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NICKEL RIDGE Fiction by Sara Biden


THE OCEAN Fiction by John Rafferty


HOT DAY Poetry by James Shelton




FELT Poetry by Don Philbrick


THE KEY CONFIRMS A PRISON Fiction by Ryan Latini


ADULT VIDEO Nonfiction by Don Philbrick


INNOCENT MEN Fiction by John Rafferty


ROMAN LOVE AFFAIR Poetry by Vanessa Constantinidis


BLACKBERRY STAINS Nonfiction by Daniel Rousseau


BIOLUMINESCENCE Fiction by Elyse Hauser


THE END Poetry by Luqman Kolade



T HE W OM AN U PSTAIRS Luqman Kolade

She vacuums twice daily; the slow wavering whir of the machine overhead never surprises me. Compulsive in her cleanliness— a woman of routine, and someone loved her for it. The meticulous manner she keeps her home, a marvel. Some might describe the small one bedroom as cluttered, filled with knick-knacks testament to a time far gone, reminders of things she fondly remembers. Her apartment, similar in size to mine, contains much more miscellany, a museum to her life. Mementos marking achievements adorn the walls. An award for twenty-five years of service sits in a corner. Stuffed animals won from a fair, tattered but still holding the smell of a lover skilled in the things her young self valued, rest on a bed, lumpy and clad in rose colored sheets. The pictures of family, in frames older than those pictured, display smiling kids who now have their own, kids long grown and only voices on the telephone. She keeps her place tidier than mine, each cleaning a trip through memories. Dust and nostalgia are siblings here, clinging to each other as she attempts to keep the gray from taking over her life.



A rooster’s thin crow crackled through the moist gray dawn clinging to the low ridge. The speckled hen in the wooden crate nailed to the side of a one-room shack clucked in response. Driven by a hunger that gnawed through the night, the boy reflexively reached through a hole into the crate and found a single smooth obelisk. “Dang, only one today.” At fourteen, T.P. was by any measure a sturdy scrapper. He could easily be mistaken for a halfbreed Indian with his coal black eyes, high cheekbones, and duststained skin. The boy gently pulled the egg from the hole, sniffed it, and rolled over to gaze at his sleeping younger brother. Daniel’s golden hair curled around his delicate face radiating a halo of morning light. Like a saintly medieval martyr, his shoulder blades protruded sharply through his coarse nightshirt rising and falling with his labored breath. The boy emitted a soft moan as T.P. watched over him. “He’s probly thinkin’ about this dang egg,” muttered T.P. He crawled out of the straw ticking onto the bare dirt floor, wiped his face with his sleeve, and silently placed the treasured egg by his brother. On his way out the door, he yelled, “Get up you lazy, lousy laggard! The world don’t owe you a livin’. I oughta beat you with a tobacca stick!” Jogging down the dirt lane, he shot back, “I’m tellin’ you, if I get to the mine ’fore you, I’m eatin’ all the lunch pail today.” Daniel finally caught up with him, grinning through a coughing spell, crushed shell in hand and yolk around his mouth. A raw egg was better than no egg. “Why you dirty little egg thief!” teased T.P., jabbing him in the ribs. They reached the deserted coal road before another soul and began to pick up loose lumps that had fallen out of the carts the day before. By the time they reached the mine, they had filled a large bucket. T.P. quickly glanced both ways and stashed it in his secret hiding place just as he and Daniel had done every day for the past year and a half. That night he would retrieve the bucket and sell the coal for a nickel to the widow who lived on the hill near town.


The boys reached the mine just as the whistle blew and descended together below ground before the sun came up over the ridge. T.P. had lied about their ages and with both parents gone there was nobody to say any different. As the acrid air burned their noses, Daniel broke into another coughing spell. The cough was getting worse and it worried T.P. Daniel was a runner and T.P. was a digger. Danny walked buckets back and forth from the seam to the cart path in endless repetition. All day long, T.P. could hear his hacking echoing through the shallow shaft. While the older boy’s hands mechanically worked the pickaxe, his mind was chipping away on a plan to take them far away from the dust and the depths of the mine. After their shift, the boys retrieved the hidden coal bucket and emptied it into the widow’s coal bin, collecting the nickel she had hidden for them. As the sky darkened on the road home, they fell uncharacteristically silent. T.P. walked swiftly, with his hands in his pockets, head down, deep in thought. The din of the crickets was broken only by the occasional call of a “whip-poor-will.” Finally, Daniel ventured, “I heard they’re gonna sell the ridge we’re squattin’ on.” “Hmph,” grunted T.P. It was a sound he often made when he didn’t want to engage in conversation—a sort of noncommittal acknowledgement that something had been said and it wasn’t much worth talking about. “T.P., did ya hear me?” Daniel was worried now. T.P. always knew what was going on before anyone and his lack of a ready response was troubling. “Yep.” “Ain’t ya worried?” “Nope.” “Why not?” “I have a plan, Danny.” “Whatcha gonna do?” “That’s for me to know and you to find out. Don’t you worry yourself none.” They walked the remainder of the way home in a silence broken only by the twigs and rocks crunching under their worn work boots. That night in the precious light of a broken candle stub, T.P.


dug up the gunny sack buried in a corner of the dirt floor and added one more nickel to the bag. Danny watched in silence as T.P. arranged the coins into neat little stacks of ten on the bare ground. After he made a row of ten stacks, he quickly laid out three more rows, with a small pile of nickels left. Twenty dollars and some change. T.P. fell back on the straw, hands crossed behind his head with a smile of satisfaction. “T.P.,” Daniel whispered finally, “Whatcha gonna do with all them nickels?” “I’m gonna buy it,” said T.P., black eyes dancing in the candlelight. “Buy what?” “The ridge, Danny. You said you was worried, so I’m gonna buy it.” “T.P., I know we gotta find a place to live, but why would we spend everything we ever worked for on this worthless hilly piece of dirt? You can’t even farm on it.” “I told you scrapper, I have a plan.” With great ceremony, T.P. pulled back the other end of the ticking and dusted away a plank covering the two foot square hole where he had made his great discovery. “Look for yourself,” was all he said. Just inches from the top, the dirt gave way to the blackest, richest looking coal Daniel had ever seen. The hole was three feet deep and as black at the bottom as it was on all sides. T.P. had found the vein last week, when he was looking to move the gunny sack under the bed for safekeeping. He had already dug a few exploratory holes outside to guess the direction it ran in. He worked in the mines long enough to have an instinct for such things. This one was near the surface. “T.P.! Why dincha you tell me?” “Because I didn’t want ya to get all excited ’til I found out how much there is… and because I didn’t want ya shootin’ off that kid mouth of yours.” T.P. tousled his brother’s hair. “Since I aim to buy it tomorrow, I figure it’s safe now.” “I wondered why you was diggin’ all them holes outside. How much is there?” “I don’t know for sure, but it seems to run in the general direction of the five acre tract they’re auctionin’ tomorrow. It runs


right alongside this ridge. I reckon it’s at least as much as the cave of the mine we’re workin’ in now and it’s all near the top so it’ll be easy to git.” “You think they’ll sell to a kid?” Daniel asked uncertainly. At nine years old, he was worldly enough to know that even his clever older brother might have a hard time pulling this one off. “Yep, I’m gonna bid more than they think it’s worth—cash money,” T.P. said as he scraped all the nickels back into the sack and stashed it under his bed of straw. “How much you gonna pay?” “Opening bid on all the tracts goin’ up tomorrow is two dollars an acre. I don’t think there’s many interested in payin’ even that much for an untillable ridge. I’m gonna bid up to four dollars an acre for our five acre tract.” T.P. blew out the candle. “Now quit your worryin’ and get some sleep, Daniel. Tomorrow is a big day.” “Tomorrow is a work day.” “We’re not goin’ to work tomorrow.” “But we’ll be fired!” “You can go to work if you want, li’l scrapper, but tomorrow I’m gonna be my own boss.” “What if we don’t get it?” “We’ll get it. We’ll get it with all these nickels,” T.P. said as he patted the sack beneath the straw. “Now shut up and get some sleep. Tomorrow I gotta be on my game. This time next year you won’t be in the mines, you’ll be in school, where you should be.” “What about you?” “I got no time for that. My head is already full of numbers. You go to school so you can do my writin’, you just leave the figurin’ to me.” T.P. smiled as he blew out the candle and lay back in the ticking, falling quickly into a sound sleep. The next dawn, the hen laid two eggs. T.P. thought it was a good sign. Instead of hitting the coal road at dawn, the two orphaned boys walked down to the creek and washed up as best they could. They beat the dirt and coal dust out of their pants and even though it wasn’t Sunday, they each put on their “spare” shirts and washed their dirty ones in the creek. “We may look shabby,” said T.P., “but at least we don’t stink.”


The boys counted the coins once again and carefully placed the twenty dollars back into the gunny sack and hid the remaining coins in a coffee tin. T.P. threw the sack over his shoulder and began whistling at the sun coming up over the ridge as they headed into town. As they reached the tobacco warehouse, T. P. could hear the sing-song voice of the auctioneer warming up in the back of the barn. The sign in front of the weather-beaten barn listed the lots being sold at auction. T.P. couldn’t read, but he could recognize numbers. He anxiously scanned the list for Number 3. It was there with a minimum bid of $2, just like he thought. The boys walked into the barn and saw a big sign with bold letters on the auction block but neither boy could read. “What’s that say?” T. P. nervously asked a man in front of him. “Says ‘CASH ONLY—NO I.O.U.s.’ Boy, what’s the matter, can’t you read?” “I just got bad eyes,” T.P. muttered. He clutched the gunny sack close and patted it. “We don’t need no I.O.U.” “What’s an I.O.U.?” whispered Daniel. “Hush up now, I gotta listen!” T.P. hadn’t expected there to be a lot of interest since most of the lots weren’t tillable but there were about twenty-five men milling around by the time the caller hit the block and started bids on the first tract. It was in another part of the county so T.P. and Daniel stood in the back and watched how the men leaned back cocking their heads, hands in pockets, and T.P. did the same. After announcing, “Bids open today on tract number one. This twelve acre hillside lot opens at two dollars an acre,” the auctioneer began chanting in his characteristic up and down call, “Two, give me a two, anybody give me two, two dollars an acre.” The auctioneer yelled an odd syllable louder from time to time for emphasis, usually when nobody expected it. “He does that to make sure people are payin’ attention,” whispered T.P. “Anybody, two give me two, give me a two dollars an acre. Anybody? Anybody have two?” droned the auctioneer. A farmer raised his hand in the air and nodded. The auctioneer crooned, “I got


two, now I want two and a half, two and a half dollars an acre. Anybody, two and a half, two and a half, give me two and a half dollars an acre.” Another farmer raised his hand and yelled, “I’ll give you two and a quarter.” “All right, we got two and a quarter, two and a quarter, two and a quarter dollars an acre. I want three, give me three, give me three dollars an acre. Anybody?” The first farmer reluctantly yelled out, “I’ll give you two and a half.” And the auctioneer droned again, “I got two and a half, two and a half, two and a half an acre. Anybody give me three, I want three, give me three dollars an acre?” The second farmer shook his head. The auctioneer repeated, “I got two and a half, two and a half dollars an acre, now I need three, three, three dollars an acre. Won’t ANYBODY, anybody give me three, three, three dollars an acre?” before concluding, “The high bid is two and a HALF dollars an acre for tract number one… going once, going twice… SOLD to the man with the yella hat!” he yelled as he hit the auction block. T.P. was transfixed as the first man walked up and counted out his money in exchange for the deed. Though the boy had no schooling, he quickly multiplied in his head the two and half dollar bid by the twelve acres in the parcel and nodded in agreement when he saw the silent count of thirty dollars on the auction block. He leaned motionless against the back wall of the barn during the auction of the second tract in much the same way. When tract number three was put on the block, T. P. was ready. He stood up, gunny sack in hand as the auctioneer began his call. “Tract three, five acres along a ridge near Panther Creek. Opening bid’s at two dollars an acre. I want two, two, two dollars an acre, give me two, two, two dollars an acre.” Daniel held his breath as a farmer in the corner raised his hand and nodded. “I got two, two, two dollars an acre. Give me two and a half, two and a half, two and a half an acre.” Another man in worn out overalls stepped out from the back, spit a wad of tobacco on the ground, and raised his hand. Daniel looked nervously at T.P. T.P. stood still. The auctioneer continued to drone, “I got two and a half, now I want three, three, three dollars an acre. Give me three, three, three dollars an acre. Anybody?” The first bidder raised his hand and nodded.


T.P. shot a look at Daniel. “Did you shoot off your mouth to anyone?” T.P. hissed through gritted teeth. Daniel shook his head violently. “Then be still!” “I got three, I got three, now I need three and a half dollars an acre. I need three and a half, now three and a half now, three and a half an acre.” The tobacco spitter stepped out again and slowly raised his hand. Even the auctioneer seemed surprised the tract was going so well. Daniel started to sweat. “I got three and a half, now I want four, four dollars, an acre. Give me four, four, four dollars an acre. Anybody, got four, four, four dollars an acre? Anybody?” The first bidder shook his head. “I got three and a half dollars an acre for tract number three, going once… going twice…” “I’ll give you FOUR dollars an acre!” shouted T.P. walking toward the block. The crowd of men chuckled good-naturedly. “Son, this here is serious business. This is no place for a kid to be messin’ around. Why aren’t you in school?” “I mean serious business, sir. That tract is me and my brother’s home and I got cash money and I’m willin’ to pay it.” “Son, I’m sorry about your troubles, but this is no place to air them. Now let me get on with this gentlemen’s bid… three and a half, going once…” “I SAID I bid four dollars and I got it right here,” T.P. said pulling himself up straight to look levelly into the auctioneer’s eyes. One of the men spoke up, “That’s four DOLLARS an acre kid, not four cents!” All the men got a good laugh out of that. “Damn kids playin’ at an auction.” “Son, that’s twenty DOLLARS, not twenty cents,” the auctioneer said gently, “Now I got a good bid on the block. This property is being sold at three and a half an acre… going once… going—” “I AM OFFERING TWENTY DOLLARS FOR TRACT NUMBER THREE SIR!” shouted T.P. “Heh, heh.” This time the chuckle was not so good-natured. “Now look here, no coal scrappin’ kid has that kind of money, not these days anyhow. Now get on out of here, boy. I got business to conduct.” The other men started shaking their heads, one blew his


nose. T.P. pushed them aside, walked up to the block, and heaved the sack of coins onto the table. The sound of the nickels in the sack made a muffled but substantial clunk as it hit the block. “Mister, you can just laugh yourself all the way to the bank. I got 400 nickels here and the way I figure it, that’s twenty dollars.” T.P. narrowed his coal black eyes and added, “That tract of land is MINE. I believe now is when you’re supposed to hit the block and give me the deed. ” The men were silent as the auctioneer counted forty stacks of ten nickels, just like T.P. had the night before. Twenty dollars. The auctioneer looked up from the block at T.P. “Son, are you sure you want to spend that kind of money on this piece of unusable dirt? You look like you could put it to better use with some food and clothes.” “Just give me the deed, sir. I’ll worry about me and my brother.” “Alright then, four dollars an acre for tract number three. Going once, going twice… SOLD to the kid with the gunny sack and coal black eyes.” As he hit the hammer on the block the nickels clanked. “Make your mark here, son,” the auctioneer murmured as he handed the deed to T.P. “I AIN’T your son,” T.P. muttered as he carefully made the mark the widow had taught him. To him it looked like a cross and a musical note, but she said it was the mark for T.P. He grabbed the deed and Daniel’s arm and headed out the barn doors. “You oughta git that deed on record at the courthouse, boy,” warned an old farmer sitting in the back as the boys exited. “How much will that cost me?” asked T.P. “Oh, I don’t know… a nickel I reckon,” the old man winked. T.P. gave him a look, nodded his head, and walked home to get the nickel to do just that. “You know what I’m gonna call it?” asked T.P. on the way home. “What?” asked Daniel. “Nickel Ridge. I’m gonna call it Nickel Ridge after all them nickels you and me got from scrappin’ coal.” “Reckon we oughta head to the mine. It’s lunch time now and we could catch the second shift. We could tell them I was sick.” “You ARE sick, Daniel, and it’s all because of that mine. You


ain’t never going down that mine again. Tomorrow we’re gonna start diggin’ on TOP of the ground at Nickel Ridge. And next year, you’re goin’ to school whether you like it or not. SOMEBODY in this family has to know how to read and write and it ain’t gonna be me.”


T HE O CEAN John Rafferty

My sister, Abby, spends all of her time leaving money on the street: the idea is a stranger will find it and it will brighten their day. I don’t think she worries about anything. My other sister, Hope, does nothing but lie to strangers: in her opinion, life is boring and her lies invent a new reality that excites her. I stay inside: I have no use for the outside world. We all live in a big house, on a street full of big houses. We live by the boardwalk, the beach, the ocean. At night, the tide comes in, right up to the dunes. The water looks black and strange. As a kid, I was afraid of getting swept away by it. My father said it was nothing to be afraid of, but that I shouldn’t go down there, that it’s only safe in the daytime. Our parents have gone away for the summer. Portugal. I don’t know why. They’ll be back in a few months if they don’t make another stop. It’s getting warm. The beaches will be full of people. Parents and kids. They want to see the ocean. It’s been a bad year. It’s hard to lie to yourself. I used to be able to generate the facade of a normal life. There doesn’t seem too much to look forward to. Despite my best efforts, I’m losing. It’s a horrible, hopeless feeling. I spend all of my days watching television. I watch the news, the junk, the trash. I see people who are maybe worse off than me. I hear stories—not the fabricated ones of Hope—and I feel better. Abby and Hope have decided to go up to Washington. They’ll drive out in Hope’s car and then find jobs and a house to live in. They don’t say when they’re coming back; they just want to go. “Why Washington?” I ask. “We flipped a coin. It was either Washington or Oregon. Washington won,” Abby says, happily. Because everyone has left, I have to leave the house for groceries. I don’t like it. My car is broken down, so I have to walk everywhere. Everything in town seems the same. The house is much quieter. I like the quiet. I start to dread when everyone might return. I sit on the second of the three decks and stare at the house across the way. I used to play there as a child. There was a sunroom where I would draw with my friends. We had a fort at the back of


the house. We made signs that said Stay Out, Keep Away, and hung them on the wall. We put fake blood on the ground to scare everyone. I get my car fixed so I don’t have to do any more walking. It’s been raining all day. My friend has invited me to his country club. I don’t know whether or not to go. I think I will most likely look like a fool or a failure. There are people there I don’t want to see. The last time I saw someone, they made me sick to my stomach. I watch TV and try to decide whether or not to go. I don’t think there’s anything left for me. At best, this place, is where I’ll reside. The country club—everything about it, the old money— makes me uncomfortable. Jack has been living in Europe somewhere—London, I think—working in finance, investment banking, probably real estate, too. He’s genuinely handsome, appears cocky and arrogant, but isn’t. He drives a hundred and forty thousand dollar Mercedes, but he is thoughtful and honest. He has a girl with him that I hate. Her name is Lauren. She has black hair, straight, the delicate, unique features of a model. She cares only for herself. She is an opportunist. She goes to give me a hug and I pull away. “I hate you. I don’t ever...” “Hey, hey, man, what the hell’s”—his voice getting stronger—“going on!” My face is hot; I can feel how red it is. “I’m sorry, Jack.” I back up, almost staggering. They’re both staring at me, dumbfounded, angry, mouths agape. I turn and run out. In the bathroom, back at the house, I feel lightheaded, sick. I sit on the floor, arms folded. There’s an angry message on my phone from Jack. I feel awful about what happened—why did he have to bring her? But there’s nothing I can do about it: I call him, leave a message apologizing, he doesn’t call back. He’ll be back in London again soon. TV doesn’t help today, or the next. All the days pass, an extended moment. At a bar: I drink and I feel a little better. I overhear a girl saying how she can’t stand it when a guy treats her well, how it makes her feel less able, and that she hates intimacy. I keep thinking about how I shouldn’t have shot my mouth off at Lauren. I upset everyone. I feel ashamed. There’s something not right with me. I know it. I can feel it and it feels horrific and strangely liberating. A disconnect. I’m detached and watching myself sink, and the truth is,


the ultimate freedom is being willing to throw it all away. Music and lights. People grind against each other. It’s so bizarre now; it’s not even happening. The thoughts in my head are not correct: I am sane enough to know that. I have plans. I run, slam into the wall, hit the floor. I laugh. Do it again. Smash the phone. I throw a bowling ball through the glass door at the back of the house. It’s not even happening. I decide I want to go live with Hope and Abby in their house. I call them up and they’re now in San Francisco, Fremont. I fly out and I’m outside their door, ringing the bell, knocking on the door. I call them both, get answering machines. I’m not sure what to do. I find a place to eat, call them again. No answer. I go to a quaint little bookstore, read some trashy celebrity gossip magazines. Go back to the house and I see a few lights on, but no one answers the door. It’s getting dark. I get a hotel room. On the television, everyone is desperate for fame. I lie in bed. I’ll try again tomorrow. Nothing. I buy a ticket back home. I walk over to where we used to have the fort. I remember, in the sunroom, drawing a detailed picture of three lions, all facing forward, their heads much larger than their bodies, emphasized. I remember everyone commenting on how good it was. The awards I would always win in school and contests for my drawings, one for a picture of the Blessed Mother. The picture radiated a glow. It was pure, committed and dedicated attention to detail. I try to remember if I won first or second place. I think it was only second place. I can remember being upset with myself. My attention to detail was not enough. I can’t help myself for always worrying. If I could fix the problems inside of me, I could be a person, fully human. I could assimilate. I could give people what they want from me. I wonder about my parents: where they are, what they are doing. I don’t know them very well and they know very little about my life. Maybe Hope and Abby can’t see me anymore. People are on the beach. Children play. Their parents are next to them. Watch them carefully. A man sells ice cream. Beach umbrellas. A bright sun. No one has any worries. They understand how one becomes a person. They are people. They want to see the ocean.



James Shelton The air punches you across the jaw like heavy morning breath, humid and stale. A dry force field clings to you like a blanket wrapped around your body. A brief breeze brings little reprieve. Shorts and short-sleeved shirts were made for these days but they’re still tight, dank body ovens, locked around our meat. They still summon droplets of sweat; they still moisten my flesh. My armpits feel like a horse’s mouth. The back of my neck is a sticky net for mosquitoes. My feet cook in my shoes like potatoes.


The sun is fixed in the white-blue sky like a bleached searchlight, penetrating and intrusive. It furrows my brow like a thundercloud needed on a day like this, a little natural shade. Summer has returned, bringing wind that hangs like molasses and chokes like smoke, sunlight that toasts skin just a little bit.



It was a crisp, lovely day in mid-December, so I went straight to the nearest windowless bar and walked inside. This was a little dive of a place with a sign above that said McCoy’s, usually an even split between college students and townies, but of course all the college kids were still in class at this hour. There was only the bartender and one fat old grey-haired balding guy at the bar. A bell clanged as I walked through the door. I had just come from an interview, so I was wearing a pencil skirt with a blazer and pumps under my long wool coat. Pretty far from my typical gear—leather, cotton, boots, a jangle of silver around my wrists. I usually wouldn’t have been caught dead or alive at a bar in that sort of yuppie bullshit getup, but I didn’t care just then. Anyway, I kind of felt like being somebody else. If someone had asked me my name I’d probably have given them a fake one. The interview had gone well at first, like they always do. I’m articulate, friendly, hireable. It was at a little pub not unlike the one I’d just walked into, but a restaurant as well, the sort of place I’d worked at in high school. But then we got to the part where the assistant manager said, “So we use the Aloha computer system to ring in orders here. I’m sure that won’t be a problem, with your experience, it’s really very easy. Have you used it before?” “Actually,” I said, “unfortunately, I can’t use any electronic point-of-sale systems. It’s, um, a medical condition.” The assistant manager looked at me like I was fucking insane, and I didn’t bother to explain further. There wasn’t any point anyway. I had gone from being the ideal candidate to a fucking nutcase who didn’t stand a chance of getting hired. “Maybe there’s a hosting position available...?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer. “Well,” she smiled, “I’m afraid all our hosting positions are full right now. We’ll keep your resumé on file, and if anything opens up I’ll be sure to give you a call, okay?” A few years ago, I wouldn’t have said anything about my condition, just gone through the training as though I was normal,


until after a few days—a few weeks if I was lucky—of having all their systems shut down on the days I was in, they would let me go. The bar managers and restaurant owners never said why, just “I’m very sorry, but it’s not working out for us.” I don’t think any of them could have given me an articulate reason for my sudden dismissal if I’d asked them to. But I always knew what it was. By then I had learned it was best to circumvent all of that and just tell them up front about it. So I never got the job, unless it was an old-fashioned pen-and-paper sort of place, and those didn’t seem to exist anymore these days. Even old McCoy’s had a touchscreen system. I sat on the other end of the long wooden bar, away from it, even though it meant sitting too close to the old geezer. There was a little Christmas tree setup on the bar near me, with a box under it, soliciting holiday donations for a place called Tri-Paw’d. It was a shelter for disabled pets, the flier said. I took a bill out of my wallet without looking—it was a five—and shoved it into the box, rather annoyed. I liked animals and all, even disabled ones, but I was getting pretty sick of the whole Christmas spirit thing. Everyone being charitable only in December, as though this was the only time of year when homeless people and one-eyed cats could use donations. How did I have that money with no job, you wonder? Well, inheritance is a funny thing. But it doesn’t last forever, especially not when circumstances make investing difficult. The bartender approached from the far end of the bar. She had lavender hair twisted into a bun on the side of her head and about two inches of false eyelashes on. “Hi,” she said in a lilting singsong voice. “What can I get for you?” I looked at the chalkboard beer list rimmed with Christmas lights behind her. “I’ll have a Mad Elf,” I said. I hated the sugarcoated taste of Mad Elf and I hated the stupid morons who drank it even more, but it had the highest alcohol-by-volume on the list by far, and alcohol percentage was my highest priority right then. “Ooh, good choice. I love Mad Elf,” said the bartender. “And a shot of Powers,” I added. “Please.” She wasn’t the type to give judgmental looks to midday hard liquor drinkers. The old guy on the corner barstool had a disgusting-


looking martini in front of him. Olives instead of a twist of lemon, and probably vodka instead of gin too, the idiot. At least I wasn’t alone in my questionable choices. The candy-haired bartender set the two glasses in front of me. I took my shot without blinking and pushed the glass back to her side of the counter. “Another?” she asked with a smile, cocking her head to the side. I nodded. Slow day. She’d probably serve me until I fell over just to make a few dollars in tips. Couldn’t blame her. She filled the shot glass a little higher with the amber liquor this time. I forgave her for saying she liked Mad Elf. As I sipped my cloyingly sweet beer, the gray-haired geezer pulled a white iPhone from his pocket and began tapping expertly at the screen. I thought he was too old for that, but then again, everyone and their grandmother had a goddamned smartphone these days. He looked to be about my father’s age. I should have moved a few seats down when he pulled out the phone, but I didn’t feel like getting up and moving, and I didn’t want to kill the bartender’s computer screen by coming too close. The whiskey made a warm pleasant burn inside my chest. I made eye contact with my yuppielooking self in the mirror, hair pinned back, minimal makeup instead of my usual war paint. The reflection looked back at me, impeccably normal. And sure enough, in a few minutes, when I was about ready to order my second beer, I heard the old man mutter “What the fuck?” under his breath. I glanced sideways without turning my head. The iPhone touchscreen had gone pitch black. As I watched, jagged bars of fuzzy static appeared on the dead screen. He poked at it and the static jolted around a bit, but the phone was a goner. Or maybe it wasn’t, I never knew what happened after, if anyone took it to the store and got it fixed. But it was dead right then. “Could I get another?” I said to the bartender, who was sitting on the beer fridge and watching a nature program about penguins. While she filled my glass from the tap, I took my second shot of whiskey. The old man was punching his finger at the dead iPhone with increasing frustration. He looked over when I set my glass down


on the bar a little too hard, making a hollow thud. “That’s my fault,” I blurted out. I meant the phone. I deliberately left out “sorry”—I mean, I wasn’t sorry. But it was my fault. “What?” His voice was rusty and sounded a little out-ofbreath. “The phone. It’s my fault.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” He seemed pissed off. His phone had just died, and I guess that’s reason enough to be pissed. I don’t know. I’ve never had a cell phone. I took a large draught of Mad Elf. “Electronics don’t really work when I’m around. They usually break, actually. It’s a... condition I have.” I didn’t know why I was telling him this. He looked at me like I was scum, in spite of my yuppie getup and everything. I mean, it doesn’t really matter what you look like or who you are, somebody’s going to find a reason to hate you for it. “Alright, if yer a curse on all electronical devices,” the old guy said to me—he had one of those fake Southern accents rednecks always seem to have—“tell me why’s that TV up there still workin’ jus’ fine? And that computer?” He pointed to the bartender’s Aloha screen. I shrugged and pushed my empty shot glass toward the bartender. She looked at me and made like she was pouring an invisible whiskey bottle in the air, and I nodded. “It only happens when I get too close,” I said to the old man. My condition wasn’t something I opened up about to strangers as a rule. The guy didn’t care for me to elaborate anyway. He grunted and pushed a twenty at the bartender. “Change?” she asked. He shook his head, poured the last of his cloudy olive juice down his throat and shoved off from his barstool. “Thank you!” she called after him. Light poured in from the door for a moment as the old man left, and I saw the air inside was packed with dust motes. I’d almost forgotten it was still daylight. The bell jangled when the door shut behind him, and dimness settled back over us. I lifted my third glass of whiskey.


It was just me and the bartender then. She leaned back on the counter across from me, her bright asymmetrical knot of hair bobbing under the Christmas lights. “Is that true?” she asked. “What you said about you and electronics?” I thought about lying and saying it wasn’t. Instead, I nodded. “Mmhmm. Since I was about sixteen. I get it from my dad.” “So, like, computers? Cars? Do you turn streetlights off?” “Sort of. Computers, yeah. Older cars are usually alright, but the radio never works. Streetlights flicker every once in a while, but I have to be pretty close.” “Right. Street Light Interference Phenomenon.” The girl nodded knowingly. “What?” “You’ve never heard of that?” “No. I haven’t.” I was starting to feel pretty drunk by then, but I didn’t think that was the reason she wasn’t making sense. “I study a lot of paranormal stuff,” the bartender said. “My friend’s got the same thing. She can’t even be in the same room as a computer, but she can, like, practically communicate with animals. It’s really cool.” She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the bar, spidery false eyelashes close to my face. “Do you have the psychic thing?” “Um.” I tried to think if I was in any way psychic. I had instincts that I followed pretty religiously—I’d cancel a trip based on a bad feeling if it was strong enough. But I figured that was the sort of sixth sense everyone had. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. Why would I?” “It’s got to do with, like, electrical impulses in the brain,” said the girl. “People like you have more of them, or they’re different. Stronger or something. I forget exactly. But it causes other stuff besides electronic problems. Some people have healing abilities, some people are psychic. It works best when you’re not focusing on it too hard.” She pointed at the Tri-Paw’d donation box. “Like, my friend can basically talk to animals. That’s why she started that shelter.” “Here,” she continued, plucking a business card from a glass jar on her side of the bar and scribbling something on it. “I know someone you should talk to. She does, like, trainings for this kind


of thing. You need training to really learn how to use it, that’s how my friend learned.” She handed me a business card for Delancey’s Sewing and Vacuum. “Other side,” she said. I flipped it over. There was an address and the name “Edna Johnson” scrawled in the bartender’s loopy handwriting. “She’s really nice. It’s just down the street. You can just knock on her door and tell her I sent you. She’ll know exactly what you’re there for.” “Okay,” I said. I doubted I’d actually do it. “You’ve got, like, a gift. You should really use it.” I mean, I’m pretty into conspiracy theories, David Icke and the Illuminati and all that, but I don’t really believe any of that stuff. “Thanks,” I said. “How much do I owe you?” She went right back into regular bartender mode, like we’d just been talking about the weather or something. “That’ll be... mmm, twenty.” She held up her two fingers with one hand and made an “O” with the other. I was pretty sure she wasn’t charging me for all my drinks, so I put thirty on the bar. “Oh, what’s your name?” I asked. “Melissa,” she said in her lilting voice. “You need change?” “No, thanks.” “Okay. Thank you! Come back sometime, okay? Let me know how it goes.” I slipped the business card into my coat pocket. “I will,” I said. As I walked out the door into the thin winter sunlight, heels clicking on the sidewalk, a voice proclaimed, “The war is over!” Looking down, I saw a dirty, scraggly-bearded guy in an olive green jacket sitting against the wall outside the bar. If he’d been there when I walked in, I hadn’t noticed. The door swung shut behind me, making its bell clang. The war wasn’t over, but then again, maybe he was talking about a different war. “Yeah. The war is over,” I repeated, smiling vaguely. He flashed me a peace sign and a mostly toothless grin. “You just read my mind,” he said.


Did I? No. I blinked hard and shook my head, trying to clear away the buzzing of the whiskey. I pulled the Delancey’s Sewing and Vacuum card out of my pocket and looked at it, just to look like I was doing something. 410 Franklin Street. It wasn’t far. I could walk there, I thought. Hell, I could walk there in these heels.



Don Philbrick My wife sits at the dining table Alone Forming the material Into shapes both pretty And practical She makes a hat And a scarf And a cat cave From delicate layers Of gaudy colors Come see she says I do I touch Her work is soft But not soft enough for me She tells me She can make it Softer She tells me she can do anything With felt I walk away To the computer TV book Leaving her To make things both fetching And functional


We visited the sheep show Where she bought The very finest wools To create The very finest objects I bought nothing there Except a funnel cake Which I had eaten in secret Because she said It was not good for me She has made the entire dining table Her workspace She wants me to make dinner But I know the table Will not be cleared when it is ready I suggest we go out to eat Sure she says And keeps cutting and wetting and molding Her hands caressing the felt While I feel nothing anymore


T HE K EY C ONFIRM S Ryan Latini



I don’t always lose my car keys, but every time I do, it feels like I always lose them. I know I should call my AA sponsor, Steve, and ask him for a ride to the meeting, but I am not sure where I left my cell phone. I always lose my cell phone. I have to go to the meeting. I need my keys. I could get a ride from the Vietnam veteran, Rob, who told me once, “Give us ninety days, and we will gladly refund your misery.” I could sit and consider locations where my keys might be. I could actually sit and consider, in earnestness, the locations where my keys might be. I might sit on the sofa and weep over the knowledge that I have ninety-four days sober and still can’t keep track of my car keys. I could drive the two miles to the dope man in Camden and buy a bundle of heroin, but I don’t have my keys. I could walk to the dope man in less than an hour, but I have no syringes and snorting is a waste. I don’t like going to Camden sober. I don’t have the guts. I would have to get drunk first and that seems like a chore. The December sun smolders through the blinds weaving a lattice of warmth on my couch. It’s deceiving. I know the chill air that waits outside. I sit on the couch. Tonight is my first AA speaking commitment, and I need it. I’ve wanted to get high and drunk all day, but tonight I might actually help someone by telling my story. The meeting is three miles away, and I have an hour and a half. That is plenty of time, but my ankle hurts a bit and there would be no way to get back into the house without my keys. I could leave the door unlocked, but my stuff might get stolen. I sold my TV and computer when I was out on my last run before I left for rehab—it had been cocaine and gin that time. I sold all the jewelry, but it was never really mine. My ankle does hurt, a bit. I sit and spin my ninety-day sobriety chip on my coffee table. I lost Kathleen, but she was never really mine. I should make a phone call to Steve—to anyone—but my phone must be somewhere with my keys. I spin my thirty and sixty-day sobriety coins. I try to spin all three at the same time on the coffee table and make a game of it. All three coins wobble with a metallic trill that seems to increase in


frequency as they settle on the table. I notice the sobriety coins are all the same size. I have a tape measure, but it is in my car. The chips must be the same size. I stack them, but can’t tell—there could be a very slight difference in diameter between the sixty-day coin and the ninety-day coin. Maybe my car doors are unlocked. Outside, I try my car door and it opens. My ankle feels better. I pop the trunk and retrieve my toolbox. I smell smoke from someone’s fireplace and squint at the sun hanging just above the tree line at the end of the block. I like the way the sun hugs the horizon, riding out the day with a sleepy glow. I never noticed it. I’ve seen it come and go across my windows, but that was like watching a projection screen of celluloid magic and special effects. I squint. There is anticipation in the quiet, that dense muffled chill that yields nothing to the ears and lingers just before snow arrives. The silence itself is a nocturne. The weight of the toolbox in my hand reminds me that I should return to my living room and the coffee table and the coins. I measure the ninety-day coin. Its diameter is one and fivesixteenths inches. It is one-sixteenth inch thick. The thirty and sixtyday coins have the same measurements. They might weigh different —denser perhaps—but I got rid of my digital scale when I returned home from rehab. Ninety days means more to me, so the coin should be larger. A one-hundred dollar bill and a one-dollar bill have the same dimensions but different values; but a quarter is bigger than a dime and has more value. I should call Steve and ask him about the sobriety coins. Oh, that doesn’t work either, because a dime has more value than a nickel, but the nickel is larger, and I still can’t find my cell phone. My living room is fogged in orange from the sun’s last breaths steaming against my windows, weeping through the blinds. I wish I had a photo of Kathleen to pine over. I don’t know what happened to all my stuff. She and I were just poltergeists haunting each other through Post-It notes, unwashed dishes, and steam-soaked bathrooms, empty, but still warm and wet enough to suggest one of our specter selves had just showered and disappeared. Her shift at the hospital would end just as I would leave the house at 6:30am.



I had no job to go to. Kathleen didn’t know. I wanted her to

I know the sobriety coin is just a representation of time like the cuckoo or a birthday card or silver on a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I once took all the quarters out of Kathleen’s niece’s piggy bank. I weigh the thirty, sixty, and ninety-day coins in my palm. I need to find my car keys. Rob, at my first Monday night AA meeting, asked me how old I was. I told him I was twenty-six. “That’s the perfect age to get sober,” he said. “Oh, really?” I said. “Yeah, kid. Dead on. The perfect age to get this.” I remember another pickled dope fiend had walked in not long after I sat down next to Rob. I had been there ten minutes longer than the pickled dope fiend and it made me feel proud or happy or like I had something to offer him that he didn’t possess. He went and sat in the back row, so Rob went and sat next to him, and I could hear him introduce himself and tell the new guy he was in the right place. “How old are you man?” Ron had asked the new guy. “I’m 37,” the new guy said. “Holy shit.” Ron paused and slapped his thigh. “You know how lucky you are? That is the perfect age to get sober. Dead on, kid.” I have an hour and twenty-six minutes until the meeting starts, until I have to be there to fulfill my speaking commitment. It’s going to be amazing. Don will open the meeting, make his announcements, we’ll do our readings, and then he will introduce the evening’s speakers. I wonder who will be sharing their story with me tonight? It doesn’t matter. I’ll tell them how it was. I’ll tell them how my dad was a bartender at the Spread Eagle Inn in the 70s and 80s and how he would babysit me there, letting me sit on the pool table and roll the balls around, all the drunks’ tips helping put diapers on my ass. Rob and the other guys will probably laugh. I hope they laugh. I’ll tell them how I saw dad jaundiced and go through treatment for Hepatitis C. I’ll explain how he survived a brain


aneurism and that’s what it took for him to finally get sober. I will wrap all this up nicely and tell the men how, even though I saw the struggles my father endured, it did not deter me from the path that I chose. Rob and the other guys will probably nod their heads. I will get chills from the love and approval in the room. Here’s where it will get tricky, because I am not sure if I should introduce Kathleen at this point and talk about our relationship, how we were phantoms and how we were just obstacles to be navigated when passing through the threshold. I suppose it is relevant. I stole her money, her love, and her time. I thought it was just her money that I was taking, but Steve told me I held her hostage and unjustly took her peace of mind. When I get to that part in my story, I’ll be honest and tell the men that I don’t truly know what that means, but I trust Steve’s judgment—he has seven years of sobriety and I have ninety-four days. The men in the room will nod their heads. Maybe Rob will whisper to another old-timer, “Man, this kid gets it. He’ll probably be around for a long time.” I don’t want to paint myself as the hero or a victim in my tale, so I will tell them about selling Grand Pop’s cufflinks, lying to Kathleen and telling her I had a job, stealing money from our account in dribs and drabs, and going to buy and shoot heroin down in Morgan Village. The men will grit their teeth, because they’ve been there too. I know what I need to do. I need to find my keys. I know I didn’t leave the keys in the lock on the front door. I would have seen them when I went out for my toolbox. I’ll tell them about the smell of dead leaves and fallen, rotting trees that lingers in crack houses, how the smell is not odd in the woods, but inside the walls of a row home, it seems misplaced—lost. I will tell them how dark the rooms are, tinfoil lining the windows, and that you didn’t know there were others in the room until someone lit a torch lighter beneath their straight shooter. The light would disappear, but I had already seen the face in the blue glow, stippled with rot, so it was hard to convince myself that I was alone. And then another lighter would illuminate a farther corner of the room. The men at AA will clench their jaws and swallow, because they’ve been there too.


I know my keys are not in the kitchen, so there is no sense looking in there. Why would I have brought my keys into the kitchen? I will tell the men how Kathleen’s Post-It notes disappeared, how it was just my writing on the notes for the last two months. I’ll tell them how I stopped seeing steam from her showers and how one evening I came home, flicked the lights on to check for her notes, but the light never came. The power to the house was shut off. I couldn’t turn the lights on to see that her closet and her drawers in the dresser were empty. The light never came. I couldn’t see that for nearly two months her things had been gone. I couldn’t see that the mattress I passed out on that night back in August had no sheets or blankets. I’ll tell them that it was in the light of the morning that I saw the silhouette of my father slapping me awake, before he drove me out to a detox somewhere near Reading, PA. After this part of my story, Mark, a Bible thumper who usually sits in the back left corner of the meeting, will probably throw his hands in the air. “Oh, thank the Lord,” he will say. “Jesus of all people knows about the saving grace of a father.” Some of the guys will roll their eyes. Bible thumpers, like Mark, will nod in agreement. I hope Mark is there tonight. I could call Kathleen, but I can’t find my cell phone. It is probably with my keys. I shouldn’t look in my bedroom. I have an hour and twenty-four minutes until the meeting starts. I know myself, and I am not the type of guy who leaves his car keys in his bedroom. I can’t wait to get to the meeting and share with the men the sleepy, pink twilight of the late autumn sun that I saw from my driveway this evening. I never saw it before, never heard it before, the deadened patience of the chilled ground waiting for the early December snow. When I am done speaking, Rob and the other guys will clap and nod their heads in approval. They will tell me, one day at a time kid. Take it easy, kid. They will tell me, keep coming back, kid. My car keys couldn’t possibly be in the couch cushions. I spin my ninety-day coin on the coffee table. The table by the front door is empty. That would be a great place to leave my keys. The sobriety coins have a diameter of one and five-sixteenth inches and are one-


sixteenth inch thick. My ankle feels fine now, but I bet if I rotated my foot to the right it would hurt. I shouldn’t. My ninety-day coin wobbles to a stop. I give it another spin.


A DULT V IDEO Don Philbrick

I remember when I first saw it. I was coming home on the LIRR after visiting a friend at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. It was a newly opened business, the first storefront returning commuters saw when pulling up to the Merrick train station. I remember other passengers pointing it out. The store stuck out like a bad tattoo on perfect skin. Merrick was, and still is, a conservative town. Located on the south shore of Long Island, it is home to primarily middle to upper middle class nuclear families. Its Jewish and Christian houses of worship are well attended. Its PTAs carry a good deal of clout. At the time (the late 80s), the county executive, a Republican, lived there. The town’s roads and utilities were well maintained year round, its police and firefighter departments well funded. Merrick was for the most part the ideal idyllic suburbia, which was why it was such a shock when the adult video store opened on Sunrise Highway. It wasn’t even one of those classier erotic boutiques one might expect for such a neighborhood. Its front windows were covered with silver aluminum foil, its entrance door curtained by long strands of gold tinsel. Its sign simply read ADULT VIDEO in blocky red letters over a stark white background. I didn’t know what to feel about it. Such a place appearing in my hometown was surprising, but I wasn’t appalled. Then again, I was a rebellious, anti-censorship, morality-flouting teenager who was not especially worried about the negative effect on property values. But I knew many who feared the store would attract a “bad element.” This was not the first instance of a porno establishment popping up here and outraging our largely unsuspecting residents. Several years prior, the town’s single-screen movie theater, located on Merrick Avenue, changed management and started showing exclusively X-rated fare. (Caligula and Jack and Jill are two titles I recall playing there.) The venue abruptly shut down about a month later, meriting a front-page article in the Merrick Life newspaper featuring a prominent photo of the theater’s offending marquee.


Fascinated with all things decadent, depraved, and debauched, I naturally paid a visit to ADULT VIDEO—that was the business’s licensed name—to see what all the fuss was about. Its selection consisted of over two hundred VHS tapes spread out across several white plywood shelves. In fact, aside from the video boxes, everything in the store was white, from the tiled floor to the fluorescent lighting. I speculated this was to make the space look more antiseptic, i.e. less dirty, to browsing customers. It only succeeded in accentuating the full-color images of exposed and manipulated private parts. I met the store’s proprietor. He was the only one who worked there. His name eludes me, but his face does not. It was covered in small bulbous growths, like warts or polyps. His hair was jet black and greasy-looking. His smile was crooked, as were his teeth. But he was astonishingly articulate and passionate about what he believed to be a constitutional, if not fundamental, human right: the freedom of expression. He had the right to sell/rent adult material, and adults had the right to view it. And, according to him, many Merrick residents agreed; within two weeks of the shop’s opening more than one hundred of them had signed up for memberships. But many others were less than thrilled with the vendor of vice. A priest from Sacred Heart Catholic Church and a rabbi from Temple Israel had each dropped by to convince the owner that Merrick was no place for his place. He respectfully begged to differ. He felt he was, in a way, performing a public service, was contributing to the town’s economy, and he wasn’t hurting anyone, morality excluded. I agreed and signed up for a membership, more out of tacit support than prurient interest. (I never rented anything from him. Really. I swear.) A few days later somebody drove by the store in the middle of the night and threw a brick through its window. The next morning the owner, unfazed, boarded it up and opened his door at the usual time. I got the impression ours wasn’t the first conservative town he had tried to plant stakes in. (I found out he had previously opened the same kind of store in at least three other Long Island communities.)


I learned about an “emergency meeting” town officials had called together at Old Mill Road elementary school. I managed to finagle my way in under the pretense I was writing an article for the local paper. Most of Merrick’s municipal leaders were there, including the aforementioned priest and rabbi, every representative of the Chamber of Commerce, and the property owner who— allegedly—unwittingly leased the space to ADULT VIDEO. It was a rather surreal experience for me, by far the youngest person in the room. They first tackled legalities. No laws had yet been enacted in Merrick banning adults-only establishments, only those specifying the distance they may operate from schools and churches (500 feet). The following topic of discussion was just how pornographic was the store’s pornography. It amused me to hear these dignified town officials, both men and women, utter such terms as “full penetration” and “bestiality.” One attendee even corrected my pronunciation of the latter word after I’d chimed in on the matter. All of course agreed ADULT VIDEO had to go. Not one conservative voice spoke up for this small business. How to get rid of it was still undetermined at the meeting’s adjournment, but I sensed an ominous, conspiratorial vibe in the air. I suspected there would soon be another, more clandestine dialogue between the town’s bureaucrats. Just one week later ADULT VIDEO had shuttered up overnight, the proprietor taking all his wicked wares and minimalist sign with him. I didn’t have his contact info, so to get the scoop I drove over to the computer repair store I knew to be operated by the property’s lessor. He was a short, sweaty man wearing a yarmulke that didn’t sit on his head quite right. He remembered me from the emergency meeting and promptly expressed his triumph at running the “smut peddler” out of our decent town. I asked him if the town had paid the guy off. “No comment,” he said and gave me a sly grin. Indeed, no one talked about ADULT VIDEO after its welcome departure. The closure wasn’t even mentioned in Merrick Life. It was as if it never happened—a nasty pimple completely healed. The space was next rented by a popular yogurt shop where folks,


both righteous and reprobate, could fatten themselves up to their heart’s content. To this day I wonder which business posed the more harm to body and soul.


I NNOCENT M EN John Rafferty

She lived in a light brown house that was unkempt—a white picket fence broken down in front—that had dark green ivy growing all over it. No one had ever been inside it. People talked about how spooky it was, how her parents looked old and sick, that the house was haunted. I lived only a few blocks away. Whenever I passed it, I wondered what went on inside. In my mind, I had no friends. I hung around with a group of guys I had grown up with, but now, at fifteen, we had nothing in common. In a small town, they were the troublemakers, the petty thieves, the perpetrators of the occasional vandalism. They offered stupidity and nothing more. As a group, it earned us some level of popularity. I was desperate to escape them. Eric, the ringleader, used to show us videotapes of horrific car crashes, of animals attacking tourists. Sick, twisted scenes his father had edited together from the news and other sources. We would sit in his basement, all four of us—myself, Eric, Ted, and Luke—and watch these videotapes. The rest of the guys loved it, but I secretly hated it. There was one particular piece of footage I could never get out of my head. It was of a man killing himself. His name was Budd Dwyer, I later found out, a politician from our own state. I saw Alexis in the halls freshman year of high school. She had gone to public school all the way through, while I had attended Catholic until high school, when my parents could no longer afford it. She drew my attention the first time I saw her walking so close to the lockers, like a frightened animal, against the current of oncoming students. I knew she was the girl from the house. And each time we crossed paths, my desire to know more and more about her increased. Sometimes, after we got off the bus, I would walk a safe distance behind her until she rounded the corner toward her home. She was skinny, with sallow skin, and large black curly hair. She wore the wrong clothes. She always seemed afraid, nervous. I began to fall in love with her. Soon, she was all I thought about. When Budd Dwyer was the Treasurer of Pennsylvania, he was charged with the crime of taking a bribe. Everyone who knew


him knew he was an honest man who would never commit such a crime. They offered him a deal that paled in comparison to what he faced defending his innocence. He turned it down and went to trial. Despite a dearth of evidence, he was found guilty, and the day before his sentencing he called a press conference. He spoke of his life, defended himself against all the allegations leveled unjustly upon him, handed out three envelopes, made his final peace, then put a gun in his mouth and shot himself. There were television cameras there. Some stations aired part of the footage. Some aired all of it. I went over to Eric’s house when no one was at home and took that tape. I felt I needed it. During the following summer, when I wasn’t working at the ice cream shop, I would ride my bike past her house sometimes, hoping to see her, but I never did. Sophomore year came in a hurry and on the first day of school, she was in my English class. She hadn’t changed at all. She looked exactly the same. In class, she took notes, was studious, but almost never spoke. I watched her: despite her constant reticence, she loved the class. I watched her: she was so naïve, as if perpetually lost in some way, her movements unsure. I had no idea how to talk to her, so one day as September was winding down, I simply introduced myself and asked her out as we walked out of English class together. My words were rushed and clumsy and I’ll never forget her looking back at me with a dazed, almost blank stare. “No,” she said, as if the word was falling out of her mouth. My face turned beet red and I immediately began to sweat even more. I eked out an “okay” and moved past her, my heart pounding furiously in my chest. I spent the rest of the day feeling foolish, dreading the fact that I would now have nine more months of having to face my failure. She came to my door the next day and said she would like to go out. Everything changed in that moment. She gave me her phone number and I set up a date for that Friday. A professor was giving a lecture on the modern American short story at the local university. Afterwards, even though I thought it was a bit corny, I told her we could get ice cream at the shop I worked at. She seemed excited. I was ecstatic.


Friday evening. My mom calls me, “Phone!” When I pick up, it’s Eric. He’s bursting at the seams. “Look, Luke is gonna be able to get a case of beer from this older buddy of his and some weed and Ted’s parents are gone ’til tomorrow, so get over here in, like, an hour. Just tell your parents you’re sleeping over at Ted’s.” I adopt a weak voice, “Won’t we get... I mean—” “No, Ted’s parents are idiots. They told him he could have us sleep over. They’re totally clueless. It’s perfect.” There was a silence that felt so long. “Brian, are you there?” “Yeah, it’s just that I’m sick.” “Since when, man? Don’t you know how perfect a situation this is?” “No, I know, I just started feeling sick on the way home from school and then I threw up. I’ve got a bad fever. I must have the flu or something.” Eric sighs, disappointed, angry. “So you’re bailing on us?” Still adopting my sickly voice, “No, I wish I could—” Eric hangs up. I think about how he, Luke, and Ted will get drunk and high and then go out at midnight and key people’s cars, smash empty beer bottles on the ground and against walls, then go back to Ted’s, fall asleep, be the same exact people the next day. It’s not quite dark as we walk up to the university. It’s still warm, warmer than usual for the time of year. We’re both very quiet. I try to break the ice by talking about our English class, our teacher. She tells me about her favorite writers: Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver. I really like them both. She smiles. After the lecture, we’re sitting outside the ice cream shop. I say, jokingly, “Yeah, it’s pretty much the worst job, but I couldn’t get hired anywhere else. I get free ice cream though.” She laughs a bit. “It’s a nice fringe benefit,” she replies, “I guess.” She’s loosening up, trusting me. I can feel it and I’m happy, something I realize I haven’t truly been in a long while. There’s a nice, natural silence. The wind blows a bit. Our eyes meet. We turn away after a moment. As we approached that white broken-down picket fence that enclosed her house, the only thought running through my mind was whether or not I should kiss her. I kept going back and forth in my head about what I should do. “Are you all right?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. We were standing at the gate. I saw something whiz past my face and smack her in the lip. She held her hand to her lip, a trickle of blood streaming down, and peered up at me. Her eyes welled with


tears. “Are you okay?” She said nothing. I saw the yolk of an egg on the ground next to her. An egg hit me on my leg, another fell short at my feet. I heard laughter. I heard Eric’s laughter. I heard Ted’s laughter. I heard Luke’s laughter. Everything was frozen. “Wait here.” I sprinted into the darkness, into that laughter. With each passing moment, my body filled with more and more rage, more and more adrenaline. I caught up with a figure and tackled him to the ground. He turned over and spat at my face. It was Eric. I began punching him over and over in the shoulders, in the chest, and finally in the face. I pummeled his face with a fury that felt beyond me. He stopped moving. I stood up and raced back to Alexis, but she was gone. I knocked on her door, called her name. There was no answer. Warm tears slid down my face and I wiped them away quickly, embarrassed. I knocked again. I called for her again. “Are you okay?” I yelled. Nothing. I remained there. Still nothing. Alexis never spoke to me again. I tried over and over to get her to listen to me. “I didn’t have anything to do with it. They weren’t my friends. I hate them. You have to believe me. Please, believe me. I’m innocent!” Eric and the guys jumped me. I stood my ground as best I could. They egged my house on mischief night. The exclamation point to their crime. Eventually, I never spoke another word to them. I rode my bike past Alexis’s house again, just hoping, like I had before, to see her, but, like before, I never did. I stayed away from her the rest of the year. It seemed the kindest thing to do, given the circumstances. We never had a class together again. I read everything I could by Fitzgerald and Carver. For some reason, I thought I’d find an answer inside those pages, the only things I knew she cared about. Religiously, I would watch the press conference of Budd Dwyer. I was hypnotized by the footage. I found a strange comfort in it that made me feel guilty. He was innocent and I knew it. He was a fine man and they broke him.


R OM AN L OVE A FFAIR Vanessa Constantinidis

Paris, city of love? I think not. Rats running on the dirty streets, the metro scattered with cockroaches. The view from the Eiffel, has nothing on the Aracoeli. At least not for me. Do not be afraid to fall in love, in Rome, with Rome. Be careful not to fall in lust. There is a common misconception that the two are interchangeable. Walk by yourself, notice everything. Don’t confuse holding his hand, with holding his heart; you were strong before this. Don’t forget who you are. Be as strong as Romulus and as peaceful as Aeneas, May you be as lucky as Augustus, and as great as Trajan. Venture out. There is more to Rome than Trastevere; Explore. Learn the language. Even if it is simply just Ciao Bella or mi indicheresti la direzione al tuo cuore? the most beautiful language


Don’t worry though if you don’t have it down perfect. Unlike the French, Romans do know English, and even if they don’t, they do have more respect for you. Do something crazy. Add to the graffiti, so your mark will forever be on Rome, the city that is eternal. It may be illegal; some rather call it artistic. Don’t let your life pass you by. Rome is perfection. Rome is home. I lost you, in Paris with the rats and dirt the unsaid words the lack of trust the abundance of pictures and lights. They say that, love is never a thing to be hurried—so maybe we should have just stayed here, here in Rome, so we could have had all of— eternity.



They took my shoes first, then my belt, my books, and with a snip, the drawstring in my sweatshirt. Power is taken from brains that should not yield it. I was there because of my mind; I had lost it. Shuffled steps echoed across worn linoleum, eye contact was scarce, purpose seldom, mostly heads drawn to the floor; troubled brains are twice as heavy. A few kind-hearted staff pushed to stir emotion, but loneliness encompassed me. Six stiff chairs arched around a single fishbowl television. Nothing was on, and if it were, a man with confused attentions would hoard the remote. A small table sat in the corner of the main living area, a place with high ceilings and strong supervision. The table held paper and crayons, never a pencil, never. I sat with others, coloring. And toward the end of my stay I sat with others, talking. My room was barren, no doors, not even on the bathroom, and this by necessity. A pillow of dust accompanied a springless mattress. A solid wood desk with locked drawers and without a chair served its purpose—to fill space. The windows didn’t open, not even from the outside; this was a frustrating revelation in an arena that barred all outdoor activities. The eating area, steps from the coloring table, was as far as one might go, save a few desperate escapees. Visitors beckoned three times a week, for only an hour. An hour barely allowed for one to jump past the embarrassment and enjoy the company. It was bleak, and could not be otherwise, but there was a slight saving grace. Three of my bedroom walls were barren, a cold mortar white, but on the northern wall, at the foot of my bed, hung a picture. The picture was about two feet by three, it was worn, kitsch, and massproduced, of the hotel room variety, but the subject matter broke beyond aesthetic integrity. The picture showed a stretching blue lake, calm and deep. On the side of the lake stood a path, surely one less trodden, where children still find wild blackberries. In the distance, beyond the lake, were rolling hills, warm green, no hint of turning. And casting a shadow on it all were blue mountains, too far away to be anything but generalized. My personality begs for artistic critique,


but that crude painting became my safe haven. I would sit up in bed and stare at it for hours, smelling the sweating spruce, walking the path where my jeans would be stained with wild blackberries and the bright bellied warblers showered me with their staccato tune. I don’t fish and never wondered what might lie beneath the lake, but the dancing light, frolicking off the water, spun through my mind. I was always alone in my daydreams, but I was always satisfied and warm. Eventually reality called me home. I loathed those stone walls, but I missed that lake. I missed that lake to the extent that I went looking for it. I searched archives and art shops that sold mass prints. I felt exhilarated entering a new hotel room, as the kitsch of inn art fits squarely with the lake. But alas, I was only met with oversized flower petals, in the vein of O’Keefe, and the occasional Van Gogh lithograph, almost always with sunflowers in mind. It’s hard finding a false reality while living in the real one. I moved to Pennsylvania five years after leaving that barren room. Married now, our house is tucked neatly between the hustle of Philadelphia and the toes of the Poconos. While the gravitational force that comes with large groups of people pulls strong to the south, wildness beckons north; the woods are north. One day I decided I needed woods. This is instinctive, I think. I loaded my pack, not knowing the terrain, and brought my dog, a golden retriever, a hunter who will never hunt, simply a playmate. The houses grew farther apart as I drove, then the chain restaurants disappeared, turning into groceries made of heavy iron. The way quickly turned narrow and hilly all at once, and the trees converged as if entering a tunnel, but the sun still made its way through pockets of transparent leaves. I knew nothing of the area, so I parked as near to a visible path as possible. As soon as I let the dog out of the car she ran deep into the woods, her inclination toward nature just as strong as mine, but perhaps fresher, for we made wolves into dogs. I started briskly after her, climbing up a hill, watching her dart to and fro, smiling at me, beckoning me to enjoy. I hiked for about two miles. It was not a difficult trek, consistent inclines met with gratifying downhill sprints. Man will find few greater pleasures than running downhill an untrodden path, eyes to the shoes, eyes to the rocks, and


eyes back to the shoes, with a panting dog beside. I was about two hundred feet from the bottom of a large hill when I noticed sparkles of blue behind the trees. I would have noticed it earlier, but it was July and the brush was thick. I walked slowly, breathing intently from a brisk jog; clearing away the brush and trees, a magnificent sight became visible. Immediate nostalgia struck, and some emotions the nice men and women in suits tried to beg out of me years earlier came flushing through. I found the lake. I walked another quarter mile to a dirty, but manageable bank, where her full majesty could be admired. The path was to my right, as in the picture, and it was packed in, but wild; the water was calm and deep, and the sun played off its slow, large ripples; across the river stood scores of trees, green, too green, and hills beyond that, hills too distant to describe. I threw a rock into the water to make sure the scene was real, and it splashed, and my dog swam after it. Then I sat down on the bank, looked at my jeans, and laughed at the blackberry stains.



It had rained earlier, and the log was wet, and I lost my footing and landed on my back in deep mud with a wettish sound. “Fuck,” I said, wincing with humiliation rather than with pain. Max stepped off the log bridge, squelching mud completely engulfing his sneakers. There was an underground spring that kept this part of the forest wet and swampy, even in dry seasons. He proffered a hand and I took it. “You look good covered in mud,” he said with an appraising glance, on the verge of laughter. “Matches your coat.” I rolled my eyes, even though it was probably too dark to have any effect, and pulled my camouflage coat closer around me. Max didn’t relinquish my hand. Once we were free of the muddy spot our feet were quiet, muffled by pine needles on the packed earth of the trail. It was a gentle descent, with watery reflections of lights quivering through the spaces at the end of the treeline ahead. He let me go first when we got to the place where an ancient cedar had collapsed across the path, and again when we crossed the tiny estuary of a stream emptying itself out into the saltwater inlet, and only let go of my hand when we reached the rocky beach. I was quite fond of the beach, especially at night. Greenish reflected moonlight lapped at wet pebbles along the shore, dark trees dripping slowly overhead. “Here,” Max said, walking toward a place where the trees spread out like a canopy above the water. It had formed a sort of pool there, the rocks worn nearly to sand. “This is a good place.” I watched as he kicked rocky sand into the water with one filthy shoe. He was pale, and the moonlight practically washed the freckles right out of his boyish face. It took me a moment to see it, the edge of the water glittering with infinitesimal blue-green lights where Max had kicked it. He nudged it again, spreading a shimmering arc of barely visible color across the water’s surface. I crouched down to look closer. I’d been on beaches like this one probably a hundred times. Couldn’t believe I’d never seen anything like this before.


“That’s it. Phosphorescence,” said Max. “Wow,” I said, brushing the water’s surface lightly with my fingers. “What makes it do that?” Max shrugged. “Defense mechanism, I guess. It’s algae.” I picked a slender stick from the ground and poked at the water, making pinpoints of light appear at its end. The algae flashed and swirled in protest, their tiny, mysterious lives momentarily disturbed. The air tasted green and wet. It was nice being down here at the water, playing like kids. Max of course had probably been down to the beach to see the phosphorescence plenty of times before. He always knew about stuff like that. Through the corner of my eye, I saw him look up through the branches of the trees at the star-pricked sky. I eventually laid the stick down and stood up. “You’ve really never seen that before?” he said. We started walking down the tree-lined shore. I shoved my hands into my pockets. “Nope.” “But you live here.” “So do you,” I said. “You know what I mean. I’m from Denver. You grew up here.” It was true, but there was so much I hadn’t seen. It was like I’d grown up inside a bubble, like one of those 1950s kids inside an iron lung or something. Max stopped to pick up a white shell, bright in the just-pastfull moon, and throw it sideways into the sound, where it skipped a long way across the water before sinking. I watched its trajectory across the tiny waves, little ringlets it left where it touched the water. A breeze blew tousled ropes of my unwashed hair across my face. “Have you ever read Ferlinghetti?” said Max. We started walking again. “Who?” “Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The beat poet. He’s got a poem about how big and interesting the whole fucking world is even though you’re just going to die anyway.” He gave me a sidelong glance. “I just thought of it, for some reason.”


“I can dig it,” I said. I had just learned that turn of phrase, and I knew it didn’t sound natural in my voice yet, but I liked it. “I’ve got a book of his I’ll let you borrow. Remind me when we get back to campus.” I didn’t respond because “Good evening” interrupted a man, who was sitting on the ground under the low tangle of underbrush where the forest met the beach. I jumped when he spoke, but nobody noticed. “Hey,” said Max. The stranger stood up. He was shirtless in a tattered pair of cargo shorts, wiry and fit in an older-guy kind of way. “I’m Tortoise,” he said in a voice as scraggly as his hair. “Pleased to meet you, Tortoise,” Max said. He did that sometimes—that formal speech thing that somehow sounded natural, even cool, on him. “Nice night.” “A little cold,” said Tortoise. His eyes flicked from Max to me. “You’re a cute couple.” We didn’t correct the assumption, which was a silly one for anyone to make this close to a college campus. Sandals crunching on sharp pebbles, Tortoise began rummaging through the underbrush a few feet away. “Y’all want to borrow my boat for a ride?” He started tugging a wooden thing out of the forest. I said, “What?” and Max said, “Sure.” The boat came free of the tangled brush and landed on the beach with a hollow wooden sound. It was like a fat little canoe with a bench across each end, handmade maybe. Tortoise proceeded to drag it to the water’s edge, his bare shoulders pale in the moonlight. “It only fits two,” he said. “You guys could steal it if you wanted, but you wouldn’t get too far in this thing, so you might as well just bring it back when you’re done.” He pulled an oar from the bottom and laid it crosswise over the benches. Max grinned. “Alright. Sure,” he said. “Let’s do it.” Tortoise relinquished his grip on the boat and Max pushed it into the first few inches of water, where it bobbed and floated, the disturbance causing a hint of blue-green shimmering bioluminescence. “Ladies first,” Tortoise said. I took his bony-knuckled hand and let him help me climb in. The boat’s owner nodded to Max, who


climbed into it after me, too damned graceful for his long-limbed stature. Tortoise gave the weird little boat a push and it began to drift into the cove. Max lifted the oar in salute at the receding figure on shore. The boat was small—we were facing each other and our knees nearly touched—but it was watertight. I started to giggle before we were entirely out of earshot from shore. “What the fuck just happened?” I said, leaning forward, trying to keep my voice low. Max smiled with half his mouth and shrugged with one shoulder. “Tortoise,” he said. “I’ve heard of him. Never actually saw him before, though.” He did a couple of experimental paddles with the oar, but the boat seemed content to drift toward the middle of the inlet on its own, and he rested the implement across his knees instead. He looked good with his face underlit by the watery reflected moonlight. Nice bone structure. I’d never fully appreciated it before. “Look up,” Max said. I turned my eyes skyward. Cliché, but the night sky around here really never got old. The bright net of stars was laid over a green-black canvas, broken only by a fat gibbous moon. A fish leapt nearby with a wet plop. “It’s shit like this that makes me wish I could stay,” Max said. “So? Stay then,” I said. “I can’t.” He laughed, sort of bitterly. “They’re not going to let me come back. You know.” I knew. He had like, nine grievances. That’s what they called it when you got into trouble on campus—caught drinking, or smoking a cigarette in the wrong place, or walking to class with a joint in your hand. They were supposed to kick you out after just six, and he had nine. “You’re a hazard to society,” I said, trying to be funny. “I don’t get it, though. Why don’t they just kick you out now?” “I dunno.” Max shrugged. “My professor pulled some strings for me, I think. He wants me to finish his class, he loves me in seminar. And I worked a little magic with this girl I know in administration too.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I figured I could guess, so I didn’t ask. Max took the oar from his knees and rested it


in the bottom of the boat, which was bobbing peacefully near the center of the narrow inlet now. On the opposite shore, the yellow lights from little houses shone almost as bright as their reflections in the water. The trees above them were black in silhouette, the sky slate-blue at the horizon. “I’ll miss you,” I said. It was a dumb thing to say, but I said it anyway. “Yeah, I know,” said Max. He gave me an indiscernible look. “At least you’ve got Alex.” Of course he would know about Alex. These fucking guys all knew everything about each other. I might as well just get used to it. I must have been giving him some sort of look, because he said, “Oh, come on. I know about you and Alex.” He laughed. “I don’t care. You’re in college. It’s the only time in your life that you get to do whatever you want.” “You really think that?” I said. “This is the only time we get to do what we want?” “I mean, yeah, kind of.” “What happens then? We move back to our hometowns for shitty jobs and settle down with people we met in high school? Have kids?” “Maybe,” Max said. “That’s life. It happens.” “I don’t think so,” I said. “I mean, not for people like us.” “Well, I’m moving back to my hometown,” said Max. “But it’s a city, at least. Not some podunk place in the middle of nowhere.” “What’s it like? In Denver?” “I mean, it’s a real city,” Max said. “With real nightlife. You can get a cab just about anytime of the night, or get a drink. All the restaurants don’t close at midnight like they do here.” I nodded. “I can dig it.” “You would like it,” Max said. “You should come out sometime. I’ll show you around.” “Sure,” I said. “Yeah. I’d like that.” He leaned forward suddenly and kissed me on the lips. Not like it was the first time he’d done that, but it was different out here. Practically romantic. It made me want to roll my eyes. Another fish jumped nearby with a silvery little splash.


Max put his hand on my thigh. I was looking across the water at the narrow place where the inlet opened onto the sound that eventually emptied its bulk into the Pacific, hundreds of miles away. “I always wanted to try living in a real city,” I said. “Just for a year or two, maybe.” “Well, then come to Denver,” Max said. “Really? I mean, like, for a year or two?” “Sure. It would be just like it is here, but better. More trouble to get into.” I could feel that he was looking at me, but I kept looking out, at the place where water left the inlet and went far away, to other places. I figured I should say something, but I couldn’t think of what, so I reached over the edge of the boat and just barely touched the top of the water with my fingertips. It was cold. Another fish jumped nearby, rippling the dark surface. “I mean it. I hope you come out there sometime,” said Max. “It would be a really good time with you there.” “I want to,” I said. “I mean, I will.” We were quiet for a long time after that. It wasn’t bad. Nice, actually, being quiet with someone else when it’s not uncomfortable. The moon was so bright, and its reflection in the water was too, that by contrast the velvet-black shore might not have existed at all, except for the yellow lights on the houses. “It’s getting cold,” I finally said, wrapping my arms around myself. My camouflage coat was quite a lot less warm than it should have been. “Yeah,” said Max. “Let’s head in.” He picked up the oar and paddled, fairly expertly, swinging the boat around to face the shore it belonged on. It wasn’t far. We hit the gravelly beach with a crunch. Max jumped out into ankle-deep water, algae sparkling at his feet, and I followed, feeling the cold water soak through the leather of my boots. We pulled the boat securely onto the shore where he picked it up by its fore end. “You get that side,” he said, nodding to the aft. It wasn’t light, but manageable. We carried the vessel to the edge of the forest. “Yo,” Max said, loud enough to carry down the beach, eliciting no response. “Here,” he said more quietly, a bit breathless,


setting his end of the boat at the edge of the thick tangle of forest. “We can leave it here. He’ll find it.” We pushed the boat, front end first, into the forest. Vines and branches closed around it so tightly that the wooden slats of the aft end would only be visible to someone who knew it was there. “We should mark it with something,” I said. “Hmmm.” “Oh, wait. Here.” I dug into my camouflaged pocket, crouched at a driftwood log in front of the forest mooring, and wrote “X” in fat Sharpie marker on its smooth, bone-white side. Then we started the walk back uphill, toward campus and his dorm room, and I guess you know what happens there. Anyway, Max left two weeks later. That was about three years ago. I never went to Denver, but I still read Ferlinghetti, and sometimes I go down to the water at night and look at the bioluminescence and skip white clamshells across the water by myself.



Luqman Kolade Tomorrow we will meet in the shadow of forever as time runs out and the sun bleeds all over the moon, our hands covered in the poems we tattooed on each other. There will be no need for tears, for we will be surrounded by love, sitting under a tattered canopy, stars sparkling on their way down blazing a trail to the end.

The Avenue 2015  

Creative Writing from the Writing Studies Program at Saint Joseph's University

The Avenue 2015  

Creative Writing from the Writing Studies Program at Saint Joseph's University