The Sonder R eview
A publication of art, short fiction and creative nonfiction
Founder/Executive Editor | Elena M. Stiehler Assistant Editor | Lexi Castiglione Assistant Editor | Kathy Kurz Cover Art | 'Annie's Cross' by Darren M. Edwards
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 9 | Winter 201 8 1
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own â€“ an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that youâ€™ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
'If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood.' Peter Handke
From the Editor | Elena M. Stiehler
Featured Author | Ashley Kunsa
'Blue Bar, Surf Avenue' | Kate Wheeler
'Gust' | Marley Simmons Abril
'Alive @ 1 48mph' | Chris Vanjonack
'November' | Brandon Hansen 'The Life Expectancy of a Human Skeleton' | Jennifer Benningfield
'Bluff' | Virginia Boudreau
28 46 52
'Sweatshirt' | Christy O'Callaghan 'Under the Midnight Sun' | Victoria Sanderson 'Alpha Gals' | Ania Payne
'A Sudden Delirium' | Bill Wolak
'Waiting' | Fariel Shafee
'Abstract IV' | Paul Luikart
'Ideas' | Allison Janicki
'Sun Down' | Kari Bell
'Untitiled' | Jim Zolan 'The Shadow Leaves' & 'Crinkle Detail' | Holly Spiess 'Stealth' | Alexandra Rock
64 27 & 30 78
'Untitled' | Sahar Safarian
'Fire Land | Elaine Verdill
'Man Imagines' | Richard Vyse
From the Editor
| Elena M. Stiehler
Issue 9 comes to you at the end of a long, busy but rewarding winter here at , one which has seen us master our backlog, continue to grow our press, and usher in two new Assistant Editors: Lexi Castiglione and Kathy Kurz. I will be forever thankful for the time Jeremy and Sasha spent working here – we wouldn’t be where we are today without the dedication and passion they brought to both the review and press – but as they set off on new pursuits, I have the pleasure of being joined by two equally passionate, dedicated individuals. Without them this issue would not have come together, and our submission queues would still be utterly untamed. So, with that said, make sure you keep an eye to the blog in the coming weeks as Lexi and Kathy more thoroughly introduce themselves. As I’m sure you know by now, I invariably find myself smitten with every piece we publish, and the pieces in this issue are no exception. It is the privilege of being able to work with such talented authors and artists, and fellow editors, which inspires me to keep at it; to try and do it better each time. And as we push forward into spring, that is what I hope to continue to do. is in a good place – our press has titles forthcoming this summer; the review is humming along, poised for the next step – and we are ready to stretch our wings a little bit more; to engage with more authors, more readers; to see if this lovely little thing we have built might take further flight. It is, and has always been, our mission to discover and nourish great writing – to cultivate a community who yearns to experience the same, primal fist to heart gut clench; to feel the soul soothe wash of true storytelling – because stories are a mirror and without them we cannot begin to understand others; we cannot begin to understand ourselves. Each of the twelve pieces in this issue is deliberate in craft, in the sculpting of language and character. Featured Author, Ashley Kunsa, offers three spare, devastating portraits of loss and wanting; the searing knowledge of 7
what might have been. ‘Sweatshirt’ details the vast depth of a sister’s love for her brother, while ‘Alpha Gals’ charts the often unfathomable impact of our origins. ‘November’ and ‘Alive @ 1 48mph’ both question the indiscriminate and unknowable forces which shape our lives. In ‘Gust’ a woman reflects on a life spent and ‘Blue Bar, Surf Avenue’ searches for a way forward in the wake of death. ‘Bluff’ is a delicate rendering of the profundity of friendship, while ‘Under the Midnight Sun’ reveals the sanctity of culture and the world we inhabit. Finally, ‘The Life Expectancy of a Human Skeleton’ details a man’s unraveling psyche as he seeks to define himself within the world. As always, I hope that you enjoy this issue – that you find a piece of yourself within these pages. Until next time, Elena Stiehler
Featured Author: Ashley Kunsa
An unremarkable stretch of highway, the sky brooding low in the late morning, and how quickly it came back to Elise after all these years: Jeremy’s voice like hot chocolate stirred over the fire and tipped into enamel mugs, when they’d go camping in late September, October, once the air had a nip to it, missing school for days on end, Mama writing ludicrous excuses on index cardsP Pand Daddy with his maps, collected over the years from Shell stations and mail ordered from obscure catalogs, charting out a route in red marker to some campsite days awayPMontana, Colorado, TennesseePand Jeremy starving for the facts of each state they passed throughPbird, flower, tallest buildingPbegging in that honey sweet voice, , and all this years before the Internet so Mama bought almanacs, but couldn’t read without the lurching of the Buick pinning an ache between her eyes, so Elise stabbed pause on her Discman and pattered out the facts in a monotone, like raindrops on the windshield, one after another after another, until that storm outside Gary, Indiana, on their way back from Missouri, the trip where Jeremy lost his first and only tooth, that wall of gray they drove into like a bad dream, four blurred lanes of cars, Daddy hunched forward over the wheel and Mama going on about the wipers, and Jeremy, sweet Jeremy, strapped against the seat insisting, , while left and right cars ripped through puddles a full inch deep and truck horns bleatedP Pand Mama pointing, shouting, , and Elise jamming her fingers into her ears harder harder, and then the belt razored her chest and there was a sound like everything being dropped into the ocean all at once. And when she opened her eyes, she touched her hand to her bangs, to blood, stupidly red on her fingertips, and next to her, Jeremy’s body, slumped over, she shook his shoulder and he didn’t move, she shook and shook, the rain slanting through where the door had bent away from the frame of the wagon, wetting his strawberry hair and slipping down his face in rivulets, diluting the blood, and Elise strained for the small blue book between them, the belt sharp under her training bra, and she paged until 10
she found it and croaked, , and she shook him, repeating, , but it wasnâ€™t any crossroads, just an anonymous interstate and a Jersey barrier like every other, its face a blank and unresponsive gray.
| Only Breath I can’t stop breathing. I hold the air in my lungs but it all seeps out. Crawls back in. In the sink I get only dripping hair, and the stove hasn’t worked for months. I walk to the river at midnight and lie down inside the tracks, grocery bag in hand. But when I close my eyes, it is your river I see, your tracks. A place where I could fall asleep and no train would pass over me, no metalheatsound would shuttle across my body on the way to empty coke ovens and cold blast furnaces. Skin tears easily enough, but plastic rips without effort. I yank the bag from my face and take the hill to the room where I keep my things. The man I bring to my bed some nights holds my face to the pillow. When I squirm and claw, he falters, stops. , I say, and again he presses me eyesnosemouth into moist cotton, his hands like sandpaper, rough in spots, smooth in others. But again I claw, and again he stops. You cannot tell a body, , cannot say, . It will move and crave, ache and dream until it doesn’t anymore. A body will do what a body will do until something outside itself says otherwise.
| Everything Always and Still Not Enough From the window, Ruth watches the neighbor pad to the car at dusk: in her slippers, one arm swinging a pillow, the other a magazine, like she’s headed to sleep away camp, her stomach’s flagrant protrusion below a smashed uni boob no doubt already seeping the fruits of her woman labor. Ruth’s fingers dive at Peppermint Pattie minis with the deftness of a typist on speed. The flash of chocolaty mint on her tongue, in her throat, is wet, sickening. She closes her lips around another, and another. The neighbor climbs out of the car, gestures toward her husband on the stoop, a mime’s over ripe expressions. Ruth sets aside a 32 ounce cola and jostles the ancient window, fighting the pain that arcs through her abdomen. , the surgeon said. Tomorrow is day 47; the window remains shut. She reads. , Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas, , the Border Trilogy, , all suggestions from the local librarian, a squinting, grizzled man who rides a Harley with a sidecar. At Target Ruth follows other shoppers and loads her cart with the things that run their lives: AA and AAA batteries, three kinds of kitchen cleaner, an eight pack of non scratch sponges, lip stain, maximum hold hairspray (though she’s nearly bald), a dog bowl and chew toys (though she doesn’t own a dog). She skips the 35 pounds of kitty litter and opts instead for a package of Select a Size paper towels large enough to see her through end times. Curtains in a chevron pattern. Drawer dividers. Extra plush bath towels in turquoisePno, navy. 3 for $1 5 DVDs ( ), a garden hose, potting soil, a pair of pink flip flops. An assortment of cardsPhis birthday, her birthday, congratulations!PPost Its, a stapler. Her cart overfloweth. Two days after she climbed inside, Ruth’s neighbor exits 13
her car. Ruth is at the window again, barricaded by three foot stacks of laundry. The neighbor, catching Ruth’s eye, grins and hefts a formless pink bundle in the air. Ruth straightens the scarf on her head and stares at her new towels. She feels nothing. The night is a series of questions, without answers or reprieve. At 4:1 9 she turns on infomercials. When she wakes, she is restless. Her skin feels stretched, her nose burns. The toothpaste leaves fur on her tongue. But she looks the same, is the same. Same mongrel patches of hair reclaiming her tender scalp, same hollowed pits cupping her eyes. Same violent trail mapping her sagging abdomen, charting the bruised ruins of her insides. She’d cry, if only she could. Suddenly the urge to vomit rises to Ruth’s throat. She rushes for the toilet, but nothing comes. Dropping to the tile, sweat beads on her forehead, and Ruth recalls childhood sickness: the hand at her back, gathering her dark strands into a ponytail, the gentle urging, . Again the feeling runs through her, and Ruth convulses, gagging, her mouth wet and hot, but still the bowl in its hateful whiteness. A third time, as tears parade down her dry, paper cheeks. Then, finally, into the water, the remains of last night’s baklava, and Ruth, draped on the toilet, inhales the sickly sweet stink. Through the doorway, late morning light unfurls across the bed. She hoists herself up on the edge of the vanity, rinses her mouth and wipes it with the tail of her scarf, dabs cheeks and eyes, the snot from her nose. Bracing herself against the wall, she shuffles to the bed and palms the receiver with a shaking hand. The dial tone’s deliberate drone. The sunlight hot on her arms. A quaking in her gut. But finally her fingers do their work, and when a craggy voice trembles on the other end she clears the muck from her throat and says, ‘Mama, are you there? It’s me. It’s your daughter. Ruth.’
Featured Author: Ashley Kunsa
| Meet the Author
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? I’ve written stories (bad, worse, absurd) since I was 5 or 6, and from that time on I’ve always fancied myself ‘a writer.’ But when did I decide, ‘This will be my life path’? High school, early on. I think I always knew I’d be a writer + something else, because I like to eat, but ‘writer’ has been central to my identity for a long time. What was your favorite childhood story? I was slow to start reading and don’t remember much from the earliest years. But mid elementary school I fell for and . I can’t wait to share them with my little guy when he gets old enough. Which author(s) have you been most influenced by/admire the most? Amy Hempel is a goddess of the short form, and the best compliment I’ve ever gotten as a writer was from a novelist who told me my work reminded him of hers. Lorrie Moore and Raymond Carver were both very influential for me about a decade and a half ago, as I worked out my ideas about short stories, and I go back to them often. (Plus, Moore is genius with the second person, which is my guilty pleasurePthough I don’t really feel guilty!) Peter Orner’s prose moves me, and his little stories in are breath taking. Though I haven’t read her work in years, Melanie Rae Thon’s was formative for me in the early years. Everything Junot Diaz writes is painfully beautiful, and Denis Johnson, whose death is such a loss to our literature, is divine in both short and long form. 16
I also adore the language and humanity of Larry Levis’s poetry and the fine craft of Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories. Plus, I think Fitzgerald’s is unparalleled as far as novels go, and it’s thrillingly one novel that has stood the test of my agingPI like to read it every few years, and each time it feels fresh and new. What do you think it is that makes storytelling such a necessary form of art? Empathy. The empathy writers feel for their characters, which in turn inspires in the reader empathy for those characters. Stories push us out of ourselves and into other’s experiences, dreams, fearsPand in so doing, they broaden our worlds. For you, what is the most important aspect of short fiction? In all creative writing, but especially short fiction, I value precision above probably anything else. Precision in word choice, in detail, in the moment you choose to begin the action. For me, the joy of writing comes, first and foremost, from language; I experience a particular rush of accomplishment and joy when the exact right words come together on the page. I heard a long time ago, ‘there are no exact synonyms,’ and I believe this and tell my students this. When I’m writing, nothing quite beats hitting on the perfect way of expressing an emotion, idea, or experience. As an author, what is the greatest lesson you’ve learned when it comes to your own writing? I’ve had to learn (and am still learning) to trust myself. A lot of workshop energy, I’ve found, can be dedicated to convincing a young writer she ought not to trust her instincts, her obsessions, and so on. I spent a lot of timePyears, actuallyPtrying to be the writer I thought I should be or maybe wished I could be and certainly the one my classmates would like better. I used to fret constantly about my ‘quiet’ (sometimes non existent?) plots or about the lack of hot button political issues front and center in my work. But the work improved dramaticallyPas did my enjoyment of itPwhen I started trusting that I had things worth saying and the skills with which to say those things. 17
What do you feel your greatest accomplishment is, as a writer? I’d say it’s giving voice and credence to the people, places, and experiences that matter to me. I recently read an article in which a young woman writer said she felt like she’d been writing in order to please the male literary establishment, trying to create things that would impress them. I understand this inclinationPwithout realizing it, I was trying (and failing) to do this my entire MFA career. But I don’t really think I do that anymore, whether consciously or unconsciously. I write about what I care about and trust the work will find its audiencePeven if that’s only my husband! Tell us a little about these particular pieces of yours. ‘Crossroads’ was born in a fit of inspiration during my time at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. I kept trying to make it the opening to something longer, and it kept pushing back against me, insisting it was already whole. I love those moments of inspiration and only wish they came more often and lasted so much longer. ‘Everything, Always’ is a piece I’ve come back to over and over again for the past four or five years. I couldn’t get the ending right for the longest time, but the story kept drawing me back to it; then, one day, I went out on a limb and introduced a brand new character right at the endPthe motherPand the unexpectedness was exactly what this story needed. I drafted ‘Only Breath’ quite a while ago, nearly a decade, as the opening to a much longer piece. When that story was accepted by a journal, the editors cut the opening, and so I had this little bit of prose that I loved, but that didn’t have a home. After sitting on it for a year, I really wanted it to be out in the world, so I decided to shape it into its own little thing. If you could only leave us with one word, what would it be? Kindness. (Can I have a second ‘one word’? If so: sugar.)
| Marley Simmons Abril
Here is a woman, thoughtful at the bottom of a forest trail. She has tugged up her mud boots, twined a scarf around her neck, and looks upwards through the trunks and failing leaf cover to the low ceiling of sky. She has recently returned here, to Galen, after months in the city and located a needPunique amongst her othersPto walk this morning to the old lookout in the forest. She bought the mud boots just yesterday, second hand, as she’s noticed since she’s been back in Galen that her footing is often unsure: it’s slicker here than she remembers. The boots have red rubber soles, sticky and ridged like exposed gums. Her hair flaps. Her scarf flaps. A storm is due to arrive. She hasn’t been back to the lookout since she was a child with her mother. She remembers it as an emergence into clarity. She: led through shady summer woods then into a high bright clearing swiped out of the tree line. The stone tower roared up from meadow grass, stacked rocks spiraling to the sky. In front of them, the long slide of the exposed mountain. Her mother pointed west: . Where? she asked. Far beyond the blue hills, other towers, identical to the first, freckled the skyline before them. What are they for? she asked. . Rae touched the dry stone and looked up. Steps spiraled up the outside, protruding like a spine. Noisy bees hurried in through a gap near the top and honeyPno, waxPdribbled thick through the wound. How simple to be a child. Her mother scripted their solitude, constructed elaborate fables out of fear. The child never asked who hurried to these mountaintops to speak in smoke, peak to peak to peak. And what if they wanted more than just a gust on that seam of sky? A brush, a touch, a beloved nudge. And what now will she find of the stone tower? If, at the top, she finds the tower as she remembers, she will climb its spiral steps and call one last time out into the darkening west. She stands at the open jaw of the forest, looking up its throat through the teeth of winter trees. The trail leads her swiftly uphill, and hashes her breath into 20
gasps. The forest reeks of green. She startles at a wagging motion off the trail but when she turns it is only a long frond of fern, bouncing in the breeze. The path leads through damp brush and arrives at a low structure, built between three pines. She pauses there and unwinds her scarf, already too warm. She stares at it: look how ordinary the slanted thing is. Just a kid’s fort, flimsy, with a low doorway and knobby branches for a roof. The woman creeps inside. A lawn chair rests in one corner. Dew slips through the roof and falls into rows in the dust, like a carelessly furrowed field. When she looks up, the racing sky shows through in bars of blue grey. Tacked to a plank across the back wall is a picture of a dark skinned lady dancing in front of a crowd of children. Glossy, the woman muses, as though torn from a magazine. It is not meant to be alluring but the poor lady has a coin of nipple showing. Imagine young boys in this fort. They repeat jokes they don’t understand, laugh away their own curious wanting. It must be a boys’ fort: girls are the objects of such constructions, not their subjects. The woman drapes her scarf on the tack and lets it hang over the picture. Distant summertime, when the woman was just a girl: they lay on towels near the lake. Seventeen, that scrawny but forward leaping age. He propped up on elbows next to her with his book and used a sunscreen bottle to hold the pages open. He rolled and unrolled the edge of his beach towel. Up into a tube then out smooth, tube then smooth. They lay so close it hurt her neck to look at him: his popped spine, bolting his thin body together; his shoulder bones mythical in their severity; his skin in the sun brightening to red. She reached out to touch him and felt a wash of heat. It gathered in her palm. she told him. She poured water onto her hand and smeared cool across his ribs. His calm had surprised her. They’d been friends since they were kids but that was no kid’s reaction. , he said, letting his chin drop. . He turned onto his back and dropped an arm over his eyes. She looked at him boldly. A pimple rose up volcanic under his chin. His nipples were small as a cat’s and a red, arcing scar trailed from his belly button down to below his jeans. He had bad guts. That’s what the grown ups of Galen said. He was rotting from the inside and doctors had to open him up to take out what had blackened and died. She poured water on her hand and pushed a finger along the waxy ridge of skin. . But all that 21
week, what Rae couldn’t get out of her mind was that blemish, the violent swelling, the coming eruption from somewhere dark within his bilious body. The trail scratches across the forest. To one side the creek, to the other a broad face of stone. White trunks of the empty birches stripe the white sky. Around their roots, a hollow has spent all fall swelling into a bog, with continents of duck weed across its surface. There is a splash she doesn’t see: perhaps a toad. Everywhere moss fern gravel sticks leaf mold mud. The path ahead of her splits. One trail winds around the bog and gets gobbled by the black fanning mud. The other is wider: an old cart path, she now remembers. It swings up through the trees, following the creek, crowded now by thorn shrub and fern. At the junction of the two paths is a tall stump. The stump stands straight as a signpost, sprouting mushrooms in every direction. Which way back to the long stretch of summer lawn? she wants to know. To the child’s perception of innumerable days? Which way away from regret? She chooses the cart path. Before long she arrives in a clearing, and spies an old wooden house waiting dutifully amid the trees. The house is skinny but long, and grips the ground on mossy blocks as though fighting its own failure. Narrow birches grow all around. The forest seems to have made a decision about the house, about its prospects of repatriation, reunion with the mountain. From roof to root the house is matted in birch leaves, flat cedar scales, catkins ferns branches, a prickly vine of berry growing in a long arch down the side of the disappearing house. She hears the rain before she feels it. A window, no glass: the woman peers in through the yawn of rotten frame. The house looks abandoned at teatime, with a table still in the kitchen, a plate still on the table. In a corner sits a fat iron stove, and she wonders if it works, could be pleaded into heat, but the longer she looks at it the more it seems to radiate not heat but a steady and persistent chill. The old wood house is a ruin of moldering rugs, softening beams. She has the certain notion that the house animates while she stands there. Vapors crawl across its skin. Breath rises to the sky. It is full, she thinks, not of ordinary ghosts but something dark and dilute in the atmosphere. Something more like an odd cast of shadow on a photograph, 22
like a stain no one can recall the source of. She draws away from the sill, away from the leaking eave and away from the house. The rain rattles on high branches. Down mountain, beeches and pines rattle rain into the lake. Later that same, distant summer, his guts rotted more and he went to the city for new doctors. They would cut him open again and find more rot; scoop it out of his body and toss it away. They would return him to her. Before the last of the season’s warm air lifted away through bare trees and leaked into fall, he would be back with a new scar and she would trace his two scars with her two fingers by the lake. Because of his bad guts, he didn’t eat much. In the city he could find doctors for that, too. He left in late August. He stood in his coat and fur boots in the full sun of the day and promised to come back. The angle of sun haloed his face in dark curls. He left in an auto that coughed bleak fumes across the cobbles: what was light enough to blow away did so, easy into the breeze. Heavier grime settled into the cracks and stayed. Her own guts greened like spring, like a fern shot up through the season’s leaf mulch to unfurl a single bright frond. All fall and winter she bucketed sweat with every turn of her arm, every twist at the waist. She wished she could give him some of her bulk, her heat. , her mother sighed. He sent her a telegram:
She showed her mother. She could go to the city. Her mother said the theater was for crocodiles and thieves, and fed the telegram into the wood stove. Rae could stay at home, play checkers, nurse her baby son. Rae lifted her boy from the fireside rug. She didn’t disagree. The woman looks back the way she came. The way she ought to return. These flimsy houses could be a scene culled straight from one of her mother’s greasy fables. Already, she has traveled up the mountain and back to the woods to visit her mother, sunk deep into her dusty linens. What next? Is she doomed for a moral? 23
Clouds crowd the hillside. Brown leaf trash obscures the trail. She turns her ankle on a stone she never saw, then lurches forward into ferns and finds powdery brown spores all over her palms. Or maybe they are bug eggs. She doesn’t actually know. The glossary of things she observes without knowing is huge. She never knew how much she doesn’t know. In the glooming forest, the woman turns back down the mountain. She won’t make it to the tower, and this releases a spear of sadness. She can’t ask. She won’t ever know. At that moment a shape appears. It is a shade in the sunless day, something short and dim that bolts sideways out of the road. It slips across the moss before her eyes can interpret shapes into pattern into matter into fact. She sees just the tail, and the whip of its direction. It is only a tail but behind that tail follow long webs of potentiality, strands of a different fable. He came back once, in summer. He brought their boy a table top radio from the city and promised to teach him the foxtrot. She plugged the radio into the kitchen wall, but the dial gathered only garbles and static. , and she reached to click it off. He touched her hand, raised the volume with another knob. , he said. . He moved the knob to different static. . He raised the volume. . After she unplugged it, they all stood in the kitchen looking at each other, pinned under heavy silence. He lodged at the Inn on the shore of Galen Lake. Through his window they watched the sun slide across the clean surface of the water. . He had more scars under his shirt. His chest was the chest of a man but below his ribs he’d been hollowed out. He had the hips of a wolf, a scrawny wolf set upright to dance, pleading, towards her on his two flat and furry feet. The woman halts in the path. The animal, as if in mirror, halts just below her. With a slow metronome swing of the animal’s shoulders and head, she recognizesPhow banalPa dog. Its neglected fur dense and oily. It trots up the path, past her with hardly a sniff, but then turns back smartly from a curve. Behind it, the narrowing trail climbs 24
unknown through heavy sky. The dog watches her and waits. She commits to incaution, follows it upward. The dog leads her to a ridge of slick stone. The stone protrudes from the hill like a fracture of bone. Behind the ridge the trees thin, and behind that is the clearing of her memory. Only it looks not at all how she remembers. Knotty vines lace the grass. Gashes in the earth have all filled up with water, freckled by the random rain. Near the middle, a crumble of stone blocks announces the tower in ruins. There are no flowers, no bees, no high sun or distant towers across the blue valley. Only the stiff wind that scrubs the mountain face. The woman remembers standing here as a child and looking up from the feet of the tower, how it pierced the wide sky, and how the passage of fast clouds behind gave it the illusion of falling. She had told him she would come. . But the truth was that her daughter was born with smooth skin across her soft body and her son slouched over his books and never mentioned dancing, and somehow nine years snuck past. She hears herself tell him sheâ€™ll remember him forever, that memory stretches on and on. But memories are not objects; they are slippery fictions. She arcs her gaze out to the horizon, to bone white nothing. Across the clearing the dog watches her. Its breath bursts out in dense puffs that hover in the cold air then breeze away. Another dog slips out of the trees to join the first. And then one more. The third dog drags a bone in its teeth. The dogs are all muddy: muddy on their faces and muddy on their paws and muddy on their bellies, fur clumped in curling strands of mud, as though only recently they were crawling. One dog steps two paces towards her. The fur along its back sags with rain and the dog, so slow it seems a joke, a pantomime, a caricature, lifts the corners of its mouth to show a row of teeth wild with feral implications. The woman crouches for a rock. The thighs of her jeans are soaked. Her hand grazes a thorn and something else that leaves her fingers slick and sticking, but she finds nothing of use to her and stands. Everything is made of water in one way or another: skins of water, roots of water, blood and bones and boots and stone of water. She considers scale, the scope of the woods, the distance back to town, to her mother wheezing in bed. And to her childrenPher children!Pthey cram wet logs into the stove and boil carrots for a meal and the looks they give her are bland as a strangerâ€™s. 25
After nine years she went to the city to find him, but he’d dissolved into the atmosphere. No one could recall his name. She remembers herself here as a child in the hot sun, looking upwards to hornets. The child has thin and knotted hair, can’t see the ocean, doesn’t believe about the smoke. She came here drawn by a memory of smoke signals, but she doesn’t remember this useless stack of stones. She hones the long blade of her mistake. Above her somewhere, a branch snaps like a shot. The dogs seem not to breathe. When the branch falls into the ferns it releases a gasp that takes minutes to subside, and the dogs meet new silence with their own keening growl. Another branch breaks and falls. The dog nearest her lifts its ears and peers to one side, shining gums saggy under mean teeth. Heavy limbs dissolve the cover of dark that keeps her and the dogs stilled there in the clearing, and one by one the dogs retreat to the ridge of stone, back into the forest. Each fallen branch announces the widening sky. The dogs evaporate from the frame of the story. How empty her fable now: drapes of shade across the rough stones in the grass, broad blades, dog prints in the stiffening mud. Sunlight cracks through the trees. Only one dog remains, and looks back at her from the distant ridge of stone. Black, damp, it is a rotten tooth on a shard of jaw. Their mouths are empty and they cannot speak. So they watch each otherPdog and woman, boy and girl, wolf with bonePbefore it follows the others into dark and away.
| Virginia Boudreau
It was late October, a Sunday afternoon. We drove to the beach on Pembroke Shore and parked at the end of a long grassy lane. I remember the barren beneath the mackerel sky, darkened with tarnished goldenrod and spent blooms. Brown starbursts of seed clung to brittle stalks and clicked together in a lenient wind. The sound was vaguely comforting. He was dead, but you couldn’t know that yet. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, but it didn’t matter. It never did. The sight of your Retriever and my Yorkie was somewhat incongruous. I loved watching them spool ahead, feathers of their soft coats meshing with all that gilded grass. They romped with uncomplicated abandon. They’d never needed to learn the language of restraint. There was an element of untamed, almost heartbreaking beauty to the landscape I was loath to spoil, so I said nothing, at first. Our sneakers skittered and slid on the silvered stones of the breakwater. The beach beckoned: a level and polished mirage. Your fine hair blew in front of your face. A red leash dangled from my hand as I followed you over acres of ocean detritus to get there. It began to drizzle and the outlines of distant fish shacks blurred in the sudden mist. The sea bluff loomed: a partial face gouged away by the waves of a thousand seasons. I saw a boy’s head with coarse sienna hair flopped over a high forehead, a tousled cowlick bristled, just as his once did. The dogs had scrambled ahead and I felt the sudden terror they’d run too near the edge. There was nothing holding up the ground but a curve sculpted by years of battering. Sometimes we need pictures before we can fully understand. We crested the steep hill. I still see my dog and the way she turned her small face back to urge us on. The grass was drenched and soaked our jeans. Stinging rain now fell with an intense, almost frightening furor. The wind picked up and dominated that sodden meadow, physically bent it to her will. It made me think about the force of resolve. 28
It was hard to hear but we continued a shouted conversation, deceptively casual. Eventually I got the words out, watched your hazel eyes brim. Your hand touched my arm. You asked questions in your quiet way. My brother’s story unskeined like coils of rope, knots and all. When we reached the verge of solid ground, my gaze stayed riveted on the waves below. I marvelled at the sheer tenacity of them: how they built their lacy towers, only to have them repeatedly toppled. Soon our feet were back on the endless path of rocks, trying to avoid all those jagged edges. I was tired of watching for them everywhere, of choosing my steps so carefully. He’d likely felt this way too, in the end. We reached a nick in the dune bank and clutched at tufts of faded marram grass to heave ourselves up over the crumbling ledge. We pressed on, a choice we made. Tracks visible again, we plodded through muddy ruts. Tender berries, nestled in the bog, spurted beneath our feet. The dogs pulled, frantic to reach the familiar vehicle. When we finally made it and piled in, we were chilled to the marrow. Our fingers, red and stiffened, could barely close the doors. My Yorkie was shivering, your Lab wagging ribbons of soaked fur. The scent hung heavily in the confined space, away from the squall. There was nowhere to hide. I remember the panic rising, flapping its black wings in a cage suddenly grown small. Lost words ignited, cinders swirling; the sky’s sooty clouds like the ash heaps left after some awful form of devastation. ‘I’m dying for a coffee, what about you?’ Just like that, your voice took me to a safe place. I pictured a huge green space, lovely and untrammelled. It was crisscrossed with hills and valleys, a warren of hidden pathways. It would take years to stroll them all. I looked into your face, calm and unflinching, and knew in that moment, I wouldn’t need to be alone when I did.
Alive @ 148 mph
| Chris Vanjonack
First, the instructor writes an equation, , then he underlines it in black with a dry erase marker and asks, ‘What does this mean for each of you as drivers?’ Nobody reacts for at least 30 seconds, but the expanse of time feels much longer, most of his students slumped in their chairs and already zoned out, bored, thinking about sex or dinner. This is the attitude that is consistently held throughout his four hour long Alive at 25 driver’s education program, but tonight the instructor has decided that things will be different. He knows exactly how he looks. He is white. He is tall. He is middle aged, balding and overweight, his tucked in state trooper uniform drawing particular attention to the outline of his gut. All told, he is exactly what his students probably expected to find when they walked into his classroom, and they are visibly unhappy to find themselves clairvoyant. Tonight’s population is diverse but typical: college kids following court orders, early 20 somethings making up for DWAIs, high school kids taking an alternative route towards their permit, and at least one pissed off repeat offender who looks at all times like he wants to punch everything. The presence of an authority figure makes one half of the class nervous and the other half agitated. The instructor’s first goal is to dismantle this dichotomy. ‘Listen,’ he says, after another 30 seconds have passed. ‘I get paid the same whether you participate or not, but the next four hours are going to go a heck of a lot slower if you all just sit there.’ This gets a few begrudging chuckles, perhaps inspiring one of the high schoolers to raise her hand to volunteer an answer. She looks around 1 5, the same age as so many of the students taught by the instructor’s wife, who teaches Language Arts at the high school and spends most of her free time lesson planning, grading and rolling her eyes whenever the instructor refers to himself as a teacher. He shakes off the association and calls on the girl, who repeats the equation ( ) and offers, ‘It means that we die easy?’ The instructor nods, solemn, reaches into his bag and pulls 31
out an egg encased in a Ziploc baggie. He holds it up so that the entire class can see and then he chucks it, without warning, at the drywall. The egg shatters, the baggie limps to the floor, and yolk seeps from the plastic to form a yellow puddle. Nobody’s slouching anymore, which is cool, the instructor thinks, because usually nobody looks this awake until the last 60 seconds. Already he has diverged from his own monotone routine, and already he has set himself apart from his colleagues, who read from the textbook and rarely go so far as to crack a smile or modulate their vocal patterns. There are a few components of the class that are non negotiable, including an unfortunate 4:00 P.M. to 8:00 P.M. time slot, a passively interactive workbook and a Colorado State Patrol produced video that he is legally required to screen at the conclusion of every class, but the rest of the allotted period is his to make his own. ‘The difference between you and that egg,’ the instructor says, ‘is control.’ This is his thesis statement. He goes on to define control as , and he instructs his students to record this definition in their notebooks. ‘It’s obvious that each of you has control over vehicle and actions and your body,’ he says, ‘but you need to remember that when you sit behind the wheel, you take control over other people’s bodies, too.’ He lets them sit with that for a moment before unleashing, with textbook accuracy and TED Talk precision, a gluttony of statistics about drivers in his classroom’s 1 5 – 24 year old demographic, an age range that makes up for 1 4% of all licensed drivers but a whopping 27% of drivers involved in car wrecks, 21 % of drivers who die from collisions with other vehicles, and 34% of drivers who die from collisions with fixed objects. ‘You are in control,’ he says, ‘of whether or not you become a statistic.’ The instructor loves statistics. Since joining the State Patrol, he has developed a fixation on all types: rural driving fatalities, urban driving fatalities, driving fatalities by type of vehicle, driving fatalities by time of day, heart attack fatalities among 54 year old males, adultery rates among married couples, divorce rates for married couples who have been together longer than 20 years, and the likelihood of suicide among well off teenage girls who slam doors and scream in pillows for reasons that are at once obvious and totally mystifying. The instructor feels strongly that statistics help to give concrete weight to abstract situations. 32
Now that his students are engaged, the instructor’s next step is to get them on his side. His fellow instructors balk at the mere suggestion (‘They’re gonna laugh in your face with this egg shit’) but in the recent weeks he has come to believe strongly in the value of a positive classroom culture, even when the community in question is built up and struck down within a four hour life cycle. ‘This will be a no judgement zone,’ he promises, and then, to prove it, ‘Now come on, how many of you think this is bull?’ There’s a catharsis to the room. Nearly everybody raises a hand. ‘Listen, I was young once,’ the instructor says, sitting on his desk, all casual. ‘So let’s play a game: what’s the fastest each of you has ever driven? Go ahead, call out.’ ‘95 miles per hour,’ someone says, and now it’s a pissing contest. ‘1 24.’ ‘1 36.’ Someone asks, ‘What about you?’ The instructor allows for a rare smile, which, he hopes, will allow his students to see that there is a soul lurking within his clean cut exterior. ‘1 48,’ he tells them, and he pauses for and and calls of BS. ‘I was just a kid,’ he says. ‘Reckless. Half of you weren’t even born yet.’ He explains that he was 20 years old, driving alone through the barren roads of Wyoming in his Chevy Impala, when suddenly he felt a governing body that he could never put name to compel his right foot further onto the accelerator, deeper, harder, until he felt, finally, that he had reached a speed heretofore thought impossible for a broke, bummed and burned small town boy with nothing to his name but his hands and his automobile. ‘So don’t try and tell me that I don’t get it that you like to drive fast,’ he says, ‘but facts are facts, and for every 1 0 miles per hour over 50, your risk of death in a car crash doubles.’ Assuming that this baseline possibility for death in an automobile accident is x, he asks the class to calculate what his risk of death would have been had he crashed at 1 48 miles per hour. One of the undergrads gets it first and he writes on the whiteboard. ‘There is no better way to lose control,’ he says, ‘than going too fast for no reason.’ Over the next hour, the talk of statistics and numeracy 33
switches to talk of what it means to be a human being with impact. ‘Tell me about your family,’ he says. ‘Who loves you the most? Who depends on you the most?’ One by one, round robin style, the class answers him. ‘My boyfriend.’ ‘My sister.’ ‘My roommate.’ With apparent empathy, the instructor listens to each answer and, once they’ve finished, shares his own. ‘My mind falls first to my immediate family. My two daughters 1 2 and 1 6 and my wife.’ He feels a surge of both love and exasperation. ‘When I feel like driving aggressively, I imagine my wife is in the car going ten under in the fast lane, or that it was one of my daughters who cut me off without signaling. It makes me drive safer. Kinder. And when I think about speeding, or about driving after I’ve had too much to drink, I consider how they’d react if I died in a preventable car wreck.’ He imagines their faces if such a thing were to happen, imagines their heartbreak, hopes there’d be heartbreak, hopes that at his funeral his wife and daughters would eulogize a man who tried, who worked hard, tirelessly, long into the night, practicing devotion to both his work and his family, sometimes loaded, sure, but who pushed to be kinder and better in spite, or maybe because, of his innumerable failings as a husband to a woman who seemed bored beyond belief with the banality of his chatter, and as a father to two daughters with whom he could never seem to break some formless language barrier that caused myriad misunderstandings rooted in their at times alien lexicon. So my question for you,’ he says, ‘is how would your people feel if you turned up dead in a preventable car crash?’ The question is visibly destabilizing, his class collectively taking a prolonged moment of silence to consider the question’s ramifications before one by one raising their hands. One woman tells the class, through a quiet, sober voice, that she was emancipated at 1 6, so she doesn’t think about her parents, but she’s 23 now and she imagines her dogs going hungry, whining with anticipation at a forever shut front door. A 1 5 year old boy says, with an aching, near embarrassing sincerity, ‘My dad would be sad, because my dad and me are friends.’ The pissed off repeat offender, still sitting in the back of the classroom, who, for the near entirety of the class has not looked up from an elaborately sketched doodle, says simply from underneath his hood, ‘Sarah,’ and an accidental 34
crack in his enunciation reveals oceans. ‘You are in control,’ the instructor says, ‘of whether me or one of my colleagues has to knock on that person’s door at three in the morning to tell them that you’ve killed yourself.’ The remaining two hours fly by. The students talk openly and honestly about their good and bad driving habits and the omniscient presence of peer and societal pressure to drive fast, to be young, to be reckless. Together, they role play strategies to prevent drunk driving at house parties and distracted driving from the passenger seat and aggressive driving from surges of violence in their own hearts. They discuss best driving practices in adverse weather conditions. How to stay mindful on long commutes. How to respond to aggressive drivers around them. They brainstorm all of their positive impacts and all of their negative impacts, and the instructor urges them to consider how much better the world might be if they could all just strive to cut out the negative ones, not just speeding and tailgating but also smoking and lying and the everyday failures of kindness, which he, of course, admits to sometimes falling prey. ‘Be the sort of person,’ he urges them, ‘who chooses not to drive like a jerk.’ Then, without warning, they’ve made it through the state mandated workbook, and their time is nearly up, so the instructor goes ahead and introduces his final new activity. ‘I’m going to ask each of you to make a promise,’ he says. On the whiteboard, he writes the words, and says, ‘I’d like each of you to finish this sentence by making a commitment to control based on what you’ve learned today.’ He gives them three minutes to write an answer and then asks everyone to share out: ‘I am in control to call an Uber when I’ve had more than one drink.’ ‘I am in control to drive with both hands on the steering wheel.’ ‘I am in control to leave three seconds of distance between myself and the car in front of me.’ Once everyone has shared out, the instructor thanks the class, sincerely, from the bottom of his heart, for their attention and their kindness and their commitment to change. ‘I’m proud of you,’ he says. ‘What I’d like to leave you with is this sense of empowerment. In each and 35
every situation, behind the wheel and otherwise, you are in control. You can and will be safe and be good.’ It feels like an ending. Someone asks, ‘Are we good to go?’ The instructor starts to talk but, for the first time, stumbles. ‘If it were up to me, we’d close here,’ he says, less forceful than he’s been all evening. ‘But, uh, rules are rules, and uh, there’s one more thing. We have to watch a video,’ he says, and he turns on the television in the corner of the room. ‘You’re allowed to look away, if you want, but you’re not allowed to leave.’ He presses the play button and steps off to the side as the video begins. The words, flash across the screen, and, after the opening piano riff to a maudlin pop song begins to play, the video switches to a four minute and twenty six second montage of authentic footage from the aftermaths of apocalyptic car accidents. The first shot is of a charred young body being lifted onto a stretcher and zipped into a body bag as the August sun beats down on the scene of a four car pileup. There are a few gasps from the class and then a notable, deafening silence as the video transitions through countless variations on the same bloodied scene: crying mothers and unrecognizably melted faces, kids getting pulled out of twisted metal with their legs missing, all gushing blood and warped appendages. The class is visibly distraught. Some are staring wide eyed at the screen, a few have looked away, and the pissed off repeat offender is doodling harder than ever, violently sketching overlapping circles across his commitment statement. One of the high school kids is crying, and the instructor can’t handle this shit anymore. He turns his back to the screen and picks up the whiteboard eraser, his arm shaking as he casts equations and statistics and the word into oblivion. , he has hammered into his students’ heads, and now they must watch the carved up bodies of so many who weren’t. The video ends and the mood is somber. A couple more kids are crying. And they are kids. All of them. One is already calling her mother. ‘I need you to come get me,’ she says. ‘There’s no way I’m driving home after this.’ The instructor keeps his back to them, erasing stray, microscopic scratches of ink from the whiteboard. There is one statistic tonight that the instructor has made a conscious decision not to share: 1 5 24 year olds who attend Alive at 25 are 75% less likely to be involved in a fatal car accident. The statistic 36
appears first to be inspiring, but, upon scrutiny, pokes holes in his entire thesis, because even once his students have been empowered and informed on the dangers of reckless driving, they still have a one in four shot of losing that control, or of having it taken away from them. The video confirms this. His class confirms this. His whole life confirms this. He can’t control his wife’s dead eyed responses to him, his youngest daughter’s panic attacks, his oldest daughter’s bursts of inconsolable rage, his own bottomless drinking. He can’t even control how his own fucking class ends. The video ends, and his students shuffle out of the room without the usual urgency. Once everyone has left the building, the instructor shuts off the lights to the State Patrol Office and locks the front door. It’s cold outside, snowing, and he drops his keys once trying to dig them out of his pocket. He gets into his car, starts his engine, merges onto the interstate and discerns an impossible stretch of road before him, not a headlight to be seen in either direction, and finds that same, unknowable force beckoning his foot to the accelerator.
| Brandon Hansen
1 1 :1 3PM 1 1 :1 4PM 1 1 :1 4PM
Hey. I’ve had this thing I’ve been needing to tell you. This gut thing. This will be weird. But it’s been weird at school too, so, I guess I should get the big weird thing out so that it’s not small weird every single day.
1 1 :1 6PM
The thing is – there’s always been this pressure, like this rush of blood in me when you’re around. When you walk to the bus stop – it’s like I’m cold, and then I hear your door swing open, up the road, and then I see you, and then I’m not.
1 1 :1 8PM 1 1 :1 9PM
The problem is – I don’t want to feel this thing. We’re too different. 39
1 1 :20PM
1 1 :21 PM 1 1 :21 PM
I smell like smoke. All the time. My mom smokes. Constantly. Our woodstove is always back puffing. The wood’s too wet. My mom sits next to the smoking woodstove and smokes. It’s just smoky. We’re smoking the turkey this year. It’s like you open the windows and smoke comes out of the house. We’re poor. You’re not.
1 1 :23PM
I’m scared, because I don’t know what comes next. I don’t know how to stop this thing from hitting me when I see you – but I think of NOT seeing you every day, of your tweed hat, not bouncing down the snowy hill, and that hits me too, like a ton of fucking bricks.
1 1 :25PM
You gave me two pebbles, once. One black, one white. They were both smooth. You don’t know this, but I have them with me every day. I roll them around in my pockets, squeeze them between my fingers until they press on my bones. What do I even do about that?
1 1 :25PM
1 1 :26PM 1 1 :27PM 1 1 :28PM 1 1 :28PM
1 1 :30PM 1 1 :31 PM
I overheard my parents talking about our dog. Dad said he was going to put her down in the backyard. I know that your cat is getting old, too. But I bet your Dad won’t take him out back and shoot him in the head, will he? No, but I bet you will go to the vet and all hold hands and cry as they inject him with something he’ll never feel. They’ll send him back with you in a nice box, made of maple or oak. We burn maple and oak to stay warm. We’ll just dump her body in a hole in the ground. Worms and – I don’t know – ants? Will eat her. We are that different.
1 1 :34PM
I’m sorry I’m texting you so much.
1 1 :37PM 1 1 :37PM
Don’t be sorry. I’m sorry that you’re worried. I don’t want you to stop talking to me. We are different, or at least we came up different. But wouldn’t it be presumptuous of us to act differently because of that?
1 1 :39PM
I don’t know what to say when you talk about how your house is. I don’t know what you want me to do about your Mom smoking, or anything like that. But why does that affect what riding the bus together is like?
1 1 :41 PM
You and I are similar in a lot of ways – we like the same music, both of our parents dislike our music tastes. We both have A’s in Biology.
1 1 :43AM
Were those gunshots at your house???
1 1 :43AM
| Christy O'Callaghan
‘Wait is the person who wore these clothes okay?’ I look back towards the counter and see the dry cleaner pulling on a pair of gloves. She takes the green, plastic hospital bag from my outstretched hands. They linger in the air still sensing the weight of the bag and its contents. I keep asking over and over in my head. ‘I don’t know,’ is the best I can come up with. Her blond hair falls over her face. She stops looking at me long enough for me to look at her. I’m taken aback by her calm. Maybe she’s used to other people’s stains. Our mistakes. Our misfortunes. Regrets. All of us hoping she can fix them. Over a stainless steel sink, she begins to spray something on the hooded Patriots sweatshirt. Her lips move, and I try hard to listen. My hands still hover in front of me. ‘This’ll start the process for you, but it’s not gonna be easy to get all of this out.’ Her shoulders slump forward as she stares at the blood. So much blood. ‘As I said, we can’t do it here. Body fluids.’ Biohazard. Blood borne pathogens. Brother. After stuffing the clothes back in the hospital bag, she writes down the name of the detergent she thinks will work best. ‘Sweetie, it’s in a blue bottle.’ My blank stare revealing that I can't decipher what’s on the paper. ‘Thank you.’ Lame words. I have nothing, but lame words. I don’t know what made me think the dry cleaner could do this for me. I teach classes on the risks that can lurk in body fluids; my evolved brain knows they can’t help. My lizard brain wants to throw a temper tantrum until they do. I stop at Target with its overly cheery red and white to buy the blue bottled miracle worker, batteries, a CD player, comic books and gummy bears, but not the sugar free kind. Once home, I grab one of our cutting boards, a bucket, a nail brush and my iPod from the apartment and make the two floor descent. 46
‘God, I hate basements,’ I mumble. As a kid I wouldn't enter any subterranean level without my brothers by my side. But now down I go because that's where the washer and dryer are. In between texts to my husband, who’s at work, and my mom as she keeps vigil over my brother at the hospital, I scrub and wash. Red frothy foam soaks into every crevice and line of my hands, back splashing onto my shirt. I fill and refill the bucket with warm water and work the detergent with a nailbrush to pull blood from the sleeves of the gray sweatshirt. Most of the blood had grown brown, caky and dry. There’s even blood inside the pocket. He must have cradled his arms in there to hide them away. He doesn’t like making other people uncomfortable. I never get the pocket completely clean. The cutting board acts like an old fashioned washboard. I throw it out when I'm done. I throw out the nail brush and the little bit of leftover detergent as well. I scrub and run the load. Scrub and run the load. Scrub and run the load. Scrub and run the load. My brother’s blood slowly releasing from the fabric and running down the drain. I wipe down the machine between each wash. Afraid that someone will come down and see the sweatshirt before I finish, I stay in the basement, sit on an old, overturned milk crate, and listen to Nine Inch Nails. . My eyes search for something to focus on for more than two seconds and they land on the storage units that line one wall of the basement. I stare at the doors, wondering if I can still pick locks. A useful skill when I was a teenage camp counselor. Parents would send their children with footlockers and keys, which either didn't make the trip or, more often than not, were locked inside. The storage unit locks don’t appear much different. The image of my little brother, Patrick, dressed up in a catcher’s chest protector, kilt, stripped gym socks and a backward baseball hat covering hair the color of an old penny floats into my head. He was Axl Rose for the Air Bands talent show one summer. snake charmer dance and all. He made camp legend. My shoulders do the Axl sway, and I turn my iPod up. I manage not to break into people’s storage units and smash their belongings as the washer agitates. Scrub and wash. The hours drift by without me noticing. No light shines into the basement windows through this stormy November 47
day. No people come down to use the machines, odd for a Saturday since these are the best ones in the apartment complex. Instead, it’s just me and the mouse that’s poking around. I am determined to return to my brother with his favorite sweatshirt. I can’t leave him in a psych ward without his armor. Why else would he have chosen this specific article of clothing to wear as he drove himself to the hospital to fight for his life? He changed his mind, I keep reminding myself. That's something, right? This isn’t the first time I’ve almost lost him. He nearly died after being hit by a car when he was five. But the war was the hardest. He was so sure he was going to die when he was shot in the back in Afghanistan and broke two vertebrae. Flak jackets don’t repel bullets; they slow them down. And while I didn’t lose him physically, he did lose his sense of inner peace. We have an unspoken agreement that he can call me when he needs to be vulnerable. It’s the same agreement we had as kids: he could always wake me up when he didn’t feel well or was scared. A little boy with red footie pajamas leaning against the pink bathtub. Me with my back against the pink door telling stories until he felt better or fell asleep. Since the war, his voice is sometimes broken by a stutter. That’s when it’s bad, and there’ve been a lot of bad calls lately. War brothers taking their lives, one after another; him being laid off due to downsizing; his bitch of a wife telling him to move out. The call I received two days ago, the one I couldn’t get out of that stupid meeting fast enough to answer, was the worst. A sister knows. In his voicemail there was no stutter, no fear, no warmth, just emptiness. His need for peace. His goodbye. After I heard the voicemail, I called my mom. Hours of waiting went by before she found him in the ER. When I hung up the phone, my knees fell to the floor at the foot of my bed. I screamed into that cheap, scratchy beige carpet, my face between my knees, furious with myself for not picking up his call fast enough. The one call I didn’t answer. My mom told me to wait at home until the next morning; she needed to be alone by his side. I stared at the ceiling above my bed, repeatedly counting down from 1 000 until the morning came. My husband drove the two hour trip from Upstate New York to Western Massachusetts to keep me from going off the road. 48
Patrick was still sitting in the ER when we got there. Waiting for his mandatory seventy two hour hold to begin. Waiting for food. Sitting in his blood soaked clothes. Arms stitched and wrapped in bandages. No shoes on his feet. I tried to take him to the hospital cafeteria, but they wouldn’t let me. They wouldn’t let me bring him food, either. ‘Only one visitor at a time.’ These rules suck. Seventeen hours after he was stitched up and still stuck in a hard, plastic chair surrounded by people coughing from the flu. I sat next to him and put my hand on his hunched back, his blue eyes looking at the floor, and asked him who was in charge. He called her over. ‘Hi, my brother needs a room. He’s feeling worse now than when this started. He needs help,’ I said in the kindest voice I could manage. I even tried to smile, but it’s my brother that’s the charming one. ‘There are plenty of other people waiting…’ ‘Who? That guy screaming and spitting at the staff? My brother’s being patient and calm so he doesn't matter?’ I kept myself planted in the chair, afraid of what I would do if I got up. I didn’t want to make it worse. ‘Well, no. It’s just that…’ In desperation, I reached out and grabbed her hand, ‘Ma’am, I know you’ve got a hard job here. It’s thankless, no one treats you well, but please, find him a room. I’ll thank you every day for the rest of my life. Doesn’t he deserve that? Please.’ She sighed and looked me in the eye for the first time. She squeezed my hand and turned to him. ‘What’s your name again?’ Half an hour later he had a room and food. Thank you overworked, underpaid, undervalued hospital lady. Thank you. After we got him in a room and a clean, green t shirt and food in his belly, and my mom and our big brother, JJ, left, quiet set in and he cried. My husband cried. I cried. I felt so useless. I couldn’t protect him. They gave us extra time in the room before they shooed us out because we’re ‘such a nice family.’ My husband drove me home. I called my best friend, a tattoo artist, to ask how long my brother’s arms needed to heal before they could be tattooed to cover the scars. I cradled the green hospital bag of blood soaked clothes on my lap. ‘It’s my favorite,’ he told me when I asked if he wanted me to throw it out, and he sounded like the little boy who used to wake me up when he couldn’t sleep and wanted company. 49
So, I stay in the basement. I scrub, and I wash, and I worry. Will he try again? Would my mom ever recover? I think about the call I got when he was on night watch detail and found his platoon buddy after he’d shot himself. It was the first time I’d heard the stutter. He was in hell, and I was home, safe in my apartment. He was trying to clean his friend’s brains off his boots, worried they wouldn’t be presentable in time for inspection, while I was curled up with tea and a fuzzy blanket. I scrub, and I wash, and I wonder if I would feel this selfish if he had some horrible terminal illness and only wanted to end his life with dignity. No part of me wants to lose him. The pain he feels is real. I believe in doctor assisted suicide. Is this the same? Is this my life to beg for? Inside my head, I call to our beloved, dead grandmother, ‘be ready for him just in case.’ I turn up my iPod even louder. And then I run the dryer. My husband meets me after he leaves work, and we drive back to the psych ward, to my brother. I bring him a bag of items, not too different from the care packages I sent while he served overseas or gave him when we were kids: CDs, the player, the batteries, comic books, gummy bears, but not the sugar free kind, and the sweatshirt. My brother pulls the sweatshirt up to his nose and smells the fresh scent of the blue liquid miracle. I can see him relax. The sour, metallic stink of iron gone. ‘How’d it get clean so fast?’ My husband nods towards me and answers, ‘She’s been working on it all day.’ My brother looks at me with my same eyes, same round face, and asks, ‘How?’ I shake my head, ‘Someday I’ll tell you. Not today.
Under the Midnight Sun | Victoria Sanderson
As the sun settled on the mountains in the distance, I squinted to see Levi, running in a crouch with the barrel of his gun pointed above his head. Ahead of him, I could just spot the caribou standing above the treeless tundra. KOTZ RadioP ‘the hottest station in the Arctic’P had announced that the sun was going to set for the first time since summer began, but it would be another month before it dipped low enough, long enough for streetlights to be turned on. New systems for blocking out the midnight sun were frequent topics of conversation among our small group of Park Service seasonals. While a park like Yellowstone hires dozens of seasonal rangers during the summer rush, the Western Arctic National Parklands hires four people over the summer. In the park’s twelve million acres, there are no campsites or historical markers. The only way in is by boat or bush plane, so the visitor center is outside the park, in the native Inupiaq town of Kotzebue, Alaska. As a seasonal, I was promised one trip into the backcountry and a summer in Kotz.
‘It’s not as bad as it looks,’ my new roommate Evan, insisted when he picked me up at the busy, one terminal airport. And it’s not, as long as you can see past the homes walled with rotting plywood on Second Street, the pile of trash and cannibalized snow machines on Third Street, and the caribou heads piled on the roof of the empty building next to the Empress Chinese restaurant on Front. In some ways, Kotzebue is a quintessential small, American community: co ed softball games draw crowds on weekends; kids are free to ride their bicycles around in unsupervised packs; if you buy a shirt from the thrift store, there’s a good chance you’ll run into its original owner. Kotz is a regular Mayberry, thirty miles above the arctic circlePbut I had a hard time seeing that on first glance. 52
Evan had already been in Kotz for a month and a half and seemed to have adjusted. He took me to a barbecue at the Park Superintendent’s house that first weekend. It was there I met Levi. Levi was a native, married to Ann, a Fish and Wildlife biologist from New Jersey. Unlike the other people I met at the barbecue, Levi didn’t apologize for Kotzebue. He didn’t tell me I’d get used to the smell of dead seals on the beach, or that I should have come in winter when the snow covers everything, so you can’t see how rough it looks. If anything, it felt like Levi was sizing me up to see if I would make it. ‘You had caribou yet?’ he asked. I hadn’t, but I jumped at the chance, thinking it was a rarely eaten, traditional delicacy. I could smell the taste before I bit into it. ‘What do you think?’ Evan asked as I tried to chew through the meat. ‘It tastes like it’s still running.’ Evan offered to finish the rest for me but took the plate with a warning: ‘It’s not really an option to not eat caribou here.’ I would come to realize that Evan’s low key, Portland sensibility, was usually rightPfive people are too many to fit on the back of a four wheeler; jalapeño peppers can be baked into cornbread; and, no, avoiding caribou is not an option in rural North West Alaska. It was that same sensibility, and his long, thin legs, that would guide Evan over the tundra as the rest of our seasonal crew, Katie Mack, Erin, and I, struggled to keep up with Levi on our hunt. I watched as Katie Mack tried to mimic the way Levi leaped from tussock to tussock, only staying on each rounded clump of grass long enough to push off towards the next one. Her ankles dangerously close to twisting as she tried to settle the rest of her body above them; her hands futilely reaching out for something to hold onto. When the top layer of ground thaws in summer, the permafrost below blocks the water from sinking any further, leaving patches of small, cranberry lined bogs. The tussocks are the only dry place to step, but their shallow roots leave them only loosely tethered to the earth and create unreliable stepping stones. I knew the Inupiaq word for tussocks, . Our group had absorbed the native words we heard, like for cold and for drunk. The Inupiaq catch all exclamation, 53
, seamlessly came to mind when one of the sled dogs had a longer chain than expected, or when someone brought us their extra white fish. As I watched Levi effortlessly drop to one knee and balance the barrel of the gun in his palm, I thought, ‘ .’ Levi adjusted the gun against his shoulder.
The sound of Levi’s shots didn’t surprise me, what did was the sound of the bullet hitting the caribou’s fleshPlike a fist hitting a punching bag. I didn’t hear the second shot, but there must have been one. Erin and I tried to pick up our pace. Erin had fallen behind after she tripped face first trying to run on the tundra and my leather boat shoes were slowing me down. I would have fared better in rubber boots, but I’d put on the stupid boat shoes earlier that evening because our group usually just spent Friday nights cooking and drinking beer. It was actually a big night for us: the day our box of produce got shipped in from Washington and delivered to the Church of Go (the ‘D’ having fallen off). There was no way I could have expected Levi’s spontaneous invitation to go caribou hunting. After watching Erin and Katie Mack stumble over the tussocks, I took the boat shoes off and chose the bogs. My feet instantly numbed and left me free to walk through the water and over the prickly lichen. I was able to find a rhythm to my steps and reached the two dead caribou before Levi started skinning them. The first caribou had only a small hole in its shoulder and a trickle of blood leaking from its snout. The second Levi must have shot in the stomach because he’d cut the throat. The tundra was stained with blood where its head laid pulled back from its neck at an unnatural hinge. ‘Come on, before they start to go bad,’ Levi said. Levi cut the male open with the rip of a new zipper. ‘Ass to neck,’ he explained without looking up. Once the cut was made, he rolled the body on its side and pulled it open at the stomach, revealing the muscle below. Levi plunged his hand into the body and started to remove the skin. He worked quickly, reminding me that this wasn’t a tutorial for my benefit: this was how he filled his refrigerator. He paused for only a second, and held up his right hand with the fingers folded at the middle knuckles, ‘Make your fist like a bear paw, and pull the extra skin away.’ 54
Katie Mack helped him finish cleaning the male. Evan and I each took a handful of skin from the female with our left hand, and pushed into her body with our right. The back of my arm pressed against the muscle, and the skin separated at my knuckles. It felt as easy as peeling a sticker. I moved closer to the spine until I was elbow deep and my whole right side began to tingle with warmth. A fine layer of slime covered my hand but there wasn’t as much blood as I’d imagined. We rolled the body to the other side and the caribou’s loose winter coat blew free and whirled in the wind around us. The air smelled of the wild tea leaves we crushed beneath our feet. I held open the female’s ribs while Levi removed the sloshing stomach. He tossed it across the tundra and began separating the heads, first breaking the neck with a quick twist of velvet antlers. Headless and empty, only the legs still reminded me of the animals I’d seen from the back of Levi’s truck, but he removed those too, and set them aside. Then he folded the torsos in on themselves and cut two handholds around the ribs, like bloody rucksacks. He threw the smaller one over Evan’s shoulder and put a set of legs inside the larger one before heading back to the truck. Erin, Katie Mack, and I carried the rest of the legs by the hooves, holding them at arm’s length so we weren’t kicked with the raw bone as we walked. It was easier going back with my feet already numb. We reached the truck and stacked the legs in the bed, saving room for ourselves. Levi and Evan dropped the torsos on the opposite side; matching blood stains covered each man’s jacket, starting at the shoulders and dripping to the waistline. Levi striped to his bare chest, revealing a long, thick scar down his stomach. It could have just been from some innocent accident, but I would have bet not. There was an edge to Levi. He’d been in Kotzebue for years and no one seemed to know his past. I purposely avoided the topic, although I often wondered how he ended up married to a biologist from New Jersey. Rumors about him and Ann constantly circulated around town. One time I heard he was living in a shipping container because Ann had locked him out, another time he disappeared upriver for more than a week. But I had no real reason to be leery of Levi. He’d cooked my first caribou steak, introduced our group to people who usually shied away from outsiders, and let us all go along on his hunt. Still, there was something that made me nervous to be left alone with 55
‘Want to try it?’ he asked, nodding to the carcasses bleeding in the truck bed. I’d assumed we would all get a meal out of the hunt, but Levi had a more immediate idea then I did. He cut off a handful of meat and bit into it, removing the rest with his knife. Maybe the thing that bothered me about Levi was his unpredictability, but I knew I would regret it if I didn’t take him up on his offer. ‘I’ll try it.’ Levi handed me the knife and the chunk of meat, brushing away a few loose caribou hairs. Holding it in my teeth, I could feel its warmth in my breath. I cut the rest away and tasted so much blood I licked my lips to make sure I hadn’t nicked them. The caribou kicked and fought back as I tried to bite down on it. I chased it around my mouth and struggled to tell the difference between my tongue and the animal. I wanted to swallow it. I’d already eaten raw ptarmigan and fermented walrus with Levi, this caribou wasn’t that different. But as I began to understand what ‘still running’ actually tastes like, I realized that on the tundra, just past the far side of Loop Road, the land demands a respect that takes longer than a summer or a seasonal gig to learn. I wasn’t ready. I spit the caribou back to the earth. My group applauded my efforts. Levi seemed a little disappointed. As we headed home to cook, I sat perched on the side of the pickup truck with what was left of the two animals below me, sloshing in blood over the bumpy road. It must have been late, but the midnight sun made it hard to tell how much time had passed.
Blue Bar, Surf Avenue | Kate Wheeler
The blue bar on Surf Avenue, they have what you need. Heat or air conditioning, a hot drink, a stiff drink. A gift every time you come in. The bar is a corner spot with two walls of windows. The sun comes in soft, diffuse. There’s a view of the Cyclone (that coaster reaching skyward like a pile of bones, red and white), a view of the Wonder Wheel. On Sunday morning, sick, I take the train to Coney, stroll down the boardwalk in the sun. It is late fall and I button my coat up tight. I’ve cried all night. My throat is thick, my stomach a pit, the skin of my face is tender. I am too full of sorrow. Things hurt me. Emotion thunders against my edges as I move through the world. Today I pass: the wrinkled older women on the benches in their scarves; a man with a rigid walk and a newsboy cap; stout mothers in coats pushing children in strollers. The light on the sea. Slowly, slowly, I make my way to the blue bar on Surf Avenue. Patrick is behind the bar today. He’s working alone and there’s business, but also time, we can talk. I pay a dollar fifty for a tea and he moves the tray of condiments down the counter to where I can reach. Patrick is the House Manager. He wears black and looks me in the eye. He tells me how infant incubation was developed on Coney Island, just around the corner at a doctor’s private practice, because at the time no hospital would take a gamble on the process. Not many people know that, but it’s true. Patrick is a fire eater since twenty, suffered a collapsed lung at twenty five. He became a fire eater, Patrick says, because in Tulsa, Oklahoma he saw a small man blow a fifteen foot stream of flame out of his face. I can imagine it myself, wanting to consume hot coals, extinguish them in my throat. 58
On Coney Island pier, fishermen and fisherwomen drop their wooden crates into the gray sea. A fish writhes on the wooden slats of the pier while children stand and watch. At the pier’s far end, people stand around a wooden board that is lain like a table top over a plastic bucket. Everyone slaps down money and rolls the dice. Teenagers climb over the railing and balance on cement pillars that hold the pier up. Then they jump, and fall into the dark water.
My friend Dashan has been dead a month. I go into the blue bar on Surf Avenue and find him there. He is huddled into himself on a barstool, hand around a brown bottle. He gives me a closed lipped smile. ‘What are you doing?’ I say, pointing at the bottle, ‘You know, you died that way.’ He shrugs and takes a swig. I sit down next to him at the bar. ‘I didn’t mean for that to happen,’ he says, ‘Don’t be angry with me.’ I never can. Life was more painful for Dashan than it is for me. What I want to know is, was it the sadness that killed him. ‘I didn’t die because I was sad,’ he says. ‘You think I’m some kind of pussy?’ He looks me in the eye. ‘You’re not going to die this way, you know,’ he says. I say, ‘I know.’ We sit there, quiet. It is always comfortable just to sit quietly next to Dashan. I will miss this. Outside there is sudden rain and we watch the water slide along the glass of the windows. I say, ‘It’s been raining a lot since you left.’ Dashan nods, chuckles into his beer, says nothing.
after a snow.
Yoko and I go to Coney Island at night, midwinter and
We are alone on the bright train car all the way down. We roll into the station. The Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel arch darkly outside the window, unlit. It is six months since Dashan passed away. On the street, bulbs glow over the entrance to the station, and down the block we can see soft light from the windows of the blue bar. We pull our coats close and wander the alleyways between the closed rides, the shuttered sideshows and arcades. The wind howls, low around the high, strange shapes of the rollercoaster and Ferris wheel. The old metal groans. No one, no one, no one. We walk along beside a fenced lot, empty except for a lonely marquee whose canvas sides are ragged and unmoored. They snap and shudder in the strong wind. Near a gap in the fence, one set of footprints leads through smooth snow to the center of the lot. We follow, and stand in the cold watching the walls of the marquee jump. There is light from the white moon, and from a single streetlamp. Back out in the alleyway, Yoko takes my picture, then her own, then our picture, then my picture again, in front of the corrugated metal curtains of the closed booths. The curtains rumble. Confronted with her camera I often twist up my face, hunch, or look away. But here, now, I stand straight and look into the lensâ€™ eye.
In springtime, just outside the sideshow, the workers loiter in their suspenders and fishnet stockings and tattoos. There is a raised platform, and on it a man with very yellow hair calls to a crowd. Next to him is a thin woman wearing a dress that looks like snakeskin. She stares ahead and never smiles. The man with yellow hair shouts that she was raised by circus performers, has been in a circus all her life. He tells the crowd to look what she can do, and she kneels, begins to bend her arms over her head and around her back. The man with the yellow hair calls another woman onto his platform stage. She is the Elephant Skin Woman. She is dressed in white, with a white veil over her face. Her hands hang at her sides. The 60
man with the yellow hair takes one of her hands and raises it to show the crowd how her skin is shiny and tight, as if she has been burnt. ‘For just five dollars, you can go inside the tent. Look into her eyes and know her story, folks,’ the man with the yellow hair says. At the last minute he changes it to three dollars. The crowd surges forward. When it gets dark, fireworks rumble and crack somewhere inside the park. From the street beside the sideshow you cannot see them, only the strange red gray smoke they leave behind.
I find Dashan curled up like a child, his head on his knees and his arms around his shins. He is sitting on the boardwalk, on the shallow steps that blend into the sand. I touch his back. ‘Do you still feel that way, even now?’ I ask him. The posture is one he often held in life, when he got low. ‘I thought you’d be resting now,’ I say, ‘I thought you’d be happy.’ He lifts his head and looks at me. ‘I’m not unhappy,’ he says, ‘It’s not about feeling good all the time.’ It’s evening. The air is gray blue, the sand still warm. Children shout by the water and behind us, on the boardwalk, lights glow white and yellow. Beside Dashan on the stairs is a gray plastic suitcase. I know this suitcase. It was once in Dashan’s apartment, full of recording equipment. ‘What’s that doing here?’ I ask him. ‘I wanted it,’ he says. ‘It looks heavy,’ I say. ‘Can I help you carry it? He shakes his head. ‘No,’ he says, ‘I’m the one who wants it. I’ve got to carry it myself.’ We sit together on the boardwalk and watch the ocean roll over itself, towards the shore. Rush, rush, rush.
On my birthday, in midsummer, a horde of us go down to Coney. I walk slowly through the rich evening light, through the glow 61
and clatter and ring, and celebrate myself. Yoko wants to ride the Cyclone. We crowd into line and climb into the red carts. Yoko shares with me. A man walks along and slams the padded, metal guard bar into place over our knees. There are feet of space between the bar and my stomach, and I doubt that it can hold me in at all. The carts creak slowly up and at the coaster’s peak we pause: there is a moment when you can feel the threat of gravity before it grabs you. Then we drop, and I rise up in my seat and hug that padded bar to keep from flying out, and I hate it, and I am terrified for my life, and it feels like being abandoned, it feels like the diagnosis of disease, like the televised declaration of war. Yoko throws out her arms and shouts. Finally, the tracks scoop us up. We zoom towards the next peak. ‘Oh god, oh god,’ I say, ‘Is it happening again? I don’t want to do it again, I want to get off.’ Yoko holds my arm and we plummet. The second fall is not as long. By the third time I am prepared. By the third time it is easy. I breathe and shake all the slow return to the base, and when the cart stops I feel my way back onto the wooden platform. Yoko moves up to the first cart to ride again. Everyone stays on but me. I walk back down to the hard dirt and the cement. I don’t stop shaking for at least half an hour. Someday I will ride the Cyclone with my hands in the air, shouting all the way down. At dusk we head to the beach, spread sheets on the sand and sit together to see the fireworks. We watch them burst and burn. They shake in our chests. Out over the ocean, more quietly, more fireworks. And far away on some shore, fireworks too. Tomorrow is Independence Day.
In an empty lot facing the boardwalk is Shoot the Freak. A young man sits on a stool outside and calls through a megaphone: ‘Step right up and shoot the freak! Come on people! You don’t go to jail, you don’t get in trouble. Shoot him in the head! He likes it. Like this. In the 62
head. Bop bop. Thanks for shooting the freak! He appreciates it. Anybody else want to shoot the freak?’ In the empty lot below, another young man moves listlessly among chunks of concrete, gravel, a few scraggily weeds. He shifts debris from the center of the lot to its edges. He wears a red shirt, a helmet, a back brace, knee pads and shin guards, tennis shoes. He holds a wooden shield. In his face are restraint and defiance. ‘Tell him I’m not doing this shit!’ the helmeted man shouts to the man with the megaphone, ‘Tell him I’m not gonna dig through no rocks!’ Some teenagers approach the lot. They inspect a plastic paintball gun that has been affixed to the boardwalk’s railing. They look out at the man with the helmet and shield. ‘Is that him?’ they ask the man with the megaphone, ‘Is that the freak?’ The teenagers pay money and aim the paintball gun into the empty lot. The freak sidesteps their shots lazily.
I find Dashan in the dark arcade, playing Ms. Pacman. ‘You never got to teach me,’ I say. He looks away from the game and pins me with sharp eyes, smiling. ‘You can still learn,’ he says. When he turns back the game is over. ‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘Want another quarter?’ He shakes his head. We walk out to the street. There is music on the boardwalk tonight. ‘Want to dance?’ Dashan says. I feel embarrassed. ‘I can’t dance,’ I say. ‘You don’t have to worry so much,’ Dashan says, ‘Worrying never helps. If someone asks you to dance, say yes.’ I put my hands on his shoulders and he puts his on my waist. We rock back and forth, middle school style. ‘See?’ he says. ‘This is awkward,’ I say. ‘Who’s awkward?’ he says. ‘I’m not awkward.’ Then he swings me around fast. We dance down the sidewalk and through the crowd, wild. 63
The Life Expectancy of a Human Skeleton | Jennifer Benningfield
Peter Lawson, long of the American South, a eusocial creature for thirty four of his thirty five years, wondered how it felt to bleed as a woman bled. He also wondered when (not if) the world would abandon its axis and float into an asteroid. Peter Lawson liked when people called him ‘Pete.’ He liked living alone, cloistered more hours than not, curtains drawn, cubes droning. The wife never remembered his name. . Not Paul, Page, Pat, Phil. It was no small annoyance. Did lash out? He did not. The urges to grab her by the blonde ponytail and smash her crescent shaped face into the sizzling grill were frequent and mighty, yet he'd learned to squash them with relative ease. , he'd admit, smashing something more appropriate onto the grill. He slept intermittently and shallowly. The luxury of a box spring was one thing he couldn't refuse a freebie from his mother but he refused to compromise sleep with superfluous head support. He did not believe in the palliative effects of companionship. Girlfriends, boyfriends, roommates he had never experienced a one. Nor had he ever owned a four legged nuisance. He could not possibly be expected to provide the required care. He read truth and nothing but, regarding fiction as a deadly indulgence promoting the unraveling of a man's self control. He snacked throughout the day on granola and dried fruit, having deemed the ‘full meal’ another drug abused by Western culture. Eradicating toxic influences had limits. There was little he could do about his family, particularly those members operating under the delusion of being ‘supportive.’ (They gathered, eight strong, fearful he was leading a life somehow less than productive. Rather than a set up, it was a sit down. As in, sit down and shut up while loved ones lay out how weird and wrong you are about basically everything.) The day could certainly have started without a sampling from the numerous vitamins and supplements (and other things) at his 65
disposal, but the last 51 2 had not, and Pete enjoyed the feelings from such a good long streak, nearly as intensely as those feelings from the red rugby shirt, which had gone from snug to loose in the past dozen months. A handsome hand me down Honda truck sat in the parking lot. Pete removed a white and red GMC Denali from its bed. He placed a helmet over his head, strap into his mouth, and began moving his teeth and feet simultaneously. He had never had an accident. Had never had a hornet alight on his nose, either. The indignity of the fall could not be measured in distance or force of impact. Accidents happened, pain happened. But why, for the love of everything that wasn't holy, did those two lunkheads have to be loitering outside the pawn shop across the street? Pete attempted to crush the handlebars underneath his palms as he made the last minute of the trek with a throbbing left shoulder. The idea came, went, and reappeared sporadically throughout the six hour shift: adventures . More than a couple, less than several. The first would occur on a Sunday, the one unencumbered day of his week. Dust flew from the curtains that morning. The sun was clearly rooting for Pete, punching his shoulders and patting his cheeks, commending him on his uncommon dedication. He jogged a comb through his hair, letting the teeth scratch the skin of his neck. His upper body would need reinforcements. Pete slid a royal blue flannel over the white Rolling Stones novelty tee, not bothering to push circles through slits. By the time he passed through the main entrance of the apartment, his largest, unlikeliest supporter had gone into hiding. Pete tugged at the straps of his backpack as if fulfilling a ritual. (â€˜You can't continue on living a no accountability life,â€™ his mother warned, finger jabbing and stabbing in the space between their rapidly reddening faces.) The hand railing running down the middle of the stone stairs cast an impressive shadow, black tape laid down in a zig zag pattern. The visual remained stuck to the roof of his brain, until competition too fierce yanked it down and tossed it aside to fight it out with the other recent memories. 66
Whoever Marty L. Polk was, he could not have been as subtly bewitching as the park bearing his name. Pete trembled, imagining that every hundred feet he were stepping out of one naturalistic piece of art into another. Others saw trees and admired them for their size, their beauty, what they held up and what they let drop; Pete admired the services they provided to a planet that scarcely deserved the care. Those were not roots; those were the arteries of Earth jutting through the soil, thick and indispensable, the toothed leaves lying in between them a richly colored representation of blood. Pete's steps grew brisker as evidence of his peers grew closer. A hundred feet east, a man played fetch with a large black dog. Pete could only grunt as the auburn sky nudged him between the shoulder blades, urging him onward, off the paved path and over lovingly tended blades of green, towards a baseball field which would not see officially sanctioned action for a handful of months. Pete bent over mid stride to snatch a Coke bottle, its meager contents resembling a mixture of urine and bourbon thanks to the effects of prolonged exposure. The litterer either didn't see the trash can or just couldn't bear the ten foot trek. The taste would likely match the appearance; still, Pete unzipped his backpack and jammed the plastic inside. Heeding the warm trail running from chest to chin, Pete trudged over to the bleachers, marveling at how they had not changed in the two decades since his mother, and an aunt, on occasion, would stretch their butts over them, hooting and clapping at any sight of the fat little boy at first base, in the batterâ€™s circle, in the batterâ€™s box. He walked to the rear, squinting. In a matter of seconds, he gasped aloud. Humans don't obey their instincts enough; Pete Lawson would not be told otherwise. Sitting several inches away from the center of the lowest row, bisected by a beam of light, was an inch high anthill. The diligent architects hustled to and from, up and down, caring not whit one for the stunned man standing less than a foot away, rummaging through the backpack. He tiptoed closer. Still they persisted.
He knelt, tongue sliding timidly across his lips. He hovered over the structure like a lover waiting for the right time to aggress, breaths jagged but invisible. The anticipation almost always exceeded the satisfaction. No sooner had one end of the red cocktail straw come to rest atop the anthill, a dozen of the pests hastened onto it. Pete remained on his knees, agog. The water rose, momentarily obscuring the objects of his desire. ‘You are easy prey,’ he informed the oblivious critters in a gray whisper. ‘SO easy. And there's SO many of you.’ . Down went the ants into the jar of glass. Again. Once more, in deference to the charm of their ludicrous strength and fierce loyalty. And the fact so many of the damned things were scurrying about. On the second day, Pete felt the void within widen and darken. Despite a solid minute spent smashing hands against a leafy quilt, he returned home the same weight as when he'd left. On day three, the battle of the bands concluded with an early afternoon downpour (the mere warning smell sent Pete into a giggling fit on the seat of his Denali). Just past five, Pete set out once more for ‘Marty's Park,’ the name he preferred, giddy at what awaited. He did not enter the park, however. On the periphery, his steps were deliberate. The useless swarm of gnats, which would normally earn a snarl and a swat, were sidestepped without so much as a frown. He kept his head down, mostly, rewarded for his persistence after a half mile. There they were, basically as he'd envisioned them, driven from their hidey holes, onto the sidewalk. Pete thought quite highly of worms. They rejected light; they derived nutrition from decaying things. Like the ants, they revealed to the curious man each facet in which he lacked, exposed the incomplete truth of human evolution. He left the park an hour later with six earthworms squirming inside a small sandwich bag. ‘Where'd you learn to walk, pal? A bounce house at the carnival?’ 68
the brittle man.
He felt bad for the brittle man. He would drink a toast to
On day four, Pete broke the fast. ‘Bird food.’ The bulk of his diet, as per his family. They wanted him to eat more in line with the rest of Western culture processed and prepackaged, sugared and shitty. ‘ ’ he exclaimed, a fat boy at Thanksgiving, half a plate loaded with mashed potatoes loaded with butter, hardly able to lift the fork, damn near suffocating from the prospect of a full stomach. The dish perched on his lap was quite the opposite of those from his careless boyhood; quite the opposite of this from the restaurant's standard fare. Atypical meats, nothing trendy, no bread. What he was about to eat, he knew, would help smooth out the rough edges. Energy, complexion, alertness had he a sex life, no doubt that would see a boost as well. He wasn't a virgin; he just hadn't been all that impressed. On the suggestion of strangers, Pete roasted the ants, adding salt for texture. Pinching a few between his fingers, he found their sour taste nearly unbearable. Still, he ate them all. The abandoned Coca Cola made a passable palate cleanser. On day five came the frying of the flies. Despite the less than spectacular results of the day prior, Pete's enthusiasm remained undamped, feet barely touching the hardwood as he paced the limited living space, imagining himself the spokesperson for The Lawson Way of Life (‘Diets Don't Work! Change Your Way for Every Day!’), bright faced and undeniably charming even as he commanded millions of technophiles to Several dozen slid from pan to bowl, splashed thereafter with less than a half a cup's worth of buttermilk. Pete had agonized for hours over what to do with the flies, considering everything from meat patties to applesauce before remembering how much he loved having breakfast for dinner. He watched the fresh blueberries. One, two, three he 69
couldn't bear it any longer. ‘Some food landed on my fly! It's contaminated now!’ Pete marveled at how literally no one he'd ever met, even in passing, possessed the elevated sense of humor they'd credited themselves with. Not the uncle who called him ‘Gus Gus’ as a youth, not the married couple who signed his paychecks, and certainly not that faceless idiot from the day he'd procured the worms. Pete, though, knew precisely how funny he was: pretty damn. Day six would be the worms. Cut into thirds and sent swimming into a mushroom stock that simmered as the chef finished the final fifty pages of , breaths deepening and widening until he tossed the paperback from his hands to a table barely fit to bear the weight. The ants failed, the flies were passable, but the worms, alongside crumbled crackers and immaculate seasoning, could not be considered anything other than an unqualified success. Pete slurped the last bits with relish and regret.
Another costly trip to the smallest room in the place left Pete leaning against the door, cheeks leeching the cold from the painted wood, shooting it directly to the brain as if he'd pressed down on a plunger. An equidistant stagger took him halfway across the room, before he ceased and cursed the spirograph artist working tirelessly on the back of his eyelids. Infuriated at the tyranny of small things, Pete gazed at the couch as though a lover awaited, a paramour that found charm in bleary eyes and grinding teeth, a mate who prized the sights and sounds of peristalsis, someone special that waited patiently while Pete fought the thought he would never again go more than half an hour without some foul fluids or solids demanding freedom. In reality, a box of a different sort sat on the middle sofa cushion. One tissue, another tissue, wiped the dirt and sweat from his face and neck. (‘Oh mom, come on.’) He reached between cushions and unearthed a small plastic bottle. Five aspirin were all that remained; one for each sense. 70
He had called in sick an hour before, the shame folding over on itself to produce a sound more miserable than even the ailment alone could manage. Coughs and sneezes were frequent and indistinguishable reminders of misery's charisma. He collapsed onto the couch and did not rise until the sound of the scratches against the back door prised his eyes open, many hours later. The streetlights buzzed, bullying much of the block indoors. The cold, phony cunt across the street was glaring even longer than usual whenever she spied him making nice with one of the stray cats who stopped by to enjoy some water. The tabby with the bullseye design on its back, the silver shorthair who purred loud and long under Pete's ministrations, she had enough silent disapproval for any and all. Whether her animosity stemmed from the felines or the human they hung around, Pete could not say. He knew next to nothing about most of his neighbors, which was still more than he ever desired to know. He never returned her look; doubtless, such a scandal would send her into paroxysms of shrieking and twitching, and earn him an even worse local reputation. From skin to shape to paint job, Lucinda Miller's residence was clearly wary of drawing undue attention. The structure had little curb appeal beyond being a cottage on a block of duplexes, apartments and the occasional converted multifamily home, and that blandness almost convinced Pete Lawson to bury his idea next to all the other dead ones he'd accumulated over the years. â€˜No, no. I'm going to do this. I've got the heart. I've got the heart, the balls, the guts, the nuts, the stones.â€™ Pete's Saturdays did not normally begin until 1 0 a.m., when he forced himself off the mattress to begin the rituals of presentability. That particular Saturday, he broke tradition by three hours, delivering pep talks to a rapt audience of one as he changed; from Umbro shorts and a Tastee Diner tee to jeans and a dark brown sweatshirt. By eight, hair completely dried and patience utterly evaporated, Pete began the rickety journey. 71
His determination to make the journey an uninterrupted one proved admirable yet impossible. Perhaps he spent too much time taking in the partial reflection of a paperbark maple trapped within a puddle. Perhaps he spent too little time. (‘You're in a free fall,’ his sister clucked, pushing the hair away from her face, glancing at the orange boycotter atop the TV as if fearing it responded to the telekinetic commands of its master.) Pete Lawson had seen Lucinda Miller here and there in the six months since her arrival on the block, always from a safe distance. He figured her for a punctilious lady, between thirty five and forty seven years of age, polite and pretty, despite her rectangular shape, unmarried and child free. Instinct told him, further, that the woman had never been troubled by vulgar thoughts held together with haywire. She would certainly find it rude to slam a door in a stranger's face. She would be the ideal. Pete headed north, towards the Methodist church that Miranda Lawson believed could save her stubborn sons soul. None of the residences were occupied by people interested in prettifying their lawns or porches. Pete had given this prior thought, and decided that each and every one of those folks were indulging in some false modesty. Go inside, get overwhelmed by knickknacks and pictures. He would have bet his job on that. Two addresses from the church, Pete stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. The air he blew out would have been sufficient to send the leaves at his feet back onto the grass.
When Lucinda offered coffee, with sweetness and not even a smidgen of hesitance, Pete nearly toppled forward. When he stepped into her kitchen, the sensation he referred to as ‘the jerks’ returned: the fact that he could raise both arms skyward without the tips of his fingers touching the ceiling, the presence of a table, the absence of the color black, how could his beleaguered little system endure such treacherous stimuli? ‘It's a marvelous morning,’ she breathed, as if 72
contemplating a fresh loaf of banana bread. ‘Isn't our world a wonderful world?’ He really should have applied some lotion. He really should have some lotion. She did, though; he'd bet the ten bucks in his left shoe on that. ‘Oh yeah,’ Pete snorted. ‘We're three weeks away from winter. The sky is gonna dump an unholy load of snow on us. Every night you'll have to wear gloves to bed just so you don't wake up with frostbitten fingers.’ ‘Now now, that's no way to be,’ she tutted. ‘The low tonight is only supposed to be fifty two degrees!’ ‘You'll have to forgive me, Ms. Miller. I'm still not totally moved into my apartment yet, so I'm still a little on edge.’ The rehearsed attempt at diffidence passed muster; he drank up her look of compassion, confident it would taste better than the coffee.
The rush of coffee flavored water being transferred from one glass vessel to another brought Pete back. He hurried his hands from his jean pockets to reach for both mugs. ‘Oh, thank you.’ ‘I believe in being a good guest,’ he shrugged, grin small and careful. ‘Well, let's go the living room. Let me lead the way.’ Following a decent number of steps behind, Pete took in his evolving surroundings, growing more smug. Of course Lucinda Miller owned a sign, orange letters on black background in witless parody, that read BE AWARE OF GOD. Of course it hung just above a shelf full of books on Christianity, by Christians, for Christians. They sat on a couch the color of bloody lemonade, barely an inch separating them. Pete pretended to enjoy the coffee and the conversation, contented to let Lucinda lull the guards into a grand sleep as he fantasized about a burning pile of doilies. 73
Pete stayed wide awake, however; alert and discerning and everything he promised to be as he rummaged in the medicine cabinet that morning, toothbrush dangling from his mouth. She would clean her home later that afternoon, spoke of it fervently, and he saw her then, canary yellow rubber gloves and a rainbow bristled duster, whistling and humming and possibly even scatting. The words, the visions, everything left Pete nauseated. Nevertheless he waited, running fingertips over the raised design on the mug a pair of dark red roses, crossed at the stems. (‘Do I get to speak up for myself at some point? Do I get to tell you how I feel instead of listening to people who barely know me tell me how I should be feeling?’) ‘Have you ever heard of ?’ ‘No,’ she tittered. ‘What's that?’ ‘It's an old folk story. A few of us in my fourth grade class acted it out once during an assembly. It's about three starving soldiers returning from war with nothing but a cooking pot and the clothes on their backs. They come across a small village where they go door to door, asking for food. But, everyone turns them away. The soldiers take their cooking pot and head for the riverside, where they sleep.’ He paused to sip some coffee, knowing he would regret even that small allowance within mere hours. ‘In the morning, they fill the pot with water and head back to the village, picking up some sticks and single stone from the ground along the way. When they reach the center of the village, they start a small fire with the sticks and place the pot over it. Before long, a few curious villagers wander over. The soldiers explain that they are making a dish called stone soup, and it's almost complete, but it just needs extra to make it really amazing. So, one villager runs home and returns with carrots. Another villager brings back cabbage. Another one brings onions. The soldiers take out knives and begin chopping up all these ingredients, adding them to the boiling water, and a wonderful smell fills the entire village. People bring bowls and spoons and forks, and in no time at all, everyone is enjoying some marvelous stone soup.’ ‘What a clever little tale!’ ‘It really is. All these years later and I still remember it. I 74
played one of the villagers.’ As time stretched, Pete found himself back there: eight and fat and of course he had to be a villager, who would believe ol' Gus Gus Lawson as a starving man, but damn, wow did he have a good time. He soaked up the applause of the adults in the audience, especially his mother and aunt Jeanie, and wondered if they would keep their promise to take him to McDonalds later. They did. Quarter pounder with cheese, fries and enough Coke to keep him up half the night peeing. (‘You know Laurie, it's really your fault my life is such an unmitigated disaster. Remember when I was in fourth grade, and you were in fifth, and you stole my crayons? The big box of 64? I still have nightmares about opening up my book bag and not being able to find my Crayolas.’) The moan brought him back. Gradually, the images lightened and fluffed, until the vision of Lucinda clutching at the armrest filled his eyes. Pete registered her confusion; her eyelids fluttered; his heart followed. Pity liquefied as he watched the shapeless body's struggle, the color draining from her skin even faster than the strength from her muscles. Their mouths gaped in tandem, only hers did not close. He shot to his feet, standing before Lucinda as though prepared to break a forward fall. Faces clashed before bodies demented distaste versus helpless horror. He continued to enlighten the poor woman even as she succumbed. ‘It's known by different titles in different cultures. Axe Soup. Nail Soup. Sometimes the soldiers are homeless men. Sometimes there's two of them, sometimes just one.’ Her head landed barely an inch from his feet. ‘The ending is always the same.’
News traveled fast, if not far. Tenants shared suspicious looks in the halls, in the parking lot, when not whispering words of concern and conspiracy behind closed doors. Pete missed almost all of the fun; his days were consumed with new ways to prepare chicken and his nights with unread books by Anne Rice. His hours, be they waking or 75
dozing ones, were not haunted. A thing that needed done, however, needed done. Followed by nothing more watchful than the moon in the sky, Pete crossed the parking lot towards the seldom used handsome Honda truck. . Pete, possessor of total discipline, had no doubt he would last far longer. His bones told him so. The heart, slightly offended, told him to heed the bones. One turn, two lifts. Sixteen steps, two at a time. More lifting. The cooler lid, the now melted ice packs, the overstuffed gym bag he'd snatched from a homeless man with little self respect and even less upper body strength. Even a week ago, Pete would have chastised his cowardice had he not sampled at least a bit of brain. Research paid off yet again, however, when he came across the story of the Fore tribe in Papa New Guinea. In the 1 950s, their numbers began dwindling by a couple hundred yearly, courtesy of a mystery disease they called â€˜kuru.â€™ Eventually, blame was placed with funerary cannibalism, a practice which required tribe members (women and children, especially) to consume the flesh of deceased loved ones without realizing much of it the brain, especially was infected. Pete searched. Then re searched. How else would he have known that the eyes tasted better when cooked? That they should be allowed to remain in the mouth for several seconds before being chewed? He'd concocted a recipe for Eye Soup with special satisfaction, humming Van Morrison as he worked the pen across the envelope.
How much of art was common sense? The brick and mortar structure, the dips in a cloud, even the rubber grips of a Denali. Pete Lawson used to think the world was too much, until he decided that there was simply too much of the world. Why scrimp and save for a trip halfway around the world when the painted lines on the road the ones put down 76
were rising up in a sort of heat haze despite the tilt of the pole? He'd just reached the restaurant when he decided to sell the handsome Honda. First dibs to the man who signed his paychecks. He'd use the money for an off road bike. Pete Lawson wanted to be remembered as a man who loved nature.
| Ania Payne
Deep in the bayous of the delta, nestled between thick pine trees and crawfish laden creek beds, the ticks and chiggers reign. Among mammals, they are the least popular of the arachnids. Even the whales shun them, but they are the royalty of the delta woods. Sure, a hiker can spray her exposed limbs with a ten dollar bottle of permethrin tick repellent, but as soon as she starts sweating in the ninety degree air punctuated with ninety percent humidity, the repellent will trickle right off of her skin, leaving her limbs naked and exposed, savory. A hunter can deck himself out in hundreds of dollars of â€˜tick repellent clothing,â€™ but as soon as a branch snags his pant leg and his ankle flashes pasty, the stealthy tick will find his flesh with a thirsty embrace. No gun can protect him. Here, size is a cloak against the oafish. Ticks in Southeast Arkansas live idle lives, equipped with endless free time to breed and feast, lives of luxury. If they were born humans and not insects, these creatures would be featured on the cover of Forbes, reclining in chaise lounges, sipping lemon drop martinis through golden straws while servants file the points of their toenails into curved perfection. The winters here are mild enough for both snowbirds and ticks to survive year round. Southeast Arkansas air hangs heavy with a sweltering humidity that pulls the ends of your hair into wild curls, sprouts mold in every crevice of the bathroom and kitchen no matter how often your grandmother gets on her hands and knees to scrub with vinegar, and breeds moisture needy insects like ticks, who require damp air for their hydration and survival. They need not flee or migrate, as the damp, warm weather welcomes them continuously. Your grandmother, meanwhile, throws her back out and misses a week of work at the diner. Ticks perch on a blade of Bermuda grass or the leaf of an oak tree, holding on to the leaves by their third and fourth pairs of legs while their first pair remains outstretched, patiently waiting, reaching for the hair of a deer or dog, or the fat calf of a human; perched so still and meditatively that their stance might as well become a yoga posePthe 80
‘questing tick.’ Ticks are incapable of flying or jumping, so all they can do is wait for their host to stroll by; wait with arms extended, ‘questing,’ a term stemming from the Latin which means ‘to ask’ or ‘seek.’ Ticks do not ask before they take, but they are feverish seekers. The tick situates itself intentionally, picking a blade of grass that lines the path of a frequently visited hiking trail or deer path. The tick waits until it senses an animal’s breath, body odor, heat, moisture, or vibration. The Deer Tick can even recognize an animal’s shadow. Once a host brushes by a tick’s questing site, the tick quickly climbs onto the host’s body. Some ticks, the greedy, blood thirsty ones, will attach quickly to whatever piece of skin they are offered and begin to feed from there. They are not choosy, they are just thirsty. Other, more patient ticks will wander around the host’s limbs, exploring the suburbs of the body as they look for a thinner piece of skin like the cul de sac of your outer ear, or the tender subdivision between the thigh and groin, or the warm, pungent ghetto of the armpit. When the tick has found a satisfying piece of flesh, it prepares for the initial bite by gently coursing its chelicerae over the skin of its host. Each chelicera ends in a tooth that’s tapered to an especially sharp point, which scrapes and punctures the host’s skin with an almost unnoticeable force. The tick contracts both of its chelicerae while flexing both tips, as if performing some nightmarish version of a breaststroke. With each stroke, the tick buries itself further, until it is submerged completelyPand only like this, fully buried into another body, protected from the wind and the sharp beaks of hungry chickens and wild turkey, can it begin to feed. It is September, and you have just recently moved from Arkansas to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for graduate school. Your roommate accompanies you on a drive to the airport to pick up a long distance boyfriend who is visiting for your birthday. Your romantic relationship is not sustaining the distance well and it is obvious that you are both losing interest. There is something missing in this relationship. The two of you go weeks at a time without talking on the phone. Each state that stands between the two of youPMissouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, TennesseePonly pulls the two of you farther apart. Your love was simple, a love that existed when both of you were conveniently in the same town, 81
only dorms apart on the same college campus where you could have scheduled breakfast, lunch, and dinner dates in the cafeteria. It wasn’t until you moved away that you realized how much of your relationship was built around the convenience of proximity and the necessity of touch. Now, you want to be just friends with him. But you don’t know how to tell him this when he offers to buy a plane ticket to come see you for your birthday. He flies from Little Rock to Marquette, and because your roommate insists on showering five minutes before you had planned on leaving for the airport, you are twenty minutes late picking him up. When the two of you arrive at the airport, he is sitting on his suitcase in the parking lot. The red one. You feel bad and he looks disappointed. You blame your roommate. On the way home, you all stop at Crossroads, a bar and grill named after its proximity to the intersection of County Road 480 and State Highway M553. Its menu consists of typical bar fare, fried this or grilled that. A collection of furry, marble eyed deer and bear heads as well as plastic replicas of lake trout line the wood paneled walls. It is a strange sort of rural Midwestern kaleidoscope that you’ve fallen intoPa restaurant where you can eat your venison while being watched by a glassy eyed deer that hangs only feet away from your plate and stares at you, judgingly, as you poke into your meat clumsily with a fork. Your boyfriend and roommate both order a hamburger. You are not a vegetarian, but you eat very little red meat in your day to day diet, mostly because you grew up in a household that never cooked red meat. This was both for health reasonsPhigh cholesterol and cancer rates in the family, members from your mom’s side, lovers of red meat, suffering impromptu heart attacks and obesityPand religious ones: your father’s side of the family consisting of practicing Hindus who only cook chicken and fish at home. When you grow up without ever eating a certain dish, it’s very easy to continue not eating that dish. However, when your roommate and boyfriend both order their hamburgers, you decide to order one as well. Perhaps this burger order began to bubble up on a Freudian level, a part of you feeling rebellious as you order the beef your parents have raised you to so carefully avoid. Perhaps you just smelled the burgers grilling in the kitchen and thought they smelled tastyPyou’re not sure, the memory of you chose to order a burger is not nearly as vivid as the memory of what happened four hours you ordered it. 82
You are all hanging out in the living room, listening to records. Your roommate has already grabbed your arm and yanked you into the kitchen for a ‘sidecar’ where she whispers . She doesn’t know how carefully you have been working to orchestrate this situation. While you’re sitting on the couch, your right arm starts to break out in a rash. It’s the mild, pink type of rash, with softly curved bumps, the kind of rash that babies get on their bottoms or middle aged joggers notice after running in the sun while wearing tight spandex. You figure that you must have gotten bitten by somethingPit is still warm enough in Michigan that the bugs are out, and the cat brings plenty of bugs inside. He’ll carry fleas and small worms in on the top of his back, and the squirming bodies of cockroaches struggling for their life from between his feline teeth. Five minutes later, you see a spread of bumps emerging on your leg. The bumps are popping up more ferociously this time, boiling through your skin like air bubbles crackling in a pancake mix splayed on a high heat cast iron skillet. You start to feel nauseas as your body breaks out in what you’re now deciphering are hives. You wonder if there is something living in the couch, a whole family of bugs beneath the thrift store cushions. Bugs often infect couches, even the one you sit on as your relationship with your boyfriend dwindles, as your arm swells with bites, as he walks you to your bedroom, to the mattress that you bought from one of those mattress outlet warehouses that seem to be existing in a perpetual state of ‘Store closing! Everything must go!’ sales, which surely hosts families of Cimex lectularius’ who nest in the network of foam and rubber that you sleep on every night, sometimes shirtless. You lie on the bed and your boyfriend pulls your shirt off, but it is not sexy or romantic; probably not how he imagined this would goPyou, entirely covered in hives, sweaty and dizzy, burning in a rash. He walks to the grocery store around the corner to purchase some Benadryl and hydrocortisone cream. While he’s gone, you lock yourself in the bathroom and hug the toilet. You can feel the eyes of all the house spiders watching you from their perches on top of the windowsill and the side of the claw foot tub as you empty your stomach. Your roommate has locked herself in her bedroom and does not step into the hallway to check on you, even though she can surely hear your misery from between the 83
thin walls. You are alone with the remains of your lunch, your welts, your sweat, the spiders, the toilet. By the time your boyfriend returns with the Benadryl you’re lying in bed, naked and empty stomached. He pops a Benadryl into your mouth and rubs the cream on your welty back and you think to yourself how you do not deserve his kindness. The Benadryl acts quickly, spreading throughout your system, zapping the reaction into submission, dehydrating you. Your boyfriend sits on the end of the bed and restrains you from scratching the red welts off of your skin. When you finally stop sweating, the ends of your hair have plastered themselves to the sides of your face. Your mascara has dripped down to your chin. After thirty minutes, you start to feel like yourself again. The welts have almost completely dried up and disappeared and your stomach has nothing left to protest. You and your boyfriend decide that this must have just been a freak accident; the cook probably didn’t grill the burger properly or maybe you just got a bad one. Your roommate and boyfriend are both fine and you all had the same meal, so surely you just got stuck with a bad burger. You wonder if this is karmaPyou ate the , you are not appreciative of your boyfriend and you were late picking him up from the airport, so the Hindu gods have punished you with a rotten burger. You imagine Shiva laughing to Vishnu, the two gods patting each other on the back and high fiving for a job well done. Later that evening, you take your boyfriend to meet your new grad school friends and get drunk at a local dive bar. Even though the lights are dim, and the walls are dark, you can’t help but wonder about the bugs crawling beneath the padded seats of the bar stools. You find yourself touching the cracks in the cushioning, sticking your finger into the foam, feeling for heads, thoraxes, abdomens, wings and antennas, and legs and legs and legs. By your third beer, you stop checking. Since your karmic punishment has been paid and your body is whole and healthy again, you drink yourself into another dimension where the streetlights sway and ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ and ‘Say You’ll Be There’ blare from a jukebox so you forget that you are living in 201 3 and at the end of the night when your boyfriend says goodbye to one of your male friends by whispering in his ear, you laugh it off, and scratch your arm predictively, as no itch is there. 84
The Lone Star tick thrives in the Southeastern United States. It is a small arachnid named both for the single, white spot on the back of the female, and for the state that used to be its main habitat: Texas. Currently, because of a series of changes in the environment and climate, the tick can be found in most states east of the Rockies. The Lone Star tick’s growth is categorized in relation to various letters of the alphabetPnymphs are the size of a lower cased ‘o’ in newspaper print and expand to the size of a 0 when fully engorged. Adults are the size of a capital ‘C,’ but when engorged, can swell as large as a raisin. Lone Star ticks bite humans by injecting their needle like mouthparts into the skin, while their backward facing teeth act as hooks, securing their needly mouths in places. Once they are secure, the ticks secrete a cement like substance that helps them stay attached to the skin. Every time that you go back home and into the Arkansas woods in the summertime, you leave covered in ticks. Arms, legs, scalp, neck, the ticks are everywhere. And when you think that you are finally done pulling ticks off of your own body, the dog jumps onto your lap and you see ticks crawling on his head, underneath his stomach, on his paws. The ticks will jump off of the dogs and inhabit the furniture, waiting for someone to walk by, or sit down to watch the marathon, or read , or sip a glass of hot spiced rum, or eat a meal of roasted carrots and beets, or nap, dreaming of tug boats and ferries. The Lone Star tick thrives in Arkansas. It produces a sugar from its gut called galactose alpha 1 , 3 galactose, or ‘Alpha Gal,’ the slang term it’s referred to as within the allergy community. When certain people are bitten by this tick, their immune systems develop an allergic response to that sugar. Because Alpha Gal is also found in red meat, a bite by the Lone Star tick could mean that the host develops an allergic reaction to anything that is considered ‘red meat’ – from beef hamburgers to bacon. Unlike many other allergies, the Alpha Gal allergic reaction is a delayed response and can occur anywhere from 4 8 hours after finishing the meal. Repeated tick bites can potentially cause the antibody level of Alpha Gal to rise, which means that the allergic reaction will worsen with each 85
consecutive strip of bacon, bite of cheeseburger, or flank of steak. There is an ‘Alpha Gal Allergy Awareness’ group on Facebook. It has 2,828 members and the administrators frequently post about ways to avoid interactions with ticks; what to do when a tick does bite you; and occasionally congratulates members who have out lived their Alpha Gal allergy after five, ten, twenty years. Members also post on the wall, sharing experiences and embarrassing post red meat consumption stories about themselves, family members, and friends. Members are encouraged to They are designing a support ribbon, the color still undecided. They are still designing the image for the T Shirt. You decide to join the group and scroll through some of the members’ profiles. Bryan Huff, photographer and owner of a studio called ‘Huffoto’, posts that his allergy has disappeared after eighteen months of avoiding ticks and red meat. Bryan Huff rotates his Facebook cover photo between various albums from Metallica, The Beastie Boys, and Guns and Roses. He photographs scenes of lighting through the rearview windows of a grey sedan and captions these images with phrases like, ‘Warning: Objects in mirror are more dangerous than they appear.’ Linda Morris paints canvases of flamingos and rows of townhomes and tennis rackets and sunflowers. People leave comments on her paintings like ‘So cheerful!’ ‘A happy village!’ and ‘Memories are little treasures that we are blessed to have!’ Kirstina Hoffman is pregnant with her first child. She prays that her baby will not be born with an Alpha Gal allergy. You are at your father’s house with a new boyfriend. Your old boyfriend has, surprisingly, just married a woman. You were not invited to the wedding. You, your stepmother, father, and new boyfriend are eating on the outside patio of O’Malley’s Irish Pub, an overpriced burger joint overlooking Lake Michigan. It is a warm summer day, the sun is just about to set, you are all sipping martinis and mojitos and sour apple cocktails and you have not yet discovered that you have a beef allergy. When the waitress comes to take your order, you ask for the mushroom 86
your dad says.
Easily influenced and always searching for ways to appease your father, you change your order to a potpie. The potpie was supposed to be lamb, but the waitress says that the kitchen has run out of lamb and can only fill the potpies with beef. you say, . You eat half of the pie before you’re full. That night, you wake at 3am to a rash crawling up your arm. The bumps start small, then spread to you back and chest, exploring and conquering your body, claiming each new territory with a perfectly round, red hive. The hives are followed by waves of sweat, then your stomach starts to rumble, and you recognize these symptoms as the same symptoms you had two years ago after the Crossroads burger. You know that you have to get yourself to the bathroom, immediately. You pull yourself out of bed and try to sprint to the bathroom, when you faint and collapse on your bedroom floor. When you come to, about five minutes later, you’re seeing stars. Breathing becomes more difficultPeach inhale feels like a struggle, as if your body is resisting every breath. You crawl across the hallway to the bathroom and try to pull yourself onto the toilet, only to faint and fall onto the floor with a loud thud seconds later. The tiles feel cool against your sweating face, so you lie there for a while, knowing that these are the last minutes that you’ll be able to lay immobile, dreading what you know is about to happen next. Your dad hears the thud and starts knocking on the bathroom door, asking if everything is ok. You try to speak, but your throat has swollen to the point where speaking is almost impossible. You eventually crawl out of the bathroom and your dad helps you back in bed. For the next hour, he tells you that he’s going to call 91 1 , bring you to the emergency room, call an ambulance. You tell him no, no, no over and over while his fingers hover over the 9 on his keypad. , you whisper. You hope that you’re right. Thankfully, your boyfriend is asleep in the basement and is unaware of the entire incident. Your dad has gone to the doctor for a slight leg pain, for getting by a dog in India, for getting a bee sting. When you talk on the phone to your dad and he notices that you have a slight rasp in your 87
voice, he starts listing doctors and specialists that you should see. But at this moment, nothing sounds worse to you than being whisked away in an ambulance, examined underneath fluorescent lights, poked and prodded, and put on display in front of strangers while you’re unable to control what is happening at either end of your body. You push your dad’s cell phone on the floor and pull the sheets over your head until eventually the Benadryl kicks in and the symptoms fade. You fall back to sleep, your father watching nervously the whole time. Outside, a swarm of bees constructs a hive by the window. Two male bees fight to the death, each trying to get a few seconds to couple and copulate with the queen bee. The worker bees wait silently for the sun to rise and tell the flowers to open, to call their bee bodies to pollen and petal. The next morning, you are served a glass of orange juice, no coffee, and a handful of articles about beef allergies. Your symptoms match up with the vivid descriptions in the articles. Many of them linking the allergy back to a Lone Star tick bite. Your father paces the kitchen, blaming himself. He runs his hand across the top of his bald head, repeatedly. He stares silently at the light fixture above the kitchen table as he picks at the skin around his fingernails. He keeps walking over to you, inspecting your arms for hives and peering into your eyes as if to check for sanity. He insists that you see a doctor as soon as you return to Marquette, and hands you a list of doctors that he has printed off from Google. Back in Marquette, you call multiple doctors, trying to get an appointment within the week. Most doctors are unavailable until the next month. Eventually, you find a doctor who says he can see you as early as that afternoon. You should take this as a warning sign, but don’t. When the doctor comes in to meet you, he introduces himself and you make small talk about Marquette and grad school for a couple of minutes. The doctor wears alligator patterned socks that peek out from the top of his loafers. The doctor is not married, or if he is married, he does not wear a wedding ring. The doctor has a mole on his left cheek, which sprouts one brown hair. The doctor is wearing a cologne 88
that smells of cedar. The doctor has a sweat ring underneath his left arm. When the doctor finally asks you what you’re visiting the office for, you tell him that you are 90% certain that you have a beef allergy. he asks. . You tell him about your past two interactions with beef. , he says.
He asks his nurse if she’s ever heard of this ‘beef allergy,’ and she shakes her head no. He turns to his computer and types ‘beef allergy’ into Google. He opens the first page that pops up, an article on WebMD. He scans the article, then opens a few more articles before saying,
In the corner, a potted bonsai wilts. As the doctor is Googling ‘beef allergy,’ your fingers find themselves tracing the edges of the exam table, searching for rips and tears in the plastic covering, feeling once again for antenna and thorax and leg. Even though the doctor’s office is probably the most sterile setting that you will find yourself in that day, you can’t help but fear the insects that might adapt, surviving even in this sterile environment. Perhaps, like the bacteria does the antibiotic, the doctor’s office insect has learned and grows stronger with each dose of bleach. Perhaps, there is a family of super fleas scurrying beneath the cushion right now, angry that the weight and imprint of my ass has caused their ceiling to cave. Even a doctor’s office has walls, and behind them, wood and insulation and pipes, and the ants and wasps and mites and meal moths and roaches that thrive in the woolen coolness of those environments. He quotes a few lines from articles that you, your parents, and boyfriend, have already read numerous times. You ask him about seeing an allergy doctor, maybe you have other unknown allergies, maybe you can do something to cure this. He says no, no allergy doctor required. Instead, he just prescribes you an EpiPen and tells you the instructions will be in the packet. You ask him to look at a mysterious lump of tissue on your shoulder. He pokes at it, his finger probably leaving traces of Staphylococcus epidermidis or Corynebacterium or Acinetobacter 89
johnsonii on your shoulder, before removing his hand to return to the computer and Google ‘lump on shoulder.’ He tells you it’s probably nothing to worry about. Today, food allergies and intolerances are a thing of chicness. People pronounce their nut allergies proudly, dramatically leaping out of the room when someone unwraps a Snickers bar within ten feet of them. One half of your coworkers claim to have intolerances for gluten or lactose. According to an article on the , nearly one in three Britons now claim to suffer from an allergy or food intolerance, but a recent investigation has proven that only around 1 .9 percent of the UK population is actually intolerant to certain foods. Someone can drop a couple hundred dollars to get a food intolerance test while waiting for their nails to dry at a salon, or after finishing a workout at the gym, or while in line for their freshly pressed juice at the locally owned, organic and vegan juice bar. You used to get an irrational feeling of pride when you could sit in a doctor’s office or a massage parlor and check ‘Allergies? None’ on the new patient form. Now, even more irrationally, you get a sick feeling of joy from telling people that you have a beef allergy. You have friends who have gone on gluten free, dairy free, wheat free diets and take any opportunity to bring it up in a conversation.
Now, when you go out to eat at restaurants, you have an unreasonable urge to ask waitresses if the egg drop soup is made with beef stock, if the chicken will be sautéed with the same spatula that’s used to cook the beef, and . More than you hate the symptoms of what physically happens to your body when you eat beef, you hate what having a beef allergy has done to your mental health. The uncontrollable urge to slip 90
this fact into any conversation; the itch to top off someone else’s allergy story with your own traumatic allergy events; the need to claim your food victim status and lecture whoever will listen about what happens when you get bit by the wrong tick. You imagine a family of ticks, perched ever so pensively in their ‘questing’ pose, arms outstretched, legs clinging on to the edge of a blade of grass. They are strong, they could wait like this all day. You walk by, and one by one, father, mother, son, daughter, the tick family clings onto your leg hairs. Their suitcases are packed; they plan on staying for a while. Together, they venture down into the inner crook of your knee, where sweat pools, pores open, and the skin is soft. They build a stucco house there, equipped with a swimming pool, three car garage, mowed front lawn. In the evenings, they sit together to feast as a family, white bibs wrapped around their necks to catch any fallen drips of blood. Between heavy gulps they share stories about their days and tell each other about flunked math tests, raises at work, and the misbehaving dog. They develop allergies of their own. They lament (though they don’t know they’re lamenting) their inability to access and conceive of Google. These ticks pump their bodies with blood, all the while depleting yours, turning alpha gal into your enemy, transforming you unwillingly into a food victim, but their touch is so soft that you don’t realize they are there until it is too late. You lack their specialized senses; all you notice is the sweet sugary smell of the summertime pine needles, the soft mud between your toes, the thick, humid air, and the sparrows, their feathers likely housing the next generation of mite, chirping in the trees as if this really is a happy and safe place.
Ashley Kunsa | Ashley Kunsa's creative work appears/is forthcoming in more than two dozen journals including , and . She is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT. Find her online at www.ashleykunsa.com.
Kate Wheeler | Kate Wheeler's work is forthcoming in , and has appeared in Electric Literature's 'Recommended Reading,' , and elsewhere. She can remember three dreams in which dead loved ones spoke to her over the phone. She doesn't know what these dreams meant, but she woke from them feeling comforted. Jennifer Benningfield | Jennifer Benningfield lives in western Maryland, where for the past ten years she's worked in the boom bust world of real estate. Brandon Hansen | Brandon Hansen is a graduate of Northern Michigan University, where in his work as an English Writing major, he was also a Writing Center tutor and an editorial intern for NMUâ€™s literary magazine, . His writing is forthcoming in, or can be found in, , and in a few other places.. Marley Simmons Abril | Marley Simmons Abril is a writer and teacher living in Bellingham, WA. Her work has appeared in , and others. Her short story 'Good Neighbors' was nominated by for a 201 6 Pushcart Prize. She is Fiction Editor at Chris Vanjonack | Chris Vanjonack is a language arts teacher living in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he enjoys co hosting a monthly poetry slam and feeding his cat. His fiction has appeared previously in and . 93
Ania Payne | Ania Payne is an MFA student at Northern Michigan University. She has previously been published in and . Victoria Sanderson | Victoria Sanderson received her MFA in nonfiction writing at Oregon State University in 201 7. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina and has been previously been published in , and . Virginia Boudreau | Virginia Boudreau is a retired teacher living on the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada where she can often be found on a beach. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of international literary magazines and anthologies, both in print and on line. Christy O'Callaghan | Christy O’Callaghan lives in Upstate New York. She’s a Community Health Educator focused on Reproductive Justice. Her work can be found in , and in the book She’s a member of the Mohawk Valley Writers Guild. Instagram @christyflutterbye.
Bill Wolak | Bill Wolak has just published his fifteenth book of poetry entitled with Ekstasis Press. Mr. Wolak teaches Creative Writing at William Paterson University in New Jersey. Jim Zola | Jim Zola is a poet and photographer living in North Carolina. Paul Luikart | Paul Luikart is a writer and artist living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His MFA is from Seattle Pacific University. He and his wife have three daughters who also love art. Elaine Verdill | A long time poet and photographer, Elaine Verdill also paints with acrylics. Fariel Shafee | Fariel Shafee has degrees in science, but enjoys art. She has exhibited paintings and digital pieces internationally. . Richard Vyse | Internationally collected artist Richard Vyse has shown at galleries in Manhattan and Honolulu. He studied at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and taught at Pratt in Brooklyn. His art has been featured in many international art magazines. His art is in the Leslie Lohman museum in Manhattan. Amanda Bess Allen | Amanda Bess Allen holds a degree in Photogenic Technology and specializes in landscape photography. Allison Janicki | Allison Janicki dreams in color and spends her days thinking about cats and coffee. She wishes she could conjure the power of invisibility and believes in parallel universes. When she isn't reading a book or jotting down obscure quotes she finds in TV shows, she can be found at her easel submitting to whatever creation her fingertips wish to explore. 95
Holly Speiss | Holly Spiess comes from a rural background in Upstate New York. She studies Painting and Illustration at SUNY Oswego, and aims to create work that focuses on the reality of the natural world and the narratives that are told about it. Holly also enjoys the pursuits of biking and exploring. Darren M. Edwards | Darren M. Edwards is a writer and photographer in Southern Utah. His work spans many topics but always revolves around seeking out beauty and exploring complexity. His book, , (Arcadia Publishing) contains 8 essays and over 70 photos. Sahar Safarian | Sahar Safarian is a multi media artist. She has been using creative writing as one of her mediums since 201 3 and has made short video arts based on her poems. She has earned a MFA degree from Pratt Institute at 201 6 and participated in many exhibitions around the world. Kari Bell | An artist who used oil and cold wax, Kari Bell challenges the viewer to ponder the world as it is and could be through extraordinary use of color, shape and texture. Kari thrives in Colorado. www.karibellart.com. Alexandra Rock | Alexandra Rock is a self taught photographer who first attempted the capturing of ephemera using her grandfatherâ€™s Canon. She spends her time studying Amish so she can better communicate with her neighbors and friends.
Featuring short fiction from Ashley Kunsa, Kate Wheeler, Brandon Hansen, Chris Vanjonack, Marley Simmons Abril, and Jennifer Benningfield; n...
Published on Feb 28, 2018
Featuring short fiction from Ashley Kunsa, Kate Wheeler, Brandon Hansen, Chris Vanjonack, Marley Simmons Abril, and Jennifer Benningfield; n...