Volume 19 Fall

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There are groups of us, in pockets around the world, whose tastes lean a bit toward the eccentric. . . volume 19, Fall 2018

faculty editor Curtis VanDonkelaar

managing editors Martha Spall Ashita Nichanametla Ben Bland

editorial staff Isis Woods John Westendorf

Kennedi Lurry Sydney Landon

Lauren Tiedje

Olivia Caswell

Breana Rich

Casey Boland

Mary Nguyen Autumn Miller

Najiang An Camille Allen

special thanks Julie Taylor Paulina Minnebo Katie Dudlets

T. Geronimo Johnson Matthew Gavin Frank Heid E. Erdrich

Madison Chaffer


Copyright Š 2018 by Michigan State University Printed by Thomson-Shore Dexter, Michigan 48130 Printed and bound in the United Stated of America. 21 20 19 18

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

ISBN: 978-0-9978151-6-0 Book Design by Ashita Nichanametla Cover Art by Hannah Miller www.2198hannah.wixsite.com/mysite Interior Art by Brady Carlson Banner Art designed by starline / Freepik

The Offbeat is published biannually by Michigan State University. To see previous issues or view our submission guildlines, visit offbeat.msu.edu. The Offbeat accepts and appreciates donations. Communications to The Offbeat can be sent to 235 Bessey Hall, 434 Farm Ln, East Lansing, MI 48824, or email us at offbeatmsu@gmail.com.




Editors' Note It all started with goats. Our work on the Vol. 19 | Fall 2018 issue of The Offbeat was largely inspired by them. Destructive, hungry goats with a taste for family heirlooms. Like our Caprinaen counterparts, a cataclysmic appetite overtook us—although ours was a hankering for good literature. Contributors and staff alike at The Offbeat are often inspired by unconventional animal muses. Some of our personal favorite pieces over the last year have featured a preserved cat corpse, forewarnings of bull genitalia, and nasty waterborne parasites. Sometimes we read a piece so delightfully absurd we must pause from sifting through digital stacks of submissions that, were they printed and piled on the desk before us, would easily reach the tops of our heads (and Ben is very tall). At this juncture, we sit back admiringly, stroke the imaginary billy goat scruffs on our chins, and send the link to our managerial group chat with a simple directive: “Read this. It’s crazy. I love it.” Of course, we love to run with the zany ideas we receive at The Offbeat. We had a piece about goats. We had pieces that got down with the occult (a favorite topic of our contributors). We had a piece about a beguiling hybrid of woman and animal. Naturally, this issue’s theme materialized from all of that: ASTROLOGY AND THE ZODIAC. You’ll notice that Capricorn graces our cover. This is intentional. It’s all connected. Today is a good day to lose yourself in the delightful absurdity of the pieces herein. They hold a great combination of energies that will release you from the humdrum of rainy late autumn (or the humidity of midsummer; literature is eternal). Approach them with flair and courage. Goats. Martha Spall, Ashita Nichanametla, and Ben Bland Managing Editors



Contents Volume 19 | Fall 2018


1

A Tribe of Goats Kemal Onor Fiction

12

2

11

Artificial Sweetener Sarah Kasbeer Fiction

Warning: Contents May Have Shifted During Flight Claire Scott Poetry

14

15

Field of Poppies Lauren H. Smith Creative Nonfiction

Smiles for the Jade Punks of Yesterday Matthew A. Toll Poetry

ICE Matthew A. Toll Poetry

16

18

20

Speed Dating Paul Curley Fiction

The Roo Daniel Harvey Poetry

29 30

Pigeon Trees Susanne Braham Fiction

Marriage Chris Bullard Fiction

Beaver Fever Andrew Marshall Creative Nonfiction

31

Get Well Soon Larry D. Thacker Poetry


32

A Humble Request Matthew Duffus Fiction

39 40

Today’s Lesson Christopher Fields Poetry

My Life with the Cloud Daniel Hudon Fiction

43 44 46

Magnet in My Kitchen Floor Toni La Ree Bennett Poetry

52

Born Again John Wojtowicz Poetry

Fishsticks Christine Byrne Poetry

53 54

Recipe for Succstress Fern G. Z. Carr Poetry

60 62 H. P. Ken Farrell Poetry

Gaslight Graham Guest Fiction

Eyes Like Milk Austin Allie Fiction

The Matriarch Lynn Brearley Creative Nonfiction

67

Last Will and Bone Dick Altman Poetry


68

Dialogue on Darkness Dick Altman Poetry

78

The Properties of Matter Joel Peckham Poetry

70 75

Lumps, Wild Ass, and The Papal Bull David Mulder Fiction

84

Veronique Offered a Toe Karen Lee Boren Fiction

Another Night Shift at the Shell Station Jacob Little Creative Nonfiction

87

Through the Window Gregg Williard Sequential Art

92 104 105

Combination People Angelica M. Garcia Fiction

A Fairly Convincing List My Grandpa Is a Ghost Chris McLain Fiction

Our Gun Mark Brazaitis Fiction

110

111

112

How Do You Pronounce Inevitable Adam Becker Poetry

On the Feeling That Follows Failure Adam Becker Poetry

Alternative Definitions Richard LeBlond Creative Nonfiction


117

Sketching Sad Dolls Jennifer Burnau Poetry

118 122

The Abridged Recipes of St. Agnes Ryan Haybermeyer Fiction

Mother’s Day Melissa Knox Poetry

123 126 134

The Booger Man James Hartman Fiction

Leaving Farm Dawn Burns Creative Nonfiction

Leaving Farm: The Vow Rebecca Miller Poetry





The Offbeat

A Tribe of Goats Kemal Onor One morning, I woke to find a tribe of goats in my living room. It was early—the sun not present. The goats’ chewing was what woke me. Their stomachs collectively shook the house. I could hear them stripping the walls, rending the wallpaper with their teeth. I thought of the photos, likely now in some middle-state between eaten and digested. For a while, I listened as the goats consumed the room where I once told stories to children. It seemed rather rude for such goats to show up uninvited. Had I known, I might have been better prepared. Getting out of bed, I walked into the living room. The goats had piled the photos in a heap in the middle of the floor. They continued to devour the room with no notice of me. Perhaps if I had taken a picture of the scene, I could have made an insurance claim. But goats are not able to show up without someone else to put them there. I was also positive my home insurance did not cover goats. There were nine in total. Each marked with black and white spots and long hairs on their chins. They worked as well as any disassembly line. Taking apart the furniture piece by piece. The goats were so taken by their work that they made no attempt to stop me from making my way to the pile of photographs. The organization was that of a deck of cards. I pulled the top three from the pile and fanned them out. Two of them were from a trip I took as a boy, the other of me reading in this very room. I studied the one of me reading. Comparing the room to what it was, to what it had become with the goats. The scene was quite different; the children wearing sweaters and sprawled out on the couches, hanging off my every word. The walls had been decorated as well, and those decoration, I was sure, were the first things to be eaten. The room had changed beyond repair, and I knew there was nothing I could do to change it back. I returned the photos to the pile and attempted to sleep as the goats ate the whole house.

Kemal Onor | 1


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Winner Artificial Sweetener

2018 Fiction Contest

Sarah Kasbeer Emily stayed home from work in anticipation of Koko’s arrival. Would he come Monday afternoon? Tuesday morning? It was hard to tell from the cryptic email she’d received from the seller. Ten days arrives. Did that mean ten days after she’d made the order, or ten days after it’d shipped? Since packages had a habit of going missing from her building lobby, she’d taken the whole week off, just to be safe. For the past three days, she’d only gone grocery shopping at night when she knew delivery services would not be operating. She’d spent the days mopping and dusting, readying his new living space. She’d even bought a pink baby blanket and a white crib for him to sleep in at the foot of her bed. After catching a segment of 60 Minutes with Morley Safer in which baby harp seals, designed in an Osaka robotics lab, comforted Japanese tsunami victims, she knew she had to have one. The furry seals laid across patients’ chests, lifting and cocking their heads, cooing and blinking, as if responding to touch. They were basically just stuffed animals with yellow pacifiers connecting them to their power cords. Still, a single robot cost over $5,000, and only a limited number were available in the U.S., most of which were rationed out to dementia patients. Her mother was the first to point out the absurdity of her new interest, responding with what Emily considered a backhanded suggestion. “Why don’t you get a damn dog?” she said during one of their recent phone calls, when Emily had brought up idea of getting a therapeutic seal. Her mother had a knack for suggesting things she thought might help her daughter’s problems that were also insulting, like “I’ll bet Botox will get rid of your headaches,” or “You should try Spanx.”

2 | Sarah Kasbeer


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Emily liked dogs and enjoyed watching them frolic on a narrow strip of muddy grass at the dog run down the street from her apartment. But once, as she stood outside the gate gazing in, a poodle looked her directly in the eye as it was exiting, then kept turning his head around as it was walking away. It made her feel guilty, like the dog knew something it wasn’t letting on. She thought it might be about the time she dogsat for a friend, and the dog had just sat in the room and stared at her for two days straight. At the time, she worked two jobs—one as a data entry specialist during the day and another as a waitress at night, and by the time she got home, her brain had nearly overheated. On the second night, she asked, “What is it? What do you want?” The dog put its head down. That’s when she realized she hadn’t given it any food or water since she arrived. Hopefully it had been drinking out of the toilet, but still, she felt terrible for forgetting. Her mother had often suggested that Emily should not, under any circumstances, have children but never offered much explanation as to why. “It would just be awful,” she said. When Emily discovered the listing on a Japanese marketplace for a robotic stuffed seal with a description that had been translated into English, she knew this was the one. It read, Seal Type Mental Robot Used. Just making eye contact with his image through the screen made her insides glow, like in one of those heat maps the therapist had shown her, which reveal how emotions manifest themselves physically in the human body.

h Emily wasn’t sure what hole in her life the robotic seal was supposed to fill—only that it needed filling. She’d read that women with cats as their primary companion reported the same general level of satisfaction as those who kept human partners. But there was something about cats that rubbed her the wrong way, that reminded her of her mother. They weren’t particularly affectionate unless they wanted something—and seemed to always be judging from afar. So when she found out about robotic seals, it felt as if the sky had opened.

Sarah Kasbeer | 3


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The name Koko had appealed to her because she read it meant stork in Japanese. He arrived in a brown cardboard package on a warm October morning, just a few minutes after eleven o’clock. She carried the box indoors and opened it lovingly with a butter knife, which she had to really jam through the brown shipping tape in order to break the seal. Koko didn’t come in his official How to Care for Your Therapeutic Seal box, since she’d bought him used from an unauthorized dealer, but no matter—she’d already read all of the directions online and watched an excessive number of YouTube videos that featured elderly people in recliners listlessly stroking their new pet’s head. Caring for a robot would be easy, she thought. Koko was supposed to be able to readjust his personality to match the needs of any owner. When she got her first glimpse of white fur, her heart leapt into her esophagus, then pinballed back down into her diaphragm. She pulled Koko’s whole body out and held him up, her thumbs against his armpits, her forefingers stuffed under his front flippers. He was girthier than she had envisioned, like a chubby little missile covered in soft polyester fur. His eyes remained closed, but she knew they’d been designed larger than an actual seal’s to make the emotional connection feel more natural, and his mouth smaller, so he wouldn’t appear threatening. She instinctively pulled him to her chest and rocked back and forth. The motion lulled her into a relaxed but not catatonic state—definitely her sweet spot. “You’re safe now,” she whispered into his ear, her eyes closed. Only then did she notice that his fur was slightly matted. It hadn’t occurred to her that someone would have voluntarily given Koko up. In a rocker by the window, she sat down, plugged his charger into the wall, and placed the pacifier into his mouth. The maple trees, now a mix of empty branches and yellow leaves, scraped the light blue sky above. In just a few short hours, her seal would be fully charged and they could meet for the first time. She closed her eyes and waited.

h When Koko finished charging, she set him flat on her dresser before pressing the button behind his back flippers. He needed a sturdy location from which to regain his bearings—to re-awaken from his 4 | Sarah Kasbeer


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deep sleep after the great journey he made while inside of the FedEx plane. His eyelids, fringed with long lashes, opened slowly, revealing two glossy black orbs that moved back and forth to survey the room before settling on her. “Hello,” she said, not sure whether she should make any sudden moves. He lifted his head and cocked it to one side, as if sizing her up. She slowly took a step closer and reached her hand toward his cheek. “It’s okay, Koko,” she said softly, lightly stroking the side of his neck, expecting a gentle cooing noise in response. But as soon as her fingertips grazed his fur, something happened that had never been described in any of the user manuals: Koko emitted the sonic equivalent of a bloodcurdling scream. Emily gasped and took a step back. It was the kind of sound she’d only read about in novels—ones where urban explorers visited sub-Saharan jungles and were kept awake by what they believed to be the squeals of small children being tortured. Instead, it always turned out to be the mating calls of tiny tree-dwelling mammals. But Koko was no tree-dwelling mammal. He was a house-dwelling robotic harp seal meant to provide comfort and companionship to the already distressed. He put his head down, closed his eyes, and moved his front flippers forward and backward before lifting it back up, opening his eyes, and looking directly at her. He screamed again. And again. She ran into the bathroom, put the seat down, and covered her ears, waiting for the high-pitched wailing to stop. Maybe getting used to a new human would just take some time? There was always the option to turn his volume down, but she quivered at the thought of faint baby seal cries. When silence fell over the apartment again, she took a deep breath and tiptoed slowly back out into the hallway so the hardwood didn’t creak. Peering into her bedroom through a crack below the door hinge, she could see Koko still on top of her dresser. His eyes were open. She knew she could also resort to turning him off, but that seemed unfairly punitive—she didn’t want to hinder his re-adjustment process. So she Sarah Kasbeer | 5


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backtracked to the toilet to give him a little more time. After about thirty minutes, Emily walked naturally back her bedroom, giving Koko advanced warning before opening the door and looking directly at him while maintaining a distance of around three feet. “Koko,” she said, trying not to show fear, “this is your new home.” He aimed his shiny orbs at her before closing his eyes and putting his head down. Emily stood silently, inspecting her appearance in the mirror on the dresser behind him. She was pleased with what she saw: halfconcerned mother, halfmental patient. Her sandy blonde bangs cut directly across her forehead while the remainder of her straight hair formed a curtain just below her shoulders. She wore a plaid jumper dress with a wide belt over a ribbed turtleneck. As she looked down to pluck a blonde hair off the skirt, she caught a small movement out of the corner of her eye. It happened so fast she wondered if she’d imagined it. Koko had opened a single eye and then quickly closed it. Was he feigning sleep? She left him on the dresser and walked back down the hall to sit on her tan leather couch and watch television with the closed captioning on. Quiet prevailed for about ten minutes. Then, a loud thud. She found Koko sprawled out on his back on the floor, flippers moving up and down, eyes blinking furiously. Before placing him into the safety of his crib, she removed the sheets, and checked for anything he might use to short out his own circuitry.

h The next morning, sunbeams reached through the bars surrounding Koko’s bed, where he lay sleeping. Now that Emily saw how small he looked in a crib meant for a human baby, keeping him there felt more like imprisonment than an essential source of comfort and security. She switched his power on then scooped him up—his eyes opening 6 | Sarah Kasbeer


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and closing before his head hunched down, as if it were trying to escape into its body like a turtle’s. She sighed. He’d spent all night wailing until she couldn’t take it anymore and powered him down around four a.m. Soon it would be time to recharge his battery, and she could stuff the pacifier-shaped power cord into his mouth, which would stop the noise at least momentarily. Koko had been the one who was supposed to soothe her. She suffered from an affliction which could only be described as popcorn popping endlessly on a stove set on high inside of her abdomen. In the past, she’d tried to settle her chronic anxiety, for which no one had been able to determine a proximate cause, with breathing exercises, but they just left her struggling for air on the floor in a state of selfinduced hyperventilation. The previous night, she’d nearly found herself in the very same situation, trying to figure out why this little robot, programmed to execute a series of calming responses, projected such a troubled emotional past. In response to a panicked email she’d sent to the anonymous seller, a bolded message appeared in her inbox. Since she purchased him on the black market, there was no warranty, and short of taking him back to the robotics lab in Osaka that designed him, no way to have him repaired.

Of course, you can always use the button to return to factory setting, the email indicated. Emily was not planning to wipe out Koko’s memory. How could she be sure it wouldn’t just clear out the transactional history, leaving him to suffer the haunting effects of whatever he had endured? She suspected from her own experience that bad feelings without an identifiable source would be worse for his little robot psyche than full traumatic memories. The seller had referred her to a local electronics shop that might be able to help. Emily wrote down the address in the edge of her phone book before ripping it out and sitting down to have breakfast in silence, savoring half a grapefruit with a pack of Splenda sprinkled on top while Koko charged on her dresser in the bedroom. When his battery was full, she placed him gently into his deluxe Sherpa duffel carrier for small-to-medium sized dogs and drew his Sarah Kasbeer | 7


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pink blanket over the mesh windows, hoping he’d be scared enough not to scream while they were on the subway. She didn’t like powering him on and off too much because she thought it was bad for his neural pathways, kind of like how charging a smartphone haphazardly runs the battery down over time. She put on a gray wool coat and strapped the black duffel over her right shoulder, using her left hand to support its undercarriage. Through the nylon, she could feel Koko’s little white body writhing around, his flippers moving forward and back. He proceeded to cry the entire subway ride. “I don’t think you’re supposed to have parrots down here,” a man sitting next to where she stood by the door said. She lifted the pink blanket just enough to make eye contact. “Koko,” she pleaded in a whisper. “We’re almost there.” His glossy black marbles glistened before he narrowed his eyes, opened his mouth, and let out one of his most piercing cries yet. She could feel her face fall into a permanently disappointed expression, the life sucked out of it by her new role as a caretaker who was supposed to be being cared for. She wasn’t sure if it was the unrelenting noise or the fact that she’d been hauling around a screaming stuffed animal in a dog carrier that made her feel like her brain was trying to escape her cranium through a pinhole in her forehead. Her eyes suddenly felt droopy from the lack of sleep; her once plump cheeks hung loosely like jowls. They exited the subway and walked north. The blanket kept Koko, now quieted by the cold, from catching a chill as they approached the building. She looked at the scrap of paper she’d pulled out of her pocket before ringing number eight. The door buzzed, and she and Koko took the elevator up toward the only place she knew of that could possibly help.

h Emily headed down a linoleum hallway where every fourth tile or so an orange one appeared below her black oxfords until their tips approached a door, which had been left opened just a crack. Inside was a small room filled with boxes of cords, and against the back wall sat a wooden desk. On top of it, a robotic hand squeezed a red stress ball. A man with a black mustache and matching tuft of hair under his chin sat behind the desk. 8 | Sarah Kasbeer


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He wore a light blue denim jacket and looked up at her through perfectly circular eyeglasses. “I know why you’re here.” He gestured at the duffel bag, and Emily lifted the blanket, preparing for Koko’s scream. The man said something to him in Japanese, and Koko appeared to relax. The hand on the desk continued squeezing the stress ball. “This way,” the man said. She followed the orange squares to another room, which had a sign on the door in Japanese. A translation below in tiny type read, A PLACE FOR THOSE WHO CANNOT GO BACK HOME. He opened the door to reveal a larger room lined with cribs and what Emily thought might be a two-way mirror. She could tell it had been soundproofed by the sudden onslaught of noise. Even Koko seemed stunned. They walked in slowly to find a dozen other robotic seals, squirming and screaming in different pitches. Upon noticing several empty cribs, she backed out of the room and closed the door. Her sense of relief from the quiet was short lived. She understood what it meant—for her and Koko. “Why do you keep them here?” “To study,” he said. She looked into his eyes, which were so dark they appeared almost black, with a glint that matched the shine in his hair. Emily clutched Koko’s duffel tighter as tears began forming in her own eyes. He looked down at the floor as if he wanted to comfort her but didn’t know how. “Emotions are. . .nothing more than responses to external stimuli,” he offered. She knew what she had to do, but she wasn’t sure if she could go through with it.

h Sarah Kasbeer | 9


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That night, she lay in bed in her favorite flannel pajamas watching the maple trees wave back and forth in front of her bedroom window. Her eyes met the space between the bars of the empty crib, and for a moment she was happy to have at least found a solution, even if it wasn’t the optimal one. She had needed to be needed, in the least needy way possible. What surprised her was how much she had been able to give in return. She looked downward to find Koko’s head peeking out of the covers on her left—and a second new fluffy seal robot’s head peeking out on the right. Emily had bundled her in the pink blanket and carried her home by hand before selecting the name “Ima,” which she’d read online meant now in Japanese. She petted them both, in a double stroking motion that released a cool stream of whatever it was that Klonopin also released into her system. Neither had made a peep since she got them home, but their pacifiers were still in place, and she continued to charge them liberally. The real test would occur once she removed the cords, cutting off access to their life force—leaving their tiny mouths open and wanting once again.

10 | Sarah Kasbeer


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WARNING: CONTENTS MAY HAVE SHIFTED DURING FLIGHT Claire Scott Scrimping for the trip of a lifetime. Fifty years & five kids later. Spartan meals of beans & pasta & beans. No problem since next stop: New Zealand. Lists & lists of lists. Checking & re-checking tickets, passports, sunscreen, Aricept for her, Atenolol for him. A seventeen-hour flight. He: falls asleep on her arm till it shoots needles of agony She: eats his chicken marsala as he snores & dribbles & wakes up starving Both: swill multiple rounds of martinis She: (noticing his book) says John Grisham is pure pulp He: (noticing her book) says she never actually reads Tolstoy just carries him around Both: read, sort of He: reads aloud a scene of seduction She: says he objectifies women He: you are never in the mood She: you hit & run & run Seventeen hours later they land in Auckland. No longer speaking.

Claire Scott | 11


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Field of Poppies Lauren H. Smith You are five years old, crumpled on the cold tile floor of your parents’ bathroom. You blink back tears while staring up at Monet’s Poppies. The painting hovers above the toilet, creating a vibrant spot in a whitewashed room. Mommy draws you a bath and punishes you with the silent treatment that follows her yelling fits. You don’t understand what you did wrong. Are you bad? The little girl in the poppy field doesn’t seem bad. You imagine wearing a hat trimmed with ruby satin like hers and a dress you got to choose all by yourself. You traipse through tall, soft grass with a mother who couldn’t be angry because there are too many beautiful flowers to distract her. You giggle as loud as you want and ask if the grass tickles her too. “Stop crying. You have it better than I ever did.” Mommy’s harsh tone snaps you back into the bathroom. You feel guilty for the tears and climb into the bathtub, stifling a sniffle. The tepid water stings your scraped knee. You ran too fast last night—Velcro sneakers slapping against the pavement, arms out like a baby bird that had just been released from its nest for the first time. Your sneaker stubbed a tough, pesky something, and you dropped to the ground. Blood trickled down your leg, but before your bottom lip could quiver at the sight, Mommy bounded over. Her long, black ponytail bounced so high it almost flipped over her head. “Oh, honey, did you hit that rock?” She gently pulled you into her arms and rushed you inside. Her dabs of peroxide magically turned blood into bubbles. She smoothed a Winnie the Pooh bandage over your broken skin and said it would be okay. And for a moment, you thought it was. You shiver as her cold fingers gather dark strands from your shoulders. There’s a shiny shampoo glob dripping from her other palm. Her mouth remains pressed into that hard, shapeless line that 12 | Lauren H. Smith


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won’t escape your peripheral vision. You blink-blink-blink as fast as you can to blot it out. It’s still there. So is the ache to understand how you upset her, but you’re afraid to speak. When you asked last time, she became more upset that you didn’t know. Maybe she’s mad at you for falling down last night, after all. She constantly tells you to be careful, but you disobeyed. Or did you fail to make the corners of the washcloths touch just right during chores this morning? By the fourth try, you thought you had seen her crack a smile while she hovered to watch you work. Or is it that you spent too much time with Daddy afterward? You like to eat strawberry toast with him before he goes to work. You like that he tells you jokes and asks about your favorite things: ballet shoes and teddy bears. You like the wet of his warm coffee kiss on your forehead before he snaps his briefcase shut. You notice Mommy’s forehead crease when you dance with him after you’ve pushed your breakfast plate away, feet on feet—your short toes bumping his bony ankles. With Daddy, there’s always music, and you feel a little flutter inside when you hear it. Mommy tightly grips the top of your head to pull it back. “Head up. Eyes closed.” She pours a cup of water over you to rinse away the suds. You drift back into a lush field, gathering those little popped-out flowers with the silky petals. You haven’t seen this much red before— shades of vermillion and cherry and crimson all wrapping you in warmth. Your mother strolls beside you, her ribbon-rimmed hat flopping in the breeze. She doesn’t seem to mind that you picked more flowers than your little hands can hold and left a trail of fallen blooms. Her lips bear no line, just the soft curl of scarlet. She’s only filled with love.

Lauren H. Smith | 13


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SMILES FOR THE JADE PUNKS OF YESTERDAY (and memory) Matthew A. Toll hot summer love in a cloud meadow where the freaks come out to dance under that winked-up moon high high goddamn fucking high and the drizzle melted us to the mushroom mud on a hot August night outside Schenectady, New York as the guitars sewed our minds together then broke them to galaxy pieces. NO SLEEP FOR THE WICKED! the good witches, the devil’s children in rags with chipped-tooth smiles; smiles for the stars; SMILES FOR THE JADE PUNKS OF YESTERDAY and memory. the glow stick army coming for revenge, revolution, renowned foe necromancy and, of course, free hugs. we were outside Philly when the cops thought maaaaaaybe they’d have a little look-see at what might be the secret to our magic. what keeps the smile afloat in white water? they asked us. where’d you bury the glass idol? nowhere, sir, we worship no gods. see, WE ARE THE IDOLS, YOU, OUR STUBBORN SUBJECTS. well maybe we didn’t quite phrase it that way for they let us go, and everything, actually, was alright in the world. even if it wasn’t all good.

14 | Matthew A. Toll


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ICE Matthew A. Toll The People, they fear, they tremble to send their children to school to go to the hospital for that abscessed and dying tooth to work to live to eat to love to march to drink fuck smile hug their neighbors in public on their birthdays, to bite into that sweet watermelon in the park on an August afternoon; This breach in the hurt memory of yesteryear, a cloud on the bike path home, the anthill genocide, poisoned Art in the kitchen. Let’s try this again. The People, taken away with the rent paid and a family watching the mess unfold like the laundry; we don’t even cry when we hear the news. Just shake our heads and sigh, think about all we could have done but didn’t. One more time but not the last. The Martyr and the Card Dealer decided to play pick-up sticks behind bars and what did they find? Surely nothing in the line of an answer as to why they’d never see their children again; How’s that for a happy ending? Matthew A. Toll | 15


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Speed Dating Paul Curley Karen had been coming to Buster’s with her sister for ‘80s speed dating every Wednesday for two months. Number Four sat across from her. “You look really fit,” he said. Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was playing. “Thanks.” Her sweater gave good cleavage, and she knew the lighting was kind. “I’ve lost a lot of weight.” “Exercise? Diet?” “I can’t be bothered with all that, so I had my sphincter removed.” “Your sphincter—what?” “The only down side is the diaper, but it keeps me warm.” She winked and wiggled in her chair to suggest its presence. He walked off before the bell rang, and Karen flashed the number four on her fingers to Lauren, a gloating smile on her face. The game required a delicate sense of pull‑push ethics; cleavage for the pull and gross or creepy for the push were fair game, but no insults. Can I just say that your eyes are really turning me on right now—they look just like Daddy’s. IN. Talking to you is refreshing as the breeze from the sewage treatment plant through a prison window. OUT. In a pinch, they could play for the visual gross‑out, a casual bit of drool, or a blow of snot onto the lip. It was an honor system, the loser springing for dinner somewhere other than Buster’s. With just seconds remaining in the round, Lauren’s date walked off. Shit, Karen thought, I almost grabbed the lead. As soon as Lauren flashed the number four back to Karen, the bell rang and there was the usual shuffling of chairs across Pergo as men rotated. 16 | Paul Curley


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Speed dating was Karen’s new treatment program, more like— Lauren’s idea. Karen had gone to the Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings in the basement of the Lutheran Church, but she’d never had so much sex in her life. “You can’t hump your way through life. It’s not a form of transportation,” Lauren had told her. Karen had complained that speed dating would be trading one kind of humiliation for another, but now she found it therapeutic to dispatch man after eligible man. It helped that Buster’s was far down Route 3, where she was unlikely to see anybody she knew. It also helped that Karen and Lauren had always had a competitive relationship. Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” signaled the final date of the night. Karen would need this point to have a chance to win. Number Five sat across from her and extended his hand. “Hi, I’m Tim.” There was an odd look on his face. Was he mocking her? Trying not to laugh? “Karen.” She shook his hand, then grabbed her shoulder, about to launch into a go‑to winner about a lump on her back that grows hair. She’d have it removed, but she doesn’t have the heart; after all, it’s Kenny, the incompletely absorbed tissue of her twin who died in the womb. Only, something about his smile stopped her. “Timothy?” “Hello, Karen.” “Oh shit! You’re gonna owe me dinner for this.”

Paul Curley | 17


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The Roo Daniel Harvey

Disregard her wholesome grin, and sweet and loving stare, The Roo will put you in her pouch, and take you to her lair. She’ll feed you cakes and cookies too, but please my friend beware, since that’s the last we’ll see of you, you won’t be leaving there.

18 | Daniel Harvey


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Daniel Harvey | 19


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Beaver Fever Andrew Marshall A few summers ago, I took a long walk through the mountains of Colorado. Colorado is known for its fresh air, beautiful landscapes, and enthusiastically healthy, aggressively attractive young professionals. I’m from Georgia, known for excessive humidity, high obesity rates, and a golf course that still doesn’t allow women to play on it. I started my walk in Denver and ambled southwest across the Rockies, following the Colorado Trail all the way to Durango some 500 trail miles away. On my back I carried a pack, a tent, and a sleeping bag. In my intestines I carried exactly zero parasites. But, by the time I left Colorado a month later, this was no longer the case.

h After a lifetime of camping and backpacking, I’m familiar with the ailments that crop up after spending extended periods of time in the woods. One common distress is what happens when food eaten by hand (like granola bars or trail mix) meets a lack of soap and infrequent handwashing. Hikers of a poetic mindset sometimes refer to this as “Ass to Mouth Disease.” AMD can also occur in non‑hikers: people with poor hygiene, parents of young children, or anyone who even thinks about swimming in a water park wave pool. There are other ways to trouble your digestion, of course. Often, there are nasty little bugs already living in the food we eat. The toxins released by these organisms send our bodies into full on “flush the system” mode, and I think we all know what that looks and feels like. Once, I found myself squatting on an exposed cliff in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with my pants down around my ankles, holding on to a shrub several feet shorter than I was. This shrub was the tallest plant on the mountain, which made me the tallest object on 20 | Andrew Marshall


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the mountain. Normally not a problem unless you happen to be in a thunderstorm, which I was. Two hours earlier, a stranger at the Mt. Washington visitor center had offered to buy me lunch, and I gratefully accepted. The random kindness of strangers is one of the nicer things about long distance backpacking. Two bowls of clam chowder later, I was back on the trail, and the trouble started shortly thereafter. A quick image filtered through my nausea‑addled brain. Two men in dark suits, dark shades, no-nonsense ties, lurking on the stoop of my parents’ house. They ring the doorbell, and my mother opens the door, immediate and terrible understanding blossoms across her face. “Your son is dead,” the first one says. “Struck by lightning,” says the second. Mom gasps and presses a hand to her mouth. “At least it was quick,” she says, weeping. “Not really,” says the first. Mom looks up at this. The second man takes off his glasses, inspects them, wipes away some imaginary smear and replaces them on his narrow face. “It appears as though he was literally shitting his brains out when it happened,” he says. The first man nods. “We found his brains, along with most of his internal organs, and every single thing he has ever eaten in his entire life heaped into a steaming pile next to his charred corpse.” At this, Mom collapses into a quivering heap. Mourning ensues. The funeral is closed casket. That image was the only thing that gave me the strength to halt, if only for a moment, the incredible mass evacuation that my digestive system was undergoing. I staggered, pinch-cheeked and bowlegged, down to marginally safer ground and once there uncorked, so to speak. As I hunched, bare-cheeked to the storm and to any passing Andrew Marshall | 21


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tourist who happened to be trekking up to the top of Mt. Washington, I gave serious reconsideration to the wisdom of accepting free clam chowder from a stranger on a mountain located over 100 miles from the nearest living clam. All of which is to say that when I first started having some issues in Colorado, I didn’t immediately think I had an intestinal parasite. Lots of things can happen to your stomach in the woods, but, by the time my hike was over and I was monopolizing the chemical toilet on the bus from Durango back to Denver, I was beginning to suspect the truth.

h Spend enough time in the company of outdoors enthusiasts, and you eventually build up a lexicon of ailments, horror stories, and embarrassing biological happenings. Lyme disease, spread by deer ticks in the eastern woods of the United States, is particularly nasty and causes severe nervous system damage if left untreated. The tricky thing about Lyme is that its early symptoms include fatigue, aches, swollen joints, and shortness of breath. If you’ve ever been backpacking, you’ll recognize this list. It’s the same exact symptoms that occur when walking up and down mountains with a heavy weight on your back. You can see the problem. Often has the long distance hiker quietly contemplated an impending hospital stay simply because he was tired at the end of a 20-mile day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s usually the people who don’t even know what Lyme disease is, and certainly aren’t spending hours a day worried about it, who end up contracting it. Deer ticks can be real jerks that way.

Giardia Lamblia often comes up in the same backpacker horror stories as Lyme. Although not as damaging in the long term, Giardia is a more creative bug. Like most things from Pennsylvania, Lyme seems to be content with hanging out locally and rooting for the Steelers. Giardia, by contrast, is much more cosmopolitan—a real world traveler. It achieves this by choosing, as its preferred host organism, an animal scientifically proven to be 20 times more of a 22 | Andrew Marshall


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jerk than the deer tick: those always entertaining monkeys, Homo Sapiens. Oh boy, does Giardia love us. Scientists find it in every major human population on the planet. Some health organizations estimate that Giardia Lamblia exists in thirty percent of the undeveloped world, and that it lives in anywhere from three to seven percent of the population of the United States. It was first formally described in Europe in 1681, and it’s been around for a lot longer than that. Giardia was hanging out with human beings before it was cool, know what I mean? Looking at you, Syphilis. To Giardia, the intestines of a human being are a turnkey property, fully furnished and move-in ready. After taking up residence, Giardia wastes no time making itself at home—reproducing asexually, forming organisms called “cysts,” and flushing itself out of your digestive system in the favored way of creepy crawlies everywhere, causing spectacular and highly pressured diarrhea. Once out in the wild, the cysts are resilient and quasi‑indestructible. Cold doesn’t bother them. Neither does heat. Chemical treatments such as chlorine and iodine are mostly effective, but mostly is not always. If left to their own devices, the cysts can remain dormant, but viable for up to three months, waiting on someone to ingest them, and then the whole explosive process starts all over again. And that’s the lifecycle of the Giardia Lamblia organism in human beings. But as much as it loves us, Giardia will make do with less lucrative properties. Cats and dogs work just fine for it. So do birds and cattle, sheep and rats. Beavers are a very common vector, which is why in North America Giardosis (the set of symptoms caused by the Giardia organism) is commonly called “Beaver Fever.” Beavers spread Giardia easily because they spend a lot of time swimming around in beavery lake water. You can imagine where beavers use the bathroom. Most people in the developed world don’t have to worry about Giardia Lamblia causing all kinds of merry hell in their intestines because most people have the incredible luxury of drinking water that is free of rat diarrhea, and, with very few exceptions, they refrain from eating the feces of the family pet. However, should you happen to be Andrew Marshall | 23


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backpacking through the wilderness of North America, chances are you will find yourself, at some point, drinking water that a beaver has shat in. It’s simply statistically likely. No human feels very good about this, but, short of hauling trailers full of bottled water around behind you any time you go camping, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Nobody knows for sure how the beavers feel about it. Possibly, they think of it as karma for centuries of being used as hats.

h Giardia has a variable gestation period, so it’s hard to know precisely where and when I contracted it. Somewhere along the 500 mile path in Colorado, I saw a sparkling, pristine looking font of mountain water, stopped to fill my bottle, treated the water with fancy chemicals, and drank deeply. Let me reiterate: I chemically treated my water. I’ve spent decades in the woods and mountains: backpacking, hiking, paddling, mountain biking, and climbing. By the time I got to Colorado, I had already completed a solo hike of the Appalachian Trail, a 2,000-mile footpath that stretches through the mountains from Maine to Georgia. I treated my water with chemicals on that hike as well, using a ubiquitous product aimed specifically at backpackers and other outdoor enthusiasts. On the bottle this product clearly states that it is effective against Giardia. But, and here is the really important part, not always. Maybe there was a cyst hiding in the lip of my water bottle that didn’t get fully exposed to the chemicals. It only takes one. Maybe I lost track of time and didn’t allow the chemicals the full 20 minutes they needed to kill the organism. Maybe one of the cysts was just especially tough. Who knows? At some point, spending extended time in the outdoors always becomes about risk management as opposed to risk avoidance. With water you choose your source carefully, try to find something flowing, don’t drink anything near human or livestock habitation, chemically treat it, filter it, or boil it, and hope for the best. Sometimes, you draw the short straw. Shit, as they say, happens.

h

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By the time my wife, Rachael, picked me up from the airport, I was in rough shape and determined to ignore it. The symptoms of Giardosis are inspiring in their breadth and variety. As I said, this is a creative bug. There’s the diarrhea, of course: pretty predictable. But constant diarrhea is boring, so the Giardia organism likes to toss in occasional bouts of constipation just to liven things up. Then, it sprinkles in some sharp, throbbing cramps. All very well, but my personal favorite symptom on a cross-country plane journey has to be the constant and odiferous flatulence. Had there been an air marshal on that flight, I’m sure I would have been arrested and removed from the plane. We were all lucky that the caustic atmosphere I produced didn’t disintegrate the rubber seals around the windows. But why stop there? Like an overachieving high school senior giving up an hour a week at a soup kitchen, Giardia seems determined to be as well-rounded as possible. So, burps. Really sulfurous, burning burps. Burps from the ulcerated stomach of the devil himself. Like the flatulence, the belches occurred on a more or less constant basis. At the height of my symptoms, I was producing more poisonous gasses than a tire fire in the parking lot of a West Virginian coal plant. This is the state in which my wife found me leaning on my luggage at the airport. It didn’t take her long to realize I was ill; it was an hour long car ride back to our house. I can’t even hide Christmas presents from my wife—trying to act like my internal organs weren’t dissolving while sharing a closed atmosphere environment was a futile exercise. “It’s possible I picked up a bug in Colorado,” I belched. “You should go to the doctor tomorrow,” she said. She had just kissed me with an enthusiastic “I haven’t seen you in a month” kind of kiss, and now, as she rolled the windows down and stuck her head out into the fresh night air, I suspected she was regretting it. “I think I’ll just wait a few days and see if it clears up on its own.” I said, clutching my stomach and squeezing my hindquarters together as tightly as possible. Andrew Marshall | 25


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h Over the next few days, Rachael continued to encourage me to seek medical help, and I continued to refuse, insisting that my symptoms would clear up given some rest. This line of thinking objectively made no sense. It made no sense then, and it makes no sense now, as Rachael, to her credit, has only pointed out every couple of weeks for the last few years. I have no defense for my idiocy other than to say that, according to Web M.D., exhaustion, loss of clear thinking, and irritability are yet more bonus symptom of Giardosis. I have no idea if this is medically accurate, but I do know that after walking 500 miles in a month and carrying a parasitic hitchhiker for an unknown length of time along that distance, I was definitely experiencing all three. The day after arriving home, I fell asleep standing up in the shower and only woke up when the hot water ran out. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. I picked pointless fights. I napped a lot. I oozed unspeakable things from every orifice. I stumbled from room to room, woozy, forgetting what I was searching for. Things kept getting worse. And then we went to the beach with my in‑laws. The trip had been planned for over a year, the beach house booked, the plane tickets purchased. We left for Florida only a few days after I arrived home from Colorado, flying down on a budget airline. They lost my luggage and found it at the Florida airport a week after I was already home, two weeks after it vanished on a direct flight. Only the most valuable things had been stolen, but the thief was careful to make sure my clothes remained folded, so that was nice. Every wife has a breaking point. My wife, more saintly than most, reached hers about three days into sharing a beach house with her parents and a husband who, when he wasn’t napping, spent his time belching, farting, groaning, aching, moaning, curling up on the toilet, picking fights, vomiting popcorn shrimp into a shared beach house bathroom, and tossing and turning all night long (Did I mention the anxiety and racing heart, particularly at night? Bonus symptoms!). Words were had. I was told that my symptoms were not getting better. I was told that I had had a chance to get better and blew it by being stubborn and idiotic. I was told to keep my mouth shut, to paste a smile 26 | Andrew Marshall


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upon my face, and to join the family at the beach at any and all times I wasn’t sequestered in the bathroom. I was told to book a doctor’s appointment for the day we returned home. I was told that, although our marriage would remain intact regardless, any and all future marital bliss was absolutely dependent upon all of these conditions being met. Something in her tone of voice finally made it sink in. I needed medical help. I made a doctor’s appointment and tottered out to the beach to play bocce ball. I smiled as I did it. I just made sure to stand downwind.

h “Guess what? I have Giardiosis!” I announced merrily after getting my lab results some weeks later. “The doc says with the antibiotic he prescribed it should clear up in a few weeks.” We won’t speak of the noxious plane ride home, or the difficulty of obtaining a stool sample while suffering from alternating constipation and diarrhea. We won’t speak of the fact that yet another bonus symptom of Giardia is lactose intolerance, therefore ruining ice cream for me. And we certainly won’t speak of the fact that I had to explain Bill the Beaver and Giardia Lamblia to my doctor and insist upon lab tests. He kept saying I had “a little case of traveler’s stomach.” Turns out I’m not the only idiot in this story. Rachael looked up from her corner of our tiny apartment, where she had retreated in a vain attempt to breathe air that I hadn’t befouled. She fixed me with an even gaze, then looked back down at her paperwork. “If you had gone to the doctor when I first asked you to, you’d already be better,” she said. “But your bullheadedness and masculine stubbornness is what I love about you, you sexy specimen of a man! Now go get well so I can ravage you!” In truth, she did not say this. She thought it, though. A husband knows these things. At the pharmacy, the tech found my order, bagged it, and started running my card. Andrew Marshall | 27


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“Did you know this stuff reacts violently with alcohol?” he asked. “Did the doctor tell you that when he prescribed it?” “Nooooo,” I said, thinking it was really time to get a new doctor. “Yeah. You can’t even use mouthwash. And especially no drinking. No wine, no beer, no liquor.” He eyed me for a second and then, making what I felt to be an entirely unfair judgment, asked, “Is that going to be a problem for you?” “No!” I said, maybe a little bit defensively. “Does this medicine have any other symptoms?” “Yeah,” he said. He finished running my card and handed it back to me then slid my cure across the counter. “Diarrhea.”

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Pigeon Trees Susanne Braham Thinking of pigeons, one rarely thinks of trees. Pavement, gutters, garbage come to mind, or messy building ledges, and heads of stately statues with copious crops of droppings. Today was the exception. I saw three city trees completely overladen with a motley crew of pigeons, their bird-burdened branches tipping with the weight of swinging, feathered creatures on their avian trapezes. Each time a mini-rocket hurtled into flight, the lingering flock would rock. Fowl entertainment? Why else would winged dudes precariously alight on such unstable perches? Rock doves love to rock, those plucky, urban swingers!

Susanne Braham | 29


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Marriage Chris Bullard A man puts up the sea-green drapes that his wife has bought over the bay window at the front of their house. His wife takes a look and declares, “They look perfect there. I love them.” That night, he takes down the drapes and wraps them around his body. He holds the fabric over his head and walks to his wife’s bedroom. He turns on the overhead light and stands beside her. When his wife wakes up, she takes a glance at him and sighs, “I know you are not my drapes, I can see your feet.” She turns off the light and goes back to sleep. The next day, his wife asks her dog in a high, silly voice, “Who’s the best dog in the world? You are! You are!” After dinner, while his wife is cleaning up the kitchen, the man shaves the dog and pastes the fur onto his body. He trots up to his wife and sits on his shins with his hands extended like paws. “I know you are not my dog,” his wife says. “I can see your face.” She puts the dishes in the dishwasher and leaves. A few days later, his wife opens the drapes and exclaims, “I love seeing the sun come up over the hills.” The next morning, the man stands in their front yard and pours gasoline over his head like he is giving himself a shower. When his wife slides back the drapes, he sets himself on fire. His wife shouts, “I know you are not the sun. I can see your arms and legs.” She closes the drapes and goes to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. That afternoon on her way down the front walk to her car, his wife passes a pile of ashes. “I know you are not my husband’s ashes,” she says, “he never loved me that much.” A breeze blows the ashes down the street and into the sky. “Stop pretending,” she shouts.

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Get Well Soon Larry D. Thacker Forgive me for the glitter bomb that went off in your face. When thinking out my plan, I assumed too much. I was sure you would be, as usual, wearing your glasses, the nice ones, just in case. As curious as you are, you were looking straight down the barrel, as it were, given my paranoia of accidentally hurting people with pranks, unaware you would be just returning to your office from a post‑lunch meeting, tired and in need of such a happy pick‑me‑up, consequently causing you to remove your glasses, the nice ones, (not that they were ever considered safety glasses) and rubbing your eyes, at which point, I’m told you chose to do something mindless for a few moments to kill the time, like opening mail, my surprise, of course, waiting there within your daily mail delivery. I hope the ophthalmologist is able to, with time, remove all the fragments from your cornea with as little permanent damage as possible. Though, I would like to imagine that purple and silver glitter would be pretty and a good match for your blue eyes. All the best, Lars

Larry D. Thacker | 31


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A Humble Request Matthew Duffus Important Concern From DaveDDS@yahoo.com To pastor@stmarks.net 1/22/09 Subject Important Concern

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r BCC

6:58 a.m.

Dear Pastor, I intended to discuss this with you after church on Sunday, but, as Janie was ill, we chose to pass the day in quiet reflection at home. As you know, the parents of the Junior High Ramblers recently received a letter about this summer’s Rapid Run rafting trip. The event has been a popular topic in our household ever since the twins returned from the Harvest Hike in October, so you can imagine our disappointment when we learned that the rafting trip has been scheduled to coincide with our family vacation! I have spoken with Kristi several times, both over the phone and in person, in the hopes of finding a way to reschedule (While I applaud her initiative, can a four‑day rafting trip really require a six‑month reservation?). But as these discussions have borne no fruit, I find it necessary to seek your guidance. Please contact me as soon as possible so that we can come to a reasonable solution. Yours in Christ, Dr. Dave =====================================================

“for God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 timothy 1:7

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Important Concern From DaveDDS@yahoo.com To pastor@stmarks.net 1/22/09 Subject Important Concern

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r BCC

7:24 a.m.

In case you need more information before we talk, let me explain my concerns in detail. As my conversations with Kristi reached an impasse, I was left with the impression that we were being singled out. I came to this disturbing conclusion based on two recent events. First, Kristi asked Janie and I to help chaperone the Harvest Hike, a request we had to decline. Secondly, Zachary and Grace, who were supposed to play the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary in the Christmas pageant, had to drop out at the last minute. There is a legitimate explanation for each of these. At the time of the hike, Janie was seven months pregnant with Alexis, which made her participation unwise. As for me, I have adult-onset asthma and am unable to partake in strenuous activity. (I assure you that this condition, funny as it may seem, is NOT a laughing matter. Would you like to go through life with only 60% of your lung capacity?) I admit that the timing of the twins’ quitting the pageant was unfortunate, coming only four days before the performance, but the pressure being exerted on them due to the scope of the play was too great. The period between Halloween and New Year’s is my busiest (all that candy causes cavities, you know), and with a newborn in the house and exams at school, we felt that something had to give. When I was a boy, the pageant was a simple affair, not a Hollywood‑style production. Isn’t it difficult enough for youngsters to memorize their lines without period-authentic dialogue? I know Kristi spent several months sewing the costumes and so the replacements’ outfits were ill-fitting, but I found the pageant more meaningful knowing that our college-aged members were willing to take part. To reasonable people like us, it is obvious these events do not merit the treatment our family is receiving. I know Kristi is young and inexperienced (I’m sure I’m a better dentist now than I was ten Matthew Duffus | 33


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years ago) and I acknowledge the high quality of much of her work. But personal vendettas have no place in a House of Worship. We left Trinity because of just this kind of hypocritical back-stabbing. I’d hate to see it infect St. Mark’s. I bring this to your attention because at Trinity I turned the other cheek too often. By the time I spoke up, it was almost too late to save the entire church music program. (There’s no need to dredge up the past—let’s just say that at least one choir director will be more equitable when assigning solos in the future.) I wonder if it isn’t time for some of us concerned parents to sit down and have a talk with you and Kristi. Call me the minute you read this. I’ve instructed my receptionist to put you through. Dr. Dave =====================================================

“for God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 timothy 1:7

Important Concern 0 r From DaveDDS@yahoo.com BCC To pastor@stmarks.net 1/22/09 8:33 a.m. Subject Important Concern I know that the office at St. Mark’s opens at 8 a.m., so I don’t understand why I have not yet heard from you. My practice opens at 7 every morning. We’ve already done five cleanings and a filling and are prepping for a root canal. Even with all of this, I will still be happy to take your call as soon as it comes. I can always give patients more Novocain. :) Again, I apologize for taking up your time with what may seem to you to be a trivial matter, but Janie and I have been planning this trip to Germany for a year (we’re all looking forward to seeing Wartburg Castle, per your recommendation). Janie arranged our entire vacation in the half-hour intervals every evening between washing 34 | Matthew Duffus


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the dishes and taking part in our family Bible study. How difficult would it be for Kristi to postpone the rafting trip a week or two? As you know, we tithe 5% of our income, plus the significant discount in services that I give you and your family, all in the spirit of Christian charity. As a result, I feel that accommodating this humble request isn’t too much to ask. I look forward to your thoughts on this matter. ====================================================

“for God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 timothy 1:7

Important Concern From DaveDDS@yahoo.com To pastor@stmarks.net 1/22/09 Subject Important Concern

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r

BCC 9:01 a.m.

At this point I can only assume that you aren’t responding because you’re discussing this with Kristi. I came to you, as I have written several times, because I wasn’t getting anywhere talking to her. Instead of wasting your time with her, you should be calling me. All I’m asking is that we sit down and explain to her that her job is to keep the families of the church happy. I can’t imagine that I’m the only one who feels she’s failing at this. I have tried to limit this to my concerns, but I know that other parents have their own as well. I don’t want to go into them, and I certainly do not want to spread rumors, but I know of a father who would like to talk to you about Kristi’s relationship with his high-school-aged son. I could say more, but I won’t. But if you want to hear more, I’ll be happy to offer my opinion.

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====================================================

“for God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 timothy 1:7

Important Concern From DaveDDS@yahoo.com To pastor@stmarks.net 1/22/09 Subject Important Concern

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r BCC

9:12 a.m.

THIS IS RIDICULOUS. I’ve been waiting more than TWO HOURS for a response. If Kristi has gotten to you, I wish you’d at least LET ME KNOW. I don’t want to tell you YOUR job, but you should be listening to MY SIDE. I am a parishioner. I pay HER salary, not to mention yours. If I don't get satisfaction soon, I’ll be forced to run for CHURCH COUNCIL again next year and work to have you both REMOVED from your jobs. I will not allow my family to be trifled with just because we’re newer members. Since we arrived at St. Mark’s, we’ve been involved in all church activities. And, if anything, our time at four other churches gives us a perspective others don’t have. I thought St. Mark's was different than other congregations. Perhaps I was wrong. ====================================================

“for God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 timothy 1:7

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Important Concern From DaveDDS@yahoo.com To St. Mark’s Church Members 1/22/09 Subject ! URGENT Announcement

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r BCC

9:21 a.m.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I am writing to you out of concern for the very SOUL of our church. While we good CHRISTIAN people go about our daily toils, St. Mark’s, our refuge from the sneers and prejudices of the unbelievers, is being poisoned from within. Yes, from within. The two people entrusted to minister to us and bolster our faith (and whose salaries we continue to pay even as church membership has declined over the last year) are conspiring against us. This might not be so worrisome if it only related to the adults among us, who are strong enough in our FAITH to withstand such assaults, but when such plotting comes at the expense of our children, I say, ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. If you feel the same, as I am sure you do, join me at 5:30 this afternoon in front of the parsonage so that we can make our voices heard. Those who do not attend will have to SUFFER the same fate as our wayward leaders. God’s Peace Be With You, Dr. David Wolcott ====================================================

“for God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 timothy 1:7

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Important Concern From janie.wolcott@gmail.com To pastor@stmarks.net 1/22/09 Subject Apology

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r

BCC 10:59 a.m.

Pastor, Please accept my apology for David’s recent spate of emails. I won’t make excuses for him, as a forty-year-old man should never treat people as he has been treating you. However, when I explained what your secretary told me, he said, “H1N1 is nothing to fool around with. Pastor should stay in bed as long as necessary.” That’s verbatim. In addition, he is equally concerned about Kristi’s grandfather, because, as you know, his father had bypass surgery a year ago. David would write to you about this himself, but the stress of this morning’s activities (he does not want me to tell you this, but he had a root canal go very, very badly) has brought on a migraine, so he has taken to bed. On behalf of both of us, please accept our apologies. If you haven’t read the earlier emails already, please delete them, unopened. In Him, Janie

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A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones. Proverbs 12:4

38 | Matthew Duffus


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Today’s Lesson Christopher Fields i. Temporal economics, or: the real value of that Saturday you spent killing time; the lost value of that Saturday you spent killing time. The units of a base of a pyramid of greatness that you will never build so high because you didn't know the value of a dollar, and you didn't know the value of a world that you make instead of plug in, and you didn't know that youth is a bubble that pops. ii. Words of congratulations in a dead language that you pack away in your mind cushioned in tassel and gown for when there doesn't seem to be enough comfort to go around, and you need to give the hands around your heart something else to squeeze. iii. How to wake shivering on the floor of life’s bathroom, orbital bone married to a thunderclap. Raccoon ring proof of union. How to look backwards through a ten-bottle telescope for the way back out. iv. If everything seems lost, play the lottery. When you can buy hope for two dollars (it used to be one, but that’s how life goes) almost anyone can afford to keep going.

Christopher Fields | 39


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My Life With The Cloud Daniel Hudon I thought I heard a knock at the door and was puzzled; I hadn’t buzzed anyone in and my two neighbors were away for the weekend. I went to the door to see if I could hear anything but couldn’t detect even the slightest ripple in the space-time continuum beyond the door. What did I have to be afraid of? I opened the door and saw a bowler-hatted man standing there with a cloud in front of his face. “Hello?” I said. If the bowler-hatted man said anything in reply, it was muffled by the cloud. “Can I help you?” I said. It seemed absurd to me that this man could actually want anything, but one had to ask. Everyone has needs, particularly people knocking on doors, whether they express them or not. Here was a man with his own personal cloud—albeit slightly misplaced—a man to be reckoned with. He made no reply. The man was tall, a formidable presence even without his nebulous companion. I was still a little spooked by the fact that he was at my front door without being buzzed in. Nevertheless, I invited him in. I did it without thinking, but perhaps he had a mystery that he was willing to share. I love a good mystery. We both stood still a moment, and it occurred to me that this man might never speak. The man did not come in. “Okay then, thanks for stopping by,” I said, humoring myself as I closed the door. I went back to the couch and resumed reading a novel.

40 | Daniel Hudon


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But of course, one can’t just leave a man like that standing outside your door. I opened the door again to see if the man was still there. Only the cloud remained; it floated noiselessly into my room. “Come in, make yourself at home,” I said to the cloud as if I’d just made a new friend. “Can I get you something to drink?” The cloud gave no reply, which was just as well because I had no idea what a cloud could possibly want to drink. I boiled some water in the kettle for tea. The cloud immediately swelled in size. How fun! But like it had done for the man in the bowler hat, the cloud took up a position right in front of my face. Not fun. Not fun at all. Not only did I nearly scald myself while making the tea, I wondered if this was why the man with the bowler hat abandoned his cloud. I brought my tea over to the couch to resume reading my novel and the cloud led the way, staying right in front of my face. If I tilted my head down, the cloud shifted down. If I looked left or right, the cloud shifted accordingly. But if I kept my head up and cast my eyes down, I could see about half of the page of my book below the cloud. I gave up reading and switched to books on tape. I lived with the cloud for a long time, and it gave me a sense of meditative calm despite its habit of resting in front of my eyes. I often imagined I was blind. The cloud accompanied me everywhere, and I noticed people trying not to stare as I waited for the bus. On the subway, fellow passengers moved aside so that my cloud didn’t get stuck in the doors as they closed. I had to repeat myself in my lectures because students were often distracted by my cloud. At a bar one night, the bartender bought me a round because he was sure that my sorrows had grown to gargantuan proportions. For the first time that night in bed, my cloud rained on me. Somehow it felt fresh. As if my cloud had absorbed my anxieties and then shared some of its own. Until that night, I merely tolerated my cloud. Now I knew it was truly mine. The next day, I heard a knock at the door. It sounded familiar, and I dreaded answering it. All I could think of was Beethoven and the Fifth Symphony, “Thus fate knocks at the door.” I sighed, “Coming,” I said. I opened the door, and, as I feared from seeing the visitor’s shoes, I could only guess that it was the man with the bowler hat. I opened the door a little wider and without a word, my cloud passed from me to him. I could see again. But this relief was overshadowed by Daniel Hudon | 41


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the raw pain of my soul being ripped from my body. The man turned and clomped down the stairs with the cloud directly in front of his face, leaving a trail of mist behind him. I put on my shoes and dashed after the man. But outside, rain came down so suddenly and hard that I gave up. I climbed the stairs, each now with a puddle from the mist. How was I going to cope? I entered my apartment and closed the door behind me, intent on flopping on the couch and weeping. Instead, I had to shield my eyes as a brilliant rainbow lit up my room. It is impossible to describe the magnitude of my delight. It was about eight feet wide from one end to the other, and as I approached it, it would recede, always staying a few feet away but directly in front of me. I knew what to do. “C’mon,” I said, “we’re going out.” The rainbow led the way down the stairs and when we got outside, the sun shone. The rainbow—my rainbow—floated in front of me, and passersby turned and smiled in disbelief. Cars stopped and let me walk right in front of them. Drivers rolled down their windows, shouted and applauded. Everywhere I went, people parted and let me pass like a one-man parade. I lived happily for a long time with my rainbow and made many people happy, too.

42 | Daniel Hudon


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Magnet in My Kitchen Floor Toni La Ree Bennett There’s a magnet in my kitchen floor and it sucks daily sacrifices out of my hand. I never know what it will take but I know it will take something. Every day, sometimes every time that I enter the energized room, a spoon is grabbed out of my hand, a swatch of kale is pulled towards the earth’s core, becoming sullied and desecrated. Sometimes it asks for a bigger prize. My favorite teacup, my last piece of bread falling face down on the unclean floor. The only thing separating myself from its yawning maw is a thin sheet of linoleum, cracked at the edges. For now it only claims food and kitchen utensils, but I know if the cracks grow, move toward the center, the thin sheet will crackle into a thousand pieces from the pressure. There will be no more buffer. And none of us will be safe. Toni La Ree Bennett | 43


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Fishsticks Christine Byrne Sitting in Nadia’s car you came storming out, black wind flipping, hair, purse fell off, hair, bouncing, opened the back— he came storming out, stained white, tank top, underwear, nightmare, cursing palitos de pescado you were crying in the backseat just drive

just drive crying in the back seat don’t look at me. You’d never cried in front of me. I watched you in rear view At a booth in a Long John Silver’s you order fishsticks try to sink them in your root beer float. I told you I was over him, overwhelmed, overtired, so teen crude, rebel phase, beaten in, sneaker thin, with you I can see miles but I can’t walk two feet. 44 | Christine Byrne


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Crying stick the back seat angst, seventeen was life with you bruised sect lifestyle

I need You say One goddamn second that he I swear will kill you— your stomach, intestines. your face, your thighs. Stomach, Intestines. Your Face. Your Thighs. I said Fishsticks Will float, will bloat, will soften in coat by god they’ll just stick around.

Christine Byrne | 45


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Gaslight Graham Guest There seemed to be no end to the “conversation” his father was having with him as they drove down the highway. His father was at the wheel. It was hard on him, stressful, because occasionally, out of the blue, as he was only mechanically acknowledging the truth of whatever his father was saying, his father would suddenly require more from him: proof that he had been listening carefully; and when he was unable to provide his father with anything of substance in reply, a judgment of his mystifying inefficacy would be handed down to him by his father in the form of contorted facial expressions and violent disbelief. And so, for him, for Henry, it was with a mix of relief and just more terror that the sun finally began to set and they exited the highway for a bite to eat.

h Henry and his father walked up to the host station, and Henry, sensing, knowing that the crowded, noisy environment would put his father (even further) out of sorts, became agitated, himself. And when no one came to seat them at once, Henry anticipated his father’s aggression and stepped up to try to pacify him. “Someone’ll be here in a second, dad. Don’t worry,” Henry said. His father did not respond; he just scanned the restaurant for a few moments, as if in pain. Then he said, “Let’s go.” But just as he did, the hostess stepped up with a big smile. “Sorry for the wait, gentlemen. Right this way please.” Henry stepped in behind the hostess and said to her as they walked, “Listen, sorry, but my dad is pretty hard of hearing and needs a table in the corner, if possible.”

46 | Graham Guest


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“I’ll see what I can do,” she said then led them to the table next to the one in the corner, though both were empty. Henry sat down in the one to which he had been directed by the hostess, respecting her decision and hoping that the table would do. But his father stopped short. “Is there something wrong with the one in the corner?” he said indignantly. Henry looked at the waitress. “No, there’s nothing wrong with it, sir, but it’s been reserved,” she said, pointing to the little white card on the table that said “Reserved.” Henry stood back up and said to the hostess, “See, sorry, but is there. . .” “We’d like to sit at the corner table,” Henry’s father interrupted. “Dad, it’s reserved.” “Listen, Henry, there’s no one sitting at that table, and,” he switched his gaze to the hostess, “I don’t see why you don’t just move the card to this table and seat us there.” “Sir,” she said, beginning to sound upset, “the corner table is reserved for the owners’ meeting every Friday night, and there’s not enough room at this table for all of them, so. . .” “Henry, if she’s not going to. . .” “Just a minute, dad. Give me just one minute, okay?” Henry said. Then, as he was turning toward the reddened hostess, out of his mouth came a muffled “Fuck!” which he directed into his chest, so it could’ve been a sudden cough or sneeze. “Excuse me,” he said, then took the hostess aside for a word. “Listen. I am so, so sorry about this,” he said. “God knows, he does this every time. And, obviously, I understand if you can’t seat us at the Graham Guest | 47


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corner table; I don’t mind at all, but he is never going to back down, you see, so if there’s any wa. . .” Henry was interrupted by the sight of his father walking away, down the aisle, toward the exit. “Motherf. . . . So sorry,” he said and set off through the restaurant after him. “Dad, dad. Come on,” Henry said as his father pushed open the glass doors to leave. “Sir. Sirs!” a man said. Henry and his father stopped and turned around. “Hi, good evening, my name is Mark,” the man said, focusing on Henry’s father. “I’m the manager, and Vicki tells me you’d like the corner table, and actually that’ll be fine, no problem. She’s supposed to reserve it on Friday nights for the. . .but it doesn’t matter, so. . .” Henry’s father stared woodenly at Mark. “Anyway,” Mark said, laughing nervously, “it’s perfectly fine, sir.” “What are you laughing at?” Henry’s father said. “What is he laughing at, Henry? Come on, let’s go.” “He’s not laughing at anything, dad. He’s giving you your table.” Henry’s father continued to stare Mark down. “Dad, come on. Let’s just take the table.” Henry looked at Mark apologetically. “Thank you so much. That is really nice of you.” “No problem at all. Follow me then, gentlemen,” Mark said and headed back through the restaurant. Henry followed. Eventually, so did Henry’s father. Once they were seated, Mark handed them two menus but saw that Henry’s father was still glowering at him. “Is something else the matter, sir?” He fidgeted then looked at Henry. 48 | Graham Guest


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“Henry,” his father said, “this guy. . .” Then he started to leave again, but Henry looked up at Mark and said, “I think he just wants you to apologize.” Mark shifted his weight and looked back at Henry’s father. “Okay. We are very sorry for the inconvenience, sir.” “Mark,” Henry’s father said, “given the treatment we’ve received in here tonight, I also expect you to give us our meals on the house.” Henry’s father and Mark stared intently at each other for some time. Finally, Mark capitulated, producing a sort of half-bow and walked away.

h As they waited for their cheeseburgers, Henry’s father talked. “Now I can only assume you wouldn’t have handled that situation the same way I did. Is that right?” “I don’t know, dad. No, I guess I wouldn’t have.” “Tell me, then. What would you have done?” “No, dad, you know. . .I don’t know about that. I mean, I have to say, I feel somewhat hesitant because I, I feel like if I tell you what I would’ve done, I will be judged negatively for whatever course of action that might be. But then again, I know that if I don’t say anything, if I don’t tell you how I would’ve handled it, I will be judged negatively for that as well, for being non-responsive or something. So it’s a real dilemma for me.” Henry’s father sat forward, put both arms on the table, and stared hard at Henry. “Henry,” he said, “it’s interesting to me how often it happens that, whenever I am merely following a constructive line of discussion and ask you for your contribution, your response is to permanently derail us by getting emotional and blaming me for your inability to express yourself.”

Graham Guest | 49


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Henry’s heart pounded. A murder dream flashed through his mind, where he’s beating his father to death out in the parking lot and everyone’s cheering. The two were quiet for some time. Finally, Henry spoke up. “Dad, that’s just how I feel. . .and I’m not sure I can be wrong about how I feel.” His father moved his oversized face closer to Henry’s and said, “No, Henry, I understand your feelings better than you do.” A dizzying wave of nausea flowed unchecked through Henry, and, certain he was going to be sick, he promptly got up and went to the restroom.

h When Henry came out of the restroom, he stopped by the kitchen and asked for Mark. The cooks looked Henry over then indicated a door to his left. Henry knocked. “Yeah.” Henry pushed open the door and went in. Mark was sitting behind a desk, looking over some papers. “Hey man,” Henry said. Mark looked up, a little surprised. “Hey. What can I do for you?” “Yeah, sorry to bother you, again, but. . .hey, I cannot tell you how bad I feel about what happened out there with my dad.” “Oh, it’s nothing, man. Don’t worry about it.” “Yeah, well, I’m trying not to worry about it, but. . .so listen. This is probably going to sound a little. . .you know. . .but it’s also gonna be. . .” Henry smiled and nodded, “. . .you know. . .” Mark looked quizzically at Henry. “No,” he said, shaking his head, “I don’t. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 50 | Graham Guest


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“Well,” Henry said, carefully reaching back into his right jacket pocket and bringing out, in the cup of his right hand, a brown paper towel shaped into a crude bowl, “what would you think if we were to put this on my dad’s. . .” “What the fuck!” Mark said, standing up. “Put that away, man! Now goddammit!” “No, wait. You don’t understand. I just wanted to spread it on my dad’s cheeseburger, just spread it on his cheeseburger, man.” Henry laughed. “Wouldn’t that be awesome!” “What? ” Mark said. He stared at Henry for a moment, then he reached over and picked up the phone.

Graham Guest | 51


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Born Again John Wojtowicz Francis Luvenson, former owner of Frankie Luv’s Live Freaks and Oddities, finally retired and opened a Bible camp. The only remnants of his traveling sideshow days were the beloved ostriches that had accompanied his showgirls on stage and arms full of tattoos he referred to as “dermographs” when questioned about them on parents’ night. The property adjacent to Francis’s Christian Retreat for Children was used as a retirement farm for the ostriches, and as kids, we would observe them from the safe side of a chain-link fence. On a dare from a classmate, I threw a tennis ball over hoping to scare the awkward bird into flight. The large-featured creature immediately bent down its long neck and swallowed the ball whole. You could see it sitting like a huge goiter and Mr. Francis came out with a big ladder; “Don’t worry, kids. I’ll get your ball back.” He proceeded to climb up, pry open its beak and reach down the bird’s throat. “There you go, buddy,” he said, wiping excess ostrich phlegm on his shirt before tossing the ball back. We all decided it was too grimy to play with again but the following day it was mixed with the other toys. Without the stigma of its history, it was saved by Mr. Francis same as Frankie was by Jesus baptized in forgiveness on the condition of anonymity.

52 | John Wojtowicz


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Recipe For Succstress Fern G. Z. Carr

RECIPE FOR SUCCSTRESS

INGREDIENTS 2 C. (500 mL) what if’s 3 Tbsp. (45 mL) I should have’s 1/2 C. (125 mL) did I do the right thing 1tsp. (5 mL) I’m concerned that 1 C. (250 mL) what will people think

PREPARATION COMBINE all ingredients. SIMMER on back burner. BRING TO A BOIL elevating blood pressure and peaking cortisol levels. TEST for doneness with EKG or CT Scan. Bon appétit!

Fern G. Z. Carr | 53


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The Matriarch Lynn Brearley Trouble on the Line “She won’t eat again,” my brother stated. His voice was flatlined, matter of fact, and tired, so tired as he trailed off. “I’m calling the doctor out,” I opened my mouth to reply, then closed it. How do you tell that voice, his caring one, that she’s trying to die? Pink “Ernie always called it sheet lightning, y’know, arcing sky-high in the distance.” “No silly, he meant heat lightning flashing wide and low, it always looked pink.” These old children hide, still frightened by lightning, especially that pink flicker. Pink Pink, favorite color Pink-tinted drip Pink ribbon Pink. Taxiing Taxiing at slow caterpillar speed, number eight in line for take‑off, we inched across flat tarmac. I was so bored, and then I saw these colors! Tiger‑orange weeds, wildflowers blooming in wrong places I’ve been told, they were perfect to detour my glassed-over eyes. Taxiing, taxiing, 54 | Lynn Brearley


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now it’s our turn, quiet and poised. Then a roar like the Minotaur lost in his labyrinth. Skyward we hurtle, wildflower pods dispersing, flying uncertain winds. Snapping Point Yellowed seedy light embarrassed the walls and ceilings. Greasy stovetop, dirty dishrag, and hundreds of plastic bags. “For God’s sake stop picking your nose, it’s the kitchen for Chrissakes.” I can’t help but snap. Snap, the bites of hand‑fed KitKat bar, the protein drink sipped, then slipped to her lap. The wail for the nurse, her bowels hurt. The hoist onto the commode seat, the total degradation. I can’t help but look away, play with my hair. Bodily Assaulted Where can you run when your body assaults you? When your laughing throat closes, your lungs clog, and your belly laughter turns into stomach pain. No running away, no hiding, those wolf‑whistled at legs won’t hold or carry you anymore. Lips and mouth that savored Bacardi and Coke dry out, you choke. Well-shaped breasts that invited men to leave calling cards in deep cleavage now barely move, rise faintly unless you cough. A viscous, sloppy sound, wet, just like your randomly plopped kisses. That which was secret, your fecund surprise, is now routinely pried open four times a day. No sparkle in the care worker’s eyes, not like his. Your crown jewel, sullied and dirty, polished with wet wipes.

Lynn Brearley | 55


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Another Late Night No one will see these scrunched eyes, my liquid face, but the hotel duvet. It alone will stain with mascara, eyeshadow, and lip gloss disguise. This evening’s curry repeats, won’t settle in my gut. Nothing will, not tea, a plain biscuit, or a nibbled cold cut, not tonight. “Miss America” is my known name. “You look good,” utters the bone-dry mouth. Such a lovely beam at me, I think of a tune. “Killing me softly with his song,” was that the one? Fallow For the last time, I smelled her body as I leant in to kiss her cool forehead, milky‑soft vulnerability, once again a baby. Her pink‑rimmed metal eyeglasses gleamed. She had just stopped waving, her colored lips collapsed, gray furrows, fallow with no spring. Closing the sticking door, I forced myself to call “I’ll see you tomorrow,” the fib caught in my throat. The Gatekeeper T’was a strange day, leaves turned into missiles, streaking past the windows on vengeance runs. Tonight the house rattles, frailty a reality. Ghost of a threat returned, cough of phlegm endured. Air hung silent as dove’s breath, suspensefully waiting. Turbulent skies tonight, I stay to welcome her, she, the irrevocable. I offer warmed brandy 56 | Lynn Brearley


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stoked with ginger and cloves. In hope, her consuming stroke is with warm, easeful fingers. I feel I should close her eyes afterwards, those pale, glacial ones, secret chasms unplunged. Please Pick Up the Phone An inpatient British ringtone irritates the emptied space from the lone pink phone lying alone in the corner. “Pick up please,” nothing can be wrong, hidden by winter ink-washed skies many miles, so very far is that place. The freezing apartment laments, “Fill me, I’m as cold as a grave.” Dawn’s early pink fingertips probe— can they lift it to my ear, so I can hear her voice once again spanning the distance? Creased A gray wrinkle on a bed sheet, I brush quickly to smooth. Yet, the uneven space stays in place, strange shadow. After the Flood This house has grown lean, no longer fatted, barded, and juicy with laughter. As the room thins, cold plates are pushed away, congealed uneaten food remains and whispers persist. Nicotine stained mirrors cast yellow reflections, greasy glasses hold dregs of spoiled wine. Fallen black ashes smear by the window ledge as dusty windblown plastic flowers bob.

Lynn Brearley | 57


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A feeble gray wind, weak as a last breath, twitches the holes of grimy lace curtains. This house is becoming a ghost, it fades, barely visible, hallway darkened and mean. Slowly it crumbles, foundations eroded by floods of tears. Pieces pull away, float to unknown parts. Debris stems the stream, forms a tiny island, standing alone, an impromptu buffet, repast for passing spirits. Minutiae Gravely, the ghost of a life now past, sweeps her eyes across her fallen year. After the loss and change, tears glitter. Miniscule minutiae of memories flame to gutter out between her careful departing tread. My Gray Return The inevitable day of “See you next time” came and swam away into the rain. Drained away into spitting Manchester damp, gone, maybe forever, lost in drizzle. Mugged, in front of Terminal Two, watching bravely smiling faces bob down inside to drive away. Leaving gray, buildings, sky, her pain, and my mood. Snatched, by the impatient crowd on their way to where? Somewhere fun, Thailand, Tortola, St. Maarten, or St. Croix? Where’s more important than here, now? Irretrievable. Flotsam With her gone, there is no family, just singular organisms, cilia flailing. Trying to read currents, tossed in turbulence, still not comprehending. 58 | Lynn Brearley


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No navigation, not by stars, those hidden constellations. Nor our innate compass, spinning incommunicado. I can’t hear anything, though you do speak. The language of haggard eyelids, thin lips forcing smiles. Crumpled, unlaundered clothing, unwashed body smells, tokens of surrender. Afterwards Her body had been carried away, so my brother lay on her deathbed. He stared at the ceiling, as she had over the past three years. They showed him appreciation, five halos floated for a while. Last signals, tugboats, guiding her to safe harbor. Every day I see you every day, feeling ashamed because you are in my dog. His mouthy shaking head bark, so confident of his good looks. I walk, he talks to squirrels grubbing amongst grass, to anyone, so did you. You spin in a chainsaw head, speedy-jawed cyclone Brenda. You sneak mater, I can’t disguise, my dog’s eyes see you in mine.

Lynn Brearley | 59


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Winner H. P. Ken Farrell Life is like a proverbial co-ed waiting at a bus stop, a girl with long thoughts and contemplative brown hair who thumbs through a notebook thick with sketches of naked singularities or antinomy of Descartes, her marginalia O’Keeffian with plans for how to seduce a city of energy from a thimblefull of water. As she adds a vulvic flourish, a van pulls over and the guys inside offer her notebook a ride. She knows her notebook and the wonders within cannot be hers alone forever: she accepts and crosses the event horizon of her afternoons through a sliding door and the van heads for the PCH as the guys pet her notebook and weave their hands between its leaves and spread its covers wide.

60 | Ken Farrell

2018 Poetry Contest


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She doesn’t mind the rapid fingers turning pages until they begin to smudge her equations but isn’t this the ride she’s been waiting for? She chokes a little as they go bouncing bouncing bouncing along.

Ken Farrell | 61


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Eyes Like Milk Austin Allie The bodies in the river look like phantoms with their flesh all white like that. Then there’s the far away look in their eyes. The fish weave around the fat, waterlogged fingers. They don’t eat on them or anything like that. I think they’re just curious is all. I don’t blame them. That’s certainly why I came. Most alive people, I don’t give the time of day. But a whole river littered with corpses? Now that’s something. It’s all I’ve heard about the past couple days. You don’t think of “Did you hear about the dead bodies up the creek that just showed up outta nowhere?” as polite dinner conversation, but that hasn’t stopped anyone. I had to see for myself. Obviously. You’d be nuts not to be curious. I waited in the woods for all the people with these kits you would see on TV to leave and then snuck past the yellow tape with “CRIME SCENE” printed all over it, tiptoeing down to the very edge where the ground stops and melts into river water. If you didn’t know any better, you’d probably just pass them off for a bunch of driftwood. But when you look—and I mean hard—that’s when you start making out lips and noses. On the way there, all I heard on any of the stations was “Where did they come from?” this and “Could it be a satanic cult?” that. It got to where I had to turn off the radio altogether.

62 | Austin Allie


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I guess people are just excited because things like this never happen here. Not in Nowhere, Texas. Where everybody knows everybody. Where there’s always a cousin within five miles in any direction. Two days ago, when the bodies were first found, you could hardly get a call through on account of everybody calling one another to make sure they weren’t one of the dead. But—and this is the weird thing—everybody in town is accounted for. Apparently, the bodies don’t belong to anyone in these parts. Or the surrounding areas for that matter. Rumor has it that the FBI are having a hard time identifying the bodies. That’s what those kits are for, I suppose. I had to see it for myself before they all get fished out and wrapped up in body bags to make it look like nothing ever happened. It’s funny. When I was a kid and played in the river with my brother and sister, I used to think the river grass looked just like human hair floating around down there. Come to find out, I was right. My phone rang loud from my pocket. In the quiet of the woods, it sounds all wrong. I stepped away from the water’s edge, not wanting to interrupt. “Hello?” “Your Mamaw called,” my dad says, “one of the dogs died and she needs your help buryin’ her.” “Alright.” “I’m taking your brother over now. Meet him there,” my dad says. Then he’s gone, and it’s just me and the bodies again. Before I go, I take one last peek at the water. I see the outline of two figures floating closer to the bank than the rest. They’re stark naked, like Adam and Eve, but without the strategically placed leaves that

Austin Allie | 63


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I used to see all the time in Sunday school. There’s nothing pretty about them, but nothing ugly either. On the way to Mamaw’s house, I keep the radio off and wonder if all those floaters would be ashamed if they knew they were naked. I don’t think I would like it very much if my body was out and about for everyone to see like that whether I was still breathing or not. When I get to the house, Remington is sitting on the curb with a shovel and some black trash bags in his lap. I don’t help him carry anything up to the house, because even though I’m older by four years, my brother is bigger than me. He and his friends lift weights after school for fun. “You know,” Mamaw says, coming out the front door to greet us as we get to the porch. “This kinda chicken shit only ever happens when your Papaw is off at the casinos.” Remi looks at me out the sides of his eyes. We think it’s funny the way she says casinos like it has an “a” at the end, instead of an “o.” “Where’s she at?” my brothers asks, and Mamaw places her hand over her eyes the way someone would on TV. “She’s out back. Under the terrace.” Mamaw tells him, “Haven’t been out there since the vet left. Not even for a smoke.” “Wait here,” Remi tells me, and he disappears inside the house. I know he’s trying to get her in the bag before I get out there. My family calls me the sensitive one. “First those bodies, and now this,” Mamaw says, shaking her head. “What happened?” I ask. “I saw Miss Cowgirl this mornin’ and I guess I just knew it was time.” “How can you know a thing like that?” “You don’t know until you do,” she says, and she makes her way inside, beckoning me to follow. While she’s pouring herself a glass of white wine, she says, “You know, your uncle gave me that dog. . . .” 64 | Austin Allie


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“I’m gonna go check on Remi,” I say, and I excuse myself. Not because I’m all that eager to bury the dog—I’m just getting a little tired of all this death talk is all. When I head out the back door, I see Remi on his knees, bent over the body. I don’t see the tears at first because they’re quiet and brave. It’s the first time I have seen him cry since we were boys. I pat his shoulder and tell him that I’ll take care of it. “You go dig the hole,” I say, and I bend over to start putting the body in the bag feetfirst. I do my best not to look, but I still see those eyes like milk. My brother picks a spot in the back by the picket fence. It takes him a while to finish digging the hole, the tears turning into sweat. “You can wait in the truck if you want,” I say when he’s finished. The shovel hits the ground, and he leaves without a word, his head lowered. You would think it was just a pile of leaves, the way he walks by that trash bag. I struggle but manage to drag the body and get her all nice and comfy in the hole. When it’s finally filled, I have blisters on my hands. I know that I should probably bandage them up, but I want it to sting for a little while longer. I go around the back with the shovel because I don’t feel much like talking to Mamaw right now. I feel bad about it but throw the shovel in the back and get into the truck anyway. Remi’s already in the passenger seat. He isn’t crying anymore, but the skin under his eyes is real red. I roar the truck to life and start down the road. My brother is looking out at the passing neighborhoods and convenience stores that make up our little town of Nowhere. “I went and saw the bodies by the river,” I say. My brother keeps his face turned to the window. “Did you hear anything about them?” I ask.

Austin Allie | 65


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“Just a rumor. One of the girls from school was trying to get a real close look, and she fell in,” he says. “Really?” “Yeah. She said the water tasted like pennies.”

66 | Austin Allie


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Last Will and Bone Dick Altman When I go, whatever’s left that’s left for the taking, I want left to Iona. My driver’s license says organ donor. Well, the rest of the good parts I want smoked or jerked. Some for meals, some for treats. Don’t be surprised if she noses the bowl around the living room. She’s a finicky eater. Try the heart first, then the liver, then the kidneys. So a little of me survives in a little of her. If that doesn’t work, try seasoning with buffalo chip. I was never a purist.

Dick Altman | 67


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Dialogue on Darkness Dick Altman She sees in darkness, hears in silence. I share none of her gifts. I enjoy all five senses. We pass thoughts by touch.

Not white, not black, I explain yet again, when you ask about the darkness, a word I too often remind you to forget. Absence of light, life in ever night. The idea suffocates me. A kind of music, she says. A mysterious duet of color and song.

My thumbs read your lips. Since learning to sign in my hand, you’re shy of letting me touch your lips around others. The tactile pleasure—how selfish to withhold it.

68 | Dick Altman


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Pretend, you tell me, we’re ordinary people, doing ordinary things. Until you write you dreamt I wrote on the soles of your feet. Your minders believe you mean something else.

Which, looking back, perhaps I did. What of you stranded itself in my sleep? I recall the untested hands, the lips of a boy of twenty. A boy afraid of the dark.

Dick Altman | 69


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Lumps, Wild Ass, and the Papal Bull David Mulder After thirty years of saving unconscious cowboys from the vicious hooves and needle-sharp horns of angry bulls, former rodeo clown Cletus “Lumps” Montana finally noticed something extraordinary. He discovered that the direction a bucking bull spun upon release from the steel rodeo chute could be predicted by observing the direction the bull’s penis was pointed immediately before the gate swung open and the bull exploded into the arena. As everyone knows, bull riding is the climax of every rodeo and is generally regarded as the most dramatic and dangerous event on the program. Like college and professional football coaches who “scout” their opponents, cowboys and rodeo officials carefully study the behavior of the bovine athletes to ascertain the bucking habits of every bull on the circuit. Advanced knowledge of how an individual animal will buck can be extremely profitable information for the cowboys who risk their lives to ride the one-ton juggernauts. Lumps, the clown, noticed that upon release from the chute, a bull would spin the same way his penis pointed: penis to the right, spin to the right; penis to the left, spin to the left. Lumps tried to convince the anxious bull riders to listen to his predictions, but to no avail. Unfortunately, the rodeo clown could only scream his observations about a bull’s penile proclivity as the chute gate opened. The frightened bull rider typically had a number of other things on his mind just then and, since the cowboy’s own penis had usually retreated to somewhere near his throat at that moment, Lumps’s predictions invariably fell on deaf ears. This situation was frustrating for the clown, who was convinced that his analysis of bucking bull behavior was right on target. But no one listened or took him seriously. Consequently, one summer night at the Iowa State Fair Rodeo, Lumps decided to take matters into his own hands, so to speak. 70 | David Mulder


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Halfway through the championship “go ‘round,” Lumps found the meanest, rankest, most vicious animal on the ticket: a two thousand pound Brahma bull named “Disemboweler.” Now, this evil bull only thought about three things: food, cows, and death, not necessarily in that order. After three years of inflicting mayhem and mutilation on the rodeo circuit, Disemboweler had never been ridden again. It was rumored that during Disemboweler’s first year in the rodeo, fifteen local hospital emergency rooms became profitable overnight from patching up the defeated cowboy detritus generated by the bull’s bucking prowess. As a matter of fact, the last twenty cowboys who drew Disemboweler’s name immediately gave up bull riding and joined the priesthood before they were forced to confront the merciless animal. Of course, the Vatican was elated at this unexpected source of clerical recruiting. The ranks of ordained employees had recently declined dramatically due to certain unanticipated consequences of ill-conceived “altar boy training programs,” and the Scion of St. Peter was anxious to get employment numbers up. Consequently, hoping for more cowboy converts, the Church agreed to co-sponsor Disemboweler on the rodeo circuit along with a nationally known chewing tobacco company. The morning of the final rodeo event, the Vatican advertising agency decided to tattoo a portrait of a smiling Pope Emeritus Dominic XVI (with a large, visible “chaw” of “baccy” in his cheek) on Disemboweler’s left buttock. Obviously, after the painful four-hour “Papal Branding” process, the bull was furious and in no mood for levity. Lumps Montana was convinced that if he could predict the direction of this bull’s initial spin and a cowboy could stay on him for the required eight seconds, the clown would gain fame and fortune for his discovery. So when world champion bull rider Willie “Wild Ass” Brazos drew Disemboweler’s name as his final ride of the event, Lumps figured he had a winning combination. Like the bull, Wild Ass had a reputation that validated his nickname. He was one of the richest, cockiest, and most arrogant cowboys on the rodeo circuit and had never been bucked off a bull in his entire career. This was to be a contest of champions! David Mulder | 71


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That evening as Wild Ass climbed up on Disemboweler, Lumps quietly snuck around behind the chute to check out which direction the bull’s penis was pointing. Unfortunately, the fruitful phallus was pointing to the right, which meant the bull was going to spin the same direction. This was bad news for Wild Ass, who had injured his rope hand on an earlier ride and was going to have a hard time with a right-handed spin. As tension in the auditorium rose to a fever pitch, the bull rolled his red-rimmed eyes and shook the rock-hard hump of muscle on his back. Snorting loudly, he viciously rammed the sides of the chute with his razor-sharp horns. The gate was about to be opened as Wild Ass ferociously pounded his fist into the bull rope. Lumps was frantic that he would lose this golden opportunity to become a famous bull behavior predictor. If the cowboy had any hope of riding Disemboweler that night, Lumps knew that he had to change the direction of the bull’s initial spin from right to left! Fortunately, the former clown had brought along an old electric cattle prod he had sometimes used over the years to convince a recalcitrant animal athlete to retire into the chutes after a ride. What Lumps didn’t realize, however, was that the prod had short-circuited in his wet basement several months before and was permanently set on “High-Maximum-Danger!” In a valiant attempt to change the direction of Disemboweler’s penis, Lumps repeatedly screamed, “He’s going to the left! He’s going to the left!” at the top of his lungs, but the noisy crowd and the loudspeaker drowned out his warnings. Wild Ass never heard the clown. Just as the chute gate was opened, the clown hit the bull’s Johnson with the electric cattle prod, sending fifty thousand volts into the bull’s sensitive vitals. At that moment, all hell (as well as Disemboweler) broke loose. With a vicious bellow that deafened the first six rows of spectators, the bull leaped fifteen feet in the air, demolished the steel chute, and launched a screaming Wild Ass toward the upper deck. Now this was a serious problem for the official timekeepers (not to mention Wild Ass), since the elapsed time of a bull ride doesn’t end until the cowboy hits the ground or the eight-second horn sounds, signaling a successful ride. As the horn went off at the eight-second mark, Wild Ass was still on his way up! Technically, the cowboy was still riding the bull, even though the pissed-off bovine had already destroyed the steel chute, two sections of seats, a popcorn stand, and 72 | David Mulder


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three portable toilets and was thundering hell-bent-for-leather toward the front gate. Fortunately, eighty-three-year-old Ethyl Grebs of rural Altoona was the only occupant in the portable potties at the time of the accident. She was later found in the wreckage of her demolished toilet with her support hose tangled around her ankles. She was badly shaken, covered in filth, and spitting disgusting alimentary remnants of cheap beer but was not seriously injured. Upon being extricated from the foul-smelling wreckage, the spunky octogenarian was quoted as saying, “Missing the championship ride was a real pisser, but those damn prunes just got the better of me!” Fortunately, nobody saw Lumps, the clown, tag the bull’s “winkie” with the over-juiced cattle prod, so no one ever knew what caused Disemboweler’s angry eruption. Lumps subsequently gave up bull behavior predicting as a bad idea and retired to Florida, where he currently raises guinea pigs for the Ecuadorian restaurant market. Sadly, Wild Ass sailed clean out of the arena and smashed headfirst into a cast-iron fireplug at the intersection of Highway 35 and Drover’s Avenue, shattering the hydrant which sprayed water twenty feet in the air and tied up traffic for hours. Wild Ass Brazos was later awarded a trophy for “Best Overall Performance by a Bull Rider in Rodeo History.” Upon receiving the award when he was finally released from the hospital, Wild Ass pointed to his bandaged skull, leered unevenly at the crowd and, drooling copiously, was heard to say, “Aboo-dup-glub-goo-daa-piddywonk. Plooper-bukdrib-gaahh! Gaahh! Disemboweler! Hotcha-chabonk-bonk!” The news media characterized Wild Ass’s acceptance speech as “pithy words from a true champion.” Wild Ass gave up bull riding and, much to the delight of the Vatican, joined his “Disembowelered” cowboy pals in the priesthood. Unfortunately, after the accident, the only thing the injured cowboy could remember clearly was his nickname, so Father Wild Ass is currently serving in a remote monastery in Albania, where everyone, it seems, recognizes his strange “speaking in tongues” as a true “Gift from Above.”

David Mulder | 73


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Disemboweler was eventually granted sanctuary in the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Confusion in West Des Moines. The resident nuns, of course, had no knowledge of the earlier Papal Branding, so when Pope Emeritus Dominick XVI’s smiling image was discovered on Disemboweler’s left buttock, the holy women not only believed that the bull had been sent as a motivational message from the Vatican, but they also became ardent chewing tobacco addicts. Disemboweler was later spirited out of Iowa and shipped to Vatican City, where he now resides in a state of sumptuous luxury. Thousands of the faithful are reported to venerate the portrait of “The Papal Chaw” on the bull’s backside as a tribute to the animal’s priesthood recruiting efforts. Disemboweler eventually became a Papal Bull, so to speak, and was required to abide by a vow of celibacy. This turned out to be particularly difficult for the bull, since he had been in a salacious calfproducing mode since he was six months old. Of course, the Church couldn’t permit that kind of lust in the Vatican bullpen, so, much to his dismay and chagrin, Disemboweler is now approximately thirty pounds lighter in his aft section than he was upon his arrival in Rome. Sometimes, every silver cloud seems to have a dark lining.

74 | David Mulder


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Winner 2018 CNF Contest

Another Night Shift at the Shell Station Jacob Little

I want some quiet, so I hit the breakers and all the lights go out. I close my eyes, open them, can’t tell the difference. The radio’s sudden absence calms me. The AC and the cooler whine and shudder into silence. I reach out my hands and find the wall so I can navigate out of the back room. On my way to the door outside, I bump into the salty shelf. The chip and pretzel bags crackle at my bothering them. The door dings at my leaving. Outside, the night air is thinning, a humid day losing its heat. I can still feel its weight in my lower spine. My claustrophobia won’t abate. Even the moon is a tyrant tonight, all the stars drowned out by its light. It is full and bright and sizzling in my ear like Alka-Seltzer dropped in warm water. An insect buzzes by, confused by the sudden darkness. The only lights are distant. Here, there’s no more golden Shell sign, no more glowing prices for the Quik Trip miles down the road to undercut. The moths and June bugs linger, dazed, until they spot and chase another oasis in the distance. A beetle scurries down the side of pump six. I leave them behind and sit down on the two-foot strip of grass between parking lot and sidewalk. I close my eyes. Far away, a car drives slowly down a street until I hear its tires hit driveway or a distant curb—it doesn’t matter which. Somewhere behind me, the cooler warms up and the milk starts to sweat. The muddy floor itches for my mop. I take off my shoes and socks, and the wet blades of grass feel slimy between my toes. I chew the straw of my soda, and the plastic lid squeaks against the plastic straw. The Styrofoam screeches under my fingers. Crickets and cicadas hum and scream, hum and scream. I try the sound of my voice in their chorus: hello? It sounds strange, Jacob Little | 75


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foreign, like a joke-word from a made-up language. I wish someone else was here to translate. The bright headlights of a car approach and slow as if to pull in, but they pass instead. The driver stares out his window at the darkened station. He doesn’t see me. I listen to him speed up—fade out. I savor his leaving. I hear gravel scatter and look up to see a regular customer, barefoot as always, approaching with his pit bull. He walks toward me, looking up in confusion at the darkened sign.

What happened? he asks. I shrug. Lights went out. He pulls money out of his pocket. Can I . . . I sigh and hold my hand out. He gives me $4.62 exactly in quarters, a dime, and two pennies. I chew my straw as I count it, nod toward the building. Door’s open. His dog pants quietly after him. I want the two of them to disappear and leave me alone. The door dings and shuts behind him. A minute later, the door dings again. He walks over, opening his Marlboros, and sits down on the curb behind me. He lights one, offers me the package. I shake my head. He smokes quietly. Beside him, the dog licks his lips, saliva dripping from his mouth. He sniffs the grass. My customer and I alternate between watching the dog and watching the glowing red of his cigarette eat itself. Even the dog wants something from me, stares at me. Nudges my hand with his nose. I try not to understand him, ignore his pleading whines. When his cigarette’s finished, the customer stands up, brushes the seat of his pants, nods at me, and goes. I don’t look up to see where. Every direction is the same. The wind picks up and is cold enough to make me shiver. I put my shoes back on. I take my glasses off and rub my eyes. Colored pixels spark in and out of my vision. 76 | Jacob Little


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By the time I stand up, my pants cold and wet from the grass, I have reduced my cup to a pile of Styrofoam shards. Even now, an invisible hand is squeezing my stomach. My anxiety is directionless. I want to scream. I consider leaving the pile of shards on the ground, but the prospect of sweeping it up in an hour makes me stuff the pile into my pockets. I walk back across the lot, and my shoes sound hollow. The door dings at me. It’s hard to see inside, the walls stopping the moonlight. Without it, the shelves crouch inside their dark silhouettes. When I turn the lights back on, they’re blinding. The radio deafening. The world is a vampire, Billy Corgan sings at me. My head throbs. I mute him. I restart the crashed register. I pull out the clipboard and pretend to count the cigarettes, write down convenient numbers—all there. I lean my head on the cool counter and tell it hello to interrupt the din of the freezer’s stressed churning and hissing as it strains to lower its body temperature. My voice echoes back around me, as if the walls are sneaking closer. I stand up and sigh. I go in back and turn on the faucet, make a bucket of mop-water. It spills over and the floor gets wet. As I start to mop, I check the shelves, but I don’t know what for. Every item’s the same. Every Twinkie in its place. Every pint of oil eats at its plastic shell. The loaves of bread continue their moldering. In a few hours, the sun will hint at its arrival and the customers will start and thicken and swarm around the coffee I’ll have brewed, the three-year-old frozen sausages I’ll have thawed and cooked on rollers. I know they’ll come like they always do—hungry for something to eat, enough noise to drown out what they’re swallowing.

Jacob Little | 77


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The Properties of Matter Joel Peckham Does anything really matter anymore, you ask, reaching out a hand as if in explanation expectation frustration and I stare back, wondering what you’d do if I would shake it, thrusting my hand into your hand, thumb and forefinger spread, to make a web, a net to catch you in. Firm and confident like my father taught me as boy so I wouldn’t get my fingers crushed, or if I were to take you gently by the fingertips and brush my lips against the small blue veins before asking you to dance. A way of saying yes, of course it does, yes. Don’t get me wrong it can be hard at times to see. Does the discarded silver wrapping of a stick of Wrigley’s spearmint gum, sent spinning out the window matter among so many cigarette butts and peanut shells and the used condom on the floor of this bus? They each tell a story and maybe it’s the same story’s elements, caught in webs that we just don’t know about. I’d like to think they are. I mean how does a condom end up on the floor of the downtown bus? There has to be a story, and I could easily imagine it starting with a stick of gum and later, peanuts, then the condom and afterwards, a cigarette—in the way that one thing inevitably leads to another. Think about it. Suddenly it matters. Though maybe you are saying something else, maybe yours is a higher bar. Though I would argue that a used condom has implications that affect each and every one of us. One or even two less kids in the world. And those kids could have been anything, a senator, a serial murderer, both. The nice man who bagged my groceries at the Kroger on the corner 78 | Joel Peckham


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of Seventh and First. He was from the islands and told me of a trick for ripening my mangoes. I can’t help but wonder how long this condom will stay on the floor of this bus. I’m not picking it up. Are you? So how far will it travel? All over town? And for how many hours? And how many kids, tugging at an arm, will ask, what’s that, Momma. The mom saying shhhhh and the kid saying, what? why? I just want to. Just be quiet. But what is that Momma? Have you ever thought about the half-life of your average condom? How many condoms it takes to back up a sewer? Just think of the environmental impact. I’m sure they’ve been responsible for the deaths of at least a few dolphins. So it matters to the dolphins. Don’t you care about the dolphins? my mother would ask whenever I dropped a piece of trash on the beach. Did you know that dolphins sing? Matter. Noun. A physical substance that occupies space, has mass, distinct from energy. So everything and everyone is matter but does it matter? Verb. To have significance, purpose, or meaning. That’s the gas that gets us cooking. That’s where we come in. The party guest always late to the party, establishing, in who we are and how we are dressed, what the theme of this party will be. And who doesn’t like a good party? In this sense we matter. Anti-matter being entirely theoretical, which is a good thing, people being who and what they are, especially teenagers. Imagine them all going around anti-mattering. It doesn’t take a quantum physicist to imagine the disastrous implications. What would be the implications of an anti-condom? And why is it only the children who are unafraid to ask the hard questions? What if I would say, thou still and thoroughly ravished bride of stolen time and muffled cries in midnight parking lots. Busker, street singer

Joel Peckham | 79


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keening like Billie, bellowing like Queen Bey, borrowing from everyone and everything that came before and after and in-between. The song contains so much, so many. An instrument case laid open at our feet, aching, for loose change. Everything speaks. Everything sings. It’s just that we aren’t always listening. We don’t always know the words. And so much is driven by mystery—furtive, calling. I can almost see two teenagers searching for a warm, dry place in the dark, pushing the door in, stumbling up steps, laughing as they rise, reaching for each other into each other for that energy; that heat of bodies attracting, conducting, falling into cracked vinyl as all the clasps and buttons come undone and breath escapes, begins to fog the windows. And yes. And yes they do. And yes this is only one story. It could have been ugly and quick, transactional, the body reduced to a sleeve. Sometimes one thing does lead to another, or worse. And still it is a song worth hearing. A part of what it means to be human. So if I said you give the day some shape and substance, that you matter to me, that you are part of a story caught in the web of so many stories, like hands clasped on hands generating energy, generating heat, or that meaning like love is a product of association, of how hard we hold onto each other in the dark, refusing to let go a single syllable, would it matter? Would you tell me to be quiet or look away or be the one to ask the questions? Listening, though I admit that I don’t know where any of this leads. Where any of this is going. In fact, I think I missed my stop a while back while we were talking. Or at least I was. A nervous habit. Çe ne fait rien. It’s the downtown bus. It will come around again.

80 | Joel Peckham


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The Neurologist Kandi Maxwell The neurologist was unique, different from the other VA doctors my husband, Lloyd, had seen in the past, doctors who spoke quickly, rushed through their appointments to move onto the next patient. And while the VA clinic nurse told Lloyd it would take fifty days to get in for a consultation, this neurologist made the appointment immediately. As Lloyd and I sat in the doctor’s office, there was a tap on the door. The neurologist, a tall, elderly man with thick layers of gray hair entered the room. He introduced himself pleasantly. He told us he was Polish, lived in New York. The VA was so far behind in their neurology appointments that they had flown him out to California to relieve some of the wait time. “I’ve been in practice sixty years,” he told us. He then looked at Lloyd’s file on the computer, read about Lloyd’s autonomic neuropathy, his history with nerve damage, and now the seizures. “You should be seeing a neurologist,” he said. No shit. The doctor was relaxed, talkative. I’m not sure if this was a good thing. Here is what we learned.

On seizures He told Lloyd, “You don’t have them because seizures begin when you are a child. These children typically have webbed hands and feet, white lines across their fingernails.” So, what about my twin sister? Epilepsy at ten years of age, no webbing, smart, thin lipped. He continued, “Teenage boys sometimes have seizures due to vigorous sex. Girls can have seizures this way too, but it’s usually boys.” I planned to look up this news for confirmation.

Kandi Maxwell | 81


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On tumors “Your CT scan shows no tumors; you’re lucky because you die of tumors. I had a patient, a smoker, who had tumors in his lungs, then more tumors developed in his brain. He had eight tumors in his brain, died in a couple of weeks. A few months later, his wife came in complaining of pain in her legs. We found tumors in her brain from secondhand smoke. She died within two months.” On metal poisoning The doctor looked again at the computer, noticed Lloyd’s diagnosis of metal poisoning. He didn’t ask Lloyd how he got metal poisoning or if it continued to be problematic. Instead, he looked at me and said, “Women used to slowly kill their husbands with arsenic until it was banned. In Florida, a woman killed two husbands with car coolant. She was arrested while in the process of killing her third husband. She was found guilty and sentenced to death.” I listened, dumbfounded. This guy is way too occupied with stories about death.

On brain death He smiled as he continued to talk about dying. “Only a neurologist can declare someone who is brain dead. Some countries make people wait two years after someone is declared brain dead to take them off life support. Most doctors have never seen a brain that is dead, but I have seen many braindead brains. After two years, the brain is gone, looks like melted chocolate. That’s why the Supreme Court considers people with braindeath as dead.” I mentally catalogued another interesting “fact” to research. On writing The neurologist read the notes that I had written describing Lloyd’s seizure events. Because Lloyd was unconscious at the time, I wanted to be sure to clarify what had happened. I wrote information like, “Lloyd started gasping, then made loud gurgling noises. His muscles tensed and jerked, his arms flailed. This went on for at least a minute or more.” The doctor complimented me on my excellent writing skills. He asked, “Do you speak other languages?” “No,” I replied. He looked a bit disappointed. He never mentioned Lloyd’s symptoms.

82 | Kandi Maxwell


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On language He told us he spoke three languages. “English is ridiculous,” He said. “Why double consonants when you only need one?" He wrote the word “sow” on a piece of paper, but it looked like “soa.” He asked Lloyd and I to pronounce the word, but we didn’t know the word he wrote was “sow” like the female pig. We mispronounced the word. “The English pronounce an “o” all wrong. It should be pronounced as so,” he said. He assured us that this was true, as he spoke Latin. He seemed particularly proud of this accomplishment. When the neurologist finished his comments, he reached over to his desk and grabbed a pen. He filled out a recommendation for an EEG, then said, “Only a neurologist can refer a patient for an EEG.” I suggested including an MRI. “That’s a good idea,” he said, and wrote that down in his notes. Lloyd and I shook the doctor's hand, walked out of the room and headed downstairs where Lloyd turned in his referrals for the EEG and the MRI. Lloyd would get his EEG the following week; his MRI would follow. A light rain sprinkled down on our truck as we drove back home. I thought more about the doctor's stories. What a quack. Lloyd interrupted my musings. “That was the best doctor I have ever seen at the VA,” he said. Say what? But I realized Lloyd was right. We got the referrals Lloyd needed. There was no longer a fifty-day wait. We had received the best possible outcome from an odd, tale-telling neurologist.

Kandi Maxwell | 83


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Veronique Offered A Toe Karen Lee Boren Yet the mysterious rabbit was not satisfied with such a paltry morsel. A toe? With a nail as thick as the bark of the hundred-year-old trees around him? He didn’t know attached to that toe’s horny nail was lovely pink flesh, smoothed by pumice, oiled by lanolin, and it was this, really, that Veronique had offered, drawn to the rabbit by its fluorescent blue fur and its lime green nose.

I got to have me a bunny like this, she thought. She wondered how such an animal might have come to the woods behind her tiny farmhouse, but not for long, for her mind raced even as her foot was poised in offering.

How to lure this bunny home? Veronique was no stranger to seductions of one sort or another. At a young age, she had seduced first her brother, then her father, and then the town into thinking they had been the seducers. In shame, they had fled, leaving her the farmhouse and only herself to care for. No more smelly-as-bears men to force her to cook and wash from dawn to dusk. She washed herself in the rain or the icy river at the edge of the woods. She ate only light meals of wild lettuce and grass, of herbs and berries, all rife in her woods both summer and winter. It did not occur to her that these would be better offerings to the multi-colored rabbit than her own sweet foot. Surely a rabbit of this caliber would need something more, something of substance. And she was not wrong. This rabbit had sharp incisors and thick molars. This rabbit liked meat, and he had the jaws to prove it. He did so on Veronique’s toe, biting beyond the joint, at which point the entire foot, ankle, calf, and thigh became visible to the rabbit who felt lust. Desire. Thirst.

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Veronique had only slightly flinched at the dismemberment of her digit. In fact, she kept her foot raised, allowing the blood to flow freely down the throat of the cottontail, transfusing him, transforming him. It took a moment for her blood to enter his bloodstream, but once it had, Veronique watched the metamorphosis with awe. His fur shed like late autumn leaves in a fierce wind, exposing skin the color of chestnuts. His ears shrunk, only a finger longer than her own. His haunches grew to legs, his paws to hands, the fingers stubby but multi-jointed. His face, no longer the simpering snout of a rabbit, was as human as her own, and lovelier, still, than any she had seen beyond her own reflection from the river’s surface. “Carry me home,” she said, raising her injured foot, “since it’s your fault I’m injured.” He did, lifting her light as a feather, looking forward to all she would offer him. How foolish he had been to think she would only offer a toe. She had spilled blood for him. She had made a man of him. He would stay with her always. Back at the farmhouse, he lay her in bed and lay with her, their lovemaking oiled by the blood still seeping from her foot and the musk oozing from his pores. After, he slept peacefully, a tiny bunny nuzzling against his litter-mates. When he awoke in the morning, she was gone, a trail of blood leading out the door and into the woods. He followed it to the bank of the river, where he saw her on the other side, licking her fluorescent pink fur and lime green nose. When she saw him, she hesitated only a moment before bolting, limping only a very little bit as she bulleted through the woods, her ears back, her fur flying—she was freedom itself. She was gone. He looked then at his man’s body, now needing a shave and a bath and animal flesh to keep it going. He ran his hands over the hairless skin of his chest.

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He dropped to his knees, aching at the bend, cried out in a not-quitehuman voice, but with a sound of agony he could never have contained in his small rabbit body.

Not enough. Not enough.

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Through the Window Gregg Williard

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Combination People Angelica M. Garcia We are combination people. We do combination things like eat soup with fork and spoon, pay with cash and credit, discuss politics of left and right. I find Mother pulling doors. I find Father pushing them. They switch off. In they push, out they pull, then vice-versa. Mr. Craig at the convenience store says we are funny people, mutters things about OCD under his breath. Every afternoon, he works behind the counter, wearing flannel and chewing nicotine gum. On most afternoons, I wander to the back of the store to the sandwich section. I take one sandwich of each type, the brand depending on the day of the week. Then I approach the counter, clasping the sandwiches with white fingertips. My fingertips are white because I have combination skin—white hands and feet, pinkish face and arms. Mother thinks this is grand. After I hand Mr. Craig the items for him to scan, he and I often have a quick chat about simple things. “How’s school going, Billy?” “On Mondays or Fridays?” He chuckles. Today is a Thursday, and I feel it is in my best interest to be relatively calm because I am peeking out at Mr. Craig between two boxes of Pop-Tarts, and he is oozing sweat. His thumbs twist over one another; he breathes too quickly. I want to ask if he is okay, but I decide it is in my best interest to stay silent. He rings up my goods. Today, I buy the sandwiches wrapped in the purple film. There are a total of seven sandwiches; one bite from each 92 | Angelica M. Garcia


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should suffice. Mr. Craig places my sandwiches in front of him in a neat pile. I hold out a handful of cash and shove it toward him, but he is not looking at me. He stares at a television next to him on the counter. The light from the television makes ghostly patterns on Mr. Craig’s crinkled face. He appears even more nervous now, shaking his head from side to side. “Are you alright, Mr. Craig?” “Am I alright?” he says. “How can anyone be alright at a time like this?” I blink. “I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Haven’t you heard?” The look he is giving me now is something between surprise and nausea. It makes me uncomfortable, so I grab my sandwiches from across the counter. “I suppose I haven’t then,” I reply. He raises his eyebrows and blows air through his teeth in a condescending manner. “I’m surprised it hasn’t started in the schools already. I would’ve thought they’d be getting to the kids first. After all, it’s the kids that’ll make all the difference in the future.” “On Thursdays I don’t pay much attention to school.” “Don’t you think you ought to?” “Perhaps.” Mr. Craig says nothing further, diverts his eyes back to the muted television, and waves a flimsy receipt in my face. I take the receipt and start toward the door, abandoning behind me rows of pork rinds and anti-diarrheals. A single bell chimes as I slip out the door.

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The street that runs from my house to the convenience store is called Namby-Pamby Drive. The people live in little conjoined houses lined up along the sidewalk. Most of the residents are friendly. There is Mrs. Jones who claims paranoia has nothing to do with her arsenal of weapons. There is the minimalist interior designer George with a “Holohoax” bumper sticker stamped to the back of his car. There is a man who sits on his front porch every day, drinks Kool-Aid, and asks to be called Brenda. At the end of the street sits a quaint house constructed out of panels, of which no two are the same. A sidewalk leading up to the door splits the yard in half: half of the yard is gravel and the other grass. This is where I live. Four days out of the week, I am happy here. When I finally reach my house and enter the living room, I find my older brother Nicholas sitting on the couch with his new girlfriend Shelby. They’ve been dating for almost a week. Shelby is a combination girl. She listens to both rap and country music, sometimes both at the same time. Her favorite numbers are six and seven. My parents are very proud. I release the sandwiches from my arms, and they rain onto the coffee table. “Hey there, Billy!” Nicholas says when he sees me. His lanky arms bob excitedly in the air. Shelby waves at me, and now I know it is in my best interest to go over and shake her hand. “Where are Mother and Father?” I ask. “Upstairs,” Nicholas replies. “Doing what?” “Flossing, probably.” I don’t know why he says this. On the couch, Shelby scoots closer to Nicholas and places her hand on his upper thigh. They exchange sweet glances for a moment before Nicholas digs in between the plump cushions and plucks out a remote control. He presses a thumb on the red power button, and the television brightens to life. Nicholas flicks to an episode of I Love Lucy. In our house, we only watch sitcoms because everything else on 94 | Angelica M. Garcia


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television forces the viewer to take sides. This includes hockey games, news channels, and Spanish soap operas. Shelby’s hand creeps a little higher up my brother’s thigh, and I begin to think it is in my best interest to leave. Before I can decide, however, a knock on the front door startles me. The knock sounds while Lucy is in the middle of stuffing her mouth with chocolates as they make their way down an assembly line. The moment calls for me to laugh, so I do. Nicholas brushes the side of Shelby’s face before getting up to answer the door. He does so with a goofy grin, the kind people in love are required to wear even in public places. He opens the door to reveal a square-shaped man with a suit and mustache. The man has a strong jawline and legs that look like tree stumps. The man says, “Hello sir, my name is Douglas Shaw, county official. Are your parents home?” “They’re busy,” Nicholas says. “With what?” “Flossing.” “Bring them here.” Nicholas turns from Douglas Shaw and heads up the stairs, blowing Shelby a kiss before disappearing into the upper hall. Moments later, he emerges at the top of the stairs with my parents at his side. On the way down, Mother, with a head of messy blonde hair, ensures she walks on each individual step, so as not to leave one out. Father wrestles with the four top buttons of his shirt. I hear quick feet pounding on the floor above my head. At the sound, my parents smile bashfully and shrug. They finally make their way to the entryway, and Douglas Shaw taps his foot impatiently. “Mr. and Mrs. Brown-Smith?” Angelica M. Garcia | 95


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“Is there a meaning to all of this?” Father asks, flexing his mustache up and down. “Well, I’m sure you’ve heard.” “I suppose I haven’t then.” Mother squeezes into the conversation. “I can bring you some coffee. You must be a tired man. People who look official are often tired.” Douglas Shaw sighs, “No ma’am, that won’t be necessary.” “Today is Thursday. Perhaps you drink tea on Thursdays?” “No ma’am, I don’t drink tea on any day.” Mother huffs, “Why, how peculiar.” Father likes to think he is a defensive man, and he places a hand on Mother’s bicep. “What are you doing here, saying such strange things and frightening my wife?” “I’m actually quite fine,” Mother says. “See how she trembles,” Father says. “What is your purpose here?” Douglas Shaw groans. He pulls out a stack of cards from his pocket. He takes one from the top and holds it up. The card is like one of those obnoxious subscription cards that always fall out of magazines. It is gold and has multiple lines for people to write information. He hands it to Father. “What is this?” Father asks. “As part of a mandatory government-regulated census, you have until tomorrow to select your preference on this card. Option 1 or Option 2, simple as that.” We all gasp at each other. Shelby pretends to swoon into Nicholas’s arms. 96 | Angelica M. Garcia


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“And what if we don’t?” Father starts. “If that is okay, of course.” “If you don’t,” Douglas Shaw answers, licking his lips, “then your house is subject to immediate repossession by the county.” Father shouts, “My God!” “It’s incredible you haven’t heard of this modern-day phenomenon. Don’t you watch the news?” Douglas Shaw snaps. “I detest it religiously.” A lavish hybrid tree wobbles behind Mr. Shaw. “I’m sorry then, sir, that you’ll have to make such a quick decision. I advise you pick Option 2, however. It is a personal favorite.” I wonder if the county government allows its employees to make such bold statements. “Sure, sure. It’s no bother of course.” Douglas Shaw retreats with a customary salute, and a pinch of Father’s sweat trickles onto the gold card. Father shuts the door. “My God! This is the biggest inconvenience in human history,” he exclaims, back against the door. “The biggest!” I join in. Visibly nervous, Nicholas retreats to the bathroom. We all stand for a moment in utter distress, feeding off each other’s anxieties. Father vigorously strokes his eyebrows back and forth. Shelby vocally yearns for Nicholas’ return. I pace from room to room, looking up to see the elegant chandelier dangle above my head, looking down to see the floors alternate from wood to tile. These kinds of paces soothe me. It is now that Mother returns from a place I never noticed she’d left to. She skips into the room merrily, her cotton dress billowing around her ankles.

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“I have one possible solution—one solution out of many possible great ones, of course. I am open to all ideas,” she says. Father nods eagerly. “Do tell, if you find you should.” “Okay. I will tell it, long as you all know any and all alternative ideas are welcome at the table.” “I can only speak for myself, but we know.” Mother grins triumphantly. “I was just on the phone with Francine Frackshack. She told me the same gentleman showed up at her door and made the same request of her. She was outraged but shared with me something that could turn the whole situation around.” A collective gasp. “There is a place, if you all would like, we can go to escape this choice catastrophe.” “Great!” says Father. “Neat!” chimes Nicholas. After a pause, “Wow!” I cheer. “It’s called the Combination Colony.”

h They say endogeic earthworms have an acquired taste, a type of tang that secretes from the seminal vesicles. It has been two weeks, and I have yet to acquire that taste or enjoy seminal vesicles of any kind. Regardless, I feel safe in the Combination Colony. There are many people here like me. We are happy here beneath the thin air of upper ground. I have come to appreciate the walls made of dirt and the tiny, jagged rocks that stab my heels. We spend many of the days doing combination things away from the choices of a world that does not understand. Every day we chant a new song. We stand in a circle holding hands, never with the same person two days in a row. Some of the combination people brought down candles with 98 | Angelica M. Garcia


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them, and we’ve made them our beacons. Sometimes the colony smells like vanilla, other times, steamed apples. There is a wise man here. Many nights, everyone will sit in a circle and listen to him speak. They all sit at his feet like pre-school students. He is the color of buttered toast, exudes a radiant sort of youth, and speaks with pulses. Rumor has it that he’s 25 and from some combination town in the Northeast. No one knows his real name, just that he has a college degree or five. When people have a college degree, they are experts in just about everything. The adults will sometimes cheer or whoop or cry after he speaks. I don’t know why they do this, but I feel it is in my best interest not to ask. Here are some things he says: “. . .therefore, I do not believe in God, but I believe in Jesus. I donate to churches every other Sunday.” “Narcotics are only okay if administered with hypodermic needles.” “Motion is relative and so is the quality of my waistline.” Mother broke down in tears after the last one. Nicholas and Shelby spend lots of time together. But sometimes Nicholas leaves Shelby alone while he goes to listen to the wise man. He gushes about the wise man’s brilliance constantly. When Nicholas says these things, Shelby gets very jealous and sometimes even becomes physically ill. If Nicholas so much as shakes the wise man’s hand in admiration, she could be out for days. Right now, everyone in the colony is called for a meeting. We shuffle around, and, like always, I try not to bump people. Shelby and Nicholas walk and hold hands, pausing every so often to rub noses. Some people run to the meeting point, others walk, a few crawl on hands and feet. Each smelling of a different kind of musk, they surround me on all sides. Chitchat breaks into obnoxious roars, and I try to contain my irritation. I wave over Mother, who is nibbling on the ends of her tortured index fingers. She rushes to my side and places an arm around my shoulder. The wise man stands on a block of hay, his spritely legs dancing under the weight of his torso. He spreads his arms out like wings. Angelica M. Garcia | 99


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“Hush, my children. If you wish, of course.” Having stood too long on one bale of hay, he jumps to the next. The volume in the room decreases to a lull. “Thank you,” he continues. “I bring you here today because of this.” He makes a strange motion with his hand, and a fellow to his side hands him an empty metal bucket. With a well-defined ankle, the wise man kicks the bucket into the crowd, and it clatters onto the floor. The people gasp; their eyes glisten with wonder. “What’s left in that bucket is our remaining sustenance. We are plagued with a famine of annelids!” announces the wise man. The crowd erupts into bedlam. A woman to my right faints, toppling over a teetering two-year-old. A man, panicked, yanks out the last wisps of hair from his balding head. Babies cry with pickled faces. “What do we do? We can’t go back out there,” a large-nosed man yells. The wise man silences the crowd. “He is correct. Going back to upper ground is not an option—although opposing arguments are appreciated. Out there, they will make us choose, and choose we shall not!” The crowd cheers and thrust their fists into the air. Mine lingers limply at my side. “We will starve. That is a fact. However, I have developed an alternate means of food, if you all are willing to hear it,” the wise man continues. “Tell us, oh wise one!” shouts a barefooted woman. She tosses her large body toward the wise man, and I suddenly feel nauseous. “Indeed,” the wise man continues. “I will now demonstrate. Nicholas, my son, would you mind coming to the front?” Nicholas presses a hand to his mouth and opens his eyes wide as if to say, “Me?” A couple drags two blocks of hay next to the wise man as Nicholas floats through the mob in ecstasy. 100 | Angelica M. Garcia


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Nicholas steps onto the block, smiling despite the trivial issue of inevitable starvation. “And Shelby, my daughter, I request you make your way to the front as well.” Shelby appears pleased that she will not be separated from her lover for long. When she gets to her spot, she grabs Nicholas’s hands and caresses them both possessively. Nicholas is speechless. “Nicholas, do you care about this colony?” the wise man asks. “I do.” “Then you would do all that is necessary to preserve everything this colony stands for?” “I would.” The bottom of my foot itches something terrible. “Good. Take this, my son.” The wise man pulls from beneath his majestic purple T-shirt a slender, parched knife. Nicholas reaches out a quivering hand and wraps bony fingers around the knife’s handle. The crowd is an anxious fog. “A sacrifice, my son, is what is needed to save the Combination Colony.” My mouth drops open; my eyes are at a radius beyond measure. I look around and see blank smiles ready to please. I try to grasp this as Shelby begins to squirm. “A sacrifice?” Shelby gasps. The wise man ignores her and keeps his eyes directed toward Nicholas. “Nicholas, do you believe in sitting on fences and handing out participation trophies?” “Always.” “Then do it. Make the sacrifice.” Angelica M. Garcia | 101


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Mother sobs merry tears. “Do it,” the wise man continues. “Make us proud!” Then, like the snap of a neck, without hesitation, my dear brother thrusts back his hand and rams the knife into Shelby’s abdomen. She crumbles. She writhes. I turn away. Stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled. “You’ve done well, Nicholas. But what would a Combination Colony be without options?” the wise man says and throws his hands in the air. The crowd cheers. I look at Shelby’s limp body on the floor, trying to understand how just a minute ago she squeezed Nicholas’s hand, how he’d squeezed it back. The wise man continues, “You!” He points to an elderly man lounging on a rock in the back of the crowd. The man raises his eyebrows and widens his eyes. “Oh no, not me. I haven’t done anybody harm,” he says with a shaky voice. The wise man slants his eyes. “Harm’s got nothing to do with it. This is about what we stand for. This is about ambivalence!” With a unanimous “hoorah,” the crowd closes in on the elderly man. They begin to paw at him, grabbing the ends of his shirt sleeves, the pads of his shoulders. They push him to the front. “No,” he cries, his face red with panic, but the crowd doesn’t let up. Meanwhile, the wise man continues to point into the crowd. “You!” he says, pointing to a middle-aged woman holding a young child. “You!” he directs toward a man suspiciously wearing all black. “You!” he calls to a skinny teenager picking at a pimple. Each “You!” is followed by a horrified screech and the mob calls of a hungry crowd. As each person is called up, my mind swirls with disbelief; there’s a thud in my head that won’t let up. “Hey!” I call, but my small voice is drowned out by the cries of the crowd and its victims. The wise man directs our attention back up 102 | Angelica M. Garcia


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to the front, where he has lined up the chosen ones. Nicholas is still standing there, dripping knife in hand, blank eyes. Ready for more. The wise man doesn’t have to say anything because Nicholas has already killed before. He lifts his knife. I look away and plug my ears with my fingers. When it is all finished, the wise man exclaims, “You’ve done well, Nicholas. Now, we will not go hungry! Thanks to you, the Combination Colony will perpetuate.” My brother turns to the crowd and is content to see their admiring, grateful faces. My head bubbles, my stomach follows. Shelby is still on the floor, pale and dead-eyed. I stand, body shaking in horror, wondering if I’m the only sane person left, wondering if the sane are the real repast of the Combination People. And as I falter, watching red rivers lead into red oceans, I realize I’m not hungry. I run. Away from the colony. Mother paws at me, begging me to stay, telling me it is for the best. I do not care. I do not care. A mob of combination people storms after me, screaming how terrible it is out there—a world of sides. The exit is so near. I come to the only way out, the only way in. I linger in front of it, this big hunk of metal surrounded by dirt walls. I look back to see Mother, Nicholas, Father, all chasing after me, all thinking they know best. Then I see the wise man, arms folded across a broad chest, lips curled like he knows something. Shelby bleeds, and I can’t help wondering what that feels like. So, with a shaking hand, with a single intention, I make the best kind of choice: I choose to push open the door. And I never intend to pull it. Angelica M. Garcia | 103


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A Fairly Convincing List My Grandpa Is a Ghost Chris McLain 1. He’s standing floating beside my bed 2. It’s three a.m. 3. There’s a white sheet over his entire body, and it’s after Labor Day 4. He was saying “ooooo” when I woke up [he’s never seen a cell phone] [He asks me for some water. What am I going to say, no? *Google later: Can ghosts hold stuff (e.g. glasses)? This one can] 4. All of the liquid flows straight through his lips, throat, and stomach, and drips onto the wood floors [*Mop up puddle later] 5. I was at his funeral [That’s an afterthought These other reasons should be more than enough to convince me of his spectral form] Hey. [That, or he’s a dream But I can’t stand the thought of being so boring that I’d fall asleep and fantasize about this] HEY. [No, he must be a ghost] I’m a ghost. 6. Ok, he just said, “I’m a ghost.” What the hell are you writing down? [An unfashionable, thirsty, matter-of-fact, curiously angry ghost]

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Our Gun Mark Brazaitis It is never not the right moment to say this: We love our gun. It is, perhaps, even more important to say it after the events of last night. Therefore, we will say it again: We love our gun. We love our gun. We love, love, love our gun. Our gun protects us from whomever might do us harm. If we hear a strange sound late at night, we are—because of our gun—unafraid. Even if the sound comes from a serial killer picking at the leftovers in our refrigerator, we know we are safe because we can grab our gun from our bedside table, or from under our pillow, or from the soap dish in our shower, and point it at the serial killer. No exchange of words would be necessary. Who would want to speak with a serial killer anyway? Our gun would do the talking. We have, so far, never had a serial killer enter our house and open our refrigerator. Nor have we had anyone who might do us harm enter our house. This might all change tonight. A week ago, our son Michael brought our gun to his ex-girlfriend’s house to show it off to her and her new boyfriend. Michael said they were impressed by the gun. Although he didn’t even pull the trigger, they were impressed. He might go back to his ex-girlfriend’s house soon. He misses her. He isn’t sure why she left him. He thinks it might be because he didn’t have a gun when they were dating. He thinks our gun will help convince her to come back to him.

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The other day, our younger son, Peter, brought our gun to school. Peter isn’t happy with the world. It’s understandable. Life is confusing. Sometimes it seems meaningless. Our gun is solid and full of purpose. There is no ambivalence in our gun. Peter feels purposeful when he is holding our gun. People understand a gun in a way they don’t understand evolution or climate change. People also understand people who carry guns in a way they don’t understand people who don’t carry guns. Everyone at Peter’s high school understood Peter much, much better when he was carrying our gun. One day, our friend Dave came to visit us. When we showed him our gun, he said, “May I hold it?” We said, “Of course!” He cradled our gun in his palm. He caressed its barrel. His grin was enormous. Presently, he began dancing in place like a racehorse in a stall. “How can you stand it?” he exclaimed. “Stand what?” we asked “Stand not firing it!” he shouted, pointing our gun at us. “We haven’t met a serial killer,” we said as we ducked behind our sofa. “Yet!” When Dave handed our gun back to us, we smiled as if the stains in our crotches were simply a spontaneous fashion statement. Sometimes before we go to bed, we place our gun in the middle of our dining room table and stare at it as if it’s a luminous candle. We look at each other and smile. We ask each other hopefully, “Will this be the night?” We are speaking of the night an intruder—whether he’s a serial killer or a drunken neighbor who, in his drunkenness, might mistake our front door for his—will enter our house unbidden. We have imagined such a scenario ever since we bought our gun. We often imagine conversations we would have afterwards with people who have questioned us about why we love our gun. “You understand now, don’t you?” we imagine ourselves saying. “If you had a gun, you wouldn’t have to worry about serial killers or drunken 106 | Mark Brazaitis


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neighbors.” We imagine introducing these people to their own guns. We imagine ourselves as gun matchmakers. It’s true: our gun is especially sexy. It’s so sexy, it wouldn’t be appropriate to describe certain daydreams and night dreams we’ve had about our gun. We will, however, share our friend Mary Ellen’s dream. Mary Ellen is a violinist, and one night she dreamed of a wedding between her violin and our gun. Instead of “I do,” her violin played the opening to the third movement of Brahms’s Violin Concerto. For its “I do,” our gun fired a happy shot into the ceiling of the wedding chapel. Sweet music all around! Here’s another cute anecdote about our gun: As they were expecting their first child, our friends Josh and Amanda Bryant placed our gun in their soon-to-be-born baby’s crib. They even cranked the mobile above the gun so it played music. No, it wasn’t “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” but it should have been! Michael did return to his ex-girlfriend’s house and as he said to us, the police, his lawyer, and the judge, “I shot her in self-defense,” which, although he never articulated it in exactly these words, was in self-defense of his heart. We were disappointed in Michael. He should have known what we know. There is only one true and faithful lover: our gun. Michael will be in prison for a long time. He will deeply miss our gun. He would, no doubt, find it useful where he is going. Although Peter never fired our gun in his high school, he won’t be allowed to return. Simon Smith, his math teacher, and Priscilla Davidson, a member of the volleyball team who sat in the desk immediately behind Peter’s, tackled him when he waved our gun and shouted, “Say goodbye to this hard and cold world” (This is an approximation of what Peter said. We aren’t fond of expletives). In the moments between removing our gun from his backpack and being tackled, Peter had everyone’s complete attention. His choice of words, we believe, was his single mistake. If only he had said, “This is a test—this is only a test—of your preparedness. If every one of Mark Brazaitis | 107


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you were carrying a gun right now and I was a serial killer, you could shoot me dead.” We wish Peter had consulted us before he brought our gun to school. It took time and lawyers, and therefore money, to retrieve our gun from the authorities. Nevertheless, we will do our best to visit Peter in the juvenile detention center at the far end of the state. What happened between our daughter Linda and our gun was certainly an accident. Despite the official conclusion about the nature of her death, we are certain she did not intend to kill herself. Yes, it’s true; prior to her accident, Linda did spend an inordinate amount of time sleeping. In the days before her death, she did urge us to help ourselves to her belongings, including DVDs, clothes, jewelry, and books of poetry (We helped ourselves to everything but the books of poetry). One of us did suggest it might be best if we limited Linda’s access to our gun, although the rest of us countered by saying that if Linda was indeed sad and suicidal, she would be made sadder and more suicidal by the absence of our gun. Sometimes, late at night, we heard from her bedroom what was either tear-filled prayers or outright sobbing. If she was crying, we assumed it was because of what had befallen Michael and Peter. Or perhaps, the cause was simply frustration over the serial killer’s failure to appear in our kitchen. We had been waiting a long time for his appearance, and it was natural to feel frustration, and even sadness, over his continued absence. We are convinced Linda’s death was an accident, perhaps caused by her understandable desire to cuddle with our gun and tickle the trigger. We, too, have been guilty of such intimacies! We are not the kind of people to second guess or ruminate over what might have been. Like a bullet from a gun, we move in one direction— straight ahead. Because of what happened to Michael, Peter, and Linda, we had three vacancies in our house. There is confusion about the exact number of vacancies we now have after the events of last night. 108 | Mark Brazaitis


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Here’s the story: Late last night, we all heard a noise in our kitchen. We each had the same thought: It’s the serial killer! Collectively, we picked up our gun and marched into the kitchen. There he was, the serial killer, at the refrigerator, about to indulge in a little late-night snack before he indulged in a little serial killing. We didn’t allow him the pleasure of a slice of cold pizza or an apple or whatever he intended to eat before he began his murderous rampage. We pulled the trigger. In the aftermath, someone said the man might be the latest arrival to our household—the man who, just that morning, we’d invited to occupy one of our spare rooms. But we couldn’t be sure. There was a lot of blood, and no one wanted to look long.

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how do you pronounce inevitable Adam Becker i’ve woken up to being surrounded / utterly submerged / in some kind of subterranean lake the water is ink and everywhere infinity stretched into incomprehension leviathan lives in a place like this my atoms (or whatever) grasp that drowning is an art and luminously inevitable so now i’m torn in deciding which cardinal direction to swim so i can take tea with the octopus i’d also like to know who the fuck placed me in the middle of an underground lake

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on the feeling that follows failure and what else is there Adam Becker Last Whenever, i biked to some sort of wilderness because i heard that demons had hidden a pirate ship in the woods. They lied. Instead, i found a field of honeybees diligently flitting between the wildflowers; their soft, sleek, feminine bodies shone like honey in the sunlight, among the reds and blues and greenery. i buried my bike in those flower-covered hills. But i dug it up a little while later because it was expensive and perfect, and i’d eventually have to go home. i’m tired of how time doesn’t stop. i saw a honeybee drop straight from the sky (she’s tired too), and i searched the rest of the afternoon, but i couldn’t find her in the flower fields. i stayed until the seasons changed. The flowers wilted and withered away, and the air took on that urgent crispness that precedes snowfall. The rest of the bees had gone home. i sat in that field and thought about death and how it’s a cliché i don’t understand. i barely understand sleep.

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Alternative Definitions Richard LeBlond No collection of definitions can escape the shadow of the mother of irreverent lexicons, The Devil’s Dictionary, by the alphabeticallyinclined Ambrose Bierce. (I am going to take a break here to see if I can compose a 26-word sentence that begins with “Ambrose Bierce” and ends with “Yankee Zeitgeist”). The 19th century American author may best be known for his legendary disappearance into Mexico in 1913 to lend a hand, and maybe a life, to the revolution. Bierce collected and saved his micro-epiphanies for decades, beginning at least as early as 1869, and held onto them until the 1911 publication of his devilish dictionary. I have done something similar, tending to them carefully over the decades, with an eye for drooping vowels and smudged consonants. They seem to arrive out of nowhere, often with great fanfare: unbidden but not unjudged; those that continue to shine in daylight are bathed and swaddled. Some claim to be a clever insight, a punishing twist, or as Bierce said of bigamy, “a mistake in taste.” Accordion: What happened when a careless bagpiper left his instrument on a piano overnight. Autobiography: An exercise wherein an author determines which lies to tell and which truths to leave out. Autopilot: It appears to get stupider as we age, but in reality, it has always been this stupid and is merely getting more airplay. Baseball: A game in which 98% of the time is spent watching two men play catch. Boot camp: The mechanism by which the soldier is relieved of his common sense. 112 | Richard LeBlond


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Buffet: A cafeteria freed from tyranny. Charisma: An aphrodisiac that works in both directions. Church: A carwash for the soul. Cosmetics: Makeup is not so much about of the superficiality of women as it is about the superficiality of men. Democracy: An indulgence of generals. Dyxlesic: . . . Economic growth: The communists and capitalists have more in common with each other than either has with those who would live in a sustainable way. Elderly: When normal is the new euphoria. Freedom: A term that now is more identified with restrictive political and religious beliefs than with personal liberty. It is becoming its own oxymoron. Free enterprise: The mechanism by which capitalists achieve a monopoly. God: A metaphor for all that remains unknown or unexplained, enabling us to imagine causality in the interplay of physical laws and the chaos of chance. God as an entity is unknowable except for one thing: everything. Honey: We are repulsed by the thought of insects in our diet, but we love to eat their vomit. Junk science: (1) Scientific studies contrived to support a point of view. (2) Any scientific study, contrived or otherwise, that does not support your point of view. Karaoke: A haven for those who don’t carry a tune so much as drag it along on the ground behind them.

Richard LeBlond | 113


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Kissing: An ingenious device of our immune systems, whereby we share our defenses with loved ones. Science has determined that as many as 80 million bacteria are transferred during a 10‑second kiss. Love: An ingenious device of bacteria. Meaninglessness: A luxury of youth, and a worm of old age. Metaphor: Simile on steroids. Mileage: What distinguishes a movement from a fad. Miracle: Something with a 10,000 to 1 chance of happening. No one noticed the 9,999 times that it could have happened, but didn’t. Our mind abhors randomness and attributes a cause to every effect. Missionary: The name for the most popular form of sex in the world. They must be very proud. Mnemonic: A word sorely in need of its own service. Minnesota (MN) will have to do. Music: The first language—far more emotionally complex and subtle than words could ever be. Myth: When historical research ruins a good story. Organic food: Not intrinsically good. An organic spaghetti alfredo means your heart attack is more likely to be cancer-free. Pacification: One-word oxymoron (see freedom). Patriotism: It freed us from the British but hasn’t freed us from ourselves. Peace: Euphemism for the interlude between wars—always and only a morphing regional phenomenon. Penance: Only as good as its beginning. That which begins with a crisis of conscience is of great value. Much more common, and essentially worthless, is that which begins with getting caught.

114 | Richard LeBlond


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Poetry: The soul’s shorthand. Pork: Tax dollars going to someone else’s district. Rage: The stupidest of mental states. It makes heroes, but it also makes life sentences without possibility of parole. Responsibility: When something you need to do but don’t want to do goes to the top of the list. Routines: Vain and futile attempts to make time move sideways instead of dead ahead. Sarcasm: Aggression cloaked in humor, the crudest form of rapier wit. It descends from a Greek word meaning “to tear flesh like dogs.” No kidding. School: An ingenious cultural convention whose primary purpose is to train the citizen to show up on time five days a week, whose secondary purpose is to educate, and whose tertiary purpose is to prepare the citizen for war through athletic rivalries. Soap operas: With someone furtively listening outside an open window or behind a door in nearly every scene, these should have been called “eaves droperas.” Special interest: Any interest not special to you. Spooning: A mildly amorous position that nonetheless can lead to forking. Suicide: Dark cousin of our noble capacity for self-sacrifice and maybe the cost of that capacity. Sunset: Misnomer for earthrise. Tattoo: A lifetime commitment often mistaken for a lifetime commitment. Testosterone: The deadliest chemical known to humanity. It was essential for the paleo hunter but is doom for the maker of mass destruction. Richard LeBlond | 115


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Welfare: Sometimes people need to be rescued from forces beyond their control, and sometimes people need to be rescued from the rescuing. Whore: A woman who approaches sex with the same attitude as a man. Xenophobia: The ultimate expression of our immune system.

116 | Richard LeBlond


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Sketching Sad Dolls Jennifer Burnau The girl with her mouth sewn shut wears a bell for a skirt. The clapper rings her words inside out. The girl with her mouth sewn shut has a skirt like a funnel. Her toy brain leaks, spilling code on the floor. The boy with his mouth sewn shut has worms for hair. So does the girl. They hold hands and hum Schubert. The boy with his mouth sewn shut slurps tears because he cannot eat the blue silk kisses he made for their wedding. He made an armless teddy bear for their only child. Two gray plaid neighbors threw it in the garbage.

Jennifer Burnau | 117


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The Abridged Recipes of St. Agnes For Fevers, Chills, Visions, and Other Ailments Ryan Habermeyer You suck his cock after eating a peanut butter sandwich, pretending not to remember his allergy. Hallelujah, he will whisper, smiling as his breathing quickens and the roof of his mouth begins to itch. You bake an apple pie. His mother’s recipe, the one she made after the neighbor boys teased him for wanting to be a preacher. Add three extra teaspoons of cinnamon. Later, when his tongue pauses from gliding over your asshole to scrape the cinnamon clumps from his molars, the wires in his brain will scramble as he confuses you for his mother. An aneurysm is inevitable. When the power goes out, listen to him read the Songs of Solomon, letting him suck olives from your fingertips, never admitting you plucked them from a can left half-opened last summer, the juices sexing with botulism. When he sleeps, caress his throat, secretly measuring the width of his windpipe with your fingertips, confident you will find the right cherry tomato to wedge inside. At breakfast, spread homemade yew berry jam over his toast and pretend he is paranoid when he complains of trembling hands and blurry vision. Buy a dozen Mason jars. Take him with you to pick cucumbers for pickling. No, too small, you say. Too many blemishes, you say. Too fat. Too crooked. Giggle. That reminds me, you start to say, then shake your head and do that thing with your hair he likes. As you scrub cucumbers at the sink, remind him of Wesley, the boy you promised your virginity. As you prepare the brine, remind him of Charlie, the 118 | Ryan Habermeyer


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one you left at the altar. As you snap one between your teeth, spitting out the cucumber juice, remind him of Adam, the one before him. Watch the color drain from his face. Watch him bite his lip with wonder. Seduce him with doubt and murder him with imagination. Bring home a Himalayan salt lick. Tell him to give one lick before every meal to prime the taste buds. Then, months later, once he is no better than Pavlov’s dog, stop cooking with salt. Make him beg. When the only flavor comes from licking your skin, you know he is already dead. For his birthday, bake a layered chocolate cake glazed in fondant and topped with pink oleanders. Assure him the flowers are edible. Don’t tell him they remind you of the flowers he picked from the field outside the revival tent in Ehlo. You were eleven. There are eleven petals on the cake. It will take six days for the toxins to work their magic, his body will expel juices that pool on the floor and evaporate into a pink perfume. Go mushroom foraging. Bake him a galette with Swiss chard. When the first seizure comes, assure him he’s just laughing too hard. When you slit his throat with the dull edge of a pie cutter, persuade him the mushrooms must have been hallucinogenic and he will lap up his own blood like syrup on pancakes. Tell him you overheard from a girlfriend that raw eggs will cure his wet noodle. Feed him three in the morning and three at night. After an hour on your knees, tell him maybe if he swallowed a dozen more it would make a difference. Tell him it doesn’t matter, you love him no matter what. Buy popcorn and a telescope. On a cloudless night, show him the moons of Jupiter. Ask him to share a daydream, pretending to be surprised when he describes himself starting an orphanage somewhere in Africa. Tell him that’s nice, but not quite like the moons of Jupiter. Feed him angel hair pasta. Let him comb fingers through your hair. Let him believe you are his angel. Leave a Hansel and Gretel trail of wet pasta noodles on the stairs as he licks Alfredo sauce off your fine harp of ribs. After, ask him to get you a glass of water. His heels are weak and he will slip going down the stairs, so give him some gentle encouragement. Ryan Habermeyer | 119


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There are other recipes. Hundreds. But nothing quite like the borscht. Promise him the borscht. It’s written on a scrap of paper stuffed inside his grandmother’s Bible. The one lying in the backseat of his Cadillac. You are eleven. Halfway upside-down but not yet inside out, your head heavy like a bowl of maple syrup, but you can still see the glow of the revival tent through foggy windows. Your hands, reaching for something to claw, something to tear, feel the Bible under your head. Bracing you like a pillow. When he’s not looking, you wrap the Bible in your undies and skip home. Under the sheets, you smell the pages. They smell like you. The next day you practice the recipe for the first time. With a Borscht you must take time. Slave over the broth. Simmer down the beef bones until they are gelatin. Toss them out the window for the dogs. Strain the broth. Then simmer again. Taste. It needs more flavor. There is bleach under the sink. And lye. Those would suffice, but they are the creations of men and he is a preacher, a man of God, and so it must be something holy. Phlegm first. Cough it up without shame. Not like after the Cadillac when you had a tickle in your throat and he said, “Just spit,” but you could never rid the taste of him, the taste of sin wrapped in hallelujah. Three drops of pus from a blister inside your lip. Watch it dissolve. Just a trickle of piss. Then an old bandage—saved from when you were a stupid girl rushing to the pulpit and fell and skinned your knee and you believed him when he said he had a Band-Aid in the Cadillac—gently laid on the surface, wilting like a basil spring in the broth. Onions. Potatoes. Beets. Freshly grated dill. Carrots. Lemon juice. Eleven ingredients. One for every year he took from you. And now one more. Remove your tampon. Stir it in along with the old ones saved in the pickle jar in the back of the cupboard. Turn up the heat until they’ve exhausted their juices. With a spoon, slowly scrape the residual blood from your holies. A borscht needs its deep red color. You know blood. Blood you were cursed with after he left. The blood that made you believe you were dying once a month until the Lord opened your eyes to the miracle of it all. Like Jesus on the cross, your blood is your recipe. 120 | Ryan Habermeyer


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Turn on the television. Only channel in town. There he is. The hairs have grayed, but it is him. Praying. Weeping. Redeeming souls with recipes from his book. He can’t understand other recipes and never understood the ones his grandmother hid in the family Bible. Recipes older than the words he’s memorized. A recipe made and remade over a thousand years. Burnt up in the pockets of women thrown in the fires, but gathered from the ashes by little girls. Recipes whispered by candlelight from grandmother to granddaughter. Hallelujah. Ladle yourself a bowl of borscht. You’ve slaved over it. Sip carefully. If there is a soul, this is what it tastes like. Watch him pray on the television. Your flesh is twain in one. Your soul is his soul, your itches will be his scratches. Like a mirror folded on itself. Eat slowly. Let it curdle down your throat, simmer in your belly until the warmth comes rushing back up your throat, splitting you the same as asphalt under the strain of a July sun. Slowly now. Let it split you cleanly. One spoon after another. Now, with your throat soaked, pray. Let the words amble out. Send a postcard to heaven. Don’t let him take this revenge from you. You’ve loved him a lifetime for the chance to hate him for an eternity. Hallelujah.

Ryan Habermeyer | 121


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Mother’s Day Melissa Knox Oh roses red, expensive I hand them straight to Mom. Her thorny eyes look pensive Her smile is far from calm. I hand them straight to Mom. Her mouth as red as blood. Her smile is far from calm She thinks my name is Mud. Her mouth as red as blood I’d rather give her thorns. She thinks my name is Mud Her mood, as always, warns. I’d rather give her thorns. Her thorny eyes look pensive. Her mood, as always, warns. Oh roses red, expensive.

122 | Melissa Knox


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The Booger Man James Hartman Our son hadn’t slept in four straight nights. Early morning after the first, Becka and I insulated him between our arms and hummed his favorite lullaby, but his eyes only dilated in greater fear, so we took him in. Our doctor conducted his exams and declared our son a terrifically healthy three-year-old boy. His heart rate was a bit fast, but otherwise there was nothing physically wrong. “Just a little spooked by something,” our doctor said, and he settled a confident hand on my shoulder. The third morning, we had to take him in again, and our doctor sent out bloodwork. “Spooked,” our doctor smiled, and he squeezed my wife and I’s shoulders. Becka stopped eating. She missed work. I ate some, and at work I presided over meetings, but what anyone agreed or disagreed on I could not remember. At night we took turns cushioning our son within our arms. His huge, white eyes—nothing we could say calmed him. The fourth night, neither of us slept. I missed work, our monthly conference call with the CEO, and after the ninth ring I shut my cell off and sat in bed with my wife and our son. He refused even to eat his favorite, vanilla pudding. That afternoon, clouds filmed the sun with a thick gauze. I took out the trash and, as the air iced around me, I thought, thank God for fall. That was it! Jumpstarted by the raw fall air, I flew back into our bedroom where Becka was trying once more to feed our son his favorite vanilla pudding. I said, “Make hot chocolate! I’ll get donuts! We’ll watch a movie!” Hot chocolate and donuts were our son’s second favorite, one of his rare treats. God, how he’d wave his hands and waggle his head, giggling like there was nothing at all more right with the world. I cannot remember where I bought the donuts, how many I bought, or whether my wife actually made the hot chocolate. My memory skips James Hartman | 123


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like a scratched CD. What I heard next is the zip of the television as it flashed on, and what I saw seconds later is the remote in my hand lowering. Between Becka and I, our son started to shake. His entire torso shimmied uncontrollably. I remember all too pristinely how much I feared a seizure. Then, just as sudden, he stilled. Our son was pointing at the television, his two longest fingers jabbing at it like there was something he anxiously needed to tell us. On the television screen, in the background, hung the black silhouette of a castle on a tall, rocky hill, and looming before it, growing in girth, a dark, blurry head and sloping shoulders. This head slowly rotated as if it had noticed the three of us. From its yawning black mouth, a sloppy voice oozed. Our son started shaking again, and I hefted him into my arms and told my wife to change the channel. I’ll never forget her face. It crinkled like she had heard something strange yet also familiar. She looked so unperturbed. Here I was, fraught with panic, and my wife was, what, amused? “Huh,” she said. “His accent made it sound like he said the booger man.” Our son had snuggled his head down into the cave between my shoulder and the sofa. Now he jerked at the piercing octave of his mother’s voice. His nose gradually peeked out. In my arms, I could feel our son change. He became lighter. I started to suspect that whatever was wrong was now departing. As he began crawling into his mother’s lap, his eyes still huge and white, a sudden compulsion to act—to completely remove whatever it was that remained—sprung me to my feet. I told Becka I was leaving and she didn’t acknowledge me, just stared with our son, awestruck, at the television. Dunham’s was eight miles down Telegraph, and I hit every light. I bought an extra-large poncho the exact color of snot and drove home, again hitting every light. In our garage, I stuffed the poncho over my head and clasped my belt around my waist, skulking as low as I could while sticking my arms against my sides to mimic the shape’s sloping shoulders. Then I opened the door and, tipping from the edge of my left foot all the way to the edge of my right, swayed into the living room. Becka saw me first. Her cheeks puffed, ready to pop with laughter. When our son’s stare finally withdrew from the television 124 | James Hartman


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and he looked at me, his expression was identical to the one that had occupied my wife’s face right before I left: unconcerned, maybe even amused, as he tried to process something he thought he recognized. “Oh no, Simon!” my wife wailed. “Is that the booger man?!” Tilting all the way up on my right foot and then all the way up on my left, I swayed toward our son, and it was only when he absorbed me into his tiny arms, gripping me so wonderfully tight, that I realized I was the one crying. He did not want to loosen his arms, so he raised his head awkwardly. He smiled, revealing his left incisor poking at its wonderfully odd angle. “I love the booger man!” our son squealed, and he closed his eyes as he squeezed me even tighter. That night he slept in his room by himself. I read him Garfield comics in my booger man costume. When I kissed his forehead goodnight, he was already asleep. The next morning, a Saturday, a nurse from the doctor’s office left a voicemail on my cell phone urging me to return her call. I deleted this voicemail, and I didn’t tell my wife about it, because it was irrelevant now. Our son was no longer tormented by fear, nor was he “a little spooked.” Our son was fine. My son, I said, is fine.

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Leaving Farm Dawn Burns “The most tender place in my heart is for strangers / I know it’s unkind but my own blood is much too dangerous” – Neko Case

Don’t look back. Look back. Don’t look back. Look back. I am forever leaving farm, even when my moment of leaving in real time began July 25, 2017, my father’s voice on the other end of the phone saying, “No. No. No. No. Never!”

h

Facebook Post – July 25, 2017 Five minutes ago, because the person who loves, supports, and walks beside me every day is a woman, I lost the farm as a place to call home. Lost a family too. Making a new path, finding a new home for my kids and me with Becky. All will be well. I am well loved by so many.

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The Farm The farm I left is in Indiana near Etna and Ormas, where county road 600 West tees at 750 North. Larwill is the town named in the address, but Larwill is not where the farm is. The house. White and two-storied with crumbling siding, crooked gutters, and a tin roof. An Indiana farmhouse a little worse for wear. It is not the house that has always mattered most but the fields that lie beyond the green yard and black walnut trees and the woods spilling over with black raspberry brambles. My dad rents the fields to a local farmer who each year plants corn and soybeans, then shares in the profits when the harvest comes in. Each year my dad sits down with the farmer to renegotiate terms and percentages, and each year he takes with him his younger brother, my Uncle Norman. My father and the farmer do the talking, set the terms, and Norman is given the same deal. My Uncle Norman lives a short walk east of the farm in what I still think of as my Grandma and Grandpa Burns’ house, though they have been dead for many years. Unmanaged trees and brush crowd Norman’s house; sandbags weigh down a tarp on the decaying roof. With windows grimed with dust and dirt and curtains always drawn, Norman’s house is a template for the home of a rural Indiana recluse who never left the farm. I have not stepped foot inside my uncle’s house for twenty years; Norman does not let anybody in. Cats and kittens are the only animals here now, and they tumble and roll in overgrown catnip, sprawl in the grass, and scatter when I approach. They scatter too for Norman who feeds but has never tamed them, not even the kittens that are born each year. Everything in this place is feral. But that is my uncle’s house on the farm where my grandparents had once lived, and not the farm where, twice in my life, separated by twenty-one years, I lived. I lived on my dad’s property, “Leon’s place,” which went up for auction when I was a child and which my dad bought because his dad told him to “keep the land in the family,” and to stop a neighboring farmer from snatching it up for himself. As a young man, my dad had poured concrete for the back porch addition and tapped the maple trees in the woods so hard they died. My dad had a connection to the place, and when his dad told him to buy the farm, my dad did what he was told. Still, we never moved to the house, just kept living at the hundred-dollar-a-month rental in Hanna, nearly an hour and a half to the west. Twice my dad rented the house, first to a woman and her children who stayed for some time, and second to a man who started off in the house with a wife and Dawn Burns | 127


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a son before he lost them, then stopped paying rent. For months, or was it over a year, my dad stressed and fumed but did nothing. When he finally took action, the renter left and took all the light bulbs in the house. My dad had made no smoking or drinking a rental condition, but beer cans were left behind with the trash, and I helped repaint the ceilings white to cover the nicotine stain. After we fixed it up, dad never rented the house again. As a child, the farm felt like a burden, a burden for him and a threat hanging over my head. A reminder that at any time he could move us there and I’d have no say. The decision wasn’t mine to make, or my sister’s, or even my mother’s. When I was an adult, my mom confided that she could never have lived at the farm, that living so close to Norman would give her a nervous breakdown, and I knew this was true. More than once, I’d been with her in the truck when she’d stopped to vomit along the road after visits where Norman had railed against everything with which he disagreed. Whatever my mother felt or wanted, where we lived wasn’t her decision. It was my dad’s decision. My dad, who at 26 had moved so far away from his own controlling father to make his own decisions and take charge of his own life. How many times had my dad said, “You think I’m tough? You should have seen your Grandpa Burns.” From the mid-1980s to 1995, the farmhouse sat vacant. Each year the rental farmer grew and harvested corn or soybeans, and sometimes we’d come down and mow the yard and pick up sticks. My sister and I would go upstairs and talk about which bedroom would be hers if we lived there (the pink one) and which bedroom would be mine (the wood-paneled one), but we never lived in the house or even spent the night. Dad would rather drive an hour and a half home and then back the next day than stay overnight. In October of 1995, the fall after graduating from college and two months after getting married, I moved to the farm with my husband for what seemed a perfect beginning to a lifelong marriage. I knew how to wife because it was all I ever watched my mom do for so many years, and “to wife”. . .that was a verb I could throw myself into with great enthusiasm. I loved that I was being an adult, taking charge of my own life, starting my own family with a husband I loved, living in my own place. . .sort of. . .which is what it mostly seemed like then, except for when my parents would visit and I would turn off our music, put away books that didn’t look Christian or politically conservative, and hide at the bottom of the trash the empty bottle of blackberry wine we’d bought as we’d passed through southern Indiana. This my dad still found and told me that alcohol would 128 | Dawn Burns


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destroy my life. At 22, I knew how to be quiet and say nothing, so I just stood there and took it. That year, tense moments with my father aside, I fell in love with the farm, and when we moved to South Bend the following August so I could start my MFA program at Notre Dame, I knew I wanted to live at the farm again someday, and in June of 2016, I did. At the end of a twenty-one-year marriage and two children to care for, I returned to the farm which had sat empty all this time, empty except for Norman who spent his days at the farm solving math problems, watching TV, reading books, and staying warm before returning to his house down the road at night. For a year, the farm was a good place for me and my kids. For just one year.

No. No. No. No. Never!

When I moved back at the end of my marriage, I needed a place to clean and fix, and the farm was exactly that. Friends drove out from Ohio to help me haul and clear my father’s hoardings and make space for living, to fix kitchen plumbing, to assemble a bed for my daughter. Then I spent many more hours on my own making livable a house that had long been neglected, a house my dad had packed full of stuff that he couldn’t fit into his own overcrowded home. My favorite room downstairs held my Grandma Tschantz’s player piano, part of my mom’s inheritance and the farm’s one true treasure. By necessity, this room became a staging ground for my boxes of books and belongings, amplifying the room’s neglected state. Each time I entered, I could see the white bloom of mildew spreading across the walls, furniture, and Grandma Tschantz’s piano. And each time I saw it, my sadness increased. Four months after moving to the farm, I finally cleared and cleaned the room. I covered the couch with a clean blanket, allowed myself the obsessive pleasure of alphabetizing over a hundred piano rolls, and displayed on the walls and on top of the piano Beautiful Things that had been mailed to me anonymously for my 42 Beautiful Things Project. I turned a neglected room into The Beautiful Things Room, and I invited my mother to visit so she could enjoy it too, but my mother never came. My kids, nine and twelve that summer, moved with me. Life was not perfect, but the farm was a good place, the right place to be. Every morning, I stepped out my front door to welcome the sun rising over the field to the east. Some mornings I walked north up the road and back to the swamp. Some days I visited the graves of my Dawn Burns | 129


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grandparents and assorted relatives. And some days I walked up the road to take Norman food and stand in his driveway and talk for a while. For Christmas my uncle cut down a small tree for my daughter, and though it was so prickly we had to throw paper ornaments on it from a distance, it was still a Christmas tree and it was ours. Every day I was thankful to be alive, to have my own mind back, to be starting my life over, and to be myself. Even when my son fell apart, the farm was a safe place for him to fall apart. And when my son had to leave home for help beyond my power to give, the farm steadied me still. I am so thankful to have lived at the farm for a year.

No. No. No. No. Never!

I don’t know how to write about the leaving. While living at the farm, I fell in love. I hadn’t meant to fall in love, hadn’t been looking for anybody to fall in love with, but there she was—Becky. Becky, this friend I’d known for eight years who was suddenly more. For a year we spent our weekends together, every weekend without fail. I drove to her home in Toledo one weekend; she drove to the farm the next. Together, we loved the farm, or I loved the farm and she loved being with me, especially on warm summer nights out under the stars, and long afternoons out on the porch, talking and cuddling cats. In time we began talking about living at the farm together, making our family more than a weekend family. I dreamed about hosting retreats for writers and artists, and she imagined the space for private healing retreats. We both liked the idea of building tiny cottages on the property, of making the farm a safe haven and a retreat for others.

No. No. No. No. Never!

I always believed I would inherit the farm, had even told my mom that of their two properties, my heart was here. I loved the land and the garden Norman had helped me plant. I loved living between my grandparents’ farm and their gravestones, and just down the road from the swamp and the old place where the great-grandfather I’d never known had once kept beehives and run a sorghum press. My son, when home, played his records upstairs. My daughter built a fort in the woods with her friends. I walked the fields and gathered stones of all colors and kinds. On weekends when Becky was in, we made her mother’s meatloaf with baked potatoes and steamed broccoli. The farm became home for me and my kids, and a place of welcome for Becky and many visiting friends. In my home, I made family, found 130 | Dawn Burns


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sanctuary, and I believed the farm was my birthright because my name was Burns.

No. No. No. No. Never.

But the farm had never been mine, just my father’s, who had always decided who could live there and under what terms. I knew that, but I had wanted to believe that could change.

h Leaving—July 25, 2017 Away from the farm for the day, sitting on my friend Steph’s couch, my phone rings. “Hello?” I answer. I hope it is her, not him. My mother, not my father. “Hello, Dawn.” I know the voice of my father when things aren’t good. I can feel through the phone the crackle of his mood. “I have your mother and your sister in the room with me. They are listening.” His voice is determined, strong. He has practiced his words. “I hear you have a question you want to ask me,” he says. I take a breath. Steady myself. I know he knows the question. I know my father has already made his decision. Still, I must ask because if I don’t ask, this scene will never unfold. “I just need to know,” I say, “Can Becky move in to the farmhouse?” Becky and I have needed an answer to this question for three months, and I’ve talked both to my mom and my dad about it, have even emailed them about it, as has Becky, but never getting any response. Finally, I said I needed to know by today, July 25th, so we could make plans to find another place to live and secure a new school for my daughter if we have to move. For Becky and me this question is about wanting a shared life together, yes, but it is also about needing her professional live-in support when my son is sent back home to live, something we’ve been told could happen as early as September. This Dawn Burns | 131


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is a complicated story, one my mom and my dad both know the intricate ins and outs of. My parents know all of this, and they also know that Becky and I are more than just friends. They know because I won’t hide the one I love, and I won’t lie to my parents. At 43, I’m done with a life of walking on eggshells. “Here is my answer, Dawn. I’m going to be very clear,” my father says, his voice stern and unbending. “My answer is no. No. No. No. No. Never!” My father’s house. My father’s rules. Of course. This had to be the answer. Of course. “OK,” I say. “Then I will be moving. I’ll need some time to find a place. A few weeks at least. The kids and I will be out before school starts.” “When you move, turn off the lights and lock up the house. Walk the keys down to Norman.” And then, “Your mother will talk to you now.” “No,” I say. “I’m hanging up now. I love you all.” And in the background, I hear my mother’s voice say my father’s name, “Roger,” as I hang up. My gut’s a tight fist I can’t unclench. I set down my phone, look at my friend Steph, and manage to say, “That’s it. I have to move,” but what makes me sob is less that I have to leave the farm than that I don’t belong, and the proof of my not belonging, the thing I have feared my whole life, is my father’s voice saying, “No. No. No. No. Never!” These words the backbeat of all the others I’ve heard over all my years. No. No. No. No. Never! My father’s voice.

You hate me. You’ve always hated me. I knew you hated me when you were 14.

You will marry a black man just to spite me and I will kill myself out of shame.

Your college turned you liberal.

I’m only glad you got married and had kids.

Your mother would be so ashamed.

132 | Dawn Burns


The Offbeat

You are a disappointment to me.

My mother’s voice.

Your dad loves you, you know.

No, you keep your Master’s thesis. What if your dad found it? What if he read your stories?

Roger, stop this.

Roger, you’re not making any sense.

Roger. . .

And then, silence.

My mother’s silence.

Again, my father’s voice.

No. No. No. No. Never!

My mother’s silence.

h Don’t look back. Look back. Don’t look back. Look back. My father’s words a trigger, my mother’s silence a confirmation, and the truth always more than a Facebook post, more than my loving a woman. The truth being me, Dawn, just Dawn, no longer willing to play the game.

Don’t look back. Look back. In order to be making family, I must forever be leaving farm.

Dawn Burns | 133


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Leaving Farm: The Vow Rebecca Miller I lost a farm I never had or wanted. Cold pierced the windows, suffocated my breaths. I have forgotten the place, but I remember the way my heart stretched, remained drawn, quartered with rage, hate, love, and sorrow. All I ever truly knew of the farm was your deep, profound love for it. And though my body had known for weeks, I mourned the ache your father created when he said, “No, no, no, no, NEVER.� People have said many words to me: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

You are worthless. You are stupid. You are unlovable. You are an abomination. You are loved. You are beautiful. You are special. You are funny. You are smart. You are sparkly.

I remember one through four.

134 | Rebecca Miller


The Offbeat

The words that hurt you, my love, I will never forget. In the snow and ice of winter, in our cozy home, I have decided, in fact, have always been sure, leaving the farm, losing the farm, has freed you. We journey together from here and I will write lists for you. Perhaps leaving the farm cannot be forgotten, but coming home, you to me, is a number I always remember.

Rebecca Miller | 135



Meet the contributors “Catfish” John Wojtowicz grew up working on his family’s

azalea and rhododendron nursery in the backwoods of South Jersey. He is currently employed as a school social worker and takes every opportunity to combine this work with his passion for wilderness. Besides poetry, he likes bonfires, boots, and bluegrass. Previous publications include Stoneboat, Five2one, Naugatuck River Review, El Portal, r.k.v.r.y, The Mom Egg, Light Journal, Driftwood, and The Patterson Literary Review. An inclination to do something unexpected arrives each morning. Go carve a new path, wrestle a crocodile, or write poetry.

Gregg Williard’s fiction, nonfiction, and visual art have been

published most recently in Muse/A, Riddled With Arrows, X-R-A-Y Journal, Rathalla Review, Storgy, American Writer’s Review, and Another Person’s Trash. He teaches ESL to refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Bhutan, and Congo, and he has a spoken word radio show, Fiction Jones, on WORT community radio. Gregg Williard is an Aquarian, the hopelessly Aquarian kind, bearing water, spilling it, going back for more.

Matthew A. Toll currently hides out in Burlington, VT, where he cooks for a living and writes a lot (among other things). He’s had poems published in print in Big Muddy and online in Industry Night, Walking Is Still Honest, The Vehicle, GravelMag, Five2One, Brickplight, and elsewhere. Say hello: matthewatoll@gmail.com.

Quit your job, Taurus. Burn down a bridge; doesn’t matter which one. The night hides secrets the day will never see, the bar is the bitter landscape of forgotten dreams that you search for. Best of luck.

Larry D. Thacker is a writer and painter from Tennessee.

Thacker’s poetry is in over one hundred and fifty publications including Spillway, Still: The Journal, Valparaiso Poetry Review, American Journal of Poetry, Poetry South, The Southern Poetry Anthology, Mojave River Review, The Lake, Illuminations Literary Magazine, and Appalachian Heritage. His books include Mountain Mysteries, the poetry books


Drifting in Awe, Voice Hunting, Memory Train, and the forthcoming full collections Feasts of Evasion and Grave Robber Confessional. He earned his MFA in poetry and fiction from West Virginia Wesleyan College. Visit his website at www.larrydthacker.com. Writing and painting express a constant reaching for understanding the world, divining in hues of color, in the mysterious syntax of language.

Lauren H. Smith is a writer, editor, and musician in Baltimore City. She has a BA in integrated arts with a creative writing concentration from the University of Baltimore, and her poetry has been published in Skelter Literary Journal. She takes contemporary dance lessons, frequents arts events, doesn’t punderstand people who hate puns, and loves deep conversation—the heart-and-soul stuff that draws you toward the essence of someone’s being and longing, including your own. Lauren helps people unearth hope from between the lines of their tragic stories and embrace vulnerability so that they may heal.

Claire Scott is an award-winning poet who has received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. Her work has been accepted by Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Enizagam, New Ohio Review and Healing Muse, among others. Claire is the author of Waiting to be Called and the co-author of Unfolding in Light: A Sisters’ Journey in Photography and Poetry.

Rare opportunity to experience conflict today. Buried turmoil rises to the surface. Be open and grateful.

Joel Peckham is an assistant professor of American literature at

Marshall University and the author of five collections of poetry, including Why Not Take All of Me and God’s Bicycle. His memoir, Resisting Elegy, appeared from Chicago Review Press in 2012, and a new collection of essays, Body Memory, appeared from New Rivers Press in 2016. He has published poems and essays in many journals, including Brevity, The Sun, The Southern Review, River Teeth, Prairie Schooner, and others. He lives in Huntington, WV. Virgo, you are way too sensitive. Avoid divulging your entire life’s story to people on the elevator. Suppress the urge to hug random people. Other than that, you’re good. Really.


Kemal Onor has an MFA in writing from The Solstice MFA in

Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College. His fiction and poetry have been featured in The West Texas Literary Review, The Tishman Review, The Flexible Persona, ZPublishing House’s Vermont’s Best Emerging Poets, and more. He has twice won the JSC/VSC Fellowship. He currently lives in Vermont. Difficulties have been many; trust the winds to guide you safely through the dangerous waters. There are calmer tides ahead.

Rebecca Miller earned her MFA in creative writing, poetry, and

nonfiction at Chatham University. She is currently a community living site manager at Cardinal Services, Inc., and she writes poetry as the moment arises. She has had poems published in various anthologies, including The Truth About the Fact: International Journal of Literary Nonfiction and About Her: Stories of Grit, Grace and Gratitude. Becky lives with her partner, Dawn, in Syracuse, IN. She considers herself an emotional badass and has a great deal of gratitude toward those who have helped her reach this phase of her life, in which she can boldly speak and bravely try. Becky is a Taurus who stubbornly faces the real, the raw, and the painful while standing with those she loves through all the shit.

Hannah Miller is a freelance illustrator from East Lansing, MI.

She’s currently a student at Michigan State University and is passionate about creating and storytelling. She works primarily in acrylic and ink, though she also uses watercolors and works digitally from time to time.

Chris MCLain is 25 years old and lives in Columbus, OH with

his girlfriend, Hannah. Together, they run Far & Lane, a design and copywriting company that helps local businesses. He’s the writer, she’s the artist. When he’s not working, writing or cheering on the Buckeyes, he runs. . . a lot. He’s completed a few marathons but has plans to take on an ultramarathon soon. He attributes his passion for writing to the likes of King, Carver, Saunders, and Paley, among others. Constantly searching for a pizza that’s as good—or better—cold the morning after.


Kandi Maxwell lives and writes in the Sierra foothills of northern

California. She is a retired secondary English teacher. She can be found splashing in lakes and rivers or wandering through forests. Her work has been published in Fair Haven Literary Review, KYSO Flash, The Raven’s Perch, Foliate Oak, The Door is Ajar, The Meadow, and others. Kandi is a nonconformist Leo who is sweet-natured as long as you don’t tell her what to do.

Andrew Marshall is an essayist, poet, painter, and photographer. He is a contributor to www.backpackinglight.com and www.upventur. com. His essays, poetry, and visual art have appeared or are forthcoming in Gravel Magazine, Trampset Magazine, The Raven’s Perch, Junto Magazine, West Texas Literary Review, and Open: Journal of Arts and Letters. His work focuses on humanity’s interactions with the natural world. He lives in Carnelian Bay, CA, on the shores of Lake Tahoe.

Aquarius, today is a good day for donuts. Don’t be afraid to try new things, especially new donuts. There are powerful donut-related forces at work in the heavens. Submit to them.

Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina.

His essays and photographs have appeared in numerous US and international journals, including Montreal Review, Redux, Compose, New Theory, Lowestoft Chronicle, Trampset, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. His work has been nominated for The Best American Travel Writing and Best of the Net. You are wondering why your first house is Cancer and whether that has anything to do with the trail of abandoned body parts behind you.

Melissa Knox’s book, Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of

Psychoanalysis, is forthcoming from Cynren Press in January 2019. Recent essays have appeared in The Santa Ana Review, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Concho River Review, and Clarion Project. Poems have appeared in The Mom Egg Review, Nonbinary Review, and elsewhere. She also writes a blog, The Critical Mom, at www.thecriticalmom.blogspot.com. Melt your guilts, Aquarius, and swim in their bracing currents. Venus is rising: enter your house of relationships. Love what you see.


Daniel Hudon, originally from Canada, is an adjunct lecturer

in math, astronomy, and physics. He is the author of two books of nonfiction: a humorous intro to the universe, The Bluffer’s Guide to the Cosmos, and a lyrical prose compendium designed to raise awareness about the biodiversity crisis, Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader. He likes to go hiking and kayaking and to dance Argentine tango. He can be found online at www.danielhudon.com, @daniel_hudon, and in Boston, MA. Today’s choices are no more difficult than choosing the right mango while lecturing about the cosmic microwave background. Choose wisely.

Daniel Harvey lives and works in Bridgton, ME with his fiancée,

Emma Lisak. He has spent the past several years exploring humor, the uncanny, and wonder, first through painting and performance art and now with children’s poetry and ink and watercolor illustration. His poem, “The Haggis,” was recently published by the Poudre River Public Library in Fort Collins, CO. You’ve been hungry, ornery, and idealistic. You’re slightly egotistical, but there’s no need to mess with a good thing.

James HArtman’s fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions, and it appears or is forthcoming in Blue Fifth Review, december, News Flash Fiction Review, Easy Street, Five:2:One, and New World Writing, among others. His scholarly work is featured in The Hemingway Review. He has several degrees, including an MFA in creative writing, and he lives in Pennsylvania. You can reach him at jhartm17@yahoo.com. Your pain is a gift, whether you see it that way or not.

Ryan Habermeyer is the author of the short fiction collection

The Science of Lost Futures (BoA Editions, 2018), a book suspiciously unpredicted by Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1759. The Hellenistic zodiac insists he is a Leo whose sign is the lion, but the Chinese zodiac indicates he is a goat and must beware the ox. Such discrepancies have produced numerous existential crises. Because at the time of his conception Neptune tilted fifteen degrees in its tour of Sagittarius to light the sixth house, he prefers solitude and is fond of monsters and fairy tales and libraries, in no particular order. Most recently, his chakras have been detected on the Eastern Shore of Maryland teaching at Salisbury


University under the watchful eye of administrative hierophants until the moons of Jupiter align and he is awarded tenure. Find him at www.ryanhabermeyer.com.

Graham Guest has a PhD in English from the University of

Glasgow. He’s published works in fiction and philosophy in places like Gold Man Review, Mayday Magazine, and The Moral Atheist. His bands, Moses Guest and The County Well, have been putting out music for over 20 years. Guest has published a novel, Winter Park (2014), and a book of philosophy, Definition (2018). He’s currently working on a philosophical novel called Lawnmower. Guest, a Virgo, is: intelligent, patient, and humble. . .quick-thinking, observant, and analytical. He wishes!

Angelica M. Garcia is an undergraduate at the University of Arizona studying creative writing and neuroscience. Her work can be found in Bloom: Best Arizona Teen Writing of 2014 and Persona.

Today, Angelica will find repose in watching the strangest documentary she can find on Netflix and telling her loved ones all about it.

Christopher Fields is the editor of Neologism Poetry Journal,

a small independent endeavor. He has been published in Blast Furnace, Fenland Reed, and Adelaide Literary Journal. Get a new haircut, Libra. Long hair feels great, but so do big changes.

Matthew Duffus has published work in two dozen literary journals both online and in print, including Beloit Fiction Journal, Cimarron Review, and Slant. He is also the author of the novel The Unhomecoming, forthcoming in August 2019 from SFK Press. Currently an instructor of English and writing center director at Gardner-Webb University, he and his family live in North Carolina. Hope and optimism abound this school year along with the promise of new opportunities, both writerly and otherwise.

Paul Curley lives in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches English as a second language at a public high school. His short fiction has appeared Madison Review, Gravel, The Timberline Review, Shout Out UK, Actual Paper, and Widdershins.


Pisces: After restoring your balance in summer’s languid waters, you risk losing it again in the choppy ruckus of fall.

Fern G. Z. Carr is a former lawyer, teacher, and past President of

both the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Project Literacy Kelowna Society. A Full Member of and former Poet-inResidence for the League of Canadian Poets, this Pushcart Prize nominee composes and translates poetry in six languages, including Mandarin Chinese. Carr has been published extensively worldwide from Finland to Mauritius and has had her work recognized by the Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Other honors include having been cited as a contributor to the Prakalpana Literary Movement in India as well as having had her work taught at West Virginia University, set to music by a Juno-nominated musician, and featured online in The Globe and Mail. Her debut collection, Shards of Crystal, is slated for publication in fall of 2018. Carr is thrilled to have one of her poems currently orbiting the planet Mars aboard NASA’S MAVEN spacecraft. See more of her work at www.ferngzcarr.com. VIRGO (Aug. 23 – Sept.22) Mercury will usher in your debut poetry collection, Shards of Crystal, released by Silver Bow Publishing.

Brady Carlson is a 19-year-old Pisces from East Lansing, MI. He is currently a sophomore at Michigan State University studying creative advertising and minoring in graphic design. He likes Seinfeld, music, soccer, watercolor, Neutraface, shoes, Helvetica, and Murphy. You can see more of his work at www.carls451.wixsite.com/mysite or follow him on Instagram at bradycarl123. You can contact him at carls451@msu.edu.

Christine Byrne is a poetry student at the University of

Connecticut. Her most recent work is soon to appear in The Flexible Persona, Badlands, Mistake House, Long River Review, and Bridge. It’s all in retrograde at the present moment.

Dawn Burns received her MFA in fiction from the University of

Notre Dame. In 2014, she was awarded an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award in fiction and has twice won the Paul Somers Award for Creative Prose from the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature. Dawn lives in Syracuse, IN with her partner, Becky, and teaches at Manchester University and Ivy Tech Community College. She is a writer and editor for Unmeasured Words, founder of the SwampFire Retreat for


Writers and Artists, collector of Beautiful Things, and morning person who enjoys watching the sun rise over Lake Wawasee. Dawn is a Leo who loves emceeing open mics, leading retreats, and sharing stories. She likes attention on her terms.

Jennifer Burnau has also published poems in Pittsburgh Post-

Gazette, Mirror Dance, Jazz Cigarette (now Petrichor), Temenos, and elsewhere. She teaches in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and is rennnovating a one-hundred-year-old house in the Bloomfield/ Lawrenceville neighborhood in Pittsburgh. She attributes her feeling for poetry to her mother, who sang in seven languages. Purchase flowers and books for your aesthetic and intellectual needs.

Chris Bullard lives in Philadelphia, PA. He received his BA

in English from the University of Pennsylvania and his MFA from Wilkes University. Finishing Line Press published his poetry chapbook, Leviathan, in 2016, and Kattywompus Press published High Pulp, a collection of his flash fiction, in 2017. His work has appeared in publications such as 32 Poems, Green Mountains Review, Rattle, Pleiades, River Styx, and Nimrod.

Lynne Carole Brearley is from Wigan, UK. Knightdale, NC

has been her home, however, since 1982. Her poetry appears in David Bowie Tribute, Red Dashboard LLC Publishing’s dis·or·der Mental Illness and its Affect (influence.), Guide to Kulchur Creative Journal Issue No. 2, and The Living Poetry Virtual Workshop Anthology. She has been most recently published by Jacar Press in issue nine of One and Beach Reads: Here Comes the Sun published by Third Street Writers. Her latest poem was published by Heron Clan V in the spring 2018 edition. I squalled into this world when the sun was at its zenith on the first full day of spring. Aries is my sign, ruled by Mars, God of war, determination and drive. My sign is the first and the strongest in the zodiac; it gives strength to give my words wings.

Mark Brazaitis is the author of eight books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His


latest book, The Rink Girl, is the 2017 winner of Prize Americana from Hollywood Books. Like a good Leo, Mark Brazaitis believes in a story that roars.

Susanne Braham was born in New York City, where pigeons

are plentiful; her interest in these ubiquitous creatures was sparked by her maternal grandfather and her father, both of whom raised homing pigeons. Her first published poem, whose funny, slightly off-color humor was then too sophisticated for her to appreciate, appeared in Child Life in 1953. A dry spell followed until her 56-year-old husband died suddenly. She then began writing about widowhood. Three of her poems appear in The Widows’ Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival, and two appear in On Our Own: Widowhood for Smarties. A Pisces who prefers looking at fish more than eating or smelling them, Susanne finds no time to practice astrology.

Karen Lee Boren is the author of Mother Tongue (New Rivers

Press Mother Tongue) and Girls in Peril (Tin House Books, a Barnes and Noble Discover selection). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and is the winner of the 2018 Wunder Editions Fiction Prize. Her writing appears in Santa Fe Writer’s Project, Flexible Persona, WomenArts Journal, The Florida Review, New South, Hawaiˊi Pacific Review, Epoch, Cream City Review, Crack the Spine, The Offbeat, BookForum, Fourth Genre, Lonely Planet’s anthology Rites of Passage: Backpacking ‘Round Europe, and The Best of Lonely Planet’s Travel Writing. This Scorpio loves swimming, stretching, and stinging prose. Passionate, temperamental, a character-driven problem-solver. Cohabits with Scorpio Paul and Sagittarius Tyke.

Toni La Ree Bennett is both a photographer and writer. She

attended the University of Washington where she received a PhD in English and a certificate in photography. Her verbal and visual work has appeared in Cimarron Review, Nassau Review, Circle Show, Gravel, december, Memoir, Poemmemoirstory, Puerto del Sol, Hawaii Pacific Review, Journal of Poetry Therapy, and Viet Nam Generation, among other publications. She has a poetry chapbook, Solar Subjugation, that will be coming out soon from Finishing Line Press. She lives in Seattle with a flock of feisty finches. Photography and writing samples can be seen at www.tonibennett.com.


Let your Leo mane blow in the wind as you roar into the face of every oncoming storm.

Adam Becker is just a kid who questions why things have to be

the way they are. He thinks wild nature is the reason for living, and he believes beautiful things are worth the effort they require. He’s addicted to running, coffee, and literature that makes him forget his surroundings. He’s in his senior year of college, and he’s diving headfirst into the unknown next year. He currently lives in St. Louis to the extent that he lives anywhere. Get the heck out of here, Pisces. Move to Africa. Get Giardia and look at the clouds more than the red dirt streets. Mango season is just a rainy season away.

Dick Altman lives on the high desert plain of New Mexico. Santa Fe Literary Review, American Journal of Poetry, riverSedge (U of Texas), Fredericksburg Literary Review, Foliate Oak, Blue Line, THE Magazine, Gravel, The Offbeat, Split Rock Review, Almagre Review, RavensPerch, and other journals here, in England, and in Australia have published his work. He won first prize for poetry in Santa Fe New Mexican’s 2015 writing competition. He graduated from Lafayette College with honors in English literature and a fellowship to the University of Chicago, where he earned an MA in English. Born a Taurus, optimistic, determined to accept more of life’s yesses than nos, grows trees in the high desert.

Austin Allie resides in Austin, TX with his black cat, Hex. He’s

a featured writer for Her Heart Poetry and has had his work published in Chaleur Magazine, Feminist Inquiry, Shotgun Horror Clips, and Flatbush Review. His most recent written work can be seen in the poetry anthology Til Death, which is scheduled for national publication later this year. Recently, he lost his sister to addiction and urges people to help overcome the stigma surrounding addiction and be a part of stopping the devastation it causes families. You can learn more about addiction, Taylor Allie, and how you can help at www.shatterproof.org. Your heart burns within the ashes of your soul, Scorpio, as you transform and then transform again.




Call for Submissions The Offbeat is calling for the zany, the thought-provoking, the humorous, and the quirky to submit work for us to read! The Offbeat, a literary journal specializing in undisputedly unique works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and sequential art, is accepting submissions. Submit writing that is intriguing, eccentric, and, most importantly, off the beaten path. We ask for different. We DO NOT mean unnecessarily explicit content produced purely for the purpose of being shocking. We are interested in quality. No matter where you come from or what you do, we want to hear from you! NOTE: We attempt to respond as quickly as we can to submissions, but we may take up to six months. If you submit near the end of spring or beginning of summer, we’ll have escaped into fields of flowers. You’ll hear in the fall.

General Guidelines: Up to three poems or flash fictions (under 1,000 words each) may be submitted in the same file. Sequential art should not exceed 10 pages. All other pieces should be limited to 4,000 words. Please wait to hear back from us on a submission before sending a second in that category. Simultaneous submissions will be accepted under the condition that you will immediately inform us if your work is being published elsewhere. Authors we’ve published before—we love you. We’ll always love you, but please wait a year before submitting again. We love other people, too.

Legalities: Upon acceptance of your submission, you have granted The Offbeat first publication rights of your piece. We pay through a contributor copy for all authors.