Spotlight: My Night as a Dumpster and an Urchin, and Other Poems

My Night as a Dumpster and an Urchin

++++++and I know you will not listen, you are like the cupboard,
but please forgive, yet again, my shredding, indefinite removal

++++++of the stars, who aren’t getting any smaller, who kindle in a tree
or two: oblique, engrossing stars—who are you trying to convince, who

++++++rounds out your list? They tremble, and bait the moon, and I envy them
their lexicon—their burning, wax arms are hallucinations from my trapped, clacked-up

++++++shudderings. They could almost hear me: I am numb, like them, and the asteroid
belt, that longest of legs, has hounded us for a hundred thousand years against a corner

++++++and back into our unbelievable mouths. Let us put our hands together and make one
knotted steeple, we are young only as trash. Let me hum a few chords while we predict

++++++the inevitable years when we’ll be old and control our every orbit: I have spied
on robins, cloven vandals in my eyes, the fists of comets marking targets on my clean wrists

++++++and listening to the sonorous copyright vespers we never sang. Let me be a flooded
drain then, a scarf coughed up against my light chin, my eyes craven. The avenues under

++++++our woven skins are burning but I’ve seen worse, drowning in the imbalance
of magnets and whittled to an edge by clouds, a riven urchin. How could the living

++++++be praised? To what songs do they strum? The bruised suns we strung
up for our exhibition beat their cold boots together and dust covers the wet earth.

++++++Let this be quick and feverish, an elegy for my reprinted kidneys, tethered
like telephone wires to liquid and obvious clouds. Where are my cerebral

++++++and distant fathers, my clandestine arteries, some believable dialogue?
We could disappear from here for free—there will be a dearth of us in the night.


My Night as a Thorn and an Aerogramme

Only Thursday tastes like this: a mouthful of cheap
++++++sepals and reeds breathing. I walked to the river

and watched my father commence his drowning
++++++only to remember that he is made of sand.

Let me stand stock-still in the street: the phone screams,
++++++but only if you beg it; only autumn demands our teeth

to smolder like craters; only the rug can shelter more stains than
++++++my voice: a wavelength of winter, broken tables down my throat.

I am a burning aerogramme: to bury my high-strung rats you must carry
++++++me a little farther, and to barter my thrushes the night must drop

its dead finches. You want to pinch the hips of my livelihood?
++++++I am a burning aerogramme, a puncture in lumber, an upturned

dumpster: must I remain apostrophic? Drive home the thorn—
++++++my glands have grown dry from shouting with this colorblind voice.


My Night as a Plumage and a Portrait

I live in a house up the road but I am not a surgeon.
++++++I cannot fix you with honey or with gauze.

I collect tin cans but ignore the driftwood.
++++++I run a shower when ragweed sticks to my fists.

My words are stars in black parentheses. For me
++++++the moon is always covered in wintered blood.

I have no money in my chest of drawers. My chest is full of leaves
++++++and umbra. I sit in the angular square and lift not one vesper

from my lips. Through the long curtains of my eyes comes the first
++++++refusal of light—charring through the windows of nebulas,

I flicker into a river down twin tongues. Down twin tongues,
++++++gravity doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except for that bridge

of ill-born supernovas piling like dust on a tired moon. I banished
++++++the planets from this cage. In this cage my self-portrait

is a plumage of black teeth. When wind surrounds the mausoleum
++++++with wet leaves, I wait for the rain to rub its fingers all over me.


My Night as a Mannequin and a Casket

With me you tried your worst but still fleshed me
++++++out, plastered me with all this desperate skin,

and now I burn these hundred mites from my tongue,
++++++bury signposts in the directions of bricks, and distill

the venom from my lungs. I chased our bodies outside,
++++++plagiarized the night, and revived us from the compost

heap of my skull—but we won’t live like twigs or oars,
++++++backlit rivers, adjectives slipping into seasons.

I lull trains to pass the time, hang useless frames, and remember
++++++our worst night—when the steam off the rain declared

us membranes that bristle, awaiting close locusts
++++++to drill sky-drunk inside our chests like wax

spears. That kindling of birds in your mouth dissolves
++++++to glycerin, our mannequins cut off their ears, a radio

busts through the window with cold marrow, whispers
++++++flood your fractal teeth, and my knuckles refute the fact

that we were born. Now our bodies begin to rust
++++++under new skins, but I’ll remember you: your eyes

like moths in the dark—and you’ll remember
++++++me the way a casket knows who lowered it.

Graf Photo-1Derek Graf was born and raised in Tampa, FL. He received his B.A. from the University of South Florida, where he studied under the poets Katie Riegel and Jay Hopler. He currently lives and works in Stillwater, OK, where he is completing his MFA degree at Oklahoma State University. His chapbook, What the Dying Man Asked Me, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications in 2015. His poems have been featured in The Boiler Journal, Misfit Magazine, and Meat for Tea: The Valley Review. He likes to make new friends. Find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Derek.Graf8?fref=ts. 

 

Spotlight: Reclamation

[creative nonfiction]

When I am three years old, I feel the burn of a cigarette on my arm. It is followed by an instantaneous, “Shit,” flick of the butt, and a cadence of apologies while my head presses against his chest. Inside, I hear someone orchestrating a wild percussion.

This is the only memory I have of my father.

*     *     *

“Easy to misinterpret as hostility or—look!—as a person who wants out of the relationship.”

My boyfriend, Greg, and I lie belly-side down on our bed, front-page research displays before us on the laptop. I point at keywords on the screen while he lies next to me, the laptop’s light reflecting off the curves of our faces—his stoic and patient, mine hopeful and nervous.

“Unmotivated. This is how I feel when I wake up. It’s why our apartment looks the way it does. It’s why, despite the fact that I am graduating soon, I still haven’t figured out what comes next… .” I stop, avoiding the snowball that rolls down the well-known mountain of guilt and anxiety.

“Irritable. Well, I don’t need to explain there,” I laugh, trying to ease the pain of explaining me. I think about arguments in enclosed rooms and how I run outside of them; a swift movement of my hand turning the doorknob, my hand squeezing and thrusting the thickness of the door, a result of a shutting that slams—the infamous freight train conducted by the madwoman with wind in her hair. I think about a car ride I took after a fight I don’t remember anymore, the one where he stood on our third floor apartment patio and watched me flick him off from a half-cracked window while I drove too fast over parking lot speed bumps.

I think about how depression holds a magnifying glass over your problems and eliminates your blessings like ants beneath a beating sun. I think about public places like the pasta aisle of the neighborhood grocery store where we talked about genetically modified food labeling; debated about the political decisions of genetically modified food labeling; argued about genetically modified food labeling being a human right, verses the plausibility of those who label; exploding about the necessary labeling of genetically modified food, whether we can trust the labels or not. Then, the existence of contradicting feelings—one where the pasta aisle compresses around me, and the other where my anger is expanding my body larger, my incessant need to get out before I am crushed, and the incessant need to get out before I crush. The organized grocery aisles swirled past me and mixed together—frozen bags and boxes of vegetables and lasagnas, bottles of olive oils and salad dressings, packaged sliced breads and pre-made dessert cakes—until I found the front of the grocery store, where I sat pissed off and terrified on a gray padded bench, next to a man with soft wrinkles and dark liver spots wearing a jet-black Vietnam Vet hat, who looked at me and smiled.

*     *     *

Depression is a pissed-off bitch.

*     *     *

When I am five years old, I stand behind the plastic side railings of the hospital bed and I cannot cry, unlike my mother and brother who stand next to me. I look at the drawing I made of my father, his body a cerulean blue box with macaroni orange stick arms and a canary yellow halo. He stands with a crooked smile next to a similar crooked-smiling boxed man with long beaver brown hair and matching beard.

*     *     *

We are lying in our bed of navy cotton sheets. I feel his hand move across my inner leg, his warm breath and lips that kiss my shoulder.

“Not tonight, Greg.”

*     *     *

Depression is a dried-up lover.

*     *     *

My family has always lived in Cape Coral, Florida—a town described as “for the nearly dead and newlywed.” Small businesses freckle various streets of Cape Coral with palm trees, churches, schools, and gas stations in-between. Our mall, the next town over, is named after Thomas Edison. It slowly retrogresses to its social surroundings. Two Christmases ago when I visited my family, my younger brother came running out of his bedroom, saying he heard on the radio that a man in the Dillard’s fired thirty rounds from his semi-automatic gun.

On a home visit during Labor Day weekend my senior year of college, I went to dinner with a best friend from high school—a girl I rarely speak with and only reach out to when I reminisce the pubescent era on the drive home. What started out as a glass of red wine at a restaurant with easy lights and a piano player; turned into vodka, flickering neon lights, and blasts of classic rock at a strip club, then blackness.

My friend shook my arm, “Colleen, we are here. We are at your house. Do you need any help getting inside?” Fuck. I recalled the night as I grabbed the seat belt, untangled myself, and slammed her car door while I held my black flats and made movements like a pinball to my mother’s front door: colorful shots in plastic cups; sets of licking lips sitting around a lit-up stage; a girl in a pink G-string who looks seventeen sliding up and down pole number one; a woman in a red G-string who looks forty sliding upside down on pole number two. This is a place I most likely would have visited in my senior year of high school, even my sophomore year of college. I smell of things like stomach acid, ash, and sweat.

The next afternoon, my mother held my face up as the surface of my body tingled, like when a foot falls asleep, and twitched like an eye open for too long, in episodes of hyperventilating. My fingers became cryptic branches that poked out in unnatural ways. My mouth gaped open and closed the way a fish’s lips do when he is caught and above water. I had forgotten how to breathe, how to move, how to blink. I am shit. I thought I was better than this town. It looked at me, squinted in recognition, pinched me, and swallowed me whole.

She told me, “Breathe, sit up, and stay with me,” and I wondered if I could die this way, if it was possible to live after this if I don’t, if I would get “better” like last time, if I would get like this again, like this time.

*     *     *

Depression is a thirsty motherfucker.

*     *     *

When I am six years old, I am inside a hot yellow plastic tube on the playground at recess. Inside, I scream. I want to run away, but I want to stay, and I can’t understand why these feelings exist at the same time. I want the boy outside to go away. He has done nothing to me, but when he tries to come inside, I hit him anyway.

*     *     *

On our first date, Greg and I met one another nearby in downtown Orlando, Florida. Several weeks before, he had asked me to go downtown one night, which made me think all things uncomfortable—excessive drinking, loud music, and heels. I declined and filed him in a mental manila folder titled, “Downtown-at-Night Guys” next to the empty “Downtown-During-the-Day Guys,” a significant difference of don’t-take-me-seriously and take-me-seriously.

I continued to talk to him on the phone, a surprising flare of curiosity considering the guys I had been recently turning down in my single life. The more we spoke, the more I envisioned the both of us downtown in the daytime—a place I seemed to have subconsciously kept vacant. Like when he told me his reason for chartering a fraternity on campus was to reinvent the typical group of guys who congregate to bench weight, drink hard, and attract girls into an estab-lished group of respectful brothers who would be good enough to one day stand next to each other at their weddings. Or that he shamelessly told me when he was younger, the only dog he ever had was a toy—a stuffed German Shepherd he gave haircuts and named Peach.

He stuck out like a bookmark amidst the beige manila coloring. I wanted the Sunday farmers’ market of raw and organic produce, food trucks and their condensed aromas, pedestrian crossings that lead to hole-in-the-wall restaurants with innovative tacos and imported pineapple sodas, the rhythm from street guitarists, him.

During our walk, Greg tripped over uneven brick sidewalks and his gray shirt developed sweat stains in the shape of goose eggs—a terrible choice of color for Central Florida’s heavy atmosphere—all of which I had genuinely observed as adorable. We talked about our dreams and thoughts over raw fish wrapped in seaweed: his idea for a science fiction novel, my hopes to write and publish a memoir. We started topics of conversation, digressed to other welcomed topics, and each unfinished conversation left us in the midst of their peaks to live in a parallel world.

*     *     *

When my therapist talks about medication, he tells me they are, “simply pills that bring out the strength within.” I could comply and admit that they are, in fact, just tools to build a bridge that start after the smoke of a psychological trigger, internal thunder, aggressive silence, and end at happy trees, trotting unicorns, and a glistening Jesus.

When he talks about mental control, I could tell the counselor that he’s right, I do have it within me to be better—a trivial and repetitive fortune cookie message consistently vomited, dripping off of bumper stickers, elementary school posters, tattoos, Facebook statuses, high school posters, self-help books, Tweets, pamphlets, my counselor’s thin lips, my mother’s quivering lips, my boyfriend’s bitten lips.

But no. Depression is picky. She grabs a pan, sifts out gold, and keeps the dirt. She is an indistinguishably unmotivated, irritable and paralyzing prevalence. She is the catalyst to most, if not all, arguments. She teases, reaches for the flame of connection and pulls back before the swirls on her bony fingertips burn into a smooth plane; maintaining the value of her impetuous and tyrannical identity, an identity that lingers in freezing waters, layered beneath thick ice, clear enough to still see what exists on the other side, me before depression took hold.

*     *     *

Depression is the bitch I know the best. Depression is the me I know best.

*     *     *

I don’t know who I am. I know who I have been, who I could be, who I wish to be. She is intangible, but she exists. This “she” blurs in and out of my life but this “she” is the me who dreams confidently of being a writer. The me who makes love to her boyfriend because she wants to and not because she feels she has to. The me who can say no to things she doesn’t believe in anymore, like strip clubs and overindulgences of alcohol. The me who braces herself for the release of love she found hidden below, the little girl who lost her father when she was five. The me who can spit in Depression’s face and tell her to shut the fuck up when she takes control. The me who is a mixture of a bitch, a lover, and a good woman all at the same time, just because she is human.

The me who I will grab a hold of some day and plan the rest of my life with.

*     *     *

Together, we stand on a rock. Lower rock formations, shiny and slick, surround us in stacks. The trees are a color of bright green I’ve never seen before—except for adjusting the contrast on a color photo. Above us is the waterfall of the Rainbow Falls Trail I picked out, 2.7 miles of hiking down and 3.6 miles of driving to the hiking lodge, pointing with my finger at a spot on the plastic map ridged like a topography globe.

Rainbow Falls is the highest single-drop waterfall in the Smokies. Below us is a family of hikers standing next to a sign warning them not to climb on rocks near the waterfall, as several people have fallen to their deaths, and many others have suffered serious injuries over the years. The family looks up at us and walks on.

Rainbow Falls got its name from the rainbow it produces in its mist. At the highest rock, the mist tinges my neck and face and my pores contract, like eyes squinting with happiness. This is the first and only time I have hiked a mountain, seen a waterfall, and felt in that moment I knew who I was and who I would always be: a woman with the world at her feet.

I close my eyes. Greg says something but his words are obscure among my state of mind. I open them and our eyes meet, his brown and curious, mine hazel and wet.

“Greg, can you do something for me?”

“Of course.”

“Can you remind me of this place?”

Ladd_AuthorPhoto_optColleen Ladd is a recent graduate of the University of Central Florida with a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Creative Writing. She’s been published in The Feminist Wire and is currently working any chance she gets to save up to go to graduate school for a MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in non-fiction. She wants most in life to be a part of something bigger than herself.

 

Spotlight: Chipped Edges Crumble / A Criss-Crossed Sky

Chipped Edges Crumble

In summer, Gram lazily waves at me with the flyswatter while Gramp chain-smokes Swisher Sweets in his underwear, wrestling always playing on the heavy wooden-entombed TV. Even the flies are hot, buzzing in wide erratic circles around the trash, full of green and beige scooped cantaloupe rinds. I feel like Gram’s china, cornflower blue and fragile, a chipped edge turned toward the back of the hutch, dusted only when company calls. Outside, there is a small breeze, and the thick concrete step is warm and welcome on my rear. I cross and uncross my legs, pick at my funky toenail, wonder where my cousin is, and watch the road where nothing ever happens, the sidewalk that ends in a crumble before the faded stop sign.


A Criss-Crossed Sky

We wanted a criss-crossed sky. Unpronounceable food. Premium toilet paper. So we moved to the city, where bustle became background hum. We gaped at personal ads in indie lit zines (free at all 87 coffeehouses, with a Moroccan yerba mate), dangled hamachi crudo and kosho ponzu over each others’ open mouths, then made love on a jutty-metal mattress above hardwood floors, college kids planking on the fence outside our poo-speckled windows. Rave-dancing cockroaches in the kitchen, my jacked wallet and laptop, a triple homicide two blocks away wore us thinner than my faded 1994 flannel, resurrected for this fine young city. We stopped eating and sexing. You busted the kitchen door like cops, flashlight cocked, crushed roaches by the shoeful. It was my goddamn shoe. You screamed about mixed kale and arugula, because ‘[I] should damn well know how [you] hate arugula, by this point.’ You scrubbed the shit from our glass until your knuckleskin cracked and bled into soapy streaks. Not even the pedicab drivers hipstering or the homeless men humpbacking could cheer you. Finally, we were dairy and gluten-free, non-GMO, all organic, no hormones, additives, or irradiation, no artificial flavors, fertilizers, preservatives, pesticides, or colors. But, at the end, only air on our plates. And we couldn’t even see the fucking sky.

hlnelson_headshotH.L. Nelson (hlnelson.com) is head of Cease, Cows and Associate Editor of Qu. Her publications include Writer’s Digest, PANK, Hobart, Connotation Press, Thrice, etc. Her poem “Absolution” was nominated for the 2013 Best of the Net. She’s compiling an anthology with stories by Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, Lindsay Hunter, and others.

Adam "Bucho" Rodenberger

Spotlight: Scaring the Stars Into Submission

3:48am

Sleepless. Not just for a string of nights, but for several months. Is this what dying feels like? To be in a constant state of shuffling through the ether but going nowhere? Melodramatic, maybe, but there is something heavy pressing in around me. Katherine sleeps soundly on the other side of the bed, but I… cannot seem to force my pillow to make dreams. She sleeps on her side and I watch as her chest expands up and out with each rhythmic breath. If I catch her at the right moment, she will snore a little, but only enough to elicit a smile and never enough to keep me awake. She denies that she does this, but I hear it. I know it to be true.

The sheets are warm between us. Our collective body heat has sucked out the coolness found at the moment we slip beneath them. My pillows are the same, warm to the touch with no cool side to flip over and rest upon. I sit up against the headboard and stare out into the dark room. I know the furniture; I could walk this room blind and never touch a thing, but my eyes eventually adjust and I get up quietly so as not to wake her. I won’t be returning to bed anytime soon. Once I’m up, I’m up for the entire measure of the day.

I head down the hall to the guest bathroom and take care of my morning business. In the kitchen, I slide open the window above the sink, turn on the exhaust fan over the stove, and light a cigarette. I exhale through the window, the smoke from the cigarette disappears up into the vent. The first smoke of the day always makes me woozy in a way that makes me feel I exist.

I don’t know how to explain it better than that.

 

4:15am

Lift lid, add filter. Scoop three spoonfuls of coffee into filter. Fill pot with water, empty pot into reservoir. Turn on. Brew.

The smell of coffee fills the kitchen, mingles with the leftover tobacco. The paper has not arrived yet, so I’m alone with my thoughts. I rummage through the drawers, looking for nothing in particular. I open the linen drawer, lift each pot holder and hand towel, find a pair of orange-handled scissors. I place them on the kitchen table. In the living room, I come across some old magazines; pages of art and celebrities, political news and home furnishings. I take a stack of the periodicals and place them next to the scissors on the table.

Open cupboard, remove mug. Open fridge, remove creamer, fill mug a quarter of the way. Put creamer back into fridge. Pour coffee. Watch it swirl from black to vanilla brown.

The steam from the mug wafts up to my face, bathes me in smell. I sit at the table and flip open the first magazine, one filled with home improvement projects and how-to guides on making your home less cluttered. These simple bookshelves can be run along the walls of any finished basement or unused room as storage, a page reads. I wonder why someone wouldn’t just toss the stuff out if it’s clutter. I turn the page.

A wrap-around porch on a stout two-floor ranch home is spotlighted. The roof covers every foot of it and it seems obvious there is room for a dining set and a rolling barbecue grill beneath the eaves. Perfect for hosting!

Katherine and I wanted a house with a porch. We wanted one like in the magazine, big and comfortable in case the weather turned, but the houses themselves were either unaffordable or just too big. We settled on a place crammed next to others that looked the same, deep in wild suburbia where you could get lost in the maze of same-looking streets lined with same-looking families.

Wake up, go to work. Come home, have dinner, watch television. Lay in bed reading, fall asleep until whenever. We rarely talk anymore, Katherine and me.

Each day tastes the same flavor of beige. Even after the dawn started rising red.

 

5:27am

But it’s Saturday. Katherine will sleep in until I wake her with breakfast, something I have done every weekend since we married eleven years ago. Perhaps it has lost its sentimentality because she can count on it. Perhaps she still secretly loves that I do it, despite the quiet fracture that has come between us as of late. It’s early yet and I won’t start breakfast for another few hours.

I lean in closer, inhale. It smells like sky and rain, snow and lightning. It smells like everything and nothing all at once.

I go outside, shut the front door behind me gently. The morning sky is cloudy and the alarming color of deep maroon. Even the grass seems to be dew-kissed with little, glistening droplets of blood. Unnerving at first, this change in the weather and morning routine, but we adapted. It’s what we do, I suppose. Change our routine into something unexpected and we adjust to it accordingly. We thought the red skies would dissipate, that some scientific phenomenon had occurred, but they stuck around and we later heard they were man-made. The fear never really left, but it’s abated, tamped down, simmering just below and ready to come back out and play sometime. Maybe we’ve just adjusted to the fear, infused it to our daily living.

We’ve heard a thousand excuses for it all, never truly believing any of them. Solar flares, the earth moving closer to the sun (though we weren’t getting hotter), airborne pollutants mixing with atmospheric molecules, so on. I don’t claim to know much, but these all sounded like nonsense to me. One day the sky was perfect blue and the next? The next day looked like the world had been painted in blood by some new millennial angel of death. We felt like aliens on our own planet. Perhaps some still feel that way. It’s understandable.

I walk around the perimeter of the house and pull random weeds from the dying flowerbed. Without proper sunlight, our lawns have withered, but we keep on trying to play house. What else are we to do? Nightly news is one-note and depressing, but there’s always been work to be done around the house. We try to forget the red is what’s killing the flowers and work at the garden anyway. Doing something helps in the forgetting, but we know it’s a Sisyphean thing.

I often forget to put shoes on before coming out in the morning and today is no different. The grass feels lush between my bare toes. When this happens, I like to imagine I can feel the grass growing up and out, covering me like vines as it tickles its way across every inch of skin.

 

5:43am

I carry the weeds to the garbage cans on the side of the house. From the corner of my eye, I see an object in our backyard. The sun peeks up over the horizon and blinds my line of sight, burns corona images onto the back of my eyelids. It’s a large thing, squatting perfectly in the center of our backyard and rising several feet higher than the fence. I cannot remember it being there last night and I’ve heard no one make any noise near the house since waking. I place my hand over my eyes, try to block out the sun. No good.

I pass through the chain-link gate and shuffle through the grass. The dew feels especially nice, but my feet are covered in grass clippings now and start to itch. The object is massive. I walk around it twice, once clockwise and once counter-clockwise. I think I am just tired, just seeing things, perhaps hallucinating. It is a fluffed kind of round shape, but not perfectly so, and seems to hover just an inch or so above the lawn. I get down on my knees and press my face to the ground. I see right through to the back fence.

Cotton candy. The phrase screams in my head. It is a giant ball of cotton candy. Of course this can’t be right, but the texture, the look… I imagine burying my face into its gossamer surface, biting into it, and swallowing the tendrils of whatever it is made of. I imagine it tasting oversweet as it melts on my tongue.

I lean in closer, inhale. It smells like sky and rain, snow and lightning. It smells like everything and nothing all at once. It is a singularly unique smell that I cannot definitively place or name, but it is calming and reminiscent of quiet autumn evenings. I rub my hand across its surface, feeling it give softly beneath my touch. Spongy, springy. It rebounds slow when I take my hand off. The texture is incredibly plush, pillowy, a softness that I don’t believe man has ever achieved on his own.

 

6:01am

I could not be sure before, but I am now. It is a cloud, sitting fat and soft in my backyard. Tendrils of cloud fiber snake out into the morning air, lifted and moved by the first breezes of the day like medusa hair. I climb up the side of it, feeling my hands and bare feet dig into the spongy surface easily. I pull myself up over the edge. My first thought is that it is a large atmospheric cushion or pillow and I fall easily into slumber. The top layer gives beneath my weight, creating a large man-sized divot in its surface, and cocoons me in a feathersoft embrace.

 

8:45am

I awake to Katherine calling out to me, wondering where I’m at. She is on the ground below and, I’m sure, shocked at this new manifestation resting in our yard. I feel lighter, as if some unnamed burden has been lifted while I slept and my body tingles with a soft energy. I suppress a laugh; she won’t have expected me to have climbed up and fallen asleep here. I lean over the edge and wave. Hello, dear, I say. She gasps and gives me an unsure smile, waves limply.

What are you… what is… Jesus. What’s going on?

I shrug my shoulders. Come join me.

How?

Climb. I’ll take your hands. I’ll help you up.

She begins to climb and the oppressiveness of the morning seems to have gone away. I watch her struggle up the side of the cloud, tongue hanging out the left side of her mouth in concentration. She reaches up and our hands touch, clasp together, grip tight. Her face is lit up by the sun, seems to glow in a way I have not seen (noticed?) in years. I feel like I’m twelve years old and crushing again.

I don’t know how to explain it better than that.

 

9:17am

We lay next to each other. My hand rests on hers which rests on my chest. I can feel my heart thump through her. Or maybe it is her heart I feel thumping through her hand and our arrhythmias match.

Her face is nuzzled into my neck, her leg draped over mine. This cloud mattress has done something to us, something wonderful that neither of us wants to question for fear of losing the moment. We drown ourselves in the feeling, let it wash over every pore and slip into every orifice, let it fill us to the brim before overflowing.

I feel her breath along my neckline. It is warm and sweet and I breathe it all in. For the briefest of moments, I’m reminded of our courtship, of days spent laid out on shoddy quilts and blankets at the park, swapping secrets in whispers and napping with each other beneath a yellow sun in a blue sky. The memories are fuzzedwarm and comfortable. I slip into them easily, but find my way out of them less so.

 

9:18am

What do you think it means? she whispers.

I’ve no idea, but I like it so far.

You were up early again. 

He nods. Though, somehow I napped up here before you came out.

It’s like laying on a wish, she says, murmuring into his neck.

Do you remember the last time we did something like this? Just curled up together with no plans of doing anything?

Three years, two months, fifteen days, six hours, and twenty minutes ago. Far too long.

He runs his hand through her hair, feels her irregular scalp below, agrees. Far too long.

She opens her eyes and sees, across the red sky, bits of cloud breaking off, falling slow as if the entire city were caught in a molasses dream.

That one looks like an elephant, she says.

That one, an alligator with sunglasses.

A flower.

A bus full of children.

Popcorn.

A snow fort.

An ocean liner.

An angel.

A second chance.

They watch the tufts fall soundless from the sky, remaining wrapped up in each other on top of their own bit of grounded heaven. It is a strange storm falling in slow motion. The surfaces of buildings and cars become dusted with cumulus. Large chunks fall in backyards and intersections, parking lots and highway exit ramps, on playgrounds and sandboxes. The world stops and takes stock of itself for the first time in forever.

They lay next to each other. His hand rests on hers which rests on his chest. He can feel his heart thump through her. Or maybe it is her heart he feels thumping through her hand, and their arrhythmias match.

 

10:01am

Katherine vaguely remembers him waking that morning. His early risings had become small anomalies in her dream time, bumps in the road on the way to the subconscious. Her eyes would flutter open when he rose, but would calm again once he left the room.

His side. Her side. Wasn’t the bed supposed to be their side? Why had it taken this strange bit of skycandypillow to get them to curl up into each other, to feel each other from the inside out? For the life of her, she couldn’t remember what he sounded like when he slept beside her in the bed, but she knew she’d remember what it was like for them out here. She’d remember his breathing, the heat beneath his undershirt, the throbbing of his blood pumping out to every appendage, the un-showered smell of him, the feel of his fingers combing through her hair, the way her lips dry out against the skin of his neck, the soundfeelingmovement she feels through her skull when he swallows, the way she feels protected laying on top of him. Before she awoke in her (their) bed, she saw:

Confined in black. Not swimming, not moving, simply there. Feet planted in a nothing ground. From the black, a hand extends, gives her a bouquet of day-glo yellow daisies. The arm connected to the hand is sheathed in the same black and disappears off into nowhere. There is no face to the figure, no form. She presses her nose into the middle of the bouquet, feels the petals tickle her nose and cheeks, rubs them across her lips and feels their color melt on her face. Pollen colored lipstick drips down her chin. She looks up. The flowers are gone, the black nothing has been replaced. A once verdant valley stretches out for miles, now the color of brown burn and blackened char. She walks, feeling dead, flaky petals turn to ash beneath her arches, feeling the ash cake between her toes like thickening leather thongs. The ash becomes grey mud, sticks and dries to the top of her feet, hardens and cracks, becomes a thin layer of varying shades of blue scales that climb up her legs, her torso, her breasts, her neck, her face. She is a myriad blue, except for her lips, which remain yellow, though she doesn’t know how she knows this. The ground beneath her opens up, sucks her down into the slickery of ash-mud, begins to pile itself on top of her, the sludge slipping into the gaps between each blue tinted scale, covering her yellow lips and filling her mouth, her throat, her lungs.

When she wakes, she sits upright, breathless, gasping, alone in her (their) bed. She remembers flecks of moments spread across her memory. She cannot remember it all, but she is distraught, heavy, weighed down by a something she cannot put a name to, cannot wrap her brain around tight enough to squeeze out meaning.

She doesn’t know how to explain it better than that.

 

10:17am

Things that happened to others:

Herman Effen saw himself mirrored in the side of the cloud in his front yard. His reflection danced and laughed. He put two shotgun shells into the side of the fluffy interloper, but the reflection continued to dance.

Rita Jackson-Danforth was gardening when hers fell. It shamed and excited her, made her tingle beneath her sundress. She said it smelled like fresh laundry when she grinds her body against it like “a teenager again in the back of a car with some boy.”

James Ritter and his friends climbed on top of the one that fell in the forest near his home, turned it into a club house, a meeting place for their neighborhood “gang.” They imagined themselves as pirates and cutthroats before fighting and disbanding over ownership rights. James Ritter is, ultimately, brained with a rock by young Joel Martin from down the street.

Ethel Madison was crushed by one she could not escape from fast enough. It fell on her, around her, suffocated her within its ivory fluff. As she struggled to breathe, she felt the decades of dry twist in her bones dissipate.

Bethany Pilatas found herself unable to stop tearing off tufts of cloud and stuffing them down her mouth, not bothering to chew. She did this for an entire afternoon and swelled up, puffed out grotesquely. Her parents found her when they returned home from work, a fat smile played across her lips.

Roger Matthison cut large swathes of cloud off, replaced his mattress with the stuff. He fell asleep inhaling deeply the new surface. He woke up inhaling deeply the new surface. He spent a week doing nothing but inhaling deeply the new surface. He quickly withered into a shriveled version of himself and became folded deeply into the new surface.

The residents of the Oak Valley apartment complex found themselves crushed beneath the weight of a hundred clouds, all bearing down on the roof, which came crashing down on upper floor apartments, which crashed down on mid-floor apartments, which crashed down onto those living in the basement.

 

3:28pm

We hear the noise of exploration across the city, me and Katherine. We hear the excited screams of children having preconceived notions shattered and parents turning into children themselves. We hear the thunder of clouds falling and resting upon buildings and people, jostling birds and scaring the stars into submission.

We take an entire day of watching the clouds dissolve like cotton being slowly pulled apart, wispy curls frayed and stretching out as if begging to be put back together. It is a cotton-candy bombardment against which we have no defense. Katherine is mesmerized and I hear her questions through a muffled haze, a buffer. Her words are warped by the atmospheric spell cast upon me.

I turn to smile at her, to acknowledge her even if I can’t hear what she is saying. Her body is light, not weightless, but glowing faintly. Her veins are lit up with a pulsing white and her skin is translucent, melting into and becoming one with the cloud as I struggle to speak. Her face is wide with smile, her hair wafts below inside the clouded bed already. She is sinking into the ether of this thing and I am powerless to stop her descent.

I see it in her eyes; this is not bliss, but frightened improbability, impossibility. She fights the smile as I thrust my hand down into the cloud to scoop her out, to save her, to fly her back to the last few hours. My hand passes through her body as easily as it went through the cloud. She is ghostly now, pale and untouchable. Intangible and unreachable. Her hand reaches up and out, touches my chest.

My hand rests on hers. I can feel her heartbeat thrumming through her. Or maybe it is my heart I feel thumping through her hand and our arrhythmias match.

A breeze wafts over me, blows unshowered hair across my face, and she is gone. There is no face, no body, inside the cloud below. She has disappeared. I do not know how to explain it better than that.

Adam "Bucho" RodenbergerAdam “Bucho” Rodenberger is a 34-year old writer from Kansas City living in San Francisco. He holds dual bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy & Creative Writing and completed his MFA in Writing at the University of San Francisco in 2011.

As of January 2013, he has been published in Alors, Et Tois?, Agua Magazine, Offbeatpulp, Up the Staircase, Gloom Cupboard, BrainBox Magazine, Cause & Effect Magazine, Santa Clara Review, Crack the Spine, Penduline Press, Bluestem Magazine, Aphelion, Glint Literary Journal, Fox & the Spirit’s “Girl at the End of the World” anthology, and Phoebe.

He blogs at triphoprisy.blogspot.com

Monique Zamir

Spotlight: We Breathe Through Harmonicas and Four More Poems

We Breathe Through Harmonicas

The anarchists must be somewhere says
the orange man in the sun hat.

He chews his blade of grass. The cringe
of grass in his teeth, his sunflower seed mouth: I have
trouble breathing. His Betelgeuse eyes bore
through me and my eyes retreat to my tongue. I cradle
my harmonica, already finger-worn and tired.

I hum through my harmonica. He doesn’t understand.
I hum louder. His eyes so transparent I see
through the iris, retina. He smiles, louder,
he says, breathe louder

hum louder, the harmonica overwhelms wind,
his dusted voice, my lone brass breath.
The orange man hums
                                           The anarchists are everywhere.


The Revelers Should Have Died

My ears hover above my head, then waver down
to the soft dirt: on with the picking
fingers, the tapping foot. Bone-deep bass
caresses my spine and you
+++++++++++++++++++jolt.
I bathe my ears in measured breaths—
dissonant, melodic. A trumpet
swings a hypnotic tune. With each bend
of the trumpeter’s back your voice
perspires a bit more. My
fingers reach over—
+++++++++++++++hesitate
on the solitary half-note. The song
meanders in my hands. We dance in
burgundy, your hair dull with wine,
the cat drunk off your blue breath.


Two Poets Meet in a Confluence of Echoing Songs

Take it back my little vertebrae. My nightmares of stairways and powdered faces always moving,
++++++your lips always brooding the banister to its essence: the moving faces, the withered
++++++++++++stairway. I can’t breathe these days, I’ve been eating at the sun for way too long
++++++++++++++++++I exhale sun spots in silhouettes emit smoke from my dust lips, I
take it back. My fingernails peel my livelihood away I dream I live underwater play
++++++my guitar for the sea anemones, they sting my back. In the dry ocean
++++++++++++breeze I hear the sound of a single pelican that lonely breeze redolent
++++++++++++++++++of wilted raspberries in moonlight trumpet in firelight I burn in orange
I take it back all those years I swallowed you whole my breath
++++++burns like dry ice salt in my eyes and your tongue a river of caterpillars in my esophagus.
++++++++++++I never heard the sheen of your voice till it was gone, I listen now as I make this roux,
++++++++++++++++++as I bathe in rice water to absorb the ubiquity of you, my darling palimpsest,
take it back. This time of year the salamander crossing obstructs my tongue—in the winter, I am
++++++silent. The salamander in my breath, the spring in the salamander’s breath, it’s all so familiar,
++++++++++++the sting of it in the moonlight, redolent of you, my darling salamander. I
++++++++++++++++++lose you daily, caraway seeds drip from the ceiling, your lips dripping, say
take nothing back. My watch slowly melts onto my arm, and my arm slowly melts onto
++++++your lips. The world becomes amorphous. Let’s leave time out of this, I hear you
++++++++++++say, the toad, also melting, the baker kneading, always with floured hands and nose.
++++++++++++++++++The always of the baker’s face, the bread of her fingers, the need—that smell.
++++++++++++++++++++++++The dough says take nothing back, your lips
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++barely moving.


The red sky leaves no room for sorrow

The sting, the sweet viscosity of raw
honey, with dates and black coffee beachside,
pits in sand; the sky runs red leaves, night is
replete with sea revelers dancing in dark
reed, with drums. There is no moon tonight.

An elder plays this mandolin, I smile, you are the
grandfather I don’t remember. Fingers vibrato: bronze,
worn strings, in darkness his rough hands ride,
writhe with this sonorous music for two-thousand years.
And in this time, his hands disintegrate;

the mandolin grows weary, morose. Fire
wood crumbles, flames fade modestly. We proceed
in color negative—shadows are always
luminous. And in dawn we break our silence,
let tongues serenade us. I think of you

always, your absent smile in the silver nightingale night.


Time Ticks Itself Away

This ravenous world grows grey, grotesque. A
grazed woman crawls up to a red oak door,
the wind nearly immobilizes her (the weeping widow). She
gropes for the glass knob, moving further by the finger. A man

crawls up to the red door, his pants are torn. He
can’t see his fingernails, the wind flares with seawater. He
gropes for the knob and loses his fingers in green;
the bitter leaf, the alchemist, mourns in color.

The wind flares her nostrils with seawater. She
plunges into the uncertain wind, blaring sounds of mystics
long forgotten, the brittle leaf mourns its tired alchemy.
The waves crash against the jetty she cries, he

plunges into the mystics blaring sounds of wind long
forgotten the whine of the dead longshoremen curls his ears
the waves crash against the jetty he cries, he fights the
gale, opens the door, he doesn’t see her. The gale retreats.

The whine of the dead longshoremen curls her ears
she breathes in lemons: his fingers. She fights
the gale opens the door, she doesn’t see him. The gale retreats.
She collapses in the stalled minute, the heaving sunflower

withers over him. He breathes in jasmine oil: her hands.
Lost in this sea of rose hips, she lets one wither on her lips.
He wanders, catches rose hip dust with his tongue;
this sentient world grows grey, grotesque.

Monique ZamirBorn and raised in New York, Monique Zamir lives in Stillwater whilst she attends an MFA program for poetry in Oklahoma State University. She’s an Assistant Editor for the Cimarron Review and has written on sundry topics of urban intrigue for publications like Untapped Cities. She finds the screeches of the subway to be energizing, and, yes, comforting.

Jessica Barksdale

Spotlight: Monsters in the Agapanthus

[fiction]

My niece clutches the kitchen doorjamb, her brown eyes wide. Her face is streaked with something dark—mud, dirt, ash. Her thin hair is flyaway, thin, uncombed. “There’s monsters in the bushes.”

I put a plate in the dishwasher, wipe my hands. She’s a dark child, full of nightmares. I wish I weren’t taking care of her. “What bushes?”

“The shiny ones. At the bottom of the backyard.”

“The agapanthus.” I snap the door shut, plates rattling. “There are monsters in the agapanthus.”

Deena nods. She’s so slight, so tiny, I can actually see her swallow articulated in her throat. I’m not sure what a seven-year-old should weigh, but it’s got to be more than this, her arms like reeds, knees like tangerines, eyes that take in the entire world.

“Come on,” I say, holding out my hand, dried and chapped from so much hand-washing. “I’ll show you the monsters.”

 

The monsters rattle the agapanthus, moaning and growling like something from a Sci-Fi movie. In the cheesy film, the small things would spring out, covered in fur or scales but certainly with enormous teeth, biting one of the supporting cast. Deena shudders at my side as the tuberous mounds shake, the growls roaring to a crescendo.

Deena grabs my pants. I imagine her on a ship, the stowaway clinging to the sail during a sudden squall.

“Puppies,” I say. And just then, Marcel and Lulu pop out, Lulu first, and she tears off to the far side of the yard, Marcel at her heels. They are smaller than the noises they make but fast and very happy.

“Puppies?” Deena gasps.

“More fur tornado than monsters. My friend calls them a furnado,” I say, but Deena, rapt, walks toward the puppies wrestling in the far corner of the yard. I follow. Her sad sneakers are flat and worn. A tag sticks up from her small T-shirt.

“I didn’t know you had puppies,” she said as she crouches down, her hand hovering over Lulu’s head.

“I didn’t know I had you,” I want to say, but don’t. Instead, I say, “Twelve weeks old. Got them almost half a month ago.”

“Are they nice?”

“They have sharp teeth. But they don’t bite hard.”

Lulu stops her tussle, pants, looks at Deena, and then moves into Deena’s cupped palm. Lulu licks her, snuggles against Deena’s stick body, and then reaches up and licks her face. If Lulu were a cat, she’d be purring.

That’s when Deena finally cries.

 

When I was little, I thought every night was a horror show. Something was bound to get me. Monster, ghoul, vampire, devil.

I don’t know how to make food kids like. Mostly, I make what I want, and no one but me likes to live on bowls of fruit and yogurt. Or vegetables and hummus. Smoothies made of brown bananas, rice milk, and ice cubes. Everything served cold. So I tried to remember something my mother used to make us, her repertoire Midwest and bland. I settled on mac and cheese. And carrots. I know kids like carrots, the kind that don’t look like roots but severed thumbs. For dessert, I bought some popsicles, but I remembered the minute I left the store that you can make your own. With orange juice and such.

The fork looks enormous in Deena’s hand. There’s a snail’s trail streak of snot on her right cheek, but I don’t say anything. She’s not paying attention to her meal but to the puppies and my adult dogs, all slumped like sacks at her bare feet. That’s how I used to sit at the dinner table. After my mother died, no one was there to make us wash before dinner. We were raised by ourselves and neighbors. By wolves, my older sister Mara used to say, Mara who escaped the wolves. But maybe that’s why I like dogs so much. They remind me of home.

“They have long tongues,” Deena says, chewing. She’s missing a couple of bottom teeth, and I hope that’s normal.

“The better to lick you with.” I glance to see if she gets the reference, but she keeps eating.

“Are they the babies of your other dogs?”

I chew the slightly too-al dente macaroni and then swallow. “No, I got Rocky and Bullwinkle a while back. But they’re all real pound pups. Saw them advertised in the paper and went and got them.”

Deena blinks and then nods. “You’ve got a lot of dogs.”

My friends have said the same thing, most telling me I’m becoming the crazy dog lady. My friend Carrie threatened to stage an intervention.

“A puppy is like two dogs,” I say to Deena. “So that means I don’t have four—“

“Six!” Deena cries out.

“That’s right,” I say, oddly proud. “For about a year that’s what it will feel like around here. Six dogs.”

Deena watches me, and I can see her calculating how her time and this new dog time will mesh. She chews her food and then says, “You can buy six leashes and six bowls.”

“And six beds,” I say. “We can have a doggie bunk bed.”

“A doggie hotel!”

She looks as if she will say something else, ready to add more detail to our doggie world. But then she catches her breath, almost sinking down onto her chair, shrinking back to her true shape. Then it’s my turn to cry. Or at least feel like it. Only seven, and she knows how not to believe in hope.

My younger sister Lynn, Deena’s mother, is the pretty one. The youngest by ten years and spun of gold and bright blue and long leanness, she came wired for excitement. None of us three older ones liked her much. She was the last evidence of our parents’ connection, something we’d given up on years before she was born. But after my father disappeared and before our mother died, Lynn was the designated favorite, given all the treats we’d been trying to discover for years. By the time I left for college, I’d decided Lynn would either be a stripper or a dentist. All those big white teeth.

Deena clacks her fork against her bowl, spearing a raft of macaroni. After every two bites or so, she leans down to pat one of the dogs, Rocky licking her hand and wrist. I idly wonder about worms and other parasites but then decide to ignore the thought because the attention makes her smile. Besides, by the time the symptoms of either appear, Deena will likely be somewhere else.

“My mom never let us have a dog. Said they were too—something. Something that ends with a y.”

“Hmmm,” I say, thinking of Lynn “Y” words. Sexy, crazy, naughty, scary. Lynn took her time getting to neither dentistry nor sex work. Instead, she became the girl next to one powerful man after another. Well, if the married president of a lawn mower company or owner of a string of auto-body shops counts as power. Which one ended up Deena’s father, I never knew. But at some point just shy of forty, she got pregnant. Of course, she was the best looking pregnant woman ever. Glowing, lush-haired, still slim-hipped, she carried Deena as if born to breed, like one of those native women who pushed out her baby over a dirt-floored hut and then headed back to the harvest. It was just plain irritating.

My other siblings and I strung together rosaries of questions, all starting with What, How, Why, Where. Lynn never answered a one of them, disappearing sometime in her third-trimester and sending only yearly shots of her baby girl.

“Can I have some more?” she asks. My heart flickers as I scoop out a mound of mac and cheese.

 

“What next?” Sal asks me.

“Don’t know. Some lawyer will tell me, I’m sure.”

I slump against my headboard, staring out into the hallway and the half-open door of the guest room where Deena sleeps. When I was little, I thought every night was a horror show. Something was bound to get me. Monster, ghoul, vampire, devil.

I’m just waiting for her scream.

“I guess I can’t come over for a while.”

I sigh. It’s possible Deena was an answer to my prayers. Sal and I have needed to break up for months. She wants to travel the world, and I just want to stay home. She turns up the heater, and I’m in favor of blowing out the pilot light. Etc. On and on. Who knows what she would think of Deena.

“Let her settle in,” I say. “Give her time before we tell her that the wombat she’s living with is not only a wombat, but an old grizzled lesbian.”

“You’re hardly grizzled,” Sal laughs. “Well, maybe in some places.”

“She’s been through too much,” I say. “All she needs is more oddness.”

“Nothing gay is odd in California, you know. Deena’s got to know that, too.”

“She’s not happy,” I say.

“Why isn’t she with your brother? The one with the kids.”

“Hardly kids. They’re in college.”

“But still,” Sal says. “There’s got to be a bicycle or a ball hanging around. A twin bed. “

“Oh,” I say, standing up. “She’s calling for me. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Ti—“

But I hang up. The house is silent, except for the hum of the furnace, set at 68 degrees.

 

“Marcel and Bullwinkle fight a lot,” Deena says. Today it looks as though Deena’s been playing with someone’s lipstick, something I haven’t worn any since 1976. Back then, it was called lip-gloss.

“It’s a male thing. They’re establishing who’s boss.”

“Who is the boss?” Deena bites down on another strawberry and watches Marcel mount Bullwinkle’s left leg.

“That we don’t know yet,” I hand Deena a napkin.

“I think Marcel.” She watches them play. “He’s smart. He knows when you’re going to feed them before anybody.”

“He hears me thinking about dog kibble.”

“He hears you think about walking to the kitchen.”

I laugh. “He is smart, then.”

Deena puts down her bowl of berries and wanders out onto the lawn where the dogs tussle. I’ve heard a lot of things in my life, too, and none of them very good. I’d like to unhear a few dozen for sure. The way a foot in a shoe on a floor trying not to make a sound sounds. I know the way a hand on a blanket sounds. I know the way cries-that-aren’t-yet-cries sound. No one should hear things that aren’t hearable.

All at once, I hear the things Lynn must have heard. The whack of air right by her head. The crack of skull on tile. Breath leaves my body, air leaves the backyard.

“Maybe Lulu’s the boss,” Deena cries. “She’s smart, too. And she’s the cutest.”

Like Lynn, I think. It’s the cute ones that go first.

 

The social worker is a stereotype, though why we call things that are true and real a type, I don’t know. She’s soft and formless, and her glasses rest on the bridge of her nose. Her gray hair is bone fide grizzled, but full, a messy halo. Her bag could be Mary Poppins’, a carpetbag full of magic. Except, of course, she’s here on business. My brother Tom picked up Deena for a park and ice cream afternoon, and I’m left to answer the questions.

“She was brought here two nights ago.” Mrs. Beadle reads from her notes. “A friend of the mother’s dropped her off?”

I nod. “It was late. I was half asleep. Didn’t ask what I should have.”

“The next morning is when you found out.” Mrs. Beadle peers up over her glasses. “That’s when you got the call.”

I look down at my feet in their sensible gardening shoes, one shoelace puppy shredded. The night after Deena arrived, I’d spent a few hours disgusted with Lynn for her this and that, her wastrelness, her incapacity, her inability to see that her shine had dimmed. Couldn’t she grow up and take care of her child? I thought every bad thing I could and lined up some more to mull over in the morning. Then I’d paced the floor, emailed my siblings and Sal, worried how I could keep the child alive.

“Right,” I say. “The police. A neighbor called it in.”

“It happened the night before,” Mrs. Beadle says gently. “And the friend who dropped off Deena?”

I nod. “That’s the one. At least, they think so. It’s ongoing.”

Mrs. Beadle shakes her head as she writes. “Does Deena know?”

“No,” I say.

She looks at me, bites her lip, shrugs. “You’ve got to tell her soon. Otherwise, she’ll be upset about the wrong things.”

Hadn’t I known this my entire life? I’m the poster girl for being upset about the wrong things, Who Else Can I Blame my cri de couer.

“I was just waiting…”.

“She’ll blame her mother for this.”

And why not? Isn’t it Lynn’s fault, all of it? She put herself right in the middle of bad and stayed there. That friend of hers, the one at my doorstep with Deena in the middle of the night. I could see why Lynn hitched her star to his. I can’t totally fault her. Even as I stood there in my terrible bathrobe, bleary-eyed, foul-breathed, I saw his smile. The way he cocked his head. The tattoo on his bicep.

“Worse, she’ll blame herself.” Mrs. Beadle rummages in her bag. She pulls out pamphlets and papers. “There are support groups.”

“There’s not going to be time for support.” Whatever help Deena needs will come from the place she lands. Here? I can be popsicles and puppies. Mrs. Beadle looks up, her black eyes intense over her eyeglasses.

“You are going to keep her with you?” She leans forward, close enough I can see the soft dark hair on her upper lip. She smells like gingersnaps, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, the one who charmed with sweets.

“I—.”

“After what she’s been through?” Mrs. Beadle flips through the file, thicker than I’d ever imagined it could be. Seven years old!

“I’m not cut out for this.”

She rolls her eyes. “No one’s specifically cut out for this. Who could be? Not a pattern anyone wants to repeat. Middle of the night and all with no warning. But she’s your niece. She needs something known right now.”

“But later—.”

“One day at a time,” Mrs. Beadle says, handing over the information. “Make that one minute at a time. Or less, if need be. Just do it.”

 

Then we sit in chairs as if dressed in those bomb suits, immobile, muffled, hot as hell.

Tom’s wife brought over real food, and tonight, Deena and I dine on lasagna. As she scoops up cheese and sauce, I study her head. She doesn’t remind me of Lynn much, not with her sparse hair and plaintive features. That was one thing Lynn never was. She never complained. Not when we were eating lentils for weeks or her shoes fell apart. No, Lynn found a way to get invited to live with the Robinsons down the street. We’d see her through the window eating chicken drumsticks and drinking Coke, just like she’d been put into the wrong family the first time. Found at last. She even convinced them to send food to us, leftovers and junk food we ate in a tear.

“When’s my mom coming?” Deena’s fork clatters to the table. Rocky whines, the puppies stir.

I look down at my plate, a massacre of red, a swirl of blobby cheese. “When did you last see your mom?”

“I already told the men that,” Deena’s voice is dime hard.

“Maybe so, but I didn’t hear.”

She sighs, her thin shoulders touching the back of her chair. She’s sitting on an old phonebook and Shakespeare’s collected plays. Her eyes are caverns I could get lost in, the way in frightening, the way out impossible.

“She put me to bed. Then Bobby woke me up.”

“How did he seem?”

For a second, she looks right at me and then shrugs.

“You didn’t see anything… her again that night?”

Deena shakes her head and then leans down to pet one creature or another. One time when I was parking near the ATM, I noticed a big white truck in the space next to me, red and black words spelling out “Crime Scene Cleanup.” I waited in my car for awhile, just to get a gander of the person who would perform the listed services: Homicide, Suicide, and Accidental Death Remediation: Cleaning, disinfecting, and removal of all contaminated items to restore the scene to a safe, non-biohazardous state.

Whoever did those kinds of things never showed up. But I had the picture. I got it. The brain matter on the wall. The pools of blood. The trail the dying person left as she clawed her way to the backdoor, trying to get to her car, forgetting about her child even as she died. Then the body, lifeless, stiffening fingers permanently clutching the carpet.

The puppies growl and tumble. Deena smiles.

“Ice cream?” I ask.

 

My parents were young and stupid when they got together, and stupid stuck. Here I am, a retired high school librarian, living in Oakland as quietly as I worked. No permanent relationship to my name other than four dogs and a handful of family. We keep our distance, circle the holidays as if they will explode on contact. Then we sit in chairs as if dressed in those bomb suits, immobile, muffled, hot as hell.

What else? Oh, Sal in the corner, still waiting. Deena asleep in her bed, only a few years away from the acting out that has to happen sometime. Memories, too. Guilt, boatloads of that. And monsters, still, at night, in the closet, under the bed. The old monsters I brought with me from my childhood. Now they live in the agapanthus with Deena’s.

 

There’s a summer school program with a reading focus. Testing. Counseling. A tutor. Tom’s wife arranges play dates. My friends bring over toys. Deena has her first physical. I go to support meetings and learn about “Talking about Violence” and “Talking about Death.” I hear stories that remind me of my own. And Deena’s. I come home and make things that are hot. Chicken coated in flour and baked in the oven. Boiled green beans from a neighbor’s garden. Sticky potatoes riddled with lumps but full of butter.

I break up with Sal, who is surprisingly calm. Later, I hear she’d already found another girlfriend and was hoping to let me down easy. Win-win, as my mother used to say.

The puppies grow, the days lengthen. Deena and I sit outside on the bench after planting nasturtium seeds. Wisps of fog roll in from San Francisco.

Marcel and Lulu race their superhighway through the agapanthus, but they’ve grown—gaining a pound a week—and their fighting seems real, though so far, no bloodshed. Rocky and Bullwinkle lie on the grass, waiting for calm. Deena has gained weight, too, though she still looks like she might fly away on a stiff wind.

“Your mother,” I begin. “The night you came here.”

“I heard it.” Deena stares out at the agapanthus. “She screamed.”

“What did you do?” I breathe out.

“I waited. There were other noises. And then Bobby came and got me. He put a blindfold on me. Told me it was a game. Hide from Mommy. He put me in his car, and we drove away.”

Something tears at my throat, and I cough. “Did he tell you what happened?”

“He said my mom didn’t love him. Or me. He said he knew how to make things better. That he was going to take me where I’d be safer.”

I only met Bobby the once, at the door. There he was, half murderer, half savior. “Do you feel safe here?”

Deena nods.

“Could you live here?”

Deena is silent, her eyes trained on the puppies’ path. A figure-eight, an X, a back and forth. Around and through, over and under, their growl and whine and moan rising and falling. We can see their every move and lunge and parry, no hiding spots left, the agapanthus thinned and ruined, flattened to the earth.

Jessica BarksdaleJessica Barksdale is the author of twelve traditionally published novels, including “Her Daughter’s Eyes” and “When You Believe.” Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension. You can read more at www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com.

Spotlight: Chameleon / The Most Beautiful Thing / Uni-Love

Chameleon

I’ve found you
Imposter
Erect against the araceae backdrop
Stealing your neighbour’s hue

Garbed in flowers of false truth

Yesterday I thought you were a rock
Stoic in potent iron, even as my belly
Slipped over your scales

You beg the sun for her gold
The stones for their silver
The dirt for his muddy brown
The leaves for their tangerine

Shapeshifter
Scurrying through life with a colorful shield
Now, veiled
In yellow leaf-veins
Branching down your back
to the emerald stem of a tail
Feet inch deep in bough’s brown

Your guise dismays
Your buggy black eyes
Wearing no second-hand color
Naked in fear, defeat, regret
You cannot change the color
Of your destiny


The Most Beautiful Thing (Two Cups of Tea)

Mother
Hunched in an elegant bridge
Gallops of tangerine hair
Sweep the kitchen counter

Sunrise, the sky
Is grey dancing with
Soft amber, brilliant carmine
Waltzing into her
Liberated hands
Freeing one, two
Tablespoons:
Leafs of obsidian glow
Rests into my favourite
Purple cup, her favourite red

The kettle whines, she carries
It off the sienna flame
Gracefully decants a river
The leafs plump, release ecru
Steam pirouettes midair

Carefully, she lays the cups on the table
Checks her watch, sits down, and waits
For me to find
Her and two cups of tea
Not knowing that I am
Already here


Uni-love

We are lonely drunk vessels
blindly,
finding each other
in the dim library light

We thrust our hands, gape our mouths, stab our tongues, and let
Our gender emblems defile each other
Clumsily, senselessly, in a sea what-is-that unpleasantness.
Discovering what we’re made of
In kindred inebriation

We swap
Partners or positions or
Pink body parts
All in an effort to achieve
A believable rhythm of delight

eventually we will forget
names, faces, earnest promises,
foreplay, and afterglow
None of the dinner by candelight
We might imagine
The intimate glances
The talk until dawn

as soon as they’re gone we sit alone,
eating cold spaghetti from a can,
detach ourselves from
another emotionless encounter.

i find remnants of your faceless lovers
beside your unmade bed:
Empty condom wrappers.
An ashtray with butts
From their lips squished
By their thumbs buried in ashes

in your white-walled, smoke-filled, dirty-laundry strewn dorm room
That I find myself coming back to again and again
For no other reason I can think of
Than that you desire to have me in it.

Carly Breault is a second-year psychology student at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, BC, Canada.

Tayla Jankovits

Spotlight: I Am Cold

[creative nonfiction]

My mother moved in with me once icicles began to form like claws on my fingertips. She held my hand in her gloved palms and wept, the tears falling softly, moisture; wet, formless, lovely, freezing into tight ice with contact. Does it hurt? She had asked me, her eyes so full of motherly love that it should have been enough to warm me, but it wasn’t, nothing was. No, I told her. And I wasn’t lying, either. The cold killed most of my nerve sensors. Oh David, she said softly, still holding my icicle fingertips, like they were beautiful iridescent crystals, still crying her wet tears, rainwater into my icy hemisphere, oh David, David, David.

When the cold began, I hardly noticed it.

I am cold, I thought.

That’s how it started—a slight chill, a brief rising of arm hair, a tiny sensation running little feet up my back. I showed up to a summer night’s party in a grey cardigan, a spring cardigan, one might say. Light knit, low V-neck, breathable material that a decent breeze might even crawl through, but it was a very pleasant May night, no breeze. A comfortable seventy-five degrees, might even be considered cool for May in the desert of California. But when I left my apartment that day, I felt cold. It crept up my spine like a quick shock of electricity and settled right atop my shoulders, and I carried it there for the rest of the night.

I was cold, and then I met Abi. She was beautiful, standing there, alone, an exquisite wallflower in the corner of a very drone party, a very monotonous, warm-champagne-in-your-flute-glass type of party. I was walking towards the center of the room, where it was warmer, where the body heat inevitably finds itself in the eye of the human heat storm. I walked past her, intent on being warm, not even meaning to strike up a conversation. She looked so young, so fresh, a moist layer of sweat making her shine in her summer dress; fanning herself with a printed party plate, her bangs sticking slightly to  her forehead.

I like your sweater, she said. Her grandfather had one just like it, she used to wrap herself in it when she was a little girl, visiting him in his small house, reading books on his lap while he looked past her, watching reruns of Bonanza. The soft fabric of his sweater tickling her cheek, smelling vaguely of Vaseline, always draped over the arm of the couch before she went home that evening.

Bonanza, now that’s fun to say isn’t it? Kind of tickles your tongue, warms the tip of it if you say it fast enough.

We left the party together, me in my sweater, her in her bare arms, the moonlight reflecting off of her. On the way home, I put the heat on, just a little bit. But the windows were a little foggy, others driving home were probably doing the same thing and Abi only smiled.

By July, I was still chilly and still with Abi. Her hair used to wrap around me in bed like a scarf and I would dig my face into her neck, feel my hot breath trap beneath all that long dark hair, making my cheeks pink with perspiration. It was a lovely feeling, especially as that chill had stuck. My spine stung with a cold that kept going to my shoulders and began to reach down to my arms with icy tendrils, taking hold of me. Abi thought maybe it was a summer cold. She would wrap her long legs around me and her arms, smooth and soft and always smelling faintly of vanilla, would hold me tight into her chest, soft and beating beneath me with the heat rising from us.

As the summer continued, hot, hotter than it’s been in years, so hot the news anchors talked of records, I went around in a thermal shirt and thick white socks, long jeans. Abi hardly noticed anymore, but at any social gathering I felt eyes following me around the room, looks of surprise as I would zip up my sweater, or pull on the ends of my sleeves. I didn’t care, I was cold. I found myself ordering a hot tea instead of an iced one, or a soup at dinner instead of a summer salad. It was just a chill, hardly anything to talk about.

See a doctor, my mother said when she came to visit me in August. A doctor? What’s he going to prescribe? An insulated coat? I’m just a bit cold, I don’t feel ill Ma, I feel fine. In fact, with Abi, I feel great. She had come to meet her, it coincided with her annual trip from Omaha. One trip home there and I probably wouldn’t need a sweater ever again, Abi would joke. Over dinner that night, my mom and Abi eating sushi and ice cold beers, me sticking to sweet and sour soup and wontons. My mother told Abi that as an infant, I would scream and thrash my arms if she tried to swaddle me. Hated it, hated blankets, hated footsie pajamas, that boy’s feet sweat so bad he’d leave marks like a giant slug. It seemed my chill was fascinating, especially to Abi. But only because she kept trying to warm me up.

Ma, it’s not Cancer, I told her, trying to put her hundred dollar bill back in her white plastic purse.

Before my mother left she slipped a hundred dollar bill in my hand. In case it’s the money keeping you from seeing someone. What if its pneumonia, or cancer? It would have sounded ridiculous from anyone, but with my mother’s heavy southern accent and her pink cowboy boots with her orange sun dress and her wide-brimmed black visor hat, it sounded absurd. Cancer? Ma, it’s not Cancer, I told her, trying to put her hundred dollar bill back in her white plastic purse. But how do you know? That crazy disease does things to people’s bodies, crazy awful things, and cancer is always your last idea, but it’s always cancer. Always. I nodded. When a mother gets in her head that you have cancer, you go see an oncologist and get it written down on paper that you’re healthy as spinach.

Abi called her uncle down in LA. Lucky for me, he was an oncologist and was willing to do a physical and write me up a doctor’s note. He asked me, while I sat in the paper thin medical robe, why I thought I had cancer. I told him I am cold. Later, as I stood by the fax machine, listening to its bells and whistles as it prepared its delivery of my cancer-free note to my mother in Omaha, I listened to the oncologist as he marveled to Abi at seeing someone in thermal sweatpants and a sweatshirt during a heat wave in September. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with him, but it’s not cancer. Might I suggest a psychiatrist?

Abi booked an appointment with a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist office kept the thermostat at an inhumanely low setting. I asked the receptionist if she didn’t mind raising the temperature. She looked at me like I was out of my mind and with raised eyebrows said, Sir, you do know that we are experiencing an unusual heat wave. People have died in their homes from the heat. I asked Abi to go down to my car and get me a thick scarf I kept in the trunk. When the doctor ushered me in, I felt her eyes rush to my neck. My thick grey wool scarf making her pull at her already loose blouse.

Any trouble sleeping?

Only sometimes, only if my toes are feeling really cold. I have to have warm feet when I sleep. I have specific socks I use, they’re made for skiing.

Skiing? You wear skiing socks to bed?

There was no denying that she was getting a whole load of strange information but upon conclusion to our session, she recommended a full physical. I told her I saw an oncologist, that my mother made me. After that, she recommended a second session to discuss my mother.

It was still hot in October, at least that was what people were saying, I was still cold. I had started to wear a jacket over my usual thermal and sweatshirt. At work, they told me I was making others uncomfortable, asking if this was some kind of joke. I shook my head, I told them I was just cold. They told me I was violating their policy on professional attire. I assured them that beneath my coat and sweater, I had a button-down shirt. They told me to get a plug-in heater at my desk and hang the coat and sweatshirt in the break room. I inquired about more formal sweater wear and they just nodded and waved me out.

I quit in November. The heater was not strong enough to keep me warm and I was still cold. My teeth chattered while I worked at my desk. I found it difficult to concentrate. Upper-management left copies of their policies on work attire on my desk each morning. My co-workers stopped sitting with me at lunch. And what was worse, my desk was situated by a window, one which didn’t properly seal and constantly allowed an irritating draft to sneak in. I decided it best to find a job where I could work at home. This way I could wear what I want and keep the heater up.

Abi took to wearing layered clothing. That way when she came over, she could take off her light jacket and sweater and wear a tank top. She shed her layers like animal skin, leaving traces of her self around my apartment, each article of clothing that I would pick up and rub to my cheek, still feeling a bit of her warm skin against it. She would always ask me how I was feeling as she would crawl into my lap, her arms draping around me, already beginning to chase away the cold, and always I would answer her, I am cold.

We had already seen two more doctors since her uncle and they all shook their heads and like the oncologist, pointed me towards psychiatric evaluation. By the end of November, I had already seen two additional psychiatrists and one psychologist, they each in turn directed me back to physical medicine. I gave up, resigned myself over to this cold and allowed it to come and settle.

By December, I could no longer travel outside my home. Abi brought me groceries and my mail when she came to visit. She cooked me soup and made me hot teas and helped me keep my down comforter around my shoulders as I moved from room to room but by January, we had our first episode.

Abi climbed into bed, a T-shirt and loose cotton pants. She slept in light pajamas as the heater made her sweat as she slept. I rolled towards her as always, craving the warmth of her touch, when she jumped back. David! I looked up at her. What? Her face looked surprised, her eyebrows slanted as she studied me. You’re freezing cold. I stared at her. I know Abi, I’ve been cold since May. She shook her head. No, I mean to the touch. You feel like you just stepped out of a deep freezer. I sat up in bed. What do I usually feel like? She shrugged her shoulders. Normal, I guess. I tried to move closer to her, but she scooted away. Don’t be upset, David. But you’re really really cold. Like touching an ice cube for too long. I nodded my head. I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. She leaned over to kiss me. I knew it was affectionate, I knew her lips would be warm and taste of summer. I wanted that kiss, but her mouth tensed and when she pulled her lips off mine, they were blue. She touched them softly, her fingers to her mouth, and then she looked at me, a bit of fear printed on her cheeks. David, what’s happening to you?

That was the last night Abi slept with me. She still came by, did everything as usual, but when she wanted to hold my hand, she would take out a pair of gloves she kept in her pocketbook. And when I wanted to hold her, cuddle and feel her heat, she would put on one of my sweatshirts and sweatpants, wrap her neck in a scarf and remind me gently, not to touch her face.

February brought heart-shaped candy and singing teddy bears, but it also brought our first icicle. Abi was sitting next to me on the couch, reading a magazine. The sun was setting low and I was looking through a medical book on bizarre diagnoses, when a bit of shining light was thrown across the room. What is that? Abi looked around. What is what? I asked. She pointed her finger to the wall where a small flashing light was playing beneath a picture frame. Right, that over there, it looks like something is catching the sunlight. I looked around, moved my hand down and there it went, the light was gone. I moved my hand back up and there it was again. I turned my hand over and there it was, small, spectacular and on the tip of my index finger. A tiny little icicle. Ice, I said, completely dumbfounded. Abi looked at me, looked down at my icicle and then back at me and it felt clear I was beginning to lose her.

Less then a week later, my right hand was covered. Tiny bits of ice forming like measles or chicken pox. Abi called three doctors to come meet me at home. Each of them called another three and soon there was a steady stream of doctors wanting to get a glimpse of the man with the hand of ice. They brought me gifts. Heaters, insulated coats, exotic tea bags, thermoses, homemade chicken soup, a ski mask. They even created a discussion board, a website they named David and Goliath of Cold.

By the end of March, I asked them to stop coming. I didn’t want them to see my left hand, now beginning to sprout its first bud of ice. Abi kept coming though, she sat next to me and put aloe on the cuts incurred by my fingertips. She dressed them in bandages, careful to always wear her gloves. She’d gaze at me, as if she was missing me despite the alarming and physical fact that I was sitting there right in front of her. David, she said. Look. She pointed to the space in front of me and I saw it, the air of my breath hovering, cold and visible in front of my mouth. And then she cried, holding my freezing legs against her, a blanket between her cheek and my lap, the only thing preventing her from getting frostbite, from me feeling the heat off her skin.

In April, my mother came. Ma, I said, before opening the door. I need you to be ready for this. Okay? I heard her on the other side. I could hear the impatience in her shifting feet. Is it cancer, David? Is it? Tell me. I can take it. I sighed. I almost wished it was. No Ma, I told you already, its not cancer. It’s, well, it’s something else. Something entirely else. I looked at my apartment, at the frost on the windows, on the broken thermostat. Did you come as I instructed? I waited for her answer. She was quiet. She must be dressed for spring. Mother, what are you wearing? She knocked again on the door, pounded actually. David, I’m your mother. You open this door you hear me? No nonsense about what I’m wearing. Let me in there. I breathed deeply, my breath still and foggy in the air. I opened the door and it rushed at her and hit her hard on the face, the cold.

I wanted to help her into her coat, but I only made her colder. She changed right there in the hallway. Opening her suitcase, pulling on her pants under her dress, sweater, then sweatshirt, then coat. At least she had brought it all. Abi had called her, had told her to. She wouldn’t have listened to me. She kept shivering in my hall as the cold of my apartment rushed to escape. She kept saying, My lord. My lord, My lord, My lord! There was nothing to do but watch her layer on and layer on.

She sat near my bed those nights, staring at me, wondering at me. You know I love you no matter what? I nodded. My limbs were getting harder to move, but I didn’t want to tell her this yet. I was starting to suspect that my blood circulation was poor, that my bones were sprouting icicles of their own. She stayed with me as the frost took over, singing lullabies to me each evening. Covering me in electric blankets and ushering Abi’s hot soup into my shivering mouth. She kept me as warm as a mother could, but May came and the ice hardened. I felt myself burning cold all over. I pointed to the mirror on my closet door as best I could. No, no David, you don’t want to see this. You just let it come. Let the cold come. And it did.

Talya JankovitsTalya Jankovits earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. Her work has appeared in The Citron ReviewRecovering the Self: A Journal of Hope and Healing, and her short story “Undone” in Lunch Ticket was nominated for the 2013 Pushcart Prize. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two daughters and is working on her second novel while seeking representation for her first.

Spotlight: Earth Mother / Dimensions / Me Versus the Dainties

Earth Mother

My earth mother told me to
rub cocoa butter on my gray
winter legs, and never fake
bake with UV rays. Her skin
is vitavega-flawless, all but
chapped hands from years
working elbow deep in organic
dirt, and nicked from chopping
homegrown beets. She puréed
green beans and carrots for our
baby lips. She pinned cloth
diapers, scrubbed in soaps of
glycerin-scented lavender, rinsed
in a tin pail. She punched down
grainy bread thick enough for
sopping barley soups. Our garage
sale jeans became patchwork quilts
sewn with strips of Daddy’s plaids
and her skirts. Summers we flew
through cattails to reach our secret
swimming hole, then we’d strip
down and skinny-dip, hoping only
crickets and katydids would witness
our flat, bare chests. And if any boys
came along, she’d hear long before.
She’d lift herself out dripping, then
grab our clothes and hide. As they
emerged from underbrush, she’d chase
them away—a crazy mama bear protecting
her den. (But when she grew our hair out long,
we called her Goldilocks.) She taught
us to respect the spirits of the land,
but also love our bodies—drink H2O
aplenty and never give in to tanning beds.


Dimensions

The first, a point.
The second, a shape.
The third, a Toshiba television

viewed with black-rimmed glasses
that are uncool in Basic Training
but enable Bengals from Nature

to leap from the screen and into
your bowl of Lucky Charms
your heart-rate accelerating

to that danger level, cardio-
attack zone. The fourth, space.
The fifth, time?

The sixth, fractals or spiral-elliptics?
The seventh, possibly the internet
and it’s all a matter of perspective

and subjective, like a variety show
with tone-deaf judges. A banner
of hallucination and your inner Oedipus

punching the King in the mead gut,
landing him somewhere between
‘That’s horrible, absolutely dreadful,’

and ‘I love it. I think you’re a star.’
But the audience is crickets and Mars
doesn’t get Mediacom, though

that’s where Atlantis is, beyond the
Straits of Magellan—a time-traveler—if ever
one lived. And how about Plato? What

does the panel say about Socrates
and his endless patter about caves
and hemlock for the love of Athens.

Because you stand here, in a hall of
mirrors, with Ethos on your back
and Pathos at your side, Logos

hopped the L-train from Brooklyn
back to Cambridge, where most
statesmen are trained in the

finer forms of speech and other
trivial manners. So stand
at Attention and wait for your name

your number your fifteen minutes,
then salute Sophocles and Aristotle
with their punk haircuts and vegan

life choices, their beatnik rap-stylings,
but they’ll never last because it’s
your name lit in 120-volt flash-bulbs

on the Broadway sign. Enjoy
your imminence while it lasts and
Congratulations! you’re going to Vegas

where dreams lie along I-15 like road-kill
and prom dresses, and full dance cards
from Vanity Fair, where Siegfried’s

tigers run a gambling ring. So, bottoms up,
Salud & Shalome. And may luck be a lady
—five dollah for you—our special, tonight.

 


Me Versus the Dainties

In the third grade we dressed
up as trees. I was a bur oak
in a forest of junipers.
The bur oak doesn’t even
sound pretty—like a pricker
stuck inside your gym sock.
Missouri’s native species
with full, strong branches,
provides plenty of shade.
Junipers—those slender
columns can fit into tight
spaces. In health class, we learned
about body types: ectomorphs
are thin, wiry. Mesomorphs are
muscular, lean. Endomorphs
store fat with ease. Then, there’s
just plain obese. And if 31%
of kids in my state are fat,
why was I the only bur oak?
Grandma talks about girls of
her day. They were dainty.
With hourglass figures—perfect.
Most of them wore Size ZERO, like
that’s even a size? Plates were smaller.
Less sugar. Less fat. More exercise. Frankly,
girls just cared more about appearance.
She says ‘heavy’ girls were called
apples and pears, but those are fruits
which are supposed to be healthy.
She says I’m ‘big-boned.’ But
according to the skeleton diagrams
in my biology book, our bones
are all the same size. Unless you’re
a giant, which I’m not. I’m plush.
I’m fluffy. And grandma wants
to get me on Weight Watchers, as if
she’s not already eyeing everything
I eat. She says her friends took water pills
to rid their bodies of excess fluids.
Isn’t it bad to be dehydrated? I heard
a story: someone left a bottle of weight-loss
pills in a windowsill and they turned into
worms. We give Moxie, our basset, pills
to get rid of her worms. I see on the news,
drugs that could kill you, or make you wish
you were dead. But at least you’d be skinny!
Grandma tells me about a guy—he had to be
buried in a grand piano box, he was too big
for a coffin. Carnival-goers paid admission to
peak at the freak-show fat ladies. Recently, doctors
did gastric bypass on a man that weighed almost
a ton. Then, they removed enough skin to make
a whole new person. None of them had learned
how to count calories. Our health teacher preaches
against anorexia and bulimia, the dangers of binging
and purging. But I can count the ribs of the Calvin
Klein girl—twelve on each side. And the fat lady
sang, but didn’t make it past round two, despite
the judges saying she had a beautiful voice. So,
what should I do about my heavyweight boxing
dad and our high-carb dinners? And what does it
even mean when labels say ‘partially hydrogenated?’
And why do I feel like the incredible human balloon
in a world where everyone else is shrinking?

Jennifer J. Pruiett-SelbyJennifer J. Pruiett-Selby is a teacher and mother of four (soon to be five), with a Master’s degree in English from Iowa State University. Jennifer currently lives in very rural Iowa where her column {just a word} appears in the local newspaper. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Red River Review, Matter Monthly, Leaves of Ink, Four and Twenty, Touch and The Voices Project.

 

Jason McCall

Spotlight: When You Choose Thor: The Dark World Over 12 Years a Slave

[creative nonfiction]

Tap into your Southern blood and blame Obama: A black president. A black nerd president. Anything is possible. These days, alien-space-Vikings seem as unreal as the Middle Passage.

Be the black man the radio hosts swear you are, take it out on your girlfriend. You can’t deal with her spending Friday night guilty about her freedom, starting every other sentence with “I know I can’t relate to them, but…”. Apologize for not having a girl who’s “down” when you tell the story to your friends back home. Forget that it takes a “down” girl to sit through two hours of Loki one-liners and thirteen minutes of closing credits so that you can spend the rest of the night giddy over a 30-second after-credits scene that won’t matter until 2017.

Look straight ahead as every other black face turns left while you walk down one more door. Tell yourself it’s no different than getting a classics degree or cheering for the Buffalo Bills. Ready your rebuttals. You paid money to see Pootie Tang. You share articles from The Root. Sometimes, you wake up early enough to watch the last segment of Melissa Harris-Perry.

Forgive the premise of a blond god protecting the earth from eternal blackness. Feel good when Idris Elba shows up in the movie. Everyone loves Idris Elba. Think of who wouldn’t want to support Idris Elba and start to feel more comfortable in your seat. Watch Idris Elba kill dark-alien-space-elves and remember Paul Mooney’s line in Hollywood Shuffle about how black actors won’t be Rambo until they stop playing Sambo. Idris Elba isn’t Rambo, but he’s Thor’s best black friend. Even the dark-alien-space-elf leader has a black best friend. The black dark elf is just evil; be proud he’s not wearing gold chains and dealing dark elf drugs in the space-Viking inner cities. Call that progress.

Think about black dark elves. Are they redundant? Are they extra evil? Do white dark elves let black dark elves play in the elvish basketball league, but start locking their doors when two black dark elves move into the neighborhood?

Remember that racial lines disappear in the Batman vs. Superman debate. Remind yourself that Blade saved this genre. Consider the $10 ticket an offering to Wesley Snipes.

Lie. Say you wanted a surprise. 12 Years a Slave won’t throw you a curveball and end up being 17 Years a Slave. You know that story. You know the story when your co-workers mistake you for a customer. You keep your credentials close. You make sure everyone knows you belong. You heard the stories of grandfather being called a boy for half his life. You deserve to be here, in this seat, wondering what’s so great about Natalie Portman, wondering how many white faces are in the theater next door.

Tell yourself you thought about going, just like your friends thought about giving blood or joining the service. Tell yourself you’ll go next weekend. Blame America when you go to the movies next weekend and find out they stopped showing 12 Years a Slave to make room for The Hunger Games. Make a Lenny Kravitz joke and go home.

Jason McCallJason McCall is the author of Dear Hero, (winner of the 2012 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize), Silver (Main Street Rag), I Can Explain (Finishing Line Press), and Mother, Less Child (winner of the 2013 Paper Nautilus Vella Chapbook Prize). He is from the great state of Alabama, where he currently teaches at the University of Alabama. He holds an MFA from the University of Miami, and his work has been featured in Cimarron Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Letters, The Rumpus, and other journals.

Spotlight: A Pair of Red Shoes

[creative nonfiction]

This is a story about a pair of red ankle-strap shoes. High heels, of course, high heels that give the longest legs to even the shortest of girls—in this case, an Italian girl who stood just a little short of five feet tall, in the Jersey City of 1942. She was a scandal in her shoes. She was probably a scandal even without her shoes, and I can’t even begin to imagine—nor am I entirely sure I want to imagine—what kind of scandal she was when she got it in her mind to remove those shoes. But in this story, she is most definitely wearing those shoes.

Red. High. Ankle-strapped. The kind of shoes no self-respecting, Italian-Catholic girl would ever wear, but always wanted. Red shoes are not for good girls. Red shoes are for harlots. Puttanas. An ankle strap? What kind of good girl wears an ankle strap? The strap calls the eye, draws the eye to the shapely ankle and up the slender calf, to the peek of a white slip, the hint of lace beneath the dress. And where the eye is drawn, the mind will wander, and wonder at that lace beneath the dress and, well, plain old beneath the dress. Ankle straps! Puttana.

But this isn’t about lipstick. This is about red, ankle-strap shoes. Every woman needs a pair. There is something about a red shoe; even Dorothy knew it.

Philomina Lanna had red, high-heeled ankle strap shoes, and she was the scandal of her neighborhood. She wore those shoes everywhere. She wore them to work, at the Dixon Ticonderoga Pencil Factory, and called them her “Rosie Rivet heels” when they clacked across the concrete floor. I am told she even wore them to church. She wasn’t much impressed by church. She was all right with God and his son, and she was enamored of Mary. Mary, the mother; Mary, with her crown of stars. Mary who paid special attention to the prayers of women and children, and perhaps especially women without children, like Min, though she probably didn’t know it then, when she walked to work in her red shoes.

She probably didn’t walk, not like she was supposed to walk. She never walked like she was supposed to—in my life, I never once saw her walk with her eyes down or her face hidden. She walked, and her sister (who would be my grandmother one day) walked, and eventually my sister and I would walk with heads held high. She stared the world down and every man in it in the face, daring them to say a word about her shoes. She wore red lipstick, too: the red of Italian blood oranges in the height of summer, as lush as the flesh of those fruits, her lips shining and juicy.

But this isn’t about lipstick. This is about red, ankle-strap shoes. Every woman needs a pair. There is something about a red shoe, even Dorothy knew it. A red shoe can’t be ignored and a woman wearing a red shoe knows it. A woman wearing a red shoe has no interest in being ignored—that’s why the puttanas wear them, because people will notice. Men will notice. They may not remember your name, but they’ll remember those red shoes and the sexy legs in them. Red shoes make your legs sexier. It’s inevitable.

She was in her twenties and unmarried. Divorced, in fact, another scandal for a young Italian woman from the neighborhood, and another one she didn’t give two fucks about. She got permission for her divorce from the monsignor himself, when she walked down to the rectory and tore her blouse open to show the bruises and said: “There. You look at those and you tell me Jesus wants me to be married to the man who gives them to me.” She got her divorce, and took communion the following week.

But that one particular night, the most famous night of the shoes, was the night of a USO dance in Jersey City, by the Hudson where the Navy ships would dock so the boys could come ashore to dance. Min’s father took his daughter aside before she could walk out the door to the dance and he told her, “You dance with any boy who asks you.” Min was notoriously picky, you see—all four foot eight of her liked the tallest boys, with the brownest hair and the darkest eyes. But her father was having none of it. “You dance with any boy who asks you, and I don’t care what he looks like, or where he’s from, or who his father is, or if he has brown eyes or no eyes. You dance with him. Because those boys will leave tomorrow and some of them will never come back. They deserve a dance with a pretty girl. So any boy who asks you to dance, you dance. If they have to have a last memory, let it be you.”

So she danced with every boy, every man who asked her—tall, short, fat, skinny. She laughed when she danced with the red-headed Irish boys from Brooklyn and told them they clashed with her lipstick. She teased the Latin boys by flirting in Italian that was just close enough to Spanish, but not quite. She winked at Jewish boys and asked about their matzoh balls. She danced with them all, and the next morning, the boys left. Their boat never came back. They were torpedoed somewhere in the Atlantic. The boat sank to the bottom of the ocean, somewhere far from dance hall lights that glinted off ripe red lips and ruby heels to match, and it took too many of those dancing boys down with it.

I have six pairs of red shoes and lipstick to match. I learned from Min and her stories, about the power of a scarlet pair that makes a memory. And though I may stand a little taller than four foot eight, I hold my head high when I walk, and I always say yes to a dance.

dawnferchak_headhostDawn Ferchak has been writing since she could hold a crayon in her fat baby hand. While she has moved on from Crayola poems about her pet cat, she remains content with living inside her own head, which is densely populated and has bits that are always on fire. She reviews books at BookshelfBombshells.com and promises to get around to updating her blog, www.wordsbydawn.com.

Christopher Grillo

Spotlight: Fragments of a Shoreline Adolescence; Heroes Tunnel: Confessions of a Working Class Slob.; and Charlene Comes Home From College, May 2012

Fragments of a Shoreline Adolescence

Frankie and I protect our town,
on the scoreboard and at the town fair,
still wearing our jerseys, proud of our colors,

behind the movies against Johnny Ferrara
and the Hamden frats, and when the owner
calls the cops, at the BJ’s wholesale club
across the street.

All these places look different in the day,
when we’re not so helpless to ardent dawn,
so hopeful the street lights along Route 5 flicker
long enough to guide us home for curfew.

And all these places look so different, now,
and anything vanilla still smells like canned tobacco.
Frankie still loves to fight, and I still love to egg him on,
but more often than not we turn the other cheek.


Heroes Tunnel:
Confessions of a Working Class Slob.

Its winter and work has run dry like radiator heat.
Black Ice spreads like ivy between paver decks
and bleeds through the retaining walls I poured all year,
finds pockets of air in the mix and expands.

Its cold and the county is stark and we are broke,
but Frankie smiles, This is too easy.
Like we’ve cased these houses all summer.

We forage for metal through Greenwich mansions
where we’ve worked, the kind no one lives in
but the pool runs ‘till November and grass still gets cut each week.

I remember every front gate code,
which had guest homes with unlocked doors,
but Frankie does the legwork, drives and mans the Sawzall.

On the way home he never even toes the break.
He rides hard, head on a swivel for pigs,
while I swaddle the copper in the back of the van.

On the parkway he hits 80 and never lets off the whip,
pushing that lame horse down the last turn.
In Autumn, its two-lanes are swallowed by postcard foliage,

like driving into a flushing commode
when the sun’s shining behind the trees,
but winter is cruel for letting the flowers die.

We spill out into nothing but concrete and glass in Stratford.
Factory whistles sound beneath the bridge.
Men with sleep-tired eyes pass men with smokestack eyes
under a first shift hour that’s not quite day,

as the blackness of night fails and the sun still stretches its rays,
shades drawn, dressing in the dark
by the dim glow of pawn shop signs.

After the bridge we can see the tunnel,
aptly named for the weight it bears,
two eyes shining orange in the pale morning,
staring out at northbound traffic.

We hit its light like a wave and Frankie drives faster.


Charlene Comes Home From College, May 2012

Charlene is the eternal homecoming queen,
so I know she’ll be back eventually.

She can’t help it, sees high school cafeterias
in her dreams, the lights, the dollar store streamers,

all those other girls, their green eyes averted,
gnawing the strands of fallen up-dos.

Yes, Charlene will surely come home,
because she’s not as smart as she thinks she is

but there’ll be no reception.
She’ll have to announce herself

with uploads from the back seat of the family minivan,
every south of the border sign until they hit Virginia,

screenshots from her iTunes, whatever Indie
shit she found at school and selfies.
Ten or fifteen tasteful selfies.

I won’t check Twitter or open any of her Snapchats.
I won’t have to. I’ll have known for days. I’ll have felt it,

the weight in the air that’s just so hard to breathe,
and whether it’s the lack of oxygen to my brain,

or my general hopeless romanticism, I’ll ask her to dinner,
convinced that this time…

Christopher GrilloChristopher Eugene Grillo is an educational professional and second year MFA candidate at Southern Connecticut State University. He has previously been published in Noctua, The Elm City Review, Up the River, Referential, Drunk Monkeys, and Extracts. Christopher moonlights as a high school football coach at his alma mater North Haven High School.

Alison Rollman

Spotlight: The Feeling of Now

[fiction]

Tonight she’s in a park, sprawled out on her back under the shelter of a scratched-up willow tree. Tomorrow she’ll be here too, maybe, if no one bothers her. But the next day, surely, it’ll be under the awning of some boarded-up shop, or a bench at some park across town, assuming she’s willing to dip into her slowly dwindling wad of cash to take the bus that would get her there.

But tonight all she can think of is the sky—no tomorrow, no day after, no bus ride across town. It’s all now. It’s all of the stars and the swirls of smog mixed up in that big, big, universe. Maybe there’s a Being up there, maybe not. Maybe that’s where we all go once we die. Maybe not. Those stars do tell a lot of maybe. She wonders whether they’ll tell her yes or no anytime soon, whether anything in this lifetime is a straight yes or no in the first place, ‘cus maybe we’re all just waiting for our maybes to play out, while we rest here, under that sky like a blanket above us.

She sinks in deeper into the dirt, wincing as pine needles poke into her thin T-shirt.

Many would hate to be in her place: you know, the dew that makes her shiver in the early light; the way she’s spent the past three nights out and about, no bed, no shower, subsisting on a Coke and one cheap meal a day; the hot, humid summer days that make her sweat like crazy; the rats that sometimes scurry near the edges of her grass-stained blanket when she’s resting at night.

She knows that this kind of life is not sustainable, of course, nor would she want to keep it up for long. In a couple weeks, when the summer comes to a close, she’ll find a job, find somewhere to wash up. But for now, it feels good.

Back home, when her mom told her she’d have to leave, after she caught her with a girl—she left. No apologies, no arguments. Just scooped up the box under her bed where she’d stashed a load of cash since she was young, and left. Didn’t even leave a note. It was almost reassuring to know that she wasn’t the only one who wanted herself out. It was a mutual decision. That kind of life back home, with mom always on her toes, and never feeling like she fit in with anyone else, it wasn’t for her.

This is better, for now at least —’till her savings run out in a week or so’s time. Then she’ll get a job, start her life. It would have been useless staying at home after all, considering that she’ll be done with school in a year, and would then have to start working full-time anyway. Why not start early, with nothing but her own rules to live by? No need to care about whether it’s a boy or a girl she’s fancying. No need to report to her mom exactly what time she’ll be home, exactly where she’s going. No need to read up on people of the past who don’t even matter now anyways, for the sake of teachers who don’t care. Right now she’s just lingering, loitering. It may sound real uncomfortable, but she likes it.

So here she is. This park, two towns away from her mom, from school, from that girl, from the other guys and girls of her past: merely a blur of legs and favorite songs and laughter and stolen kisses and faces she can barely recall. She inhales deeply, letting all those memories whirl around like the smoke dancing in her mind, toxic and captivating. Then she exhales, clearing her mind and focusing on all of the feelings of this place right here. What it feels like, smells like, tastes like, to be resting here in this night, in this air, under this sky. Tonight, it’s all stars, shadows, strange voices, chilly air, and the smell of grass and dirt.

Sometimes, on nights like these, she thinks she feels some sort of odd feeling creep up, strange, yet comfortable. Her belly feels warm, and the corners of her lips have involuntarily turned up just so. It’s weird, feeling this indescribable feeling of now in the unluckiest, unfamiliar, unusual of places.

She looks up at the sky. Stars dotted, somewhat faded by the distant city lights, but they’re there. She sees them. She wonders whether the stars hold the answers to all of her maybes. She inhales, exhales, lets it all go, and just lies there with this feeling inside of her, strange and delightful at the same time.

Alison RollmanAlison Rollman is a senior at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, CA, where she serves as one of her school’s student creative writing leaders. She is a graduate of the Creative Writing Department at the California State Summer School for the Arts and will be attending Pitzer College as a freshman in the fall of 2014. She is a certified yoga teacher and loves gardening, making art, dancing, being outside, and, of course, writing.

Sarah Hahn, Pluto and Persephone / Chris Brown and Rihanna, 2012. Ceramic, 60 x 21 x 21 in.

Spotlight: Gods, Heroes, and Saints Revisited

My work is a reflection of past cultures, distorted by a mirror of aged antiquity, seen through a haze of modern neon lights…

Spotlight: Anne Boleyn’s Purple Gown / Anne Boleyn’s Cravings / Anne Boleyn’s Coronation

Anne Boleyn’s Purple Gown

The first time Henry left a purple bruise,
I sent a message to the velvet merchant.
His hands, the king’s, had touched me tenderly
at the start, although his fingers were always rough.
The calluses from riding brushed across
my cheek, my wrists, the hollow of my throat.
He stroked my fingers, called me sweetheart, tugged
my kirtle’s laces, begged to pull them loose
that he might kiss my pair of pretty doves.
I played the maiden, pushed him away with no,
it is a sin, my lord, till we are wed.
I said this between gasps, as my own hands
clutched like hooks at Henry’s doublet and sleeves.
Those early years were full yes and no.

Then Henry grew furious with no.
Impatient with Wolsey, the Pope, and woman’s virtue,
he seized whatever must belong to him,
and his fingers, heavy with jeweled rings, left marks
like violet half-moons on my olive skin.
I studied these new constellations, saw
the shape of Millie Blount in treason’s flames,
and ordered a velvet gown of Tyrian purple.
So expensive was the cloth—dyed
from tiny Byzantine snails, crushed
by thousands to color a foresleeve’s silken trim—
that it was said to be the shade of kings.
And queens. Katherine still lived, and I
was thirty and not yet crowned, but I wore the gown
with bell-shaped sleeves embroidered in golden thread.
Let them grumble. The court and King would learn
to value true purple, its mortal cost.


Anne Boleyn’s Cravings

When Wolsey wanted needling, I sighed
and said how pleasant it would be
to have, at Lent, some fresh carp
or trout from the Cardinal’s famous ponds
at York Place. A fortnight later,
I dined on fishes stuffed with parsley.

Later, when Wolsey was fallen and dead
and I was married to the king,
I cupped my belly and bragged to the court
that I had a terrible craving for apples.

In Whitehall Palace, that once was York Place,
I sat in Henry’s lap and begged
for cherries, grapes, roasted boar
to help our quickening sons grow strong.
I was a hungry woman then.
The world knew my appetites.


Anne Boleyn’s Coronation

Hideous and beautiful, the dragon
reared its copper head above the Thames,
like St. George’s foe breaching the lake
to gobble up the sacrificial maid.
The serpent’s golden scales shone like oil.
Children cried for their mothers, who lay fainting
at its horrid belching flames, its wings that beat
the brimstone-reeking smoke, its ruby eyes
that glittered like the very coals of hell.

Or so they told me. I did not see the dragon,
leading the water procession on its wherry.
My royal barge, that once was Katherine’s,
floated at the rear, behind the engines
and costumed wild men, behind the mayor
and fireworks, slow as dripping honey.
A wind raised gooseflesh on my pale chest,
though it was May, and nearly provoked tears
from blowing smoke. Finally, at the Tower,
the king, swollen with pride, escorted me
to our private rooms. From those lush apartments
he’d watched the pageant, which he described to me
as rich beyond compare, the cheering crowds
overjoyed to welcome their new queen.
There we briefly rested, briefly kissed
before another gout of ceremony—
banquets, dances, dubbing a herd of knights,
more tableaux vivant of gods and muses,
the Virgin Mary cradling her son.
On Whit Sunday, my belly big before me,
I strode barefoot into Westminster.
St. Edward’s crown, overburdened with jewels,
weighed nearly seven pounds upon my head.
Those lovely Tower rooms, done up so well
in tapestries and freshly shining paint,
I occupied again not three years later.
I wept to see again those velvet cushions,
the colored glass, the feather bed that seemed
it had awaited my return, knowing
I would sleep there just a little longer.
I hated each expensive mockery
my eyes fell upon, until I closed them.
And yet, a golden dragon in the Thames.
That miracle, I wish I could have seen.

Litdish: Mohsin Hamid, Author

Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid is the author of three novels: Moth Smoke, a finalist for thePEN/Hemingway Award; The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a New York Times bestseller that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted for film; and, most recently, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. He is also a columnist for The New York Times Bookends.

 

Zainab Shah: You write in English in a country where most of the population doesn’t speak it. How has your writing, which has garnered critical acclaim globally, been received in Pakistan?

Mohsin Hamid: Pakistani college students read English writing mainly to access the world. I also find they are currently looking for representations of a contemporary alternative reality that is not talked about or written about much, but does exist; this much was clear to me with Moth Smoke, my first novel, and more recently at Lahores’ first Literature Festival, where hundreds of people turned up for my talk. A most telling moment for me was when I received a letter from a religious young man telling me how much he loved reading Moth Smoke—which is about sex, drugs and crime.

ZS: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a short novel written in second person. Why did you chose this form to tell the story of your unnamed protagonist?

MH: What interested me most while I was writing this novel is a changing aesthetic of compression, or how to express big ambitions in a small space. The story of my unnamed protagonist is an age old one, common in lengthy Bollywood films, I wanted to elevate this Bollywood film trope by way of compression. I also drew inspiration from ghazals which again tend to be quite lengthy and about transcendence and longing for an unknown loved one, something you can find in the unnamed protagonist of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Again I was interested in the representation of those same emotions, but in compressing them without diluting their intensity on the page.

[In writing,] there are no rules. And if you want them to be, make your own. Pick your own constraints. Catalyze the imagination of a reader by putting the minimum out there. Leave space for a reader to do their thing and use their imagination.

ZS: Do you have a process? And if so, what is it?

MH: I do and I don’t. It depends really. I almost always throw away the first couple drafts. I tend to write with my eyes and edit with my ears, always reading aloud what I’ve written. It has to sound like somebody is speaking, the character of that somebody should be clear. In that sense sometimes I feel like being an actor is a big part of being a writer. My plan for this novel was originally to assemble a collage of different voices, at least that’s what I was thinking when I wrote ‘Terminator: Attack of the Drone,’ published in The Guardian in 2011.

ZS: What are your recommendations for writers?

MH: There are no rules. And if you want them to be, make your own. Pick your own constraints. Catalyze the imagination of a reader by putting the minimum out there. Leave space for a reader to do their thing and use their imagination.

ZS: What kind of research do you do before or while writing a novel?

MH: No research. I do rely a lot on my powers of observation and the conversations I have with people around me.

ZS: What are you interested in writing about next?

MH: Women. And women’s points of view.

ZS: Why?

MH: I think the oppression of women in the form of honor killings in Pakistan exists ultimately because people are afraid of the potential power of women, an idea I’d like to explore. Also because now I have a three-year-old daughter, Dina.

Perhaps it’ll be a children’s story for her about being a woman. Every night I tell her a bedtime story but she has such an amazing imagination, she’s actually the one that ends up telling me the story she wants to hear by questioning what I’m telling her. She keeps me on my toes. It’s good exercise for any storyteller.

ZS: Is it safe to say that’s what your next novel will be about?

MH: I don’t know. I hate talking about it. There’s something precious in having a secret, and the desperation to share the secret keeps you writing like a long-distance relationship keeps you yearning.

ZS: One book you wish you wrote?

MH: None really… actually, maybe Charlotte’s Web, since it casts death as a natural, cyclical process—it’s sad, but not frightening.

ZS: What’s your unwinding process like?

MH: Can’t say in an interview (with a chuckle). I had a misspent youth, and continue to misspend my leisure time.

ZS: Parting words?

MH: Life is very significantly chance. Love is the only real valuable technique to deal with life and chance.

ZS: Favorite dinosaur?

MH: Pterodactyl.

_____________

From How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia:

Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. It’s true of how-to books, for example. And it’s true of personal improvement books too. Some might even say it’s true of religion books. But some others might say that those who say that should be pinned to the ground and bled dry with the slow slice of a blade across their throats. So it’s wisest simply to note a divergence of views on that subcategory and move swiftly on.

None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one. And slippery can be good. Slippery can be pleasurable. Slippery can provide access to what would chafe if entered dry.

This book is a self-help book. Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose new sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since you’ve never in your life seen any of these things.

The whites of your eyes are yellow, a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus afflicting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum. It kills only about one in fifty, so you’re likely to recover. But right now you feel like you’re going to die.

Your mother has encountered this condition many times, or conditions like it anyway. So maybe she doesn’t think you’re going to die. Then again, maybe she does. Maybe she fears it. Everyone is going to die, and when a mother like yours sees in a third-born child like you the pain that makes you whimper under her cot the way you do, maybe she feels your death push forward a few decades, take off its dark, dusty headscarf, and settle with open-haired familiarity and a lascivious smile into this, the single mud-walled room she shares with all of her surviving offspring.

What she says is, “Don’t leave us here.”

Zainab Shah is a Pakistani writer completing her MFA at Antioch. She lives in New York and can most often be found in parks.

Support indie bookstores and find a copy of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia near you with IndieBound, or order it through The Independent Online Booksellers Association!

Click here to buy Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia on Amazon!

Litdish: Kate Maruyama, Author

Kate Maruyama

Kate Maruyama’s Harrowgate is a novel that is finding ways to intrigue audiences across multiple genres in that the novel takes a different direction in horror than has been the dominant trend in the genre over the past decade. Harrowgate holds a unique advantage in modern genre fiction by Maruyama’s re-modernization of a classic sub-genre, the Gothic horror novel, a form that many writers within the genre have abandoned of late, in that the driving market trends have favored urban horror, paranormal romance, and splatterpunk.

The horror label is a genre distinction that’s at once all-encompassing and a bit misleading. Harrowgate, like many other literary works of horror, relies more on terror than horror—the psychological element over the physically graphic, to the effect that the suspense of the narrative’s terror is there to delight the reader, rather than shock them—Ann Radcliffe famously summarized this distinction as: “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”

Maruyama’s Harrowgate—a classic Gothic horror story, written in a post-Twilight world—is in the rare position of having an audience that is receptive to the novel’s narrative, and an audience who is willing to expand their horizons in terms of expectation—Harrowgate is a decided break from the dominant genre trends, and as such, Maruyama is modernizing a classic form and re-introducing it to a whole new generation of horror readers. Maruyama has stated that Harrowgate was not originally conceived of as a horror novel; rather, when Harrowgate began, Maruyama believed that the finished novel would be more akin to a Romantic tragedy—which, understandably, makes Harrowgate’s transition to Gothic horror one that seems natural. Harrowgate, a novel that seems at home amongst titles such as Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches sagas, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and fellow AULA alumna Lara Parker’s Dark Shadows novels, feels poised to take the horror genre in a new direction, by modernizing a classic form.

Lunch Ticket’s Miriam González-Poe sat down with Kate Maruyama in the weeks before Harrowgate’s official release, to discuss the origins, evolution, and future of Harrowgate, which Maruyama has excerpted for Lunch Ticket readers to enjoy.

Miriam González-Poe: Where did you come up with the idea for Harrowgate?

Kate Maruyama: I don’t exactly know when things start from a compulsion of writing, but I’d written a screenplay several years ago and at the end of it, the punch line was: ‘His wife and kids are really dead.’ It was a terrible screenplay, and I put it down; but, the one thing that wouldn’t leave me was about five pages in the end. ‘Cause the thing is: Your wife and kid are dead. What do you do now?

MGP: Do you believe in ghosts?

KM: I actually have a site, Harrowgatebook.tumblr.com where people can go and share their haunted stories, because everybody I know has one… Growing up, we never talked about ghosts at my house, but even my very practical mother posted a story on the site about being visited by an apparition that floated over her bed in an inn in Scotland. When she went downstairs and asked, ‘Have you been having trouble with the room, because last night it suddenly got very cold,’ they responded, ‘Oh I see you’ve met the vicar!’ My favorite kinds of ghost stories are those, the ones that are very matter-of-fact.

As for me, it’s one of those thingsI was talking about this with my son recentlywhere I don’t believe, but I don’t disbelieve. This is the area of life where damn creepy shit happens because there are those things that are unexplained.

I don’t think that any book knows what it is when you start it out, though. I think it has to be written; the story has to be all the way told, and then you can start classifying it as one thing or another.

MGP: Did you always know that you wanted to write horror?

KM: No, and I actually never thought of myself as a genre writer. It’s funny, when 47North, my publishing company, bought the book, I was actually kind of surprised. They’re all horror and science fiction, and I’d always thought of Harrowgate as a literary novel with spooky elements, a love story, but there’s actually a lot of evil creepy stuff that happens in it. It turns out that it’s definitely a horror book.

I don’t think that any book knows what it is when you start it out, though. I think it has to be written; the story has to be all the way told, and then you can start classifying it as one thing or another.

MGP: How did Harrowgate evolve from Romantic tragedy into a classic form of the horror genre?

KM: It started with a basic romantic tragedy problem: She’s dead, he’s alive, and it’ll never work. But as I started to ask questions about their worldwhy is Sarah here? How does her being dead affect the day to day? How does a kid who was never living grow? The horror emerged. I had questions for Greta, the meddling doula as well. Why is she here? How is she involved in Sarah being here? As I started answering those, it became a bit more apparent. And once I recognized where I wasdancing around in this horror worldI could play with it. That also became a challenge. How to avoid the usual tropes, to keep things terrifying without having scenes we’d read or seen a thousand times before. I had to avoid, “Dr. James explains it all to you.” and I had to avoid, “Supernatural battle with the bad guy.” Not only because I wanted to avoid redundancies, but because they didn’t serve the story. But I had room to play with some horror conventions as welldefine this supernatural world in which my characters exist and explore with how it messes with time, how the living are affecting the dead and vice versa.

MGP: You mentioned earlier that you had first qualified Harrowgate as a love story. Love and the loss of love are dominant themes in both Romantic tragedy and Gothic horror—how did your previous work as a writer influence how Harrowgate evolved?

KM: I wrote romantic comedies for a long time. I think I am always looking at different natures of love; when it works and when it doesn’t work. Love is sort of my favorite thing to poke at. And I’ve done it in a lot of different ways. That’s always the constant.

I can say that through the course of telling this story, I was able to touch on stuff that came up personally for me, too, because I was very much coming from a place of just having had a newborn. All the things a woman goes through; all the things that a couple goes through. The alienation a father feels at seeing the bond between a mother and a newborn. How a family just completely changes when a baby comes on the scene. It’s very isolating and weird. So in getting to know my characters, I was able to channel a career woman and how life completely changes when she has an infantexcept that in Sarah’s case she’s dead.

I had a shrink friend say, “This is actually about boundaries.” And I said, Yes, it is! Because the bad guy is a very intrusive doula named Greta and everybody is always stepping over each other’s boundaries. The main character, Michael, is setting up something to keep borders up between himself and the outside world to preserve them; trying to see how long they can stay together.

MGP: What obstacles did you encounter with regards to the market trending towards paranormal romance, and how did you finally place Harrowgate with an agent/publisher who saw the merit in publishing a horror novel that went against the market trend?

KM: I’m no market expert, but I can say that this book took a while to sell and I’m deeply grateful for my tireless agent, John Silbersack, who believed in the book itself all along. I got my agent through a dear friend who knew the pitch would be up his alleyhe asked for the MS immediately and read it and responded over the weekend. I realize that is an insane kind of luck, speed and kismet and I feel for my friends who are in the submission process for agents. It can be endless. When the book went to market, we got a lot of positive responses from editors who just couldn’t get it past the brass. This book is an odd bird: it’s a romantic story that has a male protagonist. It’s a horror novel, but doesn’t necessarily follow the same tropes as other horror novels. It’s a book that might have needed to spoil itself to sell itself. But John stuck with it. It had been out there for a year and had several passes and I met with him, terrified he was going to say, “Well, I tried, that’s it.” But what he said was, “I really like this book, I think it’s a good book and I think we will eventually find a home for it.” I am deeply grateful that Alex Carr from 47North took a shine to it in such an enthusiastic, whole-hearted way and here we are.

MGP: Harrowgate relies more or terror than horror to build suspense, keep the reader engaged, and to reveal Michael’s character throughout the narrative. How did not setting out to write a horror novel help or hinder you as the story progressed and you realized that you had a different story to tell than the one you’d initially envisioned?

KM: Ah! I didn’t really envision this as not a horror novel, so much as I was in the middle of writing the story as more and more horror elements came into play. So it wasn’t a hindrance as the horror elements emerged organically.  This is a normal, loving couple, but something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. When I was close to draft, I read, The Time Traveller’s Wife and I was thrilled because I thought, “Here’s a book that’s done well that’s in my genre.” I hadn’t been able to define the genre yet.

I think of the horror elements as magical realism in a way. People in their ordinary lives, but as two of those people are dead, some weird-ass shit happens. Sarah and Michael have to be practicalthey have to try to make things work as best they can, so they are going on trying to be normal. I mean, what would you do? But it soon becomes clear they can’t be normal as their situation is extraordinarythings don’t work right in this world. Michael’s in hot water and things around him get more and more uncomfortable and weirdI’m hoping this makes the reader increasingly uncomfortable as well. The absurdity of his situation, the crazy stuff that runs through his mind is what kept me moving through his story.

When I’m in the middle of the book, I’m asking more questions about story and character, What would they do? How does this work? than my duty to a particular genre. We have to serve the story first and the story is its own animal.

MGP: Did not setting out to write a horror novel play a part in allowing you more room to explore the genre the way you wanted to, by removing the genre’s set of expectations from the back of your mind? Or was it intimidating, once you realized that you were writing a work of literary horror?

KM: When I’m in the middle of the book, I’m asking more questions about story and character, What would they do? How does this work? than my duty to a particular genre. We have to serve the story first and the story is its own animal. I like how Steven King in his craft book On Writing, compared writing a novel to excavating a dinosaur skeleton. It’s already there beneath the surface; it’s up to us to get it out of the ground whole. That belief that the story is already there, that you need to ask it questions and find its length and breadth is exactly how I proceed. While I was working on this novel, Rob Roberge, a brilliant writer and an amazing mentor told me, “If you sit quietly, and work hard enough, the book will make itself apparent to you.” That struck me and that blind faith is what keeps me sitting down at the table even on shitty writing days. So I imagine that maybe this was always a literary horror, I just didn’t have the words to define it yet.

I think that all of us are world building, from sci-fi to horror to urban fantasy to literary fiction. Even if you’re in the midst of a realistic family drama, you have to think of how their world workshow each character affects another, how events in their past and future inform everything that happens. There are rules in a family, such as the father would never do this, as he served in WWIIor the mother would not be able to react in a certain way because of…or the kid couldn’t possibly have this piece of information. There are rules in the society of a town that will also affect what happens in this family. Sarah and Michael’s rules just worked a little differently.

MGP: Do you think you’ll re-visit writing in horror again? How did the process of writing Harrowgate differ from writing traditional literary fiction?

KM: My next novelnow at marketis a literary novel. I didn’t sit down and say, “Enough of this horror stuff! I need to write something literary,” it just happened to be the next thing I got to. And it came from one moment in a breakfast nook with my friend Toni Ann Johnson in which she said, “You love classic movies so much. You should write about that.” And I was off to the races. If you can call three years a race. And the book I’m working on now, it’s too soon to talk about. To go back to Steven King’s simile, I know there’s a dinosaur in that rock anywhere and I might have a piece of a tailbone…

But yes, I’d love to re-visit horror. I have to wait for the right story to make itself apparent.

MGP: So, what does a typical day of writing look like for you?

KM: Well, I have two kids. I write any time I can, because again, having two kids, the time gets small, and I also teach writing at a few places and do editing work.

So, schedule is everything. And schedule can also mean just that time you find around the edges. Leonard Chang says that if you sit down for an hour a day and you write only one page a day, you will have 365 pages by the end of the year. That’s a good thing to remember. As long as you are chipping away and moving forward it’s a good thing.

MGP: What was the writing & revision process like for Harrowgate?

KM: Every book can always use a re-write! When I was in my last semester at Antioch University Los Angeles, what I most wanted to do was a revision of the entire manuscript of Harrowgate. That was the second draft, out of what ended up being 12 or 13 drafts. I got an agent in November of that year and he made me re-write the book three times.

MGP: How did you know when Harrowgate was finished?

KM: Well, my Dad is a painter and he says, ‘You’ve got to know when it’s done. Just take your paintbrush off, because you’ll ruin it.’ I don’t think that’s always true with prose. Sometimes I’ve had students who take out good stuff because they are just panicked and are constantly changing. I do think you have to know when to put down the computer and stop for the day, but I think that you can always find other things that you would like to change. That always goes on. You have to come to a balance. I know many writers who aren’t writing because they get stuck by that inner critic. Their inner critic says Why are you writing this? This is stupid. Those are the demons you have to put aside for that first draft. You have to let that go. You have to be content to know that it may be a pile of shit at the end of the day but it’s through the revision process that you’re going to turn it into something worthwhile. I know so many professional writers now who are doing quite well, who are still contending with the same demons as first year graduates. They still have these voices in their heads, but the difference is they sit down and work anyway. And that’s the difference between the successful writers and those that aren’tthat daily conquest.

You have to come to a balance. I know many writers who aren’t writing because they get stuck by that inner critic. Their inner critic says Why are you writing this? This is stupid. Those are the demons you have to put aside for that first draft. You have to let that go.

MGP: I’m going to do a little James Lipton here and end by asking you what your favorite swear word is?

KM: Fuck. I would say the most overused one for me would be fuck. But, I swear so much I can’t even keep track.

_____________

The following is an excerpt from Kate Murayama’s Harrowgate. Enjoy!

 

Michael’s wife Sarah and child Tim are dead, but living with him in his apartment as ghosts. The family is trying to make things work, but time is slippery and a creepy doula named Greta has wormed her way into their existence, claiming to be the key to keeping them together. Every time anyone comes over, Sarah disappears to a dark place where time slips for her. A few hours of Michael’s time can mean weeks for her. His mother is coming to visit, which is unavoidable as he is meant to be grieving.

 

Michael

He tries to cheat bedtime. Around five, he takes advantage of Sarah’s hazy grasp on time. He starts yawning and stretching. He could let her disappear when his mother comes, but he hopes that if he can get her to sleep, she won’t go. If she doesn’t go, Tim won’t go, and there won’t be any danger of time slipping.

In the living room, Tim’s in the Pack ‘n Play, which is the modern version of a playpen, with padded edges and mesh sides. Sarah got tired of chasing him and the boy seems to be content sitting and playing with stacking cups. He can’t stack them yet, but the brightly colored plastic cups make a great noise when clacked together.

Michael watches him for a moment before interfering. He’s such a big boy already. Michael smiles grimly, remembering that parents always say time slips away when you have children. His case is the extreme version. One year in a week.

Michael crouches near the Pack ‘n Play and gets his face down near Tim. He says, “Hey, buddy.”

Tim shrieks happily when he sees his father’s face. Michael moves his chin to rest on top of the playpen and Tim gets up to meet him. “Dada. Dadadadadadadada.”

Second word. Michael sees a look of unadulterated joy in Tim’s eyes as he squeals and pats his father’s face with his soggy paws. “Dada. Dada. Dada!” He starts bobbing up and down with little grunts and his diaper ruckles as he does so. He knows Michael. By name now. The love that wells up in Michael for this little slobbery creature of intelligence is too much for him.

His voice cracks. “Hey, buddy. Dada.” He grins, pointing to himself. “Dada.” He points to Tim. “Timmy. Timmy.”

Sarah says, “Hey, when did he become Timmy?” She’s looking at them, smiling that smile, the one that came with the baby.

Michael reaches into the playpen and picks the boy up, raising him high in the air. He feels dizzy from the motion and brings him quickly down to his chest again. He breathes deeply, but tries to sound normal for Sarah. “Timmy. Don’t you see it?”

“Dada. Dada. Mama. Mamamamamama.” Tim looks from Sarah to Michael. He grabs his father’s face in both hands, looking him soberly in the eyes, making a declaration, with gravity, “Dada.” Michael stirs with pride as if he’s been named or knighted or blessed, and he pulls Tim to him and hugs him, rocking him back and forth. If he could hug him into his chest, fill his body with the boy, he would. He struggles to remember that he had another agenda.

He says, “Time for your bath, little man.”

Sarah says, “Already? He’s only just eaten.”

“Time slides by when your baby is talking and playing and, how did he get so big?”

Sarah smiles proudly, but a look of worry flickers across her face. Michael knows that when these thoughts come, it’s best to have a change of scene. He hands the baby to Sarah, saying, “I’ll run the bath. You get a towel and some jammies.”

________________

Michael and Sarah are in the bedroom, propped up on the bed reading books, when there’s a knock on the door. All the yawning and stretching he could muster would not persuade Sarah to turn off the light. Tim’s sleeping, safe in his room. Sarah looks up, alarmed. The temperature drops. Michael has to try.

He says, “You…I don’t know how much control you have over it. But you don’t have to go. It’s only my mom. I couldn’t send her away. She’s brought dinner. Then she’ll leave. Please don’t go. Whenever you do…” He should stay away from details. But he doesn’t want Tim to age, Sarah to feel lost. The tea was supposed to help. Maybe if he’d given her another cup before bed.

She’s gone. The room is empty. Like that. The air becomes warm again. This should be comforting, but Michael sees the book, the frost thawing off its cover where Sarah’s hands held it. The rumpled sheets. The dent in the stack of pillows where she was leaning is rising back into place, filling the void.

She was reading Wallace Stevens. In life, she always read poetry when she was troubled. It calmed her.

It takes all of his strength not to open the nursery door to check on the boy. He tells himself that it doesn’t matter if Tim is there or not. If anything, opening the door might make Tim vanish, if he’s there at all. And it’s not something he can control.

 

Sarah

Sarah didn’t want to go, she tried not to. When he said, “Don’t go,” she looked at her Wallace Stevens and repeated to herself, “Kiss, cats: for the deer and the dachshund are one. Kiss, cats: for the deer and the dachshund are…”

It wasn’t enough. She was gone. The Dark isn’t as scary as last time. She doesn’t know what brought her here, but she feels that she’s here in a more concrete way. She scrapes her feet along the stone–like floor and they make noise. This is hopeful. She holds her breath, listening in the dark and hears a sleepy mumble. She senses Tim is here. It’ll be okay.

The tree is oddly in an autumn phase, its gold and red and orange leaves blowing in a breeze she can neither feel nor hear. Something else is off and it takes her a moment to see that the leaves are falling up. Back onto the tree. She cannot think about what it might mean. It makes as much sense as her not being able to see Tim. Or the existence of this place at all.

Kiss, cats: for the deer and the dachshund are one. She wishes she’d memorized the rest. It would be something to do. She gets down on her knees and, listening for Tim, makes her way toward him.

 

Michael

When his mother leaves, Michael can’t find Sarah. Or Tim. And all the fears come back and the certainty that he doesn’t know anything about this world. Should he go see Dr. James since she’s gone anyway? Last time it didn’t affect time that much. He opens the door and looks down the hall at the doctor’s door. Last time. But the time before, it had taken months away.

He remembers the promise he made himself, to stay in the apartment until the funeral. He closes the door. It’s eleven; too late to call, anyway. He wishes the doctor hadn’t taken his books with him. At least he could read. He could read until she returned, and at least feel like he was doing something for her, or about her.

He goes to the fridge; it’s still full of food and, thanks to Mom being Mom, he now has about three days’ worth of leftovers. He doesn’t need to order groceries. He finished paying the bills and chucked them down the mail chute earlier. He has a pile of paperwork to get through in his office, but it seems that any time he even thinks about going over the statistics from his last trip, he goes back to the last trip, and missing her call, and coming home, and the fact that he wasn’t here. He can’t face it now. It’s late, he should go to bed.

He checks the nursery. Twice. He paces the hall for ten minutes in a fevered vertigo and catches himself on a wall before he realizes that he isn’t helping anyone. Finally, he does go to bed, curling himself around Sarah’s pillow that no longer smells like her. Maybe there’s time for a little grief.

 

It’s been too long in the Dark. Maybe Sarah’s being punished because she tried to cut Greta out.

Tim has started talking. Simple nursery rhymes. Small sentences.

It’s been too long in this place. She knows from watching the tree. All of its autumn leaves re-stuck to its branches, turned dark green, then light, then shrunk to a bare froth of green fuzz before shrinking to red buds. Time in reverse seems longer. Only clearly it is moving forward at the same rate for Tim.

They sit in the Dark. Sleep in the Dark. Sometimes Tim toddles off, but he finds his way back to her. She’s beginning to think he can see in this place, where she cannot.

Tim likes games of repetition. This is supposed to be typical for a two-year-old.

He says, “Dark, Mommy, Mommy, dark, Mommy, dark.”

She says, “Yes, Tim, it is dark.”

They’ve been here too long. Maybe Greta’s punishing her.

Then he gets into the rhythm of the words for the fun of saying them: “Dark, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, dark, Mommy, dark, Mommy…”

It’s maddening. She thinks of every nursery rhyme she can to entertain him. Pease Porridge Hot. Roses are Red. Pat-a-cake. But after fifteen rounds of Three Little Kittens, Sarah’s ready to scream. Only she can’t. It would scare Tim. She tries to tell him stories, but he’s not old enough to understand and he grows impatient and interrupts or wanders off. She loves him so dearly, but he’s no conversationalist. She misses Michael. She misses grown-up conversation.

Greta’s definitely punishing her. Sarah’s beginning to hate her, but Greta is human contact and she has the power to pull Sarah out of this place.

This place. Is this worse than death? Could she and Tim be happy together in some sort of heaven now?

“Dark, Mommy. Dark.”

What has she done to her boy?

Miriam A. González-Poe was born in Key Biscayne and raised in Miami Springs, Florida. She studied Telecommunications and Photography at FIU, and has been a copywriter for radio and television, and a creative in the marketing field. She lives in West Hills, California, with her twin 14 year-old daughters, three amazing felines and a handsome, slightly eccentric Significant Other. She is currently working on her MFA in Creative Non-fiction at Antioch University. Her likes include wine, music and metaphysics.

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Annotation Nation

Spotlight: Closing the Bar / Enough to Stand On / Letter to Youngstown

Closing the Bar

Backed up to our favorite piece of wall, we’re at Cedars the week before it closes and my friend says she’s been coming down since her bartender boyfriend snuck her in. So many Saturday nights of garage bands and traveling shows, lights and that sound that rattles the ribcage. Blues, grizzled harmonica player stepping up from the floor for a few numbers. Acoustic guitar by himself on the patio. Halloween costumes that took weeks to construct. All those conversations and cocktails. It’s going to reopen somewhere else in a month but everyone’s there, I haven’t seen you in years, cell phone cameras flashing. This was more than just a bar written on the wall. We danced here.

The patio is decked out in little white lights, my friends lovely in their jeans and boots and the music’s telling us to fall in love. I have a few memories here, a fundraiser for Sonny’s heart. One night my friend made me prove I could drive home so I walked the line in the parking lot singing Mull Of Kintyre O mist rolling in from the sea, even though Youngstown, Ohio, is landlocked, just a skinny river easing through the valley. And one Halloween I came down dressed as Flannery O’Connor. All night I said, A good man is hard to find, even though that isn’t true.


Enough to Stand On

Mud and streamers of dry grass
and candy wrappers dripped down
the porch columns, second and third attempt
at a robin’s nest. I watched her while
listening to you from Wisconsin,
your boss screaming. We’ve had rain and wind
every day, maybe the mud was too wet,
the ledge too slim, or open to storms.
When my boyfriend saw the scraps,
so much work by these small feet,
he cut plywood and widened the ledge,
said we’d fill the drilled holes later.
The robin’s been back and we’re waiting for
a glimpse of blue, little fluffs
with origami mouths. I guess
I’m telling you that sometimes much
is against us, and then here comes
a good thing we don’t even understand.
It’s luck, sure, and work, but
it’s not like we can overcome anything,
nor that we’re always sunk. If she stays,
the robin, I’ll send pictures.


Letter to Youngstown

Dear Youngstown, dear Mahoning River
Valley, dear Mill Creek, Brier Hill,
Cornersburg, North Heights, Austintown,
dear Poland and Liberty,
dear urban artists, suburban teenagers,
rural farmers, frackers, ichthyologists,
snappers, eagles, accidental brown bear
wandering in from Pennsylvania, dear deer
leaping into traffic, fawning surprise.

Dear kids of Connecticut Yankees,
Italians, Slovaks, Lebanese, Greeks,
Puerto Ricans, Russians, Southern Blacks,
Welsh, Indians, Appalachians, Hungarians,
Irish, eat your corned beef, pierogis,
latkes, meatballs, baklava, gyros,
falafel, greens, fish fry, tamales,
eat your wings, your ribs, your foot
long, pickled knuckles, blood
sausages, pasties, poppadums, gelato.

Let’s face it, dear, embrace it: rust+belt =
Rust Belt Brewery in the empty B&O station,
Rust Belt Artists sculpting scrap steel,
old bakery-turned-studios,
mirrors framed with wood
from fallen houses, dear potters,
your slip is showing.
Up the hill, Youngstown State U.,
dear old You Screwed Up, the dream’s
still for sale, at millennial prices.

Dear finance majors, musicians, physicists,
nurses, writers, political scientists, actors,
philosophers, first-in-the-family diploma
seekers, drop-outs, drop-ins, commuters,
scholars–forget knowing
where you came from. You know.
Remember the world is full
of places like Youngstown,
and places nothing like Youngstown.

Dear race, dear card-carrying hatred,
dear kids of the 1500 brought up
from the South to break the steel strike,
dear kids of the KKK elected to office,
black and white City Council, Wall Street
crash, demolitions list, gang symbols,
dear legal handguns, you’re killing us.

Dear urban farmer selling greens
from beds raised above the lead,
dear hoop houses, heaps of mulch
and compost, gladiolas spiking up
where there was scruff from an abandoned
lawn, wheelbarrows of urbanite off to
the landfill. Dear skinny kid packing
bags of Iron Roots spinach, you grew that,
you got your GED.

Dear Occupy Youngstown with your
OY sign in Christmas tree lights, Defend
Youngstown, Youngstown Neighborhood
Development Corporation painting curtains
on window boards to look like
someone’s home, Friends of the Mahoning,
Grow Youngstown filling my car
with organic apples and muddy potatoes,
Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative,
it ain’t over. The fat lady
isn’t even warming up. She isn’t even
on the census–walked away from that
nice house. Let’s buy it and fix it up.

 Karen Schubert is recipient of a 2012 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award and 2013 residency at Headlands Center for the Arts. Her third chapbook, I Left My Wings on a Chair (Kent State Press 2014) is a Wick Poetry Center selection. Her work appears or is forthcoming in terrain.org, Best American Poetry blog, MiPOesias, quickly, and Ohio Poetry Anthology. She received an MFA from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts.

Spotlight: The Mason Jar

I thought of my mother as I waited for the museum’s copier to do its work. I watched the green light scan across my retinas and remembered leaning into her, folding myself small into the space between her chin and her lap, feeling the raspy rumble of her voice as I stared into the fire until my eyes swam with spots.

The stories she told. I can remember how they felt when they wrapped around me. I sat as she told folk tales, her rhythmic Spanish becoming the chant of a sorcerer, conjuring worlds and plucking each word out of the air as easily as song. She even told me of La Llorona in her husky whisper, not barring the scariest of stories from my ears.

Pero, no te preocupes, mija,” she always added. “Te tengo.” She had me.

The copier beeped and I collected the papers wearily. I was underemployed. Studies showed that most recent graduates were, that very few got jobs in their fields, and that life was tough. It’s all about experience, they said. To get into grad school, you had to have experience working in a museum. To get experience working in a museum, you needed a degree from grad school. The paradox.

In the winter, I worked at a ski shop, too. In the summer, I tried to spend as little as possible.

The good thing about being less challenged was the noticing. In a city like Santa Fe, there’s plenty to see. Even the buildings have personalities, which says something about the people themselves. I noticed the Navajo woman who came to the museum every single week on the free admission days. She didn’t wander through like the tourists did. Every time, she would pick a single room, going around and reading every word on the placards. Then she’d sit in the middle and just look.

In the days, I thought of friendship and firelight. In the nights, I dreamt of coyote howls and La Llorona, coming to devour my soul.

I noticed the old couple who still kept up with the latest fashions who ate at my typical lunch spot, a Mexican restaurant (a fusion of cultures! they boasted) with bright colors, round tables, and low ceilings. I noticed the young man who ate there almost every day–the way he always loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves to the elbows, the fact that he read Dostoevsky while he waited for his food, the way he joked with the waiters. I was eighty percent sure that he lived in my apartment building, but I never asked.

Noticing wasn’t enough, though, to atone for the stifling pressure of ritual and monotony. My life was a sparse collection of nights and days, of repetition and missed connections. Sometimes I thought about buying a dog. We used to have one when I was younger, a terrier named Lucita. She ran away.

In the days, I thought of friendship and firelight. In the nights, I dreamt of coyote howls and La Llorona, coming to devour my soul.

I left work with a desire to wander. I walked along the shaded streets in the direction of downtown Santa Fe, down Canyon Road, peeking into the galleries of artwork I would never afford. I wound my way toward the city’s center, past “Trading Posts” and sculpture gardens, squat, rounded Adobe buildings and restaurants, and found myself at El Portal—The Palace of the Governors. It’d been there since the 1600s and looked like something out of an old Western. As usual, the Navajos sat beneath the colonnade, leaning back in their lawn chairs and Yankees caps with their blankets stretched out before them. Each handmade treasure occupied a specific, organized space. Silver, copper, turquoise, coral. Hand-hammered, shaped into pendants, guitar picks, bookmarks. The sun winked off it all, making it look like a heavenly city, ethereal and alive.

I picked my way in silence through the colonnade. It was congested with tourists who crawled around, bargaining, holding up jewelry, a humming chatter of accents, laughter, and crinkling cash. Somewhere nearby, a crow squawked at me. I paused to look down at a few belt buckles–hammered silver, set with turquoise.

“It represents the sun,” came a deliberate voice. “Fours. New life.”

“I know,” I said, quiet, flickering my gaze to hers. “The Zia.” You couldn’t be a proper New Mexican if you didn’t recognize the Zia symbol–it’s on the flag.

“Where are you from?” she asked politely. I now recognized her as my chronic museum-goer. As I met her eyes, I wondered that she hadn’t already recognized me.

“I’m from here. I know you,” I said, tilting my head. “You come to the museum every week. I always see you there.”

She smiled. “So you do. Here, take a closer look.” She rubbed the silver with a cloth and I squatted down, balancing shakily, resting my forearms on my jeans.

I studied her. She pretended to be busy with the belt buckle, but I could tell she felt me watching. She was at least fifty or sixty, but it was hard to tell. Her eyes were startlingly lucid, lambent with an odd sort of light. Wrinkles crossed her brown skin, scrunching the corners of her eyes and mouth. Her nose curved down at the end in a question. She wore her hair loose. It fell nearly to her waist and had almost been claimed by white, a few stubborn strands of black still holding their ground.

“Do you like art?” I asked.

Her eyes flicked up, dark and warm. “Not particularly,” she replied. I didn’t know what to say to that. “Do you?”

“I…” my lips pursed. “Of course I do. I love it. That’s why I’m working there. I mean, it’s not ideal, but I’m around the thing that I love.”

“Good. You can never be too sure,” she returned. “Too many people are cornered into being what they are not. And there’s great tragedy in being what you are not.” She handed me the buckle.

I ran my thumb along the hammered indentations, each dip a tiny fingerprint. “So what do you come to the museum for, if it’s not for the art?”

“I like to learn, and I like to watch the people there.” She quirked a smile. “Have you ever had the pleasure of seeing someone look at something they love?” she asked. I nodded. “There’s nothing like seeing a person’s face in awe. Most people will give something a cursory glance and nod, already focused on the next thing. But it’s worth it for the few who are truly moved. It’s lovely, watching someone love.”

I grinned. “How much for the belt buckle?”

“Thirty,” she replied, matter-of-fact.

“Twenty-five?” I asked.

She gave me a look. “This stuff isn’t easy to make…”

“I’m a starving recent graduate?” I tried.

She considered. “Twenty-five, if you come back and see me.”

I was surprised. “I’ll take it,” I said, doling out the cash. I offered a hand. “Julia.”

“Alice,” she said.

I returned often. I didn’t really mind that my only friend was an old Navajo woman. We chatted about a lot of things, and although I sometimes felt that I should tell her about my odd dreams, I didn’t want to bring them up. She told me some about herself but usually turned the questions back on me. It was a kind gesture, but I continued to brush off her more serious inquiries, and so we continued in this sort of dance.

My apartment complex splayed itself out like a fat, pale lizard in a dingy part of Santa Fe. It was hidden enough that the builders had forgotten to style the building into something “authentic” and tourist-pleasing and simply covered the squat, concrete building with washed-out adobe. My location was nice, though, because past the muddy streets and chain link fences, a sea of desert awaited.

I pulled on my boots and hauled my garbage outside one night, dumping it out front. None of my far-off friends believed me when I told them how cold the desert got at night, flipping quickly to a darker extreme. That night was especially cold, and the dark air seemed to cling wetly to my skin. I was heading back inside when I felt a shiver run up my back. I turned.

A coyote huddled a few feet away, shuddering. A car drove by on the road, and instead of reflecting the light, its eyes seemed to suck it in, cavernous and deadened. It shrank away from the beams. I took a step back and it met my eyes directly. I froze. It took a step closer, onto the pavement, and I couldn’t move or look away. Its form seemed to grow, and for a moment it shrieked into a human shape. I blinked, too paralyzed to scream, and it was a coyote again.

I heard a bark and the coyote hesitated. A dog trotted up, leash trailing behind, growling low in its throat. When I looked back the coyote was gone, and a single crow croaked off into the desert. I let myself breathe, slouching down and wondering if I’d dreamt once too often of La Llorona.

The dog’s demeanor changed immediately and it grinned good-naturedly at me, floppy ears twitching. I scratched behind them and its tail began to thwack against my shins.

“Max! What are you doing?” I heard a man shout. The aforementioned Max looked up at me, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.

“He’s just saying hello,” I said, glancing up to see my neighbor. He was the one who ate lunch at my restaurant, who read Russian novels as he loosened his ties. He was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt now, bouncing up on the balls of his feet. Now that we were face to face, I noticed a smattering of freckles across his upturned nose and a scar that spanned his cheek. He smiled at me, tilting his head. “Do you…?”

“Do you have lunch at The Shed?” I asked.

“Yes!” he grinned. “You sit in the corner booth.”

I nodded, smiling, and introduced myself. I didn’t think he’d noticed.

“Well, you’ve already met Maxwell.” He grinned, thrusting a hand out. “I’m Gabe. Well, Gabriel, but you know.” He paused, looking at me. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I thought…well, there was a coyote over there—you know, forget it.”

He frowned. “What happened?”

“It’s really nothing,” I returned. “It’s just an old story, it isn’t even real.”

His eyebrow shot up, and I tried not to laugh at his expression. “There isn’t anything more real than a story,” he said.

“Really,” I said. “What if I punched you in the face?”

He laughed. “Then I’d have a fantastic story to tell! And I bet you’d pack one hell of a punch.”

I smiled. “Forget art history, I should take up boxing. Redecorate your face and such.”

He raised his eyebrows and pointed. “Artistically.”

“Always,” I laughed.

He snorted. “I like you. You know, I should have introduced myself a long time ago,” he said. “Max! Get back here!” he retrieved the dog’s leash from the heap of garbage that the dog had started to root around in.

“I’ll let you go,” I said. Gabe was still outside when I reached my apartment, throwing a stick for Max. He waved his arms at me and shouted, “Goodnight, Julia!” I shook my head. Maybe sometime soon, I could ask him about the story behind his scar. I counted the cracks in my ceiling as I drifted off to sleep that night, and despite the scratching at my window, I did not think of La Llorona.

*     *     *

I did not see Alice for several days. I wandered over to El Portal after working late one day. The sky looked different. The clouds hung low, elongating, scattered across the deep, deep blue, foam on the surface of a never-ending ocean. Heaven and earth seemed closer, the warm orange of the dust against the cool blue of the sky. I was afraid they would close in, crash down, and smother the city that reached to meet them. But the sun was relentless, and I let the soft light trickle down, touch my face, and melt into my skin.

Without all the vendors, the colonnade looked abandoned and ancient. Alice sat in her fold-up chair, with her white hair, silver jewelry, and long skirt. She was the last one there, and she’d started to pack up her things.

“Where’s everyone else?” I asked.

“Good to see you, dear,” she said. “It’s been a while. I think they’re waiting for me in the parking lot.”

“I’m sorry. Let me help you.” I bent down to put the jewelry into the boxes and fold up the blankets. Alice only objected when I put something in the wrong spot. I heaved one of the boxes, and she took the other and her folding chair. Her bracelets jingled as she set off, and I followed. When we arrived in the parking lot, it was empty. A plastic bag blew past, filling and emptying, tumbling over itself as it breathed in and out. Alice looked up at me and shrugged. “I suppose they’ve left. Would you like to go on an adventure with me?”

“By adventure, do you mean me driving you back home?” Alice only smiled at me. I sighed. “How far is your house?”

We walked to my apartment, lugging Alice’s wares. We must have looked an odd pair. “Thank you,” Alice said. I told her not to worry about it. “This happened once before, when my daughter came up here with me. We’d sold most of the jewelry already that day, so we decided to spend the money on a night in the hotel. Instead of bringing the boxes, we decided to wear as much of the jewelry as we could, and by the time we walked in through those doors, we were positively jangling.” I grinned at the image of Alice and her daughter, gypsy-like, dragging their feet with each metal-laden step.

“You remind me of my girl,” Alice said with a sidelong glance.

“Do I look like her?” I asked.

Alice laughed. “Hardly. But you’re very much like her.”

“Where is she now?” I asked.

Alice paused, collecting herself. “She’s not on this earth anymore, dear. She hasn’t been for a very long time.” My understanding of Alice shifted a little bit, thinking of her coming to El Portal every day by herself. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered, swallowing hard.

“Thank you,” Alice said, smiling thinly. “Don’t think I’m alone. But I do miss her.”

The car was locked when we got to the lot of my apartment. I offered to run up to get my keys, but Alice wanted to see my “home.” We hauled the boxes up the stairs. The chair, we left.

I watched from the threshold as Alice bustled in. It was strange seeing her there amidst all my personal belongings. It could not yet be called a home, but everything I owned lay in that tiny space. I looked for something in the fridge to give my visitor, pushing aside a few empty glass jars, but she clucked her tongue. “Just the mason jars, Julia. Sit down, dear, and tell me about your family.”

I didn’t ask why she wanted the jars. They had long been scrubbed clean of my mother’s leftovers, her hogao and, more often, the ajiaco that she would carefully ladle out, reheated until the potatoes burned my tongue and the broth trickled down my throat, warming me from the inside. I sat down at the old, knotty table, clinking down the containers and meeting Alice’s gaze.

“My parents are from Colombia,” I said. “They came here years before I was born. Papá was an engineer back there, but he had to take a job as a waiter because he didn’t know English. ‘I know math,’ he told me. ‘Las matemáticas, la lengua universal!’ But he still had trouble finding a job here. And my mother, ah…” I bit my lip. “She did odd jobs.”

Alice waited for me to continue. “She…she’s dead. She died, ah, very recently, actually.” I wedged my feet between the rungs of the chair and cleared my throat, trying to will my hair out of my braid to cover my face. Alice didn’t say anything, but she held my hand. That was almost worse. “Anyway, that’s about it. My grandparents are still in Colombia, and I don’t get to see them very often.”

“Ah,” Alice said gently, letting me change the subject. “So the blood of conquerors runs in your veins.”

I shifted. “And of the conquered. I’m a strange mix. I don’t quite fit.”

“Neither do I,” she said. “It seems we’re both between cultures here.”

“Belonging to neither.”

“Belonging to both,” she said. “And we both come from storytellers. I’m sure we’ll have plenty to talk about as we drive.”

My mind flashed to firelight and phantoms, and I reached for my keys. On my way to the parking lot, I nearly dropped the case before someone reached out and caught it. “Let me help you with that.”

“Gabe!” I accepted, and he loaded the boxes into my trunk. “This is my friend, Alice.”

He laughed as he shook her hand. “We’ve met, actually. I bought earrings from her.”

“Did you?” I teased.

“For my sister!” he exclaimed. I noticed that his tie hung slack now, swung to one side, and one of his sleeves was rolled up farther than the other. “Where are you headed?”

“Taking Alice home,” I said. “She lives thirty minutes from here.”

“Do you want to come?” Alice cut in. She squinted. “Yes. Julia, Gabriel needs to come.”

Gabe shrugged. “Why not? I had a feeling something important would happen today. This has to be it!” he grinned, bringing his hands together in a single, dramatic clap. “A prophecy!”

I looked between Gabe and Alice. “Well,” I chuckled. “Get in, then.” The three of us piled into my Jeep Cherokee and drove.

And then the first drop of light fell.

The sun was just beginning to set. Once we got outside the city, it was straight desert, deep yellow-brown scrub dotted with green, gold, and rust sprinkling the earth in every direction. Alice peered at the horizon, murmuring something beneath her breath. She let out a tiny gasp, and a smile spread across her face.

“Turn right!” Alice yelled.

“There’s no road!”

“Turn anyway!” I met Gabe’s eyes in the rearview mirror and he raised his pale eyebrows at me. I yanked the wheel around. Gabe clung to the handhold above the window. “Alice!” I yelled.

She swapped my panicked gaze with an even one. “I have to show you something.”

We rolled to a stop well off the road, the car crushing a cluster of Indian Paintbrushes. Alice got out, put on her backpack, and began to trek through the brush, glancing over her shoulder at us. “Well?” Gabe and I stared at each other for a moment before following.

Neither of us asked where we were going because it didn’t matter. We just followed Alice over the uneven ground. My boots kicked up little puffs of dust with every step I took, and Gabe’s black work shoes transformed into a ruddy brown. As we walked, we told stories. I traded a fable of two children in a magical boat for Gabe’s fairytale of the Little Mermaid, where she turns into an air spirit. Alice told us of the creation of the worlds, of a Holy Wind and a Holy People. Of twins and monsters, floods, stars, and mountains, creation and death.

And we were there. We had reached the top of a low plateau, not the tallest in the area by any means. Alice pulled the two mason jars out of her backpack and handed them to me and Gabe.

“What—” I tried to ask. Alice hushed me with a gaze and we waited silently for the sunset.

The sun sank closer, closer, the sky awash with oranges and pinks. The clouds swirled down, and it seemed as though the sun was coming toward us, faster, going to run into us.

And then the first drop of light fell.

It was slow at first, lazy, moving like white hot glass poured into a mold at a glassblower’s studio. It landed on the ground and the dust clouded it, dappling the light as it sank into the rocky earth.

I dropped my mason jar and it bounced in the dirt. I stared up at the sun as the light fell faster, harder. It was coming down all around me now, and I couldn’t do anything but watch. It trickled over my bare arms, gentle, less heavy than it looked. It nosed around me, danced in front of my eyes, and giggled away. Through the spots that swam in front of my eyes, I looked at Gabriel, with his arms spread wide, white shirt untucked and flapping, laughing into the rain of sunlight. It swirled around him, fell onto his skin, and sank into his body. Every detail of his face was illumined, shining in the light, and his blonde hair had transmuted into a gold purer than an alchemist’s. He was angelic.

I tried to keep looking at the light, but my vision wavered. I squinted at the light puddling on the ground instead, swirling, dripping. I kicked it and it flew into the air, a thousand glittering specks, motes dancing in the evening air. It sprinkled down around us, dusting our skin. Gabe looked at me with the biggest smile I’d ever seen, reached into my hair, and dusted off the light that had embedded there.

I cupped my hands and the light poured in, dribbling out around the crevices in my fingers and pouring out onto the ground. It flowed through my fingers like honey. Gabe did the same, trying to catch it, pack it into a ball of consolidated, blazing energy. He lobbed it in my direction and it slowly broke apart, globs of molten sunshine touching my face and showering down around me.

As the storm continued, the world outside darkened, making the light brighter and its drumming on my skin warmer and more comforting.

And Alice. Alice stared straight at the source of the light unblinded. Unhindered emotion played across her face, and tears rolled down her cheeks, mingling with the light and evaporating into the air. The light made its way through her skin, taking hold somewhere in her chest, in her core, radiating out through her pores. She glowed, and the light whirled her around, faster, lifting her off the ground until I couldn’t tell what was light and what was Alice.

The light began to lessen, fat drops gliding to the ground. I remembered the mason jar and fumbled for it, holding it above my head and letting the light fall into its wide mouth. Gabe did the same, and we stood like that until the light slowed to a sprinkling.

And then it was dark, and we three stood, facing each other, bathed in light. I dusted a few drops from Gabe’s collar and he rubbed my shoulder. Alice pulled us close, whispering, “That was only the surface, dears. Only the start.”

We laughed breathlessly at one another, because what could we say?

We walked back in the darkness, Gabe and I clutching our mason jars. The light swirled around inside, whispering, pulsing. I shook the jar and the light sloshed around inside, slow-moving, bringing out the harsh lines of our faces.

Alice guided us back, a beacon herself. She still glowed with traces of the light, the brightness gently permeating her clothing.

I felt the shift in the air before I heard something, from cool to darkly clammy A scream ripped through the comfort that the lightstorm had left us with, and I halted, trembling. Alice looked at me in alarm. It came again, echoing off the rocks, half coyote, half woman, a thousand screams, screeches, and croaks in a single voice. I drew close to Alice, a child again in the presence of the Weeping Woman.

La Llorona,” I whispered. The light in my jar swirled faster, pressing against the lid.

Alice looked at me, serious. “We call them yee naaldlooshii–skinwalkers. They have to do unspeakable things to get the power to shift like this.”

My heart felt like it would beat out of my chest. “Like drowning their children?”

“That would do,” Alice returned. “She wouldn’t come here, though, not unless…” She looked at me. “Julia! Have you seen her before?”

“I don’t know, I…” My breathing was shaky. “Yes.”

“That night we met, this is what you saw, isn’t it?” Gabe let out in a rush.

“Does she want my soul?” I breathed. Gabe was wide-eyed, fearful.

Alice regarded me sorrowfully. “It already belongs to her.”

I stumbled back. Another screech came, closer, echoing death. “I didn’t know…” Alice breathed, shaken. Then I saw her.

I could make her out in the darkness. She was shrouded, once beautiful, wet, stringy hair hanging over her dead eyes. They glowed a sickly yellow, pupil-less, not at all the way the light had glowed moments before. Her form flickered, suddenly feral, shuddering between woman and coyote. She growled at me, and I froze. The light screamed at me.

Gabe hurled his mason jar down in a sudden crash, glass and light exploding outward. The light reflected off the pieces a thousand times, casting prisms on the dusty earth. Gabriel was thrown to the ground. The light spiraled into the air, consolidated, and flew at his prostrate figure, soaking into his skin as it had Alice’s. He shuddered, rose to his knees, and flung his arms out. Light leaked out from his skin, and I feared for an awful moment that it would break him into pieces from the inside out. He put his face in his hands, wavered, and lifted his head, a lazy beam of light threading out his mouth.

La Llorona lunged at him with a hissing, Stygian screech, but she could not hold him. She reached her hand into his chest and pulled it back, shrieking, burned by the light within him. I sighed relief, and she turned her lifeless eyes on me.

I screamed, scrambling away, but she caught hold of my throat. In that moment I dissolved into darkness, terror’s freezing hands reaching inside to still my heart. I could feel her reaching inside, occupying my soul, groping around in the depths of my being, violating me. Her demonic face flickered into a thousand terrors, finally resting on the dead, waxy face of my mother. No, I thought, no, no eres ella, no eres mi madre, you aren’t la mujer que me crió, llena de amor, llena de cuentos, you are despair, desesperanza, desesperación de salvación, death por siempre, por eternidad…

Gabriel tried to throw her off, but she tossed him back. I met Alice’s radiant eyes, and as she looked at me with resolution, I suddenly realized what she planned to do. “No,” I croaked, trying to dissuade her. Tears muddied my face as I filled with darkness again, drowning in it.

“I have to,” she whispered. “I love you, mija,” she said clumsily. The Spanish word didn’t fit right in her mouth, and that made me cry even harder. “Don’t fear the light,” she said.

She glowed, brighter and brighter, and threw herself at La Llorona. I fell to the ground, gasping for air as the light exploded before my eyes, too bright for me to look upon. It intensified, and I shielded my eyes with my arm. The screams of the skinwalker pitched higher and higher until they were gone, and the light snuffed out.

I looked at Gabriel struggling to his feet. I could still make out a light flickering within him, shining out a heartbeat. His white, button-up shirt was torn and dirty, turned orange with dust and sweat. I don’t know how I must have looked. But none of that mattered now. Because Alice was gone, and Gabe and I were alone in the middle of the dark New Mexican desert with nothing but a mason jar.

*     *     *

I went to work. Now, I ate lunch with Gabriel, and we talked of stories of light and darkness. There were moments of heavy silence when we’d just look at each other and carry the other’s burden, if only for a moment. I still hadn’t opened Alice’s crates. I didn’t know what to do with all of the jewelry she’d so carefully made. I passed the Palace of the Governors every day, scanning for Alice, but I knew I would not find her there. Between that and the museum, all I could see were empty spaces.

The mason jar sat in my bedroom. I would wake up some nights to find the light playing through my hair, nuzzling my shoulder, nosing itself under my arm. I would push it away and it would return to the mason jar, swirling, pulsing, waiting.

It would take time. Months, years. But one day, I would creep out of bed, take the lid gently off the jar, and watch the light stretch, curl outward, and wait. I would breathe deeply, tremble, and whisper, “Confío en ti.

Kristen O'NealKristen O’Neal was dropped into a family of transplanted Northerners in the great state of Texas, nurtured by heat, story, and the grace of God. She attends Washington University in St. Louis and will be spending her upcoming junior year at Oxford. She writes with the knowledge that true things must be spoken. You can visit her at her blog, http://theparadigmshifts.wordpress.com/