The Sonder R eview
A publication of art, short fiction and creative nonfiction
Founder/Executive Editor | Elena M. Stiehler Assistant Editor | Kathy Kurz Cover Art | 'Torn Night' by Richard Vyse
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 1 1 | Spring/Summer 201 9 1
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own â&#x20AC;&#x201C; an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that youâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;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.
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” NElmore Leonard
From the Editor | Elena M. Stiehler
“The Many Legged Menace” | L.M. Davenport “Caught” | C.C. Russell
“Up Yours” | Ace Boggess
“The Muse” | B.D. Feil
“While at the Park” | Moriah Hampton “The Last of the Season” | Katherine Ann Davis
17 37 59
“Notes on Surviving the Broken Heart” | Allora Campbell “A Rural Fall, 7 Days” | Chila Woychik “More Foreign Than the French Kids” | Sara Fall “Of the Body” | Paige Thomas
“Charleston” | C.R. Resetarits
“Being Bot” & “Nice to Meet You” | Peter Espinosa “Flame” | Jennifer Lothrigel
67 31 & 48
39 “From Muybridge, Nude Woman Washing Face, Animal Locomotion, Plates 41 2 & 41 3” | Chris Gavaler 58 & 8 “Wafting” | Matthew Felix Sun 19 '
From the Editor
| Elena M. Stiehler
I WOULD FIRST LIKE to say to you, dear reader, thank you. For your understanding and support as we chose to forgo releasing our customary winter issue this year. And to the authors and artists represented in these pages, we thank you as well. To some of you for your patience and encouragement when we decided to delay; to others for your forgiveness of tight timelines; and to all, for doing us the honor of accompanying us on this journey. As we began the new year, , too, began a new chapter. We took on the awesome and exhilarating role of becoming the new home of The Best Small Fictions anthology; had a tremendous response to the sophomore year of our Chapbook Competition; and expanded our submissions platform to better accommodate and reach authors. It was in the midst of this that I decided to hold back on releasing our latest issue. To trust the process and allow ourselves the understanding and forgiveness to take our timeNto do what was right for the continued crafting of our review; to never give less than our best. And I am thankful for it. I was recently given the incredible opportunity to be interviewed about for Women on Writing, and I came away from the experience invigorated, humbled and in awe of the power of what weNas writers, editors, publishersNmight bring to life. Of our ability to connect, seek out and reveal. To lay bare the truth of humanity. To work together. Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m eager for the unfolding of this, our next chapter, and Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m proud to say that issue eleven, while slow in the making, is no less stunning. The ten, sumptuous works that fill these pages are meant to be savoredNdevoured slowlyNeach word a separate, delectable note on the tongue; each piece a delicate, deliberate working. There is heartbreak 6
in these pages, raw, bruised and bloody. And there is pluck, exploration and redemption. These are the windows to many worlds, but also, always, to our own. A coming of age and of self is explored in “More Foreign Than the French Kids,” while love both betrays and ignites in “Caught” and “Notes on Surviving the Broken Heart.” “A Rural Fall: 7 Days” and “The Last of the Season,” in piercing prose, render both the vitality and vulnerability of the earth we inhabit. “The Many Legged Menace” sees a woman desperate to be seen, while “While at the Park” exposes a father’s true, if desperate, nature. “Of the Body” reveals the predatory nature with which women’s bodies are consumed, while “The Muse” examines the complex nature of love expressed through art. Finally, “Up Yours” chronicles the precarious nature of freedom and familial history. Again, and as always, we thank you. For your support, your appreciation, your trust. We work, as ever, to captivateNastonish and enlighten. I hope this issue delights, awakens and questions, and I hope you enjoy, dear reader. This, as is all we do, is earnestly and always, for you. See you on the other side. Elena
The Many Legged Menace
| L.M. Davenport
THIS IS EVELYN. SHE is playing dead. The wind sifts grit into her hair, which has fallen over her face just enough to keep her from seeing much beyond its auburn curtain. (It cannot, however, protect her from the sunburn she feels brewing on her right cheek, the one turned toward the sky. Evelyn is worried about this burn, which will, she knows, turn to freckles and not a tan. She already has too many freckles.) Evelyn has been lying here for what feels like hours. She does not dare lift her head to check her watch, which faces the sun too, but will fade instead of burning. She will remain here, unmoving, until someone tells her to get up, thus proving her dedication, her worth, how much she deserves to be more than an extra. If it would guarantee her fame, or even a single shot in which she is alone with Phyllis, the star, even if she has to lick the other womanâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s shoe on camera or stand solemn in the background or lie prone again as another corpse to be stepped over, then Evelyn would allow this sun to char her face until her bones showed through the blackened rem nants of patient flesh. Poor Evelyn. She does not understand that her obedience will earn no accolades. Another gust of wind shifts Evelynâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s hair, enough that she can watch the landscape. There is sagebrush, scrubby and rough, but so aromatic she has to stop herself from rolling in it. There is dust. A shocking amount of dust. Evelyn tastes it in the water here, has been scenting it on the air for so long now she needs that taste as a reminder that the dust is added to her world, not intrinsic to it. There are boulders and outcrops, all the same pink brown grey granite, erupting from the ground on every side. The sun is high, but it burns her without much heatNthough this is unquestionably a desert, it is barely May. Things Evelyn cannot see: the camera crew, which is set up in between two boulders, be hind her and to the left; Phyllis, who will come racing through the scene at any moment; Ralph, who will pursue her, clutching a freeze ray gun; the creature itself, whose animatronic body is 9
somewhere near the food tent, wrapped in canvas. Evelyn has never actually seen the creature. None of the extras have. Two weeks ago, when they filmed the crowd scenes on a set that looked a little like the nicer parts of the city outside, everyone cowered before empty air. (The monster, they were told, would be shot separate ly, on a scale model. Some trick with mirrors.) Now, prone in the dirt, Evelyn remembers that day of shooting fondly. One of the other girls had turned on her high heeled shoe too quickly and plunged to the floor, her nose smashing with a wet crunch. Evelyn was standing next to her when it happened. The director saw her and barked, “You! Take her place in the next scene.” She stood there, exultant, while someone beneath her notice mopped up the bright, thin blood. Later, she was slumped across a reception desk in another room of the studio, blood that was too thick and too red splashed across her neck and the front of her blouse. Ralph and the man playing his lab assistant rushed through one door, saw her, stopped. She heard their foot steps cease, and then the slam of the door behind them. The lab assistant walked to the desk and tapped her shoulder. (Still, Evelyn is proud of not moving.) When she did not react, he seized her shoulder and pulled upwards. Evelyn let her head droop back as her stained chest and neck met the light. The assistant leaned her torso back against the chair. Evelyn tried to look both beautiful and dead, in case the director was watching her. She could feel the blood congealing and suppressed the urge to rub it off with her fingertips. Under the studio lights, the insides of her eyelids shone yellow, as if she had turned her face to the sun. “She’s dead!” exclaimed the lab assistant, whose job throughout the film was to state the obvious. “When will the killing end? We must halt this madness, Jim!” Ralph made for the other door, and the two men raced through. Evelyn couldn’t remember if that door led to the creature, or to Phyllis, or both. That was the trouble, she thought, with film, everything done out of order, only making sense to the audience. “Cut! Again!” The men returned, laughing. Evelyn stayed vacant eyed, imagining her innards exposed to their view, shining and ruddy, with her collarbones pointing the wrong way. Bloodied, silent, she remained through three more takes. 10
Evelyn wonders what take they are on now, when she will be allowed to stand up and walk away. So far, she has been in five scenes. In four of them, she has been dead. Some desert insect walks over Evelyn’s calf. It tickles. The urge to move, to twitch a foot or stretch and roll her body over the ground, is nearly unbearable. She tries to think of something else, circling through the words that frame this day for her, trying to get each cycle of thought identical to the previous one:
Evelyn does not like the word “extra.” It implies what she does not wish to think about: that she is disposable, only a body, no more than a piece of the scenery. She prefers to remember, instead, that this is only her second movie, that in her first one, , she was in just two scenes. , she thinks, is an improvement. At least in this one, the camera sometimes pans across her face.
Here is something else that Evelyn thinks about while playing dead: Once, Evelyn played Ophelia. She was cast as the understudy to the girl, a high school junior to her senior, who got the part. They learned the lines together, quizzed each other, took turns reading for Hamlet during their insular, two person rehearsals. They met at the real Ophe lia’s house, where her younger brother would pester them to be allowed to say some of the lines until they set their backs against her bedroom door to hold him out. When they sat, shoulders touching, bracing their weight against the wood, Evelyn could almost believe that they were one person, or so close to it that no one could have told them apart. The real Ophelia was Catholic, and Evelyn broke into giggles each time she boomed, in imitation of their pimply Hamlet, “Get thee to a nunnery!” On opening night, Evelyn did the other Ophelia’s makeup. She swept foundation over the chicken pox scars that sat, two minute craters, above her left eye and across the ghosts of freckles on the bridge of her sharp, delicate nose. The real Ophelia grinned mirthlessly, and 11
Evelyn tinted the apples of her cheeks with blush. Her eyelids shivered under Evelyn’s touch as the waxy black pencil lined them. Her jaws parted, and Evelyn smeared her lips with pink. The real Ophelia’s mother did not permit her to wear such tints. They did not speak. Evelyn knew that what looked grotesque here would pass for natural onstage. She was remaking this Ophelia, masking her, painting her. Do not think that hers was the silence of jealousy; it was the silence of craft, of love. Then the moment Evelyn would replay in her head, years later, in the dust and sun of the Owens Valley: Ophelia emerging from the girl’s locker room into the grimy, dim hallway in a white dress, barefoot. Evelyn, looking at her, thought only of water, of still ponds and slow riv ers waiting to swallow human shapes, of abandoned blossoms riding the surface. Ophelia was still, as though posing, or dead while yet upright. Evelyn walked to her, deciding as she arrived to open her arms and enclose Ophelia in them. She whispered, “Break a leg.” Ophelia said noth ing, and Evelyn could not tell, for a moment, who was holding whom. Evelyn watched from the wings. She wanted to be beneath the surface of that water; to grasp Ophelia’s ankle and pull her down. To carry her away through the current, along the bed of the river. To drown. After the curtain call, Ophelia came to Evelyn first. “Thank you,” she said, “for helping me with my lines, and for the makeup. I couldn’t have done it without you.” And, because no one else was watching, Evelyn stood on tiptoe and kissed the top of Ophelia’s head. Ophelia froze. Not a pose or a death, this time. She pulled away without a word and vanished into a group of actors around the corner, near a history classroom. Evelyn stood, felt the blind, insistent rhythm beneath her ribs, watched dust motes drifting through the stale air. The next night, Gertrude did Ophelia’s makeup. The night after that, Evelyn played Ophelia.
Now, Evelyn hears running feet. It has started, but she does not remember hearing “Ac tion!” With that absence the ground beneath her feels 12
unsteady, as though she were floating. There is Phyllis, her red dress fluttering behind her, dyed blonde hair streaming backward, her whole image flattened in the harsh light. “Andromeda!” Ralph shouts, dashing into the scene from behind a boulder. His suit jacket flaps open in a rush of wind, and even from her position on the ground Evelyn can see the shirt beneath is nearly translucent with sweat. She watches him take in a ragged breathNfor all he plays the hero, Ralph is not used to runningNand stagger to a halt as Phyllis pauses in her flight, a few feet from Evelyn, turning to face her co star. “Andromeda,” he gasps, “don’t do this! Think of the whole human race, of all the infants coming into the world at this very moment, of the men governing and laboring and breathing the good, sweet air. What can that monster offer you that is worth more than all those lives? Don’t turn your back on your humanity, Andromeda. I know you’re still human, somewhere deep down, beneath that corrupted shell you call ‘beauty.’” He pauses, heaves another breath, wrenches his shoulders back and lifts his chin. A drop of sweat runs into his left eye, but he blinks it away heroically. Phyllis tosses her head defiantly. Evelyn is transfixed. The monster has promised Andromeda, the only human who can understand it, that if she helps it take over the world, she will be Queen of what remains. As further enticement, it has sworn to ensure her eternal youth and beauty, plying her with radioactive potions and unguents to that end. Evelyn was not on set the day they filmed Phyllis taking her first sip, smearing that initial daub of glowing ointment over a cheekbone. But she thinks, watching from the ground, that she can see the warping fires of those liquids shifting beneath the surface of Phyllis’s skin “You will never understand,” Phyllis calls back. “You will never understand what he has offered me!” For a moment, the same feeling runs through Evelyn that came to her the night she saw Ophelia in the hallway. Water, far over both their heads. A hand, reaching. Her hand, or the other’s? Evelyn is not sure. She wants to curl in on herself, to feel that, at any moment, someone might come up behind her, lay a hand on her back, very gently, and not walk away. Evelyn has felt this twice before. Once, when she came home after losing her other, waitressing, job and found her apart ment inexplicably swarming with glossy brown creatures that she refused to name. Their broad backs shone under the electric light 13
and their little clicking sounds were audible from where they roiled on the ground. She spent that night huddled outside the front door, staring at the opposite wall, imagining the things filling her apartment, ceiling to floor, in a compacted squirming mass. When the exterminator arrived, he said they had come up through the drains. After that, Evelyn boiled her water before she drank it. And once, a month after ended, when she was buttoning up her shirt after gym class and realized that, at the locker to her left, the real Ophelia was doing the same. Evelyn paused, said the name. The other Ophelia looked up, startled, met her eyes. Then, without a word, she turned, picked up her bag, and strode away.
“AndromedaN” Ralph begins, but Phyllis turns and starts to run again, towards her final encounter with the creature. Ralph raises his freeze ray gun, the only weapon that can harm the radioactively charged Andromeda. Evelyn watches the high heeled shoes grow closer, throwing up tiny puffs of dust each time they land. She thinks Phyllis is brave, to run like this on such ground. In her mind a hand still reaches through water, stretching for her own ankle now, grasping just above the nubs of bone. Its grip feels like her hand brushing Ophelia’s eyes, like the sun on her cheek, like the knowledge of love. Phyllis crashes to the ground. Evelyn’s right hand is wrapped around her ankle. There is a moment of silence, stillness. Then a shout of “Cut!” and more running feet. Evelyn, blinking rapidly, lets go of Phyllis, who rolls over, sits up, and stares at her. There are ragged abrasions down her wrists and forearms, and on the heels of her hands. As Evelyn watches, blood begins to well up beneath caked dust. The director has further to run, but he still arrives before Ralph. He extends a hand to Phyllis and she clambers to her feet, slowly, wincing on the way up. The shock is gone from her face, and in its place the beginnings of rage are forming. “If we were at the studio, I’d send you home this minute,” the director snaps. “As it is, consider this a warning. Get near Phyllis again and I won’t take you back to L.A. with us at the end of the week.” 14
He turns to Phyllis. Ralph arrives, panting, and wipes nervously at one of her arms with a handkerchief. The three of them, garish in the sun, walk towards the mess tent, where Evelyn knows there is a first aid box. None of them offers her a hand, but she stands anyway, looking after them until they disappear behind a boulder.
This is Evelyn. She is walking after the others who play dead. There is no chatter. The other women move in a cluster in front of her, like the creatures that scuttled through her apart ment. The sun is not so high now, and their figures seem no longer flattened and vivid, but golden. Evelynâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s right cheek is scorched a livid red. She is limping, because her left leg has fallen asleep from being curled beneath her for so long. There is grit embedded in her right forearm, on which she propped her head. She looks down at her ankle, to see if she can make out the handprint there, but then remembers it was she who would have left a mark. The others have all gone into the tent. Evelyn stands outside, watching the mountains that rise jaggedly behind this boulder strewn patch of valley floor. There is still snow on some of the peaks. It is a landscape of inhuman beauty, and Evelyn feels herself erased. When Evelyn looks away, her gaze lands on the canvas wrapped bundle next to the tent. Slowly, keeping her eyes down, she walks to it and lays her right hand against the wrapping. There is a loose place at the bottom of the bundle, which she sees now is really just a sheet of dirty cloth, thrown over and tied shoddily with ropes. Evelyn pulls up the fabric and slithers through the gap. It must be seven or eight feet tall. Some light filters through the canvas, so she can tell it is the same brown as the things in her apartment, with red smears around the mandibles. It is upright, its many legs poking out in front of it like rungs on a ladder. The compound eyes, Evelyn sees, are made of hundreds of mirrored fragments. She begins to climb. The creature does not feel brittle under her hands; it was made, she knows, to hold a personâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s weight. In a few moments, she has reached the top. Evelyn looks up, into its face. The mountains effaced her, but the mirrored eyes accuse her. Instead of gazing longer she sits, striking 15
the same pose that Phyllis will in the last scene of the movieNlegs draped over one arm, shoulders over the other, head hanging back, throat exposed. No. This is not what she wants. Evelyn shifts again, curling in the motion of a birth reversed. She leans her head against the monsterâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s carapace and breathes in the smell of paint and shellac, like the air in a beauty par lor. Her eyes close. Water, running. A hand, reaching. A second, meeting. Outside the shell of canvas, she can hear the wind.
Notes on Surviving the Broken Heart | Allora Campbell
YOU HATE WHEN PEOPLE tell you that getting over your first love is the worst. You know what they mean: because it is your love, the love that you will give anything to preserve and protect. And because it is all these things, all these overwhelming emotions that you have never felt beforeNyou are not prepared for it. There is no way to prepare for the all consuming need to inhale someone, as they become more necessary than oxygen. That soon all you can think of is the sound of their laugh. Curve of their jaw. Smell and taste of them. The foreign certainty that you would give them your everything. People far wiser than you tell you this love, the first, is the most difficult to recover from. As if it were your second or third love it would be less painful, or you might make fewer mistakes, take fewer risks, dream fewer dreams. Of course it is your inexperience that has led to the failure of your first, big love. Your naivetĂŠ. Your trust and belief that love truly existsNand it must, because you can feel it blossoming inside of you. How then can you not see a world full of so many possibilities? The radiant, fiery hope of a reality where you areNlikewiseNwanted, needed, cherished. No. Because this love is the first love, and because you are, supposedly, too trusting, it is doomed from its very conception. And if only you knew what you were doing, then maybe things would turn out differently. Maybe overcoming this first love wouldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t hurt so badly. You know they mean well when they give this advice. They see you brokenNyour little fluttering first love wings clipped as you hobble, flightless on the edge of loneliness. They see you, achingly empty now that you know what it is to have love and to have lost it. They see you and they think their predictions of the elusive to follow will quiet the gnawing, biting absence that is rotting your insides. Making what was once firm, strong and untouched by this first love soft, fragile, spoiled. 17
How your heart once stretched, swollen with love, and was then suddenly stopped. The tattered, too thin membrane left behind sags, wanting again to be so full of the mind shattering happiness that had swelled it to bursting before. And you sort of wish that your heart had just burst. That it had just exploded straight out of your chest in a gory, smoking, bloody rocket so that the whole world could witness your pain at the loss of something so fleeting and intangible and permanent. How do you prove the existence of a feeling? Or its absence? How do you forget it once itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s gone? You wish you knew how to show people the rawness of your insides. The places scraped clean. They that find your pain unoriginal, ordinary, andNworseNpredictable. You want to show them that maybe this happens to everyone, but right now, it is happening to you. Overcoming your first, big love is sort of like the dead squirrels you will jog past every morning the summer everything ends. Your house is on the corner of a curving road lined with massive trees. You can never really see where the road leads. The day the squirrel dies is probably a day like any other. It has probably crossed the same road a thousand times before without incident. This last time it realizes too late that death is coming. In that frantic dash back to safety, it probably even thinks that everything will be fine, that the world has righted itself again, safety at handNa momentary high believing it has skirted death and won. The impact: instant, fatal, and, after the crunching of bones, over. Soon the pulpy, furry remains will be pounded over and over into a red stain on the pavement. The discoloration temporary, the loss of life largely unnoticed. You are unsure if you are grateful. You were, after all, happy once before you knew this part of yourself. You were content in the blissful ignorance that preceded this loss. Now that you have had a taste, all you feel is a biting hunger for what you hadnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t even known was missing. There is such weight to your solitude, such finality. But what remains still holds promise. In the midst of your wreckage, they tell you to have the courage to trust love again. Maybe just once more. And you hope they are right, that the smoke will clear. Because there was that moment, that rupture in your timeline, when you realized you were capable of loving someone more than yourself. More than life itself. And you never wanted to let it go. 18
| Ace Boggess
YOU DON'T GLANCE AT yourself in the rearview. You know what you’ll see: smudged bandit eyes of troubled sleep, blond scruff not quite a beard, thick waves of blond hair not quite a mullet. The face will be older, cracked, hardNthat’s why you don’t look, preferring to remember a younger you, when you had the same appearance but” as a statement rather than a lifestyle. You wore that image well, something between a rebel biker and the portrait of a saint, tough guy Jesus, attractive and only slightly glazed from the crack. You’re not you anymore. You feel sober, and sober feels broken, and broken feels low, humdrum, frustrated, late for work again and angry about it. Late, pissed off, always in a hurry. You’re forty two and living with chronic road rageNwhich isn’t a disease covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and won’t save you from an ass chewing at the restaurant where you fix the soups, bake rolls, and help with the dishes when they pile up. You flash your middle finger at the woman in the blue Tesla who cuts you off, then slows. “Up yours, lady!” you shout, your windows down, hoping she can hear you. She appears to be too busy talking on her iPhone to notice. Can’t be more than eighteen. As you weave around her on the Boulevard, you stare her down and shout, “Get off your goddamned phone before you kill somebody.” She scowls back at you, then mouths something to the voice on the other end. Then you’re several blocks ahead of her as her hybrid putters along, losing ground. You pass one green light, then another. By the time you hit red, she’s no longer visible in your mirror. 20
You don’t really like you. Not anymore. You should have a better wardrobe, better job, better life. You’ve been off the rock for half a dozen years now, but does it make you feel better to say that aloud like you’re one of those twelve step crybabies? You’re a middle aged manNlonely, damaged, and abrasive. Without signaling, a silver F 1 50 pulls out from a meter, forcing you to brake. You blast your horn, cursing the old guy in the truck. You shoot him the finger, and he sees you, braking too, so you think he might stop and confront you. , you think. You haven’t had a good fight in years, haven’t bloodied your fists or your face for that release. But no. The man shakes his head and keeps driving, turning left at the next light. Were you always this angry? Yes. But you thought it was just crack boiling in young blood. You never considered it might’ve been just you. When you stop at the next red light, you tap the wheel with both hands in a vexed rhythm. You look right at the Kanawha River, bloated from recent rains, overflowing its banks like a busted can of biscuits. A basketball floats by, moving faster than the traffic. This amuses you, and you grin through one corner of your mouth. The water’s kind of lovely: brown streaked with murky green and silver. Staring at it soothes you. The driver behind you honks three times, the third an extended bellow, forcing you to look back up at the light. It’s green, and now you’re the one holding everybody up. As you ease off the brake, the other car blasts its horn again. You wave the bird as you check the rearview to see a blue and silver Crown Vic, the type that belongs to a city cop. You see his oval head, red face, buzzed hair, as clearly as if he’s sitting in your back seat. “Shit,” you mumble. At any moment, you expect to see blue lights: those flashing, melancholy strobes. You wait for it, check the mirror, wait. Instead, the car pulls into the oncoming lane and cruises past you. You see the guy’s deep blue uniform, a patch on his shoulder you can’t make out as his elbow bends and his forearm rises. He extends a middle finger of his own before moving ahead, cutting into your lane and speeding away. When his lights come on, they’re not for you. You slow down, relieved, although your heart beats a 21
marching cadence in your chest. “That was close,” you say aloud. You’ve been through enough to appreciate how dangerous that situation could’ve become. Confrontations with police rarely go well for you. It was almost a catastrophe. Somehow, you’ve survived again.
You’ve had run ins with police. Twice, you’ve spent time in jail. This years and two cities ago, before you left Martinsburg for Morgantown to put all of I 68 and a whole wedge of Maryland between you and your past. Later you headed south to Charleston for a woman and a construction job, neither of which worked out. And you’ve been here since, most of this time spent sober and alone, baking bread, boiling slop, trying to stay out of trouble. You’re innocent now, of everything but anger, still you shiver whenever you see a cop. You tighten up. You fight the urge to run as if you’re holding a dirty crack stem in your back pocket, or someone’s blood on your socks. It’s a mindset you can’t work your way out of. You still think of cops as the enemy, despite being no one to them hereNnot even a red warning light on a computer screen. Also, of course, your mother’s dead, her ashes scattered to the wind six years ago. She’s often on your mind, though. God, how you’ve blamed her, and maybe you’re right. She dealt Oxys out of her apartment, then died on you at the women’s prison in Lakin, not from a shiv or vicious beating, but from a diabetic coma because she loved her soda pop too much, spending the commissary money you sent her on sugary drinks. It’s a cycle with you. You blame her, forgive her, blame yourself, then blame her more. She’s an old war wound, throbbing when the weather’s bad. At least you own up to your part. Not that you could’ve stopped her from dealing. “Mind your goddamned business,” she’d tell you. But you didn’t have to intervene when the cops finally came for herNnineteen of them, guns drawn, ready to put her down if she spit. She was caught, her life in the lawyers’ hands now. You could’ve kept your head down. You were cracked out and crazy in the living room when they took her. You heard the cops threaten. You heard your mama cussing, 22
“Motherfuckers! You goddamned sons of whores!” If you’d just done what she said and minded your business, you’d have kept a clean record. Instead, you ran outside where you saw blue lights staining her lined, sallow face while she cried and cursed on the ground. You leapt down the porch stairs, yelling, “You hurt her, I’ll fucking kill you,” right before two officers hit you with their Tasers and you dropped like a broken tree limb to the lawn. The Martinsburg prosecutor charged you with misdemeanor Obstruction and felony Terroristic Threats. The worse charge was later dropped. Still, you spent three months at Eastern Regional Jail, unable to make the fifty thousand dollar bond. When your public defender eventually worked out a plea deal, dropping your charges down to just the misdemeanor, you’d been locked up long enough that the judge sentenced you to time served. Three months. Not so long. You only smoked rock once on the inside.
You’re late, of course. The day manager says your name when you walk in, nothing else. He doesn’t scold you as expected. You think he’s a little afraid of you, though you’ve never said a vicious word to him. He’s a skinny guy, at least fifteen years your junior. He has hair the color of yours and eyes the same river mist gray. Add some muscles and scruff, he could be you at that age. Dresses better, though, in white button ups. He’s openly gay, and you wonder if you scare him because he thinks you’re a hick and maybe bigoted. But he doesn’t know youNthat you wouldn’t judge anybody for anything, not after all you’ve done in the days when filling your pipe was all that mattered. Do you ever attempt to rest his mind? No. You know that mystery can be a sort of power. Having power over your boss makes life easier. “Apron,” you say. He reaches into a plastic wrapped bundle fresh from the cleaner. Hands you one right off the top. “Vegetable beef today,” he says. You grunt your acknowledgment. Vegetable beef soup means yesterday’s leftovers stewed in a massive pot, stirred all morning to keep from settling. Not many spices added, other than a bit of cayenne 23
pepper. That’s something you learned in jail: no matter what you’re told on kitchen duty, always add cayenne pepper to the shitty food. “Opening soon for lunch,” he says. “Better get to it.” You grunt. A man of few words. You learned that in jail, too.
Your second time was after all the bottles of Pepsi and Coca Cola killed your mom. Or after she committed suicide by soda pop. She was still your mother, no matter what crazy shit she did. She suffered from her own drug problemNdifferent from yours, but the same in what she’d do to support it. She chased pills. She dealt pills. She loved pills. And you loved her. When she was forty and still getting in fistfights outside of local bars, you loved her. When she stupidly sold to snitches and cops until you both ended up in the clink, you loved her. So, when you found out she had the sugar, as she called it, you still sent her money, despite knowing she’d spend it on sweets, having traded one addiction for another. You mourned by relapsing for the first time in months, wandering blind through a six week bender. Most of that time is lost to you. You don’t recall the punched windows that scarred your fists, the bricks that scraped your face, the broken beer bottle you waved like a sword, threatening some old couple on the streets for no coherent reason. The couple testified that you didn’t ask for money, but they gave it to you anyway. Seventeen dollars. Enough to make the Aggravated Robbery charge against you stick, if the prosecutor and judge wanted it to. But you loved your mother, and her recent death brought you mercy. You spent a year in drug court to get the charge dismissed. You went to those godawful NA meetings, picked up trash on the side of thirty roads, and earned your walking papers, along with a stern warning not to fuck up in Martinsburg again.
Lunchtime comes, and you’re hungry. You can eat the soup and rolls for free, along with a discount on whatever the house special is, but you don’t want anything to do with that. You wish you’d never have to see vegetable beef soup again. It smells like sewage in your mind. You’d rather eat sewage, eat it with a fork. The rolls are okay. You’ll often sneak 24
one or two when no one’s looking. The warm scent of baking bread is what you imagine paradise smells like and, since this is the closest you’ll come to any kind of heaven, you breathe it in. But you need a meal with substance. On your lunchbreak, you cut out for a quick trip across the river to the nearest hot deli. A steak sub sounds like a winner, and you’re picturing it when you pull onto the parking lot. You’re not angry at the moment, and there’s a favorite song on the radio to which your stomach growls in rhythm. You’re so distracted you don’t notice the six silver cars and SUVs filling up one side of the lot. If you’d seen them, you’d have turned around, wouldn’t you? You haven’t seen that many police vehicles in a cluster since the time your mom got thrown to the ground and you were Tasered. That many cop cars should come with a trigger warning. Then again, that many a sort of trigger warning, but you’ve missed itNyour mind on the past, the song on the radio, your hunger, the brown bread scent of heaven. When the song ends you climb from your Chevy and enter the restaurant, stopping cold, paralyzed by the stuff of nightmares. Seven policemen are lined up in front of you, two or three others already seated nearby with their red trays of sandwiches and fries. From behind, you can’t tell them apart except for the color of stubble on their round, pink headsNlike racing stripes on minivans. There are a couple of dirty blonds and a ginger. The rest are capped in a menacing five o’clock shadow as if their necks are upside down. An army of clones. Seven cops. Seven of the enemy standing right in front of you, and you don’t know if it freaks you out more that the line’s so long or that one of those bull necked thugs might be the guy you traded middle fingers with in this morning’s rush hour traffic. Your instinct tells you to flee but your brain intervenes, more rational these days. Leaving now would be the most suspicious thing you could do, guaranteed to draw attention. So you step up behind the last in line and stand with your hands in your pockets, fumbling with keys and loose dollar bills. You’ve never been this close to a cop before without tickets, handcuffs, Tasers, or stomping involved. You haven’t studied their midnight blue uniforms that look like they’re made of heavy sandpaper. Can’t be comfortable. The neck of the guy in front of you sweats beads that seem to run upward, defying gravity. Looking along the line, you see it’s the same with all of these men. They must be miserable, you think, and 25
just like that, you pity them. Why not? They’re not the ones that threw your mama to the ground. you wonder. Leaning slightly right for a better view, you see the officer up front trying to foist a coupon on the tattooed teen behind the register. The kid has glassy eyes and an expression that resembles yours: anxious, uncertain, worried. He fumbles with the coupon, unable to get it to scan. He doesn’t seem to know what to do next. The coupon slips through his hands. He struggles with picking it up, finally pushes it in front of the laser. You hear the digital beep of the barcode being accepted. The cop ordersNyou don’t hear what. He receives his tray and slides down the counter. “Your drink,” the cashier says, already turning toward a soda machine which spews a stream of Dr. Pepper. He hands the cup over, then turns to the next cop in the queue. “What can I get cooking for you?” The next cop steps up, his right arm rising as if he’s drawing his weapon. You flinch before you see the small rectangle of white paper in his hand. “Jesus H. Christ…,” you mutter, hoping no one heard you. You’re on guard now, not out of fear so much as frustration. You glance down along the row of cops and see the same clipping in every hand. The cashierNwho looks prepubescent to you nowNhas begun his next battle with paper, barcode, laser. Finishing your thought under your breath, you add, “…on a motherfucking crutch.”
Your mother wasn’t a bad mother. A criminal, sure, and prone to her desires. But she treated you well enough, loved you, never screwed up Christmas, knew how to cook. And you weren’t a bad son. Lazy maybe, and a bit shiftless. You leeched off her, but you never stole from her. When those Martinsburg pigs put her on the ground, you tried to defend her. You suffered for her as much as she suffered for you. So, why do you feel guilty? Some things never seem to go away.
“Hey, you,” one of the cops says from off to your left. You make out the hulking blue shape in your peripheral. “Buddy. You in the apron.” You look down, embarrassed to realize you’re still wearing your freshly stained apron from work. “Hey, buddy,” the officer says. If you face him, you’re certain there’s a mean stare waiting in his squinted eyes. He’s judging you, studying your nervousness. You’re sure of it. He advances. You swivel to meet his gaze. It’s a slow turn, tense, like in a Clint Eastwood movie. It’s all in your head. These guys don’t know you. They can’t. Not unless… He’s two feet away from you now, looming like a drill sergeant. Does he recognize you? Is he the one you flipped off this morning? The one who sent you the bird in turn? It’s so hard to tell one of these men from another. The officer says, “We got an extra. You want it?” He offers you a rectangle of paper. “Hate to see it go to waste.” He claps you on the shoulder with one hand while waving the little coupon in the other. You hold out your hand timidly in a sort of automated motion. It’s as if you’ve been pulled over for drunken driving. Now you have to walk the line. Now you have to touch your nose. Now you have to count backward from a hundred. “Thanks,” you say, your voice a croak. “Sure thing, buddy. Two dollars off. Today only. Can’t beat that.” “Thanks,” you say again, and unable to find an angle of reproach, you repeat it once more. The cop pats your shoulder and turns away. You’re left holding your arm in the air as if just freed from his cuffs, unsure what to do with your release.
The last time you visited your mother at Lakin Correctional Center, she looked healthy, well, clean. Her hair had grayed but her skin appeared smoother, her expression lightened as if unburdened of the horrors she ingested over the years. She seemed happier, too, as though prison was 27
what she’d been missing all her life. You kept clean for a while, alsoNtook a job with a Martinsburg contractor, worked your ass off to send her money every month. Came home sunburned and sweaty every night. You earned, and she was thriving in her new environment. Sure, it wasn’t hard to figure out what she spent the money on: soda pop and contraband cigarettes. It didn’t matter. Not to you. The woman had her habits, but at least they made her happy. You wouldn’t rob her of that. Who’d have believed she’d survive years of opiates, tobacco and booze, only for sugar to hold the headsman’s ax? Looking back, you’re okay with it. Sometimes you raise a cup of cold pop, as if in toast to stronger spirits, or as if she might bless you for whatever taste of sweetness you can give.
The Last of the Season | Katherine Ann Davis
FOR NORTHENERS, SPRING IS not symbolic of birth but of thawNice melting to reveal what died in winter. This year time unfreezes itself early, lays us bare. Jake’s political signs, aggressors of the lot corner, now wind splintered and staked into nothing. Missy’s scarf, worn to build her driftwood fort, now mud soaked and mouse chewed. Tomato cages, rusted. Watering bucket, cracked. A roofless birdhouse. We are Northerners who cannot live as Northerners. Now the Arctic ice is melting, and spring comes too soon, after a chilled fog, as though it never left. In late February, we search our yard like prospectors after gold. Icy crusts trap water pockets and burst beneath our tiptoes. Missy stomps them for added effect. One puddle is deeper than she guessed. I take her indoors, find fresh socks in the dryer and slip her stockinged feet into empty bread bags, lace her boots, set her free again. In the kitchen, I boil water for hot chocolate, our last of the season. Three mugs slide to the tray’s edge; I need both hands for balance. The front door swings too wide and stays when I kick it open. I leave itNthe cat escaped months ago. Missy blows into her cup, spills down her front. Jake eyes her, but I won’t get a towel. She’s wearing a campaign T shirt someone sent himNa thank you for his donated money and time. The rest of his thank yous I’ve boxed up for a church clothing drive. We have learned not to fight out loud. “Just like Christmas,” Jake says. He picks up scraps from balloons and bottle rockets and laughs. “Guess nothing’s a total loss.” I decide this is what I’ll remember. Our divorce will be finalized in May. Ignoring the open door, he returns with a shovel from the garage. Missy squats under a pine tree, where the snow hasn’t melted. “I’ll make marshmallows for us,” she says. She scoops up a fistful of snow and squeezes. “Will birds eat the marshmallows?” “Forget about marshmallows,” says Jake, “there’s 29
nothing there.” He pries open her fist with a finger, points at the water in her palm. “See?” I wait for him to tell her snow isn’t marshmallows, that marshmallows are sugar and vanilla and gelatin, and that water itself isn’t nothing, but he doesn’t. Missy tries again with the same result. And again. I wonder: The water trickles down her wrist and forearm, drips onto the snow and transforms it into tiny crystals. Red faced, she puffs her cheeks and seizes another fistful. Across the yard, Jake whistles. He shovels dead leaves and roots, his daughter’s ruined scarf, the fragments of signs.
Of the Body
| Paige Thomas
WHEN I WAS FOUR or five or six years old, my mother cut me. The day was sunny, a gardening day. I wore flared fabric capris and cotton underwear. My mother had dirt on her hands. My hair tangled and re tangled in a jungle of grayish brown vines because the potting soil my mother bought from Home Depot stung the pads of my fingers and its dark, earthy remains seeped into the lines of my fingerprints. I feared the shadow of dirt would last forever. I did not fear my mother. She pulled me into her embrace, tucking her scissors into the back pocket of her jeans. I squirmed at the strange texture of her working hands, of their dry and foreign grip on my arms, then, of the searing pain screaming down my leg as my mother placed me on her hip. Face up, forgotten, the scissors embedded in my flesh. My capris were crumpled on the ground in a pile with my underwear. My clothes and I bore a similar half inch gash marred with red. Blood trickled down the inside of my thigh. My ass pointed towards the sun, bare. It was poked and prodded for my motherâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s mistake. Uncanny anxiety fizzled in my four or five or six year old head over the dirty marks my motherâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s hands were leaving on my skin. My eyelashes clumped togetherNwetNwith each hiccup and sob as the examination team grew. The ranks filled with siblings, a father, a smart next door neighbor. They gave second opinions, thirds. My skin itched from too many eyes at once. My father chuckled. identified the smart next door neighbor. Murmured agreement. A declarative and then they all laughed. I tried to, but my face was too tight. The crowd dissipated. The blood running down my leg felt like warm piss. You have been told
. And you are fit. You work out. You eat, 32
decently. You embody average genetics. . You have been assessed as so by old men, by classmates, by your father. It is innocent until it is not. A compliment from a man wraps as tight around you as the denim of your jeans around your thighs, hugging the curve of your ass. , he says, and he sits in the row behind you. He’s a couple decades your senior, and he comments as you unpack your bag for lecture. You twist towards him to smile before it registers. slams you fast into your chair. Turns your spine to steel. Anchors your eyes to the front of the room. is now today’s lecture. Subcategories include: last month’s ass grab, the smack from the boy who thought you liked it (this one includes three bullet points, one for the shock and the sting, another for the red handprint unwelcome on your skin, third is for the number of days the burst capillaries purpled in the shape of his fingers). You no longer wear cotton underwear. Lacey and pretty pairs better with what you like, but you keep it secret. They would say your taste pairs perfectly with . If you asked. You never ask. What? It’s a compliment.
My fingers were numb before I even saw the ice of the neighborhood duck pond, before I even laced up my secondhand hockey skates, before I even stepped out of my father’s truck. Numb was a necessity. My older sister crashed around on her matching skates. I envied her recklessness, how she shoved the spiked tip of her skates into the unsmooth ice and jerked to a proper hockey stop. I only skated straight into the grass, and its solid embrace. Family friends joined us. Our cars parked under the two pine trees off Gekeler Street. My friend Sage was a week younger than me, but more daring. I followed her up the kidney shaped snake of the duck pond. The weeping willow stretched over our fun and thinned the ice. Everyone knew the ice was less thick underneath its branches, less refined, less safe. People would throw rocks at this end of the pond to see who could break the ice first. Sage raced under the tree and back out. White figure skates flew past in disregard and victory. I pushed my own skates harder into the ice, faster. A flash of orange before my moving body, a goldfish frozen in place for winter. I smiled. Tripped. Smashed into the cold ice. I opened my 33
eyes to a close up of color. I had hit the ice directly above the goldfish, my lips numb from impact. I balanced again on my blades. Ice creaked as I slid up to my father. Night stole the last blue of dusk as he looked at my injuries. His lack of concern was contagious. Just a little blood, just a little loss of feeling. No daylight, one more hour of skating. Then goodbyes to friends and sitting beneath the truck’s backseat light. I greeted my father with a split upper lip pulled taut into a smile. We drove home, then to the hospital, and then home again. Five stiches. A scar in exchange for one more hour on the ice, kissing fish. There are stolen kisses where you are not the thief. They are missing, missed, not given freely in a dark room. The scar on your lip is like having a foreign accent. A cool difference, an acceptable one. One boy mentions how he likes that he can feel it when you kiss. You never asked his opinion. At Thanksgiving dinner, your father asks about your sex life and you lie. You blush. You want to die. In the bathroom, you bite on the scar tissue his negligence exacerbated. One hour on ice. One hour to leave a mark. One hour alone with a boy in his car. It is high school and he drives you home as a favor. The balance is uneven, the owing must be set right. A favor for a favor. He turns off his car at the park by your house, down the street from the duck pond. You’re into it, but not like he is. You’re afraid your neighbors will see. Afraid to look yourself in the mirror. When you do, your lips are swollen with an extra tint of pink. The scar has a heartbeat, a presence. You rub chapstick over it and act like you changed the color of your mouth on purpose. You change your clothes and smile at your mother, but your hands are ice. It is the mantra repeated to you by each boy close enough to your skin. , they say. Explain that your hands get cold when you’re nervous. Know that your hands get cold when you’re scared. Other times, your scar is the record keeper of who got closest.
My little sister has extra inside her body. It can be found in each of her cells’ nuclei, an extra chromosome. I imagine the additional genetic material pushing against the membraneNunwelcome and overbearing. 34
Her muscle tone is too low for her body. Her tongue too big for her mouth. If she sticks it out completely, it curls around the bottom of her chin. I am her big sister. I am supposed to listen and understand. I am supposed to protect. Instead, I watched cartoons in her favorite spot. Her spot was my spot until she decided it was hers. It was the left edge of the couch. It wasn’t even comfortable, but it was my spot, her spot. She found me, remote in hand, and planted her own body on my feet. I never looked away from the screen as she yelled and pulled and pleaded. She was loud, and she was angry that I was in her spot, that I was in my spot, that she was not in my spot. She gripped my knees in her tiny palms and lunged toward my stomach to latch onto my flesh with her teeth. I dropped the remote. I was too afraid to push her away, too afraid she would take a chunk of my stomach with her if I did, but she let go when I screamed. My panic left us gridlocked, and we stare at each other. My eyes flicked to her mouth to check if her teeth were stained red. It was closed, but I opened mine as blood wet my t shirt, sticking it to my stomach. It looked like a baby shark had bitten me. Two half circles, oozing and purpled, colored the previously un textured skin a couple inches below my belly button. Her apology seeped with satisfaction for she was the winner, she was finally understood. I apologized too, for sitting in her spot, no longer my spot, no longer wanted. Later, I bragged about the scar she left. Later, it faded completely. Your little sister growls at the grocery clerk’s misunderstanding, at his inability to notice how she never wanted to talk to him, never wanted to be here. He smiles and tries again. She buries her face into your shirt; little fists pulling at the fabric. Her cry hitching in the back of her throat. You try to mediate her sudden anger with his unwelcome intrusion. His face scrunches in concern, but he is stuck on repeat. You try to walk with your little sister clinging to your stomach and you stumble forward on her toes. He watches you trip. His eyes lock on the bounce of your breasts, to a space above your shoulder, to meet yours, to the customers piling up behind you then back to your breasts. He tries to keep the line of conversation open about your weekend plans as if there is a singular you. As long as he does not look at her she will not exist, but you know that does not work. You tread forward, stomach burning, sides hurting from your sister’s grip. Your shirt rides up and your skin is on display. He 35
consumes the part of you now exposed. You take your receipt. Crumple it up. Unlatch your sister. Pull her towards the parking lot. As youâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;re leaving, a man will half smile and half frown at her tears and at your hand tugging her along. Your stomach tenses, your patience curdles to acid. You return his gaze without flinching. You dare him to ask to open your car door for you. To tell you the pleasure is his. To fixate on the short hem of your shirt as your little sister screams in the passenger seat.
A Rural Fall: 7 Days
| Chila Woychik
1 . TWO DAYS LEEWAY, I tell those staying under my roof. Give me two days to wash and dry clothes. I don’t scrub underwear on a rock at the river, but neither do I have a dryer. In New Zealand, I hear they tend to hang everything, including people, until 1 957. 2. If your vehicle isn’t covered in dust nine tenths of the year, you don’t live rurally. Streams run through every country swale. See our tractors, tiny cemeteries, and quarries that mine the earth’s mantle. Colorful water towers depict the name of small towns in large letters. Giant snowblades sit idle, waiting for winter. Sheep are smaller and ignore you when you pass by, unlike cattle which will stop and stare. Be glad for the rickety wooden posts and sagging wire strands between you and them. 3. These rural burgs have favored trading posts, and this one’s mine, so I grab a cart and begin. First, a box of tissues. An employee working nearby says, I buy those when they’re four for five dollars, and they last me a whole year. Nice, I reply, and grab another box. But when I’m at home, she continues, Precious knocks the box over and it startles me. She doesn’t mean it, of course, but you know how they are. They only want to be loved. I can only assume she’s referring to a cat at this point, but she never specifically says so. She woke me early this morning, she says, but I was awake until two anyway because I was thinking of my aunt’s wake. She was a special aunt. I see, I say, and wrinkle my brow and scrunch my face in an attempt at visual empathy. Sometimes I carry her down the stairs and she bites me on the nose, she goes onNand I envision her carrying her now dead aunt down the stairs while the aunt nibbles her noseNbut she doesn’t bite hard. You know how they are. Just a little, showing she loves me. I want to laugh but contain myself. Yes, she says, I buy these when they’re four for five dollars. It’s a good deal. I’ve been pushing my cart slowly forward and now I nod, say a few kind words, move along as she 37
turns away. 4. Topography consumes this land, an endless loop of repeating script: hills, prairie, stream, fields, forest, hills, prairie, river, fields, forest. Ground washes up to the outlandish sunset, and sandstone cliffs peck at the northeastern highways. I’ve rappelled rocks like these, held panic at the slip end of a carabiner. Black bears roam the woods and hills further north, and deer stalk the harvested fields. Hunters will find the deer. Bear or coyote will find the deer. A fawn’s eyes blink softly, lashes long and full. All will be consumed. Somewhere, fall is now. 5. My gentleman farmer accompanies me to the store, his gait unsteady and slow. He stops to rest because he says he’s dizzy, yet physicians are a satanic bunch, slyly seeking new avenues to kill him. He rests while I shop, load the car, drive home, unload. He’d be content with me cooking meals, cleaning house, giving him a roll in the hay. But no, I tell him, I’m more than that, more than chef and maid and squeeze box in the hopeless task of growing old. 6. A life builds incrementally. A river snakes to the shape of its own hewn banks, its unpredictable currents. The days grow shorter, the years, abrupt. The core is where we first feel the unraveling. A knowledge of change about to happen. We run scarecrows in the field, string electric fence around the perimeter. It’s the old ram that dies suddenly, the younger, new one ramming its side until it stumbles down one final time. It’s the farm son who holds its head in his lap as it takes its final breath. It’s we who cry and dig the grave with a backhoe one late autumn day. 7. Mother taught me to love a mystery, Father, each hour. There’s an ache in a birthing sunrise, a weary sunset, my farmer’s love. Corn can’t grow this sweet, but rural knows its limits. It’s not City or Modern or Teeming. Instead, we revel in the modest and honest and curt, and like it or not, the regret.
The Muse | B.D. Feil PERSPECTIVE WILL NOT HELP help the tiny woman coming toward him. She will never grow taller. Her head will never float above the horizon. She will never look down, let alone level, while conversing. She is stuck as she is stuck, immune from relativity. She is the exception to perspective. Still. He sticks out his thumb and closes one eye. He sights along his arm. He considers. Perhaps this is not the true purpose of the thumb. Perhaps this gesture, this fat digit, less serves perspective and more line, parallelism. Perhaps. What to make of this small woman, this squat woman, as she waddles up the long drive, low to the ground? He watches. Even at this distance, he can tell her eyes are fixed on him. Beyond all compositional matters, her eyes possess a mission. Her focus is him, and she means to proselytize. Yet. He is no believer. He wants to shout this out, down the long drive, before she comes any closer. If she is, indeed, coming closer. It is difficult to tell. She grows no larger. So short. So squat. Toad like. So much a creature of the ground. But he feels he must warn her before she wastes his time. And hers. However. Good manners stay this. He believes in good manners. This is what he believes in. Good manners are the hope of the world. It is she who yells first, to him, from a distance. “Goddamit, you just couldn’t wait, could you?!” She holds two plastic bags, one in each hand, the kind that might easily rip while being carried two long miles. Along a dusty road. Back home. After her husband has left her. Absent mindedly at the village grocery. Now he recalls. She stops short of the porch steps and looks up at him seated in front of his easel. “Perhaps you thought I needed the exercise, that I would welcome it, that I would arrive back here with a stupid smile, thanks even, on my lips?” He puts his thumb up beside her again. No bigger. He 40
turns his head to the canvas. Still blank. The tiny woman seethes at the foot of the steps. The perspective is here. The perspective is now. There is no perspective. He looks vaguely out from the porch, up the long drive, searches for the often elusive line of the horizon. “I knew as I pulled away that something was not quite right, something off, something missing. It turns out it was you.” “Explain to me again why I married you all those too many years ago?” “I felt myself pulled back here. That something was about to begin. That I had to be here for it.” “And this is supposed to serve for an apology?” “No. An explanation. Here. The apology. I’m sorry.” “Can you at least take these?” She holds up the bags, and he gathers them in his left hand as he stands, his right fist holding tight his brush. “Yes. Sorry. Inspiration got the better of me. It called.” “And you answered.” “Guilty.” She climbs the three steps and pauses at the top, turning her head with effect to look at the easel. “Your canvas is blank. Why is your canvas always blank?” A tender spot, and she has hit it. “In all these years, your canvas always seems blank.” He would respond, contradict, but he knows she has the advantage. It is her way to continue, on and on if necessary, to wind down of her own momentum. And her momentum is always tilted forward, weighted and low to the ground by that advantage she always carries. “And yet,” she continues, “we know that is not the case. Witness the stacks and stacks of canvases we possess, that inundate us, under which we struggle for air.” He waits. Nothing more. Her gaze lingers on the easel. He steps to the screen door, then steps back as he holds it open. “Here Allow me. Again, sorry about the walk. Let me fix you some tea.” She puts her head down and moves toward the door but pauses on the threshold to look back at the easel. For effect. It seems always to be for effect that she moves, speaks, gazes. Effect fuels all her gestures. An affectation of effect. “Stacks upon stacks,” she murmurs. A vocal gesture, subdued, but effective. 41
Yet. She seems to stop short. Does she temper her words? Reserve the fatal blow? She disappears inside. He recognizes that she contradicts herself. This observation, this phrase, this verbal gesture, is used to make a point, to save a point, to maintain advantage. Perhaps he is sensitive. Granted, there is a distinct lack of success on his side. This he allows. He does not place his canvases. He does not make sales. This allowance could also be called perspective. Perspective. Or an affectation of perspective. He stretches out his arm toward the easel, pops up his thumb. “You said something about tea.” She calls from somewhere inside. “Or was that promise hollow?” The hallway back to the kitchen cuts between the staircase rising sharply to the right and a high wall on the left with many old photographs, all black and white or monochrome. No paintings. Most of the photographsNall of the photographsNare of her ancestors, most former residents of this very house. Unsmiling gray figures that seem more to illustrate the history of photographyNdaguerreotype, tintype, celluloid, Brownie, Instamatic, PolaroidNthan the warm bonds of family. They stand shoulder to shoulder across frames, across generations. Short, squat, toad likeNall versions of herNstaring out under heavy lids, challenging the viewer. It is as if they have all crowded into the foreground to conserve space. To wait for the real subjects to fill in behind and above them. Perspective. He curls his thumb tighter around his brush. In the kitchen he sets the bags down on the counter and puts on the tea kettle. He continues on into the backroom to deposit his brush in a jar with other brushes, shoulder to shoulder. It is to this backroom he retreats in cold and inclement weather. He knows it as his studio. She, however, is emphatic in calling it a “mudroom,” with spitted enunciation. “The. Mud. Room.” It has always been so with her. It will always be so. It is an old farmhouse at the end of a long gravel drive on the edge of a town at the farthest reach of the suburbs. An old farmhouse with many rooms, some ceilings high, some low, depending which ancestor added it and when, but all meticulously maintained by subsequent descendants. Which leads, he supposes, to himNnot squat and toad like, close to the ground, but tall and broad, a veritable lumbering giant daily passing the photographs on the high wall. It is he, now, who 42
maintains the farmhouse when he isn’t trying to paint. He who fashions replacements for broken bits, restores worn out sections, feathers the new into the old. There are no longer tilled fields behind the house, no longer crops. The maintenance of woodwork and plaster, paint and varnish, is enough for any one pair of hands. The house has a long porch. This was his addition to her ancestral home. His signature when he first came here, joined, as it were, to her in . . . something. If not holy or blissful, then ongoing. A long porch, it curls around the sides, the floor painted a thick enamel gray, no railings, a rounded cupola at one corner where in fine weather he sets up his easel to paint . The tea kettle whistles. “Earl Grey.” she says. “Strong. Murky.” “Are you certain?” “You fear over stimulation. I don’t. Bring it on. I hate weeks off. So called vacations. Again, we should have travelled.” “I didn’t feel comfortable leaving my work.” She mutters. “Your work.” Again, he senses a stopping short, a stalling on the edge of some unchartered territory. Rumored and wild and violent. A ceasing of her own formidable momentum, a turning back to another direction, another wind. “You could have easily brought your travel easel. Your kit. Any materials required or not required. It might have helped. Freed you. Stimulated you, even.” “Possibly.” “Probably. I might as well have gone into work.” He sets her mug of Earl Grey on the kitchen table in front of her. It steams up and over her face. She seems to relish it, closes her eyes like a child. Always she seems like a child. He watches her from across the table, her eyes closed as if in a trance. Her words from earlier echo in his head. He feels guilty. Now, after forgetting her earlier at the village market, her trek home with the grocery bags. He fights the plunge into regretNold, ongoing, maintained carefully and painstakingly. Regrets fully breathing. “You work too much,” he says. “I wish. . .” She opens her eyes and stares at him through the steam. “You are going to start again. I can tell. You are heading in that direction. I caution you now to stop.” Her job is mysterious. Her work more so. She is a cog but a 43
vital cog, quite necessary, impossible to be replaced, refurbished, restored. The cog of cogs. He is familiar with the building she commutes to downtown, her employer, the brand name, that huge multinational being. Beyond this, he has never fully grasped it, her work. An office, private. A secretary, called “admin.” Phone calls. Intercoms. Ceaseless meetings. Issuances of instructions, directions, commands. Deployments of peoples, vehicles, fleets, armies. She wields no little power. Many are under her, waiting for her voice, pleading for her time. Minions. Underlings. Hench people. And she appears to relish it all. In her way. Her severe, unsmiling way. Which is her joy. And the joy of all the gray, unsmiling faces mounted on the high wall facing the stairs. He turns his own mug of tea around, this way then that. “And yet. It is difficult to dismiss, to simply drop these questions. These question of the artist. The muse. Of livelihood.” “Stop it. If your destination is where I think it is, stop right now. I enjoy my work. I welcome it. I find meaning there. Besides, I am glad to be away. From here. The gestures. The tilted head. Your thumbs. Your gaze hours on end. Stares. Stares. Stares. Your daubs and scratchings. Your scrapings and do overs. Your moans and sighs. It inspires me. To thrust forth. To dive into the greater world. You inspire me.” He fiddles further with his tea mugNthe handle a combination lock with no solution. “This is not my meaning. You know it’s not. You turn it around.” She turns it around. It is what she does. He recognizes this. She turns it around. “You inspire me,” she says. “Do you understand?” Her words. He feels the urge to jump up and rush into his studio. The backroom. The mudroom. The. Mud. Room. To flick through his stacks of canvases. To check if there is, in fact, paint on them. To make certain they are not, after all, blank. Blank. Such is the power of her suggestion, of her words. She mutters into her tea, “Oh, I know, I know.” Then, in a sudden gesture, she lifts the steaming mug to her mouth and gulps it, all, in several great swallows and without pause. She is immune from scalding. It is otherworldly, but it has always been the case. She sets the mug down with a thump. Wipes her mouth on the back of her hand. “I realize what you mean. Always I realize. Your concern. Your ongoing worry. Your male ego. Thin. Brittle. Me, breadwinner. You, struggling. With your . . . work.” 44
Again, she stops. Goes no further. Turns from that field and retreats It is here, he supposes, that love rests. He says nothing in response, stares into his own mug, tries further combinations with the handle. Nothing opens. She continues. “Now your nose is askew, out of joint. I suppose this would be the place to insert a sweet cooing. A protestation of unconditional love, for a better phrase.” “For better or worse.” “Please. Don’t remind me.” He lifts his mug, takes a sip, sets it back down. Is his trouble that he seeks power over no one, or is it that he admits it? She seems to relish her contact with people, albeit from a lofty advantage. He has always fled from the tribes. Always looked inward. He has had only her all these many years. It is a mystery, all of it, and to think too deeply is to cross one’s eyes and step over into madness. He stares deeper into the still pool of his tea, its round frame. Sees her walking toward him up a long road, squat and toad like, yes, but a Venus, nude and carrying shells, scavenged things, invaluables and riches, low to the ground. The time is now. It is upon him. He straightens and flashes his thumb at the mug. “Oh, no,” she says. “I need to do some sketches.” She frowns. Her face scrunches, settling further, flattening, reptilian. He continues, excited, “You, of course. Charcoals. Please. With haste.” “Must I disrobe again?” “If you’d be so kind. But not on the porch this time. I fear last time we shocked the rural mail delivery.” “Mr. Swenson?” “The same. Now taken early retirement.” “He delivered to my grandmother.” “Couldn’t be helped. No, we’ll limit ourselves to the studio.” “The. Mud. Room.” He stands. “As you wish.” She stands and there in the kitchen begins to take off her clothes, not with any art but in a sort of spite. “How many studies are you going to require of me?” 45
Without her clothes she appears to shrink further, become less humanNmore of the earth, of her surroundings, low in center and balance, strong and organic. How to explain? She is Her. She waddles to the studio. He hands her the two bags and she takes her place on the dais. He looks around him and spies two ancient croquet ballsNno doubt from some unsmiling summer day during which her ancestors destroyed each other between the wickets. He drops one ball in each bag, to accentuate their weight, their burden, their relation to the ground, her own squatness. She glowers at him. She seethes. â&#x20AC;&#x153;When is enough, enough? What is the use? What is the use of any of this?â&#x20AC;? Just hypotheticals. Familiar arguments, all. And yet. He picks up his charcoal to begin. Which is everything.
| C.C. Russell
YOU GET CAUGHT BECAUSE you have to write it all down. You get caught because of small discrepancies. When you aren’t home when you said that you would be. You get caught in the simplest of ways. Because you are a walking cliché. Because of the text messages. When your phone keeps coming alive in the middle of the night. You get caught when you kiss him in the backroom where you work. Because you are smiling, touching your fingers to your lips. Because of your swagger. Because you telegraph it. You get caught when the skirt you come home in is different from the one that you left in. You get caught sitting in your car in the driveway. You get caught when trying to compose yourself in the hallway. You get caught because there are photos. Because there are messages undeleted. Because signs were left along the way. You get caught because your fingerprints are all over this. You get caught because you smell like him. Because you forgot to make the bed. You get caught when you aren’t there. You get caught because you want to. You get caught. And it is this, the most satisfying bit of the whole affair.
While at the Park
| Moriah Hampton
ON SATURDAYS, THEY GO to the parkNjust the three of them, Mom, Brother, and Sis. They arrive with a bucketful of toys and collect them together before they leave. They never lose anything at the parkNgathering even Sis’s heart shaped sunglasses that she takes off when hard to see. They never rush back to their still, curb side home. The park is where they want to be. Today Dad will join them at the park. This is what he promised last week, half asleep on the couch before they drove away. Dad never goes with them to the park. After staying out all night, he sleeps for much of the day. But today he is driving them to the park. The park is not a place where people like Dad go to congregate. It is a place where families goNand today they are like a family because Dad is with them, steering the Taurus the entire way. There they go, coasting through the busy streets. Beside Dad, Mom sits looking out the window. She is the only woman for him, the grand prize. She makes him feel like a winner all the time. She has smiled at this before. Dad loves her smile. He coaxes one from her every time he returns home after being away too long. Except for once, when she wasn’t in the mood then played along anyway. Sometimes she asks if she was born into this world just to pretend. But today is not a day for entertaining questions such as these. No, today is a day to enjoy because Dad, whose greatness flashes green periodically, is coming along to the park for once. They ride, silent, comforted because Dad is at the wheel. Dad, the man who has never known a losing streak he couldn’t turn into a win. Dad, the man born with a good luck charm in the palm of his hand. Everyone knows what a special man Dad is. They feel special because he is one of them. Dad pauses at the stop light turning green, stepping on the gas oh so gradually. When have they been in better hands? They 50
watch and wait. At any moment Dad could do something extraordinary and leave them with a memory they will summon to savor with “remember the time?” This is how they always begin when talking about their May holiday, so hot, no one wanted to go outside and then in came Dad, wearing a Santa hat. “Merry Christmas, Happy Easter. It’s St. Valentine’s Day,” he bellowed as Brother and Sis raced towards him shouting “Dad, Dad.” In no time, Mom’s frown turned upside down as she saw Dad could barely hold all those shiny gifts. Brother and Sister gathered around as he raised them higher and higher. “These, you want these?” he challenged, and they jumped up and up, trying to grab them. Moments later, the kids sat on the carpet ripping off paper while Dad nestled with Mom on the couch. Suddenly, he turned and gave her a wet kiss on the mouth. At any moment, Dad might outdo himself again. Meanwhile, Dad’s grin widens to hide his grinding teeth. He zigzags through traffic, hunkered over the wheel. One thought battering his brain: What the fuck am I going to do? Last night, Dad sunk bills he didn’t have on the Dolphins. The tip he got from Skinny not such a great tip after all. This time he really needed the win. Like no joke. In fact, he thought there was no way he’d lose, he needed it so bad. And when he did, he thought there was no way he ate up all his credit. He felt sure his wallet hid something, an old Abe Lincoln at the very least, only to find it turned inside out empty once underneath the yellow streetlight. Dad straightens up in his seat. He sizes up his family. They have no idea how much trouble he’s in. Before, when the chips were down, he could see a way out. He could borrow, pawn, or steal. He could lie, plead, or disappear. But now, he can see no farther than the red sports car two feet ahead of him. Sis begins to sing the theme from , her favorite show. Dad grips the wheel. He clears his head with a shake. He’s been down before, but not for long. Dad’s a fighter, a winner. Dad’s got what it takes. Sis begins singing the theme again, da la de da. She sings as though in a chorus with all the characters from the show. Dad hears Sis’s soft, sweet voice. He doesn’t recognize the song, but he’s the one who bought her the pink jacket she is wearing. He’s the one who bought Lil Bit the perfect gift. 51
It caught his eye the moment he walked into the girls’ section of the local K Mart. Glancing around, he decided it was just what he wanted. The pink jacket, with its silky fabric, looked like something she would like, or should like. He couldn’t say which. When Sis pulled the jacket from the plastic bag, she neither smiled nor frowned. She held it up to the light, watching the pink sheen appear then disappear. “Thank you,” she said and slipped it over her nightgown. This is where the story ends for Dad. But later that night, Sis slept in her new jacketNhas worn it every day since. Today, she doesn’t seem bothered by the smudges on the fabric or the grime along the collar and cuffs. To her, the jacket is as brand new as when she first put it on, months ago. Dad glances at Sis again in her pink jacket. The perfect gift makes everything all right, he thinks. Daughter’s fine. Dad is not like other men. He will stare down any solution if it gets him what he wants in the end. You may not like Dad, but that’s okay with him. His family always ends up liking him again. Sis looks warm in her jacket zipped all the way up to her chin. She is Daughter and he is Father. These two words they will always call each other. “Lil Bit looks cute today,” he says. Mom cocks her brow, and Brother leans forward. A million miles together they have yet to travel. Mom turns towards Dad and replies, tartly, “She’s small. She always looks cute.” “Yeah,” Brother grunts, softening as he leans towards Sis. “If she shrinks any smaller, she’ll disappear.” Sis giggles, snug in her seat. Dad throws his shoulders back and gulps a few breaths. He knows he’s been distracted and wants to make up for it. He starts to whistle, changing course to the other park, across town. Mom stirs and he looks at her, bright eyed as if to say “Aren’t we having a good time?” She pauses, but before long starts humming along. Sis, too, begins clapping her hands, and even Brother joins in, thumping his basketball. The sounds become song, carrying Mom back to the first apartment she shared with Dad. Dad is turning her in the kitchen underneath the hanging brass light. She laughs, pulling away to put on some music, but he locks her in his arms, saying “We don’t need any.” He won’t let her go. 52
She rests her head on his shoulder and never thinks, as she has done since, of when he will leave that night or how long he will stay away. She sees only light, fractured, floating around the room. The sounds have stopped, and Mom sits staring through the windshield at a street she doesn’t recognize. She looks quizzically at Dad, then back at the strange street. She demands to know, “Where are we going?” “To the park,” he says, thick skulled. “This isn’t the way to the park.” Thinking fast, Dad sets out to explain. “Not the rinky dink park. Fairview.” Glancing back as the kids, he whispers, “I wanted it to be a surprise.” The kids perk up, sensing something is in the works. Leave it to Dad to think up something wonderful once again. Mom draws upon the faith she stores in endless supply. He is the father of her two children, the man she calls husband, and today he is driving them to the park. All of them. One, two, three, four. It is a new day. Mom turns to see what she can of Brother and Sis while leaning on the arm rest. “Your father is taking us someplace new, someplace special,” she tells them. Dad clears his throat. “We’re going to another park,” he says. “A much better park.” Sis gasps as Mom looks at her wide eyed. Brother’s eyes narrow. “What’s wrong with the park near our house?” he snaps. “It’s too small,” Dad replies, ending the conversation flat. Dad pulls into the last empty space and parks the car. The family sits still, hearing muffled screams and cries from the playground, but they stay put as if content to have come just this far. At last, Dad exclaims, “What are we waiting for?” and swings open the car door. It’s not far to the playground. Mom, Brother, and Sis walk side by side, pointing out the jungle gym and merry go round, the sand box and swings, all in deep shades of red, blue and green. They smile wildly at one another. Dad strolls slightly apart, wearing his shades. He wants some time alone. “Go ahead,” he says. “Have fun,” and with the back of his hand, he shoos them along. Mom looks straight ahead. She’s used to Dad and the way he keeps his distance. Dad knows what he’s after, a man who’s trying hard to fit in but clearly doesn’t belong. At least that’s what he thinks he’s after. “Those guys aren’t men,” CJ once said. “They got lost in childhood and grew into something else.” Dad scans the area, passing over mothers 53
hovering near their children, a family lunching at a picnic table, a dad playing ball with his son. As he surveys the scene, he pauses at the sight of an older man. Seconds later he glances back, looking at the man seated directly on a bench, alone. He widens his vision and notices the man has placed himself in front of the swing set, in direct view of the children swinging up and down. Dad heads towards the man on the bench. He strolls along the outer edge, congratulating himself. No one can pull the wool over his eyes. Dad’s been around the block so many times he knows the way blind. “Nice day,” he says, sitting at an easy distance. The man says nothing. “Perfect temperature,” Dad continues, as though believing his disguise. The man takes stock of Dad with a glance. He clutches his worn sports coat towards his chest. “It was warmer half an hour ago when the sun was overheard,” the man says. “Oh,” Dad says, feigning interest. “Yes, I sit here to catch the mid day sun,” the man declares. Dad rests his eyes on him, well focused, hiding his thoughts, and smiles warmly. He understands. They sit side by side watching the children swing. Dad waits for some final sign that he’s the funny sort. One step at a time, he tells himself, banishing the end game from his thoughts. He’s always done whatever it takes to get by. This is no different. The man stiffens when a little girl in a denim dress rises up and out to meet them. Dad senses his excitement. What are the odds, Dad thinks, convinced now that his plan is the right one because of how easy things seem, I found a Chester on the first try. Dad watches the little girl swing up in her short denim dress and murmurs in appreciation as she swoops low. The man looks at Dad out of the corner of his eye, whimpers as the girl swings high once more. “We have the same taste,” Dad says, matter of factly. The man nods slightly and reaches into his coat pocket for a pack of cigarettes. Mom, Brother and Sis have chosen a spot next to the sandbox. Mom sits on a blanket beside Tommy the Turtle as Sis digs a hole in the sand. Brother stands rooted nearby, gazing at Dad talking to 54
a man on a bench. A rock in the pit of his stomach grows heavier the longer he stares. He recalls Dad talking to Uncle Don about a quick way to make a buck and swears he sees the same expression on his face now: the one that says, “I wouldn’t lie to you.” He hears Mom say, “Go on. Go play.” He takes a step away, but some time passes before he feels his foot land on the ground. Mom stretches her legs out on the blanket. She leaves no room for Dad today. He could be back in a minute or gone for hours. Her predictions always prove her wrong anyway. Lately, she almost wants him to leave, finds she likes it better than when he staysNit’s easier to make believe from a distance. Up close, she sometimes admits her life with Dad is not so great. Sis is talking to her. She hears her soft voice before she can make out the words. “If Tommy was here, he’d want to dig in the sand. Mommy, let Tommy come over here and dig a hole.” Mom grasps Tommy but can’t get up. She’s grown tired and wishes to stay on the blanket. Here, she can rest and pretend for just a little longer. She can tell herself that one day Dad will turn back into the man of her dreams. Soon Sis begins to tear up, but before she cries, Mom is there handing Daughter her favorite toy. The man flicks his half smoked cigarette into the dirt. He stares at the girl. Dad props his elbow on the bench and leans close. “Why look when you can touch?” he asks. The man flinches. “See that angel in the sandbox wearing the pink jacket,” Dad continues. The man says nothing. He looks straight ahead. “She’s yours for twenty minutes.” Dad proceeds to talk price and location as the man stiffens. A finger could send him over the edge. Dad nods in the direction of the parking lot, but before he can suggest further arrangements, the man blurts out, “When? Where? Now?” Dad stands in the middle of his family as they flutter and flap, welcoming him back from wherever he’s gone. They love Dad more than anyone else. Dad is the best, most wonderful, World’s Greatest Dad. Dad laughs heartily, dodging their flying arms, saying, “Hey, what’s all the fuss? I wasn’t gone that long.” Dad is looking at Sis. Brother sees Dad looking at Sis with eyes that resemble handsNhands tightening into a grip. Brother doesn’t like what he sees and wants Dad to know it. Brother’s a man too and is ready to show him. He charges, believing he can take the old man down. 55
But Dad doesn’t budge. He hoots, “So you want to wrestle?” Brother rams him again as Mother and Sis become spectators, standing on the sidelines. Before Brother can step back, Dad grabs hold of his shoulder and squeezes until he can’t move. Brother knows he’s lost and starts to cough, but Dad doesn’t let go. He squeezes tighter, whispering, “Nice try little guy” and shoves him away. To everyone else, it’s just a game. Only Sis remains looking at Brother breathing hard and fast. Mother turns and walks back to the blanket, where she can stare into the distance, alone. Dad hangs over Lil Bit as Brother slouches away, resigned to let Dad have his way. She peers up at him, her Dad, but doesn’t raise her arms so that he can lift her. She wants to stay on the ground. To Dad, she seems like a little statue, her rigid body shouting “No.” “No,” she shouts louder, before he asks anything. “No,” because of all he’s taken without asking. Her birthday checks from Grandma, her gold locket to pawn, her social security number to max out a Visa card. All and even more. He looks at her short legs, stiff as stilts. This time he could ask. He could squat down, look her in the eye, and ask for this one favor. “Lil Bit,” he could say, real nice, putting her at ease. “I need to ask you to do something. Something you’ll only need to do once. I’ll never ask you again.” But if he asks now, he’ll be admitting to all he’s taken. And he’s only taken what he’s really needed. He always makes up for it somehow. He does a lot for them, he thinks, for Daughter and the family. They have all they could ever want. So what if he needs to take from them now and then. He clasps Daughter’s hand and waves bye to Mom. “Lil Bit,” he says, pulling her away. “You’re going to do something for me.” She says nothing but follows along, taking steps that Dad believes are deliberately shorter than normal. He slows his pace so that she can keep up. They walk in the direction of the parking lot. Dad watches the man he talked to earlier getting out of his car. He hears Daughter whimper, “Ouch, you’re hurting me,” and he starts, looking down at her puckered lower lip. “I’m sorry, Lil Bit. I’m really sorry,” he says, loosening his grip. And he means it. They approach the parking lot and Dad sees the man staring hard at Daughter, as though trying to memorize every expression she’s ever made. He drops her hand and slows his pace so that she is out front. He realizes after that he did so in case she tried to run, though she didn’t. Not that day. Soon they reach him. Dad never changes his mind, not when there’s money to be made. In the grand scheme of things, 56
Daughter will have a good life. She’ll suffer little. She’ll be okay. Dad takes the wad of cash when they shake. He feels on top of the world again, fingering the bills, a man with skin in the game. He nudges Lil Bit forward. “Twenty minutes,” he says sternly. The man nods, and for a moment his eyes widen in disbelief, as if thinking, What kind of a father are you anyway? But Dad ignores the look, and the coldness that finally overtakes him, as he waits for the two of them to leave.
More Foreign Than the French Kids | Sara Fall
Day One SUN HEATS UP THE pine, grass bends, wind with the warmth of a dryer ruffles across the shallow valley separating the pond from the cabins and mess hall. I am struck by the stark green/blue/brown of the camp, the sky, the land. Nothing bleeds but all lays distinct, each pathway swept, all the splinters removed through sandpaper and generations of hands. Nothing hurts but everything does. My bunkmates are two beautiful blondes on their way to college in the fall and a girl I thrill to meet: figuring we’ll bond over our common struggles with acne and introversion, though I quickly find out she is French and speaks very little English. It later turns out she is perfectly fluent, just bored. When she isn’t with us, she clings to the cluster of French kids who nakedly disobey camp rules regarding cigarettes: puffing Gauloises like old men, shrouded in dusky fringed pashminas and scowling through the camp’s hokey rituals. Had I been at home, I would have retreated to the mirror in my room, wrapped myself in one of my mother's scarves, trying to imitate the complicated way they would twist and fluff theirsNpart Elizabethan collar, part popped poloNpulling on a cigarette of air and exhaling with awkward, weary resignation. . As it is, I steal glances and measured eyebrow lifts for later. The day is punctuated by aggressive outbursts of song. I’m besieged by a confusing musical in which the performers demand audience participation for every movement throughout the dayNto lunch, while eating, back and forth between tables, utter chaos, “A W E S O M E! Awesome, awesome, awesome, awesome, awesome, are we!” There is a song for everything, and to everything a rhyme, a call and response leaving no minor action or shift in circumstance to suffer without song. “Hey Jenny!” “Hey Whuuuuat!” “Hey Jenny! Hey Whuuuuuat!” I am 59
already worn out with the well wishing shouts of so many teenagers. It also turns out that the C in YMCA stands for Christian, which becomes clear to me as I hear a group of girls chant in an ever faster staccato, “I AM A C (CLAP CLAP) I AM A C H (CLAP CLAP) I AM A C H R I S T I A N (CLAP CLAP).” So, this is not some vaguely gym related camp as I had previously assumed. I wonder if this is another of my mother’s covert attempts to infuse my life with the Catholicism she only half believes in, herself. Vespers is lovely. I’m homesick. I decide to bond with the theater kids and sign up for improvisation and the camp play.
Day Two I have a knack for performing furniture. This is a thing I discover deep sunk into the third hour of improv class. I also discover a disturbing inability to speak which I attempt to pass off as a soulful capacity for silence, and by which the hyper college cheerleader/actor/camp counselor running the workshop is unmoved. I try, though. I “Yes, and. Yes, and. Yes, and…” with enthusiasm and eventually work my way from chair to window washer, a maneuver that feels like I've made a breakthrough. I have a hard time following up, though, and go back to miming inanimate objects, grumpy, embarrassed, tongue tied. This has not always been true. Not too many years before, back in the woods around my home, I wandered through the trees, low branches drawing rhythmic lines against my legs, my footfalls padding through inches of pine needles grown soft over seasons of snow and rain and sun and snow again. I looked for signs of magical beasts or gnomes or other folk living peaceably in the nooks of brambles, or in the rafters of the quaking aspen. Often in costume. Layers of scarves wrapped around my head and draped dramatically behind me. A length of wood for a staff, a small apothecary bottle to serve as any potion I conjured, a prop for drippy romantic speeches. My own version of a gypsy tale weaver by way of The Force and Anne of Green Gables. I spent a lot of time alone. Mustering that same imaginative power now is beyond me as I stand in front of these normal looking campers, amid these groomed trees free of wildness. I curl under the weight of their collective gaze. How do they know the words to these ridiculous chants? What key do they have 60
to open up together, sing and chant and play, that I don't? I approximate an end table and think about it.
Day Three The herald of daybreak is a chorus of blow driers. I nervously police my armpits for hair, worry about being “dirty,” a sin among other sins. I fear that I’m not girl enough, not A W E S O M E at all. I am transfixed by the sight of a squeeze bottle my French cabin mate carries with her to the shower with letters big enough to read across the room: “douche.” I have so many questions. Is it safe? Does it feel good? Does it feel bad? Did she talk to her mother about it, like in those Summer’s Eve commercials? Should I be doing it? Is that bottle of douche really the only cleaning product she needs for a good shower? How can I bring myself to talk with the first person I have ever met to not just use a douche, but to brazenly carry around the bottle, not even hidden in her towel? Is she just so sophisticated and above it all, or simply unaware of American customs? She hops down from her bunk and slings the towel and bottle under her arm seemingly without a care, like squirting scented liquid up one’s vagina is just a casual everyday occurrence. It isn’t for an embarrassingly long stretch into my adulthood that I learn “douche” is simply French for shower.
Day Four The play is announced. We’ll stage a scaled down version of the 1 927 Broadway musical by Oscar Hammerstein, all teeth removed. The casting process is an exercise in diplomacy as the counselors in charge of the play assign roles to those of us who will decidedly not play the show’s romantic leadsNthe only roles anyone auditioned for. A statuesque girl with a suspiciously fake British accent and sharp, black pixie cut and a short, non descript boy with a harshly cracking voice are cast in the leads. A gazelle embracing a frog. At fifteen, I have a masculine lookNmy hair is short, my clothes are androgynous, my body strong from chores but angular and 61
awkward. So it’s with no real surprise that I receive the news I’ll be playing “Cap’n Andy,” the goofball riverboat captain, father of the ingénue, whose antics serve as comic relief from the overarching romance plot. As I feared, I am the opposite of romance. I dread my scenes with the gazelle alreadyNshe speaks with an unrelenting unkindness that makes me shrink. Nevertheless, holding the script close, a complicated mix of pride and shame wells up in me as I review my lines, as I stand straighter and try to think like a man. I get to open the play!
Day Five The camp is greased on the doctrine of togetherness. We are shepherded rhythmically in groups from activity to activity with little room in between, a state of unnatural communality that discomfits until I feel myself unthreading, getting goofier, slap happy. Manic. I open a care package from home containing a magazine with the naked, pregnant visage of Demi Moore from my mom, snacks, and a letter written backwards from my dad. The best line from the letter: “Think or thwim.” These are my role models. What the hell am I supposed to do with these? They didn't prepare me for this placeNI'm an alien. I blow dry my hair but it's just a mess, and too short besides. My socks different, my face somehow blurrier, my whole idea about myself different from theirs. I want to retreat into stories, wander off into the woods, be not myself for a little while. At night, I sit next to the campfire with the rest of the camp, singing Indigo Girls songs, watching sparks drift into darkness, pondering whether the ache in my chest is loneliness or impending religious conversion. I can’t help but cry a little, then realize there are at least a handful of other girls sobbing around the campfire, and my counselor (who I only remember as having a strong grip) hugs me and I’m comforted, though I look up to see her rolling her eyes with another counselor, hugging her own emotional wreck on the next bench over. Suddenly the darkness feels more human sized and I thank her and wipe snot on her back.
Day Six Over breakfast, the counselor with a face like a bronze warrior angel and an Austrian accent says something to me about milk as he comes to our table to borrow some, likely just to flirt with the leggy blondes on the bench beside me. I don’t care. I laugh at his jokes and feel like the center of the universe. I’m in rehearsals all day. The counselor with the outsize personality running the play adopts the role of beneficent task master. I find I enjoy the constant workNit keeps me from pining away at The Austrian and I feel I’m part of something larger, significant, meaningful. So I’ve basically downed the theater kid kool aid. This in spite of my struggles with the part. Cap’n Andy shows up and he’s drunk. He might spend the entire play drunk, at least it seems so to me. I didn’t yet know the word “alcoholic,” but I knew how to spot a drunk. My forays into the wilderness were less about exercise and more about escape, from my dad’s anger, from the fights that would intermittently explode between my parents, from the bullies at school, from my little sisters. Our director urged us to find and harness our feelings, but mine were inaccessible, walled off in shame. What did that camp counselor see when he looked at me? “I’m still not feeling it,” he says, and I go back to the beginning. You and me both.
Day Seven After a bizarre competition involving kazoos and the chicken dance, the camp auctions off the counselors and we’ve won: The Austrian. I decide to wear a thin leather belt with my shorts today, just so he knows I’m cosmopolitan. He spends the morning shaking out his feathered locks and serenading the blondes with Eric Clapton and stories about European girls that feel just this side of inappropriate as we sit in a semi circle looking up at him from the floor of our cabin. Later in the day we head to the stable on the outskirts of camp. We don helmets and jackboots and line up for a trail ride. In what feels like an ancient virginal rite, the young women in my bunk are solemnly paired off with horses one by one. This is Raven. This is 63
Buttercup. This is Beauty. When she comes to me, the woman in the stable yard has a crooked mixture of mirth and pity on her face as she introduces me to my mount: “This is Cuisinart. Keep him at the back.” And we’re off. Though I’ve never ridden a horse, this is the extent of my preparation. The feathered Austrian’s family, on the other hand, owns a horse farm, so he’s not so much a man on a horse as a noble centaur leading a charge through the forest. Apparently my cabin mates are all horse farm owning people too because they seem to be having no problem whatsoever. But Cuisinart, Cuisinart is having problems. He is eating, wandering, nickering at private jokes, craning his long defiant neck and nipping at my boots, and generally holding up the whole damn process. I am riding in an embarrassed fit trying to shrink in my saddle like a toy version of myself and the Austrian horse god is yelling at me to “Kontrol Yorr Horss!” every couple of minutes. Surely, we’ll be wed by nightfall. After taking a brief rest to admire the view, our party proceeds. Cuisinart has insinuated us into the middle of the line of pack horses before starting to really crane into the nipping and then past that into a full blown horsey pirouette. “Kontrol Yorr Horss!” In my memory I see the forest spinning, my father’s face screaming into mine, the time I puked so bad on a sidewalk that I peed myself Mid rotation I catch a glimpse of all the horses behind me spinning in circles, like good pack animals will do. This is why I was supposed to stay at the back, I think, as I come near to passing out but just throw up instead.
Day Eight Meager daylight blooms on a rain swept camp, puddles collecting and disturbing the pathways. Trees drip in a gentle rhythmic backdrop to our maneuvers from the cabins to the mess. The smell of possibilities brought by the rain seeps out of the earth invading the camp and my thoughts. My daily rituals are done through a fog of nerves and excitement because today I will make my debut. We rehearse and rehearse and finish the set. It’s beautiful and cheesyNa two dimensional riverboat with a couple of portholes and 64
a door that can open and close, where we’ll make our entrances and exits, a stage with a platform that juts out into the audience. Our voices are thin, we flub our lines, I’m taken by the desire to be a lamp or a bench or an anything besides a person who speaks lines in front of the camp. Before the play begins, we gather in a circle backstage and listen to the call and response of a camp at rest. The voices are indistinguishable. They sound like thousands. The director finally notices that I’ve made an adjustment. I have given myself breasts, and not just breasts but beasts. I have stuffed one of my sensible young lady bras with all the socks I have at camp. I’m both buxom and stinky. “Andy is short for Andrea,” I tell my director and there’s simply no time to argue with me, so he shrugs with a half grin that tells me at least I can’t be mistaken for furniture. The time comes. I start the show. I smack open the flimsy, adorable prop door and it swings off its hinges behind me as I stagger through the portal and onto the stage to nervous laughter, especially from the adults in the room who are wondering, no doubt, where the odd looking boy/girl with giant fake breasts and a sailor cap is going with all this. All eyes follow my silent stumbling progress down the thrust stage that juts out into the mess hall. I’m mimicking my father’s evening gait, way more drunk than I’d played in rehearsal. I’m feeling the part now. Upon reaching the end of the platform, surrounded on three sides by campers, I sway in place milking the moment and eventually slug back the water from a bottle meant to look like liquor, the water gushing down my throat and pouring over lips and chin in a tidal fall that soaks into the socks stuffing my bra. I steel a peek at the audience who are enraptured by the oddness of such a moment in such a place. The words have long slipped my memory, but I remember their tasteNespecially salty, my tongue thick with pretend alcohol, my mind and eyes glassy, teary, a drunk riverboat captain way too closely embodied for a fifteen year old. Laughter with an edge follows each line delivery, and I relish the control. I almost feel like I’m punishing them, but I don’t know for what. Some suggestion of the wild, monstrous otherness of the woods has infiltrated the room, I have invited it in. I laugh and shake hands afterwards, sweat pooling behind layers of dirty socks. 65
Day Nine Tonight there’s a dance. I dress in my snappiest shorts and suit vest combo. I know all the lines to the chants and the songs we sing, though “I’m still not feeling it,” as my director would say. But I dance ridiculously until I walk outside, ok to be me for a while. From a distance, only the low throb of bass penetrates the log cabin walls of the mess turned dance hall. Everything but the vibrant windows is cloaked in darkness, still and quiet. Through the glass, I watch the camp wriggle and stomp and flail, faces contorted with laughter and exertion. We are ugly together, and joyful. The next morning we perform our rituals one last time, pack our douches and roll up several stinky days of laundry. The bus rumbles along the highway, ever curling downward, and I am full neither with joy nor with regret.
Moriah Hampton | Moriah Hampton teaches in the Writing and Critical Inquiry Program at SUNY Albany. She writes fiction in her spare time. Katherine Ann Davis | Katherine Ann Davis is a writer from Wisconsin who serves as Senior Prose Editor for . Her work has been published by , and other journals. She earned an MFA from the University of Maryland and a PhD from the University of Tennessee, and she recently completed her first novel. For more about her work and background, please visit her website: katherineanndavis.com. C.C. Russell | C.C. Russell has been published here and there across the web and in print. You can find his words in such places as , and the anthology . He currently resides in Wyoming where he stares at the mountains when he should be writing. Ace Boggess | Ace Boggess is author of four books of poetry, most recently (Unsolicited Press, 201 8) and (Brick Road, 201 7), and the novel (Hyperborea Publishing, 201 6). His recent fiction appears in , and . He received a fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and spent five years in a West Virginia prison. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia. L.M Davenport | L.M. Davenport is a second year MFA student at the University of Alabama, where she also works as fiction editor for the . Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in , and elsewhere. 69
Allora Campbell | Allora Campbell holds an MA in Creative Writing from SUNY Brockport. For the past three years, she's worked as a personal stylist and runs a clothing boutique. She currently resides in Western NY, is the owner of too many books, and lives with her direwolf: Digory. Her short fiction has been previously published in and , and she is working on her first novel. Chila Woychik | German born Chila Woychik has bylines in , and others. She won the 201 7 Loren Eiseley Creative Nonfiction Award & the 201 6 Linda Julian Creative Nonfiction Award. She's the founding editor at & is seeking a home for her first hybrid essay collection. www.chilawoychik.com. Sara Fall | Sara Fall is a writer and teacher who grew up on the top of a mountain in the Rockies and currently lives just outside of Denver. She writes poetry and creative nonfiction, and gets her best ideas while doing the dishes when everyone else has gone to bed. Her work has recently appeared in and . Paige Thomas | Paige Thomas studies creative writing and organizational science as an undergraduate at the University of Idaho in the small town of Moscow. She was awarded the 201 8 201 9 Hogue Literary Scholarship. She spends her free time avoiding snow and walking in rain.
Peter Espinosa | Peter Espinosa works primarily in acrylic and mixed media on canvas, exploring themes of urban development, chaos and isolation. His pieces are often defined by their gritty, dense layered composition. Originally from the U.S. and now living in China, Peter is also an avid traveler, photographer and hiker. His explorations have served as an influence on much of the subject matter in his paintings. Richard Vyse | Internationally collected artist Richard Vyse has been featured in galleries in New York and Hawaii . He has studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York and Massachusetts College of Art in Boston going on to inspire students at Pratt Institute said in Brooklyn. His art has been featured in the issue #1 9, magazine Spring 201 5, magazine August 201 5, magazine volume 2 issue 4 and magazine Winter 201 5. His art is in the Leslie+Lohman museum in New York City. Chris Gavaler | Chris Gavaler has published five books of fiction and comics scholarship and is an associate professor at W&L University where he teaches fiction and serves as comics editor of . The attached images are adapted from 1 9th century photography by Eadweard Muybridge. C.R. Resetarits | C.R. Resetarits has had work recently in and ; out now in December and , out soon in and . She lives in Faulkner riddled Oxford, Mississippi. Jennifer Lothrigel | Jennifer Lothrigel is an artist and poet residing in the San Francisco Bay area. Her work has been published in magazine, , 71
and elsewhere. Matthew Felix Sun | In depicting life frankly and critically as visual surfaces and interior qualities, Matthew Felix Sun reaches toward historical and social commentary. Art ought to be both from life, and above life, revealing what is behind. Sun has exhibited in several national competitions and his work is collected in the US, Canada, and China. He has been building an Apocalypse Series of paintings and drawings since the US was poised to invade Iraq in 2003. Growing up in China's repressive culture and atmosphere formed the foundation of his world view and his work. His portfolio can be viewed at matthewfelixsun.com.