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/