After the Gazebo by Jen Knox

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She felt it in her toes that morning, dread that she would shove into ivory heels and dance on beneath heavy clouds. He felt a surge of adrenaline that he thought must accompany every man on his wedding day.

Everything had been set in motion four months ago, when they adopted a pug that had been abandoned in a nearby apartment complex. They were unsure they’d have the time to devote to the puppy, but the pug’s bunched face and little square body seemed perfect. It would be a responsibility test, a sort of trial run before they had children.

The pug had dermatitis between his folds, which cost money to correct, as did his shots and medications. It was enough to tear a small hole in their new car fund; they had to reevaluate the year and model. The lesser car they picked had good reviews, and the salesman—when he realized they weren’t the best negotiators and had told him exactly what their real budget was—said it was more durable than a lot of the newer ones. The couple’s fate was sealed when she drove the car off the lot, when he inserted the CD he’d brought along. “Ocean Breathes Salty” began the soundtrack.

 

They decided on a name for their puppy after reading that the strange little forehead wrinkle pugs share is referred to as a prince mark because it resembles the Chinese symbol for prince. They took Prince on lazy walks after work, allowed him to watch Animal Planet, and each snuck him treats when the other was not watching.

They made resolutions often. Both wanted to be somewhere else, but were unsure exactly where. They lived near his family but far from hers, so they often spoke of moving somewhere in the middle. Her sister would call late at night, upset about her husband being out late. She longed to be there to comfort, to watch bad movies, make orange cinnamon rolls and tell her sister she deserved better.

The day of the wedding, they awoke five hours and twenty minutes before they had to be at the meeting center by the gazebo. Their wedding would be outside, in a park where they first met. Both had been joggers.

It would be a small ceremony. She would wear her mother’s ivory dress, still a touch tight around the hips. He would wear his OSU pin on his slant-striped gray tie. She would pick up her mother and sister from the hotel. Just fewer than forty people would surround them as they took their vows at Abaline Park at 2PM.

Prince had a habit of jumping up and down before treat time, after walk time, and this always made her giggle; her giggling made her fiancé want her. It was wedding day morning. She laughed at his pitched pants and serious stare when she walked out of the kitchen. With only hours remaining, he rushed her, he moved his fingers along her belly beneath her shirt, he led her to their bedroom where they would forget the world for almost an hour.

When they remembered the world, they became frantic. They rushed around, kissed goodbye. She took the car. Her mother, an artist, presented her with a black and white painting of Prince. She laughed, loved it. Her sister worked hard to laugh with then explained her husband couldn’t attend due to work. It had been last minute. The sisters embraced.

Prince refused to wear the doggie tux, so she clipped the bow-tie to his collar. She hoped that he remembered to pack the treats and collapsible water dish. His father was picking him up. His mother was in a wheel chair after having reconstructive foot surgery a few weeks back. She was a loud, beautiful woman. Her three grown children, husband-to-be included, had blinged out her chair while she was in surgery, so that she now called it her throne.

The gazebo was perfect. Nothing was overdone. The couple didn’t see each other until vows. The sky was overcast but with no threat of rain. Clouds framed them in pictures.

The couple kissed. Prince jumped up and down at the dance. His mother danced in her chair. Her mother sketched the children’s faces. Her father smoked cigars with his father as they talked about drone strikes then football then cigars.

 

The recall notice hadn’t reached them because they’d forgotten to write the apartment number on the paperwork; his email had filtered the e-copy to junk. The recall notice concerned hyper acceleration and asked that all owners of the make/model and year bring the car in for a free check. The parents would become angry and file a lawsuit. It would be a large suit, and they would become quite rich.

His mother’s foot would heal, and she would walk with only a slight limp to the two graves that sat alongside the back of the yard by an old, abandoned house. The families would gather here on the anniversary of the couple’s wedding, and they would sob and laugh and smoke cigars.

They would discuss the circumstance of death and fate, everything that had to line up. The family was rich, so incredibly rich, but it didn’t matter. The money did not reconcile how the SUV had swerved and their breaks had given way, sending their small car spinning into the median strip.

It was instantaneous for him. It was drawn out for her. She had that brief window, a chance to say goodbye. She’d told her sister that she knew, somehow, that she had thought it was just cold feet.

The sister divorced, became pregnant after a fling. Prince would live with her and rest his wrinkly head on her belly as he listened to her daydream about finding love. He would comfort her when she came home with child and was unable to sleep.

Prince would mind the child and growl at men the sister would bring home. Until his final years, Prince would be there for her, but he would never jump up and down. Instead, he would spend his every night at the door, waiting, unable to believe in fate.

 

…………………….

“After the Gazebo” was originally published in ARDOR.

The Prize at the End of This by Jen Knox

Bucket List Perspective

Coworkers laugh it off from the safety of their cubicles, call out easy answers: cockroaches, death, heights, death, public speaking, death, and not death but dying. I shrug and say nothing in particular scares me most, so probably death, yeah, probably that.

I am brushing my teeth, and the answer taps me on the shoulder. I am jogging, and the answer rests on my feet like weights I must lift again and again. I know it will remain until addressed, haunt me until spoken, but I run faster and concentrate on my burning quads.

I set out to make a list—a sort of bucket list. As I begin writing, however, I think of Diana. Then I think The Voice is on, and I should go watch that. I set out to write another day and realize I should call someone about something that suddenly seems important. The answer, meanwhile, is now inside of everything: my husband’s snoring, my worry over the week’s unanswered emails, and the bills that keep my life routine.

~

There were three of us and three words. I listened quietly as Diana repeated the same question. She read the three words a dozen times, and every time she read them they took on more meaning. We sat in a small circle, writing with only one rule: don’t lift the pen from the page. We usually did three rounds, and this was the second. Ordinarily, my words tumbled out, but this day they clogged somewhere between brain and hand. I tried to shake them loose, but I could only look at Diana’s pen. It moved swiftly across the page. My answer sat atop my pen, but I could only write about not being able to write.

Diana had survived many rounds of chemotherapy and a hematopoietic stem cell transplant since being diagnosed with Leukemia. She elected to read again, spoke of death as burden, asked the same question with the same three words: “Am I next?”

She breathed slowly, spoke with no urgency or fear, but her words lodged beneath my skin, shook my blood. I relaxed when she smiled at me because I always relaxed when she smiled. I could hear the dull hum of my apartment and the faint clicks of my husband on the computer in the other room.

“Didn’t mean to bring down the room,” she said, chuckling. Her multi-colored scarf, vivid flowers, framed her yellowing complexion but more, her warm green eyes and perfect heart-shaped face. She nudged me, woke me up.

~

I had been stuck in my own head, a student not yet restricted to routine but eager to get there. I’d felt slower than most, not quick to pick up materials, not quick to make and keep friends. Self-consciousness and distrust had blurred my view, so I was harsh toward people, toward life, but Diana offered another kind word for every cold shoulder. A friend had made me.

~

Diana once told me that there is a place in our bodies, at the back of our hips, where bone marrow and blood stem cells collect. She started practicing yoga to, she said, release the vitality. The hips are nourishing but when released, they can heal. As more time passed, however, Diana stopped asking if she was next. By the time my friend passed away, it was merciful of life to release its grip.

~

The question—what scares you most?—cannot be unasked. I sit to write a sort of bucket list, sure that what scares me most is not to live to the fullest. For the first time since that writing practice so many years before, my words clog. I do not move. Pen cannot leave paper.

I figure this much out: The prize at the end of life is variable, so a list means nothing. I write about not being able to write. What scares me most? I write. Is it dying? Is it dying without having taken risks, without having learned to own mistakes, without learning to smile at life—at the joys and the absurd—the way my friend did, and to  love people who are not yet ready to be loved?

I write. Absence taps me on the shoulder, but I think of Diana. She puts her arms around my rigid self. She shakes me awake.

In China by Nathan Alling Long

Chinese Newsprint

IN China they recently completed a dam that will flood a hundred villages.  I read about it this morning in the paper while Mom was sleeping.  Everyone was forced to relocate, but their houses remained behind.

Every day I read the paper, looking for such disasters—new piles of bodies found in Rwanda, an earthquake in Chiapas, a derailed train outside Copenhagen.  The worst news always makes me feel a little better, always lessens this feeling that I’m the only one with loss.

Once, while I was reading about an apartment that had collapsed in New Delhi, I heard Mom start coughing, a dry and sore morning cough.  I waited to see if it would stop on its own, without having to feed her a teaspoon of cola, or lift her up to massage the tiny cords of muscle that still straddle her spine. Because of a structural flaw in the steel, one of the I-beams that spanned the basement of the building crumpled around five o’clock in the morning, when the tenants were still asleep.  They were crushed beneath their ceilings and the weight of their neighbors’ belongings.  The few survivors of the collapse had laid patiently beneath the rubble for seventy-two hours before being exhumed.  I almost finished that article when I heard Mom’s cough getting dryer.  I went in and made adjustments to her bed, which seemed to help.  But this time, the coughing wouldn’t stop, and after several hours, I eventually had to feed her drops of morphine until she fell asleep.

This is the first morning in weeks I’ve gotten through three quarters of the paper without Mom coughing, without having to hold the metal pan to catch the orangish fluid that oozes out from between her lips.

For five years, this article says, the Chinese had been building the dam, so far down stream that no one could hear the trucks and trucks of concrete moving in, like a string of ants in search of water, to dump their wet cargo against the wooden frame of the dam.  For five years, the river was diverted around the dam, through a giant pipe.

When the officials knocked on the town people’s doors, everything was already in place.  The trees had been shaved like hairs from the hillsides upstream, the timber already sold.  There was nothing anyone could do.

I set the paper down to check on Mom.  She was still asleep, her face for once without its grimace of pain.  It seemed almost impossible to imagine.  I placed a finger by her nostrils, to make sure there was still breath, then I returned to the kitchen and I read some more.

When the last of the people were evacuated, the Chinese closed off the pipes and let the water flood the streets.  Most of the furniture and the cupboards, I read, had been left behind.  What wasn’t anchored down, floated away.  What was secure or heavy, simply disappeared beneath the surface.

In some ways, I suppose, this story was not as horrible as others.  No one, as far as I read, was killed.  It was simply a report about progress, which can seem tragic or hopeful, depending on where you stand.  But I couldn’t help but feel for these people, more than for the victims of other disasters.  Maybe because it seemed so easy to imagine, the lake slowly spreading like a hemorrhage, in that beautiful, effortless way water does.

I heard Mom shift in her bed.  She took a deep breath, followed by a long valley of silence her breathing sometimes falls into.  I knew these were her best remaining hours, when she appeared the most serene.

As I waited for the next breath, I pictured myself as one of the villagers, on top of a mountain there in China, overlooking that completed, stillborn lake.  I imagined it would seem almost natural—how could all that water not?  The fishing boats floating across the surface, the trees growing right up to the shore.  It would seem almost peaceful—the lapping of the tiny waves against the mountain, the reflection of the giant sky on the water—except for everything I knew that existed underneath.

…………..

Previously published in Dispatch Literary Journal

Flies by Nathan Alling Long

Fly on Paper

Flies. Lots of them. All over the table, in my coffee floating, landing on my arms and legs, buzzing around like a hundred toy planes.

I’m trying to enjoy my breakfast, but I feel like King Kong. So I roll up the newspaper and start swatting them, until one lands on my plate.

Then I cover my plate and coffee, put away the butter, jam, and bread, and go back to swatting. Thwack, thwack, thwack.

I have to say, I get pretty damn good at knocking these things off the wall. The real pleasure is hearing them land on the floor like tiny bits of paper, a faint sound, like a fallen angel. Killing is not so bad in tiny amounts, it strikes me now, and I wonder if I might be able to kill a person this way, one gram at a time. What if these flies are really one body, just broken up into tiny soldiers? A horrible thought—and it’s a good thing they don’t reassemble anything human. I don’t think I could take it, trying to slice down a fly man, not before my first cup of coffee at least, not before my toast.

I keep swatting ‘til there’s just a few clever ones left: they fly around the fan blades and only land on the ceiling. I turn the fan on, and they scatter. Then one by one I knock them off, until there’s just one pesky fly left.

That’s when Judy comes into the kitchen and asks me what I’m doing. “Swatting flies?” she asks, then laughs.

“Yes, swatting flies,” I say, not amused. This is serious work—man’s work, really, the taking of life. A pool of adrenaline has welled within me, and I feel myself now a man of considerable tactical skill.

“My grandmother used to catch them like this,” Judy says, snatching her hand once into the air.

“Good for her,” I say, “but that would take too long.” I look at Judy’s hand, still sealed shut. Then I look around the room and recognize that the last fly is gone. I know it has miraculously found itself in her palm of her hand. And sure enough, she walks over to the window, opens it up, and lets the insect fly away.

“How did you do that?” I ask, feeling a bit incredulous, and a bit wounded.

“Your hand just has to be in the right place at the right time,” she says.

“Huh,” I say, and sit back down, uncovering my coffee and toast.

Judy gets out things to make her breakfast: tea and cereal. I wait as she makes her meal then takes it into the den, humming.

Finally, I sit down and take a sip of my coffee. It’s cold. I unfold the newspaper, but now it’s dotted with blood.  I can hear them outside, tapping on the window screen, as though dying to get in.

……………

Previously published in Monkeybicycle

Monstrously Unfair by Rich Larson

“You have to move out,” she tells him, pink nails kneading Hello Kitty bedspread. “I don’t want you touching all my clothes. Or seeing me change.” Her eyes are hard now, an eleven-year-old’s glitter-dusted eyes, they told him this would happen. “What if I want to have a sleepover? Or if, I don’t know, a boy came over?”

If a boy came over he’d lose his trachea, he wants to say.

“Sorry.”

She wouldn’t believe his snarls, so he lumbers out of the 28 by 48, slithers out the window. Static of her stuffed animals still crackling in his fur.

Like Chlorine and Night by Rich Larson

With our legs flotsam in the deserted pool she tells me things aren’t going to work. Her legs kick and wobble pale in the cyan, only hint at discomfort. My leg hairs swirl like feelers.

“Can I kiss you at least?” I ask, passing her the cigarette.

After a pause she says yes. Her head smells like chlorine and night. My hand finds the shrapnel of her hipbone under skin. It traces clammy thigh, our cold lips mash together.

My head: flick her cigarette into the water, like drowning a firefly. Baptize her, find flushed warm parts under ripples. Spark her.

Realtime: we bisect, there are freckles under her eyes. She looks quizzical. Her tongue tiptoes her teeth. “Whatever you need,” she says. “Whatever helps.” The cigarette goes back in like punctuation.

Shiny scar tissue on her thigh, a tetanus shot age five—her parents knew she’d be the type to climb rusted pool fences. It fits under my thumbprint. We sit and churn refractions, pretend I’ve marked her.

~Previously appearing in Fiction Brigade

Hopeful Old Man McFall by Chad Patton

I don’t remember Old Man McFall that good anymore, but I remember how he used to smoke his cigar—the one he’d never be caught dead without—on the porch, in the summertime where the townspeople used to walk by with their children and their dogs. He’d put the flaming stub in front of his face and pinch it with his lips, right at their pucker, and give a concentrated look as if he were blowing up a balloon. And sometimes, from the way the wrinkles formed around his face, it looked as if he were puffing his cheeks out, making a mockery of anyone unlucky to meet his eyes and see his face.

I’m not as old now as he was in my youth, but my mind’s telling me that he had a stuffed creature he kept perched on his lap. It was an odd creature, something no man in his right mind would ever get stuffed, let alone keep perched on his lap. Something like a chicken. Or a rooster. It had wings, I know that for sure. And it had those dead eyes, those eyes that leaked into a person’s bones and kissed them with their frozen lips. He had a house, an old house that shed paint like a dog shed hair in the sun.

He had a daughter. Somewhere down the line he was friends with one of the grandfathers of a townsperson who had now come and gone like so many before me. I think it was him who said that Old Man McFall had a lover or a live-in girlfriend or that maybe he was a widower whose wife died of too little happiness. He had a daughter who grew up all too quickly and moved away—after her mother either died, or ran away, or fell out of love—to a school she thought her father would never want to visit. I think that must have been when he got a bird, which makes me quite sure now that it was, in fact, a bird. He kept it until it died, and then he stuffed it as a reminder of the steps he’d never take to see his daughter again.

One time someone told me, and I think this was either Frank Walsch or his brother Davie, that Old Man McFall bought a plane ticket and was showing it off to everyone who passed by his porch. It was in the summer, which meant he had his cigar and aviary creature of some sort, and although he didn’t talk too much, he was unnaturally spritely that day. He waved the shallow stub in the air like a man with a winning lottery ticket and told the townspeople that he was going to see his daughter again. They smiled at him and they held their children close, walking faster down the road and wishing there was another route they could take to get back home. Old Man McFall then’d sit himself down in his chair and puff at his cigar again, stroking the stiff-as-plastic feathers of the stuffed bird. He’d hold the ticket in front of his face, squinting from the brightness of the sun, and tell himself that this was it; this was the day he’d see his daughter.

Call it coincidence, but an old chum buddy of mine got on the plane that day, the same one that Old Man McFall was supposed to board. They said it was an overbooked flight, but upon further consideration they found enough seats to pack the restless travelers into the plane’s aluminum cargo. They filed them in through the rolling red staircase, which was an uncanny facsimile of the crest atop Old Man McFall’s stuffed critter’s head, and sat them down with seats to spare. My buddy got himself a window seat and watched the crown-like ladder skirting off the wing of the plane. He thought it would be a coincidence if that was the seat that Old Man McFall was supposed to have been in, and he wondered if he would have tried to bring his stuffed creature on the plane with him, or if what was on the other side of his flight was good enough to forget that the thing ever existed. Then again, the poor old man probably never got to pack his bags. He was probably too busy holding onto his stuffed bird. But anyway, it could be that it was just a story.

 

Sitting Room by Chad Patton

Oversized Arm Chair

It felt like I was in a darkroom, sitting in an armchair that was somehow too big for me, maybe from a lack of foresight or a narcissistic idea that I didn’t need to “try on” an armchair. Nonetheless, it was too big for me, or at least it felt that way, and the room was black with a solitary light shining overhead, and all I could do was sip my tequila, because tequila turned me mean. But, being that I was alone, I wasn’t mean, but instead angry, seeing as there was nobody to whom I could be mean. And I wanted to feel angry. It was my right to feel angry. So I waited in anger with the television turned off and the phone by my side, and maybe, just maybe, if I had a dog I would have been petting it. But I didn’t have a dog, and a good thing too, because I was drinking tequila.

 

Grandfather Clock

The light grew, shedding itself on the grandfather clock. Either that or the grandfather clock moved into the light that didn’t shed itself. The phone still didn’t ring. The armchair was still too big. My tequila was starting to water down, but seeing as the armchair was vacuuming me into its core, there was no venturing outside the realms of light, into the darkness, for me to ameliorate my current situation of hydro-enhanced alcohol.

The funny thing about my grandfather clock is that it actually was my grandfather’s. Not too much funny about it. More of something happenstance than knee-slapping, yucking-it-up, laugh out loud funny. I’m sure numerous grandfathers have had grandfather clocks. Or at least the rich ones. I liked my grandfather clock for the same reason that I imagine people like the Catholic Church: ritual. I say that (1) because I’m not Catholic, so I can’t say for sure exactly why people enjoy that religion and (2) because said grandfather clock has given me a daily ritual of winding. I’m a man with no religion other than that of time. Life is an examination that will never be graded. Soon enough the stopwatch narrows down to 00:00:00, and the bespectacled man looks up and says, “Times up.” It’s then that you realize there’ve never been truer words.

 

Bookshelf

And I thought about what it was I liked to think about. I liked books. I liked the smell of books, the feel of books; the way they trapped ideas within their thin lineaments made me feel, believe, disbelieve; they altered my state of mind: they were organic drugs.

My bookshelf was made of cherry, a wood that always made me want to be a woodworker. But my grandfather’s grandfather clock, who’s always been a steady confidant, told me I was running out of time for that. Running out of time like all the others before me, all the others on that shelf. Dickens, Woolf, Poe. I’ve loved them all, still couldn’t help loving them each time I saw their brains on the page. And then they left.

 

Telephone

The phone rang. I waited two rings before I picked it up. I’d like to think that the ghosts of those before me came out to greet me at that moment, but I was still alone, and now my tequila was water. When I listened to the other end I told them “yes” and “okay” and “thank you for calling me.” Then I hung up. The call made me feel larger, made the chair feel smaller. The light, the one that was on me, was now smaller; the room was smaller. I looked at the grandfather clock, at the bookshelf, at the books between its humble slats. I sat back in my chair, drank the rest of my water with its hint of agave, and I felt, instead of angry, unnaturally calm. I said to myself: I’m coming.

Internal Injuries by Marian Brooks

I hold your head in my hands, gently. Your face softens and I kiss you, just once. But it is enough. You turn away and I know. I want to bash your head against the wall until your brains spill all over the white carpet. I want to scream in your face about how you’ve ruined everything. I want to scream until my throat is raw. My journal falls to the floor, just out of reach as if the words themselves want to hide. I hear you slamming drawers and stuffing clothes into your suitcase. You go, leaving me with a cool draft from the future.

Iron Crosses by Marian Brooks

Carl and Joyce Walker could not imagine how they’d managed to create and cultivate a 24-year-old skinhead. Both were accomplished people in their own way. Curt taught math at Northeast high school in Philadelphia. He was a local chess champion. Joyce sang solo in the choir at church and collected spinning wheels. She took pride in preparing nutritious meals for her family. There were plenty of vegetables to go around. The Walkers’ political leanings were slightly to the left—conservative, in a liberal sort of way that was hard to explain. They lived in the western suburbs.

The couple had three sons. David, thirteen, enjoyed spiking his hair and wearing peculiar outfits that looked mostly like Halloween costumes. He was an average student and had recently discovered girls. Steve, twenty, was finishing his last year at community college. He was engaged to a lovely girl, Jill, who was planning to attend veterinary school. Steve had met all of his developmental milestones as expected.

But Greg, Greg was a problem. He had no job, no ambition, and played guitar in a white supremacist band. Greg considered himself to be a gifted lyricist, spewing hate and anarchy into every discordant note. He was particularly proud of the songs he’d written for The Hoods. The Hammer of God kept pounding in his brain, in perfect rhythm with his heart. He sported a variety of tattoos and piercings, including several colorful swastikas, some with thunderbolts. His soiled socks, empty beer cans, tissues, and cigarette butts littered his room and the hallway.

Greg’s parents told him that they loved him very much but wanted him to move far, very far away. They gave him $1000 in start-up funds. Greg did move but not far. He settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania with a group of like-minded contemporaries, and proceeded to search for minorities to beat up on Friday nights after their white power concerts and several beers. At times, the beatings were so severe that the victims were simply left for dead. Sometimes, Greg was afraid that they were dead.

Keith and Matt had been arrested on weapons and assault charges, Jason with terroristic threats, and Greg with ethnic intimidation and institutional vandalism. The group of four lived over a vacant hardware store in a gritty area of the city. They decorated the walls with Iron Crosses, SS insignia, and faded pictures of Hitler. Workout benches served as tables and chairs. There were no beds, only camouflage sleeping bags. They all shaved their heads, except for Jason. He preferred a swastika set into his hairline. The four occasionally found snow removal work in winter and warehouse jobs at other times of the year. They led a minimalistic existence, which didn’t bother them much. They were part of the Aryan Nation.

Every Tuesday and Friday at six a.m. Greg laced up his steel-tipped boots, put on his plaid flannel shirt and well-worn jeans, and ambled around the corner to McDonald’s. He ordered black coffee, fries, and an Egg McMuffin. Greg relished the time alone even though the coffee was far too strong and the McMuffin too greasy. “This has to be foreign coffee,” he thought. He’d been thinking a lot lately. The guys were getting on his nerves, and he no longer felt a thrill from battering people senseless. He felt lost.

McDonald’s was usually deserted at 6:30 in the morning, except for the help. Karen Patterson took his order most days, smiling. She was a wide woman, friendly, and black. Greg never said “hello” or thanks” in the year and a half he’d been a patron there. Sometimes she’d ask how he was or comment on the weather. He never responded. Greg wanted to hate her.

The tattoo parlor was only three blocks away. Within an hour Greg flashed a new swastika on his right hand. When he made a fist, he felt as fierce as a tiger.

The following Tuesday morning Greg surprised himself trying to conceal the tattoo with his sleeve when he paid his bill. But Karen noticed it anyway and paused before giving Greg his change. She looked at him straight-on and said, “You are better than this.” He grabbed his change and never returned. Secretly, he hoped she was right.

Desire by W.F. Lantry

 

I’m not a good driver of horses. A black horse, a white horse, a chariot? No. The Greeks got it all wrong. I don’t want to pick between the two. I want to be one with both. Or rather, I want to feel myself feeling the experience of desire. Take strawberries. It’s not that I want to consume them, to enjoy the momentary taste. I love wanting them, I love the moment when I’m reaching out to take one in my hand, knowing its ripeness can be mine.

Miranda says it’s a mistake to wish for specifics. I shouldn’t ask for strawberries, I should just pray for something to happen. Besides, I’m always asking for the wrong thing: horses or berries or jewel-tone skirts. Sometimes I wish everything golden: the trees outside, the voices of the birds, even the curve of her shoulder. There’s a certain stage of moonlight that seems gold in November.

Miranda arrived at late morning. I’d asked her to wear her gold threaded skirt. She’d matched things from there: a blouse I could barely see under her coat, a decorative pin. I met her at the door.

The Beltway was filled with people going somewhere. I had no idea what they wanted. We turned south and went over the bridge. From there we climbed back up into construction, into a confusion of lanes, and headed west on 66.

Miranda sat beside me. As the road turned again, her form seemed nothing but curves: her shoulder, her waist, her knees. Instead of the road, I watched the folds of her skirt. They provided another set of directions.

We went over a nameless river, and I missed my turn. We had to go all the way to Haymarket. We lost the radio waves. Too far in the country for any signal to travel. There were horse farms everywhere, paddocks with goats and llamas. She said she wanted music, so I handed her my phone. “I can’t get it to do what I want while I’m driving. I can’t read the tiny instructions. Try getting Pandora to work.”

I watched her fingers dance across the touch screen, navigating menus. “I think I can make a new channel,” she said. “What would you like?” I told her I wanted the Rolling Stones. Her fingers tapped a few icons. The next I thing I heard was, “So if you meet me, have some courtesy, have some sympathy and some taste.” The sound was a little tinny, I patched it into the speakers. We kept driving along 29.

Pandora determined we needed something else. She gave us Led Zeppelin. I touched the sign of a thumb pointing down. She gave us The Who instead.

What struck me then was the difference between the landscape and the song. It was all apple orchards and half burnt barns. The planks hadn’t been painted. Signs suggested we stop for antiques.

Charlottesville’s streets were teeming with boulevardiers. I saw two with bowlers and canes. Women with parasols, an organ grinder crossing at the light. Some people actually wish for this world. It used to be my home. We drove through town as fast as we could, and headed for Monticello.

If you’ve ever read Thomas Jefferson’s garden book, you know he kept track of the weather. When the first peas came in, how many cups of strawberries were gathered, when the last frost arrived. He would spend whole winters planning next year’s garden. He had to give detailed instructions in case he was called away. He wanted to find a grape that would survive the climate. He wanted new kinds of apples. And maybe next year a vine covered walk, where he could stroll even in summer.

We parked in the lower lot and went up the gravel path. I knew the place from plate  drawings: where the gardens would be, and the smoke house. The flat fields below, the vines on the slopes, a formal lawn behind the house. He’d crafted the landscape he desired.

We went inside the house. Things were kept as imagined. Spinning wheels and tables, a writing desk faced with leather. It wasn’t what I wanted. I led Miranda back out across the trimmed lawn. We looked towards Montebello, towards the declining sun. It was windy along the ridge. Her hair was moving in the southern light. I wanted to touch her then, in that light, but wasn’t certain I could.  Her shoulders matched the golden curves of the hills.

 

“Desire” first appeared in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

Reason for Being by W.F. Lantry

It wasn’t Mexico, the coast of France. I was meeting a girl, somewhere near Beaulieu. I had an address in my pocket for some bar. The train from Nice was empty. Three pm.

Out the window, limestone dust coated every blossom. We didn’t go near the Chagall Museum. She’d told me on the phone she liked the place, but it’s a long walk from the station, and besides, I was going to her, not the other way around. I counted the stations along the way: Villefrance, Cap Ferrat. You’ve seen them in movies without realizing it. To Catch a Thief, Casino Royale. The whole place is like a myth, but with traffic.

Next stop, Beaulieu. I descended from the train. There’s nothing there except the cliffside to the north, and the midland sea to the south. Oh, there’s a goat path up to Èze, and you could go up the steps to the Corniche, but other than that, just the tracks. It’s no place to be.

I walked along the tracks into town. Marnie was Canadian, and I wasn’t sure I’d recognize her. I’d only seen her once, and then for coffee in town. It turned out she recognized me.

She was waving from the tables at a seaside bar. She had to walk out past the Pernod umbrellas, and the tourists. A long skirt, a loose cotton blouse. The necklace was African, hammered copper or brass, I couldn’t tell, it was reflecting too much sunlight against the dark blue fabric, and I was still 20 meters away. Hiking boots. I told you she was Canadian.

Did I mention her green eyes? I think those lured me this far, along the coast, where the sailboats wove themselves through the rented yachts. My daily existence was nothing like this; it was mopeds and autocars, and chalk dust on my sleeves. But here she was, right in front of me, pouring my eau-de-vie.

Everyone had a reason for being here. Hers was simple. Ottawa had sent her to Kenya. Now her scholarship was up, her term there finished, she was on her way home. But she couldn’t quite bear to get on her connecting flight. She’d walked out of the airport with just her bags, and found a place to stay out on the cape.

The eau-de-vie made me chatty, something I’m normally not. She told me about her year, the snow, the savanna, a tall young man she’d set those pretty green eyes on. I almost asked her if she’d been traded for goats, or bartered in some other way, but she beat me to it. I guess she was used to telling the story.

He couldn’t take her back to his home without permission from someone. She had no family there to ask, so he decided to ask one of her professors. He was English, and deeply embarrassed. Imagine, you have a student, and some young man comes up to you and says, “Would it be alright if she came to my house?”

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He looked at me, and I nodded. So he made a big show of giving his blessing. Very formal. It was hilarious. The English, you know.”

I didn’t know, no one ever tells me these things. There are English all over Nice, the main boardwalk is called “The English Promenade.” I avoid the place.

“I didn’t end up going home with him. He was too worried about what his family would think if they found out. We went for dinner, and he walked me back to my dorm.”

I needed a change of scene. I didn’t want to talk about some other man, even if he was a continent away. We walked down along the beach. There was no sand, only flat river stones, trucked in. I picked one up, and skimmed it over the surface of the water. It bounced six times. She liked that. She liked watching them slide out across the water. She counted: one, two, three…

It didn’t last. We found another bar. She made jokes about the Queen. I wanted to ask her if she’d come back to Nice with me, but I knew it was too soon. The sun was beginning to set.

Those green eyes were set off by the copper necklace, and her blue blouse. Almost as if she’d planned it all, almost as if she wanted to paint an image in my mind for me to carry back with me on the train.

 

Email from Athens by Jackie Davis Martin

You open your emails, excited that there is one from Ellen who is in Greece visiting a daughter in her forties, like yours was before she died, and you brace yourself for what you know already, which is that Ellen and her husband Robert will be traveling to Hydra or Mykonos or some Aegean island to play with their adult daughter and son-in-law on their bi-annual double-date, expecting that Ellen will mention the sun- drenched Plaka and reedy flutes of the streets or Souvlaki as holiday dinner, and so in this mood of braced anticipation you begin to read, even though you know already—how could you not know?—that words hit like bullets even the first lines where you  tense up reading that she has been sensitive to what you are going through and so hasn’t mentioned  her daughter much; and you think okay, but what’s coming now, and what comes is a goddam hymn of praise, a paean to her daughter, of her beauty and brilliance and you think why are you telling me this, tell me of the Parthenon, and yet go on reading that Ellen and Robert were understanding of the daughter’s decision not to have children and so it has been—Ellen says from  Athens—a great sense of delight for them to discover that the daughter is now pregnant and she and Robert will be grandparents after all, and Lady Macbeth’s letter runs through your head—that you may not be ignorant of the dues of rejoicing—as she, Ellen, thinks you’d want to know, but at that point you scream, you howl, and Tom your husband comes running into the room, what’s wrong?  What’s wrong? And you tell him, she’s betrayed me! and he says she’s your friend and again you cry, she’s betrayed me! knowing of course that what she has done is nothing like betrayal and that you have betrayed yourself by equating a parallel life, that of old people alone with one child at a distance, and now she has removed herself from that parallel, and announced that she is among the special, the privileged, who have a living daughter who is producing offspring amid blue skies and green seas and you cry and can’t stop crying, its being Christmas Eve and no gift, no child, but Ellen has both, and Tom is alarmed once again that he can’t assuage your grief and when you say I can’t answer the email, I know it is petty, he agrees it is petty, but you insist, I can’t , it will stab at me all day, the jealousy is so tremendous I can’t say anything—I can’t write—and he says, they are our friends, and you cry into another Kleenex and say I know that but I can’t do it, and you don’t,  and you realize you cannot ever know what to expect there are so many sides to grief.

 

How to Build a House by Jackie Davis Martin

First you go to Home Depot with your boyfriend and buy those funny little felt masks that he says you’ll need, and you cuddle and pinch and lean against each other in the aisles to the point where you make out in the car in the dark parking lot before driving to his apartment to do it again. That weekend you make your first crawl into the wreckage of a house he’s bought in the city—a shell, he calls it—in shorts and tee shirt and sandals and mask, digging in mud and god knows what as he bangs and pounds and walls collapse. The masks have to be exchanged twice and you’re dirtier than you’ve ever been when, back at his place, the shower washes over both of you in rivulets of watery muck as you do it in the shower, hotly and desperately, before relaxing with a gin and tonic and dry roasted peanuts, studying his sketches of your new house together.

Next time you wear your hiking boots and tie a kerchief on your hair to haul boards and bags of debris to the dumpster out front on the cobblestones, and dust settles in layers over all your exposed skin except for your lips, which he wipes with a wet rag and then kisses, thrusting his tongue hungrily, and you find you can do it standing up, too, and don’t even have to be clean or have any walls other than the exterior one, like a stage set.

You learn to tile and grout, too, knees sore and reddened, and smiling at him, on all fours next to you, the two of you crawling together, pulling off shorts, and he mounts you that way, still holding the trowels that clatter together like cymbals. Then the painting begins, nipple pink he calls the apricot color you chose for the library; his choice is bronco brown for the master bedroom—my bedroom, he calls it—and you pretend not to notice the pronoun, the paint smells mingling with sex. When the carpeting is laid, so are you, on each floor, rough pile against bare bottom, floor by floor, the green indistinguishable from the blue, from the beige.

His things soon fill up the closets, and you think he’ll shift later, pulling on your bra and your jeans and heading down highways to the suburbs,  your own place, the teenage children in it.

What you do not learn about building a house is this: that it was not yours to build to begin with, and building becomes built. So when tables and sofas and the real bed arrive, you’re a guest in a gentrified house attractive to new dolls, and you have nothing to show for your year of labor except some fucking good times.

 

The Daily Routine by Anne Sullivan

Germs don’t live in the cold. That was my first thought when I woke up in my frigid bedroom beneath starched sheets. Creases still ran from end to end where they had been folded in their packaging. I traced my finger up and down one of the ridges. My alarm went off moments later. I turned it off, careful to touch only the middle of the button. A little worn spot was beginning to develop there. Sarah would have to buy me a new one.

I would tell her that when she came to pick me up, when we finally left the apartment together. We’d been working up to that for months. And today was the day.

I sat up and slid my right foot over the edge of the bed and made sure it was in the white slipper before moving the other leg. I got up quickly and moved to the window framed in by the blank white walls. I drew back one of the curtains, careful not to touch the lock or sill, because I wanted to see the weather, the only thing that caused any sort of variance in my routine.

It was drizzling down spurts of rain, which meant it was cold. I dressed in the pants and button up shirt I’d laid out the night before. I sat in the blue chair facing the door. From there, I could see everything I needed to: the window to my left, the door straight ahead. And as I stared at it, a knock sounded.

I paced back and forth for a minute. I was wearing a track in the wood, but I would never consent to have a rug put in.

I just had to open the door. One turn of the knob. But had Sarah touched the knob the last time she’d brought over my groceries? I would’ve cleaned it after anyway. But what if some of the germs had survived? They could be dripping colony-forming numbers off the handle right that very moment.

Sarah knocked again.

I pulled my long sleeves down until they covered the palms of my hands. Then, I pulled on the handle. For a brief moment, my heart sped up as I felt cold metal touching a small part of my hand. My hand recoiled. But it had only been a button on the sleeve of my shirt. I hadn’t actually touched the door handle. I contemplated getting the oven mitts out to act as my gloves but decided against it.

I took a few deep breaths. Without removing my other hand from its cocoon inside my sleeve, I adjusted my shirt so that the button wouldn’t brush up against my skin again. I stepped back three steps and then approached the door again. I reached for the handle. I felt only cloth. No metal. I pulled, and the door gave way.

Sarah stood there, bags under her eyes, hair done up in a tight bun. Her dark pantsuit looked almost black in the light of the hallway.

“Ready to go see Dr. Hudgens?” she asked, her smile slightly forced.

And that’s when the light behind her flickered. It cast a quick shadow on the railing leading down the stairs. The metal had eroded away under the constant touch of people tracing their hands along it. If that’s what the handrail looked like in my building, a building where only a few families lived, then what was it like beyond that? I’d be diving into a cesspool of unimaginable proportions. The germs were probably flooding into the room even now. Every breath Sarah took was like an aerial assault of arrows shot at night when the enemies’ defenses were down.

I slammed the door and stood staring at the blank walls.

“Jimmy,” Sarah’s strained voice sounded through the door, “I bought you a new pair of gloves. If you come out, you can wear them to go see Dr. Hudgens.”

“Maybe tomorrow.”

“Alright, Jimmy,” she sighed. I could hear her tucking the gloves into her purse. I could never wear them now. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”

After her footsteps receded, I pulled out my can of sanitizing wipes. I inhaled the lemon fresh scent. It was like my personal cologne, and it was better than lavender for my overtaxed nerves. I took out a wipe and began to clean every inch of my apartment, starting with the door.

Blarney by Anne Sullivan


“I don’t want to do it,” Tommy said.

“You have to,” Clarence spat back through the gap in his buck teeth. He held out a rusted key.

Tommy eyed the crowd around him. They were all bigger than he was.

“We all had to do it,” Danny said. “It’s only fair that you do it, too.”

“Yeah,” Seamus chimed in, “otherwise, Clarence stole the key from his dad for nothing.”

“It’s just a little game,” Clarence said.

Tommy didn’t say anything. He stared at the clovers at his feet. Somewhere behind the trees hedging in the field where they stood, a sheep bleated.

In the distance, surrounded by a moat of green hills and crumbled rock walls, the outline of an old square castle filled the sky, just as it had when he’d gone on his field trip there weeks ago. But he’d barely made it to the top of the turret. Mrs. O’Conner had held his hand the entire way up the cramped staircase. But as soon as he felt the wind pulling him at the top of the castle, he’d started crying, begging to go back down, earning him the nickname Terrified Tommy.

“He’s too scared,” Clarence said, pocketing the key.

“I’m not.”

“Prove it.” Clarence smirked.

Tommy outstretched his hand demanding the key. It was cold and rough against his palm.

“We’ll be waiting right below, and we’ll know if you don’t do it,” Clarence shouted.

Tommy trudged across the field toward the castle. Around him, deep emerald hills raced off and collided with a perpetually grey sky. The hills always looked more vibrant when they didn’t have to compete with a blue sky, as though the green was trying to make up for the lack of color elsewhere in the landscape.

Tommy pushed the key into the gate padlock. The castle fortress blocked the light from the rising sun. The gate squealed open. He crept into a tomb-like room. Caked dirt floors and thick walls blocked out any light. Empty alcoves held ominous shadows, and fireplaces became deep caverns. Stones piled atop one another led to other floors. Taut ropes, frayed from overuse, acted as guardrails.

Tommy pulled himself up the steps. When he entered the spiral staircase, he didn’t breathe. He clamped his eyes shut, took hold of the rope and used it to guide himself. Up and up he wound through the castle. Unreadable plaques stood guard on the walls. Thick cords roped off rooms with missing sections. The uneven levels blurred together, each a murky offshoot from the staircase. Just when the darkness of the staircase threatened to overwhelm him, he broke through a tiny doorway to the battlements. Fresh air rushed over him. But he didn’t let it take his courage.

He sunk back against a wall until everything came into focus. It looked outdated and shabby without all the tourists decorating it. Tommy almost missed the stone, without the little man waiting there to support those who wanted to lean back and kiss it.

He inched his way along the wall to the Blarney Stone. A small grate waited beneath the stone to prevent tourists from falling. Through the bars, Tommy saw the boys waiting below. His vision reeled, and he recoiled, clawing at the stones beneath him. He lay there until the dizziness passed. Summoning all his courage, he eased down onto the grate. His sneakers squeaked on the bars, threatening to send his thin legs through the gaps. He braced himself against the stone. Bits of green moss clung to its crevices.

He unzipped his pants and urinated on the stone, arcing to write his name across its surface. The word was unrecognizable. Several amber drops rolled down the stone and fell through the grate. He hoped they’d land on Clarence, but he knew Clarence was smart enough not to stand that close.

As he zipped up his pants, he turned to find the first rays of sunlight greeting him across the expanse of green hills. Going down was much easier. He retraced his way through the castle, making one stop at a fireplace along the way.

“You weren’t as scared as we thought,” Clarence said as Tommy reached the gate. He held out his hand. “The key,” he urged, when Tommy didn’t move.

“I hid it in the castle,” Tommy said, watching their mouths fall open in disbelief. “It’s just a little game.” He left the boys standing there as he climbed the hills, heading for home.

 

Poser by Beth Bates


In a darkened studio, draped in an ill-fitting silk blouse, I sat on a wooden stool and posed. Girl parts aching, I contorted my face into expressions of purity.

“How was your summer?” asked the photographer from behind his giant camera. He clicked away. He didn’t want an answer, but I yearned to give him one. Beneath my petite, dance team girl exterior resided a dumpy, used up chain-smoker in a housecoat. I felt weary and alone.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I said. He adjusted the umbrella to light my face and tilted my chin with tobacco-stained fingers.

I needed to unearth the ache, to bring it into the light. A gnawing emptiness yawned, greedy to be filled. I needed help apprehending the adult turmoil that had slithered into my spirit.

I was a baby, and fourteen days earlier I had given away a baby. Per specific instructions intended to reduce emotional trauma, and to minimize proprietary attachment to the child, masked people dressed in scrubs swooped “it” away from my body and rushed “it” out of the room. Fleeting infant song was replaced by the hushed, sober sounds of medical personnel repairing surgical slices.

The blue-eyed Superman anesthesiologist stationed by my side throughout the delivery left to numb another patient. My mother and sister sat in a waiting room somewhere in the hospital, smoking bummed cigarettes, maybe calling the prayer chain.

To distract myself from the stinging needle in my lacerated young vagina, I guided my imagination to the closet of my childhood room and browsed the blouses hanging over rows of stuffed animals. The silk one. I’ll fit in it by senior pictures.

But I did not fit, nor would I, ever. Not in the blouse, not in my own skin.

Change of Plans by Beth Bates


Surrounded by ocean was where I was supposed to spend the sixth grade. On the last day of fifth, my mother confided her plan to move us to Kauai to live with her father. "For gym you’ll kayak," she said, "and after school, we’ll surf!"

She didn’t plan on being murdered or leaving Birdie and me to live with a grandmother we didn’t know, in a Midwestern state we’d never visited.

When Ruth met us at the airport wearing one of her designer tennis dresses, she insisted that we call her by her first name. Something about the single men at the club not wanting to hit balls over her net anymore if they found out she had grandchildren. “Call me Grandma in public and I’ll check you into an orphanage.”

“The only orphanage I’ve ever seen was at the Boulder Dinner Theater in ‘Annie,’” I said. “Birdie played the littlest orphan.”

“Well, then, I’ll ship you to live with your beam-bum-pothead grandfather.”

Beach and grandfather sounded good, but bum and pothead didn’t figure into our mother’s plan.

“And if anyone asks what happened to your mother, you say ‘car accident.’”

“But it wasn’t a car accident.” I seethed.

“Lie,” she said. “Your mother’s manner of death is nobody’s business.”

Birdie chirped from the backseat. “But Mama says not to lie.”

Ruth sweetened her voice. “Trust me, Miss Beatrice. Sometimes it’s okay to lie.” She patted her highlights and said into the rearview mirror, “You don’t want to make Ruth a pariah, do you?”

When I tucked Birdie into bed that night, she asked how telling the truth would turn Ruth into a fish. “Pariah, Bird. Not piranha.” I didn’t know the meaning of pariah but felt certain from Ruth’s tone that it must be bad.

"She’s funny,” Birdie said.

Nothing was funny since Dad killed Mom and her dream to live on an island, thousands of miles of ocean insulating her from love gone wrong. She told him they had grown apart, that they fought too much, that she was going to take us to visit her dad for a while. “Just till things cool.”

In the morning he woke us up, all three in her bed. He shouted in a loud whisper, but only I awoke. I watched him spit obscenities into Mom’s face in a low volume rage. “Like fuck you’re leaving.”

“Vince. The girls.” Mom was whispering.

Birdie stirred.

“Girls. Go get some breakfast.”

In a groggy mumble Birdie said, “I’m sleepy, Daddy.”

“Go,” he said. We went.

Her screams cut into our microwave oatmeal. We ran upstairs and watched those last hideous sounds crawl from her mouth, across the sheets, and into the hallway where we stood, invisible to his rage. He knelt over her and plunged the knife into her lovely chest. “Fifty-five times,” the newsman would say.

Birdie and I hid on the floor of our bedroom closet under a fortress of stuffed animals. An hour—maybe three—we hid. Dad slammed the back door. I parted my green gingham curtains. A trampled path through the weeds behind our house revealed his escape route. I used the furry pink phone my mom gave me for my tenth birthday to make the call.

A blue-eyed detective brought me a bottle of water and tried to coax details out of me, but the details were stuck in my chest. I could not speak. I looked out the window and pointed the finger of accusation that sent my father to prison and us to an island in a sea of cornfields.

Walls of Eden by Cezarija Abartis


“Man, I gotta get out of this place,” Denny says to the bartender who’s writing a novel. “Square root of nothing. Playing and playing in the bar, and all it’s leading to is more playing and playing. Where are the women who were supposed to be chasing me? Where are the chicks? See that brunette at the end of the bar with the red nails and rasta curls? She’s like a bored cat. She blinks her eyes and turns away.”

“Where’s the money and fame? I’d settle for fame. And chicks.” Denny taps a brisk tattoo on the counter.

“You can write that in your book. Page one: Denny’s leaving.”

“Here, get me another mojito. I’ve got five minutes before the next set.”

“But this is what I wanted. A life in music. Even when I was a kid, I dreamed about playing riffs and chords and tunes all night. To have music coming out of my fingers and going out to the dancers and out into the universe. What a connection–destroying time and space. I thought it would be paradise. And here I am in paradise.” Denny finishes his drink.

“Now that brunette is smiling at me. She’s tapping those red nails. Sounds like a tango.” A smile flashes across his face in the icy neon light. “Maybe I’ll stay.”

MidLife by Cezarija Abartis


"I’m burning up inside." Harry shivered and coughed into his handkerchief. "But I’m cold." It seemed that all his students were coughing. The weather was changing.

"Put on your jacket. You’ll feel better." Ken almost never caught colds.

Harry closed his eyes and, behind the eyelids, saw flashes. "I was thinking of my mother when she was dying."

"That’s no good. Drink your beer." Ken stared at his own beer. The cosmos was big, he thought, but here it was contracted to one glass. The nearest part of the cosmos was photographed as a velvet night against which flickered pinpoints of light that were eons away. Space was mostly a vacuum and increasing all the time. He’d seen a lot of shows about that on The History Channel and PBS. He raised his glass. "Here’s to us and to friendship."

Harry snorted. "May it get us to the other side." He finished the toast their usual way, though he did not think there was much on the other side. "Why wasn’t I more helpful to my mother? I resented having to drive her to the doctor’s office, waiting while she was fitted with a hearing aid."

"That was three, four years ago. And she made it to eighty-three. I don’t want to be heartless, but you shouldn’t look back."

"I feel I’ve lost my way. I’m middle-aged, but I don’t know where I’m going." Harry rubbed his forehead.

"It’s probably just your cold. Next week you’ll be happy how your students are writing their papers, and I’ll be happy they’re learning algebra." In the background, Elvis was singing "Blue Christmas."

Harry sighed. "Joyce is having a hard time with menopause."

Ken sipped his beer. "Connie too."

Harry shook his head. "I should’ve been more understanding when my mother was going through that. Instead, I was annoyed with her forever talking about hot flashes."

"We all make mistakes. Our parents love us anyway." His own mother never made it to menopause. She said to him, "Kenny, always remember I love you." And then she died.

"There was one time"–Harry’s face gleamed in the warm, brown light–"she was proud of me for making a birthday card for Grandpa." Harry was ten and he had come up with the idea himself. "She called me considerate and polite." He put one hand over his heart and smiled at the patrons in the bar. "She said I deserved all good things–the sun, the moon, a happy life, a friendly hand."
"She was a nice lady." Ken knew her only in old age, and mostly she was a quiet old lady, but she was playful too. He was carrying an armload of packages to her house for Harry’s fortieth birthday party and when she opened the door he said to her, "Give me a hand." She applauded, then covered her mouth laughing, and finally took some packages from his arms. Harry enjoyed his party with all the black balloons and jokes about getting old–that his ears would be hairier than his head, that he would dream about prunes and be proud of his lawnmower.

The neon sign advertising beer blinked and outlined half of Harry’s face. Harry’s eyelids drooped; he was beginning to show his age; Ken supposed he was too.

Harry coughed. "I need to go home. Joyce is waiting. We’re driving to her parents tomorrow. I’m trying to be good to them."

"You’re a good guy." Ken felt pity and affection for Harry, for Connie, for Joyce, for her parents, for the other people in the bar, for all of them.

"Yeah, well." Harry pushed his glass away. Joyce worried about her parents, but they didn’t want to move out of their own home. They had an old dog that Joyce promised to take in if need be. Her mother and father liked their neighborhood, the church they could walk to, the grocery store. Joyce and Harry were driving down to help winterize the house–put up plastic on the big windows, check out the furnace and humidifier. Snow had already fallen once and left a clean powder over everything, soft and silent, a promise of purity and renewal sprinkled over the roofs and yards and bare trees. In a while, the howling wind would be afflicting the runaway cats and wild birds. And then in a while after that, the drip of melting ice and chirping of birds and loosening of spring.

Honey Bee by Niya Christine


I mean really, if I had known!
That being what I am actually meant living in a ‘female only’ tribe all my life…
…that my fuzzy, leathered skin; my sensitive antenna and rickety legs would break so fast, so hard, so easily under a strong dusty wind. 
Wind, that would also have the power to roll me up and suffocate me in it’s treacherous, uncaring weight…
…never mind the trickery of the chlorine pool!

That I’d be working all my life in one job. That every second of every day, every cell in my sexy striped body would not be able to get another job!
That the singular effort of making a jar of the stuff would be equal to me flying around the world 4 times and pollinating 9 million flowers?

But really, honestly, think about it, do you think if I’d known that the boys would be so beautiful, so yummy and tender to my young naked feelings and thoughts, only to be killed on the spot after giving us babies?…

…that I, yes me, me!, in my buzzy feelings would have to watch their mutable, dramatic existence used and squelched over and over like this; only to suffer the longing of a life I will never live with them while in the nunnery of honey?

Do you-really-actually-think that I, me, me, me… a smart, hardworking, and quite beautiful creature —if I do say so myself— would choose a life with millions of other females with the same name?

I think not.

Little Orange Pills by Harmony Neal


Trapped in cycles, I see the patterns, but can never change them—stop that inevitable barf.

I try to open my mouth and explain what is happening, and how I don’t want it, but it’s all I know. I look for a connection, one sweaty palm thrust out, but the fatherly faces go blank, admonishing,

Fishing for pity, they say, grow up.

What a disconnect from what I intend with my words and how they are perceived in someone else’s ear, and I can’t cross that bridge.

So I slouch back down in my seat, confirming to cold ears what they heard all along that I never said.

I reach down my throat and feel my organs, testing for failure, looking for the malfunctioning parts, an answer, but they are slippery and strangely cold like vomit that comes after drinking too many glasses of water.

I feel I’ve gone the wrong way again.

But then I try to live.

The man at the helm never lets me off. Sometimes he switches tracks and it’s a kiddy ride, slow enough to watch a brown bird pecking popcorn on the lawn, each feather distinct and trembling. But then he spits out a tobacco loogie and gets a glint in his steel eyes and I know what’s coming—I’m back on the loops and dips, not recognizing the scenery, even though it’s mostly the same. I fall over but the bar keeps me in my seat as I fly upside down then right-side up, my lungs in my mouth as I descend a slope, a pitiless falling falling falling, crashing hard at the bottom. I grit my teeth for the long slow chug back up, organs settling on top of each other; I close my eyes and clench my fists until there are little moons lining my palms—steadying myself against threat of flipside—falling farther faster harder, no bottom in sight, everything one vast smear as I try to crack my eyes against the wind. I reach my hands out to the rubberneckers on the sidelines: they watch me tumble and soar while they pluck their manicured beards. One day I might derail this cart for good, like Virginia, but there’s so much I haven’t seen, it all repeats. I grip that greasy chipped rail and wait for the tracks to switch. Every time they do I am all alone, again, fingering the pills in my pocket for some day, some day.

The Nursery by Harmony Neal


The Nursery lured us in, tiny seeds, with honeyed words and promises.  Come in and flourish!  The Drs of Horticulture said.  We will feed and water you and make you bloom.  We will help you perfect yourself.  We only accept the most promising seeds.

I wanted to be the best Willow I could, and the Nursery seemed to offer the right tools and support.  They ushered me into a warm greenhouse with other seeds and saplings.  The Director placed me in a pot of rich dirt and patted me in with soft fingers.  He sprinkled expensive bottled water over me and cooed.  When I sprouted, he praised my progress and angled me so I’d get a little more light.

The Dr. of Form pulled on fraying gloves and plucked out my limbs.  I cried, and he said, No no no, these are weeds, they are not a part of you.

“But it hurts,” I said.

No it doesn’t, it’s good for you.  Here is more fertilizer.

“But I’m already full. I just need a bigger pot.”

No.  You need to sit in that pot and ingest more vitamins until you’re ready.  Look at Dogwood—he is starting to bend at just the right angle.  Form is marrying content.  You could learn much from him.

Concrete bricks hung from Dogwood’s limbs like dull Christmas ornaments.  I thought he might be too bent, his bark straining and bunching, threatening to splinter.

I said, “Dear Dogwood, how are you coming along?  You seem to be in pain.”

He scoffed, “Of course I’m in pain, but it will pay off when this is over and I am the finest Dogwood ever.”

“But don’t you think you could be a beautiful Dogwood without those bricks?  Your white flowers are quite lovely.”

He tried to shake his limbs at me, but they were too heavy with form, “Stupid sapling, you’re too new to know anything.”

I thought he could be right, and anyway, the Dr of Form had taken my limbs, so I sat in my pot and tried to absorb my vitamins.

I grew bigger and almost forgot I’d once had more limbs.  The Dr of Content came in and said I was coming along nicely, but I was too much.  She brought over scissor-action pruners and snipped what was unseemly.

I cried, “No, I need those parts, they are me.”

No.  These ends are unnecessary and detract from your beauty.  They run on too long and touch the floor.  These shaggy bits are not contributing to the overall content, which should compliment your form.

She finished with me and moved on to Mimosa, who batted her away.  The Dr of Content came back with lopping shears and tried to prune from a distance, but Mimosa wouldn’t hold still. The Dr of Content wasn’t making clean cuts.  I was frightened for Mimosa, who was losing fluffy pink blossoms all over the floor and running a risk of lion’s tails.  I wished she’d hold still and wait for it to be over.  One of her blossoms floated into my pot, and I tried to look away.  I thought the Dr of Content must know what was best, and anyway, the Dr of Form had taken my limbs, so I sat in my pot and tried not to feel cold where my ends were trimmed.

I woke that night to Mimosa weeping, “What is wrong, dear Mimosa?”

“My form is all wrong and they’ve stolen my content.”

“Perhaps it’s just this intermediate stage that is hard.  If you give it time, you may find you’re better than you imagined you could be.”  I was trying to be helpful, but she didn’t answer, so I went back to sleep.  In the morning she was gone.

After three years I had become everything they had promised.  They pulled me from the greenhouse and put me outside with the other trees.  The air was colder than I remembered and the sun was too yellow.  My contemporaries were quite beautiful, their forms impeccable.  We carried ribbons and waited to be snatched up by the highest bidder.

Dogwood bent over gilded crutches, his flowers a little wilted where the bricks had been strung, almost imperceptibly so.  His woundwood seeped where limbs had been removed and the callus tissue wasn’t healed quite right.  He saw me examining him and crimped a branch to show off his blue ribbon, “I told you so.”  I thought he might collapse from the effort, so I looked down in embarrassment, and saw my own tendrils falling into my blue-ribboned pot.

Broken Dreams at the Clover Leaf Hotel by Libby Cudmore


I sit on the broken concrete steps of the Clover Leaf hotel and light a cigarette. I know I should quit, they cost too much money and they’re probably killing me, but it’s the only thing I have that belongs to me, the tired smoke from my sticky lungs is my own and no one else’s. Waiting tables always means I belong to someone else, the cooks, the customers, Mary’s coked-out son who took over the place after she died, Hi, fine, what’ll it be? Millie, get your saggy ass over here and pick up your order! You got customers waiting, this is no time for a smoke! The Clover Leaf burned down years ago, but no one ever tore it down, what’s the point, it isn’t worth the money Warrensburg would spend when another dive will just burn down in it’s place.
Jimmy used to live in room 405. The room was condemned, an old forgotten crime scene, blocked off and haunted. No lights or TV, just a bed and a toilet they couldn’t flush at night for fear of waking someone who’d find them out. Didn’t matter anyhow, Jimmy’s dad pissed out the window when he was drunk, which was always, and the only people who stayed at the Clover Leaf were fellow drunks and junkies too deep in artificial sleep to hear the morning garbage rounds, let alone a midnight toilet.
I’d visit Jimmy after school; he’d bring me back when his dad was working or drinking, didn’t matter, he was gone and we’d play robbers up and down the hall. His neighbor was a tranny hooker named Dinah who said we were just too precious, his exact words, just too precious. When he wasn’t expecting customers, he invited us to his room to watch game shows on TV and drink cocoa he made on the hot plate in the bathroom. Sometimes he’d let me try on his electric wigs and glitter shoes, tacky beautiful things my Gram wouldn’t buy me, tell me how beautiful I looked and how I was sure to be a movie star when I got older, little doll face like mine. I’m only twenty-six now and my doll face has aged twice that, the cigarettes aren’t helping. Even without them I’d still be old. This city ages a girl three years for every passing birthday.
The night manager found them when Tony called Dinah a pervert, stay away from my boy and Dinah said someone’s gotta raise him right, show him a little respect. Tony punched out Dinah and the night watch found them brawling in the hallway and called the police. Tony went to jail and Jimmy went to foster care and Dinah moved business to another hot-sheet. He’s probably dead now of some street disease and Tony’s long gone, but Jimmy’s still waiting up for me to come home with a six-pack and cigarettes and a TV dinner. He’ll have to wait a little longer. I want to sit and finish my smoke.
I like to pretend Jimmy died young of some pretty disease, leukemia or tuberculosis like the silver women on Gram’s teacup stories. It’s better that way instead of him being useless, drinking in front of the lines on the TV until a job comes along, maybe once every two months for two weeks, hauling tomatoes or lumber across the country. Until then it’s how was work, baby and a tired kiss and no silver dreams, not for us. Unpaid bills, cold water showers, a double shift if I can get it.
I like to imagine he hits me, throws me against the wall and calls me a tramp, slaps me across the face and tells me not to ever, ever disrespect the man of the house. Then I imagine he slams the door and I pick myself up and pack my suitcase, catch a bus and run away from this life. If he hit me, I’d have a reason to leave, but weariness and dead dreams are no reason to walk out when he needs me. Millie, baby, he says at night when he’s half a beer from sleep, Millie, baby, you’re all I got and without you I’m nothing, baby, as long as we got each other we’re sumthin’.
So I sling plates and pour coffee six days a week at Mary’s, it beats what I could have been, a stripper or a pink-pants girl. I know I’ll never be a movie star, it’s a hope long since gone, one more dream broken like the steps of the Clover Leaf hotel. I stamp out my cigarette and stand. The late-night grocery on Euclid’s is still open.

End of The Line by Randall Brown


He reaches for the bottle of Wild Turkey. The cancer in his liver bites at his insides. He’s offshore, a developer of sonic flares, those flames on the oil rigs, his design preventing the flame lick that burns everything up. It’s the last oil rig in the rising waters of a world going under. He swallows the last belt of whiskey. The bird circles overhead. He hikes up his pants, spits something red into the water, pisses between the iron rails, waits for the whirlybird to take him home.

Mostly Wondering if She Left Her Phone On by Randall Brown


I tell her I can’t sit in the front row, that I have this fear I’ll jump on the stage. She makes a Mad Magazine sound—swizap—and sits front middle. I sit behind her.  She turns around as the lights dim, says, “It’s the actors, you know, who should be scared.” I whisper back, “Scared of me.” That unseats her, makes her restless as if she believes I might go up there. Imagine my whispering to her throughout until she has to stand up and shout Stop it!—and everything would have to. That would be irony. Can you yell irony in a crowded theatre? They’re putting on Mexican masks. What compels some thoughts into action, others not? Fear or sense? Stay in character. How many times must they tell themselves such a thing each act—ten—a hundred? Oh, another night ruined.  If I could see inside her mind, what might be on it?

Discovery Bay by Matt Stauffer

Mornings on Discovery Bay, three hours northwest of the din of Seattle, tucked away under the mouth of Puget Sound as it kisses the lapping waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, are peaceful, gentle affairs.  As the sun rises through the damp, chilly Washington air, a groggy bald eagle wakes, ruffling its feathers in the rays of sun speckled by the canopy of pines huddled together, surveying the curious and hungry fawns below.  The eagle cranes its neck over the rim of its meticulously crafted nest, watching as a twig falls carelessly to the soft brown earth.  Without pause, a fawn continues to rummage lazily, poking its friendly nose through the leaves of low-lying shrubs, surely waking a squirrel or hare from the night’s rest.

As the sun blankets the bay, cutting pockets into the morning fog, the eagle stretches its talons as it prepares to break the fast of the night before.  Opening her wings, she glides along a thermal convection current into the capacious bay.  Her radar-eyes scan the icy waters that once ushered George Vancouver into the state.  The Discovery was the first of what would be a steadily growing number of vessels to make Discovery Bay their point of entry, leading many to believe it would be the largest shipping port on the west coast, until the Depression sucked the life out of the growing economy so quickly the rows of Victorian homes lining the shore did not have time to be torn down, leaving them frozen for several decades until a paper-fueled renaissance stirred the local economy again with the business of milling the very redwoods now surrounding the waters.

Ghosts of ships past dot the water, their heavy cloth sails unfurled, flapping in the breeze.  On the deck, the chatter of boots echoes against the cliffs as sailors discuss their months at sea, the wives they will return to, the women they intend to meet on shore, who might be buying the crates of tobacco they’re dropping off or the lumber they’re picking up, the newly established Freedmen’s Bureau in the South and how business might boom thanks to former slaves’ newly found buying power, and what a booming town this might one day be once the Northern Pacific Railroad connects.

The eagle circles the waters from above, her wings brushing away the faded hopes of old sea dogs, while a curious baby blue whale ambles through the breaks, startling a school of Pacific cod angling its way through the morning in search of food.  Hovering above the school, the eagle, talons extended, walks onto the surface of the bay, sending plumes of golden water straight up on either side.  She emerges from the mist clutching a fish, the bay’s sacrificial offering to its regal overseer.  She holds it firm as she sails to the shore, landing on a wide, flat rock lodged into the sand.  With a few final quivers, the fish struggles to wrestle itself free of the clutch of the bird, while the rest of the bay moves on.

Bandon, Oregon by Matt Stauffer

When I was thirteen years old

my grandparents drove me to Oregon:

Bandon by the bay.

I remember picking fresh blueberries in a field.

I’ve had blueberries on my cereal for years.

I remember undocking the boat,

kicking off into the cold Pacific waters,

my grandfather, Cal, and his friend Jack regaling me with their sea shanties

of a life long gone by: the days when people wore suits to fly on an airplane.

Jack told us about his home in Tucson—

how it’s too hot to go outside during the day,

but it’s perfect for sitting in your garage until dinner building rocking horses for your grandkids.

There is a cactus in their backyard,

a great saguaro, standing honorably in the sun.

A heady woodpecker made love to it, boring a hole right through the skin.

For weeks Jack and his wife Faye cursed the intruder and his vandalism of their beloved monument to the Old West.

Every morning Jack would stand on his back porch, coffee in hand,

while the woodpecker burrowed, ignorant of his presence.

And Jack would shake his head.

One day the bird moved out,

leaving an emptiness of character and a 12-foot cyclops standing in their yard,

staring vacantly into their past,

from sunrise to sunset.

Jack and Faye lamented the graffito left by the ruby-browed stranger,

which droned a drowsy, syncopated tune as the nighttime wind whipped across the desert, carrying the dissipated memories of cattle drives

and a river that used to flow here,

until one day an owl moved in,

illuminating the yard with her yellow halo-rimmed eyes.

Her bow-legs folded as she stood on the balcony of her new home, bowing to her hosts,

and then they sat out on the porch every night drinking wine

and remembering the years they spent in Saudi,

while the owl played her ballad to the stars.

“Let’s drop it here,” Pop said.

His arthritic fingers manipulated the old fish head,

whose eye stared back at us, as if asking for one

last story before bedtime.

It dangled from a treble hook in the center of the steel cage,

like some macabre chandelier at a party gone awry.

Then he chucked the pot over the side,

letting the rope slide through his steady,

calloused hands, as our fish drifted to the bottom to play his final song.

Refractory by David Backer

The story we usually hear about Sir Isaac Newton is that one day, by chance, an apple fell and hit him on the head and inspired the theory of gravity.

But it wasn’t chance that caused the apple to fall.

On that fine sunny day, he was leaning against the trunk of a tree playing with a glass prism. Newton caught a ray of sunlight in the prism and, just as the spectrum of colors spread out before him, a genie wearing a tweed jacket and a powdered wig arose out of the light.

"Hello!" it declared, "I am the Occidental genie!"

Newton was horrified. The possibility of a genie contained within the properties of light was inexplicable to his scientific mind. But Newton, assuring himself that there is a natural explanation for any observable phenomenon, regained his composure.

"Okay," he said, remembering something, "isn’t the man that frees a genie entitled to wishes?"

"Wishes?" asked the Occidental genie.

"Yes."

"For you?"

"Yes, for me."

The Occidental genie waited, rubbed his transparent chin, and said,

"Absolutely not."

"Why?" demanded Newton.

"Because I’m not that type of genie."

"Then what type of genie are you?"

"One that is nobody’s slave! I do indeed have wishes to give but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s inappropriate to just give people what they want whenever they ask for it. I like guessing what they want and then giving it to them."

"Can’t you make an exception?" Newton asked.

"Absolutely not," said the genie.

Newton paused, considering the situation.

"So what do I want?" he asked.

The Occidental genie floated close to Newton’s face and said, smiling,

"You want very badly to be hit in the head."

"I can honestly say I don’t want that," Newton responded.

"Yes you do," the genie insisted.

"No I don’t."

"Oh yes you do, believe me."

"Not a genie at all, really," Newton said Britishly, under his breath.

"Yes I am," the genie said.

Newton became annoyed.

"No, you’re certainly not," he said.

"Oh yes, I am," the genie persisted.

"No!"

"Yes."

"What kind of genie tells a man that he wants to be hit in the head?"

"One that’s nobody’s slave!" the Occidental genie chanted like an ancient song.

And with this the genie vanished upward into the center of the sun, becoming one with the rays of pure light streaming through the branches of the apple tree.

Frustrated with this encounter, Newton leaned back heavily against the trunk of the tree. When he did this, his back hit the trunk with just enough force to cause a ripe apple to fall from its branch and hit him on the head.

Lion and Leopard by Anne B Wright

She used to think of him as a lion, with his great bushy head of blonde hair, and his massive chest, and the large paws that were soft and cushiony when he held her head in them. The friendly lion, who loved to eat barbecued ribs slathered in sauce, ripping the meat from the fragile bones, then licking his fingers with a long pink tongue.

Sometimes he licked her neck with that tongue, and it sent shivers along her body and she would grab him with both legs around his slim hips, and lay him on his back on the floor. Then he would smile at her, and his teeth, almost invisible in their sharp whiteness, would flash and he would play at biting her neck, just enough to tease.

She knew he loved her, but she knew he wasn’t the one. She liked the slender black leopard man who lived on the next block. His hair was slick and combed back shiny. He was dangerous in the way he moved, quiet and unassuming, quick and deadly.

If the leopard held her head in his paws, she knew his razor claws would leave marks on her cheeks. His yellow eyes lured her into his den and when he wrestled her down, and she wouldn’t move, even to breathe. She’d wait for him to close his eyes and drift asleep and then edge away. Still, she was never sure if he was really asleep.

She loved them both, lion man and leopard man. She ran away only because what stalked her began to burn.