A LITERARY JOURNAL
ISSUE 3 ~ SPRING 2019 An Imprint of Thirty West Publishing House
Tilde ~ EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Josh Dale
Tilde: A Literary Journal Issue 3 ~ Spring 2019 Copyright © 2019 Thirty West Publishing House All works are © of their respective creators as indicated herein and are reproduced here with permission
www.thirtywestph.com ISSN 2576-960x (Print) ISSN 2576-9618 (Online)
CONTENTS Spring 2019
~ EDITOR’S NOTE RATTLESNAKE REDUX
ALL DAY THE OCEAN UNRAVELS,
CHRISTIAN SAMMARTINO BEN CURTTRIGHT
THAT TIME MY BROTHER DIED
ROSARIO PARA JAVIER, MARCOS, Y DANIEL (DISAPPEARED 19 MARCH 2018 IN TONALÁ, MÉXICO)
LISA LÓPEZ SMITH
GILLS TONYA EBERHARD
JULY 25TH, 1991
FIVE OF TWELVE
THE TREE-BARK CITY
SONNET FOR LA NIÑ A
SCOTT RUSSELL MORRIS
JENI DE LA O
DORIAN XANYN THE LAST WEEKEND I SPENT WITH MY MIND WAS A RETRO FILM—
THAT ONE TIME LOVE WAS MAGIC
K G NEWMAN
A CLUE IN EACH OF TWO KAZOOS HEIKKI HUOTARI
THE LAST DAY
K. E. WORLEY
WHEN THE DINNER BELL RINGS
CATCHING SAND CRABS
(DON’T) TELL ME…
LARA ARAKIN 63
POLLY LEXI CASTIGLIONE
CREATING DISTURBANCE KELLY DUMAR
UPON LOSING MY FILTER
CLAUDINE NASH PROTEA|PROTEA COMPACTA THEA MATHHEWS
~ Faced with writing an introduction, I am reminded of awards ceremonies I attended when I was younger at the end of every swim season. Munching on half-slices of half-warm pizza, we distracted children would make no effort to pretend to listen as the coaches and board members recognized one another for their respective efforts in making the season run smoothly. Eventually resorting to using paper plates as frisbees and sucking the helium out of balloons to quell our boredom, we were all thinking the same thing—when will they get to the part where they talk about us? Therefore, I feel a touch hypocritical interrupting your reading to acknowledge everyone who made this journal possible. My guilt, however, is mostly sated by the knowledge that you have the power to simply turn the page and ignore my ramblings at any point. Perhaps the thing I appreciate most about writing is how, when done well, it is its own validation. In a world with a seemingly evergrowing ceiling of what is possible in terms of talent along with a similarly increasing barrier of entry for anyone wishing to carve out their place in it, good writing needs no introduction. For this reason, the importance of people who actively seek out and promote work that deserves recognition, people like the ones with whom I have the privilege of working on this journal, cannot be understated. At the end of the introduction to his book The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde states that “[w]e can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” As humans, there are things we must do to continue being. We need some sort of means to acquire resources which we can exchange for nourishment and shelter so we can continue to wake up in the morning and complain about people who don’t use their turn signals. This is our use. Whatever we choose to do beyond this, things other than staying alive with which we occupy our time are useless and, therefore, significant beyond measure. The contributions to the third installment of this journal are without a doubt some of the most useless I’ve seen. Finally, assuming you’ve made it this far without skipping the editor’s note, I’d like to take a moment to address an often overlooked, yet still significant, part of the creative process—you, the audience. One of the most interesting considerations an artist must make is that, once released, their work is no longer theirs. Ernest Hemingway won’t be
sitting across my living room from me as I settle down with a collection of his short stories tonight in preparation to sleep. However I interpret them and whatever meaning they have to me are beyond his control. This is not to say that an observer should use their position as interpreter to deliberately misrepresent the intent of the creator, but instead that they have the power to make it greater than the creator intended or perhaps even imagined. It is for this reason I would like to thank you for taking the time to read these wonderful, useless things and, through the words of the authors, imagine something new. Regards, Greg Neidlinger Managing Editor, Tilde Literary Journal
RATTLESNAKE REDUX We stand astraddle our mountain bikes this afternoon, our progress halted by a five-foot rattlesnake. He is stretched out across the trail, silent and still on his sunlit patch, relaxing on a warm October day in the North Carolina mountains. My riding partner is my friend of fifty years; friends since we sat next to each other in Miss Parrott’s third-grade class in 1968. Since then, few years have passed when we did not ride together at least once; first on single-speed spyders, then ten-speed racers, and now full-suspension mountain bikes. We grew up surrounded by men – fathers, uncles, neighbors – who killed snakes on sight, irrespective of any danger they posed; crew-cut men in high-water pants and white socks, with bellies that bulged from the lower hem of v-neck undershirts. We watched those men grab gooseneck hoes, chop furiously TILDE~9
from the safe distance afforded by a wooden handle. In 1968 it seemed those men whacked at more than just snakes; they swung with anger, with frustration, as if the creatures were stand-ins for black-gloved fists held high and proud, long-hairs who asked hard questions, and women who dared speak without first being spoken to. Today we grab the handlebars of our bikes, bounce our front wheels up and down to make our presence known. The rattlesnake begins to move, but only after a slight delay, enough to let us know he goes at his own pace, and seemingly without effort, as if the earth itself were simply sliding beneath him. We watch as he disappears into a laurel thicket. We sip our water, wipe sweat, and mount up. I smile to myself as we ride away, thankful that some lessons were never learned.
I have a belly full / of meatballs / and maybe a baby / I won’t name / Are you sure you’re not Italian? / you keep asking / These are so authentic // I know you cried once when ambulance lights went by / because you knew someone out there was having / their very worst day ever / you tried to hide your empathy // Maybe I’m bottomless // They name storms you know you say / whenever I go looking for a fight // I’m not ready to be / empty / maybe I’m readying / maybe that’s this sound / screaming tides // I never even warn you / when 40 foot swells are on the way /
ALL DAY THE OCEAN UNRAVELS, seeking the disorder of itself & loving the disorder. The arms of it pull over shelves of rock & tremble home, sporadic, a cresting arrythmia. From the shore, the heat-swollen morning, I lay & consider the distance: my body finding what it needs in balance, anything but the body of this wild & unbalanced language, which we understand only by mishearing: natural disaster, the term used to describe a small man on the lip of sea, looking up into the dark, churning eye of what he cannot predict & ordering that we take cover. But, listening to the syncopation, this unruly music of earthâ€™s idea of order, I want to become it. I want so badly to believe that nature cannot fail unless we say it did. I want everything to simply run its erratic course. I also want all the small forms of order that humans wantâ€” to love the time I have like I owe it something, to love something like I owe it the time that I have. But I want, most of all, to acknowledge that, if we allow it to be true, there is no failure or fear in this kind of disorder: TILDE~12
to, every morning, stand at the unraveling of yourself & to love the thrash.
SCHUYLKILL EXPRESSWAY I didn’t believe I would need the vase with a fistful of honeysuckle — the one my daughter populated with pearlescent honeypots just to fill my mouth with slivers of sweetness instead of curses and my cotton mouth slurs of fatigue. Pure honey won’t change my busted tire on the Schuylkill — blossoms aren’t the correct currency to purchase roadside assistance. flowers won’t coax my graveyard shift muscles into working overtime to budge stubborn lug nuts, even if it means I get to bed early and earn a pension of kisses. The tire stares at me like the belly of a gutted deer. So much absence stares into me, so much is hollow where some wayward hunger decided to carve a feast, stranding me on the shoulder of this highway. Because I was all raw, double shift phantom limbs, a disembodied ghost man rising from the tomb of work. If only I could’ve swerved, if only I could’ve missed the goddamn glass carcass of that bottle some jackass deserted. If only I had grace instead of clumsy hands fumbling to keep me awake, to keep me alive. But as the headlights of the 18-wheeler barrel towards my body, like all the lightbulbs on Boathouse Row focused on me, I recall the modest whisper of honeysuckle in my daughter’s vase. How they sparred with the giants of the forest to find daylight until there were exit wounds where beauty could flourish. Cantankerous honey, underdog prize fighter, jabs through vines, rope-a-dopes with hulking tree trunks, bamboozles opponents into surrendering enough daylight to survive. Honeysuckle teaches me how to duck and weave,
how to evade my heavyweight overnight freight challenger, by finding a sliver of moonlight the size of a stem and growing towards that source, until sweetness is heavy on my tongue. These blossoms canâ€™t heal me like a cast scribbled with names, the alphabet of everyone I love, but the smallest bouquet of tenacious grace teaches me how to deflect body blows, how to avoid punishment. How to revive my phantom limbs in time to dive away from the truck, into a hospital room, where my daughter holds my hand like the jaws of life, guiding me away from a casket. This is what survival tastes like â€” a mouthful of squalor and blood competing with the flavor of honeysuckle. One clenched fist of flowers is the margin between my hospital bed and a roadside cross.
“Thus the function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.” –Roland Barthes It was five years ago today, Friday, 13 May, that Frazier lost half his finger, just about, during the last Saws-On day of our fifth period Woodshop at Willow South High. I could tell Mr. Brightman was about to call Saws-Off when it happened. Mr. Brightman, the tiny bearded woodshop teacher and defensive coordinator for the jayvee football team, was standing on his chair behind his desk with his Clappers hanging down by his sides, same as every day, his good eye on the brass clock on the back wall of the shop classroom and the other eye, it seemed, looking straight down at me, at where I stood in front of the table router holding the two pieces of blond oak that were supposed to be the sides of my drawer by now, that were supposed to be dovetailed to fit snugly but not splinteringly in the notches on the back panel. Mr. Brightman’s eyes always worked like that, panning in sync but thirty or so degrees off from each other, the bad eye in a Sisyphean race to catch up with the good one, and so I knew that if he were actually looking at me with his good eye, the other would be pointed either at the wall of signed Safety Contracts, affixed to the plaster with thumb tacks, or, more likely, into the side of his head. The eye thing scared me less than the tooth thing. He still did the tooth thing on the first day of every semester, and the tooth thing still elicited oohs from all fifteen members of my class (even though we were juniors and had seen the tooth thing five times already) except for Frazier (who’d looked coolly ahead as though Mr. Brightman was just e.g. a calculus teacher explaining his strict no-tardiness policy), Ashley (one of two girls in the section, an ex-dancerturned-poet, who sighed, I think, at the baseness of the display, the lack of reasonable premise for the action), and me. “Gary, man, are you done with the table router or what?” said DePaul from behind me. “Or what?” I asked, still thinking about the tooth thing. “I need to use the router,” said DePaul. He raised a board in the air and indicated the penciled guidelines along its butt with a thick hairy pointer finger. “For my drawers.”
“I’m still using it,” I said. I looked down at the machine, silent, looking for all the world like a thick drill bit sticking out of a flat table, then at my own wood, which, despite being identical to DePaul’s, seemed smaller and less satisfying. “I’m disappointed in you,” it seemed to say. “I wish I didn’t have anything to do with you.” “Chrissake,” said DePaul. “Move over.” DePaul weighed probably a hundred pounds more than I did, and a higher percentage of his weight was muscle, too, which is what made him an excellent defensive tackle for the seniors and kept me back as the third-string jayvee free safety. His shoulder felt like a bag of rocks against mine as he nudged me out of the way to make his cuts. I tried my hardest not to stumble at all but I did stumble a little bit and my oak boards clattered against the metal of the router table. Strangely, I felt or remember feeling a twinge in my ankle as I reeled away from DePaul, a feeling that I wouldn’t understand until a week later. A lot of the guys in Mr. Brightman’s fifth-period shop class were also his football guys, and it showed. When I started high school, Dad had enthusiastically supported my attempt to struggle through a football season or three. “Nothing builds camaraderie like busting each other’s balls,” he’d said as he signed, without reading them, the necessary Injury Waiver and Liability Release Form and Willow South Standard Acknowledgement of Risk of Severe Injury and/or Death Form. Which, I can say with the benefit of hindsight, is true and it isn’t. The camaraderie thing. “Gary?” DePaul said, looking at me through his tinted yellow glasses. DePaul had his own safety glasses that he brought from home; they were either coincidentally or by design the same neo-Oakley style frames that Mr. Brightman kept on at all times, though his beard, like everything else about him, was twice the size of Mr. Brightman’s. “Are you gonna stand there like Miss South Carolina, or are you gonna spot me?” “Like who?” “Hilarious, Gary, but I don’t have time for this shit today. Be a bro and spot me before class is over. I need to cut these dovetails or my shelf drawer’s never getting done.” Obediently, I put down my boards and rounded to the back end of the router table. DePaul pulled back the black Precision-Cut Guide Fence and wooden dovetail jig (which I’d affixed to the fence with a couple tight C-clamps) to check the router blade, a thin conical corkscrew jutting out from the stainless steel table, and, after holding his marked plank up to the blade, lowered the point a bit. I must’ve looked at him funny, then, because he shrugged at me and laughed; we were making the
same drawer, so we should’ve needed identical set-ups for our dovetails, meaning that I must’ve set up the table wrong, and he’d fixed it. I didn’t know how DePaul’s bookshelf was turning out so much better than mine. His top was clean and flat while mine felt, even after I’d run it through the surface planer for days, warped and inconstant; his thin fiberboard back was neatly nailed on while mine had taken multiple staples to properly attach; his shelves fit perfectly, while mine, which I’d cut all together at the table saw, were somehow, when I installed them, different sizes; his legs could sit on concrete floor or carpet and stay solid, while mine wobbled and clattered at the slightest touch. It wasn’t that DePaul understood more about the processes necessary to assemble a bookshelf than I did, or that he’d taken better notes when Mr. Brightman had taken the two of us aside to give us special detailed instructions for the ambitious final projects we were attempting. DePaul hadn’t even taken notes at all. But when he passed the router blade through his boards, sending clouds of sweet-smelling smoke into the air, and handed them to me to check the dovetails, his huge arms seemed to be moving quickly, rushing the motions, not at all Taking His Time, but the cuts, as I inspected them, were perfectly clean. I turned the boards over in my hands a few times, feeling the veined surface, warm in the way freshly cut wood is (vibratingly, an inner warmth, as if from the heart), and looked wistfully over at my own uncut boards on the work table. One of my boards, despite hours spent with the surface planer, was warped, and I loathed the effect that the wood’s bend would have on my drawer box. I imagined years of having to practically tug the knob off a stuck drawer because of an essential problem I’d known about from the start but hadn’t been able to correct. I brushed a bit of sawdust off the end of DePaul’s perfectly flat board with a sort of longing. I handed DePaul back his boards as the router blade spun to a stop. He grinned as he ran his fingers through the smooth triangular cuts of the dovetail joint. “Hey,” I said as DePaul was lumbering back to his assigned Team Table. “Could you spot me, too?” He whistled through his teeth and then gave a half-cough, halflaugh. “Later, fag,” he said, just under the whirrs of the table saws from the back of the room. DePaul called everyone “fag,” though, a lot of the time, he called me “fag,” as did Martin, Shawn, Brackner, and the rest of the Willow South High juniors, at least the ones who knew me well enough to call me anything. They called me “fag” because they couldn’t think of anything better to call me. I wanted them to stop but was pretty sure by that point in my high school “career” that there’s no way to stop someone from
calling you “fag” once they’ve decided they’re going to, other than becoming stronger or cooler than them out of nowhere like in the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies (2002, dir. Sam Raimi), and that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, even if I showed up early for weightlifting or cut my hair so it stayed out of my eyes and behind my ears and didn’t flip out all over the place. The thing is, if I told them F.I.R.M. (“Face-to-Face, I-to-Eye, Respectfully-to-Resolutely, Mano-a-Mano”) to knock it off like how Miss Mount said at the schoolwide “Sticks & Moans” Anti-Bullying Assembly, they’d laugh and do it more because they knew that it made my stomach feel like it was pushed up to jut against my lungs and that meant they were strong and cool. But if I just kept quiet and held my head high and controlled what was within my control, like Mother said to do when Dad and my sister Margot were arguing about her tuition (expensive but surely, if my guesses about our house value and Dad’s salary and the out-of-state cost per annum including room and board) at Grinnell, if I didn’t say anything, then DePaul and Brackner and Dad would keep calling me “fag” or “bitch baby boy” or “little cuntshit” or my sister “Libtarded” because it was what they liked to do and nobody, certainly not me, was able to stop them. So for me to say something or to not say anything led to the same result, really. If I said something, then I was “getting defensive” and was clearly affected, justifying whatever was thrown at me; if I didn’t say anything, it must be because “little cuntshit” was in fact a fundamental part of my identity, had in fact cut to the core of my fundamental being against which I could have no protest. Whether or not I was a “fag” was entirely beside the point; all “fag” signified to DePaul and Brackner was that they were better than me. It’s not even that DePaul or anyone would beat me up if I said anything. Nobody beat anybody up at Willow South High; they just made other people feel bad about themselves. None of that was as serious to me in Mr. Brightman’s fifth period woodshop class as my drawer pieces, knots jutting out of their sides (knots I don’t remember seeing when I selected the boards; big dark chunks of variance that were, like all deviances, just begging to be punched out, smoothed over, made, with application of woodstain and paint, white and new), thick pencil lines at the end marking where my dovetails still needed to be cut before Mr. Brightman called Saws-Off; otherwise, I had serious doubts that they’d ever be cut at all, meaning goodbye to my bookshelf and its planned single drawer (Deviation from Plan alone could cost me ten points, if Mr. Brightman was in the mood to apply deductions on Grading Day). I guess what I’m trying to say is that I had a lot distracting me that day, as we all did. “Leave distractions at the door! Concentrate” I
could almost hear Mr. Brightman barking, but I didn’t have much left to do, and the door seemed small and dark and very far away. Today’s was a special Saws-Off because on Monday, when we came back, we’d be split into Cleaning Brigades and Inspectors and made to dust every inch of the shop with brooms, wet rags, dry rags, polishing cloths, Shop-Vacs, hand vacs, Wet Wipes, and Mrs. B’s Special Wood Polish in preparation for the final week of the school year, which was to be spent staining, sealing, gluing, painting (if applicable), and lathering thick coats of protective polyurethane on our projects. I liked Cleaning Brigade. I didn’t even mind not being an Inspector, so long as I didn’t have DePaul as my Inspector. The best inspector would be Frazier, of course. Frazier was like me in that he could get A’s in classes other than Woodshop but unlike me in that no one seemed to hold this against him. After Woodshop, instead of going to Physics class with the rest of us, he took a bus to the local community college for a robotics course. “It’s pretty cool,” he’d said when I asked him about the course. “It’s, uh, hard, but not that hard. I think I’m doing okay.” Then he’d sort of nodded to say goodbye and run off, dragging his second backpack (full of his new college textbooks) on the ground behind him. Last year, when he was an Inspector and I was sweeping the floor, he helped me hold the dustpan, even though Mr. Brightman said helping me hold the dustpan was Poor Delegation. “You have to learn to manage your subordinates,” Mr. Brightman said, his safety glasses glinting at us in the fluorescent light of the woodshop, his earplugs hanging on a bright green thread around his neck, ready to be inserted at a moment’s notice, even though the loudest piece of equipment we’d be using in Cleaning Brigades was a vacuum cleaner. I’d known Frazier for almost as long as I’d known my own parents, though there are different ways of knowing people, and I knew Frazier in a different way. Mother told me once about how, when we were four, I’d upset Frazier by blowing bubbles into his face when we were outside on the front lawn on the Fourth of July. It was during the particularly pregnant twilight of the Fourth, the lower reaches of the sky clouded with the aftereffects of Black Catz, M80s, Egg-Layin’ Hens, Smoke-Balls, and those weird screeching Missile Launchers that shot barrages of black-tipped plastic off into the suburban sky, which was hazy from the sweet-smelling smoke but still altogether too light for fireworks (the only time, maybe, when smoke precedes the explosion). So we’d been playing with bubbles instead, Frazier and me, when he still lived down the street and our parents were still friends, before Frazier’s dad got transferred to the base in Colorado Springs, then to
Virginia, then to Germany, briefly, before being reinstalled here in Willow, just in time for Frazier to start at the high school he would’ve attended anyway had they not moved at all. He’d returned pale, thin, blond, someone who could slide through life like a letter-opener, quietly endearing himself to the Willow South High bureaucracy with his high LSAT scores and his classically-trained clarinet playing in the school band and, most of all, his ability to make it through a school year without ever being a nuisance or causing trouble for anyone. He’d left as a four-yearold, with the angular face that future LSAT National Merit Top-Percentile scorers have at that age, striding quietly but with fists clenched up our driveway to wash the bubble soap out of his watering eyes, knocking over my pink bottle of Pop-o-Pop Bubbles with an errant sneakered foot on his way, sending the iridescent soapy water cascading down the driveway to pool in the rain gutter along the side of the street. I was just trying to show him, I told Mother when she asked why Frazier wasn’t playing with me anymore, the way a big gloopy ovoid bubble danced with color when illuminated from the back by the setting sun, like an egg pregnant with the passage of time itself, or I’d tried to say that in different language, when the Pop-o-Pop burst and the soap more or less flew into Frazier’s eyes as if directed there. I remember how his round blue eyes, pupils big and dark in the setting sun, framed by freckles and wispy kid eyebrows, widened in surprise or shock or almost anticipation as the bubble’s insufficient surface gave way and the rim snapped like a sun’s corona, like a star going supernova, and I remember the bubble soap carpeting his face and bouncing off his white eyes and then, only then, his face contorting into a silent squint, and I remember him slowly getting up to go inside and wash out his eyes, and I remember, after sitting there numbly for a few seconds, running wildly to tell Mother what had happened. I was crying, as though my eyes were cleaning themselves in solidarity, with the yellow bubble wand still hanging from my right hand. I remember the crying vividly. I was an avid crier until a few years ago when I stopped. But that day I felt so bad about what I’d done to Frazier that I couldn’t stop myself from crying, especially when, after he came back outside, wet rag in hand, eyes slightly reddened, he wouldn’t sit back down with me on the blanket I’d laid out on the grass to lean back on and watch the fireworks. “Of course I remember that Fourth of July,” Mother had said when I told her back in freshman year that Frazier was coming back to Willow. “You were so mad that he kicked over your bubbles. You wouldn’t stop crying.” “Gary, man,” said DePaul, “you can’t just stand in the aisle like that. I gotta walk through.”
I couldn’t take issue with that, really. I swallowed a mouthful of sawdust and saliva. “Sorry, DePaul,” I said. “Sorry, DePaul,” DePaul said in a squeezed, higher-pitched voice as he continued past me to the Lock Room, a three-foot by one-and-onehalf-foot plank under each arm (the shelves of his bookcase, his initials scrawled in a lazy hand on each) and a drawer piece in his hand; his other drawer-box boards sat on the work table, in a stack with mine. He was much kinder, I noticed, as he edged past Ashley, who was cutting out the top of her coat rack at the vertical bandsaw; he waited for her to finish her cut and then, with a smile, quick-stepped between her and Frazier to put his boards in the Lock Room. Frazier, too, was rushing on the last Saws-On day, breaking Mr. Brightman’s second and fifth rules of Shop Safety & Etiquette (“Slow and Steady means Slow and Safely”; “Working Together is Working For Better [Always Find a Spotter!]”). He was standing over the biggest table saw, a Skil-Cut with a great orange plastic blade guard and two brushed metal guides plus an external Adjusto-Mark guide and, as Mr. Brightman had promised to demonstrate for us with a hot dog on the last day if we made it through the year cut-free, an automatic brake that stopped the spinning blade within a fraction of a second if the serrated jaws of the blade were touched by flesh while the saw was active. Frazier, in his usual khaki pants and Western Community College “Golden Eagles” t-shirt, was buzzing over the Skil-Cut, its blade extended well out from its black plastic guard, a whale from water, or water from a whale, passing the top frame pieces of the table he was working on through the blade, which he’d raised pretty high and tilted at an angle to bevel the cut, holding the pieces tight to their guiderails and then quickly rounding the saw, agile, dancer-like, to withdraw the cut board from the other side. I know this sounds silly in retrospect, and I don’t know how to explain this, but I swear that, before I turned back to the table router to quickly cut my dovetails, I saw or maybe imagined or envisioned Frazier’s finger catching the blade as he stumbled on a half-turn, the pad of his finger slipping off his plank as his shoes squeaked, cutting, high-pitched on the shiny concrete floor of the woodshop, his finger hitting the blade and bouncing off as the brake engaged and the blade shrieked to a total and complete stop in a matter of milliseconds, each of which felt longer and longer to me as I watched Frazier’s finger, suddenly not a finger but undifferentiated flesh, the same to the blade as a hot dog or a piece of ham or an animal or a neck, rebounding against the blade and popping like jelly, the fingernail bending back off the end and snapping off, the fingertip spraying in a series of tiny chunks like fireworks across the room, too quickly for Frazier to even scream but slowly enough for me, as I
watched from the other side of the room, to count the individual drops of blood in the air, to wipe them up with a Bounty Quicker Picker-Upper before they even had time to parabolically arc and fall back on the shop floor. I know that I didn’t see any of this happen, but I remember, vividly, seeing all this happen, even though, when it did happen, almost three minutes later, I was looking away, fully engaged with my dovetails, and therefore couldn’t have really seen it happen at all. What I really was doing when Frazier cut his finger was this: I checked, first, the tightness of the clamps holding the sliding fence jig to the table’s own Precision-Cut Guide Fence. I held a flopping ruler up to the router blade to check its height and then pulled the fence up in front of the blade (which would, once I turned the machine on, pass through a pre-cut hole in the sliding fence and then through my board). I pulled the fence in front of the blade, flipped the safety switch on the router table, and pressed the red ON button, bringing the blade, instantly, it seemed, from standstill to uncontrollable speed, twenty-two thousand revolutions per minute, so fast that the blade appeared stationary but of bloated size. I reached for my boards, which had been measured not twice but six separate times and now were about to be cut once, hopefully, if all went according to plan, in a manner that would let me arrive on Tuesday, after Monday’s Cleaning Brigade, and slide the protruding tails of one board into the ready slots of the other, smoothly and gracefully, maybe, or at worst, with a few taps from a rubber mallet. I remember bending down, perhaps closer to the blade than I should have, over the sharp steel of the router blade, passing my first board through, my hands firm on both sides, holding the board to the sliding Precision-Cut Guide Fence, trying both to move quickly and smoothly, for the cleanest and most consistent cut, and slowly and carefully, to avoid slipping or splintering. I remember finishing the first board and feeling oddly satisfied as I slipped my fingers through the joints to check their stability, like I’d become part of a great composite wooden creature that carried with it the soul-like efforts of laborers (the lumberjack, the log-truck driver, the loaders, the surfacers, the designers of the various machines with which the board had been honed, the management staff who sold the board to Willow South High’s Woodshop, Mr. Brightman, DePaul, in a sense, who’d set the router, and, well, myself, the least among them) who’d together helped the board metamorphose from a clump of trees in a northeastern forest into a bookshelf, efforts stolen from these workers the way a tissue steals snot, or tears, or blood: without looking like theft at all. I remember reaching for my second board, which I thought I’d left sitting on the work table, and being surprised to find it missing; in its
place was an already-routed drawer back, perfectly cut to my design’s specifications, with the letters “DP” scratched in tiny letters in the corner. I remember the warped board and all the ways that I knew things could be easier but they weren’t. I remember Ashley leaving a gathered group of her friends to sit next to me on a steel bench underneath an old maple tree in front of the high school, Ashley asking me if I’d seen it happen, Ashley cutting me off when I tried explain that, yes and no, I couldn’t remember what I’d seen, trying to pick words that weren’t “premonition” to describe how I’d felt before Frazier’s hand hit the blade, Ashley, in a black cardigan that smelled faintly of orange blossoms, saying, quietly, “And the blood thus shed will speak in hot blushes on their cheek,” Ashley sighing and laying her head softly on my shoulder. I remember thinking that it wasn’t right at all. I remember Frazier shrugging when, a week later, bandaged but able to wiggle his fingers underneath all the cloth and gauze, I asked him how he was doing. “I’ve been practicing holding a pencil in my other hand,” he said, “so I can still take the ACT next week.” I remember wondering why his words, too, left me feeling so empty. I remember seeing Frazier, four years later, filled out slightly but unmistakably himself, beaming up at me from the Technology page of the Washington Post’s new mobile-friendly website, holding, in normal-looking hands, a tiny rounded white robot that he and his team at MIT had trained to play soccer on a room-size field with plastic goalposts and a little rubberized ball. The robots, the Post explained, could not only shuffle around and mimic a humanistic one-legged kick but also used simple visual sensors, motion detectors, and powerful subprocessing routines to mimic the styles and tactics of soccer played between humans. “It was hard, sure, but we did it, all of us,” said Frazier to the interviewer as the robots puttered around behind them. I remember being surprised but then not that the Post, in their profile of the team, had interviewed Frazier alone. I remember, at the last Pads-On practice of the school year, two days before the final jayvee game and almost a week after Frazier’s injury, being laid out by a sprinting DePaul during a tackling drill, not so much feeling but hearing a whoosh as the air in my lungs was forced from my chest by the crunch of DePaul’s heavy molded shoulder pads against the thinner pieces covering my heart, a thud as the back of my helmet struck dirt and rebounded, a swick as my ankle, held fast in the ground by the studs of my cleats, gave way but not in the way the joint was supposed to, forcing me, I’d find out once assisted to the trainer’s office by Brackner and Coach Morris, to watch our last game of the season on the sidelines,
in my jersey and jeans, crutches supporting half my weight, though, of course, I wasn’t going to play much anyway. I remember Dad calling Mother a “crazy hysterical wail of a woman” when I tore back the Velcro straps holding the school-supplied Joint-Stabilizing Soft Cast to reveal the throbbing red ball, too big to pull my sock over fully, that was my sprained ankle, veins like threads under my skin jerry-rigging the joint together, and Dad insisting that Mother go pop a few downers and come back when her head was screwed on straight, and Dad sitting next to me on the couch, bumping my extended leg as he did so, and clapping a firm hand on my shoulder, and saying, “You’ll be alright, Gary. This’ll be good for you, in the end.” I remember DePaul saying before the tackling drill began that he knew what I’d done and he was going to drill me for it. I remember an unbearable screech as the Skil-Cut was stopped by its automatic flesh-detecting brake, and an amplified series of echoing claps and clatters as half-cut pieces of wood across the room fell from the hands of surprised amateur carpenters, and the arrival of silence as every saw or planer or router or sander in the room shut off in unison, and then a scream, not from Frazier or Ashley or Mr. Brightman, but from DePaul, who must’ve seen the whole thing happen and who shouted, louder than the metal brake, “Fucking Christ, he’s dead!” I remember a stunned silence as Frazier, cradling his finger in his t-shirt, left for the nurse’s office, even as Mr. Brightman was barking directions to an ambulance driver over the classroom phone, his Clappers discarded, one of his eyes looking back at the Skil-Cut where Frazier’d been working, the other pointed up at the ceiling, at the spot where the sun would be at two p.m. on a late spring day. I remember the tooth thing Mr. Brightman would do on the first day of every semester, a demonstration that had become legendary at Willow South High: he’d show us how two of his front teeth were fake and totally not implanted into the gums, held in by a metal retainer, and he could pop them out at will and dangle them out in front of us by the mouth plate and then sneer at us through a huge black gap in his teeth. I remember my missing board, and an empty classroom as everyone else filed out into the hall to gawk at Frazier, and the fine pink shavings of a rubber eraser, spiraling infinitely like curlicues out onto the table, and the way you could pull the long ones and roll them between your fingers until they got warm and then stretch them until they snapped.
THAT TIME MY BROTHER DIED when rain is a novelty you stand in it, dance in it, lie down and nap in it you open windows to smell it, hear it, and breathe it when you are alone you don’t notice if the raindrops are actually tears or if you’re shivering from the cold or something else and then you realize you’re not just alone in the rain; you too will die alone and distant family will bicker and claim to know you best but no one knew you you tried, you invited love, you opened yourself up you tried to trust when people seemed worthy, but no one ever was the rain puts out fires but it makes cars collide and mud slide and roads sink so what is the sense in enjoying it after all
LISA LÓPEZ SMITH
ROSARIO PARA JAVIER, MARCOS, Y DANIEL (DISAPPEARED 19 MARCH 2018 IN TONALÁ, MÉXICO) Santa Maria Madre de Dios You more than anyone ought to know about losing a child, y madre nuestra The puzzle pieces in full face, mid-frame, as if doing homework were a crime, as if going to university were a crime, as if just being there were a crime. Disappeared. They say “disappeared” like socks in the wash or bobbypins disappeared, all the teaspoons in the house, disappeared as if we carelessly put them down and walked away. We will not walk away. Ruega señora por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte amen Speaking of death anyhow, what’s worse is not knowing what happens after tinted windshielded vehicles pass, snatching our boys from the world. We’re still missing the other 43 too, what’s worse is complicit authorities, what’s worse is cover-up. Dios te salve Maria llena eres de gracia—what grace? What’s worse is life going on without hope for this to end. Amén.
GILLS I heard the news in a shrinking pool of water under August heat. How back at the hospital he waved the white flag, body shrinking fast under a hospital sheet, kidney cells multiplying beyond repair. My brother hauled me out of the water, out of my numb, stoic state. We left as quickly as he came to the shore, the car a comet that wrapped around the sun in a day. His cassette tape spun like the carâ€” hell-bent, spewing Pink Floyd beyond recognition. I was crumpled origami under a beach towel, a mess of lake water and tangled hair. We said nothing. My throat tightened, choked on summer air as we ran to the hospital doors. I shed my towel on the pavement, nurses frowning at my risquĂŠ clothes as I burst into the room. His eyes were black like raisins, lips parted and cracked. I placed my fingertips in his palm, my hair a dripping curtain that hung over him.
He gurgled sounds I could not make out, his breath heaving the rhythmic syllables daughter, daughter, like a gasping fish in a shrinking puddle, a sight unbearable as August heat.
JULY 25TH, 1991
I remember my twelfth birthday so vividly, just a kid with the whole world, his whole life ahead of him, skateboarding, comic books and MTV still played Music videos. I lived in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, but on my birthday, July 25 th , 1991, everything that I had felt like nothing at all, you see, I had these step sisters (had, though they are alive, they are dead to me) They decided to score a fix and neglect my baby sister, my mother was out getting my cake, so imagine you are a twelve year old, just starting to find your voice, and walk out to your back yard to find your baby sister, lifeless, in your family pool, imagine how fucking terrifying it is, now, imagine jumping in to get her, not knowing what you are doing, and running to get somebody, imagine watching her go into an ambulance while your mother drives down the other side of the street, think about your mother getting out of the car and falling to her knees when she realizes what is going on, that was my twelfth birthday, and every birthday for the next several years, that is what I seen when I tried to sleep, twelve years old having anxiety attacks, now, read my
other work, and before you say I am this or I am that, think of your childhood, because you got to have one while my world caved in.
COMEUPPANCE I began working as an intern at the age of nineteen for the summer between freshman and sophomore years in college. I could type, file, schedule and answer phones. I needed money for the next semester. I found, what I believed, to be the perfect job for my talents. I was incorrect in my conclusion for my acknowledged skills. I was absolutely correct in my conclusion for my soon-to-be-learned skills. My problems with my boss began on my first day. At lunch, he asked me to remain and help him with payroll. What he meant was he wanted me for a different type of filing. It happened so fast, that I became a victim in less than twenty minutes. However, soon after, I also became rich (by my standards). He left me alone in his office to clean myself and count the $50 he left as payment for my “dedication” to the job. I felt used and wanted to quit. But, then I thought. I was on the Pill, he used a condom, and he did not hurt me during the act. As despicable as he was, I was equally reprehensible for pocketing the money and returning to work; silently. From then on, when he mentioned “payroll”, I was ready. My job title did not match my job description, but my checking account increased at a rate faster than my lack of penitence. I was bought and sold, nearly four times a week, and understood my place in the Universe. That was until the first Monday in August. That is when I found my boss interviewing my replacement. She was not even a high school graduate, nor a lady of “practical” upbringing. She was barely sixteen and knew how to resist. Thus, my boss decided to accelerate her education with a few punches and slaps. I heard him tell this girl that it was for the best and she should not resist the inevitable. He went so far to tell her that I was his whore and that was just the way things work. I heard her get up weeping and offer a weak agreement to him verbally. That is when I decided to enter with a coffee pot and drop it on the floor. I said I was clumsy and offered the girl an opportunity to exit before it became too late. She took her leave from my employer. I took her beating. I also took a brutal hour on the couch. What I didn’t take was any cash for my effort. So much for being his whore. At least they get paid. For the remainder of the month, I spent my time photocopying financial records and downloading all business and personal files. I also spent more than an hour per day as my boss’s piece of tail. My decision was a
tradeoff; my soul versus my ability to endure. By the end of the month, both had worn thin. On my last day, he offered to take me to dinner. He was polite. He offered me a reference if I wanted one or my position when I was on holiday or during next summer. I declined both. He was not happy with my decision and wanted to know why I was being rude. I told him he was a rapist. He told me I was a whore. I told him I was “heavy with child”. He told me he was HIV+. I took a sip of water and told him I was going to the police. He replied I was going to the morgue. I met his blank eyes with my small grin. I let everything we just spoke of settle in before I replayed it again for all in the establishment to hear. With that, he slapped me hard enough to knock me out of the chair.
It was difficult to keep from laughing as I repeated his social security number out loud. Then his credit card number. Then his checking account number. It gave a second to recover his composure and assist me back into my seat. “Please relax before I inform the police. Another outbreak of violence will be met with violence from your future cellmate.” He now took me seriously. I explained I had all financial control of his life and his business. I would return 10% per year to him, if and when, he could demonstrate a better level of emotional control. I might even go so far as to hire a gay overseer to view his books on a daily basis and his rear on an equal level of frequency. With that, my former boss rose and left the restaurant without saying another word. He did attempt to assault me in the parking lot when I left the restaurant. I expected as much. What transpired was the father and two uncles of the interviewed sixteen year old restrained my boss with a few fists and ropes. This permitted one last conversation with him. I approached him and used a pair of pliers the father had in the ready. I applied the pliers to my former boss’s genitals to “grab” his attention. When I was sure I had his attention, I leaned in to speak. Unfortunately, I had little to say other than a small kiss on his cheek and a thank you for some decent sex this summer. Then I gripped as tight as I could for the beating I took. It wasn’t enough for full restitution, but it did feel good (to
me). I heard the men force my weaken boss into the trunk of a car. I never saw the car or my boss again. I anonymously sent my report and copies of all his records to the IRS for auditing. The cash I had became the cash the girl received. I heard she used it as her college fund. As for my former boss, I heard he was in Mexico for a while. I faxed a fake police report to a variety of prisons indicating his obsession with pedophilia. He will be in Mexico for a while longer. So, what is so scary about this story? Maybe it is the fact that none of it is true. I never did get even with my boss. He did abuse a teenage girl. He fired me and had me arrested. My release came at the cost of my silence toward his sexual escapades. I left without any payment for my â€œpayrollâ€? assistance. I left without much more than a shattered ego and a series of bounced paychecks. He is still out there, attacking and raping women, without a care to the consequences. He has no reason to believe otherwise.
RETROACTIVE knee cocked forehead on it arms wrapped in the smallest ball you can make yourself do you wish sometimes you could have been an abortion an egg dropped shattered on the kitchen floor a drink spilled before it reached the table I know I've been there
FIVE OF TWELVE Night never falls anymore. Nor does it settle here, where the windows themselves look inward and watch me ape sleep. Traffic drones down eighth ave but canâ€™t drown the pre-war radiator out; it spits and coughs like an old man, unable to turn itself off.
THE TREE-BARK CITY Peepal is my oldest tree growing out of red dirt on the banks of the river. Out of the haze of American perspective to glare like an Indian mother at her golden boy when he climbs too high. Jimmy Carter gets a bad rap on a billboard at eye level. His presidency was an endless frustration and now he’s building houses out of the corners in my tree. If he applied for a residency permit he must have paid the street dogs his weight in rotten fish. Taken a dozen outcasts “us par”. Across the river in boats like Washington’s army. Painted death & haloed. American children don’t understand rebirth so all dogs go to heaven. Nimble native fingers pluck at remains. It is a tenement to my American that I spell people correctly. The trees and its masses. The tree the great rallier of troops. The tree President of the peepal. & isn’t that just the most atrocious thing you’ve ever seen. A tree surrounded by grass so green it’s forgotten. Soil never washes clean, just out.
SCOTT RUSSELL MORRIS
SONNET FOR LA NIÑA
You were conceived in a midsummer storm. Sunset and pale lightning infused the rain with yellow light, and air, heavy and warm, blew in through open windows while dusk waned thin, and I loved your mother right and slow. We paid no mind to future needs or past longings, just mist, lips, skin. We didn’t know this tempest, its romance, would be the last before a sweeping La Niña pattern condensed the moisture in the north and east. Don’t let this dryness dampen you. Your turn now to suckle at your mother’s breast. Feast defiant of this cold drought, my daughter; you are made of thunder, heat, and water.
JENI DE LA O
sip of beer, a kiss, stars. dancing from Venus to Jupiter.
sweaty, between years the scent
we learned of blood and dirt on a rose;
black as uniform, instead of rebellion.
fresh coffee and biscuits.
marvel at particle accelerators the size of tweezers, and televisions clearer than the eye.
/rise and fall sprawl across the moons of Saturn/ /space expands because our lives demand it/ between and this yesterday
I can almost not see you, anymore,
last time I saw you eyelash moment, twenty years. a mile marker across state lines, pebble in your sandal, bouy in the ocean, tongue of honey, planet in orbit.
I have been shrinking.
SWIMMING LESSONS With a towel tucked under my tiny arm and goggles fastened tightly around my curly brown hair, all 36 inches of me strutted through the doors onto the sunny pool deck. I was just five years old. And unlike me, unfortunately, all of the other summer swim team participants could actually swim. I became enthralled in my imaginative world as one of the coaches began sorting the swimmers into groups based on experience in the water. I sat in the back, likely pondering which shoes my Barbie dolls would wear later that evening, and if I should let my mother brush my knotted hair or bolt the moment she pulled out the monstrous red hair brush. Eventually snapping out of my fantasy, I realized quickly that I had failed to retain the skill groups that had been assigned. So, I just jumped in line with the group closest in proximity to me. My mouth dropped open in panic when the coach told my lane to do a “200 warm up.” I thought he meant 200 laps rather than 200 yards. In other words, a disaster was brewing before my toes even touched the chlorinated water. The swimmers in the surrounding lanes performed acute dives off the starting blocks, popping up smoothly before executing a pristine freestyle stroke. I, however, closed my eyes and jumped in a full-fledged cannonball position. Amidst the older kids swimming a proper stroke, I treaded eight feet from the wall in lane four. Frantically kicking my legs and waving my arms, I attempted to yell for help. As I gulped chlorinated water by what felt like the pint, I watched my mother look over from the shallow end of the pool, puzzled for a split second. A look of horror spread across her face, as she distressingly screamed for a coach. Still trying to understand what a five year old was doing amidst a group of experienced middle school swimmers, a coach jumped into the deep end, reaching for my hand. Not until I sat on the side of the pool, gasping for air to fill my seemingly hollow lungs, did I truly begin to understand the situation. I didn’t suffer any long term physical effects, and in fact, I did not even need to visit the emergency room. But still— the helplessness of reaching for the wall but grasping only water, the fear in wanting to swim but not knowing how--it has stayed with me all of these years. ***
I squint my eyes, making out an iridescent 5:45 AM on my alarm clock. Out of bed, I drag my exhausted limbs to commence my morning routine. The patter of my sister running down the steps for breakfast rings through my ears. I trudge down the hallway to the bathroom scale, the first place I have gone everyday as a high school senior. In slow motion, I wait, the same way I wait for the bell to ring at 2:15, dismissing me from school. Time seems almost still as the line flashes across the scale. It is determining whether I will eat an apple after school or not. The number is lower than yesterday. I breathe a sigh of relief, tainted with inadequacy. Because it isn’t low enough. Moving forward with my mechanical morning routine, I force a hairbrush through my knotted, curly hair. It begins falling to the ground in small clumps, the same way in which it has for the past six weeks or so. I glance upwards into the mirror—the object that has become a mechanism of my greatest vice, the source in which I keep searching for happiness, only to find overwhelming pain. The whites of my eyes seem to be getting whiter, I note, or perhaps my skin is just getting paler. In the eyes of the reflection I cannot recognize, tears well up. Because tomorrow, I will have to wake up and do this all over again. Contrary to my prior belief, you don’t have to be in the water to know what it feels like to be drowning. As I sip my black coffee this same morning, I glance out the foggy window of my mother’s car. The granola bar, which I will throw away unopened as soon as I get to school, sits on top of the console. Our car rides—once full of 7 AM chatter and arbitrary stories--seem to become longer and quieter every day. What did you pack for lunch? She asks, breaking the silence. Peanut butter on wheat, I say, which is a lie. My lunch box is empty. I only carry it around for effect. I know she has noticed that my dark eyes are chronically sunken. She has been present as my once bubbly, inquisitive demeanor, slowly fades into an bland disinterest in everything but cross country practice. I wonder how close she is to piecing all of the lies together. Anorexia, by nature, is a disease that does not make sense. I grew up in a household that ate dessert every night, rather than dieting. My weight was never even a concern. From the standpoint of an average person, uneducated on the genetic or diathesis aspect of eating disorders, it would seem nearly impossible for me to be suffering from one. This, precisely, is how I have been able to fool everyone into believing I am not
violently drowning. After months, the lying has become so habitual, it hardly feels wrong, or even untruthful at all. Along with the disposal of the granola bar, I’ll dump out the protein shake she gives me to drink in between breakfast and lunch. Then I will strategically place the empty bottle back in my lunchbox, so when she does inventory on what I have eaten later, she will be relieved that, yes, I am in fact cooperating with the doctor’s orders to gain weight. Every medical specialist has warned me about a different consequence of being chronically underweight, but nobody seems to be able to find the source of my weight loss. My mother, after exhausting every medical resource, offers to talk to me anytime, reminding me that she will never be upset. None of the efforts, however, are of any use. It does not matter to me if I cannot have children, or if I get osteoporosis before I am old enough to go to a bar. I do not care about irreversible heart damage or even the looming threat of death. These consequences are white noise, barely detectable, in the background of my anorexic fixations on not eating until two in the afternoon and never keeping more than 750 calories down at once. When you are drowning, it doesn’t matter how many people throw you a life preserver. If you don’t grab on, you are just going to keep sinking. There is a rewarding aspect to eating disorders. This is why I venture further into its depths—there is something that feels good. Something that makes the highs of starvation worth the demolition of my humor, my vivacious laughter, my lovingness. I traded it to sit in the upstairs bathroom on a warm summer night, resting my head on the cold toilet seat, as I listened to my friends giggle by the campfire. Perhaps I am so resistant to tell my mother the truth because I know she will do everything she can to ensure my recovery. But I do not want to recover. It is the one aspect that nobody seems to be able to wrap their head around. To a fault, people believe only the models preoccupied with personal appearance and superficial high school girls fall victim to eating disorders. After a doctor’s appointment a few weeks prior, I pressed my head up against the door upon being ordered to leave the room. I wouldn’t worry about her. She has a good head on her shoulders, trust me, she’ll be fine, the doctor said to my mother.
Maybe I did have a good head on my shoulders. But intelligence isn’t a protective factor against mental illness. *** My mother signed me up for swim team because she never learned how to swim. She wanted me to have control of myself in the water. I didn’t jump in the water at age five with the intention of drowning. And I did not cut “unhealthy” foods out of my diet and run a few extra miles with the intention of becoming anorexic. It was a desperate reach for control during a period of my life that felt unknown. Every time I applied to a university, picked up my pencil to take a test, and stood with my toes on the edge of the white track start line, I felt another brick piling onto the heavy weight of overwhelming anxiety that was already resting upon my shoulders. I had limited control over my grades, my college acceptances, my running times, and my future. And so I turned to something I felt I could control. It was, paradoxically, a counterintuitive fabrication of swimming. *** As we sit in silence the same morning, I see her look over at me from the corner of my eye. Is everything okay? I can tell that there is something more going on. Just tell me if you need help. Her bottom lip quivers, and I see her clench her fingers tighter on the steering wheel. Every morning we come closer to the truth. I remain silent, long enough to raise suspicion perhaps, but not long enough for her to ask any more questions about what is occupying my mind. I know that as soon as I open the bursting floodgates, telling her that her deep fear is real, my pain will become hers. And I don’t want anyone to ever know, let alone feel, this. Inhaling deeply, I watch her fingers tap the steering wheel in a nervous crescendo. I just want it all to be over, I say, wondering if she thinks I mean high school. I wait for her to respond, hoping she will request clarification. But instead, she silently stares ahead, her eyes fixated on the flat road. I have no way of taking my words back, though I wish I did. My mind drifts to the many nights I have fallen asleep hoping that, maybe, tomorrow will be the morning I do not wake up. Perhaps I am referring to this. But I’m not sure that I even understand what I mean myself. *** I love you, she says, a few minutes later, as she pulls in front of the twelfth grade drop off area.
I turn my back towards her, knowing that if I look her in the eyes at this very moment, I will have to watch her heart shatter. And it will be my fault. I know she has worried, deep down this entire time, that my behavior requires more than an extra plate of food and a blood test to fix. And I know she is piecing it together, reaching the end of the tunnel. But she will find no light. As I slam the car door, I breathe in, staring at the once vivacious trees wasting away amidst the frigid air. Perhaps I am not much different than the trees. But their story is beautiful, and mine is not. I sniffle, holding my tears in as I walk into school. I am so hungry, and the days are so long, and of the many paths before me, not one looks anything but dark, bleak, and hopeless. I do not want my mother to have to watch me drown again. But I do not know how to swim. And this time, there is nobody here to save me.
TRINKETS The things Süheyla gave me, or Sadie, Persephone—trinkets from the shore, some bracelets, a lighter with a palm tree—go to the drawer tonight with the double-A batteries and the Scotch bottle caps. They belong to another life now, to the time before my eyes were lined with wrinkles, when I read the Psalms to pretty girls, wishing only for the taste of skin and lime. How odd the photos, too—that flesh pretending to be mine, those shoulders, that Oxford I wore when my father called me before the second tower fell. Everything eventually goes there, rubble or drawer, regret, the fury of not becoming what we wanted to become. I open it when the child’s sleeping, for she’ll have hours to see much later the man her father was, or wasn’t, or could’ve been. Intrigue or delight, despondency, the admired: all the same now with the matchbook from the Tampa Saltwater Inn, the taffy wrappers, the ticket stubs torn off in another century.
SNOWMEN while the children are outside rolling up boulders for snowmen, the Halloween decorations are still hanging from last monthâ€™s festivities and I am at my desk, sipping on Red Wagon coffee, listening to the 13th Floor Elevators under the needle and going crazy at the blank paper in the typewriter and while Iâ€™m producing nothing in here, the children are out there accomplishing so many wondrous things. all I can do is watch the snowflakes fall on this cool crisp November morning and think of my own childhood; a little less grim and little more reckless as they place a carrot for the nose, the coal for buttons, eyes and a crooked smile, a scarf to keep him warm and the top hat keeps him prestigious. could it be that silence is the only thing that speaks to me?
we had uttered our canticle, tied the black ribbon around the sacred box a weight was lifted but the darkness still whispered: come. the nights were an adept lover with warm hands and a cold tongue. we stole away to the place of dust motes and ocher jasmine weaving her scent through the oaks our bodies contorted in ecstasy under a godless sky. the shelves of our feral hearts stocked with a bountiful supply of wicked pleasures how we knew the taste of each other's blood, how algid steel made flesh quiver. youth, unaware of the spell of blood. this was how the darkness bloomed in my irises: when we opened the box, he came out of the mirror. after that, it was always breathing on me.
It’s frivolous, this rain, with its unreasonable claims on our silence. You stalk the hallway, I crush tears in my fist. I’ve taken to rearranging books on the shelf, first alphabetically, then by the year of a writer’s death. Orphan books. I seem to love them more this way.
BALL-PEEN It’s a terrible feeling, when you step out of your apartment looking for a large rock so you can bring out the helpless and disabled creature and mercy kill it in the dark so you can’t see it, and from a distance so you can’t feel it. It’s a terrible feeling, when you make the almost immediate realization, ‘four-hundred apartments, this place was manufactured, this place was bulldozed, this place hasn’t a rock larger than a pebble.' It’s a terrible feeling, when what you have at your disposal is a ball-peen hammer. A ball-peen hammer that I, at this moment, am still holding, barely, and with a loose grasp. It dangling between my legs, bobbing on my thigh, as I'm writing this with my free hand. It’s a terrible feeling. And it’s a worse feeling when it takes two blows. Two blows to cave in its head. No blood or crunch sound. Just stillness, and a groove in its once round plush crown. It’s a terrible feeling, and I don’t want to feel it alone.
GRACE GILBERT THE LAST WEEKEND I SPENT WITH MY MIND WAS A RETRO FILM—
things moved like the earth was still in rotation. i held your brother’s hand in sepia winter sun. you ordered something & wished it was something else. i think you tripped over the café stoop. we laughed. we bought green apples. we saw the deep strip of River. we loved the way it wanted to contain the sky. your smell on my shirt. you, my one souvenir, blue & crumpled in my weekend duffel like something obsolete. cleaning out your apartment weeks later, even the apples on the counter rotted, like they knew. now that shirt hangs, suspended, like the feeling of two years passing but not in full, for even now i stare at any River long enough to still make out your thin body, a glitch in the current. two years & i promise i have asked the questions. i have held myself uspide down to empty every last pocket. i have sat my grief down like a criminal with shackled hands. but i think of that last day, TILDE~50
when we saw the sky, the River, the wild tame, how little i feared those churning mouths—now, where is the River but everywhere & spreading— where is the heart but teeming with grief? i have done the gruesome work of becoming it— remembering is a mirror through which i pull myself & leave the wounds unbandaged. i stare into the cruel eye of memory. stare until all i see are spots— force my mind to be the River so you can use it as your home.
THAT ONE TIME LOVE WAS MAGIC This is about the ex, but we didn’t know that then. There, on our silent walk, gates fell for a long, slow train without benefit of bone shake noise. Soft enough I leaned my lips, against her ear, spelled out the railroad regulations of slow trains in Ohio: On the caboose will be a brakeman. His name is always Joe. If you wave and shout it loud, it’s his job to wave you back. Which she chose to do exactly, three cars before the last, at the caboose and after, at the cross arms lifting, the clatter-ding of boxcars pulling north, at the fuzz of blue stripe coveralls, the blur of palm with fingers, as the distances increased – innocence renewing in her eyes at how I’d tapioca’d all the world to dollop in her bowl. It was Joe, she said, in our moment she believed me, and he was waving at her still. It was Joe. It was Joe. It was Joe.
CONTACT I just dropped my ex’s ashes on the floor. They were in between a book crease, contained in a wearable orb. A charm-sized takeaway from a funeral I don’t remember.
When I look at them I think body sugar. A sweet mix of rot and Danish. The same smell my father had days before death. It makes me sick to think about, but I just want to know where he is now. I will illy traverse mediums.
I’m not sure if I feel him now when I pass the same places. I think of rides in cars through neighborhoods of my youth. Dirty quarters for gasoline and dirt weed. The smell of hair and how it finds its way into the handful of someone else.
If I could ask you one thing it would be where to put my body now that you’re gone. My fingers roll your body sugar around in my palm. I sense phantom hands on my neck and I feel more at home.
K G NEWMAN
I want the digit pain again and sore wrist with it. The shut lips of my father and our quality time as we played at the kitchen table.
His calloused, vitiligoid hand pinning me down, then gifting space to escape. The shouting from the neighbors making us somber for a moment.
Thereâ€™s little more to remember. The storm door still broken, and from my frayed upstairs landing, listening above the wallâ€™s half-handrail, paint-stripped and splintered.
A CLUE IN EACH OF TWO KAZOOS
You say I thought you were someone else and I say That makes two. In lieu of love I have a pet, in lieu of pet a plant and if my planet were not in decline how would I know my planet needs me? And the silhouette's dark side may gently tempt the unsuspecting retina or brush the budding tongue but the amended memory's the better bet as in the privacy of my own sidecar I'll know in which anteroom my artifices are. In my ecliptic I won't need a smile to hide behind. Go orbit in your own ecliptic Mata Hari, this one's mine.
THE LAST DAY
I spent my last moments with her, my head lying next to her knees, my right arm around her shins. My uncles on either side of her, each held one of her hands. My mother stood nearby the head of her bed. The three of them took turns telling her that every think was “okay” and that “we’re all here” and that “we all love her very much” and not to worry, “it’s okay to pass on, you don’t have to stay.” I did my best to ignore all the words being spoken. My head against her leg, I was focused on the feeling of when I was a little girl lying my head on these very legs as my grandmother tried to convince me that I needed to sleep in my own bed until ultimately giving in. I was holding on to that feeling. My two siblings had already left for the day. They were at her side for hours earlier that day and the day before and had to go back home to take care of their own lives. My co-parent had brought our children to say their goodbyes, but only briefly. The sight of their sweet and eccentric great grandmother sunken and grey, not looking at all like she did last week, was too much for their young eyes. Her slow, raspy, creaky breaths were becoming further and further apart. I looked up at her face. She could no longer open her eyes, or even speak, but I could see tears welled on the edges of her eyelids. I held on to the feeling longer, of being that little girl pestering her grandmother for love and attention. A lost little girl with too many siblings, an only child at grandma’s house. Every pause between breaths, we would all raise our heads, waiting, wondering, is this the last one? It felt like time was no longer relevant, we were frozen in these moments with no before and no after, only this question and one other: are we ready? It would be a relief, certainly. She was in a lot of pain in her last days. And she was already gone in some sense of the word. She couldn’t speak or move, only breath, only gasp. I cannot speak for the others, but I know, looking back, I was not ready. I simultaneously wanted the moment on her knees to never end while also wishing that it was all over already. I stood up. I felt a pain in my neck and had an inclination of my late grandfather telling me to stand up straight. I momentarily corrected my posture, then slouched back down, pushing the thought out of my mind and began pacing. I went outside under the guise of needing to vape,
but really, I needed to process this moment. There again, though it was darkening outside, was the black squirrel. We had noticed the squirrel throughout the day, marveling at its rare color and wondering about it. My first thought was that it was my grandfather, thinking of his dark hair. My sister kept missing the squirrel. I couldn’t tell if she was intentionally avoiding seeing it or just happened to look at the wrong moments. I wondered if she thought it might be grandpa as well. Maybe the squirrel was avoiding her. If it was our grandfather, he would have very good reason to evade her gaze, with all those terrible things he did to her. He did the same to me, but to what extent, I do not know. Most of it is blocked from my memory, beyond a few flashes of images and bits of conversations. At some point in the late afternoon, I had googled “squirrel symbolism” from the window seat across the room from my sleeping grandmother. Among lot’s of “new beginnings” “big changes” I found that there was an old myth about a squirrel who was a messenger from the underworld. I skimmed the text and announced this to my family, who were only mildly interested in the squirrel, and, understandably, more focused on my grandmother. In those moments when I was outside, to “vape,” I called my co-parent. I updated them on her condition. I described my surroundings, another sighting of the black squirrel, a rock on the ground that looks like a face, three blue birds or maybe blue jays flittered by, some robins passed through, sometimes stopping briefly in the garden to peck. On the far side of the garden directly across from me I finally noticed a dove. “Oh, and there’s a dove,” I told my partner. “I think it’s alone though, how strange.” I could hear the kids giving them a hard time in the back ground so I let them go. I stared at the dove. Are you my grandma? I asked internally. The dove was watching me this entire time, but I had been more focused on all the active creatures. The dove continued to stare. It stepped only a couple inches toward me and turned to face me directly. I said, in my head, “I love you. Goodbye,” and the dove flew away. I entered the hospice room once again, fully expecting that my grandmother passed in simultaneous concert along with the dove’s exit. But I returned to the very same scene I had just left. The still, frozen, ever-repeating mix of panic and relief in response to the lull between her breaths. I watched her take her long, intermittent breaths for what felt like an eternity. Eventually, her face began to contort, like she was afraid or angry. These flashes of painful expressions became too much for me. What if she was hanging on for me? What if she knew I still needed her, still need her? I needed to let her go. I need to figure this out on my own. I
knew I could not let her continue in so much pain. I announced to my mother and uncles that I needed to go, “to check on the kids,” then hugged my grandmother’s shoulders. I had to force myself to let go. I tucked her hair behind her ear once more, kissed her head and told her I loved her. In the parking lot, I sat in my car. I knew I needed to leave, but I still felt the pull back in toward my grandmother. I needed to let her go, but I couldn’t quite leave. After nearly twenty minutes, I looked at the time, 6:45 pm, and willed myself to drive home. In the driveway, I called my mom. “She’s gone,” my mom said. “Passed at 6:45.”
WHEN THE DINNER BELL RINGS one. mother in the spaces and gaps of remembrance, my mother knows. she makes peach crumble with her knuckle caps, kneads butter-soft slashes into the creases of her hands. we disassemble, pick apart peaches from pastries, tartness from mouth until our hands are sticky & the pie pan is cold & mother calls me Grace. grace, no, you are Grace. remember, i wish, pray, graze my grief against bone-soft skin. my mother is typhoon air, cathedral prayers, wick incense, mother, yes, you are mother. that is what she cannot cast a mind to: only nectarine and peach pits, in the hiccup before she forgets. two. father the frost sets in early and creeps up the rusted pipes, kills the black spirals of cowries that climb up the tide wall which temper my father, garnish the tips of shy lapping ripples as clouded as pecked retinas. i have grown to converse by word with the ocean and it bays back, a rejoinder to the stranger. my father spares no ear, converses his cassettes by touch, says salt water brine grains our lungs just fine. isolation has taught him to name all the concertos in A minor like the line of boats in the marina but falters on Grace, no, maybe not that name. no matter—we mourn more, completely moored, because this is not the season for grief but we are here anyways. three. maybe there are two paradigms to myself and eventually they will collide. mother, father, somewhere, there is a late sedan that weaves through city traffic & sand beaches, which carries the lifelines of my mother’s pie, my father’s malt. i keep a clothesline of my dreams strung across my wall, so tin plates & abalone shells catch the breeze after all, love (or is it just loneliness) makes apologists of us all.
CATCHING SAND CRABS Always approach a crab from the side. It will jet left or right, or burrow deep within the sand. In case of the latter, delve your hand in deep. You will feel them squirming. Do not squealâ€”small pinchers cannot make purchase on skin. Your brother will want to join in. Have him hold the bucket. Do not laugh when he spills the crabs. Teach him not to fear what lies beneath. Help him chase the big ones the way you chase your god. Do no leave him buried in the sand.
(DON’T) TELL ME… Tonight, I spend a thousand minutes inside myself. When I first enter, I step on sticker burs, my heel like a knife, the wall I kick. Further in, I trip on mangle-dangling hackberry branches, later land on lone layer of mesquite thorns. All alone, alone, alone I am lost in limbo. Mosquitoes bite my arms I slap fire—hot fire growing wilder: neurotic thoughts deepen. Within myself the unfamiliar tongues me different. If I only listened to your implicit voice telling me to come with you outside myself. Maybe then I might have become teachable.
Now someone else’s life flashes before me, the jewels, the errors, the dregs of someone’s life, and I am being asked to arbit, as if there is anything less arbitrary than sentencing someone to a week in prison, or a year, a few months or death by injection. In the months before dying they will pace the walls of their own lives, not thinking about death, thinking about the moment when they will sit in a chair, and a man in white will push a syringe up their arm, and they will only think about the syringe, and how cold it is. In the pew I will go home to my fish and let my front door bang, having passed my idle judgments off my idle hands. Will someone else say innocent? I won’t say innocent, I will go home to two kids. And the man lifts a heavy eye to my eye, the pupil, the whites full to the bone, fuller than mine have ever been in the years I have fed fishes.
POLLY “You’re killing your beautiful hair,” my mother tells me always, every time I chop-dye-curl-dry it, every time I so much as consider it. She is the kind of woman who allows her salt-and-peppery ringlets to bubble about her eyebrows naturally and splash along her neck. “It’s so dark and straight,” she says, “You’re gonna wish you’d left it alone when you’re older. I didn’t have curly hair till I had you. I got grays at eighteen. Your grandmother would yell at me for pulling them out, she’d grab my hands and say every one you pull you get seven more.” Grandma seemed preoccupied with this superstition of sevens. She once told me that for each child you birth you receive seven gray hairs, and then seven more for each you pull, in addition to seven years of bad luck as reparation for the removal. She laughed when she said it. A blue collar, self-built, small-town banker, always pragmatic, it seems a stretch that she would be susceptible to these kinds of hair myths. But she still postponed the evidence of aging any way she could. She dyed her head a boxed coffee brown till we pleaded with her to stop in her late seventies, and still she plumps up her pixie cut with an electric curling brush every morning.
Often, I found myself standing in the sticky dish room between orders, sweating beneath my polo and name tag, wanting to cry but unable to. Prior to this, my most disturbing encounters with the elderly had been with my own pre-dementia grandmother. Occasional slips in her memory would leave me sickened, like a sugar-induced stomach ache. But I did not understand ache until I worked at Appleridge. Appleridge consisted of a happy cluster of daisy-colored buildings atop a hill near my home, and as I drove there at six in the morning to serve the C-wing residents their breakfast, the buildings sucked up the sunlight like syrup. But not much else about the place was sweet. Each morning, cinched tight into my apron, I took orders from regulars whose food allergies I had memorized because they could not. Toothless grandmas and grandpas whose eggs benedict had to be cut into a pulp. Fielding inquiries of why don’t they leave the butter dishes on the table anymore and whatever happened to that real nice colored waitress? Calling on
indifferent nurses when residents left behind napkins seasoned with blood speckles. Saying no, Jack, you can’t come to the dining room without a diaper this time, no you can’t take ice cream for dessert. And hiding beside the dishwasher trying to deflate the anxious balloon in my chest with deep breaths. Till now, I’d known nothing of death. Sometimes, the sweetness was there, hidden in the idiosyncrasies of all of Appleridge’s geriatric malaise. Al, a man of ninety-nine with a baby grand ivory grin and a wheelchair, took two hazelnut creamers in his coffee every morning. Sometimes foamy-haired Grace substituted her daily bowl of oatmeal and milk for half a muffin. Other residents would take to-go cups of prune juice for dessert. But Polly, my sick-sweet Polly Honan, always got a glass of apple juice before her breakfast came out, three Sweet-n-Lo packets in her coffee that I had to tear open for her, and a slow smiling voice that would thank me for delivering her order with a tiny merci beaucoup. In that time of listless angst, of messy hopelessness, the simplicity of Polly’s sweetness was a lozenge for my dread. Her daily good morning croak was enough to flood me with an easy delight that required no decoding. Our conversations like all else failed to be anything but superficial — never breached the limits of server semantics. But it was just enough to see her be delivered to her spot next to Al each morning at half-past seven with her neat little white tufts arranged carefully about her ears and her glasses perched along her spotted nose. It was enough to hear her whisper her gratitude in French, to see her joy over danishes and waffles and parfaits she would never eat. Standing at the server station, rolling sets of silverware into tight bouquets, I asked my manager Renee, “Do you know where Polly learned French?” She shrugged, dismissing it the same way she dismissed a lot of things she ought to know. “Probably school, right?” We rolled in silence. I wrapped and rewrapped the same set of silver over and over. “Why doesn’t she ever eat her meal?” “She picks at it, doesn’t she?” “Sorta. She tries to.” Again, Renee shrugged. “She’s old. Old people graze. It’s normal.” Somehow, this sated me. It was the answer I always got when inquiring about the state of Polly’s diet, and I never felt an urge to pry. For once, an uncomplicated pleasure. A candy-coated diamond in the otherwise bitter rough. Each day she left bacon bit treasures buried for
me under the edge of her plate and a halo of aspartame angel dust around the place where her coffee cup had sat. I didn’t truly start wondering or worrying about Polly until I noticed her liver-spotted nose growing sharp beneath her taut, gray skin. After a couple suffocating-hot months in the Appleridge kitchen, scraping full plates of Polly’s leftovers into the trash daily, calling her gently back to her breakfast when finding her asleep in her wheelchair, I began to recognize in Polly the lonely sort of decline I saw in my grandma. Though she never lost her sunshine, it seemed threatened. Living dyingly, Christopher Hitchens once wrote. Still she smiled and glowed but, as with everything, I felt there was something I was missing. But all I had the capacity to wonder about was the chewed food shrapnel or her fingers, now too weak to use the nurse retrieval button lassoed round her neck. A few weeks after being hired, I found my own unsteady hands penning a letter of resignation before I had even chosen to do so. The gore and gloom of aging was seeping into my psyche and I had to get out.
Like my mother, I too earned a gray at eighteen, a single silvery hair that only revealed itself when my hands pushed my mop around just right. Often Mom forgets her reservations about killing my beautiful hair when her eyes catch it glinting at her in the sunlight. Fingers battle fingers as I persistently resist her plucking the souvenir of my womanhood, my four leaf clover, my sand dollar. No seven vengeful reincarnates for this follicle. No seven years of bad luck for me. If my hair were dying, I told my mother after being chastised for going blue the first time, then that was just another form of living. Living dyingly. Like Christ, hair comes twice — rebirth, regrowth. Stories that start at the end of life, says Edwidge Danticat, often take us back to the beginning. Or, as Shakespeare said, what’s past is prologue: hair lost will come again. Removal of it is redundant. Still, she snipes out my grays whenever possible, and she maintains a permanent shiny patch of scalp on her crown from plucking out her own. She’s experienced too much death to risk decay or trust superstition. By the time I’d gotten my third gray, I had just finished a disenchanted semester of undergrad, three months spent seeking meaning in words that I felt somehow marooned from, while also becoming increasingly bothered by the lack of a white whale to hunt in my life. I pulled buzz quotes from my readings — ignorance is the parent of fear as written by Melville or the Galileo line wine is sunlight held together by water —
quotes to write in a journal while guiltily knowing there was probably much more growing beneath the surface than I was able to scratch. I was on top of the iceberg, unable to plunge beneath the water. And in the time spent outside my studies, I found myself without any obsessive pursuits, any fanatical fixations. Coming home didn’t make it better. My mother, insistent that a dab of altruism was the panacea to all my ailments, got me a full-time position for the summer as a server at the senior living facility she supervised — Appleridge. That’s how I found Polly.
Three days before my last shift, a coworker told me Polly would no longer be coming to the dining room for breakfast. She was not feeling well, hadn’t been eating for weeks now. Of course, I knew that. She told me Polly had a friend from Syracuse staying with her. She had no family otherwise to keep her company in her final hours. Final hours. As jarring as the idea of Polly being on her deathbed was the idea of a lone friend seeing her out. I had not once considered Polly’s family. Someone that sweet, you just assume they have one. That day, I took as much care as I could to act as if there was nothing missing. I had to remind myself not to set out three packets of Sweet-n-Lo and a glass of orange juice in the empty spot. That night, I leaned into my mother in the kitchen. “Momma, Polly is dying.” She held me to her chest and rocked me as I cried. I knew that to live is to die. Hair and Christ are the only ones who get to live twice. The obsession found me then. My last couple shifts at Appleridge, I thought only of Polly’s funeral. I wondered who would attend, if there was anyone to attend, what a funeral would look like with the absence of family members. What music they would play. I tried to imagine myself there, but all I could picture was a casket opened to an absence of mourners, and then myself, mourning alone in the dish room. More and more, I thought only about Polly dying alone. The last time I saw her was a Sunday morning on which the dew seemed to be hovering three inches above the grass. The wet veiled everything. It was my last shift at Appleridge, and as I walked in, for some reason I felt safe. While setting the tables with silverware in the dark, a middleaged woman in slippers came shuffling up to me with a mug in hand. She was so quiet I didn’t hear her till she spoke. “Is there any way I can get just a cup of coffee?”
She stood beside me in the kitchen as I filled her mug, looking so tired that somehow I knew. “Are you here to visit Polly?” I asked. She just met me with that same tired gaze, but now with a smile. Then I asked, “How is she?” “She’s been asleep since yesterday afternoon. I think this is about it. I’ve been staying awake because I’m afraid she’ll slip away without anyone noticing. It’s strange for her to be so quiet.” Before then, I had never thought she could be anything but. And seeing this woman, pale with sleeplessness, thinking of her spending time with some version of Polly that wasn’t soft spoken and whispering, twisted my windpipe with guilt. I’d spent all this time worrying about what would happen after her death without even bothering to know what had happened prior. The woman explained that she’d met Polly at church almost twenty years ago. Between Sunday services and potlucks they grew close; apparently, Polly had many friends like this, all over the world. No empty funeral parlor for this lady. She had surviving family members but they were all distant, both geographically and familially. To my surprise, the woman asked me if I’d like to come tell her goodbye. I had never before seen death, but to me, it seemed exactly like falling: falling but buoyant, sinking to rise for just a moment, sinking again. There is a part of Wide Sargasso Sea where Antoinette, having never been to England, dreams of snow. White feathers falling? Torn pieces of paper falling? Like grasping for torn pieces of paper and coming back empty-fisted. Polly was asleep in a cot by the window, skin laid across her bones as delicately as first frost. The sparse white hair on her forehead stirred like snowflake flurries every now and then when she gasped for breath. Her mouth was open, and she was not wearing dentures. She looked so different then, as if her body had begun to crawl back into itself, packaging her up neat and tidy for her delivery back to the other side. Before I left, I forced myself to stroke her feet and say thank you, thank you, thank you. Her body was tucked in tight beneath a pink snowman blanket. One time, a few weeks before, I had pat the top of her head as she was being wheeled away from the dining room. Her hair was so soft then. In the coarseness of her last moments, it still looked cotton candy fragile. The thought of it clogged my airways. I told her I loved her, said farewell to her friend, and left. Within the hour, she had passed. A week later, I read Polly’s obituary in the Star-Gazette. She was seven days shy of her one hundredth birthday. She was born to a Dane and a Swede, studied both in my hometown and in France, and taught language around the country. It wasn’t until she was in her mid-seventies
that she found her soulmate — an old classmate from high school — who died just a few years after their wedding. But in the time they had, they ventured to Turkey, Africa, and Antarctica. For a long time, I wondered about Polly at the South Pole, standing on a wind-whittled cliffside. Wondered if she knew the ice caps were melting at that point, if she ever thought about dying, if she ever knew how short it would all last. But as I stood in the shaft of sunlight at the foot of her deathbed, warm and heavy, I thought of the simple sweetness of her even now. Later on, the only thought that would console me about Polly’s death was that thought of her braving the ice caps, unaware of her own mortality despite the ground slowly melting beneath her very feet. I hoped that in those moments, as she braved the chilly unknown, she was filled to the top of her silver head with life. By the time I left the facility for the last time that afternoon, the mist had broken beneath the brilliance of the late June sun. It soaked me and filled me and the finality of it all, of the job, of Polly, all of it anchored me to the sidewalk. I stood suspended in the sunny doorway. When I finally reached down for my keys, a little white something woven into my pant leg glared at me. I carefully pulled the thin, gray hair from my thigh and held it up to the sunlight.
CREATING DISTURBANCE Police are stationed in the basement, above is now Town Hall Black macadam circles where groaning yellow buses dumped us facing bricks, a building stacked a century or so ago – on the jungle gym a gang of phantoms boys and girls swing butt side up from rusting metal bars – a shriek, a laugh, they call you by your first name. Try, to be gold starred or good enough, even if the principal picks her only pets who perch on top of granite steps to hold open old doors, massive and impressive. Recess is over. You’re folded up and filed into sun glossed halls, floors glisten walls vanish upstairs, a table, sleek skinned, staged with cushioned conference chairs, masks your tiny, tidy, desk – Silence. Lights flip off. Your teacher crosses blue veined legs. She’s not napping. She’s using her sharpest pencil to correct sheets of subtraction. You’re not allowed to fall asleep, it’s so hard to wake up, arms crossed, head bowed, you can’t help it eyes open – look – your teacher dropped this after proving 1 - 1 = Pick up her eraser – risk and break her rule – Stop. What a shame, she says, you can’t be still. She orders you to learn by standing over there and facing her ghostly corner – walls you’ve broken through
ALINA STEFANESCU POUNDCAKE
Here's the hotness. Perhapsing her hips into white skinny jeans is not quite submission, not quite a hot take. Like Nancy Cott said a woman owes her hubby sex appeal in a competitive market economy the good surgeons matter, the good husbands admire the bill. We sacrifice ourselves for such little foreskin. We recycle baby boy patches for coming eyelift.
UPON LOSING MY FILTER I am sitting with a head full of fire. I didn’t mean to fill your veins with ash or sear the air with lightening. I spat smoke, I raged for nine hundred and ninety-seven consecutive seconds. I belched a rocket and singed the sky, I dripped a little lava. I spilt heat all over the asphalt, I tossed fumes through New Jersey. There is glass in my mouth and I am tearing through the moment, I don’t want to shred your skin or fill your heart with gravel. Today I am the wasps’ nest, I am a bear and an ice storm, I am snapping all
the branches. TILDE~71
The coyotes are too stunned to howl. Forget this heat, that ice, this knife-like fire, forget these shards of sand. Turn an eye to this hot madness, kindly ease me towards the rain.
PROTEA|Protea compacta Behind years of cement weak walls loud bedrooms Protea ruptures open stops the erasure of my bliss the body snatching killing of our people we scream I canâ€™t breathe! witnesses detained footage goes viral from where ghosts play checkers with pistols / where ancestors used bare hands to kill / where the thought kill yourself is convincing. Protea breathes life petals of no separation : Africa rests near the apex of her stem. She extends her arms smiles wide cowrie shells & purple gums guard the childrenâ€™s quest for freedom. Aposematic skin wards off bullets uniforms judges politicians plea-bargains sterilizing the nation. No resistance Protea transcends blossoms in the trenches of struggle abolishes slavery. Ankles untied Afro her halo each follicle a soul marches to the frontline ignites into a crimson funeral pyre. She burns the hands who lost control glass pipes & bottles doors locked shut with no escape the terror once found in my eyes
unfolds dances Black & breathing Black & breathing Black & breathing.
with the flames chanting
Tilde, a contemporary collection of poems, fiction, and nonfiction work from writers across the world. All work is © to their respective con...
Published on Mar 15, 2019
Tilde, a contemporary collection of poems, fiction, and nonfiction work from writers across the world. All work is © to their respective con...