The Sonder R eview
A publication of art, short fiction and creative nonfiction
Founder/Executive Editor | Elena M. Stiehler Nonfiction Editor/Social Media & Marketing Director | Jeremy A. Jackson Art Director/General Editor | Sasha Pincus Cover Art | 'Spare Parts' by Floater
All rights reserved. The Sonder Review retains First North American Serial Rights of all published fiction and nonfiction. No aspect of this publication my be reproduced, in part or in whole, without the explicit permission of the editors. Issue 7 | Winter 201 7 1
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own â€“ an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that youâ€™ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
'You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.' Annie Proulx
From the Editor | Elena M. Stiehler
Author Interview | Heirlooms: A Conversation with Rachel Hall Contributor Biographies
'21 st Century American Phantasmagoria' | Benjamin Toche Secondary Flightlessness | Ashely Kunsa
'Try' | Rebecca Diaz
'Repeat As Necessary (Or How to Blow Up Your Life)' | Christine Kandic Torres 36
'Crumbs' | Doug Selwyn
'The Sofa' | Lynda Levy 4
'Descent,' 'Edge' & 'Vigil' | Dick Evans 'Dollars Three Clown' | Michelle Disler 'Hurry to the Nearest Kiss' | Bill Wolak 'Eleanor' | Janelle Cordero
48, 40, 6 31 35 22
'Untitled' | Matt Gold
'Nostalgia: The Berlin Years II' & 'Nostalgia: The Berlin Years III' | Evelyn Rapin 59, 1 0
From the Editor
| Elena M. Stiehler
I’m not much for politics – for following or discussing them – and I’m certainly no fan of politicians. And while the following has increased with the years, with the times, I continue to generally detest the rest. And while I’m not about to change that, while I know there are a handful of points I need to hit with this letter: introduce you to our new look, our new press, our new format and members and offerings, to the pieces themselves; I do want to say something, first. What is happening in this country, what is happening all around the world, is not to be diminished. Not to be ignored or taken lightly. This is crisis. This is more than politics. More than ever we need to recognize the humanity in each other; to recognize ourselves within our fellow man. Regardless of race, religion, or creed. Regardless of a system which seeks out divisiveness and the irrational, the illogical; which thrives upon fear and rhetoric and hate. More than ever we need to be heard above the noise, beyond it. More than ever we need art, in all its many forms and visions and voices. Sitting down to write these letters has never been an easy task for me. I’m never quite sure what to say, or how to say it. But today I felt moved as I sat down to write, as I looked back over the course of Sonder’s existence, and realized all that we have accomplished, how we have grown, and are growing still. And I felt proud, I feel proud, of what we’ve created, what we continue to create. There is something I wrote for my first letter, for the first issue , something which I feel is necessary to share again, more now than ever, in the face of the precipice we stand before, and it is this: 7
We must know others to know ourselves, we must love others to love ourselves. And if ever there is a time to remember this, if ever there is a time to open our eyes and our minds and our hearts, to seek connection, it is now. began on this principle, it is our core, and we hold fast to it today. And in even this turbulent, confounding moment in what will become history, I hope that our efforts here offer even a faint beacon of hope, a glimpse of clarity, of connection. Because even the slightest light may be seen in darkness and the wildest blaze set from a single match. So I offer you this issue, these six, succulent, striking pieces. These works of art. To guide your way. To offer a hand; to say, you are not alone. Each piece in Issue7 is unflinching – in voice, in intent. Each cultivates language. Each resonantes, a string plucked deep within the chest. ‘Try’ and ‘21 st Century American Phantasmagoria,’ each distinctive in vision and rich in prose, seek to make sense of this existence and our place within it, with the others alongside of us. ‘The Sofa’ offers a slight window onto the crossroads of what is and might have been, while ‘Repeat as Necessary (or How to Blow Up Your Life)’ moves past them to step a foot out into the void, searching for a landing in the black. Both ‘Crumbs’ and ‘Secondary Flightlessness’ show us profound loss, the reverberating echo of devastation, and the strength necessary to face it, to find the 8
pathway through to the other side. Finally, our Author Interview, ‘ : A Conversation with Rachel Hall,’ becomes something necessary, something all too relevant, as we discuss her collection of linked stories following a Jewish family through four generations, through the holocaust, through their immigration to America, through the reckoning of inherited histories, inherited horrors, and the clammy grip of the past. As for the key points meant to be in this letter, please visit our blog for the full details and information. I’ll say, in brief: welcome, Sasha and Jeremy – the two newest members of our little publication and soontobe bookpublishing, chapbookcontestholding, press – Sonder Press – (www.thesonderpress.com); the review is now publishing biannually to make sure we continue to produce thoughtful, highquality issues without scramble or sacrifice; we have a new look, a new website (same address), and new editorial and subscription services; and our blog – where you can read more on all of this – is about to become much more interesting. In closing, I want to thank you. For your support, your faith in us and this journey we’ve been on together, that we continue still. I hope this issue stirs you. I hope it allows you a sense of belonging, as sense of home, of clarity. And if you take nothing else away, please take this: no voice is too small; no act is too insignificant. No struggle is too great to overcome. Life continues on – an ever twisting, churning, seething thing – and in that, in us, there is always hope. Elena Stiehler
Author Interview | A Conversation with Rachel Hall
, Rachel Hall’s debut collection and winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, is a breathtaking, utterly vital vison of the shaping of shared histories, the heavy weight and shifting versions of the past. Hall explores, through the multiple generations of a Jewish family, the neighbors and friends and extended family surrounding them, the construct of our inheritances – the intangible objects that we lose or discard or hideaway – and the rippling, inescapable thrum of our heritage. The family Hall has imagined, inspired largely by her own familial history, is chronicled through decades, through World War II, through their immigration to the States, through trauma and loss and the shifting, slippery recollections of the past. Characters who must find refuge in the narratives they create for themselves, who must reimagine their existence time and time again, as they are stripped of what they knew of themselves. There is loss here, but there is triumph as well – a great resilience, a staggering capacity for continuing on, for sustaining hope. These are stories told in luminous prose, crafted 11
with an eye to the nuance of language. Hall’s writing is transcendent. It is with a delicate, deliberate hand that she constructs each sentence, selects each word to coat the tongue; to throb deep within the gut. is a collection of yearning – for what was lost, for what could have been – a collection of the devastation of lives uprooted, forced to chase, always, some illusory refuge; of tenuous nature of fate. And, it is a collection of hope – of strength in the face of the unspeakable, the horror humanity may inflict – reminding us, always, to persevere; to remember the past, even in it’s fragile, fractured state, even as it blurs and fades, even as it changes shape.
Elena M. Stiehler: Clearly, from even the title alone, this is a collection which sets out to examine the idea of ‘heirlooms,’ of heritage really – that our inheritance is more than the material objects, that there are also intangible heirlooms: the inheritance of our histories, of generations, of the past. And not all of these intangible heirlooms are pleasant ones. You wrote an essay for in which you spoke about not wanting your daughter to grow up with the same nightmares you did – ones which came to you through this inheritance of history, specifically your Jewish history – and I wonder how did this come to be something important for you to write about? Rachel Hall: Hmm… Elena: Is that a hard question? Rachel: Yeah, that is a hard question. I think since I grew up with the stories, I therefore sort of inherited some of the anxieties and fears and just kind of a worldview. I don’t know that I was conscious of putting that into the book initially, you know? At a certain point I was like, Not necessarily good things, but definitely things being passed on. A legacy. There is actually something called 12
‘epigenetic inheritance,’ which is that they’ve found that you can inherit stress, or anxiety, even from things you didn’t live through: that it changes the DNA in a way that is then passed on. Which is really spooky, I think. But I didn’t know that when I was writing, of course, I just thought, . So, I guess the title 'Heirlooms,' especially in the title story, is kind of meant ironically. Because for them there are no , there are no traditional heirlooms. It’s sort of the absence of heirlooms. Elena: And what is, sort of, left there in that void, what is brought along in the absence of those physical heirlooms. Rachel: Yeah, it’s like how people are always moving across country to start fresh. But of course you’re not. You’re bringing yourself along. And that means you’re lugging – well, it’s funny, we even talk about this stuff like ‘baggage’, right? Elena: You’re not really leaving behind the things you want to. And it’s ironic in that sense too, that you’re not leaving behind what you’d like to stay there. Rachel: Right. In fact, that’s what follows you. Elena: Beyond the histories we inherit, I think that this collection also deals very heavily with the idea of the histories we create, or shape for ourselves – how history is shaped and manipulated in the retelling, especially based upon is retelling it. You spoke about this in an interview with Sejal Shah for the where you said you were ‘interested in exploring memory, erasure and loss’ and that you, reflecting on your own familial history, ‘began wondering what was left out or smoothed over or forgotten altogether.’ And I think that is clearly seen in stories like ‘White Lies’ and the complex, alternative narrative the family has crafted for the grandmother; and in ‘Jews of the Middle West,’ when Sophie questions the accuracy, the accuracy, of the stories Lise tells her. So not only are these histories really the only sort of heirlooms these characters have, but they are histories that have been altered and adapted. And so this collection also becomes an 13
exploration of the complexities of a shared history, a familial history, and the effect that has upon successive generations. Rachel: I feel like anyone who’s been in a family has had those moments where you remember something one way and your mother says, ‘no it didn’t happen that way,’ or your sibling says, ‘that was mine and you took it’ and I find those moments really frustrating. That memory is so pliable like that. That these things that might connect us don’t. Instead we have all these different tellings of it. So I was thinking, if that happens about a stuffed animal, say, how much more is it happening with bigger events? Not just with my characters in this history, but in all history, there must be mistakes and misrememberings and alterations. I think it’s a historian who said that it, this pliability, is because history is a human story. There’s always someone telling that story and as soon as someone starts telling a story, that personal perception enters in. Elena: In a way we all manipulate our own history. And it’s not only in what we tell others but in the lies we tell ourselves as well. There’s that moment in ‘En Voyage’ where Lucien, in telling his wife of Jean, ‘changes some things – little details. For instance, as he tells it, it is Jean who is so poor, he must come to school barefoot, in torn short pants.’ And Lise makes changes to her history as well, because of the horrifying, tragic things she has experienced, and she wants to forget. Just as Lucien wants to forget the shame of his own past. And even in ‘White Lies,’ as much as they may be lying for the grandmother’s sake, it’s really for their own sakes as well – as though in participating in this they can somehow alter what was, even if it is after the fact. Rachel: I think they don’t want to deal with it, either. They’ve lost so much, you can sort of forgive them for this in a way, even though I think that it, you know, is kind of fucked up. And I think, too, I was interested in the fiction aspect of it as well, in ‘White Lies’ it’s as if Jean is a fiction writer, when he starts writing those letters, and he starts to believe in them. And I felt when I was writing that, that’s what I got to do there a little bit. Make things turn out the way I want them to. 14
Elena: Language also plays a huge role in this collection, and not just how it is utilized in the crafting of the prose, but almost as a character itself – a shifting, fickle thing. Language itself is an heirloom, our ‘mother tongue,’ and it is also something which is an integral aspect of the immigrant experience – the old language versus the new and the relationship between the two. Language is in many ways one of your most fundamental aspects of self, of identity, and throughout this collection there is a certain depth of awareness to not only the language used, but also to the interactions the characters have with it. Rachel: Well I grew up with a mother whose first language was French, and she would talk to my grandparents on the phone in French, and my brother and I would run around and say, ‘Talk in English!’ Or when they were visiting, ‘Talk in English!” But as I got older, I took French in school, and I would notice the way my grandmother sort of misused English, and it was after learning French that I understood where she was pulling a word from even though it wasn’t quite the right word. And my grandparents, they spoke French together, with my mom, but not with anybody else, so their language hadn’t grown to incorporate new things – like technology. Like, they didn’t know the French word for remote control for their TV, so they called it a piano. They’d say, ‘Pass me the piano!’ They had to make things up. The other part of this is my mother, because kids learn language fast, had to do a lot of translating for her parents when they first got here. And that was sort of a burden for her – she had to be the adult, the more knowledgeable one. And my grandparents did some really silly things trying to make money. I didn’t put this in the book, but I could’ve: my grandfather made these cards that said ‘French lessons’, and he put them in people’s windshields, and the police came after him! Because they thought, I don’t know, I think language is hard, and can be cruel when you’re outside it, like a club you’re not a part of. Elena: And this collection sort of celebrates subversive acts against that. Jean makes a point of keeping his accent; he makes a point of speaking in an particular way, so that the Americans are ultimately 15
the butt of his joke rather than the other way around. ‘The Handbook of American Idioms’ I think is one of the pieces that deals with this idea of language in one of the most direct ways – looking through this interpretive lens, what is lost or gained through the back and forth of translation. In this collection language becomes something integral to these characters’ lives, and visions of those lives. Rachel: That makes me think, I don’t know if you were going to ask about this, but that makes me think of the epigraph… Elena: That’s literally my next question! Rachel: Oh! Okay, go ahead, go ahead. Elena: So, Ladino. This is, you wrote in your essay ‘Mother Tongue’ in , ‘old Spanish, the language of Sephardic Jews’ and your grandmother’s mother tongue. It is a Ladino proverb you chose for the epigraph of your collection, but I also think that the ‘Ladino mindset’ that you see in its proverbs also is something which permeates the stories in this collection. In that same essay, speaking of these proverbs, you wrote, ‘There is to the Ladino proverbs a certain stoicism, an acceptance of life as hard, the world as unkind at best.’ And you see that mindset throughout – this perseverance in spite of everything, this idea that what can one do but go on, move forward. Rachel: Well, the epigraph came much later, after the stories were written, but my grandmother did imagine that someone was singing to her as she was dying and I realized, when I started thinking about it, that I’d never heard her speak Ladino, I’ve never heard it in my whole life. And that was her actual mother tongue. And I thought, why then did we study French and act like we were somehow exploring our roots by doing that. So, it was very interesting when I started looking at those Ladino proverbs; that so much of that worldview had been passed on, even though I haven’t heard those proverbs before. So I guess I was thinking about the residual aspect of that, what else you inherit. In a way, I wish I’d done more with 16
Ladino, but again, it came late. And it might have been forced to put in more since it wasn’t really something I knew about when I originally wrote the stories. Elena: The epigraph itself I think is wonderful, even in its brevity. I think it really encompasses a lot of what this collection is about. ‘Si los aniyos kayeron, los dedos kedaron. If the rings fall off, the fingers remain.’ It’s like, despite what these characters have endured, through generations, they remain, they continue on. Whether it is in the moment, or through inherited histories, it doesn’t matter what has been stripped away, life continues. Rachel: There’s this stoicism, and a kind of grumpiness, in those proverbs which I like, but there’s also that humor, something funny. Who says, ‘Oh yay, at least I’ve still got my fingers!’ You know what I mean? Or there’s another Ladino proverb, ‘May the snake who doesn’t bite me live a thousand years’, so assuming that everybody’s a snake, basically, the best you can get is a snake that doesn’t bite you. So, that sort of perspective, and humor, is what I wanted to get at and what I appreciated, I guess. Elena: Luck is also something which is featured very prominently in this collection. Lise says, for example, in ‘Leaving the Occupied Zone’ that ‘lucky isn’t quite the right word for her situation’ and later she recalls ‘the awareness – always – that it might’ve turned out otherwise.’ So luck becomes a doubleedged sword within these stories, a constant knowing of how precariously our lives are really lived. And it also creates a preoccupation with what might have been, whether better or worse, and how easily the other side of the coin might have landed up. Rachel: Well I do think that it’s usually the people who aren’t lucky, or are in unlucky circumstances, who think about luck. And people whose lives are just very fortunate might think that they’ve done it all themselves. Like, ‘I deserve this! I’m great!’ But it’s really when you’ve been in a scary situation that you understand how much of it luck. Of course, some things you can play well, or you can be cautious. For instance Lise not to go register, right? And 17
nobody would have expected that of her because she was this dreamy girl. But she knew. So there were smarts, but there was also this aspect of luck. I think that when you think about luck, you can’t feel very safe, because you have no control over luck. So, I was interested in that, and in thinking about why it’s the unfortunate ones who give credit to luck rather than, you know, the fortunate. Eugenie thinks that too, when she’s thinking about her breast cancer – well, she’s Genny by then – and she gets annoyed that someone tells her she’s lucky, right? She’s like *psh*, what good’s that? Because you can’t count on luck. That’s the scary thing about it. It happens, and then it can be something totally different the next time. Elena: And here, even though luck isn’t something you can count on, these characters almost have to and so they are always teetering on the edge. Like in ‘La Poussette:’ things are going well for the family and because of the jealousy of their neighbor, this thing which should be insignificant, they have to leave and move on again. Rachel: And how could you plan for that, or anticipate it? Elena: I think that it hearkens back to the Ladino proverbs again: ‘A change of scene, a change of fortune.’ And how you remember your grandmother always thinking about moving as being something which would change their luck. Rachel: Well they did, they moved all the time. It was like, once they started, they moved my whole life. Elena: You see that in the collection, this idea of the ‘fresh start,’ that everything will be, if not better, at least softened – that the past will lose its grip. Rachel: That you can move away from it. But of course you can’t. Elena: Shifting gears, I wanted to talk about the craft of the prose itself, which was so precise, so crisp. There was a lot of intention behind the word choices and the shaping of the language – lush and 18
spare at the same time – delicately deliberate. Each sentence feels as though it ought to be unpacked with care. I mean, I could go on, but what I would like to ask is how you think about your writing; how you go about crafting it? Rachel: I write everything longhand first, and then when I eventually transfer it to my laptop it sort of becomes a second draft almost. But I go really slow, so each sentence takes a while, unless I’ve been doing it for awhile, then it comes more quickly. But I sort of can’t write the next sentence until I get the one I’m working on right, which is not something I would recommend as a process. I think you owe it to your readers, whether it’s fiction or poetry or creative nonfiction, for the language to be just right. To be spare and beautiful – no extra words. Elena: When it came to actually putting this collection together, what is your editing process like? Rachel: Well, that’s interesting because I had most of the stories compiled except for ‘Jews of the Middle West’ and ‘After All’, so those weren’t in it, and I had sent the collection to a press that was really interested in the book but they wanted more about Sophie, so I wrote those last two stories. It was because an editor had said ‘Do this,’ and she also wanted a frame, she wanted to begin with Sophie. I wrote another story, which was sort of Sophie going through Lise’s belongings after she was dead, and it was an okay story, but after they said no – there wasn’t enough American stuff still – I said ‘Okay fine’ and I made it the way I wanted to. But I liked those two stories, and I felt they did fill in a gap, you know? So I was glad for that comment, and to add those. Elena: I liked that it was framed with Genny. I thought it was a very appropriate cap because for this collection, Eugenie’s arc is a very important one, and her presence is quite central to the collection. Rachel: Yes, that’s what I wanted. Before those last two were written, ‘White Lies’ was the last story, and I knew that it needed to do a lot, part of it needed to be set in Israel, Palestine, I knew that there 19
needed to be Eugenie spotting her father and following him, I knew that the letters, the fake letters needed to be in there, to sort of tie everything together, but that was the only story I wrote with that degree of intention on my own. In terms of order, I don’t know… Elena: It just kind of came? Rachel: Yeah, and it’s chronological. Elena: I think it’s interesting that they are ordered chronologically but you wrote them out of order. Which I, the author part of me, I don’t know if I could handle that. I think the order would be necessary for me. Rachel: See, I think that’s why I’m a story writer and really not a novelist, because just going from one place to the next like that, it’s boring, I don’t want to do it. I think I probably paid for it, in ways. Like when BkMk did their final editing, there were all kinds of problems in terms of dates and things, so we had to do a lot of adjusting. Elena: This was your first collection to be published, your first book publishing experience. What was that process like for you, especially going through it for the first time? Rachel: Well, there were lots of ups and downs. I finished it in 201 3 and got an agent in the fall, that November, and then by January she was sending it out. She had me do just a little bit to make the ending less dark. She was sending it out to all these big New York places, and we kept getting these lovely rejections. ‘Oh, beautiful writing, blah blah blah, but it’s not right…but I’m not in love,’ that’s what they kept saying: ‘I’m not in love.’ Which is really crappy to hear. I had also started to enter it in contests, before I got the agent, and she had said to pull it, which I did, and that she didn’t want me to enter contests for a while, while she was doing this, and so I didn’t, but I finally was just like, ‘Now I’m gonna enter the contest!’ And this was, I think, the first one I sent it to, although I had heard back from a few others before BkMk. It was a finalist twice, once for Flannery 20
O’Connor and once for Permafrost. Elena: Wow! That’s amazing, congratulations. Rachel: That’s what I learned from this: that if you’re a finalist, it means someone going to publish it eventually, right? So, my previous collection, which you read, too, actually. Elena: I was wondering about that, I read an interview where you talked about this, and I thought, ‘I wonder if she’s thinking about the collection I read for my senior thesis,’ which was so exciting, because that’s what inspired me to become an editor in the first place, albeit a rather particular one. Rachel: Well that was a finalist two or three times, too, but I just kind of stopped. And that, now, to me seems really dumb, like I should have kept sending that out. So, maybe I will, I don’t know. But what you were just saying before, about being a picky editor, that I think is such a gift to your writers. Ben Furnish, who is the editor for me at BkMk, was so careful. I think writers should be really grateful for that. I know I was. Elena: I think the relationship between the writer and the editor, is so important, what creates really good literature, because you have two different mindsets – the editor and the author – and I feel like those two mindsets have to have a relationship, come together, to create something that’s really special. Rachel: Yes. And writers, I think, really are desperate for people who will get what they’re doing and can help make it better. Elena: So my final question: if you could only leave us one word, what would it be? Rachel: Succor. SUCCOR – like to give succor – that’s my word.
Secondary Flightlessness | Ashley Kunsa
In his mind hung two inscrutable pelicans, ink smudges atop a haze of grit, like a sandstorm in the wrong colorPthough there was no right color for a sandstorm of course, when you were in it, or near it, or even within rumor of it. From the safety of distance one could affect a detached subjectivity, an opinion on paletteP Pbut when you were in the shit you found only one long clamoring deep within your bowels, unleashed into the roiling wind without regard for shade or tinge or tone. First a parrot, then an owl, a chicken in full eye make up: since his discharge six weeks ago, theyâ€™d invaded his dreamsPflapping, squawking, shitting birds; birds aflutter, on a wire; birds banging into window glass, dancing ballet, telling fortunes; birds buying smokesPand when he slid from sleep, he kept his eyes latched, holding the avian imprints against the blackened shade of his vision, trying to suffer out the paltry geometry of their ghostly landscapes. A turkey sailing across the Cape in late autumn. The boyish figure of his brother, David, reclining on a lawn chair, a peacock printed on his shirt. Each had come on its own, a singular bird on its singular mission, but he awoke that morning to pelicans, water birdsPshrouded in mist, yes, but there were two of them, hoveringPand when at last he faced daylight, his eyes opened not to the steep hills presiding over the Mon, but a pair of Blackhawks descending in vast waves of sand and dust, their shuddering a sound he heard deep in his lungs, a sound to cancel out everything else: the blood beating in his skull, and behind him SPC Hullerâ€™s groans, and the shouts of Budd and Vazquez, climbing aboard the helo, while he knelt in the swirling debris, his ear pressed against a small, unmoving chest. And when, home on leave a month after that ambush 23
outside Tikrit, he found his brother lying in their mother’s bathrobe, it was the single of his M4 that filled his head as water drained from the claw foot of their youth; and holding David’s dripping body, it was the child’s delicate ribcage that made his arms ache. And as he scrubbed at the pink staining his brother’s high cheekbones, what he could not scrub from his mind were the guts of some anonymous bird, pasted like an oversized bug across the helo’s windshield, and how easily the blood had disappeared under the wiper blades once the rain started to fall.
| Rebecca Diaz
‘What are you doing?’ Roxanne peered over her newspaper. Her boyfriend was standing over the balcony holding his severed head by the mane with one hand, clutching the rail with the other. ‘I am trying to die,’ he told her. Roxanne flicked the pages and resumed reading. ‘What a headache,’ she rolled her eyes. Ian kept his eyes closed and with the balcony hand, began to scratch his chin. He moved his head a bit inward so that his severed head was bleeding onto the hardwood floor. Hearing droplets, Roxanne peered over her newspaper again. Irritated, she sighed: ‘You’re making an awful mess there. Clean it up if you don’t mind.’ Ian did not seem to hear. Roxanne sighed again. Attempting to distract Ian, who was always on the verge of death, she read aloud the tabloid headline on page four, telling him: ‘ ’ ‘Who cares?’ His eyes still pretty shut. Roxanne retrieved a cigarette from a tin box on the counter. ‘Want?’ she motioned to Ian. ‘No thank you,’ he told her. She lit the little white rod, her gesture manic while declaring, ‘I can kill myself too, you know.’ Clouds emerged from an open mouth. ‘ ’ he whispered. The night before, they fucked. In truth, the pair were carnal nightly. Around her neck was a black thread with a gold, lowercase ‘i’ pendant for ‘Ian.’ He got it for her in Venice Beach two summers ago from a oneeyed gypsy and her mangy dog. ‘No, it’s 26
for ‘Ian’’ he had told her. ‘It’s for you; it’s for the pronoun, ‘I.’’ ‘But it’s lowercase,’ she protested. ‘But you’re lowercase,’ he said. She’d put pressure on a scar on Ian’s neck with her little blue index finger; it was the kind of pressure that didn’t hurt him.
It wasn’t always decapitation. Ian had a go with rat poison, a rope. After the first few times, it became a thing of convention. Once he spent an hour under water but with his luck, couldn’t seem to die. ‘Get out,’ Roxanne had told him after his head, and well, entire naked body, had been submerged under water in their 70’s blue tub for about an hour. She rubbed her sugarcane eyes in the bathroom glow. It was 6:1 7AM on the ticking cat clock in the kitchen. The ticks boomed louder, increasingly slower than the bangbang of the construction outside. Ian’s eyes rested shut. Roxanne waited for a few bubbles that didn’t come up. ‘Ian!’ she bellowed. ‘Ian, I’m not kidding around,’ she offered, her arms tied in a bow. ‘I’m not done,’ at last, the bubbles read. ‘I need some more time in here, maybe another hour,’ she followed the sacs of words as they either burst at the very top or fizzled into the foam. Roxanne picked up the toothbrush dolly and threw it at the tub but missed. She sat at the top of the toilet, dunked her feet in the basin and bawled into her knees. Seeing her, Ian lingered underwater for a few minutes, his eyes opening, then closing; opening, then closing. Maybe he was trying to ignore her. But there she was, crying, her feet submerged in their toilet. At last, he sat upPnot alarmedPand shepherded her into the tub where, once he got her in it, he converted oxygen to carbon dioxide. He bathed her with a milky bar of soap that Roxanne’s mother sent them in one of those tacky gift baskets for Christmas. He told knockknock jokes. 27
‘Knockknock.’ ‘Who’s there?’ ‘Dwayne.’ ‘Dwayne who?’ ‘Dwayne the bathtub; it’s overflowing!’ ‘Knockknock.’ ‘Who’s there?’ ‘Otto.’ ‘Otto who?’ ‘Otto know. I’ve got amnesia!’ ‘Knockknock.’ ‘Who’s there?’ ‘Adore.’ ‘Adore who?’ ‘Adore is between us. Open up!’ Then Ian dressed her, carried her to a movie theater where they perched for a whole day. It wasn’t an altogether bad instance.
When Ian slit his wrists on their bed, Roxanne sighed, and put the leash on the dog for a 3AM walk. The dog was a deranged Chihuahua named Sparky. He was a nice addition to the dysfunctional family. After Roxanne threw a soy sauce bottle at the living room wall, a goodsized brown stain making its home across the light blue facade, Sparky barked at it for a month straight, day and night. It was a hot summer too; so neither Ian nor Roxanne slept much during that time. ‘It’s all your fault,’ Roxanne had said to Ian, mindlessly blinking at the corner nightlight during the first week the soy sauce monster found its home on their wall. ‘It’s you who wasted a perfectly good bottle of Asian gravy,’ Ian offered, Sparky still yapping distantly in the kitchen. He pulled her undies towards him. It was loving but cruel, she thought. 28
Roxanne glanced at the green of the digital clock on their bedside as it changed from 3:07AM to 3:08AM with little agenda. Bunching up all of the sheets, she groped her way to the kitchen to shove ice cubes down her panties. ‘Can it!’ she’d tell Sparky. The yapping thing seemed altogether too threatened by the light brown splotch plastered on the wall to consider Roxanne’s suggestion.
Now, as Ian’s head was separated from his body, Roxanne thoughtfully placed the newspaper down under Ian’s detached head to catch the drippings and began to paint her nails – – relighting her cigarette and throwing darts at the wall in between each finger. The dartboard had in fact fallen down ages ago and no one had bothered to post it back on the wall, the dog barking like mad when he saw the pricks flying across the room; the darts landed just as well on the wall anyway. ‘Sure you don’t want this lucky strike?’ Roxanne snarked. ‘Surgeon General calls it a certified exterminator,’ ‘If they can get the devil into you,’ Ian replied. Roxanne ashed part of her cigarette into cup with stale water. ‘If they can get the devil out of you,’ She huffed. ‘Who says the devil’s not in me?’ She exhaled a puff of smoke she’d been holding in, wondering why the hell he’d try to get out of this century without her. Roxanne yanked down her turtleneck and winced as she put out her little cigarette, her , a small sin as her mother used to call it, on her own neck. By now, the little burn marks looked like a constellation of hickies. She touched the freshest wound with stillwet bluenailed hands. ‘I’ll see you if you see me,’ she told him in a singsong voice. He didn’t turn to face her. She could hear him trying to be quiet – trying very hard to be as quiet as he could – which is what dying is anyhow. It’s the quietest you can possibly be. Roxanne got up and put her coat on, leashing Sparky. She opened the door to the apartment and took a walk around the block dragging the Chihuahua until she could see her balcony from the corner street. From the balcony, Ian was wiping the blood off of 29
himself and looking at her. He had sloppily placed his head back on his neck. ‘Come,’ he yelled. Roxanne remained still. ‘Spaghetti later?’ He tried, in the form of some apology. ‘Nana’s meatballs, scout’s honor, from scratch.’ She considered it. For a moment he was still. Except for the slight carnage apparent on his clothes and neck, he could have just been a person. He seemed wistful for a moment. She saw him peeling his nails off, just like that. They were like very small and slow snowflakes, cold. Nerves, she thought. Sparky was taking a shit on the neighbor’s lawn and she didn’t have a bag. She looked at Ian from below, or his sloppily replaced head, and nodded her own head up, down, then up, then down, implying to say something like . She could see that Ian was crying a little bit, standing alone on the balcony: destroying his hands with his hands. What was he talking about – meatballs? Roxanne gazed into his direction and then past him to the marshmallow white above. ‘Needs one more block,’ she yelled with some effort, pointing at the dog. She didn’t budge, though. Instead, she put the ‘i’ pendant into her mouth, trying to suck all of the metallic flavor from the little letter.
| Lynda Levy
The brown tweed sofa cost thirtyfive dollars at a garage sale, and it looks it. Foam filling pokes through too many worn spots. The stiff fabric scratches my skin. But the cushions are surprisingly springy. Every time we laugh they toss us about, pressing us into each other, arm against arm, thigh against thigh. Kenny does makes me laugh. He's such a New Yorker, wearing a shortsleeved Tshirt in December in Los Angeles. ‘Don’t you know it’s winter?’ I ask. ‘Don’t you know it’s 60 degrees?’ he says. After two years in L.A., I guess I’ve forgotten what real seasons are. I’ve forgotten how I used to pour boiling water out of a soup pot onto the icecovered windshield of my Chevy Nova. I’ve forgotten Boston and college and my roommate Sarah saying, ‘How can you drop out now, you’re so close to finishing?’ I’m still not sure how I feel about L.A., but I like the white stucco walls and dark wood floors of the apartment Marilyn and I rent in the PicoRobertson area. I like the melancholy chords of Steely Dan’s ‘Deacon Blues’ playing through my new JBL speakers. My exboyfriend Greg decided I ‘wasn’t his type,’ but he did get me the speakers at cost with his manager’s discount from Westside Stereo. Kenny is exactly my type thick brown hair, warm brown eyes, slight build. When I look at him I feel like I’m looking in the best kind of mirror, the one that only shows my good side. ‘We could be related,’ I say. ‘Everyone who went to Brandeis is related,’ he says. ‘At least tribally. We’re all Eastern European Jews.’ I’d feel silly if I wasn’t already a little high, or if he wasn't looking at me like I’m someone to be taken seriously, like my time in L.A. is a temporary hiatus from an upward trajectory I deserve to be on. ‘I didn’t think you’d still be getting stoned,’ I say, 32
watching him roll another joint on a Time magazine lying on his bluejeaned lap. ‘Now that you’re in med school, I mean.’ ‘I’ll tell you a secret,’ he says. ‘Med school is no harder than college.’ I laugh as if he's said something hilariously funny. The sofa cushions jiggle and I bump into him, knocking my chin into his chest. Neither Kenny nor the sofa know what a bittersweet jab it is. I can’t tell him I’m attending secretarial school like a 1 950's ‘career’ girl. Learning to take shorthand and type business letters that invariably begin, ‘Dear Sir.’ Brandeis women are smart. They're liberated. They do not go to secretarial school. Unless they do. Unless the version of their lives that says they're competent crumbles and they feel they’re constantly falling. Even though when they’re brave enough to look down, the ground is still there, at least most of the time. ‘So what exactly is Primal Therapy?’ he asks. ‘I mean that’s why you came to L.A., isn’t it? You were a psych major, right? Is this Primal Therapy part of your training?’ ‘Yes, that’s why I came out here. Actually . . .’ I hear myself talking, spouting phrases like ‘getting in touch with your feelings’ and ‘healing your inner child.’ The more I talk, the farther away I feel. Farther from him. Farther from myself. I lean forward to grab my pack of True Menthol 1 00s from the wooden coffee table in front of us. I take a deep drag and blow the smoke towards Kenny's face, as if none of this matters. None of it does matter when he pulls me back into the sofa. When he wraps his arm around my shoulder. Trails his fingers down my cheek, over my lips. ‘I like you,’ he whispers in my ear. ‘I wish we had known each other back at school.’ ‘We know each other now,’ I say. ‘You know I’m going back to med school in a few days. My life is on a good track. It’s really important to stay focused. You get that.’ ‘Of course I do.’ ‘You’re using birth control, right?’ Kenny's so righteous, so responsible. His mother 33
would be proud. It’s not that I was raised by wolves. It just feels like I’m in the wilderness sometimes, so far from everything I ever knew. Kenny reminds me who I am. Who I once was. Who I hoped I would be. But that’s not a story I can tell and still have him, even for a night. ‘Of course I’m on the pill,’ I say. We rise together, Kenny's arm around my shoulder. I glance back at the sofa as we walk down the hall towards my bedroom.
Repeat as Necessary (or How To Blow Up Your Life)
| Christine Kandic Torres
Sit down at your desk in an H&M skirt two sizes too big and three years too old. Check the hand mirror that rests on your computer to confirm that you’ve sweat enough on the walk into work for a crown of frizz to crop up around your temples. Use the word ‘unmanageable,’ when your coworker asks what you’ve done differently to your hair, but know the truth is you’ve never tried to manage it once. Let your fried ends fight each other, knotting into tight bows of skin and dust: a pelo malo legacy.
Decide it’s best you looked like this when you greeted the lobby security guards that morning so they didn’t suck their teeth or lean over their desks as you pressed for the elevator. Remind yourself this is why you don’t wear makeup. When your boss sits under his framed certificate from the Sons of the American Revolution and compulsively applies ChapStick during your morning meeting, try not to touch your fingers to your own lips and wonder if he’s hinting for you to moisturize more often. Wipe the sleep from the corner of your eye when you sit back down at your cubicle and get a better look in the mirror. Discover only then that your husband's morning goodbye kiss left dried spit on your cheek. Peel this off. Rip a boar bristle brush through your curls – noisily, the sound of cotton tearing – and pull your hair into a bun because the July humidity has damn near reached one hundred percent and you have enough to worry about with your period between your legs. Sit wide under the cover of your desk to air out and inhale deeply every once in a while to assuage your paranoia that any scent might have escaped the double barrier of your leakproof tampon and extraslim pad. Recall in horror that the Baptist grandmothers in your office have recently complained about the postmenopausal admin’s 'cootie stank' in the 36
ninth floor bathroom. Wonder how you've made it twentyeight years in this world without ever hearing one woman complain about the odor of another's vagina. Scratch the mosquito bites on your feet often. Especially the one on the edge of the blister your flipflops gave you Saturday at the bonfire. Remember how cool the night sand felt on your toes while the boys were lighting the logs with old copies of Newsday. Ignore the memory of your husband’s Dominican friend pulling you close when you lost your balance in the shadows of the overgrown dunes. Convince yourself he didn’t say, ‘We have to look out for each other, negrita.’ Wonder who coined the term ‘heartburn,’ because when his fingers grasped the top of your bare hip above your jeans, it sure felt like your heart was burning inside your chest, and it was very different from the uncomfortable sizzling you get in your throat any time you eat raw onions. Scratch your bites until blood surfaces and then carve an X into the sore with the curve of your thumbnail. Repeat as necessary. Take the stairs to lunch instead of the elevator in order to avoid small talk with your boss. Suck on a lemon ColdEeze instead of buying a salad because you've made a very realistic promise to yourself that you won't buy a single lunch all month in order to save money to buy a new bedroom set for your dementia addled motherinlaw in Rockaway. Google ‘alcoholism+Alzheimer's’ on your phone like you’ve been meaning to. Try not to think about how increasingly tight your voice felt each time you answered her question about how you first met her son, your husband of two years. Try not to think about the lie you came up with each time because the truth – that you waited for him to leave his livein Irishdancing girlfriend for you – still makes you grind your teeth so loud people ask what you’re chewing. Spit out your ColdEeze so you can drink a free sample of iced green tea the coffee shop is giving out on the corner. Sit in the park two blocks from your office on Third Avenue and pray that none of your coworkers will sit on a bench anywhere near you. Pretend to be studying your Twitter timeline for 37
the first ten minutes, and then open Facebook to find that your brotherinlaw has posted a photo of you and your husband from the beach. Scan the list of those who liked the picture you are tagged in until you find the name of The Dominican. Smile in spite of yourself. Kick gravel at a pigeon when it gets too close to your sandaled feet. Challenge yourself to lean back and appear relaxed. Look at the business casual strangers eating out of plastic containers and paper bags around you. Check the time constantly. Pressure yourself to soak up as much of this squareblock of nature as you can. Feel the sun toast your skin a darker shade of macadamia. It will seem as if you've been sitting there for two hours, but it will only have been three minutes. Console yourself with the fact that you have less than four hours left in your work day. Wonder whether you should spend that remaining time researching the efficacy of genetic testing or sending out a batch of emails your boss asked you for a month ago. Accept that both of these tasks would prove too overwhelming. Ask yourself when you started to disappear. Donâ€™t answer. Commit yourself to comparing bungalow furniture prices for the rest of the afternoon. Pause for a moment on the pedestrian bridge over FortySecond Street before going back to the office and look out onto the East River. Realize you've looked at this river from the exact opposite side, underneath the Long Island City dock sign, several times throughout your childhood, wishing that you were in the spot you're currently standing in. Startle yourself and the dog walker next to you when you exhale loudly. Turn west to the shadowed Tudor City apartment buildings framing the shining interior of Midtown. Imagine all the other lives you could be living. Buy a fourdollar slice of buffalo chicken pizza on the corner and promise yourself that next month youâ€™ll do better. Take your phone out of your purse and pull back up the photo from the beach. Find the name of The Dominican again in the list of Likes, evidence that he saw your face today and he Liked it, he Liked being reminded of you. Click on his name to open his profile and tell 38
yourself this is a perfectly normal thing to do. Check that the people passing by do not notice you blushing behind your buffalo chicken. Open a private message to him and stare at the tiny digital cursor daring you to make it move across the screen. Inspect the slice in your hand for any pieces of raw onion. Accept the dare. Make it move. Send.
| Dave Selwyn
The Call My sister Wendy calls to say that Dad has had what appears to be a stroke and that he is in the hospital. It is not clear to her how bad it is but from what she says it does not sound life threatening, so I decide to keep the reservation I already have for later that day rather than try for an earlier flight. Since Momâ€™s memory and Dadâ€™s grip on things have both been fading and their long livedin home is slowly crumbling around them, their children have finally persuaded them to move, grudgingly, to an independent living facility. I am flying in from Seattle to help them pack, toss, and haul fortyseven years to their new apartment, and elsewhere. When I phone from Philadelphia while changing planes, the critical care nurse is kind and honest. She says that what Dad had suffered that morning was a sudden cerebral hemorrhage, and she makes it clear that there is no hope. He will be kept on life support until I arrive. I board the transfer that will fly for eighteen minutes, from Philadelphia to New York, now aware that my father is about to die.
The Hospital It is eleven thirty in the evening when I walk into the ward. The nursesâ€™ station is lit on my left, with three women discussing Chinese takeout in soft West Indian accents as they write on patient charts. I leave my backpack against a wall and move slowly towards my father through the long, darkened room. I wonder if I will recognize him. He is in the fourth bed. His head is slightly wrong. His glasses are off, his mouth forced wide open by a blue ribbed 42
respirator hose. He is attached to tubes attached to bags, wired to machines that beat his heart and bellow his lungs. He would scream if he could. They will remove the respirator the next morning. Letting Go Mom and my youngest sister Laurie are unable to attend, so I spend dad’s last minutes with Wendy and, at a respectful distance, her husband Dom. There is not much to do or say but to be there as much as possible, to try and be present. I’m not a Buddhist or a believer in an afterlife but I am listening hard. I have a strong sense of his presence in us, and of my inability to cry fully, or to form a coherent thought. And I am immensely glad to have gotten there before the machines stopped breathing him alive. When the respiratory tech finally comes to derespirate him, the room changes. All illusions of hope vanish from where they had not consciously been. I now understand why comas continue for months or years at the insistence of family. We have seen too many movies to really believe in endings. There is something so final in the unplugging. No last minute miracles, no phone calls from God or the governor. The tube is out and his body has begun to run out of itself. His pulse rises a bit and then slowly drops over the next quarter hour, at times to zero and back up to twenty. I watch the machines for a time to see if he is, still, and feel both angry and foolish that I am watching machines rather than my father. I settle on the carotid artery, watching the pulse slow, slighten. Stop. The final act is to take Dad’s wedding ring for Mom. His finger’s flesh seems to have grown around the ring the way roots round rocks, enfolding for nearly sixty years. The nurses gently tug and twist, as we had, before one goes for surgical soap. Letting go grudgingly, as he had his last heartbeats, his marriage ends. It is that moment, more than the endless ones before, that cuts to the heart of it. The ring is now in our hands, as our father lets go. 43
The Viewing There is a public viewing two days after Dad’s passing. His body is lying in a coffin at the front of a large meeting room at a local funeral home. He has on a nice suit and a very unDad smile, courtesy of the makeup artist working at the home. Not that he didn’t smile; his sense of humor is what most folks go to first as they remember him. But this smile is someone else’s. Nearby sits a large bar of Hershey’s Milk Chocolate with Almonds. Mom used to ration the Hershey’s to one square a night, promptly at ten. We’ve decided those limits no longer apply. I want him to be holding it during the viewing, but Wendy urges a compromise. It is within reach, for whenever he wants a square or two. His body is flanked on either side by photos of his life as a young boy, with and without Mom, whom he had met when he was eleven and she seven. One of him as a young man with freckles and a wide smile standing neck deep in a lake, another of him posing in front of a ‘lifeguard on duty’ chair, a third with him posed, fists clenched in mock anger with his friend (and Mom’s brother) John. Photos of army life from his World War II stints in China, Burma, and India. Photos of him as a young father with a young son. Photos of him parenting, grand parenting, playing double solitaire, dancing, always with Mom. People from the family are there, and friends Dad had known since the 1 940’s. Fellow workers from Thermatron who still remember his humor and his decency. Bridge partners, bowlers, fellow residents of the then very new New Hyde Park community, all approaching the casket. Then Mom, then moving on to me and my sisters. The talk begins with a memory or two of Dad, a sense of disbelief (I just saw him out walking with your mother last week), and a remark about how strong Mom is. And then they launch into their own stories. Their own illnesses, their losses, their partner’s illnesses, their fears of growing older, the exploits and challenges of being the aging parents of middle aged children who are themselves struggling. Dad slipping quietly out of the conversation as one or another of his former colleagues or neighbors holds forth. Very Dad. 44
We say goodbye as a family the following day. We include in the sendoff some of Dad’s favorites. His polyester checked golf pants. The Hershey’s bar. A deck of cards for bridge and solitaire, a golf ball and tee, a book of crossword puzzles. Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra records. A photograph with Mom. He is to be cremated. Coming back from the funeral home Mom, already in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and in shock, struggling for an elusive word, asks when we can pick up the crumbs. Laughter fills the car. We will often return to that comment, aware of the truth of it. Crumbs I am visiting Mom a year after Dad’s passing. Her Alzheimer’s has deepened considerably and she is now in assisted living. Dad’s ashes have been placed in a reddishbrown plastic box, inside a cardboard container inside a black plastic bag. He has rested on mom’s closet shelf for the past year, and it’s not clear whether she knows that he’s there. I have resolved to bring some of him back with me to Seattle, to place around the fig trees in our yard. I’ve thought about this, considering the scene that could arise if I show up at the airport with a hardtoidentify powder in a baggy. This is post 91 1 New York. Authorities recently have announced a threat (foiled) by unidentified terrorists to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge. Letters containing anthrax, or suspected of containing anthrax, have been mailed to the White House, to Tom Brokaw, to others. The city is fast approaching the duct tape and plastic stage of hysteria and it might be an unpleasant and somewhat ghoulish scene if I were stopped. I decide that he will travel in my pocket where he won’t be xrayed and won’t set off any alarms. The first step is to fill the baggy. I keep avoiding it as we travel around the NY area, visiting relatives and friends. On this last morning of my visit I bring the package down, struggle to untie the black plastic knot before finally ripping it open, then the cardboard box, and then worry at the hard plastic container, visions of possible spillage slowing my hands. Finally I get it open to find a tannish 45
substance with a texture somewhere between sand and finely minced gravel. And I can’t do it. I have no sense that Dad is in there but it is still too much. So, I repack and place the box back on the shelf. I finish my own packing and Mom says, ‘Come here, I’ve got this package in the closet and don’t know what’s in it. I’d like to get rid of it. ‘No! That’s Dad! I want to take some of his ashes to Seattle.’ Mom looks at the package, trying to make sense of it, and of my request. There is a long silence. Finally (from some distance) she says ‘OK.’ I quickly bring the package back down and fill the baggy. I drop Mom off to visit with some friends of hers and then pick up Laurie for some (what she calls) bonding before heading to the airport. I share with her the scene at Mom’s apartment and we agree that Dad can’t stay there, given Mom’s state. Laurie has already spread some of Dad around a very high priced golf course he would never have been able to afford to play on, and around her former apartment complex. As we continue driving I begin to notice a slightly ashy smell. Smelling like ashes at the airport while the city is on high alert will not do. We ponder how to get him and me through security and wish he could be part of the planning. He would immediately appreciate the absurdity of the situation. We stop for a brief lunch. I buy two onion bagels and sandwich Dad between them in the lunch bag, hoping the onion smell will overpower the ash. I put the bag into my backpack and we head for the airport. As I walk through the terminal at JFK, regular announcements remind us that all carryon bags are subject to search at any time and that we need to make sure we are not transporting dangerous materials. My mental movie of TSA workers pausing at their machines and then asking me to open up the lunch bag to identify the mystery powder (no worries, it’s my Dad – and he was about as 46
not dangerous as a man could be) is enough to convince me he belongs in my pocket. I head to the bathroom to make the transfer. The line moves slowly towards security and I wonder, with a start, about his gold fillings. Were they destroyed when his body was cremated? Will they set off alarms? Thereâ€™s not much to do but move forward. We pass through silently. We are lined up at the gate to board when I discover the top part of my boarding pass is missing. I step out of line and search frantically; backpack, pockets (carefully), backpack, lunch bag, pockets, backpackâ€Ś and find it just before the doors close. It is a quiet ride to Seattle. This morning I walk out into our urban Seattle orchard, filled with bird song and squirrels darting through tangles of kiwis and grapes, blackberries, apples and plums. I head for the figs, baggy in hand. I have no ceremony in mind (Dad hated ceremonies). Just his crumbs, and a strong sense of the way home.
st Century American Phantasmagoria | Benjamin Toche
Jeff (named Jeff, but often went by Jim owing to his stepfather’s insistence on referring to him, in his youth, as the starship captain protagonist of note, slight of frame, dark hair, bearded in the unkempt manner of hippies) sat, drunkenly, staring into the laptop (cheap, Acer brand, WalMart purchased, no frills) in the rocking chair of the apartment he shared with Tiffany (who preferred her middle appellation of June, having been named the outdated Tiffany, was chunky about the waist and held blood that swam in unequal parts American Indian and German). The screen held the replay of his messaging with Courtney (exwife of going on four years, now remarried to a skeevy looking man, named Kent, two thirds her age – the kind of man who’d squat on the front porch and drink strangely imported beers while wearing track suits, whose family claimed to hail from the Caucasus mountains – was pregnant for her third time with this interloper’s, Kent’s, seed, his first). The messages spanned the previous four years wherein their union imploded. The first entry from her in the string read: Going out with the girls tonight. Don’t wait up. Love you babe, and the last, from him, which he’d just sent a moment prior, read: Oh man, I’m so angry/sad about you right now and I know it’s never going to get any better. On the sofa, within arm’s reach sat Tiffany, blithely unaware, sipping homebrew wine, and browsing social media.
‘Hey Justin,’ the smaller of the two brothers (ages 7 and 9) whispered in the darkness of their room (They shared one of the three bedrooms in Courtney’s house. One was Courtney’s and Kent’s while the other held the rudiments of a nursery, some of the items therein recycled for the third time: changing table, fourth hand crib, wall hangings of an infantile nature. The rest of the room 49
had yet to be converted and remained, in theory, an ‘office’.) ‘Yeah,’ answered the larger of the boys from his perch on the top rack of their bunkbed. ‘You think you’ll hate the new baby?’ ‘Maybe,’ Justin said. ‘I think I already do.’ ‘You haven’t met him yet,’ Justin said. ‘What if,’ here the smaller brother dropped his voice even lower in the darkness, ‘he’s a asshole?’ Justin considered this for a moment. He rolled from his back to his stomach to speak down into the dark of the lower rack. ‘Then we’ll probably hate him.’ ‘Yeah. Probly.’ ‘Get some sleep, Freddie,’ Justin said. ‘We’ve got to get up for school tomorrow.’ ‘Goodnight,’ Freddie said. Justin didn’t reply.
Tiffany lay on her back at Jeff’s right on their bed (hers actually, but since she’d moved in they’d gotten rid of Jeff’s due to its dilapidation and now shared Tiffany’s as their own). Sandwiching her on the other side was their infant (Marco, a hale sixmonth old who had her cheekbones and eyes) who squirmed and jostled in the too small space allotted for him. The child had a crib (placed next to the bed Tiffany and Jeff shared so that the child had extra sleeping space), but Tiffany could not, since the advent of Marco’s ability to roll from back to front, allow him to sleep in the all too sterile seeming crib for fear of his suffocation. She knew the research about such things and although the bed was softer and thus more dangerous for the boy than the firmer crib mattress, Tiffany cradled the secret vision of her attempting to wake the child for a morning diaper change and feeding and finding him coldly wooden in the crib. The scene terrified her, but also there was a certain (although she would never admit this to anyone) relief to it. If Marco was gone, a small niggling voice inside her insisted, she could resume her former life (unabated substances and sex acts and 50
general carousing) with Jeff and they’d be the passionate couple they’d been, instead of the parental and doting lovers they’d become.
The afternoon found Kent retrieving a beer (Baltika, purchased from a local and out of place bodega of the Eastern European variety where the counter minder was an immense woman who spoke little English) from the single six pack in Courtney’s refrigerator. Her children would be home from school within the hour and soon enough he’d have to start on dinner (frozen burritos warmed up in the oven) as Courtney would not be home from her employment (social work of a sort, not that Kent had asked, nor cared, to know the details of that line of work, alien as it was to him) for some time. He took the beer to the stove where there was a wall mounted bottlecap remover painted with the image of a clock face sans numbers (the digits collected in a pile at the clock base) with the text ‘Five O’clock Somewhere!’ painted across the face. Kent opened the beer and turned on the oven to heat. Then he went out to the porch to squat and survey the lowrent neighborhood where he’d taken up residence with Courtney. He shrugged and sipped at the beer and watched the street, waiting for the school bus to arrive.
Justin stared out the window of the classroom. Outside was spring, almost summer, and he was gripped in the thrall of a memory that was both good and bad. In that memory his father, his real father, was teaching him to ride a bicycle without training wheels for the first time. The experience had not been similar to the kinds of scenes that Justin had observed on smarmy television shows or movies, with the dad running behind the bike with his hand steadying the seat until the child mastered the correct balance and the father gently let go to stand, arms akimbo in welling paternal pride at the accomplishment of his seed. No, Justin’s reality, through the lens of memory, was far different. ‘Pedal your feet. If you stop pedaling your feet you’ll 51
fall off the goddamn bike.’ Jeff said. The smile he’d worn when they started some 45 minutes before had long since ebbed. He was standing in the street with Justin and the bicycle outside of the home they shared with Courtney and Freddie. ‘I can’t,’ Justin whimpered, ‘it’s too hard.’ Jeff crossed his arms. ‘You can pedal just fucking fine when I’m holding you up, you need to keep doing that or else you lose momentum and fall off the son of a bitch.’ ‘Lose what?’ Justin asked. ‘Momentum. You know, going forward? With speed?’ Justin had not remembered hearing the word before then but ever since it had stuck with him in the strange way gobbets of information will in a young brain. ‘I need you to keep holding the bike,’ he was nearly in tears and looking up through the spangled vision his father seemed a figure implacable and hard. Jeff softened a little, not much though, and nowhere near what Justin needed, ‘If I do everything for you you’ll never learn how to on your own. Now you get on the bike and do it. Pedal your feet. Keep them going.’ ‘Daddy, I don’t want to.’ Jeff’s face darkened and he leaned forward at the waist so that he’d loomed over Justin in a manner wholly terrifying. For a moment, Justin believed his father would hurt him. ‘You get on the goddamn bike and pedal your goddamn feet.’ Justin pouted and dallied until Jeff took him by the shoulders and held him eye to eye. The boy had tried to look away but Jeff followed his face. ‘I’m tired, Daddy. I can’t keep the bike up.’ ‘You can and you will.’ Jeff stood back and took one hand to right the bicycle. The other hand he held under Justin’s arm, moving him in a lessthan gentle manner to the bike. Justin did not want to mount up. He was tired. He was frustrated. He wanted his father to be happy, to be proud, to hold him as an object in his mind for which there was no equal, and all of this for instinctual reasons that Justin would not even consider, much less understand until he was vastly older with children of his own. He swung his leg over the saddle and put his feet on the pedals. Jeff put one hand on the handlebars and another on the sweaty small of 52
Justin’s back. ‘Pedal your feet and don’t lose the momentum of my push,’ Jeff said and Justin noted the staleness of his breath in the closeness of their encounter. He would fail many more times that afternoon.
Courtney, just beginning to wear the heft of the fetus growing inside her, sat on the porch in the bowed fabric of a camping chair while Kent squatted at her side. Each seemed wholly apart from the other, as engrossed in their smartphones as they were. They could have been strangers, commuters on a train, for all the proximity of their bodies. Out in the street, the same street from Justin’s memory, Courtney’s boys played with a delightfully and nonregulated mixed racial group (all varying shades of brown, further enhanced under the subtropical sun) of children. They were playing a game of pickup basketball on an adjustable height hoop that belonged to the neighbor boys across the street; the ball borrowed from a single lad down the street who, owing to an unseasonable sickness, had remained at home but graciously offered his equipment for use. Courtney looked at the message that Jeff had sent her some few nights ago. She knew he knew she’d seen it but she’d been tardy in replying, not for any lack of knowledge of her own heart, but out of a certain desire to create a tactful reply. How to tell him that she, in fact, still and probably always would harbor some measure of love for the father of her children? That she knew bits of his genetic code still floated, free form, in her mind and blood? That she was forever changed, anatomically, owing to that man’s seed? Furthermore, how to let him down softly, not that she owed him anything, but that was merely the nature of her kindness. The divorce had been messy, angry, things had been said in the run up and execution of those proceedings that could not be made right, in any lifetime. Yet she’d mostly forgiven him and was left with a certain rue, a sadness even, that they were no longer a family, that she’d never use his pet name, or any pet name, ever again. (Kent eschewed the use of epithets as unmanly and too Westernized and refused to allow Courtney to call him anything other than ‘Kent’.) 53
Courtney’s phone buzzed with an incoming message, from Kent: hey bby u want sum fuk (The hilariously misspelled solicitation was their own inside joke and he followed this up by many ‘fire’ and ‘1 00’ emojis and the somewhat dated ‘8======D~~~’.) She responded: 1 sec Kent rose and entered the home, leaving the door open for Courtney to follow. After he’d gone, Courtney switched screens back to the message from Jeff. She typed out the following: I know. It’s sad and I’m sorry what happened too. I guess you could say the feeling is mutual. She hit send.
The event was the obstacle course and the occasion was the second grade, end of the school year, field day. The staff and faculty had laid out the obstacles in a circuit over the school’s open area playground (a large fenced in field where children could play without the terror of falling from or becoming mangled in equipment) and various parent volunteers chaperoned the stations. There was jumping into hula hoops laid on the ground and skipping rope for a set distance and a wall to be scaled and a balance beam erected via cinder blocks and lengths of two by six and a section at the very end wherein the children ran through a gauntlet of water sprayed from garden hoses. At the end of the course, a knot of parents stood (Courtney and Kent – although Kent begrudgingly) among the crowd. The children navigated the course singly, with the course judge (the school’s principal, a thick black woman in her middle fifties who brooked no shit) timing each event and noting the results on a clipboard while the parent spectators cheered the incoming finishers. Freddie was last to go and he’d been watching the preceding runners, counting in his head the seconds with the method that Jeff had taught him (one mississippi, two mississippi, three mississippi). The fastest racer (a girl in Freddie’s class who always scowled at him for reasons he couldn’t comprehend yet he 54
always strove to be kind to, in his own, boyish way) had completed the course in a speedy 40 mississippis, the next closest coming in at 57. Freddie awaited the starting whistle from the course judge amid all the noise from the day, the cheering parents, the insects that hummed in the air, and the swish of the hoses and the general hubbub of milling groups of people. Then, the shrill of the whistle. Freddie blasted through the course, simple as it was, counting the seconds in his head, the selfimposed timer the only thing in his observable consciousness with the caller of that cadence, perhaps understandably, perhaps not, having Jeff’s voice and not Freddie’s own internal monologue. As he approached the finish and sprinted through the chilled spray from the hoses, the voice in his head stopped counting (at 36 mississippis) and commanded Freddie to ‘leg it out’ (a phrase Freddie himself could, later, not place having heard before but became convinced had been issued to him, psychically, from his biological father) and so he did. As he huffed at the finish line, bent with his hands on his knees, his mother beaming and his stepfather mildly receptive, the course judge announced he’d just bested the previous time of 44.3 seconds with a scorching run of 39.8. Freddie looked up at the crowd of onlookers and sought out the familiar faces of Courtney and Kent. He smiled and once he caught his breath he jogged over to where they stood. ‘Daddy, Daddy,’ Freddie said excitedly but Kent fixed the child with a stare (eyes blue, impassive, Slavic) and Freddie corrected, ‘Uh, I mean, Kent.’ ‘Yeah,’ Kent answered. ‘I did it,’ was all Freddie managed and as Courtney came forth and hugged him and stated her pride in his accomplishment at coming in first of all his class, Freddie nursed the secret embarrassment of having assigned his patrimony to a man whose blood was not, nor ever would be, his own.
Jeff came into the apartment that smelled strongly of ammonia. (The smell had two origins: first was the pile of soiled cloth diapers that sloped against the changing table in their bedroom 55
and the second was the rarely excavated cat box.) In the beginning, the smell had caused Jeff no small olfactory distress but as his tenure as Tiffany’s partner progressed, he found the odor, while it was only amplified by Marco’s micturition, to only be offensive in the first ten minutes of arriving home. He’d made mental note, however, that if the deal with the house (a ranch style three bedroom, previously constructed albeit within the past two decades, home that the couple was attempting to procure at significant indebtment to the buying party) went through, he was installing a cat door and putting the litter box in the garage. Tiffany sat on the sofa, holding a standing Marco in her lap, facing the child, and making all manner of silly faces, much to the boy’s delight. ‘Look at this,’ she said to Jeff. Jeff came to the couch and sat with his arm around her. Marco looked over and smiled at him. ‘Watch,’ Tiffany said as she gathered the boy’s attention again. She slowly extruded her tongue (Jeff noted the gesture and its vaguely serpentine eroticism. He stifled the alarm bells of arousal from his groin and focused on Marco’s face.) and crossed her eyes as she did so. Marco looked at his mother with the most sublime of grins before also sticking out his tongue. ‘He just started doing that this afternoon. Like, since you went to go look at the house.’ (Jeff had gone with the realtor to inspect the house that he and Tiffany were to buy in the coming weeks, in order to check the structure for fastness and soundness and in good general repair. Not that Jeff knew a stick about carpentry or home buying or anything worthwhile to contribute to the process but he’d dumbly followed the realtor around the premises, nodding when it seemed appropriate and wearing a concerned face.) ‘Nice,’ Jeff said, then sighed, ‘He’s getting so big already.’ Tiffany hugged the child to her braless, tshirted bosom. ‘He is.’ ‘Pretty soon he’ll be running all over the place and driving us crazy.’ Tiffany looked at Jeff, ‘Not just yet,’ she said and hugged Marco even firmer to her. 56
‘Yeah,’ Jeff said as he plunged into his own memories of when Justin and Freddie had been about Marco’s size and silently acknowledged how fleeting that time was, but of this he said nothing. After some time at his contemplations (while Tiffany engrossed Marco with a round of peekaboo and tickles) he rose to fetch himself a vodkatonic that was mostly liquor.
Tiffany held the end of the dresser (not especially heavy but cumbersome, and the first piece of furniture to be moved from their previous residence – the apartment – into their newly purchased home.) They were moving, precariously, down the too steep and too narrow stairs that egressed from their apartment, she stooping while Jeff elevated his end. Her mind was only vaguely on the piece of furniture. She was more concerned that she’d left Marco (albeit safely napping within the confines of his pack and play in the bedroom and only a scant distance from her inside the apartment) all alone. Dark worries that she’d never previously considered having crowded her thoughts. What if he woke up and she wasn’t there to immediately attend him? What if some insect or other pest managed to find and injure the child? What if there was an earthquake, or a fire, or some other, unforeseen act of God that was at that very instant conspiring to end her boy’s life and she out on the stairs, like a fool, helping Jeff move the dresser that he alone could do? The drawers were out and the frame itself couldn’t weigh more than 35 pounds and here she was, outside, away from the helpless boy inside the apartment who so desperately needed her. ‘June,’ Jeff said, huffing as if under some great strain, ‘goddamn it, wait a minute.’ ‘Sorry,’ Tiffany said and she meant it, for she knew her mind had wandered away from the task at hand. That had been happening more and more lately, not that she was easily distracted, but that the focus of her life had shifted and now, without her consent, she found herself in the terrible vortex of maternity, adrift on a raft of pitiful construction that was no match for the tumult on which she floated. Come to think on it, ‘sorry’ was something that had begun to issue from her mouth far too often since Marco’s 57
advent. She’d never been so apologetic in her life and while she, like other women of her education and upbringing, viewed herself as staunchly feminist, she’d likewise discovered that since the squalling, vernix covered Marco had been placed on her exposed chest, something in her had softened so that now, more often than not, she was asking for forgiveness for even the most inconsequential or perceived slight. What had happened to her? ‘I just,’ Jeff grunted and shifted the dresser in his hands, ‘the goddamn stairs, I –’ but before he could form any further words, his right foot cantilevered on the edge of the step and in the ensuing unbalance he lost purchase on the dresser. Tiffany watched, not in slow motion as is rumored, but in full speed as she let go her end of the dresser as well and the piece of furniture railroaded Jeff down the remaining half flight of wooden stairs, twisting his neck unnaturally and producing an awful crunch of bone.
In the remaining four minutes of consciousness left him before lack of oxygen shuttered his mind and brain damage began, Jeff was strangely lucid. Nothing hurt the way he imagined it might, yet his face felt scratchy from where it rested against the concrete sidewalk. The dresser lay off to his right, oddly turned on its side and not, as he might have imagined, pinning him to the ground. Tiffany stood over him and her face made him more afraid than any lack of sensation coming from his body. She said she was sorry, over and over, but he also couldn’t imagine for what she apologized. In fact, in a strange reckoning, he considered what he knew, on a primal level, was his death (the spinal cord had been severed at the C3C4 juncture and this injury was, as most are, supreme bad luck on the part of the inflicted) to be an overall good for all of the ones he’d loved most in life. His employer provided life insurance was inexplicably generous and the share allotted to Tiffany would go far in paying down the newly acquired mortgage for the home which she and Marco would inhabit. The remainder of the sum would be split between Justin and Freddie, perhaps becoming the seed of a college fund, thereby easing their financial burden on Courtney. Or 58
perhaps the monies would be some other, more relevant, jumpstart for lives he would not see play out. He’d failed in so many other things that this final thought buoyed him for the unknown ahead, making him strangely proud, happy almost, and while he’d never have the adult conversations he’d imagined with any of his sons, he hoped they’d look as fondly on his memory as he had on their pinched faces when he’d witnessed their exits from the birth canal: screaming, covered in goo and blood, yet miraculous for all the gore.
Rebecca Diaz | Rebecca Diaz is an artist living in San Francisco. Benjamin Toche | Benjamin Toche is the father of three sons, ages 1 1 , 9, and 6 months, who continually brutalize his heart. He graduated with an MFA in fiction from the University of Alaska Anchorage and is a relentlessly churning meat box, barely able to understand the world he inhabits. Ashley Kunsa | Ashley Kunsa's creative work has been published in
and elsewhere. She is currently completing a PhD in English literature at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. You can find her online at www.ashleykunsa.com. Christine Kandic Torres | Christine Kandic Torres was born and raised in Queens, NY to a Puerto Rican mother and Croatian father, a combination too strange in and of itself to be fiction. Her fiction has previously appeared in and .
Lynda Levy | Lynda Levy is a retired psychologist. After 30+ years living in Los Angeles, Lynda moved to the Arizona desert where she's been happy to discover that much blooms, including her own creativity. Her work has appeared in and in the forthcoming anthology, . Doug Selwyn | Doug Selwyn is on the very cusp of retirement from SUNY Plattsburgh, where he is a professor of education. He has been an educator since 1 984, beginning in the Seattle Public Schools, then moving to university. Most of what he has published has been about education. This is different.
Bill Wolak | Bill Wolak is a poet who lives in New Jersey and teaches Creative Writing at William Paterson University. He has just published his thirteenth collection of poetry entitled with Nirala Press. Recently, he was a featured poet at The Mihai Eminescu International Poetry Festival in Craiova, Romania. Michelle Disler | Michelle Disler's essays, prose poems, photography, and photo essays have been published in and among others. Matt Gold | Originally from Ohio, Matt Gold has been living in Bloomington, Indiana for the past fifteen years and recently relocated to Brooklyn, NY. He divides his time between pursuing his musical career, acting auditions and photography. As a singer and songwriter, Matt frequently performs; some of his music can be found online at www.mattgold.net. Janelle Cordero | Janelle (Rainer) Cordero is a poet, painter and teacher living in the Pacific Northwest. Janelle worked as a soda fountain waitress, peach orchard laborer, and shoe salesman before earning her B.A. in English from Whitworth University, followed by her M.F.A. in Poetry from Pacific University. Janelleâ€™s poetry has been published in numerous journals, including and , and her paintings have been featured in venues in and around Spokane, Washington. Visit www.JanelleCordero.com to view more of her work. Janelle's debut poetry collection, , was released in October 201 5. Floater | Floater is an architect and artist in southern Tornado Alley 63
whose generation grew up on video games and Japanese cartoons. His work can be found in many online journals and zines. Evelyn Rapin | Evelyn Rapin translates musical ideas into two dimensions by employing the painterâ€™s elements of formPline, shape, volume etc. Composers rely on devicesPrhythm, tone color, repetition etc., to structure musical arrangements, which can also be visualized/imagined as form. Therefore, making the invisible visible is central to her music inspired works. Dick Evans | Dick Evans' paintings are found in the permanent collections of over twenty Art Museums and over a dozen corporations. He has had over 30 solo exhibitions as well as numerous group and invitational shows. Examples of his work are found in 1 1 books and extensive periodicals and publications. His feeling is that the more personal the statement is, the more universal it may be. By avoiding the visually expected, his art often helps the viewer to see surroundings in a different and richly rewarding manner.
Published on Jan 31, 2017
Author Interview: A Conversation with Rachel Hall; Fiction from Ashley Kunsa, Benjamin Touche, Christine Kandic, Rebecca Diaz; nonfiction fr...