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The Madison Review

Vol. 35

Fall 2013

No. 1


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We would like to thank Ron Kuka for his continued time, patience, and support. Funding for this issue was provided by the Jay C. and Ruth Halls Creative Writing Fund through the UW Foundation. The Madison Review is published semiannually. Two-year subscriptions available for $15 (2 print issues, 2 online issues). One-year subscriptions available for $8 (1 print issue, 1 online issue). Email madisonrevw@gmail.com www.english.wisc.edu/madisonreview The Madison Review accepts unsolicited fiction and poetry. Please visit our website to submit and for submission guidelines. The Madison Review is indexed in The American Humanities Index. Copyright Š 2013 by The Madison Review the madison review University of Wisconsin Department of English 6193 Helen C. White Hall 600 N. Park Street Madison, WI 53706

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POETRY

FICTION

Editors Hannah Bulger Tyler Fassnacht

Editors Will Conley Peter Clancy

Associate Editors Tom Fullmer Danielle Kutka Cody Dunn

Associate Editors Katherine Busalacchi Joey Borgwardt Callie Padway

Staff Kristin Gulotta Mckenna Kohlenberg Mia Imperl Marco Ma James Cappuccio Alissa Valeri

Staff Andy Kristensen Sam Zisser Abigail Zemach Brianna Vandyke Cody Ostenson Danielle Fortin Edgar Roman Katie Spiering Katie Hermsen Kayleigh Norgord Laura Schmidt Matthew Lewis Sam Eichner Sean Mannion Tamar Lascelle Tony Pease

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*key on page 99 iv


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Table of Contents Fiction Daniel Lowe | An Attempt 2 Christine Estima | Waiting for Bardot 22 Jennifer Kelly | El Cenote 36 Jill Birdsall | Digging 63 Max Harris | You’re Not My Son. You’re Not My Mother. 71

Poetry Tom Holmes | The Shape of Emptiness 20 Thiahera Nurse | Our Mothers’ Hands 29 John C. Bennett | Lies

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Matthew Fee | The Ocean Does Not Need Listening 33 | In the Dream You Circumcise Me 35 Lee Rossi | Ballad 59 Victoria Kelly | Flying the Persian Gulf

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John F. Buckley and Martin Ott | Inside the Box 69 Michael Derrick Hudson | Drunk in Bed Thinking about My 88 Eternal Reward |Feeling Sorry for Myself after Failing 91 to Conquer Mount Everest

Cover and Inside Artwork

Claire Huber

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An Attempt Daniel Lowe

Date of Admission: July 31st, 1927 Date of Death: January 11th, 1928 Institutional suitcase inventory: 2777.01: magazine 2777.02: photograph of starting gate at Belmont Park 2777.03: wood carving 2777.04: harmonica

When you first met her, of course you thought she was the most beautiful woman you’d ever seen, pale skin, black hair, and eyes that hinted at the orient, but what worked its way into your skin was the mystery of her interest in you, there in the city park where she stood in happy conversation with two men and a woman, all of them well-dressed, shimmering in the spring sun, yet she kept turning back to look at that park bench where you sat alone with a book you pretended to read as you listened in on their conversation. “I’d kill for a drink.” “A drink? It’s eleven a.m.” “Some of us have work to do.” “And what work do you have to do, my dear?” “You know I work for my father’s company.” “As what? A nose-powderer?” “Don’t tease, Jim. Don’t get me started on the work that women do.” “Oh I never forget that, my little suffragette.” “Suffragette? What year is this again?” “Hey, who’s that you keep looking at?” Without answering she had come over then and stood in front of you, and when you first looked up into her face the flowered branches of one of the park trees were in blossom a few feet above her head.

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“I’m sorry to disturb you,” she said. “I noticed you sitting here all alone. A group of us are thinking about finding lunch somewhere. Would you like to join us?” You looked past her to where the two men and woman were still talking, casting an occasional glance back your way. “Oh no. I wouldn’t presume. You’re a foursome. I’d only be interfering. I don’t know any of you.” She looked back at the other three, and the man who had been teasing her gave her a little wave to come back to them. “Go on ahead,” she called over to them. “I’ll catch up.” The man shook his head and rolled his eyes, as if he’d seen this before, and they walked off. She sat down next to you. “I don’t blame you,” she said. “It’s a pretty shallow little group sometimes. What’s that you’re reading?” You turned the cover up to her. “Oh, Sinclair Lewis. I love him. One of the few men writers who knows how to write about women. Did you read Free Air?” “No, I missed that one.” “Am I making you nervous?” She was looking at your knee, which you were gripping with your left hand to the point that your thumbnail was whitened. “No. Yes. I’m sorry.” You relaxed your hand. “I guess you are. You’re very beautiful.” But she didn’t even smile at this. “Do you mind if I ask if you were you in the war?” You’d heard this question many times before. “No. No I wasn’t. 4-F.” “You have the look of someone who was in the war.” • But today, over a year has passed since that conversation, and the driver of the car hurtling toward the state hospital with you as the lone passenger could use a laugh, since steam is pouring from his radiator in the high heat of July; he likely expects you to laugh for no reason anyway, or hopes you will laugh, because he’s thinking you look like a man with a bruised face who never took an actual beating, and even an unreasonable laugh, a maniacal laugh, is better than the black and blue silence he’s endured for an

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hour. Though what can be said to a man pinned to a straightjacket whose being ferried off to an asylum? And it’s no surprise that the joke you’d like to tell him, but won’t, is the one she’d told on your lone trip together, to Florida, where you’d said to her while standing on the beach that you had thought about killing her, that you thought you might be losing your mind, and she’d laughed and said, “Every man I’ve ever known has thought about killing the woman he loves, including my father, and I’ve yet to meet one who has,” and you stared at her with false menace and said “yet,” and she’d laughed, and said “yet.” Then she’d said, “And as for losing your mind,” and told the joke, which went something like this: After hearing that one of the patients in a mental hospital had saved another from a suicide attempt by pulling him out of a bathtub, the director reviewed the rescuer’s file and called him into his office. “Mr. James, your records and your heroic behavior indicate that you’re ready to go home. I’m only sorry that the man you saved later killed himself with a rope around the neck.” “Oh, he didn’t kill himself,” Mr. James replied. “I hung him up to dry.” But the one thing that’s funny now is less the memory of that joke than the place the driver of the car has chosen to park his overheated car: a farmhouse yard with a clothesline stretched across where two long-sleeve shirts and a child’s jacket are hung out to dry, flapping their arms like horsewhips in the steady then gusty wind, while your own arms are bound fast to your aching shoulders by the straightjacket. And if you were standing in that straightjacket alongside the tub where the man in the joke was trying to kill himself, you’d be unable to rescue him, or to hang him out to dry, helpless to do anything at the tub but watch him drown, watch a man drown as if he were no more than a fly swimming in a jar of gasoline, and right now you envy the sleeves of the shirts and jacket pinned to the clothesline, because while they’re going nowhere, either, they are at least free to flap their arms in frantic mimicry of escape, or in memory of the limbs they housed. Or at least free to beseech the wind to blow so hard that they might be carried off into the sky. As the sleeves flap, the driver, a bland-faced man, perhaps fifty, is bending over the engine, waiting for it to cool so he can check the radiator, when you see the farmer make his long way up the fence that runs perpen4


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dicular to the road. He slows and removes his hat as he draws close. He peers first at the side of your head pressed against the window glass and gives a nod as if you would nod back, and then strides up the line of the fence to the driver, who’s managed to remove the radiator cap. “Afternoon,” the farmer says. “Afternoon,” says the driver. “Little boil over, I see.” “Yes sir. Waiting for her to cool. Any chance I could borrow a pail of water?” The farmer has a kind face, but a nervous habit of slapping the pocket of his overalls, as if he were checking to see if he’d left something in it. “Sure thing,” he says. “Have to walk up to the house to draw it from the well. Can’t promise how clean it will be, or if it will foul your radiator. But it’ll get you down the road.” “I can take it from there,” the driver says. The farmer looks back through the window of the car where your face is still pressed up against the glass then taps his pocket again. “On our way to the asylum in Ovid,” the driver says. The farmer nods and asks, “Why’s he in the jacket? You afraid he’ll come at you?” “No, no, they wouldn’t let me take him by myself if that was the case. They tell me he’s a danger to himself. Even punches himself in the face if he gets a notion.” The farmer nods again, taps his pocket, and looks away as if he were scanning his fields. He says, “I suppose we could let him out and stretch his legs. He could come along with us up to the well.” “I’m not supposed to let him out of the car, sir. Risk of flight.” “In that jacket?” The driver shrugs. “Those are the rules.” “How ‘bout we open the window for him while we fetch the water. Gonna get hot in there with the windows closed.” The driver smiles, mildly exasperated, but comes over to the door and you shift away from it as he opens it and takes the window down. The air is cool and rich and smells of hay.

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She was twenty-three, ten years younger than you were, and that time in Florida when she’d laughed and said, “Every man I’ve ever known has thought about killing the woman he loves,” you wondered about the depth of the pool of “every man I’ve ever known,” and your mind skipped like a stone across that pool before settling to the bottom, the rings on the water expanding from each place the stone touched until they merged into indecipherable patterns. She’d told the joke, and you’d laughed with the half-pure/half-fearful laughter that her humor always generated, only this time, because of the joke, it was strung like holiday lights along the wire of suicide, which you’d thought about, too, and she read that in your face, perhaps read its possibility, and stopped walking along the Floridian beach her father’s money had paid for (along with the train ride down here her father’s money had paid for), and perhaps the red sun her father’s money had paid for that left her own skin a deep and luminous orange, and she raised her orange hand to your face and said, “It’s beautiful here. Can you see how beautiful it is here? Let go.” But this in the capacity of a young woman who loved out of mercy, or yearned to change the world by loving and saving one troubled man at a time, whose faith in change in the electric years of the mid-twenties was so deep that you’d never heard her utter the word god. • Now, along with the smell of hay comes the taste of dust stirred up in the wind, bitter and dry, settling on your damp face so your eyes feel chalky and gritty as the farmer and the driver walk away, growing smaller under the heavy blue sky, but of course you can’t wipe your face clean because of the jacket, and, if it wanted to, one of the farmer’s crows could fly out of a field and light on your head and rap out a tune, and your mind sifts through its archives and settles on one: I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood I know I could, always be good To one who’ll watch over me. Not a song she sang, no, because while someone indeed might watch her, the way you had, she would never ask someone to watch over her, not 6


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yet, and if anyone would appropriately sing those lines, after all, it would be you, wrapped like a mummy, blood pooling in your aching elbows. Of course, where no one is willing to watch over you, an institution will, which is something she could have said, and is what will happen to you now. She had asked that day you met why you were 4-F, and you’d told her “instability,” which was the army’s word for “insanity,” though really it was the family doctor’s report your mother had sent with you that was the chief factor, and the way you couldn’t stop gripping your hair when the army’s doctor talked to you, and he said he would let you in if it was up to him, but the family doctor’s report trumped his card, and there were plenty of men to fight and the war would be over soon any way, he was sure. That day she had said you looked like someone who had fought in the war, you had asked, smiling slightly, “What does someone who’s fought in the war look like?” and she’d gazed at you for several seconds from the depth of those dark eyes, and you felt transfixed in your receding smile until she said, “Like you.” She reached over and touched the knee you’d been squeezing, and said, “Do you want to spend the afternoon together?” Now, from behind the car, you hear footsteps, but it costs too much energy and pain to shift backward to look, and then a boy appears in the frame of the window, as if he were a living portrait of himself. He is perhaps twelve, yellow-haired, blue-eyed, his face grimy: a child from a magazine on country life. He peers in for several seconds before speaking. “You’re all dusty,” he says, to which you say nothing. “Why they got you in that thing?” to which you say nothing, since it’s easier to assume the role of a man strapped in a straightjacket who is either stone silent, which you had been for the entire ride, or raving. “Want me to help you get out of that?” At this you shake your head, but slowly, so the boy likely can’t tell if you’re saying no or moving about in discomfort. “I mean, it looks like a pretty tough job. But I’m good with knots. Bet I could get you out of there.” “That’s okay,” you say, your voice hoarse, and you lick the dust from your lips. The boy produces a canteen, removes the metal cap, and surprisingly holds it to your mouth where you take a couple of swallows. “That’s handy to have with you,” you say, after clearing your throat. “Thank you.” “My uncle brought it home from the war. He says it belonged to a German he killed.” 7


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“That so?” The boy looks back toward the farmhouse, squinting into the sun, sees no one, and turns back. His face is freckled along his high cheekbones that will soon re-shape his face into a young man’s. “That your dad who owns this land?” you ask. “Yeah.” The farmer and the driver have yet to reappear. “He be mad if he sees you talking to me?” “Not so much. My ma doesn’t like me talking to strangers, but she’s laid up in bed, so it’s not like she has a say. ” The boy considers your situation again. “That thing hurt?” “Yeah. Yeah, it hurts sometimes.” “You ever try to get out of it on your own?” “Like Houdini you mean?” “Who?” “Never mind. No, I’m not a magician.” “They put one of those on me I’d be trying to get out all day.” At this you look more closely at him. Rivulets of sweat trickle down from under his hair leaving dark streaks on his dusty face, which is almost pretty. “When I was your age I would’ve—.” But then you stop. “Sometimes a boy has a lot more resolve than a man.” But the boy doesn’t seem to understand this, and squints one eye and stares at you. “What they put you in that thing for anyway?” he asks again. • You’d taken the train ride together to Florida after three months of dating her, although only once had you seen her with that same group of friends from the day she’d approached you on the park bench. That time she was drinking tea with the same young woman and one of the men, and the look on her face when you approached was not one of irritation, exactly, no, and not disappointment, either, but something closer to sorrow, or embarrassment, or a blend of the two, but she had smiled her genuine smile when she’d introduced you to the other couple, and as you listened to them banter—“I’m saying someone who likes Keaton better than Chaplin doesn’t know the movies,” the man said, to which the woman said, “All I can say is Chaplin makes me laugh up here,” pointing to her 8


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neck, “and Keaton makes me laugh down here,” she said, pointing to her belly—and as you sat outside in the cooling evening, she reached over and took hold of the wrist of your hand that you suddenly realized was gripping the glass so tightly that it might shatter, and she helped you let it go and twined her fingers with yours. You’d met her father once, who had a hardy handshake, and had asked where you worked (a shipping company) and where you lived (an apartment above a diner), and he’d smiled, and looked at his daughter, and said, as if you wouldn’t be in on the joke, “I’m trying to find her a position in the Audubon Society, since she loves larks.” She’d never introduced you to her mother. The train had stopped at a station in Georgia, and something in the engine had to be repaired, so you’d left the station to walk around the town and look into a few of the shops, and she’d seen a hat she’d liked in one of the windows, and you’d offered to buy it for her, a day’s wages at ten dollars, but she said, “No, I have enough hats.” A large man had stepped in front of you along the street, and then stopped and faced you both. “You all headed down from the North?” he’d asked. “Yes,” you’d offered, “we’re on our way Florida.” “Spending a day or two in town?” the man asked. “Little honeymoon, maybe?” “No,” she said. “The train’s broken down and we’re taking a stroll through your charming little city. Now, do you mind getting out of our way?” “I’m just being sociable, ma’am,” the man had said, then looked you over head to toe and took a half-step forward, and spoke between his teeth: “What’s a white man like you doing with this Jewish girl? Don’t mind the Jews, but let ‘em stick—“ and at stick you had thrust your hands forward, into the man’s chest, and he’d stumbled back a half-step. He’d balled his fist, as if he might take a swing, then the rage passed from his face and he shook his head and laughed to himself. “Bet your train’s fixed. We work fast around here. You all better get back to the station.” You’d said almost nothing when you’d walked toward the train, though she’d insisted you walk slowly, unafraid, and when you’d taken your seats, and the conductor had re-checked your tickets, she’d taken your hand and said, “Thank you.” You’d squeezed her fingers and said, “It’s funny. I didn’t even knew you were Jewish.” She’d pulled away as if to get a better look at you. “Are you kidding? With a last name like Weinberg?” “It just never occurred to me.” “You’re not telling me that it somehow matters to you now, are you?” “Of course not. Why would it matter if it never 9


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even occurred to me?” She’d then settled in next to you, and when you’d arrived in Florida, and she took the key from her purse that would open her father’s small vacation house along the beach, she’d said, “I almost wish we were checking into a hotel. We could register as husband and wife,” and you’d gone inside and made love, and afterward, lying next to you, she was tracing her fingernails lightly across your chest, and she said, “It’s funny. When you make love. It seems like then you’re most in your face.” “What do you mean?” ‘It’s just that other times, you’re not all the way present. You’re thinking about something else. Or someone else.” “I’m never thinking about someone else when I’m with you.” “I know that.” And then the question and its answer appeared like letters across your mind: “We’re never going to register as husband and wife, are we?” you asked, and she said, “No.” And then, “I don’t think so. I don’t know how much I believe in marriage in any case.” Then, after a minute, “Want to take a walk on the beach?” • The boy is still squinting in at you, waiting for an answer. “They think I’m going to hurt myself.” You look back to the farmhouse, but the driver and the farmer have yet to reappear. The wind through the corn makes the tassels wave in accompaniment to the continued flapping of the sleeves. “Are you?” the boy asks. “Not the way they say. If your father tells you I was gonna punch myself, or something of that nature, you can know that isn’t true.” “What did you do, then?” You clear your throat, and hesitate. “I tried to kill myself.” You expect the boy to look at you like, well, you’re crazy, but he doesn’t. He keeps his steady gaze on you. “Why’d you do that?” “Long story.” “How’d you try to do it?” “Cutting myself. Cutting my wrists.” The boy winces, and looks at his own wrists, then says, “That’s gotta hurt.”

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“Some say it doesn’t. People who’ve tried it. But let me tell you, it sure as hell does.” The boy looks back at the farmhouse, but still no one has appeared. He reaches into the pocket of his pants and pulls out a small harmonica. He runs his mouth across it and plays a fast scale. “Got this for my birthday last week. Last summer, we went to a fair in town, and there was a man there that didn’t have any arms. They put this tiny harmonica in his mouth and he played Yankee Doodle as sweet as you please. Wanted one ever since, and I got one last week for my birthday. Wanna play?” Despite everything, you smile. The boy doesn’t seem to have a mean bone. “I’m not gonna be able to play like the fellow at the fair.” “I know that.” Then he reaches into the car and holds the harmonica to your lips, and you blow out once, producing a long note, then breathe in once, changing its pitch. The boy grins and squints again through one eye. ‘That ain’t half bad,” he says. You smile again. “Don’t worry. They’re not gonna keep me in this jacket forever.” “How do you know?” You look at the boy then, whose grin has vanished, and he continues to look steadily into your eyes for a long moment, and then slowly raises the harmonica to your lips and you play another note or two. “I think my dad thinks about it,” the boy says. “Thinks about what?” “Killing his self. I think he’s thought about it.” The boy looks back to the house again. Three crows soar high in the distance in the wind. “Why do you say that?” The boy looks down at his feet, then off toward the horizon. “The way he looks at my Ma when she’s real sick. And she’s real sick a lot. Or when we can’t make enough money on the farm. He thinks about giving up.” “You can tell that just by the look on his face, huh?” “Yeah.” “I don’t think you’re reading it right. He’s probably just sad and scared. He’s got a growing boy to look after no matter what.” 11


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The boy nods vaguely, though otherwise seems not to have heard. “So what’s the long story?” “The long story?” “The long story of why you tried to kill yourself.” •

On the beach, she’d told the joke after you’d said you thought you were losing your mind, after you’d abstractly considered strangling her because of what she’d confirmed in bed that you’d already known, which was then over-laced with the under-song of suicide, a force that to you had always seemed companionable, in the way it rose like a fog that immediately and contradictorily clarified the facts of your life to the point they were coated in chrome--I am a man, I am a man with a brother who keeps his distance, I am a man with nerves and eccentricities, I am a man worthy of only maternal love--a force that was reflected in the eyes of others when they lit on you in sympathy, or curiosity, or when your mother told you years ago, “I’m sorry, dear, but I think people may always see you as a little—just a little—strange. That doesn’t mean some girl won’t love you.” On the beach, she’d told you the joke, and then said, “Let go,” and for a while, there on the beach, you had, where you watched the pelicans dive head-first into the water, pursued by the gulls looking to pick leftovers from the sac of the pelicans’ mouths when they tipped their heads back and swallowed down the fish, where you saw a group of five or six ibis poke their curved beaks into the pinking sand, and where she spotted a dolphin out in the surf, and said, “Look! A shark!”, and you‘d said, “That’s a dolphin, dear.” “No, look at the fin!” And you’d said, “Look at the way it moves up and out of the water, almost like it’s bounding. It’s a dolphin,” and you’d stood in the receding light and watched till the dolphin disappeared and the waves went violet with the purple sky. Back in the house, you’d made love again, and afterwards, her head on your shoulder, she’d said, “Now I saw you three times today,” and you’d asked, “Only three times?” “You know what I mean.” “No, really, I don’t.” “I mean the person you are under all that worrying you do, you know? All that remoteness. Once was when we made love, like I said. But another time was when you pushed that man in the chest. You weren’t thinking about the consequences, or what it meant. You didn’t look tense. 12


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You just looked angry. On the train after that, you seemed so peaceful.” “So you’re saying every now and then I should just go up to a man on the street and give him a good shove?” She didn’t laugh at this, but instead, said, “And then the third time was tonight. On the beach. Your face was golden.” “It was sunset.” “No, I don’t mean that. You were in your body. Like when we make love, only not excited. You were at ease. Like the ocean and the waves and the birds helped you relax. You were watching the sun sink into the waves. You were still. Did you know you were crying?” “What? I was not crying.” “You were. There were tears on your face.” “There were not.” “Yes, there were. It’s amazing you didn’t even notice.” Absently, you lifted your fingers and dabbed your dry cheeks. “It was so beautiful out there,” you said. And she said, “But it’s always beautiful out there.” You laughed at this. “When you say that I remember how much younger you are.” “It’s always beautiful out there,” she repeated. “My age has nothing to do with it.” So you asked, “When the man stopped us in the street. The Klansman. Was that beautiful out there?” She said nothing, but moved off your shoulder. “Not everyone in that town was like him. And what you did to defend me was beautiful.” For a while, she lay quietly. Then she said, “On the beach tonight, I thought I could love you.” She hadn’t intended that to be stinging. “But you never thought you could marry me,” you said. “No. To marry someone you should love them first, don’t you think? And I told you I’m not getting married.” “Yes, I heard you.” Your chest ached. “It’s nice to think we could stay forever on that beach. Isn’t it?” But at this she only nodded. • “I thought it was over a woman,” you say to the boy. The farmer and the driver were still behind the house, and you couldn’t understand what was taking them so long. “That your jacket?” you ask the boy, and he puts his hands on his chest and looks down to check what he’s wearing. “No, I mean the one on the line. It’s going to fly away in this wind.” “No it won’t. I pinned it on there good.” “Doing the family laundry?” “Ma folds it and puts it away.” You nod at him as he looks back at you, still considering the way your arms are bound. 13


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“So it wasn’t over a woman then?” “No, I don’t think it was.” “So what’s the reason then?” “That’s hard to explain to a boy.” “Just turned thirteen, mister.” And he stood tall with his hands on his waist before peering into the window again. “Okay. But it’s hard to explain to anyone. I didn’t try it just because I was sad.” The boy looked back over his shoulder to check for his father. “But you got your heart broke, right?” “I guess. I’m not even sure I loved her, to tell you the truth.” “And then you tried to kill yourself.” “It was a while after that.” “How long?” “A year or so.” ‘Why’d you want to do it then?” “Like I said. It’s hard to explain. I thought about it from time to time my whole life.” “Even when you were just a boy?” He looked disbelieving. “Sometimes. Not so much back then.” “Why’d you decide to try it that day of all the other days, then?” “That’s the thing. I couldn’t tell you. I was sitting at the place I met her. A park bench in the city where I used to read. I didn’t go there because I missed her, or anything like that. But it was the same place, so that’s what I told them when they asked for the reason. I thought of her when I first woke up that day, but that was true most days. There was something about sitting on that bench watching those people. Walking by like they do. Two pretty girls, dressed prettily the way they do now. You can see their legs. You ever been to the city?” “Not much. Just once. Wasn’t looking at girls then, though.” “Not then,” you say, suggesting that now it would be otherwise, and the boy smiles. “No, you wouldn’t have been. But that’s not the point. They were walking by like they do. The men, too. A couple of mothers towing their kids. A soldier came by with his dog, who sniffed at my ankles like he might piss. The dog I mean, not the soldier. Sorry about the cursing.” “I say the word ‘piss.’” 14


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“Alright then. The people in pairs, you could hear them talking as they pass. A girl saying to another, ‘Oh, him and his fancy car. Like I’d take a ride with him because he spent his last dime on a car?’ The way their voices kind of get louder as they approach then fade, change in pitch a little bit, like a train whistle. You ever hear a train whistle do that?” “A course I have.” “They got that all figured out now. The way sound moves on waves, then sort of washes over you and moves on.” “We still don’t have a radio.” The boy puckered his mouth, as if this were a mild outrage. “That’s a shame. You’re missing some good music.” “So the girls were talking? And that’s what got to you? ” “No. Not just the girls. A couple of fellows, too. They came by. One was talking about the horse races. And the other said, ‘Better off putting your money in stocks.’ And the other said, ‘Not until stocks grow four legs and a mane and a coat that shines in the sun.’ I thought that was poetic at the time. “ “And then a dog pissed on your ankles?” “No, he didn’t piss. He sniffed around like he was going to. Then his owner pulled him by the leash and said, ‘Come along, Lulu. Come along. Sorry, sir. Come along.’ And it was then when I was watching the dog walk away. Tail up in the air, wagging, excited to be out in the park. And I felt—“ but you don’t say the word lonely because it wasn’t what you were feeling. It was not your own loneliness. It was the girls’ who were out walking in their new clothes, and the fellows’ talking about horses, and the man saying “Come along, Lulu,” and even the dog, its ass visible below its wagging tail, and it was not that they were lonely, really, any more than a tree is alone, or the shirts on the line, but more in the way a tree stands a long time after it dies, and fills up with birds and insects and squirrels and other living things till it disappears piece by piece on into forever, or the way a shirt is outgrown then handed down, at least for those who can’t afford to buy new ones, and how another body wears it, then another, until it’s threadbare and useless as a shirt, and maybe someone dusts with it a few times until its threads separate, and disintegrate, and that’s when her face returned to you from memory, the way her childhood returned to her face that time she’d said, “Look! Look! A shark!”, and how the child had then left her face, and the dolphin that was the shark would die and 15


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loll over on the ocean bottom, eaten or disintegrating in the salt water, disintegrating like the child in her face, or eventually her memory of childhood, or the way that her face in the year that had passed since you’d seen her must have certainly changed on its way to actual disintegration, the way your own had certainly changed on its way, the way your mother’s changed when she looked out the backdoor screen, and asked, “Why won’t your brother visit?” and your father, who looked just like him, saying, “He’s a grown man,” and that day you’d left the park and gone back to your apartment and didn’t think at all, but heard in your head the words, “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.” And now you’re saying to the boy, “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.” He looks at you very seriously. “If it don’t matter, why d’you keep saying it?” “To remind myself.” “Okay. Then why you crying then?” “I’m not crying. “ “You are crying. There’s tears on your face.” And the boy lifts his finger to your cheek and wipes it and shows the water on your finger. He looks at it himself. ‘I’m getting you outta there,” he says. • You did not need the station at the end of the long train ride home to serve as a symbol of things coming to an end. She had been distantly friendly as you’d traveled back, commenting on things she’d seen out the window, taking your hand once as you’d crossed over a river, but then inexplicably letting it go once you’d crossed, and when you neared the city, you’d opened your eyes to find her looking at you, her head turned slightly sideways, and she looked even younger than she was, in the way that the late afternoon sun sliced through the windows and shone on her face, the way it seemed to you that light was drawn to a place on the faces of the young, somewhere over the brows and nose and cheeks, and radiated outward, and how that dissipated as people grew older, as if light were a lover losing interest, because, after all, she was a lover losing interest. She asked, out of the blue, “Have you been with many women before me?” “Why are 16


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you asking that?” “I was just wondering, sitting here watching you sleep.” ‘I see. Not many, no, not really.” You had not been sleeping. “Any?” she asked. There was the girl you’d fallen in love with before you were eighteen, whom you’d kissed and swam with over the long days of one summer, but that was before your own peculiarities (or hers) had taken root, and so you seemed then only remotely the man you were becoming. “No,” you lied, ‘You’re the only one,” at which she smiled as if she were honored, but her shoulders drooped noticeably, and when she turned back to look out the window, the shadows of the buildings of the city as you approached the station flashed over her in a way that made it seem like she was moving rather than the train. She would have trouble extricating herself, as good people often do; she would keep your dates when you made them, but shorten their duration, and increasingly, when you met, it would be with other people, and finally you were more a satellite of a group than her lover, and you’d stopped coming around. She’d rung once to ask where you’d been, but you told her you’d been told to work different hours, and she hadn’t called again. In time, it occurred to you that you were thinking of her not because you missed her but more because nothing had presented itself to fill whatever space she’d taken up, until you realized that gradually the city itself was working its way inside, along with the people in it, and she became fixed there along with everything else, as if she were in a painting of a downtown street, only the painting was moving in its frame, or rather the people in the painting were moving, but only walking in place, swinging out the same arm to catch the same street car, shifting the same package to another arm, checking the same watch where the second hand moved but it remained eleven a.m., and she was turning to say something to a woman who was walking next to her in the street—He’s making a speech at the train station. Let’s go!—He’s making a speech at the train station. Let’s go!—and you understood how no one, least of all her, could take this time and place and painting and exchange it for the attention of only one man confined in it, even if everything in that time and place would never move forward until someone broke the picture frame , which you did not have the power to do.

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The boy yanks open the car door, and climbs on the seat next to you, and begins to pull at the buckles and straps. “You gotta lean forward,” he says. “I can’t get at it unless you lean forward.” “No,” you say, shifting your head and shoulders away from his hands. “You can’t do this, kid. You’ll get yourself in trouble.” He sat back on his knees and stares into your face. “Look at yourself. You wanna talk about trouble?” “Your father will be angry. I don’t want you to help me, you hear?” “That’s a lie!” he says, and he yanks hard at one of the straps, and it hurts, but you don’t make a sound. “We gotta get you out of here. It ain’t right.” But then a hand reaches into the backseat, and grabs the boy by the collar, and drags him out. The farmer turns the boy around and holds him tightly by the shoulders and glares down at him. “What the hell do you you’re doing, son?” “That man don’t belong in that jacket!” ‘It’s not our business, boy.” “That jacket ain’t right, Pa.” “It’s not our business, I’m telling you.” “Maybe it ain’t your business, but it is mine.” Then the man’s hand comes off the shoulder, cocks back halfway and strikes the boy, nearly knocking him off of his feet, except the farmer grabs the boy’s sleeve with his other hand and holds him up, then takes his index finger almost to his nose, which is reddening with the blow. “How do you know that man might not get free and murder you? You’re thirteen years old. You don’t know a damn thing. Now go on and get out of here and take that laundry down and up to your mother for folding. Then I need you back in the fields.” He releases the boy, who simultaneously pulls away and then disappears from your sight, and then you see the driver lifting the pail of water from the ground to carry it over to the car engine. The farmer looks into the backseat where you sit and tries to look into your eyes, but can’t seem to get past the jacket, and he has the aspect of a man who wishes he were much further away so he could discretely take you in. “I hope my boy didn’t hurt you any,” he says to you. “He’s a growing boy. He has his own sense of things, but he’s not old enough—“ Then the boy, behind them, a distance away, shouts, “It ain’t right!” and the farmer sees that you’re not listening to him any way, that you’re sitting 18


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as if you’re deaf and dumb, that you’re staring out the front window at the propped hood of the car behind which you can here the gurgle of water entering the radiator, and the farmer says as if to no one in particular, “Well, I’m sorry,” and eases away from the car and looks back for the boy, who, farther away now, yells again, “It ain’t right!” The driver lowers the hood of the car and lifts the empty pail with one hand and takes the hand of the farmer with another. “I hope he didn’t hurt him any,” the farmer says to the driver. The driver looks back at you. “He’s sweating a little, but he doesn’t look any worse for the wear. We weren’t gone fifteen minutes.” “The boy was just curious. He walked away from his chores.” “Well don’t be too hard on him. And thank your wife for the glass of lemonade. I’m much obliged to you.” They shake hands again, and the driver climbs back into the car, and starts the engine, and you think you hear the voice of the boy again, but it may be the wind or the tires on the gravel, and you’d like to turn and see, but because the boy had yanked on the strap, if anything, it has bound you tighter, and it hurts to try to move at all. Out the windshield, as the car approaches it, a crow is pecking at something in the road, and it rises suddenly to avoid getting hit, and drops whatever it has in its beak, and when you follow that morsel down to the ground, it’s then you see the harmonica, the boy’s harmonica, sitting on the floorboard of the back seat, where it must have fallen out of his pocket when he was pulling at the straps and buckles, trying to set you free. You shake your head because you know he’s going to miss it, and the driver glances at you in the rearview. The harmonica vibrates with the wheels going over the road, dancing back and forth an inch or two when you go over rough pavement, as if it were filled with music it might play if the wind struck it just right, or if someone would pick it up and blow. When the car hits a dip in the road, it flips in the air, turns over and glimmers in the sun. #

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The Shape of Emptiness Tom Holmes

She rolls the moon down a city hill, over trilling street lamps. The moon rolls, full moon, half moon, new moon, no moon. She’s lost control tonight. The streets empty like the inside of her elbow. A gentle illness fills the sky.

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Waiting for Bardot Christine Estima

4:00 PM When I see her sitting at the table by the window, I think it’s you. You used to love Collette’s Café. You would order iced coffee (even though they charged you $3.57 for a small glass) because they’d serve it with sweet almond milk. I dash inside. The door chime echoes like a bad dream. The place is as empty as the drawer I gave you in my closet. She looks up at me from her book. She’s not drinking iced coffee. I walk up to her. “Hi,” I say without planning a follow-up. She smiles. “Hello.” “What are you reading?” She lifts up the front cover. It’s a Michel Houellebecq book with a picture of a girl’s backside under the title. “Have you read it?” she asks. She’s not you, just an optical illusion. She’s wearing a thinlybrimmed hat and a sundress with an empire waist. She has silver rings on each finger, like they hold her joints in place. One ring must be brass because it’s turning her finger green. There are a pile of empty Sweet n’ Low packets next to her spoon. She’s modest, like she’s a litigator’s daughter but wants you to believe she’s a plumber’s daughter. “Of course I’ve read it,” I say. I have never read Houellebecq in my life. But she’s close enough to be you. I could pretend for a bit. There’s a glimmer of you in her complexion. “What’s your name?” She places a bookmark between the pages that are already dog-eared. She looks at me the same way you did at The Pine Box the night we met. Like Superman could fly over Brooklyn. Like stones could bleed water and the East River could swell with red. We could all get lost in each other while the city goes to shit. “My name’s Alex. Look I’m going to be straight with you. I saw you from across the street and came over just to talk with you. You look really interesting and I would like to get to know you better.” I heard that line in a movie from the 1980s, and women usually respond to such nonsense. It’s what drew you in as well. I quoted you an

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Obi Wan line, and told you it was William Makepeace Thackery. If bullshit were music, I’d be a fricken brass band. She’s open-mouthed but soundless. Her lips try to form words but she can’t decide between consonants or vowels. I might have scared her. My bleeding heart is beating at such a speed, it’s almost unbeating. Movie lines should be used sparingly because they tend to make one tightrope walk over a long fishing wire. She’s not required to nibble at my bit. Just because you were good-humored about it doesn’t mean she will as well. She finally says, “My name’s Siobhan.” I can tell she debated giving me a fake name. I wonder which side won out. So I ask her if I can call her by your name. Have you ever been slapped with a Houellebecq before? All I could see was a cover-page-bum T-boning me. The pages are hot and shearing. I leave before she gives Houellebecq the opportunity to dickwhip me. • 6:00 PM I’m walking up Union and I think I see you inside Barcade, sitting at the end of the long bar. Can’t quite tell because the dusk-sun is glinting off the small snifters like warrior spearheads. Gin and tonic douchetards meander annoyingly in front of you, blocking my view. I head inside, squeezing through a hen party and jersey boys, keeping my eyes on you as I near closer, almost certain it’s you as I bow and kiss whoever is sitting there. That slice of recklessness is delicious. I can tell by her soft upper lip and taste of foul Caesars that she’s not you. She doesn’t push me away though. She stiffens at first, probably by the surprise, but she relaxes quickly, grazing her chin against mine. She holds onto my forearm and squeezes. I haven’t been held by a woman in so long, not since you last let me rest my head against your chest as we slept. You stroked my hair as your breast lolled out of your bra; the green bra that had a run along the seam but you loved it because it “accentuated the positive.” Kissing her, I feel envious of the dead whose ardor is muted as they dissolve into salt and topsoil. Being held in a woman’s soft arms 23


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should be the goal of every man, and I feel like she might suffice even if she’s not like you at all. I withdraw my lips from hers. Gold spikes forth from her eyes, dark like ink-dripping tentacles. Reality comes on too quickly like the dawn, full of noise and colour. She’s mine, I can tell. The same way you submitted to me that night at the phone booth outside The Pine Box, where you handed me your card and let your fingers slide along mine longer than one normally would. Your painted nails looked like 4th of July fireworks against alabaster. When I leaned in to kiss you, you said, “Don’t get cute.” Face to face with your lookalike, all of Barcade is now in a hush over my absurdity. “Sorry, I thought you were someone else,” I say, backing away like I triggered a car alarm. My hands shake; a saccharine overload has shrapnelled my veins. If she told me to go fuck myself, I might just give it a shot. “Who did you think I was?” “My name’s Alex,” I ignore her question. “Carlotta,” she says like she wishes it wasn’t. So I ask her as politely as possible if I can call her by your name. A cold Caesar with celery splashes my face, and Barcade erupts in applause as I stumble back outside, hightailing it up Union Avenue. • 10:00 PM Third Ward on Morgan Avenue is challenging the limits of my eardrums. An electro-clash fusion DJ spins beats around the upstairs loft; the men wear “Jorts” and scruffy beards, the women wear loose tanks and clunky jewelry. This is where hipsters go to die. People’s voices fight to rise higher than the throbbing bass and vinyl scratch. I wander through the sweaty crowd and I think I see you fiddling with the smoke alarm above your head. You used to smoke Gitanes but then switched to Dunhill Internationals. New York has a smoking ban, and you seem to be protesting this infringement. You’re only using one hand, and as I step closer, I see you have the other arm in a sling.

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Your back is to me as I approach. Upon closer inspection, she’s not you, but she’s close. She’s a little grimier then you are. Her body looks like it wasn’t cut out for all the wear and tear but she’s surviving by hook or by crook. Her cast says, “Get well, Geraldine” plus a host of yearbookesque quotes and profanities one might expect from a rebellious adolescent. First comes acne, then comes anarchy. Right as I reach to tap her on the shoulder, she pivots and elbows me right in the babymaker; a cast made of cast iron. Luckily my soprano yelp is swallowed by the music of Justice and M83. “ARE YOU OK?” she yells. “WHAT?!” “ARE YOU O-KAAYY?” “NO I’M NOT GAY, THIS IS JUST A TIGHT SHIRT.” “WHAT?!” “THIS IS JUST A TIGHT SHIRT!” “YOU’RE HURT?” I just can’t understand her. There’s a window just over her right shoulder, fogged from the steam of all the bodies gyrating to the music, trying to shake off their genitals at worst, or merge them at best. I motion to the window, and extend my finger into the condensation. “H-e-l-l-o.” She eyes my finger like a drunkard eyes a straight line. She’s willing to play along if only to kill the curious-cat. She extends her good arm, finger tracing her words slowly through the fog. “S-o-r-r-y!” “D-i-d y-o-u f-a-l-l?” I point to her sling. “S-h-a-r-k a-t-t-a-c-k.” She giggles. Geraldine is pretty the way an obese woman who has lost 150lbs is pretty – like a skin-sunken misanthrope forcing herself to make nice. She smiles at me like she hates me. “D-a-n-c-e?” I write. She shakes her head and points down. I now notice her ankle in a brace. Through the gauze of the frenzied crowd and laser beams, I hadn’t noticed her eyebrow scratches. And a scab on her neck. And the yellowmottled-green bruise almost healed on her shoulder with the purple line running through it. Basically her face looks like it is being reflected in the back of a spoon.

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Someone worked her over. Or perhaps this was an S & M mishap. The latter is a jollier prospect than the former. I will pretend that she’s kinkier than your hair was after a rainfall. My excess of liberal guilt won’t allow me to seduce a victim. Still, the night is starting to grate on me. She is probably the closest to you I will find in these dying hours. I need to make this move. “I-m A-l-e-x.” “G-e-r-i.” So I write out my question like footprints in the snow, the one thing I need her to say yes to. Unlike the other girls, Geri might suspend her self-respect just long enough to let me call her your name. She rereads my foggy letters on the window twice before grabbing my hand and leading me away. Has this worked? Cripes, it has. I may have found the perfect substitute. She stops at the next foggy window pane, as we had filled the last one. She writes it out in crisp large letters that drip down the pane like horror movie blood. “N-O.” Before she hobbles away on her good leg, she flicks her wet fingers into my eyes. • 1:00 AM I hail a cab. I can’t be bothered taking the L train. I don’t actually want to go back home. What I wanted was to insincerely fumble around in bed with some colossally-insecure random, and shoot my load like a Tommy gun. I’d call out your name and she wouldn’t mind. Then when she fell asleep, I would quietly slip out into the night, never to see her again. And I would feel better. Instead, I’m in a cab racing up Scholes, which really is the long way back. I could tell the driver that I know a better route, but when I bend my neck, I catch your scent. The canvas seatbelt across my shoulder smells like your lip gloss and shampoo. When we would kiss, I would tongue the inside of your molars and the underbelly of your gums, trying to capture every exploding molecule before you gulped for air.

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Where are you tonight? Maybe you were in this cab earlier tonight. And maybe you were bar hopping across Brooklyn too, looking for someone just like me who could duplicate all my lovely qualities. All the men you met were similar to me, but you just couldn’t pretend they were me. Because you discovered all those substitute-Alex’s were Sparrow eggs, cracking as they fell to the ground. They were dead inside. This cab is stuck in the traffic-clusterfuck of Bushwick Avenue, but I keep my short cuts to myself. I bring your seatbelt over my face and with one eye free, stare out at the city. It’s assembly-lining past. I pretend the seatbelt is your green bra. Maybe none of your substitutes actually looked like you. Maybe I am forgetting your face, even though I really don’t want to. It’s the reason why I stay in Brooklyn. It’s also the reason why I’ll need to leave. Not because I hold on too long, but because I hold out. The cabbie turns from Bogart onto Grattan and I’m beginning to wonder if I made you up in my head. But as we drive by The Pine Box, I see you inside the phone booth, just like the night we met. Holler at my driver. Screeeeech. Halt. I shove a tenner through the plastic money slot. Whip your belt off my shoulder. Door slam. I run up to the booth, my white Chucks slapping against the dewwet sidewalk. There’s a hammer-man in my lungs, and a stitch tightening my chest. I can feel your presence again all the way down to my toes. I press my face against the glass. Your dark hair and olive skin reflect the obnoxious booth light. Your jeans curve up your hips like the lunar crescent. You shift and I look straight into your face like it was the first time. And like it was the last time. But once again, it’s not you. It’s your younger sister on the phone. I haven’t seen her since a month before we broke up. Dinner at your parents where she played with her mashed potatoes and ate her peas individually on the ends of the tines. She was only younger than you by one year, but she played her youth like she was doubling-down. She would rub her foot against mine under the table, then lift her eyes to see how I reacted. “Dude, enough!” she screams into the payphone receiver. “I’m not going to be that person for you, just because you’re lonely.” I stand outside the payphone doors. She sees me and her eyes register. Locked with recognition. But she doesn’t light up like I’d hoped. 27


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“Wah wah wah!” she mocks on the line and slams it down. She breathes, pushes out the doors and looks entirely unsurprised to see me. Am I expected? “Hello Alex,” she says, reaching into her pockets, fumbling with change. “Are you okay?” I ask. “I’m fine.” “Who was that?” “My ex.” “Do you want to talk about it?” “Not much to tell. We dated, and after a year, he still couldn’t spell my name right.” Your sister shuffles her feet and averts her eyes. She’s close. No one could get much closer to looking like you than her. “Are you on your own?” I ask. She looks up to meet my eyes. “It seems we both are.” She’s right, we’re both alone and looking for someone else tonight. Perhaps she’ll understand. I step closer to her. Closer than ordinary chit-chat dictates. She doesn’t step back. She juts her chin and holds my eyes. I lean in and twirl a lock of her hair away from her face. “Just so you know,” I say, “I’m an excellent speller.” Her forehead softens, and her lips break free. I lean in and kiss her. Your sister burns like coal, five-alarming her way through my body. She doesn’t taste like you but she’s a step up from the seatbelt. When I pull away, a thin line of saliva between us snaps in the balmy night. She lifts on her tip toes for another kiss. “Wait,” I stop. “Can I call you Brigitte?” I say your name. I hope this is the last time I have to ask this question tonight. She opens her mouth as if she’s holding your name between her teeth, halfway between grinding and mashing. I am waiting for her wind her shoulder back and give me a swift upper cut. “Alex,” she says. “Yes?” I squeeze one eye shut and stiffen. As Superman flies over Brooklyn, she wraps her arms around my neck, settling into me like an anchor, “You can call me whatever you like.”

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Juan Rollace Undergraduate Poetry Prize

Our Mothers’ Hands Thiahera Nurse

All of the women in this family have had The same hands since the island made home out of The ocean, like a Black girl settling into the sea of her own hips These hands I have are heirloom, cracked out of the Aged sand of my grandmother’s coco-payol skin In the darkest room, we will always find one another If we listen to the call and response Our palms make of this inheritance. My mother gave birth to me in Queens, NY A city with so many immigrants, it was as if she’d never left home Down the block at the bodega, she could buy Sweet plantains, geera, coconut milk for stew, She could still use the recipes her mother’s hands Passed down to her hands, too. I am an around the way girl off Hollis and 195th street. The kind of girl that wears earrings as heavy as her mother’s accent, Learned to double-dutch with telephone wire When there was no rope because we were too poor, But too resourceful to give up. When the streetlights come on, my mother yells Out of her bedroom window. Her voice, a high sing-songy shrill, A steel pan pouring out of her throat Thia-hee-rahhh put dong di rope an’ help wit’ dis food.

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My hands stop turning the rope and I am in the kitchen Burning sugar to prepare meat, watching my mother Taste and season everything twice over. I lick my fingers, and reach for a spoon to stir rice. Stop di nasty behavior. Only dem American does Lick dey hand and go back into di pot. Wherever yuh Pick dat nonsense up, drop it. My mother thinks all of the bad habits I have Come from me being born in America. A place so full of smog and winter, it could never be as sweet as Trinidad. A country so cruel, its hands could gut an accent from a lung. They could steal a daughter, and make her forget that the island is her home too.

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Lies

John C. Bennett Low they settle like stones at the bottom of the fog-pond near home, don’t snowball as some say, but simmer in summer, call to me on some laundry Sunday to become better acquainted after eloping years ago with victims. My brother, the broken lamp, marker on the wall, who started it. They nestle in his New York apartment beneath a scratched jazz record and the unpaid electric bill. Others sleep near old friends, though most with the women I loved. Each own jam jars full of gravel: some small and awkward, some unending, phantom things without envy or embassy. I love them like abandoned children spread throughout a nation. I wait for them to find me surprised at home. Jake Marshall told me not to throw rocks 31


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at our school. When the window burst, the teacher bled from her head and I sifted the story to the Principal of pleading with Jake as he crow-hopped toward the union. It must follow Jake like an off-key hum some days, when Mrs. Davidson lifts her finger like a needle to the bald scar in the middle of her scalp, feeling the groove for the tune to remember.

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The Ocean Does Not Need Listening Matthew Fee

It is the wash of this aimless shore. Why does no one listen to radio? Most souls are radios. Not like that wishbone in the yard. I hear the buzz. Buzz. Most giraffes are very tall, relative to humans, open dancers falling into a puddle. Your father was a metaphor for a kite. The kite was a metaphor for nothing. Finally we will give up about narrative, some uselessness and dance. A prayer is not a xylophone, but the color purple is a real color. This is a poem about crayons. This is a crayon, and it is purple. Spicer likes baseball, but I find the uniforms relatively unattractive. The analysis of his lungs revealed little about his personal life. Please do not walk on the grass. Seaweed merely prevents gardening. A deer hit us, or we hit the deer. I look down at my compass. For you I would build a universe, but for now, please accept this shovel.

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In the Dream You Circumcise Me Matthew Fee

Sometimes they tell me to roar louder. Even before I look at the newspaper, I open my refrigerator. Have there been any disasters lately? Words meaning to buzz, to absentmindedly tickle. Oars in the sand. For I so loved the world, that I hid under my bed. Pick out the one that belongs in the ocean. Undust your fans. Triceratops is the word I was looking for, but that is not the right word. When you entered the room, I camouflaged my heart into a fingernail. The disguise was mostly transparent. Even the billboards were talking about their feelings.

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El Cenote

Jennifer Kelly The casita gave me no room to hide. Not even a bathroom. The tile floor was coated with sand that clung to my feet and harbored tiny, biting fleas. There was no ceiling, just the underside of red clay roof tiles that certainly would leak if it ever bothered to rain. The furniture was roughly hewn by someone who had yet to master the wonders of measurement. The chairs and table teetered on their mismatched legs, threatening to overturn the lit kerosene lamp. Pearls of sap oozed from the cheap pine and stuck to my calves. The mosquito netting on the bed was torn to the point of being laughable and a rusted barrel for collecting whatever rain did manage to fall clearly hadn’t seen much action lately. Empty five-gallon plastic jugs were piled by the door. My sister Rita lugged them home from the boutique resort where she and her boyfriend worked. Along with ice for the cooler. No wonder the muscles in her back had become over-developed since I last saw her. As she carried my suitcase and squeezed Juarez and lifted her bottle of beer for a swig, the bird tattooed on her shoulder blade shimmied and strutted. Rita had inherited our mother’s curves and even at thirty-two showed no signs of drooping. I had gotten tall, instead, like our father, with all his boney angles. When I caught a flash of myself in some surprise mirror, I couldn’t hide from the fact that my elbows and hips and knees poked out of my skin like a poorly-staked tent. But not Rita. Rita was still as buoyant as a teenager. We were twins, but never had two such different creatures shared a womb. 36


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I couldn’t decide whether this new life of Rita’s was charming and rustic or repulsive and deranged. Both were true in their way. I knew that the story I would tell to Richard and everyone else back home depended on how the rest of the trip unfolded. Whether Rita and I would -- or would not -- gel this time around. Our relationship had become an infuriatingly unpredictable chemical reaction. Rita popped another limp tortilla chip into her mouth and took a gulp of warm Corona. Apparently, no one had found the time to bring home a new block of ice in honor of my arrival. “Underground rivers,” I said, echoing Rita’s proclamation but without any of her enthusiasm. “Hard to fathom.” I brushed sand from my feet for the nth time that hour. “That’s what’s so awesome,” said Rita. “They’re magical. Wait until you see. It’ll blow your mind. Trust me.” And though I didn’t want to, I did, in fact, trust her. Not to keep me safe – no guarantees there -- but to impress me. Rita’s schemes never did fail to astound, though they might also bring you unacceptably close to death and jail, sometimes both at the same time. Still, I always hated to disappoint her. Not when she was so pumped up. Not when she would be so crestfallen if I proved impenetrable to her persuasive powers. Juarez, who evidently only had the one name, had been stretched out on the bed this whole time, vacating his throne only long enough to shake my hand and scratch his bare belly like a puppy with mange. Not exactly what I had imagined as Rita’s Mexican lover. Now he said in his accented, tour-guide lilt, “Cenotes are holy, Billie.” Bee-Lee. “The word cenote means sacred well. They are entrances to the underworld. Mayans throw sacrifices into them to please the gods.” He paused to let this bit of exotic information do its work. If he expected me to be a gap-mouthed tourist, he would have a long wait. The underworld. Seriously? “Do you consider yourself Mayan, Juarez?” I asked. “No. Perhaps a little in my – how do you say? – in my soul.” “In your soul? Well then.” I scratched my ankles. The itch was astounding. Juarez didn’t let up. I’ll give him that. He said, “A few years ago, I brought some scientists to a few cenotes deep inland that my father used to take me to when I was a little kid. He always said there were fantasmas there. 37


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They found jade and gold in one of the cenotes. A skull even.” If only it were as easy as this. Pray to the right god. Offer the right treasure. Wish granted. There was a foolish time when I had believed that justice and hard work always prevailed. That was before the vacant ultrasounds, the tang of rubbing alcohol on my abdomen and the relentless needles. Before I endured the hushed decorum of specialists’ waiting rooms and Richard’s hand rubbing my shoulder raw with his impotent consoling. Now I know that bad things happen even to conscientious people. And even the least deserving can get lucky. “Whatever,” said Rita, clearly done with Juarez and my sparring. “Sacred or not, you need to see them. I wouldn’t forgive myself if I sent you back to Richard without having done this. I won’t take no for an answer.” “You’ll have to. I’m not certified to cave dive. Forget it. I’m sticking to the reef.” I said all this as if that would matter to her. Once I started appealing to practical concerns, I had lost the battle. Rita laughed. “Certified? You think I am? It’s not that dangerous, Billie. Divers have mapped out the whole place with miles of guidelines. They put these little triangular markers on them that point to the exit. You can find your way out even in the dark. You just feel the points with your fingertips. Juarez and I have done it. Gone in and killed our lights and felt our way out. It’s easy.” “Easy, huh?” I said. “Sí,” said Juarez. “Muy fácil. At least until our little Rita got scared and turned on her light halfway back.” He winked at me. “I was just checking on you,” Rita said with the same defensive whine I used to hear daily as a teenager. I was just… “Claro. Just checking on me. I know it.” Juarez smiled at me like we were in cahoots and I smiled back, in spite of myself. “Don’t be an asshole, darling,” said Rita, joking the way she does when she is most serious. I didn’t know how long they had been a couple, but Juarez had clearly spent enough time with my sister to know her quirks. He stood up and gave his faded blue and green floral swim trunks a much-needed hitch. I hadn’t noticed before that he sported a matching bird tattoo wrapped around his left bicep. I could just picture the happy couple in some questionable parlor getting the His and Hers special. Juarez squeezed Rita’s 38


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shoulders contritely and spoke to me over her head. “At Dos Ojos, Rita makes all the Americans feel so brave. Maybe she forgets that she isn’t working now that you are here. Tomorrow let’s go to the reef. I’m leading a dive in the morning.” “I have to work,” said Rita. Words I never once thought I’d hear out of her mouth. “Come,” Juarez said to me. “While Rita works.” Rita liked talking about her job. In the past week, she had arranged camping on a deserted atoll for a retired couple from Greenwich, spear fishing for a bachelor party, a trek to Chichen Itza for a family with three teenagers who spent the entire time waiting in the Land Rover listening to suicidal music, and a visit for three businessmen to a local brothel -- although that one was clandestine. Rita said she was only the facilitator – she didn’t bother to condone or disapprove of any of these activities. She told me that her xenophobic clientele flocked to her, trusting her simply because she was American. “For some of these people, all I have to do is feed them a papaya for the first time and I’m a hero.” I laughed, but I couldn’t summon the taste of papaya from my own memory. I’m sure Richard couldn’t have, either. We’re not exotic fruit people. “They love her,” said Juarez. “Creating danger in a safe world is an art, mi amor. Don’t forget it.” • Rita and I had learned to scuba dive together in a class at our high school taught by a furry middle-aged guy who tried to convince us that the best diving in the world was in murky Buzzards Bay and that he would be happy to take us there on a private dive weekend. He’d be especially happy to take Rita. The class had been Rita’s idea, of course. Who else? Every winter afterward, when school break rolled around, it was Rita who picked which tropical resort we would go to. Our parents would stake out their territory: chaise lounges poolside, beach chairs near the ocean, or high-stools at the bar – any place where there was gin to fuel their marital bliss -- and we’d stake out ours: the reef, the dive shack, the boat. Year after year. Turks and Caicos. Bonaire. Belize. Most years, most dives, I had at least one moment 39


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of panic: convinced myself that my tank was hemorrhaging or that I was getting the bends or having an embolism or that the moray eels were hungry. Rita used to say that I had spent too much time reading the chapter of the dive handbook on risks and dangers. But I didn’t let my fear stop me from going along with her. To be her dive buddy. To see whatever she wanted to see. To have fun. Better than being with our parents, that was for certain. By the time we graduated from college, though, Rita had grown bored with coral and barracudas and schools of fish flashing mercury. Bored with us. With me. She wanted something more exhilarating. The wrecks of Bermuda. The whale sharks of the Philippines. Destinations where there wasn’t a pool for our parents to bicker beside. Sites that required overnight boat trips. Depths that required re-breather equipment. When we turned twenty-one, Rita took her half of our trust fund and went diving. I went to grad school. She’d email me from time to time. Sometimes there’d be a new job as a dive leader. Usually there’d be a new man. But by the time my exams ended or a new semester started, there’d be another email from a new locale. The latest and greatest, so much better than the one before. It was like this for a decade. Rita coming home only once or twice a year. Sometimes she’d show up for Christmas or our shared birthday in June. Within twenty-four hours, she’d track down some old boyfriend from high school to sleep with, or, easier yet, take up with whatever guy I was seeing, as if I wouldn’t mind sharing. It wasn’t malicious, hard as that may be to believe. She just couldn’t cope with our ordinary lives. Couldn’t stomach the world we had grown up in. It was all toxic to Rita. But when the memory of the previous visit faded, back she’d come like a homing pigeon. Tattooed or pierced in some new, surprising place, ready for fun. Ready to amaze us with her stories. So it was for my graduation and my wedding and even Daddy’s funeral last fall. We were all so glad to see her come and so glad, too, to see her leave. I was shocked when Rita suggested I come visit her in Mexico. Richard and I debated it over dinner. She must want something from you, he said. Or, maybe it’s a test of your loyalty. He pointed his fork at me, a grilled shrimp impaled on its tines. Maybe she thinks we’ll have fun, I said. He shrugged. The next day I booked my flight. I told Richard I needed a vacation. I told my friends that maybe I’d have a torrid affair with some sexy Mexican guy. I hinted to my mother that I might drag my wayward sis40


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ter back home to a respectable life. The truth was I wanted two weeks without having to justify to Richard how exactly I spent the twelve hours from when he left for work, his tie origami-crisp, to when he tossed his briefcase on our soapstone counters. I wanted to tell Rita about the lost babies, the last of which even Richard didn’t know about. I wanted to tell her about the endless hormone injections and the new sheets that I kept stocked in the closet, still in their hermetic plastic, ready for my next failure. Rita once had the power to make everything better, from my skinned knees to my broken pubescent heart. Shh, shh, shh, she used to coo to me. It’s all right, Owl. • Over the next few days, Rita didn’t mention cave-diving and I thought that just maybe I had dodged this one. Instead, she got excited about taking me to the market in Merida. It was, as promised, mobbed. It felt like the very ground was vibrating. Awnings teetered above carts full of tropical fruit, suspicious meat and melting ice. Vendors sold live chickens that mothers carried home upside down by the hens’ skinny feet. Their children circled nearby, sipping soda from swollen plastic bags. Fat elderly women with collapsing faces screeched at us: ¡Aquí, chiquitas! ¡Compra! The air reeked with a mix of raw fish lying in the sun and frying grease and sweat. I clenched my purse to my chest and followed close behind Rita. Rita moved through the maelstrom in a cloud of calm. She bought fruit that no one I knew would be able to identify, let alone have tasted. She named each one for me like a language tutor, making me repeat each word – tu-nas, cai-mi-to, chico-za-po-te. She stored her purchases in an oversized and garish woven plastic bag like the local matrons. At the edge of the market, she bought a riotous bunch of flowers and handed them to me with an exaggerated curtsy. “For you,” she said. “For coming.” I cradled the flowers in my arms and felt like a lost bridesmaid. We left the market and made our way across Merida’s large plaza, past dwarf trees, their trunks banded with white paint, past serpentined lovers’ benches and the pounding of a mariachi band in the corner. Scruffy children in ones and twos thrust tidy, miniature packs of gum at us. Rita bought a few and dropped them in her bag. “You’ll just encourage them,” I said. 41


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“And they’ll have money to bring home.” “It won’t help. Not with all this.” “And you would know about this because…?” A pair of children, a boy who couldn’t have been more than six and a girl with long, skinny ponytail in a wrinkled school uniform who looked to be about ten followed us from a respectable distance. “See what I mean?” I said. Rita turned toward our little fan club and said, “Hola, chicos.” The girl pulled the boy, who had to be her brother by the way he cowed at her commands, close to her side, and said nothing. “They don’t bite, Billie. They just want a few pesos.” If this cultural re-education was the deepest danger zone Rita planned to subject me to on this trip, I didn’t really have an objection. Still, I knew it was my role to act like an irritated stick-in-the-mud, so I did just that and Rita beamed at being my enlightener. We had lunch at a restaurant that Rita declared ‘authentic’ down a narrow alley. More kids patrolled the outside tables, hawking candy and trinkets, until the proprietor snarled at them and raised his broom in threat. They scattered, like pigeons, to the cordoned off edge of the seating area and squatted down in the shade of a tree to wait for their next opportunity. The brother-sister pair who had been following us stood, unnervingly, no more than five feet from our table, waiting. The boy fingered his box of postcards, weathered at the edges with pictures of the strip in Cancun that this tiny salesman surely had never seen in person. The girl watched us. I listened absentmindedly to Rita’s tall tales, but my eye kept wandering back to that girl with her blank expression. Was this what Rita wanted? A First World guilt trip for her spoiled sister? But she didn’t even seem to notice the child. I was the only one left thinking about where this girl would sleep tonight. What she would eat. If she would eat. How long it would be before she was toting her own child around this town. Behind Rita, through an open doorway to a back courtyard, I could see the proprietor’s wife shaping balls of masa into tortillas, flipping them back and forth between her palms and cooking the small pancakes on a wide clay platter over an open fire. Her daughter, no more than twelve, knelt beside her grinding the corn meal in a mortar and pestle. It was hot work on a hot day and their dark hair fell in limp strands from their braids. Beneath Rita’s chatter, I could hear the slap-slap of the woman’s hands against the 42


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dough and the dough thrown against the hot pan. The boastful, ingratiating proprietor put our food on the table with a flourish and returned to his station near the cash register reading a magazine. The food was so cheap, as Rita had reminded me, that I could pay for the entire meal with what I usually spent on a cappuccino and biscotti. I put my hand on the still hot tortillas in their covered basket and burned with shame at the labor expended for my pleasure. At the pettiness of my resentments and preoccupations. From beneath this shame, came a need to confide in Rita. There was something stuck inside me demanding to be disclosed, like a chick pecking its way slowly, laboriously out of its shell. When Rita’s monologue paused, I said, “Richard and I have decided to have a baby.” “Wow,” said Rita not actually seeming impressed in any way. She crammed a heap of pork into her mouth. “I wasn’t sure how you would take it.” “Take it?” said Rita with her full mouth. “What’s there to take?” I must have frowned then, because Rita said, “No, really, Billie, it’s great. Seems like all the pieces are falling into place for you. Richard, the house. Now a baby. You couldn’t script it better if you tried. You know, a few months ago I thought for shit-sure I was pregnant again. I didn’t even want to tell Juarez because of all that Catholic bullshit. I even started thinking about how I would have to come home because you can’t even get one down here. And then I woke up one morning and decided I was being an idiot. Of course, I should have the baby. Juarez is awesome. I’ve never been happier. Maybe it’s time for me to be a grown-up, you know? So I told him and we both got thinking that we should take the plunge. Wouldn’t our baby be fucking adorable? Anyway, two days later I got my period. I still think we might do it. Maybe in the fall.” I recoiled and then laughed. “Seriously? You? A baby? With Juarez?” “What? You think you’re the only one with a biological clock ticking?” “Well, no. But do you really think this is the right life for a baby?” I waved my hand around the restaurant. I thought of the throbbing market, with all its dirt and hollering vendors and God knows what kind of germs hiding in the fruit Rita had bought. Babies strapped to the backs of ten-year-old big sisters. Or sleeping in baskets in the shade of 43


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a table while their mothers sold cheap sneakers and knock-off CDs. Or waiting while their mother and sisters ground corn and baked tortillas and begged for coins from American tourists. Was that what she wanted? Rita said, “Why shouldn’t we have a baby? Because we don’t have fucking designer tile in our shower?” “No, Rita. Because you don’t have a shower at all.” Rita dropped a few coins in the hand of the boy salesman who had refused to leave all this time, then smiled at his profuse, servile thanks. His sister turned him by the shoulder and they headed back to the plaza. “Hey, look, Rita, I’m sorry. It’s just. Well, it hasn’t been going well. Getting pregnant, I mean. There have been some… some problems.” “Oh? Well. Give it time. It’ll happen. It’ll all work out. Right? Doesn’t it always?” “Yeah. I guess so.” She tossed money on the table for our bill and grabbed her bag before I could add anything else. She seemed scared that if she let me talk, I would say something terrible. Unforgivable. She was afraid of me. Rita, who wasn’t afraid of anything. Ever. I love Rita, I really do. But I should have known better than to think that she could console me. That she would even want to try. Rita, who had a different man for each day of the week. Who had thrown away two inconvenient pregnancies of her own. She said, “Listen, Friday I’m taking you to the cenote.” Her voice was bubbling again, as if the last few minutes hadn’t happened. “No excuses, Owl,” she said. “Muchas gracias,” she waved to the proprietor. In the back, the mother and daughter were tending their fire and now a bare-bottomed toddler had wandered into the courtyard eating a banana. Rita handed me a withered postcard of a blonde woman in a Gstring bikini. “For Richard.” • It took more than an hour of criss-crossing the parched terrain in Rita’s battered jeep, the trees stunted and sparse, to get to the site. Each time the jeep dove into a rut, the dive tanks in the back clanged together. It was my designated task to stop this from happening as if they were torpedoes that might accidentally launch, but having had my hand crushed a 44


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couple of times and growing increasingly nauseated from riding backwards, I surrendered to the possibility that the jeep might detonate at any time. I clenched the dashboard and kept a steady eye on the horizon. “Jesus, Rita, could you slow down?” “You begging for mercy?” This was a remnant from our childhood that Rita brought up too often, as if any sister in history had ever enjoyed that wrist-wrenching game. She slowed down until the jeep bucked and swayed through the ruts like a boat on swells. The tanks still slammed together. “Fine,” I said. “Point made. Mercy.” Rita floored it again. Ten minutes later, we slammed to a halt in front of a shack, its door a curtain of beads painted with a Fanta ad. Our dust showered a cluster of scruffy kids in adult-sized American t-shirts playing with sticks. If they minded, they didn’t show it. Rib-thin goats and a motley clutch of chickens patrolled the yard. The road shimmered with heat. Rita rattled something in Spanish at the kids. They waited for a long minute, then made a show of dusting off their hands before finally moving slowly to the shack, two skinny brown dogs licking at their legs. After another heavy pause, a pygmy-sized woman sauntered over to our car. She didn’t speak, but leered, showing off a massive gold eyetooth so oversized it looked like she had picked it up secondhand. In all our years of family travel, we had never ventured far from the resorts. We stayed where things were clean. Occasionally we made it into small surfer towns, where stoners from up and down the California coast had come to roost. These were a second home to Rita, even back then, and the atmosphere was welcoming enough that even I could find a comfortable perch on the perimeter. By night, we slept in whitewashed cottages draped in bougainvillea, fortified on good food and drink, funded by our parents. By day, we chose our adventure. Rita would say that we had been spoiled rich girls, implying that I still was and that she had evolved out of this inferior caste. She told me more than once that I was oblivious to the painful realities of the world. To the plight of the poor. To real people. But my world seemed real enough to me. Just because I had ample food to eat and just because I could afford to care about what fixtures I put in my bathroom, didn’t mean I didn’t suffer. And for all her big talk, I didn’t see Rita having much more in common with this woman in the shack than I did. I doubted this matron saw an ounce of difference between us. We were both 45


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rich Americans to her. I didn’t see Rita spending her days bringing medical care to the indigenous people of the Yucatan. Richard and I probably gave more away in a year than Rita earned. “You need to pay now,” said Rita. I dug through my straw bag and offered her both American dollars and pesos in a card trick fan. The old woman spied a twenty, reached across Rita and plucked out the bill. She tucked it into her dress and then slapped the side of the jeep like the flank of a steed. “Usually I only give her about five bucks,” Rita said. “So you’re her new best friend.” She pulled down her sunglasses so I could see the tease in her eyes. “Thanks for the tip-off,” I said, flushing. Richard and I had made hard choices to earn our money – choices that involved long hours in cubicles and endless grad school, instead of hammocks and tequila shooters at sundown paid for by a withering trust fund. Where would Rita be when the well ran dry? • A hundred yards after the shack, the arid landscape turned abruptly green and we lumbered on in silence for another twenty minutes. When we stopped again, Rita leaped from the jeep and got busy tugging the tanks, weight belts, and buoyancy vests from the back, the muscles under her shoulder blades shuffling and her biceps flexing. She stripped to her teeny bikini and wriggled into a wet suit, yanking a long cord to zip up the back. If I had clocked her, this whole ritual would have come in at under sixty seconds. “So, what’s the deal with the bird?” I said. “What bird?” I threw her a look. She knew what bird. “You like it? It’s a quetzal. Juarez has one just like it. He got his when he turned eighteen.” Apparently when they were in Cozumel together she had had a copy made. I had to wonder how Juarez felt about this plagiarism. Rita said, “It’s a Mayan holy bird.” “That’ll look great when you’re eighty,” I said. Rita laughed and told me that old lady hotness wasn’t her top prior46


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ity. “Vámonos,” she said. With a tank in one hand and a buoyancy vest in the other, she scampered down a path of flat stones that had been completely camouflaged a second before. Now I saw a small sign in the underbrush, the size of my palm, scratched with a barely legible number 3. As usual, it was my job to resist this cave dive, resist the thrill of danger, until Rita could entice me to join. Then I had to be both amazed and grateful. And here we were, wherever this was, ready for the second act of the performance to begin. A wave of lethargy swept over me and anchored me to the passenger seat, even though my bones were aching for a stretch after the jarring ride. I was a marionette to Rita’s puppet master once again. Later tonight we’d be yucking it up at a cantina, telling Juarez about the thrills and chills, I’d be lavishing Rita with intoxicated praise for helping me truly live, once again. This was the familiar happy ending, but at that moment I could hardly stomach it. Rita returned in a minute for the rest of our gear and I finally got out of the jeep. I slowly wrestled on a faded cold-water wetsuit she had lent me. It was too short and pulled through the crotch. The suit had been stretched thin from innumerable wearings by Rita’s ample breasts so that now the tired neoprene projected from my sub-par chest like a bra badly in need of padding. As much as I squirmed, trying illogically to shift the abundance of fabric at the top to the shortfall at the bottom, it wouldn’t budge and I couldn’t shake the creepy feeling that I was walking around in my sister’s shed skin. Meanwhile, Rita was pulling small flashlights from a milk crate in the back of the jeep, flicking them on and off, holding them up to her palm to test their brilliance, pitching the runts back into the crate. “Better take both,” she said, handing two little lights to me. “No kidding,” I said. I re-checked each light, their filaments barely golden, and clipped them onto my vest. Richard wouldn’t have considered them adequate as safety lights in our kitchen emergency drawer, forget about the sole source of visibility for me in a subterranean labyrinth. “You really know how to make a girl feel safe.” “C’mon, Billie, I’m all about the thrill, remember?” She excavated a diving floodlight the size of a small trashcan. She shook it at me in a mischievous, don’t-fret-I’ve-got-it-covered way. “It’s gonna be awesome.” Her laugh echoed behind her as she trotted down the path again. I could feel the pull of Rita’s will like a tidal force, building me up, 47


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making me just a little bit excited in spite of myself. When we were freshmen in college, just home for the summer, she kept bugging me to take a night-time walk with her. I was tired from exams, but finally I relented and made the trek along a nearly dry, stony riverbed, in the dark, for a mile or two out of town to a trestle train bridge that spanned the missing river. That wizened river was special for us. When we were girls and it wasn’t a drought, we had kayaked and canoed on it, playing at Huck Finn. When we were older we took our friends to it, making bonfires on the banks. Being irresponsible. But never at the bridge. The bridge was off-limits. When we were in middle school, the teenage girl who lived next door to us committed suicide by diving from it and we silently banned it forever from our play. Maybe for Rita this choice was out of respect for a kindred soul. It took nerve, Rita had said after the funeral, she gets points for that. But to me suicide was a cop-out. Besides, that girl had always been aloof: too popular and good-looking to pity. Since it wasn’t bravery or genuine hardship that had compelled her to jump, I surmised that it could have been an unnatural suggestive power of the bridge itself. With its silvery black supports, colder than death in winter and blistering in summer, it disdained the simple, bucolic beauty of our river as a naïve, childhood play space. The real world, the grown-up world, I began to suspect, would be like this bridge: merciless and unforgiving. But on that night, we sat in the bridge’s moon-shadows and Rita produced a joint in honor of our mutual seventeenth birthday. It wasn’t my thing, so I didn’t inhale, though Rita could tell and teased me. We had one feeble flashlight between us, like the ones Rita gave me for the dive. I kept turning it on to see what was making a rustling sound up the bank from us and Rita kept yelling at me to shut it off so we could see the stars. Let’s go, I said about a thousand times. C’mon, let’s go. Something had shifted in me that year at school. That year away from Rita. What little part of her bravery I had co-opted all those years had evaporated and my own inherent fear took charge. But Rita’s daring had burgeoned. Twice I announced that I was leaving without her, but then I didn’t. Part of me wanted to protect her and part of me was too scared to make the walk home alone. I fell asleep and when I woke up Rita was howling from somewhere above me. She had climbed the steel supports of the bridge up to the tracks. I waved the flashlight beam up at her, spotlighting her prancing. She waved back at me. She did a cartwheel, but only one because she landed wobbily and the 48


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beam of light picked up the whites of her terrified eyes. I am a goddess! she yelled. For the first time, it wasn’t thrilling to be with Rita. We were no longer on the same team. I had become just her spectator. Then, through the darkness, came the vibration of a coming train. It was filling me up, getting bigger and bigger. Quit it, I yelled. Get down, Rita. Jesus, c’mon. It’s a train. What? she yelled back. What did you say? The thick hum of the train made me shake. Please, Rita. I shone the light around in the brush and the shale and the trickle of tar-black water, looking for the safest spot for Rita to land. She fell then, down onto the rocks and the creek. Plummeted. Headlong. Weren’t those words invented just for moments like that? She landed with a thunk, a slosh of water, and a rattle of loose shale. I dragged her carcass to the nearest road. I wasn’t worried then about whether her spinal cord was severed, whether she’d be in a wheelchair forever, pushing herself around by a mouth-controlled joystick. I got her back to town, into an ambulance with its cold comfort, into a hospital, before Mother and Daddy showed up, their breath still sharp from their nightcaps, hollering: Thank God! Thank God! They kissed Rita’s forehead and then turned to me. How could you have let this happen? That’s what our parents wanted to know. That’s what they hissed at me in the hall of the hospital outside Rita’s room. Only later, after Rita told me she owed me her life, did I realize that no train had ever come. No freight train had been on its way to knock Rita down. Just a ghost. That bridge had its tricks. Some places do. Rita could have danced up there all night long if I hadn’t panicked. Months in traction, bones that would never be the same. Lucky for me Rita hadn’t remembered anything about the accident. I told myself it would have happened anyway. What’s one train wreck over another when you dance on the tracks every single day? Rita had been lucky that I had stayed around to carry her to safety. • The cave was fifty steps down from the dirt road. Inside there was a hole, thirty feet across and full of serene, clear water. It was a gigantic, rain-filled pothole. Along the rim, where the earth once collapsed, a crosssection of roots, soil, and ancient limestone was still visible. Leave it to Rita to find a God-forsaken place like this and blithely plunge into it. As if she 49


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had every right. Outside the cave, all the jungle’s critters – the ones with too many legs or rapid-fire wings or twitching whiskers – were in perpetual motion around trees with prehistoric-sized leaves, themselves wrapped in ravenous vines abloom with toxic flowers. It seemed likely that the jungle would ensnare Rita’s jeep before the day was out and we’d be stuck there forever. Around us, the creatures hummed as they went about their business, doing the same tedious things they had been doing that morning and the day before. And would do the next day. After we were back at the casita. After I flew home to Richard. To the babies that I would somehow manage to have. They would still be at it after my blip of a life, nearly nonexistent in geological time, had zipped past. Inside the cave, there was gray. The pool was shallow and meager, four feet at the deepest and a little disappointing. Slabs of ashen limestone formed the floor and walls. It was a dead-looking place. A believable underworld, I suppose, if you were so inclined. Only a few stalwart beams of sunlight managed to pierce the canopy of trees and plants that choked each other to get closer to this improbable source of water. Naked plant roots dangled from the edge of the hole like fishing lines. I wondered how it was possible that the well hadn’t dried up in the never-ending heat of the Yucatan. Nothing in the cave lived up to Rita’s relentless advertising. How I just had to dive here. How it would blow my mind. Change my life. Kick my ass. Rita and her well-oiled pitch. I slipped into the water with just my fins and wet suit, leaving the rest of the gear where I could reach it on the ledge. I strapped a weight belt around my hips, cleared my mask with spit and slid it over my face. There’s a right order for these things. Stick to the plan every time. Rita helped me into my tank and turned on the valve. Then I submerged until I was kneeling on the floor of this cement-gray, oversized puddle, just like we used to on the sandy bottom of the Atlantic when we were girls, our bathing suits bulging with rocks to anchor our buoyant selves, the swells moving above us. Rita used to challenge me to see who could stay under longer. I always lost. Now Rita’s hand, cinnamon and sparkling with silver rings on thumb and fingers alike, pierced the water not a foot from my face, snapping me back to her. I followed the invisible arrow from her index finger and there it was -- a tiny gap along the left edge of the pool where the shards of 50


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limestone didn’t quite meet. It was like a seam that hadn’t been sewn together properly. It was dark on the other side of the hole and the entrance was very small. There was just enough room for a woman with a metal cylinder strapped to her back to sneak through. Once inside the cenote, the narrow tunnel widened into a room. Blocks of limestone rested at impossible angles, a dust-covered wreckage. There was no natural floor or ceiling or horizon, just stone slabs jutting out indiscriminately. Everywhere, everything was chalky gray, the color of pumice and old bone. Only the stalagmites and stalactites told me which way the force of gravity ran. A minute into the dive, Rita held up her hand and gestured for me to turn around. Behind us, through the tiny crack where we had entered, was a shock of ultramarine light, glowing like the entrance to Heaven itself. It was magnificent. How could I have doubted? For the first time in two years I stopped resenting the cold-hearted God that had left Richard and me empty-handed while every day babies were shaken or abandoned or aborted. We could turn back now and I would be sated. I smiled at Rita. She smiled back – I could see the pinch of her dimples around her regulator. That was it. That satisfied, exuberant smile. We didn’t turn back, of course. Rita led us away from the glowing entrance, deeper into the maze of the cenote. I dutifully followed, keeping one eye anchored on the yellow nylon guideline. Every turn we took, there was the line and every few feet, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, were small metal triangles. Just as Rita had promised. • The stalagmites and stalactites -- ‘mites and ‘tites Rita called them -- were lumpy like the sand-dripped towers we used to build, summer after summer, while Mother and Daddy napped in their beach chairs. Later, when they decided that we were old enough to be left alone on the beach without fear that we would instantly get sucked into a rip current or snatched by beach perverts, they retreated to our wide porch where they wouldn’t be overheard and ice was easier to restock. At night, I used to sneak from the bedroom I shared with Rita to hide under the table or behind the drapes to eavesdrop on them, wrapping their truth, ugly as it was, around me for safety. When Rita and I discussed our parents, which was often back then 51


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and almost never once we became adults, Rita would say it was better not to know what fungus lived under everyone else’s toenails. Some of the stalactites were as skinny as drinking straws, thickly bunched together. Safety in numbers, I suppose. But the stalagmites were enormous fat pillars, thicker than my torso, rising from the depths, stretching nearly the height of the cavern. Only they didn’t quite reach that high, making me question the integrity of the whole damn place. If these pillars were just for show, what was keeping the roof from caving in, right here, right now? I turned back to look for that calming beacon of blue, but we had gone into the cave zone beyond the reach of natural light. The water was translucent, but it was dark, too, the kind of darkness that feels gauzy against your face and compels you to reach for something solid – a wall, a body, a bedpost -- only here that wouldn’t be allowed. Rita had warned me that stirred silt would cloud the water for days and I sure-as-shit better not touch anything. There was no organic life to pollute the cave water with bubbles and excrement and filthy biology. Unless my sloppy humanness got in the way, the visibility would be clear for hundreds of feet. Of course, my flashlight had only a fifteen-foot range at best, so I wouldn’t be able to fully make out the gothic scene in any case. Mostly I kept my beam locked on Rita’s neon pink legs, and let her floodlight do the sightseeing. I wasn’t interested in the scenery anyhow, being so busy concentrating on the steady inhale/exhale that would keep me hovering, contact-free, between the clenched limestone jaws. Like in all dives, sound and smell and taste were rendered useless: nothing to hear but the suck of air from my tank and, a moment later, the burst of bubbles through my regulator; nothing to taste but the rubber mouthpiece; nothing to smell. My sight was handicapped not only by the deepening darkness of the cave, but by my mask’s obstruction of my peripheral vision. I kept squinting to get a clearer, more complete view of where I was and where I was going, but it was useless. We followed whatever underworld mole holes Rita chose until I was thoroughly lost. I never really did have much of a sense of direction. I checked my depth gauge and air supply every half minute, as if the knowledge that we were deeper and I had less air would give me much in the way of comfort. Then we came to a widening of the tunnels. We hovered for a minute in this chamber, with Rita spotlighting the formations. I stopped looking. I was not one of Rita’s little resort groupies. 52


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Rita rapped her knuckles against her tank until I turned to the clanging, then she made a thumbs-down gesture. Descend. When she dove, it was in slow-motion -- a languid dolphin kick and down she went. Beneath me I saw only a blur of pink neon. It was like watching a fish beneath ice, not a woman through glass-clear water. I reached toward this non-Rita, not quite sure how far away she was, and felt nothing but an abrupt drop in temperature. I dipped my hand in and out of this arctic layer a few times. I reached lower into the glow, but there was nothing solid. I was still puzzling it out when miniature bubbles rushed past my face. I pulled back, startled, and stared again into the odd space below me. Then Rita reappeared, only inches away, grinning again. Even with a mask over her face, Rita’s eyes proclaimed her latest triumph. My flushed cheeks stung against the cold water. Rita signaled again with a flourish: descend. And then: okay? When Rita disappeared for the second time, I knew she wouldn’t be back. She would wait on the other side of this invisible wall for however long it took me to summon the nerve to go through. I hated Rita for knowing how far I could go. As it was, I had waited too long. I was giving her plenty of fodder for teasing at the cantina that night. So I descended slowly by bleeding air from my buoyancy vest. First the water wrapped around my ankles as I sank, then my hands, and, finally, as my head went in, the water became a miasma. It was like swimming through oil and vinegar. Less than a foot deeper the water cleared, but was absurdly cold and there was Rita, bobbing in front of me, still smiling. She gave the ‘Okay?’ sign and then pointed upward. Above our heads was a tangle of liquids refusing to blend, like a roiling, cloud-filled sky. I half-expected to see the hand of God himself point through that turbulent layer. Rita gently stirred the water above our heads. Swirls eddied and curled around her fingers. I filled my lungs with air, making my body float a few inches higher. Clear. Blurry. Cold. Warm. I checked my depth gauge. Fifty-five feet. Deep. I surrendered to the grandeur of the cenote then and for a while stopped my obsessive monitoring of my air gauge. When I looked again I was startled to see I was at half a tank. We needed to turn back. We should have turned back already. I showed my air gauge to Rita, feigning a business-like demeanor. She switched off the blinding floodlight and used one of my small flashlights while she tightened my valves, then gestured for me to slow down. Rita flashed me her own air gauge, which looked to still be three-quarters full, and then smirked. Slow. Down. If there had 53


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been a gesture for ‘Stop breathing like a mad woman,’ she would have given it. Then Rita gestured again, this time inhaling deeply, closing her eyes, and releasing the air slowly, one hand in a yogi pose over her mind’s eye while the other illuminated her face from below the way she used to when she told me ghost stories until I nearly peed the bed. I shone my own light on my raised middle finger, and Rita’s dimples deepened. Rita flipped the switch on the floodlight. Nothing happened. She stared into its prismatic lens for several meditative seconds. I waited with the rubber mouthpiece clenched between my teeth, chewing it until I could taste the iron of my blood, while Rita re-examined each crevice of the light. She flipped the switch once, twice, three times. Then she shook the light violently and flipped it again. Her skinny, pierced eyebrows burrowed together. She looked at me and shrugged. Then she pointed at her little emergency light and gave the okay sign. I shook my head from side to side so hard I felt a wave of vertigo. Panic percolated in my chest until I coughed. Rita pointed at her own eyes and then at a green guideline in the bottom of the chamber leading to another tunnel. Look? Okay? It wasn’t the one we had followed in. Did she know this? Then she turned away from me and swam toward the tunnel, leaving me with not enough air and a light not strong enough to light up the inside of my left nostril. This whole undertaking had gone too far. More often than not, it went too far. Had we been anywhere else – on the beach as children, in the woods as teenagers, at some awkward Layerty family function as adults – I would have walked out. It had always been my preferred means of protest. Departure. I could never fight Rita and win, but Rita was like a sun-starved plant and without me there to pay attention she shriveled up. I had learned this early on. Retreat was a weapon. Rita would track me down in our bedroom where I would be drawing, or up on the beach house porch where I would be painting my toenails, or in the library sipping a glass of Chardonnay with Richard. Rita would act like a repentant pony, nudging me until I laughed. Making up. I wanted nothing more than to be back at the casita, giving Rita the silent treatment, waiting for some sort of adequate compensation to be proffered for her incompetence. My eyes flickered from my air gauge to the guide-line to Rita’s fluttering fins, not knowing which was the real harbinger of safety. My flashlight could illuminate only one of those items at a time. Anything beyond its small perimeter was night. 54


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Rita slipped through another narrow crevice, her neon fins the last glimpse of her. Flick-flick. Gone. I followed, but the space was smaller than I thought – or I was bigger – and my tank hit the side of a formation, making an echoing clang. Startled, I gasped, and my lungs filled with air. I became more buoyant and floated into a cluster of stalactites. Their dusty fingers grabbed at me. I swung my arms wildly and dropped the flashlight. It dangled from my wrist, casting its frenzied light at the stalagmite teeth below. Limestone scraped my forehead and dug into my scalp. I spun my head and knocked the regulator out of my mouth. I groped in the dark for the missing mouthpiece. While my body panicked, my brain stayed focused like a compass in a gimbal. If you panic, you will drown and what a waste that would be. You still have air, you still have your regulator, you still have a flashlight. Put them together and you have salvation. I closed my eyes to block out the blackness and better listen to my brain. My searching hand finally bumped into the regulator and popped it into my mouth. I blasted it clear of water with what little air I had left in my lungs, and breathed cautiously. When it came back deliciously dry, I sucked hard like an asthmatic. I recovered my flashlight, opened my eyes and looked around. The scene was blurry with disturbed silt. Rita’s neon was nowhere in sight. In the panic, I had used up even more air. Without Rita near me to share her tank, it was entirely possible that I would die before I found the exit. I searched for the green guideline she had pointed to. In the tunnel that Rita had taken, I saw no guideline and no Rita, just endless gray dust camouflaging everything. Then, in a crevice far below, my searching flashlight beam reflected off a metallic triangle tied to a red guideline. It was the wrong color. It wasn’t the way we had come in, nor the way Rita went out, but it didn’t really matter. Those arrows pointed out and I wanted out. • With my fingertips holding tight to the guideline and its arrows, I made my way back through the silt. Not one part of me wanted to give up. Not one cell considered surrender. I was vibrating like the electrons I had stalked in grad school. By the time I reached the same innocent pool where we had started, my air gauge was hovering near the red zone and my fingers were stripped raw. I was febrile with adrenalin. Rita wasn’t there, but 55


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resting on the ledge, surrounded by a fresh puddle of water, was the broken spotlight. I retched, a mix of gulped water and breakfast and relief. Damn her, I thought. For leaving me in there when she knew I was running dry. For not keeping one eye behind her. I thrust my fins and mask onto the ledge and shimmied out of my buoyancy vest. The shaking wouldn’t stop. C’mon, Rita. Enough. I checked my watch. She would resurface through that crack along the left edge of the cenote. It would happen soon. Though I wasn’t sure of the dive’s duration. I should have set a stopwatch, of course. Standard dive protocol. If I hadn’t been so distracted by this surreal cave system, by Rita, I never would have forgotten that. I waited until enough time had passed for the water dripping off my hands to evaporate and for the puddle around the spotlight to dry. It was hard to estimate how much time Rita had left. She had always breathed as infrequently as a beluga. It was also possible that she had resurfaced in some other pool. I waited on the ledge next to my discarded tank and fins. My feet were pruned and frigid. I unzipped the wet suit and pulled it off of my torso, leaving the sleeves dangling from my waist. It was colder in the cave than I remembered and I searched for a spot where the sun pierced the foliage so I could warm up. I wrapped my arms around my chest. How long would I be expected to tolerate this? Rita never could detect other people’s limits – her stories ran too long, her hugs were too tight, her pace too frenetic. I pulled off the rest of the miserable wet suit in silent protest. After another fifteen minutes, I reconsidered my air gauge. I had surfaced with about a quarter of a tank left. Maybe fifteen minutes worth. Depended on how deep I went. How fast I breathed. It might only make matters worse to go in after Rita. Which line would I even follow? How impenetrable was the sediment now? Though I knew it wasn’t possible, I swore I could hear my digital watch ticking. Its cardiac rhythm counted off the minutes, the seconds, the rapid-fire hundredths, that I had been out of the water, safely breathing the dank cave air, and Rita was in there, somewhere, looking for me. My heart beat alongside the watch’s tick-tick-ticking, its muscular contractions so strong they hurt. There is a fulcrum-moment when waiting is no longer passive. When waiting becomes an active choice. When the opportunity cost of waiting becomes tangible. You could be trying to find a signal for your cell phone. You could be pantomiming disaster to that Mayan matron at the 56


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gate who must know how to call the police. You could be finding a way beyond your phrasebook Spanish – Excuse me, sir, call the fire department, the pickpocket has stolen my toilet paper! By now, you could have found out that the woman doesn’t speak Spanish anyway; she speaks Mayan which you thought was as dead as Latin. Wrong again. But no need to worry, Mayans are fluent in the language of panic and desperation and disaster and sacrifice. History gave them practice. She saw Rita come in – impossible not to notice someone like her -- and now she doesn’t see her come out with hysterical you. She knows the cenote. So, she knows. You could get that wetsuit back over your shoulders, zipped up by its tail, that buoyancy vest and tank strapped back on. You could use up whatever you’ve got left. You could keep one hand on the safety line. You could stand out in the jungle and holler louder than the quetzals and the oropendolas and the vacant, sound-sucking, heat-thick sky. You could pray. You could cry. Or you could just wait. • A sixth sense allowed me to picture exactly where Rita was then: jammed head first, legs dangling, in a nest of stalactites, limestone leaving an imprint on her waterlogged cheek. Actually, I couldn’t see it as much as I could feel it: limestone against my own cheek, its grit ground into my scalp, the chafing from the dive gear, the flashlight strap cutting into my wrist, my hair Medusa-tangled. But when she stopped resisting, Rita’s hands would curl near her lips, her skin pickled and pale, her body a comma, suspended by water, cradled and buoyant, waiting. I knew what would happen. The police would come. They would check every possible exit from the cave system in case Rita had found a safe place. They would check inside the cenote, too, but it would be too cloudy. When they didn’t find her on the first attempt, they would agree to come back the next morning. No one would say that there was no hope of finding her alive. At least not in English. They might say it in Spanish. Or they might make their dinner plans. How would I have know? I’d have Juarez come. Juarez with his matching quetzal tattoo. I would need Juarez so I’d know if la policia were calling Rita a stupid girl. Or me. More likely they would be talking about the lack of air pockets. They would be running the numbers. Only one tank. Crazy. Eight hours. Impossible. They would 57


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send me home – a la casa - but I would have only Rita’s casita to go to. Rita’s sandy, mildewed bed to sleep in. Rita’s patchouli-soaked air to breathe. Rita knew about the places where one world ends and another begins. Where change lurks. Where one life is traded for another. Where compromises are brokered. Where sacrifices must be made. Certainly the Mayans knew. Beneath their feet, beneath that parched ground where they built their simple shelters, where their children rocked in hammocks shaded from the dehydrating sun, where crops refused to grow because rain refused to fall, there was a labyrinthine city of water. Down there the greedy, selfish underworld gods laughed at them. Tested them. Punished their transgressions with drought. They taught us to give what we have to the cenote in reparation and supplication -- our jade and our pottery and our best goats. Anything that sparkles, anything with the blood of life.

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Ballad

Lee Rossi How much meat you can store in a question depends, of course, on the sun’s angle of descent and whether the fires in the soul’s kitchen are fueled by mental or mineral sacraments. I took a girl to the edge of the ocean to watch the clouds knit tatters of the day. She said, sub rosa, she needed a vacation − from me – but where and how long she didn’t say. It was clear in that soft crepuscular light that eternity had opened its armored doors, and the guards, now exposed, couldn’t wait to lecture on dark matter and remorse. “The machinery of night – if truth be told – which it almost never is – is cranky and getting old. Your mother knew. Your lover knows.” And while they mused, the girl ran screaming away from the beach to her family home. The guards went nova but kept on beaming and I continued on my way to Rome.

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Flying the Persian Gulf Victoria Kelly

Lord knows he has seen marvelous things, the evening like a room lived in by many people, dead friends who linger like fathers in a lighted window; and the sea a ballroom blue with mermaids, their breasts bright as copper in the sun. Further down, on the rocky bottom, the turned-up faces on sunken ships ignite like tiny moons. He carries these visions the way some people carry rosaries, tenderly and without remorse, and when he says he saw everything but God, is it because miracles after a while seem as earthly as diamonds mined from the black belly of the dirt.

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Digging

Jill Birdsall THE lawn was just cut. There was only one problem, and that was a very small sink hole, a dimple in the grass, really, between the garage and walkway. The hole was tucked behind the left leg of the arbor this season covered in climbing hydrangea, so many hydrangea the arbor bowed under their weight. Come to think of it, that arbor looked like it was pulling out of the ground. It might be leaning to one side. Dodum tilted his head to check. The hole, though, it could have been made easily by the toe of a sneaker or the hoof of a deer or, looking more closely, he thought, the heel of a woman’s shoe. Unfortunately, on the way to his car, he had stepped in it. Of course he could have twisted an ankle or lost balance and fallen. He could have spilled his coffee and wrecked his suit. He didn’t but he could have. He looked out over the rest of the lawn, shaking his head. He stood there so long, in fact, it delayed the start of his day. He needed someone to call the septic company. That hole was uncomfortably close to the leach field. It could be the start of something worse. There might be a problem underground with the septic is what he was thinking. From the car Dodum called his wife to tell her to make the call before lunch but she wasn’t answering and even if she did answer she wouldn’t do it, not without a song and a dance. He called her three times before he called the septic people himself. He would set up for them to come and she would just have to be there. He was put on hold so he left a message for them to come out to the house ASAP. He told his wife to watch for them. She said she didn’t sit like his grandmother with her eyes glued to the window all day. And how do you 63


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know they didn’t come? she asked. They could have checked and decided it was fine, she said. He found a shovel and began to dig it himself. Throwing dirt over his shoulder, he dug until he went as low as he could go. He thought maybe it was hollow underneath, that the new tank wasn’t installed properly. An old tank may have been left active. When they did the job in the first place, he told them he wanted everything filled in. They said they did this. But no one checked. He wasn’t there and his wife didn’t check. Now he had to dig down low enough to see what was really going on. He needed to get to the bottom of it. He used to dig all sorts of things. When he was younger he used a post hole digger to dig fence posts into place. How many acres of fence had he dug and repaired over the years? It was expected of him. He dug a grave for the family horse, another for their collie. He dug with strength in those days. No problem. He liked it, although he didn’t know it at the time. It felt good to dig like that. Now it wasn’t easy. His shoulder hurt. His hands blistered. He hit patches of earth he couldn’t get past. He couldn’t dig as long as he could before. He couldn’t go as deep. For now he dug up what he could, enough to see that the septic tank cap looked normal. But what did he know? his wife said. When it came right down to it, he didn’t know what he was looking for, she pointed out. He waved her away but she wasn’t moving, so he took a walk in the woods. He checked for garbage thrown onto his property. He walked over to where his handyman stacked wood and bricks and other things he didn’t take time to bring to the dump. Dodum asked the handyman to clean this up but he didn’t. He never did what Dodum asked him to do. He’d just have to ask again. And probably another time, too. It would get done eventually. It was just the way it was. Everything was like this. It was very hard to get anything done. Nothing could be done right and definitely nothing could be done the first time. There were weeds coming up through the pavers in back of the house. That was another issue. He had a running list now. He’d have to call the handyman as soon as he got back to the house. He’d give him the list. He’d put the arbor on the list too. He’d tell his wife to call him but that wouldn’t get done either. Like when Dodum bought the Roundup and told 64


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her he’d left it outside the garage doors. The Roundup was moved, he didn’t know to where, but it wasn’t used on the weeds. Dodum tried to yank a very long weed from between the blocks but it wouldn’t budge. It slipped from his fingers leaving a stain of green on his skin. So he wedged his shoe between two pavers and pulled again but it just broke off above the root. He’d get the handyman to do it. That’s why he’d bought the Roundup. Now he just had to get him to use it. Something else he’d add to the list was the lawn furniture. He needed this put away in the barn. He needed this done before the cold weather came in. He shouldn’t have to ask is the way he saw it. The same chores needed to be done every year. It would be so nice if someone just took initiative for once and did what had to be done. But the handyman needed someone to direct him. And his wife didn’t want to be directed. Would it be so difficult for her to communicate these few things for him? He told her about them. It was the least she could do. But she had a way of letting him go on recently. She’d appear to be listening, when he knew she had no intention. She had never been easy but when had she become difficult? His wife watched him break the lightbulb when he unscrewed it. She said, Don’t worry about it. I’ll handle it. She wanted to know what was going on. She asked this directly. She’d seen the garbage strewn across the driveway. He wouldn’t tell her, but he was sick of seeing it in the garage. All the mess she just threw out of her car onto the floor like that. So he swept it out. Let her deal with it out in the open. Maybe if she saw it out there where everyone else pulling into the driveway would see it, she’d take a minute and pick it up. Or throw it in the garbage in the first place instead of leaving it on the floor. It looks like when the raccoons used to get into the garbage, she said. She followed Dodum into the kitchen. She was careful, looking around like something was going to jump out at her. She looked out the back window, just stared at the grass dug up around the septic tank. He could see she was thinking. What are you smiling at? she asked, suspicious. He was thinking, too. Just wait until she sees the bedroom where he’d thrown the wrinkled clothes piled on her side of the closet out onto the carpet. 65


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What happened here? she said because she was noticing the burners removed from the stove. Why are these on the counter? He didn’t answer. She knew. She’d been with him twenty years. She’d better know by now. When he wanted something done, he threw it out there and left it undone so she’d have to do it to put it back together again. Like the burners. She wouldn’t put them back together dirty. It’s how he got them cleaned. But his wife was fifty now and she’d run out of patience. Dodum looked at her, hair grown wild and weight not exactly where it used to be, the way she walked in big steps, hurried and unaware of herself, no longer appreciating the getting there, well, he looked at her and it couldn’t be clearer, he thought. You won’t do it, he said. She saw his look. She knew what he thought. She knew it before he even looked, before she even told him and before he didn’t tell her. She always knew. That’s the one thing he could be sure of about her, that she knew everything. And she made sure to tell him about it. Whatever happened to silence, he wondered. Why couldn’t she just keep her mouth shut? Instead, she had to tell him what he did wrong. All the time telling him. You’d think he was a child, the way she talked to him. That’s when he thought of it. He had an idea. Before she could say a word, he went out to the sink hole under the arbor. He took hold of the shovel and dug some more. He was careful to dig away from the septic in an area where the ground was soft and shaded under the hydrangeas. When he’d dug deep enough, Dodum stepped into his fresh hole. He sat on the cool earth then laid out flat across the bottom of the hole. He stretched his body along the earth to find a comfortable position. The ground wasn’t what he expected. It was hard. He found it unforgiving. He crossed his hands under the back of his neck, closed his eyes. Finally, a place he could run through the list of things he wanted done. It was dark and quiet with no one to bother him. In his head he checked off one thing: Send someone with the car to have it serviced and order another key for the one his wife lost. They came at him fast, all of the things he had to do: Check the plumbing in the office. He’d heard the faucet dripping in the back bathroom. No one ever checked to make sure it was turned off. He’d need to repaint the backsplash in the office kitchenette where the staff splashed it cleaning up from their lunches. He wanted the 66


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gutter guards changed out. They weren’t working. And no one had bothered to sweep the mulch from the walkway after the rain. He turned on his side, settled his face directly in the dirt. His jaw realigned to meet the ground. His face flattened like he was listening to something underground. Was that a rumbling he heard? It was more worries coming to him: He wanted an accounting of what was spent on the new porch. He knew that flooring was expensive. He wasn’t born yesterday. It was getting dark and he wasn’t moving. He couldn’t feel his body any more. He looked for his legs but saw only ground. It was like he was buried in darkness. He couldn’t see over the edge, he realized, which meant no one could see over the edge to where he was either. A deer grazed nearby, poked its nose inside the hole to nuzzle around in the air, but it turned away. He saw only the white of its tail as the deer hopped toward the woods. No one knew he was out here. The lights clicked on in the house and he curled tighter inside the hole. He had to buy more bulbs to replace the lights on the walkway that she left on no matter how many times he told her to turn these off. Buy more shaving cream and razors for his office bag. He didn’t like the way the grout discolored in the kitchen. His wife had to clean that better. And if she didn’t stop pushing the dryer back against the wall, he didn’t know what he would do. How many times did he have to tell her? The line kinked when she pushed it too close to the wall and then the clothes wouldn’t dry. They’d have a fire if she didn’t listen. It was a clear night and he looked up at the sky. Above him the world was covered with stars. He wanted to see like he saw long ago, like he saw when he was a boy. When stars elicited desire in him, aroused a need to reach. Back when he felt big enough to touch the sky. Now he stirred only slightly in his hole in the ground. He frowned. There were so many stars. One for each of his worries. He didn’t see them anymore. He counted them. He moved across the sky as if it were a textbook, left to right, row by row. He had to concentrate to hold his place. There were too many rows. He was tired. It felt as if he would never finish counting. When he closed his eyes he couldn’t rest. He was still counting.

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Inside the Box

John F. Buckley and Martin Ott The TV factory looks lonely on the slope above the abandoned warehouses and dead vegetation, unkempt lots with colored glass, staked plastic bags waving like flags at half mast, tired worker dragging in for the early shift, supervisors in short sleeves and ties. Too hungover for stairs, can Rick hypnotize anyone spying his slow ascent up the slope of the handicapped ramp, nowhere near early and guts roiling sour, his gray wet face dead to the day and far from the loading dock, half a day wasted, ruing last night’s twelfth glass?   Coworkers snap pics of his crooked nose, glass jaw saving him from a worse beating. Rick ties one on, gets paid his dues, sleepwalks half in the bag, his pain an assembly line, a slope with no bottom. Now his boss has him dead to rights, the cathode tubes no longer early.   There was a time he arrived at work early, took extra shifts, pride reflected in glass monitor screens, before the years rounded his lines, softened his belly, invisible ties of time and tedium pinning him to the slope of his life, his former spark dimmed by half.   69


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It didn’t help that the plant was now only at half capacity cuz of China and the idiots too early glued to phones, his ex Dawn on a slippery slope to facey friends and fuckos he’d ground to glass without the restraining order, and the penalties at work, with her on last shift when all’s dead. What’s a guy to do when his picture’s dead? The sound still works on the left but has half the volume on the right. Would wearing ties and staying dry make him better? It’s too early or too late to tell. Nobody gets a magic glass to see other lives. We just tumble down the slope. Our TVs blare about the dead and factory closed early, hands cuffed in plastic ties, Rick pounding the glass much too late to earn his half, flat world on a slope.

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You’re Not My Son. You’re Not My Mother. Max Harris

Alice is asleep. The television’s on full blast because she’s hard of hearing. The doorbell rings. Its tickled whimper gives way to the thud of gloved knuckles on oak veneer. A voice cries, “Mum?” During a lull in the television’s laughter, Alice wakes. She struggles to find herself in time and space. On the table beside her armchair, a blue plastic tray holds a teapot, a saucer, a half-full cup, and a plate of shortbread crumbs. It must be teatime. She examines the backs of her hands. Blue veins bulge like slugs. She’s old. The décor looks familiar. That’s a relief. This must be home. Somewhere in her brain, she registers the persistent knocking. It’s too irregular to be her heartbeat. She hauls herself out of the armchair. She’s arthritic, not fat. She takes the tea tray to the kitchen, rinses the china, and tries to remember eating the shortbread. A voice cries, “Mum? It’s me. Alec.” She doesn’t know anyone called Alec. She shuffles towards the front door. Her knees hurt. She’s wearing pale blue slippers. She checks her hair and lipstick in the hall mirror. Her eyes, their color unchanged by age, match her slippers. The wrinkles take her by surprise. A vase of daffodils stands on the hall table. Alice turns the key in the lock and slides back the deadbolt. The insurance company insists on both: to keep out burglars by night, the man said, not visitors by day. It’s drizzling outside; it’ll help the garden. She opens the door. A man’s standing on the step. He’s wearing a puffy coat like the Michelin Man, except that his is parrot red not dough white. He holds a tiny umbrella over his head, barely enough to keep his sparse gray hair from dripping. At his feet, like a well-trained dog, sits a purple suitcase. The color clashes with his jacket. The man’s younger than Alice, but not by much. 71


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“Oh, hello,” he says. “Is my mum in?” Alice doesn’t think so. “You must be a friend of hers. May I come in?” “I live here,” she says. “How nice. Mum never told me she had a friend staying with her.” “I’m Alice Bracknell. This is my house.” “No,” he says. “It’s my mum’s house.” “You’re not my son.” “You’re not my mother.” Alice is pleased to get that little misunderstanding cleared up. She wouldn’t like to forget her son. She doesn’t think she has a son. The man says, “May I come in?” He doesn’t look like a burglar. Perhaps he’s an angel unawares. Her mother lived in fear of slighting a heavenly visitor. Angels, she said, are like food critics. They show up unannounced. Alice says, “I suppose so.” “Thanks.” He steps inside. He carries his purple suitcase with him. Alice knows what to say next. “Would you like a cup of tea?” “I’d love a cup of tea.” “Let me take your jacket.” She hangs it in the cupboard under the stairs. It drips on her Wellington boots. The man removes his glasses, wipes them free of raindrops. Alice leads him into the kitchen. She keeps the room the way her mother would have wanted. At one end, the sink’s empty; at the other end, the pine table’s polished. Between them, the tiled floor’s swept clean. The bread bin’s labeled “Bread”; the drawers are named, “Knives and Forks,” “Serving Spoons,” “Serviettes,” and so on. The signs aren’t elegant, but they help Alice find things. “Have a seat,” she tells her guest. “I won’t be a minute.” She walks slowly through the hall to the lounge to fetch the tea things. Along the way, she stops to smell the pale scent of the daffodils. The tea things aren’t there, but the television’s talking to her. She settles into the armchair to watch her favorite quiz program. She’ll make herself a nice cup of tea when it’s over. A man comes into the room. He startles her. 72


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“Who are you?” she says, then bites her tongue. She doesn’t like to parade her loss of memory. “I’m Alec. Madge’s son.” “Oh, yes, Madge. How is Madge these days?” “She’s my mum. She lives here.” “I hope you do what she tells you.” The man smiles. “Shall I make you a cup of tea?” She relaxes. “Thank you. That’d be lovely. We can watch Countdown together.” While the man’s out of the room, Alice catalogs the objects that surround her. The white mirror over the mantelpiece belonged to her Auntie Gwen. The dainty clock came from Italy. Her husband bought it for her. Or was it Mario? Mario! Her mother would not have approved of Mario. Her mother used to keep sweets in the silver bowl on the gateleg table. Alice liked the strawberry creams best, but she was only allowed one in the presence of a guest. The grandfather clock used to tick loudly, but now it’s silent. The flowered curtains are new. Reciting her possessions and their stories grounds her. The man returns with a teapot, two cups and saucers, a bowl of sugar lumps, and a primrose yellow milk jug. He sets it all down on her table. “Shall I pour?” he says. “How kind. I don’t get many visitors.” “Milk?” “Please.” “Sugar?’ “Two, please. Would you like some shortbread? I have some in the kitchen.” “Would you like some shortbread?” “I usually do have some with my afternoon tea.” He fetches the shortbread, arranged on a plate like a lady’s fan. Such a gentleman. For a while, they sip tea, nibble shortbread, and watch Countdown. She wonders if the man’s her husband. She’d better not mention Mario. She can’t remember what her husband looks like. She thinks her husband’s dead. When Countdown finishes, the man says, “Do you mind if I switch the television off, so we can talk?” “That’d be nice,” she says. 73


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“When will my mum be home?” he says. “Your mum?” “She lives here.” “No, I don’t think so. I live here alone now.” She mustn’t complain. The man says, “I’ve come all the way from America to visit my mum.” “That’s quite a long way, isn’t it?” He counts the stages of his journey on his thumb and fingers. “First, the plane. Second, the train from Gatwick Airport. Third, leave the train, and cross the street to the bus station. Fourth, the number 53 bus stops a hundred yards from here. I used to ride it all the time when I was a boy.” His safe arrival pleases him. Alice can tell. He says, “I grew up in this house. You forget some things as you get older, but not your childhood home, or how to get there.” Alice doesn’t ride the bus any more. Last year, when she took a taxi to the shops, she woke up in hospital. The man’s not listening to her thoughts. He’s still insisting it’s his mother’s house. He must be lost. He’s saying, “Mum’s changed most of the furniture since I was last here, but it’s her house all right. I can tell you the layout of the rooms upstairs without even looking. There’s three bedrooms, aren’t there?” Alice tries to remember. “There’s my mum’s bedroom,” he says, “at the far end of the landing, with the bathroom en suite. Then the guest room. I expect that’s your room now. Opposite the guest room’s the second bathroom, with a shower not a bath. Then there’s the airing cupboard. And, at the other end of the landing, there’s the room my dad slept in after his snoring got too much for Mum. I’m right, aren’t I?” The rooms sound familiar, but the people are all wrong. Alice isn’t sure of much these days, but she’s certain her husband didn’t snore. He used to fart, though. Like a gunshot. The man says, “My mum’s not ill or anything, is she? I mean, she’s not in hospital? You’d tell me, wouldn’t you, if that’s why she’s not here?” Alice says, “I don’t think your mother’s ill.”

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“That’s all right, then. I’ll just have to wait.” He yawns; he tries to hide it with his hand. “Sorry. I didn’t sleep much on the plane. Do you mind if I take a nap? I expect Mum’s put me in Dad’s old room, the way she always does when I visit. It was my room when I was a boy. No, don’t get up. I can find my own way there.” Alice watches him climb the stairs, clutching his purple suitcase. When he’s out of sight, she turns the television back on. She’ll wash the tea things later. It’s nice to have a man in the house again, even if she can’t remember who he is. She hopes he doesn’t fart. • When Alice comes down in the morning, she’s surprised to find a man sitting at her kitchen table. “Oh hello,” he says. “I fixed myself a boiled egg. I hope you don’t mind.” He must be a guest, but she can’t remember his name. She mustn’t let on. She says, “Make yourself at home.” He’s wearing a blue checked shirt and a gray jumper. The jumper’s the same color as his eyes. He says, “I couldn’t find any bacon.” “I don’t eat bacon,” she says. “It scares me.” “Why’s that?” “It spits at me. And they say you’ll die young if you eat bacon.” “Neither of us is young any more.” “Mrs Briggs, who lived next door when I was a girl, owned a ginger cat. It used to hiss at me. Bacon, when it’s cooking, reminds me of that bloody cat.” “Then we won’t have bacon. Can I boil you an egg?” “I usually just have a cup of coffee and a slice of toast for breakfast. I don’t want to get fat.” “Go on, spoil yourself.” “All right, but just the one.” The man plucks his empty egg shell, streaked with yellow, from its cup. He drops it in the bin beneath the sink. He’s thin. Perhaps he isn’t well. He says, “Do you mind if I have another one?” Alice says, “Help yourself.”

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“My dad taught me how to cook a six-minute egg. He was particular about that.” “Are you my son-in-law?” “No, dear. I’m Madge’s son.” “Oh, yes. How is Madge these days?” The man drops two slices of white bread in the toaster. “I don’t know.” “Oh dear.” “Her full name’s Marjorie, of course, but everybody calls her Madge.” Alice remembers. “You were here last night, weren’t you?” “Yes, you made me very welcome. Isn’t Mum awake yet?” “I don’t think so.” “I expect she sleeps a lot. She must be quite old now.” Alice thinks, Past her sell-by date, I expect, like me. She recovers the thread of polite conversation. “Did you sleep well?” “Like a log. And you?” “As well as can be expected, thank you.” He serves her a perfect soft-boiled egg, its white firm, its yolk congealing but still liquid, and a slice of buttered toast. Alice cuts her toast into little soldiers. The man says, “My daughter doesn’t know I’m here.” “Your daughter?” “I’ve run away from home.” “Oh dear.” “Not my own home. That’s been sold. My daughter put me in an old folks’ home. They call it assisted living, but it’s really just a place to store me till I die, isn’t it?” “Oh, I hope not.” “Oh, I think so. Anyway, I escaped.” “How exciting.” Alice removes a sliver of shell from her tongue. Discreetly. The man says, “I want to see my mum again before I kick the bucket.” “I expect she’ll be pleased to see you.” “I hope so. I’m a bit nervous. She never quite forgave me for moving to America. She used to get upset when I visited. It’s been a 76


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while since I saw her. Five years, maybe. Ten? I can’t remember exactly. I’ve been having trouble with my memory. That’s why Jenny put me in a home.” “Jenny?” “My daughter.” “Yes, of course. How is Jenny?” “Short-tempered, as usual.” “Oh dear.” “I decided to give my mum another chance to forgive me. I bought myself a plane ticket online. I’ve got cash in the bank from the sale of my house. My British passport’s still good, too. I renewed it before I was put away.” “I expect your daughter thought it was for the best.” “I didn’t tell her I’d renewed it.” “I mean having someone look after you.” “She didn’t want to care for me herself. Sometimes when she visits me, I pretend not to recognize her. It pleases her. She can leave sooner that way, and she can feel she did the right thing putting me away.” “So, how did you escape? Did you use a gun?” He laughs. She remembers Mario’s laugh. He says, “Nothing as drastic as that. I called a taxi. It was Sunday morning, so I told the girl at the front desk I was going to church. She seemed pleased. I like to please people.” “My mother used to say you can’t please everybody. My mother was quite religious.” “I’d like to please my mum.” “It isn’t always easy.” “May I call you Alice? You can call me Alec.” She tries it. “Alec.” He says, “The problem, Alice, was my luggage. I could hardly walk out past the desk on my way to church toting a bright purple suitcase.” “The girl at the desk would have been suspicious.” “Exactly. You’re on the ball. So I got in the taxi, told the driver to take me to the airport, and then said, ‘Wait a second! I’ve forgotten my luggage. Just stop here a minute.’ We were round the back by then, passing the window to my ground floor apartment. I’d left it open, with my suit77


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case on the bed where I could reach it. So I lifted my suitcase out through the window—its’s just a small one, you saw it, doesn’t weigh much— climbed back in the taxi, and off we went. Nobody had seen a thing.” “An adventure. Like in the films.” “I was clever, wasn’t I? The cabby acted like it was normal for old people to forget things. I do remember it was snowing when I left, though. That’s why I wore my winter coat.” “It’s so puffy.” “What?” “Your coat.” “It’s full of goose feathers.” “Like the Marx Brothers film.” “That was Horse Feathers.” “Horses don’t have feathers.” The doorbell rings. She knows because Alec says, “Shall I answer it?” “Please.” She’s sure that horses don’t have feathers, even in America. Angels have feathers, but they hide them when they have to be food critics. He returns with a pretty young woman. Where did he find her? The girl says, “Hello, Mrs. Bracknell. How are you this morning?” Her red hair’s done up in a tidy bun, but she has an earring in her nose. Alice says, “As well as can be expected, thank you.” “I see you’ve got a visitor. That’s nice.” Alice agrees. “I’m Molly. One of your carers. You remember me, don’t you?” “Of course.” But she doesn’t. “Would you like a cup of tea?” Alec says, “Or a boiled egg, perhaps?” The nurse says, “No, thanks. I’m just here to take Mrs. Bracknell’s blood pressure and to make sure she takes her pills.” Alec says, “I’ll go check on Mum, then, while you sit with Alice.” The nurse begins her routine, strapping something black and rubbery to Alice’s arm. It looks like a dead squid. Its tentacles tighten. The nurse says, “Is your visitor a family member?” Alice says, “I don’t think so. He’s come all the way from America.” “Has he now? Did he bring his mum with him?” 78


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“No?” “Your blood pressure’s up a bit today, but nothing to worry about.” The nurse tries to tease Alice. “Maybe he’s an old flame.” Alice doesn’t like being teased. “I’ve never seen him before.” It’s the grip of the squid that’s raising her blood pressure. “Maybe you just forgot him.” Alice snaps, “I don’t forget everything.” “Most of us are forgetful in the end. Our brains are like attics. With all the gubbage of a lifetime in there, we’re bound to lose track of things. Here’s your medicine.” Alice knocks back five pills of different shapes and colors with a chaser of tap water. The nurse says, “Anything else you need while I’m here?” “No.” Her mother’s voice insists. “Thank you.” The nurse writes notes in an exercise book she keeps in one of Alice’s cupboards. She’s probably writing, “Mrs Bracknell was grumpy today.” Alice will have to hide the book from her mother. Alice likes the nurse’s pen: it has little pictures of Paddington Bear on it. Alec returns. He says, “I can’t find her.” The nurse says, “Who are you looking for, Mr . . . ?” “Potter. Alec Potter.” He offers his hand. The nurse puts her pen down on the table. She stands to shake Alec’s hand. Alec says, “Can I have a word with you? In private?” “Of course. Why don’t you walk me to my car?” Alec says, “Wait here, Alice. I’ll be right back.” The nurse has left her Paddington Bear pen. Alice pockets it. She carries the dirty dishes to the sink. She scrubs the yolk before it hardens. Her mother always made her do that. Her mother didn’t give her many presents. Alec comes back. He looks upset. “That nurse says she’s never heard of my mum.” Alice thinks, That makes two of us. “She says this is your house, not my mum’s.” Alice is relieved. Alec says, “This was Mum’s house. I know it was. I lived here for nearly twenty years. Dad moved into my bedroom after I left. There 79


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are daffodils in the back garden.” He points through the window over the sink. “There, see, daffodils. And the old willow’s budding, just like it always did. I used to hide in its branches.” Alice says, “Would you like a brandy?” “I have to find my mum.” Alice feels helpless. “I don’t know where she is.” “She must have moved away. After my last visit. She was angry at me. I remember. We quarreled, I think.” “Oh dear.” “How long have you lived here?” “A long time.” “How long?” “I don’t know. Five years?” “Who sold you the house?” Too many questions panic her. “I don’t know. It was empty when I moved in. I don’t remember.” She has too few answers. “Mum must have sold it to you and then moved away. I didn’t put her in an old folks home. Don’t you know where she went?” “No.” “I don’t know what to do.” “We could phone the vicar?” The man looks baffled. Alice says, “He might know where your mother went.” “Mum never went to church.” “Vicars know everybody in their parish.” “No, they bloody don’t.” “They’re bloody supposed to.” He wipes tears on the sleeve of his jumper. “You can phone him if you like.” Alice goes into the hall, where she keeps the phone. She’s written the old vicar’s number on the front of the phone book. He’s retired now. She doesn’t like the new one; he’s frenetic. Alice presses buttons carefully. “Hello . . . Father Colin? . . . Alice Bracknell here . . . As well as can be expected, thank you. And yourself? . . . Oh dear, that’s quite painful, isn’t it? . . . I see . . . Yes, the rain’s good for the garden . . . My daffs are lovely at this time of the year. How are yours? . . . It was nice of you to phone

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and ask . . . Thank you. I will.” She puts the phone down, and potters back to the kitchen. “Such a nice man,” she tells her guest. “What did he say?” “He fell and scraped his knee.” “About my mum?” “Does he know your mother?” “You were going to ask him.” “Was I?” “Yes.” “Sometimes I forget things.” She’s embarrassed. “Shall I call him?” “No,” she says. “I’ll try again. I have to beat this bloody loss of memory.” The man follows her. She presses buttons.. “Hello . . . Father Colin? . . . Alice Bracknell again. . . As well as can be expected, thank you . . . Sorry. Yes, I know.” Alec says, “About my mum.” “Sorry to interrupt, Father, but I need some help . . . I have a visitor from America . . . Yes, most unexpected . . . His name’s Billy Cotton.” Alec says, “Alec Potter.” “Potter, not Cotton. Billy Potter . . . No, it’s Alec Potter . . . You do? . . . Oh good. He’s come all the way from America to see his mother, but she’s not here. Well, she wouldn’t be, would she, because it’s my house now, the nurse said so, but he remembers her daffodils and her willow tree. His mother’s, that is. Her name’s Margaret Cotton.” Alec says, “Marjorie Potter.” “Pardon? . . . Yes, that’s right. Madge Potter . . . You remember her? . . . Oh, good, he’ll be so pleased. He’s a very nice man . . . Yes, he’s here now. Do you want to talk to him?” Alec reaches for the phone. Alice says, “That’s very kind of you . . . No, we’re not going anywhere.” She puts the phone down. “He says he’ll be right over.” •

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The doorbell rings again. It’s one of those days. Alice can’t remember when she last had so many visitors. She can’t decide whether to retire to bed with a headache or enjoy herself. Her mother would have announced a headache, and soldiered on regardless. Alec answers the door. Father Colin’s wearing a matching black trilby and overcoat. He says, “You must be Alec Potter.” Alice says, “Take his overcoat, Alec.” Alec does as he’s told. He hangs the hat and overcoat in the cupboard under the stairs. It’s getting nicely crowded in there. Alice admires Father Colin’s tweed jacket. She says, “Would you like a cup of tea?” The priest says, “Thank you, Alice. That would be very welcome.” “Take Father Colin through to the lounge, Alec. I’ll put the kettle on.” Father Colin’s a tall man. He was quite handsome once, in a stretched kind of way, but now his neck leans forward, as if unable to support the weight of his head. His dog collar doesn’t help. He uses a walking stick. “My knee,” he explains. By the time Alice makes it into the lounge, balancing the tea things on her mother’s silver tray, the two men are chatting away quite happily, it seems. Politely, anyway. You never can tell. Father Colin’s saying, “Your mother used to serve me tea in this very room.” Alice says, “You’ll recognize her tray, then.” The man says, “That’s not Mum’s silver tray, is it?” Alice says, “Of course not. It belonged to my mother.” Father Colin says, “Actually, I meant Alec’s mother.” Alice insists. “It’s not her tray.” “I know. She served me tea in this same room, but of course she used a different tray.” Alice knew she was right. Alec says. “The vicar remembers my mum.” “That’s nice.” Alice serves everyone tea. She offers shortbread. She’ll have to buy some more soon if visitors keep arriving at this rate. Maybe she’ll buy a cake. She likes a nice moist sponge cake. She has a cup

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and saucer left over. She must have miscounted. She says, “The church looks lovely full of spring flowers, doesn’t it?” Father Colin agrees. Alice has second thoughts. “I wasn’t in church last week, was I?” “It’s been a while since you were able to make it.” She tells Alec, “I used to be in charge of arranging the flowers.” Alec says, “I don’t suppose Mum took flowers to the church.” Father Colin says, “Not very often, anyway.” “I need to find her.” “Yes, of course.” “You said you’d tell me where she is. Once we’d had our tea.” “Yes.” Father Colin says, “I did.” He makes an effort to raise his head, supporting his chin with the back of his hands. “I’m afraid,” he says, “your mother’s dead.” Alec stares at nothing. His lip quivers. Alice remembers again that her own mother’s dead. She died of a stroke. An odd word. Nothing gentle about it. More like a cricket bat to the brain. Alec says, “When did she die?” Father Colin says, “Fourteen years ago.” Alec says, “Why did no one tell me?” “I believe I phoned you.” “I don’t remember.” “You said you wouldn’t be coming to the funeral.” “Why would I say that?” “You said the two of you had quarreled.” “I don’t remember a damn thing.” Alice reaches across and pats Alec’s shoulder. She says, “My mother’s dead, too. Someone hit her with a cricket bat.” He says, “ Fourteen years? Are you sure?” Father Colin says, “Yes.” “But I remember coming to visit her.” “That must have been at least twenty years ago, before I knew her.” Alec says, “Shit, shit, shit!” He begins to cry. The doorbell rings. Father Colin said, “Could you get that, Alice?”

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Alice shuffles into the hall. She checks her face in the mirror. It’s ancient. Bugger! She turns the key, slides the deadbolt back, and opens the door. A policeman’s waiting in the rain. He’s Indian. His car’s parked at the kerb. She thinks, He’s hardly old enough to be shaving. He says, “Mrs Bracknell?” “Yes?” “I’m Police Constable Chaudhry.” She feels like saying, “And I’m Lady Bracknell.” But she doesn’t. “May I ask if you’ve had any visitors in the last twenty-four hours?” She knows the answer to that one. “Oh, yes. Several. Father Colin’s here now.” “Anyone else?” “An American came yesterday.” “I see. May I come in?” “Of course.” She stands back. “Would you like a cup of tea?” The Indian wipes his shoes carefully on the bristled doormat. “Thank you.” “Go on through to the lounge. I think you’ll find an empty chair. I’ll put the kettle on.” Father Colin says, “There’s still tea in the pot, Alice.” She’s losing track of things. She follows the policeman into the lounge. Perhaps he’s Pakistani. Her American guest stands. Father Colin stays seated. “Forgive me,” he says. “My knee.” The policeman addresses the American. “Would you be Alec Potter, sir?” Father Colin says, “Mr Potter’s just found out that his mother’s dead.” The policeman says, “I’m sorry to hear that. Recently?” Father Colin says, “She died fourteen years ago. But he’d forgotten.” Alec sniffles. The policeman says, “This may be a bad time, sir, but I have to tell you something.” “Not more bad news?” “On the contrary, sir. Finding you is very good news.” “How come?” 84


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“Your daughter’s been very worried, sir.” Alec says, “Why should she be worried?” “You disappeared, sir. She reported you missing.” “I thought she’d be glad to be rid of me.” “Apparently not, sir.” “She wanted to put me in an old folks home.” “I don’t know anything about that, sir.” “I told her, if she did, I’d escape, and she’d never see me again.” Alice could have sworn he’d already escaped from an old people’s home. The doorbell rings. This time it’s the red-haired girl with the earring in her nose. She wonders if she left her pen behind. Her husband gave it to her. She daren’t lose it. Alice pours the girl a cup of tea. Alec says, “How did my daughter find me?” “She didn’t, sir. We did. You paid for all your travel with a credit card, and you gave the airline this contact address. You weren’t hard to find.” The girl with the earring in her nose says, “What a lot of visitors, Mrs Bracknell.” Alice says, “One’s a policeman. All the way from India.” Alec says, “I don’t want to go back to America. I don’t like living with my daughter and I don’t want to be shunted off to an old farts home.” The policeman says, “You might do well to phone your daughter, sir.” “She’ll be angry with me.” The girl with the earring in her nose says, “I’ll look in the kitchen.” Alice says, “Finish your tea first, dear.” Alec turns to Father Colin. “Is my mum buried in the churchyard?” The priest says, “Yes, she is.” Alec says, “I want to stay here.” “In the village?” “Yes, where I grew up. That way at least I’ll know where I am when I forget everything else.” The policeman says, “And where will you be staying, sir?” 85


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Alice knows what she has to do. She says, “I have a spare room.” Father Colin says, “Are you sure that’s wise, Alice?” Alice says, “It’s what my mother would have wanted.” Her mother would never have let her guests stay with Asians. The policeman says, “It’s really none of my business, ma’am, but you hardly know Mr Potter.” Alec says, “I make a really nice boiled egg.” She says, “You tell nice stories, too.” “My daughter never has time for stories.” “I liked the story of how you escaped from assisted living.” “I made that up, I’m afraid.” “It would have been much more exciting if you’d used a gun.” “Next time I’ll use a gun.” “Mario had a gun.” “Who’s Mario?” Alice smiles. Maybe she’ll tell him. Maybe she won’t. Father Colin says again, “Are you sure this is wise, Alice?” The girl with the earring in her nose returns from the kitchen. “I can’t find my Padddington Bear pen anywhere. Have you seen it, Alice?” Alice puts her hand in her pocket. She says, “No.”

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Drunk in Bed Thinking about My Eternal Reward Michael Derrick Hudson

I hope it won’t be some wingtip-to-wingtip shuffle in the pink-andwhite glare of the forever-and-ever. Or the incessant tinkle of silvery chimes and the jingle-jangle of bohemian angels loafing in sandals and eternally smirking over their guitars to their own insufferable strums. Nope, I’d prefer heaven to be a short wait in a small beige room with all my favorite magazines, a place to thumb through the cartoons and hum along to something nice until I’m beckoned to see God, who wears a green silk tie embroidered with tiny gold horseshoes under his lab coat and a University of Wisconsin class ring on his finger. Which is to say I’d have God be a professional, with lean forearms and hairy wrists like the best chiropractor in town, that guy who can immediately straighten all your bones – knuckles neck, jaw, knees and spine – with one blindingly painful but momentary jerk that’ll forever end this skeleton of mine and 88


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all its nods and shrugs, its kneelings and chatters. Then afterwards, cracked open and shucked I’ll just leak away, spotting the carpet and shivering in God’s air-conditioning reduced to the slushy green pith rendered from my own celestial glop. And God will fold his arms, muscular but lean, across the vast empty pink granite mausoleum of his chest and chuckle and say to me as if he means it: You’re okay now. You’re fine. It’s okay.

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Feeling Sorry for Myself after Failing to Conquer Mount Everest Michael Derrick Hudson

The troposphere has scoured me to a mote. I’ll rest a minute huffing oxygen on this trash-strewn ridge, but only for a minute – up here, death tends to keep you around as a souvenir: yonder sat Hannelore Schmatz for about ten years, a hundred meters above Camp IV, eyes open and strands of long blonde hair working free of her ponytail, until winter gusts shoved her on down the Kangshung Face. But we climbers want to be spooked, juddering past the occasional freeze-dried corpse snagged on fraying ropes, bent crampons strapped to fifteen-years-ago boots. Lucky me! How these bones and cairns, the venerable debris and fluttering pink shreds of the Buddhist prayer flags all lend gravity to our questionable purpose. Brrrrr. Memento mori. Boo! So why this high-tech mortification? Bankrupt, dehydrated and friendless, my weeks are spent 91


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swaddled in shit-smutched polypropylene and malfunctioning electronics, knelt before a cooling mess of hundred-dollar noodles. Thoughts lose cohesion, slough away in vast spiraling declensions of the self. So farewell, niggling me! I forgot the question, the usual why bothers. Time flakes and spalls. At the top, so they tell me, nothing’s to be found. No woohoos. No spectacular views, thank God. Thank God.

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Contributors John C. Bennett is in his second year at the University of Montana’s MFA program. He is a poetry editor for CutBank and the recipient of the 2013 Greta Wrolstad Travel Award. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Stand Magazine, Concho River Review, The Evansville Review and The Manila Envelope. Jill Birdsall’s stories can be read in Alaska Quarterly Review, American Fiction, Ascent, Chicago Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Emerson Review, Gargoyle, Iowa Review, Painted Bride Quarterly Review, Potomac Review, Southern Humanities Review and Story Quarterly. An MFA graduate of Columbia University’s School of the Arts, 2013 awards include Eckleburg’s Gertrude Stein Award and Potomac Review’s Short Fiction Award. Jill has recently completed a short story collection and a novel. John F. Buckley and Martin Ott began their ongoing games of poetic volleyball in the spring of 2009. Their previous collaboration Poets’ Guide to America was published by Brooklyn Arts Press in 2012, featuring poems published in more than forty journals and anthologies, including A Bird as Black as the Sun, City of the Big Shoulders, Confrontation, Evergreen Review, Post Road and ZYZZYVA. They have recently completed a second volume of collaborative poems, the television-themed The Yankee Broadcast Network, and are now working on a third, American Wonder, about superheroes and supervillains. Christine Estima’s work has appeared in The New Quarterly, The Malahat Review, Descant Literary Journal, Room Magazine, Bitch Magazine, Matrix Magazine, The Grid, CBC, UKULA, the literary anthology TOK: Writing the New Toronto Book 1, and the travel anthology Navigating Customs (Cumulus Press). She has an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies from York University and is currently writing her second novel. Max Harris was born in England, received his PhD from the University of Virginia, and now lives in Madison, WI. He is the author of five nonfiction books, including Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools (Cornell University Press, 2011), and several short stories publised in A capella Zoo, Amoskeag, and other journals further along in the alphabet. His work has won the Otto Gründler Book Prize, the Wisconsin Academy Review/Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops Short Story Contest, and a few other awards.

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Tom Holmes is the editor of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose and the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently The Cave, which won The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013 and will be released in 2014. His writings about wine, poetry book reviews, and poetry can be found at his blog, The Line Break: http://thelinebreak.wordpress.com/. Claire Huber: For me, the individual is a fascinating thing, and so I draw people. I draw the ones I know well, the ones I’ve just met, and the ones I don’t know at all. The human face is the most prominent visual object in our social environment. Even in a brief interaction, there are intimate details you can learn merely by looking at someone. I find beauty in the slight idiosyncracies and minute quirks of the human face that make it distinctive. Whenever I embark on a new drawing, I find that it is in inclusion of seemingly arbitrary details that enable me to capture the essence of an individual. With simplistic medium of graphite, ballpoint pen and marker on paper, I use a modified crosshatching technique to create my work. I start by choosing a particuliar point on the face, and gradually build the faces outward, line by line, mark by mark. Michael Derrick Hudson lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana where he works at the Allen County Public Library on the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) at The Genealogy Center. His poems have appeared in Columbia, Georgia Review, Gulf Coast, Iowa Review, North American Review, New Letters, Washington Square, and other journals. He won the River Styx 2009 International Poetry Contest, the Madison Review’s 2009 Phyllis Smart Young Prize, and the 2010 and 2013 New Ohio Review Prize for Poetry. In 2011 one of his poems was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Greensboro Review. Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s stories, essays and reviews have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The Greensboro Review, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Poets & Writers Magazine and the Colorado Review. Most recently, she has been completing a story collection during residencies at the Jentel Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Ms. Kelly is the Book Review Editor for fiction and nonfiction titles at the Colorado Review. Victoria Kelly received her B.A. from Harvard University, her M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her M.Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin, where she was a U.S. Mitchell Scholar. Her poetry has appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Alaska Quarterly Review, Harpur Palate, Nimrod and Prairie Schooner. 94


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Daniel Lowe teaches writing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and received his MFA in fiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh. His fiction and poetry have appeared in West Branch, The Nebraska Review, The Montana Review, The Wisconsin Review, The Writing Room, The Bridge, The Paterson Literary Review, Ellipsis, Blue Stem, Midway journal, and other literary journals and anthologies. The story that appears in The Madison Review is part of a collection of stories titled The Things I Took With Me I Never Recovered. Although not as old as the eucalyptus which dot the California landscape, Lee Rossi is among the oldest living transplants to the state. His poems have appeared widely and been frequently anthologized, for instance in Grand Passion: The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond and Blue Arc West: An Anthology of California Poets. Currently he makes his home in the San Francisco Bay area.

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THE FRIENDS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON LIBRARIES The Friends honor The Madison Review for its four-decade support of literacy in America, and for the creativity of its undergraduate staff of organizers and editors. The Friends of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, founded in 1947, is one of the oldest library freinds groups in the U.S. The Friends are dedicated to the enrichment and enhancement of the UW-Madison campus libraries. The Friends activities include • A huge semiannual book sale each spring and fall • Fundraising to support library resources and preservation activies • Grants to campus libraries for special purchases • Supporting the annual Libraries Magazine, biannual newsletters, and other publications • Grants-in-aid to visiting international scholars to use the great resources of the campus libraries • Support for School of Library and Information Studies students so they can attend national workshops • Supporting students who contribute to, edit, and produce ILLUMINATION: The Undergraduate Journal of the Humanities • Supporting student-led poetry events through readings during the year •Bringing speakers and lecturers to campus The friends of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries would welcome your membership. For more information, please visit the Friends website at www.library.wisc.edu/friends or contact us at friends@library.wisc.edu, 608-265-2505

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The Madison Review Presents the

PHYLLIS SMART YOUNG PRIZE IN POETRY & CHRIS O’MALLEY PRIZE IN FICTION The Madison Review annually hosts the Phyllis Smart Young Prize in Poetry and the Chris O’Malley Prize in Fiction. The finest unpublished short story and triad of unpublished poems are awarded $1,000 and publication in an issue of The Madison Review! Submissions accepted December 1st - February 1st Please visit our website for more information and submission guidelines: www.english.wisc.edu/madisonreview

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is now accepting

Fiction | Graphic Fiction Poetry | Non-Fiction visit http://english.wisc.edu/devilslake/submit.html to submit

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Victoria Kelly | John F. Buckley and Martin Ott Jill Birdsall | Michael Derrick Hudson John C. Bennett | Christine Estima Max Harris | Claire Huber Daniel Lowe | Thiahera Nurse Lee Rossi | Matthew Fee Tom Holmes | Jennifer Kelly

Profile for The Madison Review

The Madison Review Fall 2013  

The Madison Review features original fiction and poetry from writers all across the country. It is student staffed and edited in Madison, WI...

The Madison Review Fall 2013  

The Madison Review features original fiction and poetry from writers all across the country. It is student staffed and edited in Madison, WI...