Welcome to the inaugural issue of Variety Pack! We have a melting pot of incredible voices from all over the globe, radiating through our debut issue. From pop culture anthems to slipstreamed landscapes, a new set of worlds ascend into the dawn of a new year. Poetry from Kenneth Pobo, Josh Smith, Kevin Bertolero, Carole Cohen, Jordan Stanford, Carla Cherry, Mateo Lara, Marjorie Maddox, Halley M. Shaw, Brandon Williamson, Linda Crate, Keith Gaboury, Rachel Tanner, Toni G., Dana Tyrell, and Venus Davis; Flash fiction from Kelsie Colclough, Elodie Rose Barnes, Robin Berl, Jazz De Nero, Matthew Bookin, and Justin Karcher; Short Fiction from Scott Bryan, Michael Chin, Sally Ryhanen, and Shannon Frost Greenstein; Essays/Creative Non-Fiction from H.E. Grahame, Ken Carlson, RF Brown, Steven Jacob, and Amanda Sierzega; Art Review by Hannah Polinski. From a collaborative micro about existential robots attempting to feel, to an anthem poem inspired by Charizard to stories about loss on plateaus of fabulist imagery, to a rogues gallery of political apparitions, with over 100 pages of poetry, reviews, fiction and nonfiction, be sure to check out the amazing talent featured in our inaugural issue!
Matthew Bookin & Jazz De Nero
Shannon Frost Greenstein
Elodie Rose Barnes Kelsie Colclough
Halley M. Shaw
Brandon Williamson Keith Gaboury
Carole Cohen Reviews Hannah Polinski
SEWING CIRCLE by Kenneth Pobo
I never learned to sew, not even a button. The other boys in grade school and high school were all seamstresses. They sewed me up tight using insultâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s pastel blue yarn. Before I knew what a faggot was, the needle wove through the fabric, pinning me inside. Before I knew what queer meant (Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m still learning what queer means), they made a huge poufy skirt and sewed me into the lining. Then played football and kissed each other with concussions.
Kenneth Pobo has a new book out from Duck Lake Books called Dindi Expecting Snow. He won the 2019 chapbook contest from the Poetry Society of Alabama for Your Place Or Mine which they will publish in 2020. His work is forthcoming in North Dakota Quarterly, Switchback, Illuminations, and elsewhere.
Lakeland at Night by Kevin Bertolero
We smoke American Spirits and walk the west shore trail. The highway isn’t far, but we focus on the water and the cell tower’s red flashing light. It’s like French New Wave, the way we speak without exposition / the way I know how many boys you’ve kissed and you I. In my head, I’m writing a poem about the jetty, your feet out so far, but it will never be transcribed. What shame. We end up talking sports—about tennis— even though I don’t know how to talk about sports—about tennis. But you’re 6’2” and thin, so I trust what you tell me. You’re skipping stones and humming the new Kendrick song, happy to have the night. I ask if you like reading in public places, and in response you recite from memory the end of “Indian Camp.” And I applaud. My clapping echoes on the water and you join in. You know, you say, I feel quite sure we’ll never die. I wanted you to know.
Kevin Bertolero is a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire. He is the founding editor of Ghost City Press and is the associate director for the Kettle Pond Writers’ Conference. His poems and essays have appeared in Drunken Boat, Peach Mag, OUT/CAST, Tenderness Lit, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @KevinBertolero.
forgetting me by Linda Crate
best friends forever we said, but when forever becomes never and silence overtakes words best friends becomes a lie; people grow and people change but i believed you— don’t know why i became a promise you had to break, or why you became a ghost to me long before your death; perhaps we never had much of a bond to begin with— i wish people didn’t promise forever if they didn’t mean it spare us, because there are some of us that mean our words as well as our deeds; there are some of us that would water you until your flowers bloomed all out of love— i gave you space you needed to take, you thanked me by forgetting me.
Linda Crate‘s poetry, short stories, articles, and reviews have been published in a myriad of magazines both online and in print. She has six published chapbooks A Mermaid Crashing Into Dawn (Fowlpox Press – June 2013), Less Than A Man (The Camel Saloon – January 2014), If Tomorrow Never Comes (Scars Publications, August 2016), My Wings Were Made to Fly (Flutter Press, September 2017), splintered with terror (Scars Publications, January 2018), more than bone music (Clare Songbirds Publishing, March 2019), and one microchapbook Heaven Instead (Origami Poems Project, May 2018). She is also the author of the novel Phoenix Tears (Czykmate Books, June 2018).
Homily on High by Carly Cherry
Around finals one year, a few of us gathered around a table with Dr. Gloria Wade-Gayles, and she admonished: You’re not tired. Your mothers are. Had I paid her the same heed as ozone in my nostrils, fat drops of rain on my face urging me indoors, I’d have plunged to my knees and cried, Hallelujah! Amen! the day Mother, who did not have a room of her own until she was 62, announced: I just want to be still and be quiet. We had come for her, survivor of an alcoholic, gambling father who moved them from house to house in Kentucky before Grandmother escaped to New York, and the social worker who tried to pry her and four brothers apart from their mother. Her teachers refused to let this intellectually gifted black girl who loved to read, skip a grade. Her secretarial job at Met Life to helped lift the family off welfare, but she had to share a bed with Grandmother until she married Father at 29. Before they moved, she spent nights looking out of the windows of their South Bronx apartment as sirens wailed, scared Father wouldn’t make it home after thugs threatened him with a knife at the school across the street where he volunteered. She birthed two daughters. Cooked almost every night for we four. Inhaled Comet or Mr. Clean as she scrubbed the bathtub and bathroom floors on her knees, sewed, mended, ironed clothes for us, for herself, knitted afghans to warm us through winter naps, washed, blow-dried, braided, or pressed three heads of hair, squeezed her bosom into beige bras that left dents in her shoulders and answered to her first name from Dr. and Mister So-and-So
when Father couldn’t make it work on one income. Then, the day she heard the pop in the back bedroom and called home gasping for Father. Uncle Don had shot himself. She got Grandmother out of Queensbridge. Uncle Ralph died five years later from a stroke. Uncle Reggie four years after that. Ran through her paychecks to help Father put my sister and me through college. And then I, at 22, clung to her hands, as I was laid out on a cold metal table cursing the hot rip of my flesh, then pacing the floor, my son squalling against my shoulder, me, wondering what he could drink that wouldn’t make him sick when my milk wasn’t enough, imploring, How do I do this? You must dig deep and find the strength. Two years later she nursed Grandmother through her liver cancer. Three years later, my sister had a baby girl. Mother drizzled maple syrup on the pancakes for her grandbabies’ breakfast, and after school, she fed them snacks, and kept them safe and clean until we got home from work. Father, because busy Black women impressed him most, urged her to join a book club at church, go to college for the degree her high school guidance counselor told her she couldn’t get because she was a Negro. Neighbors, covetous of her shorthand, nimble-fingered choreography between the home keys and back, and perfect grammar, invited her to join committees and take their notes. I was unsurprised when Mother reclaimed her time. That birthmark above her navel looks like a fish. As I live through my own seriatim of struggles that make me close my eyes at church, rock and weep when the choir sings, I sometimes mimic the tulip, crocus, poppy, hibiscus as they close their petals at night.
I thank Mother for the lesson. Hallelujah. Amen.
Mettle by Carla Cherry
Despite what the world tries to do to women of my hue, I am happy and here because Grandmother knew rune and roots, taught me to forge home into halidom, beyond soapy water on skin floors walls. She made me drink a cup of dill tea every night. Itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s good for your ears. You will even hear music in the rhythm of your own feet. Before I would meditate by candlelight, she had me rub lemon/salt/ammonia/water on doorknobs. She showed me how to hold an egg in the plume of smoke of burning frankincense, and with the egg in in my right hand, pass it over the crown of my head my eyes nose lips neck shoulders solar plexus knees toes, daub my skin with sandalwood from toes to crown, sealing aura.
Carla Cherry is a poet and English teacher. Her poems have appeared in publications such as Anderbo, Eunoia Review, Dissident Voice, Random Sample Review, MemoryHouse Magazine, Bop Dead City, and Streetlight Press. She has published four books of poetry through Wasteland Press: Gnat Feathers and Butterfly Wings (2008), Thirty Dollars and a Bowl of Soup (2017), Honeysuckle Me (2017), and These Pearls Are Real (2018)
To My Unrequited Love, Pisces by Venus Davis
I think that something as soft as the drizzle of rain could make you weep Because you see all that is wondrous in what any god can hum through the weather And itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s captivating how you understand that This world is not forever That your place on this planet is only temporary But you envelop the thought in a tender hug, Run your fingers through your hair, And lay down for the night with a smile on your face I am not like you I am dark, brooding, and desperate A cynical person that might leave footprints on your clean kind mind I am lucky to even lie next to the thought of you To even kiss the concept of your lips And to feel the sweet melody that plays when you touch me There are many clichĂŠs to be said about the colliding of bodies Or the meshing of souls I wonder now, why no one ever comments on what it is like To be loved by someone who is gentle and takes their time? Slowly reading each signal and melting into each moment Harboring the energy of a kaleidoscope when you finally Let your guard down and melt with them Turning and moving and mixing into different colors and patterns Venus Davis is a 20-year-old nonbinary writer from Cleveland, Ohio. They are the editor in chief of the Periwinkle Literary Magazine. They are also a former poetry reader for Random Sample Review, a social media content creator for Ayaskala, and a podcaster for Prismatica Magazine. Venus is a regular contributor for Marias at Sampaguitas and Ayaskala. Their work has been featured in InQluded, Marias at Sampaguitas, Royal Rose, and Ayaskala. Aside from writing, they love learning about philosophy, astrology, and the Korean language. They also play guitar, ukulele, and piano for fun sometimes. Their main goal is to be confessional and compassionate in their writing and in life.
THE SOUL IN STUFF by RF Brown
Before my mother died from a long cancer struggle she had many infirm months to reckon the future of family heirlooms. My husband and I traveled across the country to Colorado for the last goodbye, and after Mom’s memorial we had to solve getting our assigned heirlooms home to Rhode Island. She’d bequeathed to me the complete collection of my great-grandmother’s Desert Rose fine china. It had a pattern of pink flowers blooming on place settings for twelve and included accessories like a sauce taurine, a milk pitcher, and one weird giant-sized teacup. Nobody ever used this stuff–not the relish tray, gravy boat, or covered butter dish. For decades the collection resided in Colorado, displayed in Mom’s wooden hutch. Prior, the dishes reposed here on the East Coast in other hutches through generations. Great-Grandmother probably never used the china, and when she died my mother paid for shipping to Colorado. Our Desert Rose is eighty years old and has more travel miles than an international drug mule, yet the pink-finialed butter dish cover has likely never even covered a pat.
Since I was a gay little boy I dreamed of being heir to the Desert Rose. When my mother officially willed it to me I thought she had years to go. She died and reality set the table. The china was finally mine, but it was also mine to figure out how to move back East. My mother waited until near the end to make a family confession: beautiful and in pristine condition, our Desert Rose, in fine china terms, was junk. Much of it was unevenly cast seconds or additions bought in thrift stores, and the pattern was still manufactured–in China. But, my mother wanted me to have it. Nobody else would care for it like her chip-sensitive man-daughter; after the memorial I got the dishes secured in packing paper and double-walled cardboard boxes. My husband, who’s a genius, worked out how to bring the boxes in fifty-pound batches on the airplane for a fraction of ground shipping cost.
Mother also willed me a rather ordinary wooden rocking chair that had been with the family since before Coolidge was cool. That chair begged for love everywhere Mom lived, and I can’t remember anybody ever taking up its offer as a seat. Its origin story was vague, my sister said it was probably handmade by my great-grandfather. Although fearless in the umbra of her own death, my mother worried the chair would meet a sad demise, like ending up in my heterosexual
brother’s basement, a graveyard for greasy bicycle crankshafts and old washing machine drums. Getting the rocking chair home wasn’t as fussless as the china. Its box didn’t meet airplane guidelines. When my husband found out I spent $350 on ground shipping it also almost cost me my marriage. He couldn’t be blamed for getting t’d off; the chair was homely. I didn’t know what underlie my mother’s emotional investment, but how much on shipping was too much to keep her sentiments alive? In Colorado my cousin Paul schooled me with some mid-America wisdom. “You could have paid me $350 to drive the fucking chair to Rhode Island.”
Here in Rhode Island I already have a full china cabinet, a modern unit of gunpowder-finish steal and tempered glass panels. I bought it new for $1000 several years ago specifically to display my own grandmother’s Fostoria Crystal dinnerware service which I also inherited and never use. So, the Desert Rose dishes have been sitting in their boxes on my living room floor for weeks. They and the rocker want me to assume some family responsibility: Where do I display the new/old dishes? In what room will the rocking chair look good? Spoiler: none. Grieving my mother got me thinking about what power I imbue possessions. I don’t have children, or family nearby. The china and the chair are in the autumn of material life. When I’m dead there won’t be a surviving caretaker deluding them self into believing the stuff is valuable. The aura of sentiment around the things will fade, the stuff will die slowly.
I’m in the middle of fostering twelve Desert Rose coupe bowls from paper shock absorbers when all of a sudden my husband is pointing, his jaw lower than the rockers of a mediocre chair. “What happened to the china hutch?”
I’m confused. “My mother’s hutch in Colorado?”
“No, our hutch.”
While we were away, something unsolvable happened to one of the metal cabinet’s tempered glass panels. It’s shattered into a vertical mosaic of zigzagging sea glass. Did the supersonic boom of a low-altitude jet cause collateral damage? Was it thermal shock from record-high summer heat? Did Ella Fitzgerald come by and shatter our glass with a high-pitched Dwee-deebop! like in those old TV commercials? All we’ll ever know is that while we were attending the end of my mother’s long illness our cabinet died suddenly. You like to think you have all the time in the world. It was expensive and can’t be fixed for less than its replacement value. Plus, what do I do with it, drag its seven-foot-tall corpse to the trash curb? When my mother was dying, there was time to prepare for loss. The death of the china cabinet is a shock.
The next day my husband opens the kitchen cupboard and finds out I’ve boxed-up our everyday four-plate dinner set we bought off QVC and stacked our shelves with G.G.ma’s Desert Rose china. “Okay to eat off this?”
“Yes!” I insist. “We’ll treat our heirlooms with respect, but use them every day.” We’re not waiting until the Obama’s come for Thanksgiving. We’ll enjoy the privilege of nice things, eat off the china until the roses fade to potpourri, and eat gravy from the fancy dish until its earthenware minerals disintegrate back into the sands of time. We’ll live the dishes. Rock to the memories. Someday we’ll be dead, and the soul in the stuff will die too.
RF Brown is a writer, editor, and freelance homemaker residing in mighty Rhode Island. An alumnx of Hampshire College, he/him has worked as a salesperson of laser pens, telephone wire, life insurance, cocktails, and dreams. His work has appeared in Sucker, Spitball, Aethlon Journal of Sports Literature, and Unlikely Stories. His current projects include a literary novel about psychic cults and a collection of sports stories.
Alibis by H.E. Grahame
In the icy winter of 9th grade, a dramatic outburst for attention found me, barefoot on porcelain bathroom tiles dragging a dull, silvery steak knife across the back of my trembling hand, rhythmically sawing the pale flesh until the skin became raw and bloody. I made excuses and alibis for the wound: a startled dog, a ferocious kitten, a haphazard nail in an abandoned drawer. I downplayed the angry cuts and their origins to everyone except one person: the one I wanted attention from. The boy-next-door who hadn’t yet dumped me for kissing his best friend. The sweet, honest, understanding friend who hadn’t yet walked away for making up fake guys who asked for my number or told me I was beautiful. I was dramatic and manipulative but more than that, I was egotistical. The boy-next-door refused to pay attention to it. He liked me from the first awkward Jurassic Park viewing kiss and forgave me every time I pushed the boundaries to get a rise. His indifference drove me crazy. I wanted him to fight back. I wanted him angry. Because I was angry with myself and with him and with all the stupid 9th-grade boys who could never see me until I was “unavailable”. I was furious with my ego and my desperate need to be seen and invisible, brave and safe, joyful and dripping with sadness. I was angry at all of my contradictions and each and every drop of self-doubt `and worthlessness. So I let the anger stream out of me through the raw, sticky cuts on the back of my hand.
He finally fought back. And walked away.
Several years later I sat in the cold bare bathroom of an apartment I could barely afford just off the campus of a college I had dropped out of with a razor blade pressed to my arm. An artful flick of the wrist produced a shallow ribbon of crimson and I smiled as the blood beaded along the line. It wasn’t about attention anymore. It was about feeling something. It was about being in control of the pain. Each thin razorblade kiss felt like love and tension. It was drama and understanding. Like an addict desperate for their next fix I longed for the next cut. It was the kind of love you fall into without realizing the damage it is causing.
Love was no longer about butterflies and great songs. It was simply about feeling anything at all to take away the empty brokenness. Ruby kisses replaced real ones and misery muted the music. I had fallen in love with the pain because it was the only thing that I could feel. I was enamored with this sense of control because my entire world was in turmoil. I was smitten with shiny silver and bold reds against my pale skin because everything else had been reduced to shades of gray. I knew that the blade would not leave me, would not make me feel anything that I didn’t want to, would not beg for me to be more than I was and would not tell me the things I had heard for too long. It would not tell me that I was shameful or worthless. It would not tell me that these cuts were penance for all the mistakes that I had made. This was love. Love would not question my alibis.
Love would not tell me that I deserved this.
H.E. Grahame is a writer and poet with work included in Folio, Z Publishing House’s Emerging Poets and Writers series, Brave Voices, The Bitchin’ Kitsch and SLCC Anthology. She has won chapbook community college competitions for both poetry and memoir. She is a student at the University of Utah in the Writing and Rhetoric Studies program, minoring in Gender Studies with an A.S. in Psychology from Salt Lake Community College. In addition to her writing and education, she works as a writing consultant and a publications coordinator at SLCC Student Writing Center. She has also worked for Folio – SLCC’s Literary Magazine as both Literary Editor and Design Editor. (www.HEGrahame.weebly.com)
Ghost Birth by Keith Mark Gaboury
The ghost haunting my attic went into labor last night. Even from a ghost, I know labor screams from scary screams. I climbed up to witness the translucent outline of a ghost baby crying into existence. A midwife calmed the mother through all the pushing and shitting and bleeding. Ghost labor holds a mirror up to human labor minus the skin, sinew, and skeleton my wife once gave my daughter, a gift realized in that delivery room euphoria. When the ghost baby plopped on the hardwood floor, I cut the cord. Once I stepped back into my ex-matrimony bedroom, I slipped out of my ghost-father skin. Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m just a man with my ghost wife and her newborn haunting my day and night from the domain of their attic home.
Keith Mark Gaboury earned a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Emerson College. His poems have appeared in publications such as, Poetry Quarterly and New Millennium Writing along with chapbooks forthcoming in Duck Lake Books and The Pedestrian Press. He lives in Oakland, California. Learn more www.keithmgaboury.com
Telling the Bees by Carole Cohen
As mistress of the house after mother fell so sick, tradition dictated it was now my job to tell the bees of births, deaths, marriages, changes in the household. Were it not for the bees, the manor house wouldn’t have candle wax or sweet for food. The bees are part of the family. I didn’t tell the bees when Grandmother died. As prediction said, catastrophe struck. All the bees died in the hive. I forgot to tell the bees when Mother died. Honey in the hive was thin, wax unusable for candles. I did tell the bees about my marriage, and when it didn’t survive. The bees thrived. Years later, I forgot to tell the bees when Father died. The bees abandoned the hive. I was left without my messengers to carry prayers to the spirit world. If you can hear me, without the bees to tell you, Grandmother, Mother, Father, I was overcome with great grief. Forgive me. I didn’t tell the bees.
Carole Cohen graduated from UMSL, and was former poetry editor for Boulevard literary magazine. At least forty of her poems have appeared in literary magazines, among which are
Cape Rock, Madison Review, Ascent, Souâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;wester, Margie, Spoon River Poetry Review and Prairie Schooner. She has also had her Door poem series featured at the Mary Tomas Gallery in Dallas, where artists interpreted her poems in mixed media. Her work has appeared in several anthologies. She has published two books, Restless Beauty and The World Arranged. About two years ago she moved from St. Louis, MO to Chattanooga, TN
Henry Johnson, Heroism, and the Rights of a People by Steven Jacob
During World War I, African-Americans sought validation of their human rights in joining the Army and fighting the war. Some, like W.E.B. DuBois argued that they shouldn’t fight abroad for a nation that wouldn’t protect them at home. Even he, however, would turn around and mimic the more popular argument that by serving in France, or elsewhere, the African-American could prove himself worthy of full citizenship rights and demonstrate his competence to act civically to the white folks in the country. It was very much an accommodationist approach, but it did little to deter the men of New York from volunteering for a regiment formed in Harlem.
One man who volunteered was Henry Johnson. A Red Cap porter with the railroad in Albany, New York, he joined the regiment to fight the Hun. He would prove one of the more obedient members of the regiment as, when they were stationed in Spartanburg, South Carolina, he was pushed off the sidewalk and into the mud. He refused to be bated, however, and cited his oath to the colonel of the regiment that he wouldn’t cause trouble. He was avenged by a neighboring New York regiment, but his meekness would soon be belied by his actions in the fields of France.
Prior to the battle of Henry Johnson—as Major Arthur Little named it—the regiment was privy to German intelligence. Captured German soldiers admitted that the Boche in the sector knew they faced black soldiers from the United States, and that they anticipated many prisoners and casualties. To prove this, the Germans mounted a late-night raid on the positions of the Harlem regiment and, on May 14, 1918, approached the lookout post in which Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were stationed.
It began with a click that came from the rear of the observation post. The rear and the left. Needham Roberts heard the sound and moved from his lookout on the firing step. He shared the post—a dead end trench in the middle of No Man’s Land—with Private Henry Johnson and he crossed to inform Johnson of what he’d just heard.
The two men conferred briefly, before Roberts decided to fire a flare. The Verey Pistol, a small single shot flare gun, shot an illuminating rocket over the position. Its sputtering light revealed a German raiding party just to the rear of the post.
Both men cried in unison, “Corporal of the guard!”
And then the Germans made their move. Grenades peppered the observation post, landing on the dirt floor of the trench. The explosions sent shrapnel flying at the two men and knocked them to the ground. Both Roberts and Johnson suffered severe injuries from those initial grenades. Roberts was wounded so badly he couldn’t stand. Johnson took twenty shards in his legs and body.
At this point, some sources, particularly a letter from Colonel Hayward to Johnson’s wife Edna, explain that Needham, though seriously wounded by the initial grenades, leaned against the back of the lookout and lobbed grenades toward the approaching Boche.
Rifle in hand, Johnson stood to face the assault. The gun, a French Lebel, held eight bullets and he quickly fired three rounds at the attacking Germans. One of his shots hit the leading German who fell to the ground outside the trench. Others pushed past the body and piled over the sandbags that lined the observation post.
When his rifle jammed, Johnson turned it into a club. He grabbed the Lebel by the barrel and swung the stock at a German’s head. The blow struck home and the German stumbled to his knees.
Johnson glanced back at his Roberts who was unconscious. Two Germans had hold of the injured Roberts—one at feet, one at shoulders—and looked intent to carry him back to their lines as a prisoner. Johnson dumped his rifle, now splintered, and drew his trench knife.
The trench knife weighed almost three pounds and boasted an eight-inch blade. With this formidable weapon in hand, Johnson jumped at the nearest German—the one who had hold of Roberts’ shoulders—and swung the blade into the man’s skull. The knife cut deep and the German collapsed.
The man who he’d clubbed with his rifle was now on his feet, Luger in hand. A shot fired and Johnson felt the sting of a bullet in his arm. The impact and the pain brought him to his knees, and he put his hands to the ground for support. When the German drew close, Johnson, knife in hand, lunged up and stabbed the German in the stomach.
In the distance came the sound of reinforcements. Eager to escape a larger confrontation, the Germans gathered their dead and wounded and began the long walk across No Man’s Land. Johnson chased them with grenades, at least for a while, until his body began to succumb to his injuries. By the time the first American soldiers arrived at the observation post, Johnson was too weak to do anything but to utter, “Corporal of the guard.”
William A. Rogers, a political cartoonist from Ohio, later drew an illustration of the battle. Henry Johnson, a very dark black man, stands surrounded by a halo—to separate his blackness from the blackness of the night. He is dressed in a button up shirt that is open at the collar, sleeves rolled up. He is not wearing a helmet. In one hand he carries an intimidating knife wet and dripping with blood. In the other an unconscious Needham. Bodies sprawl around the two men, and in the foreground are a pair of boots nearly entangled in wire. It is doubtful that Rogers ever saw a picture of Johnson, a relatively small man, for his depiction was of a massive brute, with muscles up and down his body and piercing the night with a bloody phallus, his overly large knife.
The injuries that Johnson acquired during the battle eliminated him from active service and would trouble him the rest of his life. They did not, however, eliminate him from remaining with the regiment through the rest of the war. He did not return immediately, though, as he required intensive medical treatment, but upon his return, he and Roberts became the first Americans to receive the Croix-de-Guerre. The citation for Henry Johnson reads as follows:
First—Johnson, Henry (13348), private in company C, being on double sentry duty during the night and having been assaulted by a group composed of at least one dozen Germans, shot and disabled one of them and grievously wounded two others with his
bolo. In spite of three wounds with pistol bullets and grenades at the beginning of the fight, this man ran to the assistance of his wounded comrade who was about to be carried away prisoner by the enemy, and continued to fight up to the retreat of the Germans. He has given a beautiful example of courage and activity.
When Johnson did return to the regiment, he was impaired by not only his injuries, but the efforts of doctors to rescue him from those injuries. Most of the bones in his left foot were gone, so he walked along with an awkward penguin waddle, or as Little stated, “slap foot.” In addition to the lack of bones in his foot, one of his shins had been completely replaced by a silver tube.
Colonel William Hayward, commander of the regiment, stated appreciation for the excellent advertising produced by the Battle of Henry Johnson. He also decided to promote Johnson from a private to a sergeant and to keep him around headquarters. “The least we could do for [Johnson], after all he had done for us, was to treat him as the old 7th Cavalry had treated Custer’s horse—let him nibble grass around Headquarters, and when company came call him in and show him off.” According to Little, Johnson “became one of the great pets of the regiment.”
Little also gave the best characterization of Johnson when appraising his attitude and behavior at headquarters after his return to the regiment. “Some people used to think that he was a bit spoiled; but to me he was always a sweet, unassuming boy, ready and eager to do whatever he could do with his infirmities.”
By the end of the war Little had befriended Johnson to such an extent that at the end of the war upon mustering the troops in New York he and Henry Johnson joined in tears. Little was in his office when Johnson knocked on the door and entered with a salute. He was limping and still not fully recovered from the battle in France, but he was obviously happy to see Little. Little asked what he could do for the man, conscious of the fact that Johnson must have tramped a mile from the railroad station to see him.
“I’ve been discharged from the U.S. Army. I’m going home, I’m going back to my regular job, and I’ve come to say goodbye.” Little made a note that the young Sergeant wasn’t smiling during this exchange. To what end I’m not sure, but perhaps Little felt the short paragraph in his account would serve as a representation of the joy with which black soldiers had gone to war under the leadership of Hayward and the rest of the white officers.
Little continued to recount the conversation, though it was of negligible consequence, while at the same time interspersing personal thoughts. He seemed to be enamored of the idea that Henry Johnson’s return to civilian life as a porter for the railroad in Albany was a lesson of peace juxtaposed by the heroic stature of “this great little first class fighting man” who he immediately turned around and labeled “the colored porter of the Albany railroad station.”
“Good-bye Henry,” I said, as I wrung his hand. “Good-bye, Henry, don’t forget me.” “Forget you! Sir major, sir,” answered Henry Johnson—his eyes opening wider and wider. “Forget you! Sir? Why, Sir Major Sir, you made a man of me!”
With that exchange Johnson left Little’s office and returned home.
The hopes of DuBois and other African-American intellectuals would prove futile. President Wilson and Congress refused to outlaw lynching, Jim Crow would remain intact until the sounding of its passing with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and none of the black soldiers who actually fought in the war would receive military recognition by the United States. Even Johnson, admittedly the greatest African-American hero of WWI, wouldn’t receive the Medal of Honor until 2015 under President Obama. For Henry Johnson, then, heroism did not mean equality, but the failure of white America to recognize then rights of the African-American did not signal a failure on Henry Johnson’s part to act heroically anyway.
Steven Jacob has a B.A. in history and has published a historical fiction novel based on the actions of the African-American regiment out of Harlem during World War I, titled Nobody’s Heroes. He has worked for ten years in Southeast Asia as an international attorney and has imported several libraries worth of books for his research.
Art Review: “Home is ____: Stories of Belonging from the City of Light”
by Hannah Polinski
What is home? For people living in a nation that is not their own, this question grows in nuance and trips over itself in search of a fitting response. Home could be the house you grew up in, a town inhabited by family and friends, or a new city that makes you feel more like yourself than ever before. In Paris, homes can be cozy apartments measured in square meters, where neighbors find themselves peering directly into each other’s lives every time they pass by a window. No matter where you may trace your roots, this sense of place is formed by emotion, something that is apparent when viewing Home is ____, a new collective art exhibition at Paris Pavé d’ Orsay by six female artists that explores the universal need for belonging.
The exhibit relies heavily on photography as it questions what it means to call a place “home” as seen through a variety of diverse perspectives by Chinese, Iranian, French, and American artists. Wenli Li explores her grandmother’s mountain village in China, Elvira’s work seems reminiscent of the French countryside, and Kimia Pishdadian depicts nomadic women in Iran. Rebecca Arthur explores her Black-American identity in France, Hope Curran rethinks her sense of home coming from California to Paris, and Marissa Wu documents the apartments of young women recently arrived in the city.
While the gallery comes together nicely with each artist’s work complementing another, the narrative remains dominated by the three explorations of American experiences in Paris. This did leave me wanting some deviation from expat experiences, which are typically privileged explorations of temporal place. Exploring the notion of home for someone who chooses to go abroad for a few years differs from someone forced to leave their home for socioeconomic reasons. However, the space was not (and should not) be curated on the basis of nationality. This is an expo that stemmed from a community of artists, and is presented as precisely that.
Stepping into the Pavé d’Orsay feels like walking straight into a college girl’s dorm room. Taking in the Polaroid photos tacked to the wall, there’s no doubt that this is a young feminine space. I’m surprised to not find fairy lights strung across the gallery, but the soft lighting and intimacy of the space gives off a coziness that is perfectly reminiscent of being chez soi. Visitors are invited to snap a photo of themselves to add to the collection, which will later be sent to an address of their choosing after the expo ends. In doing so, the Pavé d’Orsay carves out a new place of belonging, a temporary home for the artists and any viewers who wish to participate. Art often does this thing where it tends to hold itself of high intellectual significance, but unless a particular piece speaks to you, it’s likely that you will forget what you saw in a gallery within the following day. Having a literal take away from an exhibit, even something arguably narcissistic like a Polaroid of yourself, allows you to come back to the ideas you encountered there more than a static expo would.
The gallery draws most of its energy from the space curated by Curran, which sits just to the right when you walk in the door. Her photography, the most experimental of the exhibit through her use of double exposures and stylistic blurs, hangs on the wall above a large Persian rug. Apparently she brings the rug to every show she’s been in, and invites visitors to share tea and cookies upon it. Her space is cornered by a typewriter, where people are welcomed to punch out a poem, and a large suitcase displaying postcards for sale. While it undoubtedly provides the homey feeling the exhibit calls for, there’s almost too much going on in one corner, making it feel a bit cramped and leaving the rest of the gallery feeling bare in contrast. Having a rug that doubles as décor and a community space is a nice idea, but is perhaps inaccessible if the artist is not present. It’s not second nature for me to just plop down on an antique carpet in a gallery and ask the attendant for some snacks, unless someone or something (a paper, even) would invite me to.
Despite this, the space is a bilingual gallery presented in both French and English (and in the case of Li, in Chinese). However, the notion of “home” doesn’t hold the same romantic notions when translated into French. “Home” in French is chez soi, literally meaning at or in a person’s house. Chez is not used exclusively for home, and can be equally used to present any space that belongs to someone. For example, you could say chez le docteur, meaning at the doctor’s office, or a more temporal chez les artistes, meaning among the artists. Perhaps it is the fault of being a native Anglophone, but there’s a more mechanical feeling to the term “home” in French. It doesn’t automatically conjure up images of belonging or shelter, which is again subjective depending on your upbringing. Whereas English has a symbolic differentiation between the words “house” and “home” in French these are blended together and rely on context, which perhaps explains why the expo chose the ambiguity of its English title instead of a more nuanced French one.
Of the entire gallery, the stand-out collection is Pishdadian’s series of watercolor paintings of the clothing worn by Iranian nomadic women. Despite being the only non-photographer in the gallery, the details in the folds of the clothing are so intricate that upon first glance, I mistook them for photographs imposed on a white background. Perhaps the lack of emotionality in the paintings is what draws me most to Pishdadian’s work.
Overall, Home is _____ is not devoid of feeling, but rather lacks a certain sentiment that I can relate to. Our personal experiences and emotions inform how we feel about places. The subjectivity of home makes conveying its meanings to the viewer difficult, depending on how intimately the viewer is acquainted with the topics in question. Most of the photographic gallery takes a more grounded as opposed to experimental approach to home, which relies on the objects in the photos occupying a space of particular significance to the viewer. What is the meaning of displaying everyday objects in a gallery? Things like clocks, flowers, and compasses might mean something to someone who saw them growing up, but to me as a spectator it falls flat. It looks old, but vintage is trendy right now. I couldn’t find anything new in it, but maybe that is because my personal definition of home is something that stems from the presence of family and close friends.
When I go to an exhibit, I’m hoping to come out with something I didn’t have before. Leaving Home is ____, I wasn’t sure what to be taking away. I saw what six female artists identified as home. It was well-crafted and visually stunning, but I didn’t feel there was much for me to gain as a viewer that I didn’t already know. Home is ____ turns on the mood lighting for you and welcomes you with a cup of tea, but sends you home with just that.
Maybe I’m falling into the trap of assuming all art as the summit of Deep Intellectual Meaning™, or maybe I just want to go home and ruminate on something I’m incapable of sparking up myself. I’ll figure it out when I get my Polaroid, I guess.
Hannah Polinsnki is a writer and photographer based in Paris, France. She facilitates a feminist writing group and eats a lot of hummus.
Stay by Dana Tyrell I just want you to hold me when the lights finally go out and the weight of the world makes us creak into the night. When the sound of our goodbye is no longer the score of crossing thresholds “You don’t need to leave” is my 2am Hail Mary, fumbling a whispered prayer you’re already reaching for your socks. Lay on top of me for just one more minute and stay. To hold the entirety of you; I put my underwear back on, but I’ll never not be naked in front of you. Aching for an eternity’s worth of more, until my touch starved body is bruised and overfull This moment is already sneaking out of the window and slipping into the night. Get into your car, drive away, and text me once you get back home. Feeling your arms around me for just one more moment, I’ll stay.
Dana Tyrrell (he/they) is an artist, curator, and writer from Buffalo, NY. His visual art has been exhibited widely throughout the northeast and his arts writing has been featured in Buffalo Rising and Cornelia.
Daily Motion of Recognition and Regret by Marjorie Maddox
Too late the boy rises, stares toward tomorrow’s face, sees his own black eyes peering back like this. Like this his eyes own black. Peering back, his tomorrow stares, faces this boy rising too late.
Marjorie Maddox is the Winner of America Magazine’s 2019 Foley Poetry Prize, Lock Haven University English Professor Marjorie Maddox has published 11 collections of poetry— including Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation and True, False, None of the Above—What She Was Saying (prose); children’s books; Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (co-editor); Presence (assistant editor). See www.marjoriemaddox.com
Glass by Kelsie Colclough
I unlock the front door. Our house is finally quiet now. The clock says it’s three in the morning, but it’s been stuck like that for ages. It must be around midnight; dad’s sleeping on the sofa and I don’t hear the neighbors talking. I shut the door behind me.
The train station is a twenty-minute walk. I haven’t used the train since that school trip last year. Mom always drove me. She was always happy to grab her car keys and get away for awhile. I’m getting away for as long as I can—to Birmingham.
Aleema’s text is still saved on my phone: “My sofa’s always free.” I haven’t seen her since she moved to university. She sees her parents every week. I went over for Eid once and dropped a glass of lemonade. Nothing else was broken that day.
Were we ever like that? The type you’d see on Facebook statuses, the type at the school gates – bright-eyed and ten minutes early, those types of “family” I don’t think most can achieve. But we did go to parent’s evenings together. We had a family dinner at The Jasmine a few years ago for my thirteenth birthday. Dad laughed at his fortune cookie: never look back unless you are planning to go that way.
All I think we have now is the snapshots of smiles, like scattered shards dashed on the kitchen floor being swept away by a wave of discount beer.
The train seat is softer than I thought it’d be. I put my backpack on my lap and watch as the red bricks blur in the window. After five minutes, the train leaves the station.
I take out my phone and hover over Aleema’s name. Deep breath.
“Hey, how are you? I haven’t heard from you in forever!” she says. Her mom lets out a highpitched giggle again to canned TV laughter in the background.
My lips crack open into a smile. It’s bigger than the fractures now behind us.
Kelsie Colclough holds a BA in English & Creative Writing from Staffordshire University. She has been published in Palm Sized Press, Corvid Queen, and Platform for Prose. She can be found on Twitter @klcolclough
Signals to Nowhere by Robin Berl
He signals to nowhere and pulls off on the side of the road. “Get out.” And you do because what else are you supposed to do when you’re ten years old and your dad has a surprise and you’re terrified of opening your door and a car crashing into it but your dad has left the car and you’re also scared of being left alone inside. “Stand here, just like this.” And he guides your shoulders and he doesn’t squeeze too hard or jerk you around, just moves you slowly like you’re blindfolded. And he taps your shoes with his shoes and your feet move but not exactly right, so he stands in front of you and shows you the pose and you copy him and he doesn’t correct you or try to show you how to do it anymore so you know you’re already doing it. And he stands there, looking into you like a funhouse mirror, standing like he’s standing and looking a bit like him, but all wrong with his nose but too small, and his eyes but too far apart and his body but squashed and stretched out because you’ll shoot up and slim down in a few more years. And when he remembers he’s looking at you, he claps then rubs his hands together. “Okay.” And you can tell he’s excited and you have to be surprised soon and happy, too, but for now you can look confused and he likes that you have no idea what’s coming next, but that you’ll love it so you prepare yourself to love it. “Right now, you’re in two places at once.” And you mess up. Because you don’t get it and you spend too much time trying to figure it out that you stay confused and forget to be happy and you forget to love it because you don’t understand and his face falls. And it’s the last time he’ll show you something because you’re just like your mother and he still loves you, but you know that when he sees you he only sees a funhouse mirror because it’s distorted and not like it’s supposed to be. And now you understand what he was trying to tell you but that’s because you’re no longer straddling the line between being a kid and a grownup, no longer straddling a line between who
you are and who he thought you were or wanted you to be, no longer standing with one foot in one state and the other foot in another. So that’s where you take him and you still hate opening the car door on the side of the road and you get into the pose and you close your eyes and hear his voice saying what he said and you don’t let yourself stay confused this time because you were just a stupid confused kid but you’re not that anymore and you make sure to get it right to be surprised this time and when you open your eyes you pull the plastic bag from your pocket and make two piles in front of each of your shoes so that he’s in two places at once but he’s not even anywhere so it doesn’t make sense and when you look it’s all blurry like a funhouse mirror and you think you got it right because he doesn’t correct you or show you how to do it. Robin Berl is a writer living in Northern Colorado. She is working on fictions tiny and large including her first novel.
Doctor by Halley M. Shaw I wish I were the doctor. I’d operate on Skid Row. My best work would shine. Glazed china that attracted jaded artists. Play God in a necktie. Never say your name. Cuts precise. Numb to your panicked breath. Announce that we downed your dosage. Take the pills out of your pocket. Flash my gold watch. Say, “12:32 am,” when you asked if you could go home. Be stone when you disclosed there was no one we could call. I’d draw the curtains back and try not to cackle. No flowers by your bedside. Tell the greatest lie. “We’re still looking for answers.” Really, I’d have an exquisite four-course dinner. Inhale every Manhattan cherry moments before you were cold as Brooklynn’s lox. You’d be mocked by a swinging chain and bulging biceps then photographed by a scientist-slash-mixologist who slashed your stomach. I wish I felt your final beat from the back of a town car. A feather touch. To forget you as soon as you moaned at my feet.
What I Meant By, “She Comes Out Sometimes” by Halley M. Shaw My torch in the cave. Tells me, “Bitch, I’m gonna go dance. You can go find a wall or something.” She struts. Red hot mirror for hardened souls. One may address my headstone. Everyone wants a kiss-and-a-cum from the blood queen. The men in my life knew her before I did. At their weakest point, my arms reached out for her before she denied me the use of her name. (Where was I going with this? Oh, right!) Crazy. I know you don’t want to hear it. The SHOWTIME recap would only be acceptable if I sold-out. Or if I could finish what I start. I’m not selling you anything. I’m telling the truth. It happens to be in the story. She and I agree we will never be the same person. We share a jewelry box. Gush over our mutual lust for snares and keys. She stays up for days. Bottle or no bottle. I sleep in shifts. Dominant hand blistered. She advises the clumsy twat learn to hold a kettle. Improve her timing. She goes on to blame my inability to stomach whiskey and simply live.
Halley Marie Shaw is a thirty-three year old Syracuse native who lives in her own head and occasionally writes something appealing. The former performance artist now prefers tea and not leaving the house. If you're lucky, you'll see her glue a thing to another thing because ephemera is her lover.
Pete Buttigieg and the Ghost of Christmas Future by Justin Karcher
I’m trying to vape in peace when Sam pops out of the Xmas tree like a jack-in-the-box. I don’t know how long he’s been hiding behind that ornamental veil. Or if any of this is even real. Nobody knows the side effects from vaping, but I’m cool with it. Sam plops down next to me like we’re old buddies. And we kindof are. But we’re also not old buddies, too. There’s a trail of tinsel glitter from the tree to the couch. As if Sam is shedding his skin. “Have you seen what it’s like out there?” he asks. I feel like I don’t have time for this. But since I’m bad at lying, Sam will see right through me. Either way, it’s futile.
“Right now, everyone we went to high school with is walking around singing sad songs about a boy named Jesus and it sounds like Tom Waits coughing up a lung. I haven’t decided yet if it’s beautiful or not, or if it’s putting me in the Christmas spirit but I guess it’s worth a listen.” I take a deep breath before answering. “Everyone we went to high school with? That seems a little unreasonable, don’t you think?” “I’m not bullshitting you. EVERYONE. Well, except for us.” I stand up and stretch and my bones crack. “Look. Sam, I’m tired, okay? Very tired. The other night, I’m feeling lonely and so I answer a call on Craigslist. Are you an unloved bachelor? Meet other unloved bachelors at a Sunoco brighter than the Star of Bethlehem. Experience some Xmas cheer for once in your life. Promising, right? But once I’m there, nothing really happens. We all just huddle around an out of order gas pump talking about the rise of Pete Buttigieg. He’s too close to the center, yeah? Anyway, we thankfully transition away from politics. Start talking about how nice it would be if there were this giant mistletoe always levitating above us all. Like in the sky. Imagine having to kiss and play nice whenever someone looks you in the eye, points up and says, “Look what we’re standing under…” But not in a creepy or aggressive kind of way. I know it sounds creepy. But it isn’t. It’s just like this quick intimacy you can depend on all the time.” I don’t think Sam is really listening to me since he lets out this relaxing groan as he sprawls out on the couch. All goes quiet for a moment and he picks up my iPhone and starts messing around on it. It’s eerie and I don’t like it. I never do. Eventually the eeriness vanishes, and I can feel Sam’s sadness jumping off the couch like a flea that must jump onto a warmer body to survive. But there are none in sight. So the flea must jump around for a while until it dies. Suicide or execution by trampoline. Then suddenly Sam cries out. “Everyone is sharing that Smithsonian article! A plea to resurrect the Christmas tradition of telling ghost stories. Not every tradition is worth saving and anyway aren’t we sick of ghosts?” I don’t answer. Because now is the time I walk away from the couch and look out the window. It’s what I always do when this happens. Take in the world. But only from a safe, manageable distance. And I always ask myself, “What do you see?” A backyard in some city. A city in some country. Where it feels like you’re a broken jukebox lost in a huge swirl of snow. So it feels like you’re wandering all the time. Looking for the songs you used to like. But there is a cold living in your cracks. And you can’t get over it. It gets in the way of your listening. Your half-hearted attempts at singing. Sometimes though, something special happens. When you’re dreaming about poor kids making out on a conveyor belt. Dreaming about a future that still manufactures love. Despite all the hiccups. Despite this heavy, heavy grief. Carolers living paycheck to paycheck but always having the greatest night of their lives. Floating like bubbles in the moonlight and never, ever bursting. Then there’s the sound of bells ringing. Like church bells. And you know it’s over.
Justin Karcher is a Best of the Net and Pushcart-nominated poet and playwright born and raised in Buffalo, New York. He is the author of several books, including Tailgating at the Gates of Hell (Ghost City Press, 2015). He is also the editor of Ghost City Review and co-editor of the anthologies My Next Heart: New Buffalo Poetry (BlazeVOX [books], 2017) and MANSION (dancing girl press, 2019). You can find him on Twitter @Justin_Karcher and on Instagram @the.man.about.town.
Like No Other by Toni G. I tell you, you’re like no other lover I’ve ever had. You smile at me, your thick lips pulled back revealing pearly white teeth that seem even whiter, offset by your dark coffee-colored skin. I want to kiss you, but I hesitate. Hesitate moving closer to those soft beckoning lips. Once our flesh touch, no matter how slight, you’ll pull me down onto you, start removing my clothes, run your tongue over my erect nipples, nibble along my hips, slowly work your way down to my thighs, squeeze my buttocks, with such force, a little pee will trickle out of me. You’ll laugh, tell me I can’t control myself when I’m around you, lay me on my back, spread my legs apart, lick me dry as I giggle uncontrollably until your cell phone rings. It will be your wife checking in, asking if you will be home in time for dinner. I take a deep breath and turn away from those lips. As I open the door to leave, your phone rings. I close the door, as you say– honey, I’ll be home in thirty minutes.
Jazz by Toni G. You named your daughter Jazz, no one could doubt your love for her or for that art form. You didn’t love her mother, a few shared booty calls never grew into love or even a slight fondness. When she told you she was pregnant, you took responsibility and stepped up. You wouldn’t be an absentee dad like so many young black men. You got a job in the Bronx, an hour and a half train ride from your home in Brooklyn. You loaded and unloaded boxes until your back ached. You sprawled out on your bedroom floor at night exhausted, but that didn’t stop you, it didn’t slow you down. The next morning you got up, showered and made it out to work. On your daughter’s fourth birthday her mother told you that she couldn’t do it anymore, she wasn’t cut out to be anyone’s momma. Jazz became yours then. That bright-eyed baby girl lost a mother and gained a father who
would work until his legs gave out to feed, clothe and school her. You worked it out and got her into a private school. You were going to make sure she grew up to be someone people respected, not a minimum wage earner like yourself. You watched her struggle with her homework. You couldn’t help her, but you stayed close by to support her, as if your will alone could increase her I.Q. and force her to understand. Somehow, it did. Now you sit on the campus of Yale University. Yesterday you didn’t know its location, today you’re in your best suit watching as your bright-eyed little girl (now a young woman), eagerly stand as her name is called. You clap although the pre-commencement announcement notified attendees to hold all applause for the very end. You clap like you’ve never clapped before. Tears run down your face, but you don’t notice them as you rise to your feet. You named her Jazz, no one could ever doubt your love for that art form or for her.
Toni G. writes from the heart. Good or bad, it’s always from the heart. Additional work by Toni may be found at The Drabble, Elephants Never and Theta Wave, Right Hand Pointing, AntiHeroin Chic and Small Poems
Temperance Reversed by Matthew Bookin and Jazz De Nero
“If you boil it enough it becomes less toxic, but if you boil it too long you compromise the flavors.” The robot finished speaking and continued to shuck. A little compartment opened up inside its worn brass torso and its tiny hinge squeaked. A crab, no bigger than a tea cup, exited the compartment. The crab paused and then began to rhythmically click its tiny claws. The robot knew the song instinctively. Although never having heard it, ‘memories’ or what best it could ‘imagine’ memories to ‘feel’ like, flooded back. La Isla Bonita, it was the robot’s favorite song. Overwhelmed with ‘memory,’ the robot closed its pincers upon the double handful of devils’ nuts it held. No longer would the robot work in the restaurant business. This robot was built to dance. The memory crab retreated into the safety of its compartment as the robot’s eyes illuminated crimson. Slowly, but with terrible purpose, the robot began to shake. Behind the oneway mirror, the screams of scientists began to ring. One single bullet shattered the mirror glass to shards and ended the gyrating. It was Madonna, smoking rifle held tight to her shoulder. “Nobody does Madonna like Madonna,” she screamed, her sexy nun ensemble billowing around her. Inside the dead robot’s chest, the memory crab stirred.
Matthew Bookin and Jazz De Nero live in Buffalo, NY and are attempting to master the art of collaborative flash fiction in-between the time you order your meal and it actually arrives.
The Evolution Will Be Uploaded by Josh Smith
after Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
It will happen from within your very homes, brothers and sisters. Your sons and daughters will be able to plug in, turn on, and rock out. We will be able to improve ourselves with digitized ones and zeroes that will translate to monetary ones and transform us into digital age heroes, because the evolution will be uploaded. I repeat, the evolution will be uploaded. The evolution will not be shown to us through the eyes of Charles Darwin, nor taught in grade-ten history classes under the name Intelligent Design. The evolution will not collect dust in the drawers of your grandmother’s armoire, nor will it fade to grey and sepia tones, discarded in a long-forgotten shoebox. The evolution will be uploaded. The evolution will be brought to you by the letters HD, and will be available in broadband, wi-fi, and on 4G. The evolution is not a meme, it is a destiny. The evolution will be available on demand. The evolution will fit in the palm of your hand. The evolution will not be hard to find, because the evolution will be uploaded. There will be photographs of un-contacted tribes, lunar eclipses, and galaxies far, far away. Pencil-necked geeks will not pack a lunch for a three-bus trip to the library to examine the microfilms. The evolution will be uploaded. There will be no more out of print books. There will be no more misheard anthems.
There will be no more wrong way turns down dead end roads. There will be no more question as to who the father of Billie Jeanâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s baby is; just upload the DNA samples to maurypovich.com to find out that MJ is NOT the father! Natalie Tran, Greyson Chance and Colt Cabana will become relevant, and men will no longer care if the Sears catalog arrives in the mail, because PornoTube.nasty is available twenty-four seven. The evolution will be uploaded. The highlights will tick along the news crawl announcing the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle, the landing of the Mars Rover, and the location of the zombie corpse of Jimmy Hoffa.
The theme song will be written by Taylor Swift, covered by Carrie Underwood, ripped off by Lady Gaga, parodied by Jenna Marbles, sold on iTunes, and bootlegged on BitTorrent. The evolution will be uploaded. The evolution will not be a victim of planned obsolescence. The evolution will not be shelved to make way for the next DVD, LCD or A.D.D. The evolution will not be represented by an ongoing bunny, a cigarette cowboy, or a cartoon caveman. The evolution will not make you wait in long lines. The evolution will not make you pay for a first-class stamp. The evolution will put you in the directorâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s chair. The evolution will not be analog, will not be analog, will not be analog, will not be analog. The evolution will be no 404 error; the evolution will be uploaded.
Josh Smith has failed and succeeded at nearly every level of career height: ivy league schools, Big Five publishers, global television, international arts administrationsâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;high risk, high reward has been his predilection for well over a decade. Joshâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s career path is both an example, and a warning. He has been Rockstar, and punk. Pedagogue, and pirate. He remains the lost survivor of the Empty Generation.
Rimshot by Scott Bryan
Rest assured this is not what you think. This story did not come about by chance, it is the calculated efforts of those who watch over us, one singular creative mind, and the general chaos of the universe that surrounds us. Sometimes it was fun to watch the dead space that was a oneway street in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Or, at least, it started out that way. Sometimes Tom would sit on the balcony and look down into the street and count seconds in his head, fully aware of the fallibility of measured time called out by his phone. He therefore resisted the urge to rely on this variable technology, and instead tracked the lengths of stillness between cars or passersby or even gusts of wind that suggested any movement at all. He was unaware of further variables he failed to consider. He felt he needed constant confirmation of movement. A cop creeping down the alley on patrol, a leaf falling from a tree, a neighbor shouting at their illegitimate lover, a hobo slinking toward a nook-become-bed, anything that would let him know the entire canvas of his sight wasnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t just an elaborate still placeholder set in front of his vision to obscure whatever activity was actually happening behind the curtain.
Incidentally, even when the world did move, Tom still thought he was somehow being fooled. He would scroll through the records of his memory and education, looking for oddly planted bits of knowledge or accepted fact that seemed out of place. He would comb the surfaces of his own assumption about his surroundings, hoping for a hole through which to climb. He didn’t ever feel like he was getting the whole story. Miriam, Tom’s girlfriend, began to leave him alone during these stretches, when his eyes rolled back into his head and he swayed back and forth, trying to find the rhythm of his heartbeat in the air around him. He wanted to discover an undeniable connection between his own being and everything else. This was Tom’s job. This was what he was pursuing. Even though, as of yet, there was no monetary compensation for his efforts, Tom felt sure that when he found this elusive connection, he would ride his new advantage all the way to the bank. That idea was not troublesome to Tom. When he finished rummaging around in his mind, he would come back with ideas. He would explore exercises in literature and mathematics that Miriam found fairly mundane, even elementary. Tom would use old tricks for education or motivation to try and break open new avenues in his thought process. He would look at a childish game and play it with informed, adult eyes. He would compose stories beginning with inspiring, preexisting famous lines. He would use other literary tricks to stimulate his thoughts. He would subject Miriam to evenings of listening to ‘The Wheels on the Truck’ or playing a game of ‘Trust’ over and over until she was positively ready to pack a bag. The problem wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy a trip down the annals of nostalgia as much as the next hip young trendsetter, it was that Tom wasn’t playing for the joy of recaptured youth. He was looking for clues to his own perceived slavery. He wanted to know if he was being controlled and, if he found confirmation of this fact, how the programming had been installed into his psyche.
Miriam would have used the word ‘paranoid.’ In fairness, she wouldn’t have been far off. Tom would often chase promising leads toward fantastic ends. These leads only seemed promising to the odd functions of Tom’s thought process, and would certainly be best filed into a folder marked ‘fanatical’ or ‘overly cautious’ or ‘discriminatory.’ Often, Tom would lose a sense of the absurdity of his actions while he was wading through the quagmire of his obsession over the underlying connective patterns of the universe. He would start out with too much noise and slowly try and whittle away the details of his purpose until he was left with only the answers for which he was searching. He would whittle complex art or stories or math problems down to a string of letters or a combination of colors he felt were the essence of the message contained therein. Does paranoia only qualify as such if it is fruitless or unjustified? Tom had taken to sitting out on the balcony, composing poetry in any structured form he could find, trying to link his own thoughts with the elements that were controlling him. It was in this mindset and activity that Tom first noticed the bums. He would go outside at 5:17 p.m. every other day. This was about an hour after Miriam returned home from work, so it gave him sufficient time to converse with her but allowed him to situate himself on the balcony while there was sufficient light and activity present to conduct his observances of the world and his own mind. On the other days, he’d go out at 4:55 and nearly skip Miriam altogether.
Sunset found Tom staring down at the activity of the street. Most days he would stay there until well after dark, until Miriam finally corralled him back inside, but over the course of several recent evenings, he had begun to watch the path and timing of several specific bums. At first, they were simply the most interesting people on the street. Other attendees of the street-show-atdusk included ne&#39;er-do-well neighbors or law enforcement representatives, and even the occasional lady of the night, but Tom’s mind slowly eliminated its interest in these random movers of the world. Their pattern was too erratic for Tom to detect any link to the grand plan. He was sure they had a part to play, but their code, their algorithm, was beyond Tom’s skill to detect. The bums, however, were more regular. They seemed to move without motivation, but their timing was too obvious, their day-to-day paths down or across the streets too similar to miss once Tom had begun to notice. Gradually, he narrowed his field of study to one bum and, one night at dusk, he watched that particular street fellow for the last time. Tom needed more information. There was something afoot in the nightly pilgrimage of this homeless derelict. Perhaps the answer was in the final destination? Maybe the important aspect was not represented. Was the significant part of the story happening around the corner and out of sight? Tom could not make any conclusions from his perch three stories above the street. His observatory was suddenly too broad for more detailed observation. He had to know where this bum’s nightly trek took him. So, Tom bounced up out of his steel chair (precisely positioned on the balcony) and nearly trampled Miriam on his way through the apartment to the front door.
“Hey,” Miriam said, dodging him, her blond ponytail bobbing up and down as she moved. “Where are you going?”
“Out,” Tom replied, grabbing his coat. “I have to see what this bum’s life means to me. How it dictates what happens in mine.”
This was too much. “Nothing, Tom.” She had just begun to lay out the finishing touches for the night’s dinner, and she was not pleased at the prospect of having to prepare or consume it alone. She stood her ground. “It doesn’t mean anything to you. You’re being…”
“Ridiculous?” he stared at her. “Paranoid? What, Miriam? You know, we live on this street, surrounded by all of this, and we don’t even know what’s going on outside. This guy passes by our house every night. He never looks up at me. Never. He has to know that I’m watching him. What is the deal? Is it because he doesn’t need to look at me?
Does he know what I’m up to? Well, I’ll tell you, I have no idea what he is doing. But I’m going to find out.”
“I can’t believe…”
Miriam couldn’t continue. “Are you really going out there to follow a bum?” But Tom was already out the door.
Miriam stood for a moment; arms folded across her midsection. Dinner was in the oven and candles were ready to be lit. She had been abandoned for reasons unknown. Hitherto this moment, Miriam had tried to justify Tom’s behavior as merely ‘quirky.’ It was like having a relative who obsessed over a stamp collection, or a friend who spent too much time at the strip club. Everyone has to carve out their own focused place in the world. Miriam, herself, liked to cook. But this… this was not normal behavior, and apart from it being ridiculous, it was a little bit frightening. Miriam had a bad feeling about things sometimes, and she was of a namesake akin to having prophetic tendencies. Of course, her boyfriend never seemed interested in the implications of these details. No, he’d rather go follow a bum. She tried not to think about the relief she would feel if Tom did not come back.
Sunlight weakened as Tom raced down the street to catch up to the subject of his curiosity. The man was bulky with layered overcoats and tattered rags. He was slow-moving, whatever functioning limbs he still possessed were weighed down, hindered by the exoskeleton of cloth and warmth that covered him. He did not push a cart or carry bags— it seemed as though he wore everything he owned on his person at all times. Tom was absolutely sure that, if pressed, the bum would be able to rummage through the countless pockets in his apparel and dig out bits of food, perhaps a toothbrush, maybe some long-forgotten identification, representation of a life where such a card was needed. Tom raced up behind him, thinking of Miriam. If he could just ask the bum where he went every night, perhaps all of this madness in Tom’s mind would be alleviated.
He clutched the padded shoulder of the bum and whirled the figure around. Tom had a mind to be firm yet conciliatory. However, when the man’s face was revealed, Tom stopped and said nothing. He loosened his grasp on his shoulder, and Tom made a mental note to wash his hand as soon as he could. This was his last tangible thought for a long beat. Tom opened and closed his mouth several times, counting seconds and trying to will himself to speak. He knew he must seem utterly confounding and obtrusive to his poor wanderer of the Earth, but the sight of the man’s eyes struck speech from Tom’s accessible capabilities. The bum’s face was dirty and pockmarked, as one might expect. He was bearded, but it was grown in with large patches of tangled hair that spilled over into red, scab graced skin where no hair grew. His eyes were bold but lifeless. They were blue and peering. The soft way they focused on Tom as the two men stared at each other seemed almost mechanical. The retinas were constantly adjusting in slight precision as if the man’s control board were having a difficult time focusing on an object that had come so close. They were frightening, and Tom stood immobile for longer than would have been comfortable, even in an uncomfortable moment.
Off to Tom’s right, another bum watched the show. Tom had not noticed him during his initial pursuit, but now his peripheral vision gave him somewhere to avert his attention. This new fellow was more active. He was an extra detail. He had no reason to be there, so why was he? He smiled at Tom as he banged two small, sturdy tree branches against a tin plate he had set atop the outstretched branches of a living bush. The branch was punctured through the food-crusted plate, creating a makeshift cymbal. The bum frantically hit it with the sticks in a rhythm that seemed too perfect. Every seventh hit, the bum would bend one of the sticks down to the same angle as the object he was smacking. When he did, he simultaneously connected with the middle (near to the branch) and the edge of the plate. It made no indentation. Tom thought there was a name for this stroke, but he couldn’t think of it. It was about the pattern, not the skill. He couldn’t remember if you could do that on a real cymbal or not. He couldn’t remember where his apartment was. He couldn’t remember why he was out here. He didn’t know how close he was to his goal. He had no idea why so much focus was being put on this bum, or any bum. It was more attention than he had paid, or ever would pay, Miriam. Why was this important? It didn’t make sense. The connections. That was it. How was this all being guided and where was it going? Tom was here to see the pattern. What force could control random movement? There had to be something. He needed to find out what was driving this world, from where the motivation was coming.
It was the stick banging against the plate. It was the bums walking up and down the street. It was Miriam and the sky and the sound of birds but no visible birds. It was every mentioned detail, but it wasn’t. There was something he wasn’t getting. Something about that stroke and how it drove forward the whole world Tom inhabited, not controlling the action, but guiding it. The moment of confused silence abruptly came to an end as the bum turned away and started to walk down the middle of the street, as he did every night. Tom frantically searched his memory for a time when this bum had been forced to move aside due to an oncoming car. As he thought, Tom lost
his consciousness in the clanging of the plate. The other bum was now frantic, dancing around as he struck his tree branch against the piece of discarded garbage.
“Rrrrraaawwwrrrr!” a voice shouted. Tom snapped back into awareness and turned to see two muscular men appear at the end of the street. Tom’s depth perception was at an awkward angle, but he thought these men emerged from a break in the street near the spot where Tom usually lost sight of the curious bum. They were wearing t-shirts small enough to accentuate their largerthan-average biceps, and they both wore military-style cargo pants tucked into field boots. They sprung from their cover and seized the bum, who did not react or jump in startled fear. One of the army boys was carrying a gas can. The other grabbed the bum by his shoulders in a grip that, even from a distance of a dozen yards, Tom could tell would yield no escape.
Instantly, Tom raised his hands, almost in his own defense. He heard the drumming cease, and he shot a look to the spot where the musician had been. The space was empty. Tom attempted to justify the immediate evacuation of the hobo with the tin plate. There simply had not been enough time or noise for the man to have run away. Unfortunately, there was also no time to spend worrying about this rift. Tom turned back to the scene at the end of the street as the two fatigued fellows doused the hobo in what Tom could only assume was a flammable liquid.
More than fear gripped Tom as he found his voice again. He was angry, and he knew he was supposed to be there. This was part of the plan, something he was supposed to understand! He knew he was still holding his arms out in front of him, but he did not care. “Hey! Stop that, you maniacs!” he screamed at the top of his lungs. For a moment time froze and the men turned to look at Tom. His eyes widened in order to capture as much detail of this crucial moment as he was able, but he failed to see that the kerosene the men had just splashed in the bum’s face had indeed splashed but had not fallen. It lingered there as the men turned to address Tom.
“Stay back!” the man restraining the bum shouted. “Rest assured, this is not what you think.”
“Hell with you!” Tom yelled, seemingly to the heavens. “Hell to that! What is it?!” But the men were already back to work and the splash of fluid sprinkled to the pavement all around them.
Operating on some strange anti-instinct, Tom ran toward the danger. However, he seemed to be running as if he were in a dream. He pumped his muscles as hard as he could, desperate to reach the bum before any damage could be done, but a shadow fell over the street and Tom’s movements became labored and slow. The darkness was like a thick cloud covering the sun. As Tom hung in the air between steps, he could feel a slight curiosity creep into his mind. He was, quite without provocation, wondering about the concept of joy. His muscles were tense but he could not get them to move. Tom knew he had felt joy at some point, but he did not recall what it was or how to conjure it. In the course of one long step, he nearly decided to turn around and go back. This was all worthless. Why was he out here? This was all taking too long.
The effort was too much and the progress too slow. He would find Miriam, wed her straight away, impregnate her with haste, and proceed to build walls of security and material possessions around himself and his life. He would never think of this moment or this street or this darkness or the bum or the military men or the inconsistent passage of time ever again.
That did not happen. Unfortunately, Tom’s heart was true. He did not turn and run, even though he could feel that, if he had, he would have found a much easier road. He steadied himself as he waited for one of his feet to reach the ground again. He focused on the men and their devious intent and hoped he could reach the bum in time, but Tom continued to hang in the air as the men struck a match and burned the bum alive. The flames rose and fall in a glitchy fast forward. The fire consumed everything it could, to Tom’s perception, though not to the clock on his phone, in the blink of an eye. Although it happened almost too fast to see, every detail of the incineration was carried out. The flames blazed to life and were only emitted from the fuel, but soon enough all the bum’s ragged over-cloaks were burning. Tom could smell burning flesh. Their around the bum was fuel for flame, and dark trundles of black smoke billowed angrily up into the dim sky. The bum flailed and fell to the street. By the time the crime was at its peak, the military men were gone, having escaped back around the corner from where they had come. When Tom’s first step in his run toward the bum finally hit the pavement, he was able to make five more steps in quick succession and reach the charred carcass infinitely too late.
Relentless anxiety jolted up Tom’s back as he tore at the clumps of fabric and flesh, desperate to find a spot on the bum’s chest. Tom was hoping to perform CPR. It was the only thing he could think to do in this situation. He was not a medical professional, he did not know what to do for burns, he was helpless; but if he were ever questioned about the event, he wanted to be able to say that he had done all he could. As Tom clawed at the bum, the man’s left hand crept slowly toward him. Tom heard the crack of bone and crisped meat and muscle scraping
against each other as the hand closed upon his shoulder. He looked down in horror at the man’s blackened hand, but as soon as Tom’s eyes were fixed, the bum released Tom’s shoulder and pointed to a door in the alleyway. Tom was sure he had never seen this door before. He did not know what to do.
“I… I… I…,” Tom stammered without knowing why. “I don’t know what you want me…,” but then the idea came to him. He swiveled his sight back from the door to the bum’s eyes to the bum’s outstretched and pointing hand.
Masculine strength surged through Tom’s body and he sprang to his feet. He grabbed the bum by two scraps of smoldering fabric. Even though the fabric had deteriorated, it did not tear. Tom yanked the bum toward the door. The sudden flux in power, Tom realized, was something only granted to those who were operating in a moment of great need and under great stress. His insides lit up with the fire of the righteous. He did not know what lay beyond the door in the alley, what possible salvation, but he knew it was his duty to ensure the bum was brought there safely. Tom knew he was about to have a veil lifted from the obscuring sight of his own perception. He was about to have a new piece of information; perhaps the piece that he needed. When he successfully opened the door and delivered the bum into the light beyond, Tom would see things that would help him understand. He ignored all else. Anything that might have indicated a contradiction to his aim drifted out of Tom’s sight, out of his mind, and out of his reality. The bum was nearly lifted off the pavement each time Tom heaved and thrust their way toward the door. When he reached the brittle wooden frame, Tom kicked it with an unnecessary force and, without looking, gave one final pull on the unmoving body. He and the wounded vagabond landed on the ground just inside the door, and as they hit the ground, the bum on top of Tom, they were instantly rolled to one side. The door slammed shut behind them.
Standing over the pair were several tall, slender men in white aprons. The looming figures had darkened goggles covering their eyes and rubber gloves covering their hands. Tom thought he might explain what had happened. He wanted to tell these men he had brought the injured man here by request. Tom wanted to say he was only trying to do the right thing. He was trying to understand what was going on. However, the undignified horror these men inspired kept Tom silent.
He was hoisted onto a table. Tom observed the room and found he was in a sterile office with medical instruments hanging from the walls. He looked for escape, but found that the locks on the door were magnetic, requiring a code or a thumbprint. Around the handle to the door was the
manufacturer’s emblem that read A.M.C.I.P.O. Tom did not know what this meant or who this group was, only that they had manufactured a lock that looked too technically sound to be placed on the door that was Tom’s only escape. This door had opened willingly to his kick, but now it was shut and secured. How was this a part of the plan? How would this show Tom the controlling elements?
Overhead, the men in the gloves and goggles worked fast. Tom defended his sensibilities by ignoring them. Needles were inserted into his temples. Tom felt his face grow fat and expand outward as numbness crippled his sense of touch. A scalpel was dragged along his forehead. It circled over his brow, along his cheekbones, and over the bridge of his nose until it had turned Tom’s ocular cavities into a raccoon face, a Zorro mask with a border of blood. Off to his right, more men had positioned the bum on a similar table. They were removing a large circuit board from the transient’s head. It looked like a piece of digital engineering one would find in the cabinet of a computer, only the bridge of the bum’s nose and his two strange eyes, now burnt and bloodied, were the front panel of the board. The piece was released from the rest of the burnt man’s skull with a plastic snap. Then it slid easily from its casing. Quickly, the eyes and skin were peeled away from the processor and, in a strange moment of realization, Tom heard one of the men utter the words ‘convenient replacement.’
There was a drilling noise right in Tom’s ear and shaking thunder inside his head. He felt his own sight dim and was struck by the fear that he was being cut off from himself. He heard several snaps as connecting receptors in his skull were snipped. Scissors had been inserted in the hole in the side of his head. For a moment, everything was black. He could not hear his own thoughts or see his sight. Tom was still there, but he was not in control. He had no senseperception at all. Then, after an amount of time that could not be calculated without the measuring elements of thought, time, or the basic forward momentum of the awareness of a beating heart, Tom came back online.
Replaced by his new persona, Tom looked at himself in a dirty mirror. His sight was enhanced, and every detail of his new world was observed and recorded, but not by Tom’s mind. The circuit board whirred in his head. It was connected to Tom’s eyes and was recording all the information his eyes were seeing. Tom saw the world in high definition. He was looking at himself in this mirror, and he could see the stitching on the dirty clothes he was wearing. He was a juggernaut of rags and coats, a hulking mass. He could see the lines in his own face and knew they held information that could be used to determine his age, stress level, occupation, marital status, sexual orientation, and religious persuasion. As soon as the information was presented, however, it was gone unless it was repeated. Tom was not storing any of what he saw in his own memory. This function had been co-opted by the installed mechanics. His long term memory was still present and accessible. He knew who he was, and he could remember his life. For example,
he remembered Miriam. But his new existence was being downloaded to the server and transmitted back to a storage network for incorporation into a larger collective of information. His life and experience were now being totally controlled and cataloged.
Indeed, he found that even his decision-making capabilities were disconnected. Tom tried to send a message to his hands, hoping he would raise them like he had done before, when he was out on the street. But his hands did not move. After a moment, Tomâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s body turned and started to walk toward the door, which he opened by typing in the proper code. It was a series of numbers Tom did not know, but his algorithm did. He was being given access to the information necessary for him to perform his function and gather needed data, but nothing more. The door opened and Tom the Bum walked out into the street. He would amble along his programmed perimeter and gather daily information. He would examine this specific road every day at the same time. He would record every possible detail and note changes, progressions, and, most importantly, patterns. Eventually, this data would be used to calculate larger proofs. Information is the key to correct calculation. Tom was not involved.
Miriam saw Tom only a few weeks later. She tried to talk to him, ask him where he had been. Slowly, over the course of several minutes of interaction that yielded very interesting code, data Tom could not keep, and from which he was ultimately disconnected, Miriam realized Tom had found an occupation that gave him what he was looking for. Happy to be away from him, she continued home to make dinner. She was surprised by how little the whole interaction had affected her. Outwardly, Tom made no reply and did not react, but inside he was screaming. His glimpse yielded him nothing. To tell her what he had found would have compromised and negated his task. Therefore, it was impossible.
Reluctantly, we all eventually see the pattern, and are reduced to our slavery to it. It is everywhere. Mostly here. Simple. Honest. Obvious.
Terrifying. R I M S H O T.
Scott Bryan publishes the online novel/zine Get It Away From Me and penned the screenplay for the independent feature film Drunk. In 2019, his fiction has appeared in Soda Killers Magazine, Coffin Bell Literary Journal, and is forthcoming in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine.
Potter by Sally Ryhanen
Who am I? Who’s asking? Nobody’s business but mine and that bloody cockroach that’s about t’ squirrel up yer trouser leg and ferret around in yer arse. Ha! Gotcha! You’ve come a long way though, up this bloody mountain t’ stick yer nose in my business. Sit an’ I’ll get a brew.
I’m Potter. Jailbird, Stinko, Despicable You the kids yell, like that movie. Yer pisspoo yer pants sometimes at my age. Happened in town the other day. Best thing? Every bastard stays away. Don’t remember my real name, only ever been Potter. My heathens were a couple of potheads, maybe they gave it to me or maybe not. Hell don’t matter. I did kill two bastards. Only one? Nah mate, only got caught for one. Wouldn’t call either of them men though. More dollops of dripping fat wrapped round jelly bones. Dripping? You remember that? The big folks round the tea table got the meat. Black and crispy-edged, suckin’ lovely. But us nippers only got the dripping, the grease that drops out the meat, the dirty cream in the bottom of the pan. Hot on a roast potato? Magic. You can feel it winding itself round yer rib and oozing inta yer soul. But cold on a dead bread next day for breakfast, ’cos there’s nothing else, rather drink diesel. Foul grey lard, gritty and oily, slippin’ down yer gullet like sick snakes. And the cold brown jelly lolloping and wobbling under it. Death, you can taste the beast’s death.
Anyhow’s, the two men I killed, that’s what you really wanna know about n’it? Not how I loved and still love my girl, the one whose sweetness in me heart is the only unfucked thing. Nah, you wanna write about the blood and the sin. Reckon heaven ’ain’t got any bloodsucking writer people up there, ‘cos they’d get as hungry as a hyena. No sin to feed ’em. Some says I was right to kill. Others, well, killin’ is killin’, innit? They never worry ’bout the why.
I’ve seen them movies, the foreign ones, with the English words runnin’ underneath. From Spain or Italy, or somewhere, but jezus they tell a good story. If you go to those places, don’t drink out the old wells, will you? You’ll get, teeth and spleen and green maggots in yer cup. Used to stick all the bad mongrels down those deep holes, middle of the night like. Never see ‘em again. The wife bashers, kiddie fiddlers, old lady cheaters. All the ones that went bad on the weak ones. If you killed another big bloke bastard, you’d not get shoved down them wells. But hurt a weaker someone, and they’d lay out a feast for you. Goblets of booze, fat pigs’ heads on the table with apples in their gobs and girls jiggling their jollies over the coward. The whole bloody village comes out, all in it together so no one can blab. The bloke thinks ’e’s
died and gone to heaven already. They make summat up, summat that makes him think he’s a hero. Gets him drunker than a piss ant. Laughing and carryin’ on for hours till he bombs out, Carry ’im to the well with the dancing and singing around him. Gives the family that ’e’s done badly by a big rock each to drop on him, slow like, one by one, on his head, ’til he could be anybody. “Dopey bastard smashed ’is head on the way down the well, didn’t he?” they’d say if the body got fished out somehow. “Pissed? ‘Course ’e was. All was the night he went awol.” Out here in the bush, our killin’s not so noisy, bit more private like. Don’t rollick around much, too hot fer that. We does it different.
You’ve brought that Sydney stink on yer body. Can’t hack it. Sup up an’ we’ll go out where it’s fresh. Why’d I do it? Well, best ask me first – “did I like it?” See I reckon everyone’s a killer. There’s a place in yer guts, long, long way from yer heart, that you can never save. No jerk-off god-botherer can ever get there, an’ it don’t take much for that slime to rise up and through yer whole body. Then you love killin’. It feels like you were born to it. Feels like goin’ home. Ha! Look at yer face. You’ve sucked on a sour titty here, son. I disgust you? Ha! Not met too many killers have you? Research you said. Get inside a killer’s mind, you said. Don’t like the taste of me now do you sonny boy? Am I yer cold drippin’ breakfast, creepin’ down yer gullet like sick snakes?
C’mon we’ll hike up to the top of the range. I can breathe up there. S’beautiful. Keep up or go home, sonny Jim. Why did I do it? Well, sometimes you break something, not because it’s that something, you get me? But because it’s at the end of the line of a whole damn waterfall of somethings, pounding and shitting on yer head, ’til yer so low you can’t even crawl away.
I saw the first one in the pub. No great looker, no flash dresser, but smooth as a lizard’s belly. City shark. Come up the mountain to catch the fresh fish he did, the little girls that haven’t seen the big river, let alone a lashing great ocean like where he skulked out of. Sweet tiddlers they be, dancing and leaping around the tiny pond of Oomoolooga. Just like my girl did, my baby girl. Seen a thousand like ‘im. Watched him set his bait, cast his line and ride one in. Burton’s granddaughter she was this time. Jumping and teasing and opening those beautiful young lips, beggin’ for the hook. Followed them I did, up Bellico Creek with me car lights off. He was too busy with his blarey music and fiddlin’ hands to notice me. Couldn’t ‘ave stopped what was done. She was too far gone. Stuck a nail in his wheel like. And waited. Waited till his tyre pissed itself on the way back. Offered to take the girl home to her Grandpa’s. Promised to come back with me torch, help him out with the wheel like. Torch was a bit sharp though, it’s pointy end lighting the way under his ribs, up, up into his heart.
Turned the steering wheel, easy, cheap flyweight car. Off the cliff. He bounced inside the car. I heard him slam into the roof. Broke ‘is back on the dashboard I reckon. Then flew like a black angel, shooting outta the windscreen, down into the waves. Took a long, long time. Was a long way down. Bit like them wells in the movies.
Lookin’ a bit peaky boy. Got another brew in me bag. Sit and sup. All wind and piss you blokes. Writer? What good words ever done us? I put down words after my girl passed over. Better off now she is. None of that shite he gave her in her now, she’s free and light and beautiful like before. Gave them words to the judge. Near laughed at me ‘e did.
“Your daughter was a junkie, Mr. Gitton. Get a lawyer and prove that man is responsible for her death,” ’e said.
What spaceship he live in? Lawyer? Us up here can hardly spell that word. Never gonna have enough money to spell that word. My sergeant in Nam never spelt that word either when they shot him in the field for runnin’ the other way. Coward? He was the only one with the guts to scream ‘Enough, it’s not an Aussie fight!’ The judge wore khaki that day, some Colonel Lipshit or summat. 10 bullets, straight in the sergeant’s forehead. 10 so’s no one knows for sure which bastard soldier actually killed him. Some high falutin’ ponces, judges, pollies played cowboys up here, couple of years ago. I gave one of the horses some stuff the night before. Works slow like. Nothing happens till it gets near the brain. Starts to eat it. Loves that brain food. Burns it first then gnaws on it, and shits it out through the ears, out the nose. You know you done fer when yer eyes start bleeding. A funny rusty blood like you ain’t ever seen before. Sent one judge’s horse wild-eyed crazy. Took off, both of ‘em towards the cliffs. Yep, I do feel shamed for killin’ the horse.
You’re the only one I’ve told about that killing sonny Jim. Rubbin’ yer eyes, kid? What’s that on the end of yer finger, red like, summat wrong with yer eyes eh? Must be this beautiful air up here in my home. Too clean, too pure for sin suckers like you, pulling the shite out of people to make a dollar. Near the top now. Setting my watch Sonny Jim. I’ll start the ticker when I roll you over. You can count too if you want.
Summat ta, take yer mind off the bottom.
Sally Ryhanenâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s companions are an ancient Finnish marathon runner and three borrowed budgies. Shortlisted for the Iceland Writerâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Retreat Alumni Award 2017, she has been honored in local and international competitions and journals, with her work presented regularly by professional actors in Adelaide, South Australia.
Charizard Queen by Mateo Lara
I wish to be winged, flaming tail whipping around burning my haters with my heat. No one named Ash or otherwise will tame me or train me to obey I am my own boss—I will lay down snort fire and char you all the way up. I will raise little Charmander rebellious and rowdy, flamethrowers and embers here and there running around to avoid the Poke Balls at all costs. I am the starter they all want they all need, I am mega marvelous not a dragon but sure as hell act like it, I am the Pokémon you all want but will not get I am my own, not yours or anyone else’s.
All the Yeahs as the Fire Burns by Mateo Lara
your tourniquet is drenched with love we breathe in after-scent of rain no one will judge this, the ease the beauty of rain or of the ghost on your shoulder, we all want to talk about the rain and the ghosts, we all have some haunt in our land, the gray of the clouds, waiting to release, like you wait to release yourself from every wound that sits on your abdomen, we have been trying to solve these riddles ever since the knives hit our wooden walls chopped the home all up, made kindling for fire, how do we inspire each other if we are afraid of the heat, I cannot remain here if you refuse to move with me, letâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s remove the bandages even if you keep gushing, I will pat it until congealed, I will be happy to have you moving with me, letâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s leave this saddened place before it burns us down.
Mateo Lara is queer & latinx, originally from Bakersfield, California. He received his B.A. in English at CSU Bakersfield. He is currently working on his M.F.A. in Poetry at Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA. His poems have been featured in Orpheus, EOAGH, Empty Mirror, and The New Engagement. He is an editor for RabidOak online literary journal
Battleship by Brandon Williamson
In third grade, I used to have visions of the future. Diagnosed as a 9 year old imagination,
my visions evolved to repeating scenes of my parentâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s death. Realizing that they canâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t brush this off as unimportant
like we do black trauma,
I was taken to a therapist who taught me the art of detachment. Erecting a wall between yourself and the things you care about
in order to function, in order to survive. We never got to the end of the lesson, because the board game on the shelf caught my eye,
Battleship. A teachable moment, he taught me how to play.
You build a wall between yourself and your opponent,
set your ships, shoot your shot
And it sounded a lot like masculinity at the time, battleship a game of virility, with a secret.
The more ships I have on the board, the more likely they become a liability,
So I remove every other ship from my fleet,
call it security.
It’s less likely that life will hit something that’s near and dear to me. Detachment is convincing myself that I’m doing it for their protection. I have been told that I see the world through sunshine and rainbows,
and isn’t that just as masculine? To experience so much negativity from the world that when a moment is mildly gentle with me,
I decide to bask in it. Consider it Novocain. And in this game,
when you see the world through rose colored glasses then you can’t tell the difference between a hit or a miss,
and that kind of ignorance is bliss. Detachment teaches you this,
that even if you lose, this life is just a game to dismiss,
So how do you learn to heal when the pain from each hit starts to feel real? Masculinity is playing a game of battleship in front of an audience, Putting on a show like you know exactly what you’re doing when every decision is really a shot in the dark. Echoes of people behind you who hold your secrets in their eyes.
People in your corner with knives in their pockets whispering sloppy second guesses in your ear.
If life fires too close to your ship, put on a poker face and act like you’ve been here before. Hit!!! When you’re hit, you stay silent, detach from the pain,
tell yourself a story of how it builds character, how you will grow from it.
Hold back the water coming in from the damage,
don’t let it well up, swallow it down and man up. Stand tall and sink slowly. Fire back. Reciprocate the damage,
You see, forHit!!!
If that water begins to rise, you will begin to sink. When everyone abandons ship and youâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;re left sinking in the middle of the ocean,
itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s in that moment
that you wish you had another ship to call to. The sea is riddled with shipwrecks
just like you.
And the ocean is the only one close enough to hear the call. Maybe I never should have learned how to play this game after all.
Brandon Williamson was born and raised in Buffalo NY. A proud Fredonia graduate, Brandon has made it his life goal to reach out to students in inner city neighborhoods similar to the one he grew up in, painting a path for them to follow to their future. In this process, Brandon spent time as a high school teacher before creating the Pure Ink Poetry Slam. As the only monthly running poetry slam in Buffalo, the Pure Ink Poetry Slam caters to the community of poets in the area, as well as authors, musicians, dancers, and comedians. Brandon works hard to build a community of art that everyone can be a part of. He has performed, competed, and won poetry slams and been featured throughout New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Ontario, Michigan, Berlin, and California, while featuring throughout Europe. His book, Critical Lens is on sale at Amazon and lulu.com.
To ERR by Jordan Stanford
Sometimes I feel like I am without ethnicity. On the surface I am just… white. A blank page. The only thing I know for sure is my mother’s father was from Puerto Rico. But he left when they were young without the lessons of where he was from. Our His culture. Our His language. Our His traditions. I know none of it. I am none of it. Sometimes I wish he were still alive, so I could find him—meet him for the first time— tell him his gay grandson is doing fine, Look him in the eyes—brown, like mine— remind him of all that he took when he left them behind. So how can I claim something inside that has never been mine? How do I silence the voice that constantly wonders
who am I?
Jordan Stanford is a Buffalo-based poet who holds a certification in creative writing from the University at Buffalo. Literally. Heâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s probably holding it right now. His creative interests lie in poetry and digital art. You can view his visual art on Instagram: @lovinsp00nful
I’m Trying to Learn by Rachel Tanner
I looked up my birth chart. I didn’t understand my birth chart. I barely understand astrology. I’m a Taurus. And I’m not even sort of a Taurus. I am SUCH a Taurus. When you think of what makes someone a Taurus, you’re probably thinking of me. I still don’t understand my birth chart. And I can’t look it up now or ask anyone for help because I have now forgotten what time I was born. What time was I born? It was in May, and it was raining. That should be enough information to figure out something, right? I don’t know if this is true (it’s not true because I’m making it up) but people who are born when it’s raining are more likely to be easy criers. It’s all about water for us. We entered the world in water and we can’t be quenched now that we’re here. Why was I born? My parents were already on the brink of divorce when I was conceived. I can tell just from pictures of them back then. I can see it in their eyes. I may not understand my birth chart, but I understand what it looks like when two people don’t love each other anymore. I understand what it feels like when you are born into a love that no longer exists.
on grief and making everything all about me by Rachel Tanner
i feel closest to humanity when i'm near water so when i heard you died, i got in the shower with my clothes on & talked to you. i don't know where you are. i don't know if i believe in god or an afterlife. but what i did believe in was you. what i did believe in was everyone who saw my extremes &amp; chose to help me through them. how do i recover from the unrecoverable? there was a song we both loved by hozier it's what brought us together in the first place. it looks ugly, but it's clean. oh mama, don't fuss over me i never told you the details about how you helped me leave my abuser. how you helped me stay gone. how even on my worst nights when i would wail through the darkness & hope for morning, i knew i had you. on the night i found out you died, i ate a huge calzone. i watched the sunset. i'd love to say the pinks &amp; purples made me feel less alone but that's not really how these things go. i cried into my cromolyn considered a bottle of rum. i considered a lot of things. i tried to watch Schitts Creek i tried to save half my calzone for later. i tried to write my way back to a life where things made sense. i am trying to feel less alone.
i have my cats. i have my dad's netflix login. i have knee surgery this thursday. but what i don't have is any idea where to sleep now that Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ve lost everyone i considered to be my home. i'm sorry for centering myself here but i'm pretty sure we're all used to me doing that. i'm pretty sure we're all used to me falling & flailing, trying to catch some sleep in the hopes that the morning will bring with it some renewed sense of purpose to help cover up everything i've lost.
Rachel Tanner (she/her) is a queer, disabled Alabamian writer whose work has recently appeared in The Amethyst Review, The Weekly Degree, Crepe and Penn, and elsewhere. She tweets @rickit.
Everest by Shannon Frost Greenstein
Sometimes, insects get preserved in amber. It’s an unfortunate thing, really, probably requiring the prolonged agony of suffocation or starvation on the part of the insect, but, boy, does it make for a pretty result. Amber is living history, a translucent shine that speaks of ages past while serving as a constant accessory to the cycle of life. I thought about amber a lot while I was encased in the snow. I felt like a mosquito, belly stuffed with prehistoric DNA, confined by something so prohibitive that all attempts at freedom are futile. I doubted I would turn into anything so pretty. However, if I was very, very lucky, my body just might be returned to the earth and not frozen in a timeless pose of defeat, to be discovered like George Mallory was by a future climber. Mortal fear is different than I thought it would be. I expected, as the avalanche bore down on me and I ran, futilely, that I would experience panic. I would have guessed my heart rate would accelerate, my breathing would become shallow and quick, adrenaline pumping through my veins to fertilize my brain; there might even, I would bet, be sweating. But it wasn’t like that at all. Things got very still, and quiet. My mind wasn’t racing over the course of my life, as I’ve heard has happened to other individuals caught in life-threating situations. Instead, it was examining, thoroughly and of its own accord, the things that really mattered. My mother, going strong even at ninety. Sequoia, my Great Dane. Mark. And Mary. Mary most of all. Being faced with the possibility of your own demise is an awesome thing, in that it provokes a terrible type of awe. You understand, suddenly, that all things are related. All things belong to the same class…animal, vegetable, mineral, and bacteria; we are all the same. And that collective hive is about to lose a little chunk, and that’s you, because your life is being forcibly taken from you without your consent. Fear feels a lot like anger, in that awesome moment. That’s what I was thinking about when the snow closed in around me. I will miss her. PART ONE
“Don’t go.” “What?” “Don’t go.” “Don’t go where?” “On the expedition. Please don’t go.” “Why???” “I have a terrible feeling.” “What kind of a terrible feeling?” “The kind that’s a feeling that tells me something terrible is going to happen.” I sigh in exasperation. “Do you have any idea how much money I paid to do this?” She just looks at me. I attempt to mask my frustration. “Mary, we go through this every bloody time. Every time, you have this awful foreboding and beg me not to go, and nothing terrible has ever happened and I always come back. Why don’t we just skip to the me coming back part?” She sighs too, only hers is from weariness. “I know this is the last one. I know this is the most important one. But I really, really don’t want you to go.” She pauses.
“You’re all I have.” This last bit is almost accusatory. Oh, good. The baby argument again. It’s always there, the subtext to all our conversations. “Maybe I should stop taking my birth control.” “Why don’t you just consider it?” “I think we’d be really great parents.” I avert my eyes and start counting Egyptian cotton threads. The truth is, I’m going whether she wants me to or not. The truth is, even if she threatened to leave me, I would still go. Don’t get me wrong…I love my wife more than anything. But this is the Big One, capital B, capital O. I’ve been, quite literally, waiting my entire life for this. I’ve been training my entire life for this. And if it came down to a choice between losing my wife or climbing Everest…well, Everest would win. Every time. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” “Mary, what is there to say? You know how important this is to me.” “As important as my feelings?” Oh, that’s a minefield. Better not tread there. “Mary, I’ll make you a promise.” She looks into my eyes, sees I’m serious, and listens. “If you wish me luck, kiss me goodbye, and then kiss me hello again when I get back…with a minimum of objections or bad feelings in the middle…I’ll retire.” Her eyes widen. “Seriously?” Too late to take it back now. “Yes. I promise.” PART TWO
“Seriously, man, how many carabiners are you bringing? We have a shitload.” “Pay attention to your own gear, you ass. I know what I’m doing.” Mark laughs at my statement, illustrating the bond we’ve developed over years of toil on the highest mountains in the world. He is my climbing partner, my friend, the individual I trust with my life. I trust him in a way I can’t even trust my wife; her negativity and qualms regarding my career taint our relationship in some sad, unseen way. “How’s Mary? Has she consented yet?” Mark knows about the tension between my wife and me, obviously; he knows practically everything that’s going on in my life, because we’re the kind of friends who finish each other’s sentences.
I leave it at that. I don’t have the courage to tell Mark I’m retiring yet. He has no plans of doing so in the near future, so it would just sully the coming expedition. And, I know as well as anyone else, extreme emotions in the Death Zone, that limbo between life and death above 8000 meters, will get you killed. Even now, the next morning, I’m finding it hard to believe I offered my wife that bargain. Part of it was out of my desperation to summit Everest; everything else pales in importance, even my career. And climbing is my career. I’m not up there with the Ed Viestures of the world,
superstars with first ascents to their names and ice-climbing maneuvers named after them, but I manage to make a living and support my wife by climbing. I manage to pay for high-altitude mountaineering, my only hobby. My vanity. Another reason is simply that, after Everest, there’s literally no higher to go. You will have stood on top of the world and looked down, and you’ll have seen both a bit of humanity in the valleys and a bit of God in the clouds. That’s why, I think, I’ve made the decision. Part of it, yes, was to appease Mary, but most of it was because I wanted to end my mountaineering career on the highest possible note, in the best shape, with the best track record. After I claw my way up 29,029 feet like Sir Edmund Hillary before me, there’s nothing else worth doing.
He waits for me to continue, and, when I don’t, raises his eyebrows.
“Everything ok? Is she making you stress out?” He knows the dangers of not being mentally prepared for a climb, too. “No, it’s totally fine. She consented, so there’s nothing to do but finish packing and make it to Kathmandu. So, what do you say you get off your ass and help me load gear?” We’re at the indoor gym, and the walls echo with shouts, grunts, and thuds like the inside of a boxing ring. It’s not, though; it’s the sound of the fifty people in the gym struggling to reach a physical and emotional climax atop the walls, like an orgasm, like a victory.
“All right, all right. Sorry. I just have a lot invested in this trip, and I don’t want anything to mess it up.” This is not Mark’s first attempt at Everest. He tried last spring, and made it almost to the top, to the last difficult bit of climbing. But the weather turned, and the visibility got bad, and it was prudent, in the name of survival, to turn back. “Everything will be fine.” I hear myself utter that cliché, wince, and wonder if I’ve just jinxed us. “Ok…I think we’ve got everything here. I have to go, I need to finish packing my clothes and shit. I hear it can get pretty cold there.”
He grins, rises from the floor where he’s been squatting, stretches, walks by me, dumps a huge load of ropes, clips, and harnesses in my startled arms, and heads for the exit. He pauses under the Exit sign and looks over his shoulder. “Everything will be fine. It has to be.” PART FOUR I wondered vaguely what triggered the avalanche. The only reason I wasn’t dead yet, I figured, was because I had landed, after flying head over heels over head amongst the snow and ice and debris, in a bit of a dip. There was the tiniest bit of room between my lips and the heavy blanket of snow which wanted nothing more than to suffocate me. I could see, what had to be miles away, the smallest pinprick of sunlight. It was impossible to move my limbs, however, under the crushing weight of an angry mountain.
I strained to hear the sounds of rescuers, of my friend; to hear anything. But sound is funny buried in the snow. It felt like being in a recording studio, in a room with giant foam pieces on the walls soaking up all the noise as a sponge would spill coffee. At the same time, I felt incredibly attuned to each nuance of change…the shifting of a single crystal of snow, or the sound of my tired lungs hitching slightly with the effort of continuing to inhale. I wondered where Mark was. I wondered if he was even alive; I’d watched him swept away by a white wall travelling eighty miles per hour a split second before I felt myself upended. I wondered what his wife would do if he was dead, if Mary would be there for her. I kept thinking about her…her laugh, her extreme arachnophobia, her love of shoes…as the tiny pinprick of light flickered and winked out. For some reason, I felt even more alone in that moment than I had since the avalanche struck. I’ve never liked the dark. As I lay there and focused all my energy on continuing to breathe, one breath after another, again and again and again, I began to accept that I would not be making it out of this situation alive. It was an immensely sobering prospect. I understood that the rescuers would not be coming; or, if they were, that they would be too late. I understood that my body would lie here, on Everest, preserved in snow and ice, one more piece of offal left on the mountain amongst all the discarded oxygen cylinders and garbage. I understood that I would not be seeing my mother again, or my dog, or Mark. Or Mary. With that thought, my defenses broke down, my breath deteriorated into an uneven staccato, and I cried. I never cry. But, ensconced in my icy tomb, with no hope of ever walking in the beam of that pinprick of light, I felt just like Jesus Christ; forsaken by something tremendous and fearsome, left alone to die, and wondering why. EPILOGUE The Sherpa call Everest Chomolungma, which means Mother of the World. I can’t stop thinking about the mountain that way; as a loving parent, an omnipresent protector. Even now, cocooned in snow, I know she is up there, standing guard over the lesser slopes in the range. Even though she has punished me for my hubris, for thinking I knew enough to test her limits, she remains the pinnacle of human achievement; of my achievement.
I am so cold. I may not have made it to the summit. I may not have succeeded in the goal I set. I won’t get out of this alive. But do I regret it? I regret only leaving Mary behind. I regret never giving her a child, a substitute for me when the rescuers are unable to find my body. I regret not holding her as holy as I held the mountains. I regret being selfish. Too late now. I suspect I am beginning to run out of air. The tiny lifeline to the surface, through which I can see the pinprick of light once more, is not a wide enough channel for fresh air to flow. It will be suffocation that does me in, I fear, unless it’s exposure. I am shaking uncontrollably now. My fingers and toes have gone numb. If I get out of this, I’m guessing they would have to amputate most of my fingertips. But I’m not getting out of this. My vision is darkening at the periphery, I think. It’s hard to tell, as I have only one lifeline to the surface and it doesn’t provide much light. I feel strangely calm, despite a progressive burning in my chest. I’m almost warm now, a welcome respite from the temperature in the coffin of snow. If this is dying, it could be worse. Dying on the mountains is usually far from comfortable. Most times, it’s a fall; down the slopes, or into a crevasse, tumbling end over end as your body ricochets off the topography like a pinball. That’s no way to go. It could be edema, or the weather, or disorientation; it’s actually possible to go off the side and fall right into China. This way, at least I’m intact. This way, I might be discovered eventually; Mary might even still be alive. Too little, too late. I give over. I give up. I am as close to being at peace as I’m going to get, and that’s the best I can hope for.
I close my eyes in acceptance, once again severing my ties to the luminescent world above. The silence seems to be interrupted now with thuds, scraping, even voices; the dying brain does strange things to reality. As I think a final time of Mary, my eyes open, and I see the pinprick of light appear to grow in diameter, light rushing in and stab my eyes, grown accustomed to darkness. I see a pair of hands, so far away, reaching toward me across a vast expanse. The Mother of the World is calling to me, reaching out her arms to cradle me to sleep. I am going home. THE END
Shannon Frost Greenstein resides in Philadelphia with her children, soulmate, and persnickety cats. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, a Contributing Editor for Barren Magazine, and a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy. Shannon was awarded a writing residency through Sundress Academy for the Arts in October 2019. Her work has appeared in McSweeneyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Internet Tendency, Crab Fat Magazine, Chaleur Magazine, Bone & Ink Lit Zine, Rhythm & Bones Lit Mag, Ghost City Review, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @mrsgreenstein or her website: shannonfrostgreenstein.wordpress.com. She comes up when you Google her.
THE MOON by Michael Chin
The blare of a car horn. The jerk of the car swerving. Mom drove the station wagon while Dad dozed in the front seat. He was still asleep then, undisturbed by the near accident on a dark stretch of country backroad. He was always tired, and had more than once joked it was an occupational hazard of living with three women, though I didn’t know what he meant or why it was supposed to be funny at the time. To be fair, he’d driven for hours and ceded the steering wheel because he was worried he’d fall asleep that night, that drive to Grandma’s house. Mom probably should have confessed she was tired, too. The moon was full and bright. The only one wide awake in the car was my little sister Elly, and where she sat and where we drove and the way the moon shone it was like she had a spotlight on her. Her skin was as pale white as the moon. Elly watched the road ahead or maybe Mom, either way, disaffected. I could swear she could focus on anything at all, and only the wrong things when it was important. I remember a time we played Monopoly and one of the Community Chest cards was turned right side up and she freaked all pulling at her hair and shaking. We had to stop, check that they were all faced the right way, and she made us shuffle them before she’d keep playing. Another time, I fixed the two of us hot cocoa on a sleepy Sunday and didn’t empty the whole packet of Swiss Miss into the cup. She went in the trash to fetch it and stir in those last granules—maybe half a teaspoon—before she’d try a sip. I’d heard Mom and Dad talk once—one of those times I wasn’t supposed to be listening—speculating about whether she had autism or if she ought to be tested. Dad said, there’s something wrong with her, and Mom said, leave her alone. I thought I saw Mom’s head bob in the car, like she was nodding off. It’s a funny thing, to be that age—twelve, maybe thirteen—and aware enough of what was happening, though I still couldn’t bring myself to say anything. Elly was three years younger than me, and sometimes I thought she understood more than me. It was just one of the reasons I didn’t like having her around.
Things went dark for a second, and the next thing I knew, the moon had switched sides of the car. I know we must have rounded a curve—that we, not the moon had changed position—but it happened so suddenly. And Dad roused himself. “Slow down, honey, you’re going to miss the turn.” Mom hit the brakes. She must have still been going fifty-five, but we were on a residential street now. One that looked familiar. “Keep an eye out for the church.” Dad yawned out the words and stretched his arms, threatening to knock into Mom with one of them. We’d almost arrived. It didn’t make any sense. We’d left home late, I remember, not right after Elly got off the school bus like we were supposed to, because the cable repair man had shown up later than he was supposed to, and Dad didn’t want to load up the car, let alone leave, while he was still there lest he know we were going away for a long weekend and invite burglars into the home. It should have been at least another hour, maybe two, until we got to Grandma’s.
Mom seemed shaken. She knew, too. Dad rubbed his eyes and looked at the clock. “We made good time.” He pointed out the windshield. “There’s the church up ahead, see.” Mom hit the directional. The first right turn after the church. That was the milestone we all knew, before GPSes and when it was too dark to see street signs. Elly looked straight head. By the time I was a senior in high school, Elly a freshman, she’d grown taller than me, but that was like her. She always found ways to stand out, and never in the ways I wanted her to. She got as in school. She didn’t think to shower for days, until she stunk—especially her feet—and Dad yelled at me when I called her Smelly Elly. Once, she asked me, “Do you think when people die, they go to the moon?”
Those were the sorts of weird questions she asked, and you could tell she expected answers, even though she was terrible about answering questions herself. She ignored courtesy questions like how are you? Weird things still happened around her, too, until I picked up on the pattern. She could do something to time and space. She could control where we were going. I know it sounds crazy. That time we drove late to Grandma and Grandpa’s is the first time I remember. But then there was another time, a family vacation, when I was getting car sick, and the next thing I knew, we’d made it to the hotel, hours ahead of schedule. Another time, when I was driving us to school—Dad said I had to take her—I was going to pick up my boyfriend Steve, whom I knew Elly didn’t like because we made her sit in the backseat when he rode with us, and had nicknamed her Space Cadet. I had turned on his street when, all of a sudden, the car was pulling up to the school parking lot. We weren’t headed that direction, and there’s no way we could have been there for another ten minutes even if we were. It was Elly. Steve dumped me because I’d left him hanging without a ride, and he missed a history test. I tried to tell him it was Elly’s fault, but how do you explain a thing like that? And here she was now, asking two days after Mom’s funeral if people went to the moon when they died. “That’s disrespectful.” Disrespectful was Dad’s word—a word he used all the time with us even before Mom got sick, but when he took on responsibilities like cooking dinner every night and doing the laundry, he started using that word more for every perceived slight or misbehavior. So what if we ate spaghetti four nights a week? Complaining was disrespectful. All of our white clothing turned to shades of pink-gray. You can guess how he responded to my lack of gratitude. He used the word so much, it seeped into my subconscious, then into my conversation. Elly wasn’t being disrespectful of course. She loved Mom as much as anyone. She was just a weirdo, perched backwards on the couch, looking out at the moon, and asking a question like that. “They say when people go to heaven they go up above us.” I was trying to watch Frasier. I hated Frasier, but it’s what Dad liked to watch, and even though he’d fallen asleep in his recliner, if he caught me turning the station he’d say that, too, was disrespectful. “Heaven is in the clouds.” I shoveled popcorn into my mouth. Half dried out, half burnt. It all smelled burnt. Dad never made it right. “I think people go to the moon when they die.” Elly wore her hair long and wild by then. Mom had made an effort to keep it trimmed and to brush it nightly—efforts that had fallen by the wayside those last few months.
I knew I should have tried to help her. Taught her to brush her hair herself on the regular, and spoken to her gently she should shower at least every other day. Mom had told us, reclined in her hospital bed, we had to take care of each other. I wanted to be a better sister. Elly was so sad. I don’t think it was that night, but it wasn’t much longer after, another night when Dad had fallen asleep in the recliner, and primetime sitcoms gave way to the eleven o’clock news. There was a story about a woman—a mother—who’d been kidnapped, tied up and put in the backseat by a man who meant to do God knows what to her. The only reason she’d made out of the ordeal was that she’d gotten an arm free and had the wherewithal to write HELP in the condensation in the rear windshield. The rear defroster was busted, and the mother had the good fortune that a good Samaritan saw it and notified police who caught up to the car before the driver saw the message in his rearview mirror. I imagined him bleary eyed and tired, trying to get as far away as tank of gas would get him, because surely any pit stop would add risk to what he was doing. Elly was shaken. Literally, she sat on the floor knees hugged to her chest and trembling, staring at the screen. I thought to power off the TV, but the remote was on Dad’s lap. “Maybe we should go to bed,” I said softly. She wouldn’t stop watching. I read the newspaper, a couple days after that over a bowl of cereal, a cup of burnt coffee. There was a story on the front page about the follow up to that case. The police car transporting the kidnapper never made it to the jail. The kidnapper, the cop, and the car were all gone. I snatched the paper from Elly. I could only imagine the nightmares she’d have if she thought this man was still on the loose and might show up and grab her. But Elly was calm. She showed no interest in the paper, not even the crossword puzzle she would do every day. I’d thought for sure she’d want to follow everything she could about this story and it’d be a fight to keep it from her own good. When I first met Xavier, I thought he was something like Elly.
He was tall, a little gangly, sure, but more than that he got a faraway look in his eyes during department meetings, like he’d not only mentally left the conference room, but left the planet. He’d mumble apologies when someone called him back to attention, an unintelligible mass of words. When he was eager to say something, he’d raise his hand as if he were in class and wait out the people who talked over him. He waited to be called on. He liked rules. I think it’s the similarities to Elly that made me like him at first. Ironic, because even in my midtwenties, I don’t know that I’ve had said I liked my sister. He was also familiar enough I never considered him as someone I would date. And maybe that’s why it was inevitable we wound up making out in a dark corner at the bar beneath a mounted moose head over a Christmas happy hour, and why, when we agreed we were each too drunk to drive, we stumbled back into the dark, empty office to sleep together the first time underneath my desk, between my waste basket and an extra pair of stinky sneakers I kept for those days when I couldn’t bear heels any longer, and amidst crumpled chocolate chip granola bar wrappers I’d thrown toward, but not into the trash. We dated. I think he wanted to, and I don’t think either of us knew how to process the sex without it. I liked that he was rougher, more confident about sex than I’d expected. Intrigued that first time he strangled me a little before he finished. It was odd, nothing like anything I’d experienced before. I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to do it again, but when he explained that he got off on it, and apologized, I told him, automatically, it was OK with me and I liked it, too, because that’s the way I interacted with people—always erring toward making things more comfortable for them. So, the choking became more regular, and we worked out a system where I’d resist if it were too much—I’d pull his hair or dig my nails into his forearms, and he did stop when I asked him. We were a couple. Dysfunctional, but I’d been in enough relationships to recognize that no couple fits any real norms; not once they really got to know one another. I had him over to meet the family for Thanksgiving. I’m not sure why I thought he’d hit it off with Elly. Yes, they were alike, but alike in all of the wrong ways so that they were especially awkward around one another. That, and Elly was her typical self, attentive to every detail, and especially the details you didn’t want her to notice. Regardless of whether she were the only one to see it, she was the only one to comment on the bruise on the right side of my neck, where Xavier had pressed his thumb a little too hard two nights before. “I slept on it funny last night,” I said.
Elly didn’t acknowledge what I said. She kept her eyes on my neck. Xavier didn’t like spending time with my family. When we were back in the car, he asked me to promise him he’d never have to again. I asked if it were really that bad, and he only asked again. Promise? I figured there was no use in rushing. I’d still have to meet his family at some point, and if we stayed together long enough we could revisit the conversation. I wanted to dismiss the concern as him being dramatic because he’d been uncomfortable. But Xavier had a tendency to be awfully literal about things, like those early stages of spending the night at each other’s apartments when he’d invite me to sleep over and literally meant sleep, then asked if he could come over to have sex. We started having sex more. When I asked if he could not choke me quite so often, he pulled it back. I started counting when I suspected a pattern—he only did it once every three times. We got pregnant. t probably shouldn’t have been a surprise, because he didn’t like the way condoms felt and couldn’t perform with them, so we relied on him pulling out in time, but didn’t always make it. I started keeping better track of my period, and by extension my ovulation in the effort to steer us from sex during those periods I was liable to be most fertile. I messed up. I told him we were pregnant over dinner at my place, eating hoagies from the deli down the street, on a commercial break between shows he liked Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish. He didn’t say anything at first, then snaked off the couch, down on a knee and grasped frantically for my hand before he asked me to marry him. His breath reeked of onions. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have said it was too soon, and it probably still was, but can you blame me for being emotional? Can you blame me for saying yes? We eloped. Neither of us had many guests we’d want to invite to a big wedding, and he hadn’t changed his stance on my family, so there wasn’t much point in having anyone come to the courthouse with us. He asked how we should tell everyone that we were expecting. I didn’t know who everyone was and, anyhow, told him we needed to wait until after the first trimester. He calculated the date and programmed it into the calendar on his phone so he wouldn’t forget.
I bled. Not spotting. Not just a bit, but like I’d saved two months of period blood and let it go all at once. I called Xavier, and while I waited for him to take me to the hospital, I Googled the possibilities. A blood clot. An infection. The emergency room doctor confirmed the miscarriage We were both sad—who wouldn’t be? I’d moved into his apartment, but we started living separate lives, driving to work separately again. He stayed at the office late, and sleeping on the couch when he got home. We hadn’t had sex since the first pregnancy test. No number of articles to the contrary would convince him it wouldn’t hurt the baby, and I suppose it’s for the best we didn’t, because he would have blamed intercourse when the miscarriage happened. One night, he came home really late, after I’d already gone to bed. He came straight to the bedroom that night and climbed into bed with me. When I tested the waters with a simple hello, he didn’t say anything back, just unbuttoned his shirt and unbuckled his belt. I liked that he initiated sex. I wasn’t sure if things would ever be the same between us, but it was nice to think that one of us might make a stab in that direction and this was as good start. But he was rough. He smelled of whiskey. There was little foreplay, straight to bulling his way through. And the choking. He didn’t stop when I coughed or when I clawed at the backs of his hands or pushed back against his face. I turned my head to one side as far as I could and looked out the window. I could see the moon out there, pale and bright and full. I thought maybe our unborn child had gone there. We didn’t know the sex yet, but I felt sure it was a girl and had secretly named her Luna. I woke up under bright lights and my mind went back to the moon without any of the context of what I’d last been doing, or rather having done to me. I registered the beeping sounds of monitors next. I was in a hospital. Elly was there. I still had her listed as my emergency contact, and Xavier stood far off from her and it was clear he didn’t want for her to be there. I wanted to tell him it was all right, and that I would have changed my emergency contact to him—I hadn’t thought of it, and he shouldn’t be
hurt by that. We were still new. But it was hard to speak. And the doctor or nurse or whatever she was trying to ask me questions.
She asked if I remembered how I’d gotten there, and about the bruises on my neck. I volunteered that it was foreplay and it was a fluke accident that Xavier and I had gone too far. He had his hands balled up into fists and stared at his torn-up Reeboks behind the woman. He was so angry. He had to understand that it was better to be honest—that honest at least. I knew he was embarrassed about liking the choking—the way he’d spoken so quickly about it when he introduced the idea, the way he shut down when I tried to start a conversation about it, outside the context of it happening. Without giving this woman context, they’d think he was trying to kill me. This was better. But police officers came before we left the hospital, in a little examination room that I felt poorly about taking up when there were probably people who needed it more than us. A pair of middleaged men, one broad-shouldered and fit, the other on the portly side. They talked to Xavier. They talked to me. The portly one let out a sort of stifled guffaw when I described the choking. They talked to Xavier again, and left and we were allowed to go home. Elly hung back through it all. She clutched my hand in the hallway before we could go and said she wanted to speak with me. I knew she meant business because she didn’t like touching people, even me, and to reach out like that was a big deal in her world. Her hand was very cold. “We should get home,” Xavier aid. After a series of mumbles to the police and everyone from the hospital there was an edge to his voice when he spoke to me. “Why don’t you use the bathroom before you go.” This, too, was unusual for Elly. Elly was direct. If she wanted to speak with me, she wanted to speak with me. She didn’t stand up to people well, either, unless she was in a state, like when someone would break a rule. That happened more often when we were kids. As grownups, I’d taken her out to a bar once and she got frustrated when the bartender overlooked in her favor a group of girls in cocktail dresses having a bachelorette party, and she screamed that she was there first and everyone looked at her and I was so embarrassed. “I’ll only need a minute.”
Maybe Xavier had to pee, or maybe he figured that whatever Elly said, she’d only have a minute because the men’s room was just a couple doors down, and if a minute would get her out of our hair then it was just as well. He walked away from us, just those few steps. Elly didn’t say anything. She focused on Xavier, and watching him go. At the time, I didn’t make so much of it—the way Elly watched him and that, despite not having much time, she didn’t say much of anything to me. I didn’t make much of the flash of bright light that passed my eyes when he opened the bathroom door. But there’d been a bright white light. I thought that it must be unusually bright in that bathroom—even brighter than the fluorescent overhead lights from the examination room that I already hated. All Elly asked me in the interim was, “Are you OK?” I told her I was, and that it was all a big misunderstanding. I told her I was sorry she got called. She waited with me that first ten minutes, before I said out loud for the first time that Xavier had been in the bathroom for a long time. I didn’t have my phone with me, or I would have texted him. Elly took my hand again and squeezed it, before she told me, “It’s over.” I watched her leave. I waited. I’d never see Xavier again. In a lucid state of mind, I’d acknowledge that was a good thing. But I wasn’t lucid often any more. I existed in our apartment—I guess just my apartment by then—and slept and slept, until I’d missed two days of work, only getting up long enough to pee and to drink water. I could have died like that. There was a time for a choice. I could have chosen not to move again. I was hungry, but more than hungry, I was weak. I was sad, but more than that, I was defeated. I don’t know that I’d yet made the choice when Elly came to me.
The door to the apartment locked automatically, but somehow she’d made it through. Maybe I never closed the door. I didn’t hear if she’d knocked before she came in.She fed me apple sauce from a little plastic container. I’d forgotten how much I used to like apple sauce. It was one of the few things Elly and I had in common when we were little. She’d scrape the bottom of her little containers so meticulously and at first I’d tease her by throwing out what was left of mine and being, by her standards, so wasteful. Later, I’d give her the ends of my containers, and she’d gladly scrape at the remains to eat every last speck. I was lost in time. Thought we were just girls and forgot all about Xavier and our girl when Elly said, “It’s time to call the police.” It took a moment to understand what she was telling me. I had to report Xavier missing. There was no spinning a story that he did this sometimes, because he was such a creature of habit, and surely our company had noticed that the both of us were missing. The police didn’t seem suspicious. The filed the report, but it all came across as a formality. Elly called my employer and explained everything very matter of factly. I told her I didn’t think I could go back anyway, but she said it was better to leave the option open. I might think differently in a matter of days. They gave me a leave. A miscarriage and a missing husband— they volunteered that I could come back when I was ready, and I shouldn’t rush it. Elly stayed with me. It’s impossible to say for how long or where we went. One minute, I could swear we were teenagers or younger, in the backseat of the station wagon or in the living room after Dad had fallen asleep. Sometimes somewhere bright. Somewhere warm. We were mostly in the apartment, though. Now and again, I could rouse myself enough to register that. Elly had changed things. Done all of the dishes and re-sorted the spice rack into alphabetical order. The choice came back to me. The one Elly had interrupted, as best I could recall, the one that had only occurred to me in passing those hours, those days, those weeks, those years we spent together. When the choice came back, when I felt strong enough to make it, I asked for Elly’s help. I asked her if she could send me to the moon.
She didn’t answer. I asked her to send me to the same place she’d sent Xavier. When she still didn’t say anything, I asked her to send me where she’d sent the kidnapper whose windshield the woman had written on. She at least looked at me then, registering surprise—maybe that, despite not saying anything, I’d known all along what she’d done, not to mention the implication she hadn’t cared enough about the police officer who drove the man to jail to spare him the same fate. I’d never heard anything about what had happened to that woman, either. Had she been the same after the whole ordeal? I wouldn’t let it go. I asked her again, some matter of minutes, hours, decades later. Elly would leave me. She had her own job—the kind all of us thought her intellectually capable of, but none of us thought she’d ever get out of her head enough to hold down. All I knew for sure was that she worked for the government, and that she’d left out a memo on letterhead that read Department of Transportation. I don’t know what kind of money she made, but I neither paid the rent, nor heard anything about an eviction. Maybe Elly moved in with me. She was there a lot. There enough for me to ask—I’m sure it was every day, at least—if she could send me away. I don’t want to tell you how long this all went on for. Anyone who’s experienced trauma knows how arbitrary a thing time is. Time like that isn’t measured in clocks or suns or moons. When I was ready, I walked out of the apartment, down the hall, then out the door into the bright, bright light.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. He is the author of two full-length short story collections: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue from Duck Lake Books and Circus Folk from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle; his third collection, The Long Way Home is forthcoming in 2020 from Cowboy Jamboree Press. Chin won the 2017-2018 Jean Leiby Chapbook Award from The Florida Review and Bayou Magazine’s 2014 James Knudsen Prize for Fiction. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.
The End of the Marriage by Elodie Rose Barnes
He loses her the day she finds the trunk in the attic, but he doesn’t know that at the time. At the time, he’s busy and she isn’t, and the discovery excites her; sorting through it gives her something to do. It’s full of loose papers and old photo albums. Left by the old owners, she enthuses, settling cross-legged on the floor with a pile of papers and dust monkeys. This place was in their family for three generations, the immobilière said so. He leaves her to it. He hasn’t got much interest in history, especially not in family history that isn’t his own. She spends more and more time in the attic. When he goes to work she is already heading up the stairs, and then after a while she is still up there when he gets home. He asks about the art class, the yoga, the French language lessons that she planned to take, but she waves him away vaguely. Later. Instead she sits, surrounded by papers and yellowing photographs, squinting over them in the washed-out daylight that drifts over the rooftops and through the skylight. He starts cooking dinner and taking it to the attic, eating most of it himself while she continues to read. It’s the only way he can see her. There’s one photograph in particular, torn around the edges, the group of smiling faces in the middle faded from black and white into a uniform grey. She’s fascinated by it. On one of the rare occasions that she talks to him, late in the evening when he’s frozen and numb from sitting on the floor, she tells him their names. She’s pieced some of the puzzle together from a journal that she found. This is John, she says, and Emily sprawled on the grass. Peggy in this deckchair. The other deckchair’s empty. He offers to get the photo restored for her, but she doesn’t want to let it go and he starts to worry. Sometimes it seems as if she’s fading, like she’s a dream made up by the pale winter sun. He realizes he’s lost her on the day he comes home and she isn’t in the attic. He doesn’t bother going out to look for her; there’s no point. He knows where she is. His hand still shakes, though, when he picks up the photo and sees that the empty deckchair has been filled. She’s laughing, smiling at the camera like he’s never seen her smile before. His finger traces her face. Her smile is making him smile, only his is blurred at the edges by tears while hers is vibrant in the monochrome of the photo.
It had to end somehow. He places the photo carefully down on top of the trunk and leaves the attic door slightly ajar when he leaves. Just in case. Halfway down the stairs, he hears the soft click as it shuts.
Elodie Rose Barnes is an author and photographer. She can usually be found in Paris, daydreaming her way back to the 1920s, while her words live in places such as Reflex Press, Tiny Molecules, CrĂŞpe & Penn, and Ellipsis Zine. Current projects include chapbooks of poetry & photography inspired by Paris, and a novel-in-flash based on the life of modernist writer Djuna Barnes. She can be found online at http://elodierosebarnes.weebly.com and on Twitter @BarnesElodie.
HEEL TOE TOE HEEL FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY by Ken Carlson
To the Woman Seated Next to Me at my Daughter’s Dance Recital: Greetings! It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance. As a fellow parent, it was a rewarding experience to sit next to someone at such a cherished event who shares spirited support for her child, as well as an energetic appreciation for the Arts. It is performances like these where the sacrifices we made all year are realized for those few unforgettable moments of joy. Prior to the curtain’s rise it was exciting to see all the other patrons with whom you were familiar. That sense of community is invaluable. True, I wasn’t expecting to hear that many curse words shared to and from your confidants at that loud a volume; nor was I planning to hear that many physical threats made in reference to past recitals or constructive criticism regarding the abilities of other parents’ children. I hope the planned meetings you made for later in the evening were enjoyable. Thank you for taking the time prior to the show to complete your calls involving your medical conditions. The body is a temple and there is no time like the present to maintain its integrity. As I am not a medical professional, I hope you weren’t taken aback by my reaction to your showing me so many parts of your body. Your sharing was a gift I was not prepared to accept. I trust your doctor’s recommendations to have the areas in question lanced or drained were taken to heart. As the lights dimmed and the audience grew quiet, it was refreshing that you decided not to turn off your cell phone as requested by the House Manager. Your ability to continue making and taking calls throughout the event showed your unwillingness to compromise, a rare quality in these politically correct days. Let the naysayers or Nanny State howl, force you to cow tow, that you can’t attend to critical matters on the phone in the course of a show. It sounded like your acquaintance Mitzi’s trip to the hair salon was a challenge from which we all could learn. I hope her sexual problems with Vance that you so acutely described were resolved in a timely manner. The nearby families that felt the need to interrupt you were probably jealous you’re too good a friend. During the second number, wasn’t it an unexpected joy that your better half decided to join us. And what a romantic thrill to have him shout for you by name as he made his way down the aisle. I’m sure his expletives were taken in the best possible way. It was like experimental theatre and the breaking of the fourth wall. Wasn’t it disappointing the way others had to rain on his parade with their shushing and complaints that he knocked over their grandparents? As he climbed over me, I recognized your life partner from the parking lot where he and some of his friends were drinking bottles of domestic beer and launching their empties toward the cars
outside the church across the street. Such hijinks and tom foolery! It was just adorable how the two of you dressed in matching outfits. Thank you for welcoming the rest of us into your world for a behind-the-scenes look at what real love is all about. Let the others attend a live performance in a stodgy jacket and tie, or a predictable dress or sweater/skirt combo. Your keeping-it-real Crocs were a fashion victory. And the Sponge Bob pajama pants? What a breath of fresh air. Who knew they came in adult sizes? I thought your Polite as Fuck t-shirt was tasteful and provocative; and clearly if your beloved had chosen to wear a shirt I would have thought the same. As the show progressed, it was evident to me how much you love your daughter; enough for you and your beau to record those once-in-a-lifetime moments in front of me by IPod and IPhone. Your commentary was appreciated by many of our fellow audience members. Through your colorful descriptions and occasional glimpses through your recording devices, it was almost like I was there. As the production concluded and the children came out for their final bows, I felt awful that we didn’t exchange phone numbers. What a wonderful time, as the little girls and boys danced their hearts out. I apologize for my emotions, but the sight of all of them in their dainty costumes and glittery makeup brought a distracting tear to my eye. That, and I was foolishly knocked to the ground by an accidental elbow to the side of my head when that brawl broke out between you and the families in Rows A. As it happens, one of the police officers on the scene is also one the coaches for my older son’s baseball team. Small world.
Ken Carlson has written for several news organizations, humor sites, and is the author of Get Out Of My Way—The Annoyed Commuter’s Handbook. Follow him @KenCarlsonsaid.
Not Built by Humans Hands by Amanda Sierzega
You spent the entire day at my house the day that your father died. My mother heard the phone ring so early in the morning she knew something terrible had happened. Caller ID wasn’t a central piece of the telephone industry yet, so my mother didn’t know who was calling until she picked up the phone. Your mother didn’t need to say anything. “Bring the girls over,” my mother said. “Bring whatever they need.” You arrived with the October sun, so bright and warm; now it blinds me on my way into work but that day it kissed our skin. Your sister went into my sister’s room and you went into mine. We changed into our Halloween costumes: Cinderella, a black cat, and my mother took us to school for the Halloween parade. She told our sisters’ preschool teacher and our kindergarten teacher that she would take all four of us home that day. She didn’t have a note, your mother hadn’t called ahead but she didn’t need to. We stood elsewhere during this exchange, playing, laughing. My mother drove away crying, came back at the end of the day smiling. We went trick-or-treating. I was so happy; my best friend in the whole world was collecting candy with me like the older kids did with their friends. We spent all day together. I had no idea that your father was dead. One of the worst days of your 24 years of existence, and I remember none of it.I run through the streets we trick-or-treated through, passed my house, passed our high school math teacher’s house, the old couple who always had colorful lights and sat in lawn chairs and always gave us extra Halloween candy, up the hill and around the corner through more streets of split-level single family homes and small ranchers, passed the high school we attended, the football field where we graduated, where we watched so many games on crisp fall nights like that Halloween so many years ago, sipping hot chocolate, sometimes aware of what was happening during the football game. I run downhill and around the perimeter of the hospital that borders a small, two-lane highway that is actually one of the busiest in the country. My father, in all of his infinite wisdom and random historic, geographic, useless, deceptively useful knowledge told me this as I was driving home from visiting your mother in the hospital the day before she died. I wonder if your father
would have also told you this had he still been alive. Would he know this much about the universe and the universe of our hometown and random, seemingly minuscule historical events? Your parents drove up and down these roads thousands of times. Your mother drove through our town to work, to all of our sports practices and games, to my parents’ house, to the grocery store, to our school events. I run here in the afternoons. The mornings that are bitter and humid. The rainy Tuesday evenings. I usually run endless loops around these spaces until the lactic acid unsticks itself from the muscles in my legs and begins churning, churning, and then I run longer passing these places that we used to inhabit so frequently and so well. Sometimes I run through downtown, passed the local shops and microbreweries, pizza places and bars all within 4/10 of a mile of each other. I run along the perimeter of the local park where we spent nights at the annual parade as children eating funnel cake and riding the Ferris wheel while our mothers waved and wondered how we’d gotten to this moment. Caddy-corner to the park, passed the church where your mother’s funeral was held. Never was unfailing faith so perceivably present and so perceivably absent simultaneously. One of the worst days of your 24 years of existence, and I remember all of it. I ran 12 miles the day after your mother died, and yet I was never more than six-tenths of a mile away from home. It had been cloudy for two months and was fairly temperate but my body was soaked and shining from interminglings of sweat and self-bronzing lotion. I thought that if I maintained some semblance of my summer tan I’d appear less tired at work. Up and down and around and then again, the pounding of blue sneakers on the pavement methodically co-mingling with the beating of my heart and my wet ponytail against the small of my back and the thumping of bass in the too-loud music in my headphones. All of the places we’d existed in streaming passed; living ghosts in present day but you were there, underneath, a filament just below the surface. The in-between of my memories and reality. Your mother is ghost now. I can still hear your mother’s voice. I see her in your backyard below us as we climbed into your treehouse and wrote our names on the walls in black sharpie in 2003 and then again in 2007. When we made shirts for senior night in high school she stayed with us each hour for 15 hours
except when she left to pick up the takeout we ordered. She taught me how to iron letters into blended polyester cotton and you puffy painted letters properly on all 11 shirts. Your penmanship was always impeccable. So was your mother’s. The shirts dried overnight in your basement area haphazardly spread on tables and ironing boards and chairs. Anywhere other than the leftover boxes of pizza that we burned later when we made s’mores at your fire pit. On the school bus we planned everything. In 10 years we were going to be teaching and treating patients (you wanted to be an occupational therapist) and we would coach together and marry boys we didn’t think we’d met yet. Your mother’s cancer diagnosis was not in this agenda. Four years ago I taught myself how to bilaterally breathe when I run so as not to place more pressure on one side of my body than the other, relearning to breathe, inhaling one millisecond faster to breathe longer, run longer, forget to think longer. Each exhale alternates the side of my body that strikes pavement. The roads we learned to drive on, the sidewalks we walked across through town to pick up hoagies and Stromboli. I rarely think of my breathing or heart rate striking my chest the way my shoes strike acorns and leaves on the roads we skipped across trick or treating so many years ago. The uneven sidewalks and newly mangled roads. The same dips and tilts and shifts endlessly looping through my eyes, my brain, underneath the soles of my shoe. The man who walks his dog who I run past twice a day, three times a week. My high school math teacher mowing my neighbor’s lawn. Again? They laugh encouragement, I choke back sobs, my watch chimes, pierces the air to signal another mile complete twelve paces before the last one. Your mother asked you if I was going to get engaged the week we went to the mountains. She asked if something “special” was going to happen while we were there and you chuckled when you told me when I returned from running along the lake and while I am incredibly content with the current content of my life I wish I had gotten engaged and I wish he had asked so I could have told your mother about it on the phone or in person, not in my mind as I will have to now. I wish he and I hadn’t fought so much that year about trivial, minuscule things that I have since forgotten about because they are so much less important than the act of surviving. I was mad at him, but it was so much more: our lives cost so much more now that we are older. Your mother’s life cost so much more when she was ill and your life cost more supporting her. Your love suddenly contained a price tag. After my grandfather died my parents smelled his cigar around mine and my sister’s cribs as newborns. Would your mother be the rain mixing with sweat knotting my ponytail at mile six? The mud I kick up on the backs of my calves? The child waving, learning to ride her bike across
the street as I run past for the fifth time? I wish he and I hadn’t fought so much. I wish I forgave sooner. I wish your mother could’ve seen the mountains. He and I said we’d never go to bed angry, but we did and even when we reconciled we had not forgiven. We would have such angry sex, make false amends with the best intentions until next week’s inevitable repetition but there were still bills to pay and your mother was still sick and no matter what she did she wasn’t getting better and then he’d drive home and I would run, run above the old steel mill grounds that my grandfather and great-grandfather worked at until it shut down, passed the church my parents were married at across the street from the church my grandparents were married at, up and across the street from my father’s childhood home that I have never set foot in. My father has outlived his father for four years and I had no idea until recently. What is that like? I wonder. My grandfather will never be older than 57 and my father is 61. My mother is now older than her sister was when she died. I am the age my mother was when her mother died. We are all so young and yet we are so old and so tired. When I visited your parents’ grave that summer I couldn’t find it right away; there was no light rain like there was the day your mother was buried, only sunlight and humidity and the grass at their grave still had not fully grown in and all I could think about was the snow that they missed, that covered their grave that winter that I ran through and I wondered if anyone even saw the snow kissing the grass, their grave, and if no one did, the did it even snow there? Everything was still fresh. Everything is still fresh. My grandmother asked my father, “what about the girls” when he told her that your mother had died. According to the state and to ourselves we are adults, independent. And yet we are considered too young to be living without our mothers and fathers and my father didn’t know what to say. I dreamt of your mother not long after she died. She was at the school that I teach at and when I saw her I cried and hugged her and we didn’t speak, no one spoke aside from my colleagues who were wondering why I was crying and I kept repeating “don’t you understand” except there were no words coming out of my mouth but your mother was there, tangible, alive, not quite a memory but not quite reality. We are surviving but trying, trying to do so much more than that. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m running towards home or away from it or if I’m doing neither, if I’m in-between. Where have all these people gone? Can they see us? Can they hear us? Do they know my thoughts? Do they know the magnitude of effort it takes some days not to stop everything and scream at the fleetingness of it all? Do they know how I once spoke to myself? There is nothing more I can do for you. I’m sorry. I’m trying, trying, trying but I am so tired. I’m sorry. How one day I went for a run on a whim and something (or maybe nothing) shifted? Perhaps this is healing. Perhaps it is
not, but maybe it is close enough. Where are you? I want to shout, throw a tantrum but instead I run. The leaves on the trees are endlessly different shades of red and orange and deep yellows; it’s as if I’m running across a sunset collecting the remnants on the bottom of my shoes to feel something. I’m trying, trying, trying to find them; I’m trying to find your mother. Your mother, so changed. The stale air in her hospital room stands still, smells like stale motor oil. Monitor beeps pierce the air. But I stopped my running watch. What did I expect? Delivering her will to witness its signing. I am wearing the clothes I ran in, tie dye spandex shorts, purple sports bra, black and grey sneakers. The only thing fresh is my T-shirt soaking in not-quite-dry sweat and new, fresh, cold sweat. My father and sister across the hall, unaware of the finality of it all. My father, my mother, impatient, impulsive, obsessive compulsive. How is my frustration towards them justified when they are here, relatively healthy? Angry at life’s forced complacency, the economy, passive aggressive towards each other but only in private when the other is not home. But at least they are breathing. How can I be mad at them? You and I were just on the school bus. What is happening? The doctor asks to see you. Alone, I talk to your mother about the weather, the incessant, intermittent rain. Cloudy, abysmally calming. The books I was teaching, ones that she had taught. Not that we’d take care of each other. The finality of that statement stuck in my throat, tasted like gasoline, like the gnat I swallowed while running two months ago. Your mother’s warm, tired hands. Your mother’s thin hands. Her presence and absence, a beating heart that was not living. Is this purgatory, I thought. My father said she was in the in-between, a place between dying and heaven. Hasn’t this been enough? I love you, I said. I love you, I love you, I love you. Fall is beginning, but the sun is still setting later. I drive home with headlights on, listening to the radio about the status of the torrential downpour I am about to drive into. The darkness of endless, rolling clouds that makes it almost impossible to remember when the sky appeared as anything else. Then a piece of blue sky, perpetual sunlight ahead and above. When you called two hours later just as your mother had called my mother so many years before I already knew. Your mother’s departure, marked. Raindrops darkening pavement, wearing away the tread on the bottom of my sneakers. Leaves and acorns crunching, falling and rolling around my ankles and up my calves. Uphill, away. Downhill, home to you, the air.
Unseen, infinite, eternal.
Amanda Sierzega is a high school English teacher in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA. She graduated with a Bachelors Degree in English from Ursinus College in Collegeville, PA in 2016 and is currently pursuing her Masters of Arts in English at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. She was previously published in Ursinus College's literary magazine The Lantern, as well as Sigma Tau Delta's International English Honor Society's creative journal The Rectangle. She enjoys running, cooking, and spending time with her shih tzu, Josie when she is not teaching or writing.