In the downpour
a pair of cobras slithers
into the resort
and the restaurant empties
The boy sets his tray of drinks
on a table and runs for the itak
he isn’t supposed to keep
in his locker, but does. Not
precisely for this,
but he knew one day it would come in handy.
When he returns
the foreigners’ faces press
against the windows. The cobras rear
and flare and face the boy down.
and he slices their heads off.
An older waiter stands on the severed heads
until the jaws stop contracting.
Housekeeping wipes up the blood
with bath towels.
The boy resumes passing out
drinks like nothing
has happened, but he’ll never
forget this night.
Even the Koreans tip.
Terminal 3 Farewell
From behind a row of empty carts,
she watches her daughter inch up the long line.
At her side, her grandson taps at the apps
on an android screen. Her glasses are fogged—
she daubs at her eyes with the hem of her
pink housedress. What kind of a world is this,
she wonders, that separates mothers
from daughters, that turns parents into strangers
to their own children?
Her grandson taps at the apps on his android.
In the Eel Grass
++++++no current for twenty minutes.
The eel grass stiff as soldiers at attention.
At the tip of one stalk, a star anemone, cellophane clear,
an ornament in the currentless shallows—
++++++nothing to reach for, nothing
Where do I fit in this stillness?
++++++++++++++++++++++Gray cloud on a green bottom…
Before you bear witness, Charles Wright says,
make sure you have something worth witnessing.
I used to witness hammerheads nosing
++++++around this bed.
+++++++++++++++++I’d hug the bottom, claw into it
as once, twice, three times the cool clouds of the hammers
Today in this stillness I watch a shovel shrimp push debris
++++++from its tiny nest
++++++again and again
++++++++++++like a meditation.
It’s low voltage, no thrill—just work.
++++++I don’t stop watching until I’m damn near out of air.
Tim Tomlinson is co-founder of New York Writers Workshop and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. His chapbook, Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse (Finishing Line Press) appears in October 2015. His full-length collection, Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire (Winter Goose), will appear in 2016. He teaches in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies program.
I haven’t been to the place where my father isn’t buried, only ashes and the idea of him. I haven’t said my goodbyes over the patch of grass where his body doesn’t lay, stretched out as I imagine him in his dark bed the last moments of his life. Instead, my goodbyes scatter throughout the decade of his illness; through all the things it took from him and from me, through all the voids it left behind.
My father and I were always reflections of each other, both people of few spoken words. We were able to sit in silence, each aware the presence of the other was enough to fill the space between our two quiet bodies. Often times the only sound was the clink of a spoon on a bowl full of cereal from a bag I had to open once his fingers no longer could. By then we’d said goodbye to our Sunday breakfast in restaurants. By then he needed two hands to feed himself.
In his final years his body became thin, and his pajamas fluttered around the angles of his bones like a flag staked in the ground, always a whispered reminder: I’m still here. But I had already mourned the father in suits who taught me to always do my best. Have respect for even the simplest things you do and do them well, he would tell me when I was still small and sitting under his desk. I played with his staple remover while he talked; I liked to pretend the metal prongs were a monster’s jaws. But now I’m thirty-one, my advice-giver is gone, and the monster is no longer something I can hold in my hands.
Sometimes I imagine scattering his ashes and other times I think I’ll just sit at his gravestone with nothing to say. I’ve spent entire evenings re-imagining our last phone call, and I constantly ask myself what it is I’d really want to tell him if I could. But the answer is still nothing. What I want more than anything can’t be done or said. It’s simply his presence. One more time, I want to sit next to him in stillness without having to speak; no hello or goodbye or even I love you—I don’t need to say what he already knew.
The tangle of long-term, terminal illness is that death is both always and never quite real, so when the end finally comes there is no abrupt and dramatic departure. It passes more like phases of a cold moon, eventually leaving nothing but darkness behind. When he died, I felt as though I’d been waving to him from a great distance for many years. I grieved each layer of the man he once was as it peeled back to reveal someone new, and I became lost when the last piece was finally torn away. I struggled with letting go until I realized that the only goodbye I truly need to say is to this part of my life. I have to step over the line, into the world that now exists without him, to gather everything he left behind—all of the words and memories, left just for me.
In the silence of my grief I’ve found an empty space to put my father back together. In my mind and my heart I can return to him what his many years of suffering took away. I can reconstruct him in all of his forms until he is whole again, free from his illness, where he can rest quietly beside me, saying absolutely nothing at all.
Hindu Santa stashes
boxes of Just for Men
under the bathroom
sink, bare scalp painted
black with faded tooth
brush bristles. Barbasol
thick on a fluff tip, aloe
slathered smooth on salty
cinnamon scruff, snow
scraped with disposable
Gillette green, tapped clean
in the cracked pink sink:
glean under the warm
jet of a speckled faucet.
Hands soapy from a dollar
bar of Yardley, hardly
saw the Barbie bubble bath
in the back cabinet corner.
LUNCHTIME IN ATLANTIC CITY
Lined up outside
fingers to lips,
clutched lunch tickets:
white paper money
with typewritten names
and hole-punched corners.
School lunch menu
taped to the fridge,
for Ellio’s and Domino’s:
Ma finally filled out
free lunch forms. Quit
work after Dada
said I’d toss bits
of her half-eaten
food in the trash bin
after I waved to Tony
the tattooed custodian.
But I can eat cool
school lunch now:
tried a hot dog for
the first time,
ate beef by mistake,
confessed and cried to Ma.
I worried I’d die.
Don’t do it again,
Mamoni! Shards of her
my forehead. Today
I’ll eat chicken nugget
lunch with my best friends:
we wrote Spice Girl names
on the backs of our tickets,
wore matching white
shirts and navy
skorts, rolled down
our scalloped socks.
Girl Power peace signs
paired with white
pantyhose and Payless
flats as we chant
boys go to Jupiter
to get more stupider!
Girls go to college
to get more knowledge!
We laugh, lock arms,
walk in, let go—
hungry hands grab
chocolate milk cartons
juice boxes, shoved in
Styrofoam lunch tray
quadrants beside jello
blocks, tater tots
and packets of sauce.
I hand my torn-
to the kind-eyed
cashier, look back
at the long line
and Asian kids
behind the nurse’s
office: we will
never look like
the Spice Girls.
bolted into black
corners of trays:
in grade school days.
Memory would reveal
the soft fibers
of the white crochet blanket
on top of the green couch
in your basement, where we’d drink
Layer Cake red wine
out of cracked, clear plastic cups.
I’d wear your sweater
that we picked out at Goodwill
with green and brown squares
all over it; you’d pull my bracelets
up my wrists to see the tan lines
beneath them, and trace
the outline of my lips
as they parted ever so slightly;
and when we’d sit crossed-legged
on the beige carpet,
our noses and foreheads
pressed against each other—
I could feel you laugh.
Anuradha Bhowmik is a Bangladeshi-American poet from South Jersey. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech, and she graduated with a B.A. in Women’s & Gender Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015. Anuradha has been awarded a Grin City Collective Emerging Artist Residency, as well as scholarships to the New York State Summer Writers Institute and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Susquehanna Review, The Boiler, and elsewhere.
I construct intimate artworks that investigate the gross romance between person and location…
We wandered your city
for five days, hemmed within
those same cobbled creases,
tucked between brownstones-
mordant lines grown soft
in the damp October night.
As the slow, sibilant traffic
parted for us with lumbering grace,
we streamed through the darkness,
faces pearlescent, strung together
in shadow, flowing into
patient, silent homes,
or hidden cafes carved
into sheer cliff sides.
Children of green steel trestles
and granite curbing, unwearied-
my vision fails before the end
of your wharves and spires
that stretch beyond
the sharpened fume of idling taxis,
and bleared lights
that sting the wet asphalt.
What is it you see among
these crumbling abutments
and slabs of crooked concrete
shelved against the silhouettes
of trees that drip and quiver against
the chain-links and brick?
What words form for you
in this dim language,
dissolved and dank beneath
these watery lights pooling?
Ammonia is a wrinkled sting,
a reedy fist of bees
that prickles kitchen counters
like a morning sun’s
rasping, saffron luster.
And the snap and tang
of bleach that fries olfaction
will gouge and grate-
a flaming tabletop glaze
that sizzles in its livid puddles.
But the lye that hisses
in malignant whispers
from the can of oven cleaner
shears the sheen from porcelain,
scours blenching lungs,
diffuses through these rooms
as if to blear, dissolve,
all dross and flaws
within this house,
like the breath of a fastidious god.
Timbre to Color
Today I have at last perfectly matched ‘v’ with “Rose Quartz” in Maerz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color.
— Vladimir Nabokov
“Azure” leaves the mouth thrumming on the tongue
like a tooth-trapped hummingbird-
the iridescence of a fly rattling in a web.
The acrid chartreuse scent of tansy belies
its yolky glow, while the strokes
and curls of its name evoke
the taut, smoky skin of an aubergine.
A matchstick flaring has a fine-grained,
saffron edge that abrades against stillness,
then abates to a lambent sigh.
And the mottled sky is steadied
by the weight of these wave-tossed cobbles,
heeled into a sea as smooth as a herring gull bone,
bleached and salt wind-burnished.
Kevin Casey has contributed poems to recent editions of Grasslimb, Frostwriting, Words Dance, Turtle Island Review, decomP, and other publications. A graduate of UMass, Amherst, and the University of Connecticut, his new chapbook “The wind considers everything-” (Flutter Press) will appear this spring. He currently teaches literature at a small university in Maine, where he enjoys fishing, snowshoeing, and hiking.
TOUR OF A HOLLYWOOD DEATH
Here’s the peach bathroom
that gave her new ways
to look taller—
++++++Thin desperado, speaking
++++++blonde code to the business.
Here’s the last shower, hot
steaming weakness, collapse
on the pearl travertine—
charm in her eyes
turned feral++++++++++ the dripping
+++++++++++++++++++++++++her own++++++ black star
THE FALLEN BODY
++++++May 1, 1947: Evelyn McHale jumped to her
++++++death from the Empire State Building
I am too much like my mother. I will
not marry in June. On this dazzling day,
I choose to jump in white gloves.
Last deep breath, strong leap of my legs.
That novice photographer sold me to Life.
He’ll never publish again!
You can gawk at the arch of my brow.
Note my dark lips, coral suit loose
at the waist. Dainty, except for a
I wanted this crash more than jewels and
punch. I found my whole peace, and gave
all of you beautiful proof.
THIS VOLUPTUOUS POEM
Never enrolled in community college, splicing
++++++commas with risk
Nor workshopped with lemongrass refugees
++++++bleating a tropical syntax
Nor failed to wink at legacies, whipping
++++++the can-can skirt of convention—
flaunting her savvy, flashing rare opals
++++++and rubies, beaming an orchid light
as spinster poems skulk in a boxy shape
++++++of splintering unlit trim—
This poem has rattle and thrum. Watch her spark
++++++and pierce the sphinx’s paw
guarding pink turrets of fantasy. She dribbles
++++++the castles of brown sugar sand
in the bam-bam ching of bikini string samba,
++++++the bang of her iambic boom.
Laurie Barton is a Best of the Net finalist and winner of the New Southerner Literary Prize in Poetry. Her work has appeared in Juked, Glass, Word Riot, Jabberwock Review, and The Missing Slate. She studied French at Mills College before completing an MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles. There she was gently told that her shy little stanzas were not poetry. With time and encouragement, she learned that the beauty of language would not let her down. Beauty, surprises, and mystery. Laurie lives in southern California and welcomes correspondence on Facebook.
There are two worlds those with the privilege of portable technology inhabit…
Our eyes tripped over a four-by-four inch bronze memorial embedded in a sidewalk in Cologne, Germany:
Jona ‘Johnny’ Herz
Or, in English, “here lived Jonah ‘Johnny’ Herz, born in 1942, deported to Theresienstadt (as a newborn), murdered on July 11, 1944.” It immediately struck us, first, they sent a newborn to Theresienstadt; second, little Johnny survived a long time, considering. Alongside Johnny’s memorial lay a second memorial that read, “Here lived Samuel Kaufmann, born in 1868, deported to Theresienstadt in 1942, murdered on September 1, 1942.” Unlike the infant, the old man, who was already seventy-four years old when he was exiled to Theresienstadt, didn’t last long. We thought: Samuel didn’t last long, probably because Theresienstadt provided almost no health care; and, yes, murder is the right word.
In Koblenz, we saw memorials outside the former home of Dr. Eugene Stern, born in 1894, and Kaethe Stern (nee Blumenthal), born in 1903, deported, murdered in Auschwitz 1944. Stern was my Jewish grandmother’s family name, so this struck home.
Easily mistaken for cobblestones, each Stolpersteine or “stumbling stone,” remembers one persecuted or murdered victim of National Socialism, 1933-1945, including survivors of the Holocaust. The Stolpersteine project began in Cologne in 1995 to remember Sinti and Roma murdered in the Holocaust, but quickly was broadened to include all persecuted or murdered Holocaust victims. The vast majority memorialize Jews, but also remember others offensive to National Socialism including Romani, Sinti, gays, blacks, physically and mentally disabled, forced laborers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, military deserters, POWs, and those who provided refuge and protection.
Most Stolpersteine begin “Hier wohnte,” meaning “here lived,” others begin: “here worked,” “here practiced,” “here taught,” “here studied.” Most are placed at an individual’s last chosen place of residence. By returning victims to their neighborhoods, Stolpersteine remind passersby that victims were torn away, and most likely murdered. It says to passersby, “You are standing in what was once their space. They once breathed the same air you’re breathing now.”
The overwhelming majority of Stolpersteine are located in Germany. Some locations, such as Berlin, have large clusters of Stolpersteine—hundreds of them—to memorialize individually each resident of certain apartment buildings. Across 1,000 locations in eighteen countries, nearly 50,000 people are memorialized by Stolpersteine. There’s a catch in the name because, at one level, it reminds us that, in World War II, there were some major stumbles in recognizing basic human rights. At another level, this is a pun because, before the Shoah, when someone in Germany tripped over a cobblestone, people often cracked an anti-Semitic joke: “There must be a Jew buried there.” This dual meaning captured the irony in calling them stumbling stones. In practice, stumbling stones are placed flush with surrounding sidewalk or cobblestones, so they pose no real risk of tripping up passersby.
In Bamberg—a city in Bavaria that largely escaped the devastation of World War II bombings, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site—we came across a memorial to a different type of war victim: “Here was shot Bernard Delachaux, born in 1914, a French soldier and prisoner of war who died March 24, 1942.”
Later, on a busy street in Bamberg’s shopping district, we came upon a cluster of five newly-installed, brightly-polished Stolpersteine. What caught our attention was a six-year-old boy, out with his mom and three-year-old sister. The boy went down on one knee and read clearly, slowly, solemnly: “Here lived Rosa Brueckmann, born 1868, deported Theresienstadt 1942, murdered Treblinka.” Then another for Fanny, born seven years earlier, likewise deported and murdered. He then read the Stolpersteine for the Hahn family: Heinrich and Martha deported from Riga in 1941, and there murdered, Heinrich in April 1, 1943. Their son Martin, fled to Holland in 1938, interred in Westerbork en route to Mauthausen (where Anne Frank later died of typhoid), and there murdered December 12, 1942. Heinrich outlived his son by several months. The boy’s mom didn’t say, “Hurry, you’re wasting my time, it’s time to move along.” She let him take his time to read. No laughter, no playing. The boy seemed to understand too, at least as well as anyone could. No need for commentary. Done, the boy reached out and took mom’s hand, stood, and the three walked on.
The power of these little memorials is that they say so little: someone was born, lived, was sent to a concentration camp, and there they were murdered. Occasionally, they tell the story of someone who deserted, or was shot and taken prisoner of war, or who escaped to freedom (leaving behind their home, possessions, and what remained of their community), or who was killed elsewhere other than in a camp.
The Stolpersteine project keeps expanding slowly. Across 1,000 locations in eighteen countries, nearly 50,000 people are memorialized by Stolpersteine. German artist Gunter Demnig coordinates the project and travels throughout Europe to oversee directly the installation of the memorial stones. While in theory the intent is to acknowledge every Holocaust victim individually, Demnig does not expect to see that day. He has no interest in stepping up production of mass-producing stumbling stones, because doing so would mimic the mass annihilations perpetrated by the National Socialists. Moreover, installing Stolpersteine requires cooperation from host communities and from the living family of Holocaust victims. It costs 120 Euros to sponsor the creation and installation of one Stolpersteine.
Demnig quotes the Talmud as saying, “A person is forgotten only when his or her name is forgotten.” The memorial stones ask us to stumble for a moment in silence to remember, “one stone for one name.” Perhaps in that remembering we can find our own silence. If so, it is a silence uncomfortable with injustice of all sorts and, above all, at odds with the collective silence that once masked the Holocaust atrocities.
Ignoring any reasonable protocol for treadmill running, she sashayed her head from side to side as she ran, like a horse trying to shake off water. Her arms occasionally reached out to either side, front, and overhead, as if she danced. Once, she became fixated on adjusting a belt clip, and nearly dropped off the treadmill’s end. She sang quietly to music on her iPod except, every minute or two, she belted out the lyrics, and made even more extreme movements. Her bursts in volume, screechy tone, and extreme gesticulations caught the attention of everyone nearby. Now and then, she checked text messages. After each, she shouted a drawn out, “ha-a-a-a-a-A-A-A!” that became progressively louder before ending with a sharp expulsion of air. After a while, she stopped dancing, and started punching the air in front of her, left, right, left, right. Once, she bent half over and looked like she picked imaginary flowers. Maybe when she sashayed her head back and forth, right to left, and when she punched the air, she meant to be a boxer bobbing and weaving, he thought, watching her on his left, but she looked far more like a punchy horse.
Without breaking stride, she slowly pulled a blue sweatshirt over her head with her right hand, yanking a white t-shirt back down with her left hand. Her head continued to sashay back and forth, and she kept running with her arms moving like a dancer’s arms. She wore neon orange shoes. Her shorts were pink with green trim. Her gnarly, dirty blond hair was tied up behind her head in a bunch, not a bun or pony tail. She was probably about 20, he figured. After about 25 minutes, she switched from running 10 minute miles to walking at a 15 minute clip.
“That’s an interesting running style you have there,” he said.
She turned to him and gave back a goofy smile. “Oh, I don’t have any idea how to run. My sisters both ran track. I’m just learning how.”
“Why didn’t you learn before?” he asked.
“I had an accident. It was in New Orleans. I was riding a bike and was hit by a truck. There was a big law suit. I was never supposed to walk again,” she said.
“But look at you!” he said.
“Don’t tell the lawyer I’m running now,” she said, with an even goofier smile.
“I can imagine what it was like,” he said. “I lost use of my foot two years ago. The nerve died.”
“Me too. And I had five operations on my foot so it would work again.”
“Looks like it worked,” he said.
“But I still have no idea how to run. I’ve always done things like being a goalie in soccer or the catcher in softball, things were I could throw my whole body at things,” she said.
“Looks like you’re still doing that,” he said.
“I still need to give up smoking,” she said.
“That would be one of the best things you could do for yourself,” he said.
“I will. I plan to. But I can’t give up everything all at once,” she said.
“When you run, you look more like a horse running on a track,” he said.
“Ha-a-a-a-a-A-A-A!” she said, with an explosion at the end. “My sisters always said I had horse hair.”
“I don’t know about your hair,” he said, although he could see exactly why her sisters said it, “but you don’t run like anyone I’ve ever seen run. You look like a horse.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said.
“I mean it that way too. Seabiscuit,” he said.
“No, Secretariat. I want to be Secretariat,” she said.
“You got it,” he said. “I gotta go. See ya, Secretariat. Keep on running.”
When he walked by 20 minutes later, she had resumed running at a 10 minute clip. Her head sashayed back and forth. Her arms flew in every direction. She occasionally punched the air rapidly, with a left-right-left-right motion. Now and then, she checked text messages and let out a loud, “ha-a-a-a-a-A-A-A!,” or she let out a loud cry that drew attention from everyone nearby. Perhaps, he thought, this is what we’d all look like in dreams if we ran from some unspecified threat, propelled forward by forces exceeding our invested effort.
The next day, he read that a documentary called “Secretariat’s Jockey Ron Turcotte” was about to appear at a nearby theater for only one screening seven days away. The film was about Ron Turcotte, who won the Triple Crown riding Secretariat’s back. It contains never-before-seen footage about Secretariat but that’s not why horse girl needs to see this, he thought. It’s Turcotte! Just like horse girl, Turcotte fought his way back after a 1978 fall left him a paraplegic. Back to the people and places that marked his life. Horse girl has to see this. Wait, Turcotte’s actually going to be there with the film. So is Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery. There’s a Q&A with them after the film. Horse girl’s adrenaline’s going to soar.
He bought two tickets, put them in an envelope, sealed it, and was about to write her name on it when he realized he didn’t know her name. He took the envelope with him to the Y the next night at roughly the same time as when he’d run on the treadmill next to her. She wasn’t there. He went back again every night for two hours at roughly the same time. He even went one morning and early one afternoon. He asked around, but nobody knew her. Two days before the screening, he heard they were looking for people to participate in an hour-long taping of a PBS show about Secretariat right before the screening. Horse girl will be perfect, he thought. She’ll just love this. But he never saw horse girl again. Nobody used the tickets.
WHAT IS YOUR NEED?
In October 2010, after walking on le chemin St. Jacques by myself, and never being certain where I would spend the night, I had to return to Paris to catch a return flight to the United States. On my last night in Paris where I was staying in the residential 19th ward, I went out for a brief walk to investigate the St. Martin’s Canal nearby. At the bottom of the street, I passed two women who were standing upright and stoically, almost like statues, next to what looked out of the corner of my eye like a pile of backpacks. Both were dressed in black. One wore a hood that almost entirely covered her face. The other had a hood, but her emotionless face was completely visible. When I returned from a quick trip to the canal, they were still there, and I passed without stopping because I was thinking about dinner and the Affligem blonde I was going to wash it down with. But, when I got back to my hotel room, all I could think about was the two women and their backpacks. The one woman’s face stayed with me. I had to go back and try to establish a connection if only to find out why they were there so late in the day guarding a pile of backpacks.
When I got back to the two women, the one whose face was visible had removed her hood. I also could readily see that the backpacks were actually a gigantic shopping cart stuffed with luggage, other possessions, and multiple water bottles. There was none of the usual evidence of homelessness. They both stood upright rather than sitting or lying on the ground. Instead, they stood upright, with excellent posture, like sentries. They had no bowl or cup. They did not reach out a hand to passersby or make other entreaties to strangers to ameliorate their life conditions. I tried to start a conversation and learned quickly that the older one spoke no English, but the younger one spoke English fairly fluently. I estimate she was about 30 and the older one about 65. They passed cigarettes back and forth between them. About 15 minute into the conversation, I tried to hand the younger a 10 Euro note. After and conferring with the older one—she conferred before answering nearly every question—she said, “You don’t have to pay us to talk with us.” I put my money away for the time being.
We continued to talk for nearly an hour and a half. I learned that they were two university-educated women, mother and daughter, the bottom of whose life fell out. Their message was this could happen to anyone, it could even happen to you. From day to day, they didn’t know where they would sleep that night. I offered them money once or twice more, and again they refused it. Occasionally, I asked them a question they chose not to answer, to which they said, “You don’t need to know that.” After a while, I realized they were asking me at least as many questions as I was asking them. Finally, the daughter said to me, “People stop and ask us questions because they have a need. What made you come back? Why did you stop? Why do you want to talk with us and hear our pain? What is your need?” I thought for a moment, and all I could think to say was, “I saw your face.”
It had turned dark and they said they need to go and find a place to spend the night. My heart said I should offer them my hotel room, but I knew that the hotel was already very guarded about who they allowed in. I stuffed 20 EU in the daughter’s hands. I closed her hand on the money and held her hand shut. I looked her in the eyes and she looked back at me. The mother spoke and the daughter translated. She said, “We accept your money and we thank you. We will use it to buy food.”
There’s more to the story, but what stayed with me was her question, “What is your need?” I have asked myself that question many times. And, I’ve also wondered, who really were they? Were they truly a mother and daughter on hard times? Were they a professor and doctoral student collecting data? Were they political activists out to play on the public’s compassion for the plight of the homeless? I wanted to go back and find out at the minute I left Paris, but the answer really doesn’t matter. All that matters was their question, “What is your need?”
Jim Ross is a newly retired public health researcher. He’s recently published poetry, stories, or photographs in The Atlantic, Pif Magazine, Friends Journal, The Sun, Cahoodaloodaling, Dirty Chai, and several other journals. Forthcoming work includes photo essays in Cargo Lit and In the Fray and poems in Work Literary Magazine. Jim and his wife split their time between Maryland and West Virginia. They looking forward passionately to becoming grandparents of twins this summer.
Today you follow the holes
birds clawed into the sky
Each cloud a hatchling mouthed by a hawk
Today the sky burns its wings
Built out of a bird’s flight
your house will crawl far away from you
The trees, always eaten by birds,
will never fly
Go back to the house
Show me the trees that hate us,
and the birds who sleep there
Show me the house, why its birds are gone
The clouds broken across the sky
Once for each bed underground
Once for each bed that is now a bird
The birds tell you:
keep your burning quiet
The feathered airplanes torn with holes that sing
Your voice back from the trees
I don’t know where the birds live
How will 1 protect the birds
who’ve eaten the cold from the sky
Where the birds turn into night
you planted your feathers
Go to sleep so the sky can’t follow
Fall asleep counting the holes
the sparrows made of you
Make a song out of the seedlings you’ve lost
Each time you sing
the feathers lost the sky in your chest
Today the sky tracked you
until it ran out of clouds
I kept quiet in my burning
so the hawks could make the blue
go on for another mile
of kites that have not yet
devoured each other from their crags
The feathers weren’t ever a place to rest
You walked where the trees went missing
and found in the holes left of you
little black whispers
you scraped out of the sunlight
Why do the birds lose half of heaven
when they cry from the jaws
of the delivery drones
I don’t know where the sky is,
just that you’ve eaten the cold from the trees
Rob Cook lives in New York City’s East Village. He is the author of six collections, including Empire in the Shade of a Grass Blade, The Undermining of the Democratic Club, and Asking My Liver for Forgiveness. His work has appeared in Versal, Rhino, Caliban, Fence, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Thrice Fiction, Great Weather For Media, Small Portions, Arsenic Lobster, Space & Time, Osiris, Phantom Drift, Weirdbook, Up the Staircase Quarterly, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Posit, Zoland, Pear Noir!, Mudfish, Borderlands, and Tampa Review.
There was a pecan tree that dropped nuts across the crabgrass that surrounded her parents’ bungalow-style home. She introduced me to her rat-dog and its seven grown puppies that surrounded me, yapping away my patience, each of them dirty and unclaimed. Vickie was an unfamiliar seventh-grade math classmate who ridiculed my unshaven legs and looked like The Cure’s Robert Smith but had breasts.
I felt alone in Louisiana in 1990 where we had moved the previous year to what I still considered the confederate south. She sat across from me in class where I was distracted by the sweat pits of the boys’ gym coach who taught us math. “You know you can shave above the knee right?” She said.
I was mortified. I laughed at myself and turned away to clear the redness of my pale Scots-Irish skin. Of course, that made sense. Thanks, Mom.
Vickie wore baggy black t-shirts, thick eyeliner, and a discernible line of base foundation around her jawline. She was melodramatic and dangerous in the sense that she could humiliate me with a fluid sentence and not care a thing about it. I have no idea how I ended up being her friend or how we went from my borderline humiliation about shaving above the knee to hanging out, but we did for a short while.
By contrast, I wore no make-up, sported fresh white Keds, knee-length blue jean shorts, and fat cotton headbands at the edge of my hairline. I imagined she wanted to take advantage of me so that she could further humiliate me for having late blooming breast buds, but she turned out to be kind and pleasant in that sarcastic view of the fucked up ways of the world, which I have always loved, despite my goodie-two shoes appearance. Plus, she was the first girl in over a year that had talked to me in a friendly way since I moved to that once plantation derived place that socked me in the stomach, figuratively, the moment we drove over the I-10 Bridge at night toward our new destination. The Chateau Charles, a hotel my father’s company put us up in for two months until we found a place to live. We were provided the suite. It was actually a dumpy arrangement of three adjoining rooms to a kitchenette. The furthest room we avoided all together because of the sour smell and flood stains.
I was impressed by the brilliant lights of what I thought was a metropolitan city that turned out to be a plentiful array of corporate refineries, side by side for miles, espousing stink and pollution. Much different during the day when I realized they were a fool’s beauty.
My mother must have been beyond her wits while I lay on the floor of the minivan, refusing to let go of the back seat, where I hid and cried and declared nausea, refusing at all cost to get out at the school drop off. I successfully managed to miss three weeks of seventh grade. It was terrifying to move from the middle-class and classless, seemingly friendly suburbs of New Jersey’s farm country, to the self-segregated Gulf Coast. I had never been exposed to so many middle-school fistfights, nor seen table upon lunch table of groups of like-skinned people. It wasn’t so much that different races bothered me, but that everyone around me seemed to be aware of race, and to be participating in self-segregation, promulgating race as a thing.
I only spent the night with her one time. I observed those pecans, ignored the ugly dogs, and walked behind her through the front door where grime swarmed my senses. There were walls that had long ago yellowed, with lines of dirt smudged at the height of little dogs and on light switches.
Her parents’ house lacked central air and instead ran a single window unit that pressed hopeful relief upon us with the help of strategically placed box fans. I didn’t know her well enough to recognize anyone in the few family photos which were hung in crappy frames above the sagging sofa, but I did imagine if I were to straighten one out, saving it from its ill-composition, I’d find clean-white wall paint behind it.
When I was younger, I lived in apartments and townhouses and rental homes built on top of sink holes with stink bugs, old carpets, new carpets, porcelain or stainless steel sinks, with or without washing machines and never a vacuum. There were times when we brushed our teeth with baking soda or poured dehydrated milk into our cereal bowls, learning to prefer water instead of that shit. Each time my father was promoted, he did so with a move, and each move made our lives a little richer and so I was not unfamiliar with the poverty of Vickie.
“Want some Kool-Aid?” she asked as she walked past dark bedrooms on the left and lead me from the living room to the kitchen.
I said yes and watched her as she opened the refrigerator door. The wire shelves illuminated revealing a variety of misplaced and cluttered food related items, including an uncovered metal pan of instant mac-n-cheese, an opened can, and a scurrying cluster of rice-sized cockroaches in the refrigerator seams. Her arm reached past mac-n-cheese and maneuvered over an extra large tub of generic margarine to grasp a plastic pitcher. There was no acknowledgement about the cockroaches and I was polite about it, even though they made me cautious. I drank the Kool-Aid and noticed cabinets with splashed food stains near the handles. Most of them were open revealing plastic kitchen plates, cups, and bowls in shades of pale pink, light blue, and lime green stacked upon each other.
Her room was void of natural light because plastic blinds were drawn closed and a faded black blanket was half-hung at an unintentional slant from the brass curtain rod. Against the wall, her dresser stood, and on it a pink can of Aqua Net hairspray and other paraphernalia that helped her look like her idol, Robert.
At night I slept on a pillowcase that smelled like it had not been washed in months and I slept with my clothes on afraid to feel the weight of poverty against me.
Lena. Just Lena. My mother didn’t have a middle name, which I thought smacked of parsimony—shortchanged at birth. Her parents were Orthodox Jews, rigid and humorless, who came to New York as part of the exodus from pogrom-infested Russia. I don’t think Lena knew much more about them; she wasn’t privy to stories or reminiscences from the old country. There wasn’t much about her own early years she wanted to recall or revisit either. Her life wasn’t easy, and she rarely talked about her family or childhood. She had a way of sidestepping questions—“Oh, I can’t remember that” or “What does it matter?”—and I lacked the courage or the curiosity to probe further. Her father died when she was twelve. After her older sister married, Lena left school and went to work to help make ends meet for her mother and herself. She was sixteen, and it was the peak of the Depression. I don’t know what kind of work she did, but I picture her as a shop girl in a department store, back when they were called that, before they were sales associates or product specialists. It must have seemed the right thing, the only thing to do, but her lack of education was always a source of shame and inferiority.
Earning her own way must have been liberating, though, and she had some good times as a young woman. I can see it in an old photo—her dark and vivacious beauty, the way she carried herself, the playful sparkle in her eyes. She met my father at Coney Island the summer they were both twenty. She was tall and slender with thick, shiny coal-black hair hugging her face in a flapper-like bob—I envision her smooth, tanned limbs in a red one-piece swimsuit. He was movie-star handsome, with wavy brown hair, sky blue eyes, and a thin dapper mustache. Their beach blankets were in close proximity amid throngs of sunbathers and frolickers that day, and there must have been mutual admiring glances and subtle smiles, fluttering of eyelashes and flexing of biceps before he ventured over and asked her to watch his pants while he went into the water. They were married six months later.
David, my brother, was born the next year, and I followed five years later. We lived in a cozy Long Island suburb in a house with a white picket fence, and my early memories of family life dwell in a dusky rose-colored haze. My brother, his recollections sharper, corroborates my sense of an unremarkable and mostly happy family.
“No more New York winters! They can keep their white Christmases.” I was six when we moved to California, and I remember Mom exulting when the holidays rolled around that first year. And yet—though she said she never regretted the move west—it was as if the lights had gone out. She seemed tense and troubled, became harsh and critical. “Were you unhappy?” is a question I never could have asked her; all I can do is ponder from my perch overlooking the past. She’d left everything and everyone in New York. She had her family core—her mother and sister—and a community there. She belonged; she knew who she was. Here she was isolated. It was the post-war ‘50s, and women were marginalized, captive in their kitchens. Working outside the home wasn’t an option when David and I were young. If she perceived an erosion of her spirit, she may not have recognized it or known that she wasn’t alone, that her condition was endemic, “the problem that has no name” that Betty Freidan later articulated as “the feminine mystique.”
She had so much energy and no place to put it. Cooking and keeping house were chores to be dispensed with, thankless tasks for which she got little appreciation. She didn’t have friends to do things with—shopping trips, lunches, book clubs—or the means to indulge in them. She became a Girl Scout leader and tackled the post with a gusto that I, trying to blend in as just one of the girls, found overzealous and embarrassing. She spent most of her spare time knitting and crocheting. She made sweaters, shawls, skirts and scarves, afghans, tablecloths, pillow covers—beautiful, intricate work. I remember a sage green and tawny gold three-piece suit that might have come off a designer rack. I’m sure she could have sold things to shops, developed a cottage industry, but though her creative outlet gave her satisfaction, it didn’t occur to her to take it further. She made gifts, things for the house, for herself and for me. I would roll my eyes, resentful that I couldn’t have the cookie-cutter name brands that my peers were wearing but were beyond our budget.
My father was a taciturn man, a benign presence in the household. Mom accepted it as her role to sustain a convivial family environment. We ate dinner together at the table every night, and I recall our mealtime interaction as bland and comforting if not memorable or stimulating. I remember jokes and silliness, my brother’s teasing, my father’s sly puns. The only vacations we took were occasional weekend camping trips and long dreary drives to visit my father’s relatives in San Francisco. It was all very prosaic—we weren’t deprived, there was little to complain about—yet why do I recall the atmosphere as one of forced cheer, as if we were simulating family life rather than living it?
Dad “took to drink”—I choose that phrase, evocative of willfulness, though I suppose it was just his way to blot out unspoken disappointment—and became even more remote at home. On the nights when he came in after I’d gone to bed, my mother would wait up, pacing, fuming, chain-smoking until he stumbled in. I’d hear their fights through my thin bedroom walls—her voice raised in anger, his a monotone of sullen or contrite muttering. They argued about his drinking, about money, about whatever unhappy people bicker about. Maybe it carried over, as my brother and I squabbled a lot too. He was a bully and I was a brat; we provoked each other the way you pick at pesky scabs. Mom would become exasperated with both of us, though I was sure at the time that she was siding with him.
He would sock me in the arm, and I’d whine—“David hit me!”
“I didn’t do anything,” he’d say. “She was pestering me.”
“Don’t tease her,” she would tell him; “you know what a crybaby she is.”
And to me: “Stop it or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
The four of us muddled along, and the distance grew over time, between husband and wife, parents and children, brother and sister. We settled into a peaceful-enough equilibrium, distinct clouds in the same patch of sky.
* * *
Then Mom went to work, and she blossomed in the world beyond our walls. Motivated both to supplement the family income and to quell the tediousness of daily life, she was ready and eager when we no longer needed her constant oversight. She started out waiting tables at a café, the kind that served “blue plate specials”—think Mel’s Diner in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Fast, efficient, and personable, she became the favorite of the regular clientele. She would bring home anecdotes along with day-old pies and hamburger buns. She laughed a lot—that was new. Then she took a job at Knorr’s candle factory, a notch up—less chaotic, better pay, easier on her feet. Instead of pouring candles from melted wax, they rolled them out of dyed, honeycomb-textured sheets of beeswax. Now she brought home candles, bent and misshapen, colors that didn’t sell or faded on display tables. She enjoyed the work and the camaraderie with co-workers, but she missed the interaction with customers.
One night over dinner she announced that she had answered an ad for a teller at Bank of America, the only bank in town then. It was a long shot, she figured, as she had no related experience, so she was surprised to be called in for an interview. Her application had stood out, but for the wrong reason. She had stated that she was a graduate of the Brooklyn high school she had only briefly attended. The manager welcomed her enthusiastically and said, “Can you believe the coincidence—I went to school there too!”
“That’s what I get for lying,” she told us in dismay that night.
Honest to a fault—she once ran after a door-to-door salesman who gave her too much change—now it was as if she’d been caught with her hand in the cashbox. But she didn’t own up, and they didn’t check. He wasn’t long out of college—just a boy, she said—and the twenty years’ difference in their ages kept her safe from detection. She could be vague, plead a fuzzy memory. They wouldn’t have had the same teachers, known the same people. Did she impress him with her stability, her deportment, her experience with customers and cash registers? Maybe all that too, but she was sure it was the way they’d hit it off: “It’s a Brooklyn thing,” she said when he offered her the job.
Going to work had provided the first boost, but this was a giant step that exceeded all expectations. She seamlessly inhabited the new persona of a savvy business woman. Her skills were a perfect fit; her maturity and common sense served her well in a milieu of educated but unseasoned youth. She was buoyed by constant validation and was soon the go-to person for residents and merchants, especially the older, more-established population. People greeted her with warmth and respect all over town. “That’s Lena from the bank,” I’d hear someone say, as if she was a local celebrity.
Tony, the owner of a popular family-run Mexican restaurant, was one of many who wouldn’t do his banking with anyone else. He treated our family like royalty when we came in. He’d seat us personally, flirting and laughing with Mom. “When are you going to leave this guy and run away with me?” he’d ask, bringing a dish of his secret-recipe guacamole to our table. She’d come back with a snappy retort, while my father and Caterina, Tony’s wife, looked on in amusement. I would stare at her as if she was a stranger. Was this my dowdy, boring mother?
Her paychecks were a significant boost to my dad’s earnings as a small-town TV repairman, and we breathed easier with our belts loosened. The atmosphere at home relaxed all around. Dad drank less, and their arguments became infrequent. There were no dramatic changes—we didn’t move to a bigger house or buy a new car—but there was less scrimping and more frills. Mom built up a wardrobe to go with her new identity; she became the smart dresser she always wanted to be. She went crazy over shoes. I don’t know how many pairs she had at the peak of her mania, but let’s say fifty: pointy-toed high heels, cork wedges with open toes, strappy sandals, whatever was in fashion. She looked for colors and shades she didn’t have—“yes, I have red, but not this brick red, not this stacked heel.” When she bought a new outfit—no time now for knitting—there would be matching shoes.
She wasn’t a vain woman, and it took me a long time to understand her absorption with presentation and self-image, with remaking herself. She was still living down her tenth-grade education, even if no one knew, and her self-perception required those outer trappings.
The real change was deeper but every bit as visible. A vibrant personality emerged, one that recalled the young Lena in that old photo. She entertained us with news and stories at the dinner table, bits of gossip, shrewd observations, implications of the latest rise in interest rates. She eschewed false modesty, proudly passing on the frequent praise that came her way. Like a desert shrub replanted next to a stream, she flourished and flowered. “I owe it all to the Bank of America,” she liked to say.
Her health became an obstacle after several years. Her battle with gastric ulcers was longstanding—I’d grown up with her bland cooking and bottles of Maalox in the medicine cabinet—but didn’t impede her activities for a while. Doctors told her it was psychosomatic, stress-related, but when her bouts of pain increased they began to take her seriously. Surgery helped, but other medical problems followed. She stopped working when chronic illness came to dominate her strength and energy. Smoking was her eventual undoing. Cigarettes were her crutch, no less in good times than in bad. She was a heavy smoker all her life and wouldn’t, couldn’t stop even after cancer was discovered, even after having a lung removed. “If one thing doesn’t get you, something else will,” she told me more than once when I tried to reason with her about her smoking.
The cancer reappeared in her bones and brain; she was beyond treatment and died at sixty. I kept two of her hand-knit capes and a yellow crocheted tablecloth, some costume jewelry and her wedding ring. I didn’t inherit her shoe collection, as I wore a size smaller. Instead I find myself hanging onto a closetful of regrets. How little I tried to know her, how unsupportive I was. How I should have tried to reach out and bridge the gap, daughter to mother, woman to woman. I allowed her reticence to throw me off, or maybe I used it as an excuse in my self-absorption. There’s so much I’ll never know. I have a picture taken of her shortly before her death when illness had taken its toll. Pale and pinched, she looks older than her years, her eyes dimmed with sadness. I also have that early photo—young and vibrant with her life ahead of her. Neither is as strong as the image that’s implanted in my mind from a time in between the two: Lena as I like to remember her, as I knew her for a short span, joyful, animated, dark eyes flashing, reeking confidence during that precious interlude when she’d found her niche. That’s Lena from the bank.
Alice Lowe reads and writes about food and family, Virginia Woolf, and life. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Upstreet, Hippocampus, Tinge, Switchback, Prime Number, Phoebe, and Hobart. She was the 2013 national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of a 2011 essay contest at Writing It Real. A monograph, “Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction,” was published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.
In my next life I will come back as a Wild Mountain Woman
I will have more hair, the thick dark kind some women inherit
from lions I will have the hips to dance in layers of long
I will relocate to this sleepy town, and open a bakery I’ll get up
at dawn every day and grind my toes into the warming earth I’ll
know how to wrestle a rattlesnake, but I won’t need to very often
I will cook fragrant things like squash and herbed cheeses
and on Mondays we will have chiles relleños until they sell out
In the afternoon I will walk the stuccoed paths home
I will have a past dark enough that I left everything to come here
but light enough that children and cats trust me with their secrets
At night, I will collect the wind in my hair and watch the sun
as it sets over the Rio Grande I will go to sleep and dream
Naomi Krupitsky Wernham’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in several literary journals and magazines, in print and online. ‘New Mexico’ is an excerpt from a longer collection of travel writing. To read more about the trip that inspired it, visit twowheeldrive.net. Naomi currently lives in Providence, where she is at work on a new collection of poetry and an old collection of stories.
For Eric Garner, Who Lost Staten Island
Inside the brain of a bank,
where the world is,
I sold my breath
but then my breath was taken
and sold back to me.
You cannot sell your breath,
I was told, as if it were gold,
or chopped up change,
or dollars that could be pulverized
and used as air.
You cannot sell a grain of bread,
a crust of morning thirst,
a still life of a snowman holding
a bronchial child as she sleeps
a little closer, they told me
while I choked on the ground
and choked on my eyes
and choked on a page of the Advance
and tried to trick the sunlight
that was no longer real.
You cannot drink the water
more than once, not for free.
You cannot look at the moon
more than once, not for free.
You cannot comprehend the weight
of a cigarette more than once, not for free.
You cannot pet the sugared coals
you stole from your first, second,
or seventh Christmas trauma,
not for free, they told me
when only the chambers
of a shattered dark dandelion were real.
Rob Cook lives in New York City’s East Village. He is the author of six collections, including Empire in the Shade of a Grass Blade (Bitter Oleander Press, 2013), The Undermining of the Democratic Club (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014), and Asking My Liver for Forgiveness (Rain Mountain Press, 2014). Work has appeared in Versal, Rhino, Caliban, Fence, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Thrice Fiction, Great Weather For Media, Small Portions, Arsenic Lobster, Space & Time, Osiris, Phantom Drift, Weirdbook, Up the Staircase Quarterly, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Posit, Zoland, Pear Noir!, Mudfish, Borderlands, Tampa Review, etc.
Some Thoughts About Why You Left
We both tried to kill ourselves, you with
pills, me, with a razor and a bottle of wine,
You lied for me, to every doctor, every
nurse and social worker, you even bragged
to me how good you were,
at the lying, that is
And when it was your turn, I didn’t lie for
You, I told them what you meant to do, they
Kept you for two weeks, I called you every
Day and once you were out I came to see
you in your sad little trailer, my sons pacing
the small space between us,
The point is, even once my horizontal cuts
Had healed, white lines on my wrists, you
Were still the voice in the other room,
drowning out the reasons we tried,
In Vegas, on our wedding night I texted my
Ex from the bathroom, I sat on the toilet and
And cried into a hotel towel, not that I didn’t
Love you, but because my love for you
overlapped with my love for him, and how
could I belong to you, completely, when
threads of my heart lead me elsewhere and
our rings, like little prisons, bound me to
you, you who didn’t trust me to stay
The following morning I realized the truth
About the bars on the casino windows, how
they protect the losers from losing
everything that’s left, if anything.
When I chose to stop loving him, for good,
When I gave in to the idea of belonging to
you, I cut the threads, and the fabric of you
and me, unraveled, Who could have known
that your love depended on the distracted
quality of my affection, your loyalty, on the
fear of losing me to him?
The thing is, we tried, like people do, to
Leave this world on our terms, and you
loved me until you weren’t afraid, and I
loved you most when you didn’t care,
And now that you’re gone, we are leaving
Each other still, every day, the view
growing brighter yet.
Even with our hair tucked inside baseball caps
Dressed in my father’s work shirts, a truck full of men
Twice our age followed us as we walked to a candy store,
Yelling profanities, like, did we want to suck their dicks
Or sit on their laps, how tight were we,
I was twelve and my cousin only ten,
We barely looked like girls, let alone women, we thought
we’d outsmart them this time for sure, but they’d caught
our scent, even when we took refuge in a Red Apple they
Were out in the parking lot waiting for us again, revving up
Their engine when all we wanted was to go home and play
Barbies, eat our Starburst and Skittles,
but the men
In the red Ford truck had other plans for us, that August
In the valley’s dry, sick heat, the layers
of men’s clothing
Didn’t breathe, and neither did we
for the moment when they
Slowed down as if to scoop us up,
they laughed when
I gathered rocks, threw handfuls
at their truck,
When I yelled, Leave us alone!
We are children! I told them
though they knew that already,
which is why the woman driving the station
wagon pulled up to the shoulder,
muttered an inaudible threat,
The truck lurched forward, angry and young
The men sped off, a cloud of dust sticking to our salty skin,
Marching back to the house on Viall Street
we chewed on Tootsie Rolls and caramels,
the sweetness weighing a million pounds
on our tongues, our baby teeth.
Kristy Webster is the author of Coco, a magical realism novella, and Dream Dogs, a collection of short stories. Her work has been published in print and online journals such as Connotations Press, The Feminist Wire, Sirens, Molotov Cocktail, Pacifica Literary Review, and Ginger Piglet. Kristy’s work is also featured in two anthologies by GirlChildPress, Woman’s Work, and Just Like a Girl. She is a bookseller and writing tutor in Port Townsend, Washington.
A collection of surreal ink drawings inspired by sacred geometry exploring the relationship between human perceptions and impossible worlds…
Even on 5th avenue, it costs money to die.
Especially if you die in a Taco Bell drive-through
or in the kitchenware aisle of Macy’s; it costs
money to die even if you flop down dead
in your own flower garden. I once chased a cat
into a bed of carnations and fell down in the scraggy
twigs, afraid of bees. I could have died but didn’t:
not enough money to. But back to the point: the dying.
Donald Rumsfeld said that death has a tendency
to encourage a depressing view of war. But why stop there?
Death has many tendencies. We’re selling death
short. But if you’ve got the money, why die
just once? I’d pay to die nine times—Think about how
many funerals you could throw with Meryl Streep’s
money. Get Eleven Madison Park to cater, buy
those fancy hand towels for the bathroom. But
will they think of the hand towels when they go
outside to get some air, hands still tingling
on the back porch, and the stars all turning
themselves on like the ends of ecigarettes?
Fuck the stars, they have no money. They live
to travel, and it takes so long. The real stars
are human and could pay to have their name
assigned to any orb of gas they’d like.
Bodies of Water
Erica says our bodies aren’t quite canyons,
aren’t lacks or voids where silt has slowly left us
inch by inch. But if not that, then our bodies
are just aquariums for grief. Our bodies are just
containers for material things like water or wine.
I make an appointment to see my doctor. I show her
my body and ask her questions about it.
They make machines to see inside our bodies.
I ask my doctor how much of me is water, how much
of me is salt. There is a way that the water can touch
everything. I have two hands but they keep nothing
inside me. I know that something hatches in the heart
on April nights when voices echo in the alleys.
In a bed
in an ink-wash of night sky
a Chagall dreamer rises
An omniscient moon
hovers above the pines
tops of gentled branches
caress her face
The smell of pitch resonates
The sleeper dreams
undulate in snow
shutters hinged for wind
lift but hold
Across the moonlit sidewalk
a shadow falls
The dreamer flies
a red sheath billows
bare legs trail
The flier smiles
whistle and hum
rush and whisper
The voyager listens
a heart-breaking lightness
an exhilarating brightness
The sleeper wakes
Meditations on an Altered State
The doctor says
Mother has a
hole in her head
right next to the shunt
he put in last September
Months have passed
and she’s aged,
by this Alzheimer’s
wreck in a wheelchair
Talk flows above her
of fluid shifts
suggestions for repairs
Trim the hairs
and keep it clean
The sinkhole draws
around the spot
on the hairs
to stay still
Her little girl’s voice
Father lives in
an altered state
her cresting moods
He swims on the waves
of her scattered fears
days and nights
he sloughs off
the seconds of her disease
The three of us are
lurid in lamplight
drags us from
bed to sofa in
Father faces her hallucinations
as he would a beast
Lost-eyed and lumbering
with no grace in sight
he finds solace
in her disconsolate face
Barbara McGaw is a retired teacher who lives with her family in Freeland, at the southern edge of Michigan’s northern forest. She is the 2011 recipient of the Abbie Copps Prize for Poetry, awarded for her poem, “A Stone Heart.” Her work has been featured in literary publications nationwide. Barbara’s poems have appeared in Blast Furnace, Dark Matter, Foliate Oak, Ginosko, Livid Squid, Pudding, and Stone Highway.
You Are a Terrible Home Surgeon
While mowing the lawn, a small bird flew into my chest and stuck there. It’s America. I can’t afford health insurance. I said, I need you to remove it. It’s not that unusual. I had a friend cure his son’s depression with a fork and an electrical socket and do you remember the article in the paper last summer about the woman who pulled a giant splinter from her husband’s heart? You grabbed the scissors and began to hack. You are a terrible home surgeon. You removed only the wings and a fleshy chunk of the body. The beak you left behind is still submerged in my lung. It won’t stop singing its incessant song.
The Heart Attack
I was visiting with my aunt and uncle. While having a heated discussion about the upcoming presidential election, my uncle, who was leaning against the stove, put his hand to his chest, went pale, then collapsed onto the kitchen floor. Upon impact, he burst open like a water balloon dropped by some mischievous children from a rooftop. My uncle, who had just been arguing in favor of tax breaks and limited government was now a giant pool of blood and guts at my feet. My aunt screamed, we have to save him! We have to save him! She pointed to the utility closet and ordered me to grab the mop and bucket. In attempt to comfort her I wrapped my arms around her and whispered, he’s gone. There was nothing we could do. She pushed me away and grabbed the drinking straw out from a fountain soda on the counter. She got down on her hands and knees and began sucking up my dead uncle as if he were a Bloody Mary. I’d heard my mother gossip about my aunt’s drinking—I wasn’t surprised.
The Lemon Law
For her sixteenth birthday her parents bought her a Ford Escort from the Car Palace. It became a problem. Within weeks, it began stalling at every stoplight, all the gauges stopped working, and the muffler fell off—we had to use coat hangers to keep it attached. Still, that summer, we drove to Lincoln Woods almost every night, parked under the tree that she thought resembled Abraham Lincoln, and fucked until our bodies gave out. Then we’d crack the rear windows, suck in the cool air, and lay silently under the judgment of the moon. It was the first month of our junior year of high school when we told her parents she was pregnant. Her mother cried and kept mumbling, my baby, my baby. Her father stared as us and began citing the state’s Lemon Law. They have to take it back, he kept saying.
Eric Paul is a writer and musician from Providence, Rhode Island. He has been the lyricist and vocalist for the bands Arab On Radar and The Chinese Stars, as well as his current band, Doomsday Student. In 2009, a collection of Eric’s lyrics and poetry was released by Heartworm Press, I Offered Myself As The Sea. Since then, he has released two chapbooks and two spoken word releases. His work has also appeared in Ninth Letter, Word Riot, Spork, The Literary Review, and others.
Your Mouth is Full of Birds
You asked me once at dawn about forgiveness and I said
I didn’t think you had any need to be forgiven and you said
nothing, pointing instead to the tangerine branches
heavy with four-petaled flowers and a rookery of crows branded
like oiled umber in the sunlight. How grave the silences tucked
in each wing and beneath your tongue, silences you later tucked
into my suitcase when I wasn’t looking, letters written in memory
whose creases I smoothed over and over until I could remember
the gray trunks of the tangerine orchards, how each flower smelled,
each fruit peeled and quartered, full of tongues that still swell
in my dreams and burst into a hundred miles of telephone wires,
the silhouettes of birds still attached. Now, after all this while,
when you come to me at night with your mouth full of birds,
I think that you meant you forgave me for the rookery,
because they left their wings on my window, not yours. Oh how they follow
me still through this city, crying for you with every red-throated swallow.
Grandmother sent a box
of tangerines and a small
glass teapot, but
the tangerines had
spoiled. I sparked
the stove for the kettle,
dropped my last
tea leaves, poured
the hot water.
Through the glass,
the dried tea flowers
the studio with orchards
of tangerines. That night,
I dreamed of black
pigs rooting in lava
spun from the day’s silk,
against the coffin
of my window.
And outside the crows besiege the window ledge
while she rifles through the mesh bag of tangerines,
testing each with all five fingertips,
digging her thumbnail into the fleshiest skins,
remembering the orchards back home.
Orchards full of stars the color of tangerines,
almost the color of koi or orioles, not quite
saffron or crocoite. Orchards blooming
mandarin and white, five-petaled crowns
sweet and citrus among the dimpled rinds.
Each night in this tiny room she unrolls her bed
beside drying canvases and turpentined brushes
speckled of paint, aware of the absence
of dried fish and sea brine, here the tangerines
are unripe, not yet full and nectarous—
she can tell by the weight in her palm,
the rim of space between peel and flesh.
She splits open the white-veined fruit,
spritzes the air with a sweet cloud of citrus.
Inside, the tangerine is ripe small pairs of lungs.
She runs her tongue over the strange membrane,
veined and pulpy, delicate and swollen.
The skin breaks, exhales a mouthful of nectar,
and she devours sweet portions of breath
over and over with each piece of tangerine.
This is the second thirst to be quenched. Later,
the other tangerines will spoil and harden,
their own lungs full of orange light.
And now the crows are tapping on the window,
hungry for the pips and rind, the body void of breath.
Marci Calabretta is the recipient of poetry fellowships from Kundiman and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Her work has appeared most recently in American Letters & Commentary, Chautauqua, and The MacGuffin, and her chapbook, Last Train to the Midnight Market, was published by Finishing Line Press. She is co-founder and managing editor for Print-Oriented Bastards, and an assistant editor for Jai-Alai Magazine.
On the first day there was stillness.
For a moment nothing moved. The wind held its breath. The birds stopped in midflight—their wings pinned against the blurry space of sky.
We didn’t blink, as though our eyelids were glued back. Orators’ hands hovered in mid-gesticulation. Wheels of cars didn’t rotate. Midway through an intersection we could see the perfect, shiny forms of the hubcaps, each spoke a precise dart of light.
Clocks stopped. The clappers of church bells paused before banging the brass sides. Crowds stilled—arms and legs and necks craned in poses of motion.
After the stillness we moved again, and we almost forgot about this incident.
People are always dying, but on the next day, there was a different sort of dying.
A woman at the Dollar Store collapsed as she shelved boxes of tampons. She was only 29. A man in an I-80 Westbound toll both (Exit 274) crumpled over, his hand held out for a ticket. The cars honked, and a red trickle of blood seeped in the gulley between his pinky and ring fingers.
Babies asphyxiated in cradles, bankers reached for their throats behind glass-plated offices. The weatherman’s eyes rolled into the back of his head, as a high front blew in on the green screen behind him.
The President declared an emergency, but he fell onto his desk in the middle of the announcement, and we all heard the crack his forehead made against the wood. Then a commercial for frozen pizzas came on.
It wasn’t only the people, but the animals, too.
Deer stood on the yellow centerlines and faced the grills of cars. Cats lunged through screen doors, their furry necks caught in the screens. A tiger at the San Diego Zoo leapt over its wall, and then lay in the center of the snake pit. And though to a flock of sixth-graders it looked like the tiger had fallen asleep, its striped ribs didn’t heave and the Egyptian cobra that snuck up between its ears didn’t make the tiger flinch.
We heard—through the one lone radio station—that a herd of elephants sunk into a watering hole in Zambia, and that llamas in Peru threw themselves from Machu Picchu.
We tried to stay in our homes and wore masks to protect our airways. We sprayed the air with disinfectants and carried pocket-sized bottles of hand sanitizer.
Birds fell from the sky on the third day. Plunking onto rooftops, catching in their beloved tree branches, landing in the laps of unsuspecting pleasure-seekers hurtling along in the Coney Island Cyclone, one of the last rollercoasters still functioning.
Ostriches in Australia were reported to have stuck their heads in the sand, suffocating. Their backsides stuck up like the ends of feather dusters, sprinkled with the dry grit of the Outback.
Fish—limp and glassy-eyed—washed up into the moats of sandcastles. And when we gathered seashells, our fingers scraped against eels and, once, a mantaray spread out in defeat.
If we wanted to swim, we had to stroke past the floating carcasses of sharks, drifting like miniature islands.
We ate a feast of fowl and shellfish, after the health department proved that there was no disease. We stuffed our stomachs with seafood and broke wishbones, forgetting our wishes.
A NASA astronomer, in Mississippi, noticed that the buckle on Orion’s belt was missing. He demanded that the telescope be cleaned.
An amateur astronomer—twelve years of age—reported that the stars of the Big Dipper had fallen one by one, until only the North Star loomed overhead. And then, with many of us watching the sky, it popped, with blackness replacing where it had been.
The moon wasn’t visible that night, until a San Francisco priestess pointed out that it was time for the half moon. Many phone lines were down, but once word got out, suburbs called in reporting that there was no moon in their night skies either.
The next morning was not a morning, for the sun burst into millions and billions and trillions of sparks that fizzled like pop rocks, and made our mouths ache.
The only light we had now was in candlewicks and flickering light bulbs, and fires made from brittle branches. We stared into the whitest parts of the flames and imagined being burned by the sun.
Some more dangerous types lay in tanning beds and took off their eyewear, so their eyeballs would be ablaze.
We were frantic today.
The Redwoods gave up and toppled over. Cornstalks shriveled up in Iowa, oranges rotted in their skins down in Florida, the wheat of Kansas turned to dust and could no longer be gathered. There were no more cows for butter in France, the rice paddies of China flooded, and the Dutch tulip fields molted, the petals crackling underfoot.
Throughout the day the plants blanched, until green was just a memory.
We headed in droves (those of us left) to the grocery stores and bought cartloads of cereals and moldy breads, boxes of spaghetti and Oreos and frozen peas, because what if we no longer had the option to refuse peas?
The vegans turned cruel and beat back the meat eaters for the last stalks of broccoli, raising the green heads high up like bridal bouquets.
Earthquakes divided neighborhoods and cities and countries. We’d look out our windows to the houses next door, a deep chasm where the arborvitae used to be. One man’s house swelled up in the shape of meringue, and the ground on all sides crumbled like a graham cracker crust.
We sat atop our roofs, because the rivers and estuaries had flooded.
The oceans swallowed New Zealand last hour, and this hour they swallowed California (which finally broke away with yesterday’s earthquake).
It rained heavily and no one could tell sky from land. We walked through a perpetual waterfall. The umbrellas drooped down past our ears, our snot mixing with the water, and when we were parched, we stuck out our tongues and caught raindrops.
One mother washed her laundry outside, but the only dry place left to hang it was the attic. The jeans began to mildew.
Today our imaginations withered, and we forgot how to have conversations.
We huddled in fog. There were no shadows, because darkness receded from whence it came. We strived to hold onto a hand, a lamppost, a chimney, and our senses faded too.
We thought that It would leave like the great and wonderful Oz—in a balloon, soaring in a burst of rainbow color up into the clouds. Or maybe as a shooting star—fast and bright and magnificent—ducking between the galaxies. Or sharp and menacing like a missile—direct and out into space, orbiting us like a satellite and breaking away.
But we had never seen It. So we only felt It leaving, as in the way of fleeting thoughts.
And between the moment of Light and After Light, we reached for something, grasped onto nothing and in the pits of what might once have been called souls, recognized a great absence. We despaired.
At the end of the week, we were entirely alone.
Courtney McDermott is a native of Iowa currently living in the greater Boston area. She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the MFA program at the University of Notre Dame. Her debut collection of short stories, How They Spend Their Sundays, was published by Whitepoint Press in 2013. She now works at Harvard and can be found on www.courtneymcdermott.com.
Woman, Where Is Your Crown?
Woman, where is your crown?
Why do you stand there dumb-
founded? It does not abide in the swivel of your hips
or the bouncing of your breasts!
Your crown was not gold wrought from the ground,
and slipped around your finger as a noose!
Your crown was a gift,
a tapestry, woven from iridescent sunbeams,
and laid upon your brow by all the beasts of the earth.
Woman, did you forget
your coronation so quickly?
Your nakedness is not your robe
or shield. Stoop low,
and pick up your crown.
May you never stoop so low again!
Self Portrait #1
I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best. —Frida Kahlo
I paint a caricature aflame
in blood and lust
with pink laughing lips and cheeks,
but my bruise-blue eyes cannot be colored
by the rouge mask.
I ink in my scars.
(but where do I draw the lines?)
Are they too raw
for you to see
or for me to show?
I am afraid
I bleed many colors:
I am glass-green sea alight,
I am a war(rior) shrouded in black,
I am a wife struggling with shadows and light,
I am a woman
My point of view reflected infinitum:
thick alabaster thighs, purple crooked shoulders;
hips swaying in orange abandonment
to a song without tempo in every look-
ing glass; I repaint my nakedness
so that I may see myself
Carolyn D. Elias is a poet who lives with her husband, in Hancock, Minnesota. Carolyn’s work has appeared in Sassafras Literary Magazine. Her poems will soon be published by East Jasmine Review and on Apeiron Review’s website. You can learn more about her at www.carolyndeliasauthor.squarespace.com or follow her on Twitter @CarolynDElias.
SNOW AND SNOW
It keeps showing up like a complaint
no one has an answer for.
And as it does the flimsy tarps
surrounding the apartment under
construction flap like specters who see
no way out, pitiful in their hopelessness.
A few dogs leap in the whiteness,
their owners looking grim as soldiers
at Stalingrad while I hunker in the study,
a hermit lately every day, every night.
FOR THE PERSIANS
+++++I’ve spent my whole life being patient.
+++++I’ll need another life to reap the fruits.
My determination comes late at night—
++I wake my wife, who looks at me
Groggily but beautifully—
++“The hell with it,” I say,
“I’m not being patient anymore.”
++My wife props herself up—
“When exactly have you ever been patient?”
++“Go back to sleep,” I say,
“I’ll confuse you again in the morning.”
WAITING WITH THE SQUIRRELS FOR SPRING
We’re all set to discover the golden acorns
under the slush of snow, like seeing out of a mist
an Eldorado rise. Yet again those nuts
will more closely resemble the standard fare
of a cheap Burger Shack along a bad tourist beach—
but they’ll be serviceable and keep us alive,
help us appreciate the yellow of the flowers
in the yellow of the sun, in the fields and cities.
For some they’ll be racing up trees, carrying
the goods to the highest branches—for others
squarely on the ground will have to do, feet under
the outdoor tables and the clear blue sky shining
like it never went away, pleased to have us back.
Tim Suermondt is the author of two full-length collections: TRYING TO HELP THE ELEPHANT MAN DANCE (The Backwaters Press, 2007), and JUST BEAUTIFUL (New York Quarterly Books, 2010). He has published poems in Poetry, The Georgia Review, Blackbird, Able Muse, Prairie Schooner, PANK, Bellevue Literary Review, Stand Magazine (UK), and has poems forthcoming in december magazine, Plume Poetry Journal, North Dakota Quarterly, and Ploughshares. After many years in Queens and Brooklyn, he has moved to Cambridge with his wife, the poet Pui Ying Wong. Contact him at allampoet[at]earthlink.net
Since it happened, Beverly has been able to talk and think only in imprecise terms. She’s said there was an accident and the baby is gone, but on the third day she wakes up and the first thing in her head is the baby is dead, and this, finally, is something real she can taste in the back of her throat.
Days ago, when she was backing out of the driveway on her way to get a gallon of milk, Beverly heard the crack—a wet sound, a watermelon splitting on concrete—and wondered what she’d backed over. She was angry when she opened the car door. She was ready to yell at her husband for leaving something—a tool, maybe—in the middle of the driveway where anyone could drive over it. But when she rounded the car, she saw a great leaking mess spreading out from underneath the tire. There was blood everywhere, and everything was red, but that wasn’t all—there was so much green, so much grey, so much color that Beverly was sure she was wrong, that it couldn’t be what she was thinking, that it couldn’t be the baby’s tiny head crushed under the tread of her tire.
And then her husband came around the corner of the house, whistling. “Do you have the baby?” he asked.
On the third day after the baby was zipped into a small black bag and driven to the funeral home, where his head would be reconstructed so it did not appear deflated, empty of brain and blood, Beverly stays in bed until noon and comes downstairs only when she feels a tug in her center and remembers she hasn’t eaten anything in forty-eight hours. She goes to the kitchen, and that is where she finds her husband. He is frying bacon and drinking bourbon. The radio is on, and it’s playing something low and sad.
“What is this?” Beverly asks.
Robert shrugs. “College radio, I think,” he says. “I don’t know.”
Hanging in the arch between the living and dining rooms is her husband’s favorite suit. It is charcoal gray—appropriate for somber occasions. It has just come from the dry-cleaner and is still wrapped in plastic.
“Your mother called an hour ago,” Robert says. “She demanded I wake you up, and I told her to fuck herself.” He pokes the bacon with a fork. “I said, ‘No, Joyce, I don’t think I will. Go fuck yourself.’”
In moments of crisis, Beverly’s mother cannot be counted on to do much more than instruct a person on what to wear. She has already left three messages asking what Beverly plans to put on for the funeral. “You better not be wearing a pantsuit,” she told the machine. “And wear something gray. Black is too harsh for your coloring.”
“She’ll be over at three,” Robert says. “I’m just giving you a heads-up.”
Beverly sits down at the table. It shines and smells of bleach. Robert has cleaned the entire house even though Beverly has told him there will be no funeral dinner. She doesn’t want a single casserole in her house.
“Is my mother driving us?” Beverly asks. “I think we need a plan.”
“What do you mean we need a plan?” Robert says, “I’m driving us. Of course I’m driving us.”
Beverly looks at his bourbon.
“This is my last drink,” he says. He holds the glass up and stares through the crystal. “Not just for tonight, either. I mean forever.”
“Why?” Beverly asks. “What good is it possibly going to do?”
He shrugs. “It’s just something I can do,” he says. “It’s the least I can do.”
“The least you can do,” Beverly repeats. She almost used that phrase after the accident, when everyone had gone and it was just the two of them sitting on the front steps. She’d wanted to say, The least you could’ve done is watch him while I ran for some milk. But, in the end, she didn’t say it. She didn’t say anything.
And the whole situation was so completely like him, too. The first week the baby was home from the hospital, Robert had taken him on a walk to the park down the street, and when he came home he didn’t have the stroller or the baby. He’d gotten distracted—he was an architect and always had blueprints sketching in his head—and walked the whole way home figuring measurements.
Beverly’s mother had delighted in that one. “Both of you are rotten parents,” she told Beverly when Beverly, who was cradling a crying baby while crying herself, called to tell her what Robert had done. “I told you you weren’t ready. Didn’t I tell you that?”
And now it’s true. They were awful parents. They were not fit. They will lay their son out tonight underneath the dim lighting of the funeral home, and they will watch their friends and family coo sweet things into an ear that has been stitched back on with flesh-colored thread.
Robert finishes his bacon. He turns off the burner and piles the strips onto a plate before sitting across from Beverly. He swallows each piece with bourbon. He doesn’t offer any to Beverly, but she isn’t hungry anymore. Watching him, she realizes that what she’d like most is to find some way to blame this all on him. She’d like there to be some kind of hard evidence, some fact that makes him the sole guilty party. She wishes moments before she’d gotten into the car he had come into the room with the baby in his arms and said, “We’re going to play in the sandbox.”
But there is nothing like that, and Beverly was the one who ended up on the concrete, trying to push the baby’s blood back into his body. There is no one to blame but herself.
* * *
Beverly’s mother arrives early. She comes through the door at two-thirty, carrying a fruit basket and a suitcase. Beverly leans around the corner from the kitchen where she’s brewing coffee and sees her mother face Robert, who, moments before, had been sleeping off his bourbon on the couch.
“I’ll wait,” she says to him.
Robert yawns and stretches. “For what?” he asks.
Beverly’s mother sets down the suitcase. She balances the fruit basket on top of it. “For an apology,” she says. “You swore at me this morning, Robert, and I did not appreciate it.”
Robert looks at her for a long minute, then fluffs the couch pillow and lies back down to sleep.
Beverly’s mother tugs at the hem of her jacket. She steps out of her shoes. “Unbelievable,” she says, and she leans down to push the suitcase and basket toward the kitchen. “BEVERLY!” she shouts, loud enough to startle Robert back into a sitting position.
Beverly steps fully into the room to block her mother’s way into the kitchen. She doesn’t like the looks of the suitcase—it implies a length of stay Beverly is not comfortable with—and if she can keep her out of the important rooms, then maybe she’ll get the hint and reconsider staying in a house with two awful parents, two awful people—people who tell mothers to fuck themselves and don’t apologize for it.
Beverly hasn’t smiled for seventy-two hours, and she didn’t think she would for years, but Robert’s sudden distaste for her mother makes her bite the tender flesh on the inside of her cheeks to keep from smiling.
“Right here, Mother,” she says.
Beverly’s mother stops and lifts the fruit basket, transferring it to her daughter’s arms. “From Mrs. Wilkinson. She sends her sympathies, but she has a wedding to attend tonight.”
“Fruit,” Beverly says. “Just what we need.”
“Don’t be flip,” Beverly’s mother says. “You and your husband—both of you are so damned flip.”
“It’s inappropriate,” her mother says. “This is no time to be clever.”
“Of course you’re right,” Beverly says.
“Or sarcastic,” her mother continues. “Don’t test me, Beverly.”
Beverly’s mother lays her suitcase out on the floor. She unzips it and shakes out two skirts and a few blouses from her wardrobe, “I brought these for you,” she says. “There are a few other choices in here, too.”
Beverly’s mother is three or four sizes bigger than Beverly is, and the clothes—already frumpy and ugly—would look even worse hanging off Beverly’s bones. “Mother,” she says, “no. I have my own clothes. I can dress myself.”
“You don’t have a single thing that’s appropriate for this occasion,” her mother says. She presses a skirt to Beverly’s waist, and its polyester folds unfurl down to her ankles. “You can’t show knees or décolletage at a funeral.”
“It would be a lot more festive if you could,” Robert says from the couch.
Beverly hasn’t smiled for seventy-two hours, and she didn’t think she would for years, but Robert’s sudden distaste for her mother makes her bite the tender flesh on the inside of her cheeks to keep from smiling.
Her mother notices, and her own cheeks burn bright red. Before Beverly can stop it, her mother is sobbing. She melts to the floor and sits next to the heap of clothes she’s packed for herself and Beverly.
“You’re cruel!” she says. “How could you do this? How could you?”
She cries into her suitcase. She buries her face deep in the clothes, and Beverly, now so tired she can barely hold herself up, walks over to the couch opposite Robert and lies down. She faces him, and the two of them stare at each other, listening to Beverly’s mother until she cries herself to sleep. When her crying turns into a series of small snores, Beverly and Robert close their eyes and fall asleep, too, their breathing matched even if they are separated by a wide ocean of room.
* * *
They wake only half an hour before the ceremony is set to begin. Beverly’s mother bolts up from her suitcase and pats at her hair, which has been flattened.
“What time is it?” she asks quietly, but then, panicked at hearing no response, she raises her voice. “WHAT TIME IS IT?” she yells.
Beverly gasps awake. She had been dreaming the baby was still alive, that he was still a baby—bald, shirtless, diapered—but adult-size and sitting in a chair at the dining room table, smoking a cigar and reading the real-estate section of the newspaper. When she walked in the room to serve dinner, he set aside the paper and cigar and said, “Thank you, Mother,” in a British accent.
“We’re going to be late!” her mother says, and pushes up to her feet. She grabs a handful of the clothes in her suitcase and takes off for the first floor bathroom.
Robert sits up and rubs his chin. He needs to shave. “What if I skipped it?” he asks, plucking at his stubble.
In the other room, Beverly’s mother is running a blow dryer—probably at fingers she has hastily painted—and yelling out to them over the noise. “Late to my own grandson’s funeral!” she says. “There’s probably a special place in hell for people who are late to their own grandsons’ funerals!” The blow dryer shuts off and she leans out the door. “Robert,” she says, “you get upstairs and start shaving. You can’t go to your son’s funeral looking like a homeless man.”
Robert touches his chin again.
“Don’t shave,” Beverly whispers.
Robert looks at her.
“Don’t shave,” Beverly says, louder this time. “If you don’t want to shave, don’t shave.”
Robert nods, slowly, like he’s hearing the words but having a hard time comprehending them, like maybe there’s a loud noise inside his head, something he’s having trouble hearing through. “I’d rather not,” he says finally.
“Then don’t,” Beverly says. She stands and smoothes down her shirt. “I’m going to get dressed upstairs. Do you want me to bring you some socks?”
“Socks,” Robert says, not affirming or denying a want for them. He stares down at the pillow. “I think,” he says, “I am going to have another bourbon.”
Beverly’s mother swings the bathroom door wide. “You will not have one more ounce of liquor!” she says. “It’s one thing to take the edge off in private, at home, when you’re not doing anything of importance, but it’s a whole other thing to go to your son’s funeral three sheets to the wind.”
“This will be my second bourbon,” Robert says.
“Right,” Beverly says. “He’ll only be two sheets to the wind.” She ticks them off on her hand. One bourbon, two bourbon.
Beverly’s mother’s lip trembles again, and, before she can dissolve into another mess of tears, she slams the bathroom door and starts the blow dryer again. Robert goes into the kitchen to get his suit, and Beverly climbs the stairs to the second floor, goes into their room, and sits on the edge of their bed. The room is cloudy with gray light that has made its way through the curtains. Beverly can see every bit of dust in the light, and she stops breathing. She’s never before stopped to consider it, but most of what she breathes in every day is dirt. She holds her breath as long as she can. She is already black inside, already as filthy as she can get.
When Beverly finally runs out of held breath, she gasps for air, sucks in all the silt that is always, every second, falling down on her. She gets up and pulls things out of her closet—things that don’t even match. It’s not that she isn’t capable of finding a matching outfit; now it’s about doing things to displease her mother, who is in the kitchen telling Robert to put down that bourbon and put it down fast. Then, weeping, she says, “You couldn’t have watched him for ten minutes? Ten lousy minutes? You’re a waste, Robert, a real waste of flesh and blood.” She raises her voice so it will carry up the stairs. “And so is my daughter! A waste!”
Beverly says nothing. She slips into a red pencil skirt and navy heels. She ties one of Robert’s white dress shirts at her waist the way that was fashionable when she was in middle school.
When they walk into the funeral home, her husband will be drunk and unshaven; she will be an American flag. The sight of them will repulse her mother, and she will no doubt be forced to circle the room, telling their guests that everything has been hard, just so hard on Robert and Beverly, and that’s why they look so hopeless, so unkempt, so much like just the type of people you’d expect to kill a baby.
That her mother will be so uncomfortable and busy cheers Beverly. With other people to worry over, her mother will spend very little time with her and Robert, and they will be able to sit in the front of the service, silent, with everything that is left of them bleeding out their mouths, their noses, their ears.
Beverly leaves the bedroom without a pair of socks for Robert, and the three of them get into Beverly’s mother’s car without noticing. It is only when they are parked in the lot at the funeral home that Beverly looks down and sees the white knot of ankle poking out from under the hem of her husband’s pants. In that moment she realizes she has never loved him as much as she does now, and that she will never love him this much again. It isn’t a thought that lasts long because now there are more pressing issues at hand, but the thought is still there, Beverly recognizes it, and it doesn’t sadden her; instead, as she stands there on the sun-warmed asphalt she feels a rush of gratitude that she was able to find that kind of feeling in the middle of so much sadness.
* * *
The service goes exactly like people might’ve expected it to. Beverly’s mother cries in a polite, reserved way, and produces an antique handkerchief, which she presses into the moist corners of her eyes.
Robert, sockless and disoriented from the bourbon he swallowed before walking out the door, lurches to his feet in the middle of the service, just when the funeral director is launching into a poem about angels being called to heaven. Robert walks up to the raised platform where the baby, who has been done up to be pink-cheeked and waxen, is resting in a silk-lined box. Robert’s ankles flap out from under the hem of his trousers as he lowers himself and rests his head against the casket. In that position, there is no hiding it. Everyone in the room can now see that Robert has slipped his bare feet into expensive Italian shoes.
Behind them, everyone stops breathing. Robert is crying and touching the side of the baby’s face, which has been hitched up tight. The baby looks like he went in for plastic surgery, a little nip and tuck.
When Beverly first saw him like this—when her mother marched her up the aisle to stand in front of the narrow casket—she’d recoiled so visibly that her mother had to put a hand on her back to keep her from running.
Beverly could hardly stand to be near him, much less touch him. That her husband is doing so stuns her. And it stuns her mother, too, and she reaches over to take Beverly’s hand in her own. She squeezes it. “Go get him,” she says, but Beverly doesn’t move. Her mother gives her a shove toward Robert.
Beverly turns to face the room and for the first time sees their faces, which are unbearably sad. She can’t stand to look at them for long, so she puts her hands on Robert’s shoulders and guides him back to the seat. Once they are settled, she nods to the funeral director, and he picks back up with the reading like nothing had ever happened, like no scene had ever been made, and the rest of the service passes without incident.
* * *
Afterward, when everyone is milling about, unsure what to do—after all, there is usually a church dinner or coffee and donuts, some sort of gathering—Beverly’s mother puts her hand in Robert’s armpit and hauls him to his feet. “No more sitting,” she says. “People can see that you’re not wearing socks when you’re sitting.”
Robert is sweating, and his sweat smells sour and dark, like bourbon mash. “I think,” he says, “the cat is out of the bag.”
“Just stand very still,” her mother insists, and then reaches out a hand to greet some friends. She steps in front of Beverly and Robert, blocking them, taking the sympathy and well-wishes for her own.
“I’m sorry,” Robert whispers to Beverly as her mother leans her head into her friends’ shoulders. “I don’t know what came over me.”
Beverly’s mother’s friends move on and head toward the door without saying a single word to Robert or Beverly. Her mother receives the next people in line: old neighbors.
“It’s okay,” Beverly says. “You’re okay.”
In front of them, Beverly’s mother is saying, “They’re beside themselves. They’re absolutely mad with grief.”
The old neighbors peek around Beverly’s mother’s shoulders. They lower their eyes to Robert’s ankles.
“Best not to say anything,” Beverly’s mother tells them. “I’ll pass along your well-wishes.”
The old neighbors leave as quickly as they have come. They, like most of the other guests, having overheard Beverly’s mother’s command, slip toward the door. A few stay on, talking in quiet voices while they inch toward the front, toward Robert and Beverly and Beverly’s mother. But each group that makes it to the platform gets diverted by Beverly’s mother, who says things like, They appreciate your being here or They’re really not themselves right now or They’re not at their best.
“What is she doing?” Robert asks.
Beverly knows what she’s up to. This is about capitalizing on a moment. This is about seeing a chance to soak up warm pools of pity and sympathy and pretending to do something for the good of a daughter and a son-in-law.
Beverly turns to look behind them. She examines the corners of the room and sees a small placard that announces the path to the emergency exit. When she turns back around, she sees her mother’s purse, and in it her keys, sitting on the high-backed couch.
“Do you want to go?” Beverly whispers.
Robert has a hand over his face. He looks like he is smelling his palm. “What?” he asks.
“Do you want to go?” She gestures to her mother’s purse and the emergency exit.
Robert nods. He takes a small step forward and hooks a finger into the purse’s handle. It’s off the couch and passed to Beverly before anyone is the wiser, and she and Robert duck behind the burgundy velvet curtains that hide the fire door. They step outside and suck their first breath of air that isn’t stale, that isn’t saturated with the smell of whatever makeup they flaked over the baby’s body, and they don’t even care when the emergency bell sounds—ringing and ringing and ringing as they run to Beverly’s mother’s car.
Beverly has the car in gear and out the driveway before anyone can see where they’ve gone.
* * *
They don’t hide. They don’t drive around town. They just go home.
Beverly parks her mother’s car at the end of the driveway, as close to the road as she can get it: a hint. She and Robert go inside and take off their clothes and sit in their underwear on the living room floor. They put the bottle of bourbon between them. They are drunk in half an hour.
“I’m a really rotten father,” Robert says. “I said I was going to do one thing for him—the least I could do—and here I am going back on that promise.”
“He wouldn’t have cared one way or the other about your drinking,” Beverly says. “He was ten months old.”
“I’m glad my parents are dead,” Robert says. “They would never speak to me again.” He drinks and wipes his mouth on his bare arm. “I didn’t think you would ever speak to me again, either. Once the cops left, you went upstairs and that was it for a long time.”
“You blame this all on me?”
When Beverly doesn’t say anything, he passes her the bottle. He pantomimes drinking, tipping his head back. “I think this is a good time for honesty,” he says.
“I wanted to,” she says finally, taking a swallow and holding it in the back of her throat, where it warms her. “I really wanted to,” she says. “I wanted to hold it over your head for the rest of our lives. I wanted to be able to point to you and say, ‘This is who ruined my life.’”
Robert stares down at the carpet and drags his fingers through its thick braid. The carpet parts for his fingers and stays that way, combed into shallow moats, as Beverly goes on.
“But that wasn’t fair,” Beverly says. “We’re both to blame. We both did this.”
Robert stops combing the carpet. He looks up. “The worst parents ever,” he says. “Half that room thought we should go straight to hell. I saw it in their eyes.”
Beverly hadn’t, and she doesn’t think Robert had, either. She thinks that when he turned his face on the crowd of their friends and neighbors and coworkers, his own eyes got reflected in everyone else’s, and he saw what he really thought he was: nothing good. In that moment, it was probably easy to misinterpret, easy to think that everyone felt he deserved a punishment worse than grief.
But what the two of them had done wasn’t malicious. What they’d done was careless. They were stupid to have the baby in the first place. They were young and self-involved and unsure of how to be good people. Beverly had grown up hearing that she was nothing, that she would never do anything right, and so she went on believing it. It was not the best foundation on which to base her own ideas of motherhood.
She is about to explain this to Robert, but the front door swings open and there, framed by the arch, is her mother. Out at the curb a taxi is idling.
Beverly’s mother has two floral arrangements tucked under her arms. She is sprouting lilies and tulips. She sets them down on the floor and wipes her forehead. She looks battered. She looks like she has walked the distance between the funeral home and the house instead of just the length of the driveway. “Someone better get up and get me some money for the cab,” she says.
Neither Robert nor Beverly move, even though Beverly’s mother looks pitiful. It’s clear she’s been crying again, and this time she hasn’t bothered to clean up the mascara on her cheeks. She breathes heavily. She looks like a woman who has just unbuttoned her skin and peeled it back to reveal something horribly real.
“You’re drunk,” she says.
“Your purse is in the kitchen,” Beverly says.
Beverly’s mother goes to find it. Once she is in the other room, she starts crying again.
Beverly gets up and goes to her husband. She helps him comb the carpet to find hidden pieces of glass. They work for a long time.
“Your mother needs a drink,” Robert says. “I think I’m going to pour her a little something.”
Robert gets up and moves unsteadily toward the bar. He looks ridiculous standing there in only his boxer shorts, but he approaches his task with diligence. He selects a crystal glass and cracks a few ice cubes into its bottom before filling it with gin, which is Beverly’s mother’s drink of choice, the liquor she rolls out in bulk at the holidays.
When Beverly’s mother comes back into the living room, clutching a pair of twenties to her chest, Robert thrusts the drink in her direction. “Here,” he says, too loudly.
Beverly’s mother hides the twenties behind her back, as if she thinks Robert might rob her. “What is that?” she asks.
Robert tips it toward her nose so she can smell. “Gin,” he says.
Beverly’s mother swats it away, and the gin and the glass and the ice cubes fall from Robert’s unsteady hand and crack onto the carpet. They hit with just enough force that not even the thick carpeting can save the crystal, and it opens into a bloom of shards at their feet.
“Jesus,” she says. “Who are you people?”
She shuts the door behind her, and she runs back down to the curb flapping the twenties in the air.
Robert starts crying. “I broke it,” he says. He sinks to his knees and starts gathering the shards into a pile. He cuts his hands on the smallest slivers of glass, which make him bleed. He pats the floor around him. He is desperate to find every last piece of glass, to get everything back together, and the blood from his palms presses into the beige carpet. If someone looked at those stains quickly enough, she might think a person standing at the bar had unleashed a handful of confetti, let it fly into the air and back down again.
Beverly gets up and goes to her husband. She helps him comb the carpet to find hidden pieces of glass. They work for a long time. It becomes evident that Beverly’s mother is not coming back.
“This isn’t healthy,” Robert says. He holds his palms up to the light, examines all the gashes, then wipes his bloodied hands on the carpet.
Beverly isn’t sure what he means. It could be their drunkenness, their nudity, their irreverence on the night of their son’s wake. It could be the way they spoke to Beverly’s mother or they way they ran from the funeral home like spooked children in a fairytale. It could be the broken glass and the blood.
She shakes her head but says nothing. She stands, finds an old towel behind the bar, and brings it to Robert. She wraps his hands tightly together—it looks like he is praying—and then presses her own hands over the wrapped fingers. Now it seems as though they are both praying, praying together, but they aren’t and they won’t, never.
Beverly wonders briefly about her mother, wonders where she’s gone and how she’s making her way across the edges of this sadness now that she is far from the people who have caused it. She can see her mother—tired, wet, crying into a handkerchief stitched with flowers—and in that moment Beverly feels the smallest bit sorry for the way things have gone, and it occurs to her that this, this right here—this moment when she’s holding her husband’s bloody hands in her own, this moment when she’s wondering about her mother, this moment when she’s missing something she had so briefly it now feels like a trick of light and memory—this is the most maternal moment of her life.
Jessica Smith grew up just outside of Buffalo, New York (which explains her eternal love for chicken wings and bleu cheese), and has lived and taught in Minnesota and Maine. She currently teaches writing and literature at Central Maine Community College and has had work published in Ruminate, The Louisville Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, The Portland Review, and Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place.
Against the Troubadours
Casting off the fashions of those finders who
refined their finery too far in passion’s fire,
and reining in my own too-fond desire,
I’ll tell the truth of what I’ve found in you.
My words are worthless, not to be believed,
to those who haven’t seen you face to face;
and those who see, but cannot see a trace
of what’s within, their own souls will be grieved.
The sinner’s not so blind he can’t perceive
your figure’s grace, your form’s gentility;
he doesn’t have the wise man’s sensitivity:
the colors, yes, he sees—but could he ever feel?
All your body has, the coarse man knoweth well,
except the parts in which your spirit shares:
he knows your hips, your waist, your skin, your hair—
but of your movements, what has he to tell?
We all are coarse in trying to explain
that which loveliness and honesty deserve;
and gentle youths, most learned, long to serve,
but, starving, they endure a lover’s pain.
No other sleights-of-mind could shine as bright,
commanding every subtle clerkly feat,
for idleness, in you, lies fast asleep.
God wills you not a virgin but a wife.
For you alone, the good stuff was enough,
which God’s laid by to make illustrious ladies:
of all those women, lovely though they may be,
only you, Teresa, taste of perfect love;
you have, within you, such intelligence
there’s nothing lacking in your memory or mind;
your beauty and your brilliance make men blind;
your wisdom gives the wise their sustenance.
The law of Venice doesn’t have the frame
with which your understanding orders subtleties,
nor could that city ever hold the keys
to how your body moves with neither guilt nor blame.
Such great delight belongs to every learned man
who occupies himself with learning all you teach
base bodily desires cannot reach
his will—and it’s as though his death’s at hand.
Lily in thorns, my art won’t reach so far
to forge a glorious, unseen crown for you;
for nothing should be shown to public view
where such great miracles and marvels are.
Leixant apart l. estil dels trobadors
qui per escalt trepassen veritat,
e sostrahènt mon voler afectat,
perqué no .m trob, diré, .l que trobe en vos.
Tot mon parlar als que no .us hauran vista
res no hi valdrá, car fé no hi donarán;
é los vehènts qui dins vos no veurán,
en créure mi, llur arma será trista.
L. ull dels hom pech no há tant fosca vista
que vostre cos no jutje per gentil;
no .l coneix tal com lo qui es suptil,
hoc la color mes no sab de la lista;
quant est del cos menys de participar
de l. esperit coneix be lo grosser,
vostre color y .l tall pot be saber
mes ja del gest no porá ben parlar.
Tots som grossers en poder explicar
ço que mereix un bell cos e honest,
jovens getils, ben sabènts, l. han request
e famejants los convench endurar.
Lo votre seny fa çó qu. altre no basta
que sab regir la molta suptilesa;
en fèr tot be s. adorm en vos peresa,
casta ne sòu perque Dèu ne vol casta.
Sols pera vos basta la bona pasta
que Dèu retent per fer singulars dones,
fetes n. ha assats mòlt sabies e bones
mes complimènt dona Teresa .l tasta,
havent en sí tant gran conexement
que res no .l fall que tota no .s conega,
al hom devot sa bellesa encega.
past d’entenents es son enteniment,
Venecians no há en lo regimènt
tan pascefichs com vostre seny regeix
subtilitats que .l entendrens no deix
e del cos bells sens culpa .l movimènt;
tant gran delit tot hom entenènt há
e ocupat se troba en vos entendre,
que lo desig del cos no pot estendre
á leig voler, ans con á mort está.
Lir entre carts, lo meu poder no fá
tant que .us poguès fèr corona nuisible,
merícula vos, car la qui es visible
no .s déu posar llá hon miracle está.
Ausias March’s “Against the Troubadours” is not primarily a love poem but a literary one. The blazon of a woman’s bodily characteristics was a genre of its own, through which the (male) writer could show off his own mastery of rhetoric and poetics for the benefit of (male) readers. If there was a real Teresa, it is a safe bet that this poem was not written for her. I’ve translated it out of literary love for its funny puns.
Medieval vernacular Romance languages are full of false cognates, words whose wealth of interconnected connotations does not translate easily into modern English. It would be easy to translate Ausias March’s first verse as “Leaving aside the style of the troubadours”—but such a rendering would miss the wordplay of trobador as a composer or “finder” of songs, who, troubled (torb) by his overly “fond” desire, wants to write about the beauty he has “found” (trobe) in his lady-love. Significantly, the etymology of the poet or songwriter as a finder makes its own statement against any notion of “originality”—good lines are not created, but stumbled upon.
Some other false cognates include estil, which denotes not just any “style” but a high style full of rhetorical, clerkly embellishments; joves gentils, whose “youth” and “gentility” presuppose that they are courtly, well-born aristocrats; seny, which can mean “intellect” and “common sense” at once; and, of course, miracle, which, for modern readers, has lost most of its psychic force. There is also a joke about the city-state of Venice, whose power was reaching its height during March’s lifetime. In my translation, I’ve tried to give some impression of that fifteenth-century context.
Translator: Samantha Pious is a graduate student in Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Some of her translations have appeared in Construction, Gertrude, Rowboat, and Doublespeak.
Author: Ausias March (1397-1459) was a poet of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. He is known today as the first poet to write entirely in Catalan (instead of Latin or Occitan). A minor Valencian nobleman, he fought in the wars in Sicily, Naples, and North Africa during the early 1420s, after which he retired from military life and spent his later years as a squire on his own estate.
Jeju island, South Korea
Dawn calls the haenyo. They return to the shore, the soles
of their feet worn smooth. They listen for the ripples of pearls
and urchins, sing the sun from darkness. Soon-hee swings
a net over her shoulder, her fingers entwined in its deep sea stories.
The hand-me-down buoy, a taewak, rests on her back. Soon-hee
walks toward the sea, swims into the chop of icy waves, inhales
the wrinkled sky, dives into the ocean’s inky womb.
Mi-sook watches the haenyo. When her mother is nothing more
than a black dot, a speck of pepper sprinkled over endless blue,
Mi-sook forgets the sea. It is not yet hers to know. She gathers
half-moon shells, dribbles wet sand through her fingers, watches
her footprints disappear into white foam, waits for her moon,
knows her time to dive will come.
Soon-hee slips into silence, plunges 62 feet below the surf.
Her goggled eyes search the murky depths.
She does not think about sharks.
With salt-cracked hands, she plunders the ocean floor, collects
abalone and octopi, sea snails, and conch. Inside minutes that pass
like hours, even trained lungs flame. Soon-hee bursts
into daylight, gasping. Sumbisori—the hiss of sea women returning.
Soon-hee sells her treasures at market, feeds her family, sends
her daughter to college. She does not need a husband to survive.
The men of Jeju need the haenyo. Wives, mothers, sea women, providers.
But abalone buys books and new ideas. Little girls do not learn the language
of the matriarchal mermaids. They trade tradition for college degrees,
wet suits for business suits. A new moon pulls women to shore.
Soon-hee’s daughter forgets the sea. She drives a Hyundai.
Honeymooners flock to Jeju, Hawaii of Korea, Western tourists
charter buses to the Haenyo Museum. Fifty years ago,
thousands of sea women ruled this island,
gave birth to daughters they prized
in a country of prized sons. Only 5,000 haenyo remain,
kindred grandmothers, last of all Korean divers.
The tour guide introduces them. They sing
for tips. Several dive for the crowds.
Soon-hee emerges with a sea cucumber.
The audience applauds, snaps cell phone shots.
Molly Middleton Meyer is the founder of Dallas-based Mind’s Eye Poetry. She works with dementia patients using a poetry facilitation process that not only stimulates creativity, but also empowers and dignifies those for whom so much is being lost. Her poetry has been featured in Disorder: Mental Illness and its Affects (Red Dashboard Press), The Merrimack Review, Words Dance Magazine, Postcard Poems and Prose, The Rainbow Journal, Mindset Poetry, and HerKind. Middleton Meyer received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University in June of 2014. For more information on Mind’s Eye Poetry, visit www.mindseyepoetry.com.
In painting my memories, I turn them into fortune-telling cards—my own deck of cards, for my own type of reading…
I stand with my back to the bus shelter, my coat hunched over my shoulder just an inch more so my nape won’t be exposed. I tighten my hold on the Food Basics bag and my spoon clangs against the fork and the Tupperware. We didn’t have enough Tupperware at home because I always forget to wash; I’m supposed to use my brain. I’d have to rake the leaves later. Don’t forget, please don’t forget. I have homework tonight.
A balding Arab man carries a corrugated yellow sign out of Joe’s Convenience. He removes a faded green sign advertising the store’s stock of Pepsi, replacing it with the yellow one, promoting 10% off greeting cards. I have been here long enough to know that that ad isn’t new at all and was probably pulled out from behind one of the lesser-used shelves in the store, like the greeting card shelf. I have also been here long enough to know that while the Arab man runs Joe’s Convenience, he’s not Joe. Joe is long gone. Dead, maybe, or living somewhere else where he could run a one-plaza-one-convenience-store business in peace, away from the pesky Koreans a few paces down the plaza at Sunny Variety.
An orange taxi speeds past. I always have the option of calling Beck Taxi to get to school and skip ahead of everyone down the road waiting for the bus, too. They know my name and my order so well that a phone call lasts exactly ten words. Hi can I get a taxi to—? Yes. Thank you. A nearly-empty wallet stops me from making the call. I had better things to buy, anyway. Things like hash browns or frozen beef patties from the Sunoco. Or a Java Monster, even though they’re bad for me. Nanay hates it when my eyes twitch too much from caffeine.
I have to rake the leaves later and make sure to carry the bags to the front. Tomorrow is Collection Day. Use your brain, and maybe you can get this done and have time to talk to her tonight.
I look inside my Food Basics bag. Rice and adobo today, with a can of tuna and some crackers. I can smell Nadi making her morning batch of curry goat at her restaurant—it used to be her Caribbean Corner—wafting from the plaza unit where the Fish and Chips used to be. Everything changes, even that old Italian place at the end unit which had been around for twenty years before closing. I know this because I was one of their last customers. It was my first time in the Italian restaurant and the old owner who served me, slightly teary-eyed, admitted that the store was closing the next day. It was the saddest meatball-eating experience I’ve ever had. Now it’s a pub with half-price wings which make me just want to avoid the place. If they can’t even be confident about their wings, why should I be confident about their menu?
* * *
My eyes are drier and more tender than usual. But that’s okay because it’s a new day and I just need to focus on getting to my World History class and hand in my Ferdinand Marcos proposal. I really hope the teacher accepts it. I had to stay up really late last night to get it done.
* * *
The pneumatic breaks of the 116 stop the bus in front of the shelter across the road. That’s two-for-zero now, in the last fifteen minutes. I since realized that when people say “Rush Hour,” they only mean it for buses going downtown.
Across the road I see an old man with a thick jacket, a hunter hat, and a hunchback crossing at the yellow light. He crosses really slowly, but the cars are nice enough to wait for him to pass. I hear the balding Arab again, yelling Yalla, Yalla! into his phone.
The old man turns in my direction and hobbles toward the bus shelter. I grab my phone from my pocket and slide it open. I pretend to check my texts in the same way I try to ignore conversation at home. Leaves, leaves, don’t forget to rake them today.
A notification pings at me from the phone, begging me to open it. why arent u here yet the texts reads. I reply curtly with waiting for bus its taking way too long geez.
Fuck. I shouldn’t have typed geez. She’s going to kill me with guilt-trips today at lunch. I shouldn’t have ended the sentence with a period either, damn it. I turn my phone off out of fear of a staunch reply.
“Are you Pilipino?” a voice behind me asks.
I turn around and the soft face of the old man in the hunter hat is a couple of feet away from mine, smiling. He stands like a soldier at ease, his hands behind his back, his gaze not giving into any sign of awkwardness in his approach. I feel my body becoming rigid, and I turn my head to acknowledge him.
“Opo,” I answer in the traditional way, for his Polynesian eyes, crisp pronunciation of Pilipino, and his flat nose immediately flagged his inclusion within the social group I reluctantly crawled into during birth. One of us. One of us.
“Are you prom dis nay-borhood?” he asks. I’ve officially been engaged into a conversation, things I try to avoid in the morning.
“Yes, po, I live here in Coronation.”
“Ah, I lib sa oder side, near Poplar. Is dat your pagkain? Anong ulam?”
“Yes, der’s lots of chicken sa Pilipinas. Do you eat Pilipino pood? You know chicken adobo? Dat is my pabourite, chicken adobo.”
I look toward the end of Morningside Avenue—where the cliffs are—and I see the bus turn into the street. The conversation won’t last too long now that the bus is here, so I tell myself to be patient for two more minutes. Another bus halts in front of the shelter across the street, allowing an old woman with a cane and silver curls to slowly step inside.
“Yes, I know chicken adobo.”
“Good, good. When was da last time you went back home? I hab’nt gone back por six years. When did you last go back?” the old man presses on. I would have wanted to answer “a few minutes ago” but I know that the home he’s talking about is nowhere along Coronation, nor is it anywhere in West Hill, in Scarborough, or even in Canada. I could see the bus in the distance flashing its hazard lights, immobile maybe a block before the railroad tracks.
“I went back last summer for a couple of weeks.” I become increasingly aware of the weight of the phone in my pocket, its presence heavy and clear but out of reach. I feel tempted to reach for it and pretend to receive a call, from my Nanay or something. My trip to the Philippines is not something I want to talk about, definitely not to a stranger. But the old man’s eyes do not waver and they stay fixed on me. I feel obliged to think of a story to tell, a way to expand, so the honest old man goes about his day happy to have thought about home for a while with a strange young Pinoy at the bus stop.
“And did you injoy it?”
I want to tell him about something nice, maybe about my trip to Tagaytay, way high up in the mountains, where I was serenaded by a lone guitarist in a nearly-empty restaurant overlooking the lake with the captive fish. Maybe I’ll tell him about Lake Taal, the volcano lake with a volcano island inside, with a lake inside of the island. It’d be old news to him, but maybe that’d be a good story to tell. Or I could tell him about the big city with its tall skyscrapers and wide, dirty river, with people who live in the slums that weave around tall buildings washing their dirty laundry. I could talk about the brothels and the balut merchants, and the fresh fruit in carts available every morning pulled by men who are too old to find a real job like Jollibee.
Maybe I could tell him about my family that I visited in Bataan and the river that used to flow for the kids to swim but was now nothing but a brown trickle. I could talk about the random villages along the highways and beaches, and how beautiful and happy the little dark kids looked when they roamed around with nothing but their shorts and sticks to play with. Or I could talk about seeing godparents I never knew existed. Maybe I could tell him about the wedding I went to, and the hasty preparations it took to celebrate it seventeen years after it was supposed to happen, and the awkward after-party with nieces and nephews I’ve never met, or the honeymoon with the rest of the family at a beach and all the times I stole away from everyone to be alone with the sand and the merchants—
The 116 arrives and the doors open. I quickly step inside, and notice that the old man made no intention to enter. I look back at him, his eyes still focused, his body still in a hunched soldier’s stance.
* * *
“The trip was okay,” I say, and the bus doors close. The driver urges me to find a seat or to stand behind the white line beneath my feet.
I turn on my phone and it vibrates. I see the name above the text and hesitatingly open the message. dont forget 2 rake the leaves and take the bags out. i better see it all done before i get home.
Adrian De Leon is a student at the University of Toronto. He is the 2nd Place winner for the 2013 University of Toronto Scarborough Creative Writing Contest (Prose category) for the short story, “Ang Kanta ni Lolo.” Adrian has also published poetry in Daniel Scott Tysdal’s textbook, The Writing Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating Poems (2014). Born in Manila, Philippines, he calls Scarborough—the east end of Toronto—his real home. With a love for wandering and anything urban, his writing often wanders between past and present, traditional and postmodern, speaker and poet, author and narrator.
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.
Derek 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.
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?”
“Can you remind me of this place?”
Colleen 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.
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