M.J. Wolfson - "The Unspoken"

 

Joe talked a lot without actually saying anything. All those words and he never once said he was ill. Cass broke the news when she came home from work. “Hey, you heard about Joe?”

“Not seen him in months. Been meaning to call.”

“Too late. Joe’s gone.”

“He’s moved out?”

“Moved out of life. Pancreatic cancer. Took hold and wouldn’t let go.”

“What?”

“Joe’s dead, I’m sorry.” Cass moved off into the kitchen, and came back scowling. “Hey, you could have washed the dishes.”

The dishes were stacked high. I’d spent the day on the couch contemplating life. I didn’t put forward a defence.

“It’s a mess in here. Can’t you get off your behind and help out once in a while? Did you go down the job centre? What about the rubbish? Have you emptied the bins? Did you pay that bill?” Cass just reeled off the questions one by one without pausing for breath. She moved around the lounge and picked up the empty beer cans from the coffee table. When she’d finished she drew back the curtains and opened the window. “It smells in here.”

“What of?” I asked.

“You haven’t answered my question.”

“Which one?”

“Did you go down the job centre?”

“No.”

“They’ll stop the benefits. You can’t mess these people around. They’re still open for another half hour, you need to call.”

I moved off the sofa and straightened up the cushions in an attempt to tidy up the place. “I’ll do it first thing tomorrow. How’d you find out about Joe?”

“You’ll do it now or I’ll kick you out.”

She meant it too. I knew she meant it. The relationship was nearing a natural end, and it wouldn’t take much to finish it. We hooked up about eighteen months ago, and I moved in shortly afterwards. Cass was a few years older than me at thirty-five. Life, more than time, had etched itself into the lines around her eyes and the creases across her forehead, but she could still turn heads. When she was younger she did heroin, and she kept doing it until the choice wasn’t hers to make. She got herself clean, but by that time social services had taken her two kids off of her. Now she didn’t touch anything. No tobacco, no alcohol, absolutely nothing unless it was prescribed. Even though she’d kicked the habit the scars of that time ran deep. She’d tell you about herself, but only what happened and what she did. There were never any conversations about how she felt inside. There was always a veil there. A part of Cass that was private that belonged to her, and her alone. The only time she ever looked completely free was between the sheets. I guess that the physical high of her orgasms took her to a good place.

I thought about taking her up on her threat and leaving there and then. Any love I had was gone, but not loving someone doesn’t mean you don’t respect them. I didn’t want it to end like this so I fished out the number and dialled the job centre. An officious voice answered my call. “Croydon Job Centre.”

“Yeah, I was supposed to come in today but I didn’t make my appointment.”

“Right, can I take your name?”

“Mitch,” I said being difficult. I already knew I didn’t like the voice I was talking to.

“Is that your surname?”

“No.”

“I need your surname.”

“What for?”

“So I can find your appointment.”

“My appointment was at ten-thirty this morning. Can you find it now?”

“No, the system doesn’t work like that. I need your name. I need to be sure it’s you.”

“That sounds like a crap system. If you give me a job I’ll come in and re-design your system for you.”

“Sir, if you don’t co-operate I can’t help you.”

“I am co-operating. I rang you and I’ve just asked you for a job. You’re the job centre right? So can you help me or not?” I could see Cass in the background shaking her head. I decided to play it straight.

“Sir, I need your name. Not your nickname, or anything else, I need your full name If you don’t give me that information I will terminate the call.”

“Mitchell Hendricks.”

“Right, Mr. Hendricks, I can see you on our system. I need to ask you a couple of security questions. Can you tell me your date of birth and your national insurance number?”

“Twenty-sixth of August nineteen-eighty-five. And my N.I number is NS583770D.”

“About your missed appointment today. You know that’s serious? You do realise that we can stop your payments?”

Her accentuation of missed wasn’t lost on me. I gave up trying to be civil. “What’s your name, Sherlock? Why do you think I’m calling?”

“Don’t take that tone with me, Sir. It’s my job to point that out to you. If I didn’t make it clear to you, and we stopped your payments, I could lose my job if you were to complain.”

“I doubt it. My word against yours, and your lot would close ranks. There’d be a colleague who’d swear to all that’s holy, and unholy, that they heard you tell the jerk on the phone that his benefits could be cut. Now, are you going to help me or not?”

“Why did you miss your appointment?”

“A friend of mine died suddenly. I was in shock. The grief. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“I’m sorry for your loss. Can you verify that?”

“Are you serious? What do you want me to do?” All of a sudden I didn’t need to try and be difficult.

“Would you be willing to see a Doctor to verify your state of health?”

“Ah c’mon. If it saves my benefits yes, but all I want to do is re-arrange the damn appointment.”

“I have to ask these questions. I also asked you if you would be willing. That’s not the same as insisting.”

“So this is an English comprehension test?”

“Sir, I’m trying to help. I can see that this is the first time you’ve missed an appointment. Please be advised that we could ask you for proof if you were to miss another appointment on medical grounds. As it’s your first missed appointment I’m prepared to give you a concession. Can I ask you to be here tomorrow at eight forty-five a.m.?”

“That’s a little early. Can we do late morning?”

“Sir, I’m going out of my way for you. We’re only open from nine to five-thirty. All tomorrow’s slots are taken. I’m giving up my time to try and assist you. If you’re serious about finding a job surely you can make it. Ring the bell, and I’ll let you in. You’ll need I.D. So is eight forty-five ok?”

She had me cornered, and she knew it. “Thank you. I’ll be there. Bye.” I hung up before she could say anything else.

Cass stood in the doorway with her arms folded. “With that sort of attitude it’s no wonder you can’t hold down a job.”

“Hey, you didn’t hear the bitch at the other end of the line.”

“You could ring the paper factory where Joe worked. They’ll have a vacancy now. Probably haven’t had time to advertise the position. Best get in there early.”

“You want me to take my dead friend’s job? That don’t feel right.”

“Not right? You just used him as an excuse to miss an appointment you’d already missed before you even knew he was dead. That ain’t right.”

I couldn’t argue. Cass had a habit of cutting through crap, it’s one of the reasons I had time for her. I went to the fridge and got myself another beer. I downed it in one, and slung the empty can in the bin. Later Cass told me that she’d heard about Joe in the canteen at work. There wasn’t anything else she could tell me. 

*          *          *

I found out more about Joe in death than I ever did in life. To me he was just a guy from a local bar who talked too much, and I called him friend. I knew he had a wife, Mary. We’d all been out before, me, Joe, Cass, and Mary. They were good times. When I think back Joe never talked about himself. The women nattered over this and that. We talked about football and nothing in particular. Most of our conversations involved me listening. Occasionally, I’d get to ask how the kids were doing at school. Joe would always answer, “Doin’ alright,” and then he’d be off on another anecdote. Joe and Mary had two kids aged seven and nine. Once he’d gone it turned out he had an older boy of fifteen from a previous marriage. I didn’t know he’d even been married before let alone had a kid. I mentioned it later to Mary. She just said Joe was a private guy. I guess he was.

The split with Cass was becoming more and more imminent. I didn’t know why but the more I found out about Joe the more I started pushing Cass on the taboo subjects. “How’d you feel when they took your kids away?” I reeled question after question at her. “Do you think about them now? Should we try and get them back? Is it worth building bridges with your parents? What about your siblings?” Cass only ever replied with silence. I tried one last time. “Cass, let me in.”

She put on her coat and said, “Get a job.” Then she left the flat. She didn’t come back till the following day.

It took me a couple of days but I did get some casual work waiting tables in a restaurant, but I fell out with the maître d’ and didn’t last the week.  

*          *          *

   Joe’s funeral took place on the hottest day of the year. It wasn’t a day for wearing black. The sun tore us up. I arrived with Cass and we nodded to the other mourners gathered outside the church. Joe’s three boys were there. I couldn’t help but look at the eldest boy. His name was Simon and you knew he was his father’s boy just by looking at him. He wore a grey suit, white shirt, and black tie. He was at that awkward age where he had a man’s height, but not a man’s frame. The suit hung a little loose on him and you could tell he felt uncomfortable with the formality of his attire. I went over to him, and offered my hand. “You must be Simon. I was a friend of your father’s. I’m sorry. He was a good man.”

The boy nodded. “Thank you.”

I moved away. The boy’s body language told me he didn’t have anything else to say. Cass stood talking to some guy I didn’t know. I walked over and she introduced me. “Mitch, this is Ron. Joe’s brother. Ron, this is Mitch my partner.” We shook hands and made polite conversation.

When he moved on I shook my head. “I didn’t know Joe had a brother.”

“I think Mary mentioned it once.”

“Really?”

“Does it matter?”

“I don’t know. I guess not. It’s just I’m not sure how well I really knew him.” There wasn’t time to say anything else as we were invited into the church. The still coolness of the church gave everybody a respite from the suffocating heat. The service was like any other funeral. There were prayers and songs intercut with sniffles and sobs. Ron gave a reading and talked about the Joe he grew up with. It was a Joe I’d never known and didn’t recognise.

We gathered at the graveside and they buried him. Handfuls of earth were thrown onto the oak coffin, and the priest sprinkled holy water as he uttered the final words of the burial service. That was it. I had to use my handkerchief to wipe away the sweat from my brow. I hate gravesides. I had to squeeze Cass’s hand for comfort.

With Joe laid to rest everybody headed back to their cars. The plan was to drive to Mary and Joe’s house for the wake. I guess it was just Mary’s house now. I looked at the people around me and I knew I couldn’t go. I pulled Cass to one side. “Do you mind if we cut? Let’s just go home, park the car up, and hit a pub.”

“We can’t. We have to go back to Mary’s and pay our respects.”

“I’m not sure I knew the guy.”

“Why’s it a problem? You liked him didn’t you?”

“That’s the problem. Friends talk to each other. They tell each other things. It’s like you, Cass, you don’t let me in.”

“Everybody has locked rooms. Places they don’t want to tread. Friends understand that.”

“Friends share. They talk.”

“This is about you and nobody else. You want to cut then cut. I’ll get a lift with somebody. It’s not working, Mitch. You know that too. I want you gone.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, but it ain’t about me. We could have been good, Cass. All you had to do was let me in.”

“It’s all you. You ever stop to wonder why you’re so preoccupied with everyone else? It means you don’t have to look in on yourself. How many locked rooms you got? Your whole past is the murky unspoken. You can’t hold down a job. You struggle with authority. You laze around the house and drink all day. If you go anywhere it’s the pub. I’ll let anybody in, as long as they earn the right. What you got hidden away? Who are you, Mitch? That’s the only question in life you need to figure out. Who the hell are you? Once you find your answers then you might just have the right to step through the lives of others.”

Like I said: Cass had a habit of cutting through crap. She turned on her heel and left me there. I never went back to her flat and I never saw her again.

All I had was the words she left me with that day. Gnawing and tearing away at me. Battering against the deep rooted walls of my unspoken past. Walls that I created. Barriers that I wasn’t ready to dismantle let alone forcibly collapse. That was the way that I was happy to be. That’s the way the world would have to take me, at least, for now.

 

M. J. Wolfson's stories have been appearing in anthologies, magazines, and e-zines since 2012. He's a book collector, an autograph hunter, a part-time lion tamer, and a full-time fantasist. You can usually find him here: http://www.musingsfromplanetwolfson.com/

P.J. Sambeaux - "Nikki Strong: A Memoir"

 

 

1984

My segue into fifth grade proved a real shit time.  

First, rather than the luxurious freedom of walking to school along quiet, idyllic country lanes that I had enjoyed since kindergarten, there was the fact that I now had to ride the bus.  The bus was like a prison riot on wheels that smelled of exhaust fumes and feet, with kids from fifth grade through high school crammed in three to a seat and constantly raising a hellish din.  Somebody was always threatening somebody, or punching somebody, or trying to set one of the seats on fire. The bus driver was continually screaming her head off, while taking curves much too fast and threatening to dump us into the valleys below.

This alone was enough to cause me anxiety, but to make matters worse, this ninth grader, Gary Bernard, and his toadie eighth grader friend, Jason Artman, had started making fun of me every day on the bus ride home. Gary looked like an evil leprechaun.  Jason had bleach blonde hair and claimed to be the school’s best break dancer. I had my doubts.

Then there was the new school itself – the Middle School.  I had attended Elementary School since kindergarten, and in five years the kids there had somewhat grown to tolerate me.  Now I was hurled into the maelstrom of four different elementary schools converging on the fifth grade.  There were so many new faces, and they all seemed unfriendly.

To top it all off, my best friend since first grade was, once again, assigned to a different class.  Actually, she hadn’t been in my class since first grade – a tragedy of my young existence.  The fact that we lived pretty far apart meant that we only saw each other during the school year, but the fact that she was never in my class totally ruined that. I mean, we met on the playground at recess, but she had friends from her own class, and they laughed at inside jokes while I lamely kicked the grass with my sneakers and pretended I belonged.

I was a pariah on a good day. A feral mess, I pretty much lived life without any kind of adult supervision whatsoever.  Kids were instinctually afraid of me.  In the third grade, I accidentally dropped an f bomb on the playground and watched as the other kids receded from me, horrified. The fact that I was a girl only made matters worse.

I wasn’t a terribly bad kid, just wild.  I was a smart aleck and never did my homework, but was clever enough to pass all my tests and thus get straight C’s.  When you were bad – not doing your homework, passing notes, talking, etc – you got your name written on the blackboard.  Each subsequent offense found a star beside your name.  My name was often on the board, often with many stars. Teachers shook their head at me – I was that kind of kid.

**

In fifth grade I had begun to experience a new and intense sort of aloneness. The super jesus-ey kids with their praying didn’t want anything to do with me – same with the smart kids (all boys) with their Commodore 64’s, the horse kids with their rodeo, and the grubby, ultra poor kids with their extreme poverty.

My neighbors were mostly all old people, so I really didn’t have any friends that lived in my neighborhood either, save some nasty boys that could occasionally be corralled into a pickup game of baseball in the summer.

I remember it was still fall, but the winds had just started to blow cold when I met Nikki Strong.

Right at the beginning, right on her first day when she was a transfer student from Michigan, she was bad – shockingly, unapologetically bad. She was sassy to other kids in our grade, to older kids, to the teachers, whoever she was talking to really.  An eighth grader stopped suddenly in front of us in the hall and she ran right in to him, but when he turned around and glared at her, instead of humbly apologizing she simply burst out laughing – great peals of derisive merriment.  She just did not give a damn – and this was all on her first day!  She showed deference to no one, and we all showed deference to someone or another – pretty much whoever could and would beat your ass.

Girls in Appalachian Ohio were not sassy, had no reason to be.  Life was and would always be bleak. You got pregnant, hopefully at least you were in high school, and you – maybe – got married.  And then you got a job as a cashier in a store, if you worked at all; most people collected welfare. In seventh grade a girl we knew would have to get married to a guy in his thirties for reasons of family poverty:  life over at age twelve.  There was nothing to be done and little to be said about it, besides an outcry against the shocking necessity of it all. All that was left for us to do was to silently seethe at the adults and system who we could instinctually, if subconsciously, feel failing us in great, sweeping cascades of inequity that no one mired in the shame of poverty had the sense or salt to directly rail against. We lived in an economically depressed area in an economically depressed time in a decade where nothing was cool if it wasn’t shiny and plastic and big and new.

**

Nikki wore her hair in short, bouncy curls that looked like they had just fallen out of a curling iron when all the other girls at my school, myself included, had long hair – aspiring for it to one day reach our butts. She had a pug nose peppered with freckles.  She wore makeup, but did it tastefully – which was really unusual in fifth grade.  Most girls weren’t allowed to wear makeup, but the ones who did looked like circus clowns.

That she sought me out right away was thrilling – obviously we were destined for each other. And she lived so close! Right behind Dino’s Pizza Shop, a local hang out for high school kids.  This was a mere ten-minute walk down my street that earned its name: Highland Avenue, across a busy country highway, past the Mini Mart, past the weird little sewing shop, past an insurance company, past the ice cream shop, across another busy country highway, past the pizza shop and boom – you were there.

I had dreams about what our friendship – obviously we would instantaneously become best friends and stay friends forever – would be like: doing hair and borrowing clothes and books – awesome stuff like that we would do like it was no big deal.

That first day we met, we hung out after school, and I met her older sister, Billie.  Billie, with her frizzy, brittle, bleach blonde hair and over abundance of blue eyeliner, was in eighth grade.  She had a pale, narrow face and a pathological meanness that would surely lead her to a women’s reformatory in later years.  Her saving grace was that she wore an ear cuff – something I had only seen in movies!  

We sat down at their built-in kitchen table to eat leftover stuffing for dinner, and Billie immediately whipped a bandage off her hand to show me rows and rows of blue stitches.  

I almost puked, but when she asked me if it grossed me out, I lied and said it hadn’t.

She said she had been doing dishes, in the dark, and had accidentally grabbed the blade of a butcher knife.  I could plainly see that the amount of stitches didn’t match up with the story – although I didn’t call bullshit on her.  I myself had a lifestyle that required a lot a prevaricating.  I didn’t care anyway – I didn’t even close to want to know the truth behind a hand full of stitches.  We all had our family shit that we had to lie about.

They both came over to my house, sneaking into my bedroom through the customary entrance: the window, and slipping as we put our feet down on a treacherous wall to wall carpet of books and papers.  Bobby remarked on my slovenliness right off.  I made a joke about something in the piles of papers trying to bite me – I was completely joking, we had way too many cats to have a problem with vermin – and from the way her nose wrinkled up in disgust and the leery way she eyed the floor, I could instantly see that they had lived places where something biting them had been a real issue.  My joke was taken completely the wrong way and she dismissed me as strange and left.

**

Right away, Nikki seemed to know and have a relationship with every single older boy in our neighborhood, including Gary Bernard, who continued to make fun of me for no reason on the bus ride home.  He and his toadie Jason always had something to say about my hair, how I was dressed, what I said – but that’s how boys were there: just plain mean.

I was disappointed when I spotted her with Gary Bernard one afternoon after school.  I could tell from a distance that they were arguing.

“Yeah, someone on the bus said something to me about it,” he spat out angrily as I walked over.

I stood there, unnoticed, while they went over a list of suspects who had possibly leaked a shared secret, with Nikki feigning, obviously feigning, innocence.

“Did you tell?” he demanded of me, wheeling around suddenly and acknowledging my presence for the first time.

I had no idea what he was talking about and said so, but he continued to scowl at me anyway.

Nikki made some excuse about having to go somewhere with me, and we walked away from him together.  I asked her right away what all the fuss was about.

“Oh, yesterday he put his hands down my pants over by the red brick church,” she said nonchalantly.  The red brick church was the Methodist one right beside my bus stop.

“Why did he put his hands down your pants?” I asked in a rather scientific way, clearly baffled by such behavior.

“To see if I had pubic hair,” she answered, disgusted at my stupidity.

I was quite shocked at her answer… once I went home and looked pubic hair up in the dictionary.  I was certainly a wild kid, but not wild ‘like that’.  Sure, I would smoke weed for the first time in eighth grade in the girls’ bathroom, but I wouldn’t even kiss a boy until the end of tenth grade.

This development troubled me somewhat.

One day shortly thereafter, I heard a boy named Tim gossiping about Nikki on the bus ride home.  Tim was an eighth grader for the second year, with a cuteness marred by acne scars. My ears suddenly perked up.

“Yeah, she fucked Jason on the pool table at his party,” he said.  “He came back out all dazed and laughed and said ‘we should do that again sometime.’”

“No, she didn’t,” I snapped, instantly taking up for my friend against this outrageous lie.  I knew what fuck meant and I knew she hadn’t done that.  We had been friends a couple of weeks, and I felt obliged and able to speak for her.

“Yeah, she did,” Tim said emphatically.  All of the kids around us, some of whom were fairly trustworthy, shook their heads in the affirmative.  

“But she’s only in fifth grade,” I said, the words falling involuntarily out of my mouth from shock, not from prudery or judgment.

“She’s supposed to be in sixth grade,” he stated simply as both an explanation and a defense.

The next day, I asked Nikki about it on the playground, to which she replied “Yeah, so what?” and walked away.

Her capriciousness stunned me.  I didn’t know much about sex, but I knew that sex stuff was what got a girl called a whore – and once you got called a whore, you didn’t ever come back from that.

Shocked as I was, I still did not disassociate myself from her.  Yet our interests seemed to diverge at that point, and she paid less and attention to me as the days went on. After school she never wanted to hang out with me, and when I called her house for the third time one evening, it pushed her sister into a psychotic rage, whereupon she vowed to kick my ass.  And that was that.  The next day when I approached Nikki to say I was sorry for calling so many times, she wrinkled her nose in disgust and openly shunned me, then continued to shun me until it was ingrained into my psyche.

I quickly came to realize that her shunning was a permanent development in our relationship, and then one day she went so far as to openly mock me in front of the whole class while the teacher was out of the room.  I had bent over to grab something out of my desk and fell out of my chair, face first, onto the floor.

She yelled, “Derrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.  Smooth move, ass wipe.”

The class roared with laughter, but I could hear her derisive cackle ringing out above the rest.  I turned beet red and died one of the thousand little deaths of embarrassment common to childhood, but something inside of me rose to a quick boil.  It was one thing for her to ignore me, quite another for her to make fun of me, then something all together different for her to laugh at me.  

“Oh shut the fuck up, Nikki,” I screamed with enough force and volume to stun the entire class into silence.  My classmates shifted uneasily in their seats, looking from Nikki to me and back again, because I hadn’t just yelled, but in the heat of my burning shame and in the language of my contemporaries, I had actually challenged her to a fight.

Nikki glared bitterly at me for what seemed like an eternity, but in the end she backed down without a word.

And just like that our friendship ended for good, something like the dandelion necklaces you make when you’re a kid – fun while you’re doing it but something you cast off in embarrassment when it shows wear.  

I took it mostly like a champ, but I have to admit that when I got all my hair cut off over Christmas break I half thought it might rekindle our friendship, being that she and I would be the only girls courageous enough to lop all our hair off, but she continued to ignore me.  She had obviously learned early the power of being mean and withholding. After that I just learned to live without the sunshine of her weird and intense friendship.  We would have a couple of minor incidents where she tried to make fun of me again, cruelty being inimical to her character, but she quickly got the message that I wasn’t taking it, and being that my resistance was forged in the mighty furnace of rejection it was strong enough to dissuade her from further attempts.

 

1989

In ninth grade, Nikki stopped me in the girls’ bathroom to ask who the cherry car in our driveway belonged to. I liked that she called it ‘cherry’.  It was a cherry car – a red mustang that belonged to my sister’s boyfriend, which I told her.

I hadn’t talked to her since fifth grade, and I admit I was a bit pleased to be acknowledged out of the blue.  Meanness was a currency in high school, and for someone to be civil to you and interested in you was something rare.

Just a couple nights later, the car was broken into and the radio torn out of it, right in our driveway.  The next day I saw Nikki in the girls’ bathroom and told her about it.  I was completely disgusted by the innocence and surprise she feigned – she actually said the words ‘oh, my god’ – when it was so obvious she was guilty.  I had to let it go though; there nothing really to do about it anyways.

 

1991

I was sleeping over at my friend Ashley’s house when her brother mentioned Nikki.  It had been a while since I had thought about her – she was enrolled in the basic studies courses and I did college prep – so we hadn’t had a class together since fifth grade.

“Chunk says fucking that bitch is like fucking a bowl of water,” Ashley’s brother informed us, asserting that Nikki had slept with so many guys that her vagina had lost all of its elasticity.

Both Ashley and I agreed that she was a whore, but protested a slack vagina as a physical impossibility.

 

1992

The last time I see Nikki Strong, she is waiting in the Vice Principal’s office. The Vice Principal’s office is where you are sent if you are in rather big trouble or are late to school.  I am late.  She is in trouble.

Someone makes a crack about me dressing like a freak, and she has the audacity to laugh – that same derisive cackle I knew from years before – even though she is so pregnant that the baby could practically fall out on the floor right there.  

I glance over at her for a moment, thinking about her future prospects and letting it dampen my spirits.

But she is still unapologetically bad.

###

P. J. Sambeaux's work has appeared in such magazines as Typehouse Literary Magazine, Maudlin House, Space Squid, Alliterati, and The Broken City, and is forthcoming in Unidentified Funny Objects.  She lives in upstate New York.

Links to other stories:

http://www.spacesquid.com/full-circle-home/

https://maudlinhouse.net/author/p-j-sambeaux/

http://peoples-ink.com/wp-content/Typehouse/TypehouseIssue9Sept2016.pdf

http://www.thebrokencitymag.com/BC15web.pdf

https://issuu.com/alliteratimagazine/docs/issue15print3

https://apocryphaandabstractions.wordpress.com/2015/04/27/twittercide-by-p-j-sambeaux/

https://flashfictionmagazine.com/blog/2015/01/29/a-departure/

Sam Baldassari - "Remember Your Death"

Sam Baldassari - "Remember Your Death"

Annie splashes water on her face, pinches color into her cheeks, tries to remember having cancer. Red splotches appear where her fingers squeezed her skin. She watches in her bathroom mirror as they disappear almost instantly, the blood shying away from her, keeping her pale. Even her goddamn blood doesn’t want to show up today, she muses, still pinching, watching the color drain like water down an eggshell basin. She shakes her head at her reflection like a misbehaved child. Unbelievable.

Alec snores in the bedroom, the garbling, almost-choking kind of snore that Annie sometimes jokes could end their relationship. She heads in there, annoyed. Grabs his foot and moves it back and forth a couple of times until he jolts awake.

“Get up.” She says with enough panic to remind him what day it is.

“You got this, babe.” He mumbles, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “I’ll make breakfast.”

On the other hand, maybe her complexion isn’t the worst thing for today. She’d been pale when she had cancer, hadn’t she? A translucent almost-blue. Looking shitty could be her inspiration. She clamps her eyes shut for a moment, willing herself back into some hospital bed from years ago. She just needs to remember how she’d been feeling: how sick and depressed and how beating cancer was so incredibly moving that she’s carried invaluable life lessons with her everywhere, in all that she does. For some reason, all she can actually remember is an uncanny sensation of shrinking, but even that might have been the nausea. She scans her closet for a dress, wondering if a report of her digestive upsets could count as an inspirational speech.

Alec returns from the kitchen as she shimmies into her first pick: a navy blue wrap-around dress that was cheap but doesn’t look it. He holds a plate in one hand and grabs her arm with the other, pulling her to sit down on the bed. He looks so calm that Annie considers strangling him.

“Hey, just stop for a minute, okay?” He slides the small white plate onto her lap: a slice of peanut butter toast with a chocolate-chip smiley face. “You’re going to be amazing.”

Annie kisses his cheek and looks down at her breakfast, watching as the smile melts to a grimace.

    

The invitation from Fulton arrived three weeks ago. She’d found it on the kitchen counter, unfolded and displayed on top of the envelope that had been sliced into a jaw of teeth. The unmistakable crest of her high school alma mater was stamped on the top right corner: golden and decadent. They’d begun a series of speeches by notable alumnae, the letter said. Since she recovered from such a terrible illness during her sophomore year and has become so successful, they would love for her to be a speaker in the series. They designated a day for her presentation already; she simply needed to call the number below and accept the honor. As she held the laminated paper, Annie could not decide what annoyed her more: the invitation’s use of the word “successful” or the fact that Alec had opened it for her.

“So proud of you, babe.” He’d come up behind her while she read it, wrapping his arms around the waist of her robe. In that moment, she wished he had used the dumbbells that sat at the foot of their bed, maybe gone running more often. She wished he were stronger, that his arms could support her. But he was lanky and she was annoyed, so she pushed through him and walked over to the couch, his arms swinging limply at his sides.

 

She spent the rest of the day watching speeches by cancer survivors on YouTube. She’d seen similar ones before: sometimes videos, sometimes in person. There was a period of time right after she went into remission when Annie binged on stories such as these. They’d been forbidden when she was sick. She remembered one day in particular when an eleven-year-old boy came back to the oncology wing after being declared one-year cancer free. He wanted to give a short speech for the staff and patients. Most of the nurses knew him and a few of the children did too. He’d been discharged before Annie arrived. She remembered his excitement mostly: his face and name have faded, but she can still see the way he tugged at his shirt tail, the way he greeted everyone with hugs. When the boy began his speech, Annie’s mom shut the door to her room and set up a board game for them on the tray table.

Annie understood it, sure. But her curiosity had been peaked. When she was better, she watched every survival story she could find. She felt like she had joined an exclusive club. It felt communal in a way she never imagined cancer could feel. However, her obsession with “inspiration porn,” as some sociology teacher in college had later called it, was short-lived, packed entirely into her few weeks at home before she had returned to school. After that, her interest in this new “club” waned, replaced exclusively by her intense devotion to rejoin her old life and leave her cancer-days in the past.

 

The videos seemed different, from what Annie could remember. Some of them were grainy, poor quality. The kind of thing she imagined a proud relative straining to record between a hundred heads. The venues were big and small, from formal banquet hall speeches to casual declarations at family parties. The speech-givers ranged in age, gender, diagnosis. Leukemia, Lymphoma, Neuroblastoma. The stories were different but all of them seemed to follow the same basic formula. It seemed so obvious now; she couldn’t believe she hadn’t realized these patterns before. Annie took notes:

1. Begin by painting an overly-favorable portrait of your life pre-diagnosis. Stress your happiness at this time. Consider also mentioning a specific hope or dream you had for your future.

2. Describe the pain that brought you to make that first visit to the doctor. A nagging pain in your side? Chronic headaches?

3. State the specific date of your specific diagnosis. “On September 13, 2004, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer…”

4. Describe treatment. Focus on the activities you had to give up for treatment. Females always mention hair loss.

5. Use war terminology throughout. You “kept battling.” You “fought hard,” etc.

6. Close by presenting a new, unique outlook that you didn’t have before. Explain how this new mentality has affected you positively since recovery. Appear confident and overly conscious of your life.

 

For a few days, Annie didn’t do much besides watch these videos, familiarizing herself with the structure again, mastering the criteria. She called out sick from work and curled up with a pen, a notepad, and a box of tissues. If she studied their demeanor, maybe she could replicate it. Maybe she could deliver something somewhat convincing. She could rejoin that exclusive, nonexistent club she had once imagined. She could move someone with the story she’d always distanced herself from, the story she could only remember in disjointed pieces.

One of the videos kept Annie’s attention a little longer than the others had. A high school girl stood in front of a large student body. She’d been given an award for bravery or excellence or some other ambiguous term and was accepting with this speech. The girl was well-dressed, small boned, and spoke with a southern twang Annie didn’t anticipate. Her sewn-in brown hair extensions weren’t too bad; Annie probably only noticed them because she wore her own. Memento mori, the girl whispered into the microphone while clutching onto the patterned scarf that hung around her neck. In ancient Rome, servants would whisper this phrase to the great emperors every morning, she explained. Memento mori. Remember your death. Being three years in remission, the girl said that she struggled with just that: remembering. “When my hair began growing back after chemo, I was ecstatic. I didn’t think I could be any happier. I was so excited just to have hair. But after awhile, I began to forget. I complained about my hair. It got too frizzy in the rain. It didn’t hold the curls. I forgot the joy of simply having hair because it was no longer taken away from me. In this way, I forgot about my death.”

Annie snorted at the comparison. Wasn’t that a bit of a stretch? She hit the escape button to pause the video, which brought her to a memorial webpage for the girl. Kristen O’Hara. Her picture was displayed in the middle of the screen: standing on a beach in a long maxi skirt. Her skin was tanner than it had been in the video and she was playfully clutching the edge of a straw fedora. Her smile seemed to be growing; whoever had taken the picture must have caught her the second before she burst into laughter. Under her picture were two dates connected by a tiny dash mark. Annie felt like an ass. She closed the computer and threw the notepad into her drawer, leaving the tissue box unopened.

That was her last video. She wasn’t exactly inspired in the way she had hoped. Eventually, she sat down and typed three pages, double-spaced. It was a relatively short speech, decent at best, but it followed the criteria well enough. When it was finished, she practiced reading it to Alec. After her attempted sentimental closing, he stood up and clapped loudly, which made her feel less like a survivor imparting wisdom and more like a child practicing lines for a play.

 

On the train out of the city, Alec sends emails from his iPad while Annie presses her forehead against the cool window, watching the New York skyline pass. Fulton Academy is a couple of hours east of Astoria, the neighborhood in Queens where she and Alec have lived for a year and a half. The apartment was hers first; she’d moved for a position in the marketing department of Futures.com, an employment website that was supposed to be “up and coming.” Alec was going to Columbia law school at the time, spending his meager savings on bus tokens and textbooks. He had no money and thousands in debt, which appealed to Annie. She enjoyed inviting him into her home, saving him from his run-down studio apartment.

Four months ago when he was given a junior partner position at a firm in Manhattan, he began leaving large sums of money for her in envelopes: in her sock drawer, wedged in the corner of the bathroom mirror. He’d always paid a share of the rent, but now he was trying to cover all of it. Every time he attempted this, she would take the unopened envelope and leave it on his pillow. They’ve never had an actual conversation about it, and he’s also never given up.

“Babe,” she says, placing her hand over his screen. “Next stop is us.”

 

The school is more vibrant than she remembers. Either her memory had greyed things, or the many buildings of the academy have all been lathered with a new sheen of paint. She almost forgets, for a moment, how to navigate the elaborate campus, before finding the visitor’s entrance attached to the main hall.

“Annette, darling, you’re here!” Mrs. Carrington, the school receptionist, stands at her desk to greet them; a loud jangling sound comes from the many bracelets and accessories she piles on her neck and wrists. She looks almost the same as ten years ago, save for a new pixie haircut that Annie imagines a young stylist suggested to her at some expensive salon. Mrs. Carrington reaches a manicured hand across the desk and Annie takes it, tight-lipped. She had forgotten, for a blissful ten years, how much she hates the sound of her full name.

Mrs. Carrington chats with them as she escorts them down the hall. The width of the stone corridors makes Annie uncomfortable; she much prefers the claustrophobic city streets, the possibly toxic air. A group of three students walks by them, clutching textbooks to their chests and staring intensely at Alec. Basically every male who walks through an all-girls school receives this same level of attention: ravenous curiosity, instant objectification. Annie recalls her senior year when someone drew a vulgar picture of the calculus teacher, Mr. Chapman, in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. She coughs to keep herself from laughing; it was still funny.

“Here we are! Dean of Alumnae Relations Office. Dr. Downs is finishing up in a meeting and will be right in. So good to see you, Annette.” She pulls Annie into a hug. “The school really needs this today. Bless you.”

Mrs. Carrington’s last words linger with Annie as she lowers herself into a plush, leather armchair. She considers calling her back into the office, asking her why the school would “need this” speech from her, but her nerves take over, immobilize her. She sits dumbly, listening as the clanking of Mrs. Carrington’s heels grows softer, subsiding in the distance.

“You okay?”

She’d forgotten about Alec.

“Yeah. I’m okay.”    

“Hey,” he grabs a section of her thigh between his fingers and squeezes. “Never thought I’d see that skirt again.” He raises his eyebrows at her. A hint of soft crimson rises in his cheeks, his earlobes. His sexual gestures were typically of this breed: not forceful or malicious, just awkward and misplaced. He’s trying to cheer her up, she knows. To distract her with this scandalous allusion, this shared memory.

 

She knows what he’s referring to, of course. That skirt, her high school uniform, was what Annie had been wearing the first time they had sex. She had always heard rumors of elaborate Halloween celebrations at college, ones that extended past the holiday itself and spilled into an entire week. She’d packed the skirt her freshman year as a back-up costume, figuring if she rolled it up once or twice she could go as Brittney Spears from the “Hit Me Baby One More Time” music video. A couple months into school, she’d forgotten about that plan. The night she wore it, she rolled it up three or four times, declaring she was a “naughty school girl” to whichever beer-yielding boy would listen.

By the time she saw Alec at that Halloween party, she’d already decided she was going to sleep with him. To her, he was already “boy from Anthropology 100.” All semester, she had taken periodic breaks from her note taking just to stare at him: his black jeans and mismatched t-shirts. His mossy, unbrushed hair. He wasn’t attractive by most girls’ standards, this Annie knew. But she was drawn to how he slouched at his desk, how he chewed his pen caps into long, ribbed antennas. He seemed to exist simply and equally in every moment, beautifully free of a backstory. The small bracelet he wore on his right wrist everyday was the only exception. It was silver, engraved, and it appeared meaningful in a way that complicated him, in a way that Annie couldn’t bear.

When he went home with her that night, Annie slid the bracelet off along with the rest of their clothes. She threw it behind his head and it bounced off of her roommates’ bed frame but he was too distracted to notice. They made their official introductions right there, between drunken, gulping breaths, bodies moving rhythmically against her paisley comforter.

He was the smaller than any other guy she’d been with. She could barely feel him beneath her: no pleasant tingling, no sharp intake of breath. In fact, Annie had no involuntary reactions at all while having sex with him. She controlled how she sounded, how she looked. But she loved the way he seemed to absorb her, the way his eyes became buried beneath his eyebrows as he lost control of himself. She loved the way he’d grip her afterwards, greedily, breathing off her skin like a ventilator.

 

Unfortunately, Annie has no mental stamina to act intrigued by this memory.

“Annette Dinaldo? I’m Joseph Downs.”

Annie stands to greet an elderly man who walks into the office. He is dressed in a forest green tweed jacket and smells like a grandfather: mothballs and breath mints and stale tobacco.

“Nice to meet you. You can call me Annie.”

“Great, great you could come. And I must say how much I admire your story. Truly touching.” He smiles and Alec wraps a proud arm around her.

“So this process is fairly simple. The bell just rang so our students are filing into the new gym right now. Have you seen the addition to the South wing yet?”

Annie shakes her head.

“Oh- it’s beautiful, you’ll love it. Anyway, we’ve set up a podium in the new gym, which was just named last week for Regina July, a senior of ours who passed away. Car accident. Terrible, terrible thing. Anyway, you’ll be speaking there. Our first speaker in the venue. It should all be wonderfully emotional, given the content of your speech. Afterwards we typically open it up for a short Q and A. The students aren’t very talkative, but sometimes they come up with some great questions. Does this all sound good?”

“I’m…sorry about the student,” is all Annie can think to say. He waves an age-spotted hand behind him.

“All the better reason to hear a nice survival story.” He bows his head at them slightly then motions them to exit his office.

 

He is right about the gym being beautiful. The bleachers fold inwards, opening the space wider than any auditorium she’s seen before. The ground is golden and coated with gloss. When she enters, Annie gets the sensation she has stumbled upon a hidden meadow. The Sting song Fields of Gold pops into her head, unwelcomed.

She and Alec take seats by the podium. The students sit cross-legged on the floor, chatting with each other, their many voices creating a low, united hum. Dr. Downs stands up and leans over the tall wooden platform. The sight of him alone begins to silence the girls in waves.

“Good afternoon, women of Fulton Academy.”

“Good afternoon,” the girls parrot back with a blood-curdling, sing-songy inflection. Annie brings a hand to her mouth, covering her lips that had involuntarily moved with the students’.

“We gather today to continue with our series of alumnae speakers. In a moment, we will hear from Annette Dinaldo, a woman who courageously battled Stage 4 Thyroid cancer during her sophomore year here at Fulton. As a fifteen-year-old girl, she was given a 30% survival rate for a one-year period. Miraculously, Annie was given a second chance at life and stands here before you today, a strong and healthy twenty-eight year old woman.”

There is a flutter of reluctant applause from somewhere in the back. Annie hopes Dr. Downs will stop there; he’s already taken half of her speech.

“But before we hear Annie’s story, I wanted us all to take a minute to bow our heads and remember Regina July.” Dr. Downs leans slightly forward and closes his eyes. “Regina, you were an invaluable member of our community here at Fulton. Your precious life was taken so senselessly, so abruptly. In your honor, we have named this beautiful space so that you may stay always in our minds and in our hearts.”

Dr. Downs pauses for a long, drawn-out moment. The silence is painful to Annie, like her eardrums popping at a high altitude. Some students cry she notices: a soft, embarrassed cry, like the girls had been told not to show too much emotion in public. She finds herself zeroing in on these girls, the ones pressing tissues to the corner of their eyes, hiding behind their palms. They were her friends, she imagines. Girls who got personal calls on their cellphones when it had happened, who had long threads of text messages with her, memories with her. Whose best friend had simply vanished one day. Perfectly. Without warning.

 

Annie spent a lot of time wishing she’d die that randomly. Hit by some car on a freeway. Crushed, instantly. She wanted that brief, life-flashing moment. The milliseconds before the vehicle flattened her being the only window of time for her to contemplate death. She craved the immediacy of such an accident, the helplessness of it.

She never told anyone about this wish, except once to Alec. They’d been dating for a few months and she was driving him to a law firm a few miles outside of their college campus. He had an interview for a summer internship. He was fiddling with his tie in the passenger seat, telling her how valuable of an experience this position could be, when a truck across from them lost control and swerved into their lane. Annie stared at the vehicle as it sped towards them, mesmerized by how it seemed to grow, magically, as it gained on them. She did not hear Alec yelling beside her. She was alone with the truck: the distance closing between the two of them, the promise of darkness gaining if they should finally meet.

Alec reached across her and steered them to safety. When she finally looked at him, his neck was coated in sweat. Stains lined the collar of his neatly pressed shirt. His breathing was wild; his eyes were wet, alert, full of questions. They sat in silence on the shoulder of the road until Alec flipped his cellphone open and cancelled his interview.

He drove them to a diner. Annie laced her fingers through the handle of a ceramic mug while he questioned her. Why didn’t she steer out of the way? Was she in shock? Was she okay?

That’s when she decided to tell him about the cancer. She’d successfully hid it from him until that point; she never felt a need for him to know. But in that moment, she wanted to talk about it. Partially because she knew he cared: he actually, really cared. But mostly because she was scared of herself, of how easily she welcomed death without making a conscious decision to do so.

She spoke only briefly. She ran through the important events, elaborating when he prompted. She tried to explain her immobility in the car. The words felt foreign, never spoken by her before, but they seemed to present themselves as she needed. Life. Guilt. Trapped.

He cried almost immediately. She hated the way crying looked on him: his contorted features, his squinty eyes. It embarrassed her, the way he cried. She kept her eyes in her lap mostly, hoping that the next time she looked up at him it would be over. But it wasn’t. He reached both arms towards her across the table, palms open. She placed limp, noncommittal hands on top of his as he spoke.

He told her about his Uncle Ray, a marine who had died in combat when Alec was a kid. They’d been so close when he was growing up, he told her. His death devastated him, changed the course of his life.  Annie concentrated on her expression as he spoke, feeling hyper-aware of her face, attempting to hold it in a way that conveyed interest, sympathy.

“Uncle Ray was a hero. I know that. Some people lose their lives being heroes. But others don’t. Some heroes keep living. They get the chance to tell their story. That’s you, Annie.”

In that moment, she knew she never would love him. She thought of his silver bracelet, the one she threw away. She never found out what it meant, if it had anything to do with his uncle. But she knew she couldn’t escape it. He was more than she wanted him to be, just like everyone else: complicated and messy.

She smiled at him anyway. A small, grateful smile because she needed him to stay. She needed him to value her in the way she’d never value herself. She needed him to turn the wheel from all of the seductive vehicles barreling towards her.

Her eyes dropped to the coffee in her cup: the pure black liquid, completely still. She squeezed his hands, feeling nothing but the distant company of a stranger, learning to be content with this.

 

“Now, please join me in welcoming Annie Dinaldo.”

Annie stands on impulse at the sound of her name. The wave of applause lifts her off her feet and towards the podium. She places her hands down and stares out to the crowd of young girls in their plaid skirts, all of them silent and blinking at her. How could she compete with Regina July? A girl they’d known personally. A girl who probably had hopes and dreams that were genuine even though they might have sounded insincere if she wrote about them in a speech. Wasn’t the absence of this girl more moving than any words she could come up with?

She fumbles with her papers, arranging them in the correct order. As they wait for her to begin, Annie knows these girls are deciding whether they should envy her, the cancer survivor, or pity her. She smoothes the papers of her speech and allows herself a quiet moment to decide the same thing about them.

Should she envy the girls whose skin will never turn the color of sour milk, who will not lose their sense of taste, feel like they’re gnawing on cardboard meal after meal? Girls who won’t feel the deep, burning sensation of vomiting blood, who will never have to wonder if every person in their life is a genuine friend or just another product of their disease? Or maybe she should pity them. These girls who will go on to live unfulfilling, mediocre lives and never be glorified for them. Girls who will never be told they are an inspiration because they weren’t lucky enough to survive a disease that can justify everything for them for the rest of their lives. Girls who won’t be anyone’s heroes, who won’t be invited back here to give a speech.

“Whenever you’re ready,” Dr. Downs prompts calmly. Annie nods at him then turns back to her pages: the hasty, insincere words she’s written. Why shouldn’t she be ready?

She makes sure not to look at any of them. She notices the slightly opened door in front of her, in the very the back of the gym. She pictures herself running towards it, escaping this disingenuous dance. But they’re all here, waiting for her story.

Annie fixates on the open door, the only sliver of space that feels real to her, and begins.


Sam Baldassari is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Brooklyn College. She enjoys reading and writing, teaching, eating Cheezits, and hip-hop dancing with her team from Penn State, Whiplash Dance Team. Her work has been featured in Eunoia Review, The Nottingham Review, and Flash Fiction Magazine. To read more of Sam's work, visit www.sambaldassari.wordpress.com

Carlo Thomas - "Backfire"

 

I only contacted Ian for company on the drive. He knew it too but agreed to come anyways. Most likely he was bored as fuck.

“Pot brownies sound good right now,” I said as Ian hopped inside my dad’s gray Toyota pickup, the one he finally got around to giving a jumpstart. A loud pop came from behind us like a runner’s pistol - and they’re off! We both jumped though I knew it was coming.

“What the hell was that?” Ian asked.

“The backfire,” I said. “This truck’s a piece of shit.”

Ian shrugged his shoulders and pulled his brown hair into a ponytail.

One week isn’t long to be home, but it can be with nothing to get a buzz or high from. My parents hadn’t kept alcohol in the house since my brother started going to NA last year. They didn’t consider alcohol to be a drug. They also didn’t want Tommy to trade one bad habit for another.

“What happened to G-Rock Radio?” I asked while scrolling through the truck’s presets.

“It’s now a Top 40 station,” Ian said.

Miley Cyrus sang to us as we pulled up to Sean’s.

***

“I saw the craziest shit yesterday,” Sean said as we walked into his kitchen. The fluorescent light shone against the faded yellow wallpaper and made my eyes hurt.

“I’m leaving ShopRite with stuff for these brownies when I hear a woman scream from the parking lot.” He pulled a glass tray from the fridge and placed it on the counter. “A bunch of us ran over and saw her beating the shit out of this dude with a loaf of bread.”

“How does that happen?” I asked.

Sean pulled a steak knife from the drawer underneath and cut off a corner of brownie. “The bread was frozen.”

“His plan backfired,” Ian said.

Sean pulled the piece apart and held the halves out. Ian and I popped them in our mouths like gumdrops.

“Pure body high,” Sean said. “This stuff will only mess with your head if you’re in a really bad place. If your mind’s really asking for it.” He picked up the knife and started cutting the brownies into squares. His arms were tattooed up and down like murals.

“So you’re back to see Tommy,” he said.

“That’s right,” I said.

“About time. I saw him in rehab every weekend until they moved him. So did Ian.”

Ian nodded, modestly accepting the compliment.

“I needed to save up money to come home,” I said as the brownie’s moist texture stuck to the roof of my mouth. The weed’s earthy taste went well with the chocolaty sweetness.

“Tommy says you’re some big shot in Denver. What have you been doing with all your money?”

“Lay off, man,” Ian said.

Sean laughed, opened the cabinet and pulled out a Ziploc bag. “Why should I? Maybe he isn’t as well off as Tommy wants us to think.”

“I’ll buy the whole tray,” I said.

“See? Now we know he’s fine,” Sean said before his elbow knocked the knife off the counter. Before he fell to the floor, screaming.

“Get it out!” Sean screamed, pointing to the knife in his foot.

I grabbed the towel hanging over the oven handle and the wooden spoon on the counter.

“Call 9-1-1,” I said to Ian as I dropped to the floor and wrapped the towel around Sean’s ankle. Blood soaked through his sneaker and dripped onto the white linoleum. Sean whimpered with his eyes shut. I stuck the wooden spoon through the knot and twisted. And twisted.

***

The weather report ran on the television fixed in the corner of the waiting room. The night’s low was fifty – unusually warm for Jersey in February. That afternoon I found a t-shirt I hadn’t worn since senior year.

“She’s so hot,” Ian said, looking down at an Esquire magazine with Scarlett Johansson on the cover.

The meteorologist – a balding man wearing a gray shirt and red tie – moved his hands around the tristate area as if kneading dough.

“That woman beat the shit out of a guy with a loaf of frozen bread,” I said, laughing.

Ian looked up and started laughing too. We started to feel that sample Sean gave us. And the pieces we stole as we followed the ambulance through the fog.

“What about the towel you used to wrap Sean’s ankle?” Ian asked. “It had ducks on it.”

“Quack, quack!” I said, imitating a duck’s bill with my hand, which had started to tingle. I jumped up, stuck my hands under my armpits and started quacking.

“That’s a chicken, you idiot,” Ian said.

“That’s because I am a chicken!”

The room started to move around me like a funhouse. I saw a woman a few seats down shake her head, not that I gave a shit. I turned back to the TV and saw the weather report had changed to a commercial. A mother pulling a plate of snacks from the microwave. She then set it on the counter where four teenage boys attacked like it was the end of the world.

“That was us!” I said.

“Yeah, man,” Ian said.

“That was us!” I yelled to the man across the room with his head in a paperback. He didn’t look up.

I turned back to the TV but something had changed, as if my brain had blown a fuse. The mother’s voice slowed and deepened. The snacks looked repulsive and I felt nauseous.

“Sean will be alright,” Ian said. I jumped because he was now at my side.

“And so will Tommy,” I said.

Ian nodded. “Which floor is he on?”

“Four.”

The commercial ended and the news resumed. Something about a heroin bust near the shore. My ears throbbed. I turned around to ask whoever had the remote to please please please please change the channel.

Carlo Thomas is a freelance copywriter and marketer originally from Manchester Township, New Jersey. When not writing for work or pleasure, Carlo enjoys concerts, bike riding, and breweries. He lives in Denver, Colorado. You can follow Carlo on Twitter @lifeofdude or contact him at thelifeofdude@gmail.com.

Christopher Woods - "Let Go"

 

The goal now, as you see it, is to get home. The front has come in early. Wind jars the car on the asphalt. The rain comes hard and cold, makes flashlight beams of streetlights. It’s hard to drive, but it’s also hard to steer. Maybe one too many boilermakers with buddies at Nightlite. But who can blame you, even if you had been good about staying on the wagon for three months, since Liza left.

She hasn’t sent as much as a postcard. You watch her credit card charges on your bill, then throw it away. You tell yourself you won’t check the mail again until it’s time for the unemployment checks to come. Four years in the sausage room at Don’s Deluxe Meats didn’t mean a thing in the end. No gratitude, no severance pay. Let go without any ceremony at all.

If you can just get home, you’ll be okay. The streets are filling with water. You imagine you are the captain of a boat in strong currents. But you do find a way to stop at Discount Package Store for two fifths of cheap bourbon. That will get you through tonight, and maybe longer.

At last you reach your street, hit the curb twice, coming to a stop in front of your dark house. You stagger up the walk, and you can hear your dogs bark. They watch you through the window. The Welcome wagon. They have waited, the faithful boys, Lewis and Clark.

You feed them and let them run outside in the rain. They come in, shake off the wet night, and lie down at your feet. You gulp the bourbon and watch them. First one, then the other, falls asleep. Let go. Begin dog dreams.

You think that dreaming is best in a warm, dry room. Better still if outside the darkness howls. What do they dream about? Old hunts, saliva, instinct. In a lurching pack under a grey dawn sky, waiting for a waterfowl kill.

Or do they dream of being human, inside a warm house on a wild night. Sitting back, plastered, watching the dogs dream.

Christopher Woods is a writer, teacher and photographer who lives in Houston and Chappell Hill, Texas. He has published a novel, THE DREAM PATCH, a prose collection, UNDER A RIVERBED SKY, and a book of stage monologues for actors, HEART SPEAK. His work has appeared in THE SOUTHERN REVIEW, NEW ENGLAND REVIEW, NEW ORLEANS REVIEW, COLUMBIA and GLIMMER TRAIN, among others. His photographs can be seen in his gallery - http://christopherwoods.zenfolio.com/. He is currently compiling a book of photography prompts for writers, FROM VISION TO TEXT.

Alison Traweek - "Room Enough, Road Enough" and "The Dry Father"

 

"Room Enough, Road Enough"

If I were in Texas I could make sense of everything.

If I had 3 hours and 215 miles of

United States Interstate 10

I would know which way to go.

 

In March the bluebonnets spread across the flat open fields

like old blue curtains carelessly dropped.

On close inspection their stalks are thick and light green,

their leaves downed with soft white fur;

they look too frail to survive in this harsh landscape.

My heart explodes with tenderness.

They have no scent but they fill the air with a promise of freshness.

In March it is too early for the grass,

swaying in a slow waltz with the cedar trees,

to have been burnt yellow by the relentless Texas sun.

 

On I-10 at night at about mile 600

I once saw God.

I was 16 and I remember I wept.

I was alone in my pickup with all my possessions,

I was leaving my mother’s house forever.

I cried because God was all I had and

because the stars were bright enough to hurt my eyes.

On I-10 at night around mile 600

the stars are blinding.

 

5 years later in my Honda

which had seen

Redwoods-

Vancouver-

2 oceans and the Gulf of Mexico-

the desert-

tornadoes-

a swarm of cicadas-

and me in every aspect-

I sang at the top of my lungs

and laughed to breathe that old Texas dust.

 

Scatter my ashes in that dust.

 

On US I-10 I know the rhythm of the road

when you get close enough to Houston to smell it:

it bounces beneath my car like a good horse in a strong canter.

I know my way by that.

On US I-10 I always know my way.

I know all the billboards and gas stations

and TruXtops

and where to get the cheapest Blue Bell Ice Cream

and how far to the next grilled cheese sandwich

and how many miles from my mother’s house to mine

and if I can make it on the amount of sleep I’ve had.

 

In Texas the oak trees have leaves like the elms have everywhere else

and grow stooped like old women bent by remembering.

In Texas I never need a scarf and coat and gloves,

just jeans and a jacket and my car.

At my grandmother’s house in Texas it was 54 degrees on Christmas Day.

 

The sky there is large enough to house my uncertainty

and there’s room left over for hope.

 

In Texas I am barefoot

I am sitting on porches

drinking sweet tea

swatting mosquitoes and dodging roaches.

I would never walk anywhere.

If I were in Texas I would be

Well On My Way,

I would be

Almost Home.

I would be tipping my hat to the white blue sky

which would tip its hat back in a slow sunset

reflected in my rear view mirror

blinding me to everything I’d already driven through.

 

Even the birds have a drawl in Texas

and wear many different hats

and respect a good pair of boots.

 

I would make my peace with God

on US I-10 at about mile 600,

halfway to everywhere.

By mile 600 I will have had enough time to pick my path carefully

and time enough left to relax.

The flowers are quiet but not shy in Texas

and didn’t I learn from them?

 

"The Dry Father"

In August 1985 we moved to San Antonio.

I remember that was when I started praying

and just before I gave it up.

I remember my father was loved in church.

I remember the air was dry.

 

In church my mother let me lay my head on her lap

and sleep through the sermon

and she didn't tell my father when I took

The Body of Christ

home as bloody medicine to save my dying dog.

I remember the incense stifling my thoughts

and I remember the air was dry.

 

Ten years later, in the desert,

absorbing the full force of the Santa Fe sun

I laughed out loud and raised my arms to heaven

because I was Master of the Universe and

powerless to change it.

The air was dry, I remember,

and my throat was dry too.

 

In 1985 I didn't know about "deserts"

or "God" or "powerless to change it"

but I remember waking up those mornings After‑

shadow of my father still heavy on my chest

shadow of impossibility slapped across my mouth.

Alone in the dry air of my room

I was praying for options

I was choking down truth‑

bloody medicine to save myself.

 

Having grown up in Houston-

port-city-

bayou‑city‑

flooding thunderstorm water to my thighs city‑

I always noticed how dry it was in San Antonio.

And that my father had at least two faces.

And I couldn't get the stink of incense off my clothes

and my dog died anyway.

One of my father's faces could only be seen at night,

the other needed water to breathe.

In San Antonio at night, I remember,

the air was always dry.

 

Alison C. Traweek, a native Texan, teaches Greek, Latin, and writing in the Philadelphia area. Her writing has been published in AmphoraQuartoThe Journal of Classics Teaching, and Women and Social Movements. She has a Ph.D. in classical studies and is currently working on an annotated translation of the Iliad.

Matt Dennison - "Indictment" and "Gallop The Bred Horses"

 

"Indictment"

His work truck leaks
transmission
brake and
power-steering fluids.
His tires sag.

Carpenter's tools
golf clubs
spare tires
clothes and
old trophies are
all locked in storage.

There is nothing beautiful or soft or living
in his house,
not even
a goldfish.

All he has,
all that he really has
is a brown-paper-wrapped
package of pornographic pictures
in his dresser drawer
beneath his socks.

His life has
collapsed
to the final flat
boring nothingness
of rage at
slow drivers
bad athletes
warm beer and
failed bets on the weather
goddamn.

If you opened his chest
you would find a little
dust,
a little rot,
a little chalky white dry emptiness
that only rattles
when he coughs
or pukes.

The beer the beer the beer
and the jokes
and the loans
have failed.

He acts as if turning forty
were someone else's
fault.

 

"Gallop the Bred Horses"

“Too grabby,” my father said
of my hands rushing to break
the earthen clods before
his final slice. I should
know better the rhythm,
the routine—cut, flop,
segment, sometimes
twice—by now, the blade
warned me with relentless
strikes not fingers from my
hands too eager to shake
the worm souls loose,
knowing  to break
is better than to slice,
that one whole soul
is better than halves
no longer wiggling
but water-logged on
hooks unable to interest
the hungriest fish we’d
be lucky to see as I galloped
the bred horses of my dreams
into dark waters, wanting only
to find fullness with fullness found,
the captured to feed that which feeds.
Years later my neighbor handed me
a telegram mistakenly delivered to her.
Without waiting for another to halve
the hidden, I sliced it open to read
the news of his death complete—
my tongue forever a tent-stake
or trowel, anchoring the lost,
shoveling the gone.
 

(this poem has previously appeared in Sprung Formal.)

Matt Dennison's bio is available at this following link: http://thewildword.com/to-be-a-street-musician/

Amber D. Tran - "Mantra", "Bottom Of The Bucket" and "Hang"

 

"Mantra"

 

She carries an odd aroma, the smell of a bad head,

something I felt as she screamed at the bed

for not being made. A story in her face, a jilted tale,

the wrinkles of her eyes because she cannot sleep on Mondays.

A girl who can walk backwards but cannot see

without some sort of filter, a film of gauze across her eyes,

a wound still healing, a hiccup in her breath every time

she takes her medicine. On her birthday

I asked her to make a wish; instead, she poured herself

into the twenty-some candles, her eyes bled fire, and she

began to sing “Jingle Bells.” It was June. I once

held her hand as we walked through a busy marketplace,

but she slipped away, a child eager for a thrill, a beast

in heat, and I discovered her near one of those fishing booths

filled with that morning’s catch, crying, sobbing, snot

all over her face, because an elder couple who passed by

moments earlier, according to her, did not have much.

 

Today I ask her if everything is fine, a phrase I use

every time she stirs honey and cinnamon into her coffee.

She smiles through the fog, says for the fourth time that day,

“I’m okay,” but her brain palpitates. She smiles again.

 

"Bottom of the Bucket"

 

There are flies at the bottom of the Ancient Age bottle.

“Protein,” you once said as you poured yourself another shot.

 

You left the front door open again.

Summer moths and lightning bugs swarmed the living room.

 

I am the only one who notices the rot in your teeth.

The patch of melanoma on your cheek looks like a raindrop in May.

 

You are an angry drunk, a creature with bloodshot eyes.

When I was younger, I listened to you beat my mother.

 

I waited for your phone call on my 26th birthday.

A foolish daughter, I only wanted to hear my name on your tongue.

 

We shot arrows into hay bales and drank Budweiser together.

That was the same night the cops took you away in handcuffs.

 

There is salt in your voice as you speak to my wounds.

You promise the world, yet give me a handful of rust.

"Hang"

 

You found me suspended over a body of salt.

When you tried to touch me there, my wounds  

spelled my name without vowels and skin.  

I am hoarse and drained, absent from your palm,

 the lisp that consumes you when you try to sing.

 Here is the breath you steal in the morning,

 the clear cloud that fills you with sugar and rain,

 and I try to sneak inside you, reciprocate some

 sort of vile compromise, remind you of that promise

 you made when you were a child. You are

 illiterate, and I am just a fractured bone.

 

 Amber D. Tran graduated from West Virginia University in 2012, where she specialized in lyrical non-fiction and contemporary poetry. She is the Editor-in-Chief for the Cold Creek Review literary journal. Her work has been featured inCalliopeSonic Boom JournalSpry Literary JournalCheat River Review, and more. She has work forthcoming in The Stray BranchMandala Journal, and more. Her first novel, Moon River, was released in September. She can be reached at her website at www.amberdtran.com and at most social media platforms as @amberdtran. She currently lives in Alabama with her husband and two dogs, Ahri and Ziggs.

Addey Vaters - "Truth"

 

I always walked by her on my way to work. I went over the Shelby Street Bridge, crossing over the murky Cumberland River with a horde of other pedestrians every day at precisely 8:30 am. She was always there, standing still in the middle of the length of the bridge, her arms spread wide and resting against the white metallic railing. I’d been keeping track. She was there every morning I walked the bridge, and gone by the time I returned every evening. In the middle of December she’d have a heavy coat draped across her sagging shoulders and big wooly gloves, the kind where the fingertips were exposed unless the wearer desired to make the gloves into mittens. In the summer she’d be carrying the coat, the sweltering humidity and heat from the sun deeming outerwear useless. Instead she’d wear only a pair of jeans and a baggy t-shirt commemorating the 2002 Country Music Marathon. She didn’t look like she was old enough to have ran in the thing, her shiny, light brown hair and smooth skin giving away her youth, although her apparent life circumstances seemed like something no one so young should have to deal with.

It was a baggy t-shirt weather type of day that I first noticed her there, grungy floral carpet bag at her feet, coat flung over the rails, and trinkets lined up on the surface of the bridge’s larger-than-life bannister. Now I noticed how every time I passed her, there were new objects lined up next to the old ones. At first it had been a small wooden cross, a dilapidated address book with what looked like two pages left inside, and a diamond ring. I assumed it was real, the ring, though I’m unsure why I thought that. It was grungy, like the girl and her possessions, but that diamond in the center shone like none I’d ever seen before. If I ever got off early from work and headed home under the noon sun, she’d be there – and her diamond ring could blind pedestrians from miles away. I wondered on occasion if she was sending out some sort of signal, casting a coded message off to someone somewhere in the sky. Maybe it was her engagement ring. Her beloved had died in a plane crash, and she now perpetually waited for him, sending signals out into the universe with the very ring he had given her as a token of their love.

But that’s just the romantic in me, and most of the time the ring wasn’t out anymore when I passed her by. Now there was a set of Matryoshka dolls in its place next to the cross, but only the largest and the second-to-smallest were ever present. They’re faces were always set towards the water, only the exuberant red, green, and blue swirls of their sarafans visible to those walking the bridge. I liked to think the ring was still there, hiding inside the tiniest doll that could still be opened. Perhaps she had given up on ever finding her Pilot lover and had decided to waste away gazing at the skies in which he had plummeted to his demise

For the last several months that had been the extent of her inventory. The wooden cross and the two Matryoshka dolls. There’d be an occasional locket, a belt buckle, or an old cloche hat in the mix every now and again, but those two dolls and the cross were a constant. I assumed that she was religious. The cross was hardly there as a fashion statement, not worn on a chain around a person’s neck and not the type to be hung on a wall or enshrined in any way. It was rough and looked like it would give whoever touched it a splinter, too large to be jewelry and too small to be much of anything else.

She stayed that way for the longest time. Those same items stacked neatly on the railings of the bridge, their owner standing solemnly behind them, arms spread out and leaning into the breeze. I walked by her every morning at precisely 8:30 am, entering into the workforce, and she was gone by 5:00 pm when I crossed back out of it. That’s the way it was from July into August, into September, into October, into November.

Until November 30.

It was the day after Thanksgiving – that horrific day Americans call Black Friday. The day everyone arrived at a retail store and got everything they ever wanted at a fraction of the price and left with only a fraction of their dignity remaining.

She was there when I passed over the bridge at 8:30 am, her dolls all lined up in a row and the cross sitting patiently beside them. This was the same. I never knew if she was there on Thanksgiving Day, or any holiday really, but her persistence during the rest of the year left me thinking she alone in life just as she was there all alone on the bridge. I passed her by in much the same way as usual. It was difficult to tell her emotions, though I always tried. Her face was always wrinkle-free and serene as she gazed out on the muddy, sometimes rough water. Her hands were turned towards the river, leaning against the white railing, the weight of the world resting upon each and every finger.

It was on the way back that I noticed something different. For one thing, she was still there, her shiny hair blowing in the chilly winter breeze. She was still, there. Watching the ripples in the water far below, the grey clouds move across the sky, and the streetlights slowly begin to blink to life. The cityscape seemed barren on this particular day – the usually bright lights in the city’s many skyscrapers dimmed on what many considered a ‘reserved’ holiday. The tall Batman building lent to the eerie feel. The town felt like a dingy Gotham from the movies.

I barely noticed her at first. Every morning I took mental stock of my surrounding, and she was always a part of that. Now as I did the same thing crossing back over the bridge, I realized that one of these things was not like the other.

It was her.

I went right by her, passing by her humanity as I always tended to do. A gust of wind came up and blew my coat tight against my body. I turned to look back, and noticed the tear streaks down her cheeks reflecting the light of the setting sun.

I wrung my hands and turned back without giving it a second thought.

“Hi.” She didn’t even turn to look at me. “Are you alright?”

She still didn’t turn. I stood there for several minutes feeling the icy air hit my nostrils, sending tiny daggers of chill into my bones every time I took a breath.

“Every day I wonder what it would be like to jump.” Her voice didn’t match her appearance. Precise and even, every syllable in its place. “Have you ever attempted suicide?”

She turned to face me now, her eyes steady on my own.

“No.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Me either.” She turned back to the water. “I just like to come here to think.” I could hear the catch in her voice at this line. “Sometimes I wish I could just turn it off. The thinking, that is.”  

We were both silent for what seemed like an eternity. Her gazing into the river thinking of death while I stood patiently behind her, wondering what words would come out of her mouth next.

“Well, if you’re alright…” I wasn’t sure she was, to be honest, but the tone of her voice made me think she had a level head on her shoulders.

“I’m just gonna…” I let the sentence trail off as I turned away from her chunky gray-coated self.

“Would you like to get a coffee?” The question surprised me. I turned back and there she was, still standing there, but packing up her Matryoshka dolls as if she already knew the answer.

“Sure.” I indulged her and accepted the offer despite her seeming to know what I’d say.

After she was done packing up, she made her way off of the bridge, walking right past me – burgundy and purple carpet bag in tow. I tagged along, my feet dragging along the rough cement. I felt like a child chasing after their older sibling.

“There’s a great one right on the corner of Broadway.” She flung her hair over her shoulder and looked back at me with eager eyes. “They have the best mocha lattes!”

I followed behind her the entire block to the coffee shop, wondering whether I was going to have to pay for hers or not. I was still behind when we arrived at the café, called Brewed Remarks. There were several people scattered throughout the lobby wearing skinny jeans and flannel shirts, all seated at the place’s numerous stainless steel tables. By the time I made it through the door she was already at the counter and paying for two large mocha lattes.

I went and set down my bag at a booth covered in antiqued wood. The seats looked like old church benches, all lined up waiting for the congregation to come and sing a hymn, say a prayer, and leave to go on with their week not remembering a single note from the song or a word from their plea. I shrugged off my jacket and placed it on the bench, covering the old, worn surface with purple, waterproof polyester.

The woman from the bridge picked up two steaming cups of chocolatey coffee drink and joined me, placing the cups on the table and sitting down with a swoosh on the steel chair across from me.

“You are going to love this!” she exclaimed, pushing one of the paper cups in my direction.  

Be Kind to the Earth. Recycle Me. was scrawled across the bottom in bold green type. I glanced across the table as she took a sip of her mocha latte, then sat it quickly back down and waved her hand back and forth in front of her mouth. “Oh boy, that’s hot, but oh so good!”

She took another sip, this time more slowly, sticking her lips out and slurping the liquid in. Her cup had Annalise written on it in black, loopy script. I spun my cup around to see that it said And Friend in the same hand.

“So what why are you always on the bridge at precisely 8:30 each day?” She put down her cup and placed her hands on the table, each finger intertwined with its other-handed counterpart.

I glanced down at the uniform that I was wearing, the Cracker Barrel logo embroidered on my button down. I’d never seen her look my way once when I crossed the bridge. I figured she could figure out why I was always there, though.

“Cracker Barrel, huh?” she took the plastic top off of her coffee and blew on the hot liquid, sending little swirls of tan foam swimming across the surface. “I always liked their meatloaf. It gets such a bad rep these days, meatloaf does, but it’s delicious. A complete and nutritious meal all in a convenient loaf form.”

She took on the persona of an infomercial broadcaster on that last bit and I laughed.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you smile once out of all those days you’ve crossed the bridge Ella. “ I stopped laughing at this.

“How do you know my name?”

Annalise motioned to my nametag with a smile.

“Just a good guess I suppose.”

I finally took a sip of the mocha, now lukewarm. I watched as she removed her coat and draped it across the back of her chair. She did the same with her scarf and then rummaged through her carpet back looking for something. She finally settled on a folded up piece of paper.

“You dropped this the other day, and I’ve been meaning to get it back to you.”

So that’s what this was all about.

“Thanks.” I couldn’t even remember what the paper was. I took it from her and opened it up, beginning to read. “It’s my song...” I opened my purse and grabbed my wallet, looking behind my ID. It was missing. “How did this happen?” I folded it back up neatly and tucked it next to the leathery wall of the ID pouch.

“It’s good, you know.”

Of course she had read the lyrics to my song. The one song I had actually finished since moving here six years ago. To this God forsaken place where little country seedlings went to grow into huge Tennessee magnolias.

“I’m glad you liked it.” As if her opinion counted. She didn’t look like a good gardener.

“It really is good. Have you tried to put it out there?”

I’d tried, tried, and tried again. But Magnolias weren’t the most common tree here. They’re actually quite hard to come by. And a Magnolia in full bloom, well, that’s just about as rare as a White Peacock.

“I know somebody. We could send it to him and see what happens…”

A homeless woman who had connections in the music world? Well, that might just be rarer than a White Peacock.

I stared at her for a moment. She was once again blowing on her coffee, though I was sure that by now the temperature must be more to her liking.

“What’s with the Matryoshka dolls?”

“The what?” She look at me quizzically, her eyebrows squished together and low on her forehead.

“The Russian Nesting Dolls. You have them out every day when I walk by.”

“Oh. Huh. That’s what those things are actually called?” She dug around in her carpet bag once more, grabbing the large one and pulling it out. She placed it on the table with care, both hands caressing the polished wooden exterior. “When I was younger, my dad brought a set of these dolls home from one of his business trips.”

Her voice grew soft and quiet; I could barely hear her with the din from the cappuccino machine in the background. She opened the large doll up and removed the smaller one, setting it next to its larger counterpart.

“I found this set at a consignment shop a couple blocks away. “ She paused a moment and bit her lip, stroking the tiniest doll with her thumb and pointer finger. “I guess it’s not even a set, really, is it?”

“Part of a set.” I didn’t want to tell her that there were at least three other dolls missing. It didn’t seem right.

She opened the little doll and removed its contents. There it was, the ring.

“My mom’s engagement ring.” She slipped it onto her left ring finger and twirled it round and round. “Memories of days gone by, I guess.” She sniffed. “That’s what’s with the Matryoshka dolls.”

“Oh.” It was all I could get out.

“My parents got divorced.” She looked me in the eyes now. “Well, if you could even call it that. My mom left. I guess she was tired of being a mother.” We were both silent a moment before she continued. “I found out last year that she died. Some sort of car wreck. She had another family that took care of the burial and funeral proceedings.”

I stared at my hands, folded up neatly on the table top. No jewelry or adornment, just bare fingernails and dry skin. Waitressing will do that to you, all the hand washing. The wrinkles on my knuckles were pronounced and deep because of it. I glanced up at Annalise and noticed her wiping her eyes. I handed her a napkin, its course recycled-paper material seeming inadequate for helping with the tears.

“I’m sorry.” I whispered it, almost wishing she couldn’t hear.

“That’s alright. She’s not the only one who moved on without me.” She ran the napkin underneath her eyelashes. “And to Cincinnati of all places!” She laughed and placed the crumpled up thing inside her coffee cup. We both watched as the liquid moved up and through the napkin, eventually finding its way to the very top, causing it to collapse against the side of the cup.

“So what’s your story, Ella?” Annalise re-fastened the plastic lid of her coffee cup and looked at me expectantly, no trace of the tears from a moment ago remaining.

“My story?” I questioned, unsure of what bits and pieces of life made up one’s story.

I pondered it a moment. My life. My story. It wasn’t anything unique. As a matter of fact, it was decisively generic in this town. Heartbroken song writer waiting for her big break, only to find herself stuck waiting tables, wasting her college education and youth on mediocrity.

“I’m a failure.” The words came out before I could stop them, and suddenly, I understood. The reason Annalise had so easily noticed I never smiled is because it was the truth. A truth I had somehow denied even to myself, a truth I had never even noticed about myself.

“Oh, come on. I highly doubt that.” Annalise grinned and shook her head back and forth, her green eyes never leaving my face.

“Well, it’s true. I’ve been here six years and have absolutely nothing to show for it.”

“I highly doubt that.” She said it again, and this time it was like the sound of screeching brakes.

“Well you better believe it.” I knocked back the last of my latte and grabbed for my coat, shrugging the waterproof material over my shoulders. “It was nice to meet you Annalise. I’ll see you next Monday, bright and early.” I gathered my purse and scooted out of the church pew booth seat, wondering the whole time why I’d decided to come here in the first place.

“Do you believe in God?” The question came out of nowhere and stopped me in my tracks. This place really was like a church.

“I don’t give much thought to God.” At least this was something that I knew about myself and had come to terms with. I knew that God wasn’t real to me. If he was real at all, he seemed only to care about a select few individuals out of the seven billion or so on the planet.

“Well, I think he brought us together today. I thought I needed you, but it looks like you need me more. You need him more.” Annalise moved her hands around in little circles as she spoke, and raised her eyebrows high, up to heaven, on that last sentence.

“That’s nice. I’m gonna leave now.” I didn’t need to hear any of this garbage. I got up and swung my bag over my shoulder, ready to depart for good this time.

“Wait.”

For some reason, I stopped, yet again, and waited for her to speak.

“Here. Take this.” Annalise pressed the worn wooden cross into my palm, folding my fingers around every splintery bump and crevice. “He brought us here for a reason.”

I looked at her for a moment, her hand still pushing the ancient wood into my skin. She looked so peaceful, despite the traumatic life experiences she just shared with me. I nodded, and grasping the thing for myself, gazed at the object as if it held some sort of mystical power.

And then I left.

When I came to the bridge that next Monday morning, she wasn’t there. I examined her usual spot with scrutiny, noting her absence and the fact that now the entire walkway seemed bare. The railing she usually leaned against was empty and cold. City employees were hard at work decorating every lamppost with red and green tinsel. Banners hung down from the lights with images of brightly decorated trees or wreaths and lights were wrapped around each pole.

I walked over to Annalise’s spot and stood there a moment, staring out at the river below. The water was moving quickly on this particular day, and the wind whipped my hair about in a frenzy. What was it she saw here, of all places?

The gray sky opened up and dropped fat flakes of icy white snow atop my head and I turned to pull my hood up, tightening the little elastic drawstring that secured it tightly around my face. Every time I breathed, little puffs of steam dissipated in the cold air, like the smoke from a locomotive coiling off into the atmosphere.

I put my hands in my pockets and felt it there. That dingy little cross still left in the coat as a reminder of my odd encounter with a girl named Annalise. I pulled it out and ran my gloved fingertips over every crevice. I had forgotten it was still there.

The idea of God was a funny one. I guess I’ll never understand it. I’ll never understand people like Annalise who believe so faithfully in something that seemed more or less like a fairytale. I rubbed the small trinket for a moment more, and then lifted it to my lips, giving it a kiss goodbye.

“Farewell, God.” I raised my arm up over my head, winding my aim back like a baseball pitcher ready to throw a curveball. I was about to release when I saw it. That blinding glare that shone like none I’d ever seen before.

I lowered my hand and stared at the spot for a moment. It was a rather plain old spot on the bank of the river, the grass all crinkly and yellow with mud mixed throughout just for good measure. But it was shiny. I moved my gaze back to the river for a moment. It was still moving quickly along, little ripples of brown water rolling under the bridge. Then I moved upward, to the sky overhead. It was still gray, and delicate flakes of snow still fell on my face. When I looked back the glimmer was gone. There was no more blinding shine coming from the yellowed grass on the bank of the Cumberland.

I remembered the cross still lodged in my hand, and decided that maybe God should stay. For now.

I placed the ancient wood back in my pocket, where it seemed to belong at the moment, and continued on my way to work.

I never saw her again.

 

Addey Vaters is a student and writer from Colorado. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Addey’s work has been published in riverrun Literary and Arts Journal, Sleet Magazine, Miss Milennia Magazine, and Odyssey, where she was not only a contributor but an editor. She is currently the Poetry Editor at borrowed solace and works in higher education. She loves anything and everything related to cats and/or folk music.

Salena Casha - "The House That Tina Built"

Taking a drag from her cigarette, Tina noticed the fresh grave encroaching on her late husband’s plot. She blew smoke up and over her shoulder and tried for a moment to pretend she hadn’t seen the embossed black-ice facade. Instead, she focused on the fact that she hadn’t had a cigarette in almost a week. That standing there, inhaling nicotine in the blooming air made her feel as though she’d taken a hit from an oxygen tank. Her daughter-in-law was home for school vacation this week and so Tina’s smoking options had been limited to quick drags over the stove with the fan on full blast.

That woman’s always trying to kill me, Tina thought to herself.

She took another drag, fingers pressed to Lorenzo’s marker but she couldn’t ignore the newly turned earth inches from her loafers. The wind blew her hair and smoke back into her face.

Why has the groundskeeper given such little space for Lorenzo? What does he have against us?

Her brow pinched as she pushed herself off of his gravestone and trudged the slim four steps to his neighbor. It was too cold for bugs but that hadn’t stopped the diggers from overturning earth and installing a new landmark in the cemetery.

Carlson, she read and then crossed herself. Not even Italian.

She took a casual turn, surveying the grounds. A pond glistened 100 yards off, a beaver dam half-constructed on the water’s farthest lip. The stone-ground paths wound just close to Lorenzo’s grave before spiraling outward, looping and weaving through the green grass and scattershot trees. A wild turkey meandered by the water’s stone bridge.

It was good to be alone.

She stepped carefully around the foreign grave, her soles sinking a centimeter into the ground.

Unlike most people, she did not find death disturbing. She did not find walking on someone else’s resting place disturbing. What disturbed her, what angered her was the lack of due respect and space given to her husband.

Crossing her arms in front of her chest, she let the cigarette dangle from between her fingers. The ash was a thin column, particles angled toward the dirt below her. This Carlson stone was fine, if a bit modern for her. It was thick and sleek with a mountainous façade chipped into the right hand corner. Birds hadn’t shat on it yet and she grinned to herself, knowing what was to come.

They’ll regret choosing this place.

She blinked between the new stone and her late husband’s. Lorenzo Esposito 1922 – 2008. Nearly ten years since he’d passed and her heart tightened, more out of duty than of love, if she was truly being honest with herself. Ash fell from her cigarette and landed in the turned dirt beneath her.

And she realized it had been a long time since she’d seen even a photo of him. Sometimes - and she hated to admit it - she saw that dreadful stone rather than his face when she thought of him. She blinked, harder this time and sniffed, bending her arthritic knees until she was level with the new grave, until she couldn’t see Lorenzo’s plot. The new owners had begun to create a garden, complete with matching Micah blocks that cut a rectangle on the softened earth.

And a part of her hated it even more because she hadn’t thought to do that herself and now, people would come to expect it of her.

“Excuse me, can I help you?”

Her hearing wasn’t all bad, the voice reaching her eardrum through her cochlea in a tinny vibration, but she ignored it. Instead she focused on the dates embossed on the stone before her 1953 – 2016. Young. Around her son’s age.

Lorenzo, I will outlive them all.

“Excuse me,” the voice was louder now but not harsher. There was a quaver in it and Tina whipped her head around, eyes widened in surprise, her lips parting. This wasn’t the first time she’d acted. She leaned her cigarette-heavy hand against the grave for support.

“You scared me,” Tina said, eyes narrowed behind sun-darkened spectacles.

The person who stood before her was a girl. Not a child, no she must have been around the age of Tina’s granddaughters, maybe in college. Maybe graduated. Her blonde hair was tied back from her head, eyes watery and blue. Freckles lit her nose and cheeks.

Not Italian. Like her son’s wife. Not someone Tina wanted to get to know.

The girl stuttered. “Sorry, I just,” she bit her lip, crossing her arms in front of her chest and Tina stood up to her full height, only to find that the girl was in fact, taller than her.

“I’m old, you could have killed me,” she said.

The girl looked distressed now and she put her hands out, supplicant. “I didn’t mean to, it was just. That’s my father’s grave.”

Tina wanted to sneer at the girl. Forgiveness and most specifically, requesting it, had never held her attention.

“I know,” she said.

She could tell the girl regretted surprising her, that she was backpedaling. Tina moved aside slowly until she was just enough away from the new grave, making sure the girl noticed her arthritis, her calcified hands. The fact that she hadn’t felt young, hadn’t looked young in years.

The tension in the girl’s shoulders relaxed as her eyes flickered to the still unsprouted garden at the foot of the stone. A breeze pricked an errant hair from her face.

“I didn’t touch it,” Tina croaked.

“I didn’t say you did,” the girl replied. Her voice was drawn enough to match her face and for a moment, Tina wondered why she was there by herself. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Tina shrugged and turned from her, heading back to Lorenzo’s grave. She had a half a package’s worth of unsmoked Marlboros in her pocket and she reached for another. She took her time to light the tip, her eyes still trained on the girl.

Ignoring Tina, the girl bent down, arranging tools beside the makeshift garden. Tina wasn’t interested in her incompetence. She didn’t have to watch her. But her neck craned a bit forward as the girl bent beside the grave.

The girl had pulled on a pair of gloves and began to pick through the dirt, adjusting here and there, checking the status of buds (or frankly, lack thereof). She was an amateur green thumb.

And a part of Tina hoped that the garden would stand empty at the end of it all, that nothing would come of it, that it would just turn into a hardened patch of Earth, wind-blown and eroded or, better yet, overgrown with weeds and grass.

She only felt slightly bad for such thoughts and even though she hadn’t prayed in years, Tina closed her eyes to slits and folded her hands, cigarette still smoldering.

I hope you can’t see me Lorenzo, she thought. And if you can, I don’t smoke anymore. Just once in a while. Because you’re not here.

She didn’t know how long she stood there, waiting for the girl to finish but by the time the girl rose and wiped sweat from her forehead, the cigarette was barely smoking embers.

“Mind if I smoked with you?” the girl asked.

Tina stared at her for a beat before she reached into her crushed velvet jacket but the girl had already pulled a ziplock baggie from her own pocket. Tina watched as she pinched the paper in half around loose tobacco, licking the edge and rolling tight. She lit the tip with a red bic lighter.  

As slow as she possibly could, Tina returned her pack to its resting place.

The girl stood across from her, arms crossed, holding the cigarette expertly between her fingers.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Tina said.

“What?”

“Smoke,” she replied.

The girl’s eyes folded together. “You’re not my mom,” she replied.

“My granddaughters don’t even smoke and they’re your age,” Tina replied.

She watched as the girl took a long, thin drag, the tip pulsing gold. With equal gusto, the girl blew smoke over her shoulder.

“How many people in here died from lung cancer, you think?” the girl finally asked.

“I don’t have lung cancer,” Tina said and the girl rolled her eyes.

“Awful defensive for someone sneaking around someone else’s grave,” she said. “Just trying to make conversation.

Tina didn’t go for another. Self-control, perhaps. Instead, she watched the girl suck and pull at the thin oddly asymmetric roll.

“What did he die from?” the girl asked, gesturing at Lorenzo’s grave.

She had a funny way of never looking Tina directly in the eye, perhaps just above her head or to the side, as if at the pond behind her. And Tina knew she should have left minutes, hours, days ago but she couldn’t move her feet. It was almost like the loam beneath her had snaked its tendrils into her shoes.

“He was just old,” Tina replied.

And what she meant to say was, he decided he was ready to be separated from his body. The mind always went first. Even she wasn’t callous enough to say to the girl that she had watched him starve to death, that he had let each of his motor functions shut down into nothing because he wanted nothing.

Or perhaps he had wanted to be nothing. The greatest and most unattainable wish of all.

“As old as you?” the girl said.

Tina frowned. “I am not old,” she replied.

The girl shrugged. “My dad wasn’t old either. He was never going to be old anyway.”

Such an absurd girl. Such a dark girl, Tina stared at her, cigarette forgotten.

“Are you going to be buried with him?”

“You really think I’m going to die so soon?” Tina asked back.

The girl shrugged. “I mean, you’ve thought about it, haven’t you? How you want to die and where you want to go after. Everyone has.”

Not at this girl’s age, Tina thought. She’d been convinced that the end was so far away she wouldn’t see it until it was just upon her. That was how they were meant to live, weren’t they?

“Like, for example, I want to come back as a tree. Like in that greek myth about the two lovers that die and wind their roots together? Oak and Linden, I think they were. It’s just so romantic.”

There is nothing romantic about trees or death, Tina thought. Life needed to be separated from it because that was what happened when it came to an end. A before. An after. When those lines blurred, people began to believe imagined realities, other spaces they could excel in, just kept putting things off until after. Because, frankly, Tina knew that if there was an afterlife, she was headed to the hellish version.

It was advantageous for her not to believe it in the end.

“So what about you?”

“What?” Tina said. “I can’t hear very good.”

“Are you going to be buried next to your husband?”

It seemed like a logical question and Tina stared once more at Lorenzo’s resting site.

“There’s not much room,” she said, pointing to the girl’s father’s grave and the girl put her hands up in surrender.

“That wasn’t the question,” she replied.

Tina had only told one other person, her son, and it had been a move she’d done out of defiance, telling him what she wanted the rest of her money spent on at the end. Not her grandchildren. Not her family. Maybe her cat, but that was given that the cat would outlive her and frankly, few things had.

“I want a mausoleum,” Tina said. She had never wanted much that was material in the word. Her clothes were decades old. Her current apartment was paid for by her son. Nothing belonged to her.

The girl frowned. “So creepy.”

“No. It’s a house for the dead. For the honored dead.”

“So you want a status symbol?”

For some reason, the words angered Tina and she glared at the girl.

“No, I want a place to stay and rest where no one bothers me, where no one can walk over me. A place that everyone can see when they visit their loved ones below the earth. A place that is mine.”

The girl didn’t respond. Just smoked her cigarette down. Touched her father’s grave once and nodded at Tina.

“I wish you the best,” she said and it almost sounded like a eulogy in that Tina knew it wasn’t true. That the best was never offered those that were gone.

As Tina watched the girl’s pink vested back recede into the gloaming light, she felt a helplessness overtake her, a disgust at the sight of it. Not so much the actual existence of the image itself but its receding quality. The pain it left when it was gone. The air tainted by wild rose perfume and tobacco. By footprints that compressed eroding earth. By people who would come later and after her and think “I wonder how those littered beneath the gravestones lived.”

Even she, however, knew, that the living only thought of the dead in terms of themselves.

And she thought, “No, you will not have me yet.”

 

Salena Casha's work has appeared in over sixty publications. Her fiction has been included in Wigleaf's Top 50 Very Short Fictions and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her first three picture books are housed under the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishing umbrella. Visit her website at www.salenacasha.com

Rica Lewis - "Choosing An Outfit"

 

They’re burning your body today,

Cramming the flesh-bone heap of you

Into a brick oven

Like a cold lump of meat,

A pot roast after church.

 

Nine A.M.

The clock ticks new jabs,

A suckerpunch every second without you.

I stand at the wide mouth of my closet,

Everything showing its teeth,

Threatening to swallow.

 

How does a woman choose

A tunic or a sweater?  

The dress I wore to dinner

When your eyes swam with mine

In the salty oceans of our time,

All our time.

 

You will wear metal today,

Pewter and brass,

Brushed finish,

A cruel trophy for the mantel.  

And I will wear

This dripping wound,

And perhaps this sweater

Or maybe the tunic.

 

Rica Lewis is a magazine staff writer for a lifestyle magazine in The Villages, Florida. She blogs to stay balanced at Yoga Mat Monkey.com , and is currently working on a collection of poems and essays.

Dylan Taylor - "The Un-Return"

 

Aubrey had last seen Sara at Steve Ellison’s graduation party grinding on Blake, still wearing her emerald green robe, long after the tassels had been moved to the college side, caps thrown, and St. Benedict’s diplomas spirited away by parents for framing.

“When did you get back? It’s been forever.”

“Get back?”

Sara was wearing a pleated skirt, white blouse, pearl earrings. Her haircut was fresh and short, instead of curling the haircut waved.

“I always imagined you would wind up in New York or L.A., somewhere with lucrative and diverse scholarships, those distinctive neighbourhoods.” Aubrey said.

“I always imagined you’d have three kids whose names all started with J, that have a predisposition to wet themselves in the ball pit of McDonalds, a J husband who likes the office more than home, which means more time to spend buying drinks for book club at your Georgian on Peach Bottom Road.”

“I do live on Peach Bottom! Three little ones too… Joshua does work so very hard. Girl, you’ve gotten so smart you’ve become a psychic.”

Aubrey hugged Sara, her left hand plucking at a wave. “No hairspray, jealous.” She walked to her Acura and drove north. Sara walked south and kept walking. Lots became smaller. Around Occidental Road potholes started to appear. Sara’s walk changed. She forgot to be aware of her hips. Forgot to correct. Her shoulders relaxed, turned back yet paradoxically her pace quickened. Trees gave way to leashed dogs. Two car garages got divorced, then lost their walls. Picket turned to chain-link or hedge. Some porches glowed with cherries drawing deep orange trails upon the encroaching dark. Voices carried onto Sara but you would not have guessed she heard them, even as the deep baritone cut and lifted across the grainy purple dusk.

“You lost? This ain’t you’re spot but I bet if you stop a while you’ll get a taste for the views.”

Sara passed the powerline where she threw her Chucks the day she found out St. Benedict’s had approved her scholarship. Last week she past a boy trying to get his beat-up Nikes to kiss and curl around the wire. They would not spin. Before she turned onto FDR she looked at the boy, he was beating the living shit out of the curb, vulcanized rubber flying out like shrapnel.

Sara unlocked her house. It had been bought by her grandfather at a time when a mortgage was just another mouth to feed. The walls had quieted since then. “I’m home” Sara shouted, that thirty-year habit. Sara put her resumes on the counter. Sara had a seat at the table. Sara stared at herself in the window’s reflection.

Her old dreadlocks were sitting in tight knots on top of the trash along with her Manager nametag, the M looping arches.

Exile of perception.

Imposed perception.

From Without?

From Within?

Sara sat and stared, hoping to recognize the immutable.

Sara stared.

Sara stilled.

Sara stayed.

 

Dylan is Dad who sneaks off in the small hours to write. Dylan is a writer who spends his afternoons as a dinosaur. He has work published in decomP, Entropy Magazine, The Airgonaut, Maudlin House, Literary Orphans & WhiskeyPaper. His book 101 Adages for the Millennial is available through Maudlin House. Find him on Twitter: @MacTaylor89

Matthew Dobson - "The Alcoholic" and "Thaw"

"The Alcoholic"

 

He swept us out of the room

with brooms for hands,

and welcomed us back

with bottle tops for eyes,

 

which winked

and dripped condensation

down his cheeks.

 

He told us stories that hummed

like a big fridge.

If only we could crack them open

and find the nourishment

he could

and the light

 

for his dark flat.

 

He promised us the beaches of Normandy,

all of the landing craft

with their cargo of seaweed,

but gave us Calvados apples

on his breath,

fermented and sweet,

 

rich with words that had, he said,

been ripening for years,

and which he had seeded

in us.

 

"Thaw"

 

You’re washed by the blue water

of police lights.

The air's so cold it sparkles,

your hair turns white.

 

The water cools down your heart

until its walls are stiff

and the blood oozes.

 

You tense.

Even memories

of your dead

that usually flood and roar

slow to a trickle:

 

the feathery skin

on your grandfather's hands,

which once heaved a tonne

of Northumbria coal.

 

Now clean,

light as rain.

 

The purple on your father's teeth

is odourless.

 

It smells of nothing

but river water,

black and glassy.

 

As the sirens pour away into

the city streets

your chest slackens,

the heart warms.

 

Matthew Dobson is a teacher in Surrey, England.  He studied English at university, but only began writing a few years after graduating, when he lived in Japan.  He has been published in Butcher's Dog, Neon, and elsewhere.  

David Haight - "Federal Express Blues"

 

There was a single robin outside my window pecking at my bloated liver with his clipped staccato song. I supposed I slept at some point. Most of my time was charting the changing color through the thin white drapes: black, gray black, light gray. When it settled on a milky gray-blue it was time to pull myself out of the bed. Maureen had added a rule to the already burgeoning pantheon of rules I had to commit to memory: be gone before Katelyn awoke and stay away until dinner was threatening to get cold. (And none of that waltzing in the minute the bus dropped her off either.) Our daughter couldn’t know I was unemployed.

Snatching the clothes she had laid out from on top of the dresser, I trudged down the hall, ignoring the floorboards creaking their insults at me, dressed and brushed my teeth in the guest bathroom, making sure to wash down the pink drops of blood that dotted the sink. (Even my gums were conspiring against me.) Inspecting myself in the oval mirror I realized I had a day’s growth on my face. Of greater concern were my eyebrows which were coming together like the transcontinental railroad. I tried rubbing away the offending spider’s legs but to no use. It took too many attempts to get my tie tied evenly. It was a thin, all black tie. It had been my father’s. It was all I had of his to remember him by.

I poured a glass of orange juice and sat out on the front porch. The neighborhood was still. At the end of every driveway stood plastic trash bins, some green, some brown, some were partnered with a slightly smaller companion, filled with plastic and glass objects as an offering to the earth. I had never made an offering to the earth, God or any of the well-dressed men that frequented my door asking for money. Maybe that was the origin of my bad luck.

The sun had started its ascent.

“Mike?”

“I need my prescription,” my wife said, clutching at her robe, taking the seat next to mine.

“Your medicine. You need your medicine.” I stared at the horizon which stared back daring me. “You were just in there.” I went into the kitchen, popped open the tab on the pink plastic pill container marked ‘Tuesday’, poured its celebrating contents into my hands.

“Here. I have to go,” I said handing them to her with a glass of orange juice.

“You couldn’t have brought water? That pulp makes it hard to get these down. And it’s so acidic. My stomach can’t handle it anymore,” she said taking them with a scowl. “I see you couldn’t bother to shave.”

I finished my orange juice, set the glass on the patio table, took her glass and did the same with hers.

“You have to stop going to the bar. The bills are unacceptable. Need I remind you we don’t have any money coming in?”

As the sun continued its ascent, my life continued its inverse downward arc. We did this every day.

“Mike?”

I didn’t want to respond. I wanted to shove it in that gaping space with all the other pointless endeavors that went nowhere but toppled through inner space and would continue to fall until the day I ceased to exist.

“You used to get mad because I didn’t invite you.”

“You’ve gone every day this week.”

And every day when I walk into that damn place that cunt bartender perks up and asks, “Divorced yet?” It had become a running joke. Even Phil who has never been seen with a woman was in on it now. I had little choice but go there. There was only one other bar in this shit town and I ghosted on a rather elephantine tab. They’ve been calling me looking to settle up and even sent Bobby, the over sized nephew of the owner to shake me down at the Mobil station yesterday. It would be a secret from Maureen only a short time.

“I know the day I was let go-”

“Fired.”

“Is that necessary?”

She didn’t answer.

I couldn’t see very far to my left as the street took a sharp turn and slipped away. It was for the best. That Indian man who had repeatedly called the cops on us lived up that way and the sight of him or his luxury car would send this already egregious day sailing right off a cliff. “Anyway I know that on that particular day we spent four hundred dollars,” I paused to let allow the power of the amount reverberate, “to redo Katelyn’s room, which to my eye was perfectly fine.”

“She needs to know things are stable.”

“Is that why I get up before the sun and waste my day avoiding my own god damn house? Applying for jobs from the library?”

Dropping myself into the front seat of the rusted out Dodge I avoided my daughter’s bedroom window and turned the key delicately, popped the beast into neutral and rolled down the driveway, cranking the steering wheel a hard right when it reached the street. I tried as best as I could to start the engine quietly and crept through the still slumbering neighborhood.

The route to the Federal Express Ship Center was artless and far. The two lane highway cut like a scythe through reaching stalks of corn and claustrophobic, dormant fields. Despite the autumn chill I kept the window down and the radio off. There were no other cars. No lone bike riders or joggers edging the shoulder. No sudden deer making a desperate break for it. The sun was pink like a halved grapefruit or bloodshot eye. Then without telling me it changed clothes and was a bright, some would say hopeful orange. Things are always doing that. Changing without giving notice. Katelyn has a birthday in two weeks. My wedding anniversary - my tenth wedding anniversary was in a month. (A fourth of my life had been spent with Maureen, a statistic terminal and unavoidable like an amputated stump.) A nuclear holocaust would have been less troubling.

I pulled into the Federal Express parking lot at 4:40. The building was a massive cement lung, pumping out gray air from two large smoke stacks and several smaller ones. As I entered one of the giant bay doors I was terrified that I would never be seen again, terrified that no one would care, or have anything good to say about me, that my funeral would be a series of awkward silences, and relief when it ended and roast beef sandwiches were brought out; a sense of panic rippled through me: perhaps I didn’t have any real belongings, any friends, connections that mattered, perhaps I was not a good man.

I was directed into a cramped room with a single outdated computed blinking anxiously at me.  

“You’ll have forty-five minutes. The instructions are next to the computer,” the man said and exited.

I finished in twenty-three minutes. That was bound to impress somebody. It briefly impressed me. I guess you could say I had lowered the bar on the expectations of my life.

A man in a blue uniform a different man from before a clipboard suffocating under his right arm and whose belly was itching to make an escape from the bottom of his shirt, burst into the small room a few minutes after I had completed the assessment.

“There seems to be something on your background check that will prohibit us from hiring you.”

I sat in my car and methodically smoked a cigarette. I was nauseous and furious with myself. For getting my hopes up, again. For having to disappoint my wife once more and dash our future (as she will no doubt point out) upon the rock of that late, late night and its ensuing bad judgment (did I have anything else anymore?) that is forever disinterestedly linked to me like an steel umbilical cord in some government database.

The dream, of course, was to have a moment of reckoning. In this case having nearly reached my car I would turn march back through one of the yawning bay doors, through the bustle of activity, and zipping forklifts until I found the man directing a small crew of men knock the clipboard out of his hands and tell him to fuck off and march triumphantly to my car righting the wrong perpetrated upon me and through this small act transform my existence.

I pulled into a SuperAmerica picked up two dogs, slathered them in mustard and a forty ounce beer and headed over to Sarah’s tiny little house in Needmore. I sat in her driveway staring at the bedroom windows thinking about her lying in that bed (no doubt in a pair of black underwear and nothing more) that looked so much larger than it was because of how tiny Sarah was. It was the one place in the world that maybe I belonged or at least didn’t flat our reject me. I ate both hot dogs. I cracked open the beer and knocked on the front door.

“Sarah. Sarah, my little fuckbird, it’s me,” I whispered into the door.

I went at it for some time, past the point when it was obvious, despite her car in the drive that she was home, had grown tired of me (that was apparent the last few times) and wasn’t answering the door. Making my way to the end of the driveway I sat on the curb and drank my beer laughing at the passing mothers and children and the embarrassment my presence caused them. They weren’t seeing some lost saint. Eventually (there’s always an eventually with me) a neighbor like a Greek God in human form appeared on the opposite side of the street and stood imposingly, silent. I laughed even louder, chugged the rest of the beer and tossed the empty husk at his feet where it shattered unceremoniously and left.

I directed my car home. Refused to acknowledge any notion of time or the context of my situation. I drove fast, reckless towards my home. Because in the end where else does a man run to? Despite my wife’s long grown cold heart, the eventual exile by my daughter, and all the Sarah’s in the world – what else did I have? I was relieved when I turned the final corner of the final street to find Katelyn and her mother on the corner hand-in-hand waiting for the school bus, was overjoyed watching my daughter’s face explode into the grandest supernova smile as she saw me, and (this is how perverse the world and family and our place in it both is) was comforted by that scowl of complete derision of my wife, standing not even a foot to her left, as if that moment justified the reasons she would later, no doubt divorce me. I waved deliriously and screeched away.

It will come as no surprise to you, my wife and at some point, my daughter (when recounting this to some future husband, wife, bartender or therapist) that I ended up at that dank bar. I stormed the front door like it was god damn Normandy beach and was barely inside when Ole Bess, pulling a beer from the tap, glowering like the cat that ate the bird, asked, “Divorced yet?” and I punched her square in the jaw.

*

David Haight received a degree in English and later an MFA in writing from Hamline University where he was distinguished by the Quay W. Grigg award for Excellence in Literary Study. He published the novel Overdrive in 2006, Me and Mrs. Jones in 2012 and Lemon, a collection of short stories in 2015. His second collection of short stories, Kathatina (and other magnificent disaters) with be published May 1st, 2017.

 

Alan Swyer - "Dating"

                                                                                 

Still relatively new to Los Angeles, Siegel's social life ranged from minimal on good days to painfully nonexistent on others.  Never much for bar scenes or clubs, the array of dinners, concerts, gallery openings, screenings, and off-Broadway plays that enriched his time in New York had given way to night after night spent alone in his Santa Monica apartment.  That meant catching up on books bought but long untouched, as well as films old and new on Netflix and TCM, plus series from Denmark, France, Germany, and even Finland on a cable channel called MHz Choice.

Siegel's assumption, which during moments of loneliness seemed little more than a hope, was that through work, tennis, or a casual encounter at one of the places he'd been discovering –  Amoeba Records, the cooperative health food store far funkier and friendlier than Whole Foods, or the celebrated Santa Monica stairs (which seemed to be a haven for both workouts and hook-ups) – inevitably a woman, or better yet women, would once again become part of his existence.

That seemed far preferable, and infinitely more his style, than a foray onto Match.com, eHarmony, or some other dating site.

What Siegel could not have expected was that his extended period of West Coast solitude would end abruptly due to a middle-of-the-night-call.

"Did I wake you?" a familiar-sounding voice asked at roughly 3 AM on a Friday when, having fallen asleep later than usual after finishing a novel set in Marseille by Jean-Claude Izzo, Siegel managed to grab his iPhone.

"Tina?" Siegel mumbled, not fully sure where, or even who, he was.

"I-it's me all right.  Any chance I can come by?"

"Which means you're not in Brooklyn," Siegel said, rubbing drowsiness from his eyes.  "You okay?"

"N-not really.  Would you mind?"

"My place is yours."

Texting Tina his address, Siegel threw on some clothes, put up some Sencha tea, then waited.

 

It was in Washington, DC that Siegel and Tina first met.  Prepping a documentary he was hoping to make about the Latinization of baseball, Siegel had come in by Amtrak from New York for meetings at several embassies, plus a place known as the Cuban Special Interests Section.  While the results ranged from good to excellent, the best – better than Panama, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, or Cuba – was from a country that had produced a significantly smaller list of players, headed by Edgar Rentaria and Orlando Cabrera.  At the Colombian Embassy it was not staffers who spent time with Siegel, but the Ambassador himself, who then extended an invitation to an official dinner that evening.

Among the politicians, CEOs, and luminaries from the worlds of music, theater, and literature who were present that night was a young, light-skinned black woman Siegel kept eyeing from across the room – first while cocktails were served, then during dinner.

Only when he was asked to accompany a handful of people to a local night spot did Siegel get to address the object of his attention.  But their time together proved short-lived when Tina excused herself after just a brief moment and hopped a cab.

Less then twenty minutes later, Siegel was surprised to hear something ringing on a chair near where he was standing.  Answering what proved to be an iPhone, he found that it was Tina calling from her hotel room, alarmed that it had somehow fallen from her purse.  A breakfast was scheduled for 8:30 the next morning so that Siegel, who was staying at another hotel nearby, could hand it to her.

 

Munching on over-priced granola and berries, the two found themselves laughing about the ironies of their personal tastes.  In a reversal of racial stereotypes, Tina's favorite all-time singer turned out to be Frank Sinatra, while Siegel's was Ray Charles.  Her number one spectator sport was baseball, whereas his was basketball.  And when it came to something more mundane – chicken – her favorite was the white meat, and Siegel's the dark.

Yet there were far more preferences the two of them shared.  Chinese food from places like Chengdu, Shondong, and Xinjiang.  Obscure ska and reggae groups.  Films by John Cassavetes, Sergio Leone, and a guy called Savage Steve Holland.  Chester Himes detective books featuring Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones.  Thomas Pynchon's first three novels.  A Danish TV series called "Borgen."  Reruns of "Car 54 Where Are You," for which each could sing the theme song by heart.

There was also a commensurate common bond in what each scorned.  HBO's "Vinyl,"  "Forrest Gump" and mumblecore movies led the list, followed by hipper-than-thou food trucks, David Brooks' columns, and people saying Hey instead of Hello or Hi.  Then there was the overuse of Bro and Dude, plus, above all, self-styled connoisseurs who insisted the Stones sang the original versions of "Time Is On My Side," "Fortune Teller," and "You Better Move On," or that Janis Joplin did the first recordings of "Get It While You Can" or "Ball 'N Chain."

 

Opening the door quickly when Tina arrived at his apartment just a few blocks from the beach, Siegel was shocked to find that in place of the exuberant woman on-the-rise he knew well was someone who looked like a frightened young girl.

After a hug, he took Tina's suitcase and garment bag, then ushered her in.  "It's not exactly palatial," Siegel said apologetically.

"Then Beverly Hills Hotel, here I come," Tina replied in a failed attempt at playfulness.  "Thanks."

"For what?"

"Being a friend."

"So what can I get you?"

"Cyanide?"

"That bad?"

"Worse."

"Want to talk?"

"Maybe at some point.  Mind if I take a hot shower then crawl into bed?"

"Anything you want.  And if it'll make things easier –"

"Yeah?"

"I can sleep on the couch."

"You're sweet."

"Is that a yes?"

"Anything but," Tina said with her first semblance of a smile.  "Then what would I do if I felt a need to cuddle?"

 

Tiptoeing into the bedroom a short while later with Tina seemingly asleep, Siegel climbed carefully under the covers, then was surprised when she spoke.  "About that cuddle –"

As she rolled towards him, Siegel put one arm around her, then lightly stroked her head with his free hand.  

"This is what I needed," Tina said softly.

"Want a neck rub?  A back rub?"

"I just want you to hold me."

"Anything you say."

"You won't be unhappy –" Tina said a moment later.

"What do you mean?"

"If we don't... you know –"

"Nothing in the world could make me unhappy."

Tina kissed him.  Moments later, she was off to dreamland.  

But not Siegel, who couldn't stop thinking about the strange path that led to such a night.

 

At the time of their first encounter, each of them had recently made a significant career jump.  For Siegel, it was a transition from screenwriter-for-hire to fledgling director.  For Tina, having succeeded at passing the bar exam, it was a job in the Diversity department of a TV network, where her primary task was to travel to functions her boss wished not to attend.

Tentatively at first, then with ever-increasing frequency, the two new friends embarked on adventure after adventure.  First to the Bronx zoo.  Then a ride on the Staten Island Ferry.  Next a Yankee game.  After that a circus.  Plus a double-bill of Claude Sautet's "Cesar Et Rosalie" and "Mado" at a revival house.  

Each excursion allowed them to indulge their shared obsession with ethnic food.  Though delis and soul food joints were hardly shunned, mostly they gravitated toward Third World holes-in-the-wall for Ethiopian, Uygher, Peruvian, Nigerian, or Senegalese fare.

Surprisingly, at a time when casual couplings were available even through apps, their relationship stayed quaintly chaste, with both avoiding the subject until one evening, over couscous at a storefront Moroccan spot, it came out that neither of them had ever seen Niagara Falls.

"Want to go sometime?" Tina asked.

"Sometime sometime?  Or sometime soon?"

"How about next weekend?" Tina replied, taking Siegel's hand.

 

With the Santa Monica sun signaling the dawn of a new day, Siegel was in the kitchen when Tina entered wearing his robe.  "Granola like in DC once upon a time?" he asked.  "Or eggs... yogurt... fish lips... squirrel snouts?"

"No eel elbows?" Tina replied.

"Only on Sundays.  Anything you want to do today?"

"You don't have to babysit."

"It just so happens that other than a maybe workout at some point, I've got zero scheduled for this weekend.  I mean nada.  Zip.  So if you want to grab lunch at a Oaxacan place I've been hearing about – or Langer's, which has pastrami that puts New York away – or Koreatown –"

"I probably won't be good company –"

"Le me be the judge of that."

 

Silence reigned first at Siegel's apartment, then at a tiny Korean place near Western Avenue where they lunched on a dish called samgyetang.  Despite mild protests from Tina, they then proceeded to a brightly lit dessert place for a bowl of green tea shaved ice mixed with red beans.

After several spoonfuls, Tina faced Siegel.  "In case you're worried, I didn't kill anybody."

"That's comforting."

"Or rob a bank."

"I figured."

"And I'm sorry I didn't let you know I was coming this way."

"No harm, no foul."

"Know what?  In case nobody's told you lately, you're one of the very few nice guys."

"Only with you.  Otherwise I'm a total stink bomb."

 

The rest of Saturday was peaceful, with takeout from Pollo A La Brasa serving as dinner, followed by some cuddling while watching the first two hours of an Italian miniseries called "The Best Of Youth."

As they climbed into bed that night, Tina kissed Siegel.  She snuggled under the covers as he reached to turn off the lamp on the headboard, then surprised him by sitting up.

"Remember I told you my dad took off when I was little?" she said tentatively.

"Yeah."

"Well guess who tracked him down."

"And?"

"We started getting to know each other by phone... email... Skype –"

"And?"

"We decided I'd spend a week of my vacation time to visit in Burbank, where he's been living.  The first couple of days?  Amazing."

Suddenly Tina began to tremble.

Siegel put an arm around her.  "You don't have to go on."

"I need to tell somebody.  The third night – the night I showed up here – he insisted we celebrate with a bottle of Chateau Margaux."

"Excellent taste."

"Then aged Cognac.  Then weed.  Seeing him start to get loaded, I excused myself and trundled off to bed."

"And then?"

"Sometime after I fell asleep, he crawled in beside me."

Siegel tried his best to keep from gasping, then struggled in vain for something to say.

"Soon as I realized what was happening," Tina continued after a moment, "I screamed, then locked myself in the bathroom.  Only when I was 100 percent sure he'd passed out did I grab my stuff, run outside, and call you."

"I'm really glad you did."

"Me, too."

A few minutes later, Tina fell asleep in Siegel's arms.  But Siegel had no such luck, his mind racing as he tried to understand the shock, pain, and sorrow that Tina experienced that night, and must be going through still.

 

Sunday started quietly, with a hike to a place called Wexler's for bagels and lox, followed by a stroll along the path overlooking the Pacific.

"Okay if we do something different this evening?" Tina surprised Siegel by asking when they got back to his place.

"If that's what'll please you.  Whatcha got in mind?"

"Any good music around?"

"Sure you up to and for it?"

"I've got to start living again at some point," Tina said with a shrug.  "Or at least try..."

 

Leaving early that evening in case of traffic, off they went to Hollywood to catch a trumpet player named Roy Hargrove.  Avoiding valet parkers, who generally treated his aged Volvo with disdain, Siegel found a space on a side street.  But as he and Tina ambled toward the club, they drew the attention of two black winos sharing a bottle in a brown paper bag.

"Yo, sista!" the older one shouted, which Tina ignored.

"C'mon, pretty momma," insisted the other, to which Tina still paid no attention.

"Goddammit, girl," snarled the first one.  "What's that white mothafucka got that we ain't got."

"Brains," answered Tina as she took Siegel's hand.  

 

Virtually the entire town of Santa Monica seemed to be fast asleep by the time the two of them got back to Siegel's apartment.

"Late night snack?" he asked as they stepped in.

"I've got other things on my mind," Tina said as she threw her arms around him.

"Sure you're okay with it?"

"Unless you're not."

Siegel offered no resistance as Tina led the way to the bedroom, then undressed him.

 

In the morning, Tina was sitting up in bed with a smile on her face when Siegel awakened.

"Know what you need?" she asked.

"I give up."

"A girlfriend."

"Isn't this a funny time to –"

"I don't mean me, silly.  I'm 3,000 miles away most of the time, and besides –"

"Yeah?"

"I mean a real girlfriend, not just a friend who happens to think you're sexy."

"Do I find one at the girlfriends store?  Or on Amazon?"

"I've got a friend named Natasha who's moving out here in a couple of weeks."

"Natasha?"

"She's bright, fun –"

"And light on her feet for someone 300 pounds?"

"Far from it.  She's a dancer, and extremely cute."

"You don't find this to be slightly surreal?"

"You mean with the two of us naked and likely to do it again?  Let's just say I'd love to be a bridesmaid."

"Not the maid of honor?"

"Natasha's got a twin sister," Tina explained, then she kissed him.

 

Though Natasha proved to be delightful, Tina's match-making was torpedoed when instead of romance the result was an enjoyable but short-lived fling.

It was only when Siegel got authorization to go forward with a dream project that his life began to change in a significant way.  Gaining access to a women's prison that was home to a program in which selected inmates were taught to train service dogs, he prudently selected an almost entirely female crew.

True to his longstanding credo of never mixing business with pleasure – one that became even more important after come-ons from a couple of pretty prisoners – Siegel fought off his attraction toward the blonde who was his line producer.

But that his co-worker was off limits did not mean the same was true of her roommate, a striking red-headed actress with a recurring role on a soap opera.

As days turned to weeks, then weeks to months, it was clear that no longer were Siegel's nights often spent alone.

 

 

Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, and boxing. In the field of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel 'The Beard' was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.
 

And here are some other links:

http://harvardsquareeditions.org/portfolio-items/the-beard/

http://narrative.ly/how-ray-charles-convinced-me-to-be-his-stand-in/

http://www.elboxeothemovie.com/

http://www.its-more-expensive.com/

http://degenerateliterature.weebly.com/fiction-by-alan-swyer1.html

https://www.amazon.com/Spiritual-Revolution-Ronald-Alexander/dp/B00B99PBKA/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1489952081&sr=1-1&keywords=spiritual+revolution

David Rodriguez - "The McMurdo Dry Valleys"

 

so goes Mars, so goes Earth

scientists goggle Antarctican briny water

under valleys swoofed iceless by winds

littered in seal mummies

dry as truth

 

send electrical currents around

the Blood Falls’

iron oxide

where there may be

origin stories in aquifers

 

see four billion years dead the red planet

waiting warm and familiar

in a penthouse apartment

noisy with

fountains

 

perhaps our species can recreate it.

I can’t. I see her

circling me, double slow,

stylish, mysterious,

permeable

 

but there is my wife

on this planet and no other.

a re-home is the way

to new longing.

that is why Mars always already was

 

it cannot be.

 

David Rodriguez is a writer and teacher based in New Orleans with an MFA from Florida State University. He has previously been published in the New Orleans Review, The Southeast Review, Poetry Pacific, The Literateur, and The Double Dealer Redux, among other places.

Rylee Langton - "Don't Ask Me"

 

The last time I saw my dad’s baby sister I was 18. We had a family gathering in Portland, Fourth of July weekend, 2013. She looked like a child, her clothes hung off her like the sheet on the clothesline, blowing wildly but forced to cling to the line. When I saw her she hugged me, pressing her face into my breasts and mumbling about me “getting so big.” I could only cringe as she made a motor-boating joke and rubbed her mouth back and forth along my t-shirt, leaving a wet line along my cleavage. My father laughed at that greeting. The Julie of my childhood had large rosy cheeks, no not rosy, I think they were just always sunburnt from her exotic life in Florida. The Julie before me looked like the survivor of a civil war confederate camp, her knees and elbows a little too sharp under skin that looked baggy and too tight at the same time, but Julie survived tongue cancer, an entirely different war. She was a different person. Well, she was the same person, her body just begged her to change.

                *    *    *

In May 2015 I sat on my ex boyfriend’s couch mindlessly watching TV when I got a text message from my father, “we are giving aunt Julie her angel wings today.” I did not reply. Consoling a parent sounded like something I could never be taught and would never be ready for.  Four hours later I got a follow up text, “Julie has joined your grandma and grandpa in heaven” and a picture of a sunset. As if Julie and the standard pattern of the sun were somehow connected. I never met my grandparents and my father is an atheist.  Again I did not reply to his message. If he wanted anything he could call.

                *    *    *    

That last weekend, in July, I woke up around 7am in my tent in the backyard as the sprinklers pelleted the side of my nylon haven. I clawed out to turn off the water when I heard Julie yelling from my bedroom window. Not yelling anything real, just the early morning yell of someone gripped by the fact the end of their life is near. My dad does it too, when he drinks too much. In the night he will wail, like the alcohol is turning to spiders inside him. I guess it is genetic. Not an hour later she was on the porch smoking her first of the day and half way through her first bottle of wine, bringing the finish line that much closer.  

                    *    *    *

After she died, my father had gone to Florida to deal with her estate and he called me daily. He would speak of no one mowing the lawn, how many frogs were in the pool filter and how my aunt and uncle had not properly hurricane protected their house, then at the end of his distracted complaints he would end the call with the question, “How could she go first?”

                *    *    *

By noon Julie demanded we play Frank Sinatra so she could dance. My father tried to dance with her but he was just holding her up. She stood on his feet and he made slow steps, like fathers and daughters are suppose to. He and I never have. By the first chorus of ‘Fly Me To the Moon’ he gave up on keeping her up and told her to dance with herself. She took maybe three steps and fell backwards into the kiddy pool on the edge of the porch. Her falling seemed inevitable due to her consuming a bottle of wine almost every hour since she woke. As she emerged from her self given baptism all she could say was “who pushed me?”

                    *    *    *

My father would call me midday everyday and recount the moment of her death and how angry he was after he had mowed the lawn, cleaned the pool, and put the house on the market. He said it wasn’t fair, the way she left. He was not referring to the fact of her death but how she looked.

“She was grey. I- I watched her face fall after they unplugged the machine.” He would pause between statements in the way someone choking back tears might, but I knew his pauses were to take another drink. The only reason he ever stops talking is to deep throat a Sierra Nevada.

“I mean that is what she would have wanted right? She just didn’t look right anymore.” He said that it wasn’t fair for her to leave him with that last image, she wasn’t his baby sister, she was some lifeless hollow thing. He said there wasn’t any rose left in her cheeks. “How could she leave me with that?”

“Don’t ask me Dad.”

                    *    *    *

Julie bobbed and swayed on her feet as the day proceeded, like she was fulfilling my father’s words and dancing with herself, to a soft drunken melody. Her dance only stopped when her cup was empty. She teetered back into the house through the sliding glass door, closing it behind her. Minutes later she came back and ran into the closed glass door, smashing her newly filled cup, coating herself in wine. She opened the door as hard as she could, trying to throw it along its tracks. She could only open it far enough to get her body through. To someone being held up by wine and cigarettes, moving a sliding glass door three feet must be the weight of the world. She emerged; sack dress stained with red wine, and closed the door behind her. She looked like Carrie on prom night. I think she would have preferred to be covered in pig’s blood than to waste wine. Realizing her glass was empty again she turned on the spot and slammed back into the closed glass door. She screamed, “Who closed that door?”

                    *    *    *

“Be nice because you don’t know when the next time you’ll see your aunt will be,” my father told me the last day I saw Julie.

“It doesn’t matter. The next time I’ll see her, she’ll be in a casket,” I told him.  

“How could you say that?” He asked me.

                    *    *    *

Julie sat heavy on a lawn chair, speaking at great lengths on living a life of rebellion, and that real health was doing what made your soul happy. She thought of herself as some sort of modern day pirate. If being a pirate meant drinking, fucking, boating and blacking out then she fit her hazy definition. It is hard to regret a life you can’t remember.  Julie thought she was living life to the fullest, denying her own mortality.  

“Rylee!” she yelled, “you really are a Langton woman aren’t you? So why don’t you have a drink?” I took a beer. Pretending to drink at her level was easier than explaining that I had no intention of becoming an alcoholic embarrassment.

“Don’t ask me,” I would say.

Rylee Langton is a senior at Western Washington University; she is studying Creative Writing, Film and Political Science. She also enjoys cooking and photography. She has been previously published at the Scarlet Leaf Review. You can check out that work right here: http://www.scarletleafreview.com/shortstoriessep2016/category/rylee-langton

Ashley Bird - "Back On The Hill"

 

“Is Kyle coming,” Josh said.

“No idea,” Nathan said, “I text him but I haven’t heard anything.”

The sun had dipped below the top of the hill by the time they had reached their camp. It wasn’t far from the village but the funeral and wake had taken longer than expected. That left them with around half an hour to get everything set up before the light disappeared.

They split the work between them. Nathan took care of the tents. Slipping the poles through the loops and hammering pegs into the stubborn ground with a small rubber mallet. It didn’t take long for him to set up the two of them so he set about getting the smaller jobs done. Digging a small fire pit using a gardening trowel, packing things away in the tents and that sort of thing.

The fire took more effort. Josh had to walk all the way to the far side of the hill to cluster of trees. On the edge of the treeline he searched the floor for sticks. Not just any sticks. They had to be dead and dry and ready to burn. In Wales this is never an easy thing to find. He was also on the lookout for two or three good size logs that would burn long and hot to see them through the cold night.

That was just the start of the battle. Up on the hill the Welsh wind was fierce. Every time it looked as though the fire had started, another strong gust would put an end to it. It took Josh getting down on his knees, using his body to shield the flames, before it grew strong enough to survive. While Josh battled the elements, Nathan set up three chairs around the small pit so they looked out over the village below. He put a bottle of beer on each of them.

Once the work was done the two friends could relax. It had been a long and difficult day. They sat, looking out over the dancing street lights at the bottom of the valley, drinking their first beer. The village looked exactly the same as when they left it. The same river flowed along the same route behind the same houses. The pace of change in this part of the world is a crawl. That is one of the reasons they spent their teenage years dreaming of escape.

Neither of them spoke for a while. They had spent most of the day talking to old acquaintances so both men were content to sit and enjoy the quiet night air. The beer was cold and as they drank they sank deeper into their seats.

“Still no word of Kyle,” Josh said after a while.

“No,” Nathan said.

A time went by without another word. Sometimes silence and a cold beer is all that’s needed. The dusk had shifted its way into darkness and the only source of light was the fire with its fuzzy orange glow. There is something about sitting around a fire at night. It is romantically primitive and can remind you of a time you never saw. A sense of it inside that has been doused by centuries of civilization.

Down in the growing dark a pair of headlights came up the country lane. Slowly they wound around the narrow bends. When the hovering lights were below the camp they stopped.

“Here he is,” Nathan said “always turns up when the works done.”

“Nothing changes. A fiver says he hasn’t brought a tent,” Josh said.

“A tenner says he hasn’t brought a tent or a sleeping bag,”

Both men laughed and watched the hillside, waiting for the new arrival.

It took him a while but when Kyle made it into the glow of the fire his old friends barely recognised him. He was skinnier than they remembered and it made his face look gaunt and stretched. All his features were exaggerated but it was his eyes that were affected the most. They looked like they were retreating back into his skull and it gave his face a skeletal quality. Shadows hung in the hollows.

“A’right boys, been a while,” Kyle said between gasps for air.

“A’right Ky, good to see you,” Josh said.

Nathan stared into the fire and watched the flames jitter. Kyle waited, letting silence take over, before moving towards the empty seat on the end of the line.

“Not that one,” Nathan said.

“There’s another one by my tent, I’ll get it now,” Josh said getting up from his chair.

Kyle stole his spot as soon as he got out of the way.

“You didn’t fancy coming today?” Nathan said.

“I had work,” Kyle said.

“Jesus, you couldn’t take a day off for today?”

“Fuck me, give me a minute to sit first. Some of us can’t afford to take a day off whenever we want.”

“Thought you’d be there that’s all.”

“Well I’m here now, ain’t I?”

“Yea, just in time for a drink.”

Both men fell silent. A gust of wind swayed the fire as Josh returned with a chair in one hand and a beer in another. He passed the beer to Kyle and, with a shake of his head, set up the new chair for himself.

For hours the group sat on the hill drinking their beers. They talked about the old days when they would go to the same spot without tents or sleeping bags. The days when all they needed was as much cider as could be “borrowed” from one of their parents sheds and an air rifle to try catching rabbits. They never did hit one but the fun was in the trying. They were simpler times back then but that’s how it is for everyone. They had their mates and their place of escape and that’s all they really needed. It is only when adult stuff intrudes that things get complicated.

When Josh got hungry he cooked for the whole group. Sausages wrapped in tin foil and pushed amongst the glowing belly of the fire. The smell of charcoal and sausages mixed with the damp earth. They also had beans cooked in tins with their lids bent back into place to keep the ash out. Even a few bread rolls to mop up the tomato sauce. All three ate fast. It was meal that took them back to a childhood spent outside. It could be cooked in a pan at home but it would never taste as good as it does from an open fire in a field. When he finished, Josh let out a satisfied sigh and took a swig of his beer.

He looked at the empty chair on the end of the row. With the beer waiting there, untouched. The wind had all but disappeared by that point and the bugs had come out. High pitched chirps filled the autumn night. There were a few bats swooping just above their heads. Every now and again one would get low enough to be caught in the fires glow. Revealing itself for a brief moment before vanishing back up into the night.

“Here’s to you Jeff boy,” Josh said raising his beer up.

Nathan did the same almost instantly. It took a glare from Nathan to get Kyle to raise his drink.

“What’s the matter with you?” Nathan said looking Kyle in the eye.

“What?”

“Leave it out boys,” Josh said.

“Whatever, I can’t be dealing this, never going to change. I’m going to bed,” Nathan said.

He got up and left the warmth of the fire without another word. His tent rustled as he climbed inside and zipped it shut. Even that sounded angry. Josh yawned and stared into the fire.

“I might as well go to bed too, been a long day,” he said “you can crash in my tent if you need to.”

“Cheers, I’ll have one more beer then I’ll come in,” Kyle said.

 

Josh woke up in the dark. The insects were still chirping and outside the tent he could see the faint glow of the fire. There was no yellow flame left but the embers still shone a deep red in a void of black. He looked around the tent but the was no sign of Kyle. It was hot and stuffy inside so he twisted himself around and unzipped the door. Shutting his eyes and he let the cold night air hit his face. He was grateful for it. When he opened his eyes he saw Kyle’s figure still sitting in the chair, hunched over.

Josh let himself free from his sleeping bag and went out into the field. He hadn’t bothered to put his shoes on and the dew on the ground soaked into his socks. Kyle looked as though he was sleeping but as Josh approached he lifted his head, a cigarette lodged between his lips. Josh took a seat next to him.

“What are you still doing up?” Josh said.

Kyle stared out across the valley. Under the moon he could clearly see the river. A silver streak winding its way through the place he called home. He knew every bend along this stretch of the Taff. Bends that hadn’t changed since before they were kids when they fished and swam in them. The same river but different waters.

“We weren’t sure if you’d show up tonight,” Josh said.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Kyle said.

“Well you didn’t come to the funeral, did you?”

“I had work.”

“Don’t give me that shit. No boss is going to stop you going to a funeral.”

Kyle reached down and picked a log from the pile beside his chair. He threw it on the fire and bright red sparks exploded skywards, pushed higher and higher by the heat.

“You could at least tell me why you couldn’t be bothered to go to his funeral”

“I didn’t get invited.”

Kyle turned in his seat so he could look Josh in the eye. They stared at each other while the last statement hung in the air between them. A gap that seemed to widen with every second that passed. On the floor the fire cracked as the new log caught. It spat a fleck of glowing ember at Josh’s feet.

“Did you stop to wonder why you didn’t get asked to the funeral?” Josh said after a while.

“Fuck you,” Kyle said

“No I’m serious, did you ever stop to think about anyone but yourself.”

“Don’t twist it around on me.”

“Tonight is why you didn’t get invited. We knew you would turn up late, drunk or high on whatever you’re into these days and you’d make it all about you. Just like you are now.”

Josh got up from the chair walked over to Kyle. With Kyle still sitting, Josh towered over him. His eyes were wide and crazy and full of frustration. He was on the edge of something. Something he might regret when the sun is up and the beer has left his blood.

“You piss and moan about everyone leaving but that’s not what it’s about is it. It’s about you staying while everyone else is off living their lives.” Josh said, finding his rhythm.

“It’s been ten years. You don’t know a thing about me.” Kyle said.

“That’s just it, you’re the same. The same fucking waster that only cares about the craic.”

Kyle's eyes flared and he took a deep breath in through his nose while he gritted his teeth. His hands gripped the cold metal arms of the chair like he was trying to anchor himself to the ground. Behind Josh the fire had grown; yellow flames jerked about making all the shadows twitch.

“Nothing’s changed for you has it. While everyone has moved on to bigger and brighter things, you stayed right her. Pints in The Rickards and smoking weed in you mothers basement. It’s fucking sad mate.”

In the flick of a flame Kyle was on his feet and moving closer. There was a crunch as a foot came down on the fire and then Josh was falling backwards. He hit the damp dirt with a heavy thud.  

One foot had landed in the fire and he quickly jerked it away. Panicking a little, he sat up and started to pat down his leg; he had to brush the glowing embers away before they burnt through his jeans. Before he had cleared the last of them Kyle was over him. The orange glow of the fire made his face look twisted and deranged as fury took over.

“You haven’t got a fucking clue. You come back here and judge us, who do you think you’re talking to. You forgot where you came from, butt? No matter how long you live it up in the city you’re still a fucking valley boy. Just like me. So don’t come at me with the big I am routine because I will put you on your arse.”

Two thick lines spread across Josh’s forehead and it was his turn to grind down his teeth on their opposite numbers.

“What, what are you going to do?” he said

Kyle gripped Josh by his collar and lifted his back off the floor. Shoulders tensed and shifted as he moved his free arm backwards. His hand clenched tight and hovered there, in mid-air, while time wavered. Both of them felt it. Like the world had stopped turning for a moment, waiting to see what would happen. Smoke from the scattered fire swirled around them. It stung the back of their throats and made their eyes water.

When Kyle turned his head the world went back to its rotation. Nothing to see here. He looked out over the valley. A pale streak of light ran across the top of the opposite hill as a new day began. The silhouettes of the houses in the village were beginning to stand out. Looking out over the place they all grew up, Kyle made his choice. He opened his fist and let Josh fall back to earth.

“I’ll see you around,” Kyle said.

Josh slowly got himself to his feet and went over to the seats. He watched Kyle walk around the small campsite gathering his things. He wanted to say something; there had to be something to say. He wanted to tell him he was sorry, to go fuck himself, he’d make it right and to grow up all at once. Unfortunately, there isn’t a word for that sentiment so he just watched as he stuffed things into his rucksack.

“Kyle,” Josh said to his back as he walked down the slope.

Kyle turned around. Still the words didn’t come but both of them seemed to understand. It was over, it had been over for a long time but now it was confirmed. They were no longer old friends. Instead, just someone they used to know. All the anger had seeped away to some sad acceptance. Kyle gave a small nod and carried on walking while Josh sat and watched him get smaller and smaller until he climbed the fence at the bottom of the hill.

He stayed in that seat and watched the sun come up, the fire die down and the first rabbits appear. He stayed there when he heard signs of movement coming from Nathan’s tent. He didn’t move while he told Nathan everything that had been said. The only response was a shrug of the shoulders. A shrug was all that was needed. It communicated everything about their trip back to the place they grew up. Deep down they both knew that it would end this way. They didn’t know each other anymore and pretending it was the good old days meant nothing. All they had wanted to do was their duty; what else is there? Together they packed away their things and poured the last of their water onto the strewn embers. They hissed and steamed fighting against a premature death. With one last look over the valley they left for good, again.

 

Ashley Bird is a Welsh writer living in Pontypridd on the edge of the South Wales valleys. He currently studies English and Creative Writing at the University of South Wales. He is new to submitting work but hopes to have more pieces out in the world soon. On twitter he goes by @ashbirdy87, to chat about anything writing or reading related.

Antoine Bargel - "Further Ado"

 

She was an old friend from high-school, whom I had not seen in about 15 years. She had known that I was in love with her, back then, but nothing had ever happened between us. We had gone to separate colleges, then, as young professionals, had reconnected on LinkedIn. Now, 30-something and both recently divorced, we had made a date for her to visit me in my country house, a few hours away from the city where we had grown up.

After dinner under the cherry tree – it was the end of summer and the nights were still warm – we had talked about our love lives and sexuality. During the conversation, I started noticing that she was attracted to me, now; probably eager, as I was, to feel sexually alive again after the loss of a long-time partner. The ever longer moments when she would sustain eye contact with a smile confirmed what I had hoped, which was that she, like I, had agreed to this private reunion with lustful ideas in mind. I remembered how, as a teenager, moments of eye contact such as these used to create in me a sensation of vertigo, even in the constrained environment of a classroom, during which I felt myself plunging through space toward her, so intensely that I forgot everything else, until she turned away. The years which had passed at least had made me, I now observed, a more stable person.

Yet they had also allowed me to experience my limitations as a sexual being. Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of my past, I decided to show some maturity and lay my cards on the table.

“You know, outside of the two people that I had those long term relationships with since high-school – when I was a virgin, as I'm sure you knew then or have figured out by now,” this eliciting a small smile from her, “I was never able to have a sexual relationship just for the pleasure of it. When I'm in serious love, I'm intense and liberated; but outside of that, when I flirted with people and we ended up naked, I was always too uncomfortable to go beyond basic preliminaries. I would either not be able to perform, or make a stupid move or comment that radically broke the mood: one way or another, it's never really worked out for me and I'm convinced by now that it is a part of who I am. Love is godly, love is pure, and I can do that. Simple human sexuality, though, seems out of my reach. So at this point, I would rather spare myself and others the embarrassment – regardless of how much desire I may feel while the encounter is only an imagined, anticipated possibility...

“But there is one way that I've been able, a couple of times, to feel sexually liberated without being in a relationship, and that was when some form of kinky ritual was observed.”

This time, she smiled widely.

“Yeah? Like what?” she interjected.

“Well, it's sort of cheapening to tell precise stories of this kind of things, but for instance –” I looked at her and marked a brief pause for maximal effect, “for instance, have you ever been tied up?”

“No!” she exclaimed with a burst of laughter. Then she stopped and thought about it. “No, but what does it do?”

“Well, what I have in mind is for one of the partners to be tied up to the feet of the bed, with knotted scarves for example, by one's wrists and ankles. Laying on one's back, able to wriggle but unable to move away or set oneself free, entirely at the mercy of the other partner who can caress and kiss and stroke at his or her complete discretion... What it does is mostly to the one who is tied up: you feel vulnerable. Although you trust the other, you have given up control of your body and, technically, your life. The other could do anything to you, and that triggers something instinctive, primal, in the form of disturbingly intense arousal.”

“When you describe it like that...” she said and left her sentence unfinished.

I drank a sip of wine, looking at her above my glass. She returned my stare without batting a lash, then reached for hew own glass.

“Would you like to try it?” I said – which made me feel psychologically naked and vulnerable already and, as such, excited, while also proud of my new strategy: talking to women, telling the truth about myself. How could I have guessed, as a teenage boy, that it was so simple? And yet impossible until I knew enough about myself.

She finished swallowing her wine and smiled again. She had beautiful teeth.

“I might...” she said. “But you get tied up first.”

While she was in the bathroom, I undressed and prepared a selection of scarves and silk ties for her to choose from, then lay on the bed. She came back, still dressed in her jean shorts and wide purple t-shirt, underneath which a black lace bra had imprinted a teasing tracery all evening long. She took off her black leather lace-up heels.

“You know how to make a good, solid knot?” I inquired boyishly.

“Yep. This girly's sailed before.” she said and knelt on the bed, picking a scarf and getting to work on my left wrist.

After I was all tied up, she stood and unhurriedly removed her t-shirt, jean shorts and, excruciatingly, bra. She had large, white breasts with dark pink circles around her pointy nipples. I was salivating. She walked to the foot of the bed and faced me, standing over my parted limbs. Staring at me all the while, she removed her black, triangular underwear, bending one knee and then the other, while my eyes darted frantically up and down. She had a fuzzy, dark bush that matched her black hair, which she presently untied and loosened unto her shoulders.

Then, casually, she touched my big toes with both hands, lingered a second, then slowly moved up to my shins with the tip of her fingers, progressively bending over the bed. As she continued higher, she brought her knees on the mattress in-between my strapped ankles, and her torso began hovering above me, her nipples teasing my upper thighs while her long, dark hair brushed my stomach and chest. I was madly erect already.

Her face came close to mine and I felt faint under the spell of her dark brown eyes. I tried to escape their grasp by looking at the beauty mark above the left corner of her mouth, the intricate design of her ears, the softest line around the edge of her cheekbones, but came back ever to be consumed by the two black suns with their matching halos of lashes.

“This is fun.” she whispered.

“Yeah...” I answered in a raspy voice.

She saw how excited I was and smiled, then broke off and sat on the bed next to me.

“So... What are we going to do with you...” she said musingly. Then she seemed to think of something, jumped up and added: “Wait just a second!”

She left the room and I heard her move around the house, opening and closing cupboards and drawers as she went.

When she returned, she had one hand behind her back and set something down by the bed, where I could not see.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

I heard a silky ruffle, then felt her tie something around my head, covering my eyes.

“Now, don't cheat.”

I could not see, could not move, could not feel her anywhere. I heard her step around the bed, then nothing. A long silence, in which I heard only the sound of my breathing heavily, and felt the warm tug of my erection, the rest of my cold skin exposed to the unknown.

Then I heard her move and felt, by my belly button, a light stroke, unnerving and slightly ticklish, like the tip of a feather. It made a few curves on my stomach, then ascended to my chest, brushing the hair and swirling sideways to my nipples, which hurt sharply when touched, stimulating all the more the blood flow that pumped frantically through my quivering cock. Then the stroke traversed my armpits, slowly probing the hairy, sweaty hallows then rising along my biceps, sending wave after wave of nervous shivers down my spine.

I was in a trance, twitching, moaning, pulsating with every muscle, every inch of sensitive skin. I felt her weight rocking the mattress, then, suddenly, at the center of my body, warmth enveloping me, beginning at the tip and descending progressively until reaching the root and, at the same time, her buttocks came to rest on my hips.

I think that I moaned for a long time, but she gave me no rest and began riding me, at first imperceptibly slow then accelerating, and I felt a now familiar stroke run on my neck and cheek, on my forehead and down my nose, on my lips, back down to my throat and into the small notch between my clavicles where it stopped for an instant, then went down my chest again, while she kept quickening the movement of her hips, the friction of her pubic bone on mine, the swallowing of my incandescent cock into her grand, volcanic vulva.

I heard a high-pitched, guttural cry, then suddenly she ripped off the scarf that covered my eyes. She was a Medusa leaning above me, her hair flowing darker than the night from all around her head, falling down, enveloping my face, enclosing us in a tunnel of musky, undulating animalness of which she was the mistress. Her dark eyes were bolted deep into mine, as deep as my cock inside her body. She saw that I was fascinated, smiled with all her shiny white teeth and slowly lifted her shoulders up, still grinding me at the hips, until she sat on me vertically and I glimpsed in her hand, where that ticklish, caressing stroke had last been, on the left side of my ribcage, a knife.

A long, silver kitchen knife.

While my mind struggled to understand, my body went burning all over with adrenalin. But before I could move or utter a sound, I saw her raise her arm beside her head, and stab with all her might toward my face.

I came, and came, and came, while the pillow next to my cheek exploded in a cloud of white feathers.

I came some more.

The rest of my body was petrified, tensed and arched back in the posture of the deadly stabbed man that I almost became, that I briefly thought I was. I exhaled the last of my breath, then felt a violent shiver all over as life started flowing through me again.

Slowly, I turned my head and looked at her, who had let go of the knife and brought her hands behind her head, stretching her magnificent chest forward. She was still making small, swiveling movements with her sex, inside which mine showed no sign of receding.

“You're crazy...” I muttered.

She lowered her eyes to meet mine and smiled, then rose up and brought her lips to my mouth, making me drink the warm confession of my own humanity.

 

Antoine Bargel is a writer and literary translator who works and publishes in France and in the United States. This is his second story in Viewfinder, make sure to check out "Third Date First" if you haven't already! More information on his past and upcoming work is available at www.antoinebargel.com

Also, please check out Mr. Bargel's previous story from Viewfinder. You can go to it from this link right here: "Third Date First"

 

 

Alex Rezdan - "That Moment When Time Stopped"

 

That moment when time stopped, I saw the future. It surprised me, because I always thought I would see the past flash through my mind before everything ended abruptly, like a film reel burning out, the blackness invading from every direction until that was all there was. Sometimes I thought of it more like when the battery on a laptop dies. It just shuts down, every circuit grasping for an electric current the way my body was grasping for air. I wished I could simply plug in to recharge, and perhaps that’s what led me to ingest those pills as if they were batteries for my soul, but instead, what I got was a glimpse of our future together.

In the park, you--whom I have yet to meet--sat at the bench waiting for me to arrive. You were tapping your foot to the music that always seemed to play inside your head and waved your arms around when you saw me as if you had been stranded in the desert for days and I had come to save you. I liked to think we had saved each other, really. You pulled out your flask from inside your coat, and I graciously took a swig before we followed the crowd into the fair. Maybe it was the drinks that did it, or more likely your terrible aim at throwing a softball, but this was the day I realized I loved you, not in that sense that movies and television have distorted the word, but in the sense that I knew I wanted you to be part of the rest of my life, and even if we strayed apart for ten years, I wouldn’t forget to contact you when I visited your city or be too busy when you came to mine.

It pained me to think I probably walked past you, too shy to strike up a conversation, perhaps several times in every variation: sitting next to you on the train, standing behind you in line at the grocery store, stealing glances at you at the bar.

In another glimpse, in that future city when I visited you, I experienced snow for the first time. I shivered in my thin jacket, and you teased me about being from Southern California. You suggested ducking into a bar to warm up and introduced me to grog, of which I was not a fan. You noticed that I kept looking at the old, beat up piano in the corner and, because the place was empty, I agreed to play a song. It was during that detuned rendition of The Entertainer that we realized this could be it. Our last day. We didn’t say anything, but I knew we were both thinking the same thing: at least we’ll always have those great memories to look back on.

Except maybe now we won’t.

My feet felt heavier as I walked you back to your apartment, each step taking more effort than the last, yet you twirled and danced, giddy from the alcohol. I wanted to grab your shoulders and shake you and scream, “Can’t you see our story is about to end? Stop being so happy!” But instead, we said goodbye as if we’d see each other during lunch the next day. It hurt to see you disappear into that stairwell, but later I realized I preferred this over the farewell hugs we gave each other all those years ago. Looking back at our last day, I wouldn’t remember us standing outside your door, trying to delay the inevitable with awkward conversation. Instead, I’d see us passing around your flask, singing The Middle by Jimmy Eat World while you led me through streets that all looked the same. That song always did make me think of you.

As I walked back to the hotel, the weight in my legs became too much. I stopped in the middle of a bridge--Schlossbrücke, you had called it--and looked into the water, the rippling reflection of stars, moon, and me, and returned to the present moment. Alone in the dimly lit room. Empty beer cans scattered on the bed and my last cigarette burning on the ashtray next to the glass of red wine I swiped from downstairs. The smoke clouded the room, and I wished I could dissipate the same way, leaving nothing but a lingering scent as a reminder that I once existed.

You--who surely must exist somewhere--were not the only thing I saw in that moment. I saw the birth of my child and the name Amelia escaping my lips when the nurse put her in my arms. I experienced the loss of my parents, bittersweet in that I never truly felt independent from them but glad they didn’t have to suffer in outliving their only child. I met other people in other countries and laughed--yes, laughed--with them. I was interrupted in a romantic pursuit due to cat hair. My eyes puffed into bulging slits of red and all the water in the world couldn’t wash away that blunder. I knew it blew any chance I had with that person, and cats forever became a deal-breaker.

Futures that could but would never be teased me with happiness. I inhaled them all until my body rejected them and coughed them into the air together with those pill-shaped batteries and acid-tasting bile. My hands gripped the itchy bed sheet as my eyes focused on the fedora-shaped water stain on the ceiling. My breath returned to me, shallow at first, then steady like a heartbeat. I turned my head to the side and watched the red liquid sway gently in the glass. I looked at time as a pearl in the oyster I created around it and imagined it dissolving in the wine until only a grain of sand was left drowning at the bottom of the glass, and then I swallowed it.

Alex Rezdan is an American writer currently living in Berlin. His short stories have previously appeared in Popshot, Literally Stories, and Fabula Argentea, along with Berlin-based magazines RHNK and Berlin Unspoken. When not procrastinating on Reddit or playing his guitar, Alex is working on completing his first interactive fiction novel.