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