“Coming from an ethnic background and living in a diverse city like Los Angeles, my work reflects my identity as an Asian American…”
Single life is-tequila with lime,
shots of travelers, jacks, diamonds, and then spades,
holding back aces-
paraplegic aged tumblers of the night trip.
Poltergeist defined as another frame,
a dancer in the corner shadows.
Single lady don’t eat the worm
beneath the belt, bashful, very loud, yet unspoken.
Your man lacks verb, a traitor to your skin.
Jesus in a Nighttime City (V4)
Chicago nighttime city
in bulletproof vest
mink furs stolen,
a few diamonds for glitter-
old parks, metal detectors, quarters, nickels, dimes,
coins in the pockets of thieves, black children
on merry-go-rounds, Maywood, IL.
Danger children run in danger
in spirit, testimony,
red velvet outdates Jesus’ robe.
Clock Maker (V2)
Solo, I am clock maker
born September 22nd,
a Virgo/Libra mix insane,
look at my moving parts, apart yet together,
holes in air, artistic perfection,
mechanical misfits everywhere,
life is a brass lever, a wordsmith, an artist at his craft.
Clock maker, poet tease, and squeeze tweezers.
I am a life looking through microscope,
screen shots, snapshot tools,
mainsprings, swing pendulum, endless hours,
then again, ears open tick then a tock.
Over humor and the last brass bend,
when I hear a hair move its breath,
I know I am the clock waiter,
the clock maker listens-
a tick, then a tock.
Life Is-Transition (V2)
Transition, is song, passages.
291.5 pounds, age 67, 6’4′, gross as a pig waiting for
Aging chews at my back, my knee joints, chisels, slivers
Legs are corn stalks burning; twist fibers, bending, late
+++++October, Halloween night.
Good news, 67, lost 38.9 pounds this year, rocking gently
+++++shifting my pain away.
I am no longer a beagle pup, an English cocker spaniel
+++++chasing the bitches around,
no longer a champion bike rider, yo-yo champion, nor
+++++Hula Hooper dancer or swinger.
Now I expand my morning stiffness with stretch rubber
+++++bands, legs lifted high then down.
Wild mustard, wild black rice and the Mediterranean diet
+++++have taken over my youthful dining experiences.
I no longer have nightmares about senior discounts, or
+++++Meals on Wheels,
part-time bus driving jobs, or aerobics.
When spices are in season, I out live my postponements
+++++to my grave.
Screech owl, I am an old buck, baby hoot on a comeback,
+++++dancing my ass off.
Transition, shedding old loose snakeskin.
Still listening to those old hits, like Jesse Colter, Waylon Jennings,
+++++“Storms Never Last.”
Transition is song passages.
Michael Lee Johnson lived ten years in Canada during the Vietnam era. He is a Canadian and US citizen. Today he is a poet, freelance writer, amateur photographer, small business owner in Itasca, Illinois. He has been published in more than 850 small press magazines in 27 countries, and he edits 10 poetry sites. He is the author of The Lost American: From Exile to Freedom, and several poetry chapbooks, including From Which Place the Morning Rises and Challenge of Night and Day, and Chicago Poems. poetryman.mysite.com
I want to die the way my dog sleeps
—a tiny, take-up-no-room-curl.
I want to live like him, too,
rising twice or thrice a day,
a lift up from a stomach,
a grin to an n,
a head-to-tail unfurl
to a laughlined, smiling u face,
an l for a tail that (with a bolt’s click)
triggers a merry metronomic tick
that trots my rhythm out a door,
where I wander, mark,
a chunk of bark
and a few blades of grass,
breathing in the glorious world
before sauntering back to that door
with a noise in my throat
a warm hand on my neck
and an oh-wow-what-a-way-
and then—with one gulped explosion
of taste and a bowl full of coolness—
the action ends
with a nonchalant stroll
back to my bed, where
I neatly collapse, twist a little
and a little more,
turning and turning
and turning and turning
and, yes, turning and turning,
spiraling down and down
into the teeniest, tiniest
until there is no more
Andrea, just a plain
old sleeping ball
In Gratitude of the Strange Phenomenon of Reynaud’s
This living hand, now warm and capable,
is not so on some days. On colder days
—and sometimes on hot ones—my fingers
become ghostlike, corpselike,
zombie digits drained of blood,
and yet are attached to my body still.
I blow on them. I put them by the fire.
I plunge them into bowls of boiling water.
I urge them to live!
And sometimes they say, okay,
we will not die today,
and tingling bloodlife creeps back
along veins, and then I am the
bearer of two hand-balloons
filling with red air,
subtle and warm,
warm and capable,
up for the fisted fight,
and once again I am reminded:
I am alive but all of us
are running out of time.
It doesn’t spell disaster
Look at that sad case
of an o lying
by the side
of the road,
like a flat tire
rolled from a car—
and that other o
half-filled as if
gasping for air
in the despair
of a too long run.
And that v?
See it tipped and lonely,
useless as a flipped
table. But that ə?
Perhaps it harbors
some gasping “uh”
even as it hangs
like a forgotten hook
from a ceiling.
But that antenna of a y—
it can’t get any signal at all—
and that u
has rocked to a stop,
where it leans with exhaustion
as if abandoned in an alley,
left to idly catch rain.
But the L, you say, is made-
a crate lift of Barthean expertise!
I watch you grip the handles,
and, like that, factory doors slide open,
and together we step into the ratcheting,
uprighted, spell-it-anyway-you-like noise.
Winner of Fiction International’s Short Fiction Contest and Able Muse’s Write Prize in Fiction, Andrea Witzke Slot is author of the poetry collection To find a new beauty (Gold Wake Press, 2012) and a recently-finished novel (now under representation) titled The Cartography of Flesh: in the silence of Ella Mendelssohn. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have been published widely, including in Bellevue Literary Review, Adirondack Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry East, Measure, Southeast Review, Nimrod, Fiction Southeast, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and in academic books published by SUNY Press (2013) and Palgrave Macmillan (2014). She lives between London and Chicago.
When cities are burning
and children sleep in your bed
you can’t measure suffering
like sugar, one tablespoon
at a time. Mornings are full
of orange juice and hope
and getting out the door
to camp and watering flowers
walking as if you forgot
that there’s a war on
and that hairstyles
can get territorial,
and games like Catan
are played on the ground.
We find insects smashed
between pages of books
we read to stop remembering
and find acorns on windowsills
thimbles too big to protect
even thumbs. You snap
pictures, nails, tempers.
You have cornstarch dreams
tinted with food color.
Your lips move as you read
headlines and you spell
everything: hate, bodies,
soldiers, rockets, fear.
But you can’t spell sirens
language is heavy as feathers
and you wonder why the birds
Days Like This
When you hear that a rocket fell
make black coffee, dark and sweet.
When you hear that a soldier died
bake cookies, then eat them all.
When you look outside your window
watch for birds, they know everything.
When you lose power and it’s dark
make love, even to yourself.
If you love a fruit
you cut it open.
eat their own tails.
And forests grow
in the strangest places:
over graves and under tunnels.
Children ask what these words mean:
Hamas: I tell them anger
Siren: I tell them song
Tunnel: I tell them water
Soldier: I tell them dream
This is how we learn to forgive.
mid-July but it feels
like August when the rains
don’t come and the air
is filled with the smell
of animal death and sand
when iced drinks melt
faster than you can drink
them and everything sweats
bullets, dread, fear
everyone gets a chance
at forgiveness but not
in this heat, it leaves
no room for change
for different maps
everyone knows everyone
and break hearts
Our children learn
to fire shotguns
and wring chicken necks
like hands just to put
an end to suffering
I love this place
beautiful and cracked
where every leaf reminds
us, and neighbors’ fights
take the shape of rockets
falling, I could be any
where, staring at the sky
and driving down the endless
asphalt, listening to malls
and indifference, but I’m still
in love, and the grass reminds
me, parched and dry, that
wildflowers make the sound
of a thousand tiny stars
Rena Rossner is a graduate of the Writing Seminars program at The Johns Hopkins University. She also holds degrees from Trinity College Dublin and McGill University. She currently works as a literary and foreign rights agent at The Deborah Harris Agency in Jerusalem, Israel. Her poetry and short fiction has been published or is forthcoming from Carve Magazine, Midwest Quarterly, The Mayo Review, Rattle, Chicago Literati, Arc 23, JewishFiction.net and more. Her cookbook, Eating the Bible, has been translated into 5 languages and is published by Skyhorse Press. Her first novel is out on submission.
I lost my virginity while the dragon fell. When the enormous canvas beast faltered, people flocked beneath it. Maybe they hoped their attention would encourage it to stay aloft in the dead air, like zealots of a dying god refusing to believe its power could ever wane.
During the commotion, Deanna pulled me behind a trailer, unzipped my fly and hiked up her skirt. I shoved my pelvis forward, scrambling on by instinct. She pushed on my stomach to make room, pulled her panties to the side, and then guided me into her.
I tried to focus, to appreciate this carnal victory, but the collective crying out of the festivalgoers interrupted my rhythm. I closed my eyes, Deanna’s breath in my ear, and I imagined the dragon diving to earth as the crowd’s wails reached a crescendo. Despite the mental distraction, our morning-long build-up and the rush of this new sensation brought on a speedy orgasm. A bolt of electricity shook my body when I came, and the people yelled out a final, disappointed cry.
We hadn’t planned on coming to the kite festival. We’d been cruising south with no destination. Hands on each other as much as driving allowed. Then we spotted the flecks of color peppering the sky. I turned to investigate, same as several other drivers, only to find the access road to Green Hill Park gridlocked. We parked on the outskirts of a grass field, and joined the dozens of people sliding in between the nearer vehicles, all heads tilted to the sky. Her hand tightened in mine. I turned to find her face creased with tension.
“It’s all right,” I told her. “We’re twenty minutes from home. No one will know us.”
“I’m not worried about me,” she said.
At the time, I didn’t understand what she meant. Grinding into my best friend’s girlfriend, her back against a food truck selling chili cheese fries, was not how I envisioned it happening. I never considered my virginity sacred, like some girls did, but I at least figured I’d lose it in a bed or the backseat of my car.
I started going soft instantly. Guilt, non-existent seconds before, enveloped me. It sapped all my energy and any desire to stay there. In hindsight, the guilt had started the moment our flirtation grew physical, but my desire had dulled it. Like a headache only apparent once the euphoria of a roller coaster ends. Before that morning, we were just talking; I’d never so much as hugged her.
I had given her no thought, really, until Seth and I went camping at Hot Springs, smoking cigarettes he’d lifted from his mom’s purse.
“Y’know Deanna?” he said, French inhaling. He leaned back against a log the size of a barrel, pale skin almost bright against the woody backdrop.
He took another drag and blew a smoke ring. My impatience bubbled up, but I kept quiet.
“We did it, man.” He cocked his chin up into the air and looked at me threw eyelids drooped as if fatigued.
“You fucked her?” I asked, the aftertaste of the off-brand cigarette making my mouth feel polluted.
He nodded. “Three times already. I was gonna tell you sooner, but I figured it was no big deal.” He stared off into the woods, pulling another deep drag, telegraphing the penchant of a lifelong smoker.
We had talked about our respective sexless status so many times that it had grown stale. Such conversations were the domain of best friends alone. Nothing I could talk to my other friends about without risking ridicule.
“What was it like?” I asked.
Seth smiled, like he’d been waiting for that question ever since it happened. He spoke for the next hour about how it had gone down. He spared no details. Though I’d never thought of Deanna in a sexual way before then, I couldn’t help but form mental scenarios that would find us having sex instead.
She’d come into Seth’s bathroom without knocking and find me peeing, and I’d say it was only fair that she showed me hers since I’d shown her mine.
Seth would get jumped by some upperclassmen at a football game, and I’d scare ‘em off, leaving just the two of us and her indebted to me. We’d take Seth home and put him to bed, and then I’d walk her home and she’d thank me for my bravery and kindness.
* * *
Behind the trailer, my calf muscles spasmed from pushing me up and into her. My abs followed suit, heightening the queasiness in my stomach. I pulled back, tucking my penis inside my cargo shorts so fast that she never saw my privates. I hadn’t seen hers. She wiped her mouth, so I copied her, removing the saliva clinging to my upper lip. I had to march in place to keep my calves from seizing.
She just stared at me for a few seconds, smiling. “Well?” she said, finally.
“You’re not gonna tell Seth are you?” I said.
Her smile vanished and she looked at the ground. “No. I don’t guess he’d like that much.” She huffed a humorless laugh and shook her head.
Neither of us mentioned what Seth would do if he found out. Maybe we both knew the answer: not much.
Seth’s reputation began its inexorable descent when he had to have eyeglasses. His skin reacted to the metal frames, so he only wore the large, plastic frames, which seemingly only came in brown or gray. Like many others, he could only afford the fashion necessities – jean jacket, pump shoes – well after trends had moved on, or only once they had trickled down to off-brands.
Perhaps what sealed it was when he broke his arms. Casts could be cool. When the captain of the wrestling team snapped his forearm in a match, he wore the fiberglass cast with pride, the outer layer our school colors.
Seth could claim no such pride. I was the next court over, the volleyball coed game so crowded as to be meaningless. I saw it happen; Seth jumped to spike a lobbed volley on the other team, but he couldn’t get high enough. He missed the ball, but managed to get his other hand caught in the net. When gravity took over, his momentum swung his legs out from under him. When his hand untangled, he fell to the wooden floor, pulling his hands behind him just in time to break his fall.
Both arms broke. Clean breaks, but requiring casts and a volunteer from each class to write down his assignments. His accident garnered no sympathy from the popular kids. Once Walt Duncan dubbed Seth “Clubby” for the awkward casts covering both his arms, Seth’s status solidified.
If I’d been caught moving in on the quarterback’s girl, it would be one thing. I’d expect corporal punishment, and no one would object. Having sex with Clubby’s girlfriend was another. Such an offense was more apt to solicit ribbing than disapproval. Hurt or not, betrayed or not, Seth would obey the social order. If he attacked me, our peers would rush to my defense, not his. Cooler guys won fights against supposed dorks, even if that meant they needed a little help.
Maybe that was why I had felt comfortable looking up Deanna’s number in the school directory. Why I’d spoken to her on the phone for hours over the last week, every day of spring break. Now I had nothing to say.
We shared a full minute of silence, neither of us raising our eyes above ground level. Then she took my hand, and we rounded the food trailer. On the ground, the dragon kite seemed even more massive. The people surrounded it, as if – airborne – they could never know its wonder. To be appreciated, it had to fall.
“What’s the big deal?” she asked. She slid the hair out of her face, revealing the spray of freckles on her cheeks and the light acne on her forehead. “It’s just a kite.” I had stared at that face for hours in my yearbook, wrestling with whether to call her, trying to guess whether she would tell Seth.
The dragon flailed on the ground, still trying to take flight again. Its huge frame converted even the slight breeze into lift, but it wasn’t enough. The sky was a white blanket, as void of sun as wind. The last of the crowds gravitated to where the giant writhed in the cropped grass, even the food vendors leaned out of their vehicles to stare. Children watched from atop their dads’ shoulders, others ran around it, trailing miniature box kites kept aloft by their momentum alone.
“So lame,” Deanna said. For an eternal second, I thought she meant me — us. The peak of our secret courtship a two-minute tryst scented by deep fryers and the vinegar stench of ketchup. But she was looking at the dragon and the crowd forming a border around it.
Maybe they were lame, but at that moment, I envied them. Their only worry was whether the kites would fly again. No matter what, they would leave and still enjoy a day full of possibilities. The festival would remain a sour note, perhaps, but one to joke about and let quickly fade from memory.
But for me, what could follow but bad things? At least, I hadn’t gotten Deanna pregnant. My sixteen-year-old brain knew for a fact that gravity made pregnancy impossible if you were standing up. Surely I didn’t get a disease. She had only slept with two other guys. One was my best friend, also a virgin before Deanna. The other she had told me a little about on the phone.
But there was no stopping the end of our affair. No phone conversation where I could convince myself that I loved the voice in the darkness, as I had over Spring Break. Our week of excitement would end in no more meaningful an act than jerking off to my brother’s skin mags in the bathroom.
“I know how you feel,” she said, still looking ahead. But she’d meant the comment for me, not the dragon.
“I felt the same way my first time. When my cousin took me into the woods and we did it. We were having a cookout. He kept touching my leg under the bench. After we ate, he tore the tab off a soda can and held it out to me. I sorta knew what it meant. That I owed him sex. And I liked all the flirting, so I took it. Then half an hour later he was on top of me out in the woods behind the trailer park, and there goes my cherry.” She laughed, but it faded quickly.
“It happened so damn fast. I came back to the cookout and my momma looked at me. She shook her head, but she was grinning. Probably figured I’d been out there kissing him. All but gave me the shame-shame finger. I wanted to be that girl she smiled at — the one who’d gone and done something silly with a boy, even my cousin. But instead I was just a whore.”
I squeezed her hand. “I don’t think you’re a whore.”
She looked at me. “Sure you do. I know how you and Seth are. You tell each other everything. I bet he talks more about our sex life to you than he does to me. Why else would you call a girl like me?”
I understood what she meant. Anyone in school would have, even if adults couldn’t wrap their heads around it. To my mom, there was no difference between Seth and me. If I dated Deanna, she would have thought no more or less of it than if Deanna were the most popular girl in school. But the sexual forays that made popular girls like Deidre Gentry the envy of her friends made Deanna a slut. While the girls giggled over Deidre’s exploits, the guys waged careful conversations about what they would do with Deidre if given the same chance. But really there was no difference between Deanna and Deidre but the location of their houses. The size of their parents’ bank accounts.
“I’m not that popular either,” I said, shrugging.
“You’re popular enough to stay away from girls like me. We’ve been talking all break, but I’ll bet you haven’t told any of your other friends about me.”
“I haven’t, but I didn’t want it getting back to Seth,” I said, unable to keep from whining.
“Like your other friends would talk to Seth. They’re too good for him and they’re too good for me.”
“I never said that.”
She sighed. “It doesn’t matter. We won’t be able to hide this from him, but it won’t hurt your rep any,” she said.
“I don’t care about that. But you said you wouldn’t tell him.” My breath caught, and my chest tightened. Seth had been my best friend since kindergarten. Even when we began hanging out with different crowds, we stayed close. I endured perpetual teasing for being friends with him, but he was the one thing I was unwilling to give up for further popularity. And I’d ruined that over two minutes behind a food truck. It was more than I could process. The moment had become something out of fantasy.
“I won’t tell him, but he’ll find out. You won’t be able to keep it from him.”
Our progress was slow, but we eventually meshed into the outer rim of spectators — the dragon just feet away. A swarm of men and women in dark blue shirts emerged from the crowd and set themselves around the massive kite. A guy with socks pulled up to his knees fed slack to the thick line attached to the dragon’s throat. The people in blue — event workers, I guessed — held the kite at waist level, spacing themselves around it evenly. They stepped back and the canvas tightened. The crowd pulled back around them.
“There’s no wind. What can they do with it?” she asked.
“We said we loved each other on the phone,” I mumbled, as much to the air as to her.
“I meant it,” she said. “It’s okay that you didn’t. I knew you didn’t.”
“Is this what you wanted? Is it what you planned on?”
She sighed. “I didn’t think this far ahead.”
Just then a breeze kicked up. The sky was darkening in the north, the wind preceding a storm. A vendor’s tent nearby selling pinwheels suddenly looked like the turning fractals of a giant kaleidoscope. Another seller hawking wooden whirligigs drew stares when his tent began thrumming with the clicks and clacks of his wares. A lumberjack formerly static now pulled a whipsaw across a fallen log with feverish intensity. A duck whose webbed feet caught the wind ran in place like the Roadrunner building up for a burst of speed.
Workers yelled at the crowd to back up. The sock guy was calling out directions I couldn’t understand, already made unintelligible by the sound of the air rolling past. He made hand signals at the workers. They angled the dragon up, lifted the canvas above their heads, letting the wind flow beneath.
The sock guy let out more line, and the dragon roared to life. The sound was something like the warble of flexing sheet metal as the wind popped the tendrils of the dragon’s tail. It hovered in the air for several seconds and then gained altitude. The sock guy was catching a fish in reverse: applying drag for lift and slack for distance. The crowd stayed quiet until the beast was clear of the ground — till the great length of its body was suspended and rippling in the new wind. Then a cheer went up, followed by applause. The sky filled with the smaller kites of vendors and patrons, as if choreographed. The building wind pulled kites no bigger than pieces of paper as high as their fliers dared, though none flew so high as the dragon.
I hadn’t noticed Deanna letting go of my hand. I went to squeeze her fingers and found them missing. I looked over and saw her crying. The straight locks of her hair slapped her face in the wind, soaking up the tears on her cheeks before they fell. Her eyes reflected the milky light.
“I’m sorry,” I told her.
She looked at me and wiped her eyes, smearing her thick make-up. “I did it. It’s my fault. I can tell him if you want. He’ll still be your friend.”
My stomach sank at the idea of losing Seth. She hadn’t meant it that way; she had meant to reassure me, but the effect was the same. Over long seconds, I imagined sharing with my other friends all that I could share with Seth. I imagined the consequences of acting as goofy as Seth and I would act, of falling into fits of laughter so deep and long that I thought I’d suffocate.
The others came up short, and a lump caught in my throat. I could only shake my head. “Let’s go before the rain comes,” I said.
She looked up at the sky of kites, the crowd frenzied with energy, the wind carrying laughs and hollers. “It won’t fall again,” she said. “It’s up there for good now.”
“I trespass in abandoned houses. I spy on the people who once lived inside, watching them through the telescope of time…”
Clicke the images below to enlarge
Jenni B. Baker is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Found Poetry Review. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in more than three dozen literary journals, including DIAGRAM, Washington Square, BOAAT, Quarterly West, Nashville Review, and Swarm. Her Oulipo-generated chapbook, Comings/Goings, was released by Dancing Girl Press in 2015. In her current project, Erasing Infinite (http://www.erasinginfinite.
com), she creates poetry from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, one page at a time. She is currently collaborating with composer Patrick Greene on a classical song cycle based on the Erasing Infinite series, set to debut in Chicago in 2016.
In the downpour
a pair of cobras slithers
into the resort
and the restaurant empties
The boy sets his tray of drinks
on a table and runs for the itak
he isn’t supposed to keep
in his locker, but does. Not
precisely for this,
but he knew one day it would come in handy.
When he returns
the foreigners’ faces press
against the windows. The cobras rear
and flare and face the boy down.
and he slices their heads off.
An older waiter stands on the severed heads
until the jaws stop contracting.
Housekeeping wipes up the blood
with bath towels.
The boy resumes passing out
drinks like nothing
has happened, but he’ll never
forget this night.
Even the Koreans tip.
Terminal 3 Farewell
From behind a row of empty carts,
she watches her daughter inch up the long line.
At her side, her grandson taps at the apps
on an android screen. Her glasses are fogged—
she daubs at her eyes with the hem of her
pink housedress. What kind of a world is this,
she wonders, that separates mothers
from daughters, that turns parents into strangers
to their own children?
Her grandson taps at the apps on his android.
In the Eel Grass
++++++no current for twenty minutes.
The eel grass stiff as soldiers at attention.
At the tip of one stalk, a star anemone, cellophane clear,
an ornament in the currentless shallows—
++++++nothing to reach for, nothing
Where do I fit in this stillness?
++++++++++++++++++++++Gray cloud on a green bottom…
Before you bear witness, Charles Wright says,
make sure you have something worth witnessing.
I used to witness hammerheads nosing
++++++around this bed.
+++++++++++++++++I’d hug the bottom, claw into it
as once, twice, three times the cool clouds of the hammers
Today in this stillness I watch a shovel shrimp push debris
++++++from its tiny nest
++++++again and again
++++++++++++like a meditation.
It’s low voltage, no thrill—just work.
++++++I don’t stop watching until I’m damn near out of air.
Tim Tomlinson is co-founder of New York Writers Workshop and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. His chapbook, Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse (Finishing Line Press) appears in October 2015. His full-length collection, Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire (Winter Goose), will appear in 2016. He teaches in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies program.
I haven’t been to the place where my father isn’t buried, only ashes and the idea of him. I haven’t said my goodbyes over the patch of grass where his body doesn’t lay, stretched out as I imagine him in his dark bed the last moments of his life. Instead, my goodbyes scatter throughout the decade of his illness; through all the things it took from him and from me, through all the voids it left behind.
My father and I were always reflections of each other, both people of few spoken words. We were able to sit in silence, each aware the presence of the other was enough to fill the space between our two quiet bodies. Often times the only sound was the clink of a spoon on a bowl full of cereal from a bag I had to open once his fingers no longer could. By then we’d said goodbye to our Sunday breakfast in restaurants. By then he needed two hands to feed himself.
In his final years his body became thin, and his pajamas fluttered around the angles of his bones like a flag staked in the ground, always a whispered reminder: I’m still here. But I had already mourned the father in suits who taught me to always do my best. Have respect for even the simplest things you do and do them well, he would tell me when I was still small and sitting under his desk. I played with his staple remover while he talked; I liked to pretend the metal prongs were a monster’s jaws. But now I’m thirty-one, my advice-giver is gone, and the monster is no longer something I can hold in my hands.
Sometimes I imagine scattering his ashes and other times I think I’ll just sit at his gravestone with nothing to say. I’ve spent entire evenings re-imagining our last phone call, and I constantly ask myself what it is I’d really want to tell him if I could. But the answer is still nothing. What I want more than anything can’t be done or said. It’s simply his presence. One more time, I want to sit next to him in stillness without having to speak; no hello or goodbye or even I love you—I don’t need to say what he already knew.
The tangle of long-term, terminal illness is that death is both always and never quite real, so when the end finally comes there is no abrupt and dramatic departure. It passes more like phases of a cold moon, eventually leaving nothing but darkness behind. When he died, I felt as though I’d been waving to him from a great distance for many years. I grieved each layer of the man he once was as it peeled back to reveal someone new, and I became lost when the last piece was finally torn away. I struggled with letting go until I realized that the only goodbye I truly need to say is to this part of my life. I have to step over the line, into the world that now exists without him, to gather everything he left behind—all of the words and memories, left just for me.
In the silence of my grief I’ve found an empty space to put my father back together. In my mind and my heart I can return to him what his many years of suffering took away. I can reconstruct him in all of his forms until he is whole again, free from his illness, where he can rest quietly beside me, saying absolutely nothing at all.
Hindu Santa stashes
boxes of Just for Men
under the bathroom
sink, bare scalp painted
black with faded tooth
brush bristles. Barbasol
thick on a fluff tip, aloe
slathered smooth on salty
cinnamon scruff, snow
scraped with disposable
Gillette green, tapped clean
in the cracked pink sink:
glean under the warm
jet of a speckled faucet.
Hands soapy from a dollar
bar of Yardley, hardly
saw the Barbie bubble bath
in the back cabinet corner.
LUNCHTIME IN ATLANTIC CITY
Lined up outside
fingers to lips,
clutched lunch tickets:
white paper money
with typewritten names
and hole-punched corners.
School lunch menu
taped to the fridge,
for Ellio’s and Domino’s:
Ma finally filled out
free lunch forms. Quit
work after Dada
said I’d toss bits
of her half-eaten
food in the trash bin
after I waved to Tony
the tattooed custodian.
But I can eat cool
school lunch now:
tried a hot dog for
the first time,
ate beef by mistake,
confessed and cried to Ma.
I worried I’d die.
Don’t do it again,
Mamoni! Shards of her
my forehead. Today
I’ll eat chicken nugget
lunch with my best friends:
we wrote Spice Girl names
on the backs of our tickets,
wore matching white
shirts and navy
skorts, rolled down
our scalloped socks.
Girl Power peace signs
paired with white
pantyhose and Payless
flats as we chant
boys go to Jupiter
to get more stupider!
Girls go to college
to get more knowledge!
We laugh, lock arms,
walk in, let go—
hungry hands grab
chocolate milk cartons
juice boxes, shoved in
Styrofoam lunch tray
quadrants beside jello
blocks, tater tots
and packets of sauce.
I hand my torn-
to the kind-eyed
cashier, look back
at the long line
and Asian kids
behind the nurse’s
office: we will
never look like
the Spice Girls.
bolted into black
corners of trays:
in grade school days.
Memory would reveal
the soft fibers
of the white crochet blanket
on top of the green couch
in your basement, where we’d drink
Layer Cake red wine
out of cracked, clear plastic cups.
I’d wear your sweater
that we picked out at Goodwill
with green and brown squares
all over it; you’d pull my bracelets
up my wrists to see the tan lines
beneath them, and trace
the outline of my lips
as they parted ever so slightly;
and when we’d sit crossed-legged
on the beige carpet,
our noses and foreheads
pressed against each other—
I could feel you laugh.
Anuradha Bhowmik is a Bangladeshi-American poet from South Jersey. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech, and she graduated with a B.A. in Women’s & Gender Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015. Anuradha has been awarded a Grin City Collective Emerging Artist Residency, as well as scholarships to the New York State Summer Writers Institute and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Susquehanna Review, The Boiler, and elsewhere.
I construct intimate artworks that investigate the gross romance between person and location…
We wandered your city
for five days, hemmed within
those same cobbled creases,
tucked between brownstones-
mordant lines grown soft
in the damp October night.
As the slow, sibilant traffic
parted for us with lumbering grace,
we streamed through the darkness,
faces pearlescent, strung together
in shadow, flowing into
patient, silent homes,
or hidden cafes carved
into sheer cliff sides.
Children of green steel trestles
and granite curbing, unwearied-
my vision fails before the end
of your wharves and spires
that stretch beyond
the sharpened fume of idling taxis,
and bleared lights
that sting the wet asphalt.
What is it you see among
these crumbling abutments
and slabs of crooked concrete
shelved against the silhouettes
of trees that drip and quiver against
the chain-links and brick?
What words form for you
in this dim language,
dissolved and dank beneath
these watery lights pooling?
Ammonia is a wrinkled sting,
a reedy fist of bees
that prickles kitchen counters
like a morning sun’s
rasping, saffron luster.
And the snap and tang
of bleach that fries olfaction
will gouge and grate-
a flaming tabletop glaze
that sizzles in its livid puddles.
But the lye that hisses
in malignant whispers
from the can of oven cleaner
shears the sheen from porcelain,
scours blenching lungs,
diffuses through these rooms
as if to blear, dissolve,
all dross and flaws
within this house,
like the breath of a fastidious god.
Timbre to Color
Today I have at last perfectly matched ‘v’ with “Rose Quartz” in Maerz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color.
— Vladimir Nabokov
“Azure” leaves the mouth thrumming on the tongue
like a tooth-trapped hummingbird-
the iridescence of a fly rattling in a web.
The acrid chartreuse scent of tansy belies
its yolky glow, while the strokes
and curls of its name evoke
the taut, smoky skin of an aubergine.
A matchstick flaring has a fine-grained,
saffron edge that abrades against stillness,
then abates to a lambent sigh.
And the mottled sky is steadied
by the weight of these wave-tossed cobbles,
heeled into a sea as smooth as a herring gull bone,
bleached and salt wind-burnished.
Kevin Casey has contributed poems to recent editions of Grasslimb, Frostwriting, Words Dance, Turtle Island Review, decomP, and other publications. A graduate of UMass, Amherst, and the University of Connecticut, his new chapbook “The wind considers everything-” (Flutter Press) will appear this spring. He currently teaches literature at a small university in Maine, where he enjoys fishing, snowshoeing, and hiking.
TOUR OF A HOLLYWOOD DEATH
Here’s the peach bathroom
that gave her new ways
to look taller—
++++++Thin desperado, speaking
++++++blonde code to the business.
Here’s the last shower, hot
steaming weakness, collapse
on the pearl travertine—
charm in her eyes
turned feral++++++++++ the dripping
+++++++++++++++++++++++++her own++++++ black star
THE FALLEN BODY
++++++May 1, 1947: Evelyn McHale jumped to her
++++++death from the Empire State Building
I am too much like my mother. I will
not marry in June. On this dazzling day,
I choose to jump in white gloves.
Last deep breath, strong leap of my legs.
That novice photographer sold me to Life.
He’ll never publish again!
You can gawk at the arch of my brow.
Note my dark lips, coral suit loose
at the waist. Dainty, except for a
I wanted this crash more than jewels and
punch. I found my whole peace, and gave
all of you beautiful proof.
THIS VOLUPTUOUS POEM
Never enrolled in community college, splicing
++++++commas with risk
Nor workshopped with lemongrass refugees
++++++bleating a tropical syntax
Nor failed to wink at legacies, whipping
++++++the can-can skirt of convention—
flaunting her savvy, flashing rare opals
++++++and rubies, beaming an orchid light
as spinster poems skulk in a boxy shape
++++++of splintering unlit trim—
This poem has rattle and thrum. Watch her spark
++++++and pierce the sphinx’s paw
guarding pink turrets of fantasy. She dribbles
++++++the castles of brown sugar sand
in the bam-bam ching of bikini string samba,
++++++the bang of her iambic boom.
Laurie Barton is a Best of the Net finalist and winner of the New Southerner Literary Prize in Poetry. Her work has appeared in Juked, Glass, Word Riot, Jabberwock Review, and The Missing Slate. She studied French at Mills College before completing an MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles. There she was gently told that her shy little stanzas were not poetry. With time and encouragement, she learned that the beauty of language would not let her down. Beauty, surprises, and mystery. Laurie lives in southern California and welcomes correspondence on Facebook.
There are two worlds those with the privilege of portable technology inhabit…
Our eyes tripped over a four-by-four inch bronze memorial embedded in a sidewalk in Cologne, Germany:
Jona ‘Johnny’ Herz
Or, in English, “here lived Jonah ‘Johnny’ Herz, born in 1942, deported to Theresienstadt (as a newborn), murdered on July 11, 1944.” It immediately struck us, first, they sent a newborn to Theresienstadt; second, little Johnny survived a long time, considering. Alongside Johnny’s memorial lay a second memorial that read, “Here lived Samuel Kaufmann, born in 1868, deported to Theresienstadt in 1942, murdered on September 1, 1942.” Unlike the infant, the old man, who was already seventy-four years old when he was exiled to Theresienstadt, didn’t last long. We thought: Samuel didn’t last long, probably because Theresienstadt provided almost no health care; and, yes, murder is the right word.
In Koblenz, we saw memorials outside the former home of Dr. Eugene Stern, born in 1894, and Kaethe Stern (nee Blumenthal), born in 1903, deported, murdered in Auschwitz 1944. Stern was my Jewish grandmother’s family name, so this struck home.
Easily mistaken for cobblestones, each Stolpersteine or “stumbling stone,” remembers one persecuted or murdered victim of National Socialism, 1933-1945, including survivors of the Holocaust. The Stolpersteine project began in Cologne in 1995 to remember Sinti and Roma murdered in the Holocaust, but quickly was broadened to include all persecuted or murdered Holocaust victims. The vast majority memorialize Jews, but also remember others offensive to National Socialism including Romani, Sinti, gays, blacks, physically and mentally disabled, forced laborers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, military deserters, POWs, and those who provided refuge and protection.
Most Stolpersteine begin “Hier wohnte,” meaning “here lived,” others begin: “here worked,” “here practiced,” “here taught,” “here studied.” Most are placed at an individual’s last chosen place of residence. By returning victims to their neighborhoods, Stolpersteine remind passersby that victims were torn away, and most likely murdered. It says to passersby, “You are standing in what was once their space. They once breathed the same air you’re breathing now.”
The overwhelming majority of Stolpersteine are located in Germany. Some locations, such as Berlin, have large clusters of Stolpersteine—hundreds of them—to memorialize individually each resident of certain apartment buildings. Across 1,000 locations in eighteen countries, nearly 50,000 people are memorialized by Stolpersteine. There’s a catch in the name because, at one level, it reminds us that, in World War II, there were some major stumbles in recognizing basic human rights. At another level, this is a pun because, before the Shoah, when someone in Germany tripped over a cobblestone, people often cracked an anti-Semitic joke: “There must be a Jew buried there.” This dual meaning captured the irony in calling them stumbling stones. In practice, stumbling stones are placed flush with surrounding sidewalk or cobblestones, so they pose no real risk of tripping up passersby.
In Bamberg—a city in Bavaria that largely escaped the devastation of World War II bombings, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site—we came across a memorial to a different type of war victim: “Here was shot Bernard Delachaux, born in 1914, a French soldier and prisoner of war who died March 24, 1942.”
Later, on a busy street in Bamberg’s shopping district, we came upon a cluster of five newly-installed, brightly-polished Stolpersteine. What caught our attention was a six-year-old boy, out with his mom and three-year-old sister. The boy went down on one knee and read clearly, slowly, solemnly: “Here lived Rosa Brueckmann, born 1868, deported Theresienstadt 1942, murdered Treblinka.” Then another for Fanny, born seven years earlier, likewise deported and murdered. He then read the Stolpersteine for the Hahn family: Heinrich and Martha deported from Riga in 1941, and there murdered, Heinrich in April 1, 1943. Their son Martin, fled to Holland in 1938, interred in Westerbork en route to Mauthausen (where Anne Frank later died of typhoid), and there murdered December 12, 1942. Heinrich outlived his son by several months. The boy’s mom didn’t say, “Hurry, you’re wasting my time, it’s time to move along.” She let him take his time to read. No laughter, no playing. The boy seemed to understand too, at least as well as anyone could. No need for commentary. Done, the boy reached out and took mom’s hand, stood, and the three walked on.
The power of these little memorials is that they say so little: someone was born, lived, was sent to a concentration camp, and there they were murdered. Occasionally, they tell the story of someone who deserted, or was shot and taken prisoner of war, or who escaped to freedom (leaving behind their home, possessions, and what remained of their community), or who was killed elsewhere other than in a camp.
The Stolpersteine project keeps expanding slowly. Across 1,000 locations in eighteen countries, nearly 50,000 people are memorialized by Stolpersteine. German artist Gunter Demnig coordinates the project and travels throughout Europe to oversee directly the installation of the memorial stones. While in theory the intent is to acknowledge every Holocaust victim individually, Demnig does not expect to see that day. He has no interest in stepping up production of mass-producing stumbling stones, because doing so would mimic the mass annihilations perpetrated by the National Socialists. Moreover, installing Stolpersteine requires cooperation from host communities and from the living family of Holocaust victims. It costs 120 Euros to sponsor the creation and installation of one Stolpersteine.
Demnig quotes the Talmud as saying, “A person is forgotten only when his or her name is forgotten.” The memorial stones ask us to stumble for a moment in silence to remember, “one stone for one name.” Perhaps in that remembering we can find our own silence. If so, it is a silence uncomfortable with injustice of all sorts and, above all, at odds with the collective silence that once masked the Holocaust atrocities.
Ignoring any reasonable protocol for treadmill running, she sashayed her head from side to side as she ran, like a horse trying to shake off water. Her arms occasionally reached out to either side, front, and overhead, as if she danced. Once, she became fixated on adjusting a belt clip, and nearly dropped off the treadmill’s end. She sang quietly to music on her iPod except, every minute or two, she belted out the lyrics, and made even more extreme movements. Her bursts in volume, screechy tone, and extreme gesticulations caught the attention of everyone nearby. Now and then, she checked text messages. After each, she shouted a drawn out, “ha-a-a-a-a-A-A-A!” that became progressively louder before ending with a sharp expulsion of air. After a while, she stopped dancing, and started punching the air in front of her, left, right, left, right. Once, she bent half over and looked like she picked imaginary flowers. Maybe when she sashayed her head back and forth, right to left, and when she punched the air, she meant to be a boxer bobbing and weaving, he thought, watching her on his left, but she looked far more like a punchy horse.
Without breaking stride, she slowly pulled a blue sweatshirt over her head with her right hand, yanking a white t-shirt back down with her left hand. Her head continued to sashay back and forth, and she kept running with her arms moving like a dancer’s arms. She wore neon orange shoes. Her shorts were pink with green trim. Her gnarly, dirty blond hair was tied up behind her head in a bunch, not a bun or pony tail. She was probably about 20, he figured. After about 25 minutes, she switched from running 10 minute miles to walking at a 15 minute clip.
“That’s an interesting running style you have there,” he said.
She turned to him and gave back a goofy smile. “Oh, I don’t have any idea how to run. My sisters both ran track. I’m just learning how.”
“Why didn’t you learn before?” he asked.
“I had an accident. It was in New Orleans. I was riding a bike and was hit by a truck. There was a big law suit. I was never supposed to walk again,” she said.
“But look at you!” he said.
“Don’t tell the lawyer I’m running now,” she said, with an even goofier smile.
“I can imagine what it was like,” he said. “I lost use of my foot two years ago. The nerve died.”
“Me too. And I had five operations on my foot so it would work again.”
“Looks like it worked,” he said.
“But I still have no idea how to run. I’ve always done things like being a goalie in soccer or the catcher in softball, things were I could throw my whole body at things,” she said.
“Looks like you’re still doing that,” he said.
“I still need to give up smoking,” she said.
“That would be one of the best things you could do for yourself,” he said.
“I will. I plan to. But I can’t give up everything all at once,” she said.
“When you run, you look more like a horse running on a track,” he said.
“Ha-a-a-a-a-A-A-A!” she said, with an explosion at the end. “My sisters always said I had horse hair.”
“I don’t know about your hair,” he said, although he could see exactly why her sisters said it, “but you don’t run like anyone I’ve ever seen run. You look like a horse.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said.
“I mean it that way too. Seabiscuit,” he said.
“No, Secretariat. I want to be Secretariat,” she said.
“You got it,” he said. “I gotta go. See ya, Secretariat. Keep on running.”
When he walked by 20 minutes later, she had resumed running at a 10 minute clip. Her head sashayed back and forth. Her arms flew in every direction. She occasionally punched the air rapidly, with a left-right-left-right motion. Now and then, she checked text messages and let out a loud, “ha-a-a-a-a-A-A-A!,” or she let out a loud cry that drew attention from everyone nearby. Perhaps, he thought, this is what we’d all look like in dreams if we ran from some unspecified threat, propelled forward by forces exceeding our invested effort.
The next day, he read that a documentary called “Secretariat’s Jockey Ron Turcotte” was about to appear at a nearby theater for only one screening seven days away. The film was about Ron Turcotte, who won the Triple Crown riding Secretariat’s back. It contains never-before-seen footage about Secretariat but that’s not why horse girl needs to see this, he thought. It’s Turcotte! Just like horse girl, Turcotte fought his way back after a 1978 fall left him a paraplegic. Back to the people and places that marked his life. Horse girl has to see this. Wait, Turcotte’s actually going to be there with the film. So is Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery. There’s a Q&A with them after the film. Horse girl’s adrenaline’s going to soar.
He bought two tickets, put them in an envelope, sealed it, and was about to write her name on it when he realized he didn’t know her name. He took the envelope with him to the Y the next night at roughly the same time as when he’d run on the treadmill next to her. She wasn’t there. He went back again every night for two hours at roughly the same time. He even went one morning and early one afternoon. He asked around, but nobody knew her. Two days before the screening, he heard they were looking for people to participate in an hour-long taping of a PBS show about Secretariat right before the screening. Horse girl will be perfect, he thought. She’ll just love this. But he never saw horse girl again. Nobody used the tickets.
WHAT IS YOUR NEED?
In October 2010, after walking on le chemin St. Jacques by myself, and never being certain where I would spend the night, I had to return to Paris to catch a return flight to the United States. On my last night in Paris where I was staying in the residential 19th ward, I went out for a brief walk to investigate the St. Martin’s Canal nearby. At the bottom of the street, I passed two women who were standing upright and stoically, almost like statues, next to what looked out of the corner of my eye like a pile of backpacks. Both were dressed in black. One wore a hood that almost entirely covered her face. The other had a hood, but her emotionless face was completely visible. When I returned from a quick trip to the canal, they were still there, and I passed without stopping because I was thinking about dinner and the Affligem blonde I was going to wash it down with. But, when I got back to my hotel room, all I could think about was the two women and their backpacks. The one woman’s face stayed with me. I had to go back and try to establish a connection if only to find out why they were there so late in the day guarding a pile of backpacks.
When I got back to the two women, the one whose face was visible had removed her hood. I also could readily see that the backpacks were actually a gigantic shopping cart stuffed with luggage, other possessions, and multiple water bottles. There was none of the usual evidence of homelessness. They both stood upright rather than sitting or lying on the ground. Instead, they stood upright, with excellent posture, like sentries. They had no bowl or cup. They did not reach out a hand to passersby or make other entreaties to strangers to ameliorate their life conditions. I tried to start a conversation and learned quickly that the older one spoke no English, but the younger one spoke English fairly fluently. I estimate she was about 30 and the older one about 65. They passed cigarettes back and forth between them. About 15 minute into the conversation, I tried to hand the younger a 10 Euro note. After and conferring with the older one—she conferred before answering nearly every question—she said, “You don’t have to pay us to talk with us.” I put my money away for the time being.
We continued to talk for nearly an hour and a half. I learned that they were two university-educated women, mother and daughter, the bottom of whose life fell out. Their message was this could happen to anyone, it could even happen to you. From day to day, they didn’t know where they would sleep that night. I offered them money once or twice more, and again they refused it. Occasionally, I asked them a question they chose not to answer, to which they said, “You don’t need to know that.” After a while, I realized they were asking me at least as many questions as I was asking them. Finally, the daughter said to me, “People stop and ask us questions because they have a need. What made you come back? Why did you stop? Why do you want to talk with us and hear our pain? What is your need?” I thought for a moment, and all I could think to say was, “I saw your face.”
It had turned dark and they said they need to go and find a place to spend the night. My heart said I should offer them my hotel room, but I knew that the hotel was already very guarded about who they allowed in. I stuffed 20 EU in the daughter’s hands. I closed her hand on the money and held her hand shut. I looked her in the eyes and she looked back at me. The mother spoke and the daughter translated. She said, “We accept your money and we thank you. We will use it to buy food.”
There’s more to the story, but what stayed with me was her question, “What is your need?” I have asked myself that question many times. And, I’ve also wondered, who really were they? Were they truly a mother and daughter on hard times? Were they a professor and doctoral student collecting data? Were they political activists out to play on the public’s compassion for the plight of the homeless? I wanted to go back and find out at the minute I left Paris, but the answer really doesn’t matter. All that matters was their question, “What is your need?”
Jim Ross is a newly retired public health researcher. He’s recently published poetry, stories, or photographs in The Atlantic, Pif Magazine, Friends Journal, The Sun, Cahoodaloodaling, Dirty Chai, and several other journals. Forthcoming work includes photo essays in Cargo Lit and In the Fray and poems in Work Literary Magazine. Jim and his wife split their time between Maryland and West Virginia. They looking forward passionately to becoming grandparents of twins this summer.
Today you follow the holes
birds clawed into the sky
Each cloud a hatchling mouthed by a hawk
Today the sky burns its wings
Built out of a bird’s flight
your house will crawl far away from you
The trees, always eaten by birds,
will never fly
Go back to the house
Show me the trees that hate us,
and the birds who sleep there
Show me the house, why its birds are gone
The clouds broken across the sky
Once for each bed underground
Once for each bed that is now a bird
The birds tell you:
keep your burning quiet
The feathered airplanes torn with holes that sing
Your voice back from the trees
I don’t know where the birds live
How will 1 protect the birds
who’ve eaten the cold from the sky
Where the birds turn into night
you planted your feathers
Go to sleep so the sky can’t follow
Fall asleep counting the holes
the sparrows made of you
Make a song out of the seedlings you’ve lost
Each time you sing
the feathers lost the sky in your chest
Today the sky tracked you
until it ran out of clouds
I kept quiet in my burning
so the hawks could make the blue
go on for another mile
of kites that have not yet
devoured each other from their crags
The feathers weren’t ever a place to rest
You walked where the trees went missing
and found in the holes left of you
little black whispers
you scraped out of the sunlight
Why do the birds lose half of heaven
when they cry from the jaws
of the delivery drones
I don’t know where the sky is,
just that you’ve eaten the cold from the trees
Rob Cook lives in New York City’s East Village. He is the author of six collections, including Empire in the Shade of a Grass Blade, The Undermining of the Democratic Club, and Asking My Liver for Forgiveness. His work has appeared in Versal, Rhino, Caliban, Fence, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Thrice Fiction, Great Weather For Media, Small Portions, Arsenic Lobster, Space & Time, Osiris, Phantom Drift, Weirdbook, Up the Staircase Quarterly, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Posit, Zoland, Pear Noir!, Mudfish, Borderlands, and Tampa Review.
There was a pecan tree that dropped nuts across the crabgrass that surrounded her parents’ bungalow-style home. She introduced me to her rat-dog and its seven grown puppies that surrounded me, yapping away my patience, each of them dirty and unclaimed. Vickie was an unfamiliar seventh-grade math classmate who ridiculed my unshaven legs and looked like The Cure’s Robert Smith but had breasts.
I felt alone in Louisiana in 1990 where we had moved the previous year to what I still considered the confederate south. She sat across from me in class where I was distracted by the sweat pits of the boys’ gym coach who taught us math. “You know you can shave above the knee right?” She said.
I was mortified. I laughed at myself and turned away to clear the redness of my pale Scots-Irish skin. Of course, that made sense. Thanks, Mom.
Vickie wore baggy black t-shirts, thick eyeliner, and a discernible line of base foundation around her jawline. She was melodramatic and dangerous in the sense that she could humiliate me with a fluid sentence and not care a thing about it. I have no idea how I ended up being her friend or how we went from my borderline humiliation about shaving above the knee to hanging out, but we did for a short while.
By contrast, I wore no make-up, sported fresh white Keds, knee-length blue jean shorts, and fat cotton headbands at the edge of my hairline. I imagined she wanted to take advantage of me so that she could further humiliate me for having late blooming breast buds, but she turned out to be kind and pleasant in that sarcastic view of the fucked up ways of the world, which I have always loved, despite my goodie-two shoes appearance. Plus, she was the first girl in over a year that had talked to me in a friendly way since I moved to that once plantation derived place that socked me in the stomach, figuratively, the moment we drove over the I-10 Bridge at night toward our new destination. The Chateau Charles, a hotel my father’s company put us up in for two months until we found a place to live. We were provided the suite. It was actually a dumpy arrangement of three adjoining rooms to a kitchenette. The furthest room we avoided all together because of the sour smell and flood stains.
I was impressed by the brilliant lights of what I thought was a metropolitan city that turned out to be a plentiful array of corporate refineries, side by side for miles, espousing stink and pollution. Much different during the day when I realized they were a fool’s beauty.
My mother must have been beyond her wits while I lay on the floor of the minivan, refusing to let go of the back seat, where I hid and cried and declared nausea, refusing at all cost to get out at the school drop off. I successfully managed to miss three weeks of seventh grade. It was terrifying to move from the middle-class and classless, seemingly friendly suburbs of New Jersey’s farm country, to the self-segregated Gulf Coast. I had never been exposed to so many middle-school fistfights, nor seen table upon lunch table of groups of like-skinned people. It wasn’t so much that different races bothered me, but that everyone around me seemed to be aware of race, and to be participating in self-segregation, promulgating race as a thing.
I only spent the night with her one time. I observed those pecans, ignored the ugly dogs, and walked behind her through the front door where grime swarmed my senses. There were walls that had long ago yellowed, with lines of dirt smudged at the height of little dogs and on light switches.
Her parents’ house lacked central air and instead ran a single window unit that pressed hopeful relief upon us with the help of strategically placed box fans. I didn’t know her well enough to recognize anyone in the few family photos which were hung in crappy frames above the sagging sofa, but I did imagine if I were to straighten one out, saving it from its ill-composition, I’d find clean-white wall paint behind it.
When I was younger, I lived in apartments and townhouses and rental homes built on top of sink holes with stink bugs, old carpets, new carpets, porcelain or stainless steel sinks, with or without washing machines and never a vacuum. There were times when we brushed our teeth with baking soda or poured dehydrated milk into our cereal bowls, learning to prefer water instead of that shit. Each time my father was promoted, he did so with a move, and each move made our lives a little richer and so I was not unfamiliar with the poverty of Vickie.
“Want some Kool-Aid?” she asked as she walked past dark bedrooms on the left and lead me from the living room to the kitchen.
I said yes and watched her as she opened the refrigerator door. The wire shelves illuminated revealing a variety of misplaced and cluttered food related items, including an uncovered metal pan of instant mac-n-cheese, an opened can, and a scurrying cluster of rice-sized cockroaches in the refrigerator seams. Her arm reached past mac-n-cheese and maneuvered over an extra large tub of generic margarine to grasp a plastic pitcher. There was no acknowledgement about the cockroaches and I was polite about it, even though they made me cautious. I drank the Kool-Aid and noticed cabinets with splashed food stains near the handles. Most of them were open revealing plastic kitchen plates, cups, and bowls in shades of pale pink, light blue, and lime green stacked upon each other.
Her room was void of natural light because plastic blinds were drawn closed and a faded black blanket was half-hung at an unintentional slant from the brass curtain rod. Against the wall, her dresser stood, and on it a pink can of Aqua Net hairspray and other paraphernalia that helped her look like her idol, Robert.
At night I slept on a pillowcase that smelled like it had not been washed in months and I slept with my clothes on afraid to feel the weight of poverty against me.
Lena. Just Lena. My mother didn’t have a middle name, which I thought smacked of parsimony—shortchanged at birth. Her parents were Orthodox Jews, rigid and humorless, who came to New York as part of the exodus from pogrom-infested Russia. I don’t think Lena knew much more about them; she wasn’t privy to stories or reminiscences from the old country. There wasn’t much about her own early years she wanted to recall or revisit either. Her life wasn’t easy, and she rarely talked about her family or childhood. She had a way of sidestepping questions—“Oh, I can’t remember that” or “What does it matter?”—and I lacked the courage or the curiosity to probe further. Her father died when she was twelve. After her older sister married, Lena left school and went to work to help make ends meet for her mother and herself. She was sixteen, and it was the peak of the Depression. I don’t know what kind of work she did, but I picture her as a shop girl in a department store, back when they were called that, before they were sales associates or product specialists. It must have seemed the right thing, the only thing to do, but her lack of education was always a source of shame and inferiority.
Earning her own way must have been liberating, though, and she had some good times as a young woman. I can see it in an old photo—her dark and vivacious beauty, the way she carried herself, the playful sparkle in her eyes. She met my father at Coney Island the summer they were both twenty. She was tall and slender with thick, shiny coal-black hair hugging her face in a flapper-like bob—I envision her smooth, tanned limbs in a red one-piece swimsuit. He was movie-star handsome, with wavy brown hair, sky blue eyes, and a thin dapper mustache. Their beach blankets were in close proximity amid throngs of sunbathers and frolickers that day, and there must have been mutual admiring glances and subtle smiles, fluttering of eyelashes and flexing of biceps before he ventured over and asked her to watch his pants while he went into the water. They were married six months later.
David, my brother, was born the next year, and I followed five years later. We lived in a cozy Long Island suburb in a house with a white picket fence, and my early memories of family life dwell in a dusky rose-colored haze. My brother, his recollections sharper, corroborates my sense of an unremarkable and mostly happy family.
“No more New York winters! They can keep their white Christmases.” I was six when we moved to California, and I remember Mom exulting when the holidays rolled around that first year. And yet—though she said she never regretted the move west—it was as if the lights had gone out. She seemed tense and troubled, became harsh and critical. “Were you unhappy?” is a question I never could have asked her; all I can do is ponder from my perch overlooking the past. She’d left everything and everyone in New York. She had her family core—her mother and sister—and a community there. She belonged; she knew who she was. Here she was isolated. It was the post-war ‘50s, and women were marginalized, captive in their kitchens. Working outside the home wasn’t an option when David and I were young. If she perceived an erosion of her spirit, she may not have recognized it or known that she wasn’t alone, that her condition was endemic, “the problem that has no name” that Betty Freidan later articulated as “the feminine mystique.”
She had so much energy and no place to put it. Cooking and keeping house were chores to be dispensed with, thankless tasks for which she got little appreciation. She didn’t have friends to do things with—shopping trips, lunches, book clubs—or the means to indulge in them. She became a Girl Scout leader and tackled the post with a gusto that I, trying to blend in as just one of the girls, found overzealous and embarrassing. She spent most of her spare time knitting and crocheting. She made sweaters, shawls, skirts and scarves, afghans, tablecloths, pillow covers—beautiful, intricate work. I remember a sage green and tawny gold three-piece suit that might have come off a designer rack. I’m sure she could have sold things to shops, developed a cottage industry, but though her creative outlet gave her satisfaction, it didn’t occur to her to take it further. She made gifts, things for the house, for herself and for me. I would roll my eyes, resentful that I couldn’t have the cookie-cutter name brands that my peers were wearing but were beyond our budget.
My father was a taciturn man, a benign presence in the household. Mom accepted it as her role to sustain a convivial family environment. We ate dinner together at the table every night, and I recall our mealtime interaction as bland and comforting if not memorable or stimulating. I remember jokes and silliness, my brother’s teasing, my father’s sly puns. The only vacations we took were occasional weekend camping trips and long dreary drives to visit my father’s relatives in San Francisco. It was all very prosaic—we weren’t deprived, there was little to complain about—yet why do I recall the atmosphere as one of forced cheer, as if we were simulating family life rather than living it?
Dad “took to drink”—I choose that phrase, evocative of willfulness, though I suppose it was just his way to blot out unspoken disappointment—and became even more remote at home. On the nights when he came in after I’d gone to bed, my mother would wait up, pacing, fuming, chain-smoking until he stumbled in. I’d hear their fights through my thin bedroom walls—her voice raised in anger, his a monotone of sullen or contrite muttering. They argued about his drinking, about money, about whatever unhappy people bicker about. Maybe it carried over, as my brother and I squabbled a lot too. He was a bully and I was a brat; we provoked each other the way you pick at pesky scabs. Mom would become exasperated with both of us, though I was sure at the time that she was siding with him.
He would sock me in the arm, and I’d whine—“David hit me!”
“I didn’t do anything,” he’d say. “She was pestering me.”
“Don’t tease her,” she would tell him; “you know what a crybaby she is.”
And to me: “Stop it or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
The four of us muddled along, and the distance grew over time, between husband and wife, parents and children, brother and sister. We settled into a peaceful-enough equilibrium, distinct clouds in the same patch of sky.
* * *
Then Mom went to work, and she blossomed in the world beyond our walls. Motivated both to supplement the family income and to quell the tediousness of daily life, she was ready and eager when we no longer needed her constant oversight. She started out waiting tables at a café, the kind that served “blue plate specials”—think Mel’s Diner in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Fast, efficient, and personable, she became the favorite of the regular clientele. She would bring home anecdotes along with day-old pies and hamburger buns. She laughed a lot—that was new. Then she took a job at Knorr’s candle factory, a notch up—less chaotic, better pay, easier on her feet. Instead of pouring candles from melted wax, they rolled them out of dyed, honeycomb-textured sheets of beeswax. Now she brought home candles, bent and misshapen, colors that didn’t sell or faded on display tables. She enjoyed the work and the camaraderie with co-workers, but she missed the interaction with customers.
One night over dinner she announced that she had answered an ad for a teller at Bank of America, the only bank in town then. It was a long shot, she figured, as she had no related experience, so she was surprised to be called in for an interview. Her application had stood out, but for the wrong reason. She had stated that she was a graduate of the Brooklyn high school she had only briefly attended. The manager welcomed her enthusiastically and said, “Can you believe the coincidence—I went to school there too!”
“That’s what I get for lying,” she told us in dismay that night.
Honest to a fault—she once ran after a door-to-door salesman who gave her too much change—now it was as if she’d been caught with her hand in the cashbox. But she didn’t own up, and they didn’t check. He wasn’t long out of college—just a boy, she said—and the twenty years’ difference in their ages kept her safe from detection. She could be vague, plead a fuzzy memory. They wouldn’t have had the same teachers, known the same people. Did she impress him with her stability, her deportment, her experience with customers and cash registers? Maybe all that too, but she was sure it was the way they’d hit it off: “It’s a Brooklyn thing,” she said when he offered her the job.
Going to work had provided the first boost, but this was a giant step that exceeded all expectations. She seamlessly inhabited the new persona of a savvy business woman. Her skills were a perfect fit; her maturity and common sense served her well in a milieu of educated but unseasoned youth. She was buoyed by constant validation and was soon the go-to person for residents and merchants, especially the older, more-established population. People greeted her with warmth and respect all over town. “That’s Lena from the bank,” I’d hear someone say, as if she was a local celebrity.
Tony, the owner of a popular family-run Mexican restaurant, was one of many who wouldn’t do his banking with anyone else. He treated our family like royalty when we came in. He’d seat us personally, flirting and laughing with Mom. “When are you going to leave this guy and run away with me?” he’d ask, bringing a dish of his secret-recipe guacamole to our table. She’d come back with a snappy retort, while my father and Caterina, Tony’s wife, looked on in amusement. I would stare at her as if she was a stranger. Was this my dowdy, boring mother?
Her paychecks were a significant boost to my dad’s earnings as a small-town TV repairman, and we breathed easier with our belts loosened. The atmosphere at home relaxed all around. Dad drank less, and their arguments became infrequent. There were no dramatic changes—we didn’t move to a bigger house or buy a new car—but there was less scrimping and more frills. Mom built up a wardrobe to go with her new identity; she became the smart dresser she always wanted to be. She went crazy over shoes. I don’t know how many pairs she had at the peak of her mania, but let’s say fifty: pointy-toed high heels, cork wedges with open toes, strappy sandals, whatever was in fashion. She looked for colors and shades she didn’t have—“yes, I have red, but not this brick red, not this stacked heel.” When she bought a new outfit—no time now for knitting—there would be matching shoes.
She wasn’t a vain woman, and it took me a long time to understand her absorption with presentation and self-image, with remaking herself. She was still living down her tenth-grade education, even if no one knew, and her self-perception required those outer trappings.
The real change was deeper but every bit as visible. A vibrant personality emerged, one that recalled the young Lena in that old photo. She entertained us with news and stories at the dinner table, bits of gossip, shrewd observations, implications of the latest rise in interest rates. She eschewed false modesty, proudly passing on the frequent praise that came her way. Like a desert shrub replanted next to a stream, she flourished and flowered. “I owe it all to the Bank of America,” she liked to say.
Her health became an obstacle after several years. Her battle with gastric ulcers was longstanding—I’d grown up with her bland cooking and bottles of Maalox in the medicine cabinet—but didn’t impede her activities for a while. Doctors told her it was psychosomatic, stress-related, but when her bouts of pain increased they began to take her seriously. Surgery helped, but other medical problems followed. She stopped working when chronic illness came to dominate her strength and energy. Smoking was her eventual undoing. Cigarettes were her crutch, no less in good times than in bad. She was a heavy smoker all her life and wouldn’t, couldn’t stop even after cancer was discovered, even after having a lung removed. “If one thing doesn’t get you, something else will,” she told me more than once when I tried to reason with her about her smoking.
The cancer reappeared in her bones and brain; she was beyond treatment and died at sixty. I kept two of her hand-knit capes and a yellow crocheted tablecloth, some costume jewelry and her wedding ring. I didn’t inherit her shoe collection, as I wore a size smaller. Instead I find myself hanging onto a closetful of regrets. How little I tried to know her, how unsupportive I was. How I should have tried to reach out and bridge the gap, daughter to mother, woman to woman. I allowed her reticence to throw me off, or maybe I used it as an excuse in my self-absorption. There’s so much I’ll never know. I have a picture taken of her shortly before her death when illness had taken its toll. Pale and pinched, she looks older than her years, her eyes dimmed with sadness. I also have that early photo—young and vibrant with her life ahead of her. Neither is as strong as the image that’s implanted in my mind from a time in between the two: Lena as I like to remember her, as I knew her for a short span, joyful, animated, dark eyes flashing, reeking confidence during that precious interlude when she’d found her niche. That’s Lena from the bank.
Alice Lowe reads and writes about food and family, Virginia Woolf, and life. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Upstreet, Hippocampus, Tinge, Switchback, Prime Number, Phoebe, and Hobart. She was the 2013 national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of a 2011 essay contest at Writing It Real. A monograph, “Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction,” was published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.
In my next life I will come back as a Wild Mountain Woman
I will have more hair, the thick dark kind some women inherit
from lions I will have the hips to dance in layers of long
I will relocate to this sleepy town, and open a bakery I’ll get up
at dawn every day and grind my toes into the warming earth I’ll
know how to wrestle a rattlesnake, but I won’t need to very often
I will cook fragrant things like squash and herbed cheeses
and on Mondays we will have chiles relleños until they sell out
In the afternoon I will walk the stuccoed paths home
I will have a past dark enough that I left everything to come here
but light enough that children and cats trust me with their secrets
At night, I will collect the wind in my hair and watch the sun
as it sets over the Rio Grande I will go to sleep and dream
Naomi Krupitsky Wernham’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in several literary journals and magazines, in print and online. ‘New Mexico’ is an excerpt from a longer collection of travel writing. To read more about the trip that inspired it, visit twowheeldrive.net. Naomi currently lives in Providence, where she is at work on a new collection of poetry and an old collection of stories.
For Eric Garner, Who Lost Staten Island
Inside the brain of a bank,
where the world is,
I sold my breath
but then my breath was taken
and sold back to me.
You cannot sell your breath,
I was told, as if it were gold,
or chopped up change,
or dollars that could be pulverized
and used as air.
You cannot sell a grain of bread,
a crust of morning thirst,
a still life of a snowman holding
a bronchial child as she sleeps
a little closer, they told me
while I choked on the ground
and choked on my eyes
and choked on a page of the Advance
and tried to trick the sunlight
that was no longer real.
You cannot drink the water
more than once, not for free.
You cannot look at the moon
more than once, not for free.
You cannot comprehend the weight
of a cigarette more than once, not for free.
You cannot pet the sugared coals
you stole from your first, second,
or seventh Christmas trauma,
not for free, they told me
when only the chambers
of a shattered dark dandelion were real.
Rob Cook lives in New York City’s East Village. He is the author of six collections, including Empire in the Shade of a Grass Blade (Bitter Oleander Press, 2013), The Undermining of the Democratic Club (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014), and Asking My Liver for Forgiveness (Rain Mountain Press, 2014). Work has appeared in Versal, Rhino, Caliban, Fence, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Thrice Fiction, Great Weather For Media, Small Portions, Arsenic Lobster, Space & Time, Osiris, Phantom Drift, Weirdbook, Up the Staircase Quarterly, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Posit, Zoland, Pear Noir!, Mudfish, Borderlands, Tampa Review, etc.
Some Thoughts About Why You Left
We both tried to kill ourselves, you with
pills, me, with a razor and a bottle of wine,
You lied for me, to every doctor, every
nurse and social worker, you even bragged
to me how good you were,
at the lying, that is
And when it was your turn, I didn’t lie for
You, I told them what you meant to do, they
Kept you for two weeks, I called you every
Day and once you were out I came to see
you in your sad little trailer, my sons pacing
the small space between us,
The point is, even once my horizontal cuts
Had healed, white lines on my wrists, you
Were still the voice in the other room,
drowning out the reasons we tried,
In Vegas, on our wedding night I texted my
Ex from the bathroom, I sat on the toilet and
And cried into a hotel towel, not that I didn’t
Love you, but because my love for you
overlapped with my love for him, and how
could I belong to you, completely, when
threads of my heart lead me elsewhere and
our rings, like little prisons, bound me to
you, you who didn’t trust me to stay
The following morning I realized the truth
About the bars on the casino windows, how
they protect the losers from losing
everything that’s left, if anything.
When I chose to stop loving him, for good,
When I gave in to the idea of belonging to
you, I cut the threads, and the fabric of you
and me, unraveled, Who could have known
that your love depended on the distracted
quality of my affection, your loyalty, on the
fear of losing me to him?
The thing is, we tried, like people do, to
Leave this world on our terms, and you
loved me until you weren’t afraid, and I
loved you most when you didn’t care,
And now that you’re gone, we are leaving
Each other still, every day, the view
growing brighter yet.
Even with our hair tucked inside baseball caps
Dressed in my father’s work shirts, a truck full of men
Twice our age followed us as we walked to a candy store,
Yelling profanities, like, did we want to suck their dicks
Or sit on their laps, how tight were we,
I was twelve and my cousin only ten,
We barely looked like girls, let alone women, we thought
we’d outsmart them this time for sure, but they’d caught
our scent, even when we took refuge in a Red Apple they
Were out in the parking lot waiting for us again, revving up
Their engine when all we wanted was to go home and play
Barbies, eat our Starburst and Skittles,
but the men
In the red Ford truck had other plans for us, that August
In the valley’s dry, sick heat, the layers
of men’s clothing
Didn’t breathe, and neither did we
for the moment when they
Slowed down as if to scoop us up,
they laughed when
I gathered rocks, threw handfuls
at their truck,
When I yelled, Leave us alone!
We are children! I told them
though they knew that already,
which is why the woman driving the station
wagon pulled up to the shoulder,
muttered an inaudible threat,
The truck lurched forward, angry and young
The men sped off, a cloud of dust sticking to our salty skin,
Marching back to the house on Viall Street
we chewed on Tootsie Rolls and caramels,
the sweetness weighing a million pounds
on our tongues, our baby teeth.
Kristy Webster is the author of Coco, a magical realism novella, and Dream Dogs, a collection of short stories. Her work has been published in print and online journals such as Connotations Press, The Feminist Wire, Sirens, Molotov Cocktail, Pacifica Literary Review, and Ginger Piglet. Kristy’s work is also featured in two anthologies by GirlChildPress, Woman’s Work, and Just Like a Girl. She is a bookseller and writing tutor in Port Townsend, Washington.
A collection of surreal ink drawings inspired by sacred geometry exploring the relationship between human perceptions and impossible worlds…
Even on 5th avenue, it costs money to die.
Especially if you die in a Taco Bell drive-through
or in the kitchenware aisle of Macy’s; it costs
money to die even if you flop down dead
in your own flower garden. I once chased a cat
into a bed of carnations and fell down in the scraggy
twigs, afraid of bees. I could have died but didn’t:
not enough money to. But back to the point: the dying.
Donald Rumsfeld said that death has a tendency
to encourage a depressing view of war. But why stop there?
Death has many tendencies. We’re selling death
short. But if you’ve got the money, why die
just once? I’d pay to die nine times—Think about how
many funerals you could throw with Meryl Streep’s
money. Get Eleven Madison Park to cater, buy
those fancy hand towels for the bathroom. But
will they think of the hand towels when they go
outside to get some air, hands still tingling
on the back porch, and the stars all turning
themselves on like the ends of ecigarettes?
Fuck the stars, they have no money. They live
to travel, and it takes so long. The real stars
are human and could pay to have their name
assigned to any orb of gas they’d like.
Bodies of Water
Erica says our bodies aren’t quite canyons,
aren’t lacks or voids where silt has slowly left us
inch by inch. But if not that, then our bodies
are just aquariums for grief. Our bodies are just
containers for material things like water or wine.
I make an appointment to see my doctor. I show her
my body and ask her questions about it.
They make machines to see inside our bodies.
I ask my doctor how much of me is water, how much
of me is salt. There is a way that the water can touch
everything. I have two hands but they keep nothing
inside me. I know that something hatches in the heart
on April nights when voices echo in the alleys.
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