The Four Walls

[fiction]

There is a room with twenty desks. Five across, four deep.

“Small class size. You should feel lucky,” the principal tells him. Each desk with a book: America the Beautiful: A Sweeping History 1776-2027. Red, white, blue, and all in mint condition. They better stay that way, for his sake.

The desktops are all a greyish plastic with a groove on top for writing utensils to rest in.

A chalkboard, blank except for his name, Mr. Garza, walls the front of the room. The name is written in cursive and stands out strongly against the slate.

The chair in which he will sit is located in the back by his station. It is wooden and squeaks.

He will sit there outside of teaching hours, when he is unbound, to compose emails on the computer supplied to him. Each day he will type twenty reports and email them home. Not all of the Parents demanded this. The truth is most didn’t. But the assertive voices won out and it became required. These voices now make up the Administration—they have total control.

He is to update the gradebook daily.

Please look up.

The tracks on the ceiling are metal, and carve out a path aligned with the gaps between the desks. For safety, but also for equity. Movements are pre-programmed to ensure that the teacher spends time with each student. A forceful dance in which only one is taking the lead. Oftentimes, the harness does not sync up properly with the teacher’s height, so that you will have an instructor who is too short and is forced to float eerily throughout the room, suspended. Or someone who is too tall, so their legs drag behind them along the brown carpeted floor. He is of medium height. Hopefully it fits.

He will be restricted in this manner for at least his first month. If he has no infractions, minor or otherwise, he may be unbound. Of course, that is unlikely. Even the smallest of offenses are counted against them. It is quite easy to add more time to one’s sentence.

According to the government, it’s an incredible solution. The extreme surplus of prisoners and massive deficit of teachers brought together to make a perfect fit, like a key into a lock.

He walks with his hands behind his back as the principal and two Parent guards lead him down the hallway. It’s a hall that looks familiar to you, except the walls are blank and the doors are closed with heavy metal bolts. The library they pass is not recognizable. Old and decrepit books lay randomly scattered within. A severe lack of funding for public schools has resulted in unsatisfactory conditions. The white paint is chipping as they pass the Parent Lounge.

They reach the room. The one he will be in for at least the next ten years for illegally selling bulletproof vests.

The room he used to learn in just one year before.

The Parents shove him in.

“Tomorrow you will teach chapter 22 from the textbook. Get prepared,” the principal states as the door is shut.

He is locked into the room that is his, and theirs, and ours.

 

D.H. Valdez teaches social studies at his former high school. He holds a Master’s degree in teaching from the University of Washington. He and his wife Holly grew up together in Seattle and continue to live in the city. They are avid sports fans and desperately await the return of the Sonics.

Mardi Gras Beads

[creative nonfiction]

Greg and I stroll the picnic grounds, slowly because it is my first post-surgical outing. His annual company picnics are always themed: Wild West with pony rides and barbeque and lasso contests; Summer Camp with canoeing and hot dogs; Carnival with actual fairway rides and cotton candy. This year, it’s Renaissance Faire, so we’ve gnawed on turkey legs, watched a mock joust, cheered on sack-racing and ring-tossing children, and tried a few games of chance.

I’m winded, but glad to be out of the house. Since my surgery six weeks ago, I have been going progressively stir-crazy. My hysterectomy at thirty-five ended our quest to conceive a child, but my gynecological issues were so severe that from the moment I woke from anesthesia, I have wanted to kiss my surgeon.

We make our way toward the petting zoo (I love goats), dodging the professional insulter, who already made fun of my hunched posture. I resisted the urge to show him my scar and flip him off, but don’t want to test my still-erratic hormones with a second encounter.

The Mardi Gras bead man steps into our path. Earlier, Greg agreed he didn’t know what Mardi Gras beads had to do with the Renaissance, or if I flashed the man for a set, he would get fired or promoted.

I say, “No, thanks,” but the tights-clad purveyor slips a few strings over my head and says, “Give ‘em to your kids.”

Greg looks stricken, but I shrug. I’d already noticed few adults wearing beads, which is why I tried to refuse. I could leave them on a picnic table or pass them to any of the hundreds of sugared-up kids. There are hordes of them, so many, more everywhere I look. Blonde like Greg, loud like me, running and yelling and tugging at their parents.

If I explain, Greg will say I have nothing to be ashamed of, that he loves me, it’s not my fault, that he is happy to focus on adoption. He would say all the things I told myself when each fertility test brought bad news and every treatment failed.

“I’m tired,” I say. We make sure the big shots see us and head home.

I drop the beads on the kitchen table and head to the shower. As I peel off my tank top and shorts, I glance at the mirror. Painted on my chest and neck by sweat and cheap dye are faint dabs and smears of red and green and purple.

Greg finds me there, staring into the mirror at my naked body and the marks it carries. Smudges from the beads; my new pinched navel framed by small incisions where the surgeon inserted her instruments; a long pale speedbump the length of my abdomen from childhood cancer treatments we now know ended my fertility.

Before he can ask if I am all right, without thinking, I say, “I’m sorry.”

“No,” he says and tentatively touches my shoulder. I am pale and shaking, knocked breathless with shame.

If I explain, Greg will say I have nothing to be ashamed of, that he loves me, it’s not my fault, that he is happy to focus on adoption. He would say all the things I told myself when each fertility test brought bad news and every treatment failed, everything I stopped having to tell myself six weeks ago when I woke from surgery stunned by the absence of pain, without the fear of deluges of blood or expensive, painful attempts ending in failure. He would say everything I thought I believed but we can both see in my eyes that I don’t. Everything I don’t want to hear right now, he will tell me again when I let him.

“I just need a shower.” I step into the scalding water to wash off the marks I can.

 

Janice Dvorak has an MFA from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in literary journals including Willow SpringsThe Grief Diaries, and Florida Review, and is included in the anthology, I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out. She lives outside Boston with her husband.

Claws

[fiction]

Crusted half moons smeared down my thigh, bled through my tights in long, whispery scratches. Thigh skin bulged through tears in the fabric. When I ripped the tights off, blood pulled with them and the wounds were scab-less, fresh again. I wrestled on old jeans, jerked up one side, then the other, inched them up with one claw of a hand. Then I paced from my living room to my bedroom, tried to calm myself. The ghost wrenched. I slowed my steps, slowed my breathing, hoped he’d calm.

Fingernail clippers sparkled from my dresser. I palmed them casually, careful not to tip him off. Then I sat on the edge of my bed and breathed. The invisible arm floated, like a feather, to land on the living one, open across my knees, as relaxed as I could make it. The ghost of my left arm slithered against my palm. I closed my fingers, gently, around the invisible wrist. He bucked, jolted, squirmed. “Hey there. Settle down.” I whispered as if lulling a baby. “It’s okay.”

The ghost vibrated, taut like a metal cord. His shoulder end gripped my socket while the elbow buzzed like a caught fly. If he would hold still… If I could just… I almost… almost…

His fingers tapered softly, then splintered into rough edges. I wrapped my hand around one ghost finger, held it with middle, ring, and pinky. My hand twisted to work the clippers with just index finger and thumb. My palm clamped against the ghost.

It was like watching a spider—half-squished and legs still squirming—how my fingers were squirming, squirming. It was like the scars that crackled on my shoulder—

—Calm! A deep breath. I could let my heart race, but not for long. This was my life. I had to handle it.

The ghost vibrated, taut like a metal cord. His shoulder end gripped my socket while the elbow buzzed like a caught fly. If he would hold still… If I could just… I almost… almost…

The clippers rattled to the floor. When I scooped them up, the hand escaped. It swatted for my face—I ducked.

Again, I lulled him to my lap. I found the wrist, gripped tighter, used my scraped, stinging thigh as a piece of the clamp this time. And again the clippers slipped away, edged by a flick from the ghost. Again he thrashed from my shoulder, frantic.

“You have to let me do this!” It was like strangling an animal to keep my voice soft. There was fear in it, panic. It pulsed from the ghost. It wasn’t mine.

“How about a file, buddy?” I stroked the inside of his elbow. “Can we file down those claws?” I dug out an emery board. The ghost wriggled fiercely and, again, got loose.

We needed a break, so I sat. The emery board dropped to my lap. My right nails were jagged, too. I pressed a point into my palm, studied the pinprick indentation. Then I ran my hand over the file—the jeans gave it traction—ground the nails smooth to the ends of my fingers.

But what would make the ghost arm still?

While I was thinking, he was investigating. He must have been. There was a frizzle in that left thumb. He pressed too hard—emery board hopped—but with the next swipe, he figured it out. My right hand held the board to give him leverage and, one finger at time, the ghost filed. When he finished, he ran the nails along the soft inside of my right elbow. The edges were like silk.

I hadn’t mastered the ghost, just tricked him.

Before the accident, I never noticed how it took two hands to squash a spider. One to lean against the table, the other to strike. I never noticed that it took two hands to zip, two hands to button. It took two hands, somehow, to put on lipstick. This ghost, he could help me—if he felt like it—or he could make it harder.

I knew about phantom limbs, then. I could have handled that. I knew about the clenching, the aching, invisible muscles, and physical pain that wouldn’t stop. I knew about hands that jutted from shoulders and itches that couldn’t be scratched. The doctors, the therapists, the pamphlets all told me. But the ghost was something else. Drugs and shrinks and mirrored boxes—they couldn’t cure me.

It wasn’t natural, this thing that clawed into me. He should have clung to the dead arm. He should have shriveled like the muscle and bone and stringy nerves. He should have died with the snarl of raw meat that they cut from me.

 

Allison Wyss is obsessed with body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Booth, Juked, Jellyfish ReviewPANK, and elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in Reading Like a Writer, a monthly column she writes for the Loft Literary Center, where she also teaches classes. And she tweets—mostly about toddlers, writing, and resistance—as @AllisonWyss.

 

How to Love Your Child Without Your Neighbor Reporting You to Child Services

[fiction]

Til has just fallen asleep when an elderly woman bends down to the stroller and gushes, “What a putty baby. Dat a putty baby.” He’s asleep, I whisper, and could she please just fucking move along, too low for her to hear the violence in me I guess, because she’s just getting started. “Putty putty baby. Putty, putty putty baby.” I need Steve, but he’s in the haircutter’s a few shops down, getting trimmed for our appointment with child services in twenty-seven minutes. Some neighbor reported “inappropriate sexual behavior from homosexual dad” when she saw me do a raspberry on Til’s belly—his favorite thing in the world. The guy at child services laughed about it but also said he followed up on all calls. “It’s more common than you think,” he said.

Maybe I’ll dance for him; maybe I’ll howl like a dog. The one thing I won’t do is slap him till he’s sullen and ruined. I will never do this, I tell myself. I won’t do to him what my mother did to me. But I’m scared shitless that some rabid gene, some violent little protein, will make me hurt this bundle of noise.

“Putty putty baby. What a wittle worm. What a ittle bittle worm.” If Steve would get out here, he could remove Grandma kindly. As she’s reaching into the stroller to put her hands all over my child, this quiet corner screams to life. A load of scrap roars down a chute from a construction site, Cannibal Corpse blasts from a second-story window, Til wakes and wails, and Grandma walks away in a huff.

My one job was to produce a baby content as a tick for our interview. And I’ve blown it. There’s a stack of unread baby books on my bedside table—So You’ve Adopted an Ulcer! Two Million Factoids You Wish You’d Read Before Becoming a Dad! How Not to Kill Your Baby in Fifty Incomprehensible Lessons! How to Love a Little Boy! The titles all end in exclamation points to prove love is frantic. When I ask Steve what parents did before baby books, Freud and Melanie Klein, he reminds me that Victorian children were treated like bugbears and doorstops. Infant mortality, he says, was like 110%, which seems unlikely.

Death metal, construction workers, and Til are full-throttle now, so I scream too. Which feels great. Passersby grin like I’m a savvy, well-read parent who knows what to do when their child won’t stop screaming.

Maybe I’ll dance for him; maybe I’ll howl like a dog. The one thing I won’t do is slap him till he’s sullen and ruined. I will never do this, I tell myself. I won’t do to him what my mother did to me. But I’m scared shitless that some rabid gene, some violent little protein, will make me hurt this bundle of noise.

Passersby frown now, eyeing me like Do something! Do that thing on page twenty-seven of Seven Billion Ways to Love Your Child without a Neighbor Reporting You to Child Services! Advice darts holes in me. “Hold him. She’s hungry. Don’t you have a pacifier? You have to rock her. He’s bored. He wants his mother.”

I bury my face in the stroller because I’m crying, which means I’m broken, no good at this and never will be. They’ll tell me this at our appointment in thirteen minutes. Less now. I need to get Steve, but it’s soft and heady down here. Til has shit his diaper. Stinker, I say and laugh—it’s Steve’s turn—as a puff of little hand pats my cheek. “Hey,” I say. My son is all screamed out and grinning like Where’ve ya been? Do that thing you do with my belly. That loud, silly thing.

 

Christopher Allen is the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press) and Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a Satire). His fiction has appeared in PANKIndiana ReviewJellyfish Review and others. He is a consulting editor for The Best Small Fictions 2018 and the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly. He lives somewhere in Europe with his husband and the potential of family.

Picking Out Bananas

[creative nonfiction]

Now I’m able to just state the facts: My daughter goes to a school in the city, my son goes to the public high school. I try to leave it at that. I no longer feel compelled to go into all the rest.

Before my daughter started coming home for visits, when she was still unsafe, they had to interrogate me to get at the truth. When you meet someone new in the suburbs, the questions about kids always come, usually just after where do you live, and right before where do you work. Two kids, I would say, a boy and a girl, how ‘bout you? And this was often enough because most people don’t really want to know about your home or your kids or your job—they are just seeking that toe-hold, that point of purchase that allows them to talk about their own home, their own kids, their own job. But some persisted.

My daughter was curious before we arrived, although my wife and I felt gutted. We were relinquishing our most sacred responsibility, even as we knew that we had no choice.

My son’s a freshman, I would say, and I named the high school, and sometimes, if the person I just met had a child at the same school, this offered an escape from the grilling. But sometimes not. My daughter’s in eighth grade, I’d then allow. You’ve probably never heard of her school, I’d say when they continued to dig; it’s a residential treatment center (although I still preferred to think of it as a therapeutic boarding school). I would let those three terrifying words hang in the air, waiting to see if they provided a passage back to drinking a beer or to watching my son play soccer or to picking out bananas at the Jewel in peace.

In those first months, right after my wife and I dropped our daughter off at the residential treatment center (back when I could still sometimes convince myself that it was a therapeutic boarding school), when I met new people and they asked about my kids, because in the suburbs the questions about kids always come, usually just after where do you live, and right before where do you work, I would say way too much.

My daughter was curious before we arrived, although my wife and I felt gutted. We were relinquishing our most sacred responsibility, even as we knew that we had no choice.

The staff took our daughter upstairs to show her where she would live, to introduce her to her dorm-mates, while the dorm manager met with my wife and me in the well-appointed first-floor living room, saying words like Unusual Incident Reports and Restraint Protocols and Crisis Intervention Staff and other more positive words that I didn’t hear and still can’t remember.

When they brought my daughter back down to say goodbye, her curiosity was replaced by tears and she wouldn’t look at us or hug us. She didn’t say goodbye; she shouted don’t leave me here! In the weeks and months after we dropped her off (abandoned was the word that rattled around inside of my head), the mask of terror she wore when we left her proved impossible to forget.

In those early months I would buckle immediately, admit from the start that I’d locked my daughter in a residential treatment center (although to cope, I had to think of it as a therapeutic boarding school) because the tumor of pain and guilt was so large and pulsated just below the thin membrane of my skin, and because a single question about my kids was enough to lance it open and let everything out. So I’d offer evidence of the autism and the mood disorders and the violence and the suicide attempts, and I felt like I needed to tell them everything so that the person I just met could understand, could forgive me for what I’d done to my daughter, even if she could not forgive me, even if I could not forgive myself. And the person I just met would manage a few awkward words of sympathy or worse before they put some distance between us, returning with relief to drinking a beer or to watching their own son play soccer or to picking out bananas at the Jewel.

 

Jeff Hoffmann’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sun, The Madison ReviewNew Madrid, and Sanskrit among others. He was awarded the 2018 Chris O’Malley Prize for Fiction, and he’s currently pursuing his MFA at Columbia College Chicago.

The Earth From Afar

[fiction]

You are in the car hurtling through real darkness—not in-the-city darkness—with your friend who has been dead and not on this earth for some time now. Your hands on the wheel, your dog in back, your friend beside you, hands folded neatly in her lap. She’s wearing the same white sneakers as always, faded red hearts on the sides. You speed down winding roads, along a coast, stars endless against the black, layered sky. Heat radiates from the pulses in your necks, though your hands are cold, your toes aching. A silvery thread connects the two of you—your neck to hers and back again. An inverted 8, an infinity. She always loved the number eight, her boyfriend said, when she killed herself on the eighth of November.

Eight: it fastens to you. Infinity: adheres to her.

Infinity is a spiral, a siphon, and where it deposits you seems, at first, like a blanket on the beach under the night sky. An empty stage, scuffed wooden floors.

Do you think this is just a regular trip? Flatness and grime, the humdrum everyday? Are you afraid of glittering, stubborn infinity?

You are. It is like a wooden hammer on the top of your head.

You look quickly at your friend. In life, she was the biggest lover of sky you knew. Not you. You cowered beneath it.

Sky, she’d breathe, her neck thrown back.

Each of us terminates unto ourselves, you’d say. This blunting off, this mute-feeler world.

You were giddy with dissent. Still: you loved it safely, secretly, through the filter of her. You felt endlessly surrounded—until you weren’t.

But none of that matters now. Your hands fly off the wheel. The car races forward on its own, your friend beside you. And it is in this acceleration that some quick pluck happens, pinched fingers darting in to snatch some stuck stitch from your chest. And something larger zooms in again, so vast you can’t even see it—but you feel the shadow and the rip. And now you can see the earth from afar, all lit up from some unknown other place. Its familiar blues and tans, its dark shadows. It happens so quickly as you race by and by in your car—and you have never felt such awe, and you have never felt such joy.

Infinity is a spiral, a siphon, and where it deposits you seems, at first, like a blanket on the beach under the night sky. An empty stage, scuffed wooden floors. A deserted house, wind gusting through. Sand and dust under your fingernails, under your feet, blowing in your eyes and mouths, no ceiling, no doors. You are bared before the sky, absolutely. Unbounded, surrounded. Your dog sits quietly, looking out over the inky sea, breeze gentle in his soft fur. Your friend’s grubby white sneakers with red hearts on the sides shine dully under the starlight.

And the red is dull, and the red is dull, and wouldn’t you break this whole story open and run from it if the red were any brighter, if the red were any other way?

 

Alyssa Proujansky has studied fiction in Ithaca, London and New York. She was recently a runner-up in contests held by Atticus Review and Psychopomp Magazine, and a finalist in Third Coast‘s 2018 Fiction Contest. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Passages NorthThird CoastColumbia JournalHobartMoon City ReviewAtticus ReviewPsychopomp MagazineFlock and elsewhere. Her website is www.alyssaproujansky.com.

 

A Reckoning

[fiction]

Bill Withers pours through her window, a melody that sways with the breeze. Lovely Day. Bill knows that her gold-flecked curtains will emit the heavy sun shining against her walls. She stretches her body like a cat. Hell yeah, she is flexible these days. Certain things don’t matter anymore, the size of her ass, what her roommates think if she re-reminds them to rinse their dishes, if a man sees her before she’s had enough time to stretch her hair into a tight bun, or a carefully crafted pineapple, or curls with big enough coils to twirl along her finger. She can stand nude with a teeny tiny Afro, send them shoulders forward like her body can only take so much of itself. Feeling herself in the most proverbial of proverbial ways.

It started when she turned thirty. Like the first spark of a riot’s fire, some see her sexiness as a destructive thing, undignified even. Compare it to the Rodney King Riots or Rihanna’s Work, your choice. For her, and likewise Mario, it is a reckoning.

Mario is not her man, but a fine one nonetheless. Hard enough to come by, but too unsure to live under. Something of an abnormal attraction, a man who likes James Baldwin and John Coltrane but cannot grow a mustache. Not a sprinkling of fuzz above his lip. She wouldn’t have dated him in her twenties, not a man without a beard let alone a man without a mustache. Her ex-boyfriend had a beard, a beard and a chest, a chest that felt like it was made of satin, skin so smooth it could make your head spin. She has learned that a chest like that should be revered but not overrated, a beard even less so, a mustache merely minutia.

Today, she feels like dancing. She dances in her seat on the train, when walking to work on the rigid streets of the Upper West Side, while at the desk that her manager walks by every so often to peak over her shoulder, these same shoulders that pull her sexy forward and send it into the faces of imprudent men. She dances for herself, inside of herself. They want to dance inside her, too, but of course, this is impossible. So they tell her she has a nice smile, nice legs, and she’s so smart, damn, she’s so smart. Let me touch that, they wish aloud, and she laughs at them in her sultry staccato way.

Today, she walks into a Harlem sun that is fighting gentrification with the goal to give her heart away. Today, she will hand it to someone, Get a feel of this weight. Do not hand it back yet. Just hold it, fool, and hold it tight. Horns and curses careen off of cars coming to a slow stop, allowing passengers with voices as loud as their bodies to lean out of the window. She dances as she passes them by.

It started when she turned thirty. Like the first spark of a riot’s fire, some see her sexiness as a destructive thing, undignified even. Compare it to the Rodney King Riots or Rihanna’s Work, your choice. For her, and likewise Mario, it is a reckoning.

When she gets to the bar, he is not Mario. He is wearing hunter green pants, slim fit. Brown boots that make him look taller, 5’10”, maybe 11” with an ego. His sweater reminds her of the Cosby Show and her grandmother’s hands. When he smiles, he looks like he is also thinking. In the past she has sworn that men cannot smile and think at the same time.

He says he wants to dance with her, because of course, he can see the way she points her toes and bends her knees and rolls her hips from side to side.

Does he know the cabbage patch or the butterfly? No, she stops herself, what do the young kids call it? “Can you break your legs?”

He raises an eyebrow and questions why he would ever intentionally break his legs, but his smirk shows that he knows what she meant.

“Do you salsa?” She shimmies in her seat, an implication.

No. He eats it though.

“Do you ballroom,” And immediately she knows she needs to clarify. “The Detroit Ballroom? It’s a black thing.”

He doesn’t ballroom, at least not the black way.

“Do you step? Chicago style step?” she asks him, thinking of Darius Lovehall.

Step? No, he’s from Texas.

“Holy Ghost dancing? Do you clap on the two and four?”

He laughs. He’s not as sure about Jesus as he used to be.

Still she gives him her heart, but without him knowing Jesus and all, she will request it back in the morning.

 

Janelle M. Williams received her BA from Howard University and her MFA in creative writing from Manhattanville College. She was a 2017 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, and her work has appeared in KweliAuburn AvenueThe Feminist Wire, and Writopia Speaks. She tweets @Janelleonrecord.

Photo credit: Kelauni Cook

Mean Streets

[fiction]

Lynette told me to drive her to Tompkins Square on Friday night so she could score some pot. This was during the early nineties, the very last days when New York was Scorsese City. You could buy almost anything you wanted off the street as long as you had the money and the connections.

“Stay in the car,” Lynette said as I pulled up alongside the curb next to the park. “I don’t want you screwing this up.”

It was all too easy to picture me screwing things up. The first time I’d ever seen a drug deal, I had a knife pulled on me. Two men were swapping cocaine for cash in front of a brownstone and as I walked by I blurted out how this was so cool. The dealer snapped open a switchblade and I burst into the gutter, chasing after a taxi that was cruising down the block.

With this incident fresh on my mind, I agreed to remain in the car and watch Lynette through the rearview mirror. As a twenty-year-old bumpkin from Bensonhurst, I couldn’t help but admire how she swaggered along the sidewalk, strutting towards the dreadlocked guy slouching next to the park gate. As she passed him a roll of bills, I wondered if I would ever learn to handle myself the way she did, maneuvering through a world that I only knew through Velvet Underground albums and edgy films from the seventies.

With her leather jacket and dark frizzy hair, Lynette seemed to be the pissed-off love-child of a dispirited hippie and an undersized punk. It was an image she played-up in her photography. She had built a sizable collection—and a budding career—by capturing those final moments of a decadent world that was withering away in the light of imminent gentrification.

She was chatting with the drug dealer when his partner emerged from the park with a plastic bag. After she inspected the merchandise, Lynette began gesturing with both hands and shaking her head. Finally, she tossed the bag back to the dreadlocked man and retreated to the car.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” she said.

Lynette’s hands were balled-up into fists as we passed a series of low rise brick buildings with boarded-up windows. When we stopped at the light, she reached into her pocket for a cigarette.

It was all too easy to picture me screwing things up. The first time I’d ever seen a drug deal, I had a knife pulled on me. Two men were swapping cocaine for cash in front of a brownstone and as I walked by I blurted out how this was so cool.

“What happened?”

“I asked for smoke,” Lynette said. “They gave me a bag of crack.”

“Really?”

“I told him I want pot not crack,” Lynette said. “So the guy tells me I should have asked for weed.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle as the light changed.

“Your slang is out of date,” I said.

“It’s not funny,” Lynette told me. “I’ve always asked for smoke.”

Lynette took a deep drag of the cigarette.

“I can’t believe they didn’t give me my money back,” she said.

“You asked a drug dealer for a refund?”

“I don’t see why not,” she said. “He didn’t have what I wanted.”

I laughed again and Lynette smacked me on the shoulder as I pulled into a space across from her building. The force of the slap was not terribly hard but it was strong enough to convince me not to ask if she wanted company that night.

“Even I know not to ask a drug dealer for money,” I said.

Lynette flicked her cigarette into the ashtray.

“So you’re a fucking expert now?”

I could have pointed out my sudden doubts about her own street credentials, but I held my tongue. I said nothing as she got out of the car and started towards her building. Iron gates covered most of the windows and there were traces of graffiti on the brick façade.

As Lynette sidled around a homeless guy sleeping on the front steps, I wondered how she would react if I leaned out the window and shouted that maybe neither one of us was such a fucking expert at anything. She might have laughed at her own bullshit or she might have never talked to me again. For now, it wasn’t worth the risk to find out.

With her stark silhouette of leather and denim framed by a doorway of rusting metal and cracked glass, Lynette still looked to me like a character in a Scorsese movie, a supporting actress from Taxi Driver or Mean Streets. All I could do was stare like a star-struck film student, watching her move from scene to scene, letting her show me how it was done.

 

Craig Fishbane is the author of On the Proper Role of Desire (Big Table Publishing). His work has also appeared or is forthcoming in the New York Quarterly, Gravel, The Good Men Project, the MacGuffin, New World Writing, The Manhattanville Review, the Penmen Review, and The Nervous Breakdown. His website is: https://craigfishbane.wordpress.com/

Eating the Leaves

[fiction]

She starts training for everything at once: motherhood, the apocalypse, a local 5K. The Pulitzer-winning earthquake that promises to obliterate the Pacific Northwest. A high-altitude decathlon. North Korea.

She stops drinking (but still drinks some, because obviously the world is terrible and who can bear it?), stockpiles prenatals, buys new shoes. Functional shoes.

She reads a book about real/whole/just-totally-no-holds-barred-fucking-totally-real food and the pleasures of a radiant pregnancy. She skips presumptuous chapters contingent upon the handy availability of tropical organic produce.

She goes to the woods and looks around, hard. She is underwhelmed by the prowess of the survival-guide illustrator. She intently wants to recognize the edible leaves—to discern poison from nutrition—but they all look the same, green on green on green.

Days pass. Weeks. She gets better books, listens to podcasts, writes her senator. She runs, everywhere, but always, ultimately, to nowhere, sleeps the thick black sleep of the irretrievably exhausted. She buys walkie-talkies, wonders to whom she should give the second device.

She rejects excess, donates wildly.

She wades through old photographs, despising them—their flat immortality, their shallow, bulletproof intimacy.

She returns to the woods—marginally older, the same—pockets packed with color print-outs of leaves.

She studies the earth, glides her thumbs over the flimsy fawn-soft green. Panic rises in her like a fist, a tight and bloody, aching thing.

She studies the photos. But every leaf looks like a leaf, especially the ones that will kill you.

Even so, now, while the hospitals still run on power and the mountain is standing and there’s no propitious alien life-form blossoming in her gut, she must learn.

So, she plucks a leaf—a leaf that looks as much like the artist’s rendering as any leaf—

and she begins to eat.

 

Amanda J. Bermudez is a writer and director based in Los Angeles, California. In addition to film and television, her work has been featured at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, the National Winter Playwrights Retreat, the Yale Center for British Art, and in a number of literary publications, including Concis, Sick Lit, Spider Road Press, and Iron Horse Literary Review. She is a National Merit Scholar, a recipient of the Jameson Prize for excellence in essay-writing; a Writer’s Digest national award winner, a nominee for the Spotlight Culture & Heritage award, and winner of the 2017 Cinequest Film Festival screenwriting award.

Unreliable Objects

[creative nonfiction]

July 4, 1976. Our town parade, when everything waves—beauty queens and politicians sprouting from convertibles washed and dried in the street with soft rags the night before, Betsy Ross flags nodding off porches. Firemen’s kids pelt non-firemen’s kids with hard candy, sirens moan, only this time, nobody’s hurt. Everyone still smokes.

And later, in the simmering summer dark, my mother jams her thumb in the slamming screen door, then weeps over the bathroom sink just before the fireworks are set to go off.

Perhaps the water pouring over her thumb feels like the only kindness in her life that night, with three shaggy kids, a pissy husband, and not enough money, never enough money, jobs coming and going.

Perhaps she’s thinking, I didn’t sign up for this.

I’m five, and I’ve cried—when my mother punishes me for pocketing a pack of Dentyne in the Bradlees, after I drop my milkshake, all those times Billy convinces our parents to snap the hall light off. That’s when my bed is soaked in shadow, and all the shapes I can name in the daylight—doll dresser picture-book—dissolve into mute strangeness, bleak and unrecognizable, these unreliable objects, refusing familiarity.

Some tears are real; some, ginned up. But it’s July 4th, I’m five, and my mother is the kind of person who tangles with Stop & Shop cashiers when they overcharge for paper plates, the mom who can draw us to her soft hips with a single don’t-push-me holler launched from five backyards away.

How has she forgotten herself here at the sink, neglected to remember who she is in the order of things?

Also, does the house smell like hot dogs? Do sparkler sticks lie spent and black on the front steps, do fireflies begin their blinking as bats cut low over the brook? Perhaps my hair smells like chlorine from the community pool, and I’m connecting the dots between mosquito bites starring my shins. I’ll bet you this: We make contact. Billy pinches me, Michael flicks a towel at Billy’s ass, hunts him down for a wedgie.

I’m telling you, I forget so much. But I remember this: What moms do. What kids do. What dads do: Clean. Complain. Earn money. Stay together.

I remember that jammed thumb. The center will not hold, not when it’s sodden with tears. Water smooths, weakens; salt corrodes. And she’s everything—my mom, not my dad—alpha, omega, amen. I know the truth, my instinct slashes right through his black belt in karate, the stories about fishing and hunting and, later, dodging a stray bullet in North Philly, to find my mom, the core, the tiniest nesting doll and the one I’m counting on to straighten up, dry off, and make the whole world spin.

Even now, on this star-spangled night, before I can ride a two-wheeler or lace up my own sneakers, I know everything was better before I was born. She was blonde and thinner, but I made her dark—loosened her belly, leached gold from her hair, kept her home, even if she was the first person in her family to graduate college.

Day after day, I observe and do the math: Motherhood = forced subtraction. She and her sore thumb are at a loss, stationed in the wrong bathroom, the kids’ bathroom, not the blue bathroom where Saturday nights she leans against the vanity, pressing her lips to spread Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow across the field of her mouth, the bathroom where I perch on the toilet seat with the frosted blue bottle of Avon’s Rapture cologne, the scent with the stopper that resembles a tulip, or a flame, sinuous. Rapture—not a word I can use in a sentence, but a word whose implications I understand (lady, high heels, leaving the house)—seven suggestive letters unfurling in gold script across the curvy torso of the bottle.

The blue bottle sits in the blue bathroom in the blue house where everything happens—the new kitten pukes in that corner, the tall mother cries in this one—not for the first time in her life, but the first time in mine, so the first time that matters.

Because the world is small as she spins it, and on July 4, 1976, the world is this stout blue house, four bedrooms, five people inside, and I am five. So, a jammed finger, one that didn’t even break, didn’t even leave a scar, mothered by a stream of cool water, sparks everything tonight.

 

Laurie Granieri is a former journalist and director of communications at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. Her work has been broadcast on NPR, has appeared on American Public Media’s On Being blog and as part of River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” series; in ELLE magazine and at Boxcar Poetry Review. She is a regular blogger at Relief. She lives in New Jersey.

Lookin’

[creative nonfiction]

New in Indianapolis and recently divorced, Charles went out to Madame C. J. Walker’s Ballroom in 1942. He heard it was the place for Negroes to mingle. On a mission to find a nice colored girl to start over with, he straightened his tie before following the music up the stairs. There he found a tuxedoed band, perched up on a roulette wheel bandstand, shimmying out the foxtrot that couples danced to.

He took in the scene from the bar, his eyes flitting from one lovely lady in a fancy dress to the next. As he sipped a too-expensive shot of bourbon, he saw another man eye his broad shoulders and shined-but-worn shoes before coming over.

“See somethin’ you like?”

“Plenty,” Charles said.

“Looky here, Jack,” the man said. “Meeting a girl at Walker’s depends on how much you got in your wallet and who your daddy is, see? And if she ain’t happy with both, all you’re going to get is ONE dance, if you’re lucky.”

As Charles watched smooth-talking men in stylish suits lead those women onto the dance floor, he realized he couldn’t make any time here. So he stayed a while for the jazz, and watched the spectacle before walking back to his boardinghouse.

Where else was there for a colored man to find a suitable girl? Not like the wife he had to marry down in Georgia when he was seventeen, the one who said the baby was his, and later that it wasn’t.

He hadn’t found that suitable girl at the churches he’d tried. They were either too old, married, or not very attractive. And the mother of the one he had approached had snatched her away because he was divorced.

Neither had he found the girl he was looking for out at the Sunset Terrace, where the brown sugar went to dance. They were good-looking all right, sporting outfits that clung to their charms, with jaunty hats tipped over done-up hair. The ones he talked to sho’nuff looked like sugar, but their salty talk tasted too much like his past.

On his walk back home, that girl in the mailroom at work ran through his mind. Like always. The white girl with enough guts to talk to him like a straight-up man. The sweet one whose soft skin he imagined touching, even though the Klan would string up his damned fool self for looking at her, like they did those two boys a few years ago, down the road.

And yet, Charles did finally sneak down to the mailroom, whispering sincerely to her what he’d practiced in his mirror.

“I don’t mean to be out of line, but I want you to know I like you. Very much.”

She stared at him. Weighed his words intently.

“I’ve thought of you too,” she said.

 

E. Dolores Johnson’s writing on race has appeared or is forthcoming in The Buffalo News, the Women of Color Anthology: Boundaries and Borders, and Narratively. Her multigenerational memoir about mixed-race life also shows the browning of America and changing attitudes about race-mixing. She is looking for a publisher. Johnson completed the Memoir Incubator program at Grub Street and studied creative writing at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation. She has been awarded residencies at Djerassi, Blue Mountain Center, Ragdale, and the VCCA colonies. She has consulted on diversity for think tanks, universities, major corporations, and nonprofits. Johnson holds a Harvard MBA and a Howard University BA. Follow her on twitter@ elladolo.

The Girl Who Will Fly

[fiction]

My daughter, the ballerina, has a mane, thick as a horse’s, and bronze from two weeks ago, when she dyed it. It’s impossible to get the whole thing in your hands. Delicate flyaway strands escape my fingers.

She sits on a stool I have wedged in the bathroom. A ray of sun lights up the bronze strands like fire. Truthfully, I prefer her hair loose and free and black, the way she was born, but today I will braid it and wrap it in a bun.

I haven’t braided my own hair since I was a dancer. She regards me as though that were a hundred years ago. I pull one section of her hair over, then another. Left and then right, three parts equal.

That’s what she wants, three parts—a father, me, and the ballerina. But his promises were as weightless as I used to feel. My feet are heavy now. She will forgive me for having just myself to offer.

I will fix everything. It will be just as it was with me and my mother, who had magical fingers that ran through my hair and tugged at my temples. I can feel in my fingertips it will be all right.

When the braid is finished, I wrap it tightly around her head. It will be perfect, and no one will be able to say otherwise. Not the girl at school who called her a showoff, or the boy who said he prefers blondes. Not her dance teacher, who called her too tall.

When I was a dancer, and my teacher told me to slim down, I didn’t say a word. But my daughter is tougher and fiercer than I was, with eyes of black rock.

I wasn’t strong, but I danced as long as I could, even after high school, after my pudge turned into a lump on my belly, after the other girls pointed out I didn’t have a ring on my finger, after “fat” was the kindest thing they had called me. It was a small town then too.

The bronze will grow out. Already, I see a sliver of black coming in at the roots.

They will not tell her who she must be. They will not touch her. She will fly away, high, over all of them. I will not hold her down. I will make her understand she never held me down either, that even now, in my heavy black shoes, I feel as though I might lift off the ground with her.

I can see a time far ahead when she will stop dancing, too, but she will never forget the feeling. Even after she has a bump of her own, or later, when her legs are swollen and etched with veins, even then, the muscle memory will remain, and she will remember exactly what it is to lift off the ground and take flight.

 

Lauren Kosa is a Washington, DC-based writer, with fiction and essays in Origins Journal, Fiction Southeast, The Writer, Vox, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and elsewhere. Follow Lauren on Twitter @LaurenKosa.

You Will be Saved

[creative nonfiction]

for Rose Williams

Close-cropped curly hair, pitted, blueberry skin—my first reaction was dread, with my incipient bias spluttering warnings: They are all violent. All a bit crazy. Stay away. We ignore each other—I huddled by the corner grading answer sheets while you ruled a coterie of veterans of shelters, prisons, rehabs, halfway houses. Bianca a juvie at twelve. Her girlfriend DeeDee who spent the days in class braiding her hair. Whose ex, Ariana, hissed at them in Spanish throughout the high school equivalency class.

I am taunted by the hour: “You speak funny. Whatcha doin here? Why don’t you go back where you belong? You Arab bitch! You think you better than us? Meet us outside… What, you chicken? What, you Buddhist or something?” I had dreamt of becoming the female version of Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love. Now, I cringed and started searching for another job.

Till one day you surfaced showing a piece you wrote. “You really brainy, huh? Which grade did you study up to?” And then, “I write good?” Flashing a smile at my nods. The next time the class mimicked me, you stop them. “Let her be. She’s Bomb Diggity!”

I learn about your babies: “They my angels even though they got different baby daddies! Girl, I was bad. I sinned then.” About your dealing at Detroit. “Girl, I wish I had just had a taste of it once before the cops came!” This time though you claim, “It’s different. Jesus is here.” And, “Read the Bible with me! Jesus will save you!”

You predict a brilliant future for me. “Just watch, you will get a good man. And lotsa babies.” You leave outlining plans to try for your GED, and then college, and promise, “You are my dawg. I will write you.” You send one letter—bordered by brown stick-figures and red-pencil flowers. And I never hear from you again.

 

Jonaki Ray studied chemistry and computer science in India (IIT Kanpur) and the US (UIUC), and, after a brief stint as a software engineer, has returned to her first love, English. She is now a poet, writer, and editor based in India. Her poetry, essays, and short fiction have appeared in The Matador Review, So to Speak, Indian Literature, Sigh Press Literary Journal, Coldnoon, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Wire, The Times of India, and elsewhere. Her work is forthcoming in the American Journal of Poetry and For the Sonorous.

Honors for her work include first prize, EAL category, at the 2017 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Contest; longlisted at the 2016 Writers’ HQ International Fiction Contest; shortlisted, ESL category, at the 2016 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Contest; and longlisted for the 2016 RL Poetry Award. She was selected as a writer-in-residence at Joya: AiR, an inter-disciplinary residency program in Spain (Spring 2016); and La Macina di San Cresci, Italy (Summer 2017).

Getting Away

[fiction]

I whizz by houses in my old neighborhood at such a speed that they are just a blur to me. The sirens are blaring from behind, getting closer and closer. I kick my piece-of-shit Dodge into fourth gear and push the accelerator to the floor. There’s a jolt and it feels like we’ve jumped into hyperdrive.

I look over to Nicole, my object of desire, her knuckles are cataract-white from gripping the armrests. I swear she’s ready to have a heart attack if it wasn’t for the impossibly large Cheshire grin on her face.

We are the Romeo and Juliet of the modern era; we are Bonnie and Clyde for the twenty-first century. I look back over to her and my heart melts as I see such excitement and beauty in her face. She’s like a child on her birthday, when all her friends are huddled around waiting for her to open the gifts. Her eyes are tabby cat big, and so magnificently blue that I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes on the road.

She whips her face towards me, auburn hair waving in her eyes, and shouts, “Faster! Faster!”

I grin and we hit the top of a hill and it acts like a ramp: we sail through the sky for a good twenty seconds like we’re in a Die Hard movie. Both our hearts are in our throats and she’s screaming with delight like she’s riding a rollercoaster.

When we make contact again we hit hard and my head smashes off the ceiling of the car. It hurts and I lose control a moment and swerve onto the sidewalk. I keep my foot on the pedal and come back onto the road again. The sirens are long gone now, we’ve lost them. The only sound I hear is the squeal of the angel next to me. And then all of a sudden she screams like there’s a ghost in the middle of the road. But it’s not a ghost, it’s a living person who’s caught in my headlights like a moronic deer.

I swerve hard to my left and smash into a large tree. For comic relief, a dozen crab apples fall onto the hood, denting the shit out of it. My Dodge is fucked.

I’m bleeding from my forehead and I look over and see that Nicole’s got a gash on her head as well. I think my right leg is broken too.

She looks over at me and smiles, blood dripping down her face like tears. “How pissed do you think my Dad is that you kidnapped me?”

“I don’t know.” I pause and spit out a tooth. “Do you think he’ll still let me show up for work tomorrow?”

She laughs at this. It’s not a hearty bellow, but a silent giggle, something only people in love give from an inside joke.

“Oh, well, I was trying to get fired anyway.”

She rests her head on the back of her seat and closes her eyes. A moment passes.

“Nicole?” She doesn’t answer. She doesn’t move. The sirens are here now. They have finally caught up to me.

I reach over to grab hold of her perfect tiny hand. I want to feel the warmth and milky smoothness of it. I touch one of her long delicate fingertips, the nail is smooth as glass. I continue down her long slender fingers when an officer sticks his head through the window and tells me not to move.

 

Matthew Sarookanian is a photographer and writer living in Toronto, Ontario. “Getting Away” is his first published piece, thanks to Lunch Ticket. In addition to this story, his play, Haunted, appeared at the InspiraTO Festival, and Then He Wakes Up premiered at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Follow him on Instagram, msarookanian, and Twitter @msarookanian.

Photo by Ian Brown

Spark

[creative nonfiction]

(after Wilkins)

What I remember most clearly is the heat.

What I remember is driving in the heat to the house with a chain-link fence surrounding the front yard that was patchy with green and yellow grass. I can see the tree in the front yard with its one branch that curved toward the porch where there were chairs (plastic, maybe). I may have been wearing shorts if it was summer. Was it summer? Or was the heat because it was California? There may have been a dog. There were most assuredly other people, maybe a younger brother, a man, a girl.

What I remember is walking inside the house, being asked if I wanted a drink. It may have been Pabst or Natural Ice or Bud Light or Budweiser or Corona. I don’t know. I don’t know what I drank. I’m sure now that we talked, in a group or alone. I can hear myself laughing, full throated and boundless. We might have played dominoes smacking them onto the wooden kitchen table or knocking with our knuckles when we had no bone to play.

What I remember is nothing, nothing and then the wall near the bed, pale and cold, staring at my face partially submerged in dark sheets. Eyelids weighted by mascaraed lashes, I looked at the white wall and waited. My cheek slipped and pushed in rhythmic waves. Do I move my arm back, push against him with my hand? Does he shove it away? When do I whisper into the pillow top, no no? Will the man in the next room hear? I don’t know. I don’t know who lives here. I can still hear my blood throbbing through my ears, feel my heart still, then pound, banging around inside my chest. A piece of me wants to say I can taste whiskey on my breath, smell smoke in my hair.

What I remember is lying still. The television could be on in the background, the muffled sounds of dialogue sweeping over my empty thoughts. Do I fall asleep? Or do I lie awake for hours in a trance waiting for the light to spill through the tattered curtains in the morning? Are my eyes closed, or is it the wall I am staring at in the dark? I don’t know.

I am there through the night awake or asleep. I don’t know. Whether I was awake or asleep, whether I stared at the wall or slipped into a cautious rest, the light spilled in through the tattered curtains and the room is stifling when I sit up on the edge of the bed. I look around for my clothes. Do I clutch a sheet to cover my skin? I don’t know. I can’t see the pieces I collect or recall the order in which I put them on. A piece of me wants to say I said something or he did. Is my breathing rough? Is my voice low and cracking from the smoking and the dehydration?

When I leave the room, I go to the kitchen to get a drink of water. I can see through a door ajar that no one was in the next room. I drink water. Do I bring him a glass? Or does he follow me to the kitchen? Is it his hand on my shoulder that tenses every muscle in my body?

I see myself closing the door to the house, the screen smacking against the frame, walking past the tree and the grass, shoving the key into the car door, holding the wheel in my hands. I am numb and confused, and I am alone. Do I really just drive home? Do I maybe stare at the house, at the shadows the limbs make on the spotty grass, at the splashes of dirt behind steel fence links? Am I breathing when I start the car engine? How hard do I press the gas pedal with my foot?

There is so much I cannot remember. I want to say, it doesn’t matter that I don’t or can’t or won’t remember. I search the dark stumbling with my hands out groping for the missing. I can feel the heat, can see in snatches grasped as if by the flickering fire light of the Bic I used to keep in my pocket. Snap, spark, flame, heat, breath.

 

Kari TreeseKari Treese is a writer and mathematics teacher in Southern California. She received a bachelor’s degree in writing studies from University of Washington Tacoma and a master’s degree in education from UCLA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, Crab Fat, and The Fem. Find her outside counting rocks or climbing them.

When My Mother Held the Sears Door Open for Me

[creative nonfiction]

I wanted to follow my brothers and sisters through. I did not mean to walk into the glass door beside the open one. My body, though slight, could not slip between its molecules; I shattered that crystal barrier. I created the shards that brought the pain and the blood drops and the shame.

It was gray rain that day, and almost dusk-time, and so my eyes were more blurry than normal; they were always blurry because we were practicing faith in God and not doctors, but this was worse. And I saw my mom, saw her dark line of an arm extending from her body, deduced that she was holding the door, but I chose the wrong one.

A male employee carried my nine-year-old body, which I had thought weak but knew then had a conquering power of solidity. He brought me to a back room, for employees only, where he used a first-aid kit to mend my cuts.

No second aid would follow because God was trusted instead. I have two physical scars: on my nose, on my knee.

When I was lifted high above the staring shoppers, I buried my face in my hero’s shirtsleeve and pretended this did not happen, that I wasn’t a pathetic half-blind girl but a princess in a parade. My blood could be rubies and not liquefied pain. My fear could be joy; the broken pieces of glass could be diamonds raining down on my unscarred face.

 

Sarah Broussard Weaver’s essays have been published in Full Grown People, Hippocampus, The Bitter Southerner, and The Nervous Breakdown, among others. She is an MFA candidate at Rainier Writing Workshop and lives in Portland, Oregon.

Hard Winter

[fiction]

Cheryl’s bones cracked as she leaned back into her chair, the bent wood snapping and sagging under worrisome weight. John hadn’t come up the back stairs yet, leaning himself on the peeling, metal railing as he dragged his lumbering feet. She had listened for those familiar footsteps, straining her good ear in the direction of the door, the fading sun falling on her cheek through the cracked window. He hadn’t rung either. Everything was still and perfect and she sat, aware of the high pitch of the television turned low. The faces on the screen kept her company, but that was all.

They’d run out of meat before—many times, in fact. It wasn’t hardship, exactly, but this time the cellar had been overrun with rats, and their root crops were destroyed. They had used the last of the food stamps for Christmas dinner so that each of the seventeen grandchildren packed into the house would have a small trinket underneath the tree to open.

“Maybe up north I’ll find some game,” John said one evening, looking sallow underneath the glare of the bulb that hung from the tacky ceiling. “Elks got to be somewhere.”

“Ain’t that season,” she’d said, but knew it was no use. He’d be gone when she woke the next morning, having set out before dawn with his rifle laying in the back of the Model B. He’d park down-road, go out, crawl in the underbrush and wait out the land. But the land was fickle and possessive and he wouldn’t notice the landowner or the shotgun until he felt it at the back of his head.

Cheryl got up and pressed the pillows in his chair, taking them gingerly and hesitantly, afraid to handle them too harshly. She placed them back in the same place and listened with her good ear as if afraid of that something would fill up the sound of his absence.

 

Laura Young earned a BA in English from the University of Iowa, where she was in the undergraduate Writers’ Workshop, and an MA in education from California State University. A recipient of the New York Mills writing residency, she has had short stories published in Cold Creek Review, the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, Ordinary Madness, Parent Co., and Mr. Judas. Her story, “What We Can’t Talk About,” has been nominated for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net 2017.

Photo by Youngbell Photography

She Is a Battleground

[fiction]

Twelve-year-old butter boys face the old Chinese woman they call Baboochka. Imagine: the eighty-year-old woman on their apartment’s shared front stoop, the silver moon caught in her tousled hair, her yellow sweater vest, her milky-white Velcro E-Z Steppers. She jostles grocery bags from one hip to the other as she digs in her pockets for keys. She grumbles about the checker at the vegetable market pocketing her change, about her arthritic fingers too weak to open jars but too strong for the wet lettuce bag, about the bus driver that did not hear her call out for a stop. And now, the butter boys on her stoop who whistle for sesame candy, beg to see inside her bags, throw dirty leaves in her hair when she refuses.

The old woman knows that in two years the boys will become teenage fools: lanky legs, smelling, soiled underpants, an erection when someone taps their shoulder or sloshes in a puddle or fires a gun. It doesn’t take much. The fools will come home from school and find the old woman weaving long green blades of grass into her house slippers like laces, her purse filled with acorns, resting against her stockinged feet. The fools will laugh and point their sticky fingers at Baboochka, some so close they leave fingerprints on her eyeglasses.

And the old woman will choose to fight back. In her own true myth, she is not a corny grandmother, soft like a pillow. She is not Mother Dear. She is not Lady Khorosho, just waiting to become a ghost. She does not weep and cry and mumble. No.

She is a battleground. Lui yun is her real name, she will tell the fools, Go and puk gai. She is a person. She is sex. She is useful poison. She is a survivor of wars. She is a dream. She is a sarcastic beast. She is the skeleton key who understands little criminals. She will yank the fools’ earlobes with joy, grab handfuls of shirt and rip them a new hemline.

And the arrogant snots will call her mad, crazy, a shithead, a starry buttock, a whore. But the old woman will laugh and laugh, howl like a bolshy dame. The sound, quick, scratching, the sweetest noise you’ve ever heard. Like an ancient drug, with chipped teeth like tin bells, a tongue like a rake, a fighting drive to live, a horror heart in woolly slippers.

 

Nancy Au

Nancy Au is a queer bisexual writer, artist, and teacher living in Oakland, California. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, The Pinch, Beloit Fiction Journal, Hermeneutic Chaos Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Word Riot, Liminal Stories, Foglifter, Forge Literary Magazine, and Midnight Breakfast, among others. She was awarded the Spring Creek Project residency, which is dedicated to artists and writers inspired by nature and science. She has an MFA from San Francisco State University, teaches creative and science writing at California State University Stanislaus, and is cofounder of The Escapery.

“She is a Battleground” is a Best Small Fictions 2018 winner, selected by Aimee Bender. Congratulations to Nancy Au!

Sleight of Hand

[fiction]

You’re walking home from Chester Park Elementary School, where you have the happiness of being in the sixth grade. As you’re passing the windowless flank of a multistory parking garage, a four-eyed classmate of yours named Dresner steps out of the doorway he’s been skulking in.

—Check this out.

The small volume he produces for your inspection has a black leatherette cover. Nothing is printed on it. It reminds you of the sort of book found on the backs of pews. You’re reluctant to touch it.

—What is it?

—Open it.

Before you can, it’s snatched from your hands by another classmate of yours—Falk, his name is. A gangly lout with a face like the Big Bad Wolf’s, he flips through the pages under your nose, while you try but fail to contain yourself.

—That’s disgusting!

—Where’d you get it?

Dresner, used to being ignored by Falk, is thrilled to be admitted to a conversation with him.

—In my father’s closet. Hey, what’s the idea? Come back with that!

Falk laughs at him over his shoulder.

—Or what? You’ll tell your father?

That Dresner doesn’t dare to pursue him as he saunters off can only be due to the fearsome reputation enjoyed by Falk’s headlock. You have to hurry to catch up with him before he reaches the corner.

—You should give it back.

In the shadow of the parking garage, Dresner has sagged down onto his pudgy hams, as if the wind’s been knocked out of him. He looks so stricken even Falk can’t help feeling for him.

—All right, here.

Grudgingly he surrenders the book and disappears around the corner. You make sure Dresner isn’t watching when you slip it in your pocket.

 

Stephen BailyStephen Baily is the author of three novels, ten plays, and short fiction that’s appeared in some thirty-five journals. His novel, Markus Klyner, MD, FBI, is available as a Kindle e-book. He lives in France.

Disco

[fiction]

The Bank of Michigan gave my grandfather a banquet at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac
Island in the late seventies. While my parents watched television, I snuck out of the hotel room
to explore. Almost immediately, I found myself locked out of the fire escape seven stories up.
At seven years old, I pounded on the glass, kicked at the molding, and wept so loudly that the
napping woman in the adjacent room woke up, opened the door for me, and let me inside her
room until I cooled off. Later that night, at the disco party, I ran into her, and she told the entire
story to my parents in full detail—the whimpering, the snot, the shaking, my face in the pillow,
and how long it took for the pillow to dry. But I didn’t let her get away with it. The next day I
broke into her room, rifled through her belongings, and stole her checkbook. During the next
school year, I sometimes took the checks to class and showed them off to friends. We would
scribble in vast sums and then set the paper on fire. Every so often, even twenty years later, I’ll
write out something small. Ten or twenty bucks. Just enough to go unnoticed.

 

Tim FittsTim Fitts is the author of the short story collection Hypothermia (MadHat Press, 2017) and The Soju Club (Loupe). Fitts teaches in the Liberal Arts Department of the Curtis Institute of Music and is a frequent guest on the Painted Bride Quarterly’s “Slushpile.” His fiction has been published by Granta, The Gettysburg Review, Faultline, Shenandoah, CutBank, among others. His story, “Sand On Sand Yellow,” is available on Amazon, free to Kindle users. Follow Tim on Twitter @timfitts77.

 

Switzerland

[creative nonfiction]

Silly girls. We were two American college co-eds, surrounded by big, jovial mountain climbers from Norway. Or Sweden. We couldn’t understand them. The young bearded men were heavily into their schnapps and laughed as they tried, with hand gestures and broken English, to convince us to join them in a shot, or two. There was nowhere to go, as we were eight persons squashed into a cable car that left Zermatt, Switzerland with a sudden, hard jolt. My friend’s and my mouth fell open simultaneously in shock, which caused our companions endless amounts of entertainment. They theatrically clutched at each other, mimicking our facial expressions and laughing uproariously. We couldn’t help but giggle; okay, we looked stupid and we knew it.

The view! The famous Alpine view that really and truly took our breath away. We gazed down and saw a Disney movie set; a Currier & Ives Christmas card. This was too perfect to be real. So many cozy peaked houses with plumes of sweet-smelling smoke puffing up from their chimneys. No cars, no vehicles of any kind were allowed here. Pristine. Surrounded by powerful mountains and snow and ice. A haven within a brutally beautiful countryside. It would be a completely different picture in the late Spring, when all the alpine flowers would be in full exquisite bloom. Picture-postcard perfect.

We soon exited the cable car at Furi Station, laughing and hugging our new “friends” goodbye, only to board a larger cable car for the trip up to Trockener Steg. We weren’t done with the transportation quite yet. There was a price to pay to achieve a view that would stay within your mind for a lifetime. So, we followed the crowd and boarded another cable car that would take us all the way up to the infamous Matterhorn. Then, there was one more lift that delivered us closer to our goal, the viewing platform. We had been told by countless friends that if we did not make this trip, we would regret it forever. Those were strong words and so we obeyed. Stepping off the lift, we were finally on solid ground. Looking around, we spotted the steep steps to reach Valhalla, Nirvana, the Top of the World. As we made it to the uppermost observation point, out of breath, we discovered that we were above the clouds! This was nature’s church, and we were awed by the perfect peace. During stressful times, I still conjure that incredible serenity that wrapped around me like a grandmother’s hand-knit shawl. And the silence was so complete that you could hear the glaciers across the valley, miles away, quietly melting, the tiny rivulets of water splashing down to join a waterfall. It was cold up there, but it was a wet cold because of the clouds. And it did not bother us in the least.

And then I heard the sound that I can hear just as clearly today: the tinkling of cow bells that traveled up through the thick white clouds like sacred music. It sounded right in my ear. I should have been able to reach out and touch the cows, but they were miles away. There was not a drop of air pollution to interfere with the sound waves bouncing off mountainsides. I couldn’t see the gentle animals, but I could picture them. Brown and white dairy cows carefully climbing the steep mountainsides in their search for a mouthful of dry grass under the snow.

I do not remember ever leaving that spot. We breathed deeply trying to capture the moment, the perfect, pure happiness that radiated from our hearts. Decades later, and in times of need, I am easily transported back to the top of the mountain.

 

Susan Weidenbaum Goldstein has relocated to well over fifteen cities in her lifetime; it is fake news that she is in the witness protection program. Her work has appeared in Mothers Always WriteSilver Birch PressMamalode, and JustBe ParentingComing up later this month: Sammiches and Psych Meds and Hyland’s, “A Mother Knows” campaign, to be featured on their social platforms. Follow her blog, Seriously? Life is too short, and so am I at www.very-seriously.com

Photo by Forever Studios, Boca Raton, FL

1964

[fiction]

The first boy she ever kissed was actually two. Behind the heavy velvet curtains on the stage at the community center. It was summer; they were counselors who ignored their campers, who smoked the dried-up weed she had found in her brother’s dresser, smoked it behind the dumpster during lunch, crouching to avoid the hot, wet sun. Then inside, the coolest darkest place at the back of the gym. Was it a dare? Or the truth: suddenly she had a power over them she had never imagined existed.

One boy was dark, the other fair, with hair on his chin so light it was almost translucent. She wanted to run her finger over it, but didn’t know how to ask. The first boy had broad shoulders. His forearms were tan and smooth. Like melted caramel. The second moistened his lips. Their breath. Their hands.

They sat on a dusty couch, covered in a white sheet like a body would be. She between the boys. Her brother’s army shirt over her new red bikini top, his dog tags cool against one sunburned breast. The wall behind them was a painted scene from a play. Some dark-green, leafy place. Another world. There was no fear. No thought yet for her reputation. Only anticipation. Curiosity. And a sense of the future stretched wide.

Boy number one leaned in. His hair fell over one eye. He smelled like smoke. Then grape jelly. His lips were rough and hot. His kiss was a dry brush like a moth flying by, but his hand shook where it cupped her ribs.

Then the pale boy stuck his tongue in her mouth. A wet muscly fish. She bore it for a minute then pushed his forehead back with a laugh. He ducked his head.

Was that all there was to it? Two whole boys, both hers.

She was fifteen. It was summer. A satellite took pictures of the craters on the moon. A radio out in the gym sang, “As the present now / Will later be past.” And her world opened up like a flower, like a bomb.

 

Claire T. Lawrence is a professor of creative writing at Bloomsburg University. She has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in numerous journals and anthologies, including Literary Mama, Tri-Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, and The New Earth Reader. She lives in flyover country with her husband, two children, and their Pekingeses, Mushu and Kung Pao.

Bitch-not-Witch

[fiction]

I’m just appreciating what’s pleasing about Trent when it all goes wrong. He phones me, his voice less sweet and friendly than it was an hour ago. There’s a crackle of anxiety present now.

“Den…” he says.

After he’s spoken my name there is a sharp little silence. I break it with a sigh.

Trent has called me three or four times today already. He is working on his article but is afraid he’s going to miss the deadline. The pity word blows through me each time he rings. It’s my immediate reaction. My legs lurch forward as though they’ve been programmed to run to him. But wait a minute. Is this not the method he always uses to get people, by which I suppose I mean women, to do his bidding? He is writing a piece about myths and legends. I’m fully aware he wants me to go through the material on his desk but he doesn’t say this. He expects me to offer. Out of sympathy. We are lovers, after all. And once upon a time, fairy tale like, I would have. If I don’t help I will have been the cause of the suffering he is going through now. This is bad; it is more than bad. It’s unthinkable. In the once-upon-a-time way of seeing, I would have been a witch because I am responsible for his pain. And there are plenty more witch role models than assertive women in the stories, aren’t there.

“Den,” Trent goes. This time there’s a feeble whiny something in the way he says my name. “Do you want to come over?”

He makes it sound like an invitation. But his voice isn’t inviting in the least. Bitch is the put-down he’s throwing together behind the words. I can detect it. If I refuse, that is. Bitch not witch. This is the now-alternative. Dirty doglike but with very little power attached.

“I’d love to but I can’t today,” I tell him, hanging tightly on to whatever power I have. It isn’t much perhaps. There’s a distant urge in me to run to his rescue but, no. I stop myself. I’ve done this so many times before. Never getting so much as a thank you.

“I have to go now,” Trent tells me curtly. And I get the impression he’ll be phoning someone else. “Do you think I ought to ask Julie to give me a hand?” he says next minute, still on the line to stick the knife in. He digs in the reminder that he has others. I’m not the only one and I better believe it. He doesn’t say this but he might as well.

“Do what you have to do,” I tell Trent in a firm undaunted voice.

“Thanks,” he says, a cutting edge now sharpening his tone.

So yes, I’m a bitch pure and simple. There’s no supernatural side to me but you know what, I am big and bad enough to live with that. Less is more.

 

Jay Merill is published in Cheap Pop Lit, Entropy, Epiphany, Hobart, The Literateur, Matchbook, Prairie Schooner, SmokeLong Quarterly, Thrice Fiction, and Wigleaf. She is a current Write Well Award nominee, Pushcart Prize nominee, and winner of the Salt short story prize. She is the author of two collections published by Salt, God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies.

 

The Walt Longmire of IT Guys

[fiction]

Kolarov started watching Longmire on Netflix last winter while engaging in half-hearted workouts on the bike trainer. The show has begun to own him. Kolarov is an IT guy, the dude you see in the office wearing a blue polo shirt and khaki pants, pushing a cart loaded with computers. That was before Longmire. Now Kolarov wears Lee jeans and flannel shirts. People have noticed—he feels them staring at his back when he enters the server room. The shoes have changed as well. The Sperry boat shoe is standard issue in the IT world, but now Kolarov has switched to the Timberland Chukka, which is almost a boot. He’s not brave enough to go full cowboy boot so the chukka will have to do. It’s close enough.

Kolarov is deep into season three of Longmire and the lead character’s detective tendencies are now part of his daily routine. A typical conversation with a staff member used to involve the person barging into Kolarov’s cubicle and demanding immediate help. Kolarov would avoid eye contact while mumbling something about resetting a password. Now, when an irate staff member arrives, Kolarov offers a chair that isn’t there—they need to pull one in from the next cube. He looks the person directly in the eye, Longmire style, and asks a series of questions. The cowboy hat is missing, which is a shame. On the show, Longmire holds court in a shadowy, lamplit office, slouching in his desk chair and peering at various suspects from under the brim of his Stetson. Kolarov has to get by with fluorescent overhead light and a concerned grimace that looks more like a dude struggling on the toilet. Most people look at Kolarov like he has two heads during these Q & A sessions, but he doesn’t notice.

Kolarov has found his Vic as well, the alluring female lead in love with the much older Longmire on the show. Kolarov’s Vic is also much younger. From time to time, she sends him an email with a question about how to do something in Microsoft Word. In the past, he would answer via email. Now when she sends a message he goes right to her desk and leans over her shoulder, working on the problem like a real detective; a bold, powerful, six-foot-two-inch muscular detective. The physical presence part is a bit difficult for Kolarov, he’s only five-foot-eight and weighs maybe one hundred fifty pounds after dinner. He’s been doing pushups and sit-ups every night in order to better fill out the baggy flannel shirts, but there’s no guarantee this is making any difference. She may or may not notice.

When the day is done Kolarov arrives home and does not change clothes as quickly as he used to. His wife thinks she knows what’s going on, but she doesn’t say anything. His son passes him in the hallway and says, “Nice shirt, Dad.” There’s not a lot of Longmire work to do in this house on a weeknight. Most of the action is centered around dinner preparation, homework, basketball watching, some sort of exercise.

But a recent Wednesday night brings changes. Just after dinner, as Kolarov is preparing to go downstairs and hit the trainer, his wife receives two phone calls in quick succession from a colleague at work. Each call is from a different number. Kolarov’s wife checks voicemail and says, It’s weird, Gina sounds upset. Kolarov starts in with the questioning: how are things at home? Is her husband normal? Do they fight? You better call her back, we may need to intervene. Fifteen minutes later Kolarov is grinding away on the bike trainer watching Longmire rappel down a mountainside using a length of rope routed through handcuffs connected to his tough-guy cowboy belt. Kolarov’s wife comes downstairs and says her friend is fine, she was just trying to line up a substitute teacher for her upcoming vacation. Kolarov wants to know why the second phone number. His wife laughs and says the friend first called from her cell phone, and then from the school phone. Kolarov turns back to the screen and picks up the pace. Someone’s not telling the truth, he can feel it. Hopefully they won’t read about it in the paper tomorrow.

 

John Meyers

John Meyers’s poems, stories, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications. Over the past year, his work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Louisville Review, Fiction Southeast, Thrice Fiction, Easy Street, and the Jellyfish Review, among others. John lives in Maryland and once worked for Ringling Bros. Circus. He can be found online at www.hammeredinmetal.blogspot.com.

The Blessed Bangle

[fiction]

A lady of leisure, Leela spent most of her time reading novels and literary magazines. She sat on the terrace, gazing at the white sailboats in the sapphire waters of Bay of Bengal, drying her long, lustrous hair in the bright sunshine, bantering with her sisters-in-law. Leela never went downstairs for breakfast until after nine in the morning—she needed her beauty sleep. When she did arrive, in a crisp cotton sari and her hair neatly braided, she was usually greeted by one her giggling sisters-in-laws. “What! Ho! Leela, another late night, huh? Poor thing. You must be worn out after all that…”

Leela was not unaware of her mother-in-law’s consternation. That she failed to get pregnant. That she failed to produce an heir. Even after four years of marriage. That she might be barren or something. That the clan might not progress beyond the eldest son.

Seeking divine intervention, the matriarch dragged Leela to a few famous temples in the South to pray for a child. Astrologers and purohits, seers and swamis were consulted, and pujas and homams performed. Anything to boost Leela’s fertility. Though she mentally scoffed at such superstitions, out of respect for her mother-in-law, Leela went along.

During those tense times, Leela blithely ignored the matriarch’s tedious barbs—about people who had too much free time, people who did not fulfill their duty, people overly concerned with their looks.

The mother-in-law—Kamala, as fertile as the Godavari delta, got pregnant at the drop a hat, not once or twice, but six times. Leela shuddered at the thought of what such frequent fecundity might do to her shapely figure. She was in no hurry for the ugly stretch marks and the pendulous, milk-filled mammaries.

*     *     *

Kamala said, “We tried everything—well, almost everything, nothing seems to work. Leela, wear this bangle, you must wear it all the time. This is not just any regular bangle, it is The Blessed Bangle. This bangle was blessed by a famous seer in the foothills of Himalayas and shipped all the way to the South. I just got it, delivered by courier. The wearer is assured of spiritual wellbeing and prosperity and will banish all the evil spirits that seem to prevent you from conceiving. Let’s hope that this bangle will do the trick.”

Leela wore it dutifully, day and night. Every day, during the morning puja, under Kamala’s strict supervision, Leela slipped the bangle out of her dainty wrist and placed it in front of the gods and goddesses.

During the tension-filled weeks (the tension was all Kamala’s, Leela was very cool, cool as the waters on the sandy beach), Kamala’s prayers became more and more fervent. Many cups of “Tension Tamer” and “Calming Chamomile” tea did not live up to their name.

*     *     *

Kamala was ecstatic when Leela, at long last, got pregnant. It seemed as though her prayers finally bore fruit. Now that her dreams had finally come true, there was nothing to curb her enthusiasm. She anticipated the arrival of her first grandchild, her eldest son’s first baby, which she hoped would be a boy, with great anxiety.

The bangle’s fame was known to near and dear and far and wide. It was only a matter of time, requests to loan the bangle to infertile women across the state came pouring in. Kamala charged a nominal fee to cover the shipping costs. If a woman got pregnant she was requested to donate generously to Kamala’s favorite temple. If a woman did not get pregnant, Kamala took no responsibility, wrote it off as one of those cases where the blessed bangle could not override Saturn’s evil eye on the unfortunate woman’s fertility. Each woman was given a month and then the bangle should be sent back, ready for the next woman in line. When not in transit, the bangle was placed in the puja room, under the watchful eyes of the gods and goddesses.

*     *     *

Sitting on the sunny terrace, Leela contemplated her baby bump and enjoyed the fuss everyone was making about the imminent arrival of the scion (yes, a boy, as per ultrasound). She knew very well that Kamala would be horrified that the bangle had nothing to do with her pregnancy.

Leela simply stopped the Pill.

 

Rudy Ravindra lives in Wilmington, NC. His fiction has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Ginosko Literary Journal, Chicago Literati, The Saturday Evening Post, and others. Learn more at rudyravindra.com.

Walmart Holiday Shopping

[creative nonfiction]

List in hand: canned kitty food, hair color stuff, ribbon, Blue Plate’s Greek Lite Mayonnaise with Yogurt. Two names in the corner: Shaun / Elijah.

The two names off to the right are the two you buy presents for each year. Only these two. It’s hot. Grab a cart.

Pause to type a poetic thought to Notes on iPhone: “If I may retrace your voice to the root, arrest the fine salt of your skin for a magic ring, I’ll bring you back, resurface you from the deep black of the long-watery hour.”

In public places, I’m often brought close to tears by an old woman lingering. Today one is in the soap aisle. White hair page-boy cut, like my mother’s. Mine wore faded stretchy headbands. Her shoes were always scuffed. There’s something about the way this one leans in to read the price. She could be leaning over my crib, or my anxiety-sick face when I was eight. Last time I saw Mom was in the garage of the house I grew up in. I didn’t want anything from her then. As I drove away, I should have noticed how small she really was, next to the garage that used to seem big.

Shaun will get fleece pajamas, a book (The Untethered Soul), and a Yankee Candle. He no longer calls ten times nightly when he knows I’m sleeping. He calls me “Mom” again. Thirty-four and unmarried, sometimes he texts things like: “I feel ashamed for existing,” and I remember saying that to myself at twelve in that not-so-big-anymore garage.

Winter is a strange thing. “Up north” it’s frigid. Swept-white snow across fields and all glass looks dangerous. In Orlando, near me, it’s warm, “temperate,” and dangerous to dance in nightclubs. I grew up North but have been South for decades. All carbon-creatures must die and I don’t want to see bare trees.

I have a cart with one crazy wheel but navigate the aisles despite this adversity.

Elijah is my Cousin Jerry’s daughter’s son. He’s in first grade and I struggle. What do I get the son of my goddaughter who hung herself in a bedroom closet at her parents’ house six years ago? Jerry, fresh with grief, spoke of putting Elijah up for adoption. I said nononononono, don’t do that. You’ll regret it the rest of your life.

I pick a game called “There’s a Yeti in My Spaghetti” and a box of “wizard’s tricks.” I’ve never met Elijah, who lives in Wisconsin, and haven’t seen Shaun in sixteen years. They mail me a photo every year.

I’m tiring of the grocery-getting. It seems there’s so much else to do, but here I am in the pain-reliever aisle. Here I am trying to find a packet of firm toothbrushes. Here is the egg aisle. Lift the lid. So many are cracked. Guilt floods for closing the lid on the imperfect ones. In the soap aisle here is the old woman I will become. Blue-black maps under her skin; my road.

I take for granted I’ll make it safely to my car, arrive home and cook dinner. My spouse will be home at five. This won’t go on forever.

Small-talk with Janie, the best cashier, and I’m done for this week. In the breezeway, a carpeted liminal space, between “Exit” and “Entrance,” an elderly woman ahead walks like a tall white heron. White hair, white skin, white handbag. She’s rigid like white bark. A white-birch limb moving. She’s with a liver-spotted man on a motorized cart. He’s beige: Beige jacket, loose beige slacks, a beige hat tilted against the sun.

“Where are we?” the white woman asks. They’ve paused before the last set of doors. The beige-man peers across the parking lot like uncharted savannah.

“I don’t know. Out there somewhere.”

Isn’t this where I’ll be?

I imagine Shaun burning the candle. Reading the book. Wearing the fleece on cold dark-early nights. A Stanford line recalled: “I’ll just bleed so the stars can have something dark to shine in.” God bless Frank Stanford.

I hear Shaun’s voice asking me not to leave him alone with his father, see the salt-sweat stains of his baseball uniforms. At night I drift the northern field across from where he lives, in my dead-mother’s house. He takes my frightened hand. We float above overgrown prairie grass until the golden moment rises like thick cream, and the flick of the ear from hard winter’s wheat is all the sorrow there is.

 

Judith Roney has won a Prism Review and Pioneer Prize for poetry, a Pushcart nomination for a memoir piece, “My Nickname was Frankenstein,” and Waiting for Rain is a finalist for the Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Award. She teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida.

 

 

Screaming in the Heisenberg Wind

[fiction]

He was dead-drop Zen with eyes of Sufi swirling; smoking, a catch for any NLP-savvy, Nietzsche-Kant gal, but if you looked a little closer you could see the dark, Goethic shadow hidden behind that tan, well-defined Qabalah. He was ad hoc but never half-cocked and everything he coined wore shades.

She was a tall drink of retro-punk with wild Borges hair, screaming in the wind over a Heisenberg mind that saw the world in fractals. A tight Buddhist bodice barely contained her theosophical auras. She wore short skirts to show off a long, unconscious Jung that wouldn’t quit and left psychic disarray of Gödel proportions over the landscape of men as she walked.

She spoke in shadow tones laid flat on the floor, hiding cotton-candy dreams from synapses newly born, dancing over cliffs, too young to see. Her loose sinews and string theory cells contracted, feeling spooky action at a distance while she said prayers to God with eyes wide as the sun.

His long, strong hand smelled of coffee and musk. He held it out as a bridge so her toes wouldn’t trip. She picked up the scent of leather when he watched and felt the rain in his oasis behind plywood, duct tape, and two layers of muddy steel beams. Her train of thought careened dangerously 360 degrees mph around the curve, but he was straight as the marrow, maintaining a flurry of calm in opposition so balance remained on the same page—that one page of matter.

He had skylights in his attic. She had portholes in the basement, but somehow his wx1 interlinear wave brushed against her out of phase x2 angle and they came to meet, a rhapsody in blue-violet and could name that tune in five notes or three goddamns depending on the mood.

When they came together, the empty words they tossed bred symphony. He repainted the roof as proof that reality changed and reminded her not to wear a face in continuum. “I was a zeitgeist once,” he said, and she changed her clothes with ceremonious seriousness.

She promised to eat the past and never spit it out and he promised to keep rose-colored glasses and no roads closed so they settled down in the undercurrent unfettered by words or worlds or the space between them, sparking, sparkling, darkling hecklers sharing dreams in the motions of return.

Sex luminous in no light; pain playing on the planes.

Their cosmic bang created a continuous wave G, outdoing A, B and C, so that the universe became slightly queasy at all the motion this bundled baby borealis blew, but was satiated in the rafter glows. The bundle itself blew over and through to dimensions unknown looking for Om but sent musical interludes to the stars when strummed.

They stopped time and spent their momentous making models from the quantum material, watching themselves play in a nice piece of oceanfront reality, souled by the best agent ever, working on omission.

 

K.D. Rose

K.D. Rose is a poet and author. K.D.’s book, Inside Sorrow, won Readers’ Favorite Silver Medal for poetry. Her poetry, essays, and short stories have been published in Word Riot, Chicago Literati, Poetry Breakfast, BlazeVOX Journal, Ink in Thirds, The Nuclear Impact Anthology, Stray Branch Magazine, Literary Orphans, and others. Publication is forthcoming in Eastern Iowa Review, Lunch Ticket, Santa Fe Literary Magazine, Northern Virginia Review, Hermes Poetry Magazine, Maintenant Contemporary Dada Magazine, Slipstream, Wild Women’s Medicine Circle Journal, The Offbeat, and the 2016 Paragram Press anthology. She also won an honorable mention in the 2016 New Millennium Writings poetry contest. Her last release was Brevity of Twit. Her new book, DreamPoem, will be out in summer 2017. She has a BS in psychology and a master’s in social work. Member: Poetry Society of America, Poets and Writers, Academy of American Poets.

Scrap Art

[creative nonfiction]

When a new recycling shop specializing in crafts items opens near me and requests donations, I decide it’s time: I gather up my years’ worth of hoarded Altoids tins, Mason jars, fancy gift boxes, barely crinkled tissue paper, and a jar full of the orange and magenta ribbons from the handles of boutique shopping bags, too pretty to toss, still flirtatious, raring for reuse.

Opening the shop door wafts up the smell of dust and balsa wood and faraway hints of cedar. I wade into bins of bins, tubs of tubs, boxes of boxes. A barrel of baskets nuzzles one of old cookie tins, 10¢ apiece. Computer letters unmoored from their keyboard beg to become words. There are boxes of crayons and crayon nubs for 1¢ apiece, perhaps because the school year ran out before the crayons did, or maybe the kids just moved on to new crayons when the old ones lost their sharp point. There’s a giant bowl of cancelled stamps, 1¢ apiece, waiting to be rehomed in scrapbooks. Paint and glue tubes, popsicle sticks, corks from wine bottles, wine bottles de-corked. All “rescued from the landfill.”

In the heavily packed back of the store, my gaze snags first on the one-eyed head of a broken doll who hexes me with her singular stare. Then I see the severed ceramic doll parts all around her: cracked heads staring open-eyed. Arms reaching across each other, grabbing blindly. Feet and legs lined up, bodiless, at 25¢ apiece. My hoarder longings stir: I want to make something of these bits and pieces, some sort of found art to showcase their unrecognized beauty, to give them meaning, to redeem them.

But I see now that this display is itself, already, the found art I would make. No other re-assemblage could better capture this left-behind condition in a land of instant obsolescence than this array of unseeing eyes on heads looking for bodies, these corks climbing each other’s backs, and these tins tinkling and clanging against each other’s solid hollowness. No art better than those arms, nudging without elbows, grabbing without grasp. None more articulate than those torsos rolling limbless and unanchored amidst a limbo of limbs.

 

Deborah Thompson Deborah Thompson is an associate professor of English at Colorado State University, where she helped to develop the master’s degree in creative nonfiction. A Pushcart prizewinner, she has published creative essays in venues such as Briar Cliff Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Kenyon Review Online, Passages North, and Upstreet.

Blan-Manzhe with the Taste of Pear and Cream

[fiction]

Her husband had said of the last bonbon, “These are not bad.” So, Victoria saved the green wrapper with the drawing of pears and a few weeks later, back at the Russian grocery, showed it to the cashier. “These were a part of last month’s assortment.”

The cashier disappeared in the back. Victoria picked up some farmer’s cheese, herring, a package of roasted buckwheat groats: the staples. Waiting for the cashier to return, she contemplated the bonbon selection.

Her husband, born and raised in American suburbia, couldn’t fully comprehend the difference between the supermarket cottage cheese and the farmer’s cheese that she bought at the Russian store (he did enjoy the syrniki she made with the farmer’s cheese). The buckwheat was fine as a side to steak, but for breakfast it couldn’t compete with his oatmeal, regardless of its nutritional advantages. He had no interest in herring—far too salty. The bonbons, he wanted to like. They brought disappointment upon disappointment. Too sweet. Too gummy. Not enough chocolate. Too much liquor. “Must Russians ruin even their sweets with vodka?”

The cashier appeared, smelling of cigarette smoke. “Come back next week; we should receive the next shipment by then.”

The next time Victoria got to the store on a Sunday evening. At the end of the weekend, the candy bins were down to the last few hard candies, the sucking caramels. Nothing remotely related to pear.

In retrospect, she should’ve recognized this as a sign of trouble. When does a Russian store forget to restock sweets? On her following trip, a big sign in the window announced the store’s closing. While Victoria contemplated the sign, another customer arrived. An elderly woman with bright orange hair. “This figures. The owners were losing money,” the woman said. She looked at Victoria with a disapproving mien. “You kids are growing up all-American. You want brand names.”

Victoria looked for the candies online. Blan-manzhe, it turned out, was Russian for the French blanc-manger, spelled as blancmange in English and described as being similar to panna cotta in taste and appearance. Poet Alexander Pushkin, she read, had been fond of blanc-manger with chocolate sponge. Victoria couldn’t remember any such dessert in her mother’s repertoire, but she’d been seven when her family emigrated from the former Soviet Union. Once in the United States, her mother came to rely on frozen cheesecake.

Studying the wrapper, Victoria found in fine print the name of the factory in Russia. She visited the factory’s website, and eventually, slowly parsing the Cyrillic alphabet, clicked through to the page with the list of their assortment. Three hundred grams of the blan-manzhe candies sold for the price of fifty-one rubles, in selected areas, which did not include distribution outside of Russia. A phone number was provided for the international distributors. Victoria called that number and listened to several minutes of dial tone before giving it up.

The factory, she learned from the website, was a part of a conglomerate that united eighty-three sweets factories in Russia and controlled the market. The conglomerate, in its turn, was owned by a holding company that also owned a bank, a real estate developer, and a boutique hotel chain. The man behind the holding company had amassed more than six hundred million dollars and was on the list of top one hundred wealthiest men in Russia. Victoria kept reading. One website claimed that this man had started his career as a pickpocket and a strongman in Novosibirsk, that he’d served twenty years in jail, and moved to Moscow just in time for perestroika. At the time when Victoria’s parents decided to leave the Soviet Union, he’d made his fortune by swindling people like them out of the privatization vouchers and gained control of one factory after another.

She looked at the grass-green wrapper with the drawing of pears, one whole and one halved. Her husband didn’t seem to mind that the white chocolate shell coated the mouth with the taste of vegetable oil and the gelatinous neon-green filling looked like a biohazardous waste.

“These are not bad at all,” her husband had said, unwrapping that last bonbon and sliding it into his mouth. He gave it three chews and chased it down with beer.

 

Olga Zilberbourg is a bilingual author; born in St. Petersburg, Russia, she calls San Francisco her home. Her third book of stories was published in Russia in 2016. Her English-language fiction has appeared in World Literature Today, Epiphany, Narrative Magazine, Santa Monica Review, J Journal, and other print and online publications. Olga serves as a co-moderator of the San Francisco Writers Workshop.

Photo by Maria Zilberburg

Cyclone: a biography of inheritance

(flash creative nonfiction)

 

“Cyclone.” Original score by George Bassman & George Stoll, 1939.

“Cyclone.” Original score by George Bassman & George Stoll, 1939.

[Fix]

The one time I met Dad’s dad, he pissed in Mom’s closet. Grandpa George liked speedballs—cocaine and heroin in the same syringe. He liked prostitutes—the power of purchase was the one he abused most readily. But most of all Grandpa George liked Music—and Music liked him back, God knows why.

[Catalog]

Grandpa George composed for Hollywood. He was the cyclone that whisked Dorothy to Oz, from black-and-white to Technicolor. He was chanting monkeys beating their filthy wings. He rode the high country. He got sentimental over you. He was into both guys and dolls. Passion without compassion fueled his compositions. It spilled into his Music from a pool deep within him—the rest of him withered, or perhaps was always dry.

[Mercy]

The kindest thing my grandfather did to my father was neglect him. I shudder imagining what might have happened if he’d raised him.

[Fetch]

The worst was already over before the beatings began: “Go get my belt,” George would whisper. My father delivered his abuser the instrument of abuse. The pain didn’t matter—the shame was in the submission.

[Inconvenience]

When you became inconvenient to George he sent you to live in the Neuropsychiatric Institute. Indefinitely. First went his wife. Then his daughter Leslie. Then David—his son, my father—at age thirteen. No diagnosis was necessary. A rich man’s word is binding.

[Independence]

The fifteen months Dad spent in the psych ward were the best of his young life. He found love in kindred spirits. He found real education, found rebellion and counterculture. It wasn’t unlike a cyclone, hurling him from black-and-white into color.

[Burden]

Decades passed. Piss in the closet. Having blown the fortune his son would have inherited, George came begging for the money that was meant to buy my diapers. Later he pled ignorance when the dealers came pounding on our door.

[Altruism]

Weekly my father would buy his father a hot meal, even though his father never fed him. He would put his father up in a motel room, even though his father had locked him in a nuthouse. And he would tell his father about how he was raising his son.

[Death]

“Bassman’s later life was marred by tragedy—his personal life involved three marriages, and the last had a duration of scarcely a year. He was cut loose from his career, and he later fell in with the wrong people. He died forgotten by his profession and alone in Los Angeles in 1997.” (“George Bassman,” Wikipedia.)

[Legacy]

Is my Music “mine” then? My own? Is his Music mine now? What is left to inherit from an empty man?

[Spite]

Dad was forbidden to play the piano. Grandpa George couldn’t stand the sound of amateurs. A lesser narcissist would want to spit his own image onto a vicarious heir. But George denied his son every piece of himself.

But I have come to claim my inheritance.

[Portrait]

“George Bassman.” Original photo by David Bassman, c. 1969 Photo of photo taken 2015.

“George Bassman.” Original photo by David Bassman, c. 1969
Photo of photo taken 2015.

nicholas-bassman_optNick Bassman writes songs, stories, poems, essays, Facebook rants, and weird lyric nonfiction pieces like this one. He hails from Los Angeles and currently studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. Nick writes for the Oberlin Review and co-created the quarterly art zine California Salmon Chronicle with Malcolm Gottesman. This is his first poetic publication. Find music from his band, Flowerteeth, at https://flowerteeth.bandcamp.com and his personal ramblings at https://www.facebook.com/ackbasswards.