Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine
Issue # 15 Fall/Winter 2021 www.sblaam.com
Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine issue #15
fall/winter, 2021 fiction
Not Too Sharp
Marcella Peralta Simon
Taking the Jump
My 40-Year-Old Daughter Says I'm Boy Crazy
Mary E Croy
Richard Dinges Jr
Milton P Ehrlich
A Tragedy Not a Battle
A Fishing Lesson
Karla Linn Merrifield
The Fourteen Stations of Grief
Sharon Lopez Mooney
When your beloved dies
Where Birds Never Sing
[untitled] "One cup kept. . . "
[untitled] "From behind the. . . "
A Crimson Mumu
David Anthony Sam
The Burning Time
Haze Hangs the Mountains
Tea Without Cakes
Marcella Peralta Simon
Aaron Robert Sims
A Day at the Lake
Ornamental Giraffe Placement
Enmeshed in a Net of Enigmatic Mirrors
cover: Summer's End (partial), by Deborah Levine-Donnerstein
Editor's Note As this issue goes online, we find ourselves still in a veritable storm of crises. COVID, Afghanistan, voting rights, environmental disasters—the list is long and, frankly, depressing. It does lead us to contemplate the purpose and function of art in a society. Certainly, reading an engaging story or viewing a fine painting can help soothe some of the rough days by allowing an escape. And sometimes, art will examine and give us a new perspective on the very things troubling us. In these pages, David Anthony Sam reflects on the environment and how "the earth is askew." But Milton Ehrlich sees hope in a "dark world." Susan Blank shows us how technology can sometimes help us relive youthful experiences. And in the oil paintings of Aaron Robert Sims, we see both the classic and the surreal. So as you delve into the offerings here, we hope they bring some perspective and some respite from the troubles of the world.
The Burning Time The blackened woods swirl in gray ash. An untruthful blue sky speaks a certain clarity. The heat of our being burns old redwood. These most ancient ones will live. They know the fire from millennia. But seedlings and all that was rooted and all that could not fly fast enough have been altered utterly. My forehead wears a false blessing, though it is a Wednesday. I write the ashes with my walking stick, using no language but silence. The soil has cooled. The winds have abated from the Santa Ana that stoked fires lit by a night of lightninged sky. In the valley, a river carries blackened detritus towards the Pacific. Fire has always been. Here, fire grows with the redwood, dies back and returns another season. But the earth is askew. The fires longer, hotter. And I have seen the face of the unnamed roaring in a fire tornado until I could not look more. My hands have washed themselves in gray ash.
My sweat runs black rivulets that unbless me. The blue sky is empty of any cloud or wing. And I hear the portents of the next burning from over an unknowable horizon. David Anthony Sam David Anthony Sam lives in Virginia with his wife and life partner, Linda. His poetry has appeared in over ninety journals. Published collections include Final Inventory; Finite to Fail: Poems after Dickinson; and Dark Fathers. He teaches creative writing at Germanna Community College, from where he retired as President in 2017. He also serves as the Regional VP on the Board of the Virginia Poetry Society.
Clearing Reeds Fire rises from dry reed canes. Heat and flames turn brown to red fury, frustrated only by new green growth that chokes out conflagration. I ignite another stand to feel that burn on my face. Again quenched, held back by a surround of green, young reeds choke out my attempts to burn down the old. When I have burned enough old, I will take on the new. They are tender and still learning, and there are other ways to clear my pond of their cloying rise. Richard Dinges, Jr Richard Dinges, Jr lives and works by a pond among trees and grassland, along with his wife, one dog, three cats, and eleven chickens. His poetry has recently appeared in Coe Review, Pinyon, Neologisms, and others.
welcome welcome to context not only found on printed page but an overflowing nest found in the hook at the bottom of "g" in the lone white hair on a black button up sweater throughout the swirls of clouds finding habitat near air ports bouncing off walls clinking cups in a midafternoon café to be read between seen on sniffed in the air Mary E Croy Mary E Croy lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she works as an administrative assistant. She spent nine years teaching English language learners in Ha Noi, Viet Nam. During her free time, Mary likes reading poetry and hanging out with her cats, Buster and Gabby.
Haze Hangs the Mountains Haze hangs the mountains with a blue grey drape, closes in short of the north edge of town, fades out. Campus chapel steeple, water tower, stacks of the packaging plant, like painted backdrop. Breathing is difficult, the humidity, the heat, or some imagination wanted. More towns where haze hangs, the difference in being there, going there makes one’s weight a burden. Up & down, movement slow, mountains invisible, & decisions loom behind the curtain. Eugene Stevenson Eugene Stevenson, who lives in the mountains of western North Carolina, is the son of immigrants and the father of expatriates. His poems have appeared in After Hours Journal, Albany Poets, Angel City Review, and others. A chapbook, The Population of Dreams, is forthcoming.
At Giverny Gold light, October’s best, backlights poplars, willows, framed against an aqua sky drape. Time slows. Dust collects on our shoes as we shuffle deliberately, not to miss one thing. Water, low, the ponds are thick, detritus amid the water lilies, brought here from ago. A few leaves shake their bonds, drift from diptych into triptych, too fast for capture on canvas. We are too fast for film, gold slanted through autumn air, into these retinas where we are lost. Eugene Stevenson
Tea Without Cakes Young man, well-mannered, bespectacled in wire rims, black Pacific hair drooping over his forehead, hint of the child in his voice, a student of course. At teatime, he cannot understand the order: tea without cakes. We will pay for both, but want only tea, no cakes. Adjusting the bill, he leaves us alone for hours. At lunch, he knows the score: food & drink unimportant, the next next table does not exist. Only talk & laughter as we kiss each other’s fingers & stay in the booth for hours. Two restaurants, two jobs, half a city apart, yet he knows us now, together, where he works. We ask about him, enfold our arms & move to the door, leave an over-large tip. Eugene Stevenson
untitled One cup kept empty and side by side as if forgiveness is a service due when you shake the dust off and the other overflows with coffee heats your mouth with lips that blacken when one hand is grasped by the other and the spill towed to where the dead overflow as evenings :an entitlement that returns the darkness before the sun comes back brings the light that once was water fills this small cup with a morning you will clear with a soft rag holding it close to the wooden table.
untitled From behind the bird in the showcase the boy looking out the picture is you still counting each feather backwards as if waiting for the zero would finish with the pocket-size wings still pinned warmed by the stuffed leather jacket —it stopped raining though through glass every drizzle becomes a shroud made tighter by the slow, climbing turn into your headstone, wet, wedged as if sirens and smoke already pulled it halfway out, is looking one by one. Simon Perchik Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The Family of Man Poems.
Perspective Evie sits at the window in the parlor and watches Shepard Lane. Light from the afternoon sun pushes over her, highlighting the tartan blanket next to her chair. From this vantage, she can see the two houses across the street and the dead-end alley between them. Looming behind their rooftops, a church spire rises to a sword tip. Evie lifts the teacup from the low table beside her and takes a sip. The tea has gone cold, and she sets the cup down, a faint smile forming on her lips. ~~~ When Evie first laid eyes on Sebastian, he was a boy of about nine. She stepped out of the taxi in front of #236 and, leaning on her cane, looked around the street. He was ten yards down the road in front of the stoop at #234, hunkered down on the concrete, surrounded by chalk sticks of every color. As she walked toward him, she saw that he was perched on the edge of a large hole in the sidewalk and she rushed to pull him back from the edge. He must have heard the tick-tick of her cane hitting the pavement because he looked over his shoulder and stood to face her. His heels hung over the precipice, but they somehow pressed firmly against cement where there should have been air. He held three nubs of chalk in his dusty hands: black, brown, and grey. "Looks super scary, right?" She motioned to her neck and mouth, shaking her head. Adults had trouble sussing out that she was mute, but Sebastian figured it out immediately. "Can't talk? That's no problem. My sister says I talk enough for four people. Come here. This is the best angle to see it." He took her hand and led her onto the lowest tier of the stoop. They looked down at a gaping crater, jagged edges where the gray concrete had cracked and crumbled downward. This was followed by a brown dirt striation that eventually ended in the blackness of the abyss.
"The hard part is making the black feel like more than just black." He took her hand and looked up at her, his green eyes squinting. "You know what I mean?" Looking again, she felt a tingle climbing her feet and shins. The black center certainly gave her a feeling of endless space. "Where do you live, lady?" She pointed across the street at the house she'd just bought: #235. "Oh, you're the new neighbor! Hi! I'm Sebastian." She took the black chalk from his hand and wrote her name on the step behind her. "Evie. Nice to meet you. Welcome to Shepard Lane." He walked to the top of the stoop. "I have to go now, Evie. Don't fall in." She could hear him laughing at his own joke even after the front door closed. Later the same day, while rearranging books on the shelves in her parlor, Evie thought her husband would have died a second time if he discovered how the movers had placed his first editions among her paperbacks. She glanced out the window and saw a young woman coming down the steps at #234, head lowered, sliding a cassette tape into a walkman clipped to her belt. As her foot lifted from the last step and hovered over the crevice, she shifted her gaze to look where she was stepping. With large eyes and a mouth mimicking the gaping hole before her, the woman rushed to grab the railing on her left, dropping the tape. It fell to the ground, bounced on the cement, and came to rest in the middle of the black abyss. The girl teetered on the edge of the stoop, both hands clutching the railing, and stared at the levitating cassette. She brought her hands to her chest. After a visible breath, she stepped into the void and appeared to levitate herself as she plucked the cassette from the ground. ~~~ The teacup is a Shelley Maytime Chintz, its oleander shape almost hiding the pale pink underside. The boughs of the cherry tree in the pattern peek through the flowers. Sebastian had made her tea many times during the last few years that she
knew him and he always used this set. He often stood in her parlor, holding the unserved tea tray in his hands, and recounted his latest adventure for so long that the tea turned cold before he poured it. Laughing at the face she made when she took her first tepid sip, and he would say, "I don't know how you drink this stuff, hot or cold." ~~~ Evie watched Sebastian's mother place potted flowers in the narrow section of the stoop between the railing and the fence that contained their tiny side yard. The geraniums, fuchsia centers with white rims, lent the house a festive air. Evie often found herself standing at the parlor window, marveling at them. One day, Sebastian, hands on his hips, stood before them and stared her down. He started across the street, and she opened the window. He stood on the sidewalk below her. "Why are you watching my house?" Evie pointed to the flowers. He turned and they regarded the flowers together. "Oh. Yeah. Mom puts those out every year. They are pretty, aren't they?" Evie nodded at him. "Hmm. They look different from here." Three days later, Evie took her usual spot at the parlor window and found the geraniums scattered around the sidewalk. Their clay pots were shattered and soil dusted the pavement. She watched Sebastian exit his front door and discover the mess. He sat down on the step and hid his face in his hands. His shoulders quivered. When he looked up, his cheeks were wet and flushed. He glanced toward her window, and she gave him a sad smile. He held both hands out and shrugged, his head tilted to one side. Evie wiped her own tears away. The next morning, she made herself some tea and toast and sat down in the parlor. She liked to eat breakfast in front of the window and watch the street come to life. When she sat down, she expected to see the empty stoop, slightly brownish where Sebastian had swept up the dirt after collecting the broken pots. Instead, she saw flowers. They covered the steps and climbed the railing like vines. They wound
around the column and scaled the facade, across the arch that marked the entrance to Sebastian's front porch, and along the side of the house facing the alley. Best of all, they climbed the chimney and sprouted a magnificent bouquet from the crown. She stood and stepped closer to the window, but the bouquet slipped down the chimney. Confused, she stepped sideways, and the entire scene shifted out into the air over the alley way. She sat down again and everything moved back into place. The flowers were painted on her window, perfectly placed so that, from her chair, they adorned Sebastian's house. She enjoyed her toast, staring out of the window for an extra hour. ~~~ Evie tucks the tartan blanket around her legs as the clouds roll in, imbuing the scene before her with a pallor. ~~~ The first time Sebastian physically visited her parlor for tea was nearly four years after Evie first met him. Many times before then, he'd come to the window while she drank her tea and talked, always waving his hands about to accentuate his point. She invited him in each time with a wave but he never accepted. When Sebastian did finally set foot in #235, he didn't wait for an invitation. He simply walked over and opened the door. He entered the parlor and circled its perimeter, inspecting the books. He was quiet for the most extended period Evie had ever observed. She watched him from her chair and then stared out of the window as he moved behind her. When he reached her chair, he stood beside it. Then he sank down, so his head was level with hers. She could smell his breath, bacon and peppermint. "Well, look at that! My chimney is taller than the church spire." Evie laughed a soundless laugh. "Everything depends on your perspective, you know?"
The next week, Evie noticed a crowd gathered in the street. She went outside, scanning in both directions for signs of an accident, but saw nothing except the usual row of houses and her neighbors tending their small gardens. She approached the group, expecting to hear sounds of tragedy, but instead heard words of amazement. The people were looking down at the pavement, and she followed their gaze. She saw the shadow of a man riding a unicycle across a tightrope, strung between a chimney and the pinnacle of the church spire. The shadow was only six inches tall; the wheel of his unicycle was no bigger than the circumference of her teacup and the man no taller than her finger. She looked at the sky over the alley to spot the real performer but the sun made it impossible to see anything. She looked down to the street again as a breeze blew tendrils of her gray hair over her face, and the man on the tightrope slid forward, the long pole he held across his body rolling from side to side. Then a cloud drifted into the path of the sun and the man on the unicycle disappeared. Evie looked up to the spot where the sun had been, and she could just make out a thin wire stretched from Sebastian's chimney to the peak of the rooftop at #236. The tiny figure of a man on a unicycle, made from tin foil, wobbled on the wire, shifted back and forth by the same wind driving the clouds above. ~~~ The only object in sight that doesn't seem to get darker is Sebastian's bike, locked to the fence beside the stoop. Its sky blue frame stands out like laser beams, like slashes in the fabric of the night. ~~~ When Sebastian got the bike, it was navy blue and too tall for him. He rode it back and forth on the road in front of Evie's window, waving at her each of the fifty times he passed before finally tiring of the game. When he stopped riding, his shirt was wet with perspiration, and his blond bangs darkened and pressed down to his
forehead. He locked the bike to the fence beside the stoop and walked over to her window. "It makes you happy to see me ride that bike, doesn't it?" She nodded. "Did your boy like to ride bikes?" He had never spoken about her boy before. She nodded again. "I saw the picture. He was older than me?" She held up both hands, her fingers splayed out, closed them, and then held up seven fingers. He smiled and spun away, but he stopped and turned back to her. "We don't really look alike, but he was a handsome kid, Evie." Then he waved and walked home. Within two years, the bike was the right height for Sebastian and he had developed strong legs from his daily rides. Sometimes, he had friends with him, other lithe young men. They would slide off of their bikes while moving, so smooth it seemed like the ground had risen to meet their feet. Sometimes Sebastian would turn and wave to her. The other boys would wave too, their elbows tight against their ribs, hands vibrating back and forth, with big grins on their faces and hips cocked to one side. One boy, who had dark hair and an olive complexion, appeared more often than the others. He wore light clothing that accentuated his skin, and his hairstyle changed frequently. One spring Saturday, Evie watched the two of them decorate the front of #234. Sebastian, standing on a ladder, painted each stone in the arch over his front porch while the other boy painted the steps. They worked together to decorate the spiral column casings at the top of the stoop. All of it painted like a rainbow. It was nearing dusk when they finished, and they admired their work in the failing light. Sebastian reached down and held the other boy's hand. When the light was gone, they walked inside. ~~~
At the top of Sebastian's stoop, there is a stone railing where two decaying plants rest, their flowers absent, their stalks wrinkled and gray. The dark-skinned boy had left them over the last two years. He'd climbed the steps and set the plants down, turning to wave at Evie before he left. The waves were different, though: just a slow ascent and descent of his hand, as if he was swearing on a bible. He didn't grin. She hadn't seen him in months. ~~~ It was a bright and beautiful morning when Sebastian emerged from his house wearing the tight white shorts and the angel's wings. Evie was sipping tea when he bounded across the street in long strides. He entered her parlor like a gust of air through an open window. "Pretty great costume, right?" Evie nodded and held her hands to her chest. "My mom got a little pissed about the shorts, but oh, well." Evie made wings with her fingers and then gave him the thumbs-up sign. "You like the wings? Tell you what. After the parade, I'll come by and attach them to your walker." She looked at the ugly metal contraption, a recent necessity. "You deserve a flashier mode of transport than that, Evie. That nurse of yours is useless." When he rode away on his bike, the wings undulated with his legs as he pedaled. Farther away, the thin bike beneath him disappeared and he became a real angel, flying low, the tips of his wings nearly touching the ground. The next day the newspaper featured a picture of Sebastian, taken directly from the front. He was on his bike, wings unfurled, his naked chest shining. The rest of the parade was out of focus behind him, a rainbow blur. Sebastian was busy behind her, working on the walker. He'd already put pink tennis balls on the legs and pink tape on the handgrips. Now he was attaching a wing
to each side so that it extended backward. He stopped and looked over Evie's shoulder as she examined the picture. "Well, look at that! I'm the most famous queer in town." ~~~ The darkness has deepened and Evie knows it is nearly night. She can hear her stomach growl but doesn't want to get up from her post by the window. Her speed, never great with the walker, had slowed even more in the last few years. She has weathered like Sebastian's bike, fading from navy to sky blue, bleached by time. Soon, they'd both turn as white as bone and crumble into dust. ~~~ A few mornings after the parade, Evie woke to find a man in a charcoal suit talking to Sebastian's crying mother on the stoop of #234. Policemen were standing in front of the alley before yellow tape draped from the mismatched lights atop the columns marking the alley entrance. The lights had never worked, or no one ever turned them on, leaving a dark cave between the houses. She'd often looked out of her window at night into the alley's impenetrable face and felt the hairs on her arms stand up. It was a place where bad things could happen. It was where Sebastian was beaten to death. She'd come down her steps and across the street to the alley, moving fast for her age and ability, only to have a policeman block her with an embrace. She peered around the wide body that held her, and she saw that they'd pulled a plain white sheet over Sebastian. The church's spire loomed above the scene like a gawker standing on tiptoes to get a better view. Evie let out a low howl. It was the first sound she'd made in nearly forty years. She read that the boys had seen the picture in the paper and recognized Sebastian from their school. They followed him home from the park where the kids
gathered on weekend nights. They attacked him as he locked up his bike and dragged him into the alley. Several months later, when Sebastian's house went on the market, Evie wrote her accountant and told him that she didn't care what it cost. Buy it. She had only one stipulation. They had to leave the bike where it was. ~~~ The light is gone. Evie takes one last look to be sure she hasn't missed the dark-skinned boy. At eighty-three, she often lost track of time, but only the two plants stood guard on the railing. Evie pulls the blanket from around her legs and drops it on the floor beside her. She thinks she sees something move on Sebastian's front porch, but there's nothing. Just a shadow on top of another shadow. She takes her walker and moves across the room, the white wings surrounding her as she inches her way to the bedroom.
Iber Young lives and writes in Austin, Texas. He loves BBQ, books, bourbon, soccer, and most importantly, his family.
oil on canvas
Aaron Robert Sims
The Fourteen Stations of Grief I… II… III… IV… V… VI… VII… VIII… IX… X… XI… XII… XIII… XIV…
The Wife is condemned to widowhood. The Widow accepts her radical status. The Widow falls emotionally asleep. When she awakens, she meets the Poet within. The Muse helps her carry weighty metaphors. Another Muse wipes up any sentimentality. The Widow falls emotionally asleep again. When she daydreams, she meets a Man of Imagination. Yet again the Widow falls emotionally asleep. Her Heart will not be stripped of Love. The Widow nails her Loss to a crossroads sign. Loss dies. Loss fades. Loss rises.
Existentially, my becoming moseyed beyond the monumental limestone milestone of original widowhood as if only beginning, easing forward fresh from night’s good sleep; my becoming meandered off trail and boardwalk into virgin territories, partaking of innocence— late-blossoming lady’s slipper, budding dancinglady orchid, silence deeply breathing green. Karla Linn Merrifield Karla Linn Merrifield has fourteen books to her credit. The newest is Athabaskan Fractal: Poems of the Far North. She is currently at work on a poetry collection, My Body the Guitar, to be published in December 2021.
Verbatim Lo! “Life will never be the same again.” This sentiment is true but nothing new. Why say exactly what you said back then? You don’t recall? Well, I remember when. That mess of stress was challenging for you. Thus, “Life will never be the same again.” How such a whine gets under thinning skin! I cannot take as much as I used to. Why say exactly what you said back then? So, should I tune a tiny violin? A grand piano? Play a theme on cue? Oh, “Life will never be the same again.” Thank God! Or stars. How many times? Try ten. Just listen to yourself. To me. Please, do. Why say exactly what you said back then? I understand. You hate the state you’re in. You’re overwhelmed with all you’re going through. Yes, “Life will never be the same again.” Why say exactly what you said back then? Jane Blanchard Jane Blanchard lives in Georgia and has recent work in Blue Unicorn, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Lighten Up Online, and others. Her latest collection is In or Out of Season.
I was trying to talk myself out of it. “Probably time to give up on the beach,” I told myself. “You’re 74. Too windy sometimes anyway. Remember days when you felt chilled, clammy and all you really wanted was to pack up and go home to a boiling hot shower.” But I wasn’t convinced. Because in front of me, just beyond the handicapped space in the parking lot, was the blue water, soothing, salty and sparkly. And I longed to swim. All my life I’ve gone to two RI beaches. For most of the time, the large town beach with surf; in recent years, when I could no longer manage the waves, to the smaller Third Beach on an estuary looking across to Sakonnet, the next peninsula over from Newport and Middletown. Though I usually managed no more than a moderate amount of crawl followed by a languid sidestroke, all my life, swimming in the ocean has been a top pleasure. Without going to the beach, and particularly without swimming there, the time I spend in our shared family summer house would be clouded with a feeling of deprivation. In the spring, I’d been feeling deprived enough. A mish-mash of medical conditions— long-term effects of radiation and of a two-year course of antibiotics that I’d taken for an infected rod in my back, scoliosis and dropped head syndrome—had left me unable to walk more than a few feet. During the previous summer, I’d managed to hobble with a walker to cover the short distance—maybe 100 yards—from the beach parking lot to the roped-off swimming area. But by the next April, when my mobility had become much more compromised, I doubted that I’d be able to do that anymore. I pictured myself standing with my walker at the edge of the beach, and in my mental video of what would happen next, my legs refused to go far enough to reach the swimming area.
When I told my physical therapists about this foreboding, they were mainly inspirational. (“If it means that much to you, you’ll do it!”) Kind words, but I wasn’t persuaded. Then someone mentioned a beach wheelchair. Giant wheels that could glide right over the soft sand, the holes and the little rocks. I went online—and was frustrated. All the wheelchairs that turned up had to be ordered sight unseen; they weren’t in showrooms. Even more to the point, highly unlikely that this hefty machine would fit into the back of our car without needing to be disassembled. When I finally focused on the prices—$3000 plus—sticker shock. Out of the question. But after a few weeks during which I’d put the whole idea on the back burner, my niece sent me an article in the Middletown local paper that announced that this season, beach wheelchairs would be available at town beaches. I emailed and was told that one was on order for Third Beach. Even though I thoroughly enjoy the things in life that I enjoy, I’m an anticipatory worrier. I wasn’t the least bit confident that a beach wheelchair would materialize. Now, in late July, when we’d arrived at the handicapped parking spot, there was no sign of one—and two teenaged boys in the parking lot booth were clueless. Finally, they suggested we inquire at the headquarters at Second Beach “You could drive there, but It’s less than a mile walk,” one of them said. Charlie, my husband, and I looked at each other and laughed. But when you’re a teen, maybe it’s hard to conceptualize someone like me not being able to walk more than a few steps. We drove to the headquarters and the friendly guy in charge said yes, there really was a wheelchair at Third Beach and came back to help us find it. Ten minutes more of waiting in the Third Beach parking lot until Charlie came up beside the car with a bright blue, festive-looking vehicle with huge white wheels. I climbed in and we were off. Over the sand, the wheelchair conquering the tricky indentations, rocks and shells that would have stymied my walker. I felt my mood lifting. This was fun. We set up our beach stuff right by the lifeguard’s chair and asked the two young guards on duty for help. I took off my cover-up and was ready to go in my red
and white polka-dot swimsuit. Minutes later, Charlie was wheeling me into the water, and while he held the chair steady, Casey, a muscular young woman with a braid down her back who radiated cheer, guided me down into the freezing water. Because she was standing beside me, I felt there was no time to follow my usual practice of waiting for a pleasantly agonizing five minutes until I was ready to get all wet. Instead, I dunked right into the water. I flipped, floated, and started in on the elementary backstroke. First it was only chill, but after a few minutes, it felt great for all the reasons it always has to me. The familiar lively taste of brine, the cushion of rocking water. Casey stood nearby, not just ready to help but looking actively happy about my swimming. It was over in a ridiculously short ten minutes, maybe less; I’m not strong. Still as I sat contentedly drying out in the hot sun, I realized that besides the usual, my dip in the water had felt great for a new reason. I’d been moving not with the cramped, tentative motion that these days curdles my experience of walking, but with a rhythm that felt like something I’d always had. Later, Charlie pushed me down the beach, and happily, the scenery, rocky cliffs on one end of the beach, the flat shore of Sakonnet across the way, presented itself to me just as it always had when I could walk. As I rolled along, several people stopped us to ask about the wheelchair. We told them it was free of charge and that anyone could use it. “This would be great for my grandmother,” said one young man. “She always used to come here, but not anymore.” Over the next two weeks, strangers continued to come up to us. In past summers, we’d pretty much kept to ourselves at the beach—we socialized with family members and friends who stayed at our house and didn’t get to know beachgoers from Middletown. But now we chatted briefly with many more people. They were kind. One afternoon when Charlie had parked me at the edge of the sand to stop at the bathroom, I was approached by a paunchy middle-aged guy in bright blue bathing trunks, head shaved, lots of tattoos and an earring. As a New Yorker, I tend to be
blasé about appearances, but sitting alone in the wheelchair as the man ambled toward me, I felt vulnerable. In a few seconds he’d reached the chair and was looking down at me. “This is great!” he said. Do you need any help? Can I push it for you?” I liked that, but even better was the woman who stopped us on our last beach day. She was maybe 10 or 15 years younger than me, and smiling. “It’s wonderful that you can use the wheelchair,” she told me. “I’m so happy you can get into the water.” We chatted for a few minutes before she moved on, and I was left regretting that I hadn’t asked her name or at least where she was from. Because something in her inflection, in the tilt of her face, reminded me of cousins, aunts, somebody familiar. Or maybe it was the satisfaction she took in my having found my way into the ocean. When I was a kid, “she really loves the water” was an expression with almost moral weight in my family. The parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who said that didn’t necessarily mean, or only mean, that someone was an especially good swimmer. They also meant that relishing a dip in the ocean was an important source of joy, not to be ignored. For sure I’m not New Age-ish. Rarely, rarely have I felt I’d had a brush with the non-rational, the other-worldly. But as I left Third Beach that day, I couldn’t entirely dismiss the feeling that the woman who looked a little like people in my family had been channeling the pleasure that my mother, now gone for over 25 years, would have taken if she’d known I was still able to enjoy the water. “Well, you know what they say—sometimes when one door closes, another one opens.” That was one friend’s reaction to stories I’d told her about the woman—and about all the kindness of the lifeguards like Casey and of the beach strangers. My first impulse was to fend off her interpretation. Just as I’m usually skeptical about other-worldly experiences, for years I’ve been—stubbornly? quirkily?— resistant to the idea that suffering health hardships can paradoxically enrich life. The
most I’d concede—and grudgingly—was that my troubles had sometimes shown me that I was a little tougher than I’d thought.
Mostly, though, I’d stuck with my darker outlook—that limitations limit, that bad luck makes you unhappy, period. But in this instance, I wasn’t so sure. When I mulled over how I’d experienced the beach this past summer, the dark narrative didn’t fully capture what had happened to me: true, I could no longer walk along the water’s edge or run into the ocean on my own. But the wheelchair trips had trundled me towards a new way of experiencing a familiar and treasured part of my life.
Susan Blank, 77, is a retired teacher of writing, foundation program officer (Foundation for Child Development), and writer/editor—first on staff in a communications department and later as a freelancer—for nonprofit organizations specializing in social policy issues.
Harvesting Hearts. . . for Dennis Camire and Dave Moreau
I’m harvesting hearts at the all-night gas and variety and the dearth, despite the well-stocked shelves of that thing most vital we need for ourselves our humanity A Pavlovian bell at the entryway the shadowy clerk hunkers down with the snow squall and spray and I greet my cultural kin as another unfortunate sidles in The greying pony-tailed woman cigarette-prone, poorly-paid who like a young coquette nearly curtseys thinking she’s in my way pulling the bargain beer from the display Or the man in the backless slippers his heels beet red from the cold his shirt lopsidedly buttoned a frayed fur-collared coat we lock eyes for a moment and something is summoned up from the heart and lodged in the throat Or the bent frail woman with a kitten (of all things) telling me he’ll wail in her absence so she brings him along lest in her head is his sorrowful song letting him wander the aisles picking him up to blow warm breath on his paws shielding him in the folds of her mackinaw The clerk and I banter after each straggler departs
with remaining teeth he smiles (he too has harvested hearts) as the bell chime rings my exit I make out their three silhouettes like figures in a snow globe dissolve to what a child would see the gas pumps, the road the variety a soft, suspended panoply Jim Donnelly Jim Donnelly, largely self-educated, has worked at everything from busboy to bus driver, forklift operator to trucker, cabbie to clerk and is a former journalist for The Aquarian. His essays, poetry, and prose have appeared in The Cafe Review, Jewish Currents, Anarchy, and other publications. Two volumes of poetry have been published by a Maine press. Currently, he co-hosts a long-running monthly reading series.
Dreamscape She is skiing. The air stings her lungs, the wind whips her hair, the sun nearly blinds her, making it difficult to steer. This is an unusual dream in that she never, in real life, graduated past the bunny hill. As a young enamored girl, not about to parade her anxieties in front of a new boyfriend, she attempted the skiing thing but, when it came to the moment of truth, she copped out. The disappointment was all on her end. Her boyfriend was more than willing to call it quits, warm up with a cup of hot chocolate, and relax in a comfortable easy chair near a burning fireplace. The ski resort was the perfect place to fall in love and so she did. At last she found someone with whom she could be herself. At last she found someone who would take the lead, be her voice, carry her over the proverbial threshold. For the next sixty-seven years with this man, she happily lived her life, raised kids, became a consequential contributor to society, a woman of substance. When her youngest child went off to school, she decided to make use of her teaching degree, and found an adequate position at a local private school. Funny how standing in front of a class of adolescents did not provoke the same anxiety as in front of a panel of her peers. She taught, they learned, and life was good. She retired, and along with her husband, took some time to travel. When at home they lent their time to help with the grandkids. During these years she could not say whom she loved more. The answer was simple. The heart is capable of holding all newcomers. She’s flying down a slope of snow with a smile on her face, knowing no fear; neither the height, nor the speed with which she’s churning, bother her. She passes others on the way down. They appear as shadows. Dreams always come to her this way. It’s all feeling and vague assumptions. Bashful as a child ("shy" her mother told others), adolescence hit her with a force so colossal, as did the angst of becoming a timid adult. Anxious about most things, her biggest worry—having to do with what others thought of her—overwhelmed her every aspiration. High school will do that to you. It’s unfortunate she didn’t have a crystal ball to allay her fears. The worry, regrets, and sleepless nights were for naught. But you can’t tell an adolescent anything. The aching and bruises are all part of what makes us who we are. Only wonderful things await those who pass the test. Lying on her bed, the dream slowly dissipates to smoke. She often wakes from dreams knowing she has dreamt, but not being able to conjure any definite images. After this one, her body feels buffeted. Her legs are stiff and her hands are clawed. It hurts to undo them. She tries some gentle stretches. Opening her eyes, she sees the sun has risen and is shining directly across her pillow. She feels a deep sense of loss, but doesn’t quite know why. She fights with herself. Rise or stay in bed? Her kidneys scream. Pausing only to get her bearings, she pulls herself up and takes a walk.
Her first baby was a girl. A beautiful child they all told her. Looks like her dad, looks like her mom. Everyone had an opinion. She grew and learned and was not timid. She takes after her dad. These were splendid times! She turned one, two, three. . . Stop! By that time her second child was born, a boy, and her time had to be split in two. This boy was adorable. Looks like his dad, looks like his mom. Everyone had an opinion. He grew and learned and was not timid. He takes after his dad, but he has his mother’s heart. Shortly afterward, the third came along, and she no longer had time to herself. Split three ways, she often wondered who she was short-changing. Sometimes it bothered her, sometimes it was a struggle to be bothered at all. It wasn’t until she was blessed with the fourth that she gave up all pretense. She took time with all of them, combining duty with love, and conquering each day as it came. She hardly ever lost her temper, but don’t be fooled, she had control and they were willing subjects. The housework would have to wait. Dust bunnies grew in corners; spiders had free reign. Together with her spouse, she taught her children to respect life, to work hard, and be truthful in all things. Sometimes it took, sometimes not. She prefers not to think of the nots. Slowly padding to the bathroom she finds it takes too long. She’s embarrassed but there is no one to see her, so the embarrassment passes as she cleans herself. An unease takes its place and a longing to be back on the dream slopes, all muscles and youth. Instead, she walks into the kitchen to turn on the kettle for tea. She falls into a daze and rouses upon hearing the steam shrill. Taking her cup out of the dish drainer, she pours herself hot camomile. The importance of sleep is not lost on her. She gets plenty of it, in spurts and fits, and yet she can’t see how this is more desirable. It seems like only yesterday she was running here and there, filling her life with meaningful chores. After retiring, there was planning for trips with her spouse. In between trips, there was keeping grandkids occupied, eager to learn, seeking their wide-eyed comprehension. She took a course in photography and won a few inconsequential awards for the photos she took. She was a contender and had more than one purpose. Drinking her tea, she leaves half of her toast and all of her hard-boiled egg. She’s not hungry and can’t bring herself to eat, even though the doctor nags her on this issue. She throws much of the prepared food in the garbage, and then hides it under papers in case her daughter catches sight of it. She’s losing weight and doesn’t care. She shuffles off to the living room and struggles with the television remote. She counts the rocks, collecting new ones each day, and not sure if she’ll be able to shoulder another. Losing a spouse is losing a part of yourself. They never went back to the ski resort. There was no need to pretend to like things that they didn’t. Being in love is like
that. In those early days, being together was peace and comfort. The laughter was all encompassing, the tears were no longer devastating. Later on in life, after the kids were grown, being together was like a good book you don’t want ever to end. But like all good things, it did. She sits in an easy chair in the sun. They tell her she needs her Vitamin D. Her kids are discussing her future. They leave brave hints and talk around her. She makes it clear she is staying where she is. Her life now revolves around efforts not to fall. She won’t give them a reason to move her. She will be invincible. They’ll have to drag her out kicking. She can’t imagine either of these scenarios, and falls asleep in the sun. The ferris wheel is a double-decker. Wind is fanning her hair; the sun is in her eyes. She’s high in the sky, but she’s not afraid. She’s laughing with someone in shadow. She tries to see who it is, but all is hazy. It doesn’t matter. She hasn’t felt this happy for years. She sleeps on and on, and as long as she sleeps she’s young, vibrant, and fearless. Sparkling, fiery and gutsy! She wakes with a cramp in her neck. It takes awhile to release it. This is happening more and it takes longer to relieve the aches. The sun moved across the sky while she slept, and a now a chill settles in her bones. She uses her cane to help stand, but this time it takes way too long, and she’s losing the urge to move at all. She knows she must. She can’t be sitting here when the aide comes to check on her. If she can move on her own, eat on her own, take herself to bed, maybe they’ll stop pestering her to move to assisted living. The aide comes every other day, so every other day she pretends. She’s strong, smiles, and eats when it’s placed in front of her, and they are there to watch. Once a week she hobbles herself into the bathroom and congratulates herself when the shower is over and she’s dry. The humiliation of having someone give her a bath would be more than she can endure. The aide is polite and upbeat. She actually enjoys her visits and makes a concerted effort to do what she asks. Today is chicken soup day, and the smells coming from the kitchen are enough to brighten any old lady’s day. Closing her eyes, she dreams. She’s feeding four hungry, noisy children and one appreciative spouse. The chicken soup recipe is her mother-in-law’s with a few tweaks. There is considerable chatting going on around the table with everyone talking at once. She’s happy. Her children are together, smiling and slurping. One of them spells ‘DOG’ with the alphabet pasta, another tries to outdo him with ‘NOODLES’, the name of their hamster, and still another spells his name, first and last. She’s at peace. Young, loving, and loved. Someone’s shaking her awake. Confused and befuddled, she resents being woken. She resents the interruption of her dream brought on by the smells coming from the kitchen. Lashing out, she accidentally, on purpose, hits the aide. This is a first. She immediately apologizes, fearing she’s losing control. If this aide leaves she’ll have to get accustomed to someone new. She doesn’t want a new aide, after having just begun to trust this one. The tears silently fall. This crying is new. She feels like crying
too much of the time, but holds it together. Where does this sadness come from? All she wants to do is sleep and wishes they would let her. The aide smiles away the insults. She’s good that way. Her pills appear in front of her, and she dutifully swallows them. If she doesn’t, the night will be long and intolerable. She isn’t even sure what all the pills are for. Her blood pressure has always been exemplary. Heart and lungs are strong. Kidneys holding out as long as she coddles them. Eyesight is fine with her new lenses from cataract surgery, though she still needs reading glasses. The ache is in her joints. Knees, hands, spine. Some days are better then others, but bad enough she won’t give up her nightly meds. After the dishes are done and her patient put to bed, the aide leaves. The TV is left on with the remote nearby. The Voice is singing its way into the room. She used to enjoy this show, but tonight it’s unable to assuage her mood. Melancholy falls in and she shuts the TV. The book her daughter brought her from the library is sitting on the bedside table. She picks up Agatha Christie, but the words swim before her eyes. She left her reading glasses in the other room. She discovers she again is crying and this time has no control. Tears flow until there are no more left. Feeling somewhat better for the ordeal, tomorrow she will look like death warmed over. Her eyes will be puffy, her skin will be saggy, mountains of tissues will need to be discarded. She falls asleep thinking dark thoughts, and wondering when this constant day in, day out of monotony and pain will end. This dream comes at her ferociously. She’s running away from something, perhaps an animal, perhaps a giant wave, perhaps from someone who wishes her harm. Unsure, all she knows is she must keep running, faster and faster. She runs until she comes to a cliff and jumps without hesitation. She’s smiling as she hurtles toward the earth. Her arms outstretched, legs are akimbo. She feels herself free-falling and loves every moment of it. She’s loose, unconstrained, liberated. The earth stays in the distance and she keeps falling. With a rude jerk she wakes. She’s not sure she can last much longer. The following day, when she’s done with her morning ritual, she moves to the guest room. Her arthritic joints don’t stop or slow her down, for today she has a purpose. Computer at the ready, she pulls up a blank page, and so begins her last wishes upon her death. Calmness settles in and she types, ignoring the cramping of her fingers. Death does not spook her. Unrelenting pain scares her. Loneliness scares her. Loss of control scares her. Instead of screaming she lets the words wail across the page. Her children will obey her last wishes, of that she’s sure. No showing, too barbaric. No flowers, spend the money on the poor. No crying or regrets, well, maybe some crying. It will be a happy occasion. A party. Her urn on a central table. Music all around and people eating. Eating and drinking and laughing. If anyone feels the urge, they may say some kind words to a life well-lived and well-ended. Maybe she’ll supply some words. Unprecedented? Has anyone ever written their own eulogy? She smiles, imagining the looks on the faces of her dear friends and family members. Ashes to be scat -
tered to the four winds. Four children, four winds. An hour passes. Her hands are stiff and it’s time to stop. Time to skip another meal. Time to wait for night. She works her way to the bedroom and lies down. She prays for peace and for some resolution to her predicament. The porch stairs are inviting her to rest. Their wood is painted a deep gray and some of the gray is chipping away. She knows this white house with the black shutters and gray porch. It’s where the first twenty-one years of her life were spent. Her elderly grandpa is sitting in his rocking chair behind her, bottle of beer in hand. Cicadas are singing their loud, pulsating song, looking for their mates. They will die soon; it’s their time. As prepared as she is, letting go is not easy. She walks to the kitchen for a cup of tea and her afternoon pills. Today her daughter will be dropping in to see how she’s doing. Just thinking of taking a shower makes her tired, so instead she rereads her last wishes and eulogy. After making a few changes, she’s satisfied with what she sees, hits print and sees the printer spit out the papers. The papers are left where her daughter can’t miss them. Back to her bedroom, she takes a look around at framed photos of her loved ones. Remembering, she holds the images in her heart. She lies down and closes her eyes. She’s not religious, yet she believes. Her time has come and she’s eager to continue on, free of hurt and full of hope. It’s the process that baffles her. She doesn’t fool herself into thinking anyone will miss her for long. They have their own lives to li ve, kids to worry about, life’s minutia to unravel. Will they smile when they think of her, remember her? After she’s gone, will she even care? Her daughter walks into the house. She quietly roots through the garbage to determine what her mom didn’t eat. She’s sad to see the day-old eggs hiding under paper towels. She counts the bottles of Ensure to find her mom stopped drinking them awhile ago. Her daughter wonders if it’s time to give up. Harping has no effect. Anger has no place when someone is determined to die. She feels a pain where her heart is, but quickly shuts down the tears before going to see her mom. Before she reaches the bedroom, she passes the computer with typed papers on top. She reroutes and begins to read. This dream feels different, more real. She’s light as a feather. She floats. On looking up she sees stars sprinkled across the night sky. Warm and happy, she hasn’t felt this glorious in a very long time. There is a brightness. She heads toward it with no mis givings. Here is love and the most beautiful music. She would have a hard time describing it to her loved ones, and comes to the realization she won’t have to; she couldn’t even if she wanted to. She feels a momentary regret, but this falls away as she nears the light. Before her are harmonious shapes exuding tenderness. She makes note of them all, breathing in their essence. Searching the skies, she sees the dearest friend of all who takes her hand and guides her home. She’s splendid, shimmering, ecstatic. She’s fearless, and young again.
They’re all sitting around linen-covered circular tables at a local restaurant. On each table is a vase holding one single white rose. On the dais is an ornamental urn covered in symbols. A single rose sits at its base. The crowd is noisy and laughing. They take turns looking at her life in pictures, some wipe away tears. Her favorite songs are playing in the background, but you have to strain to hear them over the noise of the people celebrating her life. The gathering is a mix of young and old. Long time friends, and even some of her students from long ago, all grown up, with their own longings and anxieties. Here is a reunion of all who were touched by her affection. Her daughter’s nervous. She’s about to stand in front of these people, who knew her mom, and read to them her final words. She looks to her brothers for support. She asks the maitre’d to stop the music. The Beatles’ Blackbird fades away. She waits for everyone’s attention and, on the quiet, begins to speak. Ruth Mannino Ruth Mannino is a mother of four, grandmother of five, retired math teacher, tutor and business analyst. Her 2020 book, Thursday Mornings: Breathe, Stretch, Listen, Love, is an in-depth look at eight senior citizens with diverse backgrounds, as told in their own words from childhood to adulthood.
Dew Point after Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev—for Hal Wrobel
at what point moisten? at what point scare? at what point dare beyond a reasonable hope? I cried when Bazarov died Turgenev killing off the "unfeeling" son he who dared to love but once when despair and fury go cold at what point do we melt? at what point explode? some make their peace with past imperfection but Bazarov ends his life stumbling into infection in chase of a pure science the Nihilist calling foul— while those who would live conjure plans for tomorrow who can know but with age what he might have been. . . may have done. . . and so it goes Bazarov was spared the battles of his fathers and his sons but what of Arkady—so comfortable and comforting—we see him young and in love settled in his way when the last page passes we simply and silently know he will age ripely
not spared what will come of fathers and sons but that is for another book Anna Wrobel Anna Wrobel, a child of refugees, is an American historian, teacher, and Holocaust Studies educator. Her poetry and essays on history have appeared in several journals, and she has authored two poetry collections. She has conducted poetry/history programs in museums and schools and currently co-hosts a reading series.
Taking the Jump Who would I trust with my life? I am sure this interest has something to do with my age. I’m 78. Mortality is obvious. Over the years, the compass that gives me a direction for an answer is another question: With whom have I been willing to risk it? On more than one occasion that would be David. We met in 1970. I was a newly minted assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He was a clinical psychologist specializing in play therapy. I noticed him at the first faculty meeting I ever attended. Burly, with a mustache and black, short-cropped hair, in a sport coat without a tie, he had the air of a Mongolian horseman forced to be there—out of place, turbulent, and bored. During the social hour that followed we had a drink together. He had a boyish quality, full of quips and humor, like a Jewish Tom Sawyer at 48 years of age. Our rapport was immediate. Within a few weeks we were playing racquetball on a regular basis with conversation and drinks afterwards. That was when we first started to talk about doing something physically more adventurous. “I’ve always wanted to try rock climbing,” David said. “How about you?” “I like the idea, but I don’t know how capable I’d be. I’m not too sure about my balance. I think you have to have the kind of muscles and aptitude that gymnasts have. That’s not my strong suit. Back flips, walking on your hands, climbing a rope with your arms. I was never skillful.” David gave a short laugh. “Hey, I’m certainly not the gymnast body type. Not even close. We’re not making a commitment here; we’re thinking about giving it a try and seeing how it goes.” We went to the Wisconsin Dells a few weekends later and spent the first hour watching young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five climbing the rock cliffs. Most had top ropes around their waists with someone above on belay. They were quick and confident. As a group, they reminded me of grasshoppers mounting a slope, determined and agile.
We saw that the rock near the bottom of the cliffs had cracks and crevices to practice on without having to use a rope. David pointed to them. “Let’s start here. I think it’s a bit more our speed.” I watched David as he made his initial attempt, directing him toward handholds in the rock that he might not see. Although he wasn’t agile, he had doggedness and confidence as he climbed. I admired how serious he was about making progress, constantly bobbing his head back to see the rock and make the next grip secure. With his girth, he reminded me of a bear as he grunted and pulled himself upward. I called out good-naturedly, “You know, David, if you shed about thirty pounds, you’d be great at this. Like a cat instead of a panda. Your instincts for climbing are terrific.” David looked down at me and smirked, his face sweaty and beleaguered. “Just keep your eyes on the rock. Knock off the body-image language and remember—your turn is next.” When it was my turn, I was tense. Even a fall of five feet could be damaging. Unlike David, I didn’t dare bounce my head back but depended on his directions to find the next handhold. My sense of humor abandoned me. David must have noticed because he didn’t kid me but guided my movements calmly, encouraging me with short bursts of, “Way to go. Nice move. You’re finding your rhythm. Keep at it.” I followed David’s lead as we attempted different rock surfaces throughout the afternoon. At the end of the day each of us did a short solo climb without help from our partner. When we stopped, we were exhausted, our hands and arms a stretch of nicked, scratched, and bruised skin. Later, over beers, we reminisced about the day. “That was hard,” David said. “Really hard,” I replied. “I feel beat up. Like something’s run over me. Yet, there’s a bit of exhilaration along with the fatigue. You feel it?” “Yeah. I think we could get better at it. What about you?” “I agree. But we need some coaching. Or else we’ll keep grubbing along like snails. Maybe we should find a guide who’s an expert and could give us some lessons.”
When we met two weeks later, David brought along two brochures. He was excited to share them. “I got us some great information. Look at this.” Titled Climb Colorado, the pamphlet described two courses, Rock I and Rock II, offered during the summer by the Rocky Mountain Climbing Guides. The training took place in Rocky Mountain National Park. In the photos, the guides were long-haired and bearded. Their arms were folded and none of them were smiling. As I studied the photo, David commented, “I like the look of them. No frills. Rock I is offered for one week, six hours a day and ends with an overnight mountain climb on a local peak. That sounds cool. But we wouldn’t be able to do that course until next summer. There’s no way to fit it into my schedule this year.” I liked the idea of taking the course. David was more physically adventurous than I was. More eager and ready to take risks. Playing a match with him in tennis, I once saw him go airborne and lay his body flat out with his racquet fully extended to return a shot. Totally absurd, he plunked it over the net. Lying on his back, he raised his racquet in triumph. A bit nuts but undoubtedly determined. Just keeping up with him put me in the best shape I was in for the past two years. Having a good friend like David, watching him, and taking chances with him, gave me opportunities to take more risks and become more courageous. “Okay David, we’ll plan for it. We’ll make it happen.” He smiled and handed me the other brochure. Its title read: TAKE THE JUMP OF YOUR LIFE! Its subheading was: Parachute in a Day, and below that in smaller text, “Only $75 for an experience you will never forget!” I looked at David. His eyes were like those of a child looking at his birthday cake with all the candles burning. “Oh, you are a crazy man.” “Probably so, but wouldn’t it be fun? We don’t have to do it more than once.” “Yeah, that’s because we’re going to die. No, David. I don’t think so. This is too much for me.” “Hey, you haven’t even read the brochure. Please. At least do that, and then we can talk. Come on. . .”
I looked at David for a few extra beats. I could see he was serious. “Okay, give me a moment to read it.” The photos showed a small single engine plane, people parachuting in the sky, people picking out folded parachutes from a long table, and about six people who seemed to be practicing jumping from high wooden stands. The words on the brochure were a mixture of brief descriptions and testimonies. “All our experienced instructors have made more than 100 successful jumps.” “Practice in the morning. Parachute in the afternoon!” “Entirely professional. You will be well trained.” “Parachuting has been the greatest thrill of my life!” “I felt 100 percent safe throughout the entire experience.” I looked up apologetically. “I’m sorry, David, this brochure hasn’t changed my mind. If anything, it’s made me less likely to try parachuting. I think it’s too dangerous.” He took a breath, “I know. This is a surprise for you. Can I at least tell you what I found out?” “Sure.” “When I called, the first thing I asked about were injuries. They keep stats: About one broken bone for every one hundred jumps, mostly in the legs. Sprained ankles are higher, about ten percent. No brain injuries or concussions. Everyone wears a helmet. They’ve been doing this for five years and there have been no deaths.” I interrupted. “Ever hear the words, ‘There’s always a first time?’ “ David smiled. “You have to let me finish. . . . The training in the morning is a chance for the instructors to check out the novice jumpers. If parachuting seems beyond their capability or they haven’t taken the training seriously, or are simply too anxious, they don’t let them parachute and they give them half their money back. They never go up in bad weather. They will give you the telephone numbers of people who have parachuted with them for the first time to answer your questions and to vouch for their commitment to safety.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I knew this meant a lot to him. As I started to shake my head, he said, “I knew you might be hesitant—with good reason. No pressure. If you don’t feel like doing this, I’ll understand.” “David, thanks for saying that. I know you mean it. I’ll give them a call and we can talk next week. But if you don’t mind, let me ask you a question.” “Okay.” “I’ve never known anyone quite like you. . . with such a drive for adventure. You’re almost 50 and you’re looking for things to do, thrilling experiences that could seriously damage you. Usually I’m reluctant, simply scared to be honest, but you lust for them. Why?” “Always have. Exhilaration. Joy. Takes me places I’ve never been. Usually, they’re outdoors and that’s a beauty of its own. But I think you’re looking for something more psychological. That is who we are. Right? My parents had me in their forties and were overprotective. Even as a seven-year-old, I felt confined. I was always running off, breaking away, hiding, pushing the limits. . . that sort of thing. In school, I could mess around like anybody else, and a bit more. Being on the edge drew other children to me. It’s no accident I’m a play therapist. I learned my lessons well and at an early age.” ~~~ There was no doubt in my mind, parachuting with David would be an unforgettable experience. Just thinking of falling and floating through the air sounded otherworldly to me. If I were to do something like this, it would have to be with David. Part of the heart of any risk was with whom you did it. Not to reminisce afterwards, but to cherish someone enough to take a serious chance in tandem, in this case to parachute from an airplane in almost the same moment, each of us evoking a willingness in the other to share such a thrill together; to deepen a bond that lasts a lifetime. I realized this potential as well as the peril involved. Growing up I had a friend in my neighborhood who became a paratrooper. He said “taking the jump” was better
than a straight shot of heroin. “You fall like a rock and then you float like a feather with all the world below you. Magnificent. But there’s a worry and it’s not minor. It’s landing. That can be hairy. Remember the scene in Bridge on the River Kwai when the paratrooper lands in a tree and breaks his neck? That’s no bullshit. For parachuting, trees are poison, snap your neck like a breadstick. And that goes for any other bone in your body. But that’s avoidable. We practice over large meadows and fields. The last moment before you hit the ground is like a deadfall from three to ten feet depending on the winds. Remember when we used to jump off the roofs of garages? Sort of like that. Only now you weigh 160 pounds instead of 80.” Before deciding, I needed to call the jump school. Terry, the man who answered the phone, was pleasant and professional. “Sure, ask me any questions you have. I think it’s a good idea. It’s not every day you jump out of an airplane.” “What’s the training like? And please be specific.” “Okay. We start at seven in the morning. No late comers allowed. Safety is primary throughout the day. You see a film. It’s as near as possible to what you’re actually going to do. Your parachute has been packed by one of the instructors. Our record is only one out of fifty doesn’t release properly. That’s why you wear an auxiliary chute on your chest with a hand release. Your regular chute is attached to a bolt on the plane and automatically releases when you jump from the wing. We repeatedly practice on the ground first, under various conditions, to evenly count to six after you’ve jumped because if your regular chute doesn’t open in six seconds, you should pull the handle on the auxiliary chute.” “How fast is the plane going when you jump?” “Between 95 and 105 miles per hour.” “Wow.” “It is fast. That’s why there are built-in grips on the plane to hold on to as you exit and a strut on the wing to stand on before you release. There is an experienced parachutist in the plane with you to give you moment-to-moment directions. Your helmet has earphones, and another experienced parachutist will guide you with a walkie-talkie as you descend. The parachute has a pulley system with small handles so
you can direct your flight to the safest landing area. When you land, there will be someone with a jeep coming to pick you up.” Feeling reassured, I said, “That sounds very thorough.” “It is. We want everyone to have a great experience.” When I hung up the phone, I knew I would be joining David. It seemed safe enough. Hearing my decision, David said, “That’s great, Raymond.” Nothing more. We both knew we had not done anything yet except agree to have the experience. The day we parachuted I picked up David at 5:00 a.m. Our destination was an airstrip embedded in an area of farmland and large fields along the edge of the Kettle Moraine, flat with good visibility and without any forests nearby. “How’d you sleep?” David answered, “Not much. Too excited.” “Same here.” “I bet we’ll sleep well tonight. Today’s going to be a workout, and by then, the adrenalin will be gone.” We were quiet for the rest of the ride to the airstrip. It was a long narrow piece of asphalt with two single-engine planes along the side resting in front of a hanger and a Quonset hut. The interior of the building was no-frills: flat tables with folded parachutes on them, wooden folding chairs in front of a small portable screen with a two-reel projector facing it, and large metal cabinets framing the side walls. Terry began the first phase of the training. When I looked around the room and saw the intense expressions of everyone focusing on him, I realized how psyched I was, like an arrow speeding toward a target, no personal barriers, only momentum. I gave David a quick sideway glance. He seemed to realize what I was feeling and gave a short nod of recognition. The most physically difficult part of the morning was practicing landing. We repeatedly took turns jumping from three-foot-high wooden boxes and landing on the balls of our feet with our knees bent. We were told that landing flat-footed with our knees straight was, even at two feet, an invitation to tearing a knee cartilage. The only other thing we practiced with as much focus and frequency was falling
backwards off the bottom of a stepladder rung on to a mattress with our arms raised above our shoulders and counting to six at one beat per second. This simulated the amount of time needed for the parachute to release and “pop.” We were told if the parachute did not open after six seconds, we must pull the handle on the auxiliary chute strapped to our chest. Pulling that handle too soon could release the smaller chute into the larger chute, cancelling the draft of air into the larger chute, and collapsing it on the smaller one wiping out its buoyancy, and plunging everything to the ground--- a guarantee of a sure death. Then it was time to take our jump. As I carefully strapped on the parachutes, I noticed no one else was talking, the silence, evidence of the tension in the air. I had the feeling I once had when I was going to fight a bully in high school: my mind made up, my mouth as dry as the inside of a toaster oven, and slight shakes throughout my body. Terry joined us walking toward the plane. He said cheerfully, “The fun starts now.” I nodded my head and David gave him a high five. Then, just before we stepped into the plane, David pulled me aside and quickly said, “Anything serious happens, tell Ethel I love her.” Realizing his concern for his wife and the gravity of his request, I uttered a feeble, “Okay,” and felt another tremor pass through me. We got into the plane, took our seats, and stared straight ahead. I had never been in a plane this small, a single engine with more dials, switches, and pin-size lights than I could ever navigate. Once we were in the air things started to move more quickly. With the plane’s engine at a loud buzz and its vibration running through our bodies, Terry pointed to the landing area ahead of us. Then he put his hand on David’s shoulder signaling David would be the first to exit. He clipped the bands that would release our main chutes onto a large bolt in the center of the plane’s floor. I realized there was no going back. The finality of the thought calmed me. That’s when David put his hand on my wrist --a sure and friendly touch with a smile defying the wind blasting through the side panel that Terry had opened.
I looked out. There were open fields in every direction with only one tree at a distance. I felt reassured the landing area was safe. Terry said, “It’s time. Let’s do it. When I give you a thumbs up, take your jump.” After Terry signaled, I watched David wobble out the door. Although the wind hit him hard, he managed to grip the sidebar attached to the edge of the door’s opening. He almost stumbled, placing his feet on the strut attached to the wing, but he managed it. Then he raised his arms and was gone. I felt my breath vanish. There was no time to think. Terry was pointing to the door. I pitched forward, grabbed the sidebar so tightly that it hurt and made me afraid that I might not be able to let go. The wind was stronger than anything I had ever experienced. I could feel my cheeks pushing back against my ears. I thought, “Enough of this,” raised my arms, flew backward, and started dropping through the sky. I felt a rush of breath into my lungs and was amazed at the sensation of falling. Then my mind shrieked, “That’s at least two seconds.” I started counting at three, then a beat and four, and another beat and five…. and “Fwop.” The opening chute jerked me upward, a sensation I barely registered as a flood of relief lit my awareness: I was sailing through the sky! Finally feeling an ease, I started to take it all in: the giant bowl of blue around me, the fields reaching out to the horizon, and the movement through the air that minimized me and expanded me at the same time. I asked myself to remember every moment, every part of the experience, and my gratitude for it. I started looking for David and found him about fifty yards away from me, but lower and farther ahead. I was thinking about how I could get him to look my way when I heard the speaker in my helmet go on and a voice say, “Nice jump. Pull the cord on your left above your shoulder. You’re drifting too far to the right.” I pulled the cord and could feel my parachute correct course. I noticed the tree in the field ahead of us. David was heading toward it. I could see him repeatedly jerking the cord above his left shoulder. It did not seem to make a difference. He was moving toward the tree like a metal filing to a magnet. I had an ugly feeling close to nausea. He was going into that tree. My speaker went on. “You’re about to land.”
I heard David crashing into the timbered limbs as I looked down, gasped, and bent my knees, the ground rushing toward me, a wall of earth rising like a rocket. Being blind-side blocked was the closest feeling I could muster as I tumbled on the ground. I jumped up breathless, tore the parachute lines off, and began running toward the tree. I tripped, fell, rolled back up, and kept on running. I saw a man sprinting toward the tree from the opposite direction. I listened for sounds I didn’t want to hear: moaning, pleas for help. There were none. The silence frightened me. I felt a chill across my face and realized I was crying. The other man, one of the instructors, got there ahead of me. When I spotted him below the tree, I saw David. The top of his chute nested in the tree limbs and his body below, hanging there, swaying in the air. His feet were dangling about four feet above the ground. I thought he might be dead. Then I heard him say, “What took you so long?” I didn't have an answer. I felt dumbfounded, close to exhaustion. David was still nonchalant. “All that practice and I never even hit the ground.” He looked at the instructor with a wry smile. “Do I get my money back?” The man shook his head, “Look at it this way. You got to keep your life. Not a bad deal.” When we helped him down, David became more serious. He had a small gash on his left cheek. He looked apologetic. “Sorry for the trouble. The pulley would not shift the direction of the chute. It was a dead-on smash into the tree.” I asked, “How are you feeling?” “Lucky. When I saw I was heading for the tree with no chance to change direction, I thought this might be it… the end. No time for a prayer, I said I’m grateful and I’m sorry, and hoped whatever’s out there would understand. Before I could think any further, I was in the tree. I think I blacked out for a moment. When I came to, I saw you guys running toward me. I knew I’d be okay. Thanks a lot.” I cracked a smile and coughed out, “Sure… any time.” When Terry saw us approaching the hut, he ran out to us and put his arm around David’s shoulder. “So glad you’re okay.” Then he stopped and moved in front of David standing face-to-face with him. He spoke in a whisper, his tone reverent.
“You should know this. What just happened is close to a miracle. I’m not kidding. No one goes into a tree like that without having a serious injury. Amazing. You were damn fortunate. We all were.” David and I never parachuted again. The next summer we went out to Colorado, took Rock I and II and became dedicated mountain climbers, making ascents together for the next twenty years. Mountaineering offered the ultimate experience for deepening trust and friendship—placing our lives in each other’s care. We never failed in this opportunity. When David passed at 91, his family asked me to give the eulogy at his memorial service. It was then I told this story. Raymond Wlodkowski Raymond Wlodkowski, a psychologist and writer living in Chicago, has worked his entire life in the field of human motivation. His most recent book is Living a Motivated Life, his most recent essay, Being Well Having Cancer.
A Tragedy Not a Battle The tumor was about the size of a baseball the doctor tells us as sunrays course through a talisman prism that hangs from a rafter. My wife’s bravery becomes a new kind of beautiful as she lies dying, our freezing fingers laced—until her soul blasts past me like a rocket. Ron Lauderbach Ron Lauderbach writes to have fun, tell stories, and preserve memories. Ron is happiest when his readers smile and tries to follow the advice he gave his students: If you are moved by your writing, your readers will be too. His work has appeared in Chiron Review, Mudfish, Prometheus Dreaming, and others.
Grandpa’s Alibi Grandma has her own place on a pew at church and if she doesn’t go, nobody sits in it. She gets dressed up and wears a hat with a veil. Her pearls reflect soft sanctuary lighting and white gloves hold the shiny church bulletin. From his carved wooden pulpit, Dr. O. Scott McFarland blesses people who tithe and warns those who don’t. Members sing hymns written by a Methodist four hundred years ago. A Methodist like the one who lives next door to Grandma, whose brother owns the Pussy Cat adult bookstore on Flower Street east of 17th, near the Dew Drop Inn that Grandpa must pass by every Sunday as he drives to the dehydrator plant where he loads barrels full of hot chili peppers onto flatbed trucks driven by other men who don’t attend church because they have to work on Sundays. Ron Lauderbach
A Fishing Lesson The dorado strike startles Dylan as he’s busy naming each live bait. You’ve gotta hold the rod tip up, I yell. You’ve gotta keep the line taut, you’re in a tug-of-war with the fish. My grandson wraps his sixyear-old fingers around the big red reel handle. The fish dives. Crank it, crank it, I shout. He looks up, his tongue juts out as if in a Norman Rockwell painting. Grandpa, he screams, his child’s voice rips through the Detroit Diesel racket. You’ve got a booger and long hairs in your nose. Ron Lauderbach
Spectacles She’s always forgetting where they are, searching on the desk, under the bed, between couch cushions, on kitchen counters—even in the freezer in case they fell while she foraged for Lean Cuisine—only to find them perched on her head like a tiara. They could hang on a beaded chain around her neck, but she’s too vain for that old-lady style. She needs them to read fine print on contracts and prescription bottles, to work the Sunday crossword, to check email. She buys pair after pair—cat’s eyes with graphite crystals on the wings, zebra print rims for when she’s feeling funky, faux tortoise-shell frames for everyday—then tears the house apart for the missing pair. Frames buckle at the bridge and break or a tiny screw vanishes where the wings were attached. She needs them but wishes she didn’t, like she wishes she didn’t want the man who forced her to see what she never wanted to see, that nothing, not even these high-powered cheaters, can last. Beth Copeland Beth Copeland has authored three full-length poetry collections: Blue Honey, Transcendental Telemarketer, and Traveling through Glass. She owns and operates Tiny Cabin, Big Ideas, a residency for writers in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
My 40-Year-Old Daughter Says I’m Boy Crazy Even when the boy is 70-plus, I get a stupid schoolgirl crush. I send her photos of men I like and she checks them out on eHarmony and Match. That one looks nice, she says. Maybe too nice. I don’t want a choir boy. I like the bad ones, dark with five o’clock shadows and deeply furrowed brows. Retired versions of James Dean, rebels, rabble-rousers. Artists, musicians, poets. Men who will break my heart. Don’t trust that one, she says. But he’s the one I want. The mystery man, felt fedora aslant, flexes his biceps in a bathroom mirror. You know what’s under that fedora, she says. A big old bald head. So, what? Bald is beautiful. A guy on Plenty of Fish who calls himself White Wolf— with snowy hair down his back and a Hulk Hogan mustache— wears tight leather jeans and likes to party. If you don’t drink, there are plenty of other ways to get lit, he writes, wink, wink. BigBob69 is seeking “nothing serious” and wants to sweep me away on his Harley. Could I squeeze into my skinny jeans and purple cowgirl boots, balance on the back of his bike, wrap my arms around his waist, and trust him with my life? Damian from Damascus sports a sleeve of tats—tidal waves, tribal bands, a blue sunburst—and plays the slide guitar. Betcha he’s smokin’ hot on stage! Mom, are you crazy? Maybe, maybe not. Who says I have to act my age? Beth Copeland
Not Too Sharp Clarence grunted in his sleep. He rolled onto his back. Murmured, “sharp, not sharp enough,” and then was silent for a moment. Suddenly his eyes popped open. His pulse quickened. He went from slumber to high alert. He stared wide-eyed at the ceiling. He had heard it. Again. He’d definitely heard it. The third early morning this week. Around four. The sky still black. Stars out. Last week it was every morning but Sunday. And the week before that. In fact, almost every early morning since he’d come home from a few weeks with his son and the family. The rumbling V8 engine of an older American car idling in front of the house. Footsteps crunching in the packed snow of Clarence’s front walk. From the little sound this made, Clarence concluded that the intruder must be a small man. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t a dangerous man. A jockey can fire a gun as effectively as a bodybuilder. The bedside clock said 4:30 a.m. Someone had begun a new nightly ritual. This person would park on the street in front of Clarence’s house, just where the giant fir would obscure the master bedroom’s view of the vehicle. The car was old. He could tell by the sound of its big V8. It reminded Clarence of cars he’d owned thirty years earlier. This one sounded like a venerable old beast of a car, a lion, old but still dangerous. Teeth intact. Those were cars, he thought, wincing at the recollection of the humming electric that occupied his garage these days. Ant vs. lion. Old lion. Old, dangerous lion. Boring little ant. So far mystery driver had skipped only four mornings: all Sundays. Some religious zealot? wondered Clarence. Each time it was the same: Clarence would lie asleep in his bed and then become conscious of the throbbing motor. He’d lie there listening. Some nights he’d awaken early enough to hear the closing of the car’s door with its squeaking hinge. Then the footsteps in the snowpack. And then, after a few minutes, he’d again hear the footsteps, the squeaky door hinge, the thunk of the heavy door latching shut, and then that engine revving. Not a lion. A dragon. Clarence sensed danger.
One morning Clarence leapt from his bed to try to spot the driver, but all he got was a quick glimpse of a huge, dark sedan retreating ahead of its glowing red taillights. And then, his head reeling from the sudden exertion, he fell. Bruised his hip. Stupid. At breakfast the next day, Clarence swallowed the last of his coffee, set down his morning paper, and decided to take stock of the situation. Someone had been sneaking around his house. Checking it out. Morning after morning. He must know I’m alone. And old. Thinks he can rob me. Maybe worse if I resist. But there would be no police. He’d tried them with the neighbor’s endlessly barking dog each time Elizabeth was home attempting to recover from chemo. Useless. “There’ve been no other complaints,” the constable had said. “When you live in the city, you can’t expect total silence.” No. But you might expect a little consideration. A little obedience to noise bylaws. That was a year ago now and Elizabeth was gone. The insult, the disregard still stung. This new problem will be solved without the “help” of the police. I may be an old man, he thought, but I’m still a man, and a man defends his home, his property. He went out to the garage and fetched his grindstone. And his axe. ~~~ Melanie Chan was the granddaughter of the Hon. Justice James MacFarlane. Titus Chan, his son-in-law and Melanie’s father, had firm ideas about the importance of a structured upbringing, just as Titus had experienced growing up in Singapore. He and his Canadian-born wife, Cindy, often differed over decisions about their only child. Hours spent studying. Boys. Piano practice. Boys. Clothing choices. Boys. A university degree in commerce or one in theater. Boys. Independence. And then there was driving.
At eighteen Melanie had her driver’s license. She saw it as her passport. It was quite an achievement, but not in a conventional way. Sure, she made much of the fact that she had a perfect score on the written test, and she had aced the practical one. She claimed that the examiner had told her she could be a professional car parker. (There was some possible embellishment here.) No, the achievement was in talking her protective, vigilant father into the project. Now that she had the license, she was determined to get a car to go with it. Titus was in a dilemma. Under his supervision, he happened to have an extra car: his father-in-law’s 27-year-old Cadillac. Midnight blue, fourteen thousand kilometers, an interior that would make a brothel look Scandinavian by design. The car had just come home from the body shop following repairs from the judge’s latest encounter with a concrete pillar in the parking garage of his condo. “I can’t believe it,” Titus said to Cindy. “Two people, each at opposite ends of their lifespan. Both want to drive. Neither should be let on the road. One’s too old to drive; one’s too young.” ~~~ There was a time when the newspaper came out in the afternoon. There was a time when everybody subscribed to the newspaper. There was a time when everybody read the newspaper. And there was a time when neighborhood boys (and it’s true that this was a boy thing) gathered at the local paper shack, collected newspapers enough for their routes, and delivered the paper door-to-door just in time for dads to come home and read it before dinner. Now things were different. The paper was released in the morning. Fewer people subscribed. The physical gaps between subscribers could be a couple of blocks, not just a driveway. Fewer people read. Boys, being sensible creatures, wouldn’t get up in time to deliver a morning paper. And anyway, the publishers wanted adults, and
adults did the delivery in vehicles—on tires, not sneakers. Melanie might not have apprehended the evolution of newspaper delivery modes, but the result of the changes opened up an opportunity, one she pursued with patience. “Dad, I’ve got a part-time job.” “Very good idea. I had two jobs and still went to university. Full time. What did you get?” “I’ve got a couple of newspaper delivery routes. The money’s not bad. The deliveries have to be done by seven in the morning on weekdays. I’ll have the rest of the day free for school. Maybe even another part-time job. Just like you. There’s just one thing. I’m going to have to borrow your car.” (Notice, here, the strategy. Nowhere in this exchange did Melanie ask for a car. Devious.) “But it’ll be fine. I’ll have it back in plenty of time for you to leave for work.” Nuanced. It’s the only word to describe her pitch. Melanie did not ask for a car. She asked only to borrow one, and to borrow it when its owner wouldn’t need it. What could a father do, especially when he wanted to encourage his daughter to work part time? “You want to use my new Volvo to deliver newspapers?” “Just to get started.” That arrangement lasted exactly a week. Titus was late to his office three days out of five. ~~~ On Saturday Melanie had gone shopping with her friends. She drove the Volvo. And when she was finished and nearly home, she rounded the last corner and noticed something unexpected in the driveway: her grandfather’s car. She was excited. Shopping in hand, she ran into the house and called out, “Grampa, where’s my
grampa?” Titus emerged from the living room. His expression was serious yet slightly smug. “Your grandfather’s not here. But his car is.” He pulled the keys out of his trouser pocket and held them up. “Your car now.” Melanie’s face expressed her horror. She sputtered before she was able to get out a single word: “old.” And then, “It’s so old. And big. It’d be like driving a cruise ship.” “What happened to the professional car parker?” “But I want a Subaru. It’s got a high safety rating. You’ve seen the ads. It’s the car of love. Grandpa’s is the car of—” “I don’t care. This one’s comfortable. It’s like brand new. It’s big enough to be safe. And it will thrill your grandfather that it’s staying in the family. Maybe next year, if this goes well and if you still have a job, we can think about a Soo-whatever.” “Baru. Subaru.” “Here, take the keys.” ~~~ Twenty-seven days—the marauder had stalked him every day of the week but Sunday. His hip was better. Clarence need tolerate the marauder’s intrusions no longer. There’d be no more sniffing around his house. No more trying to find a weak spot. He knew he had to act. The time had come. He’d been in the basement working for an hour. He held the edge of the axe against his forearm, and he made a gentle stroke of about an inch. And there it was: a little patch of bare skin, proof the axe was sharp enough to shave with. The ultimate test. But no shaving would be asked of this blade tonight. There would be a confrontation. There would be blood. He was ready. His plan was to go upstairs and
have a cocktail. No more than two. He had to remain sharp. Then some dinner. Go to bed early. Waken in time to go into the yard, conceal himself to one side of the pine tree, and when the marauder arrived, jump out and attack. Damn the consequences. A man can be asked to endure only so much. Clarence awoke at 3:30. At 4:15 he was in position. At 4:30 he heard the car. The full-throated rumble of the V8. The car stopped. Clarence’s heartbeats could be heard for blocks. The door opened. The hinge squeaked. The driver left the door open, and Clarence could hear the high-pinched pinging of the door-ajar warning chime. He heard the footsteps approach. Soon. Very soon now. He lifted the axe above his head. He leapt out from under the tree. “Haiiiiii-yah!” he screamed. Melanie screamed. (Yes, that Melanie.) In a single bound she leapt up to the top of the front porch. In two hands she held out a folded copy of the Globe and Mail as though it were a shield. Clarence, first running at top speed toward the bottom step, pulled up short. He still held his axe aloft. Melanie screamed again: “Get away from me. Help. He’s got an axe. Somebody. Help!” “Girl! You’re a girl.” “And you’re out of your mind.” “How did you get mixed up in this?” It was at this point that Clarence noted that he had forgotten to change out of his baby-blue pajamas. He dropped the axe. “What do you mean? Mixed up in what? I’m delivering your newspaper. I do it every morning. Except Sunday. I’ve been doing it for a month. And there was another guy before me. Jesus! What kind of lunatic are you? Have you lost your mind? If you don’t want the paper, just cancel it.” “I’m so sorry,” Clarence began. “I. I. I never thought—” “Here. Here’s your paper,” said Melanie, slamming it on the porch. “And don’t complain that it didn’t get in the mail slot.”
Tears welled up in Clarence’s eyes. “Oh, Elizabeth, what have I done?” One by one lights came on in the homes of several neighbors. Melanie ran past Clarence to her car. She dove in. Slammed the door. Hit the automatic locks. Clarence heard the squeaking hinge. The burbling V8 transitioned to high alert. The tires spun until they found some traction. Then she sped away. Clarence stood there and watched as its red taillights retreated into the night. Donald McMann Donald McMann is a professor in the English department of McEwan University. He holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Wales: Trinity St. David. His short story Strip Malls Can Change Your Life appeared in The Lampeter Review in 2010.
Where birds never sing This is a place where birds never sing And stale, heavy air entombs silence Nothing moves, but a quickening heart, for murderous intent Is in these dark woods, sprinkled with demonic scent For this is one corner of the devil’s triangle Made from two rings and a malady of the missing Where no sun throws light, nor churchyard holds The decomposing, ancient or modern Who have strayed from the path, stained glass glint Now huddled together at the leper’s squint This is a place where birds never branch In knot or twist of trees, whose crucified stance Will not save you from the dim warren of endless track Covered in mud and leaves, to where you started, back And in the distance Lucifer’s pale, sickly horse Shadows your misfortune, whilst his master sleeps For these are the hours of day, go before twilight sets Whisper constable and priest, now ghosts upon the heath For this is a bad place, that will do you no good So, run whilst there’s still time, from the wickedness of Clapham Wood Mark Niedzwiedz Mark Niedzwiedz is a professional musician, composer and lyricist living in the UK. Mark’s poems have appeared, or are scheduled to appear, in poetry journals such as Grey Sparrow, Oddville Press, Scritura, and elsewhere.
When your beloved dies Tears When you cry for seven days, sitting Shiva without planning without even knowing that’s what you are doing it empties out the tears as though a plug were yanked you stand next to his coffin as though you are really there receiving from others their sorrow, storing it over your shoulder to be released with his ashes into the wind the day you free him. Grief When you enter a territory of emptiness, a vacuum so generous it includes everything, consumes even your living, grief its name, but not even it stays, void is all, nothing becomes your breath, fills your sight, steals your voice until it too, seeps away in a leak through your heart allowing first tears, pain and then pitch dark before life can come back. Healing When the tincture of caring from life begins its healing you don’t believe it, like those shaman you see in stories healing believers, but you let it happen watching the mystery fill you again with sight the memories grow soft and move just out of sight, fading as living moves back in with its detritus of furniture and noise introducing you to yourself, unrecognizable since you are only bone. Continuing When you remember and wonder if you could have kept loving so intensely in years ahead, and you step away from shame as you fall in love again, you revel in the opening of another day, the birth of a grandchild, the voice of a bird reminding of who no longer comes to mind tears return, grief reaches out squeezing hot sorrow on your cooling aches continuing on to the miracle of being born, dying in majestic rhythm, and you remember the cycle will persist when your time comes to leave. Sharon Lopez Mooney Sharon Lopez Mooney is a retired interfaith minister who now lives in Mexico. Her current work is forthcoming in several journals and anthologies. She has received a California Arts Council Grant for a rural poetry series, has co-published a journal, and has produced poetry readings.
Patty I held my mother’s cold, veined hand. Her eyes, filmed over with cataracts, stared at some spot beyond me, something only she could see. I hated to see her like this, a shell of a person who np longer knew me as her daughter. I absentmindedly asked her in Spanish “Do you remember Patty?” To my surprise, her eyes welled up with tears. Patty was a dog, a zaguate, Costa Rican slang for mutt. Patty was medium sized, white with black and brown spots, pointed ears like satellite dishes protruding from her head, and a stub of a tail that wiggled when she wagged. Rumor has it her mother was a German Shepherd mix, kept on the roof when she was in heat so that her many suitors could not reach her. And yet one small wily dog made it up there. My mother inherited her farm in Grecia, Costa Rica, from her father when I was already in college. When visiting on spring break, I found Patty in a wooden shack occupied by migrant coffee pickers from Nicaragua. She was the liveliest pup of the litter, wriggling and nipping my hand as I picked her up. I gave the boy of the house a few colónes, took her home, shampooed and dewormed her. My mother gave her the name Patty after Patricia Hearst. She said there was a resemblance, something to do with sad dark eyes. My mother had her one story, two-bedroom farmhouse built on a hill, gnarled cedar pillars harvested from her own trees. Her guard, a retired worker called Don Juan out of respect for his years, slept in a shed in the back and carried a rusty pistol bigger than his head. Felicia, a mannish self-identified solterona or “old maid” in her thirties, performed light cooking and cleaning. Felicia’s family owned a pulperia in town and she kept my mother supplied with valuable local gossip. Patty’s daily routine began at 6 am when she barked to go out, went down the hill to Felicia’s house, and escorted her back to my mother’s place. At roughly 8 am, Patty accompanied my mother on her daily inspection tour of the farm. My
mother, already in her 60s, suffered from arthritis and Patty would run happy circles around her as she struggled up the hill. Nothing gave my mother more pleasure than admiring her “baby” coffee trees. She used all her knowledge as a biochemist to nurture them with the proper balance of nutrients. Sometimes, she would pluck a plump red berry from a mature tree to chew the bitter bean inside, just to remind herself how coffee begins. Patty was a callejera, a wanderer, who loved to roam the farm and socialize. She gave us a little nod to indicate where she was going and trotted off. No matter how far away, she could hear her name and came running, a streak of white through the drab green bushes. She accompanied my mother to town, tall and vigilant in the passenger seat of the muddy yellow jeep. She gained fame throughout Grecia and soon it was all the rage to own a dog with a stub of a tail. Once a month my mother brought Patty to the town vet to have her injected with hormones to prevent her going into heat. Despite my mother’s efforts, Patty got pregnant and Felicia wasted no time in auctioning off each potential pup to members of her network. “Poor pregnant lady,” my mother sighed, watching the dog waddling through the house. “I know how she feels.” One night I awoke to a steady lapping sound in my room. Patty was licking her five pups, trying to revive them. They were all born dead. She must have already conceived before her last hormone shot. We gently carried them away and Patty retreated beneath my bed, refusing to emerge for several days, even for her favorite dish, Arroz con Pollo. The next week, my mother drove her 45 minutes to the best vet hospital in San José to be properly spayed. A few years later, when I was in graduate school, Patty met a common fate for farm dogs. While playing with her friends on the soccer field, she was hit by a truck running down the two-lane highway when she strayed onto the road. Felicia, who was first on the scene, cradled Patty in her arms and sobbed. My mother buried Patty by the house. Soon after Patty’s demise, my mother sold the farm to a Swiss industrialist and retired. She lived with me in Fairfax, Virginia, on the final stretch of her
journey with Alzheimer’s. After she passed, I traveled to Grecia to scatter her ashes under a tree overlooking her former farm, the January winds whipping them into a frenzy. I still imagine her struggling up the dirt road to the farmhouse, admiring her “baby” coffee, Patty trotting at her heels.
Marcella Peralta Simon
Marcella Peralta Simon is a recently retired Latinx grandmother, splitting her time between Cambridge, UK, and Kissimmee, Florida. She has been a diplomat, university professor, and instructional designer. She published Coogee Haikus in a journal for emerging Western Australian Writers and Maria, In Three Acts in Pank. She teaches online, paints landscapes and abstracts, and explores woodlands and wetlands with her husband and Treeing Walker Coonhound.
Ornamental Giraffe Placement
oil on canvas
Aaron Robert Sims
Crossover Flirting Imagine your finance's hand up my thigh, Him telling me I looked like a Black Julia Roberts So innocent, so hot Something about my narrow face My steel belted radial lips. . . All right I liked it This being fed. Enormous is my head that your boyfriend's grossly blatant come ons Hit me with fuzzy caterpillar harmlessness, Of course, I know this ruins the echelon of things I interfere with your zip?locked dreams of marriage Normalcy A house in Linden Hills He said we were the same: Skinny and grinny Till then I had no idea that Hollywood's Highest paid actress Looked like a white version of me. Allison Whittenberg Allison Whittenberg is a Philly native who has a global perspective. If she wasn’t an author she’d be a private detective or a jazz singer. She loves reading about history and true crime. Her novels include Sweet Thang, Hollywood and Maine, Life is Fine, and others.
A Crimson Mumu I had my first man-to-man kiss on a dancefloor. Years, paint cans kicked over on a floor canvas. I dance rarely now. I waft, wear a crimson mumu as I go to the kitchen. A kind of dance after all. Without music. . . or a kind of music yet to be written. Kenneth Pobo Kenneth Pobo is the author of twenty-one chapbooks and nine full-length collections. Recent books include Bend of Quiet, Loplop in a Red City, and Uneven Steven. Forthcoming works include Opening and Lavender Fire, Lavender Rose.
Clean Out Time to throw away the crap. My kids—hell, not kids anymore—shouldn't have to do it. I’m approaching the age my father died, probably ahead of him in terms of wear and tear, but behind his pace of organization. The closer he came to his death, the tidier his home, as if the best thing he could leave behind was a neat pile. My basement is overfull of junk that'll be pawed over by the estate sale people after I'm gone. I might post a sign in my basement: "Pull up the dumpster and heave it all in." So I rent the dumpster from "Bin There Dump 'at" in Homestead. They deliver a new one, the blue paint without a scratch. The driver finds a way to set it right next to the rusted storm door that leads to my basement. He peeks over my shoulder as I sign the rental forms. "I don't think you'll fill it," he says, "but you'll christen it, all right." I'm not as ready as I thought—like I’m gonna burn a bridge. For days, the dumpster holds only the dry leaves torn from the overhanging trees when he wedged the monster in place. On Sunday afternoon two weeks later, I open my squat, basement door, its paint cracked like alligator skin. The wooden stairs creak as I step down. At the bottom, I wave in the darkness to find the light cord. A single silk of a spider web brushes my hand. I find the cord and pull—it resists for a second then releases dim yellow light. The bulb lights only the area around the base of the stairs. Stacks of leaning cardboard boxes loom in the darkness. One had tipped over—I hadn’t heard it fall and wonder why. I go a little farther into the room, touching tops of the boxes to steady myself. I pat my pocket for my phone—security should I fall. When did I start thinking like this? Straddling collapsing cardboard boxes, I find the two other light cords. As I light each yellowed bulb, I search for the critters that might skitter into darkness. My daughter Mattie told the story of the snakeskin at each family reunion. A few years ago, Mattie found the yard-long skin fused to the handle of a plastic cooler we kept in the basement as we prepared for a picnic on a warm spring Sunday. That night, I scraped off the brittle dried skin with a wire brush and worried that I inhaled its dust.
I had seen the snake months before as I raked leaves. It slithered along the foundation. I watched in horror as it disappeared behind the siding of my home. For weeks I worried how it would reappear. But I didn’t tell anyone. Now, in the basement, seems a perfect time. As my eyes adjust to the low light, more stuff appears—a canoe yoke with teal pads fixed to aluminum, Mattie’s commemorative soccer ball now nearly airless, the signatures of her teammates collapsing into a fold, Jack’s red bike, the tires flat, a web in the spokes. Directly in front of me lies a large box labeled “PICTURES” in my ex-wife Carol’s bold handwriting. It’ll be completely full. She saved every shot, even those capturing my face, often full of scorn, over something or other. She got better and better at finding my anger. I’d have to look at all of these pictures. Ten years ago, I would've burned them one at a time. Now, I just want them out of the house. The kids, really my daughter Mattie, should have them. She keeps her mom close. It takes me a whole day but I look at every one, every goddamn picture. Carol always left it to me to sort the stuff that seems to come in piles—mail, laundry, utensils—even the little tragedies that came in groups of three. Some days, I forget where we are in the count. I sort the pictures into piles: before we married, before kids, after Jack, after Mattie, teenage years. I don’t know where the time goes but I get to the bottom layer that evening. When it’s all laid out in front of you, you see what you might have missed. At the bottom of the box, I find the really old stuff, the pictures from before Carol and I met. The picture that stops me is of my Dad and me. It's buried in a large stack of mismatched snapshots. The deckled edge dates it to the fifties or sixties. The black and white snapshots from that time always seem taken under thick clouds. He and I are sitting on a street in Lisbon—you can tell it's Portugal by the tile walk. I must've been eight or nine. My father looks to be in his early thirties. He hadn't found work, so he got by as a street performer—an organ grinder—for a year or so. The picture shows him sitting on his stool, his hand on the organ handle, his eyes kind of empty, looking away. I'm sitting next to him drawing on a small easel. My tongue is peeking from the side of my mouth. I still do that when I'm concentrating. My mother told me that my father thought I had artistic talent. Though I didn't. So he set me up
to draw while he played or cranked or whatever. We didn't have a monkey to dance to his tunes. Two chickens are in the foreground, both with their heads down pecking at something. He told me much later their usefulness in attracting donations soon was surpassed by their nutritional value. I don't remember the dinners. I'm guessing my mother took the picture. She was the photographer in the family—she didn't make it into many shots herself. My father's career as an organ grinder didn't last long. He came into some money when his mother died and moved the family to Brooklyn where he went into the upholstery business. He stuck with that, I don't think happily, until he retired. I never saw the organ in the states—he must've sold it or left it in some basement in Portugal. I take the photo upstairs and set it beside the phone. I plan to talk about it when my son Jack calls. He phones once or twice a week from his car as he drives home from his job as an attorney at a downtown firm in Chicago. I hadn’t told him about the organ grinder years. I'm not sure why I want him to know. A few days later he calls right at Final Jeopardy! time. Just as the phone rings, the answer appears on the TV. The category is "Ancient History." I glance down at the photo as I pick up the phone. "Hey, Dad. How's it going?" "Pretty good. Can't complain." My mind's trying to think of an ancient philosopher who's known as Master Kong. I mute the Final Jeopardy! tune. "Do anything interesting this week?" "Na, not really. But I was trying to get rid of some junk—you kids shouldn't have to bother after I go. . . ." "C'mon Dad, stop talking that way." "Your old bike, the red one's still here. You want it? Maybe for Taylor?" "You still have that? Kids don't ride bikes like that anymore, Dad. Toss it." "There's some other stuff of yours. . . ." "Dad. I think we've talked about this. Just toss my stuff. Okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, okay." I think about whether the bike might know its time has come—maybe it trembles a bit in the basement. "Hey, I found an old picture of me and your grandfather." "Your Dad or Mom's?" My son never knew my father. He died too young so it's left to me to create some memories. I had told him about his upholstery work, and his love of the Yankees and manhattans but not much more. He knew Carol’s father, the bastard, much better. I wondered if my hate of her dad was because my father never got a chance to know my kids. "My dad—your Grandpa Coval. Did you know he was an organ grinder for a couple of years?" The phone line is silent. I wonder if the call got dropped. I look at the TV. "Who is Confucius?" Shit, I should have known that. "You still there," I say. "You mean he was a street performer?" "Yeah." "Huh. I just read a story about a famous violinist who pretended to be a street performer in the subway. He was playing some violin worth millions. Nobody noticed." "The picture shows me in it too. He would sit me in front of an easel to draw while he played." "I didn't know you drew." "I don't." "Was he any good? I mean, was he a good organ grinder?" "I don't really know. I can't remember. I don't even know if there's such a thing as a good organ grinder. He did it to get by." "And he had a family then to support and all?" "Yeah, by then, he had all three kids." "Must've been rough."
A Day at the Lake
oil on canvas
Aaron Robert Sims
"I guess. But I don't remember it that way. It was a blast, watching him play, scribbling pictures I thought were good, and watching people drop a coin now and then into the hat. It seemed like magic that people would give us money to watch him play and me draw. I was too young to know. I guess you learn later about the things you aren't good at." That sort of stops our conversation and he says his good-byes. The next day, I'm back in the basement rooting around when my cell phone dings announcing Mattie has posted a new picture. I pull it up and it shows my grandson, his face and hands a mess with green and purple finger paint. His work lies in front of him—I can't make out anything. Mattie's added a comment, "The future Van Gogh." I press the "like" button. When Mattie first started sending me my grandson's pictures, I printed them. Jack told me that was silly because they're kept forever in the cloud. My grandson's three and a half. There's nine hundred pictures so far of him in the cloud. That's more than all the photos in my basement. I wonder what's going to be stored in basements in fifty years. I make progress over the next three days. I'm tossing stuff left and right into the dumpster. I'm in a hurry and don't know why. I get near the back corner and move a footlocker that holds my kids' artwork from grade school. Behind it is an old rectangular gas can. I pick it up and feel the old gas sloshing inside. The top is pretty rusted but I work the cap loose and smell the gas. After all these years, it still smells like it would burn. To tell you the truth, I don't remember putting it there. I'm not sure what to do with it. The regular trash guys won’t take it. And I've made some good progress getting rid of stuff—I don't want this hanging around. I can't dump it out on the lawn—that seems almost criminal. So I throw it in the dumpster even though I'm pretty sure something I signed promises I won't throw this kind of stuff in there. It lands with a louder sound that I anticipated. If it was glass, I'm sure it would have broken, but you can't tell with metal. I figure it'll be buried with my other crap by the time they haul the dumpster away. I'm finished by the next afternoon. Almost everything's in the dumpster except a small pile of snapshots by the door. I look at it for a while thinking it'll probably sit
untouched in my daughter's basement and in twenty years she'll toss it. So in a burst of decisiveness, I throw it all in the dumpster and call the company to come and take it away. They tell me they'll be by next week. I'm kind of proud of myself—I did a good job. My daughter calls on Sunday night. "What ya been doing?" She sounds distracted like she's reading something else on her phone. "I cleaned out the basement," I say. "What?" "I threw away all that stuff in the basement. It's all gone." She doesn't say anything for a few seconds. "What about the pictures?" “I threw them to save you the trouble.” "Jesus, Dad, there were some great shots in those pictures." I’ve never taken criticism well. So I do what I usually do, punch back. "When was the last time you looked at them?" I snap. "You're right—a long time ago. But still." "Still what?" "I don't know. All the memories. It's like you're leaving." I hear a sniffle. Shit. I always put on the boxing gloves too soon. I think about climbing in the dumpster and retrieving the pictures for her. But they're scattered all over. I'd probably kill myself climbing in. I should say I'm sorry but change the subject instead. "I did find an old shot of my father. When he was an organ grinder." "Hey," she says, her voice clipped, "I got another call. It's Rick. I gotta go." "Sure, sure. Later." I hang up and toss the phone across the room toward my couch. I'm a little short and it cracks on the floor. I begin pacing. After five minutes, I'm still pissed. I don't smoke pot very often, but there are times when getting high seems the best move. I don't want to smell up the house so I take my water pipe and the little bag of pot I've had for several years outside and light up standing next to the dumpster. It's a hot afternoon, everything dried out in the late summer drought. It
takes a while to get the pot lit but after a few matches and tokes, it’s going pretty good. I toss the last match in the dumpster without shaking it out. Just as I let it go I think maybe that wasn't a wise decision. The dumpster thumps as the gas flashes. I’m punched by the explosion but still standing. I wonder if that's it, just a big poof and no fire. I've got mixed wishes. I hear some crackling and peek over the side. My stuff is catching fast. I understand how people don't have enough time to escape house fires. Then, the pot kicks in and time does its usual thing—like it's been forever since I tossed the match. It'll take even longer to drag my hose from the front of the house. So why bother? I stand mesmerized hoping I can make this moment last. The flames are shooting out the top of the dumpster. They take on the shape of the item that's on fire—a canoe paddle, my daughter's tennis racket, a Parcheesi board. I even see the snake for a second but can’t tell if it’s the flames or the damned thing started living in the dumpster and was trying to escape. I wonder if everything, even the stuff that's burning, has a soul. All the pictures are burning. I look for faces in the flames but see none. Your soul must not be taken when someone shoots your picture, a thought I judge as exceptionally insightful but know that in an hour I'll think was stupid or just forget. Sirens are wailing in the distance and getting closer. It's not until I see my neighbor jogging toward me that I understand he's called the fire department. I hope they don't arrive too soon. I wonder if this is the only story my grandchildren will hear about me. David Macpherson
David Macpherson is a retired internal medicine physician who lives on a small farm in western Pennsylvania and has been writing fiction for five years. His short stories have appeared in Scarlet Leaf Review, Adelaide Literary Journal, Front Porch Review and others.
Progress Sometimes I watch videos of people hiking, nomads who travel long distances using only their legs. They go to places only they can go, places no car or old man will ever end up. Somehow it gives me peace, knowing those trails and mountains are out there. I always wanted to do that, take a hike that’s so long that when you get to the end you have to think for a minute about whether you want to rejoin the crowd or spend the rest of your life out there moving around with the mountains and the quiet. What have we learned in the last million years, is what I’m trying to ask, what can we say is better now than hiking through a forest only to come upon a clearing and see trees and valleys in every direction. That’s my question. Casey Killingsworth Casey Killingsworth, who holds a Master's degree from Reed College, has work in The American Journal of Poetry, Two Thirds North, and other journals. His has published two poetry collections, A Handbook for Water and A nest blew down.
Unenlightened there's a man who speaks in sestinas whose footsteps fall into syncopated patterns who cries watercolor landscapes across his cheeks who was born as a block of marble and chiseled the statue of himself out of it from the inside who is a composition composed to be perfect at composing a man who bathes in prose and leaves it cleaner who is siblings with the syllables he arranges who never questions the lessons of intuition but I am not that man John Maurer John Maurer is a 26-year-old writer from Pittsburgh who writes fiction, poetry, and everything in between. He has been published in Claudius Speaks, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, Thought Catalog, and over fifty others.
Silent Music Humming is like weaving a gold and silver thread across the door of the mind—it’s a fine meditation. Hum like fisherman and carpenters. It keeps them company on the job. Women who love to dance hum while performing the drudgery of housework. Humming allows your body to do whatever it has to do effortlessly. Hum like a composer listening to a tune no one else can hear. Hum until the lights in this dark world begin to glow again Milton P Ehrlich Milton P Ehrlich, PhD, is an 89-year-old psychologist and a veteran of the Korean War. He has published poems in Poetry Review, The Antigonish Review, The New York Times and others.
Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine issue #15 fall/winter 2021
fiction Bruce Spang, editor Peter Alterman Susan Coyle Gail Hipkins non-fiction Susan Coyle, editor Peter Alterman Steve Wechselblatt poetry John Himmelheber Pete Solet Bruce Spang art & photography Terry Johnson, editor editor-in-chief John Himmelheber