Issue #10 Spring/Summer 2019 www.sblaam.com
Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine issue #10
fiction Lawrence F Farrar
Paula R Hilton
He's Such a Good Boy
My Mother's Ashes
Bruce H Markuson & Frank Pipp
When I'm 64
An Open Letter to the National Football
League: Regarding the “Anthem Protest” 21 Emily Peña Murphey
Rag Doll Epiphany
The Little Brown Boy on the Porch
Night in My Garden
What Compost Dreams
Form & Content
David Anthony Sam
Day's End Near Rye Cove
The Worth of Words
Moon Over Greybeard Mountain
Fabri Fibra (oil on concrete)
untitled (concrete sculpture)
cover arranged by staff artist Jim Neuner from Jeffrey DeCristofaro's Moon Over Greybeard Mountain
Editor's Note In SBLAAM #10, we're happy to showcase new fiction by Paula R Hilton, two non-fiction shorts by Emily PeĂąa Murphey, and the poetry of David Anthony Sam. We're very proud of the fact that we've reached ten issues. Our contributors have sent us their work from every continent except Antarctica. So, if you happen to live in Prince Olav Harbour and are reading this, send us your best poem (or story, or non-fiction, or art!). With this issue we bid goodbye to Jim Neuner --artist, photographer, friend-- who is one of our founding staff. Jim is responsible for all of our covers to this point, and his work as art and photography editor was stellar. But what few people know is that one of Jim's other areas of expertise is internet technology. Jim has been keeping me sane by handling much of the arranging of what you see uploaded onto this site. Jim retired from SBLAAM to devote more time to his art and his businesses. Thank you, Jim!
Form & Content the thing you’re after/may lie around the bend --Charles Olson
This cold, the walk to the garage is Wisconsin, I’m four & everyone’s alive. What I mean is below-zero, hickory glowing in a firebox, no wind, no moon, silence tiny razors hovering throat-high, crunch & squeak each step. Walking this cold, I’m six on the top step, toy Model-A smothered in my mitten, Anton at the lumber yard, Margery at the white enamel wash tub. What I mean is stew, burnt toast, coffee perked tar-black, things beyond recall, molasses in a jelly jar, cribbage board, doilies, tapioca, lost things, things found that bring laughter, a shop-class bookcase, pocket watch, Zippo, couch where I snuggle one or another beloved now dust, “dust” a euphemism for silence, a piano roped to a flatboat, roped to a buckboard, muffled cacophony of the rutted track, fingers hunting black keys & white. In the letter I wrote last night, I worried form & content, signaling skepticism by enclosing each word in quotation marks. I’ve worried form & content since the way-back-when “Projective Verse” revved me so hard I timed the syllable/breath ratio of everything I thought poetic for maybe six months, my letters “poems” crammed with idiosyncratic orthography & other evidence of eager, though faulty understanding. Or bullshit, but bullshit fierce as acetylene, solar-flare, cosmic-welding-goggles bullshit. What I mean is vast Olson whispering Maximus’ letters in his trash-strewn shack, winter low tide rank, all the bottles empty. The friend I wrote last night writes one-page plays that stab in that manner called dry though tears may wet your face if you think about it. What I mean is T.D. at the clam stand in Gloucester, lobster boats chugging home the cold May dusk we labored like stevedores to comprehend one another before driving back to where we wouldn’t live in a month. When I walk in the cold or the hot, I’m not but couldn’t be more here: The hill of snow I heaped, salt I spread, boots I bought, my fear & love of all this here/not-here ten-below, furnace pilot blown out, razor of silence mid-step. I mean I must. The salt-encrusted car lies dead ahead, no coal dust, no taste of sour-cold-wet, no one yelling Don’t eat snow! As I keep saying,
No such thing as this without that, everyone dead, calico dresses, suspenders, lemon icing, trains, parlors, pipe smoke, rice pudding, everyone alive, so when I hear as I unlatch the door Will you get milk? I turn & nod â€œyes.â€? John Repp John Repp has taught writing and literature at various colleges, universities, and social service agencies. Poems have appeared recently in Maryland Literary Review, Gasher Journal and others. A native of the Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey, he has lived for many years in northwestern Pennsylvania with his wife and son.
Cambridge, Circus Cambridge, I like you very much / to my great surprise --James Schuyler
Despite whatever blood got continuously let in my name as a law-abiding citizen of the empire, I walked for five years in sandals the hot miles to Harvard Square once a week to linger in four bookstores & watch the chess master in the pre-Revolutionary shade serenely massacre a half-dozen poseurs as I sipped orange juice & glanced through the Phoenix. I’d run out of things to say about the Sandinistas & Panama, but at least Amandla had nudged apartheid a millimeter toward oblivion. Only nor’easters pinned me home, between the ancient Italians bellowing at the Bruins & the agoraphobic indexer hammering a Royal as power ballads thundered the sands of sorrow. Playful socialists did street theater, Southie overturned buses, Mattapan seethed, committees formed, disbanded, & splintered along these lines or those, all of it thirty years gone no matter how hungry the memory or offhand the affection, yet Sundays still mean rest & reading, Sabbath I’ve observed since childhood, no matter the flakes of slaves’ blood everywhere. Searing fresh anchovies for lunch, I realized how much I want to walk the Appian Way, inhaling the summer pall Cicero did, fingering like Virgil the trinkets in the souvenir stalls, setting the dusty air on fire like Paul & lest I neglect the reach of Rome’s lethal ambiguity or forget for a single second that nothing disappears, I vow never to disregard Caesar, the Catacombs, St. Peter’s or Mussolini, whether historical, metaphorical, or legendary. Such ancient, syphilitic filth, such glory rinsed clean of doubt, such accommodating brutality— coin of the American realm, crown of my reading, the paving-stone heat I need under my feet. Mewl about freedom? I prefer the honesty of the Coliseum. John Repp
Driving Home In fifteen minutes I’d go from inside my girl to inside my mother’s insomniac glare, her paranoia, her terror, her despair & rage at the most infinitesimal change, but this isn’t about that though it ends where nothing remains but creek, briars, swamp & two-lane, tar-seamed concrete the mythic semis no longer roar down, road over which I flew to make curfew that summer of joy commonplace as water but mine to swallow at last, ancient nectar making thirst to sate it, sweeter than story or dream. Trotting across Park to my father’s Jeep, I’d recite what we’d done & where I’d gone without the fear that had theretofore revved my mind to shrieking—my mind, in which I hadn’t lived for seconds at a time inside her—ah, more: she wanted this troll, this gargoyle, this absurd, leprous supplicant who’d somehow enticed Beatrice to unbraid her black hair, drop the needle on “I Will” & sing the first line, him the second, Escher print, stack of board games & gas meter flickering in candlelight, cellar room a faerie glade— branch-creak & cricket-chirp, holy oaks & ferns soughing, my love & I submerged as we’d been since conception in mortality’s sump, but now we would die, this beloved flesh in some right-now & right-here— all this fraught & hyperbolic even then, yet each night good-boy lies had stolen, I roared past the graveyard where all my dead had gone, babbling the glory not of “the body” in psalm or sutra, but of two unrepeatable creatures reborn in one body on a legless sofa & if prayer is gratitude realized, I prayed & kept praying as I hove into traffic, left arm crooked out the window, radio silent, voice freed of intention, grace rushing up/pouring down, the hood rising as I jammed the gas across Valley, springs creaking crazy around the Wheat bend, everything airborne over the Boulevard, rage to get home the joy incorruptible, fingers fragrant, beard damp, the milk my mother could not give wetting my tongue, my father’s labor the engine’s fire, Body breaking & breaking, how Mind eats everything no matter anymore, immemorial wind roaring through the wide-open windows. John Repp
Minnie Moon We turn not older with the years, but newer every day --Emily Dickinson
Five minutes after midnight on her eighty-third birthday, Minnie Moon walks into her local WalMart Supercenter unarmed. There are two items on her shopping list: jalapeño-stuffed olives for her celebratory dirty martini and a buttercream cake with chocolate sprinkles. In the condiment aisle, she thinks about the jalapeños. How they’ll twist and burn in her gut. She smiles. Once a year, she indulges and savors the taste, despite the pain. When she gets home, she’ll drop three olives into her ice-cold Stoli vodka, watch them sink, then skewer each one out with a cocktail party sword, bright pink. Before she takes that first sip, she’ll raise her glass to the aquarium on her TV stand, paying homage to Louis. Minnie picks up a small but expensive jar of olives with one hand. With the other, she reaches into her black pocketbook. She wants to run her fingers over the . 32 pistol her father gave her seventy years ago today. She closes her eyes and readies herself for the delight of its sleek coolness. Due to the ever-worsening tremor of her hands, she hasn’t been able to shoot it for the last ten years, but she likes to carry the gun with her, unloaded, everywhere she goes. Her fingertips graze several pens, her faux alligator-skin wallet and a roll of peppermint LifeSavers, but no gun. Her breath quickens. There’s a pounding in her ears. In the last few months, she’s become more absent-minded. Addled, as her mother would have put it. While she can remember minute details of her youth, she often forgets where she left her car keys. Or to make sure that when she switches bags she transfers her gun from one purse to the other. Do not panic. Calm down. She takes her hand out of her purse. Puts it in the pocket of her neatly pressed khaki pants to pause the shaking. So you’re forgetting things. You’re eighty-three. You have a right. Opening her eyes, she places her jar of olives in the small front basket of her shopping cart where most people put bread or children. She hears the pounding in her
ears again. Realizes it’s her heart. “Hurry up, get what you need, and go home,” she whispers. She grasps the cart’s handle as tightly as she can. Her heartbeat slows a bit. Behind her, she hears a buggy with a bum wheel and the insistent squeaking of someone’s shoes against the polished floor. Her pace quickens. She shops at these ridiculous hours so she can have as little contact with people as possible. The squeaking of the shoes speeds up. She tries to ignore it. Squares her shoulders and heads for the bakery to pick up her cake. The happiest birthday of Minnie Moon’s life was on November 10th, 1928. Her father had been away on one of his business trips for his advertising agency. He’d been traveling more than usual of late, and sometimes he wasn’t home when he said he’d be. But Minnie had no doubt he’d return in time for her birthday. Early that evening—when he walked through the door bearing a buttercream cake with chocolate sprinkles and her .32—she was proven right. “It’s smaller than you’re used to.” He settled into the wingback chair in their sitting room. “But it should be easier for you to handle.” Minnie sat on the footstool in front of him, the open gun case in her lap. She ran her fingertips over the pistol’s nickel finish. Meeting her father’s gaze, she grinned. “A baby gun?” Minnie loved to watch her father laugh. His eyes were green with yellowish flecks, and when he was happy, the flecks lit up from behind. Turned golden. “Hardly,” he said. “It’s as powerful as you are.” Minnie took a deep breath and sat as tall as she could. Her own gun. Just last year, her father finally let her shoot his prized .45 Colt Peacemaker. She was standing behind him as she often did when he practiced target-shooting in the acre of land that was their backyard. Each time he took aim, she marveled at his straight back and steady arm. At the way the gun seemed a natural extension of his hand. She never recoiled at the bang of each shot. Pride flooded her as she watched him hit his mark again and again.
When he’d finished, she posed the same question she’d asked since she was old enough to stand outside and watch him shoot. “Sir, may I?” For the first time, her father didn’t say she was too young. He smiled and reloaded the gun. “Now, hold out your hand like you’re about to shake mine.” She did as she was told. Her father slipped the .45 into her extended hand. Stepping quickly behind her, he put his own hand on top of hers to steady her grip. His other hand rested around her waist. Then he gave her instructions she didn’t hear over the happy pounding of her heart. She relished the feeling of her father’s large hand over her own. The joint motion of their fingers squeezing the trigger. The roar and release of that immense gun. When she jolted back a little, her arm started to jerk upwards, but her father was there to steady her. She laughed from the rush of it. Looked up at her father. “Again, please.” After that, Minnie’s father worked with her every time he came home. Often, he filled a milk bottle with water. Had her grip it around the neck with her arm extended as if the gun were in her hand. Then he instructed her to hold it as long as she could. Put it down for a few beats. Then pick it up and hold it out again. The muscles in her wrist grew stronger with each session. Soon she was able to hold the . 45 steady and shoot straight. Minnie knew most of her girlfriends’ fathers would never have taught their daughters how to shoot. She’d always been grateful that her father let her use his gun, but owning one of her own? She’d never dreamt of anything so wonderful. She rested her hand for a long moment on the ivory stock of her .32 before putting it back in its case. Then she did something she hadn’t done in years. She got up from her place on the footstool and sat on her father’s lap. Putting her arms around his neck, she nestled her head on his shoulder. He smelled of pipe smoke and her mother’s peanut brittle. She felt a familiar pang that made her suck in her breath. Sometimes she loved him so much she ached. Closing her eyes, she sighed and hugged him even tighter.
Like that, they sat for a moment before Minnie’s mother came in with her birthday cake. While her parents sang, she blew out all thirteen candles with one steady breath. Minnie stands before the glass case in the store’s bakery section. Her cake is on the top metal shelf. “Happy Birthday, Minnie!” it shouts in the decorator’s loopy cursive. She pushes the red buzzer for assistance. Stares at her reflection in the glass. She’s held up pretty well over the years, she must admit. She’s as slender as she was when she was a teenager, and her hair is still long and thick. Usually, she twists it into a knot at the nape of her neck, but today she has birthday party hair. It’s loose and flows just past her shoulders. Two mother-of-pearl combs on either side of her head keep it out of her face, their elegant whiteness blending into her own shining waves. Her skin is lined, certainly, but the marks of age aren’t deep. She chuckles. It must be the Oil of Olay, she thinks. In her more critical moments, she feels as if she’s doing little more than giving her wrinkles a drink when she slathers it all over her face each night. But the proof, she thinks, is in this reflection. “Who knows?” she whispers to the lovely woman in the bakery case. “I might live another decade.” Again, she notices the slow squeaking of someone’s shoes. She shifts her focus from herself and sees a man’s image growing steadily larger behind her. She pushes the buzzer a second time. Four months after her thirteenth birthday, Minnie Moon’s father was killed in a car crash on his way home from work. Minnie walked through the world heavy and numb. The only feeling she had at the funeral was an occasional flash of anger when anyone dared to say her father was at peace or, worse, in a better place. He was supposed to be here. Now. With her. How dare anyone say anything different? But just as quickly as the anger welled up, it went away. White, hot, gone. She went on, but her world was eerily colorless. Minnie and her mother moved in with Minnie’s grandparents. Minnie’s mother
hadn’t cried since the funeral, but a few weeks after the service, she began to talk about her husband. She talked and talked and didn’t stop until it was time for them all to go to bed. When Minnie returned home from school each afternoon, she steeled herself for her mother’s presence. Cat-like, Sylvia Moon appeared—seemingly from thin-air—and pounced. She trailed after Minnie from room to room, asking endless questions. “Did I ever tell you how he took me to the beauty shop to have my hair bobbed?” Of course she’d heard the story many times. For months after the style became the rage, he’d encouraged Minnie’s mother to bob her hair. Flattered her. Told her she should be proud to show off her graceful neck. Minnie couldn’t count how many times she’d seen him kiss the back of that long neck, then lean into the shining blackness of her mother’s hair, short yet full, and inhale deeply. “Remember how he loved Louis Armstrong? And that sweet, sad garden of his in the back yard? His wormy tomatoes?” Yes, yes, and yes. Her mother’s words made memories blend and bleed in her mind. Finally, Minnie was done. One day she walked into her room, got into bed and buried her face in her pillow. The bed shifted when her mother sat down. “Ma’am? Could you please leave me alone? Just for a little?” She felt her mother’s hand rest on her shoulder. A little squeeze. “There’s one more thing I need to tell you.” Minnie sighed. She felt 100. “Will you listen to one more thing? Just one more thing!” Frightened by her mother’s yell, Minnie sat up. Seeming to take Minnie’s attention for permission, her mother continued. “He loved us both,” she said, “I know that. But we weren’t the only women in his life.” Minnie’s mother began to sob then. Hard. Silently, Minnie sat with her back pressed against the headboard while her mother told her of her father’s mistresses and conquests. Sylvia Moon spoke rapidly. Her words, a series of gunshots. Each phrase bringing memories to the surface with a pop.
Days when her parents would hardly speak. Times when her father seemed unusually submissive to her mother’s every whim. She’d demand to go dancing after he’d worked a twelve-hour day. He’d comply. She’d ask him to turn off his favorite radio show just a few minutes before it ended and take them out to dinner. Again, he’d do it immediately, without protest. And the worst were the nights when Minnie could hear them whispering loudly. She could never make out the words, but the tone was fierce. As suddenly as they began, the memories stopped. Her mother said no more. But she clutched at Minnie. And she cried. And Minnie held her tightly. Rocked her gently. She shouldn’t have done that, Minnie thought. She felt the odd sensation of her mother’s tears on her neck. They fell hot against her skin. It surprised her, how quickly they cooled. Minnie pushes the buzzer at the bakery again. It’s late, but honestly. Someone should have come by now. The man’s reflection in the glass looms large until it’s directly behind her. She feels a hand on her shoulder. Instinctively, she sinks her own hand into her pocketbook before turning around. She just wants to run her fingers over the... bother! How could she forget that she’d forgotten it? “Minnie? Minnie Alicia Moon?” She turns around to meet a face she’d know anywhere. Any time. “Harvey,” she says, without inflection. She won’t look into his eyes. Who knows what she might find there? Instead, she stares at his tennis shoes. They’re very clean. They must be new. “Minnie,” he says, “I’m so glad you’re not dead.” Harvey Parker. She’d been twenty-three when their relationship unraveled. Already considered an old maid, her lack of a marriage had nothing to do with opportunity. She’d kissed and been kissed many times. Not having the luxury of reliable birth control, “petting,” as everyone called it back then, was as far as she let anyone get. But it was enough for her, and she enjoyed it. And the more men, the
better, because to Minnie, men’s eyes were mirrors that reflected her own image. The more they admired her, the more she liked herself. She never let herself get attached to any of her suitors. They professed their love and courted her, but when anyone asked for her hand, she ended the romance. Cleanly. Quickly. No looking back. She didn’t trust any of them, and she’d never felt anything but the faintest flicker in their presence. From the start, though, Harvey was different. It was the talking mostly. They never ran out of things to say or to laugh about. And he was the only man she’d ever spent time with who didn’t find her obsession with guns somewhat odd. In fact, he often took her to shooting ranges in lieu of going to the movies, his favorite pastime. He also held her in a way she hadn’t experienced since her father’s death. Every embrace he gave her was significant. Whenever she was with him, she had the feeling one has after returning home from a difficult journey—utter contentment mixed with forgetfulness of all she’d been through while away. For months they went on like this, each day strung to the next in a long, gold chain. On the night that broke the cycle, they were at his parents’ house, where they sat and talked for an entire lazy evening on the front porch swing. Crickets trilled in the darkness all around them. When they realized how late the hour was, it seemed too much trouble for her to go home. Harvey squeezed her hand and smiled at her. His eyes were very blue. “Call over at your grandparents. Tell them I’m having my mother make up the guestroom for you.” With the matter soon settled, Minnie went into the adjoining washroom to get ready for bed. As she scrubbed the powder from her face, she heard a loud thumping sound. She dried off. Peered around the corner. Rather than seeing Harvey’s mother, it was Harvey himself who was plumping the feather tick pillow she would be using for the night. He shook it in the air until it got very fat. Then he placed it on the bed. Adjusted it here and there with his fingertips until the spot where she was to rest her head was raised and perfectly centered. Minnie sucked in her breath. She felt a familiar ache. Too tender, she thought.
Too much. “Harvey, I’ve changed my mind. Please take me home.” She hated the hurt and confusion in his bright eyes. Forced herself to leave. To forget. They drifted apart. “Minnie?” Harvey asks, his voice half-teasing, half incredulous, “Aren’t you glad I’m still breathing too?” Minnie shifts from her left foot to her right. She can’t seem to catch her breath. Where are all the damned cashiers anyway? She waits for a moment, hoping one will appear, but she knows she’s being rude. Slowly, she looks up. Meets Harvey’s gaze. Thank you, she thinks when she sees there’s still admiration there. If it weren’t for the ever-present tremoring of her hands and the dull but deep pain in her bones, she might feel like a girl again. Heat rises to her cheeks, and she knows she’s flushed. Underneath the ball cap he’s wearing, Harvey’s eyes are shining at the sight of her. They’re as large and kind as ever, but the deep blue they once were is time-faded. The impossibly thick lashes that frame them are gray now rather than black. Minnie is surprised by this, and her surprise, well... it surprises her. “I’m glad you’re not dead too,” she says finally. A laugh escapes her. Harvey laughs too. His teeth are shockingly white. Dentures, of course. “I know that was an odd thing to say right off, but it’s strange to come back to town after all this time. To find that most of the people you planned to look up are gone.” Minnie nods, but she doesn’t know how that feels. Harvey made his life far away from here. She stayed and witnessed the decline of most of their childhood acquaintances. Only one death had ever shocked her anyway. A question forms in Minnie’s brain, but she’s not sure she wants it answered. Her hand delves into her pocketbook again. Nothing. She swallows hard before speaking. “Were you planning to look me up?”
Harvey’s smile wavers. Then disappears. “I wasn’t sure you’d want to see me.” After Harvey, Minnie rarely wanted to see anyone. By the time she was twentyfive, all the men she could tolerate were married anyway. To support herself, she learned to type. Soon she was temping all over town. Although she had many offers, she refused to become attached to just one boss. Only when Minnie was forty and her mother was two years gone did she notice an emptiness. Living alone in her grandparents’ large house, she did long for a little companionship. She considered her options. She’d always thought cats were sneaky, and she couldn’t tolerate the neediness of dogs. So after much research, Minnie went to the pet store and brought home a lizard. She chose a male anole. Named him Louis Armstrong. Not only did he change colors like a chameleon, but he also had a beautiful, red throat-fan he lowered during mating season. To keep him well-hydrated, Minnie misted him with water from a squirt bottle. She imagined he liked it, because he didn’t run away. Minnie also liked to take pictures of Louis, especially when that impressive throat was on display. She read somewhere that the best way to pose a lizard was to place him on a lazy Susan. This way the photographer could rotate the animal, capturing it at different angles. Louis didn’t seem to mind. He’d sit still for a long time while Minnie clicked and rotated, rotated and clicked. So that’s how Minnie spent her time. When one lizard passed on, she’d buy another and name him Louis too. She also shot her gun as long as she was able, and she typed. The years flew by. “Harvey, so would you...?” She pauses. Twists her hair. Something she hasn’t done since her twenties. “Would you have looked me up? In the end?” Harvey looks away. Stares into the bakery case as if deliberating between the éclairs and cannoli. She sees his eyes rest on her buttercream cake with chocolate sprinkles.
“It’s your birthday. It’s been so long I’d forgotten the date.” “Harvey.” “Of course.” He shifts his weight. His shoes squeak again. “Of course I would have.” He tugs at the brim of his ball cap. A nervous habit Minnie had once loved and long forgotten. She tries to lighten the mood. “So, do you have any hair left?” Harvey laughs. Takes off the cap. His scalp gleams under the store’s fluorescent lights. A bit of thin hair is scattered here and there. But it’s mostly gone. Minnie grins. “Your smile’s still lovely,” he says, “and your hair--” She interrupts him. “All gray now.” “It’s silver, Minnie. Beautiful. And so shiny.” He reaches out to touch it. Draws back and looks embarrassed. “No,” Minnie touches his hand. Puts it back on her hair, surprising herself. “It’s all right.” She closes her eyes as he runs the palm of his hand from the crown of her head down to the hair that spills over her shoulders. His touch is as gentle as it had been decades ago. She silently commends herself on her wise decision to wear it loose. “Minnie, now it’s your turn to answer a tough one. He drops his hand. “But I suspect I know what you’ll say already.” Remembering how to flirt, she widens her eyes. “Do you?” she says, her voice unselfconsciously playful. He gives a casual-looking shrug. Clearly remembering this game too. “Yes, but I’ll ask anyway—had I looked you up, would you have seen me?” Looking Harvey in the eye, she tells the truth: “Probably not, but I’m glad we bumped into one another.” Harvey nods. “Me too.” They stare dumbly at each other for a moment. Harvey fidgets and shuffles his squeaky shoes. Minnie plays with the clasp on her pocketbook. “Did you marry?” “Yes,” he says. Blinks hard. Clears his throat. “Eileen died two years ago.”
“Harvey, I’m so very sorry.” She squeezes his hand. “We raised three children together, all boys.” Minnie smiles knowingly. She’d always imagined Harvey as someone who would relish toy trucks to trip over. Embraces that left his shirt sticky. Drowsy heads on his shoulder. “And you?” he asks. “Did you ever settle down?” “Yes. But I settled alone.” Harvey gives Minnie a meaningful smile of his own. “So it’s just you and your gun?” Minnie laughs. “And my lizard. I’ll tell you about that hobby sometime.” They stop talking for a moment, but the pause is no longer awkward. They stand and look at each other, and neither one of them fidgets. But although she’s comfortable at last, Minnie finds she objects to silence just now and breaks it. “It’s funny we met at this hour. I come out this late to avoid people.” “I had a late-night craving,” Harvey says. “Pringles. Remember when everything closed at five?” He shakes his head. “Society’s breaking down. You know, it never ceases to amaze me that you can have whatever you want whenever you want it.” Minnie looks down at her jar of olives for a moment and smiles. Then she looks directly into Harvey’s eyes. “I like the changes.” A pair of women dressed in white stroll by, distracting Minnie. The four-tomidnight shift at the hospital has been out for some time now. Soon, the store will be filled with nurses and lab technicians whose shoes will squeak even more insistently than Harvey’s had as they walk across the tile floor. Their presence always makes her uneasy. “Listen, Harvey, I can pick up my cake in the morning. Do you want to get your chips and then come back to my place for coffee?” Harvey smiles. Extends his arm to her. Minnie takes it. “I don’t need the Pringles. Let’s just go.” They walk away from the bakery case, leaving Minnie’s buggy behind. They
stroll past the rows of food and cleaners, the cashiers and the other sleepless shoppers. The automatic doors open with a swish. And Minnie and Harvey step out into what remains of the star-filled, blue-black night. Paula R Hilton Paula R Hilton's first novel, Little Miss Chaos, was published in 2016.
oil on concrete
An Open Letter to the National Football League: Regarding the “Anthem Protest” To do a great right- do a little wrong. --Shakespeare Good people must not obey the laws too well. --Emerson Don’t be too moral; lest you cheat yourself out of life. --Thoreau Perhaps it’s better to be irresponsible and right- than to be responsible and wrong. --Churchill Disobedience is man’s original virtue. --Oscar Wilde
When I ponder the conundrum of social activism in the National Football League (i.e. “the anthem protest”), I think of 19 completely different interrelated tangents. I envision God’s first Two Commandments (Love God / Love Humanity). The Golden Calf. Jesus Christ. Sophocles. Martin Luther King. Human evolution. Modern science. The American Constitution. Custer’s Last Stand and Crispus Attucks (of the Boston Massacre). I contemplate the Institution of Slavery and the (all-black) 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (heroically portrayed in the movie Glory). When I engage the controversial debate brewing in the NFL (America’s favorite blood sport), I solemnly recall my last day in prison. When I muse the next step of the movement, I picture the neighborhood playground, the local crackhead, President Trump, The Great Gatsby, Pablo Picasso and the Billerica House of Corrections. ***** Capture the Flag (that Beautiful & Filthy Rag) I failed and failed and failed... that is why I succeed. --Michael Jordan I assess willpower by how much resistance and pain one can endure… before turning hardship into one’s advantage. --Nietzsche Do not deceive yourself. If you think you’re wise (by today’s standards), you might be better off in becoming "a fool” (to be truly wise). --Paul the Apostle It has been my experience that those with no vices have very few virtues. --Abraham Lincoln The shame is not in being a criminal… the shame is in staying a criminal. --Malcom X A person who sees the world at 50- the same way they saw it at 20- has wasted 30 years of their life. --Muhammad Ali Freedom is not worth having if it doesn’t connote the freedom to err. --Gandhi
Three years in on my first prison stint (a 10-year sentence for a non-violent drug-related offense), I filed a slew of habeas corpus motions from my jail cell at MCI
Concord (“habeas corpus” is Latin lingo for “bringing of the body”- also known as “a summons for unlawful detention”). Months later, I was shackled by the hands and feet, linked with seven other inmates (with court dates) in a chain gang in the back of a cramped paddy wagon. And as you might expect- with the putrid odor and suffocating humidity in the rear of the wretched transport- tensions often flared. The way our bodies were confined and intertwined, rocking back & forth together in unison, with each stop and start of the vessel, the nauseating ride reminded me of a modern day Middle Passage (like being kidnapped and immobilized aboard the lower decks of a Caribbean slave ship). On the day of the first outing, I witnessed a young black kid and an older white guy (extradited from rural Florida facing a murder beef) get into a squabble over leg room. After a brief verbal exchange, the white guy head-butted the kid with cornrow braids, splitting his head open (gushing blood on all of us). This forced the paddy wagon to pull over on the side of the highway before doing an impromptu U-turn (making a pit stop at Shattuck hospital in West Roxbury- the crappy medical facility and insane asylum for prison inmates). Regrettably, I had to clean-up a bevy of outstanding warrants (legal technicalities) before I would be eligible for parole. But driving two to four hours to local court from Upstate is a mixed-bag for most inmates. Some people (who have been locked-up for a decade or more) like to escape the solitude of the penitentiary. Some people like to break-up the doldrums and monotony. They like the idea of eyeballing chicks. Others enjoy seeing the latest cars and fashions thru the Plexiglas window. Some may get a chance to toke on a cigarette or slurp on a can of soda from a private attorney. Back in the day, family members were permitted to pass sandwiches thru the court officer to the detainees (but we screwed up that courtesy by concealing contraband in-between the buns of the submarine). But most convicts doing “real time” (5 years or more) usually don’t like to be reminded that there is a “real world” outside of the walls (sentimentality serves no viable purpose and can be very traumatizing). The best jailhouse gurus elevate and reinvent their consciousness to the degree wherein they actually pretend civilization doesn’t exist beyond the wall (living in their own make-believe). I was of this ilk (the latter). I had to pretend as a survival mechanism. Indeed, as pathetic and
institutionalized as it may sound- after 19 months of bouncing around from place to place awaiting trial- I had finally established a regular routine (a way of doing time). And I disliked that rhythm being disrupted. I wanted time to move fluidly; I didn’t appreciate interruptions. Going to court (seeing civilians) was a dangerous distraction, a hassle (jeopardizing my peace of mind). A threat to my serenity. To my Zen. After all, nobody in their right mind enjoys seeing the things they cannot have. It is pure folly – sheer insanity, an exercise in futility – to brood over that which one cannot possess. For myself- like most OGs (older certified gangstas) - “out of sight / out of mind” was the rule of thumb. Clinging to a productive routine (schooling, menial labor and/or skills training) was the only way to do time. The only way to negate the drudgery. The only way to prevent time from doing you (eating you alive). Therefore, the primary objective of doing time – from a seasoned prisoner’s standpoint- is to utterly block out the world. To willingly disengage and revel in acceptance. By voluntarily letting go you lessen the detrimental impact of the separation. You don’t allow self-pity to destroy hope. You never let the unfortunate circumstance rob you of your humanity (or your dignity). To otherwise wreck your soul. Nonetheless, I was “habed” into three different courts for petty crimes: driving without insurance, driving with a suspended license, trafficking and distributing a class D substance (marijuana) and resisting arrest (fleeing from police). On three different occasions, I was woken at the crack of dawn (around 5:30 am) to woof down some slop and get dressed in street clothes, sitting in a holding-cell for hours (before the wagons hit the road around 9ish). I went to Brookline, Dedham and Newton courts respectively. The first two court appearances went rather smoothly- without a hitch (blood on my shoes notwithstanding). I was back home before supper. In retrospect, I just shuffled into the courthouse as everyone in the stands stared at the bad guy in shackles. The district attorney then dispensed whatever sentence they deemed fit. Sometimes the prosecutor hammed-it-up for the crowd (labeling me a "menace to society" or "career criminal”). But I never took it personally (most of the generic name-calling didn’t even apply to me). The stranger in the crumpled shirt and crooked tie could’ve called me a muppet or an aardvark, and it wouldn’t have mattered. Nothing a crusading DA says has any bearing on my sense of
self-worth. Falsity and hate don’t make me or break me. The hot air of a bureaucrat casts no aspersions on my soul. Hollow words and lip service carry no merit with God. But for a novice, these are just some of the more cheesy moments that abound in our criminal justice system. The golden opportunities an eager prosecutor dreams of are when a defendant is hauled in from Upstate- already in custody, spirit already broken- doing (what we call) football numbers (20-30 or 30-40). At this critical juncture, a downtrodden convict doesn’t give a hoot about any smaller sentences tacked-on (concurrently). Whoopee-ding-dong! What’s the difference if your rap sheet reads 17 or 23 pages? You’re already fucked (you’re probably never getting a decent job in this lifetime, and you’ll be in your late 50s before you’re eventually released). Therefore, the cavalier mentality of most inmates oscillates somewhere between accommodating and nonchalant. I’ve never seen anyone in shackles contest the proceedings. On the contrary, most defendants (delivered on a silver platter) exude that eerie deer-in-headlights look (in the spotlight at the podium). Like, “Go ahead, sock it to me. Steamroll over me- just get it over with.” Knock-yourself-out, Mr. District Attorney. Put on a good show for your gung-ho constituents (wag your finger and give me two years for a microscopic amount of drugs, and another six months for jaywalking if you want. Pile-on. Kick a man while he’s down, enjoy the hijinks, enjoy the slaughter, enjoy the genocide, it’s your friggin’ birthday). These are actually the times when a pontificating DA can look really tough on crime (fine-tuning their overall conviction rate). Padding the stats is the term they use in sports science. Nevertheless, I agreed (pleaded guilty) to a year for each separate motor-vehicle infraction; and the bozos threw me a bone (pun intended) by not crucifying me for a quarter pound of weed (hilariously, the evidence went missing, like poof, it’s magic). And not a word was ever said. No motions filed. No deliberations. No sidebars. Nope. The disgruntled judge just conveniently overlooked that travesty of justice. And I wasn’t even mad at them (actually, I was a little thankful). Thank you again, ye corrupt cops (hope you enjoyed the smoke)! But the hard-nosed DA seemed very pissed, reluctantly knocking the felony charge down a notch to simple possession (another misdemeanor). Whoopsy-daisy! But on my final court appearance (in Newton), God had other plans for his beloved son. An unexpected twist. An unplanned hiatus. A vacation (of sorts): six
months when I would no longer have to fiercely watch my back with the killers, kingpins and degenerates in the Big House. Nope. When Newton District Court tried to pull the same unethical stunt- when upscale Newton tried to pad its stats(somehow / someway) the paperwork got tangled-up and misplaced. So when they attached their trivial motor vehicle violation to my lengthy criminal jacket- instead of going back to MCI Concord (with the big boys) – conversely, I was immediately transferred to the Billerica House of Corrections. Ironically, all the way to Billerica, I kept snitching on myself (warning the transport driver that this is a huge mistake). Like, “Hey listen, Mr. Officer, look at me, I’m a real hoodlum- I don’t belong in this kiddie camp.” I even reiterated the clerical oversight to the Booking Sergeant (while being examined in the nude), “This is all wrong” (to no avail). Every time I numbly outlined the comedy of errors, all I got in return from law enforcement was deaf ears and condescending smiles (like, “Shut the fuck up, scumbag, just bend over and cough!”) I even remember waiting the first week on high alert for the Inner Perimeter Security (the IPS / Special Police) to come get me. As I peered thru the steel bars- day after day- thinking, “They’ll be here any minute now.” I was just hoping the militarized IPS wouldn’t be too rough with all their goon squad extras … considering I was now an escaped convict lost in the system. Either way, my fault or not, I anticipated being treated as hostile and noncompliant. But much to my astonishment, disbelief and delight- the Special Police never came for me (with their bullet proof vests, guns drawn, billy clubs and overthe-top SWAT-style tactics). And that’s exactly where this miraculous story begins! Loren Miner Loren Miner is a writing instructor for ex-offenders and homeless men at a transitional program. Stories have recently appeared in The Opiate, Terror House Magazine, and Former People. He has a forthcoming ebook, How to Think Like a Genius: Mind Over Matter.
Dark Off I am still in the old dingy neighborhood, waiting for the skies to turn into cashmere. Ice-cream trucks play baroque symphony, and the brown kids outside chase each other in the dark with some whizzing lightsabers. If I try to fry something I will eventually burn it, and the avant-garde words from Cummings’s “is 5” crumble down on the wine stained carpet. I attentively prowl the streets late at night, stalking the shadows that are drawing nearer. Concealing myself in the Serbian liquor store, where the celluloid shop boy sells me bottles full of canned laughter. It will be like this until the end – eventually – no coke or grass, just this indescribable mouth in my head, lisping in my good ear “Times must pass.” Peycho Kanev Peycho Kanev is the author of four poetry collections and three chapbooks. His poems have appeared in Rattle, Poetry Quarterly, and others.
Moments She asked him to wait until she could no longer answer him. She asked him to sail alone to that island where he asked her to marry not Anacapa but Santa Cruz. She asked him to find the cove where they lay naked even when sun turned to fog. She asked him to do this for her when her words were jumbled and lost. She asked him to gather what belongings reminded him of her. Bury them in shallow water within a sea cave so they mixed with sand and kelp. As he watched sea urchins that might channel him back to her or her back to him. Deborah Levine-Donnerstein Deborah Levine-Donnerstein's work has appeared in the Santa Barbara Anthology (Community of Voices), Curiouser and Curiouser, and others. Recently retired from the faculties of the University of California and University of Arizona, she began writing more fiction and poetry after moving to Asheville, North Carolina.
For Valor Two sisters, both in their mid-thirties, confronted each other under the portico of the Jackson-Johnson Funeral Home in Hartsfield, Indiana. Even seen at a distance, their uneasy body language transmitted a signal that neither of them was happy-quite the opposite. “I wish you could have been here in time for Pop’s service. There was hardly anybody,” Amy Kelly said to her older sister, Valerie. “I thought you might at least make it to the cemetery.” An ordinary looking woman barely five feet tall, Amy had close cropped blond hair she apparently had cut herself, a pug nose and blue-green eyes. She wore a simple--and rumpled--black dress and unfashionable flat shoes. Save for a simple gold chain, she had no jewelry. She was single and very much her own person. “I’m sorry. What do you want me to say? I already told you my flight out of Atlanta was delayed. I tried to call you from the airport. I can’t understand why you don’t have a cell phone, anyway,” Valerie said. Valerie King, taller than her sister, her height enhanced by designer shoes, dressed stylishly (Armani), applied her makeup deftly, kept her “auburn” hair in perfect order, and regulated her time on the golf course and tennis courts to achieve just the right shade of tan. A onetime sorority president, Valerie now served with satisfaction as president of the ladies’ auxiliary at the Bayport Country Club in Meriwether, Georgia. She had recently married Fred King, her third husband, a selfstyled real estate mogul. “I guess I have other priorities. I’m not exactly loaded, you know,” Amy said. “Is that my fault? You’re the one who decided to quit college. You’re the one who decided to move to Seattle. Where is it you work? A bookstore, coffee shop--I can’t remember. Anyway, it was your choice.” The sisters had once been as close as overlapping coats of makeup, but time and circumstance had intervened to spoil the effect. “You’re right. It was my choice,” Amy said. “Do we have to go over all this again? I mean we’re standing in front of the funeral home.”
“Okay. Anyway, we need to get over to the house. Do you have a car?” “No, I came over from the hotel on the bus,” Amy said. “The bus? Are you that hard up?” Amy ignored the question. “I suppose you have a rental.” “Right. It’s that Lexus parked just over there across the street. They always say to rent a car you’re familiar with, you know. It’s like the one Fred and I have at home. Actually, we have two.” The two women crossed the tree-lined street and got into the car. Valerie cruised slowly through the business district of the small city. Their father had bolted from their family and fled back to this town of his birth years before. Like many small cities in the Midwest, Hartsfield’s best days lay behind. On streets once bustling with people, empty store fronts displayed “For Lease” signs. “Why did he ever come back here,” Valerie said. “This place is totally dead.” “You kind of wonder, don’t you? I guess it was home.” “Some home.” “They say there’s a whole new downtown renewal a couple blocks over,” Amy said. “Right.” It was a sardonic reply. They passed through a residential neighborhood, which still featured stately homes from the early 1900s, then turned onto a blacktop county road. Ten minutes later they pulled up in front of a dilapidated and isolated little clapboard house set back among scattered oaks at the end of a long and winding two-rut driveway. Invisible from the road, it was as if the house was hiding from the world. Opportunity-grabbing weeds had claimed the untended yard and a beleaguered flower bed, and three or four pathetic plants randomly placed beside the door had all expired. The screen door dangled precariously from a single hinge; the broken front step invited disaster. “Will you look at this place?” Valerie said. “How could he live like this? It’s really embarrassing.” She got out of the car, lighted a Virginia Slim, and leaned back against the hood puffing away. Amy came around and joined her.
“I don’t think he really cared much about appearances,” Amy said. “He seemed sort of at peace when I phoned him in the hospital.” While they talked, wind chimes hanging by the door tinkled tentatively in the easy summer breeze. “At peace? In this dump? Anyway, where’s Olson? Is that his name--Olson?” “Yes. He said he’d meet us here with the key at 3 o’clock.” Amy checked her watch. That must be him now.” A man parked a battered Ford pickup behind the Lexus, waved at the women through the windshield, and climbed out. “Afternoon, ladies. I’m Ben Olson, your dad’s executor. (Valerie declared later he looked more like a handyman come to repair the door.) Sorry I missed the service. But, you surely have my condolences. You surely do. Glad you had such a nice morning for the funeral. Still pretty out, isn’t it?” Olson appeared to be a man in his fifties, hair (save for a few lonely combedover strands) long gone, an equine face, and a ready smile that revealed several missing teeth. He sported a white shirt and sharply pressed gabardine trousers supported by suspenders. Rolled up sleeves put on exhibit a forearm tattoo, an American eagle and a Death Before Dishonor inscription. “Thank you, Mr. Olson. You were very kind to our father,” Amy said. “Wasn’t nothing. Just drove him over to the VA hospital time to time. Took him down to the WalMart once a week or so.” “Do you have the key?” Valerie said. She displayed a flash of impatience at these preliminaries. “We’d like to get on with this.” “Surely do. Got it right here.” Olson fished a key from his pocket and hopped up on the porch, skipping over the rotted board on the step. He turned back and said, “Like I told you on the phone, the will says you can go through the house and take what you want. I’m to sell off the rest as best I can and divide the money between you.” “Yes. It probably won’t take long to see what’s here,” Valerie said. “Can’t imagine there’s much.” Amy clambered up and gave Valerie a hand; they trailed Olson into the house.
“I’ll let some light in. We closed the place up after Tommy passed away.” Olson ran up the shades on the living room’s three windows. Mealy sunlight spilled through the glass. “Could you open a window? It’s a little musty in here,” Valerie said. “Sure thing.” Olson hit the top rail of the sash with the heels of his hands. “Kind of stuck. Guess he didn’t open it too often.” After two or three attempts, he managed to lift the window, and fresh air pushed into the room driving out the stale. The room was sparsely furnished: a tired looking sofa, two or three side chairs, an old-fashioned roll top desk, a near empty bookcase, a recliner, an ancient black and white Philco television set with rabbit ears, and a tattered area rug on a plank floor. A photo of a woman and two small girls was propped against the wall on the book case. Two cheap prints (Swiss mountain scenes), both atilt, hung randomly on the walls. A broom and a dust pan leaned against the wall in one corner, and a pile of newspapers and magazines occupied another corner. “Got some errands to run. If it’s okay with you ladies, I’ll come back in an hour or so. Just feel free to look around.” Olson handed Valerie the key and went out the door. “Watch out for this step,” he called back from outside. “Like to broke my neck.” The two women, like detectives with a warrant, hovered in the center of the room mapping out their strategy. “Not much here. We’ll be done before Olson gets back,” Valerie said. “Who is he, anyway?” “Just a volunteer at the VA. I think he said he works in a lumberyard, something like that. Seemed nice, I thought. Apparently about the only person Pop had contact with.” “I suppose it’s kind of sad, not seeing anyone, I mean. But, Pop’s the one who cut himself off. Didn’t even have a phone,” Valerie said. “You’re right. I guess he had a lot on his mind. He and mama just couldn’t get along after he came back from the war.” “Yes, they were always arguing. But, the war’s no excuse. All kinds of men were in Vietnam. They didn’t run off and abandon their families,” Valerie said.
“I think he had a lot of regrets. Just didn’t know how to make it up,” Amy replied. “I don’t buy it. He wrecked mama’s life. We’re just lucky things turned out okay for us--if working in some weird leftie bookstore means okay for you.” “It’s not a weird bookstore. It’s good store. Lots of intelligent people come in there. I talk to them all the time.” Valerie smiled indulgently. “I have to use the john. That must be it over there,” she said. “Why don’t you get started?” Amy inspected the postage stamp kitchen. She found no functioning stove, just a hot plate. To her surprise, however, the countertop and sink were spotless, and the half dozen dishes and glasses in the dish rack sparkled. She picked up a book lying next to the hot plate and experienced ripples of emotion--sadness and compassion each seeking to prevail--Cooking for One. She poked around in the cupboards: some detergent, sponges, a frying pan, two kettles (one large, one small), two mugs (each with an eagle, globe, and anchor Marine logo), a few cans of soup. Opening a drawer, she came across several mismatched pieces of flatware, a can opener, and a couple of knives. Everything was clean, and everything was inexpensive and worn. The refrigerator larder consisted of two six packs of Budweiser, a half-open pack of hot dogs secured with a rubber band, three or four apples, a wilted head of lettuce, and some leftover Kraft Dinner. Amy heard the toilet flush. “Anything there?” Valerie said a moment later from the living room. “No, not really.” “Hard to imagine there would be.” Valerie leaned in from the door. “Thank God. I have a really terrific kitchen at home. Did I tell you? We had it totally remodeled. Any big-time chef would be happy to have one as good.” “Yes. You described it in your Christmas letter last year. Sounds very nice. Anyway, I don’t think there’s anything we’d want in the kitchen.” “Oh, I figured you could probably use some kitchen things in that little apartment of yours out there in Seattle,” Valerie said. “No. I’m fine.”
“Well, I’ll take the living room. Maybe there’s something in the desk. Why don’t you look in the bedroom? There’s just the one.” Amy set about surveying the cramped bedroom that opened off the living room. She raised a shade to let in the light. A bed (actually more a cot) huddled against one wall. Two blankets that looked like veterans of a Goodwill store lay neatly folded at one end. There was a pillow, but no pillow case. “You want this picture out here?” Valerie said from the living room. “You and me and Mama. I don’t need it.” “Yes. I’d like to have it. I saw it when I came in. I guess Pop still had some memories.” No answer came from the living room. Amy scrabbled through the drawers of an old bureau like a benign customs inspector, but found only quite innocent socks, underwear, and shirts--all neatly folded and stored with precision. Then, in one of the top drawers, she came across a manila envelope. “Here are some more pictures,” she called out. Valerie came into the bedroom. “Let me see.” “This must have been when they got married.” Amy held up a photo of a young Marine in dress blues and an equally young woman with a corsage. “Wasn’t bad looking, was he?” Valerie said. “The weakness doesn’t show. The meanness doesn’t show.” “Come on, Val. They were so young then. It isn’t fair.” The envelope contained five more photos: their then-twenty-year-old father standing with a smile next to his ‘64 Olds, their mother and father sitting at a picnic bench in some park, Valerie and Amy as toddlers in a sand box, their father brandishing a weapon and looking frightened after a Vietnam skirmish, and a group photo of six or eight clowning young Marines, also apparently somewhere in Vietnam. Valerie studied the pictures, one by one, a brief shadow of melancholia touching her face. Then her expression darkened. “He shouldn’t have left us,” Valerie said. “He cheated us.” “Val, I don’t think . . .”
“Anyway, there wasn’t anything in the desk, except a few bills, pens and pencils, that sort of thing. Hard to imagine--no phone, no computer.” Valerie studied the photos once more, hesitated, and then handed Amy the picture from the living room bookcase. “You might as well have them all.” “I wonder how he spent his time. He probably was lonely; don’t you think?” Amy said. “Could be. Anyway, he’s the one who left.” “I suppose you’re right, Val, but still . . . he must have been kind of worn out by life.” “Aren’t we all? Anyway, I think we’re wasting our time here. There’s nothing worthwhile, but that’s what I expected. Lucky if Olson can even sell this dump.” Amy opened a closet door. “I still haven’t looked in here.” A few shirts on hangars, some trousers, a single necktie, a winter jacket, folded towels stacked on the floor--another pathetic collection. Amy was about to close the door when the protruding corner of a brown paper bag on the closet shelf captured her attention. She dragged a chair in from the living room, climbed up, and retrieved the bag. “Nothing else up there. Just this,” Amy said. She waggled the bag; its top folded over and taped shut. “There’s something in it.” “Well, let’s have a look,” Valerie said. “Then we can go outside. This place depresses me.” Amy tore open the bag, reached inside, and removed a small, rectangular case. She opened the case and lifted out a gold military medal suspended from a blue and white ribbon. “It’s some sort of award,” Valerie said. “Fred collects things like this. Maybe he’d want to have it.” “I’d like to find out more about it. We can decide what to do with it later.” “But, you already have the pictures, and . . .” Amy kept her thoughts to herself. She despised Fred; there was no way she would allow him to have her father’s medal, whatever it was for. “Here’s Mr. Olson. Let’s decide about this later.”
----At eight that evening the sisters met for dinner. Amy had suggested the hotel coffee shop, only because she knew Valerie would turn up her nose at the idea of one of the local ethnic places. But, in the end Amy agreed to join Valerie for dinner in the town’s only French restaurant--an inauthentic but, nevertheless, pretentious one at that. “Monsieur” turned out to be exactly the sort of place Amy avoided, and exactly the sort of place Valerie would choose. “Don’t worry, little sister, it’s on me,” Valerie said, visiting a you poor thing look on Amy. She hadn’t always been like that, Amy thought. They had been so close, leaning on each other as they grew up in a fatherless (and near motherless) home. But now? Amy squinted in the dim light, trying to confirm the menu choices; she gritted her teeth when the waiter, complete with a towel on his arm, floated up to take their orders. “I’ll order,” Valerie said. “I got to practice my French a lot when Fred and I took that boat cruise in Europe last year.” “I’m sure English will be just fine.” But, Valerie forged ahead in fractured French, finally forced to revert to English. “I just don’t know why he didn’t understand,” she said when the waiter left. “Don’t worry, Val, that guy is about as French as my left shoe.” Amy did not smile when she said it. A sticky silence fell between them while they spooned up their lobster bisque. Like snipers at long range, they exchanged intermittent volleys of conversation during the salad course. Interspersed with a critique of the lamb chops (overcooked), Valerie again expressed bitterness toward their father and boasted about her demanding (but, oh, so fulfilling) life in Georgia. Amy said that maybe they ought to have tried harder to understand their father, reached out more. She rolled her eyes at descriptions of the absolutely wonderful charity balls, the absolutely wonderful new swimming pool, and the absolutely wonderful set of friends Valerie and Fred associated with. Valerie didn’t seem to notice.
Eager to be on her way, Amy waited like a sprinter in the blocks listening for the starter’s pistol. She worked her way quickly through the chocolate hazelnut mousse cake, admitting silently to herself that it was good. The coffee was extremely hot, so she lingered. “You know, Amy, I called Fred and described that medal to him.” Her eyes downcast, Valerie twisted her wedding ring on her finger as she spoke. “I thought you might talk to him . . . since he’s a collector and all.” “Well, you know, he actually collects other military things, flags and swords and all that. But, he has friends who specialize in medals.” “I see.” “Do you have it with you?” Valerie asked. “Yes, it’s right here in my purse.” “Let me see it for a minute, would you, Amy?” From her own purse Valerie retrieved a pad on which she had scratched some notes and placed it on the table. Then, with the medal suspended from her partially raised hand, her eyes traveled back and forth between the award and the description Fred had provided. “Yessss.” She exulted, like someone who’d just confirmed a winning lottery number. “Yes, what?” “That’s it. I declare. I wonder where Pop ever got it,” she said checking her notes one more time. Her curiosity piqued, Amy asked again, “What is it? What’s so interesting?” “Oh, it’s a sort of rare medal. That’s all. Fred wondered if we couldn’t have it. About the only thing.” “What kind of rare medal?” Amy knew her sister all too well. “Well, if you have to know, it looks as if it’s a Congressional Medal of Honor.” “A Congressional Medal of Honor? I never heard that Pop had any medals. Isn’t that the highest one?” “Yes. Fred said it is.”
Valerie continued to dangle the medal over the table, the candle glow playing on the luster of the gold device, like holiday lights on a tree ornament. Valerie peered closely at the inscription, For Valor. “How did Pop come to have it? Was it his?” Amy said. “If it was, why didn’t we ever hear about it?” “Doesn’t matter,” Valerie said. “We can take what we want. And I’d like to take this medal. Fred has a real interest. Means nothing to you.” Without uttering a word, Amy reached across the table and snatched the medal out of Valerie’s hand. “Now, why did you do that?” “Because we haven’t decided anything. That’s why.” “You aren’t always easy to get along with, Amy.” “Probably true. You’re not exactly Miss Congeniality . . . Why are you so eager to have this medal anyway?” “You might as well know. Fred thinks it will fetch a fair amount of money.” “Sell it. It could be the only thing we have from our father. And you want to sell it?” “You have to understand, Amy. It’s Fred’s idea.” Amy glared at her sister. “Fred’s idea, huh?” “Look, Amy, he says we could split the profit.” She lifted her eyes, simultaneously greedy and pleading. “If you want to.” “Can’t be worth that much. With all you have, you want even a little more?” Amy shook her head. At the same time, she stuffed the medal back into her purse. “I want to check on this some more. Maybe go back to the house in the morning, maybe talk to Olson, I don’t know.” “There’s no need for . . . I mean I’m supposed to fly out at noon.” “If you’re in such a big hurry, I can call you when you get back home. Otherwise I think you’ll have to reschedule your flight. See you manana--if you’re still around. Thanks for the dinner.” -----
The next morning Valerie fidgeted in the hotel lobby. Perched on a sofa, legs crossed, she snubbed out her third cigarette in ten minutes. Where was Amy? She had called at the God-awful hour of 7:00 AM and promised to be in the lobby by ten o’clock. When Valerie phoned Fred the previous evening and told him Amy wanted to hang on to the medal, he was fit to be tied. That’s just how she would put it to Amy, fit to be tied. Outfitted in slacks and a short-sleeved blouse, Amy sailed across the lobby, dragged her hand through a bubbling fountain, and dropped down on the sofa next to Valerie. “Hi. Got a little tied up and couldn’t call. No cell phone you know.” “I know.” Valerie craned her neck. “Was that Olson’s truck you got out of?” “Yes, it was. As soon as he parks, he’ll join us.” “Whatever for?” “You’ll find out. Sure dressed up, Val. Look like you stepped right out of one of those fashion magazines.” “Well, I’m still flying back to Georgia later on. There are, after all, expectations for the first-class passengers.” “Expectations? Come on, Val. There aren’t any expectations,” Amy said. “Sometimes, Valerie, you get about as puffed up as the Pillsbury Doughboy.” “I do? I hadn’t thought so.” She mulled the assertion for a moment, wrinkling her brow as she did so. A flash of self-realization crossed her face. “You know, Amy, maybe sometimes I do.” “Sometimes?” Valerie sat there--not speaking. She extracted a pack of cigarettes from her handbag; when she did, a creased snapshot fluttered to the carpeted floor. Amy bent down and scooped it up. “Why it’s Pop, in his uniform. I didn’t see this one yesterday.” Nonplussed, Valerie fumbled for words. “It was in the desk. Maybe I forgot to . . . I’d like to keep it . . . if it’s okay with you.” “Sure, go ahead. Maybe I can make a copy later.” Amy smiled inwardly. Valerie had tried to conceal the fact she too wanted a keepsake, something to
remember their father. Amy detected a twinge of tenderness, a faint aroma of stifled sentimentality. Their eyes met. The old sisterly intimacy was still there. No words were needed “Oh, here’s Mr. Olson,” Amy said. “Morning, Mrs. King. Your sister here said I ought to tell you myself. Course, I thought you already knew.” “Knew what?” A look of bafflement so total as to almost cause her makeup to run passed across Valerie’s face. “About your father. And the medal. It was his; he earned it himself over there in Vietnam.” “I don’t understand; why did he keep it secret? We never knew . . .” “Was one of them government snafus that you hear about. They do that sort of thing. Anyhow, the Navy and Marines, both I guess, got in touch here last year. They tracked Tommy down through the VA. Said he’d been nominated and approved all those years ago, but the paperwork got lost.” “But, he never mentioned . . .” “That’s surely ‘cause he didn’t want it. Told them he didn’t want no ceremony and didn’t want no medal. They tried every which way to convince him, but, Tommy, he just sat there in that recliner of his and said no. Said there was plenty of others deserved it more than him.” “Then, how did it end up in the house?” “They kinda tricked him. Hung it around his neck when he was in the hospital.” “No one told us,” Valerie said. “Way he wanted it,” Olson said. “Wasn’t even going to bring it home.” “So how did it get on that shelf?” “I guess that’s where I come in. I told this Marine captain who was over to the hospital that I was the only one your dad talked to and I could deliver it. That captain seemed fed up with the whole thing. He had me sign a receipt in front of one of the hospital higher-ups and handed the medal over to me. I took it over to the
house and stuck it up there, figuring Tommy would come back. But, then he passed. It was in a little case.” “What was the medal for?” He never said, and I never asked. Was some paperwork went with it. But, I think that captain kept it.” Amy stood up and shook his hand. “Thanks a lot, Mr. Olson. Stay in touch. We appreciate all your help.” “Nothing to it. I’ll let you know when the lawyers and real estate people get things settled.” Like an embarrassed school boy, Olson folded his hands in front of him and shuffled from one foot to the other. “I know you and your dad didn’t hit it off too well in the last few years. But, he talked about you two all the time to me. Proud . . . he was mighty proud.” “Thanks for telling us,” Amy said. Valerie rose and awkwardly offered her hand. “Yes, thank you, Mr. Olson.” Olson started for the door, and then turned back. “Was that war over there made him the way he was. Doctors told me. Was the war.” The sisters remained standing until Olson had pushed through the revolving lobby door. “Fred was fit to be tied when I said you were hanging onto the medal,” Valerie said. But, her words lacked conviction, as if she felt obligated to say them and be done with it. “You know I checked. It’s against the law to sell that medal,” Amy replied. “Do you suppose Fred didn’t know that?” “Oh, Amy, I don’t think . . .” “Mr. Olson says there’s going to be a new Marine Corps Museum in Virginia. I think we should donate the medal. The Marines will let us know what it was for,” Amy said. “But, Fred thinks . . . Oh, Amy, I . . .” “Do you want to know something, Val? Fred has a fat stomach and a fat ass. Worst of all, he has a fat head.”
“Oh, Amy, don’t say . . .” Valerie’s lip trembled, and she began to cry. Then, tears still trickling down her face, she began to giggle, then to laugh. “You’re right, Amy. You’re right. He has.” “Has what?” “All three.” The stream of time slowed for a little, and the past piled up. The sisters threw their arms around each other, beset by out-of-control laughter. Lawrence F Farrar Lawrence F Farrar is a former Foreign Service officer with multiple postings in Japan, Europe, and Washington, DC. His stories have appeared in Tampa Review Online, The MacGuffin, and others.
Moon Over Greybeard Mountain
Night in My Garden --After Su Tung Po
The night is slimy. Things of the dark crawl from their holes. A wrinkled leaf is blown like a petal from a dead rose. The moon closes her eyes, and vanishes from the sky. I stare at a solitary crow in a nearby tree. He shows no interest in me. Snow begins to fall. The crow flies into the depths of the night. I hear the sound of a cry, I feel lucky to be alive. George Freek George Freek's poetry has recently appeared in Big Windows Review, The Tipton Poetry Journal, and others. He is also a published playwright. He makes his home in Belvidere, Illinois.
He’s Such a Good Boy Steve Grenville is showing a rambling Spanish revival house in the Hollywood Hills with views of the L.A. Basin and the Valley when his smart phone rings. It’s Lucinda, of course. He excuses himself and leaves the couple, a casually well-dressed pair of young bankers being transferred down from San Francisco, to sample the views and living room statuary by themselves. “Hi, Mom,” he says. “How are you?” “Not very well,” she says. “I have stomach pains, I feel dizzy, and my blood pressure is high.” Steve treads water, hoping she’s not going to say what she says. “I need to go to the hospital.” “Can the van from your assisted living place take you?” “It’s on the weekly shopping run to Gelson’s.” “What about – what is it? Elder-Access? Dial-A-Ride? One of those things?” “They take too long and I don’t like the way they drive.” “When do you want me to come?” “Would now be too soon?” “Now?” His wife Debbie’s at work, so he can’t call her. “I may not be long for this world,” the 90-year-old Lucinda Grenville mournfully intones with the panache of the Tony-nominated actress she once was. “You’re all that stands between me and my eternal reward.” The couple in the living room looks antsy. They’re used to concierge-style service and they’re not getting it. Steve sees the wife pointing impatiently at her watch. Her husband nods and, to Steve’s dismay, heads toward him. It’s because of episodes like this that Steve’s once-stellar sales record has begun to slip. Steve’s boss at Celebrity Real Estate is sympathetic, but business is business. “We’ve got some other places to look at,” the young man says. “We’ll get back to you if we’re still in the market.” Steve hears Lucinda’s voice coming from his phone.
“What’s that?” she says, speaking to someone in the background. “The van is back and can take me? Why that’s wonderful! Steve,” she says, “everything’s coming up roses. Sorry to bother you!” “Here, too,” he says in a sardonic tone Lucinda misses. “The Rose Parade’s got nothing on us.” The bankers, having strolled briskly to their Tesla Model 3 and gotten in, disappear down the driveway. Steve tries to reach them on their phone, but his message goes straight to voicemail. *** Following her divorce from her husband Arnold in the late ‘60’s, Lucinda Grenville raised Steve alone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Despite her being single and having the hectic schedule of a successful Broadway actress, she was a good mother: comforting him, calming his fears, believing in him and instilling the drive that led to his becoming a successful Los Angeles real estate agent. She could be manipulative and autocratic, and turned him against his father, but no one’s perfect. Ten years ago, she followed Steve out to Los Angeles so he could help care for her in her declining years. Steve was glad to do it, but his life has become less and less his own. The headstrong Lucinda was slow to get a cane when she needed one and her transitions to walker and wheelchair were equally dilatory, so she’s taken a lot of falls. In a few of the bad ones, she’s hit her head, and it’s curdled her personality. Steve gives her rides to the doctor – and Lucinda seems to have one for every part of her body. He takes her to the hospital, goes to the pharmacy, takes her on shopping trips. He smoothes things over when Lucinda gets into squabbles with the help at Willow Acres, her assisted living place in Hollywood. But she’s begun to exasperate Steve in ways he never imagined possible. One of Lucinda’s few remaining pleasures is to glue herself to CNN. Like the other cable news channels, it’s now all Trump, all the time. She decides she may have to escape. She wants a passport.
“Mom,” Steve says. “You don’t need a passport. You can’t travel. You can barely move. Trump and his storm troopers aren’t going to break into Willow Acres and haul you off to an internment camp just because you’ve donated to Emily’s List." But Lucinda is not going to back down to some little pup, least of all her own. She’s determined to bend him to her will. “Unlike you, I remember World War II and Hitler,” she says. “I want a passport.” Steve wearily accedes. He’s such a good son. He prints out a passport application form for her. A few days later, they go to the post office. Lucinda told Steve she’d correctly filled out the passport application form. But she hasn’t. She said she had all the necessary ID forms. She doesn’t. She said she had her old passport, but for some reason she’s played paper dolls with it and can only produce a few pages. She knew the Hollywood post office processes passport application forms, but didn’t realize they stop accepting them at 2:30, and they’ve gotten there at 2:15. Fortunately, they get a sympathetic clerk. “Just say you lost your passport,” she says. “It’ll cost a lot more, but at least you’ll get it.” Steve has to shuttle back and forth between the postal clerk at the window and Lucinda in her wheelchair nearby. But they’re going to the audiologist later and Lucinda has removed her hearing aids to make sure she doesn’t lose them. Steve, who hates public spectacles, has to yell at her to make himself heard. “Look at how he’s browbeating that old lady,” a woman in line says to her friend. “People have no respect for their elders anymore.” That’s the last straw. Steve regards himself as a firm adherent to the core tenets of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. But, he decides, there’s only one way to go. He’s going to kill his mother. This is not a question of greed: Lucinda Grenville, who always put art ahead of commerce, isn’t going to leave much of an estate. No, there’s no cupidity on Steve’s part. Simultaneously violating the Fifth and Sixth Commandments is not his preferred course of action. But, as they used to say on the Upper West Side, she’s got one foot
in the grave and the other on a banana peel. Would it really be so wrong to just give the process a little nudge? There’s a time and a place in everyone’s life for situational ethics and for Steve Grenville, that moment has arrived. *** Steve is getting ready to show a craftsman bungalow in Silverlake not far from where he and Debbie live. As he finishes looking around, he notices a container of rat poison the exterminator left behind. Steve decides to thoughtfully return it to the exterminator after first siphoning off enough of the stuff to send a Clydesdale to horse heaven. Then he heads down Wilshire back to the agency, running the gauntlet of Washington palms, their fronds swaying gently in the breeze. Their office is on the fifth floor of the Wiltern, a turquoise terra cotta landmark. Why are we still even here, Steve wonders. It’s a beautiful historical building, but the neighborhood is getting dicey, and some of their high-end clients don’t even like to go down there anymore. Steve’s rumination is punctured by Vic Vinson, his chief competitor. “I just sold a Schindler in the Los Feliz Hills,” Vinson preens. “East or west of Vermont?” Steve asks, knowing that in either case, Vinson will move further ahead of him on the agency’s leader board. “West, but of course,” says Vinson, like a character in a Grey Poupon commercial. West of Vermont is even more exclusive, so that’s extra points for Vinson. That night at dinner, Steve tells Debbie about his conversation with Vinson. “He’s certainly moving ahead,” she says. “Remember when you used to be the sales leader?” “Remember when I didn’t have to spend every waking moment trying to accommodate my mother?” “Oh, Steve, stop making excuses. I’m sure Vic Vinson has responsibilities, too.” Dinner ends in sullen silence. Later, Steve calls Lucinda. “I thought I might stop by for breakfast on my way to work tomorrow,” he says.
“Why, Steve -- that would be delightful,” she replies. When he gets up next morning, Steve unscrews the lid of a bottle of Bosco chocolate syrup he ordered on the internet and pours in the rat poison. Lucinda usually has tapioca pudding for breakfast, and likes a dab of chocolate sauce on it. Steve wheels her across Willow Acres’ tastefully landscaped grounds to the dining hall. After scrambled eggs and orange juice, she asks the waitress for tapioca. “With chocolate syrup, ma’am?” the waitress asks. “No need,” Steve says. “I’ve brought some myself – Bosco.” “Why, Steve,” Lucinda says, “how thoughtful. ‘I love Bosco – rich and chocolatey,’” she sings, remembering the old commercial. She used to buy Bosco at Bohack’s on the Upper West Side and now her son has taken her on a stroll down memory lane! When the tapioca arrives, Steve generously pours the chocolate syrup onto it. “Isn’t that a bit much?” Lucinda asks. “You only live once,” Steve says. But Lucinda sits there without eating. “Is something wrong?” Steve asks. “No,” Lucinda says. “I just think I’ve eaten a bit too much. I’ll take it back to my room and eat it later.” Although Steve lacks his mother’s acting ability, last night he was up late preparing the scene of his life: “Help! Help! Something’s wrong with my mother! Somebody call 911!” That will have to wait. As he wheels his mother back across the grounds to her room, the morning sunlight shines along the ridgeline of the Hollywood Hills in the distance, creating an alpenglow effect. Lucinda bursts into song. “The hills are alive – with the sound of music – “ As she trills out the show tune, she swings her arms wide for full dramatic effect and the bowl of tapioca goes flying. It rolls along the sidewalk, onto the lawn and toward a hedge. An enterprising squirrel dashes out of the hedge and sets upon the tapioca. In short order, he stops eating, shivers, and points his furry little feet skyward for the last time.
The next morning, Willow Acres’ groundskeeper, who witnessed the scene, talks to Lucinda. “Miss Lucinda, maybe it is the good thing you did not eat that,” he says. “That squirrel looks like he ate the rat poison.” No, Lucinda says, that’s not possible. There’s never been any trouble with the Willow Acres kitchen. That leaves the chocolate sauce, of course, but that was provided by her son. And he’s such a good boy. *** Steve is showing an Echo Park craftsman to a middle-aged TV actress and her stockbroker husband. The aging painter who lives there doesn’t mind visitors, so he’s in the den watching TV. When Steve and the couple enter, there’s a police chase on. Given the LAPD’s well-earned reputation for bowling over pedestrians like tenpins in a zealous effort to apprehend malefactors, the chase exerts a hypnotic fascination, even for someone like Steve, who disdains entertainments like this as the cheapest form of melodrama. As he watches, a car, perhaps operated by someone enjoying Spotify on their earbuds, drives down a street intersecting the chase route and clears the intersection with inches to spare before a hard-charging police cruiser flies through. Then the car being pursued briefly swerves into oncoming traffic, almost causing a head-on with a delivery van. A skateboarder coming downhill along a side street sees he’s heading into the teeth of the chase and tries to stop, but, gravity and inertia being what they are, propel him into the street where he barely misses becoming a hood ornament on a police car in hot pursuit. Fortune has smiled on the LAPD, which won’t have to dip into the multi-million-dollar rainy day fund it turns to when it inadvertently sends residents of the City of Angels to meet the angels who hang around on clouds and strum harps. But they may not be so lucky the next time. This occurs to Steve several days later when he takes Lucinda to their once-amonth lunch at Chez Vieille Dame, her favorite French restaurant, on Corado Street in
Hollywood. As they’re about to leave, Steve checks his smart phone and sees another police pursuit is in progress, right there in Hollywood. “James (Jimbo) McGillicuddy, who’s wanted on several outstanding warrants, has just turned off Sunset Boulevard onto Corado Street,” the earnest young newscaster says, “He’s in a 2001 white Corolla. If you’re in the area, please be careful.” If Steve can discreetly maneuver Lucinda into the path of the oncoming chase, odds are good that when the forces sworn to protect and serve get through with her, there won’t be enough of Lucinda left to pour into a teaspoon. “Let’s watch,” he says, and pushes her wheelchair to the curb, near a handicapped access ramp. He waits until he thinks no one is watching and, acting like it’s hula night at his favorite tiki bar, gets behind Lucinda’s wheelchair and sways his hips against it for all they’re worth. The wheelchair, with Lucinda in it, rolls down the handicapped ramp and, with the momentum it’s gathered, into the middle of the street. Maybe it’s time for a new wheelchair, Lucinda thinks: these darn brakes don’t hold as well as they used to. When her wheelchair comes to rest, it sits squarely astride the double yellow line running down the middle of Corado Street. And here comes the white 2001 Toyota Corolla, its rear window shot out by the police, followed by what looks like half of the LAPD’s patrol cars, sirens blaring and lights flashing! A block away from Chez Vieille Dame, James (Jimbo) McGillicuddy looks ahead and sees a little old lady squarely in front of him. He’ll have to knock granny into the middle of next week if he’s going to lose the cops and make it to freedom. But half a block and a fraction of a second later, he realizes: Mom! The old lady looks like his own dear sweet mother, the one who died from a broken heart when he embarked upon his worthless life of petty crime. It’s a sign from God! Momentarily confused, he stops. The police swarm him and, in short order, he’s lying in the middle of the street with his hands zip-tied behind his back. “Lady,” the lead officer from the chase says to Lucinda, “You really shouldn’t have gone out in the street like that. But you’re a heroine, and the people of Los Angeles owe you a debt of gratitude.”
“It’s time someone stood up for law and order in this dirty city that knows no shame,” Lucinda replies as if she had just rolled out of a Raymond Chandler novel. “I’m glad to do my civic duty.” Well-coiffed TV news men and women thrust their mics in her face. Passersby tell Steve how proud he must be of his mother. “There’s no one quite like her,” he mutters. While he’s talking to a police officer, a man who saw the whole spectacle sidles up to Lucinda. “Lady,” he says, “I’m an insurance investigator and maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me, but that guy over there who was standing next to you” – he gestures toward Steve – “That’s my son,” she says proudly. “Your son. I see…well...” the man says, trying to find a way to put things diplomatically and failing, “it sure looked to me like he deliberately pushed you into the path of the chase.” “Steve? My son? Push me into – “ She looks at the man as if he’s mad. “He would never do a thing like that,” she says. “He’s such a good boy.” *** After dropping Lucinda off at Willow Acres and calming down, Steve heads back to the Wiltern to complete some paperwork. As he’s finishing up, he runs into Vic Vinson again. “I just got a call from the Grand Vizier to the Sultan of Brunei,” Vinson exults. “Mr. Sultan himself wants to buy everything on Rodeo Drive between Santa Monica and Elevado! So,” he asks in a question that’s not really a question, “how’s business?” “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Steve says, dashing out. He calls Lucinda that evening as part of his daily check-in. They rehash Lucinda’s star turn in the car chase, then she asks for a favor. “Steve, could you buy me a few pieces of See’s chocolates tomorrow?” “Mom, the nearest See’s is in Burbank.”
“So?” “So it’s not that easy – “ “Well, I never!” Lucinda says, feigning outrage. If she can lay it on thick enough the chocolates are as good as hers. “Is that too far to go for your crimefighting mother, your mother who always tried hard – oh so hard – to do right by you?” “It’s far enough to blow a hole in my day.” “What’s that?” “I said it’s far enough to make me cancel several showings, incur the wrath of my boss and bring the eternal sword of doom down upon my head.” “I can’t seem to hear you, Steve.” “Your hearing always gets worse when I say something you don’t want to hear.” “There must be something wrong with the phone line,” she says. “Well, I’m off to my chair exercise class.” And she hangs up. *** That night, in troubled dreams, Steve is living in a garret in St. Petersburg. Inspector Porfiry Petrovich, in a relentless, probing interrogation, is trying to get him to confess to the murder of his landlady. At six o’clock in the morning, just as Petrovich points a finger at him and says “You poisoned the Bosco, tovarisch!” the phone rings and it’s Lucinda. Owing to a shortage of certified nursing assistants, she tells Steve, there’s no one to give her a shower this morning and she hates to start her day feeling less than lily fresh. Could Steve come over and help? Why, of course he could. The proverbial light bulb goes on over his head as he realizes that if he suffers a slight case of butterfingers while helping her stand in the shower, whose fault is that, really? He says goodbye to Debbie, who tells him to send her love to Lucinda. “And sell a few McMansions today, won’t you, dear?” she says. “It’s been ages since they let me in the door at Gucci’s.” She gives Steve a perfunctory kiss as he heads over to Willow Acres.
His deliverance is at hand. He escorts his mother into the bathroom, turns on the shower, and prepares to help her into the stall. But, with one foot in the shower stall and the water already running, he sees that the light over the mirror above Lucinda’s bathroom sink is slightly crooked. Steve reaches out to straighten it. Unfortunately, he’s standing in water and is electrocuted. *** Steve’s funeral is held a week later, organized by the executive director of Willow Acres, who’s been to more of these things than he cares to remember. Debbie attends, along with Steve’s colleagues at work (even Vic Vinson), friends, family and of course, Lucinda, who’s inconsolable. He was a bit headstrong and never got her those chocolates, but Steve was always such a good boy. Jon Krampner Jon Krampner’s short fiction has appeared in Across the Margin, Eunoia Review, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.
Eleventh Commandment I stayed after at Sunday School today to confabulate with Miss Hooker, she's my teacher there and a good match for me when I get married someday and even if she's 25 to my 10 and will always be, I mean fifteen years older always and we'll have a pretty good life between us, together maybe I should say, but there will come that day when one of us dies, dies first that is, and the numbers favor me but on the other hand they favor Miss Hooker, I guess it depends on how you look at things but anyway after Sunday School this morning I slipped back into our trailer-classroom and went up to her old wood and metal desk, it looks like a reject from regular school and I guess in my own way so am I but before I could even clear my throat to get her attention Miss Hooker said How can I help you, Gale, without hardly looking up and it wasn't a question neither, it was more like a command and all I could think of at the time was it was the Eleventh Commandment and I was so flustered I forgot what I wanted to say, even when Miss Hooker said Well, what is it, Gale, or especially, so I simply said what I'll say when we're wed -locked, which was I love you, ma'am, which might smooth things over after we're connubial or cannibals or whatever the word is and Miss Hooker finally put down her Bible, it had somehow come between us, and looked at me and even through and smiled and said God loves you, Gale, and so do I like the religious folks on TV do except that they don't know my name and if they do they don't use it so I asked Will you marry me one day, Miss Hooker, when I'm old enough, I mean, I'm powerful lonesome for you, which made her start to cry and me to blush but she didn't answer, just kept sniffling and looking out the door
making me wonder if she was wondering if I was the best she could do so now I'm kind of stuck, sometimes no means yes and maybe does, too, and no answer at all is like strike three so I just said Goodbye, Miss Hooker, and didn't wait for goodbye from her like an I do to my I do, no, I just walked home as usual and now I want out of it, the engagement I mean--who wants to kiss a crybaby? Gale Acuff Gale Acuff has had poetry published in Ascent, McNeese Review, and others, and has authored three books of poetry: Buffalo Nickel, The Weight of the World, and The Story of My Lives. He has taught English in universities in the US, China, and the Palestinian West Bank.
When I’m Sixty-Four When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now, Will you still need me, will you still feed me, When I’m 64? --Paul McCartney, When I'm 64, from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
That Beatles song came out in 1967 when I was fourteen years old. Now I reflect back fifty years ago. I remember fireflies like summer’s fiery snowflakes dancing in the heated night. I’d scoop them up in my hand hoping they wouldn’t burn me. The early morning blackberries warm to the touch in the sun then having purple painted lips and fingerprints. But only enough to share with the birds and animals. My August treat. I remember my first communion. I was afraid of spilling the blood on my white gown. My ten-year-old mind could imagine all sorts of plagues descending on me. I remember looking for tiny crawdads under rocks deep in the woods. I go home and plop my head in the AC window box and mix a Tang cause the astronauts do. My sister and her friends have covered the dining room table with Barbie wardrobe suitcases spread out like accordions. I wonder what Ken thinks and rest on the sofa lying prone watching “As The World Turns” which makes me feel like an adult cause that’s what moms watch. It’s boring so I work on my plastic model kit of Superman breaking through a brick wall where I drip red paint over the letter “S” on his shirt. Then I hear the ding, ding, ding, of the ice cream truck “Mom can I have some money” which magically appears cause maybe it makes me disappear. My hot sticky rocket red Popsicle lips summer. *** Now I actually am sixty-four going on four. It’s raining. I stand next to my
son. We briefly lock eyes. I nod. “Let's jump in the puddle.” I’m just a kid at heart. “Doing the garden, digging the weeds. Who could ask for more. Will you still need me, will you still feed me, When I'm 64?” Bruce H Markuson and Frank Pipp Frank Pipp is a retired elementary school teacher living in Milwaukee. He is active in mitochondrial fund raising and enjoys writing, reading, being an art docent, and walking his rescue border collie. He has two adult children. Bruce Markuson has published a novel and over a hundred short stories. He lives with his wife and two children in Milwaukee.
Transient Lucidity 1. That time at the Lake when Alzheimers turns you loose. What’s wrong with me? you ask. Did a doctor tell you that? Oh. That’s why you took the car. Then wouldn’t it be better if... I take you in my arms to shut you up. You look around the room: rented cottage, velvet paintings. Well I may be crazy, you say, but that is REALLY BAD art. It’s funny. We laugh. You stand up, go into the bedroom, and shut the door. 2. At my house in the middle of the night you say daughter I’m scared. Or maybe you say daughter I’m sick. (Or maybe you say neither of these things. My mind is tricking me now.) You never mention it again. 3. In a wheelchair, on a terrace with checkered tiles and palm trees, you see us, you startle, you smile. You can even correct our grammar. But you get tired, you go to sleep and go away. 4. You go away. You go away. Farley Green Farley Green has appeared in the Trestle Creek Review. She is retired from full-time journalism/public relations work and now freelances and writes poetry. She lives in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
Epictetus 101 Don't wish things would happen As you wish they would happen, But wish they would happen as they do. Then everything that happens Will be what you wish would happen And will be a panacea for you. Now I know this may be crazy, But it maybe isn't crazy If you think the philosophic way. For all that's going to happen Is for certain going to happen, So it's going to happen any way. And if your mind is open, And you want to keep it open, There's a way to keep it open that I know-Just adopt this way of thinking, Though it isn't really thinking, For it's nothing more than going with the flow. Eliot Hallowell Eliot Hallowell wrote most of his poems the last twenty years of his life to cope with the challenges of aging. He died last February at the age of 94.
Midnight Mass Her Auntie Mil once played piano in a whorehouse, but Emily never held that against her and wouldn't let anyone else. Mil had a great left hand, which meant great stride piano, and had she lived in New Orleans, she might have played in some version of Storeyville. But this was wartime Sitka, Alaska, which is as far you can get from New Orleans unless you cross the Bering Strait to Siberia. One October Tuesday, crisp and colorful and smelling of winter, Father Cosgrove told her that Queen Arlanta was dying. Arlanta was the local madam and was convinced she was ready to go. She wanted Auntie Mil to come play a few hymns and "The Darktown Strutters’ Ball.” Mil walked over to the drab two-story frame house, thumped out a half-dozen songs, and Queen Arlanta lived. The Church could find no miracle musically or theologically, not that it tried, and Father Cosgrove told her, "Good work, Mil, just don't go demanding sainthood." Miracle or no miracle, whenever the girls spotted Auntie Mil in the local market or the coffee shop, especially Zelda and Ginny, they came up and hugged her and said, “Honey, if there's anything you ever need." Emily had been in Sitka for a year, living with her aunt and uncle who had moved from Oregon when he got a job with the Navy. She'd come up from Oakland, after her boyfriend Cal enlisted in the Army. He'd returned for a three-day leave, said he loved her and promised they'd get married, then departed for points east. She was also working for the Navy, as a cartographer's aide. Auntie Mil was Episcopalian, high church to boot but an outcast in the eyes of the Vatican. Nonetheless, she played the organ at Sitka's small Catholic church because it had no organist among its flock and as Father Cosgrove told her, “God won't care and Headquarters won't know.” Christmas Eve that year turned violent when a blizzard out of the Bering Sea hit Sitka with the ferocity of a wing of enemy bombers, making even long-time Alaskans curse everything in their path. The church's furnace was cranked and the sanctuary was hot, the air thick with pine and incense. As Auntie Mil started the second verse of "Adeste Fidelis," the front doors opened, and six soldiers in full gear
pushed inside, the wind threatening to blow the candles off the altar. They brushed the snow off their jackets, set their equipment and weapons down and found a pew over on the right. Father Cosgrove said, "Welcome, boys." And they were boys, not grizzled, unshaven cigarette-smoking GIs in the movies and on magazine covers, but kids. A couple came with peach fuzz and one had pimples on his chin. They were eighteen, nineteen. Emily stared at a tall one and thought briefly: God, it's Cal. One soldier wiped his eyes on the cuff of his jacket during â€œSilent Night." Just after communion, as Auntie Mil hit the opening chords to "Joy to the World" they rose, traipsed to the back of the church, hoisted their packs and left as wordlessly as they had entered. After the service, as Auntie Mil gathered her music, Emily helped tidy up the sanctuary, and spotted a photograph and a letter folded twice and lying face down on the floor under the pew where the soldiers had sat. It began, "Dearest Jack." The snapshot was of a girl, also around eighteen, wearing a sweater and standing on a beach, squinting into the sun at the camera and maybe smiling. On the back she had written in a looping young hand, "Love, Cynthia, November 1942." Emily tucked the letter and snapshot in her purse and Christmas morning slogged down to the Army depot and asked the NCO on duty if he knew anything about the men from last night. He did not, but got on the horn and made a couple of calls. Nothing. "Sorry," he said, "that's one letter that'll arrive a whole lot later than usual." She asked around town, including a couple of Arlanta's girls, and at the airfield and the NCO club, but no one knew anything about the soldiers or Jack, and if they did, they were saying nothing. Loose lips and all that. She tucked the letter in a dresser drawer, went out with a sailor a couple times who'd just arrived from Ohio and was stationed in town, and Jack and his Cynthia slipped into an early, foggy spring. Emily assured herself someday sheâ€™d track the couple down, either together or apart. She sat cross-legged on the floor by her bed and reread the last letter she had received from Cal. He was in England and he didn't like it.
"Honey it never quits raining. We're in the middle of the countryside all damp and got colds and feeling doggone miserable and I can't wait to get going somewhere, anywhere. I love you, Em, I miss you more than the sunshine." Some of it had been redacted, some of it was repetition, probably, she figured, like his existence in whatever camp or post wherever, doing whatever. She never saw him again. Cal's mother got the telegram from the War Department. He'd been killed a day after Omaha Beach, shot by a German sniper in a village somewhere in Normandy and he was a hero. His mother wrote Emily with the news and sent a photo of him in uniform taken just after boot camp. Emily could barely get out of bed and took a day off. Auntie Mil tried to console her, but not with platitudes about God's mysterious plans or being in a happier place. She took her to see Queen Arlanta for some earthier wisdom. The madam was not big and brassy and loaded with baubles, but short and slender with dyed black hair, plucked eyebrows and lipstick that edged with great drama over the edges of her lips. "Dolly," she told Emily, "guys are like weeds -- one dies and three others crop up." Emily said she wasn't sure she needed to hear that just yet, and Arlanta said, "It's hard, baby. My lover man kicked off when he was twenty-two. I was nineteen and we were mad about each other. Nuts, you know? We were talking about settling in Idaho and running a ranch. Idaho! We didn't know a thing about animals and I liked the neon lights and parties and music and gin too much." Emily said, "Cal was so wonderful." "I'm sure he was," Arlanta said. "So was Clarence. Can you believe I was going to marry an oaf named Clarence? I told him change his name to Clancy or Clete." She looked out at the snow on the low roofs. "Then he died." She went into her kitchen and returned with a bottle of whiskey and three glasses. Emily asked her if she'd met any soldiers around Christmas Eve on their way to the Aleutians, especially a young GI named Jack.
Queen Arlanta pursed her rouged lips, arched her plucked eyebrows and said, "See what I mean?" "It's not like that," said Emily, trying not to sound caustic. She recounted the midnight service, the storm, the soldiers, the letter and the snapshot. Arlanta said, "Dearie, we welcome soldiers and sailors and candlestick makers. We don't ask where they're headed. We know where they're headed -- to the sack. The rest of it ... " She shrugged. "We don't operate on any need-to-know. It's best for everyone." She stopped, maybe a flicker of recognition. "Jack. Sorry, not ringing any chimes." As Emily and Auntie Mil were leaving, Queen Arlanta said, "Just remember what the Bible says in Carpathians 5:93 -- 'Cal is getting the shitty end of the stick'." # Emily rode out the rest of the war in Sitka, doing her job and receiving high performance ratings, going to staff functions and NCO club dances but getting no joy. She dated the sailor from Ohio, then a stud corpsman a few times whom she pronounced to Auntie Mil "is dumb as a duffle bag." To the trumpets of VJ Day, and after the homemade confetti had been swept up, she packed for the passenger steamer ride to Seattle. She found the photo and reread Cynthiaâ€™s letter: "Mother has a cold, Dad's working real hard. It's raining and boring, and gosh, I wish I could go to L.A. even for a little bit. Jack, I'm real sorry about everything, honest. I wish I could say different, but I guess none of us can predict the future or who's just over the next hill. Yours affectionately ... " Jack had meant to tuck the letter and photo back in his jacket but dropped them by accident. Or he'd left them on purpose, maybe as a talisman ensuring a safe return home. Maybe he knew he was going to die. Maybe he didn't care.
Emily landed in Seattle but couldnâ€™t face returning to Oakland. She enrolled in college, got a nursing degree, married a radio ad salesman with two-toned shoes, and a love for gin, named Bender ("'Bender', how appropriate," she later told friends). She had a son and a daughter, got divorced, got the house and kids, married Thomas, a biology teacher. When the kids were grown, she moved with him into a bungalow on the west side of Dogfish Island with a "peak-a-boo" view of Puget Sound. While working at a hospital in Seattle, late one morning over cafeteria coffee, she told her tale of Jack to a staff oncologist. The doc had served in the Army and was stationed for six months in the Aleutians. "Is Jack special?" he asked. She said he sounded like Arlanta, to which he said, "Maybe old Arlanta and I are a team." Over the ensuing week he made a couple calls, one to a contact still at the Pentagon who said a group of GIs did fly in around that time and to let him check. No promises. A month later the doctor called Emily into his office, handed her a sheet of blue paper and said, "Your lucky number, or maybe unlucky, is three." One Jack lived in Nevada, one in Michigan and one in Ukiah down in California. She said, "Where did you get these?" "Shhh," he said in a stage whisper. "Let's say it was a professional courtesy. There may be a bunch more Jacks out there and I don't know if any of these is the Jack bouncing around in your memory. If I were a private eye I'd have found you pictures of him and Cynthia." That night she took out the paper and showed it to Thomas who said, "Someone's been busy." She'd told him about Sitka. He'd been in Naval intel during the war and spent the war in Washington. "It wasn't as glamorous as you think, Em. And I hope these guys been thoroughly vetted." She said, "'Vetted' ... like they're defectors." She considered calling the Ukiah Jack then changed her mind because it cost long distance plus she didn't know what to say: "Hi, Jack, you don't know me, but were you in Sitka? I was at that church Christmas Eve when you and your troop (patrol? buddies?) came in from the snow. I found the letter
and picture from Cynthia." Then what? "Let me start over. (Blah blah blah blah blah.) Did you ever reconnect? Did you get married?" It was none of her business and what did she care? Jack was some kid she never knew and she'd sound like she was nosey or an intruder or on the prowl. And didn't most of us just want to get on with our lives, as fractured as they might be? The war had gotten distilled and romanticized courtesy of Hollywood and Glen Miller. Today people dress in WWII getup for "canteen parties," ignoring the war's rough core, the scarcity -- you couldn't buy stockings or butter -- and the pervasive loneliness and death. She put the paper in a "To Do" file on their desk in the den and turned on the TV. She liked baseball. She and Thomas were planning to go to England, France and Italy the following year, but he had a stroke and ended up in long-term care. He died seven months later at age sixty-two. That left her alone but secure in her island home. After the mourners and well-wishers faded away, she occasionally lunched with close friends, went to a movie or to Tacoma to catch its Triple-A team which she liked because the players still showed enthusiasm and the box seats were cheap. Sometimes she remembered and took out the paper. The ink was fading so she traced the names with a pen. She visited Auntie Mil three times in Portland where she lived in a one-bedroom apartment. She'd moved to the Rose City shortly after the war, after Uncle Ross was killed when his car got t-boned by a fisherman with a snootful of rye. Her aunt had kept her old upright piano, and at Emily's urging, played "The Darktown Strutters Ball," slower and more carefully, but still with that signature stride. She stopped in mid-song and said "Use my phone. If you don't call this guy now, you never will. Wait too long we'll all be dead." Emily said she would but that night
drove onto the ferry for Dogfish Island without thinking of picking up the phone. She'd call when she got in the door. # When Emily turned eighty-five her children tossed her a party. Along with a handful of her friends they gave her silly cards and balloons, sang "Happy Birthday" and toasted her with champagne as she cut a carrot cake. At five o'clock her daughter Anne glanced at her watch and said, "Ma, Ron and I have a special present." Two minutes later, Emily's phone rang. Her daughter picked up the phone, put it on speaker, and a man said, "Happy eighty-fifth, Emily." She was confused. Was this someone from Tacoma? Someone from the Chief's Club in Sitka? That scoundrel Bender. Had Cal really survived? "Thank you," she said. "Who is this?" "Jack from Reno. Reno, Nevada." "Jack from Reno," she said and her living room applauded. She glared at her daughter and said, "I don't know what you're doing but this is not the least bit humorous." Anne said, "Are you going to speak to him or not?" She said, "I don't understand." The man said, "I was at that midnight service in Sitka. Six of us were." Anne said, "I jotted down their names and addresses. Michigan Jack died eleven years ago, Ukiah Jack was the wrong one and an asshole to boot, but Nevada Jack? Bingo." Emily scrunched up her mouth and looked ready to cry or curse. Her living room felt close and alien, like a strange waiting room with nothing to read. This was private and here comes Anne poking around, dredging up the past like that old "This Is Your Life" TV show. She loathed surprises. She'd never been one of those women who go for broke, seek the spotlight, dance on the tables. If she'd wanted to track down Jack she would have. She did not like her kids meddling. Her son Ron said, "I told Annie Fannie over and over not to do it." Jack said, "Your daughter is very persistent." Emily said, â€œI raised both of them that way but Anne is the one who gets things
done." Jack said, "I saw Cynthia. Once. I saw her once." Emily said, "I don't think this is funny." "No, it surely isn’t," Jack said. "It was a while after I got back to California. Half Moon Bay, and before I moved to Nevada. She called my parents' house and we got together for a drink, but too much had passed. It wasn't kismet, Emily. Sometimes that "Dear John" business works for the best." Emily looked at the phone, at her daughter and the guests, and Anne feared she was going to hang up. Jack said, “It didn’t work out with her and the guy she left me for. He promised to marry her and then got shipped out and got hitched over in Italy somewhere. He told her he was real sorry. I also told her I was real sorry but I’d found a new girl. That sounds like a corny song title.” Emily stood motionless, staring at the receiver. "Jack ..." "I'm still here." "Really, were you there Christmas Eve?” “Yeah, six of us.” “Did you drop anything that night?" Jack said, "I always wondered what happened to them." "To what?" Emily sounded like a lawyer but couldn't think of a better follow-up, such as "Where were you from?" "Where were you going?" "What do you remember from that night, I mean did you notice me?" She said, "I have them." "The photograph and letter. Wowser." He sounded mildly amused, as if Emily had said, I have your kazoo. He said, "I can't remember what it said. But Emily, I'm OK." She said, "I've thought about you, I mean at first. Not in a romantic way but it's ... a shock to hear your voice, what you sound like." “I’m no Bing Crosby.” “I could kill my daughter.” Jack laughed. “I know we’re on speaker phone. Anne and Ron, great job. Aplus! Hey, Emily, I was a school principal.”
She said, “Where were you going that night?” “The Aleutians. You think it was cold and snowy in Sitka?” This time Jack paused as if recalling the night in Sitka or his time on the Bering Sea or if tonight was really a good idea. Emily stood in silence as her guests shifted their weight and sipped champagne. He said, “I’ve done alright. My wife Ruth passed away a while back but I’ve done alright. I bet so have you, so don’t go killing Anne.” “Yes," Emily said. "I mean I’ve done well. I live on this island and my husband and I love it, even the rain.” Emily and her guests listened to a few more seconds of silence then Jack said, “Well ... “ "He taught school. Thomas, my husband ... " More silence. Jack said, "I know." More silence. "Emily, have a swell birthday and mine is still two months away but I feel like it’s also my day.” "Jack ... " Another pause. Emily said, “Thank you.” Her guests waited for more, but she was feeling like she was on display and she’d said quite enough. Jack said, “You have my number. If you have any other questions.” He paused. “So much time has gone by but I’m really sorry about your Cal. And about Thomas.” “Yes.” “If you ever find yourself in Reno ... “ “Or you visit Seattle.” “Or if I ever visit Seattle.” After the party and as Anne helped clean up, Emily said, "I forgot to ask if he'd dropped the letter and snapshot by mistake." Anne said he'd mentioned something about wondering what happened to it? Emily said, "That doesn't mean he didn't leave it on purpose." Ron said it was sort of a miracle, finding him. "Miracles," Emily snapped, "are for church and baseball." Ron said, "Call him and ask." Emily said, "I'm too old for surprises like this." Anne said, drying a cup, "You think it's a joke." "Not for one second."
# That night she put Jack's letter and photograph, and the paper with his phone number, on her fireplace grate. It could snow some time. The next morning she picked it off the grate and stuck it in a cabinet full of photo albums and boxes of slides and old movies. She'd long delayed taking on that potential disaster zone, which included her albums from Sitka. Now Jack? She called Anne and said, “I hope to hell you didn't tell him that Dad had died.” "You're welcome, Ma." "For what?" "Ron and I are thrilled you liked your party." She said, "Thank you. I was calling about Dad dying." “What do you think? And who cares? Really.” "I will call when I feel like it and tell him my Auntie Mil played in a brothel." Anne said, "That's a start." Tim Menees Tim Menees grew up in Seattle and, after military service, drew editorial cartoons at the morning paper in Pittsburgh for 30 years. His work appeared in The New York Times and national news magazines. Now retired, he draws cartoons and writes for The Pittsburgh Quarterly, paints and plays the piano.
The Little Brown Boy on the Porch In family albums there is a photograph of my father at about age six. Little José Ángel is posing shyly with a sister, a brother, and a cousin in the dusty front yard of the bungalow in Brownsville, Texas that my grandfather built for his family. The porch swing which hangs there to this day is visible in the background. This picture was probably taken around 1930. What is most striking about the image is how much darker my Dad looks in comparison with the others. Primita Alma, positioned next to little José Angel, could easily pass for white, and I imagine that she did so in Mexico City where she lived. Perhaps passing through Texas on a family visit, Alma is dressed in newer and cleaner clothing than her cousins, who wear scuffed shoes and ragged hand-me-downs. My father’s brother Roberto and sister Esther have the skin tone of average mestizos. In the giggling line-up, however, my father-to-be stands out as being virtually of a different race from the others. More than once he recounted to me as if sharing a humorous, fond memory that family members teased him by calling him “Prieto.” This racial epithet, which means “dark,” was the Mexican equivalent of the despicable N-word slur applied to blacks. Siblings often compared José Ángel to a brother born before him who died in infancy and had been light skinned and even blonde. A common taunt was, “Why were you—the dark, ugly one— the one that lived when our beautiful fair skinned baby brother had to die?” Although my father laughed it off, the wish that one had died or never come into being is surely the worst of all emotional assaults. Somewhere along the line, my father determined to overcome the unlucky racial hand that fate had dealt him. His intelligence and adult good looks and charm went a long way toward helping him assimilate into the Anglo world. During the Depression the family was desperately poor, and my father was the last of the children still living at home. His widowed mother hired him out to work for wealthy white families as a kind of house-boy who ran errands and performed minor chores.
Here, with apologies, it might be useful to borrow a concept from the vernacular of black plantation slavery. Perhaps we could say my father rose as a child from being a maligned and impoverished prietito to becoming something like the “house negro” who was privileged to be allowed entry to white people’s stately homes. And at the risk of offending Jewish readers, I’ll also say that the Biblical tale of Moses serving in Pharaoh’s palace comes to mind as well. By my father’s report, he was regarded with patronizing affection and kindness by the people who employed him. There exists another a photograph of an adorable brown-skinned boy dressed in short white trousers, leaning against a grand house’s porch rail and directing entreating dark eyes toward the camera. One of my father’s employers had an extensive library. Noticing how little José was drawn to the books, the mistress encouraged him to learn by allowing him to visit and read in that special room during his free time. In doing so, this kind woman offered the child a route to escape—both from everyday cares and from a racially prescribed and restricted future. In the early decades of the century, Mexican children were chastised with corporal punishment if caught speaking a word of Spanish at school. This policy was applied from each child’s first day of kindergarten onward and was enforced even during recess on the playground. In this way my Father was introduced to Mexican Americans’ secondary burden: the linguistic discrimination that amplifies the bias related to skin color and ethnicity. José Angel quickly discerned that mastering the English language--reading, speaking, and writing it well—was the key to entering what doors of success the Anglo world might grudgingly hold open to a dark-skinned kid. It seems likely that he developed his literary world view and identity—and his desire to become a writer—at an early age. For Mexicans, opportunities to advance one’s self were few in Brownsville, where South Texan Jim Crow was the rule. Restaurants and lunch counters displayed boldly lettered signs saying, “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed.” Brownsville is the southernmost border town of la Frontera, located where the demarcating Río Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico. With the somewhat fluid international division so
stark in people’s awareness, it was important for whites to enforce a social boundary between the races. Nonetheless, Mexican Americans clung fiercely to their cultural identity despite being pinned beneath the thumb of Anglo interlopers who had not forgotten the depredations of Villa’s forces. The status quo was an uneasy truce, and a firm white Texan hand was required to enforce order and maintain privilege. It was in this highly racialized universe that my future father, captured in snapshots as an innocent child, began his personal struggle for self-determination. For the dark little boy on the porch, a steep and challenging life road lay ahead. Emily Peña Murphey Emily Peña Murphey is a retired psychotherapist who has published work in several literary journals. She has family roots in the Smoky Mountains and the Río Grande Valley and lives in Philadelphia.
Rag Doll Epiphany What enabled me to survive adolescence was taking guitar lessons and forming connections with a group of people who were involved in the 1960’s folk music scene. I recall the exact moment when I “cracked the code” of chords as accompaniment for a song. On a muggy New Jersey afternoon, I was sitting in my family’s back yard on the wooden picnic table overhung by one of our willow trees. I had just mastered the skill of moving all fingers involved in a chord change simultaneously—great progress compared to laboriously placing each one separately—and was practicing the simplified three-note chords that I’d learned at my latest lesson. As I was strumming and practicing making changes, I created a pattern that reminded me of a song. To my delight and amazement, I realized that my stripped-down chords were sufficient in a simple way to accompany it. The chords were G and D7, and the song was the Four Seasons’ current top-40 hit, “Rag Doll.” I’d never been a fan of the group because I found their singing to be too raucous and perhaps also too Italian for my tastes. However, this recording had a beautiful melody and lots of sweet backup vocal passages consisting simply of the open vowels “ooh” and “aah,” with a soaring falsetto improvisation by the lead singer over the ending fadeout. Plus, the lyrics of the song were something I could relate to: the story of a girl who was bullied because (like me) she was poor and wore ragged clothing. But nonetheless, the boy portrayed by the singer found her pretty and loveable. The final phrase, “I love you just the way you are!” gave me, a lonely teenager, the hope that someday I too might find intimacy and acceptance. I figured out how to strum the chords in a rhythm that duplicated the instrumental background of the recording while supporting my voice while I sang the lead. A momentous breakthrough, and pure bliss! I was hooked on music from then on. And as it turned out, I was destined to find love through music, because eventually I met and married a guitarist and banjo player who became my duet partner. To this day “Rag Doll” is one of my favorite songs and when it was played over the closing credits of the movie, “Jersey Boys,” I cried! Emily Peña Murphey
Fibrillation You think you hear a ravenous bird whirr or black bee marking a hole in the siding of your ear not the rolling chug-chug-chug of a train in the distance but rapid, consistent, airborne humming, perhaps a scaffold worker with his lips loose and hip hop runs working from his tongue to vibrate his kiss, aerial, not arterial, coming from all weather-vane directions, in the length of a trill, life fleeting having flown Jeff Burt Jeff Burt's work has appeared in Terrene, Rabid Oak, and others. He and his wife live in Santa Cruz County, California.
What Compost Dreams That gift of lush and unforgiving beauty burned into the heart as I rest amid earthly daughters in bloom surroundings where figs drop golden at slow passing through where roses scent passing upon ripe grapes underfoot many footed in fugue cadence no sound but that of the dove or thrush disturbed, the rain oak, its excited jay, treefrogs silent now bid me ‘bye who may not again enjoy except as worm and beetle this lush beauty wrought through my hand by God lover of a garden whose mint for julep, peach and pecan into pies meet for slim afterword with words from so many who do not love this unforgiving but wonder at how it might or should a broad grass field of death’s monotony, its even spaces, unadorned rock, water unmanaged its cane and Koi called carp. These who come after to rest quite astonished by growth in death’s peace surrounding where I loved my wife, my children, and my life. John Horvath John Horvath has been published in Burningword Literary Journal, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and others. After Vanderbilt and Florida State universities, "Doc" Horvath taught at historically Black colleges. He has been an editor at the online magazine poetryrepairs.com. He lives in Mississippi.
My Mother’s Ashes The urn that holds my mother’s ashes sits on a shelf in a storage room. The room isn’t mine but my daughter and son-in-law’s and they share the room with other tenants of Country Vista Garden Apartments. If my mother wanted her urn kept anywhere it would be near Elise, her granddaughter. Elise is a nurse who occasionally took care of her at Meadowlark Nursing Home in Southeast Portland. My mother, however, didn’t approve of my son-in-law, Ryan. “I’m disappointed in Elise for marrying a carpenter,” she told me, perhaps forgetting Jesus’s profession. “I’m sure she could’ve done better. They’ll be stuck living in an apartment forever.” She also criticized her grandson, Justin. “He’s a loser—no one makes money as a musician.” She wasn’t impressed that he was an accomplished violinist. Years earlier she said nothing good about my fiancé, Gary. She was quiet throughout the first dinner we had together at a restaurant in Eugene, where I had just graduated from the University of Oregon. Afterwards she called me from a hotel to give me her assessment. “He’s skinny as a rail and has a personality of cardboard— which doesn’t surprise me since he spends most of his time making circuits.” “He designs integrated circuits,” I said to correct her. “That’s a job?” “It’s what an electronic engineer does.” “You majored in English. I don’t see what you have in common.” I wanted to explain how perfect we were together: he was sweet and affectionate, and we enjoyed the same movies and laughed at the same jokes, but stopped myself. I’d never convince her to like him. Nevertheless, I brooded over her assessment of the man I loved. She didn’t approve of most people. She could ferret out the flaws in all human beings and the occasional dog, like Elise and Ryan’s golden retriever, Agnes. My mother claimed that the kids mollycoddled the dog so much she’d lick a burglar. Fortunately, they were never robbed. My mother, however, praised her parents and her Cousin Fran, who lived in Southern California. She adored California. Once when I was very young she returned
from a trip there and described a scene that was like the exotic places in my fairytale books: stucco houses that gleamed in sunlight, slender palm trees that lined freshly paved streets, groves of oranges and lemons, and beaches with warm sand and glistening water. She was tucking me into bed when she said, “I hope we can live there someday.” I shouldn’t have been surprised then when Elise informed me her grandmother wanted to have her ashes spread in the ocean at Malibu. I wasn’t happy with this destination. Southern California was a three-day trip by car from Portland. It would be far more convenient to spread them somewhere along the Oregon Coast. I told my daughter I’d have to get back to her. Two years have passed since then. I don’t know what stops me. I have many dreams of my mother. In almost all of them she sits in a dim room, where the Venetian blinds are down. Strips of light through the slats reveal her brooding face. She never utters a word. If she spoke I’d imagine her saying, “Why haven’t you spread my ashes? Why does my urn sit on a dusty shelf among old paint cans, pruning shears, chipped terra cotta pots, cartons of books no one reads?” I wake before providing an answer. On her dying day I held her cold, brittle hand. She stared at me with eyes like blue stones. “Mom, I’m sorry,” I said. No reply. She didn’t forgive me. That same day she died. It poured in Portland. She was far away from her sparkling California. I went to California with her when I was seven and nearly was as seduced as she was by the place. At the end of June we took a plane from Portland to Los Angeles. My Grandpa Bud met us in the airport and drove us to Van Nuys, where he and my Grandma Ida lived in a stucco house with a red tile roof. We were there a week when my mother announced we were going to Farmer’s Market. She told me this was one of her favorite places. “You’ll love it, too, Donna,” she said. “They have every kind of food and lots of trinkets. It’s all outdoors and loads of fun.” At eleven in the morning my mother’s Cousin Fran and her boyfriend were supposed to arrive to take us there. I was especially eager to go because Cousin Fran’s
boyfriend would be driving us in his new Chevrolet Bel Air convertible. I had never driven in a convertible before. I plopped on the sofa next to Grandma Ida, watching Queen for a Day, one of my grandmother’s favorite shows. She told me she hoped to be a contestant someday because she was good at talking about her troubles. I didn’t care about the show. I stared up at the clock. At age seven I could read time: five past eleven. When the doorbell finally rang, I sprang up from the sofa and opened the door to a woman wearing a kerchief over brown hair, a sleeveless blouse, and shorts. Her legs and thighs were golden-tan. “You must be Donna,” the woman said and stepped inside. “I’m your Cousin Fran.” She stared at me through pink sunglasses shaped like cat’s eyes. “Aren’t you adorable,” she said as if she was admiring a little dog. I expected Cousin Fran to pet my head. My mother rushed into the room, her arms open, ready to embrace her cousin. She smothered her with hugs and kisses. I watched, anxious to leave. Finally, my mother lifted her bulky handbag and said, “See you later, Mom. Come on, Donna, let’s go!” My grandmother was so absorbed in her show she didn’t reply. The man behind the wheel, wearing black-framed sunglasses that looked like goggles, turned to us and said, “Hop in, girls.” The car was even more beautiful than Grandpa Bud’s Mercury station wagon. It was powder blue with white trim and had blue leather seats. I sat in the back next to my mother and held my new Brownie camera that my grandfather had bought me. She rubbed her palm over the smooth, warm leather and said, “Nice.” As we drove away Freddy turned to the backseat and smiled at my mother. “Fran, you didn’t tell me your cousin was stunning.” “She’s married, Freddy.” He glanced at me as if I were proof. “Too bad. I have some friends who’d be dying to meet you, Marilyn.” He winked at her then had to slam on his brakes at a red light. After that he looked at her through his rearview mirror. “Hey, doll, if ever your status changes, let me know.”
My mother showed her dimples and I wished she didn’t. “I assure you I will.” She turned away toward the line of buildings along the road. “But not any time soon.” Freddy drove up and down rows of cars in a crowded parking lot by Farmers Market until a car backed out and he took the spot. Everywhere were stalls and stands under awnings that let in chinks of sunlight. We followed a crowd of people down a narrow path through stands of oranges, apples, avocadoes, and plump tomatoes. I snapped pictures of all of them. As we approached the stalls where food was being cooked I smelled cinnamon. My mother said she smelled garlic. “Lunch is on me, ladies,” Freddy said. He ran his fingers through my curly hair and stared at my chubby body. “I bet you have a good appetite.” “I want pizza and also tacos,” I said, not caring about his comment. My mother allowed me to have one slice of pizza and one taco. “Save room for a chocolate chip cookie the size of a plate,” Cousin Fran said. Freddy found us a table, which wasn’t easy, and with a napkin he wiped off crumbs. My mother chose to eat chicken chow mein for lunch. Freddy had a thick pastrami sandwich that stank and came with a sword-shaped pickle and Cousin Fran chose a regular, boring hamburger on a bun. “So where’s hubby, Marilyn?” Freddy asked. “Up in rainy Oregon.” “What’s he got against California? He hates sunshine?” “He has to work in his shoe store.” “Poor fellow.” He bit into his sandwich and pink sauce oozed down his chin. Cousin Fran wiped it away with her napkin. “Thank you, honey.” He kissed her forehead. Then he turned back to my mother. “Doesn’t he ever get a vacation?” “Phil’s afraid that if he comes Marilyn will lock him up at her parents’ place and throw away the key,” Cousin Fran said and sipped lemonade from a straw. “That’s not true, is it, Mommy?” I asked. “You wouldn’t do that to Daddy.” “Of course, not. Cousin Fran’s just trying to make a point.” “What point?” “Never mind, Donna. Eat your lunch.”
“What does hubby have against a Mediterranean climate, palm trees, and fabulous beaches?” Freddy asked. My mother didn’t answer but sipped her iced tea. “Phil can’t bear to leave his family and their precious shoe store,” Cousin Fran said. “He doesn’t think that maybe his wife misses her family.” I hated this adult conversation and dropped my pizza, half-eaten, on my oily paper plate. I didn’t even want to taste my taco. I was more interested in exploring the market. “Let’s change the subject,” my mother said. “What exactly do you do as costume supervisor, Fred?” He laughed. “Do you have an hour?” I stood and went to my mother. “Can I look around?” “All right, but don’t go far. You can pick out one souvenir.” She opened her handbag and removed her wallet. “You get a dollar. Don’t lose it!” This would be a difficult decision. I went down the narrow lanes between stalls and saw a cute stuffed Dumbo the Elephant, plastic Hawaiian dolls with paper leis and straw skirts, wicker baskets, and t-shirts hanging like banners from poles. Then I entered a stall with towers of straw hats. I left for a table packed with trinkets. I was drawn to several snow globes containing a scene within each. I lifted one with a tiny Farmer’s Market clock tower. I shook it and it filled not with snow but with silver glitter. When we returned home my mother had a mission: to convince my father to move to California. She coaxed him throughout every dinner meal. His refrain would be that the store was doing well and we couldn’t simply pick up and move. One Sunday afternoon in April while my father watched baseball on television, rooting for the San Francisco Giants, my mother stood in front of the tall double hung window of our old foursquare house and seemed to be mesmerized by the torrents of rain. I sat in the adjacent dining room cutting out people from my mother’s Good Housekeeping magazine to make a collage for a school assignment about families. “I’m sick of the rain,” she said. “It’s so dreary.”
“I agree,” I said while gluing the back of a smiling mother holding her baby. I pasted it onto my poster board. “Damn, he dropped the ball!” My father slammed his fist into his hand. She turned to my father. “I miss my family, Phil.” “So go visit them.” His eyes remained connected to the T.V. screen. “I want us to move there.” Finally he looked at her. “Let’s discuss this later.” She sank into an armchair next to him, where he sat on the edge of the sofa, as if he’d spring up any minute and enter the T.V. and the ballpark. “I want to discuss it now,” she said. “I hate it here. I’m sick and tired of the rain. I want to live near my family. You have lived for years near your family. Now it’s my turn.” A commercial was on the screen advertising Coors Beer. He looked at her. “I live near my family so I can be a partner with my brother in a lucrative shoe store.” He turned toward me. “Get me a beer from the frig, Donna.” I hurried into the kitchen and retrieved a Coors. The advertising had worked. “You’d do well in L.A.,” she said. “People have money there. You could sell a top line of shoes for men and women.” “It’s hard to start all over. It took years to build this business. We’d struggle all over again. We’d be living in a dumpy, cramped apartment.” This caught my attention. “I wouldn’t like that, Mom.” “That’s baloney.” She lit a cigarette then blew smoke in his direction. “Well, you wouldn’t be living in a big four-bedroom house like this, that we paid a fortune to fix up.” He turned back to the screen. The pitcher was ready to throw a ball. My mother jammed her cigarette butt into an ashtray on the coffee table. “I hate this house!” “You said you loved it when we bought it!” “I’ll show you how much I love it!” She shot up, removed her loafer, and threw it at the window. Glass shattered across the carpet, and rain and wet chilly air invaded the house.
My father and I stood, our mouths gaping. Finally, he said, “Why the hell did you do that, Marilyn?” Perhaps I should have understood why my mother wanted so much to move to California. She felt imprisoned in gray Oregon. I never felt the lure of the sun but liked the change of seasons. That’s why I refused to transfer from the University of Oregon to a California college after my father died of a brain aneurism in June of my sophomore year. She left for Van Nuys and I remained in Eugene. I applied for financial aid. She was forty-eight then and I expected her to finally meet her Freddy. Surprisingly she didn’t. A year into my marriage she was calling frequently. She sounded lonely. She no longer was on talking terms with Fran—they had a fight. Apparently, my mother offered an opinion of Fran’s latest boyfriend: he clung to her for her money. After all, why else would a handsome man seven years younger than Fran be interested in her? He couldn’t make much money as a bartender on Sunset Boulevard. Fran hung up on her and they didn’t talk since. My mother also lamented to me that she had a difficult time communicating with Grandma Ida, who often didn’t recognize her and sometimes took early morning walks while wearing a nightgown. To make matters worse, Grandpa had a stroke that impaired his speech. They were no fun to be with. She never sounded upbeat when she called. I wondered if she was capable of happiness. Within her was an empty cavity. Some spiritual-minded people might say that it needed filling with a heart or soul. I hoped to cheer her up when I told her I was pregnant with Justin, our first baby. I was pleased to hear her say, “That’s wonderful!” She insisted on coming to Portland to help when the baby arrived. Initially, I was wary of her involvement but realized I missed my mother and wanted to share our happiness with her. Justin was a beautiful baby with big gray eyes, but he was colicky. One evening in the living room of our condo I sat in a maple rocker nursing him while my mother sat near us in a stuffed armchair, looking like the typical grandmother knitting her
grandson a sweater. Except that she frowned while darting glances at us. Finally, she said, “How do you know the baby’s getting enough milk?” “Because he stops when he’s full.” “But he starts crying awfully quick.” I positioned Justin to suckle my right breast after he finished with my left. “He’s getting enough. He’s not starving. He feels heavier—I’m sure he’s gained weight. Anyway, he has an appointment next Wednesday at the pediatrician and he’ll be weighed. The doctor will let me know if he has any concerns.” “You should take the baby sooner. I’m worried about him. You’re the nervous type and I’ve heard that a mother needs to be relaxed to produce milk.” “I don’t consider myself nervous. Anyway, that’s nonsense. All mammals can feed their young.” “I didn’t. I knew I wasn’t a cow. I gave you formula.” “It’s not as healthy.” “You were satisfied. You should give him a bottle. I saw one in the refrigerator.” “We only use the formula occasionally as a supplement at night. Gary gives a bottle to him if I really need sleep—that’s all. Never any other time.” She glanced at the baby as if I was depriving him of sustenance. So, I should have caught on to her scheme the next day. She smiled at me and said, “You and Gary need a break—a chance to get out. I’ll stay with the baby.” This idea excited me. I wanted to go to Meier & Frank downtown to purchase some cute baby clothes. I took her up on her offer. “I just nursed Justin so he won’t be hungry,” I told her as we were about to leave. “We should be home in two hours and I’ll nurse him as soon as I get back.” “Don’t be in a hurry. Enjoy yourselves. We’ll be fine.” I never saw her grin so wide. Punctually two hours later, holding several Meier & Frank bags, we entered our house. My mother was sitting in the rocker, feeding the bottle of formula to Justin. She smiled at me and said, “This is the first time he’s content. He’s just going off to sleep.”
A tremendous force, lava hurling upward in the magma chamber of my heart, was making its way to eruption. I turned to Gary. “Please take the baby from her and put him in his crib.” As soon as he did the lava overflowed, hot and aiming toward destruction. “Get out!” I shouted at her. “Get out of my house!” While I squeezed milk from my aching breast in my bathroom sink I heard her loud sobs as she packed. Then I lay in bed crying. Gary came to me and said, “She’s gone. A taxi came and took her away.” Early in October, Elise calls me with exciting news. She and Ryan have bought a house. “It’s in Vancouver where houses are more affordable,” she says. “And it’s a tract home—nothing fancy but it’s got a huge yard—Agnes will love it— and it’s in walking distance to the river.” “That’s fantastic, Elise! I’m dying to see it.” “I can’t wait to show it to you and Dad.” “I’m thrilled for you. Let me know what I can do to help.” “Thanks, Mom, I will. We’ve started to pack, and, well, we’ll soon be clearing out our stuff in the storage room. Most of it we’ll throw out. There is the problem of the urn. We don’t want to take it with us. So, please come and get it.” “Of course—it’s about time for me to spread your grandmother’s ashes,” I say though I still don’t feel ready. “Will you take it to Southern Cal?” “I can’t go down there—not while I’m teaching. Maybe during Christmas vacation. But I promise I’ll come and get it soon.” It would be a nice gesture to take the long trip to Southern California, navigate the winding road through a canyon toward Malibu, and then empty the urn into the ocean, let the ashes float on waves kissed by the sun. Then in a dream my mother would smile at me. She’d forgive me. I need forgiving because I was wrong. I knew she was ailing. In her eighties she no longer could live by herself. We drove to California, emptied out her apartment, and brought her to Portland. She
muttered that she’d miss the warm weather but surprisingly she didn’t protest much. On Elise’s recommendation I placed her in Meadowlark Nursing Home. I lived across the Willamette on the west side of Portland, but it only took twenty minutes to visit her on weekends, which I did often. We also brought her with us to the Portland Symphony, where we gloated over Justin playing his violin. Sometimes we took her to lunch. From the wide windows of the Charter House she had a view of the Willamette River and Mt. Hood. She enjoyed none of this. She had painful arthritis and clogged arteries. Eventually she had difficulty walking and when we went out she had to use a wheelchair. She had to sit in a wheelchair when I took her shopping at Macy’s, housed in what used to be Meier & Frank’s. She told me she needed new blouses and pants for the spring. On a beautiful day of early May we drove pass the many old distinguished homes with their heavy maples, oaks, and chestnut trees. Portland was known to be the City of Roses, but now it was ablaze with red and plush pink rhododendrons. Gary parked the car in the garage downtown. He and I then removed my mother’s wheelchair, unfolded it, and helped her into it. “I hate being an invalid,” she said. “It’s easier than using a walker,” I said. “So just relax and I’ll push.” Gary held his laptop and said, “Enjoy shopping, ladies.” He was heading for the nearest Starbuck’s. In the women’s department, we weaved through the various display cases while we looked for pants. “I want denim, not polyester,” my mother said. “I never liked polyester. And I want something nice for when Fran comes.” “I didn’t know you two were still in contact.” “I wrote her and she got back to me. She’s coming to Portland to visit me.” “That’s fantastic, Mom. How is, Fran?” “Doing better than I am. She buried her fourth husband a month ago. It’s been years since I’ve seen her. I didn’t even know she got married the first time.” I remembered the dispute but wouldn’t bring it up. I brought her to a line of hanging jeans. “What’s your size?” “Fourteen but don’t bother with those. I need a stretch waistband.”
I saw a saleswoman folding knit tops on a table. She pointed to a row of stretch denim pants. “I don’t like the feel of them,” my mother said, rubbing her forefinger and thumb against the stiff cotton cloth. “Then let’s look at others. There’s lots of beige.” “Not for me.” “What’s wrong with beige?” “You see stains in beige. The old people at the home show all sorts of stains and spots on their pants. They even crap in them.” “Mom!” I scanned the department to see if anyone heard. “These will have to do.” She placed the size fourteen pants across her lap. “Now for tops. No lavender. I won’t wear anything with lavender, especially with flowers.” After we accumulated enough blouses and jersey tops along with the pants we headed for the dressing room. She insisted on dressing alone behind the slatted door. She was ambulatory enough to leave the wheelchair and enter the closet-sized room. A few minutes later she called for me. “I need help getting the damn thing up!” She sat on the little table in the room, with denim pants dangling from her legs. Her thighs were flaccid liked curdled milk with a few bulging veins running across them. I helped her stand. Her back pressed against my chest as I tugged the jeans over her knotty knees then her thighs, and finally her rump covered in nylon panties, stretched and loose and grayish-white from years of washing. “The pants fit fine,” I said. “Get me that blouse.” She pointed to a red and black vertical striped cotton blouse. I handed it to her. She fumbled with the buttons and breathed hard from the exertion of dressing. “Let me help.” “I hate depending on you for this. I always took care of myself just fine.” She sneered at me as if I were her adversary. I was exhausted by the time we met Gary by the car. “How was shopping, ladies?” he asked, looking rested and smiling.
“My mother got what she needed,” I said, but then I made the mistake of rolling my eyes and grimacing. She noticed. “I’m just trouble for you, huh, Donna?” she shouted. “You have to lug around your old mother—a real pain in the ass for you, huh! That’s all I am to you!” People in the parking garage stared at us. I was fuming while Gary helped her into the backseat. She called me a few days later. “Fran’s coming to visit a week from Thursday,” she said. “I need you to pick her up at the airport. I’ll get you the details.” “So that’s why you’re talking civilly to me—you need me to do something for you!” “Well, um ….” She cried into the receiver, cried and whimpered like a small child. “If that’s your response I’m hanging up!” I heard another sob and down went the receiver. The next day we rushed to the hospital, to the intensive care unit, and to her bedside. I held her hand and told her I was sorry. She looked at me with those cold, stony blue eyes. The time has come for me to spread my mother’s ashes. I will do it with Gary. With their upcoming move, Elise and Ryan are too busy. We’ll drive to Cannon Beach and spread them in the water near Haystack Rock. On a Saturday morning I call my daughter to tell her I’m coming for the urn. “Mom, please don’t be mad at me,” she says. “Ryan and I talked about Grandma’s ashes and thought it was just too hard for you to handle. So we did it. We were bringing some fragile stuff over to the house we didn’t want the movers to take and decided we’d deal with the urn. We spread the ashes on the Columbia. It was a beautiful day, Mom, and we watched the ashes float on the water. Grandma didn’t get her wish about Malibu but—”
“No, honey, it’s fine.” Tears roll down my cheeks—I feel so grateful. “Thank you for doing it. Thank Ryan for me.” A few days before Halloween, Gary and I drive to Vancouver for Elise and Ryan’s housewarming party on a Sunday afternoon. We’re bringing a gift-wrapped breadmaker—what Ryan has wanted—and a half dozen new white terrycloth towels, which Elise told me she needs. We pass the many houses displaying fat pumpkins and lawns with cardboard graves and cottony ghosts. Before we approach the I-5 drawbridge that crosses the Columbia River, I tell Gary to turn off and drive as far as he can to the river’s edge. He parks the car in the Red Lion Inn parking lot, which is near the river. I walk across the asphalt lot toward the weedy bank and watch the Columbia. A sailboat is crossing a glittery strip of water lit by the sun. “I’m sorry, Mom, I never brought your ashes to Malibu,” I say to the brown leaves and twigs drifting on the water, “but you know what, Mom, the Columbia empties into the Pacific, so the water current will take you south, all the way to Malibu, where the sun will shine on you every day.” I sniff to fight back tears. “I’m so very sorry. I was wrong. I should never, never, never have hung up on you. You see, Mom, I had a half century of anger inside me. But I was wrong. You were sick and miserable and crying. I hung up on you crying. I’m so so so sorry. I love you, Mom.” Tears wet my face and I taste salt. A hand rests on my shoulder and I turn to Gary. “I’ll be all right now,” I say to him. “I’m ready to go.” Hillary Tiefer Hillary Tiefer has taught at various colleges, and a number of her essays have appeared in scholarly journals. Stories have been published in Descant, Blue Moon Literary and Art Review, and others. A debut novel, Lily’s Home Front, was published in October, 2018.
Dayâ€™s End Near Rye Cove for Rex McCarty
Late spring shadows of old mountains stretch their darkening across regreening hills after the first mowing has rolled hopes in bales to age past their cutting in the higher hotter sun. I stand now, holding memory in my hands as I once held a hoe cut short for my small boyâ€™s hands, stand paused in the turning of hard red clay and new compost in this prayer of a garden. That was five decades ago in a May like this. Each sunrise began with feeding the animals in coop or barn or sty before an impatient day at school, studying through the bright temptation of classroom windows. Then an after school regimen of more chores punctuated by large dreams in small hands, dreams of slogging through the adventure of this valley pass, a Boone hiking the Cumberland through Moccasin Gap, my hoe a rifled musket. The Clinch was wild with water and adventure, as it still is today though my aches are older.
Such dreams drove me beyond my brothers, who fell out of favor with school by fifteen to work the fields or drag coal and lumber from these rolling foothills of the higher Appalachians. I left the land, left brothers and found ways to live outside the rhythms of the haying and feeding. Now I have returned to buy the soil their blood and bone lie in. Now I am owned by the land that once was owned by my kinfolk. Each day now I awake, surprised by the grizzled face that emerges from the mist of morning mirror, by the still steady pace my heart keeps within my gray-haired chest. Each night I dream the sunâ€™s return to these new-mown hills, and of a boyâ€™s stride through the Gap, towards the wildness he keeps hidden in a sack of books beside his dreaming bed. David Anthony Sam David Anthony Sam has five collections and his poetry has appeared in over eighty publications, including Foliate Oak Literary Magazine and Burningword Literary Journal. He lives in Virginia with his wife and life partner, Linda.
Philosophical Water My muscles flex, recoil from the heft as I grip the handle to lift the bucket, and walk it from houseside to a basket of morning glories dangling from porchâˆ’ earth and green growth suspended in airâˆ’ cells aroused to color by sunlight. Before I pour, I meet my own gaze upraised from the surface of this circle of leaden water held within metal pail. A gray moving sky drifts in reflection. a galvanized vibration of rainwater containing one circumference of heaven. To see is to peer deep into reflection, to greet by meeting self with thing in acumen of rippling gray echo. To be is to be unbeing, a fluid cycling from generous earthbound water to the grayest indistinct of clouds. I pour the sky into the morning glories, wait until its surfeit leaks from the bottom of the basket, and then return. David Anthony Sam
Spring Harvest Over the western ridge, the May sky has gone black. Drum rolls of thunder warn that the drought may be near its end. And then, from below, the awful lowing of cows, mourning their spring calves just this morning vealed away. David Anthony Sam
The Worth of Words It is a delicate thing to grasp, like picking a filament from a spider's web without breaking its jeweled morning pattern gilded bright in risen sunlight. You hold between your fingers a stab of penpoint reaching inkly for the pattern of it all, the whole that disassembles when you look too closely but regathers behind your back. You touch the transience by tapping keys or iPad screen, and try the very things that can never be said, failing with every word, hoping for sublimity in the falling thus from grace. This is a verse for versifiers, an understanding like that of seeing the hard clarity of night sky punched full of unfathomed starlight, dazzling, distant, lost in eons clarified only by the formulae that string theories and settle nothing but more darkness. We are journeyers, together, numbering or naming like patterning dark waters with our oars, then studying those patterns. We are delicate things ourselves, filaments of time that web ourselves into all we live and sense and eat. This is a course for students of the night sky, of stars reflected in the black mirror of water. When you look so closely there
you see nothing reflected back. You hear the calling of your echoes transcribed by wind and wondering and water. This is the moment of our failure, and the monument of moments. It is enough, it must be enough, delicacy of dancing on a wisp. David Anthony Sam
Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine number 10 spring/summer 2019
staff Susan Coyle
fiction, non-fiction (editor)
art & photography editor
poetry, fiction (editor)
A magazine of literature, photography and art.