a brand new bra
ayaz daryl nielsen
young and somewhat
and stoned we
wander from the
laundromat for more,
forgetting clothes in
the dryers until after
back on the street
we see a local home-
less elder wearing
my favorite shirt
all I can say is
‘looking good today’
he smiles, moves on,
and Sue whispers
‘just glad it wasn’t
my brand new bra’
about ayaz daryl nielsen
ayaz daryl nielsen, veteran, former hospice nurse, ex-roughneck (as on oil rigs) lives in Longmont, Colorado. Editor of bear creek haiku (26+ years/135+ issues) with poetry published worldwide, he also is online when you search for bear creek haiku - poetry, poems and info.
ayaz daryl nielsen
forget the caution
headlights on all that’s coming
are focused on us
about ayaz daryl nielsen
ayaz daryl nielsen, veteran, former hospice nurse, ex-roughneck (as on oil rigs) lives in Longmont, Colorado. Editor of bear creek haiku (26+ years/135+ issues) with poetry published worldwide, he also is online when you search for bear creek haiku - poetry, poems and info.
ayaz daryl nielsen
tumbleweeds and dry
leaves and a windy
if I could, oh,
I would, I would
about ayaz daryl nielsen
ayaz daryl nielsen, veteran, former hospice nurse, ex-roughneck (as on oil rigs) lives in Longmont, Colorado. Editor of bear creek haiku (26+ years/135+ issues) with poetry published worldwide, he also is online when you search for bear creek haiku - poetry, poems and info.
Richard sat at the small wooden table that occupied a large portion of his room. The window was open and the curtain drawn to the side, letting in what passed as a breeze. He was irritated at the bill in his hand — Rent: May 1942 — $22.50 — Richard creased it twice and shoved it into his shirt pocket. He never missed a month’s rent, not even when he was suspended from work for three days without pay. The note was on the door when he got home. On the table, in front of him, was a half empty bottle of Old Crow (with its familiar black bird logo), his only drinking glass, and a white sealed envelope.
Richard wiped sweat from his forehead and rubbed at his ears; he could never get his ears warm enough. After ten-hours in the packing plant, it always took two or three drinks to start feeling warm again. Mondays were always the hardest. He poured another glass and, as he looked around the room, his gaze fell on the old nightstand. The torn and yellowed letter from his mother lay creased where he put it. It was the promise she made so long ago, and he still read it every night. Next to it was a dried rosebud, the first thing that Marie had given him. Richard looked back toward the window. It didn’t take much to see everything in this small room that became his home twenty-two months ago.
Richard took a drink and leaned back in the chair, his eyes closed.
Twenty-two months. Almost the same amount of time he’d spent in Yuma. He’d been sentenced to fifteen months, which had turned into twenty months, eighteen days. Richard got the additional five months tacked on after he snuck food from the dining hall back to his cell. The warden had called it theft. Richard had just called it hunger.
The knock at the door startled him.
“Rich! Phone for you, and hurry it up buddy, would ya?” Rod bellowed through the door.
“Yeah, yeah. Coming.” Richard got up and, draining the glass, followed the receding footsteps from his room. He took the creaky stairs two at a time and turned left at the bottom. The black phone was on the counter, the handset on its side near the phone. Richard smoothed his hair and picked it up.
“Marie?” he said.
The voice on the other end was quiet and a bit weak, definitely not Marie’s. Then he knew.
“Aunt Lucille? How are you doing?”
“Oh, you know. It’s been tough off and on. It got pretty bad awhile back, just before I got the first letter from you. You know how it is. I can’t thank you enough, Richard. Those letters you’ve sent have made all the difference in the world. I’ve been okay. ‘Cepting it’s no fun getting old. Things just sorta wear out.”
“Yep, they do.” Richard’s voice trailed off. He rubbed his ears without thinking.
“Hey! Our little Janie ain’t so little no more. She’s getting married. Just over a month from now, June twelfth. She’s marryin’ that Boldridge boy, Seth.”
A fleeting picture of those seven brothers flashed through Richard’s mind. They were one of the few families back then that had gone to St. Stephens.
“Seth just finished his training over at Fort Sill, and is about to get sent off somewhere. He is dead set on gettin’ out there to fight them Japs. We are prayin’ that he’s sent somewhere else. Anyway, I know it’s been a long time and I know how you feel, but can you make it here for the wedding, Richard...? Richard...?” she asked.
He paused, “I’m not sure if I can. Will Janie want me to be there, Aunt Lucille? I can’t picture her being too happy to see me, especially since...well, everything.”
He had stayed away a long time, not because he didn’t love her, but because he never figured out how to tell Janie he couldn’t keep his word. It was his fault that their daddy had to leave to find work. How was he supposed to tell her what happened? That he had finally gotten one of those WPA jobs, building that Highway 81, down from Wichita to Dallas, and then managed to get himself hit by a truck. Richard still didn’t know how he would tell her that both their parents were dead.
“Boy? Are you listening to me? Richard, I told you that old stuff don’t matter no more. It was those times; everyone had it bad. Maybe you more’n most.”
“Well,” Richard said, “I’m not sure if I can get the time off, we been working a lot of overtime, and then there’s Marie. She’s my girl and it’s gotten pretty serious.” Richard could hear his aunt’s drawn out sigh through the phone. “The train will take a while to get there and back. Hey, I almost forgot, I got an envelope here I was about to send out your way.”
“Richard, stop. I’ve heard you try and change the subject since you was little.”
“All right. I’ll try. That’s all I can say. Just don’t tell Janie I’m coming yet. In case I don’t make it.”
“You just get down here, and bring that envelope as a weddin’ gift. Anyway, I love you boy. You know you always have a home here.” Lucille’s voice always could melt butter.
“Love you too.”
Richard hung up the phone and walked away. He hoped Lucille was right, although it wasn’t just about going home again. He got the idea that it was more about Janie than home. He just didn’t have it all worked out. As he climbed the stairs, he muttered wistfully, “It would be real nice to have a sister again.”
Richard watched Marie making her way back to the table. Even at a distance he saw the beauty of her shoulder-length red hair, which bounced as she walked towards him. Although she was gone for only a few minutes, it was long enough for Richard to check his wallet. The Mission Inn was expensive, and he wanted to make a good impression. He saw the table as lavish, a starched tablecloth, butter pressed into the shape of a rosebud, two wine glasses, and a crystal candlestick with a glass chimney. Richard looked up to her standing behind her chair, a vision in a blue dress, with white gloves and a small clutch under her arm. He jumped up to pull her chair out for her, and slid it in as she sat. The Spanish Patio was beautiful.
Conversation was hushed; it formed an intimate bubble around them. They spoke of unimportant things, such as work and what movies were playing at the theater. They also talked of deeper things, the war (for Marie’s brother was already in Hawaii) and her parents. Although Richard had met her parents several times, Marie had never told him what they thought of him. They were two people having supper together, sharing a moment, and holding hands across the table. Richard tried to tell her about Janie and Oklahoma, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. He did point out to Marie that Judy Garland was being seated, three tables over. He knew she loved that actress.
Richard stood in line the same as every Friday, waiting outside the boss’s office like everyone else, to collect his pay envelope from that tight-fisted roly-poly Mr. Edward. Richard knew now how to wait quietly for his pay. While he waited for his very first paycheck, he had talked with another box man who was complaining about his pay. It was funny that Richard couldn’t remember what that man’s name was, or what was actually said, but Mr. Edward overheard them and docked Richard’s next check for discussing private information with another employee. Since that time, Richard had never complained again, or listened to any complaints, within earshot of the boss.
“Mr. Edward?” he said.
“Yes, Richard. Something I could do for you?” Mr. Edward swiped at his nose with a dirty handkerchief.
“Yes, Mr. Edward. My baby sister is getting married in June and I haven’t seen her in years.”
“Fine, Richard. Sounds real fine, but what do you need?”
“Well, the wedding is actually on the twelfth, but I will need to take the train out to Oklahoma and back again. Then, I’ll have to spend a couple of days there with my aunt, and make sure everything is all right. She’s a widow and has a pretty big place.”
Mr. Edward wiped his nose again. “You’ve been a good worker here, Richard, and I would hate to lose you. However, I just can’t spare anyone right now. You know how it is; we are short men already, and with this war on we’re sure to be losing more. The owner has already suggested we start hiring women.” Disgust was heavy in his voice.
“But, Mr. Edward. This is important to my family and me. I wouldn’t just ask for time off for any old thing, I hope you know that.” Richard hated begging. It made him feel like a child who had shit his pants in public.
“I’m just telling you how it is. I can’t approve you leaving, and if you take time off without approval, we will have to find someone else to fill your spot.”
“Thanks, Mr. Edward. I appreciate your understanding.” Richard wheeled around and left the office. “Thanks, a lot.” Pulling out his watch, he saw he had about twenty minutes to get to the bank. Richard carefully closed the watch and picked up his pace. He passed the Texaco on Eighth, and the old Washington Restaurant, now closed. A big banner still hung inside the front windows proclaiming, “We are Americans.” Richard had watched, weeks ago, as soldiers put the Harada family into a truck and drove away. The bank was at the corner of Seventh and Market.
Richard entered the Bank of America with seven minutes to spare. He filled out his deposit slip and decided to keep out a few extra dollars to buy something nice for Marie. He was certain that she was not going to like the discussion about Oklahoma. Maybe some flowers or a box of chocolates would help. The teller smiled as he stepped up. “Hello Mr. Mullins. How are you today?”
Richard sank deep into the plush velvet seats of the Lido Theater. Marie had surprised him by being dressed and ready to go on time. Settled in, his right arm around Marie’s shoulders and her head resting against his; they waited for the premiere of Citizen Kane to begin. He still had no idea what to do about Janie’s wedding. His hope of a boring movie giving him a chance to think and decide was shot when Marie said she had been waiting weeks for this movie to come out. Richard checked his watch again, and saw that there was still five minutes to go. He closed the watch, listening for that slight metallic snick.
The sheriff down in Goree had given him the watch along with his father’s wallet. In the wallet, Richard had found his father’s driver’s license, an old wedding picture, a WPA work card, and three two-dollar bills. The money had been long spent, the wallet with the license and work card had been thrown away, and the picture was for Janie. He had kept the watch. Later that day, he stood over his father’s grave, unable to find words that sounded appropriate.
“I love you, Daddy. I know that you’re with Momma now.” Richard wondered how he was ever going to tell Janie.
Richard looked over at Marie, and found her staring at the screen, her arms crossed over her chest and lips in a pout.
“So where does that leave us?” Marie asked. She sat across from Richard in the small Gaslight Café. Two cups of coffee and an unopened Whitman’s Sampler box were on the table.
Richard knew no matter what he said, it would be wrong. “Marie, you know how I feel about you, but I care for my family too. Why does this have to be all or nothing?”
“Richard,” her voice broke, “can you tell me when you will be coming back? I am twenty-three years old and not getting any younger.”
Richard shook his head. “I’m not sure. I just don’t know how things will go.”
“Well. You have to leave in what, seven days?”
“Six, really,” he said.
Marie stood. “You decide what’s more important, Richard Mullins. It seems you can’t say it so I will. I love you, Richard. You decide and let me know.”
Richard stayed silent, his anger rising as he watched Marie walk out of the Café. He was angry with Marie and angry with Mr. Edward but, most of all, angry with himself. He sat there for a long time and finally came to the conclusion that it wasn’t about family. He could have a family here, with Marie. However, Janie held something that he needed, something that Marie couldn’t give him. The gift of forgiveness. Richard didn’t expect to receive it; after all, how could Janie forgive him, when he couldn’t forgive his Momma?
It was difficult for Richard to make the final decision to go back. After the call from his Aunt Lucille, he knew he had to weigh the chance of having a family, a sister and an aunt, with the reality of what he did have, a good job and a woman who would do most anything for him. Had it not been for the conversation at the Gaslight Café, he might have decided to stay. As it was, Richard threw a few things into his suitcase, picked up his old letters, and got a train ticket out of Riverside. He headed to the train station and thought, ‘To hell with Mr. Edward, and his job.’
“Ardmore! Next stop, Ardmore.”
The conductor’s voice broke through the last veils of sleep, and Richard opened his eyes, unsettled. Inside his jacket pocket, Richard’s fingers touched the all-familiar brittle edges of creased paper, and with a feeling of reassurance he lifted the brim of his hat and sat up straight. He smiled as he felt Marie’s kiss on his lips just before boarding. Her hurried goodbye, and the whispered, “I love you. Take your time...but come back.” made him sure of his actions.
Outside the window, the sun was low in the sky and the land had a familiar look to it. He debated hiring a car, but it was only about a three-mile walk to Aunt Lucille’s place, and he was only a little out of shape. The sun was already hot, and those three miles were beginning to feel like thirty. Richard mopped his brow and took a deep breath; he had forgotten what June in Oklahoma could be like. Auntie’s property was up ahead. There were signs of work being done, and it had a new coat of paint, but it was her house, no doubt about it. Richard ran, made it the last few hundred yards and started up the drive. Each step closer to the house made the years disappear.
It had been almost dark, when Richard made it to his Aunt Lucille’s. Little Janie had fallen asleep on one shoulder, while he had carried their duffle on the other. Richard had been exhausted; he was small in stature for his sixteen years. His bare feet were sore, and he had not understood all of what had happened. He didn’t think that Auntie Lucille would be able to take on two more mouths to feed, but Momma had been so certain in her letter and she promised she would get well and come back. Her letter had said, “The doctor is sure that my lungs aren’t too bad this time, I just need rest and medicine. It may only take a couple of months and I’ll be right as rain and back here with you.” Richard never understood why she had left without even saying goodbye that morning. She left a doll for Janie, a duffle for Auntie, and a letter for him.
He had walked up to the door and knocked, trying to keep Janie asleep. Aunt Lucille cracked open the door and, after a single look, had opened up and brought them both inside. Auntie had been wonderful, and she had tried the best she could, but it was obvious to Richard that something had to change. Auntie couldn’t have loved them more. She took care of Janie as if she was her own. However, there had not been enough of anything for all of them, since soon after they arrived. So, seven months after having come to Auntie Lucille’s, Richard woke up early one morning and went into Janie’s room. Waking her, he explained that he had to leave; that he had to go find their daddy.
Janie looked directly into his eyes. “Are you coming back, Ricky?”
“Of course I am. As soon as I find Daddy, and get Momma, we’ll be back here for you and we’ll be a family again.”
Richard felt Janie’s eyes boring a hole through him. She had a way of making him squirm.
“I promise, Janie. I will be back,” he repeated himself.
Janie had given him a quick kiss and hug, and he went back to his room. He had written Auntie a note saying that he was headed down to Texas, to look for his father, and work. That he would send money when he could to help with his sister, and to please make sure that Janie knew he loved her.
Richard felt horrible as he closed the door to the house and stood at the steps looking out toward the highway. He finally jumped to the ground running, in his haste to get away.
The door to the house opened, and Aunt Lucille stood there. She was much heavier, much grayer, and much older looking than she had been back in 1933. Back when the President made a call to arms on the radio, a New Deal for all Americans. Stepping in, Richard opened his arms and hugged her.
“I can’t believe you made it back here, Richard,” she said. “Janie will be so happy when she gets back and sees you.”
“Will she?” Richard said, “Auntie, how happy do you think she can be to see the one person that lied to her? Did you tell her I was coming?”
“No, I wanted it to be a surprise. She is just in town getting a few things. Should be home any time now. Wait and see. She is goin’ to be so happy to see you.” Auntie went to the kitchen and brought out a glass of sweet tea. Handing it over to Richard, she motioned for him to sit.
“Auntie?” Richard said, “I am sorry for leaving here like I did back then. I just didn’t see any other way of it. You were doing all you could, and Uncle Bob was so sick. I didn’t want to be a burden on you and I needed to find daddy.”
“Tchh. Tchh. Tchh.” Auntie stopped him. “Aint no reason to apologize. Lord, men have done what they needed to from the beginning. You were just a little young to have to become a man is all. But you’re here now. The wedding’s in two days, and we are hoping you can stay for a while. Besides, I could use a bit of help around the place.”
“That’s why I love you, Auntie.”
Richard had visited the Southern Oklahoma Sanitarium. He had found out that his mother had been moved to a different facility, down in Dallas, which was supposed to be able to attend to her needs better than they could. It took him about a year to make his way down there, only to find it gone. A patient managed to sneak cigarettes into her room and fell asleep one night with one lit. The fire had destroyed most of the building; seventeen patients and four employees had been killed. When he spoke to the head nurse, she told him that there were no personal items remaining and his mother had been number six of the seventeen. Richard finally figured out that she meant that Momma was the sixth one identified.
The door opened, “Home, Auntie Lu.” Janie sang out.
Richard started to his feet. He had dozed off. “Is that you, sis?”
Janie stopped just inside the door. Richard looked up and saw her silhouetted in the doorway. She was taller than he, had shoulder length brown hair, and was beautiful. He stood, still as a statue, “Hello, Janie.”
Janie stopped, started to speak, spun and walked back out the door, shutting it behind her.
Richard stood, waiting. Seconds ticked away, then minutes.
He looked back toward the kitchen to see Lucille standing there as well, her mouth hanging open.
Taking it in stride, Lucille just said, “Richard, just sit down boy. Give her some time. Janie grew up headstrong, but she’ll come back once she takes the time to think.”
Richard drank the coffee Lucille brought out to him. He checked his watch once more, 8:22 pm. Three hours had passed. “Auntie? Maybe I should head back to California tomorrow.”
The front door opened again, and Janie entered. She said, “Before you say anything, just listen. I am sorry Auntie Lu; you raised me better than that. I should have given Richard a chance to talk. I acted like a child, when I am supposed to be all grown up.”
Richard stood up, “Janie, come and sit. I need to apologize too.” He sat as his sister did. “I failed you. I couldn’t do what I promised, and I couldn’t bring myself to admit to you that I failed. No one understood how I felt back then. That if I had just been a little bigger, I could have worked. Daddy wouldn’t have had to leave. It was because of me that he left and all this happened.” Richard pulled out his wallet and, opening it, he pulled a single photograph out. He handed the wedding picture of their parents to Janie. “This was in with Daddy’s stuff when I found him.”
Janie looked at the picture and looked back up to Richard.
“Janie, please. Say something.”
“Richard, I know about momma, and had a pretty good idea about daddy. You should remember that everybody around here knows what color you poop.”
Richard couldn’t help but laugh and handed her his cup of coffee. “I never thought of you growing up. I lost sight of that somewhere along the way. It seems that I made more mistakes than I thought.
Janie took a drink and said, “Only one, Richard. Not coming back home. I missed you and Auntie Lu wouldn’t tell me where you were. That was your doing wasn’t it?”
“Janie. I was just away,” Richard said. A smile grew on his face. “Auntie agreed with me that it was better this way.”
Late that night, Richard crept downstairs and sat in front of the still burning logs in the fireplace. Looking at the stiff, yellowed paper that held the promise his mother made him so long ago, he dropped it into the fire. As the paper caught, Richard watched it burn.
Quietly he offered a short prayer, “It’s ok Momma. I understand now it wasn’t your fault. Maybe it will all work out. I should have believed in Janie more than I did.”
He sat down at the wooden kitchen table and wrote a letter to Rod at the hotel. He told Rod to rent out his room, and if he had left anything in it, Rod could keep it. He sat there looking out at the fire until the embers died down, thinking of Marie. Several minutes passed and Richard stood up and walked across the room to the counter, picked up the phone and dialed Marie’s number.
Richard knew he was going to wake her, but it didn’t matter.
“Hello?” her voice was sleepy.
“Marie...Marie, its me, Richard. I’ve gotta ask you. What do you think about being a farmer’s wife?”
The Deep Pockets Theory
The first car jumped the divider, killing the driver of the second car. The estate of the deceased sued the driver of the first car. They also sued the city. Defective design of arterial highways and traffic signs were listed as the cause of action.
Including the city in this type of action is common. The “Deep Pockets” theory applies. The belief that damages can always be obtained from the city.
I was employed by the Cooperation Counsel as a pre-trial litigation paralegal. I worked in torts, personal injuries. I seldom received death cases. I set up a date for the plaintiff’s attorney and his expert witness to examine the car of the deceased.
I spoke with the desk sergeant where the car was impounded. We confirmed the date and time.
On the morning of the examination date, I received a phone call from the plaintiff’s attorney. He was enraged; the car had been sold for one dollar at auction, the day before. He screamed that willful destruction of evidence would be added to the charges against the city, and then hung up.
I was shocked and rushed to tell the law student and attorney whom I worked with what happened. They were quite dismayed at this fact. The majority of cases I handled usually settled before going to trial. That certainly would not be the case with this action.
By the time the case had come to trial, it had been sent to another unit. They handled high profile cases. I was notified to meet with one of their attorneys. I would have to testify at the trial.
The judge had a good reputation. He was considered one of the more scholarly and fair-minded judges. The man was accessible and not pompous. Several times in the course of the year, I would have reason to be in his chambers. He was always ready with a pleasant good morning or good afternoon. I liked him.
Every year for the eight years I had worked for this city, I’ve been called for jury duty. As soon as it became known what I did for a living, I was quickly dismissed. I was not nervous about taking the stand.
Our attorney asked me to explain what I’d done prior to the date of the inspection. The point was to prove that the Police Department, not the law department, was at fault. This struck me as absurd. We were different agencies on the same team. I kept this to myself and did what I was told.
I had barely finished my first sentence when the young plaintiff’s attorney sprung from his seat, shouting; “Objection! Hearsay!”
His objection was sustained. The question was rephrased. The angelic looking attorney again jumped up like a Jack-in-the-Box, repeating his objections. They were sustained.
At that moment I looked in the direction of the jury. I believed they had a right to know these facts, regardless of who was at fault. I decided I would continue speaking and not stop if interrupted again.
I was asked if I had confirmed the inspection date with the police department desk sergeant at the impound garage.
The lawyer was livid. I continued speaking. The judge sat about three feet from me and a few feet above me. He had a magnetic charisma. He turned towards me and appeared god-like. In reality, I was several inches taller than this magistrate.
“That will be enough young man.” he said, sternly.
I blurted out; “Yes sir.”
I guess my belief to put forth the facts in this case were not strong enough to hold up against a contempt of court charge.
The judge then stated the obvious. The city was responsible. It was not relevant to put blame on the police or law departments.
That was over twenty years ago. If memory serves correct, the city lost thirteen million in damages. I believe there are statutes which determine amounts to be awarded in wrongful death cases. Past and present earnings, and projected future earnings, serve as guidelines. Was the person a child, unemployed, or disabled? Is the deceased male, female, young or elderly?
I vaguely recall having had a similar case a few years later. I think we lost a few million that time. I can’t remember specifics of the gender or age group, which the deceased fell into.
How does one, or an institution, place a value on a human life? Is this a philosophical or legal question? The law and philosophy are not mutually exclusive of one another.
Should limits on damages be set?
A trial attorney once told me the law was a crapshoot. Roll the dice, play your cards. In the end, the law was what the trial judge said it was.
Samuel carries a handful of toys onto the elevator with his daughter, Macy, who is wearing her favorite red jacket with the fur on the hood and carrying her favorite robot toy. They both are very happy and lively, as they are very close to each other. She looks at him while laughing and he laughs and gives her little high fives. He asks her if she had a fun night and she told him it was amazing.
“Daddy, I’ll really miss seeing you so much,” she says, making the cold steel elevator seem even colder. He didn’t want to make her discouraged so he continued to make her laugh. He tells her, “No matter what you will always be my little princess.”
They were nearing the fifteenth floor, where her grandmother lived and he looked at her holding onto the little red robot so tightly, remembering the day he brought it home to her last year on her birthday. She never left home without it and would never let it out of her sight, she even slept with it every night.
He heard the ding of the elevator so distinctively and looked towards which floor they were at. Floor thirteen. He was two floors away and getting even more emotional about dropping his baby off. He couldn’t let her see this dismay, this agony in his mind, so he kept his happy face on and kept laughing with her. Another ding goes off. He couldn’t believe it, only one more floor and they would be there.
He looks at her again, and he thinks about when she got the jacket she was wearing. Her mother picked the jacket out a few winters ago, making this jacket very important to Macy as it was all she had that could keep the memories alive.
Last ding, floor fifteen. Here we go, Samuel and Macy step off the elevator.
A few minutes later, Samuel re-enters the elevator. There was a strong look of sorrow on his face. The elevator was very cold, like an ice box, yet he was sweating profusely. He tugged at the collar on his beige jacket, because even through the sweat everything was so cold.
The closer he got to the ground floor, the more distressed he got. He was so uncomfortable in the small, cramped elevator. He acted as if he was having a hard time breathing and feeling more and more claustrophobic. He looked into the smudged reflective doors of the elevator, the reflection of him showed all the tears running down his face. He couldn’t believe this had to happen, he was all that his baby girl had. Samuel was so sad, yet so strong at the same time, it was so incredible that a person going through what he had to could push himself through it so well.
The elevator made it’s last ding; he had finally reached the ground floor. That was the longest fifteen floor ride he had ever been on, it felt to him like hours. Before he stepped out of the elevator, he looked up towards where Macy may be laughing with her grandmother, unaware of what was in his hands. He then looked to the roll of papers, reading only the biggest word on the sheet: DEPLOYMENT.
Maryann walked up to the hotel room door with her key in hand. She unlocked the hotel door and rolled in her one bag of luggage. The hotel room wasn’t the nicest place she had stayed in but it wasn’t horrible. It was the only hotel that would take cash and didn’t ask for her ID. So, this was her only option.
The carpet was a green shag and the walls were a pale yellow. There wasn’t much in the room: two beds, a table, a chair, a mini bar, and a small patio on the other side of the sliding glass door. The patio had a small glass table with two chairs. She poured herself a drink from the minibar and headed outside. She sat down at the patio table. A knock at the door interrupted her drink.
“Maryann, I know you’re in there. Open this door now.”
Maryann chugged the rest of her drink and ran back inside. She hid all of the alcohol and her empty glass under the bed. She took a deep breath and opened the door.
She opened the door. “Hello, Lawrence. What are you...?” Lawrence pushed past her. He slammed the door.
“I cannot believe you would really try and leave me.”
“Lawrence, let’s go outside and sit. We can talk about this. Come with me to the porch.”
She guided him outside toward the patio table. Lawrence stumbled a bit as he walked. Maryann sat down in the chair farthest from the patio door. Lawrence sat down in the chair across from her and placed his head down into his hands. His dark brown hair hung over his fingers.
Maryann leaned forward to get out of her chair. Lawrence grabbed her arm.
“How did it get to be like this, Maryann? Why do you want to leave me? I thought you loved me?”
“Lawrence, I do love you, but I cannot take all of your drinking and abuse anymore. You’ve changed. It didn’t used to be like this with us, Lawrence.”
Lawrence grabbed her face. “See, this is your problem. You think that you can decide what I do. You are my wife. You do as I say. I don’t have to listen to you. You obey me.”
Lawrence stood up and threw her across the patio. Hitting her head on the patio ground, she landed in front of the patio door. She got up as fast as she could and ran into the room. She slammed the patio’s glass door and locked it behind her. She sat on the bed and grabbed the phone. Lawrence slammed himself against the patio door.
She waited patiently for the police to arrive. They took Lawrence away in handcuffs. She went back in her hotel room, locked the door and began packing her bag. She wanted to get as far away from Lawrence as possible. Now was the perfect time to get away.
Being the postman is not such a bad thing. Besides, I get to know about the marginalia in people’s lives, as well as the opportunity to dress funny and nobody laughs at it. Nobody dislikes me, and some even have a little fear of me, as if I cared. I do care about the twenty or so dollars that are slipped my way in December, around the holidays, as imaginary hush money for a Level 6 employee who’s pretty well set for life, on the whole. The perks I think are unrealized: only by crossing the front steps of an entire neighborhood’s system of houses does one get to know a community proper. So many households, even in a fairly well-to-do section of a town, have crumbling mortar; the neglect of domestic care screams like bacon sizzling and burning in a pan on Sunday, the one day I do not ever deliver. And the whole Oedipal fear-of-the-messenger syndrome as the persona non grata, who is so unctuously inappropriate, is so deeply embedded in people’s unconscious skulls, I do not even have to blow my dog whistle that dangles in chrome around a slip-chain hanging loosely from my neck beneath my undershirt, or, hardly ever. But when I do, even the squirrels scatter. Even the hands that care leave me. Otherwise, my work is as regular as a Swiss-made clock. “Good morning, Jack,” Mrs. Fieldstone says. “Good morning, Mrs. Fieldstone!” And this atavistic reply which we all pine for, to be addressed by our surnames by one who is beneath us, is so refreshing, even if it is so much a dissimulation, that neither party is bothered and both are rewarded. Oh, I watch it from askance, and from afar. The old, pin-eyed men fucking young wives. The gay boys playing by the curbside becoming young gay men in secret. The high school girls with their rolling eyeballs, bouncing off the school bus, half-ashamed, as they descend the three steps down to the road, they ever rode one. The post-menopausal ladies who are alternately vicious or polite to me when I deliver more worthless circulars or their benefits, respectively. The happy, middle-aged bachelors when they get their semi-annual gun brochures raising their eyebrows when our paths cross. All of this comes to light slipping into mail-slots sixteen square blocks of L.L. Bean catalogs, or Jury Duty notices, or Department of Motor Vehicle Registration forms, or even a handwritten note with a handwritten address to an innocent little boy from a grandmother, return-addressed to Kentucky, once a year at the same time, presumably with a little money for his birthday, before she has died. Being a postman is not such a bad thing. And most of the people’s ever crumbling lives I stumble upon ever so briefly, day after day, season after season, barely know a thing more about me other than my name is Jack and I frequently wear blue shorts.
I need to record
these things to remind myself
that I am alive
The Secret Within
The sound of a ringing doorbell wakes a couple from their slumber. “Who is it?” asked the husband in a low groan.
“I don’t know. Go and check,” replied the wife in a similar fashion.
“No, I went last time,” said the husband.
“You know what fine, George, I’ll go,” she said while sitting up in bed with a scowl on her face. “Some people never change.” She rotated her body so that her legs were off the side of their king size mattress. After a quick yawn, she slipped her feet into her pink, fluffy bedroom slippers and shuffled across the dirty floor to the door. As she looked back at her husband she realized he hadn’t moved a muscle. She snickered at how uncaring he seemed. “I’ll make sure to not scream if it’s a murderer. I’d hate for you to lose a wink of sleep.”
“Every time I don’t do exactly what you want me to do you always turn it into a First 48 case,” George said. “So how ‘bout we both go together. It’s not like I worked a double last night.” Without a second thought, he threw the covers off his body and onto the bedroom floor. Wearing nothing but pajama pants, he hurried over to his wife. “Don’t worry, I’ll lead the way, Lisa.”
“You don’t have to sound so angry,” said Lisa in a muffled voice. George swung the door open and hurried down the thirteen wooden steps to the first floor of their house. Lisa watched on from their bedroom doorway. She knew she was wrong but refused to apologize at the moment.
George got to the front door and swung the door open faster than he did his bedroom door.
“Who is it,” she said from the top of the steps just loud enough for him to hear.
“It’s no one. Probably just one of the neighborhood kids screwin’ around,” George shouted as his eyes naturally panned downward. “There’s a box here, though. Maybe UPS left it.”
“What does it look like?” she asked.
“You’d know if you ever make it down the steps,” he said back.
“Fine,” she replied as she hurried down the steps and to his side.
She leaned and looked at the box. It was large and purple with a white envelope attached to the right side. The envelope read: “To George and Lisa.”
“It says it’s for us, George. Pick it up and bring it into the kitchen.”
“Ma’am,yes, ma’am,” George said while saluting to his wife.
“I didn’t mean it like that, George, but if you’re gonna keep being a dick I’ll do it,” she said as she ripped the box up off the welcome to our happy home mat that was sitting on the front stoop. She rushed into the kitchen and tore the envelope off the side of the box. She read it aloud, “To the ‘happy’ couple. A marriage shouldn’t be built on lies. Open up the box to learn the truth about each other. From someone who cares.”
George slowly entered the kitchen. Their widened eyes met as George gulped. The room was filled with both curiosity and fear. Lisa put her hand on the fringe of the lid of the box. The two never lost eye contact.
“Something you wanna tell me,” they both said simultaneously.
“I guess we’ll find out,” said George.
“I guess we will,” Lisa replied with tears in her eyes.
George slowly walked over to Lisa’s side as she took the lid off the box. They both looked inside. There was another note at the bottom that read, “Have fun knowing that you’re both keeping something from the other. From the person who just ruined your ‘happy’ marriage.”
Lisa wiped the tears from her eyes, and George scratched the back of his head and exhaled loudly. They both turned to each other. They could feel how desperate each other was to know and how unwilling they were to tell. They both opened their mouths as if they were about to confess and then shut them as if they lost the right words.
“We need to talk,” they both whispered.
So, I’m a nightowl. I guess that’s what people used to call people who were just naturally nocturnal, and I’m not super certain that it’s appropriate in modern vernacular, but you get the idea by now. There’s a lot to consider, with this kind of natural cycle. “What’s open?” is usually the chief deciding factor on what you do, and do not get to do. Waking up to get to the bank is a chore and a half. The Post Office is usually out of the question.
Everything that gets delivered just mysteriously appears on your doorstep, so when this box came, this box that only read “Norb”, written in shaky marker across damp brown wrapping, with no return address, showed up when I was awake, you’d be safe in guessing that my reaction was more confusion than curiosity. Both were present, of course. The arrival of the box, other than it’s timing and vexingly non-descript appearance, wasn’t spectacular. There was no cryptic note, no chanting in the woods, no squealing tires of a panicked deliveryman.
The box didn’t wheeze, or smolder, or rattle. Whatever it was, it was solid. You could shake that thing all day, and not get so much as a shuffle. The doorbell just rang, and there it was. Humid air, tons of mosquitos, a porch light that buzzes for reasons that I can’t parse, the box, and me. I mean, I guess the thing that rattled me most about it, when it showed up that is, is that my name’s not Norb. Or Norbert. My name doesn’t even start with an “N”, and the guy who owns this place has a name that starts with a “B”, so it wasn’t his.
It took a lot of staring, and a lot of prodding with my bare toe to decide to take it in. And shake it, like I mentioned. I knocked on it, tried to listen to it. I even tried to smell it. It just smelled like damp paper. You ever see those posters in the post office? They say that if something sounds, looks, or smells weird, it’s probably a bomb, or whatever the scariest thing is this week. I don’t know what a bomb smells like. I don’t think most people could sniff one out with a gun to their head.
After determining that the package, who I’m just going to call Norb, at this point, was probably not a bomb, or at least I wouldn’t know if it was one, I had a debate with nobody over whether or not to open it. “Tampering with the mail is a federal offence”, I said. “But who’s gonna call the cops? You?” I replied. There was no counterpoint to that one. It was solid. Unassailable, even. I had my own number.
Resolving to commit what would be the perfect crime, I set about grabbing something to get Norb open. There would probably be tape, under the paper after all. Knife in hand, I bore down on unsuspecting Norb.
Something about this little lost thing kept me from pulling it apart. It wasn’t for me, it just wound up here. I could empathize. I thought “I didn’t mean to come here either, Norb. I just kind of got stuck.” The now-mentally-anthropomorphized package didn’t respond. Of course it didn’t. It was a package. “People get stuck all over the place, don’t they Norb?” That one got out. “Life takes us weird places.”
I didn’t ever wind up opening Norb. He sat on my shelf for a week or so before I threw him out.
Jack and Jill
I swear I thought I heard the familiar, high-pitched ding that comes from the doorbell, but I didn’t see anyone at the door. The only thing that was there was this small wooden box cracking with splinters from its obvious use. At first, I was wary of picking it up. What could it be, though? I would only ever find out if I brought it inside, which I knew was probably a bad idea. My curiosity got the best of me and I picked it up, as carefully as I could, and set it onto my glass table. My next move wasn’t planned, obviously, because I was simply standing, staring with my eyes wide open.
I must have been lost in thought because Jill, my best friend and roommate, walked up and touched my shoulder. Since I had been so deep into whatever I was thinking, I shrieked when she touched me.
“Whoa!” said Jill, “chill out, man, I was just checking out what you have been staring at for the past twenty minutes.”
“Have I been staring for that long?”
“Yes. Well... Unless I lost the ability to tell time.”
“I don’t know what to do with it.”
“Okay. Have you thought about, I don’t know, opening it?”
“You’re funny, but you’re reckless. This could be anything. I work for the government. Remember?”
“You brought it in. I don’t think opening it is going to do much more damage than that.”
After agreeing with Jill, I turned the box in the air with the tips of my fingers. I tried to be as gentle as I could, but the box was heavy. The splintering wood prickled my skin every time I touched it. I came across a tiny line of text, like the fine print of a legal document, but it was worn out and barely legible. I saw the word caution and once again panicked. Everything had been perfectly normal and safe. That is, before Jill talked me into doing something careless. Jill had a way of talking me into doing things I normally wouldn’t do.
I dropped the box onto the table, causing a thud that I was afraid might shatter the glass. Then, suddenly, I heard glass actually shattering. I stood still for a minute to make sure that my eyes weren’t deceiving me and the table had been broken, but I was right the first time. It wasn’t the table that had cracked into pieces. I heard Jill yell from the living room and immediately ran in there. Which must be what she did when she heard it. I always was envious of her speedy reflexes.
“Someone threw a rock through the window,” explained Jill, “with a note tied to it. Very cliché.”
“What does the note say?” I asked.
“It says ‘Open it. Tap three times.’ To my surprise, the cliché didn’t continue with letters cut out of a magazine. It looks like it was written in regular hand writing.”
“I’m calling 911.”
“No! Just open it. What’s the harm? If you were going to be hurt, wouldn’t they have done it already?”
“Not necessarily. It could be rigged to explode only when we open it. The sender could have merely been impatient with us, explaining the note.”
“Just do it. Here, I will.” She headed back into the kitchen to stand at the table.
“No! Stop!” I said as I ran after her.
It was too late, though. She had already started tapping on the box, and with force. I stared for minute, cursed my slower-than-Jill reflexes, and right before the third tap I ducked to the ground. I covered my head and neck, instinctively.
“What is it?” I said, slowly rising from the ground.
“Ha!” She thought she was hilarious and laughed at my paranoia for a bit and finally said, “I am so clever.”
I felt ridiculous staring at the now open box. I had spent hours wondering what was in it. Worrying what might happen to me since I mistakenly brought it into our house. Now it stared back at me with that silly Jack-In-The-Box smile. I should be less paranoid, like Jill.
9/1/16 twitter-length poem
If you put a book
in front of a mirror
you only see the words
If you look into the mirror,
you only see the opposite
of what you are
She managed a particular trick to survive the basement. Her back against the cool wall, the one behind the boxes they had never unpacked, she split and plead with the bad-half of herself not to make her father mad. Later as the hours passed—the best days were when they left her there and no one ordered her upstairs—she’d conjure a world beginning with a book she’d read or a favorite television show.
In the world she created in the basement she became part of a group of kids or a family that cared for each other. She dissolved the walls of the basement, left the dank, mildew smells, interrupted the darkness; she bathed on a beach in sunlight or sat at a picnic table biting into a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that clung to her smile. How good the peanut butter felt against her gums and lips; how silly. There, she felt free to participate in the nurturing tones and childish giggles that chimed from the tables of other families. She preferred it there, where no one called her bitch.
She would forget the things she did in the basement: her isolation; the girl with the frizzy hair, two dresses, one pair of jeans and not the right shoes. The girl with the father who erupted against the injustices of the world, the tether of fatherhood, the puddle of lost dreams, so murky she never knew what he dreamt. Only what he didn’t want.
Years after she forgot the basement she put herself through community college, saved for a bachelor degree—borrowed only 5,000 dollars—married a man who told her he would not waste his life matching pairs of socks. She raised two children and earn a graduate degree.
Once her father could no longer care for himself she took him in. On his good days, he still told her about how they drove her home from the hospital and she never stopped wailing. She cried day and night, gave her mother a nervous breakdown. Jabbing his finger at her, he’d say, “I showed you who was in charge of my house. From then on you stayed awake during the day and slept all night.”
She barely heard him when he spoke. She felt surprised at how hard she cried when he died.
She never realized that she held her breath whenever anyone raised their voice. She never had a group of friends, just a few individuals who suspected she never really shared with them. After her daughter graduated from Berkeley, she moved to California where there are no basements and nothing to forget.
A Jail Cell of Pain
The bed. Her cot.
The bedroom. Her jail cell.
But at least there’s Wi-Fi.
She didn’t see this coming.
32 years old and needing back surgery.
Losing her job and spending 6 months in her cell, waiting for relief.
And then, one day, relief came.
An implant in her body to stave off the pain.
She left her cot and walked.
She walked until she couldn’t walk anymore.
Freedom had finally come.
Then it came back.
She must have walked too far and brought it back.
So back to her cot in her cell for now.
This dammed cell, she thought.
One day soon she’ll be free again.
She tasted it, smelled it, and experienced it.
It’s out there, the world.
It’s waiting for her.
And soon she’ll see it again.
Soon she’ll walk on the grass by the lake again.
Soon she’ll do what she wants and needs to do.
Her focus on her goal to walk again.
Her memory of that beautiful lake.
Her knowledge that rest is what she needs now.
It will lead her back to health.
And out of this jail cell of pain.
She just has to wait.
Carl Papa Palmer
“Is anything coming?” not even slowing
down for the stop sign at the intersection
of our old gravel road and the highway.
“Nothing on my side,” I answer. Knowing
he hadn’t looked before asking confirms the
ten year old son’s allegiance with his father.
Dad would have never done this with Mom
riding shotgun even if she were to ever ride
in his truck, which I don’t think she ever did.
I bet he never got her to light his cigarettes
either or sip foam off his beer cans I opened
from the six pack under my side of the seat.
My best secret was that Friday night hot dog at
the varsity football game. “No need to tell Mom.
We’ll just make tomorrow a no meat Saturday.”
Carl “Papa” Palmer of Old Mill Road in Ridgeway VA now lives in University Place WA.
He has a 2015 Seattle Metro contest winning poem riding buses somewhere in Emerald City.
Carl, president of The Tacoma Writers Club is a Pushcart Prize and Micro Award nominee.
MOTTO: Long Weekends Forever
forgotten magic words
Carl Papa Palmer
first communication since
elementary school written
in his mothers handwriting
check sent check cashed
Carl “Papa” Palmer of Old Mill Road in Ridgeway VA now lives in University Place WA.
He has a 2015 Seattle Metro contest winning poem riding buses somewhere in Emerald City.
Carl, president of The Tacoma Writers Club is a Pushcart Prize and Micro Award nominee.
MOTTO: Long Weekends Forever
Carl Papa Palmer
When I’m unable to get the lid off
a jar of dill pickles, Dad hands me
the same bent butter knife he used
earlier to pry open his key ring.
A toolbox tray in his utility room
has a few rusted nails, some wire,
two hacksaw blades, an ink pen,
several sockets and a toothbrush.
There’s a pair of vise grip pliers,
three flat tips and a cross point in
his kitchen drawers I’d seen while
searching for a roll of scotch tape.
Dad has tools in the barn, car trunk
and well house he can never find,
that one of us kids must have used
and didn’t back where it belonged.
I arrive to borrow a hammer from my
brother’s organized garage filled with
tools for every job to find him scraping
mud from his shoe with a butter knife.
Carl “Papa” Palmer of Old Mill Road in Ridgeway VA now lives in University Place WA.
He has a 2015 Seattle Metro contest winning poem riding buses somewhere in Emerald City.
Carl, president of The Tacoma Writers Club is a Pushcart Prize and Micro Award nominee.
MOTTO: Long Weekends Forever
Denny E. Marshall
Wish it were a computer
Would be almost there
1st Published In High Coupe Jan. 2013
A polluted mind
will betray its very own heart
and poison its soul
My heart fluttering
like a bird in a gold cage
seeking its freedom
Other People’s Problems
“I’m sorry for your loss,” she joked. Stephanie Collins, a coworker, wrapped her arms around me in the busy grocery lot, making light of Josh Hall’s firing. He was our workplace bully, a full-fledged, bratty, adult-child. The Sunday after-church crowd bustled.
“Thank you,” I said. Warmth and peace filled me. Her gaze teetered between me and the ground, yet with unsettling eyes.
“What’s wrong,” I asked.
She looked at me again. “John and Rita Tyler? Weren’t they...”
Weren’t? Were they part of something horrific, injured, dead? Nothing in recent memory.
“They were found —” She looked away. “— dead in their home.”
The chilly air evaporated into frozen surrealism and I choked on the lack of oxygen. I couldn’t form a single thought. I tried to question her but all that came out was, “Whuh?”
“You didn’t know. Yesterday morning, it was on the news.”
I examined her face for any clues, a joke, a mistake she might’ve been making. She looked at me and hugged me again. I closed my eyes so tight I thought I might’ve injured my face, but then pressed harder. No tears.
“Thank you.” I glared at the ground. I tried to envision scenarios: murder, torture, kidnapping. No emotions. All I could think to say was, “I should get going. I need to make the arrangements.”
“Double homicide,” the news read. Who did it, and why? Or could this be a grim practical joke, karma messing with me for ending those toxic relationships? My hand ached from? pounding the table.
I dialed their county’s non-emergency police department and was connected to a detective who immediately apologized for my loss.
“What happened,” I asked.
“It was a murder-suicide.”
“What?” Then why did the news report “double homicide?”
“Mr. Tyler shot his wife before turning the gun on himself.”
Is this another mind game? How many people must they involve in seeking attention?
“Hello,” he said.
“I’m here. Are you sure that’s what happened?”
“Would you like to view the note he left?”
“Yes.” A police officer wouldn’t go to such great lengths for a façade.
“See the clerk at the front. Bring a picture id. I’ll let her know you’re coming.”
“Sarah Tyler,” the clerk hollered before I took three steps inside the police station, and slid a piece of college-ruled paper through a slot in the glass barrier. “Detective Troupe is out on duty but asked me to give you this.” The paltry building consisted of the two of us and a radio blaring loud enough for a small party.
I unfolded the note. My heart ignited, racing, as I saw my father’s handwriting: “My apologies to my family and friends. My wife cheated and we must face judgement. Sincerely, John Tyler.”
“Are you okay,” the clerk asked, finessing her voice to a more efficacious tone.
I tried to speak but nothing came out, so I nodded up and down and fastened my gaze to the note. Is this a joke? Is everyone in on it? Cheated? My overly-considerate-of-others mother? My father, now he only cares about himself. He could’ve cheated. Was this projection?
“If you like, there’s a water fountain by the ladies’ restroom.” She pointed down the unlit hallway. I thanked her and walked back to my car.
My apologies? That’s the first time that man has apologized for anything. Nothing is ever his fault. The dishwasher broke several dishes. Not only was it not his fault, it was my fault for not being there to load it myself. Hell, he didn’t even apologize to my mother for scarring her nose when he “jokingly” yanked it too hard and it bled. No, he laughed instead. He never apologized.
I took a deep breath, started my car, and looked directly at the road in front of me. The last time my parents tried to reconcile with me, my mother said she missed me and my father called me obscenities for estranging myself from them. How could he portray the perfect family with me gone? The street’s towering greenery merged arc-like over me, stealing my focus. Soon enough, I was home.
The next morning, I steeled my emotions, preparing for the onslaught of communications with the church, the funeral home, and the job. I sat at my corner table, pen, and calendar in front. The wall and I stared blankly at each other. The sooner the arrangements are made, the sooner I would move forward. If this is a game though, and I take bereavement leave for fake deaths, I could lose my job. I stayed frozen for what felt like an eternity. Eventually, probably ten minutes later, I made the first call. Apparently my aunt had done so an hour prior. My boss remained. Stephanie could say something anyway so I pressed through.
Wednesday afternoon and evening, the viewings were held at Claybourne’s Funeral Home, two miles from my apartment. I stood outside the gathering room, by the restrooms. My emotions or heart rate or something was triggering my nerves. Stephanie appeared out of nowhere. “What is Josh doing here,” she asked.
Josh, the office bully, was officially “let go” (read: fired) for redundancy, but the talk around the office indicated his unrestrained arrogance was to blame. He fired a guy after taking credit for that guy’s work. He lied about everything, including seemingly irrelevant things. He continued to accuse David of deleting parts of a document IT proved David hadn’t touched. He also had an office mistress, Vicky, though he was married with three young children. He was absurd, obnoxious, and he terrorized us all.
“Josh,” Stephanie pointed.
“I don’t know but he hasn’t come near me yet.” I accidentally snorted. She laughed, sparking a round of guffaws.
“I’m surprised he’s even here. Did he know your parents?”
“No, I don’t think so.” I couldn’t imagine. I avoided him because I wasn’t sure. “He must need a job,” I said. We erupted into a second round of laughter. This time a tear emerged.
“Tragedies bring out the best in people. Maybe he’s trying to make amends,” she said, sucking in big gulps of air.
We walked inside the room. There were freshly-cut bouquets sent by family and friends circling the glassy-wooden caskets. Family snapshots set up on top. Make-shift chair arrangements followed. Guests conversed in cliques. I went for the bouquets’ cards. Who else could be in on this? And what is Josh Hall really doing here?
“Our condolences,” “My deepest sympathy,” and “Prayers for the family” were the messages. Nothing from Josh. Nothing unusual or cryptic either. If this is a game, they’ve played it well.
From snooping the messages, I tried to go unnoticed blending into the closest group of people. No strange stares, but the conversation was unbearable. They were discussing my parents’ seemingly content marriage. Did any of them even know my parents? Surface appearances shrouded in deceit. Dinner popped into my mind: meat, pasta, alcohol? When could I leave to get some food?
I edged closer to the door, slowly backing away from the talkers. Janet Lee, my second cousin tapped my shoulder. “How are you holding up,” she asked. I’d seen her two other times in my life, and briefly at those.
“I’m fine,” I said, turning from the group to her. What does she know about my parents? She wasn’t around when we were younger. “When was the last time you saw them,” I asked.
“My mother talked to them last week. They were fine. You just, I don’t know—”
“How did the police find out?”
She stared blankly at me.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, motioning towards the bathroom.
No feet under the stalls, the room was empty. I checked my face. The lighting was impeccable against my flaws. I puffed my hair and applied several strokes of lip balm. Lips chap easily when I’m stressed. “You’re doing what any normal person would do in these circumstances,” I told myself. “You’re the normal one, not those people.”
I opened the door slowly, scouting the area. Janet Lee had moved to another conversation in the main room. I was alone. I snuck out the doors and to my car, and then realized I hadn’t said “goodbye” to Stephanie, or anyone else. I would claim an excuse later. I had to go.
Whether this is a game or not, they’ve gone too far. Warm tears trickled down my face, one after another, until I drowned in sorrow. I could barely see the road. I passed my exit.
Flashbacks of my childhood appeared. I scored high on a school test. My mother snuck a bag of candy to me. We were not to tell my father. Not because I couldn’t have candy but because his absurd jealousy would confuse me. My mother existed to serve him and nothing, nor anyone, else.
I pulled onto the road’s shoulder, wiped my eyes, and blew my nose. I wondered if God were watching. I felt so alone sitting by myself in the dark, viewing myself in the small car mirror. Why do people who come from seemingly content and wealthy backgrounds talk of atheism while lesser-fortunate people pray to a higher power? It seems backwards. My stockpile of napkins was gone, balled up and strewn throughout the passenger’s side. Another car passed and I merged back into the lane.
When I walked into the apartment complex, another tenant stood in the mail corridor. Bang! She slammed her mail slot shut. It reminded me of my father, the anger, the forcefulness. I hated it. She looked at me. I looked away and continued to my apartment, and into bed without food or alcohol.
Thursday morning, a bright sunray woke my outstretched arm. The apartment building was eerily quiet. It was after 9:00 a.m. so the neighbors must have gone to work. I made myself breakfast and tried to find something to do. No television, nothing, held my interest.
I went for a drive through my childhood neighborhood. The homes were newer versions of the old ones I knew, some repainted, others expanded somehow. My elementary school had bright red doors now and what looked to be a garden beside the parking lot.
My father used to drive me to school each day, grumpily. I’d guess from the color of his shirt what kind of day we’d have. Black meant sad, red decent, blue, oh blue. On those days, he was insuppressibly full of himself and intolerant of me. I tried to hide the blues in the hamper so his days would change. That never worked.
In school I treated others the same way he treated me. I laughed at their foibles and calamities, and lied about anything just to watch them suffer through the aftermath. I had cut off my own feelings so I wouldn’t have to process my pain, so I had no way of connecting empathically to anyone. Mix that with the potent jealousy of not having what they had – the real feelings, real lives, and you’ve got a childhood lost in perpetual misery.
My mother’s voice, illuminating my head, called me home. “It’s getting dark,” it said. For a moment I imagined she was inside making dinner. I drove past. The front yard’s grass had been trampled on and a shred of yellow and black police tape swayed across a bush. A silent tear slipped away.
Continuing down the road, my mind skipped from daydream to daydream with no catch. Childhood acquaintances to road construction to lies and back to childhood acquaintances, it didn’t rest. After the gas tank emptied, I escaped home for the rest of the day.
Friday morning felt like most mornings except I wasn’t rushing to work; my parents were being laid to rest. The alarm buzzed. I got ready, stuffed a bunch of tissue in my jacket’s pocket, and paced to my car.
I focused on each task, such as opening the car door, turning the key, parking, and being seated at the front of Trinity Church of Christ. From across the aisle, Janet Lee nodded at me. Attendees sat, scattered throughout the pews, all dressed in black. The sun barely peeked through the stained-glass windows. The pastor blurred passages. A cry or two erupted. Afterwards, my throat glands swelled. I tried to stand calmly, grasping my seat’s backboard, and follow others outside.
My parents’ neighbor shoulder-tapped me and reminisced about a time when my mother made her a quilt. “She was such a dear,” she said. Sadness impaled my face and I couldn’t open my mouth. I tried to smile but my throat locked. A tear formed. She took my hand in hers and said, “I’m so sorry,” then turned and left before I could respond. I swallowed hard and kept moving.
“My condolences,” a deep, yet quiet, voice from behind me said. It was Josh, and Stephanie followed him.
“How do you know her parents,” Stephanie asked him.
“I still talk to Mike,” he said, referring to a coworker.
“But why are you here,” she asked. He scratched his forehead and turned to me. I sniffed hard, trying to suck back all emotions.
“Your family was so good, decent,” he said.
My family? My family wasn’t good or decent. We didn’t even speak. How did he know my family? Anxious adrenaline started pulsating through me. Did I seem so well put together I exuded “good” or “decent” upbringing? “Is that why you were so jealous,” I blurted. I wasn’t sure whether to feel emboldened or mortified, but I was empowered. Stephanie let out a quick squeal. Whatever he thought of my family, I surely wasn’t going to disclose any underlying problems to him.
His eyes widened and his mouth opened but nothing came out. Stephanie squinted inquisitively at him. Josh stuttered before saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for your loss,” and disappearing hastily.
Stephanie grinned pompously, but I regretted it as soon as he left. He was probably trying to make amends, and I wasn’t ready. All that emotional buildup, dealing with his bullying behavior, and my father’s bullying behavior, made me retaliate. It took the rest of the walk to my car with Stephanie to calm that rush.
The hearse, grim in despair, pulled onto the street. Police cars ushered it by as we filed in line behind it. Kind of ironic how we’re burying them together after they, or he, so viciously tore them away. We arrived at the burial site a mere fourteen minutes later. Janet Lee wedged her car six inches behind mine. Stuck and claustrophobic, I took a deep breath, turned off the engine, and walked toward the plots. This is it – the final goodbye.
I directed my eyes to the caskets, stood up straight, unfolded my arms, and tried to keep my facial expression straight. Others gathered around the gravesite. Once the eulogy began, my nose clogged and I gapped my lips for air. I didn’t hear much after that.
When it ended, I rushed to my car. Others were slower, forcing smiles before looking away. I pulled out my cellphone and pretended to check messages.
Clank! Stephanie knocked on the passenger’s door. “Italian,” she said through the window.
I didn’t want to eat but I wasn’t ready to go home either. “Okay,” I said. As the cars dissipated, I followed her to a new restaurant a few miles away where we sat all afternoon, confabulating on Josh, Vicky, the firing, and the new, lighter, work atmosphere.
“It’s as if a window was opened and the sun is shining through,” she said. She was right. The moment he left the building, serenity and a renewed sense of purpose filled the atmosphere.
“Vicky seems happier,” I said. “Remember how she nearly cracked a smile at our last meeting?”
She chuckled. “Yeah, she didn’t smile that much around Josh.”
The conversation was a nice end to a vexing week. I could have stayed all afternoon, but our waitress and busboy weren’t hiding their glares any longer.
“Thanks for helping me through this time,” I said.
“Of course. If there’s anything else you need –” She hugged me goodbye.
I walked to my car realizing I would be completely alone that evening, hidden in my glum apartment. My entire body sunk, my brain awash in instant depression. I kept the pasted smile, and waved as she drove away. There were no more games, no hidden agendas, no excuses to reunite my parents with me. I dialed their phone. Voicemail. I made it home, and at some point lied down, and closed my eyes.
Monday morning greeted me with two tall stacks of files and an overflowing inbox. Before my purse hit the desk though, Vanessa trailing behind me, asked, “Did you hear Josh’s wife left him?” Then added, “Mike helped him move back with his mother,” while laughing contagiously. “Oh, I’m sorry for your, um, family thing,” she said, momentarily turning serious.
“Thanks. What happened? Vicky or the firing,” I asked.
“Mike thinks it’s Vicky. His wife was yelling, ‘get out of here, you cheat’.”
“Does Vicky know?”
“Vicky doesn’t want anything to do with him, now that he’s fired,” she roared.
“Where’s his replacement,” I asked.
“Oh, let me introduce you. She’s really nice, nothing like him,” she reassured me. She walked me to Josh’s ex-desk where a young female, professionally-dressed, sat.
“I’m Daley. I’m from Sidney Creek. We moved here with my mother.” The new girl said, standing promptly and holding out her hand.
“I’m Sarah. I sit over there,” I said, pointing to my volcanically-overflowing desk.
“My mother’s a big collector of porcelain dolls and there’s this shop in town –” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “She moved here for her doll collection.”
“You should see my mother’s quilt collection,” I said, trying to keep up.
“Yeah? I’m pretty sure my mom loves those dolls more than her kids,” she sighed. I feigned a smiled.
Eleanor Leonne Bennett Bio (20150720)
Eleanor Leonne Bennett is an internationally award winning artist of almost fifty awards. She was the CIWEM Young Environmental Photographer of the Year in 2013. Eleanor’s photography has been published in British Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Her work has been displayed around the world consistently for six years since the age of thirteen. This year (2015) she has done the anthology cover for the incredibly popular Austin International Poetry Festival. She is also featured in Schiffer’s “Contemporary Wildlife Art” published this Spring. She is an art editor for multiple international publications.
Ever Get It Back
9/11/16 twitter-length poem
I get it, expansion, growth, change
but I heard that my old house
is now a storage warehouse
I get it, times change
but I keep wondering what I forgot there
and after all this time
I wonder if I could ever get it back
Scott “Allan” Terrier
Not to play the victim, but I was an innocent sixteen-year-old trying to use the toilet, when my older sister attacked me with a knife. With my room in the middle of the hall, I always had to go past the guest, um, her restroom at the end of the house to get to the one in my brother’s room across the way. Then the day came when big bro locked his door. I had to go like no one’s business, so I used the loo closest to me.
Then I heard her yell from the other side, “I’ll slice you up if you don’t get out now!”
She hammered at the door. My sister stabbed at the opening near the floor with a blade. She kept shaking the knob—making everything rattle—especially the mirror. I was scared for my life. Trapped in a nightmare with a crazy person. The lock wouldn’t hold for long. When I did open the door, she lunged for me. I somehow caught her arm and twisted it down. She pricked herself in the leg with the knife. My sister curled onto the floor like an infant and cried. There wasn’t even blood. As she wailed like a baby with her reptilian tears, I left the house and took a drive to clear my mind.
The nice sounding officer who phoned me asked politely if I’d come to the station and make a statement about what had happened. Instead, I was interrogated. “You viciously stabbed your own sister,” an officer yelled.
I thought maybe his partner would be “good cop.” Rather he played the part of the hardboiled investigator. At the table, the cop shone a light into my face demanding I tell the truth. The officers must’ve thought we were in a TV show, so dramatic. “You went at your own flesh and blood with the knife,” one shouted. “Didn’t you?”
“We should lock you up and throw away the key,” the other added. Due to the cheesiness of his choice words, I was forced to hide an anxious grin. Then I explained what had happened a dozen times, a number of different ways so they’d understand. My sister’s version was she had no weapon. Instead, Miss Sweet Innocent Angel had been calmly frolicking by—whistling to herself, and I, after lurking in the shadows, jumped out from the bowels of hell hidden within the lavatory’s dark, dank, decayed crevices to plunge my illegal-sized knife into her, scraping the double-edged steel against her fragile bones. Scarring her for life. Truth was she cut herself with a larger knife after I had left.
“Arrest him,” she had exclaimed.
Apparently, a malicious animal I was—when my harmless sister accidently miss-stepped into my path—and for no reason the monster that was I—yes, without cause—attacked.
But I had facts on my side along with the real knife she had charged at me within a baggy. I mentioned, “She’d twirl the blade into her mattress for hours while reading Clive Barker books.” Explained her imagination.
After giving details about how my grown up sister would harass me to no end and laying out what really happened a few more times, they believed me. Mr. Hardboiled Investigator with his light even asked if I ever got to finish my business in the restroom.
Then my sister’s version of the truth went from she had no knife, but did instigate a fight, to it was a plastic knife—harmless—they showed her, her knife—she admitted the truth. The fuzz asked me if I wanted to press charges. “No,” I said. “She did a lot of cruel stuff. Still she was family.”
Our mother had abandoned us in the house. She lived somewhere else with her second husband. Mom would come by once in a blue moon to make sure the pets hadn’t starved to death. We weren’t so lucky. I had to find a job at fifteen as a clerk to feed myself and help pay the utilities while our mom collected child support checks and spent them on random crap. When she’d moved out of the house a few years back, she stopped paying the homeowner. He was nice enough not to throw us out. The place was infested with gnats, however. Meanwhile, our father had his new family in the suburbs. My brother, sister, and I had each other.
I wasn’t totally innocent either. I’d argue back with my sister often. Somehow I got the fighting to stop the day of the stabbing. We got along from there. Though years later, people believed she was the meanest to me, I’d disagree. My siblings and I had moved. Started our own lives. My sister had a roommate—a nice guy around her age, who had AIDS. She’d drink and harass him.
No idea why her roommate put up with her. He’d call us to come get her when she was wasted so she could cool off. He would have us promise to bring her back safe and sober. I heard her tell him many times, “I hope the AIDS kills you slowly.”
Her roommate would appear unaffected, wait for her to come home, and he’d help her. They attended AA meetings. She’d fume frustration, tell him off and repeat her vile line, and he’d understand her feelings somehow. The two remained dear friends.
Then he died.
Didn’t matter she was by his side—she got clean—or how they were chummy in the end, not to her. My sister never forgave herself for what she had said to him. She could never take back her words.
We believed she went to AA and helped people from then on. We believed she started going to therapy. We believed she was sober.
No. There were no meetings after her roommate died—no therapy. She’d hide vodka next to the overflow tube to her toilet along with cocaine. My sister would drink and snort away her sorrows. She was squatting next door to her drug dealer when we found her.
As messed up as it may sound, I took her in. Let her live with me on the condition she got sober and went to meetings.
My sister fooled me for two years.
One day she drove into a parked car. She rammed what was left of her vehicle into the brick wall of the apartment below mine. The manager of the property had her arrested and evicted.
Stupidly so, I bailed her out of jail. I wanted to believe my sister would get better.
Instead, she decided to go partying “one last time” at a friend’s house, Fourth of July, 2008. She must’ve had a blast—the time of her life. They found her body on the kitchen floor—bottle of vodka in hand.
“Alcohol poisoning,” the M.E. discovered.
Sometimes, I remember her chanting at my bedroom door, “Nobody loves you. Everybody hates you,” until I shake the memory away. The words wound me deep, as I realized later who she was talking to. Her roommate had confided in me about a mental chain. He mentioned it would break if he let the bad conquered the good inside. So he always looked for the brightness in others. His words inspired a mantra out of me I call: Chain
All I can do is live on. Rise above the pain. Not allow negativity to break: My chain.
Scott “Allan” Terrier discovered his love for literature and writing while recovering from a number of back operations he had had from middle school and into his twenties, eight total. His award-winning works have since appeared in over fifty publications, and four anthologies including Bartleby Snopes and Crack the Spine, no pun intended. He travels the world, teaching English to kids, and writes words along the way.
To overcome diversity
during multiple storms,
is a daily struggle
that must be dealt with,
or the demons that haunt it,
A Monday on Grandma’s farm was, all day, nothing
but cousins and laundry. We hung the wash in the yard,
near the quince trees, between garden and woodpile,
every size, shape and preference splayed for neighbors.
Just over the fence, heifers and their calves pondered
the task with bovine indifference.
In winter, the quince appeared in the cellar, in rows
of mason jars, sweet, amber specimens, and our clothes
were required to thaw before wearing. Grandpa’s
overalls froze so stiff, we stacked them like planks
of dried fish outside our igloo. After we stood them up,
the legs trudged to the house on their own accord
and climbed into dresser drawers.
In the long, vague haze of summer afternoons, warm
grass, delicious on our feet – after the sheets began
tugging at clothespins, flapping, white flags of surrender
or Buddhist pennants on Himalayan peaks – we’d sit
in the swing under the willow snapping beans. A breeze
animated shirts and socks into lively automatons.
Usually, the wash was folded in the sun, collated into
hickory bushel baskets, but occasionally, a sudden storm
caused us to race the rain, gather everything willy-nilly
in jumbled heaps, and sort a tangled puzzle in the kitchen.
And occasionally we’d catch hell if our chore was left
overnight. Wet with dew, the day began again – nothing
but cousins and laundry.
When we were gassing up the tractor, greasing the bailer,
setting twine, Grandpa remarked – and my memory is vivid
as he rarely offered any sort of conversation – and how his
nostalgia was exceptionally earnest that day – an old man
peering into the past, divulging to a young man peering
too far into the future – he said simply, with no elaboration,
that he missed plowing with his team. I guessed,
without the clatter of machinery, he heard the sloughing
of earth across steel, the huffing of horses’ breath, the
slight jangle of harness, the easy slap of leather on broad
flanks – their strength gauged in the reins – a soft, rhythmic
thumping of hooves on sod, a lowing of trees in the woods
and the squirrels’ barking there – overhead, the piqued cry
of a hawk evading crows’ beaks, and if you listened acutely,
a popping of buds, the palpable clamor of the sun igniting dew.
I recall this past as the wind, up to now, has been timid
in its task. Leaves are loitering at the fence, snagged among
lilies, iris, hibiscus, an aimless carousel whirling around
the birch tree. I know, eventually, the wind will pick up
and using the rake, in the scratching, I might better admire
a singular moment – my mind might wander. However,
I am impatient. The leaf blower, a deafening bluster,
dispatches these vagrants with its artificial tempest.
We Stood Like Soldiers Waiting For Our Orders
Manuel Alex Moya
We stood like soldiers waiting for orders. Our aching joints needed to be oiled and flexed about. They crowded too many of us in here. Children cried to their mommies in the dark. People were coughing and growing restless. Some shat themselves. I could smell it. We all could. Others tried shuffling around in the hopes of finding comfort in this rickety train ride to the unknown. Comfort would not come.
I couldn’t tell for certain how long, but according to those nearest to those nearest the walls of the wagon, they who could breathe in the feint glimmers of sun leaking through the cracks, they said it was four. Four what? I do not know. Four lifetimes.
And then one day, the train slowed down to a stop. We stood there for a long while, as that was all we could do. Stand and wonder. Wonder quietly and aloud. People started to make a fuss. The commotion grew intense. It started to make me nervous even. It crescendoed so loud that my own thoughts were cluttered in a fearful mess. As I saw some of the women break down in tears, and others hacking up disease, one man stood tall. Head held high and eyes pointed straight ahead, as if he knew better than the rest. Maybe he did. But I doubt knowledge was what gave him his confidence. I watched him throughout the ride, or at least I tried. We all were shorn of our belongings and hair and other valuables. Yet still he looked dignified. He stood like a stoic. Doing nothing. Saying nothing. But the veins around his head and cheekbones seemed to speak a little louder.
The door swung open, blasting us with an unexpected flood of cold air and light. We were quickly herded out of the cars alongside all the others and made to stand in the snow. Now I could see there were so many of us. There must have been hundreds pouring forth from each of the carriages, totaling perhaps a thousand, maybe three thousand? A small cluster of cement, windowless buildings, possibly ten or fifteen of them, all of modest size lay before us with a smoke-stack in the center piping away puffs of black into the sky.
We were greeted by ushers dressed like surgeons or sterilized scientists. Over black, long-sleeved shirts, they wore white aprons covering their chest and legs. They walked with black boots and pointed us around with their black, rubber gloves. One of them, who was wearing circular-framed, sunglasses that shielded even the sides of eyes, got up on a stool to make an announcement: “Welcome!” he shouted warmly through an unfamiliar accent, “You are all our honored guests today. We wish to help you wash up. Who here is hungry, eh?” He looked around, seemingly expecting us to jump up and down shouting “Me! Me!” as children sometimes do when they’re excited to eat some junk food. “We have some good food cooked up for you all! But first a little entertainment. We give you dinner and a show, ya?” He looked around at his audience showing us his remarkably, clean teeth, while we, in our exhausted state, responded only with silence and a few nasty coughs. He nodded, and his fellow ushers began applauding. And there was the stoic, looking on with unpreferred indifference, from the back corner of our flock.
As we were being led to our first destination, I glanced around the walls and fencing trying to establish some sense as to where we were and why. One thing, in particular, caught my eye. I noticed a large clock. I had seen it even when we arrived and something about it had struck me. Now that we were passing by it, I could more closely inspect its black, elegant hands, the long one pointing to a thirty-eight, the short to an eleven, printed in giant Roman numerals. I stood while everyone else trotted along. The hands were painted onto the wall.
They politely shoved us into a room with the instructions to denude ourselves in preparation for the shower. This we did without much fuss, although tensions were high. I won’t go into all the uncomfortable details that enshrouded that experience. Eyes quickly shifted between the people. Except for the stoic, of course. He sat there comfortably. One leg over the other. Calm. Collected. His eyes were made only for watching, not for being watched. That was the last time I saw him.
The shower room was damp, and dark. It contained the usual components one would expect in a shower: tiled flooring and walls, drains and faucets with skinny necks that protruded from on top. One could not assume it was used for anything else. “Now before we turn on the water,” said one of the aproned guides in a similar accent, “remember to take a deep breath” she patted her stomach, “from below.” She demonstrated how it was to be done. “So that you can get air into your blood cells, and maintain good body temperature.” She exited and we all stood there in the dark waiting, many of us taking deep breaths, myself included, though I don’t know why.
A woman shrieked, and then others did. Louder screams came when the liquid started shooting us. It wasn’t fatal, it was water. But it was cold.
Then we were rushed into a theater. Once we all took our seats, an apron stood in front of us to make another announcement, “We hope you enjoy entertainment.” Yes. She said it exactly in that awkward syntax. “We call you one by one to get food as movie progresses.” The lights were dimmed even before she left the stage, and the movie abruptly started.
It was one of those comedies that always come out of Hollywood. It had Seth Rogen and some of these other celebrities, whose names I don’t know. It was just a bunch of buffoonery, but the people seemed to enjoy it. There was laughter. While they were having a good time, I was about to have a nervous breakdown. Nothing about this environment was compatible within my previously stable structures of reality
And as they watched the movie, I watched them. But we were all were being overseen by the black and white aprons standing on an elevated platform that ran against the upper part of the walls. Again, there was no past experiential familiarity with anything remotely like this situation. Yet somehow I sat calmly. The shine of the movie would occasionally darken the audience, and then you could see them through the lighter parts. But each time the movie would shine some light on the audience, it seemed there were fewer and fewer of them. Until three hours into it, one movie after another, my head turned at the uncomfortable feeling that I was the only one watching.
“Okay Sir,” announced an apron that somehow pops in front of me, “It is your turn...”
I let them lead me out, without question. Their black robed arm extends to show me the way. My head turns to see the brightest thing there: a distant and faded light. I follow it. I follow it. And I climb out, only to find that the train is awaiting me. It’s time to ride again. But this time, I ride alone.
I told her once
as she placed her hand upon me in bed.
Only in my head of course.
I couldn’t dare to speak the truth only to think it.
I was sure she knew anyway
and didn’t want to know.
we were like two crabs
with our pincers stuck into each other
unable to prise ourselves apart.
Two bulls with our horns locked
A woman told me the other day
crabs mate for life,
no, maybe it was something else.
“Why are you doing this to me, I said stop it, stop, please, please, help me, somebody help me!” She screams. “Get your fucking hands off me, ouch, stop it, you are hurting me!” I hear screams come from the living room, shrieking cries for help, piercing my quiet. He is doing it again, why does he always do this to her, I think to myself? Terrified what will happen to her this time, I tell myself, you have to do something, Jimmy, come on Jimmy, you have to try and help her.
Seven years old and on his first day of summer break, Jimmy’s dad loads him, his backpack full of clothes, and the new PlayStation four he purchased for him for his birthday last week. Into the back of their new Hummer, for the two-hour drive over the mountain, to his mom’s house, in Green Valley. Little does Jimmy know, of the nightmare, that this day has in store for him.
I know Jimmy thinks, I’ll grab my sheriffs badge and my cap gun and I’ll go make daddy stop. He has to, cause I’ll be the lone ranger and everyone listens to him. As Jimmy rushes to his bedroom closet and throws open the door he feels an increased rush of adrenalin as he hears dishes smashing to the ground in the kitchen!
Flinging open his Winnie the Pooh toybox, he reaches in and retrieves his badge, cowboy hat, and Lone Ranger decorated, white and black trimmed gun holster and proudly cinches it tight! Jimmy slams the lid closed and heads for the door. Reaching to his right hip to dawn his firearm he realizes it’s not there, no he whines to himself.
The lid to the Pooh box is hastily tossed open again as Jimmy digs into the belly of the beast in search of his mother’s saving grace. The shiny fake metal six shooters that came in the Lone Ranger box set his grandparents had bought him last Christmas.
The screams from down the hall grow louder, then a thud, like the sound of a body slamming into a brick wall. He hears his father yell “bitch it is me or no one, you will not disrespect me like this again.” Jimmy’s mom’s voice cracks as her screams begin to turn to dull whimpers of pain.
Frustrated, scared, and beginning to shake uncontrollably with fear, Jimmy has an idea. A plan B, a last ditch effort to still be his mommy’s little hero and save the day. Across the hall, he sprints and into his parent’s bedroom. Jimmy races immediately to his dad’s pillow on the far side of the bed and pulls out the snub nosed 38 special that his dad always kept hidden under it to keep his family safe against home invasion.
Jimmy has a thought, “I wonder if daddy’s gun has caps in it too cause my little caps won’t fit in this big gun he tells himself.” With no time left for thought, Jimmy cocks the hammer on his daddy’s cap gun back and runs out the door and into the kitchen. As Jimmy turns the corner into the kitchen he notices his mom laying on the floor on her back. Blood gushing from both of her nostrils, and left eye blackened, and swollen shut!
His father standing over her brandishing the rolling pin that she had used to make Jimmy’s birthday cake from scratch with, just one week earlier. As mommy’s little savior enters the kitchen their eyes meet. Jimmy now completely overcome with terror wraps both hands firmly around the butt of daddy’s cap gun and yells “stop it right now and put your hands in the air daddy, I say you’re under arrest!” Jimmy’s father turns around and with a sinister smirk tells Jimmy to go back to his damn bedroom and now!
With tears streaming out of both eyes and mom scrambling to get off the kitchen floor to find a place of refuge. Jimmy shaking and lost in the confusion of the moment takes two of his tiny fingers and squeezes the trigger!
With a bang that could have been heard around the world, Jimmy was launched backward off of both feet slamming into the kitchen wall from the force. Mother scrambling to crawl out from underneath the now limp pile of human flesh that once was her husband. She snatches Jimmy up into her arms and runs out the front door of their home as if it were completely engulfed in flames!
As the two raced across the front yard, his mom swings open the gate to the white picket fence as a neighbor returning home from work happens by. Seeing the blood gushing down cassia’s face he slams the car into park and rushes to her aid. Frantically pulling off his flannel to apply direct pressure to her bleeding wounds. With his mommy sobbing uncontrollably Jimmy gently pushes his lips up to her ear and whispers. “Is that the last time I will see my daddy, mommy?”
Although institutionalized there is escape
Fingers clinging to a razor-wired fence
Eyes staring downward
Through trees into the ravine
Birds chirping their morning song
Suddenly; a spider rushes across my view
Regretfully I am back, and reality sets in
you can feel my rush
chilling your teeth. Lick your lips.
You can’t escape me.
D. Harrington Miller
I smelled him before I saw him; the pungent draft of maraschino and cigar smoke smacking sobriety into my rum-drunk skull.
Three days on the island. La Républica de Cuba. Three days exploring a city frozen in time. Three days huffing gasoline fumes whilst narrowly avoiding collapsing balconies, vengeful pedicabs, and the internet. Three days drinking, heavily.
He settled onto the stool beside me, off-white guyabera shirt soaked through, his body’s condensation a higher proof than the cerveza on my lips, swollen face an echo of the lumpy travel pillow I’d abandoned on the plane, beard the color of sun-bleached bones. The picture of a man who had found himself and promptly spent decades trying to forget. The bartender slid a cracked highball glass in front of the Old Man and poured him a daiquiri.
You don’t meet many americanos in Cuba, so whatever gutter this fermented Falstaff dragged himself out of, I thought it fortuitous. Of all the rum joins in Havana, he chose this one. My inner stereotype got the better of me and I blurted out in my best Midwestern patois:
“I hope your day’s going swimmingly, amigo.”
“Fuck your adverbs,” the Old Man muttered.
“A man has no need for adverbs. I drink. I fish. I drink again. I doesn’t matter how I do them. It only matters that they’re done.”
He belched and sipped his daiquiri.
“You don’t like words, do you?”
“When they’re clean, sparse, like a...” The Old Man stopped himself, “You almost had me there.”
He raised his daiquiri into the air and I toasted in kind. But before I could bring the drink to my lips, the Old Man had slurped down his libation and ordered another. His eyes landed on my half-full glass.
He followed this invective with a belch to rival any thunderclap.
The hours ghosted by on a broken wall clock, hands forever announcing twelve forty-six. I had barely made a dent in my sixth cerveza, but the desire for a Dark ’N’ Stormy interlude was growing stronger by the minute. I held up an index finger to announce my intentions when I caught the Old Man gazing at me through glassy-eyed delirium, irises fixed on my face while his eyeballs swam in their sockets. Perhaps he’d taken offense to the peach-fuzz disaster pathetically sprouting from my upper lip. I’d left my razor back home, regrettably, and all spare dinero had been allocated towards the forget-her fund.
“Fuck you,” he barked.
The Old Man’s guts gurgled. A cherry-flavored hiss bubbled up through chapped lips. The bartender, seemingly fluent in hoary incoherence, appeared with a fresh daiquiri. I again attempted to flag down the man, but a meaty paw grasped my neck and another clawed open my jaw while the foremost phalange funneled a fresh daiquiri down my gullet, most of it getting in my eyes.
Temporarily blinded, I screamed for help, but all I got in response was the Old Man’s reply, “Quit your bitching and take it like a goddamn man [belch] You might just grow some real hair on your face.”
My correct estimation at the cause of the Old Man’s ire brought no calm. I wiped the sugary sap from my eyes and felt hate in the back of my throat; the inchoate rage had triggered my reflux. I wanted to hit this man, to beat him senseless, to pound his fat face with my fists until his frontal lobe resembled raspberry jelly. My fingers clenched with feral instinct, I shoved the stool aside... blood throbbed in his temples. The American grabbed his cerveza and shattered the end against the bar top, the Old Man burped again, prepared to be unmade by the jagged ridges of the broken bottle...
“That’s the spirit! You’re finally writing like a man. That’s some terse narration,” the Old Man bellowed.
He smacked my back, and the bottle dropped from my hands, fracturing on the floor. He grinned, teeth nearly splitting apart his face. A ruddiness returned to his cheeks. A stability to his vision. My bloodlust appeared to have brought the Old Man back from the brink. Even his beard seemed fuller.
“I just want to drink in peace,” I begged. My rage forgotten.
“Hogwash! You’ve just scratched the surface, hombre. Have you seen the Malecón?”
I had not.
The Old Man’s eyes came alive, “Then to the Malecón we shall depart, tout de suite!” He flung his glass against the back bar and dragged me out the door, followed closely behind by the bartender’s curses.
Havana was drowning in a nameless tropical depression. We stumbled down rain-soaked streets, past concrete buildings swollen and sallow, bricks bulging under the water weight. Mildewed cabbage and broken bits of caulk, tire treads and castoff vitamin bottles, a diluvian cavalcade bobbed to the surface of one-time gutters, now flooded arroyos. The entire city was topsy-turvy, smothered by an inverted ocean. The Old Man greeted the storm with brio, a smile never leaving his face. The wind whipped stinging droplets against my body, but I soldiered on after him.
The Old Man disappeared into a darkened building and emerged with another daiquiri.
“Are you an ass or tit man?” His voice boomed, propelled by sheer force of personality.
I shambled along, ignoring his query.
“A man can’t grabass anymore. Where’s the fun?,” he thundered, “When did we take the policing from the actual goddam poliçia?!”
I thought of answering, and thought even harder of not answering.
The Old Man conjured a cigar from his pocket.
“Conjured. You write like a bitch,” he said, teetering on his feet as he futilely attempted to light the limp cigar. “Sure you got a dick down there?”
Unsuccessful at making fire in a rainstorm, the Old Man tossed his soggy cheroot into an eddy. Lighting briefly lit the tableau.
He tore off the guyabera, his naked torso carpeted in a thick white shag. Sinewy muscles tensed under layers of paunch. Before I could utter a syllable in response, the Old Man enveloped me in his boozy essence, and quickly hugged the breath out of me.
“Uncle,” I whimpered.
“You don’t get to give up that easily.”
I passed out.
I awoke an undermined time later, senses blunted by the acrid permeation of diesel fuel and the endless drone of Soviet-era car horns. The storm had rolled westward. A dark memory on the horizon. What I at first assumed to be a palm tree providing shade was the Old Man, arm braced against a rusted hatchback, letting loose a steady flow of brownish urine that pooled between the cobblestones adjacent to my forehead. I leapt to my feet, instantly cured of my hangover, but my hard-won vocabulary had been lost somewhere in the deluge. I only managed a meek grunt and what I hoped was a look of flabbergasted confusion.
“No one cares about your damn Thesaurus. You sound like a faggy Brit who misses his mummy. De-flower that prose.” He hocked a loogie into the piss stream. “You want the people to read your words, use words the people know. That’s what Odets missed. Fitz. All of ‘em. Your audience, they want to hear themselves. They want to recognize their lives in your self-important bullshit. We’re all narcissists at the end of the day.”
The Old Man tucked away his member and continued onward.
Our heathen hajj had taken on a different tone, that impromptu wrestling match had awakened the Old Man’s competitive edge; his joyful fecundity mutated into grotesque sport. It seemed every moment not spent dodging traffic was interrupted by another brazen display of physicality: Shot-putting bricks against crumbling façades, deadlifting parked cars, crushing cinderblocks with discarded rebar. And the competition devolved from there: foot races across derelict construction sites, an impromptu push-up-a-thon, and many one-sided exchanges of insults... at this rate we’d be waging a thumb war before we reached Plaza Centro.
“I’m gonna go back to the hotel. My feet hurt,” I muttered.
The Old Man brought his forefingers to his temples, aimed skyward, exhaled sharply through his nostrils, and charged me. I had sobered considerably since the bar and easily sidestepped him. He tripped on the uneven pavement and tumbled to the ground. A weary torero and his sad old bull.
“I’m done playing. Enjoy Cuba.”
The Old Man wiped mud from his bleeding knees, “So that’s it, scrivener? You’re giving up?”
I saw him. Finally. Surrounded by ruins. Crumbling facades. Derelict. Left behind. The past decays, yet remains. In shambles, but it remains. Piles and piles and piles and piles. It occludes. Clogs. Chokes. It stops up the damn drain. To concinnity and beyond!
I stood in a landfill, no longer Cuba. The tectonic plates of human history, shifting atop the sediment of forgotten heroes. A sad entertainer spinning plates. He’s weary. He needs a rest. I’ve lost it, the metaphor. Gone. Slipped from my grasp. The meaning. Conveyance. What was I trying to say? What am I trying to say?
“That you’re a hack,” barked the Old Man.
Take two tablespoons of the past. Grind it. Into dust. Add a pinch of salt. One cup water. And simmer. For an hour, for two, for a century. And from that primordial soup, pour into a mold. Let dry. You’ve made a brick. Now build the world.
The Old Man stood naked while the city collapsed.
“Your words are his words, are their words, are mine. The is the. And is and. They don’t care what you have to say,” he roared.
He was right. So I buried him in language. Expressions. Smilies. Adjectives and allusions. Voltas and stanzas and epithets. The entire span of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Barlett’s for good measure. He dropped to one knee, the sheer sparsity of his being, crushed by the overwrought prose.
The Old Man wrangled a loose adverb, twisting it with his bare hands into a meager pronoun. But he was no match for the onslaught of words. A vicious onomatopoeia gashed his throat. Blood gurgled from the wound, and with it leaked a single word:
He collapsed into the linguistic swarm.
I watched for a while, as the starving mutts of Havana picked at his bones though the razor-sharp bits of satire, scarfing down loose dialogue and dactyls. Then I walked back to the bar. Goodbye, Papa.
My Blood Remains
Falling deeper into the clinches of the night .
Eyelids fall with the weight of the world.
A dangerous place inside my mind.
I can’t imagine what I’ll see tonight.
A war between the hemispheres of left and right.
The darkness overpowering the creative side,
But my blood remains as beautiful as ever.
As red as the sunset on a cool springs night.
Like an artists brush gracefully touching the smooth, blank canvas.
Calmness within calamity.
The Phoenix rising from the flames.
Chaos in calm.
One hundred birds scattering with the chatter of voices,
Screaming and weeping.
To me, chaos is calm.
As a writer I need chaos to be calm.
Insanity to feel sane.
In a black and white frame,
My blood remains the same.
There’s something about the tearing of his flesh.
The subtle pops as the knife slices in.
The blood slowly dripping from the cut.
The pain is excruciating, but the release is much more powerful.
He doesn’t belong.
There’s something terrifying about his smile.
He just doesn’t fit in.
He’s fighting to exist, nothing makes sense.
His visions arise.
Smiles and cries outside of his casket.
Voices telling stories of the great man he was.
I love yous from family members faded through years passed.
Forced into reality,
The knife in his hand.
A tear falls converging with his blood.
No longer in denial,
His self-loathing thoughts subside,
Followed by another smile,
Only this time it’s peaceful.
Something he had never felt before.
But a feeling he never wants to live without.
The air is lighter,
The view is much more clear and his mind is at ease.
Mae looked around the wreck of a room and wondered what it must have been like when people actually lived in these places. She checked her time keeper. It won’t be long before the others get here, she thought. She hated being on duty alone. She hated being anywhere alone.
Mae nearly jumped out of her skin as the sound reverberated through the house. She grabbed her rifle and held it under her chin, the way Hank had taught her. “I’m armed!” she said as she approached the door. She could feel sweat drip down the side of her face. Please, don’t let it be one of them. I don’t want to die here alone. Mae took a step toward the door. If Hank were here he’d yell at me to open the fucking door. Open the door, Mae. Open the fucking door! One last deep breath and Mae yanked the door open. Rifle under her chin, just as Hank taught her. She scanned the front yard, up and down the street. No sign of them. She lowered her rifle, relieved. That’s when she saw it... a small box on the front step. Mae gasped, the rifle back up under her chin.
She spun around, rifle aimed.
Joe held his hands up. “Whoa, what are you doing?”
Mae lowered her rifle, tears threatening to surface. She stepped aside to reveal the box.
Joe stared at it. “Is that...?”
“I’m not sure. Could be. Hank would know,” she said.
“Hank’s not here.”
“I know that,” Mae said as she wiped away the single tear that had managed to sneak past.
“Bring it in and close the fucking door,” Joe said as he crossed to a chair.
Mae put the box down on the table. “What do we do now?” she asked.
“We wait,” he said. “The others will be here soon.”
They sat for what felt like hours.
“What if they don’t come?” Mae asked, breaking the silence.
He looked at her, the way he always did, like he had no respect for her. Hank never looked at her that way.
“They’ll come,” he answered.
“They won’t if they’re dead. Do you think they’re dead?”
“I think they’ll come,” he said.
“Hank said they’d send something.”
“Maybe we should open it.”
“The others will be here soon.”
“What if they don’t come?”
“No one has heard from Hank in three weeks.”
“I know,” she replied, her eyes filled with tears. “He’s not dead. He went to the wall. He said he’d let them know we were still out here. He said they would help get us out.”
“He said, he said, he said,” Joe snapped. “How the hell do you think Hank made it to the wall? Everyday there is less of us. Those things are out there... everywhere we turn. What do you think the wall could possibly send?”
“Don’t you think we should open it?”
He glared at her, the way he always did. “We should wait for the others.”
First they heard the screams, then the gunfire. “Get down!” were the last words she heard him say.
Mae flung herself to the floor as shattered glass and wood rained down. When she opened her eyes she saw it was Paula’s broken body that had been thrown through the window.
“Joe?” Mae looked up to find him with a shard of glass stuck in his neck. She followed his gaze to the box.
Mae crawled on her stomach to reach it. She pulled it down and tore it open. Inside were ten small devices, one for each of them. Well, that’s how many of them there were when Hank had left. Mae read the note: They don’t like the sound these make. You won’t hear it, but those fuckers will. Clip it on and head for the wall. – Hank.
“He’s alive.” She thought Joe had actually smiled before the gigantic, clawed arm smashed through the roof and grabbed him.
Mae held her breath. She didn’t scream. She didn’t make a sound, just as Hank had taught her. Her hands shook as she pulled a device from the box. She flipped the switch and a blue light appeared. Mae clipped it onto her shirt and remained as motionless as she could.
The screams and gunfire ended several hours ago. They’re not coming, she thought as she pulled herself up. She slipped her rifle over her shoulder. I have to go alone. Hank is waiting. She opened the front door and walked out.
“What am I going to do?” I ask myself. “I can barely support myself, let alone a child.” Glancing around the room, toys litter the floor. A little, red dog with wheels is sitting on top of the TV, and there is a pillow with a lion stitched on it laying on the floor. In order to lay on the blue, threadbare couch, I have to put my head on the armrest. The taste of the stale nacho cheese Doritos that I ate for supper still lingers in my mouth.
Nothing is on TV. Click, click, click, I surf through the channels. “If I keep her, I don’t want her to grow up in this place. But, if I give her up for adoption, who knows what’ll happen to her?” Cigarette smoke finds its way into my nose from the apartment below. The smell is putrid, and my head begins to pound. “I definitely can’t let her grow up around that,” I say. Keeping her around is just selfish of me. Adoption could be the best chance for her. Who knows, she may get put into a family that has the means to care for her, unlike me. If I give her up, maybe I could see about getting visitation times or something like that. She’ll have to grow up without a mom if she stays with me. Adoption could give her both the parents that she will need. Click, click, click, the remote goes, my thumb softly pressing the buttons.
What would happen if she stayed in the system though, and never got adopted? “Surely that wouldn’t happen to her.” It could though, and she’d have to grow up knowing that she was abandoned, because her parents couldn’t keep her. What would that do to her life? Would she become a junkie, and overdose in some alleyway? Tears find their way out of my eye, and run down my face. Click, click, click, the remote mocks me.
From the next room, a baby rustling in her crib is like a slap to my face. “No I can’t give her up! She’s mine, and right before Molly died, I promised that I would keep her.” That’s what I’m going to do. I will keep my daughter! Tomorrow, I’ll call Mom and Dad, and apologize to them. They’ll take us back in, and everything will be alright. I let lose a contented sigh, and my eyelids, like heavy weights, finally begin to close.
In every version of Goldilocks
she is dissatisfied with the chairs,
and the beds
until she tries the
just-right one of each.
How satisfying to come upon
without, frankly, that much looking.
Nearing 70, I am still seeking the perfect bed
and perhaps the person who sleeps there.
My chair is not so bad, and the food is pretty good,
but oh the bed,
The Drop Off
Paul ran down the stairs at top speed. Out of breath, he snatched the front door open. A black Cadillac Escalade sped down the street, but no one was on the porch.
“I’d have sworn I heard the doorbell ring,” he said to himself. As he pushed the door closed, he noticed a brown package by the welcome mat. He opened the door wider and picked up the box. It weighed about a pound, and there was no label on it. While looking the package over, a bit of white powder puffed out of a tear in the paper and landed on his shirt sleeve.
Paul’s heart raced. Beads of sweat dotted his bald head. Panicked, his eyes darted up and down the street as he backed into the house.
“Oh my God,” he mumbled, closing the door and placing the box on the dining table. “Drugs. I should have known this was a bad neighborhood. Drugs are everywhere, even in the suburbs. Is that cocaine? Heroin? I know it’s not crack because it’s a powder...” He quickly drew the curtains closed at the bay window and the smaller windows. He peeked out the window and trembled. “I bet this used to be a crack house or something, and now some thugs are gonna come out here and shoot the place up. Jesus... I’m gonna get myself killed. I’m gonna get Tina killed. I’m a horrible husband. We gotta get outta here!” He darted back up the steps and threw some of their clothes into a duffle bag.
“Honey,” Tina said, “was that the doorbell?”
“Uh, I didn’t hear anything,” he lied, trying to protect her. He zipped up the bag and headed downstairs to tell Tina that he’d put his family at risk of being kidnapped and sent to Colombia. As he reached the bottom of the stairs the telephone rang.
“I got it,” Tina said.
Paul’s panic kicked into high gear. He dropped the bag and ran to the kitchen, remembering that some drug lords call you before they shoot up your house, according to some movie he saw once.
“Don’t answer it!” he yelled, but she already had the receiver to her ear.
“No!” he screamed, diving to the floor and covering his head.
“Hi, Mom,” Tina said, smiling. “No... I thought the doorbell rang.” She walked into the living room and saw the package on the table. “Oh – it’s right here. Thanks again, Mom. Talk to you later!”
My wife and her mother are drug dealers? Paul thought. See, I don’t make enough money for her, and she’s trying to help out... I love that woman, but she’s putting us in danger...
“What are you doing down there, silly?” Tina asked, laughing at her husband. “You didn’t tell me Mom dropped off this rice flour. I’m going to make that gluten-free cake I told you about. What’s that in the duffel bag?”
Oh, it’s flour, he thought.
“Just some dry cleaning,” he replied. “I’ll be right back.”
He got up off the floor, grabbed the bag and ran to his car.
Once inside, he breathed a sigh of relief.
“Man,” he said, lighting a joint, “I needed this. And to think, some people say this stuff might make you paranoid...”
Beyond miles of walls
Of cold steel and stone
I can see your face
And beyond troubled seas
In a strange madness
I can hear your voice
And beyond the vast landscape
Of a sunless realm
I can feel your touch
But when I stare down
At your flower-framed bed
I do not know where you are
Any Port in a Storm
Ed Agnew didn’t care much for vacations. Not that Ed didn’t want to take vacations, but his head told him that he shouldn’t, because he needed to save his money for his wife to spend so she would stay happy, knowing what she knew. Besides, deep down, he only wanted to take a vacation if it meant he could go somewhere and be someone else.
But here he was on the white sand beaches of Gulf Shores, having reluctantly driven his BMW past the Alabama peanut farms and the yellowhammers singing in the pines. The breeze still tasted like those salty hulls, which saddened him. He’d convinced himself on the drive that ditching his phone and his tablet for the sunshine and the ocean air might be good for a fresh start. But Irene had inevitably complained about the sand, how it wasn’t as white as she thought it would be, how the Gulf wasn’t quite so blue. Instead, his two little blond-headed beauties, Norma and Nadine, were splashing in the shallow end of the hotel pool, while his blond-headed, pink-lipped, powder-faced wife sunned in a beach chair next to a man with a thick tan. How had he let his life become a ’50s motel cliché. Hell, Ed knew Irene was admiring the man with the thick tan, even though he couldn’t see her eyes behind the leopard-print sunglasses, hiding what was left of the bruise he’d given her the weekend before, when she’d said what she said about what they both knew to be true.
That was the reason for the vacation, to figure out the heart of the matter, as Irene put it, how he had let himself get this way.
Ed had finally finished his seven-year residency and been certified by the board of neuro surgeons. So he’d been around rich doctors long enough to know that people took vacations like this, to escape what ailed them. But he also knew a vacation wouldn’t change the fact that his wife was having an affair with the local meteorologist down the street, or that his twins were getting old enough to sense the invisible distance between their daddy and momma. Ed knew a vacation wouldn’t change the lie he’d been living, a lie that had turned from white to gray, a lie that now existed somewhere between his trophy wife and the dream in his head.
After Irene said what she said and Ed reared back and landed one clean, they discussed selling the house in Macon and moving farther south, closer to the ocean, where he could start his career. At least Irene had made her wants known to Ed, if Ed still wanted to be part of this family, to be a man.
“We have the money,” she said. “You don’t have to be so tight.”
Irene only had on panties and was pulling a pair of sheer stockings up one slender calf, then the other, in a way that was sexier than necessary. She didn’t need to get done up for another day at home with Norma and Nadine, but this was a test, Ed was sure, to see if he would crack.
“You could talk to me about whatever it is you want to talk about,” she said, swishing her hips as she worked her stockings into place, her breasts bouncing free. “Why don’t we go on a trip? You don’t ever take us on trips anymore. We could see what we think—if it’s Macon, or if it’s you.”
“You’re right, honey,” Ed said, already certain it wasn’t the Peach State. “Let’s take a trip, see what we see.”
Maybe the Gulf would be just what the doctor ordered, some time to clear his head of that handsome young RN he kept running into at the hospital, the one with the sandy-blonde part. If he moved closer to the ocean, Ed thought he might take up deep-sea fishing. He had the patience. A heavy-duty rod and reel might be nice to hold on to out in the middle of the Gulf. By God, he wouldn’t mind losing his scrubs and loafers for sandals and shorts and a suntanned chest, like the oily man lounging next to Irene by the pool. Ed had always admired a man with a tan.
Ankle-deep in the Gulf, beneath the noon sun, he was overcome with a want that bore a hole in him, like the tiny sand crabs scurrying for cover. He just wanted to dig a hole in the earth and surface somewhere else—maybe another world, if there was one out there that would have him. He stared down at the veins in his sunburned feet, glimmering beneath the water. Who would care if he got up the courage to vanish? What did Irene need with him anyway? What did he know that Norma and Nadine couldn’t learn from the man their mother was screwing?
Mark the meteorologist had a head full of shoe-polish-black hair and a sturdy jaw. Not a bad-looking man at all, and Ed even found humor in the fact that the very man who forecasted the weather on the nightly news was having sex with Irene, the woman who spent her days trying not to get her hair wet. When they were in high school—Ed a football star, Irene a beauty queen, the perfect Southern pair—he had admired her meticulousness. She made sure her blonde hair stayed as smooth as her complexion, and to this day, he couldn’t pinch a fingernail’s worth of skin on her rail-thin frame. He partly blamed himself for Irene’s neurosis, her obsession with keeping up appearances. Before he hit her, Ed could see what had been pent up for the past few years in her scowl.
“Should we keep our double-date with the Franklins?” he had asked that night, making conversation at the supper table.
She peered at him over the lip of her wineglass.
“Any port in a storm,” she said.
He stared right back over a honey-baked ham, Norma and Nadine oblivious to the aphorism hanging there between the adults. Ed knew Irene knew why he was hiding, why he had started sliding a pillow between his legs, insisting that it was an old football injury acting up. Med school and the residency, the around-the-clock hours, had made the charade easier to pull off. Now Ed was losing his edge. But he could tell Irene wasn’t sure how to deconstruct their lives either, how to explain why they’d let this thing fester into an incurable wound.
“How’s that new young nurse?” Irene asked in bed after supper, when the pillow went between Ed’s thighs. “Jimmy, right? Awful purrrty.”
“Jim?” Ed worked the pillow farther up. “He’s fine, honey. Good kid.”
Irene sipped her white wine, the one chink in her otherwise spotless armor. The glass made a clink on the bedside table. “Thank the Lord you didn’t give me a son.”
That’s when Ed raised up in bed and slapped her in one fluid motion. She screamed, then spouted insults—“Guess you can be a man.” Her eye swelled and a trickle of blood escaped from her nose. He threw on his white robe and opened the bedroom door. Norma and Nadine were standing there, wide-eyed.
Ed waded deeper and deeper into the Gulf, much deeper than he had planned. But he was still close enough for Norma and Nadine to see their daddy wave to them. The two girls, in their green one-pieces, shook both hands furiously, then held their noses and jumped back in the pool, not quite at the same time, though that had seemed to be their goal. How old were they now? Nearly six? They’d grown up so fast, already full of personality and dreams—one had told Ed she wanted to be a brain doctor just like him, the other said she wanted to be pretty like her momma. Ed prayed that their beauty wouldn’t wind up failing them like it had Irene. He scanned over to his wife in her red bikini, lounging by the man with the thick tan. She bent and unbent a few skinny fingers, never removing her leopard-print sunglasses.
The emptiness he felt should’ve hurt, but the casual exchange felt obligatory, in a way, as if he were simply offering a kind gesture to another man’s wife and another man’s children. Maybe Ed could take on the waves, to see what he had left in him. He pushed ahead, lifting one foot after the other and crashing it into the water. He acted on the impulse that shot through him every morning on the way to the hospital, when he drove past all the picket fences lined up in his neighborhood. Ed would punch the gas and speed through Macon, past the HoJo, past the Waffle House, past the new Wal-Mart that had put the Old Time Country Store out of business. He’d take the I-81 onramp and push his BMW to ninety, but never could get past the next exit before turning back around toward the hospital. He was paralyzed with fear that Norma and Nadine might develop some mental illness, their father up and leaving—no goodbye, no explanation. Then again, maybe they would be like him anyway. That was up to the Lord, he figured.
Ed dove into a cresting wave, resurfaced, and dove into another with intention, but also with a dread that couldn’t be explained. He certainly couldn’t explain it to the group of doctors he met for breakfast at the Waffle House, the men who gave him pats on the back when rumors went around about Irene screwing the meteorologist. Ed wondered if his wife was falling on the sword for him, forgiving him the only way she could. He resurfaced, waist deep now, still moving toward the horizon, his family behind him, wondering how far was too far. Then the sand dropped out from under his feet and salt water filled his nostrils, flooded his throat. He was used to treading water. He welcomed the cold swirling around his toes compared to the warmth around his chest. It reminded him of the cold stream of water in the locker room showers and the warmth of a man’s hands on his skin.
Scott was the senior quarterback at Macon High, Ed a sophomore receiver. They were two fine boys, raised by good Christian families. But the more they passed in the halls, the more Ed understood, and Scott finally asked him to stay after practice to work on routes. Ed was alone under the showerhead, washing away the sweat of the session and his impulses, when Scott came up from behind. Ed shut his eyes, trying to keep his mind off the large, soft fingers running along his hip bones and down his thighs. He turned the knob from hot to cold and put his forehead against the wall. He counted every pore in the white concrete, imagining the drops being sucked into it like a sponge. He thought about his mother’s spider veins and her extra-large panties lying around the house. He thought about Noah’s ark, each animal two by two. Ed tried to think of anything that would keep his body from betraying him. But Scott stroked and thrust until Ed released the tension in his back, embracing himself.
Ed was neck deep now, and his arms were wearing thin. He paddled around to assess how far he was from shore. He could see every level of the hotel, all the balconies with body-less feet propped up on privacy walls. He could just make out Norma and Nadine, who had moved from the pool to the beach and were playing in the sand next to Irene. She still had on her sunglasses, arms folded, a bony hip cocked to one side.
They were all watching Ed from behind a shirtless, muscular lifeguard in short, navy blue trunks. He was blowing his whistle and waving his arms, one hand gripping a red floatation device, the only sign to Ed that he might be worth saving.
About LaRue Cook
LaRue Cook was a researcher, writer, and editor at ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com for seven years before returning to his home state of Tennessee, where his new title is Existential Mess. During his limited free time, he is putting an MFA from Fairfield University to work on a collection of short stories. His fiction has also appeared in Minetta Review, Star 82 Review, and Inwood Indiana. You can follow his #ubernights at his web site, My2ndFirstStep.com, as well as on Instagram (@cook.larue), Twitter (@larue_cook), and Facebook.
Be Here with Me
“The war has been hard on our family. Unbearable.” Esther ran her shaking withered hands across the fold of her dress, smoothing out the wrinkles. “Of course, you know, it’s been hard on everyone.”
“Grandma, that war ended a long time ago,” George said.
“I dug through the trash bin the other night for my supper.” The wrinkles that lined her face formed rings around her deep-set eyes. She wouldn’t look at George. “Not a scrap in them bins. A rat couldn’t even find a crumb to nibble on.”
“Your nails look nice. Did they paint them at the salon for you?” What did he know about nails? He just wanted to pull her from the imagined past.
“I used to have this rubber dolly.” Her hands stretched out as if she held the doll. “She was the best present I ever got. I had her for years. I carried her everywhere. Her dress had to be mended more times than I can remember. She was even missing an eye. The paint rubbed off.” Esther’s faded gray eyes danced at the memory, and her hands fell to her lap.
George took his grandma’s hand before she could retrace the seams of her skirt again. Somehow he thought it would ground her in the present. He waited until she met his eyes and then said, “I need to talk to you.”
Undeterred, she continued, “The other day, when I was digging in the trash, you know, this younger girl comes up to me. She looked more ragged than my dolly. But this little girl eyed my dolly like it’s the most marvelous thing she’d ever seen.” Esther’s words stretched out in a slight German accent.
George’s wooden chair scraped the linoleum floor as he pushed it back. As usual, it was pointless for him to come here. A nurse shuffled past the open door. Disinfectant pervaded the room.
“I gave that little girl my dolly. You should have seen the state that girl was in. Her dress was tattered,” she closed her eyes, remembering, “with a big polka-dotted patch. Her hair was oily and knotted.” Esther’s eyes opened. “But I tell you, I gave her my dolly and suddenly that ratty old doll looked new. The little girl looked at me with the biggest green eyes I’d ever seen, her little mouth in the shape of an ‘O.’ But then she started crying. The tears cleared away the dirt on her face.”
He tried to remember how long his grandma had been in this retirement home. It was a few months before he was deployed, the first time. Five years. Was it really that long already? He’d been visiting her every day for the last three months, and every day she said something different, and yet every day it felt the same.
“Grandma, I need you. I need you to be here with me. Do you think you could do that?”
George pulled a package from under his chair and plucked out a plastic bag of butterscotch candies. “I brought you your favorite.”
At the sound of the bag ripping open, Esther looked up. Her eyes widened. “I love those candies. I haven’t had one since I was a little girl.”
George fished a nugget out of the bag, unwrapped it, and placed it in her outstretched hand. He shook the rest into a candy dish next to her recliner to join the few remaining butterscotches from last week.
Esther leaned back, closed her eyes, smiled, and sucked on the butterscotch. When she opened her eyes again, she was startled by the sight of George, but her voice was stern and unafraid. “Who let you in here?”
“I’m George. I just gave you the butterscotch. Remember?”
She took a few sucks on the forgotten candy. “You’re such a dear. Butterscotches are my favorite, you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
“What did you say your name was, young man?” She sat up in her chair and leaned toward him.
She moved the butterscotch from side to side in her mouth as if rolling his name over her tongue.
After another minute she said, “Georgie. I love that name. I have a grandson named Georgie, you know. You’d like him. He’s only about yay-high.” Her hand indicated the height of the arm of her chair. “Real sweet boy. He’s a charmer. And boy is he smart. He’s going to do quite well for himself. I can tell, you know.”
She sat back in her chair, and looked nowhere in particular. “It’s a real shame about his father, though. George Senior, my son. He died in the war. Sad.” Her lip quivered. “Sad.”
“Dad didn’t die, Grandma. And I’m the one who fought in the war.”
“Do you have another one of these candies?”
“Sure, Grandma.” He unwrapped another lozenge and gave it to her. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you about my time over there. During the war.”
He didn’t think she even knew about the war. She remembered her war in Berlin when she was young. Most of what she told him about it now seemed made up. But she knew nothing about his war.
Esther had returned to fussing with the fold of her dress.
“I was hoping you might listen when I talk about this.” His hands were clasped as he hunched over his knees.
Esther’s hand patted his arm. “You can tell me anything.”
Surprised, George looked up, but Esther wasn’t looking at him. She was occupied with an errant thread from her skirt.
His head hung back down. He couldn’t wait any longer. He needed to get this weight off his heart.
“It’s Mary Ann,” he said, referring to his wife. He cleared his throat, trying to dislodge the words that were hung up there. “She wants to have a baby.” The words came out paper thin, the pitch of his voice an octave higher.
“Babies. I love babies. Did you bring one?” Esther scooted to the front of her chair and scanned the room, searching for a baby.
An alarm sounded down the hall and he heard a swish of clothing rush in that direction.
“No, Grandma. No baby.”
“Oh.” She sat back and crossed her arms, her lower lip jutting out a smidge.
George decided to start at a different part of his story. “When we were over there,” he returned to the war, “I killed someone.”
Esther doesn’t react and he isn’t sure if she heard him.
“I mean, of course I killed someone. It was a war. I’m a soldier. That’s part of what we have to do. But that’s not what I mean. I killed someone that I didn’t mean to.”
His dry throat closed. He coughed, but it tightened up again. Springing to his feet, he moved to a tall dresser with a mirror over it. He poured himself a cup of water from a pink plastic pitcher.
He took a swig, and then another. He didn’t return to his chair, but stayed where he was.
He didn’t want to face his grandma for the next part. “They weren’t supposed to be there. She wasn’t supposed to be there. We checked. Only the targets were there. Only the...” He looked up and caught his own eyes in the mirror. He had two days of stubble, dark circles under his eyes, and a gray pallor. He was looking into the eyes of a stranger, which reflected the feeling he’d had since he’d come home.
He turned his back to the mirror.
“When we went in, after. There was this little girl.” He squeezed his eyes shut, but it only made the image sharper. “She wasn’t supposed to be there.” It came out like a plea.
“She looked like she was sleeping. Like a discarded doll left on the floor.”
“Dolly? Have you seen my dolly?”
George’s stomach knotted and he felt light-headed. The contrast between his memory and his grandma’s confused state made him shudder. He shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t have come.
“That nasty little girl stole her from me, you know.”
“Grandma.” He strode toward her. He just wanted to remember who he used to be. Who he was, before. Maybe if she could remember, then he could remember.
He slumped into the wooden chair.
“How can I have a baby with my wife when I know that little girl is dead because of me?” He bent over and rested his head on the arm of his grandma’s chair.
“Georgie.” She patted him on the back. “I remember when you were young. So filled with energy and mischief. But whenever I took you anywhere, you hugged every person we came across. You were so filled with love and kindness, and you had to make sure you shared that with everyone we saw. Whether they were willing or not. People, animals, it didn’t make no matter. They were getting a hug.”
A half cough, half chuckle came from George as he sat up to look at his grandma.
She swept her soft fingertips across his cheek. “Oh, how I’ve always loved you.”
“Now how can you know that, when you can’t even remember that I bring you butterscotch candies every week?”
She looked at the candy dish he was pointing to. “I don’t know nothing about them candies,” she said. “Besides, I hate butterscotch.”
His laugh felt lighter than anything he’d felt in months. “Grandma—”
“Just because I don’t remember, doesn’t mean I didn’t love you at that time. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t love you now. And I do love you.” Her voice rose and sharpened. “Now get the hell out of here. You know they don’t allow men in the ladies’ quarters after seven.”
Mandie Hines Bio
Mandie Hines writes in the Rocky Mountain region. She’s driven to create pieces of fiction that capture moments of human vulnerability. Visit www.mandiehines.com for more.
Placing Mr. T
Mr. T has been stalking me for three weeks now. He watches from the hallway when I sleep, peeking in through the crack in my bedroom door. When I shower in the mornings, I don’t have to pull back the curtain to know he’s standing in the bathroom doorway, waiting for me to finish so he can take his turn. He’s behind me when I open the refrigerator. On garbage day, as I roll the can down the driveway to the road, he parts the living room curtains to monitor my progress.
I’ve often imagined that Mr. T comes from a large family. On those occasions, I’ve arbitrarily assigned him three brothers and one sister, all of whom died before my wife found him. This is preferable to believing he has living siblings who love and miss him, but I know nothing of his actual history: where he was born, his travels, dreams, romantic liaisons, things like that.
Not long ago, I saw a program on The Discovery Channel about dogs trained to sniff out cancer. Canines with the keenest senses of smell can be trained to detect rogue cells in the urine of people with bladder cancer, but what I was unable to gather from the program was whether or not the dog understood the implications of the differences between the samples. Did he recognize that something was actually invading the host body, transforming it into something new? Or did he simply know there was a difference, one he’d been conditioned to sniff out?
Mr. T’s not a dog, but I think he knows.
At the first interview, a sprightly waitress shows us to our table. I’m more nervous than I’d expected. The waitress looks down at me and gives me a tight, reassuring grin. Then she flips her tray like a huge coin and heads back to the kitchen.
The woman across from me has a pleasant face, but her lips are pursed as if she’s about to whistle a tune. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, though it could be distracting. It’s slightly less pronounced when she smiles.
Her gaze drifts to the top of my head, and I wonder if she suspects something. The last round of radiation ended six weeks ago, so my hair’s grown back a bit, though with a male-pattern baldness I never had before. I considered shaving, but that would have created just one more mindless routine to demand my time. Instead, I decided to never cut it again.
“Do you have a picture?” she asks.
I slide Mr. T’s photo across the table, and the young woman, Rhonda Nesbitt, thirty-one, physical therapist with no children, picks it up and smiles. The bow of her lips widens, and her eyes flicker up to me and back down again.
“Handsome fellow,” she says. “I love the stripe on his head.”
The picture was taken two years ago, before Jess died. Mr. T is sprawled on our couch, his body contorted into what might easily be mistaken for a botched sit-up. His mesmerizing stare is directed up, at where I know Jess was waving at him from behind the camera to try and make him smile. Or whatever it is Mr. T does instead of smiling.
“He’s quite a guy,” I say. “He meant a lot to my wife.” And to me, I almost add, but that would raise the inevitable question: Why are you giving him up?
Rhonda Nesbitt doesn’t ask about Jess, about my use of the past tense, but she nods, pushing the photo back to me. Again, she glances at my hair. Difficult not to, I’m sure. The hair that returns after radiation therapy, I’ve noticed, is rarely as robust as it was before. It looks sheepish, like it feels a need to apologize for itself.
“I’m a music producer,” I say. “A friend of mine is starting a label in Australia. He’s signed a few new artists, and he’s asked me to partner with him.”
Her eyes light up. “Have you worked with anyone I might know?”
“Doubtful,” I say. “Mostly New Age, ambient pieces. Soundtracks.”
“Can I meet him?” she asks. “Mr. T?”
She seems nice, and I think Mr. T would like her. But I still have six more appointments.
“Okay,” I say. “How about Monday?”
From the start, my relationship with Mr. T has been complicated. This was never more apparent than three days ago, when he walked into the bathroom and caught me dropping one of his turds into a sandwich bag.
No matter what you say or how you try to explain it, that kind of thing is going to put a strain on any friendship. But Mr. T had been having some gastric distress lately, and since he wasn’t going to drive himself to the hospital, I was forced to consult in secret with his doctor.
“Get a stool sample,” Dr. Miller said. “Bring it in.”
After thinking about it, I agreed. It gave me a chance to do a little stalking of my own.
When Jess brought Mr. T home, the first thing I noticed about him was a dark stripe running down the top of his skull, like a Mohawk haircut.
“He looks like Mr. T,” I said. “From the A-Team,” I added, as if the name needed explanation.
Jess reached down to touch him, and his head rose to meet her halfway. He appeared to be as content a cat as I’d ever seen, already at home despite his recent arrival.
“I think it’s just grease,” she said.
The cat considered me from the kitchen floor, swaying under my wife’s touch.
“Yeah,” I said. “But still.”
The mohawk actually was grease, as Jess confirmed a moment later when she drew her hand up, but the name stuck.
My third interview, David Bentham, nods. He shakes the photo of Mr. T, the way we used to wave old Polaroids at Christmas. Something about Bentham makes me uneasy, though. Maybe it’s the way he keeps looking away at the pigtailed waitress, not as if he appreciates the way she looks or wants to attract her attention, but rather as if there’s something else unfolding inside his head.
“I’m an editor,” I say. “Freelance, for the most part.”
Still watching the girl, still nodding, he asks, “Is he fixed?”
That word has always bothered me, particularly in this context, and my standard reply to such a question is that he wasn’t broken to begin with. If what you mean is Have his balls been cut off? why not ask that? After considering my circumstances, I let it go. What’s the point in causing trouble?
“No,” I say. “He was too old when we got him.”
A week ago, I ran a classified ad on a local animal rescue website: Middle-aged, graying male looking for a good companion. Sizeable endowment will accompany to help defray costs of healthcare, etc.
Seven people responded, and David Bentham was the third.
Bentham shakes his head and finally looks at me. “He has to be fixed. I don’t want him pissing on my walls.”
“Ah, well.” I try to sound regretful. “Guess he’s not the cat for you.”
According to my mom, the mole was on my back the day I was born, between my shoulder blades, about three inches down. So that means I had it for forty-three years. I say ‘had’ because at some point—while I was asleep one night, sitting at a red light, or checking the mail, for all I know—the mole became something else.
Jess should have seen the mole when it stopped being a mole, and she would have if she hadn’t died three years before it made its grand transformation. As it was, I only noticed it when I caught sight of my back in the bathroom mirror one morning, after the spot had already grown to the size of a quarter. Even then, the dermatologist assured me we’d caught it in time. It was atypical, as he said, but a scan revealed it hadn’t yet spread far. They removed it, along with two of my lymph nodes. Very common procedure, they promised.
A nurse called me a week later to set up a six-month appointment. This was also routine, though it was possible I’d have to do it for the rest of my life.
Turned out she was right.
The initial plan: Irradiate brain for eight weeks, follow with a brain scan to check the progress, regroup, assess. After that, chemo. If necessary.
The radiologist, a man who looked more like a linebacker than a doctor, fashioned a helmet for me, made out of a plastic mesh and fitted to the precise dimensions of my head. A red crosshair was drawn on the forehead, scrawled there as a target to show technicians where to zap me.
Since I had to go to the hospital every day for eight weeks, I got in the habit of leaving the helmet in the car so as not to forget it. I’m pretty sure it’s still in my trunk.
A few of the things I’ve learned over the past few months.
One: I probably won’t have to pay another utility bill. That makes me feel better than I’d have expected.
Two: Jess and I are both going to be outlived by a cat she rescued from a KFC garbage bin.
Three: If the radiation doesn’t kill you, your doctors can always try chemotherapy.
My fourth interview, Sylvia Carter, is nervous, but she seems nice.
“It’s time for a change,” I say. “Ten years is a long time to teach math.”
She nods, as if she can identify with the ups and downs of teaching math and chemistry to narcissistic, sex-obsessed teenagers. She might actually be able to relate, for all I know, but it’s not like that would make any difference to me.
Why am I lying to these people? Because it sounds more plausible that a music producer, an editor, or even a teacher would feel the urge to pick up and move away on short notice? But why should I care what sounds conceivable? It doesn’t matter whether or not these people like me.
She’s still nodding—the same way the third guy, David Bentham, did—but hers is different. The frantic motion of her head is fast enough to suggest a twitch, but her gaze is fixed on me, like I’m the most important thing in her world. Were it not for the thick lenses of her eyeglasses, I’d believe I was looking through her eyes and into a private part of her reserved for a lover.
Eight weeks passed between the morning the driver hit Jess and the night she died. She wouldn’t regain consciousness, but during that time I watched for any sign of expression, stared at her for so long that her face started to look like someone else’s. Sitting next to her bed each night, I’d occasionally nod off and wake with a start, sure I’d missed something.
Ever since Jess had been absent from the house, Mr. T took to dragging her pillow into various rooms of the house and setting up camp there. Normally, he slept in our bed, sometimes between the two of us, most often balanced on Jess’s right hip when she inevitably rolled onto her side. But on the nights I came home from the hospital to shower and change clothes, I neither heard nor saw any signs of life, other than the wandering pillow.
Close to the end, I wrangled Mr. T and took him to the hospital, smuggling him into her room in a canvas kennel. Once I let him out, he climbed up onto her stomach and inched on his elbows toward her face, stopping on her chest and looking over at me, though not for approval. That wasn’t the way Mr. T operated. He was telling me something. She belonged to him, too.
I eased myself up onto the bed with them, taking great care, as if I might accidentally wake her. Mr. T hunkered down as the bed shifted, lowering himself even closer to her, and blinked his great owl-eyes at me. Then a deep, amazing rumble rose up in his chest.
For that short time, we were at home in bed again, the three of us, awaiting the dreaded alarm clock signaling the start of another day. Work for me and Jess, and a vigorous round of self-cleaning for Mr. T.
She died while we slept that night.
When I was a boy I believed in God, though I sometimes wonder if I ever had a chance to do otherwise. No one ever offered me faith. It was issued to me before I left home, like a clear plastic school box to hold my nubby pencils, dull scissors, and glue.
There’s no moment I can point to where I lost that belief. In fact, I’m still not sure that I did give it up. Maybe it’s with me forever, like a tattoo. However, I do remember when I realized the difference between knowing something and merely wanting it to be true.
From that point onward, I scrutinized the hope I’d long mistaken for certainty, measuring every situation against my new yardstick to see if it fit. In the back of my mind, I still knew there had to be a God. Somehow it just made sense. After all, my life had a movie-like quality, giving the inescapable impression that someone was watching along with me. Could that observer be God?
I entertained the idea of the over-the-shoulder-God for a while, but this eventually led me to another notion, one I was unable to shake once it came to me. What if that feeling, the nagging idea that some voyeur was peeping in on me, was nothing more than an instinct designed by evolution to assure me I wasn’t alone?
After Jess died, two more months passed before I returned home, so Mr. T stayed with my parents while I rented a hotel room. It was expensive, though necessary. I went back to work the day after the funeral, but I couldn’t bring myself to reenter the house we’d shared. My mother said the paralysis was temporary and caused by fear, but I preferred to interpret it as weakness. That house, and everything inside that belonged to Jess, was like kryptonite to me.
While Jess was in the hospital, I’d left everything in the house largely untouched, coming and going in a rush, staying only long enough to feed Mr. T, shower, maybe make a sandwich. From those trips, I knew that her cellphone awaited her on the living room coffee table, its battery long depleted, an issue of Marie Claire lay untouched next to her side of the bed, and her packed gym bag still occupied the neutral zone in the middle of our closet.
Twice a day I drove down our street—on my way to work in the morning and again after—but it was a week before I was able to look at the yard, yet another before I could bear to look at the house. There were too many reminders. The hummingbird feeder outside the kitchen window, the flowered curtains Jess sewed during our first weekend there, the water hose I’d stepped over during all those frantic trips home, her bicycle leaning against the fence outside the garage.
Six weeks after her funeral, I pulled the car to a stop in front of the house. Parking in the street, I made a slow scan of the yard and realized the hose was gone, as was the birdfeeder. My dad had been coming by to cut the grass, which explained the hose, and I figured the neighbor’s cat had at long last succeeded in bringing the feeder plunging to the ground.
Jess’s bike was still there, though, with that look all bicycles have, like it was on a short break, ready to spring into action should the right rider come along.
Two weeks later, I got out of the car and walked the length of our front yard twice, staying on the sidewalk, imagining myself as a prospective buyer. The following day, I walked up the drive, but I had to stop halfway when I saw the bike again.
I’d been hoping someone would steal it.
A few more things I’ve learned:
Four: There’s often no pain when cancer moves into your brain.
Five: Except for the occasional numbness in my extremities and problems with balance, the rest of my body feels okay. At least since the radiation ended.
Six: It’s quite common for radiation therapy to bring about a refractory effect in cancer cells, causing them to multiply like deadly little fruit flies.
Seven: Every thought that occurs to me could be my last. Or if not that one, maybe the next. At any rate, it’s going to come soon.
Eight: The person watching over my shoulder has always been me.
Brenda Dawkins’ appearance suggests a healthy lack of self-consciousness. Looking to be in her early sixties, she seems comfortable in her own space and generally unconcerned with the way she’s perceived. She dresses like a woman twenty years younger, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, a black skirt, and bright yellow tennis shoes, though I don’t get the impression she’s out to prove anything. More importantly, she strikes me as someone who could be overrun by cats and find the experience quite enjoyable.
When she gets up to sweeten her coffee, I notice her skirt is adorned with gray and black-blonde hairs. She probably runs a lint roller over her clothes on a regular basis, so I guess from the number and colors of the hairs that she has at least a few cats. It’s easy to imagine Brenda Dawkins reclined on a couch as she watches a home shopping channel, a cadre of felines vying for her attention, their heads and backs springing to life under her hands.
Living in harmony with a cat does require a certain amount of compromise. Since there is only a finite quantity of self-admiration that can exist in one space, a cat person, in order to make a happy household, must surrender a good portion of her own self-esteem. The advantage to this is that, while perhaps becoming somewhat awkward socially and suffering a bit in the appearance department, this person tends to be content with the rest of life. This is something I learned from Jess.
Brenda Dawkins would ordinarily be an ideal person with whom to place a cat, but Mr. T is jealous of his territory and prefers to live in a feline-free space. Despite having written the ad to appeal to cat lovers, I know Mr. T has to go to a cat-free house.
Smiling at the woman, my seventh and last interview, I realize I’ve made my decision.
“Thanks for coming,” I say. “I’ll call you early next week.”
Three hours ago, I called my oncologist and cancelled my first chemo appointment.
I have no idea what will happen when my brain stops working, and most of the time that thought doesn’t bother me. What can I do about it, after all? But on the odd night, I awake gripped by a terror that goes beyond the alien life form that’s taken up residence in my skull.
I’m afraid I’m forgetting something crucial.
Maybe I’ll see Jess. It’s entirely possible she’ll be the first thing I see when the time comes. If I’ve been wrong, and there is a God, or at the very least there’s something more than this, maybe she and I will be together again.
That’s not why I’m doing this, though. I’m not giving up in hopes that when I die I’ll see her again. I already accepted the fact that she was gone, and I can’t take that back now.
The plastic cat carrier still sits perched across the rafters in the garage, where I stored it after the last time I drove Mr. T to the vet. Retrieving it from overhead, I shake out the dust before taking it into the kitchen.
He’s waiting for me there, his expression dispassionate. Overjoyed to see me, in other words.
Mr. T is all I have left connecting me to Jess. Everything else is negotiable. He’s the loose end I have to secure before I sweep up, turn off the lights, and shut the door.
Dr. Miller called day before yesterday and said that the test on Mr. T’s turd turned out fine. He probably ate a lizard or frog during one of his outdoor excursions. Just continue to keep an eye on his bowel movements, the doctor said, and let him know if anything else changes.
I’ll explain this to Rhonda Nesbitt on Monday.
Disassembling the carrier, I arrange its parts next to the sink, readying them to be washed.
Why don’t they paint hospital hallways a soothing color? Instead, the poor lighting somehow accentuates the white walls, making them implausibly bright. Perhaps the intention is to wash everything out of focus so we are unable to see our circumstance clearly.
So it was when my brother, Terry and I met with a young doctor a few feet beyond the doors of the Intensive Care Unit. We had seen this doctor only once before, although we had been coming to the hospital for two weeks.
“It’s not good,” the doctor told us. “Your mother should have regained consciousness by now, but she’s still unresponsive.” The white coat was not telling us something we did not already know. Either Terry or I had been at our mother’s bedside since she was admitted with a brain stem stroke.
My mother phoned me one evening to say she could not move her legs. Her speech was slurred. I jumped in my car and called 9-1-1 so someone could get to her quickly. I was an hour away. When I arrived she was being carried to an ambulance strobing in front of her building. My mother’s brown eyes were dancing manically, searching for a foundation she had lost.
“We’re taking her to the Cornwall Pavilion,” a paramedic told me as I stepped into the ambulance.
I was too familiar with this annex of the area’s largest hospital since my father died in their emergency room twelve years before. The ride with my mother took only a few minutes, but lifetimes raced by as we sped to our destination. Reality intensified as time condensed.
“What day is it today?” the paramedic asked my mother.
“April Fool’s Day,” she responded with some difficulty, but correctly. The sad irony was not lost on me nor was the fact she was unable to identify the year or the name of the President of the United States. In each case she was short by a decade. I would have given anything to actually turn back the calendar in order to sidestep that day.
Even Albert Einstein could not comprehend the concept of time in a hospital. No place more so than in an emergency room. Wait for a doctor. Wait for tests. Wait for results. Then wait some more. After watching bleary eyes hunt and peck my mother’s information into a database I called Terry. Naturally, he was extremely upset and said he would drive down immediately. He lived more than two hours away with his wife, Rachel and their twelve year old daughter, Morgan so I promised to call him again as soon as we received some test results, hoping for some encouraging news. However, the next thing I knew, Terry was walking through the emergency room doors. Our mother, who had been drifting in and out of sleep or consciousness, became alert as he approached her bed. As she reached out to take his hand her face regained some of its color and her eyes closed with evident relief. Both her sons were with her.
Despite medical efforts our mother’s condition deteriorated. She no longer opened her eyes, no longer spoke, and no longer moved. Terry and I continually implored her to respond to us. An occasional doctor came by and tried to rouse her also. They pinched her, shook her, and shined small flashlights into her eyes. However, she remained motionless, sustained by intravenous tubes that discolored her translucent skin; so translucent as to reveal her frailty. Terry and I obsessed watching monitors mounted above her head. Each time green turned to red or a monotonous sound altered or momentarily ceased our hearts jumped.
“You should prepare yourselves for the worst,” a doctor told us. Possibly soon. He also said our mother could remain in her condition indefinitely and we should consider continuity of life options. Decisions would have to be made. Choices no one should have to make yet needed to be made with a clear mind. My brother and I were nowhere near clear-minded, but no one said life was fair. Ask our mother.
“Can she hear me? Is she trying to talk? Will she wake up?” The doctors plunged their hands into the pockets of their white coats but the answers were not there. All we heard were platitudes and uncertainty. They were ‘keeping her comfortable’. It did not seem so.
After our father died Terry and I discussed life-sustaining contingencies with our mother. While this offered a measure of direction, neither of us could accept the diagnosis of The Worst and the variables of our mother’s prognosis complicated any decision we might have to make. There seemed to be only one salient question: at what point, if ever, do you discard hope?
Terry and I found a family room so we could have privacy as we considered what to do. However, the room was occupied. Three adults were staring at each other while two children were hypnotized by a muted cartoon playing on a closed circuit television. Our first decision was to walk outside.
The evening air was cool. Jacketless, Terry and I walked through a small parking area, our bodies clenched against the chill. With so much at stake we found little to say, as if verbalizing the situation would solidify it. Terry distanced himself a few steps from me to phone his family. He told Rachel to pack what she and Morgan would need for several days, including some black clothing. They would arrive in the morning.
The laws of physics do not apply within an Intensive Care Unit. Although the mass of our planet remained constant and its place in relation to other bodies of the solar system had not changed, gravity between the walls of the ICU intensified and time became erratic; today and tomorrow the same as yesterday, days and nights interchangeable.
Faces in the hospital corridor hungered for compassion, understanding or release, their averted eyes searched for strength or answers. I saw this on Terry’s face as he reflected mine. After the evening nurse came by for the second or third time we decided to spend the night at our mother’s apartment.
Entering the apartment I was assaulted by its emptiness and an overpowering sense of the imminent hurrying to overtake the present. Evidence of the night our mother was taken to the hospital remained: bloodied cotton balls, a cold cup of coffee and an unfinished game of solitaire. The television, left on, had been broadcasting weather forecasts non-stop. Weather for days already in our past; days that she may have ventured outside without the benefit of a forecast there was a tempest brewing that would cloud her future.
The apartment walls were covered by her artwork: caricatures she drew when she was much younger, collages made from pictures cut from magazines and many intricate needlepoints she invested considerable time and effort to complete. Scattered among these were family pictures, photographs of Morgan outnumbering the others.
On the day Morgan was born my mother and I were standing outside the nursery when a gray haired woman approached my mother and pointed at Morgan.
“What a beautiful child,” the woman said.
She could not have been more correct and could not have filled my mother with greater pleasure.
“She’s my granddaughter,” my mother glowed.
Terry and I distracted ourselves with memories the apartment surfaced. While I washed dishes Terry cleaned crumbs from a small table in the kitchen, where years ago our mother would supervise our homework while preparing dinner. Later, we sat on the living room floor going through a cabinet that displayed small cup and saucer sets Terry and I had given to her on numerous Mother’s Days. We inspected a trove of items she saved, including our old report cards, souvenirs from the 1964 World’s Fair and our trip to Washington D.C.
“Take a look at this.” Terry handed me a sepia toned photograph of a World War II soldier posing with our mother. “Any idea who he is?”
I shook my head. “Mom’s got some explaining to do.” The picture predated our parents meeting but I was curious to get the story behind it. I wondered if I ever would.
We rummaged through a closet in what had been our shared bedroom and dusted off games we used to play: SORRY, RISK, TROUBLE. Were the toymakers trying to tell us something?
“I should bring some of these games home for Morgan,” my brother said.
“Leave a few here for us to play with when we come to visit.” I grinned like a man without an umbrella stepping into a downpour.
Terry suggested we keep busy by playing cards. I almost gathered the cards our mother was playing solitaire with, but doing so felt like conceding she would never have an opportunity to finish her game. I left the cards where they were as a declaration of hope and Terry found another deck so we could play the games she taught us. Eventually, we stretched out on a well-worn green sofa and closed our eyes to find sleep.
In the morning, I suggested we clean the apartment more thoroughly, anticipating we might be hosting sympathizing guests, but Terry reinforced our resolve against The Worst and told me it would not be necessary. I did not remind him that he told his wife to pack black clothes and he did not object when I ran a vacuum over the floor.
When we returned to the hospital Terry stayed in the lobby to wait for his wife and daughter while I went upstairs to look in on our mother. I walked passed phantom people, lost in their own oblivion, who took little notice of me. As I was about to enter the ICU I was hailed by a diminutive red haired nurse, who was animatedly ushering the Head of Neurology in my direction. Terry and I had been trying to see him since our mother was transferred from the emergency room.
“I understand you have been asking for me.” His posture and tone communicated that he was less than pleased to be standing in front of me. His white coat was tailored in an attempt to flatter his pickle barrel frame and ensure he stood out from the many other white coats that circulated throughout the building. I did not hide my annoyance.
“About our mother,” I explained. “Have you examined her? What do you think about the diagnosis and her prospect for recovery?” I spoke quickly, sensing I would not have his attention long.
He looked at me as if I had asked him the weight of the moon, until the nurse, still standing at his side, handed him a green folder with our mother’s name printed on it. He snapped it from her and flipped through the top few pages. “The attending physician’s notes indicate you have been advised of the prognosis,” he said without the courtesy of looking up. He handed the folder back to the nurse with a look of disdain. “Unfortunately, there is nothing more I can tell you.”
All the emotions I had been suppressing since my mother’s telephone call erupted within me. However, as I was about to explode, Terry turned the corner with Rachel and Morgan. Rage burned the walls of my stomach as I swallowed it.
“Excuse me,” was all that the well-educated white coat could muster as he sidestepped my family. The nurse who had been kind enough to extend herself on my behalf bowed her head and looked at me through the tops of her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I will not try to excuse his behavior.” She retreated to her station.
“Was that ...?”
I abbreviated Terry’s question with a nod and knelt on one knee to embrace my niece. She was wearing a floral sundress covered by a denim jacket. Morgan and her grandmother had brought the ensemble back from a shopping expedition a few months earlier. I didn’t think Morgan’s selection today was accidental. When she put her arms around me the anger boiling within me evaporated. She took my hand in hers as Rachel pulled me toward her with a warm hug.
“I need to speak to your dad a second,” I told Morgan, passing her hand to her mother.
Terry and I walked toward the nurses’ station while I told him about my brief encounter with the Head of Neurology. Terry’s annoyance colored his face.
“Rachel told me that all Morgan could talk about this morning was seeing her grandmother,” my brother shared. “She doesn’t really understand how serious her condition is.” He struggled to get the words out.
As Terry looked back to his wife and daughter I took a few steps in the direction of the red headed nurse and thanked her for her thoughtfulness. “I hope this does not come back on you in any way,” I said.
“Don’t worry yourself. By the time he got to the elevator he forgot about us,” she assured me.
Forcing a smile, I turned to rejoin my family. As I neared, I felt the walls press toward me, my vision tunneled and lightheadedness seized my breath.
“Are you alright?” Terry asked.
I put a hand on his shoulder to steady myself. “Just tired, I guess.”
Rachel recommended we go for a cup of coffee. When I declined, she volunteered to bring some back and took Morgan to find the cafeteria. I found a chair in front of a large window overlooking the parking lot, leaving Terry to check on our mother. A light rain was falling and people were scrambling to stay dry. Despite the rain, the sun reflected in narrow ribbons flowing from the elevated north end of the lot. The precipitation had begun to paint the window darker by the time Rachel and Morgan returned with coffee and granola bars.
As Morgan climbed into my lap Terry stepped into the corridor. “We can go see Grandma now.”
“Why don’t you eat something first?” Rachel handed him a breakfast bar.
Terry slid the granola into a back pocket and crouched to face his daughter. “Honey, remember, Grandma won’t be able to talk to us, but I think she will know we’re here and that may help her get better.”
“I know, Daddy. I just want to see her.” Morgan’s eyes held her father’s.
Our mother’s bed was along the far left wall, which required that we walk the distance of the large room. Noticing that Terry and Rachel had flanked Morgan to shield her from the surroundings, I positioned myself in front.
“Let Terry and me go in first,” I said.
Terry squeezed Rachel’s hand and kissed Morgan before he stepped through the curtain with me.
I took a brush from a small table and did my best to arrange our mother’s hair. She took pride in her appearance, dressing meticulously and going to a salon regularly to have her hair combed out and colored. Gray strands had begun to infiltrate her auburn. She would not like that.
“I’m worried how Morgan will react when she comes in,” my brother said softly.
“I can take her outside,” I offered.
Terry gazed intently at our mother. “I want her to be able to see her grandma.” He lost his breath but continued, “One more time.” He nodded to me like a defendant accepting a guilty verdict, prompting me to reach through the curtain to invite Rachel and Morgan to join us.
Morgan did not hesitate to move to the foot of the bed. A single, pure tear formed in the corner of her eye. Terry stood behind her with his hands on her shoulders. Rachel stepped to the head of the bed and kissed our mother’s cheek as she gently rubbed her arm, the skin kneading as she did. Morgan glided to the other side of the bed and carefully slipped her fingers around her beloved grandmother’s discolored hand.
“Hi, Grandma.” Morgan’s voice was strong and sweet.
As I watched Terry studying his daughter I perceived a change in his expression. But he was no longer looking at Morgan. He was looking at our mother, whose chapped lips were struggling to open. Her eyes fluttered but remained closed.
“Hi, Morgan.” A voice I had prayed to hear again muffled through an oxygen mask.
Tears rolled down my face.
Terry moved next to Morgan and leaned over the bed, his face close to our mother’s.
“Mom, can you hear me?”
Moments stretched without a response. Within each moment, exhilaration and hope was shaded by doubt. I took my niece’s hand and was about to ask Morgan to speak to her grandmother again when my mother’s tongue flicked into the mask.
“Thirsty,” she said weakly.
I ran to the nurses’ station. “She’s awake! She’s talking! She’s awake!”
The red-haired nurse jumped up and said something over the public address system.
“The doctor is on his way,” she said, walking around the desk and taking my elbow in her hand. “Let’s go see your mother.” We raced to her bed.
“Your mom keeps saying she’s thirsty.” Rachel’s voice caught in her throat.
“Let’s not push her,” the nurse said. “We have to help her come back to us at her own pace.”
“She said hello to me,” Morgan bubbled.
“You’re her miracle.” The nurse was fighting back tears of her own.
“She must have been listening for your voice,” I said and hugged Morgan.
After the nurse methodically examined the monitors and tubes she rested her palm on my mother’s wrist. “Good,” she seemed to say to herself.
“Can she have some water?” Rachel asked.
“We have to go slow. Be careful. She hasn’t taken anything orally for quite a while and we don’t want her to choke.”
As if hearing this, my mother opened one eye and fixed it on the nurse. She said something that sounded like ‘cold water’.
The nurse spoke to her loudly, addressing her by name. “Do you know where you are?”
My mother’s eyes were open, her focus tenuous.
“Do you know where you are?” the nurse repeated.
Morgan wrapped her arms around her mother’s legs. Rachel brushed her daughter’s hair from her forehead and planted kisses on it. Terry and I alternated between looking at each other and our mother. Finally, a doctor pulled the curtain open. It was the same doctor who had uttered The Worst.
“Well, well, well. Who do we have here?” He claimed the bedside from the nurse and placed his stethoscope under my mother’s gown.
I watched her face change from semi-wakefulness to annoyance. She shook her hand with the intravenous tubes and flailed her other arm, perhaps trying to find the oxygen mask.
“She’s fighting, fighting her way back,” Terry exclaimed.
I agreed. “She’ll be driving the nurses crazy soon.”
We were both right. Although her condition was still critical, a few days later our mother was transferred from the ICU to a Step-Down Unit. It was determined that a blood clot caused the stroke and she was going to need blood thinning medication for the remainder of her life. This alone presented a concern as too much medication could weaken her to the point her wellbeing was endangered, too little could result in another stroke. She would also need extensive physical therapy to enable her to walk and regain productive use of her hands. The condition that scared me most was her inability to eat without the risk of choking. A month later, Terry and I were happy to meet at the hospital to take our mother to a nursing and rehabilitation center for continued monitoring and therapy.
On most days she was there I would rush out of work to get to the facility in time for dinner. I relieved the nurses by feeding my mother myself, thinking it encouraged her to eat better. When she was ready, I induced her from her bed and into a chair by bringing a deck of cards so we could play on a cart between us. I watched her physical and mental acuity improve - day by day, game by game.
“Are you cheating?” I jokingly asked her one evening after she flipped her cards over, clearly declaring ‘Rummy’. My question heralded a turning point in her recovery. She understood this and smiled warmly. Our eyes glistened with thankfulness.
My family celebrated that Mother’s Day in the rehabilitation center. We spent the morning of a sunshine drenched day outside. With Terry following close behind with a wheelchair, Morgan assisted her grandmother take a short walk. Later, we sat around a table and played cards - all of us. A special lunch was served in the facility’s cafeteria. I watched my mother closely as she navigated through her meal, reminding her with virtually every mouthful to chew thoroughly. Having taken all the well intentioned pestering she could tolerate she paused, grinned at me and said, “Yes, Mother.”
death’s an animal
perched under your bed, waiting for
you to close your eyes
Someday When I’m There
You’ll see, change
brainwashed by idioms
leopards and spots, heh
I can become pure
but just can’t undo done
ultra focus into vice and
rip out its ugly seeds
You’ll see, change
girl, is your cell charged?
haven’t seen you on Madison Ave
was that call I missed yours?
You’ll see, change
I miss you , i’m ultrablue
don’t leave, i’ll die
You’ll see, change
when my deflated heart heals
and I can get up
Someday when I’m there
Beauty being truths smile
Gregg Dotoli Bio
Gregg Dotoli lives in New York City area and has studied English at Seton Hall University. He works as a white hat hacker, but his first love is the arts.
His poems have been published in, Quail Bell Magazine, The Four Quarters Magazine, Calvary Cross, Dead Snakes, Halcyon Magazine, Allegro Magazine, the Mad Swirl, Voices Project, Writing Raw and Down in the Dirt.
His coaching day done, he cleans up, and down the stairs to her kitchen
She’s marking papers and he’s not sure how to begin...
Says Some women get so deep inside I don’t think her lover ever leaves
She half smiles...till now no more between them
Than good morning, good night and it’s a muggy day today
Something different here...she gets up for a glass of water...decides to play along
Says What does it matter?
You play this game, the more sex from them, the more you live inside
The more you think they love you...upstairs I hear it all...it’s all bullshit
She needs to end it...casual talk done...fumbles out a Yes
But me I love you...I really love you
He drops to his knees, reaches both arms around her hips
Buries his head between her legs...his hold strong and tight
You don’t know me She tries to twist away
I do...I do...every morning...evening...marking papers
Then those nights I hear you...hear the bed...I love you...love you
Oh, my god...let me go...this is crazy...let go
His hold tighter and he starts to cry
Don’t you understand I love you ...you’re so beautiful
Let go or I’ll scream...call the police...call your school
He drops back in tears, leans on his hips...pleads
Damn, I can’t get you out of my head
Get out of your room tonight
If only you could understand
I think I do she takes a deep breath
There are dreams and the real...this is the real
There’s nothing...let me go...let go
Greg Moglia is a veteran of 27 years as Adjunct Professor of Philosophy of Education at N.Y.U. and 37 years as a high school teacher of Physics and Psychology. His poems have been accepted in over 300 journals in the U.S., Canada and England as well as five anthologies. He is five times a winner of an Allan Ginsberg Poetry Award sponsored by the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College. His poem ‘Why Do Lovers Whisper?’ has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize 2005. He has been nominated by the College of William and Mary for the University of Virginia anthology BEST NEW POETS OF 2006. He lives in Huntington, N.Y.
Anita G. Gorman
Dr. Susan Lowry Shenstone looked at her client from across the mahogany desk. “How can I help you?” she purred.
“I just don’t know what to do. My life is a mess. I don’t know where to go from here.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I always wanted to be a college professor, and I worked so hard to get my doctorate in English. And by the time I finished, at the age of 35, there weren’t many jobs available. I applied to hundreds of colleges all over the country, to places I had never heard of, and then I finally had five interviews, one by phone, one via the internet, and three in person. I did get a job, at Lower Beaver State College right here in Tattletown, Pennsylvania. And I pretended to everyone that Lower Beaver was my first choice! I don’t think they believed me.”
“Well, at least you had a job, and you probably taught some interesting courses.”
“Oh, please. In my first semester I taught four beginning writing classes, with 28 students in each class, making a grand total of 112 taciturn and ill-prepared freshmen. With one initial writing sample, eight essays, and one final exam, that meant 1120 pieces of writing per semester demanding inspection and critique. Add to that a semester-long journal kept by each student and I, Clara Cooperschmidt, Ph.D. (newly minted) realized to my chagrin, dismay, and general depression that I would be slogging through 1232 pieces of writing during my first semester. But no, it gets worse. I also had passing acquaintance with the rough drafts of my ill-prepared charges when I scheduled writing workshops and group work and counseled nervous students who showed up during office hours to get my opinion on their latest creations. You know what my tenured office mate does? She schedules her office hours at 7 a.m. That guarantees a tiny trickle of students climbing up the stairs to visit her. Why don’t I do that? Because the Chair would notice and because I hate getting up that early.”
Dr. Shenstone was playing with her pencil. “All right, the job during that first semester was tedious, and you worked hard. Were there any interesting moments?”
“Interesting? Oh, yes. Outrageous would be a better description. How about this? One time I started reading a student’s paper, and it sounded just too slick; I thought that maybe he had purchased it on the internet. I picked a telling phrase from the paper, typed it into a search engine and, bingo, there it was on a site that sold papers to students. I was happier than Sherlock Holmes at the end of a solved mystery; I could have danced a jig. So I accosted the student. ’This was plagiarized!’ I shouted at the great big sports-minded freshman, as I stood on tiptoe in order to wave it in front of his face. ’I found it on the internet.’ ’Oh,’ said Jason, ’the girl who gave it to me didn’t say she got it from the internet. I thought she wrote it herself.’”
Dr. Shenstone smiled and then looked grave. “Well, you survived the first semester. Wasn’t there anything worthwhile about the second semester?”
“You mean the fraudulently named Spring Semester? Do you know when spring arrives in Tattletown, Pennsylvania? Around finals week. Anyway, I was hopeful about the second semester since I now had three writing classes and one introductory literature class. That seemed like heaven at first, until I realized that the three second-semester writing classes now had to produce research papers, and research papers involved the tedious process of guiding students through topic selection, notes, outlines, proper documentation, rough drafts, and final masterpieces. I guided them through the process partly to prevent plagiarism, or at least minimize it, but there were times when I thought all of my students were thieves, stealing the ideas and the words of anyone in their dorms, their families, in libraries, or on the internet. One day I was so fed up that I yelled, ’I am against capital punishment—except for the heinous crime of plagiarism. And those who take the words and ideas of others and pass them off as their own should be executed right out there on the quad by a firing squad composed of English faculty.’ They thought I was joking. But I was only half joking—I hate plagiarism!”
Dr. Clara Cooperschmidt paused for a long sigh. “The literature class intrigued me at first, but then I found out that a total of 48 students—all that the fire marshal would allow—would fill that classroom to overflowing. Forty-eight students named Heather and Jason and Josh and Michelle, and I knew I would never learn all their names. Sometimes I made notes in my grade book to help connect names and faces. “Little Orphan Annie” or “Shirley Temple” or “Vladimir Putin” or “Sidney Poitier” might help me distinguish a few, but it would never work for all 48; too many of my students reminded me of no one in particular.”
Dr. Shenstone was writing on her notepad. She looked up. “What about the non-teaching duties? What were they like?”
“Oh, lots of fun! My tenured office mate, a full professor, rarely went to department meetings. I knew I had to attend every single one and volunteer for committee work if I wanted to get tenure. That first year I signed up for more committees than I could handle: Social, Assessment, Curriculum, Newsletter, the Committee to Explore the Need for Additional Committees— whatever. And I ran for university-wide committees, hoping to get one of those coveted seats. They had real elections with ballots and quasi-poll watchers; I was even elected! And I eagerly suggested that my department sponsor a regional conference on literary theory, and, of course, I, Dr. Clara Cooperschmidt, ended up doing most of the work. And I went to other regional conferences—couldn’t afford to travel far—and gave papers that were spinoffs of my dissertation so many times that I wondered how long I could pretend to be doing something new when I was just rehashing old stuff about Elizabeth Inchbald. And how long would it be before someone important noticed?”
“Ah, that must have been a worry for you,” Dr. Shenstone said.
“Putting together my tenure file after a few years of this tedium was another nightmare that led to insomnia, a malfunctioning printer, and the expense of both money and time. Student evaluations had to be in there. Oh yes, students who stared at the question, ’Is there a syllabus in this class?’ were allowed to answer ’No’ and have those results tabulated, even though a piece of paper clearly labeled SYLLABUS in oversized capital letters sat in their folders or back in the dorm room or had been tossed into a wastebasket. My tenure file also had to include evaluations from my so-called peers, evaluations from people I didn’t like particularly well, but people I had to smile at and defer to and amuse when they visited my class. And when they came I knew which ones preferred regular seating and which faculty wanted the students in one big circle or chatting with each other in small groups. Oh, yes, I gave them what they wanted. And I almost broke my back carrying that three-inch binder filled with evaluations, my curriculum vitae, syllabi, conference papers, and letters from various department heads thanking me for filling out some stupid forms. I mean, why thank someone who is just doing her job?”
Dr. Shenstone nodded. “Indeed!”
“So there I was, having finished my tenure application and tired, so very tired of grading and committees and smiling and deferring and attending sports events and graduations and advising students who had no idea why they were at Lower Beaver State College in the first place. Then yesterday I heard the mailbox bang outside of my little rented house on Maple Street; it’s all I can afford on an assistant professor’s salary. When I heard that mailbox, I knew I would soon know my fate. There it was, an official letter from Tarleton Cyrus Tarkington, III, president of Lower Beaver State College, which would soon become Lower Beaver State University without having gotten any bigger. What a joke. And guess what? Old Tarleton was telling me I had tenure. I now had a pass to lifetime employment, a permission slip for playing Solitaire in my office like the tenured guy across the hall, my ticket to more pay and less work. From now on I can smile when I feel like it, swear when I want to, never go to another football game, and call in sick when I need a mental health day, even though, truth be told, I have to be at Lower Beaver only three days a week, unlike people in that real world out there.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.” Dr. Shenstone smiled.
“But it is bad. It’s awful. Now I have to start all over again. I have to write a book. I have to go to more conferences, national conferences, not just regional affairs. I have to get articles published in obscure publications. I have to serve on more committees. I have to teach four classes a semester and grade all those papers. I have to advise students. I have to pretend to like my office mate and the guy across the hall.”
“You seem to be contradicting yourself, Clara. Moments ago you told me that from now on you could do pretty much what you feel like doing.”
“Not if I want to become an associate professor. Not if I want to become a full professor. Not if I want Professor Emeritus written on my tombstone. I’m going to have to do all of this stuff over and over again. Thank you for your time. I’m going to buy myself an ivy plant. It seems like the thing to do.”
I’m no historian,
because even though
some form wars
to fight for land,
or fight for power...
if you look
at the bigger picture,
wars have been
over us mere mortals
quibbling over religion.
than your God,”
what do you know,
half the time
in modern times
these fools are fighting
over how they interpret
the exact same God
in he first place.
For some reason,
“love your neighbor
as you love yourself”
keeps coming to mind,
but so does
(what a show,
just like the Crusades,
and witch trials went on
for hundreds of years,
just like antisemitism
(and that might have
a thing or two
with World War Two).
And try to say
with a straight face
that if there are
bombing abortion clinics
that there’s no such thing
in this day and age
as Christian terrorism.
Think about it
in modern times.
might be too far away
for you to remember,
but Christians are bombing
are shrouding woman
and beheading non-believers.*
Because even if people
claim to believe
in the same God,
we can still
to hate each other.
If we believe
in those Gods,
we can only say
they taught us well.
all this time,
when we mere mortals
now have all this power,
the only choice we have
is to destroy ourselves.
And so we do.**
* “Pluto, Plutonium & Death”, 4/10/16
** “Everything was Alive And Dying”, 1995
may have had
of how Gods
would battle each other,
but Gods have been
developed by man
to explain mysteries
to us mere mortals:
Pray to the Sun God.
Chant for the Rain God
to create the crops
our simple survival.
But as I see it,
as time wore on,
the Gods we all
claim to revere
seemed to stop
(and wait a minute
if they are Gods,
shouldn’t they have
figured this out
But the Gods
that instead of
battling each other,
are much easier targets.
And when that gets dull,
why not let the
do the killing
in the Old Testament
a God punished Adam and Eve,
not because Eve
ate from the Tree of Knowledge,
but because she convinced
a man that knowledge
might be a good idea.
there’s a flood
(a pretty big one at that),
there’s a mass killing
of first-born sons
unless you put
in a cross
on your door.
Sure, I get it,
there’s violence there —
but in the
New and improved
they say to be kind,
to turn the other cheek.
But now we’re reduced
to humans who fight
in the name of God,
and if we humans
got any of our
from our Gods,
they must be
having a field day
It may have
taken those Gods
too many millennia
to figure it out,
but now that they’ve
let their violent side
fester in us
for long enough,
those Gods now
can just sit back
us mere mortals
as a really
Janet Kuypers has a Communications degree in News/Editorial Journalism (starting in computer science engineering studies) from the UIUC. She had the equivalent of a minor in photography and specialized in creative writing. A portrait photographer for years in the early 1990s, she was also an acquaintance rape workshop facilitator, and she started her publishing career as an editor of two literary magazines. Later she was an art director, webmaster and photographer for a few magazines for a publishing company in Chicago, and this Journalism major was even the final featured poetry performer of 15 poets with a 10 minute feature at the 2006 Society of Professional Journalism Expo’s Chicago Poetry Showcase. This certified minister was even the officiant of a wedding in 2006.
She sang with acoustic bands “Mom’s Favorite Vase”, “Weeds and Flowers” and “the Second Axing”, and does music sampling. Kuypers is published in books, magazines and on the internet around 9,300 times for writing, and over 17,800 times for art work in her professional career, and has been profiled in such magazines as Nation and Discover U, won the award for a Poetry Ambassador and was nominated as Poet of the Year for 2006 by the International Society of Poets. She has also been highlighted on radio stations, including WEFT (90.1FM), WLUW (88.7FM), WSUM (91.7FM), WZRD (88.3FM), WLS (8900AM), the internet radio stations ArtistFirst dot com, chicagopoetry.com’s Poetry World Radio and Scars Internet Radio (SIR), and was even shortly on Q101 FM radio. She has also appeared on television for poetry in Nashville (in 1997), Chicago (in 1997), and northern Illinois (in a few appearances on the show for the Lake County Poets Society in 2006). Kuypers was also interviewed on her art work on Urbana’s WCIA channel 3 10 o’clock news.
She turned her writing into performance art on her own and with musical groups like Pointless Orchestra, 5D/5D, The DMJ Art Connection, Order From Chaos, Peter Bartels, Jake and Haystack, the Bastard Trio, and the JoAnne Pow!ers Trio, and starting in 2005 Kuypers ran a monthly iPodCast of her work, as well mixed JK Radio — an Internet radio station — into Scars Internet Radio (both radio stations on the Internet air 2005-2009). She even managed the Chaotic Radio show (an hour long Internet radio show 1.5 years, 2006-2007) through BZoO.org and chaoticarts.org. She has performed spoken word and music across the country - in the spring of 1998 she embarked on her first national poetry tour, with featured performances, among other venues, at the Albuquerque Spoken Word Festival during the National Poetry Slam; her bands have had concerts in Chicago and in Alaska; in 2003 she hosted and performed at a weekly poetry and music open mike (called Sing Your Life), and from 2002 through 2005 was a featured performance artist, doing quarterly performance art shows with readings, music and images.
Since 2010 Kuypers also hosts the Chicago poetry open mic at the Café Gallery, while also broadcasting the Cafés weekly feature podcasts (and where she sometimes also performs impromptu mini-features of poetry or short stories or songs, in addition to other shows she performs live in the Chicago area).
In addition to being published with Bernadette Miller in the short story collection book Domestic Blisters, as well as in a book of poetry turned to prose with Eric Bonholtzer in the book Duality, Kuypers has had many books of her own published: Hope Chest in the Attic, The Window, Close Cover Before Striking, (woman.) (spiral bound), Autumn Reason (novel in letter form), the Average Guy’s Guide (to Feminism), Contents Under Pressure, etc., and eventually The Key To Believing (2002 650 page novel), Changing Gears (travel journals around the United States), The Other Side (European travel book), the three collection books from 2004: Oeuvre (poetry), Exaro Versus (prose) and L’arte (art), The Boss Lady’s Editorials, The Boss Lady’s Editorials (2005 Expanded Edition), Seeing Things Differently, Change/Rearrange, Death Comes in Threes, Moving Performances, Six Eleven, Live at Cafe Aloha, Dreams, Rough Mixes, The Entropy Project, The Other Side (2006 edition), Stop., Sing Your Life, the hardcover art book (with an editorial) in cc&d v165.25, the Kuypers edition of Writings to Honour & Cherish, The Kuypers Edition: Blister and Burn, S&M, cc&d v170.5, cc&d v171.5: Living in Chaos, Tick Tock, cc&d v1273.22: Silent Screams, Taking It All In, It All Comes Down, Rising to the Surface, Galapagos, Chapter 38 (v1 and volume 1), Chapter 38 (v2 and Volume 2), Chapter 38 v3, Finally: Literature for the Snotty and Elite (Volume 1, Volume 2 and part 1 of a 3 part set), A Wake-Up Call From Tradition (part 2 of a 3 part set), (recovery), Dark Matter: the mind of Janet Kuypers , Evolution, Adolph Hitler, O .J. Simpson and U.S. Politics, the one thing the government still has no control over, (tweet), Get Your Buzz On, Janet & Jean Together, poem, Taking Poetry to the Streets, the Cana-Dixie Chi-town Union, the Written Word, Dual, Prepare Her for This, uncorrect, Living in a Big World (color interior book with art and with “Seeing a Psychiatrist”), Pulled the Trigger (part 3 of a 3 part set), Venture to the Unknown (select writings with extensive color NASA/Huubble Space Telescope images), Janet Kuypers: Enriched, She’s an Open Book, “40”, Sexism and Other Stories, the Stories of Women, Prominent Pen (Kuypers edition), Elemental, the paperback book of the 2012 Datebook (which was also released as a spiral-bound cc&d ISSN# 2012 little spiral datebook, , Chaotic Elements, and Fusion, the (select) death poetry book Stabity Stabity Stab Stab Stab, the 2012 art book a Picture’s Worth 1,000 words (available with both b&w interior pages and full color interior pages, the shutterfly ISSN# cc& hardcover art book life, in color, Post-Apocalyptic, Burn Through Me, Under the Sea (photo book), the Periodic Table of Poetry, a year long Journey, Bon Voyage!, and the mini books Part of my Pain, Let me See you Stripped, Say Nothing, Give me the News, when you Dream tonight, Rape, Sexism, Life & Death (with some Slovak poetry translations), Twitterati, and 100 Haikus, that coincided with the June 2014 release of the two poetry collection books Partial Nudity and Revealed.
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