Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine #18

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issue #18 Spring/Summer 2023

Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine

issue #18 spring/summer, 2023 fiction Robert Baylot The Itinerant Preachers’ Tag Team 64 Patricia Schultheis When Sister Joan Opens the Door 10 Marjorie A Speirs The Rifle 36 John Styron His True Nature 94 non-fiction Kelli Short Borges Roots 53 Jean Duffy Selina, A South African Soccer Granny 58 Gail B Kent The Hands of Time 112 Susan Nash Swipe Right? 82 Carol Prentice Absent Neighbor 26 poetry Marie-Andrée Auclair Hollyhock 62 Elsewhere 63 Les Brown Cedar Waxwings at an Old Farmstead 54 A Place Between 55 On Our Fifty-Eighth Year 56 Constant Companion 57 Vivi Delsole Enigma rugosa 24 I Miss Her Sometimes 25 Susan Lynn Dines Camping with My Daughter and Her Fiancé 86 The Cracker Jack Prize 87 A Deadly Discrimination 88 Notable Deaths 89 William Doreski Dead On 90 A Novel I'm Writing Myself 92 The Music of Portugal 93 Arvilla Fee Church Campground Reunion 4 Vinyls 6 Janelle Finamore Six feet 108 George Freek As the Moon 81 Moriah Hampton 321 106 James Croal Jackson Flame Season 77

Editor's Note

We're happy to announce that we are entering a relationship with the Creative Aging Network of North Carolina ( According to their mission statement, the folks at CAN-NC "provide innovative arts programming and education to enhance the well-being and social connection among older adults throughout North Carolina." While we at SBLAAM publish many senior writers, we will continue to welcome and encourage submissions from all age groups and from anywhere in the world. Our relationship with CAN-NC will allow us to channel tax-deductible funds for future improvements such as a better web presence, possibly a printed version, writing contests, and more. We will be updating this relationship as it develops.

Before we began this publication in September, 2014, we sought advice from a number of experienced writers and editors. Kevin McIlvoy was both, as well as a friend to this magazine. Kevin—or Mc as he was called—had been editor of the renowned Puerto del Sol and was the author of many novels, short fiction, and poetry. Kevin's advice continues to guide this magazine, and we are thankful for it. Kevin McIlvoy passed away on September 30, 2022.

Kevin R Jespersen Monsters and Heroes 110 Bill Keen At the Playground 7 The Wand 8 Linda Malm River Women 117 Passing 118 Requiem Sestina 120 I Need 121 Michael Milligan Fly through the Air with the Greatest of Ease 32 Sense of Things 34 Paul Z Panish The Sacrifice 78 E Martin Pedersen Like a Mystic 49 Cynthia Pierce Angel Mud 50 images William C Crawford Battered Freedom Bus in Retirement 52 Funky Green Porch with Peeling Paint 105 Big Red with Open Summer Windows 109 Dead Red 116 Bill Wolak Startled by the Somnambulist's Glance 35 With a Gaze Deep As Moonlight 91
cover: Funky Green Porch with Peeling Paint (partial), by William C Crawford

Church Campground Reunion

To return to your childhood stomping grounds is like looking in a rearview mirror; each object is the same, yet smaller—and slightly out of focus.

You squint into the trees and inhale the familiar scent of cedar.

The girls’ dorm still stands, white paint chipping off old cement blocks, and you shiver slightly in the goosebump breeze, remembering the night a group of prayer warriors had to cast a demon out of a poor girl’s soul, remembering the night you got your period and thought you had cancer.

You turn to stare at the long, low building where the meetings were held, each one signaled by the ringing of a brass bell that made you come running. Brown legs pumping, gray gravel skittering in all directions;

you dared not be late for the hallelujah courses and hell-fire sermons.

The best services were held outdoors in the brush harbor—thick poles stuck into the ground with a roof made from branches and brush. Even mosquitoes made their way to the altar, buzzing past your ears.

You were certain the woods held spirits, as you made your way down to the water hole (a trail that felt like two miles— but now is only a quarter), and you wanted to get baptized before the devil punched your ticket.

So, the men folk killed three copperheads before you waded out, and the preacher dunked you under water so dark you couldn’t see your feet.

But you came up to the sound of Shall We Gather at the River, and you felt clean enough to be counted among the Saints. There are no baptisms today, and you smell the decay that comes from rotting wood and leaves lain-too-long. Twigs snap in sanctuary shadows, and you silently salute the ghost of your twelve-year-old self.

Arvilla Fee teaches English Composition for Clark State College and has been published in numerous presses. What she loves most about writing is its energy and passion. For her, poetry has always been about being in the trenches with ordinary people who will say, “She gets me.”

Arvilla Fee


How sad to belong to the generation who knows nothing about placing a needle just so on the surface of a 45

or speeding it up so that the singers sound high on balloon-released helium

or playing it backwards to listen to satanic messages that freaked parents out

or nearly breaking into tears when your favorite one gets that wicked scratch

and makes it say:

Father McKenzie

Father McKenzie

Father McKenzie

until someone moves the needle.

Arvilla Fee

At the Playground

Terry Fasick was nimble as a cat. His deft fingers clipped butterflies in flight, one in each hand. He put them in a jar with a holed lid. Pollen from their wings dusted the glass.

Johnny Arnold was saddened by the sight. He asked me to take the role he feared to play by releasing the butterflies, letting them fly away.

But Terry Fasick had already set them free. He’d only caught them to show a girl who’d stood by smiling how deftly his fingers could catch beauty on the wing.

Bill Keen, age 87, has been writing poetry for seventy-five years. Since his retirement from Washington and Jefferson College’s English Department in 2000, his pace for writing poems and prose reminiscences has increased.

The Wand

She wore rain boots to school across the April fields when winter melted and the leaden sky was sobbing for flowers.

They saw her gliding there where the cindered paths appeared and knew her long striding in the red rain boots as certainly as April’s end would know the flowers some for a day others only for hours.

She was the one to announce the time for a month or more when all the boys gathered at the school yard door and swayed to the strong pulse of the red boots on the path across the April fields.

Apples for As were packed away marbles and sling shots stored. Newly awakened blossoms, the sun’s grasp toward night, scented earth into the evenings.

We wore red boots to weed the full fruited garden while her children played in the short summer song of the cultivated crops.

We saw her bend to the task, directing fingers to the ground’s score, to the weed and the save, the held fermata of ripened fruit, and remembered her coming, her red rain boots striding, timing the morning when winter melted and the school yard was warming, our breath clouds of expectation, her color gliding toward us across the April fields.

Bill Keen

When Sister Joan Opens the Door

I am a white male. I am an alcoholic.

I am twenty-six years old.

I am a long way from home.

I am driving toward Las Cruces where the Organ Mountains shoot like granite geysers into the dawn. An odd, fierce wind churns through the slotted crags and hits the eighteen wheelers broadside, rendering the grim men at their wheels merciless. The one barreling up my ass blasts his horn. I’m about to give him the finger, but instead press the small Zuni fetish in my pocket hard against my thigh.

The trucker passes, and I return to grabbling with the problem that’s dogged me since last night. My sister Amy called. She’s gotten engaged and wants me to be in her wedding party. But I don’t know if I’m ready to go back East. My sobriety is new, and I don’t know if I can handle returning to the land of green trees and good people, people who truly mean what they say when they tell you that they only want “what’s best for you,” but whose minds can’t grasp how living in the shadows of saber-toothed mountains sets your soul ticking toward eternity.

On the other hand, I don’t want to disappoint Amy—she and I were the compadres who played beneath the heights our older sister Juliette scaled.

I turn off the highway and park behind the warehouse for Mani’s Movers. Mani is already inside…Mani is never not already inside. I know he has a wife, three children and a German shepherd named Zapata, but Mani’s true home is his warehouse. From one borrowed truck, a rickety dolly, and six balls of twine, he built the company into one with ten vehicles and thirty-six employees. Since dropping out of the university, I’ve had dozens of bosses, but none as unflappable as Mani. Nothing deters him, nothing distracts. Plus, he’s unfailingly fair. I’ve never seen him fire anyone who didn’t deserve it.

He’s where he always is, on his phone, squinting at his computer. He thrusts the paperwork for today’s job at me, then puts down his phone and looks at me hard. He only hired me because my AA sponsor recommended me. That was two years ago, and I’ve never disappointed him, but he’s never stopped appraising me either. The company’s his life. One screw up and I’ll be gone. Today’s job is seven rooms, and the crew seems small, just me, Geraldo, and the new kid, Connor.

My sponsor gave me the fetish in my pocket. He chose a bear because the bear has the power to ease transitions, and few transitions are as unsettling as a move. I thrust my fist into my jeans and wrap my fist around it. “Just the three of us?”

Mani’s expression doesn’t change. “Yeah, they don’t have much.”

“Pick up Connor at the usual place?”


“Geraldo’s got the address?”

“He’ll meet you there.”

I turn to leave, but Mani adds, “Three will be fine. It’s all going in storage. You don’t need more. You’ll be fine.”

Las Cruses has two basic populations: transients, mostly university students, in and out in a few years. Their stuff is usually cheap, sometimes pathetically so. But if they’ve maybe gotten themselves a nice fellowship to graduate school somewhere, they’ll indulge themselves by hiring a mover. The others are older people who’ve lived in the same house for decades and accumulated a lifetime of clothes, tools, cooking gadgets, Christmas ornaments, knick-knacks, all of it vested with memories. In those places, you take a snow globe from a table, and I swear you hear a rip like a deep-rooted rosebush pulled from a side-yard garden. Stuff for some people is what drink is to alcoholics. They crave it so to distract themselves from looking down the street and seeing the mountains they never got around to climbing.

Two blocks from the university, the kid’s waiting in front of Starbuck’s. The wind beats his baggy pants against his legs, the same ones he wore yesterday. . . . I suspect he’s homeless. But he’s also holding a Starbucks coffee, so he’s getting money somewhere. I’m not surprised. Even when I lived in the shelter I always had some

cash. Most the men did: getting robbed was a bigger worry than finding clean clothes or a hot meal.

Connor climbs in. “So?”

“Odd one. . . seven rooms, but only three of us.”

“So who’s the third. . . Geraldo?”


The kid drinks his coffee. The one cog in Mani’s smooth moving machine is Geraldo. Mani only keeps him because he’s his wife’s cousin. But he’s a bastard to work with: sullen and never far from his thermosful of vodka. Plus, he hates Connor and me, white boys. . . some college. . . younger. . . stronger. Through my jeans, I press my bear into my thigh.

Geraldo’s shiny red truck’s already parked at the low, stucco house. I’m pulling into the driveway when he comes out the front door, signaling me to stop and pressing a finger to his lips.

I roll down the window. “What?”

He shakes his head to keep my voice down and motions that we should follow him inside. There, he points through the dining room’s French doors to a woman sitting cross-legged, her face toward the rising sun; her hands on her knees, cupped to catch the light. Around her, wind-driven mesquite pods skitter over the graveled yard.

“Es monja. . . monja,” Geraldo whispers. He waves his hand in back of himself to the area beyond the dining room, where armchairs cluster around the living room fireplace and a primitive but graceful Madonna stands on the mantel. Then, he leans in toward me as though he were confiding a sacred code. “Todas son monjas. . . todas son monjas.”

“Nuns,” Connor says. “He’s telling us that we’re moving a houseful of nuns.”

“Si, nuns. . . nuns.”

I don’t recognize this awestruck Geraldo. Where’s the one who’s never not sullen and is frequently drunk? This Geraldo acts as if the sight of the meditating nun were balm for his soul.

I look at her, too, and suddenly realize what she’s doing—gathering herself for change. Every move means someone’s unsettling themselves. The table where they’ve eaten, the chairs they’ve rested on, the lamps they’ve lit, everything bears the imprint of their touch. In turn, the proportions and textures of the objects have imprinted themselves on the owner as well.

That’s what I try to bear in mind: possessions must arrive intact. People finding themselves in unfamiliar settings must be able to touch familiar things in order to recalibrate their internal echolocators. . . to know where they’ve landed.

“Go to the van and get the dollies and pads,” I tell Geraldo and the kid. They leave and I survey the place. The house isn’t exactly Spartan, but it’s not overly furnished either. So many chairs at the dining room table, so many in the living room. No couch, thank God. Everything solid but comfortable. A few tchotchkes, a painting of dark cacti silhouetted against the orange sunset. Large black and white photographs of petroglyphs. Nice baskets. Not the jittered transience of students, but not the cluttered sentimentality of older people either. Mani’s calculation was right: the three of us can do this in a day.

I go up the hall to check the bedrooms. Three with stripped twin beds, blankets folded on bare mattresses, the fourth with a single bed. Above it, a mural of a seaside village, white houses hugging a cove where sailboats bob beside fishing boats. On the lip of sand around the shore a woman holds onto her straw hat and watches a little girl build a sandcastle.

“Poor Margaret.”

I turn and the woman from the back yard is standing behind me. She’s what my mother would term “handsome”: slim, long-boned, thick dark hair dashed with silver, clear hazel eyes. Halfway down her chest, a dark wooden cross hangs from a braided orange cord. She smiles at the mural. “Margaret’s from Maine. She says she’s got ocean rhythms in her blood, so the community suggested she paint this. But maybe that was a mistake. Now, we’re moving, and poor Margaret will lose her ocean twice.” She puts out her hand. “I’m Joan.”

“Lukas. . . Lukas Holbrook.” I nod toward the mural. “My sister Amy paints. . . she’d like that. . . she’s getting married.” An instant memory tsunami surges—Amy painting hearts on her headboard and our mother getting angry because the bed was half of a matched set. Another wave: me making Amy a crib sheet for her freshman algebra exam, but making it wrong, so she failed anyway. And our father, just before the divorce, driving me to school in silence as deep as my plummeting grades. And him drunk at my last basketball game. And at my graduation. Oh, God. . . all that back there in the East, where I will have to return because my little sister Amy asked me to.

I finger the bear in my pocket. “Should I call you Sister Joan?”

“Joan’s fine.”

I hear Geraldo and Connor in the living room. “I think we should probably start with the dining room. That will give us a staging area so to speak.”

“Good. . . fine. Some of the kitchen is already done. I’ll leave the rest to you. I have to get to the bank and make some other stops. Just one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“The Madonna on the mantel? She’s been with me a long time.”

“Right. . . we’ll take extra care.”

When the nun leaves, I tell the kid to pack the rest of the kitchen stuff, and Gerald to detach the dining room’s monster tabletop from its base. . . . I’m hoping to wrap it and roll it into the van. But he can’t do it, so, we have to wrap the whole table, including the base, which means we may not have enough pads. I tell him finish padding the table as best he can, while I turn the van around. I come back to help Geraldo with the monster table, but it’s wider than the French doors are high, which means we can’t roll it through. Plus, we have to angle it, and it’s so heavy that I call Connor to help. It takes the three of us to get the thing through the door and into the van. But once it’s there, it’s too big to fit snuggly against the side, which means it has to tilt. Which creates a triangular gap that eats up space. I’ve learned from Mani that every move is a puzzle. So much space. . .so much stuff. To optimize the space you calculate the size of the stuff, but that triangle is too small for anything like a

dresser, and too big to waste on anything soft like a bagful of towels, which can be squeezed in anywhere. I tell Connor to get some of his boxes from the kitchen, but he’s only got three filled. His baggy pants are polka dotted with Styrofoam popcorn, plus his eyes hold a hunger that I recognize isn’t for food. I tell him to get cracking and go up the hall. Until I’ve checked the medicine cabinets, I don’t want him anywhere near the bathrooms. Same for Geraldo.

Bathrooms can reveal everything you want to know about a person: their constipation, their incontinence, their sleeplessness, their depression, anxiety, ADD, nasal congestion, earaches, headaches, toothaches, and cold sores. Turns out, nuns aren’t any different from the rest of us. There are prescriptions for Susan Massey’s Adderall, Helen Holder’s Xanax, and Margaret O’Neil’s Lorazepam. That’s the one I want, something to bring me down. I’ve been touching my fetish all morning, but the little blue bear is husbanding all its calm for itself; none has reached my soul. Between Amy’s call and this son-of-a-bitch move, I’m choking on wads of worry. I need something, just a little something. Except for the Lorazepam, I pack all the medicine into a small carton. But the Lorazepam I stuff into my jeans with my bear. I seal the carton, but don’t put it in the truck. For one thing, Geraldo or Connor might take it. For another, I might. I shove it under the sink.

In the bedrooms, Geraldo’s been dismantling bed frames. I tell him to step it up, and go get a dolly. When I pass the kitchen, the kid’s sitting in a sea of Styrofoam peanuts and has managed to pack just three more cartons. I take two and push them into the triangle the table’s created, but there’s still some space. When I go for the third, he’s peering into a pie plate. “Do you know it must be four years since I had a piece of pie? My grandmother Agnes made the best pies. Peach was my favorite.”

I try to keep my voice Mani-firm. “Connor it’s nearly ten-thirty and we got a shitload.”

He looks at me as if he knows he’s supposed to know me, then salutes. “Aye, Aye, Captain.”

Every time I pass through the living room, the Madonna on the mantle seems to have grown more fragile. Sure as fuck, we’ll drop her. When we’re synchronized, a

move has a natural rhythm, a flow, but this one is all push, no give. Geraldo’s supposed to be finishing with the bed frames, but I can’t find him anywhere. I look out the window. He’s at his truck. With his thermos. Which means he’s already drinking. Oh, Christ. I tap the window, and he grins his “Come-join-me” grin, gauging my surging desire, ratcheting it up even while mocking me. I knock harder and he comes in. I tell him to start padding the dressers, while I finish the last bed frames and take them to the van.

Somehow the furniture seems to be multiplying. Those two desks and that small hutch, where did they come from? When Geraldo’s finished wrapping the dressers, he and I start padding the living room chairs. I can tell he wants to hit his thermos, and I sure as hell want to join him and follow it with a Lorazepam chaser. Joan comes with bags of tacos for lunch. The four of us sit on the living room’s padded chairs. It’s awkward. Both because the tacos are messy and because, well, it isn’t every day you eat lunch with a nun.

I ask her about the Madonna on the mantel and immediately regret it. The nun from this morning radiated calm, but my question opens a memory hole, and suddenly her soothing presence has withdrawn. She looks toward the slim figure on the mantel. Clearly it means something to her we three movers can’t see.

“Oh, I’ve had her a while,” Joan says. “Twenty-seven years to be exact. The day I took my final vows, my father gave her to me. He didn’t really approve of my being a nun. I had gone to Vassar. He wanted me to be a lawyer like he was. I guess she was his way of letting me know he'd come ’round. But I don’t think he ever really understood. . . not really.”

All the time we’ve been eating Good Geraldo has been listening attentively. But Bad Geraldo has been thrusting his thermos at Connor, smirking at him until the kid takes a drink.

I ask Joan why the community is leaving Las Cruses, and suddenly she’s back in the present. She smiles. “Oh, we’re not leaving. We think of it as going. We’re going to Zuni pueblo. They’ve invited us. . . there’s a school.” She waves her arm over the jumble of cartons and scattered popcorn. “Who knows. Maybe we won’t ever need all

this stuff. . . maybe we’ll leave it in storage and make do with whatever we find on the pueblo.”

Connor has handed to thermos back to Geraldo; he takes a swallow and hands it back to Connor. . . mother fucker, he knows the kid’s a step away from falling off the rim of whatever life he has. I should declare lunchtime over, but then Connor asks Joan, “By any chance, you from New Jersey, Sister?”

If Joan notices his words’ slurred edges, she doesn’t let on. “All these years. . . and you still hear my Jersey bray? So, you must be from Jersey then too?”

Connor rests his elbows on his knees and holds the thermos with both hands, staring into its silver mouth. “Princeton. . . fucking Princeton. . . oh, excuse me, Sister, I didn’t mean. . . “

“It’s all right. . . I’ve heard worse.”

“My father was a physics prof. . . ” Suddenly the kid lurches and gags. Clots of vodka-scented taco hurl all over a padded armchair. Oh, Christ. . . oh, Christ. He hurls again, then stumbles out the French doors into the gravel yard. Oh, Christ. The three of us stand, bolted to the floor. Then, Joan goes out to Connor. And I grab the stinking pad off the chair. “Don’t just stand there, asshole,” I bark at Geraldo. “Get some garbage bags.” I rip up another pad and start wiping the floor. The stench is overwhelming, but familiar.

The first time I got piss-assed drunk, our parents had gone out. Juliette was supposed to be babysitting me and Amy. But Juliette was being her usual bitchy self and had holed up in her bedroom to study. So Amy and I watched TV until I got bored. I thought I’d do what my father always did whenever he wanted to “liven things up.” Have a drink. At first I thought of raiding the “company” liquor cabinet, but our father never touched that stuff. I think he regarded the liquor in the cabinet as almost sacred, something to be drunk with company, something reserved for family and friends. Liquor-cabinet liquor was not the booze that made our father throw a plate of spaghetti at our mother, or drive our car through the garage door, or run over Adam, our cat. That booze he hid in a tool chest under a workbench in our basement. That was the booze I took my little sister down the stairs for. Vodka.

I remember Amy’s solemn curiosity as she watched me tilt my head back and drink. And I remember, too, how I dropped the bottle top and it rolled under the workbench. And how I handed her the bottle, while I got down on my stomach to retrieve it. And how I had trouble getting the top back on and more trouble climbing out of the basement.

Juliette had made popcorn. She passed it to me and we watched TV. But the aroma turned my stomach. At the third commercial, I went upstairs and puked. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and thinking that I should start shaving. I was thirteen.

Geraldo comes in with a couple of garbage bags and starts stuffing the putrid padding inside. He holds the bag out to me, but I tell him, “It’s all yours, Asshole. Stink up your own goddam truck. And here’s what you’re going to do. You get back to the warehouse and get more pads, and if you’re not back here in forty-five minutes, I swear I’ll rip your balls off.”

When he leaves I open all the windows and let the wind blow in. I call Mani and tell him that Geraldo spilled some soda on a couple of pads. And that I’ve sent him back for more.

“What kind of soda?”

“What? . . . I don’t know.” I know Mani’s speaking a coded language, that’s important I understand. But I don’t. I press the fetish in my pocket.

I am the black bear. I watch the East. I guard the West. I see what’s to come.

“Couldn’t’ve been Coke. Geraldo hates Coke, especially Diet,” Mani says. I press harder. “No. . . no. . . it wasn’t Coke.”

“His thermos?”

“I think so.”

“Maybe I’ll have to dock him for the new pads.”

“Maybe that’s a good idea.”

“Other than that, how’s it going?”

“It’ll be tight.” Silence. “And have Geraldo bring back a tall carton, the kind we use for pedestals. . . there’s this tall Madonna.”

“Yeah, Sister Joan’s Madonna. She told me about that. You need to wrap that good.” We hang up.

Sister Joan sits with Connor on the rim of a dry fountain in the middle of the gravel yard. She’s talking, talking, and he’s nodding. I start wheeling the padded dressers into the van. When I wheel out the one from Margaret’s room, her mural looks like a wall of blue longing. Only her bare mattress remains.

Connor and Joan have come back in. She says she has to leave; she’ll be back at five. Connor looks almost clear eyed.

“Finished with the kitchen?” I ask him.

“Only pots, nothing fragile.”

“Hurry it up. God knows when Geraldo will be back.”

The sun now is streaming through the French doors. The wind through the open windows sends the Styrofoam popcorn on the floor skittering in all directions. Geraldo comes back with fresh pads, the tall carton, and cans of ginger ale. I should chew him out for stopping somewhere, but the ginger ale is meant to make amends, so I tell him to finish wrapping the living room chairs, while I start on the little knick-knacks on the hutch’s shelves: small clay pots, wooden candle holders, two crucifixes. I open the lower doors, and almost cry. If the shelves had been full of dishes, they would have had to be wrapped too, a real time suck. Instead, I find a neat stack of Indian blankets. I should leave them there and tape the hutch shut, but then they’ll be stored away if the nuns need them. Desert temperatures can plummet thirty degrees in an hour, so I put the blankets on the mantel, beside the Madonna. Connor is helping Geraldo finish with the chairs. I wheel the last dresser into the van and then put the box of knickknacks into the hutch, tape it shut, pad it, and wheel it in, too. The desks are next, but they eat up room.

“Put them top-to-top,” Geraldo says. “With the legs up.” I wait for him to make some remark about how that’s how he likes his women, but he doesn’t. The momentum in the house has shifted in favor of the move. A sense of vacancy permeates every room.

I go up the hall and bring the last mattresses into the living room. Geraldo and the kid get one into the van, then another. An easy rhythm finally has set in. We’re going to make it. Just the chairs remain.

But they’re oversized and there are a lot of them. We try one configuration, but it doesn’t work. Then another, but it’s no good either. Geraldo says he’s got an idea, and starts taking some stuff out. By laying it on its back, he manages to fit a dining room chair in the space between the desk legs, then, by fitting another seatto-seat, he fits another.

“Good,” I tell him. He grunts. He and Connor buttress the whole stack with a mattress and I go into the bathroom. I get the box of meds out from under the sink, rip the tape off, and put the Lorazepam from my pocket inside. The tape won’t hold, so I just fold the flaps over so they interlock and put the box on top of the stacked blankets on the mantel by the Madonna. Then I tell Geraldo to sweep up the place while Connor I load the last of the chairs and mattresses.

“Any peanuts, save,” I tell him. “I’ll need them for the Madonna.” When Connor and I are through loading, I lift her off from the mantel. In front of the fireplace, I lay her on a yard of bubble wrap. My plan is to bubble wrap her, then set her in the carton with enough peanuts to hold her tight. But I worry about her head. Her neck is long and graceful, and looks so vulnerable. Naturally, it’s narrower than the rest of her, so more of it will have to be protected by peanuts than by bubble wrap. But peanuts shift over time.

“Make an extra bubble wrap collar,” Connor says.

“Si, a collar,” Geraldo says. He’s drinking one of the cans of ginger ale.

“You finished sweeping?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Real clean.”

I check around. Everything looks fine, so I tell him, “See you tomorrow, then.”

“If Mani says so. . . ” When Geraldo opens the door to leave, I catch a glimpse of the mountains. The setting sun has washed them in orange and rose, but no bright light reaches their deep purple crannies.

“Jeeze, this wind,” Geraldo says and leaves.

Connor has cut a collar to wrap around the Madonna from her shoulders to the crown of her head. I interlock the flaps at the bottom of the carton and then tape them over just to be sure they hold. Next I spill a nest peanuts in and check my watch: Joan will be back in twenty minutes. I hold the carton upright between my feet. It’s four feet high. And Connor and I lift the Madonna—she’s heavier than she looks. And all the bubble wrap has made her awkward to handle and we have to lift her higher before we can get her inside. It’s tricky because the carton’s too narrow to accommodate both her and our arms, so we have to lower her inch by inch, our hands moving up her body, until, at last she’s standing on the peanut nest.

I keep the carton upright between my legs. “Get the rest of the peanuts, and one of those blankets,” I tell Connor. “Pack them around her good.”

When he’s buried the statue in the packaging, he looks up. “She’s asked me to go with them.”


“Sister Joan. . . when we were outside, she asked if I wanted to go with the community.”

The Zuni are notoriously private; to live with them is rare. “To the pueblo?”

“Yeah. She’d have to ask the tribal leaders, but she’s pretty sure they’ll say yes.”

The kid looks haunted by the dead hopes his parents had for him, the same ones my parents back East had for me. I touch the bear in my pocket. “Why’d you think Joan asked you?”

He looks like he’s going to cry. “I guess she saw what I am. . . you all saw. Besides, it’s very peaceful down there, you know. I visited once. . . very peaceful.”

“Do you want to?”

“I don’t know. Sure as hell I don’t want to go around puking all over the place. The pueblo’s way down a canyon, but you don’t feel boxed in. Instead, it feels big, real big down there. And the Zuni? . . . they have the darkest eyes. Like they’ve sucked all the light in the universe into themselves. They see everything, but let out nothing.”

We lay the packed statue on its side in front of the fireplace. I interlock the flaps on the carton’s top, and Connor seals them with tape.

“My sister’s asked me to come home to Baltimore. . . she’s getting married,” I tell him.

“You gonna go?”

I think of all the booze that flows at weddings. If I’m wanting a drink now, how will I not have one when everyone else is lit? “I don’t know. . . Amy. . . she and I were close. . . but all that other crap that goes with weddings. . . I don’t know.”

Across the Madonna, Conner grins. “I’ll go with Joan, if you’ll go home.”

“You first, Conner. You go first.”

“What if I never come back?”

I wrap my fist around my bear. “Then you’ll be right where you are.”

The nun’s car pulls up. When she opens the door, she smiles.

Some people, when they first see a space where they’ve spent so much time and it’s empty their faces go blank, like a prisoner’s who’s just received a death sentence. The value of the life they lived there was all in their minds, they realize. Whatever they did, good or bad, that worth and worthiness was all in their heads. The space may have sheltered them. . . but whatever sense of “home” they felt was just an ephemera they conjured for themselves. Some people cry when they realize that.

But when Sister Joan sees the emptiness, she smiles.

The kid is on his knees beside the wrapped Madonna. He looks up at her. “I guess we’ve done all we can here,” he says.

I nod toward the remaining blankets and the box of drugs on the mantel. “You might not want to pack those away, Sister. . . you might need them.”

She agrees and when Connor opens the door to help her carry them to her car, the wind thrumming through the mountain crags sounds like a summons. Then the door closes, and I wait alone for the final inspection.

I am the Black Bear. I heed the wind. I live the seasons. I move where I will.

Patricia Schultheis lives in Baltimore and is the author of Baltimore’s Lexington Market, a pictorial history, and a short-story collection, St. Bart’s Way. Her most recent book is A Balanced Life, a memoir.

Enigma rugosa

A woman versed in botanical nomenclature And hippie chic seeks riotous bad boy

Handsomely rugged in blue jeans. Guitar Virtuosos only, please. Motorcyclists

Oh god yes! Outdoorsy, but not overly So. A comedian with exquisite Timing and taste. Earnestly wild—

Open to fun, exploration and mind

Expansion. Magic mushrooms, maybe ok. Fear of closeness, I can deal. Commitment?

Don’t be a wuss. Must be over fifty With a diversified retirement portfolio

Earth signs preferred. Sagittarians, too Wise old youthful types; ready to adore.

Vivi Delsole is an emerging writer who holds a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and lives in southeastern Pennsylvania with her husband and border collie. She has been taking creative writing classes at The Writers Studio for over a year.

I Miss Her Sometimes

Sometimes, I miss my hedonist self

Imbiber of the sultry and lush

Immersed in sensation—

The bon vivant me, the free loving me

The love to be on top me, the me with fleshy, swerving mama’s here to comfort hips

The summer flinger, the crash and burner

The illegal smiler, the beer drinker

The do-rag wearer, looking hot

On the back of a Harley, spaghetti strapped, Curves spilling over leather.

The sun worshiper, tan and oiled

Rasta man’s sweetheart

The wine o’clocker, Slave to silk and chocolate

The jazz lover, the martini drinker

The cute one, the soul-eyed banterer

Mixing it with the unsavory, just for kicks

The appointed apartment dweller

The comfort seeker,

The confounded; lonely nighter

The Jack drinker—

The hazy TV watcher

The one bedding down with her gray, Tuxedo gent; bodily obese and whiskered

The effervescent, lost and restless dreamer.

Absent Neighbor

I think my neighbor is dying and no one is paying attention.

It was his lawn that first caught my eye. Our modest neighborhood could hardly be described as manicured. Still, when his lawn began to resemble beach grass, I noticed. I see his house every day from my makeshift home office in my living room. My perch provides a direct line of sight, unwittingly drawing me into his unfolding drama.

I moved to this house two decades ago and this particular neighbor was already living across the street. I don’t know his name so I think of him as Mr. Mister.

I do know four people and a dog used to live in that house. Mr. Mister’s wife liked flowers. In the spring, he brought her flats of petunias and pansies she planted in window boxes and containers on their small concrete porch. There are no flowers this year. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw flowers there. She must have liked fires, too, as most days smoke poured from their stovepipe chimney, even in summer. Their small side yard held neat stacks of firewood. There were two kids who must be adults by now.

They were a quiet family, who liked their privacy, like the rest of the neighborhood. Most of the houses on my block are designated as zero-lot line properties, meaning two homes share a wall, like a duplex. Connected houses are different than connected people.

He’s had some bad luck, Mr. Mister. His wife appeared to have cancer some years back. She covered her head with a scarf, lost weight, and wore layers of clothing. Before that, their old black lab got sick and limped through the neighborhood all bulgy with tumors. It was painful to watch.

Then his kids were grown and gone and I haven’t seen them around for ages. It was last spring, as the snow melted, the days grew longer, and we all emerged from our own hibernation, that I noticed I hadn’t seen the mom for a long time either. I couldn’t remember the last time, which made me feel bad.

Mr. Mister walked a lot last spring, the spring of no flowers and no wife. I’ve always thought of him as nice looking, on the tall side, with a strong, lean build. But

last spring, he was thin and walked with a rigid gait, like it hurt to move. His face was pinched and his shoulders hunched over. He would pass by as I planted lettuce seeds or pulled chickweed in the front garden and we exchanged the simplest of greetings.

“Nice day for a walk,” I’d say.

“Sure is.”

Was he was recovering from an operation? Or had cancer himself?

“Is everything okay?” I wanted to ask.

I was on my back deck one summer morning, deadheading nasturtiums, when I heard yelling, rare for our quiet street. The commotion was coming from Mr. Mister’s. Through the fence slats, I saw a woman standing in his driveway, her back to me. She was berating Mr. Mister for letting things slide, for the appearance of the house. He was standing with his head down, his shoulders slouched. But then, he took a step forward, looked at this woman and yelled, “You’re the one who left me! Don’t forget that!”

I turned away, feeling guilty for eavesdropping.

The following evening, well after the sun had set, Mr. Mister dragged a gas lawn mower out of his garage. He pulled the cord over and over, lacking the strength to get it started. He brought a chair to sit on and kept at it until the mower roared to life. That old mower was no match for two-foot-high grass. In the weeks that followed, the grass slowly swallowed up the mower, stuck where he had left it. Mr. Mister stopped to stare at it on the short walk from his front door to his pickup truck, before pulling himself into the truck’s cab. He returned with a shopping bag or two and disappeared slowly through his front door.

I wondered what he thought, looking at that mower. If he was embarrassed that it got the better of him. He’d been an outdoorsman, after all. I remembered him loading fishing poles and hunting rifles into his pickup on weekend mornings.

I saw a car pull into his driveway shortly after that, and it dawned on me how few visitors I saw at his house. It made a slow pass by the house, and then circled around to park in the driveway, behind the pickup. The driver, a younger man, just sat in the car for a while. He got out and walked around the small front yard, as if surveying—the tall brown grass with the lawn mower sunk into it, the post mount

mailbox missing its door, the broken bumper on the pickup, and the pile of junk where the tidy stacks of firewood used to be. He approached the door, but when there was no response, he got back in his car and drove away.

As summer and its long days waned, I was reassured when his lights would come on in the evening. Often the only detectable sign of life was one living room shade being raised or lowered. I thought about something my mother-in-law arranged with a neighbor, once she became a widow. First thing every morning, she raised her living room blinds. If it got to be mid-morning and the blinds were still shut, the neighbor was to come check on her.

A couple of years ago, my husband’s job took him out of town for several months. I wondered how long it would take for someone to discover me if I fell or just didn’t wake up one morning, since I work at home and our children are grown and gone. I asked a friend if I could call her every morning, as a safeguard. As it turns out, I didn’t employ this safety net. But it was nice to know it was there.

Across the street, it was eerily quiet. Domino’s delivered a pizza now and then. One day, a taxi pulled into the driveway and Mr. Mister emerged from the house and got into the front seat of the cab. They returned not long after, maybe twenty minutes, with him carrying a small brown bag. I wondered if his truck was broken. Or maybe he was too sick to drive.

My father passed away that same summer, three months after his ninetieth birthday. Dad died of complications from diabetes, with comfort care and a steady stream of visitors. It might have happened differently, if not for the help of a neighbor.

Dad lived alone. One spring evening, he decided to check on his two apple trees, growing side by side in the backyard, before going to bed. What possessed him to do this remains a mystery. He was already in his pajamas, didn’t take his cane, and it was getting dark. It was the little step from the paved area to the grass that took him down. Initially, he couldn’t move at all. After thirty minutes or so, and now it really was dark, he managed to brace himself with some gardening tools, so he was leaning against the exterior wall of his garage. He remembered thinking to himself, “You’ve really done it this time, old man.”

A short time later, Dad heard a noise from the other side of his six-foot high fence. What luck! It sounded like his neighbor was wheeling his garbage bin out to the curb, for Friday morning’s pickup. Dad called out, and though this neighbor had just moved in and hadn’t even met my dad, he responded. The neighbor unlatched Dad’s gate and called 911 from the landline phone my father had installed in the garage. He covered him with a blanket and waited with him until the ambulance arrived.

Dad’s fall resulted in a fractured pelvis, requiring weeks in a rehab facility and lots of physical therapy. But at least he wasn’t left alone in the dark in his pajamas to lose consciousness or even die. I’m grateful his neighbor responded to my dad’s call for help.

I like to think I would respond to a call for help. I think of myself as a helpful person. It’s tricky knowing what to do when there is no call for help. I mean, Mr. Mister is minding his own business, whatever that might be. Would an offer of help be an intrusion of his privacy? I don’t want to be a nosy neighbor.

My dad had one of those, too. He had warned me about her. Nosy Neighbor had seen the emergency vehicles arrive at my dad’s house, after my sister found him unconscious early one Saturday morning. I traveled to my hometown right away to be with him, though he remained in a coma. One afternoon, a couple of days into his hospice stay, I took a break from our vigil to stop by Dad’s place. I wanted to pick up his mail and toss what might be rotting in the fridge.

I hadn’t been in the house ten minutes when the doorbell rang. There was Nosy Neighbor. She had seen the emergency vehicles Saturday morning, she explained and was concerned. Initially, I politely answered her questions and thanked her for her concern. When I explained that Dad was at a hospice facility, she pushed further.

“So, there’s no chance?” she wanted to know. And then, without so much as a pause, “What will you do with the house?”

I don’t want to be Nosy Neighbor.

I tell myself that, surely, if my neighbor wanted help there is someone he can call. That perhaps he doesn’t want his family to know, to spare them from worry. Or, perhaps, he’s not a nice person at all, and his family has deserted him for cause.

I imagine myself walking across the street and knocking on his door.

“It seems you might be having a difficult time. Can I bring over dinner or drive you somewhere?” I could ask.

Maybe he wouldn’t answer the door, like with the one previous visitor. Or, maybe he would answer the door and tell me everything’s fine. He might tell me to mind my own business. Maybe he would answer the door and accept my offer of help. I’m unsure which of these responses is preferable.

For the time being, I’m part of a story that no one is reading. Sometimes, it feels like just me and Mr. Mister and the days passing. There are other neighbors, his zero-lot neighbor for instance. They share a wall and even side-by-side driveways but I’ve never seen him knock on Mr. Mister’s door. Or show any sign something is amiss.

The first snow storm brings several inches of white fluff, covering his truck. When the city snowplow finally reaches our street, it scrapes the snow from the street and deposits a berm nearly a foot high at the base of all our driveways. My husband and I don boots and gloves and, grabbing our snow shovels, settle in to the arduous task of freeing our driveway from the compacted snow. With each snowfall, Mr. Mister’s berm grows until it’s an impenetrable mass holding his truck hostage. He stops putting out his garbage can on our weekly collection day.

A taxi pulls up a couple of times a week and Mr. Mister shuffles his way down the driveway, his face unshaved, and disappears into the cab. I wish I had done something earlier. I realize I have been secretly watching his demise for months, never confident of my ability or willingness to help.

I wish I lived in a different neighborhood. A childhood friend I recently reconnected with at a high school reunion told me she lived in her urban neighborhood for years, never knowing a soul beyond her own family. Then her husband was transferred temporarily to a small town in Canada and her new neighbors welcomed her with food and invitations to coffee and advice about the area. When she returned to her old neighborhood, she vowed to bring that neighborly spirit with her. She organized block parties and established a neighborhood watch program. I wish she lived in my neighborhood because I don’t seem to have the wherewithal to be that person. Maybe if I had started earlier, but after so many years of inaction, I’m not sure where I would start.

Mr. Mister now seems to have someone watching out, I am happy to see. An older man (meaning my age, I suppose) pulls into his driveway occasionally. After entering through the front door, the garage door opens and he loads black plastic bags full of what I presume to be trash into the back of his Jeep. I’m tempted to dash across the street and ask him what I might do for Mr. Mister, if there is a way to be helpful. But I don’t and he drives away.

It’s early spring again. The snow is mostly gone. As I turn onto my street, I see red lights flashing ahead of me. An ambulance is parked in front of Mr. Mister’s house. The friend’s Jeep is parked in the driveway next to the truck, now with two flat tires. I walk into my house and watch through the window as Mr. Mister is wheeled out of his house on a stretcher and loaded into the back of the ambulance.

The same Jeep pulls up most evenings and lights go on in the house. The shades are opened and closed. Different lights go on and off, in an apparent attempt to make the house looked lived in. Or maybe to keep it ready for Mr. Mister’s return. There is an effort to cut the grass, this time with a weed whacker, rather than mower.

One morning as I draw up the shades from my living room windows, I see that the pick-up truck is gone. The next day a for sale sign is placed in the yard. A slew of trucks arrives, hauling away the wood and debris from the yard.

It feels strange to have the house empty after keeping my private vigil for so long. I wonder if he is alive. Maybe he got better and is just tired of shoveling snow and mowing lawns. Maybe be died. I hope he is comfortable wherever he is.

When new neighbors move in, I tell myself, I will start afresh. I will take them lasagna and learn their names. I won’t be a nosy neighbor. Nor will I be absent.

Carol Prentice Carol Prentice has previously been published in Cirque, Tidal Echoes, and others. She is a semi-retired project manager who recently returned to her home state of Washington after living in Juneau, Alaska for 23 years.

Fly through the Air with the Greatest of Ease

Mostly they all liked to pretend I didn’t exist. But once we went to the circus. Shriner’s. My step grandfather was a Shriner. He was in the Lion’s Club and the Rotary. I think he was a Mason and an Oddfellow too. I don’t think he had enough to do. Anyway that night he was an usher wearing this weird red hat, a fez, like a fuzzy red stovepipe which I knew what stovepipe was because we just visited this really old woman and she had a big stove to heat with and they told me don’t touch the stove or the stovepipe because they said it was so hot like the flames of Hell and burns through skin right to the bone on my hand and then the skin would fall off and I would have a skeleton hand and everyone would scream and run away when I came around. Which from where I sit now seems like a better deal.

Anyway my step-mother laughed and so did the others. Haha. Scare the kid. So we’re inside sitting in this huge arena. I had never been anywhere so big or with so many people. I was all eyes.

I didn’t like the clowns but the elephants ran around and we were so close I could feel the breeze as they ran by. Holding each other’s tails in their trunks. I could smell them too.

And then the trapeze act and a pretty woman in blue sequins the color of my stepmother’s eyes except sparkling and I wished my father was there but he never was and then she fell, more like almost flew, the swing left her hands and she sailed higher in a big beautiful arc, I was hypnotized I think, I just followed her all the way she was all sparkles and then she went down. Missed the net.

Thudded sound like a fist through drywall which I knew what that sounded like from home. She sort of bounced, then fell back and didn’t move. The crowd was real silent until the ringmaster started with another act in one of the rings

but I couldn’t take my eyes off her and I started to cry because she was so pretty and I thought she was broken and then they carried her away and my step mother slapped me but I couldn’t stop crying so after a while she says fuck this you little shit pain and drags me out by the arm. When we get home she makes me sit in the kitchen chair and she lights up a cigarette and leans in over me real close, sequin eyed, and blows smoke in my face for starters. Anyway, that’s about the first memory I have and maybe it wasn’t exactly like that or maybe my sister told me later and I don’t really remember.

Michael Milligan has had poetry, fiction, and book reviews published in Agni, Diner, The New Orleans Review, and others. He is the author of Unless I Came Back to Tell You. Besides writing, he has also worked as a construction laborer, migrant fruit and grape picker, homestead farmer, graphic arts production manager, musician/composer, and artist.

Sense of Things

Takes the seat beside me, says “Observe the seldom noticed: five lobes of the maple leaf starfish and the brand on the back of sand dollars

five finger bones in the fins of cetaceans, five petaled nasturtiums in the window box, five articles Ukraine Sunday paper, sweater in the bargain bin

that five women picked up and put down before I was asked to leave the store, five senses of which I am in fine possession, five voices and their instructions—

the whisper in the shake of salt the hymn in the dial tone the cipher of the stairs and the sirens howl then the rain, oh, yes the rain

five voices all should hear though only I do because you do not try.” He stares. Blinks five times. Begins again. “Observe. . . ”

Startled by the Somnambulist's Glance Bill Wolak

The Rifle

On the morning of his thirteenth birthday the boy receives a present from his parents. The package, which sits on the kitchen table, is long and narrow, but neatly wrapped. His mother’s work, no doubt. He tears off the paper and reads the words on the box. “Remington Bolt Action Rifle. Single Shot—Open Sights. Caliber 22.” The boy, eyes wide, looks at his father, who smiles at him. The boy hadn’t asked for a rifle, but he is delighted by this gift. He takes out his scout knife and, holding it poised over the box, looks at his father again. His father nods. The boy cuts open the box and takes out the rifle, running his hands along its length. The brown of its stock seems to glow. “It’s walnut, isn’t it?”

His father nods again. He has confirmed what the boy already knows from pouring over ads at the back of his comic books. Walnut. The word sounds as rich as he feels after receiving this gift. He lifts the rifle upward with both hands to test its weight. It is surprisingly light. He sets it down carefully. He is 13. Is this rifle proof that he is no longer a boy?

His mother pushes another package toward him. “Open this,” she says quietly. The boy feels the package. It is soft and light. He removes the wrapping and finds a stack of white paper with a bullseye carefully painted on each sheet.

“I made them for you,” his mother says. She is a bit of an artist. “For target shooting.”

“Thank you, mom.” The boy comes around the table and gives her a quick hug. The hug embarrasses him. Men aren’t mushy. Men don’t hug. Still, he is surprised and touched by this gift. He knows she doesn’t like anything that shoots. He steps quickly away from her, his conflicting feelings thrumming within him.

His mother gets up quickly. Is she embarrassed too? “I’m going to make pancakes and sausages. Your favorites.”

~ ~ ~

After breakfast, the boy’s father hands him a box of shells and shows him how to partially release the safety, then raise and pull back the bolt, before placing a shell in the chamber. “Then, you push the bolt all the way forward to lock it and reset the safety,” his father says, demonstrating. The boy watches impatiently, believing he already knows how to do this. Hasn’t he seen this dozens of times on cowboy shows? Lately, he is often impatient with his father.

His father shows the boy how to remove the shell from the chamber. “Never wander around with a loaded rifle,” he says.

Now the boy is shifting his weight from foot to foot. “Can I try?”

“May I,” his mother corrects.

The boy rolls his eyes. “May I try,” he asks, exaggerating the first word. His father watches as the boy repeats what he has been shown. “That was pretty good,” he says. “Remember to take your time.”

The boy is eager to try out the rifle. It is Saturday. No school. “Can I take it to the woods?” he asks.

“May I?” His mother corrects him again.

“Get dressed.” His father says. “I’ll go with you.”

“I don’t need help.”

“Your father will go with you this time.” His mother’s voice is firm. She is washing dishes. The boy shoots a hard look at her back, then goes to his room and takes off his pajamas, then puts on jeans and a flannel shirt. Returning to the kitchen, he picks up the rifle and tries to spin it around as he has seen Chuck Connors do on The Rifleman.

“Watch where you’re pointing it.” His father speaks sharply. “Don’t fool around.”

“It isn’t loaded.” The boy’s voice rises in protest.

“Always treat a firearm as if it’s loaded,” his father says. He takes the rifle from the boy and shows him how to hold it so that the muzzle is pointed upward at an angle. “Make sure the safety is on and keep your finger away from the trigger.”

“I know. Can, I mean, may we go now?”

His father grabs a jacket. “Bring the targets.”

The boy picks them up, and the two head out the door. “Go safely,” his mother calls. She always says that when they leave.

The boy and his father walk across the back yard to the adjoining woods, then start down a well-worn path. They walk in silence for the few minutes it takes them to reach the first clearing. The boy, who often walks these woods alone, finds it odd to be here with his father. Until recently, he has walked with few thoughts in his head. Often, he has carried a book and found a place to read for a while, the words filling his head, combining with bird song and the rustling of creatures to create a comforting stew of sound.

Lately, though, thoughts of girls have been intruding on his peace, making it difficult to read or even, at times, to breathe. They have become mysterious to him-foreign. Where once they were stick straight, they are now round and soft, both alluring and frightening. He often thinks about Barbara Jackson, a girl he used to play with. He no longer knows how to approach her, how to retrieve the easy comradery they once shared. She is becoming a woman and he is, he supposes, becoming a man. He doesn’t feel like a man, though. Not really. Will he know when he has arrived? Yes, there are a few hairs on his chin and upper lip and, without deodorant, his armpits stink. Is this enough to prove the transition?

Now, as he walks through the woods carrying his rifle, thoughts of girls and books have temporarily fled. He is the proud owner of a Remington rifle and he is about to shoot it for the first time.

When they arrive at the clearing, his father takes a couple of nails out of his pocket. “Nail a target to that dead tree,” he says, pointing across the empty space. The boy lays the rifle on the ground and takes the nails from his father. “What should I hammer them with?”

~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~

“Find a rock.”

The boy looks around and picks up a fist-sized rock then peels a target from the stack he has brought along. He trots across the clearing where he pounds the nails into the tree and pokes the target over the nail heads, then runs back.

His father picks up the rifle and loads a shell, narrating as he goes. “Stand like this,” he says, spreading his feet apart. “Hold it like this.” He lifts the rifle to his shoulder and presses it against his right cheek. “Then squeeze the trigger—slooowly.”

The boy is surprised to see a bullet hit the outer ring of the target. He hadn’t known it would happen so fast. The sound of the impact makes his heart jump.

His father shakes his head. “I’m rusty.”

“Let me try.” The boy reaches for the rifle.

“Watch me once more,” his father says.

The boy watches as his father goes through the motions again, this time hitting a little closer to the bullseye.

“My turn.”

His father hands him the rifle and stands back as the boy releases the spent cartridge and loads a new one. “Take a good look and make sure no one is behind the tree,” his father says.

The boy looks. There is never anyone here. He raises the rifle.

“Release the safety,” his father says.

The boy lowers the rifle.

“No, while it’s on your shoulder.”

The boy raises the rifle again, feels for the safety, then releases it. He takes the position his father has demonstrated.

“Good,” his father says, “Now look through the sights and find the bullseye.”

It takes the boy a moment or two to do this.

“Now squeeze the trigger.”

The boy shoots. The shot is wide of the mark. He stands for a moment, taking in the strange tingle that courses through his body. He doesn’t have words for the feeling, but he likes it. “Let me try again,” he says.

“Ok. This time, squeeze the trigger slowly, so you don’t throw off your aim.”

The boy and his father stay in the woods for another hour until the boy gets the hang of using the sights and hits the target a couple of times. Not the bullseye yet, but the target.

When they get home, the boy shouts for his mother. “I hit the target!” he yells. He leans the rifle against the kitchen wall and starts to walk out of the room, looking for her.

“Wait,” his father stops him with a hand on his shoulder. “You need to store it in the garage, but first you have to clean it.”

His father picks up the rifle, and the boy follows him into the garage. He is not pleased. The ads in the comic books hadn’t said anything about cleaning the rifle. He hasn’t seen any cowboys clean their rifles on TV. He stares at his shoes. “Can’t we clean it tomorrow?” he pleads. “Today is my birthday, remember?”

“Look at me,” his father says.

The boy looks up.

“If you are old enough to handle a rifle, you have to be responsible enough to clean it.”

“Okay. Okay.” The boy sits on a box and sighs.

His father releases the safety and pulls back the bolt. "Stick your finger inside like this and then look into the breech to check for bullets.”

“Dad!” The boy gets up from the box. “We know there isn’t a bullet in there. You saw me take it out!”

His father gestures for him to sit back down. “Always assume a firearm is loaded,” he says, walking over to his workbench and lifting a box from the shelf above it. “I got this for you.”

He removes three pieces of aluminum tubing from the box and fits them together. “This is the cleaning rod,” he says, holding it up.

“I know,” the boy says again. Does his father think he is an idiot?

~ ~ ~

His father ignores his words and shows him how to fit an attachment to one end of the rod. Then he picks a small piece of cloth out of the box and says, “This is a patch. You dip the patch in solvent like this and thread it into the slot in the attachment.”

The boy is surprised to find that he is interested. “Let me do it,” he says.

His father hands him the rod and watches as the boy attaches the patch, then stands back and instructs him to push the rod down the barrel and pull it back out. “Now we wait a couple of minutes,” he says.

His father leans on his work bench and stares at the ceiling. The boy looks at his father—there is gray in the hair above his ears, and thinks, I am 13. How old is he? His parents have never discussed their ages with him, and, until now, he has not been curious. They had an anniversary last month. He tries to remember which one. Fifteen years? He knows they were 23 and 25 when they married. He does the math. His father must be 40. For a moment, he feels sorry for his father. He can’t imagine what 40 might feel like. Soon, he thinks, I will be 18 and he will be really old.

His father breaks his reverie and looks at the boy. “So, how does 13 feel so far?”

The boy is startled. Had his father read his thoughts? Does he know what the boy has been thinking about? Does he wish he were 13 again? “It’s Ok,” the boy says, then hesitates. “Actually, it’s good. I really like the rifle. Can I go shooting again tomorrow?”

“Show me that you can finish this first.” His father takes up the rod again and tells the boy to remove the patch attachment, then screw on a brush. The boy complies. “Now, run it up and down the barrel a few times to loosen any gunk.” The boy complies again, then, following his father’s instructions, removes the brush and reattaches the patch, after carefully adding solvent.

“Now run it up and down again a bunch of times, then do the same with a dry patch.”

The boy does what he has been told, then hands the rifle to his father. “Am I done?”

“One more thing,” his father says. He holds up a small container. “Wet another patch with this oil and run it over the outside of the rifle.”

The boy finishes this task, then again hands the rifle to his father, who ruffles the boy’s hair. “Good work, buddy.”

The boy doesn’t like it when his father ruffles his hair. He wants to say, “My name isn’t buddy,” but he just moves away from his father and says, “Thanks, dad.”

“Wait,” his father says and shows the boy where he has created a rack on the wall for the rifle.

“Thanks,” the boy says again. He is grateful, but he feels a new awkwardness. When he was 12, he would have hugged his father, but now he is 13 and he doesn’t want to hug his father any more than he wanted to hug his mother. He gives a little wave and walks back into the house.

In the ensuing days, the boy comes straight home from school and, after eating the snack set out for him by his mother, goes to the garage, takes down the rifle and heads for the woods. He ignores his friends’ pleas that he come to their houses, and he doesn’t ask them to his. He doesn’t want to share the singular pleasure of the rifle in his hands, the thrill when he hits the target. He likes the quiet time in the garage while he cleans the barrel. He likes everything about the rifle.

On an unseasonably mild day in November the boy sets out for the woods as usual. It has been a while since he has brought a book with him, but he has to read Tom Sawyer for his English class, so today he carries both book and rifle, along with some empty soda cans to use for target practice. He finds a grassy spot under a tree and sits down with his back against the trunk, thinking he will shoot at the cans after he reads a chapter or two of his book.

The reading doesn’t go well. He is distracted—first by thoughts of Barbara Jackson, then by the squawking of a blue jay. He puts down his book. Damned jay. He has only recently begun to swear, trying out several words in his mind. His parents don’t swear, and he has understood that he shouldn’t swear. He is sticking with damn

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and hell for now. They seem pretty mild. Not in front of his parents though. Mostly just in his head. He wonders if Barbara swears. Probably not. What would she think of his swearing? Does she even think of him at all?

The boy picks up his book again, but the jay is still squawking. He stands up, then picks up his rifle and loads a cartridge. He isn’t thinking about anything as he starts to walk around the tree. There it is. The jay. It is perched on a branch above his head. Without planning it, he steps back, takes aim, and fires. He watches in surprise as the bird spins and falls, a few feathers floating behind. He walks over to where it lies. It is dead.

He is stunned. He feels no triumph. In fact, he feels a little sick. He hadn’t intended to hit it, had he? Why should this bird be dead? It wasn’t really hurting him; it was just making a lot of noise. What had he been thinking? He can’t remember. He wishes he could take it back, rewind the last few minutes, move to another part of the woods where the jay wouldn’t distract him. He stares at the bird, then picks it up and carries it home along with his rifle, forgetting to collect his book and the cans.

When he gets home, the boy puts the rifle on its rack without cleaning it or ejecting the spent cartridge. Then he puts the jay in a paper bag and buries it under the garbage in the can outside his house. Still, he can’t get the image of the falling bird out of his mind. Had the bird felt pain? Had it been surprised? Was it in heaven? Did birds go to heaven? His pastor had never mentioned animals in heaven.

The next day, the boy sits in his geometry class. The teacher is droning on about isosceles triangles, but the boy’s head is full of the dead bird. The sound of the shot. The surprise hit. The flying feathers. Had he not understood that the bullet could kill or maim the bird? Well, yes. Kind of. It’s just that he hadn’t known how he would feel as the bird fell. He hadn’t known what it would feel like to see it dead on the ground.

He closes his eyes. The image of the falling bird doesn’t fade. It seems to be imprinted on the inside of his eyelids. How had he not known that the bird would die?

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Hadn’t he shot enough targets to know the power of a bullet? There is so much that he doesn’t know or understand.

“May I interrupt your nap?” The voice is close.

The boy opens his eyes and finds his teacher standing next to his desk, arms folded over his chest.

“Please bestir yourself. Go to the blackboard and draw me an isosceles triangle.” The teacher sounds both weary and exasperated. Kids are laughing.

The boy stands up. The bird has fled his mind. Damn, he thinks. Which one is an isosceles triangle? He begins to walk toward the front of the room. As he walks, he becomes aware of a crackling sound and realizes someone is about to say something over the classroom’s PA system. Once he hears the announcement, he will stop walking—the bird, the closed eyes, the embarrassed walk to the blackboard will be forever etched in his memory. But now, he just keeps walking as slowly as he thinks he can get away with. And then there is a voice.

“The President has been shot.” It is the principal’s voice. “President Kennedy is dead.”

No one is laughing now. The isosceles triangle is forgotten. The principal is saying something about buses coming to take everyone home, but it is hard to hear what he is saying over the noise in the room. Someone is shouting. Two girls and a boy are crying. For a moment, the teacher stares dumbly at the PA speaker, then rouses himself to lead his students outside to wait for the buses.

The boy steps off the bus at the corner nearest to his house. On the bus, a ninth-grade kid had loudly warned that “Russia is going to attack us any minute. There’s going to be a war.” Oddly, no one else was talking. The boy knows that the Russians are bad. They hate America. They started the Cold War. There had been a

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~ ~ ~

movie at an assembly last week explaining all of this. Still, he doesn’t think they will attack. Anyway, he has other things to worry about. The President is dead, and the boy is frightened. But what else is making his stomach churn? He sees the bird again. Spinning. Falling. He sees the President falling out of a tree, bleeding. He walks quickly, then breaks into a run.

He stops in front of his house and looks through the front window at the glow of the television screen. If the TV is on in the daytime, that means his mother must already know. He walks up the path and rings the doorbell. Why had he done that? He never rings the doorbell. But the President is usually alive. So, maybe nothing will ever be usual again. His mother opens the door. She doesn’t ask him why he rang the bell or how or why he came home early. She just takes him in her arms and says, “Oh, buddy, President Kennedy is dead.” Tears are running down her face.

“I know,” he says, wriggling free.

His mother sits down in front of the TV. She is not a big woman, but her sitting seems to have deflated the couch. It is as if her sorrow has added weight to her small frame. “Your dad called. He’s on his way home,” she says, without taking her eyes off the TV.

“OK.” The boy doesn’t say anything else. Words have started to fail him. He used to talk freely with his parents. But now, he often feels flustered when they speak to him, ask him questions. His mother says she can tell he’s a teenager because he grunts all the time instead of talking. Does he? He doesn’t mean to grunt; he just doesn’t know how to find words for the confusion inside him. He is growing so fast. He doesn’t recognize his own hands, his own thoughts and feelings.

“He said no one was getting any work done, so he was coming home. He should be here soon.” His mother looks at him.

“OK. Good.” The boy walks into the kitchen, opens the refrigerator door, then closes it again. He realizes he is not hungry. Maybe no one is hungry when the President is dead. When a bird is dead.

He walks back into the living room and sits next to his mother on the couch, but not close enough for her to touch him. Walter Cronkite is speaking on the TV. The

boy’s father comes through the door and immediately pours himself a drink. He tips the bottle toward the boy’s mother, miming his question.

“Yes,” she says. “Yes.”

The boy has noticed that adults drink when they are sad or scared. He wonders if it helps, wonders if his father will offer him a drink. Just this once. Because he is 13 and the President is dead. He does not.

His mother tells his father that Walter Cronkite choked up when he announced that JFK was dead. The boy is surprised. Walter Cronkite never chokes up. Walter Cronkite’s steady voice, night after night, was how they knew everything was OK, that everything would be OK. If Walter Cronkite had choked up, maybe everything wouldn’t be OK.

The family watches TV for four days. They watch the open car drive through the streets of Dallas, the President smiling and very much alive. They watch Jackie, still wearing her blood-stained suit, standing next to Lyndon Johnson as he takes the oath of office on Air Force One. They watch the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald and then watch as Jack Ruby shoots Oswald as he is being led through the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters. His mother says this means there won’t be a trial. His father looks worried. Oswald had visited Russia. Were the Russians behind this?

They watch Jackie and her children leave the church after the funeral service. The Kennedys are Catholic. Jackie wears something lacy on her head. His mother tells him that Catholics must cover their heads in church. They watch John-John salute his father’s casket. They watch the funeral procession. The riderless horse. Tiny Haile Selassie walking next to very tall Charles de Gaulle. He has heard of de Gaulle, but not Selassie. He reaches for the globe to find Ethiopia.

The boy sees that his father is crying and feels afraid. He has never seen his father cry. He knows the world has changed. Already he knows there will be a before and after. And what about Lyndon Johnson? Will he know how to be president?

He thinks about Barbara Jackson and wonders if she has been watching with her family. Does she know he has been watching her, noticing the changes in her body? Does she know what he has been thinking? Is it obvious? Does everyone know?

With horror, he wonders if his mother knows. This thought makes him leave the room.

“Where are you going?” his mother calls after him.

He doesn’t answer. He takes his red face outside. Of course, his mother doesn’t know. Does she? People don’t read minds. Barbara doesn’t know. He has barely talked to her this school year. He bats at the air, as if this might chase away his humiliation. When had his world become so complicated? And how can he fold the death of a bird and a president into his confusion? He can’t. He walks around the yard for several minutes, until the cold drives him back inside.

At night the boy lies awake and thinks about the President and his family. Everyone says that JFK was young, but he was older than the boy’s father. It occurs to him for the first time that his father will die someday. He will not be shot. But he will die. The boy thinks about this and feels an odd sensation in his chest. He can’t quite identify it. It can’t be fear. He is practically an adult. Still, the thought of life without his father or mother in the background makes him a bit queasy. After he goes off to college, no, after he graduates from college, then they can get old and die. Until then, his father needs to go to work, and his mother needs to cook and do the laundry.

He thinks about Caroline and John-John. He thinks about the pictures in the Sunday supplements—Caroline under her father’s desk. The family walking hand-inhand across the White House lawn. Who will be in Parade Magazine now? Surely not Lyndon Johnson and his wife. They are old. They don’t belong in Parade Magazine. His mother has told him that Jackie and the kids will have to leave the White House. This had not occurred to him. Where will they go? He pictures the Johnsons escorting them out of the White House. It doesn’t seem fair. Jackie should be able to stay. She loves the White House. He knows because he watched a TV special where she gave a tour.

He thinks about Lee Harvey Oswald. Why did he shoot the President? Had he cleaned his rifle before he shot the President? What about after? No. He had hidden the rifle before he ran away. Would the cops clean it? He wonders about things like

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this. He thinks about his rifle, hanging in the garage. Will his father notice that he didn’t eject the shell? He thinks about the bird. Why had he shot it? Why does anyone shoot any living thing?

Eventually, he sleeps.

On the afternoon of the Monday after the assassination, the boy picks up his rifle and a shovel. School will start again tomorrow. He puts on a coat and heads for the woods.

When he reaches the clearing, he begins to dig. It takes nearly an hour to dig a big enough hole in the rocky soil. When he has finished digging, he leans on his shovel, the way he has seen his father and other men lean on their shovels. He is not sure he wants to be a man anymore. He would like to be 12 again for a little while. After a moment, he places the rifle in the hole and shovels the soil back in. He wishes Lee Harvey Oswald had buried his rifle instead of firing it at the President. He wishes for the hundredth time that he had not shot the bird. When the hole is filled, he walks back and forth over the soil to tamp it down, then says a little prayer. He doesn’t usually pray, except in church where he has to, at least, pretend, but today he prays for the bird and President Kennedy. He hopes they are watching him from somewhere. He hopes they saw him bury the rifle. He hopes they know he is sorry.

Marjorie A Speirs, a self-described "recovering attorney," lives and writes mostly poetry and short fiction in the Pacific Northwest. A journalist before attending law school, she wrote a weekly newspaper garden column for five years while also working as an attorney. Her blog is titled A Woman of A Certain Age

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Like a Mystic

Today's my birthday. I'm 100 years old. I made it. that's what I should have told them but I remained quiet as usual and enjoyed the secret like a mystic, like a saint. it's a sad day of remembrance because for each year I lost I recall the pain, I recall joy and misunderstandings but mostly each one is a broken twig broken from disinterested anger and tossed on the campfire how could I be so trifling and annoyed vindictive and lazy and still make it to 100? I don't deserve any of this, any of what? there's no cake with candles, sung off-key no celebration of me tomorrow I'll finally be old after faking it for half a century that's something, no, that's nothing. I say nothing, possess nothing, contribute nothing to nobody, I take without giving these days, so whatever I gave to whoever whomever whenever I was younger even if they are gone, they are even if I was unkind and selfish that, all that, now will have to suffice.

E Martin Pedersen, originally from San Francisco, has lived for over forty years in eastern Sicily. His poetry appeared most recently in Avatar Review, Canyon Voices, Slab, and others. He is an alumnus of the Community of Writers.

Angel Mud

Bury the seeds, programed with creeping, clinging life, of the leaf extending out of the vine-bud on a time-lapse vid, of one end, the root, and the other, stem.

It knows the direction, even upside-down.

You can name their parts in the longest Latin. Make it unpronounceable, unmemorizeable! Try to reach up to its complexity, child!

But no, no, your mind is mud, messy melting memory, a broken thing at birth, and yet a miracle, an immensity, monstrous and desperate.

The mud is waiting. Look.

Run your fingers through the fine, soft dirt—dry dirt, forbidden dirt, under-the-fingernails dirt.

Break up the stubborn clay with pointed instruments. Stab and stab and stab as the body shakes.

The mud will come.

That’s how angels make babies in heaven; they take the melting mud in their naked hands and shape it ’till it moves, ’till it opens its clean, white eyes and screams. They laugh and spatter each other, smooth skin so light or dark, spatter it on their brown-mottled wings.

Heavy smell of earth, dark, alive. Grass nearby. So close, the worms.

Just add water.

It moves, it lives, it wants, oh, but the baby is mud.

It’s hard to see, so hard to see! But the baby was always mud.

Cynthia Pierce is an emerging writer of poetry and short prose from California. She is also a YouTuber-mom, digital artist, and educator. Her Masters in English is from the California State University system.

Cynthia Pierce Battered Freedom Bus in Retirement William C Crawford


I want to be small again.

Small enough to look up at my mother, to stretch my neck skyward, to ask the meaning of things I don’t yet understand.

Small enough to search her gentle face for answers. To believe that she has them. To see the knowing spark in her eye, bright as the ochre sun.

Small enough to wrap my arms around her soft waist, my tiny fingers reaching, the circle of my embrace—my understanding—not yet complete.

Small enough to breathe the thick scent of gardenia in the garden of my childhood. To watch my mother gather a spring bouquet, cutting each stem carefully, the blossoms’ vibrant heads lush and alive.

I buy my mother flowers each Sunday from the cold aisle of the Safeway down the road. They’re slightly wilted and devoid of fragrance. Still, she smiles as I hand them to her.

I take her hand, the fragile skin thin, veins ropey as roots. I wrap my arms around her, encircle her completely, engulf her tiny frame.

Between us, in the swell of my belly, I feel the faintest flutter.

Now I’m the one who needs to have the answers.

Tomorrow, I’ll go to the nursery. I’ll buy seeds, a spade, soil. I will go to my mother’s house and I’ll plant a garden. Bare-handed, I will push the seeds into the earth and let the roots take hold.

Kelli Short Borges is a former reading specialist whose work has been recently published or is forthcoming in The Tahoma Literary Review, The Sunlight Press, MoonPark Review, and others. She enjoys hiking the Arizona foothills, photography, and traveling the world in search of adventure.

Kelli Short Borges

Cedar Waxwings at an Old Farmstead

Cedar waxwings quarrel about a tilted bucket. The soft rustle of their flight breaks the stillness.

Their masks, tufts, red tipped wings and yellow fringed tails—perfection within that ragged, fading place.

They have flown from the cedar grove of the once-pasture on a noon-shadowless day to the gray shed beside the cool root cellar,

driven there for rainwater drizzling into corroding bucket, for dropped seeds, bugs. Somewhere a tired farmer lies alone,

withers generations into the past, not wishing to see the creeping decay, remembering the quiet rustling of birds.

Les Brown has had poetry, visual art and short stories appear in Pinesong, Kakalak, Main Street Rag, and others. His works include two pubished chapbooks, Cold Forge and A Place Where Trees Had Names. He resides in Troutman, North Carolina.

A Place Between

There should be a place between life and death where one could go to look back

and understand, to reconcile failure and triumph into one soft mist

that does not chafe nor soothe, to look forward into death’s silence where life is freed of flawed flesh,

to be where peace is gained by shedding all mortal pain. There should be a quiet river raft,

a bloodless shelter that slakes the sudden shocking state of senses’ instantaneous departure,

that stings those who must remain. From our River Styx we could see beyond the bend

and know where we’ve been heading without thalamic fear of Thanatos.

On Our Fifty-Eighth Year

I see her silhouette beneath the covers and think of the many years passed. I reach my arm across her smooth skin and gently pull us closer together, She pats my thigh with a light touch as my hands caress familiar curves that once led to fiery passion. Now the embrace and warmth is enough to satisfy our unity. Our wrinkles and scars are hidden in the darkness where we imagine the past and keep silent vigil over the mystery that lies ahead.

Constant Companion

Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.

To see the face of the moon, waxing and waning in its cycle, yet constant—the same maria, craters and mountains through convex glass— leaves the gravity-bound to blink and stare as humanity changes, ages, dies.

Some are bombarded not from somewhere astral but across boundaries of consciousness. Some remain content in belief that change will lead them beyond the moon to everlasting constancy. Others wax and wane as they travel, never facing the same way as does their lunar companion, even when clouds obscure their view.

Selina, a South African Soccer Granny

A grandmother cradles her teacup in her hands as she settles onto her well-worn sofa to watch her favorite soccer team on the television. She leans forward as her team drives toward the goal. Eyes locked on the TV; she prudently places her cup aside. Holds her breath as the defense closes in. Her favorite striker takes aim. She rises to her slipper-clad feet and thrusts her fist upward as the ball sails into the corner of the goal.

She’s attuned addicted even to the crescendo of the game. You can imagine fellow soccer fans around the world on their feet, cheering for the very same goal.

Grandmother Makoma Selina Matwalane’s passion for the sport really ignites when she kicks off her slippers and laces up her cleats. She lives in the rural province of Limpopo, South Africa. At 56, Selina is one of the youngest on her team. Several players, including the goalie, are well into their eighties.

It all started back in 2007. In their hometown of Nkowankowa, a group of women were meeting regularly for exercise. One day some boys happened to lob a soccer ball in their direction. One of the women booted the ball as the others hooted with laughter. They asked the teens how to properly kick it. For the next hour, the boys politely demonstrated how to pass and receive the ball. How to dribble up the field. And shoot the ball into the goal. The women so enjoyed it that they vowed to play again. “Tomorrow!” they agreed. The team, affectionately known as the Soccer Grannies, was born.

At first family and townsfolk ridiculed them. It was unheard of for women to play soccer let alone grandmothers. They were scolded and told they belonged at home caring for the grandchildren. But the women were having too much fun to relinquish their newfound passion. As they perfected their ball handling skills, their physical health, mobility, and mental outlook improved. Selina attests, “You may go to the practice with something bothering your mind, but once you get there you forget about it. I am stressfree since I joined the Grannies team.”

Selina may not have taken up soccer until her fifties, but she remembers an active life as a young girl. Skipping rope set her heart racing. “Athletics was my favorite part of school. I grew so fond of running.” Winning races was her chance to shine.

But at lunch time, Selina avoided attention. “At school my peers would eat bread and other delicious things but as for me, I always carried a lunch box of porridge and wild spinach. That made them laugh at me.” Selina’s simple lunch reflected her family’s limited means. They lived on a White-owned farm where her father toiled assembling boxes for packing tomatoes. “The tough thing was that my father was never paid enough. Life was too hard for my parents.”

Selina’s life was rich however with tenderness. “I was raised by my mother who was blind. I remember how she lovingly cared for me and bathed me as a little girl.” Selina, the youngest of five children, helped her mother with the chores. “Just like other girls, I was taught to make a soil mixture for beautifying the floors and walls of my family’s house. I drew water from the river. I cooked and washed our clothes.”

Selina also frequented the riverside to swim with her girlfriends after school. “I remember boys would take our clothes and hide them. They laughed as we ran around in our briefs looking for our clothes. Sometimes we had to beg the boys to give them back.”

Like kids around the world, Selina’s childhood blended schoolwork, physical chores, and playful interludes. Unlike kids in other countries, South Africa had been entrenched in the racist policies of apartheid rule for almost 20 years when Selina was born.

Segregation and discrimination institutionalized into laws. Blacks relocated to desolate “homelands.” Families separated. Physical movement restricted. Education deliberately inferior. Violent police enforcement. Blacks were plunged into poverty and held captive. A sinking feeling of hopelessness pervaded.

Many Black South Africans turned to religion as they sought answers. Selina was raised among the faithful. “I am so thankful the White farm owner was Christian. He was strict and made sure that we went to church every Sunday. That church was just for us Blacks living on the farm. No White person attended the church with us. As you know a Black person at that time was not regarded as a person.”

More than three quarters of Selina’s fellow citizens identify as Christian. In the early 1900’s there were more missionaries in South Africa than any other country in the world the mild climate and manageable diseases drawing them as much as the souls to be saved. Some churches adopted aspects of traditional ancestral religions; many flocked to join those congregations. The church became host to the ceremonies marking life’s way points: baptism, marriage, and funerals.

Selina was a young 24-year-old woman when she met the man she would marry. “He was a teacher at the school I had attended. He proposed to me and after some discussions I agreed.”

Selina and her husband would raise two sons and a daughter. With the universal joys of motherhood came weighty responsibilities. “We struggled at home due to my husband drinking too much alcohol and spending too much money on it. He even borrowed money to buy more alcohol. We got into debt and that made us suffer. But my belief in the Lord has made me a strong person who is able to withstand such tough life situations.”

Selina was almost 30 in 1994 when South Africa won its bitter fight to end apartheid. Nelson Mandela, a long-held prisoner for his political activism, was elected President of the young democracy. It was a time for optimism and hope, but the Rainbow Nation faced many challenges as they sought to provide basic government services for the majority population that had been repressed for decades.

Meanwhile Selina was dealing with close-to-her-heart departures. “1997 was not a good year for me as I lost both my parents.” She clung to her immediate family as she grappled with her grief. “My mother worked hard to raise me. Parents are gifts from God.” Had Selina known the Soccer Grannies at that point in her life, her teammates would have comforted her with hugs and prayers.

Another two decades of life went by. Selina’s offspring had reached young adulthood and started their own families. “My husband passed away in 2019. I must be honest; although I had a tough life with him, I miss him nonetheless.” Months later, tragedy struck again for Selina. “My daughter passed away in the same year.” In the cases of such untimely deaths, grandmothers like Selina often assume care for the young grandchildren. Again, she turned to her faith for comfort. “I have relied so much on the Lord. Each time reporting difficulties to Him has helped me to heal.”

Today, this 56-year-old grandmother sits in the shade of a tree next to the stadium. She wears a white polo shirt under her black-and-white-flowered traditional ncecka, a cloth tied over one shoulder. Her head is covered with a broad colorful head band and kerchief proudly displaying the name of her soccer team.

Selina describes how her life now has a comfortable ebb and flow. “I start each day by cleaning the house and doing other chores. I am proud of myself for having raised a

family and to be still living under the roof my husband and I built. I work as a church caretaker. I clean the church and make sure everything is in order.” Selina’s eyes sparkle as she mentions her grandchildren who live just a few kilometers from her. “I love them so much. They visit me for some days.” Before turning in for the evening, Selina often tunes the television to the soccer channel.

South Africa is a soccer-crazed nation, or more accurately a football-crazed nation. During the nearly 50 years of apartheid rule, even the “beautiful game” fell victim to separatist policies. Black teams were denied access to playing fields. Blacks were not permitted to represent their own country in international competitions. FIFA and the Olympic committee took stands against apartheid and banned South Africa from participation.

Along with democracy, soccer was returned to the citizens to South Africa. Just a few years after the Soccer Grannies first booted the ball, South Africa had the honor of hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup—the first time the games were held in Africa. The Soccer Grannies were thrust into the international spotlight as a charming human interest story in the leadup to the World Cup. My women’s soccer team in Massachusetts connected with the Grannies, formed a friendship, and convened on both sides of the Atlantic to play together.

Selina is grateful she has found a close-to-home community on the soccer field where twice a week she meets her teammates. She runs like she did as a young girl, and revels in the company of her teammates. “I had a lot of stress before joining soccer but now I am fine. We share jokes and laughter.” She returns home physically tired, but with her heart at ease.

The teapot whistles as she puts on her slippers and settles down in front of the television just like other women around the world who love soccer.

Jean Duffy is the debut author of Soccer Grannies: The South African Women Who Inspire the World, to be published in May 2023 in advance of the Women’s World Cup. Selina generously shared her life story with interviewer and translator Happiness Maake in September 2021. Jean plays soccer and writes in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Jean Duffy


The hollyhocks stand guard heads bent over mine.

I stretch my spine when I walk by. I don’t resent their spreading across the path, in lawn territory. Isn’t it where I want to go over there, or just elsewhere, like they do so thoughtlessly?

The aged pear tree, distorted and quiet is invaded by a cloud of yellow grosbeaks that seems to pale the sun.

They rest their wings a while catch their breath and chatter.

Then they whoosh off veer above the house and disappear, their golden breath a flash on my retinas.

I wonder what humans leave behind maybe a scented trail, a wisp of wind

that calls our name, or a heavy stone with numbers to mark our presence.

Marie-Andree Auclair has recently been published in Bywords, Flo Lit Magazine, Young Ravens Review, and others. Her poems can be found in print and online publications in Canada, the USA, UK, Ireland and Australia. She lives in Ontario, Canada.


Hope cracks her whip on my back fear cracks hers as if taking turns and the wind, bound-free that always talks about elsewhere in whispers or in shrieks loops around my ankle. It tugs, jostles and prods as if I were hollow as if I stood in its way as if wanting to pry me along to an elsewhere neither of us will reach.

Marie-Andrée Auclair

The Itinerant Preachers’ Tag Team

On Sunday morning at 8 a.m. Reverend Michael Monty thundered as he stood up near the pulpit at the Clarkton Independent Christian Church, preaching to a small congregation. Seven years removed from his professional wrestling career, he thought back to those days as he summoned his thundering voice. Wrestling crowds loved it. Congregants responded to it too. He relished the appreciation but also delivering his message. But the crowds he saw now were much less rowdy. His mighty voice virtually made the slat boards of the old white country church squeak. The church, little more than a shotgun house and vacant during the week, came to life every other Sunday morning when Reverend Monty, their itinerant preacher, returned.

A large man, Reverend Monty was a white man who preached in several small mixed-race churches 40-80 miles apart in central Mississippi, a different circuit than for his wrestling days. His favorite sermon revolved around this premise: “I will wrestle the devil out of you and win you for the Lord.” When he drove away from each church, he crammed his large body into a Volkswagen beetle and powered forward to the next church, making three stops each Sunday at churches down different back roads.

Every Sunday he wore a dark blue suit and white shirt and slicked back his combed over hair; otherwise, he had wild, unruly gray hair that crept near his shoulders. On this Sunday, the congregation sang “Amazing Grace,” a perennial favorite of his. “Grace,” he thundered with force and joy, “that gift from God that will help you through your challenging days and allow you to power forward.”

He looked out a window at the Clarkton Church where he could see a clear day outside. Bluebirds flitted through American elms and hickories. Spring was returning again, just as he returned every other Sunday to his faithful congregations. Had purple martins already arrived in this part of the country? The harbinger of spring, spring that time of rebirth, natural and sometimes spiritual.

He paused and the congregation waited. What was next? They knew their preacher by his common expressions but also by his uncommon ones, uncommon at least among preachers. He was puzzling with how to handle some of the problems his congregants faced. He knew how he would handle it eight years ago. A pile driver. A tag team. An assist from his wrestling partner. Now his ever-present partner was Jesus.

“I have been told that in Clarkton, a man takes money from grandmothers in this community. Taking advantage of grandmothers. How despicable!”

“Yes, most of you know who he is. This man is wrong. He acts against the wishes of God. You know he is the devil who steals from you. If he were here now, I would wrestle that devil from him.”

Reverend Monty imitated a wrestling move as if he had the head of this man in a headlock.

“Do not let him take advantage of you. Tell him that God wants him to work for his daily bread. Invite him to come to services two Sundays from now and he and I can talk.”

The choir sang on the Reverend’s cue, and he also sang loud and forcefully but now and then toning down so that gentle voices could be heard.

They sang out and he began his departure, shaking hands as he walked down the aisle, always something to say. Sister Clara packed him a few biscuits and gave him a thermos of hot coffee for his ride to the next church.

The morning service in Unity was in a small building with a concrete façade in what had been a thriving town square forty years ago. It had been a Ben Franklin store many years ago, then a fruit and vegetable market, and now a church. He pulled into the parking spot reserved for him 20 minutes early, but a congregation always faithfully waited. Hadn’t God’s chosen people endured their 40-year Exodus?

Reverend Monty had found his second calling as an itinerant preacher. He had worked with larger congregations, but being a traveling preacher he could serve those who would not have been served. Or maybe his preaching was just an extension of his desire to perform for small crowds? Maybe.

In Unity Church, he preached on forgiveness. “We must forgive those who sin against us and love them as we would be loved,” he said. “But we live in the real world, and sometimes even as we forgive, we must stand up for ourselves and stand up for what is right.”

And the congregation sought to understand him. Through the years most of them had heard messages about turning the other cheek, and they knew how Jesus had done so, but Reverend Monty sometimes walked a fine line. “Maybe you can forgive and you should, but can your brother stand before you and beat you and you not take a stand?”

“I have heard that there is a man who frequents that bar just down the square in what used to be a Sinclair service station. I’m not clairvoyant, you know, but the sign is still there after all these years. He threatened some of the good women of this church who were here last night getting the church ready and placing these beautiful flowers around the church.

“Forgive him? Sure, we need to forgive him. Maybe we can come to understand what drives him. But we also need to stand up to him. I am not arguing that our elderly women do this, but if he were here at our services two Sundays hence, I would wrestle the devil out of him and I would bring him around to see what the Lord truly desires.”

A chorus of Amens. Maybe it was not the typical message, but on some level, they understood the reality he preached. He knew he could not always be there to protect them but he wished for a way to help them beyond his words and beyond their faith.

And he preached more about forgiveness and how important it was, and how forgiveness is rooted in love, and the congregation sang “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” There were no mountains anywhere near Unity, but in spirit they were on top of that mountain.

~ ~ ~

Reverend Monty had a third stop, this one in Port Smith at a small church there. Port Smith had been a river town, not a port any more, and the small church there had been abandoned for nine years when Reverend Monty was contacted about resuming services. This church served members from parts of two counties and vans gathered the churchgoers, making swings through country roads, riding on asphalt, gravel, and sometimes dirt and beaten down Johnson grass.

He talked about endurance at Port Smith and keeping our eyes on the better world, the prize that we would all one day have if we lived according to the Lord’s will. In this congregation, many older parishioners barely had money to get by, even with federal and local programs, but every other Sunday, they were there in numbers that pleased Reverend Monty.

And Monday he had to make an unannounced trip back to Clarkton, using skills from his first profession, and he prayed that he could get into Clarkton and out without being seen and without being attached to his work at the church, and he wondered if he would need forgiveness, though he had no plans to ask for it.

During the week, Reverend Monty lived in an apartment over a garage owned by Mrs. Tillie Thompson; none of the churches he served were in the small town of Washington, but a large swath of highway and county connectors to the west, north, and east would get him to one Sunday’s churches, and another large swath to the west, south, and east would reach every church where he preached on the alternate Sunday. He paid Mrs. Thompson a little to cover expenses, but she considered the small payment, in lieu of a larger payment, as a way to contribute to the work of a man of God. Every morning, Reverend Monty read from scripture, and every time he read, he made different connections, one reading in the light of another, and he reviewed the summaries he prepared of every sermon he had given, not word for word, but he captured the major thoughts and made annotations on the Biblical readings associated with his major points. And so he had folders where he kept

~ ~ ~

sermons by topic—obedience, worship, love, mercy, forgiveness, but also battles of the Bible.

He had a breakfast prepared by Mrs. Thompson, a widow but with a son of 52 who lived with her and for whom she spent as much time caring for as if he were 10. Reverend Monty worked in the yard when there were limbs to gather or firewood to split or even painting the house’s exterior. He was something of a handy man but more than that, working let him focus his thoughts on his greater mission. And on good days, any day warmer than freezing and cooler than the flames of hell, he would walk to the market and pick up whatever Mrs. Thompson needed at the grocery store. She had a garden and grew some vegetables—mustard greens, bush beans, and more, but always needed milk or bread or chicken. She had raised chickens at one time, but decided it was much easier to buy them.

On Tuesday, Reverend Monty received that rare phone call on his cellphone on the way to Miller’s Market. It was Sister Clara from the Clarkton Church. She normally spoke with a gentle voice but that day her voice was grating; she was obviously upset.

“Reverend,” Clara said, “there’s been a beating near the church, out in the woods.”

“What do we know about this beating?” he asked.

“The young man you preached about. He was beaten badly. Someone, it appears, approached him after he had taken money from one of our parishioners, and caught him near the edge of the woods, as he tried to sneak away.”

“And he is all right?”

“He will make it, but—”

“And our parishioner? How is she?”

“It was Hattie. She was scared but she tried to remain strong, remembering your words.”

“Not my words, but the Lord’s. Let us pray for her now that the Lord will give her strength, and let us thank the Lord that someone has stood up for what is right.” And he said a short prayer.

“Now, what else can you tell me?” He was fishing for any trails he might have left.

“The man who beat him was a very strong man.”

“Strengthened by doing the Lord’s work, no doubt, Sister Clara.”

“Of course, Reverend Monty. But there were large branches snapped from trees that were used to beat the man. He was very strong, this man, whoever he is that is protecting us.”

“Praise be to God,” Reverend Monty said.

“So did the young man say who it was that grabbed and beat him?”

“No, not that I have heard, only that the man was filled with fury, but that is not much of a physical description. Most believe he was a large man, a man who knew how to handle himself in a fight.”

“May God look over you,” Reverend Monty said. And he thought to himself that it was too risky to continue taking care of “the bad guys” by himself, but maybe there would be some kind of trade-off he could accomplish.

Reverend Monty generally picked up a sandwich or hamburger for lunch in town before making the run by the market. When he returned with her groceries, he said, “I won’t be home for supper tonight. I am going to have someone take a look at my car, a friend of mine in Unity. I will be late getting back.”

And Reverend Monty and his small car headed for Unity.

Unity was about a sixty-mile trip and given the number of twists and turns in the roads 40 miles per hour was optimistic, especially given that the Volkswagen had a little trouble holding the road. He had an old cassette player in his car and listened to Gospel songs as well as inspirational talks.

He pulled up at a large garage with twenty or so cars parked in front. Some of them were not going anywhere soon since they had no engines, some were missing hoods, doors, and tires. He parked in an area that had gravel on it right down the

~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~

center of the drive. He could see the proprietor, a large black man with large, oily hands, probably 10W-40.

“Reverend Israel,” he said, as he exited the car.

Reverend Israel wiped his hands on his blue jeans and shook Reverend Monty’s hands. “Long time,” Monty said.

“Long time,” Reverend Israel agreed.

“So, you spend your week ‘healing’ cars and your weekends ‘healing’ people?”

Reverend Monty said.

“You got it,” Israel said.

They laughed.

“Been a long time since we were arch rivals and you were the Mighty Israel on the wrestling circuit.”

Reverend Monty grabbed Israel by the shoulders and feigned that he was throwing him onto an imaginary mat. “Not so fast, Monty. I might be older, but I’m not that easy to throw to the mat. What brings you to Unity?”

“The old bug is running rough. Thought you could take a look at it and maybe fix it today.”

“Start it up and I’ll take a listen.”

Reverend Monty got back into the driver’s seat, which was a feat in itself, and started the engine. Reverend Israel knocked on the window, which Monty rolled down. “We might want to say a prayer for your engine. Oh wait, I hear it now. I guess you didn’t wind it up enough.”

“You have to wind these up?”

Then two large men cackled like large chickens.

“Pull it up in the garage,” Israel said. “This won’t take long. We’ll look at the plugs and points and see if we can make this little bug healthy.”

Israel worked on Monty’s car and Monty watched from the other side of the garage.

~ ~ ~

“How it’s coming, Israel?”

“Not bad. Not much longer and this bug can do some chugging out of here.”

“I need to talk with you about a church issue.”

“Ok,” Reverend Israel said with an interest in his voice that transcended automobiles, and he looked back while his hands worked on removing spark plugs.

“The Unity Church where I preach every other weekend has a troublemaker nearby who needs to receive the Lord’s word.”

“He’s not a churchgoer, I would bet.”

“Not to my knowledge. I am giving you some details on this note.”

“Aren’t you going to tag me?” Reverend Israel asked. “At least you play like you tried and I hop in the ring before you are totally out.”

“Tag,” he said, “but I need to be long gone when this happens. Of course, tags can work both ways.”

“The Lord will be served, Reverend. We don’t get to choose, do we, where people are in need?”

“No, we don’t.”

“And someday, you know I preach at churches mostly north of here, I may need some assistance too. Most folks around here don’t even know I preach out of town.”

It was a beautiful day in Clarkton. Blue skies where there should be blue; puffy white clouds placed just right. Reverend Monty enjoyed giving his sermon and enjoyed the attention of everyone listening to his every word. He was not a preacher anyone had trouble hearing and out in the country when the doors and windows were open, the preaching seemed to permeate the wooded land, and the choir sang jubilantly. Reverend Monty knew that he had a timetable that would tell him when to leave to get to his next church, but he enjoyed every minute he could spend here.

After the closing song, Reverend Monty saw the parishioners and shook many hands and patted the heads of many children and grandchildren. Sister Clara waited toward the end of the line.

~ ~ ~

“Sister Clara, how are you this beautiful day?” Reverend Monty asked.

“I am good, Reverend,” she said.

She took a sandwich that she had placed in a small bag in her large purse and handed it to him.

“But, I can see on your face that you are concerned?”

“I’m worried about that young man who was beaten. I am concerned about him and the fact that he needs some counseling and he needs the Lord’s message.”

“He is not likely to come to services.”

“You are probably right, and I know you must be on your way to your next church.”

“And I would think that he did get a message by whoever beat him for doing what he has done, taking money from those who need it.”

“I am worried that he understands that someone has stood up for us but that he may respond by coming back stronger, coming back more prepared.”

“You must take comfort in the Lord,” Revered Monty said. “You cannot be concerned about what may happen. I suggest you pray.”

“I am also worried that someone who beat this man may be carrying a great deal of guilt. You know how when you punish a child you may still feel guilt. This punishment was extreme.”

“Whoever did this was standing up for the community. Not that he should want to be praised and not that he would not wish there were other ways to protect the innocent. But I am comfortable that whoever did this feels no guilt.”

“But if he does, you could talk with him?”

“Of course,” Reverend Monty said. “Of course.”

Reverend Monty arrived at Unity Church about 30 minutes early, pulling into his reserved parking spot. He had coffee in his thermos and took a few sips, a big man with a small thermos. He kept his sandwich, fresh from Clara, in a Scooby Doo lunch box. It was a practical thing, not a statement.

~ ~ ~

He looked down the street and saw someone move behind a building that had long since been abandoned. He walked over to see who it was.

“Israel,” he said. “What are you doing here?”

“Got a few minutes before I leave for services. Wanted to tell you about my counseling session.”

“Ok, but quickly before the congregation comes looking for me.”

“I saw the young man you wanted me to. Not surprisingly he gave me a little attitude. I got him in a chokehold and read a little scripture.”

“He still had enough oxygen to his brain to do some intake, Israel?”

“Of course. You know me. What always concerns me is knives and guns, but he had been drinking and was much slower than me. He asked me where I came from and why I was doing this.”

“And you said?”

“I have been moved by the Lord to do an attitude adjustment. But he knew that I could not always be there to keep him straight. I don’t think he recognized me, but he may have picked upon some of my trademark moves.”

“Did he get the message?”

“That is always hard to know. But he knows what it was about, and he knows about your church. I’m just concerned that he may be coming to your service this morning.”

“Unlikely he would be up at this time on this fine Sunday.”

“I don’t know. I just had a feeling. You know how we have to go with our feelings sometimes.”

“Sometimes we do, Reverend Israel.”

Reverend Monty held out his long right arm for the tag. “Let me into this ring.”

And Reverend Israel was gone.

Unity Church filled up its 12 pews on each side of the center aisle, and Reverend Monty talked to them briefly. “Today I will talk to you about forgiveness.”

~ ~ ~

The choir sang the Lord’s Prayer. Reverend Monty sang along and when they had concluded, he gave them a short applause, two or three handclaps.

“What a beautiful sound and a beautiful song,” he said.

“Forgive us our debts; forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. What do these words mean to us this morning? We pray to Our Father with praise and with this petition, forgive us and lead us to forgive others.”

Interrupting the sermon was the door creaking open. In walked a man. He took a seat in a pew at the back of the church.

Reverend Monty occasionally had someone arrive late, and he normally proceeded with the service. Not this time.

“We have a visitor this morning,” he said. “I welcome you.”

The man acknowledged the welcome with a head shrug, but members of the congregation looked back at him.

“May I ask what brought you here this morning?"

The man stood, “My guardian angel invited me.” He smirked.

“Ok, and do you have a name that I can call you?”

“Call me Lee.”

“Lee. Welcome. I am Reverend Monty.”

“That is what I hear from my guardian angel.”

“You will have to tell us about this guardian angel someday.”

“Oh, I will.”

“Do you have something to share with us this morning? I have not finished my lesson this morning but perhaps you have something to add?”

“You were talking about forgiveness,” Lee said.

“I was. I often do.”

“So you all here today can forgive me?”

“Forgive you for what, Lee? I need you to say it.”

“I think you know what, ok?”

“But I’d like for you to say it? Why don’t you come down here with me and stand before this church and before God and say this?”

Lee started up toward Reverend Monty, and members of the congregation moved aside, and the choir, which was to the right of Reverend Monty, stood silent.

“Lee, say it.”

“I drink too much,” Lee said.

“We can help you with that. The Lord can help you.”

A few members of the congregation said “Amen.”

“Is there more, Lee?”

“I’ve threatened some of you. I’ve frightened you, I know.”

“And you feel that you should apologize?


“And ask our forgiveness?”


Reverend Monty reached out his arms to Lee and moved to put his hands on Lee, but Lee suddenly jumped at him.

“And who forgives my guardian angel?” Lee asked. “Who forgives this man who beat me?”

Reverend Monty reacted spontaneously. He had thrown Lee to the floor and had his large leg on Lee’s back with the point of his knee near his spine. The choir backed away and then moved to the entrance of the church.

“Everyone, I want you to pray for Lee. He needs your forgiveness.”

Reverend Monty asked those whom Lee had threatened to come up and, looking into his face, one by one say to him, “I forgive you.”

“Now, Lee, this is the Lord’s house. This is not the place for us to settle differences. I am going to let you up, but I don’t want to see you come threatening anyone from this church. No more threats.”

“Ok,” Lee said.

Reverend Monty let him up. Lee got up hesitantly.

“Let me welcome you again, a new man.”

Reverend Monty offered his hand and Lee shook it.

Lee looked at Reverend Monty. “I forgive my guardian angel,” Lee said, “and I forgive the man who sent him.”

“Forgiveness is good for the soul.”

“And. . . ” Lee asked, looking across the church and then to Reverend Monty, “do you need to ask for forgiveness too?”

“I do the Lord’s work. If you think I need forgiveness, then I am sorry, but I do what I must do.”

“You will have no more trouble from me,” Lee said and he walked out the door.

Reverend Monty took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his sweaty brow. Members of the church one by one rose from their pews and began to applaud Reverend Monty, and he put his hands up and then lowered them to indicate that they should sit. He put his finger to his mouth and said, “Shh!” to quiet them. They sat, and he took his right arm and bent it and played as if he had someone in a headlock and looked up toward heaven.

“Sometimes,” he said to his congregation, “we have to wrestle with forgiveness.”

He smiled when he heard the chorus of Amens.

Robert Baylot writes from western Tennessee and has published poetry in several journals including Deep South Magazine and Delta Poetry Review. His fiction has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Mysterical E, Mystery Tribune, and others.

Flame Season

Burn it all down: big cities, small towns. Fire trucks blaring a foghorn

rocking the moon. Minced leaves, mannequins at Liberty Avenue

storefronts, prone to flame. I am content to walk the ashes aimless

as the night, but to settle down, forgetting the tinder of the world–

I lay for tenderness to cover me, a soft blanket of smoke.

James Croal Jackson James Croal Jackson is a Filipino-American poet who works in film production. He has three chapbooks, Count Seeds With Me, Our Past Leaves, and The Frayed Edge of Memory. He edits The Mantle Poetry from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Sacrifice

A staccato rap at the door, and there he stood, Zanvil, the rain still running down his hair, that black midnight hair, like streams of darkness, down to his beard.

Even as he strode in, he was lecturing me, his words like the snap of a whip. “And another thought,”

“Another? Back so soon? You just left. You stood in the rain thinking?” The hot-head prophet, our Rabbi used to call him.

“Another thought. Does anything at all have meaning? Answer me straight. Does anything at all mean anything? What means what?”

“Sit, Zanvil. Some tea?”

“Tea. I’ll pace. It helps me think. Now speak: What has meaning? Anything here on earth?” Back and forth he went, like a caged panther. “Love?” I said. “Well maybe love.”

He stopped, grinned at me for a moment—snapped, “So, love? Good! If love, then hate.” Pacing again, “Then also hate has meaning. With all respect, your grandfather, he was maybe a bit of a fool. With due respect, wrong, he was all wrong. More tea!”

This deeply wounded crow, I thought— this crow with a broken wing striving to fly, to leave the ground—this was Zanvil’s way, but always worth the listening.

“No, no insult, but wrong! He said those Jews in the killers’ camps simply plodded along from day to day? And some were alive by chance and some were dead, at the end, and it meant nothing? That’s what he said?”

“Yes, something like that, but you must remember, He lived through four long years steeped in death in the Nazi camps, so he knew. . . ”

“He knew nothing!

Love has meaning! Hate has meaning! And death? Death has none, you think? Listen: Nothing. . . ” And he knocked his fist on the table over and over,

“There’s nothing that has no meaning, including death, and most of all, the Jews consumed by fire.” Again pacing, splashing his tea as he spoke:

“Why is it horrible, what your grandfather said? Because if it has no meaning, there is no God. Where was God? They ask. I’ll tell you where— at Auschwitz! There He stood and gathered the flames to Himself in the white heat of His transcending embrace. Our eyes are too dull to see. Too dull we are, far too blind to see; and that’s what we should mourn: our stupid grief, our anger, helpless rage, for we were forced to sanctify His name. A bestial act by a bestial nation drove us into the fire of total transformation, flame and smoke for God to consume, an immense dazzling deed, climactic immolation—an ascent!”

I couldn’t stand another word. I shouted, “No ascent! To pardon evil is evil! You make excuses for the blackest filth? You say that God. . . ”

“Yes, I say that God was there and laughed and cried and sang aloud Isaiah’s words that God Himself created light and darkness, peace and evil. Evil! I, the Lord, did all these things. Evil! And why?”

He dropped into the nearest chair and lowered his head and covered his eyes, and wept.

After a minute, he raised his head and spoke, quietly now, as though some seizure had passed.

He said, “Sometimes I think, I’m about to know, about to seize that truth, that dazzling truth that spins horror into a golden thread binding our bloody, wounded, wounding world to all that is light. So Moses did by singing as Pharaoh’s cavalry drowned in the Sea of Reeds— but then I recall that God forbade His angels to celebrate the drowning of the troops who also were God’s children, yet He Himself contrived their death.”

Zanvil slowly rose and started to pace again.

“Another thought: The temple sacrifice—why kill that heifer? Why splash her blood or burn her down to smoke, or should I say up to smoke?” He vaguely smiled at his own quip.

“To save us from something secret?” He said, “Something hidden? Speak, teach me— Isaac bound for the knife by Abraham, and the ram, trapped in the bush, killed instead— you once said that episode marked the end of human sacrifice?”

“Yes, I did say that. The horror of nearly killing his treasured boy— amid pagans, that shock would save us Jews from a dark descent to human sacrifice.”

Zanvil stood, looked at me, then chuckled. “I’m going. Thanks for the tea. And another thought: If sacrifice means making something holy, who is to sanctify us? Who will raise the souls of our people—God’s own precious treasure? Thanks again.”

He closed the door behind him.

I sat for a few moments, then I was filled with anger, rage. I yanked open the door; he was down the stairs, his hand on the outside door into the street. “Zanvil!” I shouted. “No! No! Not God! God is not some wild Moloch priest who slaughters his own children! The Auschwitz ovens were not some Holy of Holies!”

Zanvil’s voice resounded through the stairwell, his words echoing up as though from afar.

“A sacrifice of complete ascent in flames— Holocaust in Greek.” He laughed loud and called, as he passed into the drizzly street, “I bequeath to you the golden thread. It’s yours!”

Paul Z Panish Paul Z Panish's poetry has been published in Signal, The Formalist, War, and others, dating back to the 1960s.

As the Moon Looks Down

(After Su Tung Po)

I look at my face in a rainshrouded window, and would question myself. But I don’t know where to start. Shadows like lice crawl through my brain, leaving a black stain. I think that life will forever be a mystery. A hawk leaves his tree, circling the sky. He has no interest in me. In the vast night, I hear a tiny creature, sneaking in the grass, utter its final cry. The hawk’s young will now eat. So with whom should I sympathize?

George Freek's poetry has appeared in numerous journals and reviews. His collection Melancholia is also published.

Swipe Right?

The offerings, per the usual, include a photo of a man holding a large fish. Just standing there, grinning. I swipe Left. Apparently there is a marine theme today, as I am shown a man on a boat, wearing some kind of hat and standing at the helm. Left. Then a series of men on bikes, clad in brightly colored spandex, caught midrace, lean bodies and corded legs.

Left, Left, Left.

Another man in another hat on a bigger boat. A man in dark glasses with a baseball cap pulled low over his face. A man on a motorcycle, legs wide, belligerent mustache. A guy photographed on a date with another woman. Another one who has cut out the woman, but still has an extra arm draped around his neck.

A man wearing nothing but shorts, low on his hips, top button open, tan, confidently staring, daring the women on the other side.

Creepy is not sexy.

I swipe Left. And Left again. Faster and faster, ending relationships before they start. I am using Bumble, an app billed as giving women the upper hand because the pair can only meet if the woman initiates contact by swiping Right. I am dizzy with the power of control.

I try to slow the pace of rejection, to stop myself from being so judgmental. I remind myself that I’m 63. The universe of men my age willing to even consider dating someone my age is very, very small.

I get past the fish and find a few men with their shirts on, finally stopping long enough to read the written profiles. Here the terms of engagement are explicit:

“No drama.”

“Must be fit.”

“Must be open-minded.”

“If you have a three-date rule, don’t swipe right.”

“I may ruin your lipstick, but never your mascara. I don't bite unless asked.”

Some profiles, apart from city and state information, are completely blank.

I remember the last time I tried dating strangers. I was close to 60 and had been told by a professional dating coach that my options, especially on the Westside of Los Angeles, were limited. I was taken shopping, instructed to wear heels, reminded to flirt and to be more flexible. It was particularly important to wear sparkly things, as men, like fish, are attracted to shiny objects.

I was a poor, if not downright hostile, student of all of this and decided to try my luck online. Having been reminded of my limitations, I stretched my own age specifications for a mate and agreed to go out with a man who presented himself in a blurry photograph as a 70-year-old doctor. We spoke on the phone. He had a nice English accent. He mentioned that he liked fast cars. We agreed to meet.

As I drove up to the restaurant, I saw a handsome man exiting a blue Porsche, well turned out in a navy shirt and gray slacks. Almost a Sean Connery look-alike. The photo had been really blurry.

I circled the block a couple of times but finally parked and walked in. “Sean” had found a private booth, away from the daytime bar crowd, and was sipping a glass of white wine. Slipping into the seat opposite, I put out my hand.

“Ted? I’m Susan.”

He shook my hand and waved me into the seat. “What will you have?” he asks, as the waitress appeared.

“I’ll have what he’s having,” I told her, inexplicably mirroring Billy Crystal’s mother and breaking my vow never to drink wine at lunch. We chatted as we waited for my wine. The usual uncertain banalities:

“How’s your day going?” “Any trouble with traffic?”

Then Sean/Ted said, “Just so you know, my daughter and granddaughter will be here soon.”

I felt a small tilt in the universe.

“Um, how old is your granddaughter?”


~ ~ ~

The man I had spoken to on the phone had no children. The man I was sitting across from had no English accent. Slowly, ever so slowly:

“You’re not Ted, are you?”

“No. But it’s really great to meet you.”

I practically jumped off the chair, blushing, stumbling, offering to pay for the wine.

“No!” He said, laughing at my embarrassment. “Don’t worry about it. It was my pleasure. Come back if you like!”

When Ted arrived, it turned out that he made his living selling medical devices, which meant that he dealt with doctors, not that he was one. He had a rheumy leer. The English accent was a lot less crisp in person. It seemed like it had been a while since he had seen 70.

“Have some more wine,” he urged.

I made an excuse and stood up to go.

Meanwhile, not-Ted’s family had arrived. I waved at him as I beat a retreat to the parking lot. He winked and waved back.

I go back to reviewing suggested matches. I wonder if the Bumble designers have taken into account the significance of left and right in setting up this architecture. In Old English the left side was the weak side, associated with the devil and foolishness, while the right was associated with strength, wisdom and God.

Perhaps the apps’ designers understood that "A wise [wo]man’s heart directs [her] toward the right, but the foolish [wo]man’s heart directs [her] toward the left.” (Ecclesiastes 10:2.)

Or, as the Gospel of Matthew puts it, "He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. . . . Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels." (Matthew 25:33, 41.)

~ ~ ~

Some even trace the negative associations of “left” back to images of Eve, the temptress, being made from a rib taken from Adam’s left side, although it seems a bit much to blame all the world’s evil on women.

In modern parlance, “right” is always good the right thing to do, the right choice, the right time, you’re right, he’s right, she’s right, right versus wrong, right back at ya. Looking for Mr. Right.

Perhaps Bumble assumed that a woman who found the right guy would intuitively swipe right.

But I don’t see a swipe-right-worthy photo that day, except in my own mind. Maybe he has dark hair, mostly gray. Maybe he is standing outside, on a walking path backed by a deep blue sky. Windblown, with a physicality that is almost gravitational. Fully clothed but shirt untucked. He looks directly into the camera. The air around him is crackling. His written profile is funny, well-written, and mostly true. Maybe he looks a bit like Sean Connery.

Susan Nash is a former lawyer who has traded in years of writing briefs for a chance to write essays and local news articles. Her work has appeared in Next Avenue, Local News Matters, Biostories, and other publications.

Camping with My Daughter and Her Fiancé

. . . something even Mary Oliver couldn’t get behind.

It’s a dark, dank, and brutal awakening, too wet to gather kindling, too early

to chop dry chippings from purchased pine. At fifty-nine degrees, my husband and I are older than the temperature—old enough to know better than to try to hold our pee till first light, the outhouse being too far a walk under a moonless night. Come camping, they said. It will be fun—no hint of the violent passing of eight trains, their steel wheels squealing, shattering any chance of sleep—no alluding to the brown

recluse that seemed perfectly at home in the cozy cup of my bra—no talk of the culinary expertise needed for toasting jumbo marshmallows built to wilt on the pointed whittled tips

of our sticks—looking like something surrealist Salvador Dalí had painted—no mention of the risk of failure, the humiliation from its quick slip into the fire, the pop

as the sugary confection sparked into oblivion… where I swear I could hear my Hershey bar snicker—

my graham cracker release a sigh of disgust. Like I said, it’s early. I sit in my misted

zero gravity chair and naturally hope for a fire. But the grumpy girl in the squat-blue tent, buffered by a burst of yellow blossoms and flanked by two old shivering oaks, squeals, It’s too early to chop. Stop!

Susan Dines is a recent MFA graduate of Bennington College. Her work has appeared in the anthology Poems from the Lockdown, Kestrel, Eclipse Lit, and others.

The Cracker Jack Prize

It’s pretty much the point of it all, why we push past the kernels—reach blindly into the narrow pocket of a box—not knowing what we will come up with— but we press on, the flesh of our mortal fingers blocking out the light. . . feeling around in the dark for some sharp corner—the buried part that takes shelter under the sweet and salty surface. We’ll need to dig deeper to excavate the essential marvel that can save us from every heavy thing.

A Deadly Discrimination

Many jurisdictions stopped doing autopsies on people who died over the age of 60, unless it was obvious that a violent death occurred. —NPR News a pen a clipboard and a scalpel are nowhere to be found in the vicinity of a dead body— of a certain age as if the graying of hair and the slacking of skin determine whether these three items will be raised by a gloved hand something to consider when your spouse (out of the blue) brews the coffee slides your favorite cup across the counter and says Drink up

Susan Lynn Dines

Notable Deaths

I’m watching the Sunday Morning show with my latest husband.

We’ve been together long enough to have created our own traditions, like this once-a-week shared viewing of the news. But today this feature has hit me all wrong, and I’m irritated— like sand in a shoe or a stiff plastic tag, cut, but not removed. Perhaps this weekly segment on “Notable Deaths” and its sudden annoyance is a cumulative thing, like Gladwell’s tipping point or maybe something more mysterious is at play, like an elbow to my ribs from the underrepresented dead. And as the names and accomplishments spill across the screen, a sense of guilt volcanoed up in me for my lazing about the couch, sipping on tea—not unwrapping a new galaxy or founding a foundation to save our planet. . . or some aspect of it anyway—something to spark an applause and bring the camera crew running to my front door, reporters with pens cocked and readied to relay my newsworthy deed. I mean who can ignore the bias, the raising of the dead onto prime-time pedestals— reserved only for a few VIPs. I start to question my life’s plan (already three quarters played), its meticulous vision boards (of which I have none). I thought I could get away with slipping in and out undetected, except for a few encounters with a loved one or two—to tell the truth—I could have done with a lot less husbands, but who’s counting. It’s not like you can Google the statistics on the anonymous. I guess it’s better to screw up with the marriages than the kids, they being the bigger commitment of the two—and harder to lose. But back to the end, which this show got me considering, got me questioning my mere meager efforts and whether I should have worked harder at something more highly regarded, some feat recognized outside of my usual domestic domain. Should I have listened to that stranger’s tattoo: Audeat est facere (To dare is to do)? Should I start now? Am I too late? Can this underachiever, this dare-to-do-notter show up at the table of who’s who when my only prior platforms are shoes, no history of history and no foot set on stage. From my reclined position, I listen to the names of the celebrated departed, the Pulitzer winner and master composer, a poet, and an actor from five decades ago. My only condolence is knowing that notable or not, they’re soon-to-be forgot, just like the rest of us less celebrious—notable to nobody no more.

Dead On

The former President’s ghost arrives with fanfare and tinsel.

The flesh man’s still alive but his ghost has detached and roams house to house with grisly slogans. I won’t shake its vaporous paw or invite it to haunt my house, but chase it down to the village, where its cult gathers and fumes. Another day of thunder. The man, imprisoned in roils of meat, parades his rubbish in places simplified by years of neglect. He hasn’t noticed that his ghost has drifted northeast to wallow where his politics don’t play well.

I watch his few friends embrace and fondle the drifting image

they believe is more authentic than their spouses and their children.

I’m glad I escorted the ghost into this prelapsarian world of mutual self-satisfaction. The former President won’t live to savor the death of the planet. But reunited with his ghost, he’ll ascend beyond the reach of gravity and enter a dark spangled with celestial glimmers he’ll mistake for endless applause.

William Doreski has taught at several colleges and universities. His essays, poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared in various journals. His most recent book of poetry is Dogs Don’t Care. He lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

With a Gaze Deep As Moonlight Bill Wolak

A Novel I’m Writing Myself

Reading in the dark illuminates organs unrelated to sight. The pages flop in my paws like salmon scooped from a stream. The stark night encourages.

You want to turn on a light but I object because engaged in a novel I’m writing myself chapter by chapter with nothing between myself and my narrative.

The night whispers of creatures busy about their little chores. You retreat to the bedroom to watch a movie streaming from the ether. Another story telling itself

rather than the tale becoming the teller. I write in cloudy script that no Rosetta Stone mediates. Only the murmur of the TV textures the silence I impose.

My imagined characters romp in various sexual attitudes, pampering each other’s organs. Such pastoral should commemorate lives we never learned to live.

Miles away, the sea roughs up for another kind of narrative but one I hope to incorporate into dark pages so compelling even you will want to parse them.

The Music of Portugal

One day police will arrive and bend me over the horizon till I touch my toes with my tongue.

That will prove that I’m guilty of silence imposed on strangers and keyboards sticky with sweat.

The vapor where sea meets sky obscures the view of Portugal, otherwise visible from tidelines

creepy with clamshells and weed. While you unfold our picnic lunch of sliced turkey on thick rolls

I cup a handful of salt and lick a drop or two. No wonder wrecked sailors die of thirst. The blue

this afternoon is police blue, a shade easily reproduced by even the crudest painter.

In an hour or so, thunder will force us to retreat and drive to a creaky old motel

where the odors of past summers have silted in sticky layers no housekeeping can erase.

I’d write my name in the sand and pretend I’ve etched it in stone, but the surf expects such foolishness and the coming storms regard me as coolly as the police do. You pop open cans of soda

and order me to eat and drink in the all-American manner. The slick wet beach glimmers, and sounding tinny with distance the music of Portugal arrives to flatter my favorite senses.

His True Nature

Bull’s Eye, MO, 1978

They stood after milking, the older man and the younger, in sweltering shade under the big oak in Dean’s back yard with the five o’clock sun of late July slamming off the grain bins and the corrugated metal roof of the milk barn and rising again in distortions, a perceptible region of wavy light curling away from hot surfaces.

“We could be partners in this thing,” Dean said.

“Tempting,” Frank said without looking at Dean. He was thinking again, as he had been for months, of something Dr. Engle, his New Testament professor, had said last fall: “At it’s heart, temptation’s power is rooted in ignorance of one’s self.”

Frank shaded his eyes from the barn roof’s glare and tracked a hawk soaring on the invisible lift of the thermals. The bird made a high, wide circle over the barnyard, and he watched like a twenty-three year old watches anything that can soar. A kid raised on Bible stories, in the habit of looking for signs from God, he would like to have heard a voice from heaven telling him what to do.

“Till this summer, I ain’t had a vacation for nine years,” Dean said. It was the same thing he’d been saying in one way or another for days, ever since he and Ruby returned from their sojourn up in Ohio.

Frank listened and kept looking off into the distance, his hands in his jeans pockets, his T-shirt damp with sweat, a mop of brown hair down his neck and over his ears, sticking out from under a feed company cap Dean had given him. He’d returned to Bull’s Eye a little over a year ago with a regulation hair cut—Air Force, four years— but that was long gone now. He’d come home determined to follow a boyhood commitment to be a Baptist preacher and armed with the G.I. Bill to make school possible. What he’d learned so far primarily underscored the main lesson he’d begun to absorb when he left home the first time—almost as soon as he boarded the Greyhound in Joplin bound for the induction center in Kansas City—that he was ignorant of almost everything, especially himself. The professor’s little homily struck deep.

“Milked twice a day, every dern day for nine years. Never found nobody I felt like I could leave the farm with. You can’t imagine what that means.” Dean pushed the bill of his cap back. His forehead shown stark white above a heavy brow and leather brown cheeks. He was maybe twenty five years older than Frank and his face was marked by lines of worry as well as the smiles that came easily and often, and it all framed startlingly blue eyes, pools of mystery that now brimmed as they often did, with tears.

Frank looked directly, but only momentarily, into those eyes and the silent question of the whole summer glanced through his mind again—in Biblical language as always—“Why are you weeping?”

“You just can’t imagine,” Dean said again.

“I gotta get out of these,” Frank said with a gesture toward his feet and the knee-high rubber boots he’d hosed off at the hydrant outside the milking parlor. “I’m smothering.”

They walked across the yard and into the back door of Dean’s house and sat down in the mudroom to pull off their boots. In the cool, and in his sock feet, Frank suddenly felt the labor of the day, and of the full two months he’d been working for Dean. The first milking at seven in the morning, the second at three in the afternoon, haying, plowing, silage-cutting, fence-mending and other chores in between, and, for two solid weeks back in June, haying again after the second milking till those long days closed in darkness about nine-thirty or ten. It was all good, hard work, cleansing somehow, like an ascetic retreat from the previous two semesters.

“Is that my farm boy?” Ruby hollered from the kitchen.

There was a tug of temptation in her voice, and something like flirtation in her words, as if destiny had brought him to her and she understood him better than he understood himself. He wasn’t a farm boy. At least, he didn’t grow up on a farm, though he’d worked on lots of them as many a Bull’s Eye towny did. “You gonna stay for supper?” she hollered again.

The past two-hours of gnawing in Frank’s stomach turned instinctively to stone. He knew he could turn the stone to bread with a word, but knew also that the invitation was to something more than chicken-fried steak and biscuits. And he

thought of Dr. Engle noting the implicit irony in the words of Jesus to the tempter: “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”—quoting scripture to a fallen angel who knows what Jesus knows, that temptation is never about bread alone. And Frank knew that after a humble prayer all their talk would be about the two weeks Ruby and Dean had spent visiting relatives, folks they hadn’t seen in more than a decade. They’d talk of the trip, but more, about just being gone. Then the conversation would turn to the satisfactions of the farm, the miraculous ways the Lord provides, beguiling testimonies to the virtues of a simple life and simple faith. Frank had taken that meal with them a couple of times already.

“Better not,” he said slipping into worn and dusty cowboy boots. He’d bought them, handmade and custom-fitted, three years ago in Thailand. His Air Force days seemed almost like someone else’s life, but the boots still fit. They fit a kid who went away into the wide world and discovered that the words proceeding from the mouth of God must be different to different people, or maybe there was more than one mouth. He just wasn’t sure anymore.

Ruby was now standing in the kitchen doorway, farm-tanned and well-toned from hard work, wearing jean shorts of a modest cut and a country plaid cotton blouse. “I went out to see your calf this morning,” she said. “She’s doing good. Gonna miss you when you go.”

Frank had gradually laced this Ruby—now in her early forties—together with the memory of a Vacation Bible School teacher who would have been in her twenties then, and in her first marriage, or maybe just out of it, and he, at five or six, had been mesmerized by the delicate silver ankle bracelet she wore.

“Well, I’ve still got a couple of weeks,” Frank said. He enjoyed looking at her— much of her youthful beauty endured—and he’d teased himself more than once with the idea that he might like to have a pretty farm wife of his own someday. But he didn’t much like to listen to her. She talked of simple faith, but he had the feeling she still wanted him to look at the curve of her ankle.

He stepped out the door onto the back deck with Dean following in droopy white socks. Ruby was close behind, but stopped on the threshold, one arm holding the aluminum storm door open like an invitation to come back in for supper.

“Ruby and me been talkin’,” Dean said. He sat down in a lawn chair. “I know you probably want to finish college and all, but we just thought you might pray about this.”

“Oh, I’m letting flies in,” Ruby laughed. She moved out onto the deck. The door closed behind her.

Frank was between them now, and turned away from both and leaned on the deck railing and looked down at his boots. Did he really want to finish college? One thing was sure—it wouldn’t be the Baptist college. He’d already transferred to the University of Missouri up in Columbia. But he wasn’t certain he was going. Another sure thing—that boyhood commitment to be a preacher felt more like a millstone than a calling, a feeling that had crept over him at school, surrounded by people who were out to change the world, to win the world for Christ, students, faculty, and staff possessed by a sense of destiny, an almost tangible spirit of purpose, that he had gradually come to abhor.

He looked out at the milk barn, grain bins, calf barn, hay barn, equipment shed, and the stretch of green pasture beyond where forty-three Holsteins grazed.

“We could build the herd and there’d be plenty for both of us,” Dean said almost as if he was reading Frank’s mind.

“Dean’s never been able to work with nobody like you,” Ruby joined in. “You listen. You watch. You do like he does. It’s like you were meant to be on the farm.”

Until that summer, Frank had never milked a cow. But he’d learned quickly, and Dean’s longing for a vacation kindled into hope, and by mid-July the real farmers were on their way to Ohio and Frank had the forty-three Holsteins, one ready to calve, in his charge.

“Frankie, you’re one in a million,” Ruby said.

Her words were exactly what he wanted to hear, or more precisely, the kind of thing he always craved to hear—that he was special in some way. Dr. Engle’s homily snapped into focus in a way it hadn’t before: There’s Jesus on the pinnacle of the

temple and Satan affirming that he was, indeed, special, the Son of God, and so “cast yourself down. . . and he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you.” The professor called it “temptation in affirmation.” It’s powerful if you don’t really know your own heart.

It was just that sort of thing he had heard so many times growing up especially from church folks who saw in him the makings of a preacher. They didn’t all see him that way. The pastor at the time, Reverend Banks, definitely didn’t. But the church had voted to license Frankie Gray to the “Gospel Ministry” when he was just eighteen years old.

He thought of the past spring when he was the preacher for one of the weekend revival teams the college sent out to churches. His team was at Beacon Baptist Church in Kansas City. Just before the Saturday evening service, the pastor, Reverend Ormsby, called Frank into a little side room for prayer. He put a hand on each of Frank’s shoulders and looked straight into his eyes. “Pauline and I believe God has touched your life. We are behind you all the way. I’d like to be a sort of ‘father in the ministry’ to you.” With that, he pulled a twenty-dollar bill from his pocket and put it in Frank’s hand. Affirmation. He’d had an impulse to twist out of the reverend’s firm grip.

Maybe joining the Air Force, getting out of Bull’s Eye, had been just another way of twisting out of the grip of something or someone. Maybe it was a way of resisting the temptation of affirmation and he had been so ignorant of himself that he just didn’t know that at the time.

“If it’s God’s will,” Dean said, “It’ll work.” The chiseled features of his face warred again with the tears sparkling in his piercing blue eyes.

“If it’s God’s will,” Ruby chimed in, stepping to the center of the deck, turning it into a stage, “He’ll send his ministering angels. He has so many times.”

Frank had heard the stories—it was a summer of stories—told as matters of fact, certain as the oil drum Dean once started cutting with a torch while Ruby had gone to the grocery, and the barrel exploded, and the steel ring that held the barrel top had blown off and opened Dean’s skull and, at the same moment, an angel had

told Ruby to leave the store and go home at once, and that had saved Dean’s life. “When Satan attacks,” she said, “God is always there.”

That God and that Satan were the very ones who’d ridden the bus out of Bull’s Eye with Frank so long ago—the God and Satan of his childhood, and of Eden where the first temptation succeeded; he was well versed in the story—Eve and then Adam succumbed to Satan’s lie about the knowledge of good and evil, about God’s true nature and about their own. And Frank had carried that story with him into the teeth of spiritual warfare, the whole world a battleground for the eternal fate of human souls. And he was an ambassador for Christ who was the second Adam, perfect this time, “tempted in all points like as we are,” the Bible says, “yet without sin.” In his perfection, Christ had defeated Satan and even the curse of death that had come with original sin, so that all who believed in him could share in his eternal life, saved from an eternity in hell.

That God and Satan had not come home with Frank. He didn’t say so. He was only beginning to reckon with it.

He dropped his eyes to the deck floor and then raised them back up to Dean and Ruby. Dean returned Frank’s gaze, steady, intense, a man of the farm, undeceived by its demands and rewards, but maybe by Ruby who wore the farm like she wore her faith, like she wore the brand new Thunderbird in the carport for which Dean had paid cash. “God has been so good,” she often said.

That was the God Frank had found at the Baptist college and one reason he wasn’t going back. The Thunderbird God, the God who was simply good, the one true God who no longer seemed possible. How could he—Airman Frank Gray from Bull’s Eye, MO—declare that the Jewish airman from New York City, absolutely devout, and a true friend, was deceived about his God; how could he condemn the Muslim airman whose God had been fed to him from birth just as Frank’s had been to him; or how could the Buddhists he’d met in Thailand be wrong by the millions, yea, tens of millions, and their glorious temples an offense to Frank’s one good and true God? It wasn’t the knowledge of good and evil that had changed him, but encounters with his own ignorance of both.

“I know you prob’ly wanna get goin’,” Dean said, “but I wonder if you’d take time to go for a little ride.”

“Sure,” Frank said. He didn’t have much of a plan for the evening. In the five years he’d been away, most of his old gang had joined the diaspora of rural kids to cities, or had jobs and families of their own to tend. In the back of his mind there was a certain waitress at the local drive-in, a high school senior, who worked in hot pants and tank tops full of cleavage and rubbed her leg against his when she came to his booth to take his order. Straightforward temptation, easy to understand, difficult to resist though resistance was its own kind of reward. His Air Force years had been an almost constant, teeth-gritting resistance—sex, the sin that Baptists love most to hate, was available everywhere, relationships barely required, and in Southeast Asia the requirement was only a few American dollars—and there were no ministering angels to protect him. Fear of the practical consequences had saved him. Maybe that amounted to knowledge of himself. Frank thought of the waitress as he crossed the yard to Dean’s pick up, how she’d probably be off work before he got there, and that was good.

The truck had been sitting with the windows closed to keep the flies out and Frank sat bolt upright when his arm touched the scorching seatback.

“Ruby shoulda parked this thing in the shade,” Dean said. “Hotter’n you-knowwhere.” He punched up the A/C and wheeled out of the drive onto the county blacktop that bordered the front of his two-hundred acres, then turned back south on another bordering dirt road that rose up onto a knoll where he braked to a slow stop and let the dust roll over.

The whole farm, by now, was storied ground to Frank. Dean’s tales were one of the pleasures of the milking parlor. He told about growing up on hard farm labor, milking by hand, and swearing he would leave as soon as he was able and never touch another cow. “I’ll tell you for shore,” he said, “I didn’t want no part of it.” He said he finished the eighth grade, and he was through with that too, and then through with his mother who was a Pentecostal preacher always having crazy visions, and with his dad, too, who “didn’t know nothin’ but ‘get to work,’” and he eventually ended up at

the garment factory in town where he met Ruby and she saved him from “the mud, and the blood, and the beer.”

“The Lord,” Dean said again as they sat there with the dust clearing, “told us to start this farm. And we did, and we worked at the factory at the same time, and it liked to kilt us. Then the Lord told us to quit our jobs. And we did.”

The view from the high ground was a farm panorama, and Frank thought Dean must have stopped there countless times over the years to survey the back acres of his little kingdom. A long open valley of alfalfa—coming on strong after the first cutting back in June—stretched out before them, green-gold in the slanting sun with a hawk, maybe the same one Frank had seen back at the house, hanging motionless in the sky.

“Pretty ain’t it.”

“God’s good earth.” The words proceeded from Frank’s mouth like a psalm, as if he still believed in some kind of God—if not the one who left Bull’s Eye with him, then some remnant, whatever, whoever. Maybe his psalm was just a habit of mind, or maybe the last shred of faith that remained after Southeast Asia.

He’d been an avionics technician assigned to support a squadron of C-130 Gunships, each plane armed with a 105 millimeter Howitzer cannon, a 40 mm cannon, and two 20 mm Gatling guns that fired sixty round per second. They flew missions over Vietnam. Night missions were their specialty. But the plane could “see” in the dark via sensors, Frank’s sensors—an infrared detection system and low-light TV tuned to the frequency of a wide angle laser beam invisible to the naked eye but not to the TV. Objects on the ground appeared, as if in daylight, inside the aircraft on video monitors. Get an object in the sensor’s cross-hairs, slave the guns to the sensors, let ‘er rip.

The planes would bring back battle damage assessment films, recordings of what the sensors saw, objects—make that targets—Viet Cong trucks, jeeps, and tanks crawling along the Ho Chi Min Trail under the cover of darkness until the Gunship, circling high above like some giant, terrible bird of prey, opened up. Then, in a rain of hellfire, you could see little white dots emerging from the vehicles, like ants scurrying for the black cover of the jungle—God’s good earth, wasn’t it? The old

language came easy on the farm, too easy, seduction easy. The first time Frank saw samples of these films in tech school he was simply awed by the wonders of technology. The killing seemed distant, unreal, a theory only loosely connected to his own reality, nothing like a little preacher boy making a deal with the devil to get money for school.

But when he saw, at Karat Air Base, Thailand, during the weekly Commander’s Call, the black and white films from actual missions—recorded by the very sensors he maintained and calibrated—the old language became meaningless, impossible; the white dots, the ants, were human beings. Fathers. Brothers. Sons. Immortal souls engulfed in explosions of intense light that, again and again, silently obliterated the screen, as if the word of God proceeded from the mouth of a Howitzer to blast those souls into hell.

The gun crew’s squadron theme song was “Riders in the Sky.” “Yippee-yi-o, Yippee-yi-a” the gunners would sing as the white ants vanished, and always with their beer in the bars off-duty.

“It could all be yours,” Dean said.

Frank was silent. Something Dr. Engle said came back to mind: “Satan could do what he did because he absolutely believed he was right.” But this was Dean, not Satan. This was not the high mountain where Satan showed Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor,” as the Bible says. And Dean was not saying “All of this I will give you if you will bow down and worship me.”

Not exactly, anyway.

Frank looked into those earnest blue and weeping eyes. And in that moment, it seemed plausible to Frank that Satan had wept, and that Jesus had been moved by his tears and by the sincere plea of a soul more kindred than he’d expected, and that Jesus had discovered the depth of his own compassion and his ignorance of its dangers. That notion probably wouldn’t fly with Dr. Engle.

“If it’s God’s will, it’ll work,” Dean said.

“Yep,” Frank said, but he was thinking how it had once been God’s will for him to devote his life to the salvation of the world. Maybe he was meant to be a farmer instead.

He looked out across the field and considered again how good the days had been during Dean and Ruby’s absence, and remembered how different the time had been, how present he was to himself when they were gone. What he told Dean was that the time had been surprisingly wonderful, satisfying in ways he hadn’t expected. If Dean expected it, he didn’t say so. He only said he’d never seen any kid who hadn’t grown up milking take to it the way Frank did.

In their absence, Frank had fed and milked the herd, and found a deep pleasure in that little circle of life. There was a quiet, focused comfort in the twicea-day milking—morning and afternoon—the slow drive of cows to the milk barn, the way they followed their own order into the milk parlor and stood for his wiping down of their udders and attaching the suction hoses. The comfort gave way to wonder when the one momma cow “came fresh,” as Dean would say; she gave birth and her milk came in. And Frank had shooed her away out in the field just long enough to take the baby up in his arms, and climb into the tractor seat, and lay the calf across his lap. He drove slowly back to the calf barn with the newborn wet on his legs and momma trailing and then bawling outside until he had the calf in a stall on clean straw and he coaxed momma into the holding pen and then into the milking parlor; he hand milked her into a bucket—the thick, yellowish, creamy first milk that he poured into a nippled bottle to feed the calf. He knew the calf had been conceived by artificial insemination—he’d helped Dean with that procedure on other cows when it came their time—and he knew Holsteins were nearly as much a human creation as they were natural creatures, but he felt what he could only describe as the presence of God in that calf’s steady gaze.

There was no tug of temptation in it, no coercion, and the presence was more compelling for the lack of either, and it was like rest, a palpable sense of peace Frank had never known. “The Prince of Peace,” Dr. Engle had said, “is the prince of the spiritual peace Jesus found on the other side of temptation.”

And now, his answer to Dean’s offer began to break on him like a quiet explosion, one that blew on the other side of the world in another time, its silent concussion long delayed. If the power of temptation is rooted in ignorance of one’s self, there’s only one way to get to the other side.

He looked across the truck cab to Dean, then out the window again, and up into the sky. The hawk hung against the blue like an unspeakable word.

“I best go back to school.”

“That’s what I fig’rd.” Dean smiled. His eyes brimmed.

“Get me outa here before I change my mind.”

That night, Frank lay on the sheets in his old bedroom upstairs with an attic fan pulling a breeze through his open window. One small mystery had disappeared—Dean wept for himself. Frank would miss him.

The calf’s gaze came back to him and the peace. It must have been the God who’d left Bull’s Eye with him so long ago and he just didn’t know it at the time. He might never have known if he hadn’t gone. And what he knew amounted to little more than mystery, but nothing less. That thought, like a ministering angel, drifted with him, exhausted, into sleep.

John Styron lives and writes in the small town of his boyhood in the Missouri Ozarks. After a freelance career of collaboration on media experiences for museums and visitor centers, traveling exhibitions for the Smithsonian Institution, and corporate communications, he turned to fiction and completed an MFA in Creative Writing at Spalding University. His media work can be seen at venues ranging from the Statue of Liberty Museum to Disney World to Gettysburg National Military Park. His fiction has appeared in Caveat Lector, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and The Louisville Review.

~ ~ ~
Funky Green Porch with Peeling Paint William C Crawford

the bedroom door stands open i enter mom is kneeling in front of grandma sitting naked on the bed

she whips around her eyes widen brows raise her face hardens

she tries to do the impossible s h i e l d grandma

with her arms and torso

i pass parts of her body

show under mom’s arms on either side of her neck

i turn to leave

brown moles

c o v e r the entire front of her body from below her throat to her ankles

hundreds all sizes

none of her skin shows “hello moriah” she says her voice taking a long time

to reach me


i find her when

i look into her eyes

i want to show that I see her all of her

when mom shoos

me out of the room

as if she doesn’t trust me to act right

as if she is the only one who knows

how to love

Moriah Hampton received her PhD in Modernist Literature from SUNY-Buffalo. Her fiction, poetry, photography, and photopoetry have appeared in The Coachella Review, Wordgathering, Ponder Review, and elsewhere. She currently teaches in the Writing and Critical Inquiry Program at SUNY-Albany.

Six feet

Her ears clanged with his categorical righteousness

Uncalmed by his frozen thoughts and outright blunders, she searched for tender minutes.

Eviscerated freedom, hours of blindness.

Staring into the face of a country in danger of losing its integrity by six feet.

A nation six feet away from normalcy.

Six feet where you can’t see or hear.

Six feet where you can’t feel or touch.

Six feet where you can’t kiss.

Six feet where you can’t live.

But less than one foot away was this shouting pandemonium, long finger disapprovingly shaking its head at her.

She vomited the tornado that was bubbling inside of her and he was swept away.

But her ears would forever clang.

Janelle Finamore is a musician, poet, teacher, and fiction writer living in Orange County, California. Her writing has appeared in Moon Tide Press, Bohemia, Academy of the Heart and Mind, and others. A collection of poetry, The Power of Silly Putty and Lipstick Kisses, is also available.

Big Red with Open Summer Windows William C Crawford

Monsters and Heroes

The New York Times made the announcement: “George Reeves, TV Superman, Commits Suicide.” We gathered in a corner of the school yard, Passed the tattered page of newspaper from hand to hand. Each of us studied the account, Saw the photograph of George Reeves costumed as Superman. Given the news, he appeared oddly serene in the picture. Returning to class,

We explained our gloomy silence to Sister Margaret, Who felt duty bound to make certain Superman was dead. She said, in her dismissive, annoyingly patrician voice, “You know that Superman is not real.”

We obediently nodded our heads But thought, “Such heresy!”

All of us accepted the credo repeated every day On the syndicated reruns of The Adventures of Superman: “Superman, strange visitor from another planet, “With powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man, “Fights a never-ending battle

“For truth, justice and the American way.”

We all of us studied the sacred texts of the DC Comics. They did not reveal a virgin birth in a distant time, Nor a future eternal life in a mystical paradise.

The gospels of Superman informed us

That evil always walks the earth.

Yet one hero repeatedly engages in the eternal struggle Against the forces of darkness.

We knew full well that monsters did indeed roam our world. Sister Margaret told us as much. She warned us that in a foreign land, The Communists, whoever that may be, Were scheming to cast us into nuclear oblivion. So, every month we did the drill, Ducked beneath our desks, Put our heads between our legs, Prepared to kiss our asses goodbye. We watched on the nightly news

The attack dogs and the fire hoses Unleashed on men and women, Saw the President blown away in Dallas.

Learned the daily tally of the black body bags

Returned from the war.

When the chemical plant announced layoffs, We witnessed the beasts of fear and despair Claw at our parents. Heard the midnight wailing of April, As her drunken father beat her. Monsters ever arise to plague us, And so Superman can never die. Some hero must forever be, To wage the never-ending battle For truth, justice and the American way.

Kevin R Jespersen has written poetry since grammar school. He recently retired from a career in public service, and he has traveled extensively throughout the United States. Born in Passaic, New Jersey and growing up in Union City, his home remains in New Jersey.

The Hands of Time

I am crocheting when I notice my hands. I stop, examine my fingers, seeing them for the first time in years. I am guilty of taking them for granted, as one does running water and flowing electric current.

My hands. The knuckles are knobby and stiff with arthritis; nails thin and flaky as piecrust; skin rumpled and wrinkled. Veins form rivers and tributaries that extend up my wrists, eventually disappearing under the skin into creeks and capillaries. I think them beautiful.

For 70 years my hands have served me well. They are working hands, caretaking hands. They’ve diapered three sons, soothed their fevered brows, stroked my husband’s back during lovemaking. They’ve washed and folded laundry, and chopped zucchini and onions for stir-fries. Cradled my newborn granddaughter and applauded her graduations. Waved protest signs on street corners. Flown over the keyboard while writing and picked out notes on the piano to Jesu, Joy of Man’s


I see the diagonal scar on the middle finger of my left hand and remember that my hands have performed necessary but unpleasant tasks. They have done gritty, dirty work, factory work, during summer breaks from college. The scar is a memento of the razor knife that nearly sliced off the end of my finger. The knife slipped as I shaved residual plastic from the edges of cheap injection-molded headboards and TV consoles. I am grateful that my hands did not spend a lifetime doing this kind of work. My parents and those of my childhood friends were not so lucky. My hands have also done things, distasteful chores that needed doing, from a place of love. They have scrubbed toilets, mopped up vomit from humans and pets, swabbed blood, and washed walls and floors splattered with excrement. Such is the work of mothers, wives and daughters, labor that society does not value but which is fundamental to life.

I look at the hands that have done all these things, and I gasp in recognition. They are not mine. They are my grandmother’s. My mother’s. Hands that fed me,

loved me and chastened me. I realize that my hands, passed through the generations like my Grandma’s oak table and old Victrola, are heirlooms. Along with too-big feet, premature gray hair and hammy thighs, they are my genetic inheritance. There are parts of my body I would change if I could, but never my hands.

I rifle through my albums stored in the cedar chest. Ah. There it is! A photo of Grandma, Mom and me with my 9-month-old nephew. I recall wanting the fourgeneration shot, so on that summer afternoon in August 1976 we wheeled Grandma outside onto the patio where the light was better.

I am Alice, stepping through the looking glass. Once again, I’m there. We are visiting Grandma in the nursing home in the sweltering North Carolina heat, one day after we buried my father. In her early 90s, Grandma has lived here since she fell on her 85th birthday, breaking a hip on the church steps. The bones have knitted, but the surgery and anesthesia have stolen her mind. She is restrained in the chair with cloth ties; she doesn’t remember that she can’t walk.

Andy, my mom’s first grandchild, sits on my grandmother’s lap. Eight months pregnant with my first child, I kneel beside the wheelchair, sweat crawling down my back like a spider. The faint scent of talcum powder wafts in the air. I clasp Andy awkwardly with one hand to keep him from rolling off her bony knees. Mom, her eyes tired and sad, stands on the other side, one hand slightly raised, ready to grab the baby if necessary. My towheaded nephew is anxious and about to cry. He does not know this old woman on whose lap he is perched.

Mom and I urge Grandma to smile as the nurse’s aide poses us for the picture. In her attempt to comply, she forms an “O,” fishlike, with her mouth. Her eyes, in a faraway stare, betray her dementia. Perhaps she hears a voice whispering to her that it is time to feed the coal stove, bathe the baby and make dinner for the men, soon back from the fields. She lives in another place now. She, too, is Alice.

Grandma’s hands draw my eye, hands that could be mine. The wrinkles are more pronounced, but otherwise they are blueprints for my mother’s and my hands.

Our wrists are identical, too narrow and dainty for our large hands: long fingers, swollen joints, blue veins that twine around the fine bones like ivy.

In the photo, a moment captured by fast film and a high F-stop, Grandma’s hands appear to dangle from the chair arms, useless and still, dead birds, wings splayed. In reality, her hands flutter like hummingbirds, trembling from Parkinson’s. But I remember them steady, dropping strips of dough into a boiling pot of stock, to make chicken and dumplings, my brother’s and my favorite meal. I see her hands twisting her long, white hair into a bun, fastening it with wide pins atop her head, for her no-nonsense daytime style. In the evenings, she loosens her hair and braids it from muscle memory into a long plait.

Images of my mother’s hands, always working, always giving, flicker in my mind’s eye. I see her teaching 3-year-old me a finger game: “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the door and here are the people,” fingers clasped inside her palms, index fingers in a point, then hands opening to reveal wriggling people. Then there I am, a preteen, sitting on a tall stool while visiting my mom at the factory where she has worked since graduating from high school at 16. I marvel as she quickly flips through mounds of socks, stamping heat-activated transfers on their heels to identify their brands and sizes. Her fingers move deftly through the neat stacks in perfect rhythm with the mechanical iron, operated by foot, that slams into each sock. Another picture emerges: Mom’s hands withdrawing Demerol into a syringe to assuage my dad’s pain from the cancer that will eventually take his life. Later, I see her own hands tremble, like my grandmother’s, with Parkinson’s. Finally, I see them still and cold on her deathbed in hospice, while I paint her nails with pink polish fished from the bottom of a nurse’s purse. I make her pretty to meet Dad.

My own hands are not yet afflicted with the family disease of Parkinson’s, which struck my grandmother, mother, two uncles, and first and second cousins. But, by some cruel cosmic coincidence, my husband has the disease. My hands are steady as I fasten the buttons on his shirt because, fumble-fingered, he can no longer manage them. He dictates items for the grocery list, his handwriting now illegible from loss of fine motor skills. I remove his shoes, ready him for bed, and bandage gashes on his arms and legs, injuries from frequent falls.

When there’s a moment to rest, I sit and pick up my crocheting. It’s a skill my grandmother taught me when I was 6. There was no TV. My fingers glide along the

yarn, drawing it through the spaces with my hook, and latch it to the previous row. In and out, around and under, the motion is rhythmic, sensual, meditative. A kind of Zen. My brain calms as the piece grows; the stitches, a kind of rosary.

As I become older, I feel a sense of urgency; my hands have much work left to do. For now my mission is to care for my husband. As time permits, I want to contribute. To create. To console and to raise a little hell. I do not know if tremors are in my future. I can only live each day deliberately and deliciously.

I flip over my hands and look at my palms. I see a long life line but my heart line is longer, and I am fine with that.

Gail B Kent, of Newport News, Virginia, has worked as an award-winning journalist and PR professional for 40 years and has been published in numerous newspapers, magazines, and journals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Old Dominion University and is writing a memoir about being a caregiver.

Dead Red William C Crawford

River Women

The restless river takes our rafts where they must go. Amy, Kiki, Ari guide us through the wild progression joyous-free to do this hard-won work they love. They teach us of the corridors we pass through tell of this place before all life began, the catastrophic scale akin to moon and un-eroded distant planets.

Keen eyed, they sight a fleeing creature or plant tucked in a crevice. I sense their read of water, subtle with the roughness not thrust and conquer, just steady rhythmic push and pull strong muscle rowing with firm hand grip (muscles that still work beneath my parchment skin.) I love their pretty sun sheened faces. (I feel cheekbones within.)

I watch the women load and unload heavy cargo. They squat down deep and make the lifts look easy. Beneath their flippy river skirts my younger self labia like tiny pillows, moist dark channel, fluffy poof of curly hair. (I still love these parts that distinguish me as woman.) We have no gender envy.

Often when the river stilled they would ask me for more story of love and working years and what I had for choices. They said they wouldn't be river guides without me. They said I could have stopped or failed to risk, but didn't. These water daughters make of me a mother.

They say that it is all about the river, not the rapids' rush. It feels good riding in their glow.

Linda Malm was published as a teen and returned to poetry only after she retired as a college dean. Her work has appeared in Howl, the Adobe Walls anthologies, the Iowa Summer Writing Festival Anthology and many literary journals. A chapbook, Winded from the Chase, is forthcoming.


They showed me off when I reached one hundred. Testimony to assisted living: white sheet cake balloons Hawaiian punch piano too. A few urged Let's keep dancing.

I'm the hope of every resident attending, wheelchair bound, but upright.

The quickest thing about me is my smile.

The young reporter leans down talks as if he’s speaking to a baby. I read his lips. He asks my secret for long living, just as I knew he would. I wink. We're all mad here.

I say I really have no story, only details compounded up like interest modest goals little failings.

See this blue splotch? These arms shoveled tons. These legs walked a world's length. They’re resting.

It doesn't matter which way you go, as long as you get somewhere.

In silence I still hear artillery, see blasted blood and faces, and through it all, Edith Piaf sings.

And I see children play my own and theirs and theirs, all dearly much the same.

We parents laugh from upstairs rooms. An aid now washes me like my mother did.

It reminds me of dear wives and some girls, too.

But it is also the laying-on of hands. All help the passage. All are holy.

Still, little day-to-day things matter: breakfast lunch dinner company from people passing feeling morning sun.

I think the time I’ll choose is some cold night when morning’s forecast is unpleasant.

I’ve said what’s best about me is my smile, so like the Cheshire cat I'll fade away in one big grin.

Requiem Sestina

I will bathe my Grandma for my father’s sake. Elder Care did not come. Circumstance creates request what he could not do (unhugged sixty years and a son). I have come for she is dying. She is me. Blood witness called to know how a woman wanes toward darkness.

Placed before a metal tub she stares into the darkness. August and a wood stove hiss for her sake. Dad backs out the kitchen door, says she knows I care. It is a requiem request. Steam swirls. White towels arranged before me. Ivory soap a sudden luminescence in a slant of morning sun.

I lift her from the cheerful chair painted by her son. Difficult to face old age without some wrap of darkness. I slip the robe, stand her up in suds. She slumps on me bird bones, tissue skin, deflated breasts bathed gently for her sake. Gibbous belly. Cancer carves in back. I request she slide one leg although by now I know

she is not soiled. I wash the Venus mound we know She weeps. I wipe a stroke in gratitude where she birthed her son. She says she still loves life. Murmurs the impossible request. I can’t quote God is light and in him there is no darkness. I can’t quote Everlasting life. Believeth in Him for your sake. I kneel, preach pain pills, say we feel the same. She touches me.

I seat her by the window. Through lace I see the younger me ride the milk cow, scramble up the apple tree, hear No! for ripening fruit and for my safety’s sake. We hoe. We hay. We smell manure in summer sun. Her big breasts bob chasing chickens into shelter before darkness. I’m propped up on the painted chair. Plied with candy I request.

I slow the car and sound the horn. Her last request pale day moon, parted curtain, blurry eye intent on me. The deep cell closing in. Shared darkness somber circle of dressed-up folks we know then tables piled with food and funeral flowers praising life and sun. Father will tell I came in time for his and for her sake.

I request a plot along this field-stone wall we know, where crickets chirp in darkness and violets hide from sun, where ancestors await me and robin song seems for our sake.

I Need

I have a need for resilience. Granite peaks thrust through the desert, rusted volcanics accrete. Tectonic turmoil revealed in escarpments. I read earth's past in a geological frieze. Eons of storm winds grind mountains to gravel. My alluvial fan flows into the plain. I don't need a gated community, fountains or manicured grounds. I drink deep magna-warmed water.

I have a need.

I must have a garden, although I no longer can get up from worn knees. I water native bushes to quicken their lifetime to mine. I am awed by wild plant survival—cactus, yucca and mesquite strategies. Roots tap deep or spread wide, sprout resilient spines and curled or thick leaves. Wild poppies bloom briefly, then the long wait of their far-flung seeds. I borrow this garden.

I have a need.

This latitude tempers the winter and seems to lengthen the days that end in the splendor of sunsets purples, roses, citrus blaze. Nights reveals patterns of light, some can imagine mythologies. This celestial clock only seems to circle our planet. I’ve studied the stars. The vastness scales down self-importance for me.

I have this need.

I welcome hesitant deer and skittery coveys of quail. I witness wildlife ferocities the iridescent fly, the flycatcher's ease. Moonlight casts feral shadows, a furtive slink, a glimpse of lope. Coyotes howl hunger across the arid arroyos. Diminished rabbits renew each year. Always this living with dying.

I have the need.

Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine

issue #18

Spring/Summer 2023

staff fiction

Stan Werlin editor

Peter Alterman

Gil Hipkins

Bruce Spang


Peter Alterman editor

Emily Cain

Steve Wechselblatt


John Himmelheber editor

Pete Solet

Bruce Spang

art & photography

Terry Johnson editor

Emily Cain social media editor

Jim Neuner technical assistance

John Himmelheber editor-in-chief

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