted for a year and half having a margarita here and a few glasses of red there and then suddenly I was single again, in

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Denver—a new city. I was lonely, scared and angry. I’d already started smoking cigarettes again—Marlboro Reds and my new friends in Denver all drank, everyone in Denver drank it seemed, except for my best friend from college, Angela, who was the reason I’d chosen Denver. Her uptight boyfriend was in PA school and didn't like me. She slowly distanced herself from me. I think about how much better off I would have been if I’d tried harder with her, had been less drunk and obnoxious and hadn’t rushed so quickly into the arms of my new drinking buddies. But the past is the past. I drank heavily for another ten years before finally quitting again. It was a brutal decade— a grey rollercoaster of stagnation—spent numb and hungover, going through the motions of adulthood, hairstyling, relationships and self-harm. Treating my depression with cocktails and the noise of friends in loud bars. I escaped myself. I lost myself. My old story was dusty and dehydrated. My old story is about being a sad, broken little girl, living inside of an angry woman’s body. It’s a story of slow escalation, of becoming a bad drunk and fighting with my girlfriend until our relationship became so tattered that sobriety was the only glue that seemed strong enough to repair it. My new story is one of recovering myself.

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Sunset Sea Pods | MARK HURTUBISE

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Village of One 34 | Montana Mouthful

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Trees Have Their Ways by Linda Vigen Phillips It's the behavior of trees that vexes, the way those by the roadside lean so wantonly over traffic, lured by news across the way the thrill of living on the edge. Others stray tall, begging down fire from a wire or the sky bearing errant branches making risky turns that defy logic or the pursuit of life.

In the end if you stood for something the dust will savor you forever.

If we could listen to the code embedded in the concentric rings, —played like the needle on an old L.P.— would we heed the decree? Calculate your path follow the light consider your neighbors smile back at the sun seek the counsel of raindrops celebrate the forest be wary the blight in old age.

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Tattoos by Howard Moon

When they came in, I tensed for trouble— shaved heads and tattoos. They were emblazoned with the sign of the Swirling Log. Among my people, the Diné—it was our symbol of humanity and life, used in many of our Navajo healing ceremonies. I had learned long before leaving the reservation that our symbol had come to represent hate among the whites. I looked toward the door as another customer came in. She was tall, straight, and dignified despite her apparent advanced years. My Grandmother came to mind. Being over a thousand miles from home working my way through college as a cashier in a local convenience store, I missed the comforting wisdom of Grandmother. Their shopping done my two decorated shoppers came to the register. They could not resist taunting. One raised his hand with his palm facing me. “How” was all he said. The other called me “Tonto” and announced, “Nice braids.” I silently checked them out, and they left without incident. The old woman had been waiting behind them with her purchases—cookies, a carton of

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milk, and two tins of soup. She smiled. The total displayed on the register. I began to put her items into a worn canvass bag she had brought with her. On the bag was a faded star formed by two intersecting triangles. Age had nearly erased the message it once displayed, Never Forget. She counted out coins from a cloth purse with a metal clasp. The kind that grandmothers everywhere always seem to have. The left sleeve of her shirt rode up as she counted, displaying a faded, almost invisible tattoo on her forearm. I glanced away self-consciously, but she noticed and pulled her sleeve down covering the mark that had to bring with it so many terrible memories. My mind went to the tattoos on the earlier skin heads. Tattoos, I thought. Very different tattoos both invoking memories of a time most would want to forget. A time that as her faded canvas bag reminded us, we should Never Forget. As she put the exact change in my hand, her fingers lingered just a bit longer than they needed to. I looked deeply into her eyes. There

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Budding Through Iron | K.L. JOHNSTON

was no hint of frailness there. Only the strength that comes from surviving. In that instant, I remembered Grandmother telling me stories of our ancestors. Of their long march under harsh conditions—of our genocide.

As she left, she whispered, “It will be okay.” Watching her walk out of the door, my lips formed the words, Thank you, Grandmother, I will Never Forget.

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Today and Tomorrow by Chloe Scheuch

Today, my brother calls me as I’m trying to fall asleep. It is a facetime; a rarity because I don’t get to see his face often. “I have a surprise for you,” He says into the phone. I cannot see his face yet. When he points the camera to himself I see that he has shaved his entire head. It isn’t the same buzz cut from our childhood but a complete, to-the-skull shave. He is laughing at my lack of words. His skull looks bumpy and alien like. “I am free!” he finally says after a few moments. Free from his early onset balding, I presume. I begin laughing with him, at his impulsiveness mostly but at his alien skull too. Tomorrow my mother will get a phone call while we are shopping for her upcoming vacation to Florida. There are many things in her hands but she drops them all when she hears this man speak. “Shattered?” she says quietly into her phone. I am standing with her now, collecting the bathing suits and sun hats she has dropped on the floor. “And which hospital did you say?” She is very white now, almost unrecognizable.

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She hands me her credit card, tells me to purchase everything in our hands and then rushes to the parking lot to get the car. Three days ago my brother texts me pictures of tiny monkeys. “I can’t get over these monkeys,” He writes. I chuckle when I read these words. He is an anomaly, a childhood prodigy, the go to question answer-er. He is an aberration. “Are you well?” I respond, curious why he is searching pictures of monkeys. “Incredible,” he writes back. Tomorrow my brother will be strapped into an ambulance. An EMT will call my mother when they have him stabilized. My mother will place the call on speakerphone so that I can hear too. “Hello, Martine.” He begins and my heart drops because I think this is the call, the same call that she received years ago about my father. The one where we find out he is dead. “We are about 4 minutes out from the hospital.” He begins to explain the incident but my ears are already ringing.

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I am lying on the couch staring at the ceiling. I am replaying all of my brother’s idiosyncrasies in my head. I am thinking about the way he says my name and his predisposition to quoting bad movie lines. I am thinking about his alien

skull, the one he showed me just days earlier. It is shaved as short as it can go which feels like a miracle now, because far away doctors won’t have to search through blood matted hair to find my favorite parts of him.

Bombs Away | JIM ROSS

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Art in the Age of IsolationDistance and Other Strains


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Art in the Age of IsolationCovid Dreams

I Can Only Imagine | G.J. GILLESPIE

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But for the Grace of Maynard by William Burtch

The Wyoming sun was low. As such, her shadow reached the front stoop long before she. Inside, he pondered if a bullet through a wood door would have enough umph left over to do the job. He had once dropped two deer firing only one shot. The second deer killed after the slug passed through the first. But that was a different time. I know you’re in the house, she yelled. Through the closed door he inquired whether she was still the same restless wild woman. Just free. Free range is more like it, he said. The only chicken around here is you. Afraid of life, she snapped. Each forever fuel to the hot flames of the other. Enough to light the prairie sky red. Please. Let me in, she pleaded. The door rattled like gallows with each knock. She turned to face the road. The breeze coming off of the bleak landscape lifted strands of graying ginger hair from her forehead, as if on the finger of a lover. Prolific mounds of crabgrass accented the unkempt yard. Small deer tracks were in the mud. A yearling. Those of a coyote were pressed right on top. Lots of 42 | Montana Mouthful

fresh dog turds interspersed. Out in the truck her new boyfriend sat smoking a Camel. She loved every little thing he did. The bigger things he did she could do without. I’m here for the dog, she yelled, turning back to the door. To pick up Maynard. The man in the house said nothing. In accordance with our papers, you get Maynard on weekends. Weekends are still only two days long, I’d imagine. You’re going on like ten of them now. Well, the thing is Maynard died. Fell over like a bowling pin, he yelled. Buried him in the compost. She turned to assess the freshness of the poop in the grass. A guttural bark leapt from the house. You’re pathetic, she said. Maynard knows I’m out here. Let him out so I can get going. You got Mister Dreamboat with you? He has a name. It’s Rhodes. Rhodes is in the truck kindly waiting for you to act your age. Of course he is. Sitting there in the truck that I bought, don’t you forget. You got the house. And Maynard on weekends. Vol. 4 • Issue 2

He peered out through the slats and studied She brushed her hand against one of the Rhodes in the truck. Rhodes was cleaning his chairs. Then off the stoop she stepped. ear with a wood screw. Inside, he crushed an empty Olympia Always the fixer you are, the man in the can and stood to go to the fridge for another. house said. You found me, fixed me, got bored Maynard, with his sloppy graying hound face, with me. Now on to the next. followed along, tail wagging a lazy beat. Only thing you ever fixed was Maynard. Saved your smelly hide again, the man said. You’re still the same louse you always were. You and your fleas can keep me company a No. No. You love ‘em when they’re broken. bit longer. Dangerous. Unpredictable. I’m a contented old man. Nonsense. There was a long silence. The moan of a tractor Leave me a few more days dropping hay to cattle over a mile away the only with Maynard. He never liked you sound. That and a couple of quail trying to locate anyhow. He loves me, she said. More their covey across the road. Rhodes rolled down than you ever did. If you ever did. the truck window. Smoke fell out then lifted on I loved you once. the breeze like a restive ghoul. He gave her a look Well. that said “let’s get.” They were on the way to cash There was a long silence. The moan of a tractor dropping hay to her paycheck. cattle over a mile away the only sound. That and a couple of quail trying to locate their covey across the road. He opened the fridge. Next to an abundance Rhodes rolled down the truck window. Smoke of beer was the remainder of the sub sandwich fell out then lifted on the breeze like a restive he had picked up at the Fuel Up Qwick ‘N Go. ghoul. He gave her a look that said “let’s get.” The wrapper was soaked through but it passed They were on the way to cash her paycheck. the sniff test. Fresh can and sub in hand, She turned to the door to yell again but he ambled back toward his chair. Maynard nothing came out. Taking a few steps, she had sat down by his empty food bowl. He stopped next to two faded pine porch chairs. poured out a whine that concluded with a She thought about the day they had bought stomach growl. them at the dollar store. How they had joked Well, shit. Here you go Maynard, you bone about sitting there listening to the crickets bag, he said, as he let the sandwich roll out of when they got old and achy. She remembered its wrapper and plop into the dog bowl. He how he would reach over and tickle her behind stooped and tickled the hound behind the ear. her ear as they sat in them. Usually that led Reaching his chair, he looked again out the from one thing to the next, sometimes right front window. It was starting to get dark much there on the front porch. earlier. That slate tinted sky gave it away. Winter’s Come on, Doll, Rhodes yelled. He flashed rolling in, he noted aloud. some kind of rock ‘n roll code with his hand. Almost time to bring in those chairs.

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Map of Blessings by Elise Neuman

I made myself a map of the route back home It’s painted across my skin In cat scratch scars and sun born freckles Tiger stripes on my thighs and ever fading bruises. In the mirror I read them like a sailor reads the stars Finding my way back to myself Into my body and into my soul where I’m safe And loved

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Heartburst by Rick Krizman

When Claire, my eighteen-year-old, popped into my study and asked if I wanted to “go do the bikes,” of course I said “yes.” Lately I’d been carrying around my sixty-one years like they were extra-large bags of Kingsford charcoal— the nineteen dollar twofer from Smart and Final—one on each shoulder, not quite the world on top of Atlas, but to me just as heavy. I fished around in a bottom drawer, the one I hadn’t opened in at least five years, and found an ancient pair of cotton gym shorts which I pulled on over my boxers. I was scrunching down the tops of my Dad-socks when Claire flashed into the closet, ready to go. She was wearing matte-black space-age-material leggings and a fluorescent green top, hair in a ponytail, with fresh blush and a bit of something on her eyes, not quite all-business. She gave my saggy shorts a dim look. “Are they too baggy?” I asked. After a moment of first-year-in-college calculation she said, “It’ll be dark,” but her voice lacked its usual conviction. We grabbed towels and water bottles, and headed for the car, me still wondering why anyone would want to ride a bicycle that didn’t go anywhere. 46 | Montana Mouthful

The sense of approaching doom, which often went with my willingness to do my daughters’ every bidding, swelled in me like a swallowed toad as we parked in front of the glass windows and walked past the yin/yang sign into a bright lobby. There, a gaggle of tank-topped and ponytailed women of much less than a certain age were gabbing beneath a lime-green sign that spelled out SOULCYCLE. The aroma of candy lip gloss, female deodorant, and fresh sweat combined into a chlorophyllic waft of life springing anew, causing me to wonder, not for the first time, if there was a characteristic old-guy smell that might emanate from me, despite the Mennen’s stick that I’d layered on beneath my vintage, though freshly laundered, CBGB tee-shirt. I looked to Claire for reassurance and saw that she was already opening like a rose in the fecund humidity. She smiled back like it was her birthday. “You know, they sell workout shorts here,” she said, “but they all say something about SOULCYCLE, so maybe you don’t want—” “No problem. Help me find an extra-large.” I tried on some black thing that was a little longer and a little tighter than my current rig Vol. 4 • Issue 2

and that did in fact have a better look about it. “The only gear we have . . . is GO!” The I wore it to the counter and the girl said, synths climaxed into a thundering bass line and “Seventy-three dollars, shall I put it on the card?” simultaneously fifty lithe bodies, and me, with a “Seventy-three dollars!” I’m loud when I get collective inhale, stood, leaned forward, and excited. A part of me wanted to storm off to began pumping like mad. The whole room Big 5 and pay fifteen bucks for some perfectly seemed to elevate off its foundations, and soon serviceable cotton shorts, but of course that’s my breath was rasping and wheezing like a what I already had so I said, “Fine, put it on the broken accordion. Muscles I never knew I had card.” As I felt their slick pressure against my were screaming in terror. Surely I’d ridden a thighs and the way they snugged against my bike before. Our mistress of the dark barked waist I drew myself up a little taller and tucked orders—up, down, faster, you’re on fire, you’re in my gut. I turned away from the counter and bitches—and the music grew impossibly louder, the girl reminded me to take the Lulu Lemon until the only elements of my consciousness tag off the back. were her sharp commands, the rhythm that was We entered a darkened room where an displacing my heartbeat, and pain that drifted army of cycling machines stood in battle-ready away from me, assuming a life of its own. columns. Claire helped me lace on the special Everything gets fuzzy at this point, but shoes that would clip into the pedals and positioned me on a There, a gaggle of tank-topped and ponytailed bike, adjusting the size with pracwomen of much less than a certain age were ticed efficiency. Other young ladies were snapping into their gabbing beneath a lime-green sign that spelled out machines and sizing up their posSOULCYCLE. The aroma of candy lip gloss, ture and game face in the wall-tofemale deodorant, and fresh sweat combined into wall mirrors. Soon, like the a chlorophyllic waft of life springing anew, causing opening of a Pink Floyd concert, the lights dimmed and a throbme to wonder, not for the first time, if there was a bing beat faded in from the surcharacteristic old-guy smell that might emanate rounding JBL loudspeakers, synchronizing our pulses as lights from me, despite the Mennen’s stick that I’d layered on beneath my vintage, though freshly laundered, potted up on a stage where a raven-haired, Amazon-ish woman CBGB tee-shirt.” perched tall on a bike. She looked like she was built out of steel cabling and iron ingot, or maybe uranium, and as I do remember glancing over at Claire, who was her gaze passed over me I felt a shadow cross riding along happily as if she just got out of my heart. She began pedaling her bike in time school and might have had a puppy in her bike with the drum and as synthesizers opened their basket, smelling the flowers, enjoying the filters and circled the room with ascending sawimaginary country air. She smiled at me. “You tooth waves she spoke into her headpiece, her okay, Dad?” Well, no. I dug back in, thinking voice booming out over the music track. that relentless cheerfulness can sometimes be

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a form of terrorism. So just as a mother forgets the pain of childbirth . . . no, strike that. Really, no metaphor was necessary to amplify my immense relief when the volume and tempo of the music diminished, we eased back on our machines, and somebody decided to let air back into the room. I detached and dismounted slowly, sweat-soaked and sagging, with a sense that everyone around me was moving too fast, like hummingbirds. I was almost too shaky to stand, embarrassed for myself and for my daughter, feeling stupid for pretending to be forty years younger. We filed out past the stage where I looked up and thanked the young lady “for the nice workout.” She reached down for my hand, gave it a dry, vise-like squeeze—titanium, I thought, not uranium. She pulled me closer, into her aura of sweat, determination, and take-noprisoners achievement, and said, “You. Are. A. Beast. You’re an effing beast.

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You know that?” she hissed, then almost knocked me off my rubbery legs with a highfive. I wobbled out behind Claire, and used my last reserve of energy to change back into my street shoes and find the door. Outside the sun shone, birds sang, and cars drove by as if nothing had happened. My pulse was sinking back into double digits and the old accordion bellows seemed to be doing their job. I looked at my daughter walking next to me, her blushed cheeks, sweat-streaked hair, her mind probably thinking about the next exciting thing. I nudged her. “So I’m an effing beast. Who knew?” She slipped her hand in my arm and leaned against me; my back straightened and about an inch of cushiony air appeared between the soles of my sneakers and the pavement, and I was thankful that my heart was beating, still beating, but willing to let it burst with pride and love in this moment, thinking that would be as good a way to go as any.

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Birds of Hope | J.E. CRUM

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The Art Farm by Maggie Nerz Iribarne

The End The installations, every one of them, burned all night. There was no sign of Sam. Sharye pictured him driving his beat up Honda, down route 92, windows cracked to dilute the smell of gasoline, the cold air flowing through his long, messy hair, a small crack of a smile lingering around his lips. Before Sam appeared out of nowhere, tapping on Sharye’s window, causing her to jump as she stood at her sink. “Morning, Mam,” he called through the glass. Sharye opened the door to face the stranger. He was about her age, maybe a little older, she couldn’t tell. Herb growled, unusual for the dog. “I’m Sam. Looking for work,” he said. She laughed. There was lots of work, just no pay. “We’re on a really tight budget.” He scratched his beard, crouched, held his hand out for Herb. The dog approached, changing his attitude and licking the welcoming fingers. “Do you need anything fixed?” Sam smiled, crinkles forming around his bright blue eyes. 50 | Montana Mouthful

Sharye wanted to get back to her coffee and watercolor of the robin’s nest she’d been painting. “Ok, I get it. I was just in the area. I always liked this place.” Sharye forced a smile. “I’ll be on my way,” he said, still standing outside the door. The draft from the cooling weather blew in around her legs, something shifted. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” She pulled at her sweater. “I’d appreciate it,” Sam said, stepping forward, looking around as if to assess the space, sitting down at the table. Sharye found a mug in the cupboard and pulled out a plate for the Pepperidge Farm cookies she always had on hand. Sam took one mint Milano, sipped his black coffee. “So where do you live?” Sharye asked. “Oh, in town.” His eyes scanned past her shoulder, something her ex always did when she was in the middle of a story. He stood up, moved to her easel, squinted at the half-finished nest. He put his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and smiled. “This is good. Yours?” “Yes. It is.” “I’m an artist, too.” Vol. 4 • Issue 2

“What do you make?” He smiled, “Whatever you need.”

“You like it?” he said. “Uh yeah, but how’d you do it?” “Magic,” he said, eyes twinkling.

Sharye knew Sam’s offer would not be acceptable by the board of the Art Farm, the It was like Field of Dreams. Cars started struggling outdoor art park she received free entering the farm. The donation box was stuffed housing to oversee. She could not Google him with cash. because she did not know his last name. She The next time Sharye saw Sam’s beat-up had no idea what his art was like. He offered no white Honda, she asked him to dinner. He photos, had not brought the sample he promcame with a bottle of whiskey and wore what ised. She waited. She forgot about it. She was Sharye saw as his version of dressy, a threadbare on the verge of securing local artist Jose tweed sport jacket with a black tee underneath, Ramirez, who made giant insects and had ofjeans, and dirty white Converse. He smelled of fered one on loan. They kind of grossed Sharye ashes and charcoal, like a fire, like the outside. out, but maybe kids would like it. She made him pork chops, applesauce, and She was just about to order a giant bug an apple pie. This was central New York in Sepwhen, one morning, something caught Sharye’s tember after all, apple season. He held up the eye. A disjointed, impossible pile of books whiskey bottle and she consented, offering a stacked up, rising high. She didn’t know how glass with some ice. they stood there. A breath of air would topple them. She wondered She had no idea what his art was like. how they would fair in the rain, the wind, the snow. Surely this He offered no photos, had not brought the was not a permanent installation, sample he promised. She waited. She forgot but interesting. The next morning the books about it. She was on the verge of securing local had risen even more. They were artist Jose Ramirez, who made giant insects bent into an arch--an arch of books. She had no idea how it and had offered one on loan.” was supported. Sam. When she finally saw him again, she hailed “So how’d you do it?” she asked him. him down as he bumped along the gravel road. He shrugged. “I told you.” “Hey!” she shouted, waving arms. “Magic?” She smiled, questioning him He stopped. “Hey, Sharye.” His slight with her eyes. southern twang was audible in the ‘a’ of her “Yup.” name. She felt warm and woozy. When it was time “That’s really something with the books,” to get dinner she reached out for his knee and she said, putting her hands on her lower back. let her hand linger there before pushing herself She peered in the backseat of his car. No books, up from the couch. tools. Nothing. At dinner, she served red wine.

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“It must be wine o’clock,” said Sam. “You sound like my ninety-year-old father,” she replied. They were back on the couch for the pie and Sharye felt drunk enough to lean into him and bury her face in his neck. He turned toward her, moving her hair away from her face, strand by strand, observing her, like he was going to eat, or paint, her. Then he kissed her, the taste of wine and apples suspended between them. “Magic?” she asked. “Yup.”

Meanwhile, the cars kept coming, the donations started piling up, and the board had questions. “These installations have not been approved, Sharye,” the Board Director said. “I know. I know. He didn’t tell me he was going to do them. But people love his work. And now we can afford real artists. We can have all the things we want.” “We don’t even know who this man is.” Sharye thought of the lovely things she knew about him. That mole under his left arm. “The board has met. These...these, book things need to Covers of books flapped in the breeze, each go. ASAP.” Sharye sighed. “I think it’s a volume shedding its pages, molting in mistake.” real time. Sharye imagined it as a library for big “You are not in a position to ghosts, woodland spites, fairies. A library think anything.” Sharye could not disagree, that, even at conception, Sharye realized, but her face burned with anger, made of paper and wood, was vanishing, or shame. She resolved to tell Sam the melting into nature before her eyes. It was next time she saw him, but since beautiful and heartbreaking and perfect.” he had no phone, no address, no email, she really didn’t know when In the cold silence of the next morning, she that would be. She would just have to wait. made him coffee. He drank it too quickly and left. The last installation, his crowning achieveThe only thing Sharye could count on Sam ment, the one that brought the newspapers, the for was an occasional, unpredictable show-up, requests for school visits, and more widespread holding his bottle of whiskey, engaging his deft questions: An outdoor library seemed to have lips, and shedding his nice embery smell. grown straight from the ground overnight. In between the loving, book installations The whole thing, built on uneven ground with continued to appear. A stack of books looking aged wood shelves, leaned and lurched though like a Sphinx. Rows of books assembled remained upright. Already-tattered books intermittently like bar graphs, reflecting some packed the weak looking structure forming a unknown data. Books arranged to create a kind of altar before small seats made from the bouquet of flowers. Always books. Where did same greying, withering wood. Covers of books he get them all? What did it mean? He would flapped in the breeze, each volume shedding its never tell her. pages, molting in real time. Sharye imagined it 52 | Montana Mouthful

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as a library for ghosts, woodland spites, fairies. A library that, even at conception, Sharye realized, made of paper and wood, was vanishing, melting into nature before her eyes. It was beautiful and heartbreaking and perfect. Sharye shook her head. When did he do this? Why didn’t he stop by? Why did she never see him coming and going? Maybe it was magic? She looked down and saw the book Travels with Charlie on one of the benches. She picked it up and held it close. Smelled it. Placed it in her coat pocket. Winter was coming. He slipped into her bed one night, without knocking, without speaking. Unsurprised, she turned toward him and whispered in his ear, “The library is beautiful. The best one yet.” She could see his smile by the faint light of the dying fire. “The board wants to meet you,” she said.

“No.” His stubbled cheek scratched hers. Sharye knew her friend was a man of few words, so she left that one hanging in space, without a response. She awoke thinking he was beside her, but the smell in the air was something different. Outside the window, wafts of smoke. She stretched her arms into her robe, stuck her feet into her rubber boots and ran out the door, Herb close at her heels. She couldn’t help but be breathless, from her exertion and from the beauty of it, all six of Sam’s installations ablaze, tongues licking the December air. She stopped and took it in— the sacredness, the purity of the flame, the fragility of life and art, smoke wafting like incense, going nowhere, or everywhere, perhaps back from wherever it came. She would never know.

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Art in the Age of Isolation-A Layered Response | ELISABETH KELVIN


kitchen witch by Votey Cheav My mother simmers and stirs in methodical swings of her arms laboring over bone marrow broth infused with lemongrass and love, zested by kaffir lime and magic to nourish and heal as we slurp. When in my mother’s kitchen, I found heaps of egg shells drying, waiting for their next use not for the compost pile but in her potions, rituals and spells to cure fatigue and summoning calcium to banish brittle bones.

I found garlic cloves tucked under her pillow used to catch her dreams, or perhaps to ward off those vexing evil spirits that followed her from the homeland. In fits of laughter I mocked her as she raised her ladle, readying to strike saying, I believe what I believe. But who is laughing now when I pray for daily relief from my own pervasive ailments the haunting of demon or depression, begging for a similar sustenance found bubbling in my mother’s brew.

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Gloria Steinem in the Desert by Maria Said

The sun was setting, and I was not going to catch a ride out of town. We had arrived in Keren late—the bus from my town had stalled in the desert, the air growing hotter as passengers leaned out the windows, coughed up dust, and shouted at the driver. The road was not paved and lined with hazards—boulders, holes hidden by soft sand, carcasses, and hidden land mines, remnants from the war the country had just fought. Every now and then, the driver would hit an area of road he couldn’t traverse and would swing off the path, a practice I’d heard called mine-sweeping. By the time the bus arrived in Keren, the market had wrapped up, the meat removed from the pegs where it hung, the guavas placed back in boxes for the next day. The bus wouldn’t leave for Asmara until the next morning, and none of the aid workers, with their spacious Land Rovers, would be starting the ascent up the mountain at this point. The sun set behind the peaks, and at the higher elevation, the air felt cool. After 15 months in my desert town, I was sure my blood had grown thinner; now, temperatures at 70 degrees felt like Sweden. I dug into my backpack for the sweater I had prepared for the journey. I stood at the bus-stop 56 | Montana Mouthful

wondering what to do. I had no friends here. I knew of one teacher with a pierced tongue but didn’t want to impose. The only other time I’d spent the night here, I’d stayed at a hotel that left red welts on my belly, the tracks of bed bugs that had crawled out of the mattress at night. I decided to treat myself and headed to the old hotel in town, where the injera was springy and made with teff, not sorghum. I found a seat under a jacaranda tree where I could be hidden from the road. The day in the bus had sapped me dry, and I gulped three glasses of cold water. I ordered a stew with pumpkin and meat and planned to eat quickly before finding a place to sleep—a woman out by herself drew attention, and no matter how kind and well-meaning it might be, I did not want conversations with strangers. Yesterday, in my town in the desert, I had run out of kerosene, and I walked quickly to get my supplies so I could return to my book. I had almost made it back, when Mussie, another teacher at the school, had called to me from across the road. I waved and kept walking. Years later, when I saw my time in the desert as the gift that it was, I wondered that I didn’t stop and talk. Keren nests within jagged mountains, beVol. 4 • Issue 2

tween the Western lowlands below and the highlands above. Fifty years ago, British and Italian troops fought to their deaths in a historic battle that has largely been forgotten. That war ended. Then another one began—thirty years of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Many of my students still referred to themselves to fighters. Finally, the land was calm. We didn’t know that the country only had one more year until more fighting began. I had brought my book in my backpack—all 1,488 pages of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. In this strange country where I felt overwhelmed by the life that was thrust upon me—the struggles with the language, the miscommunications with neighbors, the efforts to teach large classrooms of students my age, the jokes I didn’t understand, the gaffes I made, I relished sinking into this other strange world— a swirling world of henna and spice. I settled into my chair with my book and the pumpkin stew. But tonight, the hotel was different. The tables had been moved to the side, and I did not feel the usual gathering of men around tables that collected empty bottles of beer as the night went on. Instead, I found myself surrounded by a gaggle of girls who jammed the hotel entrance, thin ankles flashing in and out of the door. They wore school uniforms, A-lined skirts and threadbare sweaters. A tall girl with a broad smile brushed against me as she made her way in. Excuse me, she said in English. Her face was open, and I could have asked her more, but I hesitated, and people pressed behind her, and by the time I thought to speak and ask her what was going on, she had moved ahead toward the center of the hotel. Inside, over the heads of the girls, I saw a woman with blondish hair at the center of a crowd. My skin was dry and dusty, and my head ached such that I could not throw myself into

this throng of strangers. What if I got swept into a big event, when all I wanted to do was sleep? I scooped up the last of the stew and went in search of a different hotel with a better mattress. Before entering the room, I took a minute to pour cool water over my feet to wipe the dust away, a night-time habit that lasted long after I left the country. I crawled into my sleeping bag, patched here and there with duck tape, and pulled it up around my neck to protect myself. I flagged down a Land Rover after breakfast. The passenger seat, was occupied by two Italians, a man and a woman dressed in a halter-top she had made from a traditional scarf. They offered me to squeeze in the front, but I spared them the discomfort and hopped in the back. I stretched in the back and enjoyed the view. The road wound up the mountain, unfurling a ribbon behind me. I sucked on an orange and threw the peels over the edge, enjoying my time alone. In Asmara, by the time I arrived, a group of fellow volunteer teachers had also already checked into the Hotel-With-Hot-Water. One had dysentery and needed to see the nurse, and the other had come up to the capital to gather herself. I told them I had stayed in Keren for the night, and they raised their hands in excitement. That is how I learned that I had crossed paths with Gloria Steinem in the desert. Not as metaphor, but for real. Gloria was on a girl empowerment tour through Africa. I had seen only the crown of her head. Years later, I found myself in a bad place. I lived in Baltimore in an apartment building that smelled sour, in a unit where the heater couldn’t be turned off. Opening the windows didn’t help, and I existed in a state of torpor and insomnia, listening to the sounds of the ambuMontana Mouthful | 57

lances in the street. I hadn’t even bought a bed for this apartment but slept on an air mattress on the floor. I didn’t know anyone else in the building, except another student and her boyfriend, who lived in the unit above me and were always together. I felt like I had become untethered—with no connections to anyone, I could have floated off into Baltimore’s hazy sky and nobody would have noticed. The student worked in adolescent health, so one day, when we were walking back from the bus, I told her the story about meeting Gloria Steinem in the desert. What did Gloria Steinem talk about? I told her I hadn’t stayed to find out. So we moved on in our conversation, and then she moved on, back to her boyfriend, back to her life. Around that time, I woke up feeling nauseated after laying up almost all the night. I was reading Memoirs of a Geisha, which was a good book, almost as good as A Suitable Boy, and I didn’t sleep because I wanted to get to the end. But the truth was that I hadn’t slept the night before that or the night before that or the night before that. The next morning, I called the number I saw on the paper notices pinned on walls around campus. I sobbed in the director’s office, and she sussed me out and assigned me to a resident doctor who was practicing on grad students— which was just as well, because I ended up liking her and really hoped she liked me. She was my age, with long wavy hair that was still wet at 7am, when we met in the windowless basement office. She had placed a photo of a kid on her desk, who I assumed

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was hers and took to be a good sign that she had figured some things out that I hadn’t. I told her about my adventures—the minesweeping, the hitchhiking, the bed bugs, the chance encounter with Gloria Steinem, and many more—I had so many stories to tell. She remained silent. And I ran out of things to say. Because all my stories were flash, and nothing ever came next. Many years ago, in the Hotel-with-NoWater, the story seemed simple. Imagine if I had been able to catch a bus out of town! I would never have met Gloria Steinem. But now, as I told each story, I noticed how each story ended—with me. The teacher with the pierced tongue, Mussie, the school-girl with the broad smile, the two Italians in the front of the Land Rover, and Gloria Steinem herself—images and nothing more. But what if? I asked her, filled with fear at all that could have gone wrong. She shrugged her shoulders. So what? What if? I didn’t have a good answer. Something shifted, and I realized that I needed to start saying yes. Over twenty years later, I think of that conversation in that small basement room as the place where my life started to roll from images to moving pictures, when events began to lead from one thing to another. What if I had not gotten stuck in that nauseating, sleepless year in Baltimore, in that space between the lowlands and the highlands? What if I had not learned how to push the stories forward? It doesn’t matter. Because that is not how this story ends.

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The Mystery | IRENE LEVETT

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Here an editor may share a story, essay, poem, artwork or mixture of these. The work in this “enclosed” space may or may not have a connection to the issue’s theme.

Out in the Open by Jasmine Swaney Lamb During autumn 2012, I was teaching Creative Writing courses for Helena College’s adult education program. I was also teaching Writing 101 for the Veterans Upward Bound program and working as a writing tutor for the TRiO program. During 2010 and 2011, I’d had a couple of short stories published, but despite all of this, by September 2012, I found myself uninspired and unable to write. Of course, I grew worried, and as most of us know, nothing perpetuates writer’s block like worrying about it. So during down times, instead of writing, I took to the sidewalk. I’d put in my headphones and go for long walks throughout Helena’s central neighborhoods. Music has a way of inspiring me, but no matter which track I chose, ideas eluded me. Then one evening, just as I was finishing a walk, I noticed an unusual sight: the head and arms of a stuffed, brown bear were hanging over a neighbor’s back fence as if the bear was making a break for freedom. I laughed out loud and took a photo with my phone. Over the next few months, different stuffed 60 | Montana Mouthful

animals appeared in different arrangements in the same yard. Once, a cow perched next to the brown bear. Another time, a menagerie of critters (and a frying pan?) were up in a tree. I named the animals and gave them elaborate backstories. I took their photos. At this point, I’d long forgotten about my creativity problem. I was too busy looking for stuffed animals all over town, not just in my neighbor’s yard, and I wasn’t disappointed. Once I paid attention, I found stuffed animals everywhere. In vehicles, on the hiking trails, in the woods, on the street. During July 2013, I had an article published in the Helena Vigilante, a now defunct newspaper. The article, titled “Stuffed,” was essentially a letter to my neighbors, whom I did not know and still don’t, thanking them for inadvertently stimulating my creativity by hanging stuffed animals in a tree. In the article, I made the connection between logic and creativity, and how the former often hinders the latter, and how seeing something illogical—stuffed animals where one least expects it—toggled my brain back to its creative position. Vol. 4 • Issue 2

Nothing much came of the article, but my habit of photographing stuffed animals continues. With almost a decade of hindsight, if I were to write the article again, I’d point out how my writer’s block, which seemed such a significant, terrifying prospect at the time, was actually a blessing, for it drove me out the door where I ambled around aimlessly. I’d talk about how

being in pain, or unable to do a thing, or feeling down, is often not a punishment but a message to pay attention. How long had Bill the Bear and his cohorts hung on the fence and in the tree? Likely for a much longer time than I’d noticed. I wouldn’t have noticed them at all had I not the trouble—the blessing—of good, old-fashioned writer’s block. Montana Mouthful | 61

While Montana Mouthful seeks and accepts stories, essays, poetry, and artwork from around the world, we wish to connect with writers and artists from our local Helena community. Montana Mouthful and The Shop University have teamed up; each issue includes a piece submitted by one of The Shop University’s students. The Shop University was founded and is operated by Suzy Williams, and she writes the following message: It has been a few years now since our tudents have taken the brave plunge to share their writing out in the world. Although the pandemic has altered our methods of learning, it has not changed the pace at which we are studying, using, and enjoying the English language. We are still here promoting a sense of belonging; providing not just an opportunity to learn the English language, but also an pportunity to belong, to feel less alone in a new land learning a new language. In the past seven years, we have had a variety of students

walk through our doors. They come from different backgrounds and first languages. They come with different hopes and dreams, but all of them want to learn English to be a part of the community where they live. The Shop University and Montana Mouthful provide them the opportunity to share their stories with a wider audience and to be part of a bigger community than they could imagine. Thank you for reading our stories as they debut in English!

This issue features a photograph by Danielle Ford. Danielle came to The Shop University to complete observation hours for her TEFL certification.

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Vol. 4 • Issue 2

Joko Falls Panorama


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Hello again Readers! It’s been a blessing to share this issue with you! Hopefully you enjoyed our contributors’ blessings in disguise. With such a range of stories, essays, poems, and artwork related to the theme, we’re betting that at least one or two selections resonated with you. As always, thanks to everyone who took the time to submit and share the people, things, and circumstances that ultimately made you feel joyful after initial pain. We’ll publish one more issue during 2021, and the next issue’s theme is ‘Road Trip.’ What drives you out the door to experience life on the open road? Is it to visit family, see new sights, deal with a tragedy, restlessness, to relocate, or simple curiosity? We’re looking for great road trip stories, essays, poems, or unique photographs/artwork that represent your travels. Submissions for this trippin’ issue will open on June 25, 2021 and close on August 31, 2021. Our plan is to publish the “Road Trip” issue on October 25, 2021. Furthermore, as part of the next issue, we’re going to run another contest. Please keep your eyes open for contest information later this summer. Winners will be published in the Road Trip issue. Again, we’ll post those details at a later date, so keep checking our social media platforms so you can participate! Thank you for your patronage, for sharing our posts, and for getting our magazine circulated into the world! Hit the road this summer and prep your submissions to make our next issue even better than the last. Until next time, Cari Divine, co-editor, Montana Mouthful

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Vol. 4 • Issue 2

Biography Melanie Ahlf Melanie Ahlf is a writer and Tarot Card reader living in the Southwest who seeks to make people feel less alone through her writing. She is currently working on a book-length memoir and has been in recovery for more than three years. You can find more of Melanie’s work at and @melanieahlf on Medium. Maggie Ainsworth-Darnell Maggie is a 21 year-old Video and Media Arts Production Major at Emerson College. She writes about a hard time in her life that helped define her as a person growing up. She has become an advocate against gun violence for the last 11 years, and hopes this piece touches someone’s heart. William Burtch William Burtch is an American Fiction Short Story Award finalist published in American Fiction Volume 17 (New Rivers Press). Other work has appeared in Great Lakes Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Barren Magazine, BULL and elsewhere. He tweets at @WilliamBurtch2. Find out more at Votey Cheav Votey Cheav is a Cambodian-American daughter of refugees who survived the Khmer Rouge. She is a trained lawyer and lover of the human condition and hopes to speak a voice that is both personal and universal. She is interested in the collective consciousness, and the moments and memories that evoke awakening in each of us. Votey has lived in the United States and in Cambodia where she uncovered her ancestral lineage and delved into the complete rebirth of a country post-genocide amidst changing cultural identities and geopolitical alliances. She is now based in London. Find out more about Votey at the following: Instagram: voteyvolition Twitter: @voteyvolition J.E. Crum J.E. Crum is a fantastical artist who creates vividly abstracted variations of self-portraits inspired by mythologies, including her own. Working intuitively, Crum creates personal narratives related to thoughts about fate, destiny and the meaning of dreams. J.E. also has an exciting career as an elementary and middle school art teacher of nearly one thousand students a week in central Pennsylvania. Crum believes in the power art possesses to bring happiness to others. Check out to see more of her colorful works of art.

Catherine Dowling Catherine Dowling was born in Ireland and has divided her life between the United States and her home country. She has a Masters in History from the University of Montana and since then, has worked hard to create a chequered resume that includes waitressing, quality assurance, teaching, and psychotherapy as well as writing. She has published two books: Radical Awareness (Llewellyn Worldwide), and Rebirthing and Breathwork (Piatkus, UK). Her articles have appeared in Oneing, Rkvry, Positive Health, Inside Out, Lowestoft Chronicle and more, available at. She has lived in New York, Montana, California, and New Mexico but currently resides in Ireland. Susan G. Duncan Susan G. Duncan is presently an independent consultant with a performing and visual arts clientele, capping a long career in arts administration. She served as executive director for San Francisco’s long-running Beach Blanket Babylon, the al fresco California Shakespeare Theater, and Grammy-winning ensemble Chanticleer. Her poetry has appeared in Atlanta Review, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, The London Reader, The MacGuffin, Soundings East, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Yalobusha Review, among others, as well as in anthologies by Sixteen Rivers Press and Red Claw Press. Danielle Ford Danielle Ford came to The Shop University to complete observation hours for her TEFL certification. She was so thrilled when Suzy replied to her inquiries. Danielle was on her way to move to Japan when she became sort of stranded in Helena. She needed something to do with her time that was productive so that she wouldn’t allow herself to slip into a depression of not knowing when she could complete her move. This reply became her blessing in disguise. Because of Suzy and The Shop University, Danielle was able to fill her time with learning and gaining experience for her new life of teaching abroad instead of just sitting and waiting for life to continue. This year has been hard for everyone, but if you are able to look for the good within the bad times, you can keep pushing forward towards your dreams. Danielle is so grateful that she found someone to help her do this in such a hard time. Meg Freer Meg Freer grew up in Montana and lives in Ontario. She has worked as an editor and currently teaches piano. She enjoys taking photos and being outdoors year-round, and wishes she had more time for writing poetry. Her writing and photos have been published in various journals and anthologies. Barbara Huffcutt Garrett Barbara Huffcutt Garrett was born in northern Wisconsin and attended a one-room country school through the seventh grade. The family of five children grew up surrounded by a rural life in an unplugged age. She graduated with bachelors and masters degrees Montana Mouthful | 65

from Montana State University-Bozeman and has immersed herself as an artist and writer in Montana’s by-ways and culture. G.J. Gillespie G.J. Gillespie is an abstract collage artist living on an island north of Seattle. Winner of 17 awards, his art has appeared in 52 regional shows. The artists he admire tap unconscious feelings of longing for existential meaning that emerge from cultural icons. In his view abstraction should be more than pleasing design. Instead, art should evoke connotations that permit the viewer to experience a sense of wonder, awe and new perspectives of being. A favorite quote: The world is but a canvas to our imagination. —Henry David Thoreau. Erika B. Girard Erika B. Girard is currently pursuing her M.A. in English and Creative Writing with a concentration in Poetry through SNHU. She graduated from Saint Leo University in Florida in 2019 with her B.A. in English Literary Studies and a minor in Hospitality Management. Originally from Rhode Island, she derives creative inspiration from her family, friends, faith, and fascination with the human experience. She also enjoys photographing inanimate objects like feathers and acorn caps in her grandparents’ backyard. Her literary art appears or is forthcoming in The Alembic, Edify Fiction, Iris Literary Journal, Sandhill Review, Wild Roof Journal, and more. Andrew Hanna Andrew Hanna is currently working on a biography about a legendary 1940s racehorse called Citation and recently finished his first children’s book (publication date and publisher unknown). He has published articles about horse racing in the Canadian Thoroughbred, the Maryland Horse, and on the Breeders’ Cup website. His fiction has also appeared in the Flash Fiction Magazine. Mark Hurtubise During the 1970s, Mark Hurtubise had numerous works accepted for publication. Then family, teaching, two college presidencies and for 12 years CEO of an Inland Northwest community foundation. After a four-decade hiatus, he is attempting to create again by balancing on a twig like a pregnant bird. Within the past four years, he has appeared in Apricity Magazine (Texas); Adelaide Literary Magazine, Literary Award (New York); Bones Journal (Denmark); Deep Overstock (Oregon); pacificREVIEW (California); Modern Haiku (Rhode Island); Ink In Thirds (Alabama); Grub Street Literary Magazine (Maryland); Kingfisher Journal (Washington); AtlasPoetica (Maryland); Humana Obscura Literary Magazine (California); Burningword Literary Journal (Indiana); The Wayne Literary Review (Michigan); The Spokesman-Review (Washington); Frogpond Journal (New York); Stanford Social Innovation Review (California); Alliance (United Kingdom); Sludge (New York); University of San Francisco, Alum News, Interview; and Monovisions Black & White Photography Magazine, Two Honorable Mention.

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Maggie Nerz Iribarne Maggie Nerz Iribarne practices her craft in the third-floor attic of a yellow house in Syracuse, New York. Her story, “The Bayside,” won first place in Dead Fern Press’ 2021 Valentine’s Day CNF contest. K.L. Johnston K. L. Johnston first realized an interest in photography after traveling with the SC ETV Endowment. Her earliest published photos appeared in that organization’s in-house magazine. She is an opportunistic photographer: the only planning that goes into her photography lies in taking her camera with her wherever she goes. The majority of her subjects are environmental. Elisabeth Kelvin Maintaining a diverse practice in music performance and visual arts, Elisabeth Kelvin energetically and enthusiastically paints what she hears and plays what she sees. Her journey is wholly interdisciplinary as she creates multiple artistic paths as a clarinet and saxophone teacher, performer, composer, and visual artist. Rick Krizman Rick Krizman writes music, stories, and poems and holds an MFA in Writing from Pacific University. His work has appeared in The Wising Up Press, Sediment, Flash Fiction Magazine, Star 82 Review, Medusa’s Laugh Press, Driftwood, Switchback, 45th Parallel, The Big Smoke, and elsewhere. Rick is the father of two grown daughters and lives with his wife and other animals in Santa Monica, CA. Find out more at, and Christi Krug Christi Krug is a writing coach and the force behind Wildfire Writing, helping people of all ages and walks of life to find visibility and voice. She is a poet, presenter, artist, and yoga instructor. For the past twenty-two years, she has taught community writing at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington. She is an avid hiker, a spiritual facilitator, and the author of Burn Wild: A Writer’s Guide to Creative Breakthrough. Follow her nature photos on Instagram @christikrug. Jasmine Swaney Lamb Jasmine is a co-founder and co-editor of Montana Mouthful Magazine. She is a graduate of University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing Program, and some of Jasmine’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in literary journals, newspapers, and blogs. Mostly, she can be found in a garden, on a small farm, at the beach, or elsewhere in the outdoors. Follow Jasmine on Instagram @jaslamb. Irene Levitt Irene Levitt has a B.A. in Art from California Lutheran University, and she went to graduate school at California State University, in the city of Fullerton. In the past thirty years, she has placed her artwork in galleries in the Seattle area and Los Angeles. You can find Irene on Facebook. Vol. 4 • Issue 2

Kate Maxwell

Fabrice Poussin

Kate Maxwell is yet another teacher with writing aspirations. She’s been published and awarded in many Australian and international literary magazines. Kate’s interests include film, wine, and sleeping. Her first poetry anthology will be published with Interactive Publications, Brisbane in 2021.

Fabrice Poussin teaches French and English at Shorter University. Author of novels and poetry, his work has appeared in Kestrel, Symposium, The Chimes, and many other magazines. His photography has been published in The Front Porch Review, the San Pedro River Review as well as other publications.

Howard Moon

Deryck N. Robertson

Howard Moon had a career as a broadcaster and professional writer. He has been published in PhotoMethods, Fire Chief and Fire Engineering magazine, and was the staff writer for Today In Ocala. His work has appeared online in Folks Magazine. He was a columnist and Op Ed writer for the Ocala Star Banner and his writing has also appeared in the National Catholic Reporter and Small Change newspapers. He is of Native heritage. In retirement, he lives in central Florida, spending his time writing poetry and flash fiction.

Deryck N. Robertson lives and creates in Peterborough, Ontario where he is an elementary teacher. His work has appeared recently or forthcoming with The Minison Project, The Quarantine Review, and Green Ink Press. He can usually be found in Algonquin Park with his family of paddlers, or drinking a maple roast coffee. His latest selfpublished zine is on its way. Find out more on Twitter and Instragram @Canoe_Ideas, @paddlerpress, and at,

Elise Neuman Elise Neuman is a full time college student and martial arts instructor with a passion for writing. She just wrapped up her third year at Rocky Mountain College pursuing both a degree in English Education as well as one in Literary Studies. Elise has been writing snippets of poetry for years as she believes that life is often best experienced through the words we use to navigate it. Follow Elise at on Instagram @els_neuman

J.J. Rogers J.J. Rogers has appeared in numerous publications, including Hawaii Pacific Review, The Journal of Undiscovered Poets, Front Range Review, Old Red Kimono, Muse, The Deronda Review, Evening Street Review, and others. He is currently working on a poetry book/musical album compilation, blending poetry and songwriting with various styles of music. Jim Ross

Jay is a supply teacher working out of Toronto, Canada, who has been published a whopping four (4!) times. He tries to keep his writing honest by only writing about what he sees, but if he’s being (really) honest, he actually makes a lot of it up. Jay has printed two short story collections and a novel; they sit anonymously on his bookshelf... A poetry collection is his next project! You can profess your love for his work, or verbally harass him, at

Jim Ross jumped into creative pursuits in 2015 after a rewarding career in public health research. With a graduate degree from Howard University, in the past six years he’s published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and photography in over 150 journals on four continents. Publications include 580 Split, Bombay Gin, Barren, Columbia Journal, Hippocampus, Ilanot Review, Kestrel, Litro, Lunch Ticket, Montana Mouthful, The Atlantic, The Manchester Review, and Typehouse. A nonfiction piece led to a role in a highly-anticipated documentary limited series. Jim and his wife—parents of two health professionals on the front lines and grandparents of five preschoolers—split their time between city and mountains.

Darlene Pagán

Maria Said

Darlene Pagán is the author of Blue Ghosts (2011) and Setting the Fires (2015) and has published essays and poems in journals such as LiteralLatté, Field Magazine, Calyx, Brevity, and Hiram Poetry Review. Her essays and poetry have earned national awards and contests, including Best of theNet and Pushcart nominations. She teaches writing and literature atPacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, and is currently working on a middle grade fantasy, and as always, poetry.

Maria Said is a writer based in Washington, DC. She has been a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award and has published nonfiction in Slate and The Utne Review.

Jay O’Neal

Linda Vigen Phillips Linda Vigen Phillips has two published YA novels in verse, Crazy and Behind These Hands. Her poems, fiction and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Texas Review, The California Quarterly, NC Poetry Society Award Winning Poems, Sasee Magazine, Amethyst and more. She has fond memories of Whitefish where she lived for a while. She now lives in Charlotte, NC.

Chloe Scheuch Chloe Scheuch is a current MFA candidate of creative writing at Stony Brook University. She lives at home on the east end of Long Island, New York with her two dogs and two cats. She is nominated for the 2021 Pushcart Prize and her writing has appeared in the Santa Clara Review. She is currently spending time working through the relationship that creative nonfiction and fiction have with one another. Thomas Turman Thomas Turman is an architect/writer and failed first baseman living and working in Northern California. Montana Mouthful | 67

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Montana Mouthful | 69

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