Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine
Issue # 12 Spring/Summer 2020 www.sblaam.com
Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine issue #12
fiction Peter Alterman
Perfect Time for Morning Coffee
They're Playing Our Song
J W Burns
Day for a Daydream
Nancy Smith Harris
What Were You Going to Say?
The Dangerous Coast
Utqiagvik -- Arctic Education
Ruby Lee Cornelius
Big Sister, Little Sister
A Trip in Time
The Old Woman on the Bus
This Guy I Saw Sitting in a Car
Rose Marie Eash
Life Review. . . Fragmented
poetry Holly Day
(Marx) My Son Pointed at the Tombstones and Said
The Freelance Geographer
Blue Ridge Mountain Fall
Spring 3 800
Desperate As a Wildflower's Thirst
With All the Restlessness of Storm Clouds
David Anthony Sam
cover: Spring 3 800 (partial), by Fariel Shafee
Editor's Note All art involves risk. How could Picasso and Braque have known that Cubism would be so accepted? Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was greeted with a riot at its premier. It is no less for writers. Not to risk relegates one's writing to the mundane, the predictable, the clichĂŠ. Writers who take risks --with form or content or both-- will almost certainly turn off a few readers. But risking does not cause failure; the "safe" writer fails because he/she does not engage the reader in anything new. In this issue we offer you many works that take risks, from J W Burns' Day for a Daydream to Bill Wolak's With All the Restlessness of Storm Clouds to Jane Hallowell's Life Review. . . Fragmented and others. Good art often makes us feel uncomfortable. But it also makes us examine ourselves and the world, and that examination can lead to a heightened awareness. We hope you enjoy this issue and the risks our contributing writers and artists have taken.
Day for a Daydream A big brown dog with white feet. A mighty achievement. I've grown less fond of dogs in recent years—actually for quite a few years. This one stirs on legs which seem to favor more than one direction at the same moment. The four major compass points exerting equal pressure: east, west, north, south, four fervid engines simultaneously stirring a resolute heart beating below an obstinately inert brain. You close the car door. Before you turn around the dog's there. Hornet tail buzzing. Evangelistic brown eyes and a moist ebony nose calling up two of the lesser but annoying sins of the evolutionary process. Front paws determined to make some kind of unwanted contact with your person. So what else can you do. You slide your hand over the dog's head, then rub behind one ear. Excepting the dog I'm alone in the world. Five days a week I give myself over to the joy of commercial conversation with those who would seek information concerning the area where I live, sitting behind a round desk in the lobby of City Hall. “Where exactly did Col. Equburl execute their chief after defeating the Cffori— near here?" “Quite near. Two blocks in that direction,” lardered gesture, “right where the Gabriellia Hotel stands today,” hearty grin, “Are you enjoying your visit to our City Between The Mountains?” “Info on Binge n' Bullion Water Park, if you please.” “A hotel accommodating our whole extended family reunion, 49 persons, 4 dogs, 2 cats, a pygmy hog and one barn owl.” My next door neighbor complains about the dog, claiming it digs holes in his flower beds. Pinching pewter-blue eyes, a peevish serpent writhing up down and through the letters of each spoken word. “Your pet is a menace. Half a row of Impatiens yesterday, uprooted, scattered.” Pupils squeezing. “You must keep him on your own property.” “He stays in his yard. Or on a leash. Must be some other animal.” Bullshit, of
course. Sometimes I know the creature runs free—just a quick gallivant but long enough to paw the odd hole or two. The dog snores, also he has whimpering dreams; maybe isolated in a makeshift nest of leaves and matted rodent hair, sending messages to his legs to rise but unable to, the future a big bloody brown rabbit body with the head of an owl all static excepting the crimson goo oozing from the tortured torso. In the distance nothing so much as the same delirium screech heard around the world inside and out, but faint, hardly audible. Paws gently pounding shadows. Night gives way to stars so bright they breathe a florescent glaze throughout the heaving canine body. Misty drizzle beading his lower snout. Hover in a space between light and dark watching the dog dream. This happens enough to make the whole room vibrate like a shipwreck in rocky air. Dog sleeping on a rug given to me by an older sister, a tangled loose stitched map of Iowa, fringe gone on one end. I'm prone to rest on one arm of a battered easy chair whose springs had largely sprung. Watching a fitful furry face in the grip of various contortions, barrel chest expanding and contracting in somewhat irregular sequences, snippets of my life scratching and dissolving around the chair. These bits of recall are separate from the dog but somehow integral to him. They never occur when I'm not watching him. But don't get me wrong: I'm certainly not thrilled surrounded by tiny private exhibits dancing at my feet, triggers popping. But like the past, the dog belongs to me. Head on my thigh when I sit idly. A stalled puddle at my feet while I read the paper. “Hey, Dog. We're in trouble now.” Melancholy wiggling inside that precataclysmic crater of a subconscious somewhere above the false medulla funny bone. The neighbor complained to the Homeowner's Association which in turn sent me a letter outlining the complaint to which I responded by means of an immediate visit to the HoAss office. Ushered before the Director and cordially invited to occupy one of the two straight back chairs fronting her desk, I produced the letter, handed it over. “Quite plain and simply, though not to limit in any way the latitude of my indignation, the man is an animal hater. His claims are blatantly false.” Ever so slight wince of her nostrils on 'animal hater.'
“Then you deny that your dog went digging in Mr. Cloisomme's yard?” “Unequivocally. Phoebus is always on a leash or in his pen when outside.” My smile would have charmed a Sabbatarian kingdom. “I see.” Her arms swung in circles, grew, hesitated, flew spinning upward corkscrewing the low sectioned ceiling. “Yes. Sadly.” “Well...” Affection is born idiosyncratic to be raised by the one or two or many. Here it came to the front and I clamped on, easily easing the skewer through honeysuckle flesh while avoiding any indiscreet bone. Our first date was dinner. Next a movie, comic romp in Elysian fields. Then a concert followed by bed but no immediate or presumably future bondage. Cloisomme raves on. My nights when not involved with composed romance are mostly spent at home. The dog snoring on the rug, occasional black earth caked around his claw nails. And what of the past: chair arm improvisation now wearing a medieval coal scuttle helmet, teutonic tail wagging whenever I cast a glance that way? Now, feet up, I can roll my tongue all the way to the floor, slurp the memories as if they were jellybeans, three or four at a time, chew until all that's left is a sticky sweet taste and an energy blister slowly deflating, smoothly gone. Sometimes I sit all night captured by successions of consciousness until the sunrise grafts itself to dull beige wall. Cloisomme had a heart attack in his front yard one afternoon. I called the ambulance which whisked him to the hospital, saved his life. However, he never returned home, dying in the rehab center following his initial recovery in the hospital. I chalked us up even. With no one to plant flowers and shrubs the dog lost interest in digging. Tomorrow the doors today will retrospectively swing wide; work packed the earthen floor, for thousands of moments appendages do did done the bidding of the brain, the Director of the Home Owners Association was offered a more lucrative position with a larger Home Owners Association in another city, moved on. The Cloisomme house sat empty; once a lanky woman with an El Greco chin and fingers who identified herself as his daughter rang my doorbell. I invited her in but she declined, stating that she wanted me to know that workman would be remodeling the
house and offering me a key to same “just in case”--of what she didn't say. I accepted the key. Soon after on a windy almost full mooned night I was awakened from a dream concerning engineered hills, trees, a river where floating heads alternately sing and chomp-- all soundlessly, a sad cliff, condos, squat Romney sheep whose wool quivered in still air glistening with confectionary sugar. What woke me, a soft bouncy moan steaming against the walls of my bedroom. Sitting up suddenly, eyes sweating, shadows spinning. “Goddamnit.” My voice giving birth to the granite from which impelled a calm hard composure. The room and its contents froze, melted into their sleeping molecular structures. Further investigation revealed that the lament was coming from beyond the room. Dressed, I traced through the house, outside, next door. There on a wide stoop fronting the former Cloisomme's back porch the dog sat, head extended upward, delivering the disturbance in question. “Shut up, dog. You'll wake the dead.” He was quiet, after a hesitation clomping down the few stairs to me. Waiting. Rub behind his ears, pat his flanks. Then he bounds back to the door, scratches, sits, Scratches, sits. Again. Again. “OK. OK. Sit quietly.” He sits though I never really trained him to obey commands. I left, returned a few moments later with the key. In we went. The house was vacant, no furniture, hardly a leftover scrap. The remodeling work hadn't begun. “OK. What is it?” On cue the dog advanced through a sterile kitchen cast in quarter light which held the built-in appliances and cabinets in a kind of solid emptiness forsaking the depth of anything other than your own breath. On through a bare dining room and into the living room occupied only by a decrepit lounge chair. For the briefest of flashes there was a woman in the chair cuddling an infant in one arm and holding a bottle to its mouth with the other hand. Gone. Not in a flash but more a quick decomposition. Then only the pale lifeless green chair which the dog slowly approached, stopped, rubbed his muzzle on one worn arm.
“What do you see—feel...how in the fuck...” I realized language was no use. And not just to a dog. In a dream I had a few nights later the roof of the house where I slept blew off. Immediately a large bird, maybe an oversized great horned owl, swooped down to the bed, clawed off the covers, plucked me flailing into the air. It was day. No pain or discomfort, rather an exhilaration in the release if not the freedom leaving the ground offered. My feet were bookends supporting the nothing enabling knees, elbows, hips, torso and finally head to barter away consciousness for a single heartbeat endlessly melting grown infinite: no left no right no up no down until I woke up. When next I heard the moaning and tracked it to the dog on the back porch next door, I arranged for my sister to take the dog. Her kids were overjoyed. The landscape remains. Wobbles correct themselves. The Homeowners Association Exe and I are going to vacation together in the islands this Christmas. J W Burns J W Burns lives in Florida. Recent works are published in Adelaide, Menacing Hedge and Danforth Review.
Memory Dreams Memory talks as birds just after dusk; it is a streak lucid as heat lightning -a child on a swing set at dark, in night; her ears strain, waiting for thunder, it never comes, unaware it wonâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t; her belly rolls -- anticipation. Humidity wraps around her, clouds are back-lit guiding her night, heat beckons electricity. Wild, she feels wind rush through her hair, She pumps her arms, her legs, she swings as high as she can -- flight? up swing swing down up down held, suspended suspended, held; held in the eyes of this child, hair lifts up and out, her laughter mixed fear/excitement, lightning flashes -- a thunderbird wink just behind the clouds this memory, invisible veil of heat held loose like a child dreaming -in color she has become part of the night -open fields, wide skies -- hot, cricket songs, swish of swing, oscillating into visions -Judy Mathews Judy Mathews received her Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Spalding University. Her writing has appeared in The Tau, The Badlands, The Avalon Literary Journal, and others. She is currently working on a collection of linked short stories and on a novel inspired by four generations of strong women in her family.
Empty Line Never forget, words are not reality. . . words are confusion. Strive to see the inner eye, the heart. . . it sees the essence. -- from Egyptian Book of the Dead
I’m sorry Liz, the receptionist stops me. You have to sign in. How had I ended up here, her knowing me by name? I sign under spellings of those who came before, in between the red thin lines of a log codified by name, date, time of arrival and departure. Crossing river rocks, crisscrossing river rocks, dried and epoxied into a hallway, I progress down Hospice corridors. Fluorescent lights chant nervously. A gurney aside a wall holds flat a body bag. Its zipper grins in a clique of yellow flowers on canvas. What daisy crazed fool came up with that design. In room 142, beside the bed, the concave of a chair made by someone already gone. Amulet of a cheek bone and shock of hair emerge in light from under a hand-stitched quilt. A nurse arrives smelling of citrus, Iris, her name etched in blue on plastic. How’s it going? she asks. I shrug words. Consciousness, little left, drips away like fluid in an IV bag. My heart slows, drains, passes through a cotton underworld. I rest aside dying. Count breathes in the sheets’ shifting angle of repose. Who counts mine? Who riddles my clues? Who weighs my heart against the feather of truth?
I slip out without saying good-bye or signing out. Sun rays pile up on recently tarred vacant parking lot. Elizabeth Mathes Elizabeth Mathes is an emerging northern Idaho poet who works as a mental health counselor specializing in autism and families. She is often inspired to write when walking with her son amid the areaâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s alpine and glacial beauty.
A Trip in Time Nervous trepidation filled my mind just as I was to travel to Rhode Island to visit friends. Even though I had been an avid traveller in the past, I had to face the fact that now I couldn't walk very far without getting out of breath and feeling stress in all my joints. I wondered how would I get to Pennsylvania Station in New York City with my little suitcase and successfully make the transition from the bus station to the train. So, I eagerly accepted my husband's offer to drive me to the Station; however, the early morning rush hour traffic in Manhattan was a bear. Construction everywhere, horns honking in awful, brutal cacophony. People rushing, traffic: trucks and buses and cabs. My time was fast ticking away. The train was leaving at 8:30 am, and it was 8:23 as we pulled into the entrance of the station. I leapt out of the car, dragging the suitcase bumping along behind me and I pushed into the belly of the train station. I stopped in horrified amazement -- people rushing everywhere, unintelligible overhead speaker announcements that just sounded like a dull roar. Abruptly startled by camouflaged soldiers carrying machine guns and bomb sniffing dogs on leashes held by tough-looking men, I could hardly draw breath. I gasped out, "Where's the train to Boston?" "Track 8W," responded a bored looking train official. Track 8 felt like it was a football field away as I stumbled towards it. Finally, with the last bit of energy, I dragged myself to track 8, but it was 8E, where was 8W? "Boston?" I croaked. Someone pointed across to the other side of the platform. People were getting off that train, and I had to push myself down against the mobs of commuters coming up the stairs. I looked at my watch which registered 8:30 exactly. At the same moment I met the eye of the conductor who asked "Boston?" I nodded wearily, and he reached out and pulled me and my luggage into the train car just as the train door closed behind me without a second to spare. I nodded thank you be-
cause I was too weak to speak. A man immediately put my bag up on the luggage rack. A woman got me a cup of water. I coughed a couple of times and was finally able to gasp out, "Thanks." I regained my breath and senses as I looked out the window. Beautiful views flew by. Trees, buildings, railroad crossings, then water, streams, ponds, boats, and I realized that it was a really beautiful day. The sky was a bright blue and not a cloud to be found. The air was crisp. The motion of the train was soothing and rocked me gently. I looked across the aisle at the Good Samaritan who had kindly put my luggage on the rack. For the first time I really looked at him and saw his muscles ripple under his tee shirt. His head was shaved but he had a kind and friendly face. I thanked him for helping me, and he gave me the biggest smile which transformed his face into an extremely handsome one. I inhaled sharply and felt my stomach constrict. I couldn't quite tear my eyes away from him, and as the train continued to rock me back and forth, a sudden sexual fantasy captured my thoughts. Quickly I stifled it and felt myself turning bright red and finally had to look away. I thought to myself that the stress of getting on the train had brought me to madness, and I must regain my sensibilities. But, I couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t stop thinking about him. I wondered what life might be like if I could share it with my beautiful stranger. Would he be attentive to my needs? Would he give me back rubs and join me in a bubble bath? Would we stroll through towns holding hands and cause passersby to speculate on what is that older woman doing with that hunk of a guy? Would they wonder what secret allures I must have going for me? My fantasies continued until I felt I could be arrested for what I was imagining. I made myself breathe a very deep breath and shook those intruding fantasies out of my mind. Instead, I turned to the window and looked at the passing scenery which was beautiful. I grabbed my cell phone and began to snap pictures as the train flew down the tracks. I ate my snack of cheese and apples and Swiss chocolates and slowly began to read the NY Times I pulled from my purse. I felt really luxurious. This should be my every day life. Having a very attractive stranger attend to my luggage, beauti-
ful scenery, the rocking of the train -- oh no, not that again, and I willed myself to stop. I spent most of the next two hours looking ever so casually across the aisle at my handsome stranger and grinning idiotically. He would periodically nod at me until suddenly he began to gather up his things. He gave me another dazzling smile and wished me a good trip. I watched him go, step out onto the platform and walk athletically towards the exit. I wonder if I missed an opportunity there. Should I have struck up a conversation with him instead of grinning at him idiotically? I was no longer a young woman in my 20's when this might have been possible. With a great sadness, I realized that now at 70, I could only expect that someone might assist me on a train, bring me a cup of water and offer aid to the infirm. Still it was fun to be on the trip, to be on the rails, to see the scenery fly by, to wonder what would come next. My friends met me at a Rhode Island train station to begin our weekâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s vacation, but I am afraid I was not very good company. I kept spacing out and day dreaming. Part of me couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t but help wonder what happened to my smiling, handsome stranger. Was someone else with him? Or was he on another train helping another older woman by putting her luggage on a rack, giving his remarkable smile and causing her to fantasize about him all the way to her final destination? Amy Star Amy Star moved to Asheville, North Carolina and discovered an amazing place where artists, writers, and musicians are encouraged to create their work in a supportive environment. She is very grateful to be living there.
Desperate As a Wildflower's Thirst
Alone Not silence -- but the hissing sound of no one. A creaking house wheeling you around a catch of breath fear of seeking the sound. Noises not heard when someone is near -a drip of water from the faucet a refrigeratorâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s lips meeting in a kiss the insistent whirl of a clock's second hand. The dull hollow voice of empty rooms and closing doors. At night a whimpering bedâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s whispering sheets the sigh of a pillow -the click of a lamp bringing down the dark and the echoing beat of a singular heart. Rose Marie Eash Rose Marie Eash is a recently retired Texas public relations professional whose poetry has been published in Canyon Voices, di-VERSE-ity, and Voices Along the River.
Cotton Candy Who could have guessed it would go so fast? In a childâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s hand time does not pass. We heard no warning words, nor even an echo when the screen door slammed we ran melting into the world like spun sugar. Who could have guessed how delicate we'd be -how crystalline and needy? We never considered how damned, how ephemeral, sugar whirling from the cooker. So many things we could have done -stirred slower, worn gloves -- had we known how delicately sharp the threads of love, how brief sweetness on the tongue. Rose Marie Eash
What Were You Going to Say?
Max Boorstein is a squirrelly man whose sarcasm at my expense both amused me and made me wonder how he ever succeeded in snagging one of the best EditorIn-Chief gigs around. I couldn’t imagine him, with his loose jocularity, impressing an interview committee of intellectuals with degrees and honors trailing their names. To me, he’d say something like “Hey Grandma, got anything on the Climate Change piece yet?” To colleagues, “Go see if Janek can put down his knitting long enough to email those proofs to us.” His cracks had to do with my love of a third-floor office on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge -- a place I’d called home since graduating with degrees in Biology and Comparative Literature some years back. In that space I read and wrote. Max’s real problem was that as often as not, I also slept, ate, and kicked back there for days on end. And when he felt I’d been holed up in there for too long, he invariably came up with an assignment that shoved me somewhere, anywhere beyond the city limits, which is how I ended up going back to Dauphin County, where I started. After hours of traffic, construction zones, detours, and tractor trailers breathing down my neck, I pulled into a driveway beside one of the saddest looking Victorian farmhouses ever. On the failing building’s front porch stood Dr. Tom, a diminutive man with exceptionally luminous white skin as dazzling as the implanted smiles of celebrities. I hadn’t even met him and Dr. Tom was already an irritant. His vacant expression said, “nice man,” which more often than not meant “gullible” to me. There were too many people like Dr. Tom in the world -- those purposefully ignorant of the less-than-laudable members of the species. One of the reasons I preferred to so strictly maintain my privacy was to avoid Dr. Toms. They only wanted to argue about seeing the best in people. Silently cursing Max for putting me through a harrowing drive for what seemed a questionable objective -- to interview an expert on the rare albino hummingbird -- I climbed from the car a little wobbly with fatigue and large with resentment and
impatience. Once on the porch and before I could open my mouth, Dr. Tom turned my extended hand palm up and lowered a tiny ruby-throated hummingbird there. A soft fluff of grey and white. The bird and I exchanged curious, fearless looks, his highcadence heart throbbing palpably, that barely perceptible steady beat absorbing all thought. Tension fell away, I grew smaller. In the middle of a lush green lawn where a lofty American beech held clear plastic feeders, the child-bird lifted off, taking flight when we were within arm’s length of the closest tree limb, making a quick landing on one of the feeders’ ports. I was here in a way I hadn’t been anywhere in years. Not in Cambridge, not in my own mind, but here, in Dauphin County, and I looked around at forgotten sights: a familiar image of blue wild indigo and bright white Solomon’s Seal blooming on borders of Scot’s pine forests. Here, the pines hugged three sides of the old farmhouse that housed the Bullfrog Pond Nature Center—another name for Dr. Tom’s offices. Inside, it was cool and smelled of old wood and paper. We studied a photo of the elusive endangered albino hummer. In flight, the bird’s ribbed fan of pearly wing stretching forward, seeking a fluted blossom of lavender columbine, his posture suggesting a desire to embrace the flower. The bird himself would become a womanizer (male hummingbirds have many lovers over a lifetime). He would squabble with fellow birds over nectar-laden flowers. He was no saint, but there was something immediately soothing, if utterly misleading, about the creature’s lack of pigment—a trait people mistake for purity of soul. The fact that his sins and indiscretions would never stick seemed unjust. “Have you ever banded one?” Dr. Tom shook his head with a smile. “We once banded a leucistic hummer here-- not a true albino but very close, with off-white plumage and the black pigment of more conventional hummers in its eyes, feet, and bill. That was about…” Dr. Tom scanned a random crack in the bulging ceiling over our heads, “10-15 years ago.” The unfortunate leucistic hummingbird, a second stringer to his snowy white relation. How disappointing, I thought, to ornithologists who happened on this offwhite, black-eyed fellow, falling short of the real prize and its cloud-like plumage, its pink eyes and legs.
After uploading some of Dr. Tom’s albino photos, we chatted a bit more about habits and migratory patterns, favored sources of nectar, and methods of cataloging worldwide sighting data before we shook hands in the driveway. Opening the car door, I thought of Dr. Tom’s reaction when the baby hummer took flight from my palm. He’d pressed his clasped hands to his chest, watching the fledgling with a beaming smile and a broad white face turned upward like a priest with a blessing. How could he be so pleased, I asked myself, when his search for the albino—a bird not seen locally in decades—was a hopeless cause? I thought of his small ivory hand uplifted, cupped, and waiting forever. His was a misguided faith, but there was peace in his gestures, an enviable tranquility about him. I was ducking into my rented Subaru wagon when I heard him say “Janek.” “Yes?” I turned around. “A woman who lives around here named Janek just won a Pulitzer.” ~~~ I passed barns with silos stretching tall above broad planes of farmland, newly planted cornfields, and remembering the earthy tang of this place, the window went down and I breathed it in. Within miles, farmland dwindled and the familiar two lanes of Route 39 took me to Artie Fenstermacher’s place, a stone’s throw from the house he’d grown up in. When we were kids, people in town thought I was weird because my mother was a protestor of everything from school lunches to curriculum in a sleepy place filled with mostly quiet, decent working people just getting by. Artie didn’t fare much better because his dad was a redneck in a place and time that found rednecks a dying breed. Still, Mr. Fenstermacher continued to keep the moniker real. Both Mom and Mr. Fenstermacher were usually met with grudgingly polite greetings when spotted in town and people looked at Artie and me with a wary curiosity. Just how far, they asked themselves, could the apple fall from the tree? “Your mom wrote a book.” “So I heard.” “What are you doing here, anyway?” “Writing an article. Visiting you.” “You haven’t been back here since college.” The accusatory tone was undeniable.
“Why don’t you ever come to Cambridge? Artie shoved a bowl of Cheetos in my general direction and cracked open another beer. “Remember when she refused to send donuts for your birthday? Said it was a crime to feed all that sugar to kids. Sent cookies made with fruit juice.” “Everybody else got to bring donuts. Nobody ate the cookies.” “And the time she yelled at Miss Pletcher because we weren’t learning about any famous women?” “We were studying presidents—there weren’t any female presidents.” “I bet it pisses her off nothing’s changed.” “Probably does.” “You going to stop in and see her?” “Probably not.” ~~~ The prize-winning memoir was called Lost Babies: How the Medical Establishment Fails its Youngest Patients. I was not surprised to see that she’d penned a rather long and cumbersome first chapter beginning with the birth of my brother Tristan which started out in a broken-down Airstream nested deep in a grove of laurels in Fishing Creek Valley and ending with the pronouncement of his death hours later at the Hershey Medical Center. Mom tucked into the Airstream for the last two weeks of her pregnancy. She planned to deliver the baby herself, just as women in other cultures all over the world were said to have done. At bedtime, I often begged her to tell me again how she’d found that old Airstream on a hike, how she’d leveled it and filled its propane tank. She polished its seamed panels with a buffer until it was a magnificent silvery dome reflecting the forest around it. Inside, she’d batted down cobwebs, scrubbed it top to bottom, created her domicile: a spacious alcove at the front holding a bed with down comforters, robust pillows and cushions rimming a place of repose. A window with lace curtains looked across the room from the bedside; bookshelves lined the curved walls, handpicked titles (Every Woman’s Right, Patriarchy and Institutions, Feminist Theory, etc.) within easy reach. A cassette player and box of tapes (The Times They
Are A-changin’, Clouds, Between the Lines, etc.) nestled among candles of different hues and scents on Grandma’s cedar chest nearby. In the kitchen, red delicious apples, jars of almonds, walnuts, dried apricots, dates, prunes; tofu, carrots, broccoli, peas, corn, boxes of fragrant Celestial Seasonings teas. The tiny bathroom aft, with its brightly curtained shower, its basket of French milled soaps, lotions, its plush ovals of carpet. The Airstream was a view into my mother the way she was before I knew her. I was in love with the her of then. Our own home was a main street wood frame place left to Mom by her parents. It held a small front room dominated by folding tables on which books and reams of paper towered and featured a squat yellowed Macintosh partnered with a dot-matrix printer by the front window. Old standalone cooling fans and stacks of heavy books covered the remaining floor space. A solitary folding chair held its own in front of the Mac’s tiny screen. A patio table in the kitchen was where peanut butter sandwiches were slapped together from seats of stacked egg crates. A 1961 calendar from Diffendorf’s Tractor Supply graced the wall behind the inoperable four burner stove. A functional refrigerator sat mostly empty and by itself against the longest wall. In second grade, Artie and I got the bright idea that instead of me walking home the three blocks after school, I should get on the bus with him and ride out Route 39 and down the anonymous dirt farm lane that led to his place. At Artie’s the kitchen teemed with food and drink, the furniture was abundant and soft, and there was color television in the family room. “You must stop this,” Mom said when she’d picked me up for the third time. “Television is for morons. Go straight home and read after school.” Her mouth was a straight line and her eyes got bulgy. She looked like pictures of Grandma. Mom said Grandma was an intolerant holy roller. “I’m hungry after school and there’s nothing to eat.” “Ride your bike to Karn’s and buy food.” “With what?” She reached into her giant bag brimming with paper and books and pulled out a handful of dollar bills, scattering them in my lap. “Healthy snacks. No sugar.”
When her water threatened to break in the Airstream, Mom calmly rolled out the plastic sheeting she’d stowed under her bed, lit candles, sat down, and sipped tea. Labor rolled through her and she closed her eyes, remembering to accept rather than fight the pain. Without warning, one tremendous convulsion racked her body. After that, everything inside of her went quiet. Mom staggered to the doorway and shot a pistol skyward, summoning Sarah Moyer whose log cabin sat on the grove’s edge and who had remained home that day, just in case. ~~~ The funny thing about my mom and Artie’s dad is that they had very little in common except for Artie and me and yet they got along. This puzzled me until her memoir laid bare a shared blind spot. It was in the pages of Chapter 2 that I read the story of her academic career—something that had only been hinted at in the PhD behind her name. Mr. Fenstermacher’s stubbornness was legendary; he refused to hire blacks to work in his plumbing business. When a black family joined the church, Mr. Fenstermacher protested to the minister and stopped attending. It was a puzzle to Artie and his mother who attributed his racism to some troubling incident Mr. Fenstermacher had suffered as a young man in the navy; something made him angry at all black people -- he once alluded to this but did not elaborate. Because he owned the business and there were few black people in town, he suffered no consequences for his hiring practices. Because she’d been a professor in a small Christian college and not a ruler of her own universe like Mr. Fenstermacher, Mom was often on thin ice for holding stubbornly to her obviously unimpeachable point-of-view. In her Feminist Literature and Theory class, she stretched interpretation, often departing radically from accepted scholarship. She suggested that the church, as a patriarchal institution, should be forced to make restitution for its continued misogyny. Somehow, she managed to keep afloat at the college, although not without plenty of drama, until deciding to leave on her own. Many students, she wrote, complained to the Dean that she’d become increasingly strident, intolerant of any classroom discussion in which opinions other than her own were expressed. Departmental meetings were held to discuss whether or not she should retain her position. Mom wrote about this part of
her life with pride, as though it proved her allegiance to fact when all around her were swallowing fiction. ~~~ Tristan was dead when he was delivered at the medical center. The quiet doctor told Mom (as gently as he could, I’m certain, although she never relayed it that way) it appeared Tristan had been deprived of oxygen long enough to create the unhappy outcome. “But my prenatal habits were exemplary,” Mom protested. “Sometimes things go wrong,” the doctor said vaguely. “How was he deprived of oxygen?” “We just don’t know,” the doctor said, meeting her eyes. You would think I was there from my detailed account of the conversation in that antiseptic room; I grew up with the details of Tristan’s birth and death which became as familiar as The Little Engine That Could and The Berenstain Bears were to other kids. I would not draw my first breath for another 12 months, yet I can recall perfectly the weather on the morning Tristan was born (21º, clear, southeasterly winds, no precipitation); the scent of candles (Patchouli) and tea (chamomile) drifting from the little RV when Sarah Moyer arrived there; the color of the walls in the hospital room in which Mom talked with the doctor (mint green, high gloss); and the doctor’s name and appearance (Hammacher, tall and thin with a forward-leaning posture as if in a perpetual state of apology or uncertainty). I could have, if I’d cared to, written an account of Tristan’s birth and death and perhaps won a Pulitzer of my own. ~~~ When I returned to Cambridge, Mom’s book was stowed in a deep drawer of my solid oak roll-top desk which faced the windowed portrait of the parking lot behind the Harvard Square Hotel. A line of colorful burgees waving on breezy days could be seen in the distance, raised as they were above the hotel’s roofline. The tranquil smallness I’d felt at Dr. Tom’s diminished and dissonance overtook me: continue reading the memoir or toss it? I was large with anxiety, turbulent with some unarticulated inner battle. Why? What’s the big secret? What was I afraid of? From Chapter 1 to Chapter 2, she’d leapt from Tristan to her early academic career with no mention of her parents, of growing up. What was in Chapter 3?
I was afraid she’d take another leap, this time over me. And if she didn’t leap over me, what could she possibly have said? “You’re a puzzle, Janek,” Max Boorstein, my editor, remarked periodically. Max’s four daughters, all Harvard grads, all exemplary in their fields with many degrees, accomplishments, prizes, were well-launched. Their lives were full of rewarding work, adoring husbands, beautiful children. “No puzzle at all here, Max,” I replied, more often than not, to his pronouncement. What invariably followed was a fatherly lecture about my closed-off demeanor, my underachievement, and my hermit-like ways. Because I preferred to read and write small, cogent articles in this room above buses and pedestrians, with an occasional solitary outing to a film or lecture, or a gathering with poker-playing post docs in a room tucked away behind the Human Genome lab, or a quick trip to my studio for a shower and change of clothes, Max labeled me troubled. “Puzzle” was merely his polite way of saying I needed counseling or medication or both. Once, after an impulsive weekend surfing expedition to Nauset Beach, I returned to meet his hopeful gaze. “Well?” “Well, what? The surfing was great.” “You meet any girls?” “Sure. And boys. We had cookies and lemonade. It was like the first day of kindergarten all over again.” “You’re a puzzle, Janek.” “No puzzle at all here, Max.” ~~~ The morning after returning from Dauphin County, I spent the rest of the day writing the albino piece with Max checking in frequently, flopping down on the rose velvet-covered sofa, clicking my Tiffany lamp on and off, eventually opening the pages of the Times splayed across the plush hand-knotted Nepalese carpet, pretending to read, growing restless within minutes, and finally slumping out of the room. I knew him well enough to know he was after something, but it was obviously something he could not come out and ask for.
I don’t know who fathered either Tristan or me. Mom was on the brink of 41 when she realized her procreating years were running out. As Chapter 1 confirmed, she was fascinated with the idea of experiencing pregnancy and delivering a child. If Tristan had lived, her curiosity thus successfully satisfied, she would have found some other cause to which to devote her life. As it was, she left her faculty position, became a licensed midwife, outspoken advocate of home birthing, monitor of hospital maternity mortality rates, and acknowledged expert in the dangers of conventional medically supervised child delivery. The Airstream having been deserted for good after Tristan’s birth and death, Mom moved back into town to the little house in which she’d been raised. She lost no time becoming pregnant again, this time hiring both a licensed midwife and a doulah to oversee her prenatal care and delivery. All went well, I was a perfect, living specimen, born on what would have been my brother’s first birthday, just six days before Christmas. She hoped, I believe, this successful self-managed pregnancy and delivery would brush earlier tragedy to the side. When it failed to do so, she took me along for the ride. When I wasn’t at Artie’s place or waiting for her to come home, I was with her while her second career overtook our lives. Mom became a whistle-blower devoted to publicizing the shortcomings of the medical community as it related to childbirth practices. I listened to her record papers on misguided childbirth protocols in hospitals and increasing rates of exposure to MRSA in delivery rooms. I photocopied pamphlets promoting her midwife practice; in no time, I spell-checked her articles for midwife journals. Schoolwork eventually became an escape from Mom’s increasingly monomaniacal journey. “Can’t, Mom,” became my response when she asked for help. “Homework.” The day I found out I had a full ride to Harvard was the same day Mom found out her article featuring a census of specific airborne microbial communities in hospital versus home deliveries would be published in a highly respected medical journal. “I got into Har—” “You won’t believe what happened to me today,” she broke in while opening the front door at the sound of my footsteps on the porch stairs. “I’m going to be in JAMA.”
“That’s awesome, Mom.”. “What were you going to say?” “Nothing.” ~~~ “Natriuretic peptides.” I rubbed my eyes and sat up, losing my 19th century Amish quilt to the floor. Buses roared down in the street. Max was in the doorway. “What about them?” “You come off a little heavy-handed in this piece. I like you more when you write about birds in danger of extinction. So do your readers, I think.” “So give me an assignment you like, Max.” “I thought I had. It was supposed to be an investigation of the physiological marvels of the human heart, remember? You’re the one who turned in a dissertation on understanding natriuretic peptide processing and signaling for heart failure therapy. Good grief, Janek. What’d you do -- get a B-12 shot? Ready to hang up your shawl and cane -- join the outside world? “Maybe.” I hadn’t thwarted Max on purpose. I’d dived in, trying to lose myself in a complex topic, stuff that needed more thought and energy than I’d been used to expending. Maybe Max was right: I’d been working with one hand tied behind my back but now there was a need to burrow in real work, to challenge myself, to avoid Chapter 3. ~~~ Max sent me back to Dauphin County, to the Hershey Medical Center where I had an appointment with a cardiovascular surgeon who would, in Max’s words, get me straightened out about the human heart. After my interview with the surgeon, the elevator stopped on the neonatal unit, a floor below the cardiovascular unit. The doors opened and a wall of windows confronted me. Behind the window, a row of babies. White, brown, black, tan—all wrapped in pink and blue blankets, lined up in clear-sided bassinets. “Where’s Hammacher?” A doc in scrubs called out from down the hallway.
“In there,” replied a nurse in a Donald Duck-covered tunic nodding at the wall of windows. A man in scrubs and mask appeared beside one of the bassinets. With a sad cast to his eye, he gazed at a sleepy-looking infant. “Tall and thin with forward-leaning posture as if in a perpetual state of apology or uncertainty.” He had a tuft of white hair and a sun-weathered face. ~~~ “What’s this article for, Mr. Janek?” “I’m not sure yet,” I smiled, “I write for the Science and Nature page of the Harvard Review. . . not sure how this one fits. I might query some other journals. It’s a recent interest.” Hammacher studied his desktop before looking up. “What made you come to me?” “You’ve been here a long time. Probably delivered more infants than anyone else.” “Still, I’m no expert on neonatal fatalities attributed to oxygen deprivation.” “But you’ve got anecdotal experience. I can get the statistics easily enough on my own. My questions would be more of an experiential nature. For example, how often have you seen a newborn die of acute oxygen deprivation and what do you think caused it?” Hammacher’s face tightened. “Do you have any ID?” “Of course,” I pulled my wallet out and flipped it open to my Harvard badge. “This would be strictly anecdotal. My opinion. You don’t have permission to quote me.” “Sure. No problem.” “There was a case years ago.” He described the patient wheeled into the ER, a team waiting standby. Hammacher delivered the baby boy who had not survived. “There was no immediately overt indication of what had gone wrong.” Hammacher sat back in his chair fidgeting with a paperclip. “I have your word you won’t mention me?” “You do.”
“I found a badly compressed section of the umbilical cord. I saw a deep impression about the length of the compressed section of the cord on the baby’s scalp. My theory remains the cord got squeezed between the uterine wall and the baby’s head at some point during labor, cutting off oxygen.” He studied the twisted paperclip in his hand. “Anything else?” He tossed the paperclip on the desk and folded his hands. “It was an attempted home delivery; there was no fetal heart monitor. Had the patient been wearing one, it would have warned her of changes in the baby’s breathing and if she were in the hospital we’d have done an emergency c-section. That baby was perfect. He would have been fine.” “How did the mother take it?” Dr. Hammacher raised his eyes to meet mine and shook his head. “Now, what good would it have done to tell her a thing like that?” I started the trip back to Cambridge, but my head was aching, my heart banging, and I was driving like a bat out of hell, tailgating in every lane I tried. I pulled over, the silent car listing a little with the gust of each passing eighteenwheeler. When I pulled up at Dr. Tom’s, it was twilight and the grassy lawn emerald, rich in comparison to the fading sky. The doctor was on the porch studying something through binoculars. “Have a look,” he whispered, handing me the glasses. I swung the glasses toward the feeders in the vast American beech, majestic against the cloudless sky. “Not there,” he nudged my hand gently to the left, “there.” In a branch of a Scot’s pine soaring above the wildflower border, in a nest so small it looked like a balled-up gym sock, was a baby hummer’s head visible above the weave of twigs. It was not an albino hummer. It was not even the albino’s ugly stepbrother. It was as ordinary-looking as the puff of feathers I’d held in my hand a few weeks earlier, only this one was so new it had no defining color or shape. Its mother flew in from a nearby tangle of honeysuckle. Clutching the side of the nest, she slid her beak into the baby’s open bill.
Twelve hours later, back in my office, I tossed a draft of “The Mysteries of the Human Heart” at Max as he came through the door. “I gotta hand it to you,” I stood up from the desk and stretched. Traffic was light on the street below. A couple of students huddled in a gust of wind, scurrying toward Starbucks. “That albino story? I had no idea you were just trying to get me to a kumbaya with my mother. But, really. All the way back there, again? To talk to a cardiovascular surgeon when there are dozens within a mile of Cambridge?” He admitted to creating the albino story idea when he read of Mom’s prize. “I was just trying to help you solve your puzzle, Janek.” “Ah Max.” Poor Max. Having cared for four loving girls so completely, giving so much of himself, he could not accept that lesser human beings could fail where he’d succeeded. It would be hard to leave Max. “A present,” I said, reaching in the lower drawer of my desk, tossing the memoir to him. ~~~ Halfway through my residency in Internal Medicine, after a long night in the ER, I saw Mom on one of the overhead televisions in the waiting room. The lights had been dimmed. A janitor slept in a straight back chair, his industrial broom propped against a neighboring chair, brush up and turned toward the dozer, like a patient friend waiting for the tired man to wake up. Watching her on television, I could only marvel that Mom continued to hold the spotlight, that no one had ever challenged her on the facts of Tristan’s birth and death. Med school had taught me a dirty little secret about doctors—that it was not at all unusual for them to withhold really bad news when such news would not change an outcome: “The baby is dead” -- bad enough. “The baby is dead because you made a mistake” -- much worse. Everyone from her editor to the Pulitzer committee, to every single suburban book club member in the world was taken in by her tragic fiction. Or were they? I took a seat away from the sleeping man.
Maybe it was a conspiracy of silence, a complicity born of compassion. Because she was a girl growing up in a small town where change was slow, because a girl then and there was more often than not considered a flawed version of a boy, my mother misinterpreted academic mantras of independence and worthiness to mean invincibility and perfection. This is how she came to believe she was uniquely qualified to bring her child into the world, that she could not possibly fail at that, that it was the fault of an institution he died. She would never see that institutions hold human beings as susceptible to failure as was she or any of us. I tapped her number into my phone. “Hi Mom.” “Well now.” “How are you doing?” “Where are you?” “Stanford.” “I read your Harvard articles.” “Read your book,” I lied. Silence. “Anyway,” I cleared my throat, “are you okay? Everything going okay? You’re on television a lot. You’re on right now, as a matter of fact. You look good.” Silence. “Mom, I just want to--” “I should have taken care of you,” she whispered in rush of breath. Dr. Tom’s white face came to me, his shimmery eyes watching that fuzzy little puff of no particular hue, the baby bird’s sharp black bill the only feature defining his anatomy: open, stretched upward, waiting to receive his mother’s beak of nectar. I watched the doctor turn to look at me, the idea of miracle still reflected in his eyes. He would never be discouraged by a futile search for the albino because he had other worthy birds to care for. “What were you going to say?” She asked. I clicked off my phone, rose quietly, and headed for the exit. Nancy Smith Harris
Blue Ridge Mountain Fall
Season’s Mystery My heart is not a season, although, it glimmers in reflective lights of winter’s sun on crystal snow. When it simmers within the heat of mid-spring through summer sails, I conceal my heart among fragrant lake flora on silky waters of the deepest nights. In darkening days of cooler-cloudy evenings, as brighter leaves dance to breezy fall, you reawaken me, and I become your autumn heart. Deborah Levine-Donnerstein Deborah Levine-Donnerstein’s work has appeared in Santa Barbara Anthology (Community of Voices), Curiouser and Curiouser, and others. Retired from the faculties of the University of California and University of Arizona, she began writing more fiction and poetry in Asheville, North Carolina.
Perfect Time for Morning Coffee Buddy slid into his usual booth in Joe’s and took refuge in the golden morning light. Fat cardinals chirped in the maples that shaded Strawberry Street, their scarlet invisible among the flame red of the turning leaves. The mahogany brown paneling surrounding him in Joe's was rich and warm. His egg yolks were butterscotch, the hot sauce saffron. His coffee was black. The Irish whiskey was the color of an eagle's eye. He tasted chicken in the yard-fresh eggs and the chili sauce burned his tongue. The grain and nut and bitter of the coffee prepared him for the first sip of perfect peaty, malty, fiery whiskey. All of which soothed the spirit, opened the sinuses and pried Buddy’s eyes open for the day. As usual, he was Joe’s first customer. As usual, the only one. In here he wasn’t Mister Famous Writer, he was just the guy who lived across the street and didn’t cook. His manuscript was now exactly one week overdue to his agent. But on such a perfect morning, how could he work? Buddy sighed. It was the perfect morning. There would never be a better one. There would never, ever be a more perfect morning than this one. He raised the perfectly clear glass and toasted the perfect morning. Holding the whiskey to his eye he admired its surface. A beam of sunlight caught one edge of the glass and sprayed a rainbow of light into Buddy’s eye: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Roy G. Biv. His favorite mnemonic. He knew others. HOMES, for the Great Lakes. ABO for blood types. The one for resistor codes which was – and always had been – offensive to women. And could there be a more perfect woman than the one still in his bed. Allison. Auburn hair everywhere Allison. Pink cheek Allison. Gray eyed Allison. No, there couldn’t be. Buddy lifted his glass again and took a sip and saluted Allison. She’d packed up her car the night before. He could see it through the open door of Joe’s, parked right across the street, facing north, where she would be
heading soon. It was perfectly red, sun glinting off the chrome door handles in perfect six-pointed stars. Time for her to be off to Mount Holyoke and her waiting dissertation director. Allison had been good company. But this was the perfect day for her to leave. Savannah came by with refills of coffee and Irish. Buddy thought he was some percentage Irish. A large percentage English, of course. His mother claimed he was one thirty-second Monacan. African blood, too, like almost every native son. But really, his family had been in Virginia so long he had no idea how much of anything he was. He was universal. He was everyman and everywoman. It was the source of his creative power. All those elements churning away inside his genes like molten rock beneath the earth’s crust. Kilauea’s lava spilling into the sea to form new land. Only in his case, his latest novel. The one still in manuscript on the flash drive in his shirt pocket. The one five days overdue. Buddy sipped Irish and breathed out through his nose, savoring the alcoholic burn at the back of his throat. His eyes teared. He smelled oak in his nostrils. He tasted sweetness on the sides of his tongue. Yes, there was the manuscript. But it could wait. Words could not be dragged out of bed and set to work barefoot in the cold morning air. Even if the morning air wasn’t exactly cold. Words had to be coaxed out into the sunlight, bribed with coffee and whiskey. And here came the perfect Allison. She stood in the doorway, hesitating. They’d spent a delightful month in each other’s company. Easy company. And now she had to go back to her life. Buddy was grateful for the time they’d spent together. He felt a perfect balance of regret and relief. He smiled and waved at her to join him. From the bar, Savannah said, “C’mon in honey and have something to eat afore you take off.” Allison joined him, her sneakered feet making no sound on the polished oak planks. She slid into the booth next to him and took his coffee cup and his glass of
Irish. She poured the whiskey into the coffee and downed both together. Her peachperfect cheeks flamed red and she slammed the cup down on the table. “Whoo!” Buddy looked over at the bar. Joe nodded and poured another glass of amber whiskey. Savannah put it on her cork-bottomed tray with a second cup and a carafe of coffee. They formed a perfectly balanced triangle. Savannah’s hips were broad and the tray swayed slightly from side to side as she walked across the room towards them. Allison, whose hips were nowhere near that broad, smiled tolerantly. Anything that had gone on between Buddy and Savannah ended the moment Savannah took an interest in Joe. Everyone knew that. Allison knew because Savannah told her when asked. No guilty secrets in Joe’s place. As she placed the coffee and Irish on the table in front of them, Savannah said to Allison, “Can I bring ya something to eat? Y’oughta ta have something on your stomach if Officer Tim pulls you over.” There was no Officer Tim. Rather, every Virginia State Trooper who cruised the interstate between Richmond and the District was Officer Tim. And every Officer Tim knew that Allison drove her little red Mazda with the Massachusetts license plates very, very fast. She had a glove box full of warnings written by Officer Tim. Allison shook her perfect auburn hair. “No time. I’ve got to get on the road.” She looked sideways at Buddy. “Besides,” she said, grinning slyly, “I already ate this morning.” She poured creamer into her coffee cup and made a grab for Buddy’s Irish. He slid it out of her reach. “She don’t mean that,” Buddy said, smiling. Allison drank her coffee in one long gulp and stood to go. She kissed the perfectly round bald spot on the crown of his head and said, “Bye, Buddy. Thanks for everything.” “Ya come back,” Joe called out, “Ya family now.” Buddy watched her walk out of Joe’s and out of his life. Like all the rest before. Her ass, too, was perfect. Her last lingering laugh was loud and brassy. Buddy, Joe and Savannah echoed it.
Silence fell in Joe’s except for the Budweiser clock over the bar ticking time. Buddy sat unmoving in the booth as his coffee cooled. No thought disturbed his perfect peace as he basked in one perfect moment after another. The thin second hand on the clock ticked off increments of time as now became then. It was easy to believe that time came in quantum units, that he floated untethered in quantum spacetime. Savannah cleared his table, leaving the cooling coffee and the half-full glass of whiskey. Slowly, slowly, the shaft of golden morning light that streamed through the open door crept away from Buddy. Slowly, its golden yellow paled. He watched the morning’s perfection dissolve. At what instant was the morning perfect and then not perfect? Was it possible to put the two instants together, like the two palms of his hands, compare them, understand how perfection dissolved? To actually see perfection dissolve? Buddy ran a finger around the bald spot on his scalp. She was right. He really was becoming an intolerable old fart. As the clock’s hour hand climbed from 9 towards 10 the moving beam lit up the brass foot rail at the bottom of the bar. The light twisted in a way that irritated Buddy’s eye. Joe’s cigarette smoke curled through the air, though Virginia law outlawed smoking in restaurants. Buddy was dragged into the flow of time as the blue smoke curled up from Joe’s cigarette to the tin ceiling tiles. The stink of burnt tobacco overwhelmed the odor of the oiled wood. The manuscript on his flash drive insisted. Still, there was coffee in his cup and Irish in his glass. His ass had mass and inertia. Laborers in groups of two or more filtered in and sat and ordered breakfast beers. Young and old, white and black and brown, they all wore the uniform: old baseball caps the color of grease, abused work boots, saggy-butt jeans and frayed zipup hoodies over logo tee shirts. Joe turned on the flat screen TV over the bar and ESPN exploded in flashing primary colors. Wearing bespoke suits, two ex-professional football players and an ex-play-byplay sportscaster dissected recent college football games and predicted the outcomes
of future ones. Great gig for has-beens. Buddy admired the suits. The tailoring was perfect. Yanel the tiler over there at the bar worked hard at a useful job. He deserved a bespoke suit. More than Buddy, come to think of it, though he had one in his closet for the media events his agent arranged. Like the one tomorrow in Atlanta. Has-been Number One told the world that Richmond defeated Albany 23-17 in overtime last night. Buddy’s alma mater. Has-been Number Two offered the opinion that if the Spiders’ defensive line, especially Number 92, hadn’t been so porous the game would have been a rout instead of a close thing. The Spiders were a force to be reckoned with this season. Except for their defensive line, apparently. Buddy frowned and sipped his Irish. Maybe Number 92 had been playing hurt, unwilling to admit diminished ability. Maybe Number 92’s adversary on the offensive line was a talent going to the NFL. Maybe Number 92’s girlfriend had announced she was pregnant. Buddy raised his glass to poor Number 92, who was in for a rough week. Late rising VCU students started arriving and the smell of hot grease from the kitchen filled the air. The kids from the nearby dance department didn’t eat, of course, but they downed plenty of coffee. A fine mist of oil mixed with the chaos of TV light. Savannah rushed here and there servicing the tables and booths. Waving a greeting to Buddy, Carmen and her mother Teresa came in for their morning coffee and donuts. They owned the flower shop across the street and lived above it. They were his neighbors. Buddy could see a bit of the front of their shop through the open door, not much detail but bright splashes of reds and bright whites against perfect deep green leaves. Carmen’s everyday black dress, widow’s weeds, set off the brightness of their flowers. Her husband Jose died in Iraq when an IED blew up the Humvee he was driving. Buddy had met him a few times. Nice kid. His death had elevated him to local hero, though he’d spent three years in the Army not once having done anything heroic. It happened on a dirt road leading into Baghdad. Neither he nor the two officers he was driving saw a thing. One moment they were alive, minds full of
thoughts and feelings, eyes and noses full of grit. The next moment they were seared meat commingled with burning steel. Jose’s senses hadn’t even had time to transmit what was happening before his brains were splashed into the blast furnace that his vehicle became. Jose’s abrupt transition from someone to nothing disturbed Buddy somewhere beyond thought. His remains were delivered in a sealed coffin to Dover Air Force Base by a C130 full of other dead heroes. All nearby veterans’ cemeteries being full, the Commonwealth buried Jose in the Virginia Veterans Cemetery at Amelia, about an hour west of Richmond. Carmen once told him she knew that Jose’s soul had been caught by Jesus at his moment of death and carried to heaven for eternal life. Perhaps it was his spirit, perfected after the death of his mortal self, that brightened her smile. But it was Jose’s life insurance and VA survivor benefits that paid her shop’s expenses. As usual, she and her mother sat at a table next to the window so they could watch and see if anyone entered their shop. When someone did, Carmen would jump up, gulp down her coffee and rush out and cross Strawberry Street wiping white sugar powder from her hands and dress. Always white sugar powder from the one donut she allowed herself. The white powder always stained her black dress. He sympathized. He really did. Unlike Jose, blasted across the divide, Pop died slowly. From cancer. Living each second of the way. Until the pills for the pain put him to sleep. That and his best friend Jim Beam. His sisters regularly smuggled ol’ Jim into Pop’s room in the hospice and took away the empties for recycling. Then the moment when his breath just stopped. Just. Stopped. With the family witnessing, necks craning this way and that for a glimpse of Pop’s spirit rising towards heaven. And yes, Aunt Eliza testified at the funeral that she saw Pop’s soul fly up to Jesus. Lot of perfecting needed to be done to Pop’s soul on the way to Jesus. But they all knew Aunt Eliza could handle that for Pop. It was time for Buddy to leave. Time to go to work. Time. Always time.
He waved to Joe and Savannah at the bar and walked out. His manuscript needed work. Needed a complete rewrite of chapter six, really, to make the whole thing perfect. Because perfect was what he worked so hard to create. And chapter six, well, really --. Chapter six was the heart of the matter. It hurt him to think how much work it needed. A complete rewrite, not even a revision. An edit, a polish -- a revision even -- he could pull off in an afternoon. An afternoon and an evening. Or two days. No more than two days. But a complete rewrite. Starting after, “Oma stood in the doorway as Junior’s Jeep sped away down her dirt road,” and ending with, “Sister Mary Baptista brushed the black pleats of her habit smooth and settled herself on the narrow confessional stool.” Buddy knew how Junior’s wife felt as she lay dying in the cancer center. He knew what Sister Mary Baptista feared and why she hid from it within the folds of her habit. He knew what Oma, herself so close to death, chose to forget as she turned away to the TV playing in her bedroom. Each dealt with it in her own way. It wasn’t as simple as death. Death was on this side of the divide. Although ‘divide’ implied a comparable something non-thing. Believers like Carmen, like Aunt Eliza, had words: heaven, hell, purgatory, lots of those kinds of words. But there were extended narratives connected to each of them and that meant time and that was no good at all. Plus they were reflections of what’s on this side of the divide. The other imperfect words were merely self-negations: nonexistence was nonexistence; afterlife was after-life, nothingness was no-thingness. Janus-faced timeless was time-less. His favorite almost-perfect word, annihilation, was Latin for—more or less--‘becoming no-thing,’ a double negation. He’d already thrown a buzzing cloud of these almost-adequate words at not-it and they wouldn’t do. The best the French Existentialists could do was point towards not-it with buzzing word clouds of their own and then go out for a cigarette. The problem was, the perfect word didn’t exist. Buddy imagined not-it as the other side of a one-dimensional strip of paper. Impossible to imagine an other side of
a one-dimensional object. Words cannot exist for non-things that cannot be known. Yet deep in the ticking clocks of their cells, all living things knew. How they knew was a mystery, a one-dimensional mystery. If there was knowing, there must be words. But there are no perfect words, is no perfect word. Buddy knew. He’d been searching for a long time and chapter six still wasn’t finished. A single word could stop a project cold. Time was running out. He’d promised his agent the completed manuscript by the Atlanta reading. Tomorrow. Tick tock, tick tock. Buddy stood on the root-cracked, sap-stained sidewalk in front of Joe’s. He stared up at the empty window of his bedroom office across the street. So Buddy decided: Okay, if there wasn’t a word for ‘the other side’ then he’d make one up. Name not-it Jose. Or Pop. Or Jesus, even. No, there were too many stories attached to names like that. Tock. He’d name not-it Tock. Yes, that sounded right. Junior’s wife welcomed Tock as release from her body’s fight against the cancer. Sister Mary Baptista, her fragile faith overwhelmed by Doubt, lived in dread that Tock was all there was after Death. Oma retreated from Tock into willed dementia. Tock. A breeze kicked up, blowing dead leaves off the maple trees. They swirled and fluttered down on him, brick red, yellow and brown. They fell onto Strawberry Street and traffic rolled over them, crushing them to fine dust. Peter Alterman Peter Alterman writes literary fiction, popular fiction, science fiction and literary criticism. Publications have appeared in New Dimensions Science Fiction 9, Twilight Zone Magazine, Gallery, and others. He is a member of The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
Big Sister, Little Sister “You’ve got to get me out of here,” she said. “Out of where?” I asked, gripping the steering wheel and steeling myself for her response. “Out of this God-forsaken town!” For two years I had been asking my sister Ruth to consider leaving the southeastern boot heel of Missouri. She had moved there from her Wisconsin home a few years earlier, to be near our brother. She hated it. She complained about the climate -- the hot, humid summers, and the starkly conservative politics. Our brother’s health deteriorated unexpectedly, and two years ago he died, leaving her in the care of his widow. Ruth, herself, is left with cognitive and physical disabilities from a stroke-like brain bleed 28 years ago. Now in her late 70s, she falls regularly and is on a firstname basis with the local 911 medics. Her last spill left her with a cracked vertebra. So, after two years of cajoling and encouraging her to admit to her need for in-home assistance, she was telling me she was ready to come west. And I realized with a jolt that I had never really expected her to say yes! My eyes were fixed on the road ahead as I passed fields of carefree sheep and contented cows -- lucky critters with nothing to do but eat and sleep. My already crazed mind began to race. Life is full to bursting. Every ball of responsibility is in the air as I feverishly juggle in a futile attempt to keep them aloft. The balance and selfcare I crave mock me as I race from one day to the next. My musical instruments silently collect dust and my next book remains unwritten, while my accounting business sucks the creative juice out of most of my waking hours. I squeeze in moments of connection with my partner, adult children, grandchildren and a greatgranddaughter who lives 2,000 unreachable miles away. Where will I find time to do this thing -- this thing that my heart tells me is right, while my head anxiously disagrees. “What are you saying?” I hesitantly ask. “Are you ready to move into a community apartment complex?” I cautiously avoid the term "assisted living." She has been stubborn and insistent about independence. “I guess I have no choice,” she replied. “I just can’t stay here.” I pulled into a lakeside park and turned off the
engine. Looking out at the reflection of the sunset, I breathed deeply, “OK, Sis. Can I call you later?” Arriving home, I went to my bedroom to think. As I sat on the bed, I stared at the collection of old photos on my antique dresser: Mom at 13, Dad as an infant, my brothers and me sitting on the couch in our 1960 Sunday best. I picked up a favorite picture of my only sister -- a black and white 1945 photo -- four years old with blonde braids, a plaid dress and eyes glistening with tears. For years I have wondered what happened just before the flash of the camera. Did our mother scold her in criticism, as was all too familiar? Was she missing her father who was banished from her life since the divorce? Ruth is twelve years my senior, and my earliest memories recall her as a teenager. She was beautiful in a way I would never be. She sang like an angel. All of my first adventures were with her -- Lake Michigan sun bathing, train rides and museum visits, restaurants and movie theaters. I was six when she moved into her own apartment, and I was heart-broken. Ours was an emotionally volatile home, and she had been my safe place. But when we had sleep-overs in her space, she would make popcorn, and we would stay up until the wee hours of the morning watching her favorite old movies, and sharing secrets that were ours alone. We remained close as adults until I moved away some thirty years ago. Since the "brain thing," as we laughingly refer to it, she has been a very different sister, and our roles are reversed. I am the one she calls when she is angry, confused or just needs to laugh. I fill in the words she can no longer recall, as her damaged brain continues to frustrate her every thought and movement. I am little sister turned big sister. It is simply my turn. I picked up the phone. “Sis, it’s going to be OK. You’re coming to Oregon.” Ruby Lee Cornelius Ruby Lee Cornelius, raised in Wisconsin, currently resides in the Pacific Northwest. She has recently published a memoir, Choiceless: A Birthmother's Story of Love, Loss and Reunion. She is a lifetime musician, singer and recent songwriter.
They’re Playing Our Song Max adored his wife Mim but he left her two nights every week—usually Tuesday and Wednesday—and slept alone on a thin cotton mattress at the North Beach Volunteer Fire Department. He led an EMT response team, prying bodies out of crushed cars, transporting the injured and ill, dispensing oxygen and comfort to the frightened and infirm. He liked the young guys on his team, Arnie and Vince. They’d sit around the fire house playing cards, watching the three ESPN stations and swapping stories about their romantic liaisons. At least Arnie and Vince would. Max and Mim had been married for almost thirty years. Their thirtieth anniversary was coming up soon and they already had tickets for a seven day Caribbean cruise to celebrate. A regular, church-going man, the business manager at West Marine in Annapolis, Max was the last person anyone would suspect of getting caught up in anything the least bit strange, yet he did. It began innocently enough. His crew was called out one January night just after closing time for the bars along Route 261 to a crash in the middle of the bridge over Fishing Creek. A drunk ran his Charger over the sidewalk and into the railing. Steel and concrete kept the car from going into the water but the whole front of the car was smashed in. The collapsed steering wheel crushed the driver’s chest into his spine and he was DOA. There was nothing they could do for him. So they pried the body out of the crumpled car, gathered it up and zipped it into a body bag. Since there was no urgency they stuck around directing traffic until the wrecker arrived. While they were waiting, Max noticed that the radio in the car was still playing. Playing a car crash song. “Hey guys,” Max called. “Listen to this.” Max didn’t recognize the song or the singer but he could tell it was “something something died at the wheel.” Arnie and Vince stood with him beside the opened driver’s door and listened to the song coming
out of the speakers. Their red and white truck lights flashed in sync with the music and reflected off the shiny black body bag lying on the asphalt beside their feet. “That’s ‘I Came Here to Live’,” Vince said. “Yeah,” Arnie said. “But he came here to die.” “Ironic for sure,” Vince said. “I don’t remember ever noticing that before. I mean, a car crash song playing in a crash,” Vince said. “Weird.” Now that he had time, Max said his regular prayer for the soul of the victim. He always did that when he was called out to a Fatal. Didn’t matter if the vic was Catholic or Methodist or Muslim. They’d sort that out at the hospital, make sure the right priest or pastor or imam was called in. But all departed souls needed a prayer to ease their way along. On the way back to the station it was all they could talk about. The car crash song. “I bet we’ve heard lots of things playing in the crashes and just haven’t been paying attention,” Max said. It was the oddest thing he could remember happening to him as an EMT. And it piqued his curiosity. Was this something he’d simply not noticed before or was it a strange new thing? So the following Thursday in the office Max set up a spreadsheet to track whatever they heard playing when they were called out. If they heard a car crash song the row got red and bold text. His first entry was the kid in the Challenger and “I Came Here to Live.” Red and bold text. After that it got to be a Thing for them. A semi flipped at the intersection of Routes 260 and 2. There wasn’t much damage to the cab and they were able to help the driver out no trouble. All the old guy had was a broken collar bone and bruises. He was about Max’s age, in his early 60s. NPR news was on the radio. The guys agreed that was all wrong but hey, it was Washington. Max added a row to his spreadsheet in black for “NPR News.” Max wasn’t on duty over the weekends but Arnie and Vince sometimes took shifts depending on whether one or the other had a date lined up. So it came as no surprise to Max when a couple of weeks later on a Monday morning Arnie called him at work to report he’d been out on a call with the Assistant Chief’s team. At the crash
site the car’s sound system was playing David Bowie singing about an airbag. Max made a note to look up David Bowie songs about airbags, thanked Arnie and added a row to the spreadsheet for “David Bowie—Airbag.” The fact that Arnie asked the Assistant Chief about the song alerted the whole department to the car crash spreadsheet and Max began getting calls from all the teams, fire, rescue, EMT, reporting what was playing when they were called out. As the hard winter progressed there were more accidents on the roads and there were more calls reporting more songs. Even the Chief reported one to Max. He’d been called out to oversee an accident response. A girl on a motorcycle lost control on gravel going around a corner. Her bike went down, slid off the road and flipped into a ditch. The rider’s body was flung ten feet up into a pine tree, killing her instantly. They’d had to call in a bucket truck to lift a team into the tree to collect her. When they got the body into the bucket they could hear “Leader of the Pack” playing in her ear buds. “Imagine that,” the Chief said to him, “Leader of the Pack vroom vroom.” Max waited until he’d hung up the phone before breaking out in wheezing laughter. It was hysterically funny. He laughed so hard tears ran down his face and he gasped for breath. It was terrible. Someone’s beloved daughter. But he couldn’t help himself. Leader of the pack, vroom vroom. And then he felt deeply ashamed. Laughing about a victim’s death was terribly, terribly wrong. The next Sunday at Confession he admitted to Father DiPalma that he’d laughed about the rider’s death. The priest was confused at first but Max explained it all to him. Father DiPalma had been a chaplain with the 7th Infantry in Kuwait and he’d heard a lot blacker humor than Max’s and he’d seen a lot more carnage than the NVFD saw on the roads of Calvert County, even in winter. “Max, you haven’t sinned in God’s eyes. So long as you never insult victims or relatives,” he said. “And we don’t, Father. That would be awful. Cruel. We would never—” Max said. Words failed him at even the idea. They negotiated his usual penance (impatience with Mim’s infirmities, worry that daughter Maxine was a lesbian, disgust with son Billy for his racist Facebook
postings). But Max left the confessional unsatisfied. Despite the priest’s reassurance, it seemed to him there was something very wrong in what he’d done. Thinking about it afterwards, Max decided that was the beginning of the curse. The following Tuesday night was awful. The weathermen called it ‘wintry mix’ but on the western shore of the Chesapeake it was solid sleet. Ice formed early on frozen asphalt and built invisible black pools in every depression in every road. Bricks of briny ice stacked up on the beach at water’s edge. Inevitably Max’s team was called out. An F-150 going too fast hit a patch of black ice and slid sideways into a stand of trees. The whole right side of the cab folded around a thick Virginia pine. The driver wasn’t wearing a seat belt and the impact threw him into the sharp vee of the bent-in passenger door. His right side and head were crushed. He was still breathing when Max got to him, pink foam bubbling out of his nostrils. There was nothing they could do for him. Nevertheless, Max called for a small ampule of morphine, enough to ease the pain but not enough to affect his labored breathing. “We’re here to help, friend,” he whispered in the driver’s ear. Max slid the morphine into his shoulder. “Can you pray with me?” Receiving no reply, Max began reciting Psalm 23. He got to “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death--” when yelling from outside interrupted him. Followed instantly by the dull bang of steel on steel and the tinkling of glass breaking as another car slammed into the pickup. The shock of the impact killed the driver instantly. Max was thrown into the padded dash and that probably saved his life. Still, half the ribs on his side were broken, his lower back was injured and his head banged against the dash hard enough to cause a concussion. In the impossible silence after impact Max lay stunned, unable to move. The twice-smashed truck’s radio played “The Ballad of Thunder Road” over and over in the cab. Robert Mitchum’s raspy voice hammered at Max’s brain. Let me tell the story, I can tell it all, About the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol.
His daddy made the whiskey, son he drove the load, When his engine roared, They called the highway Thunder Road. Max’s head hurt. He was sleepy and cold and clammy. He wanted to vomit and his mouth was dry. He began to cry. How could he leave Mim this way? He couldn’t get the words out of his mouth but he prayed to the Blessed Virgin for help. A needle went into his arm. The Chief called Mim as soon as the word came in. “Mim, Max’s been hurt. They’re taking him to P.G. Hospital Center now.” The long-expected call. Adrenalin pounded in her heart. Her head was filled with buzzing. She couldn’t feel the phone in her hand. “Where are they taking him?” she said. She hadn’t heard the Chief. Without thinking she grabbed her purse and started for the garage door in her nightgown. He repeated, slowly, “Mim. They’re taking him to Prince George’s Hospital Center now. Mim? Mim! Stop!” She stopped. No thought in her mind. Blank. “I’ll come over and get you,” the Chief said. “Inside an hour. Call the children.” The children. Mim’s mind restarted. “Okay, Matt. Okay.” They’d launched three kids out into the world more or less successfully, John and Maxine and Billy. At least each was paying his or her own way and none lived at home with them. She called John and Maxine and let them know their father had been in an accident and was being taken to the hospital. Billy didn’t pick up so she left a voicemail message. He’d been out of touch since his arrest at the Charlottesville riots for attacking college kids. Then she dressed and waited. Mim sat at the dining room table fully clothed in her warmest wool coat, rubber boots and the cashmere watch cap Maxine knitted for her last Christmas, ready to leave a half hour before the Chief’s unit pulled into the driveway. They spoke little on the way. Driving safely took concentration. The storm was winding down, leaving behind freezing temperatures and icy roads. State and county
trucks were everywhere spraying rock salt. Vince radioed in that they were leaving the hospital to return to North Beach. He reported that Max was in serious but not critical condition and had been taken into surgery. When they arrived at the hospital the Chief accompanied Mim inside. The information clerk in the lobby told them that Max was already out of surgery and in recovery. The Chief left Mim in the overheated Trauma Center waiting room. She stared at posters in English and Spanish advertising a range of social services until she fell asleep sitting up. At daylight they put Max in a private room and she was allowed to sit with him as he slept off the remains of the anesthetic. She sat beside his bed, the man she’d lived with for more than half her life. A good boy grown into a good man. Lucky girl, her mother told her. Lucky girl. Mim shook her head and stretched upright, easing the ache between her shoulder blades. Almost thirty years. Where did they go? And how many more would they have? She needed to call West Marine and let them know what happened. She needed to lose twenty pounds and get fit. It was late morning before Max woke. His body ached. A cup covered his nose and mouth. The hiss of oxygen came from behind his head, which was raised slightly. His lips were cakey, his tongue sticky. The room was bright, too bright. He blinked his eyes slowly. He wished someone would wipe the sand from around his eyes. A white sheet covered him, smooth except for a wrinkle where a drain was attached to his side. His arms and hands lay atop the sheet to either side of him. A tube ran from somewhere behind his head to the back of his left hand. Mim’s voice saying something. He licked his dry lips. A straw in his mouth. Max sucked tepid liquid. He turned his head away from the straw. Her hand wiping liquid from his cheek. Thoughts came slowly, dripping with the fluids running into his hand and bubbling out his side. Robert Mitchum’s voice droned in his head, Let me tell the story, I can tell it all… Max closed his eyes and slept. Max woke the next day, conscious but woozy with Percocet. The resident who came in to check on him assured Mim that Max was out of danger, then listed the issues, ticking them off one by one on his fingers: one, the concussion would resolve itself in a week or so; two, one of his cracked ribs had bruised his spleen so the drain
would have to stay in place until the inflammation calmed, probably within the next two days; three—here the resident paused—it was unclear how badly his spinal cord was injured; they’d have to wait and see. Max could have lost some function; how much—again—remained to be seen. Mim put a hand on Max’s shoulder and said, “It could have been worse. He’s survived and that’s all that matters now.” The resident agreed, smiled, and left the room. Maxine came to see him the next day and brought flowers along with a change of clothes for Mim. John stopped by two evenings later after work. Mim called Billy but again he didn’t answer his phone. A few days later Max was much more alert so Mim called the firehouse and let it be known that Max could have visitors. Vince and Arnie were the first. The Chief and the Assistant Chief visited together. Flowers came from the office. When everyone was gone and it was just Max and Mim in the room he told her he felt responsible for what happened to him. He explained the car crash songs and laughing at the death of the motorcycle driver and the song playing in her earbuds and how that brought a curse down on his head. Mim couldn’t work out how any of that meant Max was responsible for his injuries. And she didn’t believe in curses from the dead. It made sense to Max, though. Because “The Ballad of Thunder Road” kept playing over and over in his head. His belief that his injuries were punishment gnawed at him the whole time he was in the hospital. Father DiPalma visited him in the hospital. Within the circle of the weightless white privacy curtain pulled around his bed Max raised the topic of curses. He hinted at an exorcism. Father DiPalma would have none of it. He could see that Max was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He suggested his colleague Dr. Rosenberg could help. Max didn’t see how Dr. Rosenberg, being Jewish, would be able to assist with an exorcism. But he said nothing. After two weeks a resident removed the drain from his side and Max was discharged home. Using a walker he was able to make it from the wheelchair at the hospital entrance to Mim’s car without assistance. His spinal cord was still healing—to the extent it ever would—so his legs were weak and he placed them one at a time
carefully, still not sure where each was going nor feeling the ground surely with tingling feet. He was still on Percocet. The drugs kept him comfortable but fuzzy. Nevertheless, as soon as he got home he told Mim he’d switch to ibuprofen and bourbon. Flush that evil stuff down the toilet before he became one more addict. The trip from the hospital just about did Max in. Mim’s Caddy wallowed like a Zodiac in rough water every time she hit a pothole and she hit every pothole along the way, a consequence of her not seeing the road all that good. Between the ride and the Percocet he almost puked several times. Their Song, the one they danced to at their wedding, came up on the car radio: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” the Platters’ version from 1958. Not such an odd choice for a firefighter. They looked at each other. Could there be a less romantic moment to hear it playing? Since he wasn’t supposed to climb stairs yet Mim had the den set up as a bedroom for him. She’d opened up the sleep sofa and put on fresh linens. Max crawled onto it and sighed as he settled in to the sagging springs. Mim fussed over him, removing his shoes and placing an afghan over his legs. Max slept through the afternoon. Mim woke him at five and at nine to give him his pills. Groggy, he didn’t notice what meds she was giving him and he lapsed back to sleep immediately. Mim slept in the rocker, unable to leave him. The next morning Max shifted over to his alternate pain management plan, ibuprofen and Jack Daniel’s. The pain in his side and his back were worse, but he thought of the pain as penance. In his still-fuzzy mind he focused on the spreadsheet as the source of the curse. He considered deleting it but that would be like killing the victims a second time. Like murder. After breakfast he called in to his office. Between sick leave and vacation leave he had the better part of a month before he had to go back to the office. His next call was to the firehouse; since he couldn’t bring himself to delete it, someone else needed to take over the car crash song spreadsheet if they wanted it continued. He’d had enough. He was done with it, with the guilt he felt and with the curse he was convinced the spreadsheet carried.
Later that day the Chief called back. Max took it on speakerphone so Mim could hear. The Mayor of North Beach was coming by with a reporter from the Calvert Recorder to award him a medal for heroism. “You’ve got to be kidding,” Max said. “The only thing I did was get hit by a car. I didn’t do anything heroic. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” The Chief said, “I know, Max, and I know how much you don’t like the spotlight. But it’s really recognition for all us, not just you. Don’t we deserve a little recognition?” “By giving me a medal for being a crash victim?” Max said. “And telling the story of how you all went out in deadly weather to help a dying man. And how Vince and Arnie risked their own lives to get you to P.G. in time to save your life.” Max sighed. “As long as it’s not just about me then.” “Good man,” the Chief said. “And it better not take too long,” Mim said. “He’s just back from the hospital and he needs to rest.” And there was all that bourbon and ibuprofen he was taking to manage the pain. “Understood, Mim. I’ll let them know,” the Chief said and hung up. Max shook his head in disbelief. “Must be election season,” he said. An hour later the Mayor of North Beach arrived with the reporter for the Recorder, who turned out to be the Mayor’s wife, and the Chief. Max and Mim exchanged glances. They sat around the dining room table since that was where Max’s injured back was most comfortable. Mim had made coffee. The mayor handed Max the medal in a presentation box. Inside was an goldtone St. Florian’s cross hanging from a red ribbon. Crossed axes and a fire helmet were enameled in the center of the medal. Max took the box and put it on the table without a second glance. The Mayor squeezed Max’s hand wordlessly with a politician’s sincerity. He let his wife do the talking. “So glad you’re on the mend, er, Max,” she said. She plugged a tiny microphone into her phone and placed it on the table in front of him.
“Thank you. On behalf of my team and the whole fire department,” Max said. The Chief beamed. She said, “Please describe what happened. I’ve read the reports so I know the general outline but it would help our readers if you could give me your impressions.” “The Ballad of Thunder Road” churned round in Max’s head. He could see she had no idea how disturbing it was for him to relive what had happened. Or she didn’t care. He said, “I don’t remember much. It just—happened. But what you need to know,” he said, pointing at the box, “is that Arnie Cooper and Vince Brown are the real heroes. They rushed me to P.G. in the heart of that storm. They saved my life.” She nodded her head and sipped coffee. “Do you remember any of the ride? That would help.” She hadn’t taken down their names. Max shook his head. “Not a minute of it.” She nodded and unplugged the mic. “I understand. The shock and the drugs. I’ll have enough with a picture. Could I get one with you holding the medal, please?” Max frowned. But Mim gave him a stern look so Max lifted the medal out of its box and held it up for her phone camera. “Smile, please,” she said. Max stared at her. She took photos anyway. That was the end of the interview. Two days later the Calvert Recorder published a version of the interview with a picture of Max holding the medal looking like he was struggling with a gas bubble. The piece was printed half way down page four. The article was headlined “Hero EMT Recovering.” It reported that his teammates rushed Max to Prince George’s Hospital to save his life. But it didn’t mention Arnie and Vince by name, which is what they deserved and what he’d asked Mrs. Mayor to do. Max read the article to Mim. What was written didn’t bear much resemblance to the interview, of course, but it was still disturbing. From the moment he’d laughed at the death of that young motorcyclist very little seemed to be going right in Max’s life. One week later the Chief called again to tell him that The Washington Post picked up the Recorder’s article and was sending down an intern and a photographer to do a piece on him for their weekly Calvert County section.
“No way, Chief,” Max said. “Once was enough. Look what you got: two columns on page four under an ad for a sale on Depends. And a lousy picture of me holding a toy medal.” “Yes, it was a pretty bad picture of you. Well, you think about it. We don’t get much attention in the Post,” the Chief said. “And if you agree to do this one I’ll make sure Arnie and Vince get their names in the paper.” Max and Mim discussed it the rest of the morning. Seeing how the Reporter piece had turned out he didn’t see why he should bother. She hoped that seeing or hearing about his father’s injury in the larger circulation of the Post would spur Billy to get in touch, but she didn’t want to pressure Max one way or the other. Nevertheless, Max sensed that she wanted him to do the interview so he agreed. He called the Chief. “Okay, I’ll do it.” “Great. Just great. Thanks, Max. I knew you’d do it. The interview is scheduled for tomorrow since their editor is holding space and needs the copy right away.” Assuming that Max would eventually agree, or that Mim would talk him into it, he’d arranged the interview with the Post. The next day Max was still angry at the Chief for assuming he’d agree to the interview. But he was more angry with himself for doing so. Mim worked hard to cheer him up as she drove him over to the firehouse where a crowd was waiting for them. Everyone was smiles and handshakes over coffee and assorted pastries. The actual interview went about the same way as the first one. The picture was better, though: a group picture with the mayors of North Beach and Chesapeake Beach, the Chief, Vince, Arnie and Max, who had to wear the medal around his neck. Nobody mentioned that Max still needed to use a walker, that he was still sleeping in the den because he couldn’t climb the stairs to his bedroom and that this might be as much mobility as he ever recovered. And that his days as a working EMT were over. Because nobody thought to tell him not to, Arnie told the Post reporter about the car crash songs they collected. “Yeah. Max had the idea. He keeps a spreadsheet of all the stuff we hear when we go out on a call and we hear a lot,” Arnie said to the intern. “And you know what? That old actor, Robert Mitchum? His song ‘Ballad of
Thunder Road’ was playing in the wreck when Max took the hit! Ain’t that something?” More than something, it was worth a whole paragraph that the Post’s Regional editor left in because Robert Mitchum had once had a home in Trappe over on the Eastern Shore and she’d grown up in Easton, just a few miles down Route 50 from Trappe. The story ran as the lead in the Calvert County section the next day. To Max’s eye the group picture looked like a parody. But Mim liked it. She took a photo of it with her phone and posted it to her Instagram account. Almost immediately it went viral. The day after the piece ran, car crash song reports began pouring in. The Post forwarded everything to the firehouse and they forwarded them to Max. It was a flood. Drunks killing themselves and others. Teens killing themselves and others. Drivers killed texting. Two hundred car pileups on the Indiana Toll Road. Long distance truckers dying in Oklahoma tornadoes that flipped their semis around like Hot Wheels. Cars and people washed away in river flooding in the Carolinas and the Dakotas. Each report noted what was playing on radio or CD or pod or whatever. “Chapel Bells” and “Dead Man’s Curve” Max remembered from his childhood; “Come Back Jonee” he only knew from googling it. Maybe two dozen just called “Car Crash.” Tom Waits’ “A Sight for Sore Eyes” playing in the cab of a school bus that went off the road in a rainstorm killing six middle school children and the driver. Report after report of car crash songs sent along to Max to add to his spreadsheet of death. Max didn’t want them. Though he couldn’t bring himself to delete the spreadsheet, he couldn’t bring himself to add anything to it either. But the reports clogged up his email inbox regardless of whether he did anything with them. Piles of letters forwarded from the Post clogged up their mailbox out front. Max hobbled out every day with his walker and brought them in, dumping them unopened onto the dining room table. When the piles started falling over onto the floor he dumped them into the cold fireplace.
Among the accident and song reports there were ugly emails gloating over the deaths and threats from three separate cells of neo-Nazis in Idaho and one incoherent Alabama State Senator. The worst, though, were emails from relatives of victims cursing Max, threatening the fire department with lawsuits. And not only emails. Max’s Facebook page and Mim’s Instagram account were filled with attacks on him and his spreadsheet. Despite Father DiPalma’s repeated assurances, Max became more convinced that he was being hit with a curse he’d called down on his own head. Hurt and angry, he shut down his email accounts and took down both his and Mim’s Facebook pages. Then he set up a new email account using an alias that only family would know. While his body continued to heal, his spirit flagged. All his life he’d tried to do good for God, America and his community. In all his sixty-two years he’d never been a target of abuse. All because of those damn interviews that he didn’t want to do in the first place. So some of his anger he directed back at himself. And he wondered how long it would be before the online hatred would spill out onto his neighbors, how long before the Ladies of Charity snubbed Mim, how long before he was no longer welcome in the firehouse. Because that’s what mobs do. That next Sunday Father DiPalma was waiting outside the church for Max and Mim. He escorted them to a pew in front and at Communion he brought wine and wafers to them while the assistant priest handled the rest of the congregation. His sermon was from James 4:11, “Speak not evil one of another, brethren.” It was clear to everyone in the congregation that Father DiPalma was addressing the attacks on Max. But everyone in the congregation knew that Facebook and Twitter were more powerful than the Book of James. Nobody in the congregation spoke to Max and Mim when the service was over. Max recognized faces of people he’d helped out of smashed Toyotas, people he’d driven to the hospital in cardiac arrest, people he’d helped at the worst moments of their lives. All those faces averted, shamed and shaming. Max and Mim made their way slowly out of church, heads held high. Father DiPalma walked out front in his white and gold vestments with them and waited with Max while Mim brought her car around. “Don’t judge them too harshly,” he said.
“These days everyone believes the worst of everyone. It seems to be baked into the social media. An internet of misanthropy. They’re only doing what they know how to do.” “Doesn’t it make you despair?” Max said. Father DiPalma smiled weakly. “The Lord may be our Shepherd, Max, but people aren’t flocks of sheep. They’re packs of hyenas. In Iraq I saw men killing children and children killing men. I saw women stone other women to death. I believe it is a consequence of the Fall, of Original Sin. But it’s God’s love that is the way towards a better world, towards better men and women.” Max shook his head. Father DiPalma shook his hand. On the short ride home in Mim’s Cadillac he had to turn the radio off after “Teen Angel” came up on the Classic Rock station. Max thought about how far he was from the example Father DiPalma set, committed to wrestling the Devil, committed to turning hyenas into sheep. It was humbling. The following day, feeling stronger, Max insisted on accompanying Mim to the CVS to pick up a refill of his antibiotics. Bending over his walker, Max pushed his way through the double doors. Immediately he felt uncomfortable. He felt the eyes of shoppers staring at them. There was no usual welcome greeting from the clerks at the registers up front. The people ahead of them and behind them in line ignored them. The pharmacy clerk barely acknowledged Max when he reached the counter. He didn’t reply to Max’s greeting. No “Glad to see you up” or “Hope you feel better” or any of the usual platitudes one expects from someone you’d known for years. The clerk didn’t meet Max’s eyes once as he retrieved the prescription and handed it to Max and took the five dollar bill in payment. Instead, he looked past Max to the next customer in line. Max felt a flash of embarrassment, then anger. Real anger. It took an effort of will for him to clamp his jaws shut and turn away clutching his prescriptions. On the way home Max stared stonily out the windshield. Mim was tactfully silent. As was her car radio. A voicemail notification from the firehouse was waiting at home. Max called. After a moment’s pleasantries the Chief said, “We’ve been receiving tons of angry
email here, you know, about you collecting those car crash songs. And some lawyer letters. A lawsuit filed by the family of the guy who died in the accident where you were hurt. Trying to help him.” Max said nothing. The Chief said, “So. Uh. Well, the town attorney said we need to let you go. I know that’s not fair and I don’t like it. But. You understand. With your mobility issues and your spine—I’m afraid I’m going to have to remove you from the roster. But understand. Every man and woman, the whole department, we’re all behind you, Max.” Max said not a word. He simply hung up. Mim looked across the countertop at him with tears in her eyes. “I’m so sorry, Max,” she said. “After all these years—.” “Glad to know ‘they’re all behind me’,” he said. “But he’s right. What use can I be to them now that I need this to get around?” He nodded at the walker next to him. Letters and cards continued to fill their mailbox. Each one reported a gruesome accident and accompanying car crash song. Each one was a record of someone’s last minutes of life. Each one felt like a threat of what would happen to him. Nevertheless, thinking of Father DiPalma, Max prayed daily for the souls of all the victims. Cars cruised slowly past their house at all hours, people leaning out to take pictures as if their white colonial was an exotic artifact. One morning a black Dodge Challenger paraded back and forth in front of their house with “The Ballad of Thunder Road” blasting from its sound system, the bass notes shaking the house’s windows. It went on for at least ten minutes. Long enough for the neighbors to call the police. Max felt like he and Mim were prisoners in their own home. It was finally clear to Max that the curse was anything but mystical. The curse was people. The hyenas had cut him and Mim out of the herd and they were circling for the kill. His thought was interrupted by the phone ringing. It was the boss. “Max,” he said. “How’s it going? Coming along? Of course you are.”
“Bill,” Max said. “I was just thinking I could start working from home. I can sit at the computer for at least half a day now.” Bill said, “Glad to hear you’re feeling better, Max. But. Uh. About corporate. There’s been a lot of complaints about you to corporate and, well, the word came down. They want you out. I told them they couldn’t do that to me. I mean, they couldn’t do that to you. So I got them to agree that you can retire on disability. Since your injuries are so severe and it isn’t clear when—or if—you can come back to work. So they’ve emailed a link to their system. You just click on it and fill out the form.” “But I can come back to work, Bill,” Max said. If they insisted that he come to the office Mim could drive him. It would be rough but he could do it. “I’m sorry, Max. I truly am. But that ain’t going to happen. Take the retirement. You’ve earned it. Heck, you’re almost old enough for Medicare anyways. And you can start to collect Social Security in a couple of years.” Max was stunned. He’d never thought about retirement, not even as his birthdays piled up. “Max? Are you there?” He was so disposable that the accusations of unknown people who didn’t even know him were destroying his life. No matter how hard he fought, no matter what he did or said to defend himself, his reputation would be stained for the rest of his life. “Yes I’m here,” Max said. He could fight this. Hire a lawyer. Or he could just retire and let it all go. The people his EMT crew protected? His colleagues in the office? Even the folks in the pews on Sundays, let them all fend for themselves. He didn’t need to look after anyone except Mim and the children. And the children were grown and on their own. In fact, he could be retired right now. His laptop was open and the browser was displaying the incoming email from Corporate already. It was the work of a handful of keystrokes between words on the phone for him to became a retiree. “Good bye, Bill and good luck.” Max hung up on his former boss. Then Max stared at the piles of letters covering the table, spilling on the floor and stacked on the grate in the fireplace. Memorials to the dead from around the world. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to throw them out or to delete the
spreadsheet because that felt like killing the crash victims a second time. But now the piles and the spreadsheet felt like a crown of nettles digging into his head, each death a thorn jabbed into his brain. Mim came into the room and watched, confused, as he gathered up the piles of paper and tottered across the floor to toss everything into the fireplace along with the newspaper issues of the Record and the Post about him. “Max, what are you doing?” “They just fired me,” he said, “Calls to corporate from the same ones responsible for all the hate mail. All those accusations. Corporate doesn’t care if it’s true or not. All they care about is the hit on their brand.” “What? Can they do that?” “Of course they can,” he said, arms full, struggling from dining room to living room without his walker. “Oh, I’m not ‘fired.’ I ‘retired.’” Forms were on the corporate website. So I filed. Just like that. Selfish, I know.” “Max, you’re walking without support,” Mim said. He stopped beside the living room sofa, swaying the slightest bit. Damn. So he was. He watched as she collected the remaining mail and loaded it into the fireplace. When she moved aside he set a match to them. It was a funeral pyre for all the dead. With the money from their canceled anniversary cruise they could fly down to Florida for a couple of weeks. Soon as his back healed a little more. Mim said something about real nice condos in Florida somewhere. Panama City. And if you paid a little more you could buy one with a view of the water. Just like here. One thing left to do, though. Max pushed himself up, threaded his way to the dining room. She watched over his shoulder as he pulled up its file manager. It was the work of a minute to permanently delete all copies of the spreadsheet of car crash songs. Not just delete, every single one and zero wiped and recycled. Cloud backup, too. As if it had never existed. The job done, he snapped the cover shut. And realized that he hadn’t heard The Ballad of Thunder Road inside his head all day. He was free. He didn’t have to do anything other than look into Mim’s steel blue eyes. He loved those eyes. “So what about the curse?” Mim said, nodding her head at the laptop.
Max laughed. “Forget all that. The curse is people thinking the worst of everyone else. Our good neighbors at All Saints will continue to avoid us and the Ladies of Charity will cluck their tongues and pity poor you. You said something about Panama City a while back, didn’t you?” “I did. Panama City Beach,” Mim said. “You know, people are going to be the same down there as they are here.” He nodded. “But it’s all about us now, isn’t it. Not this place, not these people.” She would miss the children and the grandchildren. But they could come down and visit. “I’m sure there’s a Florida song we could make ours,” she said. He grinned and tapped the closed laptop. “I can build a spreadsheet.” Peter Alterman
The Freelance Geographer for Don Bivens
I would sort the world into its people: The betrayers and the betrayed. The loved and the unremembered. But geography seeks higher truths than these. Mere naming of places is not geography. Knowing the heart in those names and the lines drawn across lives serves the geographer of dreams. I have driven the blue, red, and black, shifted gears up and down the contours, ridden across bridges over blue inkings, and stopped to address a myriad of the names. Compare, generalize, ascend to higher ways of seeing the land and what you have done to it and each other by retiring to a monasteried bungalow. Trace the laws of our nature with a hand that grows unsteady as second lives eat away the purpose of time. Mark the influences of hunger. Geography is a word, an argument, a trial of life against inevitabilities debated in totems and yellowed letters, denied in a morning cup of black coffee. I am a sorter of years and names, asking reasons, causes, effects here in my solitary silence, breathing through red lips and ghost-white beard. I am a namer of more than mere places. She walked away without my name. He stopped writing sermons or praying. There is good in being the first to die. David Anthony Sam David Anthony Sam lives in Virginia with his wife, Linda. In addition to over ninety previous publications, his sixth collection, Dark Fathers, is forthcoming in 2020. Sam teaches creative writing at Germanna Community College and serves as Regional Vice President of the Virginia Poetry Society.
With All the Restlessness of Storm Clouds
The Dangerous Coast Through the blackness Liam Rector sees a miniature screen pulsating brightly in the distance. He stretches out to the nightstand and paws for the buzzing object like an animal, jostling his water glass and the sports section of yesterday’s newspaper. Whenever he gets a call at this time of night -- or morning, whichever it actually is –he has to make the automatic assumption that it’s the department calling, that there’s an emergency somewhere in the township and that he’s needed on the scene. A bleating phone in the darkness is one of the common hazards of being a volunteer firefighter. But the voice on the other end isn’t a dispatcher –- it belongs to his ex-wife. Melissa’s voice isn’t one he particularly wants to hear, especially at this hour. Did you get word? Word. . .? About what? Luke is missing. Luke -- their son, their only child. He’s overseas, in Africa, on a study abroad program for his junior year of college. What are you talking about? I just got a call from someone, I don’t even know who it was. I thought maybe you’d heard something too. You sure about this? You sure it wasn’t just someone pulling your leg for some sick reason? Liam’s tongue is so swollen with sleep he hardly knows what he’s saying. The two beers he had at dinner last evening don’t help. No. No joke. The American consulate’s been notified. The consulate. . ..What the hell’s going on? It must be something like kidnapping or terrorism, he thinks. What a fucked-up world. By now he’s out of bed and, without realizing it, pulling his clothes on. There will be no more sleep tonight. It would have been much better had there been a fire.
In the background, Laura, Melissa’s successor and his second wife, stirs beneath the sheets. She’s by nature a heavy sleeper and has trained herself not to come all the way awake when her husband is summoned to a blaze. In the meantime, his ex-wife is still talking, telling him a story. He’d travelled with a group of classmates to somewhere called the Dangerous Coast. I’ve never heard of the place. It was night, they all decided to go for a swim, and. . . . Were they drinking? He’s warned Luke about booze and dope. I have no idea -- does it matter? None of it makes sense. He switches on a standing lamp. Missing, he mumbles. He is irritated and confused. The nerves on the inside of his skull pound erratically. What is it, honey? He waves his hand at Laura and moves to the small terrace on the other side of the sliding glass doors, which have been left partly open to let in the balmy late summer breeze. An oversized, yellowish full moon is drizzling fuzzy rays over the earth. Here and there some of his neighbors’ lights are burning. Drowsily he takes in more of what happened from Melissa. Luke, on a break from the university, had gone for a weekend of sightseeing to a remote stretch of the East African shore. Around midnight, his boy, a co-captain of the university swim team and a strapping six-four, apparently led a charge into the surf, but within seconds something went wrong and his companions lost sight of him. Instead of swimming to his aid, they’d gone back to the lodge for help. By the time they returned, the weather had turned foul, and the local authorities were powerless to launch a search. Christ Almighty. So now what? Melissa’s voice, normally so cool and detached when it comes to her exhusband, begins to crack. I’m not sure. It’s not altogether clear. What do you mean? How could she possibly not get all of the vital details, and get them straight, when the subject is their missing child? At that moment all the sore issues that fatally eroded their relationship crowd into his brain. Tonight, rather than nurse resentments, he needs them to ebb quickly away.
Unconsciously his fingers wrap around the iron railing of the terrace. He feels unmoored. He and his ex-wife go on exchanging words, but everything around him feels more and more unreal: the ominous darkness of the Rhode Island night, that fat, lurching moon, the indistinct and somehow threatening black clouds scudding across the sky. It’s as if some long-feared curse, the fear of anyone who calls himself a father, has descended upon him out of the blue, and he’s suddenly afraid that he’ll never be able to shake it off, no matter how long he lives –- and Liam Rector isn’t the type to believe in curses. But what is he thinking? Maybe Luke isn’t dead. Maybe he’s alive, somehow alive and clinging to a rock or a board or God knows what, and it’s only a matter of finding him out there in the waves. Something has to be done, and at once. All right, he says. We’d better get over there on the double. ~~~ At the eleventh hour, a decision is made that Melissa won’t go to Africa after all. The money for her travel -- money they don’t have -- would be best deployed by paying the professionals over there who know what to do. And there’s no time to discuss it. One very long flight later, Liam and a few of his firefighter brethren arrive on a remote stretch of coast on the Indian Ocean, where he never dreamed he would find himself and has no desire to be. Peering out over the choppy waves, his heart sinks. It’s going to be impossible to find the kid out there, what with the wind howling and the rain pounding down in buckets. If Luke were standing next to him, he’d give him hell for even thinking of venturing into the water at night. But it’s too late for that now. There’s only time for a pathetic prayer for a miracle that he already knows won’t be answered. . . . The next day the pilot of the private helicopter he’s commissioned for the reconnaissance locates Luke’s waterlogged corpse drifting in the blue current three kilometers to the south of the lodge. The sharks haven’t devoured him after all. The body is hoisted in just as the inclement weather breaks. Liam stands alone on the bleached sand and looks out to the impassive sea, which has turned
inexplicably placid, as if nothing terrible could ever happen in its harmless depths. Death in such an Edenic spot doesn’t add up at all. In a few minutes he’ll phone Laura, then his ex-wife, and inform them of the sad outcome of his journey, but for now all he can do is look out over a world that is devoid of meaning despite the bludgeon of its beauty. ~~~ Back in America, Liam remains trapped in a daze. There is an interment at the local cemetery, and a memorial service that hundreds attend, including Luke’s fraternity brothers, who’ve come up by bus from Virginia for the occasion. After all of the gestures and ceremonies are finished, there’s a full stop -nothing. But for Liam and his ex-wife, Melissa, it isn’t over. There are still practical matters to wrap up, and even for a life cut so short, a life that didn’t have all that much time allotted to it -- he was just shy of twenty when he drowned -- there seems to be so much unfinished business. The ex-spouses decide to meet without anyone else present -- no Laura, and no Brian, Melissa’s second husband. Neither would object to being on hand, but under the circumstances both are understanding. As Liam puts it, it really isn’t their business, and whatever needs to be dealt with should be handled by Luke’s biological parents. Their first meeting happens at a Starbucks in a strip mall on the southern edge of Blackington. After some of the practicalities -- what to do with Luke’s clothes, funeral and travel invoices, etc. –- have been discussed, Laura folds her handwritten list and deposits it in her jacket. But neither she nor her ex makes a move to leave. Right, says Liam as he looks through the window and across the street, a street he realizes his son will never walk again. He and Luke stopped here occasionally for fancy drinks when the boy was in high school and when he came home on breaks from college. It’s beyond devastating that they’ll never share the simple experience again. So. . . tell me what it was like. His ex-wife’s voice is like a spear piercing a window made of gauze. Until this moment they’d never talked about Liam’s doomed trip to Africa.
Well, you can probably imagine, he mumbles, his head sinking between his shoulders. He wants to talk about it and at the same time he doesn’t. But he knows that he owes Luke’s mother at least something. Now I’m sorry I wasn’t there. God. I think about it all the time. Sometimes I even dream about it, like I know what it looks like or something. What is he supposed to say? Is he supposed to sympathize? Is he supposed to forgive her? This is when Liam comes face to face with the understanding that Luke’s death is always going to be there between them, like a monster that refuses to retreat, that even though he was their creation in life, his presence will be even stronger in death. Melissa’s chocolate-brown eyes are glazed with pain. I keep thinking about what happened out there in the water -- I can’t get it out of my mind. . . . Of course he gets it. And yet there are all those issues between them, issues he still can’t manage to sweep aside, the thorny after-effects of the long deterioration of a relationship. But his energy, his will, to hold onto them is beginning to flag. . . .and what went wrong -- and what he was thinking at the last moment. Did he call my name. . . ? She begins to dissolve. Liam looks away. What was going through Luke’s mind in those terrible final moments? Was he drunk? Maybe all the better, maybe it would have made death easier, less terrifying. He never got the chance to talk to the others who’d been there with him –- they were long gone back to the university in Johannesburg by the time he arrived on the Dangerous Coast and had already given their statements to the police. Yeah. I think about it all the time too. Melissa nods. Nevertheless, he still has this wild urge to blame his ex-wife for what happened, even if he knows it’s absurd. Suddenly he gets up. I have to go. Laura wants me to pick up a few things from the supermarket. This intrusion of another reality -– a lie, but it’s beside the point –- breaks a slowly gathering spell that he doesn’t want to succumb to.
The ex-spouses agree that they’ll have to meet again, because there are still matters to be settled. Liam sweeps up his empty cup. He can feel Melissa’s dead eyes on him as he drops it in the trashcan and walks out to his car. ~~~ She had been the first to find someone else. The marriage was over, Liam had moved into a spartan studio apartment on the outskirts of Blackington, and within months Melissa was seeing Brian Wykowski, who ran a lucrative landscaping business in the eastern part of the county. Everything had happened so quickly. At the time Melissa was thankful. The divorce had been relatively amicable, and within just a few years she spawned another family, Luke’s two half-sisters, Morgan and Penelope. Since everyone lived in close proximity, visitation, shared custody, schools, and so on were a snap. Liam and Melissa had decided, in the interest of Luke, to keep it all as civil as possible. The fact that as far as each of them knew there had been no infidelity in the marriage -- merely incompatibility and boredom -- had helped. Afterwards Luke grew very close to his father. It wasn’t that he had any animosity towards his mother; it was more that she’d naturally become preoccupied with her new husband and children, and whether or not she fully realized it, she had stolen time away from him, her eldest. Melissa told herself that it was the best of all possible worlds and that it would all somehow work out. For several years it did. ~~~ But back then she could never have dreamed of the guilt she was bound to feel after Luke died. Overnight, something inside of her has crumbled. Climbing out of bed every day has become a struggle. There are young children to tend to, as well as her job as a real estate agent, but it all seems to have become pointless. Her pain is unrelenting. What she can’t stop obsessing over is that Luke’s tragic death is somehow her fault, though she understands on a rational level that it’s preposterous -- she wasn’t in Africa and could have done nothing to prevent what happened. But maybe, she thinks, had she done something different when he was a child, had she paid more attention, had she kept him with her instead of letting him go and live with his father. . .
To her credit though, Melissa doesn’t crack completely, she convinces herself that she will refuse to fall prey to her gloom, and she isn’t about to commit suicide. On the other hand, she doesn’t know how she’s supposed to live. In the evenings, after her husband turns in, she jumps online and over and over watches the tribute that Luke’s high school friends assembled for his memorial service. As image after image of her perfect, handsome, smiling, dead son roll by, accompanied by the rollicking track by a progressive rock band she doesn’t know the name of, she breaks down all over again and accuses herself of not deserving to be a mother since she was unable to save her boy from a lethal African current. ~~~ The only thing that interests Melissa now is seeing her ex-husband. I wanted to give you this. I thought you should have it. Liam hands his ex-wife a bracelet made of royal blue cord tied into multiple knots. After convening at a few different spots over the past several weeks, they’re back at Starbucks. It’s late on a Tuesday afternoon. The place is nearly empty except for a few oblivious high school students whose books and backpacks are scattered around the legs of their tables and chairs. Melissa recognizes the bracelet. Her son had the habit of wearing those funny things, sometimes in bunches. She’s seen them on other kids too -- it’s a teenager’s thing, a cool bauble. I figured you probably didn’t have one. Thanks -- I didn’t. He left a few at the house before he took off for Africa. You’re lucky, answers Melissa. You’re so lucky that. . . Am I, says her ex-husband. Well, I don’t mean lucky in. . . in that way. Liam is weary. For the first time, he’s devoid of the antagonism that he’s so often harbored towards his ex-wife. Part of it is that he can no longer be too angry or resentful at someone who is so thoroughly broken -- and Melissa, he knows without
doubt, is as broken as he is. Another part is something else. . .something he doesn’t have words for. Because the why of it all has come to haunt him. Just look at those kids over there: aside from the petty cares of a school assignment or what to wear to a party, they don’t realize how fortunate they are. They’re alive -- inexplicably alive, while his own son, a raw gem of a human being, is dead, drowned at night in a godforsaken corner of the world. Did you ever find out why he wore this thing? No. Did you ever ask? No. Neither did I. We fell down on the job, didn’t we? I guess you could say that. Maybe he wouldn’t have wanted us to know. Maybe that, too. ~~~ It’s more than a regular thing between them now. Hardly a week goes by without Liam and Melissa coming together, mostly at coffee bars over beverages neither of them remember drinking by the time they leave. The arrangements for the next time are fixed with merely a word or two. Wednesday? Okay. At three? Make it three-fifteen. It’s as if they’ve begun an illicit relationship -– an affair even, except that what’s drawn them together is so electric, so explosive, that the thought of physical contact is nearly abhorrent. And yet something definite, something nearly palpable and unmistakable, has sprung up between them again. ~~~
And if you had to do it over again, Melissa says one afternoon near the end of the following summer. She’s just returned from a family vacation on Cape Cod, and she and her ex-husband haven’t seen each other in over two weeks. If I had to do what over again? I mean, was all of this. . . this pain -- worth it? Liam shakes his head. His eyelids drop like curtains. You could say that it would have been better if we never seen each other even once in our lives, right? Wouldn’t we have to say that, honestly? He is merciless. He has to be. At this stage there is no room for equivocation. A wan smile plays over Melissa’s still-attractive features. Her fingers encircle the tall white coffee cup. The sight of a foreign engagement ring and wedding band suddenly strikes Liam as surreal. It was so strange at the Cape. Being surrounded by the sea, I mean. Every time I looked at it even for a second, and I could hardly avoid it, it was almost more than I could bear. I had to wonder what I’d been thinking, going up there. If I thought I was getting away. . . This is something else he understands. Even though Blackington is close by the Atlantic, he does his best to stay away. Maybe next time you should head in the opposite direction -- to the mountains or something, he suggests feebly. How can you avoid the sea? Is it really possible to avoid it forever? ~~~ Near the end of October they convene after lunchtime at the municipal park not far from Liam’s condo. The air is crisp and cool, a harbinger of what’s to come. Once in a while a jogger or dog-walker passes the bench where they sit, otherwise the park is deserted. Melissa sighs. He would have been twenty-one today. Do you think I didn’t know? Two whole years have passed. A scab has begun to harden over the gaping wound caused by Luke’s death. Every day is no longer unalloyed torture, hours of prolonged agony. Moments, yes, but it’s not what it was before.
You wonder what he would have become. Or decided to become. Well, we know he loved Africa. Even if he knew what was going to happen, that probably wouldn’t have changed. As it is, he’s forever frozen in time at the age of nineteen. I’m curious whether he would have ended up in the foreign service, like he set out to do. Or if he would have changed his mind and gone over to the other side -- the Peace Corps, or something like that. . . . Who knows. Happy birthday, Luke, wherever you are. They sit motionlessly while a stiff, chilly breeze out of nowhere musses what leaves are left on the trees. What do you think. . . about where he is? I don’t know. I read an article recently that when you die, your spirit, or soul, or whatever it is, explodes into thousands of particles of energy and gets, like, absorbed into the atmosphere or something like that. Hm, grunts Liam. I think about this stuff all the time now. I never gave the afterlife that much thought before, only what they taught us in Catholic school. Meaning we’ll never see him again. What? If he exploded into millions of particles or whatever. We’ll never see him again. I hope that’s not the case, because -But it is true, he wants to add. Instead, he does something he hasn’t done for so long he can’t remember the last time: he reaches out for his ex-wife. She looks down at his hand, with its millions of blondish hairs like animal fur, and after a moment of disbelief, takes it and holds on. ~~~ Unusual clusters of thought make appearances in each of their brains: Melissa, without even noticing, begins to dissect what’s wrong with her marriage to Brian. It isn’t difficult to come up with at least a few things, because the shine always wears
off the apple. Moreover, there’s something almost primordially innocent about a first marriage, something that can never be replicated the second time around, even if the first was less than ideal. Against his better judgment, Liam begins to replay scenes from his sex life with Melissa, so intense at the beginning, so deeply satisfying, in fact, for years, until everything went sour over something he still doesn’t wholly understand. Maybe, if they’d hung in a while longer, if they’d both learned to forgive and forget and accept that staleness and arguments and impasses are part of every equation involving two people, the outcome would have been different. But would it have changed Luke’s destiny? Where can any of these speculations lead? Nowhere. Liam knows it. But a tragedy of such gargantuan dimensions produces an unbreakable bond, and that’s the problem. Like two people hanging on for dear life from a rope bridge spanning a bottomless chasm, he and Melissa are bound together forever in a way that no one on the outside can ever understand. The memory -- the trauma -- will prevent them from ever being rescued from each other. . . . None of it can adequately be put into words, which presents an enormous difficulty for Liam and Melissa: there’s no one to talk to but each other, and even then the communication is so often nothing but a pregnant silence. ~~~ It’s summer there now, he remarks just after the new year. Liam and Melissa have been driven back inside Starbucks by the harsh weather. The trees have long been stripped of their leaves and line the streets of Blackington like aging, emaciated scarecrows. Snow has already fallen twice, and the asphalt of the avenues has taken on a calcified sheen. Melissa understands what “there” means. She’s been thinking about “there” ever since that awful day, the day that changed everything forever, trying to picture it clearly in her mind, scanning images of the Dangerous Coast online, still dreaming of it at night. I need to go, she announces. You were there. It seems only right that I should make the trip too.
He has nothing to say to that, in the way one can’t argue against an indisputable fact. Will you come? Will you come with me? It’s a long, long way -- halfway around the globe. We’d be on the plane for twenty-four hours. What do you expect to come of it? I don’t know. But I need to go. . . .because it will only dredge up everything all over again. And maybe it’s best left -It’s already dredged up. It’s never been buried, not for a second. And why does something have to come of it? He waits a long time before answering. The new spouses back at home have long since figured out that something unusual has happened. Something like this, a trip to Africa, won’t help. I don’t know, he says. I really don’t know. It seems only right, doesn’t it? After all, we are his parents. He isn’t here anymore. At some point we have to face that. Sometimes I wonder if we really have. ~~~ It’s a pristine day when they arrive at the lodge on the Dangerous Coast. After checking in, they make their way outside, kick off their shoes, and Liam leads the way to the spot on the beach where he himself stood two years earlier searching in vain for traces of his missing son. Here? asks Melissa. Is this where it happened? Right about here. All around are scenes of almost indescribable beauty, as if they’ve landed on another, perfect planet. There are wide swaths of green, the cliffs and hills are imposing and majestic, and even though she’s not much of a traveler, Melissa questions why she’d never thought to come here before Luke died, simply because there are such places in the world. . . . Down the beach a pair of massive cows rest on their forelegs, like beachgoers sunning themselves. After a slow gander in the humans’ direction, they turn away, as if they’re tired of being stared at.
And the sea, that indifferent giant that swallowed Luke alive, murdered him, is blue and tranquil. It still seems impossible that what lies beneath the gently soughing waves could have done something so brutal, so irreversible. Well, now you’ve seen it. You’re here. On account of the heat they can’t stay in the sun forever. But before Liam has the chance to suggest that they leave, Melissa drops onto her haunches and pulls her hood over her head like a nun in prayer. She flattens her hand over her brow and peers at the glittering water. Why is she doing that, Liam wants to know. Is she waiting for him to rise from the depths and swim back to land? He feels a pang of annoyance towards his ex-wife, but it quickly dies away. What do you want to do? I’m going to stay. I know it’s crazy, but I feel close to him here. After a while Liam too lowers himself to the sand and drapes his arm over her shoulders. It doesn’t sound crazy. It doesn’t sound crazy at all. And they stay like that, without speaking, until the sun itself disappears behind them. Mark SaFranko Mark SaFranko is a writer of short fiction, novels, plays and music, as well as an independent film actor. Novels include Hating Olivia and No Strings. Recent short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
(Marx) My Son Pointed at the Tombstones and Said “Is it called a cementery because those are made of ‘cement’?” I told him it’s called a cemetery. He asked what “cemetery” means. So I looked up the etymology and told him the word means “to put to sleep.” He pointed at the ground and said, “Are the people down there sleeping?” I said yes. He asked when they were going to wake up. I said that they don’t have to go to work anymore, so they can sleep forever now. My son thought about that and then he said, “Do any of them decide that they’d rather go back to work?” I said, “Yes, and those are called zombies.” My wife swatted my shoulder. A few months later a zombie movie came on TV and my son said, “Look at all the workers!” Ron Riekki Ron Riekki is the author of My Ancestors are Reindeer Herders and I Am Melting in Extinction, U.P.: a novel, and Posttraumatic: A Memoir.
Utqiagvik -- Arctic Education Just like the native name “Denali” has replaced the Anglo name of Mount McKinley for that magnificent pluton, Utqiagvik has replaced the town name of Barrow in this remote Iñupiat village, accessible only by boat or plane. My friend and I had flown with an educational tour group to this northern-most point in the US to learn a bit about native Alaskan culture on the north slope at the Beaufort Sea. After browsing through the town’s museum with fascinating carvings of whale bone, walrus tusk and baleen, Iñupiat masks and baskets, and indigenous whaling boats, we needed to get outside, get some air, despite the grey and drizzle. The two of us walked across the unpaved street -- as were all the streets in town -- to the local grocery store, curious about food prices in a place with no roads leading to it. Groceries and all supplies were either flown in, or arrived by barge that crash-landed on a frigid, gravelly beach, no port nor docking facilities here. The Alaska Grocery Company looked like most medium-sized grocery stores: long aisles packed with boxes of cereal, stacks of canned goods, and piles of fresh produce. Despite the town’s access challenges, the residents had plenty to eat. After strolling the aisles looking for snacks -- finding nuts, cookies and chips -- we parked ourselves in a couple of chairs in the store’s vestibule, at a plastic utility table that might have been used earlier in the day for school sign-ups or a community event. We sat for a while, munching our snacks, watching locals go in empty-handed and out with bags full of groceries. Then, a man wandered over to where we sat. “How much do you want for this table?” the Iñupiat man asked us. Sensing a bit of humor in his question, I replied: “50 bucks. . . but we’ll donate it to the school.” He smiled, asked where we were from and then launched into a tale of his childhood, of how the native children attended BIA schools where the goal was to assimilate them into white culture. With great emotion, he told us of being punished for speaking his native language.
“But many of the kids didn’t speak English,” he explained, “so I was translating for them, and then I would be sent off to the principal’s office to be punished.” He didn’t elaborate on what the punishment was, but the injustice of it and the persistence of the pain it caused him sounded in his voice. He seemed grateful to have someone to tell his tale to. The story of his youth continued until our tour leader stepped into the vestibule and signaled that it was time to leave to resume the tour of the town. We left the grocery store with much more than our snacks. Susan Canale Susan Canale spent her adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area, retired and moved to Asheville, North Carolina seven years ago. Earning her living through numbers but always expressing her passion through art, she now finds endless creative possibilities in crafting words.
Survivor Imagine there’s a girl Who’s in a party dress, her world An empty street. It’s all of her existence: Unframed, unlimited. There's a sense It’s late in the afternoon, those skinny shadows Falling from her legs and stop sign. But who knows? It could be early morning. Let’s zoom in for a closer view: The storefront grates are down, except for two: A rug place and a liquor store—which must be open, otherwise They'd be shut tight. Her downcast eyes Stare at the ground. You feel That time has paused, or started to congeal. On the curb, a crumpled pack Of cigarettes will never get picked up; in a window, a stack Of jumbled carpets, like an octopus, Reaches out for her. It’s either them or us. Like a horror movie, everything is frozen into place. The girl? The lone survivor of the human race. Gary Duehr Gary Duehr has taught poetry and writing at Boston University, Lesley University, and Tufts University. His MFA is from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop.
Spring 3 800
Up North He’d come to Northern Michigan, and the lake gulls were shrieking at him. He’d been on vacation only two days, but he sat around the cabin, springing up now and then to go to the window and back. It was too chilly to go out onto the beach. The sky looked like rumpled tinfoil, and the wind was strong and cold. Lake Superior came rolling up to the beach with thundering splashes. He would go to the door, then return and slump by the fire. I also heard him last night, walking around upstairs, mumbling swear words in the darkness. This morning he fidgeted around the cabin for an hour, not eating anything. “Demon,” he said. “No, that’s not it.” Lucy, my sister, had wrapped a blanket around her. She shivered and looked out the window. “Demeanor,” our father said. He laughed quickly and without humor, “No, that’s not the word.” “Don’t worry about it, Dad,” I said. “The word isn’t important.” Lucy said, “Dad, I can tell you the word.” “No, no,” our father said. He held up his hand. “I’ve almost got it.” “Demeanor,” he said. He shook his head. We first noticed it last year when we drove up here. We stopped at a gas station. He put his wallet on the roof of the car while he filled the tank. Later, he said, “It was the credit card.” The words on the gas pump flustered him—remove card rapidly. We drove off with the wallet still on the roof. We didn’t discover the loss until we arrived here three hours later. “Debilitate,” he says. “Dyslexia.” “Dad, cut it out,” Lucy says, “you’re making us crazy.” “Crazy,” he says. The waves sweep along the shore.
“Dementia!” he says suddenly. “That’s it! Dementia. That’s the word the doctor used. Comes just before Alzheimer’s. Remember? Do you remember?” “Dad,” I say, “don’t worry. The doctor said it could be a long way off. It doesn’t happen right away.” Our father straightens himself before the window, watching the waves. “A long way off,” he says. He says, “Please keep helping me to remember. . . help me to keep remembering. . . the word.” Dick Bentley Richard Bentley graduated from Yale and earned an MFA from Vermont College. He is an awardwinning author of fiction, poetry, and memoir.
The Old Woman on the Bus She is a character study of how old I could get if I just stopped smoking and drinking and got a good night’s sleep every once in a while, the old lady smiles at me from across the near-empty bus tells me she’s having another good day, I say I’m happy for her, her skin is so soft and pale it could have been manufactured at a factory that made tissue paper and stuffed it into perfectly square boxes covered with watercolors of purple spring flowers or wild roses. Holly Day Holly Day’s poetry has recently appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Grain, and The Tampa Review. Her newest poetry collection is In This Place, She Is Her Own.
This Guy I Saw Sitting in a Car He was parked in the lot at Thriftyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Drug buck naked save for A big white cowboy hat and a pair of dark sunglasses he was Holding onto his erect penis and grinning proudly and happily like his penis Was a prize he had won as a bowling trophy or at a carnival ring-toss Or like it was something a teacher had given him for being A real good boy in school instead of a gold star or one of those Phony certificates of accomplishments that can be traded in For a cheeseburger at McDonaldâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s with the purchase of a Large drink. Holly Day
The Knocking She wrapped a sandwich in paper towel and passed it to me where I waited at the door as she’d required. Wait here, she said. Said it through the screen, narrowing her gaze, sizing my purpose, leaving the latch bolted. I stood and studied the starlings swooping in and out of the hayloft. Listened to the cattle calling and answering in the pasture behind the barn. Pet the dog, a gray-shag mutt who cowered and flinched if I clenched a fist. She’d buttered the bread, sliced it thick and crusty. Ham and pickle. I walked back to the roadside and sat in the thistles, feasting. Had to hold on, both hands, bite and tear at it like a badger, like a wolverine. Didn’t entirely savor looking dangerous, didn’t mind it either. When is anything just this, just that? Here’s milk, she called out. She’d set a jar on a tree stump halfway between us. Fine hairs on my neck divined she was close by. Before I could turn, she was headed home to her pots and pans and knives, the gray dog trotting beside her, glancing back. Lowell Jaeger Lowell Jaeger's most recent collection is entitled Earth-blood & Star-shine. Recently Jaeger was awarded the Montana Governor’s Humanities Award for his work in promoting thoughtful civic discourse.
Christina’s World Ultimately, says a friend, each of us is alone. She says it standing beside me, both of us paused on the canyon’s rim, staring at what we’d trekked here to see -the mud-froth torrent churning far below, grain by grain nibbling through rock, deeper toward the Earth’s core. She’s lost her mate recently to one of those man-eating multi-syllable synonyms for mayhem worming its way bite by bite into the brain. Forgive me, she says, for my morbid mood, but you know what I mean. A bothersome ache one morning, a twitch, a numbness. Say goodbye to steak, goodbye martinis. Goodbye walking in the garden, goodbye walking anywhere. Goodbye to dressing yourself. Goodbye speech, goodbye even to guessing whatever there was once to say. She doesn’t speak all this, but we both can hear it nearby, in the river grinding its way onward. We can hear it in our footsteps. And in the trail unwinding, descending. And in the wind under the black wings of a raven wafting by. Lowell Jaeger
Life Review. . . Fragmented with lines borrowed from and inspired by the poem Everything You Touch by Charles Bukowski
putting on your tweed suit, stud earrings, panty hose and close-toed navy blue heels with a string-tie laced up in a bow under the collar around your neck itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s time to leave your low-income-housing condo recently built in the preppy New England suburb where you live (the Townâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s token tolerance for the less-fortunate) you and your secretarial soul driving to the prep school against rush-hour traffic soon to be sitting in the weekly early morning faculty meeting taking the minutes. . . the only staff member among the (they thought they were) elite faculty most of whom only looked through you each with the runs variations on a basic theme spouting forth their relentless, repetitive agendas every week the same songs (incessantly dripping on your foreheadâ&#x20AC;Śnever-ending) and so enamored at the sound of their own voices and you -- overwrought having left one of your latchkey children home alone with a fever or years earlier in Kyoto coming inside after hanging out the laundry to dry and weeding the garden (and watching the bamboo trees grow) to sweep out the sandy genkan and on up the stairs to hang out the futons from each bedroom window to be sanitized and freshened by the sweltering sun you were never any good at choosing your partners the misogynists, womanizers, bullies, compulsive spenders, and drug addicts
maybe you were all meant for each other in some crazy karmic scheme one summer back in that New England town when your children were visiting their father you went out to listen to Dixieland jazz and found other losers looking for love in the haze of Malbec or Sam Adams (one, it turns out, was a pedophile another, the husband of your sister) and then there was a day at work years later in the Manhattan meat-packing district where transvestite hookers ate breakfast at a table next to you at a diner where you killed some time before the office opened up (they didn’t even give you a key) once again trapped in this case where your new boss hired you to re-vamp the office only to discover his wife wanted the opposite in the meantime, you had relocated to this Mom and Pop situation where the wife wouldn’t allow a modern phone system but rather insisted on an out-dated push-button setup with cables and phone jacks (and with only two repairmen left in the entire City who knew how to repair these unfortunate fossils) here it was in the early 2000s the books kept in ledgers by hand and not being allowed to update the computer system -(see Jane hired under false pretenses) your life from one debacle to the next you did it to yourself though you did it to everything you touched. Jane Hallowell Jane Hallowell grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, and graduated from UMass/ Amherst. She has been a teacher of English, piano, and yoga. Her first book of poetry, My Take, was recently published, and a second illustrated children’s book of poetry, Raccoon Platoon and Friends, is also available. Now retired, she lives in Texas Hill Country, where she volunteers for Hospice.
Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine issue #12
spring/summer 2020 staff
fiction Bruce Spang, editor Susan Coyle Gail Hipkins non-fiction Susan Coyle, editor Steve Wechselblatt Larry Hamilton poetry John Himmelheber Pete Solet Bruce Spang art & photography Terry Johnson, editor editor-in-chief John Himmelheber