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.
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.
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.
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).
MUSE by Sarah Dinan
People everywhere. Clustered in tight groups around the tall tables spread with precision throughout the room. Settled into banquettes along the terra cotta walls. Leaning against the glossy, dark wood of the bar. Coming and going from the facilities. Passing by on the sidewalk outside the floor-to-ceiling windows lining one side of the raised, corner stage. Leaning against the wooden frame of the inner, double doors. Servers flit between them all, balancing black circular trays laden with glassware in various states of use.
Though I do not taste these elixirs, I know them by their scents. Guinness’s creamy chocolate, Smithwick’s malty caramel, Harp’s grassy yeast, Jamison’s peppery florals, and Magner’s apple-y bouquet. Together, they seem to alchemize this moment from a singular experience, to an eternal one.
Glassware clinks, and a babel of pleasant chatter competes with the basketball game on the flat-screen TVs. The musicians in the corner seem oblivious to the din. Sitting in a circle on the stage, drinks at their feet, instruments in hands, they are lost in their own conversation. Guitarists strum chords in time with the bodhran’s steady rhythm. Fiddlers glide out notes, playing a lilting duet with the penny whistles and flute. An accordion drones and tapping feet emphasize the downbeat as the musicians fly through a reel.
In the pause between tunes, the flutist stands, declaring time for a song, and calls me over. Unbeknownst to me, the other musicians do not share his enthusiasm. I am greeted with challenging stares as the musicians lay down their instruments and pick up their glasses. There is no microphone and the sounds of the pub suddenly seem loud to me. My heart beats swiftly as a flutter of nervous energy pervades my being. The flutist smiles and nods his head. I turn my back to the open windows and face the crowd, looking over the heads of the musicians in front of me. Ignoring their stares, I swallow my fear, take a deep breath, and open my mouth. Within three notes, a hush falls over the room. The servers mute the televisions, and time stands still. People stop mid-drink, holding glasses aloft. They freeze on their way to or from the facilities. They halt in, and by, the doorway. They stop on the sidewalk outside, and press into the windows. I sing on.
The nervous energy gives way to something else. Something ethereal and incandescent. And as I look around the room while singing a tale of love and longing, I am aware that everyone here in this terra cotta space, the sports-lovers, the craic sharers, the casual diners, the musicians, the people now crowded into the open windows and doorway, the barkeep, the servers – all of us are held in some kind of magic, woven by the song. Together, we are in a sacred moment, a shared experience. Transcending time. In this exact instant, I know in my blood and bones, I am not alone. My body holds a power older than time itself and I am not singing. I am being sung.
Sarah Dinan is a vocalist and author with a passion for storytelling and an abiding love for nature. She’s been a teacher, actress, martial artist, radio DJ, Turkish cuisine connoisseur, hair model, belly dancer, arborist, Celtic singer, and ropes course facilitator. She’s also an unofficial ambassador for hydration, and a fierce advocate for following your dreams. Her writing has been published in Ariel Chart Literary Journal and The Orchards Poetry Journal, and featured on Jericho Writers. Sarah lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, son, and battle cello, Tilda.
Whiskey Hill by MaryAnn Shank
That’s where my Dad was born: Whiskey Hill. It did perch on a hill, and local history has it that quite a bit of whiskey flowed down the hill into the valley below.
Then Prohibition came along, and the good town fathers (there were no women in government back then) changed the name to “Freedom”, as if somehow partaking of whiskey for so many years actually got you to Freedom. Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t.
The road to Whiskey Hill is still there. It is a narrow path, cutting off of Freedom Boulevard, hardly wide enough for one car. I can only imagine old Model T’s puffing their way up the hill to grab a keg of that stuff, whatever it was. If you didn’t know the road was there, odds are you would never see it behind the massive oak trees and overgrown poison oak.
My father’s cousin was the last of the family to still live on Whiskey Hill. He lived right across the Presbyterian Church that spewed its bellowing out over the whole area on Sunday mornings. Everyone congregated at that Church, there wasn’t much else to do on Sunday mornings on Whiskey Hill. By the time my father’s family left, a new access road to Freedom had been built, and a freeway connected all of central California, with the town center relocated to the respectable valley below.
I became the mostly respectable librarian in Freedom. One day at lunch I sat at a counter next to a young man who was wandering the West. His eyes truly glowed as he told me how he took the freeway exit labeled “Airport Blvd/ Freedom.” He didn’t find an airport – that was on a different road entirely – and although he found Freedom, Whiskey Hill would have eluded him but for the happenstance meeting of a mostly respectable friend.
MaryAnn Shank spent much of her life in the shadow of Whiskey Hill. She wrote of her unexpected adventures in the Somali Peace Corps in the historical novel "Mystical Land of Myrrh". Her poetry has appeared in a number of publications, and she is presently engaged in bringing to life the story of another historical figure. Find her at http://mysticallandofmyrrh.com.
A Pupil's Revenge by Nina Kossman
“There are people who are unable to think," Abbot Corby said, "and there are those who can't feel. And there are people like you who can't do either. No matter how much you teach them, it won't do them any good.”
These were the exact words Abbot Corby said to his pupil, the unintelligent Charles, who ten years later would become King of the Franks and of the Lombards and Emperor of the West. Charles remembered well the lesson the abbot had given him, and one day, after drinking from a bottle of intoxicating power, he ordered his teacher brought to him and, when he was brought in, bound hand and foot and gagged, Charles asked, "Do you still consider me incapable of thinking and feeling?
And when the abbot was silent because he could not speak, Charles ordered that the gag be taken out of the teacher's mouth.
“I still think I was right," answered the teacher.
The King of the Franks and Lombards and the Emperor of the West gave orders to tie the abbot to a pillar of shame. Townspeople were commanded to throw rotten eggs and other foodstuffs at the old man.
Two days later a new order came out: Untie him from the pillar and bring him to the throne room.
“Do you continue to think as you did before?” the old teacher was asked by the Emperor of the West, the Lord of the Francs and the Lombards. The teacher said nothing, just nodded faintly. The Emperor of the West, the Lord of the Francs and of the Lombards ordered to hang the abbot. When he was already standing at the gallows with a noose around his neck, the emperor went up the platform and again asked if the teacher had changed his mind about his former pupil.
The old man answered with his eyes: No. The emperor nodded to the executioner and the executioner drew up the rope.
The old teacher's body hung in the air. And it seemed that even his dead legs, swaying from side to side, were saying: "I was right."
Nina Kossman is a poet, memoirist, playwright, editor, and artist. She has authored, edited, translated, or both edited and translated more than nine books in English and Russian. She was born in Moscow and currently lives in New York. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nina_Kossman
It was a cold night in late March and the moon rose somewhere over Kansas. The wind screamed, the way it does over metal, sharp and unrelenting, forcing me to shelter behind my pack. I stuffed a t-shirt into my wool hat to cover my face and peered though it like a mask. I was bound for home and classes on a freight train out of Amarillo—almost broke, exhausted, happy.
The train stopped. I moved to the front of the car—an empty automobile carrier with sides like a guard rail rising three levels—and stepped down into the night. Fields still slumbered in dark winter, flat to the horizon where low stars and distant farm lights mixed. With luck, I’d ride as far as Chicago.
After a two-year absence, I was eager to return to the university and finish my degree. But this night, in this cold place, I was having second thoughts. What did sitting behind a desk have to offer? I had floundered in one program or another, searching for answers, yet hardly knowing the questions to ask. School, I was convinced, was not going to bring out my best self, so I left to pursue what I thought a more worthy life. What’s the use of all that noise and money? asked the Tang Dynasty poet Han-shan, named for the place he lived, Cold Mountain. His words became my calling. Freed from the weight of expectations and a career track, I wandered, trespassed, dared—and moved in awe of a new world.
On the road I felt at once both centered, and unhinged; there were no wrong turns. Not knowing in what railyard (or backyard), or under what tree or star I’d spend the night, I lived in the moment— a delightful anxiety—out of fear from looking past it. Happy, yet scared, seemed to be my lot in life.
Of course, dropping out and leaving were easy; coming back whole, and having something to say, less so.
Now the train’s brakes hissed, it shook and lurched, and I scampered back on. The swaying, windswept car made more conventional rides— bounding along in the cab of an 18-wheeler, for example, or sharing the bed of a flatbed truck in Mexico with a drove of pigs—appear first class. Wherever I kneeled—even lying down—the wind penetrated to my bones.
The train moved with all the speed of a weather front. Until it didn’t. At a long and captive layover outside a small town south of Wichita—I followed the tracks on a road map—I slept much of the following day. Woke up, plucked a freeze-dried beef with potatoes from my pack, and boiled water on my small gas stove. This train apparently was going nowhere.
Dozing, I missed the first eastbound that rolled into the deserted yard and waited until dark for the next.
I was not alone on this one. Two Mexican teenagers, laughing and coatless, dashing and daring, jumped from a boxcar as the train slowed, beckoning me to follow them. I didn’t comprehend. “How is this?” I yelled. “Where to? Adónde?”
“La máquina! La máquina!” The younger one shouted, pointing to a second locomotive at the front of the train, coupled back-to-back to the main engine. I followed their lead. We climbed the steps and made ourselves at home on the narrow floor.
“Yo soy Marcos,” I told them.
“Arnulfo,” said the younger boy. The older one seemed distant, yet at the same time watched me with a closeness that was unnerving. He wouldn’t tell me his name. Perhaps if I had had a mirror, I wouldn’t have trusted the person in it either. The two were cleaner-looking than me. Their hair was cut, their faces smooth—if indeed they were old enough to use a razor. I had a good beard going, and shoulder length hair. They were better dressed as well, however insufficiently, in shirts and trousers. I had on five layers, flannel and wool, a down jacket and rainsuit. The Michelin Man from hell.
“Hermanos?” I asked.
“Primos,” Arnulfo said. Cousins.
Spanish was at least one course I had finished at school. Arnulfo said they hoped to find work and send money home. They had nothing to eat. I gave them a freeze-dried meal of something or other (they all taste the same after a while) which they tore into and devoured dry, like cereal. He said they’d hopped a train some days ago in El Paso and survived the frigid nights hunkering down in deserted engine rooms, drinking the potable water there. In the warmth of this new shelter, my sleeping bag now draped over the three of us, I would survive too.
The train’s rhythms were riveting, even hypnotic from our uneasy berth, which at best was not unlike the rocking of a cradle. Or, at worst, the steady back-and-forth churning of a washing machine. And we were the oversized, unbalanced load that hadn’t set off any alarms. Yet. The train whistle (or horn) was loud, too, its frequency indicating the size of the town we rumbled through, and my heart skipped a beat—as it still does, to this day—listening to the unquiet wonder of it piercing the darkness.
As we crossed the heartland, I thought of perhaps the first whistle I’d ever heard, alongside my brother a lifetime ago in an Iowa motel room near tracks, and of a train I’d been on too, a dateless journey into the night with my father somewhere near Niagara Falls. Trips I cannot put into context other than to say there was a train, night, a whistle, family. Plaintive sound—or bold warning—the sound of a train is more or less a wrinkle in time that announces the past is ever present, and the present—in the blink of an eye—is already past.
In the middle of the night, as the train eased into a small yard in central Kansas, a man entered our locomotive, stumbled upon us and abruptly left. Spooked, the boys and I fled that engine at the next stop, literally hit the ground running, found an open door down the line and thrust ourselves into a dank and empty boxcar. At once, and in silence, we worked the heavy ironlike doors almost closed, leaving them open just enough to breathe in the bitter fresh air. The collective fear of being locked in and entombed in this bleak car needed no translation.
Moving through the din and darkness of morning, staring through the gap in the doors at the tree line across the tracks, I had the improbable and magical feeling that wherever we were going, wherever we ended up, I’d been to. Trains can turn your world upside down like that.
For much of my life I’d gazed longingly at tracks, steel rails that seemed to beckon and bend and dissolve in the heat, disappearing in a destiny of their own beyond anything I could imagine, and the sound of a coming train—the whistle in the air, the humming of the ground—was an invitation to jump aboard; a song I had to know. Looking back at that time and the wisdom of taking such risks, today I wonder if I had lost my mind—or was simply more willing to find it.
Toward dawn we approached Kansas City, its bright lights spilling through the peephole of our boxcar doors, reminding me that I was one step—or yard—closer to home. The old desire to fit in, to be stamped and graded pulled at me as relentlessly as the wind had pushed. I wanted to be, well, wanted. Accepted. Loved. I was torn between Cold Mountain, Han-shan’s world, and the one chasing approval. I came to the understanding that the road away—painfully, joyfully—frames what home is and is not, as well as the people you run from, or to. The road back is merely one seeking acceptance, and I wanted to come in from the cold.
As I would. Wearing every last shred of clothing I had, the sleeping bag again draped over our bodies, I thought of grabbing it and my pack and jumping from the train.
Railroad security, however, would spare me that. Drifting in and out of sleep, I hadn’t realized that we had reached the yard. Suddenly a flashlight was in our faces. A second man barked his what-the-fuck at us. Forced off the train, they frisked, handcuffed and sat us down, like stones on a stone wall, guarded by one agent as two others searched one-by-one the remaining cars with their imposing Maglites.
The great yard shook with life in the early morning. Tens and tens of tracks merged and straightened and curled like a sea of black snakes as cars of all shapes, tall as bulldozers and flat as dominos, were joined or uncoupled amidst the clamor of bells. The smell of diesel was thick like mud. Switchmen sprung up like jacks-in-the-box, jumping and hollering to rearrange whole trains with a whisk of their wrists and lanterns, their sharp cries splitting the frosted blue-gray air. I thought of Studs Terkel. Sinclair Lewis. Gary Snyder. Marty Robbins.
In their tight blazers and pencil thin neckties, the two agents who busted us seemed out of place in this expansive yard teeming with workmen in coveralls. But they too had roles, and drove us to a still dark, modern brick building less than a mile away. One agent led the Mexican teens to another room and then went to search for the janitor who spoke Spanish, while the other interrogated me at his desk. He asked if I was carrying any drugs, and whether I had a Buck knife, which he clearly coveted. I had neither, and little else other than a few granola bars in my pack and some change in my pockets. He returned to his paperwork as I again thought of home—Michigan was another 600 miles east—and my time away from it.
Whatever it is that young men search for, I was in the hunt, trying to find a life without adornment, blather and harm—and I was inexplicably drawn to trains. Perhaps the attraction was simple; the tracks led away from home, school and a predicable life. But tracks, of course, run in both directions; and home, as they say, is where your story begins. At times, telling mine seems within reach.
The agent, finished with his report, took a phone call, then put the receiver down. “The highway is a few miles from here,” he said, nodding toward my pack. “You can likely find a ride there.” And I thought, it’s a weary thing, the simple act of holding your thumb out and relying on the charity of others. I wasn’t looking forward to it. I thought too of the teens, soon to be homeward bound themselves with the clothes on their backs and probably not much more. Just then I turned to the waiting room to see them enter and sit. The older, quiet one raised his cuffed hands and smiled at me through the glass.
“Pablo,” he said, loud enough for me to hear. “Pablo from Magdalena de Kino. Vaya con dios, Marcos.”
“They’ll be detained for Immigration,” the agent said, following my gaze. “You’re free to go. But I’m warning you: We have what we need to know about you. Do not ride the Santa Fe through Kansas again.”
And I wouldn’t. Not in Kansas.
B.L. Makiefsky was the winner of the 2012 Michigan Writers Cooperative Press chapbook contest, for the short story collection Fathers and Sons. Among publications his work has been featured in (or is forthcoming) are the Detroit Free Press, Dunes Review, Thoughtful Dog, Pithead Chapel, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Flash Fiction Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Jewish Literary Journal, the Great Lakes Review, On The Run and jewishfiction.net. In addition, Makiefsky has written three stage plays, one of which (a one-act) was produced.
Morning Walk by Edna Schneider
Spring has returned to Long Island. I wake early and lace up the blue and silver New Balance walking shoes I bought a few weeks ago in anticipation of this year’s equinox. I’m hopeful that the exercise will strengthen my bones and jumpstart my goal to lose ten pounds. Waiting for the school buses and morning commuters to clear the neighborhood, I strap on the new Fitbit my daughter gave me for my 68th birthday.
The warmth of the morning is soothing. I wear only a heavy sweater over fleece-lined leggings and a worn pullover, removing my gloves three blocks into the walk. I round the corner on Anne Street and spot a man with a burly gray bread. His white robes are bellowing in the wind under a down jacket, and sandals expose his toes as he walks sluggishly down the other side of the street. We glimpse at each other with a brief curiosity and then walk on. I remember a movie I recently saw with Helen Mirren who played a woman wanting to learn to drive after her husband dies. She found a middle-aged man from India to teach her and after a few months, they had a loving but short-lived affair. I wonder where this man across the street hails from. Is he from India, Pakistan, or Tibet? Or is he wearing pajamas he bought at Kohl’s? That’s the trouble with the world, in a nutshell, assumptions. It’s like when I meet Asian people, I think they’re bi-lingual. Maybe I’ll see the man in the sandals again another day and I will speak to him and figure it all out.
Returning to my house, and still looking for my husband’s Honda Civic missing from the driveway, makes a dent in my heart and I sigh as deeply as a lion’s roar. His death was too sudden. How long do I grieve? Is there a timeline for loss? After enduring a dark winter, I look forward to sunshine in the days ahead. Sipping a cup of mango tea, I think about what to plant in my garden. Then I consider baking a loaf of sourdough bread and tomorrow I can eat it for lunch outside on the deck, after my walk.
The next day I lace up my walking shoes and head out. Walking alone each day becomes monotonous unless I have a diversion. I could listen to Spotify on my iPhone, but then I might miss a crack in the sidewalk and fall on the cement, only to break my hip or cause a head injury. Attempting to be mindful of the birds singing to each other, the luminous clouds in the sky, and the lovely homes with well-groomed lawns, my mind defies me. Stories and thoughts jump in my head and I struggle with this mindfulness matter. I survey the neighborhood as if collecting data for the census when actually all I’m hoping for is to spot the man in sandals. I turn the corner and see him across the street. We make eye contact and I smile, then we both walk in opposite directions.
Today I am bold. It’s been nine months since my husband David died. The same amount of time as gestation, the phase needed to grow a life. My morning walks have moved from days into weeks and my fascination with the man in the robe grows. I close the door to my home, take a deep breath and walk on the same side of the street as he. I turn the corner and we meet head-on. When we are face to face, I stop short and say, “Hello.”
His smile is broad when he answers, “Hello to you.” I hear the sharp /t/ and recognize a British accent.
I bet he’s from India, but dare I ask. I continue the beginnings of a conversation. “It’s a beautiful morning for a walk.”
“Indeed, it is.”
The man in sandals introduces himself. “My name is Aakash Devi.”
“My name is Barbara Fried.” After some hesitation, I ask, “Which way are you walking?”
He tilts his head forward; his eyes are dusty gray. “That way, would you like to join me?”
“Yes, thank you.”
We continue walking half a mile exchanging niceties and comments about the beautiful weather.
My curiosity takes over. “Are you visiting from India?”
“Not precisely. I am from India, but I’m not visiting. I now live with my son, here in Huntington.”
I’d like to know more about Aakash. I stop myself not wanting to overstep any boundaries, and so we walk a mile discussing neutral topics- the weather, local places, and music until we go our own ways. We continue to meet near Anne Street as if by coincidence but really on purpose. The spring is coming to an end and summer’s heat begins to encroach on our walks. We accept that our meetings are intentional and decide to meet earlier since the days are growing longer and so are our walks and conversations. I think it’s time for more personal questions.
“Is your wife with you at your son’s house?”
“No, she passed last year.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“What about your husband,” he asks. “Is he at work while you walk?”
“No. he had a heart attack last fall and died suddenly.” I want to run home. I haven’t said that out loud in a while, especially to a stranger and to a man, no less. I feel naked as if I’m standing without clothes and at the same time my skin is longing to be warmed by touch.
He slows his pace. “I’m sorry for you, too.”
“Thank you. I think I’ll turn down this block, my house is near the next corner.”
We part. I quickly walk home, pour myself a shot of Jameson on the rocks, sit on the couch and weep. My morning walks stop for the next few days, instead, I ride the stationary bike in my den. I’m too raw to walk in the wind and there is no amount of sunscreen that can protect me from nature’s rays. I wonder if Aakash will miss me on his walk or is he too feeling vulnerable and staying inside reading a book. It’s been a week now and my courage reservices on this lovely summer’s day. With my shoes laced up, I begin walking and spot Aakash at the end of the next block. I pick up my pace to meet him.
His gentle gaze is comforting, and he asks, “Are you alright? I’ve missed seeing you.”
“I’m fine. I was just tired.” We begin together at a slow pace.
“Would you like to sit on the bench in the park?”
“Yes, that’s a good idea.”
I sit back on the bench and let the shade of the oak trees cool me from the early August humidity. The park is full of small children and their mommies and nannies. Looking out at the children on the swings, I’m optimistic and filled with hope that I too can be free to glide in the air, secure that gravity will hold me up.
I ask Aakash, “Does your son have children?”
“Yes, three. One is already in college.”
“You must be very proud.” I’m an inquisitive person, eager to find out about things that may be none of my business. But then how do I build relationships if not by asking questions. “How long were you married?”
“Forty-two years. I hardly knew my wife before we married. I only met her twice, after seeing her picture. Arranged marriages are common in India.”
“I’ve read that in many arranged marriages, couples usually maintain a long and loyal relationship, learning to love each other by caring for a stranger. But I suppose we’re all strangers who become intimate in a marriage either by our choice or someone else’s plan.”
“Are you a philosopher?” We laugh, and I’m happy that the man in sandals is becoming my friend.
“What was your wife’s name?”
“Pallavi. She was from Amritsar, in the state of Punjab. My family is from Punjab. We lived in Chandigarh where the University is. My parents were professors.” Aakash looks up at the cloudless sky and then continues. “In India, most women are groomed to be a wife and taught to run the household, care for the children, and keep things orderly, those responsibilities were deep-rooted in Pallavi. Then when our children grew, she wanted to study at the university and become a teacher.”
“Did your wife become a teacher?”
“No, she got sick. It was a genetic blood disease.”
“That must have been hard for both of you.” I sit quietly for a few minutes. When I sense the heaviness lift, I continue, “I was like Pallavi, but the difference is I finished college before I married. I also raised my children and took care of the household. Then I worked as a teacher in an elementary school near my home.” After a pause. “What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m a physician, what you call internal medicine, a family doctor. I worked in our city and retired before I moved here.” He turns to look at me. Looking back at him, intrigued by his delicate, defined features. Our boundaries are becoming blurred. I feel a twinge-like hunger that morphs into a cascade of nerves, I stand up. “Let’s walk.”
The summer progresses and so do our walks and conversations. This morning when I leave my house, the sky looks threatening, and rain is predicted. I venture out anyway eager to see Aakash. We meet near the park. As we walk the rain begins, only a few blocks from my home.
“Why don’t we walk this way,” I point in the southern direction. “We can stop by my house and I can make tea if you would like that?”
“Yes, I would. You’re very kind.”
We enter the warmth of my home and I guide Aakash into the living room to sit on the couch. “Please make yourself comfortable, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
I return with a pot of honeyed Irish breakfast tea and a plate of cookies. I pour tea into matching mugs, give him the cup and sit on the loveseat across from Aakash.
“Thank you. The tea is lovely and those cookies look delicious.”
“I love to bake, It’s therapy for me.” I hand him a plate with three cookies.
He bites into one but cannot resist putting the entire cookie into his mouth. “I’ve never tasted this confection before. It’s very good.”
“They’re thumbprint cookies. The little dimple in the center is for all kinds of jam, but I use strawberry, my mother’s favorite.”
“Are your parents still alive?”
“No, my parents both passed away, but I have some of my mother’s recipes and this is one we used to make together.”
Aakash sips his tea and then asks, “Are your parents from America?”
“My father was American.”
“What about your mother?”
“My mother and her first husband were from Germany.” I pour more tea into his cup.
Aakash sips his tea. “I always wonder where people are from who live in the US. In India, we’re from the same place for many generations, but that hardly happens in America.”
“Well, during the war, my mother, her husband, and their little girl were sent to concentration camps. By the time the war ended, my mother’s daughter and husband were dead. She had nothing left to live for in Germany. A Jewish refugee organization helped her find relatives in New York and she came to America. She met my father and they married, and my older brother and I were born here.”
“I’m so sorry for your family. War and hate are terrible. In India, Islam is the minority religion in Punjab. We’re always threatened, our mosques burned and people are terrorized and killed. Fortunately, my family and I were safe. But after Pallavi died, my son was worried about me and insisted I come to America and live with him. I also have a daughter also lives in the US. She’s in Massachusetts with her family.”
“I guess we both have many stories to tell.” We smile at each other, a warm moment of connection.
Aakash sits back on the sofa and crosses his legs. “My son is making a 70th birthday party for me in a few weeks. I would be happy if you attended.”
“I would love that. Is it at his home?”
“No, it’s at our mosque, in their party room.”
At first, I’m uncomfortable not knowing what to expect. I’ve never been to a mosque, but I care for Aakash and want to accept his invitation. After a short pause, I respond, “Of course, I’ll be there.”
The next few weeks rush by. I try to decide what’s appropriate for a Jewish woman to wear to a birthday party at a mosque. After going through many outfits from my closet and debating with myself about buying something new, I choose my navy-blue suit with gold jewelry accessories. On Saturday, I drive along Jericho Turnpike and see a sparkling green dome up ahead, shining like morganite. It’s the Islamic Center. I turn into the street with an impressive beige stone building and powerful pillars. Red begonias line the entrance. After parking in the spacious lot, I go to the side door which opens to a long hallway. Walking in the direction of the loud voices and aromas of Chicken Biryani, I enter the room. Aakash waves to me and walks over in his shinny brown oxfords, no bare feet today. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“You look very handsome in your American clothes.”
“Thank you and you look pretty in yours.” We joke and I immediately relax. Then he leads me to a small table where his son and daughter-in-law are seated.
“This is my friend Barbara.”
His family warmly greets me. During our meal of kebab with lime, green chutney, basmati rice, garlic mustard fish fillet, and roti, we chat. The meal ends with a silky sponge cake and Masala chai tea. Aakash and I excuse ourselves and walk out on the veranda. The evening breeze is soft.
“I have something to tell you.” Aakash straightens his striped necktie. “My son is moving to Atlanta; he’s relocating because of his job.”
The ease of our time together stops, as quickly as it began. “I guess you’re going with him.” I swallow hard to restrain my tears.
“Yes. I have to.”
There are no words for a few moments, as I process this news. “I’ll miss our walks.”
“When are you leaving?”
“The end of December, before Christmas.”
In mid-December, a few days before Aakash leaves for Atlanta, I invite him to dinner. We relish the favors of roast chicken, braised asparagus, and baked sweet potatoes. We drink tea, eat chocolate ganache cake and talk about the similarities of our culture’s appreciation of food. I present Aakash with a gift of Marimekko Kukka stationery. He opens it. His even white teeth contrasting his silky brown completion, he says, “We can be pen pals.”
“That’s funny. I remember in elementary school I had a pen pal in Ireland. I enjoyed reading about her bike rides on the mountains and writing back to her about movies I saw.”
“I never had a pen pal, but I’d like to have one now.”
The evening ends and it’s time to say goodbye. “It’s been special to know you and I wish you only the best.” I’m not sure whether I should hug Aakash or just shake his hand. When I lean in, it’s as if I have no control over my body, I hold him and he returns the embrace. We separate, and the hazy light of dusk is a backdrop to the intense look on his face. “The pleasure of your company has been important to me; I will not forget you.” He puts on his coat and gently closes the door.
For the next few weeks, every morning after my walk, I check the mail looking forward to receiving Aakash’s letters. Writing back immediately about the neighborhood, news of Long Island, and my critiques of the documentaries on PBS. The last week in February his letters stop appearing in my mailbox. Nevertheless, I continue to write to him. In a couple of weeks in early March, when the daylight and the darkness are equal and the earth’s equinox is imminent, I receive a letter addressed in unfamiliar handwriting. I open it. Dear Barbara, I’m sorry to tell you sad news. Last week when my father was walking in the morning, he was struck by a car. He was taken to the hospital, but the doctors couldn’t save him and he died a few days later. I’m in disbelief as I re-read these sentences over and over again, my eyes moistening with each reading. I wipe my cheeks and continue. My father enjoyed your friendship and it gave him a pleasure to read your letters.
The rest of the day passes by while I re-read all the letters Aakash had written to me, I saved them in a file on the kitchen table. The next day I drive to the mosque where we spent Aakash’s birthday celebration and give a donation in his memory. I’m also searching for comfort and for answers, which do not exist. When I sit in my car about to leave the mosque for an instant I forget how to drive. I take a deep breath, wipe my tears and resume the presence of life.
In my weariness, I attempt to accept death as part of being human and experience my emotions as I comport with a renewal of the seasons. I miss Aakash when I take my morning walks. I opened up to make space available for new happenings and experienced a relationship that I wouldn’t have expected. Soon the Northern hemisphere will welcome springtime and I can consider which new trails I’ll take. Maybe I’ll join a gym, take a dance class, plant vegetables in my garden, and plan an al fresco cocktail party with friends late in the evening, as the sun sets.
Edna Schneider’s previous writing experience includes two non-fiction books (Living Thin, published by Jason Aronson, Inc., and Sure, a self-published memoir) as well as numerous published professional articles. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Dramatic Arts from Emerson College, Boston, and a master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology from C.W. Post, Long Island, NY. She has worked as a Clinical Specialist in Speech-Language Pathology at Rusk Rehabilitation/NYU Langone Health treating patients with stroke, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, concussion rehabilitation, and other neurogenic communication disorders. She was fellowship-trained at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific in Hawaii. Prior to a career in Speech-Language Pathology, Edna was a professional puppeteer working with Jim Henson’s Muppets, FAO Schwartz, and marionette companies in USA and Belgium.
Hair of the Dog by Susan Hynds
“I don’t know, Goddamnit!”
It’s the only thing Hank’s sure of, and he keeps shouting it at the cop. In the dark room, a spotlight is burning his eyes down to the sockets. It’s a basement of sorts, the ceiling a crisscross of piping and duct work, industrial grey and dark green. The spotlight sends streaks into his eyes every time the cop steps out of the beam.
“What did you do last night?
“I told you, I don’t know.” He’s struggling against the strap that’s tethering him to the chair. His hands are bound in cuffs on a tabletop.
The cop punctuates each word with the smack of a nightstick against his palm: “Just— tell—me—what—you—did.”
“For God’s sake, I don’t know.”
“Maybe this’ll help his lousy memory,” the cop says to his assistant, handing him a belt. The assistant wraps it around Hank’s forehead, cinches it tight until the bones above his temples begin to creak. “Can’t I please just have some water?” His tongue is swollen, his throat so parched, he can barely mouth the words.
The cop fills a glass with water, placing it just out of reach. He stares into Hank’s eyes, his face looming so close that Hank can smell his fetid breath. “Tell me what you did, and it’s yours.” He bangs a fist on the table with each word until the glass tumbles off and shatters on the concrete.
Hank is sobbing now, tears streaming down his cheeks. He looks down at his fists on the table. They’re covered in blood, not tears. The cop is pressing the tip of a kitchen knife beneath his Adam’s apple. Hank stiffens. One wrong move and he’s a goner.
“What did you do last night, Goddamnit?” Their eyes are dead level now. Hank blinks hard, trying to clear the spotlight streaks from his vision. When the face zooms into recognition, it’s not a cop. It’s his father, glaring straight down into him: “What the Hell did you do, you sonofabitch?”
“Pa, I don’t know. Swear to God, I don’t!”
He opens his eyes behind a wall of glass. His hands are in his lap, unbound. No blood and no cop. Just raw blades of sunlight streaking through a car window and the vague outline of a garage door: His. No idea how or why he’s out here, parked sideways in his own driveway.
His eyes sweep the dashboard and the seats—his car all right. Whatever he did last night, he’s got one helluva hangover. His temples are pounding, his mouth a dry sponge.
He flips open the glove compartment, fiddling for some aspirin, when he spots the half-pint of Old Crow right where he left it a year ago.
Hair of the dog.
It’s Louie’s favorite antidote for a hangover: “Another shot, and you’ll be good as new.” Hank turns the bottle over in his hand, puts it back into the glove compartment, snaps it shut.
He’d left the bottle there as a reminder after his last binge: Never take another drink, no matter what. It was a little over a year ago, and he’d been out in the garage, tuning up the car, the bottle in his back pocket—what Lorraine didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. He’d been on the wagon for a couple of years by then, and it tasted so good that he kept driving back to the liquor store all weekend, buying one half pint after another. By Sunday afternoon, poor Lorraine walked out to the garage and caught the worst of his bad temper. All he remembers from that day is the screaming match just before she grabbed Jess and drove away to her mom’s.
Must’ve passed out after that.
Next thing he knew, it was Monday morning. He woke up, sprawled on the couch with a parched mouth, a piercing headache, and a black hole where his memory should’ve been. When he went out to the garage to look for her car, it wasn’t there. Just four half pints standing like soldiers on the windowsill—three of them empty.
The rest was a blur.
When Lorraine finally came back days later, he thought she was lying. But the welts and bruises told the tale. She always comes back. He loves her for that. Feels like shit afterward, vows never to touch a drink, and he means it. But after weeks or months, sometimes a year, the voices inside his head start cranking away: Go ahead. Just one drink. You can handle it. Then another. And another.
It’s not the booze exactly—it’s the things that drive him to it: his dad winding the screws down on him at work, bitching about about every little thing, until something snaps. Next thing he knows, he wakes up empty as a shot glass, no sign of his family.
He racks his brain, trying to reconstruct yesterday. It was his last day at the chemical plant—he remembers that much. Pa had sent him out there almost a year ago to design the piping and duct work for the new annex they were building. Yesterday at quitting time, old man Mueller called him into the office and poured him a glass of Seven Crown to thank him for for his good work. He’d walked out of there feeling like a big shot, stopping off at Frank’s bar for a boilermaker before heading home.
Kenny Myers was there, shooting his mouth off, as usual. He’d won a wad of money at poker, and he lined up five shots of whiskey on the bar.
“Ten bucks to anybody who can drink all five of these in under a minute,” he’d said.
Hank took him up on it. Downed them all in fifty-two seconds flat. Last thing he remembers, he was stumbling around the parking lot, looking for his car. And now, here he is behind the wheel. Must’ve passed out. Whatever he did, Lorraine’s gonna be pissed.
“Jesus Christ.” His eyes flash at his watch. Due at Mrs. Curtin’s in fifteen minutes and still in his dirty work clothes. No time to change. He stumbles out and heaves the garage door up. His heart stutters. No sign of Lorraine’s car. Calm down. It’s Monday. She’s probably driving Jess to school—which means she saw him passed out in the car. Christ. He’ll concoct a story later. First, he needs to get to work, try to fix his splitting head.
He’s streaking down Saint Paul’s Street when he glances at the gas gauge: Empty, shit. He pulls into the nearest gas station. He’ll duck into the john while Eddie pumps the gas.
Eddie saunters out of the garage, a free tumbler in his hand. Lorraine’s collecting them. He’ll bring it home tonight, a peace offering.
“Hey Hank. What’ll it be? The usual?”
“Yeah. Two bucks, ethyl. I’m gonna use your can, okay Eddie?”
He walks to the bathroom, throws open the metal door. The smell of urine mixes with the nausea brimming in his gut. He pees forever, then turns on the faucet, running water into his hands and gulping it down. He splashes his eyes, slapping himself hard in the face with both hands. “Wake up, asshole—Goddamned house calls,” he says to no one.
Eddie’s hanging the handle on the pump when Hank slides into the front seat.
“Two bucks,” Eddie says, holding out a palm.
Hank reaches into his back pocket. No wallet. What’s left of his stomach lurches as he fishes around in the car seat. “Jeez Eddie. I musta left my wallet home. Can I pay you later? I’m running late.”
“Sure thing. Just bring it whenever.” Eddie hands him a tumbler with rainbow stripes.
He drives to the shop. No sign of Pa, thank God. He runs to the back room, grabs some washers and a roll of plumber’s tape then barrels out to the car, puts them in the trunk, and heads down Fourth Street.
He knows why he’s on the house calls and Louie’s at Mueller’s’ today. Must’ve been the job offer that riled Pa up. Six months ago, old man Mueller called him into the office.
“We’re very pleased with your work, Hank.”
Through his thick German accent, Hank could hear the admiration in his voice. The Muellers were rich as thieves and nutty as bed bugs, but the smartest old Germans he’d ever met.
“Just doing my job, Mr. Mueller.”
“No, Hank. You’ve done a lot more than your job.”
He’d been their jack of all trades, designing the intricate routing plan for the piping and fabricating the supports and flanges from Mr. Mueller’s sketches. He could weld a pipe, fix a sputtering motor, and climb to the top of a tall smokestack for repairs in the same day.
“You see, Hank, we need someone with your skills for another plant we’re opening, and we’d like to offer you a position.”
He pictured the look on Pa’s face at the mere mention of leaving the business.
“I appreciate the offer, Mr. Mueller . . . but . . .”
“We’ll double what your dad’s paying you and give you retirement benefits.”
The only benefit he ever got from Pa was a halfhearted hint that he’ll inherit the business when he finally kicks off. Sonofabitch will probably die in his work boots.
“Well, that’s certainly tempting Mr. Mueller, but my dad depends on me.”
“I understand Hank, but we’re opening a new plant in California, and we could use someone with your skills. Think about it.”
At the mention of California, Hank’s heart had jumped. He thought back to his army days in Fort Ord.: the girls with picnic baskets beneath the cypress trees, his walks down Cannery Row—Steinbeck country. He’d borrowed the book from a guy in the next bunk. They were the best two years of his life.
Lorraine was not convinced when he told her about the job. She fidgeted with her wedding ring. “I don’t know, Will—your father’ll have a fit.”
“I know.” He could already feel the heat of Pa’s rage.
“And what if they laid you off for some reason? You could never go back to your dad.”
He pictured himself, hat in hand, begging Pa to take him back. “Yeah. Probably a bum idea. Nice to be asked though.”
He tried to keep the offer a secret, but somehow Pa found out. Goddamned Louie probably told him.
“So, I heard you’re jumpin’ ship here. Signin’ up with Mueller.”
“Where’d you hear a thing like that?”
“Never mind. I just know.”
“Aw it’s just gossip, Pa. I wouldn’t do a thing like that to you.”
His dad squinted sideways at him. “Why would somebody make that up?”
“Damned if I know, Pa. Honest to God.”
But his father had his number, and today’s the proof: He’s on the house calls, and Louie’s at Muellers, finishing the job that was supposed to be his—Louie—not even a blood relative.
He turns onto Chambers Street, pulling into the Curtins’ driveway and cutting the engine. He pulls his toolbox out of the trunk and walks up the sidewalk. He’s still steaming about the house calls when he spots a Jack o’ lantern on their front porch.
Suddenly, the image of a smashed pumpkin and a butcher knife flashes before his eyes. Did he carve a pumpkin for Jess last night?
More flashbacks, firing like gunshots: Someone banging on his front door. Lorraine running to answer it. Jess on the couch, wrapped in a blanket. It’s coming back in bits and pieces now. He pictures himself running out the back door, his feet slipping on wet grass. He’s running from something—or someone, spots his car lurched in the driveway, opens the door, slinks way down in the seat.
The images begin to darken, fading—slowly—into black.
“I’m so glad you came, Hank”
Mrs. Curtin is standing in the doorway in a bathrobe and pin curls, a seat wrench and a paper bag in her hands. She’s muttering about how her husband bought all these parts at the hardware store, and now the tub faucet’s leaking worse than ever.
He shakes the images out of his head, gathers himself. “Pete didn’t try to replace the seat, did he?” He turns the seat wrench over in his hand.
“No, it’s the bathtub faucet, not the toilet seat.”
He looks into the bag: a couple of washers and a brass faucet seat. Leave it to a do-it-yourself plumber to strip the old seat and turn a five-dollar job into a fifty-dollar mess.
“Don’t worry Mrs. Curtin. I’ll take care of it.”
He walks down the hall. Just as he thought, no access door behind the tub. Bathtub’s a hundred years old. Seat’s probably stripped and stuck in the corroded threads. He’ll have to cut a hole in the plaster to get out the old faucet, install a new one, and make an access door. A half-day’s labor. Pete will have a fit.
He opens his toolbox and fishes around for a flashlight to look at the old seat. He pulls out a hacksaw blade instead. He turns the jagged metal over in his hands when more images flash out of nowhere:—a butcher knife—Lorraine’s hands—his—the knife gripped between them. He’s trying to wrest it out of her hand or something.
Please let this be a nightmare.
His stomach churns. He slams the toolbox shut, hurrying out to the kitchen.
“Sorry, Mrs. Curtin, but this is turning out to be a bigger job than I thought.”
“Really? Pete said the parts only cost about a quarter.”
“Well, I think the old faucet seat’s stripped, and I’m gonna need to saw a hole in the wall to get it out from behind and install a new one”
His mind’s exploding now. He pictures Jess on the couch, Lorraine at the door, somebody outside in the porch light. A cop? Did Lorraine call the cops?
Got to get home! Now.
He collects himself, “Mrs. Curtin, I’ll try to give you a fair price, but I really do need to go out and get some supplies before I know what everything’ll cost. I’ll come back later. Promise.”
He doesn’t wait for an answer. Grabs his toolbox, barreling down the front steps and into the car, squealing tires all the way down the street. Houses and cars blur past on Gun Club Road. Was Jess hurt on the couch? Was he was hiding from a cop in the car?
By the time he careens into his driveway, he’s starting to talk himself out of it. Probably just that nightmare coming back—the knife and the blood, the cop.
Just a crazy hangover dream.
He checks the garage. His stomach tightens. Still no car. He walks around to the front, opens the door, steps into the living room, spies the blanket on the couch.
Lorraine’s not the best housekeeper. Nothing wrong with a blanket on the couch.
When he veers into the kitchen, he knows it wasn’t a dream.
There’s a smashed pumpkin and a butcher knife lying on the floor, chairs tossed all over the place.
The back door ajar.
It looks like the scene of a bar fight.
He sits on the couch with his head in his hands. Been there for hours. He gets up, walks to the front door, checks again for Lorraine’s headlights.
Just the dark driveway.
No sense calling her mother’s again. He called a dozen times before she finally answered.
“She doesn’t want to talk to you.” She slammed down the phone.
He feels the familiar blackness creeping up. This time it’s real, not just the dark scenes in the nightmare.
He opens the front door and steps outside then walks to the car, opens the door, and
sits in the passenger seat, as if waiting for someone to drive him home. He glances in the rear-view mirror, praying for a glimmer of headlights.
He sighs, snaps open the glove compartment, lifts the bottle, twists the cap, taking a long draw.
He’s already screwed.
What the Hell?
Susan Hynds is a professor emerita and former director of the English Education program at Syracuse University. Before that, she was a middle-and high-school teacher of English, speech, and drama for almost a decade. She has written or co-authored seven nonfiction books and an international literature series for middle- and high-school students. An emerging fiction writer, she has narrated her short story “Cinema Noir” for The Strange Recital fiction podcast and was a featured essayist in Listen to Your Mother, a national event featuring live readings by regional writers on the topic of motherhood.
The Hat by James Roderick Burns
MORE THAN THIRTY years ago an old man stood on a street corner, hat held to his chest, as I passed by in a long black car. I have no idea what kind of hat it was, beyond a notion it might have been the kind detectives wore in the forties – a homburg; a fedora? – and even less whether it was new, an item purchased for the occasion, or something more routine and every day. It was black, I remember that much; so was his overcoat. As the man stood there, breath pushing out into winter cold, his hand trembled against the brim.
Not a month goes by that I don’t think of him, and that grasped, nameless hat.
Not a week.
I was eighteen, in my first term at university, and green as a fresh stick lopped off a branch and tossed onto a smoky fire.
The quad was attractive in the dim light – beautiful, even, with its flat baize lawns and manicured flower beds, arches and mullions, worn staircases branching away into history beneath the mellow stones of the chapel. By day, charming fops and teddy bears walked its gravel; by night antiquarians poking through cobwebby tractates or dislodging the wrong chunk of mortar.
If I squinted my eyes, I could almost see myself there.
But coming to, the JCR was crammed with braying Henrys snapping open the Times on lacquered sticks or chortling over faux pas and mugs of weak tea. They knew the routine of Hall and battels, who could be ignored and who respected, when to break out a crammer and when to properly engage. I never saw one in the library, or the English faculty, come to that, yet they seemed to sail around the quad like galleons on an unseen wind, their fathers’ hands on the tiller, eyes on the merchant bank or the next round of Pimms.
In my top-floor room, curtains closed against the spires, I made cottage cheese on toast and hated them one by one until I fell asleep by the fire.
I hadn’t much credit on the phone-card, but mum said I needed to call right away. As the connection went through, a flat lady robot came on to inform me – politely – that I’d only a minute left.
‘Eh? She’s what? No – no, of course not. I think so. Yes. I’ll bring it with me, don’t worry. Alright. No, up overnight. I can pack a bag and go straight from the coach station. Yes – okay. See you tomorrow, then. Bye – bye.’
It was almost eleven when I stepped over the high bottom of the gate back into college. Though the light was still on in the library portico, I knew it would wink out soon enough. In the next quad the sounds of oiled merriment tumbled from the Buttery, but here it was cool and quiet. Even the night-porter was out of his booth. I had a quick look at the clock on his wall, realised I still had time to get the midnight coach – if I didn’t mind letting down all my pals, that was, or the line of eager young women stretching out of the door.
When I came down, he was back in the booth: the jolly one, high colour in his cheeks, a single chubby finger marking his place in a book. I waved as I passed, lugging my sports bag over my shoulder. It was stuffed with books on Hopkins – monographs, biographies, chunky critical heritages – and got jammed up in the sides, so I had to rive it back and forwards a few times till it came free with a fat rasp.
The door finally closed, and remained closed, behind me.
There was space on the night-bus, and after a quick visit to the machine I had enough for a ticket and a big cup of takeaway coffee.
‘You studyin?’ the driver asked me, hefting my bag into the belly of the coach. It slid right to the end, between two wooden struts, and struck the wall with a bong.
‘Maybe.’ I took a sip. ‘Hopefully. Yeah – going home.’
He nodded, and after sliding in the cases of the other three passengers, pulled open the door to let us on. I settled down a few rows back, keen to watch the city unwind and the country begin. I sipped my coffee and waited for the engine to fire, then slipped the lid back on to save a bit for later. No stewardesses on the night coach, but no overpriced snacks, either. Finally, the door closed and the driver sat down and got himself situated, adjusting the rear-view mirror, lowering his seat.
‘Alright, then,’ he said.
It was apparent by the time we reached the outskirts of Oxford – no one got on at the final stop, by a darkened pub, the driver barely kissing the layby before pulling back out – that the journey would be a long one, as well as quiet. I listened to the gears crunch and the engine hum, a woman sniffing somewhere in a distant row, the last pattering of suburban tarmac. But on the motorway the tires began to sing and we each found our level.
I brought out Hopkins from my pocket, tried to absorb a poem or two under the feeble spot angled above my seat. With a lot of effort, I ground around the housing till it gave up a dollop of pale light the size of a wagon-wheel on the page, but the words swam in and out of focus if I didn’t squint, and I knew if I carried on, a headache would barrel in my direction along with the road. Instead, I closed the book, clicked off the light and leaned my head into the faint, cool thrumming of the glass.
I’d only made the trip a couple of times, but already it was familiar: Oxfordshire fading to the Midlands; the suburbs of Birmingham, then into the city’s heart and back out of the other side after a quarter of an hour’s stop; picking up motorway again, and the dim, unspooling road with hours and hours of England still lying in wait.
Even with the coffee sloshing round inside me, I didn’t get out at Digbeth, and half an hour later we slid back into dark. The cool, vibrating glass turned cold in the rushing air, and I slipped out of one sleeve of my coat, bundling it up like a pillow under my ear. Now I looked like a child peeping out from a hastily-built fort, but who cared? The ladies, sleeping in the back, had turned off their spotlights, and we hadn’t picked up anyone else in Birmingham. I had the place to myself.
After an hour, I learned the full rhythm of the road: bump and hiss, as we crossed the joins in the motorway surface; black, black again, then dirty sodium orange – a row of lamp-posts heralding an intersection – and a forest of reflectorised green and white, the junction sprouting cat’s eyes as the slip-road dwindled away like the underside of a spaceship rising in the dark; then the end of light, bump-and-hiss resuming, the whole slow-motion slide slow punctuated by the driver’s cough, the tiny crackling of his starchy sleeve, a mumbled apology to no one in particular.
I wasn’t happy having to make the journey, but oddly wasn’t unhappy, either. In the shrouded dark things began to make a kind of sense.
If I peeled back the layers of college – perhaps myself – and took up a position at distance, like the great wave of divinity rearing behind Hopkins’ shipwrecks, or the sun peeping over the cold stripey stones of the library to warm its windows, I could find a way forward. The place was soaked in books, after all; built from books, caked like fields and ditches with them, after a heavy snow. What did a few Hooray Henrys matter, after all? I almost smiled till I realised we were halfway there, and the coming dark dropped like a blanket around my shoulders.
When we got to Middlesbrough it was six in the morning. The streets were busy with buses, full of pale, miserable faces shrouded in November steam, and it wouldn’t take long to get one to granda’s. I waited till the driver pulled out my bag on the end of his hooked pole, then thanked him and went into the terminal.
I was putting on my coat, stowing my wallet and zipping my book back into the sports bag when I felt a hand on my arm. There he was, no smaller than when I last saw him, but more concentrated, somehow, his face beaming out from under a flat cap. I felt the force of his grip through my sleeve.
‘Come on, son – we’re just across the way.’
I smiled, turning to follow. Even frazzled with worry he was already out of the door.
On the way to the car he filled me in: diagnosis, initial treatment, not wanting to worry me –university, and all – but going downhill. He’d talked to both sets of parents.
‘Did you bring yer study materials?’
He nodded at the bag. I was walking lop-sided, lurchy as a wolf who’d downed half a sheep. On the scuffed bottom of my sports bag, the lone remaining stud struck the pavement now and again like a fingernail catching on chipboard.
‘Yeah – Gerard Manley Hopkins, mainly.’
He nodded again.
‘That’s good. You should have time to read.’
As we made our way back to Stockton, he didn’t say much else. I was exhausted, my brain still tangled up in Oxford and the choppy cinematic stills of the journey. My bag sat in the footwell, its weight resting on my feet, and I dropped off into a thin dream of running along a jetty but being unable to jump off. I looked around, frustrated, my feet already cutting through the water but stubbornly sticking to the planks, and woke to granda knocking on the passenger window.
Outside, the last splinters of the jetty blew away and I got out of the car near the fresh pinkish brick of the garage. Granda had already gone inside, so I left my bag for a minute and wandered around. The place was much the same as I last saw it, at least from the front –
small turning circle, four similar bungalows around the curve of the cul-de-sac – but behind it looked different, pinched somehow, and not just because autumn had begun and winter wasn’t long in the offing. The tiny greenhouse was stippled with condensation, and had a strong, reedy whiff; he’d left a spade leaning against the back fence, streaks of mud welded to its blade, and an empty spot in the soil, hollow as the socket of a tooth, spoke of some project started but abandoned without much thought. Their bedroom window, too, was closed, the curtains drawn across to their full extent.
I didn’t stay long.
There were all the usual jobs – cooking, hovering, tootling around Safeway and down to the newsagent’s for the papers, the corporation for the gas bill – but without her there, walking about in broad daylight in a familiar place, no smell of the stacks in my nostrils, was strange, disorientating, peculiar. Granda, I sensed, was on autopilot, making sure there was no time to think about the next thing while he saw to the current one. At first, he wouldn’t let me come to the hospital, left me with a stack of books and a longhand-pad in a chair by the window.
‘You know where the kettle is, don’t you,’ he’d say. ‘Bread and butter, biscuits and whatnot?’
‘When d’you want me to come?’
‘Oh – you know. Soon.’
Before his voice could trail off, he smiled and put on his cap, pulled the door to behind him.
A few days later it wasn’t a matter of choice. The evening before, he’d come in silently and taken off his coat, hung up the cap at a funny angle, turned on the TV. News at Ten was starting, and he clicked up the sound with the remote.
‘D’you want some tea?’
I closed the Collected Poems. Even though Hopkins was an Oxford man, who might even help me push on through when I got back – as well as the sort of tortured soul whose life wrung out of him the kind of knotty poetry in which I exulted – he took some getting used to. I was grinding through ‘The Wreck of the Eurydice’ for the fourth time in as many hours and needed a break.
‘Granda – tea?’
‘Eh? Oh, er – go on then.’
The thin smile he offered didn’t reach his eyes, and he sipped the tea long beyond the cooling point, a chocolate hobknob untouched. When the news ended, with the usual bongs and clarions, he put down his mug.
‘I think you’d better come tomorrow.’
‘Alright,’ I said. I didn’t need to ask. ‘Alright.’
From the fifth room window of the hospital, I could see everything: a row of trees lining the car park (granda’s blue Renault saloon sitting neatly in the middle of a bay), the estate opposite, its gardens rather sad and depleted, as though beaten down by the rain, a road stretching round the corner in a series of speed bumps, a pelican crossing.
A child pushed out his scooter wheel as I looked away.
She was in bed, smiling and holding granda’s hand. I hadn’t said hello as we came in; it felt like an intrusion, somehow. But now I dragged up a metal chair to her bedside. She smiled again, took my hand, but still didn’t say anything. It was the one without the drip spiked in the vein, and I could feel the bumps and hollows of her bones, cold to my palm. I remembered her sitting in her high-backed chair when I was a child. The living room was warm; hot, really – she always claimed she had no circulation.
‘Look,’ she said, taking hold of the skin on the back of my hand. It lifted, changing colour briefly, then snapped back into place, the chubby flesh around the webbing of my fingers moving with a ripple as it fell. Then she took her own hand and did the same. The skin puckered up, much the same; she’d given it a good pinch. But this time it stayed up for a moment – like playdough thumbed into ridges, or a wave stalled out at the top of its curl – before subsiding slowly into the back of her hand.
‘Why?’ I’d asked.
‘Oh, you’re young,’ she said, ‘you’ll see.’
I went out on my bike and forgot all about it.
Now that same hand lay inside mine, unmoving. I wasn’t so young, not anymore, but still I didn’t see. Perhaps I should look up from the books once in a while. I clasped her knuckles in both my hands and smiled as hard as I could. I wished she’d speak, nod or raise her eyebrows; anything at all. But her fingers sat bunched and inert between mine, and she smiled on in silence. I looked at granda. Before he could speak a nurse came in and checked something on a chart, then bent to the IV and clicked around a dial.
‘She’ll sleep, now,’ the woman said. She was about forty – gigantically, impossibly middle-aged – but had a kind face above a reassuring shelf of bosom. Her upside-down watch clung on like Harold Lloyd to its cliff face. She gave us a brief smile, turned almost inappreciably towards the door, then shook her head.
I never saw either of them again.
Things went on, for a while at least. Shopping was done; meals were cooked; dishes washed, stacked, put away. The TV came on for the news at lunchtime, now, when we got home from another task. We visited the council offices, to amend records, and the registrar’s, to create another. I heard granda on the phone with a thousand different people, getting arrangements made. I felt useless – just a mouth, a few flailing limbs – but at least the house wasn’t empty. Now and again, I thought about my tutors, but left the sports bag zipped.
On the morning of the funeral, he brushed off the spots from my interview suit, gave my only tie a sponging.
‘There you are,’ he said.
‘Are you alright?’
He looked around the front room, through the door to the kitchen at the wan light breaching its long window, grandma’s chair.
‘No, not really. But I might be.’
Then he stood back, eyes glittering, and shook my hand.
‘Let’s go, shall we.’
I don’t remember much of it – the dark smudge over the building, from the last service, presumably, dampened by a light rain and spreading out into the trees. The rose garden where we scattered her, the chilling rattle of the rollers as the screen came up and swallowed her coffin. Egg sandwiches and tea. But as we passed out of the gate, spread over three cars, there he was, hat in hand.
An old man, I recall, but not so old – in his mid-sixties, maybe; seventy at a pinch. We had swung round the gentle final curve of the driveway, where it tacked away from the entrance road, and no one seemed to be paying much attention, but as the driver pulled out into a gap in the traffic, I noticed him. Had he been walking away, and heard the low respectable hum of the engines, all three slipping into gear and waiting to pull out? Did his usual route – for a paper, or a pint at lunchtime, now his wife had passed away, or to pick up his Jack Russell from the vets, where they’d been administering ear drops for a nasty infection – take him down this way, past the crematorium? Why was I interested?
As we passed, he stood stock-still, hat removed, one hand dropped smartly to the side of his overcoat, the other gripping his hat brim and pressing it close to his collar. His head bowed till his chin touched the top of the hat, making a soft divot in the cloth. Though I couldn’t see his face, I watched the slight tremble of his fingers in the cold, the curls of his breath puffing out, fading into nothing.
It felt wrong to wrench around in my seat and watch him as the car sped up, so this figure is all I have: small, partial, a man with no face paused at some moment in his day as a group of strangers in a hired limousine drove by. But I think of him often, fingers trembling on the brim.
When I got back, I got the bollocking of my life.
‘Where were you, last week? I got Costello’s thoughts – marvellous, as usual – but not yours, and the office has no record of you.’
After I explained my tutor relented a little, explained I should have left word with the office of my whereabouts. Wouldn’t have been a problem, he said; could have accommodated a week, made up any lost ground, he said; then he said nothing and lit a king-size Rothman’s to calm himself down.
‘Come on, then – let’s have it!’
‘Your thoughts. On Hopkins.’
‘Why not? I assume you did do some thinking, wrote down a bit, did you?’
‘Well – yes, I did. D’you want to hear it?’
The Rothman’s dipped in silent command, so I pulled out my notes and gave it to him.
Back in the library, where the fug of old paper, the faint striplight-buzz of my favourite alcove pulled me back into their embrace, I mulled things over. Not bad, he’d said when I finished. Now what about next week? I still wasn’t used to this week-to-week determination of the next essay but thought I might do something Gothic. Across the quad, a pair of foppish Henrys staggered into view, their scarves long and ostentatious, steps a little uncertain, even though it was well shy of noon.
I rolled my eyes and made ready to give them the finger, but then thought better of it. I pushed up the gossamer hat on my brow, instead, and walked on knightly legs down the mean streets of the stacks.
James Roderick Burns’ novella and story collection, Beastly Transparencies, is due from Eyewear Publishing in spring 2023. He is the author of four collections of poetry and a short fiction chapbook, A Bunch of Fives. His work has appeared in a number of journals and magazines, including The Guardian, Modern Haiku, The North and The Scotsman. He can be found on Twitter @JamesRoderickB and his newsletter offers one free, published story a fortnight at abunchoffives.substack.com.
Sobering Up by Karen Gersch
When I moved to the Bowery in the 70’s, bums still sprawled on curbs and in vacant doorways, empty fifths of Ripple and Cold Duck nestled in their arms. The bars offered cheap beer and watered-down whiskey. The higher-end popular ones served super sweet, rich and creamy concoctions like Pink Squirrels, Pink Ladies, Tom Collins, Golden Cadillacs and Grasshoppers. Creme de Menthe was considered a choice of the privileged, whereas The Rolling Stones in their 1972 American tour, were fueled primarily by Tequila Sunrises blended with cocaine.
New York City is a fine place to live if you are a drinker or a self-professed connoisseur of alcoholic diversity. There are only 10,000 bars within the city limits. No human could possibly do a night crawl of them all, not even within a year’s time.
In the East Village, crowds proliferated on weekday nights, as well as the regular weekend binges: a steady stream of other-borough visitors: compulsive financiers, bored uptowners, belligerent winos, bands of well-cologned men and women looking for love or a lusty screw.
In those days, before weed became the preferred intoxicant, unabashed social drinking was the only choice for a majority of Americans. Middle class parents who lived in suburbs and were raising families no longer pursued pub crawls but observed and indulged in cocktail hours at home.
My father’s pride and joy in our house was his man-cave in our finished basement, where he’d built a fifteen-foot-long wooden bar with revolving stools we kids used to spin on when he wasn’t around. The mirrored wall behind the bar was lined with glass shelves and liquors with intriguing graphic labels. I would sit and stare at them, trying to figure out why I liked certain ones more than others: an allure of bottle shapes, images, fonts and descriptives; perhaps an early indication of what would become a visual career.
When family visited or friends stopped by, my father loved nothing more than playing bartender to the men. It was a gender selection that no one questioned. The women all stayed upstairs with my mother, although not without pre-mixed drinks in their hands.
As a young teen, I accepted drinking as a ritualistic bonding element that all my adult relatives engaged in. I appreciated its helping make them less demanding and serious, apt to ignore whatever mischief we kids were up to, and often inspired hilarious behavior on their parts that kept us well entertained.
My older sister Lynn, delivering a tray of drinks to the clamoring aunties outside, once ran straight through the patio’s mesh doors, leaving a perfect imprint of her body in the screen. Aunt Rose, a large, heavy-set woman, lowered herself into our backyard hammock and began to swing. At the height of one thrust, the hammock broke and she was launched skyward only to land face down on the lawn. My mother chased us kids away (howling at the classic pratfall we had seen only in cartoons), before breaking down in laughter herself.
Inebriated uncles tried to play pool (on the professional table positioned directly across from the bar). They dropped their cue sticks, scraped the green fabric or skipped balls clear off the table to bounce loudly across the floor. My brother and I had developed fine motor skills and aim from practicing after school most days; we were wildly amused by the crudity and clumsiness of our tottering relatives.
It would be years before I began to drink; I did not discover the pleasures of wine while at Pratt. But I was somehow lured into the world of whiskey, particularly Jack Daniels. My roommate and good friend Mia Wolff and I would frequent local bars in Brooklyn and order one shot apiece. I was still a bit of a grungy, possibly homely girl, but Mia—with her gleaming blonde hair and upbeat, casual manner—always managed to attract men. We would chat and joke and invariably, they would buy us second and third shots of Jack. At some point, I transformed into a witty conversationalist. We would regale them with stories or as ace art students, dash off fierce likenesses on napkins. After downing our fourth and fifth glasses, even the bartender was impressed and treated us. We never left with anyone, just slipped away on our own and went back to our dorms, many sheets-to-the-wind and still babbling.
One night, I left Mia in conversation at a bar on Willoughby and headed back on my own. I didn’t get far—three blocks away—which is where she discovered me an hour later in deep discourse with an abandoned washing machine at the curb.
“Whaddareya doing?” she asked (and I noted she had to lean against its lid as she spoke).
“Lissen”, I whispered, patting it. “We’re both going through cycles. I’m telling it about this painting I started and why I may just dump it.”
Over the years, I’ve dated men who preferred beers or bedtime globes of cognac, but I married a whiskey fanatic. Besides his British/Scottish roots and choices of smokey, single malts, I loved
the calmness with which he nursed a glass of stunning amber every night. The color and odor
enchanted me. When we clinked, he’d hail my clear flute of gin and tonic with a signature wry smile. I like that kind of tolerance in a man.
These days, I rarely indulge in anything except wine, my palate and preferences having been nuanced over time. Since moving upstate, my desire to drink diminished, perhaps due to a geographic removal from the sizzling energy and clamor of city life. I mostly toast myself now through writing: the fluid art of ink to page, a penning of worthy remembrances.
Karen Gersch grew up as a tomboy but also an avid reader, writer and visual artist. She spent 25 years running around circus rings with a woman balanced on her head, and is still prone to juggle a multitude of artistries and contemplative journals. This is an excerpt from her memoirs of traveling with the circus and living for 38 years on the Bowery.
We all entered through the front door hoping we would be received like we were at birth—cradled and held tight. We had hoped our entrance would be on white chariots with trumpets blaring and glorious music floating around us. But in reality, some of us entered in chariots of steel, others came in upright and holding onto a whittled stick, others laid on a mattress with railings and many were restrained in that same bedding, screaming, shouting and crying. Just like at birth.
We all thought we had been put in solitary confinement. Set aside. Removed from our homes. Removed. It was as if we had been misbehaved toddlers who needed a time out. Except nobody came to get us and our time was running out.
We all had identical rooms—drab gray cinder block walls, one closet, one night stand, one lone single bed, and railings on the side that at first looked like an elongated crib. But this wasn't a nursery. Although, some of us still wet our pants and cried when we were being changed.
We all were lonely. Sheila, in the room across the hall, was always talking to the man on the TV. She thought it was her son Michael. The man never answered her. Neither did her son Michael.
We all didn't understand why we were here. Was it because we became strangers? A stranger to ourselves? A stranger to our family? Was it the multiple visits to the doctors? The ones who shot us with syringes of liquid hope. They gave us magic pills which only served to weigh us down like anchors.
We all were on the bottom of the ocean with no life support or lifeguard to save us. Apparently, none of our family members knew how to swim.
We all were confused. Holding onto favorite memories and sharing them repeatedly was comforting to us but not to the listener. There was a time when our parents would tickle us under our chin and we would giggle and giggle. Our parents continued to do this over and over again. We would laugh no matter how many times they did it.
We all are still here, but no one is laughing.
I began my writing career when I was an adult but now I think I am backsliding by reimagining fairytale stories in German. I love writing humorous Literary Fiction. Living in a log cabin on six wooded acres in Maryland, I found peace and solitude the perfect place to create. My first critique on my writing ability was in the 4th grade. My teacher wrote on my report card that I had a great imagination. That same teacher had me write "I will not talk in class" 100 times! Imagine that! Apparently, I had a lot to say even back then and a captive audience in the classroom to encourage me!
The Wedding Venue by Kristina Diaz
“Why are we heading over to the basilica?” Ayodelé asked, her beautiful black box braids tapping against the small of her back as we wander down the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan.
“I mean you’re not even Catholic, why is this even a venue option for your wedding?”
“Well,” It’s not one of my options, “Hugo really likes the history of this place, and I promised I would check it out.”
“But he’s not Catholic either.” Ayodelé retorts.
Charlotte, my six-year-old niece, jumps over cracks as she navigates the sidewalk in front of us. She pauses and turns to face us, her copper curls bouncing around her face as she spins.
“Titi, is Hugo going to become a Djinn like us?”
“No sweetie. He’s not.” Knots twisted in my stomach with the words. “Remember, we haven’t told him yet. So, it’s a secret for now.”
Charlotte rushes me and squeezes her thin arms around my waist. Most of her front teeth are missing as she smiles. “Is he going to become a witch like Ayodelé?”
Ayodelé laughs hard and gently glides her hands over Charlotte's hair so it's out of her face.
“Not a chance, Ifé.”
“Ifé?” she almost sang as she said it. “My name's Charlotte, not Ifé.”
Ayodelé smiles, “Ifé means love, little one.”
“We better get moving,” I interrupt as I usher Charlotte downhill toward the basilica. A city this old groans and whispers with ghosts and imprinted memories. We all shudder as we pass a hotel called El Convento. Charlotte grabs my hand and pulls to hurry us along.
“I know sweetie, old places hold onto their stories. But they're just that, the memories of the place. Nothing there can hurt you.” I aim to reassure her. Charlotte stares at me, unconvinced as goosebumps spread across our arms.
“Dad says Djinn should stay away from ghosts and old buildings,” she grumbles and runs ahead. She stops at the foot of the stairs turning to look at us placing her hands on her hips when we take our time. The basilica looming behind her against the bright blue sky. I can’t help but see a smaller version of my brother’s worried eyebrows in her face. But I don’t say so. She doesn't like it when we do.
“It's ok habibti,” I say and hold her hand, as much for my own benefit as hers. Once inside, Charlotte releases my hand, determined to explore all the statues and paintings. I watch her out of the corner of my eye as she marvels at the stained glass.
Ayodelé leans in and whispers, “Quick question, Salma.” The sound of my name shakes me out of my thoughts.
“Are your kind even allowed in churches?”
I smile carefully, “I don’t see why not. One of their priests was a holder of a ring at one point. That’s in part how my kind made it to this part of the world. Although I wish it wasn’t—they just made a mess of things.“
Ayodelé shudders, her colorful beads shaking in vibrant contrast to her white dress. Again she whispers, “At least they never got a hold of a lamp. It’s a good thing you guys decided to change how that works.”
“ Yeah, that would have been bad!” I practically blurt out. People in prayer turn to look at me and immediately I shrink back whispering in increasing octaves to the point that I might as well have been mouthing the word perdon!
Ayo chuckles and slowly pats me on the back reassuringly “Don’t worry Salma. Places like this always make me feel like I need to keep quiet too. It's not like Witches have the best history with the church either.”
“True, true. Wait, where’s Charlotte?” I ask, suddenly aware she is no longer in my line of sight. I scan the pews and walk toward the main altar, peeking at the minor stations for prayer that line the walls. I find her chatting away with a little blond girl. Clearly a tourist, she’s wearing a bright pink and orange dress, her face painfully red from the Caribbean sun.
They’re smiling and the tourist child shows Charlotte the collection of My Little Pony dolls she has in her backpack. They sit on one of the pews to play. A woman I assume is the little girl’s mom kneels in the nearby nook to pray.
Ayodelé taps me on the shoulder. “Salma, you need to have a long talk with Hugo.”
“About the venue?” I know that’s not what she means.
“About the venue, about what you are. He's going to have to run the Cachibache with you at some point. It’s the family business. You can’t get out of it.”
“I will, Ayodelé.”
“When?” she lifts an eyebrow, her lips pursed to one side.
Before I can answer, my ears pop and I immediately look over at Charlotte. In an instant, the girls are on their feet. Their smiles disappear and the little blond girl is backing away from my niece, tears welling in her eyes.
Charlotte looks around for me, her eyes wide, her breath quick. “Titi!” she cries.
I run as the girl’s mom turns around and screams into Charlotte’s face, “What did you do? Give her back her toys!”
My ears pop again as the statue of the Virgin Mary disappears from the altar behind them.
Ayodelé gasps and appears beside Charlotte, gently pushing her back so an adult stands between her and the tourist mom. “What is wrong with you? Why are you screaming at a child like that? Don’t you know how to behave in church?”
That sets the women off and she screeches wordlessly at Ayodelé.
We look at each other and walk away without a word, Charlotte in tow. But the woman chases after us.
“Come back here! I’m not finished yet,” she shrieks. “Give them back!” The woman screams again, her face even redder than her daughters and at this point, people are staring. My heart drops into my stomach as my ears pop and a few candles disappear from the entrance. We pick up our pace before someone decides to pull out a phone.
We barely make it out of the door, but Charlotte is shaking. I stop, even though it would be smarter to keep moving. I kneel down to Charlotte’s level and hold her hands.
Ayodelé comes closer, sandwiching the girl between us. “Take deep breaths with me, ok?”
As they breathe in tandem, I remember to smile as I speak.
“Don’t be scared, habibti, this is normal. When we’re around people with big emotions, sometimes it feels as if a wish is being made. That’s why things are disappearing. Your magic is trying to exchange them to grant the desire of the big emotions. It's normal, especially for kids. I remember having really big emotions when I was your age, too. Just take your breaths like Auntie Ayo is saying and it’ll stop.”
Charlotte nods and breathes, tears peek out of the corners of her eyes. We all breathe, but not for long.
The tourist mom has backtracked which has given us a few precious seconds but now she is heading straight for us, dragging the lady who watches the donation box behind her by the arm.
They haven’t taken two steps toward the door when my ears pop and the ponies appear on the stairs near us. They pop again and this time I pick up Charlotte and jump back as the Virgin Mary lands in front of the basilica’s doors, blocking the path of our little tourist friend and her mom. Her pale hands reach around Mary’s head, trying to reach us. “This is the last time I come to the Caribbean!” She spits at us, but I just head down the stairs.
Ayodelé squints hard and points at the little tourist, but thinks better of it. Instead, she picks up the ponies and hands them over. Then she turns to the mom, looks her dead in the eye and points an angry finger, “May your sun block always fail.” She takes a few steps back and says a little louder, “May your flip flops always be too tight!”
“Ayodelé, stop with the minor curses and let’s go!” I tell her.
She flicks her eyes to me, but before coming down the steps she looks back one last time. “May all the food you eat on vacation give you mild diarrhea!”
We hurry down the street, Charlotte on my back. Ayodelé raises her hand and a flock of pigeons block the view behind us as we turn down one of the old city’s many alleyways.
“May they forget we were even here! Damn tourists—we live where they vacation!” she huffs.
I want to laugh, but my heart is pounding so hard I feel it in my head. I bounce Charlotte on my back, hoping she can’t tell how worried I am. I turn to Ayodelé. She's still fuming, but her face softens when she looks at us.
“Don’t worry Salma, they won’t even remember we were there.” She tries to reassure me.
“Phew! That brings me back!” she announces and doubles over to catch her breath. We haven't had that happen in a while I think, but still. I put Charlotte down and twist my ring. “It’s not enough Ayo.”
“You think someone caught it on their phone?”
“I don’t know, but better safe than sorry? I need you to make a wish. Just to be sure.”
Ayodelé gives me a stern look. “Are you sure? These things tend to backfire when we’re not incredibly specific.”
“I’m sure.” I know full well there’s too much at stake not to be sure.
Ayodelé grabs hold of my hand and presses on the gold ring that has been in my family for millennia with her thumb.
“I wish that any phones or cameras that happen to have captured our latest adventure would transfer those files to Salma’s phone,” she whispers. The air tingles with electricity as tiny red sparks flicker down the alley and hit my phone.
“There goes another one.” I sigh as it powers down and dies.
Charlotte grabs my free hand tightly, “Is it enough?”
I nod and she lets out a long dramatic sigh, bopping her head against my arm.
Ayodelé releases my hand and says flatly, “Tech doesn’t really mesh with magic as old as yours, now does it?”
I shrug and look back down the street from where we just came. “You know what?”
Both Charlotte and Ayo look at me simultaneously asking “What?”
Charlotte punches Ayodelé in the thigh and shouts, “Chitón! You owe me a soda!”
We all laugh for a moment and it feels so good to do so.
“Maybe we’re better off with a backyard wedding," I offer.
“You think?” Ayodelé rolls her eyes, but she’s still smiling. “Now, let’s go get that soda and may the bubbles be plenty!” She exclaims joyfully. Charlotte echoes the sentiment and the day is just a little brighter for it.
Kristina Diaz has a long career as a portrait photographer that has expanded to video and podcast editing/production in the past 4 years. Published in the Xavier Review she is a fresh voice from Dorado Puerto Rico that is currently working on her first novel and a collection of short stories. In addition to writing she is a fifth generation oral tradition storyteller.
For Kristina Diaz, stories shape how we understand the world. Stories are everywhere, from the looks we give when sharing an inside joke to the mysterious pair of pants that suddenly appear on a random street corner. Her proximity to the Bermuda triangle and the magical realism of the Caribbean are constant themes and inspiration in her work. In her free time she enjoys making passion fruit jam, exploring the vast world of teas, and hanging out with her husband Elvin, and their two pups Coque & Olaf.
Matthew had only signed up for the writing retreat because he’d been assured there would be no mentors, instructors, facilitators or teachers of any kind. Only fellow writers sharing their work, and only if the spirit moved them. After years of study, Matthew had concluded that writing was best shared but not taught. Either that, or he was unteachable. Probably the latter, in light of what a creative writing professor had once told him: “You are the most attentive student I’ve ever had. You listen closely to my advice, then do the exact opposite.” The problem had been some sort of cognitive dissonance—writing classes had laid out a roadmap for something that ought to be an ineffable, transcendent experience. Or maybe he’d just been too bullheaded to listen to teachers.
So now he was engaged in a last-ditch attempt to tap into the élan vital, that life force from which creativity sprang, if it existed at all. He’d rented a cabin at the retreat where he could write in peace, a musty little domicile that smelled of ancient books. But the writing retreat was turning out to be more like a retreat from writing. On day two, the blank page in his notebook somehow became even blanker. Here he was, amidst a burbling stream and rustling cottonwoods, or maybe it was a rustling stream and burbling cottonwoods, and the muse had only deigned to give him the middle finger.
His presence was expected at the communal dinner every night, an opportunity for everyone to share their bon mots that had dropped like manna from heaven, but he hadn’t bothered out of embarrassment that he was manna-less. Maybe it was time to throw in the towel or the stylus or whatever it is one throws in when quitting the whole writing shtick.
Finally, though, an idea came to him, born out of desperation: haiku. A compact form of expression to break the creative logjam. Quickly, he scribbled in his notebook:
A burbling stream. What the hell
Does all of this mean?
Famished after this burst of creative energy, he left the notebook on his picnic table and went inside to make lunch. As he assembled a pastrami sandwich, a dark shape whizzed by the kitchen window. He ran outside in time to spot a black bird swooping upward toward the tallest cottonwood. Too small for a raven, so it must be a crow.
And the crow had left a calling card. White guano had scored a bullseye on his Basho-worthy masterpiece, now rendered unreadable.
“Critic!” he yelled at the crow, now only a black speck at the top of the enormous tree.
Well, he couldn’t take his soiled notebook to tonight’s dinner. He sat down, intending to copy the poem on another page in the notebook, but the crow, cawing its lungs out, stole his attention. When he finally pulled his gaze away, he wrote:
The rushing stream lined
By cottonwoods. The crows’ nest
Crowns the tallest one.
Okay, that didn’t entirely suck. Courtesy of a random act of crow. He took the poem to dinner that night, where he felt inadequate because other writers had finished entire stories or long poems. However, he was heartened when everyone complimented his efforts. A woman named Margaret, with intense blue eyes and gray hair pulled into a bun, attempted to explain how he could more fully use Basho’s techniques to awaken the senses.
“I thought we were here to share our work,” Matthew replied, “not share our insights about Basho.”
Margaret bowed her head. “Apologies. It seems like you’re searching for something, and I just wanted to help.”
He felt terrible afterward and knew Margaret meant well, but his teacher defense shield had been activated.
The next morning, he awoke to a raucous call, which sounded like the same damned crow. He heaved himself out of bed and stumbled to the picnic table. The breeze had the tang of coming rain, and dark clouds massed in the distance. The crow cawed even louder. On impulse, Matthew retrieved his notebook and opened it. He’d figured he was well and truly done with writing after the embarrassing display last night, but another haiku insisted that he write it down:
The first morning light
Touches the high nest. Silence
Broken by the crow.
“Thank you,” he called to the bird. He felt like an idiot, but the crow squawked back at him, then launched itself into the dawn. Matthew kept writing:
The sky filled with sun
And clouds. Yet it is the crow
That consumes the eye.
Not Basho exactly, but inspired nonetheless. After breakfast, he packed another pastrami sandwich along with the notebook and hiked along the stream. The riparian habitat gave way to an open, cultivated field, where his friend was waiting for him, perched on a cornstalk. He quickly wrote:
Ebony crow lands
On a cornstalk. Now he must
Sway with the breezes.
Everyone at dinner appreciated his offerings. Matthew apologized to Margaret, who patted his hand and said, “I think you’ve found what you’ve been looking for.” Had he? What was that, exactly?
Later that night, the wind picked up, becoming a gale. The cabin shook and creaked, resulting in a sleepless night. The red light of dawn filled the bedroom as the wind finally died down. Something was missing. What? Then he had it: no morning wake-up call.
He stepped outside to check the tallest cottonwood. No crow’s nest. At the base of the tree, he found the tattered remains of the nest. Three smashed eggs lay amid the twigs and leaves.
He scanned the sky for the rest of the morning, desperate to see the crow, or at least hear a distant caw. Nothing. “Margaret,” he whispered, “you were right.” He opened the notebook and wrote very slowly this time:
Without the crow, all
Is silence. Good-bye, my friend.
Good-bye, my teacher.
John Christenson lives in Boulder, Colorado with his wife and a cat who is fond of penguins. His publications include short stories in the New Mexico Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and several anthologies. A piece entitled “A Tree Grows in the Man Cave” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
The Hill by Truman Burgess
“I have brought the melancholy of my heart
up the hill
to the wild roses in flower”
-Yosa Buson (1716 - 1784), translated by W.S. Merwin
Yosa Buson stared at the bloody circle before him. The noon sun was directly overhead, and its sunlight poked between a handful of white ocean clouds, the sunlight reflecting off the blood’s deep, oozing red. The result looked like a rose in full blossom, plucked and thrown carelessly into the wind.
The sounds of the townspeople began to creep back into his consciousness. The muttering gossip of the victim’s neighbors peppered into Buson’s ears. He felt the close perspiration of the poor fishermen around him; the summer humidity did little to comfort the grisly scene. Thirty villagers had come to see this man’s execution, yet no one knew his name. They knew only what he’d done two nights ago.
“Excuse me. You there. Excuse me.”
Buson looked down to his left at an aged fisherman. The man’s flesh was torn and leathery, like the stunted skin of a turtle.
“Oh, sorry. I apologize . . . my mind was elsewhere,” Buson said.
The old fisherman grimaced, revealing only a few remaining yellow teeth. “I understand. You look like a young man, traveler. First time seeing an execution?”
“Hm. Guess blood’s still flying across the country. So much for our hard-earned peace. Our daimyo hasn’t been here in all his life, I guarantee that.” The man took a step back and casually bowed a respectful angle. “I’m Beniya. A pleasure to meet you.”
Buson kindly returned the bow. He felt his white kimono stick to his sweaty back. “Friends call me Buson.”
“Strange name for these parts. Strange day for all of us, I suppose.” Beniya turned and looked across the slim road to the rapist’s body. “Did you know her . . . the victim?” His voice was low, breathless.
“Briefly. I knew her name.” Buson felt the sentence leave his cracked lips like bitter wine.
“She was a real beauty for a town like this. Yes, she was. Shame. At least she’s with her ancestors now. No place in this world for an orphan.” Beniya bowed again and walked off toward the market. The rest of the villagers gradually dispersed back to their daily chores, their boats, their weaving. Buson watched four boys tiptoe toward the corpse to get a better look. The two samurai were talking quietly to each other, the executioner leaning on his sheathed katana. One saw the boys and swore them off.
With his hands behind his back, Buson stared at the bloody rose-print. He couldn’t strip it from his mind. This tragic, bloody ferocity had coursed through a killer’s veins minutes ago. Enthralling. Paired with the sun, it was a shade of red Buson had never seen recreated by man’s hands, not in Edo, nor in Kyoto. Mankind’s truest paint is hidden until death, he thought. As he slowly picked up his pack and straw raincoat, he felt his head spin. His knees wobbled until he caught his balance. Blood was on his mind. Blood and loathing.
Takahama’s only izakaya was full that night. Men packed shoulder-to-shoulder drank the town’s unique brew of sake by the pitcher-full. Buson sat on the last stool of the restaurant. Back slumped like his shoulders were melting down his chest, he stared into the clear liquid sloshing around his cup as he tilted it left and right. The paper lanterns hanging from the izakaya’s wooden posts shed warm, flickering light across the small restaurant. Behind him he felt the pleasant coastal breeze. Cold specks of rain danced in from the night and kissed the nape of his neck.
He remembered when he’d been here five moons ago. Hanako had been piling used wooden plates and ceramic cups from the bar, careful not to make eye contact with anyone. Anyone except Buson. Her long hair had been tied in a tight bun behind her head, casually held in place by a long black hairpin. A scarlet ornamental flower crested the top of the pin. The flower was a splash of color in contrast to Hanako’s pale skin and grey kimono. Beads of sweat had raced down her forehead. Buson had imagined he could feel her anxiety on his own back, and he’d wished he could take it, keep it for himself. When her duties were clear, she had come over to Buson and chatted about menial things. The color of the moon, local gossip, the new Buddhist bhikkhu in town. It hadn’t mattered what she’d said to him. It was the way she traced her hair behind her ear, the way she smiled with half a grin when she spoke of her dreams.
Now two mature women were tending to the bar. Both wore the same grey kimono. Both wore deep frowns set like stone. Buson shot back the rest of his cup and slammed his hand on the bar for a pitcher. The night weighed against him, waiting to ambush him when sleep would inevitably roll along. The dreams would stab silently, without expression. Buson could feel the sake burn in his chest and the tips of his ears. The room began to spin, just like he’d hoped it would.
A few pitchers later, Buson stumbled through the quiet night’s muddy streets. He hoped he was moving toward the town’s meager ryokan to spend the night, but he wasn’t sure of his steps. Uncertainty, he thought. That’s me tonight and tomorrow. Forever. What is a poet if not a vagabond? His mind swam in the warm mud seeping between his sandaled toes. He was missing something, looking for something inside his organs. Hollow, like an oak infested with wood beetles digging through its branches. A young woman appeared at Buson’s side and grabbed his elbow. She was leading him toward a wide, lit house. In the dark, Buson looked up at the clear sky. Stars spread themselves haphazardly across the night. All of them swirled around one another. Hypnotizing. Buson stopped the girl and rubbed his eyes. He looked again at the stars and saw them for what they were: innumerable eyes of a spider staring at him, gods watching his thoughts closer than he’d ever know.
The following morning, Buson’s nausea eclipsed his nihilism. He had a feeling he’d wretched a few times last night, but he couldn’t remember. The ryokan’s staff were pleasant to him, but stiff and forced. After tea and a small bowl of rice, Buson paid them well. As he exited the sliding door, he paused and got the attention of the ryokan’s owner, a middle-aged man with pock-marked cheeks.
“Pardon me,” Buson said. “Who’s the current bhikkhu at the temple?”
“His name is Yamanoue. Been here for over thirteen moons by now. Go easy on him.”
Buson shared a bow with the ugly man before heading south, uphill. The morning sun was veiled by low clouds streaming in from the sea. Buson inhaled the rich scent of brine as he plodded up a heavily worn trail. The grass here was practically dancing it was so alive. Emerald ferns on either side of the trail fought for Buson’s attention. He heard a woodpecker rattle away somewhere in the shaded forest.
Unlike Edo, Takahama’s Buddhist temple had not been added upon over the past hundred years. As Buson stepped through the temple’s arched gateway, he noticed native ivy overwhelming the wooden structure’s accents and angles. Through the gate, twin healthy beech trees stood side-by-side in the center of the temple courtyard. A flock of crows perching in the two trees cawed and croaked, a shrill break in the temple’s otherwise still atmosphere. Buson looked behind him, down the winding hill to the small village below and the sea beyond. Even from this height there was a limit to how far he could see—the clouds were a solemn wall hiding the horizon. Perhaps when the sun has had its say I’ll look again, Buson thought.
He stepped further into the temple grounds. From what he could sense, Buson seemed to be the only person up here. Directly in front of him and on the other side of the trees lay the main hall. The front doors were open, and Buson could see the lower half of a bronze Buddha within. But for his purpose, he needed to find the bhikkhu. The temple’s rusty bell stood outside the lecture hall, a building no larger than an ordinary home in Takahama but far more ornamental. Here, too, ivy bordered the building’s curves and edges, as if the encroaching ivy hoped to hide what lay within. Feeling his sandals pull against his toes, Buson shuffled toward the meeting hall. As he approached the sliding door, Buson heard brief footsteps behind him. He stopped and turned.
A tall, calmly smiling bhikkhu stood to the side of the bell. He wore a brown rakusu over his robes, the rakusu neatly sewn together with a brick pattern throughout the garment. Buson thought the over-robe looked more like a large, adult-sized bib. Even with the oversized Buddhist robes, Buson could see the man had been a warrior. He had the thickly muscled neck of an ox and the posture of a plank. A vertical scar raced down his forehead and left cheek. His bald scalp shone in the overcast light.
Hands and sleeves together in front of him, the bhikkhu bowed.
“Welcome, pilgrim,” he said, his voice deep and melodious.
“You must be Yamanoue,” Buson said, returning the bow.
“That I am. With whom do I owe this pleasure?”
The sun peaked out from overhead and caused Buson to squint. “Most know me by the name Buson,” he said.
Yamanoue’s expression lifted. “You don’t say? Truly, the poet from Edo, the one who studied under Master Hajin?”
Buson grinned. “I’m afraid so. One and the same.”
“The honor is mine, senpai. Master Hajin’s poetry is what led me to The Way of Buddha, away from war and worry.” Yamanoue bowed again, this time deep, almost to the waist. “What brings you to our humble temple?”
“You, actually. I was hoping to have a conversation.”
Yamanoue nodded. “Certainly, certainly. Please, follow me and we can discuss The Way.” He walked past Buson, up the steps, and slid the wooden door open to the meeting hall. Buson followed him. The interior of the meeting hall smelled of wet wood. There were no ornaments inside, other than a small Buddha at the front of the hall. Tatami mats formed the structure’s flooring. Yamanoue smoothly knelt to both knees in the middle of the room and gestured for Buson to join him. As Buson knelt, his nausea returned to buffet him. He reached up and rubbed his forehead.
“So, senpai, what do you seek?” Yamanoue said.
Buson sighed and shook his head. “It’s . . . not easy to explain. See, I’ve lived many things, and I’ve felt them too. Spring’s first thawed mud on the mountains. A young samurai weeping while he holds a dead infant in his arms. Bears ripping into each other under a full moon. I’ve been there, lived there in those moments. That’s what I write. Master Hajin taught me well . . . but it wasn’t me that lived those moments. I was only a reflection, a pool begging for ripples.”
“That is your dharma, no?” Yamanoue said.
“Yes, I suppose so, but let me explain. I thought I knew dharma—the principles, the duty, the me among the nothing. But . . . but then I met her.” Buson exhaled and looked up at the ceiling’s long pine beams stretching parallel to one another. “I first came to Takahama twenty-six moons ago. I was only passing through, see, on my way east for an autumn festival. The gods saw fit to dump their tears on us that day. The thunderstorm was impenetrable. So, dripping wet, I stumbled into the izakaya for shelter. I was the only one there, other than the owner and a young woman . . . Hanako.” He said her name like it was opium.
At the name, Yamanoue leaned forward slightly. Buson knew that the bhikkhu had known her. Hanako had spoken highly of him.
“There was nothing else to do but talk and drink since the roads were flooding. I learned that she was old enough for marriage—I learned that very quickly—and that she was an orphan. She talked to me like we’d known each other since childhood. And the way she laughed when I shared my poems . . . no one laughs like that. The veil of deluge behind me, I found the flower that’d been blooming in the dark. Hanako.”
“Did you pursue her?”
“No . . . as soon as the rain ceased, I rented a bed and dreamt of her. But when morning came, I did what I knew: I moved on. Traveling, always traveling. Like nature, eh? I made plans every chance I got to come back here. Every time I planned how I’d propose to her, take her away with me back to Edo, or maybe settle in Kyoto. I structured how I would profess my love. Poem after poem—they were all her. But whenever I walked into that izakaya, I would only reflect what she was. I could only observe and swallow the moment, feel it swirl in my belly. Sometimes we talked for hours. She liked me. I knew that from her eyes. Clever and keen. As if she were taunting me to ask her.”
Buson raked his fingers through his hair. “I never did.”
Slowly, Yamanoue asked, “Is it regret, then?”
“Guilt. Guilt, that’s what it is.” Buson allowed his chest to boil. “Because I always left and always returned, I always moved, yes, but I left her alone by staying alone myself. There was no one else for her. No one. An orphan girl in a piss-town, serving sake day and night to drunkards and peasants. And what happened, Yamanoue? Not me, that’s for sure. She was taken, snatched, raped. And you know what I was doing mountains away that night? Staring at the open stars, thinking how wonderful it is to be alive and how I’d surely share my life with her this time.” His nostrils flared with his breathing as his nausea flipped his anger on its side. He looked down at his open palms. Empty and shaking.
Buson heard the bhikkhu inhale and exhale a deep breath.
“I am . . . sorry she had to feel the pain she did,” Yamanoue said. His voice quavered. “She would visit here often to learn The Way of Buddha. She was pious, yet original. She knew she’d lived a difficult life. But she also knew Buddha’s truths, just as you do, that existence is suffering, and that suffering has a real breeding ground . . . attachment. Craving. She saw past them.”
Buson met Yamanoue’s eyes. “How?”
“To see past the future is to see the present. Nothing, absolute nothingness. She awoke her buddha-nature and cleaved to letting go of all of this. She discovered what’s beyond the mind. Beyond the tools of reason. So . . . when she died, I imagine she already knew she’d exist still, the very same existence she witnessed in zen.”
“I can’t not crave her,” Buson said. “The past is not some rope I can let go. The past and the future are my hands, my left and my right. I can’t grip a decision without feeling what isn’t there. That’s the nothingness you worship, isn’t it? Well, it’s a devil to me. I cannot move without feeling my own bones’ oppression.”
A single crow barked in the courtyard. Yamanoue parted his lips, but he paused and shut them again. Finally, he asked, “Do you know of Takahama’s Shinto shrine?”
Buson frowned. “No. I wasn’t aware there was a shrine here.”
“Few people know of it. It’s far in the hills, and the path is no more than a cluttered deer trail.” Yamanoue rose to his feet. “You can find the trailhead behind our temple’s main hall. Legend says a local kami still visits its shrine. I think there you may find the setting for your search.” He surveyed Buson. “Strange that a traveling poet is missing a yatate. I think you’ll probably want one when you reach the shrine. Here, it would honor me if you would take mine.”
Yamanoue walked to the Buddha at the end of the room, leaned behind it, and pulled out a small, rectangular wooden box, a corked gourd of water, and some spare parchment. He brought them to Buson and presented them. Buson rose and accepted the writing set, bowing.
“Thank you, Yamanoue. I’ll go find this hill,” Buson said.
Yamanoue clasped his own hands together. When Yamanoue bowed farewell, Buson thought he could feel the potential serenity of a sweet, inarticulate gravity press against him, empty beyond nothing. Buson took a few steps backward before turning his back to Buddha and heading toward the Shinto trail.
At this elevation, mainly cypress and cedars crowded the thick forest. Although past mid-day, cloud cover remained overhead and crept through the vegetation’s intertwined branches. Paired with the stagnant, humid air trapped under the forest canopy, the raw richness of life overwhelmed Buson. The trail was fragmented but still discernible enough to follow. It continued onward up-hill, driving through meandering rivulets and run-off. Buson’s feet and legs were quickly caked in mud. The trail had wound on itself so many times that Buson had lost his sense of direction. He knew only that the path went forward and backward. The choice was linear.
Unable to gather enough sunlight to thrive beneath the ancient trees, few shrubs and ferns lived on the forest floor. The forest seemed oddly forlorn and forgotten, despite its life. Looking ahead, Buson could see a break in the tree line, where the hill finally plateaued. Breathing hard, Buson tentatively approached the forest’s edge. He rested his hand on a healthy fir on the border and tried to make sense of what he saw.
The “hill” was, in fact, an ancient, isolated mountain peak overlooking the northern sea. A solitary grey torii gate stood planted on the cliff’s edge. The rest of the peak was carpeted in waving, pale grass, the canvas for blooming red rose bushes chaotically spread before the torii. A cold breeze swept against the clifftop, swaying the roses enough to catch crimson petals and gently carry them wistfully against Buson’s chest, before his feet. He could smell their wild liberty. The wind had ushered the clouds south enough to allow sunlight to bathe the cliff. Buson stepped forward and saw a large ball of copper fur beside the base of the torii. Intoxicated by the scent of the roses, Buson inched forward, careful to avoid the thorns beneath the blossoms.
It was a fox. Dead and on its side, the female fox’s eyes and mouth were shut. The edges of her mouth were slightly curved, as if she were sharing a dream with someone she loved. Someone who’d stay by her while roses covered her fur under the sun and under the moon.
Buson stared at the fox like his soul had found breath. His eyes filled with tears that the wind flicked away. He shrank to his knees and pulled the yatate from his kimono, the gourd, the blank folded parchment. He spread the paper across his knee, opened the yatate, let his tears and water mix into the inkstone. The writing brush dipped into the ink and flowed on its own, captivated by its master’s heart. When he finished the poem’s seventeenth syllable, Buson’s limp fingers let the brush drift into the grass. He inhaled the sea, the wild roses. The nostalgic kiss of loneliness drifted across his lips, a clear prophecy that they would surely meet again.
Truman Burgess grew up in the Pacific Northwest and the Shenandoah Valley. He has a Bachelor's of English and currently works as a writer for St. George News in Southern Utah. When he's not writing, you can find him dancing with his wife or climbing trees with his kids.
Cultural Revolution by James Roth
She has a peasant's face, the kind Mao would have wanted to see on a CCP poster during the Cultural Revolution: It's pleasantly round. Her cheeks have no high, affluent cheekbones, indicating wealth and aristocratic breeding. No. Her face, its roundness, gives one the impression that she's from peasant stock, perhaps a village in Hunan province, far up a remote valley that is only reachable by footpath. The village is a cluster of crumbling, mud-splattered homes. The roofs leak. At a communal well, old women who chew betel nut and have no teeth often gather to drink tea and gossip about a girl in a village in another valley (a village they have never been to), who has left home to work in Shanghai. They're sure a boy is involved. A girl who isn't pregnant would have no reason to leave the village until she's married.
Back in the sixties, when the rice paddies in this village shined with black spring mud, young women, their heads covered with scarves or straw hats--the peasant girls Mao would have favored--were calf-deep in the mud, stooped over, planting rice seedlings. They all had blissful CCP smiles. This girl with the round peasant face might have been in the black mud back then, working cooperatively alongside these CCP poster girls for the good of the country, but in modern China she has her own ideas about her future. The Cultural Revolution was long, long ago; she has only heard stories of it, handed down to her by uncles, aunts, grandmothers, and fathers, stories of their friends who died of despair or disease at the hands of Red Guards waving Mao's Little Red Book in one hand while holding shackles in the other.
She lost her virginity when she was seventeen to a married cousin with a son who lives in the same village. Virginity had been a burden to her, and once she was free of it she felt she was in command of her future. She becomes eager to explore that world outside of her village. The married cousin was the easiest way out. She leaves the village after meeting a man on WeChat who lives in Shanghai. He's married, but she doesn't care if he is. She's not interested in marriage. She only wants to put that village behind her. The man puts her up in a modern flat in the Luwan District, the former French Concession. People in the building keep to themselves, don't ask questions. She quickly adjusts to this and no longer wants to return to her village, even on the Chinese New Year. She only sleeps with her lover nine or ten times a month. Maybe they have dinner out but always go to a hotel. He doesn't want to be seen with her in the flat, which is just fine with her. She has a lot of free time. She reads the Moments on WeChat of celebrities, watches movies, occasionally goes to a bar at one of the better hotels and meets a man and sleeps with him to earn some extra spending money. Some of the men are Western. They are kind, interested in her, and pay her well. She meets some other girls, too, who are the mistresses of rich Chinese men. She and the other girls sometimes talk about their lives, compare lovers. They all know that they can't go on living like this forever, but while they're young it's a good life, theirs. One night her lover tells her he doesn't want to use a condom anymore. She knows why, too. When he's drunk he tells her what she had suspected: that he wants a son. He has a daughter by his wife, but he needs a son to carry on his family name. The one-child policy won't allow him to have another child by his wife. He begins to weep, begging her for a son. She thinks he's weak and foolish. She does become pregnant but has a secret abortion and leaves him when she meets a man in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton who lives in Shenzhen. He is an executive at a software company there. She's had enough of life in Shanghai.
This man, too, sets her up in a flat in one of the better areas of Shenzhen, the Nanshan district. Her flat is similar to the one she had in Shanghai, one bedroom, a living room, kitchen, bath, terrace. She's gotten used to this kind of life, private with pleasing surroundings, where people don't greet each other when they pass in the hallway or ride the elevator together. From the terrace, where she sits from time to time at night drinking French Wine, Pinot Noir, she looks across Shenzhen Bay to the mountains of Hong Kong. She can't see the city, only the mountains of the New Territories. On a weekday she and a friend, whom she has met on WeChat (a girl from a village in Hubei province) venture into Hong Kong for a shopping spree. They buy lotions and creams and shampoos, soaps and perfumes that aren't for sale in Shenzhen. The girl from Hubei buys a lot of expensive makeup. But this peasant-faced girl doesn't wear makeup. She's known even before losing her virginity that her face, which is out of place on her slender neck and rakishly thin body, is what draws men to her; and she's learned over the past few years that it's her eyes that cast the spell. She keeps her lips clasped when she smiles. Men are never quite sure what's on her mind.
In Shenzhen, too, she sleeps with men other than her lover to make some extra money. She begins to prefer Westerners, because she can't speak much English, and they can't speak much Chinese. The conversations are more direct and honest. They communicate using the translate function on WeChat. They are often looking into their phones rather than the other's eyes. She likes it this way. There's freedom in it. One day the software executive, after sex, tells her that his wife is going to divorce him. He weeps. Too many men are weak, she thinks. She resents his weakness. She thinks of her village and where she's come from while he's weeping. She's known what it's like to face a nothing future, and this man has never experienced this. One night when he's drunk he asks her to marry him. She demurs. He won't give up and sends her message after message on WeChat, at first as many as fifteen, then later fifty, and when the number hits a few hundred she blocks him. He stops paying the rent on her flat. She had expected and prepared for this.
With the money she's saved she rents a room in the Longgang District. It's dark and smelly, and the view out the solitary kitchen window is of a paint factory wall. Men and women who work in the factory come and go in their blue company uniforms. Many speak in a Hunan dialect. She begins to feel that her life is returning to that nothing life she had in her village. She sometimes regrets she didn't marry the man she blocked. She considers unblocking him and getting in touch but resits. One day she's had enough of her self-pity and decides to take control of her future. She makes a plan. She continues to go to the best hotels in Shenzhen and meet men and sleep with them, to make enough money to feel that she has the means to escape that dark room, but she doesn't know what kind of escape she'll pull off quite yet. This worries her from time to time. For the first time in her life she has trouble sleeping. She becomes fearful of aging. One evening at the Shangri La she meets a man from Germany who has come to Shenzhen to buy children's toys. He works for a German toy store. They spend ten days together. He takes her to lunch and dinner. The restaurants are always expensive ones. They communicate by using WeChat. He makes jokes, tells her she's beautiful. She thinks he makes her feel happy from time to time, but she isn't quite sure. She smiles, but her smile remains puzzling. She doesn't want him to know how he makes her feel, that she has never been happy with a man. This troubles her a little, but she accepts it. One afternoon he takes her to a building near the Hong Kong border where there are optometrists, tailors, and vendors who sell cheap electronics, and shops that have fake designer bags and Rolex watches. He buys several dozen fake Rolex watches to take back to his friends in Germany as souvenirs. She comes up with an idea to have a future for herself. She tells him that she could work as his agent in Shenzhen, to negotiate the terms for glasses, men's suits, women's dresses, children's toys, and fake watches, anything he wants.
Within a year she has made enough money as his agent to move out of that dark room facing the paint factory wall. She rents a small flat in the Yintian district. It has a kitchen, bedroom, and a terrace. There's a view of the Minsk, an old Russian aircraft carrier, now a tourist attraction, in the harbor. From time to time men whom she has connected with through the German man come to Shenzhen on business. Some ask her to sleep with her. If the men make her smile, she does. It's satisfying for her to sleep with the men she wants to. Some of them give her money, though she doesn't ask for it. She takes the money. Not only does she need it, but to refuse it, she feels, would be rude. She's not having sex for money. That was another life.
Her business grows. She takes English lessons at the Open University, learns to write emails in English, to communicate with men, and now a few women, who come to Shenzhen, looking for products to buy and import back to their countries. She has clients from all over the world. One day an American man comes to Shenzhen who works for a company that makes drones. He's there to negotiate a price for the motors for his company's drones. She acts as his interpreter. They go to several companies, searching for the best deals. He's married, has three children, lives in some city in California. He's almost twice her age, nearing sixty. They have lunches and dinners together. She wonders why he doesn't ask her to sleep with him. They get along well. He's witty. She makes her smile naturally. Now and then she breaks into laughter, rare for her.
At the end of the week, late on a Friday, when they are sharing a taxi back to his hotel, she is the one who propositions him. She hadn't planned to do this. It just seemed to be the natural thing to do, suggest they spend the night together. He looks at her and thinks for a moment, and she is nervous. She has never felt this way with a man before, unsure of herself. He puts a hand on one of her thighs. He tells her that he'd like that. They spend the night in his hotel room. There's more talk than sex. In the morning she feels that she has slept well. They spend the next day at the Mission Hills Golf Club. He talks to her about golf. She has never given golf much thought until this day. But he is so passionate about the game that she becomes interested in it. For the rest of his time in Shenzhen they sleep together, and when he leaves she feels she might cry but stays in control of herself, as she's always managed to do.
They stay in touch, using WeChat, sending messages to each other several times a day. They tell the other good morning and good night. She continues to sleep with other men, only because she needs them from time to time to satisfy herself. Several months pass before the man from California says he can meet her again. He wants to attend a conference on maritime security in Singapore. They meet in Bali and stay at a resort that has cottages on the beach and a restaurant near a shimmering blue pool. They spend more time sitting in beach chairs in the shade of palm trees, looking out across the Bali Sea talking about their lives than swimming or going on tours of the island. As their time together shortens to a few days, they talk more and more about their futures, how to come to terms with these long separations, hoping that they'll arrive at a solution, but they don't and she, after returning to Shenzhen, starts to post anonymous Moments on a fake WeChat account, writing about her relationship with this man. Her Moments attract thousands of readers. Within a few months, her posts are some of the most popular on WeChat. She meets the man every few months, posts Moments about her affair with him, and reads her followers' advice on what to do, but all these solutions seem foolish or beyond her grasp and, well, it's the feeling that she's a celebrity that is important to her, if but as an anonymous one.
After a while, she stops receiving texts from him. She thinks that maybe his wife has found out about them and forced him to delete her as a contact. She likes to think that she can forget about him, but even after a week or so she hasn't, and she wonders why he hasn't contacted her. It isn't like him to be like that. He would have at least said goodbye, it's over, my wife found out, something like that, and then she could move on with her life, and so she starts to wonder how she can find out what, if anything, has happened and uses her VPN to bypass the Great Fire Wall to do a Google search and track him down. It doesn't take her long to find out that he had died in a forest fire in a town called Paradise. He died with his wife. His house was turned to ash. She has difficulty understanding how this could happen, that a forest fire would catch the two of them while they are in their house and burn them to death, but she has to accept it and does.
About two weeks later she receives a text from someone in her village in Hunan, who tells her that her father has died. At first, she doesn't think much about the text. People die every day. Her lover died a horrible death. Her father was old and, well, death comes to old people. It's the suddenness of death that frightens her, the way her lover died, so unexpectedly, the way people die in car accidents or slowly die before their time from a disease they had been carrying around with them for years, perhaps since they were born. Their death was predetermined when they were born, these people with certain diseases, she thinks, and she wonders if she has a disease that will show itself before her time. She begins to wonder how her father died, and this begins to affect her work; she can't concentrate on making connections between foreign buyers and Chinese suppliers. And so to put an end to this and get her business back on track she decides to return to her hometown.
In a way, her village has changed a great deal. There are new, modern homes where traditional brick and mud ones had been, and many people have cars. The road to her village is, to her surprise, paved and maintained. In another way, her village hasn't changed at all. The people there are suspicious of strangers, even her, who wear designer clothes and have expensive shoes and wristwatches. The cousin whom she used to rid herself of her virginity has three children, in violation of the one-child policy, but up here, in a village in a remote valley, no one from the central government is likely to check on him, or others, on how many children they have. The doctor at the local clinic, who visits from time to time, and the nurse, don't have any interest in how many children a family has, because they, too, have as many as they like, or are willing to accept bribes. It's that kind of place, her village, which is still stuck in the past in spite of the modern homes and the cars and the new road. And then, there's her mother, who tells her she's heard she's a prostitute.
Her father's corpse is laid out in an ornate red coffin trimmed with gold leaf. She can't even recognize him, to her surprise, the mortician has done such a poor job, maybe using photos of him as a young man to give him a degree of never-known affluence and dignity. But she never remembered him as a young man. He had a hard life as a farmer and his wrinkled, leathry face showed it. But it doesn't matter, all that thinking of her father. Or that her mother accuses her of being a prostitute. She says goodbye to her father, to her mother, who really has become unrecognizable, too, shriveled up like a raisin. She hires a university student from the village to drive her to Changsha, where she catches a flight back to Shenzhen, and feels, as soon as she starts to walk through the new terminal building, that she is home. That little muddy village in Hunan has nothing to do with her.
That evening she opens a bottle of South African Pinot Noir and drinks it on the balcony of her flat while eating cabbage and shrimp dumplings. As she drinks the wine, she looks out across Shenzhen Bay at Hong Kong and contemplates her life and wonders if she will ever share it with a man as so many other Chinese women do. She's an outcast and she knows it. After a few more glasses of wine, she realizes that she has always been an outcast. She drinks more wine. The sun sets and she opens another bottle and drinks and continues to think about her life and concludes that other women wish they lived a life as free as hers. They are the ones who are entangled in unhappy marriages, tied down with the educational expense of a child. She drinks. A few stars appear. The waters of the bay are dark. She sees the lights of a ferry as it crosses the bay from Shenzhen on its way to the Hong Kong airport. Seeing the ferry gives her the idea of going on a vacation somewhere alone, a country she hasn't been to, in Europe, possibly even Japan, because it's so contrary for her, and other Chinese, to go to the country that is so despised by many Chinese but not her. Japanese design and its culture have always fascinated her, and knowing that many Chinese hate Japan makes it a particularly appealing country to visit. She knows it has many specialty shops where she can buy electronics she has only read about, austere, elegant jewelry, and the latest rice cookers that will probably never be available in China. Perhaps she'll buy an expensive watch, a pearl necklace. She's fine with her decision, going to Japan alone. She no longer needs a man. She drinks some more wine. Yes, she'll go to Japan, stay in a fine hotel, the Keio Plaza in Shinjuku, shop on the Ginza and write about her experiences on WeChat, to make other women envious of the life she leads.
James Roth lives in Zimbabwe and parts of the American southeast where snow is rare, if it falls at all. He writes fiction and nonfiction in most genres but leans toward noirish stories and creative nonfiction. His stories have appeared, or are forthcoming in, “Close to the Bone,” “Fleas on the Dog,” “The Bombay Review,” “Mystery Tribune,” "Crimeucompia: It's Always Raining in Noir City," and the "Careless Love" edition, and “Verdad.” He has a novel which is set in Meiji era Japan coming out in late 2022. Before coming to Zimbabwe, he lived and taught in Japan and China. He likes to say he was "Made in Japan." His parents lived there during the occupation, but he was born in an Army hospital in the U.S., to his lasting regret, and that of his mother as well.
The Party by Samuel R. Kaplan
Newly arrived in Ann Arbor for graduate studies at the University after five years of personal sabbatical in Europe, I knew no one. It did not take long to find an apartment, some used wheels and to check in with the Institute while awaiting the formal opening of class registration.
Every July the town has a massive art festival on its downtown streets. With nothing further to do, I wandered from booth to booth examining works of art and chatting with the artists. Despite living in France and Italy, I know nothing of art, just that certain blends of color are pleasing and classical designs hold layers of meaning for me. In addition to the artist booths there are those for organizations such as the Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Alliance Française, and Michigan Drone Club. At one such booth an enthusiastic young woman, not attracting as much attention as I would have expected, was touting the virtues of geo-thermal energy. Pleased to have found someone to listen, Kitty invited me to join her in the booth.
Never have I met anyone so knowledgeable about geo-thermal energy. Never have I met anyone so enthusiastic. We passed the rest of the afternoon talking and passing out literature. The effort seemed educational rather than directed at recruiting members or soliciting donations. Her black shorts and black running shoes highlighted her light-skinned legs. Her black tee-shirt with red block letters reading “Geo-Thermal” below the scripted “Go For,” highlighted the rest of her. After three hours, Kitty said, “Some of us are having a party tonight. Why don’t we get dinner together and then you can come along.” I had no reason to refuse.
“Since you are new to town, I can give you a walking tour along the way.”
She proposed a Japanese restaurant, a personal favorite as sweet soy sauce goes well with anything. I chose the beef teriyaki.
Kitty chose sushi, tuna maki and salmon nigiri. “Isn’t it amazing that they can prepare raw fish that people like to eat?”
We shared a small bottle of warmed sake, offering numerous toasts to new towns, to adventures, and to geo-thermal energy.
“Excuse me, but I have to use the little girl’s room. Be right back.”
I enjoyed watching her leave, the tight shorts twitching as she walked toward the back of the restaurant. Moments later a black cat dashed toward me from the back of the restaurant, stopping beside the table to sniff the air, before scampering out the front door. The server shrugged. “Must live in the neighborhood. I see it often enough.”
Kitty was gone longer than I expected. “Always a line for women,” she laughed, suggesting we go to the party as it was after 7. We walked toward Burns Park, a wealthier neighborhood.
“A longtime professor of geology, Professor Bubb, is out of town and letting us use his house.”
Arriving at the party, we climbed the stairs in front to enter a crowded foyer and living room. Kitty found me a place to sit on an old red velvet couch and went to find beers for us in the kitchen, obscured by the crowd, squeezing between them to the obvious delight of some. She returned with two cold cans of Scratch Ale, with a devil head caricature of “Old Scratch” on the can.
“Artisan brewing is a big thing now, especially in Ann Arbor. This is one of the best. See if you like it.”
After a few moments of conversation as the crowd thinned to other parts of the house, “Oh, I see some people I need to talk with. Will you be okay?” And she disappeared.
I savored the beer, considering what I might do next, reflecting upon how juvenile this party seemed after five years in Europe. I remembered college parties whose only purpose was to put a lot of people and beer in one place.
The living room furniture belonged to an earlier age. The one item alien to a Victorian sitting room were the lamps, whose Tiffany shades would belong but whose bases were made of black or gray igneous rocks, a geology professor’s affectation. The bulbs were red, barely visible as the summer sun in Michigan does not set early.
A woman with straight, long black hair was seated opposite me across the room. She was staring at me. Her eyes bluish-gray. Her eyeshadow was black as was her lipstick. I smiled. Her expression did not change. Her tongue moistened her lips. I looked at my beer, took a sip. She was still staring. She soon rose, wearing thigh high cage stiletto boots, and walked across the room toward me.
“May I sit down?”
She sat on my lap, pulled my head toward her and began kissing me passionately with the taste of alcohol and tobacco on her lips. I accepted the kisses, wondering what Kitty might think if she returned. When the passion had faded, she said, “Now that we have been introduced, my name is Charona.”
“Unusual name. I don’t think I have heard it before.”
“It’s Greek. There is a large Greek community in this part of Michigan.”
After the usual chit chat of people who have just met, she got up from my lap, took my hand and offered to show me the rest of the house. We walked into the kitchen so I saw where Kitty had found the beer. I grabbed another. Charona said that the professor kept his papers and other valuable upstairs so that was off-limits. We descended the steps beyond the kitchen. Amidst the regular party noises I heard murmurs, uncertain of their origin or import. There were moans, of pleasure, and of pain, sometimes indistinguishable, one from the other. And the click of her stiletto heels on the tile floors.
The lower level seemed larger than I expected, with many rooms and longer corridors. Suddenly a door opened to the right, ahead of us. A man tumbled out onto the floor. He was middle-aged, his hair already white. I reached down to help him. His eyes registered fear as he stared at me and then at my hand. He grabbed for my hand and began to cry. As I helped him to his feet, a large, muscular arm tattooed with swastikas pulled him back into the room. The door slammed.
Charona’s eyes narrowed. “It is late. Probably time to go.” When we had returned to the living room, its sole illumination against the night was the lamps, their red glimmer reflected on the rocks that supported them. A black cat rubbed against my shins and darted toward the kitchen.
“This may not be your kind of party.”
“Before I went to Europe, a college party, gathering to drink beer, splitting off for kinks, had more appeal. Will I see you again?”
“Perhaps. We are here most weekends, but you have to come to party—and for kinks.” She winked.
Kitty appeared from the direction of the kitchen. Her hair was disheveled. Her face was flushed and moist. She was wearing a different top, black but without lettering, than the one she had been wearing.
“Sorry we got separated. Hope you had a good time.” She took the hand Charona had been holding and led me toward the door.
We walked the half block to the corner. She turned left as I turned right. “Thanks for inviting me, Kitty. It has been an interesting evening that passed quicker than I expected. Hope to see you again.” She waved.
After a few moments of reflection, a few more steps, I looked back in her direction. A black cat was disappearing down the street in the direction of the house.
Although Ann Arbor is a medium-size town with a large university campus, I expected to run into Kitty or Charona but never saw them again. An online search of “Go For Geo-Thermal” a few weeks later brought no results. I have returned to Burns Park, unable to locate the house. Indeed, the University of Michigan has no department of geology, just Earth and Environmental Sciences, and only one Professor Emeritus of Geology, whose name could never be mistaken for B. Z. Bubb.
Sometimes a small black catalyst triggers the search for mislaid memories of that strange time. Is it that shadowy speck, scurrying just ahead?
An American retired to his wife’s native Singapore, Samuel “Sam” R. Kaplan holds graduate degrees in Economics and Russian Studies. A longtime member of the US Society of Professional Journalists, he has also taught English conversation in France and Italy. Working as an economist at the University of Virginia Cooper Center for Public Service to produce economic projections was perfect preparation for his current project of writing fiction.
Camilla's Satisfaction by Mike Neis
The curtains were glowing when Camilla’s alarm woke her, and for the first time in her life, she cursed the sun. She decided that, for once, she was going to get what she wanted that day. She knew it was Sunday because Sunday was the only day she got up early. She rose, hobbled over to the toilet, sat down, and remembered that she still had not learned her solo sequence for Mass that morning.
She walked back around her snoring husband and went outside to get the newspaper. The neighbor’s evergreen clashed with the pale Bermudagrass around it. It was a bad tree for that yard. Anyone could see that. What was wrong with those people? Twigs were growing into branches and the tree was calling to her (in a waltz cadence):
I'm getting bigger and you can do nothing, you can do nothing, you can do nothing!
I'm getting bigger and you can do nothing, you can do nothing, you can do nothing!
She dropped the newspaper. With slippers flopping on the pavement, she pushed through the gate to her backyard, opened the shed and grabbed the rose pruners. She walked straight to her neighbor's tree and started trimming. One branch, two, three, four... She held branches in her left hand, but most of the cuttings fell to the ground. Then she gathered everything into her arms and retreated, ignoring how the branches irritated her skin. She threw them into her yard waste bin, picked up the paper and went back inside.
She squeezed through the darkness of her living room. The "den of dreams," her husband called it. The sofa and TV were pushed up against the wall and she had not seen the fireplace in years. A treadmill, grand piano, harp, nautilus fitness set, harpsichord, cello, organ, and stair master filled the room and made it all but impossible to use. She squeezed past the items and into the kitchen, brewed herself a cup of coffee and made breakfast.
She ate, went back upstairs, showered, dressed, and made herself up. She piled her hair so that it swooped straight up and back. She knew that the eye shadow made her look like the Bride of Frankenstein, but without it she would look much older than her 68 years. Her ears sagged, but earrings covered up most of that. She puckered her mouth into a tight wrinkled smile, and saw, once again, that it looked ridiculous; but she still believed that this smile endeared her to others.
A red Cadillac awaited her in the garage. Her husband stopped coming to church with her long ago. Damn him! She could not use his cravings anymore since he did not have them. At least he got her a nice house close to the cathedral. At least she could still give money, time, and direction to the church.
After zipping through desolate daybreak streets, she parked outside the parish office, pulled out her keys and slipped inside. She went to her mail slot. Camilla was not an employee, but she was on the Finance Committee, the Environment Committee, the School Board, and the St. Vincent de Paul Steering Committee. Her own slot had nothing, but the Music Director's box held a fat envelope. She wondered what was inside.
The envelope called to her (with a bouncy, playful, taunting rhythm):
I know something you don't know, you don't know, you don't know!
I know something you don't know, you don't know, you don't know!
The song thumped through her head, and she started dancing to its beat right there in the office, pumping her feet and her fists in front of the mail slots. Then she looked around. It was still early, long before the first Mass. No one else was in the office, and she had not turned on the lights. She took out the fat envelope and opened it. It was (ugh!) youth music. Who in their right mind would sit for that repetitive crap? Copy by copy, she tore it all to shreds, putting increasing muscle into each successive octavo. Pieces of paper fluttered to the floor in a widening circle around her. When she finished, she was gulping down wheezing breaths. She got on her hands and knees, gathered the torn music, and stuffed it all to the bottom of the receptionist's waste bin. She took deep breaths to calm herself and walked out the door without looking back.
As Camilla opened the door to the empty rehearsal room, she remembered once again that she still had little clue how she was going to solo the sequence that morning. Then she saw a guitar hanging on the wall.
She knew where that guitar came from. It belonged to the lead guitarist for the Spanish Mass. Those Mexicans. She once attended that Mass for a presentation of the St. Vincent de Paul. The Mass was a mess. Vendors sold sweets by the doors, children roamed the aisles during the sacred liturgy, and the constant din of talking never ceased.
Those people met for other services during weeknights in the parish hall. The sound of a plodding bass intruded on her meetings with the finance committee and the school board. Those people were irreverent and destructive. She wanted nothing to do with them.
That guitar hung on the wall like a dead chicken, an insult to music and the sacred liturgy. It did not even have a proper guitar strap. Instead, an orange nylon rope drooped from the neck, and, on the other end, hooked into the sound hole. The hook was scraping away at the guitar’s face. What a horrible way to use such an instrument.
The instrument sang out its defiance to her (in a Hispanic accent, and with the trumpet blasts of a Mexican Hat Dance):
I play for those you despise, whether you like it or not!
I play for those you despise, whether you like it or not!
I know that you don't like me, but it's just too bad, too bad, too bad!
I know that you don't like me, but it's just too bad, too bad, too bad!
She marched across the rehearsal room with her hands outstretched and tore the guitar from the wall. She grabbed it by the neck and raised it high, smashing two fluorescent lights in the ceiling by accident. White powder and thin glass rained down upon her head, but she had a pressing task at hand. The guitar came crashing to the floor, again and again.
By the time Camilla finished, she was left with the guitar’s neck in her hands, strings swinging freely, and wood fragments strewn about her feet.
Cleanup was the price to pay. She pushed the pieces onto some sheet music and threw it all into one of the cabinets in the back of the room. The debris covered up a set of bongos.
Now, what had she been thinking about? Oh, yes, that solo. It was a chant. She hated chant, especially Gregorian. And all chant sounded like Gregorian to her. Other people might say they liked it, but other people did not actually have to do it. Camilla had complained, and it seemed, for a moment, that the pastor might relent and allow the hymn instead of the chant. But then he made up his mind. Pastors could be such pains in the butt.
She took out the sheet music for the sequence. It had two sets of lyrics: English and Latin. She would do the English. She hated Latin.
She did try to learn this sequence the previous Wednesday, the one evening she had free. She had no meetings with the any of the committees. She was not visiting her mother, nor ushering at the theatre, nor having dinner with friends, nor working at the antique shop. That evening was free. She tried to plink the sequence out on her grand piano while the handlebars of her exercise bicycle dug into her back. After ten minutes she gave up. But she did get through the first three verses, kind of.
The director promised Camilla they would go through the chant together at the end of rehearsal. But they both forgot.
As Camilla shook her head and paged through the chant, choir members started arriving. The director was late. Margaret, one of the altos, had a new pair of small wire rim glasses. She asked the others if she looked like a schoolmarm. Joe and Mona had just returned from their vacation in Santa Fe. Their photographs of the cathedral, the mountains, and the local street vendors showed a lovely town accustomed to tourists. Nancy's doctor had prescribed her a new anti-inflammatory that was working pretty well.
Erin, the director, arrived twenty minutes late. "Sorry! I had a hard time getting up this morning!"
"Overslept again," thought Camilla.
They rehearsed the Psalm, the Acclamation and the songs selected for that Mass. Then it was 7:52 and Camilla had to go. She flipped through the book one last time and blurted out. "Erin—I need to practice the sequence!" The director looked confused, then concerned. Then she sighed.
"I think you're just going to have to wing it," she said. "Remember what I told you about sight reading."
Camilla closed her eyes and exhaled. Then she slapped her music book shut and walked off to the sanctuary. She sat in the cantor’s seat on the right side of the altar and reviewed the sequence again. The assembly would be following along in their missalettes. They would understand the words, but would they understand the music? She hoped not.
Monsignor Crowley waved from the back, signaling time to start. She got up to the podium and made the announcements.
She led the opening song but was not thinking about that. The Psalm went okay, even if it was dreadful and slow. Then came the sequence. After the introductory notes from the organ, she began. The first three verses seemed to go okay. For the rest, she simply raised the pitch of her voice when the notes went up and lowered it when the notes went down. The organ tried to accompany her, but it was getting one chord wrong after another. The words were interminable. Eight verses. The assembly sat quiet and stony-faced. Even the small children lay still in their mother's arms, dense as rocks, staring at her.
Camilla spent the rest of the Mass re-playing the chant in her head, trying to count how many mistakes she had made. The assembly looked at her, but no one else did: not the pastor, nor the director, nor anyone else in the loft. How bad was it? She wanted to get out of there.
After Mass she was alone in the musician's side of the sacristy, putting away her mic and talking on the phone with her old friend Dolores. The 9:30 AM Mass had already started. Brittany, a new cantor, began the sequence. Her voice was clear, young, and beautiful. It rang with undiluted confidence as she chanted in Latin. The voice itself spoke to Camilla, provoking her (like a 1980's hard rock song, with lots of guitar distortion):
You can't sing like me, poor dear!
You can't sing like me, poor dear!
You can't chant and you sound like an old lady!
You can't sing like me, poor dear!
Brittany's voice was loud, and Camilla could hear nothing else. She looked around, went to the sound board, found the slider for the cantor, and turned it down. Brittany's voice faded to nothing.
Camilla slipped out the back door of the sacristy. A young man and woman were coming down a walkway. The woman was pushing a stroller with a lovely baby. The woman asked the man, "What did you think of that Mass, dear?" Camilla hid behind a pyracantha bush and listened.
The man pushed his hands through his hair, and then let them slap down on his thighs. "The Mass was fine, except for that awful cantor. Good heavens, how can that poor girl still be singing at the cathedral?"
Camilla stopped breathing. She circled round the bush as they passed, careful to remain hidden.
The man went on. "And that sequence was the worst! I don't think she got a single note correct! What a laughable disaster!"
After they rounded the corner of the presbytery, she emerged from behind the bush. A song in her head pounded like dynamite. (Screamed to the grinding refrain of a typical alternative rock song):
They hate you! They hate you!
They think you're shit! They hate you!
Camilla watched the young family from behind the corner of the presbytery. "Who are they? Who are they? Where do they live?"
She had to find out. She saw the couple put their baby into a white Sienna and climb inside. The last three letters of the license plate said "7C4." The car pulled out of the parking lot and onto the street.
Camilla tromped to the office, head whirling with such vigor that she could not walk in a straight line. The receptionist would not arrive for another 30 minutes. Camilla pulled out her keys and let herself into the office once again. She whipped through parish records, tearing pages and letting folders fall to the floor. She gulped heavy breaths as she leaned on the file cabinets.
Then Camilla remembered the parish directory with family photos. One was lying on the receptionist’s desk. She collapsed onto the chair and gawked at every photo, nose only a few inches from the pages. Her vision was becoming like a dark tunnel, but she had to find that family. Faces and words marched by, and her world closed around that book.
Finally, in the letter M, she found them. The McNamara family photo had a lovely husband, wife, and baby girl. She looked around the desk for something sharp, and her hand swooped down and grabbed a ball point pen out of a large cup. She accidently stabbed her wrist on a letter opener and blood started to flow. The office was tilting. She clung to the desk with one hand and raised the other hand high. It came down, again and again, smashing the point of the pen onto the photo of the family, leaving gashes across the father, mother, and baby girl. Camilla’s blood got all over the desk.
The walls spun and Camilla fell to the floor. The fluorescent lights were the only thing she could see. The rest of the room was turning black. She could not draw breath. The world was sliding away but she had gotten her satisfaction.
Mike Neis lives in Orange County, CA and works as a technical writer for a commercial laboratory. His work has appeared in Amethyst Review, Rind Literary Magazine and elsewhere. Besides writing, his outside activities include church music, walking for health, and teaching English as a second language.
Horseradish by Brian Beatty
Hurley suspected the horseradish on his hot dogs had gone bad before he had the foil totally open. Something smelled fermented. In a weird way.
There were typically lines at flea market food stalls, so Hurley always brought his own, wrapped tight in aluminum foil he used at least twice before it went into his recycling. Leftover hot dogs with horseradish were a favorite.
Hurley didn’t entirely trust his old nose, so he asked a younger passerby for an opinion.
“Do these smell funky to you?” Hurley said, waving his partially unwrapped hot dogs under the surprised teenage boy’s nose. “Not James Brown funky, but like I might suffer for it later?”
“James Brown?” the idiot kid replied blankly.
Hurley sighed, then gave his lunch an easy underhanded toss into a nearby trash bin.
Brian Beatty is the author of five poetry collections: Magpies and Crows; Borrowed Trouble; Dust and Stars: Miniatures; Brazil, Indiana: A Folk Poem; and Coyotes I Couldn’t See. Beatty’s writing has appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, Anti-Heroin Chic, Conduit, CutBank, Evergreen Review, Exquisite Corpse, Gigantic, Gulf Coast, Hobart, McSweeney’s,
The Missouri Review, Monkeybicycle, The Quarterly, Rattle, Seventeen and Sycamore Review. In 2021 he released Hobo Radio, a spoken word album with original music by Charlie Parr. Beatty lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
For Vesna Vulović
/ one hundred and seventy / You’re standing in the aisle of a plane, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 / one hundred sixty-nine / It is 1972. You're working a flight from Stockholm to Belgrade. / one hundred sixty-eight / Someone sneezes. Someone dings a flight attendant. / one hundred sixty-seven / Three fourths of an hour into the flight you walk to the galley in the tail, / one hundred sixty-six / tuck a wisp of your blond hair behind your ear, / one hundred sixty-five / the last normal gesture you make. / one hundred sixty-four / You feel the engines’ vibrations through your feet, a / one hundred sixty-three / shutter of turbulence then fire and sound and the world lurches / one hundred sixty-two / people scream / one hundred sixty-one / claw at themselves / one hundred and sixty / a howl so horrible that maybe you pass out / one hundred fifty-nine / gravity is wrong / one hundred fifty-eight / so wrong that it knuckles you against the galley’s lockers / one hundred fifty-seven / a food cart, heavier than ever before / one hundred fifty-six / rams against your ribs, breaks a few / one hundred fifty-five / a passenger shatters into the wall next to you / one hundred fifty-four / eyes twin budges of skull / one hundred fifty-three / doubled over like a safety pin / one hundred fifty-two / the world is filled with ragdolls / one hundred fifty-one / you try to inhale / one hundred and fifty / the most human of gestures / one hundred forty-nine / but even this fails in the / one hundred forty-eight / hurricane of nothing / one hundred forty-seven / your eyelids freeze shut / one hundred forty-six / your tongue lulls against your locked jaws / one hundred forty-five / the rest of the plane sheers away / one hundred forty-four / sheers everyone away / one hundred forty-three / confetti in a tornado / one hundred forty-two / less than that / one hundred forty-one / the temperature is -55° Celsius / one hundred and forty / something like -70° Fahrenheit / one hundred thirty-nine / your eardrums rupture / one hundred thirty-eight / frost forms along your cuticles / one hundred thirty-seven / and inside your nostrils / one hundred thirty-six / did you know that wind can blow so hard / one hundred thirty-five / it becomes a maw / one hundred thirty-four / ravenous / one hundred thirty-three / you tumble / one hundred thirty-two / the tail of the plane / one hundred thirty-one / all of reality / one hundred and thirty / the horizon above and beside you / one hundred twenty-nine / so fast it’s simultaneous / one hundred twenty-eight / for the first time in this new world / one hundred twenty-seven / your lungs fill with air / one hundred twenty-six / the only right thing about all this / one hundred twenty-five / you wake / one hundred twenty-four / maybe / one hundred twenty-three / the most important mercy / one hundred twenty-two / your neck cracks as a whip / one hundred twenty-one / you shatter your upper molar / one hundred and twenty / the small things are important here / one hundred nineteen / the house key in your pocket / one hundred eighteen / a bit bent because of a sticky lock / one hundred seventeen / the garnet ring that has always been too tight / one hundred sixteen / the outline of the rip in your cardigan that you mended by hand / one hundred fifteen / these will be the things they use to identify your body / one hundred fourteen / these will be the things they mail to your mother in a neatly taped package / one hundred thirteen / centrifugal force / one hundred twelve / is called a false gravity / one hundred eleven / but there’s nothing false about how it / one hundred and ten / tramples you against the lockers / one hundred and nine / crushes the drink cart against you / one hundred and eight / you don’t know this yet / one hundred and seven / but that cart is saving your life even as it cracks more of your ribs / one hundred and six / your whole existence is reduced to / one hundred and five / cells and cells and cells / one hundred and four / faced with a physics problem / one hundred and three / the plane had been cruising at over 33,000 feet / one hundred and two / six and a quarter miles in the sky / one hundred and one / if you were walking it would take you two hours / one hundred / to cover this distance / ninety-nine / if you were running at a world record pace / ninety-eight / it would take you twenty-six minutes / ninety-seven / but you / ninety-six / you're about reach the ground in less than three minutes / ninety-five / at two hundred miles an hour / ninety-four / all of reality is condensed to cause and effect / ninety-three / as if this is ever not true / ninety-two / whenever the tail whips around / ninety-one / screeches against the wind / ninety / the windows are / eighty-nine / filled with streaks of brown and blue / eighty-eight / that old pilot joke / eighty-seven / the one that goes / eighty-six / when crashing / eighty-five / it isn’t speed that will kill you / eighty-four / it’s the deceleration / eighty-three / do you think of your grandmother’s stories / eighty-two / of Vikhor, the spirit of the whirlwind / eighty-one / do you think about the other Vesna / eighty / that other stewardess / seventy-nine / the one for whom the airline’s scheduler mistook you / seventy-eight / because you aren't supposed to be on this flight / seventy-seven / the most cosmic of jokes / seventy-six / do you think about how, right now, that other Vesna might be at the butchers / seventy-five / do you think about how it'll take her longer to receive a cut of meat / seventy-four / then it will for you to hit the ground / seventy-three / do you think about the passengers / seventy-two / still buckled into unmoored seats / seventy-one / a constellation / seventy / of bodies / sixty-nine / drops of rain / sixty-eight / do you think of the Croatian nationalists / sixty-seven / who planted the bomb in the luggage compartment / sixty-six / or do you think / sixty-five / of gravity and all that / sixty-four / you curl your fingers into fists / sixty-three / the only part you can move / sixty-two / the worst of all dreams / sixty-one / you, half-awake / sixty / primordially frozen by / fifty-nine / a silence that you know isn't there / fifty-eight / you hallucinate / fifty-seven / not of death / fifty-six / not for you / fifty-five / not this time / fifty-four / and without asking, you know that / fifty-three / when the plane crashes / fifty-two / when the falling stops / fifty-one / sometimes in a snowy field and sometimes on a wooded slope / fifty / the force will rip your three-inch stilettos from your feet / forty-nine / you'll break your left tibia / forty-eight / you'll fracture your skull and crush two vertebrae / forty-seven / you'll snap your pelvis in two places, three more ribs, and your right femur / forty-six / you'll be dying only because you won’t be dead / forty-five / but here’s your secret, the one that is going to keep you alive / forty-four / the one that almost disqualified you from working for an airline in the first place / forty-three / it’s your low blood pressure / forty-two / which is so low that to pass the physical exam / forty-one / you drank enough coffee that you shook through the whole thing / forty / so low that when the plane impacts / thirty-nine / your heart won't burst in your chest / thirty-eight / and there is luck here too / thirty-seven / a whole life’s worth, a world's worth / thirty-six / used in one moment / thirty-five / you don’t survive something like this without it / thirty-four / the only reason you weren't sucked out of the plane / thirty-three / like the rest / thirty-two / was because you were in the galley, crushed by that food cart / thirty-one / the only reason your bones won't liquify on impact / thirty / is because the fuselage will land right-side up / twenty-nine / crumpling the bottom, not the metal around your head / twenty-eight / the only reason you won't bleed out in the wreckage is because / twenty-seven / your low blood pressure will slow your bleeding / twenty-six / long enough for your screams to attract help / twenty-five / because you’ll be awake / twenty-four / of course you will / twenty-three / and the only reason you'll live long enough to reach a hospital / twenty-two / is because the first person who will find you, a woodsman / twenty-one / of all things, was a medic in World War II / twenty / how’s that for luck / nineteen / how many coins will land on edge the moment the plane hits / eighteen / right up until a brain hemorrhage will put you in a coma for ten days / seventeen / you'll hear the doctors say you won’t live / sixteen / and if you do you won’t walk / fifteen / but you know that the first thing you'll do when you wake is to ask for a cigarette / fourteen / and a month or two later, you’ll be strolling around the hospital / thirteen / won't even have a limp / twelve / all thanks to what you'll say is a childhood diet of chocolate, spinach, and fish oil / eleven / you know that in the future, whenever you board a plane / ten / which you'll do often because you resume you job as a flight attendant / nine / people will want to sit next to you / eight / especially those who are afraid of flying / seven / but you aren't there yet / six / for now, you're still falling / five / a blink from the ground / four / what else is there to say but / three / here / two / it / one / comes /
Patrick Kelling received his doctorate in Creative Writing from the University of Denver and is the fiction editor for the literature magazine Gambling the Aisle (www.gamblingtheaisle.com). His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and to Best New American Voices and Best Small Fictions.
Other People's Money by Elise Glassman
Poppy slid the loan paperwork across her father’s desk and watched him riffle expertly through the documents. “You remind me so much of your mother,” he said lightly. “Such a spendthrift. If she had five cents, she’d spend ten, remember?”
She didn’t reply. His nostalgic tone was confusing. Money problems were the big reason her folks had divorced when she was little. Now her mother was on her fourth husband and her fifth bankruptcy, and Poppy was sitting in her father’s Salish Bank office asking for money.
He looked at her over his reading glasses. “So, what’ll be different this time?”
She got up. “You know what, never mind. I don’t need the hassle.”
“Sit, sit.” He waved her back into her chair. “I’m just verifying it’s all here. You say your financial counselor recommended taking out a loan?”
“Yes. To get me back on my feet.” This part of the lie was easy.
“And the counselor’s name?” His fingers clenched a pen.
Now they were edging closer to things he didn’t know about. Her arrest, the court appearance. She’d have to hedge the truth, help him hear what he needed to hear. “Well, I’ve been going to this city-run place that offers sliding scale fees. Emerald City Credit.”
He wrote this down. “Good, good, very reputable. Shall I call them?”
“No!” she blurted. She added, calmer, “I don’t see a specific person. I talk to whoever’s on duty. I’ll just ask someone to sign next time I go in.” The last counselor she’d seen, dark-eyed Clement, had talked earnestly about budgets and financial hygiene while diligently ignoring her flirting. She’d tossed his business card in the trash on her way out, along with her coffee cup.
Attaching a yellow Sign Here sticker, her father gave back the paperwork. “Great. Have them sign and we’ll get you into the system. I’m proud of you for doing this the right way.”
She got up. There was always one more step, one more rule to follow but she couldn’t let him see her irritation. The last cash she’d skimmed from Grammie was nearly gone. Would her grandmother even notice the theft? Poppy doubted she or Aunt Bick did more than glance at her financial statements, but Grammie was a tightwad. She’d survived the Depression. She still clipped coupons from the grocery store flier.
“See you at church Sunday,” her father called, as she left his office. She didn’t reply. She’d figured the Lord would be a part of the equation.
Poppy’s relationship with money had always been troubled. On her eighth birthday, her parents began issuing a weekly allowance. Yours to spend however you like, her father said magnanimously, as her mother counted out dollar bills. Her joy palled when they forced her to tithe on the sum, a fixed ten per cent placed directly into the church collection plate.
Her friend Diane showed her how to get her money back, to take a bathroom break during the Sunday sermon and make a quiet detour to the deacons’ office where the plates were stacked. Sometimes Poppy withdrew a little extra, so she both tithed and made money.
It seemed to her that life should always be like this. Why was someone else entitled to her cash? Even now she couldn’t bear to look at receipts or bank statements or tax forms. Seeing what was being taken from her made her feel so cheated. So not in control.
Even broke, Poppy was generous. She needed to prove she wasn’t her spendthrift mother, nor her sly father. During father-daughter dinners at Olive Garden, he’d boast about how much he was raking in on his investments, then leave a dollar and a Gospel tract as a tip. So Poppy gave, to bake sales and raffles and fundraisers for people whose houses had burned down or needed money for pet surgery.
Her giving philosophy hadn’t mattered at all when Citibank sued her over her delinquent credit card bill. A ponytailed public defender had negotiated her sentence down to a repayment plan and a pledge to go to financial counseling. He cautioned, You have to actually do it. If you don’t, they can arrest you.
Beat the system, Poppy had crowed on social media, but she was smarter now. She’d spend the loan money fast, before any of the big banks found out about it.
That night, she went over to her Aunt Bick’s house. “I’m glad you can get some me time,” Poppy said, sitting at the kitchen island and sipping Chardonnay.
Her aunt was rummaging through her purse. “Oh, you didn’t need to come all the way over here. She’ll just snooze in her chair til I get back from Bunko.”
“I’m wide awake,” Grammie announced from the living room.
“Bless her heart,” Bick chuckled. “Caroline and Carl were over last night. They just got back from a month in Mexico! We had seven-and-sevens and Grammie beat us at pinochle.”
Poppy set down her glass, irritated. Caroline and Carl were Bick’s children, the perfect grandkids; thoughtful, kind, selfless citizens with jobs and good haircuts and useful hobbies.
Jangling her keys, Bick said, “I’ll be home by nine. If you need to go, just lock the door. She’ll be fine.”
“We might be up until all hours.” Poppy went into the living room. “Right, Grammie?”
Her grandmother was dozing, a colorful afghan crocheted by Carl draped over her lap. Poppy sat down on the love seat across from the TV, watching out the window as her aunt’s Lexus glided into the street. A few minutes later, Grammie blinked awake. “Poppy?”
“I’m here. You need the bathroom? Food?”
A moment, as Grammie made internal surveys. “Well, Bick has been hiding the fudge.”
“I’ll look.” Poppy knew she was being conned. Grammie was forbidden chewy items, anything that might disturb the fillings in her fragile teeth. It only took two minutes to locate the Tupperware of store-bought fudge, concealed behind a stack of cookbooks.
Grammie bit into her treat. “Mm. I tell you what, that’s good eating.”
Poppy sipped her wine, silently praying that the ancient amalgam stayed put.
“Have you had any luck looking for a job?”
“I’m interviewing,” Poppy said stiffly. “I’ve temped a bit. I’m not going to tie myself down to just anything.”
“Bick says you have money troubles,” Grammie observed. Her eyes had a hard sparkle.
Poppy bristled. “I’m fine. My credit card was billing me for things I never bought.”
“We never had credit cards in my day. It’s a dangerous game, Patricia.”
“Oh please. You had accounts at Penney’s and Sears when I was little.”
“That was different.” Her grandmother leaned forward, reaching for the fudge.
Poppy nudged the Tupperware farther away. She was being petty, but so was Grammie. “Stop being a stinker and give me the fudge. And the remote,” her grandmother ordered.
She did as she was told, then sat back and finished her wine. She’d hoped to poke around at Bick’s desk after Grammie fell asleep, but her grandmother had turned on a game show.
Poppy closed her eyes. People in her debt counseling class wept as they talked about the stress of being broke, describing ulcers and headaches and insomnia. In the back of the room, Poppy chewed gum and tried to look interested. Not having money felt liberating. Debt was just a minus on someone else’s spreadsheet. Pruning Grammie’s money market, she only took enough to cover Lyft rides to her credit counseling class, the textbook, coffees to stay awake. Grammie wouldn’t want her to go without, she reasoned.
She might want exactly that, another part of her mind whispered. Grammie had survived the Dust Bowl and the Depression and two world wars. She’d grown up with one pair of shoes. She’d likely frown upon Poppy’s iced triple mochas. She most certainly would want her to go without.
It took an Adderall and half a joint to get Poppy in shape for church. Also, she had to get rid of her overnight guest. “Clement? This has been great, but I have to be somewhere.”
The financial counselor rolled over in her bed. His dark hair and smooth skin looked luscious against her sheets. “No worries,” he said, yawning. They’d adjourned to her apartment after yesterday’s appointment. She’d asked for another business card, making sure her fingers brushed his.
She added, “I’ll make us coffee. Could you sign that paperwork?”
Pulling on his jeans, he said, “Okay. But Poppy. We shouldn’t do this again.”
“No. Definitely not,” she said.
The first person Poppy saw when she entered the church foyer was her old friend Diane. “Patricia Ophelia Dixon, how are you!” Diane exclaimed, handing her a program.
Poppy eyed her mauve skirt suit, the matchy aubergine nails. “Hi. You look, uh, great.”
“And don’t you look wonderful,” Diane said softly, as though she were envious.
But the truth was, Diane envied no one. She was as calculating as a pawnshop clerk. They’d bonded over summers at a county-run jobs program, calling out sick from their minimum wage assignments, shoplifting diet soda and beef jerky sticks for lunch at the park. We’ll fight the system, they swore. I’ll always have your back. Call me anytime. I’m your one a.m. friend.
Fast forward a few years to the night Poppy was arrested on the delinquent funds warrant. Diane sleepily accepted the collect call. “It’s your one a.m. friend,” Poppy said.
“You’re in jail? What have you done?” Diane wailed.
“Nothing, it’s all a big mistake,” Poppy said. The cop on guard duty rolled her eyes.
“I’m not sure what I can do,” Diane was saying. “Maybe I can pray for you?”
“You promised to have my back,” Poppy said, into a dial tone.
Instead of arriving the next day with a skeleton key, a knife baked into a cake, grinning anarchy, Diane sent a bald man with rodent eyes and an insincere grin. “Poppy, I’m Mr. Mayer.”
“As in the wieners?” Poppy said, irritated. They sat down in the jail visiting area.
“As in Diane’s better half.” He handed her a bag of Avon toiletries and a Bible.
Poppy ruffled the gilt-edged pages of the Bible and slid it back across the table. It crash-landed into the cushion of his belly. “You know Diane’s just in it for the money, right?”
He stood up. “She told me about you. We’re not paying bail. Don’t bother us again.”
“Poppy?” Diane handed out her last program. The church vestibule was filling up. “Want to sit with Mr. Mayer and me?”
Poppy smiled. Maybe she could guilt Diane out of some cash. Before she could reply, a bony hand clenched her arm. “It is so good to see you in the Lord’s house,” Grammie exclaimed.
She hugged her grandmother. Aunt Bick leaned in, zipping up her burgundy choir robe. “Will you sit with her? And I need to talk to you, Poppy. After the service.”
Taking Grammie’s arm, Poppy found seats near the front. Her father couldn’t miss seeing them from his perch with the other deacons, five jowly men in Macy’s suits. As the collection plate was passed, she sat on her hands and thought about Clement. He’d told her the loan was a bad idea. A debt trap. Salish Bank would collect double-digit interest. You mean if I pay it back, she’d said, and he’d just sighed and signed by the yellow stickers.
Now the sermon. Poppy had decided she’d slip out during the closing prayer, leave the paperwork under her father’s windshield wiper and go. If Aunt Bick wanted to talk, let her call.
Across the sanctuary the Mayers sat looking prosperous and smug. She and Diane had taken so much from each other, Poppy thought. Boyfriends, gas money, trust. She missed her friend, but what was the point of nostalgia? They were speeding along parallel tracks. Intersection now would be fatal.
The congregation rose to sing the final hymn. Poppy pulled on her coat. Her grandmother took her arm again, murmuring, “Toilet.” A helpful usher whisked them out a side door and again Poppy recalculated. New plan. Get Grammie into a stall, text Bick, slip away.
But as she reached the edge of the parking lot, Aunt Bick’s Lexus glided into view, silent and menacing as a shark. The passenger window lowered. “Get in.”
She looked inside. “I’m late for an appointment.”
“You left these on your dad’s car.” Her aunt brandished the manila envelope.
“Those are legal documents. That’s a federal crime--”
“Oh, get in. I’ll give them to you when we’re done.”
Poppy slid into the passenger seat. How many times had she sat here, sullen, in trouble, her aunt the only one who bothered to show up? And thus, the target of her rage. “Two minutes. Then I’m going.”
Aunt Bick sighed. “Poppy, someone’s stealing from Grammie. She writes big checks to Manna Ministries sometimes, but this is different.”
“How much are we talking?” Poppy stared down at the immaculate floor mat, the indentations where her shoes had disturbed the expensive pile.
“At least fifteen thousand. I’m not accusing you but--”
“You think I took fifteen grand from Grammie?” Her outrage felt real. “Investigate away. It’s not me.”
“I know you’ve taken a few hundred here and there,” Aunt Bick said quietly. “The police are sending a forensic accountant on Tuesday. I wanted to give you a chance to put it back.”
“I’ll get you a check tomorrow.” Poppy got out of the car. “Can I have my envelope?”
But Aunt Bick was tucking it under her thigh. “Tomorrow. When you bring the money.”
Standing in the parking lot, Poppy looked back into the car. “So, who took the fifteen K? Darling Carl and Caroline, fresh from Mexico? No wonder they let her win at pinochle.”
Her aunt put the Lexus into gear. “You know all you have to do is ask. If you need money.”
“But it’s not about the money, is it?” Poppy laughed. It was an ugly sound.
Elise Glassman is a Seattle, Washington writer whose stories and essays have appeared in journals such as The Colorado Review, Main Street Rag, The Portland Review, Per Contra, Spank the Carp, and most recently, San Antonio Review. She is an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel and blogs at busysmartypants.blogspot.com.
To Excise a Malignancy by Emma Burger
Most of the jobs on Craigslist were looking for girls willing to sell their bodies. “Exotic bottle service girls, girls needed for bodywork, surrogates needed ASAP, Wall Street $$$$$$ is back!! Earn 6 figures year 1 no license needed.” Half of the postings were completely unintelligible. It was clear though, that most people on the site were either overseas bots seeking to extort you, or sleazy promoter types looking to sell sex.
It caught my attention immediately then, when I came across a post from a legitimate-sounding company called Uptown Dermatology. “Dr. Azarian has been in practice on the Upper East Side for over 20 years, and boasts a roster of New York’s elites as her loyal patients. We’re looking for a professional, personable, and attractive face to greet our valued patients. The Medical Receptionist provides exemplary customer service and is responsible for handling front office reception and administration duties, including but not limited to answering phones, handling company inquiries, collecting all paperwork associated with patient registration, and maintaining inventory.”
That would be fun. I always loved skin. When I first heard of trypophobia - the fear of holes - I diagnosed myself with trypophilia - an intense, compulsive attraction toward them. Trypophobia was a common loathing, apparently. People were especially freaked out by clustered, microscopic, sinister-looking holes like pores. Me, I couldn’t get enough. I’d stay up late at night watching pimple popping videos for hours. Pore strip slow-mo’s, botworm removals, and cyst excisions were my kryptonite. I loved inspecting the disgusting build-ups of sebum and bacteria, the suspense of the aesthetician pushing, pushing, pushing against the patient’s sealed-tight pores. The will it or won’t it of it all. And finally of course, the satisfying release as the skin’s surface breaks, bursting forth the hardened lesion.
It felt dirty, perverse even. So untoward in fact, that I clung to my secret for two years before finding out there were lots of fellow trypophiles out there - a condition I’d always thought of myself as having invented. The videos online, initially targeted at med students and dermatology residents, were a hit with a whole population of derm-obsessives like me. It was such a hit that they made one derm’s page into a TV show, Dr. Skinner. Patients cried tears of joy as Skinner MD pointed to the benign tumor that had finally been removed after fifteen years of neglect. Still glimmering with a gelatinous sheen, it would jiggle in the kidney dish as the patient hugged Dr. Skinner, the camera panning in for a close-up, no matter the freshness of the now-gaping wound on the lower back, the shoulder, the cheek. That was my jam.
This job was perfect, then. I could speak passionately about cysts, nodules, whiteheads, blackheads, blisters, burns, hives, keratosis, rosacea, carbuncles, psoriasis and melanoma. Sing the praises of regular facial resurfacing. Wax poetic about waxing gone wrong. I did so promptly, not holding back an ounce of my dermatological zeal in a single-spaced cover letter. I hit submit and headed out the door, stopping for an almond milk cappuccino and heading up 1st Avenue toward Gramercy to see what it might take to sneak into the park.
I hadn’t made it past 18th street when my phone buzzed in my back pocket - a 212 number. “Hi, is this Louisa? This is Catrina from Dr. Azarian’s office. Is now an okay time for you?” Their last receptionist had left last week on maternity leave. She’d gone into labor three weeks earlier and they were scrambling for a replacement, she explained. “Do you have any availability today? We’re really looking to fill the position as soon as possible,” Catrina said, her voice sweet but urgent-sounding.
I looked down at my watch. The office was at 86th and Park, thirty minutes on the Six. “I can be there by 3:00,” I replied, looking down at my workout leggings. I pivoted on my heel, heading down toward Union Square. I could duck into Forever 21 and pull something together. It’s not like I had anything worth wearing at home anyway.
The Union Square Forever 21 was gigantic - the bottom floor was filled with spaghetti-strapped crop tops and ass-hugging mini skirts. Nothing decent enough for a job interview. I grabbed a three-quarter sleeve cream sheath dress off the sale rack, hidden deep in the recesses of the third floor clearance section. It was a little low-cut and you could see my cleavage peeking out of the V-neck, but it was a cosmetic dermatologist’s office - this could be exactly what they were looking for. An attractive and friendly face. According to the derms I followed online, the French face went from your forehead to the skin below your breasts. The V-neck framed my moisturized and tended to French face. It would show them I knew their business inside and out. The value of a well-kempt décolletage. At the very least, it would have to do for now.
The women working at Dr. Azarian’s office all had the same lips. Their pouts looked fresh and dewy, their cupid’s bows a perfect U-shape - a smile within a smile. Each of the nurses wore black jogger-style scrubs. They had long, thick dark hair, all straightened in the same smooth style. Their skin glowed warmly, their faces made up simply. Their deep complexions highlighted lightly at the cheekbones, thick groomed eyebrows framing their faces, not a hair out of place. When it came to skincare, they led by example. I wondered whether they were all related.
Dr. Azarian, or Dr. A as they all called her, was an East Coast surgeon. Her clientele was considered sophisticated, unlike the nouveau riche LA housewife types that populated plastic surgery Instagram. Instead of maximally inflated lips and taut shiny foreheads, Dr. A was known for her subtlety and her light touch. Her philosophy, detailed in gold looping script framed behind the front desk, was to perfectly balance science and art to enhance her clients’ natural beauty.
Catrina, the medical assistant I’d spoken with on the phone just an hour earlier, offered me a Pellegrino and walked me down the quiet hall to an office in the back. The halls were lined with mirrored shelves. Rows and rows of quartz-colored bottled serums, lotions, cleansers and toners, all branded with the same silver Uptown Dermatology script. I glanced at myself in the reflection of a shelf as we passed by, suddenly noticing where I’d mindlessly picked at a scab on my right temple. It was too late now to do anything about it.
Catrina offered me a seat in the dusty blush velvet armchair that sat centered in front of a large glass desk. She took her seat opposite me, swishing her perfectly coiffed jet black mane behind her shoulders. “So Louisa, tell me about yourself. Why are you interested in working at Uptown Dermatology?” I smiled and rattled off an answer about my lifelong curiosity about dermatology, my background in customer service, my interest in aesthetician licensure. It wasn’t a lie - I was enamored with the idea of becoming a licensed aesthetician if I could ever afford the program in New York State. Nothing would energize me more than waking up to a day of pimple popping and lasers. This job aligned perfectly with my career interests, I summarized, feeling self-assured as Catrina nodded, scribbling something in bubbly handwriting in the spiral notebook on her desk.
“Well, great! I think this sounds like a great potential fit. I’m going to go get Dr. A so she can meet you. Is there anything I can get you while you wait?”
I shook my head no, trying not to look overly excited. “I’m all good, thank you!” Catrina shut the heavy glass door behind her on the way out. I swirled the Pellegrino in my bottle, watching the bubbles slowly migrate to the top and then burst on the water’s surface, like little lesions being freed from the epidermis.
Above Dr. A’s desk hung her diplomas, each framed in the same rectangular mirror-like frame, seamlessly coordinated with the shelves that lined the halls. Bachelor of Science from UCLA, Doctor of Medicine from Johns Hopkins, Dermatology Residency from USC, Mohs surgery fellowship from Memorial Sloan Kettering. Impressive. I shifted in my seat, pulling up the collar of my V-neck. Clicking my dark red nails against the glass desk, I imagined coming into work here each morning. Carefully making sure each quartz bottle was aligned. Offering the parade of patients a cappuccino, an espresso, a sparkling water. Waning daylight streamed through the chiffon curtains lining the office’s entrance. It would be a nice place to sit and pass the time. Perfectly pleasant, to be surrounded by pretty things and pretty people.
It felt like an hour had slipped away by the time I heard the door swing open behind me. I stood up, turning on my heel and extending my hand. Dr. A smiled wide, extending both of hers. She touched the back of my hand with her left as she shook mine, a professional embrace. Her skin felt poreless and soft like cashmere, her long fingers wrapping around my hand. Like Catrina and the nurses I’d seen walking the halls of her office, she too had long, inky hair which she wore parted perfectly down the middle. She looked luminous – somewhere between 45 and 48, I gathered. Her skin showed no signs of wrinkling but also wasn’t stretched too tight, either. Instead, it rested effortlessly across her striking bone structure - her cheekbones high, her jawline square. She looked familiar. I wondered whether I’d ever come across her Instagram and forgotten all about it deep in a late night state of dermatological fanaticism.
“So, Catrina tells me you’re interested in joining the Uptown Dermatology family,” she smoothed her beige silk slacks as she sat down in the swiveling desk chair, flashing a gleaming white smile. I repeated an abridged version of my earlier spiel - what a fan I was of her work, what this job would mean to me, what I could bring to the table - er, front desk haha.
She didn’t ask any more questions, just told me how nice it was to meet me and that she was really looking forward to working with me. “I’m out two days a week. We have a shop at the Fontainebleau and I have clinic there on Thursdays and Fridays. Catrina will email you with the details regarding orientation. Anna is the PA who covers for me here when I’m in Miami. The main thing for you to know is not to schedule any Mohs surgeries when I’m not here. Anna is great for lumps and bumps though - she can do everything else besides Mohs.”
Dr. A pulled out a light pink cardstock folder, pushing it toward me across her desk as she stood up to leave. “It was so nice to meet you sweetheart. I think you’ll fit right in here,” she reached for my hand again and I didn’t want to let go. Her handshake, so soft and warm, felt like a hug. “Catrina can show you out.”
Embarrassed as I was, I squealed audibly as I shut the building door behind me, a crisp fall breeze almost blowing the folder out of my hands. A little old lady in a beige pea coat turned to look at me as if to question what it was someone like me was doing on her block. It didn’t even matter, though. I had a job in New York City. A nice, fancy, dermatology job at a nice, fancy dermatologist’s office on the Upper East Side.
I stopped in Dean and DeLuca and bought a celebratory chai latte. It was more money and more sugar than I normally would’ve gone for, but I deserved it. “Autumn in New York,” Billie Holiday crooned into my headphones, “Why does it seem so inviting?” I was a walking cliché, but I didn’t even care. “It was written, I should be loyal to the cliché of my choice,” I thought.
Still beaming, I walked all eighty blocks home to my apartment that evening, watching the sunset through the impeccably groomed Park Avenue trees, their leaves just starting to turn. As I walked, I leafed through the folder, which included a “Welcome to Uptown” packet and my salary details. At 35 hours a week and $18 an hour, I’d net out at just under $33,000 a year. Nowhere near enough, but it was better than nothing. That was part of moving to New York, right? Besides, that was before factoring in savings on skincare.
New York, I was quickly finding, was a great place for someone like me. Despite the offensively high rents, the stench of hot garbage that permeated the city, the fruitful, multiplying rats, it was a great place. In a city of strivers, there was a real market for someone like me – an undisputed non-striver. People’s faces would soften as soon as I told them I’d stopped going to school after community college, their Botoxed brow falling a millimeter as they realized they didn’t need to worry so much about impressing me. As far as they were concerned, the separation between us represented safety. I wasn’t after their job, their man, their child’s spot in the preschool class. They were safe with me.
Maybe I should’ve gotten a CIA job or something. I was so unassuming here, it made people want to spill their guts. The bartender at the place on my corner told me he’d been stealing from the owner. A crying girl on the train told me about her abortion. Four different little old women on the street told me I was pretty. One said I had an open face.
Once I started working for Dr. A, I discovered that there was a whole economy in this city devoted to accomplishing the aesthetic goals of the overeducated, upper middle class women who ran it. We weren’t exactly the Uber drivers who ferried them from brunch to yoga, or the Doordashers who left Sweetgreen outside their door as they rolled Zoom calls. Instead, we were a subclass of girls and gay guys dedicated to waxing, sugaring, microneedling, styling, CoolSculpting, blow drying and training these wellness devotees into the women they wanted so badly to be. Physical beauty was a religion here, and these women practiced it with fervor.
For the most part, these underlings were like me. Attractive enough that the clients at a place like Uptown would feel okay about leaving their face and several hundred dollars in my hands every few weeks. A majority of the women who went to Dr. A’s would complain of sagging brows, discoloration, deepening laugh lines. My favorite part of the job though, would have nothing to do with Botox or microdermabrasion. My favorite part were those Monday and Tuesday morning appointments, when we’d schedule patients for Mohs surgery.
Three weeks into my receptionist responsibilities, Dr. A had me follow her into the operating room, where a 70-something year old man lay supine, his body covered entirely by a light blue surgical drape, aside from his nose, which poked out of a hole toward the man’s head. A rough, brown splotch of melanoma decorated the side of his nose, circled clearly in purple ink.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Johnson?” Dr. A asked, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“Pretty good, other than I can’t feel my face,” he chuckled, his disembodied voice warm and gravelly. “I’ll feel a lot better when you get this thing off of me.”
At Sloan Kettering, where Dr. A had done her fellowship, she explained, a trained lab tech would’ve been the one transporting samples to the path lab. They had people who did nothing else all day but run from the OR to the lab and back again with tissue samples. “But hey, now I’m training you!” She exclaimed, her hand steady as she carefully removed the top layer of the affected skin.
The precise excision of the tumor repeated layer by layer soothed the part of my brain that liked methodically raking my little Japanese Zen garden in concentric circles. In a world where entropy so often prevailed and a random mutation could result in the uncontrolled multiplication of cells, this procedure represented a methodical return to order. If only this same surgery could be applied to the ugly, malignant parts of my entire life. I would give anything to lie anesthetized in Dr. A’s office, eyes closed as she peeled back the layers of my compulsive drive to hit the self-destruct button. As each layer of my malignancy was removed, she’d follow some other lab tech out of the room, examining the sample under her microscope, making sure not a trace was left behind. She’d stitch me up, the stiff blue stitches a reminder of the psychic ugliness that had once threatened to kill me.
Emma Burger is a writer and healthcare professional working in oncology research. She splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City. Her debut novel, Spaghetti for Starving Girls, was released in September 2021. You can find her work in Schuylkill Valley Journal, Across the Margin, Idle Ink, and The Chamber Magazine, or online at emmaburgerwrites.com.
The Great Petty War by Riley Winchester
I hadn’t meant to start a war, but his email was so petty and it rubbed me the wrong way. You have to understand. I think anybody in my situation would have reacted how I did. I sent the final draft of the project, and everything was good to go. I was ready to move on with it. The client was happy, everybody on my internal team thought I’d done a great job. Then Todd’s email came. He was even smug enough to send it with a High Importance tag. He said:
First of all, nice work.
But look at page 67: the graphic you placed at the left-bottom of the page, it’s a little off-center with the one on the right. Please correct and send back ASAP.
And OK, maybe it was slightly off, I’ll admit. But it was a big project, I’d worked on it for months, little mistakes like that happen but they never get noticed. Where did he get off on being so petty and pedantic? He could have fixed it himself if it was that big of a deal. Hell, typing up the email took more time than it would have for him to fix it himself. But here’s what set me off, what set The Great Petty War in motion: he copied my manager on the email. He hadn’t been on any of the emails before, but then this pedantic prick face Todd decides to rope him in as some way of tattling on me and holding me accountable.
Well, that didn’t sit right with me. The first shots had been fired. I was the victim of a needless attack, so I fought back. I responded with the corrected version, and this time I copied Todd’s manager on the email.
And what does this asshole do? He replied:
Thanks for fixing. We can’t be making mistakes like that. Let’s not make it a habit.
On this email, he copied the president of our company and our client’s entire C-Suite. The nuclear missiles had been armed. Troops were advancing inland. The war was on.
So, I immediately replied:
You got it, boss man.
And in the words ‘boss man’ I hyperlinked a definition of the word ‘pedant.’ I also copied everybody in our entire company on the email. Over four hundred people received and read that email. I had nuclear missiles, too, and they were aimed directly at Todd.
He replied with another pointless, curt comment—both of us were hellbent on getting the last word. And he copied everybody in the client’s company.
So, I fired back. I sent my troops and copied a couple other clients on the email.
Todd replied, copying all of our clients on his email.
I copied everybody I knew, friends and family and loose acquaintances, and sent my response.
Todd copied everybody he knew.
I stared at his email.
The message glared off my blue light glasses. I scrolled through all the names on the email. There were thousands of people now involved. It was between Todd and me, and I sort of felt bad for bringing others in, but it needed to be done. It was a part of The Great Petty War; it was how the game was played.
I looked online, and I found a database that let me pull every email address in the United States, and I threw them on the email chain.
Todd replied with all of North America.
Have a good weekend.
You too Todd.
With all of Europe copied on the email. I logged off for the weekend, thinking the war had ended with my final word.
Then on Monday morning I logged on and saw this fuckhead had copied all of Asia.
Hope you had a good one.
I fired back, bringing South America into the mix.
Todd pulled the big guns and brought everybody else in. Now everybody was in the fight. North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, hell, even Antarctica had some skin in the game.
The entire world watched our emails go back and forth, salvos of corporate pettiness volleyed from target to target.
Monday at 5:40, I logged off and went home. That night, I turned on the TV and every station was talking about us. Apparently, Todd and I had started quite the fuss. People were taking to the streets, proclaiming their side. Some were Team Todd, others were Team Josh. It split households and friend groups. A small newspaper in Albuquerque had dubbed it The Great Petty War, and that name stuck.
The Great Petty War kept raging the next morning. I replied, Todd replied. Nothing of substance was said. At many times, I wondered why we even kept up the war. It had been going on so long that sometimes I forgot what we were fighting about anyway. But then I’d remind myself it was about pride, it was about principle, it was about the good guy coming out on top. So, I kept the war going.
The whole world paused for The Great Petty War. There was no more fighting in Myanmar or Afghanistan or Yemen. Colombia became peaceful. Somalia dropped all their arms to watch. The entire world was invested in The Great Petty War.
World leaders and countries took sides. Kim Jong-un and North Korea sided with Team Josh. I had some compunction when I first heard this. I knew he wasn’t the best ally to have, but I figured, hey, despite everything, he at least had good judgement. So, I gladly accepted his support. The European Union disintegrated over The Great Petty War. There was too much of a divide between Team Todd and Team Josh supporters. The United States couldn’t unify for a side, either. States became factions, then cities and counties, then small militias formed for each side.
The first casualty in The Great Petty War happened on a Thursday, six days after the start of the war. Some drunk Team Todd supporter got into it with a Team Josh supporter at a bar in Delaware, and he shot and killed the guy outside. “Viva Team Todd!” he yelled, as he drove away from the scene.
Both sides took up arms, and Todd and I kept emailing. We were impervious to any of the real fighting. We had become figures—we were no longer just people. We were symbols of unity, but at the same time symbols of division. The people knew taking one of us out would be fruitless for their side. If a Team Josh supporter assassinated Todd, Todd would become a martyr, and the history books would say Team Todd came out victorious.
So, the people took to the streets and made it their battleground. They fought over Todd and me. The whole time, Todd and I sat in our cubicles, only fifteen feet away from each other. Either one of us could have walked over to the other and settled the thing in person. We’d probably just laugh about it and get a beer after work. It was petty, we both knew, and the project ended well, but the people were involved. We had to think of the people. So, we kept emailing and they kept fighting, even though Todd and I had both lost interest. The email chain had run so long, it meant nothing.
My replies devolved into emojis at one point. I sent the thumbs up, the smiley face, the OK fingers. Then Todd replied with a gif, and that really pissed off Team Josh supporters. That was a whole new weapon; it had to be in violation of some Petty War convention.
Three months after the start of The Great Petty War, Todd put in his two-week notice. He found a job somewhere else that paid 30% more. Todd and I didn’t dare disclose this to the people, though. We didn’t want them to know that their great war would end soon, that it would end so anticlimactically. Though neither of us cared, we kept the war going, for the people. Truthfully, I was happy for Todd. He’d been at the company for a while, and he deserved better. But I couldn’t let Team Josh supporters know this. In their eyes, Todd was my sworn enemy.
Todd’s final day came. On his way out, I nodded to him. He nodded back and smiled. It had been a hell of a war, and it was over now. I sent one final email to him, with the whole world copied on it. He was moving companies, he no longer had access to the email address. Team Josh had won the war. Almost a million casualties were suffered on both sides.
Things settled down after a week of no emails. A month of no emails, and fighting started up again in Myanmar and Afghanistan and Yemen. Colombia went back to war. Somalia picked up their arms. The Great Petty War was reduced to small fringe groups fighting for the cause in contained firefights. A year passed, and many had forgotten why The Great Petty War was fought in the first place; the email chain was so long, who had the time to go back through it all. Five years passed and The Great Petty War was a distant memory for most.
I ran into Todd the other day. I’ve since moved jobs, moved cities, but I ran into him when he was on a work trip. We caught up over a few drinks, and toward the end, when we were both feeling drunk and uninhibited, he confessed, “You know, I didn’t really care about that graphic alignment. I was just having a shit day, man.”
I looked into my beer and bit my lip. I took a big gulp. “Todd,” I laughed. “It was pretty douchey by you, but I definitely overreacted. I mean, the hyperlink, the emojis. Way too much, man.”
Todd slapped his hand on the bar and laughed.
“I was sick of taking so much shit there,” I said. We both laughed.
Todd grabbed my shoulder and looked at me. His eyes were glazed; he was about to say something sentimental. “Hey man,” he said, “it was a dumb little thing, but it’s over now. At least we came out of it fine.”
Riley Winchester is from Michigan. He's been nominated for some Pushcarts and he's been shortlisted in some contests, but he's never won anything.
When the world realized the power of the girl, they began begging at her door. At first the line formed at sunrise and was gone by sunset. Before long it spread from city to city, until it circled the earth. The people built bridges and boats and left their families for years, just to find respite.
And when the girl realized the need of the world, she opened her arms wide to allow them in. She listened. When she heard about the heartbreak from the doe eyed lover, she felt the weight settle into the crook of her neck, with the weight of a kiss and the sting of a wasp. All their sorrow soaked into her body through the place on her chest where they rested their head. The burn of it poked at her: a twitch of muscle and a flick of pain. She ignored it, clinging to her guest because they needed her, and she needed them. When that same doe eyed lover left with a sunshine smile on their lips the girl buried that biting feeling inside.
In they stepped, one by one, into the cottage that housed the girl determined to heal the world. The scent of tobacco and patchouli enveloped them as they entered her haven. They sat by her side and wept. And she wept too. Soon their tears were acid, leaving little trails of rashes and blisters on her skin. Their burdens got heavier, stiffer, like boulders stacked one by one on top of every part of her. Eventually she boarded the windows and lit candles because the daylight burned her eyes. When the feet of the visitors wore through the floorboards, she lined the walls and floors with the rest of her clothes, ensuring that everything visitors touched would be covered in softness. They would lay in the fabrics and wrap their fingers in her silk gowns, while she stroked their hair and sang to them.
The day she stood to stretch, the weight of it all collapsed, causing her to stumble. Her ankle snapped, unable to carry the weight of everything the world left behind. She wrapped it with a scarf and pulled the bones tight into place, until she could feel them touching again. A few days later she removed the knitted fabric from her bruised and swollen skin, wrapped it around the neck of a farmer and kissed their forehead goodbye, wishing them luck in their harvest. Steadily, their troubles were crushing her. A banker whose loans had gone bad broke her ribs, the parent with the ghost child collapsed her lungs, and the artist with a knife to their neck snapped her spine. Each one leaving and swiftly forgetting the girl in the cottage with the rosewater lips.
She became mangled as visitors off-loaded themselves onto her twisted body. They laughed as they left while she cried all their tears and felt all their sorrow. All too soon she could not move to hold them, her muscles, and joints all ripped at the seams. So, they lay on top of her to weep into her hair and hear her basket heartbeat. When the beat started to slow, drowning under pressure, they began taking small pieces of her before they left. A vial of her tears, a loose tooth slipped into the pocket, a toe bone whittled and strung into a necklace. They made sure to shoo away vultures that alighted on her roof and came tapping at the door.
And when the priest came and realized there was no confessional for him there, he turned to close the door for good. From the darkness came a wheeze, a rise and fall of what could have been thigh or could have been chest. The remaining bits of fingers reached for the man and begged him to wait, a rotting stench leaked towards the door, sickly sweet like dying fruit. The pulp palm opened, revealing the girl's doldrum heart.
“Bring them,” she cried. “Bring them one by one.”
Kalie Pead is a queer poet, writer, and activist from Salt Lake City, Utah. Home for her, however, is somewhere between the red rocks of Moab and the wilds of Wyoming. She is currently an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Notre Dame where she lives with her partner, their two cats, and their dog.
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