Barroom Blues by Elizabeth Burk
To hell with deejays,
live bands, crowded
dance floors. On lonely nights,
bourbon in hand,
I still love to hunker,
over wide-bellied jukeboxes
tucked into dark corners
of back street bars,
their squat legs perched
on sawdust strewn floors,
their gap-toothed grin,
like a fat man waiting to be fed.
I flip through metal pages
in search of songs
from the past—downbeat
Doo-wop of the fifties,
Frankie Lyman wailing
on that ancient question
—why do fools fall in love--
the Platters, rumbling
with the rhythm of sex,
and Elvis, the king,
high gloss, down dirty, singing,
sobbing, turning us weak
with desire, we wanted
to be there, to live
in that mysterious hotel
to walk its bleak,
seedy corridors until
we learned it was not a place
to reside forever.
Elizabeth Burk is a semi-retired psychologist and a native New Yorker who divides her time between her family in New York and a home and husband in southwest Louisiana. She is the author of three collections: Learning to Love Louisiana, Louisiana Purchase, and Duet: Poet & Photographer, a collaboration with her photographer husband. Her poems, prose pieces, and reviews have been published in various journals and anthologies including Atlanta Review, Rattle, Southern Poetry Anthology, Louisiana Literature, Passager, Pithead Chapel, PANK, One Art, and elsewhere. Her first full-length manuscript will be published in September 2024, by Texas Review Press.
Drinking Alone by Darren Black
How calmly the cubes settle
in the tumbler where twilight ambers.
The antidote to memory
Lights the body's furnace,
Banishes the cold.
Once at a fetish street fair
a man-sized latex egg,
and in it, an alien.
The barrier of skin dissolving.
a wet hand digs through
a breech to signal safe.
I take that hand in mine.
I won't let go.
Darren Black resides on Massachusetts North Shore. He continues to hone his poetic skills in workshops and has studied in Vermont College's MFA program. His first publication appeared in the fall 2019 issue of the Muddy River Poetry Review. Recent poems explore disability and his own experiences living with blindness.
The men hold their sticks,
chalked at the tips, smashing
balls against one another, ordering
Mich Ultras & Budweisers
& my phone number, tipping
me when they remember as they tip
glass bottles to their chapped, thirsty
lips, puckered like the assholes they are
after the sixth beer settles in their guts.
Jessica Cory teaches at Western Carolina University and is a PhD candidate in English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She is the editor of Mountains Piled upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene (WVU Press, 2019) and the co-editor (with Laura Wright) of Appalachian Ecocriticism and the Paradox of Place (UGA Press, 2023). Her creative and scholarly writings have been published in the North Carolina Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Northern Appalachia Review, and other fine publications. Originally from southeastern Ohio, she currently lives in Sylva, North Carolina.
Rain and Whisky by Shane Huey
It is raining
and I am listening to Jazz Noir
The heavy rain comes down
the whisky spills into my glass
The sky is dark
the dram tints the crystal amber
Rain and whisky
soothe the dry places parched by drought
It is no longer raining
I am still listening to Jazz Noir and I feel it
The whisky pours into my glass
I drink it again and I feel it too
Shane Huey (editor) writes from his home in America's most ancient city. When he is not working, he can often be found on top of a mountain in Colorado or seated on his favorite barstool in Key West.
no periods exclamations or
let your life be a run
on sentence that never ends
maybe maybe allow
an ellipsis (if necessary)
Roy N. Mason has 41 years remaining until his death. Striving to make each day count, he documents his experiences. His observations and lessons-learned are documented in personal essays and poetry. A world-record holder at nothing, but a legendary Key Lime Pie cooker, he has the ability to remember mundane facts. He is an introspective storyteller touching on all the topics of the North American human experience.
I’ve walked them one...
I’ve walked them all.
I hate to see them go.
In these last few days,
I’ll walk them slow.
And finish up where I always do…
At the bar of Sloppy Joe.
Written from the bar at Sloppy Joe's, Key West, Florida. September 7, 2021.
Soon Abigail would be coming up the street with her Husky. She’d be coming from the coffee shop. Not so long ago, when Abigail went for a coffee, she would stop and knock. She’d say Hey, did Rhonda want anything. Often, they’d gone together. Abigail had liked to walk arm-in-arm and talk about how to understand this year they had given to the mountains. Rhonda had come in June, Abigail in May, so she knew the ropes. This town was mostly a summer outpost, but it could be seen as a shrewd base camp, as skiing wasn’t far, and the rents beat the resorts. Abigail would have a latte, Rhonda a tea with bergamot. Sherpley would sit on the tiles with his head nearly to the level of the table, watching their conversation. The Sibe had a blue eye and a green eye and the white of his fur seemed blue like powder at first light.
There was the question about the hike. They’d kicked it around the day before. Abigail had been ambivalent. She’d sounded put upon. She’d become critical of Rhonda’s moods. The problem with Rhonda, Abigail said, was that while she hailed from the suburbs of nowhere, she kept getting homesick.
Rhonda went out to sit on the porch swing. Lights were coming on in the canyon. After all that awful wind, it was snowing again. The air smelled like cold mountain stones and grilled meat.
In the fall, Rhonda painted the wooden slats of the swing red and yellow and orange because she’d been sad about her life here. Rhonda had intended to live an outrageously fun life before returning for a career. It’s not that it couldn’t be — hadn’t been — great. Abigail introduced her around and there’d been a backpacking trip early on with nearly a dozen others. But most everyone worked weird shifts. Coordinating a challenge. A lot of free days there was no one around. Sometimes it could be disheartening all alone on a trail out in the middle of nowhere.
Abigail didn’t have to work as much. She’d become a reliable partner. And Abigail had been fun. She could make fixing a flat at tree line a big laugh where Rhonda would’ve been a big pain.
But with fall came Donnie. He’d bought a place he’d gutted and hoped to renovate before things got busy with his work. He made good money, but the job required frequent trips out of state. Donnie was gentle and loving. He had sincere eyes. In those first days of Donnie, Rhonda imagined he would ask her about maybe a hike or ride. Then Abigail had looked after some task or other for him and suddenly they seemed on their way to becoming a thing.
Now it was winter, and the narrow streets nestled in by these sheer rock walls a mess of snow and ice. All night and most of the morning the winds stormed the canyon, snapping at the conifers. Rhonda hadn’t slept well. There had been Abigail’s ambivalence. There had been what she said about Rhonda getting homesick too often. The worst part of it was that what Abigail had said made Rhonda even more sick for home and the life she used to know. Rhonda felt bewildered that wind could rush and whorl and crash like that, like it meant to scour the town from the canyon floor.
Now the tiny crystals drifted down to settle gently as turning a page.
Up the street came Abigail and Sherpley.
Rhonda lived in a tiny unit on a short row of apartments built so close only the sidewalk separated the front steps from the berm of packed snow and ice left by the plows.
“Hul-lew!” Rhonda said, wishing in the instant she hadn’t said it that way. She should have remained neutral. Passive. Calculating.
Abigail looked surprised to see her. The Husky stared up at the snow falling.
“It’s snowing!” Abigail said.
“I know!” Rhonda said.
A crow called from a rooftop.
“I was just thinking about our hike tomorrow,” Rhonda said. “Should be epic now.”
“Yeah,” Abigail said. “Not working out at my end.”
Rhonda pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth.
Abigail shrugged. “I just found out,” she said. “Donnie’s back tomorrow.”
Everything now always about Donnie and how Abigail might stay on a while longer. About how Abigail might just stay.
Rhonda’s landlord had already asked whether she planned to renew. He’d be raising rents.
Something flared in Rhonda.
“What if I took Sherpley?” she said.
“Sherpley,” Abigail said.
Rhonda heard herself breathing.
“I mean, yes of course,” Abigail said. She bent down to the Husky to scratch his ears.
“You’re always welcome to give Sherpley a walk. Why, isn’t that right, Sherpley? Yes, he likes a good hike, don’t you, boy?”
“But I’m not sure about tomorrow,” Abigail said, standing.
“It’s just that, Donnie’s been away for days,” she said. She made a sad face. “We’ve been missing him.
“You know how it is when your man’s away,” Abigail said. “We’ve been climbing the walls, haven’t we, Sherpley?”
Rhonda stood. The swing lurched away to bounce against the backs of her legs.
“Maybe another time,” she said. “Maybe Donnie can walk Sherpley.”
Rhonda crossed her arms. She wished Abigail would go away.
Abigail sank down to her heels and pulled the dog in close and he licked her lips. “Oh, now!” she said, delighted.
Abigail stood. She smiled.
Abigail and Sherpley walked up the street to her place, the dog prancing along beside her. They went inside and it was quiet again but for a car coming down the canyon road and — closer — the scrapes of someone shoveling.
Rhonda sat on the hideously optimistic porch swing and wished she had never come here.
Chuck Plunkett is a Denver-based writer who directs a journalism capstone at the University of Colorado Boulder. He has previously published stories in Cimarron Review and The Texas Review. He has an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and is currently at work on a novel he likes to think of as a literary thriller. He's worked in several newsrooms, including The Denver Post, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
He’s having an Old Fashioned with rye,
One of his favorites,
Used to have a lot of them,
More recently he’s been going for other stuff,
Diving right in,
Not because a solid Rye Old Fashioned,
Tastes any less like heaven,
But because he’s been leaning,
On bottles and drinks,
That don’t remind him of her,
He’ll be moving to bourbon on the rocks,
Right after this drink.
Taylor Dibbert is a writer, journalist, and poet. He’s author of the Peace Corps memoir “Fiesta of Sunset,” and the forthcoming poetry collection “Home Again.”
The Last Taste of Whiskey by Shane Huey
Springfields still echoed somewhere off in the growing distance as night fell. He awoke, engulfed in dark and smoke. With great difficulty, he drew for breath and it pained him. He pulled himself up against a lone, tall pine at field’s edge and, back against the tree, put his fingers to the holes in his chest left there by the Minié balls. He coughed a choking cough. Bright, red blood streamed from the corners of his mouth and the holes in his old, grey coat leaked froth.
Surveying the aftermath of the battle, he could recognize nothing resembling human life remaining. Here he sat, by all appearances, the lone survivor. The blue coats must have mistaken him for dead, an honest mistake, else he would himself now be dead. No matter, death would come soon enough. There was no field surgeon now and nothing that a good doctor could do for such wounds save numb sensation of body and mind with what barely passed for whiskey and, if so inclined, as oft good souls were, provide some company until the end.
The soldier’s soul had been numbed long ago by pain of loss of country, his ancestral land, his family. Innumerable deaths were witnessed and replayed over and over in his mind. Once a devout man, he no longer feigned such, daring to declare that God himself had abandoned the South along with all the faithful therein.
Between fits of coughing and the adamantine pangs of death, he reached into a coat pocket fiddling for his flask. It was not to be found. After battles, mostly victories, those now fewer and farther between, General would ration out whiskey to the men and celebrate with them. Occasionally, the whiskey would be a balm for mourning after a defeat. There would be neither such this evening. All of the men, even the good general, lay before him carpeting the battlefield a dead grey.
What I would not give for one last taste of whiskey. It is funny what men think of generally but, perhaps, more so when upon death’s doorstep. And then his mind turned toward his wife, Sarah. This time of an evening, she would have finished up supper, said prayers with the children, and soon be tucking them into bed. He could not know that Sarah rarely slept these nights but, rather, spent them in a rocking chair in front of their bedroom window, curtains drawn, keeping watch over the path in the front yard for his return. Everyone knew that the war was drawing to a close and Sarah never lost faith that he would one day return to her.
From another pocket, he took hold of his journal. He took pen to hand and, within its pages, described this, his last battle, under the entry “The Battle of Sulphur Creek Trestle.” He described the events of the day, as best he could, how the valiant men all lay dead, how hope was now all but lost for his countrymen, and then his mind wandered back to his home and to Sarah and the children. He lay there dying, a mere seven-mile ride by horse from his home in Athens. If only he could make it home to say his final goodbye. He would have to write it and hope that the words found their way to Sarah.
Sarah awakened in the middle of the night. She had dreamt that her husband lay dying in a silent field, propped up against a long, tall pine, body riddled with bullets. He lacked all comfort save those to which he could recourse in his own mind. A man ought not die like that, especially a good man. How she longed to embrace and hold him, to comfort him in all the ways a woman can comfort a man. To wipe his face with a water-soaked rag…to put a swig of good whiskey to his lips. The dream was more vivid than the present dim and dull reality. She had seen him writing in his old, dirty, now heavily bloodstained leather journal and read every word until the end, feeling as having been there with him through it all and with him still at the very last. But she could not decipher that which he wrote finally—a single line of script. Try though as she may, she was wisped away from the dream to reality against her will, filled with the anxiety that only words unspoken, those impeded by the encroachment of death, can impart.
She sprang up, drenched in cold sweat, feet to the hardwood floor of the old, two-story antebellum which creaked as her weight displaced upon it. She made her way to the antique, oak armoire and retrieved a dusty, crystal decanter and poured herself a glass of whiskey. It was still stiff and hot. She poured another, drinking it swiftly, as medicine for nerves burned frazzled.
On edge, senses heightened from the dream, to which she was still trying to reenter, she heard a rustling noise outside. Someone was on the front porch and, at this hour, this could not bode well. From a drawer within the armoire, she carefully removed her husband’s Griswold & Gunnison .36 caliber six-shooter sliding it from its well-worn, leather holster. She crept down the stairs, walking to the edge to avoid alerting any intruder to her awareness of the situation. She was ready to kill a Yankee if she had to, or one of those bastards who refused to fight with the real men, and even boys, of the South.
She took her French chemise gown in left hand and pulled it up as she glided silently toward the front door, black powder firearm in the right. A lone candle on the mantle cast just enough light. Back to the wall, she could clearly discern the shuffling of feet and heard the wooden planks of the porch creak. It was almost as if something were being dragged across it. Sarah inhaled a silent, but deep breath, slowly turned the key in the cast iron passage lock praying for no “click” or “clank.” She swung the door open and pulled back on the hammer, cocking the pistol and found herself pointing it toward a specter of a figure standing shadowlike in the inky darkness of the night.
Sarah was terrified but she would not show it. “State your business stranger and make it quick! We are quick on the trigger in these parts!”
He stood there in the darkness, silent. Or at least she thought it to be silence but then, at once, she could discern that the stranger was, in fact, speaking, rather trying to speak but so softly as to barely be audible over the cool, southern wind rusting through the magnolias.
The man stumbled forward and it was enough that the candlelight illuminated his face. It was her husband. Before she could say his name, he fell toward her and as he fell, she quickly dropped the gun, catching him, falling to the floor alongside him. A hard breeze blew past them, the candle flickered, their eyes met glistening in the dim light accented by tears as precious as diamonds.
She held him. She said his name over and over. She cried. She placed her hands upon his now gaunt, ashy, and bloodstained cheeks, fixing her eyes upon his, then closing them, and pressed her lips gently against his, red and salty from the tint of blood. She tasted death. He tasted whiskey. And then he passed from this life to the next, steadfast in her arms.
The sun was soon up and shining morning’s first light in through the doorway. Sarah, lay there, still, having never let him go all the while weeping inconsolably through the final hours of night.
It was by light of dawn that Sarah noticed the tattered journal protruding from underneath the flap of a coat pocket. She took it carefully to hand and turned through the stained pages and read, best she could, through a veil of saline. Remembering her dream, she turned to the last entry and read of the efforts of the valiant men in the battle for the trestle, moreover their homeland, and the subsequent tragedy of their demise. She had, indeed, seen from within her dream, or so it seemed to her, her husband write these very words. She read further…fond recollections of herself and of their children. And then, finally, she came to that last line penned by her husband within his journal on that fateful night…those words that she had tried so very hard to read in the dream before she was so abruptly divorced from that place and returned to the cold reality of her present life. It read, “Sarah, wake up.”
Shane Huey, editor of The Whisky Blot, writes from his home in America's most ancient city. This story first appeared in The Chamber Magazine, July 30, 2021.
TIARE APETAHI by Liz Kornelsen
from deep sleep in roiling
black earth, patient longing
through damp dormant dreams
urgent pulsation of growth, persistent
pressing upward through layers of soil
lean into light
petal by petal
to full blossom
exquisite wild wonder.
Liz Kornelsen is a prairie poet from Winnipeg, Manitoba and the author of Arc of Light and Shadow: Poems with Art. Previous publications include Transition, Green Teacher, and The Whisky Blot. When not writing, she may be found skiing, dancing, or savoring the rich flavors of art galleries.
Art: "And the Loveliest Plant in the World" by Ewa Tarsia, an internationally acclaimed artist whose innovative, versatile and prolific work demonstrates a unique sense of texture, design and expansive imagination. Follow on Instagram @ewatarsia.
Tasting Time by Stephen Kingsnorth
Great grandma’s clock has ceased to tock,
that mantel piece of crude cut wood,
a case too large for inner works
where even dust just lost its way.
That alloy block on ramrod stick
founds its weight too much to sway.
Great grandad sat there by the peat,
sipped Bushmills from up the way,
admired his cutting from the moss.
She would have him up the stairs
but once the whisky had its way,
along with glowing from the grate
he was balanced on his seat,
content, the ticking of her talk
wafting, smoky, up the stack;
no matter words, straitjacket, Mum,
admonition of her tongue.
He piled bog slack from crumpled pail,
settled back, ignored the pain,
tasting time, port barrel stock.
Stephen Kingsnorth, retired to Wales, UK, from ministry in the Methodist Church due to Parkinson’s Disease, has had pieces published by on-line poetry sites, printed journals and anthologies, including The Whisky Blot.
Simple Things by Donna Meares
The simple things of life bring me smiles,
like the bird house made of wood from an old red barn.
It sits atop a garden post
holding safe its second hatch—bluebird family--
flashes of sapphire,
zipping in and out, feeding their young.
The fledglings will soon find their own way into the big sky.
As did our daughters.
In spring, I sometimes walk the meadow,
see sunshine in daisy faces--
their centers innocent, happy,
their white petals holding the secret
that pre-teen girls
pursue by that fanciful plucking--
“He loves me,
he loves me not.”
I need no daisy petals to tell me what love is.
We know each other long and well--
know the simple things that make each other happy.
He builds me bird houses,
hands me daisies from the meadow.
I, too, know what warms his heart,
brings us near--
a plate of barbeque,
a frosty mug of beer.
on a pillow
the Sutra on
on my cushion
hiding from fears
to my old mantra:
full of grace...
Mark J. Mitchell has worked in hospital kitchens, fast food, retail wine and spirits, conventions, tourism, and warehouses.
He has also been a working poet for almost 50 years. An award-winning poet, he is the author of five full-length poetry collections, and six chapbooks. His latest collection is Something To Be from Pski’s Porch Publishing. He is very fond of baseball, Louis Aragon, Miles Davis, Kafka, Dante, and his wife, activist and documentarian Joan Juster. He lives in San Francisco, where he once made his marginal living pointing out pretty things. Now, he is seeking work once again.
he can be found reading his poetry here: https://firstname.lastname@example.org.
A meager online presence can be found at https://www.facebook.com/MarkJMitchellwriter/.
A primitive web site now exists: https://www.mark-j-mitchell.square.site/.
He sometimes tweets @Mark J Mitchell_Writer.
Moonshot by Lynn White
We were timeless
timeless as the moon.
of our opportunities
like polished silver
in the dark.
We forgot about the tides
the ebb and flow.
we would be worn away
to a crescent.
We only remembered
to do it all again.
Lynn White lives in north Wales. Her work is influenced by issues of social justice and events, places and people she has known or imagined. She is especially interested in exploring the boundaries of dream, fantasy and reality. She was shortlisted in the Theatre Cloud 'War Poetry for Today' competition and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net and a Rhysling Award. Find Lynn at: https://lynnwhitepoetry.blogspot.com and https://www.facebook.com/Lynn-White-Poetry-1603675983213077/.
i was drinking tea with Dali
in an underworld cafe,
arguing down his table
on General Franco's hand-
when The Persistence Of Memory
that melts my pocket watch
made time less rigid-
so i fell with names and numbers
into old obsidian dreams-
where your long legs pointed
from six to twelve,
then nine to three
when you bent them-
for me to play and pleasure
each exotic segment
of your velvet tangerine.
Dali left the table
to meet Picasso in Paris,
while my benzedrine mind replaced-
the soft and spent infinity of your face.
Strider Marcus Jones – is a poet, law graduate and former civil servant from Salford, England with proud Celtic roots in Ireland and Wales. He is the editor and publisher of Lothlorien Poetry Journal https://lothlorienpoetryjournal.blogspot.com/. A member of The Poetry Society, his five published books of poetry https://stridermarcusjonespoetry.wordpress.com/ reveal a maverick, moving between cities, playing his saxophone in smoky rooms.
His poetry has been published in numerous publications including: The Huffington Post USA; The Stray Branch Literary Magazine; Crack The Spine Literary Magazine; and Dissident Voice.
“On Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway”
June day in London,
Death beckons at a party--
Will she choose to live?
“On Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan”
Seeing stars from the gutter--
Who is “bad” or “good”?
“On Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House”
A toy no longer,
Nor a wife or a mother--
She slams the door shut.
Margaret D. Stetz is the Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Delaware, as well as being a poet whose work has appeared recently in a variety of journals, including Dark Matter, Review Americana, Kerning, Mono, West Trestle Review, A Plate of Pandemic, Azure, Existere, and the Journal of Women, Gender, and Families of Color.
While you’re driving cattle north
to the railhead at Kansas City,
I’m manning a barricade
in Paris during the Franco-
Prussian War. With mutual sighs
we lower our books and assume
the grim expression of incumbents.
Easier to read about the past
(with its shovel-shaped beards and crisp
fabrics stretched over hoop skirts,
battles and deposed emperors,
beheadings, coronations, hangings,
shuffling of national boundaries)
than to confess the cruel and petty
moments we live as if swimming
through a sea of spilled molasses.
In the age of Rimbaud the streets
bristled with rifles and pikes.
Slogans wrinkled daily discourse
while Rimbaud sampled women
as only a selfish boy could.
In your book, the muddy crossing
of the Red River marks a moment
of laughter and pride. In mine,
the commune poses a threat
crushed with thousands of futile deaths.
We should break for lunch and face,
if not the onrush of history,
our rapid aging, our crumpled hides
almost dry enough to nail
to the side of our neighbor’s barn.
We’re twice as old as Rimbaud
dying of gangrene. Instead
of trading in coffee and weapons,
he should have been a cowpoke
sporting the dust of the old West,
adorning the pages of your book.
Then he could have died a man’s death
brawling in a ten-cent saloon,
his poems blowing down the street,
defiantly scrawled in blood.
William Doreski lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire. He has taught at several colleges and universities. His most recent book of poetry is Dogs Don’t Care (2022). His essays, poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared in various journals.
My Streets by John Drudge
By a narrow
On the cobbled stones
With an airy desperation
Firm in my pocket
Worth hiding from
Below the waterline
Along the swift
With the dark currents
Of old torments
And the windswept spaces
Pulling me helplessly
Into the sinewed arms
Of my Paris
As the copper sun
John is a social worker working in the field of disability management and holds degrees in social work, rehabilitation services, and psychology. He is the author of four books of poetry: “March” (2019), “The Seasons of Us” (2019), New Days (2020), and Fragments (2021). His work has appeared widely in numerous literary journals, magazines, and anthologies internationally. John is also a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee and lives in Caledon Ontario, Canada with his wife and two children.
Apple Whisky by Liz Kornelsen
juiced straight from Eden
clink of glasses
sips of crunchy red skin
how could she predict
the fleeting satiation
the insatiable desire
that she would bear the brunt
follow the serpentine path of exile
Liz Kornelsen is a prairie poet from Winnipeg, Manitoba and the author of Arc of Light and Shadow: Poems with Art. To dance lightly on the earth in solitude, with other humans, or with other forms of nature, is one of her greatest joys.
Catscratch Island by Evan Helmlinger
As soon as I saw her car outside our family’s cabin, I knew this time my cousin Margo had gone through with it.
She must’ve seen me coming up the driveway; Margo came out onto the porch and waved until my car settled into the space beside hers. I got out, and she smiled and hopped down the steps to give me a hug.
“Patrick.” She wrapped her big arms around me. “I’m so glad you came.”
My cousin was bright, bubbly. She was a new woman.
Inside, she breezed through the kitchen, pointing out what she had just bought for the place: new utensils, a dish rack, a whole set of dish rags—all of it mixed in with what others had brought over the years. In the sunroom, her arm swept over the watercolor paintings she had hung on the wood-panel walls. “All local artists," she grinned.
She led me to the bedrooms upstairs where I’d be staying. “Take your pick.”
I pointed at the second room down the hall.
She snickered and slapped my elbow. “I should’ve known. You used to hide everyone’s toys there. You had all your little stash spots, remember?”
“Sure.” I went in and slid my duffel bag beneath one of the two dusty cots.
“It’s weird,” she said. “It’s a different place without everyone else, without all the kids.”
She was right. I was used to seeing the rich green of summer out the window and hearing the clamor of young cousins running around. That’s what the cabin was: a place where each branch of the family could come together and be together. Instead, encircled by the golden bloom of autumn, the cabin felt hollow.
“Get settled,” she said. “I’ll be downstairs in the kitchen. I hope you didn’t eat yet.” She went to leave but stopped herself and touched my shoulder. “I was afraid you weren’t going to come.”
“I could say the same thing to you,” I said.
I had been planning to stay for the weekend and only packed a few things. Actually seeing Margo at the cabin though, I wondered if I should’ve packed even less.
I came downstairs to two fingers of butterscotch schnapps. Margo handed me the glass and tilted hers forward. “Just like grandma used to drink.” We each took down the liqueur in a single gulp, the syrupy sweetness coating my throat with burnt caramel flavor. I hated it when I was younger and hated it especially now that I was old enough to drink something else.
Margo’s face contorted as she sucked the remnants off her teeth. “That never gets better. I had to keep with tradition, of course.”
She put our glasses in the sink, then spun around and clapped her hands. “For dinner,” she began, a playful grin creeping onto her face. “We have beef tenderloin in the oven. Potatoes and asparagus. A nice red. White, too, if you prefer. If you’d like something stronger before, during, or after we eat, there’s bourbon right behind you. I’ve already dipped into that.” She picked up and wiggled another glass filled nearly to the brim with iceless whisky. “It gets my culinary juices flowing.”
“Wine is fine for now.” I poured myself a glass and sat down at the table. Margo donned one of the aprons our Aunt Susan used to make each summer. One made of a rich blue cotton had come from a dress our cousin Bethany refused to take back after one of the children tossed it into the lake. Another used to be my old dog Maddy’s blanket, from the summer he ran away. The one Margo chose for tonight had bright orange polka dots, repurposed from a hideous blanket someone had left at the cabin hoping it would disappear.
As she cooked, we talked. She asked about my work at the clinic, and I asked about hers at the restaurant. I asked if she had seen our cousin Michael’s newborn; she hadn’t but couldn’t wait. We made vague plans. Only when we exhausted chit-chat did she talk about why she was there.
“How’d he take it?” I asked.
Margo leaned back against the kitchen counter and smiled. “He knew it was over. I made it clear that it was over.”
“What do you think he’ll do now?”
She took a sip of her bourbon and threw her hand up. “Who cares. I doubt another idiot will fall for him, not now.”
“You’re not an idiot.”
She laughed. “I sure am. Staying with that abusive son of a bitch for that long… Jesus. I gave him my best years.”
I let it be. When Margo had called the other week and told me what she was going to do, that she would finally leave her husband of twenty-eight years, well, it wasn’t the first time I had received that call. I didn’t really expect her to be at the cabin until I pulled up.
We ate in silence. Margo had always been an outstanding cook. “A bad meal,” she had once said, “can ruin a friendship or even a marriage.” She meant it as a joke but cooked as if it wasn’t.
After dinner, I cleaned up while Margo put on a record and shimmied around the kitchen, a fresh whisky in her hand. “I love Laura Nyro,” she remarked as she swayed back and forth with each twinkling riff.
“Nightcap?” she asked once the dishes were done.
“Suit yourself,” she said and topped off her glass. “I love it here at night. It’s peaceful in a way you can’t get anywhere else. Like you’re cut off, in some other place where all the BS can’t get at you.”
I went upstairs and closed the door to my bedroom. The music still leaked in from below, and I could hear Margo da-da-da-ing to the song. I pulled my duffel out from beneath the cot and opened it up on the floor. Clothes, a toothbrush, a razor, a screwdriver.
With the screwdriver, I crawled over to the air vent between the cots. The vent cover was ancient, with layers of paint flaking off, but it slid off the wall easily once the screws were out.
I reached back into my duffel bag and pulled out a thin, nickel-plated cigarette case. I gave it a bounce on my palm and felt the weight of its contents shift, then I opened it just to make sure what should be there was there.
There were no cigarettes in that case. That’s what Donny at work had discovered when he went looking for one. I had told him to keep what he found there to himself, but after that, I couldn’t have it near me any longer. When Margo called, I saw the chance to get away, to hide the case, to conceal my obsession.
I pushed the case into the duct and around a bend then reattached the cover. Lying in bed later, I could breathe easily for the first time in a long time.
The next morning, I awoke to the smell of bacon and pancakes. “I want to take the boat out to Catscratch Island,” Margo said while we ate.
“I don’t know, Margo. I was actually thinking of heading out early, maybe try to get up to Eastport before the afternoon.” There was nothing in Eastport, just an excuse. With the cigarette case out of my hands, I wanted to get away from it as quickly as I could.
“Don’t give me that. No, no, we will not have Pussyfoot Patrick make an appearance. I like to think you’d’ve grown some balls by now. If you haven’t, lucky for you, the remedy is a dinghy ride over to the island.”
Inside, I bristled at my old nickname. Margo stared at me until I sighed, resigned to the plan. “Does it still float?”
“Sure does. Jenny and Darren used it last summer. We’ll have to deal with a few spiders but that’s it.”
After breakfast, Margo packed a grocery sack with sandwiches and the bottle of bourbon. We walked to the shore. The boat was in a shed beside the lake’s edge, and I dragged it along a splintered wooden track until it tipped and slid the rest of the way onto the water. Margo stepped in and steadied herself. “See,” she said, giving the boat a wobble. “Seaworthy as ever.”
I hopped in and took up the oars. The lake’s surface was a mirror, and the tiny craft skated along toward the overgrown acre of land we called Catscratch Island.
“Do you remember why we called it Catscratch Island?” Margo asked as I rowed.
“Something to do with Aunt Ronnie, right?”
“No, Aunt Bonnie. One night I swear she downed a bottle of gin to herself and put on Ted Nugent as loud as it would go so she could hear it by the water. She started pointing to places around the lake and naming them. Said she was going to have all the atlases updated accordingly. The island became Catscratch Island, and over there...” Margo pointed to a rocky peninsula on the far side of the lake. “That became Wang Dang Point.”
“She was so embarrassed every time the kids would bring it up. I don’t think she ever drank again except at my wedding. Looking back, I don’t blame her.”
The bow of the boat scraped along the sandy shore of Catscratch Island, and we stepped out. Margo lifted the bourbon out of the sack and offered it. I had a swig; she had two. Then we hauled the dinghy out of the water and let it rest at an angle on the rocky sand.
“Look at it,” she said, admiring the tangle of vines and woody bushes that filled the core of the island. “Same as ever.”
We walked the perimeter, passing the bottle.
“Can I ask you something?” Margo said as we finished our first lap.
“Do you regret your divorce?”
I drank and studied the scene across the lake from us. It was midday, and the sun beamed on the orange-blasted trees ringing the lake. The sky just above the leaves was the same rich, clear blue as Bethany’s dress-turned-apron, and in the distance, on the closest section of shoreline, was our family’s cabin. Built, expanded, redesigned, and redecorated, it had never lost its bones.
“I don’t,” I said and had another swig. “There were doubts at first, sure, but now I don’t really feel much of anything about it. If we had had kids, maybe it’d be different.” I gave the bottle back.
“Do you hate her?”
“No. Not anymore.”
“Must be nice.”
“We had different challenges,” I said.
Margo was silent for a moment then stopped walking. “I want to show you something.”
I looked at the wet slurry of sand and gravel at our feet.
“Not right here. Up there.” She nodded toward the island interior.
I scanned the brush and grass that filled the area. “It’s a mess in there.”
“It’s not bad. There’s a trail. See.” She marched up toward a bush and bent her frame around it, disappearing behind spindly branches. “C’mon!”
I followed her, and there it was: behind the bush, a thin trail wound inward.
“What’s back here?” The island was small, two acres at most, and I felt like with any step, we’d emerge onto the opposite shore.
“You’ll see. Here.” She passed the bottle back over her shoulder. I drank.
Margo pushed aside a branch to reveal a tiny clearing. Really, it was just a tamped-down patch of dirt encased in shrubs. At one end was a stone, maybe a foot high, but taller than it was wide.
Margo stopped and took the bottle back. “Here.”
“Here? What’s here? Other than a bunch of ticks.”
She drank and then pointed at the stone with the bottle. “This is where we buried him. Where we buried Maddy.”
“Maddy ran away.”
“No, he didn’t. Michael hit him with his truck when we were coming down the driveway. It was an accident, but we brought him out here to give him a proper burial.”
“Is this a joke?”
“What the fuck, Margo? What was I doing?"
“I don’t know, but this was during your Pussyfoot phase, so we—you know—had to walk on eggshells.”
I stared at the stone.
“I know,” Margo said. “I’m sorry.”
“I loved that dog.”
We stood there watching the stone for another minute, then returned to the shore.
Margo and I made two more loops around the rocky edge of the island. Occasionally, a stiff breeze would tear past us and break the glass surface of the lake, churning the water into a choppy froth.
I wanted to be pissed, though whatever happened then didn’t mean much now. That was the thing about the cabin, all the good or bad that occurred there, it was just another layer.
Still, I had loved that dog.
On the last loop, we worked our way across a stretch where rough stones tumbled down from the embankment above us into the water. We paused and sat, polishing off the bourbon until the sun dipped below the trees behind us.
We got into the boat and Margo rowed back. Sitting in the stern, I watched the cabin grow larger. The boat smacked the shore opposite just as twilight bled into dusk. “We never ate our sandwiches,” I said as Margo tied the boat off to a post in the water.
She laughed. “That’s alright. Throw them in the fridge.”
Heading back toward the cabin, we meandered across the lawn, giving each other teasing pushes and laughing like kids. When we arrived at the front porch, I settled into one of the rockers.
“I need to rest a moment.”
Margo sat down in the chair beside mine.
“Why did you wait to show me that? Why now?” I asked.
Margo sighed. “I don’t know. I just didn’t want you to not know. Not anymore.”
I watched the daylight fade like a flame out of air. For whatever reason, that answer felt right.
I woke up in the dark and found Margo in the kitchen reorganizing the cabinets above the sink.
“Look who’s up,” she said when she saw me.
“I don’t usually take naps.”
“Rest when you need to rest. You’ll be happy to know I’m making my world-famous mac and cheese tonight. I have just about everything, but we need some milk and another bottle of wine. Do you mind running to town?” Margo didn’t mention me going to Eastport.
“Not at all.”
“Great, the corner store on Route 1 should have everything.” She put down a fresh drink and came closer. “I can’t tell you how much it means that you came,” she said. “You were always my favorite cousin.”
I grabbed my keys. The bourbon had left me groggy, but after two wrong turns I found the store. Little had changed since when we were young: the same signs advertising cigarettes and lotto tickets at the state minimum still plastered the windows, and behind the counter a Bush ’92 campaign sticker hung above the clock next to the TV.
It was as I was checking out that I really looked at the TV. The news was on, and a reporter was speaking live from outside Margo’s house in Portland. I could recognize it right away even though police cars lined the curb and an ambulance occupied the driveway.
The sound was off, but I read the banner beneath the reporter: Portland Man’s Death Ruled Homicide.
I blinked, hoping I could shake off some hallucinogenic side effect of bourbon on an empty stomach, but when I looked back up and saw my cousin’s face on the screen, I knew there was no confusion, no mistake. The picture police chose to air—yellowed even through the TV screen—was taken at the cabin. Margo was standing next to a man cropped out, his arm over her shoulder. She’s smiling.
“You alright?” The pimple-faced young woman at the counter raised an eyebrow. My stomach had fallen into my feet, and an intense nausea began to creep up my throat. I paid and left.
As I pulled up the driveway, the cabin was dark. Margo’s car was still out front, but by now everything was cloaked in moonless darkness.
I turned on the kitchen lights and discovered everything in the cabinets poured out onto the floor in heaps of pots and pans and plates. The new utensils that my cousin had brought were scattered on the floor, too. “Margo?” I whispered. On the kitchen table, a bottle of bourbon was more empty than not. “Margo?”
Moving into the sunroom, I saw the paintings stacked on one of the recliners; on the other, a shape.
And on a table was my cigarette case and the polaroids that had been inside it.
The shape squirmed and from under a blanket, my cousin poked her head up. “You’re sick. You know that.”
I sat beside her on a stool.
“Who are they?” she groaned and eyed the photos.
“Why are they like that?”
“They’re fine. They’re just sleeping. You shouldn’t have gone into my stuff. Why were you in the vent?”
She rubbed her eyes with the blanket and let out a whimper, then tossed something at my feet. “You always had the best hiding spaces.”
I picked it up and examined it: a Swiss Army knife, blood dried along the hinge, Hank inscribed on its side.
She nodded toward the pictures. “Is that why you came here, why you really came here? To stash those?”
I put the knife in my pocket. “It is.”
“This weekend, this cabin, this was my last good thing. You know that?”
“You’re sick,” she said again.
“We’re all sick, Margo.”
My cousin pushed her face into the blanket and shook her head again. She was still for a while. When I went to stand, she grabbed my arm.
“Be with me. Just be with me. Please.”
I sat back down and wrapped my hands around hers. We sat in the quiet peace of the cabin, surrounded by artifacts of a treasured past, until the red and blue lights flashed in the distance around Wang Dang Point.
Evan Helmlinger is a writer and editor living in Connecticut with his amazing wife, curious son, and lazy cat. He holds a BA in English and History from Syracuse University and has spent nearly a decade crafting, editing, and publishing work that sticks in the mind. Fascinated by the secrets we all keep just beneath the surface, Evan crafts his ideas while folding laundry or working in the yard, later putting them to paper. His work has appeared in Mental Floss, The Humor Times, and elsewhere.
Four Years in the Desert by Chris Parent
My father drank temperately, but occasionally to excess. It made him overtly somber, caustic or sentimental depending on the elixir of choice. He often drank as a means to escape something: the stress of his Wall Street job, Vietnam flashbacks, or my mother’s attempts at cooking a Jacques Peppin recipe.
I was not so horrified by my father’s drinking that I was dissuaded to partake in the activity. Scars, to the extent there were any, were hardly noticeable. There would never come a time when I would saunter over to a bar and proudly order a Ginger Ale or Club Soda.
Whereas my drinking now involves European lagers and gins filled with botanicals picked by the petite hands of Slovenian children, I was focused on volume in my twenties. I drink in moderation now. I abhor hangovers and dehydration. After graduating from college and moving to Washington, DC, though, I embarked on a period in my life when I was a searching for direction.
For the first nine months, I lived with a college classmate named Dave in a high-rise in Crystal City, Virginia, that resembled the set of a Star Trek episode, only filled with bureaucrats and a Korean donut shop on the ground floor. We soon realized we were living above our means, so we moved to more humble one-bedroom quarters in the River Place housing complex, situated in the concrete community of Rosslyn, Virginia just over Georgetown’s Francis Scott Key Bridge. The plan looked good on paper but exposed its flaws when I brought a young Peruvian woman back to the apartment one evening. We were greeted by Dave eating a bowl of cereal in his boxer shorts. My guest thought she had mistranslated a joke when I told her that, at 23 years-old, I was still sharing a bedroom with another man.
“Do you guys have bunk beds?” she asked.
“Of course not,” I replied. “Our beds are side-by-side.”
After some banter with Dave, I brought her back to our room to show her that I was indeed weird and immature but not a liar. It was dark and we mistakenly wound up sitting on Dave’s bed. Dave soon entered the pitch black abyss and hovered inches from the girl’s nose and asked what we were doing.
“You smelled like Frosted Flakes,” I begrudgingly told Dave after my friend left never to be heard from again.
“She smelled like sin,” he replied. “And you can do better.”
After a year, Dave decided to move to North Carolina to pursue a Master’s Degree. It was a bittersweet departure. Dave was more mature than me, or anybody I knew for that matter, including my own parents. He interceded after I nearly threw a haymaker at a Johnny Rockets waiter who had attempted to put a soda jerk hat on me during the staff’s rendition of a Frank Sinatra song. Dave also escorted me once to George Washington University Hospital after I contracted what was diagnosed as a gastrointestinal infection, more commonly known as “food poisoning.” I told the kind nurses at GW that my menu the day before was rather simple: an entire large Dominos pepperoni pizza and give or take 10 cans of beer. I awoke the next morning and had grown rather ill.
“I knew it was bad news when I woke up and saw that pitchfork in the corner of the apartment,” Dave said referring to the weapon I had stolen from an unsuspecting woman I had met at a Halloween party the night before.
Dave was a bridge between college and the adult world. I missed him but we both knew it was time to move on. I opted to get my own apartment in the same River Place complex. They marketed it as a “hybrid studio.” Depending on one’s view, it was either a 600-squre foot apartment with a bedroom the size of a large closet, or a studio with a closet the size of a very small bedroom. I went with the former concept and used a large United Nations flag that I picked up as compensation from a past unpaid internship as the door. Guests would start squirming after entering my apartment convinced that in 20 years I would be the subject of a moderately-rated Netflix docuseries.
I found myself completely alone for the first time in my life. The guardrails were down. And while the independence was liberating at first, I was soon reminded of how much I feared solitude. Freedom was marked by intense stress as I was bound by the chains of self-doubt. I had just landed a job as a writer for a Defense Department journal. In the ‘90s world of apathetic slackers, I was motivated and impatient but had no idea what I was looking for or how to get there. I’d write my stories but they seemed to have little impact on the world around me.
My restiveness would hit its peak every Thursday night. Like an old married couple who kept battered copies of the TV Guide in the side of their favorite Lazy Boy, Dave and I were dedicated to our programs when we lived together, namely the famous Thursday night lineup of Seinfeld and Friends. When Dave was gone and I was sitting alone on the same chair Dave had passed onto me as a parting gift, the Friends theme song hit home with a more powerful and disturbing force:
So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job's a joke, you're broke
Your love life's DOA
It's like you're always stuck in second gear
When it hasn't been your day, your week, your month
Or even your year …..
In retrospect, my life wasn’t all that bad even though at the time it seemed unfulfilling as I wandered aimlessly and chased unrealistic self-expectations. My job was good but didn’t support my lifestyle, which led to a steady buildup of debt. My love life hovered between disastrous and sporadic but this was more by choice than compulsion. I was attracted to ambitious women but then turned off when their ambitions exposed the reality of my lost soul, a young man who couldn’t define happiness or satisfaction were he asked point blank to do so.
Just like the show, I relied on my friends to survive this dark patch, even if they dragged me deeper into the abyss only so that I could find a way out. I’m usually attracted to people who are suffering from the same ills as I am. On weekends I found solace in my college friend Matt and another I had met in DC named James. All three of us were going through the same disquieting experience of being in his twenties. For Mole, the time was a stressful one. James was more relaxed. He was confident we had more time and things would work themselves out, a disposition wrought from being raised an only child. On weekends we drank to make us feel better, in New York, DC or Baltimore, and each excursion offered a window into the quirks of humankind.
I was with James one winter night in the Adams Morgan section of DC when I decided that it was time to leave yet didn’t tell anyone. Despite abiding by the mantra of leaving no person behind, I’ve always been a runner when drinking to excess. I would hit a certain threshold of alcohol and I would vanish. I stumbled outside and got into the backseat of the first car I saw.
“River Place,” I mumbled as the car sped off.
We were driving for about ten minutes when I realized we were heading in an unfamiliar direction and the large cab driver had an even larger friend with him perched in the passenger seat.
The car was beat up and had comically false forms of identification hanging from the passenger side sun visor. “Washington Cab Company,” it said in black magic marker. I started to sober up as it was obvious that we were not heading to Virginia and I was in a gypsy cab, an illegal form of livery that would take unsuspecting passengers to a remote location and rob them. It was Uber’s unfinished 1.0 predecessor and one of the frightening hallmarks of living in DC in the nineties.
“Oh crap!” I said. “You need to pull over.”
“No” the passenger said irritatingly.
“I’m going to be sick.”
“Bullshit!” he and the driver said. “Bullshit.”
“Pull over and let me throw up,” I said while scrambling and frantically feigning terror that I was about to soil the vehicle, which they didn’t realize I could do on a moment’s notice. Everybody has a superpower.
They pulled over and I flung open the door and ran, sobering up each and every foot. When I thought I was far enough away I tried to determine where I was, a difficult task in my inebriated state. With no phone to guide me I just picked a direction and started walking. I was desperately looking for a sign when I found myself at the corner of Florida and U, a crime-ridden section of DC at the time. I started to panic and encountered two young men and asked for directions. They too were inebriated but not enough to sense my panic. I explained that a gypsy cab had just dropped me off and I was lost.
They offered to help me get me a cab but suggested we get one near the safer confines of Howard University, which was about a 10-minute walk away and where they were students. They were enjoying my description of my close encounter and after we had grown confident that nether party was going to murder the other, they invited me in for a beer. We drank and talked for a few more hours. I’m not sure about the specifics of the conversation, other than that politics and race came up. I remember telling them about the time I lived in Atlanta and went to a classmate’s party. She was black and lived in a bad neighborhood. My mother made me go because she knew none of the white kids were going. My father was skeptical too but ended up hanging out in the driveway talking to neighbors and the classmate’s family, who appreciated that a few of her school friends showed up as most had declined the invitation as my mother had predicted.
I had never told that story until then. Alcohol had opened up otherwise forbidden filters. And it was the first time I saw someone moved by my words. I still remembered the details of the event, and told them it had a profound effect on my life, that you can look at the world as cruel and bad or one with hope and promise. If we just kept talking and viewed others with the goodness they offered, the world would be in better shape.
And then I pushed too far and my judgment-impaired brain arrived at a conclusion that was unforeseen until that moment.
“You know,” I said, “What I think it really means is that black people love me.”
The statement did not receive the reaction I had hoped for – laughter mainly. I had not intended to be funny. I tried to pull myself out of the nosedive but only kept descending further.
“No,” I said. “Hear me out. When Racquel’s grandmother hugged me she passed something to me.”
They howled at my drunken ignorance. The only gift that had been passed onto me before was fear, they observed. They were wrong though. In my twenties, I had no fear. And that was my greatest asset and also my greatest liability.
They forgave me for my faux pas, and by the time we finished drinking, it was early morning. I slept on my new friends’ couch. I woke up a couple of hours later and left. It was daylight and my sense of direction was returned in more ways than one.
I told the story to Thomas Duffy, an older editor at the journal I worked at. He was framed out of central casting of a 1950s newsroom. He was curmudgeonly and direct but he was a good man and a solid listener who would impart words of wisdom that one would glomb onto.
While many young writers were scared of Duffy, my misapprehension of social boundaries prompted me to share my weekend antics with him. He would laugh under his breath while trying not to succumb too much to his childish impulses, which I took as a sign that he should join us. He always declined my invitations, indicating he had given up drinking years ago. “And,” he said, “I’m not going to be your fucking prop when you go out.”
He once drove me home after we had covered an event at the Pentagon. As he turned the corner into the River Place complex, I told him that living in such a dismal place was depressing. The job didn’t pay well and every relationship I had was brief and unstimulating. I was unintentionally summarizing the Friends’ theme song. When I opened the door to thank him for the lift, he looked at me and said, “Someday you’ll look back at these days as the happiest in your life. You’ve got time.”
My exit from the post-college funk, like the oft-quoted line from The Sun Also Rises, happened “gradually, then suddenly.” It was prompted by a number of factors and events, the most profound of which was when I sat next to the pastor of Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Church, Lawrence Madden, while taking an Amtrak train from DC to New York to attend a party at the New York Athletic Club. Fr. Madden struck up a conversation while he grabbed drinks from the bar car. The priest was gregarious and possessed an inviting aura. He drank and talked with ease and abundance. We spent the entire duration of the train ride doing both. The alcohol lifted the filters and I tackled topics that had bothered me about the church for years, namely the lack of female priests and the Church’s disdain of homosexuality and divorce. As we drank more, I suggested that they serve alternatives to Communion hosts, which were dry and unappealing.
“Something, you know, like ravioli or Belgian chocolate,” I said.
I also confessed that I was a germophobe and never took the wine because of how many people drank from the same cup.
“Why not just have a tray with little servings of wine in cups?” I asked Fr. Madden.
I had only found my way to Mass occasionally during my years in DC, mainly when I was living with Dave, a staunch Catholic who guilted me into going. As the train rolled into Penn Station, and we disposed of the impressive collection of bottles that we had gathered during the 4-hour train ride, Fr. Madden implored me to go to Mass the following week. He promised me that his homilies were good because he was a Jesuit, and he specialized in making homilies relatable.
Even now, if I like someone, I easily succumb to peer pressure and guilt, especially if the peer was a 63-year old Jesuit. The next week I awoke on Sunday and walked across the Key Bridge and through the doors of Holy Trinity Church. Fr. Madden was right. His was a master liturgist and his homilies were inspiring. During my first visit there, he mentioned me in his homily. Not by name. He just talked about our conversation. He said that he spent four hours on a train ride defending the Church and answering questions from a young man who got bolder (drunker) as the conversation progressed. In reflecting on our conversation, he realized that his answers were imperfect but that he was a better person for being challenged. He had been exposed and that vulnerability had made him stronger.
I started attending Holy Trinity more frequently. The summer of 1997 was my last before heading off to law school. I decided that I needed a change of scenery. I had grown to love DC but it’s a transient town catering to the young and the successful. And I was neither at the time. Many of my friends had left to return home to smaller towns or bigger scenes like those in New York and Los Angeles.
During one of the last Masses I attended, Fr. Madden talked about one of his favorite New Testament passages. He liked it because it didn’t resonate with just Catholicism, but all religions. It also offered lessons on how to live a life that one day people will remember as fulfilling: Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:36-40)
So many stories of alcohol are acts of contrition. For me, it is not. For four years in DC, I acted foolish but I was not a fool. I was a bit lost. Mostly though, I was vulnerable. And while drinking may have been the cause or effect of it, it made me willing to expose my unfiltered self. And it was then, when I was most vulnerable, that I witnessed graciousness. People who welcomed me into their homes, who comforted me when I was sick, who drank and ate with me, and who picked me up when I was down.
Before I left DC, I took Communion from Fr. Madden. And then, instead of skipping the offering of the wine, I stopped, took the chalice and drank from it. And I was not sorry.
Chris Parent is a writer and intellectual property attorney from Zurich, Switzerland originally from the U.S. His writing has appeared in publications ranging from law reviews to humor sites like Points in Case. His passion is creative nonfiction and he has published essays in Across the Margin, Kairos Literary Magazine, The Good Men Project, Memoir Magazine, and Ginosko Literary Journal. He won the Fall 2020 Memoirist Prize for a story about his early introduction to racial inequality. He is an active member in the Geneva Writers Group and the San Diego Memoir Writers’ Association. Links to a selection of his works and background can be found on www.chrisparent.net.
Once, I heard someone say, “You only take your date out to dinner
“if you can’t come up with anything more exciting.”
Yet, here we sit, in this restaurant, as if we had met only yesterday,
but some one hundred years ago,
and the place looks exactly like that:
modeled after a Philip Marlowe novel.
Cherry-oak tables, a bar made from what might be mahogany,
thick cushions. Expensive stuff. Even the light,
raining from the chandeliers in tiny crystals, seems special.
A guy with a fedora sips whisky at the bar, from behind which
an audience cheers for us, even though we drink
one from their midst, a bottle of cava,
solely for our pleasure,
because it tastes like a kept promise.
We feast on pimientos de padrón, where
you never know whether the one you take
will burn your tongue.
Burrata. Pasta al tartufo. More kept promises.
Outside, the trees that line the street
are already busy preparing a red carpet made from leaves
for the way back to what is now home.
When it’s time to leave, the waiter brings the bill: 98.50
in a foreign currency. A hundred and ten, with a tip.
And even though I give him the money, I don’t pay for the meal.
Maximilian Speicher (https://www.maxspeicher.com) is a designer who writes, mostly sitting on his balcony in Barcelona, watching his orange trees grow. Although he’s been writing poetry on and off for many years, he only recently started submitting it. His first published poems have appeared in Impspired and Otoliths Magazine, and more are forthcoming in The Avalon Literary Review and The Disappointed Housewife.
The Perfect Pour
There is such a thing as visual poetry...when a thing need not be said because it is apprehended by the eye and simply "felt"... If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much more so a moving picture?
S. Huey (Editor, at Bog Brewing Company, St. Augustine, Florida)
“When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits.”—Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast
Ocean waves wash gently along the beach, where
spanned between two sea⸗almonds hangs a hammock.
Pearl-white seashore. Paradise. It awaits but
no-one is coming.
Parrots fly in circles around the island,
calling. Rose-ringed parakeets sit on branches,
dreaming. Earth’s most beautiful birds await but
no-one is watching.
Under palm trees, quietly, stands a food cart,
empty. Piles of surfboards behind a straw hut.
Foamy waves yell eagerly. They await but
no-one is surfing.
From the trees hang coconuts, mangos, star fruits,
figs, and pears; sapotes, pommes⸗cythère, papayas,
plums and limes. Earth’s tastiest food awaits but
no-one is eating.
Inland, there’s a waterfall, just behind the
rusty Nissen hut overgrown by vines and
moss and orchids. Paradise. It is here but
no-one is coming.
Maximilian Speicher (https://www.maxspeicher.com) is a designer who writes, mostly sitting on his balcony in Barcelona, watching his orange trees grow. Although he’s been writing poetry on and off for many years, he only recently started submitting it. His first published poems have appeared in Impspired and Otoliths Magazine, and more are forthcoming in The Avalon Literary Review and The Disappointed Housewife.
Curtain Call by Shane Huey
I tossed and turned throughout the night, unable to sleep. There was a long day ahead, but I would get all of the sleep that I needed soon enough, unable to resist sleep when the night comes. One misses so much while the eyes are open as it is. There is no one who, truly, fears not the stage. Whether fear or excitement, no matter. The effect is the same.
The sun would be up in a moment and spill the soft rays of Nature's stage lights into my room, but I would rise before it today and begin my rehearsal in the darkness. Fitting! My best work now long for the shadows, as it were.
I arose. I stretched. I washed. I arrived at the theatre. Dressed in my finest attire, the costume carefully chosen and laid out for me by a loving hand, with face tastefully decorated just so as to catch the light perfectly, capturing and preserving my every expression—a face known for its gesticulations.
Today promised to be a very special day. The final act. The final performance. There would be no more encores. All shows, even the great ones, draw to a close. Knowing this made it nonetheless sour. The show had run its course and it is always better to go out on top, as they say in the business, than to overstay one's welcome. That I should go out with such a "Bang!" I would leave the stage with the same reverence with which I approached it, exiting stage right, no need of the old Vaudevillian hook to make the modest thespian of me.
The stage is an altar, a place of belief and ritual and magic…movement and doing. There is celebration and there is worship. There is the cult, the performer a priest, the faithful congregation. There is love and there is sorrow, both real and imagined, but there is emotion, always the emotion...rising and crashing simultaneously upon both performer and audience in often unexpected waves. No performance ever the same nor its effects upon the souls of officiant and parishioner alike.
One is fortunate to have lived as she would have chosen not otherwise to do. The summation of my career—my life—predicated upon sharing with others the experience of the entirety of the catalog of human emotion, from the depths of low to the peaks of high. Such a life one dare not dream of exchanging for the nightmare of not living life such as it is. Praise...critique...no matter, the show must go on, life must go on. This is the human condition.
"Showtime!" I am informed. The butterflies launch from their perch in unison to begin their wild and aerialbatic dance. I feel them as always, perhaps more so now in this final moment of glory. I could never tame the wild little things. Peeking out from behind the curtain, a full house! I smile...no I laugh from the sheer rush of joy! Each and every soul here for me! Eyes upon me, the star of the show. I never dreamt that I might touch so many souls. I have been blessed, truly I have. And here they were now, waiting for me, and I knew that they loved me for I could feel the love burning in my heart as I drew nearer them and they to me. I, in turn, loved them with a fierce reciprocity. I was who and what I was for them and because of them.
Curtain about to open...the butterflies now as though sparrows... I would miss the stage. I would miss my role. I would miss my fellow cast. I would miss my beloved audience. But I would savor every morsel of these, the final moments, of this encore presentation. I would give my very best!
As Time is so prone to do when one is caught up in rapture—living in that singular moment where one feels amidst the sinews the truth that there is indeed neither past nor future—it passed, the show was over, and the curtain closed. But tonight, there would be no curtain call. No last exchange with the audience, no final bow. It was all over. Now I would have that long overdue sleep…the peaceful rest.
As I closed my eyes for the final time that night, my last memory is of the taste of saline upon my lips from the lone teardrop that had fallen as I listened to the minister read my eulogy. It was such a beautiful monologue. And then I slept through the night.
This piece first appeared in Raven Cage Zine, Issue 57 (May 28, 2021).
Follow Us On Social Media
Help support our literary journal...help us to support our writers.